Czeched out at last

Sitting 30 feet below the surface at a table in a workmen’s refuge dug out of the soft Bohemian sandstone, drinking unfiltered, unpasteurised lager made in 80-year-old open wooden fermenting vessels and poured from big copper jugs, I reflected on how long it had taken me to make this journey. Being a beer writer who has never visited the Czech Republic is highly embarrassing, like being an art historian who has never seen Florence. But every attempt I had made to get to the birthplace of pale lager, in more years of trying than I want to recall, had gone wrong: until now. Another tick on the bucket list, at last.

Two ticks, actually: one for finally getting to the Pilsner Urquell brewery, and its fabled caves, and another for finally drinking at U Fleků, Prague’s almost legendary home-brew pub, eulogised by Michael Jackson 40 years ago in the first edition of the World Guide to Beer and somewhere I had wanted to drink ever since I read about it. The gods of beer guided my hand: it turned out the hotel I had booked in Prague, based solely on a balance of cheapness and closeness to the city centre, was just two minutes from U Fleků (which looks to translate as “The Spot” – as in “hits”, perhaps …).

The tree-shaded courtyard at U Fleků

Reviews I had read years ago suggested the locals at U Fleků did not appreciate all the tourists disturbing their drinking, but on a warm Central European afternoon, parked at one of a dozen big black trestle tables in the pub’s tree-shaded central courtyard sipping a cool glass of Flekovské pivo, the only beer U Fleků makes, a typically fine Czech dark lager, I noticed no such vibe: possibly because the place was still pretty quiet, and tourists were the only customers. But the waiters were attentive, the beer both cheap (compared to West London) and excellent, the snacks first-rate (based on my deep-fried beery cheese) and even the twinkling elderly accordianist over on one side of the courtyard wasn’t too irritating. I need to go back when the place is busier and sample drinking in one of the pub’s big refectory table-filled rooms, all empty of customers when I was there, but it was a good start to my first visit to Prague.

One of the rooms at U Fleků, awaiting its nightly rush of drinkers: note the beer glass chandeliers

Next for something completely different: this was a trip organised by the Brewery History Society, ably aided by Max “Pivni Filosof” Bahnson, Argentine-in-exile and author of Prague: A Pisshead’s Pub Guide (a fine book, apart from the dodgy maps), who was acting as our cicerone and translator. Max had suggested we all meet in Hostomická nalévárna, a pub in Prague Old Town that acts as the brewery tap for the “resurrected” Pivovar Hostomice, based in the town of the same name south-east of Prague, which, like a lot of new Czech breweries, makes only classic Czech lagers. (The Czech drinker, as well as topping the table for the most beer consumed per head, at 142 litres a year, 40 per cent more than the Germans and more than twice as much as the UK’s frankly paltry 67 litres, is also the world’s most conservative beer consumer, it appears: IPAs are starting to become popular, but with a distinctly Czech spin – more bitter, less floral than the American version.) Hostomická nalévárna is pretty much your basic Czech locals’ boozing bar, which is surprisingly similar to your basic British locals’ boozing bar, plainly decorated in the dark-brown-and-cream colour scheme Richard Boston identified as the classic pub look, matchboarding walls, furnished with utility as the prime intent, and excellent for that reason: there are fewer and fewer places like this left in Britain, something to be regretted as gentrification sweeps the simple boozer down the drain.

Max, who is another old internet friend I had “known” for years before finally meeting him on this trip, then took us to Prague’s newest own-brew restaurant, Lod’ Pivovar, which is actually on a boat moored in the Vltava river – something you could guess if you spoke Czech (I don’t), as lod’ means ship. I wasn’t taking notes, so I can’t tell you about the beers, though the brewing kit, which filled much of one of the boat’s decks, looked beautiful: if you want to know more, read Max’s blog review.

The Černokostelecký brewery in Kostelec nad Černými lesy

This being the BHS trip to Bohemia, old breweries, rather than new ones, were our primary target, and the next day Max led us on a two-hour train-and-bus journey to the small village of Kostelec nad Černými lesy (which translates as “Churchtown underabove the black forest”). The Czechs’ vast consumption of beer means that even small communities – Kostelec’s current population is fewer than 4,000 – had big breweries: Cernokostelecký pivovar was producing more than 62,000 hectolitres a year before it was closed in 1987 after the wood-fired brewery boiler packed up and was decreed too expensive to repair. In 2001 a Czech beer historian, Milan Starec, and some colleagues acquired the brewery site to use as a home for old brewing artefacts, and have been working to restore it under the name Černokostelecký zájezdní pivovar. In the meantime a microbrewery, Minipivovar Šnajdr has been installed in part of the old brewery premises; it produces a draught dark beer, Černá svině (“Black Swine”) and a bottled Baltic Porter, imperial stouts being one of the “craft” styles the Czech drinker appreciates.

A repurposed malt-barrow or japonka in the toilets at the Kostelicy brewery. British malt-barrows generally have solid wheels: Czech ones appear to be spoked

Milan himself took us round the brewery, starting in the restaurant, which has a tremendous collection of old Czech breweriana on its walls from dozens of now-closed breweries (and lavatories that contain repurposed malt-barrows, japonky in Czech, as washbasins), then on to the huge and frankly beautiful polygonal malt-mill, once horse-powered, and built as a result without a single internal column so nothing would get in the way of the horse as it trudged on its daily circular journey (the bracing in the roof is a carpenter’s dream) and the maltings, which contain the only granite steeping tank I have seen. The main brewery building was filled with ancient kit: huge disused coppers, mash tuns and lauter tuns, enormous coolships, and the biggest vertical cooler I have ever come across, around seven feet high and eighteen feet long.

The octagonal malt mill at Cernokostelecky Pivovar, now let out for weddings and other party events
Maltings at the Cernokostelecky Pivovar, with malt-barrow
Granite steeping tank, maltings, Cernokostelecky Pivovar

Milan told us that the coolships would take the hot wort down to around 60ºC, and the vertical cooler, which had cold water running through the interior as the wort ran down the outside, would drop it to 9ºC. Once cooled, the wort was run into open fermenting vessels – old-fashioned even when the brewery closed – before being lagered in huge casks in the permanently cold cellars below the brewery. The cellars also contain some original, long-disused wooden fermenting vessels; and a new microbrewery, which opened on New Year’s Eve 2013 and is named for one of the people involved in its construction, Jaroslava Šnajdra.

Formerly disused vessels, partlynow restored, in the brewhouse at the Cernokostelecky Pivovar
One of two huge coolships at the Cernokostelecký pivovar: unusually (at least in my experience) they are placed on the ground floor, rather than at the top of the brewery
Giant vertical cooler, or sprchový chladič  (literally ‘shower cooler’) at the Cernokostelecky Pivovar, easily two or three times as large as ones seen in old Belgian breweries
Wooden fermenting vessels in the cellars at Cernokostelecky Pivovar
More modern open fermenting vessels at the Cernokostelecky Pivovar
Old wooden lagering vats in the cellars of the Cernokostelecky Pivovar
The modern microbrewery now living in the cellars at the Cernokostelecky Pivovar
Milan and friends’ recreation of a Communist-era workshop at the Cernokostelecky Pivovar: note the pin-ups on the locker, the overflowing ashtray – and the sleeping workman …

The next day was another train journey, out to Pilsen. Bizarrely, the bus is faster: the train takes almost 1hr 40mins for a journey of just over 50 miles. But with the average age of BHS Team Bohemia well past the half-century mark, we older travellers like to ensure our comfort breaks will be properly catered for. As an official trip to the Pilsner Urquell brewery, the six of us had our own guide, a very nice young woman called Markéta, though, alas, we could not get to see the brewery archives, as all the archive staff were “on holiday”. The story of Pilsner Urquell should be too well known for me to have to repeat it: the town the Czechs call Plzeň is ground zero for the style of pale lager known as pilsner, invented here in 1842 at the newly built Citizens’ (or Burghers’) Brewery (Měšťanský Pivovar in Czech, Bürgerliches Bräuhaus in German) by combining English malting techniques with Bavarian cool bottom-fermentation and cold maturation to make a brew that is parent to 90 per cent of the beer drunk today. It is, therefore, correctly, a place of pilgrimage, with three quarters of a million people visiting the Pilsner Urquell brewery every year – 2,000 a day. Unsurprisingly, rather than have those thousands wander around the site, visitors are bussed around. More surprisingly, perhaps, the place is so big, there is enough space for all the trippers to not keep tripping over each other.

The iconic gates at the Pilsner Urquell brewery, erected for its 50th anniversary in 1892, and featured on every bottle label of the brewery’s beer

For lovers of shiny copper (and who isn’t?) the Pilsner Urquell brewery is a marvel: lots of lovely big copper vessels in the old part, lots of even bigger copper vessels in the new part, plus a couple of massive stainless steel lauter tuns. Then it’s down into the cellars, where once all the beer the brewery produced was fermented and lagered, through a doorway dated 1839, when the construction of the brewery started. If you get lost in the miles of cellars, says Markéta, just follow the flow of the water that runs in gutters down the passageways and you will come to the entrance.

The Pilsner Urquell brewery. with the ‘Dutch lighthouse” water tower in the distance

Here a small amount of beer is still made the old way, in open wooden fermenting vessels, and lagered in big wooden vats lined with pitch to stop the flavour of the wood getting into the brew: (Markéta was surprised when I told her than British brewers never lined their wooden casks.) The beer brewed in the cellars is made old-style to give something to check the lager made in the new brewhouse against: theoretically the one should taste just like the other. Visitors get to try some of the cellar beer, unfiltered and unpasteurised, served straight from the vat: most have to stand around and drink, but we were privileged to be allowed into an underground restroom lined with artefacts and photographs, where jugs of smooth, cool pilsen, perfectly conditioned, golden and slightly cloudy, were set upon the table, and we drank until we felt we had done enough to honour our hosts and the BHS.

Old brewing vessels at the Pilsner Urquell brewery
Disused copper lauter tuns, Pilsner Urquell brewery
New copper kettles (although Ed Wray suggests copper cladding over stainless steel) at the Pilsner Urquell brewery, with more tuns in the background
The lintel over the cellars at Pilsner Urquell, with the date they were dug, and the symbols of Czech brewers – mash rake, malt shovel, bucket on a pole and crossed ‘limpa’
A map of the cellars at the Pilsner Urquell brewery
Wooden fermenting vessels in the cellas at the Pilsner Urquell brewery, used to provide a check against the beer made in the modern brewery
Old lagering cellars under the Pilsner Urquell brewery, with the wooden lagering vats still in place
Filling glasses straight from the lagering vessels in the cellars at the Pilsner Urquell brewery
Cool and cloudy, beer straight from the vat in the PQ cellars
A pre-war railway wagon at the brewery showing the old name of the concern in Czech and German, Měšťanský Pivovar Plzen/Bürgerliches Bräuhaus Pilsen, both meraning “Pilsen Burghers’ Brewery”, and the trademark name of the beer, Prazdroj in Czech, Urquell in German, both meaning literally “original source”, a phrase without a direct colloquial equivalent in English, which is why, presumably, English sperakers use the German name
In the background, the original brewkit, now no longer used, at the Research Institute of Brewing and Malting in Prague. The golden geezer is Franz Andreaz Paupie or in the Czech version of his name, František Ondřej Poupě (1753-1805), supposedly the first Czech brewer to use a thermometer and a hydrometer, and author of two works, Die Kunst des Bierbrauen (The Art of Beer Brewing) in 1794, and the Czech mouthful Počátkové základného naučení o Waření piwa pro učedlníky, towaryše, sládky a pro každého hospodáře, kterýž té wěcy dokonale wyučen býti žádá, in English, The beginnings of basic knowledge in beer brewing for apprentices, journeymen, brewers, and for every innkeeper who wishes to be perfectly educated

The next day began with a trip to the Research Institute of Brewing and Malting in Prague, which has its roots in an organisation founded in 1873, the Society of the Brewing Industry in the Kingdom of Bohemia. The institute’s home is a building in Prague New Town called Brewing House – Pivovarský dům in Czech – and the ground floor is home to a microbrewery, bar and restaurant also called Pivovarský dům, started by former institute employees in 1998. This means that with the two sets of experimental brewing kit in the institute, and the microbrewery in the bar, the one building contains three separate breweries – four if you count the RIBM’s now disused old kit, lovingly polished up and on display next to a statue of František Ondřej Poupě, pioneering 18th century Czech brewer, who introduced the thermometer and the hydrometer (and who also wrote about bottom-fermentation yeast being used in Bohemia more than half a century before the invention of pilsen).

The brewing kit at Pivovarský dům in Prague, where the brewer can wave to the barman …

After a look at the tiny brewery squeezed into one corner of Pivovarský dům (including open fermenting vessels you can see from the bar), and a very Czech lunch in its dining room at (mmmm – dumplings! Dark lager!) we were away by metro train and bus to another microbrewery in a disused much larger establishment. Únětický Pivovar, in the village of Únětice, just six or seven miles from the centre of Prague was established in 1710 and shut down in 1949, after being nationalised. It reopened as a brewery (with new kit) and restaurant in 2011 and is now producing around 12,000hl a year. It is also probably the only brewery in the world to boast an indoor pétanque pitch, known as the Ubulodrom, from the name of the local pétanque club, United Balls of Únětice. (No, I don’t know why a Czech pétanque team has an English name.)

Únětický Pivovar, in the village of Únětice, a few miles outside Prague
New coppers at the Únětický Pivovar: not as pretty as copper coppers but doubtless more cost-effective (and easier to ekeep shiny)
Open fermenting rounds, Únětický Pivovar. Any resemblance to giant vats of cappuccino purely coincidental …
Lagering tanks at Únětický Pivovar
Únětický Pivovar’s classic 10º unfiltered lager, around 1040 OG, a beer you could drink all day

And then it was time for me to hurtle back to Prague and catch my return plane to Heathrow (the rest of Team BHS Bohemia were staying on). I had drunk excellent beer in a series of widely differing venues, and not scratched the surface of Czech beer culture: plenty of reason to make a return, which will definitely not take as many years to organise as the first trip did.

ADDENDUM: CZECH BREWING ICONOGRAPHY

The typical Czech brewer’s badge, with brewer’s scoop, malt shovel, mash fork and crossed limpas, above a wooden fermenting vat. The motto underneath, ‘Dej Bůh štěstí’, is an expression in Czech traditionally associ8ated with brewers, and means “May God give you fortune”.

The attentive traveller around Czech breweries cannot fail to notice the same iconography, with only unimportant variations, appearing repeatedly: almost identical symbols, for example carved into the lintel above the entrance to the cellars at Pilsner Urquell, on the beermats at U Fleků, in the brewhouse at Cernokostelecký pivovar and on the windows of Pivovarský dům.

The classic German brewing symbols, with similar designs found in brewery logos and on bottle labels around Germany, all including the Malzschaufel (malt shovel), Maischegabel (mash fork), and Bierschöpfer (beer scoop)

They are clearly related to the symbols many German brewers use as a badge in brewery trademarks and on bottle labels, the Malzschaufel (malt shovel), Maischegabel (mash fork), and Bierschöpfer (beer scoop). But the Czechs also include another tool, looking like a large wooden knife blade, with a slot for the hand at one end.

A wooden limpa

This, we were told by Martin Slabý, head of the technological department at the Prague brewing research institute, is the “limpa”, used in maltings to make furrows in the malt as it lies on the maltings floor. According to a thesis by Dagmar Chytková of Masaryk University in Brno on “Oldest Czech brewing terminology” from 2008, the limpa was a wooden tool used “který sloužil k shrnování kvasných pokrývek po kvašení ak přehazování sladu.” My Czech being non-existent, and Google Translate not being up to much, I have struggled with this, but it appears to mean that the limpa was used to sweep off excess yeast from the top of fermenting vessels at the end of fermentation, as well as smooth flat the malt in the maltings. Chytková says the origin of the word “limpa” is “unclear”, but points to “dolnolužický”, Lower Lusatian, which I believe is the Slavonic language known in English as Lower Sorbian (Lusatia, home of the Sorbs, is to the immediate north of Bohemia), where “limpa” means “čepel nože” – knife blade. That looks pretty clear to me.

A limpa resting on a grain measure, or in English a bushel and strike, from Z historia piva by Čeněk Zíbrt (1864–1932)

Team BHS Bohemia struggled to think of an English word that adequately translated “limpa”, but I thought that a limpa looks rather like a strike, the tool used to smooth off malt when it is being measured in a bushel (hence the pub name Bushel and Strike) – and lo, in Z histore piva, a reprint of a book from 1900 on the history of brewing in Czech that I found while browsing one of Prague’s second-hand bookshops, is a picture of a limpa resting on what looks like the Bohemian equivalent of the bushel. So: for “limpa”, read “strike”.

Brewers’ badge on the wall at the Kostelecy brewery, again with the brewers’ greeting, ‘Dej Bůh štěstí’

Hurrah! The ten-sided beer mug is back!

In these times of gloom and grey skies, it’s great to have some good news. So hurrah, rejoice, the ten-sided pint mug, iconic symbol of all that is great about British beer, is back in our pubs! If that doesn’t make you feel at least a little bit happier, you’re beyond help, frankly.

The ten-sided mug, known, for fairly obvious reasons, as the lantern tankard (though it goes under several other names, as we shall see), looks to have been introduced in the early 1920s, and was picked up by the Brewers Society in the 1930s as, literally, the face of British beer in its long-running “Beer is Best” promotional campaign: the campaign’s Mr XXX was a man with a ten-sided beer mug as a head.

The face of beer: the Brewers Society’s Mr XXX in the 1930s had a head that was a lantern beer mug

By the 1950s, however, the lantern tankard was being challenged for its position as the number one favourite by the dimple mug, which eventually vanquished its rival some time soon after 1965, and the ten-sided mug disappeared from production. By the early 1990s the only place lantern tankards could be found by those who loved them (as I do) was in charity shops, the harvest of post-death house clearances, those glasses having clearly been stolen from pubs 40 or 50 years earlier by people who had been in their late teens and early 20s when the ten-sided mug was common, and who were now dead and leaving their relatives to dispose of decades of household junk in the most conscience-salving way they could, by donating  it to Oxfam or Cancer Research. Within 15 years even that supply had vanished, since the cohort of dying pensioners from 2005 onwards had been stealing pub glasses when the dimple had pushed the lantern off the bartops of Britain

Henry Stephenson of Stephensons with the original 1949 lantern beerglass made by the Crystal Glass Company, and the reproduction modern glass his company is now selling to pubs and bars

Now the lantern tankard is being brought back, by Henry Stephenson, managing director of Stephensons Ltd, a 149-year-old supplier of catering equipment to the pub, restaurant and hotel trade. Henry, now in his 40s, is the fifth generation in charge of the family business: his great-great grandfather, also called Henry, used to go down with a horse and cart to Stoke on Trent to pick up ceramic goods and bring them back to Salford Flat Iron market to sell. In 1868 the operation moved in to Barton Arcade in Deansgate, Manchester and traded there for 99 years as a retail sellers of glass and ceramics, with other shops in places such as Lytham St Annes. Henry, who contacted me after reading my piece about beer glass history here to reveal he was resurrecting my favourite beer glass, told me: “As the 1960s came along we ended up more and more into the wholesale side of the market, and we moved to Stockport 50 years ago, and we’ve been trading out of that site ever since,” supplying restaurants pubs and hotels, leisure centres, with everything a restaurant or pub would need to do with food and drink, from plateware, glasses and cutlery to pots and pans.

A lantern glass, manufacturer unknown (although it looks like a Crystal Glass Go model), decorated with the Royal Arms for the coronation of 1953 – although that lion should be gold, not white …

“I love glassware and I’ve always been a big fan of the dimple tankard,” Henry told me. “Obviously when Ravenhead and Dema [Britain’s last two big glassware manufacturers} died out, it was only the French still producing them, and they nearly discontinued it, which would have been the end of the dimple tankard. That was back in 2007. Since then the dimple tankard has grown back in popularity significantly – our sales are about 12,000 per cent up compared to 2007. It’s driven by the whole nostalgia thing, and people using it in cocktails as well, so it’s not just a beer thing. So the dimple tankard has come back with a vengeance. The good thing about the dimple from the trade perspective, is that it’s a pint to brim – so including the head, you save a few points on your margin on your beer sales.

“Where I started from was thinking about producing a tall, handled tankard that was pint to brim. I then started looking into the history of the beer pint glass, remembered the ten-sided tankard, and thought, ‘Why not bring this back to life, with all the heritage and the interest that comes with that. I fell in love with the idea of bringing a little bit of Britain back. I want to re-establish this as the glass to drink real ale and real cider out of, again.”

Tumblers and cans illustrated in the 1927 Bagley’s catalogue, with several in the Queen’s Choice 1122 pattern. Note the different handles on the two pint glasses second and fourth from the left on the bottom row: number two, with the handle shape slightly tweaked at the top, would become the “classic” Bagley Queen’s Choice pint mug

Henry chose to replicate a glass estimated to have been made in the late 1940s, probably by the Crystal Glass Company, a subsidiary of the glass manufacturer Bagley of Knottingley, West Yorkshire, as it carries the “301” stamp, meaning it was verified in West Yorkshire. That particular example was chosen because it had a very good finish and the handle shape is “really, really comfortable in the hand.” The glass that has effectively fathered a new generation of lantern tankards is owned by Henry’s father, who acquired it 20 or 30 years ago when he spotted half a dozen old lantern pint glasses hidden in the back of the clubhouse of a canal cruising club in Cheshire he was a member of. “He did them a swap – gave them half a dozen new dimple glasses in exchange for the lanterns,” Henry said

The cheapest place to get pressed glass pint mugs today is China – any new dimple mug you have been drinking from recently almost certainly came from a Chinese manufacturer – so Henry got in touch with his company’s contacts in the Far East. “We spoke to different glass manufacturers, we trade a lot in glassware already, so we got the best quotes and a good price at a low volume – you have to take a view on the cost of the mould, amortise that over a number of years. My father’s glass went out to China for them to make the mould from. I told the owner of the company we are working with that my dad’s wrath would fall on him if they broke the glass! However, it went all the way out to China and came back in one piece, which is fabulous. ”

Possibly the first time in the 40-year history of the Great British Beer Festival that anyone has drunk beer there out of a ten-sided lantern mug. (That’s Fuller’s Vintage Ale, incidentally: it seemed a suitable brew to christen my new glass with …)

The first of the new glasses arrived in the UK earlier this month, and I met Henry at the Great British Beer Festival, where he was handing out samples (one of which he was good enough to give to me: I already have five old lantern pint mugs, but it’s good to have a modern version I don’t need to worry so much about breaking). He is looking at a half-pint version: “The obvious line to do traditionally would be a 10-oz, but there’s a lot of call these days for a 13-oz, two thirds glass, since two thirds of a pint is now a legal measure, and that would also work as a bottle glass [being 38cl]. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll canvass opinion on that, but potentially the glass we’ll get asked for more is the bottle glass.”

I do hope Stephensons succeeds in its drive to revive the lantern tankards, because it’s not just a great glass to drink beer out of, with a satisfying heft and an excellent transmission of the colour of your drink through those multiple facets: it really does have a fascinating history. The “lantern” beer glass was apparently pioneered by the Bagley and the Crystal Glass Company, although “pioneered” may be too strong: the pattern was apparently “lifted” from an original design by William Jacobs of the Ohio Flint Glass Company in the United States first made in 1907 and called Chippendale, which was used to make pressed-glass products from vases to salt and pepper pots. Bagley’s production of Chippendale look-alikes has been described as “among the most flagrant cases of glass-pattern plagiarism”.

The design was first used by Bagley’s in around 1921, and registered on 16 May 1923 as pattern 1122, registration number 689049. It was used for a vast range of items including fruit bowls, mustard pots, water jugs, tumblers, honey jars, jam pots, flower vases, grapefruit dishes, egg cups, sugar bowls, parfait glasses, sundae dishes, beer jugs, powder pots, trophy vases, salt dishes, custard cups, milk goblets, milk jugs and even butter dishes. Bagley’s took a stand at the Wembley exhibition of 1924, and after Queen Mary purchased several examples of pattern 1122, it was subsequently called “Queen’s Choice”.

Queen’s Choice lidded jam pot
Queen’s Choice milk goblet
Queen’s Choice sundae glass
Classic Queen’s Choice glass bowl
Queen’s Choice pattern two-pint beer jug – the embossed “two pints to line” and the acid-etched official stamp to the same effect make it cl;ear this was not a water jug, but the sort of measuring jug that would have been used in a pub’s jug-and-bottle takeaway department

When the Queen’s Choice beer mug – known at Bagley’s as a “beer can” – was introduced is unclear. But four versions appear in the company’s catalogue of 1927, two with fluting going only a quarter of the way up the glass, two the much commoner version, having the fluting almost to the top. This last pair came with different handles, one symmetrically C-shaped, the other more ear-like, the latter being the one that developed into the classic Crystal Glass Co beer mug. By the 1953 catalogue, when the Queen’s Choice mug was called “Beer Can No 2” (No 1 being a plain cylindrical handled mug and No 7 a dimple mug), it was accompanied by a tall “Taper Lager” beer glass in the Queen’s Choice pattern. The “quarter-flute” glass appears to be much less common than the “full flute” version, but it did allow for transfer decoration, and examples exist of pint glass “quarter fluters” decorated with fired-on illustrations of pheasants and huntsmen. These must have been sold into the retail market, rather than pubs and clubs, where heavy use would have quickly rubbed the transfers off.

Four glasses in the Queen’s Choice pattern from the Bagley’s catalogue of 1953, including the “classic” beer can, and, second from left, a lager glass

According to the book Bagley Glass by Angela Bowey, Queen’s Choice pattern glassware was produced from 1922 to 1975, the year before Bagley’s factory in Knottingley closed, though again it is unclear if beer glasses were in production over that complete range of years. However, since dated examples are known from 1966, it is clear the Lantern/Queen’s Choice beer mug was being made for almost 40 years, at least, by somebody.

John Artis, an old friend of Henry Stephenson, who runs another family firm involved in selling catering equipment, based in Surrey, is probably one of the last people alive who has personal experience of seeing the original lantern tankard in production, because he was apprenticed by his father Jack to work at Bagley’s in the 1960s, to give him experience in manufacturing before he came back to run the family business. Despite Bagley’s registering the Queen’s Choice design, other manufacturers made their own versions of the lantern tankard, including the Sowerby Ellison glassworks and the George Davidson glassworks, both in Gateshead, on the Tyne, (so if you have a ten-sided beer mug with the number 354 or 355 by the crown, it is probably from one of these two companies). Ravenhead Glass in St Helens certainly made lantern tankards as well, since examples exist of ten-sided mugs bearing the identification number 478, from St Helens.

Queen’s Choice “quarter fluting” beer mug with pheasant decoration

It was Ravenhead’s automatic pressed glassware machines that drove the hand-pressed glassware firms such as Sowerby Ellison, Davidson’s and Bagley’s out of business, according to John Artis, although, he says, the last hand pressed versions of the lantern tankard were produced by the Crystal Glass Company in Knottingley right up to its closure in 1978 (sic). He confirms that the lantern tankard was commonly referred to by workers, staff and salesmen at the Knottingley as “the No 2”, with Mould No 1 the plain tankard. The No 2 “was actually the No 1 seller until the advent of the dimple design tankard which became the preferred choice of brewers and publicans,” John says, and he declares: “The rebirth of this iconic design is the most exciting development in traditional beer service for many a long year!”

You’ll not be shocked that I agree with him. I think it’s tremendous that we’re seeing the potential widespread return of such a beautiful beer glass, If you’d like to have your own examples,  here’s a link to Stephensons’ website, although currently you will have to buy a minimum of six tankards at a time: but you can’t tell me you don’t have five beer-drinking friends to share the purchase with you.

Meranwhile I now have a problem: since I discovered that the lantern tankard is actually just one of a huge number of items in the Queen’s Choice range, I now have a not-to-be-quenched desire to acquire other Queen’s Choice items, like that lovely jam pot, or the custard cup. Curse you, Henry Stephenson!

Queen’s Choice custard cup
Queen’s Choice egg cup set
Queen’s Choice flower vase from the 1930 Bagley’s catalogue

 

Queen’s Choice pattern grapefruit bowl with fixed plate

A look round Camden Town’s new Enfield brewery

Whatever you think of Camden Town Brewery’s beer – and enough people like it to swallow more than 300,000 pints of Hells lager, Gentleman’s Wit and the rest every week – the company’s expansion in under seven years from nowhere to third-biggest brewer in London, with two of its beers, more than any other craft brewer, in the list of top 100 pub brands is hard not to hail.

Camden Town Brewery’s new Enfield plant: not your usual boring box, at least

Now it has made the biggest investment in a new brewery in London since Guinness revealed its Park Royal plant in 1936, 81 years ago. On Saturday Camden Town let the public have a first look round its 57,400 square feet production facility in East London which actually started brewing a month ago, and is capable of producing 200,000 hectolitres a year (122,000 barrels in Fahrenheit), more than ten times as much as the original railway arches brewery in Wilkin Street Mews, NW5, opened 2010, and with the potential to rise to 400,000hl a year. Several hundred people covering the spectrum from hipster to sceptical elderly real ale fan (he knows who he is), including families with toddlers in buggies, took advantage of the free tickets, and the offer of bars, food stalls, music, games, beer at £4 a pint and trips round the brewery (with one free beer), and ignored the rain, to travel to Ponders End to see what £30 million of shiny German stainless steel and other assorted high-tech beer-making equipment actually looks like.

Sir John Hegarty, famed adman and Camden Town Brewery founder Jasper Cuppaidge’s father-in-law

I went along too, and managed to (1) grab a paparazzi-style photograph of Sir John Hegarty, famous advertising guru and father-in-law of Camden Town’s founder, Jasper Cuppaidge, (2) meet three people I knew (nice to see you, Jeff), and (3) nab an interview with Rob Topham, Camden Town’s head brewer. Rob joined the company from Fuller Smith & Turner in 2014, after nine years with the Chiswick brewer, and Jasper Cuppaidge was already planning a bigger brewery than the railway arches in Kentish Town could handle. Progress in finding a suitable site, however, was slower than the company’s growth: “The first iteration was for a 70,000 to 80,000hl brewery,” Rob said. “But each time we couldn’t find the right premises, or we couldn’t get everything sorted, it was going up by 10,000hl, 10,000hl, and we got to the stage where we’d just outgrown all of our own plans.”

Camden Town head brewer Rob Topham

Expansion needs money, of course, and Camden Town, despite wealthy backers like Jasper Cuppaidge’s pa-in-law and his pals, still needed financial help from outside. The first step was to appeal to the public, but soon after that came an offer that must have seemed impossible to refuse, even if it brought down wrath and abuse from hard-core craft beer fanatics: an £85 million take-over from the biggest brewing company in the world. “When we had the Hellsraisers [the crowdfunding push in the summer of 2015 that saw Camden Town raise £2.8 million from more than 2,000 investors for 5.4 per cent of the business], that was a fantastic point in time, we had the money to expand, we were making plans based on that,” Rob said. “But when AB InBev came in, they’ve allowed us to do straight away everything that we wanted to get to in five, six, seven years’ time.”

A copper at the Enfleld brewery with, in the distance through the windows, the hills of Epping Forest – and ‘amusing’ safety notice

The Belgo-Brazilian overlords don’t interfere, despite paying the bills, Rob said: “We’ve been allowed to be separate from ABI, and to do things the way we want to do them and the way we believe is right.” He admitted that Camden Town looked at some of the kit left over when AB Inbev closed the giant Stag brewery at Mortlake barely weeks before it announced it was buying the North London brewer, but “it was more hassle than it was worth” trying to take it across London and repurpose it for life in Enfield.

Enfield brewhouse fermenting and lagering vessels

The new Ponders End plant has around 25 production workers, Rob said: “We need only 15 to 20 per cent extra people to run this brewery, which is five times the size of Kentish Town. That’s partly because we were running 24/7 down there.” Attempting to keep up with far more demand than the railway arches could cope with has seen Camden Town farm out a huge chunk – 60,000 to 70,000 hectolitres – of its production to a brewery in Belgium. The opening of the new works alongside the Lee Navigation (which once carried 60 per cent of the malt used by London’s brewers) means all the beer sold can now be produced in the capital, and the company is looking for sales at the end of this year of 120,000hl, “possibly close to 130,000,” Rob says. “We’re hot on the tails of Meantime, and we’re hoping to surpass them, we’ll be at looking to hit 150,000hl, possibly 200,000 by the end of 2018.” With the present tank set-up at Ponders End, “we can currently do just over 200,000hl if we go to 24-hour. We’ve got room for another eight 600-hectolitre fermenters and another three 600-hectolitre bright tanks, we will be able to take it up to just around 400,000 hectolitres. But it would take an awful lot of work to do that, and another chunk of investment.”

The sign above the packaging hall, commissioned from the artist John Bulley in imitation of the one he painted for the railway bridge by Camden Lock Market in 1989

Meanwhile “we’re going to use Kentish Town as our research and development and innovation centre, and we’ll be able to go back from that being a flat-out production plant – we’ve already started to wind down – to using it for specials, for collaborations, and trials. We’ve got a bunch of ideas, barrel–aged beers, we’ee got some little secret projects that we’re looking at, I won’t say too much. We’ll really be able to capitalise and get ahead of the game by having a second site with a smaller brew size. I was fairly heavily involved with the barrel ageing projects at Fuller’s, we’ve done three releases of barrel-aged beers already, we’ve got the fourth one in barrel at the moment, we change the beer and the barrels each year, and try to match them, and going forward we’ll be able to maximise that, use Kentish Town as the ‘wild’ brewery, if you like, doing the crazy stuff, and keep the Enfield brewery for ‘clean’ experiments. Those wackier yeasts petrify me as a brewer, I want to keep them well away from my mainstream brews!”

No, actually, thanks all the same

Having the original brewery devote itself to the wild and woolly is probably not going to bring back the fanatics who swore they would never touch Camden Town beers again after the AB InBev takeover. But I’d be surprised if Rob, Jasper and the rest of the Camden Town crowd care. They’re appealing to a much broader demographic, which is appreciating craft beer in a totally different way to the lovers of obscurities, one-offs and beers that look as well as taste like mango juice. It was clear that the new brewery was deliberately designed with tours by the public in mind, with “wacky” signs everywhere (“no swimming” above a fermenting vessel, for example) and “jokey” slogans etched into the windows on the coppers and mash tuns where other brewers merely have the company logo, as well as wide walkways capable of coping with crowds and a big bar in the heart of the brewery. (One problem: the “jokes” were clearly coined by someone who thinks they have a sense of humour, and badly needs disabusing. Still, half a mark for trying. And minus five marks for not being at all amusing. The same goes for the “wacky” cartoon murals decorating the walls: I know all the trendiest brewers have funky artists go creative all over their interiors, but if you do it, it has to be done very well.)

Beer writer Mark Dredge, currently gigging as a guide at the Ponders End brewery, with some of those (*whisper* not very good *end whisper*) murals

Top marks, though, for having an industrial estate brewery that at last has an exterior with some sense of style: Rob says Camden Town was able to work with the developer once the brewery had decided the site fitted its requirements, to have the basic “shed” altered, in particular to make sure all the drainage and other essential brewery services went in as needed, and that seems to have meant tweaking the standard boring box, too. Ponders End doesn’t have many tourist attractions. It might just have a new one.

Um … what?
If you’re going to do ‘funny’ …
… it needs to be actually funny
Ho ho ho
C’est vrai. C’est une balustrade ou rampe. Nous sommes trés amusant, avec nos references surrealiste, non?

What’s a brewer’s bucket? No, you’re wrong …

“He shall charge you, and discharge you, with the motion of a pewterer’s hammer, come off and on swifter than he that gibbets on the brewer’s bucket.”
Sir John Falstaff, Henry IV part 2, Act III, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare

Better brains that yours or mine have failed to identify what Falstaff meant by “brewer’s bucket”. It’s to do with carrying liquids, certainly, but unrelated to pails. And actually, you’ve probably seen illustrations of a brewer’s bucket, thought it would not have been called that in the captions. What is more, you’ve probably used the word “bucket” in the sense intended by Shakespeare, though I doubt you or anyone who heard you realised that.

The passage mentioning the brewer’s bucket occurs in a scene where Falstaff and his gang are raising levies among the Gloucestershire peasantry for the king’s army to fight against the rebellious Earl of Northumberland. The two likeliest-looking recruits, big sturdy men called Peter Bullcalf and Ralph Mouldy, bribe Bardolph, Falstaff’s deputy, with 40 shillings each and are allowed to sneak away home (Bardolph, of course, tells Sir John he was given £3 to let them go) and Falstaff insists the three weeds he has left, Simon Shadow, Thomas Wart and Francis Feeble, will make cracking soldiers.

From Drinks Of The World by James Mew, published 1896, two 17th century brewers with bucket

Shadow, he says, is so thin the enemy gunners will not be able to hit him, Feeble will be suitably speedy in any necessary retreat, while Wart will “charge and discharge” (terms used by gunners – see page 39 of The Art of Gunnery by Nathanial Nye, published 1637) using the quick movements of a pewtersmith planishing the surface of whatever piece he is making, and “come off and on” (which look like swordfighting terms, as in “come on guard”) swifter than – well, what, exactly?

Samuel Johnson explained this passage in his annotated edition of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1765 as meaning “swifter than he that carries beer from the vat to the barrel in buckets hung upon a gibbet or beam crossing his shoulders”. Earlier the same year, Johnson had become friends with Henry Thrale, owner of the big Anchor brewery in Southwark, one of London’s leading porter brewers, and Thrale’s wife Hester. Readers who knew this may have believed Johnson had seen such a thing at the brewery. However, the Irish politician and literary scholar John Monck Mason (1726-1809), in Comments on the several Editions of Shakespeare’s Plays, published in 1807, gave the dictionary writer a kicking for this interpretation, complaining: “I do not think Johnson’s explanation of this passage just. The carrying beer from the vat to the barrel must be a matter that requires more labour than swiftness. Falstaff seems to mean “swifter than he that puts the buckets on the gibbet”, for as the buckets at each end of the gibbet must be put on at the same instant it necessarily requires a quick motion.”

Two 18th century figures, a gentleman and a brewer (in apron) with a brewer’s bucket, from a receipt for beer issuerd by William Sykes, a common brewer in Leeds, in 1796

Two centuries on, SparkNotes, the US-based study guide website familiar to tens of millions under the age of 30, explains the passage in its “No Fear Shakespeare” section in a similar manner, saying that Shakespeare meant Wart could “advance and regroup faster than a brewer’s delivery pail can be refilled.” But like Johnson and Mason, SparkNotes is making a fundamental error: because “bucket” in this passage does not mean “vessel”. And Johnson and Mason made another mistake as well: for not only were the buckets not buckets, they weren’t hanging from a gibbet.

The only Shakespeare commentator to get it right, or mostly right, seems to have been Sir Sidney Lee, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, in his Complete Works of Shakespeare of 1906. Lee pointed out that “bucket” here is clearly the separate word meaning “beam or yoke on which things may be hung or carried”, from the Old French “buquet”, meaning “trébuchet, balance”. “Gibbets” means “hangs”, Lee says, and “The reference is to the practice of hauling about barrels of beer by attaching them to chains depending from a beam borne on the shoulders of the brewers’ men,” so that the passage means “swifter than he that hangs barrels on the yoke of the brewer’s men.” “The attribution of swiftness to this method of haulage is ironical,” Lee says.

Two brewery workers in Amsterdam about 1710 lifting a cask from a horse-drawn sled with a brewer’s bucket, by the Dutch artist Jan Luyeken

Multiple illustrations over several centuries show brewery workers carrying round casks suspended by chains from a yoke they support on their shoulders: it looks to have been a common method of transporting full casks. The yoke is the bucket. Confusingly, while gibbet can mean a pole from which something is hung (which is what Johnson and Mason thought the word signified in the passage from Henry IV), here it means the chains and hooks that attach the cask to the bucket. The records of the city of Aberdeen in 1477 mention “A brewyne fat, a hemmyr stand, a bukket, and a gybbate that it hang by.” In Scotland, where the “gibbet or swee” was the name given to the chimney-crane that supported a pot over the kitchen fire, which was “attached to [the swee] by a strong double hook called the gibbet-gab”, exactly that double hook on a chain you can see hanging from the bucket on all those pictures of draymen.

(Small aside: I don’t think, without internet access or a copy of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue in your library you would have any chance of guessing what a “hemmyr stand” was. “Stand” is an old Scots word for a vessel or, in this case, a cask. “Hemmyr” is the old Scots for the port and city of Hamburg. So a “hemmyer stand” was a Hamburg barrel, a specific size of cask holding, depending when and where you were, 14 [Scots] gallons [in 1489] or 12 [Scots] gallons [in Aberdeen in 1511]. A Scots gallon was equal to six and two thirds Imperial pints, so 14 gallons Scots was 11 2/3rds Imperial gallons.)

Ale brewer’s draymen, drawn by Frederic Schoberl for The World in Miniature, published by Rudolph Ackermann in 1821, showing the brewer’s bucket was still not obsolete

You will have spotted, I hope, that Lee looks to be in error with the claim that “‘Gibbets’ means ‘hangs’.” “Gibbets on” should more properly, I suggest, be “gibbets-on”, with “to gibbet-on” meaning “to attach something to a bucket or yoke with hooks on a chain” – just like the chap at the rear is doing in the illustration of the brewer’s bucket in use in Amsterdam.

So why did Shakespeare use the act of gibbetting-on a brewer’s bucket as a metaphor for speed (or, if Falstaff was being ironic, for slowness)? If my maths is up to it, a full wooden barrel weights about four hundredweight, or 200 kilos. Even two men carrying the bucket on their shoulders would not be nipping about speedily. All suggestions for what Stratford Willy actually meant gratefully considered.

Finally, “bucket” meaning “yoke or beam” does have one common modern usage, albeit metaphorical and with no one using it aware of its origins. The OED quotes a newspaper from 1888 as saying:

“The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify ‘to die’.”

Fanboy investors put £50m into UK craft breweries: but is that money down the drain?

A total of £50m has been raised in the UK over the past four years in crowdfunding efforts by more than 40 different craft breweries, and half a dozen craft beer retail operators who have tapped tens of thousands of – overwhelmingly male – investors.

More than half the money raised went to just one company, BrewDog, the maverick Scottish brewer, recently valued at almost £1 billion, but other big beneficiaries of the remaining £23 million raised include Chapel Down Group, owner of Curious Brew, which gathered a total of £5.66m; Camden Town Brewery in North London, which raised more than £2.75 million from 2,173 investors via Crowdcube before being sold for £85 million to the international giant AB Inbev in December 2015; Innis & Gunn of Edinburgh, which raised £2.2 million from almost 1,800 investors; and the Wild Beer Company of Somerset, which brought in £1.8m from just over 2,000 backers.

The money is continuing to roll in: Redchurch Brewery in East London recently closed its second fundraising drive through the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, raising another £433,000 from 688 investors to add to the £497,000 it brought in last year. Also on Crowdcube, The BottleShop, a craft beer importer and distributor with, currently, three bars of its own and plans for more, has just closed its own equity crowdfunding campaign with £403,000 in funding from more than 380 investors

Top 10 UK brewery crowdfunding efforts

But how many of those investors will ever see a decent return on their money, other than the warm glow of owning a small slice of the maker of their favourite beers? With three quarters – 18 out of 25 – of the companies involved for which financial records have been published reporting losses for their last financial year, the answer is likely to be: “Not many, and even then, not for quite a while”. The UK’s financial watchdog, the FCA, warns in the section on crowdfunding on its website: ” It is very likely that you will lose all your money. Most investments are in shares or debt securities in start-up companies and will often result in a 100 per cent loss of capital as most start-up businesses fail.” Earlier this year the Guardian quoted figures from the Insolvency Service showing that 19 drinks manufacturers went sternum to the sky in 2014, 23 in 2015 and 24 in the first nine months of 2016.

Continue reading Fanboy investors put £50m into UK craft breweries: but is that money down the drain?

Going wild (yeast) in Amsterdam

If there is a more international, more fascinating, more illuminating, more must-not-be-missed beer celebration on the planet right now than Carnivale Brettanomyces in Amsterdam, let me know immediately, because it must be marvellous.

Goats are part of the iconography of Carnivale Brettanomyces

Carnivale Brettanomyces, now on its sixth year, calls itself a beer festival, but it’s more a three-day massively parallel series of dozens of different events – lectures, tastings, panels, tap takeovers and food-and-beer matching – across eight different venues around Amsterdam, involving, for 2017, almost 60 breweries from not quite a dozen different countries, and several hundred visitors from at least 17 , from Canada to India.

What is particularly thrilling, besides the skin-tingling geekery of hearing people discuss, and discussing, deeply obscure aspects of beer making, is tasting deeply rare beers: Norwegian farmhouse ales, saisons from tiny Belgian 10th-generation family breweries, pale ales you would otherwise have to take a trip to far-off rural Vermont and queue for three hours in the cold to get hold of.

As the name implies, the purpose of the festival is to celebrate Brettanomyces, the funky (literally) cousin to standard brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Most mainstream brewers, and all winemakers, shun Brett the way vampires flee from crosses, believing the aromas it brings to fermentations – sweaty socks, farmyards, damp leather – are definitely not those they wish to put in front of their drinkers. But Belgian brewers have been creatively using strains of Brett in everything from Lambics to pale ales (Orval, famously, has a touch of Brettanomyces) for centuries, and the yeast was actually first isolated from samples of English stock ales, and named, by the Danish brewing chemist Niels Hjelte Claussen, at Carlsberg in Copenhagen, in or shortly before 1903.

Continue reading Going wild (yeast) in Amsterdam

Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world where walking the streets at all hours consuming alcohol from an open container is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. This is party city USA. Bars shut only when the last customer leaves, and will gladly sell you drink to go – and while that used to be, generally, cocktails such as the take-away daiquiri, or the infamous Hand Grenade (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, melon liqueur and pure grain alcohol, with a dash of pineapple juice, served in a hand grenade-shaped vessel), since a change in the law two years ago, that drink is increasingly likely to be a local craft beer.

The beautiful but sadly long-closed Jax brewery by the weaterfront in New Orleans

I was in Louisiana ostensibly for a music tour: the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then a trip out to the south-west of the state, where settlers expelled by the British some 260 years ago from Acadie, the French colony on the Atlantic Canadian shore, eventually settled and became known as Cajuns. The plans included an open-air Cajun crawfish boil, with music from masters of Cajun song and dance. But there was enough free time to fit in plenty of beer tourism as well, and multiple places to choose from. Louisiana may have almost the lowest number of breweries per head of any state in the union (only neighbouring Mississippi is worse), but the world brewery boom has not completely passed it by. The state now has 30 craft breweries, three times more than in 2010, and New Orleans is home to nine of them, after losing its only surviving large brewery, Dixie, to the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (The Jax brewery had closed in 1974). What is more, since New Orleans is one of the top eight tourist destinations in the United States, at least a couple of operators have started organising minibus tours taking in several local breweries at once, reckoning that the huge growth in interest in craft beer makes for a potentially lucrative niche alongside the other organised tourist attractions, such as paddlesteamer trips along the Mississippi and visits to spooky cemeteries and antebellum plantations.

You have to be prepared to be flexible here, since beer tourism is still at the toddler stage, and if not enough people book a tour, it will be cancelled at almost the last minute, which is what happened to one trip I had organised before I arrived in New Orleans. But I still managed to get to see eight different breweries, or more than a quarter of all that Louisiana offers, AND hear some wonderful music AND eat some fantastic food AND see some amazing, beautiful sights AND get soaked almost to my underpants in one of the drenching hours-long thunderstorms New Orleans is prone to.

Continue reading Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

Why the clear glass bottle question means I’m not bothered Marston’s is buying Charles Wells

Estrella believes in the power of the brown bottle: it’s a pity a few more British breweries don’t

Yesterday’s announcement that Marston’s is acquiring the Charles Wells Brewing and Beer Business for £55 million and loose change (or “working capital adjustments”), at a pretty conservative 5.5 times ebitda, adds another five historic old brewery names, Courage, McEwans, Young’s, William Younger’s and Wells, to a portfolio that already reads like the line-up at a quite good small beer festival circa 1990: Marston’s itself, Banks’s, Jennings, Thwaites, Ringwood, Wychwood, Brakspear, Mansfield, Mitchells (with Lancaster Bomber) and, if you include beers Marston’s brews under licence, Bass and Tetley.

It will give the company six working breweries, and more than 50 “ale” brands, from Bank’s mild to McEwan’s Champion. That’s around twice as many as its closest rival, Greene King, which runs just two breweries, its own original home in Suffolk and Belhaven in Scotland, and continues brewing under the names of just five vanished brewers: Morlands, Ruddles, Ridleys, Hardy’s & Hansons and Tolly Cobbold. On the retail side, however, Greene King owns around 3,100 pubs and bars, making it the third biggest operator in the country, Marston’s “just” 1,750 or so, meaning it vies with Mitchells & Butlers for fourth place.

So what’s with Marston’s policy of adding ever more seemingly pretty similar “twiggy brown bitters” to its line-up? I interviewed the company’s chief executive, Ralph Findlay, two years ago, right after Marston’s had acquired Thwaites’s beer portfolio and made those beers available to all its pubs, and he was pretty specific about the desire to increase further his already considerable ale offer: “Choice is where the market is at,” Findlay said. “Range is something you simply have to have, both for licensees and their customers.” Even after the Thwaites acquisition, he said. Marston’s would continue to look for “opportunistic” purchases if they came up: “We look at potential acquisitions that are consistent with our strategy and which can contribute to our return on capital. We have had a strategy over the past five years that’s not been reliant on acquisitions, though we’ve made them when it’s been opportunistic to do so, such as the acquisition of the Thwaites brewing business. I think we’re in the fortunate position of having an incredibly strong beer range from the various breweries that we’ve got. It’s a strategy that is undoubtedly working.”

Why not, like others, just buy in beers, rather than buy breweries? Because, as Findlay says, it’s a strategy that is working. Marston’s also revealed its half-year figures yesterday. Own-brewed beer volumes were up two per cent, in a declining market. Sales were up three per cent, to £440.8m. Average profit per pub was up three per cent. Like-for-like sales were up between 1.6 and 1.7 per cent. More City analysts than not continue to have the company as a “buy”.

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve: Greene King, Shepherd Neame, Hall & Woodhouse, all sell some or several of their beers in clear bottles, and even Charles Wells has at least one several of its brands, includingWaggle Dance (originally, history fans, made by Wards of Sheffield Vaux of Sunderland, then Vaux, then Young’s, and thus about to be on its fourth fifth owner) and the Burning Gold iteration of Bombardier (as the Beer Nut reminded me) in flint glass. The commitment by Marston’s to beer quality ahead of spurious marketing arguments about how consumers are supposedly encouraged to buy beers that they can see the colour of makes me more confident that Wells’s brand are in relatively safe hands under the boys from Wolverhampton.

Ironically, or at least I think it’s ironic, one of the brands Marston’s is acquiring distribution rights to via the Wells purchase, the Spanish lager Estrella, has just been running an ad campaign un the UK under the slogan “Darker bottle, better beer”, explaining to consumers that “research has shown that exposure to light damages beer and affects its flavour”, and for that reason it was darkening its bottles by 30 per cent.

I’m slightly puzzled that Charles Wells has said that, while it will now be concentrating on its pub estate, it will also be building a new small brewery in Bedford to brew the Charlie Wells “craft beers” and John Bull range, which it is not selling to Marston’s. Is this continued toehold in the brewing world a way of appeasing the family shareholders (many of them formidable elderly females who, Paul Wells once told me, all had his phone number and would ring him up when they felt the company’s figures weren’t good enough) who might try to vote down the sale of the main brewing operation if they felt the company was cutting off its roots after 141 years of supplying beer to the people of Bedford?

Charles Wells currently brews several beers I’m very fond of, including Courage Imperial Russian Stout, Young’s Winter Warmer and McEwan’s Champion, that will now be brewed under Marston’s control. For probably the only time ever, I’m going to let Tim Page, chief executive of Camra, speak for me: giving a cautious one thumb up to the takeover, he said yesterday: “Marston’s has a positive track record of keeping the breweries it acquires open, in situ, and in many cases investing in the sites to increase capacity, and we urge them to continue that policy. We’d also encourage them to protect the brands that they have acquired and increase the range available to beer drinkers, by continuing to supply them alongside the existing beers produced by Marston’s owned breweries.”

The REAL story behind BrewDog’s ‘sellout’ is that crowdfunding will only get you so far

The real story behind the news that BrewDog is copping more than £200 million from the private equity firm that also part-owns Pabst Blue Ribbon, is not, despite the howls of “hypocrisy!”, that nobody can resist a big juicy cheque, no matter how punk they claim to be. It is, rather more sadly, that crowdfunding will only get you so far, and if you have really big ambitions, you’re going to have to get in bed eventually with The Man.

Crowds of crowdfunders: a scene from the BrewDog AGM in Aberdeen earlier this month

The deal with TSG Consumer Partners, the $5bn 30-year-old San Francisco-based private equity firm, sees TSG acquire “approximately” 22 per cent of BrewDog for what the Sunday Times says is £213 million, split between a £100 million investment in the firm and £113 million paid to existing shareholders.

Of the two founders, James Watt is seeing his stake in the firm drop from 35 per cent to 25 per cent and Martin Dickie’s slice goes down from 30 per cent to 22. It’s not clear (to me, anyway) if that dilution is because the pair are selling 18 per cent of the firm between them to TSG, or some of the fall in their percentage ownership comes from new shares being issued: the Sunday Times says one of the motions passed at last month’s BrewDog AGMEGM in Aberdeen saw the creation of a new class of preferred shares, which would guarantee TSG a minimum compound annual return of 18 per cent if the company is bought or floated. There’s a fair bit of dilution, I reckon, or the figures for how much existing shareholders are getting out of the deal don’t add up. But even so, I’d say James is receiving north of £50 million and Martin more than £40 million. Not bad for ten years of being rude about the rest of the UK brewing industry and winding up the Portman Group. Looks like Dr Johnson’s comment more than 230 years ago about selling a brewery being the way to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice is still true. According to Watt, the sums in the deal mean BrewDog now has an enterprise value of £1bn (I make it £968 million, but hey, £32 million is mere loose change), thus making it the first new British brewery “unicorn”.

The most important figure, however, is the £100 million BrewDog now has to play with. That’s four times the amount the company has raised so far through its Equity for Punks crowdfunding schemes, which have given it more than 50,000 shareholders, but taken six years. The company is currently attempting to get $50 million through Equity for Punks USA, though this does not appear to be going anything like as well as its British crowdfunding efforts: the latest figures seem to suggest only $3.5 million or so has been gathered in. That size of sum doesn’t go very far: the hotel and sour beer plant BrewDog is building next to its new brewery in Columbus, Ohio, which finally opened in March, several months late, is costing $6 million. Earlier this month the company announced that it was looking to open breweries in Asia and Australia: based on how much it spent on the Ellon brewery in Aberdeen, that’s £40 million to £50 million that will be needed, in addition to the money required for the planned expansions in Ellon and Columbus. Crowdfunding simply won’t cover expansion of that magnitude.

Tying up with someone like TSG was pretty inevitable, then, if Watt and Dickie wanted to maintain the momentum they have built up with BrewDog. And why should they not? Is it somehow not “punk” to want to be as successful as you can be? Are they meant to say: “No, that’s it for us, really, we’re just going to sit on our arrises from now on”? If you believe in your product, surely you should want to reach as many people with it as possible, however that possibility has to come about? As Watt said in the note that went out to shareholders announcing the TSG deal, it represents “a launch pad for us to turbocharge our mission to make the world as passionate about craft beer as we are.”

Some have declared the TSG deal a betrayal of all the people who bought shares in BrewDog apparently believing that Watt and Dickie would never “sell out”; but this “betrayal” involves a pretty enormous return on those Equity for Punk backers’ investments. As Watt said: “Shares purchased in Equity for Punks I, which closed in February 2010, are now worth 2,800 per cent of their original value. Even craft beer fans who invested in Equity for Punks IV last year have seen the value of their shareholding increase by 177 per cent in just one year.” You don’t get that sort of return putting your money in Nationwide.

Mind, it was perhaps a little naughty of BrewDog to describe TSG as “one of the world’s leading growth funds with successful investments in global brands like Pop Chips and Vitamin Water” without adding that it also has a substantial minority holding in Pabst, purveyor of just the sort of industrial brews Watt and Dickie swore they would never sell out to. I am sure Alastair Hook and the guys at Meantime, whose beers BrewDog withdrew from its bars after the Greenwich brewer was bought by SAB Miller, are smiling sardonically.

No, Heineken, the alcohol-free beer market is NOT going to double in the next four years.

St Peter’s Without Any Redeeming Features

It’s deja bu time again in the world of Big Beer, with the return of excited prognostications for the no alcohol/low alcohol sector. All the marketing “experts” involved in the last round of predictions about how fast sales of no alcohol/low alcohol beers were going to expand have now retired or died, apparently – to be fair, it was 25 years ago – and a new generation is again falling for the fallacy of unwarranted extrapolation.

The Dutch giant Heineken is leading the charge, with the launch in the UK of Heineken 0.0. Currently no-alcohol beer has a tiny one per cent slice of the UK beer market, but David Lette, head of premium brands at Heineken, is popping up in the trade press declaring that he expects to see the alcohol-free beer category double in the next three to four years, and announcing that to make sure Heineken gets its share of this, it is putting £2.5m behind the launch of 0.0, with a £1.5m consumer advertising campaign breaking in July.

If they had given me a tiny one per cent slice of that marketing spend – just £25,000, chaps, very reasonable against what other consulting companies will charge you – I could have saved them all the rest of their money by assuring them that it ain’t going to happen: there will be no doubling of no-alcohol beer sales. And I hate to pour icy water all over young entrepreneurs, but the message is the same for the team behind Nirvana Brewery, East London’s latest, which started at the beginning of this year as the country’s first dedicated no/low alcohol brewery. The no alcohol/low alcohol beer market didn’t take off back in the early 1990s, for a variety of reasons, and for just those same reasons it’s not going to take off now.

In 1987 beer marketeers were even more optimistic about the future of alcohol-free beer, after it had apparently doubled sales in a year, to be worth £45 million, with predictions that it would grow tenfold by 1999. Barbican, the market leader, made by Bass, which had been launched in 1979, was spending £2.5m on an advertising campaign to fight off new entrants such as Kaliber, from Guinness, and Swan Light, from Allied, the first draught low-alcohol beer. Barbican’s first television ad campaign had featured Lawrie McMenemy, then the highly successful manager of Southampton, declaring: “It’s great, man.” McMenemy was later prosecuted for drink-driving, suggesting he perhaps didn’t think Barbican was quite as great as he had been paid to claim. Kaliber had signed up comedians Lenny Henry and Billy Connolly, and the actor Michael Elphick, to act as spokesdrinkers: another example of the dangers of celebrity endorsers, since Elphick was to die in 2002 of a heart attack not helped by his drinking up to two litres of spirits a day.

Thirty years on, that £45 million the alcohol-free beer market was valued at in 1987 pounds is equal to around £180 million in 2017 pounds – which is more or less what today’s alcohol-free beer market in the UK is worth. In other words, in three decades the sector hasn’t grown at all, in real terms. But 30 years ago, David Lette, today head of premium brands at Heineken UK, was studying for his International Baccalaureate at college in Singapore, according to his LinkedIn biography, and he didn’t join Heineken until 2002, thus missing out on the first great failure of non-alcoholic beer to live up to the extrapolations, and probably explaining why he is so optimistic today that the extrapolations for the no/low alcohol beer market are going to come true.

Continue reading No, Heineken, the alcohol-free beer market is NOT going to double in the next four years.

'Zee-tho-fyle', by Martyn Cornell, an award-winning blog about beer now and then, founded in 2007