The rise of bottle-conditioned beer

Pete Turner

Pete Turner

22 August 2019

Bottle-conditioned beers are where crazy craft joins hands with old-school tradition. Welcome, says Pete Turner, to beer’s Next Big Thing

The craft beer phenomenon of the last decade has been something to behold.

Breweries springing up all over the place, turning railway arch enterprises into billion-pound multi-nationals almost overnight.

Ten-second expert 
All you need to know about bottle-conditioned beer

  • It’s made by adding a small amount of yeast to the beer, creating a secondary fermentation in the bottle, like champagne
  • This means there’s sediment in the bottle,
    so always store it cap up, never on its side
  • Keep it in a cool place (around 12˚C), not in the fridge – if it’s stored too cold the beer simply won’t develop
  • Avoid jostling and shaking, this disturbs the sediment
  • Sediment can throw customers but it’s a way into discussing what makes the beer special
  • Look out for Bottle-Conditioned Beer Week, planned for this autumn

What was once the preserve of the urban, uber-trendy is now becoming mainstream, and as with all trends the fashionistas want to know what might be the Next Big Thing. Well, on a damp, drizzly night in a pub in Parsons Green I may just have glimpsed the future.

Because alongside the noisy craft beer revolution, a quiet evolution has also taken place. Slowly and subtly there has been a growth in the production and sales of bottle-conditioned beers – what the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) calls ‘real ale in a bottle’.

In the last 20 years the number of bottle-conditioned beers produced in Britain has grown from around 180 to over 2,000. But it’s not just the old-time brewers who make and sell this stuff: a growing number of craft brewers are seeing the advantages, too.

On my evening of epiphany in Parsons Green I spoke with brewers from Marston’s, Fuller’s, Harviestoun and Moor Beer, all of whom are convinced about the benefits of bottle conditioning.

Outlining the difference between bottle-conditioned and plain old bottled beer, Pat McGinty, head brewer at Marston’s explained, ‘When bottled, there’s a small amount of yeast added to the beer which performs a secondary fermentation and creates CO2.’

The secondary fermentation ensures the beer has fizz but it’s a gentler, less aggressive carbonation than in regular bottled or keg beer. Meanwhile, the yeast in the bottle adds more body to the beer and the flavours develop in time from yeast and hop toward fruit and nut. ‘It can be good after many years, developing wonderful fruity and sherry-like flavours,’ says McGinty.

Bottle conditioning adds, in a word, complexity.

Ageing gracefully

When bottled, there’s a small amount of yeast added to the
beer which performs a secondary fermentation and creates CO2

Pat McGinty

Tasting a range of beers that night, it became clear that it’s not just bottles that do this; cans are also perfect for conditioning. Justin Hawke of Moor Beer said he even thinks that beer develops better in cans, ‘because there is no light or air in a can in the same way that there is in a bottle’.

According to Hawke, some beer styles age better than others. ‘Hoppy beers should generally be drunk as quickly as possible as hop oils deteriorate quickly. Dark beers, on the other hand, tend to improve with age, becoming more complex and rounder,’ he said.

Nor is it all traditional best bitter in this category; there’s a wide range of beer styles available. Duvel makes a very classy bottle-conditioned strong Belgian ale, Kernel makes a remarkable table beer, while Harviestoun’s cask-strength Ola Dubh at 10.7% is full on, rich and chocolatey. 

Fabulous with food

This variety makes them perfect for matching with food, as Sririam Aylur, chef at high-end Indian restaurant Quilon, points out. ‘We wanted to show people that beer has its own styles, its own character,’ he said. ‘The only thing that our customers walk out with are the experience and the bill, so it’s up to us to make sure the experience is interesting and memorable. Beer pairings help us to do that.’

Quilon has a large range of bottle-conditioned beers, including six different expressions of Fuller’s Vintage Ale, a beer that’s designed to mature in the bottle for a number of years. It can be a great way for an outlet to offer real ale without the time and space needed for cask.

Bottle-conditioned beer connects the modernity and cool marketing of craft with the traditions, complexity and balance of real ale; it’s a place where we see the real ale nerds and craft beer geeks shake hands.

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