Wednesday, 11 January 2017 16:05

Cask beer at a crossroads?

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MBW pic - cask filling

Tales of cask beer's demise are greatly exaggerated.

Despite the recent furore in the blogosphere, cask continues to grow. In fact, its share of the market has risen for four of the last five years and its market value has grown by 6.3 per cent over the same period.

The decision by Cloudwater - one of the most prominent names in the modern craft beer scene - to cease production of cask will make little difference to the vast majority of drinkers.

But that doesn't mean this development is insignificant. Even if it has little bearing on the here and now, it may offer an early warning sign for the long-term health of cask beer.

One thing is certain throughout all of this - cask is worth fighting for.

It is a uniquely British phenomenon and utterly integral to the beer-drinking experience in this country. It's romanticised and revered the world over and should be seen as a real point of pride.

Growing up in Manchester, this much was made clear to me from a young age.

I still remember a group of old timers berating me for supping a Stella in a spit-and-sawdust Sale boozer. Next time up at the bar, mithered into submission, I ordered a pint of Holt's Bitter and conceded that my elders did know best - on this occasion at least - and so began a lifetime passion.

However, we should not take it for granted. If cask beer is to continue growing, the industry must take heed of the current debate and not shy away from a number of key questions that have been raised as a result of it.

Two of the more significant questions appear to be:

  • Are brewers being paid a fair price for cask ale?
  • Does cask ale have a problem of perception, particularly among younger drinkers?

 

A fair price

One of the key reasons cited by Cloudwater for dropping cask production - and one mirrored by Buxton when they made the same call in 2015 - is that it simply isn't profitable enough, particularly when compared to keg or small pack.

There are many reasons for this but Cloudwater co-founder Paul Jones put his finger on one of the biggest when he said "traditional price points remain an increasingly compromising norm."

At risk of oversimplifying the matter a touch, this is the idea that price pressure linked to long-standing perceptions of cask beer means its value has been set too low.

We are witnessing a race towards the bottom, where brewers attempt to undercut one another in order to secure their share of an increasingly competitive market. Offers and discounts have become commonplace, often causing beer to be sold at a rate that appears unsustainable in the long term.

Such a situation can be seen as an inevitability in a free market, capitalist economy and once a product's value has been established by the market, it is hard to shift. But the current situation has been exacerbated by unbelievable growth in the number of breweries over recent years, with around 1,900 now fighting to sell into a decreasing number of pubs.

This is an industry where barriers to entry are low. On the one hand this is a major positive, as it means new products can be brought to market without the need for significant investment, but on the other hand it leads to a situation where hundreds of under-capitalised start-ups must fight incredibly hard to provide a sustainable living and achieve growth.

In this context who can really blame individuals for cutting prices in an attempt to gain a foothold in the trade?

It seems likely we will see a levelling out in the industry in the near future, where the number of brewery openings reaches something close to a balance with the number of closures. I would argue that, without significant and rapid growth in market share, it is a necessity given the difficulties many brewers face in even turning a small profit.

But would a reduction in numbers help to significantly relieve price pressure? It certainly wouldn't provide a lasting solution.

The idea that cask beer should be cheap appears to be more ingrained and, although consumer demand has played a role in establishing its value, the pub trade has also done much to suppress prices.

Anecdotally, many brewers attempting to price their products commensurate to the costs of production are met by resistance from publicans who insist on applying a restrictive price ceiling to cask beer, often regardless of style, strength or production methods.

And if local markets aren't tough enough, wholesale is being similarly squeezed. Reported price cuts applied to beer sold to Enterprise pubs through the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Beerflex scheme - which apparently amount to £8 per firkin since November - represent the tip of the iceberg in this respect.

While cask brewers are facing cuts, Heineken, Molson Coors and Diageo all hiked beer prices last year because their size and clout make it a whole lot easier for them to dictate terms to the trade.

Consequently, the issue at hand is much bigger than Cloudwater and not simply a case of a handful of producers attempting to force new conditions on the market because they believe their products warrant it. An increase in the cost of basic ingredients, particularly in the midst of uncertainty over the value of the Pound, is making it harder for small breweries to make required margins on anything other than the most straightforward beers.

This won't cause the death of cask but it could cause the market to become truncated, disposing of higher-end products and placing focus on a more limited pool of styles and production methods. This doesn't bode well for continued evolution and innovation, and it curtails cask beer's ability to stay flexible in adapting to changing tastes.

Could this create a risk that younger drinkers who are less well-versed in the traditions of cask beer will turn increasingly towards modern keg beer, which can provide them with greater choice and 'excitement' wrapped up in a more premium image?

At this point it's impossible to say but such questions are certainly not without foundation.

 

A problem of perception?

Within a free market economy, it isn't sufficient to simply state that brewers should receive a fair price and expect it to become so.

Market forces will largely determine price so, instead, more needs to be done to shape expectations of cask beer within the trade and among consumers.

One of the major problems is that there appears to be a leadership void within the industry.

Stateside, the Brewers Association has put in an incredible amount of effort to promote US craft beer, demonstrating an impressive commitment to education and training, while also campaigning and lobbying on behalf of its members.

Is there anything comparable in the UK? Unfortunately, feedback from brewers about the merits of SIBA appears to have become increasingly negative and there is a belief among many that the organisation does not truly have its finger on the pulse of a rapidly-changing industry.

The Beerflex scheme might help producers to reach a wider audience but it also appears to force them to accept prices that are only sustainable in the long-term if beer is cheap to produce.

As price declines, it is likely choice on the bar will follow the same path in the majority of pubs. Cask is already offered as nothing more than a tickbox exercise by too many venues and this will not change as long as price is valued over quality.

In the circumstances, it's not difficult to see why your average consumer - with limited knowledge of cask beer - might view big lager brands such as Peroni or San Miguel as more premium products. Too often, choosing cask ale is akin to taking a turn on the roulette wheel.

Is there call for the industry to do more focused work with pubs to drill home the value of cask beer and the need for good cellar standards? It certainly seems so.

But better education should be offered to brewers too, as there appears to be a severe lack of structured, technical training on offer.

With barriers to entry in the beer industry so low and training limited, many start-ups are self-taught and quality standards have become more inconsistent as a result. That's before taking into account the chancers and under-qualified opportunists who see low barriers to entry as a chance to make a quick buck. A strong industry body could make some quick gains by proactively providing help and guidance where it is deemed necessary.

On top of this, there is still a serious need for improved consumer education. And although no other organisation has done more to create a sustainable future for cask ale than CAMRA, it should share a degree of culpability here.

Even if there is a focus on beer quality at an organisational level, this doesn't seem to be filtering down to the membership clearly and consistently enough. Too much misinformation is still perpetuated and not enough work done to educate consumers about common beer flaws and what causes them. Without revisiting the beer clarity debate for the millionth time, this remains an area where there is a fatal lack of understanding but it is one of many.

As a result, CAMRA beer festivals too often do not represent the cream of cask beer and regularly provide the consumer with more reason to believe it is nothing more than a cheap, unreliable commodity.

Drawing on personal experience, I remember one occasion where I was warned off a heavily-hopped IPA ("too hazy") and a smoked beer ("you can have it but I'm not giving you your money back") but pointed towards a pale ale that I had previously discovered was loaded with acetaldehyde for no other reason than it was pin-bright and "in great nick". Clearly, such situations only serve to undermine the good work done by CAMRA.

It could also be argued that a discount culture has taken emphasis away from beer quality. I fully understand the need to make beer affordable for all but if too much value is placed on vouchers and reducing the price of a pint, doesn't this shift focus towards volume drinking rather than enjoyment of flavours? If getting pissed is your aim, there are better options than cask beer.

 

Future challenges

I don't want to labour my previous point because, to make it clear, CAMRA is not the enemy here.

But it feels as if we are close to reaching a crucial point for the long-term future of cask beer. In the past, it represented the obvious choice for the more discerning beer drinker but the explosion in keg beer among modern craft brewers could change this, and the situation will become even muddier as the multinationals pour more money into marketing their own 'craft' brands.

Now, we are starting to see the emergence of drinkers who self-identify as 'discerning', yet turn their noses up at cask. At the same time, the majority of new craft beer venues appear to be prioritising keg over cask, while modern, mainstream bars feel are ticking the indie box by devoting a couple of keg fonts to a distributor's craft brands.

The kind of beer-heavy events that target younger demographics - often incorporating independent food, crafts and music - are also focusing on keg. Even Indy Man Beer Con, seen as the flagship event for the UK's modern independent scene has gradually phased out cask over the four years since its inception.

Granted, these are largely middle-class, urban phenomena  but tastes are often forged in the UK's cities before filtering through to the regions. Just take a look at the growth in popularity of grime music among the country's youth for evidence of that.

The situation is far from grave but an adjustment in attitudes may be required to ensure the continued rude health of a British icon. It's a time for open dialogue rather than argument and entrenchment.

 

 

Footnote - a working class drink?

Throughout the current debate about the price of cask beer and its long-term economic viability, a common refrain has been the idea that, as a traditionally working class drink, it should remain affordable to all.

Although well-intentioned, this premise is somewhat flawed.

When brewers and industry figures call for a fair price for cask beer, they are not simply asking for an arbitrary increase across the board, rather a relaxation of the idea that all cask beer should come in beneath a certain price point.

Beer made using more expensive methods and ingredients should naturally cost more but there is nothing to stop products that are made more inexpensively continuing to be sold at low cost. It is the same distinction that is made between premium and basic product ranges in every supermarket across the country.

The idea that cask beer should remain cheap is a sweeping generalisation that ignores more powerful factors at play in society.

Quite simply, LIFE is more expensive and many people can't afford to pay for the absolute basics, let alone cask beer.

The burden of providing society with life's simple pleasures does not hang on the shoulders of hard-working brewers but rather our politicians.

In fact, by forcing brewers to accept less than a fair price, we are doing nothing to address social inequality. Many of those producing cask beer, particularly at the smaller end of the market, earn below the average wage and many would be considered part of society's JAM (just about managing) segment that has become such a popular topic of conversation for the Conservative Party.

In short, the solution to the problem of the poorest within our society being unable to afford basic goods will not be solved through suppression of cask ale prices.

In this sense, Steve’s comment below about beer duty provides food for thought. Britain’s regressive beer duty, which stands significantly higher than any of the other top six brewing nations across the EU, is an example of how the Government has played a leading role in making beer less affordable for all.

Proportionately, this tax hits the poorest in society hardest and means margins across the brewing industry are heavily squeezed. Unfortunately, it’s not something we’re likely to see change any time soon.

Thursday, 15 October 2015 10:54

A golden age for British beer?

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Indy Man Beer Con 2015 1

Are we currently experiencing a golden age for British beer?

It's a question that cropped up constantly during last week's Indy Man Beer Con, even forming the basis of a lively panel debate on the opening night.

And so intoxicating is the air of excitement and exuberance that surrounds the festival, it would have been easy to answer 'yes' without a moment's thought.

The resplendent beauty of Manchester's Victoria Baths and unbridled enthusiasm of the brewing community infect the brain with a potent strain of optimism that tends to overwhelm all else.

Such is the sense of carefree ebullience, at times it feels as if the world has stopped. As if nothing exists outside the warm, cosy bubble of beer and bonhomie - or, at least, nothing else matters.

But putting all that aside and applying a more level head to the question at hand, 'golden age' is overstating the situation somewhat.

It would be naive to suggest the modern British beer scene isn't completely free from flaws. The issues of price and quality standards have been covered at length elsewhere but one other challenge evident at Indy Man is the difficulty in extending the appeal of good beer beyond the white middle class - although price has been a driving factor here too.

Despite this, it is still an excellent era for drinkers and two beers at Indy Man, in particular, reaffirmed my belief in this.

Indy Man Beer Con 2015 3

Buxton Ice Cream Pale and Cloudwater Guji Sidamo coffee lager aren't typical benchmark beers but both highlight how modern, independent brewers have enriched the industry by introducing new approaches to supplement long-standing tradition.

Neither of these beers would have been commercially-produced 20 years ago - and many would still write them off as gimmicks now - but the accomplished nature in which these unique concepts were executed demonstrates the power of creativity and innovation.

It's not beer as we know it but the flavour combinations work so well, it becomes impossible to deny such experiments have a place in the beer-drinking experience.

And this is where the industry has benefited hugely in recent years.

I consider myself lucky to be able to pay less than £3 for a decent pint of bitter or mild in my local but also to find a wider range of cask at a number of more adventurous pubs in the area. I'm lucky to have easy access to a huge selection of modern styles produced by British micros but also to find the odd experiment that will push my palate outside of its comfort zone.

Not every experience will be a positive one and there's still much work to be done before the term 'golden age' applies, but the consumer is presented with greater choice than ever before.

Indy Man Beer Con highlights the advancements that have been made - and will continue to be made - as a result of the recent brewing boom, adding new layers to this country's already-rich tradition.

 Indy Man Beer Con 2015 2

Sunday, 20 September 2015 21:30

What does 'craft beer' really mean?

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Lagunitas bottles

What's in a name?

The survival of an entire industry, apparently.

Two small words have become the source of much celebration, conversation and consternation over recent years, to the point where they are now seen as crucial to safeguarding the future of British independent brewing.

Those words? Craft beer.

Up to this point, the movement for an official craft beer definition in the UK has struggled to gain any real momentum but now appears set to become a major topic for debate over the coming months and maybe even years.

The biggest single factor in this development has been the establishment of the United Craft Brewers (UCB).

Created by a handful of the biggest names from the new wave of British brewers – Beavertown, Brewdog, Camden and Magic Rock – this new industry body is due to meet for the first time this month. To justify its existence, it must quickly provide an answer to the eternal question, 'what constitutes a craft brewery?'

But can this question ever be satisfactorily answered? At the very least, the UCB seems to have set itself a complicated and thankless task.

Advocates for an official definition believe it is a necessary step in protecting modern, independent brewing from cynical exploitation by opportunists. And there's certainly an element of truth in that belief.

There has been a worrying increase in chancers who walk the walk, talk the talk and even have the full range of gaudily-designed cans, yet churn out substandard, inconsistent product.

Others have carefully cultivated the brand and sent out the press release before they've given any consideration to what they're going to brew. Yet more see beer as just another cheap consumable, paying to have it contract-brewed in order to exploit a growing market, but taking little interest in the creative process.

Big brewers too have attempted to profit from a cachet they have done nothing to cultivate and a scene they barely understand by passing off a series of questionable products as 'craft'.

The argument is that establishing a legal definition for craft beer could help to prevent devaluation of a growing industry segment by allowing only qualifying brewers to trade off the language and ethos of 'craft'.

But there's a problem. Although the phrase has become commonly understood through sheer volume of use, its meaning remains almost entirely abstract.

It isn't dependent on the use of particular ingredients and, unlike products such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), it isn't rooted in a defined region.

Nor can it meaningfully be judged by the size of the brewery. In America, the Brewers Association dictates a craft brewer must be 'small', yet the fact Boston Beer Company churned out nearly 5 million hectolitres last year for net revenue of $903 million tends to make a mockery of the situation.

But even if size and independence were used as the two main entry criteria in this country, what about the huge number of cask-focused ale brewers who could equally consider themselves 'craft'?

This has always been one of the biggest problems with any attempt to enforce a definition on these shores. Unlike the US market, where there is a relatively clear division between the craft brewers on one side and the macro lager producers on the other, the UK market contains many different shades of grey. Not to mention years of brewing history that deserves the greatest respect.

Given the lack of useful criteria, I have noticed more than one blogger claim craft beer is about 'flavour' but how can a definition be based on a largely subjective judgment, contingent on an individual's personal experience or palate? And are there not a huge number of non-craft beers that could also be considered full of flavour?

More to the point, the drive to define craft beer tends to shift focus onto external threats, while doing little to address the problems within.

Quality standards, even among many producers who care passionately about what they do, continue to fluctuate wildly. It's perhaps inevitable, given the massive increase in brewery numbers over a relatively short period of time, but there remains a significant skills shortage in the industry which threatens to stunt future growth.

Meanwhile, the price of 'craft' continues to rise, and this combination of increasing cost and uncertain quality could seriously compromise consumer trust, limiting opportunities to appeal to a wider market.

It's hard to see what difference a definition would make in this regard, given 'craft' is essentially a marketing term - and a fairly meaningless one at that.

Take a look at Lagunitas, whose owner Tony Magee repeatedly claimed that 'craft' went much deeper than beer, lending the term a strong anti-establishment tone that ran through all of his company's communications. Then, last week, he sold half of his company to Heineken, the kind of multinational brewer he had spent years railing against.

Such incidences have given rise to greater cynicism towards the term craft beer and caused a number of British microbreweries to reevaluate its usefulness. Several that I have spoken to in recent months are making a conscious decision to step away from it completely.

Frequently, this appears to be an adverse reaction to perceived snobbery associated with the phrase and over-the-top marketing that positions it as an ideological choice rather than a bar call. There is a risk that the language of craft beer is becoming a little too smug and exclusionary, preventing it from appealing to anything other than a predominantly 25 to 35-year-old, middle-class audience. Too often, an 'us against them' scenario has been created where it is pitted against other forms of beer, including Britain's rich real ale scene, rather than being presented as complementary.

As a result, many microbrewers have shunned the 'craft' tag in order to avoid being pigeon-holed.

There's also a sense that many of those at the smaller end of the scale feel they have little in common with those leading the 'craft' charge. After all, the sole trader operating from beneath a railway arch is worlds apart from Brewdog, for example, which is currently in the process of establishing a second brewery in America and boasts bars in Brazil, Japan and Scandinavia. How easily can those differing goals and objectives be aligned by a single organisation?

If the UCB is to succeed it must be careful to ensure its agenda is not dominated by its larger members. If it does that, one way in which it can have a genuine positive impact is by providing representation to an industry segment that appears to be seriously underrepresented, and sharing the expertise of its founders.

A large number of modern brewers believe existing organisations, such as CAMRA and SIBA, are not sufficiently addressing their specific needs, so have been forced to turn elsewhere for help with marketing, distribution and operational issues. An organisation with presence on a national scale could help to address the current skills shortage by providing a strong network of knowledge and support, while also campaigning on behalf of its members.

However, restricting membership to those breweries who consent to the 'craft' label might also limit the organisation's potential reach.

Can't we just agree to call it beer and leave the choice of marketing to the individual?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015 21:42

Gimmickry: the new arms race in brewing

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Beers barrel ageing

When's a beer not a beer?

When it's a triple dry-hopped pickled onion Monster Munch Berliner weisse aged in crude oil barrels?

The growth of gimmickry is possibly one of the more irritating trends in modern brewing and seems to have evolved into a desperate arms race among certain breweries dead set on staying one up by producing ever more outlandish beers.

This screwball scramble hit a new low last week when a pub in Wellington, New Zealand announced it was launching a specially-brewed stout laced with stag semen.

In the same week came a beer that tactlessly commemorated the death of more than 200,000 people in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in a rambling, confused justification from the brewer.

Both moves can easily be dismissed as marketing shock tactics but might also have greater ramifications for the modern brewing industry.

Cheap gimmicks will often deliver short-term buzz but do they also create lasting negative associations in the mind of the average drinker?

If so, there's a real risk of the phrase 'craft beer' being equated with a fly-by-night fad, a novelty act not far removed from dancing dogs on Britain's Got Talent.

Brewers at the smaller end of the market already face significant enough challenges in gaining credibility and earning consumer trust without antics like this undermining their efforts.

But it's also difficult to know where to draw the line. What can be dismissed as a gimmick and what constitutes a worthwhile experiment?

Wild Beer have carved a niche from the use of unusual ingredients and adventurous flavour combinations because their brewing skill keeps them firmly on the right side of credibility.

Similarly, I remember picking up a bottle of Aceto Balsamico from Dutch brewers Emelisse and being pleasantly surprised by how accomplished it was.

The concept was executed with such precision that it became an enjoyable curiosity - if you enjoy drinking balsamic vinegar by the glass, that is.

But when it reaches that point, is it even beer anymore?

It's certainly the kind of thing that can only be enjoyed once in a blue moon and the quest for bigger, bolder, wackier flavours has actually caused me to value simplicity far more.

By this point, I've even started to get a little fed up with strip-your-enamel IPAs and increasingly value beers that invigorate the senses without necessitating a deconstruction of different layers of flavour. Cloudwater's US Hopfenweisse and Fourpure's Dry Hop Pils stand out among recent examples due to their understated excellence, valuing balance and tradition as much as innovation.

Likewise, my favourite new brewery is Manchester's Runaway, which produces a straightforward range encompassing a pale ale, an IPA, an American brown ale and a smoked porter.

These examples suggest standing out from the crowd at all costs isn't a necessary ingredient for success or gaining recognition, even in an incredibly competitive market.

Would independent brewing be better equipped to thrive in the long-term if more newcomers focused on the basics first? And do we have a responsibility to call bullshit when brewers push their luck with cheap gimmicks?

Or should I seek a sense of humour transplant and take these things less seriously?

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Cloudwater Session IPA

A quick round-up of some of the more notable beers I drank during July...

Cloudwater Session IPA, 4.8% ABV

It might be a part of their Spring range but this is a decent summer sipper. Clean, crisp and dry, it delivers on both taste and refreshment, all at a reasonably modest 4.8% ABV.

First off, you take a punch in the nose from aromas of peach, tinned mango and zingy lime, topped off with a sprinkling of coriander and orange zest. There's more peach and almost creamy, tinned mango in the taste followed by spicy pepper, grass and a finish full of fresh orange peel.

If I have one criticism it's that it becomes a bit too limp and watery after the initial fruity burst, causing a somewhat disappointing finish after such a promising start. In that sense - and if you're into your clichés - you might call it a beer of two halves. Still, a good easy-drinker regardless.

 

First Chop Joe, 3.5% ABV

Maybe I'm just a bit stuck in my ways but I was incredibly dubious about a coffee IPA. Stouts? Yes. Porters? Of course. Pale ales? Hmmm...

Unfortunately, this didn't do enough to change my mind.

The nose is loaded with strong, freshly-ground coffee, complimented by a touch of caramel and cream and a faint background aroma of musty citrus.

A glob of caramel lands on the tongue alongside a touch of juicy tangerine but the fruit quickly scarpers when the coffee arrives, roast beans leading into a mouthful of cold coffee dotted with light orange zest.

The finish is dry, dusty and smoky - a bit like the time I shoved a handful of coffee beans in my mouth as a teenager, aiming to show off but just showing myself up. It probably does what it intended to do but just isn't my bag.

 

Kernel Citra, 7.2% ABV

It's easy to take Kernel for granted. They've been a constant on the British beer scene for so long - maintaining their tried and tested formula with little fanfare and even fewer gimmicks - that I sometimes forget they're still their.

This was a timely reminder. A beer that's every bit as good as I remember it and even verges on the iconic.

Popping the cap shoots a tropical fruit grenade up your nostrils, exploding in bursts of orange, passion fruit and mango so vivid they more closely resemble concentrate than fresh fruit. Underneath lurks dank, resinous pine.

A glob of marmalade sweetness is the first thing to land on the palate but is a brief placeholder for another parade of tropical fruit. Pineapple and passion fruit resonate with incredible clarity, while orange sherbet fizzes and tingles and resinous hops deliver a peppery buzz.

Juiciness lingers into the finish, which combines a jab of grapefruit zest bitterness with tickling floral notes.

 

Quantum Neil Delemongrasse Saison

Quantum Neil Delemongrasse Saison, 4.2% ABV

Apparently named after Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist who wrote the book Death by Black Hole. Ironically, that was the fate suffered by this beer, which was quickly poured down my throat.

The incredibly dry, crisp body makes it extremely drinkable but despite that, it remains a bit of an odd duck. I was expected to be seduced by the fragrant perfume of lemongrass but was instead assaulted by punchy spice, a mixture of cloves, black pepper and TCP.

The taste has just a touch of tartness and the sweet lemon you'd associate with sucking on a lemon drop. But that's obliterated by an arid dryness, sprinkled with hot pepper and topped with a pinch of chopped lemongrass.

It's unusual in that it feels more savoury than tart or sweet, highlighted by the almost phenolic spice that hangs in the aftertaste like the last guest at a house party who just refuses to leave.

 

Siren Bones of a Sailor Part III, 9.5% ABV

More indulgent than a bubble bath where the bubbles are champagne. Even more indulgent than a Greggs sausage and bean melt. No? Just me then?

This is an imperial porter aged in Pedro Ximenez barrels with raspberries, cacao nibs and vanilla that is every bit as good as it sounds. It also drinks far too easily - it was gone in about half the time I usually devote to comparable imperial porters or stouts.

The aroma is a thick, intoxicating mix of just-baked chocolate brownie, peppery Argentinean Malbec, sour cherries soaked in brandy and dry leathery notes.

I expected something equally dense and viscous in the mouth but was pleasantly surprised by the comparatively airy body coupled with an initial burst of tart raspberry soaring above a base of bitter dark chocolate. Almost simultaneously, it's tart, dry and earthy - coffee, sherry and cherry compote stirred in a pot and sprinkled with pepper.

It finishes with a mouth-stripping, vinous astringency that might have been slightly unpleasant were it not for the faint pulse of raspberry and dark chocolate, refusing to fade away completely.

A proper late night treat.

Es tiempo de brillar

Sinking into the spongy, shabby couch in Manchester Airport's Terminal 1, while supping on my second pint of well-kept cask Jaipur, I took a second to reflect on the state of British beer.

Just a few years previous, in this very same spot, a pint of San Miguel would have been considered a treat but now, I was left rubbing my eyes in disbelief at an offering that also included Marble Manchester Bitter and Salopian Oracle.

The industry is still frequently beset by hand-wringing and debate but we can at least be thankful for the rich choice available even in some of the most unlikely places.

As these thoughts flitted through my mind, I was immediately engulfed by a buzz of excitement about the new delights I might expect to find during my three-week honeymoon in Argentina.

The problem is, when peering at the world from within the craft beer bubble, it's easy to forget such choice isn't a given. A steadying drink was high on the list of priorities after a somewhat shambolic start to our once-in-a-lifetime trip but, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get no satisfaction.

Emerging from 23 hours of travel utterly bedraggled, bog-eyed and muzzy-headed, we were unapologetically informed our connecting flight to El Calafate had been cancelled due to a transport strike, while my wife's case had been lost somewhere in Europe.

Realising there's far worse places to be stranded than Buenos Aires, we quickly found alternative accommodation and went in search of good food and drink. But, to my horror, the first three places we stumbled into - even in the vibrant, cosmopolitan district of Palermo Soho - served nothing but Quilmes.

Palermo sign 2

Eventually, after some energetic discussion, my wife convinced me a glass of Malbec would be a better accompaniment for my braised pork shoulder anyway, somehow managing to bypass all my hardwired behavioural patterns with the skill of a master computer hacker, and this dance became a common theme of our trip.

Quilmes did the job on the warmer days, offering clean, crisp refreshment - even if it's a touch too sweet for my palate - but the usual routine would proceed as follows: I complain about the beer selection; I order a soft drink out of spite; my wife convinces me to try her wine; I realise my stubborn stance is only harming myself.

However, the lack of great beer was a curiosity, particularly in Palermo, which feels a little like a reimagining of Shoreditch, only where lush greenery intertwines with the streetside graffiti and tables litter the well-trodden pavements.

I put this strange situation to one young Porteño (Spanish for port people and the preferred label for Buenos Aires natives), who reasoned that the weather was the deciding factor, especially when comparing the Argentinean craft beer scene with the thriving one in neighbouring Brazil.

His reasoning was that the slightly colder climate is more conducive to sipping red wine or Fernet and Coke - a fairly unappealing mix of bitter, liquorice-flavoured mouthwash and mass-produced sugary pop - alongside huge plates of barbecued meat. Brazil's blazing sun, however, calls for beer, no matter the occasion.

Regardless of the reasoning, Argentineans just don't seem that fussed about finding good beer and the only places that serve the craft variant with any regularity are those restaurants that might be viewed as verging on stereotypically hipster.

A great example is Burger Joint, which serves up the Pale Ale and Scottish Red from Siete Colores alongside disgustingly indulgent, delicious food.

Despite its dingy appearance - a dim light barely illuminating the battered furniture and scrawled graffiti creeping across the tired walls - the mass of excited revellers spilling uncontrollably onto the street provided a more accurate indicator for what to expect.

And it didn't disappoint.

Although neither of the beers on offer is going to change the world, the dry, refreshing Pale Ale, which combined light tangerine with a delicate floral perfume, was ideal for washing down a juicy, pink burger loaded with bacon, cheddar and barbecue sauce. It was among the best burgers I have tried - full stop - but, unfortunately, the Scottish Red wasn't on the same level, notes of almond and bitter, roast chocolate almost imperceptible in a watery affair.

It was a similar story with another local brewery, Broeders, whose beers could be found in a smattering of places. In that case, the IPA was the best of the bunch, offering pleasant orange and grapefruit but lacking any of the oomph of its British and American counterparts.

The best beer I experienced in Buenos Aires was the Cork Brewing IPA that accompanied an obscenely good ribeye steak, jacket potato and plump sweetbreads in the recently-opened eatery La Carneceria. Punchy mango, resin and a super-dry, zesty finish provided a great counterpoint to the dense, smoky steak and peppery charcoal crust.

Food is unnaturally good wherever you go in Argentina, so finding a restaurant that also takes pride in its beer is a truly beautiful thing.

La Carniceria

Still, the closest I came to a proper beer experience was via a chance encounter.

Strolling the streets on our final night in Buenos Aires, we stumbled into Antares, which is the rarest of things in an otherwise amazing city - a bar that not only focuses on beer but brews its own.

The gleaming copper conditioning tanks lining the wall behind the bar told me everything I needed to know and within seconds a flight of four different varieties had landed in front of me.

Originating from Mar del Plata, Antares has been brewing since 1998 and I was surprised to find their Palermo outlet was one of four branches in Buenos Aires alone, with a number of others dotted across the country. Although the bulk of their beer is produced at the central brewery, apparently every outlet also brews its own, the on-site brewer being given licence to add their own individual flourishes.

It's a neat concept and certainly seems to have created a demand for craft beer, or cerveza artesenal as its known locally, because a buzz of bonhomie soon developed around us, the air full of animated chatter as scores of punters took their places.

By 10pm - still early in Argentinean terms - door staff were already turning away disappointed drinkers and putting the more determined on an hour-long waiting list for a table.

In the greater context, its popularity might seem strange but, on the other hand, it's understandable, given the lack of plentiful alternatives offering comparable choice.

The garish copper tanks, sprawling bar lined with stools and long, uniform rows of tables suggest a strong American influence - an amalgamation of Californian tap room and urbane, big city sensibilities.

Unfortunately, the beer doesn't quite meet US standards. The bitter, zesty IPA was a highlight, laced with orange and grapefruit, finished off with a touch of sticky resin and marmalade. The crisp, drinkable porter also did its job, mixing dark chocolate and a touch of raisin and blackcurrant with the bitterness of toasted nuts.

But the failings of the barleywine and imperial stout highlighted the greater failings of the Argentinean beer scene - neither delivering on the expected richness and complexity of the styles, instead feeling flat and uninspired, possibly due to the need to cater to a wider market still lacking in maturity.

After leaving Buenos Aires, it seemed my time was up. If I'd struggled finding great beer in a heaving, cosmopolitan metropolis, what chance did I stand elsewhere?

Turns out I was wrong.

Our next stop, San Carlos de Bariloche, was an oddity. Situated near the border with Chile in the shadow of the Andes, it stretches along the shore of Nahuel Huapi, a stunning glacial lake that looks like a flawless piece of sheet glass glittering beneath a gentle sun.

Bariloche lake

But this breathtaking natural beauty is juxtaposed against bizarre mimicry of Alpine kitsch. A bombardment of varnished wooden lodges, ornately carved gables and chocolate shops make the city itself feel like a Hollywood recreation of a Swiss mountain hamlet.

None of it feels real and is completely at odds with the raw, unharnessed power of the natural surroundings.

This rehashing of European culture carries through into the food and drink too. Bariloche is the one place in Argentina where wine takes a back seat in the bars, in the restaurants and in everyday life.

The multitude of brewpubs in the area are regularly full of locals meeting friends, gathering with family or breaking up the bus journey home by popping in for a pint.

It's the country's undoubted 'cerveza artesenal' capital but still seems several steps behind the scene in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the beer on offer in Bariloche is Central European in style - nobody in the city will ever be found wanting for a pilsner, kolsch or weizen - but several of the hallmarks of modern craft beer are also becoming increasingly apparent.

Berlina is an interesting case in point.

Despite being run by a German-trained brewmaster, their core range is an all-ale affair - an IPA, a Golden Ale and a Foreign Stout. All of them can be found in bottle throughout the surrounding area but pale in comparison to the keg versions available in the brewery's tap room.

Located on the main shore road leading from the city towards the beautiful Llao Llao peninsula, it's one of the best places in the area for a relaxed drink. The blend of heavy beams, battered furniture, distressed wood and wrought ironwork give it the feel of a forest outpost in the German wilds but the sound of traffic whizzing past provides a reminder you're not far from civilisation.

Taking a quiet table in the corner, I was quickly furnished with a never-ending bowl of monkey nuts and an IPA by the friendly staff. It's one of those places where the pause button is pressed the minute you walk through the door - the fast pace of life brought to a crashing halt by a sense of warmth and ease.

Hours could disappear down a black hole, helped by the beer of course.

The Foreign Stout is the pick of the bunch. Served on nitro, it's smooth and velvety, packing plenty of bitter dark chocolate, alongside a slight mineral tang and a helping of dried fruit, rounded off by a dry finish full of roasted malt, cereal and cacao.

Although the IPA won't blow any socks off, it is an incredibly easy drinker, with more of the session pale about it than a big, bold US IPA. Tart grapefruit and red orange are softened by a dab of caramel before a forceful floral character and grapefruit rind blossom in the dry, bitter finish.

My visit was only cut short when a somewhat curt phone call from my long-suffering wife reminded me of an impending dinner reservation.

Berlina beer

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Manush - even though it too looks more than a little like a German cottage.

Slap bang in the centre of the city, it's a hive of activity, a swarm of tourists and locals descending upon it nightly as they fight for one of the sought-after tables or attempt to squeeze themselves into the last space at the bar.

Luckily, we had planned ahead and were quickly whisked past the chaotic bar area and up a narrow staircase towards a spot at the back of the lively upstairs dining room, the sights quickly flooded with the sights and sounds of general merriness.

Billed as a gastropub, Manush offers the best combination of beer and food in the city and doesn't make any effort to downplay that fact. The menu is creative and varied, offering everything from meat boards and pizzas to grilled trout with beurre noisette, and most dishes are listed alongside a suggested beer pairing.

It's an approach that many English outlets could learn from, the intrinsic link between food and drink too often underestimated or just plain ignored on these shores.

When in Rome it's only right to respect the pairings, although I was a bit wary of putting curried lamb rib with the Milk Stout - it's not a duo I would have automatically lumped together.

My wife's coupling of the Pilsner alongside confit chicken with a honey mustard sauce was more straight down the line and did exactly what you'd expect, the crisp, lemony pils complimenting the flavours in the sauce, while countering its creaminess.

Meanwhile, my own reservations proved to be unfounded. The sweet, smooth stout meshed seamlessly with the mild curry sauce, creating layers of rich flavour before roasted coffee beans swooped in a dry finish to wash that weight off the palate.

The entire experience was a refreshing one, not only in the context of a country still getting to grips with craft beer but more generally too, indicative of the wider appeal of matching good food with good beer.

Perhaps it stems from Argentina's acute awareness of the power a carefully-selected drink possesses in enhancing the food it accompanies.

During our later travels through Mendoza - a lush landscape dominated by vines as far as the eye can see - a large number of restaurants made it more attractive to order wine by the glass in order to encourage diners to choose an appropriate one for each course.

Instead of forcing customers to buy by the bottle, they permanently had one eye on overall experience, always mindful of the mutually beneficial relationship between food and drink.

After a whirlwind week of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and countless delicious blends, it was almost enough to transform a hardened beer geek into an urbane wine buff. Almost.

Before jetting back home, on a sweltering final day in Buenos Aires, I made time for one final pint of Quilmes. And as I gulped down the cold, fizzy liquid like a dog at a water fountain, I realised why defection would never be an option.

Regardless of the relative quality, it is what beer does - and what it means - that makes it utterly irresistible. The ease of enjoyment and instant thirst-quenching effect of even fairly bland industrial lager is enough to envelop you in a rapidly-unfurling veil of contentment.

And looking around the bar at clusters of happy folk chattering incessantly, its role as social adhesive - even in a wine-loving country - was as clear as the water in Bariloche's glittering lakes.

Us Brits should be grateful there's barely a better place in the world to partake in a pint than our own unique land.

Republica de la Boca

La Boca

Friday, 08 August 2014 07:24

The endless grind of the craft beer hype machine

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Public Enemy Dont Believe the HypeI feel like I've let Public Enemy down.

The first time I listened to seminal album 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' as a defiant teen, stomping around my room, fist in the air, I pledged never to believe the hype.

Ten years on, I sit here racked by guilt that I've let their most fundamental lesson go unheeded.

Hype has become a colossal driving force in 'craft' beer and I've frequently been culpable of submitting hopelessly to its demands.

I've been seduced by wax-dipped wine bottles, clamoured for collaborations and once made a 30-mile round trip to a bottle shop on my lunch hour, just to get my hands on one of a limited 500-bottle run.

There have even been times when I've been scrabbling around for pennies at the end of the month yet still justified spending big on a beer out of fear that I'd somehow be missing out.

In a sense, I don't regret any of this as those special one-offs were the source of many a happy moment but I reached a turning point in the past month. And that point was craft cans.

To clarify, I don't have anything against the can itself - it's perfectly pleasant as far as beer receptacles go - but rather the PR onslaught that has surrounded its greater prevalence.

Of course, this has largely been fuelled by brewers and retailers and I don't blame them for that. They're doing their job and doing it well by generating interest, intrigue and, ultimately, sales of their beers.

But every time I log onto Twitter to see a post proclaiming 'Look at this beer, it's in cans' accompanied by a picture of cans containing beer, it makes me want to eat my own head.

The hype machine has gone into overdrive cranking out this sort of stuff on a daily basis and drinkers have happily joined the party, flooding social media with similar pictures of aluminium tins and joyous proclamations of their brilliance.

My intention isn't to piss on their parade, although admittedly I'm about to piss on their parade.

I understand the arguments. Reduced light penetration is a fairly obvious and provable benefit, while claims have also been made about decreased O2 pick-up.

But, to me, it smacks a little of the HD TV obsession.

While the majority of the population seemed to rave about the quality and clarity of the picture, in real terms it added very little to the viewing experience. In some cases the difference was barely noticeable at all and, ultimately, the quality of programming is the single most fundamental factor in the viewer's enjoyment.

When tasting cans side-by-side with bottles, I have genuinely noticed no real difference in terms of quality and consistency. The most consistently outstanding beer I have enjoyed over recent months has been Thornbridge Jaipur, which I can pick up for just over two quid in a nearby supermarket and is produced exclusively in bottles.

I have no issue with more beer being canned in the future but the current craze tends to obscure the fact that it's the quality of the brewer not the quality of the container that has the most effect on the final product.

But it's only one symptom of the hype infecting modern brewing.

People queuing round the block for Heady Topper, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Pliny the Elder, *insert name of high ABV, over-publicised US beer here* might be a clever marketing stunt on behalf of the breweries but it doesn't do much to improve perception or increase availability of craft beer.

Similarly, the recent UK release of Stone's Enjoy By sent all and sundry scrabbling towards their nearest Brewdog on the day of release. On a personal note, I still haven't tried it and won't be making a special effort to do so because the value it would add to my drinking experience over and above many more widely-available double IPAs is minimal.

Such frenzied fanboyism is a by-product of the marketing machine and causes objectivity to suffer. Drinkers are left feeling as if they can't criticise certain beers or breweries for fear of being cast adrift by the crowd, leaving nothing but constant, overwhelming positivity and platitudes.

Critical thought is crucial to the progression of any art form and we shouldn't feel bad for providing brewers with constructive criticism when they make a misstep as much as we wouldn't when providing a bad review of a film or piece of music.

Call me curmudgeonly but the modern beer scene could actually benefit from a bit more negativity and cynicism or else risk being perpetually dismissed as the realm of rabid geeks - a situation which leaves drinkers open to exploitation in the same way as unquestioning football fans are screwed by the clubs they support.

I'm not advocating torrents of abuse, rather well-reasoned, fair-minded criticism. If you have a good beer tell the world about it and if you have a bad one make a reasonable attempt to explain why.

Bigger breweries and regionals have long been fair game yet there seems to be some unspoken rule which prevents people from saying anything bad about microbreweries, even when it's merited.

British beer is possibly in better health than it's ever been but we'd be daft to think the recent boom hasn't brought with it any fresh challenges and problems.

So please, the next time you see me post gratuitous, fawning tripe on social media, feel free to direct a few stern words in my direction.

UPDATE

After reading the comments on here and getting involved in discussion on Twitter, I felt it might be helpful to clarify my thoughts a bit more.

When attempting to knit together a few different threads as evidence of a greater, over-arching theme, the clarity of the point I was trying to make possibly suffered.

To reiterate, I'm not dead against cans per se and certainly not pointing the finger at the breweries in this country who have decided to start canning their beers. Some good beer is being produced in cans and, of course, that should be a source of pride for those breweries.

It is more the reaction to the arrival of craft cans that I take issue with and the feeling (one I have, at least) that they're being portrayed as some kind of silver bullet.

The can isn't the answer to all of the issues around freshness, aroma and taste - control over brewery processes can have a far greater effect in this area, something which should not be obscured.

There is also a slight sense that cans have been blindly accepted as beneficial without due consideration given to the drawbacks. Of course, they have their positives, including a couple outlined above but other issues, such as the uncertain environmental impact, have barely been discussed.

It's been frequently claimed that cans are greener because they are easier to recycle and lighter to transport, meaning a reduced carbon footprint. However, Steve Saldana from Bexar County Brewery has done a good job of highlighting some of those issues in the comments on this blog and New Belgium have also produced a piece about the sustainability of cans and bottles that is well worth reading (thanks to Mike Bates for bringing that one to my attention).

Given all that, the immediate, enthusiastic advocacy of cans seemed to come on the back of a wave of hype rather than a careful consideration of the benefits . That unquestioning acceptance, sometimes seeming to verge on obsession, appeared indicative of a wider trend in the modern beer scene.

That trend also manifests itself through the clamour for limited-release beers, designed solely to build demand that will never be serviced, which has back-fired on some breweries Stateside if reports of Cigar City's Hunahpu release are to be believed.

Ultimately though, people should enjoy what they want, where they want from whatever vessel they want.*

*Unless it's a can.**

**I'm joking.***

***Or am I?

Friday, 28 March 2014 11:39

The supermarket ale trail

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Supermarket trolleyI'm a sucker for a bargain.

I suppose we all are to a certain extent. It's just that I'm the kind of no-mark who goes trawling the reduced aisle at the end of the day looking for beef mince that's 50p cheaper because it's turned a bit grey.

So, the 'craft' revolution hasn't been an entirely good thing for me.

As a consequence of increased interest in beer, particularly small-batch beer, the inevitable has happened. Prices have risen rapidly to reflect the significant growth in demand, making beer geekery an increasingly expensive hobby.

It's not unusual for someone to walk into a bottle shop, spend £30 of their hard-earned in a flash and walk out with less than five bottles. You could bath in Carling for that price, although I'm not entirely sure you'd want to.

There is an element of price reflecting the product. The craft boom has created a growing clamour for ever bigger and bolder beers and this will inevitably impact upon the bottom line.

IPAs are hopped to within an inch of their life, imperial stouts loaded with different malts and aged in whiskey barrels, and saisons peppered with various adjuncts.

All this comes at a cost. Ingredients are expensive, particularly for micros who are unable to benefit from greater economies of scale, so the eventual price tag must reflect the greater investment.

In the main, people will be happy to pay a premium when it's justified by the quality of the product but there is an increasing sense that a minority of bars and retailers are charging more simply because they can.

Value is becoming a bigger concern for the discerning drinker but where best to find it?

One of the most obvious options is to supplement those special purchases with 'everyday' bottles from the supermarket. Another happy consequence of the recent boom has been an increased focus on regional and microbrewed beer among the nation's retailers, so it's starting to become easier to find good beer in mainstream stores.

Personally I much prefer to buy local, but shopping in the supermarkets might also help to alleviate the availability issues suffered by those without access to a well-stocked bottle shop or off-licence.

But which of them offers the best options? And which offers the best value?

The upcoming series of blogs will look at the selection offered by each of the major players and attempt to provide a guide for where best to browse the aisles. I'll then offer a comparison against the best of my local independent bottle shops to give a rough idea of what's on offer elsewhere too.

I must caveat this by warning the recommendations will inevitably be moulded by my own tastes, although I'll try to remain as objective as possible and welcome feedback from readers.

The samples presented will also be dictated by the availability in my local supermarkets but I will attempt to remedy this by choosing the biggest of each branch, hopefully ensuring the best possible selection.

The supermarkets/shops I will look at are:

Aldi
Asda
Booths
Co-operative Food
Marks and Spencer
Morrisons
Sainsbury's
Tesco
Waitrose

In each, I will round-up the selection, recommend a top five and price up an average shopping basket, which will contain one IPA, one pale or session ale, one stout or porter, one bitter, one lager and one continental style (this broad category has been included due to the difficulty finding certain styles in some of these supermarkets and could include anything from hefeweizen to saison).

All in the name of research, as I'm sure you understand.

Friday, 07 March 2014 16:45

The British beer boom: quantity over quality?

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Pint of beerThe brewing boom continues to resonate across Britain, its force producing an unstoppable wave of positivity and promise.

New breweries are popping up on a weekly basis and 'craft' has infiltrated the mainstream consciousness - so much so that it's even become a prominent fixture in Wetherspoons.

Between 2011 and 2013, 502 microbreweries opened for business compared to just 248 during the previous three-year period, a trend that has raised genuine hope for a seismic shift in the market akin to that which has taken place in America.

This brewing fervour is matched only by the clamour for new and exciting beers from a passionate tribe of devotees, each of them desperate to try the next big thing in order to participate in the shared experience.

This perfect storm has resulted in a greater selection and variety of beer than ever before, yet the overall effect on the industry is a lot more difficult to quantify.

Diversity and choice are undoubtedly positives but it's also important to bear in mind the old adage 'quality not quantity'.

With so many nascent breweries now in operation, it's fair to say there's been a net decrease in experience throughout the brewing trade and, given the appeal of craft, there has been an increase in those keen to cash in on demand.

That's not to say the boom has been bad for beer but the current state of flux has caused quality to waver over the last couple of years.

Consequently, a new, negative vocabulary has begun to penetrate the positivity, with phrases such as 'London murky' encapsulating the perceived lack of quality control practised by some new breweries.

On the one hand, this could be seen as damaging to the reputation of small-batch beer in the wider market but, on the other, it could be viewed as an unavoidable side-effect of a huge growth in choice.

Either way, the industry as a whole must concern itself with how best to maintain recent success.

"Whether the recent boom has been a good or a bad thing for the industry depends on which perspective you look at it," says Rob Lovatt, brewmaster at Thornbridge, which has grown to become one of the biggest craft breweries in the UK since its establishment in 2005.

"It’s been good for the overall brewing industry as I think it’s shaken up the market somewhat. Beer is definitely making a revival in the UK as it did in the US. When you take a look across the pond and see the market share craft brewers have taken from big brewers, then it makes everyone up their game.

"In the last few years, regional brewers like Brains and Adnams have started to produce more interesting, American-style craft beer, which can only mean better quality and choice for the customer.

"But we need to recognise how far behind the curve we are in terms of quality when compared to the craft brewers in the States. I don't think, on the whole, the quality of craft beer in the UK is as good as it could be.

"Poor quality beer isn't good for the consumer or the industry. However, given time and investment in equipment and skill sets then things will improve. There must have been a period in the US when the craft beer wasn’t as good as it is today."

 

Old brewing kit 2The struggle to make ends meet

Yet investment isn't always easy to come by and this has perhaps been the biggest reason why certain products have hit the market before they were ready to face public scrutiny.

Given the tight margins faced by those at the nano end of the industry, there is intense pressure not to waste a drop. Even if an experiment doesn't quite go to plan, the beer might have to go to market simply to cover costs.

It is also difficult to justify investment in equipment designed to improve brewery processes, such as bottling lines, meaning many newcomers are forced to get by using only rudimentary equipment. In the circumstances, do we need to accept that more smaller operations will mean more mistakes?

Sam Smith, one third of Pressure Drop Brewing, is well aware of the difficulties faced at this end of the spectrum. The Hackney brewery has graduated from a 50-litre, single-vessel Braumeister kit to five-barrel brewery in less than two years and was named 10th best new brewery in the world in RateBeer's 2013 awards.

Although quality has evidently not been an issue for Pressure Drop, Sam believes the occasional flaw is a price worth paying for the ability to regularly discover exciting new beer.

He says, "On balance, the brewery boom has been good for the industry. All it means for beer drinkers is more choice.

"While I appreciate that quality can vary, the fact remains that nobody is forced to buy or drink anything they don’t like. People who like lambic beers are free to drink those, people who like Heineken are free to drink that, people who want a different beer every time are able to experiment as much as they please.

"For a start, most new breweries are producing tiny quantities of beer in relative terms. Also, quality is subjective and is up to the individual to decide.

"Personally I would prefer to take my chances and come across the odd flaw in beers I drink, while stumbling on great beers from time to time, than to drink the same things all the time and be assured of perfect consistency. But each to their own."

 

timothy taylor landlordA downside to improved choice?

It's impossible to argue that the growth in choice has been a bad thing for the discerning drinker but what about the potential damage to consumer confidence caused by below-par beers?

The issue becomes more complicated when it is considered the general public will be far less understanding than enthusiasts when it comes to flawed beer and lasting impressions of an entire industry could be formed on the basis of one bad experience.

Whatever criticisms are thrown at the big brewers, they are nothing if not consistent and consumers will keep returning to their products because, in the main, they know exactly what they are getting.

The same can be said of many traditional family brewers. Timothy Taylor, for example, produces a core range of five beers that rarely slip below expected standards, providing a positive example for the new breed of microbreweries of what can be achieved on a smaller scale.

Quality is key if small-batch beer is to continue stealing market share from the mainstream brands in order to expand availability and variety in a sustainable manner.

America leads the way in that respect - where craft beer is predicted to represent 15% of the entire beer market by 2020 - but Rob believes upstart British brewers would be better served focusing less on their Stateside cousins and paying more heed to native traditions, particularly in terms of dispense.

He says, "It’s what these guys are striving to produce that's the issue. Cask beer really suits breweries on a budget, as the packaging is easy and the beer is drunk extremely fresh.

"However, does the new breed of craft brewers want to make cask beer? No, they see it as boring, old school and unhip. They want to copy the Americans and make IPA, saisons, wheat beers etcetera but, unfortunately, there are limitations when trying to produce beers like this on a budget, particularly in the format they want to package the beer in.

"Often it would be better to stick to cask beer or key kegs. Work on getting the right yeast count, the CO2 level, think about the styles that suit keg dispense and, if they must bottle, make sure the customer gets it as fresh as possible.

"Oxygen is the enemy of beer, it's imperative after the initial aeration of wort that its ingress is limited as much as possible, particularly during packaging.  Decent bottling machines, capable of packaging beer with a low oxygen count, aren't cheap.

"You only have to look at the guys who are producing the best beer in the States like Lagunitas, Brooklyn, Oscar Blues, Russian River, Sierra, Firestone - they will all be packaging their beer on Krones or KHS fillers and have their DO2 levels down well below 50ppb.

"Many of the smaller, new breweries in the UK will be bottling beer by hand. This will invariably result in massively high oxygen levels and the beer will literally fall apart in weeks."

 

Pressure Drop bottlesDedicated followers of fashion

There is also a suggestion many new breweries are too fad-driven when it comes to recipe development.

In recent years, the market has been awash with saisons, yet it could be claimed that few have done justice to the style by paying respect to its history. As such, the criticism is that some brewers have attempted to jump straight into experimentation without first mastering their trade.

This is clearly an issue for the credibility of small-batch beer but the likes of Pressure Drop and fellow newcomers Siren Craft have shown how consistency can be successfully meshed with innovation to ensure quality doesn't suffer.

In Pressure Drop's case, their core range includes a pale ale, American-style IPA, a brown ale and a traditional London porter. This is supplemented by two beers that showcase the brewers' personalities a little more - a foraged herb hefeweisse and a smoked dunkelweiss, each perfected through extensive testing on a smaller kit tailor-made for that particular style.

Sam believes Pressure Drop are far from unique, however, and argues that the majority of new brewers are driven by similarly good intentions.

He says, "Most brewers I know are striving all the time to make the best beer they can and most of the people coming into this business are doing it because they want to make great beer.

"Beer drinkers are free to be as discerning as they like, or not. As a beer drinker myself I don’t have a problem with lack of quality – there are plenty of beers around that I like and plenty that I love. The beers I don’t like, I don’t buy.

"I think there is plenty of room for more growth in small-batch beer. The market share is still tiny. None of us can predict the future, but I always think the best way to judge how things are going is to take a look around.

"Is the number of people buying local or micro-brewed beer growing, or declining? Likewise are the sales of micro-breweries growing or declining? How are large corporations responding? From what I see day-to-day this is still something that is growing – how much, no one can say."

 

Education the key to progression

This kind of passion is abundantly clear in the words and actions of many upstart breweries but, at the same time, there must be a happy medium to be found between rapid expansion and maintenance of quality standards.

Perhaps the onus is on the industry itself to become more self-policing, for more experienced brewers to work with newcomers in a bid to lift overall standards and improve the reputation of small-batch beer in relation to mainstream brands.

Perhaps, also, responsibility lies with bloggers, writers and journalists - myself included - to be more critical where necessary and improve their own skills to ensure they can properly identify off-flavours such as yeast bite, diacetyl and acetaldehyde.

Ultimately, education is crucial both within the industry and the wider consumer sphere if current momentum is to be maintained in the long-term.

And in that sense, the responsibility lies with all of us to ensure proper understanding of this thing we love.

Thursday, 19 December 2013 14:24

My #12BeersOfXmas 2013

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12 Beers of Xmas 2013I reckon those guys over at the Beer O'Clock Show are a bad influence on me.*

They're the kind of mischievous, snot-nosed kids in the playground that your mum would point to as she left you at the gates, while spitting the stern warning 'don't you dare play with those terrible boys'.

Basically they've cooked up another harebrained scheme that will likely result in liver failure - the 12 Beers of Xmas.

The premise is that you choose 12 'special' beers for the festive period and review one a day between Friday, December 20 and Tuesday, December 31. My list is below and contains 12 beers I've never even tried before, so it's taken every ounce of my willpower to stash them at the back of the cupboard and forget about them until now.

I'll post each review on the specified date, so keep checking back on this site for daily updates.

I say 'bad influence' but really, they've given my life and cupboard full of beer a real sense of purpose - and probably stopped me drinking all these in one night, which can only be a good thing.

Day one - Friday, December 20 - AleSmith YuleSmith (USA, 8.5%)

Why not kick off the Christmas period with the only actual Christmas beer on my list? Happy bloody Festivus and all that.

Day two - Saturday, December 21 - Celt Ogham Ash (Wales, 10.5%)

My descent into the depths of darkness and depravity starts here, ploughing ever further into endless black until Christmas Day. Maybe that's a worrying insight into my mood at this time of year or maybe I just have a thing for dark beers at the moment. Either way, a 10.5% imperial porter is a fitting way to start the plunge.

Day three - Sunday, December 22 - Shimane Kokutou Imperial Stout (Japan, 8.5%)

I've been saving this since picking it during my trip to Japan earlier in the year but, unfortunately, it actually coincides with a pre-arranged tour around the beer sights of Macclesfield. So I apologise in advance but I am simply unable to vouch for the quality of this review.

Day four - Monday, December 23 - Rooie Dop Double Oatmeal Stout (Holland, 9.6%)

Given my stomach might be a little tender, I've gone for something that at least hints at something healthier than beer. My mum was forever telling me to eat my oatmeal so it must be good for you. The fact this is 9.6% is irrelevant, surely.

Day five - Christmas Eve - Dieu du Ciel Péché Mortel (Canada, 9.5%)

My first ever Dieu du Ciel beer represents one of the highlights on this list, unless that fat bastard doesn't come down the chimney and nick it while he's raiding my biscuit tin.

Day six - Christmas Day - Goose Island Bourbon County 2012 (USA, 15%)

The dark trail ends here with a monster of an imperial stout. Originally I had intended to join several others in reviewing Strongman on Christmas Day but my noncomformist urge kicked in and I joined a Bourbon County splinter cell led by @NateDawg27 instead.

Day seven - Boxing Day - Magic Rock Strongman (England, 12%)

Fashionably late to the party, I'll be trying Strongman a day later than everyone else. So I'll probably just copy and paste everyone else's tasting notes, put my feet up and drink.

Day eight - Friday, December 27 - Geipel Zoigl (UK, 5.4%)

After days of stupidly strong beers, I'm going to need something lighter and this recently caught my eye - an amber lager brewed by the recently established Geipel brewery. Geipel brew in Gellioedd, North Wales but are based in Didsbury, where I currently live, and claim to specialise in the production of traditional lager.

Day nine - Saturday, December 28 - Hoppin' Frog Mean Manalishi (USA, 8.2%)

Picking up the pace again, I've opted for Mean Manalishi as the only IPA on this list so it better deliver an utter hop pounding or I'm going to be very disappointed.

Day ten - Sunday, December 29 - The Lost Abbey Saint's Devotion (USA, 6.66%)

A Brett-finished version of Lost Abbey's Devotion Ale. Sounds absolutely delicious.

Day eleven - Monday, December 30 - Mont des Cats (France/Belgium, 7.6%)

 This doesn't know whether it's French or Belgian. It's brewed at Chimay with the collaboration of French trappist monks, so it's not an official trappist beer despite claims to the contrary. All I want to know is if it's any good.

Day twelve - Tuesday, December 31 - Schneider Weisse Mein Aventinus Barrique (Germany, 9.5%)

What better way to end the year than with this utterly indulgent Schneider Weisse special, a blend of Unser Aventinus and Aventinus Eisbock matured in a combination of French Oak Chardonnay, American Oak Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc barriques.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 12:27

Golden Pints 2013

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Golden Pints LogoRight, this is my first shot at the Golden Pints. Some of the answers are probably a bit long but I've always been one for needless over-elaboration. Regardless, I hope you enjoy...

Best UK Cask Beer
Sometimes a beer intertwines with a particular moment to create a harmonious union more perfect than Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. This year, that moment came at the height of the Mancunian summer, sat on the terrace at the Beagle in Chorlton with my closest friends and a pint of Cromarty Atlantic Drift. Several other Cromarty beers might seem more obviously impressive than Atlantic Drift but it's immensely drinkable and rammed with flavour despite weighing in at just 3.5%.

Best UK Keg Beer
Whittling my list down to just one proved particularly tough here. I intend to round up my full list of favourites sometime later this week on the blog but, in the meantime, Magic Rock's Salty Kiss (lime) steals all the limelight. It was a phenomenally accomplished reinterpretation of a traditional style and a thoroughly invigorating sup. A huge wave of tart, juicy lime crashes against the palate, followed by a light spray of sea salt, leaving you with a huge sour smile.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Siren Craft's Limoncello IPA takes this one, not just because it's a wonderfully innovative, left-field beer but also because it's improved each time I've tried it in bottles. Granted, it's an acquired taste but it sums up Siren's approach, displaying technical accomplishment and a commitment to innovation.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
In the end, I had two To Øl beers fighting it out for this one. I'm not always the greatest fan of the madcap Danish gypsies' approach and there has been the odd "what the fuck?" moment with their bottles. But when they get it right, they absolutely nail it and both the US Blossom wheat beer and Black Malts and Body Salts were outstanding. Black Malts just edges it, a coffee double IPA which starts with smoky, roasted malts, coffee and liquorice before a jet of grapefruit, tangerine and pine blasts away all the heavy flavours for a clean, bitter finish.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Much to my delight, bars and shops around Manchester have received a steady supply of Ska's Modus Hoperandi cans this year. It was the first beer to properly convince me of the benefit of cans and simply never misses a beat.

Best Collaboration Brew
The sense of camaraderie in British brewing is stronger than ever, so there have been a whole host of impressive collaborations this year. Bad Habit by Northern Monk and Weird Beard was a highlight of Birmingham Beer Bash and Sky Mountain Sour from Buxton and To Øl is one of the more readily drinkable sours I've tasted. But the crown goes to Cool as a Cucumber by Fyne Ales and Wild Beer - a barmy, brilliant beer that sits in a category all of its own.

Best Overall Beer
For consistency in bottle and on draught, sheer drinkability and the fact it causes my face to crease up into some kind of perma-grin, Oakham Citra defeats all comers. A modern British classic and king of single-hop beers, long may it reign.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
Magic Rock produce the most eye-catching, distinctive pump clips in the game at the moment. They've set a clear, engaging theme for the brewery and every aspect of their branding feeds into it.

Best UK Brewery
To decide this one, I created a makeshift racetrack on my balcony and set two snails loose towards the finishing line, one with a post-it note reading 'Buxton' on its shell, the other with one reading 'Magic Rock'. That's how close it's been between these two in 2013. Given the very nature of awards, I have to name just one, so it'll be Buxton - for combining consistency and innovation like no other. The brewery has only continued to improve and grow despite the loss of previous head brewer James Kemp and, with Colin Stronge now at the helm of a new 20bbl kit, an exciting future lies in wait.

Best Overseas Brewery
You simply have to marvel at Sierra Nevada's quality control. Every time you pick up one of their beers, you know what you're going to get and they do a great job of churning out top-class regulars and exciting specials. Hoptimum and Torpedo on cask were particular highlights this year.

Best New Brewery Opening
Siren Craft take the win thanks to a range of high-quality, innovative creations that includes Limoncello IPA, Half Mast, Broken Dream and Ryesing Tides. But I must also give mention to Liverpool's Mad Hatter, who will definitely be one to watch in 2014. The unique, eccentric range of beers created by Gaz Matthews certainly reflects the brewery's name.

Pub/Bar of The Year
Embarrassingly, for a mouthy, dyed-in-the wool Mancunian, my selection isn't actually from Manchester. Port Street Beer House and the Font are certainly flying the flag in God's city but my two most memorable pub trips were both to the Cock Tavern in Hackney. A great place to relax and while away an afternoon working your way through the selection of cask and keg.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
The Buxton Tap House is the perfect place for a beer pilgrimage, as long as you don't mind losing all your marbles. Roll in on a high, marvel at the unrivalled selection of brilliant Buxton beers and stumble out a broken man, cursing Axe Edge as you go. The food here is good too and I remain determined to try the Tsar float I saw on the menu - two scoops of quality vanilla ice cream in a glass of Tsar Imperial Stout. Mmmmm....

Beer Festival of the Year
Although I regret missing GBBF this year, Indy Man Beer Con remains the most enjoyable festival on the calendar by a country mile. Good beer, good food and good people combine to create a perfect storm - the result being a cloudy mind and thunderous headache the following day. Birmingham Beer Bash was also a very welcome new addition and promises to be even better next year.

Supermarket of the Year
The selection in Waitrose beats the rest, providing a steady supply of Jaipur, Kipling, Ghost Ship and Scarlet Macaw. A special shout-out has to go to B&M Bargains though for providing Oakham Citra at £1.79 a bottle - and it used to be even cheaper before they clocked on to the shifty beer geeks coming in daily to clear their shelves of the stuff.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Beermoth in Manchester takes some beating. Jeremy and Scott are among the most knowledgeable and helpful retailers around and always find time to chat and offer recommendations, whether you're a seasoned drinker or new to the game. I also have to mention High Peak Beer, a fantastic stall on Stockport market which boasts a stunning selection despite its diminutive size. Like the guys at Beermoth, High Peak's Corin is only too happy to share his stories and wisdom. If Cotteridge Wines was closer to home, it would have given these two a serious run for their money though - a truly amazing selection which has to be seen to be believed.

Online Retailer of the Year
I've ordered from a few this year and will continue to spread the love next year, simply because there are several excellent online retailers, each with their own strengths. Beers of Europe comes out on top, however, due to its incredible selection of imports and ultra-efficient service.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
As a budding homebrewer, I've gone back to the old school this year and picked up a few classics in a bid to better my skills. John Palmer's How to Brew is an impressively straightforward and informative read for anyone looking to brew their own.

Best Beer Blog or Website
What I read often depends on my mood and I dip into a huge number of different blogs on a weekly basis but Boak and Bailey have captured my attention - and imagination - more often than anyone else. Warming historical tales, well-researched insight and the odd splash of humour make them a must-read.

Best Beer App
Craft Beer Japan, simply because it's the only one I've used this year and it came in very useful during a fantastic trip. Still haven't ventured into the murky depths of Untappd and not particularly sure I want to.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
For best use of swearing and righteous anger, it's @NateDawg27

Best Brewery Website/Social Media
I'm not a frequent visitor to brewery websites but the one I've used the most is Magic Rock's. Attractive, informative and functional, it does the job it's supposed to and also includes a voyeuristic webcam in case you want to spy on the guys at work in the brewery.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
In order to sound like a sophisticated man of culture, I'll say goats cheese with Fyne and Wild's Cool as a Cucumber. But really, the answer's a pack of Cheesy Moments with a pint of Marble Manchester Bitter.

And that's yer lot. See you for a pint in 2014.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013 10:52

The 'foolish' pursuit of good beer

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American beersA beer geek and his money are easily parted.

But does that make him a fool? I think not.

A hard-nosed accountant might shed a tear at the amount of money I have 'invested' in my favourite pastime over recent years, yet I have never spent recklessly.

So why is it that people think nothing of regularly spending upwards of £5 on a bottle of wine but similar expenditure on beer is somehow viewed as vulgar?

A piece in yesterday's Guardian by Tony Naylor got me thinking - and ranting - about the issue.

In it, he attempts to question the rising price of beer in the UK but instead patronises vast swathes of passionate beer lovers by blithely writing off high-priced, limited-edition beer as 'fool's gold'.

Now, I'm not going to dismiss his points completely out of hand.

It's probably true to say the price of a pint is rising. This is the result of numerous factors from rising duty to tightening profit margins in the pub sector, not to mention general inflation.

The 'craft' movement has also undoubtedly impacted upon prices. An increased proliferation of keg beer has, naturally, resulted in a more expensive product due to the cost of keeping the beer chilled and using disposable containers (in the case of key kegs or eco kegs).

An argument could also be made that some less scrupulous brewers use 'craft' branding to simply justify higher prices but these types are easy to recognise and avoid.

However, to claim " limited-edition beers are just the latest pernicious skirmish in a much wider battle", as Tony Naylor does in his piece, is just churlish.
This kind of thinking is forged in the snug of a 1970s boozer and taps into a prevailing belief that beer simply isn't worthy, that it's a crude, unsophisticated drink with no place in polite society.

It's a belief perhaps most evident in the restaurant trade, where wine and spirits are exalted as the perfect partners for fine food, yet beer is relegated to a footnote on the menu. I never cease to be amazed by the number of restaurants that claim to put serious thought into the quality and origin of all their ingredients, then offer a selection of mass-produced lager.

Why should beer not be regarded in the same vein as good wine or good food and why should you not expect to pay a little bit more when the brewer has invested a greater amount of time and money in its creation?

I could perhaps understand Tony's argument if there was an absolute dearth of cheaper options available but my local bar offers a huge range of bottle, cask and keg from as little as £2.50.

If you don't want to regularly drink expensive pints of keg beer then the answer's simple... don't.

Pay for a beer what you think it is worth. If you feel it's worth paying £12 for a 750ml bottle of a particular American import, pay it and enjoy the beer. If, having tried it, you don't feel you got enough bang for your buck, don't pay that much again.

It's a choice between a bottle of Hopping Frog Mean Manalishi and a bottle of Sierra Nevada Torpedo in the same way as it's a choice between Rowan's Creek and Buffalo Trace. Or, in UK terms, it's the choice between a Wild Beer Shnoodlepip and a pint of cask bitter.

The argument that producers should always aim to deliver products that deliver on both quality and price could be applied to any industry, whether it's whisky, wine, chocolate or clothing but remains fatally flawed. Small batch products are, by their very nature, more expensive but the decision to pay more is based on a perceived increase in quality.

Instead of fixating on the price of certain products at the higher end of the spectrum, celebrate the diversity.

The UK brewing industry is perhaps now more diverse and innovative than ever before and the result of that is a range of excellent beer at a range of prices, designed to meet a range of different tastes.

Personally, I am happy to meet the higher cost for ingredients and production in a particular one-off, experimental beer if it means sampling something bold and unique. I'm not being exploited, I'm making an informed decision to fork out a bit extra in the hope of receiving greater reward. Others may choose not to follow my lead but I have no problem with them deciding cask bitter offers better value for money.

This does not excuse some brewers throwing rough experiments out into the market and using the 'craft' banner simply to justify an extortionate price tag. But as long as the quality remains high, there is no reason why some should not cost more than others because all beers are not created equal.

Neither should this create a situation where beer becomes an elitist pursuit. Instead, we should see the approaches and techniques applied at the higher end of the spectrum begin to filter down throughout the industry, strengthening the commitment to innovation and standards across the board.

Ultimately, this should not be allowed to degenerate into another futile cask vs keg debate. Choice is greater than ever and that's something to enjoy rather than bemoan.

Saturday, 30 November 2013 09:31

Are fads the kiss of death for 'craft' beer?

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Beavertown Uncle Joe KvassTo mark Boak and Bailey's latest 'long reads' initiative, Beer Battered asks whether British microbrewing has been consumed by faddishness.

As a beer geek it's not uncommon to feel like the intruder at the party.

'What do you mean you've brought your own beer? They've got Staropramen in the fridge.'

'It's aged in a barrel? Why doesn't this Brett guy just drink his beer fresh?'

My intention is not to mock but instead to point out that the ways of the devoted beer hunter can often seem quite foreign to virtually everyone else on the planet.

Wild yeast strains, 20% ABV barley wines, IPAs hopped to within an inch of their life, barrel ageing - none of it makes an awful lot of sense to your average drinker.

This point was driven home during a recent visit to Port Street Beer House when a friend decided, against my advice, to order a full pint of Beavertown's Sour Stout. A third of a pint later came the inevitable question: why have they done that?

So it got me thinking, why have they done that?

It seems we've been awash with sours this summer  and this was perhaps just the latest manifestation of that trend. And that trend in itself is perhaps just the latest manifestation in a larger, overarching theme in British microbrewing.

This year it's been sours and barrel-aged beers, last year it was saisons and the year before IPAs. No matter the style, brewers have a tendency to play 'follow the leader' and a degree of faddishness has moulded the offering presented to consumers.

One starts, the others follow and the market is suddenly flooded with endless variations on the basic original style. It has resulted in the revival of numerous lesser-spotted or long-forgotten styles - even the people of Berlin seemed to have lost interest in Berliner Weisse before its 'craft' comeback - some of which might have been better off left in the vaults.

American musician Conway Twitty labelled fads "the kiss of death", adding "once the fad goes away, you go with it." But is this necessarily true and should brewers be concerned about the increased proliferation of trends in style?

 

Finding its niche

Despite Conway Twitty's advice I would argue fads aren't necessarily a bad thing but, given my friend's reaction, there is a worry that they could alienate the large majority of drinkers. Sours, in particular, are an acquired taste that have a strong tendency to split opinion and cause certain people to revile in disgust.

The 'bulldog chewing a wasp' was a common facial expression at Indy Man Beer Con when sour virgins decided the experience was more akin to sucking on an old lemon than enjoying a good sup.

Conversations overheard in the pub have occasionally described this phenomenon, explaining how it put the 'victim' off the particular brewer's beers permanently. Clearly this is a situation any producer would be keen to avoid and there is a danger of small-batch beer forever being written off as a niche product for beer obsessives.

But what's the alternative? An increased focus on a more limited range of core styles might serve to 'normalise' microbrewed beer a little more but to what end?

After all, much of it is niche and finds its strength in exactly that position. Looking at it from a brewer's perspective, Jay Krause, owner and head brewer at Quantum Brewing in Stockport, would argue fads are an unavoidable result of necessary experimentation.

He says, "Fads do indeed exist, but I don't believe that the industry is being absorbed by them. It's possible to track what's 'hot' at a given moment - IPA in 2011, saison in 2011/2012, sours in 2012/2013 and low ABV in 2013, for example - but I'd be very surprised if any of those styles made up a single brewery's total output.

"I can only really speak from my experience but my main seller is American Light, a low ABV, hoppy pale ale. Big, strange beers sell well to beer geeks but casual drinkers don't really take any notice of those kinds of beers.

"I think what is actually happening is that people - brewers and drinkers - are becoming a little more playful with their habits, be it experimenting with foreign styles, rediscovering the art of soured beer (don't forget that pretty much all beer in the UK at one point would have been riddled with Brettanomyces, especially 'stock' or 'keeping' beers), or reinterpreting ancient styles in a modern fashion.

"But don't forget that everything that is being done has really all been done before, in one form or another. Dogfish Head pioneered the reinterpretation of ancient styles in the 90s; Brendan Dobbin's West Coast Brewery in Manchester played around with single-hop beers, NZ hops, lagers and nitro stouts in a terrible part of Chorlton on Medlock in the 80s; and Harvey's in Lewes still have a cool ship and have been bretting their imperial stouts quietly out of range of beer geeks since God knows when.

"Bottom line is - experimentation is natural and good, as long as the underlying quality of the beer doesn't suffer."

 

Quantum US SaisonThere's no substitute for quality

Unfortunately, some would argue this is exactly what has happened.

Over the past few years, an incredible range of weird and wonderful one-offs have appeared in bars and bottle shops across the country, as brewers have clamoured to create their own unique takes on certain styles.

Never has choice been so rich and varied, yet it's fair to say some have not been received as positively as others. In a few isolated cases, there has even been a feeling failed experiments have been released regardless of their relative quality, justifying an expensive price tag by flying under the 'craft' banner.

The obsessive nature of your typical beer geek leaves them wide open to exploitation of this nature. Fanaticism and a desire to try - or at least be seen to try - the next big thing tends to interfere with logic when making a decision about whether to part with their hard-earned.

At the same time, small brewers must occasionally be tempted to put out the odd dubious batch, particularly as tight profit margins put them under heavy pressure to minimise waste in order to maximise efficiency.

But this is where the industry must be self-policing in order to establish clear quality standards. The onus is on brewers to ensure each and every brew passes quality control and those who don't will quickly be found out and ostracized.

"It's difficult, when first starting on the beer journey, to have enough knowledge about what actually makes a decent beer," adds Jay. "So it is tempting to start pissing about with barrel ageing, beers with different yeasts and bacteria or foreign styles without actually understanding what makes it a good beer to begin with.

"However, in short - I don't think there's much reassessing that needs doing. The breweries that are making crazy beers are the same breweries that are making delicious pale ales, milds, IPAs and dark beers. It's all good - as long as the quality is there. There's no excuse for releasing ropey beer."

 

A matter of opinion

To my mind, there are few breweries who could genuinely be accused of putting out substandard product.

Although I found Kernel's red wine barrel-aged London Sour pretty much undrinkable, there were plenty of people out there who loved the stuff. Similarly, Beavertown's Uncle Joe Russian Kvass got some appalling reviews but, questionable name aside, I enjoyed it.

As with anything of this nature, it is highly subjective. One man's disaster is another's delight and neither of the aforementioned breweries could exactly be accused of deliberately releasing poor-quality product.

In fact, quite the opposite. That pair have been responsible for some of the best British beer of the last five years and therein lies the crux of the matter - when attempting to continually push the envelope there will be plenty of Marmite moments and the odd failed experiment but these innovators are also responsible for many of the best examples of core styles too.

From a retailer's point of view, Scott Davies of independent Manchester bottle shop Beermoth, doesn't believe this has adversely impacted upon sales.

He says, "We have a lot of consumers who show enthusiasm for new products, especially the more experimental or rare ones. Filling this demand is fairly easy for most UK 'craft' breweries as they are generally small-scale, flexible operations.

"At the moment it's fair to say that there are beers being released that would have benefited from more time in development. There is financial temptation in that a one-off batch will be sold to bars, pubs and off-licenses before the reviews appear on-line but it isn't sustainable for long.

"To me, drinking the odd average/weird-in-a-bad-way beer is preferable compared to a lack of experimentation.  So, there is a built-in balance between quality control, meeting demand and incentives for pushing the boundaries.

"The alternative to accepting a few faltering efforts would be a conservative approach where we draw the line of what's acceptable in brewing and that never seems to end well."

 

Jimi HendrixA case of beer imitating art

It's difficult to disagree and music offers a good point of reference for this debate.

Without Jimi Hendrix, for example, modern music simply would not be the same. A wildly innovative and adventurous guitarist, Hendrix continually pushed the boundaries to the point where he redefined what was possible and acceptable.

But, while creating a radical and important new rock aesthetic, Hendrix also produced his fair share of 'loose' performances and suffered through plenty of bad reviews. Ditto Miles Davis or John Coltrane. When exploring the limits of what's possible, you will end up falling over the edge now and then.

All of this is acceptable as long as the motivation remains sound. None of those performers ever set out to deliver a deliberately substandard performance and, likewise, no brewer should release an obviously unfinished product. Early experiments can be conducted away from the public eye before recipes and concepts are perfected.

So, although there are certain experiments in style that perhaps shouldn't be repeated for one reason or another, they are the necessary by-product of a scenario where brewers are encouraged to step outside of their own comfort zone. Without it you don't get Magic Rock's Salty Kiss, Siren's Half Mast or virtually any Mikkeller beer and that would be a tragedy.

Quibbles over the appropriateness of a given style, as opposed to the actual quality of the product, remain largely subjective but those that work will naturally find longevity while others fade into obscurity.

Rather than representing laziness or a cynical marketing ploy, the faddishness evolves naturally from this situation. The seed of an idea starts with one brewer before taking root with a hundred more.

Such is the sense of collaboration and camaraderie in British microbrewing that it becomes easy for a wave of excitement to engulf all and sundry - and before you know it, everyone is providing their own unique take on a certain style. It's simply natural progression in an industry where the exchange of ideas and advice between so-called competitors has become commonplace.

Sure, some beers are painfully 'craft' but most are created with good intentions and if you're not keen on kvass, there's plenty more out there to tickle your fancy. 

Now, who's taking bets on 2014's style of choice?

Thursday, 24 October 2013 21:16

Leather satchels and burnt cardboard

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boot beer appleAs far as I'm concerned, Ratebeer is akin to the Daily Mail.

I don't read it regularly - and very much doubt I ever will - but now and then, for a few cheap laughs, I'll log on to trawl through the user comments.

The problem is, what starts as a light-hearted pursuit of shits and giggles quickly causes the blood pressure to rise a few notches and eventually degenerates into a full-blown rant.

I'm not lumping every Ratebeer user into the same pot here but there are a select few who really do excel in talking utter guff.

In all honesty, I'm guilty of it myself quite a lot of the time. My tasting notes can often come across as pompous, over-elaborate or downright nonsensical but I draw the line at using comparisons of things I have NEVER ACTUALLY TASTED.

Consider the following:

- Leather satchel

- The dregs of an ashtray mixed with vodka

- An old boot full of apples and beer

- Burnt cardboard dunked in bourbon

These are all genuine extracts from Ratebeer reviews, used to describe the effect a beer had on the author's palate.

Now, unless you're Stevo of Jackass fame, I highly doubt you've ever actually tasted any of the above. And if you have, I'd seriously consider consulting a nutritionist to highlight where you might be going wrong when it comes to shaping a healthy, balanced diet.

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I thought tasting notes were supposed to act as a guide for people who have yet to sample a given beer and are seeking guidance on whether they should try it in the future.

As such, these reviews should aim to provide examples of sensory experiences the reader can relate to, rather than abstract concepts that are too clever by half. The latter will only serve to baffle and alienate new drinkers, furthering the 'us and them' perception that divides those who demand high standards in the beer they drink and those who are more inclined to drink whatever is available.

More worryingly, if we're all talking about aged leather jackets smothered in caramel and stewed in whisky, the general public are more likely to give credence to the words of this man:

Friday, 16 August 2013 08:29

The devil's work is never done

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tickety-brew-01

So, just as the microbrewing industry fends off one wave of bullshit from the world of corporate idiocyanother tsunami heads straight for it.

Redwell Brewery secured a notable victory this week by forcing Red Bull to back down over claims of trademark infringement, including bullying attempts to force a name change, but now Manchester brewer Tickety Brew is under threat.

Apparently, Halewood are less than happy with the company's name, as they feel it clashes with a particular phrase used to market their foul-tasting alcoholic ginger beer, Crabbie's.

It seems 'tickety boo' has been trademarked by Halewood for use in relation to alcoholic beverages, so they believe Tickety Brew's choice of name will cause confusion among consumers and damage to their brand.

The argument being employed is almost identical to that used by Red Bull and equally absurd.

First of all, 'tickety boo' is not even the product's brand name and a quick scan of the Crabbie's website shows no mention of it at all, certainly not in any prominent position.

I vaguely remember hearing it in a couple of TV and radio advertising spots but only fleetingly, as part of the overall 1950s theme running through their advertising. But if anyone is at all confused about the name of their product, it's simple - their marketers aren't doing a good enough job.

It's called CRABBIE'S you fools! How can anyone ever confuse that with Tickety Brew - a firm that can't even afford TV or radio spots?

Secondly, Crabbie's is a brand synonymous with poor-quality RTDs. Tickety Brew is a Manchester microbrewery producing three core beers, a pale ale, a blonde and a dubbel. Where is the potential clash?

When would anyone ever walk into a shop, see Tickety Brew's beers - clearly branded with their distinctive ticket-style labels - and pick them up thinking they were buying a CRABBIE'S. Please give the consumer credit for even a modicum of intelligence.

Finally, how can a phrase in such common usage could ever be trademarked? I know this gripe is less with Halewood and more with the whole concept of trademarks but I'm left baffled by the entire scenario.

Corporations should not be allowed to lay claim to vast swathes of the English language and neither should their bullying behaviour be tolerated.

Tickety Brew is clearly not a threat to Crabbie's, that much is very clear. Hopefully, if we point this out loudly and clearly enough, common sense will prevail.

Make your feelings clear to Crabbies on Twitter or via their website.

 

Update: Halewood have released a statement to Mancunian Matters regarding their dispute with Tickety Brew.

The drinks giant confirms its lawyers made contact with TicketyBrew but claims it has not threatened them with legal action nor does it believe its trademark is being infringed.

Despite this, there still does not appear to be confirmation that Tickety Brew will be allowed to continue trading under its current name.

The statement reads: "On July 11, Halewood International's trade mark attorney contacted Ticketybrew to discuss the trade mark application and notify them of Halewood's similar mark 'Tickety Boo' which was registered in 2012 in relation to alcoholic beverages.

"Halewood International has never told Ticketybrew to stop trading, we have not imposed deadlines, we have never claimed that our Tickety Boo trade mark is being infringed and neither have we threatened court action.

"It is not in our nature to apply pressure to small businesses which is why we tried to open amicable discussions by telephone rather than in writing. We are disappointed that misinformation has been provided surrounding this."

Wednesday, 14 August 2013 12:09

A steaming pile of Red Bullshit

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redwell32When was the last time you walked into a bar and asked for a Jägerbomb, only to be served a shot of Jäger sitting at the bottom of a pint of craft pilsner?

You haven't? OK, let me put this another way.

When you asked a helpful assistant in your local supermarket if they served Red Bull, were you instead handed a bottle of IPA from Norwich?

You weren't? OK, now I'm thoroughly confused.

But the friendly folk over at Red Bull - you know, the colossal corporation that specialises in disgusting loopy juice and painfully cool marketing stunts - claim Norwich brewers Redwell have chosen a brand that infringes upon their own. The result will apparently be a situation where 'the consumer will thus be confused as to the origin of the services.'

I invite you, at this point to take a look at the picture on the right and make your own decision as to whether Redwell's beers would throw you into a state of unavoidable confusion, unsure about whether you're about to buy a beer or an energy drink.

Yet this is the exact situation Red Bull are claiming will happen. Of course, it's bloody absurd and another ridiculous example of a huge corporate body attempting to assert its will over a smaller organisation - following hot on the heels of AB-InBev's attempt to force London microbrewery Belleville into a name-change.

The stand-off came about after Redwell applied for a trademark on their own name, only to receive a nasty letter from the lawyers at Red Bull. Brand enforcement manager (a title plucked straight from the pages of Orwell's 1984) Hansjorg Jeserznik is quoted in today's Eastern Daily Press as saying Redwell's application "comprises Red Bull's earlier trademark 'red' as a whole, which is a prima facie for the similarity of signs. Moreover, all trademarks consist solely of English words and contain the common element 'red'. The term 'well' is merely descriptive and therefore of no distinctive character at all."

Whoa, whoa, whoa! So Red Bull own the word 'red' now? I wonder what the Red Cross will make of that. Or Mick Hucknall for that matter.

Why should we allow these corporate bullies to lay claim to vast swathes of the English language?

I thank fellow blogger Nate Dawg over at Booze, Beats & Bites for alerting me to the issue. Follow him on Twitter to catch up with what's been going on so far.

In the meantime, i would urge you to boycott Red Bull's products and let them know, in no uncertain terms, what you think about this heinous act of intimidation. Bombard them on Twitter, Facebook or contact them via their website. Let them know consumers will not tolerate this kind of nonsense.

Power to the people!

Friday, 07 June 2013 07:46

It's the quality, stupid

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I recently decided not to renew my CAMRA membership.

It's not that I have any major beef with them - or that I particularly want to make some kind of dramatic statement - but I'm just not sure how closely their stated goals mirror my own thoughts.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate their hard work in supporting pubs, breweries and drinkers. They have invested a lot of time and money lobbying on behalf of landlords and brewers and I find it reassuring not everyone is happy to settle for bland, mass-produced piss in their pint glass.

The problem is, arbitrary judgements on quality just don't work.

CAMRA says ale is 'real' as long as it is conditioned in a cask. It could give off the aroma of an old jock strap and taste like a sweaty sock but if it comes from a cask, it's 'real'.

My tone may seem slightly churlish but the point is that cask or bottle conditioning does not guarantee quality - far from it.

I've sampled so many uninspired, tasteless and downright awful real ales that the CAMRA stamp of approval has lost any of its intended meaning.

Extending this further, many of the best beers I've found over the past two years have, in fact, come from a keg. Five years ago craft keg beer simply did not exist but now brewers like Brew Dog, Kernel, Thornbridge, Magic Rock and Summer Wine are responsible for a whole host of stunning keg beers, which frequently taste better than their cask counterparts on the occasions when they're brewed for both.

The industry has been shaken up by a daring group of new brewers who are concerned by nothing more than the quality of their beer. It doesn't matter what vessel it is presented in as long as it is made with care and designed for the enjoyment of the drinker.

Quality is, by its very nature, subjective so I refuse to let anyone tell me keg beers are any less 'real'. As the craft beer industry grows and changes, there really is no room for unhelpful tags, which can be extremely misleading for less seasoned beer drinkers.

Instead, it is up to anyone with a passion for good beer to help advise and educate. Word of mouth is much more useful than a label when helping a drinker to decide so it is encouraging to see places like Port Street Beer House and High Peak Beer Co do their best to help customers make informed decisions.

There is also room for more events, like Indy Man Beer Con, which take the beer festival one step further - detaching it from the old stereotypes of stuffy, smelly gatherings of bearded men to a new reality, which attempts to entertain and educate the new audience gravitating towards craft beer.

The emergence of the Campaign for Really Good Beer (CAMRGB) has also been heartening and although it has been criticised for a lack of focus, that's only because the promotion of good beer is less about making definitive statements and more about helping people to find their own way.

Granted, it then becomes difficult to properly define what 'real' beer is but the point is to embrace variety and support independent pubs, retail outlets and brewers by educating the public about the available choices beyond the obvious. The point is certainly not to eliminate large sections of the market through narrow definitions.

In that sense, we can all play our part by spreading the word within our own circles of influence and supporting those who deserve it.

The revolution starts at home.