Great start for local heroes

The amount of business that gets done at Christmas is just monstrous. Despite being a lauded beer writer – with my name engraved on tankards and every­thing – in December I roll up my sleeves and get stuck in like a migrant labourer.

Not only did I spend several days in a cold, unheated warehouse picking and packing boxes for our mail-order service, I also found myself in at the deep end at the shop, trying to deal with the logistics of stock being sold faster than it was arriving. Not that I’m suggesting it was all down to me – all the staff were troopers too. Should we have been in any doubt about what hard work meant, the experience of too small a shop selling an unfeasible amount of beer made it very clear. We certainly earned our night out.

As usual, sales of premium bottled beer went through the roof, while everything else was a bit flat. In terms of volume, for a couple of weeks we sold nearly two-thirds of what we had on the premises. In terms of what was sold, there is no doubt we are in the throes of a beer renaissance.

Many customers wanted to give bottled British beer as a gift this year, and the more local the better. This was great news for the local Ilkley Brewery, which is about to upgrade its plant to a 20-barrel operation. If the gaping hole on the shelves where the Ilkley beers should have been is anything to go by, the brewery is going to have one hell of a year. More generally, people are finally applying some of the foodie principles to beer.

Conversely, Belgian beer seems to be on the slide a little, which is particularly bad news in a year where VAT and duty increases are going to be stacked against its success.

The real challenge is going to be with American beer, which will be largely subject to the same tax pressures as Belgian brews. UK drinkers (Leeds drinkers, at least) seem to love US craft beer. It is tasty, easy to understand and is going to continue to be a phenomenon. However, it is possible its incredible growth will be hampered by external factors.

The success of American-style craft beer raises a question: why aren’t more people trying to do something similar in the UK? The answer – perhaps surprisingly – is that they are. Across the country, there are small breweries (and some large ones) producing beautiful beers made with armfuls of American hops.

These beers are the ones that are going to get people interested, that will excite new consumers with their overt fruity hop flavours and easy drinkability. These are the beers that will force a change in the drinking habits of a once beer-centric nation. Paradoxically, the pressures that are being brought to bear on the import market are the very things that are going to help the domestic market.

So, if my last column of 2010 seemed a little pessimistic – with its talk of rising VAT and duty hikes – my first of 2011 has a very different slant. Yes, it may well turn out to be a tough year, but everywhere that there are challenges there are also fresh opportunities. There has never been a better time in the UK to be into good beer, and 2011 may turn out to be the best year yet.