Twenty years ago, beer in Britain was one of two things: old men sitting in pubs wearing flatcaps and drinking warm, dark beers from pint mugs, or younger people drinking overly fizzy, mass-produced continental lagers. Now though, there are new challengers. Thanks mostly to Gordon Brown’s 2002 Progressive Beer Duty tax policy (a system lifted almost wholesale from Bavaria, where beer is practically a religion), small breweries get generous tax breaks against the massive corporations that used to totally dominate the market. For example, AB InBev brews all Budweisers, Stella Artois and Stella Cidre, Corona, Cubanisto, Brahma, Leffe, Becks, Hoegaarden and Boddingtons. That’s more variety than anywhere stocks on Mile End Road and it’s coming out of one brewery. Against this, the UK is defended by independent brewers producing experimental, small-scale and individual beers with all the character and knowledge that’s been lost in brewing vast quantities globally.
There are now over 1000 breweries in the UK – that’s more than at any point in the last 70 years. And again, the beer industry has to thank the government: despite around 30 pubs a week closing down, the Coalition’s support for small businesses driving growth in Britain, and (so far) a resistance to punitive drinks pricing in supermarkets, means that you can get better beers on the high street at reasonable prices. Weirdly, the financial crisis looks like it’s helping UK brewing; we don’t spend as much when we’re out, so we want something better. We’re unhappy about the way that huge companies control the market and our governments, we’re disillusioned with the sameness of their identikit products making every town the same, and we want to see people turning hobbies and passions into successful businesses that keep money close to home, that give training and opportunities to those who need it and that make really damn good beer.
Getting younger customers to try craft beer and real ales was largely a brand and marketing issue. Breweries like BrewDog, Camden Town and Meantime are successful because they keep being different. BrewDog is a lesson in branding young: their output includes ‘This. Is. Lager’, ‘Hardcore IPA’, ‘Libertine Black Ale’ and a Warhol-style pop art label of Putin’s face for ‘Hello My Name is Vladimir’. Meantime pours the darkest beer they make into champagne bottles, makes beer with raspberries and recreates styles that died out in the 1700s. Camden Town Brewery makes the exclusive beers for Byron Hamburgers and teams with brewers internationally. The results are new styles and dramatically different limited editions that would be unthinkable to multinational brewers. ‘Versus Mohawk’ is the lovechild of partnership with a Swedish brewery and a lager/stout cross that’s as distinctive and characteristic of the new thinking in British beer as anything you’ll ever drink. Two Fingers Brewing Co. was set up in 2012 by seven guys who liked beer and decided to run a brewery in their spare time as a fundraising and awareness project for prostate cancer. As they were ‘too lazy to run a marathon’, they developed a fully UK-sourced beer in partnership with Hepworth’s and donate all profits to the charity Prostate Cancer UK. Find their beers in Tesco, Morrisons, Ocado or independents throughout London.
All the new brews tap into a London where hipsters, pop-ups, indie companies, irreverence and breaking the mould are the new standard. Where ten years ago there was an empty railway arch in a forgotten part of the city, now there are thriving businesses that train, employ and support their community. The revolution’s moved online as well, as social media announcements of tastings, tours, limited run beers, collaborations with other breweries or street food groups are taking London’s beer into the territory that music, art and
If anything, the best thing to come out of the beer revival is that there is more to drinking than lager, Guinness and old man’s pints. If you don’t think you like beer, then you haven’t found the one for you yet. Don’t worry about becoming an expert, just read the back of the labels and buy what you like the sound of. You don’t need to be an expert in hop varietals or malt types to know what tastes good and what doesn’t. Next time you’re in a bar, order the one with your favourite label. Next time you’re in a supermarket, pick up whatever is on offer – craft beers are almost always on some kind of promo in bigger shops. Get online and buy yourself a homebrew kit once you find a style you like, and you’ll be spending less than a pound a pint. Try getting that at Draper’s. Besides, how many students can say they make more beer than they know what to do with? If you can support UK small businesses and charities just by having a drink, then do it. Warning: the hangover will be just as bad if you like them too much.