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From real ale to craft beer

Where will the thirst for authenticity take us next? Asks Simon Gore, managing director, Parker Williams brand design agency

Simon Gore Parker Williams

Nearly 30 years ago, in deepest darkest Norfolk, I came across my first craft beer. From the outside the pub looked unassuming, but inside, it was packed with beer enthusiasts who had come from afar to sample its famous home brew, Nelson’s Blood. There was plenty of discussion around recipe, flavour and appearance, but to be truthful it was an acquired taste, closer to Summer Scrumpy cider and pungent 1970s home-brew kits.

How things have changed: craft beer is booming. And though experimentation and invention remain at its heart, craft beer now promises quality, provenance, and expertise too.

Unusual taste profiles and flavour mash-ups

Of course, adventurous ingredients, flavours and aromas are nothing new. The Belgians, especially their monks, have been innovating beer for centuries by marrying new taste with tradition. As the craft movement grows, so does flavour experimentation. But strange ingredient combinations can be either seductive or torturous. Ever been tempted by a pint of spontaneously-fermented sour ale with fresh raspberries?

In any case, the craft philosophy has captured our imagination. The focus is on individuality and boundary-pushing, as the tasting notes that adorn beer packaging now read more like a food menu. Take the foodie language employed by London-based craft brewery Redemption, its Fellowship Porter promises drinkers a combination of "coffee, liquorice and dry roasted malt flavours, complemented with hints of dark fruit”. It even goes on to describe how the taste profile develops on the palate, as "the initial sweetness fades into a restrained bitter finish”. This is terminology previously reserved for wine, whisky and coffee.

And it’s not just ingredients – simple wooden barrels are changing the brewing industry too. Whilst Bourbon is the most popular, other barrels such as tequila and Cognac are also becoming a part of the brewing process. As brew master Jason Perkins explains: "The barrel is an ingredient.”

Brewing with unusual grains is on the up too, which reflects the innovation around Free From, driven by a growing awareness of nutrition and food intolerances. BrewDog is a case in point, launching its first gluten-free brew, Vagabond, last year. Other grains too, from millet to corn to sorghum, all prove a lack of gluten doesn’t equate to lack of flavour.

Changing audiences: from local village to urban hipster

Ultimately though, a large part of craft beer’s appeal is that anyone can have a go. “Craft of Brewing” courses and “Brewing Science” degrees abound, while hobbyists-turned-professionals make up the majority of craft success stories. Take the beer geeks behind Newport’s Tiny Rebel, who started out in a garage. The pair began by messing around, before they realized they were “brewing beers better than those we could buy down the pub.” This spirit of adventure has attracted a new, younger generation to craft beers.

Influencing “hipsters” have transformed craft beer into an urban cool phenomenon that focuses on quality. It’s not for bingeing, it’s cultured and clever. And each brand has its own distinctive story of invention. At the same time, new rituals are emerging around the way craft beer is served. Along with the revival of old favourites like the dimple pint glass, pricier brews demand smaller measures and thus, smaller, stemmed glasses. So there’s something for wine drinkers too.

Near our studio in Chiswick, the UK’s first Italian craft beer pub encourages drinking in halves or two-thirds of a pint. Some of the “Italian Job's" brews reach incredible levels of potency, more comparable to a fine wine than a beer. And, like any great Italian wine, the beers showcase a variety of styles to be accompanied by delicious Italian street food. It is urban class and craft combined.

The art of beer: powerful experimental design

So craft beer brands are more experimental. They are agile and have more freedom to innovate than bigger beer brands. There is an immediacy to the creative process, where consumers are exposed to a brewer’s story from concept through to process and packaging. "Product love" comes first, with the brand evolving from the maker’s vision; reflecting individual personalities and philosophies.

Take the brand identity created by Logan Plant’s Beavertown brewery in North London, which is a veritable work of art. The illustrations by artist-in-residence and creative director Nick Dwyer, full of strange aliens, big bangs and skeletons, create a fantasy world not unlike prog-rock cover art. This look has created a powerful, stand-out brand that reflects the rebellious “anti-big" nature of the makers. The brand is big on attitude, combining a deep rooted love of product with a desire to innovate.

Other craft brands, such as Brew By Numbers, have adopted a more sophisticated approach. The finished labels feature simple batch numbers and tasting notes; they aren’t glossy or overly manufactured, but embrace connoisseurship, where complexity of flavour takes precedence over edgy, illustrative graphics. Either way, there’s no doubt that great craft beer and great design are interlinked.

Being in the know: Craft beer exclusivity and hype

For craft beer aficionados, being in the know about what’s happening at the forefront of experimentation, innovation and craftsmanship is all part of the appeal. Pliny the Younger, a draft-only offering from Russian River in California, is brewed just once a year and released in February for two weeks only. Apparently it’s simply too difficult and time-consuming to brew more than this, with a tremendous quantity of expensive raw ingredients going into each batch. Beer fanatics come from all over to queue for hours in order to taste their allotment of Younger. Once in, there’s a three-hour maximum stay and a limit of three 10 ounce glasses per person.

Over in North Carolina, Wicked Weed launched an online ‘pre-sale’ this August of the latest in their Angel Series. It was limited to one pack per person. The allocation of White Angel, a sour beer aged in wine barrels sold out in about an hour. Demand from those in the know runs high.

Turning full circle

Craft brewing looks set for a blossoming future. The opening of UBrew, one of the first open breweries, in a large railway arch in a foodie-centric part of Bermondsey is an interesting development. Novices and experienced brewers alike can use the professional kit to experiment and brew their own recipes, with a taproom for customers to sample UBrew member tap takeovers.

Which takes me back to my early discovery of Nelson’s Blood. The original brew house and makers have long gone, but it’s more accessible now, with a polished, “grown-up” brand look and feel. However, its craft credentials are still firmly intact: locally grown barley, recipe innovation with the addition of rum liqueur and an engaging brand story. It even comes complete with tasting notes.

The flavour is still challenging, but maybe that’s part of the craft charm. The business challenge now is to break out of the micro-niche and grow profitably, without being perceived as too well-known, mainstream and boringly consistent. A rare challenge indeed.

24 August 2016