UK Style Revolution

On Monday I went to the British Guild of Beer Writers seminar on Beer Styles.  Billed as a contentious subject, I was relatively new to the controversy, seeing it as mainly internet furor where a fight can be started about anything, even something as innocuous as beer.  Though the potential arguments were not hashed out until the end of the seminar, I did get a sense of what was at stake.

In order to market beer, style becomes essential not only in informing the consumer but also in allowing certain beers to enter competitions such as the ones run by CAMRA at the GBBF.  However, the certain prescriptive and narrow style guidelines really hem in brewers like the head brewer at Meantime, Steve Schmidt, who are trying to brew according to inspiration and sensory goals.  He explained that for him often a beer will begin with an idea of what it should taste and look like rather than what style it might be.

I will not go into styles at all in this post, and that perhaps gives away where my sympathies lie– with the brewers who are asking for this to open up a bit, and for a certain flexibility for hybridity and invention.  I know just enough about styles as a consumer to know what I like and to guess at what a certain beer might taste like, and as an amateur home brewer I would attempt a certain style rather than the more creative approach of a master brewer.  That is enough for me for now.

Alastair Hook, owner of the Meantime Brewing Company, presented a visionary argument about styles and evolution.  His forward looking approach is clear in his beer and his brand, and I have long been a fan of his vision.  The seminar was held in his brew pub, the Powerpoint presentation cast before the gorgeous copper kettles in the main dining room.  On the site, Henry the VIII was born as well as Elizabeth the I, and the site has held a brewery on and off for 300 years, so when Hook says one can’t fake provenance in brewing identity, we can believe him.  He cited many examples of wine advertising and their success– that your average British consumer can tell you the difference between a chardonnay grape and a merlot is evidence that wine marketing has permeated British food culture.  What can breweries learn from their approach?

Hook has branded his wonderful beers with London in mind, this city that was once the brewing capital of the world, with three styles attributed to this place– the porter, stout and I.P.A.  Meantime brews versions of all of these styles, and they are not museum pieces but re-inventions of these beers.  I would argue that Hook’s notion of provenance is prioritised over tradition in the strict sense, to the brewery’s credit.  The history of the core style may inform the beer but it does not dictate the brewing process. (Much of the beer is served in kegs– why this mode of delivery is controversial is beyond me, though there seems to be some worry that keg delivery will somehow endanger the future of cask ale in the UK.  I don’t think keg beer is a threat here but that is fodder for another post.)

Hook also spoke of a brewing renaissance and revolution which originated in the US in the 80s with its “holistic New World approach to beer design.”  I think the UK could also learn a lot not just from this approach to beer design but also to beer marketing.  Last night I went to a gig at the Lexington and you know what young women and men were drinking there?  Blue Moon, Goose Island and Brooklyn Lager beers.  Ok, so it wasn’t real ale but it was craft beer, and it was “hip” to be holding a bottle of the stuff.  And I think this is key– US microbrews are harnessing their claim to authenticity: they are the underdogs, brewing newness with passion.  In a perhaps subliminal way, younger UK drinkers get this.

Though I admire Alastair’s approach and his beautiful beers, I would break from his argument in just this one regard. Of course breweries should learn lessons from successful wine marketing but beer will never be wine.  I would hope that beer and beer culture would never adopt the middle class trappings of wine in the UK.  Beer is so much cooler than wine because it is authentically British, and even the best beer is accessible to all price-wise.  I’d venture those gig-going Londoners in the Lexington weren’t wine drinkers.   The aspirational hegemony of wine will wane, and craft beer is poised to replace it.

But this is going to happen on the ground, in pubs, by employing and training staff about beers, by hiring staff who not only love beer but love customers.  (Even in customer hating London this can be done– just look at the success of the Jolly Butcher in Stoke Newington).    And pubs should offer flights of beers– small tasters presented on a tray in order of palate receptivity, and there should be halves and even third measure glasses available.  Taster plates of tapas sized snacks paired with beer would be a fantastic way to introduce a range of beers to people in a pub context.

I look forward to the rise of the welcoming brewpub that eschews gastro attitudes for casual generosity.  Ultimately, as craft beer variety increases in the UK, the younger UK drinking public will become more daring, expecting more  than just a 3.5% session bitter, which let’s face it, is currently the only alternative offered to the Stella and Guinness at most locals. Though this may already be happening in the US, breweries there are looking to the UK for roots and inspiration and breweries like Brewdog and Meantime are bringing this collaborative attitude to the UK.  Here the revolution is just taking off, and I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a beer drinker in the UK.

21 Responses

  1. Good points, I was sorry I couldn’t make it

    • Hi Melissa, I was hoping to see you there. You were missed!

  2. ” Taster plates of tapas sized snacks paired with beer would be a fantastic way to introduce a range of beers to people in a pub context.”

    I like this as an idea, but the concept could be stretched further than just introduction to beer. If it was done well and widespread, it would be a great way to casually eat and drink. It would have broad appeal as well as educational value.

    • Tandleman– I think it would have broad appeal as well, and would be a better alternative than the standard bowl of chips ordered when one is feeling tipsy. Also, with smaller measures and matching food available, people would be able to try higher alcohol beers– something it seems a lot of people are afraid to do because they drink pints and often don’t eat before or with their drinks.

  3. your average British consumer can tell you the difference between a chardonnay grape and a merlot

    I couldn’t tell you the difference between a chardonnay grape and a merlot to save my life, and I’m a Cambridge-educated university lecturer. Connoisseur beers will always be beers for a minority with an educated palate & enthusiasm for the new and different. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not beer for everyone.

    • I’m not sure what connoisseur beers would be, but craft beer appeals to a wide range of people regardless of education or class.

      • My problem is that I don’t believe in ‘craft beer’ – it’s real ale or it isn’t, and beyond that it’s good or it isn’t. By ‘connoisseur beers’ I mean beers that need a paragraph of description/explanation, or that use traditional styles as a jumping-off point for something else entirely (which generally takes a paragraph to explain – it’s a porter but we use specially-harvested lambic yeast cultures and for this bottling we added juniper berries towards the end…). High prices are generally involved too.

        (Meantime do make good beer, though.)

      • One other point: although I used the words ‘educated palate’, I never referred to education or class – indeed, I made a point of saying that I’m middle-class and had an elite education myself. I am absolutely not saying that ‘craft beer’ is an elitist project in social terms. I am saying that it’s inherently a minority project, because there will only ever be a minority of people who (a) can taste the difference between one IPA and another, (b) care and (c) positively want to taste more variations.

  4. I can tell the difference between a red grape and a green one, and I doubt the average conusmer could do much more than identify chardonnay as white and merlot as red. But if you plucking out a grape variety from a blind tasting there’s as much chance of them identifying a classical composer from a selection of classic fm’s top 100. Most of us would probably get lucky because the names of both are well known but real identification – I don’t think so.

    • The red-white grape was an example Alastair Hook used to make his point and it was one that rang true– it reflected the attitudes of the drinkers I know who know enough about wine to make solid choices but still see beer as somehow not as sophisticated or diverse as wine.

      • Doesn’t ring true to me or anyone I know. I don’t want to pander to the stereotype, but maybe in London or the Home Counties? Barely anyone I know knows anything about wine or beer, and I think us who take an interest forget that all too often. That said, all these people have an opinion and know what they like, and can appreciate their good and the bads.

  5. good insightful post. I would say to Phil that calling craft beers connoisseur is a bit reverse snobbery, why can’t everyone develop a palate for difference, it’s like saying that only people who have been to college can understand great literature or music. I also think wine has lost a lot of its middle class posturing in the past couple of decades, unless of course you get yours from Berry Bros rather than Tesco.

    • Adrian, thanks for reading. You are right about the wine posturing– when one can buy a bottle at the supermarket for 3 quid how sophisticated can it be? But I would argue even the punter getting the cut-rate rose believes they are drinking something redolent of a better life. Can UK craft beer suggest the same thing? Should it even try? Or can it denote something wholly different and more exciting? These are all questions that came up for me after the seminar.

      • I would agree, to say wine is a middle class drink is ridiculous these days. You might get away with arguing Smirnoff Ice is the drink of Saturday night drunks with some accuracy but wine is as ubiquitous as ketchup and salad cream.

  6. it’s like saying that only people who have been to college can understand great literature or music

    It really, really isn’t. It’s like saying that enthusiasts for exotic and different literature and music are and always will be a minority, even though everyone reads books and listens to music.

  7. As a regular (in the British sense) real ale drinker, I find most of this post and thread fascinatingly incomprehensible. I think I’ll go for a pint.

    • I realize I’m bringing a West Coast US perspective to this, where craft beer plays a more central role in eating and drinking and I miss that. I would like to see it happen here. Also writing this post has reminded me of the “get the last word in” impulse of the beer blogoshire, which makes me wonder why I cared enough to write the post in the first place, given my transcontinental, London-based (for now at least) perspective seems so alien to people commenting here! I think I need a pint too, Neville!

  8. […] the subject of beer styles (see, for example, here and here and here, and also here and here, and here as well) one perhaps important point seems to be missing. The expression “beer style” […]

  9. I wasn’t criticising or trying to get the last word in. I found it interesting ~ it just doesn’t reflect my experience, but is nonetheless a valid topic for all that. No offence, I hope.

    • Hi Neville, I didn’t think you were trying to get the last word in– sorry if it seemed that way. I think sometimes these comments threads feel a bit like a runaway train, but that had nothing to do with what you said. I always look forward to hearing your take on things.

  10. […] beer styles matter (or don’t) that hasn’t already been said. I see that there’s been a discussion in the UK about it and the folks at the New School and Beervana have elaborated what they think is important […]

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