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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Interview with BrewDog’s James Watt

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Finally, what’s your favourite soft drink?

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks very much for your time.

————

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

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

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

Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World

 

Available in WHSmith, supermarkets and newsagents.
Available in WHSmith, supermarkets and newsagents.

A new guide to the best breweries in the world and the stories behind them and their beers.

This week you should be able to get your hands on the second issue of Future’s ‘Craft Beer’ bookazine series: the 100 Best Breweries in The World. Like the last issue, Craig Heap and myself were asked to create and write it, this time with the additional help of a Few Good Men (Matthew Curtis, Ruari O’Toole and Leigh Linley). Copies should be hitting the shelves of WHSmith, larger supermarkets with magazine sections and decent newsagents right now. You can expect:

 

– In-depth features on 100 breweries from the UK, US, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Ireland, Scandinavia, Australasia and more!

– Tasting notes for beers from each of the breweries

– Interviews with head brewers and the stories behind their beers

– Guides to the best pubs, bars, beer festivals and beer culture in the UK, US, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic

– Features on the brewing process and brewing equipment, brewing history, abandoned breweries, and some general beer appreciation and consumer-focused helpful info.

 

If the first issue of ‘Craft Beer’the 365 Best Beers in the World – was a mixtape of the best of the modern beer scene, this second issue is something slightly more thoughtful and complex. Perhaps a ‘background to cooking breakfast’ Radio 4 program about a particular genre of music, exploring the inspirations, variety and depth of the scene.

When Craig and I were asked to write a follow-up to the 365 Best Beers in the World, covering the world’s best breweries seemed like a good next step. The content was always going to be far more than just a list, and as we fed more and more ideas into the outline, it became quite clear we would need some reinforcements.

Leigh Linley, Matthew Curtis and Ruari O’Toole are great writers and good friends of ours. Craig and I were both certain that they had the determination and boundless enthusiasm to get the job done. By dividing our labours, we could each add our own expertise and passions to different areas of the project. Splitting the UK breweries between the five of us, Craig, Matt, Ruari and myself each took on one of the other major brewing countries (I chose Belgium, Craig takes on the Czech Republic, Ruari covers Germany and Matt covers the US) and a couple of features each.

Another key decision early on was to try to get as many in-depth interviews with brewers as we could. Our interviews show that, like the breweries themselves and the beers they make, brewers simply do not fall into one particular category or type of person. At the European Beer Bloggers Conference last year, Garret Oliver said in his keynote speech that ‘Beer is People’, and I think this is a good introductory idea to what the new magazine is all about. At the heart of this amazing industry are some amazing people, and this magazine tells the story of some of the best of them.

I hope people enjoy the new issue as much as the last one. I can’t wait to read it myself. I worked with some fantastic writers on this magazine and I’m really looking forward to reading their work. Cheers!

‘ Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in the World’ is available to order online, and should be on the shelves of a WHSmith, supermarket or newsagents near you. I’ll add a link to this post for the iTunes version shortly (and subscribers to the last magazine through iTunes may already have early access).

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.

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.

Fool’s Gold

Earlier today I tweeted this:

 

 

The article, by Tony Naylor on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth Blog, makes the case that limited edition beers are leading a trend of rising prices in the world of craft beer.

When I tweeted the link to it, I had scanned the piece and decided it made some good points. I didn’t like that it started out with its conclusion fully-formed, instead of reaching it by the end, though. Having said that, I enjoyed Naylor’s recent piece about crap pubs, and I think he touches on ideas and issues that matter to the nerdier among us, whilst also remaining accessible to normal, not-embarrassingly-excited-at-the-sight-of-foreign-keg-beer-they-haven’t-had-before sort of people. Beer being expensive? Sadfaces all round, right?

Naylor brushes aside quite a lot of important context (the cost of US/NZ hops, the real cost of maturing beer, duty on strength, retailer/pub prices, regional factors) and picks up, with jerking, twisting motions of angry, red hot pliers, the facts that support his argument. ‘These one-off beers are made by newer breweries, taking advantage of the rising interest in proper beer, and even by the oldies who want to look cool too. They’re all in on this big scam. Why aren’t they brewing proper cheap beer for the Honest Common Man of Noble, Simple Graft? Anyway, I keep buying them’ (slight paraphrasing).

When I tweeted the link, I described it as ‘well-reasoned and thought-provoking’. I said ‘well-reasoned’ because I sympathised with the sentiment of it, and thought he made his case well, despite not agreeing with it all. As for thought-provoking, well, here I am blogging about it. Not just it though, the reaction to it.

I read the article a couple more times over the course of the afternoon, certain that there was Something There I should be thinking about in greater detail. The thoughts never fully germinated. As I re-read it, I enjoyed it less and less, seeing a slightly greasy shine to it. I noticed other people on Twitter reacting to it angrily, seeing Naylor as someone who has flagrantly ignored a host of factors affecting the price of beer.

I even saw people get into rather shirty exchanges about ‘research’ and the importance of knowing what you are talking about. It’s all rather obvious to me now, of course, with 20/20 hindsight. This is what it was all for.

Clickbait.

Is this the price of fame for craft beer in the UK – the ignominy of the national press’ websites drawing our clicks with half-baked pieces that are worse than regular blogs? Sadfaces all round.

 

 

Yes We Can: Part Deux

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After a period of intense, blog-abandoningly-busy writing, I am back in the saddle.

On Saturday, I attended the Hells Can Party at Camden Town Brewery, where their Hells Lager was launched in cans, at last. I say ‘at last’ because it feels like a long time since I first spied Camden’s small canning plant, and I had hoped to spend the summer with a few crates of Hells, or even USA Hells, in cans. Unfortunately, it took a lot of time (and as I am led to believe, extremely hard work) to get the Hells cans launched. Some noted the oddness of launching a canned lager this close to winter, but when it’s this good, I say why the Hells not?

Camden Town’s bold, sharp branding is perfectly suited for cans, and their artist Mr Bingo has really outdone himself on the Hells can design. A straight adaptation of the Hells Lager bottle label would have been more than enough to impress anyone, but the intensely and eccentrically detailed madness oozing from the Hells can label is something glorious to behold. Packaging aside, the beer inside is the same world-beating, ever-refreshing and fantastic-tasting lager. Once I’d poured it into a half pint mug, I must have finished it in about four or five incredible gulps, a few of which washed down a wonderful pulled pork bun from the lovely man at Prairie Fire BBQ. By eck, even the flipping Mayor (of Camden, sorry Boris fans) showed up.

Anyway, I’ve written about my feelings on cans before, but in a nutshell (for those of you who don’t like being told to click on links when you’re right in the bloody middle of reading something), I think they are the future for packaged Good Beer. Bottles will be seen as premium and special; and bottle-conditioned beers will be treated with even more reverence as a result. Fresh, hoppy beers, however, especially those that have travelled some distance, almost always benefit from the total protection that a can provides.

What’s needed is a few other small UK breweries to take the plunge and get canning. It really needs to suit their image and branding, too. The Kernel, for example, would never can their beer and I wouldn’t want them to. There are some brewers however, whose branding and beers would be fantastic in canned form. Here’s my wishlist:

1. Magic Rock Brewing – Tell me – go on, just try – that Magic Rock’s madcap labels wouldn’t look sensational on a shiny can, especially the metallic ‘shiny football sticker’ labels given to their more limited beers. As for the freshness of those hoppy monsters, well, just imagine cracking open a can of Human Cannonball or Magic 8 Ball and let me know when you’ve finished drooling.

2. Tiny Rebel  Brewing Co – A brewery that’s going from strength to strength, Tiny Rebel are just the kind of brewer to embrace canned craft beer. Their labels could even make the cans look like the spray paint used by their hoodlum teddy bear mascot. Just the thought of beers like Hadouken and Full Nelson tasting brewery-fresh already has me all excited.

3. Oakham Ales – There’s something about Oakham’s beer labels that already reminds me of cans, as they often use a bright, rectangular image that could fit onto one just so. I’d love to be able to come home to a fridge full of cheeky, hop-faced cans of Citra, or, be still my beating heart, Green Devil IPA.

4. Beavertown Brewery – Beavertown’s bottled beers are almost always bottle-conditioned as far as I can tell, but if they could pull off can-friendly versions of Black Betty, Gamma Ray and 8 Ball, I think their branding would look even cooler than it already does on their bottles. Imagine cans of Beavertown at your next barbecue – surely a dream come true.

5. Meantime Brewing Co – It’s surprising in many ways that this old stalwart (over ten years old, people, that’s ancient) of the London brewing scene hasn’t dabbled in cans. They have the quality, consistency and capacity. Cans might not somehow suit the brewery’s schizophrenic mix of innovation and tradition, but really, they should.

I think the main issues, as is always the case with canning, is whether the brewers have the capacity and demand. BrewDog famously outsourced the brewing and canning of Punk IPA cans to Thwaites, but following the building of their new brewery, have taken canning of their beers back home.

Given that a brewer based under a railway arch (admittedly that goes for a lot of London brewers) can pull this off, surely plenty more can, too. What do you think? Is there a brewer in the UK who should be canning their beer and they aren’t? Or is it all a Craft Wanker fly-by-night flight of fancy, best left to them bloody Americans and that? Perhaps, but as Craig Heap notes, the UK has a tradition of canned beer innovation. Let me know what you think in the comments.

The Complete Homebrew Handbook

The Complete Homebrew Handbook. Available from WHSmiths, a big Sainsbury’s, places with lots of magazines…

So there hasn’t been much going on the blog lately, and here’s why…

That notorious Cwrwaft Wanker Craig Heap and I have written some features that have gone into this new one-shot magazine about homebrewing: The Complete Homebrew Handbook.

It costs £9.99, and for that you get a guide to starting homebrewing using kits, malt extract or full-mash, as well as information for intermediate and seasoned homebrewers. For example, there’s a piece about finding the right branding, and advice on how to go commercial.

The main reason it’s worth that price is the fantastic list of official recipes inside, for ace beers like Magic Rock Clown Juice, Odell Cutthroat Porter, Rooster Fort Smith, BBF Southville Hop, Tiny Rebel Hot Box and Moor Illusion. Seriously, there are some amazing recipes in there.

I didn’t write any of that really interesting stuff, though. I just wrote some features near the front about ingredients and what they determine in the finished beer. My bits are about malt and yeast, and also I did an interview with Chris at Warminster Maltings. Any unseen typos notwithstanding, I’m pretty chuffed.

The finished magazine is a very nice thing. More like a book really. The publisher insists on calling it a ‘bookazine’, but for those averse to newspeak, Big Magazine will do. You can buy it in WHSmiths, large supermarkets (Sainsbury’s definitely have it) and places that have lots of magazines. You can also order it online (and preview the contents) here.

Anyway, that’s one reason I haven’t blogged in a while. The other reason is this New Thing, which I will be promoting the absolute blummin’ heck out of in a few weeks time.

Back to the writing mines…

Chris.

Great Beer Festivals: GBBF vs LCBF

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In the blue corner: GBBF…

It’s taken me a while to write this post. It has a lot to do with a lack of spare time, but when I have had time, I’ve still struggled with it. I’ve rewritten this post several times over the past week or so, never happy with what I’ve said or the conclusions that I’ve reached. I think it’s actually the pursuit of a conclusion, the need to have something to say and not just report the things I saw/tasted, that has hampered me.

I wanted to directly compare the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival. The scheduling overlap of putting LCBF right on the closing weekend of GBBF makes it clear: this was what the organisers of the LCBF wanted us all to do. Compare. Contrast. I even saw people on Twitter two weeks earlier asking whether people would pick one, or both. Whilst there was nothing as tangible as an actual competition or rivalry between GBBF and LCBF, there should definitely have been closer examination of what these two festivals represent in the modern beer landscape. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

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… and in the red corner: LCBF.

The truth is that they can’t be directly compared. With GBBF, we have a firmly established behemoth of the British beer scene, stocking over 800 beers in the enormous and beautifully lit surroundings of Olympia. LCBF is a far trendier, tight-jeaned urban animal, nestling in Hackney’s suntrap/gig venue that is Oval Space.

Comparing attendance figures would be like comparing those of Premier League and Conference football matches, and sheer size is not really the point of a beer festival. It’s the experience and the beer that we actually drink, not see, that we measure beer festivals by. My experiences and the beers I tasted were so vastly different that, again, they defy comparison.

Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-the-beer-takes-over angle.
Standard perspective shot of some pumps taken at a just-as-the-beer-takes-over angle.

At GBBF’s trade session on Tuesday, I bumped into CAMRGB’s Simon Williams. We were stood by the Bieres Sans Frontieres Bottle Bar (AKA The Globe), which I had sought out expecting to find people I knew there. But the USA cask bar, The Spirit of Enterprise, was on neither side of The Globe, as normal. “I’m looking for my friends, you know, all the Craft Wankers,” I explained to Simon, who pointed me to the other hall, where the USA cask bar was located. Off I went, and indeed I found a veritable Growler of high-quality Craft Wankers propping the place up. My girlfriend remarked “Oh my God, he was right!” There was even a chap with the names of four varieties of wild-fermenting bacteria on his t-shirt. Seriously.

I eventually met with several fine people, and drank a great deal of good beer. But given the hype, the excitement, the brewers and the beers themselves present, few were better than just ‘good’. It almost seemed a cruel joke in a way, that the hugely popular bar of American imported draught beers were a) on cask, and b) all right but rarely incredible. Many remarked that they needed to be served  by keg or bottle to be at their best. Craft wankery? Perhaps. But it was hard to deny the truth in it. There was also the occasional bit of GBBF Weirdness (see below).

The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor's sign saying 'TRY MY TWENTY INCHER' was almost too much for this correspondent.
The juxtaposition of a Cornish wrestler dressed as Betty Stogs and a hot dog vendor’s sign saying ‘TRY MY TWENTY INCHER’ was almost too much for this correspondent.

On Saturday, the chaotic, barrel-scraping end to GBBF was in full swing by the time I got there. Maybe 60-70% of the beers on most bars had gone, so it was a case of plumping for whatever was selling and looking good. I had a couple of so-so golden ales, then came across a few delights. My focus on Saturday was on British beer. I’d stuck mainly to the USA cask, Belgian/Italian cask and BSF bottle bar on Tuesday, and felt that I ought to  seek the very best British beer I could find. I was hoping to replicate my moment of elation at last year’s GBBF after trying Oakham Green Devil for the first time. I couldn’t find a beer to match it this year, but I came close a few times.

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How many things can you hang above a terrace? Quite a blummin’ lot, mate.

At LCBF meanwhile, I expected a similar situation on a larger scale. Again, I went on a trade/press session, this time on Friday afternoon. Instead, I found that the crowd was more varied than I might expect. Sure, there were a lot of Hackney People, who work in Those Sorts Of Shops and have friends who laugh Very, Very Loudly, but for the most part it was a very relaxed, eclectic crowd. Trade sessions, however, are not always the true litmus test of these things I suppose. I spent most of my time up on the shady terrace, chatting with nice beer people, drinking increasingly excellent beer and feeling far more relaxed than at GBBF. The other outside area, a long sunny balcony, had a slightly too oppressive view for my mood.

Who controls the craft controls the universe.
Who controls the craft controls the universe.

LCBF’s large indoor space was covered on three sides with bars, with beers from Five Points, De Molen, Weird Beard, Beavertown, Magic Rock, Kernel, BrewDog, Alpha State, Partizan, Brodies, Siren, Redemption and more, all served from keg. The conditioning, temperature and quality of all the beers I tasted on Friday was impeccable. Easily the most consistently good quality dispense I’ve experienced at any beer festival in fact. I’ve been served cask beers in better nick on occasion, but far, far more rarely than I would like. Siren’s Limoncello IPA was on top form, as was Partizan’s Camomile Saison and Magic Rock’s Lime Salty Kiss. Each beer I had at LCBF was an absolute delight.

GBBF’s dispense quality varied from bar to bar, beer to beer, but overall was still very impressive. The occasional dud was normally offset by something quite sublime. It was great to taste the Malt Shovel Mild, brewed by Fernandes in Wakefield. Aside from it being a really great mild, I have fond memories of drinking in their brewery tap (the fittingly named Brewery Tap) back in my student days. There was some great weissbiers being served on the German and Czech draught bar, especially the Josef Greif (for which I was given grief for pronouncing it grief when it should be said grife). Though, if I had one regret from Saturday at GBBF, it would be not spending more time at the SIBA bar, where I had a magnificent specimen of Kirkstall Dissolution IPA.

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So, if I can’t compare the two beer festivals directly, and I had a great time at both, what can I say that’s worth saying?

For starters, both festivals are a measure of the health of the beer scene. Whilst we are starting to hear of closures of newer breweries, indicating an imminent plateau, there is also a steady increase in the number of beer festivals that aren’t organised by CAMRA. These may be run by people who just want to make money, they may be run by people who simply want to be the best at it (Craft Beer Rising are probably leading that particular pack). The most important thing is not just that the current beer ‘scene’ in London, such as it is, can  sustain two vastly different beer festivals, but that they can be happily attended by the same people.

It might not be an earth-shattering conclusion, but it’s the only one I can really get behind. We have a vibrant culture of beer that is creating  excellent events and encouraging the brewing of even more excellent beer. So let’s all enjoy it while it’s here.