Half measures

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

 

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

 

Beer Travels with Adrian Tierney-Jones

Standard

As anyone who read about my visit to Munich in the previous Beer Insider might guess, I have been thinking a lot about beer pilgrimages; are they routes that take you from dissolution to dissipation, spiritual pub crawls, or is there a deeper meaning in the journey, a more metaphysical understanding of the nature of beer, a dagger-like thrust into the heart of beer that will unveil the real meaning of beer around the world?

Can a beer pilgrimage uncover, rediscover, move the soul and join in the joy of the great beverage that has forever (it seems) refreshed humankind? Can there be beer pilgrims, can there be a beer equivalent of the Camino Di Santiago, where weary feet tread, eager to discover a beer in its place, for let’s not forget the difference in drinking what is a rare beer at home as against imbibing it in its native location where it is commonplace and pleasing to the local palate.

We bill and coo when a local brewery produces a singular beer style such as a Leipziger Gose (usually with added blueberries or orange blossom, which the last time I checked was not a usual addition), but as I once discovered to really understand this kind of beer I had to make a pilgrimage to Leipzig and drink it neat or with a drop of kummel at the Bayerischer Bahnhof brewpub in a former station, where it is brewed. Here it is a commonplace beer, a daily beer, part of routine, a glass of, please.

So, if I think about it, what have been my pilgrimages?

I have been offered a massive tin mug of strong amber-hued lager half-way through the morning in a buttercup-coloured castle-like brewery six kilometres from the border with Bavaria and suddenly decided that the two former principalities have much more to say to each other over a beer than their querulous history would suggest.

This revelation came after the brewer waved his arm in the general direction of the border and said that over in Bavaria they called the beer we were drinking Märzen, and that here in the Czech Republic its name was Speciál. The beer was creamy, fresh and perky, fulsome in the mouth feel; it had a bittersweet buzz followed by a notable bite of bitterness, it felt both smooth and rough in the mouth, a heady combination that made it one of those dreamy beer experiences. A pilgrimage performed?

At Cantillon, I have watched as then proprietor Jean-Pierre van Roy emptied boxes of sharp-tasting cherries to a lambic that had already spent a year in maturation in order to encourage the beer to breathe and live again. I still remember my first visit in 1996 when my friend asked Jean-Pierre van Roy whether the water came from the canal outside — he testily shook his head and answered ‘no’ before going onto to answer someone else’s probably more intriguing query.

I have wandered through the noise, the lights, the fights, the people and the heat of the Oktoberfest in Theresienwiese, a destination incidentally that I had arrived by train from a trip to the Bohemian hop lands. The latter was a place where the mood was bucolic and calm and considered and the sun to the festival’s night.

I have sat in the cloister-like quiet of a Saturday afternoon pub in Sheffield, a glass of beer in front of me, idling the hours away, being visited by a dog called Rocky, exchanging pleasantries with a man who had just clocked-out from his night’s work and feeling snug, safe, kept from the storm and possibly a little indulgent.

This is not a pilgrimage for those soldiers or agents of the state who are in search of those who have done wrong (apparently), but it is about those who follow a path, sometimes obediently, and at other times hot with the lust of glory and discovery. Jesus said that he was the light and that led us to read stories about being led astray as we followed the light, usually into a mire or a bog of our own making, but the pilgrimage when beer speaks is a different journey, a restless quest, a celebration of ritual, a holiday of simplicity, a voyage into the unknown (who visited the Senne Valley before gueuze and lambic became a ritual and a reason to come?) and an illumination of questions that have been held too close to the chest for too long.

I’m off. Who’s coming?

Adrian Tierney-Jones

 

Beer Hawk (B2B) created on foundations of The Bottle Shop

Standard

From the remnants of the sadly failed The Bottle Shop business has emerged a new ABI-owned operation, Beer Hawk (B2B), which has the objective of bringing some professionalism to the craft beer industry in the UK.

This is the aim of The Bottle Shop founder Andrew Morgan who is now head of Beer Hawk (B2B) and suggests the “juvenile” nature of the industry contributed to the failure of his business when it abruptly lost some big contracts. It went on to leave a batch of breweries with unpaid bills and piles of their kegs and bottles locked, and legally inaccessible, in the company’s Canning Town warehouse earlier this year.

Morgan says: “There are simply no contracts in the industry. Very few breweries were legally equipped to get their beer back from us when we failed and this is also why Beavertown and Mikkeller could simply take their trade away from us with little notice. It’s representative of the juvenile nature of the industry.”

He says this sort of thing should not happen again and at Beer Hawk (B2B) he intends to ensure both breweries and the Beer Hawk business itself have legal safeguards in place. “We had less than five contracts across all The Bottle Shop dealings. There are simply no contracts in craft beer. This is not the case in other industries or in the US craft industry,” he explains.

This lack of ‘retention of title’ the vast majority of creditor breweries had over the stock locked up in the Canning Town warehouse means that this beer has passed into the hands of ABI as part of The Bottle Shop assets that the company acquired during the sale process that was handled by the administrators. In reality, much of this beer will now be spoiled – or near its sell by date – due to the length of the administration process and therefore has questionable value.

At the point of collapse The Bottle Shop was understood to have had around £400,000 of stock in the business. [Disclosure: Bohem Brewery, of which I am co-owner, had £10,000 of unpaid stock sitting in The Bottle Shop warehouse]

Happy days at The Bottle Shop

Morgan defends the collapse of The Bottle Shop and says the breweries he bought from was all done with good intent and not done “dishonestly”. “The credit extended to us was decided by the breweries supplying us. It was not a massive corporate swindle. It was the way business was done,” he says, adding that the situation was made difficult by the “shoestring” funds that the Bottle Shop had at its disposal.

This does of course include the £400,000 that The Bottle Shop raised from a crowdfunding campaign – much of which went into building of a cold chain infrastructure. [Disclosure: My family lost £1,500 in the crowdfunding campaign].

“No one likes to lose, least of all me and investing in beer or running a beer business can be a risky affair, but at The Bottle Shop we did our best and gave it the best chance possible of being successful. We went into the crowdfunding as a profitable business, but things got out of control when we lost the two key distribution agreements,” he explains.

At this point Beavertown’s Neck Oil and Gamma Ray kegs and cans represented four of the top-10 sellers for the business and it never recovered from their loss. “When a wholesaler loses business like this then the small brewers and retailers ultimately take a hit,” says Morgan.

Gamma Ray zapping distributors

ABI’s purchase includes the warehouse and its cold chain platform that Morgan says can now be implemented fully with “proper funding” from ABI. A new 65,000 sq ft Beer Hawk warehouse is also being built that will be used to hose stock for the current consumer-facing website and the new B2B trade operation.

ABI is in the process of acquired the former Bottle Shop Arch bar/shop on Druid Street. This unit will join the existing two Beer Hawk bars, which are not the direct responsibility of Morgan. The opening date would be around Autumn. ABI brands Camden Town and Goose Island will sit alongside other smaller independent breweries. These will include some former Bottle Shop clients in the US such as Green Flash, Great Divide and Bear Republic.

Which small independent UK brewers will want to deal with the ABI-owned Beer Hawk (B2B) business remains to be seen but Morgan is hoping the big business approach will have some appeal.

“The Bottle Shop folding has created some ripples. I want to ensure that these things are not repeated in the new business. For this we need simple contracts. ABI has the power to enable small businesses more,” he suggests. This is undoubtedly also up for debate in these testing times for craft beer.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

Around Town with Amateur Drinker

Standard

Beware the Ides of March.  March 2019 was the most momentous month in London’s recent beer scene, and almost all the news was bad. The biggest was undoubtedly the demise of The Bottleshop.

It is no secret to anyone who has been reading this blog, that I regarded this as the best venue in London, and I must make full disclosure that both myself, and the Editor, as Bohem Brewery shareholders, lost money due to its collapse.

There were good people at TBS who knew a lot about, and loved beer. So how could it go so wrong?

There are doubts about the beer distribution model in the modern digital age, which has ruthlessly removed middle-men such as high street travel agents. Brewers can directly supply venues much more cheaply.  Moreover, when breweries become successful, they take distribution in-house. This leaves distributors with small young brewers or foreign imports.  The latter have a structural problem, in that UK beer has improved so much over the last few years, reducing the premium that foreign can command and the present issue of very weak sterling since the Referendum.

However, overriding it all is the Crowdcube problem.  They are not fit for purpose. Any form of funding , be it bank loan or equity investor should, at times, be a pain, as the capital-providers act as a necessary constraint on, and source of advice and experience, for the business,  just as a good parent must discipline and guide their children. Crowdcube impose no discipline and accept ridiculous forecasts, fraudulent accounts and ludicrous valuations.

As written, (http://beerinsider.com/theres-no-fun-in-crowd-funding/) last September.

“Hence, a basket of investments in all these issues is guaranteed to lose money. It’s possible that a single company might be so good that it produces decent returns, but if that were the case, why are they using such a fringe platform to raise funds when there are so many other ways to bring in money? I would advise beer-lovers to follow their head, and not their heart, and avoid all brewery crowd-funding.”

It was very sad to see these words prove so prescient at a venue I loved.

The next piece of news was almost as bad: Magic Rock sold to Lion Nathan Ltd, purveyors of dubiousness such as Toohey’s and Castlemaine XXXX, and themselves a mere subsidiary of Kirin, the giant Japanese macro-brewer. Kirin, who jointly own San Miguel and have a quarter share of Brooklyn Brewery, is themselves a member of the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG), which includes the world’s 5th largest bank by assets.

When Lion acquired Four Pure in July 2018, they said that it would be its “primary focus here in the UK and as their sole production brewing facility” (https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2018/07/australias-lion-acquires-londons-fourpure-brewing/). So, that promise lasted nine months, which tells you all you need to know.

Crowdcube: expiring investment

Four Pure was always run as an investment proposition, and did not give the normal bullshit that “nothing will change” when they sold out. They did good beers well, but there was nothing particularly special or different.  Magic Rock, however, have been true innovators in the scene: Unhuman Cannonball, with its annual launch becoming one of the first to produce US-style queues. Salty Kiss was a very early example of a core gose and the various different BA versions of Bearded Lady imperial stout were exceptional.

Will they now all be brewed to the same quality aspirations and excitement of Castlemaine XXXX? If anyone really doubts this, then, after I have sold them a bridge over the Thames, they can look at Beavertown’s Bloody ‘Eel, another great beer whose annual launch was a true event.

It has been downgraded from an IPA to a Pale, with the ABV cut from mid 7% to just over 5%. Bloody ‘Eel was as seasonal as blood oranges are seasonal. Now it is a core beer, being produced in industrial quantities with industrial ingredients and sits forlornly and unloved in my local Waitrose, wasting away at room temperature.

In the latest round of Fuller’s and friends, brewed late 2018, one of the collaborations was Fuller’s with Magic Rock. At that time, they were two great breweries.  By March 2019, they are part of the macro-giants Asahi and Kirin.

Earlier in the month, Tesco had announced that it would be stocking Magic Rock, Overworks, Wild Card and Four Pure. The last of those, along with Beavertown, went into Waitrose, last year, just before they both sold out. It isn’t a definitive sign but it should set alarm bells off, for three reasons: Supermarkets and their suppliers rely on wafer-thin margins offset by vastly bigger volumes, which often require investment in capacity. It means that the brewers no longer care about independent bottle-shops who supported and showcased them in the early days. Finally, until a major retailer invests in cold-chain, the quality of the beer drops dramatically.

To complete the trifecta, Beer Boutique failed. Again, it was a Crowdcube alumni. It raised £375k just 10 months ago, at a valuation of £2m! This is a complete nonsense: companies do not go from £2m to bust in 10 months unless there is fraud or exceptional external circumstances. As there is no evidence of either, the valuation was fantasy.

March also saw Eebria re-file corrected accounts showing £350k losses as opposed to £400k profits! That would be a £750k difference they just missed or forgot about!  Again, they are a Crowdcube client. Anyone who invests in such schemes clearly wants to lose their money.

No transfer windows in the world of brewing and March saw a big move as Georgina Young went from Fuller’s to Bath Ales, now part of St. Austell, where Roger Ryman oversees all brews. He is a friend of this blog and helped Bohem brew the excellent Brut lager Otaker, (http://beerinsider.com/bohem-teams-up-with-brewing-legend-roger-ryman-for-lager-collab/), which launched in March.

Anspach & Hobday celebrated its 5th birthday with casks of their five favourite beers at The Old Fountain: Three Threads, Patersbier, Eeepa, Dry Hopped Blond and Baltic Porter.

Siren TTO at The Sutton Arms. Broken Dream stout on cask, with Caribbean Chocolate Cake and the launch of 2018’s Maiden, their Solera-method Barley Wine.

We Brought Beer Clapham shut down although they claimed that this was a local incident, connected to increase rents, rather than a group-wide problem.

Mother Kelly’s launched To Ol’s 2019 Mr. Series: Blondee, a cucumber and lime gose, Blue, an imperial blackcurrant stout, Brown, a double coffee and cookie dough brown, Orange, an orange DIPA, Pink, a watermelon DIPA and White, a DDH Jasmin Tea Pale.

Finally, to end with some light relief, Gregg Wallace visited Carling’s brewery in Burton for Inside The Factory whilst in Midsummer Murders, The Ghost of Causton Abbey, the church is now a craft brewery, but “excitement turns to fear when a man is found boiled to death in one of the vats shortly after a party to launch a new ale”!

Reporting from the front-line – Amateur Drinker manages to get along to all the beer things you’d like to but couldn’t. If you see this man and are tempted to buy him a drink think of the consequences.

Beer Travels with Adrian Tierney-Jones

Standard

Where is this? You emerge out of the Hauptbahnhof, the central nervous system of the city, and are immediately floored by its noisy, car-laden, babel of voices as people flurry about as if in a snowstorm. It is a place where you have your mid-morning brunch of a long, slim glass of Weizen alongside either a pale ghostly sausage or a deeply sun-tanned brown pretzel; around you in the tree-shaded beer garden, the chatty, garrulous, gossipy and contemplative soul of the people who live in the city is revealed as the conversation all around ebbs and flows like the sea in a cove on a day when the wind can’t quite make up its mind what to do.

Where is this? Another beer garden, this time plonked in the midst of one of the city’s broad green spaces, a place of waterfalls, temples and yoga classes, upon which dogs run and people lounge. On a sunny day it is a vital escape from the city. Even though the hum of traffic can be heard in the background, the green space is restful with the sound of birdsong. There’s no escaping beer though: this beer garden is overlooked by an 18th-century Chinese pagoda, whose weathered frame is enlivened by the golden bells that hang off it. I try a glass of Urbock, a copper-coloured, robust creature, with a crystalline sweetness, a rich caramelisation, a lingering bitterness, and a weight of flavour from its 7.2% ABV.

Where is this? Inside the bar it’s all wooden panels, old black-and-white photos on the wall and a quiet and restrained mood. The food is traditional for the city, sausages, chunks of meat as if hewn from the rocks of an ancient cliff and a glass of Dunkel, deep chestnut brown, with a chocolate, rye, and biscuit nose; on the palate toasted, pumpernickel bread, floral hop notes, followed by a dry and crisp finish, appetising and refreshing and my glass is empty all too soon. I order another.

I think you might have guessed by now. This is in Bavaria, in Munich of course, one of the great beer cities of Europe, a place that I love but also occasionally roll my eyes at and wish I was in Berlin or Bamberg instead. This is a city that it pays to take a beer pilgrimage to, and if you can stand the crowds and the extraordinary sights of public drunkenness also make your way to the Oktoberfest. If you really want to immerse yourself in the culture of beer then Munich is one of those stations of the cross, where you go on a beer pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is such a basic word, a word that slides into everyday speech with the ease of a towel thrown at an exhausted athlete after a race well run. It is an easily used word, promiscuous perhaps in the way it makes friends with everyone, its use thrown about like a stool or a series of punches in a pub fight; it is a word that suggests everything and nothing.

A shopping centre is a place of pilgrimage; others might say that they went to see their football team on a pilgrimage; there are favourite bands whose day has long gone but still the pilgrims come, grey of hair, slightly stooped of gait, remembering what was once and what could have been; there are historical pilgrimages and family plots in a graveyard that mean nothing to anyone but you. These all merit pilgrimages.

As does beer, which is why as the summer comes and thoughts turn to travel, I would suggest that if you really want to get into the soul of beer, whether it’s a Leipziger Gose, a West Coast IPA, or even a Best Bitter brewed in the middle of the English countryside, it’s time to make that pilgrimage. Munich was one of mine.

Adrian Tierney-Jones

 

Roll out the barrel…

Standard

The famous red barrel

Watneys Red Barrel was the beer that prompted the formation of real ale movement the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1971 because this fizzy liquid, held in pressured keg containers, was deemed tasteless and a threat to traditional real ale. In the first CAMRA Good Beer Guide, drinkers were infamously advised to “avoid it like the plague”.

The beer became the poster child for all that was bad about keg beer – compared with cask-conditioned real ale whose condition (let’s call it sparkle) was due to natural carbonation and not injected gas.

It has taken almost 50 years before we have now reached a stage where Watneys is making a return via a £400,000 crowdfunding plan, albeit with the company stating it will produce decent beer this time! Since it is questionable what residual value is left in the brand and with the beer likely to be vastly different, I’m left to ponder the value of such a resurrection?

Anyway, the potential return of “Grotneys” is merely an aside to the main event on CAMRA’s near half-century anniversary – the movement’s revolutionary action to allow keg products at its major event, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), for the first time.

Having shunned those beers for all those years it has finally succumbed to recognising things aren’t as simple as keg beer bad, cask beer good. Life is so much more nuanced today. We have a situation where the majority of the output from the newer craft brewers is keg. This is mainly because keg is easier to look after through the supply chain – ensuring it has consistency at the point of dispense isn’t difficult – and the brewers can charge a lot more for it than cask beer.

Keg is the liquid younger consumers are downing, leading to the sad decline in cask beer sales, which had fallen 6.8% in volume terms in the year to July 2018, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, with few signs of a turnaround since. In fact, if you look at Fuller’s sale of its brewery to Asahi, it’s the opposite of a turnaround. If cask beer had been flying out the door that deal probably wouldn’t have materialised.

What appears to be a major change of heart by CAMRA isn’t strictly the case. The reality is keg beer has been served at GBBF for a number of years at the international bars, where drinkers have been able to enjoy keg lager imported from the Czech Republic and Germany. Such beers are supposed to be held in pressured containers. Cask versions of these beers would be ridiculous and, in most cases, impossible to produce because of the methods and ingredients involved.

It is therefore rather strange that the US Brewers Association has sent over a consignment of cask versions of American breweries’ keg beer to GBBF for some years. They have been well received by many but I’m not among them as the exercise has merely highlighted how specific styles of beer are better suited or designed for keg while others are at home in cask format.

Against this backdrop, the major debate about beer today surrounds its final condition when it’s served in the boozer – and this is where cask has been losing out. Unless it’s looked after – from brewery to pub cellar to the point of serving – what is in the customer’s glass won’t reflect the product created by the brewer.

In demanding the beer the brewer intended, my own drinking habits have increasingly skewed towards buying keg beer from craft brewers but, in reality, the brews I’ve enjoyed most have invariably been cask. When attending tap takeovers at my local, The Great Northern Railway Tavern in north London, the standout brews have all been cask but produced by renowned companies that predominantly brew keg beer.

Memorable beers have been Siren Craft Brew’s Suspended In Fog, Magic Rock Brewing’s High Wire, Northern Monk’s Eternal, and Cloudwater Brew Co’s Pale Ale. These were the best of these brewers’ selections on tap when served in a pub with top cellar credentials. This goes to show that unlike in the 1970s when keg was the biggest threat to cask, today’s biggest threat to cask is cask.

 

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.

Shattered dreams

Standard
Crowdfunding has dined out for far too long on the story of Camden Town Brewery delivering a highly profitable exit for its investors on Crowdcube in 2015.
Since then, the reality is there has been little positive news accompanied by the occasional blow-up to upset the party. Until recently, that is, as we’ve seen a increasing number of failures in recent weeks, with the craft brewing industry in the eye of the growing crowdfunding storm. The credibility and validity of this route to raise money is now firmly under the spotlight.
There’s no doubt crowdfunding has been a terrific boon for the craft beer industry and has been the first, middle and last port of call for many businesses looking to raise money. However, the ease with which they have been able to do this has sadly come at a high price. The lack of due diligence undertaken at the time of many fund-raises is coming home to roost.
Very little of what’s been contained in the crowdfunding documentation – I hate to call them prospectuses because that gives them more credibility than they deserve – has ultimately been delivered. Much has been promised to investors but, sadly, they’ve been badly let down on too many occasions.
One of the disappointments has been Two Heads Beer Co, which recently closed the three Beer Boutiques it acquired following a £375,000 crowdfund last summer. The objective of raising the money was to open more stores but the company seems to have adopted a reverse store-opening programme.
Then there’s been The Bottle Shop, which raised £400,000 to build a cold chain platform and open more units. While the former was delivered as promised, no headway was made on adding bars or shops to the business. The company called in the administrators earlier this year, wiping out all the crowdfunding investors.
Most interesting of the bunch has been Hop Stuff, which recently had its brewery seized by the landlord after failing to pay its rent – and taxes. It’s unclear exactly what Hop Stuff Brewery’s future holds but perhaps its parlous state shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise because it had the most doubtful business model I’d heard in a long time.
The plan was to open a number of bars under its Taprooms concept supplied by Hop Stuff but with the “unique” aspect of selling beer from other breweries too. That sounds like a bog-standard pub to me – or am I missing something? I think I must be because the valuation placed on the business at the time of its latter fund-raise was a staggering £25m. I say latter as the company went to the crowdfunding well on three occasions and brought in a total of £1.5m from investors. I’m not sure exactly what the company is worth right now.
For anybody wondering where a figure as high as £25m comes from, I can tell you – it’s pretty much plucked out of the air. There’s nothing scientific about it – it’s all art. When businesses use crowdfunding platforms they are encouraged to use large numbers in their pitch because this shows they have big growth plans and it helps draw more investors into offering their money.
The most recent craft beer company to hit the buffers was Redchurch Brewery, which called in administrators last month. The company was immediately bought, with the new owners hailing the “great news”. Yes, it is good news the employees can remain on board but Redchurch had raised almost £900,000 in two crowdfunding rounds in 2016 and 2017 and in the company’s statement there was no mention whatsoever of those investors, who were wiped out once more.
Most startups fail but it seems to me many crowdfunded businesses adopt an attitude of easy come, easy go. The lack of reference to their investor community when these companies hit the rocks suggests they cared little for the enthusiastic investors who made it possible for them to reach for their dreams. I predict many more nightmares to come.

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

Standard

What shall I write is the question that anyone who lives by the pen (or laptop these days, naturally) all too often asks themselves? Where shall I wander on the page, what shall I dredge from the deep river of memory — which beer, which brewery, which brewer, which city has attracted my attention, has made me want to live there forever, or at least until my liver gives out?

Today I feel like writing about how travel is crucial in understanding a beer culture, how leaving your safe suburban (or Rus in urbe) home and reaching out to a beer city (or town) is an essential act when it comes to immersing yourself in the world of beer. Anyone can sit at home and drink a lemon and lime gose and tell their social media feed that they comprehend everything about the style, or that the coconut-flavoured Tripel from a cuckoo brewer in the badlands of Boston (Lincs rather than that big city in the US) is just how a monk really intended it to be.

However, in my view to really understand where a beer comes from and what it really tastes like and how it is drunk and where it is drunk, you need to gulp this beer style in the city or the region where it is made. In Leipzig you can drink Leipziger Gose, perhaps at the Bayerischer Bahnhof, where the beer is brewed on a platform above the bar, or hunker down in the Gosenschenke ohne Bedenken, an old-style wood-panelled tavern where Putin was reputed to sup when he worked for the KGB here. The latter is a traditional Gose pub, which has recently started brewing its own on the premises, but it also still sells Ritterguts’ tongue-curlingly sour version (an ideal snack accompaniment is a piece of black bread smeared with pork fat).

Home of Schlenkerla

Over the last few years some of the places I have immersed myself in have seen me drink Gose in Leipzig, West Coast IPAs with the Pacific swell just over there and sit in the dark confines of Braueri Heller’s tap room in Bamburg, where Schlernkerla Rauchbier is the everyday drink of those who come in to read a paper or hang out with their mates.

There is that feeling that for a brief snatch of time, however short or transient, you are part of something; that the beer style that you rarely see in the UK or has been disembowelled by all kinds of adjuncts, is just the daily beer of the locals who come and go. For those of us who love beer culture these sort of trips are a kind of pilgrimage

However, I recently realised that there is a downside to this dependency on travel: after co-organising the Exeter Beer Weekend I decided that all this travel was all well and good, but that I was in danger or ignoring the beer culture that was going on in my own city, Exeter and throughout the whole southwest.

There are breweries cropping up all over the place, while those like Verdant, Deya, Moor and Lost and Grounded are quenching the thirsts of beer lovers all over the country. Here in Exeter, Topsham Brewery mix music and their own beers at a lively tap down on the historic quay, while just outside the market town of Crediton the lagers of the newly commissioned Utopian are rapidly taking all of us by storm; add to that Powderkeg and others in the surrounding countryside and I’m beginning to temporarily lose that itch to travel (it’ll come back). Someone in the pub the other night said something that chimed within as we discussed our growing beer scene: local is the new global. She might well be right.

Adrian Tierney-Jones