Why does craft beer think it can save the earth?
One of the defining characteristics of modern beer is its campaigning zeal, its desire to make the world a better place, its earnest idealism. I wrote about this last year for The Guardian, but there was plenty that didn’t make the cut. I would have liked to have included Boozers Without Borders, for example, or the Tap Social Movement in Oxford, which provides help for prisoners and ex-prisoners.
Another aspect I didn’t include - because it wasn’t really in the article’s remit - was those breweries and brands that want to make a positive environmental impact. It’s quite common for brewers to seek ways to mitigate the environmental downside of the brewing process - by reducing water usage, for example, or sending spent grain to be used as animal feed.
But what’s more interesting is when these good intentions become not just as part of a beer’s appeal, but its essence. I’m talking about brands like Bumble Beer, launched last year, which wants to save the bees, or Toast Ale, which exhorts us to waste less food, or Brewgooder, which is aiming to provide clean water for one million people in developing countries.
This is something that occurs more in beer than in pretty much any other food or drink product you care to mention, certainly in the UK. Compare beer to wine, for example. Winemakers may chuck a few quid at a good cause every now and then, but it’s very rare that a brand is built entirely on its inherent virtue: the blurb on wine bottles talks about place, not purpose; about grapes, not good intentions. (Natural wine is a bit different, but I’ll get to that later).
That’s because a sense of purpose is part of what defines ‘craft beer’: it’s a campaign as much as a drink. This is a phenomenon born in opposition to something else - industrially-produced lagers - so it had this characteristic right from the start. In that sense, the birth of craft beer really came with the founding of CAMRA in the early seventies: when it comes to campaigning zeal with a side portion of moral fervour, few can beat those CAMRA pioneers.
In the UK, the brewery that has made this approach their own in the last decade is Brewdog. Their schtick seems tired now, but when you consider what has been achieved in terms of brand loyalty - look at the crowdfunders and the AGM - you can see just how effective this approach is. An awesome amount of beers have been sold and bars built.
The idea that drinkers are part of something bigger is, I suspect, one of the reasons why so many craft-beer types love natural wine. It’s not just about a delicious product, although that’s important, but about that campaigning zeal: natural wine stands in opposition to mainstream wine as craft beer does to mainstream beer. There’s lots of delicious ‘un-natural’ wine, believe me, but that’s not really the point. Natural wine, like craft beer, is a cause.
Do brands like Bumble Beer and Toast Ale actually make a difference? I suspect they can and often do, although it’s too early to tell in the case of the former. Toast Ale, though, has definitely had an impact. It’s often written about in the press - has any beer brand had more coverage over the past few years? - and a quick look at this map shows how well distributed it is now, largely thanks to listings with Tesco and Waitrose. (It also shows how many of London’s best restaurants serve Toast, which says as much about the restaurants’ attitude to beer as it does their attitude to food waste - but that’s for another day).
Once you accept that for many of its drinkers craft beer is more than just a drink, though, other facets of its culture make more sense. Why do craft-beer drinkers get so upset about takeovers? Because the breweries that sell out are selling out a culture, not just their brewery. Why is the prevailing atmosphere of craft beer so left-wing (there are plenty of Tories in beer, it’s true, but they tend to be quieter)? Because it’s about kicking against authority, real or otherwise (and once again, the original CAMRA warriors did this best, most notably in the guise of the one-time Socialist Worker editor Roger Protz). And why does the idea of craft beer turn off so many older drinkers? Because they’ve seen it before, and they find earnest young people annoying.
This sense of purpose is baked into craft beer, and it’s why companies like Toast Ale feel it’s the perfect product with which to make their point. Why does craft beer think it can save the earth? Because that’s the entire point of craft beer.