Compared to, say, Roger Putman, recently retired editor of Brewer & Distiller International magazine, who has visited more than 170 different breweries in his career, I’ve really not been to that many: fewer than 60, across four decades, albeit in six different countries. Pfff. Amateur status. But inexplicably, in 2014 I was welcomed into seven different brewhouses, of all sizes, that I had never been to before, from the massive new set-up at Guinness in Ireland to Twickenham Fine Ales’ current base, which may be bigger than its first home, but still produces less in a year than Brewhouse No 4 in Dublin makes in a day.
I take my camera with me around breweries, though I’m not, I cannot emphasise enough, a photographer in any sense except being the idiot pressing the shutter button. Very occasionally I get something that isn’t actually terrible. And since 2010 I’ve been using a camera that is fantastic at taking low-light shots, which helps enormously inside buildings. I have put a few of the pictures from my 2014 trips up on the blog to illustrate the pieces I wrote at the time, but two trips, to Shepherd Neame in Faversham and Hook Norton in Oxfordshire, never produced any words. So here is a small selection of snaps from two of Britain’s most traditional breweries:
I’ll be frank: one of the good reasons for becoming a beer blogger is the opportunity it gives to go places, meet people, do things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do. (Free beer too? Well, there is some of that, true, but I turn a fair bit of free beer down, because I don’t do reviews, much.) The chance to get into places the public doesn’t get to see is one big reason why I decided to go to the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Dublin: I suspected there would be a chance to see extremely interesting things normally hidden from public eyes, and as we shall see, I was absolutely right.
Fortunately for me, I have relatives in Dublin, so I was able to stay in the city for free: and I signed up early enough to grab one of the “bursaries” Molson Coors was offering, which effectively refunded the €95 conference fee, so mostly all it cost me was my air fare from Heathrow. When I signed up to come to the conference, I hadn’t been to Dublin since my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday in 2006, and as I said in my previous blog entry, in the past eight years – in the past TWO years – the Irish craft beer scene has exploded, so I was also keen to see how the beer offer had changed in Dublin’s bars, and what these new breweries were like.
As it happened, I had to go on a mother-in-law-related trip to the city in May, and took a day off to visit places recommended by the ever-excellent Beer Nut, Ireland’s premier beer blogger. Thus the Thursday night pub crawl organised for EBBC attendees and led by Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale was less of a revelation to me than it probably was to some of the other 30 or so people on the tour, since, unsurprisingly, the BN had marked my card with several of the places Reuben took us to.
They were certainly as mixed a selection as you’ll find in any good city, from the basic – Brew Dock, part of the Galway Bay Brewery’s own chain of pubs, but selling much more than just GBB beers – to the more typically Dublin elaborate-mirrors-and-dark wood of Farrington’s/The Norseman (it keeps changing its name back and forth) in Temple Bar via another very Dublin concept, the three or four-storey pub, of which JW Sweetman (named for an old Dublin brewery) and the Porterhouse are good examples, to the “stripped pine and books on the wall” Black Sheep, another Galway Bay Brewery pub, rather more like a “normal” English-style craft beer bar than most craft beer bars in Dublin, to the Bull and Castle, a substantially sized “craft beer steakhouse”. Just as a point of comparison, the only two places you would have found craft beer in back when I was last in Dublin out of that list would have been Sweetman’s, previously a homebrew pub called Messers Maguires, and the Porterhouse (which still, I was delighted to see, has the bottle of my wedding ale I presented them in 1997 on display in one of the bars).
There is, I suggest, a thick slice of what the Irish call begrudgery in the responses around the British beerosphere to the success of BrewDog. Here are these young guys, starting in their early 20s, who managed in a few years to build one of the best-known and fastest-growing breweries in Britain, worth on the order of £10m, in part through a series of stunts including reporting themselves to the drinks industry watchdog just for the publicity, selling beer at £500 a pop in bottles that had been stuffed into dead animals, and calling the Advertising Standards Authority “motherfuckers”.
Martin Dickie and James Watt now have their beers on bar and supermarket shelves not just in Britain but around the world, a growing and increasingly international chain of bars of their own, and even their own American TV show, FFS, now entering its second series. Uniquely among British brewers, Dickie and Watt have made a huge success of crowd-sourced funding, raising around £9m from some 14,000 customer-investors to fund their extremely impressive growth (that’s about £650 an investor, to save you working it out). Around 5,000 of those investors are expected to make the trip to Aberdeen this summer for the BrewDog AGM. You wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it’s Kool-Aid rather than Punk IPA they’ll be drinking.
There is, of course, a simple answer to all that criticism: you say that, but you don’t have 14,000 investors and your own American TV show, and nor are your marketing tactics being used as case studies for other businesses.
I’ve had disagreements with BrewDog myself, but I’ve always thought that Dickie and Watt had no reason to care about what I thought, any more than they would be bothered by any of their other critics: if some people don’t like their beers and their marketing tactics, a more-than-sufficiency of others do. So I was surprised to be approached by the company and asked if I’d like to join nine other beer bloggers and writers from as far away as Finland, Norway and France to be flown to Aberdeen, taken round the 13-month-old Ellon brewery and beered and dined at BrewDog’s expense. Were BrewDog on a charm offensive? Apparently so: last week they flew up a load of journalists who had written about BrewDog in the past, for a similar jolly, which resulted in, eg, this review in the Morning Advertiser. But why woo me? According to Alexa, this blog ranks number 32,360 among UK websites: that’s really not very influential.
But, hey, I like looking around breweries at other people’s expense, even if it means having to get up at 4am to drive to Gatwick for a flight on the EasyJet red-eye. And yes, I was interested in meeting Dickie and Watt, probably the finest guerrilla marketers currently operating in Britain (and easily the best guerrilla marketers the British brewing industry has ever seen). I don’t know how much they actually spend on marketing, but I doubt it’s a huge amount, which makes their ability to generate column inches all over the world from apparently tangential events quite brilliant – come on, what other British brewer do you know who could get stories in newspapers from Sweden to Thailand publicising their new beer launch? Continue reading The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies→
I first drank in the Brugs Beertje in Bruges in 1985. I didn’t realise at the time that it was then only a couple of years old: it already felt like a classic beer venue, small, comfortable as an old suede gardening glove, welcoming as your favourite cousin, the walls lathered in Belgian brewery memorabilia, the selection of hopped beverages extensive and eclectic.
At the time, it was pretty much unknown outside Bruges: I was guided to it by a pamphlet listing the city’s beer outlets that I picked up in the Bruges tourist office while trying to find a hotel. Would the tourist office in any British city have carried a list of good local bars and pubs in 1985? Would the tourist office in any British city carry a list of good local bars and pubs today? Not, I think.
Despite Britain and Belgium each being soaked in beer culture to their respective marrows, there still, 40-plus years after the founding of an organisation specifically set up to encourage appreciation of British beer, seems something much more celebratory about Belgium’s relationship with beer than you find among the British generally. Belgians seem far keener to announce to everybody their beery wonders than we do in Britain, eager to hand you the massive beer menu when you sit down in the bar, cafe or restaurant, happy to let you know that this little country of 11 million is one of the four or five greatest brewing nations in the world, and pleased to point out that they make more unusual beer styles than anywhere else, too. Continue reading In Bruges→
The people that provide my blogging software, WordPress, have just added a slideshow capability, so I though I would try it out with some pictures from what was the second-to-last ever trip round Young’s brewery in Wandsworth, South London, in September 2006. The following week brewing ceased on the Ram Brewery site after, probably, at least 450 years of continuous ale and beer making. Sadly, two days after our trip, John Young, the chairman of Young’s, died of cancer, aged 85.
I am, unfortunately, a rubbish photographer with no particular idea what I’m doing (I remember the “doh!” feeling after my ex-brother-in-law, who, to be fair, is a well-known and award-winning sculptor, took a photograph on my camera that was vastly superior to anything I had ever achieved with it). But there are a few interesting pics here among the vaguely all right ones.
As a bonus, at the very end there’s a photograph from the air of the brewery site in 1930: note the trolleybuses in the bottom right hand corner, going up Garrett Lane (off which I used to live, in the 1980s: you could tell which way the wind was blowing, at that time, by sniffing the air, since the Kenco coffee factory was to the south, a gin distillery stood to the east and Young’s rose to the north, each giving their own distinctive aroma to the Wandsworth funk. All, alas, are now closed.)
The Procrustean nonsense of defining rigid categories that every beer must fit into is well illustrated by The Leveller, one of the brews with Civil War-themed names from the Springhead brewery, at Sutton-on-Trent, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire.
The Leveller is brewed, like almost all Springhead’s beers, with Maris Otter malt, plus, in this case, some roasted malt and some amber malt as well – enough to give a mid-oak colour, but not as dark as a brown ale and without the ruddy cornelian hues that are apparent in darker bitters and dark winter warmers.
While Northdown hops bring a fair degree of bitterness to the party, the roast grain is present in sufficient quantity to give a distinct toasty, almost coffee flavour, which kicks the beer out of the circle marked “bitter” (though Camra, apparently unable to find another home for it, awarded The Leveller a runner-up place at the Great British Beer Festival in the “best bitter” category.)
If The Leveller isn’t a bitter, though, it doesn’t have the sweetness, or the rotundity of mouthfeel, or any hint of chocolate, that might let it slip comfortably into the circles on the Venn diagram of beer styles marked “brown ales” or “milds”.