What's the deal with craft beer?

Image credit: Total Ales

Image credit: Total Ales

Craft beer, like a lot of things, is easily dismissed as a fad or a little bit hip. It's everywhere today, from your nearest Whetherspoons to bars devoted to the stuff across the land.

Besides a bit of a taste for it, I for one don't really have a clue about craft beer, but I feel it's rise in popularity may mark a significant change in the way people drink beer. 

To help you (and me) learn a little more about all things craft, I fired a few questions to Matthew Curtis, beer writer and author of craft beer blog Total Ales. His blog is a great read even if, like me, you don't really have a clue about craft beer (yet!), so be sure to check that out. Anyway, here's my dumb questions and Matt's great answers about the whys, whats and hows of craft beer...

First of all, what makes a beer a craft beer?

For me, a craft beer is beer that is brewed by highly skilled individuals with the finest quality ingredients available to them. Craft beer is brewed with flavour taking priority over profit. I also think that craft beer can be produced by any size of brewery, not just nano or microbreweries. It's about the quality of the product, not the size of the producer.

Why is it different to say, Stella or Carlsberg?

These beers and many other mass produced industrial beers, not just lagers are brewed with margin in mind, not flavour. They often pad out the recipe with adjuncts such as, in the case of Stella, maize (adjuncts aren't always a bad thing). They're also produced quickly to increase turnover - great beer needs weeks to condition to reach its peak but mass produced beer is only usually given days.

How did you get into craft beer?

I was into real ale from my early twenties but was curious for a few years before that. I discovered the American beer scene on a trip to Colorado in 2010 and that sent my interest into overdrive - for me there is no other country with a beer scene as exciting as the one in the United States at the moment. I started writing my blog, Total Ales, in 2012 and from this I've developed my writing skills and this has wound up with me getting a few bits and pieces published. I am available for commissions if any editors are reading this!

Why do you think microbreweries and craft beer have begun gaining such momentum?

I think people are constantly seeking to consume things that are better - not just beer but everything - coffee, wine, burgers, noodles... everything. The great thing about the beer scene is that its friendly and inclusive so it's easy to get hooked. I think the brewing industry has been steadily gaining momentum for about the last 30 years but now it's exploded onto the mainstream which has only accelerated things further. I can see the appeal of owning your own brewery, being your own boss and creating something brilliant that people enjoy and talk about. Sounds better than a 9-5 desk job, right?

Okay, you've convinced me - I'm going to pop to the shop for a beer, what should I try to get started?

It's a tough question, it all depends what kind of flavours you like, the best thing to do is to try lots of different styles! I'd say the first beers you should try should be from a brewery that's local to you. They'll surely have pale ales, stouts, perhaps a great lager or you could be really daring and try something sour - then maybe explore further afield, breweries from other cities, maybe Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic or the US. There is literally a beer out there for everyone. If this doesn't help then just do what I do and buy some beers with labels you really like... or you could try a couple of my favourite, my fridge regulars at the moment are Beavertown Gamma Ray Pale Ale, Camden Town Brewery IHL and Fourpure Pils.

In terms of describing a craft beer (or understanding what others are describing) what should I be looking for in a beer?

I tend to look for balance and clean flavours. Balance is key in a beer, there is no point brewing a tooth enamel stripping, bitter IPA without balancing all those bitter flavours with a big malt backbone. I've gone back to lager recently as there are so many great craft lagers these days that are a masterclass in balance. As for clean flavours this is how I tend to describe the definition - if I beer tastes of grapefruit I want to be able to pick out juicy, chunky flavours of bitter grapefruit, not cloudy, slightly grapefruity flavours. The other great thing about clean tasting beers is that they make you want to drink more than one.

What is your favourite brewery and what is it about a specific brewery that people like?

It is impossible for me to pick just one brewery because there are so many breweries that I love. Locally I love Beavertown and Camden Town, they're within 5 miles of where I live and they brew some of the best beers in the world. Further afield I love Magic Rock in Huddersfield, Thornbridge near Sheffield and The Wild Beer Co near Bristol. From Belgium I love the sour gueuze of Cantillon and the peppery bite of Karmeliet Triple. I'm currently in love with Kout na šumavě pils from the Czech Republic. I also love North American beers because that's where I learned to love craft beer. I'm a huge fan of Colorado's Odell Brewing, Firestone Walker and Russian River in California and I'm continually impressed by Brooklyn Brewery, they might be better known for their lager but some of their specials are just incredible. Try their Sorachi Ace saison (a Belgian style farmhouse ale).

There are a number of things that people can like about a brewery, the beer is of course the most obvious one. For me though its the people, the hard working passionate people who work 60 hour weeks just to get that beer in your glass and making it taste as good as it possibly can. That's what craft beer is really about, its people. 

For me, I guess beer should be no different to going out for food - I wouldn't dream of ordering the same meal in every restaurant I go to, so why would you always go for the same beer? Get involved and try out something new next time you head to the pub.

Check out Total Ales and follow Matt on Twitter for lots more on beer - keep your eyes out for the book he's co-authored, 'Beer & Craft - Britain's Best Bars and Breweries', coming soon.