How a 12-year-old brewery is having to show it’s not too old to be down with the kids …

Quick: what’s the oldest microbrewery in London?

The answer, to stop you looking it up, is Twickenham, which despite not even being a teenager yet, today, after the sale of Meantime, bears the mantle of the capital’s currently longest surviving independent new brewery. Which is more of a burden than you might at first reckon.

The brewery produces some lovely, and deservedly highly regarded cask and bottled beers: Naked Ladies, named for a set of statues of nymphs in a public garden by the Thames, is an excellent and locally very popular American-influenced 4.4 per cent alcohol best bitter, firmly but lightly flavoured with Celeia and Chinook hops, a good session brew and a reliable banker found on bar tops across West London and, in its bottled version, in a large number of off-licences around its home area, including Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as well as Majestic Wine outlets nationally.

naked-ladiesBut the brewery’s full name – Twickenham Fine Ales – is a reflection of the astonishingly different environment in which it was founded, just a dozen years ago. We’ve forgotten, I think, how unlike today the British beer scene was when Tony Blair was prime minister and Michael Howard leader of the Conservative Party. Beer in Britain went through a complete spin-around in 2009/2010, and I suspect, we can only look back now, half a decade on, and think: “Wow – what happened there?” We all saw these new breweries opening from 2009 onwards, in London in particular, we all saw how they were highly influenced by what was happening in the United States, with massively hoppy beers, big stouts, sour beers, strange obscure offerings such as Gose, and oriented towards keg delivery, towards cans, towards 33cl bottles kept in the chiller, and I’m not sure we were able to see quite what a caesura, a total break, this was in the history of British brewing, what a revolution was happening around us. “Fine Ales”? Grandad, that’s so 20th century.

The problem for Twickenham in this new environment is that however good its beers, they look a little less than cutting edge alongside, say, Beavertown and its graphically furious cans. It is not through chance that Twickenham’s new West London rival, the Wimbledon brewery, sells its beers in 33cl bottles that sit without appearing out of place in the chiller cabinet together with craft beer offerings from around the world, while Twickenham’s ales, in their 50cl bottles, have to go and squat with the Wadworths, the Ringwoods, the Timothy Taylor’s – all beers your dad drinks.

The result, Ben Norman, Twickenham’s sales and marketing director, told me when I visited the brewery last week, was that bar owners today say to him: “I love your beers, but I can’t stock them – they’re not right for my outlets.”

Completely revolutionising the line-up is clearly not the answer: Twickenham’s current beers have too many (admittedly older) fans. So to try to get into bars where the brewery’s “old school” beers do not currently fit, it has just launched an entirely separate brand of “craft beers”, on keg and in 33cl bottles, with totally different imagery, and with the “Twickenham” name barely visible. The beers are being sold under the Old Hands brand, the idea being that even 12 years is four times the experience many London breweries currently have, with the tagline “Old Hands, New Brews”, and an emphasis that they come from “London’s oldest microbrewery”.

I’m strongly biased in favour of Twickenham: I’ve been a big fan since it opened in 2004 in premises less than half a mile from my then house. What I like about the brewery’s beers is the unfussed competence they exhibit: founder Steve Brown seems always to have been able to hire brewers who are totally on top of the job. Don’t necessarily trust me, therefore, when I say that the first batch of Old Hands beers is a terrific start that deserves to do very well: they may all be new styles to the brewery, but that “house competence” is still there, and not one is a disappointment or a distress.

Old Hands DIPA: nicely restrained

Old Hands DIPA: nicely restrained

I have to say, though, I’m not totally convinced about the branding: I’m a long way from the target audience, “typically younger craft beer drinkers”, being an untypically older craft beer and traditional ales as well drinker, but it seems to me that downplaying the Twickenham name is an error. The brewery has a reputation for quality, and making the Twickenham name more prominent would have helped introduce the Old Hands range to fans of Twickenham’s current, more traditional beers without putting off younger drinkers, I believe, while Twickenham’s reputation for quality brews would reassure everybody that the new line-up was worth risking an experiment.

Do, certainly, try for yourself. The Old Hands range has one beer designed to be a regular, Session IPA, 4.7 per cent abv, hopped with Mosaic, just 25 IBUs but buckets of flavour, as good a lower-gravity American Pale Ale as you’ll find in a very long journey, plus four others that will change regularly, according to Ben Norman, although I’ve tried them all and I reckon there are at least a couple that popular demand will insist be made part of the permanent line-up. The others, currently, are Strawberry Saison, 6 per cent, made with 300kg of strawberries, with the strawberries, as you would expect from Twickenham, perfectly balanced in a refreshing pale brew with just the right amount of tartness; Coconut Porter, made with 150kg of roasted coconut (a bugger to get out of the brewing vessels afterwards) and 50kg of cocoa nibs, which was extremely drinkable even for me, and I’m right at the back of the queue for the coconut beer fanclub; Rauch Beer, another style at the very bottom of my personal love-list, but made once again with Twickenham’s signature precision touch, so that again, even I enjoyed it; and a Double IPA at 8.6 pr cent, made with the help of the award-winning home brewer Fraser Withers from up the Thames at West Molesey, with Mosaic, Simcoe and (a new one to me) Azacca* hops, to give 70 IBU. Eminently drinkable, like all Twickenham beers, this is that almost paradox, a restrained DIPA. If other dippers are a hollering din, the Old Hands version is a pleasant and refined conversation on the virtues of masses of hops in a small glass.

We’ve not seen a shake-out yet in the London brewing scene, though numbers do now seem to have at least stabilised. While there will always be a market for the new (hence the decision to make Old Hands a revolving line-up), I can’t see anything but an increasing requirement for quality and reliability as the craft beer market matures, and not just because they’re my local brewery, I think Twickenham is in a great place to thrive with both its “dad” beers and its new “craft” line. And maybe they will eventually feel they can make the Twickenham name a bit bigger on the Old Hands labels …

* Named for the Haitian god of agriculture and developed by the American Dwarf Hop Association: a cross between the Japanese hop Toyomidori and an unknown variety, Toyomidori itself being a cross between Northern Brewer (a Golding descendant) and a wild American hop developed at Wye College in Kent and known as OB79, which appears in several hop family trees.

How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen

It’s a grand and globe-trotting life being a beer blogger. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.

I am honorable – it's official

I am the honorable  Martyn Cornell – it’s official

The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.

Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.

Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery?

The view from the bottom of the street where Joe's taproom is based. British readers will know the cartoon section in the opening credits of the satirrical programme Have I Got News For You, where one scene shows a Chinese lad in a paddy field suddenly surprised as skyscrapers burst up around him. He gives a grin and a thumbs-up, then starts coughing violenly as the piollution rolls out. That's the story of Shenzhen

The view from the bottom of the street where Joe’s taproom is based. British readers will know the cartoon section in the opening credits of the satirical programme Have I Got News For You, where one scene shows a Chinese lad in a paddy field suddenly surprised as skyscrapers burst up around him. He gives a grin and a thumbs-up, then starts coughing violenly as the pollution rolls out. That’s the story of Shenzhen

Finding Joe’s brewery, which is called BionicBrew, was its own adventure: I had downloaded and printed a map before I left Hong Kong, and the nice people at my hotel in Aberdeen, on the south side of the island, wrote instructions on it in Chinese: but the taxi driver I picked up at the Huanggong border crossing (after being stiffed 304 yuan – about £25 – for a one-day visa) still got wildly lost, leaning out of the window to shout questions at street cleaners in big conical hats and guards in security booths: you didn’t need to speak Putonghua to understand their replies, clearly variations on “never heard of it, mate.” Eventually it occurred to him to copy the address onto his phone and search for it on the Chinese version of Google Maps. Five satnav-guided minutes later and I was out of the taxi and in the street where BionicBrew’s taproom bar was based.

BionicBrew logoExcept that I wasn’t: I was actually in the next street along. But St Arnold was looking after me: in the mini-coach that has brought me from Hong Kong to the border I had met an American who teaches young Shenzhen science postgraduates at the local university how to write their theses and doctoral submissions in good scientific English. He knew the brewery, had been to its own beer festival two weeks ago, and had told me the taproom was based in a pedestrianised street lined with restaurants. This clearly didn’t match the alley I was now in: but when I walked round the corner, I found the target. No Joe, though: the shutter was down on the bar. He had not received my messages saying I had arrived in Shenzhen. Still, clouds, silver linings: while I waited for him in the Guangdong heat, I walked out into the main road and found a supermarket that was selling, to my delight, Snow beer. Not that Snow beer is delightful, it’s a bland straw-pale lager, but it’s the biggest-selling beer in China, and therefore the world, and I had never drunk it, as you can’t find it in Hong Kong. It’s a bizarre boast, I know, but I have now drunk the most popular beer on the planet and I bet you haven’t.

Dave Byrn

Dave Byrn of Pasteur Street Brewery, Saigon

When I got back to the bar, Dave Byrn had turned up, along with his sales manager from the Pasteur Street brewery, Mischa Smith, a rotund, chuckling former barman from Ontario via South Korea. Dave, previously of Cigar City Brewing in Florida, looks like the photograph you’d find in a picture dictionary under the entry “American craft brewer”: big, muscular, bushy-bearded and bald-headed. I had barely consumed any of my Snow when Joe arrived, accompanied by his brewer, a thin, blond, friendly Russian called Dmitrii Gribov – Mitch for short – from the city of Perm, in the Urals. A trestle table from outside the front of the bar was dragged into the shade in the centre of the street and a large jug containing an excellent American pale ale brought out from Joe’s bar, and as local children ran about playing ball games and ignoring the international collection of gweilos in their midst, we talked about the problems and promises of the Asian microbrewing market (number one threat: finding suitable premises; number one opportunity: the growing desire of increasingly wealthy consumers in the East for craft beer); how the rapid growth of Shenzhen means buildings are constantly being torn down and new, taller ones whipped up in their place (right opposite Joe’s street was a large open space where, he told us, a big and not particularly old building had stood until last month, when it was demolished to make way for something newer: in the distance, through the smoggy haze, more tall buildings, each accompanied by cranes, could be seen rising skywards); and why there was a brewpub called Peko immediately next door to BionicBrew’s bar (Joe actually leases the space to Peko, having decided the entire premises he was renting was too large for his own sole use.)

Joe outside the brewery entrance: that's the brewery 'dray' on the left

Joe outside the brewery entrance: that’s the brewery ‘dray’ on the left

Another jug of excellent beer later, it was time to walk the short distance to the brewery. This is easily the strangest brewery premises I have been in: two adjacent apartments on the ground floor of a tall and rather run-down block of flats in the middle of a residential area. When Joe was first shown round by the landlord, families still lived in them. Astonishingly, the other residents don’t seem to mind having a brewery in the heart of their apartment block, though apparently there were some complaints about the smell of hops when it opened, to Joe’s surprise: “That’s the best smell there is!”, he says. The space is cramped, but Joe and his team are making terrific beers from a mixture of home-made and manufactured-in-China kit.

Joe Finkenbinder in the BionicBrew 'brewhouse' (brewflat?)

Joe Finkenbinder in the BionicBrew ‘brewhouse’ (brewflat?)

Dmitrii Gribov inside the BionicBrew brewery

Dmitrii Gribov inside the BionicBrew brewery

Black plums, otherwise wu mei, Prunus mume

Black plums, otherwise wu mei, Prunus mume

Black sesaei seeds

Black sesame seeds

The collaboration beer we were there to brew was named in reference to the dispute between Vietnam and China over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, with each country claiming ownership of the two archipelagos. Since the islands are in the middle of the salty sea, then Disputed Waters needed to be a salty beer – a gose, Leipzig’s great contribution to world beer styles. And since this was East Asia, it needed Asian ingredients alongside the hops and malted wheat and barley. As an extra twist, this was a black gose, about which there is bound to be dispute (geddit?), so to go with the two per cent of melanoidin malt the added ingredients were black as well: black sesame seeds, black soy sauce, for saltiness and flavour, and dried black plums, which I believe were wu mei, otherwise known as Chinese plums, Prunus mume, used in Chinese medicine and described as sour, and astringent in flavour. (There was meant to be Vietnamese sea salt in the brew as well, but la la, the guys from Ho Chi Minh City had left it behind …)

Dmitrii stirs while I pretend to be a real brewer and add some of the grain

Dmitrii stirs while I pretend to be a real brewer and add some of the grain

Alas, alas, like Cinderella I had a midnight deadline, which was when my pumpkin coach, in the shape of a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787, was taking off from Hong Kong Airport to fly back to London, where I had to be at work the next morning. To allow for getting through the Shenzhen traffic and possible delays at the border, I needed to leave early, with just enough time to pour some of the malt into the mashtun and thus claim I too had collaborated in the brew, and no time at all, sadly, to go back to Joe’s bar and enjoy more beers and more chat about brewing. If you’re reading this in a few week’s time and you drank Disputed Waters, please leave a comment on how it tasted.

I’d like to thank Joe and his team for their tremendous hospitality and friendliness, which could not have been bettered (just like the beers), and also thank Jonathan So very much indeed for inviting me back to Hong Kong and providing me with free accommodation. If you’re in Shenzhen, or even Hong Kong, do go and visit the BionicBrew taproom, you won’t regret it.

The secrets to Cloudwater’s success

You would need to be living under an upturned barrel for the past year not to have spotted the phenomenal rise in reputation of Cloudwater Brew Co, the Manchester-based craft brewery started by James Campbell, formerly head brewer at the city’s Marble Brewery, and the hipster entrepreneur Paul Jones. Cloudwater is not even 18 months old, but already spoken of alongside Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic Rock and other top stars of the British craft brewing scene. It was voted best new English brewery of 2015 by Ratebeer, and its beers, especially its collaborations, score extremely highly on rating sites.

Nobody gets that level of buzz without something extremely interesting going on, so I was eager to get down to the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham and hear Paul Jones talk about the rise of Cloudwater at one of the shop’s regular “Meet the brewer” sessions. Good beer alone is not enough to be a storming success in such a short time. Paul confirmed this with a presentation lasting an hour and a half which made it clear that Cloudwater’s rise is powered by a clear and focused vision on the beers it wants to brew and a ferocious dedication to critical self-analysis that means pulling every beer apart and analysing how closely it came to fulfilling the brief set out for it in terms of delivering to specification, and then working out what would need to be done next time to get closer to the brief. It’s a management philosophy I suspect springs from Paul Jones’s background in the engineering side of the music business, and it certainly looks as if Cloudwater has brought a level of conscious business and management sophistication to the British craft brewing scene that makes most new brewery start-ups look like shambling amateurs. Possibly because most new brewery start-ups are shambling amateurs, one might conclude. And again, I may be wrong, but I detect the influence of a music industry background in Cloudwater’s clear commitment to never stepping into the same stream twice: the idea that 2015’s beers are done and away, and all that matters now are 2016’s beers, just like last year’s musical hits are so last year.

The result is a regularly altering line-up of kudos-winning beers that have gained Cloudwater masses of publicity and a hugely dedicated following. Their popularity also makes the beers frequently hard to obtain: I had not been able to find any Cloudwater products before the Twickenham “meet the brewer” session. That makes my take on the beers unfair, since you really can’t properly judge a brewer on just one evening. It’s clear why they are so popular: almost all were sharply focused, clear, clean and faultless. Faultless to a fault, almost: “beautiful” is not the same as “characterful”. But I need to drink more Cloudwater brews over more evenings to decide if this is a valid criticism.

I was going to copy-edit Paul Jones’s Q&A presentation at Twickenham down to merely “long read” rather than “massive over-the-top read”, but I decided people would find something insightful in all he said – he’s a very articulate, enormously enthusiastic man – so here it is, complete: more than 9,000 words. Settle down with a beer: Continue reading

Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result. Continue reading

Will Big Lager one day go the same way as Big Porter?

I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at th rear and protect the wearer's jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) - from the anonymously-written Real Life in London, 1821

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at the rear and protect the wearer’s jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) – from the anonymously written Real Life in London, 1821

Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”

In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins, then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.

A couple of ads for Charrington's XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

A couple of ads for Charrington’s XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.

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Ciao Biella: an Italian family brewery woos the bloggerati

You can hardly get fresher beer than from a bottle snatched off the production line by the managing director of the brewery, only seconds after it had been filled and capped – and, indeed, it’s excellent, cold, refreshingly flavourful and welcome, even at 10.30 in the morning. Mind, there are few or no Anglo-Saxon breweries where this would be possible, since health’n’safety barriers would be in place to prevent anyone from being able to reach across into the filling machinery and grab a passing bottle from the conveyor. However, this is Italy: while in a British brewery everybody would be forced into hi-vis jackets, ear protectors and goggles, here, where life is visibly more relaxed, visitors can wander about unworried by the HSE.

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

I am at Menabrea (pronounced roughly “MENahBRAYah”), one of the few surviving family-run Italian breweries, with roots that go back to before Italy was a single country. Menabrea is based in the town of Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps, 40 miles from Turin to the south-west and 50 miles from Milan to the east. It is a town of 46,000 people, with soft water coming down from the Alps that, with plenty of nearby pastureland for sheep, has encouraged a local woollen industry: the town is home to Cerruti and Fila, among others. That same soft water is also very good for brewing lagers.

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

The brewery was started in 1846 by a couple of cafe owners, Antonio and Gian Battista Caraccio, and Antoine Welf, from Gressoney in the Aosta valley, to the north-west of Biella. Welf was a Walser, that is, a speaker of the Walliser dialect of German found in the Swiss canton of Valais and surrounding territories such as Aosta. Welf disappears, and in 1854 the Caraccio brothers started leasing the brewery in Biella to another Walser, Anton Zimmermann, also from Gressoney, and his compatriot Jean Joseph Menabreaz (sic), who were already running a brewery in the town of Aosta itself. Piedmont – and Aosta – were at that time part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy, but in 1861, with some help from the French and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, was able to declare himself King of a more-or-less united Italy. Three years later, in 1864, Zimmermann and Menabreaz – now, post-unification, with Italianised first names, Antonio and Giuseppe, and, in the latter’s case, a more Italian-looking surname as well, with the final “z” disappearing – bought the brewery in Biella from the Caraccios.

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Why Meantime sold up to SAB Miller – the inside story

PrintMeantime Brewing’s surprise sale to SAB Miller, the second largest brewing company in the world, was prompted by a growing realisation at the Greenwich-based craft brewer that it did not have the resources and capability itself to move on up to the next stage of its growth journey, the company’s chief executive has revealed.

Nick Miller, who joined Meantime as CEO in 2011, said that he and Alastair Hook, the company’s founder, and the rest of the board were already looking at a tie-up with a big brewer as one of the strategic options that could be followed to enable the company to grow further. “We were on the cusp of making a decision that partnership was a better route than going to refinance,” he said. “I think we may have gone to a process later this year, could have gone for a float, could have gone for private equity money, could have gone to AIM, though that’s a hugely costly and time-consuming exercise, could have gone for a joint venture with a PE house, could have sold out to a major brewer, could have gone crowd-funding, could have borrowed money from the bank. But it’s a bit more than just a financial requireement. It’s ‘have you got the brewing capability, the engineering capability, the route-to-market capability, the global reach capability?’

“The financial side wasn’t that much of an issue to us, because we’ve got a very good relationship with our bank. They’ve been trying to chuck money at us for a while now. It was more about, ‘how do you sustain the growth, relative to the capabilities within the organisation?’ That was the key strategic challenge for us, and the partnership with SAB really helps with that.”

A chance meeting in March this year began the process that led to the sale, Miller revealed: “A very old friend of mine, who I had worked with, was having his 50th birthday party, and he rang me up and said, ‘I’d like to buy some pale ale to complement Peroni at my party.’ So he came over, and we sat down and had a beer and a bite to eat, and he said, ‘What are you doing with the business?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re coming to a stage where we need to look at capability and resources. We’ve got a number of options, we could do it ourselves, but we might be better off with a partnership with a brewer that gives us the capabilities that we need.’ Four or five days later his boss at SAB Miller came to me and said, ‘Look, here’s an opportunity for you, would you consider it?'”

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Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look

The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

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I have found a beer women will like – and, ironically, it’s pink

Oh, irony. It’s only a very short time since I mocked Nick Fell, marketing director at SABMiller, for sharing with us, in a presentation about getting more women to drink beer, the “duh, really?” statement that “no one wants a pink beer, including ladies.” But now I have discovered a beer I’m sure very many women will like – and it’s pink.

Not that they’ll like it because of its colour, of course: they’ll like it because it’s a very fine beer, with great depth and complexity of flavour, a beautiful deep bassoon-like bitterness (in contrast to the violins-and-saxophones bitterness of hoppier beers) giving structure to a sweetness that is laced through with liquorish and dark green herbal flavours. How do I know women will like it? Because when I sampled a bottle myself, right after thinking: “This is an extraordinarily good beer”, my next thought was: “I bet Mrs Z would enjoy it” – and not only did she enjoy it greatly, she relieved me of the rest of the bottle, consuming it all herself. Mrs Z is rarely a beer-drinker, touching only the very occasional pils and the even more occasional wheat brew. So if she loves a beer that I think is great too, you can bet we have a genuine cross-party vote-winner.

It's pink, but this ain't no Barbie brew

It’s pink, but this ain’t no Barbie brew

What is this beer? It’s Crazy Viking, one of the brews I brought back from my trip to Denmark last month to talk at the conference on Ny Nordisk Øl, or “New Nordic Beer”, it’s made by Det Lille Bryggeri or Little Brewery, from the small village of Bringstrup, just outside Ringsted, in the middle of the Danish island of Zealand (the one Copenhagen sits on), and it’s a deep ruddy pink because it contains considerable quantities of beetroot (red beet, to Americans) and beetroot extract, added both into the wort before boiling and in the fermentation tank. It also has in it masses of liquorice and nettles, those two giving most of the bitterness, I’m guessing, and only an “extremely limited” amount of hops. Beetroot is about seven per cent sugar, of course, and doubtless that helps to lift the abv of the beer up to 7.9%.

Det Lille Bryggeret’s brewer, René Hansen, has made beers with beetroot as his contribution to the New Nordic food and beer culture movement: the first, with just beetroot and nettles, was called Red Viking, and the one I drank (until Mrs Z stole it from me) has liquorice as well and is called Crazy Viking. It’s the second New Nordic Beer movement-inspired brew to completely blow me away, after the Hø Øl (hay ale) from the Herslev Bryghus I mentioned here (more irony: the Herlsev guys are now having to fight their local bureaucrats, who are trying to ban them from putting hay in their beer on the grounds that it’s not a listed food ingredient under EU regulations. I’ve sent them a copy of a page from Thomas Tryon’s book published in England in the 1690s that mentions hay ale, to show it’s an old tradition – hope it helps, it’s a marvellous beer.)

Crazy Viking logoI’m not sure the Crazy Viking beer name would recommend itself to women drinkers, and nor, probably, would the beer’s bottle label, with its image of an utterly sloshed Viking, one helmet horn drooping. But the liquid itself is an example of what a number of people have suggested since Nick Fell raised the spectre of the missing female beer drinker again back in October: that if there is going to be a style of beer that will appeal to a broader spectrum of women than drink beer now, it certainly won’t be one made by a giant corporation setting out deliberately to capture that market, and it’s much more likely to be the result of an accidental spin-off from a craft brewer or group of craft brewers, like the Ny Nordisk Øl crowd, making a beer that everybody agrees is great, regardless of gender.

Which gives me an excuse to rerun on this blog the dreadful history of the efforts brewers in the UK have made – unsuccessfully – to target women drinkers for three decades, sometimes with, yes, pink beer. For the history of beer marketing is littered with the smoking wrecks of attempts to get females to drink more beer, dating back to the 1980s.

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Young’s pubs sell a million pints of craft beer in six months

Craft beer taps at the Narrow Boat in Islington, a Young's pub

Craft beer taps at the Narrow Boat in Islington, a Young’s pub

One fascinating statistic popped up when I was talking to Stephen Goodyear, chief executive of Young’s, this week for the day job: Young’s pubs sold a million pints of craft beer in the six months to September 29 this year.

That’s “craft beer” defined as “kegged beers made by small brewers”, in Young’s case, pretty much Meantime and Camden Brewery. To save you working it out, across Young’s 240 or so pubs, that’s equal to not quite two 50-litre kegs a week per pub of beers such as Camden Hells Lager and Meantime London Pale Ale. Since quite a few Young’s pubs don’t sell draught craft, that probably means those that do are indeed getting through two kegs a week or more. It’s also the equivalent of 7,000 barrels a year – there are plenty of small breweries in the UK that don’t even brew that much on their own.

Is that making any difference to Young’s cask ale sales? Well, according to Goodyear, cask-conditioned beer is still around 25 per cent of the total beer sold in Young’s pubs, which is considerably higher than the national average of 16 per cent (more than half as much again, in fact). Some of that is cask beer from other people, but beer branded “Young’s” as a proportion of that is about four to one. So 20% of draught volume in Young’s pubs is still Young’s beers: Special, Ordinary, Winter Warmer and the like.

Not, of course, that Young’s brews those beers any more: since it cashed in on the value of the brewery site in the heart of Wandsworth, they’ve been brewed in Bedford, by Charles Wells. But Goodyear was adamant that having a Young’s beer offer, even if the company still doesn’t brew the beer itself, is still “very important: Young’s beer has been in Young’s pubs for the thick end of 200 years and we always want to keep that going. Wells have done a great job brewing the beers, and I think it’s better than it’s ever been, frankly.”

Not, I’m sure, that many of the more Taliban-esque Camra members will agree, but haters gotta hate, and since the demise of Whitbread, Watney’s and the rest, Camra’s tiny minority of haters have turned to hating the big family brewers who were once the heroes, such as Fuller’s and Wells. Fortunately, they make no difference to the success of a company such as Young’s, which runs some of my personal favourite pubs and sells some of my personal favourite beers, and which saw revenues for the 26 weeks to 29 September up 7.8% in total, to £116.6m, and up 6.9% on a like-for-like basis.