Iron Maiden only here for the beer

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Nobody would dispute Robinson’s is a very traditional regional brewery so it is all the more remarkable that it finds itself as the brewer of the rock band Iron Maiden’s beers that sells by the millions of units around the world.

But maybe it is not that much of a surprise because the band’s lead singer is prone to taking a path less travelled and marching to the beat of a different drum (he fancied himself as a drummer before taking up the lead singer role).

As well as singing in a major band he is also a qualified pilot of jet aircraft, a high quality fencer, motivational speaker, and a hands-on partner in the brewing of Iron Maiden’s beers with Robinson’s. This beery string to his bow came about after one of his marketing people came up with a wheeze to launch an Iron Maiden red wine.

Speaking at a recent technology conference (hosted by Netsuite) in London Dickinson recalled: “They suggested we could do a wine blend and put our name on the bottle. But I thought it was not what we were known for and that it smacked of just making money for the sake of it. I thought our identity is much more associated with beer so the marketing person then said let’s get somebody’s beer and put our name on it.”

Dickinson had other ideas and wanted to be fully involved in the whole process of producing a bespoke beer under the Iron Maiden name. Thankfully in Robinson’s he also found a partner that wanted the beer to be produced in a serious respectful manner: “I went to the brewery and they wanted to see if I was serious. We went on to design Trooper, which was like writing a song. We’ve since gone on to make other beers.”

Like the other activities Dickinson involves himself in, his beer making activities are done with full commitment and with dedication, and judging by the amount Robinson’s sells it is exactly the same passion being shown by Iron Maiden fans around the world.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

Beer Travels with Adrian Tierney-Jones

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So you’ve been drinking a brewery’s beers for years; you know the beers of theirs that you really enjoy and at times have drunk far too much of them (remember when a London licensee had a keg of the brewery’s strongest and you made serious inroads into it, yes that moment of inebriation?).

You also know which one you don’t really feel like getting out of bed for in the morning, and, you also know, from past experience, which one of their beers is a good companion at the dining table. Yet you have never visited the brewery — and does it matter? Is your knowledge of a brewery’s beers incomplete until you visit it and drink them at the source?

I was mulling over these thoughts earlier this month after a Saturday afternoon visit to Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs in the Wallonian village of Audregnies. This is a brewery whose 9% Brune I have always loved (the very same beer that a couple of times has nearly marooned me on the Island of Lost Causes). It is a big beast of a beer, as dark as the thoughts of an arsonist and brimming with stone fruits, caramel, spice, bittersweetness and the vast starry deeps of potent alcohol (in other words, 9%).

It was an august autumnal afternoon, dry but breezy, light but shadowed, cool and uncomplicated, especially if you drew the zip of your warm jacket up tight. The copper-bronze flitters of flailing leaves dotted the surroundings, a rustic assembly of old brick buildings of the kind of age that you wonder what they have experienced in the past 150 years (Mons is very close for instance). The music of wind chimes could be heard, light and ethereal, while a beautiful young vizsla bounded about, pleased to see people taking an interest in its home (I was with a group of beer judges — we’d spent the morning at the Brussels Beer Challenge and this was our reward).

The brewery itself, the FVs, the mash, the this and the that of making beer, were pretty humdrum to view, but it was the location, this hidden away, rustic conundrum of a place that somehow made me feel that I had received a glimpse of the soul of Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs. And as I felt all metaphysical, the MD Nathalie Eloir (whose father started the enterprise in 1979) explained the whys and wherefores of what went on. I wasn’t really listening, but I can remember her saying, ‘we want to stay as a craft brewery’. In these days of relentless brewery growth and the correlation of looking for funding, this statement was rather refreshing.

The sense of being rooted to the land, organic in its place, elemental even, was also apparent in the brewery’s tasting rooms in an old mill down the road. Here, bare wood, rough worked-on wood, old sturdy struts of wood, stone walls, the world as a hardened carapace against all-comers was the interior, a place that seemed apt to study some of the beers of Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs.

There was a saison, flinty and angular, spicy and rather skeletal in its mouth feel with a fleeting finish. Then there was a newish beer, the 7.2% Stout, which had a sleek nose of dark malts, chocolate and freshly ground coffee (espresso perhaps) beans, followed by suggestions of mocha coffee, chocolate, a creamy mouth feel and the sternness of bitterness in the finish. This was rather appealing and could be competing with the Brune for a favourite of mine from this brewery. Finally, there was the Triple Impériale, hazy gold in colour, honeyed and sweetish on the nose, fulsome in the mouth feel and bitter in the finish. I thought dessert wine and looked for cheese.

Later on, nursing an Orval in a bar in Mons, the chatter of drinkers flying about me like birds in a wood, I thought back to the brewery, and wondered if I knew more about it now that I had visited. On a superficial level, yes I had seen its home, its location, its rustic heartland, but more than that I’d seen the dedication, the love, the pride and the rootedness of a brewery, whose original founder was a pioneer in what became the Belgian micro-brewery boom of the 1980s and beyond. I’m glad I got a glimpse of its soul.

Adrian Tierney-Jones

 

Beer battles

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Saturday, 14 September was a particularly interesting day in London’s craft beer scene. In the afternoon the London Brewers Alliance (LBA) beer festival was held at Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick, while in the evening The Kernel Brewery was celebrating its tenth anniversary in a couple of railway arches in Bermondsey.

The London Brewers’ Alliance

It was also exactly ten years since I wrote a piece for the Financial Times suggesting we were on the cusp of a renaissance in brewing in the capital. My article was a bit of a flyer, to be honest, as it was based on scant hard evidence beyond the fact Sambrook’s Brewery had recently opened and Redemption Brewing Company was a few months away from producing its first beers.
What we witnessed on 14 September encapsulated the good and the bad of what has happened in the craft beer industry in the intervening decade. The LBA event highlighted how the capital has become awash with brewers. I admit many that presented their beer on the day were unknown to me – and I write about beer and live in London!
It’s great so many enthusiastic people have entered the industry but the reality is many of them have jumped on the brewing bandwagon as a lifestyle choice. It’s the new rock ‘n’ roll, right? The problem is many of the beers produced are of questionable quality and, as we all know, if you don’t produce a decent product you’ve got no future. On that basis it’s fair to say the business models of many of these operators are precarious to say the least.
Even brewers that have been in the game for some time and produced super beers of consistent quality are struggling to create equally super economically viable businesses. When two brewers I massively respect – Brew By Numbers and Five Points – recently announced plans to crowdfund and disclosed a few figures, it highlighted how tough it is out there. If these two quality players are selling only relatively modest volumes, what does that say about the market as a whole?

Crowdfunding: Brew By Numbers

Brew By Numbers and Five Points join a raft of brewers that have gone to the crowdfunding well. Far too many have raised cash to fund grand-sounding schemes only to see the money dwindle having been used for working capital to sustain what has been nothing more than pie-in-the-sky expectations.
The situation is hardly helped by fans of these breweries, who have collectively put millions of pounds into their coffers as a way of showing support. While this is laudable, the reality is they are contributing to a situation of increasing overcapacity in the industry and sustaining the life of businesses that struggle to justify their hard-earned money.
This might seem harsh but the incredible amount of breweries in the capital – about 130 at present – is creating an environment where it’s tough for any brewer to survive. There simply aren’t enough bars to take the mass of beer being produced, which is why we’re seeing more brewers looking to open their own bars and taprooms as primary channels to market.
Even the historically significant Fuller’s was unable to justify retaining its brewery and the LBA festival only took place in Chiswick after new owners, Japan-based Asahi, gave the go-ahead.
However, it’s not all bad news in London’s craft beer scene because The Kernel Brewery’s anniversary event that night celebrated one of the great success stories.
Unlike many other breweries, Kernel has never sought to produce outlandish, “here today, gone tomorrow” styles of beer, preferring instead to focus on pale ale, IPA and stout. The company has also kept its growth aspirations low key, while founder Evin O’Riordain has maintained the quality of its output and never sought to support grandiose ideas through ill-conceived crowdfunding initiatives.
On the basis of what we’ve seen in the past ten years, it’s anybody’s guess what the craft beer scene will look like in another decade’s time. I certainly hope there will be more good news than bad.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

Noise and Neighbours

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When an American tourist was asked whether they enjoyed their visit to Windsor Castle, so the joke goes, they replied: “Yes, but why have they built such a lovely place so close to a noisy airport?”
I haven’t dug up this humorous tale in a desire to question the intellect of US citizens but because it reminds me of the situation many pubs find themselves in when they are threatened with noise abatement notices by neighbours.
If you’re sensitive to noise, surely the best thing is to avoid renting or buying a home anywhere near a pub. I love pubs significantly more than the vast majority of the population but would I choose to live close to one? No chance, because I also love a good night’s sleep (especially after I’ve visited the pub).
However, it appears not everyone follows such a rule and some rather blindly, or drunkenly perhaps, find themselves living near a pub and, upset by noise, threaten the landlord with licence restrictions. Such complaints are on the rise – no doubt helped by the Licensing Act of 2003 that brought in regulations in 2007 that gave residents much more power to object to a pub’s licence.
I first became aware of how much of an issue this can be when talking to the worried owners of The Rake bar in Borough Market some years ago. They had been trading for years with no problems until someone moved into the flats opposite and started complaining about the noise. The pub was threatened with a ban on all drinking outside the pub, which would have been the death knell for the business such is its tiny interior. The vast bulk of the pub’s revenues derive from outdoor drinkers and the resident clearly should have carried out more reconnaissance before moving into the flat.
Pubs specialising in live music have also had a tough time with many facing a ban on gigs, which would remove their USP in a single stroke and put their businesses under severe pressure. The King’s Head in Llandudno is in the midst of fighting its case to continue with long-standing live music events.

The King’s Head Lladudno: Facing a battle over music

Dan Fox, who operates three London pubs, makes great efforts to manage his venues with the neighbours in mind. He has meetings with them ahead of any live music event, occasionally invites them into the pub for drinks and ensures they all have his mobile number if any concerns need addressing.
Although two of Fox’s pubs have residential properties above, the fact they are owned by the same landlord as the boozer removes certain problems. They are only let on six-month contracts so people aren’t locked in indefinitely if they are unhappy, while high-quality soundproofing has been installed. The landlord wants all his pub and residential tenants to be happy.
Problems occur, however, when property developers sell the flats and, having little interest in running the pub below, fail to get planning permission to convert it to residential. Fox suggests they will have invariably cut corners on soundproofing and be indifferent to creating harmony between pub management and disgruntled homeowners above.
If you think the most sensible thing is to forget all about engaging in noisy activities such as live music and focus on the quieter things in life, such as food, think again. A landlord I know has a pub on the outskirts of London with a neighbour on one side who complains the extractor fan needs to be used at full throttle to more effectively remove smells, while the neighbour on the other side complains the fan is far too noisy and should be used only sparingly. In the current circumstances, perhaps throttle isn’t the best word to use. Then again, he could always opt for the quiet life and move to Windsor?

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

Beer Travels with Adrian Tierney-Jones

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It seems kinda funny now this feeling I recall, but back in 2003 my taste buds were all shook up in a small room above a pub, whose name I’ve forgotten, in central London. It was one of the bi-annual beer tastings that Safeway’s, as it was known before being swallowed by Morrison’s, used to run for beer-writers and members of the trade. Orchestrated by the much missed Glenn Payne, then the supermarket’s beer buyer (and what a beer buyer he was — you could go to Safeway’s and see beers from the likes of Dogfish Head, Victory, Bosteels and Alaskan Brewing on the shelves, and it was all thanks to Glenn), the reason why I remember this particular event was the first taste I had of Goose Island’s IPA.

At the time I wrote: ‘on the nose oily hop sack and rich citrus (Seville orange, pastille fruit); soft malt in the background; stunningly hoppy nose. Rich citrusy fruit on palate, with soft malt and then a slow to develop bitter finish with plenty of citrusy fruit to soften the edges.’ I think most people in the room who tried it were equally impressed; I recall Mark Dorber, then still in residence at the White Horse in Parsons Green, telling me, almost wild-eyed, that he had to get a keg into the pub.

Pivovar Kácov’s Hubertus Premium 12°

The impact of that beer has always remained with me — I had tried all manner of IPAs before, usually of the White Shield ilk (which is not a criticism), while Trafalgar IPA from Forest of Dean brewery Freeminers had impressed me several years back, but this perhaps was one of the most influential beers I had ever tried. I had started on my IPA journey (though it’s quite funny how we regard an IPA as something as murky as an old pond and as oaty as the kind of feed-bag you attach to a horse’s mouth).

As part of this mood of reflection and retrospection on the beers that have attracted me on this journey that is all consuming and forever on its way, Goose Island IPA was a bright beacon of a staging post. I occasionally still drink it, but I think so much has moved on that I cannot get that charge from it anymore. I still, though, expect a beer to knock me back, stop me in my tracks, hold me while I consider and evaluate it.

Another beer that worked like that was Tipopils, drunk at the brewery bar with the brewer Agostino Arioli back in 2008, when with three other beer writers I visited several Italian craft breweries (including Birra Baladin, whose flamboyant founder and brewer Teo Musso led me remark to one of the other writers, ‘I bet it takes all morning to make his hair that messy’). Of Tipopils I recall it being big and bold in both nose and flavour with a crisp and refreshing mouthfeel; on the palate it was bitter and aromatic, dry and sprightly, fragrant, resiny, powerful and punchy. The finish was dry and bitter and I thought (and still do) that it was one of the best I had ever tasted (and my taste-buds salivate at the thought of it now). According to Arioli, it was influenced by Jever Pils and ‘is my baby’.

Agostino Arioli of Tipopils

I think part of the skill of a beer that really changes the way you look at the liquid in the glass is not just its quality, it is also the way it speaks of the beer’s place in the world. It doesn’t need to be the best beer in the world, but it is a beer that says to the drinker, ‘I am here’. I often recall Pivovar Kácov’s Hubertus Premium 12°, a classic Czech světlý ležák, which I sampled during a summer’s day sitting on a terrace at the brewery tap accompanied by a plate of traditional Czech cuisine. The beer was sublime, the River Vlatva drifted by and fishermen tried their luck as time joined the river in its eternal journey. I’ll never go back though, there are some moments in this journey you can never recapture.

Adrian Tierney-Jones

 

Big games equal big money

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When England beat Holland 4-1 in 1996, when Doncaster Rovers gained promotion to the Championship in 2009, when David Beckham scored that last-minute equaliser against Greece to propel England to the 2002 World Cup, and when Manchester United dramatically won the Champions League in 1999 – those were all memorable occasions.

The Pavilion End

They were also some of my most enjoyable evenings in a pub because at the time those big games all required a trip to the boozer. One of my favoured venues during this period was The Pavilion End in Watling Street in the City of London because it genuinely catered for sporting events. Its offering continues to this day and it now has three Sky boxes that feed live sporting coverage to nine large televisions and a pull-down high-definition projector. The Pavilion still pitches itself as a high-quality sports pub when few others have followed it with any real conviction.

The typical pub scenario has been for more upmarket venues to ban televisions and focus on food instead, leaving sports to the domain of old-school boozers in which the only redeeming features have been televisions screening various sports – most notably the footie coverage by Sky.

Combining quality surroundings with a higher-end offer incorporating extensive sports coverage has been rare but things seem to be changing as a smattering of venues look to take sports coverage beyond the spit-and-sawdust environments it has largely been trapped in.

Among those to identify sports as a growth engine is ETM Group co-founder Ed Martin, who told a recent Propel conference that having focused on food-led pubs he required a strategy to expand the business and believes sports bars in the UK, particularly London, aren’t doing this well. He said the UK was failing abysmally in this department compared with the US, where the sports bar is a fixture throughout the country.

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Greenwood Sports Bar & Kitchen

To fill the gap, ETM has opened the 20-screen Greenwood Sports Bar & Kitchen in Victoria that operates with “200 guys watching sports on one level while people dine on another level, all in a premium bar”. Elsewhere in London, ETM has also created Westwood Sports Pub & Kitchen in Westfield and converted its Long Arm Brewery bar in the City into an upmarket sports-focused venue. It’s about to add Redwood Sports Bar & Kitchen at London Bridge Station to its growing portfolio.

Another top operator, JKS Restaurants, has also spotted the potential of sports and it operates various spaces at Brigadiers, its Indian restaurant in the City, which screen a rolling programme of sporting events. As a driver of after-work customers who are predominantly male in this location, sport is an obvious attraction and it is cleverly incorporated into Brigadiers’ restaurant space.

Undoubtedly people’s desire for more immersive experiences is one of the drivers of such moves. This has seen the rise of competitive socialising and led to concepts such as Flight Club, Swingers, Bounce and Puttshack as well as the various escape rooms that have cropped up around the country.

However, unlike those operations Martin says sport has the benefit of being “constantly marketable”. There’s always another tournament, match or bout on the horizon that can entice another group of customers – and potentially lucrative ones at that. On average, a sports fan spends more than three hours in a venue when watching a match and spends as much as £28.94 versus an average of £14.25 by non-sports fans, according to CGA Sports Analysis 2018.

Although I had no recollection the next day of how much money I’d spent on any of those memorable big-match nights, it would certainly have been in the order of £30. Forgetting such facts because of the euphoria of the evening neatly encapsulates how advantageous showing sports can be for pubs and bars.

Glynn Davis editor of Retail Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

Beer Travels with Adrian Tierney-Jones

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Some journeys never end, which is why the other day I was like a wide-eyed child of the recent past transfixed in an old school sweetshop, surrounded by all manner of tooth-rotting, blood sugar-spiking delights: gobstoppers, sherbet dabs, liquorice all-sorts, and chocolate buttons.

However, I wasn’t in a sweetshop, but instead was in one of the Burton Union System rooms at Marston’s Brewery watching the slow, stately drip of yeast from taps stationed above a long stainless steel trough, beneath which sat 24 oak barrels filled with beer, all linked to make one set.

Truly, this is one of the most magnificent sights within the brewing world and despite having witnessed it once before it was still able to move me. As I stood there I remembered the time I used to drink Marston’s Pedigree in London during the late 1980s, recalling the distinctive note on the nose, which I thought reminiscent of Andrews Liver Salts, a can of which I always kept in my kitchen in the misguided belief it would help with hangovers.

Even though I didn’t know it then, this aroma was what is called the ‘Burton Snatch’, a by-product of the hard, calcium rich waters that reside beneath the town. Thirty years later this journey would take me to Burton and what Michael Jackson called the cathedral of brewing.

Last month I wrote about the early journeys I took in beer, but these journeys in beer, as my visit to Marston’s demonstrate, never really end. In 1996 I was in Brussels with a couple of friends for a weekend. Belgian beer had been discovered by then, but my mate Keith who actually lived in Brussels suggested visiting Cantillon Brewery.

I had read about it but never tried any of their lambic or gueuze beers. The brewery was dark and dusty, musty even, and my mate didn’t actually endear himself to Jean-Pierre Van Roy (whose son Jean now runs the business) by asking if they got their water from the canal that ran outside the building — cue a momentary change in Jean-Pierre’s up-till-then genial features. That trip started off a fascination with gueuze that continues to this day, even though for a couple of years I would put a cube of sugar into my glass every time I owned a bottle.

My frequent visits to Belgium and France (whose supermarkets teemed with beers from its neighbour) was a good education, even if sometimes visits to the likes of the Beer Circus would see us starting our evening’s drinking on 7% beers, drunk with gusto as if we were downing pints in a pub back in the UK.

The other beer that springs to mind from then was Delirium Tremens, a beer I never drink these days, finding it insufferably sweet, but then it had a certain gravitas, the colourful branded bottles and the suggestion that it was a good accompaniment to certain dishes.

Another stopping point on my journey in the 1990s was my first visit to the USA in 1996, flying into Boston and staying in New England with my brother-in-law Chris. Back in the UK, even though I had drunk Sam Adams, Pete’s Wicked Ales and St Stan’s, I had resigned myself to drinking wine and putting up with Budweiser, but Chris (who was more of a wine-drinker) had done his research and he introduced me to the healthy local micro-brewing sector. I drank well on that holiday.

The highlight was lunch at the Cambridge Brewing Company, where I wrote in my journal, ‘three tastings in 5oz glasses then a pint of the pale ale, a style of beer which seems to be popular amongst the micro-brewing fraternity. Or else they are making chilli and pepper ales’. As I look at a can of a chilli and ginger gose I have under the stairs now, back then little did I know what was to come.

Half measures

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The chief reason for visiting a taproom or brewpub is to sample the range of beer a brewery produces. On such occasions, and if I have enough time, I’m more than likely to try all the beers on offer. For me this is the key reason for making such visits and typically these establishments encourage my quest by offering third pints or special deals on smaller pours.

Trying different beers was my objective when visiting the brewpub of Australian brewer Little Creatures in London’s King’s Cross recently. It’s a mightily impressive set-up with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and a line of conditioning tanks taking pride of place behind the bar. The beer list was manageable too – with seven available on my visit – but the big shock was the pricing.

A number of beers were £5.90 a pint, which is par for the course in that part of London, but the surprise was seeing halves listed at £3.50 – no third-pint measures were listed. This places a particularly large premium on buying two halves compared with a pint. I was sensitive to this differential as only a few days earlier I visited north London-based Earth Ales’ taproom – it’s actually a double-decker bus, but that’s another story.

I had seen Earth Ales’ Verbena pale ale listed at £6 a pint and happened to have £3 in change in my pocket so confidently handed it over (I did ok at maths at school). I was then asked for another 40p. Using the aforementioned maths capabilities, that equates to a premium on two halves of 80p compared with a pint.

In my experience over many years a pint has always been pretty much double the cost of two halves – it clearly makes sense. Like most pub companies Fuller’s has such a policy and its halves cost half the price of a pint – give or take 5p when the division doesn’t work out exactly. In some of its pubs, including my local The Great Northern Railway Tavern, a tray of three third pints is offered at a discount to buying a pint. Clearly the objective is to encourage tasting and experimenting with new beers.

This was also Charlie McVeigh’s intention when he set up the Draft House chain. He admitted his offer of three third pints for only £5 was hardly good for group profitability but encouraged drinkers to try something new and enhance their experience at Draft House.

I fail to see the placing of a premium on half pints as anything other than an encouragement to customers to trade up to a better-value pint. This is the rationale behind coffee chains setting the price of their large pours at only a modest level above their medium serves, even though the amount of extra liquid is proportionally much greater.

The reality is that in the overall mix of costs involved in serving that drink to the customer (including rent, business rates, salaries) the cost of the actual liquid is arguably negligible. The extra 30p to 40p charged for a large serve is therefore a valuable bit of extra margin to the business. It could be argued the two drinks could be charged at the same price.

Clearly that isn’t going to happen but the coffee chains could do so if they chose. This would be much tougher with beer because of the undoubted implications of encouraging drinking. There is quite rightly much sensitivity around the topic and so it’s questionable whether certain operators are blatantly placing outsized premiums on halves.

But this isn’t my personal beef with the practice (I’ll leave that to the Portman Group). My issue is it penalises those who don’t want to consume high volumes and discourages people from trying different beers. At the Little Creatures brewpub I tried only a couple of its selection whereas under a different pricing structure I’d have stayed longer and tried others.

Perhaps it’s of no real concern because the place was packed on my visit so its pricing policy doesn’t seem to bother other people particularly. However, if such a policy were to be widely implemented across the industry I think it would sadly diminish the current wonderful environment we have for experimentation in trying different beers – and that would be massively disappointing.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

 

Beer Travels with Adrian Tierney-Jones

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So there I am thinking about the beers and the corresponding moments that have been the staging posts on my journey that has brought me to now. I am thinking of the beers that transformed me, that changed me from believing that beer was something to get drunk on, the beers that made me stop, think and realise that I could fall in love with beer and find a whole universe of joy, contemplation, necessity and fun within one glass.

The beers I recall are not those to drink before you die, though some of them could be; they are not even beers that I drink much of these days, but they are beers and moments that still linger around in my thoughts, an echo of something just on the edge of auditory sensibility. I could do 20, probably more, but in the interests of brevity and keeping readers awake here are four.

Pilsner Urquell in green bottles in the early 1980s from the Oddbins in Cambridge, near Parkers Piece which is the only place I have ever played a proper cricket match (on a friend’s birthday and I was out for a duck, second ball). At the time, for some reason, I had a fondness for what was then Czechoslovakia (and I still love the Czech Republic). I found the country fascinating and cool, even though it was in the iron grip of communism. Somehow I found myself drinking the beer on Parker’s Piece, enjoying the taste, though there were no tasting notes and I can’t remember what I tasted, except that it was wonderful. This was one of those moments that turned me from a devourer of any old lager to a picky younger lager git.

In February 1987 (I know the date because I found the diary), I was walking up a road in Finsbury Park and noticed a new pub, which up until then had been a carpet showroom (not that I had even been in). [It is the White Lion of Mortimer – Ed].

My then girlfriend and I went in and I saw a pump clip for Tolly Cobbold Bitter, which I vaguely recalled enjoying when I lived in Cambridge. I was just starting to get into cask beer and this beer hit the spot that night. It was an affirmation that cask could be good. I drank six or was it eight pints and never saw it again. Oh and that was the first time I ever went into a Wetherspoons.

It’s March 1989 and a mate and I have gone to the London Drinker Festival near Kings Cross. I would like to say that this was my first CAMRA beer festival, but I’d briefly gone to one in Cambridge a few years earlier and thoroughly hated it. Things had changed and me and Keith spent the afternoon at the festival, mainly drinking Woodforde’s Wherry, six pints if I recall. ‘Deliciously malty’ I wrote, Alan Partridge-Style, in my diary. I had it again later in the year when in Norfolk. Again this was a cementing in of my relationship with cask.

Cask beer wasn’t the only fruit that I enjoyed. I was reading Michael Jackson in the Independent every Saturday and his columns opened the curtains onto a world of beer beyond what I still considered the stuff of CAMRA bores (I resisted joining for years because I thought it would be like student politics or the knee-jerk stuff I’d experience in housing coop meetings during my early days in London). So this is where Duvel in Eindhoven in 1987 came in. Again it involved my mate Keith, who was working there and when I went to see him, he rhapsodised about a strong Belgian beer served in a weird-looking glass. According to my diary entry from that night I had six Duvels and six glasses of draft lager. Next day, the-worst-hangover-ever. Never again, I wrote. That resolution didn’t last long.

So what was your journey and what were your stopping points?

Adrian Tierney-Jones

 

Pioneer craft brewer Sambrook’s looking backwards and forwards

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When Duncan Sambrook opened his eponymous brewery in London’s Battersea he was the first of the new wave of brewers to set up shop in the capital that would be collectively described as craft brewers.

Nobody was bandying that term around in August 2008 when he took on the site, nor in November when he released his first beer Wandle, with the key objective of focusing on locality – through sourcing and ingredients as well as supplying the local market of Wandsworth Borough. It was largely bereft of local beer following the closure of Young’s two years earlier.

To say a lot has happened in London – and UK brewing in general – since Sambrook set up would be an understatement of monumental proportions. “It has been a phenomenal rollercoaster ride. The industry is now unrecognisable. We saw an opportunity to target locality – not innovation – but this does not matter so much today. Provenance is no longer the key point. It is more about branding, style, and the reputation of the brewery,” says Sambrook when Beer Insider sat him down on the morning of the first day of GBBF when he traditionally holds a brunch for friends and business associates in brewing.

With around 130 breweries now operating in the capital it has become more competitive for sure, which has ultimately led to an increased difficulty in securing channels to market and a “lack of certainty of these outlets”. But he does not believe these small brewers are the issue. Instead he says it is more about the larger players buying-out the likes of Camden, Beavertown and Meantime as well as Guinness with its craft range that are tying up the lines and closing the doors to other brewers.

“Heineken will tie-up the lines with Beavertown etc…What does this do for the rest of the industry? We cannot compete with the big guys. It’s decreasing the marketplace. It’s the large multi-nationals that have stolen market share. My friends are not particularly sophisticated drinkers and go for Camden and Meantime because they see them as independent,” he explains.

This has impacted Sambrook’s and its sales team is now significantly larger than previously – just to secure the same volume of sales. Back in 2008 Sambrook says he would set up 30 visits to pubs in order to generate one new customer. The beer would then likely be trialled for six months before he received feedback. “It was a very high hit rate [of success] with very little competition. We’d train the bar staff, tell them our story.”

“It’s the complete opposite now. You get 20 pubs who you phone up to sell to and then after they’ve tried your beer you do not get a call for six months. It’s now about constant rotation. We have to therefore be constantly phoning everybody,” says Sambrook.

With many other breweries going through the same process he says it has led to some unbalanced ranges in many pubs: “I feel the retailers [pubs and beer shops] are not making the right decisions. They receive calls from breweries on a Monday morning and say ‘yes’ to the first 20, which is different to before. Previously the publican chose  the beers he wanted and then called the breweries. This enabled them to range the styles well but we don’t see this [range planning] anymore.”

Playing the rotation game is certainly not the strategy of Sambrook’s that had only three beers in its range during its first three years of production. Although more have since been added these three core beers – Wandle, Pumphouse and Junction – are still the best sellers, with Wandle alone representing 30% of total sales.

These three are also cask beers, unlike the keg-only output of many other brewers that followed in the wake of Sambrook’s. It took Sambrook until 2014 to produce his first keg beers – Battersea Rye and Battersea IPA – but the format has grown rapidly and now accounts for 50% of sales.

Across the range the output has been held at 15,000 hectolitres for the past three years – which is the maximum capacity at the Battersea site. This led Sambrook to look around for a larger unit and in August it was announced that the brewery would be relocating to the old Young’s Brewery (Ram Quarter) site in the heart of Wandsworth.

The company is working with the Brewery History Society to help it integrate its infrastructure into the remaining bits of Young’s on the site. It will also be retaining the services of John Hatch who has valiantly maintained (very low scale) brewing at the site since Young’s departed in 2011.

Duncan Sambrook on a roll

The new facility will open in 2020 and give Sambrook’s the potential to ultimately double its capacity with the brewhouse and conditioning taking place at the Ram Quarter while the logistics and storage will be handled at another – yet to be secured – location.

“We will look to grow at 5-6% per year including growing the tap room. I’m not being unambitious, it’s just that the market is very competitive. The prognosis is not necessarily good for the brewing industry. We are probably 10 years away from legalised cannabis. We’ll shape our business for a more competitive environment,” he explains.

Having been at the forefront of the rollercoaster craft brewing revolution in London, it might well be advisable for other brewers to at least consider these wise words from the experienced Sambrook.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider