Hipsters

Embracing tradition - or killing it?
A skull dimpled beer mug in Drink Shop Do near Kings Cross. A stylish, trendy appropriation of a traditional object. Does it offend you, yeah?

This is my belated piece for the #beerylongreads March 1 edition encouraged by @BoakandBailey.

The C word – craft, to be clear – is seen as one of the most divisive in the modern beer scene. The reasons for the arguments, and the arguments themselves, are complex and often tedious. It’s now easier to find things we disagree about, than issues we actually agree on. I’m convinced that much of this has to do with language, and the way that it, like a living thing, evolves without us noticing. Terms that were useful shorthand for a broad idea become labels, even terms of derision. When they do, it can become a source of alienation that prohibits understanding and acceptance.

In that sense, hipster is far more controversial than craftHipster has gone from being applied to a kind of trend-setting, trailblazing, early-adopting, fashion-creating subculture, to a far more mainstream, trend-following herd. It has become useful as a broad label for individuals and groups alike, people on the edge of cultural behaviour that, for better or worse, puts them amongst the craft beer scene.

For a long time, I’ve used the word affectionately, referring to hipsters in the same way I might say ‘Oh Morrissey, you silly Quorn sausage.’ I see people doing things that seem naive or gullible, fashion-following or amusingly trendy, and I think, somewhat patronisingly, oh, hipsters, shaking my head in fatherly amusement/disapproval. In the past year or so though, I have become increasingly aware and sensitive to the use of the word hipster in a decidedly non-affectionate way.

‘Fucking Hipsters driving up the price.’

‘It’s just for hipsters, more money than sense.’

‘Typical bloody hipsters, do whatever they’re told.’

I’m not going to give you a history of hipsters, but let’s all take it as read that they haven’t just appeared out of nowhere, and that trend-setters and early-adopters or whatever have probably existed since an early example of proto-human first added a dashing set of beads to his hairy brow. Yet, we talk about hipsters now like some kind of active, malevolent force. Tortoiseshell-rimmed-bespectacled Hell’s Angels roving through our cities, installing street food vans, vintage markets and Hopinators in their wake. A recent article about the ‘Shoreditchification’ of urban areas bordered on Daily-Mail-like scaremongering about a place near you suddenly getting gentrified (how ghastly). Who are these hipsters? What do they want? Have they come to destroy our way of life?

Nowadays, I rarely hear hipster used in any other way than derogatively. It’s a form of casual discrimination that is being increasingly used by people about those who are either just younger than them or dress differently to them. This use of the word hipster has potential to damage the British beer scene in the long term.

But they’re so phony, and annoying, and pack out places I like, and I liked that thing first, and they drive up the prices of things.

If hipsters pay more for something, at least they’re doing so because they believe (regardless of whether they understand) that the thing they are paying for is good. It’s the people making the product and selling the product who set the price. The taxman has a say, but so far the Treasury hasn’t introduced a tax on being a hipster (stop giving them ideas, Chris).

We all know what hipsters look like though, right? They’re youngish people, making a fuss about a format of something on the verge of obsolescence, claiming they appreciate it more than the mainstream, who don’t understand. They’re such total, obsessive wankers about it, they usually apply a special term, or want a special ‘definition’ for the thing they like, so that everybody will know what it is, and it can’t be mistaken for anything else. I’m of course talking about proper, authentic, dyed-in-the-wool craft wankers. The kind of wankers that, one day, decide that they should form a campaign to revitalise ale.

Classic craft wankers, right? So, by that reasoning, CAMRA was founded by hipsters, yeah?

“No, no, no, I like ‘real ale’. You probably haven’t heard of it, you probably like Watney’s.”

You might think that comparing the newer breed of craft wanker with the old breed of real ale wanker is a tired comparison. I say that it isn’t, because we clearly don’t realise just how relevant it is. As an example, take a look at the recent findings of Boak and Bailey on hipsters driving up prices:

No, no, no. We all know that hipsters were invented in Shoreditch in the noughties. Nobody ever did something just because they thought it was cool before then. No way.

We’ve lazily fallen into the trap of judging and basically discriminating against people whom we know little to nothing about. It’s unfair, misguided and ignorant. Hypocritically, old-fashioned real ale types and CAMRA members bandying about the term ‘hipster’ as an insult are likely to be the first to argue that CAMRA isn’t just an organisation full of beardy old blokes, and how dare people assume that?

But how will this damage the beer scene in the long-term? If we want the current boom in beer and brewing to continue, we’re going to need a whole lot of people being interested in beer, drinking it, and returning to the pub to drink it, all the time. Yet, whilst we want more people to understand and appreciate craft beer in all its forms,  we sneer and look down on these people buying it and pretending to like it. For heavens’ sake, at least they’re trying it. Isn’t that half the battle won?

You won’t see any of them bloody hipsters in my pub trying the real ales, though. They’re all in them bloody BrewDog bars, forking out a fiver a pint for that murky rubbish.

Have you ever wondered why that is? It’s because in a BrewDog bar, these people – perhaps taking their first steps in the sometimes strange and mystifying world of good beer – feel welcome, are welcomed, and invited to try things, talk about what they like, and find the beer that suits them. How dare BrewDog provide such an environment. What are they trying to achieve – get more people drinking good beer? Well, they are. Their rapidly growing business proves this, whether you like them or not.

BrewDog can take a selection this large, and make it accessible and understandable to anyone.
BrewDog can take a selection this large, and make it accessible and understandable to anyone.

Imagine these same people, feeling slightly more confident in their understanding, going to a pub that advertises a wide selection of real ales, and feeling looked down on by the clientele there. Imagine these people thinking, sometimes these good beer places are nice, but sometimes they really aren’t. Wandering into one suddenly seems like a risk – will I wander into a friendly one, or an unwelcoming one?

I appreciate and understand that this goes far beyond the use of the word hipster, but make no mistake: the use of words like this as terms of derision is a sure-fire way of alienating the people whose respect, passion and interest we should be embracing. We worry that trend-followers are going to come into ‘our place’ where we enjoy ‘our thing’ and somehow ruin it. Unless we engage, convert and embrace these people, we will find that we have ruined the scene we love so dearly, by failing to introduce enough people to it to help sustain it.

It’s our duty as drinkers of good beer not just to ‘tolerate’ these people that seem odd and strange and silly to us, but to welcome them. After all, they can’t be any weirder than the rest of us.

Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival 2013

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The Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival (GWBCF), Cardiff’s annual celebration of all things great in Welsh beer and cider, is a very different beast to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). For one thing, it is far more staunchly patriotic. Only a handful of casks came from breweries outside Wales, and even then they were from breweries not far away (like Thornbridge). There was a foreign beer bar, yes, but a much smaller and more focused affair than at GBBF. Another difference was that the foreign beer bar was being run by a local beer retailer, Cardiff’s Bottle Shop, giving it more of a ‘friendly local bar’ kind of atmosphere.

That same atmosphere extended to the festival as a whole. The beer and cider was served from a single, large, U shape of bars, with tables and chairs on either side of the U and stalls scattered elsewhere, which just about conjured the impression of ‘Wales’ Biggest Pub’. The Motorpoint Arena is by no means a picturesque location, but it fulfilled its purpose admirably. Only on Friday night did the place start to feel overpopulated, and even then it created a lively buzz and atmosphere that it failed to recapture the following day, as the best beers ran dry.

One major disappointment was the glassware.  Whilst I appreciate glassware ramps up costs considerably, there was only one available: a half-pint glass with a rather crudely-drawn and distinctly alligator-like dragon on it. Fair enough, you don’t want to be drinking pints all day, but when many of the beers you try are either middling or high-strength, you don’t want to gulp down a whole half-pint of them either. An extra notch for a third measurement, or a multiple-notched pint glass (like at GBBF), would make a big difference, allowing people to drink a wider variety of beers, spend more time and more money in the process. My only other major gripe was the festival’s programme, which was a combination of vague, useless tasting notes (hoppy this, malty that), sad, mournful adverts and jarring references to death, global warming and the Nanny State (seriously). None of us expect a masterpiece, but it was strange enough to distract from the quality of the event overall.

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And what of the beer, anyway? Both my host Craig Heap and myself had hoped to find some unknown, soon-to-be-megastar from the smaller breweries; another Tiny Rebel. The truth was, few breweries could hold a torch to Wales’ new darling brewery, and those that did were old faces. Solid, innovative, yet dependable Otley, alongside Brains and its Craft Brewery range, as well as Celt Experience and Brecon had the biggest presence, and also the best beers on tap. My main highlights were Brains’ Craft Stars and Stripes, a zingy, crisp and zesty wheat beer with US hops; the rare (on cask) Otley O6 Porter, a classy and masterful balance of coffee and chocolate; and Tiny Rebel’s one-off barrel-aged beers, including the outrageously good Kentucky Whiskey cask Urban IPA and the decadent Grand Regal Stout aged in Morgan’s Spiced barrels.

Whilst it was disappointing not to come across great beers from smaller or newer breweries, the brewers of the beers mentioned above are clearly the powerful and exciting face of modern Welsh beer. Tiny Rebel took all three medals in the Champion Beer of Wales competition (with Dirty Stop Out, Fubar and Urban IPA), and arguably with good reason. I personally feel there is a fair amount of cheekiness (or rebelliousness you might say) in entering three different IPAs and a stout in four different categories, but they won fair and square. If CAMRA’s categories allow an IPA to win in the Barley Wine category, then so be it. (see EDIT below: Tiny Rebel’s beers were chosen, not entered)

Rhymney, Purple Moose, Brains, Bullmastiff, Facer’s and Breconshire also took category prizes (Brains’ Rev James perhaps being a surprise winner), but this year was Tiny Rebel’s for the taking. What will be really interesting is next year’s GWBCF. Will the booming Welsh beer scene sustain another new generation of brewers, inspired by the likes of Tiny Rebel? Will Brains Craft Brewery still be going, and what will they have made in another year’s time? Will anyone try (or dare) to open a rival T-shirt shop or jerky stand? I’m looking forward to finding out next year. To your very good health, Wales.

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EDIT: James B (@Jamesbwxm) has helpfully clarified that brewers do not submit their own beers for judging for the Champion Beer of Wales. In fact, he can only recollect one time when this has been the case (for the inaugural Champion Beer of North Wales this year). Finalists are selected from festival winners and tasting panels over the year.

Down Escalator

HURRAY!

What was once thought nigh on impossible has finally come true. The beer duty escalator, established by Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling to increase the duty on beer two per cent above inflation every year, will be scrapped. This is largely thanks to tireless campaigning from across the beer industry, from bodies like CAMRA, brewers, MPs and trade bodies like the British Beer and Pub Association. The Government has finally recognised that the escalator was doing more harm than good, and it will shortly be taken out behind the Treasury and shot until it is dead.

Most would agree that a battle has been won, but not the war. Already, the success of the campaign to scrap the escalator has prompted calls for reductions to VAT for pubs, people are starting the see the merit of consumer, trade and political bodies working together to achieve common goals, but before we get ahead of ourselves, can we think of anything negative to say? Anybody? Perhaps each of us could have a little dig at someone before we all get too cheerful? I mean, this is an achievement, don’t get me wrong. After all, not only is the beer duty escalator finished, but there will also be a CUT in duty of 1p per pint. Fantastic.

But… erm… oh come on! We haven’t all come this far just to stop whinging, jabbing and moaning at each other. That craft keg vs cask ale argument has been fun, but we need something NEW to get embarrassingly, self-destructively furious about. Here we go. Here it comes…

WHO DESERVES THE CREDIT FOR SCRAPPING THE BEER DUTY ESCALATOR?

Aah. That’s better. I can feel the whining irritation rising, the impotent, pointless fury building. Look, you see, CAMRA deserve the credit because they got the petition to over the 100,000 signatures necessary to have the issue debated in Parliament.

YOU WHAT? But, but, Hobgoblin (Marston’s) started the petition in the first place, so THEY deserve the credit.

DON’T BE CRAZY! The British Beer and Pub Association have harangued and campaigned and lobbied against this since before the blasted escalator even came into being! THEY deserve all the credit.

ARE YOU OFF YOUR BLOODY NUT!? The Sun newspaper got the issue truly recognised at a national level and got everyone talking, not all these industry types. It woz the Sun wot won it!

Hang on, though. Some might argue that because of the efforts of all of these people it actually became a reality. Some might say that this is a true, solid, perfect example of how consumer organisations like CAMRA can remain relevant; how politicians will listen if you unite, fight together, and fight hard; how getting the media on our side is how to win; how there is hope for this beleaguered industry yet!

Cor blimey, can you imagine? What nearly happened there was – my word, I can barely comprehend it – what we nearly had there, was a variety of people across the industry almost realising that together, when they each do what they do best, they can tackle the Government and make it think differently and act differently.

Wow.

Thank goodness we’re all back to bitching, frothing and bickering like normal, eh?

For a few hours there, it almost felt like change in the air. Thank heavens we all put a stop to that.

The Craft Knight Rises

Craft Beer Rising at the Old Truman Brewery – a sign of things to come?

The modern British beer landscape is rich, exciting and diverse. Traditional CAMRA-organised events, with rows of tilted casks and hi-vis-jacketed stewards are no longer the norm. We now have a variety of species of beer festivals. There are those put on by individual pubs (like last year’s CAMRGB takeover at The Lamb on Holloway Road), where a special selection of beers are brought in for a weekend. There are painfully trendy, street food-oriented outdoor events, like this week’s #BrooklynFeast in Dalston (where else?), which are pre-hashtagged for your social media convenience. There are also events that try to do a little bit of everything.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Craft Beer Rising took the beer blogosphere by storm and established itself as the new must-visit event of the British beer calendar. It couldn’t have been more different to the London Drinker Beer and Cider Festival, or the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), CAMRA’s yearly beer bash. Fewer beers may have been on offer, but there was a wider variety. Cask, keg and bottled beers were present from breweries all over the UK and the world. The trend for street food was both acknowledged and catered for. Real ale, craft keg and much more were all included as part of the same experience, and the crowd was just as varied, in both age and gender.

I wrote about Craft Beer Rising recently in Rum & Reviews, and I must admit I got rather excited about how it represented what I thought beer festivals should be all about. Before I went to the London Drinker event, I thought to myself, ‘Ha! Let’s this how this measures up!’ thinking that it would seem pale in comparison to Craft Beer Rising.

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The CAMRA London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival. Proof that traditional beer festivals are still popular.

However, north London’s CAMRA beer festival is still going strong. The London Drinker event last week, in its regular home of the Camden Centre near Kings Cross, still had a big draw. Beer bloggers, beer tickers, old timers, young whippersnappers and brewers great and small made up a large portion of those attending. This was a CAMRA event though, and while women were more than welcome, many did not seem to feel welcome enough to actually attend.

The beer was served to much higher standard than I remembered, though the London bar seemed to have the lion’s share of the best beers. The main bar seemed to be 70% golden ale, and didn’t have nearly as many people drinking at it with ‘bloody hell that’s good’ faces. Unfortunately, the food offering was pretty basic, and shared space with the foreign beer bar. Some real treats were hidden away here though, particularly the mini-casks of Schlenkerla Marzen (liquid smoked bacon) and other German beers.

It wasn’t as much fun as Craft Beer Rising, but I can’t say that CBR was better either, as much as I would like to. These are two completely different events, and I expect #BrooklynFeast on Tuesday to be just as different again. I would be wrong to rank the UK’s beer festivals by how ‘good’ they are. Beer festivals are very subjective, individual experiences that appeal to tastes and personal preferences. The Celtic Beer Festival is completely different to GBBF, just as Wandsworth Beer Festival is to London Drinker, and just as the BrewDog AGM is to Craft Beer Rising. If CBR seems to be the better event, it might be because it adopts positive features from each of the above, and tries to do a bit of everything, and does it well. If this is a trend is on the rise (sorry), then I welcome it. We all get the beer festivals we deserve.

The fact is that each of these events is just as important. Each of them demonstrate the thrilling diversity of the British beer landscape, and we should recognise that each and every one is something to be proud of.

Craft By Design

The Beer House in Waterloo station.

A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’. So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’. So he kicks over the garbage can and says ‘That’s Punk?’, and I say ‘No that’s trendy! – Billie Joe Armstrong

A clumsy comparison, you’re already thinking, but bear with me. Whatever ‘craft’ beer is, it is generally agreed that whilst it’s hard to define, you know it when you see it. The same applies to modern ‘craft’ beer bars and pubs. They can be very traditional looking, like the Southampton Arms. They can be bare-brick-and-granite hipster magnets like BrewDog Camden. Whatever the decor or the theme might be, you know it when you see it. Admittedly, this is normally because there are 40 taps crammed onto the bar, but the point stands.

There’s an increasing number high-end beer venues in the UK, especially in London. They stand apart from well-established real ale havens that have ten or more ales on, even though they might share the same patrons. They are identifiably ‘a thing’ as popular vernacular would term it (‘Oh, is this a thing now?’ ‘Yes, definitely a thing’). So we have not only a boom in specialist beer, but also in specialist beer outlets.

As Boak and Bailey recently blogged, there are a number of signs when a boom is about to peak, and ultimately, decline. The most damning and certain sign is when the niche thing in question is adopted whole-heartedly, and replicated perfectly, by larger, wealthier, mainstream competitors. Have we already reached that point with craft beer? Definitely. It’s been happening in the USA for years, as the recent ‘Craft vs Crafty’ debate has proven. Even in the UK, bigger brewers are starting to place value in ale brands that only a few years ago were seen as dead weight. So what about the outlets – the places where we all drink and experience this wonderful beer?

Will mainstream pub companies attempt to replicate the success of BrewDog’s bars?

I recently found myself with half an hour to kill in Waterloo station, and happened across the promising-sounding Beer House, which also has branches in Charing Cross and Paddington. After descending a couple of flights of stairs, I found myself in a well-appointed, pubby sort of bar that was quite large but still definitely part of a train station. The wood panelling, leather-cushioned benches, chalkboard beer menus and random spray of manufactured ‘vintage’ art all said ‘modern pub’. The beer selection was spread across several chilled T-bar fonts and four different handpulls. The chilled fonts had a couple of token mainstream lagers, but most were beers like Erdinger Dunkelweisse, BrewDog 5am Saint, and Flying Dog Doggie Style. The food menu boasted deals on classic Americana; hot dogs, burgers etc. alongside pubbier fare. Prices were Train Station x London + Craft, but this was to be expected.

Given all of that, it still had all the necessary ingredients to make a pub that I would like. So what perturbed me about this place? It was the way they were put together: a case of the Uncanny Valley, where advanced robotics creates something disturbing because it is close-to-but-not-quite human, applied to a pub. Here was a venue owned and operated by SSP, Compass, or one of the other catering companies that run the franchises in train stations, but created to mimic our modern idea of a high-end beer venue. There was a palpable synthetic quality to everything, not helped by the fact it was in a generic, train station unit. The deliberate way in which ‘fun’ was injected into the chalkboard writing, the barmaid’s look of confusion when I asked for one of the heavily-advertised paddles of tasting thirds, the fact that the staff were clearly from one of those Pumpkin Cafes; these all created little glitches in the Matrix until I found myself questioning everything about it. It’s hard to explain myself without sounding like a weird pedant, but that’s what it was like. That sudden certainty that everything has been deliberately chosen to replicate something you like, that if you punch a hole in the wall you might see a lab of men in white coats ticking boxes of clipboards.

Is this the future? Should I have a problem with it? There wasn’t anything in particular about that place that I disliked, but I worry about the long-term consequences. We are used to paying higher prices for beer that costs more to make, by people that have higher overheads and smaller workforces. If more mainstream chains of craft beer bars spring up, will smaller chains of outlets get priced out of the game? Will brewers that cannot provide the quantities (that born-again bigger brewers  of ‘craft beer’ can) face decline and eventual closure? Am I making too much of this? I certainly hope so.