Is the boom in craft brewing actually narrowing the choice of different beer styles we have?
Last week I was invited to Germany to attend the magnificent Bar Convent Berlin, a huge trade show featuring a mind-boggling array of drinks producers across the board and from across the world, plus talks, seminars and debates.
|Yes, they have hipsters in Germany too. But this was an amazing trade show.|
This year there was a special focus on the UK, and I was asked if I’d run a tutored tasting with Sylvia Kopp, European Ambassador for the American Brewers’ Association, the idea being that we’d pick a variety of beer styles that were British in origin, and do side-by-side presentations of British and American beers in that style. It sounded like a lovely idea, so I readily agreed.
Sylvia checked with the American brewers at the show and came up with an attractive-looking list of styles:
- Brown ale
- Scotch ale
As a list, it has that warm glow of classic British beer about it. As a flight of beers, it felt comforting and autumnal, the corner pub on a rainy Tuesday night with a small fire in the grate and George Orwell sitting in the corner with a newspaper.
And maybe, to young British brewers, that’s the problem with it.
Stout was straightforward enough, although we both ended up with flavoured styles rather than straightforward ones. IPA was of course very easy to find. But we wanted to put up a British style against an American style IPA, and finding a British IPA that didn’t have a heavy American hop influence was a much more difficult task.* I could think of two that were widely known, but neither of them was available in Germany.
The other categories were much more difficult. For brown ale, I had the choice of Newcastle Brown, which is insipid, and Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. I don’t promote Samuel Smith’s beers, for ethical reasons. That left me with… nothing.
As for Scotch ale? I was offered Belhaven Scottish Ale. I mean, yeah, but… wasn’t there anything else in that style? No.
I’ve just searched for Scotch Ale on Beers of Europe. They stock one from Belgium, three from the US and just one from the UK. Brown ale is a more complicated category to define, but again, they stock quite a lot of Belgian brown ales (not quite the same thing) several American examples based on the British style and no British ones. Beer Hawk currently lists no Scotch ales at all, several American brown ales, and a couple of British-brewed ‘American-style’ brown ales, but no English-style examples. It’s a similar story across various other retailers.
I’m not saying no British brewers are brewing decent brown ales or Scotch ales any more. But I am saying these traditional styles are much harder to find than they used to be, and pretty much invisible compared to American-hopped IPA and pale ale, black IPA, Berlinerweiss, craft lager (or pale ale fraudulently labelled as lager), and experimental beers involving fruit. The same goes for barley wine, mild, old ale, and winter warmers. Again, Beers of Europe now lists an Austrian, a Belgian, a Norwegian and three American ‘English-style barley wines’ but no British examples.
Eventually, Sylvia and I had change the styles we presented. On my side, I had a golden ale, an American-style British IPA, a chocolate stout and Fuller’s Vintage Ale. All great beers, but not the showcase of British styles we’d been hoping for.
This is not a post-Brexit ‘British beer for British people’ rant. I welcome the new styles and the innovations and adore the character of American hops. But as we face more beer choice than we’ve ever had before, it frustrates me that the British disease of ‘what we do is always crap, if its from abroad it must be better’ means that we’re not innovating with styles developed here. You can’t just argue that it’s because those styles are boring or lack character, because as the above examples show, brewers in other countries, particularly the States, find them interesting and inspirational.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Finkel, founder of the Pike Brewery in Seattle and one of the original catalysts of what has now become the global craft beer movement. (If you don’t already know him, read this short biography, it’s incredible.) As we sat down in his brewpub and he asked me what I’d like to drink, the core range gave me a rush of nostalgia for the time I first started writing about beer. It consists of a golden ale, an amber ale, a couple of IPAs, a Scotch ale, a Belgian-stye Tripel, and a stout. There’s no fruit, no blurring of boundaries, no attempts to reinvent anything. And yet it’s an exciting list that has something for everyone, a breadth of style and flavour it would take an awfully long time to get bored of.
British beer styles were the direct inspiration for the American craft beer revolution. I find it sad that with nearly 2000 brewers in Britain now, there seems to be little enthusiasm for taking these native styles on and doing something interesting with them.
Another point: most of the beer styles in Sylvia’s original list are more reliant on malt for their character than hops. At a time when three new brewers a week open their doors, phone up hop merchants such as Charles Faram and then grumble darkly about not being able to get hold of any Citra or Galaxy hops because the entire supply was spoken for as soon as it was harvested last year (and no, not just by the macros, but also by the 150 new breweries that opened last year, and the year before that) and at a time when British brewers buy more US hops than British hops, and the collapse of the pound means those hops just got a lot more expensive even if you’re lucky enough to find any, it beggars belief that brewers aren’t exploring these older, maltier styles and applying their undoubted creativity to making them relevant again.
Before last week, the only time I’d visited Berlin was in 2004. Back then, Berlinerweisse was regarded as little more than a joke beer, sold from street kiosks and sweetened with a range of fruit syrups. It’s now, I would argue, the most hip beer style on the global craft brewing scene. So why not mild next? Why not Scotch ale or barley wine?
There are, of course, exceptions. Tonight I’m doing an event at the Harp Pub in Covent Garden with Five Points Brewing, who are launching… a new brown ale! I haven’t tasted it yet. Those who have say it’s great, and that the traditional cask version is even better than the keg. Five Points is also the last brewery I can remember launching a new barley wine. They seem to be doing pretty well out of it. I imagine other brewers could too.
*Before anyone jumps in, yes, I know nineteenth century IPAs were often brewed with US hops. I’ve seen some of the recipes. But they weren’t defined by the fresh, zingy character of those hops like modern IPAs.