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.