With the global trend in craft beers continuing to accelerate unabated, brewers are increasingly experimenting with new and sometimes unexpected flavours. Andrew Dann speaks with Alan Pateman of the Wisbech brewery Elgood & Sons Ltd about the growing popularity of ‘sour beers’ within the UK and abroad
Whether it is a craft IPA, traditional bitter or dark porter, the UK’s demand for a quality pint of beer appears to be as yet unquenched. Figures released by the Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) during January 2015 for example, revealed that a decade of decline in UK beer sales had come to an end with a 1.3 per cent rise in sales throughout 2014. Indeed, with over more than 25 million drinkers supporting around 700,000 jobs in a market valued at circa £20 billion a year, beer is a significant force in the UK beverage industry. There are presently over 1400 breweries and micro breweries throughout the UK that produce an estimated 8000 regular beers and thousands of seasonal and speciality beers.
The rise of the UK beer industry has been driven by a number of factors, arguably the most important of which are the scrapping of the beer tax ‘escalator’ policy and booming interest in craft ales within the US market. Prior to 2014 significant tax rises were blamed by the BBPA for a drop in sales of beer of a staggering 24 per cent over nine years. A duty increase of some 42 per cent on beer from 2008 to 2013 increased the duty (plus the VAT on duty) from 42p to 65p on a typical pint. It is estimated that this period saw the closure of 7000 pubs with a loss of 58,000 jobs. Following two historic cuts to beer duty, beer sales finally stabilised during 2014 and while the market remains highly competitive for both brewers and pub owners, a recent freeze of the duty on beer has continued to help sales to recover.
Within the US the beer industry has had to compete with its own challenges. Inside the world’s largest market for beer production, figures collected in a Consumer and Shopper Insights report authored by German Estevez Rutishauser, Stefan Rickert and Frank Sänger during 2015 for McKinsey & Company showed that production volumes within the US stagnated between 2007 and 2014. In other key markets including Germany, France and the UK the report also revealed that production volumes fallen by as much as ten per cent during the same period. Demographic changes, the increasingly popularity of wines and other beverages, tighter regulatory and taxation measures, as well as the continued impact of the global economic slowdown were all heighted as contributing factors to the plight of the beer producing sector.
The 2015 report also observed that in addition to production and sales issues, competitive pressure has become an increasingly dramatic influence of beer production in both the US and Europe. During 2014 for example, while overall beer production in the US rose by just 0.5 per cent, the output from smaller brewers swelled by as much as 18 per cent. This resulted in smaller brewers taking an 11 per cent share of the $100 billion (£69.2 billion) US beer market for 2014 with a similar trend emerging in Europe. The rise in the market share smaller brewers in turn sparked a revolution in the availability of craft and speciality beers as more and more products were introduced to supermarket shelves. For example, in Italy there were eight times as many new beer products that were introduced in 2012 than in 2007, while within the Czech Republic (Czechia) there was a X5 increase, a X4 increase in Spain and an increase of X3 in France. Until recently the UK was slower to adapt to this trend, however the market has since begun to catch up and even take a lead in the development of exciting new beers.
One highly successful example of the development of craft and speciality beers within the UK has been the release of Elgood & Sons (Elgood’s) award-winning sour and fruit wheat beers. Although the Elgood’s brewery is currently one of the UK’s smallest independent brewers, the company has been inspired by the taste trends within the US craft ale market and has begun to export its products to the region. Located in the Cambridgeshire town of Wisbech, the brewery itself was established in 1795 while its current owners, the Elgood family took over ownership of the business during 1878. Today the family is in its fifth generation of operating the company. The Elgood’s brewery was originally founded as a tied pub and today has a network of 37 pubs, most of which are within a 30-mile radius of Wisbech.
The potential for relatively small UK brewers to sell their beers to national supermarkets and even to export to customers in the US is a strong indicator of the demand for high-quality and innovative brews across the market. Indeed, the development of the Elgood’s brewery’s range of Coolship blonde and fruit sour beers and its selection 16for fruit wheat beers demonstrates how the combination of traditional brewing methods and innovative thinking are indispensible tools in today’s competitive beer market. “The development of our Coolship sour beer in particular was actually somewhat of a leap compared to our traditional ales and was partly bound to the brewery’s history and the equipment that we have here, as well as the growing competition in the market. There are currently around 15,000 brewers operating within the UK at present, with a lot of smaller brewers competing with essentially the same type of product. We had been looking for various other products and trying various different varieties of beer some time. The sour beer project has certainly been a great success and raised the brewery’s profile so that presently we are contacted by organisation wanting to know more about the beer almost every week,” explains Elgood’s Head Brewer and Production Director, Alan Pateman.
“Some of the original brewing equipment at Elgood’s dates to very early in the company’s history. One of our tanks for example, was manufactured locally in 1795 – or certainly that vintage, which makes us a very traditional brewing plant. We also have two origional coolships, which are old-fashioned cooling trays that were used before the advent of advanced engineering and refrigeration. The only way to cool the brew in the past was to wait for it and you did this by pouring it into a very shallow tray until the heat naturally dissipates into the atmosphere,” Alan continues. “Regarding the development of our sour beers and the move into the US market, it happened that an importer of Belgian beers operating in the US came over to look at the Elgood’s brewery and upon seeing the coolships immediately observed that we could brew Lambic type sour beers. I was sceptical at first, however we had a look at the idea and have since enjoyed great success with the sour beer that we have produced. The worth of it in our view, is that it is brewed in precisely the correct manner as it is done in Flanders, although we do not actually call it a Lambic because it is a protected regional name, hence the name Coolship Sour that we are selling it as in the UK while in America it is sold as Elgood’s Sour Ale.”
Research published by Mintel during November 2015 revealed that craft beer accounted for 8.5 per cent volume sales of the beer category in the US market during 2014, representing an increase of 83 per cent from 4.5 per cent of volume sales in 2009. Furthermore it is estimated that craft beer in the US market achieved 22 per cent dollar sales growth during 2015, bringing the category to a value of around $24 billion (£16.6 billion). Further market analysis from the leading marketing agency released in March 2016, reveals that the proportion of new flavoured beer product launches in the US has grown from just 15 per cent total US beer launches to 27 per cent in 2015. This figure represents an increase of some 80 per cent over a five-year period. Within the US market Mintel research also indicated that 57 per cent of drinkers who increased their beer consumption during 2015 attribute this to the increased availability of flavours. Indeed, as many as three in five US alcohol drinkers said that they are interested in fruit flavoured beers, with 45 per cent of alcohol drinkers showing an interest in tart/sour beers.
The strength of the growing trend in speciality beers throughout the US and its continuation into both Europe and the UK has proven to be fertile ground for the introduction of the sour and fruit wheat beers introduced by Elgood’s brewery. The unique character of Elgood’s Coolship Sour Fruit, Coolship Blonde and its varieties of wheat fruit beer have proven to be a refreshing choice for both consumers’ palates and the beer industry at large. “Sour beer is really more akin to a fine cider, so it is full of sour notes and the Elgood’s Coolship Sour that we produce has a nice citrusy, fruity note that offsets the sourness. We have been considering other flavours that we can blend with the beer and our Coolship Fruit has enjoyed a lot of success recently. This is blended which raspberry, which again offsets the sourness and results in a completely different drink altogether,” Alan says. “We have also introduced a Cherry Wheat beer as well as an Apple and Vanilla Wheat, which are different style of beer to the Coolship varieties.”
Elgood’s won a gold and silver medal in the Society of Independent Brewers’ (SIBA) national beer awards during 2016, winning gold for its Cherry Wheat beer in the small pack category and silver in the keg beer competition for its Coolship Fruit. Prior to this Coolship won ‘Europe’s Best Sour Beer Lambic’ at the recent World Beer Awards and the silver for its Coolship at the International Brewing Awards. While it is difficult to predict how strong the demand of craft ales within the US and beyond will remain at its current high level, it is unlikely that consumers will abandon speciality beers completely, particularly in an ever competitive and innovative market. As such, brewers like Elgood’s will continue to develop new and exciting speciality beers that will quench the thirst of consumers old and new. “This has been a very interesting exercise and to pick up two national awards in the specialist brewing beer department was really quite pleasing. I think the segment in the UK is always going to be small, by definition of the size of the market compared to the US and I don’t think that sour beer is quite as popular here as it is in the States. That said the market has certainly grown and we have more people who are interested in our sour and fruit beers and taking them on,” Alan reflects.
“We have a dark sour up our sleeves, which we are hoping to release to the American customer in the near future and this has again taken some time to prepare. The dark sour is brewed as a dark sour recipe, rather than a blend of a sour beer and a dark beer we have gone the whole-hog and brewed a full dark sour,” he concludes. “We have developed a much greater understanding of sour beers in recent years and are focused of developing the reproducibility of the product. We have shipped several orders out to America and we are hoping that they will take these products as permanent lines, which should help us to sell further sour and fruit varieties into the UK and we hope that this trend will continue for some years to come.”