My local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?
My life is far too deadline-driven. Fortunately the unexpected is always to be expected. On Saturday Jay Brooks, one of California’s top beer writers and beer bloggers, booted my schedule off course with an email saying he was flying in to London, arriving early Monday morning, and catching a train up to the Midlands in the afternoon – any chance of a meet-up?
Jay is accompanying Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California, who has been invited to brew a Californian-style pale ale at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent, which will then be one of the beer available at this year’s Wetherspoon’s International Beer Festival, running at ‘spoons pubs from October 30 to November 16 (other brewers coming to the UK to brew for the festival are from Japan, Australia and Denmark, apparently).
The wrinkle or link is that Firestone is the only other brewer apart from Marston’s to use the union fermentation system, where the beer is run after primary fermentation begins into oak casks to finish fermenting. It’s an expensive set-up to construct and maintain, which is why everybody else who once used it apart from Marston’s has abandoned it. But in the many years that all the other brewers of Burton upon Trent used the union system it was reckoned, along with their gypsum-impregnated water, to be one of the prime reasons for the excellence of their pale ales. Firestone, which was founded by one of the members of the family that owns the tyre makers Firestone, is also a pale ale specialist, with a string of awards for its beers.