The Distance: The Case for Craft

('Redacted' by opensource.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons)
(‘Redacted’ by opensource.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons)

 

On Friday last week, All About Beer magazine published the editorial for the forthcoming March 2015 issue on its website. The editorial announced that the magazine would cease to use the word ‘craft’ in relation to beer wherever possible. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It’s an important issue, and (I think) unusual to see a publication like AAB to set out its stall on the issue in these terms.

My first reaction to the piece was mostly positive – it suggests maturity, objectivity and uneasiness about using a term so casually banded about by anyone who uses hops beginning with C – but there was also something unnerving about it.

There a few things open to dispute in the piece, not least the assertion that “[larger] brewers use the same ingredients as smaller brewers to make the same final product: beer.” It isn’t that issue that bothers me so much, though.

Almost every blogger or communicator about beer has at one point or another had a fair old stab at what craft means in the context of beer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat any arguments or pitch a definition. This is the thing that bothered me about AAB’s editorial. They aren’t really suggesting a new, constructive angle to the debate. They’re giving up on it.

Most people who get interested in beer travel a similar journey: we start out blissfully unaware of how deep the rabbit hole goes, drinking only what we feel like and what our peers drink. Then, we have That Moment, when a door is opened to a wider world, and the period that follows can last for years, as the never-ending thirst for new experiences takes in everything it can find. Eventually, we decide that only the smaller, odder, artisanal stuff is worth anything; and then we have the Second Moment, after we discover more about processes, older breweries, bigger breweries, and more complicated beers that appear so simple at first glance. We reach The Realisation: that the size of the brewery and rarity of the beer is less important than the qualities of the beer itself. We conclude that big and small is relative, and that ultimately, it’s just beer that matters.

When you’ve taken that journey and reached that conclusion, you realise that it isn’t a conclusion at all, but the beginning of a much longer and more rewarding journey, as you pursue what good beer can be.

The editorial in AAB seems to accept that “it’s all just beer” is a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery of what “craft” means. It absolutely isn’t. And yes, “craft” is not a satisfactory term, nor will there ever be one that satisfies everyone. Good. It’s that disagreement, and the discussions and ideas and the beers that result from it that are the most important thing. It’s the whole point. That “passion and enthusiasm” that AAB finds at once so lovely but also kind of annoying, is what’s keeping this thing going. If we all decided to drop craft, do you really think we would all view beer objectively, on its own merits, as this (very well-written) blog post from Literature and Libation suggests? I’m afraid we’re simply incapable of doing so, and that’s something to be proud of. This is a subjective business, rooted in the most subjective thing possible after all: sensory input.

To simply conclude that “craft” is no longer working, and to drop it, is giving up on the pursuit of what great beer means. To its credit, AAB states “…we don’t honestly believe that the word craft will disappear anytime soon, but we do believe it’s time to have a conversation about what it really means. Is it a helpful word that makes beer better, or is it necessary at all?” Is the best way to start that conversation saying that the debate is over, so don’t worry about it? Shoving every instance of craft into a memory-hole and pretending it isn’t relevant, that it was too much hassle to figure out so it isn’t worth discussing?

I appreciate and understand the received wisdom that the UK beer scene is roughly 10 years behind the one in the US, but if this is the wishy-washy debate and shrug of dismissal that we have to look forward to 10 years time, then we need to take our beer scene in a drastically different direction. 10 years difference or not, the word means enough globally that we all have a say in whether it means anything or not.

I won’t ever agree to some hokey editorial manifesto that seeks to stop using specific words it doesn’t like, much less any school of journalism that believes it can better explore and investigate something by, uh, not talking about it anymore.

AAB makes the point that “craft” has lost its meaning now that it has been appropriated by larger breweries. It argues that we need to leave the word behind so it can no longer be misused. Do we really believe that the end of the word “craft” will result in global corporations not seeking to exploit the hard work and bright ideas of smaller, faster companies? “Craft” has certainly become a battlefield, bleak and arduous at times, and I can understand the fatigue of those that have watched it be slung back and forth, but as AAB itself acknowledges, the combined U.S. craft segment is now outselling Budweiser. It’s a war, but one that “craft”, as divisive and myriad as it is, is starting to win.

“Craft” is inflexible, it causes more arguments than it solves, it’s misused, abused, and used against the people that deserve to use it the most. It’s full of holes, the engine is shot and some of the wheels have fallen off, but this word has taken us the distance. It has a lot to answer for, but as long as it continues to create discussion, debate and more importantly progress, then I will always make the case for craft.

The Distance: Brewing The Juicy Banger

Photo: Marcos Avlonitis (www.mindofmarcos.com)
Photo: Marcos Avlonitis (www.mindofmarcos.com)

 

In a new series of blog posts, I’m going to explore how far the UK beer scene has come in the past year. This is more than just a post about 2014 in review. Each year sees craft beer in the UK gain ever larger exposure, but how do you measure that, how do we quantify what has been achieved and where this is going? It’s something I can only describe as The Distance. This first post on the topic is a personal one, about a beer with a name from a blog post.

 

In October, I wrote about the emergence of an ‘anti-style’, the Juicy Banger, a beer that could be lager or ale, 3% or 7%, but always pale, always juicy with pronounced citrus hop character and endless refreshment. The term gained a bit of traction, and caused a bit of discussion.

With the term Juicy Banger, I wanted people to think about beer differently, but I didn’t want to become the Supreme Chancellor of whether a beer is or isn’t one. People started asking me if X or Y or Z was a Juicy Banger, to which I would awkwardly respond “well, do you think it is?” More often than not, they did, and the fact they were asking the question often indicated that they already thought so. That was kind of the point really: to empower people to describe and determine the beers they like in a way separate to the established lexicon and parameters of the industry. Not long after writing the post, the opportunity arose to put the term to the test.

It’s no secret that I’m fond of Camden Town Brewery, its beers and many of the people who work there. It does good beer right and fights the good fight. After establishing themselves in London’s beer scene quickly in the earliest years of this decade, a lot of people have moved onto newer breweries for their hoppy kicks, and I regularly find myself urging people to rediscover Camden’s beers, especially since the launch of their barnstorming IHL.

What you might not know is that every member of staff at Camden gets a turn to brew on the pilot kit, and Sofia De Crescentiis had chosen a Grapefruit IPA, based on one of her favourite Canadian beers, what she calls her ‘eureka’ beer. After a number of discussions between myself, Matt Curtis and people who work at Camden Town Brewery (namely Sofia and brewing director Alex Troncoso), it was proposed that Sofia’s turn on Camden’s pilot kit would be a grapefruit IPA, and that Jonny from the Craft Beer Channel would join Matt and I in helping Sofia brew it and film our efforts.

The name for the beer quickly became apparent (considering all that grapefruit we bought), and whilst I was initially hesitant that Juicy Banger became a single, labelled product, I could also see the opportunity to use it to spread the idea of how flexible beer styles can be, and have some fun making a tasty beer at the same time.

Brewing the beer on cold day in early December was indeed a lot of fun, as seen in the Craft Beer Channel’s video, and the difference that a handful of grapefruit zest could make to 50l of hopped wort is etched onto my palate and brain for ever. The malt bill was 95% pale malt, which the remaining 5% made up by Victory malt to give a little colour and extra body. The hops chosen were Magnum, Amarillo, Citra and Centennial, with the grapefruit zest added at flameout and a further dry hopping of Citra after primary fermentation. One thing’s for certain: without the expertise of Camden brewer Pete Brown (not that one), the brew could have easily been a disaster. For example, we wanted to throw a LOT more grapefruit in there before Pete stopped us. You can read more about how we brewed it in Matt’s blog post.

I had been concerned that the beer would be bitter to the point of unpalatable tartness, that too much pith had gone in with the zest and that it would be slightly sour or even undrinkable. Happily, the resulting beer was far more nuanced than I was expecting. Whilst close to 7%, it had a rounded, orangey sweetness that reminded me of SKA brewing’s Modus Hoperandi, but with a much cleaner palate and a sharp bitterness that developed in a dry, grapefruit-accented finish with lip-smacking astringency. Simply, it worked marvellously well. There was some debate between us all whether it was too bitter or not too bitter enough, but for a first attempt I think it shows a lot of promise. Maybe, just maybe it will make its way into Camden’s brewhouse proper one day.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Boak and Bailey pointed out the closing of a feedback loop, an indication that the chumminess between people who write about beer on an amateur and professional basis and the people who make the beers those people write about has folded space somehow.

The thing is, the beer was going to exist in that form one way or another, with or without the moniker of The Juicy Banger. It was Sofia’s beer after all. So the beer always came first, but it’s also important to understand that it isn’t called The Juicy Banger because of my blog post. It’s called The Juicy Banger because of the response to the blog post, because people found the term applicable to beers they liked and took it for themselves. This wasn’t the closing of a feedback loop – this was the narrowing of the distance, between brewers and drinkers, between the beers people want and the beer brewers make.

How to measure that distance, though? Well, the entire batch of The Juicy Banger sold in just over 30 minutes, which is a testament to Sofia’s idea, to Pete’s brewing knowledge, and the zest of four pink grapefruit. Three bloggers just tried not to ruin it.

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Golden Pints 2014

Golden Pints 2014

Crikey. It’s been a bit of a year, hasn’t it? Time to beat ourselves to death again over what were the best beers of the year. Having already done my Golden Posts, I thought I would have sufficiently limbered up the beer memory section of my brain, but alas, no, Golden Pints gets harder every year. This is obviously brilliant though, so let’s crack on.

 

BEST UK CASK BEER

Jarl.

Jarl. Jarl. Jarl.

Jarl.

Fyne Ales Jarl.

Jarl is a stunning beer in any format, but it also shows just how great a dispense method cask can be. It’s all about what the beer gains from it in terms of body and finish, and it makes most other pale ales seem embarrassingly one-dimensional.

Runner up: Magic Rock High Wire, Adnams Ghost Ship.

 

BEST UK KEG BEER

I’ve been hugely impressed by the consistency, conditioning, and clarity of flavour of Beavertown Gamma Ray this year. Foaming out of the glass, its gorgeous flavours in stunning high-definition and in perfect nick. Every. Single. Time. It’s no coincidence – it’s hard work and it’s paying off big time.

Runners up: Pressue Drop Pale Fire, Camden Town Brewery Pils, Brew By Numbers Berlinerweisse Lime

 

BEST UK BOTTLED/CANNED BEER

2014 really was the year of the #can, and among the leading pack of Beavertown, Fourpure and BrewDog, a late runner emerged in the form of Camden Town’s IHL. It’s simply the best lager being made in the UK, and one of the best-tasting beers in the UK overall. Whilst to many it might seem like ‘just another hoppy beer’, the technical accomplishment of this bright, detailed and glorious beer should not be underestimated.

Runner up: BrewDog Dead Pony Club

 

BEST OVERSEAS DRAUGHT

I tried some amazing Czech beer when I visited Prague earlier this year, but missed out on a trip to Pivovar Kout due to having to fly home early. I was overjoyed to see some of its beers launched at Mother Kelly’s last month and after one taste of the Kout 12˚ Unfiltered, there was no doubt left in my mind. Quite possibly the fullest, richest and yet most balanced lager beer in the world. Sensational.

Runners up: Firestone Walker Double Jack, Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin’, Troubadour Magma

 

BEST OVERSEAS BOTTLED/CANNED

The reaction to Galway Bay’s Of Foam and Fury double IPA from visitors to Dublin for EBBC14 was unanimous – this is truly an incredible beer that stands up to the very best from the US and the UK, and sums up in so many ways the heart and ambition in the Irish craft beer scene.

Runners up: Westbrook Gose, Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s IPA,

 

BEST COLLABORATION BREW

The ingenious blend of Camden Town Gentleman’s Wit and The Kernel London Sour is a great achievement in its own right, but the ageing of that blend in a burgundy barrel took the resulting beer to a whole new level. Camden Town/The Kernel Gentleman’s Agreement was easily one of the most memorable beers I’ve tasted this year, with a stunning complexity that punched well its modest strength of 4% abv.

Runner up: Beavertown/ELLC Londonerweisse

 

BEST OVERALL BEER

I don’t want to choose, I really don’t, but one beer  has impressed me more than any other this year and it’s Camden Town IHL. What an incredible piece of work.

 

BEST BRANDING, PUMPCLIP OR LABEL

It’s a very crowded field these days, and too tricky to choose one from so many, so here are my favourites of the year and why:

– Pressure Drop for Nanban Kanpai and Ballwanger

– Beavertown for Gamma Ray and Bone King

– Camden Town for IHL and Hells cans

– BrewDog for their rebrand, which grows on me day by day, and especially for how Jackhammer and Zeitgeist now look.

 

BEST UK BREWERY

It’s nigh on impossible to pick just one anymore. The only criteria I could really use this year was whether any one brewery is as good or better than the brewery I gave this to last year – The Kernel. I think only one brewery in the UK has really nailed every single beer they sell, no matter the container, the style or the packaging, and that’s Beavertown. It’s been an amazing year for them. They’ve advanced themselves enormously, but also the craft beer scene as a whole with some amazing events and incredible collaborations.

Runners up: The Kernel, Thornbridge, BrewDog, Magic Rock, Camden Town, Weird Beard, Buxton

 

BEST OVERSEAS BREWERY

Dieu Du Ciel! is probably the only brewery that can get away with having an exclamation mark in its name, and that oomph is locked into every one of its beers. I was blown away by Moralité and the sheer breadth of beers they brought over for tap takeovers in BrewDog bars this year. Incredible stuff and a brewery I want to see more of.

Runners up: Firestone Walker, Cantillon.

 

BEST NEW BREWERY OPENING 2014

The beers knocked out by Connor on his first try with the new kit at the Dragonfly in Acton told me me this was a brewer who knows what he is doing. Hitting the ground running with well-rounded examples of best bitter, American pale ale, dry stout and hefeweizen in one the best-looking pubs in the capital is a strong start, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they grow in 2015. Special mention for Runaway Brewery whose IPA and American Brown both really impressed me this year.

Runners up: Runaway Brewery.

 

PUB/BAR OF THE YEAR

It has the best staff, amazing customer service, a new and improved food menu and not just the range (“40 taps of awesome”) but also the management to make every one of those taps count. Every time I’ve been to BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush I’ve felt like a valued customer and left full of great, great beer.

Runners up: Mother Kelly’s, Hop and Berry, North Bar.

 

BEST NEW PUB/BAR OPENING 2014

From the moment it opened, Mother Kelly’s has been making all the right moves. Fully refrigerated beer selection to enjoy there or take away, an ever-rotating selection of great draught beers and simple, well-chosen sharing boards in an area that’s fast becoming a microcosm of great independent bars of all kinds.

Runners up: Dragonfly Acton, Hop and Berry. 

 

BEER FESTIVAL OF THE YEAR

I loved Leeds International Beer Festival this year, but when I finally went to the Independent Manchester Beer Convention this year for the first time, I saw where the DNA came from. IMBC is the most influential change to British beer festivals since CAMRA, and it’s right that more people emulate its formula that brings great beer to great people in a great location. It’s brilliantly organised, and the hard work behind it shows in the smiles on the faces of the attendees.

Runners up: London Craft Beer Festival, Leeds International Beer Festival.

 

SUPERMARKET OF THE YEAR

Waitrose would have taken this again, but M&S clinched it at the very last minute by being the first UK supermarket to sell six-packs of bottles of craft beer (Lagunitas IPA). It doesn’t sound much but it’s a huge step-change for supermarket retail in the UK. Waitrose and Tesco will follow.

Runner up: Waitrose

 

INDEPENDENT RETAILER OF THE YEAR

A tough category as the choice gets better every year, but my winner is Sourced Market in St Pancras. The selection is great, the prices decent, the option to drink on the premises very welcome, but I’m always stunned to see just how fresh the beer is (Kernel pale ales bottled yesterday you say?) and the newest beers in London are always well-represented. Special mention for newcomer Hop Burns and Black, who, whilst very far away from me, have an amazing selection that demands regular return visits.

Runners up: Hop Burns & Black.

 

ONLINE RETAILER OF THE YEAR

I rarely order online, but I’m going to give this one to BeerBods (disclosure: I’ve done a couple of write-ups for them) because they’re doing great work in getting people interested in trying and talking about new beers. I also like their new ‘collections’ of mixed beer cases they’ve started to offer. They are fighting the good fight the right way, and the number of people emulating what they do shows just how right they are.

Runner up: Ales by Mail

 

BEST BEER BOOK OR MAGAZINE

The long awaited modern history book for beer geeks, Boak and Bailey’s Brew Britannia, was as great as we had all hoped. It’s not just a great read, it’s also important and right that we have finally have an objective text covering the rebirth of British beer. The authors tireless research and insightful conclusions are both fascinating and, by the end, hugely reassuring. It’s a real triumph.

 

BEST BEER BLOG OR WEBSITE

For the stories, the breathlessly excited tasting notes, the pictures, the bravery to tackle divisive issues with passion and the composure to respond to criticism with unflappable calm, my winner is Total Ales by Matt Curtis. I work closely with Matt and we’re good friends, but his blog is still the one that makes me think ‘Shit, I’d better write something bloody good next time’.

Runners up: Get Beer Drink Beer by Justin Mason, The BeerCast by Richard Taylor, Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog.

 

BEST BEER APP

Fiz provided a fun and cheerful escape from dreary commutes for good little while, but nothing connects me to beer, beer people and beer places more or better than Twitter. It’s easily become the most useful, adjustable and accurate lens through which I view the world of beer.

Runners up: Fiz, Craft Beer London.

 

SIMON JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST BEER TWITTERER

David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer) says what we’re all thinking, or at least, what many of us would be thinking if we were as funny as him. His #twattybeerdoodles have become finger-on-the-pulse political cartoons for the world of beer, and his high-quality dad jokes take the edge of even the most ferocious hangover.  He’s a lovely bloke too, annoyingly.

Runners up: @totalcurtis, @boakandbailey.

 

BEST BREWERY WEBSITE/SOCIAL MEDIA

When it comes to online and social media interaction, no brewery comes close to BrewDog, but Beavertown and Camden Town have both upped their game and are themselves quite far ahead of everyone else.

Runners up: Beavertown, Camden Town

 

Golden Posts 2014

(‘Beer cans’ by Michelle Tribe, from Flickr, under Creative Commons)

 

It seems fitting after a week when beer bloggers Boak & Bailey won the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Golden Tankard to launch the inaugural Golden Posts: a celebration of the best in beer blogging this year. As the year draws to a close, it’s been astonishing to look back and see just how much has happened in the past twelve months.

In beer itself, certain trends continue to emerge, such as the buying of smaller breweries by the very largest ones, whilst others, such as the popularity of canned craft beer, are still growing apace. Most remarkably, 2014 has seen a number of established beer bloggers find professional roles in the industry they write about, confirming not just the importance of skilled, passionate writers in the beer industry, but also the industry itself recognising such writers’ potential.

Elsewhere, there has been a noticeable maturing of the beer blogging scene in the UK. Aside from the notable winning of awards by the likes of Boak and Bailey, Pip Sprake from It Comes In Pints and Mark Dredge, there has also been a noticeable increase in the number of bloggers taking a ‘journalistic’ approach; probing for answers, seeking transparency and uncovering some surprising stories.

There have also been a number of victories in social media, when bloggers have used their influence to tackle organisations large and small over issues like sexism in marketing and questionable business practices. Whilst some of these instances have been viewed by the cynics as the ‘outrage of the week’, they are really fantastic examples of what can be achieved by enough people with the right attitude.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my winners in the first ever Golden Posts:

 

Best History Post: ‘The Snug Bar Preservation Society’ by Boak & Bailey (with photography by Ten Inch Wheels)

Public campaigns to save pubs or aspects of beer culture are nothing new, and this is explained with rich detail by B&B in their fantastic long read from March. It’s a great taster of their style of writing and use of sources that makes Brew Britannia such a good read, and is enriched by some absolutely sublime photography from Ten Inch Wheels. As ever in B&B’s history articles, the most interesting characters are drawn out from the period, and surprisingly familiar opinions from ages past are appreciated in a new light.

Honourable mention:

‘How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep’ by Martyn Cornell (Zythophile) – As someone who has read a couple of books about the Opium Wars, I found this comprehensive article about the beginning of beer brewing in Hong Kong particularly interesting.

 

Best Impassioned Rant/Op-Ed: Brewmeister – the shame of British brewing by Richard Taylor (The BeerCast)

A category with many contenders, and hardly surprising given the nature of beer blogging. Still, the winner for me had been clear for a long time. Rich’s masterfully-written takedown of Brewmeister was easily one of the most important pieces of beer writing done this year. Flawlessly structured, with every point backed up by hard evidence, it disassembled a widely-reviled brewery with the cool professionalism of a hardened investigative journalist. A fantastic article that went way beyond being a ‘rant’ and actually effected change. (NB: there has been an update in the ongoing Brewmeister saga that shows just how far this story went)

Honourable mentions:

‘The Brewery That Cried Hells’ by Matt Curtis (Total Ales) – A heartfelt but level-headed defence of Camden Town Brewery, in response to one of the year’s more explosive clashes between two UK breweries.

‘The British beer boom: quantity over quality?’ by Connor Murphy (Beer Battered)  – A well-constructed argument espousing the responsibility of brewers to improve craft beer’s quality as well as its availability.

‘CAMRA’s Sexist Young Members Leaflet’ by Rowan Molyneux – A fierce, emotive and rabble-rousing piece that quickly became the forum of discussion on this colossal gaff by CAMRA.

 

Best Pub Post: ‘Sam’s Speakeasy’ by Craig Heap

A ‘fictional account’? A pub that isn’t a pub? The mysteries of Craig’s piece about a nomadic, DIY speakeasy are only exceeded by the compelling narrative and characters, and the very idea itself. But is it really fiction, are the people in it really just characters? The purpose of the piece is to spread the idea at the heart of it, which is a brilliant one indeed, and Craig’s writing is as deft and sharp as ever.

Honourable mentions:

‘The Way the West was Won’ by Andrew Drinkwater – an unashamedly lengthy love letter to BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush, but one that makes its case compellingly and celebrates people and values that are always worth recognising.

‘Zlý Časy and beer help me slip the bonds of surly life’ by Adrian Tierney-Jones – Pure poetry as ever from ATJ, but this piece in particular evoked the sense of drinking along with him, and the final paragraph is glorious.

 

Best Palate Post: ‘Beers Of London Series 77. Dragonfly Brewery – 2 O’clock Ordinary 4.0%’ by Justin Mason

I could have picked from dozens of excellent beer reviews by Justin, who I must admit I always had in mind when creating this category. It was this post though that really stood out for me, about a beer that evoked in him so many personal memories, which sets up the actual tasting of the beer magnificently. A lot of personal truth went into this post, and it makes Justin’s assessment a hundred times more valuable than anything as dull and dry as to be termed ‘objective’.

Honourable mention:

‘So how do you like your beer?’ by Adrian Tierney-Jones – Whilst this piece dabbles with some multimedia sensory perception, it’s that first paragraph that really shines – an unrelenting unravelling of beer vocabulary that is so pleasing to read.

 (Observation: notably fewer posts about food and beer this year. Some about experiencing it, but hardly any about suggesting combinations, recipes, stories behind them)

 

Best Beer Travel Post: ‘Doctor Gonzo Visits The Coromandel’ by Matt Curtis (Total Ales)

This post by Matt Curtis is part of a series about his travels in New Zealand, which are all really worth reading. As a whole they are enormously transportive and also very personal. The framing device of this piece – an encounter with local police on the beach that prompts Matt to recall how he got there – makes it stand out as the pick of the bunch, and he does a great job of capturing Kiwi beer culture.

Honourable mentions:

‘Buxton Brewery Trip’ by Per Steinar at The Evening Brews – more than ‘just’ a brewery trip blog post, Per’s journey to Buxton, around the brewery, the town and its pubs, is just that: a journey. Packed with stories and retains a narrative feel to it.

A series of blog posts about Nuremberg and Bavaria by The Beer Nut – Best enjoyed in one sitting (accompanied by multiple glasses of German beer), this information-rich series of posts shows an impressive amount of note-taking fuelling TBN’s newspaper-quality travel writing.

 

Funniest Post: ‘The future of Craft beer? Be careful what you wish for’ by Richard Taylor (The BeerCast)

Projecting a dark future timeline where craft beer unravels the UK into an IngSoc society of craft beer totalitarianism, Richard perfectly skewers the the best and worst parts of beer culture in a piece that shows the author knows beer and dystopia inside out.

Honourable mention:

A return to Rapture, Cardiff’s first underwater bar by Craig Heap – One for the gaming beer geeks among us, this post (and the previous installment) is a pure nerdgasm crossover of the world of Bioshock and the world of craft beer. Would you kindly read it?

 

Open Category: ‘Pilsner Urquell tour: the men who invented lager’ by the Craft Beer Channel

Whilst I’ve been a fan of YouTube’s the Craft Beer Channel for about as long as it’s been going, I think this video from Jonny and Brad’s trip to the Czech Republic is easily one of their best. It has a great sense of narrative to it, entertaining hosts and great content from start to finish. It’s a sort of brighter, more humour-adept version of one of Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter programmes, which is no mean feat.

Honourable mentions:

‘The A to Z of Beer’ by Jamie Oliver’s Drinks Tube (featuring Jonny Garrett and Sarah Warman) – Also featuring Craft Beer Channel’s Jonny, this video from the Drinks Tube brand of the Jamie Oliver network of YouTube channels delivers a fun and accessible series of bite-sized bits of beer information with engaging presenters and a sense of humour.

‘The Vine Diaries’ by Matt Curtis (Total Ales) – A savage journey to the heart of the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin, Matt’s video stitches together every Vine he made on the trip into a 12 minute film that is both magnificent and yet mildly harrowing (for those involved). Warning: contains drunk bloggers throughout.

Well, that’s it for this year. I’m looking forward to seeing what other blogs get recognised by you lot, and I’m hoping that whilst there is some crossover, we’ll all share some pieces that others have missed out on. Oh, and maybe I’ll come up with an actual logo for next year. Cheers!

If you want to take part, post your Golden Posts blog and tweet it at me (@ChrisHallBeer) and/or with the hashtag #GoldenPosts and I’ll include it in a round-up at a later date.

Designed To Be Human

 

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Big Beer is trying its hardest to take the lead in igniting the nation’s appreciation of beer. The thing is, aren’t we all managing without them?

Let There Be Beer, the much-maligned joint campaign by Britain’s biggest brewers, has had a facelift and, as its organisers have put it, has ‘evolved’ (like a Pokemon) into There’s A Beer For That. It’s not for me to say whether a phrase trademarked by Apple in 2010 being appropriated by Big Beer is a legal concern, but like the rest of the campaign it sadly reeks of someone else’s hard work passed off as something new and important.

The campaign’s press launch on Wednesday (attended by industry execs, press, MPs and two bloggers – myself and Matt Curtis) showed the biggest elements of the industry patting themselves on the back, certain that they had found a way to take back the dastardly creeping margin of craft beer that’s been making them all look bad.

Before I arrived at the fog-shrouded obelisk of Millbank Tower on Wednesday evening, I had truly wanted to like what they were going to show us. I met people representing the campaign back in June at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin, and, with perhaps the social lubricant of a few beers boistering my resolve and softening my cynicism, I along with a few other bloggers gave them a substantial amount of free advice about how to make their campaign better. The main points that we each made revolved around the importance of being inclusive, sincere, friendly and knowledgeable. The resulting campaign shoots at least for some of these aims, but misses every single one.

For one, there’s a curious amount of doublethink at the heart of the campaign. On the one hand, by the campaign’s own admission, Britain’s beer scene is booming, with more interest in beer and brewing than ever before, but at the same, they believe the British beer scene needs ‘reigniting’ and ‘rejeuvenating’. So, is it booming or not? The only things in need of reigniting and rejuvenating in the British beer scene are the tired attitudes and beers of 90% of the market. Now, that 90%, the representatives of which were sat around us in the function suite at Millbank, has now put £10million into playing catch-up under the guise of presenting a united front for all beer in Britain.

To be absolutely clear, the craft breweries leading the way in including and engaging people about beer have no need for this campaign, nor are they likely to want be associated with any of the breweries that have formed ‘Britain’s Beer Alliance’, the loose association funding the campaign (the British Beer and Pub Association, Heineken UK, Carlsberg UK, SAB Miller, AB Inbev, Molson Coors, Enterprise Inns, Shepherd Neame, Cask Marque, IBD, Everards, the Beer Academy, SIBA, Robinsons, Fuller’s, Liberation Group, Thwaites, Budvar, Charles Wells, Wadworth, Daleside and It’s Better Down the Pub). The involvement of SIBA as an organisation does not mean that any of the breweries it represents are a part of this, or that they support it. Britain’s craft breweries are already reaping the benefits of their own hard work, and now the big boys are trying to reap the benefits of the craft brewers’ hard work, too.

It was blatantly obvious from the launch event that the big brewers are scared, genuinely petrified, of the success of craft beer and small breweries, and they’ve decided to join forces, again, to present themselves as something just as credible and interesting. The sales and marketing language used to explain the Alliance revealed more than perhaps they intended. Britain’s Beer Alliance is so desperate to be a mainstream, UK version of the US Brewer’s Association that it has mistaken values and principles for a sales strategy and an advertising campaign.

The campaign’s new advert, made at great expense and involving the talents of British director Michael Winterbottom (of ‘The Trip’) and a production team including those who worked on the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, is very much of the homey, down-to-earth, pushing-bike-up-a-hill school of advertising last seen in Hovis commercials and more lately given a new lease of life by McDonald’s. A friendly, pan-national accented voiceover reassures us that whoever you are (as long as you fit into advertising’s designated people-pigeonholes), there’s a beer for you. Or, as some have noted, perhaps a burger?

The advert has one thing going for it: it tries to show Britain’s diverse population enjoying a beer as ‘normally’ as possible in as many ways as possible. Unfortunately, as is the way with adverts, it seems so contrived that there is no question of whether it’s ‘natural’ or not. Picture-perfect pints with industry-benchmark levels of head sit untouched in most scenes, with only a few of the actors shown to be brave enough to take a cautious sip. All it shows is that, whatever the cuisine, there’s an unwanted prop beer for that.

Whilst the stated intention of the campaign might be to promote the interests of all beer, the number of beers it chooses to promote in the TV advert is curiously selective. Note, for example, the absence of any stout or black beer, and the absence of Diageo (owners of Guinness) from the so-called Alliance behind the campaign. Unlikely to be a coincidence. This is about self-interest, nothing more.

Some might argue that regardless of the intentions of this campaign and its backers that the industry still needs such a ‘call to arms’ to help Britain’s beer culture to be taken seriously. I’m not sure that we do need a blanket, carpet-bombing campaign like this to achieve such an aim. Only the night before the launch of the campaign, I was at a beer and food dinner organised by Beavertown, Dogfish Head and Wells & Youngs. This combination of cutting-edge British youngblood brewery, American inspirational trendsetter and established British cask ale bulldog resulted in a wonderful evening that represented the very best of what beer can do, with warm and engaging hosts. People with all levels of beer knowledge left that event with big smiles on their faces and zero doubts about what beer can do. Events like that are taking place across the country on a regular basis, and more people are trying more beers from more breweries than ever before, without the help of Big Beer.

For the astonishing £10million pounds being put into There’s a Beer For That, a handful of quality bars or pubs could have been bought, refurbished and used to showcase the most impressive beers this ‘alliance’ of breweries has to offer. Imagine a bar with Fuller’s Vintage, Worthington White Shield, Young’s Special, Shepherd Neame’s IPA and Double Stout, Courage Russian Imperial Stout and more besides all being stocked alongside each other and served with great food by TV chefs, with interested celebrities making appearances at festival events and dedicated TV spots. Done right, something like that could have seemed so much more sincere, interesting, welcoming and capture the imaginations of people considering beer as more than just pints of lager and bitter.

Instead, what we have is deep-pocketed porno for a dumbed-down version British beer culture, something that is pleasant enough to watch, but is devoid of meaning and intent. Sure, a handful of pubs promoting great beer and food to the public might not reach as many people, but shouting BEER at the whole country with a flimsy message for £10million isn’t going to change anything at all. Rest assured that we will be having this conversation again in three, five and ten years’ time, as the giants of the industry try again and again to save their blandest beers from gradual decline.

On top of that, the digital side of the campaign (including a new website which has taken enough of the design of Good Beer Hunting to be concerning) seeks to make the same mistakes as Let There Be Beer, but more expensively. A social-media-based food and beer matching bot will respond to people using the appropriate hashtag, and attempt to match a beer from its database to the words used by the user. We were supposed to be reassured by the fact this bot has been, in their own words, “designed to be human”, but it ‘s hard to see how it won’t simply be broken to pieces by Twitter in a matter of days.

Can this bot distinguish between “I’m having a Sunday Roast and I want a #beermatch” and “It’s hot today so instead of a Sunday roast we’re having prawns from the BBQ and I need a #beermatch” or “The pub has sold out of Sunday Roasts so now I’m having a pulled pork sandwich and need a #beermatch”? It’s certain to end in disaster, or at best, some high parody.

I know that I’m a beer geek and that this campaign isn’t designed to impress beer geeks. I completely understand that. However, this campaign is designed to impress people who aren’t beer geeks, and it won’t. It will pass by the people it’s trying to win over, and fail to sustain the interest of those that give it a chance.

Whilst I’ve made it plain that I don’t believe in the campaign for one second, I should make it absolutely clear I believe that some of the people involved truly do believe in it. However, whilst they are convinced that this is the way to change the face of the public’s appreciation of beer, this is already happening without Big Beer’s involvement, or its attempts to steer the appreciation of beer to its agenda. I cannot and will not be convinced that it is anything more than the largest beer brewers and companies attempting to trade on the credibility and integrity of the smallest.

Whilst the national beer market is gradually declining, the craft beer market keeps on booming. The message is clear: the number of people enjoying good beer is rising, and fast. The largest, slowest and blandest are now trying to reclaim territory they have lost to far more interesting drinks, craft beer included. They are trying to prove they care the only way they know how, by creating artificial things designed to be human, to promote industrial beers designed to look more craft. They are trying to fool us all into believing that they care, fool us into believing that they have good beer’s interests at heart. They won’t succeed, because despite all their money and influence, there isn’t a beer for that.

 

Further reading:

– Matt Curtis spits fire and reveals his previous interactions with the PR company behind There’s A Beer For That

– Craig Heap explores the similarities between the new ad and recent ones by McDonald’s

– Ruari O’Toole looks at the ad in the context of the difficulty of advertising beer in the UK

Pete Brissenden provides some sharp criticism and offers perspective from the smaller end of the brewing industry

Electric Citrus: the rise of the Juicy Banger

 

'Drink citrus fruit juice' by David Lisbona, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
‘Drink citrus fruit juice’ by David Lisbona, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

 

The more of them I drink, the more I realise they have something in common. Whether ale or lager, 3% or 6%, a loose new category of beer is beginning to form from the current new wave. It’s a less of a style and more of a statement of intent, and a demonstration of skill that will come to define the current crop of craft brewers in the UK.

 

In London we are blessed with a high number of breweries, true enough, but it’s the sheer number of beers available that really blows me away. As I’ve said before, the city seems to thirst for the most esoteric and newest things it can find, and it’s no different with beer. Lately though, it hasn’t been the barrel-aged saisons, imperial stouts or even the increasingly impressive range of quality lagers and finely-tuned sours being made in London that have impressed me the most.

A label I apply frequently when referring to juicily fruity, tartly bitter IPAs and pale ales is ‘Juicy Banger’. It’s been pointed out to me that it sounds like something unsavoury said on The Only Way is Essex, but I continue to use it nonetheless. It captures in two words everything I look for from my first beer of the night: a full-bodied but brightly refreshing, finely-balanced beer of big flavour yet peerless drinkability. It’s become a hallmark by which I measure a brewer. If they can brew a Juicy Banger, a beer loaded with assertive, juicy hop character but one I could happily drink all night, and by the pint, then they’re all right by me.

Beavertown’s Gamma Ray and Pressure Drop’s Pale Fire, arguably leading the field of Juicy Bangers in the capital, each have tribe-like followings. The joy with those beers, Pale Fire in particular, is trying it every time you see it, and detecting the growing ability and confidence of the brewers as they dial it in ever tighter and tighter. Gamma Ray went through a similar period of improvement, and now, as those immediately iconic cans roll out of a bigger, better brewery in Tottenham Hale, it has reached its zenith. This is key: we aren’t just brewing more beer styles, we’re brewing better beers.

It’s now got to the point where I think of Juicy Banger as a style in its own right. Perhaps as recently as a year ago, I would have simply thought of them as pale ales and IPAs, but not anymore. Not since Camden Town Brewery’s Indian Summer Lager, and its genetic successor IHL (Indian Hells Lager). Each have their roots in the same brewery’s USA Hells, but it’s those two newer beers that have for me redefined what kind of beers we can make in the UK. These aren’t just hoppy beers, they are astonishingly balanced lagers delivering the hop hit of the most accomplished IPAs. I had the pleasure of trying a few cans of IHL at a recent canned beer competition in London, ahead of its official launch in a few weeks’ time. It is hugely impressive, not only in terms of its High Definition, bright, electric citrus flavours but also its finely balanced body. It might be the best beer made in London.

More generally, it would appear that the trend for brewing the palest possible ales to showcase hops (arguably started by Thornbridge with Jaipur and Kipling, correct me if you know different, and I don’t mean ‘golden ales’) has reached a sort of logical extreme, or another, further branch on the evolutionary tree: these pale ales have become lagers. This decade’s definitive beer style, the one that we will be able to identify with certainty in 5 or 10 years time, will not be an IPA or a saison, but a pale-as-sunlight, hop-forward beer that demonstrates true brewing skill, whilst remaining accessible enough to recruit new fans of craft beer and be sunk by the pint in bars across the UK.

For the time being, this field is populated almost entirely by American Pale Ales and IPAs, but I predict others will take up the challenge implicitly laid down by Camden Town and pitch their own spin on IPA/pale ale/lager hybrids.  Several already exist: Weird Beard Citra Pilsner, Williams Bros Caesar Augustus and Adnams Jack Brand Dry Hopped lager just off the top of my head. Even Fuller’s have had a go at it in the form of Frontier. Plus, as if to prove the lines between ale and lager blurring even further, Beavertown and Camden recently brewed a collaboration lager combining the body of Camden Hells and the hopping of Gamma Ray: One Hells of A Beaver. It, needless to say, is a Juicy Banger, but astonishes me mostly because it marries the body of Hells and the hop character of Gamma Ray seamlessly. So if whether it’s an ale or a lager doesn’t really matter, how then, by current criteria, does one know a Juicy Banger? Here are some recurring factors:

Fresh – Freshness is important now more than ever before, as an increasingly connected world becomes less tolerant of delay and any potential inhibitor of flavour. As the newer craft brewers expand, it might also be that to improve freshness they sell this beer in a:

Can – It’s not perfect, or the messiah of craft beer, but the can has a lot going for it, not least the tendency to feature stunning designs that open people’s eyes to what beer can be. Whilst it’s not essential to be canned to be a Juicy Banger, it doesn’t hurt. They #can also be very good value, especially if they are sold:

Local – A criterion hand-in-hand with (but not the same as) freshness. JBs are typically enjoyed just a few miles from where they are born. Local identity is big part of enjoying these beers. Whether local or not, they absolutely have to be:

Pale – Whether lager or ale, these beers have to be golden or very pale amber. They can be hazy, even on the murky side, but they absolutely must be bright and glowing with mischief. The simplicity of the malt bill allows the brewer to show off their ability to make these beers:

Hoppy – Whatever you think of the word, it’s the most immediate and shortest descriptor of what these beers are. Typically we expect a cocktail of American hops, but other varieties are welcome, as long they help make the beer taste:

Juicy – Juiciness is more than just fruity flavours, it’s like those fruits have just been bitten into, the sweetness and acidity biting back. Juiciness demonstrates the mastery of hopping, the freshness of the flavours, and makes these beers:

Pint-able – If it isn’t in a can, or even if it is, it should be able to be bought locally on draught. Just a half or third of a pint of one of these beers makes you wish you ordered a pint.

Why do I think these beers are so important, and distinct, from existing styles? Well, I think we’re increasingly constrained by beer styles, and their names, and the criteria that sets back innovative beers in homebrewing competitions but celebrates dreary and by-the-numbers ones. American brewers are so locked into terms and categories that when they brewed lighter alcohol beers that still had huge hop bills, they called them Session IPAs. The beers seemingly couldn’t stand alone – they needed some kind of label as a crutch to justify their existence. I think, and hope, we’re moving past that, and I think specific beers are starting to become styles in their own right. That is, after all, how most beer styles tend to come about. Hopefully, history will judge this latest one by a better moniker than Juicy Banger. In any case, they are beers we need, and deserve.

The Emperor’s New Zwanze

IMG_20140920_201603

A belated post about Zwanze Day 2014, hosted in London this year by The Kernel Brewery on 20 September.

I’m not entirely comfortable with pronouncing the word ‘Zwanze’ – one way sounds too much like Swansea or ‘onesie’ (and I think Zwanze Onesies would be the definitive indicator that we’ve reached ‘peak craft’), and the other way of saying it just sounds like a word for futuristic swans. However you say it, it’s the name given to the day celebrated annually when a unique beer brewed by Cantillon is released and enjoyed at various locations around the world, with all kegs being tapped at 9pm Belgian time, wherever it is in the world it’s being tapped.

This year was the first time I’d attended a Zwanze event. I’d been to limited-release-beer launches before though, so I expected a heaving crush of people swarming around a tiny bar, each with a camera-flashing phone in one hand and a artisanal teku glass sloshing enamel-stripping megabeer in the other. I was especially concerned given how busy The Kernel Brewery bar can be on Saturdays (for the Bermondsey Beer Mile) that it could be chaos.

The reality was a very civilised affair, far more calm than a Saturday day session. This a limited list, after all, of people who had registered by email for a glass of this singular beer. It was a simple and effective system: register by email and receive a flyer on arrival entitling you to a glass of Zwanze, so no worries about it running out whilst you’re queuing.

The story of this year’s Zwanze can be found here. It’s a lovely story, and the beer itself has a very considered yet playful construction that really embodies the mind of its creator. Briefly, it’s a three-year-aged, blended, dry-hopped gueuze, blended with kriek and dry hopped again with Bramling X. Reducing it to a sentence does the beer a injustice though, because the canvas it paints across your palate is so much more than its constituent parts.

The colour alone, a mahogany-rich maroon with carmine edges, thrills the eyes. The sharp aroma of citrus pith, pepper, linseed oiled cricket bats, leather and overripe blackberries is, at first, baffling. You need a taste to complete the puzzle it presents. The first sip is an artillery barrage of harsh, flat, funk, wrapped in juicy, tart luscious raspberries and white grapes, thicken by the thick cut shred of orange peel in marmalade that gets stuck in your teeth. The finish, more of a crescendo really, is a machine-gun bitterness that sprays around the palate and dries everything it touches with lemon pith, apple skin and wood. Oh, and it is sour – sour like the sky is blue – but it was the dryness that really stuck with me, remarkable and utterly brow-furrowing in its assertiveness.

Of course, with every event like this, there is plenty of commentary online, both positive and negative. Almost universally positive from the people there, and a smattering of negativity from those that aren’t. It’s just the usual stuff, from honest jealousy to more bitter sentiments about the Emperor’s New Clothes, and whether the people attending can fairly judge a beer they’ve registered to try and pay a premium for.

I handed over a paltry £3.50 to taste a third of a pint of that incredible beer, from an exquisite glass in great company in one of the greatest breweries in the world. Considering the beer’s story, the process that made it and the experience I had while drinking it, I fail to see how I got anything less than the best value glass of beer in the world for that money.

Still, it’s a common debate in craft beer that goes way beyond Zwanze, which is normally universally loved every year, and it’s a debate that I struggle with. I can’t logically argue with the notion of people enjoying a beer more because they think they should, or because they’ve paid more for it. Equally, it can easily be argued that such limited release or rare beers can genuinely be astonishingly good. I actually laughed aloud with how good Zwanze was. It tripped across my palate, somersaulted into my brain and hit the necessary synapses to release a laugh of delight from my lips (Fou’Foune prompted a similar reaction, but more from my incredulity at just how sherbety and juicy it is).

I grow concerned that with the maturity of our craft beer scene there is also a steady increase in cynicism, not just the healthy kind that keeps you financially solvent, but the kind that closes one’s mind. The beer itself was a stone cold masterpiece. There can be no doubt about that whatsoever.

Whilst it used to worry me that I too was getting all caught up in the moment and not judging these rare and limited release beers as critically as I should, lately I find myself asking a different question: what if the Emperor’s New Clothes are actually, you know, incredible? What if the reason these people can’t see the Emperor’s New Clothes is because they weren’t there to see them?

Of course, there’s another side to this – criticism of tickers. For me it comes back to The Seeking, something that, more and more, I’m convinced is a very different mindset to that of ticking. I don’t have a problem with ticking – for the most part it’s merely the search of new beers and what they taste like – but it definitely has a dark side to it: those that turn up, tick, leave; or simply wish to be the Mayor of their favourite beer. All harmless enough of course, but for some tickers, it is the tick that motivates them, not the experience that comes with it.

As I grow as a beer drinker and as a writer, it is that concept to which I try to hold fast, no matter what: seek the experience, not the tick. That way, if the experience is this good, then the Emperor’s new clothes look just fine to me.

Green, Hoppy Shoots

A portion of one wall of Sheffield's Hop Hideout.
A portion of one wall of Sheffield’s Hop Hideout.

Sheffield’s Hop Hideout is probably the smallest beer shop I’ve been in. It’s also one of the loveliest, set in one corner of the ground floor of a building full of independent retailers (the Antiques Quarter). It’s a bit like walking through the house from kids TV favourite Finders Keepers, except if the unseen owners of the house were all into vintage clothes and art prints and beer, and every cupboard didn’t explode its contents into a child’s face. Each room full of quirky goods bleeds into the next, reminding me of another TV show from my youth – The Crystal Maze. I think it’s that word ‘Hideout’ that I really like – it suggests something special, a secret treasure for friends to share.

Hop Hideout is a cracking little shop, packing hundreds of beers from around the world into a space smaller than most people’s box rooms. Whether it’s Belgian or German classics you’re after, or the very latest cans from London or California, owners Jules and Will have it covered. They invited Craig Heap and I to do a beer talk/tasting thing (our first ever) just over a week ago, taking place at the Electric Candlelight Cafe in the room next to the shop. We had a great time doing our talk (a tasting through the history of IPA in six beers, with cheese paired to each), and the event attracted a diverse crowd in terms of people and beer knowledge. There were a few regulars among the attendees, and a friendly, informal vibe that suggested a sense of community that really stuck with me.

The pub next door, The Broadfield, had a great range of keg and cask beers on, and a separate dining area propping up its gastropub image. The pub reopened in its current guise just a couple of years before Hop Hideout did, and the pair have formed the nucleus of a small-but-growing craft beer ‘hub’ in the Abbeydale Road area. The area itself is cheap and cheerful for the most part, reminding me of places in Wakefield and Leeds where I lived whilst I was at university and afterwards. But around Hop Hideout, the green, hoppy shoots of a healthy beer scene seem to already be sprouting.

Nearby, an old cinema’s basement is the location for a new bar, Picture House Social, which has asked Hop Hideout to curate a small, rotating beer list for them.  Staff and customers from ‘The Broady’ pub are regularly found perusing the shelves at Hop Hideout on their breaks or after a drinking session at the pub. It all speaks of a communal closeness, something I really enjoy seeing in modern beer culture. The shop is that special treasure, tucked away, reverently enjoyed by those that know where to find it. Many of the nation’s best-loved beer shops started out in much the same way, so I’ve got high hopes for Hop Hideout.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on the the progress of this little Sheffield craft beer microcosm, and I look forward to seeing how it’s grown the next time I visit.

If you find yourself in Sheffield, the 218 bus from the Howard Hotel bus stop opposite the train station will get you to Hop Hideout in about 15 minutes. Oh, and the pies in The Broady come highly recommended.

Tapped Out

Tapped Out
(Wow, count the mistakes in that pop up)

 

This is a blog post about Untappd. If Untappd makes you angry at them young’uns in the pub with their phones and their Pac-Man video games, this blog post may only serve to raise your blood pressure, so you may want to leave.

Since London Beer City started, I haven’t really logged that many beers onto Untappd, and I’ve had a lot of new beers in the past few weeks. Normally the ‘newness’ is the key motivation for me to check something, not necessarily in a ticking instinct, but so that I have some record of when I first tried it, how strong it was or which batch it was for future reference.

Lately, I just don’t have the energy for Untappd. I got into it only a couple of years ago, having seen others use it and enjoy it. The badges, the social network aspect, the toasts, it all seemed fun, and simply anyone who was anyone was using it, so I gave it a go. Like many forms of social media, it’s addictive. Not just because it merges so neatly with one of my main pastimes, but also because it’s so easy. It becomes a ritual. We see each other all reaching for our phones as we return to a table with our new beers. I don’t have any beef with people using Untappd in pubs, nor do I have any problem with social media becoming part of the way that we enjoy and discuss beer. Still, I simply don’t enjoy using Untappd anymore.

There’s no such thing as ‘casual’ Untappd use, or rather, there’s no point to dabbling in it. You either check in every new beer you have, or why bother using it? The idea is to contribute to a global social network of beer lovers sharing and commenting on each other’s beers. I like the social aspect of it, but Twitter already fulfills that function.

Just over a week ago, I saw this tweet from all-round nice guy and lovely beer person, David Bishop:

Now, despite appearances, David is a shrewd chap and has a healthy attitude to beer geekery. That and his other tweets on the subject very much mirrored my own feelings. It provided the necessary prompt in my mind to really think about it again. What do I get from Untappd? I tweet about beer without its help, can share photos of beers I’m enjoying without its help, keep notes about beers I’ve had without its help.

The useful functions: the searchable archive of beers I’ve had for the first time and when; and the ability to see where beers are being enjoyed near me (which has helped me when visiting a new area a couple of times), are just that – useful, but not essential to my experience of beer. If anything, it causes me more annoyance than satisfaction on average. The Android app is clunky, and frequently crashes when uploading photos, despite several updates.

I’m not sure what I want a beer app to be, or even if I want a replacement for Untappd. I’m certain that, once I delete it from my phone, I’ll experience some cravings. I’ll get my fix other ways, through Instagram, making little felt badges to stick on my Craft Sash at home, Twitter, and so on.

I’m also hoping that, as a side effect, instead of logging every new beer with a few choice flavour descriptors, quitting Untappd will encourage me to actually write about the beers worth writing about.

Is Untappd still doing it for you, or is it something that was fun for a few summers and now needs to go in the loft?

Interview with BrewDog’s James Watt

James Watt is the co-founder of BrewDog
James Watt is the co-founder of BrewDog

 

I and some other beer writers were recently invited to BrewDog’s Ellon plant, where we took a tour of the ever-growing new brewery and new onsite bar DogTap, and were treated to a wonderful beer and food dinner at Musa in Aberdeen. In a conscious effort to avoid the inevitable ‘what I did on holiday’ blog post, ahead of the trip I asked various Beer People I know what they would ask BrewDog if they had the same chance as me. A lot of people feel very strongly about BrewDog, one way or another, and it seemed only fair that I extend the opportunity to others who weren’t on the trip. There were some recurring topics, and not every question made it into the interview due to time constraints, but I think there’s some fresh insight here, as well as clarification of issues that may not have been fully explained in the past. What follows is a series of questions put to James Watt on Friday 22 August, some from me, some from other people. Thanks again to James, Martin Dickie, Sarah Warman and Stewart Bowman at BrewDog for their hospitality and time.

 

Some people are concerned about the impact you’ll have on independent bottle shops (such as Stirchley Wines in Birmingham and BeerRitz in Leeds) by opening new BottleDogs nearby. Are these new BottleDogs necessary when you already have bars with off-sales licenses in Birmingham and Leeds?

Opening BottleDogs [in Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham this year] should actually benefit the beer scenes there, increasing the availability, the appreciation and the understanding of good beer, whether that’s people opening new bottle shops or new bars. We’re all collectively against the macro, generic beers and nonsense in people’s heads about what beer can be. Our other bars and BottleDogs that we’ve opened have shown that we can actually contribute to the scene.

 

With regard to the BrewDog Development Fund, what is your long term plan and reasoning for investing in new breweries like Brew by Numbers? There was, and remains, confusion over the equity stake you took in BBNo and CAP. What are you gaining from these investments?

We’re gaining next to nothing. It’s all about helping other people get started in making beer and improving the availability of good beer. As well as cash investment, we’re helping Brew By Numbers out by giving them some old tanks we had at Fraserburgh, helping their beer get into export markets and we’re showcasing their beers at our bars. With CAP we’ve done similar things.

In both arrangements it’s a minority stake. We’ve got no influence, no control and no intention to have any of those things. In both arrangements, there’s clauses written in so that they can buy stock back if they want to. We’d never want to have a controlling stake in anyone else at all. It’s just about helping other people get going. We started our business on a shoestring in 2007, and we wanted to make it easier for other people, like CAP and Brew By Numbers, to start their business. We wanted to pass on the benefits of what we’ve learned since we set up. We’ve got no other motive whatsoever, than just helping to increase the appreciation of good beer.

 

There’s been talk of your next bar opening in Islington in London. What would you say to people who think there are already plenty of bars in London, especially given how close the proposed Islington site is to Camden and Shoreditch? Are you maintaining a focus on London, or elsewhere now?

We have a focus on everywhere, so we’re continuing to look at places in London, we’re also looking at loads of places outside London, places on the edge of London. We want to open more bars. We love what our bars do. We love the enthusiasm and passion of the staff there, and we have plans to open more this year.

[James later admitted that the new Islington bar will be a bit different – so stay tuned for updates on that]

 

A few people wanted to know if you would ever consider either a) brewing cask beer exclusively for the US market, where for many there it’s seen as being as ‘craft’ as it gets; or b) setting up a side concern/brand/brewery in the UK that brews just for cask for people that like it?

In terms of brewing cask beer for the US: never. With cask beer it’s so much about the conditioning, it’s so much about how it’s handled. If you put that in a shipping container, it won’t show up for eight weeks. There’s no way at all that we’d brew beer that wouldn’t be in the best condition for consumers.

But, given that you’ve got plans, or at least the inclination to start brewing in the US at some point, would it be something that you would consider then?

Probably not. In terms of brewing for cask in the UK, I love cask and it still has its place. I think cask beer is fantastic for showcasing indigenous UK styles: milds, bitters, ESBs, which are all phenomenal on cask. They’re lower in alcohol, lighter in body, and cask dispense gives them that body.

With the type of beers that we make, we think the best way to dispense those hop-forward beers is keg. We think on cask they would be too cloying and too sticky, and we feel the best way for consumers to experience beers like Punk IPA is keg dispense.

 

The craft beer landscape of the UK is very different now to when you started BrewDog. With self-proclaimed ‘craft beers’, including your own, finding their way into Wetherspoons, Greene King’s pub estate etc, has craft beer really become mainstream? Would you ever draw a line on where your beers are going to be sold?

Well, 1 in every 2,700 beers sold in the UK is a BrewDog beer. Let’s have the conversation about craft becoming mainstream when it’s 1 in every 200 or 300. And we’ve never been elitist when it comes to where our beers are sold. We’ll happily sell our beers to Tesco, we’ll happily sell our beers to Wetherspoon. We want to help revive the UK good beer market and make people as passionate about great craft beer as we are, we want to increase the availability of great beer, and we can’t do that by being snobby about it. If they’re happy to sell our product we’re happy to sell it to them. When you’re on the inside of the craft beer industry, it’s difficult to have that perspective to see just how small it really is. When you just drink craft beer in craft beer bars, you feel like it’s everywhere, but it’s not.

 

Some people have concerns about pricing, and want to know why you charge a premium price for your own product in your own bars. An example given was that in Shoreditch, Jackhammer is £4.90 for two thirds. At another bar nearby, an American import of similar strength is £4.50 for two thirds. Some think you are making dramatically increased margin on your own product in your own bars.

Well, I’m pretty sure that the beer they’re referencing is Lagunitas IPA. Lagunitas are huge compared to us, they’ve got two production facilities, both of which are about ten times the size of this one [in Ellon]. They make phenomenal beer but in terms of our size versus Lagunitas and others in the US, we’re behind by such a long way. They can produce beer for so much cheaper than we can.

Our margins are pretty tight. Making our beer is just super expensive. In one 400HL tank of Jackhammer, we’re putting in half a tonne of dry hops, which also means we’re losing 25% of the beer, so our yield is only 75%.

So how much money is that, that you’re basically throwing away in order to make a hoppier beer?

So a 400hl tank of Jackhammer has a total sales price of about £50,000, so 25% of that every time we brew a tank of it [£12,500], just to dry hop it as much as we want to. Plus you’ve got the cost of the hops, plus the fact you’ve added 2 weeks to the process time, so how we make our beer is just super expensive.

We’re a public company, people can look at our accounts. We make a small amount of money but we don’t make a lot of money. We’ve always been about just making enough money so that we can invest in our systems, our team and our people, to make great craft beer. We’ve never taken a dividend and we have no intention to. So our pricing is what is fair so we can continue to make the beers we make. Lagunitas can make hoppy beers cheaper than anyone else, and good luck to them. But if you’re comparing us to them, you’re not comparing apples to apples because they’re so many more times the size of us that it’s not a fair comparison.

 

On the subject of getting bigger and making beer cheaper, with many small and successful craft breweries like Beavertown and Fourpure expanding, they’ve been able to produce a higher volume of beer at a reduced cost and pass this on to the customer. Would you look to do the same thing with your own canned beers next year?

No. We sell our beer at as fair a price we can. What a lot of consumers don’t understand is how the duty structure in the UK beer market works. At the moment, because we’re exporting and because we’re now at this size, we pay full duty. So we pay the same amount of duty that Heineken and Stella and Carling pay. The smaller guys that you mentioned, under this system, which is perfect for the smaller guys starting out, they pay half the duty rate we do. Which means, under that system, they can potentially sell their beers cheaper than we are. When they grow to the scale that we are, which I’m sure they will, they’ll also have that issue.

For a bottle or can of Jackhammer we would pay HMRC about 50 pence, whereas those guys will be paying HMRC in the region of 25 pence. And if you consider that’s at the point of making it, once you’ve added on distribution and everything else, that’s where the pricing differs. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it’s just how the UK beer market is in terms of beer duty, so we make the margins we need to help grow the company and invest in our people, that’s all.

 

One of the things almost everyone agrees on is that you have fantastic customer service, and some of the best-trained staff in the industry. Have you ever thought of building a business around staff training? With increasing numbers of craft beer bars, surely there’s a market for people wanting the best training in the business.

Our team is perhaps the thing I’m most proud of, in terms of what we’ve done as a company. They’re passionate, evangelical, knowledgeable, a lot of them are Cicerone-qualified. Because what we do is so niche, teaching people to taste what’s different, we’re not just selling beer, we’re selling education and information.

We haven’t thought about creating a business about providing that training, and it’s probably not something that we would do. We just want to focus on the personal development of our own team, being the best company to work for that we can be, and just making sure that everything goes into making the best beer.

 

Finally, what’s your favourite soft drink?

[laughs] That’s a good question. It would be a homemade thing I do myself, that’s apple juice infused with elderflower and tiny bit of chili, and a type of peas that turn into icicles, in a punch.

Well, um, that’s pretty… craft. There was talk some time ago about you going into making soft drinks. What ever happened to that?

It’s still something that we would like to do, and to have in our bars. We think there’s definitely a market in the UK for more artisanal soft drinks, and it’s one of th0se things that’s on a massive list of projects, things that we’d love to do, but we just don’t have the time. We’re just so busy trying to keep up with demand for what we’re doing right now.

If you could make any soft drink, would you make that one that you just described, on a scale so that people could buy it anywhere?

I think if we did so a soft drinks line we’d want to take advantage of the produce that we have locally in Scotland. We’ve got phenomenal soft fruits and berries locally, so we might want to do something that takes advantage of that.

Thanks very much for your time.

————

(Thanks to Matt Curtis, Adam Driver, Matt Lane, Ed RazzallNate Southwood and Emma Victory for their suggestions for questions.)

[EDIT 1/9/2014: Amended “Well, 1 in every 2,700 beers sold in the UK is a craft beer” to “Well, 1 in every 2,700 beers sold in the UK is a BrewDog beer”.

Disclosure: Aside from being a freeloading craft wanker beer writer, I am also an Equity for Punks shareholder and was given beer, good beer too, and food and taxis and kind words and doors held open for me for absolutely free as part of the trip to BrewDog. Judge me as you will, but all these words are true.