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Are traditions a barrier to progress? (by Matt Williams)

September 9, 2012

Traditions are often revered and admired and they are often things to be proud of, but they can also be a barrier to progress and innovation. This appears to be no different in the brewing industry.

It’s very interesting to see how the brewing scenes are being revolutionised in some countries and how much progress is being made in countries that were often seen as ‘deserts’ for good beer, at least in terms of domestically produced beer.

The amount of progression and innovation seems to be moving at a faster pace in countries which didn’t really have much of a craft brewing scene until comparatively recently. Countries such as USA, Denmark, Italy and Sweden to name a few examples. The progress seems to be happening in a less dramatic fashion in countries like Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic and Britain. Yes, there are of course some fantastic progressive breweries opening up and already operating in these countries, but the progress seems to be noticeably slower than in some of the progressive brewing countries mentioned above. This can also be down to how the beer scenes are already well developed and established in countries such as Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic and Britain.

I believe that tradition is one of the factors behind this and believe it can cause a barrier to progress, experimentation and innovation. The reasons can vary from country to country, but it often seems to come down to the traditions found there.

Beer CellarAs an Englishman, I am very fond of going to pubs whenever I go back home, but many pubs in the UK are not so fond of selling beers above 5% abv. This is partly down to the taxes and high costs involved, but primarily it’s down to the consumers’ preference for beers under 5% (often referred to as session beers) that people like to consume numerous pints of. This is fine and people’s wishes are to be respected, but does this have a detrimental effect on the choice and variety of beer styles available in a pub, and therefore also affect the range of beer styles offered by a brewer?

The situation in Britain is also interesting in the way that CAMRA (Campaign For Real Ale) has a lot of power and influence in the brewing scene there. CAMRA’s definition of Real Ale is a beer which undergoes a secondary fermentation, whether it be in the bottle or barrel, and is not served with the use of extra carbon dioxide. CAMRA organises many beer festivals in Britain, including the huge GBBF in London. In order to be a British brewery and have your beer served at a CAMRA festival, the beer needs to meet CAMRA’s definition of being Real Ale.

Yes, I understand that when CAMRA was formed in 1971, the alternatives to Real Ale were often inferior to their real ale equivalents, but now, 41 years later, technology has moved on in many areas and this is no different in the brewing industry. I know that CAMRA is defined by supporting real ale, but it saddens me to think that many of the fantastic beers produced by the new wave of British breweries, but who do not produce what is defined as real ale, are unable to sell their beers at CAMRA beer festivals and introduce their beers to a whole new audience. A possible solution, suggested by some, is for another beer consumers’ group to be formed, but this is easier said than done as CAMRA dominates the landscape. I am sure many CAMRA members, especially the younger ones, are beer enthusiasts and don’t just restrict themselves to drinking ‘real ale’.

I, like many others, judge beer on the quality and how it tastes, not through the dispense method or whether it meets CAMRA’s definition. Yes, I like traditions, but I think it’s important that whilst we should respect traditions, we should also embrace the future. The way forward is unclear, but I think this shows how sometimes traditions can stand in the way of progress.

I also feel that the Rheinheitsgebot in Germany can also be a barrier to progress. It is a complicated issue, but many breweries in Germany like to talk about how they adhere to the Rheinheitsgebot as if it is a badge of quality. Yes, beers brewed to this law (just hops, malt and water, it didn’t originally mention yeast) can be exceptionally good, but that is not simply because they only contain the aforementioned ingredients. I’ve had plenty of bad tasting beers which have been
brewed to this law, so it doesn’t guarantee quality at all.

To think that many beers from countries such as Belgium, especially ones with spices and fruit, are not brewed to this law shows that the beer scenes in other places would be very different if the use of fruit, spices and ingredients other than hops, malt and water were not allowed to be used. Germany has so much tradition when it comes to beer, and produces many world class beers, but it’s nice to see how some breweries are now brewing styles not normally found in Germany, such as IPA and porters, as well as brewers like Schneider Weisse producing a famous German beer style, hefeweizen, but with a twist through the addition of Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand. It is also good to see how some brewers in the UK are now brewing bocks and smoked beers inspired by their German counterparts. It is great to see how brewers are being influenced from beers in countries other than their own.

I am not saying that every country and every brewery should be producing extremely hoppy beers influenced by American breweries. I just want diversity and for brewers and consumers to not feel like they are being held back by traditions. The beer scenes in countries like Denmark, Italy, Sweden and USA have in my opinion grown because they have taken influences from many countries, as well as from their own traditions, and this has helped to create a thriving and diverse beer scene. When people in Britain ask me what styles of beer are produced by the smaller breweries in Sweden, they are often surprised when I answer that they produce so many different styles that it is difficult to list them all.

Diversity is definitely a strength and whilst we should be aware of our traditions, we should not let them prevent us from looking forward.

Beer Museum

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2012 3:08 pm

    Well Said!

  2. September 12, 2012 3:11 pm

    Well said! Sometimes people cling to tradition like a safety blanket. It’s not the be all end all of brewing. Also, those traditions were once revolutionary innovations when they first came into practice.

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