Tuesday 21 July 2015

Am I post-craft?

Way back, probably about 1996 or 1997, I first tasted the vivid flavours being imported from the USA. In 1998 I made my first trip to California - and came back an evangelist. Not for big-flavour west coast beer per se, but for a more positive attitude to beer. Long un-enthralled by CAMRA's relentlessly negative and doom-laden "real ale under threat" narrative, I found the US attitude a breath of fresh air. It got me thinking: ditch the term "real ale" and the negativity surrounding it, and fewer people would be put off real ale. And while we're at it, acknowledge that perfectly good beer can come from kegs, and recognise that Johnny Foreigner can brew good beer, some of which might even be lager. But what about a new term that encapsulates this new positivity? The Americans already had a good one: Craft Beer.
Doing a bit of dry
hopping in San Francisco, Feb '98

Fast forward a decade and a half or so, and we find "craft beer" is firmly established in the UK. Big-hop beers are essential for any brewery or bar that identifies with craft. Supermarkets, regional brewers and pubcos are even recognising craft – surely signs that craft is now mainstream.

A recent long weekend in London allowed me to consider my own feelings about the craft revolution I had long wished for.

Evening one: I was at the launch party of the Mikkeller book at which Martyn Cornell was called a bastard. The venue was Brewdog's Camden establishment. The weakest beer available was 4.5% Brew Puppy (I may have mis-remembered this name). It was bitter. It was nothing else. It was like chewing a teabag. It wasn't pleasant.  I later enjoyed a third of one of Mik's sour beers. It was rather good but at the equivalent of £12 a pint it fucking well should have been. But I wanted a pint – a whole pint, not two thirds – of something thirst-quenching. No such beer was available. It made me grumpy.


Evening two: The venue was The Cat's Back, Harvey's little-known second London pub which is tucked away on a side street on the west side of Wandsworth town centre. I had four pints: a Best Bitter, a Wild Hop, An Armada Ale and an 1859 Porter. Three of the four were sublimely good. Sadly the Wild Hop was tired and flabby. But three out of four ain't bad. In fact, I was overjoyed: highly drinkable, thirst-quenching, intelligent beer in a proper pub devoid of bearded hipster clones blasting their tastedbuds with bitterness.

The Cat's Back
Afternoon Three: I popped into the Swift, on Putney High Street. This is a Fullers faux-east end hipster craft beer vibe bar for the unadventurous young professionals of south west London. On my first visit, in December 2013 soon after it opened, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. A blackboard listing the "craft beer" selection included Fosters, without any suggestion of it being an in-joke; surly door-staff enforced a no-bags rule. The board had gone but the faux-ness was all too apparent in the sun of a spring afternoon. The exposed bricks were wallpaper. The vintage distressed tiles were wallpaper. The furniture was over-designed to look under-designed. The beer selection was perfunctory. The whole place was false, a facsimile of craft.

The Swift

The Swift

The Swift

On the train back north I had time to ponder this craft dysphoria. I came to a conclusion: I am post-craft. Genuine craft as exemplified by Brewdog left me cold. Faux craft, as represented by The Swift, left me dispirited.

A Harvey's pub  put a a mile wide smile on my face. I am post-craft. But I'm still not real ale.

Update: 4 August 2015 - The Swift has closed for business. 


StringersBeer said...

Excellent. We've been post-craft since before it was cool, of course.

Phil said...

What was the, um, method of dispense of the three good pints at the Harvey's pub? (Never mind the duff one.)

Curmudgeon said...

There are plenty of us who are in the same position - the "craft beer revolution" has opened our eyes, but so often it now seems to have dissolved into pretension and hype.

And anyone who can't understand the appeal of a Harvey's pub doesn't deserve to be called a beer enthusiast.

py said...

talk about missing the point, Phil. You might as well make a big deal out of what shape glass it was served in, its about as relevant. The point is, it was good beer. Stop being so divisive and negative.

The craft beer revolution has brought about a huge explosion in the styles of beer available, the quality of beer available in your average pub, and in general public interest in beer. Not surprisingly, as a result of the revolution, after years of decline we have seen two straight years of increase in beer sales. Long may it continue.

Curmudgeon said...

"we have seen two straight years of increase in beer sales. Long may it continue"

So nothing to do with the economic recovery or three years of small beer duty cuts, then?

Tandleman said...

Interesting Jeff. Interesting.

Paul Engel said...

I very much enjoyed reading this. I am a 41 year old Yank with a small beer pub in Albany NY. We are not the most popular "craft" spot by any stretch because we serve low alcohol (by American standards) ales out of our three beer engines by the likes of Dark Star, Hobsons, Conistons, Harviestoun, etc. Our ales are served in 20 oz. Imperial or 10 oz. pints. We shy away from super fizzy overpriced hops assaulting beers served in an 8 oz. wine glass! I teach the 22 year old patrons about what a true bitter should taste like and what an ESB really is. We have bottles of Ola Dubh, Gale's and Harvey's. I accept the fact that because my 20 regular draught lines are mostly void of pungent American bastardized versions of the "IPA" we will never be rich... But we will be sane.

Rob Sterowski said...

As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Jeff Pickthall said...

@ Paul Engel.

I'm a good friend of the MD of Coniston Brewery. He is always interested to know where his exports go, and who is selling and consuming his beer. Could you fill me in on the details of your bar so I can let him know?

You can find me on FB, Twitter, and the British Guild of Beer Writers website (where you'll find my email address).

Keep up the good work!

Daniel Etherington said...

One of the good things about being middle-aged - mid-40s - is that you're too old to be a craft beer hipster and too young to be a CAMRA beardy. I love being right in the middle, as you can enjoy both without prejudice. So I'm not exactly post-craft, I'm happy with "craft" or "real ale" (even if the terms are still awkward).

The main beers are consume are from my two most local breweries: the aforementioned Harveys (traditional) and Burning Sky (British take on US craft).

Stonch said...

Didn't know you had a blog, Jeff, and haven't seen you for ages. Added you to my blog roll. Hope we get to catch up soon.

Jeff Pickthall said...

Hello other Jeff. I was in your pub back in March. I needed Italian beer and Firezza pizza.

Lisa said...

Great piece! I wrote a longer response on my site, but this resonates with me too, across the pond. I love the (good) weird stuff, but find it irksome that there are times when I can't find a nice bitter.

Rob Sterowski said...

Surely Burning Sky is more a British take on Flemish traditional brewing?

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