|Guys from Five Points took this at the previous, shorter Masterclass.|
There’s something deeply wrong when you have to set the alarm on a Sunday morning and be out of the door by half past eight.
But you wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t also the sign of something being very right.
At a time when I would normally be contemplating a long bath and a fry-up, last Sunday I was giving the introductory presentation at a ‘Masterclass‘ on ‘How to launch an independent brewery’ being held by the Guardian in their north London offices. The event was a sell-out: a hundred people had paid £99 each and given up their Sunday to hear me followed by a succession of brewers and publicans, including people from Beavertown, Five Points, Burning Sky, Harbour Brewing and Pressure Drop talk about the perils and pitfalls of jacking in the day job to make beer.
I had been concerned that my own presentation erred on the negative side, and through the day the brewers’ presentations seemed to focus on lists of things you had to think about and be careful of, and constant reminders that opening a brewery was not a route to riches. And yet on Twitter (#indiebrewery) and at drinks afterwards (which continued at the excellent and new-to-me Queen’s Head pub in Kings Cross, who’s guv’nor was another of the speakers) people said they had found it inspiring and motivating. Clearly an audience consisting mainly of home brewers who want to spend more time on that and less time in their current jobs were not going to be put off by the idea that this was hard work. They’d all given up their Sundays too. Most had come from outside London. I even spoke to people who are about to open breweries in Spain, Italy and Germany who had come along for tips.
The momentum around beer and brewing, the sense that we are in the middle of the best time in living memory to enjoy a decent beer, was palpable. I kicked off my presentation with this tweet, from someone reading my first book, which is now eleven years in print:
Things have changed beyond recognition, beyond hope, since I wrote that chapter.
Against this, the questions that were asked most often were: “How long can this go on?” and “Will the bubble burst?”
Entirely understandable if you are considering jumping off a career ladder and spending your savings on a brewery.
The bubble question is being asked with increasing frequency inside the craft beer movement. One of my slides on Sunday pointed out that in the last ten years, the number of breweries in the UK has more than doubled, while the total volume size of the beer market has collapsed by 23%. Craft beer is focused more towards the on-trade in Britain, and yet each week, on average two new breweries open for business while 28 pubs close for good.
And yet in the UK, real ale and other formats of craft beer together account for only 18% of the total beer market. The mass volume is still in mainstream, mass-produced commercial brands, and probably always will be. But it’s those brands that are suffering the most, those corporations that see craft beer as a threat – or maybe an opportunity.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. No one does. But a follow-up question that helps determine the future prognosis is this: is the taste for craft beer (and if the definition of craft is still bothering you, forget that word and just use ‘interesting, flavourful beer’ instead) a fad, or more than that?
In my presentation, I had a slide saying ‘Craft beer is a movement’, which this picture on it:
This is from when a bunch of brewers went to BrewDog to make a whole host of collaborative beers that then formed ‘Collabfest’, where jointly made, jointly branded products were sold across BrewDog bars.
When I looked at the slide while I was rehearsing my presentation, it made me wonder what I was going to say over it. I always use the words ‘movement’ and ‘revolution’ to describe what’s happening in beer now. They are big, juicy, dramatic words. Am I right to use them?
Other people talk about the craft beer ‘fad’. Interestingly, the only people I have heard use this term are working for large brewing companies. (They are inevitably framing craft beer as an east London hipster thing, which is a whole other argument. Brewers such as BrewDog near Aberdeen, Thornbridge in Derbyshire, Dark Star just outside Brighton, Marble in Manchester and Moor Beer in Somerset, and bars like the North Bar in Leeds, the Bridge Bier Huis in Burnley, the Devonshire Cat in Sheffield, the Snowdrop Inn in Lewes and countless others up and down the country, who have been making and selling craft beer since Daltson’s hipsters were drinking shandy, may feel justifiably aggrieved at that.)
So what’s the difference between a fad and a revolution? Both, eventually, run out of steam. The momentum, the velocity of great beer certainly can’t carry on at its current rate indefinitely.
I think the difference is that a fad comes and goes, and when it’s gone, it’s forgotten by everyone apart from Peter Kay, Stuart Maconie and Barry Shitpeas. It hasn’t changed anything, or left any meaningful legacy.
When a revolution happens, it changes things for ever. The repercussions of a movement are felt long after it has disbanded. And whether or not the bubble bursts, whether or not there’s a shakeout, consolidation or contraction in the number of people making beer in Britain, I simply can’t imagine that the beer scene will go back to how it was when I wrote the megabrands chapter in Man Walks into a Pub.
I can’t imagine that people like Beavertown’s Logan Plant or Lovibond’s Jeff Rosenmeier will fail as brewers, or get bored of it and walk away. BrewDog, Thornbridge, Meantime, Camden, Magic Rock, Marble, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and Stone are not going to go bust, or suddenly start making pissy lager to stay in business. Yes, some will sell out to bigger companies at some point. But they’ve helped a lot of people discover a taste for beer they never knew they had.
Tastes change. You might wake up suddenly one day and say “I’m bored of bold hoppy flavours.” But you don’t wake up and say, “I’m bored of bold hoppy flavours. I think I’m just going to drink Foster’s from now on.”
However it evolves, and whoever ends up brewing it, craft beer is here to stay.