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.....