Saturday, 18 October 2014

Craft Beer in a Post-Craft World

A pair of blog posts over at Jeff Alworth's Beervana (here and here) has roused me from current torpor with a few observations. In fact, this started as a comment on the blog, but quickly spiralled out of control.

The first thought is that although there is a big difference in the legislation between the UK and US markets (see here for a summary of the US three tier system. In the UK, this doesn't exist), it seems as though in practice it doesn't make any difference. So when Jeff writes "But having an invisible layer in between the producer and retailer also offers an opportunity for hard-to-stop corruption", the important word in that sentence is "opportunity". In practice, this doesn't happen, it just adds another layer of sweeteners and kickbacks.

The big problem is that whenever anyone writes about the beer business, the tend to focus on the "sexy" bit - the beer - at the expense of the "dull" bit - the business. These two, as we've seen from Dann Paquette's accusations, are inseparable. You can make great beer, as in my opinion Pretty Things do, but if you can't get it to drinkers, why bother?

But this isn't anything new. In conversation with Garrett Oliver in (I think) 2007, he listed a few bars in New York who would call the Brooklyn Brewery regularly and say that they had a line available if the brewery wanted to let them have a few free kegs. Garrett's response when asked "What have you got for us?" was always "Great beer at a fair price". But if anyone thinks this sort of integrity will carry on as the number of craft breweries continues to rise, in the UK, the US and worldwide, think again. Have a look at what Sam Calagione says here. Anecdotally, every small brewer in the UK has a story about being undercut by another brewer offering cheaper beer of lesser quality, or worse still, being told by landlords and beer buyers that quality is less important than price.

You can expect a lot more of this as we move into the post-craft era. Uh-oh, there's a buzz-phrase that's going to annoy a few people. But heads up, because here's some bigger news. Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. I know, that's quite a rash prediction, but the beer business is going to stop being about beer, and become more about business.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. That doesn't sound very sexy, does it? It will get more consistent, more reliable, but ultimately, the technology of craft beer - focusing on quality and flavour without cutting corners to maximise profits -  has reached endgame. There is nowhere else to go. What this means is that craft beer will have to focus on the dull business of making great, reliable beer, giving people what they want every time. In short, they will become big brands, go mainstream, and flood the country - the world! - with great tasting, flavourful beer, free of production flaws, tasting the same every time you buy it. This is exactly what the top tier of UK craft beer producers has done - build a brand built around consistency and great tasting beer. Once the beer is good enough, you have to focus on the business end of things. Price. Distribution. Brand-building.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. It will be cleaner, more consistent, more reliable, less of a lottery. You might not like it, but Punk IPA will become the craft beer movement's Carling - a best seller, reliable, widely available, and reasonable priced. It's already happened. We all screamed "Judas!" when Punk IPA appeared in Tesco, but Bob Dylan's response to being called Judas was to simply say "I don't believe you, you're a liar" before telling his band to "Play it fucking loud!", and never looking back.

For earlier discussions of post-craft beer, please see Boak and Bailey, Pete Brown, The Pub Curmudgeon, and Justin Mason. They all (in the nicest possible way) focus on the sexy beer bit rather than the dull business bit.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

A Night Less Ordinary with @friendsofham

So, who would turn down the opportunity to host two consecutive nights of beer and charcuterie at one of Leeds' most iconic buildings, the Corn Exchange? No, me neither. Thanks to Friends of Ham, 40-odd people (or 40 odd people, depending on who you sat next to) got to taste some unusual charcuterie paired with unusual beers.

The opener, ventrecina del Vastese was paired with a reception beer, Wild and Fyne's Cool as a Cucumber. To be fair, most people had finished the beer before the meat arrived - first beer of the night, glug and it's gone - but the fiery poke of the cured pork was gently soothed with the cucumber and mint session saison.

The air-dried mutton was lucky enough to be paired with Kernel London Sour. While the mutton was pretty lean and clean, that tell-tale note of lanolin that hangs around mutton was washed clean and crisp against the Berliner weisse styling of this beer.

When you agree to host an evening of "challenging" food and beer, you have to accept that not everything is going to be to everyone's tastes. The smoked lardo from Black Hand in Hackney had a good depth of flavour, but the short cure meant that it perhaps tasted and felt a little too much like what it was. Happily, Williams Bros/Heather Ale Alba Scots Pine Ale did a good job of restoring balance, giving a bold sluicing of sweet, piney goodness to challenged palates.

Do you like black pudding? Do you like chorizo? Then you'll love Black Chorizo! It's as simple as that, a perfect cross between two perfect types of sausage. Only challenging really if you're a bit squeamish about eating blood, although having typed that, it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to be squeamish about. This was paired with Fantome de Saison, which differed hugely from bottles I've had in the past by not smelling like a pair of dirty goats copulating in an abandoned dairy. It was soft, redolent of strawberries and mangoes, and quite ethereal. Not challenging, but certainly less ordinary.

Magret of duck, cured and smoked over beechwood, was very easy to like, and my favourite charcuterie of the night. Happily, it was paired with Siren Americano, a beer which I don't have the full story behind, but could quite happily be described as an American MilDIPA. The nutty malt and coffee wove beautifully into the fatty, unctuous duck before oodles of hops show up to kick the shit out of you.

Guanciale is whole cured pigs cheek. Being a lover of this particular cut when you buy it prepared from a butcher, I was excited by this, but the reality was a bit much even for me, the whole cheek being a lot more fatty and challenging than the little nugget of muscle that most carnivores think of when they see the word "cheek" on a menu. The cure was good, but hadn't really masked the fact that pigs cheeks spend a lot of time being buried in the soil, rooting through all manner of things that you don't want to think about. I can see it working in a carbonara though, as knowledgeable host Cat from FoH explained that it was this cut, not pancetta, that was the classic carbonara ingredient. But that's sort of the point of these events, to be pushed outside of your comfort zone a bit. Happily, judicious application of Duysters Tuverbol, an unlikely blend of a triple and lambic from Drie Fonteinen, acted as cleansing balm to this. The picture here shows two guests modelling the guanciale - apparently, you do this to warm it up and improve the texture.

Just to show I'm not a total wuss, the final charcuterie was my favourite. Salamella al fegato is a sausage of heart and liver cured with orange peel, fennel and vino cotto (boiled wine must). It's the sort of thing that I happily spread on toast for breakfast when I'm in Spain, much to the disgust of my family. It's a bit haggis-y, and so what better accompaniment than a spirit, albeit a freeze-distilled one: Watt Dickie from BrewDog was the logical conclusion to a challenging evening, and actually a pretty decent foil to the ofally nice salamella del fegato.

Props go to the whole Friends of Ham posse for conceiving of the night, finding an amazing venue, and getting me to host it. And special thanks to everyone who came and ate, drank, and was merry.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

There they are, the seldom-seen kids, Boak (left) and Bailey (right) in full flow at North Bar. Except they're not really kids any more - they're properly grown-up and have just published a meticulously researched book about the last 40 years of British brewing. So precise has some of this research been that I half expected them to appear in white lab coats and carrying clipboards. But no - smart casual it was.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the pen sketches of all the major protagonists of the Society of Preservation of Beers from the Wood, of the early Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. A lot of the early players have reached almost mythological status, burnished to an aged sheen by long nights in smoky, coal-fired public bars. But as the zoom is pulled back to nearer the present day, the characters seem curiously less fully-formed, less sure of themselves, or just less engaging

Could it be that the major players and the key points from 40-odd years ago have had their histories validated more by being told and re-told, and passing almost into folklore, while the nearer you get to the present day, the less entrenched are the stories of the key players? Or is it that the major players in the recent history of beer simply aren't as interesting as those of even 20 years ago? Or perhaps their motivations are different, less concerned with a wider culture and more interested in some 21st century Cult Of The Self. After all, it's better to have someone tell stories about you than have to do it yourself. Or put it another way - Michael Hardman got an MBE for services to beer - can we see that happening to James Watt in 30 years time?

There's no doubt that this is a character-driven book, and this is it's great strength. The beer industry was (and is) full of great characters, and Boak and Bailey give the impression that many of them did it for the craic, for shits and giggles, and, in the internet age, teh lulz. Indeed, the more precarious the story - David Bruce and birth of the Firkin chain, Sean Franklin driving a taxi during lean times - the more engaging it becomes. More recent parts of the story seem to lack a bit of definition, but given that history is written by the victors, and the craft wars are still being waged, this isn't surprising.

Boak and Bailey are undoubtedly meticulous archive-diggers, but the recent present isn't particularly well archived yet. The modern story hasn't been told enough times that it can be re-told with any certainty or clarity, so at some point, this book stops being a record of what happened, and becomes part of the making of the story itself. How very meta.

If you're even vaguely curious about why you can get a beer that is as good as Brewdog Punk IPA in almost every supermarket in the UK, then this book has the answers. It's a fascinating tale of peculiarly British pluck and pioneering spirit, all washed down with lots of great beer. What more do you want?

It's about how British beer has turned half circle. The really interesting question is, where next?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Happy Now?

I found myself pondering something late last night, after being e-prodded by Will Hawkes, on the subject of the rise of the beer off-licence. He'd quite politely asked if I'd like to contribute some thoughts to an article that he's writing for The Grocer magazine.

(Incidentally, that's how the pro's start a blog - infer that you have an opinion that someone deems worthy of canvassing. Gives you a bit of gravitas)

In an email back to him, I said something along the lines of "alongside the rise in popularity in beer, there are also a lot of people who know very little about beer, who are selling beer brewed by people who know very little about beer, to drinkers who can't tell if it's any good or not". I then said something about not wanting to commit myself in print to being a dick - too late! But in the spirit of Eno and Schmidt's Oblique Strategy Cards, "Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify"

For many years, beer has struggled to get as wide a coverage as it is getting today. Isn't that what we've all wished for all this time? Does it really matter if some people are in it solely for a quick buck, some of it's a bit ropey, and some people are drinking it just to be cool?

Friday, 7 March 2014

Sixpoint Brewery - From There To Here In Seven Years

Here's a snap from my visit to Sixpoint Brewery in 2007. The mists of time and parenthood have managed to separate this image from its notes, so I've no idea who this enthusiastic gentleman is. I remember that he was mashing in when we arrived, stirring the mash with the paddle. He preferred doing it this way - it kept him in touch with the mash. And of course, he got to pour sweat into it too - hey, don't worry, it's going to be boiled for an hour. What I love about this photo is that it's already in the Sixpoint colour scheme.

Fast forward seven years, and what should arrive in the post but a brace and a half of cans from Sixpoint. I have to admit to a flash of jealousy; a couple of years ago, I got in touch with Sixpoint hoping to buy beer off them, and while the exchange of emails went well, the trail went cold after I was handed off to another member of the team. After a series of humiliating answerphone messages ("Hi, we exchanged a lot of emails and then you stopped replying. Hello? Helloooo?"), I gave it up as a bad job.

So JW Wetherspoons are now selling Sixpoint beers in cans - I know, WT and indeed F. They are part of their new craft range, and from what I can see, are going to be alarmingly reasonably priced. The Crisp is a pilsner-style lager, pale, hop-hazy and falls broadly into what me termed the "lawnmower deluxe" category. Clean, well-made, and the grassy bitterness kept me tantalisingly on the edge of a Proustian experience - what DID that beer remind me of? I will never know.

Sweet Action is described in Wetherspoon's press release as "part pale ale, part wheat, part cream ale", which of course reminds me (and you too, I'm sure) of Doctor Octagon's track "Half Shark-Alligator Half Man", and allows me to post this completely gratuitous shot of me with Kool Keith (aka Dr Octagon) when the Ultramagnetic MCs perfomed at Leeds' superb Brudenell Social Club last year. And like that gig, Sweet Action doesn't quite satisfy, coming across somehow as slightly ersatz - a bit sweet, a bit flabby, a bit "gimme fifty bucks and I'll take my headscarf off".

Bengali Tiger is a beer I've tried before - in fact, it features in my now out of print first book (if I keep saying "first", it implies a second can't be too far behind). Here's what I said about it then: "There is a crunchy hop aroma to this copper-gold IPA, but unlike a lot of 'me too' IPAs, there is also a good malt presence. The citrus zest and toffee carries through to the palate where, although the hops become more prominent, the malt still plays a supporting role". It's a good job I went to the trouble of digging that out, because my initial impression was that it had perhaps lost a bit of hop character in transit, but that tasting note chimes exactly with my recent experience of it.

So, well done Wetherspoons for doing this. In the nicest possible way, this is the tipping point where American craft beer has gone mainstream in the UK. I've read that these are retailing in 'Spoons for £2.89 each, or two for a fiver - that's a completely barking price that suggests 'Spoons are making very little per unit, but are shifting large volumes of it, and probably haven't gone for any carbon-offsetting on the deal. The beers are fundamentally decent, they look cool, and according to the press release, will be served in a world beer glass. If it was up to me, they'd be served as-is and crushed on the forehead when emptied.

Monday, 24 February 2014

One Person's Bric-a-brac Is Another Person's Treasure

A long drive from Leeds to Salisbury to visit the family, and a meal out to celebrate three generations of birthdays at a rural pub, yielded an unexpected collection of old bottles, not tucked away in a glass case, but out on the shelf in a corridor on the way to the toilets.

Some of them were just old, but some of them were old and interesting. Actually, that's not quite correct - they were all old and interesting to me, but I suspect that I might be in a minority on that.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

It's that time again! The time of year when I struggle to find the time and energy to write anything creative, and so fall back on the crutch of populating a list in order to give my online persona some semblance of animation!

·         Best UK Cask Beer
This year I've given up any pretence of drinking widely and variedly (as espoused in my first, and to date only, book 500 Beers, now sadly out of print), and have just abandoned myself to a year-long lupulin clusterfuck. I've been banged senseless by hops this year, and have loved every minute of it. It's of course impossible to pick out a single beer that best sums up my total hopslaggery, but highlights are the nigh-on peerless Magic Rock High Wire (still a mile better on cask than on keg) and the ruiner of men and women everywhere, Oakham Green Devil.

·         Best UK Keg Beer
Most of the UK keg beer I've drunk this has merely served to confirm my hunch that by eliminating cara-malt from their IPAs, British brewers are making beers that don't have enough residual sweetness to carry a keg serve. I should also point out that this has only just occurred to me, so you can file that under "reactionary bullshit", although I like the sound of it anyway. Beers that have confounded this theory are few and far between, although they include beer drunk at The Kernel brewery (worth it just to see the horrified look on MagicRockStu's face as Keykegs were used to serve beer that was brewed mere meters away - surely some serving tanks might be in order, Lord O'Riordan?). Magic Rock Cannonball, one of the UK's best beers, served to me by Ryan Witter, one of the UK's best brewers, at IndyManBeerCon, one of the UK's best beer festivals, was also understandably a high point. A late highlight last weekend was also Alpha State Orange Zest Farmhouse IPA.

·         Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I mean, what the fuck? What sort of question is that? Why is this so hard for me to answer? I guess because as a bottled beer wholesaler, I seen an awful lot of bottled beer this year, and by that I really mean AN AWFUL LOT OF BOTTLED BEER. I really can't single out highlights, but beers that have come home with me more frequently than others are: Bristol Beer Factory Independence, Kernel IPA and Pale Ale, Oakham Citra, Roosters High Tea / Outlaw Mad Hatter, any of the Salopian small-bottle series (hell, any of their beers, full stop). One beer does stick out though, for being proof that you can still filter and bottle a beer and make it taste amazing, and that beer is Kirkstall Dissolution IPA. I'm not sure if it really qualifies, as from what I gather, it's not really a souped-up version of the cask version, rather a watered-down version of Kirkstall Generous George, but hey, ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.

·         Best Overseas Draught Beer
I don't get out much, and when I do, I like to drink British beer, so if anyone can say that they've seen me enjoying an overseas draught beer this year, please do let me know

·         Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
I really enjoyed Firestone Walker Wookie Jack, purchased at the GBBF this year, and as we import BrewFist, having Spaceman within arm's reach at all times is a bit of a bonus. Also, Kern River Citra Double IPA that MagicRockStu shared with me earlier this year was a bit like having Citra-infused hallucinogens blown up your nose by a Yanomani shaman and an intense, short-lasting Citra-based trip. Or was that last year? That's the thing about hallucinogens - it's so hard to keep track of time.

·         Best Collaboration Brew
Wild Beer Co / Good George / Burning Sky Shnoodlepip was pretty fucking epic.

·         Best Overall Beer
Oh please. "If you could only drink one beer for the rest of your life, what would it it be?" Piss. Off.

·         Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
I really liked those enormous chrome wicket bar fonts that, oh who used it now, who was it, oh sorry, no that was just the Citra trip wearing off. Whose bottles look best lined up alongside each other? Red Willow, stupid.

·         Best UK Brewery
The Kernel are in a pretty good place right now, with Magic Rock pursuing a different furrow, but making equally great beers.

·         Best Overseas Brewery
I like what BrewFist are up to, but I am biased

·         Best New Brewery Opening 2013
No idea. [Human beard-mountain Ryan Witter informs me that Siren, where he is head brewer, opened for business this year, and they have made some pretty special beers too]

·         Pub/Bar of the Year
Pubs and bars are essentially outmoded concepts, and the sooner we lose the last of them and get to drown our empty selves, the better. But I have had some fun times at Friends of Ham this year.

·         Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

·         Beer Festival of the Year
This is such a bogus category. How do you judge that? "Where have you been that had a lot beer that was all served in perfect condition by people you wanted to chat to for hours? Err, nowhere, thanks. It may as well be "Best Night Out You've Had This Year". Pass

·         Supermarket of the Year
They're all rubbish, although my local Morrisson's usually has Duvel for a couple of quid, so that's OK.

·         Independent Retailer of the Year
BeerRitz, duh.

·         Online Retailer of the Year, duh

·         Best Beer Book or Magazine
I haven't read much this year. Although I would just use this opportunity to bemoan the total dearth of coverage in the mainstream media food and drink columns about the revolution that is happening in beer currently. I had an exchange with a prominent food writer this year that summed up nicely the blinkered attitude that the broadsheets have towards beer. I sent an invite to this person for the 25th Anniversary do of the British Guild of Beer Writers, only to receive a an email back explaining that they didn't really like beer. This just doesn't compute with me - how can someone so well-placed, eloquent and versed in matters of taste and flavour say something so utterly bollock-brained? If they said to their editor that they didn't like cheese, or wouldn't eat lamb, they'd be thrown off their column/pedestal/velvet cushion. I offered to send them a mixed case of beer that would help them change their mind - this didn't even warrant a reply. If the British Guild of Beer Writers' Writer of the Year 2008 and owner of a beer mail-order/wholesale company can't give away a case of beer to a food writer, then something is seriously fucked-up.


I am available for both written and broadcast commissions.

·         Best Beer Blog or Website
I haven't read much print this year, but I continue to enjoy the non-linear relationship with narrative that Adrian Tierney-Jones has on his blog, and John The Beer Nut is always worth a look. And Matt Curtis at Total Ales reminds me of me when I was younger, which probably also means that he masturbates too much.

·         Best Beer App
Don't use any. Fuck you, Will Hawkes.

·         Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Chris Hall and Craig Heap are pretty entertaining. As are Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham

·         Best Brewery Website/Social media
Don't know, care less.

·         Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
A late entry, but the Alpha State Orange Zest Farmhouse IPA and fionocchina (or whatever the fucking fennel salami is called at Friends of Ham) was a belter.

Here endeth the lesson.