In trying to understand what’s happening with British brewing at the moment, we found ourselves wondering if a meaningful distinction is between those brewers who conform and those who don’t.
Some brewers look at what’s going on around them and do more-or-less the same as the next guy. (Let’s put them in category A.)
Other brewers (let’s put them in category B) set out to do something different.
An example of this would be the golden Summer Lightning (launched in 1987, or thereabouts). At that time, category A brewers were making bitter, best bitter and maybe mild. That’s what everyone made and it was a safe market. Summer Lightning, however, was daringly lager-like in colour and, in its paleness, gave hops chance to shine against a clean malt background.
Brownness had come to be a dividing line between ‘chemical fizz’ and good, honest English ale, but Summer Lightning crossed that line, and did very well as a result.
The same period, the eighties and early nineties, saw the emergence of the hop experimentalists who took the risk of using ‘weird tasting’ hops from the US, New Zealand and elsewhere in their brews.* They were ahead of their time, perhaps, in commercial terms, but set a generation of British beer geeks and future brewers on a path of which the current obsession with tropical fruit, citrus and mango ‘notes’ is the end point.
Twenty years later, though, the landscape looks different. When all around you are brewing IPA with US and New Zealand hops, and you also brew an IPA with US and New Zealand hops; when you make mad-strong imperial stout, just like the brewery down the road… which category are you in?
* There was nothing new about using US hops, of course, but making a virtue of it, and making their aroma the star, was a new idea. We also recognise that there are shades in between the two categories, and that, in the early eighties, brewing cask ale of any description was pretty out there, compared to the big boys. Sigh. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?