From hops to hip: tapping into the UK beer scene

Ancient Egyptians, medieval maids and Dave down the local all have one thing in common: a love of beer. As one of the earliest recorded beverages in history, our favourite tipple has evolved greatly over time, along with those who drink it.The latest drama in the UK beer saga is a stand-off between real ale and craft beer drinkers. We’ve looked at what makes these beers special, their loyal followings, and what the future holds for them.

A brief history


Model of ancient Egyptians brewing beer

Beer brewing has a long and fascinating history
Image: E. Michael Smith Chiefio/ CC BY-SA

Beer is one of the world’s oldest beverages. So it’s no wonder that its history is somewhat patchy at times. Documented in many cultures’ early history, it can be hard to pinpoint its exact origin.

Luckily for us, the good people over at Toast Ale put some key moments together in a handy post, and aptly named it “Beer’s long, brief history”:

“The earliest records date back to 4000BC when the Sumer people in Mesopotamia fermented bread to create a ‘divine drink’.”

This wasn’t a passing fancy. Archaeologists found a tablet dating back to about 1,800BC (2,000 years later) depicting what is believed to be the oldest surviving beer recipe in the form of a poem, named ‘Hymn to Ninkasi’.

Country pub Shepherd & Dog explain that in addition to a beer recipe, the the hymn also gives evidence that it was a staple drink of the Mesopotamia (now Iraq). This was due to the brewing process of boiling the water before use, making it a healthier choice than water straight from the source, which will have been polluted.

2,000 years later beer was now a large part of Babylonian culture that occupied the once Mesopotamian land. Having taken a liking to this beer malarky, they had honed the process to create different varieties. Distillery specialist Mixer Direct writes:

“After the Babylonians commandeered the land of Mesopotamia, they adopted this beer-making lot and also became masters of the trade—so much that beer from Babylon was distributed as far as Egypt.”

It seems each culture had a need to out-do their predecessor, as high titled Egyptians were even known to be buried with beer!

Domestic brewing


Image source: shutterstock
Paid in beer you say?

Fast forward to the middle ages – a time where our own country’s love of beer was already well established. Camelia Krausmann of How did they live writes:

“In the Middle Age, beer was made at home by housewives, at taverns for customers, and in large commercial enterprises for mass selling. It was so popular that it became the drink of “common man” with the largest consumption in German Countries, Low Countries and England. It was even a method of payment for workers.”

The beer Camelia is referring to wasn’t like the generic mass-produced lager we find in the supermarket – it’s real ale!

Documenting their attempt to recreate a Medieval ale, natural produce experts The Foragers state:

For the medieval folk, though, malt was the main event. Ale was liquid bread, and would have been much sweeter, certainly, than our modern pale ales, or even traditional bitters.”

These days…

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Raise a glass

Today’s beer industry in the UK is booming. Beer sommelier Sophie Atherton writes:

“I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be a beer drinker. The variety of beers brewed in the UK today is world class and lends itself perfectly to showing off what a versatile a drink beer is.”

It’s fair to say CAMRA (campaign for real ale) has played a significant role in the renaissance of beer in the UK. As one of the largest single-issue consumer groups in the world, CAMRA has campaigned to protect and promote real ale for 45 years.

The tipping point for the UK beer scene has been largely credited to the craft beer movement. While there is still speculation around what exactly constitutes a craft beer their main characteristics are: brewed in small batches and brewed for taste (dodgy name for the beer is optional).

Beer bloggers Boak & Bailey sum up the current UK beer scene perfectly:

“We used to have a few breweries making lots of beer; now we have lots of breweries each making a small amount. That’s great news for consumers but a nightmare for the taxman.”

But it seems CAMRA and the craft beer scene aren’t getting on too well. While craft beers include real ales, not all real ale enthusiasts are convinced by craft beers.

Beer writer Mark Dredge of Pencil & Spoon comments on this ongoing argument:

“Why is there this in-fighting in what should be a close industry? Somehow the discussion has evolved into this thing which is a monster of misunderstanding, which like a game of Chinese whispers is turning into a bastard of untruths and assumptions.”

To get to the bottom of this we needed to know exactly what each of them are – and who drinks them.

Know your beers

Real ale

Writer and ale enthusiast, Charles Foster defines real ale thus:

“Real ale is live beer which continues to develop in the cask. This further fermentation makes the beer naturally lively. It is either pulled from the cask by hand-pump or, even better, simply runs out by gravity.”

Who drinks it? Well according to Well Done Fillet’s guide to spotting a real ale drinker they’re; bearded men dressed is brown and green. Foster, though, disagrees with the folksy medieval stereotype and views them as nice, real people with individuality.

Unfortunately for ale drinkers, their fussy, bearded stereotype is one that’s hard to shake off. Tim from The Beer Diary describes them as “fat bellied beer geeks”.

A bit harsh perhaps…

Craft beer

Craft beer aficionado, Ben Black, writing for independent beer curators Beer52 tells us that while there’s no all-encompassing definition for craft beer, there are certainly some guidelines:

“It’s small batch beer that’s made with quality, taste, creativity and authenticity and it’s core.”

He writes that what matters to a craft brewer is creativity and passion, using the best methods available, and reflecting their personality in their beers.

Black goes on to wonder if craft beer should even be defined with a label, or whether the drinker should be left to make up their own mind.

So who is the drinker? Blogger Neil Turner comments:

“Craft beer, being newer and having its British origins in East London, has a more hipster-ish vibe to it, consumed by younger people in trendy bars with rustic features.”

As Turner points out, craft beer is still new so naturally hasn’t been assigned the detailed stereotype of the real ale crowd. Though, it’s been assigned a stereotype nevertheless – hipsters.

While craft beer is still rather new on the scene, hipsters have built quite the reputation already. Brendan O’Neill vents:

“As with so much hip consumerism, the craft-beer irritant really wants to distinguish himself from Them: ‘ordinary people’ who eat at Maccy D’s, shop at Primark and — brace yourselves — drink Stella Artois.”

Here’s to the future


Image source: shutterstock

Mark Dredge believes that the real ale vs craft beer argument needs to stop:

It’s time to take a modern look at beer … Craft beer isn’t just IPA. It’s not just bloody fizzy beer. And cask beer isn’t all boring and brown and flat and warm. Why is there ongoing tension between the two? And how the hell can we get rid of it?

It’s not the beer that’s causing this disagreement of course, it’s the people. We’ve found that the two types of beer have very different followings. But scratch under the surface and you find they also have some strongly held common beliefs:

  • They both dislike mass-brewed beer
  • They both very particular about the beer they drink
  • They’re both beard enthusiasts

Hopefully these are values they can build on, as CAMRA calls for aid in a bid to save our pubs. The two beer groups may not see eye to eye, but the closure of pubs is something that will affect both of them.

It’s time they unite. After all, we think beer is too beautiful a thing to argue about.

Lead image: Shutterstock

Posted in Men's Lifestyle.