Eight per cent of British craft brewers have PhDs and other dubious statistics

I have a new book out, A Craft Beer Road Trip Around Britain, with snapshots of 40 of Britain’s top small breweries from Scotland to the South West. Don’t rush to try to buy it from Amazon/your favourite independent bookseller, however, because it’s only available via Beer 52, the craft beer club people, who are giving it away to people who sign up to their “case of beer a month” service. Putting it together was quite fun, but hard work: getting craft beer brewers to co-operate in supplying information about themselves and their beers turns out to be like trying to herd cats, and my deepest sympathy goes to anyone who has had to put together one of those 666 beer to try before you’re dragged off to Hell-style compilations.

Still, at the end I found I had ended up with a big enough stack of information about a sample of craft brewers in Britain to pull out some interesting, if ultimately probably dubious, statistics. If we take the 40 brewers I interviewed for the book as typical (and I’m sure we can’t), we can draw the following conclusions about the British craft brewing industry:

Eight per cent of British craft brewers have a PhD
Probably the dodgiest stat of the lot; but it’s a fact that at least three of the 40 brewers in the book, James Davies of Alechemy in Livingston, Scotland (PhD, yeast genetics), Gaz Matthews of Mad Hatter in Liverpool (PhD, criminology) and Stuart Lascelles of East London Brewing Company (PhD, chemistry) are entitled to call themselves “Doctor”.

35 per cent of British craft brewers wear black T-shirts/polo shirts with their brewery’s logo on them
If the uniform of the 19th century brewer was a white apron and a red stockinette cap, as sported by Mr Bung in the Victorian Happy Families card game, and the uniform of the 20th century brewer was a white labcoat with pens in the top pocket, worn over a dark suit, then the uniform of the 21st century brewer is a black T-shirt, jeans and industrial boots – possibly, if the woman from Health and Safety is visiting, coupled with a hi-vis jacket and goggles.

Weird beards

Gregg Irwin and Bryan Spooner of Weird Beard Brew Co – named for one of the distinguishing features of the British craft brewer?

48 per cent of British craft brewers sport a beard
The least surprising stat: while the craft brewers of Britain don’t normally go for the “big enough to hide several small birds and a couple of squirrels” face-bushes preferred by their American rivals, the bearded brewer has become almost a cliché, and almost half the brewers in the book had clearly not recently passed a razor over their chins.

35 per cent of British craft breweries have an address that begins with “Unit” followed by a number
Is it surprising that out of every 20 small breweries in the country, at least seven will be on an industrial estate? Probably not …

12 per cent of British craft breweries have an address that includes the word “Farm”
It’s on the face of it not that surprising, either, that out of 40 craft breweries, five should be based on farms, since farms today often have unused buildings – dairies, for example – that can be cheaply and easily adapted to provide a home for a small brewing set-up, while there are likely to be few neighbours in the immediate vicinity to annoy. And, after all, back in the 19th century thousands of farms had their own breweries, where they made beer for the farmer, his family and the farm workers. Indeed, quite a few commercial breweries began as farm breweries that expanded into supplying local pubs: Arkells of Swindon, to name one survivor of that tradition. On the other hand if you scale that five-out-of-40 up across the whole craft brewing sector today, that suggests more than 150 farms have breweries on them: I CBA to go through the breweries section of the Good Beer Guide to check, but than sounds dubious to me.

Eight per cent of British craft breweries are based in railway arches
And not only in East and South East London: Tickety Brew of Stalybridge, for example, is underneath the arches, too. The seminal role played by Network Rail in helping Britain’s craft brewing boom by supplying homes to small breweries to thrive in really should be chronicled. Mind, this is another probably dodgy statistic to draw from my book, since again it implies an improbably large number of railway arch brewer nationally, around a hundred.

Five per cent of British craft brewers have artistic graffiti all over the interior walls of the brewery
All right, I’m sure this really is one you cannot scale up from my small sample of 40 brewers, but at least two, BrewDog in Scotland and Tiny Rebel in Wales have brought in graffiti artists to liven up the inside of their otherwise boring boxes.

Sheer wall power

When Tiny Rebel got the painters in …

45 per cent of British craft brewers use Cascade hops in at least one of their beers
The only surprise here is that the number seems positively too low: Boak and Bailey have pointed out how incredibly influential Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been on the craft brewing scene in the UK, so the fact that so many brewers in Britain use the hop found in SNPA should startle no one. At least Cascade has one British parent, Fuggles – does anyone make a beer with both Cascade AND Fuggles in it? Hmmm …

30 per cent of British craft brewers use Maris Otter barley
Fifty years old this year, and still popular, despite being more expensive than other varieties, Maris Otter is perhaps THE craft beer barley: though many bigger brewers won’t and don’t use it, and suggest its popularity is more down to the fact that it has a great marketing story to tell for any brewer using it .

40 per cent of British craft brewers have a home brewing background
Again that seems ostensibly too small, when only another 20 per cent of those I surveyed had an actual brewing industry background: did the other 40 per cent just fling themselves into the business with no experience of wetting malt at all? Well, some people do, actually, such as Otley, where the founders’ background was in running pubs.

Andy Paterson, bearded

No good running away, Andy …

Anyway, there we are: the typical British craft brewer is bearded, wears a black T-shirt, is based on an industrial estate, and brews at least one beer with Maris Otter barley and Cascade hops. Is there anyone who fits that description: Well, apart from the industrial estate, yes there is: step up, please, the bearded, black-T-shirted Andy Paterson, brewer at Dark Star Brewing in Sussex of Hophead, made with Maris Otter and Cascades. You, sir, are Mr Craft Brewer 2015!

And the winner is … 961?

I’ll forgive myself for never having heard of 961 Beer, because its products are apparently not yet on sale in the UK. But they ARE available in Hong Kong – and 961 Lager has just been declared the best lager in the city, after the blind tasting by me and 11 other judges I blogged about last month.

Those of you with an encyclopediac knowledge of international dialling codes will recognise 961 as Lebanon: the brewery, based in the village of Mazraat Yachoua, six miles or so north-east of Beirut, is now six years old and claims (I’m sure it’s true) to be the only microbrewery in the entire Arab world. It triumphed over 38 competitors in the lager category at the 2012 Hong Kong International Beer Awards, suggesting strongly that founder Mazen Hajjar, who started the operation in his kitchen, knows what he is doing.

British winners were BrewDog, which came top in the Amber Ale category with 5am Saint; Saltaire, which took the Stout first prize, with Triple Chocoholic; Little Valley, from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in the Organic category with Python IPA; and in the “British Style Ale” category, Strong Suffolk from Greene King. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for a “British Style Ale”: I’ve always had a problem with Strong Suffolk, it’s a beer I really want to like, because of the almost unique way it’s made, by blending an aged 5X old ale with a younger Burton Ale, and yet every time I try it I go away underimpressed. However, I’m glad it won, simply because I hope it encourages Greene King to carry on brewing 5X.

Pacific Coast American craft brewers also swept up four of the prizes, a sign of the boom in imports of microbrewed beers from the West Coast US to Hong Kong in the past 12 to 18 months. The Californian North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw took the Pilsner prize, Rogue of Oregon won both the Pale Ale category, for its Chatoe OREgasmic Ale, and the Brown Ale category, with its Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and another Californian operator, Mendocino Brewing, had the top Bock with Eye of the Hawk.

Despite strong competition from American craft brewers, the “Belgian Style Ale” winner was a proper Belgian brewer, Brouwerij Huyghe (best known for Delirium Tremens) of Ghent, with Artevelde Grande Cru, and Huyghe also walked off with the prize for best Fruit Beer with Floris Fraise. The Wheat Beer prize went to a German entry, Hopf White, from Weissbierbrauerei Hopf in Miesbach, in the far south of Bavaria.

The big surprise, however, was the winner in the IPA category – not an American, but Feral Brewing, from Baskerville, Western Australia, with its Hop Hog. Indeed, the judges loved this beer so much, they gave it the highest number of points of any of the more than 250 entries in the competition, meaning Hop Hog also carried off the palm for Champion Beer of the 2012 Awards.

Reports say the microbrewing scene in Western Australia is booming: hopefully Feral’s success will encourage more brewers from there to look north to the market in Hong Kong.

(Addendum: apparently Feral was extremely surprised to win, because it didn’t even know the competition was on, let alone that it was entered.)

Fine dining. Fine wine. And, surely, fine beer

The beerysphere (it’s like a bathysphere only more pressured, sometimes) has been rocking and bobbing again with attempts to define this drink that we love. Much effort has been put into digging ditches, and insisting that everything THIS side of the ditch, defined by methods of dispense, or size of brewing plant, or attitude of brewer, or some other criterion, is OUR SORT OF THING, while everything the OTHER side of the ditch is, automatically, BEYOND THE PALE (insert your own joke about “beyond the pale ale” here).

Over on the left-hand shore of the Atlantic they’re pretty rock-solid about what they like, and how to define it: the good stuff is made by “craft brewers“, and you can tell a “craft brewer” because (1) he/she will be “small” (although the US definition of “small brewer” is still around 12,000 UK barrels A DAY, which is more than many British small brewers make in a year), while the second most important criterion is that “The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation.”

Now, I like innovation, and I’m delighted to see much more of it now that when I first started drinking beer. Hurrah for brewers who push the envelope, even if the envelope tears sometimes. But what I most want from a brewer isn’t innovation: it’s consistent excellent beer. I think I would actually give up all the innovation of the past 15 or 20 years, just to be guaranteed that the beers I found in every pub or bar I went into were of uniformly impeccable quality. So if the number one hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers isn’t top-notch product, but something else, then I suggest the wrong horse is pulling the cart.

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