Lighting the way

When it comes to gauging future trends, nothing beats talking to the star brewers of the future, writes Mark Dredge


What do the next generation of brewers – those currently studying brewing or beginning their careers – think will be important to the near-future of the beer industry? To find out, I spoke to students on the four-year Heriot-Watt University Brewing and Distilling degree programme, I spoke to brewing postgrads, to non-brewing undergrads involved in university beer societies, and to those already working full time as brewers while studying a HIT apprenticeship, which has residential study weekends at the University of Nottingham. Here’s what they said.

“The younger generation should be really into the environment and global warming,” said Ethan Cain, final year Heriot-Watt student. Sustainability and the impact of brewing on the environment was by far the most common issue raised, with a lot of people using the example of BrewDog now being carbon negative. “It’s good to see that breweries, that use a lot of energy and a lot of water, are acknowledging how much damage that could be doing to the planet, and trying to mitigate that as best as they can.”

“If things don’t start changing soon then we don’t know how bad it could get,” said Alice Humphreys, a third year Heriot-Watt student. “Finding ways of being as sustainable as possible is really important in terms of how much waste you make, and how much CO2 you produce or use,” said Alice. 

Heriot-Watt students need to consider and evaluate sustainability in their coursework, and they shared suggestions about how to lower the environmental impact of the brewing process, which included: minimising water use, recovering and reusing waste water, using green energy, having more efficient heating, and collecting carbon dioxide and steam to reuse it (although some acknowledged that a lot of the advances relating to sustainability will need to be researched and developed by big breweries before they can be implemented throughout the industry).

Outside of the brewing process, “transportation is a big part of brewery carbon footprint,” said Caitlín McErlean, a HIT apprentice who is brewing in Manchester. It’s an issue which has become more relevant in the past year as more beer is now being sold online and sent direct to the drinker, so breweries should be looking at sourcing local ingredients, selling locally (‘local’ was an important word for many people I spoke to), using biodegradable packaging, having an option to offset carbon emissions on orders, and even looking at hybrid delivery vehicles. 

Carl Eccles, a HIT apprentice and assistant brewer at Marble Beers in Manchester, talked about the environmental impact of key kegs for draught beer: “Key kegs are great and they serve a purpose, but wow that’s a lot of plastic!” he said. In the north of England, WDS Group have partnered with OneCircle to recycle old key kegs into new ones on a small scale, but “for the time being plastic is going to continue being in use in a large scale,” said Carl. 

So what about the beers we’ll be drinking? “Something I’ve found very exciting in the last few years is a real shift to beers that are a lot more accessible,” said Caitlín. A lot of other people also used the word ‘accessible,’ and all of them used it in relation to hazy IPA, fruit sours or flavoured stouts – accessible seems to now mean a knowable non-beer ingredient, or a beer which has an abundantly fruity hop character. As Dom Smith, genetics undergrad and president of Stu Brew, a student-run microbrewery at Newcastle University, said: “You don’t need to have an adjusted palate to enjoy something that does largely taste of fruit juice.” 

Stu Brew

The younger generation are getting into craft beer by drinking strongly-flavoured and often sweet and fruity beer styles. Not so long ago, those hazy IPAs and sours were an extreme taste, now they are gateway beers, and these flavours – whether from hops or added ingredients – reflect the colourful excitement of craft beer now. Everyone I spoke to expects these types of beers to get even more popular, though most also had reservations about them.

“There’s a one-upping culture,” said Rob Alder, brewer and apprentice at Bath Ales, and “it becomes less about the beer and more about people thinking: that sounds ridiculous, I think I’ll buy one to see what it’s like!” Contemporary, colourful branding is part of their attraction: “Obviously it’s going to catch your eye, but once you’ve had the actual product, it’s like, OK, I spent seven quid on that can and it’s…” He tails off but what he’s saying is: it’s not something you want more of. “Let’s just make a good beer,” he said. “It doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel or have some weird ingredient to make it marketable.” 

“We’re losing the elements that are beer,” said Sorcha Gall, second year student at Heriot-Watt and the secretary of the university’s Brewing Society. “I think [brewers are] making [beer] too complicated. I understand why they’re trying to make really funky beers and it’s trying to get new people into it, and I think it’s working, but I think they’re getting too caught up on it and they’re starting to lose a classic IPA or a stout.” The conundrum here is that “if you’re 18 and you see a new beer that’s marshmallow, you’re more likely to pick that up than a bog-standard stout.” But are they buying more than one of them?

As a brewer the last thing you want to be hearing is ‘that’s nice but I couldn’t drink a lot of it’

“As a brewer the last thing you want to be hearing is ‘that’s nice but I couldn’t drink a lot of it,’” said Caitlín. “You want to make something that’s nice and people can just keep on drinking.” And this links to another trend mentioned by a lot of people: that there will be an increase in – or new focus on – traditional session-strength British beer styles.

Perhaps this is a reaction to the strong and fruity beer styles, but it also links to being more environmentally-conscious by using British ingredients, and considers the unknown increases in costs due to Britain leaving the EU, where importing already-expensive hops from around the world, which generally travel through Europe, could lead to more expensive beers, which will affect breweries and drinkers. 

“What’s up-and-coming is a bit back-to-basics for craft beer,” said Riaz Razaq, an HIT apprentice brewing at McMullen’s Brewery. Traditional British ales are actually something new to many younger drinkers, and Ed Clarke, brewer and apprentice at Hook Norton, said that “as people have tried all the weird out-there things, they are searching for a more drinkable session ale.” These styles “can turn a person from one brewery to another, or from the same kind of beer they’ve always been drinking to a newer kind,” said Riaz. As we get more interest in beer, we want those drinkers to be able to enjoy a broader variety of beer.

Classic lager was another trend that a lot of people talked about, being a transition beer from macro to micro, or for the IPA drinker who wants something more refreshing but still made by their favourite breweries. “Lager hasn’t always been seen in the most positive light,” said Caitlín, “but I think that’s changing now and they’re really coming back in a big way.” She’d like to see more Kölsch, the lager-ale hybrid, “which is quite easy to bring to new people, and get more people into drinking it,” she said, and alongside these approachable beers, if Caitlín had her own brewery she “would definitely have some ego brews as well,” and that’d include West Coast IPA, which was another trend many expect to see more of, shifting the beer palate a little bit back from sweetness and towards bitterness.

Caitlín McErlean

One other trend discussed by most people was the growing acceptance of, and demand for, low- and no-alcohol beer. “I feel like in a few years’ time every brewery will be doing their own low- and no-alcohol products,” said Riaz, adding that “they’re such an integral part of the future of the craft beer industry.” At Hook Norton, Ed said they’ve had a lot of success with a 3.3% ABV gluten-free beer (and they recently released their first lager which has been “selling like hotcakes,” he said). 

With all of these different styles came discussions of the importance of well-brewed beer, and a big part of the brewing courses are “learning about quality and controlling it,” said Alice. “For us, as potential brewers, [lecturers] are preparing us to have a really wide range of skills and they’re saying this is the standard things need to be at to get the outcome you want.” And as Rob said: “A good beer’s a good beer, whatever the style.” 

As for other drinks, “I definitely think mead could be a future beer,” said Sorcha, while Caitlín mentioned hard seltzer as a beer-cocktail hybrid that could transition people into beer. And there was a unanimous response to the beer style that people don’t like and would be happy to see disappear: milkshake beers.

Away from the beer, diversity, inclusivity and representation were considerations mentioned by many people. “What you imagine a brewer to be is middle-aged, CIS-gender, heterosexual white man,” said Ethan. “I think it’d be good to see more people of colour in the beer industry, and people who don’t necessarily fit the ‘norm.’”

Sorcha agrees, but is wary of it being a perfunctory action: “It’s finding a balance,” she said. “Some breweries have a female on the team and it’s – I don’t know how to say this – shoving it down peoples’ faces that they’ve got a female on the team.” This stuff needs to be normal, but we’re not there yet. As Caitlín said: “I think it’s important to actually step up and say there is a problem and we’re going to do something about it now, rather than just waiting for it to happen.” 

If we don’t have good, happy, healthy workers, then we don’t have a sustainable industry

Something pertinent after the added stresses of 2020 was the sustainability of people, mentioned by Carl, and he talked about how having a good work-life balance is important, and employers should be considerate of the emotional, physical (including reasonable alcohol intake) and mental health needs of their staff – if we don’t have good, happy, healthy workers, then we don’t have a sustainable industry.

So what have we learnt by talking to people who are starting their careers in brewing? Hazy IPAs and fruit sours are now the gateway beers into the industry, and these accessible, often sweeter, flavours will remain important. Alongside that there’s a lot of hopeful interest in easy-drinking traditional beers, like golden ales and lagers. Sustainability – of process, ingredients, packaging and people – is an essential on-going consideration, and we still need to do a lot better around diversity issues.

And what I learnt from this article is that the next generation of brewers are smart and considerate, they’re aware of trends and also able to see new style which might be important, and they’re in the exciting position of being to able shape the future of our industry.

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