Style, modernity, and a return to regionality

Matt Curtis finds a resurgence in local brewing traditions


I’m currently writing a book that, when finished, will hopefully be called Modern British Beer. Before I get started however, I am working to develop a strong definition of what “modern” actually looks like in the context of British (and Northern Irish—I won’t forget you folks) beer. Ferment’s editor, Rich, has kindly given me a few column inches to explore this idea, as I take my first, tentative steps into producing this work.

I want to delve into the idea that being “modern” isn’t simply down to the styles of beer being made. I believe you can make bitter or lager and still be very much of-the-moment. How a brewery carries itself as a business: through its treatment of staff, its efforts to promote diversity, equity, and sustainability on an environmental level are all, for me, key tenets of a modern approach to brewing. As is its approach to agriculture, the quality and provenance of its ingredients, and connecting drinkers back to the fact that beer is made with things that are grown in the ground. I look forward to digging into these ideas more when I get into the meat of the book, and it will also influence which beers I end up writing about for it. 

That’s for thinking about a bit later, however. For now I want to stick to style and a trend I feel has been bubbling under the surface for years largely unnoticed, but could be pivotal in defining what modern beer truly is: regionality. 

Historically in the UK, regionality was a strong differentiator in beer styles and helped develop so much in terms of how we know and enjoy beers today. Take Burtonisation—for example—a process developed by brewers to mimic the mineral content of the Burton-upon-Trent water supply. The hard water of Burton contains higher levels of gypsum, which when used as a brewing process aid in the form of brewers salts will lower your worts pH. This is preferred by some brewers when producing pale, hoppy beer styles, as it aids hop absorption rates, and thus how they are showcased in the resulting beer. It’s no coincidence the story of IPA began here, in the Midlands. 

Burton water also contains unusually high amounts of sulphates, sometimes lending an “eggy” aroma to the beer—jovially described by some as “Burton Snatch.” This tends to divide the room, and if you’ve ever had the chance to try Draught Bass, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

Burton Ale is just one example of many regional UK styles that have been secluded into the annals of history. Other examples including the South West beers tended to be pale, yet softer, and less bitter than its northern cousins. Meanwhile, in the South East, darker, malt driven styles worked better with the local water, and so rose to prevalence. In the North West, beers were typically pale and very bitter. Before Manchester’s Boddington’s became a severely dumbed down version of its former self, it was renowned for its assertive bitterness. 

With the rise of craft beer, however, also came a gradual move to a greater amount of homogeneity, as brewers attempted to recreate the most in-vogue styles at their own breweries. As brewing equipment and processes improved—as did communication with the rise of the internet, meaning a new recipe or idea can be shared with another brewer on the other side of the world in seconds—so did this march towards uniformity. 

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I love “West Coast” IPAs and “Munich” Helles but many of the ones I drink now were made many miles away from California or Bavaria. Yes, it sometimes feels over the past few years I’ve tried beers hopped exclusively with Mosaic and Citra hops ad infinitum—some have been exceptional. But I can’t escape the feeling that in a regression from regionality, we’re losing something that makes beer truly special.

This changed quite recently, when I had a moment while drinking a Kernel IPA—always a highlight. There is something unquestionably Kernel about all of their beers; a quality you can’t quite put your finger on but know is there. With The Kernel, it’s not something I really get in any other beer, so I started to think about other beers that are similar. 

It’s only brewed 50 miles up the road... but it’s inherent quality is totally different

Immediately I thought of Burning Sky. Not just the lauded Sussex brewery’s wild fermented saisons and sours, which are unquestionably their own, but also their pales and IPAs. Try them and compare them to others—their inherent quality is not only that they’re delicious, but that they don’t taste like anyone else’s beers. Marble’s cask ale also sprang to mind, that sharp minerality of their cask Manchester Bitter (a beer based on the original Boddington’s) that is unequivocally, well, Manchester. And what of Rooster’s Yankee in Harrogate? It’s only brewed 50 miles up the road from Marble, but its inherent quality is totally different. That Pennine divide brought sharply into focus by the flinty finish of this groundbreaking pale ale. 

Beneath the surface of hype and fuss, and far away from the mass produced beers that dominate most of the beer market, I believe regionality is alive and well. And not just that, but seasonality as well. I want to see beer shift from dark and malty to vibrant and hoppy as the hours of the day wax and wane. I also believe that breweries in the UK that truly consider themselves as being modern will look to exploit their own regionality—their terroir if you will—and imbue in their beers a sense of place that you can’t find elsewhere. 

And it has to be said, nothing really beats tasting fresh beer from the source. If you’ve ever had pilsner in Prague or IPA in San Diego, or have enjoyed one of many hundreds of similar beer experiences, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. I always thought Anchor Steam Beer was pretty ordinary, until I tried it in San Francisco...

I look forward to further exploring this idea in Modern British Beer. I’m writing it for CAMRA Books and it should be available just less than a year after this article has been published. Until then if you fancy debating regionality with me, come find me on Twitter at @totalcurtis

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