Brews on top

Regarded as outmoded in some quarters, top fermented beers are finding favour with consumers looking for authenticity and character in their drinks, as Tim Hampson reports

27 August, 2008
The family of beer has two broad branches - the cold, crisp, bottom fermented lagers and the warm-hearted, top fermented beers. In the latter case there is a traditional association with the beers of the United Kingdom, with its milds, bitters, pale ales, IPAs, brown ales and barley wines.

But the process, which produces wonderful rich, fruity tones, is widely used elsewhere in the world. Germans in Dortmund and Cologne enjoy Alts and Kolchs. In northern France epicures open a Bière de Garde. The Belgians sup strong, top fermented, bottle conditioned ales produced by the Trappist abbeys of Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, St Sixtus and Westmalle. And wheat beers such as the Belgian classic Hoegaarden are enjoyed around the world.

In America - where refrigeration and lagering dominates - a new breed of brewers is discovering fruitier, sweeter beers, and the Italians are experimenting with warm beers as few have done before.

So what is a top fermented beer? The question is simple, but the answer a little less so. Marlous Kuiper, global alcoholic drinks research manager at market researcher Euromonitor International, states: "Beer is normally classified in the industry by the nature in which it is made : top fermented, which includes ales, bitters, wheat beers, stouts, porters; and bottom fermented, which means all lagers.

"The significant difference between these two types is the way they ferment. Top fermented beers can ferment in just a few days between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit. These beers tend to be heavier-bodied and more alcoholic, darker in colour and cloudier than lagers."

Kuiper continues: "Lagers are bottom fermenters. They take much longer to ferment, anywhere from one to three months, and ferment at a much colder temperature than ales. Lager means 'to store' in German. Lagers will have a cleaner taste and appearance.

"Lagers also are less hoppy, maltier and have a lighter body than ales. Lagers were invented by Bavarian monks about 500 years ago when they found they could produce a clearer brew by storing it during the summer in wooden casks in cold subterranean caves."

In production terms the lager beers dominate the world of brewing. The world's biggest brands are all lagers - Carlsberg, Heineken and Budweiser. And even in the UK, where ale was once the swaggering top dog, lager predominates.

According to British Beer & Pub Association figures for 2007, lager now accounts for 70 per cent of the total beer market in the UK. A far cry from the swinging sixties when top fermented beers accounted for 99 of every 100 pints drunk and lager was seen as a drink for the ladies. Economies of scale have certainly contributed to lager's dominance as has a worldwide trend towards lighter coloured, cooler drinks.

Global profile

Most top fermented beers remain regional favourites. However, InBev's Hoegaarden is one top fermented beer that is known around the world, with Euromonitor quoting sales in 2006 of 121 million litres. However, it wasn't always so.

The birthplace of Belgian white beer lies in a Flanders village called Hoegaarden, one hour's drive from Brussels. Traces of brewing have been found here dating back to the year 1445, but the tradition died out in the early 1950s.

The modern story really begins in 1965 when Pierre Celis, a former milkman, decided to brew a beer in his hay loft which was like the beer of his youth. Celis used the traditional ingredients for a white beer of water, yeast, wheat, hops, coriander and dried Curaçao orange peel.

The beer gained a cult status, especially among younger drinkers and in the 1980s, with demand for the product continuing to grow, Celis bought a local soft drink factory and converted it into a brewery. A fire in 1985 saw brewing multinational Interbrew (now InBev) lend Celis money to keep the brewery going.

Over time the loan became full ownership and the relationship between the two parties became ill-tempered. Interbrew wanted a consistent, mass-market beer, while Celis tinkered with the recipe as he pursued brewing excellence.

On the sale of the brewery Celis moved to the States. Once there he set up the Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas, and continued making white beer to what he described as the original Hoegaarden recipe.

InBev had a success on its hands, and in the past few years the beer has been rolled out worldwide.

"The growth of our Belgian beer portfolio is outstanding," says Peter Kean, managing director for InBev's New Zealand distributor, Lion Nathan. "We are committed to the expansion of the premium segment in New Zealand and have no doubt that the exceptional performance of Hoegaarden will continue as New Zealand consumers' demand for speciality beers increases."

Tradition plays a big part in the story of top fermented beers, and InBev came in for criticism when it decided to close the Hoegaarden plant in 2005 and move production to Jupille. The announcement of the brewery's closure sparked protests locally and worldwide as beer lovers expressed their anger at the move, which would cause job losses and, critics argued, destroy the character of the beer.

Finally, in September last year the multinational brewer had a change of heart and as part of a E60 million investment in its Belgian breweries the Hoegaarden site is to remain open.

Achouffe - bless you!

The success of Hoegaarden sparked the production of other top fermented beers. In the south of Wallonia, in the heart of the Belgian Ardennes, you will find the peaceful village of Achouffe. It's a place that doesn't play a significant part in Belgian history, but occasionally it makes the local news because for the past 25 years the village has had a brewery whose beers are honoured around the world but little known at home.

In the late 1970s two brothers-in-law decided to create their own beer in their own brewery, and for the first five years in the life of the Achouffe Brewery, Monsieurs Gobron and Bauweraerts were able indulge their hobby.

However, in 1984 Pierre Gobron decided

that life as a production manager in an ice cream factory could be bettered and he decided to devote himself 100 per cent to the brewery, with Chris Bauweraerts following him four years later.

"We never had a desire to produce copies of existing beer," says Bauweraerts. "As a consequence our La Chouffe and Mc Chouffe, which are unpasteurised and unfiltered, are distinctive and unique.

"The use of unusual ingredients such as spices and candy sugar make for superb drinking experiences and incomparable beers."

In August 1982 the Achouffe Brewery's first brew was 49 litres, but this had increased to more than 25,000hl in 2006 when the company was bought by Duvel Moortgat, Belgian family brewers of the strong golden ale Duvel and the Maredsous line of abbey-style ales. At a stroke, the sales force increased from one to 60 across Europe and a production target of 70,000hl a year has been set.

The beers are produced in a highly sophisticated, state of the art brewing hall, with the beers then transported to a high-speed filling hall some kilometres away. The company has invested heavily in marketing and believes the use of the internet has been key to building up demand for its beers. The beers are sold in large, stylish 75cl and 1.5-litre Champagne-style bottles.

"We are Belgium's market leader in the use of magnum style-bottles," says Bauweraerts. "These have imprinted painting, rather than paper labels, which make them an ideal gift. Our success is not bad given how difficult it is to sell our beers in Belgium. We are an artisanal brewer of the 21st century."

Exports have proved to be the company's saviour for, like many other brewers in Belgium, it has had to sell abroad or die. And its success in the US has led to the production of Chouffe Houblon, which is only sold in 75cl bottles in America. Unlike the beers produced for the local market it is jammed full of aromatic hops - Tomahawk, Amarillo and Saaz.

"We will continue to develop the export market and are confident that there will be growing worldwide interest in speciality beers over the coming years," says Bauweraerts.

Unprecedented demand

For many though, Britain remains the traditional home of top fermented beers, in particular cask conditioned ales in which the yeast continues to live in the container from which the beer is served.

Members of the Society of Independent Brewers are experiencing unprecedented demand for top fermented beers. SIBA president Keith Bott says: "There is a buoyant and increasing demand for premium quality beers produced by local brewers, which is driving impressive volume growth, contrary to beer market fortunes."

SIBA's Industry Report 2006 found that its members experienced a 7.5 per cent average annual sales volume growth (2006 v ersus 2005) and that there was a 70 per cent average five years sales volume growth (2006 v ersus 2001).

"In order to further this impressive progress, local brewers are maintaining and projecting further high levels of investment in additional capacity, employment, capital equipment and marketing of local brands that represent the British beer industry," says Bott.

"The growth in demand for locally brewed beer is part of broader trends to increased interest in locally produced food and drink and environmental concerns over provenance and food miles," he continue s. "Despite the overall decline of the beer market, locally brewed beer is one of the significant healthy sectors along with premium bottled ales and more recent newcomers such as speciality beers."

According to SIBA, local brewers are responsible for many of the beer market's most recent innovations, including golden ales and the introduction of new ingredients to introduce a wider choice of aromas and flavours as well as responding to drinker demand for the revival of once-popular beer types such as porter and India pale ale.

"The range of these innovations and quality of local ale is regularly celebrated by success in renowned brewing competitions," says Bott. "The prestigious title of the Campaign for Real Ale's Champion Beer of Britain, for example, has been awarded to a local brewer in each of the past six years."

Most days in the village of Hook Norton in north Oxfordshire the comforting sound of the clip-clop of a horse-drawn dray echoes off the yellow-stoned Cotswolds cottages. Local brewer Hook Norton has been brewing top fermented beers for 150 years and managing director James Clarke says it is a true local brewery, with great pride in its past and the motto: Where Progress is Measured in Pints .

The company marries 19th-century tradition with 21st-century marketing skills. On the ground floor of the brewery is a fine, 25 horsepower steam engine, supplying through a series of belts, cogs and shafts most of the motive power the brewery needs to produce its beer.

However the look and feel of the beers is modern and stylish. And the use of contemporary hand pumps in many of its pubs gives the beers a modern look.

"We are an ale brewery, and will stay that way," says Clarke. "But we must look at using new ingredients, new forms of packaging and continue to invest in excellence.

"Sentiment and tradition alone will not sell top fermented beers. Excellence at every stage of production from the ingredients to dispense and marketing are essential for success."
----=== Dark beer sales ===Global market size (total volume, million litres) 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

Dark beer 5,877.9 5,974.4 5,846.5 5,943.7 6,156.2 6,247.9

Source: Euromonitor International, 2008

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