Tag Archives: AB Inbev

Barrel-aged stout and my own egregious selling-out

Amid all the dodgy news that has hit the American craft beer scene over the past month or so – Founders Brewing Co, the largest in Michigan, having to settle a racial discrimination suit, AB-Inbev  stealing the slogan a small brewer has been using for nearly ten years, Lagunitas dumping all over community groups that had been relying on it for fund-raising, Redhook of Seattle finally being swallowed completely, New Belgium of Colorado, the fourth-largest American craft brewery, also losing its independence to a brewing megagiant – one scandalous example of appalling misbehaviour by a big brewer attempting to throw its vast weight around in a morally disgusting fashion seems to have passed by surprisingly unnoticed.

I’m referring to the attempt by AB-InBev – them again – to punish the Chicago-based journalist and author Josh Noel, in total defiance of the values of free speech and honest, upright dealing: the most shocking example of trying to crush commentary you don’t like that I can recall in the beer industry.

Josh has been writing about the Chicago beer scene for many years for the city’s big newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, and in particular he has been championing Bourbon County Stout, the whiskey-barrel-aged Imperial stout first made by Goose Island Beer Company in the mid-1990s that started an entire new beer style. In 2018 he wrote a book on BCS, Goose Island, and the acquisition of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch back in 2011 called Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, subtitled “Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and how craft beer became big business”.

It’s one of the very best books on craft beer history I have read – possibly THE best – and one of the best business books I have seen in general. It was deservedly garlanded with the Book of the Year award by the North American Guild of Beer Writers, and if you haven’t read it, you really should get yourself a copy right now. It’s a thorough, deeply researched, sometimes brutal but totally fair and honest account of the origins and growth of Goose Island since it was founded by businessman John Hall in 1988, looking hard at the pressures that led to the sale of the brewery in 2011, and how and why the brewery, its products and ethos have changed over the decades. AB-Inbev clearly hated it.

I was going to paraphrase what happened after the book came out, but Josh wrote it up so much better than I could in a series of tweets, so here is Josh’s story, with occasional interjections by me (and American spellings). We pick it up just after Goose Island has declined to invite him to the annual preview release of the latest iteration of BCS:

“First time in the 10 years I’ve covered beer for the Chicago Tribune. I was told the brewery ‘wasn’t comfortable’ [mealy-mouthed creeps. Be honest, ye scabs – MC] with me attending. What does that mean? Who wasn’t comfortable? Why? They wouldn’t explain any of that. How’d we get here? What’s happening? Well it began last year.

Goose Island initially didn’t invite me to last year’s Bourbon County preview either — six months after my book came out. The book was mostly Goose-positive up to its 2011 sale to Anheuser-Busch. Then the story took on a lot more nuance about the brewery and brand in AB’s hands.

That change was inevitable thanks to Anheuser-Busch’s needs and goals — and why it bought Goose Island in the first place (along with 10 more craft breweries). There was no way around AB’s anti-competitive practices, lack of transparency and aim of market domination.

So, faced with not being invited to last year’s Bourbon County media preview — something about “needing to have a better working relationship” [“needing you to kiss our bottoms” more like – MC] — I argued I’d been fair and measured. Not always positive. But fair. They ultimately agreed. I attended the tasting. I championed the debut of Bourbon County Wheatwine (which went on to win a FOBAB medal). Didn’t much care for Vanilla or Bramble.

I’d been covering Bourbon County since 2010. Back then there was no media tasting. Goose Island was too busy to think much about media at all. Aside from a few dedicated bloggers, very few people were writing about Bourbon County — or craft beer in Chicago at all.

This was the earliest story I wrote about Bourbon County. About the (gasp!) $45 price tag on the first iteration of Rare Bourbon County Stout, in 2010. And year by year, buzz built for the annual Bourbon County release. As time went on, I expressed interest in tasting ahead of the releases, to tell the story of beers changing the beer drinking game in Chicago and beyond. I called Bourbon County Chicago’s “most important beer ever.

We did annual tastings, just the brewers and me. It was low-key and very relaxed. In 2015, things changed. Biggest change: Goose and AB went all in on the barrel-aging program, building a gargantuan new barrel-aging warehouse to blow up Goose’s barrel-aging program. The brewery also realized it shouldn’t just give me and the Chicago Tribune an informal first taste. It should make an event of it. And Goose did. The first “proper” Bourbon County media tasting happened in 2015, at that barrel warehouse. It was a candlelit affair with two tables full of writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. They’ve done it every year since, and even expanded it to NYC media.

(Side note: at that 2015 tasting, I believe I was the first person to note what would inevitably be a disastrous infection issue in four of that year’s Bourbon County beers. I said Bourbon County Coffee tasted peppery and “off to me.” But I digress …)

2015 was also the year that, thanks to the scope and scale of the barrel-aging warehouse, Bourbon County morphed from a lovely boutique product into a national workhorse. (Arguably the entire point of AB buying Goose Island.) Goose Island flooded the market with Bourbon County while also trying to maintain the aura of “exclusivity.” A beer called “Rare,” for instance, which people had stood in line/paid a premium for in 2015 landed on supermarket shelves a year later.

As part of the Anheuser-Busch machine, Bourbon County became a story beyond what was simply in the bottle. Yet, what was in the bottle also continued to matter. Bourbon County came out every Black Friday. People cared. Some of the beer was outstanding. And every year I reviewed it at Goose Island’s annual media preview with others who write about beer.

Meanwhile I wrote that book. And blogged. And found fresh ways to write about barrel-aged beers in Chicago. That included a blind tasting that showed Revolution Brewing surpassing Bourbon County in 2017. Which brings us to this year. Last week I realized I hadn’t been invited to this year’s Bourbon County tasting. So I reached out and asked what was up. That’s when I was told that the brewery “wasn’t comfortable” with me attending [translation – senior execs had got a massive snot on about Josh’s depiction of AB, and decided he needed to be punished – MC]. I asked for an explanation.

I write for the city’s largest newspaper, have written about Bourbon County for 10 years and covered Goose throughout the year, whether beer or marketing. Seems fair to be at that tasting. The issue wasn’t about special treatment or favors. It was about getting the same access as other media.

Goose Island came back with a changed story, along the lines of, “Every year there are limited seats and we have to make difficult decisions about who to invite.” Clearly untrue [indeed – why do corporations come out with this bullshit when they must know no one believes them and they simply look like shystering liars? MC], but OK, fine. It’s their party. I asked for samples of the 2019 Bourbon County beers instead, so that I could taste and review this week along with the others who will be doing so. In return, more corporate speak: “We have allocated a limited number of advance samples to the tasting events and will not be able to fulfill your request at this time.”

Blackballed by Goose Island.

Were they disinviting me because of the book? My blog posts? My Tribune coverage? Tweets? My general demeanor and disposition? I don’t know. They refused to say. Instead, they’re flying off to New York today to do a tasting for media there.

Goose Island can decide not to invite me and the Chicago Tribune to its Bourbon County media tasting for whatever reason. Its choice. But we dictate our coverage — not the people and companies we write about.”

Yes, exactly. There are two big issues here. The first is simple liberty of discussion. AB InBev is attempting to punish someone for saying things it doesn’t like. The company’s executives need to have a copy of the Fourth First Amendment to the US Constitution poked hard into their faces: “The Freedom of Speech, and of the Press … shall not be infringed.” (Addendum – just to explain, I don’t meant it’s illegal for AB InBev to ban Josh, I mean it’s utterly against the spirit of the values the country they operate in was founded upon.) The second is an important, and surprisingly little-discussed, aspect of the implied contract between sellers and buyers. If you are asking the public to give you its money for your goods and services, then there is a moral right, which you as a seller cannot and should not attempt to take away, for commentators to express their view on whether or not the exchange you are proposing – my money for your product – is a fair one. In other words, for any proposed sale/purchase, there is a right to review and to criticise which should not be suppressed, most importantly because that right is a counter-balance to the power of the seller, and acts in defence of the buyer. That applies to everything offered for sale, from theatrical performances to automobiles to beer. For AB Inbev to attempt to take that right to criticise and comment away from Josh is a morally wrong move, which should be called out, and for which the company should be ashamed.

So: given I feel so strongly about what has happened to Josh, how come, you are entitled to ask, I attended TWO events this month in London organised by Goose Island/AB InBev, one  celebrating the Obadiah Poundage recreation stout, the other for the UK launch of BCS, swallowed its beers (for free) and ate its pizza (for free)? Hypocritical, much? Should I not, rather than enjoying the warmth of the company’s East End bar and brewhouse, have been outside in the November cold waving a placard that declared: “I stand with Josh Noel: Boycott Goose Island!” and attempting to persuade fellow beer writers not to cross my picket line?

Um. Maybe. But ultimately, no, I think, and for a host of reasons. The first, and not the least, is that boycotting AB Inbev, is, as the old joke goes, like pissing myself in a dark suit: it might give me a warm feeling, but nobody else would notice. AB InBev wouldn’t have cared, certainly. Virtue signalling to no effect doesn’t help anybody. Second, for the first event, certainly, I was there to support several old pals, notably Ron Pattinson and Derek Prentice, who were involved in the Obadiah Poundage project, which I wrote about here, (Before you ask, I was sent a case of the beer beforehand. What’s it like? More Bretty, and rather sweeter, than I was expecting: not a beer that you absolutely have to rush out to buy, but a fascinating experiment, and worth picking up if you see it.)

For the second event, the London launch of BCS, I was there out of extreme curiosity, having never drunk the beer before, and unsure when I would ever get the chance to again: if you write about beer, passing up the chance to drink the beer that started the whole, now massive, barrel-aged movement, in a fit of politically correct solidarity with a fellow journalist who was barred from a press call but, let’s put this in perspective, not actually blown up seems to be to be, well, unnecessary.

I know there are beer writers who eschew any involvement with corporate freebies, but my argument has always been that I’m very happy to accept free stuff, from beer to trips abroad, when it enables me to put information in front of my readers that I would not be otherwise able to give them. Certainly I do not believe I have ever held the boot back because someone had dropped off a case of beer. Carlsberg, for example, paid me to appear in one of their corporate videos, flew me to Copenhagen three times, took me to Twickenham and Wembley to see the national rugby and football teams play and stuffed me to my eyebrows with food and drink on multiple occasions, but that didn’t prevent me from being very rude about the new-look green-label pilsner earlier this year.

As it happens the Federal Trade Commission in the US has just issued a leaflet, “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers”, about openness in blog posts, tweets, Instagram posts and the like, which you can see here. It says:

“If you endorse a product through social media, your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship (“material connection”) with the brand. A “material connection” to the brand includes a personal, family, or employment relationship or a financial relationship – such as the brand paying you or giving you free or discounted products or services.

Telling your followers about these kinds of relationships is important because it helps keep your recommendations honest and truthful, and it allows people to weigh the value of your endorsements.

As an influencer, it’s your responsibility to make these disclosures, to be familiar with the Endorsement Guides, and to comply with laws against deceptive ads. Don’t rely on others to do it for you.”

Which I think is entirely fair enough – and if you’re thinking “I don’t live in the US,” the FTC’s guide also points out: “If posting from abroad, US law applies if it’s reasonably foreseeable that the post will affect US consumers.”

So on that basis: what were those free Bourbon County Stouts you drank like, Martyn? Very fine indeed, actually: this IS a beer you really need to track down and try. It’s massively filled with flavours, something to sip, savour and enjoy, and also, judging by the differences between the 2018 and 2019, a beer that will change in fascinating ways as it ages: the 2018, for example, was very much less coconutty than the 2019, as, clearly, the influence of the wood in the Bourbon barrel began to fade. I also greatly enjoyed two beers made at the Shoreditch brewhouse (which, incidentally, is barely a hundred yards from what was once Harwood’s Bell brewhouse, famous, incorrectly, for supposedly being the place where porter was first brewed). One was a  madeira-cask-aged doppelbock, served straight from the cask it was aged in, which was wonderfully rich, the other a sour cherry and tonka bean porter, like black forest gateau in a glass.

OK, you may passionately loathe AB InBev, and vow never to approach it or its works except with a pitchfork and a flaming torch. But the unpleasant arseholes at the top of the company who decided, stupidly and unforgiveably,  that Josh Noel had to be punished for not placing his nose as far up the AB InBev bottom as they wished are not the very many thousands of people who work for the company, who are doing the best jobs they can, and who are producing beers like that sour cherry porter, and that Madeira-cask-aged doppelbock, and those iterations of BCS, and those projects like Obadiah Poundage porter, and I believe THOSE people SHOULD be supported. But supporting them doesn’t mean not being as rude as possible about the bad things corporate AB InBev gets up to, and calling the company out on it as loudly as I can.

(Addendum 2: I meant to say, but forgot, so I’m saying it now, that as a fine example of how quickly myths arrive and take root, on both the embossed bottles that Bourdon County stout now comes in, and the T-shirts that Goose Island/AB InBev gives away, the claim is made that BCS was first brewed in 1992. This appears to be down to Greg Hall, who invented the beer, being unable to remember more than a decade later when he had had the dinner with the legendary Bourbon maestro Booker Noe that led to the beer’s creation. It was, as Josh Noel uncovered while researching his book, in 1995, not 1992.)

The land where working-class men drink milk stout from quart bottles, and the curious case of Mackeson porter

It’s a beer fact guaranteed to make British drinkers boggle in disbelief: one of the biggest selling beer styles among black working-class South African men is milk stout

You won’t believe it, Ena …

While milk stout has seen a tiny renaissance in the UK, with craft beer brewers producing examples of the style, it is still mostly thought of, if it is though of at all, as the beer drunk by little old ladies sitting in the saloon bar on their own. The last person in Britain to be known for drinking milk stout was Ena Sharples, sour-faced harridan of the soap opera Coronation Street, who disappeared from television screens almost 40 years ago.

In South Africa, however, milk stout has a totally different image: Castle Milk Stout, originally a South African Breweries brand and now, since it acquired SAB, owned by AB InBev, is a long-time favourite of black workers, and is now being marketed at the country’s black middle class as the beer to drink to show you haven’t lost touch with your roots. (Great ad, that – possibly one of the best beer ads ever.)

The first ever ad for Castle Milk Stout, from 1912

Stout and porter had been popular in South Africa from the earliest days of British colonisation, but by the start of the 20th century lager was starting to take over. However, variants on stout were appearing in South Africa, such as oatmeal stout, which was made by several firms, including South African Breweries, which advertised its Castle oatmeal stout in 1916 as providing “health and strength for tired people,” and Chandler’s Crown brewery in Ophirton, Johannesburg, which was still advising customers in 1932 to “Drink Chandler’s Oatmeal Stout and keep colds away!” There was also the peculiar-sounding and short-lived Marrow Stout (bone marrow or vegetable marrow, it is not clear which) brewed by the Thoma (sic) brewery in Johannesburg (founded in 1892 by a German, August Thoma, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg and taken over by Ohlsson’s Cape Breweries in 1902), which was first advertised in the Rand Daily Mail in 1909 but does not appear again after 1910.

Marrow stout … no, I’ve no idea either

However, just as “marrow stout” was disappearing, a new style of stout appeared that would turn South Africa into one of the biggest stout-drinking countries in the world. Sweet stout had been growing increasingly popular, but as the beer aged it lost its sweetness. The idea of brewing stout with a dose of unfermentable lactose sugar, derived from milk, to keep it staying sweet, had been first patented by William Melhuish, a food chemist from Poole, Dorset, in 1908, and the first “milk stout” was brewed by the English brewer Mackeson’s of Hythe, in Kent, in 1909. Mackeson licensed other brewers to make their own milk stouts, and the Castle brewery launched its version in August 1912 with a full-page advertisement in the Rand Daily Mail. Castle Milk Stout became one of the company’s biggest selling beers, particularly after a ban on black South Africans drinking “European” beers, imposed in 1928, was lifted in 1962.

The appeal of the six per cent abv drink to black South Africans, according to the South African advertising guru Happy Ntshingila, was that the traditional sorghum beer which was all they were legally allowed to drink during those years has always been regarded as a food as well as an alcoholic drink, and the “milk” part of milk stout gave it the same image. By the 1990s milk stout in South Africa was primarily a drink of blue-collar Nguni men – members of the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and other South African peoples. The beer was frequently sold in quart bottles, for sharing, the way a calabash of sorghum beer would be shared, and was described as “the most physically masculine brand in the SAB stable.” It was about as far from the image that milk stout drinkers had in the beer’s country of origin – elderly ladies sipping a half-pint in the pub on their own—as it was possible to travel.

Mackeson Porter ad, Rand Daily Mail July 19 1969

The large market for milk stout in South Africa did not go unnoticed in Chiswell Street, the London headquarters of Whitbread, the company that had acquired Mackeson in 1929. However, when the British brewer launched the Mackeson brand in South Africa in 1967, it was as Mackeson Porter, not Mackeson Milk Stout. This, the first launch of a beer under the name “porter” by a British brewer since, probably, the 19th century, was most likely because South African Breweries had a local trade mark monopoly on the use of the expression “milk stout”: there had been other milk stouts in South Africa besides the one from Castle, including Ohlsson’s Lion “melk stout”, as it was branded in Afrikaans, which was still being sold in 1952, but SAB had acquired Ohlsson’s in 1954. (In the UK the term “milk stout” had been voluntarily abandoned by brewers for fear that legislation would be introduced to ban it anyway.) Mackeson Porter was on sale in South Africa until 1972 before disappearing, unable, without the world “milk stout” on the label, to make any impact on a market that had not seen a beer called “porter” for generations.

Castle Milk Stout ‘chocolate infused’

Early in the 1990s, after the government of South Africa unbanned the African National Congress, and with black Africans increasingly drinking lager rather than milk stout, South African Breweries gave the advertising brief for Castle Milk Stout to the country’s first all-black ad agency, HerdBuoys. A series of advertisements that successfully combined images of black urban success with rural tradition—and milk stout drinking—sent sales soaring again, to 100,000 hectolitres (84,000 US barrels) a year. By 2003, Castle Milk Stout was the fourth biggest liquor brand in South Africa, and the second biggest stout brand in the world. Its production still included roast malt added in the mash tun, unlike Guinness, which had long gone over to using an extract of roasted barley, added post-mash, and other tweaks peculiar to making Castle Milk Stout, including adding caramel alongside the lactose, crash-cooling the fermentation to encourage the yeast to produce stop the yeast mopping up diacetyl, which increases the “butterscotch” flavours in the beer, and a lager-like maturation at -2ºC.

Castle Milk Stout clan can

By 2011 Castle Milk Stout was available in a nitrogenated draft version, though it is still most often found in 75cl bottles and in cans. However, in the winter of 2014 SAB introduced “ultra-smooth” milk stout in a nitrogenated can, and also a limited-edition “chocolate-infused” 4.5 per cent abv version of Castle Milk Stout, which came back as a regular variant the following year, again available in 75cl bottles. This, together with “repositioning” the brand as a “premium” product,  and whites picking up on the brand as the growth of craft beer made them more aware of “unusual” beer styles, helped push sales up 14 per cent year-on-year. It has still been maintaining its “traditional” image in South Africa, however, with promotions that included printing tribal clan names, and clan praise songs, on the cans. The brand has also moved abroad, capturing market share from Guinness in Nigeria, where stout makes up 14 per cent of the beer market, and also being brewed in Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda and even South Korea.

It’s a long way from Ena Sharples.

Carlsberg’s new lager: the verdict is in and it’s ‘This is NOT the future of beer’

A few years back, when I was still involved in hospitality trade journalism, I would get occasional invites from Carlsberg to  PR gigs. One was to Wembley to see England play San Marino. The match itself was the predictable turkey-stuffing (5-0) but it was the entertainment beforehand we were particularly supposed to appreciate: Northampton’s Danes had taken over part of Wembley town hall and turned it into an “If Carlsberg did pubs” pub, with unlimited free pints of lager delivered on sushi-style conveyor belts, the Lightning Seeds as the pub band and Ian Wright, Paddy McGuinness and Jeff Stelling as pre-match pundits. It was quite fun, as quite fun goes, but the big drawback was the beer: Carlsberg.

Carlsberg’s rfevamped “Danish pilsner’ in a glass older than the marketer who thought it was a great idea to drop the word ‘lager’ from the product

I don’t have anything against big-corporation beer in itself, but I do have a big problem with dull beer: I can’t drink it. I have a very low boredom threshold with food and drink (and most other experiences, actually) and I would literally rather drink nothing than drink more than a couple of pints of beer with no interest. And that Carlsberg: it wasn’t actually bad, or faulty, it was simply a cypher, a blank hole where beer should have been. There was no pain in drinking it, but it was a hedonistic vacuum that actively repelled me, that made me not wish to experience this beery nothing.

The one upside, I thought, was that at least I wasn’t going to get embarrassingly drunk on free beer, since I couldn’t bring myself to bring it near my mouth. So I waited, faintly bored, until the drinking was over and we could go and watch the match – which was a similar sort of experience to the beer, ironically. Had it been a ten-nil walloping, that would have been good to watch. Had it been decent opposition, that would have been good, too. But five-nil against San Marino, a country with a population the size of Letchworth: meh.

So: come forward to the present day, and the Cobblertown-based Danes are now apparently admitting that, indeed, their beer really hasn’t been up to much: the San Marino of beerdom. In the run-up to a relaunch last month of the basic 3.8 per cent abv “Green” Carlsberg, the company started retweeting tweets from drinkers comparing the beer to drinking stale breadsticks, or the bathwater your granny died in, using the increasingly popular “beat us, we’re bad” strategy marketeers seem to think makes consumers love them because they’re apparently being deeply honest, for a change. Then its VP of marketing in the UK, Liam Newton, pulled on the sackcloth, dumped a pile of ashes over his head, threw himself on his knees and wailed: “At Carlsberg UK, we lost our way. We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best. In order to live up to our promise of being ‘probably the best beer in the world’, we had to start again.” Actually, Liam, you used to say “Probably the best lager in the world”, you little fibber, not least because prosodically the two beats of “lager” make for a better-sounding slogan that the single beat of beer: cretic, trochee, spondee, cretic rather than the clunkier cretic, cretic, cretic,

Green Carlsberg is now calling itself a Danish pilsner, rather than a lager: presumably “consumer feedback” suggests “pilsner” sounds posher. Poor Bhavya Mandanna, head brewperson at Carlsberg UK, ventriloquised the following nonsense, courtesy of Carlsberg’s PR people: “Our new Pilsner has a fuller body and a perfect balance of bitterness and sweetness made possible through modifications to our brewing process and the addition of bittering hops in the brewhouse.” Wow, they’re adding bittering hops in the brewhouse! There’s innovative! Tell us more, Bhavya, and let’s see if you can say it while the PR man sits you in his knee with his hand up the back of your jacket as he swallows a pint of supposedly perfectly balanced lager: “Aroma hops with citrus and floral top notes give a greater depth of flavour whilst maintaining the light and refreshing qualities of Carlsberg.”

Enough guff. Just because PR people make it appear you’re as filled with marketing bollocks as they are, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically a bad brewer. It’s only fair to put Bhavya’s new-style Green Carlsberg in a taste-off to see how it performs. I decided to pair it against Camden Town’s new “Weeknite Any Day” lager, a 3 per cent beer I suspect only escaped being called “Everyday lager” because that would have given the Portman Group the blue giptions for suggesting you could drink every day. And the result is (the envelope, please …)

The result, I’m actually disappointed to say, is exactly what a cynic might expect. The “new” Green Carlsberg, selling for £1 a 33cl bottle in your local corner offie (that’s £1.72 a pint), is scarcely less dull than its previous incarnation. It smells of almost nothing. It tastes of almost nothing. There’s a faintly meaty, metallic aftertaste that lingers for too long. More flavour comes through as the beer opens up in the glass, but so does a bitterness just hovering on the edge of unpleasant. A slight malt sweetness is present, but the main sensation is of something massively watered down. I’m bored even thinking about it.This is NOT the future of beer, and Carlsberg are only wasting time on what should be a controlled rundown of a beer in terminal decline.

Camden Week Nite: is this AB Inbev’s secret weapon in the fruity lager war?

Camden Town’s Week Nite, though, is a little bit of a revelation. It’s one of a growing number of what might be called “floral” or “fruity” lagers, cold-fermented beers made with hop varieties more normally associated with warm-fermented American IPAs: Galaxy, a strongly flavoured Australian hop with lots of tropical fruit/peach aromas, Topaz, another Australian hop, with hints of clove and lychee and Mosaic, from the US, with more tropical/floral/citrus flavours – that are becoming increasingly popular – see, for example, Guinness’s Hop House 13, very likely to be already on a bar top near you just three years after its launch.

What this new style of lager is delivering is taste, something that, 20 years after the American IPA revolution, is finally becoming a mainstream demand, plus “cold refreshingness”’ something beers such as Carlsberg once had tied up and held down on the ground, but which is no longer enough. What Week Nite is delivering as well is relatively low alcohol: it used to be that a three per cent beer would have to be made with roasted or high-dried malts, like a brown ale or a dark mild or a sweet stout, to deliver flavour. Brewers are now discovering that it is possible to deliver flavour in a low-gravity beer with American-heritage hops:

Week Nite has Motueka, a New Zealand hop with Saaz in its family tree but also NZ hops to give a distinctly tropical fruits aroma, and Centennial, one of the classic American “C-hops”, adding more citrus flavours, as whirlpool hops, and it is then dry-hopped with Motueca and Centennial again, plus Cascade, another citrussy American C-hop, and left unfiltered and unpasteurised – but moves likely to increase the flavour in a low-gravity beer. The result is a somewhat austere beer with a restrained mango, physalis and passionfruit nose, mango juice in the mouth, just enough bitterness to hold it all up and the body of an ultra-marathon runner: not so much thin as wiry. That sounds harsher than I mean to be on this beer: for a three per cent alcohol brew it stands up very well, and it should hit the target market, people wanting something tasty that won’t lay them out, right in the eye. The 33cl can represents exactly one UK unit of alcohol: pace yourself and you could drink one of these every 40 minutes while staying totally sober.

You don’t have to stare too deeply into a beer-filled crystal ball to predict that (1) there will be a constant flow of launches of floral/fruity lagers, in the wake of Hop House 13, and (2) this poses big problems for the “standard” lager giants, who can’t reformat their existing beers, for fear of alienating their existing drinkers, but who are not recruiting new drinkers in enough numbers to maintain market share. The “lager louts” of the 1980s are now, to revive an old joke, becoming Saga louts, 30 years on, as they close in on their 60s, and nobody aged 18 wants to drink the beer a 60-year-old drinks. It looks like Carlsberg’s pet British micro, London Fields, has already had an attempt at a “fruity” lager with the launch of Broadway Boss, using a “traditional” hop in the boil but “a new American variety in the whirlpool to give it a lemony zing.” Unfortunately the whole first batch has had to be recalled after high levels of DMS in the final product, but they’ll be back …

What, then, do AB InBev and Heineken do, with so much invested in Stella, Budweiser, Fosters and the rest? Will we see the launch of Stella floral, of Fosters fruity, or will they try new brands entirely, using, perhaps, their recently acquired “craft” breweries as cover? Those of you at the back shouting “Camden Town is owned by AB InBev!” – yes, exactly. What we have here with Week Nite is a floral/fruity toe in the lager by AB InBev’s marketers, to see if anybody bites. If it doesn’t work, no problem: no embarrassment for the big brands. If it does, then woo-hoo, roll that baby out round the distribution network.

And on cue, *ding* into my email intray today comes a release from Shepherd Neame about its new Bear Island Triple Hopped Lager, hopped with Saaz, pretty much the standard “noble” lager hop, from Bohemia, somewhat herby, but also Challenger, a British hop with a touch of orange marmalade, and, that one again, Mosaic, for the floral/tropical/citrus delivery. There’ll be plenty more along soon.

AB Inbev’s new 1840 London porter and the hornbeam question

I am green – viridian. Ron Pattinson has been dropping hints every time I see him about his secret big new project with Goose Island in Chicago, and it’s now been revealed: a reproduction of a London porter from 1840, including authentic heritage barley, properly “blown” brown malt, and blending a long-vatted beer with a much younger version. Who do I have to kill to get hold of a bottle?

Of course, some people have knee-jerked in and slapped this down because it involves the Evil Empire, AB InBev, owner of Goose Island and, in the opinion of many, too many other formerly small craft breweries, from Four Peaks to Wicked Weed. The PC line is “I’ll never drink anything produced by a company that is fundamentally bad for, and opposed to, small independent operators and their survival.”

As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out Josh Noel’s deservedly award-winning book from last year on the take-over of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch – do try to get hold of a copy, it’s an excellent, even-handed and sympathetic analysis of what happened and why it happened. You’ll certainly put it down after 345 pages and conclude that AB InBev is indeed interested in nothing more, ultimately, than getting you to buy its product in preference to anybody else’s, and if that meant using its weight, wealth and power to crush the entire global craft beer scene, it wouldn’t care. But that’s what big corporations do: criticising them for wanting to dominate the world is like criticising lions for chasing down and killing wildebeest. It’s the nature of the animal. Run faster, wildebeest.

Ron Pattinson outside the Anchor, Southwark, about all that remains of the former Barclay Perkins brewery, once the largest in the world

And if AB InBev wants to spend silly sums of money flying my mate Ron, and Derek Prentice, former brewer with Truman’s of Brick Lane, then Young’s, then Fuller’s, and now Wimbledon, out to Chicago to advise on recreating an almost 180-year-old beer, and take enormous pains getting the ingredients and the methodology just right, in the hope that this will greenwash their corporation and get people like me to write admiringly about them, rather than attack them for trying to squeeze smaller rivals out of the market, then they’re partly correct: I’ll still criticise where necessary, but I’m also writing admiringly about the Obadiah Poundage porter project, because I think it’s wonderful to be able to drink this beer from the past, and I don’t believe very many other organisations would have the big wallet, or the commitment, to undertake such a recreation. This is an expensive beer made with unusual ingredients back in March last year, which was then left sitting around occupying valuable real estate in Chicago for a year before being blended with the newer version and put on sale. Most companies’ accountants would have been screaming themselves puce. If not AB InBev, who else would undertake such a journey?

Anyway, watch this fascinating 20-minute video about the project, listen to Mike Siegel, research and development boss at Goose Island explain it all, see if you can spot John Hall, founder of Goose Island, popping into shot uncredited occasionally, and then come back here and I’ll discuss a few interesting points that arise, so pay attention and listen out in particular for the mentions of hornbeam, there will be questions afterwards.

CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO

Derek Prentice, brewer at Truman’s in Brick Lane in the East End of London51 years ago, compares the street scene of today with that of 1841

I didn’t expect to find anything to criticise about the history when I watched that. I nodded along as Derek Prentice accurately recounted the role of porters in 18th century London, and as Ron described the change from the all-brown-malt porters of the early 18th century to the more complicated grain bills of later porters, with pale malt, “patent” black malt and “blown” malt dried and browned over faggots of hornbeam wood, and I sat awed as Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt in Massachusetts showed the making of just such a batch of “blown” malt over a fire of hornbeam. And then something strange happened. My subconscious popped up and said: “Hornbeam – are you actually certain about that?” So I checked.

For the past 18 months I’ve been writing what is meant to be the definitive history of porter and stout, and I’ve read several hundred books and articles to pull that together. All that information goes down into the subconscious, where, as is the way of the human brain, new connections are formed that the conscious mind is unaware of until something bubbles up from the id. Now, “maltsters made blown malt for porter by drying the grains over blazing hornbeam” is a solid received fact among historians of brewing. I never doubted it. Hough, Briggs and Stevens’s Malting and Brewing Science from 1971 says so: “dried in a fierce heat from a fire of hardwood faggots made from oak, hornbeam, ash or beech” (p166). Steeped in Tradition, a history of the malting industry from 1983 by Jonathan Brown says so: “These kilns were fired by wood, mostly and preferably oak, but beech, hornbeam and ash were also commonly used.” It makes sense: blown malt was a speciality of the maltsters of Ware and other towns in East Hertfordshire, and hornbeam, which burns with a bright, hot flame, is abundant in the woods of East Herts.

Grain being dried at high temperature over a hornbeam fire at Valley Malt in Massachusetts to make ‘blown’ or ‘snapped’ malt

But as my subconscious prompted me into confirming, if you go and look, you will not actually find any references to hornbeam being used by maltsters during the time that blown malt was still being made. Many authors do not specify any particular wood. Of those that do, William Black in his Practical Treatise on Brewing of 1844 says blown malt is heated with “faggots of dry, hard wood, commonly beech or birch; fir imparting a tarry taste.” (p26). Henry Stopes, who was the 19th century’s Mr Malt, spoke only of billet and faggot wood “generally of oak but occasionally of beech” in making the blown variety (Malt and Malting, 1885, p159). E.R. Southby’s Systemic Handbook of Practical Brewing from the same year says blown malt is “dried rapidly over a fire of beech or birch wood” (p215). Herbert Edwards Wright’s A Handy Book for Brewers from 1892 says blown malt is made by subjecting the barley to “a sudden blast of intense heat generated by heating up the kiln fire with oak or beechen faggots or billets” (p309). (Wright also says that the fire risk “and the high rates of insurance demanded in consequence” meant this was a variety of malt generally made only by specialists.)

So, what to say to Ron, Derek, Andrea and Mike: “Er, thanks for all the trouble you went to, guys, that was amazing, especially the hornbeam, but, um, you might have been better off with beech …” I’m not saying nobody ever used hornbeam to make blown malt: I think it’s very likely they did. It was available, in the right place, and has similar characteristics to both birch (which is in the same botanical family) and beech, which we DO known were used (indeed, the hornbeam is known in some parts of Britain as the “ay beech”, for its habit of keeping its leaves through winter, that is “for aye”.)

Mike Siegel, r&d manager at Goose Island, tries some Obadiah Poundage at the brewery’s barrel ageing warehouse. Where’s mine?

Best not to say anything to dampen the party, really. And let’s not mention that the American hornbeam that Andrea used is a slightly different species to English hornbeam: that would be taking my (deserved) reputation for picky pedanticism too far down the road. Nor let us question why an 1840 porter is named for a man who probably died at least 70 years earlier, the pseudonymous commentator whose letter to the London Chronicle in 1760 about the tax on beer provides historians with so much information about the history of porter. (Someone in the film wonders where the original “Obadiah Poundage” got his name from: “Poundage” is an old word for tax, and one of the many Obadiahs in the Old Testament was a porter “keeping the ward ” [Nehemiah 12:25].) And please, let’s not ask why you have to query every single damned received historical fact because too often what you thought was indisputably true isn’t indisputably true at all. No, there’s a much more important question than all that: where’s my bottle?

Will Big Lager one day go the same way as Big Porter?

I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at th rear and protect the wearer's jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) - from the anonymously-written Real Life in London, 1821
Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at the rear and protect the wearer’s jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) – from the anonymously written Real Life in London, 1821

Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money
Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”

In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins, then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.

A couple of ads for Charrington's XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper
A couple of ads for Charrington’s XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.

Continue reading Will Big Lager one day go the same way as Big Porter?

AB InBev acquires Camden Town: least surprising news in the history of beer

I was actually speaking to a senior London brewer about something else entirely on Monday when he asked me if I had heard that AB InBev had bought the Camden Town Brewery, and my instant response was: “That’s the least surprising news I’ve ever heard.”

Jasper Cuppaidge, evil mustachio-twirling villain – if you believe Twitter …
Jasper Cuppaidge, evil mustachio-twirling villain – that is, if you believe Twitter …

Camden Town has always seemed to me the Brewery Most Likely to Sell Out to a Big Buyer – certainly since its beers started appearing on bartops all over London. It’s got a great brand name, picking up the associations of a part of the capital that is somehow, at least in its image, gritty, urban, young, trendy and authentic all at the same time (possibly relevant trivia: Camden is where Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit and his family lived, which suggests the place has had a reputation for cheery grittiness since Dickens’s time).

But it ought to be expected that the brewery is a great brand: founder Jasper Cuppaidge is married to the daughter of Sir John Hegarty, a partner in Bartle Bogle Hegarty, one of Britain’s most renowned advertising people, the man who gave us Vorsprung Durch Technik and Nick Kamen stripping to his boxers in a launderette to advertise Levi’s, and who is – or was – Camden Town’s chairman. If Hegarty and his ad world pals didn’t stump up the initial funding that allowed Cuppaidge to install all that shiny brewing kit from Germany’s Braukon in a Kentish Town railway arch in 2010, then I WOULD be surprised. And if there wasn’t always the possibility of a trade sale in the business plan, I’d be pretty surprised there too. (More trivia: Hegarty apparently designed Camden Town’s logo, with the horseshoe shape a nod to the Horseshoe in Hampstead where Cuppaidge started brewing)

Continue reading AB InBev acquires Camden Town: least surprising news in the history of beer

Goodbye to the last of London’s million-barrel breweries

Flag on the top of the Mortlake brewery 1932
Flag on the top of the Mortlake brewery 1932

It is one of history’s ironies that just as London hits more breweries than at any time in the past 110 years, its brewing capacity is more than halved with the closure of the last of the capital’s remaining megabreweries, at Mortlake.

That the brewery at Mortlake, which has been pumping out hundreds of thousands of barrels a year of Budweiser for the past two decades, should have survived to be at least 250 years old this year is remarkable: it lost its independent in 1889, and the guillotine has been poised above its neck for the past six years.

The Mortlake site, famous as the home of Watney’s Red Barrel, was one of eight huge breweries still operating in London in the mid-1970s, which between them made one in every five pints drunk in Britain. Four closed between 1975 and 1982: Charrington’s in Mile End, Whitbread’s on the northern edge of the City, Mann’s in Whitechapel and Courage by Tower Bridge. Truman’s brewery shut in Brick Lane in 1989, and Ind Coope in Romford in 1992. In 2005, Guinness closed the Park Royal brewery. With the shuttering of Young’s in 2006 (yes, I know there’s still brewing on the site, but it’s not a commercial operation), in 2007 brewery numbers in London hit what was almost an all-time low, of just 10.

It’s instructive to see how brewery numbers have fluctuated over the past 300 years: Continue reading Goodbye to the last of London’s million-barrel breweries

The Bass red triangle: things AB-InBev won’t tell you

Bass pale ale labelThere are stupid marketeers, and there’s AB-InBev. The Belgo-Brazilians have decided to rename one of the oldest beer brands in Britain, Bass pale ale, a literally iconic IPA, as “Bass Trademark Number One”. It’s a move so clueless, so lacking in understanding of how beer drinkers relate to the beers they drink, I have no doubt it will be held up to MBA students in five years’ time as a classic example of How To Royally Screw Up Your Brand.

The move is predicated upon the red triangle that is found on every bottle of Bass pale ale, and on every pumpclip of the draught version, being the first registered trademark in Britain. The generally accepted story is that after the passing of the Trade Mark Registration Act of 1875, when applications to apply for trademark registration opened on January 1, 1876, a Bass employee was sent to wait overnight outside the registrar’s office the day before in order to be the first in line to file to register a trademark the next morning, and that is why the company has trade mark number one. There is no evidence for this story: but it is certainly true that a label with the triangle on it, and the words “Bass & Co’s Pale Ale” is indeed the UK’s Trade Mark 1, having been the first to be registered on New Year’s Day 1876.

So why now rename a beer that has been around since the 1820s, when Bass first started brewing a bitter pale ale for the Far East market, after an event that happened when that beer was already 50 or more years old? Because AB-InBev is flailing around for a way to rescue the beer, once the most famous in the world, from the miserable position it has been in since, to be honest, long before what was then Interbrew acquired the Bass brands in 2000. Some idiot marketing focus group got together and tried to think of a unique selling point for the beer: and the only one they could come up with was that it bore the UK’s first registered trade mark.

As Pete Brown has already remarked, this is pretty much a result of the AB-InBev mindset, which knows far more about trademarks than it does about beer. Bass pale ale is a beer with a fantastic heritage: it was, for more than a century, a hugely highly regarded brew, globally as well as in the UK (my grandfather told me that before the First World War, he and his pals would scour North London looking for pubs that sold draught Bass), so much so that it suffered more than anyone else from lesser brews being passed off as the red triangle beer. That was one reason why Bass was so keen to register its own trademark as speedily as possible.

Before we continue, here’s a panegyric on Bass from a book published in 1884 called Fortunes Made In Business which will show you how much Bass was an icon:

Continue reading The Bass red triangle: things AB-InBev won’t tell you

Budweiser 666: the drink of the beast

Budweiser 666: It'll make you horny

Silly joke: but the fact that even someone with my limited Photoshop skills can knock up an unkind photospoof of AB Inbev’s new “entry level” four per cent alcohol lager for the British market, Bud 66, in 15 minutes suggests the company’s marketing department didn’t think hard enough about the branding. And my apologies to Stuart MacFarlane, AB Inbev’s UK president: his skin’s not really that colour. (The horns, though …)

The most interesting fact about Bud 66 is not the mockable name, however, nor the fact that you and I, dear reader, won’t like it (since the maker describes it as a “lightly carbonated lager” brewed with a “touch of sweetness for a smooth easy taste” and “targeted at the early 20s market”, which translates as “fizzy, over-sugary and bland, and designed for people we think don’t know anything about beer” – if I were in my early 20s I’d be extremely insulted that InBev thinks this is the sort of stuff I’d like to drink.)

Nor is it the way that the company attempts to present blatantly copying Beck’s Vier and Stella Artois 4% as “another example of innovation by AB InBev”. Rather, it’s that InBev feels it has to enter this category with Bud at all, with MacFarlane describing the launch as InBev’s “most important business action in 2010”.

Continue reading Budweiser 666: the drink of the beast