Four Nations of Beer

I'll be needing one of these this month.
I could do with a HopJet this month…

June, June, June. How intent you seem on slaying me.

I’ve a fair few things lined up this month, all of which I’ve been really looking forward to, but it only occurred to me the other day that these events are not just in different cities, but different countries too (ooh get me). I’m not boasting – far from it; it’s probably going to put me in a horizontal state for most of July – but I have been pondering just what I should write about it.

For example, I’ve just spent the weekend in Cardiff, attending the W-Ales Beer Festival at the Millennium Stadium and revisiting some of the city’s excellent pubs. Each time I return to Cardiff, its beer scene has grown exponentially, and this year’s beer festival was markedly different to last year’s at the Motorpoint Arena. Craig Heap and I used to joke about the city’s Craft Beer District, but it’s now very much a reality.

This coming weekend I’ll be doing at least some of the Bermondsey Beer Mile before visiting the new Beavertown Brewery site in Tottenham Hale, a brewery which has truly ‘graduated’ to the big leagues. Of course, I already live in London, but I think this weekend will help to crystallise a lot of my thoughts about what’s happening here.

The weekend after that, I’m in Aberdeen for BrewDog’s shareholder AGM, a now-permanent fixture in my calendar that marries beer, music and BrewDog’s ‘culture’ increasingly neatly. With Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co visiting, ever more bands on the line-up and the certainty of new beers and madcap schemes, it’s sure to be a blast of a weekend. BrewDog are of course far from being all that’s happening in Scotland’s beer scene, but the AGM has been an interesting indicator of which way the wind is blowing.

I’ll end the month in Dublin for the European Beer Bloggers Conference. I’ve already written about how much I’m looking forward to this, but it’s worth restating that Ireland’s craft beer scene is mostly a mystery to me, so I can’t wait to get amongst the new beers, breweries and pubs that are driving the change there.

Quite a month then, and the fact that each event is in a different country presents me with a rare opportunity. I’ve decided to use each event as a way of examining that country’s beer scene in whatever way I can. It’s not going to be perfect, or wholly representative, but through the lenses that each of these places provides I hope to discover and share what’s happening in beer right now.

Too much is written about this booming beer scene in the past tense (post-craft etc). For people to understand this undeniably important time, I’m going to do my damnedest to record as much information of relevance as I can. There’s amazing things happening everywhere, and it’s our duty to experience as much of it as we can.

This project might help me make The Beer Diary the blog that it should be. Worst case scenario, there will be lots of details of my drunken exploits on the internet.

 

(PS. It’d obviously be great if I had time to do Belfast too. That would really help round this out/truly destroy me.)

The Seeking and The Stories

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In two weeks time, I’ll be in Dublin for the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2014. In fact, two weeks from when this post goes up, I’ll probably be cursing the name of Reuben Gray for hosting the Thursday night pub crawl and trying to unstick my eyelids, use rudimentary tools, make trousers work etc. Just you watch.

Edinburgh doesn’t know what to do with all this heat. Huge pockets of it are trapped in the cellar-like bars and cavernous pubs where folk would normally be taking refuge from the cold. Beer has been imbibed in ferocious and yet responsible quantities – a half here, a half there, sensory product and all that, yet consumed solidly all day. Now it’s starting to weigh us down, soaking through our skins and moistening our foreheads. It’s gone from being the fuel to our fire to the ballast against our senses. What do we do now, with such parched palates and beer-filled bellies? Gin, comes the answer from somewhere, a voice clear in tone and purpose. Gin.

It’s been a big year for me since the last EBBC – a year packed with opportunities – and I feel I’ve really ‘levelled up’ as a beer writer since that balmy weekend in Edinburgh a year ago. Once again, I’m pondering what I hope to experience at the EBBC. As beer gets better and the brewers increase in number, the world seems to gets smaller. So small, in fact, it could fit into a pint glass. Or should that be a third? Whilst it’s no International Conference by any stretch, the European Beer Bloggers Conference has a sense of community that beats our regular virtual interactions on Twitter and the like. Sharing a few glasses of world-class beer with seasoned companions in a foreign city is enough to get me onto a plane to pretty much anywhere.

Of course, there’s something about that word ‘Conference’ which implies a lot of dry content and classroom instruction. There’s a fair bit of sitting down and listening, certainly, but one’s experience of an event like the EBBC is very much self-determined. You get out what you put in. There’s plenty of interesting content in the programme this year, some great evenings with top brewers, and I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the beer scene in Ireland – a country so close and yet its beer scene feels so disconnected from the one on this side of the Irish Sea. The Scottish beer scene blew me away last July, and I’m hoping for a similar epiphany in Dublin.

You can’t take that in there. You just can’t. They’ll get angry. Put it down.

I’m convinced that the Shawarma takeaway is an unsuitable place to take a glass of Bourbon Barrel-aged Bearded Lady. I’m trying to explain this to a companion. It’s clear that he couldn’t bear to part with it at the pub, of that much I am certain. But more importantly: where is *my* glass of BBBL?

There’s another reason I’m so looking forward to Dublin. You see, long before I was a craft wanker, I was a Guinness wanker. Before I’d tasted Sierra Nevada or Jaipur or Punk IPA, I was very much a stout man. I grew up in Grimsby, a place where it’s still difficult to find well-kept real ale, never mind any other sort of craft beer, beyond the Wetherspoons. In my early drinking days I drank Grolsch because I knew it was somehow better than Carling, and I eventually moved to Guinness in a conscious effort to seek out different things and, if I’m completely honest, appear marginally more sophisticated. I went to university in Leeds in 2004, when West Yorkshire’s microbrewery boom was in full force. I tried a lot of different beers, and my tastes become more diverse and esoteric. I enjoyed tasting new beers, finding them, and learning the stories behind them.

Still, I would occasionally enjoy a pint of draught Guinness. Aside from the beer, I loved the branding, the history, the stories, those toucans (I still have ‘flying duck’-style Guinness toucans on the wall of my lounge). After time, travel and further exploration of the world of beer in those 10 intervening years (bloody hell I exclaim as I type that), only Guinness Foreign Extra Stout still gives me pleasure as a fully fledged beer nut/geek/wanker/obsessive.

The last time I was in Dublin was 2008, when I was still relatively fond of Guinness, and visiting St James’s Gate was a fantastic experience. Looking back, I can see a lot of things I would question, or even outright dislike, but there was still a real sense of Guinness there, whatever that is. I still have (and use) the keyring bottle opener from that 2008 trip. It’s opened a lot of great beers over the years and I’ve not come across a better bottle opener since, regardless of how ‘craft’ the beer emblazoned on it might be. My affection for Guinness itself hasn’t lasted quite as well, but FES still plucks several good notes whenever I return to it. So when I return to Dublin and visit St James’s Gate, I’ll be seeking that same sense of something historic, the story of something important. What I really want is that energising feeling I got from last year’s EBBC.

As I stand, beer in hand, at the front of Stewart Brewing outside of Edinburgh, I’m reminded of the opening line of Neuromancer: ‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ Only in this case, the sky at dusk is hitting a deep, flawless blue just a few shades darker than the Blue Screen of Death. It’s an ominous sign, but the night is too beautiful to see any darkness in it. The talk is also of a science-fiction theme: Blade Runner, then other things; among them the consumption of milk thistle, keeping up this lifestyle, being a craft wanker, topics flowing into and through each other, a sort of sparge if you will, rinsing the laughs and moments of significance out of the seemingly everlasting grains of the day. At a natural lull, we turn back towards the brewery. There are new beers to seek, friends to make, discoveries and moments and stories. We return.

The seeking is what I’m in this game for. It’s not the ‘ticking’, or even the choosing. The search, and that will to seek, to find, and to taste, is what this is all about. I’m in it for the stories too, because I’m a writer and beer is stories; because, when the weekend is over, the hangover sets in and the plane lifts off, the stories are what sustain you. They make it all mean something.

I’m going to Dublin in a couple of weeks for a few stories. I hope to see some of you there.

Blazing a Trail

 

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There’s a dumb way of thinking that judges each new bar or brewery in London to be somehow parasitic in its attitude towards the scene, trying to take a slice of the action for purely financial gain. Whilst that is no doubt the case in a handful of (usually rather obvious) cases, it’s a false and harmful view. Every part of London’s beer scene, especially those parts that make a go of it out in unclaimed territory, usually contribute something good. If they don’t, they soon fall by the wayside. Those that do contribute become the hub of a protozoic scene of their own. Last month I visited The Gun in the docklands and the Dragonfly brewpub in Acton, and it struck me that each of these pubs seem to be pioneering a mature and exciting beer scene in their respective areas single-handedly.

The Dragonfly Brewery at the George and Dragon pub in Acton officially launched on May 15th, and I was invited to taste some of the beers brewed by Conor Donaghue (formerly of the Botanist at Kew and the Lamb brewpub). The pub itself is a lovely place, it’s front wholly given over to the building that has been a pub since at least 1759, whilst the bar in the back room, a music hall once upon a time, is a gleaming chrome and brass affair on polished dark wood that evokes something more Continental, or American, or perhaps both, rather fittingly considering the beers being brewed.

 

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In a four-strong starting lineup (the strikingly authentic 2 O’Clock Ordinary best bitter; zesty, crisp and punchy Early Doors US-style pale; a sweet and subtly spicy Achtung Hefeweizen; and the nougaty-sweet and sharply coffee-tinged Dark Matter Stout), Connor has established a strong core range of technically accomplished and drink-by-the-pint beers that hint of great things to come. More impressively, the 2 O’Clock Ordinary best bitter on sale was the first beer Conor had brewed on Dragonfly’s brand new and oh-so-Instagrammable brewkit, installed behind the wonderfully-appointed island bar. You can read more about the beers and the brewery from the more detailed accounts of the launch night by Justin Mason, Matt Curtis and Steve from the Beer O’Clock Show.

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Aside from the great beers and the wonderful food (which include diet-busting beer accompaniments like deep-fried, breadcrumbed parcels of macaroni cheese and Dark Matter stout-battered black pudding fritters), the pub and brewery had something special about it. There was a certain shape, light and form to the place that seems destined to be a local focal point for good beer. The cosy front section of the pub, so reminiscent of the wonky-ceilinged and creaky-floored pubs of York, is a warm and welcoming place, whilst the airy, light and clean space of the brewery/bar area has the vibrant, lively atmosphere of somewhere like Camden Town Brewery. There’s no question that this place will be Acton’s flagship craft beer pub in no time.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, The Gun pub recently hosted its Spring Haze unfined beer festival. The Gun is a pub I’ve written about before, and between the excellent beer selection, high-end food and beautiful interior, there’s plenty to like about it (and, if that wasn’t enough, the people behind The Gun have something planned for Ealing which should be every bit as good, if not better). So why a festival purely for ‘unfined’ beer?

The issue of unfined and intentionally hazy beer has gained a bit of traction both in the blogosphere, and even on the websites of the national press, recently. The Gun’s manager and top beer bloke Barny sees the festival as a way of introducing the idea of unfined beer to a population that is either a) conditioned to be mistrustful of it and/or b) might not know anything about it. As more and more people enter the world of good beer through the offerings of the smaller, newer London brewers, more people will be trying ‘unfined’ beer and seeing it as normal. As far as they are concerned, if it tastes good, what’s the problem? For the more old-fashioned, the festival serves as an argument for the technical skill of the brewers represented on the bar.

Once upon a time, the idea of a hazy beer festival might have been the subject of a cartoon in a local CAMRA magazine. Whilst the breadth of beers available at Spring Haze, including offerings from ‘unfined’ stalwarts Moor as well as Beavertown, Pressure Drop, Windswept, Weird Beard, Brew By Numbers, Arbor and Gyle 59, demonstrates a slant towards newer brewers certainly, the beers themselves were hugely diverse. Moor’s black IPA, Illusion; the coconut edition of Weird Beard’s Fade to Black, Windswept’s Weizen and Gyle 59’s Toujours saison show that these aren’t just the much-derided London Murky pale ales of many a railway arch – these are technically impressive, innovative and well-brewed beers. It helps too that the Gun is such a great pub, with a great history (see below).

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Opening a shiny, multi-faceted gastro-brewpub like Dragonfly or running an unfined beer festival might seem like the type of thing to go down in Dalston or North London, but these things are happening in what, for London craft beer, is the wild frontier. There’s not even a whiff of cynical cashing-in or bandwagon-riding. These are simply great pubs, providing the kind of experience that wins people over to a scene that can seem to be just that: a scene.

So whether it’s by the wings of a Dragonfly or the hot iron of a Gun’s cannonball, there’s many a trail being blazed. When the newcomers are this good, it shows that London’s craft beer boom has far from peaked, and that if anything, those in the first wave might need to up their game.

New Dog, Old Tricks

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditionally Modern

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The new Pilsner Urquell cans coming soon to the UK

 

Breweries with an illustrious heritage often struggle to shake off the fusty, traditional image that grates with modern artistic design. In an effort to stay modern and relevant, any attempt  at a violent rebrand is usually clumsy, and often ends up sacrificing what people liked about the brewery’s image in the first place. It’s refreshing then, to see the beautiful labels of the new canned version of Pilsner Urquell that should be arriving on these shores in the next couple of months.

As you can see from the image above, these aren’t just any labels. In a nod to the brewer’s rich history, Urquell are selling their new cans in four packs, with each can bearing a different, limited edition label, based on four different designs from the brewery’s archives (my favourites are the two on the left). It’s slightly reminiscent of the arty labels that Becks had commissioned a while back, yet in Pilsner’s case I think this really keeps true to the brewery’s history and branding without pandering to fashion.

They look really, really good, especially in the rather *craft* cardboard sleeve, and the beer inside tastes on a par with draught Pilsner Urquell in terms of freshness and mouthfeel. They should be hitting shelves in the UK in time for summer.

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In more Pilsner packaging news, Urquell will be selling bottled Pilsner entirely in brown glass in the very near future (EDIT: likely to arrive in the UK next year), and there are plans for more of their Tankovna (brewery-fresh, unpasteurised pilsner tanks) to be installed in pubs both inside and outside of London. I’ll be discussing the Tankovna version of Pilsner in a future blogpost, but rest assured, it’s damn good stuff. Like the freshest pilsner you’ve ever tasted, with the smooth, quaffable mouthfeel of cask ale.

The brewery has also sent some wooden casks of the unfiltered version of Pilsner (enjoyed by the attendees to EBBC13 last year) to several pubs around London this week. There’s info about where you can find some today or tomorrow on this page of their website (has an age checking thing).

Thanks to Mark Dredge for getting me an advance four-pack of these cans. Yet more evidence, if more evidence were needed, that 2014 will see the Summer of Cans.

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Hipsters

Embracing tradition - or killing it?
A skull dimpled beer mug in Drink Shop Do near Kings Cross. A stylish, trendy appropriation of a traditional object. Does it offend you, yeah?

This is my belated piece for the #beerylongreads March 1 edition encouraged by @BoakandBailey.

The C word – craft, to be clear – is seen as one of the most divisive in the modern beer scene. The reasons for the arguments, and the arguments themselves, are complex and often tedious. It’s now easier to find things we disagree about, than issues we actually agree on. I’m convinced that much of this has to do with language, and the way that it, like a living thing, evolves without us noticing. Terms that were useful shorthand for a broad idea become labels, even terms of derision. When they do, it can become a source of alienation that prohibits understanding and acceptance.

In that sense, hipster is far more controversial than craftHipster has gone from being applied to a kind of trend-setting, trailblazing, early-adopting, fashion-creating subculture, to a far more mainstream, trend-following herd. It has become useful as a broad label for individuals and groups alike, people on the edge of cultural behaviour that, for better or worse, puts them amongst the craft beer scene.

For a long time, I’ve used the word affectionately, referring to hipsters in the same way I might say ‘Oh Morrissey, you silly Quorn sausage.’ I see people doing things that seem naive or gullible, fashion-following or amusingly trendy, and I think, somewhat patronisingly, oh, hipsters, shaking my head in fatherly amusement/disapproval. In the past year or so though, I have become increasingly aware and sensitive to the use of the word hipster in a decidedly non-affectionate way.

‘Fucking Hipsters driving up the price.’

‘It’s just for hipsters, more money than sense.’

‘Typical bloody hipsters, do whatever they’re told.’

I’m not going to give you a history of hipsters, but let’s all take it as read that they haven’t just appeared out of nowhere, and that trend-setters and early-adopters or whatever have probably existed since an early example of proto-human first added a dashing set of beads to his hairy brow. Yet, we talk about hipsters now like some kind of active, malevolent force. Tortoiseshell-rimmed-bespectacled Hell’s Angels roving through our cities, installing street food vans, vintage markets and Hopinators in their wake. A recent article about the ‘Shoreditchification’ of urban areas bordered on Daily-Mail-like scaremongering about a place near you suddenly getting gentrified (how ghastly). Who are these hipsters? What do they want? Have they come to destroy our way of life?

Nowadays, I rarely hear hipster used in any other way than derogatively. It’s a form of casual discrimination that is being increasingly used by people about those who are either just younger than them or dress differently to them. This use of the word hipster has potential to damage the British beer scene in the long term.

But they’re so phony, and annoying, and pack out places I like, and I liked that thing first, and they drive up the prices of things.

If hipsters pay more for something, at least they’re doing so because they believe (regardless of whether they understand) that the thing they are paying for is good. It’s the people making the product and selling the product who set the price. The taxman has a say, but so far the Treasury hasn’t introduced a tax on being a hipster (stop giving them ideas, Chris).

We all know what hipsters look like though, right? They’re youngish people, making a fuss about a format of something on the verge of obsolescence, claiming they appreciate it more than the mainstream, who don’t understand. They’re such total, obsessive wankers about it, they usually apply a special term, or want a special ‘definition’ for the thing they like, so that everybody will know what it is, and it can’t be mistaken for anything else. I’m of course talking about proper, authentic, dyed-in-the-wool craft wankers. The kind of wankers that, one day, decide that they should form a campaign to revitalise ale.

Classic craft wankers, right? So, by that reasoning, CAMRA was founded by hipsters, yeah?

“No, no, no, I like ‘real ale’. You probably haven’t heard of it, you probably like Watney’s.”

You might think that comparing the newer breed of craft wanker with the old breed of real ale wanker is a tired comparison. I say that it isn’t, because we clearly don’t realise just how relevant it is. As an example, take a look at the recent findings of Boak and Bailey on hipsters driving up prices:

No, no, no. We all know that hipsters were invented in Shoreditch in the noughties. Nobody ever did something just because they thought it was cool before then. No way.

We’ve lazily fallen into the trap of judging and basically discriminating against people whom we know little to nothing about. It’s unfair, misguided and ignorant. Hypocritically, old-fashioned real ale types and CAMRA members bandying about the term ‘hipster’ as an insult are likely to be the first to argue that CAMRA isn’t just an organisation full of beardy old blokes, and how dare people assume that?

But how will this damage the beer scene in the long-term? If we want the current boom in beer and brewing to continue, we’re going to need a whole lot of people being interested in beer, drinking it, and returning to the pub to drink it, all the time. Yet, whilst we want more people to understand and appreciate craft beer in all its forms,  we sneer and look down on these people buying it and pretending to like it. For heavens’ sake, at least they’re trying it. Isn’t that half the battle won?

You won’t see any of them bloody hipsters in my pub trying the real ales, though. They’re all in them bloody BrewDog bars, forking out a fiver a pint for that murky rubbish.

Have you ever wondered why that is? It’s because in a BrewDog bar, these people – perhaps taking their first steps in the sometimes strange and mystifying world of good beer – feel welcome, are welcomed, and invited to try things, talk about what they like, and find the beer that suits them. How dare BrewDog provide such an environment. What are they trying to achieve – get more people drinking good beer? Well, they are. Their rapidly growing business proves this, whether you like them or not.

BrewDog can take a selection this large, and make it accessible and understandable to anyone.
BrewDog can take a selection this large, and make it accessible and understandable to anyone.

Imagine these same people, feeling slightly more confident in their understanding, going to a pub that advertises a wide selection of real ales, and feeling looked down on by the clientele there. Imagine these people thinking, sometimes these good beer places are nice, but sometimes they really aren’t. Wandering into one suddenly seems like a risk – will I wander into a friendly one, or an unwelcoming one?

I appreciate and understand that this goes far beyond the use of the word hipster, but make no mistake: the use of words like this as terms of derision is a sure-fire way of alienating the people whose respect, passion and interest we should be embracing. We worry that trend-followers are going to come into ‘our place’ where we enjoy ‘our thing’ and somehow ruin it. Unless we engage, convert and embrace these people, we will find that we have ruined the scene we love so dearly, by failing to introduce enough people to it to help sustain it.

It’s our duty as drinkers of good beer not just to ‘tolerate’ these people that seem odd and strange and silly to us, but to welcome them. After all, they can’t be any weirder than the rest of us.

The Road to Craft

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

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

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

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

Batemans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer Review: Mocha Amaretto – Batemans – 6.5% abv

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

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

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

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

Golden Posts 2014?

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

At the British Guild of Beer Writers‘ Awards Dinner in December, Pete Brown, last year’s winner of the Golden Tankard, was on the judging panel and made some very astute comments on the state of beer writing, and particularly online.

Pete took charge of judging the Online Media category, where there were more submissions than in any other, and more than ever before. No longer are we as beer writers restricted to the written word. Podcasts, video reviews and more all make up part of the online beer landscape, and comparing them directly is particularly difficult. In the end though, those that took home prizes were all bloggers and writers, using the written word alone to further the cause of good beer.

Pete noted that many more online beer writers deserved awards than just Richard Taylor and Adrian Tierney-Jones, and I was dumbstruck to hear my own name given an honourable mention alongside previous Silver Award winner Jerry Bartlett. As well as being enormously proud just to hear my name said out loud by a man with a microphone, I was struck by the fact that online beer writing must surely now outweigh the conventional printed word.

I think the Guild does a great job of recognising those that deserve acclaim annually, but in the modern world of beer writing, that might not be enough. In fact, hell, it isn’t enough, okay? There are people (not me, admittedly) who bust their chops in the blogoshire every hop damn day, fighting The Good Fight.

Some do enormous, inspiring, epic pieces. Others write in a solid, unyielding crusade on a single issue. Others still have a voice that is just so compelling that anything they write becomes essential reading. So, in recognition of this, I’d like to start A New Thing to run alongside Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg ‘s Golden Pints: the Golden Posts. The Golden Pints have an award for best beer blog/website, but as a single award I don’t think it adequately reflects the breadth of online beer writing anymore, which is a Really Good Thing.

I think the categories can be flexible. Off the top of my head:

Best History Blogpost – a piece that uncovered something truly interesting from the history of beer and pubs, whether that’s something poignant, weird, academic, esoteric, important or frivolous.

Best Impassioned Rant – we’ve all been there. “THIS JUST ISN’T RIGHT!” The words come tumbling out, the language gets colourful, the issue gets red hot and everyone’s going on about it. These are the pieces that start riots, but they might also be deeply-felt, well-reasoned and just as convincing.

Best Pub Piece – Most likely a pub review, but not always. Maybe they just ended up at a pub, and described it perfectly. It’s most probably a piece that champions the pub, but there’s no reason it can’t be a This Pub is What Is Wrong With The Industry type thing. Maybe they found out a great story, or had a Herculean session, or became the stars of a great story as a result. Maybe the piece just gave you a warm, fuzzy feeling about how great pubs are.

Best Palate Post – We all read a lot of beer flavour descriptors now. Often, far too many. Sometimes, people are just listing fruits they can name. Not this blogger. Whether this person has had professional training or not, they seem to pick out the most inspired flavours, and you can tell they aren’t just making it up. Their palate is a finely-honed instrument, challenged by unusual beers but never bested by them. Pick a particular post that demonstrates this.

Best Beer Travel Post – This piece will have taken us somewhere exotic or familiar, but in any case it really took us there. Simply, the best beer-oriented travel piece you’ve read. It should make you want to go to that place immediately, or at least make you seriously consider it. Maybe they went to a brewery, or a city, or a city full of breweries, fifty pubs, then fell in a ditch. Someone write that.

Funniest Post – Think of pieces that took an irreverent or satirical look at an issue everyone has scrapped over. The kind of piece that cuts right to the quick, makes you laugh at the beer scene, or even yourself. Maybe it was controversial and close to the bone, perhaps it was just a warm-hearted jest with just the right amount of cheekiness. Laughing Out Loud at the very least.

Open Category – This could be anything. Maybe you want to award a particular blogpost for cheering you up on a particularly rough commute, or it introduced you to your new favourite brewery. Maybe the post just has fantastic photography, or has personal significance just to you. Beer writing should be evocative, so give this award to the post that deserves recognition but doesn’t fit in anywhere else.

How to go about collating all this, though? It’s hard enough remembering what our favourite beers are. I would suggest apps like Pocket if you read a lot of blogs on your phone or tablet as well as your computer. You could even just have a bookmarked folder you add particularly impressive posts to as you come across them.

I think the Golden Posts is worth a try. It’s more than just clapping each other on the back. There are tonnes of great bloggers out there who aren’t members of the Guild, or they are and their stuff isn’t getting the recognition it deserves. I’m going to do my damnedest to make a list of my favourites as the year goes along. Let me know if you have ideas for categories and ways of collating lists, or any thoughts on the idea at all, in the comments.

UPDATE: After a very positive response, I think the Golden Posts 2014 will be going ahead. A blog post later in the year will confirm the number and name of the categories. Until then, please continue to leave any ideas or suggestions in the comments. Cheers!

2013 Beer Glossary

Beer & Book Matching: How? ...Why? ...What?

A quick summary of the new terms added to the beer world’s lexicon this year. Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any.

London Murky: Liquid that occurs naturally under many railway arches in the capital, consisting mainly of hops and yeast sediment. (credit to @robsterowski for coining this term)

American Stale Ale: The freshest, citrusiest, piniest, juiciest hop flavours are mere memories to this expensively imported, caramalt-based alcopop.

Black (Market) IPA: Legally-obscure beer procured by alternative means to demonstrate the sheer lunacy of mankind.

Craft Wanker: Person who occasionally lets their love of beer get in the way of being a complete snob about it.

*Sigh*berspace: abstract concept describing a period of noisy ennuis and loud announcements about ignoring the latest BrewDog blog.

Definitis: A painful condition, which forces those afflicted to attempt to define and categorise concepts, with no discernable success.

Craft Beer: A beverage with all of the fun, imagination, joy and life stripped out of it by many of the people who claim to love it.

Let’s see what gets added next year.

Golden Pints 2013

golden pints

The year that was 2013 saw ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, become a truly, sort-of mainstream-ish and widely-noticed thing of some kind.

What I mean is, we in the beer blogoshire (hat tip to Boak and Bailey for that infinitely preferable alternative to the cold, corporate-sounding blogosphere) say more than ever before, but we communicate in increasingly fuzzy and inconsistent terms. The year has seen attempts to unify people and ideas, but there have been just as many fractures and splinters within already fractured and splintered groups.

There’s been a collective obsession with measuring What This Is All About, as people try and define Who We Are as drinkers and what beer is, as A Thing. I’ve read loads of blogs and articles this year about things in the present, events that are still unfolding, as if they are already history. Well, they’re not.

I hope 2014 sees a more patient and reflective attitude; less trying to define everything and more trying to understand things.

Many have struggled, even more so than usual, with their choices for this year’s Golden Pints, which has got to be a good sign. I have tasted some fantastic beers this year, many of which rank among the best I’ve ever had. I’ve even been asked to write what I think the best beers in the world actually are, which was of course broader in scope, but still a task laden with similar difficulties.

As with any test of naming the Best Thing You Had of That Type This Year, this feels more a test of memory than anything else. Taste as a sense is (I am told) the one with the strongest links to memory, so this should be easy. It isn’t, though, partly because of the vastly different flavours I’ve bombarded my palate with, but also because of the Inherent Obstacles in beer writing (the memory of a man drinking beer).

As with last year, I’ve tried to focus on what is new to me; beers that have Expanded My Mind in some sense.

Best UK Cask Beer

To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.

This should be an easy win for Oakham Citra, a beer that has been in almost perfect condition every single time I have tasted it. It’s a sensational pale ale that I will happily order a second or third pint of, and I say that as somebody prone to ordering as many beers in as smaller measurements as possible these days.

That said, even a shoddily kept, limply pulled, warmly-glassed, flatly served pint of cask Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA puts all five toes right into the nuts of any other cask beer in the country, including Citra, so there.

Best UK Keg Beer

This is an even messier decision to make. On a good day with no breeze and good-to-firm ground, a pint of BrewDog Dead Pony Club is hard to beat. It has a brightness all the way through its middle, right to the last drops that languish in the very bottom of the glass. Just delightful.

Unfortunately, Dead Pony is simply outclassed by the one-off wonder that was Kiwi Wit, the NZ-hopped version of Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit (thanks to Tandleman for reminding me of this). Only a single keg of that gloriously beer was made, a damned uncommon delight of gooseberries, grapes and citrus. Urgently address its absence from our lives, Camden.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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It would be remiss of me, given my constant harping on about canned this and canned that, not to award this to a canned beer. Even if I hadn’t been going on about canned beer all the time, I’m pretty sure that Camden Hells Lager in its exceptionally decorated can would have knocked my block off regardless. The freshest, crispest lager with the best possible protection from everything but your ravenous thirst. It’s the definitive version of Hells as far as I’m concerned.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

I spent the last part of my holiday in Belgium this year in the beer Mecca that is Moeder Lambic, and there tasted the sensational IV Saison by Jandrain Jandrenouille. It’s a beer so flavourful and wholesome and perfect that it outshone almost every beer I’d had on the trip, with the exception of…

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

2013-07-24 16.58.54

I had Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus for the first time this year, at the brewery. No further explanation needed.

Best Collaboration Brew

Another tricky one. Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George’s Shnoodlepip is about as craft as it gets, and I mean that in a good way. An experimental but totally quaffable beer that is worth every penny and Does Things to your palate/mind.

On the other hand, Weird Beard/Elusive Brewing’s Nelson Saison had a purity and elegance to it that was quite disarming. If you asked which I would like to have four pints of right now, I’d pick the Nelson Saison every time.

Honourable mention goes to BrewDog/Brodie’s Berliner Weisse, which taught my face a new expression: Berliner Weisse Gurner Eyes. A proper gob slapper.

Best Overall Beer

Beavertown 8 Ball. It’s been present at some of my favourite moments of the year, and I think of it often. A total class act.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

I love Beavertown’s branding. All the little details, the boldness, the oddities, it’s cool without really trying too hard, i.e. the definition of cool. Once they (as rumoured) move into canning their beers, they’ll look sensational.

Until then, there’s only one brewery that dominates any shelf its beers go on: Partizan. So, so pretty.

Best UK Brewery

I think The Kernel have hit – and maintained – a momentum that’s frankly astonishing. Every beer coming out of the new brewery in Bermondsey has been a showstopper. Freshness is key.

Best Overseas Brewery

2013-07-24 16.38.08

Cantillon. My trip to the brewery is etched into my mind permanently.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

Three different beers in the space of an hour from Burning Sky were enough to convince me they are a new force to be reckoned with. The Saison l’Automne was just fantastic, sensible strength and bursting with flavour. Believe the hype.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Really tough. I’ve been massively impressed with BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush every time I visit, but it’s still early days there. I’m fairly certain it’ll be a contender for my favourite bar this time next year.

Really, there can only be one contender. It’s a pub where I’ve met loads of ace new people this year, and tasted some incredible beers on every visit. If pubs are places where people + beer x location = bliss, then the location in that equation for me this year has been Craft Beer Co Islington.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

This is quite simple, really. My summer wouldn’t have been the same without Urban Sessions, a great place that had some of the best beers (including Nelson Saison) that I’ve had all year, in a location perfectly suited to the glorious summer we enjoyed. I really hope that something else like it will happen next year.

Beer Festival of the Year

If I have to pick one it would be London’s Brewing.

IMG_20130506_162940

I’m not joking.

I’ve been to plenty of beer festivals this year, from the daft and craft to the golden oldies, but London’s Brewing has to be my favourite because it took us all down a peg or two, and I think we needed that.

You need a good, solid fuck-up every now and again, especially in a movement that can occasionally get its head stuck up its arse fairly frequently, just to make it clear just how things really are.

It’s easy to get feverishly excited about the diversity and the variety and the experimentation and just how nice everyone is, but if you can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, in a very literal sense in this case, you’re not perfect.

Never again etc.

Supermarket of the Year

Waitrose always seems to have just what I want, whenever I need it to, so I can’t ask for much more than that. Still, credit is due to M&S for getting an impressive range of beers in from some of the country’s best breweries. Popping into an M&S Simply Food in a train station for a journey-enhancing bottle or two of Citra IPA is heartwarming experience.

Independent Retailer of the Year

I’ve made an effort to visit Utobeer in Borough Market several times this year, and they’ve just about won the crown from Kris Wines, which has let me down a couple of times with a few past-their-best imports.

Online Retailer of the Year

Don’t use online retailers much, but all my Abstrakt Addict parcels from BrewDog were delivered without issue.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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Joint winners:

Leigh Linley: Great Yorkshire Beer – every page written with real love for the subject matter. A lovely read.

Mark Dredge: Craft Beer World – the passion and excitement about every beer is representative of the very best aspects of the craft beer scene.

Best Beer Blog or Website

I’m going to cover this in a separate post at some point, so stay tuned.

Best Beer App

Untappd – if only for  the debate it creates about what beer apps should or shouldn’t be like.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Nothing has made me chortle this year as much as Let There Be Tim.

Honourable mentions for Boak and Bailey, for participating as much as analysing this year; Nate Southwood for never, ever changing; and Zak Avery for this tweet alone:

Best Brewery Website/Social media

@BrewDog is still the one to beat, though I love Wild Beer Co’s new website and Camden Town’s is very smart these days.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

It’s been said elsewhere, but Fraoch and haggis at EBBC13 was sensational.

BONUS AWARD: The Tin Hat Trophy for Best Effort at Tackling the C-Word

After reading so many earnest, heartfelt pieces about defining ‘Craft’ this year, I found Craig Heap’s What is Craft Bear? and Defining Craft Beer Through the Ages to be the best and most useful contributions to the debate, because they made me laugh and not want to self-harm.

Here’s to next year.