Bitter sales have traditionally suffered in the summer. Ben McFarland investigates how brewers are pulling in new drinkers with lighter brews.
The pub trade could really do with a long, hot summer this year. Having endured the worst summer for half a century, a winter full of incessant rain and nationwide flooding coupled with the crippling outbreak of foot-and-mouth, the industry will be hoping, if not praying, that Mother Nature will at last show some mercy in the coming months.
A long-term forecast recently purchased by Bass Brewers from the British Weather Services suggests a thirst-inducing summer is on its way, having gone out on a limb and prophesied a hot June, July and August.
While a long stretch of scorching sunshine will no doubt boost numbers of pub-goers, the summer months are notoriously slow when it comes to consumption of cask ale.
The thing is, cask ale is a quintessentially British drink designed for the otherwise mild British weather and as such is not particularly compatible with more temperate climates.
Before the advent of sophisticated brewing techniques, when all brewing was "seasonal", breweries ceased production during the summer as the hot weather rendered the brews unstable and liable to attacks from wild yeasts.
Although the invention of cellar cooling systems and the emergence of quality schemes such as Cask Marque have improved the situation, the summer still manages to expose slapdash cellar management. Technology has so far been unable to come up with a way of serving traditional bitter at a low temperature that both holds the flavour and prevents chill glaze.
Iain Loe of CAMRA said: "The summer has never been a good time for regional brewers because people are looking for a cool, refreshing drink that's light in colour rather than a more robust bitter."
Cask ale's incompatibility with the summer has been cited as a contributing factor to the contrasting fortunes of cask ale and lager in recent times as drinkers who switched to the lighter and cooler qualities of the fizzy stuff during the summer often failed to return to the fold come autumn.
However, regional brewers - who simply couldn't afford to play second fiddle every time the sun came out to play - began a fight back in the late 1980s.
Only a year after he set up the Hop Back brewery in Wiltshire in 1987, brewing director John Gilbert entered Summer Lightning, a strong, light coloured and hoppy brew, into a CAMRA beer festival.
"We wanted to move away from making dark, heavy beers and so we came up with Summer Lightning," said John. "It was an accident really, we weren't expecting to do more with it but people really went for it and since 1989 we've been doing it all year round. It's a very good product and it appeals to younger drinkers as it is lager coloured."
Hop Back now sells more than 11,000 barrels of Summer Lightning every year, which constitutes half of the brewery's output, and consequently the summer is the brewery's busiest time of year. "We've even brought out a Winter Lightning," added John.
Although, on the most part, summer ales form part of a seasonal selection designed to merely supplement a standard range of cask ales and rarely see the light of day outside their own tied estate, they can provide a rare opportunity for smaller brewers to steal a march on their bigger rivals. "These beers are never going to be their biggest sellers, but for those few months when there is a lot of sun they can really help," added Iain.
From a marketing perspective, summer beers can provide a unique selling point. They offer brand managers and brewers the chance to join forces and experiment with new recipes and promotional initiatives as they look to recruit new drinkers who would otherwise be put off by the robust nature of the more traditional core range - not to mention the dark and mysterious winter warmer brews!
Joe Laventure, director and sales of marketing at Brakespear - who has released two summer ales, Henry-On-Thames and Downpour, as part of its popular Seasonal Selection - said: "Seasonal ales allow brewers such as ourselves to experiment with a variety of different recipes and different flavours. It gives us a point of difference and allows us to be more flexible and innovative.
"Summer ales are particularly popular as they are more female friendly than other seasonal offerings. Henry-On-Thames is brewed using lager hops and looks like lager and although increasing numbers of women are drinking cask ale overall, it does seem to attract more women and lager drinkers. Colour has a lot to do with it, if it looks light and refreshing then you're half way there."
In a major departure from its traditional offering, the Lincolnshire-based brewer Batemans has recently released a cask conditioned lager, Godiva's Gold, which will be around until the end of June and is also planning to launch a wheat beer, Marie Celeste, following the success of Belgian imports Hoegaarden and Leffe.
"Like everyone we're looking to widen our appeal and we're always trying to come up with something different and exciting. We thought using a wheat beer would be a good way to get people on board this summer as it's perfect if, and when, the weather improves. We've done it before and it's been very popular."
With drinkers becoming increasingly experimental and adventurous, summer ales offer an ideal platform for brewers to turn the heads of devoted lager drinkers and maintain their presence at a time when their core range is traditionally neglected.
All that's missing is the sun and frankly it cannot possibly be as sorely missed as last year, or can it?
10 beers CAMRA suggests you try this summer
- Fuller's Summer Ale (pictured at top of page): 3.9 per cent - a refreshing, golden, hoppy bitter with balancing malt flavour.
- Hop Back Summer Lightning: 5 per cent - a pleasurable pale bitter with a good, fresh, hoppy aroma and a malty, hoppy flavour.
- Adnams Regatta: 4.3 per cent - pleasantly malty with a long finish.
- Harviestoun Schiehallion: 4.8 per cent - a hoppy aroma, with fruit and malt, leads to a malty, bitter taste with floral hoppiness and a bitter finish.
- Swale's Indian Summer: 4.2 per cent - won champion beer of Kent in 1997.
- Arran Blonde: 5 per cent - a recent award-winning wheat beer.
- Six Bells' Cloud Nine: 4.2 per cent - pale, well hopped with a citrus finish.
- St Austell's Clouded Yellow: 5 per cent - bottle-conditioned beer ideal for the summer.
- Badger Champion Ale: 4.6 per cent - the balance of elderflower and hops results in an award-winning ale reminiscent of English summer evenings.
- Wadworth Summersault (pictured above): 4 per cent - a pale, fragrantly hoppy, refreshing beer made with Saaz lager hops.