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→
A total of £50m has been raised in the UK over the past four years in crowdfunding efforts by more than 40 different craft breweries, and half a dozen craft beer retail operators who have tapped tens of thousands of – overwhelmingly male – investors.
More than half the money raised went to just one company, BrewDog, the maverick Scottish brewer, recently valued at almost £1 billion, but other big beneficiaries of the remaining £23 million raised include Chapel Down Group, owner of Curious Brew, which gathered a total of £5.66m; Camden Town Brewery in North London, which raised more than £2.75 million from 2,173 investors via Crowdcube before being sold for £85 million to the international giant AB Inbev in December 2015; Innis & Gunn of Edinburgh, which raised £2.2 million from almost 1,800 investors; and the Wild Beer Company of Somerset, which brought in £1.8m from just over 2,000 backers.
The money is continuing to roll in: Redchurch Brewery in East London recently closed its second fundraising drive through the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, raising another £433,000 from 688 investors to add to the £497,000 it brought in last year. Also on Crowdcube, The BottleShop, a craft beer importer and distributor with, currently, three bars of its own and plans for more, has just closed its own equity crowdfunding campaign with £403,000 in funding from more than 380 investors
Top 10 UK brewery crowdfunding efforts
But how many of those investors will ever see a decent return on their money, other than the warm glow of owning a small slice of the maker of their favourite beers? With three quarters – 18 out of 25 – of the companies involved for which financial records have been published reporting losses for their last financial year, the answer is likely to be: “Not many, and even then, not for quite a while”. The UK’s financial watchdog, the FCA, warns in the section on crowdfunding on its website: ” It is very likely that you will lose all your money. Most investments are in shares or debt securities in start-up companies and will often result in a 100 per cent loss of capital as most start-up businesses fail.” Earlier this year the Guardian quoted figures from the Insolvency Service showing that 19 drinks manufacturers went sternum to the sky in 2014, 23 in 2015 and 24 in the first nine months of 2016.
Yesterday’s announcement that Marston’s is acquiring the Charles Wells Brewing and Beer Business for £55 million and loose change (or “working capital adjustments”), at a pretty conservative 5.5 times ebitda, adds another five historic old brewery names, Courage, McEwans, Young’s, William Younger’s and Wells, to a portfolio that already reads like the line-up at a quite good small beer festival circa 1990: Marston’s itself, Banks’s, Jennings, Thwaites, Ringwood, Wychwood, Brakspear, Mansfield, Mitchells (with Lancaster Bomber) and, if you include beers Marston’s brews under licence, Bass and Tetley.
It will give the company six working breweries, and more than 50 “ale” brands, from Bank’s mild to McEwan’s Champion. That’s around twice as many as its closest rival, Greene King, which runs just two breweries, its own original home in Suffolk and Belhaven in Scotland, and continues brewing under the names of just five vanished brewers: Morlands, Ruddles, Ridleys, Hardy’s & Hansons and Tolly Cobbold. On the retail side, however, Greene King owns around 3,100 pubs and bars, making it the third biggest operator in the country, Marston’s “just” 1,750 or so, meaning it vies with Mitchells & Butlers for fourth place.
So what’s with Marston’s policy of adding ever more seemingly pretty similar “twiggy brown bitters” to its line-up? I interviewed the company’s chief executive, Ralph Findlay, two years ago, right after Marston’s had acquired Thwaites’s beer portfolio and made those beers available to all its pubs, and he was pretty specific about the desire to increase further his already considerable ale offer: “Choice is where the market is at,” Findlay said. “Range is something you simply have to have, both for licensees and their customers.” Even after the Thwaites acquisition, he said. Marston’s would continue to look for “opportunistic” purchases if they came up: “We look at potential acquisitions that are consistent with our strategy and which can contribute to our return on capital. We have had a strategy over the past five years that’s not been reliant on acquisitions, though we’ve made them when it’s been opportunistic to do so, such as the acquisition of the Thwaites brewing business. I think we’re in the fortunate position of having an incredibly strong beer range from the various breweries that we’ve got. It’s a strategy that is undoubtedly working.”
Why not, like others, just buy in beers, rather than buy breweries? Because, as Findlay says, it’s a strategy that is working. Marston’s also revealed its half-year figures yesterday. Own-brewed beer volumes were up two per cent, in a declining market. Sales were up three per cent, to £440.8m. Average profit per pub was up three per cent. Like-for-like sales were up between 1.6 and 1.7 per cent. More City analysts than not continue to have the company as a “buy”.
Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve: Greene King, Shepherd Neame, Hall & Woodhouse, all sell some or several of their beers in clear bottles, and even Charles Wells has at least one several of its brands, includingWaggle Dance (originally, history fans, made by Wards of Sheffield Vaux of Sunderland, then Vaux, then Young’s, and thus about to be on its fourth fifth owner) and the Burning Gold iteration of Bombardier (as the Beer Nut reminded me) in flint glass. The commitment by Marston’s to beer quality ahead of spurious marketing arguments about how consumers are supposedly encouraged to buy beers that they can see the colour of makes me more confident that Wells’s brand are in relatively safe hands under the boys from Wolverhampton.
Ironically, or at least I think it’s ironic, one of the brands Marston’s is acquiring distribution rights to via the Wells purchase, the Spanish lager Estrella, has just been running an ad campaign un the UK under the slogan “Darker bottle, better beer”, explaining to consumers that “research has shown that exposure to light damages beer and affects its flavour”, and for that reason it was darkening its bottles by 30 per cent.
I’m slightly puzzled that Charles Wells has said that, while it will now be concentrating on its pub estate, it will also be building a new small brewery in Bedford to brew the Charlie Wells “craft beers” and John Bull range, which it is not selling to Marston’s. Is this continued toehold in the brewing world a way of appeasing the family shareholders (many of them formidable elderly females who, Paul Wells once told me, all had his phone number and would ring him up when they felt the company’s figures weren’t good enough) who might try to vote down the sale of the main brewing operation if they felt the company was cutting off its roots after 141 years of supplying beer to the people of Bedford?
Charles Wells currently brews several beers I’m very fond of, including Courage Imperial Russian Stout, Young’s Winter Warmer and McEwan’s Champion, that will now be brewed under Marston’s control. For probably the only time ever, I’m going to let Tim Page, chief executive of Camra, speak for me: giving a cautious one thumb up to the takeover, he said yesterday: “Marston’s has a positive track record of keeping the breweries it acquires open, in situ, and in many cases investing in the sites to increase capacity, and we urge them to continue that policy. We’d also encourage them to protect the brands that they have acquired and increase the range available to beer drinkers, by continuing to supply them alongside the existing beers produced by Marston’s owned breweries.”
The real story behind the news that BrewDog is copping more than £200 million from the private equity firm that also part-owns Pabst Blue Ribbon, is not, despite the howls of “hypocrisy!”, that nobody can resist a big juicy cheque, no matter how punk they claim to be. It is, rather more sadly, that crowdfunding will only get you so far, and if you have really big ambitions, you’re going to have to get in bed eventually with The Man.
The deal with TSG Consumer Partners, the $5bn 30-year-old San Francisco-based private equity firm, sees TSG acquire “approximately” 22 per cent of BrewDog for what the Sunday Times says is £213 million, split between a £100 million investment in the firm and £113 million paid to existing shareholders.
Of the two founders, James Watt is seeing his stake in the firm drop from 35 per cent to 25 per cent and Martin Dickie’s slice goes down from 30 per cent to 22. It’s not clear (to me, anyway) if that dilution is because the pair are selling 18 per cent of the firm between them to TSG, or some of the fall in their percentage ownership comes from new shares being issued: the Sunday Times says one of the motions passed at last month’s BrewDog AGMEGM in Aberdeen saw the creation of a new class of preferred shares, which would guarantee TSG a minimum compound annual return of 18 per cent if the company is bought or floated. There’s a fair bit of dilution, I reckon, or the figures for how much existing shareholders are getting out of the deal don’t add up. But even so, I’d say James is receiving north of £50 million and Martin more than £40 million. Not bad for ten years of being rude about the rest of the UK brewing industry and winding up the Portman Group. Looks like Dr Johnson’s comment more than 230 years ago about selling a brewery being the way to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice is still true. According to Watt, the sums in the deal mean BrewDog now has an enterprise value of £1bn (I make it £968 million, but hey, £32 million is mere loose change), thus making it the first new British brewery “unicorn”.
The most important figure, however, is the £100 million BrewDog now has to play with. That’s four times the amount the company has raised so far through its Equity for Punks crowdfunding schemes, which have given it more than 50,000 shareholders, but taken six years. The company is currently attempting to get $50 million through Equity for Punks USA, though this does not appear to be going anything like as well as its British crowdfunding efforts: the latest figures seem to suggest only $3.5 million or so has been gathered in. That size of sum doesn’t go very far: the hotel and sour beer plant BrewDog is building next to its new brewery in Columbus, Ohio, which finally opened in March, several months late, is costing $6 million. Earlier this month the company announced that it was looking to open breweries in Asia and Australia: based on how much it spent on the Ellon brewery in Aberdeen, that’s £40 million to £50 million that will be needed, in addition to the money required for the planned expansions in Ellon and Columbus. Crowdfunding simply won’t cover expansion of that magnitude.
Tying up with someone like TSG was pretty inevitable, then, if Watt and Dickie wanted to maintain the momentum they have built up with BrewDog. And why should they not? Is it somehow not “punk” to want to be as successful as you can be? Are they meant to say: “No, that’s it for us, really, we’re just going to sit on our arrises from now on”? If you believe in your product, surely you should want to reach as many people with it as possible, however that possibility has to come about? As Watt said in the note that went out to shareholders announcing the TSG deal, it represents “a launch pad for us to turbocharge our mission to make the world as passionate about craft beer as we are.”
Some have declared the TSG deal a betrayal of all the people who bought shares in BrewDog apparently believing that Watt and Dickie would never “sell out”; but this “betrayal” involves a pretty enormous return on those Equity for Punk backers’ investments. As Watt said: “Shares purchased in Equity for Punks I, which closed in February 2010, are now worth 2,800 per cent of their original value. Even craft beer fans who invested in Equity for Punks IV last year have seen the value of their shareholding increase by 177 per cent in just one year.” You don’t get that sort of return putting your money in Nationwide.
Mind, it was perhaps a little naughty of BrewDog to describe TSG as “one of the world’s leading growth funds with successful investments in global brands like Pop Chips and Vitamin Water” without adding that it also has a substantial minority holding in Pabst, purveyor of just the sort of industrial brews Watt and Dickie swore they would never sell out to. I am sure Alastair Hook and the guys at Meantime, whose beers BrewDog withdrew from its bars after the Greenwich brewer was bought by SAB Miller, are smiling sardonically.
It’s deja bu time again in the world of Big Beer, with the return of excited prognostications for the no alcohol/low alcohol sector. All the marketing “experts” involved in the last round of predictions about how fast sales of no alcohol/low alcohol beers were going to expand have now retired or died, apparently – to be fair, it was 25 years ago – and a new generation is again falling for the fallacy of unwarranted extrapolation.
The Dutch giant Heineken is leading the charge, with the launch in the UK of Heineken 0.0. Currently no-alcohol beer has a tiny one per cent slice of the UK beer market, but David Lette, head of premium brands at Heineken, is popping up in the trade press declaring that he expects to see the alcohol-free beer category double in the next three to four years, and announcing that to make sure Heineken gets its share of this, it is putting £2.5m behind the launch of 0.0, with a £1.5m consumer advertising campaign breaking in July.
If they had given me a tiny one per cent slice of that marketing spend – just £25,000, chaps, very reasonable against what other consulting companies will charge you – I could have saved them all the rest of their money by assuring them that it ain’t going to happen: there will be no doubling of no-alcohol beer sales. And I hate to pour icy water all over young entrepreneurs, but the message is the same for the team behind Nirvana Brewery, East London’s latest, which started at the beginning of this year as the country’s first dedicated no/low alcohol brewery. The no alcohol/low alcohol beer market didn’t take off back in the early 1990s, for a variety of reasons, and for just those same reasons it’s not going to take off now.
In 1987 beer marketeers were even more optimistic about the future of alcohol-free beer, after it had apparently doubled sales in a year, to be worth £45 million, with predictions that it would grow tenfold by 1999. Barbican, the market leader, made by Bass, which had been launched in 1979, was spending £2.5m on an advertising campaign to fight off new entrants such as Kaliber, from Guinness, and Swan Light, from Allied, the first draught low-alcohol beer. Barbican’s first television ad campaign had featured Lawrie McMenemy, then the highly successful manager of Southampton, declaring: “It’s great, man.” McMenemy was later prosecuted for drink-driving, suggesting he perhaps didn’t think Barbican was quite as great as he had been paid to claim. Kaliber had signed up comedians Lenny Henry and Billy Connolly, and the actor Michael Elphick, to act as spokesdrinkers: another example of the dangers of celebrity endorsers, since Elphick was to die in 2002 of a heart attack not helped by his drinking up to two litres of spirits a day.
Thirty years on, that £45 million the alcohol-free beer market was valued at in 1987 pounds is equal to around £180 million in 2017 pounds – which is more or less what today’s alcohol-free beer market in the UK is worth. In other words, in three decades the sector hasn’t grown at all, in real terms. But 30 years ago, David Lette, today head of premium brands at Heineken UK, was studying for his International Baccalaureate at college in Singapore, according to his LinkedIn biography, and he didn’t join Heineken until 2002, thus missing out on the first great failure of non-alcoholic beer to live up to the extrapolations, and probably explaining why he is so optimistic today that the extrapolations for the no/low alcohol beer market are going to come true.
BAL-HAM, gateway, if the guys from Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co are correct, to a new form of gastropub/craft beer bar: yummy grub combined with rare brews. The very first Goose Island Vintage Ale House had a goosedown-soft opening in a former Be At One cocktail bar in Ramsden Road, SW12 a week before Christmas, and ramped up the publicity last week with a “launch beer dinner” attended by Goose Island’s founder, John Hall, and president/general manager, Ken Stout. I would love to hope that they’re right: if there was just one bar like a Vintage Ale House per London borough, then the beer revolution would have ended in victory, and beer would be back at the heart of British gastronomy, from which it was brutally evicted in the 19th century.
It’s a big irony, of course, that John Hall took the idea of the British pub, and British beer, to Chicago after a tour of Europe back in the 1980s, turned his original Goose Island brewpub into one of the stars of the American brewing revival, and is now returning to the motherland with a take on the British pub that could revitalise the original concept. Ken Stout, in a simile he admits to have borrowed from someone else, compares it to the “British Invasion” of the 1960s, when groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles took American music – the rhythm ’n’ blues of people like Muddy Waters and the country-influenced rock ’n’ roll of Arthur Alexander – back to the United States with their own twist on it, became a smash, and made music fans appreciate anew what they had. Now British beer fans are being taught to love the IPAs and heavyweight stouts their great-grandparents knew by American brewers who have reinvented these beers for the 21st century.
That analogy quickly falls over if you push it too hard, but it’s not totally wrong, and it has wider application than you might first think. The current Good Beer Guide lists more than 20 cask beers by British brewers called “American [something]”, another 20-plus that mention Cascade, the almost archetypal American “new” hop, in their names, and over a hundred IPAs, most, I’d give you short odds, inspired by American IPAs, that is, with big floral hop flavours. The American influence today on British cask beer is now undeniable – and let’s not even touch on the “craft keg” scene. So is Britain ready for what Goose Island says is the first dedicated exclusively American craft beer bar in the UK?
I’d love to believe so, because it provides a different and, I think, very good take on what a pub can be – and, actually, what a tied house can be. I’ve never felt having just one brewer’s products on sale has to be a barrier to complete customer satisfaction: choice is over-fetishised by beer geeks. What the Vintage Ale House offers is a place where beer, good beer, beer from a company that cares about beer, is absolutely central to the offer, but so too is good food – porter and molasses glazed beef cheeks, for example, enough to make any Hereford smile – that is designed to go with beer. Four Goose Island draught beers – IPA, Pils, Green Line pale ale and 312 Wheat – are available, but so are big 76.5cl bottles of the brewery’s seven different heavy-hitting barrel-aged Belgian-style ales, such as Sofie, a 6.5 per cent Saison, Matilda, a 7 per cent “Orval-alike” pale ale and Juliet, an 8 per cent Brett beer flavoured with blackberries. Other beers unique to the Vintage Ale House are promised, to maintain interest and bring people back. The vintage beers will hit you for between £18 and £23 a bottle, but that’s still (mostly) cheaper than the (limited) selection of wines, which start at £20 a bottle and climb to £35. At the same time, I am confident that if you like beer, you’ll love these beers in the context for which the originals styles were made: with food. If the Vintage Ale House finally encourages British pubs and bars to take beer and food pairing seriously as a core strategy John Hall should get a knighthood. I spotted Charlie McVeigh, boss of the small-but-expanding Draughthouse chain of gastropubs, at the launch, hopefully gathering some ideas, though since two of his ten pubs are in neighbouring SW11 he was probably mostly checking the new opposition: Draughthouse sells Goose Island beers. Continue reading Goose Island hopes it’s laid a golden egg in Balham→
If you think the major problem facing the Campaign for Real Ale today is whether or not to embrace “craft keg”, or how to prevent more pub closures, then like the campaign itself you’re failing to acknowledge the elephant not just dominating the room but loudly trumpeting in your ear – the latest trumpeting being the news that Cloudwater, the highly regarded Manchester brewer barely two years old, is to give up making cask beer. That elephant is the one marked in big letters down both flanks “poor beer quality”, and despite Camra being founded 46 years ago to fight that exact battle, and – originally – that battle alone, it’s still a war far, far from won.
When Cloudwater started in 2015, the plurality of its output was in cask – 45 per cent, against 25 per cent in keg and the rest in bottle. Last year that was down to 23 per cent in cask, and the rest split almost evenly between bottle and keg. Now, with a new canning line starting up, co-founder Paul Jones says cask production is being halted, and the expected output for 2017 will be 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent bottle and can – with the aim to more than double annual turnover from £1.15million to £2.7 million and 13,000hl/8,000 barrels. Paul lists several reasons for dropping cask: the price the market will accept, which is less than the price it will accept for keg beer, despite all the expense of racking, handling and collection casks on insufficient margin; the fact that, tbh, Cloudwater finds the beers it can sell in keg and bottle more exciting than those it can sell in cask; and finally, and most pertinently to this debate, “another often encountered set of issues”, the quality problem. In his end-of-year blog round-up, Paul complained that slightly hazy casks of keg were being “flatly refused” without being tasted, while casks tasting of diacetyl, either through brewing faults or because they were being served too young, are “all too often good to go”.
Cask beer, Paul said, “should take pride of place in every bar and pub”, but it “requires not just the same skill and discipline as keg beer to brew but also requires excellent stewardship to be pulled in to a glass in a way that best represents the establishment, the brewer and the rich and varied heritage of cask beer in the UK.” He doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear: Cloudwater doesn’t believe that the “excellent stewardship” is there at the point of sale in enough bars to present any cask beer it produces in the way that would give the best possible result for the customer.
It is not alone. I interviewed a number of leading names in the UK brewing world on the subject of beer quality recently, and they all agreed there is still a huge, huge problem. Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, another of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers.” Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, the most successful new brewery start-up in the past 45 years, and now owned by the Japanese brewer Asahi, has consistently refused to involve Meantime in the “cask ale” segment, believing that whatever bonuses cask-conditioned ale might bring in terms of flavour, the downsides of lack of stability and openness to infection inevitable with cask beer mean the customer is much better off with the consistency provided by “craft keg”.
However, he said, and this is a vital point regularly ignored, “all of the afflictions that cask ale suffers from apply to brewery-conditioned beers, and this is where there is a major threat to all beer regardless of type. Poor line cleaning, interchanging beers, many of which are infected because of poor practice at the brewery, warm storage, warm chain distribution, antiquated dispense systems that cannot be cleaned, all paint a worrying picture. The first wave of craft breweries in the US fell foul of quality issues in the 1990s. Hundreds didn’t make the next decade. If brewers in the UK are complacent, the same will happen here. Meantime invests hundreds of thousands of pounds annually to counter this threat. The threat is real – and as we say in industry, you are only as good as your last beer.”
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.
But 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.
Beer can take you to some strange and unexpected places. 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.
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? Continue reading How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen→