Left to right on the Rebel Brewing Co stand are Guillermo Alvarez,
Claire Pumfrey and Mark Bishop
Friday morning in Shoreditch, east London. Gentle snow is falling and there’s a chill breeze. I walk past some pubs bearing the Truman’s name and, peering through windows, spot the beers of the same name on bars. Truman’s Runner and No 8 promoted with classic, well designed pumpclips. The Truman’s revival is well under way.
A glimpse in a newsagent’s window at the specialist magazine tells you all you need to know about modern Shoreditch. You don’t need to be a graphic designer to live here, but it helps.
There’s a false start in the quest for Truman’s brewery, with the company livery adorning an old building close to the main street. I walk further pack to parallel Brick Lane, however, and the old brewery proper comes into sight bearing the colourful artwork of the Craft Beer Rising festival, my destination.
Why Craft Beer Rising? After climbing three flights of stairs I think my question is answered, but on reflection I think it has more to do with the rise of the new breed of artisan brewers. The young Turks. Oh, and some old Turks with new five-barrel experimental breweries.
In the venue there’s no chill breeze, but it’s still pretty cold. Well, good conditions for beer casks, anyway, even if some of the brewers are huddled together for warmth. The rooms where the festival is taking place are sparse and white walled, yet curiously atmospheric with breweries given stall space, each with a bar, some dispensing keg beer, some cask, some opening bottles for tasters. This is not a CAMRA festival, in organisation or spirit. This is about beer in all its manifestations: cask, keg, bottle, British, foreign, classical, outlandish.
The presence of some big hitters – notable Brains, Thwaites, St Austell, Marston’s and Greene King – shows this is no student type gathering of ripped jean hopheads, either. There is an opinion among many, though, that these breweries are hijacking the word ‘craft’ for their own purposes. But then they didn’t get to be the size they are by missing out on a trend.
Marketing man Marc Bishop, on the St Austell stand, appreciates there had been little point in bringing along a cask of Tribute. He knew – and he was right – that the focus would be on the 1913 recipe Stout and the special edition Ruby Jack, created by young brewer Nick Orton for the brewery’s Celtic Beer Festival in December. Both brews come from the five-barrel plant.
On the Brains stand, not an SA in sight. Instead an enthusiastic head brewer, Bill Dobson, proudly showing off keg Atlantic White – a Belgian-style wheat beer with an American hop hit that was one of my beers of the day. Newly launched Beardface – great with collaborator and landlord Chris Rowland’s famous Cardiff pies – was popular too, as was Barry Island IPA, another collaboration, this time with South Wales video beer blogger Simon Martin.
But… Marston’s and Greene King. Not sure they’d grasped the theme of the event. Their bars wouldn’t have been out of place at a CAMRA beer festival or, indeed, a county show. Marston’s Single Hop East Kent Goldings and GK’s Yardbird IPA – both a comfortable 4% ABV – were fine beers. But are they craft beers? Indeed, is anyone, after this event, still any the wiser as to what a craft beer is?
On the Rebel Brewing Co stand Mexican yeast guru Guillermo Alvarez – one of the Cornish firm’s two brewers – is justly proud of his Mexicoco Chocolate Wheat Beer, new Belgian style wheat beers Henri (dark) and Helene (golden) and black lager Bullhorn. The Milk Stout is a delightful lactose sweet treat, too. On their website they are “challenging perceptions of craft beer”. I think that’s what the big boys think they’re doing, as well, and I suspect the two are working to the same conclusion from opposing directions.
If we strike through the word ‘craft’ and replace it with ‘artisan’ do we get any clearer picture of this new beer mindset? I bet brewsters Michelle Kelsall, of Offbeat Brewery, in Crewe, and Sophie De Ronde, of the Brentwood Brewing Company, consider themselves artisan brewers. Sophie is the creator of the ingeniously titled and magnificently executed BBC2. This is a 2.5% ABV beer that takes the art of getting maximum flavour in minimum ABV to a new height. Or should that be depth? It’s a session brown bitter, full of malt, good malt and with some tropical citrus notes. A joy and a beer for a long afternoon with friends. And with lower duty the rounds won’t cost so much!
At the other end of the scale, Michelle’s Dotty DIPA – an American style double IPA – packs a bitterness punch that made a grown man next to me surrender. Wuss. It was a flavour-packed, tooth enamel-scraping, gorgeous hop explosion in a glass – well, a plastic sampling tumbler – with a 7.2% ABV rating. Great beer, and no small amount of skill involved.
Over on the Sharp’s stand, many would consider that the craft/artisan phrase is stretched as far as it possibly could be. When Molson Coors took over the Cornish brewery in 2011, many feared that the brewery would close, the beers would move to Burton and mad professor creative genius brewer Stuart Howe would be snapped up by an independent or go it alone. Two years down the line the brewery hasn’t moved – indeed has had massive investment – and Stuart’s still there, still with that twinkle in his eye, and with every right to be proud. Doom Bar may be a massive, mass-produced national brand, but without it there would not be special edition brews and the well-received Connoisseur’s Choice range of special brews. Spiced Red was my pick on the Sharp’s stand and better minds than me agree – it won a gold at the recent International Beer Awards, judged by brewing professionals.
The festival itself was a bit of a curate’s egg. I liked the venue (despite that chill in the air.) Who’s not going to enjoy beer in a traditional old brewery surrounded by like-minded geeks? The beer tokens system needs a bit of work (small plastic-like tokens that aren’t easy to separate and make distribution and payment a challenge). And I wasn’t enamoured by the fact that although the trade session was meant to run from 11am to 6pm, we were all asked to leave the building at 5.30pm so the exhibitors could have a half-hour break. If we’d know, it would have been fine. But it was a bit of a surprise. And I’m sure the organisers now realise what a special challenge getting a roomful of beer writers and trade teams out of a festival is when they’re just getting into their stride.
Still, it did mean we could repair to BrewDog Shoreditch in the fine company of fellow scribe Sophie Atherton, brewers Kevin Tweedy, of Golden Triangle in Norwich, and Martin Kemp, of Pitfield fame, and freelance journo Phil Mellows, with some Punk IPA and Dead Pony Club. Blimey was that place busy – but then I’m sure I’d just seen most of those face in a beer festival.
Unlike Douglas Adams’ fine Life, The Universe and Everything, I don’t think we’re any closer to the answer to the ultimate question. Bloggers will continue to dispute what craft beer actually is and I’ll continue to trot out my own mantra: there are only two sorts of beers: the ones you like and the ones you don’t like.
The Penpont Brewery team at Craft Beer Rising. Left to right, Joe Thomson, James Hornblower, Ray Rice and Amy Hassall
This blog post is not by Wobbly Wallet but originally appeared on Beer Today: http://beertoday.co.uk/?p=12529