Tunnel Vision


British craft beer is an exciting subculture to be a part of, but whilst its proponents and their beers are progressive, many are blind to what might be holding it back.

Agility, more than anything, is why craft beer captures the public imagination. A small brewery has the ability to change course quickly, pivot on its heels and kick out in a new direction before Big Beer has even booked the meeting room to discuss the first draft of its committee-authored instructions to the engine room. It’s a characteristic that defines this subculture’s energy and momentum, and yet, we can’t help but be limited by existing thinking.

Story time: there’s a popular forwarded email yarn about the relationship between a space shuttle and a horse’s arse. The solid rocket boosters that sat either side of the main fuel tank had to be transported across the country from Utah to the launch site in Florida, using mountain tunnels built for trains. The story says the tunnels were based on the width of old roads for horse-drawn carriages, and that since the width of two horse’s rear ends is roughly the same width as the standard US railway gauge, a horse’s arse determined the width of a solid rocket booster. It’s mostly rubbish of course (you can read the Snopes take on it here) but the most interesting bit, about the tunnels, is basically true: that advanced space vehicle technology was to some extent designed to be compatible with tunnel design from hundreds of years ago for shipping purposes. As the launch of a space shuttle was in some way determined by old tunnels, so too is British craft beer determined by something just as old, if not older: the imperial pint.

To understand the scale of the issue, we must first look at the leading beers in several style categories (looking at just the overall ‘top rated beers in England’ on Untappd and RateBeer reveals little, or rather, quite a lot: both lists are dominated by imperial IPAs and imperial stouts). Unfortunately, this in itself does not give a full picture either, because both Untappd and Ratebeer are used by self-motivated enthusiasts, not by most drinkers, even by many who are ‘into’ craft beer. For this to be of any value, we have to look at the beer styles in growth, not those already selling the most, since almost all of those are in decline. That way, we can get a reasonably good idea of what is doing well and impressing people in each style category, and even the most jaded or optimistic beer person should still be able to see a fairly objective overall picture from which to draw some conclusions.

To keep this manageable, we’ll look at American Pale Ale, American IPA, Session IPA and Lager. These are the styles arguably winning the most hearts and minds at the moment, and more importantly, the most repeat purchases and safer spots on the bar. It’s not a perfect sample set (not helped by the fact that “pale’n’hoppy” is broadly what’s driving the market, but isn’t a category on any rating website, and in itself could include about twenty or so ‘styles’), but it is one from which you can at least get broadly comparable results, from both Untappd and Ratebeer. Plus, it provides useful benchmark examples we can all point at and understand. Finally, and most crucially, in each style, we can see how the pint glass is determining the state of play.

For example, in American Pale Ale from England, the leading lights unsurprisingly include a wide variety of recipes from The Kernel’s Pale Ale series, alongside Beavertown Gamma Ray, Pressure Drop Pale Fire, plus the occasional outlier from Salopian, Wiper & True, Vocation and the like. All great breweries, but the best rated beers tend to be ones around the pint-friendly 5.4% ABV mark. In the broader context of APA as a style, this is to be expected (it’s pretty much the target ABV for an APA), but that mid-five strength is worth remembering.

Next, let’s look at American IPA from England. Most of the highest rated are between a much broader spectrum of 6.2% to 7.4%, mostly modelled on US West Coast IPAs (though that ‘Yeast Coast’ sub-style is already making inroads). They are either rotating hop varietals from the likes of Kernel, Wiper & True and Cloudwater, or ‘brand’ IPAs with mostly consistent recipes from breweries like Magic Rock, Siren and Buxton. Interestingly, many (but not all) of these again fall into the ‘special release’ category, particularly the collaboration brews and single hop seasonal specials, and only a few could actually be described as ‘core range’ beers. This tells us that the American-style IPAs being brewed in England are not as likely to be flagship products, despite the much-held opinion that IPA is somehow driving the market. Pints are not part of the context of the style, therefore these beers are not currently the biggest selling beers from any brewery in England (Scottish elephant in the room to be covered later). Plus, anyway, these beers are (or should be) proportionately more expensive to make in the first place, limiting the likelihood of affordable pint-sized servings.

What about Session IPA then? For those breweries doing them particularly well and true to style (that often means quite expensively), Session IPAs are hopped with similar additions by weight as much bigger IPAs, but brewed to retain some residual sweetness to back up their lower ABVs and keep them balanced. Being ‘just’ a pale ale will simply not cut it. Appealing to consumers for both their lower strengths and big hop characters, Session IPAs tend to sit around 3.8%-4.5% abv, and ratings-wise, in England are led by two beers from Vocation, several from Brew By Numbers, The Kernel’s Table Beer, Gipsy Hill Hepcat, Northern Monk Eternal, and Beavertown Neck Oil (which has alternated between describing itself as Session IPA and Session Pale). Session IPA is practically defined by the fact it can be enjoyed in multiple, pint-sized servings, hence the prodigious growth of the category in recent months. It’s a style of beer that represents what consumers new to craft beer seemingly want – something interesting and exciting that still retains the safety and familiarity of something pale in a pint glass.

Lager is trickier to get useful information on, but by comparing a few different subcategories (‘Pale Lager’, ‘Pilsener’, ‘Pilsner – Other’ and so on) on both Untappd and Ratebeer, a hazy picture emerges. The quality alternative to mainstream, pale European lager is still a battleground covered in the fog of war, but the likes of Weird Beard, Camden and Fourpure are still leading for the most part, with recent efforts from Howling Hops, Redchurch, Northern Alchemy and Beavertown showing promise. Strength-wise, 4.8%-5.4% seems to be the norm. Naturally, this is a style also defined by its pint-ability.

Whilst more meaningful than looking merely at ‘Top Rated’ overall, trying to get useful data in this way is still problematic. Requiring a focus on a single country makes it all but impossible to get a complete picture of the UK, frustrating when such huge leaps are being made in Wales and Northern Ireland, and particularly when several of the UK’s leading producers of craft beer are in Scotland alone. Specifically, the absence of BrewDog from this set of results skews things somewhat. BrewDog has, perhaps more than any other UK brewery mentioned above, succeeded in getting its beers in an ever wider range of ‘mainstream’ outlets. It is on this particular point that we can start to see an anomaly in IPA, but one which helps form some correlation with the other results overall. BrewDog famously reduced the ABV of its flagship beer, Punk IPA, to 5.6%, and from looking at the some of the most popular beers being produced in England by the most successful craft breweries, regardless of style, the ABVs tend to be in the mid-fives (Thornbridge are obviously the other brewery to have most successfully straddle craft and mainstream, though it’s worth noting that most of their cask beer is around 4% and the keg beers are mostly around either 5% or 6%, rather than between. There’s a whole other post to be written about breweries with ‘cask’ and ‘keg’ beer ranges that are vastly different strengths).

Right then, so there’s lots of evidence of something happening, but what? We need to imagine not some sterile list of beers with ratings and ABVs listed next to them, but the taps of beer lined up on a bar in front of you the next time you go for a drink. How many of the ‘self-consciously craft’ offerings (not described as Session IPA) are in the region of 5.5%? How many of those beers, regardless of strength or colour, are being served by the pint as standard? Session IPA notwithstanding, in the UK a five-point-something beer can be both strong and/or different enough to be ‘craft’, whilst still ‘sessionable’; a sort of Goldilocks Zone for a beer industry determined, and arguably hamstrung, by the pint glass.

However, if you want be the fastest growing food and drink brand in the UK, or if you just want to help pay for that new steam-jacketed mash tun and kettle, or if you just want to establish a sturdy foothold in an ever more crowded marketplace, pints mean prizes. Volume means security, cashflow to finance the next big project (or duty return) and frequent, loyal custom.

But how much of this is about financial security, and how much of it is about ingrained attitudes? Instead of the huge gamut of strengths seen in American craft beer, enjoyed in anything from pitchers, pints or 2oz pours, we seem rigid to our proportions of pints and halves, and only recently opened our minds to the idea of third-pint and two-third measures. Even in the most wide-ranging, smaller-serving-focused craft beer bars in the country, we remain interested in filling a pint-shaped hole, and if it remains an unchangeable line in our programming, our industry will remain defined by the beers that fit this space, and not by what we could, or perhaps should, be brewing.

I would have ended this piece right there, were it not for one small fact: I love pints. To some extent, I still judge certain beers by how they fare over the course of 568 millilitres, and if that beer still impresses me at the end, then it was undoubtedly a fine beer indeed. There’s something about the pacing of a pint, depending of course on the drinker and the setting, which other serving sizes don’t seem to possess. Another curiosity of our beer culture is that thirds, halves and two-thirds of a beer are most likely to be followed by a similarly-sized serving of something utterly different, whilst a pint of something is often followed by ‘the same again’.

There is no doubt that pints will continue to be popular and that there will continue to be a variety of serving sizes, but there will be a crossroads. The future shape of the market will be determined by whether we hold fast to our culture of quaffable, boshable, crushable pints, whilst acknowledging the variety of serving sizes as a ‘nice to have’; or, instead, actively try to embrace that variety in full, and shed no tears if pints become no more common an option than the third-pint.

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