No Future – is beer innovation a myth?

The recent Beer Innovation summit received a very mixed reaction from the beer blogging community. At best, it was a valiant effort to establish some joined-up thinking and show appreciation of technological advances. At worst, it was a heavily blinkered back-patting exercise as everyone present congratulated themselves for being such good eggs.

Dave Bailey helped stir up debate on this issue, in an attempt to answer the following: what exactly is innovation in the brewing industry? Is it better quality cans to improve freshness and taste? Is it someone using Brettanomyces yeast and chili and ginger and mystical moonberries in an Imperial Black Saison? Is it creating a product designed to attract new drinkers to beer, which in the process alienates the faithful?

As far as I can tell, the debate simply created more and more questions, so many in fact that I can’t be sure that innovation in beer exists at all. Yes, technological advances can be innovative, but aren’t they simply industrial advances that improve the means of production, not the product? New beers are often old styles mashed together, or ingredients used differently to create the same thing. Where’s the ‘new’?

If I sound disillusioned, it’s because I am. If we are in a beer renaissance, where are our Da Vincis? I’m so, so grateful for all the excellent beer I drink, but is it really the cutting edge? My biggest fear is that someone is about to bring back mead, and that we’re all going to act like it’s a new and exciting thing.

The future. Actually, this would be pretty cool. Unethical, but cool.

I was recently at an excellent beer tasting session at Wilton’s Music Hall, presented by Adnams‘ head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald. Fergus made a unusually frank comparison at the very beginning: like wine, brewers seek to make a liquid from fermented sugars. The key words here, ‘like wine’. are rarely spoken by brewers, either because they cannot confidently compare their beers with wines, or because they see their beers as superior to wine, for one or several of many valid reasons. Fergus wasn’t trying to dredge up the old argument of beer vs wine in food terms. He was simply making a very valid and important point: think of the craft of wine-making in the same way as brewing. With this precedent firmly established, those gathered in the upstairs bar at Wilton’s were expertly guided through the core range of Adnams’ beers, and were generously introduced to a handful of oddities and one-offs, each stronger than the last (one of which, a Belgian yeast-driven Double IPA, was actually called Innovation).

This made me think that the ‘innovation’ we seek in beer should in fact be an innovation in thinking. The biggest change that will have the biggest effect on the brewing industry is changing the way it is perceived. Example: canned beer. Instead of making better cans, far more canned beer would be sold by changing the way we think about it. “Good beer in a can is good beer,” Fergus pointed out. “Crap cans of beer have crap beer in them.”

I think, like BrewDog say in their hopaganda, that the beer industry in the UK is sick. However, I think it’s a sickness that has symptoms undetectable to the subjects infected with it. We all think that the beer industry needs new, exciting things, but what we really need is new, exciting thinking. If you have the faintest idea what I mean (I barely do), please let me know in the comments.

Author: Chris Hall

London-based freelance beer writer and blogger. Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Co-author of 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World' On Twitter @ChrisHallBeer.

4 thoughts on “No Future – is beer innovation a myth?”

  1. Innovation in this context strikes me as more vague and nebulous than the term ‘craft’. Perhaps the aim of the summit was to nail down the concept of innovation, I don’t know. The summit barely registered on my radar, other than through Dave ‘Hardknott’ Bailey’s tweets, simply because I felt it was aimed at people involved in the technical side of beer production and sale (brewers and marketers).

    With breweries blooming up all over, yet pubs closing and the government hammering on the tax, it’s natural that existing breweries want to be the ones to survive the current boom (and economic recession). So why not capture the essence of ‘innovation’ and sell it to them in kegs? Who started this innovation movement, anyway? Perhaps there’s a greasy consultant willing to shill his services to any brewery desperately needing the magic of innovation to beat their competitors and be the last brewery standing on the radioactive rubble at the end of the Great Beer War.

    And is the beer industry sick? In that context, BrewDog’s hopaganda almost goes back to classic marketing principles – invent the problem, sell the cure. I would be keen to hear more on this, definitely a potential blog topic for you to explore.

    In terms of Da Vincis and other ‘renaissance’ types, geniuses are never appreciated in their time. Could Mikkeller, gypsy brewer of a thousand hops be one? Melissa Cole, writer, brew collaborator and somALEier? Or the BrewDog boys – welding razor sharp business acumen with great beers? Can anyone truly be a master of all things in the brewing industry and deserve comparison with Da Vinci?

    A rambling, incoherent response for a vague and nebulous topic.

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    1. Yes, looking back, this is less a blog post and more the “URGH! EH!? WHAT!?” of a freshly-woken, confused old man. It’s an extremely frustrating and yet necessary topic of discussion. The problem is, I’ve never seen anybody get anywhere with it, it’s just discussed. I now realise I have simply contributed to the problem.

      I think the problem is that everyone has different idea of what it means, and that declaring something or someone to be innovative is easy to claim and hard to disprove.

      I agree that the beer renaissance geniuses may not be recognised for a while, and I agree with your candidates. As for comparisons with Da Vinci, I think it’s only fair. As discussed previously, brewing contains science, art, alchemy, the dark arts of marketing and more. Doing all of it successfully, and being innovative at same time, is the real trick.

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