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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Campaign for Good Brown Beer

Is the boom in craft brewing actually narrowing the choice of different beer styles we have?

Last week I was invited to Germany to attend the magnificent Bar Convent Berlin, a huge trade show featuring a mind-boggling array of drinks producers across the board and from across the world, plus talks, seminars and debates. 

Yes, they have hipsters in Germany too. But this was an amazing trade show. 

This year there was a special focus on the UK, and I was asked if I'd run a tutored tasting with Sylvia Kopp, European Ambassador for the American Brewers' Association, the idea being that we'd pick a variety of beer styles that were British in origin, and do side-by-side presentations of British and American beers in that style. It sounded like a lovely idea, so I readily agreed. 

Sylvia checked with the American brewers at the show and came up with an attractive-looking list of styles:

  • Brown ale
  • Scotch ale
  • IPA
  • Stout

As a list, it has that warm glow of classic British beer about it. As a flight of beers, it felt comforting and autumnal, the corner pub on a rainy Tuesday night with a small fire in the grate and George Orwell sitting in the corner with a newspaper. 

And maybe, to young British brewers, that's the problem with it. 

Stout was straightforward enough, although we both ended up with flavoured styles rather than straightforward ones. IPA was of course very easy to find. But we wanted to put up a British style against an American style IPA, and finding a British IPA that didn't have a heavy American hop influence was a much more difficult task.* I could think of two that were widely known, but neither of them was available in Germany. 

The other categories were much more difficult. For brown ale, I had the choice of Newcastle Brown, which is insipid, and Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. I don't promote Samuel Smith's beers, for ethical reasons. That left me with... nothing. 

As for Scotch ale? I was offered Belhaven Scottish Ale. I mean, yeah, but... wasn't there anything else in that style? No.

I've just searched for Scotch Ale on Beers of Europe. They stock one from Belgium, three from the US and just one from the UK. Brown ale is a more complicated category to define, but again, they stock quite a lot of Belgian brown ales (not quite the same thing) several American examples based on the British style and no British ones. Beer Hawk currently lists no Scotch ales at all, several American brown ales, and a couple of British-brewed 'American-style' brown ales, but no English-style examples. It's a similar story across various other retailers. 

I'm not saying no British brewers are brewing decent brown ales or Scotch ales any more. But I am saying these traditional styles are much harder to find than they used to be, and pretty much invisible compared to American-hopped IPA and pale ale, black IPA, Berlinerweiss, craft lager (or pale ale fraudulently labelled as lager), and experimental beers involving fruit. The same goes for barley wine, mild, old ale, and winter warmers. Again, Beers of Europe now lists an Austrian, a Belgian, a Norwegian and three American 'English-style barley wines' but no British examples. 

Eventually, Sylvia and I had change the styles we presented. On my side, I had a golden ale, an American-style British IPA, a chocolate stout and Fuller's Vintage Ale. All great beers, but not the showcase of British styles we'd been hoping for.

This is not a post-Brexit 'British beer for British people' rant. I welcome the new styles and the innovations and adore the character of American hops. But as we face more beer choice than we've ever had before, it frustrates me that the British disease of 'what we do is always crap, if its from abroad it must be better' means that we're not innovating with styles developed here. You can't just argue that it's because those styles are boring or lack character, because as the above examples show, brewers in other countries, particularly the States, find them interesting and inspirational. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Finkel, founder of the Pike Brewery in Seattle and one of the original catalysts of what has now become the global craft beer movement. (If you don't already know him, read this short biography, it's incredible.) As we sat down in his brewpub and he asked me what I'd like to drink, the core range gave me a rush of nostalgia for the time I first started writing about beer. It consists of a golden ale, an amber ale, a couple of IPAs, a Scotch ale, a Belgian-stye Tripel, and a stout. There's no fruit, no blurring of boundaries, no attempts to reinvent anything. And yet it's an exciting list that has something for everyone, a breadth of style and flavour it would take an awfully long time to get bored of. 

British beer styles were the direct inspiration for the American craft beer revolution. I find it sad that with nearly 2000 brewers in Britain now, there seems to be little enthusiasm for taking these native styles on and doing something interesting with them.

Another point: most of the beer styles in Sylvia's original list are more reliant on malt for their character than hops. At a time when three new brewers a week open their doors, phone up hop merchants such as Charles Faram and then grumble darkly about not being able to get hold of any Citra or Galaxy hops because the entire supply was spoken for as soon as it was harvested last year (and no, not just by the macros, but also by the 150 new breweries that opened last year, and the year before that) and at a time when British brewers buy more US hops than British hops, and the collapse of the pound means those hops just got a lot more expensive even if you're lucky enough to find any, it beggars belief that brewers aren't exploring these older, maltier styles and applying their undoubted creativity to making them relevant again. 

Before last week, the only time I'd visited Berlin was in 2004. Back then, Berlinerweisse was regarded as little more than a joke beer, sold from street kiosks and sweetened with a range of fruit syrups. It's now, I would argue, the most hip beer style on the global craft brewing scene. So why not mild next? Why not Scotch ale or barley wine?

There are, of course, exceptions. Tonight I'm doing an event at the Harp Pub in Covent Garden with Five Points Brewing, who are launching... a new brown ale! I haven't tasted it yet. Those who have say it's great, and that the traditional cask version is even better than the keg. Five Points is also the last brewery I can remember launching a new barley wine. They seem to be doing pretty well out of it. I imagine other brewers could too.

*Before anyone jumps in, yes, I know nineteenth century IPAs were often brewed with US hops. I've seen some of the recipes. But they weren't defined by the fresh, zingy character of those hops like modern IPAs. 

21 comments:

Jeff Pickthall said...

Spot-on. I would go so far as saying the big hop thing is boring now. It certainly is to me. I crave the more modest British styles you mention. These days I eschew overtly crafty establishments because of the hop tyranny. Subtlety and complexity is the future!

tassieblather said...

Hi Pete just wondering about the "ethical reasons" you mention regarding Sam Smiths? I know a bit about the brewery and it's owner, Humphrey Smith, so not terribly surprised but wondering if you'd care to elaborate or point me in the direction of an article where you have already? Cheers Scott (Hobart, Tasmania).

Rob Win said...

I am constantly frustrated that the beer lists I am forced to choose from almost never contain a decent Best Bitter. One of fairly young female members of staff quite literally danced behind the bar when she tasted the one barrel of Otter Bitter that I had managed to get hold of.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of breweries making great brown ales all over the place. I'm in Oxfordshire and we've got loads of fantastic breweries here and in neighbouring counties.

The problem is the zeitgeist has been for the American influenced beers for a few years now and people have just stopped looking.

But they're definitely there.

py said...

What's a brown ale? How is it systematically different from a dark mild, a porter, or a bitter? Plenty of beers are both brown and ales, they are just not labelled as such.

and what is a scotch ale? Wikipedia says its strong (around 6-7%), dark and sweet. Well I could name you 20 beers like that, many of which are available in your local supermarket.

I think you're confusing a change in naming practice with the dying out of a style.

Andrew Bowden said...

Absolutely agree. I love malty beers all kinds, but they're so difficult to find now. It's just pale ale and IPA everywhere. Number of times you go into a pub with oodles of handpulls and find most of them are golden ales... Oh and a cider.

Now don't get me wrong. IPAs and pales have their place. But brown ales, stouts, barley wines can offer so much. Please, brewers, please, give them a go!

Bradshaw's Ghost said...

Even if you have ethical reservations about Sam Smith's, shouldn't you be willing to recognise quality in their beers rather than putting your head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge their existence?

And can any global brewer be said to be totally innocent of dodgy business or employment practices *anywhere* in the world?

Pete Brown said...

I don't want this thread to get overtaken by a discussion about 'what's wrong with Sam Smiths? So I'm going to give my reasons and keep it brief.

Every single thing I hear about Humphrey Smith - about the way he runs his pubs, treats his staff, deals with people in the industry - leads me to the conclusion that he is a thoroughly unpleasant man.

But I made my personal decision to boycott Sam Smiths for as long as he is running it when he sued the Cropton Brewery for using a white rose emblem on a beer called Yorkshire Warrior, which they launched in 2008 to help raise money for the Yorkshire Regiment's benevolent fund. When Smith launched the action, the beer had already raised £10,000 for the fund, but he insisted they stopped selling it, on the grounds that it was 'confusingly similar' to the white rose used on Sam Smith's labels and would therefore damage his custom. The white rose is the county symbol of Yorkshire and the emblem of the Yorkshire Regiment. The version of it used on Cropton's beer is the flag of the Yorkshire Regiment and clearly no attempt to pass off their beer as a Sam Smith's beer. The white rose on the Yorkshire Regiment flag and the Cropton beer looks quite different from the design on Sam Smith's labels, and anyway, I was unaware that a commercial company could 'own' a county symbol outright, rather than a particular expression of it, but there you go. Humphrey Smith didn't care about that and insisted that the brewery stopped its efforts to help the families of servicemen killed or injured in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year Smith then gave another example of what kind of man he is during the terrible floods that swept through the north of England last New Year, and destroyed the bridge in Tadcaster, dividing the town in two. The council proposed building a temporary footbridge until the main one could be repaired. This would have required one end of the bridge to be built on landed owned by Smith. He flatly refused permission for this, on the grounds that it wouldn't look nice, and that if he allowed it, it might become permanent. He also insisted on being able to approve the plans for the repairs to the main bridge.

Both these matters were eventually settled, but only after causing a great deal of rancour and distress, which I think he actually seems to enjoy, though that's only my personal opinion.

I don't want to give a penny to such a man, nor do anything that helps promote his business. That's my personal decision. It's not 'sticking my head in the sand' or 'being lefty,' it's protesting his behaviour in the only way I can. If such behaviour doesn't bother you, fine - it's a free country. But it really bothers me.

Martyn Cornell said...

Funnily, I was about to write a post on a similar theme myself … ach well, I might still do it anyway …

Bradshaw's Ghost said...

What you choose to promote, and which breweries and pub operators you choose to give your custom to, are your business.

But if you are putting yourself forward as some kind of objective, serious beer writer, then to ignore Sam Smith's because you disagree with some of their policies is on a par with a geographer choosing to ignore Israel in a general survey of the Middle East.

And haven't the likes of Punch and Enterprise done some pretty reprehensible things in their time?

Anonymous said...

Dear Pete,
Focussing back on what the article was about, may I ask what would be the definitive list of styles you would like a Brewery to have in their arsenal if they were seeking to exemplify traditional British ales please?
I am only commenting as anonymous due to my technical incompetence.
With thanks and best wishes,

Angus

Anonymous said...

PS. Congratulations on getting all three books done. Angus

Pete Brown said...

That's a great question Angus! And one that I'd love to throw out to anyone following this thread. I guess the difficulty is, it would be difficult for any one brewer to come up with a full, perfect list, because there are quite a few. So purely for shits and giggles, here's my desert island brew list:

Core range:

A 3.8% golden/pale ale, that's allowed to use American hops in the mix

A 4.2% best bitter - a nice balance of firm, malty backbone with a bit of darker malts, and a nice Fuggles/ Goldings hop mix

A rich, dark, strong or 'old' ale north of 5% ABV

A 4.1-4.5% porter or stout

A 5.5-6.9% IPA, on keg rather than cask, because beer ranges and styles aren't fixed in aspic and this is now once again part of a good British line-up

Seasonal/occasional:

Spring ale - pale, hoppy and zesty

Mild

Pale, lemony summer ale

Autumnal brown ale

Special annual release bottled barley wine

Rich, treacly winter warmer/spiced Christmas ale

py said...

Pete, that sounds like a description of Adnams' core range. Or Fullers. Or Castle Rock. Or Nottingham Brewery. Or indeed almost any other decent regional brewery you might care to name.

Most of the pubs I go in up and down the country stock a range very similar to this and hit at least 4 out of your 5 ideal draft beers.

Surely you must have been in quite literally hundreds of pubs with something close to you ideal range, no?

Pete Brown said...

I was going to say it's pretty close to Fullers, which I think is the nearest top perfect I know. But I think it's some of the ones I listed as seasonals/occasionals that I'd really love to see more of. And of course this is an idea range which means that some of the beers within that range are indeed widespread. But others aren't. You see a lot of people doing the hoppy spring ale or the zesty summer ale, but I don't see as many barley wines or brown ales as I'd like.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Pete.
Great list.
I am a big fan of Fuller's beers and was recently lucky enough to be in their central Croydon pub when they had Vintage Ale on draft (which was awesome) plus in the Jack Horner, Tottenham Court Road when they had 1845 on, which I think is generally classed as an old ale? In fact we started my Stag day with an 11am tour of Fuller's before spending the evening on the other side of town at Hammerton's who have stout, the weaker pale and several IPA's of varying hop level (their second anniversary N7.7 IPA was superb that day), but also have started experimenting with German styles and a Peruvian Chicha rather than the pure British styles route. We somehow managed to get through the core ranges and some specials of both Brewers!
I think Mild is a highly underrated style. As you have indicated in the past, the use of malt can give a great fruitiness in its own and different way. Dark Star Victorian Ruby Mild is worth a look...
Thanks again,

Angus

Chris said...

To me what's missing from your list is an ordinary bitter - not golden, no American hops - of around 3.5% to 3.8%. Plenty of flavour and body, just not very strong. Like Young's and Brakspear's, when they were brewed in Wandsworth and Henley...

Sarah said...

I love a hoppy IPA - think Old Empire or Proper Job - but I'm tired of elderflower and grapefruit. I live in Sheffield so the world of beer should be at my feet, but I can go into a pub offering three or more IPAs and not one will have predominantly English hops. Surely a change in the tide of fashion must come soon?

Anonymous said...

I suppose the next logical question is what are, in your opinion, the greatest current exemplars of each style on the list?
Angus

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, the Admiralty (by Admiralty Arch) at this very moment have Imperial Stout (10.7%) on cask. Now THAT is a strong dark, traditionally British beer!

Ian Laker said...

I'm also starting to suffer hop fatigue although I love the style of big hoppy IPAs we're currently getting festooned with by the new wave of craft brewers. I do hanker for some balance and championing hose style I cut my real ale teeth on as a young man (I'm 56, you know). Some have gone by the wayside or altered when brewed under licence by other breweries. Those that immediately come to mind are Gales HSB, beautifully complex and big malty character. I used to go on pilgrimages to Brighton's Basketmaker's Arms to get crates of their Prize Old Ale.

Young's Special Bitter, big and hoppy in a way that British beers used to be. Not zesty or grapefruity but bold and with a firm malty backbone. Delicious.

Finally, Harvey's Old Ale - beautifully rich, biscuity and chewy and perfect for the months ahead, We don't always have to supercharge the hops!

Ian.