Bonsoir my British chums!

Why Matthew Curtis thinks European beer styles will be back in vogue this year


Back in February 2019, moments after hosting a panel discussion at Cloudwater’s Friends & Family & Beer festival, Duration Brewing co-founder Miranda Hudson pressed a can of ice-cold beer into my palm. With one foot still firmly in my moderator mindset, I snapped the ring pull back without so much as a second thought, and took a hearty sip before the hiss of carbon dioxide had a chance to escape. 

I don’t know what I was expecting, but the beer I tasted wasn’t it. Perhaps I would be met with the green-tinged snap of noble hobs in a pilsner, I thought, or a bitter, orange and yellow hit of citrus from an IPA. But no, here was pastel pinks and blues; bubblegum and orange zest, pin-pricked by the spice of coriander seed and a hop accent not unlike white pepper. It was delightful, it was refreshing, it was a Belgian-style witbier. 

Raising the can to my eyeline, I could see that the beer was called Promise of Spring, and was indeed Duration’s take on a classic Belgian wit (via a little North American influence from Portland, Maine’s Allagash Brewing and its revered take on the style). I couldn’t honestly remember the last time I had drank a witbier, a decision I was presently rueing. Despite being at a beer festival where I could enjoy literally any kind of beer my heart desired, I was at peak contentment with a style I hadn’t thought about in years. 

But then a funny thing happened. Call it coincidence, call it the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but after that first can of witbier in such a long time I started seeing it everywhere. There was Queer Brewing’s excellent take on the style, Flowers, for starters. Then the UK saw its first ever shipment of the aforementioned Allagash White, which proceeded to sell out rapidly. And most recently of all I was sent a few cans of Lost and Grounded’s updated Belgian-pale, Hop Hand Fallacy, which has been reformulated and is now – you’ve guessed it – a Belgian-style wit. 

I’m currently of the belief that tastes and palates in the UK are going through a period of flux (and I’ll get to the reasons why I think this is later). I believe that the Belgian wit once again becoming en vogue is evidence that our desire to explore the brewing traditions of Western Europe is slowly, but steadily, taking hold. Witbiers and various interesting styles of lager are merely the vanguard. I predict a bountiful few years of saisons, dubbels, kölsch, hefeweizen and altbier ahead. I am excited for this. My body is ready. 

But why do certain beer styles fall in and out of fashion – in particular those with a sharp regional focus – and why are classic European styles coming back into fashion only now? 

To begin answering this, I first need to wind the clock back 10 years, and relive my own formative years as a beer enthusiast. This is how my own burgeoning desire to try every single take on the traditional beers of Europe I could find first took hold. What might surprise you about this, however, is that it was the efforts of a handful of plucky, young, English brewers, not Europeans, that were the catalyst for this. 

It’s 2012 and I’m standing in The King William IV pub in Leyton, East London. A few months ago I had started writing a blog about beer, and I had come to the beer festival it was hosting. I was determined to taste my way through as many of the “50 different beers” it was offering as possible.  

Although it’s now a pretty average, albeit incredibly smart gastropub, it used to belong to the Brodie family, and was the home of one of London’s first proper craft breweries, Brodie’s Fabulous Beers. Bar a few bottles here and there, you could only really try its beers here, or at its central London pubs The Old Coffee House and The Cross Keys. The head brewer, James Brodie, was a shy and reclusive fellow, and certainly wasn’t interested in chatting to would be bloggers about things like hops, or kettle souring, and the like. 

While Brodie’s no longer exists, a decade ago its beers were sensational, and inspiring other young brewers like The Kernel’s Evin O’Riordain and Partizan’s Andy Smith to experiment in ways they hadn’t thought of yet. If you’ve ever tried The Kernel’s London Sour, for example, that beer was directly inspired by the work of James Brodie.

Somehow, later in the evening, I found myself in the large, brick shed behind the pub where the brewery existed. While James was nowhere to be seen, someone poured me a sample from a conditioning tank, and handed me a glass of the brewery's new Saison. I often talk about times in my life where I have beer experiences that are pivotal, and this is one of them. The flavours of bubblegum, clove, and allspice are still clear to me as a blue sky on a summer’s day. As a beer enthusiast, it marked an important step in my continued search for deliciousness.

You have to bear in mind at this point that I was an American IPA fiend. I had dismissed almost everything else, from cask ales to lagers and anything that wasn’t dripping with resinous bitterness. But this beer changed things for me. It made me crave more spicy, funky, Belgian inspired beers and so that’s where my hard earned pounds went.

My first purchases came from other UK breweries; I have a special, deep fondness for a lime and coriander saison brewed by the now defunct Summer Wine Brewery, and the early Kernel Bière de Saison was this brewery's first step down the path to a style it has now pretty much perfected. But these beers had another profound effect on me: they led me to the classics. Soon I was espousing the name of Saison Dupont, and learned to recite the names of the (then) seven Trappist breweries from memory.

But my newfound obsession with the European classics didn’t end there. Soon I was chasing doppelbocks, quadruples, eventually even finding my way back to lager, which I now consider to be one of my favourite styles in the world. None of which would have happened if it wasn’t for a few upstart British breweries deciding to play around with their versions of these styles. 

As a story that felt insignificant at the time, it now feels important because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m starting to see it happen again. 

The desire for breweries to release more off kilter-styles such as Belgian witbiers comes from a few places. First there’s the more obvious, and dare I say more pure intention to brew something different; something “the brewers want to drink” as has often been repeated into my dictaphone. But this desire alone isn’t enough, these beers also have to be sold in bars, and in bottle shops. This cannot rely on beer geeks on nostalgia trips like myself alone: it has to get into fridges, and down throats, by the caseload.

And this is where I think things are starting to get really interesting. Over the past two, three, or even five years, a lot of new people have discovered what, for simplicity's sake, we’ll call craft beer. Where the previous generation got excited by beer thanks to super bitter, and tongue-twistingly resinous American IPAs, the new wave latched onto hoppy beers that were both soft, hazy and juicy, as well as sweet and decadent pastry stouts. 

But once you’ve explored that niche to a certain extent, once beer has pulled you in so deep you can’t escape its clutches, that’s when curiosity sparks, and begins to send you in different directions. It only takes one moment of deliciousness to have you Googling for more saisons, hefeweizens or tmavy lezak (that’s a Czech style dark lager, and take it from me you should be Googling for it). There is a whole new wave of excited beer drinkers within the fold that have only been switched on to the beverage in the past few years, thousands of them, and with that a wealth of beer styles to discover and explore.

This is why, for example, Devon’s Utopian Brewery has in the time I was writing this article announced the release of a Dopplebock, and why Runaway, a brewery local to me here in Manchester currently has a tribute to De Ranke XX Bitter—one of the finest modern Belgian beers in existence—currently pouring at some of the city’s best beer bars. This, coupled with the exciting developments in malt and yeast currently happening, means there’s plenty for brewers to play with, so they can brew what they want to drink, while keeping their customers both satisfied and joyfully curious.

I’m not saying there’s going to be a revolution of Belgian, German or Czech beer styles here. But what I am saying is that we are going to settle into another period of rediscovery; of occasionally choosing something a little different on your next trip to the bar for a beer with a little more… je ne sais quoi.

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