I see our friends at BrewDog have been digging up a few bones again by claiming that CAMRA has been a major obstacle to innovation in the brewing industry. Now, I know what sort of thing they were getting at, but that set me to thinking there are quite a variety of different ways in which you can be innovative in brewing.
In most industries, the major form of innovation comes with small, incremental improvements to the product. This is especially true of technological products, but its application to brewing is fairly limited. If you have an established beer, all you can do is to make minor tweaks to the recipe which may or may meet with the approval of consumers. And if you try to tailor your beer to “customer preferences”, the odds are that over time you will just make it more bland.
Then you can have improvements to the production process, which typically will mainly benefit the brewer, although this may filter through to the consumer in the form of lower prices. I’m sure the vast majority of brewers of all sizes are constantly looking at ways to achieve the same results while using less energy, but many process innovations such as continuous fermentation, high-gravity brewing and changing the mix of ingredients may be of very dubious benefit to the drinker.
A third area of innovation is not in the product itself, but in its presentation. This could encompass such things as electric beer dispense, kegging, nitrokeg, in-can devices and distinctive branded glasses.
And then there are innovations that completely change the nature of the mainstream – the replacement over a period of not much more than ten years of bitter by lager as the standard beer in the UK being a classic example.
But of course none of this is what BrewDog are referring to – they are talking about brewing beers in different styles and using different ingredients. However, you have to be careful here. As this post by Tandleman points out, British beer drinkers, even cask drinkers, are generally a pretty conservative lot, and brewers neglect the mainstream at their peril. You can’t see Timothy Taylors innovating Landlord into something completely different.
Typically a brewer will have a mainstream range, may produce a variety of more adventurous specials that they know will be time-limited, and may occasionally turn these into permanent beers if they prove sufficiently popular. But they must always walk a tightrope between keeping their regular customers satisfied and doing enough to maintain the interest of the enthusiasts.
And you have to be careful that you don’t end up simply introducing new ingredients for the sake of it – the market for beers flavoured with lychees or larks’ vomit is always going to be somewhat limited. One man’s bold innovation is another man’s pointless gimmick.
To a limited extent it may be true that CAMRA has held innovation back by the “four legs good, two legs bad” attitude still prevailing in many quarters of the organisation that dismisses anything not cask- or bottle-conditioned as “chemical fizz” – but that is really only deterring innovation in presentation, not in style.
But, in reality, there is a huge amount of innovation going on. Any visit to a major beer festival will reveal a wide range of beers with unusual varieties of malt and hops, unconventional ingredients, and pushing stylistic boundaries. Over the past few years, the growth in true, strong, heavily-hopped IPAs and the expansion of golden ales to the extent that they are threatening to eclipse the traditional copper-coloured bitters show very clearly that the market is far from moribund.
At the end of the day, surely the fact that BrewDog are thriving proves that innovation is in fact alive and well in the British beer market.