Beer history Brew Britannia

The Most Important British Craft Beers?

British beer bottle cap.

In response to an article listing ‘The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers’ Michael Lally at Bush Craft Beer has challenged his readers to think about what might be on a Brit-centric version of that list:

I think we can define ‘craft’ relatively loosely and ‘important’ in a similar way to our US colleagues: It’s one that either changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer. There are a few obvious ones: Punk IPA by Brewdog, Jaipur by Thornbridge, ESB by Fullers.

There’s a survey you can respond to including space to make your own suggestions but here’s some food for thought from us.

1. Traquair House Ale (1965)

Arguably the very first ‘microbrewery’ was Traquair House which commenced production in 1965. It demonstrated that it was possible for small breweries to be opened despite prevailing industry trends, and also that small independent breweries could often do more interesting things than their bitter- and lager-focused Big Six peers — this beer was (and is) at a hefty ABV and very rich.

2. Litchborough Bitter (1974)

Another brewery with a strong claim to being the first microbrewery was Bill Urquhart’s Litchborough based in the village of that name near Northampton. The beer itself doesn’t seem to have been especially exciting but the business model, and Mr Urquhart’s mentoring/consultancy, directly inspired the microbrewery boom that followed.

3. Penrhos Porter (1978)

Porter went extinct; Michael Jackson talked it up in his 1977 World Guide to Beer; Penrhos brought it back. Porter is now one of the quintessential ‘craft’ styles — what you brew if you want to send a signal about history and heritage, and that you’re more less mainstream than Guinness.

SOURCE: David Bruce.
4. Firkin Dogbolter (1979)

This is the iconic house brew of David Bruce’s Firkin chain — a strong ale that gave the chain its cult reputation and which was the antidote to the earnest reverence of the real ale movement. Today Gadd’s makes a beer of this name based on a later recipe and West Berkshire Brewery, with which David Bruce is involved, brews a tribute called Firkin Ale. (DISCLOSURE: Mr Bruce insisted on sending us a case even though we don’t take samples these days; it’s extremely good, in a fruit-cakey way.)

5. Franklin’s Bitter (c.1980)

As far as we can tell this was the first UK beer to feature — that is, to make a virtue of — the distinctive aroma and flavour of American Cascade hops. There’s more on Sean Franklin below.

6. Hop Back Summer Lightning (1987)

This beer, originally conceived as a lager, kicked off a craze for golden ale and inspired the creation of ‘pale and hoppy’. It is still available.

SOURCE: West Coast/Dobbins/The Grist, 1993.
7. West Coast Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (1989)

Northern Irish brewing genius Brendan Dobbin shamelessly cloned Sierra Nevada Pale Ale until SN asked him to change the name when it became Yakima Grande Pale Ale. A huge influence on a generation of hophead brewers and drinkers. (Conwy Brewery currently produce a version of this beer with Dobbin’s involvement.)

8. Rooster’s Yankee (c.1992)

Sean Franklin left brewing for a bit and then came back with a bang, inspired by Summer Lightning to produce a very pale, super-hoppy, American-accented ale that knocked enthusiasts for six. Mr Franklin handed over the reins of the brewery to Tom and Ol Fozard a few years ago but they still produce Yankee today.

9. Freedom Lager (1995)

Working with a wealthy investor Alastair Hook brewed what would become the first really successful home-grown designer lager, begetting his own Meantime brewery (1999-2000) as well as much later (but quite directly) Camden Hells. A version is available today but it’s brewed in a different city, to a different recipe, by different people.

Detail from Jaipur pump clip c.2007.
Detail from Jaipur pump clip c.2007.
10. Thornbridge Jaipur (2005)

Though not the first UK-brewed American-style IPA Jaipur was, by our reckoning, the first such beer to be made its brewery’s flagship product. Co-creator Martin Dickie would go on to co-found BrewDog whose Punk IPA was initially a very similar beer. Jaipur is very much still available.

11. Dark Star Saison (c.2009)

Was this the first UK-brewed saison? Please tell us below if you know otherwise. Honestly, we can’t say for sure how influential it was — most UK breweries making saison went to the source (Dupont) or were inspired by US breweries. It appears to be out of production right now.

12. Moor Unfined Revival (2011)

A bit tentative, this one — it’s hard to name a specific beer and pin down the date — but we reckon this is the first unfined pale beer to end up in mainstream pubs, thus kicking off the furious bickering over beer clarity still underway today. It is still available today.

13. Beavertown Gamma Ray (2012)

We’re a bit unsure about including this one, too, but we think it gets the credit/blame for the now ubiquitous rough-hazy-oniony pale ales that so many pointedly hip breweries produce.

14. Wild Beer Co Ninkasi (2013)

Their beers can be variable and (ahem) challenging but this one always impresses us and is the earliest example we’re aware of a British beer that isn’t quite a beer, being a cider-wine-saison hybrid. We think we see its influence in various such Big Bottle brews with odd fruit additives and expect to see more in years to come.

15. Buxton/Rooie Dop Ring Your Mother (2015)

One that we suspect others might overlook: with a historic recipe and modern sensibility this beer kicked off a small resurgence in the brewing of mild. Kind of. It seems to be re-brewed only occasionally.

* * *

We could probably keep going — this isn’t a comprehensive list of every influential beer ever, and it’s certainly not every interesting beer — but fifteen will do for now.

Don’t forget to complete Michael’s survey!

55 replies on “The Most Important British Craft Beers?”

In reality, its pretty much a one beer list. The number of people who first “got into craft beer” after trying a bottle/can/pint of punk must be enormous.

I remember the buzz around in back in 2009/2010 – everyone else would be drinking lager, and then one person would turn up at a house party with a 4 pack of Punk IPA and the whole party would try a bit and talk about it for 20 minutes. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Py — as we said on Twitter, there’s a tendency for people to confuse beers that were important to them, at a certain time, with beers that were important in some objective sense. Not sure if we’re maybe a bit older than you but the story you’ve told there we could tell only with Deuchar’s IPA subbed in for Punk. (Maybe that should be on our list.)

We don’t shy away from bigging up BrewDog — it’s a tremendously important brewery — but the Pub Curmudgeon is right, we made a deliberate choice to omit it here because, as an individual beer, we can’t see that it did much that Jaipur hadn’t already done a couple of years before.

Now I like this blog and I respect your opinion, but in this you’re way off. Punk IPA is the most important beer of the last 25 years, by some distance.

This is very much a nerd’s list, written from the heart of the craft bubble. Most people who weren’t interested in real ale or craft beer (which is 95% of the public) would never have heard of any of these beers. Jaipur might have made a few waves amongst people who were already interested in beer and enthusiastic ale drinkers, but it was Punk that really captured the attention of the wider public and launched craft beer into the mainstream. There is nothing subjective in this – the facts speak for themselves.

Going back to your definition:

“I think we can define ‘craft’ relatively loosely and ‘important’ in a similar way to our US colleagues: It’s one that either changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer.”

Punk changed consumer tastes (and coincidentally, the way breweries marketed beer, if not the way they brewed it) more than all the other beers put together.

‘This is very much a nerd’s list, written from the heart of the craft bubble.’

Yes, we are nerds, but this is pointedly not a nerds-only list. Summer Lightning is hardly obscure, is it? Jaipur’s not obscure either — it’s been in supermarkets for more than a decade and was in (generalisation) every newspaper round-up of great beers from 2005-2010.

But if you want a really outside-the-bubble list:

1. Doom Bar
The biggest selling cask ale in the UK and the one that most often gets mentioned to us when we talk to non-geeks about beer. As a beer, pretty boring, but where many people have found their entry-point.

2. Deuchar’s IPA
In every pub in the country c.2001; very pale; distinctly hoppy (not any more); and the first IPA many people had tried that wasn’t brown.

3. Tribute
A completely pale ale (c.1999) which has taken US hops and German-style malt into pubs, supermarkets, trains and hotel bars up and down the country.

I’d mention some lagers but none of the really important and influential ones (Peroni, Stella) aren’t British. (T&Cs apply.)

(And, more generally, I’m pretty well done with the ‘everyone but me is in a bubble’ argument which seems to be the full stop on every conversation about anything at the moment. I’m from a small town, I live in a small town, my parents live in a village, I lived in London for ten years, I go on holiday to places like Bolton and Dudley — how much more out of the bubble do I need to get?)

You write about beer for a living, as does your partner? Your lives revolve around beer in a way that very few people’s do. No bad thing, but that’s pretty deep into the bubble.

To be fair, you’re not as bad as some commenters, who are members of CAMRA, seem to socialise almost entirely with other members of CAMRA, commenters on their own blog, or other bloggers of a similar age and viewpoint, and then accuse other people of being “in a bubble”.

I get the feeling that for many people here, beer is their #1 or 2 interest, if not their profession. They think about it, talk about it, read about it, write about it all day, every day, with other people of a like mind – no bad thing, but it does expose you to a kind of group think.

Whereas beer and pubs probably just about sneak into my top 10 interests. My partner doesn’t like beer, I’m not a CAMRA member, and none of my friends are really interested in beer beyond “that was a nice beer, what was it called again?”.

Man alive… Only in 2017 would the fact that we think a lot about beer and sometimes get paid to write about it somehow our make our opinions *less* valid…

The closer you get to something, the more you see the detail, the less you see the perspective, and the more your understanding of “important” is going to differ from someone looking from the outside in.

I think people in this country have had enough of these so-called beer experts. py definitely loses a point* for that segue from ‘expert’ to ‘groupthink’.

*Or, if you prefer, gains one.

Depends how far back you go and what you can define as craft. I’d add, in roughly chronological order, Burton Ale, Froach and Umbel Magma.

We got a bit of criticism for overlooking Fraoch and Williams Bros in the book but, honestly, we couldn’t say that we saw it had much influence — there weren’t loads of other heather beers in its wake, as far as we could tell. But we did give a chapter over to that general mid-1990s trend (of which Umbel was part) to put herbs, spices, fruit, etc., into otherwise fairly straight cask ales and bottled bitters. If we had to pick one beer to be emblematic of all that, it might well be Fraoch, which was after all a huge brand at the time, especially in the wake of Mel Gibson’s post-Braveheart endorsement…

I wouldn’t say Froach exactly responsible for a slew of Heather flavoured beer, but I think the brothers must have been the first brewers to commercially try non-standard ingredients, in the UK at least? Surely that must count as an important innovation at least, I can’t think of any similar attempts predating them?

They weren’t quite the first (there was even one bloke doing it c.1980 and others c.1990) though their beer was certainly the most successful. But, anyway, being the first to do something is only important if other people copy you, and we just don’t think people did. When weird stuff *did* start turning up in beer on a grand scale, it was because people had seen American and Belgian breweries doing it, not off the back of Williams Bros. (Actually, maybe there was a small streak of WB inspired stuff — St Austell’s Clouded Yellow might be one, St Peter’s weirder stuff. But it doesn’t amount to much.)

Maybe not UK wide, but if you look at the early speciality ales, there’s a disproportionate amount of Scottish brewers represented, especially for the number of those that existed at the time. Not sure if it was because there was so little indigenous styles left to stick with, but there was a reasonable amount of experimentation going on, not as weird and wonderful as now certainly, but nobody was really using say, oatmeal, previously to my knowledge. Certainly nobody else was using seaweed, and I think Alba might have been the first really pine-y beer I ever tasted.
I’d reckon Hoegaarden was the major catalyst for flavouring beers over here though, first spiced beer to get permanent bar space in mainstream pubs.

I think that if Punk is the Beatles, then (confusingly) Fraoch is Anarchy in the UK. It’s important not because it inspired a heap of clones, it’s a complete outlier, but it changed mindsets about what beer was, and that in turn opens up the creative space for very unrelated styles of beer, in the same way that the Pistols helped open the door for the Human League or Gary Numan.

More recently, Titanic Plum Porter seems to be influencing a whole raft of dark slightly sweet beers with a hint of fruit, more so than Ninkasi (great beer though the latter is).

Obviously it depends on your definition of craft, but the two beers that stick in my mind for friends practically forcing them down me in their excitement to spread the word were a little Cornish microbrew in the mid 90s called Doom Bar, and Punk IPA.

I think you could also make an argument for another small microbrew, Black Sheep. That’s the one that sticks in the mind in the American craft sense of “sticking it to Big Beer” before Brewdog and helping open up the wider market to the whole idea of guest beers from small breweries.

I think you’re overstating the mild thing in that it is still brewed in significant quantities in some parts of the country, so mild doesn’t need to be “owned” by the craft mob – it already has its equivalent of Dupont or Cantillon still going in its home territory.

I’d be tempted to throw Camden Hells into the mix just for the way they’ve managed to get a British lager onto so many bars.

ESB???? Love it, obviously, but an ‘obvious’ example of a beer that ‘changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer’?

It invented a style, I think is the point, although that’s really only evident in the US. There’s been a bit of ESB-mania evident among beer geeks on Twitter of late — perhaps its inclusion reflects that, too.

What style would that be? (Genuine question, not snark.) I mentally file ESB more or less alongside Harvey’s HSB, as examples of the multifarious wonders that English bitter is capable of encompassing. Certainly not new or innovative.

But then, what’s ‘new’? I recently realised that, although I got into real ale at an early age, I’d then spent most of my adult life hankering after a style of bitter (brown, ‘malty’, heavy) that just wasn’t available where I lived. The bitters that were available in Manchester in the 1980s weren’t new-wave hopmonsters, but they were uniformly pale, sharp and thin-textured. I was 50 before I eventually ‘got’ pale and hoppy beers (having moved up here at 22).

So you can imagine my feelings when I read this tweet:

“Changes what I thought I knew about beer”, indeed. Yes, it changes it to include what some of us knew all along, only we kept quiet about it because it wasn’t what the cool kids were talking about… H’mph.

ESB is recognised as a distinct style in the US, somewhere between best bitter (c.4.5%) and barley wine (c.6.5-7%).

There’s no doubt a lot to unpick in that idea and we’re not sure *we* think ESB is all that important as a beer, except perhaps in the sense that it was one of the cult (strong, expensive) beers around which CAMRA rallied in the 1970s.

Lots of people facepalm at these sort of Frankenstyles that come about on the back of some semi-informed wishful thinking about a style that _ought_ to exist and then take on a life of their own when people actually start brewing stuff based on the description that results, but I’m actually kind of fascinated by them. There’s a few that have come out of American homebrewers trying to get a handle on British beer styles, and arguably modern saison is another.

Punk obvs. But Good King Henry demands a mention, as does at least one Marble beer, probably either Chocolate or Lagonda.

See above re: Punk.

Why Good King Henry? Because of the RateBeer thing?

Marble we were expecting someone to mention. Much as we love their beers, what makes any of them Important?

Re. GKH: yeah, pretty much.

Re. Marble: I suppose it could’ve been a Dark Star or Roosters, but neither are local to me. I’ve heard all three described as John The Baptist to Thornbridge/Brewdog’s crafty messiah. Brewers forged in the microbrewery age that ‘went craft’.

As much as I love Marble, I think our hosts’ instinct is correct. Despite Brendan Dobbin’s initial involvement, you can’t draw a straight line from Yakima Grande to the Manchester Bitter and Lagonda we know today; there were a lot of faltering steps and diversions on the way. Until the mid-00s, Marble looked a lot like A N Other regional indie – think of Dunham, Three Bs or Otley rather than Thornbridge or BD.

Ooh, tricky. We can probably avoid the issue by arguing (as we did at book length) that the age of ‘alternative beer’ (craft beer to use later terminology) began in about 1963 and that Guinness, like Hodgson’s IPA, is a much older beast.

Yes, true, but there are some shades of grey in this. It was brewed in London as well as Dublin until quite recently, for one thing, and on a huge scale, too.

TNP is a good call — if BrewDog are an important brewery, as we’ve always argued, then the beer that got them into the papers is probably an important beer.

I suggest Exmoor Gold (1986) – when I arrived in London from the colonies in 1992, and had some sessions of Real Ale for the first time at that pub in Ludgate Circus (Old King Lud or Hogshead? Research indicates Hogshead opened in 1993, so it may have been then.), this was the one which stood out in terms of flavour and colour.

Probably the colour, mainly.

I also second the Firkin Dogbolter which stood out when I drank at that Firkin pub in the Denmark Hill station, most definitely in 1992. The strength (ABV) was impressive, for sure.

Exmoor Gold is an interesting one. Definitely the first modern golden ale but (as Martyn Cornell argues in Amber, Gold & Black) it didn’t really get noticed until *after* Summer Lightning won all those awards. Suspect [citation needed] that it got paler to live up to its name, too.

I we can’t have Punk (though I agree with Py; if you were to ask most craft nerds what their gateway beer was I’d be surprised if Punk wasn’t the most popular answer) is there a case for Dead Pony Club? If only because my mum (in her sixties) now drinks it instead of Peroni! Seriously, a consistently produced hoppy pale ale at 3.8% that is both different and widely accessible must be worth a shout.

Don’t worry, Punk will probably end up on Michael’s finished list for exactly the reasons you suggest. Just can’t bring ourselves to give that one beer a medal simply because it happened to end up in more supermarkets than it’s half-twin Jaipur.

The long and the short of it is, there *aren’t* many important beers, i.e. beers that have lasting influence or knock people’s socks off. DPC is great — we’re big fans — but it didn’t kick off a trend.

In fact, a big chunk of the 25 most important craft beers in Britain are probably from America (Goose Island, SNPA), Belgium (Hoegaarden, Saison Dupont), Germany (Erdinger)…

Sierra Nevada (or whatever) influenced Jaipur, Jaipur influenced Punk IPA, then Punk IPA influenced a million new beer drinkers (probably not an exaggeration) and dozens of clone beers.

No-one denies that there is a causal chain involved, the question is what was the most important link in that chain.

Trying to deny Punk IPA’s role as a crucially important and significant breakthrough beer is like trying to exclude the Beatles from a list of the most 25 important UK bands of the 60s because they sounded just like Bill Haley (or whatever)

I do sort of agree with this, actually. Punk clearly wasn’t groundbreaking in terms of the actual beer, but it wa pretty important in terms of breaking out of the “progressive real ale” bubble and making large numbers of people who weren’t really aware of West Coast or Roosters or Thornbridge think hey, what’s this thing that isn’t cooking lager but isn’t twiggy bitter either? Is there anything else like that? Where can I get more of it?

My approach here was to list Tactical Nuclear Penguin – Tokyo* would have been a reasonable alternative – on the grounds that if Brewdog weren’t also producing the World’s Strongest Beer and getting into arguments with the Portman group and having spats with CAMRA and all that stuff then they probably wouldn’t have broken out of that bubble either, but I can’t really argue that Punk wasn’t the beer that won a lot of converts.

To put it another way, how many people would you think tried Punk and thought “huh, not a bad Jaipur knock-off” versus the number that tried it and thought “wow, what the hell is this?”

Except that the Beatles wasn’t ‘just like’ anything else on the scene and didn’t start life as a son-of-X, whereas Punk was and did. It’s more like trying to exclude McFly from a list of influential boy bands because Busted were already on it.

py – that’s an interesting bit of research, but it doesn’t downgrade the Beatles’ contribution nearly as much as the article does – and even the article doesn’t say they were just imitators.

Hmm, this can be very personal, but as a retired ex pub owner and brewer (Bob’s Brewing Company) I can find lots of holes in this. Franklin’s and Roosters didn’t use the hops your article mentioned, at least not according to Roger Protz Ale Almanac 1997. And like many people could add many more to this list, like Ind Coope Burton Ale, Draught Bass and Taylors Landlord – when Syrian Goldings were quality hops, and before it was high gravity brewed (high strength brewed and watered down). As for Dobbin, I used to sell loads of it but gave up because every other batch was infected, it was great sometimes, the little drops of hop oil at rack was the secret.
As for Jaipur, the problem now is that they just cannot get the original Ahtanum hops any more (I used them in Chardonnayle) there was only one grower and the most recent crop failed completely, although the quality had been poor for some time.
I know of many more beers that have gone off the radar mainly because of hop quality deterioration, but this is not really an issue that beer bloggers and others understand.

“Franklin’s and Roosters didn’t use the hops your article mentioned, at least not according to Roger Protz Ale Almanac 1997”

We’ve got great respect for Mr Protz but we’re not sure that’s such a reliable source. Sean Franklin reckons he was using Cascades in the early 1980s and, in fact, Roger gives that version of the tale himself here.

“I know of many more beers that have gone off the radar mainly because of hop quality deterioration, but this is not really an issue that beer bloggers and others understand.”

Probably more than you credit but, anyway, the point is that Jaipur was significant culturally rather than a comment on its quality then or now.

Agreed, I used to sell shed loads of Yankee at the time and well remember that Sean was quite ambiguous about what hops he used. I also collected a transit van load of Summer Lightning when it was brewed in Salisbury, we could sell six 18,s in a week ! I have tried it on and off ever since and found it quite variable, but the quality of English hops has been extremely inconsistent due to climatic variations – strange summers. I can’t get that over to beer drinkers when they moan about their favourite beer not being what it once was, people just don’t get it, a poor summer will affect hops, grapes, salad, whatever.
Also, when a new hop variety is introduced, its characteristics will gradually fade over time, so, say Citra, will not be as pronounced in ten years time – as has happened with Cascade. This is one reason new cultivars are constantly being developed.

That article is a little fuzzy on the history of Franklins (and the start of Rooster); Sean sold Franklins to quit brewing and return to the wine trade. I can’t recall exactly when, but without doubt between 1983 and 1987 – I would guess at 1985. I remember my dad telling me that Sean had sold the brewery in a phone call, and asking me who I thought would have bought it. “Well it’s not me, and I’m guessing it’s not you, so it has to be Tommy,” I replied. Sean was out of brewing for a few years before restarting with Rooster. Tommy kept Franklins going – rather erratically – until his death, and his son carried on briefly before selling to the current owners, who moved it all to East Sussex, where it still continues.

There’s a pretty full account of Sean’s career, with his input, in our book, Brew Britannia. Must admit that we didn’t take much interest in what happened to Franklin’s after he left.

Tommy Thomas was an old family friend, and he and my dad were founder members of the Leeds branch of CAMRA. Fact was I was aways partial to hoppy beer, and Franklin’s Bitter was one of very few at the time. The beer was produced only sporadically under Tommy’s tenure (he spent more time drinking beer than brewing it) and was of inconsistent quality, but was still better in a bad batch than the oceans of Tetleys in Leeds, or the vast lakes of Brew XI in Brum. In fairness, the biggest problem he had was finding outlets for it back then.

I’d say that Punk IPA is important int he same way Summer Lightening is. Exmoor Gold and Jaipur may have come first, but it was Punk and Summer Lightening that spawned a thousand imitators and introduced 100,000s to the style.

Well thought-out list. I remember Litchborough Bitter from my very early beerhunting days; nothing very special, but not at all bad.
Was a fan of Franklins from the very start, and one of our wedding presents was a kilderkin of it from Tommy Thomas, who had bought the brewery from Sean by that point. I visited the brewery behind the Gardner’s Arms in Bilton many times, and yes, the hops were Cascade when Sean was brewing – Tommy could be a little cavalier with recipes, and would substitute whatever he could get from time to time, and I suspect he would have blagged Roger based on whatever he was using at the time. He also had a few happy accidents, one of them resulting in a 5.4% ABV strong version that was actually very drinkable, but because he didn’t always make proper notes, he never managed to replicate it. And the Gardner’s Arms at the time was a rich source of anecdotes that could make a book in itself… the landlord’s son was responsible for the cellar, and couldn’t keep beer to save his life. Of 3 pumps, only beer was ever drinkable, so you simply asked whoever was standing at the bar what they were drinking, and had that.
I agree with Jaipur v Punk, but I would contend that Simpkiss TNT was the original golden ale back in 1985; certainly the first I ever saw. Greenalls rather spoiled that by taking over and closing down the brewery shortly after, which was a tragic shame for the loss of that historic beer, and also the excellent Old Ale. Although to tie back in to my wedding, my stag do was spent drinking mostly Summer Lightning in the Wyndham Arms, so I’m certainly not knocking that.

You could argue that the next wave of smaller brewers who came after PUNK IPA were emulating the US craft brewing scene in general rather than PUNK. Brewdog were just the first brewery to bring the US model ‘lock stock’ over here.

They basically cloned Stone in terms of the style and ripped off their marketing. It wasn’t novel it’s just few people in the UK had been exposed to it before.

At least the other brewers who came before them like roosters, meantime and thornbridge etc were putting their own twist on US craft styles.

It also should be noted punk is now a pale shadow of its former self. Lower ABV, much lower bitterness and completely different hop grist.

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