What is beer innovation?

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Dave ‘Hardknott’ Bailey recently wrote a blog post asking the question ‘What is beer innovation?’ It’s a subject that’s interested us for a while, partly because we find the suggestion that ‘it’s all been done before’ a bit depressing, so we thought we’d indulge in some pondering on the subject.

1. Innovation has to mean more than ‘doing something mad’. As Alan has said before, a beer 23 times more salt than malt would be completely new, but would also (probably) be horrible. Sellotaping a toaster to the bonnet is not innovation in car design. Having said that, in any field, you probably have to produce a lot of stinkers on the road to a modern classic.

2. Innovation doesn’t need to be noisy and obnoxious. Golden ale, which emerged as an identifiable niche in the UK market in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, seems like a no-brainer with hindsight, but, until then, British beers that were anything other than black or brown were rare.

3. Doing something ‘old hat’ in a new time, place or context, can seem innovative. Hoegaarden, first brewed in the sixties, was an attempt to recreate the beer of Pierre Celis’s youth, but, when it hit Britain twenty years later, it blew people’s minds. What’s that phrase you see in secondhand shops? ‘New to you.’ Attempts to recreate Devon White Ale or Grätzer might yield similar results, especially once they’ve been tweaked for a modern palate and production methods.

4. Small mutations make something new. The crime novel has been with us for a long time and yet, somehow, small tweaks to the formula keep it going strong. In beer, a new hop variety or tiny development in technique can create something that’s new enough to keep the drinker (or, at least, the beer geek) interested.

5. True innovation defies categorisation, for a while at least. If you can create a beer which gets itself listed under ‘other’, which breaks the classification system at your local beer retailer, and which is the only one of its type, then you might have done something innovative.

6. Innovation will probably be greeted with anger and/or utter disdain. To some, with a particular idea of classical perfection, what is new will always seem wrong — discordant, ugly or perverse. Or even just silly. But your kids are gonna love it.

7. If we could tell you what the next innovation in brewing would be, we’d be millionaires. Or not, but you take our point.

17 replies on “What is beer innovation?”

what I loathe about what the brewing industry calls innovative is when they use it to refer to a new advertising campaign or just another way of dispensing the beer, in other words gimmicky

Just after we’d posted, we recalled an engineer friend of ours getting furiously angry about pyramid teabags: “The teabag was perfect! Making it round or pyramid shaped doesn’t make it any better!”

Isn’t this par for the course for every industrialised commodity? Once the corporate world saw what you could do with air fresheners and toothbrushes, it was game over.

Or with radium. Or razors . Product development is what producers do. I’m sure there are some who rest on their established lines, but unless you’ve got special circumstances (like you’re in a cosy niche, or have a conservative consumer group pressure rooting for you), that’s a risky business. Anyhoo, you tweak your product ( even going as far as to make it an unusual colour, bigger, smaller, or employ a previously unexploited science bit), add in an un-met market “need”, adequate finance, and you’ve got an innovation. The only thing that distinuishes a gimmick from a craze from a “genuine” innovation is the financial, market and regulatory environment that the “new” product is dropped into. And that’s only clear after the facts. Or am I very old-fashioned?
And anyway, wasn’t Hoegaarden more to do with the price and the funny glass?

Um, the Brits were making golden ales back in the early 1800s – it’s part of where the Burghers of Pilsen got the idea for Pilsner from – they used recently-invented pale malting technology from England. Many 19th century bitters or pale ales – and even some milds – were pale in colour. What’s interesting is how, why and when it re-emerged.

Ah-hah! We knew someone would point that out, or mention Boddington’s, or the ersatz top-fermented nineteen-seventies lagers! Even wrote a footnote, but then ditched it to keep things simple. But we reckon we’re covered by “were rare” and “emerged as an identifiable niche”.

That’s probably an important point, though: a development that no-one notices and/or copies probably isn’t an ‘innovation’. Hence all those blokes who invented bikes/planes/cars/photography but didn’t get the credit because no-one ever knew about it.

Pale ale fits very neatly into that need to be noticed as it was not new in the 1800s. Pale malt was made with coke from the 1600s and made well before that with straw. Though it is not a case of not noticed so much as forgotten. Starting to think that mass forgetting of previous brewing technique is important principle in brewing innovation.

Thankfully, no one in the U.S. has succumbed to “mass forgetting.” Especially about it’s brewing history.

By the way —Cream Ale—I say Cream Ale was innovative.

Almost nothing is innovation in beer. It is all either re-invention (or rediscovery), copying, or to use your word, mutations.

I doubt that any of that matters, unless incorrect use of the word “innovation” gets on your tits.

I’ll refer back to the reply I gave on Hardknott Dave’s blog. Innovation in the supply chain would be welcome.

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