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.

Non-Conformist Brewing

In trying to understand what’s happening with British brewing at the moment, we found ourselves wondering if a meaningful distinction is between those brewers who conform and those who don’t.

Some brewers look at what’s going on around them and do more-or-less the same as the next guy. (Let’s put them in category A.)

Other brewers (let’s put them in category B) set out to do something different.

An example of this would be the golden Summer Lightning (launched in 1987, or thereabouts). At that time, category A brewers were making bitter, best bitter and maybe mild. That’s what everyone made and it was a safe market. Summer Lightning, however, was daringly lager-like in colour and, in its paleness, gave hops chance to shine against a clean malt background.

Brownness had come to be a dividing line between ‘chemical fizz’ and good, honest English ale, but Summer Lightning crossed that line, and did very well as a result.

The same period, the eighties and early nineties,  saw the emergence of the hop experimentalists who took the risk of using ‘weird tasting’ hops from the US, New Zealand and elsewhere in their brews.* They were ahead of their time, perhaps, in commercial terms, but set a generation of British beer geeks and future brewers on a path of which the current obsession with tropical fruit, citrus and mango ‘notes’ is the end point.

Twenty years later, though, the landscape looks different. When all around you are brewing IPA with US and New Zealand hops, and you also brew an IPA with US and New Zealand hops; when you make mad-strong imperial stout, just like the brewery down the road… which category are you in?

We find ourselves looking at those mad fools experimenting with wild yeast in the UK with interest.

* There was nothing new about using US hops, of course, but making a virtue of it, and making their aroma the star, was a new idea. We also recognise that there are shades in between the two categories, and that, in the early eighties, brewing cask ale of any description was pretty out there, compared to the big boys. Sigh. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

Are attempts to innovate futile?

Detail from the cover of Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos.

We have a conservative streak when it comes to beer and, these days, find ourselves drawn to weaker, more straightforward beers most of the time. We like the idea of preserving our brewing heritage and believe that there are still pleasing but subtle variations to be found in less showy tinkering with hops, malt, water and yeast.

We can’t, in all honesty, say we’ve loved many self-declared innovative beers — nothing barrel-aged, for example, has made our list of favourites; our mouths do now not water at the idea of an Islay lambic; and we’re nonplussed by the very idea of black IPA.

We also roll our eyes at brewers who describe themselves as innovative and then… aren’t. They’re like pop groups who say their sound ‘defies categorisation’ while producing middle-of-the-road indie music.

Having said all of that, we’re delighted that there are people still trying genuinely to innovate, even if the results aren’t always instant classics, and we do believe there are new flavours to be shaken out through experimentation. Garlic brownies, thriller-action wildlife documentaries and heavy metal baroque virginals all sound like worthwhile experiments to us, though we wouldn’t want a diet of nothing but.

The only way to break new ground is through failed experiments and doing things that most people won’t like.

Various posts and comments this week have led us to pondering this subject. Here’s Zak Avery on ‘wacky’ beers as part of a balanced diet; Velky Al at Fuggled on his preference for beer that tastes of beer with an interesting comment from Ron Pattinson; and Knut Albert on two beers he thinks prove the point that there are new things to be discovered.

Adnams get experimental


It’s easy to think of Adnams as a rather stolid, big, unexciting regional brewery. They have some lovely branding and design and have been very innovative in ‘green brewing’ but, nonetheless, the beers of their’s you see most commonly in London are quite conservative in their flavour.

They’ve obviously decided to go beyond Bitter/Broadside/blonde beer, though, and (with thanks to Steve the Beer Justice for the tip off) are now brewing a wide range of monthly specials in continental styles, starting with a Koelsch-style beer.

Next month, they’re rolling out a Belgian abbey-type ale, and there are German and Belgian-style wheat beers in the pipeline. They’re also going to take on Guinness next spring with a dry stout.

Innovation doesn’t just need to mean ‘turning up the volume’ or putting coconut in your beer — more subtle experiments with hops and yeast can be just as mind-expanding — so we’re looking forward to trying these.

We emailed Adnams to ask where these beers will be on sale in London, and Danielle sent us this list:

The Carpenters Arms
73 Cheshire Street, E2    6EG

The Brewery Tap
69 High Street
Wimbledon Village, SW19  5EE

The Queens Arms
11 Warwick Way
Pimlico, SW1V  1QT

The Wenlock Arms
26 Wenlock Road, N1    7TA

The Old Dairy
1-3 Crouch Hill, N4    4AP

The Pineapple Public House
51 Leverton Street
Kentish Town, NW5   2NX

The Wimbledon Club
Church Road, SW19  5AG