Category Archives: Beer news

Hurrah! The ten-sided beer mug is back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Queen’s Choice pattern grapefruit bowl with fixed plate

A look round Camden Town’s new Enfield brewery

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

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

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

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

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

Camden Town head brewer Rob Topham

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

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

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

Enfield brewhouse fermenting and lagering vessels

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

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

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

No, actually, thanks all the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 UK brewery crowdfunding efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Peter’s Without Any Redeeming Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goose Island hopes it’s laid a golden egg in Balham

The Goose Island Vintage Ale House in Balham, South London

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

Your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies

In the 40-plus years I have worked as a journalist, I never wrote anything I knew to be an actual lie. I’ll admit, though, that, very rarely, I span a story to leave the reader with an impression that, while not actively untrue, did not present a totally balanced narrative: generally because the balanced narrative was so dull no one would have read it.

But I certainly worked with news editors from the “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good front-page splash” school of journalism: men (no women) who sent their reporters out with a clear brief on the story they were expected to bring back, and who would erupt with sweary rage if the reporter returned to say, actually, very sorry, the facts didn’t support the news editor’s wished-for narrative at all.

Thus I recognised the report by Zoë Beaty, “The real story behind the ‘drunk women’ headlines“, in which she details how, when she worked as a stringer in the North of England, news editors from London papers would ring her up and order a report on women drinking on New Year’s Eve:

“We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written.”

Of course, Beaty and her photographer colleague would tour the night-time city centres, and discover that the facts did not at all fit the narrative the news editors demanded.

“Let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make ‘booze Britain’ look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull. It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.”

Still the stories get repeated: my personal theory is that middle-aged male news editors get a secret sexual kick seeing stories about, and pictures of, young women in revealing clothing out of control and vulnerable through drink, hence the popularity of pictures like this one below, taken in Bristol in 2010, which has subsequerntly appeared in publications as far away as Poland to illustrate stories on binge drinking:

Do middle-aged men like reading stories about women like this because it turns them on?

But if you think this making-the-facts-up-to-fit-the-story policy is at all new, that we have only recently, after Brexit and Trump, shifted into a “post-truth” world, let me quote you George Orwell, writing 75 years ago about his experiences as a fighter for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War: Continue reading Your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies

Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

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.

Cloudwater: no more cask

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.”

Continue reading Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

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

Quick: what’s the oldest microbrewery in London?

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

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

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

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