Category Archives: Beer

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.

Fanboy investing can be fun, but is not necessarily lucrative: and, like all gambling ventures, you should only risk money you can afford to lose. Indeed, given the general lack of form available on those asking you to fund their dreams, fanboy investing is actually worse than most forms of gambling. At least when it comes to the 2:30 at Haydock Park you can see how the horses performed in the past. Few start-up brewers have ever begun a company before to let you gather some idea of their business savvy. As Justin Hawke of Moor Beer told the Guardian, talking about crowdfunding craft brewery start-ups: “It’s a largely unregulated and unknown way of investing used by people who a bank wouldn’t lend to because they don’t have a sound business model. It allows hobbyists to entertain their notions. BrewDog would point to themselves as the exception, but a lot have failed and will fail in the not-too-distant future.”

You can read the complete report I put together for the investment advisory firm OFF3R on crowdfunding and the craft beer scene in the UK here, but I thought I’d share a few highlights with Zythophile readers. The number of individual investments across the nearly 50 beer and brewing companies covered by the report totals more than 65,000, though how many people that represents is hard to estimate.

According to Crowdcube, which has seen the largest number of beery crowdfunding efforts on its site, a fifth of its investors in beer-related companies put money into two or more ventures, which still suggests more than 50,000 people now own craft. brewery stakes. A huge proportion are men: 85 per cent, against an overall split among Crowdcube investors generally of 73 per cent male to 27 per cent female, pointing to “fanboy” investing by male beer drinkers in their favourite brew. The average age of brewery investors on Crowdcube is 41, so they can be presumed to know at least a little about financial risk.

Geographically the largest proportion of brewery investors on Crowdcube, at 27 per cent, more than one in four, comes from London, although London has less than 14 per cent of the UK’s total population: this may reflect the fact that a fair number of big brewery crowdfunding efforts have come from London brewers such as Hop Stuff (£700,000), Redchurch (£930,000) and Camden Town. The next biggest regions for brewery crowdfunding investors on Crowdcube come from the South East of England, with 10 per cent, and Scotland, with 9 per cent: again, Innis & Gunn and BrewDog have been big raisers of capital via crowdfunding.

Redchurch has now raised almost £1 million in two separate crowdfunding pushes

The most popular crowdfunding platform among British brewers is Crowdcube, with more than two dozen brewery clients, for which it has raised more than £11 million. Its rival Seedrs has just two brewery clients and the craft beer distributor Eebria on its books, the same number of beer sector clients as the Angels Den platform, but has raised more than £7.8 million for them, against Angels Den’s £166,000 for its three brewery firms.

Ignoring BrewDog, the average sum raised by all brewery and beer sector equity-based crowdfunding efforts at a time is £626,000, 10 per cent higher than the average raised across all sectors on Crowdcube of £568,000 per fundraising campaign and 28 per cent more than the average for the food and beverage sector as a whole on Crowdcube, £490,000.

The largest sums have been raised through equity-based schemes, but around a dozen new small breweries have brought in more than £100,000 between them in rewards-based crowdfunding, offering everything from T-shirts to a day at the brewery, and asking for sums as low as £5 at a time. Among the most successful rewards-based fundraisers have been Crossed Anchors of Exmouth, which brought in almost £38,000 from 364 supporters in just 49 days, offering rewards including the right to name one of the brewery fermenting vessels, with a “christening party” at the brewery, for £2,000; and Wildcraft Brewery in Norfolk, which raised just short of £22,000 from 331 supporters in 63 days after offering rewards including a “brew your own beer” day for £500. Both used the Crowdfunder site, as did the organiser of probably the smallest brewery fundraising venture, Three Spires Brewery in Lichfield, Staffordshire, which raised £320 from nine subscribers in January this year to pay for equipment and ingredients, with rewards of free beer. (Breweries offering equity also, typically, offer rewards as well, ranging from discounted beer to invitations to the AGM.)

The potential returns available through making a crowdfunding investment look, on the surface, very attractive. Seedrs has claimed that its investors have seen a 14.4pc annualised return, rising to 41.87pc after tax relief. However, this represents growth in the share price only, with shareholders not actually seeing that return appear in their bank accounts every year. The other big criticism of crowdfunding – apart from the risk to your money – is that investors find it hard to get their hands on their rewards, with no, or only very limited retail markets in which to sell their shares.

Camden Town: swift return

Some investors in brewery crowdfunding ventures have certainly seen spectacular paper returns, however. According to BrewDog, at the company’s current valuation of almost £1 billion, anyone who put money into its first Equity for Punks crowdfunding, which closed in February 2010, has seen the value of their investment increase 2,765 per cent in seven years, a compound growth rate of almost 275 per cent a year. Even investors in its most recent crowdfunding round, EFP IV, which closed in April 2016, saw a 177 per cent increase in the value of their holding over 12 months. The company has run annual opportunities for its shareholders to sell up via Asset Match, a website that enables dealings in private companies, and one BrewDog shareholder revealed earlier this year that she had invested £2,000 in EFP II in 2011, sold half her holding via Asset Match in 2016 for £8,000 – a 70 per cent compound annual return – and still had a holding worth, on paper, £53,000. However, when BrewDog sold a 22 per cent slice of itself to TSG in April this year, EFP investors were allowed themselves to sell just 15 per cent of their individual shareholdings, capped at 40 shares per investor.

Camden Town Brewery investors saw an even faster return, with the company raising £2.75 million via Crowdcube in April 2015 for 5.37 per cent of the business, giving an enterprise value of £51 million, and selling out to the giant brewing concern AB InBev just eight months later for a reported £85 million – a compound growth rate of 7.6 per cent a month, or 45 per cent a year. However, BrewDog and Camden Town are rarities even among crowd-funded ventures as a whole, and Seedrs warns that most investors are unlikely to see returns within five to seven years, assuming they get anything at all. And although the true figures are unlikely ever to appear, it seems probable Camden Town wasn’t true “crowdfunding” in the sense that most money came from “ordinary” investors: it’s fairly certain that most of the cash was put up by friends and associates of Jasper Cuppaidge and his father-in-law,  the millionaire adman Sir John Hegarty, and merely channeled through crowdcube. One brewery finance director told me, on conditions of anonymity, that he was “100 per cent convinced” most of Camdem Town’s cash was already raised “off-platform” from investors before crowdfunding began.


With half of all new business enterprises reckoned to fail before five years are up, it is no surprise that crowdfunded breweries have still got into trouble, despite the due diligence most crowdfunding platforms impose and, sometimes, the presence of high-profile experienced investors. Jon Moulton, founder of the private equity firm Alchemy Partners, put £25,000 into the North East of England brewer Delavals, founded in Blyth, Northumberland in 2010. as it attempted to raise £400,000 in January 2015 by selling 30 per cent of the company via the crowdfunding platform. Delavals was the officially licensed brewer to the National Trust and operated the Trust’s beer club. The fundraising failed, and Delavals went into liquidation in May 2015, blaming market saturation and extremely competitive beer pricing, and the fact that it had not raised sufficient cash to pay for the marketing support to bring in sufficient sales to keep it going.

Other failures include Brüpond, based in Leyton, East London, which raised £ 45,000 from 45 investors on Crowdcube in 2012 but went into liquidation in September 2013; and Little Brew, originally of Camden in North London, which raised £109,000 on Crowd Cube for 27 per cent of its equity early in 2014, moved its operations to York, and then collapsed at the start of 2016. Quantock Brewery in Somerset, which raised £120,000 on Crowdcube in 2015, entered administration in January this year, and although it was subsequently acquired by an unnamed investor and is still running, presumably those Crowdcube punters have kissed their cash farewell.

Crowdfunding attempts by brewers also miss their targets and never take off. Among recent failures, Burton Town Brewery sought to raise just £25,000 last September on Crowdfunder but attracted only 13 supporters.


The history of crowdfunding in the brewing sector actually dates back more than two centuries, to the Golden Lane Genuine Beer Brewery, which opened near the Barbican in the City of London in 1805 and raised more than £250,000 – equivalent to perhaps £19 million today – from 600 “co-partners”, including 120 publicans, with the aim of brewing cheaper beer than the then big brewers were making.

The Genuine Beer Brewery, Golden Lane, City of London, in 1807

The Golden Lane Brewery eventually went into a steep decline, however, finding it impossible to compete on price without lowering the quality of the beer, and collapsed in the mid-1820s. It was more than 60 years before breweries that were originally private partnerships began selling their shares to the public, the first being Guinness in 1886, which put up two thirds of its equity at a valuation of £6 million. Almost 20,000 investors applied for shares, and only 6,000 were successful. The demand for shares in Guinness encouraged other brewers to float on the stock market: but these were all conventional share sales involving brokers and stock exchanges.

It was not until 1995 when anyone tried anything similar to the Golden Lane Brewery’s “crowd fundraising” venture. That year Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company in the United States, maker of Samuel Adams lager, put coupons on six-packs of his beer allowing customers to buy 33 shares in the 10-year-old company at $15 a share, a total investment of $495. The offer brought in the equivalent of more than £40 million from tens of thousands of fans of Samuel Adams beer. Koch told NPR’s How I Built This podcast last year: “The investment banks freaked out about it, they told me, ‘You can’t do it, it would never work,’ all these reasons not to. But I stood my ground, I knew the investment banks were going to make money on this, so they would let me do it if I refused to compromise. Eventually they came round, and we got 130-some thousand people who sent in cheques. We got $65 million, and that was the first time something like that had been done.”

That $65 million Sam Adams raised on its own is almost exactly the same sum all of Britain’s craft beer brewers have raised together, of course. Crowdfunding by craft beer brewers is certain to continue: but if you’re tempted to put your own money up, be sure you can afford to lose it, and do not expect to make the fortune Jim Koch made.

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.

British brewers largely eliminated Brett from their beers before the First World War (though Guinness continued cultivating the yeast in its strong Foreign Extra Stout) and American brewers, if they had ever much used it, certainly forgot how to over the lost years of Prohibition, But in the past decade, inspired by a lust for Belgian-style beers, craft brewers in the US have been getting back into Brett, and the fashion has now been picked up in Britain.

Carnivale Brettanomyces was founded by Elaine Olsthoorn of the Amsterdam craft beer bar In de Wildeman and Jan “Beekaa” Lemmens of de Bierkoning, the Amsterdam craft beer shop in 2011. The pair were picking up on a growing interest in wild yeasts and sour beers, and by 2015 their event was attracting brewers from half a dozen countries outside the Netherlands, including five from the UK. This year the countries with breweries represented  included the Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic, the UK, the United States, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Belgium, and the other visitors came from all those places and another six, at least, countries as well (Denmark, France, Norway, India, Iceland and Italy).

‘Canal-view room” they said about my hotel in Amsterdam, and if you stood on a chair and twisted your head out of the window like a giraffe, it was …

The speakers at the different events were, too, a varied crew: a swath of American craft brewers, including David Logsdon of Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Oregon, Shaun Hill, brewer at Hill Farmstead in Vermont, RateBeer’s “best brewery in the world” for 2012, 2014 and 2015, and Jeffrey Stuffings of the Jester King brewery in Texas; several experts on yeast, including Troels Prahl, head of research and development at Whitelabs Copenhagen and Richard Preiss, founder of Escarpment Laboratories in Ontario, Canada; local brewers including Steven Vandenber, brewmaster at the Gulpener Brouwerij in Limberg, Chris Vandewalle of Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle in Lo-Reninge, West Flanders, reckoned to be the smallest brewery in Belgium, and Pierre Alex Carlier, brewer at Brasserie de Blaugies in the far west of Hainaut, Belgium; and three English beer writers – Ron Pattinson, who was lecturing on Scottish beers, Pete Brown, who was speaking about his new book, Miracle Brew, and, er me, delivering a talk for the second year running in Amsterdam, this time on “The Seven Ages of Porter”, with the intention of trying to cover as much of the little that is known about the role of Brett in porter as I could.

The two problems with Carnivale Brettanomyces are that with almost 70 scheduled events over three days, it means three, four or even five things you want to go to might be taking place at the same time, which inevitably, absent a handy space/time wormhole, results in having to miss some exciting happenings; and the events themselves cost upwards of €11 each to get into, with the three beer-and-food dinners €60 a plate. That quickly makes a probably already expensive trip to Hamster Jam even more wallet-bending. But hey, you’re getting to try beers that will sometimes be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and you’re hearing from one of the best line-ups of brewing expertise ever gathered in one place.

Certainly, for me, the punch in the overdraft was utterly worth it: I’ve not enjoyed a beery gathering so much for a long time, lots of great conversations with eager, enthusiastic, experienced, knowledgeable, people, like Tom Norton of the Little Earth Project brewery in Edwardstone, near Sudbury, Suffolk. Tom has promised to send me some of his farmhouse sour beers, and since Jeff “Stonch” Bell described the brewery’s Brett Organic Stock Ale earlier this year as ” definitely the best sour beer I’ve had from the UK”, I’m keen to see them.

Inside In de Wildeman

I arrived in Amsterdam last week late (thanks, easyJet) and in a thunderstorm (thanks, dodgy Dutch weather), but I had been wise enough to book into a hotel in the Canal Belt near where the Keizersgracht (“emperor’s canal”) meets the Amstel, within non-arduous walking distance of Centraal station, which also meant within non-arduous walking distance of In de Wildeman, one of the bars serving as a main centre for the festival. I never got to In de Wildeman the last time I was in the city, and if my legs were bendy enough I’d be kicking myself, because it’s a tremendous little two-room dark wood bar with an excellently chosen range of draught and bottled beers and highly knowledgeable staff. (In how many other bars anywhere, if you asked the barman had he tried Stinking Bishop cheese, would he reply: “No, but it’s on my wish list!” and add that he wanted to try the same cheesemaker’s Hereford Hop cheese as well.)

“Men’s Love”, aparently

Ironically, because the bar was stocked up for the Brett fest, more than half the draught beers at In de Wildeman were from British breweries: Buxton, Chorlton, Burning Sky, Thornbridge, Cloudwater, Siren, Hawkshead. That’s a fair line-up for any bar anywhere, though, and after a nod to Amsterdam with a bottle of a saison called Mannenliefde (Dutch for “men’s love”, if Google Translate can be trusted) from the local Oedipus brewery, I moved on to an evening of sour ales from Blighty. All were very good, and the Generation V Brett DIPA from Buxton was outstanding: the first time I had an all-Brett IPA, from Evil Twin, I compared it to a “how hot can you stand” over-curried vindaloo, and said it was a style that wouldn’t catch on. I was wrong. This was a perfectly balanced brew, the all-Brett beer to give your mate who has never had one and is nervous as a bride.

That was I think, my first ever all-sour-ales evening: to be truthful I wouldn’t rush to stay off the non-sour ales all night again, but there’s a deservedly growing market for the category, and unlike mango juice IPAs it’s not a momentary fad. (“Category”, not style: discuss.)

Copper vessels in the former Heineken brewery

The next day, as I had time before my talk, I walked down to the former Heineken brewery for the “Heineken Experience”. It’s a slick multi-media production, the huge real-copper coppers, mash tuns and lauter tuns are still there, and I spotted only one substantive error in all the information on the walls – no, Heineken, you were not the first brewery to employ a chemist. It would have been good to have seen more about Amsterdam’s other breweries, and its pre-Heineken brewing traditions. Enjoyed my pint of H41, made with weird South American yeast, though.

My hour burbling about porter at the Waalse Kerk seemed to satisfy the audience, and post-talk I walked out to the De Prael bar to catch Chris Vandewalle of Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle. His talk on Saison brewing meant sampling some of his brewery’s beers, which include a strong 7 per cent blonde ale, a red cherry beer and an “Oud Bruin” brown beer. No messing about: just good, honest beer. Then it was a dash back to the Waalse Kerk to catch Derek Dellinger, “The Fermented Man“, talking about a year spent consuming only fermented foods, from yogurt to rotten shark buried in the ground in Iceland.

“I’m not eating that, it’s been in someone else’s mouth!”

Alas, the timetable meant I had to dash away to be at a goat dinner featuring beers from Jester King in a restaurant over the other side of the IJ, so I missed the end of the talk. Multiple parts of goat were then consumed: tongue, liver, shoulder. Let’s be fair and say I now understand why goat is not regularly on menus. The beers were fine, though: all in attractive 75cl bottles, mostly if not totally Belgian-influenced, and including a bière de miel made with Texan wild flower honey; Figlet, a 6.6 per cent farmhouse ale fermented with smoked Texas figs; Simple Means, a “farmhouse Altbier” with smoked malt; and Sing-Along Death Match, a collaboration with the German brewery Freigeist Bierkultur that included Texan honey again, this time cold-smoked with rosemary sprigs at a local barbecue before the beer was refermented on wild Mexican plums, Didn’t notice the plums myself, but I appreciated the effort …

Sing-Along Death Match

The next day I was back down the Waalse Kerk at 10am to catch Shaun Hill, Pierre-Alex Carlier, Phil Markowski, author of the now rather dated Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the European Tradition (its datedness a sign of how far we have come in the sour beer sector since the book was published in 2004) and brewer at Two Roads Brewing Company in Connecticut, and Chad Yakobson, author of The Brettanomyces Project and brewer at Crooked Stave Artisan Ales in Denver, talk about Saisons. Hurrah for Google Maps. Load up the app, tell it your destination, plug your earphones in and it takes you by the hand and leads you through the streets of a strange city like a native Amsterdammer. Its pronunciation of Dutch streetnames is that of a native of New York, unfortunately, but that’s amusing rather than a serious flaw. On my way, having not had breakfast, I went into a cafe to try to get some essential caffeine and carbohydrates, ordered a coffee to take away, looked at the menu and only then realised what sort of “coffee shop” I was in. Me: “Er – do you have any normal muffins, or only wacky ones?” Woman with partly shaved head and nose-ring behind counter: “Only wacky ones!”

Lars Marius Garshol

The last talk I was able to hear before I had to fly back was Norway’s very own Lars Marius Garsjol, talking about northern European farmhouse ales and kveik, that latter being Norwegian farmhouse yeast. I knew it was going to be fascinating – and it was. Even better, Lars had brought with him four examples of farm-made Norwegian ales for us to try, a unique and thrilling experience. His research is some of the most important currently taking place in the beeryverse, exploring a tradition of farm brewing in countries including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Russia that is centuries old and literally dying out, as its practitioners, who have inherited the farmhouse brewing tradition from their ancestors, all gradually pass away with nobody, today, willing to pick up the baton (or mash fork) and carry on. Among the many amazing practices Lars has uncovered is “raw ale”, brewing without boiling the wort, which was almost certainly the norm in pre-hop times (when there was no need to boil the wort) but which disappeared from mainstream brewing four centuries ago.

A reproduction of a carved wooden Norwegian farm brewer’s yeast catcher, for preserving yeast from one brew to the next

The practices of these inheritors of an ancient methodology are based, again, on centuries of tradition, and while often the brewers have no idea why they are doing what they do – “My grandfather always did it that way,” they tell Lars – it generally turns out that what they are doing is just what they should be doing to get the result they want, best practice probably worked out six or seven or more generations ago and continued in the family since. Lars described watching one Norwegian farm brewer measure the grain and heat the water for mashing, before mixing the two in the mashtun, all without weighing, or judging the heat of the water except by how much steam was coming off. When Lars measured the temperature of the mash: 74ºC. Six months later Lars returned, when the weather was now icy, and watched the same man measure the grain and heat the water for mashing under winter conditions. Lars took the mash temperature again: 73.8ºC. It was an excellent example of how the “pre-industrial” brewer was able, through skill and above all experience, to equal the industrial brewer in hitting the correct targets during the process of brewing. The greatest benefit thermometers and the rest brought industrial brewers at the end of the 18th century was that it enabled the unskilled to match the skilled. If you’re not already a regular reader of Lars’s blog, sign up, you’ll learn an enormous amount. Oh, and those farmhouse beers were tremendous, each one very different, from colour to flavour, but very drinkable.

That, then, was my Carnivale Brettanomyces 2017: everybody else’s would have been different, because nobody would have gone to the same set of events. If you’re a fan of sour, aged beers, it’s one of the best experiences on the planet, and Elaine, Jan (who invited me over to speak) and their colleagues must be thanked profusely for their efforts.

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.

That was a low point, after I got on the wrong streetcar (none of which go to Desire any more) and had to cross roads flooded up to nine inches deep to try to get to where the jazz festival was taking place. Or wasn’t: lightning had knocked out the electricity supply, and that day, it opened hours late.

Street band, Jackson Square, New Orleans

Still, there were plenty enough highs: multiple opportunities to hear superb street jazz from young musicians clearly hugely in love with the traditions they are helping to keep alive; stuffing my face with oysters in the Chimes, a restaurant and tap on the Bogue Falaya river at Covington, on what New Orleaners call the “North Shore”, the other side of Lake Ponchartrain, which lies to the immediate north of New Orleans itself; watching roseate spoonbills, pink from all the shrimp they eat, and big, ugly alligators hunting prey, and egrets, and owls, and turtles, from a flat-bottomed pirogue on Lake Martin (and wondering, when we ran onto a submerged stump and became stuck, if the alligators might soon be hunting us – fortunately another boat pulled us off); eating jambalaya and crawfish pie at the jazz festival, and trying not to embarrass myself by singing Hank Williams; learning how the flooded rice fields of the Louisiana prairie are used to grow two crops of rice and then a third “crop” of crawfish, which today brings in more money than the rice does; seeing, and rocking to, the fabulous Rebirth Brass Band at a bar in Frenchmen Street; and a barbecue and barn dance at the farm of the zydeco band leader and accordion player Geno Delafose; admiring the cooking skills of the solemn, dignified, elderly Cajun gentlemen, their long-sleeved shirts carefully buttoned despite the heat (New Orleans is further south than Cairo), running the open-air crawfish boil at the countryside home of Mark and Ann Savoy near Eunice, in the centre of south-west Louisiana, lowering baskets of live crawfish into steaming vessels the size and shape of a domestic hot water tank and then pouring in pounds of paprika and other spices, from mace to cinnamon to cloves, before swooshing the cooked crawfish out onto long tables, to be urgently deshelled by the hungry and eaten with boiled potatoes and corn on the cob; and dancing two-steps and waltzes (badly, on my part: “don’t look at your feet,” they said, but if I didn’t look at my feet I had no idea at all what I was doing) under a Louisiana moon and the influence of beautiful beer and excellent food  while the Savoy family and their friend Michael Doucet, fiddle player fantastique, performed for their own enjoyment as well as for us.

Grey heron in flight, Lake Martin, Louisiana

The best of the brewery visits was undoubtedly Abita Brewing, though most of this was down to Abita’s brewing director, Jaime Jurado. Jaime is North America’s Derek Prentice – indeed he actually worked with Derek at Truman’s in Brick Lane, part of a peripatetic career in brewing that has included stints at Smithwick’s in Kilkenny, a brewery in Bavaria, and one in Rajasthan, India, as well as brewing sites across the US. Jaime and I have been “internet pals” for years, but we had never actually met, until I discovered I could book a brewery tour that included a visit the Old Rail pub brewery and then to Abita, which requires a trip over the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge in the world.

Jaime Jurado, left, and Chris Todd, server in the Abita taproom

When I emailed him to say: “I’m coming out to your brewery!”, Jaime immediately offered to take me to dinner. Better than that, he also gave me my own private tour of the brewery, now Louisiana’s oldest (having been founded as a brewpub in 1986) and the 23rd largest in the US, introduced me to brewery president, David Blossman, and took me to see the original Abita brewhouse, and also the nearby (and considerably smaller) Covington brewery, and returned me back to my hotel in the French Quarter with a full goodie bag. I’ve never had a conversation with a brewer that I haven’t enjoyed enormously, and Jaime is a great companion for a night out, and a fine raconteur. Abita’s home town is called Abita Springs, and the brewery uses the local spring water for all its beers, completely unaltered. The “springiness” can cause problems: when the brewery decided to extend its warehouse, it put down a new concrete floor and then couldn’t work out what was causing the concrete to break up. An expert was called in, who declared that a spring had opened up underneath the concrete, and the water pressure was causing the floor to fracture. A pipe had to be put in to carry the spring water away to what is now the brewery turtle pond.

Robert Bostick, co-founder, Brieux Carre

The next day I got to see Louisiana’s youngest brewery, at least at the time of visiting: another start-up was due within weeks. The brewery name, Brieux Carré, pronounced “broo carray”, is a pun on the name in French of the old core of New Orleans, Vieux Carré (literally “old square”), pronounced in Louisiana French “voo carray”. The brewery’s existence is possible only because of a change in the law in Louisiana. Until two years ago, any brewery had to get no more than ten per cent of its beer sales from its own tap, which for any start-up was a huge hurdle to try to vault. That restriction was removed in 2015, and local breweries can now have 100 per cent of sales through their own taproom. Of course, there were other hurdles to clamber over before Brieux Carré served its first pints, not the smallest being finance. Co-founder Robert Bostick, a home brewer for ten years before going professional, told me: “Nobody wants to give a 24-year-old half a million dollars just because he likes beer.” However, he and his business partner, Taylor Pellerin, managed to get $450,000 through a microfinance scheme, which bought them a seven-barrel brewing kit made by a local manufacturer, the Craft Kettle Co of New Orleans. They found premises zoned for a microbrewery just on the edge of the Vieux Carré, thus justifying the name they had already thought up, and the pair are now selling all the beer they brew from their  on-premises tap, to a customer base, Bostick says, that ranges from “21 to late 70s”.

Nola brewery, New Orleans

Brieux Carré doesn’t sell its beer anywhere else except at the tap, unlike New Orleans’s oldest craft brewery, NOLA Brewing (oldest, that is, if you don’t count the Crescent City Brewhouse on Decatur Street, which opened in 1991 as the first brewpub in Louisiana). The acronym NOLA usually stands for “New Orleans, Louisiana”, but here it’s short for New Orleans Lager and Ale, and the brewery takes pride in the fact that tourists can’t pronounce its address – Tchoupitoulas Street (named for a long-vanished tribe of local Indians). Its two-storey tap, down close to the Mississippi, must easily hold a couple of hundred people, including the rooftop patio area, though the view – a highway, a tall wall hiding the wharves on the other side – is industrial, at best. But the beers, such as Irish Channel stout (named for the nearby New Orleans district), are now available all around the south-east US, and all the ones I tried were well up to point. In particular, NOLA does an excellent line of sour ales.

Second Line’s taproom

However, I’ve begun to realise I like my craft brewery taps on the fundamentally basic side, which is why I preferred the hard-to-find Second Line Brewing’s set-up: basic tables and folding chairs in what is still a large concrete yard at the front of their industrial premises. Second Line, which is named for the jazz band parades of New Orleans, started in July 2015, and has a good line of stouts, including an Imperial Russian flavoured with toasted coconut called Cease to Love, after the theme song of the “King of Carnival” in New Orleans (the link, apparently, is that the song was supposedly played to  Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia, fourth son of Tsar Alexander II, when he was a guest at the Mardi Gras festivities in 1872), and A Saison named Desire, flavoured with blood orange juice (not as good a name as NOLA’s Hurricane Saison, however). Incidentally, it’s significant that, like every other Louisiana brewerry I saw, even the tiny Old Rail, Second Line had casks filled with ageing beer: if you’re not wood-ageing in the US now, it appears, you can’t compete.

Stacks Records: jazz trio plays against a background of beercans at Urban South

Urban South Brewing opened last year further down Tchoupitoulas Street towards the centre of New Orleans than NOLA, in a huge warehouse space that leaves enough room for all the brewing equipment, a games area featuring the peculiarly American sport of cornhole (tossing beanbags at a board with a hole in it), a large bar, a performance area for a band and 20 or so garden tables for drinkers. This is definitely a place to visit in a group, when a food truck is parked outside. The beers fit into the “expertly made even if they don’t fry your socks” slot, and that’s an absolutely fine place to be: it means you won’t be disappointed.

The lable of Bayou Teche Brewing’s Saison d’Ecrevisses showing two characters (Boudreaux and Thiboudeaux?) shelling crawfish

New Orleans breweries like to reflect New Orleans heritage in their beer names: Bayou Teche Brewing, in Arnaudville, south-west Louisiana, very specifically reflects its Cajun heritage in its brewing, which has heavy French and Belgian influences. The beers include Saison D’Écrevisses, “Crawfish Saison”, a fine 6 per cent “rye saison” made with French Aramis hops for drinking at crawfish boils; an excellent 7.5 per cent oak-aged liquorice stout called Loup Garou, French for “werewolf” (Loup Garou, naughty Cajun children are told, haunts the nearby swamps and will come for them if they continue to be bad); and Strawberry Alarm Hop, a 7 per cent IPA made with added strawberries and jalapeno peppers, which sounds utterly vile and is actually very, very good good, the three contrasting flavours working really well together – but since strawberries and black pepper is already a thing, why not?

The original Bayou Teche Brewery premises – a converted shipping container

The brewery called after the nearby Bayou Teche waterway, was started by the three Knott brothers, Karlos, Dorsey and Byron, in 2009 in a disused 20-ft shipping container, moving eventually to a purpose-built brewery in 2013. If you visit the brewery, it’s likely you’ll be shown around by Floyd, the Knott brothers’ father. Should he start to tell you the joke about how Thibodeaux was working at the brewery when he fell in the fermenting vessel and drowned, and his friend Boudreaux had to ring up Thiboudeaux’s wife and tell her the sad news (ALL Cajun jokes feature characters called Boudreaux and Thiboudeaux, it’s the law), do laugh heartily at the punchline, even though you’ve heard the joke before: Floyd’s 81, please, he deserves your respect.

I didn’t get around many New Orleans bars, but here’s a swift trot through five I liked:

Black Penny Bar, North Rampart Street Many will hate this place, but its pretentious unpretentiousness, something only hipsters could pull off, made it strangely attractive. Drink Dat, a good but not, unfortunately, comprehensive guide to New Orleans drinking places says the Black Penny was previously a dive called the Ninth Circle, where “your mother would not be happy”. I don’t think Ma would be thrilled to be taken to the Black Penny, either, unless she was a big fan of craft beer in cans, or cocktails. It’s dark, the walls are bare brick and rough wood, and it doesn’t have draught beer at all, but its range of more than 100 different bottled and canned brews should satisfy the fussiest, and if it doesn’t there’s the usual New Orleans bar big line-up of spirits and liqueurs to make any cocktail you can think of, while the staff are pally and, despite being on the borders of the French Quarter, customers seem to be mostly locals rather than tourists.

dba, Frenchmen Street A cracking music venue with a top-notch craft beer selection: 20 taps and a wide range of bottles. If there’s a good band on, you’ll be charged to get in, but this is New Orleans, it will be worth the money. The interior is reminiscent of a London “island bar” pub, with two long rooms either side of the servery, and the stage where the musicians play is at the end of the left-hand room.

Aveneue Bar, St Charles Avenue, New Orleans

Avenue Bar, St Charles Avenue Touted as the best craft beer bar in New Orleans, this is a 15-minute streetcar ride down St Charles Avenue from the city centre. Strangely, when I was there, it seemed to be attracting numbers of young drinkers who only wanted Miller: why, when there were getting on for 40 different draught craft brews available, seems unfathomable. Certainly the wide range is a good reason for visiting, and it’s an attractive place, but I found it hard to see why commentators are quite so enthusiastic about the place: maybe I wasn’t on the right frequency that day to pick up the vibe.

Evangeline, 329 Decatur Street, New Orleans: note the huge number of bottles of spirits and so forth for cocktail making

Evangeline, Decatur Street I like a bar where I walk in for a second time four days after my first visit and the barman not only remembers me, but what beer I drank previously. Evangeline edges more towards being a restaurant than a bar, but it sells eight or so craft beers, including several I didn’t see elsewhere, such as the Mississippi Fire Ant Imperial Red Ale from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi that the bartender clocked me for. The long, narrow room is done in typical mahogany-and-mirrors New Orleans style, with high ceilings and plenty of lights. Evangeline (named, I’m guessing, for the tragic Longfellow poem about the Acadian maid who lost her lover and only found him again in old age) is also an excellent destination if you’re after Cajun cuisine in New Orleans: try the gumbo, it’s yumbo.

Industry Bar and Kitchen, Decatur Street Almost diagonally across the street from Evangeline, the Industry Bar is different in every way, apart from a good selection of local craft beers: it’s meant to be a place for late-night workers in the hospitality trade to come after work, apparently, and my experience was that it’s one of the rare places where you can find speedy, filling late-night food in New Orleans. (Yes there are lots of restaurants, but it will be an hour’s wait to be seated, at least, normally.) The decor is, um, industrial, but that’s an invigorating change from the neighbours.

(I went to Louisiana with Nancy Covey’s Festival Tours, and had a couple of brewery trips while I was there with NOLA Brew Bus: hat-tips to both for their excellent organisation.)

PICTURE GALLERY (click to embiggen)

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.

Hungover in Hanover

Der Craft Bier Bar craft beer bar, Hannover, mit dozy Englander

This is the Craft Bier Bar. It’s a craft beer bar. The Craft Bier Bar is the first ever craft beer bar in Hanover, apparently. It claims to have the largest selection of craft beers on draught of any bar in the whole of North Germany. The Craft Bier Bar ticks off all the craft beer bar signifiers: back wall with 24 draught beer taps sticking out; back-lit, numbered list high behind the bar, hand-written in marker pen, of draught craft beers from at least three continents; glass-doored refrigerators with brews in bottle and can even more exotic than those on tap (OK, Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout may not be exotic where YOU live, but it is in Niedersachsen); no mainstream brands; unplastered walls decorated with neon signs and ads featuring beers from Belgium to Oregon; Edison light bulbs; and prices at least twice as high per glass as anywhere else local.

Should business take you to Hanover, the Craft Bier Bar craft beer bar, in the Ballhofplatz in Hanover’s Old Town, is worth a call-in: you will certainly get an opportunity to try beers you won’t have had before. And some you have, of course: I’m not sure I have been in a craft beer bar anywhere that hasn’t been serving at least one brew from To Øl, and the Craft Bier Bar did not end this run. But be sure your wallet is well-stuffed before you step in. On my way to the Craft Bier Bar I popped in to a locals’ local to (a) get a decent wi-fi signal to recheck Google Maps (21st century problems) (b) see what the score was in the Germany-England match (0-0 at the time) and (c) wet my dry throat with a perfectly acceptable glass of Ratskeller pils from Gilde, Hanover’s AB InBev-owned big brewery. It cost me €1.90. Soon after in the CBB I was drinking a similar-sized glass of a fine, fruity American-style IPA from a small brewery in Berlin, Heidenpeters. It cost me €4.50: around £6.40 a pint.

Which left me musing: I was just about enjoying my first experience of a German craft beer bar, mostly because it WAS my first experience of a German craft beer bar, and worth savouring for that reason, but that apart, where would I rather be, back in the locals’ bar surrounded by a community of drinkers watching the footy, and paying nearly 60 per cent less for my beer, or trying to decide which of the other 23 draught beers available might be worth getting a bank loan for. Of which, and this is sad, just four were from German brewers.

The exterior of the Craft Bier Bar in Ballhofplatz, which wishes to leave you in no doubt about what sort of place it is

In the final analysis, I decided the Craft Bier Bar was disappointing because, although being apparently perfectly well-run, with an excellent selection of beers, it was fundamentally a clone, a copycat experience, as ersatz as all the “Irish” pubs that bloomed briefly on British high streets in the 1990s, a repetition of an originally American style of drinking that you can now get around the globe, like McDonald’s, or, to be slightly fairer, Five Guys, and having as little real link with genuine beer culture, or my idea of genuine beer culture, as even Five Guys does with genuine gastronomy. I want a craft beer bar that doesn’t look as if it could be anywhere, in any city, I want it to have a beer selection that reflects the local scene more than it nods to the wider world. And I don’t want to feel its pricing policy takes the Michael.

And now, rant over, something else I pondered while in Germany: the largely unrecognised contribution Hanover has made to the iconography of the British pub. I don’t suppose many people from Hanover (or Hannover, as the locals prefer – emPHAsis on the middle syllAble) know there are still hundreds of British pubs – possibly a thousand or more – whose names have Hanoverian associations. It’s a reflection, of course, of the fact that Britain and Hanover shared rulers from 1714 to 1837. At least three pubs in England are actually called the Hanover, or Hanover Arms. The Hanoverian arms are the white horse on a red background that still appears on the flag of the German Land of Niedersachsen (“Lower Saxony” – I sometimes claim I live in Mittelsachsen), of which Hanover is the capital: and of the many pubs in Britain called the White Horse, a large number were first so named because their landlords wanted to show loyalty to the new royal family that arrived from North Germany after Anne, last of the Stuarts, died without managing to leave any surviving heirs, dozy tart.

The New Town Hall in Hanover

How many pubs called simply the George are named after the run of four Hanoverian kings of the same name and how many after St George, mythical Turkish dragon-killer and patron saint of Catalonia, is probably impossible to disentangle, but there are plenty of pubs where a specifically numbered King George is commemorated. Strangely, George I never seems to have made it onto a signboard, but Georges II, III and IV did, the last more often as the Prince Regent. Pubs called the Brunswick are often named for the Prince Regent’s wife, Charlotte, daughter of the Duke of Brunswick, who was dumped by her husband within a year of their marriage. Others of George III’s sons to get themselves on signboards was Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge (the two pubs currently called the Duchess of Cambridge are named for the wife of the much more recent incarnation of that title).

The Queen Dowager, Teddington, part of Britain’s Hanoverian pub legacy

The Prince Regent’s brother, William IV, was king when the Beerhouse Act was passed in 1830, which brought tens of thousands of new licensed premises into existence, and large numbers of new beerhouse keepers named their business after the new king. This means despite his comparatively brief reign, seven years, William IV is still the British king with the biggest number of pubs named after him, not counting the half dozen or more called the Duke of Clarence, his title before he was king, while his wife, Queen Adelaide, appears on around a dozen innsigns. (Until a few years ago she actually appeared on two pub signs in Teddington, Middlesex, the Adelaide, and the now closed Queen Dowager, her title after William died in 1837: she and William had lived next door in Bushy Park.) William IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, last of Britain’s Hanoverian monarchs, is the queen with the largest number of pubs named for her, of course. Her husband, Prince Albert, also has his face on pub signboards: but he’s a Saxe-Coburg, not a Hanover, and doesn’t count …

Albert Le Coq is NOT a famous Belgian

It’s a small error, as they go, but it has been around for at least 40 years, and it appears everywhere from Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer to the labels on bottles of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout, so let’s try to stamp it to death: Albert Le Coq was NOT a Belgian.

An advertisement for A Le Coq’s Imperial Extra Double Stout published in Estonia in the 1920s or 1930s

Le Coq is remembered as a 19th century exporter of Imperial stout from London to St Petersburg, whose firm eventually took over a brewery in what is now Tartu, in Estonia to brew Imperial stout on what was then Russian soil. The brewery is still going, it took back the name A Le Coq in the 1990s, and an Imperial stout bearing its brand has been brewed since 1999, though by Harvey’s of Lewes, in Sussex, not in Estonia. But every reference to the company founder, Albert Le Coq, apart from in the official history of the Tartu brewery – which is almost completely in Estonian – says he was a Belgian. He wasn’t.

In fact the Le Coq family were originally French Huguenots, who had fled to Prussia in the 17th century from religious persecution in their home in Metz, Lorraine, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. They prospered in their new home, operating mostly as merchants, though one, Paul Ludwig (or Louis) Le Coq, (1773-1824), the great-grandson of Jean Le Coq, born in Metz in 1669, rose to be chief of police in Berlin. It looks as if Paul had a brother, Jean Pierre Le Coq (1768-1801), born in Berlin, who was a merchant in Hamburg, and his branch of the family also became wine merchants, owning a winery in Kempten, near Bingen, on the borders of the Prussian Rhineland.

The year before Jean Pierre died he had a son, born in Berlin (although some sources say Bingen), called Jean Louis Albert, who became better known under the German version of his name, Albert Johann Ludwig Le Coq. Plenty of sources going back to at least 1939 claim the family company was founded as A Le Coq & Co in 1807, when Albert was just seven years old: there seems no documentary evidence of this, however. Nor is it clear when, and by whom, the wine business in Kempten was acquired. At any rate Albert was living in Kempten in 1827, when his eldest child, Andreas August, was born there. Continue reading Albert Le Coq is NOT a famous Belgian

The mystery of the vanishing 2016 Vintage Ale

Vertical tasting: 20 years of Fuller’s Vintage Ale, in the Hock Cellar

If you haven’t bought your 2016 Fuller’s Vintage Ale yet, either to drink now, or to lay down for later, or to preserve as an investment (what with examples from the 1990s selling for up to £500 a bottle, and even the 2013 costing £40 a pop), tough tubas – there’s none left. Waitrose is totally sold out, so is the brewery shop. Luckily I had a hunch my local specialist, Noble Green in Hampton Hill, might have some, and I manage to snaffle their last five examples.

Fuller’s is being tight-lipped about why the 2016 is now impossible to find: there are rumours that something went terribly wrong with the packaging, but no one seems willing to say. It’s a great pity, because the 20th iteration of Vintage Ale since it was first brewed in 1997, is a lovely, lovely beer, already, at approaching a year old, deep and remarkable. This was the one with Nelson Sauvin as both a boil hop and an FV addition, the first time, I believe, that Fuller’s has used New Zealand hops in VA, and it works brilliantly: there’s limes coming through, and passionfruit, and mandarins, and a little bit of that Nelson Sauvin elderflower, all beautifully integrated over creamy toffee and deep brown malt sweetness, with just enough bitter (40 IBUs) to hold everything together. You’ll drink one bottle, and enjoy teasing out all the flavours so much you’ll want another one to continue the analytical fun, and then at the end of that one you’ll stand up and wobble slightly and realise you’ve just drunk a litre of 8.5 per cent ale.

How the 2016 will develop as it gains more age remains to be seen, but Fuller’s had a gathering in the Hock Cellar at the brewery a couple of weeks back to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vintage Ale with a tasting of ten different examples going back to 1999, and all are still very drinkable. John Keeling, Fuller’s brewing director, who helped the late Reg Drury brew the first Vintage Ale in 1997, conducted the tasting and revealed a few secrets about the beer. Vintage Ale was, he said, an idea first put forward by the marketing department at the brewery – “they do get a good idea every 40 years or so.” However, Fuller’s knew something like Vintage Ale was possible after bringing out 1845, a bottle-conditioned strong ale made originally to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fuller, Smith and Turner partnership in 1995, and discovering that it actually tasted better at 12 months old than when it was new – “totally the opposite to every other beer at that time”.

John Keeling gives a brief history of Vintage Ale

A beer has to be specifically designed to age, Keeling said: “Most beers will not age properly.” After 20 years, Fuller’s now has considerable experience in how beers age, with the interplay of negative reactions – notably oxidation – and a whole series of generally more positive chemical changes, such as Maillard reactions between sugars and proteins, which happen at different speeds, while at the same time alpha acids are breaking down, reducing the perceived bitterness (and boosting the perceived sweetness) and adding extra complexity of flavour, the colour of the beer is darkening and “madeira” and “sherry” flavours start appearing, and eventually “cherry” flavours, which you can cerrtainly spot in the older Vas.. The different speeds that the “good” and “bad” reactions take place at gives a “cycle” to beer ageing, which explains why that bottle of 2013 VA may taste disappointing now, but one of its brothers will be terrific if left for another nine months – and a third bottle of the same brew will disappoint another nine months after that, which a fourth, left for longer yet, will again cheer and enchant as it comes back “on” … you can regard this lottery-like aspect of beer ageing as annoying or part of the fun, but it does mean you shouldn’t dump the whole batch just because one aged bottle is disappointing. It may be just at a poor spot in its cycle.

One important aspect of beer ageing is that temperature is important – and room temperature is the worst temperature to store beer at, Fullers has discovered. It appears the oxidation cycle at around 20C is happening too fast for the “good” cycles to compensate. Either keep the beer cool, or, counter-intuitively, keep it warm: with the warmer beer, the “good” reactions are speeded up more than the “bad” ones, so the oxidation is outpaced. (Doubtless this was the clue to the success of ship-borne India ales in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the oxidation of beer in the casks lagging behind all the Maillard reactions and so on made extra-fast by the warm Equatorial seawaters of the mid-Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.)

VA is always parti-gyled with London Pride, which raised a question: each year the recipe is altered slightly, with different hops and combinations of hops. Have Pride drinkers never noticed over the past two decades that every spring their beer tastes rather different, from the Fuggles and Target of 1999 to the all-Goldings of 2002 (that year’s VA was always a personal favourite, and it’s still wondrously smooth aged 15), the Goldings, Liberty and Cascade of 2014 and last year’s Nelson Sauvin, Goldings, Northdown and Challenger? I’d love to know if anyone has ever commented … see if you can spot the “Vintage Ale” gyle this year.

Extract from the brewing books Spring 1999
Extract from the brewing books 2016

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