New Breweries, Classic Styles

Pilsner as an LP

It’s easy to mock self-consciously ‘craft’ (def 2.) breweries – [Chortle] ‘I suppose they make barrel-aged imperial India pilsner with passion fruit and freeze-dried raspberries! Hur Hur!’ – but it seems to us that the same breweries also do more than they are sometimes given credit for to keep classical styles alive.

A few years ago we stuck up for Brodie’s of Ley­ton, East Lon­don, who were accused of brew­ing ‘sil­ly beers’. They did, and do, brew sour beers with fruit and a whole range of hop-heavy pale ales but they also did some­thing that no-one had done in the Lon­don Bor­ough of Waltham For­est for about 40 years by our reck­on­ing: they made a stan­dard cask-con­di­tioned dark mild.

(We don’t know if they still do – their web­site is pret­ty use­less and the last Untapp’d check-in appears to be from last August.)

Then, last month, we were aston­ished to see this line-up at Brew­Dog Bris­tol:

Beer menu at BrewDog Bristol.

For clar­i­ty (bad pho­to, sor­ry) that’s a straight-up stout (Jet Black Heart), a Dort­munder, an alt­bier (Can­dy Kaiser) and an eighty shilling, all on draught. All of them were respect­ful, straight­for­ward attempts to brew (for bet­ter or worse) as per accept­ed style guide­lines.

Else­where we have Bux­ton which has brewed straight-up and very con­vinc­ing Bel­gian-style tripel, dubbel and paters­bier; Thornbridge’s takes on helles, Kölsch, dop­pel­bock, and more; and Harbour’s new line-up which also includes helles along with pil­sner and even a bit­ter actu­al­ly called Cor­nish Bit­ter.

There are plen­ty of oth­er such exam­ples, and like­ly to be yet more as Craft with a cap­i­tal C con­verges with estab­lished brew­eries’ band­wag­on-jump­ing efforts in Wether­spoon pubs, Tesco and oth­er main­stream out­lets.

Per­haps if peo­ple (hey, includ­ing us) stop sneer­ing for a sec­ond and encour­aged this kind of thing, they’d do more of it. And then maybe Fuller’s could jump on that band­wag­on by mak­ing their ordi­nary bit­ter (Chiswick) and mild (Hock) more read­i­ly avail­able all year round.

25 thoughts on “New Breweries, Classic Styles”

  1. This pos­es the inter­est­ing ques­tion of what the sneer does. The phe­nom­e­non of exper­i­men­tal and tran­si­to­ry beers are fair­ly clas­sic exam­ples of an oli­gop­o­lis­tic mar­ket that caus­es dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion in what is oth­er­wise a gen­er­al­ly stan­dard prod­uct – like fan­cy pack­ag­ing for table salt. These beers are also like­ly the expres­sion of an hon­est desire to explore new idea. The third fac­tor is, if we are still being hon­est, to make sweet and facile beers to feed the need to con­vince folk who don’t like beer to buy some­thing from a brew­ery. Giv­en all these strong pres­sures on brew­ers to make what I might con­sid­er gakky gose and fruit flavoured vio­la­tions, doesn’t the appli­ca­tion of the sneer or at least the call to make more tra­di­tion­al and more skill­ful beers pro­vide nec­es­sary bal­ance? Is it only appro­pri­ate to observe and report or should one advo­cate?

    1. In what way is UK craft beer an oli­gop­o­lis­tic mar­ket though?

      Oli­gop­oly = an indus­try dom­i­nat­ed by a small num­ber of firms. An exam­ple would be the UK super­mar­ket sec­tor.

  2. There is lit­tle to no hype around these beers though. Har­bour must be the text­book exam­ple of an under-rat­ed brew­ery. Is any­one tweet­ing to beer shops ask­ing whether the deliv­ery of Dort­munder Export has come in yet? Per­haps every­day drink­ing beers will nev­er gen­er­ate the same excite­ment as nov­el­ty beers.

  3. It’s easy to spot a brew­ery in love with beer rather than chas­ing trends. You’ve picked some good exam­ples of brew­eries extending/consolidating their skill range and adding to this customer’s wish list. Isn’t it a bit rem­i­nis­cent, though, of those brew­ers in the USA with huge enthu­si­asm and a long list of pos­si­ble per­mu­ta­tions and an end­less num­ber of projects (what real­ly is a Scotch ale?).
    It is rel­a­tive­ly easy at the moment to sell a new beer. The churn of brands on the bar can be tir­ing for punter, barstaff and brew­ers. When each high pro­file inno­va­tion or re-dis­cov­ery spawns a host of imi­ta­tors a very good recre­ation of a clas­sic style can quick­ly become lost.
    The proof is always in the tast­ing, and there are only so many beers I can taste in a year. I might stand a chance of drink­ing a Brew­dog stout if it was a per­ma­nent beer (maybe it is).
    At the same time, I have always strug­gled to under­stand Meantime’s devo­tion to “true to type” repro­duc­tion of beers wide­ly avail­able from their coun­tries of ori­gin. It shows a high degree of skill, the beer is almost always great, but is there no room for impro­vi­sa­tion?
    When I vis­it­ed Butcher’s Tears in Ams­ter­dam the first beer I was offered was an Eng­lish Mild, such is the lure of the exot­ic.

  4. Craft beer has always been about tra­di­tion­al styles for me. With a twist, sure, but only dif­fer­ent hop(s) or amount of hops or a dry hop the orig­i­nal might not have.

    I’ve nev­er been remote­ly drawn to what I’d call the nov­el­ty side of the cur­rent brew­ing resur­gence, I might knock back a grape­fruit IPA on occa­sion, but as soon as the name reads more like a sen­tence than a name I’m not inter­est­ed.

    I do won­der which of them will stand the test of time and I imag­ine it won’t be many, whilst I think a new world hop­py pale ale is here to stay.

    1. The nov­el­ty side is mas­sive­ly over­played any­way – one for the Big List of Myths About Craft Beer, I think. This is prob­a­bly because “hot new craft brew­ery releas­es sriracha and choco­late infused sour” is a more inter­est­ing news arti­cle, blog post or insta­gram pic than “hot new craft brew­ery releas­es IPA / IIPA / APA / blonde ale / red ale / stout / pil­sner / sai­son / what­ev­er” even though the lat­ter hap­pens much much more often.

      1. I drink a fair amount of “craft beer”, and I almost NEVER drink any­thing with any ingre­di­ents oth­er than malt­ed bar­ley, hops, yeast and water. Its a mas­sive myth. 95% of craft beer actu­al­ly falls into pret­ty straight­for­ward and rel­a­tive­ly tra­di­tion­al cat­e­gories.

        Isn’t the entire point of the UK craft beer move­ment to either intro­duce UK drinkers to styles from out­side the UK, but also to redis­cov­er old British styles that had pret­ty much died out?

      2. Well put, Dave. Exact­ly right. Writ­ers tend to focus on out­liers because they’re good copy. Some­times the wacky beers they’re cov­er­ing aren’t prac­ti­cal­ly on gen­er­al release – just pro­mo items, real­ly, dis­trib­uted direct to journos.

        1. A lot of brew­eries seem to be invest­ing heav­i­ly in facil­i­ties to make sour beers.

          But how many pun­ters actu­al­ly *like* sour beers and would drink them reg­u­lar­ly, as opposed to try­ing them occa­sion­al­ly to see what all the fuss is about? Sure­ly this is a niche that is only ever going to be a niche.

          1. I fell in love with lam­bics back in 2005 ish whilst being a near full time cook­ing lager drinker. It wasn’t until maybe 2009 that I dis­cov­ered the new cold and fizzy hop­py stuff and moved whole­sale off lager.

            As such I’m well chuffed with the cur­rent sour beer trend. It’s very rare that I buy one for a non beer hob­by­ist (for want of a bet­ter descrip­tion) and they like it though, and often the beer hob­by­ists don’t either. As such I think you may be right.

  5. Brew­ing ‘clas­sic styles’ often takes a few goes to get right, par­tic­u­lar­ly if it’s not sim­i­lar to some­thing you nor­mal­ly brew. If you brew some­thing strange with nov­el ingre­di­ents peo­ple aren’t going to com­plain it’s not true to type.

    1. There might be some of that going on but I’m less cyn­i­cal. I tend to think peo­ple are just brew­ing what they think is fun, exer­cis­ing their cre­ativ­i­ty, for bet­ter or worse. Most home-brew­ers go through that phase before real­is­ing that they ought to nail pale ale before tack­ling black­ber­ry Weizen. (That may or may not be a real life exam­ple. Ahem.) Or, alter­na­tive­ly, try­ing to meet con­stant demand from bars and buy­ers for ‘some­thing new’, which is what Wild Beer told us back in 2013 with what sound­ed like a weary sigh.

      1. I’m all for fun and strech­ing your wings. There is a degree of “emperor’s new clothes” on occai­sion where ambi­tion exceeds abil­i­ty. Call­ing some­thing a pil­sner does not mean any atten­tion to detail has been applied. Easy to get away with if it’s only avail­able for a few weeks. Much more tricky if it’s a reg­u­lar or per­mam­nent beer.

  6. When Orbit beers opened in Ken­ning­ton a few years ago, it struck me at the time that it seemed so very dif­fer­ent as it took its inspi­ra­tion from clas­sic Ger­man beers with­out tweak­ing them. The Brett, Cit­ra, Sai­son, sour etc which dom­i­nat­ed south Lon­don brew­ing at the time (not that I’m com­plain­ing about that) were’t part of the range.
    It just man­aged to pull off being the most “dif­fer­ent” in a crowd­ed neigh­bour­hood where each brew­ery was try­ing to “out-dif­fer­ent” the oth­er.
    Btw – “oli­gop­o­lis­tic mar­ket” – I’m sooo nick­ing that 😛

      1. Do you mean oli­gop­o­lis­tic, any­way? I’d under­stood it to refer to “a small num­ber of sell­ers”, where­as there are about 1,700 brew­eries in the UK at the moment.

        Alec: Orbit were one that sprung to my mind as well.

        1. Maybe its not the right word but in each local­i­ty you have a small num­ber of these new wave brew­ers. I do not prac­ti­cal­ly have access to +/-5,000 brew­ers in North Amer­i­ca. I have access to a small­er group or hub. But there are many sim­i­lar hubs in which each set of brew­ers are com­pet­ing for a fair­ly fixed set of con­sumers so are dri­ven to appear to dif­fer­en­ti­ate their prod­ucts even though the prod­ucts have lim­it­ed poten­tial for vari­a­tion.

          So in my mar­ket of what was 2 or 3 local brew­ers with­in 100 km (plus region­als sup­ply­ing all of Ontario plus big craft) I may have 11 by the end of 2017. That group I expect to dis­play oli­gop­o­lis­tic pres­sures being placed upon them. But, then again, I just like say­ing “oli­gop­o­lis­tic” and there may be a bet­ter term to fit what I am describ­ing.

          1. I think the con­cept you are angling for, which I have dis­cussed before on this blog, is the notion of price com­pe­ti­tion avoid­ance by hor­i­zon­tal dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion:

            See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopolistic_competition

            I don’t know about Ontario, but in any giv­en beer-focused pub in the UK, you might see 100s of dif­fer­ent brew­ers beers in a sin­gle year, all com­pet­ing to grab your atten­tion.

          2. Excel­lent. While I love “price com­pe­ti­tion avoid­ance by hor­i­zon­tal dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion” not sure as the oli­gop­o­lis­tic scene includes that spicy hint of col­lu­sion rather than com­pe­ti­tion which fits craft so well.

  7. I’ve been a around as a beer lover since the 1970’s, and sup­pose I’ve tried many new taste expe­ri­ences in my time. How­ev­er, I’m now get­ting sick of walk­ing in and out of some of these new trendy pop up bars that seem to sell unpalat­able brews that have been brewed sole­ly for the pur­pose of exper­i­men­ta­tion. It seems they have no prob­lem sell­ing them, the guy (or maybe gal ) who does the beer orders usu­al­ly has a design­er beard and wears a flat cap behind the bar, and the weird­er the beer is, the more like­ly they will order it.
    All I want is to drink a nice­ly brewed bal­anced beer, not some­thing that makes me reach for the Gavis­con when I get home, and that’s get­ting hard­er and hard­er these days.

    1. So… why do you go into those bars in the first place? There are still quite a lot of nor­mal pubs around, despite rumours to the con­trary.

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