Looking back, it seems astonish-ing that the metropolitan middle classes took so long to embrace beer snobbery. The craft beer habit combines the characteristics of three long-established sources of small-scale social distinction: the farmer’s market, the tasting, and the sweet little café one knows.
Take the farmer’s-market side first. Even in the age of climate change, and after all those competitions in which some unlabelled bottle from Sussex defeats the best of Champagne, very few places in Britain can claim a local wine. But if you live in a city, or even a large town, you are by now guaranteed to have several local microbreweries.
It’s more than ten years since the arrival of progressive beer duty, which made tiny breweries an attractive economic proposition, but the growth in their numbers shows no sign of slowing down. The beer writer Pete Brown reckons we now have more breweries than at any time since the 1940s. My slice of south-east London, which is admittedly rich in both railway arches and foolishly trendy people, is up to at least eight. Each has its own specials, small batches, open days and seasonal experiments — endless opportunities to discover new locally sourced flavours, and to display your neighbourhood solidarity and savvy. Repeat after me: ‘I was going to bring a bottle of wine, but the brewery around the corner has just done a batch of these…’
There’s even a craft-beer equivalent of the vegetable box scheme: Deskbeers (www.deskbeers.com), which from £36 a week will send you a weekly Friday-afternoon selection from ‘the best of small and independent breweries in London and the UK’. It promises ‘an event in your office that enables conversation, bonding and companionship to happen each and every week’, which summons a mental image of a very specific sort of office, especially once you notice how keen it is to promote its Twitter handle and that it so far only delivers to London and Brighton postcodes.
That ‘conversation, bonding and companionship’ brings us to our next arena of social combat: the tasting. Craft beer turns out to be exceptionally well suited to this game. Relatively low alcohol content (most of the time) makes it possible to complete a wine-tasting-style ‘flight’ without either spitting out or reducing yourself to a Sideways-style mess. It’s no longer startling to see a pub offering thirds of a pint, for easier sampling, and ‘guided tastings’ are increasingly common.
Which is just as well, because there’s a lot of vocabulary to master. You want to be able to throw around hop varieties — strong, citrussy American ones like Citra, Apollo and Cascade; Mitteleuropean ones like Saaz; mild old English ones like the Fuggle and the Kentish Golding — but also style names. These are rich in history but subject to redefinition by whoever can attach them to something sufficiently delicious. An IPA, for instance, was a Victorian export brew packed with alcohol and hops to help it keep; then a name that regional brewers attached to paler, lighter bitters; then an American reinterpretation of the Victorian version, made spectacularly bitter with those powerful American hops; and then dozens of more or less domesticated reinterpretations of that American version. The name ‘saison’ has undergone a similar process: it was the ale that Belgian farmers made for the labourers bringing in their harvest; then a cloudy, bitter, slightly fruity Belgian bottled beer; then what a brewer makes to show they can do something subtler than their big IPA. A few actual tastings may be required before you can fully tap into the vast potential for bluffing and one-upmanship this creates, but there are short cuts: the Kernel brewery, for instance, helpfully names which hops it is using on the front of its bottles.
As for the sweet little café — your previous choice of sweet little café, if licensed, probably does craft beer by now. Being hot on craft beer does not necessarily require cask ale, with its finicky storage requirements and its tendency to go off, so it’s logistically much easier for a place to give itself some beer cred: a judicious showing of colourful bottles and cans will do it. Meanwhile, all those new breweries are feeding new outlets. There’s a mushrooming of ‘micropubs’, opened in old shops or cafés — or in one case an old GP surgery — without the elderly decor and scary lease you’d get from signing on with a pubco.
Then there are the places that the breweries set up themselves. BrewDog, an Aberdeen brewer that may be the biggest and loudest success of the British craft-beer boom, has turned out to be an extremely clever bar owner, specialising in pleasant, modern spaces full of bare wood and self-conscious cool. Others are following suit. Round my way, Late Knights brewery of Penge is opening a series of bars under the name Beer Rebellion, pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric being another feature of the craft beer scene. (Who is the beer rebelling against? What does it want?)
I’ve begun to wonder whether anything could pop this bubble, and what I think about is the force that held back middle-class beer snobbery to begin with: the fixed prejudice against real ale. No matter how many demographic surveys Cask Marque produced, no matter how many Sumerian wheat goddesses Camra dug up for its marketing, for most people real ale still meant nerdy old men with beards. Craft beer, by contrast, means nerdy young men with beards. And while nerds have a great deal more cultural capital than they used to, young men continue to grow old. Within a few years, the craft beer boom may seem as difficult to separate from the ridiculous fashions of the 2010s as the real ale boom was from the fashions of the 1970s. If we’re lucky, it will leave as many enjoyable new flavours behind.