A gravestone with a beer tap on it
Image: Time Out

RIP IPA: who killed craft beer?

We’re a nation of pint drinkers, but gone are the days of the milkshake NEPA. Are we ever getting our hoppy pales back?

Ella Doyle

Remember the glory days? When we all had skinny jeans and immaculate beards and wore beanie hats, even in summer? When going for a pint meant nine percent porters, pink rhubarb sours and whatever a ‘saison’ is. It meant tasting each and every beer on tap to make sure they weren’t ‘too hoppy’. It meant, perhaps more than anything, bright, graphic labels and deeply silly names. 

Nowadays, trips to the pub look a little different. Rows of pastel-coloured IPAs have been swapped out for classic lagers and big boy beer brands, all seemingly owned by one omniscient beverage uber-corporation. Craft beer options are few and far between (often rotating on just one tap) and if they’re there, you’re probably going to pick the cheaper option anyway. But as a nation of beer drinkers, when did we lose our appetite for naughty, funky pale ales and ‘proper’ craft beer? And is it over for good?

The golden beer era 

‘I’ll be honest with you, I think the boom was before lockdown,’ says David Lewis, manager at the Salisbury Hotel on Haringey’s Green Lanes, a classic craft beer boozer with more than 30 beers on tap, 14 of which are crafties. ‘At that point, we were getting breweries every week that were opening up,’ he adds. ‘You had so much choice out there. We were getting so many beers and so many requests. And there’s only so many things you can do with a pint.’

Two pints of beer
Photograph: Courtesy of Gipsy Hill

In 2019, around 150 brand-new indie breweries opened in the UK, with more than 20 of them in London, including Exale, Little Creatures and Belrose. They joined the success of the capital’s best known crafters – the likes of 40ft, Brick, Orbit and Gipsy Hill – which had all been founded between 2013 and 2015 and were enjoying a serious boom. That same year, Marston’s On-Trade Report noted a 15 percent increase in the value of craft beer, all while sales of mainstream lager and cask ales were falling. In other words? Craft was in, and traditional lager was most definitely out. 

For Sam McMeekin, who co-founded Gipsy Hill Brewery in 2014 in south London, craft beer’s boom meant a world of infinite possibility. ‘I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily been a golden time,’ he says. ‘But there was definitely a time where we could sell everything that we made, and we could kind of make anything. I don’t mean that in the sense of bad beer, obviously, or in trying to mug off craft beer consumers, I just mean that it was a beautifully innovative and creative time.’

From an industry point of view, craft beer is really, really suffering

But since 2019, the trade has been on an overall decline. The pandemic saw the volume of beer being produced by indies fall by 40 percent, and in 2020, more than 80 percent of independent breweries reported falling sales, citing inadequate government support. In the years that followed, things started to look up, with the number of British breweries rising by 86 in 2021 to reach a total of 1902. But in 2024? The Society of Independent Brewers and Associates (SIBA) UK Brewery Tracker shows there are fewer independent breweries than at the start of 2023. A number of well-loved London brewers from the industry’s boom years have quietly down-scaled or disappeared; Brick entered administration in 2023, and 2020-founded Exale ceased trading beer in January 2024, switching to a small batch menu in its own Walthamstow taproom. 

Faking it

We know what you’re thinking. ‘But craft beer is everywhere, mate,’ you’re saying to yourself, tucking in to an ice-cold IPA and sneering at the Heineken on display. ‘I literally only drink Neck Oil.’ 

Well, sorry to break the bad news mate, but Neck Oil ain’t craft. And we don’t mean that in a gatekeepy, I-like-craft-beer-more-than-you way. What with its quirky, graphic label and hazy pour, Neck Oil certainly looks like craft – it might even taste like craft – but it doesn’t actually fit the bill of what craft beer really is.

The Society of Independent Brewers and Associates (SIBA) says that craft beer must fulfil two criteria: first, production volume must be less than one percent of the total UK beer market. Second, it must be fully independent. To be exact: ‘A truly independent brewer is a sole trader, a partnership, a limited company or a public company but is not a subsidiary of a larger firm with attendant or other subsidiary brewing interests.’ Got it?

Beer taps in a pub
Photograph: Shutterstock

Neck Oil, and Beavertown at large, was founded in 2011 in N1, named after its de Beauvoir home (by Logan Plant, the son of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, no less). In 2018 it sold a 49 percent stake to Heineken for £40 million then sold up completely in 2022, probably for a whole lot more. ‘The sales figures on Neck Oil are astonishing,’ says Pete Brown, a beer expert and author of Clubland: How The Working Men's Club Shaped Britain. ‘It’s become one of those brands you expect to see in a pub by the Stella and the John Smiths. An astonishing success.’ Beavertown beer saw sales surge by 500 percent after the Heineken buy-out. ‘But most people drinking it?’ Brown says. ‘[Have] no idea it’s owned by Heineken.’

A similar tale goes for other crafty-looking breweries. Camden Town brewery was founded in 2010 and bought out in 2015 in a reported £85m deal by AB InBev; that’s the brand that owns Budwesier, Beck’s and Stella. BrewDog states on its website that it ‘is a craft beer because it fulfils all the criteria’, and while it’s not owned by another corporation, it is the seventh biggest beer brand in Europe, churning out 367m cans of beer in 2023. By SIBA’s definition, it certainly ain’t craft beer. Far from it. 

So while punters chug pint after pint of Big Lager IPA, small, independent craft breweries have been getting silently squeezed out. ‘From a punter’s point of view, they’re still saying they love craft beer,’ says Brown. ‘But from an industry point of view, craft beer is really, really suffering.’

Just a normal bloke 

Big corporations buying out craft breweries isn’t the only thing small brewers have had to contend with. Somewhere along the line, a new trend started to sweep through London. Squaring up to the bearded, beanie-wearing men in shorts was a new kind of counterculture: the normal bloke.

The normal bloke was not interested in skinny jeans, nor plum sours. He’d go for a packet of scampi fries over the chorizo bar snacks. He ordered a round of lagers, filmed himself outside the Blue Posts, and fancied a fry up on the weekend (although the greasy spoon was actually Normans, and the waiters were wearing Burberry). Having alternative tastes was no longer cool; instead, trendy Londoners were being obsessively, aggressively mainstream (rich young TikTokers have even been accused of ‘romanticising working class culture’).

It was partly a generational thing (as Brown says, ‘craft beer drinkers were suddenly in their 40s’), partly another passing trend, but the interest for fancy craft beer was waning. Rising from its ashes was a different drink: Guinness. We were (still are) obsessed with the stuff. And with it, classic lagers, John Smiths and a shit load of ‘Mediterranean lager’. 

From a barman perspective, the switch was clear. ‘Guinness is a mad one,’ says Lewis at the Salisbury. ‘Everywhere, Guinness has gone through the roof. It’s been our biggest seller for the last year.’ 

The £10 pint

Another nail in the coffin for the craft beer phenomenon? The cost of living crisis. (Of course.) According to Lewis, the biggest factor stopping pub-goers going for the craft on tap is the price. ‘Normally the IPA and pale ales are expensive,’ he says. ‘Whereas the lagers tend to be cheaper. And people are going for cheap we’ve even noticed a big uptake in cask beer, the real ales, the hand pump ones.’

‘[Indie] brewers are facing spiralling costs,’ explains Brown. ‘It just so happens that if you name something that brewers really need, like energy, that’s at the top of the list of things that are going up in price. You’re using a thousand litres of water a day. The war in Ukraine means the cost of grain has gone through the roof.’

If we passed on all our costs, a pint would be a tenner

It’s all the more significant when you’re competing with the biggest dogs in the beer game, who can afford to slash their prices in the name of undercutting the competition. Gipsy Hill’s McMeekin knows it all too well: ‘We have received price increases on just about every single front,’ he confirms. But because of the cost of living crisis, ‘we have not been able to pass all of those on to the consumer. If we did pass on all our costs, they’d just stop going to the pub. Because a pint would be a tenner.’

Amid all of this, brewers have been calling for more government support since pre-pandemic times, in the form of alcohol duty breaks and VAT cuts; McMeekin explains the industry still pays the second highest alcohol tax rate in the whole of Europe. When London breweries Brick Brewery and Brew By Numbers went into administration last year (they’ve now been consolidated into Yorkshire’s Black Sheep), Brick’s founder warned: ‘I’m sorry to say that, unless the market improves significantly or further support is made available, many more pubs and breweries will fail.’ Meanwhile, Exale brewery cited ‘unprecedented challenges and spiralling costs’ for the change to its business model. 

Inside an empty pub
Photograph: Ella Doyle for Time OutThe Salisbury Hotel

In 2024, indie breweries are still calling for better support. As well as a fairer tax system and a 20 percent increase in ‘Draught Relief’, SIBA are calling for a ‘Guest Beer Guarantee’, where all pubs would be required to dedicate at least one beer line to a guest beer to help support local small independent breweries, in addition to making it clear to consumers who brews the beer that’s served.

The future of craft

According to Lewis, the biggest challenge now is appealing to the younger generation, who are more likely to head home at midnight after a couple of pints of low or no. ‘They’re just not as into beer as the older generations,’ he says. ‘For the first time this year I’ve got a whole non-alcoholic fridge; IPAs, pale ales, fruit ciders, Guinness, prosecco, Lucky Saint on tap; and they all sell pretty well. And you’ll see all the breweries have started doing alcohol free options now.’ According to Brown, craft brewers are also starting to produce more and more of (yep, you guessed it), lager. 

I’ve now got a whole non-alcoholic fridge; IPAs, Guinness, prosecco, Lucky Saint on tap

So is craft beer dead? Or is it just being pummelled temporarily unconscious by market forces? ‘The unique, wacky, weird, wild craft beers of the 2016 to 2019 era probably aren’t as popular as they were,’ McMeekin admits. ‘But it depends how you’re defining craft beer.’ Sales of Gipsy Hill’s session IPA, for example, have almost doubled, and in London’s pubs, the brand is looking at 15 to 20 percent annual growth year on year. ‘It’s a vibrant, growing market,’ he says. ‘Just not for your super niche jalapeno and pineapple sours.’

So, the appetite is still there for independent beer (even if it’s not milkshake flavoured), though not the £10-a-pint price tag. As Lewis says: ‘I like to support the local industry, but really, craft breweries just do really great beers. It’s always worth it.’ Craft is here to stay, as long as you (and the government) start coughing up for it. It’s either that or you can live in the hands of Big Lager forever. As for the beards and the fluorescent pudding-flavoured IPAs? Maybe some things are best left in the past.

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