Back to basics

The craft beer trend has woken consumers up to the delights of the brewing world with the taste explosions ofheavily hopped IPAs and the lighter touch of golden ales.

As many new and established brewers pursue the eternal quest for the best pale ale, others – along with consumers hungry for that elusive perfect combination of innovation, provenance and authenticity – are looking to the subtler flavours of homegrown staples such as best bitters, red and brown ales.

Brewdog’s Five AM Red Ale, Nøgne Ø’s Imperial Brown Ale and Wye Valley’s Dorothy Goodbody’s Country Ale appeared in the International Beer Challenge 2015’s gold medal list, along with a cohort of IPAs.

Innovative young brewers such as Anspach & Hobday have been trying out best bitters alongside core ranges of IPAs and porters, and Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch Red Ale was named Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival.

Ewen Gordon, managing director of Yorkshire brewery Saltaire, says: “Traditional British ales are seeing a resurgence, as is just about every style that has ever been thought of. The popularity of beer in this country has helped brewers to have the confidence to be creative. In Yorkshire especially the drinking public are always keen for new and old styles. It is all about variety.”

Adnams master brewer Fergus Fitzgerald says: “Craft beer has brought excitement to the beer world as a whole. Pale ales and IPAs in particular have seen a huge revival, but it has spread across almost all beer styles.

“In some cases that has reignited an interest in classic beers, but in many cases breweries have looked again at older styles and brought them up to date, sometimes with newer hop varieties or simply a new approach.

“In a market swamped with New World hopped pale ales, breweries are having to find something that sets them apart and, bizarrely, that thing can be traditional bitters. I think there is also genuine affection and appreciation among new breweries for the traditional British beers.”

Far from its former fame as an old man’s drink, bitter is drawing younger drinkers looking for traditional experiences.

“The craft beer category has helped ale attract younger, more discerning consumers who might not have previously drunk beer. Once the more novice beer drinkers have been introduced into the category, they will often look to expand their beer repertoire and try the more traditional ales such as bitters and brown ales,” says Mark Harding, sales director for Bath Ales, which set up an experimental brewery called Beerd to try out some of the latest trends.

“To us, craft beer is never about novelty for the sake of it. We’re passionate about beer so we like to try different things to broaden the horizons for the many consumers seeking to discover something new. We have established a loyal consumer base with our traditional beers and can only build on that through recruiting new drinkers into the category,” he adds.

“Premium bottled ales have seen solid year-on-year growth over the past decade and provide a gateway into the market for new beer drinkers,” says Jo Theakston, sales and marketing director at Black Sheep Brewery in the Yorkshire Dales. “Our Black Sheep Ale is among the top five recruiter brands in the market and such traditional beers are as much a craft product as the next bottle on the shelf.

“With double-digit year-on-year growth for ales in the market continuing, big retailers have clearly identified good opportunities compared with alternative offerings, such as multibuy lagers. My hope is that this will lead to increased shelf space being allocated to quality bottled ales as customers acknowledge and flock to the premium end of the market.”

And it’s not just British consumers patriotically seeking out homespun tipples. Greene King sales director Neil Jardine says: “Traditional British beer has undoubtedly attracted the attention of the US craft beer movement, which historically had a landscape of lagers, into trying to recreate the flavours and styles of traditional British and some other European beers.

“While we have recently seen growth in lighter, golden, paler styles, consumers do want to drink across different styles – whether it be the brand leader Old Speckled Hen, the easy-drinking, established Greene King IPA or a more robust traditional Greene King Strong Suffolk, while also trying new modern styles such as Twisted Thistle and Belhaven Speyside.”

Kent’s Shepherd Neame has introduced a Classic Collection of ales in response to consumer demand for both new and traditional styles, and for more information about their beers.

National grocery controller Claire Young says: “Consumers’ desire to know more about the food and drink they consume – and the stories behind them – has helped with the resurrection of some of the UK’s more revered beer styles.” The collection is made up of brews based on historic recipes from the company archives, and includes an IPA, Double Stout and golden Brilliant Ale.

Last year Guinness delved into its archives to brew Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter from historic recipes. Marketing director for western Europe Stephen O’Kelly said: “Consumers are seeking a richer value or experience from what they consume. They are interested in the stories, ingredients and provenance of products and this is a trend we are seeing across food and drink as a whole, and it is influencing purchase decisions.”

At Fuller’s, national account manager for grocery Karl White hasn’t yet seen traditional ales benefit from the craft beer revolution. He says: “What the craft beer movement has done is create more interest in beer in general than ever before, and customers’ tastes are growing and expanding. This means brands such as Frontier are more likely to appeal to beer-drinking customers than before.

"However, traditional ales are competing for the same shelf space so the movement doesn’t directly lead to an upsurge in British ales. For those still interested in British ales, there is an interest in higher-quality products so this leads the consumer to our premium ales, such as London Pride, quite nicely.”

Sara Barton, owner and director of Brewster’s Brewery in Grantham, has not seen a rise in interest in traditional British beer styles.

“We are not down in London where the trends tend to be seen,” she says. “For us it is still IPA and pale ales and lagers. We do not see a lot of support for the alternative styles such as sours, but this is the view from the provinces.”


We asked leading brewers for their view:

"There is still a great deal of growth left in the UK craft scene, so we expect it to impact on the category for the foreseeable future. One area where it’s been particularly influential is in spearheading the popularity of 33cl cans. However, it’s not as simple as transferring existing brands into the packaging. The rise of 33cl cans has been fuelled by exciting, innovative products – mirrored by their pack design. Success here will only be achieved through differentiation.

Claire Young, national grocery controller, Shepherd Neame

"Golden ales are a huge success and have bridged the gap from lagers to more intense darker ales and everything in between. They help drive penetration into the ale category. There is still room for flavoured ales or speciality brews that are designed to be drunk with certain foods. This is something that has always worked well in the wine world so stressing the flavour characteristics as well as the branding will be a future idea.

Karl White, national account manager – grocery, Fuller’s

"Looking at the past trends, I wonder if we will see brewers nitrogenising their beers and producing cream flow beers.

Matt Joslin, director, Gower Brewery 

"Hopefully, the increased shelf space we anticipate for bottled ales will help continue to drive innovation, not only from recent entrants to the market, but also from industry stalwarts continuing to develop fresh new beers alongside existing favourites.

Jo Theakston, sales & marketing director, Black Sheep Brewery

"Canning is now easily accessible and affordable. I don’t think it will replace bottles, but it is definitely the big thing.

Ewen Gordon, managing director, Saltaire

"The next step will be for these consumers to develop a taste and interest in the origins of the ingredients and the care that was taken to make their beer. An increasing number of drinkers are becoming interested in the provenance of their drink and seeking products that offer an authentic taste. We will see more consumers interested in quality and depth of flavour and more sessionable beers.

Mark Harding, sales director, Bath Ales

"We have seen the extreme styles so maybe it will be back to the traditional ale styles – retro styles from the sixties, seventies and eighties – perhaps even a revival of Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond?

Sara Barton, owner & director, Brewster’s Brewery

"Cans will increase in popularity as the number of great beers available in them increases and it loses its old association with cheap beer. More American beer will be imported as brewers in the US look to export markets to continue their staggering growth. Pale ales and IPAs will continue to grow but more obscure styles will also grow as people start to discover other flavours. So saisons, farmhouse ales and witbiers will all get their day in the sun. Sour beers are a growing part of the American beer scene. With their natural acidity they will appeal to wine and cider drinkers here and will grow, albeit slowly, as breweries push the boundaries of what consumers think beer can taste like.”

Fergus Fitzgerald, master brewer, Adnams 

"As lager shoppers leave this category and migrate into ales, pale ales still have a huge role to play, especially with recruitment. New modern styles and beer with flavour additions such as fruit or a spirit, will always attract attention. Encouraging consumers to increase ale purchases to the levels seen in both lager and cider will unlock a huge opportunity for growth.

Neil Jardine, sales director, Greene King

"Currently shoppers tend to choose between beers depending on where they come from – for example Belgium, the US, or the UK – but as the recognition of craft increases and consumers immerse themselves further in the category then styles and taste will become the drivers of choice. This then poses a challenge to brewers to produce brands that can extend over the preferences of the UK drinker.

James Nicholls, senior brand manager, Sharp’s Brewery

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