Is craft taking it just a hop too far?

By Sophie Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Stopping to chat: some customers appear to be more interested in talking than drinking
Stopping to chat: some customers appear to be more interested in talking than drinking
Sophie Atherton wonders why people are leaving their craft beer untouched, and if it’s time to drink more cask

It’s that time of year when everyone obsesses about the future of cask ale. We’ve had Cask Ale Week and the new Cask Report​ is out. This year things are looking much less rosy, with
cask sales declining faster than beer overall. I won’t regurgitate the whole report here, because we all know that poor quality real ale puts people off. Even those of us who love cask turn our backs on it when a licensee (or a brewer) insults us with rubbish beer.

I know I said I wouldn’t repeat the whole report, but I want to tell you about one more bit because it links to some things I’ve noticed lately and also to a recent experience I had. The industry still worries what craft beer means, but drinkers feel they’ve got it sussed. Market analysts Mintel say 13 million UK people drink craft beer and other sources tell us 98% of people are aware of it and 67% say they understand what it means.

Far more varied mix

The above is born out by looking at the customers of so-called craft beer bars, which I was doing recently while spending the weekend in Bristol. Where once you’d pop into a BrewDog bar and it was a sea of under-30s in plaid shirts, retro clothes, tattoos, beards and such, it now resembles the clientele of more traditional pubs. The same goes for independent craft beer bars. It’s a far more varied mix of ages, still more men than women, and varying modes of dress. I’ve been observing this change for a while in a few different towns and cities.

Something else I’ve noticed, which also makes these places more like traditional pubs, is there are many people with drinks other than beer. Women especially seem to be quaffing wine or gin, but I see lots of men with gin too.

As you can tell, I spend a lot of time staring at other customers when I’m in the pub, although sometimes I hide behind a book so they can’t see how nosy I’m being. The latest thing I’ve spotted is people not drinking their beer. Groups of people chatting away, engrossed in conversation, and not stopping to take a sip of beer. So much so, their table is full of barely touched glasses of beer. They’ve maybe had a third of a pint or half their half, but appear to have just stopped drinking it. It’s usually fairly early in the evening when I spot this happening, a long time before last orders. So it’s not simply people who’ve had enough and abandoned their last drink of the night. But I think I know what’s going on because it has happened to me too: the beer is too awful to drink.

An assault on my tongue

I decided to try a pale ale from a brewery that a lot of people rave about. Foolishly, I didn’t opt for try-before-you-buy – which most places offer for keg as well as cask these days – because I was only having a half. A glass of something with the appearance of beaten eggs was presented to me. It smelled lovely though, so I overlooked its soupiness and dived in. Big, hoppy tropical fruit flavours washed over my tongue. It was pleasant for a few seconds, but then the tide turned. It felt as if I was licking a stinging nettle or had a carpet burn in my mouth. The flavour and the sensation became overpowering. It seemed to be from late or dry hopping, and it just went on and on. It was an assault on my tongue and I didn’t know how to stop it. It was only about 8.30pm but it put me off drinking anything else and I decided to call it a night. I left the offending drink on the table and went back to my hotel, wondering if people just want to be seen in a craft bar and don’t care if the beer is dreadful.

I’m the beer-drinking equivalent of an omnivore, by the way. There are beers I don’t like but not many styles I don’t enjoy. So this isn’t a case of an ‘older’ beer drinker not appreciating craft beer and the many hops that often go with it. My observations of all those hardly touched beers suggest I’m not alone in having a bad experience. If the latest craft trend is mouth-drubbing hop levels, it might be just the moment to get drinkers back on board with cask ale.

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