Microbrewers put froth back into beer
ASINGLE vat bubbles in the corner while the air in the small, high-ceilinged space under a South London railway arch slowly fills with a hoppy smell as the latest batch of Black India Pale Ale gradually ferments.
This is the Kernel microbrewery, one of many new kids on the British beer block that are bucking the downward national trend in beer drinking.
Where once the big multi-nationals accounted for the lion's share of brewery growth, now small, independent brewers are leading the way.
"This stuff's great, way better than the big brand beers," says Max Marcus as he cradles an early afternoon pint of Camden Ink at the Exmouth Arms in London's Clerkenwell.
Microbrewers are tapping into what many see as a weariness with established brands.
"People are moving away from the mainstream rubbish," says Andrew Turner of the recently-opened London Fields brewery. "They want to drink good local stuff."
That 158 breweries have opened in the past year would appear to bear out microbrewers' contention that they are merely tapping into renewed interest in Britain's ale heritage.
"We're easily impressed by exciting Fosters adverts, so we buy their product," says Roger Protz, author of the 'Good Beer Guide'. "But we're tired of drinking the advertising."
Small brewers have also benefited from tax breaks. The so-called progressive beer duty offers 50pc tax relief to brewers producing relatively small quantities. Unsurprisingly, bigger brewers are crying foul.
They say such a favourable tax environment for low-volume producers provides a big incentive for microbreweries to remain micro, while encouraging the emergence of further small brewing enterprises.
And they believe the appeal of cask beer is such that even within the competitive London market, there's plenty of custom to go round.
"The demand is out there, people enjoy our products," says Tanya Marsh of the Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey.
Microbreweries have seen their numbers in Britain rise above 1,000 for the first time in more than 70 years, in contrast to the situation elsewhere in the industry.
Domestic production of beer has dropped from 39 million barrels in 1974 to 27 million last year, as Britons' affection for their national drink has waned.
Conscious of microbreweries' success with cask ale, big brewers are waking up to the potential of more traditional beers.
Some industry analysts think that Molson Coors' 2011 takeover of Sharps, the small Cornish producer of Doom Bar beer, is the first in a process of microbrewery buy-outs.
But many microbrewers insist they would never sell out. Above all, many appreciate that their success resides in their charming local appeal.
Not that they don't have their problems. The smaller fry, for example, simply cannot compete on cost.
Michael Cox, owner of the Still and Star free house in the heart of the City of London, estimates that a barrel of microbrewed beer will generally set him back about £70 (€86.50), against the £50 (€62) he usually pays for a barrel of a more mainstream beer.
For all their legions of new admirers, microbreweries often find themselves shut out of pub distribution networks that balk at elevated prices and the logistical challenges posed by micro-brewers' inability to produce large quantities on demand.
Such struggles make microbrewed beer's success all the more striking.
But Still and Star publican Mr Cox says it's microbrewed beer's quality that will ensure its continued success.
"I buy beer from small, independent brewers because I know that even though it's more expensive, it's just better beer," he says.