Why Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin is a superstar in Poland

Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. 'Opiłek' means 'metal chip'

Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. ‘Opiłek’ means ‘metal chip’

Wandering around the Festival of Good Beer outside the football stadium in Wrocław, southern Poland last weekend with the Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin, it was quickly clear I was in the presence of a genuine superstar. A stream of young Poles – mostly male, but including the occasional female – were rushing up to Simon, greeting him by name, shaking his hand warmly and asking if they could have their picture taken with him. During a break in the flood of fandom, Simon wryly told me that he wished he was half as famous back in the UK as he is in Poland. His YouTube video blog, Real Ale Craft Beer, has just under 10,000 subscribers and gets around a thousand views a day – respectable numbers. But while, clearly, many of those viewers come from the UK – after all, Simon is based in this country, and speaking in English – a surprising number come from Poland. The reason seems to be that in the past four years, Poles have developed a growing thirst for craft beer, and an equal thirst for information about the subject, and access to easily digested, enthusiastically delivered knowledge about new craft beers. That is what Simon’s beer-reviewing video website brings them, and they love it – and him.

Poland, you may be surprised to learn, is the third largest brewing nation in the EU, and looking to soon overtake the UK and move into second place. It produced around 40 million hectolitres in 2013, from 155 breweries, 96 litres per head per year, up 10.4% in four years, against 42 million hectolitres a year in the UK from 1,490 breweries, 66 litres per head per year, down 7.1% since 2009, and 94.3 million hectolitres a year in Germany, 107 litres per head per year, down 3.8% in four years, from 1,350 or so breweries.

From those figures you would be guessing that the Polish brewing scene is dominated by big concerns, and it is. SAB Miller has around 38% of the market through Kompania Piwowarska, including the Tyskie and Lech brands. Heineken has another 35% through Grupa Żywiec, and Carlsberg has 14% through its Polish subsidiary, which includes Okocim, leaving just 13% for the independent sector. But that independent sector is thriving: Tomasz Kopyra, the Polish beer blogger who invited me to the Wrocław festival (and who is even more of a superstar among Polish craft beer fans than Simon Martin – Tomasz has 50,000 followers on his own video beer blog and could not walk two yards across the festival grounds without being mobbed by people wanting selfies with him) told me that there were 500 new beers launched on the Polish market last year, a number that will certainly be exceeded by a considerable margin in 2015, when 100 new beers were launched in April this year alone.

Poland now has some 30 newly built craft breweries, and around 30 or 40 other craft brewer concerns contract-brewing their beers on the plant of older-established businesses. The beers they are brewing, just like the beers made by craft brewers elsewhere, largely reflect what is happening in the United States, with big, hugely hoppy IPAs and thumping stouts (though Poland has had a long tradition of very strong porters dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, when London brewers such as Barclay Perkins exported porter and stout to the Baltic region and local brewers were forced to compete with their own versions). Continue reading

Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump Wetherspoon’s?

The two Irish beer fans lowered their voices and spoke almost in awe. They had been looking through the windows of the new JD Wetherspoon pub in the upmarket Dublin suburb of Blackrock, due to open its doors for the first time this Tuesday. “It’s got TWELVE handpumps!”, they said. That is twice as many as any pub in the Irish Republic has ever had before – and even that pub only had four handpumps actually working at any one time. Indeed, according to one (unverified) estimate, the 12 handpumps at the new ‘Spoons, the company’s first in the Republic, will boost the total number of working handpumps in the entire country by 33 per cent.

Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump ‘Spoons? I was last in Dublin all of eight years ago, when the beer scene was still pretty dire. Since then, the country has seen a London-like explosion in the number of craft beer breweries, from a small handful to around 40 (indeed, one of the newest – N17 – actually sounds as if it ought to be in London, though it’s named after the road that runs from Galway to Sligo, and the brewery is in Tuam, rather than Tottenham).

Brew Dock Amiens Street Dublin

The bar-top line-up of craft beers at the Brew Dock in Dublin

Accompanying that has been a boom in the availability of craft beer: yes, Guinness, Budweiser and Smithwick’s are still ubiquitous, but if you’ve got the excellent Beoirfinder app, you’ve got a good chance of tracking a pub or bar with at least something more interesting on tap. And there are now bars, such as Brew Dock in Amiens Street, Dublin, near Connolly station, where the bar top has more than 20 craft keg taps, selling beers from the United States and Britain as well as Ireland.

If you can discover a working handpump anywhere, though, it’s likely to be just the one, and you could find, as I did in the Alfie Byrne bar in Dublin last Sunday, that the beer on the one handpump is almost irritatingly familiar – in this case Fuller’s London Pride. I can drink that 10 minutes’ walk from my house. Ironically, many great old Irish pubs still have a row of “policeman’s truncheon”-style handpump handles on the bartop, but they’ve not been used for 50 years. As soon as Guinness perfected the nitro-serve for draught stout, in the early 1960s, keg beer immediately replaced cask from Bantry Bay to the Derry quay, and from Galway to Dublin Town. (It was that dire situation, of course, that helped inspire them four fellas on holiday in the Republic in 1971 to form the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.) Continue reading

Hong Kong’s first ever beer festival

Beertopia at the Western Market

The Beertopia crowd around 3pm: already pretty full …

Until last weekend, Hong Kong had never seen a beer festival: not a proper one, with a choice of beers from a range of different brewers. Odd, perhaps, for the home of Asia’s oldest microbrewer, the Hong Kong brewery, still running after 16 years in Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong island. But most Hongkongers don’t seen enthusiastic about beer except as a thirst quencher or a relaxer. And yet … since 2009, Singapore has been running a hugely successful beer festival, Beerfest Asia, which attracted 30,000 people over four days last year, to try 300 beers on 40 stands. So Asian cities CAN run successful big beer festivals.

Mind, Singapore, despite having a smaller population than Hong Kong, manages to support far more micro-brewers too: seven, Beer Avocado suggests. Hong Kong still only has two, albeit one is probably the only brewery dedicated to reproducing hand-pumped British cask-style ales in the whole of Asia, the tiny Typhoon brewery, founded by an airline pilot from Devon, Pierre Cadoret, in 2009.

But among the attenders at the 2010 Beerfest Asia in Singapore was a 28-year-old Canadian called Jonathan So, whose parents had emigrated to Toronto from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Jonathan had moved to Hong Kong to work for a software company, bringing with him an appreciation for craft beer picked up while a student at Columbia University in New York. The Singapore festival impressed him deeply: “I thought, ‘How come Hong Kong doesn’t have anything like this, even a fraction of its size?”

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Fine dining. Fine wine. And, surely, fine beer

The beerysphere (it’s like a bathysphere only more pressured, sometimes) has been rocking and bobbing again with attempts to define this drink that we love. Much effort has been put into digging ditches, and insisting that everything THIS side of the ditch, defined by methods of dispense, or size of brewing plant, or attitude of brewer, or some other criterion, is OUR SORT OF THING, while everything the OTHER side of the ditch is, automatically, BEYOND THE PALE (insert your own joke about “beyond the pale ale” here).

Over on the left-hand shore of the Atlantic they’re pretty rock-solid about what they like, and how to define it: the good stuff is made by “craft brewers“, and you can tell a “craft brewer” because (1) he/she will be “small” (although the US definition of “small brewer” is still around 12,000 UK barrels A DAY, which is more than many British small brewers make in a year), while the second most important criterion is that “The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation.”

Now, I like innovation, and I’m delighted to see much more of it now that when I first started drinking beer. Hurrah for brewers who push the envelope, even if the envelope tears sometimes. But what I most want from a brewer isn’t innovation: it’s consistent excellent beer. I think I would actually give up all the innovation of the past 15 or 20 years, just to be guaranteed that the beers I found in every pub or bar I went into were of uniformly impeccable quality. So if the number one hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers isn’t top-notch product, but something else, then I suggest the wrong horse is pulling the cart.

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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.

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