It’s never been a better time for quality ale. ShortList’s Peter Brown takes us through the UK’s independent, artisan brewing revival...
Something rather spectacular is going on down the pub – something you don’t see written about among reports of binge drinking and recession-hit pubs turning into bookmakers. There’s a revolution going on. Away from football sponsorship and mainstream media, beer has been reinventing itself. Across the country, small breweries are refreshing, reviving and reinventing beer as we know it - you just have to look at all the best beer subscription boxes around right now to see what's happening.
You’d have to go back 70 years to find as many breweries in the UK as we have now. From genuine Czech-style pilsners and golden ales that pack a pint full of flavour at alcohol levels as low as 3.8% ABV, to zingy India pale ales (IPAs) and mighty export porters and imperial stouts – today, there is such an incredible variety that if you think you don’t like beer, you just haven’t found the right one yet.
The future for the UK’s beer industry wasn’t always this rosy. Once, Britain was the greatest brewing nation on the planet, but there was little evidence of that by the Seventies. Traditional British cask ale – revered around the world but less so at home – was dying out in favour of mass-produced keg bitter and low strength ersatz lager. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) formed in 1971 and saved real ale from oblivion, but saddled it with a socks-and-sandals image problem. With an aim to save an old tradition, the focus was too much on the past to appeal widely to image-conscious drinkers.
And then chancellor Gordon Brown did something clever. In 2002, he introduced Progressive Beer Duty, which gave tax breaks to brewers below a certain size. The number of small brewers in the UK began to grow.
“The choice, variety, creativity, innovation and proliferation of styles we’re now enjoying can all be traced back to that single fiscal measure,” says Julian Grocock, chief executive at the Society Of Independent Brewers.
Initially, the independents brewed cask ale, just like the older, more traditional concerns. But then they started hearing about beers from outside the UK – beers that had flavours no one had tasted before, beers that were so strong they were drunk from brandy balloons, beers that were so intense they changed people’s lives. And stranger than any of these beers was the fact that this new scene was coming out of the country that made the blandest beer in the world…
Except it shouldn’t have been a surprise – not really. In the US, three identical beer brands accounted for 80 per cent of the market between them. So craft brewers started digging up forgotten beer styles and reinventing them. West Coast hops created bombs of citrus and resin flavour compared to more traditional British ales.
CROSSING THE POND
In the UK, pioneers such as Dark Star in Sussex started importing US hops, and Meantime in Greenwich unearthed original recipes and recreated strong, forgotten beers for the modern bar and dining table. Thornbridge started out in Derbyshire in 2005 with a pair of young brewers (Martin Dickie and Stefano Cossi) who embraced the new global mash-up of ideas and were given freedom to experiment with them. And when Dickie left in 2007 to start up the brash, punkish BrewDog with James Watt, British craft beer had a full cast of heroes, and headlines.
Demand exploded. There are now more than 800 breweries in the UK – higher than at any time since the Forties with about 80 openings each year. Camra itself has seen membership more than double in the past decade, and its beer festivals – once the preserve of hoary stereotypes from the cultural fringe – now sell out in advance. Even the dimpled pint jug has been re-appropriated by real ale-loving hipsters. Watt, Brew Dog’s ‘Captain’, is in no doubt as to why the change took place: “We were becoming increasingly disillusioned with what was available, and wanted more than cold fizz and generic big brands.”
Counter-intuitively, the recession lit the touch-paper for this pent-up demand for something better. Emma Cole manages the new Craft Beer Co in Brighton. “People don’t have as much money so they go to the pub less,” she says. “But when they do go out, they want something different and better than the usual. Our clientele is aged 25 to 45, settled down but with a bit of money to spend. They’re the kind of people who think about what they buy, especially when it comes to food and drink.”
A large part of craft beer’s appeal is that anyone can have a go. Brewers such as Gazz Williams and Brad Cummings, who launched Newport’s Tiny Rebel this year, were enthusiastic home-brewers in Cummings’ garage before deciding to turn pro. “Brewing’s just like cooking,” Cummings says. “You mess around with recipes and different ingredients, and we soon realised we were brewing beers better than those we could buy down the pub.”
These references to food are telling: the foodie revolution that has swept Britain over the past 20 years is predicated on localism, natural ingredients, bolder flavours and artisanal methods. Small-scale brewing ticks every box.
Evin O’Riordain worked for Neal’s Yard Dairy and was setting up a cheese shop in New York when he discovered US craft beer. “If you go into a British pub, the person serving you knows nothing about the beer,“ he says. “I thought there was room to treat beer with a bit more respect.”
Back in the UK, O’Riordain started to create US beers on a home-brew kit. When he succeeded, he quit cheese and launched the Kernel Brewery.
Kernel’s beer range typifies the current flavour of craft beer: big, hoppy pale ales and IPAs challenge wines like sauvignon blanc in the intensity of their citrus, pine resin or tropical fruit aromas, while stouts and porters are full of espresso and dark chocolate notes. But craft beer isn’t necessarily finished once it’s brewed – the big trend at the moment is ageing beer in wood, adding further layers of character and complexity.
Scottish brewer Harviestoun signed a deal five years ago with distiller Highland Park, and matures its ‘Old Engine Oil’ beer in malt whisky casks of different ages. The 40-year-old finish goes almost exclusively to New York, where it retails for upwards of $50 (£32) for one 330ml bottle – proof that the cask beer special relationship works both ways across the Atlantic. And long may it continue.
Our craft beer picks:
Your dad thought it was a warm bottle on a pub shelf drunk by an old man in a flat cap. You think it’s the perfect gateway to a world of endless beery goodness. Somewhere between lager and dark brown bitter, cool not cold, refreshing not bland, flavourful yet not too challenging: it’s a mainstay of any self-respecting beer cellar.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, 5.6% ABV (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, California)
There are two types of craft brewer – those who started off by attempting to recreate this perfect Californian pale ale at home, and those who are lying.
Camden Pale, 4.9% ABV (Camden Town Brewery, London)
When served in pubs, it’s on tap rather than via a traditional real ale handpump, proving that beers can be cold and fizzy, clean and dry, and still full of flavour.
Bitter & Twisted, 4.2% ABV (Harviestoun Brewery, Scotland)
Zingy and zesty, rounded, sweet and dry: the kind of beer that would make the world seem a better place with a rosy glow even if it didn’t have alcohol in it.
5 Barrel Pale Ale, 5.2% ABV (Odell Brewing, Colorado)
Another leading US craft brewery, Odell has been brewing for 23 years, and this is one of its A-list beers. As with all good pale ales, pine and citrus prevail, with a dry finish, making it dangerously drinkable.
Stiff Upper Lip, 3.9% ABV (By The Horns, London)
Set up last year by university friends Chris Mills and Alex Bull, the Earlsfield-based brewery has had a huge year so far, with its ales beginning to appear in more and more pubs. This light pale ale – perfect for drinking in summer (when it finally arrives) – is worth seeking out.
Goldeneye Pale Ale, 5.6% ABV (Black Isle Brewery, Scotland)
Fresh, unpasturised and organic (the water comes from a borehole drilled deep in the Black Isle bedrock), this pale ale is up there with best Scotland’s craft brewers are producing.
India pale ale (IPA)
The beer style that started it all. The original version was an export beer from the UK to the Indian Raj. The revived, updated IPA is the ultimate showcase for the delights of hops. And you thought it was just another name for a weak bitter…
Goose Island IPA, 5.9% ABV (Goose Island Beer Co, Chicago)
Makes New Zealand sauvignon blanc redundant with its pine, gooseberry and grassy aromas, leading you into a clean, crisp yet full-bodied beer where the bitterness should, in theory dominate, but is, in fact, perfectly balanced.
Meantime IPA, 7.4% ABV (Meantime Brewing Company, London)
An authentic-as-possible recreation of the first generation of London IPAs from the late 18th century. Full-bodied yet elegantly balanced, the ideal beer to take to a dinner party – especially if the food is spicy.
Punk IPA , 5.6% ABV (BrewDog, Scotland)
Behind the hype, it can be easy to forget that BrewDog creates some incredible beers. Punk is almost tame by the brewer’s standards, but is outstanding by any other measure: hugely fruity and slinkily resinous with a dry, bitter finish.
Diablo, 6% ABV (Summer Wine Brewery, Yorkshire)
This rapidly growing Yorkshire brewery (it only started in 2008) produces a wide range of beers, all of which are worth investing in. Diablo is packed with US hops, and is a fine example of an IPA.
Great Eastern IPA, 7.4% ABV (Redchurch Brewery, London)
Another new London brewery, Redchurch, based in Bethnal Green and set up by former lawyer Gary Ward last year, brews ales all named after parts of east London. Its Great Eastern IPA is also inspired by the US: it’s strong (7.4% ABV), and made with US hop varieties such as columbus, nugget and cascade.
Cannonball, 7.4% ABV (Magic Rock, Huddersfield)
Huddersfield’s Magic Rock is creating some of the most exciting brews on the market, and this, its flagship IPA, is a perfect example. If you only try one IPA this year, try this: you will never want a weak lager again.
Dalston Black IPA, 7% (Brodie’s, London)
A beer that has all the characteristics of an IPA (strong and hoppy) yet is dark in colour with hints of licorice due to the addition of roastedmalt.
Revelation 5.9% ABV (Dark Star, Sussex)
It always said that the point of beers this strong is that you don’t drink them by the pint. They show that beer is more diverse than that. But you will drink this one by the pint. You won’t be able to help yourself.
Porter and stout
Porter and stout are very similar styles, with the latter starting life as ‘extra stout porter’. Some people are very clear about what the difference is between porter and stout. Unfortunately, they disagree on what that difference is. So don’t worry about stylistic niceties – just enjoy these wonderful, rich, complex beers.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, 10% ABV (Brooklyn Brewery, New York
Imperial stouts take beer into the same territory as heavy red wines or even liqueurs, but at much lower ABVs (yes, 10% is high for beer, but not high for alcohol generally). This one works as a digestif, an accompaniment to dessert or even dessert itself.
The Kernel Export (Stout), 7.2% ABV (The Kernel Brewery, London)
The Kernel’s Evin O’Riordain doesn’t like giving tasting notes for his beers – he believes you should use your palate and decide for yourself. If you do, you’ll decide that this is smooth, chocolatey and utterly irresistible.
Saint Petersburg (Imperial Russian Stout), 7.7% ABV (Thornbridge, Derbyshire)
Inky, smoky, peaty, sinuous and silky, with hints of molasses and liquorice – a testament to the sheer jaw-dropping vista that malt, hops, water and yeast can conjure up between them.
Yeti Imperial Stout, 9.5% ABV (Great Divide, Colorado)
Another US brewery that led the craft revolution, Great Divide makes beers that have been aped across the world. Yeti is a good place to start your stout adventure: full of flavours of toffee, nuts and chocolate.
Milk Stout, 4.5% ABV (Bristol Beer Factory, Bristol)
An historic drink, recreated and made in the traditional way by Bristol Beer Factory, this contains lactose (hence the name), giving it a slightly sweeter taste. Hard to drink just one…
O6 Porter, 6.6% ABV (Otley Brewing Co, Wales)
Brewed in Pontypridd, Otley’s award-winning porter is the perfect example of what a porter should be, with notes of dark chocolate and coffee.