Wales is often overlooked when writers analyse Britain’s broad brewing community, but 2015 can go down as the year Welsh Beer firmly announced itself to the rest of the UK.
Back in 2014, Richard Taylor over at The BeerCast posted a list of breweries to watch – all from his native Scotland and, of course, England. I pointed out the omission of Wales in his follow-up blog, which he said was due to his poor knowledge of Welsh beer.
It’s not as if Wales has a poor history of brewing. The ancient inhabitants of Wales gave us braggot, a style which fuels experimentation in breweries the world over. Felinfoel, on the outskirts of Llanelli, were the first brewery outside of the US to can their beers, shipping their canned beer in 1935. They were pioneers of a technique that would become the industry standard (before falling out of fashion during the craft beer revolution). Brains, of Cardiff, sponsored the Welsh national rugby team for a number of years and produce one of the finest examples of a typically British beer – the dark mild.
The capital also has one of the most exciting beer scenes in the whole United Kingdom. Cardiff Beer Quarter is ever growing, far larger than you would expect from a city of such small size. It recently saw Bierkeller move in, featuring a German themed beer hall of the same name and the sister-bar Around the World in 80 Beers feature some questionable choices but also include brews from small, local breweries and well-known craft beers alongside the huge variety of macro-lager.
And now Wales has its first Champion Beer of Britain.
The Tiny Rebel story is quite remarkable. (Full disclosure – I work for them, and I have done for nearly two years, but that will not affect my comment.) In just three short years, brothers-in-law Brad and Gazz have gone from brewing in a garage to capturing a host of prestigious awards, now including British beer’s top gong.
In 2012, I went to my first beer festival – the Great Welsh. At the very front of the space was a big, colourful bar with a cartoon teddy bear – not what I’d been led to expect from a CAMRA festival. It was my first stop, being the first and the most striking bar in the place and the beer I ordered was lovely. I’d come after reading Pete Brown’s first book Man Walks Into A Pub(which was still in my backpack) and low-and-behold the man himself was at the same bar.
I got Pete to sign my book and told him that I didn’t expect anything as youthful, exciting or cool as this Tiny Rebel bar. It was good to see that it wasn’t as stuffy and alienating as many, including himself, had written about. He agreed, and as far as I can tell, he still thinks Tiny Rebel are alright (and is possibly psychic).
— Urban Tap House (@UrbanTapHouse) July 30, 2015
After speaking to Pete I spoke to Brad from Tiny Rebel. I explained that I was pretty new to beer but already hooked and cheekily asked if any jobs were going. No was the answer – the brewery hadn’t even been open for a year, so expansion was a little way off.
As it was so young, the brewery didn’t qualify to enter that year’s competition. But they did the next year, and bossed it. Tiny Rebel took a clean sweep – Gold, Silver and Bronze – at the Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival 2013, and quickly became “Wales’ new darling brewery”.
About four months later, they opened a bar in Cardiff. They’d got in before the likes of BrewDog had bothered opening in the Welsh capital, so can firmly claim to have opened Cardiff’s, if not Wales’, first dedicated craft beer bar. And I got myself a job there. (Not to suggest that it’s down to me in any way, but things clearly haven’t gone downhill since.)
In 2014, they defended their Champion Beer of Wales title, with FUBAR taking the gold this time. Urban Tap House was voted the Best New Bar in Britain by Shortlist Magazine and, in 2015, Cardiff CAMRA’s Pub of the Year.
And a whirlwind few years was topped with Cwtch winning Champion Beer of Britain this month.
Tiny Rebel are certainly at the forefront of the Welsh beer scene, but they’re not alone. Brains have developed a subsidiary craft brewery that is doing quite well. Small independents like Waen and Hopcraft are going from strength to strength, the latter having opened Cardiff’s newest craft beer bar. Old stalwarts like Otley and Celt are still strong presences but have not pushed the envelope as much as the more vibrant, youthful Tiny Rebel.
But there’s more to come. Since July 2013, 21 breweries have opened in Wales, taking the total to 80. These new Welsh breweries can only add to Wales’ brewing pedigree and further champion the quality of Welsh beer.
Boss Brewing from Swansea, Heavy Industry from just outside Denbigh and Crafty Devil brewing in suburban Cardiff are already brewing to a very high standard.
The Welsh capital will be welcoming some of the country’s finest brewing companies at Cardiff BrewFest, run by Brad from Tiny Rebel and Nick Otley of, unsurprisingly, Otley. It will be the first independent beer festival in Cardif, in the same year that the Great Welsh Beer and Cider festival was cancelled (or postponed indefinitely).
Wales is blessed with a natural resource vital to producing beer. Welsh water is some of the best you’ll find, and is respected internationally. A little bit of experimentation with this world-class raw material, as Cwm Rhondda Ales have started, could be exactly what we need. Instead of Burtonizing our water to replicate the hugely popular pale ales of the 19th and 20th Centuries, perhaps Welsh brewers should be replicating another beer style that became so world renowned. Our water is similar to Pilsen’s, which gave the world lager. Maybe we can develop something totally new with this soft water, that will firmly place Wales on the brewing map.
Whatever happens, 2015 has surely been Welsh brewing’s finest year.