Recently I was listening to an episode of the excellent Craft Beer Radio, where hosts Jeff and Greg were discussing a list that had been published on blogcritics.org regarding the top seven trends in craft brewing for 2010. They make interesting reading, particularly with our interpretation on how those trends are currently being reflected in the UK real ale industry. The article states that in the US, craft beer made up 7.2% of industry output and 4.3% of sales in 2009. Over here, the real ale share of the market was 13.5% in 2009, according to a CAMRA study authored by Pete Brown.
It’s always interesting to compare and contrast the brewing scenes on both sides of the Atlantic, and also the demands of the drinking public on respective sides of the pond. The higher percentage figure of ‘craft ale’ sales over here could well be down to this last point, as the historical importance of the pub would (and hopefully always will) boost the stats as a readily-found source of cask ale. In the US, although probably the 7.2% of the American beer industry would dwarf the UK scene, they are vastly outnumbered by the major brewing conglomerates, even if the Molson-Coors, AB-Inbev’s of the world are suddenly struggling.
1. Nano- and Micro-Breweries
The first trend for 2010 on the list relates to the shrinking in scale of producers, from local and regional brewers to those occupying a smaller space, or even producing only for their neighbourhoods. This has to be a result of several factors – the increasing availability of brewing equipment, the promotion of local producers in the food industry, and the increasing popularity of decent beer prompting more people to ‘have a go’. The aforementioned industry domination by a few behemoth names can only add to this trend.
These examples hold on either side of the Atlantic – over here, more and more individual bespoke breweries are appearing. In Scotland we have small-scale producers brewing for specific pubs (Plockton, Moulin, Ayr Brewing Co) who have started to creep outwards from their base, not to mention dedicated enthusiasts who rent time and space at established breweries to put out their products (Luckie Ales, Knops Beer Company). However, the unfortunate demise of Windie Goat in Failford shows how much of a knife-edge these tiny start-ups inhabit.
2. Sour Beers
This is one that the US currently seems to be going alone – the Belgian-ification of craft brewing. The list highlights a number of American producers who are embracing the sour flavours – The Bruery (San Diego), Russian River (San Francisco), Avery (Denver), New Belgium (Denver), and Cascade (Portland). It’s not difficult to imagine the appeal of sour styles to brewers – the chance to try something different and to pay homage to one of the great underused brewing styles of the world. The problem is that they just don’t appeal to enough beer drinkers to merit more than a seasonal or one-off approach.
This is a shame (and I speak as someone who really tried to like Cantillon Gueuze when in Brussels). The UK doesn’t seem to be willing to embrace the sour revolution first begun in Belgium and now catching on in America. This could be because by and large the US scene already comes up with unusual styles and flavours, whereas the British pub goer appreciates a more subtly balanced session beer. Likewise (but with a few notable exceptions) British brewers aren’t rushing to take risks with their product lines. Also the domination of the pub here means the growing trend there of pairing beer with food gives the American brewers a multitude of outlets for more interesting flavour combinations.
3. Locally Produced Beer in Restaurants
Carrying on with that theme, the US National Restaurant Association found that 79% of restaurants viewed local wine and beer as a hot trend in 2010, and 62% of these surveyed viewed micro-brewed and craft beer as a hot trend. I really can’t imagine what the corresponding figures would be over here – probably more than I would expect, but still nowhere near that level of experimentation. The most common foodstuff consumed with British real ale would be a packet of crisps – restaurants here still don’t get it, there’s just less of a mentality in the UK for pairing beer with food.
Of course there are exceptions, such as the excellent Eat17 restaurant in Walthamstow, which features its own signature beer brewed for them by Brodies of Leyton. Multi-award winning Meantime in Greenwich also pair plenty of food with their beers at the Old Brewery restaurant by the Thames (although of course they own both the restaurant and the brewery). In terms of pubs, CAMRA created the LocAle scheme in 2007 to encourage public houses to rely more on locally-produced cask ale, and this has been a great success, promoting smaller-scale brewers over national suppliers wherever possible.
4. Creative Labelling
The trends list mentions wine producers seeking labels that stand out and that are also easy to remember – and that this is increasingly also true of the craft beer industry in America. It makes good marketing sense to create a niche for your products (provided there’s room to manoeuvre), particularly if there are others trying to share that space. In the UK, it’s more of an issue with wine as anyone who’s wandered around Sainsbury’s trying to pick a bottle can attest to – but beer certainly can follow in the same footsteps.
The traditional saucy cartoon-style pumpclip or label isn’t to everyone’s taste however. The older trend in the UK of wacky beer names really only appeals to the stereotypical bearded real ale drinker CAMRA are trying to move away from. But you could argue that these cheesy examples played their part in making cask ale stand out – even if the price paid was prospective drinkers having to squint at a small oval of cardboard to try and work out whether they really wanted a pint of Owd Jockstrap after all.
British beer labelling today is full of creative efforts that really stand out – the insert photos on this post are details from some of the best current examples. (From top to bottom they are…Humpty Dumpty Reedcutter, York Brewery Yorkshire Terrier, Meantime Chocolate Stout, BrewDog Atlantic IPA, Hopdaemon Skrimshander IPA, Williams Bros Fraoch, Tirril Brewery Academy Ale)
5. Extreme Beer
Surely this is one of the trends that the UK is currently blazing a trail with – and all down to the L’enfant terrible of British beer, BrewDog. The article mentions them straight off, highlighting their 32% and 41% beers (Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck! respectively). Of course since then The End of History (55%) has been released, firmly pushing the Fraserburgh duo up into first place in the extreme beer wars. Over the pond, Sam Adams Utopia tops out at 27% – and there are plenty of people who think the record stops with them, as Utopia isn’t freeze ‘distilled’ like BrewDog’s or Schorschbräu’s (whenceforth the argument usually descends into semantics and brewing tech-speak).
The overall trend is that American beer drinkers prefer stronger beers to their UK counterparts. This, again, is down to the role of the pub and the desire for a night’s drinking rather than a bang-for-your-buck mentality. That’s not to say American drinkers are alcohol-primed loners eschewing company over their 12% imperial IPA’s. It’s just that due to the history of relatively weaker beers over here, you could argue that the British ale drinker has a higher appreciation for the subtleties of beer, whereas his or her American counterpart revels in unusual, palate-challenging combinations (which by the competitive nature of craft breweries will contain unusual ingredients).
6. Hybrid Styles
That inherent (if admittedly stereotypical) difference between the wants of an American and UK ale drinker reflects in the sixth trend on the list of seven – the rise of hybrid styles. It gives some fantastic examples of experimental added ingredients utilised by US craft brewers – peanut butter, chillies, spices, tea leaves – most of which I can’t imagine taking off over here. Of course, we do have some examples – Bruce and Scott Williams started off brewing the heather ale Fraoch in 1988, and now have a core range of traditional beers alongside their Williams Bros beers. East Anglia’s Fox Brewery put out Nelson’s Blood, a bitter mixed with spiced rum – and of course BrewDog use plenty of fantastic ingredients in their stronger brews.
Americans generally aren’t interested in 4% session beers, and the rise of ranking websites such as RateBeer (on which you can now find me – BeerCast_Rich) mean that the desire to pigeonhole ales into specific categories inevitably means the addition of a few extra adjuncts will make classification more difficult. The growth areas of the innovative American craft brewers – wood aged beers, souring agents, combining unexpected ingredients – are slowly making their way over here (aged beers being the frontrunner at the moment) – but surely there are plenty of British real ale brewers who have the desire to experiment, and the skill to pull it off.
7. Collaboration Beers
Publicity drives any business, and the rewards for teaming up with another producer can be very tempting. Creating a collectable, limited-edition brand – not to mention the pooling of ideas, experience and equipment are all good reasons to tempt brewers along this path – irrespective of their location. Currently the trend for collaboration beers is strongest in the US, and the list gives such examples as DogFish Head and Sierra Nevada’s Life & Limb series – but over here too there are examples. BrewDog are fairly popular bedfellows, with their excellent Devine Rebel in collaboration with Danish producer Mikkeller, and their Stone brew Bashah also winning praise.
So what conclusions can we draw from this list? It seems at the moment that most of these US craft brewing trends for 2010 can be applied to the UK real ale brewing industry, albeit with several provisos revolving around the differences between their target audiences. As British drinkers learn to experiment more, and American craft breweries run out of ideas, the two will overlap to a greater extent – but are either of those things really likely? Time will tell, but in the meantime all of us are going to be able to choose between an increasingly interesting beer scene (wherever we live), which is surely good news for everybody.
This Year’s Top 7 Craft Beer Trends (Blogcritics)