Best-selling business advice from a BrewDog

As the only beer writer on the planet with an MBA (probably), it falls to me to give a business school-style review on behalf of beer drinkers to Business for Punks, the just-published “how we succeeded and how you can too” guidebook from BrewDog co-founder James Watt.

Not that any review is likely to make much difference to the book’s popularity: it is already the number-one best seller in the “entrepreneurship” section of Amazon’s UK website, and in the top 350 best-selling books on the site overall, despite only being published last week. The book, it appears, is as popular as the beer.

Thanks, James we get rthe idea

Selling like hot … um … ale … James Watt and book

Business manuals from stars of the American craft brewing scene have been popping up like mushrooms in the past few years: Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Tony Magee of Lagunitas, Steve Wagner and Greg Koch of Stone Brewing and Jeremy Cowan of Schmaltz have all written books about how they started and grew their businesses, Calagione has a second book out in December, Off-Centered Leadership: The DogFish Head Guide to Motivation, Collaboration and Smart Growth, and Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams, has his “how I did it” book out in April 2016 .

Britain’s craft brewers have been slower to get their experiences on paper: maybe they’re too busy brewing. It’s not as if we lack an audience for how-to-be-a-successful-brewer books: large numbers of people apparently want to brew commercially. Some 200 new breweries have opened in the UK in the past 12 months, and the country now has more than twice as many breweries per head as the United States: 1 to 38,000, against 1 to 80,000. More likely, we lack the “superstar” brewers that the US has, people whose name on the cover will attract the buyers. I doubt that Watt wrote the book and sought a publisher: much more likely that someone at Penguin Random House approached Watt with the idea

Watt, of course, and his fellow founder of BrewDog, Martin Dickie, are among the very, very few candidates for “star brewer” in the UK. More than 6,000 people turned up to BrewDog’s annual general meeting in Aberdeen in June. Six thousand people. In Aberdeen. Admittedly this is not so much an AGM as a beer festival-cum-love in, with something on the order of 40,000 pints of beer consumed. But there isn’t another brewery in Britain that could hope to attract that level of support. And as Pete Brown once pointed out, when even his Stella-drinking mother in Barnsley has heard of BrewDog, you know you’re looking at a powerful brand.

So: what’s Watt’s book like? The tone is much what you’d expect: cocky, iconoclastic, egotistical (there are more than a dozen pictures of Watt in the book, and a gratuitous plug for Musa, “a great local restaurant in Aberdeen”, which Watt fails to mention that he owns), occasionally outrageous, with parts that are guaranteed to make some people very angry. Take the claim (p28) that “back in 2007 craft beer did not exist in the UK”, and it was BrewDog that created and established the British craft beer market and “built a committed audience from scratch.” Let’s be frank: this is egregious nonsense. Even if we’re extremely generous and decide to define “British craft beer” the way Watt appears to be doing, as “beer inspired by modern American styles”, there were brewers making this sort of “craft” beer in Britain long before BrewDog, with pioneers in the 1990s such as Sean Franklin at Rooster’s in Yorkshire, and Brendan Dobbin at West Coast Brewing and Alistair Hook at Mash and Air, both in Manchester. Hook’s next venture, Meantime, which started in Greenwich in 2000, was “craft” by anybody’s definition. Other brewers of “British craft beer” before BrewDog include Dark Star with Hophead, Kelham Island with Pale Rider, Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, and Thornbridge – where Dickie brewed before co-founding BrewDog – with Jaipur IPA. These were the brewers starting to create a market in Britain for the beers American consumers had been drinking for 20 years.

If Watt and Dickie were pushing at a door already being opened by others, though, it cannot be denied that they shoved that door wide open and – to stretch this metaphor to its limits – loudly announced its existence, allowing others to find it and pour through. The success of BrewDog certainly encouraged a host of other brewers to brew other beers than mainstream British cask ales, dramatically widening the availability of craft beer, which meant craft beer bars could open up that did not have to rely on expensive American imports. At the same time, Watt is certainly correct in saying that the BrewDog ethos “engaged a new breed and generation of customer” in way that other brewers had not been able to do. This engagement is demonstrated by the way BrewDog has been able to raise £13 million from 40,000 investors (according to the Daily Telegraph this month – £15 million from 30,000 investors according to Business for Punks) through its “equity for punks” crowdfunding scheme. The Equity for Punks scheme has been heavily criticised by some – one senior industry member told me it was ” a huge con” that “verges on the fraudulent”. Watt takes time to insist in Business for Punks that “We went through a full and formal regulation and approval regulation and approval process with our share offering, going through the same standards as any large-scale public listing, giving our investors a level of security that you simply do not have with other crowdfunding platforms.” In five years, Watt says, early investors have seen their shares in BrewDog increase by more than 500%. But for BrewDog, “the real beauty is not the financial side. It is in terms of how it entrenches the relationship between us and the people who enjoy the beers we make. We don’t just have investors, we have a community of loyal and dedicated brand ambassadors, our very own army of craft-beer evangelists.”

Some of the 6.000 Equity for Punks shareholders at the 2015 BrewDog AGM

Some of the 6.000 Equity for Punks shareholders at the 2015 BrewDog AGM

This message – be passionate, carry that passion into everything you do, from the product to the marketing to the interaction with customers – is a large part of Business for Punks: “You need to make sure your product is awesome.” “If you can’t get your staff to fall in love with your business, you haven’t got a chance in hell of a customer to even consider liking it.” The very first chapter is headed: “Don’t Start a Business, Start a Crusade”. But an important swath consists of extremely sensible, if aggressively presented, business advice, including a segment headed “Cash is Motherfucking King”. Most businesses fail, Watt points out, and they always fail for financial reasons: “The first lesson in business is cash flow … lack of cash flow can kill your business instantly, like being shot in the face with a sawn-off shotgun.” Watt glosses over his background as a law graduate, and insists in Business for Punks that “Before Martin and I started BrewDog we did not have a clue about finance. I struggled to make sense of my own bank account.” That, frankly, I doubt: I would be very surprised if part of Watt’s studies for his law degree did not touch on accounting and/or finance somewhere. Still, he says, once the brewery was running, “Embracing the original punk DIY ethos of learning the skills we needed to be completely self-sufficient I went on numerous finance and accounting courses. I devoured finance books, I spent as much time as I could absorbing knowledge from the best finance experts. I listened to podcasts and even stayed up at night watching online finance lectures. OK, I maybe only did the last bit once. But you get the point.”

The sensible advice – avoid giving credit if you can, and if you have to, keep the terms tight, do daily bank reconciliations, always look at the opportunity costs (what does paying for that new bottling line stop you doing that might be even more profitable?), competing on price is a hiding to nothing – comes with other statements that seem more deliberately provocative than smart, however: “The whole gap-in-the-market approach is an outdated fallacy … don’t look for a gap in the market … you have to narrow your focus to such an extent that there is no current market for what you are about to do.” But of course, BrewDog aimed precisely at a gap in the market: one for British versions of American-style well-hopped pale ales and imperial stouts. They knew there was a market for such beers, because the successes of Pale Rider and Jaipur told them so.

Watt also fails to point out that while start-ups fail because they run out of cash, the primary reason for not having enough cash is most likely to be a business idea that is simply not competitive or attractive enough to sell in sufficient quantities. The three pillars of the Business Punk, Watt says, are
1) Company culture
2) The quality of the core offering
3) Your gross margin (“Defend your gross margin like a junkyard Rottweiler”)
and each feeds into the other. But however much you and your team believe in your product, there is no guarantee others will agree. Watt admits: “People in North East Scotland hated our beers when we first launched them. Completely hated them. They hated the flavour, the packaging, the branding, everything. We sold almost nothing at all for our first six months. But we did not care … We knew that if we stuck to our guns and did things the way we wanted to and never compromised that we would eventually find our audience and our audience would eventually find us.” Without that confidence, BrewDog would have failed, of course. But just because you’re confident there’s an audience out there, that doesn’t mean there actually is. Launching a business is a huge risk: Watt is good on some of the practical ways of reducing that risk, such as cutting deals with suppliers – he repeats the story of Lagunitas, and how it struck an arrangement with its bottle supplier which cut its costs and eventually paid off tremendously for both parties – but he doesn’t cover how to reduce the uncertainties surrounding whether the product you’re putting in the bottles you’re done a deal on will actually find a market.

Watt is very good on how to leverage a non-existent marketing budget to get the maximum bang: guerrilla marketing is BrewDog’s speciality, and however much others tut and sigh at the stunts, such as packaging a 55 per cent abv beer in roadkill, the story “was on broadcast news all over the world, in pretty much every major newspaper globally and to date over 100 million people have viewed this story online.” You literally cannot buy that sort of publicity. The loyal BrewDog fans, of course (and one chapter in the book is actually headed “Fans not customers”) loved the outrage the stunt elicited, since it fitted exactly their idea of being part of an organisation happy to upset people. But Watt is also smart enough to know that publicity has an opportunity cost too: “There is only so much a journalist will cover a company or a project: the more information you send, the less receptive he or she will be to that information. In the run-up to a big BrewDog release or event, we always go quiet for a couple of months to ensure the media is ready and hungry to give our big story maximum exposure.”

He also takes time, in a section headed “Get People to Hate You”, to give a kicking to BrewDog’s early critics, including those in the brewing industry who queried the company’s tremendous early growth: ”

One bunch of desperately stupid Scottish brewers concocted a document that basically called us liars anc cheats. It cited we had simply made our sales and growth figures up. To add fuel to the libel, the chairman of Innis & Gunn (a Scottish beer company), Mr Sharp, made a statement, and I quote, ‘It is a well-known fact that BrewDog falsify their accounts. They are widely seen as the laughing stock of the brewing industry. Like an anorak with nae knickers.’ I would personally like to thank Mr Sharp. I had his quote pinned up on my office wall for two years. I looked at it every morning and it motivated me to redouble my efforts.”

Another Watticism is: “Don’t waste your time on bullshit business plans.” But while vision and passion are vital – and Watt and Dickie had a clear vision of people drinking their beer, and a passion to make that happen – business plans are an excellent way to crystallise your thinking and decide what you shouldn’t be doing. All the same, no one should be tied to a rigid plan. Watt tells the story of BrewDog’s first and vital break, early in 2008, when, out of nowhere, its beers came first, second, third and fourth in the Tesco Drinks Awards. (I was a judge at several of those awards, but alas, they were always done blind, so I have no idea if I judged those beers). Tesco told Watt it wanted 20,000 cases a week, and Watt said: “Of course!”, though at that time the brewery’s capacity was a tiny fraction of that figure. The BrewDog partners went to their bank and asked for £150,000 to pay for a bottling line and extra storage tanks. The bank, as bankers do, laughed in their faces, not least because BrewDog wasn’t even paying its existing loans off. So Watt walked over to the rival bank across the road and told them that he had just been given a great offer on a loan, but if they could beat it he would give them all the brewery’s business, publicise them on the BrewDog website, and recommend them to other small firms. Bank number two fell for it, obviously believing they were getting one over on bank number one, the loan for the kit came through, the first bottles for Tesco came off the new loan-financed bottling line three days before they were due to be delivered, “and the rest is history”.

That story illustrates more about the requirements for business success than just the importance of grabbing opportunities with every available limb and telling small porkies to bankers if necessary. BrewDog won the Tesco competition because its beers stood out: that was part of Dickie’s and Watt’s vision, to brew beers with impact. But a different set of judges might not have ranked them at all: palates tuned to American-influenced beers were not universal in 2008. It was partly luck that won them the competition. The second bank could have said no, just like the first bank: bankers are generally risk-averse with small businesses. Again, luck stepped in. You can teach the importance of cash flow: but you can’t teach luck.

Will someone who buys Business for Punks, given luck, be able to turn themselves into the next BrewDog? Well, no, probably not, or not in the UK beer market, because as far as what BrewDog now represents, there is only room for one iconoclastic, rule-breaking, self-proclaimed punk brewery, Dickie and Watt spotted that gap in the market and filled it extremely successfully. We may well see firms start up that will be “the BrewDog of grocery retailers”, “the BrewDog of software manufacturers”, even “the BrewDog of estate agents”. But no sector, I suggest, can sustain more than one marketing guerrilla, and guerrilla marketing is what BrewDog does brilliantly and what its fans respond to enthusiastically. Ironically, considering it has always been an accusation made about the consumers of mega-brand beers, BrewDog drinkers really are drinking the marketing first, and the beer second.

Business for Punks cover

Business for Punks: Break All the Rules – the BrewDog Way, by James Watt, is published by Penguin at £14.99


A short account of the surprisingly long history of putting beer in cellar tanks.

Tank beer – “tankova” – may be a hot new trend in London, with Meantime in Greenwich and Pilsner Urquell delivering fresh unpasteurised beer to pubs in beautiful shiny big containers, but the idea of putting beer in cellar tanks to deliver better quality is, even in London, more than a century old.

The first “tank” beer system in the capital appears to have been introduced by Hugh Abbot, a brewer at Watney’s original Stag brewery in Pimlico, London, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. In 1913 he had three standing butts fixed up in the cellar of a Watney’s pub, and beer delivered in an old horse-drawn tank wagon of the sort that brewers used to transport beer to their bottling stores. The experiment was successful enough that by 1920 Watney’s had electric-powered tanker lorries, fitted with copper tanks, taking beer around to its pubs. It was still using electric vehicles in 1949, though by then tank deliveries to pubs were done using trailers mounted behind standard tractor units.

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Another of London’s “big seven” 20th century brewers, Charrington’s, of the Anchor brewery in Mile End, was also delivering tank beer by the early 1920s, and a Charrington’s brewer, Alfred Paul, described the system to the Institute of Brewers in a talk in May 1922. Only “bright” mild beer, chilled and filtered, was delivered by Charrington’s tankers to its pubs, he said, although “experiments are being made with a tank for the bulk delivery of naturally conditioned beer.” The road tanks, made of copper lagged with iron, had a capacity of 24 barrels each, that is, 864 gallons, and the tanks in the pub cellars generally held three barrels each. “On arrival of the delivery tank, or road tank, at the house, the hose, is let down through the cellar-flap or any other available aperture, and the beer allowed to run down into the cellar tank. Should the fall from the street to the cellar be insufficient, a band-pump attached to the foot-board of the chassis could be used.” Charrington’s cellar tanks were generally made of earthenware, Paul said, being upright, cylindrical vessels, with a glazed inside, but ” experiments are now being carried out with aluminium and glass-lined steel.” The tanks, he said, “are carefully examined prior to filling, with a powerful electric torch. The men, who are carefully selected, are definitely instructed not to fill a tank unless, in their opinion, which by constant practice has become expert, the tank is scrupulously clean.”

According to Paul, the savings from using cellar tanks were considerable: each barrel’s worth of trade required three actual wooden barrels, one in the cask-washing shed, one on the road and one in the pub cellar, he declared, so one three-barrel cellar tank, costing £30, was the equivalent of nine wooden barrels. If a brewery went over entirely to cellar tanks, he said, it would eliminate coopers, cask washers, cask racking and the clerks needed to track all the casks as they left and returned

An electric-powered beer tanker used by Watney's in 1929

An electric-powered beer tanker used by Watney’s in 1929

Despite Charrington’s and Watney’s advocacy of tank beer, by 1936 Sydney Nevile, who worked for Whitbread, could only say that while “a substantial number of brewers have adopted for a portion of their trade the principle of delivering filtered beer in tank wagons into tanks in the licensed house,” and “this has met with a considerable amount of success,” still “for one reason or another” the tank beer movement “does not appear at the present time to be making further progress.”

One problem seems to have been that tank beer was most suited to pubs with a quick turnover of large amounts of beer, and London looks to have had a smaller proportion of that kind of outlet than the North of England, which is where tank beer seems to have been most popular. Like Charrington’s, the Hull Brewery in Yorkshire began installing huge glazed earthenware jars in its pubs from the early 1920s. They came in sizes of 108, 54 and 36 gallons (the capacities of the traditional butt, hogshead and barrel), and were made by Royal Doulton.

A Thorneycroft beer tanker belonging to the Hull brewery

A Thorneycroft beer tanker belonging to the Hull Brewery Co

The beer was delivered to the pubs by specially built Thorneycroft tankers, and while the earthenware jars eventually gave way to stainless steel, much of the brewery’s beer was still brought by tanker to many of its pubs, and served up by compressed air from mild steel tanks fitted with disposable plastic liners, through until the brewery closed in 1985.

Other breweries in the North of England, such as Burtonwood, Mansfield in Nottinghamshire and Nimmo’s in Castle Eden, County Durham, also installed cellar tanks in their pubs, many of them 90 or 180-gallon capacity and made in stainless steel by Porter-Lancastrian of Bolton, or the now-closed Grundy’s of Teddington, in West London (which also made aluminium casks and kegs, supplying Truman’s with its first 100 litre/22 gallon kegs in 1971). But tank beer was particularly popular with the “club” breweries, such as the United Clubs Brewery in South Wales, and the Northern Clubs and Federation Brewery (the “Fed”) in Newcastle upon Tyne, set up after the First World War to give working men’s clubs a cheap, reliable source of beer.

At least one of the attractions of tank beer for the club brewers was the speed and convenience with which clubs could be supplied with beer. In 1970 the transport manager at the Federation brewery in Newcastle revealed that “Friday is the busiest day for us, with clubs suddenly realising that they want extra beer to meet the weekend demand.” It was much easier to send out a tanker and pipe the beer into the clubs’ cellars than hump casks or kegs.

Beer tanker used by the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1970

Beer tanker used by the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1970

One of the big proponents of tank beer was the Cornbrook Brewery of West Gorton, Manchester, which had most of the larger outlets in its estate of 230 or so pubs fitted with five-barrel refrigerated cellar tanks by the end of the 1950s, all supplied by Porter-Lancastrian. According to Anthony Avis, this was because Cornbrook’s managing director from 1958, David Constable-Maxwell, was “connected” with Porter-Lancastrian. When the Cornbrook Brewery was acquired from its owners, the aristocratic Fitzalan-Howard family, by Eddie Taylor’s fast-expanding United Breweries in 1961, Constable-Maxwell persuaded William Tudor Davies, the managing director of Hammond’s, the largest component in United at that time, that tank beer should be rolled out around United – allegedly without revealing his connection with the manufacturer of the tanks.

Davies was enthusiastic, and a trial was held in Bradford, with all the company’s pubs being converted to tank beer on the same day. Unfortunately, what no one had apparently considered was that the Cornbrook brewery’s beer had been brewed to be delivered through the tank system, while Hammond’s pubs were serving beer brewed at the Tower brewery in Tadcaster which was made to be served from casks. At the same time, Porter-Lancastrian had rushed to complete the contract for the new tanks, and the quality of the equipment they supplied was, in many cases, poor, with the CO2 pressure regulators often not working properly, meaning the beer foamed too much when it was dispensed. After a week, according to Anthony Avis, Hammonds had hardly any pubs serving beer: all that came out of the nozzles in the bars were pints of froth.

Bedford-based beer tanker used by Nimmo's of Castle Eden

Bedford-based beer tanker used by Nimmo’s of Castle Eden

The solution was discovered by the wife of one Hammond’s tenant who had taken her rage out on the new cellar tank by beating it furiously with a broomhandle. When she stopped, the beer suddenly flowed freely, with much less froth. Every ironmongers in Bradford was immediately bought out of broomhandles, and tenants were instructed to belay their cellar tanks regularly during opening hours, to knock the excess gas out of solution and allow the beer to flow.

That was not the last of the problems United had with exporting the Cornbrook cellar tank system to other parts: it was discovered that keeping the tanks clean was beyond most licensees, resulting in cloudy beer. In addition, pubs that might only turn over four barrels a week had two five-barrel tanks in their cellars, which meant stale beer. The plastic linings inside the tanks started reacting with the acid in the beer; and the mild steel the tanks were made of began rusting. The problems cost United Brewers, and its successor companies, Charrington United and Bass Charrington, many thousands of pounds to solve.

While brewers such as Hull (or North Country, as it became in 1974) filtered and carbonated their tank beers, it was perfectly possible to treat the tank like a giant cask, and add finings to the beer once it had been delivered, to allow it to settle and mature naturally. The disadvantage for brewers was that unless they were the “disposable liner” type, as Hammond’s found, the tanks then had to be thoroughly cleaned when empty.

Dennis 'Horla' tank vehicle owned by Watney's in 1948

Dennis ‘Horla’ tank vehicle owned by Watney’s in 1948

In the early 1970s a brewery such as Mansfield was putting nearly two thirds of its beer into tanks. But by 1994, changes in tastes had cut that to less than 20 per cent, and tanks were coming out of cellars. Ironically, the demise of tank beer in Britain in the 1980s and early 1990s proved a boon to the growing craft beer movement, both here and, especially, in the United States. Redundant pub and club cellar tanks, cheap and easily available, some of them 50 years old, were converted into fermenting vessels and conditioning tanks in their thousands for new small breweries, and “Grundy tank” became the general term in the United States for imported UK-built pub cellar tanks, even though many were not actually built by Grundy.

(An even shorter version of this history appeared in Beer magazine in 2013)

The IPA shipwreck and the Night of the Big Wind

The “IPA shipwreck” is one of many long-lasting myths in the history of India Pale Ale. The story says that IPA became popular in Britain after a ship on its way to India in the 1820s was wrecked in the Irish Sea, and some hogsheads of beer it was carrying out east were salvaged and sold to publicans in Liverpool, after which the city’s drinkers demanded lots more of the same. Colin Owen, author of a history of Bass’s brewery, called the tale “unsubstantiated” more than 20 years ago, and others, including me, being unable to find any reports of any such wreck, nor of any indication that IPA was a big seller in the UK until the 1840s, have dismissed it as completely untrue. Except that it turns out casks of IPA did go on sale in Liverpool after a wreck off the Lancashire coast involving a ship carrying hogsheads of beer to India that, literally, became a landmark – though not in the 1820s – and the true story is a cracker, involving one of the worst storms to hit the British Isles in centuries, which brought huge destruction and hundreds of deaths from one side of the UK to the other.

The story of the IPA shipwreck first turns up in 1869 in a book called Burton-on-Trent, its History, its Waters and its Breweries, by Walter Molyneaux, who described how the Burton brewers began brewing beer for export to India from 1823. Molyneaux wrote: “India appears to have been the exclusive market for the Burton bitter beer up to about the year 1827, when in consequence of the wreck in the Irish Channel of a vessel containing a cargo of about 300 hogsheads, several casks saved were sold in Liverpool for the benefit of the underwriters, and by this means, in a remarkably rapid manner, the fame of the new India ale spread throughout Great Britain.”

Molyneaux’s story has been regularly repeated in the past century and a half. But no one has been able to find a wreck that matched up with his story. This turns out to be, not because the wreck didn’t happen, but because he was 12 years out with the date.

The year after Molyneaux’s book came out, a different version of the tale appeared in the “notes and queries” section of an obscure publication called English Mechanic and World of Science. The account was written by a man who gave himself the name of “Meunier”, and it said: “Forty years ago [ie about 1830] pale ale was very little known in London, except to those engaged in the India trade. The house with which I was connected shipped large quantities, receiving in return consignments of East Indian produce. About 1839, a ship, the Crusader, bound for one of our Indian ports, foundered, and the salvage, comprising a large quantity of export bitter ale, was sold for the benefit of the underwriters. An enterprising publican or restaurant keeper in Liverpool purchased a portion of the beer and introduced it to his customers; the novelty pleased, and, I believe, laid the foundation of the home trade now so extensively carried on.”

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

The two clues – the ship’s name and the later date – together with the fact that large numbers of newspapers from the time have now been scanned and made available on the web make it easy to trace the story at last. The Crusader was a 584-tonne East Indiaman, or armed merchantman, described as “a fine large ship with painted ports [that is, gun-ports] and a full-length figurehead”, “newly coppered”, that is, with new copper sheathing on the hull to prevent attacks by wood-boring molluscs, and “a very fast sailer”, under the command of Captain JG Wickman. She had arrived in Liverpool early in November 1838 after a five-month journey from either Calcutta or Bombay (different Liverpool newspapers at the time gave different starting ports) with a cargo including raw cotton, 83 elephants’ tusks, coffee, wool, pepper, ginger – and opium, which did not become illegal in Britain until 1916. Captain Wickman and his crew were due to leave for Bombay again on Saturday December 15, after five weeks of roistering in Liverpool, with a cargo that included finished cotton goods, silk, beef and pork in casks, cases of glass shades, iron ingots, tin plates, Government dispatches – and India ale in hogsheads, brewed by two different Burton brewers, Bass and Allsopp, the whole lot being insured for £100,000, perhaps £8 million today.

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Don’t move that WC!

When you’re enjoying yourself down the pub, there will generally come a moment when urgent necessities need to be taken care of. But increasingly, pub owners seem to be putting difficulties in people’s way – by shifting their ground-floor conveniences to somewhere decidedly more inconvenient, involving negotiating often steep and narrow stairs. I am happy to give the opportunity for a guest rant on the subject of upstairs (and downstairs) loos to my good friend Mr James Castle of the parish of Twickenham in Middlesex – take it away, Jim:

A brief list of pubs and restaurants now with “grade separated” toilets in the Twickenham area: the Prince Blucher, near the Green, the Osteria Pulcinella in Church Street, the Eel Pie, also in Church Street, and the Waldegrave Arms and the Railway in Teddington. Al this is ostensibly to increase seating space for punters which, I suppose, is for rugby days, as these new areas are never occupied. Other pubs which have been like it for some while have their own quirks. The London Road (or whatever it is called now) allows some drinkers to use the downstairs loo; the Fox in Church Street leaves the disabled loo open for all and sundry; as does Twickenham’s JD Wetherspoon pub, the William Webb Ellis, where I do notice old blokes sneaking into the “universal”/disabled loo, sometimes having to queue. I think the staff might not lock it as part of their customer service.

The fermenting room at Fuller's Griffin brewery about 1970, showing the "dropping" system in use: fermentation would be started in the upper rounds, and after a day or two the wort would be dropped into the shallower squares below to finish fermentation.

The fermenting room at Fuller’s Griffin brewery about 1970, showing the “dropping” system in use: fermentation would be started in the upper rounds, and after a day or two the wort would be dropped into the shallower squares below to finish fermentation.

To use these ground floor loos the pubs usually provide a key from behind the bar but I’ve also noticed that some of the big chains (in other areas) allow the “RADAR” key scheme for access. In Twickenham, the George on the main drag, the Brouge/Old Goat or whatever on the Hampton Road, the Three Kings, also in the centre of town, the Barmy Arms by the river and the Sussex Arms by the green are all fine places where a gentleman does not have to climb the stairs to find relief, as are most pubs in Teddington, Hampton Hill, Whitton, Richmond (except the White Cross) and Kingston. But all the pubs I used to go in Putney are now “grade separated” (the Eight Bells a proud exception). I let the White Swan by the river in Twickenham off this “naughty” list as I don’t suppose it ever had a gents’ loo on the level of the bar.

In terms of culprits for all this aggravation, Messers Fuller, Smith & Turner seem to be the main offender, and I’m hearing rumours about the Prince Albert in Twickenham, which I understand is to undergo a refurbishment The “destruction” of their decent pub in Isleworth, the Royal Oak, is appalling, although I suppose there was no room to move the loos upstairs.

Anyway, how “disabled” do you have to be to use the designated ground floor loo? As a sufferer from the after-effects of prostate surgery, I try to avoid unnecessary flights of steps, which can lead to embarrassment, but it’s not as though I use a stick. I am not really disabled (or am I?). In any case, all this extra space the pub companies/breweries have created by moving the loos upstairs/downstairs never seems to be full!

The other problem is the under-supply of cubicles in gents’ toilets. One is not enough. It seems more and more men are eschewing urinals, not just us victims with urological difficulties, but also those with fly-button trousers, small willies and drug problems.

And another thing, the 2015 budget took a penny of a pint. Basically it didn’t happen as most boozers saw it coming and raised their prices by ten pence before Budget Day, and then reduced them by a penny. Pubs are still increasing prices twice a year, although I am told we do not have any meaningful inflation. No wonder pubs are empty. There’s only a certain amount of overpriced second-rate food a pub can sell to compensate for the missing regulars put off by prices. We’re not all baby boomers on generous final salary pensions …


Fuller's brewery, Chiswick in the late 1960s, with the brick chimney still in place. The land for the petrol station on the corner was sold by Fuller's to the fuel company, and later had to be bought back a considerable expense as the brewery expanded

Fuller’s brewery, Chiswick in the late 1960s, with the brick chimney still in place. The land for the petrol station on the corner was sold by Fuller’s to the fuel company, and later had to be bought back at considerable expense as the brewery expanded

Simon Williams hits the bull’s eye about what’s wrong with GBBF and why the London Craft Beer Festival is so much better

I don’t think I’ve ever read a blogpost I agreed with more than Simon Wiliams of CAMRGB’s take on the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia last week versus the London Craft Beer Festival, also last week, in Hackney. Read it here. Basically, the problem with the GBBF, 40 years on from the very first one in Covent Garden, is that it’s utterly unimaginative, dull, unengaging and uninspiring. Too much of the beer is too samey (mind, that’s a reflection of the state of the British small brewing scene), and while there are interesting and challenging beers to find, it’s a pain in the butt trying to track therm down. What’s more, reports suggest that if you go at the end of the week, all the most interesting beers will be long sold out. It really needs a serious rethink in terms of presentation, approach, purpose: in particular, there should be far more involvement from the breweries supplying the beer than just turning up with casks and pumpclips and then buggering off. At the LCBF, in contrast, the beers are almost without exception challenging and exciting, the stalls are staffed by people from the breweries involved who are delighted to chat. Despite the room the LCBF was held in being far too hot, I enjoyed myself, and enjoyed the beers, far more than I did at the GBBF. I could say much more, but Simon has said it all, and very well.

The porter in Majorca tastes like what it oughter

If you want a single statistic that shows how the craft beer movement has become a world-wide phenomenon, let it be this: there are now seven eight craft breweries on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

Miquel and Felipe Amorós of Beer Lovers brewery, Alcuida, Majorca

Miquel and Felipe Amorós of Beer Lovers brewery, Alcuida, Majorca

They are part of the spectacular rise in new small breweries which means  almost 300 craft breweries across the whole of Spain, 600 in France, 800 in Italy and so on.

Life is a little different on Majorca from, say, Italy, where Italian craft brewers are making much-admired pilsner-style brews: no Mallorcan brewer makes a lager, simply because they could not compete with the Spanish giants, Estrella Damm and Mahou San Miguel, on price, but all seem to make a wheat beer (“blat” in Catalan), which is evidently seen as the entry-level craft beer for locals, and there are pale ales, IPAs, and speciality beers. Most breweries seem to be bottle-only, although Beer Lovers in Alcuida, in the north of the island, kegs some of its pale ale. The quality is very occasionally dodgy, as you would expect from operations with hand-bottling lines, but then, of the last five pints of cask ale I was offered in London, one was cloudy as a wet weekend in Wicklow and another tasted like it had been brewed by Sarsons, so quality is not just a Mallorcan problem.

Sullerica Original, flavoured with rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms – 'flor de taronger' in Catalan

Sullerica Original, flavoured with rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms – ‘flor de taronger’ in Catalan

I managed to find beers from six of the island’s brewers, and generally the Mallorcan craft beers were a vastly better choice than their eurolager opponents. Several were excellent: I particularly liked the brews from the Sullorica brewery, in Sóller, in the west of the island, which makes a very good wheat beer flavoured with local lemon peel, and an equally fine amber ale, Original, which includes rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms, though I was disappointed not to find the beer brewed with bitter olives the brewery was apparently making last year. I also had a first-class sour cherry beer, Cor de Cirera, from the Cas Cerveser brewery in Galilea, about eight miles to the west of Palma, which is aged for a year in French oak barrels that had previously contained red wine from the Bodegas Son Puig in nearby Puigpunyent.

Of course, the vast majority of beer consumed in Majorca is still big-brand eurolager, or, if you’re in somewhere like the fake Irish bars of Cala D’Or, keg Guinness. You can find Mallorcan craft beers in some of the island’s large supermarkets, in specialist shops, in restaurants that like to offer Mallorcan food and in Majorca’s craft beer bars, though I’d advise you to check out the brewers’ websites for advice on where their beers are available bewfore you go hunting. I was lucky and met a Barcelonan beer blogger called Joan Vilar-i-Martí, of the Catalan beer blog, earlier this year in Poland, who sent me details of Mallorcan brewers and bars. I only managed to visit one of the bars he recommended, Lórien in Palma: I normally keep at least the length of three or four bargepoles between me and bars with names taken from Tolkein, but this small, dark, hidden-away place, now 25 years old, is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city: the beers on draught when I was there included examples from Italy, mainland Spain (from Pamplona, an excellent sour wheat beer, though definitely not the “hefeweizen” it claimed to be) and Ireland.

The outside of the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcuida

The outside of the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida

I also visited the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida, in the north of Majorca, which was founded in 2012 by Miquel Amorós Crawford and his brother Felipe, sons of a Mallorcan father and a mother who is half Welsh and half English. The brewery is down a narrow street, hard to find even with the help of Google Maps, in the heart of the attractive centre of old Alcúida, in a former barn built of the local honey-coloured limestone, attached to a house that has been owned by the family for 300 years, and it was not until I was ten yards from the front door and smelt the unmistakable aromas of mashing malt that I knew I was close to my target. Originally, the barn, which still has troughs on one wall for animal food, “was where the horse and cart were kept – it was full of stuff, so we emptied it, and added a bit – we couldn’t touch much, because all the old buildings are protected,” Miquel says. “We put in a new floor, but the floor had to be like the old house’s floor, the walls have to be built of the same old stone.”

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Strange Tales of Ale – ideal summer reading for the beach-bound beer fan

Of all the different styles of books about beer, the old-fashioned anecdotal ramble, as exemplified by John Bickerdyke’s classic Curiosities of Ale and Beer from 1889, or Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles from the 1970s, seems to be the rarest. I’m delighted, therefore, to be able to add to the genre with Strange Tales of Ale, a collection of 28 stories involving beer, brewing, breweries or pubs in some way.

Regular readers of this blog will have come across many – though not all – of the stories in Strange Tales of Ale here over the years, as the book is a bit of a “best of Zythophile” collected between hard covers. There’s the Great London Beer Flood of 1814, of course; the story of Spitfires ferrying beer to the D-Day troops in their fuel tanks; why England’s aristocrats brewed beer that was meant to be laid down and only drunk after 21 years; the mystery of the yard of ale; the true origins of the Red Lion as a pub name (with a picture of the attractive Art Deco innsign from the Red Lion, Fulwell, my local); the most notorious brewer in history; what to order in a Victorian public house; the history of the ploughman’s lunch; what Pliny the Elder really said about hops; how the Dove in Hammersmith got its tiny public bar; pea beer; the British National Dinner, and others that are among my personal favourites from the 300-plus posts, totalling more than 600,000 words, that I’ve stuck up here over the past eight years. There are a couple you might not have read even if you have been a Zythophile follower since 2007, on Dutch Schultz, the beer baron of Brooklyn (here’s a beer trivia question for you – which New York brewer, born in Leeds, was played on film by Bob Hoskins?) and on “the brewery that salami-sliced itself to death”.

If you’re looking for some beery holiday reading for yourself, or a birthday or Christmas present for someone you know likes beer, and reading, can I recommend STOA? Indeed, I’d hope you don’t even have to like beer to enjoy the book: the tales are in themselves engrossing, from the link between beer and bridal gowns to how the Jerusalem Tavern near Smithfield became the Trigger’s Broom of pubs to potboys in literature and art.

Strange Tales of Ale is published by Amberley Publishing, and costs £12.99 hardback, £7.80 as an ebook (unlike Amber Gold and Black, my last book, from a different publisher, I get rather less of a royalty on the ebook version of STOA than on the Finnish forest version, so I’m happier for you to go traditional …) You can support small businesses and buy it from my good friend Paul at Beer Inn Print here or if you don’t mind tax-dodging conglomerates you can put more money in my pockets by buying it though my Amazon Associates page here. (Or, if you’re in North America, The Dove(s), Hammersmith circa 1880

A rare picture of The Dove, Hammersmith – then still the Doves – when the landlord was Samuel Richardson Gamble, the name on the (birdless) signboard, some time between at least 1874 and January 1881, the month the licence was handed over to Henry Thomas Saunders. The window to what became the smallest public bar in Britain is on the right of the door. If you look at a modern picture of the pub, you can see the bracket for the innsign is still the same piece of wrought iron, albeit with a bit missing …