With the rise of craft beer showing no sign of falling flat, Will Hawkes looks at how its rich and potent diversity is changing the culture of brewing
At first sight, the old brewery at Thornbridge Hall doesn't appear particularly significant. On a frosty February morning, with thick snow coating
the surrounding Derbyshire hills, this humble outbuilding appears more cosy than culture-changing.
Nonetheless, it's an important spot for British beer lovers. Why? Because it was here that the craft beer revolution currently shaking up Britain's brewing industry really got started.
Ten years after Thornbridge Brewery was set up, much has changed. Craft beer is increasingly big business. The likes of Thornbridge (which now makes the vast majority of its beer in a far larger plant a few miles down the road) and Scottish brewer Brewdog are, if not exactly household names, then on their way to becoming so. Pubs and bars, particularly in the big cities, are increasingly likely to offer a craft-beer option. Craft beer has reached a crossroads: will it prove to be just a fad or, as some of its more excitable advocates claim, the future of brewing? 2015 will be a pivotal year.
Few craft breweries are better placed in the market than Thornbridge. A stroll around its big Riverside brewery, opened in 2009, demonstrates the sort of assets that have to be invested in to ensure everything is as it should be. Half-a-dozen new 100-hectolitre cylindroconical fermentation
vessels have just been installed, a new bottling line is in the pipeline and, perhaps most striking of all, there's a sizable laboratory, where the brewers can ensure that every batch is up to the required standard.
Quality is paramount here. Head brewer Rob Lovatt says: "I've been in the situation where I've had a beer I've enjoyed for quite a while and I've had one bad pint of it on cask, and I've not gone back. You have got to be consistent. People that aren't consistent might get lucky some of the time, but not all of the time. I think people will get weeded out. The way to be successful is producing quality."
It's a message that's getting through. In North Yorkshire you'll find Rooster's, another brewery that has played a key role in changing British beer culture since it was founded in 1994.
"Some people say the beer is metallic - and if you drink the beer straight from the can, it will be metallic!" he says. "But the new cans are lined; if you're sensible, you won't know the difference.
Cask beer comes from a metal vessel. It's not new. "There's also no exposure to light with cans; the best bottles in that respect are the brown ones,
but cans are better. And you can get cans into different places - bars that wouldn't otherwise be able to stock our beer."
While not everyone is convinced cans are better - Thornbridge is sticking to bottles for now - their introduction demonstrates how the industry is seeking to get beer to the customer in better condition.
And it's not just British brewers. If anything, the focus on quality in American craft beer is greater, and the steps taken to ensure that beer crosses the Atlantic in perfect condition are impressive.
"Beer is perishable," says Andrew Morgan of the Bottle Shop, a Kent-based importer and retailer that has quickly built a strong reputation. "You can get the beer refrigerated in the US or on the boat coming over, and as soon as it gets to the UK, it all goes tits-up. We think the cold chain
needs to continue in the UK, and we're going to offer that service to UK brewers too. It will mean a small increase in price, but we think the beer will be better."
The UK is the third largest export market for American craft beer, and a lot of the most popular beers - those with a strong hop character, which is perishable - are those that will benefit most from the cold chain.
That's important, says Bob Pease, chief executive of the US-based Brewers Association. "The key to the growing popularity of craft beer is flavour. Craft-beer drinkers are often recognised for their interest in the citrusy, floral and piney aromas associated with hoppy American beers, but
we also see growing demand for the malt-forward styles, which can have sweeter, toasted and biscuity characteristics."
All part of the family
It's this diversity that may prove to be craft beer's greatest strength. It's often assumed that craft beer as a category excludes Britain's traditional family brewers, but that's not really the case. Many would say that they've been making 'craft beer' for a long time, and plenty of them, like Wadworth in Devizes, Wiltshire, are only too happy to embrace the growing popularity of flavoursome beer.
Paul Sullivan, Wadworth's sales and marketing director, highlights one of the key challenges that brewers face: ensuring their beer is in peak condition when it reaches the customer, who - and this is crucial - must want to drink it.
"You should always give people the chance to try before they buy - they are much more likely to buy a pint of a new beer if they've had a sip or two first," he says. "The natural innovators won't be afraid to try something new, but the mass market is less confident.
"Staff training is essential - the perfect 'store and pour' is everything and it's really important that, as the beers change, the staff have a strong knowledge of new beers and an appreciation for them. Wine has become successful through knowledge, and we need to do the same for beer."
This is increasingly the case, says Fozard. He believes the rise of social media has helped inform people. "There's lots more interaction between breweries and customers on social media now," he says. "Lots of consumers are really well-informed on beer - there's a shift toward quality and consistency from the consumer point of view. Consumers are looking for quality; they're trusting breweries that make good beer."
The explosion of interest in craft beer has created spiralling diversity. Not just American beer,but Czech (a number of London pubs now offer unpasteurised Czech pilsner from the tank), Belgian and Italian too: the first Italian craft-beer bar ('The Italian Job') has just opened in Chiswick.
As quality and diversity rises, other avenues open up. Some customers are increasingly dissatisfied with traditional glasses: like wine, craft beer often comes with touch of theatre. Does glassware really make a difference, though? Plenty of brewers think so, and manufacturers are moving to fill this gap.
Heather Lovatt, head of marketing at tableware manufacturer Steelite, says that glassware can improve the drinking experience.
"Selecting the right glasses to serve beer in can make a big difference," she says. "Choosing to go with a budget, mass-produced glass option can ruin the beer. They're often made of thicker glass, causing the beer to warm up too quickly and go flat."
Others would argue that all that is really needed is clean glassware in good condition, although the suitability of the classic pint glass for beers that are often 7% ABV and stronger is doubtful. Then again, session-strength beer - anything around 4% ABV - appears to be making a comeback in the craft-beer world, courtesy of the rise of the session IPA.
"There's been a huge amount of attention on strong beers; it's great they exist and I love to drink them," says Fozard, "but when it comes to session IPAs, pale ale, best bitters - I'd be surprised ifmost breweries' best-selling beer wasn't a session-strength beer. That's what drives the business.
Session IPA is a name for something that already existed. People are interested in hop flavour; the session IPA offers that level of flavour without too much alcohol."
Hops are crucial to many of the new generation's most fÁªted beers: the Kernel's IPAs, Thornbridge's Jaipur, Brewdog's Punk IPA and Beavertown's Gamma Ray among them.
"It's generally the key factor," says Fozard. "It depends on the consumer. There are beer geeks and people who just like going to the pub for a pint, but hops are still where it's at."
The only rival to the IPAs appears to be pale lager: Camden and Meantime, the two biggest of the new generation of London brewers, both focus on lager. It could be that this year sees more brewers join them. Certainly, that's what Lovatt would like to see happen. "I'd like to see fewer hop-forward beers," he says. "It would be good to see more focus on malt and yeast. German styles are very close to my heart: long lagering, cold fermentation temperatures, sticking to style. There's no point in lagering for 10 weeks if you're just going to hop the hell out of it. It's the intricacies and nuances of brewing lager - it would be nice if people understood those more."
One thing does come through loud and clear, though: the British beer scene has never been more interesting or more complex. Navigating this new world requires knowledge and care.
- Beavertown, www.beavertownbrewery.co.uk, 020 8525 9884
- Brewdog, www.brewdog.com, 07508 582789
- Camden Town, www.camdentownbrewery.com, email@example.com.
- Meantime, www.meantimebrewing.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rooster's, www.roosters.co.uk - 01423 359533 (Beer Paradise)
- The Kernel, www.thekernelbrewery.com, email@example.com
- Thornbridge, www.thornbridgebrewery.co.uk, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Wadworth, www.wadworth.co.uk - 01380 723361