The cask ale market is now worth more than £1.7bn
The cask ale market is now worth more than £1.7bn

Why brewers aren’t bitter: the craft ale boom

Black Betty, Good King Henry, Old Freddy Walker… these will be familiar names if you’ve ordered a beer in a pub recently as drinkers seek out more exotic pints from locally-sourced craft breweries. The only caveat to this prosperity is the heightened demand for hops – as we’ll return to later.

There’s nothing new about our love of home brews. The Chinese were raising a pint 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists in China’s Shaanxi province found beer-making kit dating back to at least 2900BC.


 The alcohol content in ‘The end of History’, the strongest beer ever sold, according to GuiNness world records

In Europe, brewing was a commercial endeavour by the sixth century, pioneered by Christian monks. In medieval times, when beer was safer to drink than water, there were 500 monastic breweries in Germany alone. 

Beer containing hops is said to have been a Dutch brew, imported into Britain in the late 14th century. It soon became the national tipple infuriating traditionalists who coined the couplet: “Hops, Reformation, Beys and Beer/Came to England in one bad year.”

For centuries, beers were fermented at warm temperatures and were murky brown, but during the Industrial Revolution brewers developed cold fermentation and storage techniques, or ‘lagering’. In 1842, Bavarian brewer Josef Groll, working in the Bohemian city of Plzen (Pilsen), made a beer using local pale malt. Tasting very different, ‘Pilsner’ soon became a favourite with drinkers and brewers alike.

By the early 20th century, England was awash in pale lager made by big international breweries. Yet many drinkers lamented the loss of their local ales.

Disillusioned by mass produced keg bitter and weak lager, four men from the north-west of England formed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1971. Initially saddled with a socks-and-sandals image, CAMRA paved the way, in 2012, for then chancellor Gordon Brown to give tax breaks to smaller brewers. There are now more than 800 breweries in the UK – higher than at any time since the 1940s.


craft breweries in the US. analysts wonder if the market can support that many in the long run

According to the 2015 Cask Report the cask ale market is now worth more than £1.7bn, up 23% since 2010. The craft ale market is so hot that brewing giant SABMiller acquired Meantime, one of London’s best-known microbreweries, for a sum thought to be as much as £50m.

In the US, where craft beer has become a $22bn business, the boom is being toasted by hop farmers. A typical craft beer contains five times more hops than mainstream beers and the surge in demand has boosted hop prices by 19% since 2012.

The only downside to this boom is that, as it takes three years for a hop crop to produce a full harvest, demand may outstrip supply.

Quality control

The Babylonians were one of the first cultures to brew beer. To maintain quality, a law was passed that if your beer was deemed inferior, you were sentenced to drown in it.

British brew

In Roman times, British beer was so good that Emperor Diocletian decreed that it was sold across the empire for four denarii a pint – twice as much as Egyptian beer.

Cue for a beer

Suffering with hypoglaecaemia, which helped him burn off alcohol very quickly, Canadian snooker star Bill Werbeniuk could drink six pints before a match and two during a game.

 Liquid lunch

A 17th century recipe, ‘cock ale’ consisted of eight gallons of ale, one boiled chicken, raisins, nutmegs, and dates. Bottled for a month, the mix was then deemed fit to drink.

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