It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, and I think I’ve worked out why. Work’s been busy, since I last posted here, but that’s not it; apart from anything else, in the same period I’ve written nine posts totalling 22,000 words on my other blog.
No, it’s a blogger’s problem: the stuck post. I had a couple of ideas for posts lined up, but I never got round to writing them, and after a week or two I’d lost interest. But somehow those posts kept their place on my mental to-do list; any time I thought of this blog, I thought yeah, ought to write that or that… and then lost interest in the whole idea.
You know what? I’m never going to be able to take an interest in this blog again until I get those posts out of the way; I’m just going to have to write them. Here’s the first.
I wrote a while ago – both here and in the local CAMRA magazine (cheers, John!) – about brewery takeovers and what they mean for beer. My position then was that, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers are effectively dead. More precisely, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers may cease to exist – or be replaced by inferior substitutes – at any time, and there’s nothing anyone outside the new owner company can do about it. The new owner hasn’t bought beers, it’s bought brands and their market share. If the new owner is genuinely committed to making decent beer, the beer backing up those brands may continue to be good, but even that can’t be guaranteed – and, of course, the new owner can’t actually be held to account by anyone else. Even when the new owner continues to make a particular beer the old way, nobody can tell whether they’re going to start cutting corners or simply stop making it – let alone stop them doing so.
In the earlier post I gave Brakspear’s Triple as an example of a beer that had been living on borrowed time in just this way (Marston’s have now stopped making it, citing declining supermarket demand). The next time I was at the supermarket, Brakspear’s Oxford Gold caught my eye, and I realised I’d never actually tried it. I opened it a few nights later, expecting nothing much more than malt-and-caramel soup, and I was absolutely blown away – a sharp, citric foretaste, a big tannic finish and just enough malt in the middle to hold it all together. It reminded me of nothing so much as Harvey’s Best; it was a seriously refreshing beer. Naturally I picked up another bottle when the opportunity presented itself… and poured myself a big glass of malt-and-caramel soup, somewhere between Deuchar’s IPA and Doom Bar.
The brand! The brand! I thought to myself. They’ve lost the beer and kept the brand! I wondered if I’d been lucky enough to get one of the last bottles brewed on the old Brakspear’s kit, followed by one of the first of an awful bland imposter. But I thought I’d better at least make it the best of three, and got another bottle of Oxford Gold as soon as the disappointment had worn off. And it was fine; better than fine, it was really good. It wasn’t the same beer I’d had the first time, but it was well over on that side of the spectrum. Fourth and fifth bottles confirmed the impression – they weren’t as great as the first bottle, but they were nowhere near as bad as the second.
So I don’t know what’s going on in the Brakspear’s bit of Marston’s. Brakspear’s beers effectively died a long time ago – I stand by that – but I have to concede that Marston’s kept them on life-support very effectively until quite recently. Even now I’d say the Oxford Gold is worth a punt, as long as you don’t expect too much (the malt-and-caramel fog could roll in again at any time).
But rather that than Meantime London Pale in its dinky redesigned 330 ml bottle, which I bought on a whim and because I was bored with looking at the same beers every week (come on, Sainsbury’s, sort it out!). The label attempts an odd balancing act between the corporate scale and the artisan personal touch, acknowledging that the beer is produced by Asahi but crediting the Meantime brewery and Alistair Hook personally. (From Blue Moon to Camden, affectations of craftsmanship within a corporate setting are becoming typical of the ‘craft’ scene; BD are starting to look like the odd one out for still being independent.)
And the beer? Dear Lord, the beer! I’ve had worse, but not very often, and certainly not from a well-respected brewery. It was dreadful.
In other words, it didn’t just taste like a bland pasteurised bitter; it tasted like a bland pasteurised bitter made by someone who’d never actually drunk bitter and was more used to making lager on a budget. The first impression was a bland, maize-like sweetness, which gave way to nothing much (certainly no discernible hops); just a bit of malt and tannin in the middle, and the ghost of a bitter aftertaste.
I didn’t make my mind up about the Oxford Gold on the strength of one bottle; if I’d really wanted to be fair, I would have had to consider the possibility that this was a duff bottle and gone back for a second try. The thought of drinking that beer again – let alone paying money for it again – made up my mind for me: I’d rather be unfair. That is, I’d rather leave my findings provisional. What I can say is that, if that bottle is in any way representative, Meantime London Pale is about as much a craft beer as Boddington’s Bitter is the cream of Manchester – because Meantime, like Boddies’ (and Brakspear), isn’t a brewery any more; it’s just a brand. And you can’t trust brands.