Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Golden Pints; Innit

My twopence worth....

I am going to retain some credibility and not include any Black Isle beers, otherwise Black Stout would win everything....

Best UK draught (Cask or Keg) beer:
Winner: Durham White Stout
Runner Up: BrewDog Mr Squirrel

Best UK bottle or canned beer
Winner: The Kernel Double Black
Runner Up: Thornbridge Raven

Best Overseas bottle or canned beer
Winner: A Vintage Cantillon, around 30 yrs old and covered in bird shit
Runner Up:  Struisse Black Damnation Mocha Bomb

Best Overseas Draught beer
Winner: The Black Rooster Imperial Stout aged in oak and Islay
Runner Up: St Eriks whisky aged Porter

Best Overall beer
Winner: BrewDog 5am Saint (awesome in any format)
Runner Up: Thornbridge Raven (again.....)

Best Pump Clip or label
Winner: Magic Rock/Dark Star - Rock Star
Runner Up: Summer Wine Brewery Cohort

Best UK brewery
Winner: The Kernel
Runner Up: Summer Wine Brewery

Best Overseas Brewery
Winner: De Struisse
Runner Up: Cantillon

Pub/Bar of the Year
Winner: BrewDog (pick one)
Runner Up: Caley Sample Rooms (Edinburgh)

Beer Festival of the Year
Winner: Stockholm
Runner Up: Stockbridge Taps festival in Sept. Awesome selection

Supermarket of the Year
This is an oxymoron

Independent retailer of the year
Winner: Vino Wines
Runner Up: Cornelius Beer and Wine

Online retialer of the year
Winner: BrewDog......just kidding. My Brewery Tap
Runner Up: Dunno, don't buy beer from anyone else

Best Website
Winner: BrewDog
Runner Up: Anchors new one is nice

Best beer twitterer
Winner: Simon Johnson
Runner Up: Zak Avery

In 2012 I'd most like to
Knob Kelly Rowland, but as that's highly unlikely, how about brew a decent beer with Bruce and manage not to die in the half Iron Man

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Kernel: UK's best brewery?

Whilst deep in beer discussion earlier in the week I was asked which brewery was my favourite. I felt like a catholic mother being asked which of her 13 sons she prefered. How do you choose?

I went away and thought about it over a period of a few days and realised that I don't have a 'favourite' brewery. I have favourite beers, but not a favourite brewery. I did come to the conclusion that if I had a favourite brewery it would be a British one. I love Cantillon, Great Divide, Dechutes, Struisse and Avery but I'll always be more excited about a new beer from a top British micro. May be I'm a little bit patriotic after all.

The answer to 'what is your favourite beer' is fairly simple, because I'm sure we all have favourite examples of certain styles. My favourite pale ale is Goldeneye for example. Yes I know the company I work for makes it, but this is the beer that made me think 'I want to work for them'. It's a pale ale, but very different from any other. I love the uniqueness of the flavour.

Other favourites are Hawkshead Windermere Pale Ale, Lovibonds 69IPA, Dark Star Carafa Jade, The Kernel Imperial Stout, Stone Sublimely Self Righteous Ale, BrewDog Tokyo, Green jack Baltic Trader, Old Chimneys Good King Henry, Cantillon Rose De Gambrinus etc etc.

So i thought that if I don't have a 'favourite brewery', what do I consider to be the 'the UK's best brewery'? It's a subjective adjective in that context, 'best' meaning what? May be Green King? Their IPA is the top cask seller in the UK, that makes them the best, right? May be Carling, who in 2009 sold 4.1 billion pints in the UK, they are surely the 'best' brewery as they sell more beer than any other in the UK? Is it John Smiths? No, it's not.

The answer came to me whilst drinking 3 bottles of The Kernel. It's The Kernel.

I have recently had conversations with other beer folk regarding The Kernel and I've been parly to some interesting comments, such as; 'It's not difficult to produce one off beers', 'it's not hard to make a good high abv beer', 'it's actually quite easy to make a beer like this'. My tongue is usually bitten, because my automatic response is to try to blurt out 'well you fucking do it then'.

I am not a brewer, so may be these comments are perfectly valid. My reasoning for thinking that these comments are invalid is that if it's so easy to make great one off beers, how do the vast majority of brewers fail. I suspect because it's not that easy. It marries well with the equally invalid arguement that it's easy to brew great beer if you never make the same beer twice. something else I've heard several times. My suggestion is that may be it's easy to brew great beer if you're a great brewer with great idea's. I rather think that has an awful lot to do with it.

The criticism is all born out of a little envy of course, and that's no bad thing really. It's more satisfying to pick holes in people doing great things rather than admit that they are just better at what you do than you are.

Anyway, why do i think The Kernel are the UK's best brewery? Wow factor *. Not every beer has it, but the ratio of 'wow' beers to the 'meh' beers is far greater than any other brewery I have tried.  I have said in the past that above about 6.7% The Kernel are in a league of their own, but below that abv threshold the beers lack the impact. In my opinion at least. Plenty disagree, but as I rarely see let alone drink a Kernel beer below 6.7% it's fairly immaterial.

We drank three last night; Black, Double Black and the Citra/Riwaka IPA. Three beers, three 'wows', with the biggest by far being reserved for the Double Black. An absolutely astounding beer.

These were added to my already considerable list of Kernel 'wows' which include the Coffee IPA, the original Black IPA, Imperial Brown Stout, something that was loaded with Galaxy and blew my face apart, Citra IPA,  Imperial Stout, and S.C.A.N.S IPA.

I am aware that I am not even close to having drunk every beer produced by The Kernel, but to provide that many wows out of may be only 15-20 beers I've tried is more than a little bit impressive.

There is a element of genius in the production of these beers. If it was easy to make beer this good everyone would be, but they aren't, so it clearly isn't.

Imagine how huge they could be with a big brewery, a consistent large volume core range AND the experimental nouse that makes them so special..... I doubt the wait to find out will be long.

*Wow is hard to define, but as I'm sure you know, when you drink a lot of different beers you get used to saying 'That's a good beer' or 'Yeah, I like that a lot' but rarely do you go 'fucking hell, that's amazing'. That's what I mean by 'wow factor', it illicits a response you never get used to.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

What the high strength beer duty actually means

Yesterday I over heard someone say 'Who cares about a tax on high strength beers, it's just a bunch of extreme brewers and beer geeks'. The multi-layered ignorance of that statement led to an outpouring of empassioned vitriol. I wasn't happy.

Was he right though, does this just affect a bunch of extreme brewers and beer geeks? No, but the effects do not just relate to personal fiscal issues  or the wider reaching economic implications either, they relate to things that are far less tangible; Expression, creativity, passion, entrepreneurship, pride, invention, personal adventure, pushing boundaries.

The financial implications are ones we can all understand. A £4 bottle of beer over 7.5% is now £5. If you buy one bottle per week, not such a big deal. If you buy 10, that figure just added £40 to your monthly outgoings. That £40 might not sound a lot, I mean £40 a month isn't much right? Well, yes it is. For folk with kids and responsiblities, that £40 is quite often spent elsewhere already, an extra £40 for something you already buy means you start buying less, or even stop buying it. I have no responsibilities aside from a dog and I'll be buying less beer.

So we buy less high abv beer and the readers of the Daily Express who believe the man driving Diana's car was fueled by Fullers Vintage will clap loudly and feel proud that we as a nation are making a stand against the heathen beer geeks who have such a negative social impact. Of course, because we buy less high abv beer, microbrewerys make less money, because they sell less beer at high margin and then independent retailers have smaller beer choice because they can't sell it to the customer. So now we've not only impacted on the consumer, we are impacting the producer and the distributor. So the negative social externalities increase, not decrease. Not sure Mr Pigou had that in mind when he developed his taxation system....

Surely though, less people drinking high abv beers reduces the social costs brought about by the use of emergency services, public bodies like the NHS, insurance costs to repair the damage caused by rampaging drunkards? If the government had made any attempt to understand the difference between a bottle of Great Divide Yeti and Carlsberg Special Brew they might have realised that instead of solving a problem, they have actually created one.

The sad thing about this duty hike is that it is designed to combat a problem that barely exists, the negative social externalities brought about by the consumption of high strength beers. I am aware that certain elements of society consume cans of Tennents Super in parks and shout randomly at passers by. However, they are not in the park shouting at passers by BECAUSE they are drinking high strength beer, and pricing them out of high strength beer will not eliminate them from the park or change their behaviour when they start drinking supermarket value vodka instead. Treating the effects has no impact on the cause.

All those involved with microbrewing know that our industry is currently bouyant, we are bucking the global economic trend. Unfortunately we have a chancellor with a degree in modern history making economic decisions he doesn't really understand (for example, for those who don't know what 'quantitative easing' is, it's essentially a last ditch attempt to reverse a conventional financial process because you're heading into economic meltdown. Potential for failure is high and means banks could stop lending, or inflation goes through the roof - laymens terms).

I don't for a minute think this duty increase has been implemented to combat negative social externalities, and it most definitely not an example of pigouvian taxation. Those who were consulted for the Review of Alcohol Taxation were the likes of Heineken, Ab-Inbev, Molson Coors, SAB-Miller. Also, some Supermarket chains. Who has been left almost completely unaffected by this duty rise? Big breweries and supermarkets. Surprising? No.

Who has been affected by this? Small breweries (the ones who are bucking the economic trend, proving themselves to be more viable in the current climate and therefore worthy of government support) and independent retailers. The Chancellor said he was going to focus on micro-economics to get the country out of the recession, which is pretty meaningless anyway, but then makes a decision which absolutely the antithesis of that statement. Ergo, the chancellor is a gutless twat who is more interested in appeasing the lobbyists of big business (much of which is based overseas) than helping small local businesses grow enabling local economies to become bouyant and have a positive macroeconomic effect.

The very worst aspect though is this duty inhibits everything we hold dear to us in Britain. It inhibits our spirit, our passion for innovation and design, our love for striving for the best, for pushing ourselves creatively and it tells the non 'beer geeks' that high strength beers are bad, but 5% lager is good. It sends all the wrong messages to all the wrong people.

As usual, rich clueless people have made a decision which is wrong but easy, rather than making a decision that is right, but hard. Fuckwits.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Edinburgh's best bars? My favourites certainly.

Having recently been reading some drivel in the Guardian about Edinburgh's 10 best bars, one of which can be best described as a toilet, I decided to have a crack myself.

I have no idea what the criteria was when the Guardian's author wrote their top 10, however my criteria is based on quality of product. There are some very pretty bars in Edinburgh that serve utter dross, and as Sienna Miller is living proof of, being pretty doesn't make something good at what it is/does.

One proviso though is the evil of the brewery tie.There are some great bars, great places to sit and relax that I wouldn't say are great bars because they draught beer offering is shocking, through no fault of the operators. They fall in to the 'I love that place, but the beer is rubbish' category. Similarly, 'I love that place but the food is dreadful' etc etc...

My assumption is that the Guardian writer wasn't a beer geek, whisky geek or actually interested in what gets sold, more the atmosphere. Which still doesn't explain several of the choices but anyway....

So in no particular order....

Cloisters Bar, Brougham Street.
Having been managed by the same miserable git for the past 140yrs, Cloisters is still the benchmark for cask, keg and bottle offering in Edinburgh. The constantly rotating 5 cask lines bring a breadth and depth of UK beer and more recently a rotating keg line has seen more choice in that arena too. The manager, despite being bald and grumpy, actually pays attention to the changing markets and has most recently brought in beer from Old Chimneys brewery, the first time it has been sold in a Scottish bar.
You'll also find a huge selection of interesting whiskys and a cracking selection of rum. New chef can cook a bit too.

The Saint, St Stephen's St.
I've been accused (by idiots) of over rating this bar in the past but that's nonsense. Great staff, great atmosphere, a small but uncompromising selection of beer and operated by two guys who have forgotten more about spirits this morning than most of us will ever learn in a lifetime. The food is far far too cheap for the restaurant quality that it is. It's a gem. If you want a cocktail go to their other bar Bramble, it's one of the best in the UK.

The Stockbridge Tap, erm, Stockbridge.
Struggled a bit being next door to the smugfest of Hectors for a while but a new manager, new chef and a new focus has rapidly changed things over the last 4 to 5 months. The beer (cask and keg) selection is always good and the recent beer festival showcased beers previously unsold in Scotland. Sticking some sofa's in the back bar has changed the atmosphere and the decision to remove a few of the mirrors calmed the lighting a bit too. It's Cloisters sister pub and whilst it lagged behind is now nipping at the heals.

Caley Sample Rooms, Slateford Road.
Bags of potential finally being realised. 8 rotating cask lines, a huge bottle range, great wines, selection of spirits and cracking food, all added to friendly staff and good service. Only thing that lets it down is that pig of a brewery tie to kegged beer, but the vast array of choice makes up for that. It's also just a very nice place to be. If you're in town, their sister pub the Cambridge Bar has a similar beer offering and excellent burgers.

Holyrood 9a/Red Squirrel.
I've lumped these two in together because they are the same thing with minor tweaks. If it ain't broke, make another one as they say. The burger menu's in both are huge and the food is consistently good. The keg offering is the largest permanent line up in Edinburgh with a crossover appeal to niche and non niche beer enthusiasts with some craft, cask and mass market beers. Good spirits range and I'll be honest, I've never bothered looking at the wines.

BrewDog, Cowgate.
If it wasn't in the Cowgate and they had a few cask lines there would be little competition for title of best beer pub in Edinburgh. The persistent striving for new and interesting beers has breathed new life in to the beer scene in Scotland and their own beers are good value in today's market. Too many bars go for quantity over quality but there's no compromise here. Passionate and knowledgeable staff, great pizza's and food platters (again, not expensive) and a product list to die for. If you want wines and spirits you're limited, but this is a craft beer bar, and a great one at that. Despite being brick and metal the atmosphere, even when empty, is enjoyable.

Brauhaus, Lauriston Place.
The original Edinburgh 'craft beer bar' with a massive selection of bottled beers. Upped their game recently by sourcing more interesting beers outwith the usual channels too. A break from the trade tie on draught would do wonders, as would about 200sqft extra space. Alternatively making more seating space by taking away the massive sofa's that take up half the bar and sit 4 people. Interesting spirits selection and german style bar snacks. A little usurped by BrewDog, but still plenty of choice for the quality booze lover.

The Bow Bar, West Bow.
Feel free to take bets on how long Duechers IPA lasts in this bar, it can't have long left surely. Mind blowing array of whisky, excellent draught beer selection and small but quality bottle offering. Pies at lunch are a bonus and the staff know their stuff. That this pub is ever omitted from a 'best pub' list of Edinburgh is a travesty.

Nobles Bar, Dukes Street.
Where some fail, others succeed. Considered a dog of a site the new owners have worked wonders. It's eclectic styling, low lit atmospheric mood and cracking food make this a blinding place to be. The beer offering is varied and mostly local to Scotland and the staff are friendly and helpful (this shouldn't be a selling point, but far too many staff just aren't).

The Pond, Salamander Street.
The beers are good if limited (in bottle) and the draught is average. No food to speak of so technically this adheres to none of my own criteria. However, I don't really care. It's miles from anywhere useful in a pretty shitty end of the city next to something which has lots of lorries going in and out of it. It's still a really cool bar with a great atmosphere, and I know I'm not the only one who thinks that. Move it half a mile and you'd make a fortune? Well, would it be the same if you moved it....

Other bars definitely worth a visit.... Tcheuchtars and Tcheuchtars Landing, Cumberland Bar, Bennets in Morningside, Blue Blazer, Joesph Pearce (and the others in that group, Boda, Sophies and Victoria), Cask and Barrel Southside, Kil-der-kin, Thomsons, Golden Rule, Abbotsford and the Staggs in Musselburgh (not in Edinburgh but a great beer pub).

I've probably missed a few too.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

How to crowbar Einstein in to a beer blog

Last night I was at a beer tasting. We had lots of beer chat, talked about a lot of different things, discussed various breweries and their beers. At some point in the evening the dirty word came up, BrewDog.

Why is BrewDog the dirty word? Because as soon as it gets mentioned it dominates conversation because you can't just talk about the beer. Any other brewery that gets discussed is generally judged on the relative merits of it's products, BrewDog covers all bases and eventually every other brewery, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, gets compared to them. It gets boring, it gets tiresome and yet it doesn't stop.

The context of this discussion, which lasted a surprisingly short period of time, was the influence of BrewDog on the UK microbrew industry. One of our drinking buddies said - and I'm paraphrasing here - that BrewDog's influence is negligable and that the techtonic shift we've seen in the industry over the past 18 - 24 months would have happened anyway. Which is why I'm writing this, because I don't think that's true.....

It's widely acknowledged (Well, I read that it is) in the world of physics that if Einstein hadn't come up with the Special theory of relativity when he did, it wasn't far off. Eventually, probably within five years, someone would have come up with that theory. By comparison, the general theory of relativity was a work of unique brilliance, a theory which changed how we see the entire universe and unified a collection of theories. It is entirely plausible that without Einstein we would still be waiting for that unified theory.

You're absolutely right, I can hear you already 'what the fuck does this have to do with beer and for the love of god don't try to tell me that James Watt is to beer what Albert Einstein is to physics'. Panic not, but the comparison was the first thing that came in to my head whilst I was thinking about that comment, 'If BrewDog hadn't done it, someone else would'.

It's easy to say 'It would have happened anyway' because it seems so obvious, because here we are now, and this is how things are. If my mum hadn't given birth to me someone else would right? Possibly, but that person would have a different make up, different characteristics. He would look different, think differently, act differently. He would be a human being sure, but not me.

I still find it hard to accept that if Einstein hadn't come up with the GTR that someone else wouldn't have, why not? Well, apparently my limited knowledge of physics doesn't allow me to fully appreciate just how brilliant Einstein's theory is. Equally I think that prejudice brought about by the constant marketing offensive (or as some people see it, offensive marketing) prevents people from truly appreciating BrewDog's positive influence on our industry.

So, beer and the UK microbrew industry. A change had been coming, much like the special theory of relativity, we'd seen a steady increase in US breweries in the market - and this is mostly about US style beers, there hasn't been a meteroic rise in sales of German or Belgian beers....yet! I suspect that's coming too, Belgian beers certainly - and the likes of Dark Star, Moor and Lovibonds have been innovating and creating new and exciting beers for many years. All great breweries making awesome beers, but none of them had come up with that 'general theory' that unifying equation that brought it all together. They aimed at and appealed to, beer drinkers, nothing wrong with that.

Dark Star were making diverse styles and being experimental, but had stayed away from kegged beer and didn't, and still don't, bottle much (with a lack of continuity in the branding between bottles and cask too). Lovibonds make keg only beers, unpastuerised and unfiltered, making them one of the most radical and progressive breweries in the UK, but their branding is in stark contrast with their product (the new 69 IPA branding an exception, and hopefully the direction they are moving in).

BrewDog came up with that unified theory and changed the way the industry saw itself, and more importantly how non beer people viewed the industry. Suddenly, to the outside non beer world, beer wasn't anything to do with beards, sandals, mud and sticks or 'real ale twats'. Beer was, all of a sudden, fucking cool.*

BrewDog made completely off the wall beers, they had complete continuity in their branding and the branding was stylish, brash, exciting and very 'unBritish'. They casked, bottled and kegged as soon as they could. In short they did everything other breweries were doing, but they put it all together and then they did something which I think makes them stand out from all the other breweries, and what makes me disagree with that assertion that it 'would have happened anyway'..... They told EVERYONE how good they were and how rubbish they thought other beers/breweries were. They broke the rules, it was ungentlemanly conduct. They actually said they were something very different and then went about showing how different they were. The industry was divided. Some hated them for it, but some loved them. I suspect those who hated them hated them because they knew they were right, and those who loved it were the ones who had known for while that this was something we badly needed.

It set them apart, and still sets them apart. It brought them plaudits and critics but most importantly of all it made people talk about them, and suddenly the UK beer scene was really exciting. It forced other breweries to look at themselves, it challenged other breweries to rebrand, to experiment and it opened the door to a new market for a lot of breweries. It encouraged many people to brew commercially too.

The biggest influence however, is the cross-over appeal. The non-beer people that BrewDog have attracted, that influence can't be over-estimated.  Before BrewDog, name a microbrewery who consistently made it in to the national newspapers, and I don't mean in some highbrow section in the Observer's good food guide supplement. It didn't happen, the interest just wasn't there. BrewDog made beer interesting to non-beer people and that is something that beer people seem to find difficult to grasp. They were (and still are) young, arrogant, intelligent, outspoken, pretentious, offensive and there is nothing the media likes better than a combination of all those things. They were newsworthy.
Now, since their meteoric rise, name another brewery who has stepped in to that sphere, who has seen the opportunity and made themselves newsworthy. There are none.

The BrewDog bars demographic are a good example of how this influence is spreading, look at what they sell. Are the BrewDog bars full to the brim with beer geeks desperate for a Cantillon Vigeronne? No, most of the beer sold, and it really is most, is BrewDog beer and it's being drunk primarily by people who are not beer geeks, but like the cool image and environment of the bars. So what, right? Well, when those trendy kids go and drink in a bar with no BrewDog but who might have a DarkStar cask on, or a Tempest, what are they going to drink? Will they pick a Carling or will be tempted to try something microbrewed? After all, they've had it drummed in to them by the BrewDog marketing machine that microbrewed is always better than mass made. I would expect them to go with the cool badge of the microbrewed beer, and that is why BrewDog will benefit the microbrew industry.

Sometimes you just need a catalyst. It doesn't actually matter how good BrewDog's beers are, or how sustainable their business model is, or what else they do from here on in. They changed things, they were the right difference at the right time and they continue to bring more new people to beer.

What the beer geeks have to remember is that the general public don't give a toss about the question marks over integrity, or consistency. They don't care about the hypocrisy of the marketing or the company propoganda. They don't care about selling out to Tesco and the anti-punk ethos of a company that claims to be punk in it's ethos. It's immaterial to them, they don't have those romantic notions of purity. They see a cool brand and they want to be associated with it, and if that brings more people to the world of microbrewed beer then I'm 100% all for it.

So the question was, if James Watt and Martin Dickie hadn't set out to do what they have done, would someone else have done it? The fact that not one brewery has tried to emulate what they have done suggests to me that they wouldn't have, and we'd still be waiting for that change.

*Example. My friend Zara is a graphic designer, she doesn't drink beer. She doesn't even like beer. She loves BrewDog. Someone wrote in a blog that beer is not about image, it's about taste. Bollocks.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

CAMRA v's BrewDog: The solution

Before I begin, it's a waste of time suggesting solutions to this situation, because both feed off the exposure provided by the other. However, BrewDog are without question getting the best deal here.

It occured to me at some point this afternoon that this ongoing saga between BrewDog and CAMRA is actually far smarter than I gave it credit for. BrewDog have seen an opportunity to become more than just a brewery and have engineered a situation whereby they have transcended their industry, to a certain extent. Take a look at the blogs, their own bars and the newly termed 'fanboys'. BrewDog are no longer just a brewery for these guys, their followers now see them as THE voice against the percieved stuffiness and outdatedness of CAMRA; they have become the voice of craft.

It's not just their followers either, it's all those people who know nothing about beer or the industry who come in to contact with BrewDog through social media, bars, newspapers etc..... they are synonymous with the term 'craft'.

Generally speaaking having a 'voice of craft' is no bad thing, but it is if that voice is a lone brewery who have tried to distance themselves from the majority of the UK brewing industry. So this particular 'voice of craft' is interested solely in the growth and profitability of one brewery. In fairness I also think that BrewDog could and should be credited for giving the beer buying public (and the non beer buying public) a shot in the arm and a kick up the arse, and true to the 'invisible hand' they've helped sales of other experimental breweries purely by bringing attention to themselves.

The obvious solution is that CAMRA, who really should start looking at what they contribute these days at a time when real ale has hit critical mass, and BrewDog sit down with all those other breweries who think that some or all of their beers are better served in keg and come up with a working model for a new branch of CAMRA. You could argue the point for ignoring CAMRA altogether and just setting up in opposition, but that helps no one really. You end up with yet another play ground fight.

When it comes down to it, we all want the same thing, we want great beer served in great condition and we want our industry to grow and we want microbrewed beers to flourish at the expense of the industrial muck we see in almost every bloody bar in the country.

CAMRA have 100,000 members, so it makes sense to make friends with 100,000 people who love beer, right? That way CAMRA don't have to compromise their position, the 'craft' community gets a platform which benefits all breweries and the whole industry gets to grow together....

Anyway, I'm off to cuddle a bunny, hug a tree and cover myself in daft necklaces made of flowers

Thursday, 21 July 2011

It's not Magic, but it does Rock

Last December I drove down to Matt Clarke's Hawkshead Brewery in the Lake District to meet up with two guys,  Richard Burhouse (mybrewerytap) and brewer Stu Ross. I had 'met' Richard on Twitter and we'd sent a few txt, chatted a bit on the phone and here we were, meeting. It's sounds like a date doesn't it? It wasn't.

Over the course of the evening Richard excitedly told me about his new project, a brewery called Magic Rock. He was starting up with his brother Jonny, his business partner Ed and Stuart as head brewer. His passion was palpable, but Rich is a passionate guy who gets visibly giddy with childish enthusiasm when he's talking about beer. Stuart is less giddy, a smiley, properly laid back Yorkshireman who is pretty keen on sarcasm whenever possible.

This isn't a review of personalities, the point is I desperately wanted them to do well because they are great guys; no airs or graces, no pretence, they just love great beer. Down to earth and honest.

The next time I saw Rich was when he came to stay with us in January. We took the train to BrewDog Aberdeen, got smashed and chatted beer. He was clearly worried. He was concerned about the financial outlay, the image, the potential for failure and all the other things that go hand in hand with starting a new business.

This was also the first time I saw the first draft of the branding and it was then I thought 'Christ I hope they get the beers right', because what he was showing me was awesome.

Magic Rock were always going to be stuck between a rock and a hard place because of the reputations of the owner and the brewer. They could pre-sell on reputation, but if the beers weren't at the very least 'good' that reputation could be ruined in a month. Business fucked, time to find a new job.
It's debatable what sort of pressure you'd prefer, the pressure of starting from scratch with no industry connections giving you time to tweak your product, or being thrust in to the industry limelight and pray to god that the response is favourable. Many with the former would prefer the latter I'm sure.

Well, it seems the boys have done alright, and I am sure they are breathing huge sighs of relief. Irrespective of how much faith you have in yourselves it's only natural to have doubts.

I won't do tasting notes, partly because I think they are pointless and partly because lots of other people have.

I will say I think Rapture needs work, a more malty base as it's a bit thin and I'm not sure the hop mix works. I get a lot of coffee on the finish which I can't say I like and the hops on the nose don't pay out when it touches the palate. Someone said it's like 5am Saint but better. I personally think 5am Saint is one of the best beers in the world, so I'd disagree with that. However, I also recall when 5am Saint wasn't that good either, and this is the first batch of a new brew on a new kit. It's not bad by any means, but I'm not convinced it's finished.

High Wire however is a revelation, a brilliant beer. It's got a beautiful balance, with all those smells and flavours you'd expect from a US style pale ale crammed full of hops. However, it doesn't go over the top with the hop base or the dry hopping. If they improve this I'll probably marry a bottle of it.

Cannonball is frighteningly drinkable for a 7.4% IPA. It hides the alcohol masterfully and the hops on the nose don't disappoint on taste. You could have several without checking the abv before getting quite a fright. There are plenty of established breweries who fail to make anything anywhere near as interesting or as good as this.

The worry for me was always 'will the beers match the branding' and quite categorically so far, they do. You can only do well when your branding is that cool and your beers are that good.

Couldn't have happened for two nicer guys either.

The week in RANT!

You know some weeks you feel like you're being exposed to a never ending wave of utter garbage, pseudo information and in some cases extreme propoganda? Well, I've felt like that all week this week. What the hell is going on in the world of beer?

Oh and before I begin, I have no intention of making these points in balanced arguements and I may swear. Apologies.....

Rant 1

OK, 'Beer for women'? Fuck. Right. Off. What's wrong with beer? Women love beer, not all women granted, but not all men do either. Why do women need patronising exactly? Have Halfords brought out a book entitled 'Mechanics for Girls' and inside written 'Seriously love, just let the bloke do it, go and water the plants'? No, of course not. It's this archaic assumption that women aren't somehow bright enough to work out whether they'd like to do something themselves so need guidance. Molson Coors have shown themselves to be exactly what we all know they are, supremely out of touch with what is actually going on in the world of beer.

Rant 2

BrewDog's persistent spamming for the share options (club membership) scheme. Shares in the antiestablishment? This latest sales promo is the least punk thing in the history of punk. The first one was pretty punk, different thinking and setting themselves apart with almost zero advertising and a huge uptake from genuinely passionate beer enthusiasts (I would say that, I bought some). Now it's advertised everywhere, including facebook (i mean paid adverts, not just on their fan page). This isn't Punk, this is big business dressed up as niche and artisan. Which is fine, but just say that's what you are. It's OK! How can you possibly pretend to be niche and artisan and then open a bar in every city in the country, brew under license in 2 or more locations and export to 27 countries. It's successful and turning in to big business, but you wouldn't call Sierra Nevada niche would you? BrewDog are fast falling in to that category. Either way, I'm bored of the spamming.

Rant 3

BrewDog (again) and CAMRA. Booooooring. Who is right? Who is wrong? Who fucking cares? How many BrewDog members of staff have actually signed up as CAMRA members for the event? Come on, how many? I'm willing to bet it's zero, and the event is a couple of weeks away. If that's right that would indicate they had no intention of going at all, and as usual set the PR wheels in motion for another broadside of propaganda.
Did CAMRA do the right thing? Are BrewDog hard done by? I think what you have to remember is that BrewDog are a marketing machine, a spin factory who are followed by a broad cross-section of society, from those people can see it for what it is, to those who can't. It's that second group that this propaganda nonsense is aimed at, it's aimed at riling the 'dogwashed' up in to a fanatical frenzy.* To be fair, it's working a treat, but it isn't half boring to see it from the other side.

* This is similar to CAMRA actually; 'get 'em quick, get 'em young'. Project an image, say you're right and the other side is wrong, and make them devout followers of your agenda. Make them believers. Like a cult. Difference being, CAMRA haven't a personal vested financial interest, it's just what they believe in, making them slightly the lesser evil of two big fat evil's.
Conversely, I think both have helped the industry in a big way and could indeed still have a hugely positive influence. Whether they choose to do that or not, who knows. CAMRA in my opinion are outdated and need a rethink. BrewDog are on a one company crusade to make BrewDog massive and nothing else.

Some lovely fluffy stuff

To balance out the rants, a couple of cool things have happened too. We had a wee Magic Rock tasting last night which went great (will blog about that later) and tonight a group of brewing students (Natural Selection Brewing) launch a beer (Finch) at the Guildford Arms in Edinburgh.
The future of brewing or not, it shows how times are changing where you can launch a one off beer in a massive bar like the Guildford on a Thursday night. I hope the beer is good, because they are nice guys and have worked hard.

And for a tiny piece of Black Isle promotion, we took on Colin from Marble as our head brewer. Nice bloke, great brewer.

Rant over. I need a coffee

Friday, 8 July 2011

Scotland's ale market becoming saturated?

Now then, on Monday the Scotsman published the following article regarding the growth of the Scottish microbrew market and the relative complications that some industry bods are beginning to identify.

Initially I was incandescent with rage and took a week to calm down before blogging about it, primarily because I think it's incredibly misleading. I think it is misleading for the following reasons.

The 'experts' in question are brewery owners, and whilst they are most certainly experts with regards to their own businesses and customer base are they necessarily experts in the market as a whole? Moreover, are the concerns facing those respective businesses reflective of the industry as a whole? No.

Apparently the number of outlets that sell real ale are in short supply. That is cobblers. The number of outlets selling real ale is increasing fast to cope with the demand for cask beers and Black Isle, Harvieston and BrewDog have shown demand for micro kegs is on the up too. As the pubcos suffer and sell off sites in the thousands more pubs are becoming free of tie, and the more forward thinking such as Iona are offering more outlets on leasehold free of tie, recognising that the demand is for local and niche products.  We have had more enquiries from pubcos in the last month than we have ever had, and with outlets such as Wetherspoons upping the cask game and allowing their managers more freedom, I would say that anyone complaining about the lack of outlets hasn't looked hard enough.

Now for the 'saturation'....someone didn't bother doing their research. Look at the consumer stats, they will all tell you that microbrewed products are eating in to the industrial brew market, not eating itself.

So in reality, we have more potential outlets than ever before, and the market share is increasing consistently year on year.

By definition, market saturation is when suuply outstrips demand and currently that is not the case. However, if I were the MD of a brewery that is looking at their sales figures and finding them falling I would not be looking at the numbers of breweries or the number of outlets. I'd concentrate on quality and interest.

I mean absolutely no disrespect to any of the breweries mentioned in that article, I have drunk many beers from all of them and enjoyed many too. However, if that article had quoted Jamie Delap at Fyne, Rob Hill at Highland, James Watt at BrewDog, Gavin Meiklejohn at Tempest, My bosses or John McGarver at Tryst I would be thinking 'Sheesh, time to diversify'.

The truth of the matter is, the standard of beers in Scotland has risen, significantly, and those breweries who are producing the most exciting and interesting beers can't come close to keeping up with demand. Those who are not are going to start struggling.

We are not close to saturation, nowhere near, we're just getting started.

Incidentally, I wrote this for the Scotsman last year which (I think) gives a slightly more balanced view of what is happening.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

I can't believe I'm writing this.....

I have a vague recollection of writing a blog entitled 'Why I hate CAMRA'.... so what I am about to write will no doubt smack of total hypocrisy. Let me explain.

I have very strong feelings about what I believe CAMRA should be doing and what, in my opinion, they have a responsibility to do. That is, look after ALL UK breweries, irrespective of how they make their beers. Now, I know it's not part of their manifesto but times change and things move on and rather than stick their collective heads in the sand it is time they saw the opportunity they have, rather than dismiss it as a regression. Cask beer has won the battle, it doesn't need saving anymore, it's hit critical mass.

This is the largest consumer group in Europe, and they could, if they chose, support all UK breweries and push all UK beer. Instead of telling their members, some of whom will be new to beer and will be looking for guidance, that some UK beer is bad because its kegged or bright bottled. How does this help the industry? It doesn't, but encouraging their members to drink any UK beer (and let's be honest, if you say you're an adviocate of great beer but you don't like Lovibonds because of dispense for example, you're a feckless idiot) does help the industry, it helps the local and national economy and on a microeconomic level it keeps money local rather than giving it to those lovely chaps at Coors or AB In Bev. That is my gripe with CAMRA.

However, I am equally getting a bit tired of all this 'lets have a festival at the same time as CAMRA and do our level best to undermine what they are doing' because at the end of the day, whether some of these breweries like it or not, many of them only exist because CAMRA fought a fight for 30+ years. Yes they are way behind the times and could be far more productive and useful, but what they have done at least deserves a little bit of respect.

The SRAF, for me, was a total disaster. No offence to those who won awards (or who judged them), but they are not the three best beers in Scotland. It's all subjective, but does anyone know anyone who thinks they are? (Then again, its better than my solution, which is just post all the awards to Rob Hill, Jamie Delap and Gavin Meiklejohn with randomly assigned colours each year.)The beer was mostly in dreadful condition and the venue was terrible, BUT it was packed so clearly the market is there which is great, and you have to say well done to CAMRA for filling it and actually running out of beer.

Now they just need to find a way of getting the beers in the right condition, sucking it up and putting kegs on because by next year there will be a lot more on the market I've absolutely no doubt, and start championing UK beer full stop.

Hopefully then the 'We're going to do whatever we can to ruin it' brigade might cheer up a bit and we can all muck in together. I remember James at Summer Wine once said 'Beer people are good people' and it's true. So why don't we all just bash on together and help everyone out?

I think I've just made myself sick.....

Friday, 25 March 2011

The budget...... Ouchy

Let me make it clear that I have not read the entire budget, it is 104 pages of drivel (I worked this out on page 4) so I have concentrated on the sections entitled 'growth' and 'fairness' and obviously the increase in duty on beer.

I'll start with the chancellor, who is in no way qualified to do his job, he has a degree in Modern History. He has no economic background and is employed on the basis that he's quite good at speaking in public. On the basis of that arguement, I should be the new Minister for Health.I can talk out loud and know nothing about the subject.

Mr Osbourne's plan (and when I say 'his plan' I mean the plan laid out by his economic advisors, none of whom live in the real world, all of whom will get paid large sums of money and who base all strategy on the rationality of the consumer and basic assumptions) for the long term sustainability of the UK economy is growth through microeconomics. I don't want to patronise anyone, but for those who don't know the difference between micro and macroeconomics, microeconomics is how individual households and companies make decisions about how to allocate resources, whereas macroecnomics is the study of the effects of microeconomics on inflation, unemployment which in turn affect national economic policies. Saying that the best plan for growth lies in microeconomics is flannel, pretty much all macroeconomic planning is based on analysis of microeconomic behaviour, the basic assumptions of rational choice.

Annnyway, the basic duty on beer has increased by 7.5% all told, so clearly this 'growth through microeconomics' the chancellor is talking about doesn't relate to exisiting business. Is the plan is to hammer existing industry in order to fund new business? Or fund pointless wars with shepards. Brilliant.

Anyone involved in the brewing industry knows that there has been a significant up turn in the fortunes of UK brewing, a relative rennaisance and a sustained period of growth. I won't go in to all the reasons for this, its been talked to death lately. Now, an increase in brewery numbers has not necessarily coincided with a rise in beer quality, there is LOTS of bad beer out there and its not all being produced by InBev or Molson Coors either.

So realistically what will this increase in beer duty actually achieve? Simple, it will close many small breweries and lots of pubs. However, which breweries and pubs will it close? Well, it will close the least profitable, least well run and poorer quality breweries and pubs (pub co's like Punch will suffer very badly I suspect). We are also about to see a canabilsation of the microbrew market.

What it won't do is have any relative effect on the multi-national brewing co's, none. Worst case scenario for those huge companies is they have to shorten their maturation times and user poorer quality ingredients to mitigate the rise in duty. It will not stop beer being sold at irresponsibly low prices and nor will it help close the gap between the cost of say a bottle of Stella and a bottle of microbrew. The big brewers will retain their market share, they might even gain some back because microbrewed beer will be prohibitively expensive for some people as a result of a price rise, it will break the WTP (willingness to pay) ceiling for some people. Alternatively, those people will simply buy less craft beer. Either way, many craft brewers will lose.

The beer duty rise is a cynical exploitation of the British beer drinker.

The BrewDog blog has extolled the virtues of the duty rise, which is in contrast with the general consensus it seems. I can see the point James is making, but it is an all things being equal arguement, an example of holistic pricing if you like (hedonic pricing is a method of valuation which takes in to account 'non quantifiable' preferences. A good example is house pricing. Take two identical houses and put them in different locations, one in Cheddar Gorge, one on an estate on the outskirts of a city. Which is worth more, they are identical? Holistic pricing values the environment, the fresh air, and estmates the WTP of people who want to hear bird song in the morning, not gunshots) Yes, most people would pick a fresh organic locally made loaf over a white and sliced IF they were a few pence more, but only up to a certain point.I would prefer to buy better quality everything, but as with most people every choice I make has an opportunity cost. I would prefer to spend a bit more on beer than bread, some people will be the other way around. Few people have the luxury of being able to make decisions which are free of opportunity cost. (Opportunity cost is where you make the rational choice of purchasing one item over another, the 'opportunity' of buying item B is lost when you choose to buy item A)

Every beer buyer has their own WTP ceiling, which will be based on opportunity costs, but willingness to pay is about preferences and not an indicator of percieved quality. Some people already pay £5 a pint for Peroni and would not even consider buying a pint of artisinal microbrewed beer for £4.50.

So, will a hike in duty change the way people drink and change preferences? No. Will it change the amount people drink? Yes.

A hike in duty is not educational and non craft beer drinkers will not interpret a rise in price across the board as a suggestion to move from their pint of Carling or John Smiths to something more esoteric, artisanal and  in all likelyhood, more expensive. Minimum pricing 'could' do that, by closing the gap between mass produced lagers and microbrewed products. Minimum pricing won't happen because the supermarkets weild too much power.

The duty rise will remove some average beers from the market and the breweries producing really interesting and exciting beers will continue to do well. The assumption that this will batter the big breweries and be to the benefit of the entire microbrew scene is misguided, a bit too altruistic. The beers we lose will be brewed by very small breweries and consumers of mass produced lagers will still have no incentive to try something different.

This budget has basically targetted a burgeoning industry by treating it like a cash cow, relying on the UK's drinking culture to keep revenue up. Its a counter productive strategy that will ultimately reduce tax revenue, increase unemployment and have zero positive socio-economic externalities.

I'd rather have a few casks of boring beer floating about than see the industry suffer in the way that is becoming increasingly more inevitable.

I'm probably wrong though.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Learning to love the Belgians

It would be fair to say that I have never really been a fan of Belgian beer, I never really 'got them'. I always felt that a strong Belgian beer tasted like it was strong. It's possible that I was just drinking the least well balanced, least well made Belgian beers, but I rather suspect there is a different reason.

My first experience of reaonably high abv beers came in Seattle 6 years ago. I remember drinking an Imperial IPA 'for a laugh' and being surprised that I actually liked it (it was at this time that I discovered that not all US beers were Bud and Coors).

I had always been a 'beer drinker' rather than a lager drinker. I had my dalliances with Stella and Grolsh, a stage most men in the UK go through, but I always ended up back on the ale. I was brought up in Suffolk, and in Suffolk you drink Adnams (and now Green Jack too) and many a country pub is built on real ale. For that reason I most definitely had an affiliation for drinking 'something else'. Moving to Cumbria, where lager is a new style of beer, in 2000 also helped cement my love of independently brewed beer.

Fast forward a few years, to 2008/9 and the 'craft beer revolution' was beginning to take shape in the UK. More overseas beers were becoming available, and significantly more American beers. To me these beers held their alcohol better than the Belgian stuff I had tried, balanced the booze with the hops in an IPA or the sugars in an Imperial Stout. They worked and I totally 'got them'.

However, much in the same way that new world wines have slowly introduced a new wave of drinkers to old world wines because of their more 'obvious' flavours I can see the same happening with beers.

Belgian beers generally are far more subtle in character and style than US beers, they are less 'obvious'... The Belgians don't really do big hop fronted IPA's or deep, rich, sweet imperial stouts. Some of the more progressive breweries such as De Dolle and De Struisse are creating some really incredible experimental beers, but still their own style. The only brewery in Belgium I have come across mimicking US style IPA's is Viven. What the Belgians do, and this is something that I learned to appreciate by sitting in some great Belgian beer bars drinking great Belgian beers, is make big beers with subtle flavours, beers with lots of depth and slowly emerging characters. Orval, a beer I was a long way from being in love with before I left, is a perfect example of this. In some beer bars you get the choice of different ages of Orval, because the characteristics of the beer evolve. This isn't a new concept, bottle conditioned beers age in the bottle (whether they all age well or not is another matter) but what you find when you drink these beers is that their is no instant hit, you have to get to know your beer and find all its hidden secrets.

My mission however, was to conquer lambic beers. I love beer and the fact that I just couldn't love lambic's made me feel like I had failed. How could everyone else think these are so special and I thought they tasted like off yogurt? I remember being sat at a table with Watt, Dickie and Caddon a few months ago. Three people who know a bit about beer. Caddon was introducing a few beers, Old Chimneys GKHR and Cantillon something, Rose De Gambrinus or the Kriek....I can't remember which.

The Cad reached the bottle of Cantillon and I said 'I already know I don't like this, I don't like lambic beers'. Now imagine you have been invited to an interview and been asked to wait in reception and when the person interviewing you comes to reception to walk you through they find you standing on the desk, urinating on the receptionist. That is the look I got when I announced that I 'don't like lambic beers'.

I figured I had one choice, go to the home of Lambic beers, Cantillon, and learn to love this complex and challenging beer.I was lucky enough to be met by Jean, the Head brewer and we sat and chatted about how the beer is made and aged (70% of Cantillon is exported, its not actually very easy to find in Belgium, relatively speaking). Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing was with us and Jean kindly opened a succession of aged gueuze beers, from 30 down to 10 yr old, plus various ages of krieks.

Now, as Tomme and I discussed, it could have been the environment we were in and the fact that we were being given the huge honour of trying some vintage Cantillon, but the beers were amazing. So amazing I bought 18 75cl bottles. If you get a chance to visit do, its an incredible brewery, a working museum run by lovely people.

I can say with absolute certainty that I am a convert to Belgian beer. I fear I shall never say the same about French wine however

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Why I hate CAMRA

This has been going around in my head for a good period of time now, years in fact. CAMRA is an acronym that is guaranteed to make me talk faster with fewer breaths in long sentences, usually punctuated by my voice rising in pitch towards the end as my lungs run out of air. I don't like CAMRA.

My loathing for this decrepit, spineless, toothless collection of dinosaurs began when I ran ale pubs. Before I start on what will inevitably become a rant, I have nothing against CAMRA members. Its the pointless, needless clutching on to history by a consumer group who have become a parody of themselves that I object to....

Annnyway..... In my experience, which whilst not vast is not inconsiderable either, CAMRA is full of the least adventurous, most irritating drinkers it is possible to get in a pub. They moan about everything they can from their elevated vantage point of being 'ale experts'. The head is too small, the head is too big, the beer has a haze, the beer is too cold, the beer is too warm. They will then offer up various explanations on where you, as a publican, trained cellar manager, experienced beer handler, can improve the distinctly average beer they are inevitably drinking. All they want is quaffable, easy drinking session beers. They don't want huge hop character, or deep rich dark stouts, they shun great beers with loads of flavour and they head straight for a 'proper beer'. They want the ale equivalent of an industrial lager. Yeah, and these people are the torch bearers of UK beer? Fucking marvellous.

Right, so thats my personal opinion out of the way. It might not be completely rational but its born out of experience of having to deal with a largely self righteous bunch of pricks, all of whom think that paying a yearly subscription to their beloved propoganda cult means they actually know something about beer. Many of them do not.

However, I do have friends who are members of CAMRA, and some of these people know a good deal more about beer than I do. These people I have a huge amount of respect for, they also accept that CAMRA has serious flaws.

My main bugbear however is that CAMRA could, and I believe they have a responsibility, to support ALL British beer and ALL British brewers. Irrespective of how they chose to serve their beer.

It is 2011, and CAMRA are the largest consumer group in Europe. Step up to the plate guys, get the respect of all British brewers, champion all formats of great British beer. This ridiculous notion that keg craft beer will marginalise cask beer and therefore should be treated like the enemy makes no sense. Cask beer will never be replaced by kegged beer, but kegged beer could introduce a new wave of drinkers to cask. Look at the bigger picture, support one of the only industries we have left in the UK wholeheartedly, encourage younger beer drinkers, revamp the CAMRA image.

The other option of course, is you can stick your heads in the sand until you become obsolete. Having 100,000 members means nothing if only 10 of them are active.

Rant over..... next up, religion :-)

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Keg v's Cask

Ahhhh yes, here we go again..... Except, no we don't. I won't bang on about the relative merits of keg and cask beer or cite a specific preference for either. It's a non arguement perpetuated by a bunch of terminally boring individuals, almost exclusively on the cask side of things. Yes we (BrewDog) have managed to rile up a few of the beardies by saying keg is the future, but we don't argue the point. We just say 'we make this and we think keg is the best way to dispense it'. Thats not an arguement for keg, that is just a statement of intent.

Nor am I going to make this an anti-CAMRA rant. I'll save my loathing for CAMRA for another time.

Today on the BrewDog blog a storm brewed on the intention of opening the new bar in Edinburgh without the addition of hand pulls. Why this caused such a furore I don't really know. Its has always been made quite clear that the BrewDog bars would be a showcase for kegged beers, BrewDog and otherwise.

Equally I'm not really sure why the cask ale brigade are quite so upset about it. If you want cask beer, drink in one of Edinburghs many many great cask beer bars. It seems a few people have take the decision to exclude cask beers from the bars as a personal affront.

Again, I don't really understand why cask beer fans are quite so aggressive in their stance on cask beer over kegged beer. I am tempted to say its down to a fundamental lack of knowledge about the beers and beer production, but thats possibly a little uncharitable. It does concern me that many amateur beer fans first contact with the beer world comes in the form of a CAMRA membership and they are therefore subjected to the CAMRA agenda, which is beer is best served live and from a cask.

However, some beers work better on keg. Big Imperial Stouts for a start, and hop heavy IPA's (especially big dry hopped beers). The carbonation, especially on big stouts helps thin the liquid out and provide a more drinkable beer, less viscous and more palatable.The higher the abv the better the beer works on keg too, the chill and carbonation balances the alcohol far better. Drink a warm, flat 9% IPA.... its not great.

Equally a classic best bitter, like Adnams for example will work far better on cask. The lower the abv and the fewer ingredients (because weaker beers have a lower volume of ingredients) means these beers become too thin with carbonation and lose their flavour and balance.

This isn't my primary concern however, I don't really give a toss about the petty 'cask is better' nonsense. It isn't better, its different. Now shut up.

No, my concern is with the impending proliferation of piss poor kegged beers in to the UK market. Who in the UK makes craft kegged beer? BrewDog, Meantime, Lovibonds, Camden, Freedom..... yeah, and now I'm struggling.

However, recently some other brewers have been taking their cask recipes and putting them in to kegs and they just don't work. At BrewDog we don't keg Trashy Blonde (very often) because the recipe as it stands doesn't translate all that well to keg. There are a few breweries out their who should adopt that same policy. If it doesn't work, make something else that does.

I really hope that more breweries begin to experiment with kegging and taking on the Americans in the craft beer market because with the exception of BrewDog, Marble, Gadds, Lovibonds, The Kernel, DarkStar, Moor, Meantime and a handful of others, the UK brewing industry isn't really all that exciting.

What I don't wish for is for brewers lazily filling kegs with beer that was never designed to go on keg and trying to cynically jump on the bandwagon. What kegged beer can do is create a bridge for the lager drinkers to access craft beer, and they won't cross that bridge if the kegged craft beer they get is poorly thought out and lazily produced.

Monday, 7 February 2011

How the media could help, but choose not to

Today, somewhat surprisingly, some links to online newspaper articles in the Daily Star and the Daily Mail appeared on a few Twitter feeds. I say 'somewhat surprisingly' because they broached the subject of the sale of a new type of uber beer, a 32% (The Star) and a 41% (the Mail). These radical new beverages wore the staggering price tag of £55 per bottle and were made in such limited quantities that there is a waiting list for their order. Moreover, one of these beers is the strongest in the world.

Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck have been on sale for over a year now, neither are made in such limited quantities that there is a waiting list (they sell quickly mind you, so if you want one and don't get in quick you might have to wait, but that is not the same thing) and neither are the strongest beer in the world, and haven't been for quite some time. Yes they are quite expensive, but £55 is probably a bit much. Still, if you can get it, well done. Thankfully both articles explained the difference between the two beers. Oh sorry, no they didn't.

None of that is new, or even news. Its not particularly interesting either, except to people who become especially irritated by lazy journalism aimed at the lowest common denominator. In other words, me.

That is what this blog is all about really, how the media can have such a negative affect on a good thing, or a catalyst effect on a bad one.

Sensationalism sells newspapers, so facts really aren't that important. According to the Mail 'One GULP of this beer would send you over the drink drive limit' the Star were equally adamant, stating that 'One SWIG' would have a similar effect. To the best of my knowledge, which in this arena isn't too bad, neither swigs  nor gulps are standard measurements for the sale of alcohol. This is the UK, not a Spanish resort.

So why not research your article properly - at the very least get the facts right - and write something that actually explains what the beer is? I can only imagine that the truth, despite actually being very interesting not to mention highlighting what the brewery (BrewDog) were getting at in the first place (invention, creativity), isn't 'exciting' enough.

So the outcome of either article could have been so much more positive, the readers might have learnt about freeze distillation, about different beer styles and about the potential benefits of the craft beer movement in encouraging people to drink less and savour more. Instead, both talked about 'cynical marketing'* and 'a potential increase in binge drinking'.

Now, I could be wrong but if you write a fairly indepth commentary on how that kind of beer is produced you have far less chance of creating a drinking culture off the back of it, than by simply writing nonsense to make people needlessly excited/aggitated/self righteous.

Brewers (and the drinks industry as a whole) are constantly chastised about their efforts to promote 'responsible drinking'. Yet the media are allowed to publish such utter drivel, a far from responsible way of presenting a UK brewery and completely missing the point of high abv craft beers.

All very sad

*in a personal message to Jack Laws of Alcohol Focus Scotland - and one that he will never read - Mr Laws, you accuse BrewDog of cynical marketting and yet every single time they are in the newspaper for something that no sane or rational person could ever claim will add to the already serious drinking problem in the UK, you leap on it like Steve Coogan on a lapdancer, desperate to get your name and cause in the paper. I'd say thats pretty cynical, wouldn't you?

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Education is the solution

I have just finished reading another histrionic undercomplicated arguement as to why high abv beers are the greatest threat to mankind since some bloke said 'I bloody am Jesus, now go and write a book about me and my dad'.

Now, I am quite certain I could write several very long poorly informed pages on why no MP should ever be allowed to influence the social framework of this country, how big breweries are the scourge of the earth and why minimum pricing is a brilliant idea, but will never be implemented because the decision takers and policy makers lack the courage to stand up to big business.

No, my time would be better served operating on my own genitalia using a heated spoon and a can of Special Brew. It is impossible to pinpoint exactly why the UK has such a destructive drinking culture but one thing is for certain, the government have got it horribly, catastrophically wrong.

The Review of Alcohol Taxation published by the powers that be at the end of last year was a quaint little read. Researched and written by a small group of deaf and blind miners from Patagonia, aided by some government policy makers who were guided helpfully by various consumer groups who have no vested interest in protecting the price of beer which is around 4%, like CAMRA and breweries who have no interest in protecting the price of beer which is around 5%, such as Heineken, AB In-Bev, Molson Coors and Diageo. Of course other independent contributors were much less biased, such as Macro, the wholesaler, a popular shopping venue for the high abv beer consumer. Cynical? No, just fact.

Looking at the claims made by the government about the UK's drinking problems. Which can be found here; . You can only marvel at the level of hypocrisy, it is truly impressive.

- More than 30,000 people were admitted to hospital with alcohol poisoning in England in 2007-08 (13,400 men and 16,700 women) – that’s more than 500 every week - This is a beer blog so I'll skip over the details, but how many of those almost 17k women do you reckon were admitted to hospital because they'd over done it on the Cantillon? I'm guessing very few... How ever it would be 'infair to penalise the responsible drinkers of wine and spirits'.

-  Around 40% of patients admitted to Accident and Emergency departments (A&E) are diagnosed with alcohol-related injuries or illnesses.

These are just two of the statistics on the governments website. Do they seriously think that these stats were created by a small group of beer geeks and a few scruffy chaps sitting on benches shouting at people? No, but it would be 'unfair to penalise premium beers which are generally under 7.5% abv in strength'.

Put it this way, if you see a fight on a street corner on a Saturday night you can be pretty sure that neither of the protagonsists is a beer geek or a homeless bloke, but its a safe bet that at least one of them will have traces of what the government describes as 'premium beers' and what the rest of us describe as industrial swill, in their system

So to the beer geeks, the price insensitive social hooligans who have the audacity to go to a local independent store to hunt out something made with passion, creativity, care and integrity and then walk home in a civilised manner and sit on the sofa enjoying this rarity, taking notes and discussing this treasure with friends.

It is up to us to purge our society of the menace we provide, it is up to us to solve the ills we project and the problems we create. We must educate those around us, explain our behaviour. Its not our fault, its an addiction and those graced with the power to resist tasty well made and expertly crafted beers need to understand our compulsion. We are the true bane of society, we'd love to just hit the pub, sink 10 pints of Stella, fight someone we've never met and end up in a police van or an ambulance. We're just not the type, sorry.

We have a drinking culture in the UK which needs to be changed and education is key. Traditional education is no good, teenagers are invincible, so telling them that drinking 6 cans of cheap lager in a graveyard is going to give them liver disease will have no impact whatsoever. Trips to breweries, vinyards and distilleries are no good either because unless you are a super geek, these places are just plain boring. You will never instill passion amongst the masses by talking about valves and stainless steel.

No, young people need to be educated and educated by people with passion and understanding. People who can articulate how drinking responsibly can be fun. Get these people in to schools, get the pupils to try different beers (yes, I did say that), smell different hops, taste different malts and educate them on how the ingredients produce the different products. Empower them, give them a choice, and I guarantee their attitudes to drinking will change.

It won't eradicate the problem but you'd see one hell of a difference. Alternatively, price them out of interesting beers, leave them with no knowledge, no power and the disillusioned premise that Peroni is the epitomy of quality.

Wake up and smell the hops.