The rise of microbreweries

Microbreweries are multiplying, and that's good news for the environment, local economies - and drinkers, says Hugh Wilson
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You avoid fast-food restaurants, and approve the message of the slow-food movement. You search out local, seasonal produce. You buy organic food. And then, after preparing a wholesome, eco-friendly meal, you decamp to the pub and sip industrially produced lager that has been trucked in from the other end of the country or flown in from the other side of the world.

There has been much talk about the green credentials of our food, but very little about the green credentials of our beer. Which is strange, considering we drink so much of it. What most of us drink, however, is the equivalent of January salad leaves from the hothouses of the Mediterranean, or battery-farmed eggs.

Four global brewers dominate the British beer industry, mass-producing what opponents characterise as homogenous plastic fizz. Predictably the brewing giants' environmental credentials pretty much reflect those of any industry that centralises production and moves product around the country in huge fleets of lorries.

But, for the concerned beer-drinker, there is light at the bottom of the pint. Small local brewers - once thought all but drowned in a sea of cheap lager and alcopops - are making a comeback. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), around 50 new small brewers open every year, creating a "greater choice than at any time since the campaign was founded in 1971".

The Society of Independent Brewers (Siba) reports that sales by its members in 2005 were up by 12 per cent on the previous year. The Good Beer Guide lists many success stories, such as the Copper Dragon Brewery in Yorkshire, which quadrupled production in just three years.

It's all good news for the demanding beer drinker, and equally welcome for those who care about the environment, local economies and rural jobs. And, although real-ale sales are dwarfed by those of mass-produced lager, its growing popularity bears comparison with the success of campaigns to push organic food and local, seasonal produce.

"There's certainly a synergy there," says Iain Loe, Camra's research and information manager. "More people want taste and craftsmanship, they want to know where their beer has come from, and they want something that has been produced locally. Younger people are trying it, even if they're not drinking it all the time. People are starting to match good beer with food, just as they do with wine. Tourists are coming to Britain to taste traditional British beer."

In a world where the demise of small local businesses seems unstoppable, this success story has not gone unnoticed by environmentalists. "The growth of microbreweries is real, and it's very encouraging," says Vicki Hird, the senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "There is a tendency to be negative about the homogenous nature of our food supply. But what this suggests, again, is that many consumers are looking for variety and something a bit more interesting."

And proponents would argue that a good pint of British beer is just as interesting - and individual - as a glass of French pinot (and, they say, it goes better with cheese). Making dark beer is as traditional to Britain as making fine wine is to France, with just as many subtleties of flavour, and requiring just as much skill. Small breweries are the heirs to a unique, undervalued British tradition.

The breweries' somewhat antiquated business model nods to this past, yet points to a future of smaller, sustainable local industries. Small brewers tend to source from the surrounding area and sell to the local trade. Many microbreweries now have pubs attached, meaning that real British beer often travels a few yards from brewery to bar, compared to the thousand-mile trips of imported lagers.

It's also a business model that breathes life into local economies, Hird says. "When people buy as close to the source of food as possible, more money goes back to the producer. And it keeps money circulating in the local economy. Like farmers' markets, microbreweries help to create a connection between consumers, farmers, producers and the local food culture."

Small breweries provide jobs in rural areas, and in areas of industrial decline. The constant quest for subtle variations of taste keep old hop varieties alive. Spent hops and yeast are recycled to gardeners and pig farmers for fertiliser and feed. "It used to be that it would take eight or nine pints of water to make one pint of beer," Loe says. "A lot of these brewers are down to four pints, thanks to recycling schemes."

Moreover, it is real-ale brewers who are leading the way in offering organic beers. Some go further; the Marble brewery in Manchester makes some organic and vegan beers. Marble won't use finings - commonly made from fish bladders - to clear the yeast from finished beer. The result is a cloudy pint, but that doesn't seem to put anyone off.

"It's the opposite; we're busier than ever," says Marble's head brewer, James Campbell. "The beer sells because it tastes good, but the vegetarian side is proving good for business. I've had people tell me that they hadn't been able to drink a pint of beer since they became vegetarians 10 years before. Then they found us."

Marble's ingredients are sourced from non-intensive agriculture. They run four outlets in the city, ranging from trendy bars to traditional pubs, including one attached to the brewery itself. One of their brews is even made with the health-conscious consumer's ingredient of choice, ginger.

Campbell believes it's consumer awareness that is driving the revival. And, while Camra continues to rail against the dominance of the brewing leviathans, nobody doubts that the origins, craftsmanship and green credentials of British beer are attracting new and younger drinkers.

There is one more reason to raise a glass to the traditional pint. While the strength of good lager hovers about the 5 per cent proof mark, good ale is usually about 3.5 per cent. Over a night out, that's a lot of alcohol.

Behind the bar

Lager: There's nothing wrong with drinking lager, as long as you get the good stuff. Countries such as Belgium and Germany produce high-quality lagers to traditional recipes, and many are available in the UK. But they have to be imported (the brands brewed under licence here are not the same), and the brewing process means that the lager has to be strong - typically about 5 per cent alcohol by volume, or ABV - to develop flavour.

Ale: Ales includes bitter, mild, stout and barley wine. But many - particularly those you come across in chain pubs - are not "real" ales. Keg beer is sterilised, chilled, filtered and pasteurised in the brewery. It is connected to a cylinder of gas in the pub and served cold and fizzy (to disguise the taste, critics say). It is usually produced in industrial quantities. Real ale, on the other hand, is a living beer that continues to ferment in the cask. Nearly all real ale is served using hand pumps rather than the electrical pumps used to serve keg beers.