Craft Beer Before Craft Beer Existed


The United States invented modern craft beer. But the model of plucky little brewery set on delivering tasty, handcrafted beer in the face of corporate consolidation is anything but new. A case-in-point is contained in this 29-year-old video, which seems remarkably contemporary.

In the coming days--schedules allowing--Patrick and I are going to do a podcast about the legacy of the writer Michael Jackson. In preparation, I was having a look at some clips from his old Channel 4 TV show, "The Beer Hunter." Made in 1989, the six-episode series is a remarkable time capsule, and anyone remotely interested in the culture and production of beer must make a point of sitting down and watching them.

But they're not just time capsules--they're reminders that no matter how much things seem to change, they don't, really. Beer history is nothing but a gigantic series of loops, each taking us right back to about the place we started. Sure, details shift. Styles are born and others die. But the fundamental weft of history inevitably loops and comes back around.

As a case in point, the following clip is remarkable in that it touches on so many issues that are perfectly contemporary. It's the middle section of Jackson's look at British cask ale, and in it he visits Batemens, a Victorian-era brewery in Lincolnshire.

As the clip opens, Jackson introduces Batemans, the owner George, and then trots off with head brewer Martin Cullimore (still there as of 2015!) through the remarkably funky old brewery. As they pass the mash tun, you can hear Cullimore remark, "It's about a hundred years old; it's made out of cast iron." Most of you won't have had a chance to visit a Victorian-era British brewery, but what you see as they walk through the brewery is bog-standard stuff. The parts are weird and unique, which is typical. Jackson's surprised by the shape of the kettle (or as the Brits call them, "coppers"), which they joke is either straight out of Jules Verne or Jacques Cousteau. They proceed to the hopback, which Cullimore uses for post-kettle hopping, just like every American craft brewer making IPA today. Next they head off to fermentation, which consists of a long row of square open fermenters--another entirely typical old practice most modern breweries would avoid out of fear of contamination.

Finally, of course, they end at the cask cellar, where Jackson describes real ale. The cellarman's preparing the casks to ship to pubs, and they even show him adding the finings. Let's pause for a moment to consider this element of British brewing, particularly in light of post-kettle hopping, Jules Verne coppers, and open fermentation. At the time Jackson was making this series, cask was in the midst of its collapse, having until just decades before he filmed this controlled 100% of the sizable draft market (which is still nearly 50% of the entire market there) before falling to something like 20% of it.

Why did it collapse so catastrophically? Because cask ale is the most heavily-crafted of all beers, excepting vat-aged wild ales. It's not easy to make on a mass scale. Modern beer starts in computer-monitored (or controlled) brewhouses fitted with steam jackets, goes to cylindro-conical fermentation vessels cooled by glycol systems, is filtered or centrifuged, injected with carbon dioxide, and packaged with no live yeast. Cask ale, by contrast, often starts in hinky brewhouses with no automation, proceeds to open, square fermenters, and is packaged in casks while still fermenting, and then sent to pubs where the fermentation finishes, the finings settle out, and the beer is ready to drink. And even then, the cellarperson must monitor it and make sure it's served before it quickly spoils. There is almost no beer on the planet more "handcrafted" than cask ale.

But it doesn't stop there. Batemans, it turns out, had just gone through a financial crisis. Part of the family wanted out; they put their shares on the market, and the brewery would have been snapped up by a large company save for unusual intervention. What did the brewery do? Crowdsourced their survival by pubgoers in a nearby town who chipped in money to keep it open. The punters didn't buy into the brewery; like modern-day Kickstarters, they just gave their money to save the brewery.

However idyllic it may seem, the running of an independent brewery is as fraught with risk as any commercial enterprise.
— Jackson, introducing the hazards of 1980s-era consolidation

The Great British Beer Festival was not far away, and later, when Jackson visits a local Batemans pub, he asks the publican which beer she thinks has the likelihood of earning a medal. "The mild is an excellent pint at the moment," she says, revealing the way in which Brits relate to their cask ales as living things, that have good moments and bad. (It did win third place in mild that year.) Not to put too fine a point on it, but if cask ale didn't exist and an American built a brewery like Batemans that served live beer on cask, they would get more attention than Tree House, Alchemist, and Jester King put together.

The tone of this episode has so much in common with what we hear now about craft breweries in the age of corporate takeovers. The question of independence is central. There's something essential and unique at risk, and consolidation threatens it. The menace is a faceless giant; at risk, the human-scale brewery and its living, breathing customers. There's a lot going on in the UK right now regarding beer, and by the perverse definitions of the day, "craft beer" does not include the likes of Batemans (which, 29 years later, is still going strong as an independent).

Filling casks at Fuller's

Yesterday news broke that Fuller's, an old cask brewery, had purchased Dark Star, a craft upstart, and Pete Brown reports that people complained about the "corporate behemoth" buying up true craft breweries. (Fuller's is family-owned and brews less beer than Deschutes.) A thousand years ago, local breweries in places like Flanders were complaining they couldn't compete with the big concerns from Bremen and Hamburg that were shipping out hopped ales that would outlast their own beers. Truly, these debates never end. This video may--may--serve as a slight corrective. It's next to impossible to define "craft" beer, but if it does not include breweries making beer on old Victorian brewhouses, it has no meaning at all.