It’s all about flavour.
In recent years, what was once an amateur pursuit has turned into a big business – what has fuelled the increased appreciation of craft beer?
The biggest factor has been what’s happened in the US which had the worst beer in the world for about 50 years. Gradually, since the early 1980s, although there’s been a few ups and downs along the way, it’s got better and better to the stage where American brewers are now undeniably leading the world.
It’s about flavour: if you were to generalise, you would say that American beer tends to be bold and flavourful. They’ve taken advantage of a number of new hops which boast bright, tropical fruit and citrus flavours. Everyone wants that flavour now.
The other thing to consider is the whole food movement. Bread has got better, coffee has got better, wine has got better – it seemed like beer was the last thing to be dragged into the 21st century. Of course there’s always been good beer, in Belgium, Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic in particular, but now we’ve got a real focus on flavour; where the flavour comes from, what sort of flavours we can extract from malt, hops and yeast.
For brewers, consistency is important but I think for the new breed of drinker it’s more about interesting flavours
Does craft beer still have the potential to grow further, and will it ever reach the level of appreciation that, for instance, wine has?
Absolutely, and I think in the US it is very close to that level. What you need to remember is that beer is a more sophisticated drink than wine – it’s more varied in terms of flavour. Wine has been superbly marketed down the years, and, in the UK at least, there’s a real snob factor. But beer, it’s increasingly understood, is a really complex drink with as much to offer, if not more.
What makes a good brew?
It’s an interesting question – it depends who you ask. For me, it’s a beer which lets its ingredients sing; it can bold and straightforward, it can be complex, it can be challenging.
For brewers, consistency is important but I think for the new breed of drinker it’s more about interesting flavours. They’re not so worried if there’s a minor brewing fault.
What influences distinctive tastes in beer?
There are four main ingredients in most beers: malt, hops, yeast and water. The first is the main ingredient and it provides the backbone for the beer. Often you’ll get a bready or nutty flavour, that’s the malt. There are many different types of malt, all of which add something different.
Hops bring not only bitterness but also fruit character and aroma: Nelson Sauvin, a relatively new hop from New Zealand, has a grapefruit character that resembles the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Yeast is perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most important as it has such a big impact on flavour. A beer like Saison Dupont, for instance, is all about the tangy, spicy yeast character. Water is important, too. A lot of brewers ‘Burtonise’ their water to make it resemble the sulphate-rich water of Midlands town, the home of pale ale.
Do brewing methods vary from one country to another?
Absolutely, although modern breweries are increasingly similar, no matter where you are. But some traditions remain strong. In parts of Germany and the Czech Republic, for instance, some breweries still use a decoction method during the mash.
What sparked your love of beer?
Like most British men, I grew up drinking beer, a lot of it cask ale, which can either be superb or dreadful, depending on how well the pub landlord looks after it. I also spent a year in California back in 1999-2000, when craft beer was starting to take off there. I loved beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Steam Beer.
Which were your most exciting beer discoveries to date?
The most exciting thing is the roots of beer styles, like Rauchbier in Bamberg, Germany, or Pilsner in Pilsen, Czech Republic. You can see how the beers fit into the culture, how something that is almost fetishised elsewhere is just a part of everyday life.
Does Belgium still hold the crown for European brewing?
Belgium’s great advantage is its magnificent tradition of bottled beers. The other great European brewing nations – Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic – are more about draught beer. Belgium also has a huge variety, although the really great beer styles – pale ale, stout, pilsner – have their roots elsewhere.
Then there are the likes of Sweden, Denmark and Italy, where a newer beer culture is taking hold. It seems like craft beer is taking off everywhere, really.
Your Craft Beer London guide was a great success. Do you plan to publish similar guides to other locations?
Not at the moment. There’s a Craft Beer New York app, but I’m not responsible for that. I’m hoping to do another edition of the Craft Beer London book soon, but we’ll see.
Will Hawkes is a food, drink and travel writer and the author of Craft Beer London (Vespertine Press, 2012), a book and app devoted to the city’s burgeoning beer scene. He has written for The Independent, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald and various other publications. Hawkes is British beer writer of the year 2013. Follow him on Twitter @will_hawkes.