‘Danksauce’

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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

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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.

 

#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.

Race To The Middle – What I learned judging at the World Beer Awards

Last month I was invited to judge at the yearly World Beer Awards, at which over 400 beers are submitted to the Europe panel alone. It was on the European judging panel that I learned an important lesson about the beer market, and the perils facing emerging craft brewers.

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As the second round of Hefeweizens finds their numbered positions on the placemat in front of me, a fresh cloud of clove, banana and bubblegum fills my nostrils. It’s the fourth style I’ve tasted so far on the first day of judging at the World Beer Awards, and I’m having the time of my life. I’m tasting some of the finest beers from across Europe, surrounded by seasoned professionals, even having the privilege of judging in a pair with Tim Hampson, the Chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It’s a young beer writer’s dream gig, and one I relished the opportunity of doing.

Beer judging is a strange business – forcing you to accept on one hand that beer is an amazing equaliser that brings people around the world together in simple, pleasing, mildly alcoholic euphoria in their day-to-day lives; and on the other hand that beer is something that must be taken seriously by some in order for others to enjoy it casually.

There’s a frequently repeated assertion that, when tasted blind, without their labels, glassware or reputation to bolster or hinder them, beers in the same style all taste broadly the same. It’s complete crap, of course, but the worry that I might struggle to distinguish from one to the next when ten beers are placed in front of me was a lingering doubt before the judging began. The reality was far stranger than I expected: that some beers would indeed taste almost exactly alike, whilst others in the same category would seem to belong somewhere else entirely – and that these would be the ‘normal’ ones.

What struck me most from my judging experience so far (there are a further two rounds of judging to be completed, so don’t expect me to name any beers that were entered), was that the more populated style categories, those with dozens of commercial examples but which are distinctly European, such as hefeweizen, Tripel, Helles, pale ale, seemed to have a lot in common. Not in terms of flavour or other physical characteristics, but that in each style category there were a large proportion of entries that really did all taste very alike, whilst a handful of outliers proved to be the most interesting for better or worse.

With such traditional beer styles, there is always that fear that you perhaps don’t like a certain more commercial or typical example of the style because you don’t ‘get it’, or you are ignorant of its nuanced charms. This is why my experience taught me so much: most of the time, the unusual and more remarkable outliers were the beers that tasted most atypical or traditional for the style. It was the homogenised mass of commercial beers, all quite deliberately designed to taste like each other, all quite plainly desperate to capture the centre ground, that fascinated me. These beers clearly represented what many people would associate with those beer styles, and yet in comparison with others, were plainly miles away in flavour. So how do I know which ones were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? In many ways, I don’t, or rather, I can’t, but when it comes to flavour and authenticity, I was confident I made the right calls. Reassuringly, my judging partner almost always agreed.

When judging these categories, it can sometimes take a few beers to get one’s ‘eye in’ for the style, after which it can become a box-ticking exercise of discovering which beers have or have not the desired characteristics and excel at displaying them. Other times, more interestingly (for the inquisitive palate), you find each beer provides the dimensions and borders for your appreciation of the subsequent beer, and that the ones after that inform and can cause you to reassess your impression of the earlier ones. I would have loved to have seen a live brain scan of various synapses firing as I tasted different beers (anyone with some spare lab time and equipment leave a comment below). With some categories it was a rollercoaster, causing verbal and physical reactions like reading a good suspense story.

So what to make of these style categories with an abundance of imitators lightened up by occasional marvels? Well, you might not be that surprised that the traditional styles of European beers have become bogged down in the perceived parameters of what they should be, and that those owned by larger concerns lack the flavour of more esoteric or eccentric examples. What concerned me was that amongst the more modern beers, and here I’m referring to hop-forward pale ales as well as modern takes on traditional styles, there was evidence of this same phenomenon. It gave me pause for thought: would the beers I identify now as ‘juicy bangers’, breaking down style boundaries by serving consumer thirst and brewer creativity, face the same fate as the traditional heavyweights? There is early evidence to suggest they might, and more generally I have noticed a gradual move to towards less complex flavours in New World hoppy pale ales as craft beer in the UK gathers apace.

I worry that the beers that are changing everything in UK beer right now might begin to coast, or worse, actively seek a more ‘generic’ mildly citrusy flavour to seek broader appeal, at the cost of their initial promise and early brilliance. We’re seeing more smaller breweries losing that ‘smaller’ modifier, and with that growth comes the temptation to seize margin, to take a firm hold of a certain flavour and make it duller, simpler, cheaper to broaden appeal. There are surely lessons to be learned here from beer styles from around Europe with incredible histories, reputations and flavours, that have been gradually diminished in an attempt to out-average each other in competition.

When the only race is one to the middle, there are no winners, only competitors, caught in a gravity well of their own making, forever chasing after an ideal that in fact lessens what they were before. It’s admirable and encouraging to see smaller breweries try to improve and expand, to provide an ever more stable and commercially successful product to win over more people to the side of good beer. As they do so, they should remain cautious of freely and gladly handing away that which made them great to begin with, and in doing so, becoming yet another competitor in a game they should have no desire to play.

 

My work as a judge at the World Beer Awards is for a fee. My employer, Brew By Numbers, did not enter any beers into this year’s awards.

Worlds Collide: Advice on trademark law for UK brewers exporting to the US

 

(English Language Grunge Flag, by Nicolas Raymond, under Creative Commons)

 

As the world of craft beer becomes ever more litigious, I get advice from legal experts on the risks facing UK brewers with regard to trademark and copyright law when exporting to the US.

 

Beer is a form of cultural currency. I first heard this concept from the lips of Garrett Oliver in his keynote speech at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in 2013, and it really affected me. Looking at the world’s best beverage through the eye of a cooly distant observing scientist reveals that it tends to go where civilisations go, and according to some, may have been crucial in encouraging the nomadic wanders of early humankind to settle and found civilisations in the first place. As beer styles and the ideas behind them have travelled across the globe, first by word-of-mouth (or chiselled Sumerian tablet), then by road, ship, rail, sky and now instantaneous communication, we live in a world of beer that is incredibly connected.

That inter-connectivity has brought with it some fantastic collaborations, but occasionally results in the equivalent of bumping into someone who is wearing the same clothes as you. Legal disputes have become the unpleasant aftertaste to the diverse flavours of craft beer’s meteoric rise, and those over intellectual property (IP) and trademark law are some of the bitterest. Whilst we all know of the more high-profile cases, it’s become a concern to me recently that the fastest-growing of the smaller brewers take their first steps into the export market could find themselves suddenly and catastrophically in costly legal trouble. Some have cottoned on to this risk, others have found out the hard way. As an example, Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi had to be sold under a different name in the States to ensure Ninkasi Brewing wouldn’t take issue.

Of course, I’m not the only one thinking about this. Brendan Palfreyman is an attorney with Harris Beach PLLC in New York, and a major focus of his practice is representing and counselling breweries in the US and abroad on legal issues in the US, including trademark and copyright. Brendan (who you can follow on Twitter, and I recommend you do) is also an award-winning homebrewer and an Allied Member of the New York State Brewers Association. I asked him a few questions about the legal risks faced by UK brewers exporting their beer to the US.

What are the most crucial legal concerns that UK brewers should be aware of regarding trademark and copyright law before exporting their beers to the US?

“The critical body of intellectual property to be concerned about in this regard is trademark, not copyright.  Copyright can play a role, but it’s typically not a major one in beer-related IP disputes. Copyright could come up, for example, with regard to label art/design. Trademark, on the other hand, pertains to brewery names, beer names, logos, and the like.

The most important concern is that a UK trademark will not protect a UK brewer in the US. Another issue is the potential infringement of pre-existing federally registered trademarks – the test in the US is called likelihood of confusion and it is a multi-faceted analysis.

Additionally, a pre-existing federal trademark can be used to prevent the importation of goods, including beer, at the border by US Customs and Border Patrol. This can be devastating for obvious reasons to a UK brewer seeking to export to the US.

Another key issue of which UK brewers should be aware is that the US Patent and Trademark Office has determined that beer, wine, spirits, and likely even cider are related for trademark purposes.  What does this mean?  If there is a preexisting US registered trademark for Ladybug for wine or vodka, it would in all likelihood prevent the registration of the trademark Ladybug for beer.”

 

What can UK brewers do to prevent or remedy these potential problems?

“The two most important things that can be done are proper trademark searching and federal trademark registration. Trademark searches can informally be run on Google and beer rating sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer.

The most important trademark search is done on TESS, or the Trademark Electronic Search System, which is the federal government site. The searches can be somewhat complicated because it’s not just exact matches that can cause problem.  For example, a search for Red Road should also cover Red Street, Road Red, Rad Road, Scarlet Road, etc.

Generally, trademark filings in the US are the best protection a UK brewer can have.  The brewery name is essential, and likely each of the beers that will be imported in any quantity as well.

If a UK brewer already has a UK registered mark, he or she may be able to use that as the basis for a US trademark.  A UK brewer may also wish to take advantage of the Madrid Protocol, of which both the UK and the US are parties.  This allows parties to file a single international application based on at least one preexisting registration, and then to use that to file individual applications in different countries.

Finally, in the US, one can file an ‘intent-to-use’ application up to 2.5 years before actually using the mark in commerce.”

 

Are you aware of any examples where a UK brewer has done exactly the right thing?

“Samuel Smith.  They own, among other trademarks, US Reg. No. 1,341,336 for SAMUEL SMITH for beer, ale, stout, and porter.  They filed this mark on August 16, 1984 and have maintained the mark in the intervening time.”

 

Do you expect to see a lot of high-profile legal action in this area in future?

“Absolutely, there are over 3,800 breweries in the US at present and the numbers are growing every day. This does not take into account the hundreds of breweries importing into the US.  As these numbers continue to grow, trademark disputes are likely to grow as well.

Just recently there was a major and brief lawsuit between big craft beer players Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas.  There was also lawsuit filed in New York recently by Canadian brewer Moosehead against a small NY brewer that makes a root beer called Moose Wizz.

Fortunately, a lot of such disputes are worked out brewer to brewer, often over a pint, and often times the brewers decide to do a collaboration beer rather than to fight it out in court.”

That final point Brendan makes, working things out over a pint or collaboration brew, is really the attitude that needs to be encouraged over defensively or offensively ‘lawyering up’. Whilst that hasn’t always been the case in disputes here in the UK, it’s reassuring to know that legal experts here take a broadly similar view. Nicholas Mitchell is a solicitor at White & Black Legal, and recently wrote an article for the firm on beer-naming disputes that have flared up over here. The key message is be conscientious, practical and reasonable, as demonstrated in the following:

In an industry where over a thousand breweries are regularly launching new beers, without always taking advice, there will always be accidental conflicts over names. However, such issues can be resolved in a reasonably civilised manner and without adverse publicity, for example when Thornbridge Brewery agreed to alter the name of their black IPA “Raven” to “Wild Raven” following a request from The Orkney Brewery, which brews a bitter called “Raven Ale”.

As Nicholas points out, “in an industry so dependent on social media, it is advisable to approach naming disputes in a way that does not leave a bitter taste in the mouth of consumers.

Cheers to that.

Clouds on the horizon, colour in the dark: Interview with Cloudwater Brew Co’s Paul Jones

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Manchester’s Cloudwater Brew Co has launched this month to a mix of high acclaim and wary suspicion. As much of the UK beer scene, and Manchester in particular, welcomes the brewery’s plans and ambitions with open arms and eager tastebuds, a section of the beer-drinking and industry-critical public has already made its mind up. To them, Cloudwater are a slick, self-consciously ‘craft’ brewery riding a wave of hype and getting a mob of blindly-enthusiastic, instantly loyal fans raving about their beers before they have even been put on sale. This very blog post will be treated by the same people as witless flag-waving by yet another sucker. But there’s more to this new brewery than (admittedly very, very pretty) branding and big talk.

The credentials of those involved, formerly of Marble, Summer Wine, BrewDog, Port Street Beer House, and others, isn’t under any doubt. Early tastings of the first batches brewed on Cloudwater’s kit are almost universally favourable. So what’s so controversial? The brewery’s output and designs for the future are unquestionably at odds with traditional brewing industry. That doesn’t mean an eclectic core range of obscure styles, but in fact, no core range at all. Four separate, distinct ranges will release across each year, using the best available ingredients to make the most flavoursome beers that can be made with what’s available. In an industry increasingly filled with tropes and cliches, many see Cloudwater’s approach as thrilling, while others see yet one more gimmick.

The self-stated focus on “modern, seasonal beer”, deliberately side-stepping the C word entirely, is a simple, pure and impressive attitude. Why say you’re craft, when you just are?. What’s really got people talking though, is the size of the venture. The almost industry-standard approach for a financially solvent and confident new brewery is to start out with a 5 BBL (~800 litres) brewhouse. This is seen as a sizeable, serious but cautious investment. Cloudwater are starting with a brewhouse three times that size, and that’s just the beginning. In Britain, we can’t help but be suspicious and critical of those with deep pockets and high ideas of themselves.

I’ve assured myself of the quality of the beer Cloudwater has made so far (the Pale Ale and Table Beer in particular, on cask at the Wenlock Arms at the weekend, were both beguilingly clever and accomplished). What I really wanted to know was the motivation behind Cloudwater, and how they see themselves and the people who are critical of them. Paul Jones, the brewery’s co-founder, was more than happy to oblige. All the people involved in Cloudwater are heartfelt beer lovers and more importantly, genuine and clear-headed people, but Jones is undoubtedly the brewery’s voice, one that is utterly without doubt and unambiguous about what Cloudwater is.

 

Why have you started Cloudwater at this size, when many people would see it as safer and less costly to start small first?

“Whilst it’s true to say that a smaller brewery would have probably cost less, only a third of the cost of our set up has been spent on the brewery itself. The rest of our budget was taken up with infrastructure such as flooring, utility supplies, and the equipment and space necessary to package and store our beer well.

“In his previous brewery, James Campbell comfortably brewed on a similarly sized brewery, and built up the brewery to regional, if not national acclaim. If we would have been starting a new brewery, without a head brewer of 20 years experience, it may have been fitting to start small to see how it goes, but James’ track record is strong, and gave us the confidence (some would say cheek!) to be aspirational.

“I’d like to add that we’re not so fresh faced and youthful as we once were. Food and drink industry employees (along with employees in far too many other industries in the UK) are too often woefully underpaid, and consequently result in businesses staffed in the majority by those young enough to not have yet developed significant financial worries or commitments. If we are to be a business responsible for the long-term wellbeing of our founders and staff, we have to take rather less craft-star things like pensions, living wages, retirement plans into account as early as possible. We’re actually trying to run a business as well as a brewery.

“It would have been much safer to not start a brewery at all, but life is short, and it’s important to do what you believe in and have fun too.”

 

How long did it take you to decide on the size of the brewery you would be building and using?

“We asked many of our friends in the industry for their advice with regards to brew length. The majority suggested we start even bigger (20 and even 30 BBL). If you look at the successes of nearly every brewery that is making great beer right now, you’ll notice many breweries doubling in size in rather short cycles. The resounding opinion was to go for a brewery as big as we could afford.

“What followed was a lengthly process of consultation, investigation, and research as we sought to put as many strong options for our brewhouse on the table as possible.”

 

Did the beers you want to make determine the brewhouse, space and other factors of the planning, or did the recipe designing come afterward?

“Very early on in planning the brewery we talked about how to ensure we had a modern, technically-proficient brewhouse that would allow us to competently make ales and lagers. This very much informed what we looked for, the manufacturers we ruled out early on, and those who we attracted quotes from.

“Planning a brewery means thinking from as many perspectives as possible about space requirements – How much space is needed for raw ingredients, and packaging equipment and packaged goods? What happens if or when we need to install more fermentors or conditioning tanks?

“We poured over our floor plans as many times as we could, but we had just a rough idea of the space we were looking for. In the end, what it really came down to was the types of warehouses and larger archways that were available, and what we thought we needed to do to transform them into the sort of hygienic food production facility a modern brewery is.

“A significant ambition of ours was always to have an open brewery, somewhere we could welcome the public into regularly. To that end, a brewery in the middle of an out of town industrial estate may not have worked so well for us as a new company, so premises in and very near to the city centre was prioritised. If we can contribute to Manchester’s growing and improving food and drink scene we’ll be very happy.”

 

A project the size of Cloudwater’s is outside of the financial reach of many breweries when starting up. What would you say to people who think you are ‘buying’ your way to the top of the craft beer scene?

“The first thing I’d say is that life’s a little more fun with a touch less cynicism! There are no shortcuts. The craft beer scene, with the exception of a little hype here and there, functions as a meritocracy. The vast-sized family brewers and global industrial brewers are suffering market share losses despite turnovers that eclipse the craft beer scene in the UK, evidencing the fact that money won’t solve so many problems.

“The only way we’ll get to the top is with a lot of hard, considered, mindful work, as is the case even with those breweries that started out with rather less capital to risk.”

 

Since you’re starting at a point which many brewers would dream to be in in 5-10 years, does this allow you to dream even bigger for the future, or are you more worried about properly executing everything you plan for the present?

“We’re starting at a point that I believe our head brewer has thoroughly earned and deserves. Before there was a craft beer scene in the UK, even before I really liked beer myself, James was working hard to push the beer scene forwards, and acting as an early (some would say pioneering) champion of NZ hops, and hoppy beer in general. Whilst some brewers may dream of this point in 5-10 years, James has been dreaming of it for nearly 20 years.

“We have a list of ambitions as long as all our arms put together, but we won’t achieve a single one without careful attention to the here and now. A bright future, whilst envisioned by dreams and idealist vision, is the result of current efforts (and a little good fortune and happenstance). We’re starting a new brewery in an incredibly well-developed scene, and would be foolish to do anything other than recognise that quality is ever more important than newness or variation.

“As for worrying about proper execution, we certainly would gain rather more restful nights sleep if it was less of a concern for us, but also, we’re only human (sorry, love that song), and only just getting started. There are going to be people out there, from the cynics, the inverted snobs, right through to the fail-lovers that will cherish any mistakes we make, because of our experience, ambition, jealousy, or for no reason whatsoever. We have never said we won’t make mistakes, or that we’re going to be the best. That simply isn’t in our character at all. But I will say that we are going to work as smart and as hard as we possibly can, with the chief aim of making very enjoyable beer, and to run a business well enough to be around for a long time with which to do so.”

The Distance: All of the people, all of the time

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We are fortunate to now be able to drink a wide variety of fantastic beer from great UK breweries on a regular basis. With each great beer, I think a little higher of that brewery or the place it’s from, and the people who make it. But really, when I do that, I’m inside the bubble, thinking everything is rosy. I’m not complaining; I like it in the bubble. It’s a great bubble. Still, it’s only when someone from outside that bubble shares your appreciation that you can feel justified in your opinion. We like to say how great everything is (me included, I mean seriously, I’m doing it all the time) but it’s hard to know we are right without external corroboration. Worse still, it appears to some people that it’s the same breweries getting the attention all the time. So how do we measure fairly what’s really going on, and how far it has come? Let’s try.

Two legendary (and I don’t use that word lightly) American breweries made efforts to visit the UK late last year: Firestone Walker and Dogfish Head. FW, specifically David Walker and a handful of his brewing team, held a tap takeover at Craft Beer Co Covent Garden, whilst Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head’s founder, held a joint beer and food paired dinner with Beavertown and Charles Wells. These were highly desirable events that got people talking. Even though here in the UK we have begun to replicate the success and growth of self-identified craft beer that happened in the US in the 90s, it still feels special and exciting to have the chance to see, hear and speak to these important figures in brewing from across the pond.

Of course, David Walker is British himself, but even he must have been surprised to see how far the beer scene here has come in the past few years. Stood at the heaving bar of Craft Beer Co, California-tanned but armoured in the British institution of a Barbour coat against his homeland’s winter chill, the forty-odd taps of every style under the sun must have seemed both familiar to him, and alien. Cask and keg  together in such numbers is almost unheard of even in the States. Imagine being in his position, returning home and being able to proudly put pints of The Kernel pale ale into his colleagues’ hands. He spoke later of just how great it was to see such a big step forward.

On the far side of London a few days later, Sam Calagione was expressing a feeling of bewilderment. In the interim between his beers no longer being available in the UK and now returning (a period of roughly four years) the founder of Dogfish Head discovered a fully-formed, hungry and ambitious UK craft beer scene, quite a different animal to the one he left behind (for example, Magic Rock didn’t even exist and BrewDog had only just opened a bar or two). On that day in late October last year, Calagione collaborated with brewers from Beavertown and distillers at East London Liquor Company to make a gin botanical-infused ‘Londonerweisse’ in the style of the light-and-sour Berliner Weisses of Germany. Then, in the evening, a dinner was held with beers from Beavertown, Dogfish Head and their DNA brewing partner Charles Wells, matched to dishes cooked and served at Duke’s in East London.

Sam Calagione at Duke's. (photo credit: Nick Dwyer)
Sam Calagione at Duke’s (photo credit: Nick Dwyer)

Beers like Midas Touch and 120 Minute IPA are pioneering classics, but here Calagione found beers like Gamma Ray nailing American pale ale as a style, whilst the likes of Wild Beer Co and Burning Sky are (finally) showing just how great the UK is at absorbing and co-opting influences from abroad and at home. He admitted he was quite taken aback by it all. It’s important that these kind of events continue to happen (and it’s also worth noting that the dinner wasn’t an isolated incident either – more recently, during London Beer Week, Beavertown pulled of a similar event with Camden Town Brewery and another visiting US brewer: Left Hand from Colorado).

The tickets for these extravagant epicurean feasts naturally come with a price tag, but one that, when considering the sheer amount of food and drink covered, are incredibly good value. The fact that Charles Wells had beers represented (an improved recipe DNA IPA and Courage Imperial Stout) showed this wasn’t craft beer elitism or just ‘the usual suspects’. And of course, while there is no direct comparison to be made, one can’t help but think a similar event held by several wine houses would have a ticket cost in the upper stratosphere. Still, it’s worth emphasising that it’s hard to compare such things directly, but also, more importantly, that the cost of the event doesn’t necessarily mean that the scene is becoming a elitist – if anything, it means that there are now events of every type to match every budget.

Those events last year are two examples, but don’t entirely serve as a perfect triangulation of measuring how far things have come, since both are from America. Who else then could provide assurance – somewhere traditional perhaps? How about a brewery that’s as traditional as it gets, not one that’s old-fashioned exactly, but one with a long heritage that has stuck to what is does best whilst keeping technologically updated with the times. How about the growth of Italian craft beer here, and that many of their brewmasters trained at traditional brewers in the UK? Too new? How about someone like Pilsner Urquell shipping tanks of unpasteurised brewery-fresh lager over in a matter of days to satisfy the breadth and growing appreciation of our palates for quality lager? Nah, starting at 1842 they are still mere children among brewers. Older, then? How about the oldest continuously operating brewery on the planet? Old enough for you?

Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan is home of one of the world’s leading brewing universities (well, one of the world’s leading universities full stop, really) and a brewery that has been operating since 1050. Its expressions of hefeweizen and Bavarian-style pilsner are timeless, world-beating classics. Perhaps this passed you by, but last year brewers from Weihenstephan did a collaboration with BrewDog. The resulting India Pale Weizen is being brewed again this year. Whilst a hopfenweisse is by no means a new thing, the meaning behind such a collaboration is frankly colossal.

I’ve written before that the rise of BrewDog has been as definitive point on our beer landscape – somewhere where we can point to and, with surety, know that things a different forever now. But the world’s oldest operating brewery, and let’s not beat about the bush here, Germans who don’t ever fuck about with their beer styles, decide to brew a collaboration with BrewDog, those guys with the tanks and the sharks and the hop cannons? I think it’s safe to say that based on those three examples we can say with certainty that our beer scene has entered, or is at least phasing into, a new stage.

India Pale Weizen by BrewDog and Weihenstephan (photo credit: BrewDog)
India Pale Weizen by BrewDog and Weihenstephan (photo credit: BrewDog)

But wait, you say. pretty much all of the UK brewers mentioned so far are probably in that ‘all the attention’ bracket. What about brewery X, Y, and indeed Z, which have been making amazing beers for yonks and don’t get any credit for it? What about them Chris, you trendy wazzock? Firstly, if you want a brewery that makes great beer to have more exposure, do something about it. Secondly, I am absolutely thrilled to bits to be in a position where we are this spoiled for choice. I am utterly ecstatic that there is so much to celebrate that we can’t decide how to cover it all. But what makes me happiest is that, because of that idea that some are getting more attention than others, we have entered a situation where good beer is being ‘normalised’. There is so much good beer near to us all right now that whether it is all getting the proper credit has become a feasible topic of discussion.

So where do we go from here? Is it really possible for the beer scene to keep growing? Undoubtedly. The appetite or rather the thirst for what is happening right now remains strong; unquenchable. The question is how to rationalise and balance the desire for the weird with the desire to normalise good beer to as many people as possible as a whole. I think the answer is that we don’t try to reconcile those two divergent trends and that, if anything, we should encourage them, because the divergence is resulting in diversity. Only by normalising good beer at one end, whilst still continuing to push boundaries of what beer can be at the other end, can the beer scene truly continue to evolve. If that means that, right now, it’s a group of brewers in each of those camps getting most of the attention, then so be it. It doesn’t diminish everyone else’s accomplishments, it merely highlights who is succeeding in being more inclusive and innovative on a regular basis.

It’s ultimately about growing (not like a brand with an advertising campaign, but like a living thing) what beer can mean to people. Do you ever wonder why it’s the same handful of images of beer used to illustrate any newspaper article about alcoholism, pub closures, alcohol consumption, breweries opening, beer duty rising or falling? That same bloody bloke with a filthy pint pot of brown-coloured ale in extreme-close up? It’s because, to the editors of those publications, it’s “just beer” and they’ll use whatever images they have for free. There’s no point spending money on costly new images when that one of a claggy nitro ale being sucked from a dirty glass will do.

Well, it won’t ‘do’ anymore, frankly. The distance between those images, and what beer is now and what it can be. has never been greater. The problem is that the use of those images is representative of popular opinion. Unfortunately, beer is “just beer” to many people and, as we have so recently been told, nothing to be “fussed over”. We have to champion and encourage this even widening range of things that beer can be, each as important as the one before or after, cask or keg or bottle or can or high-end or low-end, so that those images and the way beer is represented has to change to keep up.

We have to keep setting the pace and daring everyone else to recognise just how vast the growing breadth of traditional, esoteric, historic and cutting-edge beer is. Despite the odd clanger of a dated or misused photograph or naff article, I think we’re getting there. We just have to keep fighting the good fight, and show beer to be something that really can please all of the people, all of the time.

The Distance: Raising Hell

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The modern beer drinker has untold power at their fingertips. They can, at the push of a few buttons, summon up tap lists of their local pubs and pick their beers for the night before they have even left work. They can interact with the brewer of a beer directly, and find out what time they had to get out of bed to start mashing in that Imperial Red Rye IPA. They can, if they so wish, effect instant action about something they don’t like, or something that they do like. The ‘latest Twitter outrage’ is actually the ‘latest example of achieving near instant results’. It’s an amazing time.

In a matter of seconds, the modern beer drinker can even invest in the growth of their favourite brewery. The ground broken by BrewDog’s Equity for Punks has helped open up the idea of public investment in craft beer, but it’s only in the last year or so that we have seen that crowdfunding angle really diversify, to now include magazines, books and the brewing of beers themselves.

Yeastie Boys and Signature Brew have recently launched crowdfunding schemes as well, but Camden Town Brewery’s has the potential to make the biggest waves, given its higher target and giant-sized plans. At the time of writing, Camden has already almost hit a third of its target amount – all since its launch on Monday this week.

Along with over 400 people so far, my partner and I intend to invest too. In the coldest, most calculating terms, it is a sound investment. But beyond that, there is an irresistible opportunity to invest in something that people love, something that shines a little more light into people’s day-to-day lives, and the way that people can now so easily do that in the internet age is, I think, incredible.

If you want to see more breweries enjoy similar success, you should invest in breweries like Camden. Help to grow and sustain this incredible renaissance of beer appreciation. Remember: we all win together. An investment in Camden, or Signature, or Yeastie Boys, or whoever offers a viable concrete plan to grow and expand and improve, is worthy of your money. The power is in your hands to make a difference, and you must be certain that that difference is good. Reward hard work, ambition and courage. Invest in good people doing the right thing, fighting the good fight. Invest in the people making a difference.

Maybe you’re not a huge fan of Camden Town Brewery. Perhaps the phrase ‘crowdfunding’ just sounds like ‘pulled pork’ or ‘pop-up’ to you and it’s all just part of the noise of the beer scene. This is a financial investment after all, and it should be taken seriously, you think. Good, take it seriously. Take beer seriously. Take the idea of what beer is in this country right now, and be serious. If you like it, and you want it to still be this good or better in a few years’ time, you’re going to have to do something about it. Yes, you. Take some responsibility for what you care about. Consider the precedent you can help set by directly funding the growth of London’s first brewery to climb from a pub basement to international, self-dependent success.

Of course it’s easy to be cynical – that’s why so many people are, after all – but while it’s difficult to put your money where your mouth is, it’s easy to see what’s right. If you really care about what is happening to beer in this country, and you want breweries to live and grow and not shrink and die, it is now within your power to help make it happen. It doesn’t have to be a fortune, it just has to be what you think is fair and can afford. Just like buying a beer.

‘Crowdfunding’ is a clumsy term and doesn’t really do justice to how important it can be. The reason that people and companies in the beer industry are able to command this level of investment and devotion from their fans is because these breweries are people – not the numbers on a screen but the hearts and minds that toil to make something good and be proud of what they’ve made.

I believe in good beer and I want it to go the distance. I’m going to invest in Camden Town Brewery.

 

EDIT: 16/02/15 – As it has caused concern to commenters, I would like to make absolutely clear that my opinion on Camden’s offer in the post above is just that, my opinion, and it does not constitute financial advice, which should be sought from a professional. Thank you.

The Distance: Growing Apart

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As you might remember, in the summer I had a bit of a holiday romance with a double IPA by Galway Bay Brewery called Of Foam and Fury. Generous foaming halves of the stuff – a robust 8.5% abv and Ireland’s first commercially-brewed DIPA – seared into my mind, heart and to some extent liver just how far and fast the Irish craft beer scene was growing. It’s an incredibly accomplished beer, made all the more special by discovering it without any pre-attached knowledge or bias.

Towards the end of last year, I had the chance to try it again. I managed to get hold of another bottle thanks to Connor Murphy, who is annoyingly good at both beer writing and beer brewing, and extremely generous to boot. What a guy, honestly. As luck would have it, the equally generous Phill Elliott, freshly returned from a no-holds-barred trip around America and its breweries, offered me (in the most casual way) if I might like one of the bottles of Pliny the Elder he had brought back with him? Well, gosh, I dare say I rather would, actually.

It all came together so perfectly: the chance to put Of Foam and Fury to what many believe is the ultimate test of a DIPA – a direct comparison to one of the style’s most superlative examples. I love Of Foam and Fury, but part of me knew that enjoyment was rooted in rose-tinted memory of a beery holiday with friends. Surely, a side-by-side taste test with Pliny would settle the matter. How wrong I was.

 

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Sticky with orange and caramel, boosted by a muscular, oily bitterness the the edges of its ripe fruitiness edges in sharp lime pith, Of Foam and Fury has more in common with BrewDog Hardcore IPA than Pliny. Galway Bay’s DIPA was all very much as I remembered it, still fresh and bright and quite boisterous in its condition and flavour. One taste transported me back to the Black Sheep pub in Dublin, surrounded by friends old and new. A truly brilliant beer.

So what of Pliny the Elder? For starters it’s a far paler, pinier and crisply bitter beer. Here, the hop character is more defined by mandarin, mango and lemon from the Amarillo and Centennial hops, its bitterness more assertive and sharper. It’s certainly a more accomplished double IPA – earning its famous ‘pint-ability’ with an outrageously clean flavour profile and almost soft mouthfeel – but despite all of that technical brilliance, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Of Foam and Fury.

Wait, what? The beer is better in execution but the lesser of the two? Yes and no. There is of course a glorious juiciness in both, but for me the beer that had the fullest and most complete flavour profile on the day was Of Foam and Fury. Of course, the first question you might ask is how old was the Pliny? Five weeks from bottling. Not ideal perhaps, but more than acceptable for appreciating its world-famous hop character. I think that perhaps the stresses of travel took some toll on the beer, and of course it won’t taste as good as the beer fresh from the brewery, but I feel fairly certain I got a fair impression of it.

 

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So if I got to taste the two beers side-by-side (a pleasure in itself) and was fairly happy with the outcome, why do I think the test was a failure? It wasn’t that, alongside a fresher, younger upstart, Pliny couldn’t live up to its colossal reputation. It wasn’t because Pliny isn’t a great beer, because it really is. It’s because, in a way, I did both beers a disservice by forcing them to compete. That’s why it has taken me so long to finish a blog post about it. The results told me what the beers tasted like, and which one I ultimately preferred at that moment in time, but that was it. I knew there was something to be learned but I couldn’t see it straight away.

It recently became clear to me. The desire to test the beers alongside each other was not because I wanted to enjoy them both, it was because I wanted to pit them against each other. It’s something that’s increasingly prevalent in the craft beer industry – the need to brew the new ‘ultimate’ version of something, and for drinkers to become judges, to try a selection of the same style alongside each other to find The Best, not to enjoy them on their own merits.

This desire to brew the next big thing is rooted in competition and ambition, to beat what’s come before, but that desire to brew ‘the next Pliny’ and similar sentiments isn’t helping us brew better beers – it’s holding us back. Of Foam and Fury clearly took in a number of influences, and wasn’t really a direct clone of anything I’ve had before. However, there have been plenty of occasions where a beer I’ve had clearly was trying to clone something else.

We’re in an age now where the beers that defined the best in craft beer in the past decade, Pliny being chief among them, are no longer at the cutting edge. On this side of the Atlantic, our craft beer industry is frequently guilty of attempting to copy in some respect something from the States. I think our beer scene needs to keep doing what it does best – integrate ideas and traditions but relentlessly innovate and look beyond. We need to pioneer new styles, or bin them if they don’t help us make better beers. We need to measure the distance between where we are now and where we were before, and increase it, not shorten it.