Thursday 7 January 2016

Thoughts for British Beer in 2016

A decade ago, an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman walked into a pub... One said ‘I’ll have a bitter’, another said ‘I’ll have a stout,’ the other said ‘I’ll have a lager’. Those were the three default choices you knew would be on tap, and while some drinkers had a brand preference (or, more likely, brands they wouldn’t drink, with the bitter drinker dismissing the keg taps and the lager guy not even acknowledging the handpulls), many ordered by these categories – it’s just what people knew of as beer.

Today, three people walk into a pub and it’s likely one of them will ask for a pale ale or IPA without looking at what’s on – and that’s a significant change. These styles are now part of the wider beer vocabulary and part of new drinking habits and I think this is the one significant trend for British beer in 2016.

Pale and Hoppy
Hops have created a new interest in beer specifically with the aroma and flavour of new world varieties – that citrus and tropical fruit burst that so many people enjoy. These hops have been used for a long time but now knowledge of them has become far more mainstream, as has their use, so I think pale ales, IPAs and their off-shoots (pale and hoppy session beers, Session IPAs, hoppy lagers) are going to dominate drinking for a long time because, for many people, these qualities are new and interesting.

I do think the profiles of pale ales et al will evolve – less malt (but still balanced balance), more aroma and lower bitterness (see Tropical Fruit Juice for more), a trend towards lower alcohol – these lower alcohol versions will, I believe, start to see Best Bitters updated or phased out. It’s already happening with the pale and hoppy session beers and many new breweries aren't having a traditional bitter in their range.

I can’t see there being any other mainstream or widespread beer trend beyond more hoppy beers. When you can walk down any British high street and can drink these beers on tap in any Wetherspoon then that’s a big deal and I expect we’ll see more of the larger groups following this.

There are further things which I think will be of interest in 2016…

Smarter Brewing
Cloudwater’s blog on their Double IPA, featuring feedback, comments and recipes from some top brewers, shows a new openness in brewing and a smartness that’s refreshing to see. It’s great that techniques are being talked about and brewers are sharing their thoughts and experiences. The better end of British brewing is getting smarter and using different techniques to get better brews, which will hopefully spread through the industry and raise the overall quality (because there really is still too much poor quality beer being brewed).

Likewise, this forum thread from Ryan Witter at Hill Farmstead is great: it’s open and honest and deals with technical issues in a smart way.

Smashing Pale Ales and IPA
Related to everything I’ve said so far, I reckon 2016 will be the year of the experimental pale ale. Not experimental as in weird or brett-fermented or different colours or anything like that, but experimental in terms of techniques, ingredients and processes. This may see more single-hopped beers (and SMASH – single malt and single hop ­– beers), beers using more aroma hops, hopefully more of the newer UK hop varieties, utilising hop oils, focusing on different malts (and getting a good depth of malt without caramalt or chewy, heavy profiles), different yeasts and fermentation profiles (hopefully cleaner ones). Basically, I think hoppy beers will get smarter and the qualities will evolve.

The Style of 2016
There have been bursts of styles and processes in the last few years, whether it’s big barrel-aged beers, saisons or fast sours, but they aren’t trends as much as they’re trials – trials in the brewery (can we brew it?) and trials in the market (will people drink it?). Those beers will hang around but only as small-scale brews. The only one style that I can see standing out in 2016 is Session IPA (it pretty much owned the second-half of 2015 as well) and that fits in the pale hoppy area I’ve mentioned above – it’s just another way to brew a bright, well-hopped beer and it may well be the beer that brewers use to try out different techniques.

Say Hello To…
We can already see this happening in the US and the UK (Bloody Ell, High Wire Grapefruit), but fruit looks to be an increasingly used additional ingredient in hoppy beers and also beyond. Fruit works because it adds an extra level of accessibility to a beer because people know what mango tastes like even if they’ve never had a saison before. It also helps to add an extra juicy, fruity quality to a beer. You want that IPA to actually taste like tangerines? Then add actual tangerines. 

Say Goodbye To…
What about styles we won’t see? Black IPA might be done for. Does anyone drink them anymore? The generic brown British bitter is going to be replaced by paler, brighter, hoppier beers. I think we’ll see less saisons, though the breweries who specialise in them will continue to make great versions – I think it’ll stop being in a brewery’s limited edition rotation because it’s not necessarily a widely popular beer. And there’ll be fewer sour beers this year, though, like saisons, those who already do a great job of making them will continue. The dry-hopped sour could increase in popularity – look at Chorlton, Beavertown, Buxton and Siren for their success with this.

More Breweries Means Adjusted and Focused Beer Ranges
There are now a huge number of breweries, meaning pubs have a crazy amount of beers to pick from. This could signal breweries limiting their range to nail the consistency instead of focusing on brewing 20-odd different beers in a year (though special beers remain important), where having some beers they sell repeatedly is crucial. Breweries will also possibly re-work their ranges to take in new styles and swap out less-popular ones. Also, as the beers reach into the mainstream, brewers have to be careful not to put off drinkers with weird or not-delicious beers. Quality has to become more important than variety.

I’m interested to see if there’ll be more breweries who are very niche and specific in what they do – someone like Chorlton specialising in British sour beers. The opposite of this is the Cloudwater approach: a seasonally-rotating range of beers which produces a wide range of styles to a good quality – wheats, dark ales, lagers, IPAs, and more. I like this approach. These little pockets of British brewing are interesting to follow.

The Event Beer
The ‘event’ releases – limited-run beers released on one day to be drunk in a small range of places – will continue and increase. Cloudwater’s next DIPA will be an event, likewise BrewDog’s Born To Die, and some of the bigger, stronger stouts like Buxton’s Yellow Belly. These are for the hardcore geek end of the market.

Murky Gets Clean
One key point is beer clarity, which also links to quality. I’m very happy with unfiltered, hazy beer but there’s a point at which hazy becomes murky and that’s not cool. I think – and hope – we’ve passed peak murk. Beavertown are one of the more prominent (in terms of scale and popularity) brewers of unfiltered beer and open a can of theirs today and it’s certainly not murky – they are hazy, for sure, but they aren’t soupy and thick. A year ago some of them were soupy, so this is already changing. Very cloudy beer is not a good thing and it needs to disappear because it’s not a difficult thing to sort out.

Hard to ignore this given Camden Town’s sale and what’s happening in the US. I’m sure there’ll be more changes in ownership. I expect there are on-going discussions with breweries happening right now. Heineken will be looking for a UK brewery that they can make national and then global. They might take on Meantime if it’s true that ABI/SAB no longer want them – it at least guarantees them a large London facility with lots of taps around the capital. A more significant purchase would be someone like St Austell or Adnams – regional breweries, already with big reach, great beers and pub estates. Or established mid-sized breweries like Purity. What about Sam Smith – big in the US, well-regarded for their beers, lots of pubs and potential to make them a bit sexier? Smaller brewers might seem appealing, but they are also long-term projects compared to an existing large brewery and very few breweries are already at a significant-enough scale, reach and quality to be considered yet.

In many ways I think this could be a year of consolidation and maturation. We’ve had an uncontrolled explosion of beer and it’s time to figure out what the hell is happening in British brewing right now. There will be openings, closings and changes. There’ll be new beers, updated recipes and beers being retired. Breweries will be looking at what they make and trying to work out what the best approach is for their future. And there’ll be lots to drink and talk about as this whole craft beer thing really hops forward into the mainstream.


  1. Can't see bitters/best bitters disappearing anytime soon - they may not be brewed by bleeding edge craft breweries (who in any case represent a tiny fraction of the market) or be on the bar at your local craft emporium but in thousands and thousands of pubs they'll still be the biggest seller on the hand pumps (sadly in many cases they're the only beer on the hand pumps) - national brands like Doom Bar, Southwold Bitter, Greene King IPA, London Pride, Spitfire, Black Sheep etc are selling in ever greater volumes (together they probabaly sell more than the entire output of the craft sector)so I think your rather over-egging the pudding here. With hop shortages suggested maybe its time craft in the UK stopped always looking to the US and turned its attention to the UK's own traditions and produced a best bitter for the 21st century !

    1. I think a best bitter for the 21st century is a pale and hoppy session beer - think something like DarkStar Hophead or Moor Revival, etc. New breweries seem to be making these instead of best bitters. The national brands will remain, no doubt, but I think they will be enough for the market and new brewers will be less interested in making them. Tastes change and best bitter is changing with it.

  2. Totally agreed that reports of the death of BBB are much exaggerated. I'm confident that in twelve months' time my local pubs will still be shifting large quantities of Lees, Holts, Hydes, Robinsons Unicorn and Wizard, and Sam Smith's OBB.

    I find that, once you get down below 4% ABV, many of the new-wave pale hoppy beers comes across as rather wishy-washy.

    I hope you're right about "peak murk", though. That really is a defect masquerading as a feature.

    1. I'm confident that your locals will still be selling loads of those beers as well. But when it comes to new breweries I think that best bitter is becoming a less attractive style to brew. Bitter - or a pale, dry, well-hopped beer - isn't going anywhere, I just think the types of bitter are changing (more towards Marble Pint than OBB, for example)

  3. Mark, although I agree with much of what you say, I cannot see Brown British Bitter disappearing anytime soon. Whilst I would shed few tears if the likes of Spitfire and Bombardier were to vanish, I cannot say the same for Harvey’s Sussex Best – one of the finest beers of its kind and incredibly popular in this part of Kent and Sussex.

    I wouldn’t be disappointed to see the back of Black IPA; an oxymoron if ever there was one! “Does anyone drink them anymore?” you ask. I say did anyone outside the craft beer bubble drink them at all?

    And perhaps this is the problem. Those of us who live in small provincial towns are unlikely to see much that isn’t BBB; although I admit that with Tunbridge Wells close by and London a 40 minute train ride away, I am luckier than many. Unfortunately, for many parts of these islands, and certainly those detached from the main population centres, it’s still very much a case of the proverbial Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman and their bitter, stout and lager.

    1. The classic BBBs aren't going to disappear because there's still a big market for them - at the moment. But tastes change and I think we're in a transition right now which is going towards paler, fruitier beers. And I do think that pale ale is very common now - go to a Sheps pub and see Whitstable Bay Pale, for example; Fuller's have Oliver's Island; Adnams have Ease Up. Spoons have a bunch of hoppy, pale beers. Beer is changing and the big breweries and groups are already doing it.

  4. I have to say, the Pale and Hoppy and SMASH bits read somewhat like we're talking about 2011 instead of 2016. Low-gravity, pale, hoppy, and clean cask beers have been around for years. Right?

    And please, enough with the grapefruit IPAs. The ones I've had have been a waste of hops. No reason at all to make an IPA taste of anything other than nice hops of whatever variety and mixes. Then again, has there been even a single cask ale grapefruit IPA, or is this a strictly keg phenomenon?

    1. I agree that it's like 2011 but the difference is that it's now far more mainstream instead of just an emerging trend. Beers like Marble Pint and Hophead have been there for years but now they are joined by so many others.

      I don't know the answer to cask fruit IPAs. I guess there have been - I'd be surprised if there aren't (though I can't think of any right now...). I think they can make great beers and do expect to see more this year, though I don't think they are necessarily a long-term style and it could just be a current fad.

  5. Funnily small breweries Oop North have for years been replacing bitters with pale and hoppy - for around eight years or more. Good that you see that "trend" catching on, though I agree it needs to. Beers like Hophead and Marble Pint (which iteration - certainly not the current one?) are Johnny-Come-Latelys compared to Roosters, Phoenix, Pictish, Abbeydale, Ossett, Elland to name just a few.

    Generally I agree with you, but as you are kind of inverting the pyramid, it might be the South catching up and it might be craft realising that, as Mudgie says, sub 4% is not their territory by and large.

    Your points about murk are particularly welcome. I have waged war against that from its inception.

    I agree about Black IPA but then I've never been that sure what's the difference between them and a stout or porter beyond the name.

    Meantime now funnily enough needs Heineken or some kind of buyout. It is doomed under ABI. That might be a good thing, or it might not but the staus quo is unsustainable.

    Finally if Sam Smith's sell up, it will be after Humphrey dies and I wouldn't be surprised anyway if the whole ownership/inheritance thing won't be locked away far beyond doing that and with the specific purpose of preventing it.

  6. PS. I used to use that old Budweiser ad you use there myself as an avatar before avatars were invented. So to speak. Good to see it again. It must be on a hard disk (probably 250k)from God knows how many years ago, now, I am sure, landfill.