Young, Dumb and Full of Trub

Did we miss Craft’s chance to mature?

Photo credit: Theresa Undine

‘Grown-up’ is a descriptor strangely absent in a market of controlled substances for adult consumption. We read a lot about the craft sector’s vibrancy, enthusiasm, belligerence and sense of humour nowadays, but, by comparison, rarely about its maturity. However, as the old adage goes: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In fact, I feel like we did used to talk about it, then stopped.

Only recently, there was frequent talk of how quickly the craft sector of the UK’s brewing industry was ‘catching up’ with its equivalent in the United States. That distance, once measured in years, quickly became the length of a long-haul flight. It seemed to me, that what we were talking about at the time was the ‘maturity’ of the scene. Now, I feel that parity of esteem between UK and US craft might be true of certain innovations, brewing knowledge and technical capability, but ‘maturity’ is something else entirely.

In more human terms, if you just assume that you’re going to grow up at some point in your life, you probably won’t. Seizing maturity can happen in childhood or even later adulthood. There’s no fixed date. “The UK beer scene is starting to mature,” we might have thought (or heard, or read, or said), “because someone hasn’t released an alcoholic milkshake chocolate soda pop (today)”, or, more rarely, “because someone has done something very decent, and clever, within their grasp (today)”.

Of course, it’s difficult for us to define craft beer’s maturity in the same way it’s difficult to clarify the maturity of an entire city or nation of people of differing ages. However, based on the number of breweries that have started in the US and Europe in the past five years alone, we can say with some degree of confidence that the majority of breweries making craft beer are infants, or at best adolescent.

All of this was what was going through my mind when I read the tap list at Threes Brewing in Brooklyn, New York. It was long, but by no means unusually so. It featured beers in different serving sizes, styles and strengths – again, not that strange. What did stand out was that most of those styles weren’t IPAs. Those that were IPAs ran from West Coast to East Coast fairly evenly, while the lager and saison selection (typically, as those that know the brewery will agree) ran into double digits. Whilst nearly everything was American, this tap list, like the United Nations over the water on Manhattan, seemed to represent the world as its author wished it to be seen. It felt tangibly mature.

Back in London (or almost anywhere with an infestation of aluminium cans and pastel-coloured artwork), there is often very little fanfare given to anything but hazy IPAs in their technicolour tallboys. I believe that this has a lot to do with how we discuss and debate about beer, or rather, how we used to, versus how we do now.

Discussions and debates in blog comment threads and on Twitter have waned. Craft beer consumers scroll and double-tap now, and have changed both the social media landscape and production schedules as a result. There’s no time to type, or respond, or think. When it does happen, it’s often as privately as possible, and typically with the safe, reaffirming vacuum of a private group chat or forum. The craft beer consumer feeds on their own opinions in reflection, and debates, when they do happen, are feverish in their heat and lifespan, destroying themselves in the process.

This is all normal now, and it happened quickly. Very, very quickly. Hazy IPAs are not the only symptom of this current malaise, but their rise to prominence in UK Craft makes for a useful case study.

I have a sticker on one of my notepads, from my time at Brew By Numbers. It was made for the release of 21|03, the first East-Coast-inspired pale ale from BBNo. I designed and printed rolls of these stickers, to be affixed to every case and keg of the beer. On the sticker, and in an accompanying blog post (no longer available), we had explained (reassuringly but without apology) that this juicy pale ale’s turbid appearance was natural and nothing to be afraid of. The appearance and the flavour were co-dependent. This was in the early stages of UK ‘joose’. This was September 2016, and haze as a word was transforming from the meaning of light, misty appearance, to mean near-total opacity.

Earlier that year, Cloudwater’s DIPA v3 (very much pre-NEIPA, still in its lightly-hazy, day-glow marmalade-orange, in the style of Human Cannonball etc) had firmly established the timetable and carrier’s charter of The Hype Train for the enthusiastic UK consumer. All of these things (and so much more) had happened across the Atlantic first, but the frequency of our cultural exchange of beer recipes had mutated into an exchange of beer culture, and the infection here had taken hold.

The urgency of releases (and their desirable appearance) had been democratically agreed upon by social media analytics and everyone’s wallets. As the releases piled up, the flavours and dry-hop charges intensified, attention spans shortened and a self-inflicted period of adolescence lengthened. The IBU Wars were over, and the insurgency against bitterness had begun. Technical capability and innovation research shifted to be focused almost entirely on how to increase flavour intensity in residually sweet beer (whether IPA, stout or kettle sour), and, in tandem, on how to mitigate the myriad technical problems resulting from trying to brew said sweet beers this way. Whatever we have gained, it feels like we’ve lost some things along the way.

Let’s go back a little, just before all of this took hold. Between 2014 and 2016, brewers in the UK were beginning to dabble in hazy IPAs. Some were more Vermont in influence (remember when that word Vermont was everywhere?), taking their cues from beers like Sip of Sunshine and Heady Topper, then New England ™ as a descriptor took hold, inspired by brewers like Treehouse, Tired Hands and Trillium. Some early trailblazers were blatantly plagiarised – albeit sincere and accurate – homages to these beers, others spliced a little of this exotic new DNA into their appearance and flavour.

This felt like a Golden Age to me, especially now, because the variety of beers available seemed to have no limit, and the variety within each style category was exciting in itself. IPA was opening up once again. Now we find ourselves chewing through trends (e.g. Brut IPA) at high speed, yet NEIPA (and pastrystouts and gloopjuice etc) don’t seem to be going anywhere, and are quickly being absorbed by the biggest brewers into their ersatz craft ranges, or at least the notion of them. These strange new creatures are undoubtedly styles of their own, but like Heisenberg (not that one, the physicist), the harder we try to observe them, the harder it is to measure them.

I’d like to think it is possible to return to that state of variety, quality and innovation (and I’m fully aware that there are breweries, bars and shops that encourage this view). The problem is that there is little incentive for many of those who can make that change more concrete.

Technical debate can obviously be boring, and beer styles and their definitions are, at best, unwieldy. At worst, they seem boorish and reductive. Still, I’ve found myself arguing the value of beer styles a number of times, not because I love them, but because without them, our understanding and interpretation of beers would be so much worse.

For example: a common criticism of BJCP styles is that any definition of any beer style can split a room, create a debate and detract from the sense of carefree fun inherent in beer. Personally, I think the best thing about styles is that that any definition of any beer style can split a room, create a debate and detract from the sense of carefree fun inherent in beer. We should relish debate and profit from it with understanding, tolerance and wisdom.

If these styles and their parameters are important, should they get in the way of beer evolving into new and exciting things? I respect the idea of Beer Everything®️ and pushing beer’s boundaries at a fundamental level. It’s a necessary component of the culture: challenge everything; be artistic in your exploration; be unpopular in your thinking; displease and reject the rule makers.

Even if the motivation wasn’t noble, and if it was purely attention-seeking and selfish, that approach would still have immense value in an industry abundant with the self-righteously certainty. Even if the intention is to sow discord and make a buck, disrupting the idea of normality in beer is inherently useful to anyone who has ever done something ‘a little bit different’ with a beer, as it broadens the spectrum of flavours.

If a beer already has quality, balance and value, all these additional pastry/fruit/fried chicken garnishes, in an attempt to satisfy consumers, ultimately dissatisfy them. If it’s what they really wanted, they’ll tolerate even further bizarre additions or twists. If it wasn’t bizarre or twisty enough, they’ll demand it should have had even further bizarre additions or twists. (Oh, and let’s not forget that there are a whole bunch of people who might be grossed out by the beer and never try anything like it ever again, tell their friends craft beer is stupid garbage, etc.)

Trends, however, show a problem. As those in the tastemaking vanguard of ‘what’s next’ in beer shuffle their playlists of familiar tunes even further away from drinkability in pursuit of Maximum Flavour (in many cases from flavourings), they get closer and closer to becoming alien and unknowable to everyone else. Those very styles and descriptions (and the arguments around them) that might turn people off initially are what they will cling to as they become more informed and experienced. That knowledge and debate helps inform our next set of explorations and excursion into the beer culture. Without them, you can become stuck in a rut. A very residually sweet rut.

The problem is that now our social media platforms of choice can seem equally unwieldy and reductive, and hardly suited as tools to open up discussion. Great examples of these newer styles (and there have been many, make no mistake) from the likes of Northern Monk, DEYA, Verdant, Cloudwater come and go at the same speed as the less competent examples, lost in the ever-shorter news cycle of new releases. I find myself in a job, once again, where the accomplished beers I have to celebrate need significantly greater noise to be noticed at all.

Does all this noise really have an effect? To some it seems like pure fluff, but the influence is undoubtable. Many of us have significant and unexpected power over the direction the industry takes, at multiple levels. Trendsetters, consumers, influencers, brewers and retailers each have a different measure of power. Consequences happen, regardless of intentions or irreverence towards their impact. In the words of George RR Martin’s spymaster Varys: power resides where men think it resides. As soon as we say, and believe, that consumers are driving what beers brewers have to make, it becomes true. For that bleeding edge of the market, it already has.

Brewers and beer professionals might try some of these highly-sought-after beers, even their own releases, and know that there are serious flaws and mistakes in them. But it doesn’t matter. The beers sell out on pre-order, retailers fill their tills, everyone demands more. This is much more than ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes’. This is millions of stark bollock naked Emperors thanking their tailors for such an excellent job with the diacetyl and hop burn.

To be absolutely clear: I don’t think that people who enjoy NEIPAs, pastrystouts, kettle sours (and combinations thereof) are stupid. Propagating this view is even more problematic than the FOMO culture around these beers. I enjoy these kinds of beers too, in moderation. Hell, I approach them with the same fascination as any style of beer that is difficult to make well. However, I do think everything from the language we use to the way these beers are produced, marketed and served has an individual effect, contributing to a systemic problem. That absence of the imperative, or at least wish to learn more, and try beers that might not be that great, or cool, in order to become more experienced, has been almost forced onto people by a monster of our collective making.

If you care for more than just intensity in beer, you should absolutely speak up about it, but not just by patronising or insulting those who enjoy beers you think are silly. This whole industry can feel incredibly silly at the best of times. If you think people should know more about what is or isn’t appropriate from a technical perspective; or that particular styles/breweries/pubs don’t get the attention they deserve; or how nobody remembers that one great beer from three weeks ago because it was replaced by fifty imitations – wonderful! Why not write a rambling blog post about it? (It made me feel a bit better anyway). Seriously though, any platform for opinion and discussion should be embraced. Disagree with someone else about any of this type of stuff? Be polite and ask about their reasoning. Have questions (or even strong concerns) about a particular beer – ask the brewery! Many of us in the industry welcome inquisitive questions and a thirst for knowledge with delight. It’s the sign of a healthy, open culture.

The situation we have now, however, is not one that inspires a lot of faith in the future; and that’s what the potential maturity of the craft sector must be measured in: faith. We need to decide where that faith will be placed: in each other’s collective experience and knowledge, or just the excuses we tell ourselves to justify our own feelings. Maturation must continue beyond the brewhouse, and it’s a collaboration in which we can all be involved.

Mainspring, Part 4 – A Few More Nails

(Recap: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

“For some reason we saw ourselves as acting in a parental way. Trying to steer a child away from bad choices.”

I met ‘R’ in a restaurant half an hour’s drive from JFK airport. My layover was only a few hours before a connecting flight, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. ‘R’ is a former board member of the Brewers Association. He claims to be responsible for leaking the emails.

“I suppose we were poor parents.”

But why did the BA want this in the first place? Surely any kind of influence in the natural progression of another country’s beer culture was in contradiction of some kind of Star Trek-esque Prime Directive not to interfere.

“The entire board was worried that, without an effective body to protect the UK craft beer movement’s interests, and without a proper definition, it needed drastic measures to prevent Big Beer steering the whole thing into ruin. ‘Mainspring’ was actually called ‘Core’ – a plan to help ‘uplift’ a number of smaller breweries to becoming more influential, independently powerful and less prone to buyouts. The idea was to accelerate the UK scene.

“Cavendish was approached as a consultant, to help us figure out strategy, but he was deemed too dangerous to bring on board. We lost interest in the project and put it on the back burner. Little did we know, he took our ideas and ran with them on his own.”

Just a few months after the leak from within Brewers Association, a number of board members step down. Across the Atlantic, the outrage kept burning.

Mainspring itself was, to the surprise of many, still commercially afloat. Whilst its draught sales had spiked and than plummeted, the sales of Mainspring’s beers in cans and bottles seemed to stay steady. UK craft was a very different place, now that it had found both a bottomless source of bitter betrayal and a nascent protest movement of sorts to tap into it. Still, this was a scene ruled by social media, blogs and crucially: clicks. The bizarre side effect of this strange brew was that Mainspring’s beers were still being bought by the thousands, purely to be drainpoured, smashed, catapulted into the sea and blown up as part of a feeding frenzy, that seemed to generate neverending thousands of likes, shares, clicks, posts and retweets. The scene’s actors were still getting attention, but actual creativity and self-expression was starting to fade.

And one can only wonder just how many cans and bottles out of each six pack purchased were actually destroyed.

In response to these healthy sales, Mainspring didn’t close down, or even reduce output, it simply re-aligned its business model to focus on small pack. It continued to release beers, many of them quite exceptional, but now enjoyed, in their own way, by an increasingly lucrative ‘outrage market’. Only now have the brewery’s sales begin to dip. Several directors, brewers and other personnel have already abandoned ship. Perhaps soon, we’ll finally be rid of them.

Craft beer culture truly began to eat itself. Beer geeks, jaded beyond all sense, slowly turned away from UK craft beer entirely, seeing it as cynical, compromised and tainted by the likes of Mainspring. Those breweries with private equity stakes in them began to be viewed the same – ethically dubious at best; morally bankrupt at worst. Drinkers now demanded integrity, and argued bitterly about it in ways that made previous online beer arguments look like playground spats. The thing was, we had never created a charter, or a code, or set of criteria that measured integrity. Size and independence meant nothing anymore. So, the drinkers began to look to the beer of other countries, even the US, providing the brewery in question wasn’t a member of the now hated BA.

As 2019 wore on, trade in specialist craft beer bars and retailers slowed, sputtered and died. Smaller breweries felt the brunt first, with over a dozen in administration by the summer, and then some big names began to fall.

But there were unusual twists of the knife, too. Bermondsey’s The Kernel, Partizan and Brew By Numbers relocated to production sites in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, citing falling consumption within the UK, and a wish to focus instead on their lucrative European markets.

BrewDog, Fourpure and Beavertown announce strikingly similar arrangements, described as ‘unique partnership deals’ with Stone, Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head respectively. Ostensibly maintaining their proprietary independence, each UK brewer dedicates a portion of its production to the brewing of its American partner’s beers, effectively making them satellite production sites without losing any of their precious ‘independence’. After just a year, those portions of production have now become on average 75% in favour of their American partners. The details of those arrangements remain shrouded in secrecy.

The sea change in the beer industry opens up UK craft beer to a series of previously inconceivable purchases. Total independence becomes a relic of the past, the preserve of nanobreweries and fantasies. Closures follow, by the hundred. Quickly, the average UK beer enthusiast’s ‘Following’ list on Twitter fills with deactivated, closed or unused accounts. The once endlessly crashing waves of craft beer social media slow to a quiet, flat, infrequent drip.

The change within the UK craft sector caused curious ripples and effects elsewhere, too. In 2019, Marston’s quickly shed its ersatz ‘craft’ brands from its various portfolios, selling them to major UK supermarkets. The money from the sale helps them acquire the Harvey’s, Timothy Taylor’s, Adnam’s and Brain’s brands. The pub estates of these breweries are sold off to the ever-avaricious Punch Taverns and Enterprise groups, growing their stranglehold over the pub sector. Now faced with such a behemoth in competition, industry whispers indicate a desire within Greene King and Shepherd Neame to merge, to survive.

Without any protected designation of what integrity in craft beer was, the term ‘craft’ quickly depreciates in the value, to the point that those few producers worth their salt stop using the term entirely, surrendering it to the Special Offers signs of supermarkets and the marketing men of far larger, colder concerns.

‘Craft beer’ in the UK quickly became something sold by large chains of pubs, major supermarkets, and almost no one else. Independent retailers and bars lacked the buying power and clout to survive. A handful of brewpubs and eclectic farmhouse breweries became the final outposts of independently sold and produced beer, and even those are likely not long for this world without significant investment.

We look at July 19th 2017, the announcement of Mainspring, as the harbinger of what came next. But there can be no doubt that everything that happened had links to events in 2016, 2012, 2007, perhaps even as far back as 2000 or beyond.

We’ll never know now if there was anything we could do, or if we were already on a path from which there was no turning back. Yet one cannot help but wonder, if, at the very least, we could have tried.

Mainspring, Part 3 – The Weapons Turn

(Recap: Part 1, Part 2)

The launch of Mainspring had made it clear that the British craft beer drinker was ready to be exploited. The brewery’s directors, brought together by the plans of Caistor Insight’s Wesley Cavendish, were steering Mainspring to worldwide fame and acclaim. Their launch, and subsequent international summer beer festival campaign concluded, social media was awash with praise for their beers, people and attitude. Everything from their Zentrum series Pilsner (Tettnang), Heart series Porter (London 1850) to their Nucleus series Pajottenland Sour (Gooseberry) were received with nothing less than total admiration and delight. The beers were unquestionably world-class.

Visitors to Mainspring’s brewery and taproom in Stevenage were bowled over the size, scope, polish and skill on display in every aspect of the operation. The location began to quickly make sense: easily accessible to those in London by train, but equally easy for those in the North of England to reach by rail, shrugging off any sense of the brewery being specifically ‘London’, or even Southern. It was embraced by England. and the UK, as a whole. Operating costs were lower too, helping to afford a spacious enterprise, and a taproom with the capacity to seat hundreds, who visited every weekend and experienced none of the carnage of similar ‘beer destinations’. Everything, and everyone, seemed under control.

By the beginning of 2018, the directors of Mainspring would have been forgiven for believing they had created the perfect brewery.

Indeed, after barely a year in operation, Mainspring found itself named 5th best brewery in the world in the 2018 RateBeer awards, beating Cloudwater out of the top 5 and other UK breweries down the rankings. Bottles and cans were traded internationally on an almost daily basis and hyped to the point of social media saturation by thousands of fans.

Then the madness began.

Mainspring’s ownership had always been stated as a mix of private equity and independent capital. As early as late 2017, consumers had become used to the phrase ‘private equity’ being banded about, and almost indifferent to the idea of venture capitalists carving out ever greater slices of the booming craft sector. Consumers even seemed a little bored by the constant arguments about it. Even some of the macro brewers had managed to successfully make the case that, whilst independence could be important, surely the beer was far more important?

The quality, output and sheer volume of well-received and highly-acclaimed beers released into the marketplace by Mainspring had squashed a lot of the life out of the debate. Private equity? So what? Now, more than ever, British beer was in true ascendance, and the rising tide was raising all the boats. Until August 1st 2018, the day when (what was to be the final) London Beer City was launched.

Mainspring had filled the yearly celebration’s calendar with events, and had hinted they would soon be announcing a London-based bar of their own. The beer world was at fever pitch with excitement for what the summer would yet bring. Until the news broke.

An American beer blogger had contacted Good Beer Hunting with an audio file, and its transcript, of Wesley Cavendish at a ‘big data’ business conference, admitting privately to a few friends that, of all the work his company had done, he was most proud of ‘the whole Mainspring thing’. The blogger gave the contact details of a former Caistor Insights employee who had corroborated the audio file. After GBH made their own enquiries, obtaining statements from several other Caistor Insights employees who no longer feared reprisals, they ran the story on their Sightlines column. Whilst the full understanding of how Caistor did what they did only became known many months later (see Part 2), GBH’s piece did effectively place Cavendish as the main antagonist of the piece, orchestrating the creation of a ‘perfect brewery’ to prove just how pliant and malleable the beer industry, and its consumers, could be.

The beer world all but erupted.

Announcements of buyouts, private equity purchases and ‘special partnerships’ had become almost commonplace, but the revelations of the work of Caistor Insights was another matter entirely. People’s memories were short, but not short enough to forget the role of ‘fake news’ and the manipulation of public opinion in both the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Those wounds, and the wounds caused by subsequent and myriad other shocks in politics, business and sport since, were still raw.

Everyone knew social media was as a battlefield. But consumers, bloggers, professionals and key influencers had thought themselves the soldiers in that battle, when in fact they were the weapons, ready to be used by those with the skill and dark intention to do so. Unless, those weapons became truly aware of what they were. Suddenly, all eyes were on Mainspring the company, not the brewery, and the success story began to unravel.

Mainspring’s directors names had always been publicly available – all them well-known as experienced industry professionals with many years of experience between them. When the truth about Caistor Insights’ involvement, and direct role in creating Mainspring, came to light, the dry kindling of the internet-connected beer world was set ablaze in fresh outrage, as it had been time and time again. However, this time was different. When crowdfunding campaigns had led to breweries being bought either in part or in total, for example, people felt somewhat hurt and manipulated. This was that same feeling multiplied tenfold. One peek behind the curtain had turned the pliant and malleable masses into a venomous, enraged mob.

Blog posts poured forth, articles in mainstream press helped spread the flames, and suddenly there were organised drainpours being livestreamed on social media, all whilst Mainspring’s beers continued to receive award after award in competitions judged months before. #FAKEBREWS was the hashtag that became the adopted masthead for the reaction to the news.

Perhaps most memorably, the major craft beer festivals that summer and autumn (most of which Mainspring quickly pulled out of, anyway) saw a heavily increased security presence, as the digital outrage became very real, physical protests. Some occurred spontaneously in queues and halls, whilst others were orchestrated, masked, ‘Occupy’-style events, most notably resulting in injuries and a police response at 2018’s IndyManBeerCon, and at Mainspring’s taproom itself, until it was of course forced to close ‘for the foreseeable future’. The brewery would never open to the public again.

Towards the end of the year, the situation began to calm, to a low simmer at least. Articles bemoaning the damage Mainspring had caused seemed to grow less frequent (and all the while, those who still had the brewery’s magnificently brewed beers in their fridges and cellars enjoyed them as before, but silently). More buyouts by AB Inbev became more popular talking points for a month or two, until the Mainspring saga flared up once more, and for the final time.

One quiet November morning, a leaked email thread was forwarded from a quickly-deleted Gmail address to roughly two hundred journalists, beer bloggers, and industry professionals. The email thread in question, now infamous, was between a number of colleagues of the Brewers Association in the United States, discussing, with increasing concern, just how they were going to contain and, ideally, hide their involvement as the originators of the plan to create Mainspring.

Within a year, British craft beer as we know it would be almost extinct.

Final part tomorrow.

Mainspring, Part 2 – Brand Desires

(Read Part 1 here)

Mainspring’s logo, at the time of their launch in 2017.

“It was the beer. That was what I told myself. I mean, you tasted it, we all tasted it. It was phenomenal. We had no idea that we’d end up with this.” My interviewee, ‘B’, pauses a moment to gesture around angrily.

We’re sat in one of London’s Samuel Smith’s pubs, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, but I know B was not referring to the pub itself. He’s gesturing north, east, south and west, above and below, at everything wrought in the world of beer by his former employer.

The choice of venue seems fitting. Like monuments made from older, stronger stone, Samuel Smith’s pubs have watched quicker-lived beer cultures rise around them, only to be eroded by time’s tide. They remain the time-machines-to-the-1970s they always have been, and feel like a place of true escapism now. Once a contrast to a beer culture with a faster metabolism, Sam Smith’s pubs now feel like a holiday to a place without any painful traces of ‘craft beer’ to be found.

B is incognito to avoid any chance of crossing the path of an angry beer geek. I barely recognised him as he sidled up to me at the bar. His beard shaved to extinction, his glasses replaced by contact lenses, he dresses in an unbranded grey zip-up hoodie and a trucker cap (one small concession to his former appearance). B exudes the same nervous energy of other Mainspring employees I have met, sorry for what happened but not sorry for what they made. “We knew what we were doing could end badly. We knew there was a plan. But we really thought that the beer we made was worth anything. In the end, it cost everything.”

There is a commonly held misconception that Mainspring was co-opted after it was founded, and had its noble aims blackened. To get the truth of Mainspring’s origin, I had to speak to one of the founding directors.

Throughout Mainspring’s short, Icarus-like history, its directors remained in the background, to the point of appearing illusive or non-existent. The directors preferred the brewery’s employees, drawn from high-profile breweries across the UK, and the world, to take the limelight.

Nevertheless, six very real men and women were certainly running Mainspring, each with extensive backgrounds in brewing, distribution, finance, marketing, sales and operations; but they were brought together by another party. B admits that the offer of a job with Mainspring felt Faustian, but it was nothing compared to the one offered to the company’s directors in the first place: create the best brewery in the country within a year, and have almost limitless resources. The price? Knowing that there is a very real chance that your brewery’s rise to fame could precipitate the gutting of the entire industry.

‘D’ had worked in distribution for a number of UK and European companies for the past ten years, eventually specialising in craft beer and seeking greater challenges. She was first approached about buying into a new venture in late 2016, by a man named Wes Cavendish, from a company calling itself Caistor Insights.

“He told me from the very beginning that he didn’t know anything about beer, and that he didn’t care to. He said he was only interested in proving what could be achieved.”

D has met me at a bar in Hoxton, East London. Here, bars and pubs seem to have been the quickest to moved on, though A-boards on the street still bare the faint, recently-erased lines of the words ‘CRAFT BEER’. Ghosts rendered in chalk.

“Cavendish talked a lot about Brexit, and Trump, and populism, and knowing what people are going to do before they do it. Knowing what people want. He said his people had done enough research to prove that, with enough data points [about someone’s age, gender, interests, social media activity etc] it was possible to make a ‘perfect brand’. He said that they [Caistor Insights and companies like them] had proven it could be done with democracy, so why not with a business?”

It was true that companies like Caistor Insights who specialised in ‘Big Data’, information willingly given by people in their use of online services and applications, had played a role in the success of the UK referendum on Brexit and the US presidential election. Even so, some felt this role was overstated, so if they had had such a hard time in the world of politics, why make the move to beer?

“They thought craft beer was the perfect test, as there would be so much data for them to extract from social media, blogs, apps and so on, and with relatively low risk of being… discovered.” But why would craft beer drinkers be more gullible or less aware than others of this kind of manipulation?

The answer was simple. “Arrogance,” says D. “Caistor’s earliest work on the project had proven that craft beer consumers, as well as those working in it, often thought they were immune to being deceived, which made it all the easier for their egos to be flattered. Mainspring was designed for them.”

So how did Cavendish, a man used to the world of politics and with no interest in beer, create ‘the perfect brewery’ that would set the entire industry alight?

‘Big data’ specialists like Caistor Insights use psychometrics (also known as psychographics) to measure and determine people’s personalities, based on the ‘Big Five’ or ‘O.C.E.A.N.’ personality categories (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). To use these accurately once required extensive questionnaires, but in the age of social media, big data companies were simply able to mine people’s social media, particularly Facebook likes, to determine personalities and behaviour (and you can test it out for yourself on the website of the Psychometrics Centre of the University of Cambridge). Those with the right tools and resources could potentially use psychometrics to make lists of voters to target with specific ads, or, as Caistor envisioned, drinkers to target with specific beers.

Craft beer proved to be fertile ground for Caistor – a beer culture that gave its opinions, feelings and desires willingly, and lengthily, across a whole range of social media and applications. But these drinkers were no long people, or even consumers, they became ‘datasets’. Based on all the information they happily gave to websites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, apps like Untappd, and the usual social media, the ranges of beers to best meet the needs of the datasets were composed and constructed. But these were not recipes, or even beer styles. More work was needed.

The overlapping and occasionally conflicting interests from different datasets, such as, for example, being obsessive fans of a particular cask ale, but generally preferring keg beer and shunning most other cask beers, presented ‘refreshing and exciting challenges’ for Caistor, which spent a great deal of time trying to ‘understand’ beer geeks. This was done by dedicating server capacity to unravelling common factors between blogs, RateBeer scores, Untappd data and more. Resources were spent interviewing attendees at various UK beer festivals, both traditional and modern, under the guise of a young couple starting a Dutch YouTube channel, ‘Bier Extreem!’. The answers helped Caistor Insights make sense of the flood of data.

D describes meeting another Caistor Insights employee, much later in the development of Mainspring. He resembled “a drill sergeant with marketeer’s fashion sense”. More rugged, less detail-oriented language was spoken. Data ranges were ‘thrown against the wall to see what sticks’, the raw results from their market research went through a ‘bullshit-strainer’ and was pulled apart by ‘number fuckers’ to extrude the most salient information. You imagine some Caistor Insights employees work far longer hours than others.

The result was based on the boiled down data from all this work. When it was all presented to D and her fellow potential directors, Caistor described the process as being ‘simple’, applying binary answers and continuing to filter the results as necessary, until they had formula for creating enough beers to please every beer drinker.

A set of four spectra were developed: light/amber/dark; strong/session/special; experimental/accessible; and modern/traditional. With these alone, Caistor believed it could create the range of beers to suit the specific demands and tastes of the vast majority of the UK craft beer scene. It could create a brewery with output to satisfy anyone.

Caistor called these combinations ‘brand desires’, each of which correlated to identified interests from thousands of the datasets. The results became Mainspring’s tantalising opening line-up.

Brand Desire 1: Light-Traditional-Accessible-Session (Zentrum Lager series)

Brand Desire 2: Light-Modern-Experimental-Special (Nucleus mixed fermentation project)

Brand Desire 3: Amber-Traditional-Accessible-Session (Heart cask beer range)

Brand Desire 4: Amber-Modern-Experimental-Strong (Alpha IPA series)

But why were there no big dark beers in this line-up, especially considering their popularity among the RateBeerians and Instagrammers? As ever, there was cold, straightforward reasoning behind it.

Caistor had identified some ‘intriguing’ correlations between consumers being ‘surprised’ or ‘shocked’ into purchasing unannounced beers or special releases, and the kind of heavy mega-stouts and flavoured big beers that breweries like to showcase at festivals and events. A ‘brand desire’ to match this had been defined, but deliberately held back from the initial line-up:

Brand Desire 5: Dark-Modern-Experimental-Special (Foundation)

So, when festival season rolled around, and Mainspring famously announced it would release a new member of the Foundation series at every festival it attended for the next twelve months, we all, of course, lapped it up.

We, the beer drinkers, had been identified, analysed, interpreted and understood. And we were going to like what we got. We just needed to be told what to do next.

To be continued, in Part 3.

Mainspring (or, The Fall of British Craft Beer), Part 1 – Like a Trap, Sprung.

Mainspring’s logo, at the time of their launch in 2017.

Though only three years ago, the UK craft beer scene of 2017 was in great condition. The beginning of that year saw the number of UK breweries topping 1,700, with nearly 100 in London alone. There was a sense of continued momentum, sustained enthusiasm and new ‘waves’ of beer culture being born and growing organically.

On the global stage, we were starting to see the first signs of much-sought-after parity of esteem with American craft beer, but more importantly, British beer was being heralded on its own merits around the world. For example: in early 2017, Cloudwater, then barely two years old, took 5th Best Brewery in The World at the RateBeer Best Awards; UK brewers of all sizes and modes had an increased and regular presence at international festivals; some, like Beavertown, were hosting global craft beer festivals of their own; and the likes of BrewDog were even beginning overseas ventures, all in spite of the financial obstacles posed by a economy-wounding Brexit referendum the previous year.

Now, in 2020, we find ourselves in a ghost of that very same craft beer culture: a revolution turned to rout; a renaissance turned to ruin. At first eroded by tribal infighting, then diluted by increasingly avaricious buyouts and mergers, and, most spectacularly, shattered to its very core by a brewery (as difficult as it is to now call Mainspring ‘a brewery’) that many would blame for an ‘unforeseeable catastrophe’.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, the warning signs seem not only clear, but glaring. As those individual flashpoints began to flare, one after another, the real question is: how didn’t we see this coming?

Recalling those more innocent days, when beer geeks queued gleefully for the latest hyped releases at ever-larger events across the UK, is difficult and even painful for some. As hard as it is to imagine now, with so many of those exciting breweries now empty light industrial units and tenantless railway arches once again, even six months into 2017 the industry seemed stable. ‘Ale and hearty’, as the mainstream press so frequently termed it.

The announcement of Mainspring’s forthcoming launch on Twitter and Instagram was nothing short of a full-blown 24 hour phenomenon. People waking up on July 19th 2017 had never heard of Mainspring, but by 11pm that night, the whole UK beer scene had saturated social media with those oh-so-promising early images of their minimalist branding, beer range and the jaw-dropping brewery being built. By the end of July, we all knew, or least seemed fairly certain, that the arrival of Mainspring heralded the next phase of the British beer industry.
Mainspring was undoubtedly a sum total of a complex equation: the mid-2000s microbrewery explosion; added to the viral growth of the London beer scene of 2010 onwards; multiplied to the power of American fast-consuming, fresh-drinking beer culture. Mainspring was built not just to create hype but to consistently meet and exceed the expectations created by that hype – a dream come true for a UK craft beer scene with a sense of entitlement to match its prodigious growth. And what hype it created. It was, to speak personally, deeply discomforting to read those early tweets and posts from Mainspring  again to research this piece. How could we have not realised just who had been paying attention to this tumultuous, evolving beer landscape? Not just observing, but constructing and executing meticulous plans.
At the time, all that industry experts and commentators could see was an astonishing new player on the scene, one who was revitalising the enthusiasm of even the most seasoned and jaded beer geeks. The frequently-tweeted variations on ‘April the 1st was ages ago, this can’t be for real’ filled everyone’s timelines that fateful day. Others, though, seemed strangely quiet about Mainspring, in particular, many of the UK’s leading beer writers and industry journalists. It was only revealed much later that certain members of the British Guild of Beer Writers had been issued a sternly-worded embargo by Mainspring, the incentive being offers of favourable access for interviews, tours, tastings and other ‘promotional opportunities’. My own employment at a brewery excluded me from being approached, but it was undoubtedly a masterstroke, making the announcement of the brewery’s existence all the more of a surprise, and most importantly, a social media feeding frenzy.
Now, Mainspring’s business model reads like a preposterously arrogant blueprint for a Tower of Babel. Back then, it gave hope to an industry desperate for new vision; a new powerhouse to take things to the next level, whatever that might be. The UK craft beer scene, whilst a thrilling and fulfilling world to be part of, had become an over-privileged child with an limitless appetite, flexible morals and little in the way of self-awareness. The landscape, shaped by the desires of completionists, rarity-hunters and social media activity, had become fertile soil in which to grow a brand that seemed to be pure wish fulfillment.
The brewery’s marketing was keen-edged and finely polished from the get-go. ‘We are Mainspring’ said the fateful first tweet from @MainspringBeer at 08:01am on July 19th, accompanied with the now-infamous image of their gargantuan facility. Over the course of the day, more detail was gradually and tantalisingly revealed, including the fact that they were based in Stevenage. Stevenage? we all asked with incredulity.
After the initial tweets about the branding and state-of-the-art brewhouse, came the incredible details of the brewery’s almost unbelievable proposed portfolio. The ‘Heart’ cask-conditioned beer range; ‘Zentrum’ family of authentic European lagers; the ‘Alpha’ canned IPA range; and, if that wasn’t enough, the ‘Nucleus’ mixed fermentation project, each was described with a barely palatable level of confidence. Furthermore, each seemed to have an equal priority in the brewery’s production plans. This was a big brewery they were launching, and they seemed utterly alien in comparison to their peers at that time. The absence of any ‘core’ range, like that of Beavertown, BrewDog or even Lost and Grounded, or even a seasonal catalogue like that of Cloudwater left many wondering how a brewery that scale could sustain such an approach. What would pay the presumably astronomical bills? Of course, we should have been asking, who.
Once those beers were finally released, and tasted, each and every one demonstrated an unsettling level of mastery. For, as the launch of the brewery came closer, many began to suspect a hoax, but no one was truly ready for just how good the beers would be. And the hordes of beer geeks who tasted them for the first time had been whipped into a frenzy long before then.
It’s hard to not feel naive, now, looking back. In a way, Mainspring had almost tipped its hand to us all, with some tweets just a few hours after the first. It wasn’t what they said, but rather, what they chose not to say.
(12:01pm July 19th, 2017)

Then, a few minutes later:

(12:05pm July 19th, 2017)

The first definition was certainly the one that Mainspring’s marketing team wished to convey as the ‘mission statement’, but in the end, it was that second definition that deserved our close attention. The mechanism of their plan, designed to be as predictable and certain as clockwork, had indeed been loaded, wound and, like a trap, sprung.

To be continued, in Part 2.



After a getting a job in craft beer, one of the first and most startling differences I noticed was the vocabulary used by brewers in the comfort and privacy of their own breweries. I don’t mean colourful swearing (well, actually, now you mention it…) but rather the kind of words a brewer might use to describe their beer as opposed to a marketeer, PR, and therefore, many writers and bloggers. A lot of the language used to describe beer is inadvertently determined by label copy, the brewery’s tasting notes, other bloggers’ reviews, or even just the name of the beer itself. Put simply, there a some words brewers use casually that sales and marketing people would avoid entirely.

Recipe design, does not, as some might be surprised to learn, involve ticking off that never-ending list of tropical and citrus fruits that beer reviewers refer to so studiously. Increasingly, terms like ‘dank’ (resinous, earthy, cannabis-like) and ‘savoury’ (garlicky and oniony) are used not just liberally, but as positive terms. ‘This is great juice, but we should really shoot for a more oniony flavour next time’ are the kind of phrases I now hear and accept almost unconditionally. Brewers are often the first to use the language that eventually filters down to drinkers, way before it become part of the common parlance. ‘You’re going to love this new IPA guys, it’s our most oniony release yet!’ is not a tweet you’re likely to see very soon, but you can bet somebody in the brewery said it.

However, that sort of language describing these types of hoppy beers is now starting to gradually trickle through to consumers and budding aficionados, and this is because of the kind of beers being released. By way of example, a handful of articles and blogs have recently noted the rise of the ‘Yeast Coast’ IPA (included in a great post by Emma at Crema Brewery on what’s going on in IPA at the moment) in the States, a sort of cultural counterpoint to the pale, strong and bone dry West Coast IPAs. These beers that look like milk-thick fruit juice and smell like cannabis and hot dog onions are, to the astonishment of many, remarkably balanced, sharp and juicy on the palate with a pleasing savoury edge. They are complex, intricately-constructed and require a razor-sharp balance that is incredibly difficult to execute. They are impressive in so many ways but to describe them requires words with which not everyone is comfortable. How did we end up talking about beers like this?

For a long time, the buzzword in craft (and IPAs in particular) was bitterness. It was something that a layman could put their finger on and notice immediately as a point of difference between mainstream beer and craft beer. Hops had aroma and flavour sure, and a lot of the varieties being used were all about grapefruit and bitterness, so IBUs had a correlation of sorts with hop character. IBUs were the Top Trumps stat of choice, slapped onto label copy with a kind of swaggering braggadocio, as if it was the barbell weight the head brewer could deadlift anytime, anywhere, pal. It in turn influenced consumer habits. What’s the IBUs on that IPA? 150? *kisses biceps* No problem, dawg. I can handle it. We ended up with International Bro Units.

Of course, bitterness is relative, one of the tangible factors of flavour mitigated by the balance of others; a single number in a more complex equation. Imperial Stouts have huge bittering additions for balance, but don’t taste nearly as bitter as a lighter pale ale hammered to hell with Chinook. As a term, IBU has started to fall by the wayside. It’s a less useful way of understanding flavour than perhaps it used to be, if indeed it ever was.

Next, it was all about aroma and fruit. Ever more supercharged hop varieties were released, with brand names as finely honed as the latest miracle drug, sports car or running shoes. We wanted to know about fruits, and we weren’t just going to settle for grapefruit, oh no. Crap, I’ve never even had a gooseberry and mango sundae before but God damn it if it isn’t what this beer tastes exactly like, uh, I think. Increasingly myriad hop combos competed for the ultimate Carmen-Miranda-hat-fruit-salad of aroma and flavour. Whilst fruit and juiciness were what we were talking about, bitterness was still there, balancing out these super-fruity beers, keeping them dry and clean and drinkable. We just stopped talking about it. Savoury notes were there too, but so far beneath the radar of commenters that, in flavour description terms, they didn’t exist, like unseen falling trees. We didn’t see them because we weren’t looking for them.

And now? We’re starting to get into dank and savoury, pal, big time. Gimme some of that Mosaic and Summit-soaked onion-and-mango juice. It smells like a university dorm room and looks like a colour Dulux might call Terracotta Sunrise (Matt), but it’s taking my palate into new dimensions. I’m ready. I want to know more. I want to taste Other. Send me through the Stargate to the dank and savoury galaxy.

In many ways it’s a real victory. The tyranny of the word ‘lychee’ in beer blogging may at last be coming to an end. People are beginning to get comfortable with savoury and the dimensions of flavour beyond sweetness and bitterness. There’ll be reactions, appropriations, satire, over-exaggerations and all the usual resistance, but by the end we’ll all have richer vocabularies and more exciting beers. It’s just the next level we have to play through, and there will be plenty more beyond.

‘Danksauce’ was a phrase used by Modern Times recently, both casually on their website and social media, as well as on actual label copy (along with dank, dankness and more), which really struck a chord with the wordsmith in me. It’s kind of silly, but also quite heartfelt and honest about how weird beer can be sometimes and how not to take it too seriously. It sums up a kind of free-wheeling, ambitious yet laidback approach to tasting language and cavalier artistry in brewing that I wholeheartedly support.

Obviously, I’m a sucker for a snappy craft portmanteau. I fall head-over-heels for the hottest zymurgy wordplay. I love a Juicy Banger. I like anthropomorphising beers and flavours, and I think it’s because craft beer is, like language, constantly evolving. As a result, we’re not just getting better beer; we’re getting better at describing and understanding it.

Tunnel Vision


British craft beer is an exciting subculture to be a part of, but whilst its proponents and their beers are progressive, many are blind to what might be holding it back.

Agility, more than anything, is why craft beer captures the public imagination. A small brewery has the ability to change course quickly, pivot on its heels and kick out in a new direction before Big Beer has even booked the meeting room to discuss the first draft of its committee-authored instructions to the engine room. It’s a characteristic that defines this subculture’s energy and momentum, and yet, we can’t help but be limited by existing thinking.

Story time: there’s a popular forwarded email yarn about the relationship between a space shuttle and a horse’s arse. The solid rocket boosters that sat either side of the main fuel tank had to be transported across the country from Utah to the launch site in Florida, using mountain tunnels built for trains. The story says the tunnels were based on the width of old roads for horse-drawn carriages, and that since the width of two horse’s rear ends is roughly the same width as the standard US railway gauge, a horse’s arse determined the width of a solid rocket booster. It’s mostly rubbish of course (you can read the Snopes take on it here) but the most interesting bit, about the tunnels, is basically true: that advanced space vehicle technology was to some extent designed to be compatible with tunnel design from hundreds of years ago for shipping purposes. As the launch of a space shuttle was in some way determined by old tunnels, so too is British craft beer determined by something just as old, if not older: the imperial pint.

To understand the scale of the issue, we must first look at the leading beers in several style categories (looking at just the overall ‘top rated beers in England’ on Untappd and RateBeer reveals little, or rather, quite a lot: both lists are dominated by imperial IPAs and imperial stouts). Unfortunately, this in itself does not give a full picture either, because both Untappd and Ratebeer are used by self-motivated enthusiasts, not by most drinkers, even by many who are ‘into’ craft beer. For this to be of any value, we have to look at the beer styles in growth, not those already selling the most, since almost all of those are in decline. That way, we can get a reasonably good idea of what is doing well and impressing people in each style category, and even the most jaded or optimistic beer person should still be able to see a fairly objective overall picture from which to draw some conclusions.

To keep this manageable, we’ll look at American Pale Ale, American IPA, Session IPA and Lager. These are the styles arguably winning the most hearts and minds at the moment, and more importantly, the most repeat purchases and safer spots on the bar. It’s not a perfect sample set (not helped by the fact that “pale’n’hoppy” is broadly what’s driving the market, but isn’t a category on any rating website, and in itself could include about twenty or so ‘styles’), but it is one from which you can at least get broadly comparable results, from both Untappd and Ratebeer. Plus, it provides useful benchmark examples we can all point at and understand. Finally, and most crucially, in each style, we can see how the pint glass is determining the state of play.

For example, in American Pale Ale from England, the leading lights unsurprisingly include a wide variety of recipes from The Kernel’s Pale Ale series, alongside Beavertown Gamma Ray, Pressure Drop Pale Fire, plus the occasional outlier from Salopian, Wiper & True, Vocation and the like. All great breweries, but the best rated beers tend to be ones around the pint-friendly 5.4% ABV mark. In the broader context of APA as a style, this is to be expected (it’s pretty much the target ABV for an APA), but that mid-five strength is worth remembering.

Next, let’s look at American IPA from England. Most of the highest rated are between a much broader spectrum of 6.2% to 7.4%, mostly modelled on US West Coast IPAs (though that ‘Yeast Coast’ sub-style is already making inroads). They are either rotating hop varietals from the likes of Kernel, Wiper & True and Cloudwater, or ‘brand’ IPAs with mostly consistent recipes from breweries like Magic Rock, Siren and Buxton. Interestingly, many (but not all) of these again fall into the ‘special release’ category, particularly the collaboration brews and single hop seasonal specials, and only a few could actually be described as ‘core range’ beers. This tells us that the American-style IPAs being brewed in England are not as likely to be flagship products, despite the much-held opinion that IPA is somehow driving the market. Pints are not part of the context of the style, therefore these beers are not currently the biggest selling beers from any brewery in England (Scottish elephant in the room to be covered later). Plus, anyway, these beers are (or should be) proportionately more expensive to make in the first place, limiting the likelihood of affordable pint-sized servings.

What about Session IPA then? For those breweries doing them particularly well and true to style (that often means quite expensively), Session IPAs are hopped with similar additions by weight as much bigger IPAs, but brewed to retain some residual sweetness to back up their lower ABVs and keep them balanced. Being ‘just’ a pale ale will simply not cut it. Appealing to consumers for both their lower strengths and big hop characters, Session IPAs tend to sit around 3.8%-4.5% abv, and ratings-wise, in England are led by two beers from Vocation, several from Brew By Numbers, The Kernel’s Table Beer, Gipsy Hill Hepcat, Northern Monk Eternal, and Beavertown Neck Oil (which has alternated between describing itself as Session IPA and Session Pale). Session IPA is practically defined by the fact it can be enjoyed in multiple, pint-sized servings, hence the prodigious growth of the category in recent months. It’s a style of beer that represents what consumers new to craft beer seemingly want – something interesting and exciting that still retains the safety and familiarity of something pale in a pint glass.

Lager is trickier to get useful information on, but by comparing a few different subcategories (‘Pale Lager’, ‘Pilsener’, ‘Pilsner – Other’ and so on) on both Untappd and Ratebeer, a hazy picture emerges. The quality alternative to mainstream, pale European lager is still a battleground covered in the fog of war, but the likes of Weird Beard, Camden and Fourpure are still leading for the most part, with recent efforts from Howling Hops, Redchurch, Northern Alchemy and Beavertown showing promise. Strength-wise, 4.8%-5.4% seems to be the norm. Naturally, this is a style also defined by its pint-ability.

Whilst more meaningful than looking merely at ‘Top Rated’ overall, trying to get useful data in this way is still problematic. Requiring a focus on a single country makes it all but impossible to get a complete picture of the UK, frustrating when such huge leaps are being made in Wales and Northern Ireland, and particularly when several of the UK’s leading producers of craft beer are in Scotland alone. Specifically, the absence of BrewDog from this set of results skews things somewhat. BrewDog has, perhaps more than any other UK brewery mentioned above, succeeded in getting its beers in an ever wider range of ‘mainstream’ outlets. It is on this particular point that we can start to see an anomaly in IPA, but one which helps form some correlation with the other results overall. BrewDog famously reduced the ABV of its flagship beer, Punk IPA, to 5.6%, and from looking at the some of the most popular beers being produced in England by the most successful craft breweries, regardless of style, the ABVs tend to be in the mid-fives (Thornbridge are obviously the other brewery to have most successfully straddle craft and mainstream, though it’s worth noting that most of their cask beer is around 4% and the keg beers are mostly around either 5% or 6%, rather than between. There’s a whole other post to be written about breweries with ‘cask’ and ‘keg’ beer ranges that are vastly different strengths).

Right then, so there’s lots of evidence of something happening, but what? We need to imagine not some sterile list of beers with ratings and ABVs listed next to them, but the taps of beer lined up on a bar in front of you the next time you go for a drink. How many of the ‘self-consciously craft’ offerings (not described as Session IPA) are in the region of 5.5%? How many of those beers, regardless of strength or colour, are being served by the pint as standard? Session IPA notwithstanding, in the UK a five-point-something beer can be both strong and/or different enough to be ‘craft’, whilst still ‘sessionable’; a sort of Goldilocks Zone for a beer industry determined, and arguably hamstrung, by the pint glass.

However, if you want be the fastest growing food and drink brand in the UK, or if you just want to help pay for that new steam-jacketed mash tun and kettle, or if you just want to establish a sturdy foothold in an ever more crowded marketplace, pints mean prizes. Volume means security, cashflow to finance the next big project (or duty return) and frequent, loyal custom.

But how much of this is about financial security, and how much of it is about ingrained attitudes? Instead of the huge gamut of strengths seen in American craft beer, enjoyed in anything from pitchers, pints or 2oz pours, we seem rigid to our proportions of pints and halves, and only recently opened our minds to the idea of third-pint and two-third measures. Even in the most wide-ranging, smaller-serving-focused craft beer bars in the country, we remain interested in filling a pint-shaped hole, and if it remains an unchangeable line in our programming, our industry will remain defined by the beers that fit this space, and not by what we could, or perhaps should, be brewing.

I would have ended this piece right there, were it not for one small fact: I love pints. To some extent, I still judge certain beers by how they fare over the course of 568 millilitres, and if that beer still impresses me at the end, then it was undoubtedly a fine beer indeed. There’s something about the pacing of a pint, depending of course on the drinker and the setting, which other serving sizes don’t seem to possess. Another curiosity of our beer culture is that thirds, halves and two-thirds of a beer are most likely to be followed by a similarly-sized serving of something utterly different, whilst a pint of something is often followed by ‘the same again’.

There is no doubt that pints will continue to be popular and that there will continue to be a variety of serving sizes, but there will be a crossroads. The future shape of the market will be determined by whether we hold fast to our culture of quaffable, boshable, crushable pints, whilst acknowledging the variety of serving sizes as a ‘nice to have’; or, instead, actively try to embrace that variety in full, and shed no tears if pints become no more common an option than the third-pint.

A Year in Beer: 2015 Reviewed

(L-R) Troubadour Obscura, Magma Tripel Yeast, Westkust and Gollem's Precious IPA (2)

2015 has been a turbulent year for beer, and for beer blogging. With several bloggers (myself included) making moves into the industry, whether full-time, part-time or freelance, there’s been some big changes. Some blogs have come out of retirement, gone professional, and thrived, and new ones have begun. My own has suffered from me gaining meaningful employment that engages much more of my energy than my previous jobs, but hopefully I’ll be back to posting more frequently quite soon.

Whilst professional writers and journalists hold forth on ever weightier issues and find ever more column inches in mainstream media to write about beer, it is bloggers who are pushing the envelope and setting the agenda. Mainstream media becomes increasingly oriented toward shorter attention spans, churning out ‘listicles’ and content-lite pieces to fill bandwidth. Meanwhile, in a way some might find surprising, it is in blogs that lengthy, considered and thoughtful pieces are being written on a huge variety of subjects and with a massive spectrum of opinions fueling them.

Blogs are beginning to get slicker, winning more professional awards and attention, putting their creators into positions where they can make a real difference. The maturing of the British craft beer scene, and its bloggers/broadcasters/communicators, continues apace.

It’s not all peachy though. There’s a continued trend of antagonism, of tribalism and, ultimately, trolling. The internet is becoming a very strange village, with bad neighbourhoods you don’t want to stick around in, and the world of beer blogging suffers from the same problem. It would be great to see more constructive criticism; worthwhile and good-spirited debate. The alternative is disheartening to say the least. It’s becoming more and more tempting to bloggers to switch off comments on their blogs, retire from social media for several days, or simply disengage from the scene entirely. So many complex issues have been argued back and forth in a gruelling, fruitless fashion. As ever more people want to ‘get involved’ in craft beer one way or another, we should remember that even if we don’t all agree, we ultimately have to live in this world of beer together.

Whilst a number of new blogs have started, several writers find themselves writing on a more professional basis, and less frequently on their blogs. As a result, whilst spectrum of opinions is wide, there has been a slight stagnation of voices in beer blogging, and whilst the variety of subjects is huge, there is a lack of variety of content. Speaking personally, I’m determined to post more frequently this year, and find new forms of blog posts to write. I really enjoyed writing my recent fictional post about an imagined path-not-travelled in the history of British and Belgian brewing, but it was not received entirely as well as I’d hoped. I know this is mostly due to me not communicating my intent clearly enough, but it hasn’t put me off writing more beer fiction in future on my blog.

Something that still concerns me is the relative lack of voices in beer and beer writing which aren’t those of white, straight men. There’s a lot of reasons for that of course, some much easier to tackle than others. But whilst many of us think our beer scene and industry is open, diverse and inclusive, it quite clearly isn’t. It’s just incredibly open and inclusive to us. I think it’s starting to change, gradually, but I’m interested in what people think about it, and if there’s more that could be done.

Of course, no post about 2015 would be complete without pondering mergers and acquisitions. Thinking back to the beginning of the year, few of us could have predicted the voracious appetite of Big Beer in its quest to buy what it can’t do itself. There’s little sign of it slowing down, and we should brace ourselves for just as many if not more sizeable shocks in the industry this year. One issue about which I’m curious, and intend to write a post about soon, is the perceived scale of ‘small brewers’ among the public. We’re now getting to a point where a handful of breweries that started only a few years ago have expanded to the point where they no longer benefit from paying lower rates of duty, yet are still seen ‘small’ or ‘craft’ breweries by the average punter. When Punk IPA and Gamma Ray and sit alongside beers from much smaller concerns, we might start to see some breweries begin to be priced out of the competition. For those breweries committed to staying ‘small’, 2016 might be the year they face difficult choices about their survival.

As predictions go, they’re admittedly pretty vague, but one thing I am certain about is that the overall quality of British craft beer has massively improved in the past twelve months. In the months ahead, critics and consumers used to this quality will forgive substandard beers far less easily than they might have done before.

We’re in a new era now. We’re way, way past the new wave of good beer being a ‘fad’ or trend. There has been a cultural shift, and we’re writing our own rulebook now. The next chapter promises to be just as important as the last. I for one can’t wait to see what 2016 brings.


A Report from #EBBC15, Darkly

2015-08-28 11.55.48

The following is a piece of fiction, inspired by a thought that occurred to me earlier in the year: what if the monasteries of England were never dissolved, and our brewing history remained as strongly associated with monks and abbeys as it is in Belgium? What might change if England remained Catholic, and if Belgium became its greatest brewing rival? What might the 2015  European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Brussels be like, if history was different?


From the other side of the glass, it was a dark view.

Among the journalists and bloggers in the conference centre, there was conversation, warm greetings, a sense of community: a bustling, thriving discussion of Belgian brewing. It’s what we came for. But as I approached the Chairman, eager to put to him some stickier questions than he’d faced in the far-too-polite press conference itself, the dark side of the famous Anglo-Belgian brewing rivalry showed its face. I witnessed first hand the segregation, the suspicion and the prejudice.

Excusez-moi, monsieur – sorry – please, sir, you must step this way.” A polite voice in my ear and surprisingly firm grip on my arm turned me away from the relieved-looking Chairman. “You will be far more comfortable, we are sure, with your countrymen and colleagues in the viewing gallery.”

I glanced up at the dim-lit room behind smoky glass on the balcony above.

“Will there be any opportunities to-”

“Please.” An implacable smile, an extended hand gesturing to the top of the stairs. Inside the ‘viewing gallery’ I found fellow bloggers from the British contingent, looking as peeved as me. Unwelcome guests, tidied away to a place out of sight. “Typical bloody Belgians, eh?” one asked aloud, to no one in particular. “What have we done to deserve this?”

The answer was obvious, but uncomfortable. We had done the same thing to them on several occasions. This was the first time the European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference had been held outside of the UK, and naturally our longstanding brewing rivals were first in line to welcome the EBBC organisers with open arms. Whilst colleagues from across Europe and the world were given full access, we were treated with cool suspicion, even overt contempt. Had we really been so frosty towards the visiting Belgian bloggers at the previous EBBCs?

Until now we had only seen the representatives of the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) – dusty and opaque corporate bodies with their roots in the ancient Trappist monastic breweries – in the pages of the business press, but from the viewing gallery of the Hotel Orval’s conference centre, the people below seem no different to our own British Abbey Brewers Association (BABA). Their habit-inspired suits were tailored with longer, wider cuffs, the collars broader and looser, the branding more intricate, but they were largely the same white middle-aged men talking about ‘beer as it should be’.

The BABA’s Council may choose to wear, over their robe-like uniforms, the stylised stoles appropriated from the faith from which their fortunes historically stem, but the appearance was largely the same. They even seemed to share their Belgian counterpart’s fondness for sprinkling their speech with Latin to make themselves sound reverent and important. Links to the past. Eyes on the future. The similarities were stark, and quite surprising, to those of us from the UK. These men who spent fortunes on outperforming each other were actually quite alike.

In the UK, only the handful of independent brewers outside of the jurisdiction of the BABA’s ‘Designated Monastic Brewing Regions’ display any form of transparency or open dialogue with the press and blogging community. Still, gaps in the overlap of DeMBRegs have encouraged unlikely artisanal brewing scenes in areas of post-industrial decline such as Grimsby and Rhyl. Not so in Belgium. Here, the established Belgian brewery conglomerates (some four companies owning over 3000 brands between them) make up over 99% of the domestic market, with the scant remaining few hectolitres produced by private individuals and sold on the black market, much of it to private British collectors. Belgian beer covers the counters and shelves of bars across France, Italy, Spain and beyond, yet, like British beer, unable to break the German market, which has grown ever more stagnant and inward-looking. Still, its hold in North Africa, Asia, and South America makes for eye-watering volume figures, with the soaring demand met by ‘Supervised Trappist Breweries’, plants built abroad to meet domestic needs. Growth seems to continue apace, driven by the sheer choice of brands Belgian brewers are able to offer.

British brewing seems more rigid, its markets unchanged over hundreds of years, output spread along historical trade channels, to the remnants of the Holy Empire in the South East Asia and New English States, throughout the Baltics and Nordic Federation, and as far south as South Africa and Australia. Britain’s world-famous Aged Pale Ales (APAs) astonish palates on every continent, but despite unparalleled scientific achievement, lack the magic and mystery conjured by the Belgians.

It’s easy to be cynical about Belgian beer’s appeal, when they hide so much and yet continue to trade on a monastic heritage all but sterilised by corporate governance, but the opportunity to discover more about their brewing industry was irresistible, especially for British bloggers used to a similarly homogeneous beer scene. We came to learn, not to spy, but the chance to dish out some of the prejudice served to Belgian visitors to the UK must have been too tempting.

The hubbub below that we were now excluded from had begun following the BFB’s press conference, which was used to announce its latest campaign promoting the superiority of Belgian beer. It was all very run-of-the-mill stuff, a good way to burn through 20 million francs, but didn’t really add much beyond a slick new font and sharper photography. The message remained derivative of previous campaigns, this time using the form of words ‘Belgian Beer – The Pinnacle of Brewing Excellence’ with a series of images depicting giant glasses of Sixtus and Orval towering over the Alps, Andes, Kilimanjaro and so on. The Q&A session was a joke; nothing but fluff questions from pocketed journalists about how they can keep up with the growing demand and how they live up to such constantly high expectations. The answers were right out of the scriptbook, as expected. Raised hands from non-vetted journalists, mostly the people I now stood with in the viewing gallery, were ignored.

It wasn’t as though we were trying to catch anyone out. We had questions because the amount of detailed information about the Belgian brewing scene in our home country is near non-existent – a smattering of specialist forum threads, piecemeal and highly dubious encyclopedia pages. Social media provides images and opinions, but so few facts. I’ve attended a number of tastings of Belgian beers (held in relative secrecy of course, in private groups) and been impressed with a number of beers, but, like with so many ‘classic’ British monastery styles, wondered if something has been lost in the battle for global brewing supremacy? The nationalistic fervour imbued in each of our brewing cultures, celebrated by many as a link to our past and powerful indicator of our place in the world, seems increasingly narrow-minded, even totalitarian, in a nation like ours where the cuisine of the world arrives on our doorstep.

Belgian beer bloggers interacted with us cautiously, as if unsure whether they will be tainted by association. Some, however, approached us enthusiastically in private, like us, eager to learn. We were pleased to have our suspicions confirmed on one issue though: the key battleground is in the New English States, where the gradual institution of federal democracy (with His Catholic Majesty the Prince of New England remaining as constitutional monarch) has seen the emergence of real diversity in the beer marketplace. The much-discussed grassroots movement of homebrewers starting, incredibly, their own brewing companies separate of BABA control, has undoubtedly set in motion a excitable reaction in the BFB, and confusion in the BABA.

Complacently assuming that brand loyalty and history would ensure superiority, no provisions for industry regulation such as the DeMBRegs were written into the Colonial Charter. The States could potentially be a clean slate, or rather, a blank canvas upon which a wholly different brewing industry could be set out. The BFB is naturally hoping to capitalise on this (the new ad campaign notably contained a version with Rochefort looming over the Rocky Mountains). Belgian bloggers may be able to access more privileged information on this issue. For now, we can only speculate on how the battle will play out, but as the last remaining free market to conquer, it’s be expected that both the BABA and BFB will be spending considerable resources. The real unknown element here is the the growing number of so-called Independent Craft Brewers in the States, whose beers are are reported to be quite unlike those from either Britain or Belgium. If they produce beers that capture the public’s imagination, the BABA and BFB might that money alone won’t buy them victory. Here’s hoping there’s a Conference in the States one day so we can try and find out for ourselves.

#EBBC15 – Belgian Family Brewers and the Future of Belgian Beer Culture

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At the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference (EBBC) in Brussels today, glasses of gueuze, tripel and blond clink and gurgle as they are filled. Conversation rolls in waves, and each one covers the same issue: the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) have announced a new campaign to define Belgian brewing as a family tradition on a par to those around the world. The campaign will include print and online advertising and in-trade events, seeking to educate consumers about just how seriously the profession of brewing is seen in Belgium, but also seeks to secure, in a roundabout way, a common understanding of what a ‘proper’ Belgian brewer is: one that is a BFB member – an historic, family-owned business.

Slides comparing brewing in Belgium to salsa dancing in Cuba, rodeo in the United States, bullfighting in Spain and even the Carnival dancers of Brazil reveal a slightly limited, awkward and stereotypical worldview, but the intention is clear. It’s a single-minded campaign, trying to show the heart and soul in Belgian brewing in way the country has not seen before, but one that raises many questions about the BFB’s long-term intentions.

So what is the BFB and how is this a change from its current campaigning? The BFB is a non-profit organisation and represents 22 Belgian, family-owned breweries and has existed since 2007, created with the aim of ‘passing on knowledge’, in real terms protecting the status of its members and marketing their credibility to consumers (in a way not dissimilar to the Authentic Trappist Product stamp on Trappist brewery beers). Most crucially, its members must have brewed beer in Belgium for at least 50 years.

This time criteria fascinates me, and it sets the BFB apart from many other such organisations of which I’m aware. The aim to preserve heritage has been made abundantly clear to EBBC attendees, but like any brewery in the past 20 years, many of them have adopted a number of recent fashionable styles and methods to benefit from the increased interest from consumers in speciality beer styles. Much of this heritage, whilst thought be many hundreds of years old, is often based on styles from the 20th century at the earliest. ‘Authenticity’ is another term which they are defining with their own set of criteria – unsurprisingly they choose that it means a family business owning its own brewery.

The conference has seen the BFB set its own narrative; explain in unmistakeable terms that it is the champion of ‘proper’ Belgian beer. The curiously grandiose phrase ‘Heritage Guardians’ has been injected quite deliberately into panel discussions, presentations and beer tastings. The phrase reminds me, in a strange sort of way, of something BrewDog might announce if was a 7th generation blond and oud bruin brewer. There can be no doubt that we have been carefully warmed up for this announcement: a smattering of words such as ‘preservation’, ‘innovation’, ‘passion’ and – inevitably – ‘craft’, have been deployed with press-release-like precision, put into the mouths of commercial directors and brewmasters with rehearsed annunciation and repetition.

Of course, as the leading Belgian organisation representing beer that bloggers would likely be interested in, the BFB’s headline sponsorship of the EBBC in Brussels is far from surprising. A representative attended last year’s conference in Dublin with the express intention of gauging the likelihood of 2015’s taking place in Brussels. But more interestingly, the BFB has timed its press conference for the conference attendees arrival. An obvious choice if they wish to best communicate their message, undoubtedly, but the events taking place throughout the conference have been designed to help convince attendees of the BFB member breweries’ artisan and craft credentials. The almost breathless pace of the conference so far has astonished many attendees, but also hinted at an agenda to represent the maximum number of BFB members and their beers in a shortest possible time for a specific reason; to make a specific case in time for the announcement of its new campaign.

Has the case been made successfully? My own personal understanding of the organisation and the Belgian beer industry has been greatly expanded, but the more I have learned, the more questions I have. There’s definitely a sense of banding together to preserve heritage, a laudable aim, but also a feeling that these are proud, inflexible dynasties clinging on to businesses that stretch back hundreds of years. They have every right to preserve what they have built, and they seem to feel they are being open by showing us their beers and their brewmasters, but there’s a clear discomfort about the growing popularity of brewers in Belgium who are not BFB members. ‘Gypsy’ or cuckoo brewers who contract brew on other brewers’ equipment, and those who make great beer but lack the 50-year-heritage to be members, are starting to gain acclaim, and are benefiting at home and overseas from the credentials and reputation of being Belgian.

This clearly riles the BFB, and this new campaign to enforce the ‘family tradition’ message may be the beginnings of a longer-term strategy to preserve their place among self-consciously ‘craft brewers’ in Belgium.


The pride in its achievements – and fear of being forgotten – motivating this organisation is a curious thing to observe and understand. BFBF members delight in reeling off the awards and history of one of their beers, but they clearly struggle to see how they fit into what is currently happening in the world of beer. If the BFB wants to convince the world that their version of Belgian brewing culture is primary, they must learn that traditions do not simply spring out of the ground. They are grown, and acting more inclusively towards newer brewers is an absolute must if they wish to be taken seriously, and if they wish for their traditions to survive, and thrive in the future.

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