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.

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