What is craft beer - first-timer's guide
Posted on June 25 2020
At first glance, the world of craft beer can be tricky for newcomers to navigate. Artisan brewing is a heady mix of innovative brewing techniques, premium ingredients, creativity and passion that rips up the flavour and style rule book with inventive glee.
Many people view craft beer as the younger, hip cousin of real ale. While both reject the blandness of mass-produced beers, real ale focuses solely on traditional brewing methods, with most served from a cask via a hand pump in the pub. In contrast, craft beer embraces experimentation and innovation in search of new tastes and styles. The result is modern craft brews with distinct personalities that upend the status quo.
This is not your father's beer.
So what is craft beer, exactly?
For the casual observer, craft beer is a smorgasbord of jargon. From hipster hops and bottled conditioned brews to unfiltered IPAs and Brett yeasts, it's understandable why newcomers might feel adrift at the sheer craft of brewing.
For those in the know, understanding what is craft beer is more straightforward.
It's a reaction against boring, identikit me-too beer stacked high on supermarket shelves. It rejects bland tastes and dull flavours. Instead, craft beer is pure brewing modernised, where experiments in flavours by small, independent brewers walk hand-in-hand with love, care and attention on small batches of beer that redefine the brewing landscape.
"Craft beer to me is distinguished from other beers by being brewing led," explains Mark Gloyens, brewing director at Rebellion. "If it is described as a craft beer I would expect it to be true to style, packed full of distinguishing flavours, even slightly over the top! The cost of the materials should not determine how much is used in making the beer; if it needs a lot of expensive hops that’s what it gets!" Rooster's Brewing Co's commercial manager Tom Fozard agrees: "What is craft beer is a tricky question and one that’s difficult not to give a subjective answer to, but I think it’s the overall creative approach and the focus on flavour, the quality of the ingredients and the passion of the people behind the beer that separates craft beer from the mainstream."
What is clear is the dedication and passion that is at the heart of the process, says Brew Republic's Jared Simonson. "Craft beer isn’t a style, it’s about the people making it and their dedication to that craft. Premium ingredients, full flavour, cutting-edge brewing practices and no shortcuts. That philosophy doesn’t work for big, industrial breweries and that’s why Brew Republic only stocks beer from independent brewers."
Where did craft beer originate?
While the UK and Europe have witnessed small, independent breweries flourish over the past decade, you can trace the roots of the craft beer movement back to 1970s America. It was a decade of radical change. Against a backdrop of women's rights, gay rights and environmental movements, the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, small breweries on the West Coast were fermenting a rebellion of their own against staid, traditional beer from Europe. The 70s saw the birth of the microbrewery in the US, rethinking European beer recipes with innovative flavours and techniques to create bold, punchy brews. The era pushed in a renaissance in brewing innovation and experimentation, which quickly spread back across the Atlantic to Europe.
What makes a craft beer a craft beer?
While things in the US are far more straightforward – a craft brewer is generally a brewery that produces fewer than six million barrels of beer per year – there's no such simplification in Blighty. It might be less pigeonholed, but there are some craft beer traits that set it apart from run-of-the-mill mass-produced beers, which include:
- Small breweries – craft breweries in the UK generally produce fewer than 5m litres of beer – equivalent to 30,000 barrels – and don't have access to the same scale of production and distribution of large brewers.
- Independence – craft brewers are fiercely independent. Often started by a few mates with a passion for brewing, small craft breweries are usually at least 75% independently owned.
- Authenticity – craft brewing uses traditional, time-honoured brewing methods. It avoids some of the murky practices of modern, mass-produced beer, including using additives such as corn or rice. There are no shortcuts here.
- Innovation – With an emphasis on taste and new spins on old recipes, flavour notes are extensive ranging from BBNo's Cucumber & Juniper Saison to Anspach & Hobday's Sea Salt and Chili Stout.
- Community – Craft breweries tend to spring up in all sorts of places but have their roots firmly planted in the local community, and everyone is usually welcome to pop in for an impromptu tour and natter.
- Provenance – Craft beer is about transparency. A refreshing change from mass-produced beer assembly lines in automated factories, craft brewers are open about techniques and take delight in detailing the hops added to imbue flavour and the taste notes you can expect.
- Creativity – The craft doesn't stop with what's inside the can or bottle. Artistic, edgy, arresting designs transform tins of beer into cylindrical art forms, adding genuine character and energy to each brew.
Jack Hobday of Anspach & Hobday sums up craft beer as the complete journey, rather than just the end product, and one where the brew is more attention-grabbing than simple thirst-quencher.
"For me, the craft in craft beer is a bit oblique, we all love the sound of it though!" says Jack. "Any brewery of any size can produce really well-crafted beer; it's just often the smaller breweries are the ones who put the emphasis on their craft that do. The whole journey of beer from grain to glass is one that needs to be looked after and nurtured with lots of care and attention.
"Part of the joy of that journey is to embrace the nuance and craft of each beer style and when you do that right, it yields great results, whether that is the perfect balance of an ordinary bitter or the hop bomb of a west coast DIPA, it's all down to how well the process is honed by the brewer to create the best beer and present it in the best fashion.
"I guess unlike mass-produced beer, craft beer is all about the experience and enjoying the beer for itself and not as a silent aside to what else you are doing, such as chatting to mates in the pub," says Jack.
Bruin Maufe of Malt Coast Brewery sums it up as: "I do feel that the lines are blurred with no set definition. But, I think of craft beer as an independent, relatively small batch, with a focus on quality ingredient-led beers with distinct identities."
What about hops in craft beer?
Dry hopping, double hopping and hop-forward – craft beer can seem a mite obsessed with the joy of hops. Added to beer during the brewing process, craft breweries add a lot of hops to their beer. Hops do wonders for the brewing process, stabilising and adding flavour. While a variety of hops can be used in a single brew, the trend is for single hop beer, each hop responsible for different flavours. And there is a huge variation – from New Zealand Nelson Sauvin to British East Kent Holdings.
Craft beer flavours and types
Craft beer isn't limited to a narrow range of one type of beer. Craft brewers happily bring a range of styles into the fold including:
- Kettle Sours – trendy, tart beers made with lactobacillus.
- IPA – short for India Pale Ale, these are hop-forward beers, typically with citurs or tropical aromas.
- Stouts and porters – deep brews in a huge range of variations, from milk and imperial stouts to chocolate and dry.
- Hybrids – rules are meant to be broken, meaning craft beer can result in adventurous combinations such as black IPAs.
- Pale Ale – actually a range of colours, from ambers to coppery golds. A balanced beer between malt and hops.
Extraordinary taste is also a signature of craft beer. Free-thinking experimentation results in a vast range of notes to suit different tastes, while limited runs and collaborations can result in fleeting but memorable flavours.
Where to start exploring craft beer?
Understanding what craft beer is and its unique, genre-defining place in brewing history is one thing. Tasting it is another thing altogether. So, where should you start your own craft beer discovery?
Anspach & Hobday's Jack reckons a holistic approach will pay dividends. "Cover your basics in terms of getting to know the main styles and look for classics from Britain, Belgium, Germany and America. Also, accept that you are going to go on a journey that will have fads throughout it," he says.
"I'd say the craft beer journey typically starts with the Pales and IPAs and then as the world of beer opens up your craft beer drinker will rotate through the styles until eventually, they may come back to lager but hopefully a much better made one than they may have started with. That is what our recently released - The Lager is all about for us!"
Need more pointers? "I would look for classic interpretations of some major styles: IPA – Brewdog Punk IPA; Session IPA – Oakham Citra; Belgian Blonde – Orval; Lager – Augustiner Helles; Belgian Quad – Rochefort 10; Best Bitter – Timothy Taylor's Landlord; Porter – Anspach & Hobday's The Porter, of course!"
Bruin agrees and recommends getting to understand the brewer as well. "Try and read a little about the brewery, not just the beer itself. That can give an insight into production methods, ethos and identity," he says. "An obvious starting point is IPA. There's such an incredible variety and subset of styles that it provides a great snapshot of the wider craft beer movement."
Alice Howell of Wiper and True adds some words of wisdom: "For a first-timer, the craft beer world can seem a bit daunting. There is so much choice and variety, it's tricky to know where to begin. To narrow things down, start by looking at breweries that are local to you. Trying something brewed locally is a great way to dip your toe. You'll be able to speak to the people who brewed the beer and then try it for yourself.
"Another great option is to visit a local bottle shop (or their online store at the moment!) and pick yourself a nice selection of styles so you can try a variety of beers and start to work out what you like. The people who run bottle shops are an absolute font of knowledge, so they'll be able to make recommendations based on the flavours you like," Alice adds.
What is craft beer? Find out with Brew Republic!
Brew Republic's Jared has some ideas if you're starting out and want to discover what craft beer is for yourself: "If you’re wary of IPAs, try a more modern New England style or hazy IPA. These put all the hops towards the end of the brewing process, so you just get flavour and aroma with very, very little bitterness and a soft texture such as our Brew Republic Mosaic Session.
"If hops aren’t your thing, try Belgian style beers. These are generally yeast driven and offer a lot of complexity and nuance. Many wine drinkers have been converted with a nice Saison – you’ll find styles like this in our bottleshop, like the modern, British, gin-inspired Brew By Numbers Cucumber & Juniper Saison.
"And lastly, stouts. The king of misconceptions, prejudice and old wives tales! Guinness is most people’s only experience, and many are surprised to find that it has fewer calories than comparable pale beers and the only thing 'thick' about it is the head because of the nitrogen gas it uses. Remove that and drink the liquid – you’ll be surprised how thin the beer is. There are dozens of different style stouts though which are sweeter and less roasty-bitter though. If you can’t decide between dessert and a digestif why not try Saltaire Triple Chocoholic and tick both boxes. It’s like Cadbury drinking chocolate but colder and carbonated."