You’ll have seen, I’m guessing,
the row that has exploded over the ban just announced by the Portman Group, the alcohol industry’s
self-appointed regulatory body, on the Bristol-based brewery Lost and
Grounded’s “India Pale Lager” Running with Sceptres for breaching
paragraph 3.2 (h) of its code by appealing to children.
The problem is the
artwork, which features cartoon animals, and despite Lost and Grounded
insisting that these were NOT cartoon animals but ” artistic illustrations”, the Portman
Group disagreed, declared that “the prominence and anthropomorphic
character of the animals on this specific packaging created a particular appeal
to children,” thus offending against its Code of Practice on the Naming,
Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks. As a result, the on and off-trade
has been asked not to order Running with Sceptres until the packaging is
changed. More than 150 companies are signed up to the code of practice,
covering almost all the drinks industry.
I am certainly no fan of the Portman Group and its frequently nonsensical decisions. But I suggest that if you want to try to fight its actions against brewers it deems are breaking its code, Running with Sceptres is NOT a good ditch to die in. Can you honestly say their tiger bears no resemblance to Shepard’s Tigger? Is it not the case that the whole illustration looks like an homage to Where the Wild Things Are?
Indeed, the artwork for Running with
Sceptres could hardly have broadcast the message “report me to the Portman
Group for appealing to kids” more loudly if those words had actually been
printed on the can.
The reason for the Portman
Group’s existing is to prevent any statutory body being set up to oversee
alcohol advertising and marketing, and the Portman Group will thus always act
tough, to forestall criticism, and to avoid having itself replaced by a regulatory
committee imposed on the industry by the government.
Having just come back from
Norway, where alcohol marketing is so restricted by law – banned completely,
basically – that some places even ban tap handles with beer names on, and
brewery T-shirts, I can tell you: actual civil servants and government
employees telling you what you can and cannot do to promote your beer is NOT
something you want.
Though we can agree that the
decision in this case is stupid, wrong, restrictive and nonsensical, I cannot
say, when I saw the illustration on the can, that I was surprised at the
decision the Portman Group made. Angered, yes. Surprised, no. This is a game of
appearances, and it can’t be denied there’s a massive similarity of appearance
between the Running with Sceptres artwork and the kind of artwork found in
Pete Brown wrote in a tweet: “Guidelines state [artwork] shouldn’t have particular appeal to under-18s. Of the people into Winnie the Pooh, and then the subset of those who have been exposed to the style of illustration [on the can], what data exists that can show they are mostly under 18?” Logically, of course, he’s absolutely correct. The complaint, and the Portman Group’s response, are nonsense. But actual facts are irrelevant here.
There is a legitimate position in declaring: “Why
shouldn’t we use whatever artwork we like on our cans and bottles? What actual evidence
is there that such artwork will encourage under-18s to drink the
contents?” And you’d be right. But in the real world, there will always be
those wowsers who will declare that such images COULD encourage children to
pick up the can or bottle and sample what’s inside, and the Portman Group will
always head those people off and ban such images, in the frankly justifiable
fear that if it isn’t seen to be banning such images, then some politician will
declare that industry self-regulation has failed, and state regulation will be
brought in instead.
So: if you don’t want state regulation of the advertising and
marketing of alcohol, don’t give the wowsers reasons to complain by using
cartoon images on your cans and bottles that would not look out of place in the
children’s section of a bookshop. And if you feel that restricts your artistic
liberty, I really don’t have any sympathy: I’d rather see cartoon teddies and
tigers banned from beer bottles than a Norwegian-style total prohibition on any
sort of advertising or marketing.
A couple of years back, in the summer of 2018, I was in an argument involving assorted brewers, beer retailers and beer writers over the relative merits of an imperial stout versus a German Hell. This is, of course, like choosing which is better between apples and potatoes, or judging the attractiveness of golf versus darts: a nonsensical exercise. Except that it was the finals of the International Beer Challenge, the last two beers standing were an imperial stout and a German Hell, and one of them had to be chosen as supreme champion.
The stout party insisted that their favourite was a totally cracking example of the style – which, it’s true, it was – and no other beer on the day came near it for in-your-face slapocity. The Hell-bent, of which crew I was one, countered by saying that a good imperial stout was a relatively easy task, but a perfect Hell, the everyday lager of south Germany, was a technical challenge very, very few brewers could master, the beer in front of us was a perfect Hell, faultless, refreshing, the sort of beer you could happily drink all day without becoming bored, and for those reasons, not least the difficulty in making a beer to the high standards that particular Hell had climbed to, it was a more deserving winner of the “overall best” title than the stout was.
I’m pleased to say that the Hellers won, and the ABK brewery,
from the small South Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren walked off with the palm: a
triumph for everyday drinking over the extremophiles. Nothing wrong with
extremophilia: but palate-blasting is, in my opinion, far from the heart of
A year later, and entirely co-incidentally, I received an
invitation to visit the ABK brewery, meet its brewmaster, the unforgettably
named Bernd Trick, and enjoy plenty of Swabian hospitality, much of it liquid. Despite
travelling to Germany several times, I had never been inside a German brewery,
so this was far too good to turn down.
ABK stands for Aktien Brauerei Kaufbeuren, literally “Kaufbeuren stock (or shares) brewery”, though you won’t find many of its shares available today. The business claims to date back to at least 1308, when a Kaufbeuren citizen called “Heinrich der Twinger” (I’m guessing this is “Zwinger” in Standard German, which would make him “Henry the kennelman”) left his “Sedelhaus” (Sudhaus in modern German, the room where wort is prepared) to the local hospital (which, as the Hospitalstiftung zum Heiligen Geist, the Holy Ghost Hospital Foundation, is also still going today). That would make ABK the ninth oldest brewery in Germany. Over the next 700 years it changed hands several times, acquiring Kaufbeuren’s other breweries along the way, until by 2006 it was owned by a pair of brothers called Hans-Theodor and Peter Ralf Stritzl.
In 2013 the Stritzls sold ABK to an Anglo-American conglomerate called ROK Group, now ROKiT. The principals behind ROKiT are John Paul DeJoria, a 75-year-old Californian who made his money as co-founder of the Paul Mitchell hair products company in 1980, adding to it Patrón Tequila, one of the first “premium” tequila brands, which was bought out by Bacardi for a not unpleasant $5.1 billion in 2018; and the Shropshire-born Jonathan Kendrick, who built up his own multiple millions by helping to launch Yokohama Tyres in Europe. ROKiT now has its fingers in pies just as diverse as tyres and tequila, to wit, telecoms, brewing and Formula 1. It has enormous ambitions in both: ROKiT has signed a deal with the Indian government that could see it sell 300 million handsets, while its plans for ABK see beer production rise from the current 90,000 hectolitres or so to three million hectolitres within the next five years. To help publicise both those efforts, ROKiT is the current main sponsor of the Williams F1 racing team, which is officially named ROKiT Williams Racing.
Over lunch in the sun outside the Goldener Hirsch hotel in Kaufbeuren, ROKiT’s marketing director, Bruce Renny, told me: “German beer is basically undervalued. We asked ourselves, ‘Why?’, and the answer is that every town has its brewery. They’re very regional, and yes, the local people are passionate about their beer, and it’s ‘much better than the beer in the town down the road’. That’s how the Germans are. So we thought that we need to find a brewery that we can partner with in some way that wants to see its beer sold more than 20 miles from the brewery gates. By happenstance we came across ABK.”
ROKiT wants to make the award-winning ABK Hell bier, 5 per cent abv, known in the town as “das Blau” because the bottle labels have always been blue, its route into the global beer market. “We’re ecstatic that we won the supreme champion title at the IBC last year with this beer,” Renny said. “We intend building the ABK brand – that’s why we’re here – and we have the heritage, in spades – 710 years of it – we have the authenticity of the area.
“But at the moment we can’t even supply Germany from here. Just to put it in scale, this year the brewery here will brew about 80 to 90,000 hectolitres of beer, and 60,000 hectolitres of soft drinks for the Kaufbeuren area. Just one of the big Munich breweries alone will be doing about 6 million hectolitres a year, and they’re about 100 kilometres away. So in order to compete on scale, we don’t have the capacity right here.
“We intend to go from 90,000 hectolitres to a million,
and to three million, within the next five years. Our key markets will remain
Germany, and in no particular order, the US, China, Britain, Spain. The economics
of it are that the transportation from Kaufbeuren to Rotterdam is a cost that Heineken
doesn’t have, because they’re there. So we’re competing against globally
well-known brands with a completely unknown brand, and we’re competing
adversely on cost of production. Where we can compete is on heritage and
“There’s room to expand here – the airfield is right opposite, that was an airforce base, and is now closed. That’s one option: to build a purpose-built modern brewing facility there.” But there will be no compromise: “The core values have to be rigorously protected, so everything will be literally Reinheitsgebot, right down to the type of hops that are used, so if we need to airfreight hops about, we’ll do so. There’ll be no scrimping. What must be achieved is that the Hell beer you drink in Beijing or in Boston or in Birmingham tastes exactly the same as right here in Kaufbeuren. There can be no compromise on that.”
Germany “will remain the biggest market for the next two or
three years. The next biggest target has got to be the US, particularly the hot
states. America’s so enormous anyway, there’s no point targeting Utah. We
target California, Texas, Florida, and that alone will occupy a million
hectolitres, just those three states.
“With the rise of the craft beer market in the States,
people now want beer to taste of something. That’s fine, you can create some
wacky recipe for beer and call it an aggressive hipster name, but you can’t buy
the heritage that we have, you can’t buy the story. That just exists, in an
almost unique fashion.”
Sales are taking off, Renny says: “Until we bought this
brewery, it’s fair to say that the beer had never been sold more than 20 miles
from the brewery gates, in 710 years. We’re now exporting a container a week
into Britain alone, we have hired two people to deal with exports to the UK,
one for Spain and one for Italy. Ideally in the UK we’re targeting small
chains, because they appreciate the brand. That will grow, and it’s growing
extremely fast.” The company sponsored the London Oktoberfest as the
exclusive beer, and “we intend to use that as a catalyst to get into the
At the brewery, of course, they are very happy to be under the control of a company with ambitions. “When we acquired the brewery in 2013, in the months coming up to that we were flying in and out, talking to people, and this didn’t go unnoticed by the employees and the town as a whole, that these Auslanders – everybody knew the brewery was struggling a little bit, and they feared the worst,” Renny says. “Jonathan, on the day we acquired the brewery, firstly, before the media, he gathered the local press, every worker together, and he gave them a speech where he said, ‘Firstly, all the jobs here are safe. We will never tell you how to make beer’ – they were massively reassured with that. ‘Secondly, in five years’ time your beer will be sold in Boston, Birmingham and Beijing, under the ABK brand.’ The Germans, being highly conservative and slightly suspicious perhaps, basically shrugged, and said, ‘Well, we’ll wait and see.’ Here we are five years later, and they’re ecstatic.”
You’ll perhaps think any opinion I have on ABK and its beers is irretrievably skunked, with me having taken the company’s shilling by accepting an invite to drink at their expense. But I didn’t know who they were in 2018 when I was one of the judges campaigning for its Hell to get the “best in show” crown. If you see the “Blue” on sale, try it, I’d be very surprised if you don’t like it a lot. I certainly hope it does at least half as well as ROKiT wants, because if it does that will be an indicator that the beer market really is more interested in taste over hype now.
A few years back, when I was still involved in hospitality trade journalism, I would get occasional invites from Carlsberg to PR gigs. One was to Wembley to see England play San Marino. The match itself was the predictable turkey-stuffing (5-0) but it was the entertainment beforehand we were particularly supposed to appreciate: Northampton’s Danes had taken over part of Wembley town hall and turned it into an “If Carlsberg did pubs” pub, with unlimited free pints of lager delivered on sushi-style conveyor belts, the Lightning Seeds as the pub band and Ian Wright, Paddy McGuinness and Jeff Stelling as pre-match pundits. It was quite fun, as quite fun goes, but the big drawback was the beer: Carlsberg.
I don’t have anything against big-corporation beer in itself, but I do have a big problem with dull beer: I can’t drink it. I have a very low boredom threshold with food and drink (and most other experiences, actually) and I would literally rather drink nothing than drink more than a couple of pints of beer with no interest. And that Carlsberg: it wasn’t actually bad, or faulty, it was simply a cypher, a blank hole where beer should have been. There was no pain in drinking it, but it was a hedonistic vacuum that actively repelled me, that made me not wish to experience this beery nothing.
The one upside, I thought, was that at least I wasn’t going to get embarrassingly drunk on free beer, since I couldn’t bring myself to bring it near my mouth. So I waited, faintly bored, until the drinking was over and we could go and watch the match – which was a similar sort of experience to the beer, ironically. Had it been a ten-nil walloping, that would have been good to watch. Had it been decent opposition, that would have been good, too. But five-nil against San Marino, a country with a population the size of Letchworth: meh.
So: come forward to the present day, and the Cobblertown-based Danes are now apparently admitting that, indeed, their beer really hasn’t been up to much: the San Marino of beerdom. In the run-up to a relaunch last month of the basic 3.8 per cent abv “Green” Carlsberg, the company started retweeting tweets from drinkers comparing the beer to drinking stale breadsticks, or the bathwater your granny died in, using the increasingly popular “beat us, we’re bad” strategy marketeers seem to think makes consumers love them because they’re apparently being deeply honest, for a change. Then its VP of marketing in the UK, Liam Newton, pulled on the sackcloth, dumped a pile of ashes over his head, threw himself on his knees and wailed: “At Carlsberg UK, we lost our way. We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best. In order to live up to our promise of being ‘probably the best beer in the world’, we had to start again.” Actually, Liam, you used to say “Probably the best lager in the world”, you little fibber, not least because prosodically the two beats of “lager” make for a better-sounding slogan that the single beat of beer: cretic, trochee, spondee, cretic rather than the clunkier cretic, cretic, cretic,
Green Carlsberg is now calling itself a Danish pilsner, rather than a lager: presumably “consumer feedback” suggests “pilsner” sounds posher. Poor Bhavya Mandanna, head brewperson at Carlsberg UK, ventriloquised the following nonsense, courtesy of Carlsberg’s PR people: “Our new Pilsner has a fuller body and a perfect balance of bitterness and sweetness made possible through modifications to our brewing process and the addition of bittering hops in the brewhouse.” Wow, they’re adding bittering hops in the brewhouse! There’s innovative! Tell us more, Bhavya, and let’s see if you can say it while the PR man sits you in his knee with his hand up the back of your jacket as he swallows a pint of supposedly perfectly balanced lager: “Aroma hops with citrus and floral top notes give a greater depth of flavour whilst maintaining the light and refreshing qualities of Carlsberg.”
Enough guff. Just because PR people make it appear you’re as filled with marketing bollocks as they are, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically a bad brewer. It’s only fair to put Bhavya’s new-style Green Carlsberg in a taste-off to see how it performs. I decided to pair it against Camden Town’s new “Weeknite Any Day” lager, a 3 per cent beer I suspect only escaped being called “Everyday lager” because that would have given the Portman Group the blue giptions for suggesting you could drink every day. And the result is (the envelope, please …)
The result, I’m actually disappointed to say, is exactly what a cynic might expect. The “new” Green Carlsberg, selling for £1 a 33cl bottle in your local corner offie (that’s £1.72 a pint), is scarcely less dull than its previous incarnation. It smells of almost nothing. It tastes of almost nothing. There’s a faintly meaty, metallic aftertaste that lingers for too long. More flavour comes through as the beer opens up in the glass, but so does a bitterness just hovering on the edge of unpleasant. A slight malt sweetness is present, but the main sensation is of something massively watered down. I’m bored even thinking about it.This is NOT the future of beer, and Carlsberg are only wasting time on what should be a controlled rundown of a beer in terminal decline.
Camden Town’s Week Nite, though, is a little bit of a revelation. It’s one of a growing number of what might be called “floral” or “fruity” lagers, cold-fermented beers made with hop varieties more normally associated with warm-fermented American IPAs: Galaxy, a strongly flavoured Australian hop with lots of tropical fruit/peach aromas, Topaz, another Australian hop, with hints of clove and lychee and Mosaic, from the US, with more tropical/floral/citrus flavours – that are becoming increasingly popular – see, for example, Guinness’s Hop House 13, very likely to be already on a bar top near you just three years after its launch.
What this new style of lager is delivering is taste, something that, 20 years after the American IPA revolution, is finally becoming a mainstream demand, plus “cold refreshingness”’ something beers such as Carlsberg once had tied up and held down on the ground, but which is no longer enough. What Week Nite is delivering as well is relatively low alcohol: it used to be that a three per cent beer would have to be made with roasted or high-dried malts, like a brown ale or a dark mild or a sweet stout, to deliver flavour. Brewers are now discovering that it is possible to deliver flavour in a low-gravity beer with American-heritage hops:
Week Nite has Motueka, a New Zealand hop with Saaz in its family tree but also NZ hops to give a distinctly tropical fruits aroma, and Centennial, one of the classic American “C-hops”, adding more citrus flavours, as whirlpool hops, and it is then dry-hopped with Motueca and Centennial again, plus Cascade, another citrussy American C-hop, and left unfiltered and unpasteurised – but moves likely to increase the flavour in a low-gravity beer. The result is a somewhat austere beer with a restrained mango, physalis and passionfruit nose, mango juice in the mouth, just enough bitterness to hold it all up and the body of an ultra-marathon runner: not so much thin as wiry. That sounds harsher than I mean to be on this beer: for a three per cent alcohol brew it stands up very well, and it should hit the target market, people wanting something tasty that won’t lay them out, right in the eye. The 33cl can represents exactly one UK unit of alcohol: pace yourself and you could drink one of these every 40 minutes while staying totally sober.
You don’t have to stare too deeply into a beer-filled crystal ball to predict that (1) there will be a constant flow of launches of floral/fruity lagers, in the wake of Hop House 13, and (2) this poses big problems for the “standard” lager giants, who can’t reformat their existing beers, for fear of alienating their existing drinkers, but who are not recruiting new drinkers in enough numbers to maintain market share. The “lager louts” of the 1980s are now, to revive an old joke, becoming Saga louts, 30 years on, as they close in on their 60s, and nobody aged 18 wants to drink the beer a 60-year-old drinks. It looks like Carlsberg’s pet British micro, London Fields, has already had an attempt at a “fruity” lager with the launch of Broadway Boss, using a “traditional” hop in the boil but “a new American variety in the whirlpool to give it a lemony zing.” Unfortunately the whole first batch has had to be recalled after high levels of DMS in the final product, but they’ll be back …
What, then, do AB InBev and Heineken do, with so much invested in Stella, Budweiser, Fosters and the rest? Will we see the launch of Stella floral, of Fosters fruity, or will they try new brands entirely, using, perhaps, their recently acquired “craft” breweries as cover? Those of you at the back shouting “Camden Town is owned by AB InBev!” – yes, exactly. What we have here with Week Nite is a floral/fruity toe in the lager by AB InBev’s marketers, to see if anybody bites. If it doesn’t work, no problem: no embarrassment for the big brands. If it does, then woo-hoo, roll that baby out round the distribution network.
And on cue, *ding* into my email intray today comes a release from Shepherd Neame about its new Bear Island Triple Hopped Lager, hopped with Saaz, pretty much the standard “noble” lager hop, from Bohemia, somewhat herby, but also Challenger, a British hop with a touch of orange marmalade, and, that one again, Mosaic, for the floral/tropical/citrus delivery. There’ll be plenty more along soon.
There ARE smaller breweries that Poppyland, but not very many: the room that the 2½-barrel brewkit sits in measures about 160 square feet. Your living room is probably larger. So the “brewery tour” consists of standing in a corner and pivoting on one heel through 180 degrees. That’s it: you have now done the Poppyland experience. Maybe we should copyright it …
Poppyland, in West Street, Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast, named for the nickname given to the area around Cromer in the late 19th century, was founded by Martin Warren in 2011, and built a reputation for well-made and eclectic beers: Poppyland was probably the first brewery in the UK to brew with kveik, Norwegian farmhouse yeast, for example, and its smoked porter with smoked hops, smoked in the local fish smokery in Cromer has been very popular, while Roger Protz featured its East Beach IPA in his book IPA: A Legend in Our Time.
Martin has now decided to retire, and the brewery was bought by my brother Dave at the start of this year. It’s a small enough operation to really not need more than one man and his missus (the lovely Mandy) to run, but I have a small role as part-time adviser and consultant, probably much in the style of Harry Enfield’s Mr Only Me (“You don’t want to do it like that!”). I look forward to saying to Michael Turner some time soon: “Hello, Michael, I’m a family brewer, and you’re not …”
The brewery is in premises that were once a small garage operation, and the sign outside on the fascia that says “ALES GAS ’N LAGER” is an anagram of “ALLEN’S GARAGE”. Next to the room where the brewing takes place is another room where beer, currently, is stored, which has a tiny (really tiny) bar. The plan is to move most of the beer storage elsewhere and stick in a couple of armchairs and a pair of stools, so that a maximum of four people can be accommodated for beer tastings and the like. Unfotunately there are no lavatorial facilities on site, which limits the amount of hospitality that can be put on somewhat: I doubt the White Horse just up the road will be excited by people popping in from the brewery to use their loos …
Brewing has been slow to restart, not least because of the bureaucracy that has to be gone through. This includes, but is not limited to
● Signing up to the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme (this may involve a 45-day wait …)
● Obtaining a certificate of recognition to be a producer and holder of beer
● Obtaining a premises licence
● Obtaining a personal licence (this involves a police check, and passing an exam …)
● Obtaining permission to discharge waste
● Obtaining a licence to be a holder of acid
At the same time my brother has been undergoing a swift education in how to brew, courtesy of, among others Norfolk Brewhouse in Hindringham some 16 miles to the west of Comer.
So: hopefully, Poppyland should be ready to roll under its new owner within days. The first brew under the new management, my brother tells me, will be called Coddiwomple, which, he says, is an old English word meaning “to travel purposefully towards an as-yet-unknown destination”. I hae ma doots about that, but the motto of Poppyland since Martin Warren started it eight years ago has always been “adventures in beer start here”, and that’s certainly true. I’ll be keeping you up to date with our adventures, as we travel towards that as-yet-unknown destination …
I have a huge amount of respect for John Cryne, who had done vastly more for the cause of cask beer than I have, over four decades as an activist in the Campaign for Real Ale that includes a stint as Camra national chairman and a long period as chairman of Camra in London. I’ve known him since at least the early 1980s, when he and his wife Christine (who has also, of course, worked tirelessly to advance appreciation of cask ale, in particular as organiser of the Great British Beer Festival for many years) were pillars of the Mid Beds branch of Camra, while I was chairman of its North Herts branch. John is a highly intelligent fighter for what he believes to be right, strong and undeviating in pursuit of his aims, with fools not suffered and the faint-hearted treated with scorn. But he’s entirely wrong in his call for a picket outside the EGM that has been called by Fuller, Smith & Turner for its shareholders to vote on the take-over of the London company’s brewing operations by the Japanese giant Asahi.
We all have emotional bonds with the brands that we love – that’s exactly what brands are designed to do, to make us have a passion for the product. But turning up at an EGM with placards and banners to protest at a take-over is like turning up outside your ex-girlfriend’s house with placards and banners to protest at her dumping you. It also fundamentally misunderstands the real relationship between consumers, brands and the companies that produce them. It may feel like love to you. But to the brand owner, it’s entirely a monetary transaction – and it couldn’t, shouldn’t be anything else.
In his call for a picket of the EGM, John said the sale of Fuller’s brewing side was “a betrayal by the family shareholders who we thought were committed to brewing in London for the next two hundred years.” This really is the language of Jilted John:
I’ve been going out with a girl
Her name is Fuller’s
But last night she said to me
When we were watching telly
(This is what she said)
She said listen John, I love you
But there’s this bloke I fancy
I don’t want to two-time you
So it’s the end for you and me.
Fuller’s is not your girlfriend, shouting “Asahi’s a moron!” will get you nowhere,and the decision of the family shareholders to sell is not them betraying you: indeed, the prime and pretty much sole responsibility Fuller’s shareholders have to have is to themselves – why should it not be, they’re risking their own money in the company – and the betrayal would be turning down the £250 million that Asahi offered. If anyone felt Fuller’s owed it to its drinkers to keep independent, they don’t understand how business works. As I already pointed out, even after costs and et ceteras, that represents all the earnings Fuller’s might expect from the beer division until 2038. In the meantime it still has the pubs and hotels side of the business, which is making 87 per cent of the profits anyway.
I have great sympathy with everyone whose reaction to the news of the sale was sadness at the thought of the loss of a historic link to which they had a big emotional attachment: I have a big emotional attachment to Fuller’s myself, although I can’t agree, again, with John Cryne in declaring that “this is not an action we expected from a brewery we have respected and supported since Camra was founded.” I’m not just talking about the enormous amount of slagging Fulle’s gets from Camra members on, eg, the (unofficial) Camra Facebook page (“brown twiggy pish”). To my father’s generation – and he grew up in West London – Fuller’s in the 1950s was a brewery to avoid, nicknamed “Fuller shit and turds”. It took a long time for Fuller’s to reach Camra cult status: in 1974, just a few years after the Fuller’s board had scrapped a proposal to close the Griffin brewery and move production of all the beers to a new greenfield fizz-factory near Heathrow, the Good Beer Guide found “only a handful” of Fuller’s pubs selling cask beer. By 1975 that was just ten out of 116 tied houses. The following year the number of pubs with handpumps had risen to 16, it was 38 out of 112 in 1979 and 66 out of 122 in 1981 – still barely more than half of all the tied houses with “real ale” in them.
The numbers were rising steadily, but even in 1984 a third of Fuller’s pubs did not sell cask beer, and four years later one in ten Fuller’s pubs were still keg-only. Only by 1990 had that dropped to “a handful”, five out of 149, at which point Fuller’s had picked up a Usain Bolt-style haul of medals at the Great British Beer Festival. The brewhouse was redeveloped in the early 1990s, increasing capacity by 50 per cent, while the number of tied houses was climbing too, up past 200 by 1994. Fuller’s head brewer, Reg Drury, and his young assistant, John Keeling, were starting to experiment with new brews: 1845, based on a 150-year-old recipe, for the 150th anniversary of the Smiths and Turners joining the Fullers in the business, and Vintage Ale, a strong bottle-conditioned beer designed to be laid down and matured for years, first produced in 1997. Vintage Ale, in particular, has continued to amaze and fascinate beer commentators: the vertical tastings of different brewings of Vintage Ale in the Hock Cellar at the Griffin Brewery have been some of the finest evenings of beer I have ever been involved in.
Still, if as Jim Armitage of the Evening Standard said, “We must mourn the passing of the last great London-owned, brewed and bred beer,” it’s a process that has been happening for 120 years, since Watney’s merged with their porter-brewing rivals Reid’s of Clerkenwell and Combe’s of Covent Garden in 1898. There were 90 breweries in London in 1904, and just 10 in 2007. Tick off the great London breweries we have lost since the 1974 Good Beer Guide: Charrington’s of Mile End in 1975, Whitbread in Chiswell Street in 1976, Mann’s of Whitechapel in 1979, Courage by Tower Bridge in 1982, Truman’s in Brick Lane in 1989, Young’s in Wandsworth in 2006. Indeed, tick off the 80 or so family-owned breweries listed in the 1974 GBG: 45 have now closed, more than half, and another seven are still open but under different ownership. That’s exactly one closure a year. Of those closures, I can tell you at least a dozen that I miss deeply: Rayment’s in Hertfordshire, Hartley’s in the Lake District, Higson’s of Liverpool, Paine’s in St Neots, Ruddle’s … all gorgeous beers. And that doesn’t count the many breweries owned at that time by the Big Six that were still producing great brews: the former Fremlin’s brewery in Kent, Wethered’s in Marlow and the ex-Starkey Knight and Ford brewery in Devon, for example, all, under the Whitbread umbrella, making beers that I loved when they were around and mourned when they disappeared.
So forgive me, then, if I’m a bit mourned out, having to cope with the disappearance of dozens of beers over the decades that were all certainly up to the high standards that Fuller’s has set. That’s life. At least Fuller’s is still brewing – and there are 2,000 other breweries in Britain now, against the fewer than 200 we had in 1974. That, at least, should cheer us all up.
In view of recent events, I thought people might be interested in a short history of Asahi Breweries …
Beer was introduced into Japan by the Dutch, who were the only Europeans allowed to trade with the country after the expulsion of the Portuguese early in the 17th century, and who would take biiru with them when they made their compulsory once-a-year trip from their base in Nagasaki to the Emperor’s palace in Edo (now Tokyo). However, it was not until Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy arrived in Japan in the 1850s to try to push the shogunate into opening diplomatic relationships with the United States that the locals made any proper analysis of this new drink, after the American delegation on Perry’s second trip to Japan in 1854 presented officials with gifts including three casks of beer. Japanese opinion was divided: one called it “magic water”, while another described the beer as “bitter horse-piss wine”.
The treaties signed between Japan and the US saw Yokohama opened from 1858 as a place for European traders to settle, and in 1863 military forces from Britain and France arrived in Yokohama to protect the increasing numbers of their nationals based in the city. Two years later, according to an article published in the China Mail newspaper in Hong Kong on October 19 1878, two foreigners, one an Englishman called Campbell and the other an American called Langthorne, began to brew beer in Yokohama, at the first commercial brewery in Japan. Campbell and Langthorne are deeply obscure and nothing more seems to be known of them, not even their first names. Their business did not last long, according to the China Mail, at least in part because of increasing imports of beer from Europe and America: the newspaper wrote that “either because in those days the foreign denizens of Yokohama were so rich or so extravagant as to despise any but the produce of the famed distant vats of Burton, Edinburgh and Dublin, or because the projectors had not sufficient knowledge of their art to make their liquor palatable, or capital enough to work and wait until it had created a reputation and a market, they soon abandoned their enterprise; and the buildings they erected were subsequently pulled down.”
In 1868, however, the wonderfully named Marinus Johannes Benjamin Noordhoek Hegt, born in the Netherlands in 1821, a sea captain and merchant who came to Yokohama in 1860, opened a small brewery at No 46 Bluff, part of Yokohama’s designated European district, where there was a deep well on the site. Hegt hired as his brewer Emil Wiegand, a brewer from Germany who had emigrated from Hessen at the end of 1853, aged 19, via Bremen, arriving in New York on January 6, 1854. Wiegand was apparently naturalised in Philadelphia in 1856, and looks to have spent 11 years in the eastern US, presumably working in local German-run breweries, before leaving New York on December 1 1867 to travel to California via Nicaragua. He spent barely a year in San Francisco before moving to Japan, arriving there, according to a deposition he made later in a tribunal at the US consulate general, in 1869 after signing a contract to manage the “Japan Yokohama Brewery”.
Hegt’s brewery inspired a man called William Copeland, born Johan Bartinius – sic– Thoresen in Tromøy, in southern Norway, in May 1834, to build a brewery of his own on the site first used by Campbell and Langthorne, No 123 Bluff, which had as its chief attraction a source of “singularly pure” water, and which became known as the Spring Valley Brewery. Copeland, who had arrived in Japan in 1864 (and whose middle name changed to Martinius at some point) made his first brew in January 1870, shortly after Hegt had moved to larger premises at Bluff lot 68 in 1869. The two rival breweries ran in competition with each other until June 1876, when the owners agreed to a merger, and Copeland and Wiegand brewed at the Spring Valley Brewery site, using Bluff lot 68 as a maltings, until the maltings were destroyed by fire in 1877.
The Spring Valley Brewery made lager during the summer, and “‘English ale’, ‘Bock’ and ‘Bavarian’ beer, demanded by the better sort of customer” during the winter. The beer was exported to Tokyo, Nagasaki and other Japanese towns, and as far away as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Copeland and Wiegand brewed together as co-partners until the end of 1879, when Wiegand filed a bill with the US consular court in Yokohama for a dissolution of the partnership, alleging “fraudulent acts and other irregularities” by Copeland. The American consul general, who had the legal right to hear cases in Japan involving American citizens, found Copeland not guilty, but it was agreed that the partnership should be dissolved anyway and the firm wound up, with its assets sold. The brewery was estimated to be worth some £32,500, and Wiegand, who had bought much less to the partnership than Copeland, was due $6,250 of that. Unfortunately the only bidder for the brewery was Copeland, who bought the business back in February 1880 for just $12,000, which meant that not only did Wiegand not get anything, he now owed Copeland several thousand dollars. Wiegand eventually died in San Francisco in 1887, aged 47.
In 1880, meanwhile, Copeland was involved in another lawsuit between himself and his head clerk, which was again settled by the US consul in favour of Copeland. However, the suit bankrupted the Spring Valley business, and though Copeland continued brewing by himself until 1882, the business went under in an economic recession. Two years later, on July 1884, the Spring Valley brewery was sold by the US Marshall by order of the US Consular Court for $11,500. The London and China Telegraph of September 22 1884 wrote that “this property is estimated to have cost the late proprietor over $60,000.” Who bought it remains unclear, but on April 27 1885 the London and China Telegraph reported that two fires had recently broken out at the premises of the Spring Valley Brewery on the Bluff, Yokohama, and in the first, which began at 8pm on March 13, the block was destroyed which housed in its lower portion the “extensive” brewery plant. The plant and buildings were insured for $5,000 in the Lancashire and the City of London Insurance Companies, but “the brewery plant could not be replaced for at least three times that amount.”
Two months after the fire, in May 1885, the first meeting was held of resident foreigners in Yokohama that would eventually lead to the foundation of the Japan Brewery Company Ltd, set up with mixed Japanese and foreign investment. This company quickly acquired the Spring Valley brewery site to build its own brewery, taking advantage of the site’s water supply. The new concern eventually launched its “Kirin beer” in 1888, and changed its name to Kirin in 1906.
By now the Japanese brewing industry had become thoroughly “Nipponised”, helped by men such as Nakagawa Seibei. Nakagawa (in Japan, surnames are given first) travelled at his own expense from his homeland to Germany in 1872, hoping to learn a foreign skill he could use back in Japan. He was advised to study brewing, and spent more than two years, from 1873 to 1875, at a brewery in Fürstenwald owned by the Berlin brewery Tivoli.
It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for Nakagawa, who was only 24 when he arrived in Germany, where everything – the language, the architecture, the food and drink, the clothing, the entire way of life – was utterly alien to all he had known previously. On his return to Japan with a certificate of study from the Tivoli brewery, Nakagawa was hired by the Japanese government to build a brewery in the newly founded city of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, which was being rapidly developed in response to a possible invasion threat from Russia. The brewery made its first German-style lager in 1876, and was sold by the government to private investors ten years later.
Between 1869 and 1872 there were more than a hundred brewery start-ups in Japan, most being small and deeply obscure, with very little now known about them. All, or at least all those about whom sufficient details are known, concentrated on producing German-style beers, mostly because Japanese beer drinkers needed the reassurance that domestic brewers were using the same techniques and ingredients as foreign brewers in order to buy Japanese-brewed rather than imported beer. Among the start-ups was one begun by Torii Komakichi, a well-known sake brewer from Sakai, south of Osaka, a city in the south-central region of Japan’s main island, Honshu. In 1888 Torii’s Osaka Beer Brewing Company sent Ikuta Hiizu to Germany to study brewing at the brewery school in Weihenstephan, Bavaria. Ikuta returned to Japan in 1889, where he was appointed manager and technical director of a new brewery built at Suita Mura, on the edge of Osaka, which was completed in 1891. The plans for the brewery were drawn up in Germany, although it was built by an Osaka constructor, and all the brewing machinery was from Germany, though most of the malt and hops was imported, initially, from the US west coast.
In 1892 the company launched a beer under the name Asahi, meaning “morning sun”. The Osaka brewery showed its beer at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where it was noted that the company was using Japan-grown barley of the Golden Melon variety, which stood up to the hot and humid climate of Honshu, and which had been introduced into the country from the United States in 1885. The same year Osaka was reorganised as Osaka Breweries Ltd. An “Asahi Beer Hall” was opened in nearby Kyoto in 1896 to promote the company’s beer to thirsty tourist. By 1901 it was the second biggest brewery in Japan, at 53,500 hectolitres, well ahead of the Japan Brewery Company/Kirin at 28,500hl and Sapporo at 24,517hl, but behind the Nippon Beer Co of Tokyo, whose main brand was Yebisu, on 59,450hl.
The same year the Japanese government introduced a “brutal” new beer tax, which hammered the smaller brewers. The “big four” battled on, but in 1906, in an attempt to reduce competition, which was damaging profits, Sapporo, Osaka Beer Co and Nippon Beer agreed to merge under the name Dai Nippon (“Greater Japan”) Beer Company. From then until after the Second World War, the Japanese beer industry was almost totally dominated by Dai Nippon Beer and Kirin, both producing – until 1941, at least – heavily German-influenced beers. However, the pair were unable to stop retail outlets conducting a vicious price war. This only ended in 1933, when the two giants of Japanese brewing signed an agreement to form the “Co-operative Beer Sales Company Inc”, a deal brokered by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, which gave Dai Nippon 70 per cent of joint sales and Kirin 30 per cent. In the total market, Dai Nippon had a 56 per cent share and Kirin 28 per cent, giving the Co-operative Beer Sales Company 84 per cent of the domestic Japanese beer market. Through the 1930s Asahi and Kirin fought each other for the title of Japan’s best-selling beer brand, with Asahi on an average of 30 per cent of the market and Kirin on 27.5 per cent. Meanwhile Dai Nippon Beer’s Asahi division was opening new breweries, in Hakata, Fukuoka, on Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu, in 1921 and Nishinomiya, a few miles from Osaka, in 1927.
When Japan went to war with China in 1937, a conflict which eventually widened into bitter conflict with the United States and the UK in 1941, the beer industry in Japan became more and more tightly controlled by the government, not least because through taxation it generated essential funds for the war effort. In 1939, sake was still the dominant alcoholic beverage in Japan, selling 4.5 times as much as beer, which was largely an expensive middle and upper-class luxury. But as rice production was diverted into foodstuffs, sake production was halted by the end of 1940. Beer took its place, since barley was only a grade-B foodstuff. At the same time, with supplies of hops no longer available for import from Germany, Japan’s brewer began to make their beers less bitter. Small brewers disappeared completely, leaving only Dai Nippon and Kirin by 1943.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, in the seven-year occupation that followed, much effort was made by the occupiers to break up Japan’s economic conglomerates, the zaibatsu. Dai Nippon did not wait to be broken up, instead putting forward its own arrangement in which, in 1949, it split into two, one side taking the Asahi brand, the other, initially called Nippon Breweries, the Sapporo and Yebatsu brands. Asahi had 36 per cent of the market, Nippon Breweries 38.7 per cent and Kirin 25.3 per cent. The three operated an informal cartel that eliminated price competition, while Japan’s ministry of finance kept import duties on foreign beers high, with an (under world trade rules, illegal) agreement that the three brewers would, as a quid pro quo, buy expensive Japanese-grown barley rather than much cheaper foreign barley.
Until the middle of 1949, the occupying forces had barred Japanese from going to restaurants, bars or beer halls. The reopening of the “on-trade” saw beer sales boom: one bar in Osaka was selling 120 wooden crates of 24 bottles each night, an entire truckload in a day. In 1954 Asahi began to pull ahead of its rivals, capturing 37 per cent of the market, after leading the way in marketing efforts that included sponsoring radio and television programmes, films (including Gone With the Wind when it returned to Japanese cinemas in 1952) and boxing matches. In 1958, Asahi introduced Japan’s first canned beer. Meanwhile the Japanese alcohol market was changing, with sake falling from 71 per cent of all alcohol beverages sold before the Second World War, against beer’s 16 per cent share, to 29 per cent in 1959, against beer’s 44 per cent.
As well as canned beer (which today has more than 60 per cent of the Japanese market), Asahi also pioneered the first outdoor fermentation and lagering tank, the “Asahi Tank”, launched in 1965 and soon licensed to a German brewery construction firm, Ziemann.
By now Asahi had seen its share of sales drift down, leaving it with just 27.9 per cent of the Japanese market in 1961, barely ahead of Sapporo on 27.8 per cent, while Kirin had 41.7 per cent. Kirin’s dominance enabled it to set prices that hampered its rivals’ attempts to match them and still be profitable, and by the mid-1980s its share of the market was more than 60 per cent, with Sapporo on 20 per cent and Asahi on 11 per cent, while Suntory, a distiller that had entered the beer market in 1963, had seven per cent.
At the same time, the beer produced by the three firms continued to be the comparatively light, lightly hopped drink Japan’s brewers had been forced to change to during the Second World War, a style of beer which both proved popular with the increasing numbers of women drinkers, and beer rapidly left sake sales far behind. While the trend in the 1950s and 1960s towards less-bitter beers could be also seen in, for example, the United States, from the 1970s, Japan’s brewing industry began to exhibit some peculiarly Japanese developments. One was the introduction of “beer-like” brews, or happoshu (literally “sparkling spirit”), containing little or no barley, a reaction to both the high price of barley itself and the high taxes on barley brews in Japan. Another was the rise of “draught-style” bottled and canned beers from the late 1970s, with Asahi launching its own Draft Beer brand in 1986.
This did not stop Asahi striking deals with brewers elsewhere in Asia: in 1971 it signed an agreement with United Breweries of New Guinea that saw a brewery built in Port Moresby to make Asahi beers, and in 1986 another contract was signed with San Miguel to start brewing Asahi brands in Indonesia. In 1990 Asahi bought just under 20 per cent of the Australian beer giant Foster’s Group (sold in 1997 back to Foster’s).
What saved the company, however, was the introduction of “dry beer” in 1987 to try to compete with Kirin, which by then had 63 per cent of the domestic market, with Asahi far behind in third place on just 10 per cent. In 1982 one of Japan’s leading banks, Sumitomo Group, which held 12 per cent of Asahi’s shares, sent in a bank executive specialising in corporate turn-arounds, Murai Tsutomu. Murai made the brewery conduct market surveys which came back with the message that 98 per cent of beer drinkers surveyed wanted Asahi to change the taste of its beer. Drinkers said they wanted a beer that was rich but left no aftertaste. Asahi’s brewers told Murai that was not possible. Murai insisted that it had to be done, and the result was Asahi Super Dry, stronger, at 5 per cent alcohol, than most Japanese mainstream beers, generally 4.5 per cent, but with less sugar, sharper and with no aftertaste. It became instantly popular, particularly among younger drinkers. The launch doubled Asahi’s share of the domestic beer market in a year, and sent it to 37 per cent by 2001. This was the only Japanese brewing initiative to have any impact overseas, with US and European brewers also introducing “dry” beers: by 1990 there were more than 20 “dry” beers on sale in the US market.
Japan’s brewers had been protected for many years from new entrants into the market by a law that required a minimum annual output for anyone wanting a brewery licence of 20,000 hectolitres. In 1994 the country’s Ministry of Finance cut that requirement to just 600 hectolitres, making it viable at last for new microbreweries to start up. The first opened in Japan in 1995, and by 1999 the country had 242 new small breweries. In an attempt to head off this new competition, in 2001 Asahi opened its own “microbrewery” operation, Sumidagawa Brewing, a brewpub in Tokyo.
Super Dry was launched Canada in 1994 and the United States in 1995. It went into in 12 European countries in 1997, and in 2000 Asahi struck a deal with Bass in the UK for a Czech subsidiary of Bass to brew Super Dry under licence. But with the UK becoming the biggest market for the beer in Europe, in 2005 production was switched to Shepherd Neame in Kent. Meanwhile at home beer sales were falling, with the “big four” of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory suffering a volume decline between them of 23 per cent between 1994 and 2000. At the same time, sales of the cheaper happoshu were climbing, hitting 30 per cent of the Japanese beer market in 2001, the year Asahi finally launched a happoshu of its own. Two years later sales of happoshu for home consumption passed those of “real” beer.
Asahi had regained the number one spot among Japan’s brewers in 1998, and its share of the “real” beer market rose past 50 per cent by the end of 2008, though its share of the total “beer-like” market was only 37.8 per cent, barely ahead of Kirin on 37.2 per cent. Domestic beer sales were badly hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and took several years to recover, but Asahi was seeing big rises in sales to China, where increasing affluence was powering what was becoming the biggest market for beer in the world. It began acquiring shares in five Chinese breweries in 1994 and 1995, and entered into an agreement with the then largest brewer in China, Tsingtao Brewery, to build a brewery in Shenzen, near Hong Kong, which opened in 1999. In 2009 it bought a 19.9 per cent stake in Tsingtao Brewery, reviving a link from before the Second World War, when Dai Nippon Beer Company owned Tsingtao.
An Australian craft beer brewery, Cricketers Arms, in Melbourne, was acquired in 2013, followed by a second in 2015, Mountain Goat Beer in Richmond, Victoria. The next year, as part of the fall-out from AB InBev’s acquisition of SAB Miller, Asahi bought SAB Miller’s beer business in Western Europe, including Peroni in Italy, Grolsch in the Netherlands, the St Stephanus “abbey” brand from Belgium and, in the UK, Meantime Brewing Company, for a total of $2.9 billion. Meantime, based in Greenwich and founded in 2000, had only been bought by SAB Miller two years earlier, for £125 million. Early in 2017 Asahi swallowed SAB Miller’s Eastern European business as well, including Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic; Dreher Breweries in Hungary; Ursus Breweries, the biggest beer brewer in Romania; Tychy and Lech in Poland; and Šariš in Slovakia, for another $7.8 billion. The deal made Asahi the third biggest brewing company in Europe, with 9 per cent of the market, after Heineken and Carlsberg. The same year it sold off its interest in Tsingtao for $844 million, as part of a general pull-out from the Chinese market to concentrate on Europe.
Earlier this week it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing assets of the London-based craft ale specialist, family brewer and pub and hotel owner Fuller, Smith & Turner, for £250 million. The deal includes the brewery in Chiswick, but not, it is speculated, the entire brewery site. It gives Asahi ten breweries in Europe, against the eight it runs in Japan, including the Hokkaido brewery in Sapporo, opened in 1970; Ibaraki, on the coast north-east of Tokyo, opened in 1991; and on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, opened in 1998. It is currently the biggest brewer in Japan, fifth biggest in Asia and seventh biggest in the world.
The Japanese beer giant Asahi has made a massive vote of confidence in the future of the real ale sector in the UK with its £250m purchase of Fullers’ beer business.
And if that’s not the angle you took away from the story, you’re not thinking this through properly.
The beer business earned Fullers £10.6 million before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the 12 months to March last year. The net cash going into Fullers’ pockets after the deal with Asahi is completed is expected to be around £205 million. So the purchase price means, effectively, Fullers receives all the earnings it might have got from the beer business (assuming nothing had changed) for the next 19 years, until 2038, in one lovely big cheque, right here and now.
At the same time, Asahi has to cover its £250m payment for the business out of the profits it expects to make from it, and preferably in not too long a time: its current return on invested capital (ROIC) is apparently 7.34 per cent, which would pay off the purchase price for the Fullers beer business in just under 14 years. In other words it expects that business to be at least as profitable as it is now for at least the next decade, in order to cover the cost of buying it, given the returns it normally gets.
Nobody bungs a quarter billion big ones at a business unless they think that business has a future, and they’re going to get a decent return on their money. Fans of cask ale, and Fuller’s beers, should be cheering until the pint glasses rattle on the shelves at the confidence Asahi is showing in the sector.
Inevitably, of course, the usual army of whingers has come out and shown the usual failure to understand how business works, and what the strategies of the two companies involved in the deal are. Some seem to think Fullers should have turned the Japanese offer down: this would, of course, have been both stupid and illegal. It’s the job of a company’s board to maximise the returns for that company’s shareholders: if they are offered a risk-free way to bring in today all the earnings a part of the company might see for two decades, and they push it away, they would rightly be sued for not acting in shareholders’ best interests. In Fullers’ case, the division it is selling represents only 13 per cent of operating profits. It intends giving between £55 million and £69 million of the cash from Asahi to its shareholders straight away, and putting a bung into the company pension scheme as well, but that still leaves a substantial sum – over £120 million, certainly – to spend on new pubs and hotels, which bring in much more money than brewing does. The City is certainly clear on what a great move Fullers has made: the shares closed up 15.5 per cent, and Douglas Jack, a vastly experience City analyst, declared: “This transformative deal provides the foundation for many years of strong growth. We are moving our recommendation from ‘Add’ to ‘Buy’.”
Asahi clearly thinks there is profit to be had in the business of supplying beer to British pubs,. With Fullers’ emphasis, still, on cask beer brands it obviously believes buying the rights to brew cask beer is worth a substantial wodge of corporate cash and there is a hearty future ahead. Meanwhile, on the “oh no the accountants will ruin London Pride” front, as part of the fall-out from the AB Inbev-SAB Miller merger, Asahi ended up with Pilsner Urquell and Meantime in London, among other Western beer brands. I’ve heard no moans from either of those two concerns about how the Japanese are treating them. If you pay a lot of money buying a product that sells on its premium image, you don’t mess about with that image.
The keyboard warriors who wave their anti-corporate credentials, declaring that now Fullers’ beers are going to be brewed by a multinational conglomerate they won’t be drinking them, are particularly nauseous: they’re typing their rants on a computer, or a phone, made by a multinational, using electricity from an energy supplier that is probably also a multinational. A fair few years back I was in the wood-panelled boardroom at the Griffin brewery, all heavy oak tables and oil paintings of bewhiskered Fullers, Smiths and Turners from Victorian times on the walls, and I asked Michael Turner, then the company’s managing director, later its chairman, if he didn’t occasionally feel oppressed with all these ancestors staring down at him. “Frankly,” he said, in his forceful Old Etonian accent, “I don’t give a fuck.” I would be confident that, whatever the whingers are saying, Fuller’s is currently not giving a fuck all the way to the bank.
Finally, let’s offer many congratulations to Twickenham Fine Ales, my local craft beer brewery, which finds itself, just 15 years after it started, now London’s oldest independent brewer. That won’t be something founder Steve Brown ever expected to happen.
Of all the multiple nonsenses written about the acquisition of a minority stake in Beavertown Brewery by Heineken International, perhaps the stupidest came from someone called Kirk Hilton on Twitter, who declared this week that Logan Plant and his crew had “chosen to turn their back on the craft beer community” and “should know about the effect” its “sell out” had had on “the community as a whole”.
Let’s be clear. There is no “craft beer community”, any more than there is a “Stella Artois community” or a “Nescafe community” or a “sourdough bread community”. I drink craft beer, whatever “craft beer” is, but I certainly don’t regard myself as part of a “community” as represented by Kirk and his pals on the Facebook UK Craft Beer Forum, where, as part of the general tedious posturing, cask beer is regularly dismissed as “twiggy” and “boring”. That’s not a “community”, it’s a group of snobby elitists with their heads so far up their bottoms they can probably see their own tonsils. The laugh is that the hop-laden brews they love (and indeed I love many of them too) sprang from beers developed originally by people like Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam and Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada that were themselves inspired by the “twiggy” bitter beers of England: Anchor’s Liberty Ale, the first highly hopped Cascade-driven West Coast pale ale, sprang directly from a visit Fritz Maytag made to Keighley in Yorkshire around 1974, where he sampled Timothy Taylor Landlord.
What is particularly crass about the reaction from Hilton and the rest of the UKCBF crew is their demand that Beavertown must stay small, or else it is guilty of “betraying” the “craft beer community”. What they ought to be doing, of course, is cheering until the rafters shake at the success of one of the best four or five start-ups in the UK beer business, which will now be able to bring its beers to even more drinkers.
Logan Plant, like all successful businessmen, wants to see his business grow even larger: only a fool, frankly, sits on something that could potentially become massive and declines to allow it to grow as big as possible. (The reason why that’s foolish, in case you can’t work it out, is because what will happen is that someone else with fewer scruples about making a fortune will come along and replicate what you’ve done, overtake you, steal your market because they’ve grown big enough to have the marketing clout to do so, and put you out of business.)
However, like others – Meantime, Camden Town, even BrewDog – Plant discovered that there are few or no ways to bring in the money required to step up to the next level without shaking hands with Big Capital. The £40m Heineken is pumping into Beavertown will enable it to build (if the Caterer’s figures are correct) a 275,000-barrel (450,000hl) brewery on three acres of land, tn tims the size of their current plant, creating 150 jobs. For a company founded only in 2012, that’s fantastic. But as Plant told the Caterer, when he first looked at how to get the cash for that project, “Crowdfunding simply couldn’t achieve the funds we need, so that option came off the table quickly. We then started looking at private equity, which initially looked solid. However, the more we looked at the offers, it became clear that it was only an option for the short to medium term.
“That was when we concluded that the most sensible and stable option was the one that sat furthest away from our minds at the start of the process, one that at first glance felt alien but on closer and more detailed inspection offered us boundless opportunities to grow and develop in the right, safe business manner: finding another like-minded brewery as a partner.”
The finance people Plant used in the negotiations with Heineken, incidentally, are Arlington Capital Advisors of Georgia in the United States, who were the same gang that advised BrewDog last year when the Aberdeenshire lads sold a £213m stake in themselves to TSG Consumer Partners, the $5bn San Francisco-based private equity firm that owns Pabst, the American “industrial” lager brand. You might think that as a result James Watt is being a tad hypocritical in declaring that BrewDog will no longer stock Beavertown beers after Heineken bought a minority stake in the East London firm – I couldn’t possibly comment.
What too few people in the craft bubble fail to grasp is that the overwhelming bulk of beer sold in the UK – nine pints in 10 – is mass-produced, and if we want that to change we have to cheer on those successful craft beer brewers who are attracting investment to grow larger, and expand the craft beer market. Ah, but as Kirk Hilton tweeted to Beavertown: “You’re not craft beer any more.” Silly Kirk thinks he can spot the change in the taste of a pint of beer the moment someone else buys a stake in the brewer that made it. Fortunately the UK Craft Beer Forum represents perhaps 0.08 per cent of all British beer drinkers, and Beavertown, I am sure, will succeed and thrive without its approval.
So there I was at the Barcelona Beer Festival talking to Jason Wolford, a native of Portland, Oregon, about the quantity of chamomile that goes into the chamomile pale ale made at his 8-Bit Brewing in Helsinki, using kit supplied by Oban Brewing of Fort William in Scotland, and thinking: “This is what craft beer is all about.” Except it’s not, of course: it’s also about sitting at a tiny bar in a farmhouse in the small village of Mediona, in rural Catalonia, drinking a hand-pumped cask ale brewed just yards away by a dreadlocked 50-something Catalan called Carlos Rodriguez that, with its straw colour and bitterness, would not be out of place in Strangeways, Manchester. It’s about eating cod ceviche accompanied by a beer brewed with plankton, specially to match the food. It’s about bumping into three separate people I wasn’t expecting to see in the bar at Edge Brewing in Barcelona – a Polish brewer who I had met in Wroclaw four years ago, a young woman from Mallorca I had met on a beer judging course in London, and the English beer writer Melissa Cole, in town to present a session at the festival on beer and food matching. It’s about chuckling at the sight of the pinewood-clad brewing vessels at the Vic Brewery in the Catalan town of the same name, because I last saw them in West London, where they were being used by Twickenham Fine Ales. And it’s about eating delicious goats’ cheese in the bright but chilly open air while drinking equally excellent beer made with the hops grown just to our left and barley from the fields a few hundred yards away below us, malted in the shed behind us, on the farm that is part of the Lo Vilot set-up in Lleida. Plus, of course, much more.
If beer tourism is a growing business – and the conversation I had with the young woman from Mallorca, who is looking to do a PhD in that exact subject, confirms it is indeed – then even so, Catalonia is probably not yet on most beer tourists’ “must see” list. The Catalan Tourist Board would like very much for that to change, unsurprisingly, which is why they paid for me and nine other beer writers to fly to Barcelona and be whizzed around the countryside in a wifi-equipped minibus on a no-time-to-catch-your-breath tour that took in 10 mostly very different craft breweries, 12 eat-till-your-eyes-glaze-over meals, countless beers (because I lost count – over 120, probably) – and a couple of wineries as well, because Catalonia is also the main production area for Cava, and home to 10 or so wine-producing areas in total (I was not a Cava lover before, but aged Cava, 15 years or more on its lees, I can now say, is very, very fine.) Oh, and a sausage factory. Because sausages. Come on, do you actually need to be given a reason for visiting a sausage factory (llonganissa, to be technical, like chorizo but flavoured with black pepper, not paprika) and marvel at several slatted floors of meaty, porky moreishness, slowly losing half its weight to the atmosphere, and gaining an attractive snow-white mould over its rind, as it hangs up to dry? And eating some while you’re there, since it would be terribly wrong to refuse.
There is a theory (which I thought up while in Catalonia) that as the craft beer revolution spreads around the world, and people in different countries realise there is more to be drunk than “industrial” lager, those places that react quickest and with most enthusiasm – and skill – to the opportunities for making different, interesting beers are the ones with an existing tradition of “foodiness”, of discriminating palates, dedication to fine eating, to artisanal food production. In the 16 years that the “World’s Best Restaurants” competition has been running, Catalan eateries have won the title seven times, been runners-up seven times, and come third on the remaining two occasions (the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, in the far north of Catalonia, and El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona). Nowhere else comes close to that record. It would be fair to suppose, therefore that Catalans have an excellent appreciation of the gastronomic arts.
All the same, the local craft beer scene has had a long, slow take-off since the Barcelona Brewing Company, the city’s first microbrewery, was opened in 1993 by a wild-bearded expat Liverpudlian, Steve Huxley. It closed after only a couple of years, but the brewing courses Huxley ran inspired a swath of Catalans to become home-brewers and then, in the first years of the new century, to start moving into commercial brewing. Huxley died of cancer in 2015 (his influence is commemorated though his face being on every token at the Barcelona beer festival), but the slow revolution he had helped start was now becoming unstoppable: by 2009 there were 10 or so new small breweries in Catalonia, in just four years numbers passed 40, and by 2016 a survey found more than 100, making in total more than three million litres of beer a year. However, that represented barely 1 per cent of total Catalan beer consumption: Catalans drank just under 37 litres of beer per head that year, but only 40cl of that was locally produced craft – one glass, all year.
Still, from small beginnings … every Catalan optimist will agree that there is clearly plenty of opportunity for the craft beer glasses to be full more and more frequently. And if the standards generally match those of the breweries we were taken to, all run by dedicated, enthusiastic people, Catalonia can expect craft beer consumption to rise at least steadily, if not rapidly. The problem will be convincing people in Catalonia who only know of industrial brewing, and who regard beer as merely a refresher to help the tapas go down and the conversation flow, that there are beers worth trying for their own sakes.
Unsurprisingly, since the US has been leading the growth in craft beer for the past two decades, the American influence on Catalan brewing is strong to the point of getting close to too much: imperial stouts and NEIPAs are nearly ubiquitous, and former Bourbon barrels, now filled with ageing beer, could be seen stacked in almost every brewhouse we visited. I love a good imperial stout, but they’re almost too easy: push the strength, roastiness, hops and sweetness all up to 11, and you’ll have something that will be cheered by practically anybody, craft beer noob or not. Around a quarter of the current “Top 100 Beers in the World” on RateBeer are imperial stouts, suggesting that making a popular super-strong black beer is not very difficult. (Making a great imperial stout IS difficult, however, and even then will not get you automatic recognition: just look at how comparatively poorly Harvey’s Imperial Double Extra Stout is rated.) But I suppose that if you’re trying to get your local drinking public to become craft beer aware, it’s easier to entice them into the tent with something not too difficult to understand. And imperial stouts do match very well with crema catalana, the local version of crème brûlée …
However, our quick zoom from the plains of Taragona to the foothills of the Pyrenees suggested there are plenty of Catalan brewers attempting to forge a truly local indigenous brewing culture, using locally grown produce – hops, barley, other grains, fruits, even grape must, to make “grape ales” – and locally found wild yeasts, and using resources such as barrels previously containing local wine, sherry, local spirits and the like. It’s also clear, from the amount of shiny kit we saw, that a great deal of money has been pumped into the Catalan craft beer scene in the past three or four years.
Barcelona now has enough top-rate craft beer bars to be easily worth a long weekend at the least: our own shoot round four or five venues was less a pub crawl than a pub gallop, but I would be very happy to go back and spend much more time (and my own money) in Garage, a long, thin city-centre bar with its own brewery right at the back, which produces a hazy IPA in cans called Soup, or BierCab, another long, thin bar with a fine beer range and an attractive-looking menu, or Naparbar, a mixture of ‘industrial’ and old-style, with 200 beers in stock and an emphasis on lambic and stout.
You’ll have to wait a year now for the next one, of course, but the Barcelona Beer Festival is definitely one of Europe’s best, with a strong selection this year of almost 500 beers (not all on at once) made by more than 275 breweries, from Moscow to California, an excellent gimmick in “guest festival” stalls, this year featuring the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, Big Craft Day from Russia, Bières et Saveurs from Quebec and Craft Beer Perkelei! from Finland, and a series of talks and presentations ranging from meet-the-brewer sessions to beer-and-music matching to demonstrations of beer cocktails. If you can’t wait, Carlos Rodriguez organises a beer festival every year in his home village called Mostra de Cervesa Artesana de Mediona which will be on its 13th iteration this June, and which looks to be a cracker.
Seven craft beer breweries in Lleida, the westernmost of Catalonia’s four “provinces”, have put together the “Lleida artisinal beer route”, with a passport scheme that, when stamped by all seven, entitles the passport holder to “a special gift from the Association of Artisan Brewers of Lleida” – nature of gift unspecified. Unfortunately, the website is entirely in Catalan, and entirely unhelpful about the best route to take to get round all the breweries, and all the promotional material appears to be only in Catalan as well. Nor does it look as if anyone has updated the website since 2016. The Facebook page shows some more recent activity, but this looks like an excellent idea that is failing through lack of dedicated effort.
I never put my hand in my pocket the whole trip, so you may decide to regard me as an unreliable traveller for accepting a massive freebie. I don’t believe being given something free compromises you from telling others about it, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t be able to give some deserving people some publicity, or let you know some of the interesting stuff that’s happening in a part of the world you might not associate with advances in great beer. If you like beer tourism, Catalonia should definitely be on your “check it out” list. If you’re going to Catalonia on holiday anyway, don’t miss out on the beer scene. As yet, to my knowledge, no one has written a guidebook to the craft beer bars of Catalonia, but if you contact any of the brewers I’ve mentioned here I’m sure they will make recommendations in their local areas.
Many thanks indeed to Ariadna Ribas and Elisabet Pagès of the Catalan Tourist Board for all their considerable hard work in organising this trip, and look after everybody so well, it was a great experience, and grateful thanks to all the brewers, restaurateurs, bar owners and hoteliers for their hospitality and generosity – may you all continue to thrive and prosper.
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.
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. Continue reading A look round Camden Town’s new Enfield brewery→