The end of summer

When it comes to old favourites like Summer Wine, we need to use it or lose it, writes Tom Pears


 The recent closure of Yorkshire’s Summer Wine brewery was a stark jolt of reality for the beer industry. An understated and much-loved brewery, whose beers evoked fond memories, Summer Wine was no flash in the pan, and can be labelled as a true pioneer, bursting on to the scene 12 years ago when the UK craft beer scene was in its infancy. Its demise was a sobering reminder of the challenges facing modern breweries, that even established and acclaimed breweries can fall. A warning to us consumers also, that we shouldn’t sleep on our favourites. 

Diablo, its flagship, was one of the first British IPAs to capture the zeitgeist of this strange new enigma called ‘craft’. Refreshingly simple by today’s standards, it was a 6% IPA that showcased Citra hops in all their glory, exhibiting mango, lychee and pine flavours. Whether cask or keg, Summer Wine was a synonym for consistency and creativity. However, as the Punks, Cannonballs and Jaipurs became renowned as modern classics, Diablo and Summer Wine slowly crept out of the craft consciousness. This was partly due to availability; as the UK scene continued to boom and breweries started to establish themselves, Summer Wine became a pleasant surprise at the bar rather than a staple. There was a renewed interest when it started canning, and I remember the buzz when the retailer I worked for got its first batch of cans. 

So when news broke that the brewery was to cease trading, there was a collective outpouring of grief. From punters to beer writers to fellow breweries. A sense of sudden shock and sadness. Everyone seemed to have a ‘My First Diablo’ anecdote to share. From first glance on Twitter, it would seem the British scene had lost a titan, not with a bang but with a whimper. 

But for all its exciting dynamism, is the UK’s craft beer culture destined to its darlings? We drink, we rate, we post it on Instagram and then we move on to the next big thing. Sometimes we are all so transfixed in our quest for the latest release, or new trendy style, or even new hop varieties, that ironically we become complacent, relegating our favourite tried-and-tested beers because they are not new. We’re all guilty of this to a degree.

Everyone seemed to have a 'My First Diablo' anecdote to share

Andy Parker, head of Elusive Brewery mused on Twitter, “is it that certain breweries aren’t ‘keeping up with the times’ or is it a symptom of saturation?”, which prompted dozens of replies. It does seem that Summer Wine faded into obscurity, even as the breweries it inspired grew in popularity. Even on a local level, the county it sought to galvanise is now one of the most fertile for brewing in the UK, boasting acclaimed breweries such as Northern Monk, North Brewing Co, Magic Rock and Brew York.

And there have been profound changes that even established breweries must navigate; the very notion of honing and possessing ‘core range’ – once a given – has been challenged as breweries continue to experiment and churn out new releases every week. For smaller breweries, it’s easier to be flexible, but as production pressures grow, this flexibility diminishes. 

Consequently, there are an increasing number of independent breweries who find themselves occupying a brewing hinterland, not sufficiently in vogue to appeal to the modern craft beer drinker, but not large and well-resourced enough to secure mass-market appeal. It’s these breweries, like Summer Wine and even Fuller’s – which, following its sale to Asahi last year, cited the squeeze between the big breweries and the craft crowd – that currently are the most vulnerable.

It’s still unclear what impact Brexit will have across the spectrum of UK brewing, but there is legitimate concern that it will increase in tariffs and red tape, especially for those looking to import and export, not to mention their suppliers and distributors. Amid so much uncertainty, we should all view the closure of Summer Wine as a cautionary tale that everyone is susceptible, no matter how revered and respected. As much as we eulogise and heap praise on Twitter, or bestow 5-star ratings on Untappd, the bottom line is breweries need to make money to survive. So, revisit the classics if it’s been a while, because sometimes we don’t realise how much we love something until it’s gone.

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