Category Archives: Small brown bottles

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.

O dark, dark, dark

Martyn waxes lyrical about old ales and Burtons, singling out Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger, McEwan’s Champion and Theakston’s Old Peculier. I’ve long been a fan of these styles & others in the same neighbourhood (e.g. dark barley wines, dubbels & ‘quadrupel’s). I’m a particular fan of one that Martyn didn’t mention, Robinson’s Old Tom, which for several years now I’ve regarded as one of the best beers in the world.

I’ve drunk all these beers & many similar ones, on draught as well as in bottle; I even did a comparison of several of them over a few weeks a while ago. What I’ve never done – for obvious reasons – is compare them on the spot, by drinking (say) an Old Tom followed by an Owd Roger and an Old Peculier. The one-shot nature of these beers, whose strengths range from 6.6% (Old Peculier, 500 ml bottle) up to 8.5% (Old Tom, 330 ml), makes it difficult to compare and contrast in this way. But where there’s a will there’s a way. With the aid of six small glasses – and a stash of 330 ml plastic bottles to hold the ‘excess’ – I’ve just done a blind taste test of some widely-available old ales and Burtons. I chose five – the Marston’s, McEwan’s, Theakston’s and Robinsons’s beers mentioned above, plus JW Lees’ Manchester Star – and rounded off the set with Chimay Blue. I was interested to see if the Trappist ale leapt out of the pack; if Old Tom lived up to my estimation; and if a couple of the others – Owd Roger in particular – lived down to past experience.

The procedure: I labelled six glasses, and drew off enough of the beer so that around 1/6 of a litre remained in each bottle. (This gives a total of 7.7 units, if you’re interested. Hey, it’s the weekend – and I usually keep Monday dry.) My OH then poured out the bottles into the labelled glasses and labelled each bottle to match its respective glass. I tasted them in order and made some initial notes, trying to be fairly systematic about colour, aroma etc, giving them an initial rating and having a guess at which beer was which. I then tasted them again in ascending order of my initial ratings, made some more impressionistic notes, and guessed again what I was drinking. Two beers I was certain I recognised, but for the other four I guessed differently each time – so between the six beers I made a total of ten guesses. (You may like to pause here and estimate how many of them were right.)

Here are my notes.

Beer 1
Mid-brown, translucent
Aroma: malt loaf
Big malt extract, caramel bitterness, slight metallic edge. 7
Second take: Malt party. Big dark bittersweet flavours, caramel and cake spices. Burnt sugar finish, but not just on the finish. 8.5

Beer 2
Brown-black, opaque
Aroma: not much; bonfire toffee?
Fruity dark bitter with burnt-sugar bitterness; a bit thin. 6
Second take: Quite an austere full-on malt character – fruity but not sweet. Some caramel but consistent throughout, not just on the finish. 7

Beer 3
Very dark brown, not quite opaque
Dark bitter backed up by caramel bitterness, plus a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: A nice dark bitter, made to seem more interesting by a big burnt-sugar finish. 6.5

Beer 4
Black, opaque
Sweet, very slightly bitter; a lot like Coke. 4
Second take: Very strongly carbonated; not much flavour mid-mouth apart from sweetness; caramel-bitter finish masks the alcohol. Quite fun but a bit one-dimensional and too much upfront sweetness. 6

Beer 5
Black
Aroma: malt extract
Heavy, sweet, Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: Very like a less successful version of beer #4 – less carbonated, possibly a hint of acetone. 5.5

Beer 6
Dark brown
Aroma: bready malt
Heavy, thick-tasting, malt plus. 7.5
Very sweet but very interesting with it – odd floral and herbal notes. No bitterness at all – the flavour just develops then fades. Bitterness builds down the glass, though. Sophisticated stuff. 8.5

So the beers fell into three groups: big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’ or similar malt-driven style, done well (1 and 6); dark fruity old ale with strong burnt-sugar notes (2 and 3); big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’, done not so well (4 and 5). Combining my two scores, my ranking was 1, 6, 2, 3, 5, 4. I was convinced that 1 & 6 were Old Tom and Chimay, respectively. My four guesses for 2 & 3 included Old Peculier, Champion and Manchester Star, while my four guesses for 4 & 5 included Owd Roger, Champion and Manchester Star.

3 was indeed Old Peculier, and 5 was Manchester Star. The rest of my guesses… not so good.

Here are the beers behind those numbers. To say I was surprised when I discovered what I’d been drinking would be a sizeable understatement. (In fact ‘sizeable’ is a sizeable understatement.)

1: McEwan’s Champion
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier
4: Chimay Blue
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star
6: Marston’s Owd Roger

Or, in judging order,

1: McEwan’s Champion (good Burton, 16 – “caramel and cake spices”)
6: Marston’s Owd Roger (good Burton, 15.5 – “Sophisticated stuff”)
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom (old ale, 13 – “austere full-on malt character”)
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier (old ale, 12 – “A nice dark bitter”)
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star (poor Burton, 11 – “Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite”)
4: Chimay Blue (poor Burton(!), 10 – “fun but a bit one-dimensional”)

A couple of shocks on that list, that last entry most of all. (To be fair to the Trappists, Chimay Blue does age particularly well, and there’s got to be a fair bit of sugar there for the yeast to keep working over an extended period; perhaps that’s how we should treat fresh bottles, as being best laid down for a few years.) It looks as if I can recommend McEwan’s Champion (stocked by Sainsbury’s) and Marston’s Owd Roger (which I found in B&M Bargains) every bit as strongly as Old Tom, and rather more so than Manchester Star (of which I’m rather fond).

One final note. If you take a particularly keen interest in the mechanics of blind tastings, you may have spotted an anomaly in my description of the set-up for this one. Pour 2/3rds of a 500 ml bottle into a resealable 330 ml bottle and drink the other 1/3rd, fair enough – you were probably thinking – but what have you done with the Old Tom and the Chimay (both of which are sold in 330 ml bottles)? If you’ve stashed half-full plastic bottles of these two, they’re not going to be in very good nick when you go back to them. Very good point – which is why I’ve poured them both into one bottle. Yes, I’ve got a bottle of Old Tom mixed with Chimay Blue – the bottle-conditioned Trappist sharing a bottle with the brewery-conditioned Stopfordian, the bland sweetness mingling with the austere malt. I’m guessing it’ll either be brilliant or terrible; I’ll let you know when I find out.

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.)

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.

Sour times

This post is aimed mainly at people who know stuff. I did one year of Chemistry at school; we had to take one science for O Level, but I chose Physics on the grounds that my friend was doing it. Kids, eh? Then again, I chose German on the grounds that my mother had talked me out of choosing Spanish on the grounds that my friend was doing it, and that wasn’t much better as choices go. My Spanish is much better than my German these days… sorry, what was the question?

Anyway, if you – like me – know next to nothing about organic chemistry, this post probably isn’t aimed at you. If you do know about this stuff – and brewing in particular – have at it in the comments.

Question 1: Why does cask beer eventually go sour?

We know it does. It’s obviously something to do with yeast, and something to do with contact with the air; that’ll be why keg beer doesn’t go sour – even if it’s got yeast in it. (Or does ‘real’ keg eventually go sour – does contact with oxygen just mean that cask just goes sour quicker?) Yeast plus beer plus time (plus oxygen) equals… what? Something to do with sugar turning to alcohol? Oxidation? Oxidisation? (Are they not the same thing?) Help me out here.

Question 2: Why does (good) bottle-conditioned beer not go sour – or not for a very long time?

I’ve drunk five- and ten-year-old bottles of Chimay Blue; by the time you get to ten years the taste is starting to get a bit thin (no doubt from all that sugar being turned to alcohol), but it’s not sour. Chimay Blue is pretty mellow when it’s brand new, and the older it gets, the mellower it gets. Whatever it is that happens in a few weeks to beer (with yeast in it) in a cask, it doesn’t happen in a decade to beer (with yeast in it) in a bottle from the lads at Scourmont; if anything, the opposite happens. (Other people have reported similar things of old bottles of Fuller’s Vintage and Thomas Hardy ale.) What’s going on there?

Question 3: Why does bottle-conditioned beer sometimes go sour?

I have – to my regret – had bottle-conditioned beer that wasn’t meant to be sour, but was every bit as sour as a barrel end pint: a harsh, battery-acid sharpness, drowning out whatever flavour the beer was originally intended to have. Will a beer like this have gone sour for the same reason that the barrel-end pint would have done, or are there other processes which might lead bottle-conditioned beer to go sour? If it is the same process, what went wrong with those bottles that made it happen, when (per question 2) it’s the opposite of what usually happens?

Question 4: Why gushers?

An easy one to finish with: what’s going on when you open a bottle of bottle-conditioned beer and it gushes like a Formula 1-winner’s champagne? What does that, and how can brewers stop it happening?

(Also, why is the triangle inscribed in a semi-circle always a right-angled triangle? I’d love to see a proof of that one.)

Update Matthew (in comments) explains all. Acetobacter converts alcohol to vinegar (it’s nothing to do with yeast per se); there’s acetobacter in the air, so any alcoholic drink in contact with the atmosphere will eventually get vinegarised. Bottled beer, on the other hand, shouldn’t have this problem, unless… well, unless what?

Let’s promote question 3 (which, to be honest, always was the one I was most interested in). When bottled beer goes sour – as, sadly, it sometimes does – what’s (most probably) going on? A pre-existing acetobacter infection? Some other sort of infection? (I’m not sure I can tell one kind of sourness from another; I’ve seen references to lactic acid as a fault, as well as acetic.) If it is some other kind of infection, what kind? And, if it is an infection (acetobacter or otherwise) what should the brewer have been doing to stop it? Or might it be some kind of problem with the yeast strain?

All suggestions welcome!

(Yes, I do have a specific brewery in mind. Two, in fact.)

Golden wossnames

Quoth Andy Mogg:

here’s an updated list, with added bits for canned beer. Feel free to do a runner-up and a winner for each category (or some honourable mentions) and link to blog posts if you’ve written about winners before. Then post it between now and New Year’s Eve and leave a link in the comments….If you don’t have a blog and want to take part email me your entries and a photo or two and I’ll put them up on here.

I’ve volunteered to collate the results come the new year so

Best UK Cask Beer
Best UK Keg Beer
Best UK Bottled Beer
Best UK Canned Beer
Best Overseas Draught
Best Overseas Bottled Beer
Best Overseas Canned Beer
Best collaboration brew
Best Overall Beer
Best Branding
Best Pump Clip
Best Bottle Label
Best UK Brewery
Best Overseas Brewery
Best New Brewery Opening 2015
Pub/Bar of the Year
Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015
Beer Festival of the Year
Supermarket of the Year
Independent Retailer of the Year
Online Retailer of the Year
Best Beer Book or Magazine
Best Beer Blog or Website
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Best Brewery Website/Social media

Oh blimey. No way am I going through that list, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s just too long – “a runner-up and a winner” for each category would be fifty nominations, and I defy anyone to turn a fifty-item list into an interesting blog post. Secondly, I haven’t got nominations for a good half of the categories; I don’t think I devote that much time and mental energy to beer. I certainly don’t think about beer that systematically; I’m not dedicated to the assessment and classification of beer, breweries, pubs, etc, even on an amateur level. I just like writing blog posts, and when I’m writing about beer I do it here. And thirdly, because I don’t approach these things systematically, when something has stuck in my mind it’s almost invariably something that’s made a good impression on me recently: not so much ‘beers of 2015’ as ‘beers of November and December 2015’.

Having said all of that, here are the Oh Good Ale Golden Pints Things That Have Made A Good Impression On Me Recently 2015.

Real Ale A three-way tie here: Ticketybrew Blonde (Sandbar) is a classic, if a bit too sessionable for its strength; Cloudwater IPA (the 7.2%er; Pie & Ale) is superb, although the bar was taking the p. by selling it at £8.40/pint; and Vocation Chop & Change (Knott) is a beautifully balanced pale ale, from a new brewery that’s barely put a foot wrong yet.

Real Ale Inna Bag Inna Box Full marks to the Harewood Arms in Broadbottom, who had put a “CAMRA says this is real ale” label on the keg font dispensing Siren Soundwave; very nice it was too, if a bit on the fizzy side. Which leads to a question recently aired in the pages of What’s Brewing: given that you can’t vent them, won’t keykegs inevitably give you pressurised, gassy beer? Happily, the answer’s No: step forward Runaway DIPA (Font Chorlton), which tasted exactly like a cask beer (in fact I’ve had colder and ‘pricklier’ beer on cask before now). Key keg: it’s the future. (Of keg, that is. The future of cask beer is cask beer – always has been, always will be.)

Actual Evil Keg I hate to say it, but BrewDog Candy Kaiser (at the Olde Cock, of all places) was pretty damn good. £4.45/pint is a bit ouchy for Didsbury, though.

Small Brown Bottles I’ve just recently caved in and started buying ordinary-strength beer in 33 cl bottles (and occasionally cans), that being the size almost all the cool kids are using these days. The best bottled beer I’ve had recently was, without a doubt, Ticketybrew Pale. Just occasionally you hit a beer that makes you want to go full Adrian (“rich, coppery shades matched by a resonant richness of flavour, flavours that ring like a gong before fading like the dying embers of a glowing copper sunset…”). This was one of those beers, when I first met it on cask in 2013, and it’s still one of them now.

Foreign Beers From Foreign Places Made By Foreigners Yeah but no; not really my area at the moment. Memminger Kellerbier at a restaurant in Berlin, that was seriously good. I had Köstritzer Dunkel on tap at a pizza restaurant in Wiek and in bottle at Sandbar, which was nice. Schlenkerla Helles is good stuff, to say nothing of Chimay Gold (currently going for £2.49(!) at the Gateway in Parrs Wood).

Collab I was very pleasantly surprised by the Marble/All In unnamed bottled collab beer; I took it for a stout, while the till receipt described it as a black IPA, but it turned out to be something more like a Cascadian dubbel (a dubbel IPA?). Rather fine, although (ironically) I would have preferred a smaller bottle – I rarely want a full half-litre of an 8.5%er.

Things Of Beauty For cans I’d nominate RedWillow – check them out if you haven’t seen them, they’re really rather fine. Magic Rock cans are good, but these are something else. (Memo to Vocation: please invest in some canning equipment; those unpleasant-textured matt labels are costing you at least one potential customer.) For bottles, I feel like I ought to nominate Cloudwater, but their labels leave me cold – they have the look of a design classic, without actually being nice to look at. So I go for Ticketybrew, again – particularly for the short-run bottle with the label that said “Best enjoyed before: somebody else does”.

Festival I only usually go to three; this year I went to two and volunteered at the third one, an experience which left me shattered (and, ironically, rather thirsty). Both the other two (Stockport in June and Manchester in January) were really, really good. For a bit more detail, see posts from July, June and January 2015 here.

Pub I wonder if anyone reading this remembers the Crescent in the late 90s and early 00s. Thinking about it now, what I loved about the Crescent back then – apart from the fact that I’d go in on my way home from seeing my academic supervisor, meaning that it was always a welcome sight – was how ample it was. There was a nice, slightly tatty but comfortable front room to sit in, with enough natural light to read by; if that got busy, there was another front room, just as comfortable, on the other side of the bar. There were good beers on the bar; there were about eight good beers on the bar, in fact, so you’d never run out of choices. There was an excellent CD jukebox, which again was just waiting to be explored (I’d generally put on something from Astral Weeks – the title track or else Sweet Thing or Madam George – and follow it with You Can’t Always Get What You Want). And there were darker corners, for when you just wanted to let the time pass. And there was a real fire. And there was a cat…

Happy days. Anyway, ever since I stopped going to the Crescent I’ve been looking for pubs with that inexhaustible quality – pubs that make you want to keep coming back, because you know there will always be another beer to try and another corner to sit in, another perspective to take. The Marble Beerhouse, the (Heaton Lane) Crown, the (Portwood) Railway and the New Oxford all have it to some extent, but no pub I’ve been to has really rung that bell loud and clear until this year, when the Smithfield reopened as the Blackjack tap. Nice rooms, amazing beers, good prices: great pub.

Online Retailer Beer52; they’ve really upped their game.

Best Out Of All The Best Of The Bestest Bests No – it’d be ridiculous to nominate a best brewery, let alone a best beer. For me this year has belonged to Vocation, Cloudwater and Ticketybrew, but I’ve also mentioned Siren, Runaway, Marble, RedWillow, Magic Rock, Blackjack and the Scottish brewer; pick the bones out of that.

Best Mate Out Of All The Best Of The (you’ve done this one – Ed.) Back-scratching nonsense – I’m not naming anyone as my favourite beer blogger, tweeter or whatever. I mean, if I like your stuff, you’ll know already – and if you’re not in the running, why would you care?

(Non-)Event Of The Year It’s not so much Camden Town selling out; it’s not even the fact that they sold out after Meantime. What’s significant, to me, is the accident of timing which has meant that Camden sold out after Meantime had been put up for sale by its new owner. The scale of the global brewing oligopoly means that the way those companies operate is a very different proposition from brewing as we’ve known it, even in the days of the Big Six. A ‘craft’ sub-division of Watney Combe Reid might have been just as viable as, and no more questionable than, a ‘craft’ sub-division of Brain’s or Thwaites’ (OK, bad example). A ‘craft’ sub-division of AB-Inbev, though – let alone multiple separate ‘craft’ sub-divisions…? There may be trouble ahead.

In Case You Missed It What review of the year would be complete without a blog round-up? Not this one! These are a few of my favourite posts:

The hard stuff (“hard issues; what in beer culture isn’t being talked about that should be”)
All about Brewhive (1, 2, 3)
A sceptical investigation of warm beer
My review of Un-Human Cannonball (“It’s like beer from Mars. This is Martian beer.”)

And that’s your lot for 2015. A Happy New Year to all my English readers!

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

Beery cheery

For no particular reason, here are some pictures of beers I’ve enjoyed recently. First, Magic Rock High Wire, keg (left) and cask (right). The cask shaded it on flavour, but I’ve got to admit the keg looks cooler.

I'm not actually with him

I’m not actually with him

Then… well, the rest of them explain themselves, really.

Chimay

Mmm… Orval. (Really must get an Orval glass. Or drink more Chimay.)

Duvel

Mmm, Duvel. Should have seen it with the head on.

Maredsous

Down the boozer again (Pi Chorlton) for this last one. Rather nice as I remember. (That’s tasting notes, that is.)

 

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.