UK Family Brewers Find Treasures in Archives
Thwaites is based in Blackburn in northwest England and its bread and butter beers are best bitter and mild, with seasonal beers thrown in (they also contract brew Kaltenberg Hell). Back in 2007 they launched a golden ale called Wainwright to celebrate their 200th anniversary, and according to the brewery’s former brewing director Ian Bearpark, “We could see the way the market was beginning to shift towards more challenging styles and we started to look for new beers that could also become a permanent addition to our cask range. By definition, brewing away from the mainstream is about lower volume and our large brewhouse meant we could not experiment too adventurously as this might create too much beer which would have to be blended off, which is a no-no.
“We were also being influenced by the influx of new hops on the market, what was coming out from the micros plus a particular interest of mine in the US plus conversations with US brewers that led to an introduction to a fellow Institute of Brewing Examiner Tom Shellhammer—Fermentation Professor at Oregon State University.”
As a result of their labors, Bearpark and his team, with the use of a plant that has been named Crafty Dan, emerged with the American-style IPA 13 Guns, a black IPA, a chocolate stout, a fruit beer with loganberries and a cherry mild. It might not seem revolutionary compared to many US craft breweries, but this is England and for a regional brewery like Thwaites this is revolutionary. Other breweries such as Brains in the Welsh capital of Cardiff and St Austell have made sour beers, wood-aged beers, German- and Czech-style lagers and collaborated with writers on beers (disclosure: the author produced a saison with Brains). Meanwhile, Well’s & Young, who brew north of London, collaborated with Sam Caligone on a well-hopped session beer DNA. This all makes for a creative way in which the family brewers can engage with both their natural drinkers and those who want something a bit different.
Bill Dobson is Brains’ head brewer and has overseen the establishment of the ‘Brains Craft Brewery’. He cites a desire to develop new brands to appeal to younger consumers as well “as experiment on the fringes of the beer category without having an impact on our core brands. With the craft brewery we wanted to have the link back to the heritage and quality of our main brand but also appeal to new set of consumers.”
As it might seem clear, one consequence of all this regional activity is that the word ‘craft’ or ‘crafted’ is being used more often (it reached the height of absurdity when the Australian big brand lager Foster’s claimed to have been ‘crafted’ since the 1880s). Over at Hook Norton, James Clarke, whose family started the brewery in the 19th century, says with a straight face, “Craft beer is what we have been brewing since 1849—it is about provenance, ingredients and flavor; but also so much more.”
Beer geeks might smirk at Clarke’s insistence that craft beer goes back to the Victorians, but he could have a point. Crafting something special is not new. For all we know, arts and crafts pioneer William Morris might have enjoyed Hook Norton’s beers and deemed them craft. Clarke adds that that the brewery is working on introducing a pilot plant, saying somewhat tongue in cheek, “I tend to wear tweed to work, but once the micro brewery gets going you might find me there in a polo shirt jumper and not wearing a tie.” He pauses. “No beard though.”
Amidst all this excitement observers might be forgiven for thinking that smaller craft breweries could be looking a bit askew at the bigger guys getting in on the craft act, especially as they have better budgets, favorable distributive channels and even their own pubs to sell through. There’s also the harsh truth that family breweries, if they want to, have a better ability to discount their products. What would stop a craft beer bar going to a smaller brewery and asking it if it could match or even better the price of X family brewery’s speciality craft beer? For a smaller outfit this would be verging on the ruinous.
For clarity from the smaller sector I turned to Jon Comer who set up Arbor in the city of Bristol in 2007. Since then Arbor has gained a fine reputation for strong hoppy beers, robust dark stouts and European style beers with a twist. Comer’s reply is perhaps indicative of both the exciting and pragmatic nature of contemporary British craft brewing.
“I have mixed feelings to be honest,” he says, “overlooking the obvious knee jerk cynical reaction, we may well see some pretty damn good beers start to appear.” He mentions a desire to see a brewing collaboration between two highly rated head brewers.
“The question of discounting is an interesting one,” he continues. “I’d say in general that most craft bars are primarily concerned with quality rather than price. Can a regional brewery produce the same quality at a reduced price? Perhaps at a lower ABV, but will they be prepared to heavily discount an Imperial Stout they’re paying £100+ duty on? We’ll have to wait and see I guess.”
Whatever the ins and outs of the effect on the smaller brewers, the trend for regional brewing experimentation is adding to the excitement that surrounds British beer at the moment. Or as John Keeling points out: “Our brewers originally influenced the US brewers and now it’s gone full circle and they are influencing the UK micros and we in turn are following them. I would say that this is the best time in my career to be a brewer.”
Adrian Tierney-Jones is a U.K.-based journalist who writes about travel, beer and pubs; he is editor of 1,000 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die.