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.
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.