The science of alcohol
The science of alcohol

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The science of alcohol

2.2 Microbreweries

A microbrewery, by definition, produces beer on a much smaller scale than a large commercial brewery. Microbreweries began to emerge in the 1970s, but have increased significantly in recent years. You may have heard microbreweries referred to as craft breweries, which produce so-called craft beers on a small scale, for example the range of American craft beers. Microbreweries are often independently owned and so have the flexibility to brew whatever consumers are demanding – they are not constrained by the scale of the large commercial breweries. Microbreweries often have their own pub, known as a brewpub, in which their own beer is sold exclusively.

In the following video, Danny Allwood and Paul Kosmetatos discuss the merits of microbrewing and the impact this has on the brewing industry as a whole.

Download this video clip.Video player: soa_1_w4_s2_2_vid_microbreweries.mp4
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The current brewing industry in the UK and around the world, we're in this situation where we've got obviously the main commercial breweries, the big breweries who are still there and who are still producing core beer lines. But you've now got hundreds and thousands of microbreweries set up all over the place. And we've probably got here from this-- well, two main factors, I think. There's this commercial interest groups, like CAMRA, pressing for better beer quality. We're sick of commercial beer, that sort of thing. And you've also got what you might call the American craft beer revolution, where all of a sudden, American brewers are starting to experiment with different ways of making beer, new hops, new hop cultivars. We're looking at new ways of using hops and really maximising hop flavour and getting hop-forward beers. So you've probably had these two things come together where consumers are demanding higher quality beer. And breweries are now in a position to be able to create that beer. I think initially, the commercial breweries probably weren't that interested in doing it, because it's quite difficult to set up new lines and that sort of thing. But with a microbrewery, what you've got is a lot more flexibility. And brewing's a relatively straightforward process. So if you can set up a microbrewery, you can brew lots of different styles of beer. You can brew new beers, experimental beers, as well as having core lines like the big breweries have. And it just grants you that level of flexibility to produce essentially a quality product. And I think that's probably been driven by consumer demand, you know? People now walk into pubs and expect, I'm going to be able to get four or five good quality handcrafted hand--pulled beers, whereas 10 or 20 years ago, you perhaps wouldn't have got that. You'd have just gotten the main commercial lagers and that sort of thing.
It's quite interesting because in the distilling industry, you actually see a little bit of the same process, I would say. For a long time post-war, it was dominated very much by the classical blended brands that were developed in the 19th century. They were big and still remain big export champions, of especially scotch whisky industry. But the same thing happened in vodka, where some famous brands carried the load. The last, I would say, couple of decades, we have seen an explosion both in the demand outside the traditional markets. England, which used to be the big market for scotch whisky, is now only a part of the export, and I would say a minor part of the export destinations for scotch whisky. We've heard a lot, and anyone who reads the newspaper sees a lot, been told about Chinese demand for whisky as a prestige luxury product. But it is not just the traditional consumer trends like whisky post-war, and I would say especially the '70s was seen very much a mark of middle-class respectability and the self-respect-- and I talk about abroad now, not in the UK. Any self-respecting household where I was growing up in Greece would have to have at least a few blends. And if there were really into whisky and knew their stuff, they might even have a malt. These days, the people have become more sophisticated. And it is true that it is still seen as a luxury product, but there has been a great range of segmentation. Here, we don't have the microbreweries. What we have instead is finishes, so taking the partly matured product and putting it in a Madeira cask, or a port cask, or any kind of increasing the beer casks, in fact, are used. But also because of the specific problems of the whisky process which needs to mature at least for three years before it can even be called whisky, there is always a problem of throughput. So the old segmentation of age, where whisky you could be a 10-year or 15-year-old spirit based on the minimum age of what was in the blend, is increasingly pushed towards the luxury end of the ranges, whereas non-age-stated products have now become the entry-level products. And a lot of these in order to build a brand now, they don't bank on the maturity and the old spirit, but on Celtic imagery or any kind of other Scottish imagery.
Sure. But I think what you've got there is the established industry reacting to consumer taste and consumer change. And that's certainly what we're seeing in the brewing industry as well, in that we've now got all of these microbreweries who are producing these adventurous new experimental beers and things like that. And the large breweries are responding in a way by saying, well, we're going to have new craft beer lines and we're producing IPAs and all this kind of thing. So I think they're certainly in a way trying to react to what's going on in the market. But obviously in distilling, your market's a lot less fluid, I guess, because beer is very much a quick product to produce and to consume.
They're trying through, for example, gin, which is now seen as such a big revival, to basically sell something while they're waiting for the whisky to mature. And it does work. But I think the big danger in this industry, especially based on the historical experience and also on this time delay of maturation is that it is prone to bubbles and busts. And whisky has gone through such one many, many times in the past. And there are articles now in the press that actually warn against, be careful. Perhaps whisky, the good times are not going to last. It's going to be a bubble, and it might burst.
Well, it remains to be seen if the case, same is true of the breweries as well.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  • After listening to this discussion, what do you think is the main factor driving the development of both the brewing and distillation industries?

  • Consumer demand is the main factor. In the case of brewing, the demand by consumers (and organisations such as CAMRA) for better quality and more diverse beer has led to the development of microbreweries which have the flexibility to produce a wider range of different beers.


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