Category Archives: Free as in beer

The very cheese-oh

What shall we say about Ticketybrew? The first thing I want to say is that they’re making some of the best beers around at the moment, particularly on cask. If I see one of their distinctive pump clips I invariably make a bee-line for it; I’ve very rarely been disappointed, and I’m often genuinely impressed.

So: if the beer’s that good, what’s standing between Ticketybrew and the big time? Why aren’t we hearing their name bandied about alongside Blackjack and RedWillow, or Cloudwater at a pinch? Why, not to put too fine a point on it, aren’t they hip? There are three reasons, I think. One, I’m afraid, is the name; the design is brilliant, but the name is just a bit naff. The beer would gain credibility overnight if they changed the brewery’s name to something resonant and mysterious (“Liquid Void”, “GreenRail”…) – or even something plain like ‘Ticket’.

The second problem is the sheer hyperactive sprawl of the beer range. I’m in two minds about this – I’ve got fond memories of the Marmite Stout and the Rhubarb Berliner Weiss – but I can’t help feeling, as I said of Blackjack two years ago, that Ticketybrew could do with just slowing down. In peak condition, the Dubbel, the Tripel, the Pale, the Blonde, the Stout, the Golden Bitter and that double-hopped pale ale I had the other night are all absolutely stunning beers; how many more new and interesting fruit-machine combinations does the world need? At the end of the day, nobody likes a novelty merchant.

The third reason has to do with consistency. Consistency isn’t an issue for all of these beers – every Jasmine Green Tea Pale I’ve had, on bottle or cask, has had just the same light, flinty dryness. Even where it is an issue it’s not necessarily a problem; there’s a definite variability to most of their cask beers, I’ve found, but not in a bad way. Where the Pale and the Blonde are concerned, being slightly different every time even makes the beers more interesting. But for some beers, in bottle in particular, it is a problem – and that means it’s a problem Ticketybrew are going to have to surmount. If you look at Cloudwater, for instance, they’ve made their name on a few good beers and striking label designs, but also by getting consistency nailed: you may not know what a particular experimental hop pale ale will taste like, but you know that if you have it twice you’ll get the same again. As much as I love their best beers, Ticketybrew aren’t there yet, not for all of their beers – bottled beers in particular.

Overall I’d score Ticketybrew’s beer range something like this (with some double-counting for beers I’ve tasted in different conditions):

Superb Good Hmm
Cask 8 8
Keg 1 2
Bottle 8 8 6

The figures in the left-hand column are pretty impressive – that’s eight cask beers (plus the Tripel on keg) which are worth travelling across town for. I know that Ticketybrew are expanding; perhaps this is also an opportunity to get the consistency of their bottled beers sorted, whatever that actually involves (automated bottling? filter and re-seed? bottle in a cleanroom?). If they can pull that off, they could be world-beaters. Especially if they can slow down a bit on the fruit-machine style-ninja front – and maybe, just possibly, think about a name change? (“Thirsty Void”, there’s one nobody’s using. “Dark River”, “Electric Chill”, “BlueWindow”… Or maybe something plain like “Ticket”.)

HOPEFUL UPDATE 6/10 Had a bottle of the Blonde this evening; it was in better condition than I’ve ever tasted it in bottle, mellow and fruity without even a hint of sharpness. If this is how it’s going to be from now on – and I do hope it is – I’ll be recommending Ticketybrew beers in any format and without any qualification. (Even if they keep the name.)

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Quite a bit of all right

More on my firm favourite among brewers, Ticketybrew, with particular reference to their bottled beers. This post and the one before it have been a long time coming; it was last Christmas when I set out to buy every Ticketybrew beer I could find for a comprehensive tasting. Unfortunately my sweep of the shops coincided with a problem at the brewery which led to a few bottles with serious infection issues escaping into the wild, a couple of which I eventually bought. When I alerted Keri at the brewery to what had happened she confirmed that they had had problems – which had since been resolved – and very generously offered to replace the beers I’d bought. So this review isn’t going to say anything about the bottled Dunkelweisse or Salted Caramel Coffee Stout, neither of which I tasted at anything near their best.

Ticketybrew do a huge range of beers in bottle – all bottled by hand, and all (as far as I’m aware) bottle-conditioned – so this is going to be a bit of a ‘list post’. First, some bottled beers that are also available on draught (or vice versa). Of the beers I reviewed in the last post, I’ve had the Stout, Jasmine Green Tea Pale, Cherry Berliner Weiss, Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA and Tripel in bottled form, as well as the Pale and the Blonde. Those two are reliably good – almost as good in bottle as they are on cask. Of the others, the Stout was very nice, the Jasmine Green Tea was rock-solid and the Cherry Berliner Weiss worked well (and I could taste the fruit).

Of Ticketybrew‘s bottle-only beers, I’ve had a number of short-run pale beers: Citra Pale, Antipodean Pale, a 6% IPA and the Grodziskie. These were all 1. pale 2. ‘oppy and 3. nothing short of superb (although the Grodziskie threw half of itself out of the bottle before I could get a glass in range; it’s traditionally a highly-carbonated style, so I’ll give them a pass on that). They were also short runs, some very short – a couple of the bottles I tasted didn’t even have printed labels. I hope they brew some of them again and on a larger scale; I think the 6% IPA, in particular, could do very well.

Flavoured beers abound in their bottled range. I haven’t had the Peach Ice Tea, although it sounds good; I also missed the Rice Pudding (!) on its first outing and hope to see it again some time. Manchester Tart was a very pleasant pale beer flavoured – lightly – with raspberry and coconut; yes, it did work and no, I didn’t think it would. As for the Rhubarb Berliner Weiss, I’d rate it above the Cherry; perhaps it’ll make a comeback.

Then there’s the Dubbel, one of their very first beers. In the past I’ve been slightly ungenerous about the Dubbel, as I realised when I had a Westmalle Dubbel and compared the two. So let me clarify: at its best, Ticketybrew Dubbel isn’t any better than Westmalle. (It isn’t any worse, either.)

That just leaves the Rose Wheat, Flat White (coffee wheat beer) and Munchner. I’ll take them together with a few beers I mentioned earlier but didn’t say much about: the Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA and Tripel. With all these bottled beers – and with the Pale, Blonde and Dubbel – I’ve had some consistency issues. Remember what I said about the cask beers staling? More than once now, I’ve tasted the Pale and the Blonde and thought “I’m sure it wasn’t quite that sour last time… is it meant to be like that?“; that goes for bottle as well as cask versions. That said, I did ‘tune in’ to the taste of the beer almost immediately; the sharpness that hit me at the outset rapidly became one element of a complex flavour profile. (And that also goes for bottle as well as cask versions.)

I’m a bit more concerned about the others listed – the Coffee Anise Porter, Black IPA, Table IPA, Rose Wheat, Flat White, Munchner, Tripel and even the Dubbel. The contrast between the Tripel in bottle and in its freeze-dried flavour-capsule keg form is striking – I’d love to say that the bottle-conditioned beer has added subtlety and sophistication, but most of what I could taste was added acidity. All these bottled beers are terrific when they’re in good nick, but too often there’s been an extra note of front-of-mouth citric sharpness creeping in, and sometimes creeping right to centre stage. I wondered to begin with if this was down to the bottle conditioning – we all know about how the sugar turns to alcohol… Then I remembered the 10-year-old Chimay Blue that I’d tasted once (courtesy of my younger self): not a sour note in sight.

It’s not a bad line-up; I make that 21 different bottled beers, of which 13 are very good or brilliant. That’s not as good a hit-rate as the cask beers, though – and not all of the 13 are consistently brilliant, sadly.

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.

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: second thoughts

Although I liked Brew Britannia a lot, it wasn’t long before I started noticing – and noting down – things which, I felt, the authors had got wrong. I hasten to add that I’m not talking about factual errors, or anything that could be added to their scrupulous Errata. There’s ‘wrong’ as in ‘you spelt my name wrong’ – category 1 wrong, with no room for opinion; then there’s category 2 ‘wrong’ as in ‘this beer tastes wrong’, which is a statement of fact filtered through opinion (some people may like the taste of a beer that’s sour, full of yeast or both); finally, there’s category 3 ‘wrong’, which is pure opinion (as in ‘serving bitter in thirds is just wrong’). When I say B&B have got something wrong I’m mostly talking about category 3, with a few excursions into category 2. I also kept a list of things the authors had left out. This is a bit less challenging as a concept, although we should note that the list of things not included in any book is infinite; obviously when I say that a particular topic was left out, I’m saying it should have been included – or that leaving it out was… er… wrong. In some sense.

More from Philosophy Today next week. In the mean time, here (without much editing) is my list of omissions:

History of brewing industry consolidation/ introduction of keg skated over.

Earlier drinking clubs – much more!

Folk!

CAMRAIL story starts to get political and is immediately dropped

Top pressure – at least tell us what it is!

Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)

Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved

Craft beer – not exactly a gap, but the subject is dropped very quickly (though not without a decent attempt at a definition). Crops up later in the context of Crafty Dan, Brains etc – could really do with a definition by that stage

Could have done with much more (than one paragraph) on Spoons

Ditto on present-day CAMRA

And here’s my list of things that I thought were… other than right, in whatever way.

Prologue: is this what it was all for? Mark Twain (Eiffel tower)

Any real connection between Victorian Society etc and SPBW?

Any real connection between CAMRA and CHE etc? Boston green/”real food” campaigning connection underplayed by contrast. Frustratingly, they get this in Ch 4 but treat it as spin (“pure, virtuous beer”)

Marches and TU alliances against brewery closures – loss of “political neutrality” – ? (This was 1973-4)

Big Six reintroduce cask: authors assume this is a cunning plan to undermine CAMRA, despite informants not saying anything of the sort. Surely a retreat and as such a victory for CAMRA.

Lager explained by 60s social mobility, in turn explained as a generational shift, leading to the conclusion that “People liked lager, and the fact that CAMRA did not made the organisation seem rather parochial and backward-looking.”

“Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – fighting talk!

Firkin thrived because of higher prices? Bears investigation

Beer Orders – could unintended consequences have been avoided?

Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene?

“whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself” – ???

“A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature” – as distinct from being ‘cold and fizzy’ – “has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing'” Quite a contentious point, and what are those scare quotes doing there?

“some people have a strong preference for one, while others are able to appreciate both”

“There are young professionals … who think nothing of spending £8 on a pint of beer” Are there?

Thirds taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'” Really not convinced by this narrative – look at Font

Wild – are they using wild yeasts or not?

I’ll pull together these thoughts in a third post. For now I’ll leave you with the quote from Mark Twain which I referred to above. For background, the Prologue features a thumbnail sketch of a street in Bristol with three (count ’em) separate craft beer joints, each one craftier than the last. (“We shake our heads in disbelief and ask, ‘How the hell did beer get so hip?'”) Take it away, Mr Clemens:

Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: first thoughts

This isn’t a review of Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey (a copy of which the publishers sent me to review). At least, this isn’t the whole review; this is just what I think is special about the book, and – for what it’s worth – what I think is unusual about the authors, as authors of beer books go.

It’s always a good rule of thumb, faced with any kind of encyclopedia or comprehensive overview, to check the bit you know. If they’ve got that bit wrong, it doesn’t tell you that the rest of it is wrong, or even that any of the rest of it is wrong. What it does tell you is that you can’t assume that the rest of it isn’t wrong. In other words, a known error in one part tells you that you can’t trust the rest. (You may remember a celebrated anthology with encyclopedic ambitions falling foul of just this kind of fact-checking on quite a large scale.)

Boak & Bailey’s book isn’t an encyclopedia but it does cover a lot of ground, from Betjeman to BrewDog and beyond. Intuitively, it seems that covering that much ground will come at a cost. Nobody is as keenly aware of changes in pop music between the ages of 36 and 38 as they were between the ages of 16 and 18; similarly, there may well be people out there who have drunk Penrhos Porter, Bruce’s Dogbolter and Wild Evolver, but I don’t think anyone could be equally enthusiastic about all three. You never forget the first one that really hit the spot, whether it was Punk IPA or Ruddles County – but that necessarily means that everything else is likely to fade into the background a bit.

As a writer you can correct for this kind of bias – draining your writing of any excesses of enthusiasm for the stuff you like and dutifully pumping up the descriptions of the stuff you don’t – but the end result is likely to be a bit flat and brochure-y. It also does a disservice to your readers, who – hopefully – are enthusiasts themselves. The telltale sign of this kind of writing is that you notice – as with the fact-checking – when they’ve got your bit wrong. The stuff you don’t much like or weren’t around for, fair enough, the book seems to have done a reasonable job. But for the stuff you like – nay, love – this lukewarm approach is no good at all. This is the cue, in an encyclopedia, for porter enthusiasts to complain that their beer isn’t given its due, while IPA lovers complain about the praise being heaped on porter. Or, in a history, for first-generation CAMRA veterans to complain that the early sections are thin and bland compared to the endless ravings about ‘craft beer’ later on, and hipsters to complain about all the space that’s wasted on beardie nostalgia.

Or, in this history… not. What’s struck me about the reviews of this book is that different generations of beer enthusiasts have expressed satisfaction with the section on ‘their’ period, even if they don’t think the other sections work so well. (I’m no exception – I found the parts about the period I knew best to be particularly interesting and informative.) This is a remarkable achievement, and suggests that this book has something to offer quite a wide range of beer-drinkers – and will continue to do so for some time to come.

Having raved, in general terms, about the book, I’m going to say something about the authors which will sound a bit uncomplimentary. It’s not meant that way; bear with me. It’s like this: it’s tempting to conclude a complimentary write-up like this by saying something like “Boak and Bailey know their stuff”. On one level that would be true – I certainly didn’t see any factual errors – but on another level it’s not. I actually don’t think Boak and Bailey do know their stuff in the broader sense; I don’t think they’re authorities on half the subjects they cover in this book. That’s not what they do; that’s not why this is a good book.

What B & B are is journalists, and good ones. When I was a freelance journalist I had one regular job which involved writing a thousand words about a (specified) famous person, usually in the course of a week: it might be John Betjeman, it might be Prince Naseem, I had no way of knowing before the request came in. Essentially, I had to make myself an instant expert. (Sometimes ‘instant’ was the word. My single favourite assignment involved Crawfie – the Queen’s childhood nanny – and a deadline measured in hours rather than days; I’d barely heard of the woman when I got up that morning, but by the time I went to bed I’d got the thousand words written.) There’s a knack to rapidly absorbing information in that way, and it’s about finding angles and ways in. If two different sources refer to your subject’s love of horseriding or her difficult relationship with her mother, you dig there; you don’t waste time and effort filling in all the blanks (how many brothers and sisters, where did she go to school, did she have any childhood illnesses…) unless you absolutely have to.

In other words, I wasn’t an authority on Wallis Simpson or Helen Keller – the kind of person who would know their shoe size and what time they were born – but I could give you an account of them; I could tell you a coherent and believable story, with facts to back it up. And that’s essentially what Boak and Bailey have done here, on a much larger scale: they’ve become experts on Penrhos and Firkin, Brendan Dobbin and James Watt, the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and the CAMRGB. It’s a journalist’s book, in the best sense of the word: they’ve done the work, they’ve got the facts right (as far as I can tell) and, most importantly, they’ve found a way in to the story. Specifically, they’ve tapped into the enthusiasm of the people they’re speaking to and writing about, and echoed it in what they write. It’s a fine book. If you’ve read this far and you haven’t got a copy, you probably should; I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Next: part two of the review, which will be about what they got wrong and left out.

(But do get it.)

Here for rapid persuasion

I don’t do advertising.

I do review beer, and if someone sends me a bottle of beer – or stands me a pint or five – I’ll put my impressions on here (using the ‘category’ tag of “Free as in beer”). And I’ll probably be reasonably positive, or mildly critical at worst – it seems polite.

What you’re not going to see here is rewritten press release copy, or those posts that look like a promo from a free paper (“Those nice people at AB-InBev have sent me a bag of free stuff, and now it’s your turn!”). I hate reading that kind of thing, so I’m certainly not going to write it. So when you do see a product endorsement on Oh Good Ale, you’ll know it’s a product endorsement you can really trust… hang on, that’s not where I thought I was going with that one. (Shall I put the Bill Hicks link in now? You know the one.)

Anyway, yesterday I had some free stuff delivered (after a brief email exchange of the “would you like some free stuff?” variety). Beer, specifically. Most of it looks good, some of it I know to be good. I haven’t drunk the beer yet, for reasons that will become obvious, but here’s what I think of it so far.

The beer. I was sent three 500 ml bottles, three 330s and two 355s. Both the 355 ml bottles are from the same US brewery; otherwise they’re all from different breweries. The breweries in my selection are Barney’s*, Church Farm**, Grain*, Oakham, Stevens Point, Top Out** and the very wonderful Ticketybrew (* = never seen their beer before; ** = never heard of them before). Most of the beers are low-strength; only three go over 5% and only one over 6%.

The service. The deal is that the retailer sends you eight bottles of what they insist on calling ‘craft beer’; it comes in a box decorated with the silly food-matching diagram I wrote about in this post, bizarrely enough. There’s also an informative leaflet with some useful details on the beers and breweries, as well as some more silly food suggestions (with ‘red meat’ you want a dubbel, apparently, unless it’s a steak (stout) or it’s been barbecued (pale ale)). You pay £24 for this; a month later, they do it all over again and you pay them again. (The Web site seems to want you to set up a recurring payment authorisation on your credit card. I’d be a lot happier with a Direct Debit mandate; in my experience recurring payments on CCs are a swine to manage.)

The price and value (the offering if you want to be pretentious). There’s a trade-off between price and perceived value – quality, rarity, novelty etc – and for me, living where I do and drinking what I do, this box doesn’t quite hit it. I buy a lot more beer in supermarkets than in specialist shops; there’s a huge range of beer available in the supermarkets around here, and although it’s not a huge interesting range, it is a range with interesting fringes. So I’m not used to going much over £2 a bottle – particularly not for a small bottle. Also, I’m not a mad ticker, so I don’t seize on beers I’ve never seen before with whoops of glee; and I don’t often – actually, I don’t ever – buy beer by post, so I’m not habituated to adding a bit for P+P. All in all, if I was being asked to pay £3 for a 330 ml bottle of Barney’s GOPA (3.8%), I would not feel I was getting a good deal. But your utility function may vary (enough jargon already – Ed.) 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. And let’s face it, you can always cancel after a month or two (although, as I say, I have had trouble stopping recurring payment authorisations before now).

The marketing. I’m going to be a bit harsh here, I’m afraid. I work from home quite a lot, which means that I’m interrupted quite often by phone calls from people who tell me they’re from Microsoft Technical Support and they’ve received error messages from my computer. (Sometimes I tell them I use a Mac.) Obviously “I’m from Microsoft” is just an opener – a way of getting the punter into conversation – but it’s still a con; you really shouldn’t make a statement like that unless you mean it, and if you mean it you should be willing to prove it. (Sometimes I ask them what my IP address is. That’s fun. One of them even had an answer – it’s 192.168.0.1, he said (that’s one for the geeks).)

The thing is, I don’t think there’s much difference between that approach and mailing a random beer blogger with a line like “I’m a huge fan of your blog”. This line – which I have seen before – just makes me think, O RLY? What is it that you particularly like about my blog in particular, hmm? In the case of this particular retailer I tried to set them a bit of a test (“Your familiarity with my blog should give you a pretty good idea what I do & don’t like in the world of beer”) – and I will admit that my first reaction to seeing the beers was that they’d included the Ticketybrew because they knew I’m a fan. Not so, as I realised when I saw the leaflet; nothing personalised about this box, any more than the email. I’ve worked in business, and I know that if you make stuff, or sell stuff, you always have some spare stuff knocking about, or put some stuff aside for spare. What they’ve done, essentially, is sent me a form email followed by some spare stuff, in the hope that I’ll give them a bit of advertiahempresence on social media. As transactions go it’s a bit, well, cheap.

I’m not saying I feel hard done by – far from it; one free beer is a bonus, let alone eight. (All those years doing political and current affairs blogging, before I started on this beer lark; nobody ever sent me any free, um, politics. I may have spotted the problem.) What I’m saying is that their marketing needs some work, especially if they’re serious about doing social media stuff. With their current approach they may get a few Those nice people at X have sent me… posts and related tweetage, but they’re missing the chance to build relationships with actual bloggers, who (like Soylent Green) are people.

So, anyway. Eight beers a month (quite good ones, mostly not in the high street); £24 a month. Up to you. More details in comments.

She’ll wear a gold ring

Flavourings in beer are something I’m ambivalent about. A good dubbel, or a particularly good stout, will spark off thoughts of coffee, marmalade, dark chocolate, fruitcake and so on without actually being made of anything apart from yeast, hops and grain (and maybe just a bit of sugar). Actually putting coffee, marmalade or whatever into the beer seems like missing the point, and/or trying to take a shortcut. Too often it’s a self-defeating shortcut, as well – you can order ‘bramble overtones’ and end up with a pint of lager and black. Beer should taste of beer – the genius of a beer like Orval is that it tastes unmistakably of (a) marmalade (b) dark chocolate and (c) beer, in no particular order.

Flavourings can work when the brewer bears this in mind – when the flavouring doesn’t get in the way of the base flavour of the beer but works with it & enhances it. I’ve had a few beers that pass this test: I could name Titanic Chocolate and Vanilla Stout, Nook Raspberry Blonde, Thwaites’ Cherry BB1. And now, courtesy of a ‘review bottle’ punted my way by the people at Ultracomida, I can tell you about another one: La Socarrada, a beer made with rosemary and rosemary honey.

La Socarrada is described on the label as a “cervesa artesanal“, which should tell anyone with holiday Spanish that the label isn’t in Spanish. The beer’s produced in Xátiva in Valencia – midway between the city of Valencia and Alicante – where they speak Valencian (more or less the same as Catalan). The bottle’s a rather fetching 75 cl champagne-type bottle (although the cap’s a standard crown cork); it’s labelled with a swing tag so as not to clutter it up. The beer’s 6%; even if you aren’t sharing it, the bottle works out at about the same alcohol content as a couple of pints. It pours a clear gold; my first glass had a slight haze, probably from chilling. It’s a light, clean-tasting beer, with a subtle but very distinctive flavour. The rosemary is present in the aroma more than the flavour; the honey adds a distinct flavour but without adding any sweetness (a very difficult trick to bring off, and an area where many ‘honey beers’ fail badly). And yes, I think you can taste the fact that it’s rosemary honey.

Verdict: clean-tasting without being bland; subtle without being over-complex; very drinkable! Most importantly, this is a beer with flavours, not a flavoured beer. Recommended.