Somewhere amongst the craft beer revolution the mass produced lagers that line supermarket shelves were demonised, no thanks to A-B InBev and a dash of UK lout culture. It probably didn’t take much for some people to come to this conclusion, not least those who’ve read anything by Naomi Klein.
I only drink mass produced lager at certain times, and I’m happy to tell people how much I prefer the wealth of beer styles beyond Carlsberg, Fosters and Carlsberg, but something about the portrayal of the big beer producers isn’t quite fair.
Part of the variance between attitudes to craft beer and beer produced on a much larger scale – and the clue is in the names of the former classification – is related to craftsmanship. Microbreweries are more hands on; they require the skill and ingenuity of a watchful brewer and they share the allure of slow food, local produce and a more traditional way of doing things.1
What strikes me as strange though is the lack of respect for the workmanship involved in producing beers at an entirely different scale, the macro scale. At the risk of pissing off the realms of craft beer lovers I’ve met over the last 18 months there’s a – for want of a better word – hypocrisy at work when it comes to mass produced beer.2,3
I stand shoulder to shoulder with those who praise the magnitude and sheer audacity of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, a modern wonder of engineering and a monument to the unbounded elasticity of human thought. I’m not expecting that people start to compare such a feat of human endeavour with a few dazzling mash tuns or a shiny new bottling line, but take it as exaggerated example of the way that craft beer production is praised whilst mass produced beer is mocked, something which doesn’t necessarily happen in other areas of human pursuit. In Three Sheets To The Wind Pete Brown visits the Miller brewery in Milwaukee and scoffs at the statistic-heavy-copper-light tour (rightly so, I’m sure). But Miller’s statistics hint at something oft forgotten: the efficiency of economies of scale and the brain power that helped achieve that.
It’s so secret that micro brewing isn’t exactly the most environmentally sustainable pursuit one can follow. I’m sure there’s good reason why rainwater and wind power aren’t viable solutions for the average craft brewery, let alone a home brewer. And mass produced lager travels a long way as its owners desperately try to monopolise every corner of the earth with their brand logo. But at a pure production level I think there’s something marvellous (in the truest sense of the world) at the way beer is brewed to meet the huge demand of Lloyd’s No.1 Bar and Tesco.
Having visited the maltings of Coors in Burton (just the maltings, not even any of the brewing buildings) I can vouch that the scale of beer production at that level is a feat of engineering and science that deserves praise up there with the best craft brewers. To build such facilities and maintain them is not something they should be ashamed of, in the same way that smaller, independent brewers are unerringly proud of their facilities and production methods, however quirky and different.
Where mass production loses its charm is in the kitchens and back rooms of budding home brewers across the globe. Because craft brewing is accessible. Anyone can set up a brewery. Perhaps few will ever nurture the skills to make truly great beer, but perhaps fewer still possess the aptitude to design the systems of mass production that make beer and countless other commodities on a scale that we take for granted.
Don’t get me wrong, in the course of praising the economies of scales of larger breweries I in no way want to disparage the work of any of the craft brewers that make the beers that I would argue are the best in the world. But even if you don’t like the taste, the marketing or the general arrogance of the mass producing oligarchs of the beer world, I don’t think it’s fair to leverage that viewpoint against the technology and expertise that goes into making them as tasteless and bland as the majority of the population prefer. I would argue when you (and I) do so, we do because of preconceptions (some but certainly not all of which are misconceptions) about who drinks what and where. Carling might be the drink of stag doers in Blackpool, but that doesn’t mean there’s no wonder in how they make it taste so much like corn and piss, so deliberately and so consistently.
I’m all for reducing beer miles, improving the quality of beer and encouraging diversity (something to be discussed shortly) and I reckon that to project negative perceptions on the larger brewers may at times in fact be a backwards form of justice. However I argue the case that mass production itself is not necessarily bad, and is in fact necessary for the sustainability of some beers. Mass production in fact can be something that deserves a little of our awe and appreciation. I believe it is a disservice to the engineers and scientists of days gone by and those of days yet to come as the population of the earth increases steadily.
I apologies for the stereotypes (unfortunately necessary in an attempt at succinctness) and I welcome your arguments for and against, partly in the hope I’m wrong and I can carry on hating A-B InBev unabated. 41 Although my mate Sam brews uses an old Hotpoint washing machine drum as a mash tun, which is more Scrapheap Challenge than medieval 2 Which many of the brewers I know acknowledge, perhaps with a hint of jealousy at one aspect of mass production: consistency 3 Digressing slightly, define mass produced anyway? Thornbridge: mass or craft? Brooklyn: mass or craft? Sierra Nevada…you get the picture. 4Where I make a distinction here is between economies of scale and production methods that save money to the detriment of product quality.