Winification. As a word (although, it probably isn’t really a word), I’ve seen it applied to beer in the recent past in articles like this – sometimes accompanied by hand-wringing and cries of ‘why are they doing this to beer?’. The implication is that this perceived move to starched sommeliers and stuffy, formal settings – whether real or not – is seeping into the previously easygoing, rough and tumble world of brewing. Leaving aside the notion that having people trained up to explain what you are drinking whilst dining is somehow a bad thing, I’m wondering if, in fact, the British beer industry is going in a very different direction.
As an outsider, looking in (or more accurately, over) – US Craft Beer has been nervously poking the sleeping giant of winification for a while. I can see why, as it confers a certain degree of legitimacy. As one of the main raisons d’être of craft beer is the desire for recognition, it makes sense. Even without food matching events and larger, cartoon-free labels, the American craft beer industry is flourishing, knocking lumps out of the established macro-pushers. With this added touch of classiness, there’s an extra veneer of respectability and responsibility about the small-scale beer producers over there.
But what about this side of the Atlantic? Of course, we have beer people every bit as passionate as Garrett Oliver, carefully pouring controlled measures at tasting events. But, for all that, our beer is different. We have the cultural magnet of the pub; that wonderful (and as I write this, extremely tempting) British purveyor of drink. We lack the three-tier system of production, distribution and retailing – weaving past a pavement-blocking pub delivery is one of those quirks of life here. That direct, visible, link between brewer and public gives us more of an empathy with the men and women that make our beer.
‘Craft Beer’ may be a buzz-word over here at the moment – an over-used one, at that – but maybe another snappy phrase of the minute is one that could also be applied to British brewing – provenance. As the middle-classes are becoming a nation of foodies, perusing the Sunday supplements for recipes and seeking out sustainable sources of ingredients – are we looking for the same from our brewers? After all, it used to be the most local of industries – a pub on every corner, brewery in every neighbourhood – and, before that, alewife on every ramshackle street. Beer is of the people, and always has been.
The recent scandals in the British food industry have woken the public up to where their dinners come from – local butchers had surging sales following the horse meat shambles, for instance. Traceability is now being marketed ever more rigorously, and seen as being hugely desirable. For beer, the increasing number of UK breweries couldn’t have come at a better time – firstly, you’re more likely than ever to have a local beer maker to support, should you wish. Secondly, brewing has that traceability – it is agricultural, after all – natural ingredients crafted (in the true sense of the word) into a foodstuff. There’s a reason why brewers are popping up at farmers markets.
So, is beer moving away from wine, rather than towards it?