Tuesday 30 May 2017

Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses: The Wacky Craft Brewery

You can imagine the similar conversations happening in the board rooms of regional breweries up and down the country.

"We ought to start up a craft brand." says blazered chap number one. "Tap into the youth market."

"I think you might be onto something." says blazered chap number two. "I'll get one of the junior brewers to start cooking up something with blueberries and bacon or what have you - I hear these young crafty types love that sort of thing."

"Good feller. I'll get the marketing lads on to sketching up a few cartoon skulls."

...because if there are two things that even blazered chaps know about British craft breweries, it's that they love their wacky cartoon skulls, and that they can't brew a straightforward stout without barrel aging it on a couple of hundredweight of jammy dodgers or something.

Except, of course, that they don't and they can.

Cartoon skulls are mostly a generalization from Beavertown, I think, although they also feature heavily in Weird Beard's branding. Tiny Rebel have a beaten up cartoon teddy for a mascot, and Magic Rock have their cast of circus characters. Partizan tend to the cartoonish, maybe, although even they feel like a stretch. But try to go further than that and you quickly realize that they're the exception rather than the rule. Look at the Kernel, Brew By Numbers, Fourpure, Marble, Thornbridge, Buxton, Cloudwater, Northern Monk, Lost and Grounded, Siren, Moor, Wild Beer, Five Points, Vocation, Brewdog... they've all got strong graphic identities, but cartoon skulls and other similarly "wacky" imagery is thin on the ground.

It's rather easier to see where the "maple bacon IPA" thing comes from. It's undeniable that new-wave British craft breweries don't trouble themselves too much with prescriptivist ideas about what "doesn't belong" in beer, and it's often the weirder stuff that grabs attention at beer festivals and gets Twitter and Instagram buzzing. But again, once you actually start looking, you find that virtually every British craft brewery builds its range around pale ales, amber ales, stouts, porters and lagers.

Like most myths, then, these two are less about what's actually true and more about giving us a simple, satisfying view of the world. They tell us that craft brewers are the polar opposite of their more traditional cousins; they're wacky and irreverent, they love novelty and experimentation but they perhaps lack a bit of respect for tradition and have a weakness for novelty and brashness over nuance and subtlety. But fortunately - as with most myths - the reality turns out to be a bit more complicated and interesting than that.

(This post builds on an idea from Boak and Bailey. Technically I guess it's a bit of a stretch for the concept - I doubt that anyone really considers cartoon skulls to be a nemesis as such - but it's an interestingly persistent myth nonetheless. Also, this post isn't meant to be a riposte to Barm's ECBF writeup or anything - that link was a serendipitous late addition to something that was basically already finished.)