When I left the U.K. to move to North Carolina in late 2010, one of the only breweries left within Newcastle's city limits was the one started by my father and his brother in 1982, The Big Lamp Brewery. At that point, the real ale movement was in its infancy in the U.K. and craft beers were unheard of in the U.S.
Today, the scene is very different, on both sides of the Atlantic. You only need run a simple Internet search for "number of craft breweries opened in the UK" to see headlines appearing within the last year like "Number of UK breweries hits 80 year high," "Britain becomes 'Brewing Powerhouse'," and "The great beer boom! Government says new brewery has opened in Britain every other day in past two years." The rapidity with which the new influx of craft breweries have appeared is astounding. When I moved to North Carolina and started bar tending as I had done in Edinburgh, Scotland during my university years, my sense of the "beer culture" in the UK which I regularly described to Americans was rapidly becoming a defunct and old fashioned mentality.
I would describe how British beer tastes fell generally into two camps: for cheap European lagers, or for traditional hand pulled ales. I took some measure of pride in the fact that my father's brewery, though no longer owned by him, is still in operation and brewing traditional hand pulled ales which have grown to be immensely popular in the Northeast of England. Though this is still true, there was a turning point a few years ago in between visits home, where everything suddenly changed. According to CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), between 2010 and 2015, the number of breweries in the U.K. went from 800 to 1,424.
To me, this resurgence is a wonderful thing, and something that I thoroughly enjoy watching happen. What is interesting, is the style of beers now being produced on both sides of the Atlantic. Both countries have enacted a paradigm shift, in the U.S., a complete rejection of the prevailing style of "beer" available, if a Michelob Light could be called beer. These beers aim to be "easy drinking," "refreshing," and "low calorie," which is fine if you want to feel like you're drinking soda water but want to get drunk at the same time. In the U.K. it seems that the new craft beer movement (as I will refer to it, seeing as craft beer has always been around in the U.K. in some form or another) is not only a rejection of similarly styled European lagers, often mixed with lemonade or lime juice in pubs to make them even easier to gulp down on a night out, but also a move to shake up the real ale industry, which has been seen as mired in tradition and producing beers with similar, muted flavours, malt forward and restrained in the use of hops.
The craft beer industry today has seen an embracing of innovative and exciting brews, with a love for big, bold, high alcohol, high hop beers. Brewers are finding more and more ways to push the boundaries of traditional brewing, reviving old styles and pushing unusual and unconventional flavours into the hands of willing consumers. Sours, Goses, Oyster Stouts, Wild Beers, all enjoy popular appeal among adventurous craft beer drinkers.
All of this is fantastic news. Having seen news stories in recent years heralding the demise of the pub in Britain, and previously declining numbers of native breweries, this new explosion of activity is no doubt encouraging news. I do have one bone to pick, however, with craft breweries today. And I may be slightly biased, given that my father's beers fall solidly into the real ale brewing traditions; when I asked him for his recipe for his signature brew "Prince Bishop Ale," his reply was: "I can't remember the exact recipe but it used only Pale Malt (Marris Otter or something similar), of sufficient quantity to produce a beer of 4.8%. The only hops used were Styrian Goldings of sufficit [sic] quantity to make a bitter" which I loved. My wish would be that craft breweries of today can learn to not only love making those big, innovative beers, full of fruity, hoppy, bold flavours, but also that they embrace the traditions of real ale. Subtlety can sometimes trump big, strong flavours, and a there's nothing like a properly brewed real ale, that's undergone secondary cask fermentation and had it's carbonation forced into it by a hand pulled pump. There should be room for all quality, crafted beers, the new and the old.
There's a lot to be said for crafting a beer with care, traditional knowledge, and patience. Much like a good beer, which should be balanced and well rounded, highlighting both malt and hop, so too should the beer industry aim to be balanced. Let's have strong hoppy beers right next to malty cask ales, with everything in between and have all enjoyed in equal measure. After all, it's open minds and adventurous spirits that have gotten craft beer where it is today.
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