Such is Britain's growing thirst for craft beer, that a once endangered species - the specialist off-licence - is enjoying something of a revival. But where should you buy your beer?
Love it or hate it, craft beer has re-energised the British beer scene, and given a serious boost to that once seemingly doomed entity, the specialist off-licence. If you prefer to swerve the supermarkets and buy more interesting and original beers from fellow hop-heads, then there has never been a better time to be alive.
Today, what Brewdog are promising will be the ultimate offy, Bottledog, will open in London, at the King's Cross end of Gray's Inn Road. The first of a planned national chain, it will sell not just UK and international beers, including draught refills for your growler (no, that isn't a euphemism), but also homebrew equipment, glassware, books and more. Like Manchester's Beermoth, whose basement space hosts meetings of local homebrewing enthusiasts, tasting sessions and meet-the-brewer events, Bottledog will be both a shop and, in order to lock-in its hardcore regulars, a community hub for likeminded craft beer geeks.
If such diversification and engagement (mimicking what indie record shops such as Rough Trade East have done) is the headline news here, more modest craft beer outlets are opening on an almost weekly basis. Many of these are opening in less fashionable, suburban locations too, emphasising that if there is one thing that people will travel for, it is good beer.
Near me, in Manchester, Horwich's Blackedge Brewery has just opened its Tottering Temple, and the Liquor Shop is now bringing much bottled goodness to Prestwich. These join, to name but a few: Altrincham's Bier Cell; the locally-focused Great Ale Year Round on Bolton Market; Micro Bar's small shop in the Arndale; and Stockport's Beer Shop and cask ale bar. You will have your own local favourites, but from Edinburgh's unassuming Cornelius, with its lovingly compiled stock (which goes deep on Scottish/ Scandinavian breweries: Fyne, Tempest, Luckie Ales, Mikkeller, Nøgne Ø), to York's almost overwhelming House of Trembling Madness, you are never far these days from a glittering ale emporium. Even the much-shrunken Oddbins is on the case. It stocks over 200 beers across its shops and has recently launched its own craft beer.
Indeed, such is the penetration of craft beer that, increasingly - and, you might argue, these are the real finds - you stumble across refreshing ranges of beer in the least likely of places. Also on Tib Street in Manchester, Loco, a basement mini-mart, pre-dates its near neighbour Beermoth, and itself stocks an impressive stash of beers from near (Salford's First Shop; try its exceptional brew, TEA) and far (Iceland's Einstöck). The family-run Londis convenience store, on Penny Lane in Liverpool, is a reputed Ale-laddin's cave, and if you are ever on the outskirts of Rochdale, keep your eyes peeled for Littleborough's Cocktails. It looks like and in many ways is an ordinary 'corner shop', but this one-time cocktail equipment and specialist drinks store still carries a blinding range of beers from, among others, Flying Dog, Italians Brewfist and Bristol's Wild Beer. Now, you may have you problems with Western capitalism (don't we all), but when you see a proprietor's passion spilling over like that, into living beer evangelism, it makes your heart sing, surely?
The naysayers will complain about the price of all this. True, you will pay top dollar for the obscure, imported bottles. But the vast majority of these outlets also sell many local ales which compare favourably on price with the supermarkets. As for the argument that a rise in specialist bottle shops will only draw even more people away from pubs, I don't buy that. It doesn't chime with my own drinking habits, or those of my beer-hunting mates. Great pubs and beer shops are, surely, complementary, expanding, deepening and reinforcing our collective love of fine beer?
So, with that in mind, where do you buy your favourite beers? And what tips can you share for those hidden, unlikely places which are making the case for good beer?
Photo: Bottledog, the new craft beer shop near King's Cross in London.