Competition in the brewing sector has not been this strong in 70 years, according to the pressure group Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).CAMRA's latest research shows there are currently 1,009 breweries in the UK albeit many are small microbreweries.
The growth is largely attributed to more 1824 year olds trying local real ales, says CAMRA. Increased marketing on TV and the popularity of real ale festivals are also cited as reasons for growth, it says. This view is echoed by Deborah Parker, sensory manager at the brewing research organisation Campden BRI: "The media has exposed younger people to beer."
Beer's growing popularity with younger drinkers has also brought a demand for flavoured beers. Whether they are ginger, lemon, chocolate or chilli flavoured, people want to try new types of beer. Jon Howard, a spokesman for CAMRA, says: "People want more variety not just bitter and real ales. Seasonal beers are proving especially popular."
Responding to consumer demand, most brewers now market seasonal and flavoured spin-offs of their traditional products. For example, Cheshire brewer Frederick Robinsons has introduced multiple flavoured versions of its most popular product 'Old Tom'. These include the winter berry flavoured 'Tom & Berry', 'Ginger Tom' and 'Chocolate Tom'.
But, while there may be a renaissance in beer drinking, brewers are facing higher utility costs and increasing competition for raw materials, which are driving up their costs. This is making them look for ways of reducing their energy and water use, according to Campden BRI.
New technologies might provide some respite. But, would making fundamental changes to the traditional brewing process prove to be an acceptable solution?
Enzymes to replace malting?
Campden BRI research shows that brewers could save water and energy by replacing the malting process with one using enzymes. While malting dates back to the birth of civilisation, some researchers argue that it is inefficient.
"The malting process requires brewers to soak barley in water and then blow hot air on it to dry it out," says Gary Freeman, a process engineer at Campden BRI. "It does seem a pointless waste of water and energy."
However, enzyme manufacturers have come up with a solution to these problems. By adding enzymes to raw barley, brewers remove the need for malted barley, saving costs on water and energy use. "Enzyme manufacturers can bring new innovations to how beer is made," says Caroline Walker, director of brewing at Campden BRI. "By using enzymes in brewing, you can make beer without malted barley."
Increased competition could be another reason for brewers to investigate the use of enzymes. With thousands of different beers now on the market, brewers should try alternative techniques to differentiate their products from the competition, says David Bremner, director of marketing at Frederick Robinsons.
"It is a crowded market and you have to stand out," says Bremner. "There are over 6,000 beers on the market." Brewing using enzymes in place of malt could provide some brewers with a competitive edge, he adds.
One of the main obstacles to their adoption, however, is that brewers choose traditional techniques partly because that is what consumers expect.
So, would brewers accept change? Bremner believes they might. "We [Frederick Robinsons] are not at all against brewing in different ways to make our products unique. For example we have just made a beer using rice, instead of malt."
With enzymes offering cost reduction potential and a unique selling point, why would brewers not accept this approach? The answer probably comes down to taste and tradition.
Gordon Jackson, auditing manager at Campden BRI, says: "In theory you could produce beer using a starting enzyme in place of malt. It could save water and energy, but you have to keep an eye on the end product. Beer is sold as a traditional product brewed in a traditional way would there be a market for non-malted beer? Maybe. Is the whole UK market going to start brewing this way? Certainly not."
Jackson adds that the malting process also contributes sugar and a lot of the flavour components required for beer. Thus, while enzymes could enable beer to be produced, the taste would be different. This would require some clever marketing to win consumer acceptance, says Campden BRI.
Another technique that could help to reduce costs involves making changes to differentiate beers at the end of the brewing process, says Campden BRI. Used in other food production sectors such as yogurt production it is known as 'late-customisation'.
By adding liquid hop extracts at the end of a batch of beer, brewers could save money by not having to produce multiple batches. They could also add an extra 'hoppy' taste to a beer using enzymes that may have lost some of its taste through missing out the malting process, says Campden BRI.
Some brewers, such as Frederick Robinsons, use hop extracts to flavour their beers. Robinsons has also recently started using different raw materials to add flavour. Bremner says: "We are in the process of moving away from using hop extract flavourings in our brewing process. Using a cereal cooker means we can add actual cranberries to the beer, instead of flavouring. It's more expensive, but it's also more authentic."
Walker supports this type of approach: "Flavourings are a great way of altering a final batch of beer. But, brewers like tradition and would much rather add real ingredients."
While not yet used in the UK, continuous brewing is another technique that could offer significant cost savings, says Jackson. "With batch brewing you have to stop and turn off the machines and clean them between each batch," he says. "If people were to continuously brew, then cleaning costs would instantly be lower."
With brewers seeking to reduce their water use, now is the time for brewers to consider continuous brewing, says Peter Wright, a director at water technology provider Xylem. "It has been looked at in the past," he says. "But there is no reason why this shouldn't happen now. Brewers want to reduce water use and this is the most practical way of doing that".
However, there are also obstacles to the adoption of continuous brewing. Frederick Robinson, for example, rejects it since it claims it would reduce its flexibility of manufacture and detract from the "personality" of different beers.
For brewers preferring to stick with batch brewing, there are still opportunities to cut water use. Jackson encourages them to use new equipment that is easier to clean or adopt water saving strategies like reusing water for cleaning equipment and washing floors.
There is also equipment on the market that requires little or no water to clean, claims Wright. Xylem's latest product, Veraflex, is a transfer pump that can be used at any stage in the brewing process. It speeds up fermentation, requires no water to clean and promises to reduce downtime by 300%, claims Wright.
With consumers increasingly willing to try non-traditional beers and new technologies to help them reduce costs, it is an exciting time to be a brewer. Certainly, eliminating the malting process could be one promising option, since brewers currently buy 2Mt of barley a year from British farmers at a cost of £450M, according to the Maltsers' Association of Great Britain.
Any innovation that reduces cost will help to provide brewers with a more sustainable future, says Freeman. "There is an on-going drive to limit the use of water and energy in the brewing process," he says. "It is all about being as sustainable as possible and using good practice".
Plastics offer a cheaper solution to metal beer kegs
The latest figures from the Beer and Pub Association report that the UK loses £50M each year through thefts of metal kegs.
Gary Freeman, a process engineer at Campden BRI, says the answer to this "major issue" could be a switch to the use of plastic kegs. He estimates these cost about £40 each half the price of most metal kegs.
"Plastic kegs could save millions lost each year due to theft," says Freeman. "But the benefits don't stop there; they are cheaper to buy and export and easily recyclable."
Petainer, a specialist polyethylene terephthalate engineering company which is developing 'one-way' plastic kegs has joined forces with the Sovereign beverage company to develop the market in the UK.
David Davies, chief executive of Sovereign, says: "We have researched the one-way keg market for some time and have concluded that the Petainer keg is best placed to transform the bulk packaging of beverages. This paradigm shift is akin to the replacement of the wooden barrel by the steel keg."
Oliver Robinson, md at brewer Robinsons, says: "Regular kegs cost a lot especially when it takes six months for them to be returned so we were delighted when our export partner, Sovereign, approached us about a one-way keg solution."
Freeman says for the sector to fully embrace plastic kegs someone would need to develop a refillable one, something he does not see as being too far off. "A company, which I cannot name, is close to launching a plastic keg that could last six to 10 years. If they launch this it will be cheaper and last the same period of time as its metal counterpart."