A Brief History of Craft Beer in the UK

As you know, we love learning about all manner of food and drink so to mark the launch of our new website, we asked local blogger and beer aficionado Tom Hallett to tell us a little bit more about craft ale…


What do you remember from the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown’s budget speech in 2002?

Chances are, it’s zilch.

Yet, hidden among the usual announcements like a freeze on petrol duty and an increase in health spending was a policy that would have a major impact in years to come.

No, I’m not talking about the fact that you’d no longer have to pay tax on your bingo tickets. I’m referring to Progressive Beer Duty – a scheme that provides tax breaks for small breweries.

The result of this policy change was that the number of breweries in the UK tripled in less than 15 years, from around 500 to more than 1,500.

This number is still on the rise – the British Beer and Pub association estimates there are three new breweries opening every week in the UK.

Alfred’s, Red Cat and Mash have opened since 2012 n the Winchester area alone. The Queen Inn is set to resume brewing its own beer again too.

In the meantime, sales of beer in the UK have fallen 25% since that budget announcement 14 years ago.

How is this possible with all these new breweries on the scene?

Discerning

It’s simple. Discerning drinkers are shunning bland, generic, mass-produced beers and lagers.

Instead, they’re opting for “craft beer” from these smaller breweries, many of which aren’t just brewing traditional real ale but also experimenting with new ingredients and techniques.

Many are also marketing their brews with funky artwork and packaging to appeal to new audiences.

Identity crisis

Of course, it’s not just Gordon Brown we have to thank for the fact that we can now buy a wide range of craft beers and ales in supermarkets, cafes, restaurants and farm shops as well as in the pub.

CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) have been promoting small brewing and less common varieties of beer since the early 1970s. Meanwhile, SIBA (the Small Independent Brewers Association) were instrumental in convincing the Government to cut tax for smaller breweries.

It’s ironic then that many of the estimated 11,000 different available UK beers – including craft lagers – don’t conform to CAMRA’s definition of real ale. For instance, beers served from kegs rather than casks are not real ale, no matter how good they taste.

This has caused an identity crisis for CAMRA. It’s currently consulting its 190,000 members on who and what it should represent in the future now that it’s arguably achieved its goal of saving decent beer from oblivion.

Defining craft beer

So, if real ale can be craft beer but craft beer isn’t necessarily real ale, what is it?

That’s the problem – there isn’t a definition, at least not in the UK. Hence we’re now likely to see beer from artisan producers, large breweries and even supermarkets labelled as “craft”.

We’re also seeing bigger corporations buying up smaller breweries, brewing limited edition beers in smaller batches and marketing their beers as craft to tap into the scene’s earning potential.

It’s different in the USA, where its own craft beer movement began in the late 70s when President Jimmy Carter deregulated the brewing industry.

There, the Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as one that’s small and independent and uses traditional ingredients.

However, “small” means it can produce up to around 1.2 billion pints a year. So, not really that small then.

Independence

In the UK, a group of brewers got together in 2015 to form United Craft Brewers (UCB) with the aim of coming up with a definition for craft beer.

Unfortunately, UCB is no more and one of the founder members – Camden Town Brewery – was sold last year to AB Inbev – the biggest drinks company in the world and owner of beers that most definitely aren’t craft, such as Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck’s.

In the meantime, SIBA launched its “Assured Independent British Craft Brewer” initiative. This gives a member brewery the right to use the initiative’s logo on its packaging and marketing material as long as it abides by SIBA’s Manual of Good Brewing Practice and is independent of a larger controlling interest.

Flavour

So is it brewery size and independence from big corporations that defines what is and isn’t craft?

Maybe. But there’s more to it than that.

Another founder member of the defunct United Craft Brewers is Brewdog – currently the UK’s fastest growing drinks brand. When the craft beer movement started gaining traction in the UK in 2011, it argued that craft beer is beer brewed for taste rather than for volume.

Jimmy Hatherley, owner at Unity Brewing Co in Southampton has a similar viewpoint. He feels we can consider a beer “craft” when the brewer puts the quality and flavour of its beer before profits. This is often the case with smaller, independent breweries. But not always.

Jimmy says: “Just because it’s small and local it doesn’t mean it’s good. As long as it tastes good; that’s what it’s all about for me.”

James Eagles, manager at the Casks and Corks off-licence in Southampton, highlights that many craft brewers are producing great tasting beers by putting a “fresh spin” on traditional brewing. To do this, they’re using modern techniques and a wider range of ingredients.

Graham Turner, co-owner at Mash Brewery in East Stratton near Winchester also sees craft beer as “adventurous” but argues too that it’s more an attitude than something you can define.

“Ultimately though, it’s down to the drinker’s personal preference.”

Better quality, more choice

Definitions aside, the important thing with the craft beer movement is people are drinking more great tasting beer and real ale from smaller producers and less from big corporations.

This leads to more choice when we’re browsing the pump clips, chalkboards and shelves. It also puts more money back into the local economy if we choose wisely. After all, each job in brewing supports 18 other jobs in the farming, manufacturing and retail industries.

This doesn’t mean we need to only support smaller, local breweries. Like a music fan who gets into folk after listening to Mumford and Sons or a chef who starts out with Delia Smith’s “How to Cheat at Cooking”, if someone discovers a love of beer through an imported or big brewery craft-style beer, is that so bad?

That said, there’s something comforting about quaffing a delicious beer that was brewed just a few miles away by someone who puts their heart and soul into what they do.

And that’s the great thing about living in Hampshire. From bitters to pale ales, IPAs to stouts, pilsners to golden ales, there are many great brews available from the county’s 30+ producers.

The best advice then is to get out there and enjoy what’s on offer.

Go to the brewery tap rooms and chat to the brewers. Visit the pub and ask the staff for their recommendations. Make your way to a festival and work through the beer list. Pop into your local shop and pick out something new.

Five Hampshire craft beers to try

Need some inspiration?

Here are five Hampshire craft beers and ales available by the can and bottle to get you started. Or, if you prefer fresh, draught beer, check out my list of local places you can buy draught real ale and craft beer to take away.

Red Cat Brewing “Prowler Pale” (3.6%)

Light in colour and mouthfeel, Prowler Pale is an easy-to-drink session beer and ideal for craft beer novices. Available direct from the brewery and at local off-licences.

Triple FFF “Alton’s Pride” (3.8%)

Alton’s Pride is a classic English bitter, which was CAMRA Supreme Champion Beer of Britain in 2008. Available from the Triple FFF brewery shop.

Dancing Man “Big Casino” (5.7%)

A hoppy, golden orange IPA from Southampton’s Dancing Man Brewery. Available on cask, and in a can from various local off-licences.

Andwell Brewing Co “Pilsner” (4.8%)

This Czech-style pilsner from Andwell Brewing has a spicy hop aroma and a bitter-sweet finish. Available online at Honest Brew or direct from the brewery in Hook.

Vibrant Forest “Black Oktober” (9%)

Hampshire’s take on a style of beer first brewed in the 18th century for Russian empress Catherine the Great. Available from the brewery and at AlesbyMail.

(Thanks to Graeme Hilton, Penny Hopkins, Legin Tippoh, Tim McMinn, Romsey Town Council (!), Julian Cooper, Katy Stickland, The Bookshop Alehouse, Sean Austin, Mark Allen and Charlie Thomas for the local beer and ale recommendations.)

Over to you

What’s does craft beer mean to you? What craft beers and real ales do you recommend?

Leave a comment below or tweet me.

Tom Hallett is a lifestyle blogger who writes about eating out, beer, getting outdoors and life in Hampshire. He lives outside Southampton with his wife Tiff and Border Terrier Tilly.

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