Beer history

Where Do Ideas Come From?

What triggers trends and leads to the emergence of new beer styles and sub-styles?

In a thought provoking post last week Jeff ‘Beervana’ Allworth reflected on the emergence in the US of IPAs with their balance tilted heavily towards hop aroma:

The more important mistake is thinking in terms of imitative causality at all… There has been a shift from very bitter IPAs to IPAs marked by flavor and aroma, but it has happened around the country as brewers each made natural discoveries on their own. It developed incrementally, inside hundreds of breweries across the country, as the national palate shifted toward not just IPAs, but IPAs that expressed as much of that heady flavor and aroma Americans hops are capable of. When you understand the mechanics of trying to produce these qualities, it makes sense that the discoveries would happen brewery by brewery, with hundreds of little “a-ha!’s” happening co-emergently around the country.

And, in a subsequent comment, he hammers his point home:

It’s not enough to cite an antecedent if you’re arguing causality. There are always antecedents. You have to make a case for how it actually influenced other breweries and beers and sparked this wholesale change in brewing. Having talked to a number of brewers about their own process, I have yet to find anyone who was particularly influenced by [The Alchemist ]Heady [Topper] or any other beer.

This is, in general terms, an interesting question: can every innovation, twist or change in beer be traced back to source?

Martyn Cornell’s masterful book Amber, Gold & Black — the essential guide to how British beer styles developed — makes the important point that Exmoor Gold was the first of what we would now recognise as golden ale but it was Hop Back Summer Lightning, which came several years later, that triggered a slew of imitations in the early 1990s. Golden ale might have developed anyway as brewers independently found themselves (as did John Gilbert at Hop Back) looking to lager for inspiration but there is a strong case to say that Summer Lightning’s success in CAMRA sponsored Champion Beer contests brought it to people’s attention and kicked off the flood that followed.

Translating Jeff’s question to the UK we can ask where British brewers got the idea to make a feature of hop aroma, and especially citrus-pine-tropical New World hop aroma, in the period c.1980-2010.

Getting to the bottom of a question like this is complicated by various factors:

  • Denial of an American influence borne out of chauvinism and fear of cultural imperialism. (Lingering resentment about the death of music hall at the hands of rock’n’roll? Fear of hot dogs? Who knows.)
  • Fibs prompted by ego. Some people deny the influence of others because it doesn’t fit the narrative of their own brilliance.
  • Fibs prompted by anxiety. They know that Beer X was an attempt to clone Beer Y but worry that they’ll get into some kind of beef if they acknowledge it.
  • Poor memories. Asking people to remember what inspired them to do something in 1982 often elicits despairing groans. They either can’t remember or remember incorrectly.
Sean Franklin sitting on top of an FV.
Sean Franklin. SOURCE: What’s Brewing, Jan 1993, photographer uncredited.

We know that Sean Franklin and Brendan Dobbin were the first British brewers to feature (not just use) Cascade and other new varieties, in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Both were influenced by trips to the US where they drank beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as well as by British beers such as Timothy Taylor Landlord (Franklin), and experiments with dry hopping in the cask (Dobbin). (Much more on this in Brew Britannia.)

So you might think, there you go, that’s ‘pale and hoppy’ invented, and everyone who came after that was copying them. Except when we talk to brewers like Mark Tranter, late of Dark Star, now at Burning Sky, who expressly denied any influence from Dobbin or Franklin on the development of Dark Star’s Hophead in the late 1990s. He told us it emerged independently when the head brewer acquired some American hops on a trip to the US. They weren’t attempting to clone or copy anything in particular; Hophead was a response to the question, ‘What’s the best way to find out how these strange hops smell and taste?’ (More on that here.)

When we spoke to Stuart Ross of Magic Rock in 2013 what did he cite as the primary influence on the hoppy pale ale he brewed at the Crown Hotel from 2009-2011? Was it Franklin, Dobbin, Tranter, Dave Wickett (for whom he had worked), Alastair Hook, Thornbridge Jaipur (which he knew well) or BrewDog Punk IPA (then two years old and brewed by his pal Martin Dickie)? No, it was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The influence didn’t go A to B to C to D to E, it went A to E, if that makes sense.

So, where does that leave us? We guess it means we subscribe to the idea of Something in the Air — that a handful of independent pioneers trigger a buzz — but that through the feedback loop of festivals, beer writing, beer rating and industry gossip, certain objects rise out of the fog to become the most prominent landmarks.


15 replies on “Where Do Ideas Come From?”

Plus, of course: “James Watt: The beer that changed my life was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I had never been that into beer before. The first sip I had of Sierra was in 2002. The first sip confused me. By the 3rd sip I knew nothing was ever going to be the same ever again. When I started home-brewing my first brew was a Sierra clone. Without that beer there would be no BrewDogs.” Link.

“JW: Beer-wise, the one that inspired us to set up [Brewdog] was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I remember tasting it back in 2005, and being blown away by how awesome it was. It’s still got a special place in my beery affections.” Link.

I really must try and find some fresh SNPA to try. It never really “did it” for me. But I’ve only ever had it from supermarkets, and it isn’t a beer I go back to.

Question: was SNPA an influence as experienced from a UK supermarket shelf of dusty offie bottle — or as experienced more freshly at its home? For the earlier chaps at least you do mention actual trips to the US.

Keg SNPA was the beer that opened my eyes. If you’ve never had anything like it before, it forces you to completely recalibrate your ideas of how beer is supposed to taste.

For what its worth Yvan, its far, far nicer on draught than it is out of a bottle.

I am really not surprised that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the common thread through all these beers, as I wrote about a couple of weeks back it really is one of a handful of truly iconic craft beers:

Although I am not a pro brewer, I can happily state that the influences for Bitter 42, the best bitter I developed for Three Notch’d Brewing, were Landlord and Bitter & Twisted. For the Morana with Devils Backbone it was the Kout na Šumavě 14° tmavé. There was never an ‘a-ha’ moment, more a case of ‘I want to get to something like this’ and working from there.

In the mid 90’s at GBBF one of the first beers to sell out on BSF Bar was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and there were plenty of Brewers on Trade Day who were more than a little interested in the American beers we were selling.

I fully believe you are nicer than me but I think you need to include the strategic interest in getting your creation myth correct if you are a craft brewer or, if a beer writer, getting your name identified with the identification of a sub-style. Without heavy reliance on original records I can only assume these tales are too laced with aggrandizement to be reliable. The singularity of SNPA is a fiction that obviously has attractions to the brewer seeking status and the storyteller seeking simplicity. It smacks of the All About Beer one source history piece. There were simply too many other hoppy beers in the US from the 1980s and 90s having the hop characteristic for this creation myth to have validity. And it was simply not that available geographically before big craft got into trucking to have been the sole cause of so many eurekas. Its certainly a factor in a complex matrix of causation but that’s about it.

In terms of something ‘in the air’, it’s a bit of a out there theory but I do wonder one of inputs into this was the cultivations of new strains on something else. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this…

Look at this post in particular…

More interestingly a bit of Googling throws up that skunk came from the Bay Area. So had an influence to the US folk and also a lot of people over here as it spread throughout Europe.

I’m not saying that this is the trigger for it all but I do think it could be something that was also in the mix. It was something else that some people came into contact about the same time?

Was it Franklin, Dobbin, Tranter, Dave Wickett (for whom he had worked), Alastair Hook, Thornbridge Jaipur (which he knew well) or BrewDog Punk IPA (then two years old and brewed by his pal Martin Dickie)? No, it was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

I think this quote answers the question about ‘influence’ as well as asking it. It reminds me of the time I asked Marc Riley whether the Creepers were a “post-Fall” band; he didn’t take it at all well. From a fan’s point of view it seemed like a reasonable question, but to him – a former member of the Fall, and a key member of a classic lineup at that – it sounded as if I was suggesting that Smith and the rest were the Fall & they’d taught him everything he knew. Similarly, I suspect Stuart Ross would retrospectively class Yankee, Pale Rider, Jaipur & Punk as “the kind of stuff we were all doing” – even in a period before ‘we’ actually included S. Ross – reserving the title of ‘influence’ for near-mythical prime movers like SNPA. It’s the difference between “when you became a brewer, who were your great influences?” (O Brewmaster, speak to us of the old days!) and “when you were making your first beers independently, who do you remember was around and working in the same area?” (Dave, did you know Dave? no, not that Dave…) I suspect the second question would be more useful than the first in identifying real influences.

Phil (and Alan, I guess) — if we ask a brewer which beer they were attempting to clone when they made something and they say ‘SNPA’, I tend not to doubt them. It’s no more credible or less risky than any other answer, is it?

Show me a record to back up any 30 year old recollection. Brewers are like all of us: rosy memories of glory days forming into big round blobs of maybes over time. Ask to look at the records to see if they remember rightly.

We acknowledge the frailty of memory in the post above and you know we love a good footnote and, yes, that would be one approach, if we had reason to doubt them, i.e. countering claims from elsewhere. As it is, I reckon a writer is covered if they specify ‘X recalls that’ or ‘X says’.

As for the specific examples we’ve given above, it really didn’t seem necessary: Stuart Ross was recalling three years earlier, not 30; Brendan Dobbin came back from the US and brewed a beer *called* Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that looked, smelled and tasted like SNPA. (All referenced properly in the book.) We are a bit less prone to take BrewDog at face value because of the Fog of Marketing that surrounds them but, to be honest, as SNPA was one of two or three beers with that distinctive US hop profile readily available in UK supermarkets between about 2000-2007, it’s more likely than not that SNPA was the key influence. If they’d said something else — something rarer and cooler — we’d be more suspicious!

I’m not saying you should doubt that they mean what they say (with a few obvious exceptions). Just that the question you want answering, the question you ask and the question they answer may not be the same thing – and you may have a better chance of getting the information you want by asking what might look like a different question. But I suspect you know this already!

Fair enough but there is nothing stopping you from asking for or otherwise always seeking a corroborating record. I don’t understand the hesitancy.

Maybe we will in future but it does sound a bit mad: ‘My favourite colour is red which is why I wear red socks.’ [Interviewer narrows eyes] ‘Prove it.’

Sorry, I did not mean your particular hesitancy. There is a general hesitancy but you are not a particular leader in the field. I would thing the conversation would be more like: “oh, you used Fuggles and crystal malt? Neato! I couldn’t have a look at your brewing log on that beer, could I? You are reminding me of something I saw a Belgian do once.”

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