Sunday 27 September 2009

A New Wave of Brewing

Are we in a New Wave of brewing? A period of transgressive and innovative beer making, breaking from traditions but still looking back to traditional brewing, producing impressive and experimental beers, pushing new boundaries and attempting new techniques in terms of the making and the marketing of beer, all done with a wide and deep knowledge of world beer.

The innovation of the extremely knowledgeable French Nouvelle Vague auteurs massively influenced Hollywood cinema in the 1960s and early 1970s, creating what’s now known as New Hollywood. The Nouvelle Vague was a small group of filmmakers, producing, writing and directing their own films, using new techniques, breaking the traditions of Classical Hollywood and having their own stamp of authorship. Now, in brewing terms, it’s the go-ahead US craft beer market which are the leaders of this movement and they are influencing Europe (although the US took the traditions of European beer and made it their own to begin), but the ideas are still the same: small groups of brewers, pushing each other forward, exciting and exuberant, articulate and literate in the language of beer, each with their own authoritative stamp which makes the drinker know that they’ve just enjoyed a beer by that particular brewery, whether it’s the taste alone or the combination of taste, concept and packaging/marketing.

Dogfish Head are at the forefront of this ‘movement’ in the US and always have been – they are the Jean-Luc Godard of beer. The beer itself, the brand, the marketing, it all points towards a New Wave. Their 60, 90 and 120 Minute IPAs use the innovative technique of continual hopping (see: Godard’s jump cuts). They use fruit, they use ingredients from all over the world and they recreate old styles and recipes, using the old and bringing it right up to date with a postmodern twist (see: Godard’s A bout de souffle). You watch a Godard film and you know it’s a Godard film; you drink a Dogfish Head beer and you know it’s a Dogfish Head beer (see: Pierrot le Fou, drink: 90 Minute IPA). BrewDog and Thornbridge are the UK equivalent, pushing boundaries, innovating (see: Dennis Hopper, Quentin Tarantino, drink: Punk IPA, Jaipur).

In Britain - and beyond - Brat Packs of brewers are coming up and they are getting more aware of what is going on around the world. For the British Brat Pack, gone are the days of a best bitter, pale ale and stout plus a few seasonals. Gone, that is, but not forgotten. The beers are still there, it’s just that they are different now - better, new and improved upon; strengthening the core range of beers and adding exciting seasonals and one-offs, packing flavor and punch and drinkablility. These younger brewers are beer-literate and know exactly what is going on around the world; they drink beers from all over the world, they are aware of styles and new techniques and they use this knowledge to create new brews. The beers are creations of their maker; their authorship is written throughout the beer, it’s made by them, the realisation of an idea, a piece of fluid, consumable art.

The actual brewing process is an intrinsic part of this New Wave, where new techniques break from traditions or norms, or old techniques are used in new ways: mash hopping and adding hops at different stages of the brew, different types of barrel aging, exotic ingredients, new ingredients (hop varieties, etc), high strength, high bitterness. And this transcends beer styles too, where new styles are ‘created’ and old styles recreated: ‘imperial’ this and that, doubles and triples, porters and IPAs, wild ales, milds, bitters… It’s taking something old and pushing it into the now, changing its appeal or increasing its appeal to those who already know about it.

This year, I think, has seen a great increase in quality and range of British beer (71 new breweries opening, for starters), particularly from a few smaller, edgy younger breweries, all of whom are very knowledgeable about world beer, eager to try new things and create new beers in the mould of the US craft beer market. This British New Wave includes Thornbridge, BrewDog, Ramsgate, Marble, DarkStar and Oakham, among others. What marks these out is their range and variety. They don’t just brew me-too bitters and limp pale ales. They also don’t just go all-out and brew a range of tongue-thumping 7% IPAs and barrel-aged whatevers; they have a distinctly British slant to their beers, whether it’s wonderful 4% hoppy session ales, punchy-fruity bitters or full-bodied and rich 5% stouts, they fit the pub market and the craft beer market. Then beyond the pub it transforms: it’s the wicked imperial porters aged in Islay whisky casks or double IPAs or strong ales aged in oak barrels which used to hold rum or cider or brandy or sherry. It’s a happy collusion of British reserve and balls-out American super-sizing (and the Americans, in turn, are creating session ales and low-ABV brews to satisfy the drinker who doesn’t like to go 100mph all the time).

Then there’s Europe. Belgian brewers have discovered C-hops. Denmark, led by Mikkeller, is blazing a funky trail of hops and monster stouts. Italy is quietly busy creating some awesomely good beers using different ingredients and adding their own sense of style and flair (and in the same way that the Italian Neo-Realist period influenced the Nouvelle Vague, so it is that the craft beer market in Italy is one of the most interesting and innovative in the world). The New Wave is lapping and crashing at the shores of the brewing world and it’s a very exciting time to be a beer drinker.

The thing with being in a movement is that we often don’t realise until it’s over and can look at it retrospectively. If this is the case, and we are at the ends of the ‘movement’, then what happens next? Will we see a simplification of beer (small ranges of excellent beers, simple, effective)? Or, like Hollywood cinema at that time, will we see a period of huge Blockbusters following the burst of creativity and innovation that was the Nouvelle Vague (in other words, will Bud create a pale ale with 60IBUs for the mass market, following the commercial successes of breweries like Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head and Stone, and/or, will the craft brewers try to get into the mainstream market by brewing simple, quality lagers – BrewDog’s 77 in Tesco, for example)? Are we in a New Wave of British and world brewing? Or is this whole thing just the natural progression of brewing along its own course?

I knew writing my undergraduate dissertation on the early films of Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague would come in useful one day, and here it is.


  1. I think, and hope, we are fairly near the start of the movement. I'm finding more people are become more willing to try more new ideas. This applies to both punters and brewers. I've had amazing success this year with slightly stronger, slightly higher IBU beers. I've also had much stronger sales of bottles of "world beers" than ever before. I know I'm not done with progressing and I'm sure the more progressive breweries aren't either.

    Incidentally, when I was in Portland Oregon last December, one brew pub had an English bitter on sale. They were very proud of it. Also, it tasted a lot like an English bitter.

    Cask beer is on the increase in the USA and I'd like to see kegged beers increase in their prestige here. I think it'll happen. So we have loads to look forward to.

  2. Excellent piece mate. I think you've hit the nail on the head. There's never been a better time to drink beer. Huge variety and innovation and quality is generally on the up. Dull just don't cut it anymore.

    (p.s. I can think of a few breweries who will be disappointed not to have made your list :)

  3. Or is it all a bit Lars von Trier - feted as being the next big thing, but latterly turning out to be a steaming pile of ordure?

    Another analogy might be music. When the sampler came to prominence, there was a small group of musicians who used it to do genuinely different things. It was a point where music could have splintered creatively, and no-one needed to make records that sounded like anyone elses.

    However, everyone sampled the same breaks and beats, and music became a variation on a theme. While it all felt revolutionary at the time, in retrospect, only about 10% of it stands up to close scrutiny.

    I think that there has never been a better time to be a beer geek, for sure, but the best time for beer ever? I agree with you in that it can ony be called in retrospect. Give it five years, and I'll give you the answer!

    Or perhaps the truth is that there has never been an easier time to be a beer geek. Now there is more exciting beer being brewed, and more people trying to bring it to the people who want to try it. Maybe having it land in your lap at the click of a mouse takes some of the thrill or mystique out of it?

  4. Funnily enough, I was reviewing Brewdog's Dogma yesterday and used the phrase "new wave" to describe it.

    I also described Brewdog as being as part of a "brat pack" of breweries that are currently contributing to the new scene.

    Great article Mark: nice to see beer intellectualised like this!

  5. Dave, good to hear from a pub POV how this is going on. Higher strength and higher IBU, plus world beers all doing well - it's good news, I think. As for being at the beginning, who knows... we may be catching the last wave, as Zak says, we'll have to check back in five years! I'm definitely with you on more kegged beer in the UK but I can't see it happening soon, for some reason... CAMRA's legacy, I guess.

    Dubbel, cheers. Dull sure don't cut it no more! And as for breweries... I haven't drunk enough of the others to put them down! I need to drink more...

    Zak, interesting music analogy and it's one that threatens to affect beer too. Too much barrel aged stuff, too many big IBU beers - it'll be me-too IPAs soon. But then things will change again. The best time for beer ever (I didn't write that!) is impossible to call unless it's retrospectively. Definitely a good time to be a beer geek, that's for sure. Buying beer online takes away some mystique - the thrill of the chase - but it also opens up more opportunity to try more beers, and that's a good thing. But like the Nouvelle Vague, one of the best things is the on-location shooting and the feel you get from seeing a snapshot of Paris in the 60s - you can't beat drinking something in the place that it's come from (that's a tenuous link...).

    Sam, great minds, eh?! At least I'm not alone :)

  6. Interesting piece-it’s hard to know where to begin. I agree it’s a good time to be a beer geek but think perhaps you’ve carried the analogy too far. Firstly, have we really seen a “great increase in quality and range of British beer” this year? Yes, 71 new breweries but from what I’ve sampled a lot of them are stilling producing very mundane beer. Obviously, there are exceptions but does that constitute a “great increase” in quality-I’m not convinced.

    Secondly, I’m intrigued by this notion of “New Wave Brerwers”. The New Wave (by its very nature, I suppose) was only destined to last a few years, right? So if we are in a “New Wave”, it must be a long one as some of the ones you mention as the leaders-Dark Star, Oakham (who I wouldn’t include myself) have been brewing for quite awhile. As have my local-Marble, who have consistently passed up the chance to expand into the mainstream and seem content to be a big fish in a very small pond.

    So I guess I’m saying: enjoy it, but as to whether Bud will create a pale ale with 60IBUs for the mass market- don’t hold your breath!

  7. I'm a new wave brewer, I dress like a member of Spandau Ballet when I'm mashing in.

    Joking aside, I think we are right at the start of something very interesting in the U.K. at the moment.

  8. Tyson, I personally have seen an increase in the top end of quality beers this year, but then I have been looking out for a select few breweries, so I guess it's a little self-perpetuating in my case. And while 71 new breweries does not mean 71 GREAT breweries, it still means an increase of beer volume overall, and that's a good thing.

    In terms of the length, I have to contest that and I'll use the film analogy still. Godard was making films and reading/writing/watching them for a few years before A bout de souffle and was then making films regarded as in the Nouvelle Vague for 6-7 years after that, so maybe 10 years in total. New Hollywood was similar. Beer is the same - it doesn't just happen and there is a build up to it before it hits a tipping point. I think we are at that tipping point so what remains to be seen is whether things change or carry on the same track.
    And the point is not necessarily commercial and mainstream success. Godard and the others made films for themselves and their cinephile mates. They didn't make these films to crack into a market like Hollywood and make a fortune - it was about the quality of the product and impressing those who know (film geeks/beer geeks).

    Bring on a big, hoppy Bud!!

    Pete, I can picture it now...!!

  9. I think the new wave started when fritz maytag bought anchor steam brewing in the 70's. Ken grossman founded Sierra Nevada in the 80's. These guys were the new wave. Sam and stone and the others you mentioned are the next generation. And now those of us in our 20's are the next wave/generation of beer appreciation. Also the use of c hops in belgian ales was proposed by distributors cause they knew the American beer market would eat it up. Which they did. Nice article, just don't give the young guys too much credit cause they figured out marketing.

  10. nice work, mark. I do agree with your points and - if i may - add my own opinion - age. In my opinion, Brewers seem to be getting younger, and with it bringing youth to a world that, tradionally, has been somewhat blinkered in it's thinking (CAMRA is a case in point). Young brewers bring young, fresh ideas and slowly are wresting control of production away from 'product' and into 'innovation'.

  11. I think (and you have hinted at it yourself) that you have to be careful extrapolating what a small but innovative bunch of brewers are doing into a "new wave" which you describe as "A period of transgressive and innovative beer making, breaking from traditions but still looking back to traditional brewing, producing impressive and experimental beers, pushing new boundaries and attempting new techniques in terms of the making and the marketing of beer, all done with a wide and deep knowledge of world beer." There is a tendency to make the facts fit the theory in such cases.

    I'd say that there is a degree of innovation at one geeky end of brewing, which provides a niche for those that like such things while having little effect on "mainstream" brewing at all. For innovation in the way you describe it, I think too you'd be hard pushed to get much beyond the ones you mention if you look at the 711 or so breweries in production in the UK. In fact a case could be made to say that far from innovation, it is copying what has been going on in the US for quite a few years now and placing it in a market which has not been particularly exposed to it. Now that isn't to say that such "innovation" isn't welcome - it certainly is - but maybe a new wave is too dramatic. It is though, possibly, the beginning of a push against a more staid and stick in the mud mindset and that has to be welcomed, but really it has little momentum yet. We need that momentum to truly call what is happening a new wave.

    What is much more impressive (to this pub man at least) is the emergence of those that seek to make cutting edge drinking beers that put the beers of more traditional brewers, both old and new to shame. Here I'm thinking of Mallinson's Marble, Phoenix, Pictish and others (including hopefully the new Steel City Brewing). It is in this mainstream drinking environment that you will create the opportunity to overturn the "me too" bitters you rightly criticise and which, sadly, are churned out by too many micros, who really are aiming at the wrong target, missing opportunity and whose quality is often dire.

    Innovation will do one other thing. It raises everyone else's game, just by raising awareness and that's a good thing provided you don't spill over into silliness like some do.

    One other point. It has always been a good time to be a beer drinker as long as you are drinking a quality product. If you read some of Ron Pattinson's stuff, you will realise that a lot of the beer put out way back in the 1800's would likely fit your definition of "innovative" if it reappeared today.

  12. Joseph, nice points. Brewing is coming in in waves - what's next in the US?! The homebrewer being beer celebrity...?

    Leigh, age is massively important - these innovative young brewers are fronted by young brewers. That's where all this is coming from, that Brat Pack of knowledgeable beer lovers who make the stuff.

    Tandleman, I was hoping to get some comments like this - great points. A New Wave is progressed by a certain few, hence the importance of those few to my suggestion. I definitely agree that more momentum is needed and that we need some time to see where it goes. And cutting edge drinking beers is the crux and the most important part of this, IMO, from the British sense. The superb 'pub' beers is the key to the future of British ale drinking and perhaps even the pub. Breweries like Brewdog make some excellent strong beers but they aren't beers I want to drink regularly in the pub, however, their more sessionable beers (5am Saint, Edge, 77, zeitgeist) are very welcome additions to a pub line up.

    And great point about it always being a good time to be a beer drinker!

  13. "I was hoping to get some comments like this - great points."

    Thanks Mark. It was an interesting thread.