Saturday, 30 June 2012

What next for frontier brewers?

Ay oop,

     I was talking with a friend recently about the next big thing to hit real ale and beer in general. Obviously circumnavigating any assessment of where mega conglomerates and fizz packers would strike next, I focused on the smaller brewers, so often, even if not exclusively, at the forefront of beer innovation and trends.

Ten or fifteen years ago, in my experience, beers were still brown and malty. Some admittedly strayed into paler territory, in fact of course, Stones in Sheffield was always pale, but largely the output was mid brown to dark brown, plus a stout or two. The only noticeably hoppy stuff was from Burton Bridge (Empire) Freeminer (Trafalgar IPA), White Shield, and Whim, Hartington bitter, perhaps.

It turns out, unbeknown to me, and seemingly the rest of the larger percentage of British brewers at the time, that American brewers were putting huge amounts of hops into their beers years ago, and pushing the boundaries of what particular styles should be like, and experimenting with producing styles not native to their continent, or even their nearest ally, the UK.

Assuming then that we have spent the last decade in the UK catching up with the USA in terms of hop quantities especially, I consider that we are getting ever nearer to matching our Atlantic cousins in terms of bite. However, I wonder, will we continue to chase them, or pursue another countries style, or more intriguingly, forge our own way?

I mean, even the stoic world of stouts and old ales has been Yankified - for the better?

At present, where hops are concerned it seems that IKE is the start of the beginning of the end for producing equally hop forward beers. Reaching ever dizzying heights of IBU is impressive but ultimately I want to be seduced rather than hospitalised by a beer. Don't get me wrong, Steel City 666 is still a matchlessly hoppy and delicious beer. And I realise that the folks at SCB see other characteristics in their IKE touched beer other than hop induced pain.... 

 Overall though , after near on a decade of hop heavy dry bitter beers, I can see a desire for something a bit more rounded, or maybe at the opposite end of the flavour spectrum, or put another way, new. 

Of course trends have already emerged, but even then a scarcity of good knowledge of American beer styles prevents me from identifying where Black IPA and Red Hop/Rye ales originated, but its clear we are catching up, even if not quickly, rather than leading. IKE can take us to the eye watering heights of some overseas beers but it has to be in a magnificently complex beer to make it palatable.

So as for new trends, alas, the UK seems alone in striving for great flavour in sub 3% beers and doesn't seem to have a NEW specific identifably British style, or direction. Since the USA has only been brewing  the better smaller brewer and innovative output for 20 or 30 years, its surely time to set a divergent and desirably unique beer direction in the UK, so that we can match, rather than follow US beers.

And, that of course does not even have to mean matching their ascorbic, dry, bitter, Belgian IPA, smoked whatever and red ingredient output. To be really good, the UK needs to keep up with the USA whilst also defining itself, not based on what has been UK beer for a century, but what is and can be UK beer now.

In terms of future styles and developments, I personally think a combination of cask, KeyKeg and Bottle conditioned (yep, that;s right, BCA, but really (hopefully) only produced by competent bottlers) output is the future, but giving equal stall to each medium. I don't think one of the three will outstrip the other as gradually, well informed punters come to equally appreciate and part money for the benefits of each style of dispense.

What I do foresee is, whilst carrying on with hop forward ales, assertive dark brews, remarkable lagers and steadfastly traditional bitters, the UK will find its feet pushing uniquely British unfiltered beers. Unfiltered KeyKeg starts to plugs the divide between cask and KK to some extent, unfiltered cask is a revelation, if only in the early stages (Waen spring to mind, yummy!) and unfiltered bottles have been around in Europe and in some small way the UK for years. Tasting Williams Bros Grozet from the conditioning tanks years ago at Strathaven was a highlight of my drinking years I can assure you. And the clamour for unfiltered Pilsner Urquell was legendary.

But do you agree?

And if not, what do you think will be the future direction of British brewed beer, be it in cask, KeyKeg, or bottle?

Wee Beefy.


  1. I don't agree that British brewers have been copying the beers made by the Americans. Inspired, without a doubt. But pale 'n' hoppy is distinctively different from American Pale Ale by being more bitter, less caramelly and lower in alcohol to fit British drinking behaviour.

    1. There are differences yes, I was referencing perhaps more of the kind of styles that I most regularly encounter in the Sheffield Tap, and Rutland and Shakespeares here in Shefield. Thornbridge, Buxton, Magic Rock, Summer Wine and Steel City all feature regularly, with a strong reference even if not a desire to recreate American styles.

      Its interesting the description you give of the US versions - if I'm to be honest, even though its meant to be amazing, I don't get on with the likes of Stone, Flying Dog, Odell and others, maybe that caramelly edge is what turns me off?

      Either way I still think there will be a change of direction, during which perhaps the distinctiveness of British ale across all styles will show itself more strongly.