New Breweries, Classic Styles

Pilsner as an LP

It’s easy to mock self-consciously ‘craft’ (def 2.) breweries — [Chortle] ‘I suppose they make barrel-aged imperial India pilsner with passion fruit and freeze-dried raspberries! Hur Hur!’ — but it seems to us that the same breweries also do more than they are sometimes given credit for to keep classical styles alive.

A few years ago we stuck up for Brodie’s of Leyton, East London, who were accused of brewing ‘silly beers’. They did, and do, brew sour beers with fruit and a whole range of hop-heavy pale ales but they also did something that no-one had done in the London Borough of Waltham Forest for about 40 years by our reckoning: they made a standard cask-conditioned dark mild.

(We don’t know if they still do — their website is pretty useless and the last Untapp’d check-in appears to be from last August.)

Then, last month, we were astonished to see this line-up at BrewDog Bristol:

Beer menu at BrewDog Bristol.

For clarity (bad photo, sorry) that’s a straight-up stout (Jet Black Heart), a Dortmunder, an altbier (Candy Kaiser) and an eighty shilling, all on draught. All of them were respectful, straightforward attempts to brew (for better or worse) as per accepted style guidelines.

Elsewhere we have Buxton which has brewed straight-up and very convincing Belgian-style tripel, dubbel and patersbier; Thornbridge’s takes on helles, Kölsch, doppelbock, and more; and Harbour’s new line-up which also includes helles along with pilsner and even a bitter actually called Cornish Bitter.

There are plenty of other such examples, and likely to be yet more as Craft with a capital C converges with established breweries’ bandwagon-jumping efforts in Wetherspoon pubs, Tesco and other mainstream outlets.

Perhaps if people (hey, including us) stop sneering for a second and encouraged this kind of thing, they’d do more of it. And then maybe Fuller’s could jump on that bandwagon by making their ordinary bitter (Chiswick) and mild (Hock) more readily available all year round.

25 thoughts on “New Breweries, Classic Styles”

  1. This poses the interesting question of what the sneer does. The phenomenon of experimental and transitory beers are fairly classic examples of an oligopolistic market that causes differentiation in what is otherwise a generally standard product – like fancy packaging for table salt. These beers are also likely the expression of an honest desire to explore new idea. The third factor is, if we are still being honest, to make sweet and facile beers to feed the need to convince folk who don’t like beer to buy something from a brewery. Given all these strong pressures on brewers to make what I might consider gakky gose and fruit flavoured violations, doesn’t the application of the sneer or at least the call to make more traditional and more skillful beers provide necessary balance? Is it only appropriate to observe and report or should one advocate?

    1. In what way is UK craft beer an oligopolistic market though?

      Oligopoly = an industry dominated by a small number of firms. An example would be the UK supermarket sector.

  2. There is little to no hype around these beers though. Harbour must be the textbook example of an under-rated brewery. Is anyone tweeting to beer shops asking whether the delivery of Dortmunder Export has come in yet? Perhaps everyday drinking beers will never generate the same excitement as novelty beers.

  3. It’s easy to spot a brewery in love with beer rather than chasing trends. You’ve picked some good examples of breweries extending/consolidating their skill range and adding to this customer’s wish list. Isn’t it a bit reminiscent, though, of those brewers in the USA with huge enthusiasm and a long list of possible permutations and an endless number of projects (what really is a Scotch ale?).
    It is relatively easy at the moment to sell a new beer. The churn of brands on the bar can be tiring for punter, barstaff and brewers. When each high profile innovation or re-discovery spawns a host of imitators a very good recreation of a classic style can quickly become lost.
    The proof is always in the tasting, and there are only so many beers I can taste in a year. I might stand a chance of drinking a Brewdog stout if it was a permanent beer (maybe it is).
    At the same time, I have always struggled to understand Meantime’s devotion to “true to type” reproduction of beers widely available from their countries of origin. It shows a high degree of skill, the beer is almost always great, but is there no room for improvisation?
    When I visited Butcher’s Tears in Amsterdam the first beer I was offered was an English Mild, such is the lure of the exotic.

  4. Craft beer has always been about traditional styles for me. With a twist, sure, but only different hop(s) or amount of hops or a dry hop the original might not have.

    I’ve never been remotely drawn to what I’d call the novelty side of the current brewing resurgence, I might knock back a grapefruit IPA on occasion, but as soon as the name reads more like a sentence than a name I’m not interested.

    I do wonder which of them will stand the test of time and I imagine it won’t be many, whilst I think a new world hoppy pale ale is here to stay.

    1. The novelty side is massively overplayed anyway – one for the Big List of Myths About Craft Beer, I think. This is probably because “hot new craft brewery releases sriracha and chocolate infused sour” is a more interesting news article, blog post or instagram pic than “hot new craft brewery releases IPA / IIPA / APA / blonde ale / red ale / stout / pilsner / saison / whatever” even though the latter happens much much more often.

      1. I drink a fair amount of “craft beer”, and I almost NEVER drink anything with any ingredients other than malted barley, hops, yeast and water. Its a massive myth. 95% of craft beer actually falls into pretty straightforward and relatively traditional categories.

        Isn’t the entire point of the UK craft beer movement to either introduce UK drinkers to styles from outside the UK, but also to rediscover old British styles that had pretty much died out?

      2. Well put, Dave. Exactly right. Writers tend to focus on outliers because they’re good copy. Sometimes the wacky beers they’re covering aren’t practically on general release — just promo items, really, distributed direct to journos.

        1. A lot of breweries seem to be investing heavily in facilities to make sour beers.

          But how many punters actually *like* sour beers and would drink them regularly, as opposed to trying them occasionally to see what all the fuss is about? Surely this is a niche that is only ever going to be a niche.

          1. I fell in love with lambics back in 2005 ish whilst being a near full time cooking lager drinker. It wasn’t until maybe 2009 that I discovered the new cold and fizzy hoppy stuff and moved wholesale off lager.

            As such I’m well chuffed with the current sour beer trend. It’s very rare that I buy one for a non beer hobbyist (for want of a better description) and they like it though, and often the beer hobbyists don’t either. As such I think you may be right.

  5. Brewing ‘classic styles’ often takes a few goes to get right, particularly if it’s not similar to something you normally brew. If you brew something strange with novel ingredients people aren’t going to complain it’s not true to type.

    1. There might be some of that going on but I’m less cynical. I tend to think people are just brewing what they think is fun, exercising their creativity, for better or worse. Most home-brewers go through that phase before realising that they ought to nail pale ale before tackling blackberry Weizen. (That may or may not be a real life example. Ahem.) Or, alternatively, trying to meet constant demand from bars and buyers for ‘something new’, which is what Wild Beer told us back in 2013 with what sounded like a weary sigh.

      1. I’m all for fun and streching your wings. There is a degree of “emperor’s new clothes” on occaision where ambition exceeds ability. Calling something a pilsner does not mean any attention to detail has been applied. Easy to get away with if it’s only available for a few weeks. Much more tricky if it’s a regular or permamnent beer.

  6. When Orbit beers opened in Kennington a few years ago, it struck me at the time that it seemed so very different as it took its inspiration from classic German beers without tweaking them. The Brett, Citra, Saison, sour etc which dominated south London brewing at the time (not that I’m complaining about that) were’t part of the range.
    It just managed to pull off being the most “different” in a crowded neighbourhood where each brewery was trying to “out-different” the other.
    Btw – “oligopolistic market” – I’m sooo nicking that 😛

      1. Do you mean oligopolistic, anyway? I’d understood it to refer to “a small number of sellers”, whereas there are about 1,700 breweries in the UK at the moment.

        Alec: Orbit were one that sprung to my mind as well.

        1. Maybe its not the right word but in each locality you have a small number of these new wave brewers. I do not practically have access to +/-5,000 brewers in North America. I have access to a smaller group or hub. But there are many similar hubs in which each set of brewers are competing for a fairly fixed set of consumers so are driven to appear to differentiate their products even though the products have limited potential for variation.

          So in my market of what was 2 or 3 local brewers within 100 km (plus regionals supplying all of Ontario plus big craft) I may have 11 by the end of 2017. That group I expect to display oligopolistic pressures being placed upon them. But, then again, I just like saying “oligopolistic” and there may be a better term to fit what I am describing.

          1. I think the concept you are angling for, which I have discussed before on this blog, is the notion of price competition avoidance by horizontal differentiation:

            See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopolistic_competition

            I don’t know about Ontario, but in any given beer-focused pub in the UK, you might see 100s of different brewers beers in a single year, all competing to grab your attention.

          2. Excellent. While I love “price competition avoidance by horizontal differentiation” not sure as the oligopolistic scene includes that spicy hint of collusion rather than competition which fits craft so well.

  7. I’ve been a around as a beer lover since the 1970’s, and suppose I’ve tried many new taste experiences in my time. However, I’m now getting sick of walking in and out of some of these new trendy pop up bars that seem to sell unpalatable brews that have been brewed solely for the purpose of experimentation. It seems they have no problem selling them, the guy (or maybe gal ) who does the beer orders usually has a designer beard and wears a flat cap behind the bar, and the weirder the beer is, the more likely they will order it.
    All I want is to drink a nicely brewed balanced beer, not something that makes me reach for the Gaviscon when I get home, and that’s getting harder and harder these days.

    1. So… why do you go into those bars in the first place? There are still quite a lot of normal pubs around, despite rumours to the contrary.

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