Changing the Rules

Hewitt’s Maltings in Grimsby, demolished in 1976. (from the Grimsby Telegraph)

On a recent visit home to my parents in Grimsby, my Dad handed me a clipping from the local newspaper’s ‘Bygones’ section.The article, originally printed in 1954, was about the Hewitt’s brewery (1874-1968) in Grimsby, for whom my maternal great-grandfather once worked, at the brewery’s maltings on the corner of Frederick Ward Way and Victoria Street. The article describes the brewery’s rise to prominence under the leadership of William Taylor Hewitt, an ambitious, forward-thinking man, who bought up several other small breweries in the area.

When WT Hewitt started Hewitt Bros Ltd with his brother Thomas Hewitt in the 1870s, many publicans still brewed their own beer on-site. WT Hewitt, with increased brewing capacity, his own maltings and the logistics to deliver across the region, travelled from door to door of the pubs in Grimsby, persuading landlords that it would be more economical for them to simply get their beer from the modern and prosperous Hewitt’s Brewery. His personal approach became his trademark, and made him extremely popular, and probably quite rich. From owning just a few premises in 1874 when Hewitt took over, by the time the article was printed the brewery owned 300 across Lincolnshire and as far as Yorkshire.

William Taylor Hewitt of Hewitt Bros Ltd. (from the Grimsby Telegraph)

From the article, there is something of James Watt to WT Hewitt’s carnivorous business practices, seeking in his own way to change the beer landscape and the way the game was played. Whilst undoubtedly reducing the locality and individuality of the beers brewed in Grimsby at the time, he perhaps (and this is speculation) improved the overall quality, or at least the consistency of the beer available.

The image of WT Hewitt going from pub to pub and arguing that he could make things easier for brewing publicans reminded me of a conversation had in Dublin at the European Beer Bloggers Conference. During the session on the benefits of cask, keg, bottle or can, we learned of mobile canning lines in the US, which, mounted on the back of large trucks, could serve the canning needs of several small breweries in one area.

Several of us looked at each other with very much the same thought in mind: with a growing appetite for the freshest possible beer, and craft beer in cans, could breweries too small to consider the purchase of canning lines (or the space to accommodate them) find a solution in a mobile canning line? If the brewers can provide the cans (admittedly, a space issue in itself), the mobile line could be just the thing to change the rules of the game. I’d be very surprised if something like it doesn’t appear in the UK in the next two years. The question is, who will do it first?

 

[UPDATE 18/07/14 – 16:42: I’ve just learned of the existence of ThemThatCan, “The UK’s 1st and only mobile canning company to the craft beverage industry” which intends to start canning at the end of this summer. So there you go.]

 

I‘m going to do some more research into Hewitt’s Brewery for further blog posts and would be really grateful for any help. There’s an out-of-print book called ‘Beer, Hope and Charity’ by Graham Larn that I’m interested in tracking down, and  pointers to any other good sources of information would be greatly appreciated.

Giants

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“Coming up midweek, the giants of Ipswich play host to the titans of Charlton, making them both seem normal sized!” – from a sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Look, parodying the dramatic promotional trailers of Sky Sports.

 

Two of the major sponsors at EBBC14 this year were Guinness and Pilsner Urquell. One obviously had a lot more to do with beer in Ireland than the other, but it occurred to me that they actually have a lot in common.

Here we have two global brands, not just beers, that to many people define their respective style. Each has a dominant presence in their respective home countries (to put it politely), and each is highly accomplished at communicating their history and provenance. Each is owned by a drinks giant (Diageo and SABMiller). There’s a slickness to both, too, that sense of size and power that only comes from beers that old and well-known.

Yet, if you asked a room full of beer geeks which of these brewers is more traditional/skilled/‘craft’ I suspect that the majority, if not all, would choose Pilsner Urquell every time. Why?

Guinness, despite or perhaps because of its history of accomplished advertising is perceived as the silky, suited salesman, more interested in your money than your satisfaction. Pilsner Urquell by comparison may seem just as cool and indifferent as a global brand, but it seems to care more about its beer, which by extension makes us care more about it, too.

On some imaginary sliding scale of corporateness and craftness, with Guinness at the corporate end, and a microbrewery that started yesterday at the craft end, Pilsner perhaps sits closer to, say, Sierra Nevada or Brooklyn Brewery. Like Sierra and Brooklyn, Pilsner has a widely-respected brewmaster who doubles as a global brand ambassador. Václav Berka talks like a man with rehearsed speeches, and rightly so, but also as someone with real pride in his work. He’s a figurehead, but one that people want to actually meet and talk to. Guinness, meanwhile, has a variety of high-ranking brewers, vice presidents, senior executives and so on… but there’s no real sense of a human ‘face’ to it.

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On Tuesday night, I attended the judging of the Pilsner Brew Off competition at the White Horse, organised by Urquell, with six competing brews facing off to win the chance of being produced at a commercial scale. The six teams included beer bloggers, writers, bartenders and other people from the trade. The beers they had created (see the Craft Beer Channel’s, Tandleman‘s and Martyn Cornell‘s blog posts for more details of their beers) were as diverse as Bock-sweet stronger lagers, citrusy, New World-hopped modern examples, and more traditional, by-the-numbers pilsners. None were bad, and several were very accomplished.

The most impressive thing to the casual observer and competition entree alike, was how much effort Pilsner Urquell had put into the event. From easel-mounted posters displaying the recipes of each beer with photos and names of the teams, custom-printed ‘ballot papers’ (beer mats) to the specially-commissioned labels for each beer, the whole event had that thoughtful touch to back up the obvious marketing spend that had gone into it.

If that possibility of engagement with the people who make the beer is important us in our appreciation of beer, and I think it’s crucial when deciding whether that brewery is craft/good/whatever, would it change our minds about Guinness if it adopted a similar approach to Pilsner? After all, as giant as Václav Berka may seem, up close, he’s (almost) normal sized.

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Four Nations of Beer: Epilogue

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In June, I decided to write about the beer culture in four countries based on my visits to four very different events. The resulting posts (starring the W-Ales Beer Festival, the Bermondsey Beer Mile, BrewDog’s Punk AGM 2014 and the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin) left me with fascinating glimpses into a period of change in each place. Afterwards, I tried to piece it all together. What did it all mean?

 

I went into Four Nations of Beer willingly blind, and wrote four posts with a theme that should have seemed obvious to me from the outset: transition (note those forward-leaning letters, grasping at the future). Whether it was Wales outgrowing its current phase of ‘craft’ growth, London stepping into a more established period, BrewDog maturing while  struggling to shake off the difficulties of growing so quickly, or the rapid and prosperous blooming of Irish craft beer, I saw cities and beer scenes with beer DNA mutating and evolving into something new, and usually something better.

It’s been an exciting series of experiences. Exciting is a word I use too often – but damn it if there isn’t emotional electricity in the beer scene right now. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing four countries worth of drinking in a month to anyone, though. Returning to the humdrum of an office day job after the euphoria of Dublin left me listless and frustrated, but it’s certainly educated me a great deal.

Reassuringly, I had similar conversations with people in each of these places, about brewing being artistry rather than manufacturing, and the values of honesty and perseverance. In Dublin, I even heard Dean McGuiness mention these words, and others besides, in what he deemed to be a set of values that Irish craft brewers should adhere to. It feels like the nebulous beginnings to a definition for ‘craft beer’, but nothing so modish or self-serving, more of an aspirational charter maybe. It has to be something that is of benefit to people first, industry second, or we will quickly get into a Some Beers Are More Equal Than Others situation.

With all of that hope came more than a little of The Fear, of losing what we love so much, of reach exceeding grasp and of rogue elements bringing the whole house of cards down upon itself. If a rich, diverse and exciting beer scene across the British Isles is worth fighting for, then it’s worth working for too, to build something that will last. That something doesn’t need to be a crowd-funding initiative, a state of the art brewery, a new word for ‘craft’ or a even a successful, long-running beer festival. It could simply be a beer that becomes an idea, a symbol that lasts the test of time.

My month of beer travel ended in the Mad Bishop and Bear in Paddington station. It was there that I bade farewell to Craig Heap, who was present at the beginning and ending chapters of my tour. If there was any noticeable change in me in the intervening month (presumably a paunch, sallow skin and a thousand yard stare), he didn’t mention it. We sat in a corner at a small table by the bar, occasionally interrupted by the cries and shouts of football fans watching the projector screen. We drank pints of cask beer, pale golden ales of bright, zippy flavours that reminded us of our time in Yorkshire as students, where the real ale microbrewery revolution had preceded its craft cousin by several years.

As comforting as this was, after the chocolate porters, DIPAs and varieties of saisons blasting my palate left, right and diagonally over thirty days, the simple charms of a hand-pulled pale ale disarmed me. I’d become accustomed to picking out the effects of barrel ageing, hopping in different stages of brewing, the blending of styles and so on. The once-obvious mineral, chalky note of Portobello Pale was a flavour with no name at first, and I had to confer with Craig to retrieve the word from my brain.

I felt suddenly uncertain, unstuck like Billy Pilgrim, unsure of myself and everything that had happened to me. The British Isles had done their zymurgical utmost to me. I felt spent, yet energised; pummelled internally, yet externally still thirsty for more. Wild-eyed, baffled, each eyeball moving independently of the other, each half of brain ignorant of its neighbour, I felt adrift. I needed an anchor.

It occurred to me then, glancing at the chalkboard that explained when each cask ale had been put on to serve (more of this sort of thing, please), that only one beer could ground me. I needed a hard factory reset to put me back in the time space continuum.

When Craig placed the pint of ESB in front of me, I could already feel it working on my synapses. My retinas adjusted to the burning amber hue, tightly formed bubbles and total clarity. My olfactory receptors began to recalibrate, detecting the characteristic note of ever-so-slight-oxidation (a soft bit of sherry), warm orange marmalade on toast and a summer hedgerow.

There was no messing about – to sip it would be an unforgiveable injustice – this was deadly serious. It was incredibly important to get the beer inside me and knock the dents out from within like a malty hammer, so in it went. A hearty mouthful of it sat there, poking about, shovelling out biscuits, pepper, toffee, orange pith, making itself at home. Craig perhaps noticed my pupils dilate, colour return to my cheeks, a soft glossiness returning to my coat. Revivification.

I gulped more of this full-bodied, jumper-wearing, calloused-knuckled ale, re-acclimatising myself to London, back to Earth, back to reality with it. The Matrix contained in its utterly British DNA re-taught me how to stand up straight, take life on the chin, remember my umbrella, and hold the door open for others. That pint of ESB put my head back on, gave it a good twist, and called me a plonker for wearing those bloody white and blue WordPress sunglasses.

Does all this change, evolution, expansion, reinvention actually mean anything if we can’t build something to stand the test of time like a pint of ESB? Sometimes we need a reality check to give us the perspective we need. We need to be able to hold it in our hands, look forward, backward and know our place in the world from it. The challenge is no longer to brew the beer that can’t be replicated, but to brew the beer of the age, that everyone will wish they had brewed first. A beer that in thirty years’ time, someone can taste, and understand, and through that beer look forward and backward with the clarity that only a glass of beer can bring. So go on then, brewers. Brew it.

#EBBC14 – What Did We Learn?

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No time to read yesterday’s 1800-word long read? Forgotten what it said anyway? Here are some rapid-fire highlights from EBBC14 in Dublin. DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!

 

  • Galway Bay have nailed both the heavily-tapped-slightly-gastro-friendly-local with The Black Sheep and the louder, faster, stood up and stamping bar with Brew Dock. DOUBLE THREAT.

 

  • Beer, and not food production, could be why grain was cultivated and therefore why human civilisation exists. Rofl.

 

  • Ancient mounds thought to be used as food stores in ancient Ireland were more likely to be pits used for the making of beer. Wahey!

 

  • We were told a story about an African tribe still make a beer using a similar method, known as ‘Seven Days’, as it takes seven days to gather the ingredients, seven days to make it, and seven days to recover from the hangover. #lads

 

  • This quote about Irish beer will make you stop what you are doing and wonder aimlessly for a few minutes. So poetry. Much sláinte. Wow.

 

 

  • St James’ Gate had its own worker accommodation, pubs, fire brigade, hospital, ambulance service and railway network. Home is for jerks.

 

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  • Oysters and stout: like drowning a tiny drunken octopus in your throat. Fun!

 

  • Pilsner Urquell’s proper pint mugs – the heavier versions of ones in the UK – make the most satisfying na zdraví clink (or rather clunk) sound in the known universe. It’s like marble gods headbutting.

 

  • Of Foam and Fury was the first commercially available DIPA in the Republic of Ireland, and is at least as good as any in the UK. HOP DIGGITY.

 

  • The reason none of the fantastic beers we tasted in Dublin have made it to the UK is because the Irish are drinking it all. Selfish.

 

  • The people at WordPress made their freebie sunglasses’ lenses to be tinted at ‘hangover-strength’. So, so helpful. Seriously, thank you, WordPress.

 

  • Noticeably absent from the social media talk, Vine might be the best or worst thing to ever happen to beer blogging. In any case, it seems that if you get into a serious Vine collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can:

Of Craft and Craic (Four Nations of Beer – Part 4)

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In a series of four features, I have been examining the beer culture in four countries through the lens of a particular event. This fourth and final part explores the thrilling growth of craft beer in Ireland, observed whilst attending the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin. Here are links to Part 1, featuring the W-Ales Beer Festival; Part 2, on the Bermondsey Beer Mile; and Part 3, about BrewDog’s Punk AGM 2014.

 

Four Nations of Beer has come to an end, and I cannot think of a more climactic and satisfying conclusion than this year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin. Over the course of June I visited four very different cities, with diverse beer cultures in different stages of development, but it has been in Ireland where I found the most to learn about and arguably the most to enjoy.

My trip to Dublin had everything – visits to incredible pubs, a glimpse at breweries both tiny and mind-bogglingly large, and glass after glass of excellent beer. Thursday evening’s optional pub crawl, hosted by eminent Irish beer blogger, Beoir chairman and (if we’re being honest) EBBC14 co-organiser Reuben Gray, was as eye-opening as it was thirst-quenching. The wet, mild evening was brightened with glorious beers in a variety of styles, enjoyed in pubs and bars with tangible atmosphere and a crackle of excitement in the air. This was more than just Dublin’s famous craic – this was a city’s beer culture in euphoric transcendence.

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I’m not suggesting that until we got there, Dubliners were just throwing back pints of muck with nary a thought to what good beer was, far from it. In the UK, the growth of microbreweries, self-identified ‘craft beer’ and the evolution of pubs into ‘beer destinations’ all seem to have happened gradually over several decades. In Ireland, it seems to be all happening at once, or at least, in the space of a few years, lending an intensity and purpose to the beer scene that is deeply infectious. I had a broad sense of this happening in Ireland before we arrived, having read blogs from the likes of Reuben and the Beer Nut, but seeing this in the flesh made it not only real, but alive. We were treated to an intensive crash course in everything that those of us on the other side of the Irish Sea had been missing out on. But did Dublin really have so much to offer to the already jaded palates of bloggers from the craft-fatigued UK and beyond? Unquestionably so.

Many of us (myself included) found a new favourite DIPA in Galway Bay’s Of Foam and Fury, a blisteringly bold and bright lupulin monster, its hop character so muscular and accomplished that the ultimate compliment was paid: reverent, whispered comparisons to Pliny the Elder. Drinking it was an experience all the more bittersweet for knowing that those of us not based in Ireland may not taste it again for some time (more on that later). With their growing chain of popular bars and American-influenced craft beers, the brewer of that delectable beer, Galway Bay Brewery, seems set to be the Republic of Ireland’s more subdued answer to something like BrewDog. Note that emphasis, though. Their beers are for the most part US or Irish styles by-the-numbers but done well, and the bars vary from the gastropub-esque Black Sheep to the more vertical-drinking-orientated and lively Brew Dock (which even sounds like… never mind). But there’s a spirit there, an active participation in the changing of the local beer landscape, that reminded me somewhat of BrewDog. Whether Galway Bay grow at anything approaching a similar rate would be interesting to see.

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There are of course many other skilled  brewers among this new, younger breed, brewing beers with distinctive character and, in many cases, a sense of humour that is essential to a profession so challenging and fraught with hardship. We had the opportunity to meet many of these brave people at different showcases of Irish beer at The Church, the venue where much of EBBC was held, and there were some truly exemplary beers on display. Rascals Brewing Co, of Rathcoole in Co Dublin, impressed many of us with both their sweetly subtle and spicily nuanced Wit Woo Belgian-style witbier, and their extremely accomplished Ginger Porter, which showed judicious restraint in its ginger character, using just enough to heighten the sharper and sweeter edges of the beer. There was something very assertive about the beers brought along by Blacks of Kinsale: among them a Kinsale Pale Ale (above) with a light, just-sweet-enough body and bitterness like the fast jabs of a boxer; and a Black IPA that was rich, sexy and seemed to know it. Trouble Brewing brought a lovely Lazy Sunday Saison, which prickled the palate with tropical fruit juice in a crisply spicy body, and Big Bear brown ale, which was like a warming slice of coffee cake served with a hug. N17, started by Ireland’s only [first – see this comment from The Beer Nut] female beer sommelier Sarah Roarty in January this year, got a lot of appreciative nods and respectful noises for its Oatmeal Stout served on cask, a deeply decadent and sumptuously smooth example of the style to rival the best. On the Thursday night pub crawl, N17’s neatly balanced Rye ale was enjoyed at the Norseman pub in Temple Bar, where it was served in the most ‘craft’ of methods: through a Randall packed with American hops.

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Whilst many of these breweries were new, each were producing a range that suggested an eagerness to expand. With so many delicious new Irish beers being enjoyed over the weekend, those of us based in the UK were at a loss to understand why we hadn’t seen any cross the Irish Sea. I asked this at the Irish brewers’ panel Q&A at the conference and was told that, quite simply, they can barely make enough to supply Irish demand, never mind the ravenous craft-thirsty palates of the UK. Reuben pointed out that Carlow, brewers of the Goliath-beating O’Hara’s Stout, used to export the vast majority of their beer to foreign markets, but that now that position is reversed, as the Irish appetite for craft beer has rapidly increased. Hopefully, with the help of organisations like Beoir (Ireland’s beer consumer group) and the Vanguard Beer Collective (which helps small Irish brewers get their beer on sale in more outlets), the growing reputation of Irish craft beer will get UK importers interested, and change the perception of Irish beer being only one brand.

Speaking of which, bloggers attending the conference were invited by Guinness to visit St James’ Gate on the Friday evening for a tour of the new brewhouse and an evening of food and beer. Brewhouse #4, intended to take the place of Brewhouses 2 and 3 in terms of capacity, was a spectacle few of us were expecting. Having been escorted through the city-within-a-city that is St James’ Gate, through tunnels and between titanic vessels and buildings, we eventually found ourselves in a building with a clean, clinical white interior. A door, or rather, part of a wall opened, and we were faced with Brewhouse #4 in all its glory. As guided bloggers stood, mouths agape, in a room about the size of a football pitch (or three), I tried to place some sense of scale on it. The biggest brewery I’ve seen recently is BrewDog’s new site at Ellon, where they recently proudly announced a fifth brewhouse vessel. Here, the coppers and kettles seem to run on and on to the horizon, in a space that looked like the first brewery on the Moon. We were politely asked not to take photos of it, but even those that did failed to capture its panoramic size and scale.

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Being shown something that size made Guinness seem all the more vast, alien and robotic, and they obviously were aware of this. We were then escorted into a large function bar at the Storehouse and treated to pairings of various beers with different foods, each with a local Irish ingredient. Here, the brewers we were introduced to in the gigantic brewhouse mingled freely with bloggers, took questions, and asked us just who we were exactly, to get treated to all this food and drink? “Good question,” many replied. “I just write a blog.” “I’ve written some bits and pieces.” “A couple of books.” “All about beer, yes.” The idea of beer writers, at least, is still something of a foreign (extra) concept to them. Whilst there were FES marinated burgers, oysters, pale ale battered fish and more besides, some of us were taken with things far less obvious. Guinness had recently run a competition among the brewing staff to brew a new beer, and one of the entries, Night Porter, was very impressive indeed – a really chocolaty, crisply bitter porter that made Guinness Extra Stout, Draught and even FES seem rather sluggish by comparison.

Still, while Guinness’ attempts at openness seemed heartfelt, talk of their tap-covering stunts on Arthur’s Day and the like persisted over the course of the weekend. This was a global brand, managed by one of the world’s biggest drinks companies, and whilst the marketing and hospitality we witnessed was of the highest possible standard, ultimately that’s all it was: marketing and hospitality. As for changes in their beer lineup, the Smithwick’s Pale Ale, hopped with Amarillo we are told, was decent enough, but must surely be aimed at knocking off the Galway Hooker taps that have fought tooth-and-nail to be alongside the mainstream draught brands in Irish bars. If the Diageo Empire is trying to strike back, does that then spell doom for the rag-tag rebel alliance of Irish microbrewers? Almost certainly not.

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Breweries the size of Guinness obviously turn as slowly as ocean liners in tar, and if they are only now getting behind the idea of a hoppy pale ale, it will be years before it occurs to them to make saisons or DIPAs, by which time the craft brewers will have mastered barrel-ageing, blending, wild fermentation and so on. Given what they have achieved in the past few years, and in some cases, the past few months, it’s difficult not to be excited. What I expect, and hope, to see is the continuing redefining of Irish beer’s identity, whether that means reinventing traditional beer styles, unearthing and mastering ancient ones, or pioneering something entirely new. The recent crowd-funded brew between Beoir members and Blacks of Kinsale – ‘Beoir #1’, a juicy, buzzing and belligerent DIPA – is an extremely promising example of a beer community growing, and prospering, together. Beoir #1 would have been the first commercially-brewed DIPA in Ireland, were it not for a certain Pliny-esque beer from Galway Bay.

And so, when I returned home to London, I found myself thinking about Of Foam and Fury once more, and what it represents. That artwork, reminiscent of both a stained glass window and the sailor tattoos of twinkly-eyed old barfly, is evocative of the booming waves of these new beers washing clean the Guinness-stained soul of Ireland’s beer culture. With those waves comes a sound: a powerful, resonating note, of voices raised in euphoria in Temple Bar at midnight; of the heavy clunk of mugs full of bright beer in dim light; of victory over the old and the stale; of craft and craic.

BrewDog #PunkAGM2014 (Four Nations of Beer – Part 3)

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This isn’t exactly the blog post I thought I was going to write. I have been very firm in my conviction that BrewDog is entering Phase 2, and shrugging off so much that has stopped them from being respected by so many people. Instead, last weekend I saw a conflicting image of the brewery that has left such an indelible mark on the British brewing landscape.

The AGM 2012 was a messy but fun sort of riot. Massively underestimating demand was as much a part of BrewDog as any notions of ‘punk’ back then, so it was expected that their first go at an event that size would be hit and miss. The hits outweighed the misses though, and it was still a great weekend. In 2013, there were noticeable improvements in every area, a sign that they were listening as much as they were shouting. It was a far slicker, better organised event that got just about everything right. Seeing the new Ellon brewery, and the profound sense of gratitude from the people who work for BrewDog, said a lot. The company was ready not just to grow, but also to grow up.

This year, that slickness became over-confidence, and organisational problems that many assumed BrewDog had outgrown once more reared their heads with a vengeance. 2012’s cries of QueueDog once more became the bon mot exchanged in the line for the bar, of which there were only two. It wasn’t all bad though. After 6pm, a lot of people left of their own accord, either because they were bored to death, or because Idlewild finished playing and that’s all they were there for (or mostly what they were there for). Still, that’s not exactly what I would call ‘everything going to plan’. I understand that BrewDog are limited by the AECC in the number of bars they can have and where they can be, but this might be the year they realise the AECC just isn’t the venue they need anymore.

If it’s becoming difficult to have enough bars and taps to keep 4000+ people from being thirsty, BrewDog want to consider a different approach – such as taking the AGM on the road, a BrewDog Tour if you will. There are now BrewDog bars across the length and breadth of the land, just as well-spread as the shareholders themselves. Doing four, smaller events in say, Aberdeen, Manchester, Birmingham and London, would ease the pressure on the bars, allow more brewers and bands local to each event to be involved and help out, and make it a real spectacle. Having said that, they could easily end up with 4000+ people coming to the London one alone. Still, the way BrewDog is going, they will have to either massively expand the AGM or take it on tour eventually.

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So what did go right? Well, all the beers were in great condition, a wide range of stuff hit the taps from other brewers such as Mikkeller, Stone, Magic Rock, Cromarty and Gypsy Inc, and it was as fairly priced as it has been in the past (£8 for 5 tokens, average pint cost 2 tokens, depending on strength). The problem was, when a new beer came on (invariably a highly-sought-after, one-off rare beer), everyone queuing at the bar ordered four of them, and seven staff themselves would then have to queue for access to just a single tap. When there’s upwards of a hundred people at the bar waiting, you can imagine how long it took to get served – too long, way too long. More often than not, the beer you were queuing to get would be finished, replaced by another beer, which then ran out by the time you managed to be served. It was frustrating.

That isn’t to say that some of those beers weren’t worth waiting for – far from it. Among a stellar cast of Stone, Magic Rock, Mikkeller and so on, it was actually many of BrewDog’s beers that really blew me away. Jackhammer was on predictably excellent form, and Dog C was a more refined beast than its previous incarnations, a smoother body that blended its heavy, thick and spicy flavours with real panache. This year’s #Mashtag, and imperial red ale, was balanced to the point of being dangerous at 9% abv, its fruity, malty depths balanced by subtle spiciness and a long hop finish. Black Eyed King Imp, a test brew of Cocoa Psycho with chocolate and coffee, barrel aged for 2 years, was a marvel, somehow both juicy with stewed fruit and darkly bitter, with the barrel casting a long shadow over the palate. It was Everyday Anarchy that impressed me the most, a very on-trend French white wine barrel-aged imperial saison that positively danced on the palate, rich and vinous with stone fruit yet bright and sharp and clean in purpose. These were all hugely accomplished beers, the kind that keep BrewDog right at the top of the scene.

While the organisation of the AGM itself was still lacking in several important areas, the updates and plans of the company itself were far more impressive. For one thing, BrewDog is now in a position to fully expand the Ellon brewery site to its full potential, meaning they will effectively more that double capacity over the course of the next 12 months. Furthermore, full-time tasting panels and a comprehensive lab setup will ensure quality remains a constant during this period of further expansion, and new automated packaging lines will help ensure that they can get things into the supply chain faster. The new onsite bar, DogTap, is close to completion, and more BrewDog bars have been announced for Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton, Clapham. BottleDogs will also be coming to Birmingham and Leeds (in the case of Leeds, being converted into one from the current tiny bar).

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By far the most significant announcement was the BrewDog Investment Fund, which will see BrewDog provide funding to new breweries to support their growth. James Watt announced at the AGM that Brew By Numbers is the first beneficiary of this fund, with £100,000 being invested in their brewery (this was tweeted and then deleted by the BrewDog twitter account, suggesting the announcement may have been slightly ahead of schedule) [UPDATE 30/6: see here for full details of the BrewDog Investment Fund]. As I said in my last post, BBNo are hitting all the right notes lately. They could easily be the new Kernel, and it’s impressive and heartening that BrewDog is interested in contribution to the beer scene in this way. It’s been something I’ve discussed with people more and more lately – that the time has come for certain breweries to take a position of leadership and help sustain this thing we’re all enjoying so much. BrewDog, among others, are capable of doing so much good, and I was really pleased to see this Fund being set up.

So, what to make of all this? There’s no way to judge Scotland’s brewing scene on the BrewDog AGM alone, but BrewDog always seem to be at the front of things in the UK overall. BrewDog are more than just a Scottish brewery, they’re an international bar business, importer and now fundraiser for craft brewing. There are still disconcerting signs of them taking their eye off the ball occasionally. Being kindly asked by James and Martin to enjoy the AGM responsibly, then having to join an hour-long queue for food, seemed ridiculous. But there are too many good things to ignore here, and I maintain that there was more than enough evidence of BrewDog growing up as a brewer and a company. Their recent blog post acknowledge the long queues, and they have also emailed attendees with a feedback form about the AGM. Ultimately, they are still the best brewery in the UK at inspiring a younger generation of craft beer drinkers and bottling that enthusiasm, no one else even comes close. I think BrewDog are finally coming to terms not just with how big or fast or important they are, but also the responsibility that this places on their shoulders. Their ability to capture people’s imaginations is at the heart of that, and there is no questioning their impact on British brewing. I’ll end with a quote from Greg Koch of Stone, who crystallised that neatly in the AGM’s opening speech:

“Without everybody’s enthusiasm, we couldn’t have got to where we are today – and the change is amazing, is it not?”

A Murky Mile (Four Nations of Beer Part 2)

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In a series of four features, I will be examining the beer culture in four countries through the lens of a particular event. This second part looks at the all-new craft beer institution that is the Bermondsey Beer Mile and just how varied and mature the London beer scene has become. Read Part 1, featuring the W-Ales Beer Festival, here.

The Bermondsey Beer Mile is so craft it hurts. Five microbreweries, ranging from the fresh-faced Anspach and Hobday to the more established like Brew By Numbers and Partizan to the already legendary like The Kernel, are dotted along a line (easily over a mile if we’re being pedantic, especially if you travel in an irregular fashion) in east London. I joke to people that in the future, archaeologists will incorrectly reason that railways were built to connect all the capital’s breweries. In Bermondsey, you would be forgiven for thinking just that.

No sooner had ‘The Mile’ become A Thing than people were complaining about how busy it was at every brewery. Beer geeks could be seen plotting innovative strategies of ‘tackling’ the Mile on Twitter, trying to outwit the hordes and be front of the line for a fresh 2/3rds at each brewery. The reality is that it is a bit difficult to do it in a straightforward way, but I think that for some people that’s part of the fun.

So what’s the appeal? Well, generally speaking, the Bermondsey Beer Mile offers some of the best beer in London, at relatively low cost (£3 for 2/3rds of a pint, unless otherwise indicated) and the opportunity to drink as fresh as is feasibly possible. When done in a mob group of fellow wankers seasoned beer enthusiasts, it can make for a wonderful day. Also, naturally, it gives one a rather profound insight into how ‘craft’ is doing in London right now, so on 14th June I made the journey to Bermondsey and did the mile with some excellent drinking partners.

In Brew By Numbers, where our Mile began, we have a brewery rapidly graduating into that ‘2011-2012 Kernel’ sort of phase, where almost everything they do is brand new and quite exemplary. I love the branding, but the actual numbering system is a bit annoying to me still (who asks for the number at the bar and not the beer ‘s name?). After an exhilaratingly crisp and juicy Motueka and Lime Saison, I ask for a Session IPA Mosaic and, like my fellow Milers, am simply blown away by it. The aroma is a spectacular bouquet of tropical fruits that comfortably makes the case for ‘fresh is best’. The beer’s palate is like an electric conduit of lime, orange and mango jacked right into your tongue, ripe with pith and bitterness. The vibe at BBNo is very laid-back, with a very simple layout of benches outside that encouraged a sociable drinking atmosphere. Given how great their beers are tasting at the moment, they may need to work out how accommodate far greater numbers of people.

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Meanwhile, at The Kernel, now closing early (at 2pm) due to its arch-busting popularity, we are greeted by nothing less than a fort of iconic brown paper-clad bottles. The last time I was inside The Kernel, it was a cave of pallets, bottles, boxes and just stuff. Now it seems sharper, more organised, not corporate but certainly a professional appearance honed by a growing legion of fans and regular custom. One cavernous arch is given over entirely to customers, seated or otherwise. Some fantastic beers were on draught, including the collaboration with Camden Town Brewery, Gentleman’s Agreement, a barrel-aged blend of Camden Gentleman’s Wit and Kernel London Sour. It’s a truly stunning beer, its apple-skin and sharply sour edges injected with lemon and grapefruit juiciness and rounded by tannic, oaky notes. It’s a technical marvel – enormously flavoursome and complex for a beer at 4.3% abv.

There is a very promising trend in blending and barrel-aging at the moment, something that really shows a maturation (no pun intended) of the British beer scene. Sure, we still love to throw hops at beers like there’s no tomorrow, but we’re also experimenting in esoteric methods and using real skill to – and I mean this as a verb – craft beer. I expect to see more of this in the next year, as the more accomplished new breweries each seek to up their game in this area.

After The Kernel came Partizan, which was tricky to find. It required traversing an active (and very noisy) building site and following an extremely ‘craft’ hand drawn cardboard sign. There were more cardboard signs inside, at the tiny bar in front of Partizan (formerly The Kernel’s) brewkit. The beers on offer included some delectable-looking saisons and IPAs. Another trend I’ve noticed of late is beers infused with different types of tea, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much every one I’ve had. The one on offer at Partizan, an Iced Tea Saison, was too tempting to resist, especially at its sensible strength of 3.9% abv. Unfortunately, it was just a bit too thin, with not enough tea flavour to justify its name. When I think of the best tea-infused beers I’ve had, they tended to be bigger bodied styles – IPAs and porters, so perhaps a different approach to the saison recipe is needed as well as using more tea. Still, it was further evidence that the more established breweries on the Mile are Thinking In New Ways. Partizan are great brewery and I’ve no doubt that, with their track record, they’ll master this style in no time.

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At the next stop, Fourpure, tucked away in an industrial estate at the other end of The Mile, we have a glimpse of the future, or at least an alternate version of the present. This is an example of The American Way: a shiny new brewery with towers of brightly-coloured cans, a brewery tap bar slinging schooners of the freshest draught beer and, naturally, a ping pong table next to the canning line. The friendly bubbling of beery conversation around long tables is occasionally punctuated by a ping pong ball bouncing off a piece of brewing equipment or a tower of hollow aluminium cans. Special mention must also be given to the pulled pork sausage rolls available at the bar, which were nothing short of majestic. It’s a warm and welcoming place, but then it has to be, given that it’s the furthest flung of the Bermondsey Mile breweries.

Here, many of us partook of another Session IPA, though Fourpure’s example was a subtler and smoother beast designed to be enjoyed by the six-pack. Still, it was refreshingly crisp and had some nicely nuanced depths to its hop character, though it’s certainly not the fireworks of the Session IPA Mosaic we had at Brew By Numbers earlier that day. There’s certainly a lot of ‘Session IPA’ going about in London now, which is a very American take on something we already do quite well – fresh, bright hoppy pale ales. I don’t have a problem with the name exactly, and it doesn’t matter what we, and I mean beer geeks, think of the name. Ultimately, if consumers as a whole find it useful, it will stick around, just like so many beer style names in the past.

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My Mile ended somewhat inauspiciously at the opposite end from Fourpure, in the arch shared by Bullfinch and Anspach & Hobday, a brewery of which I am rather fond. I hold A&H’s Smoked Brown, Table Porter and IPA in high regard, particularly for a such a new brewery. Whenever I have had their beers from the bottle or at a Craft Beer Co, they’ve been sublime. Their Smoked Tea Porter, a recent collaboration with Melissa Cole, hit all the right notes and was impressively balanced – one of the best tea-infused beers I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, this particular visit saw some fellow Milers given some below-average beers that seemed not entirely ready to serve, and there was one glass of The Pale which took London Murky to its extreme. The beer was everything that unfined beer critics would just love to be served: an opaque liquid the colour of a manilla envelope that couldn’t have finished fermenting. The beer was exchanged but not taken off sale. Concerns were raised with the brewers and were duly noted, but it was still a low point on which to end the Mile.

There’s a lot of spite and anger about unfined and unfiltered beer at the moment, much of it directed at new brewers, some of whom are even accused of deliberately ‘murky’-ing their beer to be ‘cool’. The fact is that many of these newer brewers simply do not have the technology to stop their beers being as hazy (and I mean hazy, not murky) as they are, and many are often trying to meet exceedingly high demand for their beers. However, there is no excuse for charging money for a beer that should simply not be served, and this was one of those instances. This time A&H fell short, but I have no doubt that on another visit, I’ll have a great beer from them. It’s just a matter of being more patient with their beers, and being absolutely certain they are ready for sale. They can only lose out by trying to serve beer that will harm their reputation, just in an effort to be part of The Mile’s buzz.

You might think that this all adds up to a very mixed review of The Mile, and you’d be right. As a measure of where craft beer in London is right now, the Bermondsey Beer Mile is perhaps more indicative of the ‘bleeding edge’ – barrel-aged blends, tea-infused saisons, session IPAs and gleaming canning lines – but it’s an edge that cuts both ways.  The fact is, The Bermondsey Beer Mile, this dazzling rainbow of London craft beer in its many forms, approaches, intentions and futures, is a murky beast indeed. The Mile needs time and a stronger sense of cohesion to become the finely-honed showcase of the best beer in London. A nice start might be a collaboration brew from the five breweries involved. I hope that over the summer the Mile is shaped into something we can proud of. As it is right now, I’m willing to be patient. Great beer deserves patience and London deserves great beer.

In the next part of Four Nations of Beer, I review the controlled chaos of BrewDog’s shareholder AGM 2014, and see if Scotland’s squeakiest wheel brightest burning light is still at the front of the ‘craft beer revolution’.

New Dog, Old Tricks

(‘black white red all over’ by istolethetv, from Flickr, under Creative Commons)

 

I know, I know. Writing about BrewDog is so 2009, but then, so is what’s been happening between the brewer and the Portman Group this week. I also know that this is how the BrewDog PR model works – people writing about them, so they don’t have to – but there’s something important to be said here. In this latest spat, Portman took a deep – and from its own point of view entirely justified – disliking to the ‘live fast’ language on Dead Pony Club’s label.

BrewDog’s response was much in line with what we’ve seen years ago. The sinking of eager teeth into that always-exposed juicy flank of the drinks industry: its clumsy and flabby self-regulatory body the Portman Group. Portman totally had it coming, and deserved every spit-laced snarl, but it all felt very familiar, didn’t it? The reaction online was very much ‘same-old, same-old’, but I was concerned by just how ‘retro’ this seemed.

Lately, we’ve seen signs of what could be called ‘phase 2’ of BrewDog, which began with the opening of the more subdued, mature and less branding-heavy bar in Shepherd’s Bush (now easily their most celebrated in London). Was this a one-off, we wondered, or the start of something new? The appearance of the newly-opened BrewDog Sheffield and refurbished beer board of BrewDog Shoreditch suggested that this was The New Way, and indicated, along with some more thoughtful and artistic recent beer releases, access to Cicerone training for staff and shareholders, and a very gradual attitude shift, that we might be seeing a transformation into a newer, maturer BrewDog.

No longer would they need to shout, point and make an exhibition of themselves to get column inches, demand they can’t supply, or popularity beyond their grasp. People come to BrewDog now, not the other way round, thanks in part to the growing international chain of bars. The company (which, I note, is not a term ascribed to many other breweries, perhaps because so few of the newer wave have such a firmly-established estate) is a definitive peak on the UK’s craft beer landscape that we can all point to and say ‘things are different now, look at that‘. So why set this transformation back for the sake of a few (albeit deserved) laughs at the Portman Group?

Based on the subject of recent surveys sent by email to shareholders and BrewDog website users, there have been hints that the brewer’s branding itself is potentially subject to change. Some questions asked what the labels seemed to imply about the company and the beer in the bottle. My own view is that the branding is well overdue an upgrade to keep up with the best of UK’s scene (and why they haven’t asked Johanna Basford to design all of their labels is beyond me). Perhaps, in keeping with the forward-looking ‘phase 2’, a rebrand is on the horizon that would result in labels that wouldn’t have raised the hackles of the Portman Group in the first place.

After all, that label copy is from a couple of years ago, and it seems that BrewDog’s response to the Portman Group’s ruling came from a similar time period. I wonder if, had the Portman Group left it a few months, there wouldn’t even be a label to complain about. As it stands, it feels like we’ve just done a bit of time travel, with no discernible benefits for anyone. BrewDog came under attack for something quite old and responded with the only weapon at their disposal, one just as dated.

As a shareholder, I’m looking forward to seeing more of ‘phase 2’ BrewDog at this year’s AGM, and I hope this week has just been a blip on an otherwise promising progression to something better.

100 Best Breweries Bonus Content: Interview with Camden Town Brewery’s Alex Troncoso

 

Alex Troncoso at the Camden Town Brewery Bar
Alex Troncoso at the Camden Town Brewery Bar

 

Our new issue of Craft Beer –  ‘The 100 Best Breweries in The World’ was such a huge piece of work that not everything fitted into the pages of the finished magazine. A few bits and pieces of interesting stuff were regrettably cut for space, so in the interest of completeness, and to give you a taster of the content in the magazine, I’ll be posting some ‘bonus content’ here for the good men and women who read this blog.

First up is an interview with Camden Town Brewery’s Head Brewer and all-round top bloke, Alex Troncoso:

 

Alex Troncoso joined Camden Town Brewery at the start of 2013, having previously worked at Little Creatures in Australia, where he was Chief Brewer and Head of Brewing Development.

 

What does brewing mean to you?

There’s a quote from a homebrewing book that I really like: “Art meets Science and has a beer”. I like that it’s highly technical but also creative. It’s greater than the sum of its parts, you know? You can calculate colour, you can calculate bitterness, analyse those and think that’s probably about right. Roughly estimate what you attenuation is going to be, your level of alcohol, but you can’t calculate flavour or exactly what it’s going to be. I like the fact it’s technical, there’s a lot of history, and it still involves artistry in some ways.

 

Who inspires you as a brewer?

What I like to say is that companies that are grounded, who have a strong commitment to what they’re doing, big ones like Sierra Nevada who are still a fantastic brewery, we can all aspire to be like them. The kind of guys who have been in a brewing company, and made it to a certain level of capacity, they run everything like a military operation, they can control quality, efficiency all that sort of thing. Using all the technology in the world, not to make things cheaply but to make things better.

So that’s what I like about what we do here. It’s very hands-on and we’re very small here. What we’re doing is using a lot of technology to take out some of the less important work so we can focus on the more important work.

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How would you describe Camden’s beers to someone who has never had them before?

In my previous life, I worked for another brewery called Little Creatures. Their Pale Ale was at the time, like crazy bitter, but now it’s like normal bitterness – 42 IBUs or something – but at the time I started it was insane.

Regardless of the bitterness level, we always strived to have a certain balance to everything we made, and that’s what I’m trying to do at Camden. Anything we make, even if it’s a bit bigger, like Camden Versus Odell, or the Camden Versus Italy Märzen, even with things like that we try to keep the balance.

At Little Creatures I was used to making bottle-conditioned pale ale, lots of it, so that was a lot of fun but it was also quite complicated. The process of something like Camden Hells is simpler, but in a lot of ways it’s more difficult to make, because there’s nowhere to hide any mistakes! With Hells, it’s very easy for it to be too bitter, or too sweet, and every single beer has its own sweet spot to it.

It’s just a matter of dialling it in and figuring out where it is, but also remembering that the sweet spot might change from year to year. At times, say like this year, Pale at the moment is about 42 IBU, next year we could push it to 45, or maybe it has to be 38, and that can be dictated by the hop crop that year [and what we have to work with].

So anyway, balance. You got to remember, you’re not going to appeal to everyone, but I just want to put something on the bar that looks great, smells great and tastes great.

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Which of your beers do you feel is your greatest achievement?

From our one-off beers, I think Camden Versus Odell. It’s bloody brilliant! It was all pretty casual, we spoke to Doug Odell, we’d talked about what we should do, we originally wanted to do a lager, but we had kind of already done a highly hopped lager, with SKA Brewing. They suggested using Cutthroat Porter as the base for a beer, I went back and said ok, but let’s do it as a Baltic Porter, make it a bit stronger. Scaled everything up but used in the same proportions. That was really fun.

 

And the most difficult?

The one that had me on the edge of my seat was Camden Versus Italy: the Märzen (a German lager beer style traditionally brewed in March and matured over the summer). When we brewed it, it looked great, colour was bang on, bitterness level was bang on. But when I started tasting at the start of the maturation period, it wasn’t right. It tasted bitter as hell, looked like swamp water and I thought “Oh my God!”

We brewed the beer with three different Italian brewers, so they’d each be asking me “How’s the beer coming along?” and I’m thinking “Oh shit.” It got to the point where I thought we would have to dump it. I was really, really nervous. I kept saying to myself “Don’t panic! Give it time,” like every day, checking it. And over time, the flavours gradually came together, getting slightly better every day, until after the three weeks of maturation after fermentation, it just kind zoned in to where it needed to be. Then it ended up tasting fantastic!

I spoke to this German brewer about it, explaining how I was really panicking about it, and he just  said “ah, the Marzen takes time,” and I was like “ah, okay.” But it was great for everyone on the team to see how a beer can change and get better, and it reinforced that, with the lager beers especially, we need to give them time.

 

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Since the brewery bar opened, Camden has always had a really strong connection to local street food vendors. Do you have a favourite beer and food match?

Yeah, man: Motherflipper burgers! They’re here tonight and I’ll definitely be having one of those later. I’ll probably slam one of those with a pint of Unfiltered Hells.

 

Are there any special beers planned for 2014?

We have lots of ideas, so we worry more about how we’re going to be able to do them all! To try and get anything special fitted in, we need to plan quite far ahead, at least 3 months in advance because the tank schedule is just so full. We have about 5 ‘Versus’ collaboration beers in the schedule now and a few other little things, too.

 

You can read more interviews with the world’s top brewers in ‘Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World’, now available in newsagents and online.

The Road to Craft

(‘#240/365’, by Kirsty Andrews, from Flickr, under Creative Commons)

Like it or not, the C word is being adopted by larger brewers – sometimes tentatively and with caution (“oh, did we say craft-brewed? We didn’t realise, we’re just so laid back and chillaxed over here at Fusty McOldtimey Ales”), other times enthusiastically, or sometimes misguidedly.

The larger of the UK’s regional brewers seem more comfortable with its use, at least as a marketing term. It’s often used to denote a separate range of beers brewed with more thought to experimentation and flavour. The success and credibility of these ranges are undoubtedly linked.

Batemans, that windmilled, cask ale stalwart, might seem a little late to this party, but clearly a lot of thought has gone into what is a very stark rebranding for this traditional brewer. As far as they’re concerned, they are a craft brewer, have been and always will be, it’s just time that everyone was made fully aware of the fact. To prove it, they are launching range after range of new beers, with one seasonal range inspired by biscuits. Not single variety hops or spirit barrels. Biscuits. Is this a down-to-earth, craft ‘reboot’ of a traditional brewer, or just something rather odd?

Batemans

The launch of the rebranding was recently held at the Folly in the City of London, where I got to say hello to the leading family members of Batemans, Jaclyn and Stuart, as well as other folk from the brewery and some familiar faces from the beer writing community.

There were some interesting messages to be taken from the launch, and it took some pondering to really understand it all. On the one hand, we have a CAMRA poster-brewery, one that has survived threats to its ownership, had ups and downs – and survived by doing things broadly the same way – suddenly grasping the appellation of ‘craft’ with both hands. There was even mention of their beers going into key kegs to help get it outside of its normal distribution zone. This all suggests, at least to some extent, a forward-thinking attitude.

There seem to be some missteps, though. Whilst the Sovereign Range of Bohemian Brews are niche, sweet-flavoured beers in 330ml packaging that’s smart and modern whilst carefully conveying traditional roots, the rebranding of the core beer range is less aesthetically pleasing. A three-colour stripe theme, with a logo of a artfully drawn windmill, seems more ‘health food’ than ‘craft beer’. The red and white stripes on one label remind me of toothpaste. Yet, it isn’t wholly unlikeable, and it should be noted that the beer itself hasn’t changed. The little tags assuring drinkers of each beer’s extended maturation time are eye-catching, and get the message of ‘specialness’ across.

Looking slightly more critical than I intended. (photo courtesy of Matt Curtis)
Looking slightly more critical than I intended. (photo courtesy of Matt Curtis)

There was also a bit of a confusing doublethink on the idea of ‘craft’, claiming defiantly that they are as craft as it gets, and wanting us all to know that, whilst also seeming to shrug off the idea of claiming to be craft for craft’s sake. We are craft, but talking about what craft beer is is a waste of time. In Stuart Bateman’s view, ‘you don’t need to have a ponytail and bandana to be a craft brewer’. Damn those craft brewers with their ponytails and bandanas and Pacman video games. You’d think an easier jibe would be beards/tattoos.

Some might see Stuart’s ‘joke’ about craft brewers as a misunderstanding of the craft beer scene, but I see it more as a kind of cheerful innocence. Batemans operate in a vacuum to some extent, free of any of these upstart ‘craft’ types. Their beers are more likely to sit alongside Doom Bar, Greene King and the more traditional Yorkshire micros. What is refreshing is that they do not seem to associate ‘craft’ or ‘innovation’ exclusively with a sudden fascination with hops. For good or ill, they have concentrated on brewing beers that are defined by sweetness, in all its shades. That might sound limiting, but they’re brewing beers that other people aren’t, and as a result come across as more genuine than, say, Greene King’s craft range. More importantly, the beers that are called ‘Hazelnut Brownie’ and ‘Mocha Amaretto’ and ‘Chocolate Biscuit’ taste exactly as the label describes them. Most beers passing themselves off as chocolate stouts these days can’t even do that.

A Basket of Bateman's Bohemian Brews
A Basket of Bateman’s Bohemian Brews

My chief concern is that Batemans have too many ranges. A core range, a Bohemian Brews range, a Biscuit Barrel seasonal range, plus a new Salem Bridge range to boot. If they have the capacity and ideas to keep all of those balls in the air, I will be very impressed. I would be more impressed if they stuck to one solid ‘craft’ range alongside their traditional output, poured all of that creativity into it, and got those beers in the best pubs and bars in the country. As I mentioned earlier, when brewers like these do a separate ‘craft’ range, credibility and success go together. Whilst the rebranding is motivated by good intentions, Batemans could be gambling the credibility they already have for credibility they cannot easily obtain. Hopefully, they will broaden their appeal, and not accidentally narrow it.

Batemans sent attendees to the launch home with a goody bag of glassware, Lincolnshire cheese and plumbread, a stick of rock, some other odds and ends, and a beer or two. One was a 140th anniversary beer, and I selected the Mocha Amaretto below to review as an example of the Sovereign Range of Bohemian Brews.

Batemans Mocha Amaretto - 6.5% abv
Batemans Mocha Amaretto – 6.5% abv

Beer Review: Mocha Amaretto – Batemans – 6.5% abv

A dark, mahogany-coloured ale. Pours with a lively head that calms down quickly to a thin collar. Displaying a slight and mischievous ruby glow when held to the light, Mocha Amaretto could, fittingly, pass for coffee at a glance.

The name of this beer is spelled out in capitals on the label, and its aroma is similarly emphatic: marzipan and toffee, intensified by boozy notes of chocolate liqueur. A creamy coffee character tries to make itself known, but the amaretto is the dominant aspect.

On the palate the beer moves quickly, hitting the key targets on the sweet section of your palate with chocolate and marzipan, delivering a slick, nutty, chewable texture across the tongue, before sliding off on a wave of caramel. The coffee is present as a roasted bitterness in the finish, but it’s indulgently sweet overall. A touch more roast would balance it out, but then this beer isn’t really about ‘balance’.

It’s a good example of the whole range. This isn’t just ‘a beer that tastes a bit like mocha and amaretto’, this is a Mocha Amaretto beer in a very vivid, uncompromising way. In that regard, it’s an unquestionable success.