US craft beer: How it inspired British brewers
- 12 April 2013
- From the section Magazine
Once widely mocked, US beer is now popular globally with hipsters and connoisseurs alike. Why is the world buying in to the American brewing revolution?
Not so very long ago, American beer was a joke. And a weak one at that.
To international tastebuds, it meant bottled lagers like Budweiser, Miller or Coors - commonly regarded by self-respecting drinkers as bland, corporate and lacking in credibility.
An explosion in independently-run microbreweries producing lovingly-created, strong, pungent, flavour-rich ales has transformed the reputation of the product.
But it is not only traditional aficionados of ale who have been won over by this American revolution.
Somehow, beer from the United States has become not just widely respected, but achingly fashionable.
Visit a chrome-surfaced bar in London, Stockholm or Amsterdam and you're likely to find Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Odell's porter on tap.
All are craft beers - a catch-all term defined by the American Brewers Association as the product of "small, independent and traditional" producers.
"There's a hipster cachet to it," says Melissa Cole, ale expert and author of Let Me Tell You About Beer. "Craft beer is seen as sexy right now, there's no doubt about it."
According to the Brewers Association, exports of US craft beer rose by 72% in 2012, with Canada, the UK and Sweden making up the largest international markets.
Today the US boasts more than 2,000 breweries - up from barely 50 in 1980.
It's a remarkable turnaround for a nation whose beer was recently widely written off by consumers around the world as insufferably naff.
"Five or six years ago, if you were abroad and said you were an American brewer people would look the other way - they thought it was all yellow, fizzy water like Budweiser, Miller and Coors," says Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog, an award-winning microbrewery in Frederick, Maryland.
Known for their potent, hoppy flavours and high alcohol percentages, and often comprising unusual ingredients like chilli and chocolate, American craft beers have inspired a host of imitators, especially in the UK.
British firms like Darkstar, Meantime and Marble have all manufactured drinks influenced more by California and Colorado than Cornwall or Coventry.
These do not always qualify as "real ales" - a term popularised by British beer lovers when they launched the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) a generation ago in rebellion against the prevalence of mass-produced carbonated beers.
According to Camra, beer should be left to ferment "live" in casks.
Craft beer, by contrast, is often produced in kegs - a technique which makes traditionalists shudder.
It's a reaction that enthusiasts for the new wave of American-inspired beers are happy to provoke. Indeed, they are often keen to dissociate themselves from Camra's beard-and-cardigan image.
While Camra has held its annual Great British Beer Festival since 1975, February 2013 saw London's first Craft Beer Rising - an event complete with modish DJs and trendy pop-up restaurants stalls, dedicated to the upstart movement.
"It's a more exciting product," says Neil Taylor of the Scottish brewery-cum-pub-chain BrewDog. "It doesn't taste like anything else. People who are willing to push themselves are going to get more out of it.
"The establishment in the US is bottled lagers; here it's lagers and real ales."
While overall beer sales in the US fell by 1.3% in 2011, the craft brewing industry grew 13% by volume and 15% by sales in the same period, according to the Brewers' Association.
It could be argued that the country's beer landscape is reverting to how it was before it was swamped by fizzy canned or bottled lager.
Waves of immigration from Scandinavia, Germany, the UK and Ireland meant the US had a thriving, diverse beer industry by the early 20th Century.
The introduction of Prohibition in 1920 put 1,500 breweries out of business overnight, however, and the industry struggled to recover after the "noble experiment" ended in 1933. For the most part it was only large corporations which had the capital to re-invest in beer production.
Years before the US beers inspired a flowering of British brewers, beers in the UK had a decisive influence on the US craft revival of the 1970s.
Jack McAuliffe, often heralded as the father of American craft beer, was inspired to start the New Albion Brewing Company in San Francisco after he fell in love with ales and stouts while working in Scotland.
But while the British real ale movement of the same era harked back to a bygone age, American brewers of the same era were associated from its outset with the west coast counterculture, according to Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.
Until home brewing was legalised in the US in 1979, enthusiasts considered themselves vaguely subversive. The alternative press would publish articles describing how to produce bathtub hooch in the same tone as it might have discussed pot-smoking.
Like much else from the same era, that which was once rebellious was quickly assimilated in the pursuit of profit.
As a result, the first microbreweries emerged in places like California's Bay Area, Portland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado - all "bastions of hippy capitalism", Ogle says, which also attracted the equally iconoclastic technology industry.
Indeed, such was the crossover that Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak belonged to a group of hackers and hobbyists called the Homebrew Computer Club.
Unlike the big manufacturers of bottled lagers, however, the early craft beer makers were not interested in mass appeal or in consolidating costs and tended to trumpet their iconoclastic credentials in opposition to the mainstream big lager brewers.
Flying Dog advertises its status as the favoured drink of the celebrated radical journalist Hunter S Thompson, and a 2012 study found a positive correlation between the concentration of microbreweries in a state and its likelihood to vote for Barack Obama.
Perhaps as a result, in the same year Obama became the first president to release a home-brew recipe for "White House Honey Ale".
And just as hipsters in Williamsburg or Whitechapel can be identified by their vintage attire and avant-garde record collections, craft beer's blend of retro authenticity and bold experimentalism appeals to the same demographic, believes Cole.
"There's a sense of whimsy about it, and of rebellion, pushing boundaries," she adds.
Those whose hackles are raised by urban would-be trendsetters might dismiss it as a fad. But traditionalists claim to be unruffled.
"Some of these so-called craft brewers are doing great work," says Camra spokesman Tony Jerome. "I'm not here to criticise keg beer, but it's not something I'm here to promote either."
American beer may have yet to win over everyone. But the craft movement has proved it is no laughing matter.