I had doubts about posting this hearty recipe today, given how the weather has massively improved recently, but apparently it will go back to cold, blustery rain soon, so you’ll be thanking me later.
Beef stew with beer in it is a simple, classic dish that every beer (and beef) lover should have under their belt, ideal for banishing the last of the colder days. I love making a meal that’s a strong, simple idea, with loads of flavour but not loads of ingredients, just the right ones. I hate seeing those once-and-never-again-used jars of unobtanium and eye of newt at the back of the cupboard, when I only bought them so half a teaspoon would go into something I’d never make again. This is a full-flavoured stew that uses good quality, everyday things to tasty effect – but using which beer?
BrewDog’s first seasonal beer of 2015, the resurrected Alice Porter, is now at 5.2% and without the leafy blackcurrant notes of Bramling X and dessert-like flavours of vanilla, but it still has a wonderfully full, sweet and nourishing body and velvety mouthfeel, sharpened by the oily lemon of Sorachi Ace. In this dish, the idea is to enrich that beef and sauce with the oaty, chocolatey notes of the porter, and get the oily lemon notes to interact with the thyme and vegetables. Of course, there are lots of beers you could use here – oatmeal stouts, brown ales, Belgian dubbels – but generally you want something that’s rich, darker, sweet without too much roast or bitterness.
The below makes a portion for 1 person, so scale up as you wish:
200g stewing steak
1 rasher smoked streaky bacon, chopped
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 carrot, chopped to roughly 1cm sq pieces
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp butter
1/2 a bottle of porter (in this case BrewDog Alice Porter)
150ml beef stock
Thyme, small bunch
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
Parsley, finely chopped, to serve
Cooking time: 90 minutes
1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, season the beef with the salt and pepper and sear it on the outside in the pan. You don’t need to fully cook it through, just brown the outside. Depending on how much you’re cooking, you might find this easier to do in small amounts, rather than all at once. Set the beef and the juices aside once you’ve seared all of it on all sides.
2. In the same pan, stir fry the bacon for a few minutes, then add the butter, onion, carrots and garlic, softening the vegetables for about 7 or 8 minutes.
3. Now return the beef and its juices to the pan, stir everything through, then add the thyme, porter and beef stock (but keep about 100ml or so of stock back). Make sure the liquid covers everything. Once it’s simmering, get the heat down low, cover the pan and leave to cook for about an hour and a half. If it starts to look like it’s drying out, add some of the reserved stock.
4. Once the stew has thickened and the beef is tender, taste and season if necessary. Garnish with the parsley and serve with potatoes however you like them (for me you can’t beat mustard mash) or with some crusty bread and butter. Oh, and a glass of beer.
If you have more left, Alice Porter is perfect, picking out the softer herbal elements of the dish as well as boosting the thick, beefy goodness. Alternatively, pick your favourite dark beer in the cupboard. Westmalle Dubbel, Kernel Export India Porter or an American porter like those by Anchor or Sierra Nevada are great matches for this type of dish. As ever, balancing the intensity of flavour in both beer and the food is key, but it’s also important to find other aspects they have in common – comforting sweetness and complex flavours. Enjoy!
One of the textbook rites of passage for the modern, budding beer geek is to buy ‘single-hopped’ beers to find out the flavour and aroma characteristics of specific hop varieties. With each flavour, some increased knowledge or understanding of it is (hopefully) stored subconsciously, and the next time we experience it, it becomes a little easier for the firing synapses to locate the relevant file of previous experience.
A brewery that has truly committed to the single-hopped idea is BrewDog, which recently released its fifth annual IPA is Dead series. The hops selected are chosen based on a combination of public interest (including suggestions from social media) and, mostly, I suspect, brewer curiosity. With new BrewDog bars opening on an almost monthly basis, it’s getting easier each year to pop along to your nearest one on day of release and order a flight of the latest series to try them out. For some, the appeal is simply to taste something they haven’t had before. For homebrewers and committed beer geeks, single-hopped beers represent an opportunity for personal development and gaining valuable experience.
The thing is, most hops, like most people, are normally only very good at one or two things, and not many people can even claim to be that talented. Single-hopped beers require the hop variety in question to be used at multiple points in the process, instead of just where they would normally perform best. Sometimes the ‘truth’ of a hop’s character is blunted or stymied by it being used at every stage in the brewing process. Others, meanwhile, revel in the challenge and reveal incredible depths, clarity or raw flavoursome power.
The latest BrewDog IPA is Dead series sees another eclectic mix of craft beer favourites and up-and-coming new varieties: Mandarina Bavaria (a great potential Bond heroine name), classic US bitter monster Chinook, juicy Oz-German hybrid Ella and modern British hop Pioneer.
Mandarina Bavaria certainly delivers a lot of sweet orange and pithy peel in its aroma. There’s also something stickier and alcoholic like peach schnapps, perhaps revealing the hop’s difficulty in overcoming the beer’s 7.2% abv. I found the Mandarina Bavaria very sweet, but with a tangy lemon sherbet flavour rather than full-on mandarin. The bitterness is sudden and schizophrenic – twisting juicy fruit into a raspingly dry finish reminiscent of Jever. The strength of the beer was much less evident in the flavour, in fact I gulped it down like it was a juicy and bitter pale ale, so here the hop really shined.
Pioneer, a British hop, can have bright lemony flavours and woody, cedary notes when used well. In a 7.2% IPA, the flavours seem to come down quite hard on woodiness, almost piney in the finish, whilst the aroma was somewhere between warm lemon curd and marmalade. It didn’t quite gel with the strength and malt profile of the beer, but certainly taught me in explicit terms what Pioneer tastes like.
Ella, meanwhile, is an Australian variety related to the super-peachy aroma hop Galaxy and the German bittering hop Spalt. Brewers like its flavour-efficiency, as it can be used in moderate amounts to replicate full-bodied continental lagers, or in larger amounts to deliver massive tropical juiciness. As it’s the only hop in the beer, Ella turned the IPA into a dangerously quaffable blend of sharp bitter grapefruit, tart lime and caramelised peaches. The finish is actually my favourite part, leaving just enough of each flavour to make the mouth water for more.
Finally, Chinook delivered a somewhat predictable hammer-blow. A hop that can be used for bittering or aroma, Chinook is a notably piney and spicy US hop that tends to dominate the finish of any beer it’s used in. It’s a favourite of BrewDog’s so I had a fairly good idea of how it would taste, and I was glad I elected to drink this one last. The bitterness and pronounced pine and woodiness was palate-shifting.
This is the funny thing, though: whilst each of the beers seemed to have markedly different levels of bitterness and hop flavour, all of them were brewed to have 75 IBUs. As any brewer will tell you, that number on the brewsheet is not the same as perceived bitterness in the final beer – the reason why a 45 IBU pale ale can taste less bitter than a 45 IBU pilsner. Brewing each of these beers to 75 IBU isn’t necessarily the best showcase of each hop, and often, individual hops, like people, perform best when partnered with others that have different strengths.
Since this was the first time I’ve had all four of the series in bottles at home, so I couldn’t resist flipping the concept on its head. In previous releases, the hops used for IPA is Dead were often so diametrically opposed that it would never occur to many people to try blending them, but this year’s release seemed to have traits that could work in unison. After opening each bottle I poured roughly 100ml into a growler that I kept in the fridge, and after tasting all four I had an equal-parts blend of each beer.
The result was surprising, in that each of the component beers could be tasted and seemed to interact with each other – the resinous spike of Chinook evened out the peachy syrup of Ella, the lemon and orange in Mandarina Bavaria softened the bitter, woody tang of Pioneer – but whilst it broadly worked, it was not in any sense a complete beer. Each beer had used its hop at all addition stages, for bitterness, flavour, aroma and dry hop, so the positives aspects were spread thinly across the palate. What would be more interesting, would be if the IPA is Dead series starred a fifth beer, where the brewers used the hops from the four single-hopped beers in different proportions at different stages to best suit their characteristics. Just as important as learning what hops taste like when working alone, is learning how they can work together. The lessons learned from the flavours of the single hopped versions could be galvanised in the the fifth, when you see how and when they should be used to best effect together. What do you think?
Thanks to BrewDog for sending me this year’s IPA is Dead series.
We are fortunate to now be able to drink a wide variety of fantastic beer from great UK breweries on a regular basis. With each great beer, I think a little higher of that brewery or the place it’s from, and the people who make it. But really, when I do that, I’m inside the bubble, thinking everything is rosy. I’m not complaining; I like it in the bubble. It’s a great bubble. Still, it’s only when someone from outside that bubble shares your appreciation that you can feel justified in your opinion. We like to say how great everything is (me included, I mean seriously, I’m doing it all the time) but it’s hard to know we are right without external corroboration. Worse still, it appears to some people that it’s the same breweries getting the attention all the time. So how do we measure fairly what’s really going on, and how far it has come? Let’s try.
Two legendary (and I don’t use that word lightly) American breweries made efforts to visit the UK late last year: Firestone Walker and Dogfish Head. FW, specifically David Walker and a handful of his brewing team, held a tap takeover at Craft Beer Co Covent Garden, whilst Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head’s founder, held a joint beer and food paired dinner with Beavertown and Charles Wells. These were highly desirable events that got people talking. Even though here in the UK we have begun to replicate the success and growth of self-identified craft beer that happened in the US in the 90s, it still feels special and exciting to have the chance to see, hear and speak to these important figures in brewing from across the pond.
Of course, David Walker is British himself, but even he must have been surprised to see how far the beer scene here has come in the past few years. Stood at the heaving bar of Craft Beer Co, California-tanned but armoured in the British institution of a Barbour coat against his homeland’s winter chill, the forty-odd taps of every style under the sun must have seemed both familiar to him, and alien. Cask and keg together in such numbers is almost unheard of even in the States. Imagine being in his position, returning home and being able to proudly put pints of The Kernel pale ale into his colleagues’ hands. He spoke later of just how great it was to see such a big step forward.
On the far side of London a few days later, Sam Calagione was expressing a feeling of bewilderment. In the interim between his beers no longer being available in the UK and now returning (a period of roughly four years) the founder of Dogfish Head discovered a fully-formed, hungry and ambitious UK craft beer scene, quite a different animal to the one he left behind (for example, Magic Rock didn’t even exist and BrewDog had only just opened a bar or two). On that day in late October last year, Calagione collaborated with brewers from Beavertown and distillers at East London Liquor Company to make a gin botanical-infused ‘Londonerweisse’ in the style of the light-and-sour Berliner Weisses of Germany. Then, in the evening, a dinner was held with beers from Beavertown, Dogfish Head and their DNA brewing partner Charles Wells, matched to dishes cooked and served at Duke’s in East London.
Beers like Midas Touch and 120 Minute IPA are pioneering classics, but here Calagione found beers like Gamma Ray nailing American pale ale as a style, whilst the likes of Wild Beer Co and Burning Sky are (finally) showing just how great the UK is at absorbing and co-opting influences from abroad and at home. He admitted he was quite taken aback by it all. It’s important that these kind of events continue to happen (and it’s also worth noting that the dinner wasn’t an isolated incident either – more recently, during London Beer Week, Beavertown pulled of a similar event with Camden Town Brewery and another visiting US brewer: Left Hand from Colorado).
The tickets for these extravagant epicurean feasts naturally come with a price tag, but one that, when considering the sheer amount of food and drink covered, are incredibly good value. The fact that Charles Wells had beers represented (an improved recipe DNA IPA and Courage Imperial Stout) showed this wasn’t craft beer elitism or just ‘the usual suspects’. And of course, while there is no direct comparison to be made, one can’t help but think a similar event held by several wine houses would have a ticket cost in the upper stratosphere. Still, it’s worth emphasising that it’s hard to compare such things directly, but also, more importantly, that the cost of the event doesn’t necessarily mean that the scene is becoming a elitist – if anything, it means that there are now events of every type to match every budget.
Those events last year are two examples, but don’t entirely serve as a perfect triangulation of measuring how far things have come, since both are from America. Who else then could provide assurance – somewhere traditional perhaps? How about a brewery that’s as traditional as it gets, not one that’s old-fashioned exactly, but one with a long heritage that has stuck to what is does best whilst keeping technologically updated with the times. How about the growth of Italian craft beer here, and that many of their brewmasters trained at traditional brewers in the UK? Too new? How about someone like Pilsner Urquell shipping tanks of unpasteurised brewery-fresh lager over in a matter of days to satisfy the breadth and growing appreciation of our palates for quality lager? Nah, starting at 1842 they are still mere children among brewers. Older, then? How about the oldest continuously operating brewery on the planet? Old enough for you?
Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan is home of one of the world’s leading brewing universities (well, one of the world’s leading universities full stop, really) and a brewery that has been operating since 1050. Its expressions of hefeweizen and Bavarian-style pilsner are timeless, world-beating classics. Perhaps this passed you by, but last year brewers from Weihenstephan did a collaboration with BrewDog. The resulting India Pale Weizen is being brewed again this year. Whilst a hopfenweisse is by no means a new thing, the meaning behind such a collaboration is frankly colossal.
I’ve written before that the rise of BrewDog has been as definitive point on our beer landscape – somewhere where we can point to and, with surety, know that things a different forever now. But the world’s oldest operating brewery, and let’s not beat about the bush here, Germans who don’t ever fuck about with their beer styles, decide to brew a collaboration with BrewDog, those guys with the tanks and the sharks and the hop cannons? I think it’s safe to say that based on those three examples we can say with certainty that our beer scene has entered, or is at least phasing into, a new stage.
But wait, you say. pretty much all of the UK brewers mentioned so far are probably in that ‘all the attention’ bracket. What about brewery X, Y, and indeed Z, which have been making amazing beers for yonks and don’t get any credit for it? What about them Chris, you trendy wazzock? Firstly, if you want a brewery that makes great beer to have more exposure, do something about it. Secondly, I am absolutely thrilled to bits to be in a position where we are this spoiled for choice. I am utterly ecstatic that there is so much to celebrate that we can’t decide how to cover it all. But what makes me happiest is that, because of that idea that some are getting more attention than others, we have entered a situation where good beer is being ‘normalised’. There is so much good beer near to us all right now that whether it is all getting the proper credit has become a feasible topic of discussion.
So where do we go from here? Is it really possible for the beer scene to keep growing? Undoubtedly. The appetite or rather the thirst for what is happening right now remains strong; unquenchable. The question is how to rationalise and balance the desire for the weird with the desire to normalise good beer to as many people as possible as a whole. I think the answer is that we don’t try to reconcile those two divergent trends and that, if anything, we should encourage them, because the divergence is resulting in diversity. Only by normalising good beer at one end, whilst still continuing to push boundaries of what beer can be at the other end, can the beer scene truly continue to evolve. If that means that, right now, it’s a group of brewers in each of those camps getting most of the attention, then so be it. It doesn’t diminish everyone else’s accomplishments, it merely highlights who is succeeding in being more inclusive and innovative on a regular basis.
It’s ultimately about growing (not like a brand with an advertising campaign, but like a living thing) what beer can mean to people. Do you ever wonder why it’s the same handful of images of beer used to illustrate any newspaper article about alcoholism, pub closures, alcohol consumption, breweries opening, beer duty rising or falling? That same bloody bloke with a filthy pint pot of brown-coloured ale in extreme-close up? It’s because, to the editors of those publications, it’s “just beer” and they’ll use whatever images they have for free. There’s no point spending money on costly new images when that one of a claggy nitro ale being sucked from a dirty glass will do.
Well, it won’t ‘do’ anymore, frankly. The distance between those images, and what beer is now and what it can be. has never been greater. The problem is that the use of those images is representative of popular opinion. Unfortunately, beer is “just beer” to many people and, as we have so recently been told, nothing to be “fussed over”. We have to champion and encourage this even widening range of things that beer can be, each as important as the one before or after, cask or keg or bottle or can or high-end or low-end, so that those images and the way beer is represented has to change to keep up.
We have to keep setting the pace and daring everyone else to recognise just how vast the growing breadth of traditional, esoteric, historic and cutting-edge beer is. Despite the odd clanger of a dated or misused photograph or naff article, I think we’re getting there. We just have to keep fighting the good fight, and show beer to be something that really can please all of the people, all of the time.
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.
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.
[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.
This isn’t exactly the blog post I thought I was going to write. I have been very firm in my conviction that BrewDog is entering Phase 2, and shrugging off so much that has stopped them from being respected by so many people. Instead, last weekend I saw a conflicting image of the brewery that has left such an indelible mark on the British brewing landscape.
The AGM 2012 was a messy but fun sort of riot. Massively underestimating demand was as much a part of BrewDog as any notions of ‘punk’ back then, so it was expected that their first go at an event that size would be hit and miss. The hits outweighed the misses though, and it was still a great weekend. In 2013, there were noticeable improvements in every area, a sign that they were listening as much as they were shouting. It was a far slicker, better organised event that got just about everything right. Seeing the new Ellon brewery, and the profound sense of gratitude from the people who work for BrewDog, said a lot. The company was ready not just to grow, but also to grow up.
This year, that slickness became over-confidence, and organisational problems that many assumed BrewDog had outgrown once more reared their heads with a vengeance. 2012’s cries of QueueDog once more became the bon mot exchanged in the line for the bar, of which there were only two. It wasn’t all bad though. After 6pm, a lot of people left of their own accord, either because they were bored to death, or because Idlewild finished playing and that’s all they were there for (or mostly what they were there for). Still, that’s not exactly what I would call ‘everything going to plan’. I understand that BrewDog are limited by the AECC in the number of bars they can have and where they can be, but this might be the year they realise the AECC just isn’t the venue they need anymore.
If it’s becoming difficult to have enough bars and taps to keep 4000+ people from being thirsty, BrewDog want to consider a different approach – such as taking the AGM on the road, a BrewDog Tour if you will. There are now BrewDog bars across the length and breadth of the land, just as well-spread as the shareholders themselves. Doing four, smaller events in say, Aberdeen, Manchester, Birmingham and London, would ease the pressure on the bars, allow more brewers and bands local to each event to be involved and help out, and make it a real spectacle. Having said that, they could easily end up with 4000+ people coming to the London one alone. Still, the way BrewDog is going, they will have to either massively expand the AGM or take it on tour eventually.
So what did go right? Well, all the beers were in great condition, a wide range of stuff hit the taps from other brewers such as Mikkeller, Stone, Magic Rock, Cromarty and Gypsy Inc, and it was as fairly priced as it has been in the past (£8 for 5 tokens, average pint cost 2 tokens, depending on strength). The problem was, when a new beer came on (invariably a highly-sought-after, one-off rare beer), everyone queuing at the bar ordered four of them, and seven staff themselves would then have to queue for access to just a single tap. When there’s upwards of a hundred people at the bar waiting, you can imagine how long it took to get served – too long, way too long. More often than not, the beer you were queuing to get would be finished, replaced by another beer, which then ran out by the time you managed to be served. It was frustrating.
That isn’t to say that some of those beers weren’t worth waiting for – far from it. Among a stellar cast of Stone, Magic Rock, Mikkeller and so on, it was actually many of BrewDog’s beers that really blew me away. Jackhammer was on predictably excellent form, and Dog C was a more refined beast than its previous incarnations, a smoother body that blended its heavy, thick and spicy flavours with real panache. This year’s #Mashtag, and imperial red ale, was balanced to the point of being dangerous at 9% abv, its fruity, malty depths balanced by subtle spiciness and a long hop finish. Black Eyed King Imp, a test brew of Cocoa Psycho with chocolate and coffee, barrel aged for 2 years, was a marvel, somehow both juicy with stewed fruit and darkly bitter, with the barrel casting a long shadow over the palate. It was Everyday Anarchy that impressed me the most, a very on-trend French white wine barrel-aged imperial saison that positively danced on the palate, rich and vinous with stone fruit yet bright and sharp and clean in purpose. These were all hugely accomplished beers, the kind that keep BrewDog right at the top of the scene.
While the organisation of the AGM itself was still lacking in several important areas, the updates and plans of the company itself were far more impressive. For one thing, BrewDog is now in a position to fully expand the Ellon brewery site to its full potential, meaning they will effectively more that double capacity over the course of the next 12 months. Furthermore, full-time tasting panels and a comprehensive lab setup will ensure quality remains a constant during this period of further expansion, and new automated packaging lines will help ensure that they can get things into the supply chain faster. The new onsite bar, DogTap, is close to completion, and more BrewDog bars have been announced for Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton, Clapham. BottleDogs will also be coming to Birmingham and Leeds (in the case of Leeds, being converted into one from the current tiny bar).
By far the most significant announcement was the BrewDog Investment Fund, which will see BrewDog provide funding to new breweries to support their growth. James Watt announced at the AGM that Brew By Numbers is the first beneficiary of this fund, with £100,000 being invested in their brewery (this was tweeted and then deleted by the BrewDog twitter account, suggesting the announcement may have been slightly ahead of schedule) [UPDATE 30/6: see here for full details of the BrewDog Investment Fund]. As I said in my last post, BBNo are hitting all the right notes lately. They could easily be the new Kernel, and it’s impressive and heartening that BrewDog is interested in contribution to the beer scene in this way. It’s been something I’ve discussed with people more and more lately – that the time has come for certain breweries to take a position of leadership and help sustain this thing we’re all enjoying so much. BrewDog, among others, are capable of doing so much good, and I was really pleased to see this Fund being set up.
So, what to make of all this? There’s no way to judge Scotland’s brewing scene on the BrewDog AGM alone, but BrewDog always seem to be at the front of things in the UK overall. BrewDog are more than just a Scottish brewery, they’re an international bar business, importer and now fundraiser for craft brewing. There are still disconcerting signs of them taking their eye off the ball occasionally. Being kindly asked by James and Martin to enjoy the AGM responsibly, then having to join an hour-long queue for food, seemed ridiculous. But there are too many good things to ignore here, and I maintain that there was more than enough evidence of BrewDog growing up as a brewer and a company. Their recent blog post acknowledge the long queues, and they have also emailed attendees with a feedback form about the AGM. Ultimately, they are still the best brewery in the UK at inspiring a younger generation of craft beer drinkers and bottling that enthusiasm, no one else even comes close. I think BrewDog are finally coming to terms not just with how big or fast or important they are, but also the responsibility that this places on their shoulders. Their ability to capture people’s imaginations is at the heart of that, and there is no questioning their impact on British brewing. I’ll end with a quote from Greg Koch of Stone, who crystallised that neatly in the AGM’s opening speech:
“Without everybody’s enthusiasm, we couldn’t have got to where we are today – and the change is amazing, is it not?”
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.)
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.
Sometimes, it’s hard to generate a whole blog post from the various flotsam and jetsam of beer things that happen. It’s not always enough – not so much a writer’s block as a blogger’s clog – a little cluster of thoughts that lack the electric impulse to become Something To Say. Still, I think that beer is always worthy of note, even if, or especially if, it’s mediocre. This is me having a stab at capturing the stray craft particles, the free radicals of my week, wrapping a big net around them putting a flag in the whole hoppy mess. Here are some beers I’ve had this week and what, if anything, they made me think.
Monday: Dry as a bone, but there was much to be said on Twitter about anger and reactions and beer styles and so on. Another Monday.
Tuesday: I was conveyed unto the Brewed Dog on the Shepherd’s Bush to meet and rejoice with the craft wanker brethren (and sistren). A tasty insult to history was enjoyed in the form of Gloucester Black Simcoe. Also of note: a Rye Bread Sour from Levain Franken that had a quaffable creamy note that made it one of those expensive beers you would drink by the pint with a winning lottery ticket. Also, my curiosity got the better of me, and I tried Hobo Pop, which proves we can now make American Stale Ale as good as them Americans and that. Hobo Plop, more like.
I then proceeded to drink an Amount of Beers Inappopriate for a Tuesday, but stuck to halves and two-thirds and so survived largely unscathed.
Wednesday: Sixpoint’s cans of Wetherjoy arrived late due to inclement posting attempts. Others posted about them quicker than I, so I didn’t bother to add to the noise. My thoughts on the beers:
The Crisp – slightly too boozy, but largely by the book pils. weird pithiness throughout that gives a sense of Premiumness, but at what cost?
Sweet Action – a fresh, foxy delight of peach, mango and melon. Delightful and juicy. Likely to be cloying in larger amounts, but that exact portion felt heavenly.
Bengali Tiger – an orange pith heavy, grapefruit tart assault on my main face. Refreshingly uncrystally, robust yet accessible.
What does it all mean? Don’t know. Too tired of predicting the future. More interested in the choice of range: for example, why a lager, wheat/pale/cream pale and IPA? Imported European-style US lager in perfect condition to prove a point? Maybe. More likely to be the entry point to all this craft bollocks for your mate who’s with you when you order the pair for £5/6 deal. Hook him in, get him on the Sweet Action, job’s a good’un.
Thursday: BeerBods this week was Moncada Notting Hill Red, an accomplished, American-hopped red ale at 6%. Having had a couple of the brewery’s beers before (Ruby Rye on cask and Blonde in bottle), I was expecting good things, and the Red did not disappoint. Full in jammy and piney aroma, rounded in its nutty sweetness and caramel-soaked orangey, limey hop character, there was a lot to enjoy in this beer. I’ll pursue their other beers with interest.
(Given the thirst for something similar, I opened a bottle of Hardknott Infra Red, only to find it had gone a bit ‘craft’, with a lactic character reminiscent of Rodenbach and much of the hop character and toffee sweetness gone. Not wholly unpleasant, but not the beer on the label. So why did I keep drinking it? It had gone off – I should have immediately poured it away. Truth is, I actually liked what had gone wrong. Truly.)
Friday: The Gun in the docklands near Canary Wharf celebrated National Pie Week (no, not every week apparently) by offering a Pie and Beer Flight, which was about as close as it gets to my ideal use of a 6 x 12 inch piece of slate. Three mini-pies, each paired to a third of beer. Cockel and smoked fish pie matched to a third of Anspach and Hobday’s The Smoked Brown (a sweet, crispy and smokey boost to the pie); a venison and apple pie matched to Partizan Black IPA (total, lavish decadence); and a figgy fruit turnover-pie with Brew By Numbers Saison Wai-Iti and Lemon (a curiously warming and spicy combination). For £14, it’s achievable and enjoyable proof of thoughtful beer and food matching without being inaccessible or too geeky. Hopefully more to come from this increasingly impressive pub.
On a side note, it was here that I first saw Brewmeister in the wild: their Supersonic IPA was on cask. As I can no longer get away with chiding them without actually tasting their beer, I dutifully ordered a half. Would it be passable? Would it be great? Would it have travelled well, and would a clone of Punk IPA on cask actually be a bad thing? I never found out. Some bastards had drank it all. Ominous. I went for Siren Soundwave instead, of which there was plenty.
That’s all for now. Saturday and Sunday will be spent in York and Leeds, hopefully warranting a gushing blogpost in due course.
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 craft. Hipster 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:
More historic evidence of real ale sold at a premium: What’s Brewing, Sept 83, says cask on average 2p more per pint than keg in Scotland.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.