How I got Mikkeller to call me a bastard

What sort of bastard goes along to a book launch just to point out to the author the mistakes he’s made?

Errrr …

Me.

OK, it was done in what I’d like to insist, really, was a semi-joking way, and in a spirit of, I hope, friendly beer comradeship, but if someone as highly regarded and influential as Mikkel Borg Bjergsø – founder of Mikkeller – is repeating historical beer myths in print that I (and others) have been trying to stamp on for a dozen or more years, well, somebody has to do something – even if I did come across as a prat.

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller's Book of Beer

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer

Fortunately for me, I’ve known Jo Copestick, who works freelances for Jacquie Small, publisher of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, for some years, so at the launch for the English language version of the book, at BrewDog Camden in North London on Thursday, I was able to give my corrections to her: (p53) no, George Hodgson did NOT invent India Pale Ale, nor was IPA brewed stronger to survive the trip to India – it was, as Ron Pattinson regularly points out, comparatively weak for an 18th century beer – and I’ve no idea where the idea came from that the beer was stored in oak barrels which “caused the beer to develop a particular complexity and bitterness that proved extremely popular” – ALL beer was stored in oak barrels. Admittedly, IPA was kept in barrels before serving longer than, say, a mild ale, and that would have added some complexity as the beer aged, but that happened to other beers as well, and if anything the bitterness would have mellowed out as the beer aged. Nor do I think it’s true that “An IPA is generally darker than an ordinary pale ale.” And (p59), porter was NOT “first brewed as a more nourishing beer for the port workers of England in the 19th century” – porter was first brewed in the early 18th century, it was taken up in London by the men called porters, hence the name, some of whom (the Fellowship porters) loaded and unloaded ships in the Thames, but many – most – of whom were Ticket or street porters, working in London’s streets, delivering parcels, letters and goods about the city. And porter wasn’t specifically designed to be a “more nourishing” beer than its predecessor and parent, London brown beer: it was designed to be tastier and more appealing. Nor does the word “stout” mean “‘robust’ or ‘solid'” – it means “strong”.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

Having slipped Jo my corrections, I then thought it would be extremely cheeky to introduce myself to Mikkel, explain what I had done, and ask him to sign my copy of the book with the words “You bastard!” Which, as you can see, he was amused enough to be happy to do – rather than smashing me about the head with the nearest beerglass, which is what I might do if someone did the same thing to me at one of my book launches. (And yes, there most certainly ARE mistakes in my books, though I’d be grateful if you’d email them to me privately when you find them, rather than revealing them publicly in the comments below.) James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, was there as well, so I got him to also sign Mikkel’s book – thus making it a unique BrewDog-Mikkeller co-production. Offers over £10,000 gladly accepted …

Apart from that, what is the book like? Actually, it’s good, edging into very good: excellent production values and beautiful photography, which is what you’d expect from a Jacqui Small book, and rammed full of facts’n’info, about Mikkel and his early life; about Mikkeller and how it developed, including what seems to me, at any rate, a rare mention of the man who gave the operation half its name, Kristian Keller; about beer types; about Mikkeller’s different beers and what inspired them; about beer tasting; about beer and food; and also about how to brew your own beers like Mikkeller’s. The translator, Ray Ashman, has done a fine job of capturing what certainly sounds like Mikkel’s authentic voice (I’d love to know which of the original bits were written by Mikkel and which by his co-author [and wife] Pernille Pang), and the text is enlivened by drawings from Mikkeller’s in-house illustrator, Keith Shore, frequently featuring the two Mikkeller “characters”, Henry and Sally. To whom will it appeal? Well, Mikkeller fanboys and fangirls, obviously, and anyone looking to learn more about beer, and about homebrewing, will get a great deal out of it too, but even the most beer-knowledgeable will, I think, learn enough to make the book worth its £20 tag (£13.60 on Amazon.co.uk, I note, where, unsurprisingly, it’s already the number one best seller in the “beer” category). And those untruths about beer history are really only a tiny part of the whole book …

Which is more, unfortunately, than can be said about another book I just acquired, Beer: A Global History, by Gavin Smith, published last year. This appears to have been written in an alternative universe where Ron Pattinson and I were never born, and repeats big chunks of long-disproved myths about beer history. Indeed, Smith loses all credibility at the very beginning of Chapter 1, which is headed by an alleged “quote” from Plato, the Greek philosopher: “He was a wise man who invented beer.” No, Plato never said this, or anything like it – and if Smith had done any proper research at all, which would have involved reading The Barbarian’s Beverage by Max Nelson (an excellent book), he would have discovered that the ancient Greeks actually had a very low opinion of beer.

This is far from the only nonsense, Smith hits his readers with, even in Chapter 1: he goes on to make the bizarre claim that “the first nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle and grow crops are thought to have been the Sumerians” – but domesticated barley is known from 7750BC at a site now called Netiv HaGdud (sic) in the Jordan valley, 20km north of Jericho, at least 2,250 years before the Sumerians started founding settlements in Mesopotamia. Smith also claims the Sumerians invented the wheel, though the jury is still very much considering its verdict on that one, since the wheel appeared effectively simultaneously in Sumer, the Northern Caucasus and Central Europe, and he continues: “more than 5,000 years ago they [the Sumerians] recorded on a series of clay tablets a range of beer types and recipes contained within the ancient text ‘A Hymn to Ninkasi’.” This is, simply, complete bollocks. The clay tablets that contain the “Hymn to Ninkasi” come from around 1800BC, so 3,800 years ago, not 5,000. The poem does not contain “a range of beer types and recipes” – it doesn’t mention beer types at all, and the idea that it can be seen as a recipe describing how to make Sumerian beer is stretching the concept of “recipe” to breaking-point: if you read an English translation of the text, which suffers from unknown words and chunks that are now missing, you will see that it is very hard to make out what is meant to be going on. The Hymn to Ninkasi is, as I have said before, no more a recipe for beer-brewing than the folk song “John Barleycorn” is a text on how to make malt.

And so we go on: Smith repeats the myths about the alleged brewing set-up at St Gall in Switzerland, writing, as others have done, as if the map of St Gall actually described what was on the ground, instead of being an idealised depiction. He claims that porter gets its name from “market porters” – ffs, how many times do I have to repeat that this is a 20th century misunderstanding of who porters were? – and, yes, that it was “reputedly invented during the 1720s by Ralph Harwood of the Bell Brewery in Shoreditch”. No, Gavin, it wasn’t, and if you’d bothered even to Google “Ralph Harwood Shoreditch porter” you’d have found the very first link is my debunking of that myth from 2007. George Hodgson isn’t actually called by Smith the inventor of India Pale Ale, which makes a change, but he calls him “an early proponent of pale ales, which in character were light, sparkling and heavily hopped ” – showing he has read nothing about how ale, in the 18th century, still meant a lightly hopped beer – and how these pale ales were “ideal for consumption in the warmer climes of the British Empire, leading to a vigorous export trade”. Gavin – you’re making that up. Porter, as I and Ron have shown, was exported in greater quantities to India than pale ale was, and in any case the overseas beer trade in the late 18th/early 19th centuries was really pretty small. He also clams that after Hodgson “began to send its pale ales to India in 1790″ – the firm never sent the beer, it was bought by independent exporters, that is, the captains and officers of the East Indiamen sailing ships – “the generic title India Pale Ale, or IPA, was soon in circulation” – well, only if “soon” means “40 years later”.

Other stupidities include a picture of the Meux brewery at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road captioned “Messers Meux’s brewery in Liquor-Pond Street, Clerkenwell” – a completely different brewery, Meux Reid, later Reid & Co, in a completely different place; and a picture of the Fighting Cocks, St Albans with the claim that it “has a strong claim to the title of the oldest public house in England”. Actually, it has a shockingly poor claim to that title, being almost certainly no older as a pub than 1600. But that’s the standard of histocical enquiry you can expect in this book. In fact, despite the title, the “history” part only takes up 44 out of 153 pages, which the rest of the book padded out with chapters on “The Art of Brewing”, “Great Brewing Nations”, “Beer and Food”, “Beer and Culture”, “Cooking with Beer” and “Great Beer Brands”. That last chapter kicks off with Amstel, which tells you just how rigorously quality control was applied to the choice of brews listed. In all, Beer: A Global History is definitely one to avoid.

Mikkeller's Book of Beer cover

Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, written by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Pernille Pang, published in English 2015 by Jacqui Small LLP, £20

The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies

Casks at the Fraserburgh breweryThere 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.

While their fan base is clearly considerable, and happy to hand over lots of its cash, you certainly won’t search long to find vicious criticism of BrewDog on the web: “BrewDog are horrible marketing-type suit people who make terrible beer”; “a lot of juvenile rhetoric, devious marketing stunts and grotesquely cynical ‘punk’ references”; “There’s absolutely nothing ‘punk’ about Brewdog. We’re sick and tired of their shit marketing and faux-persecution complex … their beer is total shite.”; “shallow, arrogant hyperbolic fuckwits”; “Next to a genuinely class brewery like Beavertown or The Kernel, BrewDog are an embarrassment … Punk IPA – a truly dreadful beer … they’re a successful marketing company who happen to use beer labels as their medium, rather than a genuine craft brewery” – you’re getting the picture.

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

BrewDog couldn’t be more wrong in wanting an ‘official’ definition of craft beer

Ancient Order of Frothblowers“Never be afraid to be controversial” is less a statement of policy and more like a reason for living, as far as the BrewDog guys are concerned. Last week James Watt, the brewery’s co-founder, put up on his blog an impassioned argument putting the case for an “official” definition of craft beer to be adopted in the UK. Below is my response, published originally over at the day job, showing how he’s completely wrong.

I won’t yield to anybody in my admiration for James Watt’s abilities as a guerrilla marketeer. He and Martin Dickie, co-founders of Brewdog, have skillfully turned a small independent brewery in – with the greatest respect to the people of North Aberdeenshire – the rear end of nowhere into one of the leaders of the small independent brewery sector in the UK. They now have a reputation among many beer drinkers as perhaps the most iconoclastic, “edgy” brewers in the country, a growing empire of their own bars around the UK, and a presence on the shelves of leading supermarkets and in any “craft beer” bar worthy of that name. From last month the pair even have their own TV show, Brew Dogs, on the Esquire cable TV network in the United States, where they travel across America, visiting bars and breweries and creating “locally inspired” beers. Fantastic. And yet, Watt’s latest campaign, to try to get an “official”, “industry recognised” definition of “craft beer”, to “protect the fledgling craft beer movement in the UK and in Europe” and also to “protect and inform the customer”, suggests to me he doesn’t actually understand the business environment he is working in as well as he thinks he does. What is more, his arguments for the need for an “official” definition of craft beer are entirely nonsensical and totally evidence-free.

Watt says the reason a proper definition of “craft beer”, “to be recognised by both CAMRA and SIBA and also at a European level by the Brewers of Europe Association” is required is because of “three words – Blue Fucking Moon”. Just like many small brewers in the US, he is clearly annoyed that Molson Coors’ Belgian-style wheat beer comes in packaging that could pass as a product from a much smaller operator, and does not declare itself in huge type to be made by one of the giants of the American beer market. He quotes approvingly Greg Koch of Stone Brewing in California, who also wants to define “craft beer” as something in opposition to “the industrialised notion of beer” that has been “preying on the populace for decades”. Unfortunately it’s not clear if Koch, or Watt, are really interested in “saving” the drinking public from “industrialised” beer, or protecting their own sales from a much bigger rival.

Watt insists that the British craft beer movement is being held back because of the lack of an official definition of craft beer, and “the US craft beer movement has only been able to grow as it has because of the US Brewers’ Association’s official and accepted definition of craft beer.” Naturally, Watt fails to give any evidence for these assertions, because there isn’t any. They’re total nonsense. Good grief, the definition Watt points to only came into existence eight years ago, in 2005, when the Brewers’ Association was formed of a merger between two other industry organisations and the combined membership decided to rig the rules so that the “big guys” would be excluded from their club. Nobody ever said before 2005: “I’m thinking of trying Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, but without an official and accepted definition of craft beer, I’m really not able to.” The boom in the US craft beer scene over the past 30 years has not been because anybody came up with a definition of “craft beer” and suddenly “craft beer” was able to take off: but because a wave of new producers dedicated to making small-batch, artisanal, flavourful beers met a wave of consumers happy to drink those sorts of beer.

This mistaken idea that consumer movements can only prosper when they have “official” guidelines to channel their enthusiasm leads Watt to assert that while “we want retail stores, bars, restaurants and hotels all to have a craft beer section in their offering,” it is “almost impossible to get them to commit to this without being able to offer them an official definition of what craft beer is.” More evidence-free nonsense. I don’t believe that any supermarket, any bar owner, any restaurant ever said to any small brewer: “I’d like to stock your beers, but without a definition of craft beer I’m just not able to do so.” Watt also declares: “What we don’t want, is for them to a create a craft beer section in their shop or menu only for this to be carpet-bombed by beers that are not craft.” What’s the matter, James – afraid that if a bar is selling Blue Moon alongside 5am Saint your beer will do badly?

The truth is not just that trying to define craft beer is impossible anyway. Watt suggests that the definition should be a completely circular one, that “craft beer is a beer brewed by a craft brewer at a craft brewery”, with the argument then devolving onto what a “craft brewer” and a “craft brewery” are – but his idea that the Campaign for Real Ale, an organisation Brewdog regularly chooses to battle with, would back any definition of “craft beer” Brewdog and SIBA might come up with is another nonsense.

The real point is that, despite Watt’s fantasy, any “official” definition of craft beer, will have little to no impact on the marketplace. Those operators who might be defined as “craft beer brewers” and “craft beer retailers” seem to be doing very well in the UK without any official definition of what they are making and selling – and in any case the UK’s small brewery movement seems to me to be well beyond the “fledgling” status Watt is trying to claim for it. If Brewdog is trying to trip up the likes of Sharp’s – now owned by Coors and thus, under the definition that Watt would like to see made “official”, not a maker of “craft beer” any more – Watt really needs to realise that getting craft beer “properly” defined will make no difference at all to the amount of Doom Bar being sold across British bar tops. Overwhelmingly the beer-drinking public, in Britain, in the US and elsewhere around the world, care nothing for “official” definitions of what they are drinking: that goes for the minority who are “craft beer” drinkers, and, of course, the vast majority who prefer those beers Watt and Koch define as “the industrialised notion of beer”, and wouldn’t drink a craft beer if you gave it do them free, no matter what category you said it was in.

Over to you …

Craft beer growth ‘scaring’ big brewers? I don’t think so …

In your dreams, guys …

James Watt, who has a PhD in self-promotion from the University of BrewDog, has just issued a press release revealing impressive growth figures for the Aberdeenshire brewery, and declaring at the same time that the “UK craft beer revolution” (whatever that is) is “scaring” the country’s beer giants into trying to buy themselves a slice of the artisanal brewing action.

Molson Coors buying Sharp’s brewery “is an act of panic, not commercial nous”, according to Watt. BrewDog’s 230 per cent sales rise in 2010 compared to 2009 reflects, Watt says, “a tectonic shift in the mindset of British beer drinkers”, and according to him the Canadian-American giant, brewer of Carling in the UK, “can see the change is coming and recognition that the market is shifting … they, along with every other mainstream brewery, are shaking in their boots. Companies that sell beer through sales offers, discounts and marketing gimmicks alone are just not sustainable any longer because the craft beer revolution is redefining the expectations of UK beer drinkers.”

Um – I don’t think so. Really. I wish it were all just as James says: I’m delighted to see BrewDog doing so well, and it would be fantastic to see an army of Carling drinkers pour their over-promoted lager down the sink, turning instead to BrewDog’s Punk IPA. (Incidentally, for the man who brought us a 55 per cent abv beer sold in bottles inserted into stuffed roadkill to talk about “marketing gimmicks” smacks of the pot calling the washing machine black …) But that ain’t going to happen.

Continue reading

BrewDog Atlantic IPA: is it worth it?

It’s apparently fashionable now to be sticking one’s boots into BrewDog, since the Aberdeenshire duo revealed they had reported themselves to the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, just to get the publicity. I’m always happy to join in a fight if the other side is outnumbered, so let’s have a go at them for gross historical inaccuracy over the publicity for their Atlantic IPA.

Unless you’ve been stuck in a dark bar with no internet access for the past year, you’ll know this is the brew BrewDog poured into casks and then left on a trawler sailing the North Atlantic for two months, in an attempt to replicate what happened to the original IPAs as they travelled by sea from Britain to Bombay or Calcutta.

This, BrewDog proclaimed, would be “the first IPA aged in oak casks at sea for 200 years!” Oh, really? What were Bass, Allsopp, Hodgson and the rest doing in the 19th century, shipping chopped liver out East? I don’t know when brewers in Britain stopped sending beer in casks to India to be bottled (and neither do BrewDog) but it was certainly still happening not much more than a century ago. Here’s Cornelius O’Sullivan, head brewer at Bass, one of the great Burton export pale ale brewers, giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in 1899:

“Do you export beer in the cask to places like India?”
C O’S: “Yes.”
“Which do you do most of exporting in cask or in bottle?”
C O’S: “We sell no beer in bottle. We export a considerable quantity of bulk beer in cask to India and also to Australia and America, not so much to Australia now but still what we send we export in cask. A large quantity of our beer is bottled by exporters and exported: we sell them the beer and they bottle it and export it.”
“Your beer goes out to India in casks?”
C O’S: “Yes.”

So Atlantic IPA is certainly not, as BrewDog claim, “the first commercially available, genuine sea-aged IPA in two centuries” – very far from it. Nor can they have used “a 210-year-old recipe of a traditional India Pale Ale”, since there was no such thing as India Pale Ale in 1799: the name India Pale Ale did not come into use for another 30-something years, and what brewers were exporting at the time to India was almost certainly a standard strongly hopped stock bitter beer. Nor is it true to say that “India Pale Ale was born when brewers realised that together, hops and alcohol act as a natural preservative ensuring that the beer could withstand the voyage and arrive in good condition” – brewers had known about the preserving effects of alcohol and hops for centuries before IPA, and beers were being transported around the world from the earliest years of European exploration.

Continue reading

Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

I just caught up with BBC 4’s Food Programme from last Sunday, which was about the British hop industry, and as a side issue, IPA in a couple or so of its current incarnations – there are just two days left before it disappears from the BBC website, so if you’re quick, and you’ve got RealPlayer or similar installed on your computer, you can catch it here (oh, and you have to be in the UK, or be able to fool the BBC’s website that you’re in the UK, or it won’t let you listen – sorry.)

Anyway, I though it was a fair treatment of the subject, with a quick scamper through what hops do for beer (flavouring and preserving – but you knew that), and interviews “in the field” with David Holmes, head brewer at Shepherd Neame; Tony Redsell, a Kentish hop grower; and Dr Peter Darby of the National Hop Collection at Queen Court Farm, near Faversham, who talked about the more than 300 different oils found in hops, and the different flavours that, singly and in combination, they bring to beer, from mint to passion fruit.

Back in the studio, the presenter, Sheila Dillon, talked to Roger Protz, and to Martin Dickie, brewer and co-owner of Brewdog Brewery. In a quick tasting, bottles were opened of Brewdog’s Punk IPA, made with Chinook and Ahtanum hops from the US and Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, and Atlantic IPA (which spent two months in cask on a fishing boat being rocked by North Atlantic waves and will cost you £10 a bottle), and, for contrast, Meantime Brewery’s IPA, flavoured with nothing but finest English Fuggles and Goldings. It was excellent to hear Sheila Dillon saying “Wow, that’s good!” as she tried the Punk IPA, and expressing surprise that, at 65 or 70 units of bitterness, twice as much (at least) as, say, a best bitter, it didn’t pucker your mouth, as Roger and Martin explained that this was because the bitterness was balanced by the alcohol, at 6.5 per cent by volume. Continue reading

The XXX factor

The name of the Hilton London Tower Bridge is a triumph of marketing over geographical accuracy, since it’s actually far, far closer to London Bridge, in the More London development, about a minute from London Bridge station and easily 12 to 15 minutes or more by foot from the more iconic Gothic bascule job down-river that narrowly missed flattening Courage’s Anchor brewery when it was built in the last years of the 19th century. I hope nobody at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner on Friday believed the back of their ticket, which claimed the hotel was “a short walk” from Tower Bridge Tube station: that would have added another three or four minutes to the walk from the bridge itself.

They’d have had some appetite-sharpening exercise, though, and it’s an increasingly spectacular night-time view across the river, with the lit-up new buildings, such as the Gherkin, and the thumb-like City Hall: I’m a middle-class Londoner who, perhaps unusually, welcomes new tall buildings to the cityscape, if they’re well-designed and not boring slabs.

Similarly Tooley Street, where the “Tower Bridge” Hilton is, makes a better scene, much less gloomy, now it’s lost many of the warehouses that once dominated the thoroughfare. The hotel is an oddly shaped structure, and the interior looked blandly corporate. But the grub’s good, on the evidence of the food served at the Guild’s dinner: respect to Brian Turner, who was in charge of the kitchens for the previous two BGBW bashes, but this was, taking all the dishes into the scoring, perhaps the best meal I’ve had at the annual BGBW awards in the dozen or so years I’ve been attending.

Continue reading