Mutton dressed as lamb

Tom Pears looks at how mid-size traditional breweries have fought to stay relevant in the UK craft beer revolution
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Looking back even 10 years, few could have predicted how much the British brewing landscape would change, or how quickly. Upstart breweries have spawned in every corner of Britain, with London, Bristol and Manchester becoming hubs, each with its own unique communities of producers and aficionados. Of course, unlike many countries, the British craft movement hasn’t emerged from a total wasteland; thanks to the efforts of CAMRA and a hard core of traditional beer lovers, many ‘proper’ breweries – some large, some small – survived the seemingly implacable march of the macro lager producers, somehow living to fight another day.

For these breweries, the craft revolution must have been bittersweet; on the one hand, it’s vindication that, given the chance, people will choose flavour and quality, yet on the other there is the inescapable feeling that traditional brewers have been left to watch from the side lines. Suddenly they had a new threat to counter, one very different from the one posed by big multinational corporations such as AB InBev and Diageo. They weren’t contending against cardboard-tasting, generic, mass-produced lagers, but in many cases, tiny artisan breweries, furiously experimenting and striving for the perfect formula. 

New styles of beer were growing in popularity, IPAs such as Brewdog’s Punk IPA and Thornbridge’s Jaipur, two beers that we all take for granted now, especially since the murky New England style IPA has risen in prominence. But at the time they offered something new and a genuine alternative. Punchy, hoppy, fruity beers packed full of flavour. Drinkers suddenly had more choice and were exposed to new breweries with vibrant pump clips and beers with irreverent names. Craft beer was a peacock, turning up fashionably late to the party, strutting around amongst a flock of pigeons. 

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Traditional breweries were ‘squeezed in the middle’, as Ian Parkinson of Moorhouse told the Financial Times in 2016. They occupied an uneasy middle ground, surviving on their cask sales in the UK, steadily declining in recent years. Shifting focus to keg, even for small-batch beers, must have felt like a seismic shift that would sit uneasily with the existing customer base. But the answer to staying successful and relevant in this new epoch of beer was to adapt, to try to appeal to everyone.

On the one hand, it could be seen as a cynical cash in, no better than the macro breweries developing new ‘craft’ ranges and trying to muscle in on the craft beer market. One answer for some breweries was just a matter of rebranding, or reclassifying their flagship beers from ‘bitter’ to ‘amber ale’ for example, in the hope that this new moniker would be more familiar to the modern craft beer drinker. The craft beer boom was a catalyst of change for many breweries: a chance to hit the refresh button. Moorhouse has recently rebranded, hot on the heels of breweries such as Timothy Taylor’s. The new branding for Landlord is still the beer we know and love, just a little bit more sleek; he wears jeans now, not corduroys (I have nothing against corduroys by the way).

Established in 1872, Adnams is another elder statesmen in British brewing, devoted to cask ale throughout its long history. Beers such as ‘Broadside’ and ‘Southwold Bitter’ are staples in pubs up and down the country. Back in 2013, it was one of the first mid-sized breweries to truly commit to a craft beer range. The ‘Jack Brand’ was available in keg and in bottles, and later cans, and allowed the brewers to experiment with new recipes and hops. For many drinkers, Adnams Mosaic was their first exposure to the Mosaic hop. The crisp notes of citrus fruits and pine needles were unlike anything Adnams had brewed before it.

In many ways ‘Jack Brand’ offers a bridge between mainstream beer and craft. The dry hopped lager is well balanced and designed to entice the regular lager over to craft. Familiar but different, Adnams has proven it can appeal to the craft beer drinker, but doing so without neglecting or compromising their history and heritage. Broadside and Ghost Ship are still its flagship beers and bestsellers but there’s no denying they are having fun developing new recipes and keeping abreast of the modern trends. Recent Earl Grey lagers and their refreshing zesty Cucamelon sour are testament to this. 

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Another example of how a brewery has learned to adapt to the rise of craft beer is London’s Fuller’s. We all know London Pride, and if you live or have worked in the capital then you have probably drunk in a Fuller’s pub at some point in your life. Despite its huge estate of pubs in London and the South East (just under 200) it was keen not to be left behind while craft beer was taking off in the UK.

Ex-head brewer and now Fuller’s ambassador John Keeling said in his keynote Brewers Journal lecture last year that one of most important things for a brewery big or small was to maintain its values, quality and personality. But Fuller’s has also become flag-bearers for cask beer, especially within London. Last year’s London Craft Beer Festival saw Fuller’s curate the ‘Cask Yard’: a mini beer festival within a beer festival. As well as old favourites such as ESB, there were also the lesser-seen Vintage Ale and 1845 on cask, much to my delight, as well as breweries such as Bristol’s Moor and Manchester’s Marble. This was cask in a craft beer festival that was engaging, contemporary, showcasing the pinnacle of cask beer from all over the UK.

‘Fuller’s and Friends’ was another great example of where the brewery sees itself; more than just piggy-backing successful craft breweries, these were genuine collaborations that tested both parties’ artistic endeavour and brewing skills. More than any other brewery of similar size and standing, it has embraced craft beer and its culture, ensuring both the respect of younger, smaller breweries, and the commercial success that comes from straddling both markets.

Both Adnams and Fuller’s are proof that an established brewery can have success in continuing their long-running traditions whilst also embracing craft beer culture. Both breweries have realised the importance of their loyal fanbases but refused to stagnate, innovating, adapting and ultimately thriving in a new dawn of British brewing. 

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