Biting back: the British beer revival

13 February, 2015

Britain’s beer scene spent years minding its own business before brash American brews stormed our shores with aggressive flavours, high alcohol contents and bold packaging that turned the market upside down.

British drinkers were dazzled by the strong, resinous, citrussy IPAs that were so unlike the ales and lagers they were used to, and these beers muscled established brews off shelves across the UK.

A craft beer revolution was born, and pioneers such as West Sussex’s Dark Star began importing US hops to cash in on the trend.

But there is a feeling now among aficionados and retailers alike that IPA fatigue is setting in, and that 2015 could see a return to the traditional beers of yesteryear. As Yorkshire’s Summer Wine Brewing Company tweeted: “2015 – the year of lager and brown ale, you heard it here first”.

"IPA and craft fatigue will lead some smaller, hipper breweries to start exploring styles so down to earth and old school that not even supposedly conservative breweries make them any more, such as brown ale,” say award-winning beer writers Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey.

Fellow beer writer Adrian Tierney- Jones adds: “You will see some exemplary lagers – you can’t hide amateurism in lager.”

These trends could see a return to European hops, particularly neglected British hops. The UK has been crafting brilliant beer for decades – while dull, watery brews dominated the US – and a return to indigenous hops is being championed by the UK’s largest retailer.

Tesco has decided to fight back against the invasion of Americanised beers by launching an own-label brew that supports the British Hop Association. The £1.89 Tesco Single Hopped Kentish ale is the first supermarket own-label beer to carry the BHA logo.

Danielle Jack, product development manager for beers, says: “It’s important we maintain our British heritage in beer and hop production, highlighting the quality and flavour attributes of home-grown hops wherever possible.”

Rupert Thompson, chairman of Hogs Back in Surrey, is also driving a revival by planting 3,200 hops in a new garden and using some to replace the American hops it uses in its beers.

Tim Carlisle, former BWS sales and marketing manager at SH Jones and Slurp, says: “2015 will see less reliance on US hops and more use of traditional European hops. Apart from British, Czech and German will get more use.”

Lower-alcohol craft beers such as Kernel’s Table beer and Redemption’s Trinity ale – both 3% abv – could take off as health-conscious drinkers want to enjoy the brews that taste distinctive but don’t induce the epic hangovers of the US hop monsters.

Beer writer John Porter believes 2015 will also see more mainstream brewers trying to seize back the initiative.

Established British regional brewers are certainly muscling in on the craft beer scene: Greene King has the St Edmund Brewhouse and Metropolitan lines, Marston's has launched a Revisionist offshoot and so on, while the huge global brewers are busy snapping up little craft brewers and incorporating them into the fold.

Beer consultant and former Safeway buyer Glenn Payne expects to see plenty more takeovers from “big boys and private equity” in 2015.

Instead of shipping beer from the US, there could be more of a focus on collaboration brews, such as the Charles Wells Dogfish IPA. The Transatlantic Rainbow Project will see seven UK brewers team up with seven US brewers to produce a range of colourful beers this year.

As the market polarises and some brewers return to the likes of lager and brown ale, others could push in more madcap, Heston Blumenthal-like directions: Siren has a Limoncello IPA, Beavertown has launched Bloody ’Ell blood orange IPA, while Omnipollo and Buxton teamed up for a Peanut Butter & Biscuit Imperial Stout.

“We expect a lot more of these experiments,” say Boak and Bailey.

Payne and Alex Barlow, a master brewer and beer consultant, both anticipate a greater focus on sour beers in 2015 after Australian brewery Redoak claimed the Supreme Champion award at the International Beer Challenge 2014 by thrilling judges with its Chateau Sour.

It all points to another exciting year for Britain’s craft beer scene, and brewers, multiple retailers, independents, online vendors and wholesalers alike are buoyant about the sector’s chances in 2015.

Jack at Tesco says: “It’s a great time to be working in beer. We are going further than any other supermarket in educating on hops, and our sales figures show people are definitely picking up on interesting segments.”

Sarah Hamilton, beer buyer at Oddbins, which has doubled its own- label craft beer offering, adds: “People walk into our stores looking for half a dozen cans of mainstream lager but we talk to them and recommend something a bit different.

“Our range is ever-evolving as people want to experiment.”

Online retailer Ales by Mail sold 300% more craft beer during November 2014 than in the same month the previous year. Managing director Paul Kruzycki says: “We’ve seen a steady rise in online craft beer sales year on year, but there's no doubt that as we reached the latter stages of 2014, we witnessed a real tipping point.

"These figures reveal the growing importance of e-commerce to craft brewers as well as the increase in demand from consumers."

“This year will continue to see new business models emerging, looking to jump on the coattails of the craft boom. However, very few are sustainable for the long term. There will be a consolidation of the online market and some of the me-too companies will disappear, having found it’s not easy to cultivate long-term customer engagement and loyalty. More breweries will start to trade online, helped by specialist operations. The rise of specialist craft bottle shops will continue.”

Paul Halsey, managing director at Purity Brewing, is encouraged by 41% growth year on year in the off-trade and has taken on six new staff.

He says: “Beer has become something of a discerning drink and is being seen as a viable and credible pairing for food. People are taking a deep interest in the ingredients, provenance and flavour profiles of beers in a movement akin to the wine category in the 1990s and 2000s.

“It is an exciting time for beer and culturally there is a long way to go yet.”

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