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Can craft beer ever become mainstream?

Craft beer is becoming ever more popular. Richard Fletcher gives his thoughts on if it will ever become mainstream

Dale Martin Dan Brown and David Shipman sample some of the craft beers at Brew Dog Birmingham
Dan Brown and David Shipman sample some of the craft beers at Brew Dog Birmingham

And tell us – who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed?” Silence.

I’d been asked the question enough times over the years. You’d think I’d have come up with a standard answer by now, but no; here I was, yet again, racking my brains for a decent answer, preferably one that would produce a look of wonder on the expectant young faces in front of me.

But all I was producing was silence. One of those all-encompassing silences that gives your brain time to imagine what it’d be like if you couldn’t think of an answer – which immediately precludes you from thinking of an answer, in a panicked vicious circle of silence.

The class of primary school children to whom I’d been asked to give a talk about journalism began to look out of the window. The teacher’s question had me flummoxed. I ended up muttering something about interviewing a man who had once played in a football game against David Beckham. Now, I’m no Michael Parkinson, but I’m pretty sure I could have dug out a better interviewee than that. And I promptly did – on the drive back to the office.

Rather than inspiring them, I think I ended up putting most of the children off a career in journalism. So at least some good came out of it.

I suppose every profession gets asked these sorts of questions now and then. Another usual topic for journalists is “what’s the best story you’ve ever covered?”.

I’ve done it to other people. I suppose it fulfills a need for humans to get a quick handle on someone we don’t know, to rationalise and understand complex subjects that defy easy quantification or labelling.

This week, I read a story in the Morning Advertiser about craft beer going “mainstream”. It quoted the excellent beer writer Pete Brown, who told the Pub Retail Summit that craft beer is now mainstream.

I’d totally agree, but what do we mean by that, and why as humans do we need to compartmentalise the rise of quality beer by deciding if it mainstream or not?

Similarly, what do we even mean by craft beer? I’m not so daft as to wade into that argument; only to say that I’m not sure it means anything at all, simply acting as a handle on the unquantifiable. “Good beer”, whatever it is, seems a lot more popular now. How do we define that rise – and do we need to anyway?

I’ve heard questions about whether big breweries are able to brew craft beer, and it’s something else that Pete Brown touched on, saying he gets contacted by multinationals asking that very question.

Why do big breweries need to worry about such things? Surely the only things that matter are whether they can produce a good beer that people want to drink – and that will depend on whether it fits with their current market and they brew it “well” – whatever that means.

Put simply, good beer can just be about which beers we like rather than anything to do with craft credentials. I recently drank an Ikea dark beer with my plate of meatballs after a harrowing shopping experience. It had e-numbers in it but it was delicious. But for anyone who cares about the brewing industry, the provenance of the beer does matter and it’s not simply about taste.

Maybe craft is a label which we have attached in order to try to quickly tell us what is “good beer” and what isn’t; a shortcut to quantify something that can’t so easily be quantified, other than by knowing the brewery, how they brew, their aims and the ingredients they use.

Tellingly, Pete Brown was quoted at the end as saying that it was impossible to define craft beer, but that most of us know what it is and isn’t. That’s probably the best definition I’ve heard – largely because it says that it can’t be defined at all.

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