Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Beware dodgy cans

So there you have it: the Fullers head brewer shares the misgivings a lot of people have already expressed about the craft can fad. His counterpart at Thornbridge has said that he's "unconvinced that the canners towards the lower end of the market are capable of sealing the can without potentially picking up detrimental levels of dissolved oxygen".

John Keeling clearly isn't totally against canning. Fullers have been using them for many years, particularly for export. I spotted 500ml cans of Pride, ESB and London Porter in a Conad supermarket in Italy recently. But then a brewery the size of Fullers will have access to the very best canning lines. Others however, who use bottom of the range kit, might see their beer exposed to too much oxygen for too long during the packaging process. It's obvious that the surface area of the beer exposed to the air when you seal a can is far greater than that in bottle, with a narrow neck.

I'm an investor, and have an ongoing involvement, in a London microbrewery. I was shown the quote when we were approached by a company doing a mobile canning service. They drive up to your brewery in a lorry and package the beer for you on their kit in a trailer. It was bloody expensive and seems a bit dicey, so we gave it a miss, but it's proven popular with others. I won't name names, but you can tell who's used the service because the can won't be printed: the label will have been applied to the bare metal. Probably best to avoid those.

Went to see that lad Frankie Boyle doing his first Edinburgh preview in Soho last night. He was basically just reading jokes from a piece of paper to gauge reaction. A pub-related one about Nigel Farage: asked audience if we remembered when Farage got set on by angry SNP supporters in Edinburgh, and hid in a pub. "Hiding from Scottish people in a pub? That's like dressing up as a zebra to escape from a lion".

Market consolidation: Ilkley Brewery

It'll be a good thing if and when some of the small breweries founded in the last few years start to amalgamate. It's what happened in the past, after all: the big brewing names of the 20th century came about through rounds of mergers between smaller companies over the course of many decades.

In London (and, I suspect, in a few other parts of the UK) we have too many individual breweries competing in an increasingly confused and crowded craft beer market. That's true even though the sector has been expanding. It's inefficient, many ventures are hopelessly undercapitalised, and because brewing talent and knowledge is spread thin, a lot of what's being produced is rubbish. Something's got to give.

Chris Ives, Luke Raven and Richard Shelton of Ilkley Brewery.
(Image from SIBA website) 
Yesterday a buy-out of Ilkley - a respected Yorkshire craft brewer - was announced. Now this isn't actually one functioning brewery taking over another: according to a local paper, the purchaser is a new company owned by a former Ilkley employee. He'd formed Half Full Beer Co fully intending to set up production facilities on his own, but was instead invited to buy out his old boss.

The Ilkley deal might not be a conventional merger, but I still think it shows a better way. One party - founder Chris Ives - got the exit he wanted after six years of success, and the other - former brewery manager Luke Raven - has taken on existing assets, employees and goodwill instead of duplicating them. A good move for all and one to be applauded. Money's being made and so is great beer.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Guest blog: Craft beer? The bubble has burst

I asked regular commenter Arthur Scargill to back up his assertion that the craft beer bubble has already burst, made in the discussion that followed this post. Here's his response:

Craft beer is over. There, I've said it. We can now take off the lumberjack shirts and woolly hats, shave off our beards, wash the tattoos off with a big bar of soap and just get on with our otherwise meaningless lives. I drank interesting, well made beer by independent producers BCE (Before Craft Era) and will do so even when the phrase is said with a wry, sarcastic, mocking tone. 
"But the Craft beer revolution" I hear you say, "it can't be over, can it?" Yes it can and here's why:

1) It never existed
Words that once represented something unusual and extra-ordinary, such as genius or awesome, are now rendered meaningless by their overuse. Revolution, the turning of society upside down through radical change, is such a word (I once heard a TV advert promising "a revolution in panty liners"). But the phoniest of all the fake revolutions must be that identified by the soi-disant beer experts as Craft.
In essence some brewers started making beer with American hops and everyone got a bit over-excited. That's not a revolution; it's a change of ingredients. It was another aspect of the changes in what is now known as the Casual Dining market, where people can fool themselves into thinking they're gourmands without ever having to master cutlery. 
So pull down the banners, take off the school tie you've knotted round your forehead and please, PLEASE, stop driving tanks down Camden High Street.
2) The grown-ups have started doing it
Nothing dampens a buzz like finding out the olds are digging the same shit as you. Am I right kids? And in a sluggish global beer market, where consolidation and acquisition are the only way to give shareholders the growth they require, the suits are bang into the Craft.

Whether it's Meantime being sold to SABMiller or AB-InBev sniffing around Camden, big business is increasingly interested in the Craft beer scene. This can also be seen in the sub-genre derisively named by the ever-tutting beer bloggers as Faux Craft. Suddenly when interesting, well made beer is produced by large companies with strict quality control processes, well that's not fun. That's not a revolution. That's not Craft.

3) It's just so fucking boring
When people started to bandy the word Craft about there was, certainly in London, a buzz about the pub and beer scene. Everyone seemed to be upping their game and more people were discovering what some had always done well. The new hop flavours being introduced to the drinking public obviously also helped.

But like a prog rock band with an excellent drummer, the hopping turned into a 15 minute drum solo. To stretch the analogy even further, the murk and sour of Craft today is Peter Gabriel prancing round the stage dressed as a giant yellow flower. At some point Craft stopped being exciting and started to be something you rolled your eyes at. Or to be more accurate, rolled your eyes at and then slagged off on your blog.

Not that I'll shed a tear for the corpse of Craft. My current beer diet consists of cask ales and Belgian beers which if not in existence BCE then made in a style true to that heritage. I've never thought of myself as a counter-revolutionary before but at the moment I'm more than happy to raise a pint to the Ancien Régime. 
About the Author: Arthur Scargill is a beer drinker, with over a quarter of a century’s experience of the London beer and pub scene. He led the largest strike in British post-war history and the subsequent defeat began the demise of the trade union movement, the privatisation, and disappearance, of the British coal industry and represented the largest symbolic defeat of the British Left in the 20th century. He is currently based in the north-west and is learning to love the sparkler.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Craft Beer Cycle

Well done to American beer writer Lisa Grimm for producing this fantastic graphic. My own journey back to a common sense approach to enjoying beer has been very similar:
  • I first took a real interest in beer when I lived in Prague (2003-4). When I got back I made sure I stuck to British beers of equivalent quality, and in practice that meant cask ale.
  • I then started to enjoy Belgian beer, in particular at the Dovetail in Clerkenwell, which led to trips to Bruges. I remember my then girlfriend laughing at me as I turned green on a canal boat the morning after a particularly heavy and late session at 't Brugs Beertje
  • Seasonal beers began to make sense: if I'm honest I used to look forward to brewers like Fullers and Young's releasing their autumn, winter, spring and summer ales. Sad innit.
  • I was never as bothered about who owned breweries as all you Citizen Smiths out there, but I wasn't immune to such guff, preferring to delude myself that the best beer came from cottage industries. I got over it, though.
  • I went loopy for whisky barrel-aged stouts. When I first discovered Italian artisanal brewing - where they get up to all sorts of tomfoolery with odd ingredients and techniques - I did my nut.
  • Now I'm back to the start. Most of the time I just want a really good pint of Pilsner Urquell or Harvey's Sussex Best. If I'm honest I just drink Moretti half the time.
How did it work out for you? Or are you still at the "everything's awesome" stage? If so, don't worry: it'll pass, and you'll be drinking like a normal person again before too long. Your liver and your wallet will both thank you.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The best Adnams beer I've ever tasted

I have a soft spot for Marks & Spencer beers. There was a time (around 2006, I think) when most Fridays I used to pick up a bottle of their Carlow Irish Stout at lunch. If I wasn't busy I'd sup it in my office as I looked out from the 22nd floor over London.

Over the years the M&S own brand beer range has got bigger and bigger. I like how the names of the actual breweries have become more and more prominent on the labels.

Sorachi Saison has been produced by Adnams for M&S; I think it's the best beer from that brewery I've ever tasted. Their head brewer Fergus has been knocking out new recipes at a frightening pace for some years now - and I've had lots of them - so that's saying something. The 6% abv manifests itself perfectly: it doesn't taste boozy at all but has this marvellous full body and just a hint of stickiness that really works for me.

Saison is of course a Belgian, supposedly "farmhouse" style of refreshing pale ale. Adnams hit the target there, right down to the slight haziness and billowing head. Sorachi Ace hops were first developed in the 70s for Sapporo in Japan but they've become associated with Saisons among US craft brewers. As a variety they're high in alpha acid content (which means they're great for bittering) and offer the possibility of citrus, tea, floral and herbal flavours. This beer's well integrated profile means nothing dominates, but there's certainly a funky character that reminds me of Flanders, if not Japan.

This bottle was sent to me by a firm doing PR for Marks & Spencer. It's funny to be receiving samples as a writer of this blog again, rather than as a publican - certainly takes me back a few years. There were three others in the box. This was the best one. My least favourite was Ash Brook Red Lager by Freedom Brewery - I poured it down the drain after one sip and saved my liver. There was nothing faulty about it - I just never seem to have got on with Freedom's beers, wherever they've brewed them (and they've brewed them all over the shop).