“To drink real ale you have to be a snob.”
This statement was overheard in the toilets at the Cricketers, during the Evan Evans Meet the Brewer event on Tuesday 16 December. Pub toilets are often the best place to pick up the most candid opinions, but it can only be by chance – blokes tend to get dangerously agitated if they see you loitering next to the urinals with a notebook and pen.
The claim was part of a conversation between two strangers, and the opening line quoted above was somewhat duplicitous on the part of the speaker, as he went on to say something along the lines of “my friend is setting up his own brewery in a shipping container; he’ll be using old central heating boilers for fermentation tanks.”
Coincidentally, Ruari O’Toole and I encountered a barman in Sheffield at The Wick at Both Ends who is looking to set up his own pop-up bar in a shipping container next year. The guy also sells shipping containers when he isn’t tending bar. Obviously, all of the railway arches are now occupied by craft brewers and bars, so the next generation of brewers will be forced to spring up in shipping containers. (No, seriously, this is already a thing.)
It reflected on an underlying message delivered by Simon Buckley, owner of Evan Evans Brewery, during his slide show presentation. Evan Evans is a family brewery, operated and run in Llandeilo by the Buckleys – the lead brewer is James Buckley, son of Simon – and has been in the same family’s hands for seven generations.
After seven generations of seeing the tide steadily rise and fall, family brewers like Evan Evans seem to convey the impression that they’re being flooded by the new brewers. Family brewers tend to dislike the fact that everyone from the city boy to the lonely farmer out on the hillside now want to get in to brewing; the hegemony that family brewers enjoyed as being the real ale alternative to the macro-brewers is now under threat.
The reactions of family brewers toward the craft beer movement often interests me. They often follow the same pattern – initially, a steadfast denial of craft beer (“it’s just a fad, it’ll pass”) followed by a gradually acceptance that, fad or not, it is changing the beer landscape, and so with tentative steps they’ll dip their toes in the rising water. Brain’s have their Brain’s Craft Brewery, Thwaites have their Crafty Dan Range, and amongst their portfolio, Evan Evans have their Artisan range.
By and large, Evan Evans are a broadly appealing, session beer brewery. Their flagship pub, the Cricketers, is on Cathedral Road in Cardiff, a part of town that swells with thousands and thousands of rugby fans during rugby season, and probably as many as six or even seven cricket fans during the cricket season. If you served up craft thimbles of 8% Double IPA in the Cricketers on a match day, there’d be a riot. Rugby fans are more than happy to chuck back buckets of easy going, session strength beer, and that’s Evan Evans’ bag.
So it’s curious to see they have five beer portfolios (Evan Evans, Archers, Porter Street, Buckleys and Artisan). Of these, Artisan is their concession toward ‘craftier’ beers. However, even with the Artisan range, there’s still a tendency to go for safe, session beers when, out of five portfolios, there’s room to play around. During the food and beer pairing session at the Meet the Brewer, we sampled Old Goose, an excellent session rye beer that demonstrated the brewing team’s expertise.
The brewing team share Herriott Watt and Institute of Brewing and Distilling qualifications between them, so the capability is there. James is as passionate about beer as any brewer, and having met the brewer it was then disappointing to see the Artisan branding. It’s too generic. It looks like an international brewing conglomerate’s attempt at cashing in on craft beer’s success, and fails to highlight the brewers behind the beer.
At the moment, Evan Evans don’t sell to the off-trade. They are looking to set up their own bottling line soon, and with that it would be interesting to see if they’re more willing to play around with their Artisan range, or ‘craft’ beers in general. So far, few of the family brewers in the UK have cracked the formula that allows them to ride two horses – simultaneously producing their traditional ‘real ale’ beers, and appealing to the modern trend for ‘craft beers’. Most are too tentative toward craft to the point where their efforts are barely noticeable, while others are perhaps a bit too vigorous and produce a new beer almost each week.
A final observation: the turnout for the Meet the Brewer was, approximately, forty people. Five of them were under the age of 50, not counting the brewers themselves. In very crude observational terms it would appear that, right now, Evan Evans’ beers appeal to the older drinker.
Many family brewers consider(ed) craft beer to be a fad because these families have been brewing for decades or centuries, when craft beer, in the modern sense, has only appeared in the UK in the last fifteen years, peaking within the last couple of years. A decade is nothing against the backdrop of a century or two, so it’s easy to understand why family brewers may be willing to shrug it off.
Nevertheless, it has had an impact. Craft beer – hoppier, more experimental beer – has seeped in to the DNA of the younger drinker, and indeed a good few older drinkers. When/if the bubble bursts on craft beer, we aren’t going to give up our taste for hoppy beers in favour of malty ales – we’ll just demand balanced and consistently good quality hoppy beers.
I suspect the more terrifying difficulty that faces family brewers is not the prospect of trying to ride two separate horses, but by riding their traditional horse just fast enough to keep up with modern tastes and remain relevant to future drinkers, but not so fast they leave their established drinkers behind.