The craft beer revolution
As craft beer grows bigger with every year, it’s time to take notice of the UK drinks market’s most in-vogue trend
The sun is beating down on Northern Monk’s Old Flax Store. It’s the hottest day of the year and swarms of people are congregating in the craft brewery’s beer garden. The mood is high, making the lunchtime pints taste all the sweeter.
But while the temptation to join the swell of Leeds locals enjoying the rays is tantalising, Wholesale News is visiting one of the UK’s leading craft breweries to find out what’s going on inside. We’re here to find out what’s leading the trend for more drinkers to shun the bigger brands and pick up an indy brew instead.
Through an unassuming side entrance into the brewery’s yeasty haze, WN is greeted by Tom Plant, one of Northern Monk’s expert brewers. A beer enthusiast who quit his banking job three years ago to concoct tasty ales instead, Plant knows his way around a craft brewery.
Everything you’d expect from a large commercial brewery is present here. But what makes Northern Monk – and the rest of the nation’s artisan brewers – a craft offering is that it’s not all about volume of production and their beer is brewed more traditionally, making experimenting with hops, flavours and temperatures much easier.
“This kit is very efficient and easy to run when you know how, but at the same time it’s still very hands on and manual,” Plant explains.
“While the bigger breweries still have the ability to change the beer, it’s a bit more about flicking a switch or twisting a pipe, so it’s not as labour intensive. It’s nice for us to have the chance to play around with flavours.
“For example, the earlier you put the hops in [the brew], the more bitter it’s going to be. It’s like a cup of tea, the longer you leave the tea bag in, the more bitter it gets.”
NO FLASH IN THE PAN
Research by CGA Strategy shows that the craft beer sector of the UK’s beer industry grew by 23% in the 12 months to April 2017, but the revolution is no flash in the pan. Figures show craft beer has grown in popularity in the past five years and that more new breweries are opening.
For Northern Monk – which now ranks in the world’s top 100 craft breweries – the sector’s continuing growth can only be a good thing. And Regional Account Manager Matt Gardner says things could soon look ever rosier.
“Craft beer will never die,” he says. “Anyone who’s drinking now will carry on and we’ll only pick up numbers.
“Drinking craft beer is like opening Pandora’s box because you now know that beer can taste better than you thought it could, so people won’t stop drinking it.
“With it being a younger generation thing, we’re not dying off. The older you get, the harder it is to change what you’ve been drinking all your life, but it’s easier for a 20-year-old to say they’d rather drink IPA than big beer lager because they’ve only been drinking for two years.”
Craft beer’s boom effect can be seen in recent moves by the larger companies, as they start to snap up smaller breweries – such as Fuller’s takeover of Dark Star Brewing in February – in an attempt to get a foothold in the market. So even if wholesalers have ignored the hype so far, it shows that they can’t afford to do it for much longer.
“Long term, I can’t see why anyone would carry on drinking big beer,” continues Gardner. “If you look at the big beer companies buying out breweries left, right and centre, they’re not doing that because they think craft beer is going away.
“People are palate conscious now. If you’re paying for a beer, you want it to taste good. Food and drink is like a treat for us, so people don’t just want a drinkable pint, it’s about enjoyment.
“Big beer is made to a price to an extent. Their mark-up is so high even though the price of a keg is similar to ours because they buy ingredients in bulk, but that doesn’t get you the best possible flavour – it’s about making the most consistent, lagery style. We don’t make our beers to cost – it’s about flavour first.”
As if on cue, Plant hauls in a container of ingredients to flavour his next brew. Watching him measure out proportions to ensure the batch is just right is akin to the pinpoint precision scientists require for chemical reactions. In reality, the result is not all that different.
Individuality is key for flavour. So much so that Northern Monk sends reps out to wholesalers and bars that stock their beer to ensure they’re up to speed with the distinct flavours in their mix. That’s crucial for craft because without it, the product becomes just another beer and their innovative methods – including the use of an old malt crane originally used in the 1800s – are lost to the masses.
Plant, though, says drinkers are already demanding that detail and believes a brighter future for craft beer might see brew sommeliers become the norm.
“I think craft beer will start going into Michelin Star restaurants,” he says. “Food is more exciting with beer and with so many different styles, it’s incredible.
“It’s great to see that people care about what they’re drinking. There was a time when people would just buy the cheapest, strongest lager, but now people are thinking more about quality than price. People are more likely to spend money on one good beer, than four cheaper ones.”
With the hub of people growing in Northern Monk’s beer garden and upstairs in its taproom, it’s hard to disagree.