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UK hasn’t ‘scratched the surface’ with craft brewing potential: academic

By Ben Bouckley , 07-Dec-2012
Last updated on 10-Dec-2012 at 13:15 GMT

A UK brewing science academic tells BeverageDaily.com that a regional project to help microbrewers crack China could benefit similar firms nationwide, and that the country hasn't ‘scratched the surface’ in terms of craft brewing export potential.

The University of Nottingham is working with 20 microbrewers across the East Midlands on a ‘Routes to Market’ project to develop bottled, conditioned beers for sale in China and Southeast Asia.

China overtook the US as the world’s largest beer market in 2004, and although the university noted fierce competition amongst the main brewers, said there were niche markets for microbrewers.

Dr. Jerry Avis from the University of Nottingham, project manager for Routes to Market, told Ben Bouckley: “We in the UK haven’t scratched the surface in terms of our real export potential, particularly in relation to craft brewing, to the extent that the Americans, say, have.

“They’ve made massive inroads into Europe and China, and there’s everything to play for in the UK craft brewers,” Avis added.

“The big buyers are well established. SAB Miller already has 40 breweries in China. But the small guys have everything to play for, not just in China, but also in the States, Canada and Scandinavia.”

Ales from UK have image problem?

The latter was a popular destination for UK and Belgian beers, Avis said, but UK ales were not considered as highly as, say, Belgian ales.

He added: “So we need to up our game in terms of the profile of British beers generally. Any work we do here will benefit the national situation. My project is focused on the East Midlands, but once we’ve hit our targets here, we will certainly act as a resource for the rest of the UK.”

Nottingham academics are working with local microbrewers to increase their control of the final conditioning process (whereby beer matures in the bottle) to ensure greater consistency and quality.

They are testing alcohol by volume (ABV), CO2, microbial stability and shelf life, looking at the effects of different strains of wet and dry active yeasts on the beers, and examining all the production processes that brewers are using to identify and share best practice.

“As craft brewing industry expands, there are fewer opportunities, because while microbrewer numbers are rising 7% per year, the number of pubs is decreasing by around 12 a month,” Avis said.

“So the bottling and sale of beer to different beer to different markets is going to be quite crucial, I think, over the next five years.”

Catering for Asian tastes

Asked whether the Nottingham project principally addressed shelf life and stability, or whether products were also being tailored to Asian tastes, Avis said that UK craft brewers tended to paint with only one or two colors, mainly concentrated on the hops or malt.

“You find a lot of quite highly hopped golden ales – particularly in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, and brewers haven’t looked at the flavor contribution of the yeast so much,” he said.

But Avis said that university trials with one brewer had successfully used a champagne yeast, for instance, in secondary conditioning, which led to wholly different beer flavors.

“The next stage is to do more tuning to local markets, look at running focus groups here to decide what would suit the Chinese palette rather than the UK palette,” he added.

Alongside the UK work on developing bottle conditioned beers, the University of Nottingham’s Asia Business Center is analyzing markets for premium beers in China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

A follow-on project will provide microbrewers with guidelines on the export process and routes to market for bottled conditioned beers.

Routes to Market was part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), while the East Midlands-based Food and Drink iNet also provided ₤19,750 funding for the project.

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