Roll Out The Barrels

13th February 2015

There has never been a better time to be a brewer, says Clare Finney

Renaissance is an understatement. In 2013, the sale of artisanal and craft beer increase by 8 per cent – a rise projected to continue sharply – and the big supermarkets, whose shelves were, until relatively recently, graced with little more than lager six packs, are these days overflowing with specialist beers. In London, where the inaugural Beer Week is kicking off this Monday, it’s obvious. Camden Town, Brewdog, Meantime and other beers brewed by – invariably – young hipsters have been pouring in for a good few years. Even your local Wetherspoons will stock them. Yet with brewing historically one of Hertfordshire’s main industries, and with the highly influential Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) based in nearby St Albans, it’s high time we asked how the craft beer revolution is taking shape out here?

The answer is confusing – not least because ‘craft beer’ itself remains a highly confusing descriptor. Dropping it casually in my conversation with the team at Tring Brewery prompts an animated, ten minute discussion on where it came from and how useful it is as a term. I learn that it is American in origin, and refers to beer that is small, independent and traditional. I learn too that it’s misused – usually by industrial-scale breweries looking to muscle in – and therefore many are wary of using it. “From my perspective we could be called ‘craft’ because we are crafters of beer,” says director Andrew Jackson. “We are a small brewery producing beer by hand, with passionate regard for quality and ingredients. But we don’t use the word because there is so much confusion around it – and because we don’t think tacking an extra word on our beer is going to make a difference to sales.”

If this sounds self-assured, it’s with good reason. Relatively to most, Tring is a long-standing brewery. They’ve been here since 1992, long before the hipsters clambered on board the beer wagon and declared it ‘cool’. Together with Chiltern Brewery, they have a strong stalwart of local drinkers as well as beer connoisseurs who come from far and wide to tour the brewery and sample their latest brew – Piggot’s Pale Ale, in the case of Tring, named for a nearby patch of woodland. Whilst a lot of home counties breweries look to London to reinforce their status, Tring is less concerned with London’s seal of approval. "There is a proven market for our product in London and further afield,” says Andrew Jackson, “but our strength will always be our local customer base".

So they stick to ‘traditional’ – an equally abused term in the food industry but one which is, at least when it comes to beer, measurable. Traditional means sticking to four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops and yeast. In the case of real ale, for which the Brits are best known, it also means leaving beer in casks to undergo a secondary fermentation. The British beer crisis came during the early 20th century when pubs started moving away from real ale brewed on the premises to outsourcing kegged beer from large breweries. “Kegged means the beer is chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast, and then it is pasteurised to make it sterile,” says Neil Walker, CAMRA’s spokesman. “There is no secondary fermentation, so the beer has a lot less taste and aroma, and there is no natural carbonation so carbon dioxide has to be added to ‘fizz up’ the beer.”

The result are vastly inferior. “Often in industrial breweries sugar and even sulphates were added to add flavour,” explains Nigel Oseland, of Haresfoot Brewery in Berkhamsted. It’s here I venture one icy January morning to see real ale in real time, being made. I’m being shown round just as his fellow brewer is ‘racking’ – that is, “running the beer off into casks, which will be kept at 10 degrees for two or three weeks.” A faint, residual smell of warm malt and yeast lingers as the casks are filled, for which I am grateful: the brewery is freezing. Yet these are ideal conditions for a process which involves a live product, and a great deal of physically strenuous work.

“Part of the reason we’re called a microbrewery is because we’re hands-on. It’s people emptying sacks, measuring out ingredients by hand, weighing, checking and adjusting.”

Haresfoot Brewery was established only last year. It’s one of a flurry of microbreweries to have opened up in the area recently, and prides itself on being community-focused: everything from its photography to its tea towels are supplied by Berkhamsted’s beer lovers, and, like Tring, its beers are named for local stories and landmarks. “Haresfoot is an area within Berkhamsted. Lockkeepers, our first beer, is named after the brewery that was once here. We like the fact that if you’re from here, you get it,” says Oseland. ‘It appeals to the community – but equally, if you’re not from here it’s just an interesting name.”

‘Intensity’ – of both alcohol and taste – sums up the main differences between beer inside and outside the city. ABV is crucial: “The landlords we spoke to in Herts wanted no more than 4 per cent,” Oseland tells me. Their pubs are mostly rural and accessible by car only. Londoners have public transport to convey them if they leave tipsy. Variations in flavour, however, are rather complex.

“Most English hops are refined varieties – they produce balanced flavours, while American and New Zealand hops are more citrusy and aromatic,” explains Jackson of Tring. “Londoners are generally are more modern in their taste buds and like challenging flavours, but we want a beer people can spend the night on.” There are good reasons for this. Tring want to be the type of brewery that supports community events, has a loyal following and which “locals go to for their wedding”. We need to get that balance right between new, challenging flavours, and beer accessible,” he says. “That’s not to say we’re against doing something with the New World hops, but we have to remember our core market.” Tring are experimental, but within a style that is distinctly ‘Tring.’

Like Tring, Chiltern is highly creative, but within the constraints of the local tastebuds. Haresfoot, however, aspire to London as well as Berkhamsted. “It’s a big market, and it’s only 30 miles away,” Oseland explains. To this end they’ve brewed a beer that will unashamedly appeal to the hipsters: Totem, a highly hopped, ‘American style’ pale ale. Strongly aromatic to taste, it goes down a treat with young urbanites. Overall Haresfoot’s ‘core group’ – the 30 to 60 year old men frequenting local watering holes – prefer the all-English bitter, Lockkeepers. Yet Oseland has found that there is far more crossover than you might expect.

“Gone are the days when a pint of bitter would be classed as ‘old man’s beer’,” he explains, back in the brewery’s small bar area. Drinking demographics are changing, and the breweries are flowing with them. Beers that go down a treat in Shoreditch are faring well with women in Berkhamsted. “That said, many ladies opt for a half pint of the Conqueror, our strong, dark bitter. We had to appeal to the 30 to 60 year old core group to get up and running, which we did with Lockkeepers – but if you asked me what was most popular within our core group today, I wouldn’t be able to say.”

Generally speaking, all three breweries have found producing blonder, less bitter beer has broadened their appeal. “Without being ageist or sexist, younger people and women do seem to prefer the pale ales,” Sally Dorling of Chiltern Brewery says. English hops are great for bittering, but it’s American and New Zealand varieties that pack the flavour punches. “That’s a case of climate,” Jackson points out. “We simply cannot grow those types of hops”. Thus, while they remain largely patriotic with regards their ingredients, Chiltern and Tring are increasingly importing New World hops for their more ‘accessible’ breeds of beer.

The times they are a-changing – yet as Tring and Chiltern prove, we should be wary of being London-centric when it comes to craft beer. “This resurgence didn't start in London,” says Walker. “Regions have had microbreweries for years.” For their most recent growth spurt, Gill Gibson, landlady of award winning freehouse The Land of Liberty, Peace & Plenty in Chorleywood, cites several factors. “Opportunities within the brewery trade from tax breaks and business development, younger people with disposable income (and spend-rather-than-save attitude) who want fashionable new drinks and increased interest in provenance and quality of food” – hence breweries teaming up with local artisans. It’s mutually beneficial. Yet the significance of Gibson’s point about tax breaks is one no article on craft beer can overlook.

This is CAMRA’s doing. Founded, like the Chiltern Brewery, in response to a dearth of quality real ale, it has spent decades campaigning for brewer-friendly reforms. People might laugh at the organisation’s duffle-coated, birdwatching image, but there’s no way that Haresfoot, Meantime and the like would be doing so well had the CAMRA crew not cleared the way for them. “They introduced progressive beer duty in 2002, so us brewers producing under a certain volume pay less than the big guys,” says Ben of Tring. What’s more, as of this article going to press, CAMRA have won a market rent only option for ‘tied’ (that is tied to big brewing companies) landlords, so they can buy other beer on the open market. In short, CAMRA enable people on both side of the bar to buy and sell more craft beer.

Besides, their image too is changing. “There’s far more women and young people talking confidently about beer now,” Oseland points out. “You only need look at their judging panel.” Gill Gibson is a case in point. A CAMRA member for 12 years, she’s a taster and judge at CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain Competition at regional and national levels. She is also notably open-minded to the idea of international influences. “NZ, the US and other places help by supplying a wider range of hops, enabling the UK brewers to create more varied beers,” she says – a point with which Walker agrees.

“The amount of sharing that goes on is very positive,” he says. Like Gibson, he is happy just wallowing in the rise of good beer. “Bottle or cask, hip bar or country pub, if it’s good then you’ll find CAMRA members in there drinking it and supporting it.” I ask Gill if the term craft beer needs legislation to avoid confusion. “Aren’t there more pressing matters?” she says, somewhat irrefutably. “Microbreweries are in the ascendency. Let’s enjoy.”

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