Hoppy days for craft beer

With up to 200 breweries opening in the UK each year and a growing thirst for craft beer, we get a flavour of what's next for the artisan ale industry - and whether it can continue to thrive.

Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

I’m in a repurposed railway arch, stomping about on a sticky floor, surrounded by barrels of beer amid air thick with a smell like strong cannabis. No it’s not the end of a Friday night with Lord Sewel: it’s a Saturday afternoon in Bermondsey, east London. The scent is of hops, weed’s more respectable cousin; the archway is UBREW, London’s first open brewery. 

A very 21st-century mash-up – craft beer explosion meets the sharing economy – UBREW provides the equipment and facilities to knock up a few pints of your own making, while its brewing-enthusiast members provide the labour and inspiration. They sign up by the month or year to come and flex their brewing muscle on the company’s mash tuns and sparging arms. As such it operates just like a gym, but for boozers: here they’ll be drinking any six-pack they work up, rather than showing it off. 

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Hipster jokes aside, craft beer is supposed to be all about opening up brewing, taking it out of the hands of big business and encouraging drinkers to take an interest in what they are drinking. Its hallmark is the use of high-quality (and sometimes esoteric) ingredients supposedly leading to more complex flavours than the beer majors can provide – which punters will pay premium prices for. It’s blown up over the past few years, and is a natural fit for a DIY overhaul.

Brewing your own beer at UBREW in Bermondsey, East London

But what’s involved, and how do the results stack up? While another bunch of amateurs lug their latest cask of craft ale to the temperature-controlled fermenting room out the back, I’m throwing grain into a 50-litre mash tun, the first step towards creating a white IPA of my very own. Once the enzymes are left to go to work on the sugars, UBREW co-founder Wilf Horsfall pours me a pint by Anspach & Hobday, one of the guest ales on in the taproom, and explains the appeal. ‘There’s creativity involved in brewing, like baking your own bread,’ he says. ‘Yes, people could buy a loaf, but they want to make their own. There’s also a social aspect: you can come here and learn about brewing, have a barbecue and drink the fruits of your labour. We get a real mix: young, old, guys, girls. It’s not just beard-sporting hipsters.’

Pretty much everyone at UBREW today does have a beard, but I get the idea. Behind the artisanal cliché of pruned chins and sleeve tattoos, the scene as a whole is a dedicated community of loyal beer geeks – both male and female – lining up for beer festivals and crowdfunding their favourite breweries. The brewers themselves often store kegs for rivals who lack space, or hand over their old brewing kit to upstarts who need gear – like parents passing on pushchairs.

Having raised over £110k of investment on Crowdcube last year, UBREW is already at capacity in terms of members, who pay £50 a month each, and its one-day courses cost £95 a pop. It’s expanding to two new locations in London, and looking beyond, while also now offering its kit to small brewers wishing to launch commercially. 

These upstarts may struggle to stand out. A staggering 150-200 new breweries are now opening in the UK every year – thanks in part to the Small Breweries’ Relief scheme, which reduces the tax rate for brewers that produce low volumes. We now have the highest number of breweries per head in the world. And this when pubs are closing at a rate of around 30 a week.

So while the overall beer market is crying into its pint, craft beer is flying. Walk into an off-licence these days and you face a baffling wall of off-kilter logos, from rebel stags to weird aliens blasting each other with lasers. Alongside familiar old staples like Heineken and Stella sit such curios as Mum’s the Word, Barrel Aged Daydream, Easy Livin Pils and Gamma Ray, created by microbreweries such as Huddersfield’s Magic Rock Brewing, Scotland’s Tempest Brew Co, Somerset’s Wild Beer Co and London’s Siren Craft Brew, Camden Town Brewery, Beavertown and The Kernel. According to CAMRA, the UK now has a head-spinning 1,285 breweries – the most it’s had for 70 years.

To the sceptic, craft beer’s saturated market may simply be a fad, a here-today, gone-tomorrow sector that’s cleverly worked out how to get people to pay twice as much for a tiny bottle of ‘handmade’ IPA as they would for a pint of London Pride. (Plenty of old-style real ale aficionados will also explain why they think so much craft beer is badly made and cloudy, stuffed full of hops to disguise the basic failings of its brewers. Do they have a point, or are they just bitter?)

Then there are the realities of taking on the big players in a market where most previous efforts to boost competition have failed. ‘Many of those 200 new breweries will fold because they simply can’t get traction,’ says Chris Wisson, senior drinks analyst at Mintel. ‘Operating locally is fine, but when you reach the level of national distribution the market can be incredibly competitive.’

Meantime Brewery in Greenwich is now owned by SABMiller. Credit: Incamerastock/Alamy

Things are tense enough on my first brew. Having chucked the hops in, I have to wait an hour for them to bitter. Others here pass this time by pacing about and rolling cigarettes. I opt to calm my paternal nerves by taking a walk. It turns out I am in craft beer central - the railway arches between Bermondsey and London Bridge are home to no fewer than seven microbreweries, earning it the nickname of the ‘Bermondsey beer mile’. Each archway is like a military arsenal loaded with beer barrels. Anspach & Hobday politely turn me away from theirs as they’re in a meeting, which looks a lot like two men leaning on a bar and having a chat. One of the perils of the job I suppose. Southwark Brewing Co is just up the road. MD Peter Jackson sits me down – and pours me a pint of his latest ale. Satisfyingly hoppy.

His plan is modest: having launched in November 2014, Southwark is now up to eight staff and aims to steadily double in size as demand increases. Still, I ask whether the market can really sustain so many breweries at a time when tighter purse strings mean alcohol consumption is historically slow. Jackson is confident that it can. ‘I worked for big breweries for 30 years, as marketing director for some of them, and the aim was always to make beer more appealing,’ he says. ‘Nothing is more appealing than choice. It’s self-fulfilling – the more choice you give, the more choice they demand. You can buy a bottle of reasonably good ale in Asda for £1.75, but there are still people willing to buy ours for £3.’

He’s not the only one to clock this crucial fact. In May, brewing giant SABMiller (itself now in talks over a takeover by the world's largest brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev) became the talk of the craft beer hop bine when it acquired Meantime, one of London’s best-known microbreweries, for an undisclosed sum. According to the Telegraph the deal ‘could value the business as much as £50m’, which isn’t bad for a brewery founded in a tram shed in 1999.

As a result of this marriage, modest craft ales like London Porter, India Pale Ale and Yakima Red would now be forced to share a bedroom with Peroni Nastro Azzurro, a cocksure ‘Italian’ lager with 450,000 Facebook friends. Many craft folk felt this an unwelcome intrusion into their ‘niche and discerning’ family, but you don’t have to be drunk to see the logic: while the UK beer market grew at only 1% in 2014, Meantime’s sales grew by a hefty 58%. Its turnover was £17m in 2014, up from £11.5m in 2013.

SAB cited Meantime as a way in to the burgeoning craft audience, which is more heavily weighted towards millennials and women than the general beer market. The craft world can expect more of these acquisitions – both by SAB and its rivals. ‘Meantime is the only really big acquisition we’ve seen so far in the UK,’ says Wisson, ‘but lots of other big breweries are now looking at doing their own craft-style ranges. And if they fail they’ll just buy an existing brewery.’ 

But if some of craft beer’s established names are selling up to the big brewers, others are going it alone. BrewDog, the iconic Scottish craft brewer widely seen as responsible for kickstarting the whole UK industry, has enjoyed phenomenal growth in the eight years since being founded by two Scottish blokes in a shed. Turnover hit £29.6 million in 2014, up from £18 million in 2013, and it now exports to 55 countries, with more than 30 bars across the world. It’s been investing hard in smaller breweries, including Bermondsey’s Brew By Numbers, and is now planning a beer hotel offering its Punk IPA on tap in the rooms, and a distillery to expand into gin, vodka and whisky. 

Craft beers from Beavertown, Tempest Brewing Co and Siren Craft Brew

BrewDog’s growth may, however, be hard for these other breweries to replicate: not only did the company benefit by getting in there first, but it has been as famous for its ballsy marketing as for its beer. One example: releasing a brightly bottled ‘protest beer’ called Hello, My Name Is Vladimir, described as ‘a beer for uber hetero men who ride horses while topless and carrying knives’, which the company sent to the eponymous Russian president. Wisson points out that BrewDog has become ‘more measured’ now. That’s what happens when your brand becomes more mainstream. After all, they even serve it in Wetherspoons. It seems ‘niche’ and ‘discerning’ loses its appeal once the money gets bigger. 

I continue my walk towards London Bridge, now a couple of pints up, popping into The Miller pub to use the facilities. Here I suffer a disconcerting experience. General manager James Pain invites me to join him as he nurses a Peckham Pils, one of 12 London-based beers the pub stocks. I buy myself one, only to suddenly realise that I’ve received no change, despite handing over a fiver for a 330ml bottle. ‘There’s been a general change in people’s perception of beer and what they’re prepared to pay,’ Pain says. I’m sure I’ve experienced no such shift, so I wonder if he’s trying to Derren Brown me.  

If he’s not, then maybe the marketing is. But surely it’s worth going for beers that have been made from better ingredients, with greater care? Along with beards, this is where the hipsters cross over with the real ale movement that began back in the 70s. Yet not everyone on the real ale scene has welcomed the craft beer explosion. There’s all this ungainly hype – and a lack of purity. Craft ale doesn’t necessarily come from a cask, like real ale does. And if making beer is really so easy that anyone can do it, why is most people’s experience of homebrew so awful?

It’s also pretty hard to pin down exactly what ‘craft’ beer is, and thus how big a share of the market it really has. ‘Some people say craft beer makes up only 1% of the beer market, which excludes cask,’ says Wisson. ‘If you’re including cask in that, it’s more like 15%. But this is really sketchy territory – mainly because there isn’t a cast-iron definition of craft which the industry uses.’

Wisson has a slightly different take to Pain when it comes to pricing. He says it’s one potential problem for craft as it gets bigger. ‘One of the main risks is whether the breweries take advantage of people’s willingness to pay more,’ he says. ‘I see more and more craft brands making the assumption they can charge whatever they want because they put the word "craft" on it. Breaking the £5 a pint mark is very significant and you need real quality, like Kernel, otherwise consumers will eventually start drifting back to less flavoursome options. Who’s going to pay £6 a pint?’

I’d ordinarily side with Wisson’s logic, but I have reason to suspect Pain may be right – when I return to the bar I don’t buy something cheaper; I pay £5 for another bottle of Peckham Pils. Not only is it really tasty, but it makes me feel niche and discerning, too.

The Miller’s manager may be on to something – although even he expresses some caution over the craft sector’s future. ‘Every couple of weeks we’re getting offered beer by new breweries we’ve never heard of,’ says Pain. ‘How different is your pale ale when we’ve already got 20 pale ales we want to stock? I’d be amazed if some breweries that seem nice now don’t go bust in the next few years because too many are opening. But if demand keeps going up, you never know…’

By now I’ve got so distracted by my booze cruise that the guys back at UBREW have to put the finishing touches to my brew for me – adding the aroma and pitching the yeast before leaving the cask in the back to ferment. I’m left dreaming up a name for my white IPA. I figure it should reflect craft beer as a whole: something originally cherished for its rarity and expensive for its quality, slagged off for being trendy but now risking all the dangers of becoming increasingly ubiquitous. The iPint? Maybe not… 


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