Innovative Thinking

Without craft beer, there wouldn’t be any innovation in brewing. Without innovation it’s doubtful there would be craft beer!

Over in America at the Craft Brewer’s Conference, the future success of the industry has been placed on technical and innovation brewers. Jim Koch has asked if it’s last call for craft beer? Perhaps for some it is. Innovation can take many forms and covers all aspects of business. All staff recently received sensory training at London’s FourPure brewery, a move that was recognised by receiving SIBA’s 2017 Business Innovation award. 

There are British and Belgian breweries that haven’t changed in centuries. Firm believers of time honoured traditions, stuck in the past, they feel, and perhaps have, no need or desire to innovate. The only changes are to their branding, where old cool becomes new cool and “craft” is slipped in subtly. Then there are the textbook breweries, with immaculate labs and a firm belief in the need for sterile filtration and pasteurisation.

Somewhere in the middle micro- and craft brewers slotted in. Some came from scientific backgrounds, others had been keen home brewing entrepreneurs without formal training and limited to the resources at hand. Experimentation and innovation have been the key to their success. Many of these journeys have been blogged and written into informative books so fellow enthusiasts can copy and build on their ideas. Craft has flooded the void between basic home-brewing books and scientific texts.

Small breweries often need to innovate more as technology and equipment may be limited or out of reach. Some beer sommeliers claim they can taste if a brewery used dried yeast in a beer, but what if they had no choice as sufficiently aerating their wort was not possible? Should they have invested more to match the achievable results of a more equipped brewery, or is it possible for them to innovate their way around, perhaps by adding olive oil to the yeast?

Some of the most popular beers are conceptually the simplest. So how do brewers innovate when it comes to new ideas? Innovation comes in many forms: it can be from making mistakes, thinking outside the box, or just drinking a beer. Experimentation can be risky, but it seems craft beer drinkers are willing to drink pretty much anything, if that’s how you intended it to be*.

There doesn’t always seem relevance in the application of technical studies on a smaller scale. Innovation rarely comes from scientific textbooks or knowledge gained from exams, yet a technical appreciation of brewing science goes a long way when brewing on a commercial scale.

The Mistake

When a friend was about to emigrate to Canada to work for Parallel 49, we decided to make a massively dry hopped Imperial IPA homebrew together as one last collaborative brewing effort. Everything was going smoothly until we hit the boil. Then the gas went out. Luckily the wort was unhopped, and so without any hope of getting any more gas we made the decision to let it cool down, add natural yogurt and see what happened. Over the next couple of days the pH dropped, so I continued as if the plan had always been to brew an Imperial Sour IPA. Not having any commercial examples to try, we were unsure how it would turn out, but not all innovation is intentional. Having a lab, or at the very least a pH meter is a huge help!

Brewing an authentic sour style presents difficulties even for commercial brewers. It’s rare to taste a traditionally brewed style that hasn’t been adulterated somehow, perhaps to enhance the beer, possibly to mask the flavour. In our case, it was the latter, so we dry hopped beyond any levels of normality at about 25g/l, a seemingly absurd quantity back then in summer 2016.

This beer wasn’t about how it tasted, it was the journey of innovation and learning. Presented with challenges prompted further reading into sour beer production and an exploration of the extremes that we could take this beer. I’m not saying we will recreate this beer commercially, but we are much more prepared to now.  

Outside the Box

Early 2015 I read a blog post by Modern Times (San Diego, not Jeju) where they had aged coffee cherries in bourbon barrels. Collaborating with a local coffee roaster I bought a reconfigured five litre Cognac barrel from Wilhelm Eder and we filled it with Brazilian Pantano. Six months later and after regular rotations we roasted, ground and cupped the beans. I made a cold brew and blended it with a cask Porter. With a subtle taste of coffee and cognac, there was a general consensus from drinkers unbeknownst of the changes that had gone into their normal Porter that this was the result of something new and exciting. The project was driven by a desire to try Modern Times’ beer knowing how unlikely it was that I’d actually be able to. There’s still some of that coffee left, and more beery innovation to come. 

Shiny stainless cylindro-conical tanks are at the pinnacle of the modern craft arsenal. Perfect for clean fermentation profiles, drawing off yeast, maximising dry hop additions and purging with CO2. Ever wondered why breweries like Redchurch kept their original kit for their Urban Farmhouse beers? Shiny tanks aren’t all that when it comes to brewing certain traditional styles, particularly those from a bygone era. As brewers we don’t just look at how beer used to be fermented, but how other drinks are too. Whether it’s in concrete cubes, ceramic eggs, wooden foeders, or just steampunk’d milk tanks. There are examples now all across the UK of brewers innovating their fermentation and conditioning, but sometimes they don’t feel the need to say what they’re doing, or the length they’re going to achieve that perfect beer. Sometimes their methods directly contradict a traditional understanding of brewing science.

If you only brew within the confines of what you know you’re likely to miss out on stumbling upon something great.

Drinking, Tasting, Thinking

Recently Siren released Acid Jam, their version of an Imperial Sour. Sometimes Innovation can come from tasting other examples and discovering the techniques and quirks to that particular recipe. Just like another Siren beer, Broken Dream Bourbon Coffee, which has broken the mould and raised the standard for future interpretations of beers with barrel aged coffee.

Tasting fresh beer is the best way to examine it, especially when hops are the stars. The latest breakthrough in hop innovation is YCH’s Cryo lupulin powder hops, which although not widely available is attracting a lot of interest. The final shout out to Siren goes to Hop Candy, but their limelight has been stolen by Magic Rock’s Cannonball trilogy. With specific ingredients listed on the cans, you just need to taste the beer to see the power of the powder. How far brewers will innovate it, is yet to be seen, but I predict a big impact.

It helps of course if you know where to start, and some breweries are sharing more than ever before detailing processes and specific ingredients on labels, not just malt, water, hops in as many languages as will fit. Not every brewery is happy sharing their ideas, so sometimes it helps to just drink a beer, recognise the flavours, taste the process and imagine how you could build on that.


*Not every mistake is a Marvellous Medicine. Breweries need beers to sell. Beers that build, not damage reputations. So, make mistakes, think outside the box, and explore more beer. Innovation is how we have so much choice. Let’s not go back to the Bitter old days.



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