Tiny Cracks Appearing

The Politics of Beer by | Oct 2011 | Issue #57

I rarely have qualms about new techniques for producing high-quality craft beers. I am not anti-technology. However, the global advance of the nanobrewery gives me a bad feeling, not least of all when its arrival is welcomed by some of the largest players in the game, whose own recent records on making interesting beers have been shameful.

In Bury St Edmunds, the English market town where I worked for 20 years and lived for several, the latest sign of craft beer colonization is Beautiful Beers, a store selling bottled ales imported directly from small Belgian producers and best-end Dutch ones, plus some top-rate local micros. I cut the ribbon at its opening last month, and used the occasion to bring myself up to date on how the town’s beer scene has progressed since I left.

I moved there in 1983, when the 39 of its roughly 45 pubs (if my memory serves me) were owned by a large, regional company that had been brewing near its cathedral since 1799. Nowadays, despite a growing population, there are around 36 pubs left, many of which are run by other companies. One spawned a brewhouse in its backyard a decade ago, and makes creditable “real ales,” while several more sell a wide range of brews from around the UK.

The regional brewer is now national, but in its hometown, confines its activities to an expensive program of corporate vandalism that converts the most distinctive and historic pubs into efficient, nondescript drinks dispensaries, or else sells them off for alternative use. The latest such “improvement” has given the town its third commercial brewery, tiny enough to fit into half of a small outhouse in the car park.

This news made me recall something I had been told earlier this year in Prague, while researching for the World Atlas. One of many grand plans to revive Czech brewing includes, it was said, creating over 1,000 pub-breweries to satisfy demand for more locally made beers. Apparently, even the large foreign companies who came to the rescue of famous Czech brands after the Russians left think this is a great idea.

I thought this sounded too whacko Czecho to be serious, until a few weeks later when I met up with one of beer writing’s unsung heroes, Welshman Steve Thomas. Thomas compiled the mammoth 2007 Good Beer Guide Germany, the first and only comprehensive English-language guidebook to German beers and breweries. He recently completed a 2011 supplement that, contrary to popular belief, shows the number of German breweries is rising. I mistook this for good news, until he explained.

The Germans have discovered the nanobrewery. These nanobreweries consist of a tiny kit, typically operating in a cellar, kitchen or shed, in which beer is made in tiny runs of as little as 50 liters a go, for commercial sale.

“So, what’s the harm?” I hear you cry. “Everyone has to start somewhere!”

Yes, well. The kit may be neat and easily installed, but the skills of quality beer-making are not. Far from creating interesting beers, the bulk of these bonsai-style brewing plants are used to make adequate imitations of popular, dull beers, on the cheap and often with profiles that say “unfinished.”

Innovation is excellent, but without talent, it can whistle past the senses, leaving no positive impression. Even worse, poor pastiches of barely good-enough beers start to make the immaculately produced dishwater brews of the larger producers seem like appetizing alternatives. And call me cynical, but I suspect macrobrewer support for these fine initiatives includes having worked that one out. They did not, after all, become top dogs by being nearsighted. 

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