One-of-a-kind beers

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

04 February 2020

Cereal milkshake IPAs, kettle sours and imperial coffee stouts: experimentation in beer is being lapped up by consumers. But as these these experiments often come in the form of special releases, what effect are they having on the beer industry? Jacopo Mazzeo explores the impact of the one-off beer market

Christmas, royal wedding, spring and summer ales: the UK has a long history of making limited-release, commemorative or seasonal brews. Today, however, with the increasing popularity of social networks and rating apps (think Untappd) that reward consumers for drinking high numbers of different beers, thirst for novelties is at an all-time high, and brewers are responding. Some breweries have even managed to build their own brand’s success on limited releases (Cloudwater, anyone?) while many launch up to four one-offs a month in which fruits or other adjuncts often play a key role. The good old unwritten rule that a beer should be released once successfully tried and tested has been mashed, boiled and fermented to can the next limited edition.

FOMO is real

‘FOMO [fear of missing out], where people get worried they’ll miss out if they don’t try new beers, plays a big part,’ explains Jimmy Hatherley, founder and head brewer at Southampton-based Unity Brewing. ‘It’s got to the point where people are drinking almost the same beer, but think they are trying new things and getting a varied beer experience just because it has a different name and different hops.’

For most brewers, the ‘variation on a theme’ is the only viable tactic that allows them to churn out as many new brews as possible. Jamie Delap, managing director of Scottish brewery Fyne Ales, explains that after building a successful kettle sour programme, they first released a ‘straight Berliner Weisse then… we started to experiment with different fruits and adjuncts on top of the kettle sour base’.

Delap isn’t the first to play the kettle sour card. Sours are the ideal base beer as they can easily accommodate fruits of all sorts. In fact, the original Berliner Weisse is still traditionally consumed mixed with flavoured syrups to make its tart character more palatable to the public. Although base beers can help brewers retain a certain consistency, overall the results of the one-off craze are a mixed bag. Some even lament that the proliferation of one-off s is affecting the average quality of British beer.

‘I’m not proud of our weird barely drinkable (to me) stuff , but it sells and business is business,’ admits Pete Burger, brewer at Leeds Legitimate Industries, on Twitter. ‘One-off beers are overall a good thing for the craft beer industry,’ he tells me. ‘They allow breweries to experiment... without risking ruining a batch of a core beer that customers expect to taste a certain way. But just because a beer is a one-off doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to be full of diacetyl or trans-2-nonenal or taste like hop burn.’

The new, most experimental thing comes, at times, to the detriment of the average quality of beer and the whole scene

Sam McMeekin

Gipsy Hill co-founder Sam McMeekin agrees that, in today’s market, limited releases can often be a bit of a hit and miss: ‘I wish that all the [one-off s] out there were well-made and of good quality across the board, but they’re not. The new, most experimental thing comes, at times, to the detriment of the average quality of beer and the whole scene.’

Gipsy Hill has recently increased its two-beer core range by four. The move seems to go firmly against the trend, yet McMeekin assures me it’s rather the opposite. ‘You need both the core range and limited releases in order to be able to refine your processes and have the flexibility to experiment,’ he explains. ‘Our brewing process is incredibly refined because of our core range. If there was more focus on core out there, there would be more awareness of quality.’ Indeed, McMeekin has no interest in limiting the off er of limited editions, which account for about 50% of its annual revenue. ‘Plus it’s much easier to sell them,’ he stresses. ‘It’s the nature of where the industry is at the moment.’

From a wholesaler perspective, speed of sales for limited releases is ‘phenomenal’ too, as put by Justin Rivett of Jolly Good Beer: ‘For some brands and products you are talking about minutes to sell allocations rather than... days!’

It’s not all roses though. The other side of the coin is that drinkers’ thirst for novelties is having negative repercussions on loyalty at all stages of the supply chain. Such a high demand ‘creates issues with the logistics of beer releases’, Rivett points out, ‘as customers will buy from other wholesalers if they come to market with specific products before us... [This issue] feeds down to the retailer level: my customers tell me that their “regulars” will seek particular beers and buy online or from other retailers if they don’t have [them].’

Breweries feel the pressure, too: ‘We feel [we have] to respond to market demand and release… two one-off s a month, which we believe is the minimum we need to put out,’ says Unity’s Hatherley. One-off beers have always been a part of craft beer, allowing producers to experiment and give drinkers something new and exciting. Yet this doesn’t mean that investing in limited releases will necessarily pay back in the long term. In today’s overcrowded beer market, building a brand identity and developing good customer loyalty are key. ‘[This trend is] making drinkers fickle as they’re constantly looking for new beers rather than being loyal to a brewery and core range beers,’ says Hatherley. ‘It’s become a lot harder to get a following for one beer and push to make people comfortable with having the same beer often and being cool with that.’

All hail the flagship

One brewery’s solution to this issue is to skip limited releases altogether. Staffordshire-based Freedom brewery was established back in 1995, hence has managed to build a reliable customer base by focusing on a set of solid core beers long before today’s one-off fever. ‘A strong core range is vital for the success of a beer brand,’ affirms head brewer Jonathan Smith. He claims that a beer should be one ‘that the brewing team have perfected over the years with the right balance of flavours and the ability to be reproduced with great consistency and quality. Limited releases are a great way to experiment with exciting flavours, but they can also be a bit of a gimmick or PR stunt’.

Flagship February is merely to remind people of great beers that they might otherwise overlook in the rush to sample what’s new and exciting

Stephen Beaumont

Beer writer Stephen Beaumont is a passionate supporter of core beers, too. He reckons that the proliferation of limited releases means that younger drinkers are missing out on great classics and iconic beers: ‘I love a well-made, barrel-aged imperial coffee stout or funky saison variant as much as the next beer drinker, but I also really appreciate the pleasures that can be found in a few pints of best bitter enjoyed at the pub with friends.’

Last year, Beaumont created a dedicated campaign that he calls Flagship February: ‘Its purpose... is merely to remind people of great beers that they might otherwise overlook in the rush to sample what’s new and exciting, such as forgetting about Rodenbach Grand Cru because the local nano-brewery has a new kettle sour... I’m not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with that kettle sour, but if you don’t have a Rodenbach or Cantillon or Russian River to compare it to, how are you going to be able to properly evaluate how good it is?’

The campaign was born out of a pair of tweets Beaumont sent out in response to a widely circulated story about the decline in sales of iconic flagship craft beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and New Belgium Fat Tire. He says that the pick-up was ‘immediate and enthusiastic... with over 13 million unique placements of the hashtag on social media through the month of February [and] hundreds of Flagship February events taking place around the world’.

Fear not, core-range and flagship beers are not on the verge of extinction. Not only are permanent lineups key to the long-term financial viability of small businesses, they’re also a real insight into their creators’ craft. Yet the trend for limited releases will keep giving the industry and the general public food for thought. As long as more Untappd badges can be unlocked, single-hop pale ales will keep exciting hop fetishists, cereal milkshake IPAs will keep tabloid editors merry, and adjuncts shipped over from the other side of the globe will eventually have craft beer sitting just below ‘Mr President’ on Greta Thunberg’s evil list.

Great beers you just can't get your hands on

Chosen among the ferociously high amount of samples we go through every week, these are some of the best beers that are, or will soon be, out of stock for good

Made in collaboration with Magic Rock, Siren’s Translucid is fermented with Hornindal, a selected strain of an ancient Norwegian yeast cultures known as kveik. With a base of malted barley, wheat, oats and rye, the beer is fl avoured with Ekuanot, Simcoe and Mosaic hops. Expect variations on the theme in due course.
8.5% abv, POA/330ml, Siren Brew

Cask-aged beer specialist Innis & Gunn has recently released the second expression in its Vanishing Point series. This is an imperial stout matured in first-fill bourbon barrels for 12 months. Expect big, bold flavours of vanilla, caramel, coffee, toffee and dried fruit. Be responsible, sip it slowly (if you can find it, of course).
11% abv, POA/375ml, Innis & Gunn

In case you needed clearer evidence that the no and low beer category has reached full maturity, low-abv specialist Big Drop has recently launched the first of a series of collab brews. Made in partnership with Harbour Brewing, this saison-inspired concoction is flavoured with hibiscus flowers, pink peppercorns, coriander seeds, juniper and Sorachi Ace hops. It’s pleasantly balanced, with a delicate fl oral nose and just a hint of spice on the finish.
0.5% abv, POA/440ml, Big Drop

Yonder specialises in small batch brews often flavoured with locally foraged ingredients. Golden Casket is their interpretation of a Belgian tripel, spiced with a blend of botanicals that includes sumach and orange peel. It has the body and the estery character of a Belgian golden ale, complemented by a complex nose of spices, herbs and white stone fruit.
7.5% abv, POA/375ml, Yonder

Brewed by this writer himself back in October 2011, this take on a classic Belgian dubbel still tastes great today (so he claims, at least). There are only a few bottles left, which he uncorks once a year on Christmas Day. You’ll never know whether this is indeed the most long-lived beer of the decade or just total crap. You can always show up at his place dressed as Santa in about a year's time to try and find out.
8.5% abv, POA/750ml, nowhere

This feature was originally published on the 2019 Winter issue of Imbibe Magazine.

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