A golden age for Shropshire's brewers
For Shropshire's burgeoning real ale industry, the future is not just bright – it is positively golden.
The past 12 months has seen a surge in the sales of light-coloured ales as drinkers turn away from the bland lagers of the international giants, and the plethora of small independent breweries in the county have been reaping the rewards.
Retail analyst Nielsen reports that sales of golden ale have soared by 26 per cent in the past year across all retailers, while sales of lager fell by three per cent over the same period.
Joule's Brewery opened in Market Drayton five years ago with the specific purpose of reviving the once world-famous Joule's Pale Ale which was originally brewed by monks at Stone Priory across the county border in Staffordshire.
Marketing co-ordinator for the brewery, Trudie(COR) Meredith, said that sales of light beers were around 30 per cent up on last year. And to capture a greater share of the growing market the company has recently introduced a new American pale ale, called Buffalo. Mrs Meredith says she is not surprised by the figures, saying she has noticed a growing trend that people are turning away from "mainstream lagers".
"I think there is an interest among the younger generation, I think they are becoming more sophisticated and interested in beer styles, I think the trend is moving away from the mainstream lagers," she says.
Mrs Meredith says that while the brewery usually advises people switching from lager to try the lighter Joule's Blonde first, many younger drinkers are fascinated by the history of the more traditional Joule's Pale Ale.
Buffalo, was introduced around four weeks ago, and unlike the more traditional pale ales, it is served chilled like lager.
"We have given it a slightly lower alcohol content than the traditional American pale ales, which are usually around 5.5 per cent," says Mrs Meredith.
"We're just below that at 5.2 per cent. The biggest difference is that it is much more hoppy, we use the big-flavoured American hops, but it is still the same gold colour."
She adds that many of the Joule's pubs serve Buffalo in American-style craft glasses with stems, which provides drinkers with a talking point.
Joule's Pale Ale, which has a strength of 4.1 per cent, is brewed with a blend of crystal malt providing a biscuity base and tipple malt to provide a sweet caramel flavour. A special blend of hop flower gives the fruity, well rounded bitterness and slightly spicy aroma.
When the present brewery was launched in 2010, new brewer Adam Goodall worked with Anthony Heeley, who was the last brewer to make the beer at the old brewery in Stone when it closed in 1974.
Joule's Blonde, which is served slightly colder and has a weaker alcohol content of three per cent, uses lager malts and the Czech hop variety Saaz — this is the most expensive hop in the world, which gives it a citric nose, and a light delicate fruity overtone.
For Tesco, the UK's biggest beer retailer, the trend is even more marked with year-on-year growth of 40 per cent, far larger than for any other type of beer.
The figures come as little surprise to the growing number of small breweries across Shropshire and Mid Wales, who have also reported rapid growth in the sales of light-coloured beers.
Stonehouse Brewery, founded by Australian-born Shane Parr eight years ago, says demand had been so great he was being forced to turn down business, as if he expanded his business he would lose the tax breaks which apply to microbreweries.
Industry experts say golden ale has become the stepping stone for younger drinkers as they switch from lager to ale.
While light beers are hardly a new phenomenon – traditional pale ales have been produced since medieval times, and Black Country-based Holden's began marketing its Golden ale in the 1960s – the term "golden ales" is generally used to refer to ales which emerged in the 1980s as the small brewers fought back against the rise of the heavily promoted lager brands which began to take hold of the British beer market in the early 1970s.
While it was impossible for the small brewers to produce lagers like the beer giants – they simply didn't have the huge refrigeration and pasteurisation equipment necessary to produce such a drink – a handful of them decided to produce lighter ales in an attempt to attract younger drinkers.
While there is no cast-iron definition of golden ales, a common characteristic is the use of light lager-like malts, which means they take their dominant flavouring from the hops rather than the sugars.
The ever-growing availability of exotic hops from around the world has also allowed brewers to create a whole range of new flavours, with the fruity notes of the Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand becoming particularly popular.
Roger Protz, editor of the Campaign for Real Ale's Good Beer Guide, describes the trend as a remarkable turnaround.
"The beauty of golden ales is they're made only with pale malt, so there are no roasted, darker malts to impede the hops," says Mr Protz.
"The result is a beer style that positively bursts with tangy, zesty and citrus hop flavours."
Tesco's ale buyer Chiara Nesbitt adds: "Over the last five years ale has made a resounding revival as a flavoursome beer that is appealing to a younger generation of beer drinkers.
"Golden ale with its light and refreshing taste is playing a major role in this revival as it is the beer lager drinkers first generally try if they want to switch to ale."
Beth Llewellyn, manager of The Salopian Bar on the banks of the River Severn at Shrewsbury, says the light ales are always the ones that sell quickest.
"I think they are what the customers like at the moment," she says.
"Tiny Rebel's Fubar is really popular, and Salopian Lemon Dream and Oracle always do very well."
Lucy Hurlstone, assistant manager of The Combermere Arms at Burleydam, near Whitchurch, also reports an increase in demand for golden and blonde beers.
She says that one of the reasons has been the increase in the variety and quality of golden ales over the past few years.
The Wood Brewery, in Wistanstow, near Craven Arms, currently produces four different light beers, including the recently launched Oak, which is marketed as an "IPA-lager crossover".
Founder Edward Wood says he has noticed a definite trend towards lighter beers over the past year or so, although he says that Shropshire Lad, a more traditional amber bitter, is still its biggest seller.
"We now produce around 100,000 litres of pale ale a year, compared to around 80,000 a year ago, so we have increased sales by around 25 per cent," says Mr Wood.
"More young people are into real ale now, and I think the lighter, blonde beers appeal to them."
Oak has just been launched to mark the brewery's 35th anniversary, and has a strength of 4.2 per cent. Mr Wood says it has a bold, hoppy character, achieved through the careful selection and blending of hops.
"Chief among them is Chinook, an American strain which produces a delicate, mouth-tingling combination of citrus, grapefruit and pine bitterness," he says.
Wood's Shropshire Lass, which has a strength of 4.2 per cent, was introduced in 2007, following requests from customers to produce a golden able to complement the darker Shropshire Lad. It uses a blend of pale and lager malts, as well as Mount Hood and Cascade hops which are imported from the state of Washington.
Another light beer from Wood's is Sheer Folly, which is 4.3 per cent in strength and characterised by an initial sweetness that changes to a subtle bitter finish.
"They have come on a lot," she says.
"Cheshire Cat, that's a blonde ale, is very popular, we have that on all the time."
This is excellent news for Shropshire's small breweries, which have wasted no time in capitalising on this growth area.
Mr Parr, who combines traditional British brewing techniques which specialist hops imported from his home country, believes golden beers have an in-built advantage when taking part in ale competitions, as the powerful, hoppy flavours made them more likely to stand out from the crowd.
But he says there is another reason why young people in particular are turning away from the mass-produced lagers.
"I think that many young people like to be a bit different from their parents, not to be rebellious, but just to be a bit different," he says.
For people in their late teens or early 20s, it was their parents who were the lager drinkers, and that is why they are turning to real ale."
Wrekin Brewing Co, which last year moved into larger new premises in Wellington, says Ironbridge Gold has been its biggest seller throughout the brewery's eight-year history.
It also produces Ironbridge Blonde and Wrekin Pale Ale, which while slightly different in colour, still retain the golden-ale characteristics of light malts and powerful hop flavouring.
Edward Wood, who founded Wood's Shropshire Beers in 1980, believes people today are far more discerning about food and drink.
"Back in the 50s and 60s, people just wanted their food to be as cheap as it could be, and in those days the beers were more bland as well," he says.
"These days people are far more discerning in terms of what they eat and drink, they want more taste."
Trudie Meredith, marketing co-ordinator at Joule's in Market Drayton, says that different ales provide younger customers with a good talking point on a night out.
"I think younger customers are growing increasingly appreciative of their local pubs," she says.
The golden revolution has not escaped the notice of the brewing giants either. Earlier this year Guinness, more famous for its dark stout, launched Guinness Gold in an attempt to join the bandwagon.
No doubt it will become a common sight in both the supermarkets and the pubs. But in a market where consumers are demanding ever more choice, variety and individualism, it is hard not to question whether the big brewers' stranglehold is drawing to a close.
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