Blue sky drinking: small-batch beer

Categories: Expert guidance

A new generation of brewers is busy taking small-batch beer to the next level. Food writer and ‘nano-brewer’ Daniel Tapper explains what it’s all about

Words: Daniel Tapper

Dan Tapper

In today’s artisan obsessed food world, few barometers of ‘craft’ are taken more seriously than size. It is for this reason that the phrase ‘small-batch’ is largely seen as an indicator of pride, integrity and attention to detail.

And in few circles is this notion more widely accepted than in the world of beer. Indeed, in the United States, small-scale brewing is taken so seriously it is enshrined in constitutional law, with larger brewers legally banned from using the word ‘craft’ in any of their marketing.

Though the UK sadly boasts no such decree, independent microbreweries are ruthlessly policed by their own hard-line fans, who simply boycott those who ‘sell-out’. The not-very-PR-friendly buy-outs of both Camden Town and Meantime by SABMilller and InBev serve as recent cautionary tales to anyone considering selling their brewery to a multi-national.

But while many independent brewers are succumbing to the urge to grow, an increasing number are instead turning the other way.

Niche markets
Lured by lower costs and the need for little or no investment, these so-called ‘nano-breweries’ are producing beer on a scale barely larger than your average homebrew. And though located in the likes of garages, sheds and even bedrooms, some are turning out beers that far out-do those created by their more sizeable counterparts. Why? Because unencumbered by the need to produce much profit these nano-breweries can instead focus on creating more progressive beers for smaller, more niche markets.

Stand out examples include the Zapato brewery in Leeds, which boasts a growing reputation for its wild yeast-inflected ales; the 40 Ft brewery in east London, which makes punchy aromatic pales in a Dalston-based shipping container; and the Ad Hop brewery in Liverpool, currently one of the top 20 highest rated breweries in England on the Untappd social network.

Lending more credibility to the nano movement is the fact that a growing number of the UK’s best-known commercial breweries started out as ‘pots-and-pans’ projects, including Bermondsey’s award-winning Brew by Numbers, which began life as a 100-litre kit located next to co-owner Tom Hutching’s bed.

Tiny but handsome
It may sound romantic but setting up a nano-brewery isn’t all plain sailing. Trust me. Inspired by the UK’s fledgling small-batch scene, in 2014 I established my own mini-brewery, The Beak, consisting of a tiny but handsome one-barrel kit in the Yorkshire Dales. Over the following two years I tested, developed, brewed, bottled, labelled and delivered around 3,000 bottles myself, generating roughly zero profit, all the while taking precious time out of my day job.

Indeed, I very nearly gave the whole thing up when one rainy day in December I was forced to make deliveries around Leeds using a shopping trolley joy-ridden from a nearby Asda.

And yet, with little sign of commercial ‘success’ anywhere in sight, the folly that is The Beak continues. Why? Because, as any of the UK’s growing army of nano-brewers will happily tell you, good beer is not about good profit—and it certainly has nothing to do with size.

Five of the best nano brews from Borough Market’s beer bar, The Rake

Oddly Brewery, Oxfordshire
A modern IPA with extra India. This beer is a harmony between the soft tropical fruit and citrus flavour of citra hops and vibrant spices of India masala chai: a very Indian pale ale.

Coffee In The Morning
Tap East, Stratford
The Rake’s east London sister pub boasts its own small-batch brewery headed by rising brewing star Jonny Parks. This corpulent, roasted coffee stout should not be missed under any circumstances.

Shatkora IPA
Caveman Brewing, Kent
Definitely not your average IPA, this unusual pale ale is brewed with Bangladeshi shatkora fruit and kaffir lime leaves. Expect a punchy lime aroma and refreshing grapefruit-like bitterness.

Granadilla Guerrilla
Fierce Beers, Aberdeen
This Scottish small-batch-brewery has been operating for less than a year but is already taking the beer world by storm. Its 5.5% hoppy West Coast style IPA is brimming with seductive passion-fruit flavour.

Admiral Hopper
Beerble Fish Brewing Company, London
All of Beerble’s beers, including this hoppy but impressively balanced pale ale, are brewed by software developer and keen amateur brewer Jason Atherton at the shared co-operative brewery UBrew in Bermondsey.