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.