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What is modern British beer? 

Join Matthew on a journey of discovery. Explore what makes Modern British Beer such an integral and important part of British culture. Matthew introduces the philosophy behind his new book Modern British Beer which centres on people, places, community and ingredients.  A detailed look at the beers that are shaping the British beer landscape – with over 80 breweries and a close encounter with the people behind their signature brews. 

Matthew Curtis

Matthew is an award-winning writer and photographer based in Manchester and is the co-founder of Pellicle Magazine as well as having written for several publications. He is the author of Modern British Beer due to be published August 2021 by CAMRA Books.

Matthew Curtis

Award-winning writer and photographer, co-founder of Pellicle Magazine and author of Modern British Beer 

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The simplest way of describing my new book Modern British Beer is as a summary of how I believe beer in the UK has changed, irrevocably, over the past two decades. But like a great many things—including beer itself—the real story is far more complicated than that.

For example, the book doesn’t just take a look at some of the most noteworthy beers from the past two decades. It also drills into the stories of some of the most influential beers of the 1990s, like Kelham Island Pale Rider and Black Sheep Ale, to name a couple of examples. The closer I looked at the cutting edge of today’s brewing culture, the more I realised I needed to explore what directly influenced both its flavour, and the attitude of its culture from home soil. It’s easy enough to point at how the craft brewing revolution in the United States, or the brewing heritage of Belgium and Germany has influenced the brewers of today. But this is a book about British beer, so for me it was vital to reflect on our own culture too.

“Somehow, against all the odds, some 30 of these family-owned breweries have survived..”

 

— Roger Protz

“We drink beer because it sparks joy, and I’ve attempted to channel that feeling onto each and every page.”

 

— Matthew Curtis

At this point I feel it’s important to say that Modern British Beer is not a history book. Nor is it a guide to beer, or a manifesto in which I dictate how I feel our beer culture should look, feel and taste. The best way to describe it is to perhaps consider it a blend of cultural analysis with my own philosophy on modern beer, laid out in an open, personal style that people who have read my work for a while will recognise. But hopefully those who haven’t find it interesting, accessible, and above all enjoyable.

And that’s the core of what Modern British Beer’s philosophy centres around. We drink beer because it sparks joy, and I’ve attempted to channel that feeling onto each and every page. It’s for this reason that the bulk of the story is told through the beers themselves, 86 in total, broken down by region. Whittling the list down to that number was potentially the most challenging task in putting together the entire book. But I wanted to keep the number small so that I could invest more time in each story. There are plenty of familiar beers you might recognise too, like Thornbridge Brewery’s iconic Jaipur, and the inimitable Fyne Ales Jarl. But there are also beers that you might not have seen talked about in such detail before, such as Torrside’s Monsters Barleywine, and Little Earth Project’s Organic Harvest Saison. All are as significant as one another within the narrative of the book.

Before I could really dig into these stories however, I realised that I needed to lay down some ground rules. I decided to use the term “modern” instead of “craft” because I feel numerous attempts have been made to talk about the latter without it ever being properly defined in a UK context. This has made it easy enough to pick apart arguments pertaining to the word “craft” (which, in all honesty I think is an incredibly useful word to describe modern brewing, but you’ll have to read the book to see why that is.)

I didn’t want the same thing to happen when it came to “modern”. So before the book begins in earnest, I make my best attempt to define it. I’ll repeat at this point that this is in no way a manifesto. Nor is it some my-way-or-the-highway spiel. I hope that as well as grounding the story, it starts a long lasting conversation about how we want to see modern beer in the UK continue to grow and evolve in a positive way.

“Somehow, against all the odds, some 30 of these family-owned breweries have survived..”

 

— Roger Protz

“As much as regionality is important, I also make the case that community is too; beer is as much about the people who make and drink it as where it’s from. “

 

— Matthew Curtis

So how should we define “Modern British Beer”? Well I don’t want to give too much away at this stage (I’d like you to buy the book after all!) But what I will say is that I looked at what makes beer feel both significant and contemporary to me personally, and then tried to expand on that feeling.

The beers I chose to include are themselves a reflection of this, and they are also intentionally sorted by region. This is because I feel that regionality is not only already hugely important in terms of modern beer, but it is becoming progressively more so as breweries attempt to find their niche in a crowded market made up of almost 2000 competitors.

As much as regionality is important, I also make the case that community is too; beer is as much about the people who make and drink it as where it’s from. Equally as important is how diverse the makeup of that community is. If beer is not welcoming to everyone, including Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups, and the LGTBQ+ community, for example, then it is neither diverse, nor is it modern.

There’s a strong focus on ingredients too, and the fact that beer is a product of agriculture as much as it is brewing itself. If we can better connect beer to that agriculture then it becomes more relevant, and more interesting to drinkers. We see this in a small way with modern hop varieties, but imagine if we can do that to beer ingredients as a whole? Not only will it help people forge a deeper connection to beer, but it will also connect them to its sustainability, for if beer is to have a long term future, it must work to preserve the environment from which it comes.

Above all though, Modern British Beer is a reminder that we drink beer because it is delicious, and it brings us great joy whether that’s from a can enjoyed at home or pints shared in the pub among friends. Rather than a summary of the past two decades, the book looks ahead to what beer culture in the UK could look like, if a more open and contemporary approach to both brewing and the enjoyment of beer is adopted by those who make and drink it. I can’t wait for you all to read it.

“Somehow, against all the odds, some 30 of these family-owned breweries have survived..”

 

— Roger Protz

Modern British Beer

by Matthew Curtis

Modern British Beer aims to highlight the cultural development of beer in the United Kingdom since the turn of the century, while also attempting to define what “modern” means in today’s beer culture. Told through the stories of approximately 80 different beers and the brewers who make them, focusing on how their influence has directly affected our choice at the bar. It aims to make a case that although British beer culture has changed drastically over the past few decades, it remains as culturally vital as ever, and that being Modern in the 21st century means a great deal more than simply making delicious beer.

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