Bottle-conditioned beer sales: Beasts from the yeast
Bottle-conditioning gives beers bigger flavours and complex characters. A week of promotions aims to put them back on the map, reports Nigel Huddleston
Step back 20 years in time and there was one benchmark that the best bottle shops used to define their idea of a high-quality packaged beer: that it was bottle- conditioned.
A couple of decades on and it’s an aspect of the take-home beer market that seems seldom remarked upon – a nerdy, technical aspect that’s buried beneath the social media-driven noise around increasingly extreme IPAs, elaborate pack designs, the so-called canned ale revolution and ingredient-driven infringements from the world of snacks and confectionery, such as popcorn and milkshakes.
It may come as a surprise, then, for anyone who hasn’t been paying close attention to bottle- conditioned beer’s fortunes that it hasn’t gone away. In fact, there are more on the market than in living memory. Jeff Evans, International Beer Challenge chairman and the author of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, estimates there are more than 2,000 out there – and the figure is still rising.
Far from going away in the time that they’ve faded from the trade and consumer discourse around beer, numbers have soared, making them more popular than since their heyday in the 19th century.
The introduction of pasteurisation and filtration in the early 20th century, Evans notes, saw numbers gradually decline to the point that there were only five made in Britain when Camra was founded in 1971.
Subsequent interest in cask beer inspired by the pressure group brought an accompanying revival for bottle-conditioned beers. By the time of Evans’ 1998 guide he’d tracked down 177. The figure multiplied by four by the time of the next edition in 2006, and was 10 times as many when the most recent version came out in 2013.
And this year might see them given the kind of attention they deserve with plans afoot for the first Bottle-Conditioned Beer Week, probably in October, shortly after the on-trade’s Cask Beer Week. The idea is to champion a brewing and packaging technique that gives freshness, flavour, vitality and ageing potential to bottled beers, through a secondary fermentation from seeding yeast into the bottle – effectively a take-home equivalent of the real ale sold through handpump in a pub.
Marston’s is driving the plans for the promotional week, having converted its flagship Pedigree ale to bottle-conditioned format in 2016. “It took lots of trials to understand how much yeast to use,” says head brewer Pat McGinty. “We’ve been putting yeast in casks for more than 100 years, but understanding putting it in bottles was new to us.
“We did trials of different levels of yeast to see what flavours we got, with the aim to make it as closely recognisable as possible to a cask beer.”
Marston’s launched the idea for the week of promotions at an event in London supported by Fuller’s, Harviestoun, St Austell and Moor Beer, which has pioneered a twist on the format with its can-conditioned beer.
St Austell head brewer Roger Ryman says: “We package 25,000 barrels of bottle-conditioned beer a year. It accounts for two-thirds of our bottled output and about two thirds of that is Proper Job.”
Proper Job first appeared in bottle- conditioned form in 2006. “We did on-shelf tests and there was no debate,” says Ryman. “The beer absolutely spoke for itself.“
John Keeling, former head brewer and now global ambassador for Fuller’s, says bottle- conditioned beers deserve recognition. “They are not an add-on to cask beer, they are beers in their own right,” he says. “They’ll always be a lot older [when drunk] than any cask-conditioned beer. Most cask beers have to be drunk within six weeks, but most bottle-conditioned beers have not even left the brewery by then.”
While bottle-conditioned beer numbers have risen, their profile has fallen, becoming a little bit taken for granted and less of a “thing” for younger generations of beer drinkers.
Leading bottle shops have welcomed a week to put them back in the spotlight. “It’s definitely still a ‘thing’,” says Krishan Rajput, of Stirchley Wines & Spirits in Birmingham. “There is a certain perception that it’s only the older breweries that do it. I have customers who say they drink only traditional bottle-conditioned beer, but they don’t look at all the new breweries which are doing them, such as Siren and Kernel.
“It would be interesting as an opportunity to engage with people who don’t already drink those sorts of beers. I don’t think there are enough people who know what it’s all about.”
Leigh Norwood at Favourite Beers in Cheltenham adds: “I think it’s brilliant. Things have changed in the past five years with more unfined and unfiltered beers taking over, but in the old days the only way to get a good-tasting beer was to know that it was bottle-conditioned.
“Some other beers don’t have the depth of flavour of bottle-conditioned beer. There’s an education thing around leaving it to rest when you pour it out, but when you do you’ll get a beer that’s as good quality as cask beer in a pub.
“It’s definitely still got a big place. We’ve still got a whole level of customers who will only drink bottle-conditioned beer.”
Keeling at Fuller’s says that bottle- conditioning really comes into its own when beers are brewed to be matured over long periods, such as its 1845 ale and its annual Vintage Ale releases. “We originally gave 1845 a one-year shelf life but by the end of that year it tasted better than when we’d tasted it at the start of the year,” he says.
“For the first Vintage we put a three-year shelf life on, which was the maximum allowed at the time, but now it’s bottled with a 10-year one. The changes over that time are so complex and very difficult to predict. You have to learn to enjoy the ride and surf the wave when it happens.
“One of the great things about bottle- conditioned beer is that it gives you a surprise from time-to-time. When you’re tasting beers initially [after brewing] you’re tasting potential. And when you taste them again after a year you’re still tasting potential.”