It’s been a long, busy and strange few weeks, so full of beer and pubs that Dry January feels like a century ago.
It started in late February with Craft Beer Rising, the second year of this London-based craft-beer festival that brought together industry greybeards and young hipsters alike.
Debates about the definition of craft beer and the relative merits of cask versus keg — or even cans — all seemed very far away. People of all ages, shapes and sizes were drinking beer and enjoying it, some of it from venerable old cask-ale breweries, some from young micros, some from Italy, some from America. All that mattered was it was great beer.
The following week I had to make a couple of visits to breweries for the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards. It’s my second year as a judge, and I made an appeal for brewers and cider makers to enter. It was answered: entries were double last year’s total. Of 200 drinks producers, 113 were brewers or cider makers.
We had to get this pile down to three shortlisted finalists and, after much debate, they are Thornbridge, BrewDog and the Gusbourne Estate winery.
That two of our three finalists are brewers tells you all you need to know about the vitality of British brewing. That it’s these two head-to-head is fascinating. Both are quite old now by craft-beer standards, pioneers of the riot of styles and hops and experimentation we’re now experiencing.
Both have thriving pub chains and a sizeable business exporting British beer abroad. Both have inspired countless other people to quit the rat race and open a brewery. The BBC loves the story so much it’s considering making an extra, separate programme about it.
The past few weeks also saw the conclusion of judging for the Publican Awards. I was looking after the Best Microbrewing Pub Company category. When my panel met the three finalists, we agreed on the winner, and agreed that the other two will be future winners if they carry on with the vision and energy they showed us.
Visiting these sites, I was reminded of why I got excited enough about beer and pubs to quit my own day job so I could spend more time in them — I mean, more time writing about them.
Just in the past few days, I’ve attended the launch of a new range of craft-y beers from Marston’s, a bullish presentation on the future of the premium cider market hosted by Aspall, a beer dinner to celebrate the launch of a Beavertown beer aged in Jameson whiskey casks where giddy beer writers drank with one of the most legendary rock stars on the planet, and a masterclass run by The Guardian at which 100 people paid a lot of money to hear how to set up a new brewery, from those who have done so successfully.
I’ve given staff training to people in bars where beer knowledge is suddenly essential when it was irrelevant five years ago, watched Michel Roux choose a new beer for his restaurants, and conducted public experiments in pairing beer with music.
The pace and energy of the beer scene is so intense now I can’t keep up.
Next week I’ve had to turn down more events than I’ve accepted, and I’m still busy tasting new beers every day of the week.
Recently, I received a tweet from someone reading my first book, now 11 years in print. “So glad I’m a beer drinker now and not 10 years ago,” he said.
There’s been so much change, so much innovation, so much good stuff. It would have been impossible to imagine this, insane to hope for it, 10 years ago.
And yet, over those 10 years, the beer market has lost nearly a quarter of its volume, even as the number of brewers has doubled.
And in the midst of all the beery excitement of the past few weeks, new figures reveal that the rate of pub closures is up again.
Every week, on average, 28 pubs shut and two new breweries open. The world has gone utterly insane, and anyone who claims they understand what is happening, or can predict what will happen next, is lying.
It’s hard to reconcile 28 pubs dying a week, and the ongoing hardship and heartbreak facing many more publicans, with so many great new things happening. But they are happening. This industry may be a contradictory and frustrating mess, but it is far from dying.
What it will look like in 10 years is anyone’s guess.