Sunday, 25 January 2015
Beer In Essex: An Open Letter To Essex Brewers And Breweries
Beer In Essex
An Open Letter To Essex Brewers and Breweries
Dear Essex brewers and breweries,
I hope that this letter finds you well and in good spirits, looking forward to the challenges of a new year. I am a great admirer of your beer, and please believe me when I say that as I do not wish to appear patronising or arrogant in what I have to say, merely open and honest as someone who cares about what you produce and how hard you work.
There are at last count, some thirty breweries operating within the borders of this fair county of ours, all of which are less than thirty-five years old and many of those less than ten. When the majority of these were founded the world of beer was a very different place indeed, in fact one could say almost a world away from where we are now. Good beer in the county, that which you could actually taste or get excited about was exclusively 'real ale' or cask beer if you prefer, and those of us who wanted to sample well-kept examples would travel some distance by car, train, bus and taxi, often to remote country pubs to drink the best.
In those days of limited choice the style of beer available was also limited of necessity. Breweries had a hard time getting their beer into pubs so all that could be found was a Bitter, a Best Bitter, and occasionally a Strong Ale. Porters or Stouts were exclusively winter beers and from the early-to-mid-nineties Golden Ales started to appear in the summer months and we all went mad for them. A resurgence of Mild prompted by CAMRA's Mild In May campaign completed the picture and so was set, one could say set in stone, the beers that were produced and this has continued for some considerable time since.
"So what?" you may be asking, "This is all ancient history. I know all this and in fact I'm still part of it", and you would be right. You are still part of, but the beer world has changed, it has changed beyond all recognition and I would argue that it has changed wholly for the better.
I can go to my local off licence or supermarket and buy beer from all over the world. Big hoppy IPAs from the USA, Sparkling Ales from Australia, dark Dubbels and Tripels from Belgium, Biere de Garde from France, Dunkels and Helles from Germany, and even White Ale from Japan, the list goes on and on. These beers have opened the eyes and excited the palates of not only drinkers in the UK but brewers too. Many of them have been inspired to set up breweries where they have taken the myriad of styles we now have available to us and made them their own.
In London, right on our doorstep, we have the Kernel brewery producing full-on flavoursome beers inspired initially by modern US Pale Ales and IPAs, Partizan producing a slew of Saisons with constantly changing recipes and ingredients, Beavertown heavily influenced by the US beer scene with its range of hard-hitting hop-driven offerings but also experimenting with sour beers, ageing beer in barrels and collaborating with other breweries, striving to produce something different and pushing the boundaries of what beer is and exploring what beer can be. These are just three of the seventy-eight active breweries in the London area, one that has seen and continues to see growth at an astonishing rate as well as a legion of drinkers young and old willing to spend their money and drink their beer. As a result of this specialist beer bars have sprung up offering a huge range of beer, and many of these breweries have moved premises several times as demand for their beer grows, with drinkers flooding to their brewery taps to sample the latest offerings or drink their favourites at source.
This isn't just London phenomenon either. Cities such as Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh north of the border, have begun to see this growth as well, with drinkers demanding variety and quality as, thanks in large part to the prevalence of social media, word spreads and reputations are built and grow.
Which brings me to my home county.
Please do not misunderstand me, I do on the whole love the beer that is being produced in Essex. There are a few beers that fill my heart with joy when I see them, beers that I delight in drinking, beers that when drank at their best I believe can rival some of the best traditional beers being produced in the UK right now. I will also try new beers whenever I see them hoping, often folornly it has to be said, that I might catch a glimpse of something new, something different, something that makes me want to sit down at my laptop and tell the rest of the world about.
It is the oldest brewery in Essex that seems to be leading the way with its excellent single hop variety beers and I have at least one black IPA, which is not the insult to history that some would have you believe, as well as some barrel-aged offerings, all of which give me hope, there are even (and I am expecting a sharp intake of breath here) some good keg beers out there. These examples are sadly few and far between it seems, with the majority of beers being produced being miniscule variations of the mild-bitter-golden-porter-stout formula with English Pale Ales and English IPAs, or at least the modern toned-down variants thereof, appearing in their stead.
I have no wish to go against tradition, and you may well argue that if these beers are being drunk then there really isn't a problem, but I don't think that deep down you can honestly believe that. I'm not saying that there isn't a place for these beers, the best of them deserve national acclaim, but it cannot have escaped your notice that the wind has started to blow from a different direction and a new generation of drinkers with disposable income are looking for new flavours and new taste sensations. This isn't a passing fad either, and if you look at what has happened in the world of food then you'll see that there is a demand for quality much more than quantity with a revival in small artisan producers, and if you look at it what could be more qualified as small and artisan than Essex breweries?
So to conclude then, what I want to say to Essex brewers in 2015 is: Think Differently And Think Better. Look around you and embrace the change, become part of the movement and go with the rising tide rather than sticking your head in the sand and hoping that it will all go away.
I would love to see Essex breweries leading the way but I am fully aware that this change won't happen overnight, it will take time so start slowly and get it right. Many of the brewers I know are more than happy to discuss what they are doing and exchange ideas and techniques and are very approachable too, so let's see if we can make this happen.
I shall be starting a series on Essex beers and breweries on this blog in March in conjunction with Beer East Anglia which I am a contributor to, and I would love to report on some exciting new beers or intriguing new projects.
I'm hoping that you can make 2015 the year for fresh beer in Essex, and I know that you can do it. There will of course be challenges ahead, but in the end I am convinced that drinking in Essex will be improved beyond all recognition and much more rewarding to both yourselves and the consumer.
With much respect and the very best of wishes,
As a post script I will add that should any of you have any questions, queries or contradictions regarding this post or discuss any of the points that I have made further then please feel free to contact me directly, either by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post or by visiting the British Guild of Beer Writers website and using the details under my listing. I look forward to your response.