Craft beer: Clouds on the horizon
The popularity of craft beer could be hit by poor-quality products and a lack of consistency in the finished article. Producers must take urgent action before the sector gets a bad name, says Martyn Cornell.
Craft beer, however you want to define it – and that’s another article entirely – is booming, not just in Britain and the US, but around the world, with new small breweries opening up practically daily from Russia to Argentina.
There has never been a wider choice of different styles of beer, from the ubiquitous, such as IPA, to the deeply obscure, like Grodziskie, a smoked wheat beer from Poland that died out in the 20 th century, and was revived commercially only three years ago.
But a spectre is haunting the world of craft beer, and if not checked it could dampen down the entire world-wide boom.
That spectre is quality: too many new small brewers, experienced observers say, are producing poor-quality beer, and when the consumer complains, excusing it with the claim: “It’s craft beer – it’s meant to taste/look like that.” The problem has even led to the ‘invention’ of a jokey new beer style – “London murky”.
But if the consumer has too many bad craft beer experiences, then inevitably he or she (and craft beer is a sector where female consumers are increasingly important) will give up and turn to the mainstream producers who, whatever their failings, have made a fetish of reliability.
The problems facing the brewer in delivering a quality product to the consumer are myriad. Mistakes in brewing techniques can result in a host of faults, from too much diacetyl to beers that are over-estery or phenolic. Poor handling can lead to skunky or oxidised beers.
And with draught beers, the brewer is at the mercy of bar personnel who can be guilty of all sorts of crimes, from not cleaning their beer lines, which will lead to even the most carefully brewed beer becoming infected and foultasting, to poor stock rotation, meaning slow-moving beers become stale.
The situation was summed up by Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, one of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, who said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. I’d rather opt for a safer bet at the bar or bottle shop and go for an established craft beer or German beer.
“Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers. In addition, some newer craft breweries are concentrating heavily on marketing without paying the same attention to the quality of their beer, something they could probably learn from the big boys.”
Lovatt suggested that the recent spate of purchases of craft brewers by international beer conglomerates, such as AB InBev’s snapping up of the Camden Town Brewery in London for £85 million or so late last year, “can only be good news for the customer”, with the giant brewers’ dedication to consistency meaning drinkers will get the craft beers that they like brewed to the standards they deserve.
His viewpoint was echoed by Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, which itself was acquired by the international giant SAB Miller in 2015 (and has now been sold on to the Japanese brewer Asahi).
“Beer quality is the holy grail for any selfrespecting brewer,” Hook said. “What makes the modern craft beer revolution so exciting is that we are able to benefit from technologies that the global brewers have used for decades and apply them to beers with more inherent flavour qualities.
At Meantime we have been the first modern brewer to systematically use the raft of advanced but expensive techniques learnt from the big guys. The most significant of all was in-line oxygen monitoring, which we picked up from Greene King in 2001.
More recently ESR [Electron Spin Resonance] has helped us establish the flavour stability of our beer. You can add techniques involving ‘thermal load’ and sterile filtration, yeast propagation and centrifugation to all of these.
These methods are essential to get the quality of beer required to break the mould at retail level.”
It is at the retail level that Hook believes the biggest problems are found. He has consistently refused to involve Meantime in the ‘cask ale’ segment, believing that whatever bonuses cask-conditioned ale might bring in terms of flavour, the downsides of lack of stability and openness to infection inevitable with cask beer mean the customer is much better off with the consistency provided by ‘craft keg’.
However, he said: “All of the afflictions that cask ale suffers from apply to brewery-conditioned beers, and this is where there is a major threat to all beer regardless of type. “Poor line cleaning, interchanging beers, many of which are infected because of poor practice at the brewery, warm storage, warm chain distribution, antiquated dispense systems that cannot be cleaned, all paint a worrying picture.
The first wave of craft breweries in the US fell foul of quality issues in the 1990s. Hundreds didn’t make the next decade. If brewers in the UK are complacent, the same will happen here. Meantime invests hundreds of thousands of pounds annually to counter this threat.
We base the Meantime production strategy around this. “The threat is real and, as we say in the industry, you are only as good as your last beer.”
At the old-established family brewery Harvey & Son of Lewes, in Sussex, which has just started kegging some of its normally cask beers for the first time in many years as a reaction to competition from ‘craft keg’, Miles Jenner, head brewer and joint managing director, said: “It is an extraordinary market at the moment, and the public seem to be at a loss to evaluate what craft beer is.
Personally, I struggle with the concept of ‘naturally hazy ales’ and have encountered levels of bitterness that make objective evaluation impossible. That said, there are some very good, very committed new entrants who have been both innovative and consistent.
MUDDYING THE WATERS
“Unfortunately, there are others who, quite literally, muddy the waters. I hope the former survive as much as I hope that established local brewers continue to flourish. Within the new genre, traditional values are sometimes depicted as outdated.
There is a risk that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water.”
The UK’s association for small brewers, SIBA, is certainly aware of the risks that poor quality poses to the sector, and introduced its own Food Safety and Quality certificate as a cheaper alternative to Safe and Local Supplier Accreditation (SALSA) that will still be evidence for retailers, particularly large pub chains and national supermarkets, of quality and consistency.
Mike Benner, SIBA’s chief executive, said: “Consistency is hugely important, as while it is clear the best beers are being produced by independent craft brewers, consumers want an assurance that they’ll get that same quality again and again.”
The organisation is also rolling out something it calls the Assured Independent British Craft Brewer initiative, designed to be “an assurance of independence and quality.
It is given to independent craft brewers who are producing less than 200,000hl per year, are genuinely independent and have agreed to abide by SIBA’s Manual of Good Brewing Practice,” Benner said.
However, this only tackles the producer. There are efforts in the on-trade to raise quality among retailers: the organisation Cask Marque, sponsored by brewers, provides independent accreditation to pubs selling cask beer that pass visits from its inspectors, and advice on cellar management, glass care and the like on its website.
But it only covers cask beer, and fewer than one in five British pubs are Cask Marque accredited. At Carlsberg, which has a distribution arm that includes almost 80 craft beers, Adrian Rigby, marketing manager for beer and cider, said the quality of beer in some outlets was “a huge threat”. He said: “I draught beer quality was in one bar recently and the beer was terrible – horribly yeasty.
I work in the industry, so I know what the problem was. The average consumer won’t, they’ll just think they don’t like beer.” For Rigby, one big problem is the feeling among many bars that they need a large range of draught products, which can result in stale, out-of-date beer.
Far better, he said, to stock a large range of the many excellent bottled craft beers available, and a smaller range of well-kept, good-quality draught beers. Carlsberg, he said, spends a lot of time with retailers, helping them to get their range and quality right, and encouraging staff training.
At the craft beer importer Euroboozer, based in Hertfordshire, director Martyn Railton said: “There’s no doubt that quality and consistency is proving to be a big problem with some brewers and certainly inhibits consumers when they are looking to try something new. I was in a bar a few months ago, a well-known craft beer bar in a city in the north of England.
I plumped for something I didn’t know and returned it straight away. I said, ‘There are massive faults in this beer, why are you serving it?’
The response came, ‘Well, it’s new and different.’ I said that it didn’t matter whether it was new and different, what matters is the taste and I thought novelty shouldn’t be part of their stocking policy.
“What should the industry be doing? In my view, exactly what I did.
Return the beer if it’s sub-standard or has faults. If retailers return beer with faults more often, then brewers will have to pay more attention to quality. If consumers return beer more often, then this may force the hand of the retailer too.”
Ultimately, those new small brewers unable to provide consistent good quality beer will fail to thrive, and the explosion in brewery start-ups will settle down, leading, probably, to a fall in overall numbers as only the better survive.
But the dangers of poor-quality beers to the whole market will continue unless brewers and retailers make a big effort to educate consumers about what good craft beer should be like, and what they should be expecting in their glass.