Category Archives: ‘Craft’ is it?

Brighton by the pint

I was in Brighton for three days last week. My parents lived there for the last twenty-odd years of their lives, so I knew the city quite well for a while, and still know my way around without needing to think about it. Naturally, I planned to spend my free time (a) walking along the seafront (b) walking around town and (c) drinking beer, particularly beer I couldn’t get at home and particularly particularly Harvey’s Sussex Best. The last time I spent any time in Brighton was before the ‘craft’ thing got started – before this blog got started, come to that – but I had some distinct beer memories. There was the range of interesting stuff they used to have (on draught) at the Quadrant and (in bottle) at an offie further up Queens Road; there were the Dark Star beers up at the Evening Star, near the station. Above all, there was the Harvey’s Sussex Best and all the unassuming little pubs that served it – there seemed to be one round every street corner. Walking, drinking, more walking, more drinking, that was the plan for my leisure hours – and heavy on the Harvey’s Sussex Best.

Well, you know about best-laid plans. The first thing I realised when I arrived in Brighton was that the new shoes I was wearing – perfectly comfortable up to then – had given me blisters on both ankles, making the prospect of walking anywhere a lot less attractive. The next thing was that some of my beer memories badly needed updating. The offie with the interesting beer? Gone (or possibly converted to an offie without interesting beer, it’s hard to be sure.) An interesting range of beers at the Quad? Not so as you’d notice. As for all those unassuming little pubs serving Harvey’s, I scoured the centre of town looking for them, as far as my ankles would permit; eventually I gave up and downloaded the brewery’s pub-finder app (which I recommend if you’re ever down there). Some of the specific pubs I remembered weren’t there any more; one had closed, but two had turned into something… different. You’ll look in vain for the Princess Victoria on North Road: it’s the Craft Beer Co now (with, to be fair, some very reasonable prices on cask beers, a phrase which here means ‘under £4’). As for the Prince Arthur, that’s now the… brace yourself… Brighton Beer Dispensary. I only stuck my head in there briefly, so my fleeting impression of the BBD – which involved Edison lightbulbs, furniture made from railway sleepers and £5 portions of chips – may have been misleading. I didn’t fancy stopping, I’ll say that. (The Arthur was a lovely little pub, too. O tempura, O morays.)

Mmm, murk…

My visit to the Arthur-as-was was on my first evening in Brighton, spent mainly wandering around the centre disconsolately, looking for something to drink that was (a) decent and (b) local. After I’d done this for a while I realised it was 9.00 and went for a meal. So it was that my first beer in Brighton was a bottle of Chang lager, which was pretty awful (the mussaman curry was excellent, though). But I went for a drink afterwards in the Spoons by where I was staying, where I had a pint of (Sussex-based) Firebird Parody IPA. It was seriously cloudy – not something you often see in a Spoons – and my first impression was that it was just plain off. The sharpness I tasted at first modulated into an apple-y fruitiness, which wasn’t at all unpleasant; I guess you’d call it juicy. On the other hand, none of the pictures of this beer on Untappd show any haze – let alone the floc party that was going on in my glass – so maybe it was just a badly-kept pint. I’d already taken against that Spoons after I ordered something different (something else from Firebird) only to be told, with a wave at a whole bank of pumps, “all of these are off”. I told the guy that if that was the case he should turn the clips round, but apparently that would be too much trouble. (Also, their wifi was off every time I went in there. Decent breakfasts, though.)

The next day, on a lunchtime trip to the Dorset in the North Laines, I was finally reunited with Harvey’s Sussex Best. If I say that my first impressions were ‘sweet and heavy’, that will probably give you completely the wrong idea. There is a lot of malt there, in the old-school heavy mouth-filling style, but this isn’t a sweet or heavy beer; it’s not hard to drink and it’s certainly not bland. There’s a tannic bitterness running right through it, building to a really clean, refreshing finish – like every good session beer, it’s decidedly moreish. Nice to see you again, HSB.

My next beer, though, was another meal accompaniment, and a bit of a bad choice on my part. Manju’s is a rather fine Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, with – unusually – a fairly extensive beer list; I was tempted by the beers from Hepworth’s, a local brewery specialising in gluten-free beers (for what that’s worth). Greed got the better of me, though; I noticed that the standard Indian lagers were priced up at £2.50, and that the table next to mine had a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher. Bargain, I thought, and duly ordered a bottle of Kingfisher. “Small or large bottle?” asked the waiter; yes, the £2.50 price was for the 330 ml bottle. I was too British to backpedal and order something else, so 650 ml of Kingfisher – which turned out to be £4.50 – it was. Still, the food was excellent. Afterwards I made my way to the nearest Harvey’s pub – the Lord Nelson, a spit from the station and a fair old hike from the seafront (as my ankles reminded me). I had a pint of Sussex Best and one of Harvey’s Armada; not a hop bomb by any means, but a bit lighter and more aromatic than the Sussex Best. Harvey’s brew an extraordinary range of beers, mostly for bottling, and the bar had rows of 275 ml bottles on display (not in the fridge, as far as I could see). I bought a bottle of the Elizabethan Ale; I was initially intending to drink it there, but the place was empty and the landlady clearly wanted to call it a night, so I took it away with me.

IMG_1554

Ironically, a sure sign of what it isn’t

The next evening I went, again, in search of unassuming, ordinary pubs in the centre. I fetched up in a tarted-up Nicholson’s gastro-pub with bulls-eye glass in the windows; really not quite what I had in mind. (Not the one with the sign pictured here, though – I have got some standards.) Anyway, they had Dark Star Hophead on, and it was very welcome. It was about as different from the Harvey’s beers as it could be – pale yellow, with a loose, soapy head, and hoppy; really very hoppy. Then I headed stationwards again, to check out the Evening Star. Dark Star Six Hop was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment – it’s 6.5% and tastes like it, in the sense that it tastes like they were trying to make Hophead (a) even hoppier and (b) nearly twice as strong. Effortful, really, which is rarely a good look. (What with Hophead, Magic Rock Ringmaster and Marble Pint, I’m starting to think that 3.8% is actually the sweet spot for pale’n’oppy beers.) On keg they had – among much else – Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour and Lost and Grounded Apophenia. I can report that the Tzatziki Sour actually does taste of cucumber, and that L&G may not be quite there yet on the tripel front, that being what Apophenia is: there was an initial sweet heaviness, that didn’t dissipate but combined with the herbal notes that come in later, to produce a kind of beer equivalent of winter mixture. I had a third, and it took a while to get through.

After this slightly disappointing session I looked for something to eat, although – being, on a rough count, four pints down – I was seriously considering having a soft drink with it. Nu Posto, a vaguely crafty pizza place, surprised me with another interesting beer list, including a couple from Hepworth’s. I went for a bottle of their Gold pale ale, which frankly tasted of very little – as golden ales go it was less Summer Lightning, more Rolling Rock – but did have an extraordinary aroma. I’ve never known a beer like it – I put my nose over the bottle and I was getting freshly-baked bread, cut with something sharp and herbal, perhaps sage or thyme. Then I actually tasted it and it was… fine. (And no, it wasn’t the garlic bread I could smell.) Back in my room, it was getting late, I was already pretty drunk and I didn’t really have anything to stay up for, but what can I say, the Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale was calling to me. It’s a big, dark, strong, sweet beer, tasting exactly like I’d expect an old-fashioned beer to taste. Very nice indeed, and easily my beer of the evening.

At close of play the next day I was heading home, but before I trudged up the hill to the station – again – I wanted to have at least one drink in a nice, ordinary pub that I remembered from my previous trips to Brighton. Eventually I managed to locate the Lion and Lobster in Hove – probably not a very long-established pub (or not under that name), but old enough for me. And they had… Dark Star Hophead! Harvey’s Sussex Best (with the old ‘barrel’ pump clip)! Dark Star APA! Old Dairy Blue Top! I was very tempted by… well, everything: the first two for obvious reasons, the third because it’s possibly even hoppier than Hophead and the fourth because it comes from Ed‘s old gaff. But I was still feeling a bit worse for wear from the previous day, and wanted to dial the a.b.v. right down, so Hophead it was: pale yellow, loose, soapy head, hoppy as a very hoppy thing. And that – apart from an Oakham Citra IPA from the M&S at the station – was it for Brighton.

Overall impressions: Brighton’s changed a surprising amount in ten years. Almost everywhere seemed solidly geared to a specific, high-spending clientele: tourists, stags & hens… hipsters. I’m sorry I didn’t go back to the Craft Beer Co – I think I could have had quite a pleasant session there, even if most of the beers were from that London – but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending any time in the Brighton Beer Dispensary; the vibe I picked up wasn’t just hipper-than-thou, it was considerably-more-hip-than-yow. (I may be doing the place a disservice; I was in a foul mood that evening and looking for a very different kind of pub.) Ordinary little pubs round the corner seem to be in very short supply. On the plus side, it’s a lot easier to get decent beer with a meal than it used to be. What’s more, Harvey’s beers are still there if you look, and both HSB and Dark Star Hophead are as good as they ever were. The beer abides.

A session of three halves

I’ve been in a few bars recently where a wide range of beers belied a decidedly narrow range of styles, strengths or – in the worst case – both. Not stocking anything over (say) 5% seems particularly regrettable. I know that cask beer doesn’t keep forever, so that any unfamiliar beer is a bit of a gamble for the bar stocking it – and a beer that people are likely to drink in halves is twice as much of a gamble – but there should be a bit more room for manoeuvre with keg beers, surely.

Fortunately, a Half of Something Silly is still available in some places. The newly-opened Keg & Cask (a successor of sorts to De Nada and occupying the same premises) included in its opening keg lineup Alphabet Flat White, an amber 7.2% number confusingly described as a ‘white breakfast stout’. First impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine. Second impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine with coffee and perhaps some sweetness from lactose. Overall impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine, which could probably have done without the coffee and the lactose. Call me a traditionalist, but I won’t mind, because I am. (What do I make of K&C? Early days – and I remember my first impressions of the (Chorlton) Font as ‘a big draughty barn with leather sofas dotted about & a scary man on the door’, which isn’t really the case now. What I will say about K&C is that the posing tables & high stools aren’t really for me – when I’m drinking I like to take the weight off my feet, sit back & lose myself in what I’m reading (and drinking), and being unable to do the first two makes the third a lot harder. The metal chairs on the astroturf ‘lawn’ outside were a lot more satisfactory.)

Somewhere that fits a lot of normally-sized seats – including bench seating – into a small space is the Marble Beerhouse, where I headed next. They had – and (as I’m writing) probably still have – Marble Portent of Usher on cask. This is a 9% imperial stout, and it’s worth seeking out: it’s ‘big’ and heavy without being hot, it’s sweet without being syrupy, it’s got depth and complexity without being hard to drink… all in all I don’t remember very much about it, except that it definitely didn’t not work; there are lots of ways to mess up with a 9% stout, and this one didn’t put a foot wrong. Perhaps my only worry is whether a beer so big should be quite so smooth or go down quite so easily.

Anyway, I had time for another half, and I was pleased to see Marble Assisi on keg. This is a dubbel – brewed in collaboration with the Gorton Monastery of St Francis – although it’s relatively light for the style, at least in colour and strength (6.5%). Having recently enjoyed a bottle of Ticketybrew Dubbel, I was initially somewhat taken aback by the Assisi, inasmuch as my first impression was that it was even better. On further reflection (and further drinking) I demoted it to ‘as good, but different’. It’s on the ‘strong bitter’ end of the dubbel style rather than the ‘dark mild’ end, put it that way: definitely a paler shade of malt loaf.

I called it a day then, or to be more precise went home for my tea. Three halves, then, with an average strength of 7.6% – which is to say, the equivalent of three pints at 3.8%. I don’t think I’ll do many sessions on halves – I do like the volume of a pint; in future I’ll at least alternate with something a bit less rocket-fuel-like. Good to have the option, though.

 

The electric shirt-collar

On flavourings in beer (as on much else), I tend to agree with Barm:

I wouldn’t say I was overwhelmed, a few months ago, when a mailing from an online beer merchant offered a very, very special mixed case from Buxton, featuring

Rocky Road Ice Cream, 10% – Collab with Omnipollo
Texas Pecan Ice Cream, 10% – Collab with Omnipollo
Ice Cream Pale, 5.6% – Collab with Omnipollo
Yellow Belly 2016, 11% – Collab with Omnipollo
Yellow Belly Sundae 2016, 12% (we only have 216 bottles so this will limit the quantity of cases available.  These are the only bottles of YBS 2016 in Europe outside of Sweden) – Collab with Omnipollo

In fact, I don’t think I was even whelmed – least of all when I checked up and discovered that the aforesaid Yellow Belly is a “peanut butter biscuit imperial stout”. Now, I like peanut butter, and I like biscuits, and I like an imperial stout, but… On paper, at least, these beers seem to combine several different things I don’t like. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘fruit machine‘ style of brewing, where brewers seem to try and make their beers unique by adding two or three qualifications to every style (“whisky-aged… red… porter!”). I’ve always liked big, complex beers, that get everything from raspberries to dark chocolate to wholemeal bread to marmalade out of malted barley, hops and yeast (and maybe a bit of sugar) – which in turn means I’m not a massive admirer of beers that taste of raspberries, dark chocolate or marmalade because they’ve had those things added to them. And one thing I’m really not keen on is brewing as fan service – the kind of brewery that’s got itself into a position where beer geeks thirsty for rarities are its main customers, so that short runs and scarcity pricing become the normal business model. Still, I guess it doesn’t do me any harm, so they may as well get on with it.

That was the sum total of my thinking about the weirdly-named Swedish brewery Omnipollo and their collabs with Buxton, until the other day when I was passing my local craft emporium and in the mood for a half, or even a third, of something silly. They had Buxton/Omnipollo Lemon Meringue Ice Cream Pie on. I used to love a lemon meringue, although I haven’t tasted one in years – my mother used to make them – so I decided to give it a go, albeit with some trepidation (it sounded awfully sweet). I paid £2.70 for a third; the price was displayed, coyly, as £5.50 for 2/3 of a pint. So £8 a pint, then. (Apparently it’s available to the trade for £129 plus VAT for a 30L key keg; even with the VAT, I make that £3 a pint at the outside.)

It was clear but yellow – bright yellow – and it tasted of lemons. It really tasted of lemons; it was a properly sour beer. No sign of the meringue or the ice cream – apparently there’s lactose in there, but for all I could tell it had fermented out in the key keg. So just lemons, really, perhaps with some grapefruit – a big citric sourness, backed up by a mild but definite bitterness. There wasn’t any meringue in there – let alone ice cream – but the way the sharp attack and the bitter finish drifted in and out of focus did remind me of lemon meringue, or at least of the lemon curd base of my Mum’s meringue.

Lemons and plenty of ’em, then, but there was something else going on too. It was a bit like when I tasted some barrel-aged beers from Wild – the flavour was dominated by a big, uncomplicated fortified-wine sweetness, but alongside that there was… something else. They were interesting beers, not because they tasted of Madeira, but because they didn’t just taste of Madeira; there was something else about them, something that stayed with me for days. Similarly, this time round, I wasn’t just tasting lemon juice; the flavour of the beer stayed with me all the way home, and not just because I was checking my teeth for where the top layer of enamel had been stripped off.

The beer wasn’t a world classic – if anything it was just at the enjoyable end of ‘interesting’ – and £8 a pint for a 6% keg beer is crazy; I probably wouldn’t order it again. But it piqued my interest and gave me a sense of how sour beers might be enjoyable – very much as those Wild beers did for barrel-aged beers – and that’s the first time I’ve got that from a sour beer. New horizons in flavour!

Brandwatch

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 thatand 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.

Shopping

Dry January was never really going to be an option for me, if only because I invariably over-purchase before Christmas. If you can abstain for a month with a sizeable stash of weird and expensive stuff looking you in the eye every time you go for the hoover, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Last weekend I finally drank the last of this year’s pre-Christmas purchases; since this left my beer stocks looking dangerously low (1 x each of Duvel, Old Tom, McEwan’s Champion) I also did a bit of re-stocking. So here, without much comment, are two shopping lists.

22/12/2016 (Tiny’s Tipple, Chorlton)

Marble Earl Grey IPA (500 ml; remainder are all 330 ml)
RedWillow Thoughtless imperial stout (can)
RedWillow Perceptionless New England IPA (can)
Rochefort 6 nectar of the gods
Marble Portent of Usher imperial stout
Flying Dog Horn Dog barley wine
Hawkshead Oak Aged No 5 strong porter
Wild Modus Operandi barrel-aged sour
Cloudwater Mosaic IPA
Blackjack Devilfish saison
Blackjack/Garage Gyle 700 bretted double IPA
Chorlton Goldings Sour (can)
Siren Broken Dream oatmeal stout (I have no recollection of choosing this)

Price range: £2.70 to £5.00
Average price: £3.88
Price range per litre: £8.10 to £15.00 (predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £11.30

Bit spendy, really. Was it worth it? Well, the first five – everything down to the Portent of Usher – struck me as rock-solid stone-cold five-star classics, and the next three after that were pretty damn good. I won’t go through the last five, except to say that with my beer-judging hat on I’d rate them all as good to very good. There certainly weren’t any stinkers – but a couple of them, for me, would qualify as fairly expensive experiments.

29/1/2017 (Sainsbury’s, Salford)

Timothy Taylor Landlord (500 ml, as are the rest)
Adnams Bitter
Brakspear Oxford Gold
Harbour IPA
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer
Adnams Ghost Ship

I agonised over that Adnams bitter – it was that or a Proper Job – but in the end the idea of filling my bottle carrier with three old-school bitters and three pales appealed to me.

Price range: £1.80 to £2.00
Average price: £1.84
Price range per litre: £3.60 to £4.00 (again, predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £3.68

So far I’ve had the Oxford Gold, which I’m planning on writing about separately; my mouth is actually watering at the thought of the Harbour IPA, and for that matter the dear old Landlord. All that for two notes for the best part of a pint. On the other hand, I did really enjoy that Portent, which set me back £4.50 for 330 ml. But was it three and a half times as good as Landlord? Yeah… no… maybe.

What’s the point here?  Just to say that the market is segmenting, and that the prices on the ‘craft’ side of the street really are rather high, when you stop to think about it. On the other hand, having a segmented marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that beer drinkers have to commit to one segment and no other, or even that brewers have to – although sticking to one market segment would save you the bother of managing multiple different price ranges, which would have to be a challenge. Playing both sides may even become a necessity. There may not always be enough people willing to pay the equivalent of £7-8 a pint for an unknown style from an unknown brewery (or collab); equally, there may not always be enough people willing to pay even a couple of quid for yet another familiar bitter from yet another mid-table brewery. Sadly, beer owes nobody a living.

…and with that gloomy thought I approach the end of Dry Tuesday (would have been Monday but my wife opened some wine). Twenty-four hours, no problem! Not going to stretch it to 48, though – there’s a Meet the Brewer with Ticketybrew at the Ford Madox Brown tomorrow night. More on that in due course.

Spontaneous similitude

As a footnote to the previous post, here’s something I noticed about the pricing of cask and keg beers in two bars I’ve visited within the last 48 hours.

The Library in Durham is a nice, laid-back bar, appealing (as far as I can tell) equally to students and locals. They have two beer blackboards, one labelled ‘cask’ and the other ‘craft’. They’re certainly not pitching to the cognoscenti, but it’s interesting that they think it’s worthwhile to offer a range of keg beers that they can call ‘craft’. The keg beers are fairly wide-ranging – I’ve seen Guinness on a ‘craft’ tap before now – but generally include something from BD (5 am Saint today). They also have a cask offering which is generally just on the interesting side of mainstream – Landlord, Bishop’s Finger and Black Sheep today – plus a cider on handpull. (It was a still cider today (rather a nice one from Cornish Orchards); there was a sign on the bar saying that if anyone wanted a head on their cider they’d be happy to knock one up with the steam arm from the coffee machine. We didn’t take them up on the offer.) The food’s good, incidentally – and served on metal trays, which are at least more practical than boards.

The Font in Chorlton – what can I tell you about the Font, other than that we refer to it in our house as TumbleTots? There were, unusually, no families with pre-school children in when I visited last night; I’d say the average age must have been right up in the mid-20s. (Yes, it was a Saturday night, and yes, that was unusual.) Anyway, they have eight cask beers and no fewer than sixteen keg taps; even allowing for a few, mostly rather uninspiring regulars – Flensburger pilsener, a keg cider – that generally makes for an impressive range of ‘craft keg’ options. Plus a 25% CAMRA discount, no less, although obviously this only applies to cask.

What struck me in both places was the pricing, which displayed a definite uniformity. A couple of years ago, there was a period when the Font’s keg board routinely listed prices for halves and even thirds, on the basis that (a) the price for a pint would just be too scary (b) you wouldn’t actually want a pint or (c) both. Cask beers were going for £3.20-£3.80 a pint, but a good half of the keg options were up in the £8-9 region; very nice some of them were too, but the disjuncture was a bit glaring. Then there was a period when the two sets of prices seemed to be converging – if the cheapest ‘craft keg’ option was under £5 and the dearest real ale was £4, surely it couldn’t be long before we were looking at one range of prices rather than two.

Or so I thought – but then they diverged again. With the exception of Magic Rock Cannonball – a fixture alongside Camden Ink – the really spendy big hitters seem to be a thing of the past: I’m no longer getting my late-night half of something silly from the Font. What’s happened now is that the keg beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in one price range, and the cask beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in another. I first took note of this yesterday because the ranges in question are both on the high side: £3.80-£4.90 for cask, £5.60-£7.20 for keg.

Meanwhile back in Durham, the Library has implemented a similar price standardisation policy, also with two price ranges – or rather price points: you could pay £3.35 for a pint of Landlord or Bishop’s Finger or that still cider from Cornwall, or £4.70 for a pint of something ‘craft’. The really daft part of it is that the ‘craft’ range included König Ludwig Weissbier and Grimbergen Blonde – the latter of which (coming in at 6.7%) is surely worth £4.70 of anyone’s money (even at Durham prices). 5 a.m. Saint, maybe not. (It used to be fantastic on cask, though. Trust me on this.)

The point of all this is that, when we talk about beer pricing, we’ve tended to look at it from the point of view of brewers. (For reference, here are the points of view of Cloudwater, HardKnott, Beer Nouveau and Siren.) It’s understandable that we should be sympathetic with brewers’ point of view – by and large, we’d like them to stay in business, after all. But that can easily slip into seeing the world (of beer) in brewer-centric terms, as if the problem of pricing was one that they could solve by gently pushing their trade price up a bit and (in the words of the Siren blog) “educating the market”, building a following of people willing to pay that bit more for beer from Siren (and other comparable breweries).

What both my recent blackboard encounters suggest is that it isn’t going to work like that. Until quite recently you wouldn’t have seen any cask beers at the Font above the £4 mark; those prices have gone up, no question. But the point is, they’ve all gone up – and the prices of the keg beers have gone up accordingly. Has every single brewery supplying the Font been pushing for prices in the £4+ range? Come to that, have Grimbergen, König Ludwig and BrewDog had a meeting and resolved not to supply the Library unless bar prices were pegged above £4.50? Obviously not. The bars have set their prices – partly in line with what their suppliers are asking for, certainly, but mainly in line with what the market will bear. (Both bars were buzzing, I should say.)

Bars will set prices where they can – they’ll set them as high as the market will bear, but no higher. Supply beer that usually goes for £2.50 a pint – and has a wholesale price set accordingly – to a bar where everything’s £4 or above, and it’s not likely to go on at £2.50. On the other hand, try and supply beer that usually goes for £4.50 a pint to a bar where everything’s £3 or under, and it’s not likely to go on at all. What you’re never likely to see is a £2.50 cask beer alongside a £4.50, or a bar selling beers at a whole range of price points from ‘cheap’ up to ‘scary’. (A range of price points from ‘expensive’ up to ‘scary’ is another matter – see under ‘craft keg’; although if the Font’s anything to go by this may also be a hard sell.)

Bars set price ranges, based on the costs they have to cover and what their own particular market will bear; where cask beer is concerned, by and large what they set is a single price range, the price range for ‘cask beer’. Changing that assumption – and turning the cask beer list on a pub’s blackboard into something more like a restaurant wine list – may be even harder than cultivating the perception that the beer from this or that brewery is worth a bit extra.

What gose on?

This both is and isn’t a contribution to Session #116.

Put it another way, if it is a contribution it’s not a very useful one. I haven’t got anything useful to say about gose; I’m not 100% sure I’ve even had one. I think I’ve probably had gose twice – once in the form of Magic Rock Salty Kiss and once not – but my memories are not very clear or detailed, and I don’t seem to have made any notes. I don’t think I liked it very much.

So maybe it’s true, as Derrick’s introduction suggested, that American breweries are running wild with the style, but I haven’t seen much sign of it – and I live in a part of Manchester that’s particularly well-supplied with craft beer. I certainly can’t agree with Boak & Bailey that the style is ‘nearing ubiquity’. (I was also surprised to learn from Derrick that black IPA is becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity, as I’d have said it was still on the rising side of the curve.)

But if, the next time I’m in one of the local ‘craft’ emporia, I do find they’ve got a gose on – alongside the Antipodean pales and the porters and the DIPAs and the barrel-aged imperial stouts, we do get all that stuff – I hope it’s just a gose, and not one of the many and various spice- and fruit-flavoured experiments Derrick also refers to. I disagree fundamentally with B&B here – I don’t think going mad with a style (or with your idea of a style) is likely to be a step towards getting it right; if the name of the old style does catch on, it’s far more likely that it will be attached to what’s basically a new beer. (Compare the IPAs we know and love now with what was sold under the name of IPA 30 years ago.)

So I’d like to check out a plain ordinary gose, if anyone’s brewing one of them. I’m not big on fruit and spice additions in beer generally, above and beyond anything that’s required by the style. I like fruity and spicy flavours – I’ve got a longstanding passion for old ales and barley wines – but I want them brought out of the beer, not added to it. More importantly, I’d like to actually taste the gose, not least because the next gose I drink will be the second or possibly third example of the style I’ve ever drunk. If somebody were to ask me, “does gose taste of grapefruit?”, I’d like to be able to answer with a definite Yes or No – not “it certainly does if you’ve added grapefruit”. And above all, I’d like to know what gose tastes like done well, which is a bit different from ‘gose with tomato juice/sour cherries/cucumber and watermelon, done well’. If you’re brewing a gose with crystallised ginger and molasses, to take another genuine example – or an ‘imperial black gose’, despite the fact that gose is pale and low in alcohol – the chances are you’re brewing something nobody else has ever tasted before, let alone brewed: you’re competing in a class of one. But if nobody else can tell you how it’s done, then nobody else can tell you what you’re doing wrong or what you need to improve. That’s OK, though: if you’re not going to do it again – by the time it runs out you’ll have moved on to the next thing – you’ve got no incentive to listen to anyone else.

I think this “and for my next trick” mentality is one of the worst features in the contemporary alt-beer scene. It’s odd in a way that the word ‘craft’ – along with similar words like ‘artisanal’ – is so firmly attached to the scene. Craft historically has never meant producing a series of unique one-off creations imbued with artistic passion – rather the opposite. Craft generally means doing the same thing over and over again, applying slow, incremental improvements until you’ve got it right – and then doing it over and over again, just the way that you got it right. Get your bitter nailed and bring on a mild; get that right and try out a best bitter. Hardly any new breweries work like this now, least of all those that refer to themselves as ‘craft’. If I was going to drink a gose, though, that’s the kind of brewery I’d like it to come from. I guess I need to plan a trip to Leipzig.

Shop local

I realised the other day that we’ve got five off licences selling good beer within, say, twenty minutes’ walk – and that I never go to any of them, preferring to go to the supermarket and work my way through a series of bottles from Fuller’s, Adnam’s, St Austell and the like, interspersed with the odd Duvel or Guinness FE. Well, it’s Christmas, and (having recently gone full-time) I’ve got a bit more spending money than usual, so I decided today to do the rounds of all five and buy everything that jumped off the shelf at me, with a particular focus on British ‘craft’ stuff.

I can now report that – barring any nasty surprises when I come to open the stuff – I’m living within striking distance of five off licences selling insanely good beer. I’m now the proud owner of bottles (and a few cans) from

Seven Bro7hers
Ticketybrew

– Carrington’s

Buxton
Runaway
Six Degrees North

– Oddbins

Cloudwater
Magic Rock
RedWillow

– Épicerie Ludo

Marble/All In
Northern Monk/Nomada
Buxton/To Øl

– Tiny’s Tipple

Brew By Numbers
BrewDog
Kernel
Siren
Tempest

– Chorlton Off Licence

How they all keep going without cannibalising one another’s business is a mystery – the last two in particular, which are practically in the same parade of shops. There’s a certain amount of specialisation when it comes to breweries, as you can see from my shopping lists above – Ludo playing it a bit safer than COL, Tiny taking the more esoteric and bleeding-edge stuff – but it’s all on the same spectrum: mostly pales, stouts and sours, mostly 330 ml bottles and cans, prices in the £2-£3 range. Guess it’s a popular spectrum these days!

All I need now is somewhere to buy the rest of the Ticketybrew range (I’ve only managed to collect the Pale, Dubbel, Blond, Tripel, Table IPA, Black IPA and Jasmine Green Tea). Will travel, a bit.

(And no, I don’t do much of my beer shopping online.)

Little boxes

I’m rather late in writing this up, but a couple of months ago Beer52 got in touch and asked if I’d like to take another look at one of their monthly beer boxes. I was less than bowled over last time, concluding with the ringing endorsement “if you’re less bothered by the pricing, have fewer alternatives to mail order or really like the sound of those breweries, this may suit you better than it does me.”

A year down the line, they’ve made a few small changes and one big one. The small changes include ditching that awful food-matching copy on the box and throwing in a couple of nice extras – a small packet of something crunchy and a large, almost newspaper format magazine, Ferment. The basic setup remains unchanged: you still pay £24 a month for eight bottles of beer delivered to your door (although the price drops if you take out a longer subscription). Unimaginative tightfist that I am, last time round I got a bit stuck on that figure of £3 per bottle – particularly as several of the bottles were 330 or 355 ml – and a rather predictable internal argument ensued: “You might have to pay that much in a specialist beer shop!” At that price I just wouldn’t buy it. “If you think of it as mail order and allow a bit for P+P…” Yeah, but I don’t buy beer on mail order. And so on.

A year later I’m still a tightfist, but – and this is the big change – the beer is looking a lot more like beer I might pay £3 a bottle for, in a specialist shop or on mail order. The haul last time included the mighty Ticketybrew, Stevens Point, Oakham, Grain and three breweries I was less impressed with; it didn’t make me feel they were fielding the A team, put it that way. This time I got

  • Beer Project Brussels Dark Sister (6.66%)
  • Brewfist and Brewhere Caterpillar (5.8%)
  • Bronher The Drunk Hop (4.7%)
  • Cloudwater Grisette (3.5%)
  • Gosnells London Mead (5.5%)
  • Lucky Jack American Pale Ale (4.7%)
  • Six Degrees North Belgian IPA (6.6%)
  • Vocation Heart and Soul (4.4%)

All 330 ml bottles except the Lucky Jack and Vocation, which were 330 ml cans – rather nasty contract-labelled cans in the case of the Vocation.

I think you’ll agree there are some names to conjure with there. The Dark Sister was a black IPA; apart from that everything that doesn’t have a style in the name was a pale beer. And most of them, I’ve got to say, were really good. Hand on heart I didn’t much enjoy the Cloudwater, but I’ve never had a grisette before – supposedly it’s like a session saison – and I’m quite prepared to believe it was true to type. I did enjoy the Belgian IPA – which did what it said on the label – and, slightly to my surprise, the mead: it had a strong taste of honey without being at all cloying. I left the canned beers till last to see if I’d detect any oxidation from the excessive headspace which is a risk in canning (particularly contract canning), but I’m happy to say I didn’t – I’ve been highly impressed by Vocation beers on cask, and this one was almost as good.

I don’t do advertising, but I do think this is a good range. (Oh, very smart, going for the we-all-hate-advertising dollar… Shut up, inner Bill Hicks!) Bear in mind that the actual beers I got were last month’s selection or possibly the month before’s – you’re not going to get these beers if you sign up today. But if that list is at all representative of the kind of breweries they’re dealing with, I think it shows that what Beer52 are offering has improved a lot. As for whether it’s worth £3 a bottle, or £24 a month, for me I think the answer is still probably not, but it’s a close thing. Besides, I’m writing as somebody who lives within fifteen minutes’ walk of three different off-licences that sell Cloudwater beers (among much else). If you’re less fortunate in that respect, there are certainly worse things that you could do with £24 a month.

A brief word about the freebie magazine Ferment. I lean both ways about Ferment: as a former hack myself I’m generally in favour of anything that puts words on paper, and it’s a nice-looking, well-designed publication. The content isn’t particularly unusual, though, in authors, content or style; it’s somewhere between an issue of BEER and a good day’s trawl of the more earnest end of the blogosphere. That said, one article that qualified on all three counts was also an absolute clunker – the writer was ostensibly reviewing the Imbibe trade show but instead got two pages out of sitting on a slow-moving bus and deciding not to go to the show, and filled the ‘beer’ element of the brief by sniping (unoriginally) at horrible mass-market beers and (unpleasantly) at the horrible people who drink them. If that’s the alternative, give me food-matching, what’s new in the world of IPAs and what is a saison? any day. I also noticed that one of the contributors described himself as a recently qualified freelance journalist. Damn, that’s where I went wrong

Brewhive – empty vessels?

2015-08-30 17.19.12

Small, far away

So, this Brewhive business – what’s it all about?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I put some questions to the company’s friendly intern in an email. Three days later – considerably longer than it took to deliver the beer – I got a reply from Andrew Veitch, one of the company’s founders. Here are my questions again, with Veitch’s answers inserted.

1. Who is/are the brewer(s)? What is their background (other breweries/Heriot Watt/home brewing etc)?

(see next answer)

2. Where does the brewing happen? Does Brewhive have its own brewkit, or are they going down the ‘gypsy’ route (brewing on other brewers’ kit), or contracting the brewing out? What’s the brew length for each of the main styles? Where is the cider made?

We did the initial test brewing at Drygate (although it wasn’t the Drygate team) and the brewing is presently at Clonmel in the small batch brewery on the Bulmer’s site. That brewery is 100k hectolitres.

3. The choice of styles is interesting – it seems quite conservative when compared with the more exotic and innovative styles that a lot of startup breweries are coming out with. How were these three beer styles (and one cider) arrived at? Will Brewhive be expanding this range or offering short-run specials?

We’ve done a lot of customer research and our customers are looking for beers that are more interesting than commercial lager but are lower ABV and less strongly hopped than most craft beers. This fits in with our focus on food matching. A conservative range is actually exactly what we are aiming for so I’m pleased you used that term.

We will develop the range further and may use other brewers for guest beers or special editions.

4. Why ‘craft’? What does ‘craft’ mean to you – and if someone asked you to justify calling Brewhive a craft operation, how would you go about it?

Our objective was to create some beers that are aimed at people who are presently drinking wine or drinking commercial lagers. We are absolutely not aiming at people who are presently drinking craft beers (and in fact we do try to avoid the term “craft beer” to describe our beers).

5. The pitch to the online retail space is very strong; from a customer’s point of view, you seem to have a lot of the bugs ironed out (lack of availability, high delivery charges etc). Will Brewhive always be an online retailer of bottled beer? Can we expect to see the Brewhive logo appearing in shops or on bar taps?

Our plan is to be online only although we may be available in certain restaurants. However we will never be available in supermarkets or bars.

Veitch has a few key points here, which he’s been putting across quite consistently (see his answers to the questions posed by the Look at Brew blog). Firstly, the people running the company aren’t doing the brewing. The Bulmer’s site at Clonmel in the Republic of Ireland (now owned by Guinness) is actually where Magner’s comes from – nothing to do with our own dear H.P. Bulmer’s (now owned by S&N). Secondly, these beers aren’t aimed at people who know about beer, and they’re meant to be bland: “more interesting than commercial lager” but not high in alcohol and not strongly hopped. (Veitch may need to have a word with Kevin Dorren, who told the world back in January that “Brewhive is unique due to it’s [sic] focus on the hop. Most beers don’t make a big deal about the hop, but we plan to!”) Thirdly, it’s not craft beer. There are some mixed messages here – googling for “brewhive” and “craft” brings back more than twice the number of hits as if you search for “brewhive” without the word “craft”. There’s also that line on the Liquid e-commerce site, quoted earlier, to the effect that Brewhive “plans to have the largest range of craft beers in the UK” – not to mention Kevin Dorren‘s description of Brewhive as aiming to be “the largest craft beer brand in the UK”. But let’s write that off as marketing flannel and take it that Veitch is speaking for the company: craft beer is (mostly) strong and hoppy, and that’s not what they’re doing.

All fair enough. But I still didn’t really understand where Brewhive was coming from – if you wanted to sell beer online, why wouldn’t you just set up as a mail-order retailer? if you wanted to sell your own beer, why wouldn’t you brew your own beer? if you were having beer made to a specification, why would you make it such a bland specification? A bit more poking around on the Liquid e-commerce site brought some enlightenment:

Kevin Dorren – Founder

Kevin has started or been employee No 2 in a number of startup companies in the UK and USA in a number of fields, including Technology, FMCG and advisory.

Between 1997 and 2001 he was CEO of Orbital Software – a person to person knowledge management company founded from Heriot Watt University.

In 2008 he cofounded Diet Chef with Andrew Veitch.

Andrew Veitch – Founder

Andrew founded Diet Chef with Kevin Dorren and also has been the founder of Fine Coffee Club a leading Nespresso compatible capsule competitor. He has extensive experience in direct to consumer marketing and has coding experience with Python, Django and other web technologies.

Which, in an odd sort of way, answers all my questions. Why aren’t they brewing their own beer? Because they’re not brewers. Why are they selling their own brand of beer instead of retailing other people’s? Because they’re running an online beer retailing business on the same lines as their earlier diet and coffee retailing businesses; being an intermediary for back-end suppliers would introduce complexity and cut their margins. Why are they having the beer made bland? Because they want to make the target market as big as possible, and they judge that strong flavours will repel more people than bland ones; because they’re not brewers and don’t have any personal investment in the flavour of the beer; and for simplicity and better margins.

Incidentally, a bit further down the page we meet

Anna Roper:  Marketing Manager

That’ll be Anna Roper, Digital Marketing Manager for Fine Coffee Club (“I’ve been involved in almost every aspect of Fine Coffee Club since starting when the company was formed in 2012.”). You may also remember the name from my earlier look at the Brewhive blog; there she figures as

Anna Roper
Beer lover & trainee sommelier.

“Apparently there is a Brewhive sommelier,” says Brew Geekery. That’s not quite how I’m reading it.

So here’s what seems to be happening. A couple of entrepreneurs build up a track record in online FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods – food & drink, basically). The MO – which has been highly successful, as you’ll see if you google Veitch and Dorren – seems to go something like this:

  1. find a market which is well-established but has a bit of potential for expansion
  2. set up an operation with a prominent ‘online’ stamp, doing something just different enough to be eye-catching
  3. get it working, run it for a couple of years, then
  4. move on to the next thing.

The latest thing they’re moving on to is beer, where they’re looking to get in at the mass-market end of the spectrum – not the ‘BrewDog in Sainsbury’s’ mass-market, the real mass market, the one where people don’t want to sandblast their tastebuds but just want to feel like they’re drinking something a bit… different. Given their (lack of) background, it’s not too surprising to find that they’ve got the online user experience and the fulfilment side pretty much right, but that they can’t really talk the talk when it comes to beer. And then there’s an even bigger problem, which is that they have a much stronger idea of what the beer shouldn’t be (strong, hoppy, challenging) than what it should be – and the actual brewing is being done by a big corporate brewer, to (presumably) a tight budget.

So we end up with a total mismatch: it’s the kind of bland, mediocre beer that you can sell by the gallon through a keg font with a magnet on the front, but they’re trying to sell it in 33 cl bottles (a classic symbol of ‘craft’), in an online marketplace where the level of customer knowledge is pretty high and the demand for innovation is even higher. It’s interesting that they’re planning to stay online-only, except perhaps for “certain restaurants” – presumably restaurants where they can get exclusivity; it sounds like a strategy for avoiding direct comparisons, and makes me wonder if they’re conscious that the beer isn’t all that good. The trouble is, you don’t need a blind tasting of their IPA and Punk IPA (or even Greene King IPA) to know how poor their IPA is – anyone who knows anything about beer will tell straight away. Is the idea to make it work by somehow angling their marketing at all those people who don’t know anything about beer? But if that’s the case, why would they be trying to market it through bloggers and beer cognoscenti like what I am?

Since I started this series of posts another couple of reviews have appeared, and I’ve had to consider an unwelcome possibility: what if they don’t care about quality? To put it another way, what if they’re aiming at a market consisting of people who don’t care about quality – wouldn’t that make it completely pointless to criticise the beer in terms of quality? And what if a bit of ‘ordeal by social media’ were just part of the process of getting the name out there and building brand recognition? Even if everyone’s more or less critical about the beer, every review that appears online is another search engine hit for “Brewhive” – and every review can be quoted selectively. Maybe I’m being played, to put it bluntly.

All things considered, I don’t feel under any obligation to be positive about Brewhive. In my opinion, the beer is not very good at all, and the underlying approach is misconceived. We can all agree that strong and challenging beer isn’t for everyone. I’m less convinced by their minor premise – that there are a lot of people who don’t drink beer but could be persuaded to drink relatively bland and unchallenging beers; that to me sounds a bit like a non-sexist version of the justification for those “ladies’ beers” which are launched every few years and sink without trace. But even if that is true, we don’t need these beers: there is plenty of beer out there with un-scary hopping rates and nice, gentle a.b.v.s, and most of it is better than Brewhive’s. The “Look at Brew” review concludes

I like that the company are aiming towards the ‘entry level’ end of the market, and once those recipes are re-worked they could well prove to be a good bridge from mass produced to artisan.

But better bridges exist already. It’s not as if you needed to book an appointment at Beer Ritz in order to find anything better than “commercial lager”; just look in the beer aisle of your nearest supermarket, or stick your head in one of those temples of geeky beer elitism called J. D. Wetherspoons. And it’s not as if Brewhive were offering to educate the ‘entry level’ crowd as a public service. It’s a bit like saying that a sausage with most of the meat replaced by rusk and fat would make a good gateway food to encourage non-sausage-eaters to explore the good stuff, and then starting a business selling a new brand of low meat-content sausages. You’d make some money, but you wouldn’t actually be doing anyone a favour, including your non-sausage-eating target market.

Basically, there’s nothing Brewhive are doing that needed to be done. These people have no brewing background and know next to nothing about beer; they’re only in it to make money out of customers who don’t even like beer. I recommend giving the beer a wide berth (never mind the cider), and I hope the people behind the company have a serious rethink – preferably to the point of quietly giving up the whole idea.