Listening to Derek Hoy speak about craft beer, it’s hard not to taken in by his passion for all things brewing. In November last year he and business partner Alec Knox opened HippoBeers, Glasgow’s first speciality beer shop, on Queen Margaret Drive, in the heart of an area enthusiastically embracing a nationwide change in drinking habits.
“We have absolutely no background at all in beer or in the drinks industry. We basically just thought that there was nowhere in Glasgow that was selling good craft beer and we were aware that there was so much more of it becoming available from the UK and especially America.”
The day jobs were chucked in and what followed was a grueling two year slog to get the business open.
“It all takes so much longer than you’d imagine. Especially us, being new to it, we had no experience in anything like this. It just makes it so much harder. We needed to find out everything ourselves. The initial part of it was just ‘how to set up a business’ style research. We went to Business Gateway and other regeneration agencies for advice; sat through all the workshops about vat. The licensing was the worst though. It was just grim.”
Eventually the pair found a place, thankfully already with a license (as it was formerly a convenience store and before that a Victoria Wine) and Hippo Beers, named after St Augustine of Hippo, the patron saint of brewers, was born.
“I just got to the stage in my life now where I thought ‘this isn’t what I want to do anymore.’ I wanted something I was more interested in and that I enjoyed.”
What, then, inspired his interest in craft beer?
“Well up until we were 22/23 we were your regular lager drinkers. Then we got more involved in the Campaign for Real Ale. That was through a uni mate – his dad was really into that and we started going along and learning about it. Then I spent a few months in America coaching football and started to discover all the American craft beers. I had no idea that whole scene even existed until going over there. I was very fortunate – the American stuff has only just started coming over recently and you very rarely see it anywhere outside London. That’s partly why we decided to open the shop.”
Britain, he says, has a lot to thank the States for.
“Craft brewing began in the 80s and 90s. After prohibition ended there were very few small breweries left. And for years after that the industry was just those that had survived like Miller, Bud and Coors and they’d gobble up anything else that was left as well. There was a backlash there that started, earlier than it did in Britain. Americans being Americans they vamped everything up; more hops, stronger beers. That’s now finally inspiring breweries over here.”
Of the American exports that triggered Britain’s embracing of craft the most well known, Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada and Blue Moon are now enjoying a near ubiquity in the bars and clubs of Glasgow’s West End.
Beer sales have been dropping quarter-on-quarter since the recession yet the craft beer market has continued to enjoy spectacular growth. The world’s brewing behemoths of AB InBev and MillerCoors are spending terrific amounts of capital in their desperate attempts to arrest the slump but research still shows that the younger generations – those still heady with excitement at being allowed into the pub – are no longer drinking the traditional names, especially when there’s so much on offer. The best advertisers and marketers around are doing their best, but the craft beer ‘revolution’ as some have dubbed it, looks to be here for a little while yet.
Scotland’s infamous passion for drinking has translated into a thriving brewing industry. The national institutions of Tennants and Best are still mainstays in pubs and on the shelves but face serious competition from the new generation of Scottish brewers such as Brew Dog, WEST, Tempest and William Brothers.
Brew Dog are the starting point for many converting to craft beer. Their story is a well known one, from a tiny brewery in Fraserburgh to bars and beers all over the world. With no advertising spend they are the epitome of the craft beer industry’s alternative psyche. Brew Dog, especially for the Bud-shirking younger generations, popularised the notion that ingredients, and especially flavour mattered more than price. The company point out repeatedly that they never cut corners or shirk on proper ingredients. Whereas many of the traditional lagers, often derided by craft beer drinkers as ‘bland’ or ‘industrial,’ use hop extract and chemicals to cut overheads; craft beer, almost by definition, use proper ingredients.
The subject of defining the term ‘craft beer’ though is controversial bar room subject. In the States it’s defined specifically as volume of production (less than 6 million barrels a year.) But in Britain it takes on a vaguer meaning, and is usually misappropriated, as Glasgow beer blogger Kenny Hannah explains.
“The use of the craft beer moniker has been open to abuse by some brewers who see the use of the tag as giving them an instantly ‘trendy’ and ‘with it’ label. Sticking the word craft on a beer label doesn’t make a bad beer good but some brewers have been guilty of rebranding their packaging rather than changing the quality of their product. I often feel uncomfortable about the use of the term ‘Craft’ to describe beer. It conjures up images of small scale, artisanal brewers fired up and focussed with a passion for their product. For many larger brewers who have started to use the term ‘craft’, it is no more than a marketing position and posture based upon turning more units.”
What shouldn’t be overlooked, when people rush to laud craft brewers for their success, is the ongoing popularity of world beers, not officially ‘craft’ but which are made properly and with more interesting ingredients. The German and Czech purity laws are excellent guardians of quality in this regard and perhaps the explosion of interest in craft beer has also helped accelerate the popularity of German wheat beers like Weihenstephan or Erdinger, themselves popular West End tipples.
Those purity laws were the founding principles of Glasgow-based brewers WEST Beer, run by Petra Wetzel, the only female in charge of a UK brewery. This in emblematic of a shift in the perception of beer and the opening up of what was a male orientated working class product to people of all ages and sexes. Derek admits he cannot put his finger on who is buyingcraft beer.
“Its quite mixed really, I’m not sure we’ve got a typical customer. Part of the beauty of craft beer is that it appeals to everybody. Obviously it’s more expensive so maybe people with a bit more disposable income are more likely to drink it. But it’s not just those people. There are plenty who’ll make the effort. I think people are starting to view beer in the same way that they view wine. People are reviewing it and analysing it. Before it was seen as ‘just beer.’ Drink of the working classes.”
Part of the attraction is economic. Those people who before the recession could afford a decent bottle of wine find that’s no longer an option. Rather than spend five or six pounds on a mediocre wine they’d much rather buy a bottle of truly quality beer.
“To be honest I think beer is more complex than wine, I think there’s more variety and more choice. There are just so many different styles and flavours you can have.”
Beer is now talked about in the same was as wine or whiskey. Those doing the critiquing are part of an ever expanding community; “[there are countless] beer blogging and review sites. We’ve actually done really well out of social media. There are certain pubs I can go into where the chances of not bumping into someone I know are slim! Whether its a customer in here or a beer blogger. There is a community. It’s not the biggest but it’s definitely there and thriving.”
The 21st century, the internet and social media has made it easier than ever – and actually socially acceptable – to geek out on your interests, however niche. At the tip of your fingertips is a wealth of knowledge and connections with other people who share similar passions. Those passionate about beer are no longer derided as grotty home brewing in the bath types, nor a bit nerdy or with an alcohol problem. Society is increasingly fragmenting into multiple ‘scenes,’ and beer is proving itself as valid as any other.
And the reasons become clearer when you set craft beer in the context of a generation searching for ‘authenticity’ in every part of their lives. After the craze for all things organic, vintage clothing has enjoyed a bit of a boom in recent years followed by lo-fi music recording, vinyl and cassettes and, all the rage in London’s hippest of quarters, street food.
“The thing is [craft beer] goes so well with food. There’s just so many food and beer combinations you can have. There’s an American barbeque craze going on as well now. No one wants a McDonald’s anymore. There’s [burger restaurants] Meat Bar and Burger Meats Bun in Glasgow now. Craft beer piggy backs well with that – it goes with the food.”
Food and beer coming together is another growing trend. Restaurants around Glasgow are starting to create special beer-inspired menus, usually fabulous re imaginings of traditional pub food. Brew Dog are big believers in this as well, occasionally they’ve been known to host a ‘Dog’s Dinner’ at the Hillhead Bookclub as part of their promotional circuit. Tasting session followed by dishes cooked in beer; the side of pork glazed in ale is a particular highlight.
With the growing popularity and ubiquity of craft beer there must surely be that danger of a burnout, of it becoming, to use a dreaded phrase, too mainstream?
Possibly, but I think that most of the breweries are happy operating at that smaller level. They won’t all be big enough to supply supermarkets like Brew Dog do .There’s only so muchbeer to go around. I don’t see any of them getting to that stage and I don’t think any of them really want to. Besides I think they’d be compromising what they’re about if they tried to go down that route. They don’t make massive profits and they’re more geared towards making great beer rather than growing a business.
Recently Blue Moon bucked the microbrewery trend and spent lavishly on a cosy looking television advert. As wonderful as the gold-tinted hand-drawn animation was and as wholesome as the brand were painted there was still, amongst some beer fanatics, a discomfort about the way things were going. Blue Moon – a beer blended with oats and oranges – is owned by MillerCoors and caused a recent uproar when they failed to display that fact on their packaging, contradicting in many people’s eyes their own claim to ‘craft.’ Surely then, with growth there comes risks? Could craft beer become too populist and ruin it’s own image and anti-establishment status?
“I think craft beer’s probably a bit ‘trendy’ right now. You can go down to Shoreditch or Dalston and all the hipsters will be drinking craft beer. There’s an element of that but it’s not exclusively.”
For Derek – and fellow craft beer enthusiasts always echo this sentiment – it’s not about image or exclusivity. Being a stone’s throw away from Glasgow Uni halls, he’s a man on a mission.
“The weekend they [the students] all came back wasn’t that busy. Lots of them don’t know we’re here yet, the younger ones especially don’t really drink craft beer. But we like to get them in and get them off the WKD and the cheap cider. But craft beer’s not cheap when you compare it to that. I remember being a student – you’ve got to look after your money. If we convert a few more to thinking about what their drink actually tastes like or is made of instead of just getting hammered all the time then that’d be good.”
Recently Hippo Beers collaborated with Alchemy Brewing in Livingston to create their own brew – “5.9 % West Coast IPA, quite hoppy; turned out quite sweet and well balanced” – to mark the feast day of St Augustine. And with future events planned to mark Octoberfest, both at Hippo Beers and throughout Glasgow, the future looks bright for beer, craft or otherwise. It’s a trend that’s not really a trend but representative of a shift in attitudes at a societal level towards ingredients, flavour and drinking, with a large helping of inclusivity and joy thrown in.
“I think it’s just that people want something a bit better. It’s difficult to predict where the whole thing’ll go and how mainstream it’ll become and whether it is here to stay or not. I’ve no idea. But I don’t see why it would fall away. Because people try it, they like it, and they come back to it.
I think once you’ve tried these beers you’ll like them. There’s no reason you’ll go back to Tennants.”
When asked about his own personal favourite brew Derek is speechless for the first time. He sighs and stares slowly around the shelves of slender bottles lining his shop, each impeccably ordered and standing proud.
“Goodness,” he exclaims solemnly; “there’s a question…”