The craft beer craze: enough already!

craft beer

Craft beer is all the rage, and British brewers are making undrinkable versions of American versions of British beers. Henry says it’s time to go back to basics…

I have a friend who has been a real ale bore since his teens. During student pub crawls in Oxford he used to quiz unwary landlords on cellar temperatures and other arcane CAMRA matters. When he first visited New York some time in the 00s he was surprised by the craft beer scene. Surprised but not impressed. His comments were along the lines of: ‘typical Americans, they drink nothing but watery lager for years and then we they finally start drinking proper beer they take it too far with the hops, alcohol etc.’ My thought at the time was, when it comes to beer, too much is better than too little. Rather a Big Grizzly Bear IPA than Coors Light. Now that craft beer has hit these shores, we have the strange situation where British brewers are making versions of American versions of British beers.

The other night I reflected on my friend’s words whilst at the Cask in Pimlico. Actually it was almost impossible to reflect on anything so loud was it in this place. The next day my ears felt like they’d been at the Orbit in Leeds and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Never mind the Campaign for Real Ale, what British pubs really need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishings. I was looking forward to a nice chat with falafel magnate Patrick Matthews but I couldn’t hear much of what he said. The other problem was that most of the beers we tried were undrinkable (and the chicken and leek pie was horrid too.) They were nice at first but then my taste buds would be hit with a wave of hops and alcohol and I didn’t want another sip. We were drinking halves and it was very difficult to finish them. The nadir was a coffee stout that tasted like Guinness Foreign Extra laced with Tia Maria.

Patrick commented that the craft beer scene reminded him a little of wine 10-15 years ago. The emphasis then was on more: more extract, more ripeness, more oak, more alcohol. More, more, more! How do you like it? How do you like it? The model was big glossy Californian Cabernets. Wine has moved on. Everyone now talks about balance, acidity and drinkability. The model is Burgundy or even Beaujolais. Fashionable wines are ones that you could easily drink a bottle of by yourself. Or at least I could. Many new brewers, in contrast, are stuck in a 90s time warp. Rather than looking over their shoulders at the US, they should try some old favourites. The classic English beers such Landlord, Black Sheep and Young’s Special, are amazing and unique things. The disparate elements, alcohol, bitterness, fruit, maltiness are all in harmony with nothing shouting too loud. They’re complex enough to make you keep coming back but not so intense that you don’t want to take a really big swig. You can mull over them but they’re really for drinking in large quantities.

We shouldn’t be too hard on these ambitious new brewers though. To create something perfectly balanced is much harder than creating something immediately impressive. Making a good beer takes expertise and years of experience. I think in future all trendy beer pubs should have one classic British beer on tap just to show the young pretenders how it should be done. I bet it’ll be the first to run out.

Henry Jeffreys writes a weekly column about wine for The Lady magazine and blogs at
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About Author Profile: Henry Jeffreys

Henry Jeffreys was born in Harrow, Middlesex. He worked in the wine trade for two years and then moved into publishing with stints at Hodder & Stoughton, Bloomsbury and Granta. Under the name Henry Castiglione, he reviewed books for the Telegraph Under the name Blake Pudding he was a founder member of the London Review of Breakfasts website as well as a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury, 2013). Since 2010 he has been writing mainly about drink under his own name. He is wine columnist for the Lady magazine, contributes to the Guardian and was shortlisted for the Fortnum & Mason drink writer of the year 2013 for his work in the Spectator. He is writing a history of Britain told through alcoholic drinks called Empire of Booze. He blogs at Henry’s World of Booze.

9 thoughts on “The craft beer craze: enough already!

    July 31, 2013 at 09:04

    Ladies and gentlemen, I offer for your delectation that lion among beers…………McEwans Special.



    Wot’s special about it

    “It was the nectar of the gods, only available in certain pubs, such as The Golden Lion”

    Was? wadayamean, was and where’s the Golden Lion?

    “Big breweries swallowed little breweries and bigger still breweries gobbled up big breweries then massive breweries took over the world, then the Aussies arrived bearing dingo’s piddle, we became victims, eventually so did they”

    “As for the Golden Lion, don’t you know nuffink?”

    How on earth did you get by?”

    “We tried that watered-down grape juice for a while until we realised that we were beginning to act like southerners, then had one on them, you know, epiphanies and converted to Löwenbräu Oktoberfest”

    But that’s German”


    July 31, 2013 at 11:50

    Back in 1975 or so I happened to be on a long Greyhound bus ride (Denver to probably KC) seated next to an Englishman my age, who told me about CAMRA. At that point, the American beer world was one of very light lagers, hardly distinguishable: Coors was a bit drier than Budweiser, Old Milwaukee was reliably poor, Schlitz had bad quality control, Hamms and Pabst were generally OK. Off in Wisconsin, Augsburger and Point did make decent lagers, but if you weren’t in the Upper Midwest good luck finding them. The Ballantine ales (IPA and XXX) were decent–one could see why Jasper Johns made his bronze sculpture of two Ballantine cans.

    Really, the beer world of the 1970s remains the beer world of the 20-teens for much of America. My wife and I sat outside a burger joint in the Harrisburg suburbs, a few years ago, one that shared its parking lot with a package store. In the time it took to get our hamburgers and eat them, a dozen or twenty persons had come and gone from the store. We could see what they carried, and by my count exactly two had cartons of anything but “lite” beer. And the two exceptions had classic, which is to say light, industrial lagers.

    Against such a background, it is not surprising that we would overreact. I suppose that one of these days we may return to balance.

      July 31, 2013 at 12:53

      the world of american beer is a mystery to me with all its ‘lites’ and whether they are low calorie or low alcohol or both. Either way it sounds traumatic

        August 1, 2013 at 12:15

        They were invented and marketed has having fewer calories. In fact, if you were in the US about 30 years ago you had a good chance of hearing somebody warble about Amstel Light, that “99 calories never tasted so imported.” Never having tasted a calorie or watt or joule, whether domestic or imported, I found the commercial annoying.

        Lower-alcohol beers had existed before: the “near-beer” of Prohibition days, the 3.2 (3.2% alcohol) beer that may yet be sold. For some years 3.2 beer was the only alcoholic beverage that might be purchased in Colorado by persons who had reached 18 but not 21 years. Ed McLanahan writes of it being sold in southern Ohio, but that didn’t sound age dependent, but rather having to do with some other licensing rule.

        I don’t know whether “gassy and bland” counst as traumatic, but I avoid the “lite” beers.

          August 1, 2013 at 12:47

          this could be a key difference between the UK and the US – in Britain (as far as I am aware) a man would only order a low alcohol beer under the duress of having to drive somewhere afterwards, thinking about their waistline would be a secondary concern

            August 1, 2013 at 14:49

            I did once at the dinner before the Old Dominion 100 Mile Race see a lot of gaunt sorts drinking light beer, which amazed me. (I was not a runner, but a “handler”.) But I don’t think that the weakness for light beer necessary comes from concern for weight, unless among young women. Plenty of rather hefty people were coming out of that package store with light beers, and the two who carried out regular lagers were among the fitter.

    Joey Joe Joe Jr.
    July 31, 2013 at 19:20

    The last time I was in the US (Illinois) I was rather taken aback to see Newcastle Brown for sale – not by the bottle but on draught.

  4. Brit
    July 31, 2013 at 21:55

    The Americans do beer very well these days, but I agree that the trouble with this craft beer explosion is that it’s an endless stream of novelties – things you try once for the weirdness factor, but would never have two pints of.

  5. Gaw
    August 5, 2013 at 21:33

    One problem I’ve found with those pubs that have bulletin boards listing their ever-changing selection of beers is that it makes it impossible to have a ‘pint of the usual’. This is surely one of life’s great comforts.

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