I was struck by something Mark Dredge said in his blog the other day and I've been thinking about it off and on since. It was a throwaway line in a discussion about beer glass sizes and I think it reflects something that I am rapidly becoming aware of and which dominates the thinking of the new wave of younger bloggers. It was mentioned as a "given", a statement of fact. The line was this: "The nature of British beer is evolving and I think the vessels it is served in needs to evolve too." The question that arises in my mind is "How true is that statement?" No, not the one about different glass sizes, but the first part about the nature of British beer evolving. In what way is it evolving, if it is to any great extent?
I guess those that think there is a sea change, would put forward Thornbridge and Brew Dog as evidence that a different, more innovative (that word again) way of doing things is emerging - evolving perhaps?. Brew Dog is certainly a case in point, though I'd venture Thornbridge are in Brew Dog terms a little more conventional, while in overall terms, still nudging the more adventurous end of the spectrum. What about Marble, Outstanding or Pictish? Maybe Steel City or Mallinsons? There may be backers for a small number of others, but after that you start to struggle a bit. In numerical terms and even in influence, the evidence just isn't really there. Most of the brewers I mention are conventional enough. They are just lots better at making good beer and it is usually that which makes them stand out.
"Aha" say you, "what about all these lovely strong bottled beers that are emerging?" Nothing new there I'm afraid. It is the return to bottling that has brought these stronger beers back, not an evolution or revolution in brewing. The rush to home drinking has recreated a market that always existed, but in a slightly different form. Once all breweries produced a barley wine and a strong or old beer, in recent times, usually as a chaser to more standard strength beers. Christmas versions weren't uncommon either. Change the name from Blogg's Old to Blogg's Imperial Stout, bump up the abv and you've still only tweaked and renamed a strong beer, not created an evolutionary brewing step. Perception may be changing for some (more of that later), but it isn't really new.
So how could this this evolving British beer scene be defined? The biggest change in British brewing in recent years (apart from hundreds of samey micros of course) has arguably been the emergence of "golden ales" and with them, the more generous use of hops, as well as the increasing use of foreign hop varieties. To a limited extent too there is a resurgence in strong dark beers, though the quality of some of these are doubtful. (You can hide brewing faults and recipe disasters much easier in a dark beer and then sit back and smirk as the geeks call it complex or challenging.) Nonetheless those do provide welcome variety, but they are far from new in either concept or actuality. Of course if you read Ron Pattinson's blog, you will know that in so many ways, beers like Imperial Stouts, are recreations of a lost brewing world; not innovation or evolution, but an adapted reclaim of the past; a lot of it too from within living memory. Those who try to be a little different, aren't doing much more than exploiting a niche, but a niche is what it is. What is different though is an expanded take home market, though that is still firmly mired in cheap lager. To make the evolution (if it exists) more firmly verifiable, that would have to change seismically too. Given the actual rarity in percentage terms and lack of general availability of these "new" beers, it won't be any time soon.
So is British beer evolving to the extent that some claim, nay, assume? I rather doubt it. Too many seem to be looking at the British beer scene through the wrong end of the telescope, charmed and enchanted by what seems to be new and exciting. Drinking strange new beers matured in odd barrels, visiting progressive free houses and beer festivals can result in extrapolating that atypical experience and the enthusiasm it generates into something it probably isn't. We should welcome the new niches that are being created (or rediscovered), but it shouldn't blind us to reality. Enthusiasm and bonhomie are marvellous. They can propel us forward. A shared outlook, buoyed up by beer, while infectious and enjoyable, can however mislead and cause feet to be less firmly placed on the ground than otherwise they might be. Though niches will certainly expand, British brewing remains solidly middle of the road and it is likely to continue that way for a long time to come.
This just scratches the surface of what is likely to be a very deep mine. Views welcome of course.
The bottles in the photo are all over 20 years old to illustrate my point.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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