You say you want a revolution… in beer culture

So sang John Lennon on the White Album in 1968 (almost). Now I hear calls for a revolution in beer culture in the UK from, among others, the refreshingly upstart-headed Scottish brewery BrewDog. Well, you know, we all want to change the beer world. Revolution, rather like overnight success, can be a long time coming.

At the turn of the millennium, I longed for change on the UK beer scene. I’d fallen in love with the variety of beers from the US I’d found in Sweden. These were “craft beers” from new, small, independent breweries. In Britain, we called them microbreweries, and although we had plenty of them, the variety in style of their beers was lacking; it seemed like living in a monoculture. Change seemed unlikely.

Of course, I was not the only one to think this way, and now, with a much more lively beer scene in the UK some people think we are close to critical mass to make a lasting change. All I’ve done to bring about any change is to buy unsuspecting friends beers they didn’t think they wanted. The guys from BrewDog actually started a brewery on the American craft brewery model. The craft beer scene in Sweden is such that BrewDog sell more beer there than in the UK*. Even there, though, it used to be extremely hard to get a decent .567 of a litre. Has there been a revolution?

In February 2006, I found myself in a fairly smart bar/restaurant in Malmö, Sweden. They had an impressive list of beers. That they had a list of the beers impressed me. I chose a Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter. Largely because I wanted to say out loud to the waitress, “I would like a Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter,” and wait for the reaction. She didn’t even flinch.

Turning the clock back to 1991 and my first time in Sweden took me to Stockholm. I made the mistake of buying a round in the very smart Cafe Opera bar. I don’t even remember the beer, and probably the only thing worth remembering was that half my weekend spending money disappeared in the process. Then, apart from the occasional splurge, the whole point in going out for a drink was to find the cheapest beer in town.

In the intervening 15 years, Sweden joined the EU, relaxed its laws on maximum beer strength, started some microbreweries, created a beer festival unlike anything else in Europe. And stole unashamedly from the beer cultures of the UK and the US.

Today, in 2011, you can go to any of the monopoly off-licences and find shelves of American, British, and Swedish craft-brewed beers (for a kick-off). There is a chain of pubs – The Bishops Arms, each of which picks a selection of draught and bottled beers that that would keep any beer geek happy for months. Not to mention the whisky lover.

Twenty years. Hardly a revolution. And It’s not like everybody now drinks US cult beer classic Stone Ruination and ultra-whisky Ardbeg Supernova. The biggest selling beer in Sweden is still a mass-produced light lager. The best-selling spirit is still an industrial vodka. The biggest new Swedish alcohol export to the UK is a range of flavoured ciders whose connection to apples and pears has probably more to do with cockney rhyming slang than actual fruit.

But something went terribly right; take a look at the selection of American beers listed in the Systembolaget (monopoly off-licence) site:
Systembolaget search results, USA beer These beers are available throughout the country. I think it happened through Evolution, rather than Revolution.

Maybe Britain can learn from the Swedish experience? What can we do to speed the process up so it won’t be 15 years before you can buy beers from the likes of Lovibonds, or Kernel, or Hardknott (the new wave of British brewing) in pubs in Kenilworth, or Weston Super Mare, or Sainsburys? We have some great new bars (see Links). What else can we do?

BrewDog say they want to rescue us from the mass-produced fizzy stuff. Great, I say, but I think we should also be aiming for people who already have a discerning palate. It worked for Sweden.


BrewDog manifesto: Blog: Roll on 2011
I bet you’d like a local like Akkurat in Stockholm. Here’s their beer page.

Here are some of the UK’s finest bars/pubs in the “new” craft beer style:
Leeds North Bar and Further North Bar
Sheffield: The Sheffield Tap and friends
London: The Rake, The Euston Tap, Brew Wharf, The Old Brewery Greenwich.

*Definitely per capita. Absolute figures not to hand.

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