Regional brewers - the dawning of reality?
Last Updated : 27/12/08
hey're an endangered species these days are regional brewers, cowering in whatever shelter they can find, when once they roamed the land without a care in the world. Before the mass cull of the 1950's by the rapacious “Big 6” national brewers (remember them?) almost every town of even vague importance had at least one brewery – which had developed when pubs decided that brewing their own beer was too much like hard work and it was easier to buy the stuff from someone else – and most towns had a couple; until 1968 Worcester had two, Spreckley's and Lewis Clarke, and if you arrive into Worcester's hideous bus station you can still see the brewhouse of Lewis Clarke looming over you in it's present incarnation as a nightclub yet still possessing it's chimney and brewery aura.
The last 20 years have seen a gradual yet steady depletion in numbers of the remaining regional brewers for various reasons such as bankruptcy, family indifference and wads of cash being waved in their direction until there are now a mere twenty or so remaining and the future of some looks decidedly precarious. The main problem facing these remaining brewers is a total change in drinking habits; when once men would visit the pub every night and swill down a dozen pints of mild after a day in the factory, thanks to Thatcher this heavy industry has now gone and the market vanished almost entirely. Where once pubs would be full at dinnertimes (lunchtime for any southerners reading) of office workers enjoying a few fortifying beers to prepare them for an afternoon shuffling paper, now many business have either banned or frown upon drinking mid-day and so this market is diminishing, too... and that's without mentioning alcopops, lager, shooters, cider with ice and a million and one other alternatives to beer these days.
So, faced with substantial beer volume drops in their tied houses which were once a safe bet of beer sales, the remaining regional brewers must look for alternative sources of revenue and outlets. Today’s booming guest beer market didn't exist as such 20 years ago yet is now lifeblood to the ever-growing band of micro-brewers and is clearly one potential source of sales, but the problem here is that pubs which take guest beers generally want interesting, tasty and hoppy modern-style beers which, by and large, the established brewers don't produce, sticking instead to the brews they've made for the last hundred years in a deluded vision that people still want to drink thin, adjunct-laden and barely hopped fluids... which, as the sales evidence shows, in the main they don't.
Many regionals, rather than trying to change their beer and focus, have simply given up trying and accepted any paltry offer for their pubs from whoever came along first with a bulging bag of cash and I suspect that a number of the remaining ones will either do just this or simply wither away due to falling sales of their mediocre beer. There are signs, however, of some of the survivors waking up and seeing what this new generation of beer drinkers want and trying to provide it, admittedly with variable amounts of success, and it is those brave few who are trying to change decades, centuries even, of cultural stagnation that I salute here.
Lees are an example of one which is doing fairly well and produce a changing range of seasonal beers to both their tied houses and free trade plus they seem to have sharpened their brewing processes yet retained their distinctive house character and, I hope, their future is now secure whilst the last 20 years seem to have passed others by without them noticing and I suspect that brewers such as Palmers, Arkells and Donnington will, sadly, vanish as a result of the country’s changing drinking habits. Some, though, do seem to be making an effort to “get with it” and one in particular has surprised me; St Austell were always in danger with Cornwall's industry being almost wiped out and the intensely seasonal nature of beer sales in Cornwall with huge influxes of tourists in summer and very quiet winters, but with adventurous and some may say visionary brewer Roger Ryman they are now at the forefront of innovative regional brewing with some very impressive beers coming from St Austell these days.
I knew that something was happening back in 2002 when we did a brewery tour and saw the newly-installed “test plant” which was to be used in the creation of new beers, but I didn't foresee beer festivals at the brewery with a whole load of testbrews which were certainly not in the style of staid traditional regional breweries and some could even have come from the tuns of a micro brewer. Some of these beers have now become permanent and allied with the very clever policy of bottle-conditioning their beer – and, more importantly, doing it well – St Austell have started to build a name for themselves as innovative brewers of interesting, tasty beers which deserve a place of the shelves of specialist beer shops and, perhaps more importantly in terms of sales, of major retailers.
Clouded Yellow, for example, is a well-made and interesting wheat beer which stands alongside the best micro-brewed beers and, owing to careful bottling, is rarely as infected as a lot of micro-beers unfortunately seem to be. Where St Austell are at their most innovative, however, is with hops; to most regional brewers hops are expensive green things from the UK's hopfields which are used sparingly so as not to stress the palates of drinkers but, with the explosion of small brewers using more and more exotic hops in larger and larger quantities, this attitude is in dire need of revision and happily St Austell have seen the light – or, more correctly, seen the green.
St Austell are right up there, as well as a larger brewery can be, with the micros and are brewing some cracking beers at present with American hops, in particular the amazingly good Proper Job IPA which, in it's stronger bottled format, is full of juicy citrussy, leafy and lemony hops which make the beer a real hophead's choice and even the 4.5% cask version is characterful, bitter and citrussy enough to cause raised eyebrows in normals; I suggested it to one bloke during the current Wetherspoon beer festival and he was amazed by the flavours it contained, just the kind of interest beer needs to survive and thrive in a marketplace where it's not the only option for those seeking a quality drinking experience.
American hops are, in my opinion, one of the things that will save beer from it's current image as boring swill for tastebud-less numptys who use it simply to get pissed. Okay, so it's not just American hops nowadays with lupulous beauties surfacing from all corners of the world, but they were the first really distinctive and different hops we had in the UK, courtesy of brewing maestros Sean Franklin and Brendan Dobbin. Whereas most UK hops are boring, twiggy, sickly things grown in a country where the climate doesn't really lend itself to hop cultivation, American varieties are bursting with all manner of citrus, pine, grapefruit, rosepetal, flowery and fruity flavours which have the potential to match, if not surpass, the complexity of flavours more often associated with wine and, with that, enable properly brewed craft beer to break through into the realms of serious drinks and not just be “stuff for getting pissed”; in other words, beer to savour and not swill, and as discerning drinkers trade up and drink less but better beer this sector of the market can only increase in volume.
This will take time, however, and in the meantime most wine snobs (even those writers who claim to have good taste) have no idea of the wealth of flavours – in my opinion, far more varied than 95% of wine – obtainable from the huge variety of hops now coming into the UK from all over the world. It’s not always their fault, admittedly, and some famous wine writers are slowly casting off the anti-beer prejudice and the realisation is dawning that there are some superb beers out there which deserve all the hype and admiration the best wines attract. TV, too, is also slowly waking up to beer as a subject worthy of broadcast and, despite James May being one of those irritating “laddish” lifestylists I detest, the forthcoming series on beer with him and Oz Clarke exploring the UK's brewing industry may even open a few eyes as to the wealth of quality beer being made in the UK at present as long as they don’t do as Neil Morrissey did and “lad it up” to the point of vomit-inducement (note: they did).
So, here's to the adventurous regional brewers, the St Austells, Lees and Elgoods of the world, who have seen that times have changed and it's not enough for them to produce the same mediocre beer as they’ve done for decades as the people will no longer come running; they must actively brew what Americans call “craft beer”, full of flavour and interest, which will draw lovers of all quality drinks into beer and may prove to be the saviour of brewing in the UK with the days of prodigious consumption having long gone and the government seemingly hell-bent on taxing it into oblivion.
With more emphasis on “local” and “natural” products, those people that care about such things – a growing slice of society’s pie – are drinking less but trading up in quality (and therefore price) when they do drink and, in my opinion, brewers must ally themselves with this quality revolution and brew the most interesting, tasty beers possible which means, in a large proportion of cases, utilising non-UK hops to harness the amazing flavours they give. Most micros with any nous are already doing this, but I feel for the larger brewers to survive they must do so too... and St Austell, Elgoods and a precious few others are showing promising signs of doing so; here's to them, and here's to the beauty of hops!
Beers to try:
St Austell Proper Job IPA 5.5% (bottle-conditioned) – chock-full of deliciously citrussy American hops with a decent bitterness and full of character, this is towards the top-end of what we have in the UK for decent hoppiness and, with a touch more bitterness, would be a classic. On cask it's generally 4.5% and although this reduces the maltiness it allows the hop flavour through and is surprisingly tangy and lemony although it does vary slightly, sadly.
St Austell also brew, for Marks & Spencer, Cornish IPA at 5% which is basically the same recipe as Proper Job albeit with less hops, namely Willamette, Chinook and Cascade. All St Austell's bottled range is worth trying but, for my money, their American-style IPA's are the pick of the bunch although nothing like as cutting-edge as beers from the likes of Pictish, Phoenix, Thornbridge, Brewdog and Little Ale Cart – yet.
Elgoods are going from strength to strength with the quality of their beer and everything they brew is worth a try although in particular I’d recommend their delicious mild, Black Dog, which has plenty of liquoricey toastiness, a full malt flavour and a surprisingly bitter, treacly and liquorice-led finish. Their pale seasonals are often hop-led and can be very hoppy indeed although this depends on the beer in question although Golden Newt is a good place to start with plenty of cascades in addition to the more traditional English hops!
Lees’ beers have a distinctive taste which can be compared to line cleaner or metal but, believe me, it’s addictive and you’ll either love it or hate it. This is a good thing, despite what we’re told in these days of bland conformity when everything must appeal to everyone to capture sufficient “market penetration”, and I’m glad that Lees have persevered with their unique flavour as they are one of only a few brewers now who have such a taste. Any of their beers are worth a go, but in particular try their bread and butter, the bitter and GB mild (now rebadged as brewer’s dark) which are classics of their kind.