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When to use the C-word in Britain: The meaning of “craft” in London

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Joe Stange explores the U.K.’s growing craft beer “problem.”

ALE, CIDER and MEAT are the words painted in big block letters on the brick exterior. A sign over the bar explains that this pub sells only those fluids from small British breweries. There is a fireplace, a piano, a cat and a turntable that mainly plays old jazz, blues and soul.

This is the Southampton Arms in London, and it’s my first stop on a quest. My guide is a pub-savvy local named Simon Croome.

“I’d have to say it’s like the old definition of pornography,” Simon tells me, once he has time to ponder the Great Question I lug around London’s pubs like a picture frame, holding it up against different backdrops, dropping it on people in the know.

“It’s very hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”

Or when you taste it?

“Yeah, when you taste it. That’s it.”

“It” refers to “craft beer,” and here is what I want to know: What does it mean in the U.K.? In North America we take it for granted, but in Britain the question is controversial thanks to some odd circumstances―namely, the past 40-odd years of British beer history, plus a recent splash of American influence.

Some background: In 1971 (when Anchor sold its first bottles of Steam Beer), four Brits vacationing in Ireland became fed up with the poor state of British beer and started a club. Two years later, their club had 5,000 members; it would eventually become the Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA, and its mission remains to lobby for cask beer (that is, unfiltered, unpasteurized beer served from the same vessel it developed in), and against forced carbonation and―say it with a shudder―keg beer.

These days, American craft beer steadily grows and influences brewers worldwide―including in the U.K., where self-described craft beer bars and breweries are multiplying. Meanwhile, CAMRA has 145,000 members and total volume of cask ale actually increased last year.

Simply put, these are two of the world’s most successful consumer movements. Perhaps it was inevitable that they would clash.

The message was clear in 2011, when CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine offered his own dismissive definition of craft beer: “It changes not a jot between the brewery and getting into the glass and is served using CO2 and/or nitrogen. It is keg beer. It may have hops in it, but it is keg.”

Oddly enough, few people I find in London see craft and cask as mutually exclusive. At a trendy pub in the Clerkenwell neighborhood, I put my question to the pub’s manager, Tom Cadden. He must be an authority, since the pub’s name is Craft Beer Co.

“For me, it can’t be made by a multinational,” Cadden says, as I gulp down a 4% golden ale called Moor Top from Buxton Brewery, drawn from one of 16 beer engines that line the bar like silver soldiers, even beside 21 keg taps and fridges full of bottles. Moor Top’s hop aroma tells the story of a brewer who cuts few corners. “It needs to be passion over margin,” Cadden says. “You need some sort of love to get into it, rather than just doing it for the sake of a job.”

So it doesn’t have anything to do with how the beer is dispensed?

“No.”

In 2007, two young Scots who had fallen for big American beers started a new brewery. James Watt and Martin Dickie wanted to make the stuff they couldn’t find in Britain. Their brewery, BrewDog, made about 900 barrels that year; by 2011, it was brewing more than 25 times that amount. Watt and Dickie reacted to a market that, then as now, was awash in commercial lager and whose common alternative was low-strength, easy-drinking ale.

Neil Taylor, who manages BrewDog’s growing chain of craft beer bars, describes their beers as “…massive, big flavorful beers, which really should be brewed for keg. We want to brew beer that we want to drink, and that works best on keg, so we keg.” At the BrewDog pub in Camden Town, a bare-bones joint packed with young locals, we’re sipping from snifters of Anarchist/Alchemist. At 14% ABV, it’s billed as a “triple IPA.” In typical BrewDog fashion, its sales pitch starts with, “Fuck the system.”

Craft, Taylor says, “has a focus. It’s not as focused as what real ale is, because that comes down to things like ‘amount of yeast left per milliliter,’ and things like that. And that isn’t about good beer. I happen to drink real ale, but I don’t defend real ale as a concept just because it’s real ale. … From my perspective, what it’s got to be is good. Or what it’s got to be is great. … So cask ale can be craft, if it’s done well and it’s done the right way.”

Later, I think back to that sign at the Southampton Arms: “only beers and ciders from small independent U.K. breweries.” Beneath it are 18 handpumps and two keg taps, the latter serving a Brett IPA from Brodie’s and Camden Town’s full-flavored lager. The pumpclips show an American Rye from Buxton, a Blackwater Mild from Crouch Vale, and a Fellowship Porter from Redemption, among others.

Maybe this Yank is a prude, but it looks like pornography to me. Tastes like it, too.  •

LONDON CRAFT BEER, AS TOLD BY PUBS: A small but growing number of London pubs are showcasing full-flavored kegged beers from small breweries, or else serving them alongside traditional cask ales. New spots seem to appear every month, but here, we scratch the surface.

Cask Pub and Kitchen: In this stripped-down tables-and-chairs barroom, variety is the thing. Ten diverse casks and 14 kegs plus about 400 bottles attract geeks and turn neighbors on to new things.

Craft Beer Co.: Sister to the Cask Pub (and now with three other locations), the pub’s original tiled mirror ceiling in Clerkenwell provides chat fodder while you ponder the 16 casks and 21 keg taps.

Euston Tap: A compact bar in a neoclassical Doric gatehouse, with 20 international craft kegs and eight casks poured from unusual copper faucets. The Cider Tap occupies the other gatehouse across the road.

BrewDog Camden: The first London location in a chain of bars run by the folks from the Scotland-based brewery, self-styled evangelists of the “craft beer revolution.”

King William IV: An East End hotel, pub, and the brewery tap for Brodie’s beers, made in the shed next door. The handles feature diverse regulars and experiments in keg and cask; like the pints, the rooms are cheap.

Southampton Arms: Dedicated to small British brewers and cider makers, with 10 ales and eight ciders on cask plus two keg taps, serious meat pies and a clipboard for guest beer requests.

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