Debate: A beer for the ages
The shelves of our bottleshops are a riot of choice. But, asks Matthew Curtis, where are the beers we’ll still be enjoying in ten years’ time?
Thursday 23 May 2019
This article is from
Maine, New England
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The year is 2029. You and I are sat in a craft beer bar, or whatever kind of beverage-based establishment is now popular, enjoying said beverages. As I sit drinking my lacto, hazelnut-infused, triple dry hopped session doppelbock you turn to me and ask a question.
“Hey remember that brewery from a decade ago?”
“You know, those guys, with the cans. They did a lot of special beers, with weird names and bright colours on the label?”
“Oh, I don’t remember.”
At which point my future self turns to the bartender and tells them that what I am currently drinking is awful and, peering in the fridges, I spot exactly what I would like to drink.
“Two bottles of Augustiner Helles, please.”
If we’re lucky, with the correct stewardship a beer like Augustiner will remain eternal. Its light flavour of soft, pillowy white bread and a flash of peppery hops is equal only to its legacy. Which is to say it’s likely a beer you or I will never tire of and it will always be there for us following a beer experience that is less than adequate. It will be there for us when we party with friends. It will be there for us when we take moments of sweet solace. Such is the importance of its legacy.
Recently, however, I’ve become concerned that building a legacy is not something modern brewers are looking to achieve. The most die-hard consumers of beer are seemingly only interested in the newest of the new. Consequently, young brewers seeking to drive both volume and their creative lust seemingly pander to the desires of this very small group of hardened enthusiasts. What kind of legacy is this creating for the modern brewing industry?
A lasting impression
Of all the endless hazy, yellow beers, which among them could be the next Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Duvel, or Landlord? Which of them will we drink with nostalgic gusto when we are old and infirm? Because I’m struggling to put my finger on any. Perhaps this is because hindsight is 20:20 and foresight is blind. Or perhaps it’s because modern brewing is currently so invested in its present, that it is yet to consider the future.
As we continue to debate independence, quality, price and the rest of today’s hot topics, I feel the concept of legacy building is one modern brewers have yet to dwell on. And I believe it’s something they should start thinking about a great deal.
One modern brewer who understands the importance of legacy implicitly is St. Austell master brewer Roger Ryman. He created its flagship beer, Tribute, after all.
Before he took his position as head brewer at the Cornwall brewery in 1999, Ryman brewed at Scotland’s Maclay and Co, where he made pale beers that demonstrated his fondness for the hop varieties of North America, such as Mt. Hood and Cascade. But, arriving in Cornwall he found the majority of beers were traditional brown bitters, entrenched in their use of Fuggles and Goldings, including at St. Austell.
His solution was to introduce a new seasonal in the same year as he began his tenure at the brewery. Ryman describes the launch of the beer, which was originally known as Daylight Robbery, as “relatively low key”.
However, the beer – which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year – became something of a runaway success, defining St. Austell as a brewery in the process. Renamed as Tribute in 2001, its popularity saw the Cornish brewery grow from producing 15,000 hectolitres of beer in 1999, to 150,000 in 2018.
“Tribute is the catalyst that built the brewery,” Ryman says in his typically humble manner, despite being directly responsible for its success. “In fact, the Tribute brand itself has arguably become more important than the brewery, such was the impact it had.”
As a relatively easy drinking and sessionable amber ale – late hopped with Willamette from the US and Styrian Goldings from Slovenia for a kick of citrus and a peppery, dry finish – Tribute may seem a little tame by today’s standards. This is especially true when you consider it was a limited release in its youth. But the numbers demonstrate give irrefutable proof of its quality and popularity. Today, each brew of Tribute makes 60,000 pints, and it is brewed at this volume several times a week.
“I remind our brewers of that number regularly,” Ryman tells me. “We need to ensure our beer is as good as it possibly can be every single time, as with all of today’s competition we need to sell every last one of those pints.”
“This wouldn’t happen without the brand awareness Tribute has, and the understanding that this took two decades to build.”
Established in Hackney, East London in 2013, Pressure Drop Brewing certainly doesn’t have the kind of head start that the 168-year-old St. Austell did. It’s also entered a very different market. For starters, there are now over three times more breweries operating in the UK, and many of those that emerged over the past two decades have expanded a great deal. All of this extra competition means the market is now far more challenging for a young brewery. However, being a small brewery also has its advantages. First and foremost, it allows you to adapt more quickly to market conditions. And if you are releasing popular beers in small quantities, you also run out faster, driving consumer hyperbole in the process.
Things have changed dynamically, even within the lifespan of Pressure Drop’s short existence, as sales and marketing coordinator Sienna O’Rourke explains.
“When we started it was unthinkable to have a brewery without a core pale ale,” she says. “I don’t think that’s so much the case these days, but we’d do it the same if we were just starting up now.”
With its flagship pale ale, Pale Fire – softly hazy like a friendly ghost but vibrantly fresh with citrus laden North American hops – Pressure Drop began to capture the cloudy, hoppy zeitgeist before it really existed. It did well out of it too, expanding to its present North London location in Tottenham in 2017, quadrupling capacity in the process.
And in 2018, Pressure Drop opened its first bar in partnership with Falmouth’s Verdant Brewing Company, utilising the Hackney railway arch that was home to its original brewery. Around this time the brewery also began a transition from 330ml bottles to the currently popular 440ml cans, marking an increase in the number of one-off specials it could release.
“We want to make interesting and adventurous beers, but we love the reliability of a core range too,” O’Rourke says, while admitting there’s been a large amount of debate internally about the importance of core beers versus limited releases.
“We’ve noticed a shift in our customer’s habits, and alongside this is the desire for new releases, so why not give the people what they want?”
The brewery has streamlined its core range down to just three beers, including its flagship Pale Fire, along with Street Porter and its curiously named witbier, Wu Gang Chops the Tree. Some regularly occurring releases such as Nanban Kanpai, a yuzu IPA brewed for South London restaurant Nanban, will make way for new beers, as the brewery has made a call to stop brewing for specific venues (although fans of the beer will be pleased to know it is slated to make an eventual return, albeit with a slight revamp).
This desire for new beers is something O’Rourke has coined “the Pokémon effect” (in that you gotta catch ‘em all). She sees social media, in particular Instagram, as the driving force behind this, describing its users as an “amazing community of beer drinkers” whose photographs quickly drive beer trends across the entire world.
However, she’s also quick to remind me of the importance of Pale Fire, describing it as the brewery’s most recognisable and pub friendly offering. Perhaps then, despite younger breweries chasing trends to satisfy the needs of a growing type of consumer, it still recognises the importance of constructing a legacy.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without Pale Fire, and it is the beer that we all drink more than any other in the range,” O’Rourke says. “Pale Fire ain’t going nowhere.”
Devil in the Detail
If one brewery knows a thing or two about legacy then it would surely be Belgium’s Duvel Moortgat. Founded in 1871, it released its flagship strong Golden Ale in 1923 (originally called Victory Ale, as a nod to the end of the First World War). Such is this beer’s legacy that it’s now known the world over.
And remarkably it continues to grow, with sales in UK supermarkets of its bottled beer increasing by 16% in 2018.
“For me, legacy means having a lasting impact that’s helped shape the industry, which often comes through innovation and, in particular, defining a new beer style,” Duvel Moortgat’s UK marketing manager and beer sommelier Natalya Watson tells me. “Duvel has such a strong legacy because it’s a category-defining beer and is still seen as the reference point for Belgian strong golden ales.”
Despite being acutely aware of the importance of Duvel’s legacy – the very existence of this brand depends on it – Watson is also conscious that the market is ever-changing, and the same ethos might not be relevant for a modern brand.
“For off-trade success a strong core brand seems pretty important, so consumers know they can rely on a certain beer being consistently available,” she says. “However, many consumers are seeking the new and the next at bars and bottle shops, so constant innovation and experimentation might help catch a consumer’s eye in those venues.”
It’s a beat that Duvel hasn’t missed, introducing its Tripel Hop – an amped-up variant of Duvel, redolent with resinous Citra hops – in 2016. And this year it’s released a barrel-aged version of Duvel, perhaps hoping to capture the imagination of someone looking for something a little different.
Yet these beers still play off the Duvel brand, and in turn its legacy. Perhaps for a young, small brewery this isn’t so important, but for a large, established brand, it’s everything. We’ve seen huge growth in the number of small, young UK breweries over the past decade. Now though, they too are investing in expansion, reaching into new markets and perhaps even making the first steps towards building a legacy of their own.
And they should be looking to take those steps, because creating a lasting impact within the world of beer is important. You taste legacy every time you enjoy a pint of Tribute or a glass of Duvel. The reason brands exist for such a long time is not just because they’re highly enjoyable to drink, but because they’re memorable. Who knows, maybe in a decade or so we’ll be getting the same warm and fuzzies from a long glass of Pale Fire.
“They say it takes ten years to build a brand,” St. Austell’s Roger Ryman tells me. He would know, too, being responsible for one of the most recognisable beer brands within the UK.
What Ryman also recognises however, is how this too has changed, that things tend to move a lot faster these days. This is in part down to changing consumer habits and greater choice but ultimately due to greater exposure through the likes of social media.
Maybe the idea of legacy has changed too? Sure, we might never see another Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Fullers ESB emerge through the ranks. But isn’t that a little bit exciting? We’re heading into unknown territory when it comes to the beers that will dominate our future. Who can guess what treats might be waiting for us out there? Perhaps some of these beers may yet have the opportunity to build a brand new legacy of their very own.
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