Non-Conformist Brewing

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?

We find ourselves looking at those mad fools experimenting with wild yeast in the UK with interest.

* 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?

14 thoughts on “Non-Conformist Brewing”

  1. Thanks for the link through to my blog on Alan’s stuff. Going to his place in a few weeks for an aged Belgian Ales tasting; so will find out where he’s at now and report back. Hopefully he’ll have a website and twitter setup soon too.

  2. Some good food for thought, though I think you’ve missed category C. This would be brewers who know what they want to brew, and don’t really mind if it’s “different” or not. They just want to make something they want to drink, and reasonably expect others will enjoy enough to pay for on a semi-regular basis also. That’s our philosophy at Brewaucracy and with the explosion of “weird for the sake of it” beers, I’m enjoying drinking beers from other breweries who share our view.

    1. Greig — no time for weird for the sake of it (Dyed green! Garlic! Eugh.) but it’s breweries that stretch a bit who move things forward, whether consciously or not.

  3. What is different? Lots of breweries are trying new interpretations of older brews or techniques. Most things have been done before, but are now being introduced into a new style or interpreted in a different way. Where does this put the brewery?
    Also depending on where you are geographically is important. We are in Cornwall and most breweries are producing ‘brown’ session ales, are we “different” because we are making stronger, hoppier, darker beers than those around us? Then there is the dispense vessel… Cask or Keg? Does that set you apart?
    We don’t want to make something outside the box, just so we can be different. What is interesting to us is the science and how to progress technique, not just new and weird flavours. It’s innovative to look at what has been done before, what is being done now, and then look to do it better or progress the science behind it.

  4. The thing with brewing is that it all seems to be experimentation to some extent. It’s just that some of this experimentation is more obvious than others. Some is well thought out and deliberate, some is as a result of a miscalculation or a “what the hell!” kind of moment. The first time I opened a can of alphabetti spaghetti I rearranged the letters available to me and spelled “bottoms”. The second time I served them up I ate them before they got cold. What am I saying? I don’t really know….but we all have a compulsion to play with our food, but sooner or later we settle down and eat nicely. If you happen to be the kind of person who did not rearrange your food to spell a naughty word, then just buy spaghetti hoops instead. *heads for a lie down*.

  5. My take on non Conformist brewing is how i would like to see my future. Although i am not anywhere near the point of beginning my brewery, i plan for and homebrew with this in mind. I dont think its always technique and style that have to conform or not but the way the brewery operates.
    As a small PICO/NANO brewery i would not have the time or ability to produce the volume to satisfy many pubs very often, so i would look to bottle big beers. An Imperial Stout, a DIPA, and use my size (or lack of!)to my advantage. As the competition is producing standard bitters i hope that by taking a side look at what i can make and how often i can produce it, i would be able to sell enough to see a small return but satisfy my thirst for brewing. Disclaimer – I said i am nowhere near starting a commercial brewery and therefore this idea may not be viable!

  6. I don’t really care that much about whether a brewer is conformist or non conformist, as long as they continue to make a wide selection of great beers. Preferably a batch of 8-10 regulars and seasonals with the real experimentation saved for the limited editions and special occasions.

    1. In terms of judging an individual brewery, it’s not important, but in terms of driving beer… somewhere, it matters.

      1. Its interesting that you think beer is, or needs to be, going somewhere. The availability of a wider range of beers is improving (but still has a long way to go) but is the overall standard really improving or changing? Is beer genuinely evolving into something new, or is it just the way that it is marketed and distributed that has changed?

        Yes there have been some new variations springing up, but does anyone actually drink 15% Imperial Stouts? Is that even really beer at all in any meaningful sense of the word?

        1. Doesn’t everything need to be going somewhere, even if it’s a neo-classical revival? If we’d decided blank verse in iambic pentameter was fine and stopped innovating in the seventeenth century, we’d have been denied a lot of great literature. (E.g. the novel.)

          Innovation doesn’t have to be brash, big or or crass – it might be a yeast strain with subtly different characteristics or the rebirth of a dead style with 21st century methods. (But sometimes a bit of brashness can kick start change.)

  7. Every brewer is conformist. They conform to the mores of their market. Whether that market is smoothflow or I-pee-A or ginkgoberry gueuze.

    There’s nothing new about the notes on a keyboard. What seems unconformist is when you play them in an order different to that established. What is often the case is that you’re just echoing the past.

    Sometimes, we know where we’re going. But we don’t know where we’ve been.

Comments are closed.