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Craft Beer Rising: Meet craft beer Insider James Kellow

James Kellow, craft beer expert and SideStory Insider, shares his thoughts on the continued craze for craft beer in London and beyond.

The evolution of the foodie scene in London is nothing if not dynamic. The capital’s chefs, artisans and purveyors blend tradition and innovation to create something modern, and this is never more apparent than in the extraordinary rise of craft breweries. Ahead of next month’s Craft Beer Rising festival at the Old Truman Brewery, we caught up with craft beer expert and our new Insider, James Kellow, to find out a little more…

James Kellow Craft beer experience

So, James, let’s start with a simple question. What exactly is craft beer?

That’s a very good question. In the United States, there’s a legal definition, but there isn’t in the UK: anyone can call anything ‘craft’ or ‘artisanal’ so I think it’s much more subjective.

For me, in a brewing sense, craft beer is something that’s created with a passion for the process as well as the result.

It’s about mastering a technique; respecting it enough to understand it, but also about being creative and not being afraid to experiment to develop something new and exciting.

There were more than 300 new breweries launched last year, according to The Guardian, so clearly there’s an appetite for this new breed of beer, isn’t there?

If you’re part of the foodie scene in London you’d be forgiven for thinking that these startup breweries are widespread. The reality is that craft beer still represents a very small percentage of the market – around 10%. I think we can see how valued it is through the increased numbers of people who are starting microbreweries, as well as the fact that big beer is fighting back. Some of these smaller breweries are being bought up by those giant conglomerates: clearly, they recognize the value and appeal of their smaller counterparts.

Has there been a cultural shift in beer drinking? You mention the lager culture we’re all familiar with, and real ales have also had a particular following and a certain demographic. Now, beer is trendy. What’s changed?

I think part of it is countercultural. There’s something of the upstart with these small breweries: they’re railing against the standard beer offerings and giving us an alternative to the well-known brands.

There has been a tendency for people to tie themselves to a particular mast and declare themselves to be – for example – ‘a Heineken man’. Craft beer is notable for its brand disloyalty.

Craft beer is about trying alternatives and embracing those upstarts, and also learning about what you’re drinking.

The trend for craft beer has fostered – if you’ll forgive the pun – an enthusiasm for the process. People are enjoying educating themselves about how it’s made and why one beer is different from another.

Is that also why it gets criticized for being too ‘hipster’?

Quite possibly. People will always accuse the so-called hipster culture of having a pathological need to do things differently to the mainstream. But, I fail to see the negative in that. I think a willingness to embrace change and consider alternatives is a very healthy thing to do. No-one’s suggested that craft beer replaces those big brands. Craft beer is not set up to produce that kind of volume anyway! Craft beer is better suited to smaller scales. Maybe we need to add that to the definition…

Brewing is hardly anything new though, is it, James? How does a traditional craft turn into something that’s borderline subversive?

I’d agree. No one would accuse Belgian monks of being hipsters! Their respect for tradition has meant that they’re among the most highly regarded brewers in the world. Trappist monks have been making their beer in the same way, on the same premises, possibly using the same barrels for hundreds of years. They’ve achieved what they’ve achieved by perfecting their technique.

This new breed of craft brewers become fluent in traditional methods, techniques, and styles, then switch them up. What’s exciting to me is the magpie instinct that these new brewers have. They’re not shy of borrowing, blending and hybridizing styles or swapping hops or yeast or malts for alternatives.

It’s this willingness to experiment which enables them to create beers which are completely different.

How does craft beer fit into the food and drink culture in London as a whole?

Oh, very closely. Pub culture is definitely changing. Increasing numbers of people who don’t go out with the express intention of drinking beer to get leathered. These people want to meet friends, enjoy an interesting beer or two and have some good food. This creates an altogether different environment for drinking, one that’s more conducive to appreciating beer as well as drinking it.

Is this why we’re hearing more about food and beer pairings?

Absolutely. People always talk about pairing food and wine, but actually, the sheer number of different styles of beer means that there is an incredible number of ways to combine beers with different foods.

Why is that?

There are three main traditions of beer in the world: British ale, Czech-German lager and Belgian, which is incredibly diverse. Beer used to be a local product, made out of local ingredients, drunk by local people. Obviously, we now live in a globalized world so things have changed. Brewers are looking at ways to create new flavours: they’ll use a British malt and pair it with this Belgian yeast and try and make a German beer out of it.

Blending and matching different styles means that you can get a whole range of new flavours. They can be matched with a whole range of new foods, and foods from all over the world – because, of course, we eat globally too. Nobody had ever eaten Japanese food with German beer until reasonably recently.

It sounds like craft beer is part-stalwart traditionalist and part-revolutionary…

Isn’t that a great contradiction? In Britain, beer is fundamental to our food culture and history, so I don’t think that the craft beer movement is particularly revolutionary.

I think it’s a natural evolution of a time honoured skill.

What’s exciting to me is the fact this tradition of blending together what are essentially very simple ingredients continues to produce surprising results.

Meet SideStory Insider James Kellow for a tour of East London breweries and tastings along the way on our London Craft Beer Experience. Subscribers can enjoy a 10% discount on their first Experience. Sign up for exclusive news and discounts.