A couple of things on twitter have resonated lately, both of them linked to Andy Parker otherwise known as @tabamatu.
The first was this:
“Isn’t it time we focused on British styles of beer again and reclaimed our crown? We have the best malts in the world and a great heritage.”
@NMBCoBri “My dream is to brew a killer Best Bitter, like Harvey’s.”
These two statements resonated with me, Harvey’s best bitter is the finest bitter I’ve ever tasted and it’s been far too long since I had one.
There are great examples of excellent beers from traditional breweries all over the UK, Hook Norton, Fullers and Shepherd Neame but what is it about these beers that makes them so interesting and amazing? I’d thought for a while that it was malt character and quality and especially malt complexity that help create such an interesting beer at a modest abv. This was certainly a tack I tried to take when I was brewing commercially but when you look at these beers and their recipes you’ll find them to be simple and very much the same, Maris otter, crystal, flaked maize (sometimes), fuggles and goldings hops. This really doesn’t leave much else apart from yeast and that in fact I think is the key, traditional British beers, even though they are fairly ubiquitous are exceptional because the main character building ingredient is the yeast.
Now while I agree completely with Andy I doubt much is going to change until US breweries start brewing 4% traditional bitters and British brewing and drinking trends come full circle, what those statements did do for me was direct my thinking about a comment John Keeling made about Yeast being the most important ingredient in brewing and the reliance on yeast and in particular some of the current thinking around what makes a yeast a good yeast.
I’ve never particularly tried to hide my distaste for the ubiquitous triumvirate of West Coast Yawn, SO5, WLP001 and 1056 and their latest recruit BRY97. Bland yeasts that leave beer empty and bereft of character they’re yeasts in the UK that any brewery trying to emulate US character must use creating a clone army of Stone wannabes.
The reason for the popularity of these yeasts is that they’re American, ergo they make American beer, not only that they make AMAZING American beer. Unfortunately this pernicious thinking has become the rule leaving other extremely good yeast strains unused. The problem with this approach is that it’s oversimplified, and inherently wrong, yes supposed clean yeasts will help hop character shine but this is not always the case and a lot of other yeast strains will do the same job and bring more to the beer.
Not every brewery in the US uses the same yeast and not every brewery in the UK that makes great American style beer uses them either. A great example from the UK is my experience at Thornbridge and Buxton, when I started at Thornbridge we used a yeast strain that came from Holt’s brewery in Manchester, not the sexiest brewery in the UK and certainly not a hop forward US style brewery but the yeast is fantastic and Thornbridge took the UK beer industry by storm with a range of expressive US style hop driven beers. I left Thornbridge and became the Head Brewer at Buxton, I quickly ditched the yeast Buxton were using and put in place the same strain brewing some excellent beers. This strain is also used by Brewdog for Punk IPA and Jackhammer and adds to the character in amazing ways.
Similarly some of the most famous US breweries utilize a house yeast strain that you wouldn’t expect, Stone has their own strain taken from a Canadian brewery, 3Floyds purportedly use Fullers yeast strain, Firestone walker use a British ale strain (apparently also Fullers), The Alchemist Heady Topper is brewed with an English ale strain called Conan.
The point I’m trying to make, albeit in a circuitous and dishevelled manner is to keep an open mind, yeast isn’t just there to do a job it’s a crucial part of flavour and aroma complexity, a lot of my experimental brewing involves split batch fermented beer to compare and contrast the impact that a yeast strain has on the finished beer and the results are astonishing.
I still haven’t discovered my ideal house strain, I loved the yeast I used at Thornbridge and Buxton but have no access to it now, I’m currently experimenting with Fullers, Anchor, Pacman (Rogue) and Harvey’s using these yeast to split batch ferment different styles of beer to assess their pros and cons. I’m hoping to also test brew with Conan and I’d LOVE to get hold of some of Oakham Brewery’s yeast if anyone knows a source?