Radical rightsizing repositions Charles Wells

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Ian Jones, operations director, Charles Wells

Charles Wells’ brewery in Bedford dates back to 1876 but a long history was no deterrent to the family selling it last year to Marston’s in what could well be the first of a number of drastic manoeuvres taken by regional brewers.

It reflects the tough environment in which they now trade, according to Ian Jones, operations director at Charles Wells, who says the challenge coming from an army of new smaller brewers paying reduced tax and selling “cheaply made beer” was making it a difficult marketplace.

Like other long standing brewers Charles Wells was operating on old kit – 40 years old in its case – that needed further investment and greater volumes being pushed through it. “It was becoming unprofitable. We tried to get the volume by buying legacy brands. But it was clear we needed to do something drastic,” says Jones.

He joined the business in 2016 on the premise that a sale of the brewery would take place by 2019 but it came much quicker following an approach from Marston’s. “It needed a lager brewery and the Charles Well’s brands fitted well into certain regions [in which it operated] and so it bought out all the contracts on beers like Estrella, McEwan’s, Courage and Bombardier,” explains Jones.

Although the sale raised around £55 million this largely went on paying down debts. With a clean brewing slate the plan has been for Charles Wells to instead focus on its tenanted pubs and managed houses. But Jones says the family has always insisted that they would also have a brewery in the mix. “You get a better return from pubs but a brewery is at the heart of the company.”

What will change is that the new £13 million brewery will be a 30th of the size of the old Charles Wells operation – at around 30,000 hl. It will have a 30 hl brew length compared with a much bigger 250 hl at the former brewery. The plan is to brew five-times per day although it will be possible to crank this up to nine-times.

What Jones will be brewing is undecided – apart from the two Charlie brands it has retained, and two John Bull beers that are sold through the company’s pubs in France: “I’ve no idea what I’ll be brewing. There will be three core cask, two core keg, and two core lagers. Quite how big any of them will get I’m not sure.”

With 175 tenanted pubs (and only 12 managed) he says many pubs do not have to take Charles Wells beers and so ahead of the new brewery opening Jones has been on a ‘Wandering Brewer’ initiative involving him brewing a wide variety of cask beers with different brewers including Hop Stuff, Titanic, Black Sheep and Woodeforde’s. This mission also encapsulates keg and a series of four beers are being produced with London’s Fourpure over the next 12 months.

“It’s a mission to educate tenants and customers as well as ourselves. We want to highlight to them the change that is coming. We’ve got 90 pubs signed up to receive the Wandering Brewer cask beers. Providing our pubs with more contemporary cask is the biggest opportunity for us. We want them to have good refreshing beer with a bit of hop [character] rather than just being brown ale in a glass. We need to make more flavoursome, contemporary beers,” he explains.

As for keg he says the two Charlie brands have done well but he admits that for the Charles Wells pub estate craft keg is “a bit more out there”. So far 49 pubs are taking the Wandering Brewer kegs on a rotational line that has been installed. The most recent brew is Rucksack Pale Ale (4%), which will be followed in October by an Appalachian IPA (4.7%), then in March an unfiltered German Rhine Pilsner (4.7%) and finally in the series a Bavarian Helles.

This will take Jones beyond the point when the new brewery should be open (April 2019). “We’re all set to go. We’ve got all the plans submitted and agreed. We just need to get the land purchased. We’re all lined up,” he says with much anticipation.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider

 

Around Town with Amateur Drinker

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Whilst it was very far from a surprise to anyone who wasn’t doing PR for Beavertown, (who were still denying it, even as I wrote this,http://beerinsider.com/amateur-drinker-loses-taste-for-beavertown-and-its-extravaganza/), June saw by far the biggest upheaval in London’s nascent scene.

You will surely already know about the Heineken/Beavertown nuptials and most of this blog is devoted to it.

Owner Logan Plant had been vocally against “Big Beer”, most notably in his commencement speech at last year’s BeaverEx, but the press release announcing the deal was hypocritical: it wittered on, without actually mentioning the deal, before ludicrously calling Heineken an “independent family firm”, with a “passion for quality”. Just be honest, you did it for the money, which is a perfectly human thing to do.

The capital injection is to build BeaverWorld, which is either just a massive brewery, in which case, just call it that or it is a White Elephant.

Most importantly, in a world of loose monetary policy globally, and buoyant asset, most notably equity, prices there are many other sources of funding.

Why reject private equity? The press release claims that PE firms just want to maximize return on investment. Heineken are a listed company, so its Board has a legal obligation to do exactly the same! There will be a whole set of legal covenants as to how exactly the £40 million can be spent.

Beavertown could have floated a portion of the company properly, with Stock Exchange rules, rather than silly crowd-funding schemes, which obviously can’t raise the money.

If BeaverWorld is more than a brewery, why not look to a hotel company?

There was no need to go to big beer.

BeaverWorld

This, http://protzonbeer.co.uk/comments/2018/06/23/big-beer-moves-in-on-beavertown, from Roger Protz, who knows far more about beer than I do, is an excellent summary of the way in which macro beer companies sacrifice quality for consistency and lower costs.

However, the most important problem is that Big Beer is desperate to kill small, independent producers and will engage in all legal behavior to achieve that aim.

They buy up small brands, and package them so the average punter doesn’t know that they are no longer independent. They use their financial might to systematically out-spend on promotions/advertising and loss-lead, which each small independent can’t match, and they try to block taps through bundled packages.

Logan is free to sell to whomever he wishes and I am free to not drink Heineken/Beavertown.

Onto the reactions later, but in order to have some flow to the article, I will discuss June’s best event:

Fuller’s, a Stock Market-listed company who do care about quality and don’t set out to kill craft, were fantastic hosts of the superb London Brewers Alliance (LBA) free-pour  festival, putting on a  full range of their cask, including Past Master 1981 ESB, and a couple of Vintage Ales, all stocked in surprisingly generous quantities.

LBA event at Fuller’s

As an investor in Bohem Brewery it was gratifying to see that beer writer James Beeson picked Bohem’s Amos as one of his top five (https://www.beesononbeer.co.uk/the-blog/2018/6/24/london-brewers-alliance-beer-festival-five-of-the-best).

Carrying on with Bohem, it hosted an opening party at its new Tottenham brewery. As a veteran of many events (see past blogs!), I had been asked my advice, which largely centered on my pathological hatred of queues so, although I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I am not exactly an impartial witness! The full range of lagers were available, and tasting excellent, and you can read more here: (http://beerinsider.com/bohem-brewery-launches-new-brewery-site-in-tottenham/)

My Bohem connections led to an invite to the Czech Beer Day, hosted by the Ambassador in the Embassy’s gardens, at which they were pouring. An enjoyable afternoon, which could only have been improved by butlers serving Ferrero Rocher!

Bohem Brewery launch event

The Bottle Shop’s June events included Barcelona’s Nomada (Khanda Wipa IPA & La Manchurita gose), Dugges (Mango Mango Mango!) and Omnipollo Week, with the infamous slushy machine that actually suited the Mediterranean weather! They also had in Running Beer bottles, from Mills Brewing, a rural Gloucestershire brewer that specialises in mixed fermentation beers with wild yeast.

By coincidence, the day of the Heineken announcement, saw a New York special at Hoplocker. From Interboro, Yo! Play, a peach-smoothie DIPA with Burnt Mill, The Vapors a DIPA and The Bridge is Over, a IPA. Finback brought Zero Point, a coconut Gose, Replenish an IPA and Social Fabric, a DIPA.

These are rare, but have been in the UK before. However, I think Equilibrium was pouring here for the first time: There And Back Again, a wild ale, Photon, a pale ale and dHop4, a DIPA, were all excellent.

Equilibrium is one of those American brewers that have hours-long queues round the block for their releases in the US, so it was no surprise to have to wait a little here. However, hats off to Hoplocker, who had a clear and sensible maximum order policy, which they communicated everywhere in advance, and were abundantly and professionally staffed. Fantastic logistics.

Back to the reactions to the Heineken news, which were negative, but sad and disappointed rather than angry.

Extreme credit to Cloudwater (who did criticise Boak & Bailey originally, but more than made up for it),  Hops Burns & Black and The Veil for being the leaders in cancelling attendance at BeaverEx or pulling the beers from their shelves.

Ticket Tannoy initially tried to refuse my refund, but once I had contacted Amex, and reminded the brokers of their legal responsibilities, they accepted the obvious point that if you sell tickets for an event and change the headline acts, then you must reimburse the customer.

Some pathetic fan-boys and –girls began whining on social media that they had paid for their ticket, and therefore brewers shouldn’t pull out. Firstly, as above, it was trivially easy to get a refund, second, blame the brewer without integrity, not those who kept it, remembering that Beavertown were in negotiations and lied about it for months when the truth would have seen the honourable brewers refusing to even get involved in the first place, and most importantly, you will have no events to go to in three years if Heineken gets its way, as there will be no independent craft brewers left to exhibit!

Whilst I was at The Bottle Shop Omnipollo event above, the news came through that Modern Times, and others had pulled out of BeaverEx. There was genuine relief, bordering on elation, as people realised that the event was over, and Beavertown were forced to send a humiliating email a few days later admitting just that.

The next causality was Sour Solstice. This was brilliant last year, and, indeed was my highlight of June 2017 (http://beerinsider.com/around-town-with-amateur-drinker-21/ ), and I got to try the excellent, but rare Tommie Sief, for the first time. Beavertown were forced to scrap tickets, and make it free entry

Beavertown’s PR Army, now ludicrously tried to claim that selling to Heineken was the same as to Private Equity. All productive organisations must ultimately be owned by private individuals, in the form of equity, or you end up with Venezuela, but other than that triviality, this is nonsense. Private Equity does not have the same over-rising incentive to crush small, independent breweries.

The Kernel TTO at GNRT

The Kernel at GNRT in North London was on Tau Day, 28/6, which meant the wonderful, annual Hawkshead/Crooked Stave Key Lime Tau was back.  Very busy, as the England/Belgium Armistice game was on, but the excellent staff coped superbly.

Anspach & Hobday were the latest to announce a crowd-funding venture. I will be covering that whole topic in a separate article, which will be posted in a couple of days.

Burning Sky, thoroughly deserved winners of best drinks producer at the BBC Food Awards, and Connecticut’s Two Roads on tap together at The King’s Arms

The Fox, in Haggerston, announced it was closing for 12-18 months, as the landlord was renovating and converting the upstairs into flats. This was an early pioneer, and had a good selection with decent events, whilst still remaining a proper pub.

BritHop was a fun event, organised by Drinks Maven, at Mother Kelly’s, in which Kernel (CF90, a pale), Burning Sky (Typically English Day, a pale) and others brewed with new British hops.

Finally, as this piece was going to press, Lagunitas announced it was cutting the strength of its UK IPA from 6.2% to 5.5%. Could it be Heineken in action?

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.

Rethinking beer in Scotland

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Having spent a career working in senior roles at various large brewers the founder of Edinburgh Beer Factory (EBF) decided to do things a little differently when setting up his own operation.

Sitting on the edge of Edinburgh on an industrial estate EBF is the creation of John Dunsmore – who formerly ran Scottish & Newcastle as well as holding other senior roles including CEO of C&C Group – and it is straight out of the craft beer mould.

What gives it some differentiation though is its initial focus on lager. The objective of the company has been to rethink lager – away from its bad reputation and male focus. Dunsmore also wanted to rethink the stereotypes of Scotland and to highlight that it is a world leader in brewing and distilling.

Ellis Johnson of EBF says: “He wanted to remake lager and restyle it. To do it differently than Foster’s, Kronenbourg and Tennent’s.” Part of this thinking has involved leaning heavily on the godfather of Pop Art the Leith born Eduardo Paolozzi whose imagery runs across all EBF’s beers.

The brewery was founded on Paolozzi Hells lager (ABV 5.2%), which is a Munich-style lager that is hopped with Saaz and Hallertau. It accounts for a hefty 95% of the brewery’s output, which has built up to 5,000hl since production started in 2015. The kit was shipped in from Turin in Italy with the brewhouse consisting of a dual mash tun/kettle, whirlpool, and sparging vessel.

These feed into six fermenting vessels that each contains 150hl. In addition there is a batch of conditioning tanks that ensure the lager has around six weeks in tank. At the moment Johnson says EBF is at maximum capacity but there is plenty of room to bring in some additional vessels and conditioning tanks.

As well as branching out into an unfiltered version of Paolozzi, which has reduced the bitterness and added the requisite luscious mouth-feel, EBF has also recently launched its Bunk! range. The name comes from the Paolozzi lecture in 1952 at the ICA in London when he first introduced his pop art creations and called it BUNK!

Johnson says the idea has been to release an experimental series of under-appreciated beer styles. First up was Edinburgh Brown (6%), which is an American brown ale-style brew with Cascade hops, and Smoky Wheat (5%) that has the heft and banana notes of a traditional German wheat beer but with a decent whiff of smoke coursing through it.

These have more recently been joined by Cherry Saison (6.5%) that has the undercurrent of Belgian yeast that is complemented with the addition of fresh cherries into the mix that sit comfortably in the background.

Such brews are initially created on a pilot plant that can limit production runs to as little as 500l and the most recent brew to come from this kit was being tested at the brewery’s Tap Room on my visit – Mediterranean Pale Ale (7.4%), which has been aged in Chardonnay casks.

These beers are all available in bottle (being bottled on-site with EBF’s own line) while Paolozzi is also available in 330ml cans.

During my visit on a Saturday afternoon the tours of the brewery and tastings in the Tap Room are clearly proving very popular and EBF has found itself on the tourist attraction trail – especially among the passengers of cruise ships mooring up in nearby Leith. Paolozzi would no doubt approve.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider

 

Fuller’s Vintage Ale Tasting

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London brewer Fuller’s has been producing its bottled conditioned Vintage Ale since 1997 when the brewer’s name on the bottle was Reg Drury and not John Keeling whose signature found itself on the bottle the year after.

Keeling’s name has been on all the Vintage ales since 1998 through to 2016 after which current head brewer Georgina Young became the third name to adorn this ongoing series.

Having accumulated various bottles over the years, including a rare 1997 (in a white box), it seemed about time to crack open a few vintages to see how they had aged and how their developments in the bottle could be compared against other vintages.

With a few friends, and the Great Northern Railway Tavern in North London as the host venue, nine bottles were opened (including two that had been contributed by fellow beer writer John Porter).

 

Vintage Ale 1997

With 20 years in the bottle and variable storage conditions (straddling three house moves) it would have been no surprise to find this beer a disappointment. But it was anything but and its original robust formula had clearly helped keep it in good nick.

There was a modest aroma on first exposure, with a bit of sherry-like qualities, which came through in the tasting. But it was very much at the creamier end of the sherry spectrum as sweetness came very much at the fore. Christmas pudding ale is the most obvious description to assign this beer.

Vintage Ale 1999

There were clear signs that this beer had gone over the edge. It had very little conditioning and was certainly lacking in body. Beyond the sweetness there were few discernible characteristics to appeal to the drinker.

Who’s got the ’98?

Vintage Ale 2000

In contrast to the 1999 this beer had superb conditioning with its pert head that was retained throughout the tasting. The mouthfeel added greatly to its appeal as did the full fruity flavours that contributed to what remains a great beer after 18 years in the bottle.

Vintage Ale 2004

This vintage poured rather thin with little head retention but what it did have in its favour was some of the cherry notes that were picked up in the original tasting in 2004. Also pleasant in the mix and rounding out its character was some mild bitterness in the finish.

Vintage Ale 2011

This more recent vintage poured like a distinctly younger beer with a fresher look to the head. It also had a full bodied feel with some alcohol heat noticeable but these were well balanced with some hop characteristics from the Goldings, Organic First Gold and Soverign hops.

Vintage Ale 2012

The most recent vintage in the vertical tasting had a zesty freshness and its hops contributed to giving it an almost refreshing aspect. There are clearly many potential years ahead for this vintage as the beer has far from rounded out whereby the fruitier notes will mature and come to the fore.

To mix things up some other Fuller’s special limited editions were added to the tasting:

Brewer’s Reserve No.4 (365 days aged in oak Armagnac casks)

The Armagnac provided this beer with its over-riding characteristic that ran right through from the aroma to the finish. Rum and raisin notes were evident in the character in what is a very drinkable beer. The consensus at the tasting was that this one is worth seeking out.

Past Masters ‘XX Strong Ale’

The first beer brewed by Fuller’s in what remains on ongoing series where recipes from its archives are reprised. The conditioning was pretty good although the beer was rather thin to the taste. It did, surprisingly, retain some alcohol heat, which was very much the over-riding characteristic when this beer was first bottled.

Past Masters ‘Old Burton Extra’

The tasting finished on a highlight with this excellently condition beer that displayed great complexity. The malt showed through and set a solid backbone from where a perfectly balanced combination of sweet notes and moderate hop character was able to shine through in the taste and finish.

 

With many other bottles (from various breweries) ageing in the Beer Insider cellar there is the high likelihood that another tasting along similar lines will be held in the near future.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

 

Stools are cool

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Great Northern Railway Tavern: Bar stools back on the menu

I had the privilege of being asked my views last year on what elements I’d like to incorporate into my local pub. London brewer Fuller’s had recently acquired a lovely Victorian boozer, The Great Northern Railway Tavern, which it intended to restore to its former glory.

Rather than rushing into anything, Fuller’s sensibly canvassed some local opinion before committing any investment. The two key essential items I suggested were a great beer list and bar stools – not necessarily in that order. My children recommended I also propose free ice cream at all times, which I also put forward.

My bar stool suggestion not only highlighted my love affair with this humble piece of furniture but was also a fight-back against previous managers of the pub, who removed all stools from the bar for a time. Their reasoning was to dissuade people from crowding around the bar. This mirrored the strategy town centre bars brought into force to avoid so-called “vertical drinking”. I can understand it in circuit pubs in city centres but it seemed a rather bizarre decision in a local boozer in a north London “suburb”.

Thankfully, Fuller’s reintroduced bar stools – along with a super, rotating selection of beer – although my children were disappointed by the lack of free ice cream. My view is that the beating heart of a pub is found at the bar and, space permitting, where I invariably gravitate – perched on a stool. It’s where the action is and it’s the buzz around the bar which gives any pub the energy that permeates throughout the premises. I suspect we take this for granted in the UK because it’s one of the things tourists comment on when visiting this country.

For customers of Charles Wells’ chain of 12 “British” pubs that are expanding across France, one of the appealing aspects of the venues has been the requirement for customers to visit the bar when they want to buy a drink. This is in contrast to the French tradition of orders being taken at the tables. This British system sucks people to the bar and enables much more interaction among the customers, who invariably find they congregate around this central point. This has found particular appeal among young French drinkers.

As a bar stool advocate it has been interesting to see the move by restaurateurs to incorporate counter seating into their dining rooms. I’d say pretty much any new opening now includes some such seats – more often than not positioned around an open kitchen. This move has been driven by a number of factors including the need to squeeze more covers into venues to counter the increased cost of running restaurants.

Such seating also suits solo dining much better because the customer can focus on the action behind the counter and from an economic point of view because they don’t take up a whole table. It also chimes well with the move towards more casual dining because even in the smartest restaurants, it feels rather louche to be perched on a bar stool.

I’ve had some of my more enjoyable meals out this year dining at the counter. Stools in Spanish restaurant Rambla in Soho puts you right at the heart of the action as chefs work away creating magical dishes. The stools also put you over the top of everybody else in the compact room, giving great visibility.

Irvin Bar Grill: A restaurant with bar stools

It’s the same story at another of my local restaurants, Irvin Bar Grill, which successfully mixes Italian and Scottish cuisine and drinks – but I only visit if I can grab a couple of stools at the pewter-topped counter. The more relaxed nature of its bar-counter seating means an evening intended as “drinks only” can seamlessly morph into a procession of small plates for dinner in a way that wouldn’t be possible at the tables in this tiny venue.

Being a bar fly in Irwin also affords an opportunity to chat with the owner, who works behind the bar, and to people-watch as the restaurant entrance is alongside the bar. These things combine to make you feel you are in the thick of things. It’s safe to say my love affair with the bar stool continues but it now has some competition from the newcomer in town – the restaurant stool.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer 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.

Bath Ales fresh from installation of state-of-the-art brewing facility

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Roger Ryman is renowned for his brewing capabilities – having created blockbusters like Tribute – but he is less known for his engineering prowess, which is on full show at Bath Ales brewery on the outskirts of the Georgian city.

On a tour of the site it is clear that the brewing director of St Austell (parent of Bath Ales) is very proud of the shiny new operation that incorporates some of the latest developments in brewing kit. It is certainly a world away from what existed when St Austell bought the brewery two years ago in a deal worth around £6.5 million.

Ryman says it was a deal that needed doing for Bath Ales as it was an operation with good brands but like other brewers of its size and vintage it needed some investment in order for It to move on. With around £6 million invested in the business Ryman has been able to build a state-of-the-art facility.

He selected British operation Musk Engineering as the supplier of the kit over German manufacturers Krones and GEA because although they have “fantastic” product he suggests dealing with them can be rather like buying goods from a catalogue. Instead, he wanted to build a bespoke brewhouse that had the flexibility to brew a variety of beer styles including cask.

What he has ended up with at the heart of the operation is a mash conversion vessel, lauter tun and whirlpool with a 85hl brew length. “This does not increase the batch size from the old brewery but that was all manual. With the new kit we can make small lengths and it’s a rapid production,” says Ryman.

Whereas previously it could handle nine brews in a 24-hour period it’s now possible to do 10-12 brews per week. “The capabilities we now have are significant,” he says.

At present this kit feeds into 12 fermenting vessels with a total capacity of 170hl and there is room for a further six FVs to be added when required. At present the annual output from Bath Ales is 34,000hl but there is the capacity to crank out double this amount.

There is also the prospect of a canning line being added although he says this will not be a replacement for the bottling line (that also bottles St Austell beers).

Wandering around the facility Ryman seems to almost constantly highlight the interesting bits of kit such as the filtering system, the yeast flow control system, and the valves on the bottling line as examples of equipment that would typically have only been found within much larger brewing facilities.

He says access to such cutting edge equipment is down to the big suppliers like Krones scaling down their technology in order for it to be available for craft brewers: “They’ve recognised that they now need to sell to these smaller companies.”

Although he has plans to produce a variety of styles on the kit including some German style Pilsners and wheat beer – that will complement the recently launched English lager Sulis – Ryman says Gem represents 60% of Bath Ales’ production. This sits slightly above the 50% of output that Tribute accounts for at the St Austell brewery. This figure has been gradually reducing as other beers grow and it is probably going to be the same story with Gem over time.

The acquisition of Bath Ales has not just enabled Ryman to get his engineering teeth into building a new brewery but it has given St Austell a beachhead from which to broaden its reach in the South West of England. This also includes building its pub estate, which was boosted by the eight properties that came with the Bath Ales deal.

The most notable is the Graze bar adjacent to Bath Spa train station that also includes a two-barrel brewery. Another two pubs are in the process of being acquired that will add to the 180-plus properties that St Austell operates across the business.

This is one of a number of deals that have taken place in the sector and we can be absolutely sure that there will be more as the craft beer category grows and consolidation accelerates.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider

 

Around Town with Amateur Drinker

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The highlight of May, and almost certainly 2018, was obviously MBCC in Copenhagen. This year my visit extended to six days, so I was able to experience more of the accompanying Beer Week events around the city.

As in 2017, I bumped into another regular Bottle Shop couple at Gatwick, early Tuesday morning! A gorgeous, sunny day greeted us in Denmark, so much so, that we decided to immediately break the “no drinking straight off plane” rule. The obvious and nearest choice was WarPigs.

The excellent MBCC App listed a Bottle Logic event. I must confess that I had never heard of them and so didn’t imagine it would be busy, which reveals my ignorance and incompetence, as we were greeted by a 45 minute queue at midday!

Bottle Logic are apparently famous for imperial stouts, but I sensibly stayed off them, and enjoyed the sun outside, where we shared a table, and chatted with, Keith Shore, the Philadelphia-based designer of the iconic Mikkeller label.

We then took a taxi to Koelschip, the small cellar bar dedicated to Belgium, and particularly Lambic and spontaneous fermented beer. As befitting English abroad, we couldn’t stay out of the sun, and so went next door to Mikkeler & Friends. The next day was Ascension Day bank holiday, so the evening back at WarPigs was full of civilian as well as MBCC attendees.

Thursday´s plan was to walk to Brus. However, it now doesn’t open until 3pm, which is later than last year. The main Mikkeller Bar hosted Other Half.  Very good, but expensive and I have had them in London many times, so we went to Baghaven, the barrel aging facility in the rural outskirts of, the, not very big, city.

WarPigs

They did have some queuing logistical issues but the beers were excellent. There was a separate pop-up with Alchemist who brought their IPA, which they recommend to drink straight out of the can, as it protects the aroma, although I’m not convinced!

Finally, back to Fermentoren, which I had visited last year, with the Editor, on our first evening, but which was completely different to my vague, drunken memories. Upon sharing this story, Evin O’Riordain from The Kernel, (apologies for the name-dropping), remarked that he had also been present in 2017, which I also blacked out. (Likewise, so thanks for letting me know – Ed).

MBCC´s format is free-pour, which works best for festivals. I had a Gold ticket so got in 20 minutes early before the hordes of single-session ticket-holders. During every session there are a few beers which have queues, and then run out early: Bokkereyder, always, Omnipollo soft serve, and then the top two or three on RateBeer for that particular session.

I don’t see the point of queuing for the notorious, usually RateBeer influenced beers, as however remarkable they might be, there is quality everywhere: At MBCC, grazing is the key!

There were so many amazing beers, so this is far from a defintive list. However, I jotted down the following: Angry Chair Rainbow Sherbert Berlinner Weisee with pineapple, raspberry and citrus juice. Various flavours of Fonta Flora Apalachian Wild Ale.

The Veil Never Never double range: Satisfied, a sweet cheery Gose and Scared, with Guava. Tamp´s Cigar City always seems to make great festival beers, and 2018 MBCC was no exception, but I won’t single one out.

Fantastic sours from Black Project every session, including Cygnus, with cherries, and others aged with wine grapes. Proper modern, high ABV meads from Superstition: I covered these last year, as it’s a style we do not see in the UK, and we’re still waiting for distributors to work with Superstitution!

Juice from Other Half

Other Half´s Go With The Flow Mosaic  Dream, saisons from Threes Brewing, Modern Times’ Monster Tones, a 50/50 blend of Modem Tones and Monsters´Park, two Bourbon BA imperial stouts, a dessert special with coconut and vanilla, which was a RateBeer special on session three.

Finally, amazing spontaneous wild ales from de Garde, blended with so many different fruits from cider apples to Oregon peaches. I could truly go on listing more beers for page after page.

Friday night at Brus, seemed to contain almost every MBCC visitor I recognised, and its always a fun place. Saturday had dawned with a predictable hangover, and I made the mistake of finally going for a Bokkereyder: this meant I lost almost 10 minutes of the special 20 minutes Gold Ticket time, but also, it was a hair of the dog, so I downed it, which was a complete waste!

There was a fifth session on the Sunday, for Gold ticket-holders, with the event left-overs, which was extremely controversial as it was announced after many had booked flights home. It was a very mellow affair, with few crowds, and we even poured most beers ourselves!

Obviously most of the superstars didn’t slip through, but New Bissell IPA and Kane and Sunday Brunch somehow did! The late announcement was the only mistake the organisers made and I would have been annoyed if I had missed it: We also lost the “Lucky Dip” of last year at Baghaven, which was so enjoyable!

A couple of notable restaurants, very conveniently located next to the Festival  venue: Danish tapas at Skank, and the superb Sanchez, a modern Mexican, named after its head chef Rosio, who is ex-Noma, although we were probably too drunk to do it justice! Its street-food Tacos offshoot, Hija de Sanchez, is two minutes from MBCC, so refuelled many a guest, ourselves included.

I was pleased we had stayed until Monday afternoon as it gave a chance to look round the city before a final drink in the main spots, which were very much after The Lord Mayor´s show.

Overall, this was a wonderful few days, Europe´s best beer event, in a charming city, blessed by unseasonably glorious weather. I would recommend MBCC to any beer lover, and will be back in 2019.

There were less events to report on in the UK: Mother Kelly’s hosted the annual Sour Power 4 (Pendant’s Alert: I attended the first in 2014, so am convinced it should be #5 this year). A good, rather than exceptional range, it will surprise no-one that my favourite beer was a Damson-flavoured entry from Kernel, as it always is.

The beer has changed name though, and is now a “Bierre de Saison”, rather than a “Sour”. Apparently, it is exactly the same recipe, but the barrels it matures in, now have the “experience” of containing previous iterations, which means it qualifies. I have no idea if this is true!

Magic Rock Cannonball special. This annual event has declined in importance since the raging queues of 2014 or 2015, but that is due to other breweries catching up, rather than Magic Rock, the innovators of UK TIPA’s, declining. In 2018, the London release was no longer exclusively at Craft Beer Co, N1.

I had the Cannonball Run, Human DIPA, Unhuman TIPA, and, this year, Neo-Human, a NEDIPA, at Mother Kelly’s. Twitter was treated to the unedifying spectacle of distributor Kicking Horse proudly recording their journey down from Huddersfield to bring it to their customers. Unfortunately it was a standard Transit van, on a day, at the start of the summer, which as I write in late June, is shaping up to be the hottest since 2003. Warm-chain! No wonder the beer scene in London restaurants is so far behind, when their suppliers are well-meaning, but so amateur.

Bottle Shop hosted Californication, a celebration of Cold Chained beers from the Golden State. Pride of place went to Modern Times City of The Sun IPA, which had been one of beers of the year for 2016.

Given what was to happen in June, it is good to write that this month was relatively free of news:  Boston private equity fund Castanea Partners, who specialise in $15-$150 million investments in consumer products brands, bought a majority stake in The Bruery.

Chorlton announced plans to Crowdcube funding for a branch in Belgium, although the level of financial innumeracy that will be reached between a UK brewery that once tweeted that a sterling devaluation hurts their exports, and Crowdcube, is truly frightening.

And finally, Beavertown announced they would be contract brewing at Belgium’s Brouwerij de Brabandere. I have covered the beginning of the Spurs/Heineken saga elsewhere (http://beerinsider.com/amateur-drinker-loses-taste-for-beavertown-and-its-extravaganza/), and rest assured, it plays a significant role in June´s write-up!

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.

 

Why I forgave gastro-pubs

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In early 2007 I visited young businessman Philip Mossop at Bacchus, the restaurant he had recently set up in Hoxton, London, which provided the platform for little-known Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes to make his name and go on to great success.

My interest was in Mossops’ objective of delivering “fine dining in trainers” as he so cleverly phrased it. He was referring to the fact Mendes’ high-end food was being served in a former pub and that he had scant interest in turning it into a stuffy experience.

But I only popped in for a pint!

His views fitted neatly into a piece I was writing that predicted the death of the gastro-pub. He openly boasted he had not sold a single pint of beer in the six months since he had been open – although he did admit to one diner ordering half a Guinness!

This perfectly encapsulated my distaste and distrust of the gastro-pub phenomenon. Far too often they were smart restaurants masquerading as laid-back boozers. Nobody was really welcome to pop into these places and have a pint while they read the paper before going home for dinner – and this went against what I believed pubs should be about.

Earlier this year I made the effort to visit renowned north London gastro-pub The Bull And Last. It made me realise that in the intervening years my negative views on gastro-pubs might have become out-dated. The prediction of their death had certainly not come to pass.

While I admit this reflects on my changing perspective – for one thing being 11 years older makes a difference to any viewpoint – we also have a very different market place to that of 2007.

For starters, the smoking ban came into place a mere two months after my story was published, then the financial crisis began in late 2007. The sub-prime mortgage market collapsed in the US, triggering the implosion of Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock, among others. These two seismic events wreaked havoc on pubs and the aftershock is still being felt today.

The smoking ban contributed massively to pub closures

I’ve come to understand that while I’m not going to be the most frequent gastro-pub visitor, I have at least come to value their presence rather than having a tendency to denigrate them as I did in the past.

Thousands of pubs have been lost in the past ten-plus years, which is why the gastro-pub has been such a valuable proposition – without it we would no doubt have suffered even more pub closures. It’s the case today that the vast majority of pubs have to offer some kind of food and the better end of the pub dining experience – as typically delivered by the gastro-pub – has undoubtedly pushed up customers’ expectations across the board. These food-led boozers have played their part in universally improving the quality of food served in pubs.

My changed viewpoint sits comfortably with that of academic Christel Lane, who argues in her recent book that gastro-pubs have had a positive impact on pub culture rather than gentrifying this unique British icon, which was my big worry a decade ago.

She also suggests gastro-pubs have been unfairly criticised for sterilising the traditional wet-led boozer. I apologise for being part of that critical grouping – but I’ve changed my ways.

The Hero of Maida: now under new chef management

So much so I welcomed the reopening of two gastro-pubs – The Coach in the City of London (formerly The Coach & Horses) and The Hero of Maida (formerly renowned food pub The Truscott Arms) in the west of the capital. This partly comes from the fact they are both overseen by chef Henry Harris, who I was a big fan of when he was at French brasserie Racine. If there is one person who can deliver gutsy food suited to a pub environment, it is this man.

What such a move highlights is gastro-pubs have moved to a much more mature footing. High-quality food sits so much more comfortably in a pubby ambience now and we have the full spectrum – from Michelin star venues all the way down to much more laid-back establishments.

We have progressed from the early stages of the gastro-pub movement, when good food in pubs was seen as something of an oxymoron. They were uneasy bedfellows in my opinion. We’ve firmly moved on from boil-in-the-bag cod to sea bass sous vide and I’m pleased to say I’ve also made the journey to the extent I sometimes enjoy a bit of fine dining in the pub while wearing my dusted-down trainers.

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.

Camden Town sitting comfortably with brewery takeovers

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The days of big brewers taking over smaller ones and ruining them are over because there is now too much at stake, argues Jasper Cuppaidge, founder of Camden Town Brewery, which is owned by AB InBev.

Many beer drinkers will disagree with this view but I suspect they will simply have to put up with it because the big brewers are on a buying spree – as most recently seen with Heineken buying a stake in Beavertown.

Consider the recent words of Jorge Paulo Lemann, the investor behind AB InBev, when speaking at the Milken Institute conference in the US. He admitted to being taken by surprise with the rise of craft brewing in America: “We reacted, we bought 20 craft companies. In international markets, if craft appears in Argentina or Brazil, we’ll buy it right away.”

Is this because he feels they can then snuff craft out before it becomes too big and affects his own brands or is it a strategy that would see him develop the acquired craft brands?

When it comes to AB InBev and the UK market then Cuppaidge believes things are in the latter camp. Certainly his experience with Camden Town strongly supports this argument.

“There is always noise when you do great things and also when people are not happy with you [such as when you sell out to a large brewer]. But our strategy has not changed. It is no different today and they [AB InBev] understand that. There has been a fundamental change in the beer market. Fiat would not bring out a Ferrari and Ferrari would not bring out a Fiat even though they have the same parent,” he suggests.

Cuppaidge says AB InBev has done much of the “heavy lifting” – involving the building of a new large brewery in Enfield – and the results are that he believes “Hells has never tasted better”. Many beer writers would agree.

He refers to the beer that now represents 70% of the company’s total sales: “If it was 100% then I’d love it. Every one of our beers is popular but Hells is the priority here in Europe.”

This clearly means that Camden Town has now fully moved away from the days when it was innovating and producing an ongoing array of beers. It has now left this to other newer brewers. “Will we put 10 to 15 beer releases out each year? No. Other breweries will do this and we’ll be the mainstay brand. Two or three beers will take all our brewing capacity,” he says.

The focus with Hells is very much on supplying the major retailers as this part of the market now represents more than 50% of total UK beer sales so “the market is huge”, he points out. In contrast the on-trade represents a mere 4% of Camden Town sales and Cuppaidge appears to have little interest in this part of the beer market.

He regards the major grocers as being prime targets for Camden Town as they move onto stocking more craft products: “The supermarkets were walls of Walkers crisps and now it’s Tyrell’s and where it was Schweppes tonics it is now Fever Tree. There are now also lots of craft beers on the shelves.”

What those beers comprise is certainly going to be fiercely fought over in the future. It will increasingly be the likes of Camden Town [and BrewDog etc…] looking to replace the macro lager brands. Where that leaves the other smaller brewers’ beers is probably in the pub. For many drinkers who have an aversion to brewers growing up that won’t be seen as a problem.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

 

Around Town with Amateur Drinker

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The Axe: one of London’s sharper pubs

April’s premier event was SponFest, a week-long celebration of ‘the very best in wild and traditionally fermented food and drink’ at four Graceland pubs, The King’s Arms, The Axe and The Mermaid of which I am very familiar, and a fourth venue, TT-Liquor, a Kingsland Road cocktail bar, that I had never heard of.

I only visited the pubs, but they had some real treats, on at different times of the week: old and new Cantillon in a vertical tasting, and Fou’Foune by the glass; some superb by-the-glass from special bottles: 3 Fonteinen’s Intense Red Oude Kriek, a young Lambic aged for 7 months with 40% macerated sour cherries and Oud Beersel Green Walnut.

Boon brought various numbered single vat releases to show the differences that can occur between each batch of Lambics and the unpredictable nature of spontaneous fermentation. They had 104, 67, and a 2015 release of 85 on keg along with 109 and 79 in bottle . A mini TTO from De Cam, a Lambic blender, with the outstanding Nectarine, my favourite , Oude Lambiek, Framboise and Kriekenlambiek. This was an ambitious, co-ordinated event that worked really well.

In a flash it’s gone

Globally, the most important news in April was the disappointing, but not unexpected, story from California of Green Flash’s demise. I wrote of its retreat from 32 of the US’ 52 states, and the termination of 15% of the workforce in January’s column (http://beerinsider.com/around-town-with-amateur-drinker-28/).

The beginning of the month rapidly saw the closure of its Virginia Beach brewery, and a foreclosure by its largest lender, Comerica Bank, who sold the remaining assets to a new company, WC IPA LLC. This also included Alpine, who had been friendly merged into Green Flash in November 2014.

Mike Hinkley, who started the business 16 years ago, and was the former CEO, admitted “all creditors and shareholders will be stiffed”. The new group is apparently a local Sand Diego business that claimed to want to preserve the beer and safeguard jobs, by focusing on the West Coast operations.

I don’t know the intimate details, but at first glance, it does seem strange that the company did not choose to enter Chapter 11 instead.

The most interesting single night event came from The Bruery, at The Bottle Shop Arch. They specialise in experimental, Belgian-style beers, using a proprietary Belgian yeast strain, for the vast majority. Unsurprisingly, the pales and IPA’s were not remarkable, but the rest of the line-up was fantastic.

Notables included Frucht Guava, a Berliner Weiss, Kyuri Dragon, with dragon-fruit, lychee and rambuten for a SE Asian flavour, and Tart of Darkness, a tart, sour stout. Back in the Jurassic days of 2014, when the Arch first opened, this was one of the beers that truly sparked my interest in the scene.

I hadn’t seen the bottles for a while, so it was good to catch up again, although this version was brewed with blackcurrants. However, the undoubted highlight was Girl Grey, brewed with almond and Earl Grey tea, that reminded me of Battenberg Cake!

There then followed a ticketed bottle tasting with the following pouring: The Wanderer, a red fruit sour, Mash & Coconut, an imperial bourbon BA Brown Ale, Filmishmish, a BA blonde ale with added apricots, Valise, a sour with Viognier wine-grapes, Rum Sucre, a rum BA 6th Anniversary English Old Ale, and, New American Oak Bois, the prior year’s version. It wasn’t, however, especially sensible of me to sit down to the bottle tasting at 19:30, after having already started on the keg list at 16:30!

Wild Beer Co: Results leave a sour taste in the mouth

Wild Beer’s 1st set of results since their Crowdcube campaign, for the year ending July 2017, were released. This blog gives a brilliant summary: (http://fantasyequitycrowdfunding.blogspot.com/search?q=+wild+beer).

A small predicted profit turned into a loss of £370,000, with sales disappointing by £400,000. The results were poor, but good businesses can disappoint and growing ones post losses. What is truly appalling is that they pitched on Crowdcube in March 2017, so had completed nine months of the year, and already knew 75% of the numbers. There are far too many of these stories involved with this method of capital raising.

The 14th was Beavertown Bloody ‘Ell day, which I had at The Euston Tap. The beer seemed subtler than in years gone by. This may mean that it is technically of a higher quality, and also better for all round drinking. However, Special Annual Releases, like festival beers, should be over-the-top and in-your–face.  A cynic would suggest that Heineken are planning on making it a permanent release.( http://beerinsider.com/amateur-drinker-loses-taste-for-beavertown-and-its-extravaganza/).

Following in Moor’s footsteps, Cloudwater announced that they would be an opening a London bar/tap-room. Now that a second brewery from outside has the capital and has made this move the chances are that there will be a flood of them, taking advantage of a much larger customer-base.

It will initially be great for London drinkers, although it clearly massively increases pressure on local brewers. If they respond by improving, then it will be great in the long-run. If they can’t compete with the brand and capital, then there will be causalities.

Variety is the spice of life, and it is especially important that regional identity is preserved in beer. It would be no fun if every bar in the country stacked the same big five to seven craft brands, in the manner in which every High Street looks the same

Brewdog invested in Hawkes Cider, who also has its own Bermondsey tap-room.

The Old Fountain proudly tweeted that they had Siren Limoncello on draft, one Friday night. I popped in lunchtime Saturday to find that it had all gone! Now, it’s a post-City pub and so can get rammed on a Friday evening, but this was still impressive at 9% ABV. Tragically though, this wasn’t the case, and in a cleaning mis-hap, the wrong line had been opened, and all the beer went down the drain.

Waitrose started stocking Wild Beer, Beavertown and Four Pure, along with Belgium’s Boon Oude Gueuze.

Burning Sky Q&A at The Arch with Mark Tranter who confessed, that he really loves brewing the “slow beers”, but it is the “fast beers” which enable him to follow that passion. The keg line-up included an exclusive Saison Printemps Lees.

Finally, a heart-warming incident  one Sunday at The Wenlock Arms, where a 90-year old, who had moved away from the area years ago, was back to celebrate, as she had spent VE Day drinking in there!

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.