Innovation. It’s one of the most casually over-used words in the brewing lexicon. Sometimes all innovation means is that a brewery’s marketing department has come up with a new way to sell the same old beer; fine if it’s already a good beer (Adnams ‘From the Coast’ campaign springs to mind), but if it’s not then that’s when the definition of innovation as novelty comes into play…
Then there’s technological innovation such as the eye-catching ‘Cask Beer Font’ developed by Wells & Young’s, or Marston’s ‘Fast Cask’ method of dispensation. Other aspects of this branch of innovation include the use of online social networks — @bombardier_beer is the biggest ale brand on Twitter.
However, then there’s another style of innovation where beer and brewing come into play — innovating what’s in the glass. In the past few years, breweries have woken up to the fact that beer drinkers (especially the young and affluent) are developing a sense of adventure and looking for a beer that is more than the bitter or golden ale they normally drink. This is when a well-hopped IPA, an organic beer or a beer with added ingredients (ground coffee, honey, spices) can cause a stir and excitement at the bar. New varieties of hops, different strains of yeast and methods of fermentation and historical recreations are also grist to a brewery’s innovatory mill.
Relatively new concerns such as Thornbridge and BrewDog have been at the cutting edge since they first fell on the world. BrewDog causes equal amounts of hero-worship and consternation with their media-savvy beers and associated press campaigns that have an air of Malcolm McClaren-like mischief-making to them. Despite stunts such as the strongest beer in the world and bottles wedged into stuffed animals they make some excellent beers such as 5am Saint, Hardcore IPA and the Paradox ‘Smokehead’ series.
Thornbridge, on the other hand, is a quieter collective, still adept at publicity but less brash in their approach. New hops are experimented with, collaborations sought with other brewers and the envelope is thoroughly pushed through the letterbox of innovation and beyond. Jaipur, which celebrated its 5th birthday in 2010, was their initial calling card on the world of beer — a new wave, US-style IPA that sang its way into history with a trill of grapefruit notes. Fast-forward several years and there was Kipling, described as South Pacific Pale Ale, an orange-amber parade of tropical fruit on the nose (lychees, melon and passion fruit). Meanwhile, Ashford gets the designation New World Brown Ale and freshly picked hops zip and zest up their gorgeous Imperial IPA Halcyon.
‘We didn’t really set out to be different and that is probably more in other people’s eyes rather than our own,’ says Thornbridge’s Simon Webster. ‘Our plan was always to make “modern British beer ” and for people to talk about the great flavours and tastes of it like they do about the Belgian, German and, more recently American beers. From day one we set out to “Challenge the Drinker”.’
Other small or medium-sized breweries are also joining in the fun. Try Titanic’s Vanilla Stout or Saltaire’s Triple Chocoholic for luxuriant lushness or wake up to Dark Star’s Espresso Stout. This drive can be found at all points of the compass. Cornwall’s Sharps might be well known for their best performer Doom Bar, but that hasn’t stopped the restless and creative nature of head brewer Stuart Howe.
Several years ago, he developed Chalky’s Bite in league with super chef Rick Stein; last year this was joined by Chalky’s Bark, a 4.5% version of Bite, but lightly flavoured with ginger. ‘It’s a beer to be enjoyed for itself,’ says Howe, ‘but also something we have developed for its potential to match with food.’ Another superb beer developed by Howe is the 9.5% Belgian-style DW, a charity beer tribute to Dave Wickett, founder of Sheffield’s Kelham Island Brewery, who is currently battling cancer. The result is Sauternes-like beer, with the sweetness mellowed by hop bitterness; tangerine hints and pineapple blasts on the nose lead to a fruit salad of desire that would hold its own in any tabletop wrestle with Stilton.
This sense of adventure has also spread from beyond the newer brewing community into the realms of the traditional family-owned companies. Robinson’s have long been noted for their elegant barley wine Old Tom, a strong beer full of roast coffee and chocolate notes. Chocolate Tom goes a bit further with the addition of chocolate and Madagascan bourbon vanilla in the mix making for a decidedly luxuriant beer. Then there’s Ginger Tom, where the strong ale is blended with Fentiman's Ginger Beer to producing an intriguing mix of chocolaty smoothness and spicy ginger edginess. Fellow Lancastrians Thwaites joined in the fun earlier in the year with Midas, a fruity golden ale with oats in the mix.
Yet if there’s one traditional family brewery (alongside Fuller’s) that has taken the innovatory trail with a great sense of gusto it’s Adnams (they actually produced a beer called Innovation). The last couple of years has seen head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald develop beers that are light years away from the Suffolk brewer’s traditional portfolio. A series of world beers in cask include an American-style IPA, a Dutch bokbier and an Irish Dry Stout. Then there was Solebay, a 10% beast of a beer packaged in a distinctive silver tin and brewed with sugar and lavender.
The beer is stupendous, a complex, heady brew of wine-like immensity and Fitzgerald says it has been well received and should be brewed again. Meanwhile, in the on-trade, lovers of his beers can go global with his world beers.
However, he does sound a note of caution when it comes to innovation: ‘I think it's great to have a beer that people love and keep coming back to, and I think it is important not to lose track of that and why you are successful but I think it's also important to try something new. There are risks but if they work they can attract new drinkers, people who don't drink your beer because they tried one once and it wasn't for them or because they don't think beer in general is for them, they don't like the packaging the image etc. But if you present them with something that looks and tastes completely different then maybe…’