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.