Wednesday, September 17, 2014

No Small Beer

by Martin Rea  © 2014

Beer seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance as of late.  For so long the unsung tipple of the plain man, the malt based beverage  is now lauded in the food and drink sections of glossy weekend supplements  in the fulsome language once the preserve of wine reviews.  One reads, among other things, of citrus aromas, robust bodies, caramel undertones and satisfying maltiness when a beer's sensory impact is appraised, and reviewers go to great pains and self-sacrifice to successfully pair a beer with food, decreeing it safe for us all to enjoy.  It's all a far cry from a pint of plain being your only man.

The talk these days is of craft beers and micro breweries; maverick artisans going against the grain (sorry) and putting their very souls into creating sublime brews.  It is a romantic notion, for sure; one where David, the plucky micro-brewer, is cast fighting the good fight against the unfeeling Goliaths of bland, mass-produced global brands.  Having a glass of beer has now become a political statement, an act of defiance, for the discerning urbanite of a certain socio-economic demographic.

A little historic perspective will show, of course, that none of this is new.  At the start of the nineteenth century there were over two hundred breweries in Ireland producing ales and stouts.  The smaller ones were bought out by the bigger ones and subsequently shut down.  Mergers, inflation and World Wars altered beer consumption patterns until some twelve major breweries remained in Ireland by 2000.  Then, taking their lead from the flourishing American beer scene, the micro-breweries began opening, offering new styles and tastes, and now there are some fifty operating in the country.

And is this craft beer any good, you might ask?  Well, generally it is; some of it, in fact, is very good.  Craft beer is characterized by small scale production and the freshness of the finished product is palpable. The intensity of the brews, owing to the unstinting  use of all-natural ingredients often leaves the more established brands in the shade, looking insipid and miserly, so much so that they now are launching their own ranges of craft beers.  (Surely an oxymoron, I think to  myself.)

It's something of a paradox then, that while craft beers have caused such a stir in certain more edified circles, and can justifiably call themselves superior, premium products, they have still made such little impact on the mass market in terms of sales.  Latest figures show that sales of craft beers are up 180% since 2011, but that still only accounts for 2% of the overall beer market.  Some would say it is early days yet and the trend can only go upwards, but some who invested in brewing kettles and fermenting vessels must also be feeling a little nervous by now.

For it seems the core of beer drinkers is an inveterate bunch and unflinchingly loyal to their own chosen brand, the same brand they've been drinking all their lives, possibly, even, the same brand their fathers drank too.  I was in a fine pub in a seaside town recently where I ordered a pint of craft beer.  It was presented in a glass tankard, ruby red with a fine creamy head-a beautiful looking, tasty thing it was.  Between satisfying gulps, I asked the affable barman what he thought of that particular drink, but he had no answer for me; he hadn't tried it yet although they had stocked it for over two years!

My advice to you would be to try a craft beer. If you feel a little nervous about doing this in public you can always buy a bottle or two in an off-licence and take it home discreetly in a brown paper bag. Maybe you won't like it, maybe you will, but at least in buying that one drink you'll be giving yourself the chance of experiencing something new, and you'll be acknowledging  the efforts made by some to bring more choice to your local's shelves.  It's not a new religion nor will it change your life; simply put, some of it just tastes very, very good.

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