I went to a trade roadshow this week and came away very impressed, but with a little niggling feeling I couldn’t quite put my finger on until several days later.

So first and foremost, huge thanks to Tom at BarthHaas as well as the guys at WHC Labs and Muntons for inviting me along with other brewers to hear what they’re working on in the hop, yeast and malt worlds respectively.

The general direction of the afternoon was about more efficient brewing, and that’s come on in leaps and bounds. If you’re not at the coal face as it were day to day, you could easily be forgiven for not being able to keep up with the progress that has been made. BarthHass presented their Incognito and Spectrum products, both made purely from hops themselves. Incognito is pretty much bittering oil and Spectrum is aroma oil. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but if you want to know the technical nitty gritty you can easily look them up. But they are both Advanced Hop Products, made from hops and designed to replace the use of hops.

Now, that’s a bit of a strange thing to do. Hops are (currently) the most important thing in beer, it’s what the vast majority of the marketing is focused on, so why replace them?

The reasons are actually very good when you look at commercial brewing. 

Hops, both pellet and whole leaf absorb 10 litres of wort for every kilogram of hops. A “standard” brew length in a microbrewery can be between 1,000 and 2,000 litres, and would use between 5kg and 10kg of hops. That means that you lose between 50 and 100 litres of wort to hop absorption. 

It’s all about space. In the same way that brewing moved away from using lots of low alpha hops to less high alpha hops, allowing each brew to have more wort in it, commercial brewers now have the ability to move away from pellets to oils and not lose any wort at all.

A hundred litres might seem a bit of a drop in the ocean at brew time, but this is a potential hundred litres of finished beer we’re looking at. And with a 30 litre keg of beer selling for around £120 now, that’s a £300 bonus to each brew. Especially when the costs of these oils works out around the same as buying in either leaf or pellets.

The other benefit to using these is consistency. Year to year hop harvests differ. Some years Mosaic may taste more like wild garlic than tropical fruits, and the brewery’s beers will suffer – along with their reputation. But oils like this remove that worry; providing the consistency that drinkers are starting to demand. And along with consistency there’s stability. Tests done by BarthHaas have shown that the flavours imparted from these oils have a much longer shelf life compared to using pellets or leaf, sometimes up to two years more. It’s very possible that the days of Drink Fresh are dead.

And here’s the niggling part. The thing I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. Is Craft now dead too? Or has it just grown up?

Part of what makes, or made a good craft brewer was the ability to find and brew with weird and wonderful ingredients that would create and enhance their beers. They could take the hops they were given and produce something sublime. Testing each ingredient and adjusting the recipe as they went to account for those variations. It was those variations that – for me – made the beer Craft. 

Removing the need for that knowledge and ability, and replacing it with measuring glasses and liquid products seems to be stepping away from what makes it Craft beer, and galloping towards what makes it mass-produced. Just on a smaller scale.

Several years ago now I had a tour group at my brewery and got chatting to an old gent who was with them. I learned that as a teenager he had a job as a bottler for Bass, and part of that entailed taste testing each barrel that came off the train to make sure it was good. He said that barrel to barrel you could pick up on variations, little imperfections or differences caused by the time in the wood or from which gyle it came from. But each and every barrel was obviously Bass. And for him, it was those variations that gave the beer its soul.
I think that’s possibly the best description of what is actually Craft beer that I’ve heard. It’s beer with soul, little imperfections and variation.

And that niggling feeling I can’t shake is that by removing those in our headlong rush for standardised consistency we’re losing that soul, we’re losing that Craft.

But then, back when I first started brewing the local homebrew shop had a range of about six hops of varying shades of brown. Now a homebrewer can select from a wide range or varying harvest years from across the globe. And we seem to have not lost craft, but created Craft. I don’t think these new Advanced Hop Products themselves are Evil and must be Thrown Into The Pit of Mass Production, but rather they’re another tool to help brewers create better beer: as long as they keep those little inconsistencies that gives it its soul. What was also great about this part of the afternoon was hearing that these products will also be available in small quantities for homebrewers, so we’re bound to see some messing about with them.

The second speaker of the afternoon was from WHC Labs who are quite frankly taking the brewing world by storm. I know this reads a bit like an advertorial, but I have been truly impressed by the yeasts these guys are producing. They’ve not gone down the route of replicating multiple different variations suited to specific historical geographics, but instead they’ve spent them time developing yeasts that they believe work great for particular beer styles. It’s all kinda generic, but solid and reliable.

And then there’s their new thermotolerant yeasts. 

Some samples of these made their way to the local homebrew group a few months ago and the results caused a lot of excitement. These yeast ferment at a much higher temperature than normal, but don’t produce the off flavours and dodgy esters that you’d associate with a high temperature fermentation. 

Now, there’s a few benefits to high temperature fermentation. The first is time, the higher the fermentation temperature the quicker the ferment. Meaning that the beer spends less time blocking a vessel, allowing a brewery to produce more beer per year. How much quicker are these yeasts? Initial tests have got fermentation down from 5 to 2 days. That’s a lot quicker.

The other benefit with higher temperature fermentation is less need for cooling. During at brewday, at the end of the boil, the wort needs to be chilled from boiling to around 20c before the yeast can be pitched. This takes either a lot of energy or a lot of water (which is often reclaimed and reused). By only needing to reduce the temperature to 30c or 35c that’s less energy and water used at that point of the process. But mostly the cooling happens during fermentation itself when the yeast produces a lot of heat. A standard yeast can raise the temperature of a 1,000l batch from 18c to 43c if left unchecked, and that’s then 1,000l of beer down the drain. Controlling the temperature of traditional yeasts is a process of keeping it 20c below where it wants to ramp up to. These thermotolerant yeasts ferment ideally at 31-35c and will ramp up to 45c so you’re only having to control that extra 10c. That involves using less energy.

If the double whammy of less energy and faster ferment times wasn’t enough, they also produce little to no diacetyl – the current bane of a lot of brewers and the main flaw in a lot of cask ales.

So the first two talks really focussed on what suppliers have been doing to help sustainability and efficiency. Less fuel for shipping, less storage space, less energy, less water consumption, longer shelf life, more consistency, less wastage. It’s quite impressive to say the least. And it did leave us all in an optimistic frame of mind as the talk on malt started.

That lasted about 5 seconds.

The vast majority of the talk was about how climate change is affecting crop production. Whether you believe in it or not, the weather is unsettled, the climate is changing and the farming industry is working flat out to adapt, and struggling to keep up.

A couple of weeks ago I went back down to Peterborough and on the train saw waterlogged fields. These should have been planted already. I talked to an old friend from the area while I was down there and he explained that they’re seriously considering installing solar panels in half of their fields purely because they’re unsure if they’ll be able to keep going growing crops. Half of their fields were still too wet to plant, and they only had another week or two before it would be too late to plant. Of the fields that they did manage to plant, he reckoned that they’d be lucky to get a third of their normal harvest from them, and that seeds rotting in the ground was a very big risk. 

It’s not just the potential shortages of crops in the UK, droughts in Germany, Canada and Australia have also really affected the amount of barley available. The price of fertiliser has also shot up through the roof recently as the nitrogen used in it is produced mainly in and around Ukraine.

In short, we’re gonna be short of barley for beer. And that’s going to make things more expensive.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, companies like Muntons are working with their farmers to reintroduce older farming methods such as crop rotation that both helps rebuild the soil and prevent flooding, and reduces the need for artificial fertiliser. But these are long-term solutions, they take time to implement and even when fully running produce less harvest than the current monoculture methods employed around the world.

The talk then turned to what brewers themselves can do to help mitigate the reduced availability and the increased costs of grain, how they can get the most from the malt that they get. Talks of stepped mashing, of reiterations, of basically a return to heritage brewing techniques that it turns out may be slower, but were less wasteful than modern brewing methods. So it seems that the future for brewers to become more sustainable with their malts isn’t with new products and techniques, but a return to the past. To regenerative agriculture and traditional mashing techniques.