“What’s the point in hopping the shit out of a beer if you’ve lagered it for 10 weeks?”
Probably the most entertaining sight in modern British beer is watching Thornbridge head brewer Rob Lovatt struggle to overcome commercial reality. Lovatt, who has a frequently-expressed preference for traditional European beer over New-World hops, has spent the past few years producing new IPA after new IPA, presumably through gritted teeth.
Now, in an additional insult, this committed can-phobe is being made to package these beers in cans. Very attractive cans, but, you know, cans. (He was only convinced, apparently, after the powers-that-be promised to buy the most expensive canning machine on the market.)
Lovatt told me back in 2015 that he felt certain brewers could use more discretion when it came to hops. He was particularly stern on the idea of dry-hopping lager. “What’s the point in hopping the shit out of a beer if you’ve lagered it for 10 weeks?” he said. “I’d like to see more focus on malt and yeast.”
Alas, Thornbridge’s customers have generally disagreed. He once brewed a delicious Biere de Garde, but no-one bought it. Other similarly authentic European beers have met the same fate. Bayern, Thornbridge’s pilsner, appears to have disappeared too, although Lukas - a Helles - is an excellent replacement.
But maybe things are starting to turn in his direction. Lovatt has been working on a new beer, Heartland, which is, according to his blog on the Thornbridge website, a ‘cellar beer’: unfiltered like the kellerbiers of Franconia in northern Bavaria. There are other unfiltered British beers out there, needless to say, but the combination of an explicitly foreign idea with some very traditional British ingredients is pleasing.
It feels like the culmination of what has happened over the past ten years. Beyond the obsession with hops, we’ve had a deep exploration into styles and flavours, and a hugely increased understanding of beer styles and brewing techniques. Brewers who began with buckets in the kitchen are now well-versed in the minutiae of making tasty, consistent beer. There has been a huge boom in brewing nous.
Throughout this, though, Britain’s most brewing heritage has taken a backseat. This has been as much to do with the consumer as the brewer: most of Fuller’s London Porter is exported, for example. But the contrast between how classic European styles (‘crispy boi’) and their British counterparts (‘twiggy’) are now viewed has become more jarring by the day. Lovatt’s latest gambit, though, suggests a way to square this circle.
The time is ripe for it. The shine has decisively gone off craft beer, and its previous calling card - It’s innovative! It’s new! - is all used up. (That’s why the scenesters are moving on to natural wine: it’s exciting and new and when it gets dull … well, there’ll be something else along in a few years.) The interesting stuff is happening at the fringes - coolships, barrel-aging - and the obsession with intense hop-dosed beers is dragging what remains away from the mainstream, deep into trainspotter territory.
Consumers will need to be convinced, but perceptions can change. Look at how the reputation of pale lager has been resuscitated over recent years. What self-respecting drinkers would turn down a glass of Lost & Grounded Keller Pils? And would it be impossible to produce a delicious British pale ale on keg, the dispense method that appeals to most drinkers? British beer doesn’t have to mean cask beer.
Perhaps it has already begun, with the fetishisation of ales like Landlord and Sussex Best. What’s happening at Thornbridge and at Five Points, where a Best Bitter has been added to the regular line-up, is maybe just a recognition of this. That they’re both using Hukin’s Hops, a long-established company which has won award after award in recent years, helps. An understanding that quality matters is increasingly well-understood all down the chain.
‘Britishness’ is not the key thing here. What is important is variety and regional diversity: craft beer is making everything the same, everywhere. It emerged to challenge industrial pale lager’s hegemony by allowing customers to access a whole world of other flavours - but it appears to be on the way to creating a market that is almost as monocultural. I appreciate being able to get what I want to drink in London, from IPA to witbier, but it’d be better if there was more that spoke specifically of London.
What is the point of craft beer if what you get in Strasbourg tastes largely the same as what you drink in Glasgow? Mikkeller is opening a new bar in Paris later this month; Brewdog has dozens already. This is not exciting. Regional variety is exciting.
Which is to say: in a world where everyone is doing the same thing, going back to where you began is the only sensible thing to do. How many IPAs does Rob Lovatt have to brew before drinkers understand that?