The more of them I drink, the more I realise they have something in common. Whether ale or lager, 3% or 6%, a loose new category of beer is beginning to form from the current new wave. It’s a less of a style and more of a statement of intent, and a demonstration of skill that will come to define the current crop of craft brewers in the UK.
In London we are blessed with a high number of breweries, true enough, but it’s the sheer number of beers available that really blows me away. As I’ve said before, the city seems to thirst for the most esoteric and newest things it can find, and it’s no different with beer. Lately though, it hasn’t been the barrel-aged saisons, imperial stouts or even the increasingly impressive range of quality lagers and finely-tuned sours being made in London that have impressed me the most.
A label I apply frequently when referring to juicily fruity, tartly bitter IPAs and pale ales is ‘Juicy Banger’. It’s been pointed out to me that it sounds like something unsavoury said on The Only Way is Essex, but I continue to use it nonetheless. It captures in two words everything I look for from my first beer of the night: a full-bodied but brightly refreshing, finely-balanced beer of big flavour yet peerless drinkability. It’s become a hallmark by which I measure a brewer. If they can brew a Juicy Banger, a beer loaded with assertive, juicy hop character but one I could happily drink all night, and by the pint, then they’re all right by me.
Beavertown’s Gamma Ray and Pressure Drop’s Pale Fire, arguably leading the field of Juicy Bangers in the capital, each have tribe-like followings. The joy with those beers, Pale Fire in particular, is trying it every time you see it, and detecting the growing ability and confidence of the brewers as they dial it in ever tighter and tighter. Gamma Ray went through a similar period of improvement, and now, as those immediately iconic cans roll out of a bigger, better brewery in Tottenham Hale, it has reached its zenith. This is key: we aren’t just brewing more beer styles, we’re brewing better beers.
It’s now got to the point where I think of Juicy Banger as a style in its own right. Perhaps as recently as a year ago, I would have simply thought of them as pale ales and IPAs, but not anymore. Not since Camden Town Brewery’s Indian Summer Lager, and its genetic successor IHL (Indian Hells Lager). Each have their roots in the same brewery’s USA Hells, but it’s those two newer beers that have for me redefined what kind of beers we can make in the UK. These aren’t just hoppy beers, they are astonishingly balanced lagers delivering the hop hit of the most accomplished IPAs. I had the pleasure of trying a few cans of IHL at a recent canned beer competition in London, ahead of its official launch in a few weeks’ time. It is hugely impressive, not only in terms of its High Definition, bright, electric citrus flavours but also its finely balanced body. It might be the best beer made in London.
More generally, it would appear that the trend for brewing the palest possible ales to showcase hops (arguably started by Thornbridge with Jaipur and Kipling, correct me if you know different, and I don’t mean ‘golden ales’) has reached a sort of logical extreme, or another, further branch on the evolutionary tree: these pale ales have become lagers. This decade’s definitive beer style, the one that we will be able to identify with certainty in 5 or 10 years time, will not be an IPA or a saison, but a pale-as-sunlight, hop-forward beer that demonstrates true brewing skill, whilst remaining accessible enough to recruit new fans of craft beer and be sunk by the pint in bars across the UK.
For the time being, this field is populated almost entirely by American Pale Ales and IPAs, but I predict others will take up the challenge implicitly laid down by Camden Town and pitch their own spin on IPA/pale ale/lager hybrids. Several already exist: Weird Beard Citra Pilsner, Williams Bros Caesar Augustus and Adnams Jack Brand Dry Hopped lager just off the top of my head. Even Fuller’s have had a go at it in the form of Frontier. Plus, as if to prove the lines between ale and lager blurring even further, Beavertown and Camden recently brewed a collaboration lager combining the body of Camden Hells and the hopping of Gamma Ray: One Hells of A Beaver. It, needless to say, is a Juicy Banger, but astonishes me mostly because it marries the body of Hells and the hop character of Gamma Ray seamlessly. So if whether it’s an ale or a lager doesn’t really matter, how then, by current criteria, does one know a Juicy Banger? Here are some recurring factors:
Fresh – Freshness is important now more than ever before, as an increasingly connected world becomes less tolerant of delay and any potential inhibitor of flavour. As the newer craft brewers expand, it might also be that to improve freshness they sell this beer in a:
Can – It’s not perfect, or the messiah of craft beer, but the can has a lot going for it, not least the tendency to feature stunning designs that open people’s eyes to what beer can be. Whilst it’s not essential to be canned to be a Juicy Banger, it doesn’t hurt. They #can also be very good value, especially if they are sold:
Local – A criterion hand-in-hand with (but not the same as) freshness. JBs are typically enjoyed just a few miles from where they are born. Local identity is big part of enjoying these beers. Whether local or not, they absolutely have to be:
Pale – Whether lager or ale, these beers have to be golden or very pale amber. They can be hazy, even on the murky side, but they absolutely must be bright and glowing with mischief. The simplicity of the malt bill allows the brewer to show off their ability to make these beers:
Hoppy – Whatever you think of the word, it’s the most immediate and shortest descriptor of what these beers are. Typically we expect a cocktail of American hops, but other varieties are welcome, as long they help make the beer taste:
Juicy – Juiciness is more than just fruity flavours, it’s like those fruits have just been bitten into, the sweetness and acidity biting back. Juiciness demonstrates the mastery of hopping, the freshness of the flavours, and makes these beers:
Pint-able – If it isn’t in a can, or even if it is, it should be able to be bought locally on draught. Just a half or third of a pint of one of these beers makes you wish you ordered a pint.
Why do I think these beers are so important, and distinct, from existing styles? Well, I think we’re increasingly constrained by beer styles, and their names, and the criteria that sets back innovative beers in homebrewing competitions but celebrates dreary and by-the-numbers ones. American brewers are so locked into terms and categories that when they brewed lighter alcohol beers that still had huge hop bills, they called them Session IPAs. The beers seemingly couldn’t stand alone – they needed some kind of label as a crutch to justify their existence. I think, and hope, we’re moving past that, and I think specific beers are starting to become styles in their own right. That is, after all, how most beer styles tend to come about. Hopefully, history will judge this latest one by a better moniker than Juicy Banger. In any case, they are beers we need, and deserve.