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Beer: a modern approach to brewing
Published:  17 July, 2017

It sometimes seems like the whole brewing industry has gone daft for craft. The redrawn landscape of the British brewing industry has led many of the more established family-owned producers to rethink their approaches to the market.

With hundreds of new breweries emerging in the past decade, the regional players that used to hog the packaged ale limelight are having to strike a fine balance: on one hand, trying to stay true to the roots that give them their strength in the market, and on the other not becoming so stuck in their ways that they become anachronisms.

For most this has meant adopting some of the clothes of craft brewing – incorporating trendy American hops, expanding their range of beer styles and creating contemporary packaging – to attract hip, younger consumers, while maintaining support for their core ranges to keeper older ale drinkers on board.

Some have combined the two approaches, as with Marston’s radical reworking of its pack designs for its market-leading range of premium bottled ales, including Pedigree. The producer has also expanded its range with the addition of brews such as 61 Deep – an ale named for the depth of the well at the brewery – which combines American and Australian hops.

Others, such as Shepherd Neame, Fuller’s or Adnams, have built so-called craft beer ranges to sit alongside their existing brands, and have spun their offerings into beer styles other than the British ales that they are famous for.

Shepherd Neame’s latest offering is Cinque, a lager made with barley, rye, wheat, maize, rice and the French hops variety Strisselspalt, whose highest profile presence in the UK market until now was as a key ingredient of Kronenbourg 1664. Cinque will make its debut in bottles in August.

Adnams’ Jack Brand range includes Dry- Hopped Lager, while its Ease Up ale is a session- strength but flavoursome IPA packed with American hops.

Fuller’s has also gone down the craft lager route with its Frontier brand and produced a bottled rye malt ale with Australian Galaxy hops called Montana Red, as well as releasing an Unfiltered version of its flagship London Pride in the on-trade.

Among the latest to evolve its ale offering into the craft arena is Hall & Woodhouse, which has launched the first in a series of four beers with international themes using hops and yeast strains associated with well-known brewing countries – a line-up that will complement its core Badger range.

The first new beer is An American Venture, a US-style pale ale made with Cascade hops, and there are plans for quintessentially Belgian, German and English-style beers to follow over the course of the next two years.

COMPETITION FOR SPACE

Head brewer Toby Heasman says Hall & Woodhouse, like other major regional players, is responding to increased competition in the off- trade. “We are seeing in the supermarkets that there is more competition for the same amount of space,” says Heasman. “There are more craft sections being introduced but it’s coming at the expense of the existing bottled ale aisle.”

There’s also a sense among production teams at brewers of Hall & Woodhouse’s scale and standing that, after years of having to err on the side of caution, they’re now being given licence to let their creative imaginations run riot in ways that they haven’t before.

“I’ve never worked anywhere where there’s been so much interest in what we do as brewers and where we’ve been given the opportunity to develop beers in the way we want,” says Heasman.

North Yorkshire’s Black Sheep Brewery has become such a consistent presence in premium bottled ale aisles with its eponymous beer that it’s easy to forget it’s only been around for 25 years.

But even a company that has relative youth on its side has been forced to rethink the way it’s approaching the ale market. Its Pathmaker and Glug M’Glug craft beers are in 33cl bottles, rather than the bottled ale standard of 50cl, and are just being rolled out in 33cl cans as well, the beer category’s fastest-growing and on-trend pack type.

“The modern craft beer market is not something we see as a threat, more as an opportunity,” says sales & marketing director Jo Theakston, son of Black Sheep founder Paul. “Traditional beer is in our roots but we’ve always punched above our weight with Black Sheep ale’s presence in the marketplace and we’ve always been able to be very nimble in what we do because we’re still relativity small compared to some regional brewers.

“We did debate calling our craft beer range something completely different but we thought we had sufficient licence to keep it under the Black Sheep name.”

Theakston thinks brewers of Black Sheep’s scale are in a good position to fulfil the demand for craft beer with multiple retailers, while newer arrivals may struggle – or even be ideologically opposed to working with supermarkets.

“The conundrum for supermarkets is that they would love to have lots of wonderful beers but maintaining consistency of supply for 200 stores, or if the sales suddenly go up, isn’t feasible if they deal with lots of smaller breweries,” says Theakston.

Surrey’s Hogs Back is another smaller regional that has been spreading its wings beyond its core range, with adventurous craft beers such as Montezuma’s Chocolate Lager and Farnham White, made with Farnham White Bine hops grown in its own hop garden and supplied as an exclusive to Waitrose last summer.

“We have evolved from being a traditional cask and bottled ale brewer to one with a more diverse and contemporary offer that gives us a strong footing in the craft sector,” says managing director Rupert Thompson.

Overall, argues Thompson, the shake-up of the regional brewing scene that the shift to craft has brought has been a force for good.

“The craft sector is one where brewers can push back against the commoditisation of beer, which happens in other sectors, particularly mainstream lager,” he says.

“Commoditisation erodes profits and leaves consumers with limited choice and poor quality. For that reason, craft beers, which command a premium price and offer further consumer choice, are to be applauded by brewers.”