Category Archives: ‘Craft’ is it?

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.

Brewhive – the beer

Gary: So tell me more.
Barman: About what?
Gary: Crowning Glory. Is it nutty? Is it foamy? Is it hoppy? Does it have a surprisingly fruity note which lingers on the tongue?
Barman: It’s beer.
Gary: We’ll have five of those, please.

The story so far: a company called Brewhive, who appeared to be setting up as an online provider of craft beer, got in touch asking if I wanted to review their stuff. For more detail see the previous post. Or just read on…

I wrote back to Brewhive, saying I’d like to try their beers, on a Wednesday night; the beer arrived on the Friday morning. This was impressive. I’d expressed interest in the cider as well as the beers. The box – apparently a feat of cardboard engineering designed to minimise breakages – contained six bottles, a bottle opener and a delivery note listing two bottles each of the beers plus one of the cider. This would have been an enterprising use of a six-bottle crate; in fact there was one each of the cider and the lager, and two of the others. Here, without any editorialising, is the label copy.

[front]
Pale Brew
ENGLISH ENDEAVOUR
I.P.A.
“My English Endeavour hops give me a grapefruit & lime note & crystal malt adds caramel flavour.”
[last bit in a speech bubble ‘spoken’ by a stylised hop cone]
[back]
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 11 deg C
TALKING POINTS: The English Endeavour hop has a robust flavour and satisfying bitterness
TASTING NOTES: Hints of lime, grapefruit & caramel
CHARACTER: Medium bodied, fruity and well rounded
COMPLEMENTS: Chicken, fish, salads

ALC 4% VOL

Hints of… no, I said no editorialising. Bad blogger. Next up:

[front]
Dark Brew
CHOCOLATE MALT
PORTER
“My American Summit hops infuse with rich chocolate malt & hints of vanilla, liquorice & caramel.”
[back]
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 13 deg C
TALKING POINTS: The English chocolate malt is kilned at a high temperature giving extra richness to this traditional porter
TASTING NOTES: Distinctive liquorice taste with notes of vanilla & caramel
CHARACTER: Strong roasted
COMPLEMENTS: Roasts, game, cheeses

ALC 4.1% VOL

Another?

[front]
Blonde Brew
GERMAN MAGNUM
LAGER
“My German Magnum hops create a refreshingly smooth Pilsner with a malty sweet and subtly bitter finish.”
[back]
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 8 deg C
TALKING POINTS: The German Magnum hop is bold yet mild with a clean bittering quality
TASTING NOTES: Citrus and spice top notes with an undercurrent of hop-infused flavour
CHARACTER: Well balanced with a distinctive grainy bite
COMPLEMENTS: Spicy food, BBQ’s and snacks

ALC 4% VOL

And we might as well do the full set.

[front]
Cider Brew
APPLE
IRISH CIDER
“My crisp, sweet apples are gently infused with a hint of sparkle to create a refreshing lightness & taste.”
[back]
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 10 deg C
TALKING POINTS: Golden cider carefully brewed from a variety of succulent apples
TASTING NOTES: A refreshing, fruity cider with crisp apple top notes and a clean finish.
CHARACTER: Well balanced sweetness with a hint of dryness
COMPLEMENTS: Chicken, pork & bacon

ALC 5% VOL

It’s hard to know where to start. I’ll deal with the cider label first, because it’s particularly awful – a ‘fruity’ cider with ‘apple top notes’? A cider that’s been ‘carefully brewed’ (you don’t brew cider) from ‘a variety of succulent apples’? ‘Well balanced sweetness with a hint of dryness’? This isn’t quite at the level where you genuinely suspect it’s been written by a bot, but it’s alarmingly close. It conveys no information at all, while running up all the ‘style’ flags it can find. It reads as if it’s been written by somebody who’s read a food magazine from cover to cover and then, well, looked at a bottle of cider.

As for the beers – are they nutty? are they hoppy? do they have a surprisingly fruity note which lingers on the tongue? No, but they have ‘notes’ – grapefruit and lime, vanilla and caramel, citrus and spice; one of them has ‘hints’ (grapefruit, lime and caramel), one has an ‘undercurrent’ (hop-infused flavour) and a distinctive grainy ‘bite’, while the third rather disappointingly has a liquorice ‘taste’. It all seems nice and foodie (drinkie?), it’s just that the words are wrong. Caramel notes come from the malt and are generally avoided, or even looked down on, in the hop-chasing fraternity; it’s very odd to boast about the caramel, never mind putting it in with the hop fruit salad. As for the porter, it’s brewed with Summit, a hop noted for “pungent, spicy citrus flavors bordering on the savory”; anything less likely to give ‘notes of vanilla & caramel’ is hard to imagine. (Unless they meant salted caramel?) A ‘hop-infused flavour’ basically means nothing, as does ‘bold yet mild’; ‘bittering’ refers to how you use the hops, not what they taste like; ‘hops infuse with chocolate malt’ isn’t even grammatical. The lager is described as bitter, ‘malty sweet’, citrussy, spicy, grainy and clean-tasting, which would be quite a trick. And so on. Like the dialogue from World’s End I quoted at the top, these labels seem to have been written by someone who knows what beer-speak sounds like but doesn’t actually know beer.

Now to actually taste the beer. Place your bets…

BLONDE BREW
I’ll start with this one because I don’t want to be relentlessly negative, and this was reasonably nice. I drank it after getting back from Germany, and even then I didn’t think the ‘German lager’ designation was miles out – it had a dry, flinty quality which reminded me quite pleasantly of a half-decent mass-produced pilsner. There was a bit of a fresh, citrussy front-of-mouth attack going on as well, which got more obtrusive as you got through the bottle, and which I thought didn’t really belong – it was more like a taste you’d get in an old-school bitter than a lager. Still, it went down very easily. Don’t get me wrong, half-decent mass-produced pilsners which are actually from Germany and the Czech Republic are widely available, and there’s no way I’d advise anyone to take this over the real thing – a PU or even a Bitburger would knock spots off this. But if it was this or a supermarket own-brand bottled lager – a St Cervois, say, or a Bière des Moulins – the Blonde Brew would win every time.

But I’m afraid that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

PALE BREW
I drank this one first, and it came as something of a shock. Never mind ‘pale brew’, in the glass it looked like Irn Bru: tawny orange, heavily carbonated, limpidly clear. There’s a certain kind of carbonation where the bubbles don’t seem to be precipitating out of CO2 in solution but just look as if they were sitting there all along, having been introduced into an inert liquid. My chemistry’s probably all wrong, but that’s very much what it looked like. Fortunately it didn’t taste like Irn Bru; unfortunately it didn’t taste like IPA, either. It tasted like keg bitter, or canned keg bitter; it tasted like the ‘brown bitter’ equivalent of a St Cervois or a Bière des Moulins. There was a light, citrussy attack, a bit of malty sweetness in mid-mouth and the ghost of a bitter finish; and, er, that’s it – no complexity, no development. The first time I tasted keg bitter – some time in the late 1970s – I thought of Sodastream machines, and of somebody making a fizzy drink with a ‘beer’ syrup; that’s what it reminded me of. It was dreadful. (The second bottle was a bit better, but only because I knew what to expect.)

DARK BREW
This was a bland, sweet porter with a definite chocolate flavour and very little bitterness, ‘strong roasted’ or otherwise. In fact it was fairly light-bodied and thin-tasting. This wasn’t just because of its low strength; there was also a distinct (and familiar) citrussy lightness of flavour in the front of the mouth. By the bottom of the glass it almost felt as if I’d been drinking two different beers – a dark mild and a bog-standard brown bitter, possibly on keg. Certainly not as bad as the Pale Brew, but it did show a definite family likeness, and not in a good way.

CIDER BREW
For completeness’ sake I had a taste of this, but gave the bottle to the family’s resident cider fan. For what it’s worth, it was the most heavily carbonated thing I’ve poured in a long time: by the time I’d carried the glass from one room to another the back of my hand was soaking wet. Impressions? If the Pale Brew took me back to the late 1970s, this took me back even further – to Woodpecker cider, which I thought was very adult and sophisticated when I was twelve. (I remember feeling I’d really grown up when I graduated to Strongbow.) ‘Well balanced sweetness with a hint of dryness’ is about right: I got sweetness balanced with more sweetness, followed by… nothing: where most ciders have a finish, an aftertaste or both, this one just sort of stopped.

I hate to bite the hand that feeds and so on, but I’m a reviewer, not an copywriter. I like the idea of making a business out of selling a limited range of beers online and doing it well – and the Web site is pretty nice. But the beers (and the cider) were just not very good: on a scale of 1 to 10 I’d give the lager 4, the porter 3 and the other two 1.

So what’s going on here? How does somebody put so much work in to get all the elements right – the ordering, the fulfilment chain, the packaging, the Web site, the blog, the pitch to leading social media opinion-formers (hem hem) – and get the actual beer so wrong?

More about this in the next post, and a bit more about Brewhive the company.

Brewhive – some thoughts

Like other beer bloggers, I’m occasionally approached by brewers and distributors offering freebies of various kinds. (Needless to say, I’m approached rather more often by brewers, distributors and various other people not offering freebies, but most of those approaches can be ignored.) I treat this stuff as fuel for the blog: my main criterion for accepting a freebie is whether I think it’ll make something good to write about. Just the other day I turned down the offer of a three-course meal from a restaurant whose PR clearly had me listed under “food and drink”; I asked if there was a beer angle of any sort, it turned out that there wasn’t, and that was that.

So I was intrigued when I received an email, just under a month ago, from… well, I’ll take the liberty of quoting the email.

My name is [redacted], beer lover and Summer intern for a new start-up beer company Brewhive.

As part of my research into the industry I’ve been looking through your blog and have really enjoyed it. You really seem to know what you’re talking about and have introduced me to the whole concept of ‘real ale’ which previous to this job I wasn’t aware of.

Here at Brewhive we’re trying to enter the world of craft beer through the online market. We’ve developed a small line of 3 core beers that we hope gives our drinkers a rounded example of the beers out there for them: a pilsner made with the German magnum hop, an English endeavour IPA and an English chocolate malt porter.

I would be really keen to send you a sample of our beers so that you could try them and provide us with some honest feedback either personally or on your blog. Please let me know if this would be interest to you.

I was a bit surprised that this ‘beer lover’ hadn’t come across the concept of ‘real ale’ before reading my blog, but let it pass. (It’s a touch of personalisation, if nothing else – and ‘real ale’ is indeed one of the main topics I bang on about here.) I was intrigued by the idea of an online retailer entering the market with a dedicated range of beers – an online brewer, in effect – and the beer sounded as if it might be interesting.

So I did a bit of basic research online. The first thing that struck me about Brewhive was that they were taking social media seriously: the first page of search results brings back Brewhive material on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, as well as Facebook, Untappd and the company’s own Web site. I imagine a lot of this is down to the summer intern (job advert). The company site – here – is fairly basic but well-designed and clean-looking. It’s mainly given over to describing their products and selling them online, as you might imagine, but it also includes a blog written by Anna Roper. She describes herself as “the resident beer expert here at Brewhive” and promises to keep us updated on her journey to becoming an accredited Beer Sommelier.

As for the beers, there are three, bearing the slightly Repo Man-like names of ‘Pale Brew’, ‘Dark Brew’ and ‘Blonde Brew’; there’s also a cider (‘Cider Brew’). Tasting notes and serving recommendations are craft-y verging on pretentious. As well as ABVs and IBUs we’re given recommended serving temperatures, of 8 deg C, 11 and 14 for the Blonde, Pale and Dark beers respectively (and 10 for the cider). The IPA is described as ‘the ideal session ale’ and recommended to pair with ‘a young goats cheese’ or ‘chicken roast with lemon’; on the Dark Brew page we read, ‘A chocolate porter pairs naturally with rich desserts and game but for something a little different, why not serve with seared scallops?’

On the ordering page there’s a rather nifty ready-reckoner that enables you to price up a selection of beers (and cider), to be delivered in multiples of six bottles from the company’s warehouse in Edinburgh. The first time I saw this page it offered something that really got my attention – free delivery for orders of twelve bottles or more. Pricing up an online order and then mentally adding a fraction of the delivery charge to the price of each bottle has always been something that annoys me about online ordering; a retailer who was willing to absorb the delivery costs on larger orders would have a real edge, I thought. Apparently Brewhive didn’t think so – or, more probably, they decided that their business model wouldn’t support it – as this is no longer being offered. The beer is priced at between £1.85 and £2.20 per bottle, for 330 ml bottles – not expensive per bottle, but not dirt cheap per litre by any means (it’s the equivalent of a price range of £2.75 – £3.30 for a 500 ml bottle). And the beer isn’t particularly strong; the cider is 5%, but all the beers are either 4% or 4.1%.

By now I was starting to be puzzled. IPAs and porters at 4% are unusual; 4% IPAs and porters in 330 ml bottles are very unusual, and those that are out there are generally pitching pretty hard for the ‘craft’ label. Again, launching with an IPA and a porter seemed fair enough, but an IPA, a porter and a ‘German lager’ – and a cider? And those weird, corporate brandings, as if this was the only beer (or cider) anyone could want – the presumptuousness is very ‘craft’, admittedly, but not the narrowness of the range implied by the closed list of styles. (The famous Scottish brewery with a similar name does lots of ‘pale brews’.)

I let Brewhive’s intern know I’d be interested in reviewing the beers (and the cider) but that I also had some questions about the company. Then I did some googling. One of the first things I found was this, from the “liquid e-commerce” site:

Launched July 2015

Brewhive is an emerging brand within the growing craft beer category. Designed for home consumption this fast growing e-commerce brand plans to have the largest range of craft beers in the UK.

Our initial focus is on the harder to brew lager and IPA category, offering lighter beers for everyday consumption.

Focusing on provenance of ingredients is important to us, we have spent a huge amount of time researching the most interesting and flavoursome ingredients to add to our range.

The largest range of craft beers in the UK – provided by a fast growing e-commerce brand? Curiouser and curiouser.

Then there was this blog post from January, from somebody called Kevin Dorren. Quote:

The Brewhive Brand – Passionate about Hops

We are working hard on the Brewhive brand and user experience.

Brewhive is unique due to it’s focus on the hop. Most beers don’t make a big deal about the hop, but we plan to!

We are going to spend more on the customer experience than most online brands and hold much more stock to ensure availability is great. Three major things you need to focus on in e-commerce are:

  • Having the product in stock (sounds easy – lots of failures in this!)
  • Fast convenient delivery (next day, timed is ideal)
  • Fantastic customer support (solve issues with delivery, product quality etc asap)

To make this work, you need to cut your margin when offering a better quality delivery, hold more stock and have dedicated customer services resource. All of these cost money in terms of working capital but will improve word of mouth and customer satisfaction.

A passionate brand – and a unique focus on the hop. Hmm. I was starting to get the impression of people who knew a hell of a lot about retailing food and drink, and were thinking quite deeply about how to make a success of this particular venture, but who didn’t actually have any background in beer or brewing.

I sent some questions off to the intern.

Just a few quick questions about the Brewhive operation:

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

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?

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?

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?

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?

I’ll look forward to hearing from you. I think this could make an interesting post for my blog – combined with my thoughts on the beer, of course.

Next: my thoughts on the beer, of course.

Something silly

The Curmudgeon commented the other day on the burgeoning of ‘craft’ beers with silly a.b.v.s, arguing that this is a recent phenomenon and that it goes along with a different way of drinking beer. A session of thirds at 10.5% would be a very different experience from a session of pints at 3.5% – more like a wine- or whisky-tasting evening, less like a session down the pub.

The contrast can be exaggerated. Being a bit stronger than average has been a marker of quality in beer right back to the early days of CAMRA, when we’d seek out surviving strong ales and old ales (Young’s Winter Warmer, Theakston’s Old Peculier…) and compare them unfavourably with mass-market (keg) swill. Moreover, strength was still associated with quality and/or originality during the first pale’n’oppy boom. A big part of the appeal of Hopback Summer Lightning, back in the ’90s, was that it was both lighter-tasting than your average bitter and stronger – it was called ‘Lightning’ for a reason. (I wonder, looking back, how much of the original fan-base of Summer Lightning – and of the golden ales that followed – was made up of people who had been to the Netherlands or Belgium and tasted the ‘real’ Heineken or Stella: lighter and smoother than the beer we were used to, yet stronger with it.)

But there’s a big difference between Summer Lightning at 5.5%, or Young’s Winter Warmer at (I’m startled to find) a mere 5%, and something like Un-Human Cannonball at 11%. You’re no longer talking about having three or four pints, as normal, and feeling slightly rougher in the morning; three pints at 10% would equate to nine double gins, more than half the bottle. In fact you’re no longer talking about drinking pints at all (I found it hard enough to get through a third of UHC).

What you are talking about, at least in my experience, is the ideal candidate for a new way of drinking beer: the Half of Something Silly. Beer festivals and pub crawls aside, I almost invariably drink pints. At the end of a night, though, as I prepare to head home (or even after I’ve left the pub), I often fancy rounding off the evening’s drinking with a H. of S. S. (The fact that I tend to pass the Font on my way home from the pub may be relevant here.) To qualify as Silly, a beer needs to be something I’d never usually choose, either because it’s ridiculously strong or because it’s flavoured with, well, something silly – liquorice, cheese, Brett… A typical example of Something Silly was the smoked cherry chipotle milk porter I had a while back. I never want to have it again – I don’t think a milk porter was something the world was waiting for, let alone a chipotle milk porter or a cherry chipotle milk porter. (I couldn’t taste the smoke, which may be just as well.) But that’s not the point; sometimes (particularly when you’re already three pints down), you just fancy a half of something silly, and something silly is definitely what that was.

Any questions?

A new way of drinking beer – isn’t that a bit of a generalisation?

OK, it could just be me. But if you look at the keg list at a place like the Font in Chorlton, you’ll see that some of them hang around for absolute ages – particularly the really strong beers. (And I’m sure they’re fine, what with being keg to begin with.) There may be people having sessions on halves and thirds of loopy juice; alternatively, there may be some beers that only really come into their own after 10.30, when people start fancying a H. of S. S.

Aren’t you just describing what we used to call a ‘nightcap’?

Pretty much; and it’s not a million miles from other end-of-evening practices like switching to Landlord when time’s been called, or spinning out the last half of bitter by sticking a bottle of Guinness in it. But the likelihood of finding a cask ‘nightcap’ – or anything really weird or hefty – is pretty small nowadays. You’ll stand a better chance in a ‘craft’ bar – or a Spoons’ – but the real home of the end-of-evening beer, these days, is the ‘craft’ keg font.

So, Un-Human Cannonball is the new Old Tom.

Old Tom is the new Old Tom, and UHC would be a lousy substitute. Cannonball would do nicely, though. Also Marble Brew 900, Siren/Mikkeller White Stout, Marble Vuur and Vlam… all HoSS that I’ve known and loved. I’d include Magic Rock Magic 8 Ball (the 7.2% BIPA I finished off with last night) but for the fact that it gave me the worst hangover in years; I’m still a bit fragile 24 hours later. I only had a half (obviously), but I’m sure it was that one that did it – everything I’d had up to then was on cask, so it must have been OK.

Really?

No, not really. Actually I blame the saison I had earlier. Saison before black IPA and you’ll feel… how does it go?

A wet weekend

SATURDAY

My weekend’s drinking got off to an unusual start, with two hours of abstinence surrounded by beer.

Back a bit. I’ve been going to the Chorlton Beer Festival most years since it started, what with it being a beer festival, in walking distance, in and around (and in aid of) a rather nice local church. What I’ve never done, there or at any other CAMRA fest, is volunteer. For a while now, I’ve been feeling a bit bad about being the totally passive subs-paying variety of CAMRA member (particularly since the discounts available locally mean the sub pays for itself), and this year I decided to get my feet wet with a quick bit of festival staffing.

Never having done this before, I found I was enormously apprehensive – both in general terms (what would it actually be like?) and about the specific question of (not to put too fine a point on it) beer. My only experience of pint-pulling came from an afternoon stint at the Club Mirror trade event a few years back. This was essentially a beer showcase for licensees, and the beer was free – for the guests & for those of us on the stillage side of the table, if we wanted to sample the goods and/or were getting thirsty. Trade was reasonably brisk, but there was plenty of time for sampling – by the end of the afternoon I estimated I’d had about four pints in total. (Didn’t feel it, oddly enough. Must have been all that running up and down.)

Obviously an event where everybody’s paying will have different rules from one where nobody is, and I wasn’t expecting the Chorlton fest to be anywhere near as liberal as that. But my stint as a volunteer was going to be my only visit to the fest: I didn’t want to end up going home without having had anything at all. The advice sent out to volunteers set my mind at rest to some extent:

Staff are encouraged to taste the beers in order to familiarise yourself with what is available so you can recommend beers to customers. Please do not misuse this privilege. Your bar manager will give you a staff glass when you arrive – mark it with insulation tape showing your name. When going on a break, you may fill your glass. Please drink responsibly.

That didn’t sound too bad, particularly the bit about filling your glass. What did worry me was what would happen at the end of my stint – would I be able to buy some tokens and hang on as a punter? Or would they confiscate my ‘staff’ glass and insist I paid the full whack? (And if they did, what would I do?) I was still speculating (pointlessly) about this when I walked down to the church on Saturday afternoon.

Ah. Saturday afternoon. You may have spotted the flaw in my plan to ease myself into CAMRA volunteering with a little light pint-pulling. The festival was open Thursday evening, Friday evening and on Saturday from lunchtime to 9.30 p.m. For what must have seemed like good reasons at the time, I’d decided to volunteer from 6.00 to 8.00 on Saturday.

Was it busy? Yes, it was busy. It was very busy. There were about eight of us between the bar and stillage which had been set up at one end of the room, serving 20-odd beers – mostly from handpump – to… lots of people. At one point I remember thinking the crowd was thinning out a bit, and then realising it was still three deep along most of the bar. I took orders, pulled beers as quickly and efficiently as I could manage (balancing speed against froth), did mental arithmetic to work out what to charge and then did some more to work out which numbers to cross off on the token sheet – or sheets; a couple of times I was handed three separate sheets, all of them partly completed. Then I did it all again, and again. (As, of course, did all the people around me, most of whom were already doing it when I arrived and were still there when I left.) I spent the first ten minutes dashing unnecessarily up and down behind the bar and getting under people’s feet (sorry), working out where everything was and in some cases wasn’t (a couple of beers had already gone off). Then I got the hang of it. My pump-jockeying was getting quite good by the end of it, too.

Did I taste the beers to familiarise myself with what was available? Well, I did get a staff glass, but actually putting anything in it wasn’t an option. This was partly peer pressure – I could plainly see that nobody else was drinking anything, apart from one guy who was on water – but mainly it was just because there wasn’t time: even if the entire front row of drinkers was being served (which we did sometimes manage) there was always the row behind them, and the row behind them. It was endless. When I left, I suppose I could have pulled myself a cheeky familiariser on the way out, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that while everyone else was still working flat out – and besides, by that stage the beers were starting to get a bit scarce.

As for hanging around to sample the fest as a punter, certainly nobody made any move to take my glass off me, so that was one less worry. The only problem was, by then two of the three bars serving beer had completely run off and closed up; the only bar where beer was still being served was the one I’d just come from. It wasn’t that I didn’t fancy a beer – by this stage I really fancied a beer – but I didn’t fancy queuing up to get served by somebody I’d just been working alongside, let alone doing it two or three times over so as to spend £5 worth of tokens. So I parked my glass on a table and came home, via the Sedge Lynn (Phoenix White Tornado) and Pi (Se7en Brothers EPA).

The moral of this story is that I should have been more selective about which period I volunteered for – and that anyone who does volunteer (knowingly!) for a busy period at a beer fest is an absolute hero. (I’m still aching four days later – what it would have been like to serve all evening, and then do the take-down, I can only imagine.)

SUNDAY wasn’t quite what I’d expected, either.

In a conversation on Facebook earlier in the week I’d chanced to use the phrase “Manchester’s improving daily” – the title of a Victorian broadside ballad about the transformation of the city during the Industrial Revolution. A passing member of the band Edward II picked up on this and asked if I was coming to their ‘mini-festival’ – entitled Manchester’s improving daily – that weekend at the Angel. (It wasn’t quite such a coincidence as that makes it sound – the phrase was in my mind because I’d seen it earlier in the week, on a poster which was presumably advertising the event.) As well as performers giving renditions of selected Victorian ballads, the afternoon was going to feature two sets by Edward II, who are a kind of mutant reggae ceilidh band; there would be food and, the Angel being the Angel, a wide range of beers. The idea of standing in the sun with a beer listening to Victorian reggae appealed to me rather a lot, so on Sunday afternoon I headed out.

Then it started raining. By the time I got into town it was raining really heavily. I decided to take the bus to the Angel and got into an altercation with the bus driver, who’d never heard of the Angel (or, presumably noticed it) and didn’t know what fare to charge: “How much do you usually pay?” “I don’t, usually I walk it…” I got there to find the pub rather full – standing room only – and Edward II in the process of packing up: clearly the rain hadn’t been factored in. I got a drink (Stockport First Gold) and mulled over what to do. While I was mulling I overheard somebody telling somebody else that Edward II were going to do a set at Band on the Wall instead, and that there was a “scratch acoustic thing” going on upstairs. I headed upstairs, to find – not a scratch anything, but – the estimable Mark Dowding and Chris Harvey, who recorded an album of Manchester Victorian broadsides ten years ago. Still nowhere to sit, though. I stood through “Manchester’s improving daily” (none other) and then decided to go somewhere else to take the weight off.

The particular somewhere else I had in mind was the Smithfield – a pub I’ve always rather liked, though it’s never been the most opulent of drinking experiences. It’s recently started a new lease of life as a joint venture between Blackjack and an independent beer distributor. It’s also practically next door to the Band on the Wall, so it seemed like the ideal place to pass the time until Edward II were ready. I ended up having three Blackjack beers – You Bet, Jabberwocky and Full House – and an Alechemy Citra Burst. Three pale ales and one tripel, two on keg (You Bet and Full House), two on cask. They were all terrific; I started with You Bet but thought Jabberwocky shaded it in terms of complexity and interestingness – although I did catch myself thinking, heretically, that it would have been nicer just a bit colder. (It was a hot day.) And Full House, at 9.2%, was just superb.

As for Edward II, when I went to the Band on the Wall they had a sign up saying that they weren’t going to play after all, but ‘events’ would continue at the Angel. I shlepped back to the Angel and found no events going on, so I went home. An hour later – by which time it was a pleasant, sunny evening – a note appeared on Facebook to the effect that they were going to play after all, at the Angel. Blast! But then, if I’d hung around at the Angel – or in the Smithfield – for another hour I’m not sure I’d have been able to stand, let alone dance.

And the moral of that story – well, it’s a bit like the story of Trillian’s contact lenses in one of the later Hitchhiker books. The moral is that if you go home you miss out, sometimes, and if you stay out it’s a waste of time, sometimes. The trick is knowing which is which.