Nineteen-ninety-five was an odd year musically. Britpop was at its peak, with Oasis and Blur battling it out in a music industry manufactured ‘battle of the bands’ with two of their weakest singles. Robson and Jerome were at the height of their powers, and Michael Jackson was singing about elephants and clutching onto dead trees in the video for his single ‘Earth Song’.
Beneath this, a music scene was in full swing. Born from the ashes of Hardcore rave music in the early 90’s, Jungle / Drum and Bass was lighting up nightclub and warehouse dancefloors nationwide (there were no illegal raves anymore - the Criminal Justice Act put paid to that). However, despite its popularity, it was barely troubling the charts (aside from novelty vocal tracks like M-Beat’s ‘Incredible’) and got very little mainstream recognition.
This all changed in September of that year, when Goldie released his landmark album, Timeless. Probably one of the first Drum and Bass albums that was more than the sum of its parts, it was released on Pete Tong’s FFFR label, a subsidiary of PolyGram (see where I’m going here?) to huge critical acclaim.
As well as opening up the ears of new listeners to Drum and Bass, it was loved by junglists too, and still remains one of the key albums in the Jungle / Drum and Bass canon. It’s a truly expansive and ambitious album, with the first track (A version of the single Inner City Life) clocking in at 21 minutes, and it certainly can’t be described as dumbed down.
So what’s all this got to do with beer? We’re living in interesting times in the world of craft beer at the moment, with small breweries, particularly those in the US, being bought out by large mega breweries. This upsets a lot of people, who chuck around phrases like ‘sellout’, and the likes of Brewdog (who are well on their way to becoming a large mega brewery themselves) who refuse to stock the beers of breweries who, in their eyes, have sold out to ‘the man’.
I’m no fan of big business, hell, I’m probably considered to be most as a raving communist, but I like to take a more pragmatic view. Going back to Drum and Bass again for a minute, when I’m out raving (which is pretty rare these days), it’s very rare that I can go to the bar and get a beer I would even consider drinking at home (as it is, I generally stick to JD & Diet Coke).
This is mainly because clubs buy from big distributors, who have the economies of scale and the reach to knock out beer cheap, easily and quickly. Now, I’m not saying that I’m ever likely to get a bottle of Fantôme at a club in central Birmingham, but wouldn’t it be great to get a bottle of Lagunitas, rather than having to begrudgingly pay £4.50 for a bottle of Sol?
Also, if we’re seeing more craft beer kicking around, then this is ultimately good for the craft beer scene as a whole. The person who picks up a bottle of Goose Island at their local Wetherspoons could be inspired to hunt around for more similar beers in the future, and as big breweries get more craft into their distribution channels, then there’s going to be more opportunity for people to have epithanies of this nature.
Now, obviously the elephant in the room here is quality. It’s argued that once huge conglomorates get their hands on a craft brewery, quality takes a dive - Goose Island’s IPA is a case in point here. Whether it’s making economies in the brewhouse by using hop extract or (God forbid) adjuncts, or increased production stressing yeast strains out (as Matt Curtis mentioned the other week in his post about Goose Island), there’s a lot of problems that introducing the money men can cause.
That said, I’d like to hope that lessons have been learned. The appeal of craft is not (despite what certain CAMRA die-hards may claim) branding or marketing, it’s first and foremost flavour that is key here. Putting a flashy label on your beer, calling it craft, or trying to buy the kudos of a brewery’s name will get you so far, but if drinkers don’t like what’s in the bottle, can or keg, they won’t come back to it (as demonstrated by the ‘craft’ experiments of the likes of Marstons and Greene King).
I get that it’s disappointing when a brewery takes the coin of the likes of InBev or Heineken, but there are literally thousands of small, independent breweries that will still make great beer, and I’d like to think that the more mainstream craft breweries will be a gateway to something more interesting for millions of drinkers, much like Timeless was a gateway into Drum and Bass for me.
(Header image - Cash Register 99.99 by zizzybaloobah)
(R.I.P Diane Charlemagne)