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.

The Beer City

‘Bird’s eye view of London’ by Chung86, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

 

If you built a city of beer, what would be the foundation? A history, surely; or a reputation perhaps, one lost but now regained.

Solidify that historic, ambitious miasma with the labour of human beings, captains of industry, greedy tyrants, honest souls and bind with the thirsty salt of the earth that build empires then pop down the local.

What shape should this city be? A tower to the moon of pure, unfettered ambition, or a wide, broad, shallow and inclusive plain that absorbs every drop. Perhaps both: a free space where ideas germinate and grow, defended by rigid and steady accomplishments.

It sounds like a fine and noble place, but it isn’t the city that London beer has built. What we have is a hot mess of ideas, ideologies, methods and clans. A furious diaspora of beer styles, none of which have ever been agreed upon, spreading quickly and drunk thirstily by an audience with no upper threshold for things new and/or good.

The whole thing isn’t really a city at all. It’s a river, forging its own boundaries with an endless tide of occasionally directionless but utterly unstoppable enthusiasm.

London’s beer river courses, much like its real-world counterpart, in wide oxbows and sharp bends, towards one favoured new style, brand, bar, pub, or another, looking from above more like a seismograph of some earth-shattering event. In some ways, it is.

It’s into this whirling, unforgiving torrent that the plucky yeast of London Beer City was pitched, an ambitious strain combining the very best of UK beer into something almost magic, or at the very least difficult to comprehend. Just how could they all work together, or alongside each other, and slake the thirst of thousands?

London Beer City had many different events, but also so many different types of events, catering for the longest or shortest of attention spans, the shallowest of pockets, and the thirstiest of palates. Now it’s over, and we’ve all tried to assemble the beer-sodden notes, smashed festival glass fragments and pork scratching crumbs into some kind of identifiable map of what it was, and whether it really worked.

Well, there’s no question that it worked. What was tapped at the beginning of London Beer City was not some terrifying, million-pint vat of beer, but rather London’s thirst for beer of all kinds in all kinds of places. We sustained that thirst for nine days, and I dare say next year it could last for fourteen, or even more. The real questions are: where is the river taking us next, and how will we persuade people not to cross it, but to sail on it with us?

London Beer City

London Beer City

 

About damn time.

That seemed to be the overall consensus when London Beer City was announced. At last, some truly city-wide recognition and celebration of just how incredible the London beer scene is right now. That’s the best thing about it too: that immediate sense of right now, the vibrancy and bottle-able excitement.

Craft beer in London is about the pursuit of something special that we can enjoy and share with others. The best bars, pubs and breweries in the capital, the places and people that really embody that idea, are all involved a calendar-busting programme of events taking place across London. I’ve written before about how that pursuit, the seeking, is what motivates me. London Beer City seems packed with opportunities to do just that: seek, find and taste incredible beer in a huge variety of places.

This event, hopefully the first of many annual occurrences, is the culmination of a huge amount of work by 2013’s Beer Writer of the Year Will Hawkes, who has managed to co-ordinate a schedule that captures the very best of what London beer can be, whether it’s historic, traditional, trend-setting or esoteric. “I want London Beer City to be an annual focal point, something Londoners look forward to. A relaxed, fun occasion, with events for all tastes and pockets. I hope London Beer City can show off the best of beer,” says Will, “and also help bring about world peace!”

A noble aim. Of course, corralling a city of seventy breweries (and rising) and dozens of quality venues was no easy task. “There are a few really tough things,” Will explains, “such as: ensuring you have enough events every day (I just about achieved that); getting a good spread of events; making sure everyone understands what the week is about; and collating the information quickly and accurately. Overall, though, it has been quite smooth since so many of London’s breweries, pubs and bars are keen to be involved. The London Brewer’s Alliance has been really helpful.”

So what is Will looking forward most next week? “It’s difficult to say! Siren’s live brew at the Earl of Essex, Pete Brown’s Music and Beer matching at The King’s Arms (it’s also on at the Bull in Highgate), Brodie’s sour tap takeover, anything Camden Town are doing … there’s loads of stuff. I’m hoping to get to two or three things each day and still retain a functioning liver come Sunday evening.”

Most people I know have similar concerns. How can we hope to fit in so many incredible events, especially those of us with day jobs? I think the key to enjoying a week of events like this is to pick a few things to definitely attend, and then just throw yourself into something new and different every day. There’s obviously the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival to consider, too. New events are being added all the time, so it might pay to have some time free for something unmissable and just-announced.
Many events are free to attend, and ticketed tastings, festivals and dinners offer some irresistible opportunities to meet amazing brewers and try some wonderful beers and food. I’m hoping to see London’s beer community embrace this exciting week of events in the way the city got drunk with excitement and pride during the Olympics. Only this time, in a slightly more literal sense, too. Here are some of my own highlights from the schedule:
  • Porters, Peers and Pilgrims: a London brewery heritage walk – I’m gutted that I won’t be able to make this, but this looks fantastic if you’re interested in learning more about London’s brewing history at street level. Des De Moor is the guide for this tour of historical brewing locations across the City and East End.
  • Beavertown Welcomes Rough Trade – Beavertown’s tap room is fast becoming the city’s best new beer destination/all-day hangout, and this day of music provided by DJs from Rough Trade, beer from Beavertown’s tap room and some bangin’ street food looks like a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.
  • Weird Beard Pop-up bar in Bermondsey – In a move that surely out-crafts even the craftest of crafty craft brewers in Bermondsey, the suspiciously good Weird Beard will be opening a pop-up bar on the Beer Mile for one Saturday only. Because the one thing the Beer Mile needs, is more beer.
  • Tasting Beer with Melissa Cole – You’d have to be crazy to pass on a tutored tasting from a beer expert with Melissa Cole’s knowledge, and this tasting just happens to be in one of the city’s best bars, BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush. What’s not to like?
  • One Hells of A Beaver – A collaboration between Beavertown and Camden Town Brewery is a thing to be celebrated in its own right, but as it’s going to be a mash-up of Camden Hells and Gamma Ray, it might also result in the Beer of The Summer. If that wasn’t ‘craft’ enough for you, on the brewday at Camden there will also be a collab-label art-off between Camden and Beavertown’s creative types.

Some people think that London’s beer scene is already disproportionately over-sized, that the scene is nothing more than one more bubble that pops in the head of a pint of cheap, dirty lager. The fact is, it’s about goddamn time that we have something of this scale. The revolution is over. It’s time to start taking this shit seriously if we want it to last. If you think London’s ‘beer ego’ is already so big it can be seen from space, then I’ve got bad news for you. We’re only just getting started.

UPDATE: Golden Posts 2014

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

You may or may not remember a post I wrote back in *adjusts spectacles, squints at screen* February, in which I proposed an end-of-year celebration of the best beer blogs and blogposts, The Golden Posts, in a similar fashion to The Golden Pints.

Whilst we all generally get along and say “good post!” and argue in each others’ comments feeds, there’s not that much actual feedback in the blogoshire, or indeed any formal celebration of particular blog posts. Bloggers can submit their work to the annual awards held by the British Guild of Beer Writers (whether they are members of the Guild or not), but I don’t think that this (currently) adequately caters for the diversity of beer blogging, or indeed the sheer number of us.

The other reason I want to do the Golden Posts this year is because I’m really interested in what everyone’s personal tastes are when it comes to beer blogs, and whether, year-on-year, any identifiable trends emerge. Each tired sigh from the crypt of “is beer blogging dead?” (accompanied by the rattling of chains, creaking of doors and so on) suggests to me a suffocating, numbing ignorance of just how many great beer blogs are out there, so I hope The Golden Posts could help people find new, great blogs.

My suggestions for categories were: Best History Post, Best Impassioned Rant, Best Pub Post, Best Palate Post, Best Beer Travel Post, Funniest Post and an Open Category.

Initial feedback was positive, though there were several requests for a video category. I’ve thought about this a bit and decided that whilst there’s a lot more video bloggers these days, I’m not sure there are really enough to compete against each other on a level playing field. Most are trying to be different to each other, or are hard to compare directly.

However, there are several that are still more than worthy of praise, so I’ve decided to make the Open Category even more open: it can now be ANYTHING posted online about beer that you think is worthy of everyone’s attention and praise. Abstract blog posts that don’t fit in the other categories, tweets, Vines and indeed videos of any kind. If loads of people pick different videos, I’ll take that as evidence to include a video category next time, or something.

I’ve also adjusted the descriptions and names of a couple. Impassioned Rant could also be a professionally written Op-Ed sort of piece that firmly nails the author’s colours to the mast on a specific issue, and the Best Palate Post can also be one that shows off some beer and food skills whether in recipe/pairing/description etc.

So, the Final Categories are:

  • Best History Post (a post that covers, explains, or unveils a fascinating bit of beer or pub-related history)
  • Best Impassioned Rant/Op-Ed (a post that has JUST ABOUT *HAD IT* with a particular issue, but makes some damn good points too)
  • Best Pub Post (a post that shines a light onto a particular pub, and makes us want to be there with the author)
  • Best Palate Post (a post that showcases the dazzling, laser-accurate palate of a gifted taster and bring the description of a beer or beers to life. This might also be a post that demonstrates a masterful food and beer pairing/recipe)
  • Best Beer Travel Post (a post that really takes you somewhere and gets well-refreshed/rowdy/locked up in a foreign jail to boot)
  • Funniest Post (a post that… *giggle*…I mean, the way it… it… *guffaws*… it’s just absolutely *sobs, falls off chair*)
  • Open Category (anything posted online about beer that impressed you – whether it’s a video, tweet, Vine or photo, or a beer blog post that inspired you, amazed you, had great photos, personal significance or otherwise is deserving of praise but doesn’t fit in any other category)

One winner per category, please, but feel free to note any honourable mentions/runners-up. Most importantly, tell us why that post is a winner, and what the blogger in question did right. Tell the world about your Golden Posts in a blog post around the end of the year, or by tweet/Facebook/series of Vines stitched together, and I’ll do some kind of round-up. Hashtag your tweets #GoldenPosts and/or send an email with a link to cshallwriter[at]gmail[dot]com.

But wait! some of you cry, I want to take part in the Golden Posts but I:

  1. didn’t know you’d suggested doing so;
  2. can’t think of any posts to give awards to; and/or
  3. saw you say something about this but totally forgot.

No problem. I’ve thought of some prompts to help you remember posts you might have particularly enjoyed this year to get you rolling. Make some notes on them, use apps like Pocket etc., or perhaps start a draft blog post now that you add to as the year goes on. Here are some little prompts:

  • What beer festivals/beer launches/dinners/tasting events have you been to this year, or really enjoyed reading about?
  • Which are your favourite blogs to read, and why?
  • Have you bought any books by beer writers this year, and do you like their blogs?
  • Did you read a blog this year that inspired you to write something yourself?
  • Did you read a blog this year that convinced you to try a new beer, or revisit one you don’t like?
  • Have you planned to go on a beery holiday or trip somewhere because of a great blog post you read?
  • Did you start following someone on Twitter/Facebook etc. on the strength of a post you read?

I hope those help. I’ll be doing my Golden Posts at some point in December, and I’ll try to remind everyone again closer to the time. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people pick this year, and thanks in advance to everyone who wants to participate. Cheers!

 

UPDATE (20/11/14): I’m planning to post my #GoldenPosts blog in the first week of December. Feel free to join me in the opening week, or wait and have a read to get the idea before taking the plunge.

 

Changing the Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Giants

IMG_20140716_234815

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20140716_232658

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

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

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

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Four Nations of Beer: Epilogue

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#EBBC14 – What Did We Learn?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Murky Mile (Four Nations of Beer Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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