On the resurgence of traditional regional beer
Saturday 13 February 2021
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Founded in 1828 by retired cotton manufacturer John Lees, JW Lees embodies the slim overlap between what is considered traditional, cask-centric British brewing and what we would normally view as ‘craft’ beer. But when you put aside thorny industry semantics, the craft that JW Lees puts into its beers – whether traditional or more contemporary – is undeniable. And with a growing movement of modern beer acolytes discovering the pleasures of more subtle British brewing, the trend that this brewery represents is as significant as any other in this month’s issue.
“We’ve definitely seen more demand for brands like our Founders Best Bitter and our MPA, even before the first lockdown,” says head brewer and production director Michael Lees-Jones. “These traditional beers have been around for so long, but obviously in recent years, the US-style IPAs took over.
“We all like juicy pales and West Coast IPAs; they’re great for a challenging drink to see what it’s like, but my way of looking at it is you also need a safe beer that’s consistently got great body and great flavour, that you can really just enjoy. Now, I think coming out of lockdown, people crave that consistency; they want a beer that’s been brewed to be drunk in a pub, over the course of a long evening with their friends. That’s absolutely what we’re about – pubs are what we do.”
This is not hyperbole – as well as the brewery, JW Lees runs a large estate of pubs, many of which are in rural locations, and Michael is clearly very passionate about the key roles pubs play in our culture and communities. He recalls visiting one of the JW Lees pubs during one of the brief windows in which it was allowed to open last year, and being reminded of what a unique and special place they have.
“It’s so much more than just a business. It’s the psychological support for a whole load of people; there are people you know, age 80 or 90, and the only social interaction they have is going to the pub, and they might just go there and have a couple of pints. The pub is the hub, it’s what makes villages tick. It’s not all about bars in central London, which is all our politicians only ever see, and it’s not the home counties gastropub they visit for Sunday lunch with their family. These pubs don’t look important or special, but they hold communities together.”
As much as JW Lees is clearly about traditional craft and its core range though, it is also making interesting steps to cater for more modern tastes, and master brewer Tom Evans is himself from a craft brewing background. The Boilerhouse project started up around 15 months before lockdown began, so is still finding its feet. Already though, it is adding milkshake pales, white stouts and other distinctly crafty styles to the portfolio.
The project came partly out of requests from regular customers for additional specials, beyond JW Lees regular seasonal releases. In a particularly satisfying vindication of the pride it takes in its core range though, several new customers who began buying Boilerhouse eventually also put JW Lees’ more traditional brews on tap. It’s a pattern we believe will be mirrored with similar breweries in pubs up and down the country over the next couple of years.
While I’m sure he’d love to be able to take the craft world be storm though, Michael’s heart is clearly in the same place as everyone else’s just now. “To be totally honest, I just want to be back in the pub, and I don’t give a damn whose beer it is. I want it to be drinkable, I want it to be bright and I want it to be in a proper pub with my friends and my colleagues,” he says.
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