Category Archives: Beer

What if Michael Jackson had never lived?

Back in May I was asked by Johan Holm, editor of the Swedish beer magazine c/o Hops, if I would like to write 2,500 words for the 10th anniversary of the death of the beer writer Michael Jackson, to explain to young Swedish beer drinkers who might never have heard of him who he was and why he was important.

It was one of those commissions that was a pleasure to accept (even ignoring the fee), since it gave me the chance to ask a host of people from all sides of the beer industry a question I had been pondering as that anniversary, August 30, approached – what if Michael Jackson had never lived? Was he actually that important to the development of today’s beer scene? And how relevant is he today, when the beer scene globally has changed massively, particularly since 2011, with a tsunami of thousands of new breweries opening up from Argentina to Archangel, and a host of new and revived beer styles, from Gose to barrel-aged sours, he never knew?

The answer, from all the people I talked to, was firm: yes, Michael was important, and yes, his influence continues. I also got some great stories, particularly from Mitch Steele, formerly of Stone Brewing in California, currently brewmaster at the New Realm Brewing Company in Atlanta, Georgia, about Michael’s dealings with Anheuser-Busch, which I didn’t have room to include in my piece for c/o Hops and which you’ll find below.

So what about his importance? Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program in the United States, which educates and certifies beer sommeliers, and currently has around 85,000 certified beer servers and 2,800 certified beer cicerones in 50 countries, told me: “Michael Jackson is, quite simply, the foundation upon which modern craft beer is built. There’s not a single person who started a brewery or wrote about beer before 2000 who was not directly influenced by his work. And I’d argue that everyone since then has been either directly or indirectly influenced by him as well.”

The Danish brewer Anders Kissmeyer said: “My first personal encounter with Michael was at the first ever Copenhagen Beer Festival back in 2001. I had obviously heard a lot about him in advance, but I was still amazed by the way he conducted himself. Although courted as had he been a Roman emperor by a score of dedicated Danish fans, he still took the time to talk to anyone who approached him. It was like our very, very young craft beer scene was granted a holy blessing by Michaels – at that time the undisputed world champion beer guru – appearance and encouraging comments to us

“Michael Jackson was in the eyes of the entire Scandinavian brewing scene and myself a guiding star and a tremendous inspiration due to his extremely deep insight into the universe of beer, his never failing enthusiasm for crusading on behalf of good beer, and – last but not least – his ability to communicate his always interesting and well-founded views on all things beer related to a very broad audience. I believe that the craft beer revolutions all over the world would have been slower and less powerful had there been no Michael Jackson.”

Alastair Hook, who founded Meantime Brewing Company in Greenwich, South East London in 2000, said: “When Michael published his Pocket Guide to World Beer around about 1980, very few people wrote about beer. As an 18-year-old I used it as a travel companion for a trip to Europe and it was my main inspiration that resulted in a career dedicated to beer. What is remarkable is that I know hundreds of middle-aged brewers who have been part of the modern beer revolution who were all inspired by Michael and his work. He brought the world of beer to life, pretty much single-handed. A generation of new brewers disrupted the market as a result. The incredible choice available across the brewing world is down in no small part to his even-handed but inspirational writings.”

Jeff Alworth, author of the excellent Beer Bible, said: “Jackson’s greatest contribution was writing about beer as a product of culture. He is regularly credited with having given currency to the idea of ‘style’, and perhaps rightly so. This was a downstream effect of his larger work, though. It’s hard for me to even imagine how difficult his work would have been, driving around the Belgian countryside, stopping into funky little breweries, and trying to figure out what in the world he was drinking and how it related to anything else. He had no internet, no information, nothing but paper maps. A lesser writer wouldn’t have looked at the threads connecting those beers to the people who made and drank it, and wouldn’t have then led to the deep thinking that resulted in his ideas on style.

“He’s dinged for getting some stuff wrong, and obviously he did. He got some of the history wrong, and he got some of the styles wrong (it doesn’t make much sense to divide English browns or the tart red-brown beers of Flanders). But he got stuff wrong because he was doing such a tremendous amount of work. As a one-time scholar, I know that the process is one of creative destruction –contemporary work will always give way to the next generation when better information comes along. But creating the framework in which all that work happens is something very, very few people get to do and we are enormously lucky that Jackson was the one who did it for beer. Freud’s theories about the mind are largely discredited now, but he remains such a large figure because he gave us the context of psychotherapy. Jackson’s our Freud – but one who got a lot more right.

“The man was also a gorgeous writer. This is never mentioned, but it was critical to his success. In ways small and large, so many beer writers unconsciously echo the way he wrote about beer. It was literary but clear and always evocative. Here in the US especially, Jackson’s writing was critical in sparking craft brewing. The people who were involved in good beer in the 1970s and 1980s were romantics, and they fell in love with this world Jackson described; they wanted to be a part of it. That’s one of the most obvious ways the old guard differ from the new guard; the latter are more pragmatic, flinty, and knowing. The old-timers just wanted to become Dupont.

“I can’t guess what Jackson would have made of the past decade. There was always a strong element of the reporter in Jackson, and he was reporting on this great story of “beer” until he died. It has changed and I’m sure he’d have had evolving thoughts. He did seem to find wonder in the world of beer, and I doubt seriously that these years would have dimmed his astonishment. But exactly what flavour of wonder he’d have had – well, sadly, we’ll never know. I would bet my bottom dollar that it would have been worth reading, though.

Mitch Steele, like Alastair Hook, also owned up to being massively influenced by Jackson in his career as a brewer: “Back when I was starting out in a pub brewery, San Andreas Brewing Co in Hollister, California) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, very few people in the US knew much about the beer styles of the world. Homebrewers, who by and large were the people that were starting brewpubs and breweries at the time, had learned almost exclusively from British homebrewing books, so the beers most of us made were English-inspired ales. We all looked at Michael Jackson with extreme reverence – he had travelled the world and written about so many different types of beer, and really was the first person to categorize the beer styles of the world with names and descriptions of what the beers should be. His World Guide To Beer was my bible for many, many years, certainly well into the late 1990s. I used that book all the time when I was in charge of New Products at Anheuser-Busch, I used it to develop recipes, and I used it to educate the team at AB, because all they really knew was American and German lagers. Later, Michael’s Jackson’s Beer Companion book further defined beer styles and became an excellent resource for me.

“In 1990, the Association of Brewers (now the Brewers Association) organised a west coast brewery tour with Michael Jackson, and they all came to our little brewpub. I took off early from my day job to be there, and brought my World Guide to Beer for him to sign, which he did. We served him a bunch of beers, and he liked them well enough, and even wrote us up in his Pocket Guide to Beer, which was a great thrill. We found out after the fact that he would’ve been much more impressed if we had given him some food! It didn’t even cross our minds, we were so concerned about whether he’d like our beers or not. But he did make special mention of a woodruff ale we had brewed for the springtime, which was really great.

“Judging with Michael at the GABF, one quote that made me re-think how we were judging beers. He said, ‘What you call “flaws”, I call “interesting and flavourful”. If all the beers in the world were brewed without any flaws at all, this would be very boring.’

“When I was researching for my book on IPA, I had the opportunity to look at the Michael Jackson files at the Oxford Brookes University Library. In addition to some great notes on historical and current IPA, I also found the notes he had taken back when he visited our San Andreas Brewery in 1990, and that was pretty exciting.”

“When I was working with Anheuser-Busch, in the mid 1990s Michael Jackson visited to meet with the VP of Brewing. I wasn’t at that meeting, my co-worker went, but we all heard that Michael emphatically told Gerhardt Kraemer [vice-president for brewing at AB] that the brewers should decide what beers should be brewed. This was so against how AB operated at the time (new beers were always dictated by Marketing, with varying low levels of input from brewing) that it created a huge stir. Our brewing team was thrilled, and the marketing team was in shock. It never played out like we had hoped, but his comment made me realise that the way AB released new beers was really messed up, and since then I have sought out companies that believe in their brewers for innovation. And I remember Gerhardt Kraemer’s comment after the meeting, ‘He’s an odd fellow, isn’t he? But he certainly loves beer.'”

So: Michael Jackson, very important, yes. But indispensable? If Jackson had never lived, would we now be living in a world where all our beer is supplied by less than a handful of global megabreweries, as suggested in the cartoon up at the top there, published just after his death? No, I don’t think we can say that. He did a huge amount to popularise the beers of Belgium, for example, but Tim Webb has done arguably almost as much with his series of guides to the country, and while Michael might have been the person who introduced American brewers to the thrills of geuze, saisons and sour brown ales, they would have discovered those delights on their own anyway, eventually, through someone like Garrett Oliver, or Stan Hieronymus, or Tim.

His influence on the British brewing scene, apart from brewers such as Hook who were (and are) unusual in having a wide knowledge of European beers and brewing styles and techniques, was, to be honest, fairly minimal. And although he was feted in the US, there were plenty of others who could have taken his place. As the Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod told me for my article in c/o Hops: “The problem is not so much Michael Jackson and the degree to which he influenced good beer. It’s that he has become code for the foundations of microbrewing and, after his death, the rise of craft brewing. If we read a bit we come to understand that people like Peter Austin [the British microbrewing pioneer] and Bert Grant [the Scottish-American microbrewing pioneer] were well down the path towards good beer before Jackson came on the scene. As were other beer writers. In the end, he is a great figure in the popularization of good beer. But he was not alone and many who also played important roles are too often lost in his shadow.”

Still, do we miss him? Yes, I do, certainly. I would absolutely love to be able to read his views on the past ten years of developments in beer. They would, without a doubt, be interesting, erudite, thoughtful and entertaining. As it happens, this year I am the same age as Michael was when he died, 65. That, I can assure you, is far too young an age to go.

Red beer, green lager, immature barley beer: the innovations I drank on a ‘jolly’ to Carlsberg

Beer made from immature “green” barley – who knew such a thing was possible? Or “red lager” made from actual red-coloured barley? And what does a beer taste like made with barley so controversial it caused a protest led by a marching band through the streets of Munich back in June?

One for the tickers: Plane Ale, from Mikkeller, only available at 35,000 feet on SAS flights. Thanks to the wonders of GPS-enabled smartphones, I can tell you I was six and a half miles above the small Dutch village of Rottum, in Groeningen province, while drinking this beer

If you’re one of the people who believes no beer writer should ever accept hospitality from a brewer, for fear of being corrupted, then you’ll need to stop reading this post now, because everything that follows was gathered on a trip to Copenhagen last week paid for by Carlsberg. I wasn’t on my own, of course: there were also a dozen or so beer writers and trade journos, and, more importantly from Carlsberg’s viewpoint, 250 or so assorted others including customers from key markets, staff from Carlsberg operations around the globe (I met some very nice men and women from Tuborg Turkey who insisted on having their pictures taken with me, having seen me in the film I was paid to appear in about last year’s Carlsberg ReBrew project, recreating an 1883 lager), people from PR and design companies who have Carlsberg as a client and mates of the Carlsberg Foundation (Carlsberg’s owner), all there to help celebrate 170 years since JC Jacobsen opened the Carlsberg brewery in the Copenhagen suburb of Valby.

The brewing kit at Warpigs, the joint-venture restaurant/brewery by Mikkeller and Three Floyds in Copenhagen’s meat-packing district

For unknown reasons, this trip has encouraged a mountain of scorn and mockery from the rigidly puritan, obsessively put on public record every free pint anybody ever bought you end of the beer-writing world, with the top of that mountain of scorn claimed as the moral high ground. There are a host of reasons for believing this is a stupid and nonsensical position to take, but here are just three before we return to the important stuff. If you believe you have responsibilities to your readers as a writer about beer, you ought to take every opportunity to uncover information they will find interesting. If that includes accepting a free trip from a brewer, and you prefer to insist that your integrity will suffer unless you stay at home, you’re badly letting your readers down by refusing to go and learn stuff on their behalf. Next, if you accept payment in magazines or newspapers for your writings on beer, what do you think the ultimate source of that payment is? The advertising budgets of those brewers you refuse to accept direct hospitality from, of course.

The Warpigs bar in Copenhagen with Henry and Sally, the two Mikkeller chaacters invented by illustrator Keith Shore, rendered in neon

Finally, does anyone think Michael Jackson paid for all his trips round the world to investigate breweries in dozens of different countries? Of course he didn’t: they were paid for by brewers, maltsters, distillers and the like, and those paid-for trips helped him become the massively influential beer (and whisky) writer he was. I have a book written by Michael, and translated into Polish and published by the Tyskie brewery in Poland, a subsidiary (at the time) of SAB Miller. If you had suggested to the Beer Hunter that by his accepting a commission from a multinational brewer to write a book his other work was irrecoverably compromised, he would have looked at you over his glasses with an expression that told you exactly what he thought you were. I’m not Michael Jackson, but I’ve learnt something useful on every trip any brewer has paid for me to go on, and that all feeds back into what I write.

Water Mother by the Danish sculptor Kai Nielsen, in the main hall of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Back to Copenhagen. The highlight of the trip was supposed to be a TEDx event on the subject “Trust Uncertainty”, held for the 250-plus attendees in a hall at the deeply impressive Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the art museum founded by JC Jacobsen’s son Carl, and paid for, of course, by the sale of many millions of pints of lager. (It has copies of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and Degas’s Little Dancer of 14 years, and would be worth visiting just to stand in front of either one of those. You can see another copy of the Burghers outdoors in Victoria Tower Gardens, by the Thames in London, but for me the darkened, indoors setting of the Glyptotek greatly heightens the emotional impact of Rodin’s six stoic, heroic, literally monumental figures, depicted in the moments when they still believed they were about to be executed by the English, having chosen to sacrifice themselves to save their fellow citizens from being massacred.)

A horse-drawn Carlsberg dray in the yard of the old brewery in Copenhagen. Note the casks slung below the dray, and attached by a gibbet-gab, the doublehook and chain I talked about here

The TED talks were, I’m afraid, TEDious: what you need at these kind of events is at least one speaker with a little charisma. The finale was a speech by JC Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, who died 130 years ago, but appeared in front of the audience apparently resurrected and talking live (using what was described in the publicity as “holographic technology”, but which was actually the 155-year-old theatrical technique of Pepper’s Ghost). The talk by JC Jacobsen (ror rather, the actor playing Jacobsen) was, again, on “embracing uncertainty”. This was, as someone else (Pete Brown?) remarked, deeply ironic, since the real Jacobsen’s entire career, and also that of his great protégé Emil Christian Hansen, who pioneered pure yeast cell cultivation, was devoted to removing as much uncertainty as possible from beer brewing. But it was very much an internal PR event for Carlsberg, as these shows generally are: it was being streamed live so more than 4,000 company employees around the world could tune in.

Zoran Gojkovic, the director of brewing science and technology at the Carlsberg labs

The “break-out session” at the end, however, was much greater fun, since our group was taken off to the Carlsberg research laboratories for a presentation by Erik Lund, head brewer at the labs, and Zoran Gojkovic, the director of brewing science and technology, on three pioneering beers. The tall, thin, ascetic and slightly starchy Dane and the rounder, jollier, goatee-bearded Serbian make a great double act, powered by the huge enthusiasm they both obviously have for their jobs.

Continue reading Red beer, green lager, immature barley beer: the innovations I drank on a ‘jolly’ to Carlsberg

Czeched out at last

Sitting 30 feet below the surface at a table in a workmen’s refuge dug out of the soft Bohemian sandstone, drinking unfiltered, unpasteurised lager made in 80-year-old open wooden fermenting vessels and poured from big copper jugs, I reflected on how long it had taken me to make this journey. Being a beer writer who has never visited the Czech Republic is highly embarrassing, like being an art historian who has never seen Florence. But every attempt I had made to get to the birthplace of pale lager, in more years of trying than I want to recall, had gone wrong: until now. Another tick on the bucket list, at last.

Two ticks, actually: one for finally getting to the Pilsner Urquell brewery, and its fabled caves, and another for finally drinking at U Fleků, Prague’s almost legendary home-brew pub, eulogised by Michael Jackson 40 years ago in the first edition of the World Guide to Beer and somewhere I had wanted to drink ever since I read about it. The gods of beer guided my hand: it turned out the hotel I had booked in Prague, based solely on a balance of cheapness and closeness to the city centre, was just two minutes from U Fleků (which looks to translate as “The Spot” – as in “hits”, perhaps …).

The tree-shaded courtyard at U Fleků

Reviews I had read years ago suggested the locals at U Fleků did not appreciate all the tourists disturbing their drinking, but on a warm Central European afternoon, parked at one of a dozen big black trestle tables in the pub’s tree-shaded central courtyard sipping a cool glass of Flekovské pivo, the only beer U Fleků makes, a typically fine Czech dark lager, I noticed no such vibe: possibly because the place was still pretty quiet, and tourists were the only customers. But the waiters were attentive, the beer both cheap (compared to West London) and excellent, the snacks first-rate (based on my deep-fried beery cheese) and even the twinkling elderly accordianist over on one side of the courtyard wasn’t too irritating. I need to go back when the place is busier and sample drinking in one of the pub’s big refectory table-filled rooms, all empty of customers when I was there, but it was a good start to my first visit to Prague. Continue reading Czeched out at last

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?

What’s a brewer’s bucket? No, you’re wrong …

“He shall charge you, and discharge you, with the motion of a pewterer’s hammer, come off and on swifter than he that gibbets on the brewer’s bucket.”
Sir John Falstaff, Henry IV part 2, Act III, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare

Better brains that yours or mine have failed to identify what Falstaff meant by “brewer’s bucket”. It’s to do with carrying liquids, certainly, but unrelated to pails. And actually, you’ve probably seen illustrations of a brewer’s bucket, thought it would not have been called that in the captions. What is more, you’ve probably used the word “bucket” in the sense intended by Shakespeare, though I doubt you or anyone who heard you realised that.

The passage mentioning the brewer’s bucket occurs in a scene where Falstaff and his gang are raising levies among the Gloucestershire peasantry for the king’s army to fight against the rebellious Earl of Northumberland. The two likeliest-looking recruits, big sturdy men called Peter Bullcalf and Ralph Mouldy, bribe Bardolph, Falstaff’s deputy, with 40 shillings each and are allowed to sneak away home (Bardolph, of course, tells Sir John he was given £3 to let them go) and Falstaff insists the three weeds he has left, Simon Shadow, Thomas Wart and Francis Feeble, will make cracking soldiers.

From Drinks Of The World by James Mew, published 1896, two 17th century brewers with bucket

Shadow, he says, is so thin the enemy gunners will not be able to hit him, Feeble will be suitably speedy in any necessary retreat, while Wart will “charge and discharge” (terms used by gunners – see page 39 of The Art of Gunnery by Nathanial Nye, published 1637) using the quick movements of a pewtersmith planishing the surface of whatever piece he is making, and “come off and on” (which look like swordfighting terms, as in “come on guard”) swifter than – well, what, exactly?

Samuel Johnson explained this passage in his annotated edition of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1765 as meaning “swifter than he that carries beer from the vat to the barrel in buckets hung upon a gibbet or beam crossing his shoulders”. Earlier the same year, Johnson had become friends with Henry Thrale, owner of the big Anchor brewery in Southwark, one of London’s leading porter brewers, and Thrale’s wife Hester. Readers who knew this may have believed Johnson had seen such a thing at the brewery. However, the Irish politician and literary scholar John Monck Mason (1726-1809), in Comments on the several Editions of Shakespeare’s Plays, published in 1807, gave the dictionary writer a kicking for this interpretation, complaining: “I do not think Johnson’s explanation of this passage just. The carrying beer from the vat to the barrel must be a matter that requires more labour than swiftness. Falstaff seems to mean “swifter than he that puts the buckets on the gibbet”, for as the buckets at each end of the gibbet must be put on at the same instant it necessarily requires a quick motion.”

Two 18th century figures, a gentleman and a brewer (in apron) with a brewer’s bucket, from a receipt for beer issuerd by William Sykes, a common brewer in Leeds, in 1796

Two centuries on, SparkNotes, the US-based study guide website familiar to tens of millions under the age of 30, explains the passage in its “No Fear Shakespeare” section in a similar manner, saying that Shakespeare meant Wart could “advance and regroup faster than a brewer’s delivery pail can be refilled.” But like Johnson and Mason, SparkNotes is making a fundamental error: because “bucket” in this passage does not mean “vessel”. And Johnson and Mason made another mistake as well: for not only were the buckets not buckets, they weren’t hanging from a gibbet.

The only Shakespeare commentator to get it right, or mostly right, seems to have been Sir Sidney Lee, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, in his Complete Works of Shakespeare of 1906. Lee pointed out that “bucket” here is clearly the separate word meaning “beam or yoke on which things may be hung or carried”, from the Old French “buquet”, meaning “trébuchet, balance”. “Gibbets” means “hangs”, Lee says, and “The reference is to the practice of hauling about barrels of beer by attaching them to chains depending from a beam borne on the shoulders of the brewers’ men,” so that the passage means “swifter than he that hangs barrels on the yoke of the brewer’s men.” “The attribution of swiftness to this method of haulage is ironical,” Lee says.

Two brewery workers in Amsterdam about 1710 lifting a cask from a horse-drawn sled with a brewer’s bucket, by the Dutch artist Jan Luyeken

Multiple illustrations over several centuries show brewery workers carrying round casks suspended by chains from a yoke they support on their shoulders: it looks to have been a common method of transporting full casks. The yoke is the bucket. Confusingly, while gibbet can mean a pole from which something is hung (which is what Johnson and Mason thought the word signified in the passage from Henry IV), here it means the chains and hooks that attach the cask to the bucket. The records of the city of Aberdeen in 1477 mention “A brewyne fat, a hemmyr stand, a bukket, and a gybbate that it hang by.” In Scotland, where the “gibbet or swee” was the name given to the chimney-crane that supported a pot over the kitchen fire, which was “attached to [the swee] by a strong double hook called the gibbet-gab”, exactly that double hook on a chain you can see hanging from the bucket on all those pictures of draymen.

(Small aside: I don’t think, without internet access or a copy of A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue in your library you would have any chance of guessing what a “hemmyr stand” was. “Stand” is an old Scots word for a vessel or, in this case, a cask. “Hemmyr” is the old Scots for the port and city of Hamburg. So a “hemmyer stand” was a Hamburg barrel, a specific size of cask holding, depending when and where you were, 14 [Scots] gallons [in 1489] or 12 [Scots] gallons [in Aberdeen in 1511]. A Scots gallon was equal to six and two thirds Imperial pints, so 14 gallons Scots was 11 2/3rds Imperial gallons.)

Ale brewer’s draymen, drawn by Frederic Schoberl for The World in Miniature, published by Rudolph Ackermann in 1821, showing the brewer’s bucket was still not obsolete

You will have spotted, I hope, that Lee looks to be in error with the claim that “‘Gibbets’ means ‘hangs’.” “Gibbets on” should more properly, I suggest, be “gibbets-on”, with “to gibbet-on” meaning “to attach something to a bucket or yoke with hooks on a chain” – just like the chap at the rear is doing in the illustration of the brewer’s bucket in use in Amsterdam.

So why did Shakespeare use the act of gibbetting-on a brewer’s bucket as a metaphor for speed (or, if Falstaff was being ironic, for slowness)? If my maths is up to it, a full wooden barrel weights about four hundredweight, or 200 kilos. Even two men carrying the bucket on their shoulders would not be nipping about speedily. All suggestions for what Stratford Willy actually meant gratefully considered.

Finally, “bucket” meaning “yoke or beam” does have one common modern usage, albeit metaphorical and with no one using it aware of its origins. The OED quotes a newspaper from 1888 as saying:

“The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify ‘to die’.”

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?

Going wild (yeast) in Amsterdam

If there is a more international, more fascinating, more illuminating, more must-not-be-missed beer celebration on the planet right now than Carnivale Brettanomyces in Amsterdam, let me know immediately, because it must be marvellous.

Goats are part of the iconography of Carnivale Brettanomyces

Carnivale Brettanomyces, now on its sixth year, calls itself a beer festival, but it’s more a three-day massively parallel series of dozens of different events – lectures, tastings, panels, tap takeovers and food-and-beer matching – across eight different venues around Amsterdam, involving, for 2017, almost 60 breweries from not quite a dozen different countries, and several hundred visitors from at least 17 , from Canada to India.

What is particularly thrilling, besides the skin-tingling geekery of hearing people discuss, and discussing, deeply obscure aspects of beer making, is tasting deeply rare beers: Norwegian farmhouse ales, saisons from tiny Belgian 10th-generation family breweries, pale ales you would otherwise have to take a trip to far-off rural Vermont and queue for three hours in the cold to get hold of.

As the name implies, the purpose of the festival is to celebrate Brettanomyces, the funky (literally) cousin to standard brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Most mainstream brewers, and all winemakers, shun Brett the way vampires flee from crosses, believing the aromas it brings to fermentations – sweaty socks, farmyards, damp leather – are definitely not those they wish to put in front of their drinkers. But Belgian brewers have been creatively using strains of Brett in everything from Lambics to pale ales (Orval, famously, has a touch of Brettanomyces) for centuries, and the yeast was actually first isolated from samples of English stock ales, and named, by the Danish brewing chemist Niels Hjelte Claussen, at Carlsberg in Copenhagen, in or shortly before 1903.

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Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world where walking the streets at all hours consuming alcohol from an open container is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. This is party city USA. Bars shut only when the last customer leaves, and will gladly sell you drink to go – and while that used to be, generally, cocktails such as the take-away daiquiri, or the infamous Hand Grenade (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, melon liqueur and pure grain alcohol, with a dash of pineapple juice, served in a hand grenade-shaped vessel), since a change in the law two years ago, that drink is increasingly likely to be a local craft beer.

The beautiful but sadly long-closed Jax brewery by the weaterfront in New Orleans

I was in Louisiana ostensibly for a music tour: the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then a trip out to the south-west of the state, where settlers expelled by the British some 260 years ago from Acadie, the French colony on the Atlantic Canadian shore, eventually settled and became known as Cajuns. The plans included an open-air Cajun crawfish boil, with music from masters of Cajun song and dance. But there was enough free time to fit in plenty of beer tourism as well, and multiple places to choose from. Louisiana may have almost the lowest number of breweries per head of any state in the union (only neighbouring Mississippi is worse), but the world brewery boom has not completely passed it by. The state now has 30 craft breweries, three times more than in 2010, and New Orleans is home to nine of them, after losing its only surviving large brewery, Dixie, to the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (The Jax brewery had closed in 1974). What is more, since New Orleans is one of the top eight tourist destinations in the United States, at least a couple of operators have started organising minibus tours taking in several local breweries at once, reckoning that the huge growth in interest in craft beer makes for a potentially lucrative niche alongside the other organised tourist attractions, such as paddlesteamer trips along the Mississippi and visits to spooky cemeteries and antebellum plantations.

You have to be prepared to be flexible here, since beer tourism is still at the toddler stage, and if not enough people book a tour, it will be cancelled at almost the last minute, which is what happened to one trip I had organised before I arrived in New Orleans. But I still managed to get to see eight different breweries, or more than a quarter of all that Louisiana offers, AND hear some wonderful music AND eat some fantastic food AND see some amazing, beautiful sights AND get soaked almost to my underpants in one of the drenching hours-long thunderstorms New Orleans is prone to.

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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.