Monday, 21 December 2015

Translating Big Craft

As the KLF said in 1987, "What The Fuck Is Going On?".

I saw ABInBev's two recent acquisitions described as a rampage on Facebook - it's hardly a rampage, but it is significant. And it's also unlikely to be the end of it - more acquisitions (or mergers, if you prefer) will come, that's for sure. But what's really going on here?

Much has been made of the big players suddenly realising that they have been left behind, but left behind in what sense? Craft beer has finally become cool, but the big brewers don't care about that. They genuinely have no desire for craft beer credibility, what they want is to somehow revive their falling market share and hard pressed margins.

It's true that the more craft breweries that are acquired by the big players, the less route to market there is for anyone else. There is only a finite (and shrinking) amount of bar space, and no matter how many craft bars open, the linear mileage of bar top is shrinking, getting more crowded.

It's also true that, historically, great beers have been ruined by accountants gradually cutting corners, reducing the quality of the ingredients, dropping %abv to pay less duty but not passing the saving on - all tiny things that gradually add up to royally bastardise a once great beer. Ask Pete Brown about Stella Artois. I'm not so sure that this is the particular tactic with this round of acquisitions, and we'll return to why shortly.

I also made a throwaway comment on the back of the Ballast Point acquisition that (a) they'd overpaid massively (recouping in 30 years or so at current size) and following on from that (b) how's everyone's hop contracts looking? Because the thing is, Ballast Point aren't going to remain static, they are going to grow hugely. Maybe the quality will stay the same, maybe it won't - that's not the issue right now. Ballast Point - and Goose Island, and Camden, and whoever else gets hovered up - will grow massively, and will need lots of hops to do that. Lots of hops grown expensively under license, that will only get more expensive, even as more acreage is planted.

Ironically, this could be the thing that sees Big Craft prosper. Big Craft wants to acquire small breweries with big ideas, big reputations and crucially, big margins. I'm guessing that a tipping point has been reached in the boardrooms where no more savings can be made, products cannot be squeezed any further to reveal greater margins. One of my mantras as a retailer was don't cut costs, add value. If people can taste that a product is superior, they will happily pay more for it. Sure, in global terms, that's a niche market, but that's where the growth is, and that's what Big Craft is all about.

So my prediction is that breweries aren't being bought up to be dumbed down, run down and closed down, but are genuinely being bought to grow and produce flavourful craft beer on an industrial scale. Sure, there will be a monopoly created as Big Craft takes up more of the available bar space, and swallows up all the hops that little craft needs. But Big Craft is storming the barricades and launching a counter-attack on the revolution.

And what do we think about that?

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Golden Pints 2015

So, once more into the list, dear friends. Having made the list below, I thought I'd check back on last year's, and perhaps predictably, not a lot has changed. This means I'm either a lot more set in my ways than I thought, or that things aren't going to get a lot better. I suspect that my exposure to new beer is a lot less than it has been in previous years, due mainly to not getting out as much, and being deluged by new breweries wanting listings has conversely made me try less new beer rather than more.

We already handle a good slice what I consider to be the top tier of UK brewing via Beer Paradise and BeerRitz, but having re-read my nominations for this year, I was surprised to see I'd missed a few breweries from the list. Tempest Brewery, for example - their Brave New World and Face With No Name are two amazing hoppy beers that are unlike anything else brewed in the UK, tipping their hats more towards "classic" American IPAs. Buxton Brewery have a solid core range and them smash it out of the park with amazing specials - Double Axe most notably. Beavertown's expansion this year hasn't been plain sailing, but they've kept the beer flowing and growing like perhaps no other, under the expert guidance of Jenn Merrick. And god knows what Arbor Ales have started putting in their beers, but sales of them have picked up spectacularly of late.

Anyway, the list. It's perhaps a little conservative, even predictable, but as I say above, I think that speaks more about my desire for reliable beer rather than a desire to try new things that might be more hit and miss. Maybe that says more about the state of the industry this year.

Best UK Cask Beer: I'm always delighted to see Roosters cask beers on a bar, and would still wade through a freezing river to get to a pint of Magic Rock High Wire.

Best UK Bottled Beer: What have I drunk most of this year? Probably various Kernel pale ales and IPAs, and Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake

Best UK Canned Beer: What have I drunk most of this year? Brewdog Dead Pony Club, Roosters Yankee, various Vocation, and Wild Beer Bibble, with Magic Rock appearing too late in the year to win on volume grounds, but Cannonball wins. Because, Cannonball.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Loving that Tilquin. Really enjoyed Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter, for a slightly weird innovation in processing, although I couldn't quite shake the idea that I was drinking something slightly artificial. Mind you, that Pliny is all dextrose and isomerised hop extract, you know?

Best Overseas Canned Beer: I canned some Tilquin Geuze at IndyMan. That was pretty great, for a whole host of reasons. I resisted skulling it on the train home, for reasons that are still unclear. Although now I think about it, it was probably because I was drunk already.

Best Collaboration Brew: the Centennial Amarillo IPA I brewed at The Kernel last month was pretty enjoyable.

Best Overall Beer: out of those listed above, the beer that I've found most satisfying, and have laid in stocks of, is Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake.

Best Branding: the Magic Rock cans are pretty epic, aren't they? And although the Vocation cans are all labelled, their branding is particularly arresting, to my eye at least.

Best Pump Clip: To Ol have given up making pump clips. The Kernel send out self-adhesive bottle labels. I like both those approaches.

Best UK Brewery: it's got to be one of those mentioned above. Or maybe Arbor Ales, who seem to have really hit their stride this year. Man, these questions are hard!

Best Overseas Brewery: Loving Tilquin, although I guess they're not strictly a brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2015: Vocation

Pub/Bar of the Year: can't chose between Friends of Ham or Bundobust. I think this year I've eaten more in Bundo, but drank more in Fram.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015: Magic Rock Tap, obviously. Game changer.

Beer Festival of the Year: I only managed to get to IndyMan

Supermarket of the Year: the Morrisons round the corner. They've got Duvel for two quid a pop.

Independent Retailer of the Year: It's BeerRitzLeeds, of course

Online Retailer of the Year: It's BeerRitzByMail, of course

Best Beer Book or Magazine: I still haven't read the Steven Beaumont book I got sent, and I'd like to read Jeff Alworth's book. In summary: no idea.

Best Beer Blog or Website: Stonch's cage-rattling is always fun

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: TheBeerNut or BroadfordBrewer

Friday, 16 October 2015

Indy Man Beer Con 2015

I know that this blog has hit the doldrums of late, and I've only been moved to post in order to put the boot into things, but let's be positive about something for a moment.

Although I only managed to get to IndyMan for a scant few hours early on Friday, it confirmed my suspicion that it really is a must-do event on the beer calendar. The addition of Camden Brewery this year means that there really is something for everyone, from the casual drinker to the hardened geek. Only a controversy-baiting sourpuss would say otherwise. Sure, you won't be paying pub prices, but it's a temporary event in an amazing venue, and while some might say the beer was expensive, I'd point to the difference between price and value. It's a fantastic celebration of beer culture away from the mainstream.

I didn't get to try a huge variety of beer, but what I did try (Quantum Pale Ale, Wild Beer Co The Blend, Wiper & True Milk Shake, Cloudwater Motueka Lager and their IPA, Magic Rock High Wire) was all superb. A few tasters from other peoples' glasses of what might broadly be termed Weird Shit confirmed my suspicion that there are a lot of beers being brewed for the benefit of brewers rather than drinkers. Or rather, there is a continued obsession with novelty - what's new, rather than what's good. This, coupled with piss-poor quality control*, are the twin challenges that smaller independent brewers face.

But let's not dwell on the negative. Everything I saw at IndyMan this year was joyous. Happy people, great beer, amazing venue, and even the music wasn't too intrusive. The addition of a take-home canning service offered by We Can was a masterstroke - the next evening, I was drinking my take-outs at home, and my feelings were summed up by this response to my tweet:

IndyManBeerCon, we love you - don't change a thing.


*I was at a bar in Leeds recently, and after trying 3 indifferent local "craft" beers the wrong side of £4 a pint, I was asked what I wanted next, and my reply was "Whatever". I can't remember ever being so disinterested in a choice of beers before.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Stone Brewing Co To Lengthen "Enjoy By" Dates

It's been a big week for beer. Not only has Lagunitas made that announcement, but over at Stone Brewing Co, Greg Koch announced that he is to step down as CEO of the company (link here, with a hat tip to Stan), but just today I received this email from the UK importer of Stone's beers:

"We also can confirm that Stone have agreed to extend their dates on their beer from their original 90 days to 270 days! They’re incredibly happy with how the beer is performing over time and with our refrigerated shipping, and now have the confidence to extend this into an export market that needs slightly more shelf-life."

Which is great news, as it means that we can now enjoy Stone's beers fresher for longer, right?

I mean, it's not like anyone took any notice of the dates, is it?

Or should this comment now haunt us forever?

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Craft Creep

Craft creep. It's a scourge. The c-word has been hijacked by clowns, hucksters, chancers, opportunists. Some actually care, but can't get right. Some can get it right, but don't really care. Some can't get it right, but don't care. The good ones get it right because they care.

It all started when I tried to buy beer from a continental European craft brewery. As a diligent importer, we pay duty on imported beers at the appropriate rate. If a brewer falls under the UK ProgreSsive Beer Duty rate, then duty is paid at the lower rate "Can you send me your volume certification notice?" I asked "I don't even know what that is" came the reply. "We don't have a brewery, we cuckoo brew at a few places. Just think of us as a wholesaler". A quick squint at Ratebeer confirmed this, but it was news to me. And they didn't have any beer to sell. Did I want to order off a production schedule? Err, not right now, I need to place orders with breweries who actually have beer to sell, who have committed themselves to a course, not just speculatively dipped their toes in.

An email from Brewdog (edit for disambiguation: to mail-order consumers, via their website - edited 14.04 13/08/15): "Stone Clearance Offer: We are offering a selection of awesome Stone beers at, or nearing their Enjoy By date (90 days old). These beers are all still absolutely amazing, but as they have hit, or are close to their Enjoy By dates, we are selling them at these rock bottom prices". Err, hang on, when Beer-Ritz Leeds knocked out a few bottles of on-date Stone beers a couple of years back, and mentioned it on Twitter, we got a personal tweet from Stone Greg saying that if we were selling his beers in anything less than perfect condition, he would see to it personally that we wouldn't get any more (I can't find that damn tweet anywhere, but it happened)[EDIT 14/08/15- this was a Twitter DM to Ghost Drinker, who runs the shop - see below].

Endless emails from new breweries who are contract brewing, or cuckoo brewing, or who haven't even brewed a beer yet, but would like to have a meeting and talk about distribution, or potential distribution, although no, they haven't got anything brewed yet. Can nobody commit to actually fronting the money, buying the requisite stainless, and let their beers do the talking? Or will they just continue to let their talking be the beers?

"Cans are the future of craft beer". Yes, done right but again, you need to pony up and buy the best tech you can afford. Commit to it, realise that you are on the bottom of the 10,000 hour learning curve, and you need to be in it for the long haul.

Craft beer. It's beyond me why people insist that it's not a marketing term. It's only use is as a marketing term, but until it is invested with some sort of meaning, then it will continue to be used to spoof the unwary. The founders of United Craft Brewers have a tough act ahead of them. Their job is to stop craft creep, to try and reduce the bullshit, and to act with commitment and integrity. Looking at the people who founded UCB, I genuinely think that there are enough various vested interests to make it a success. There's no shame in acknowledging that (as I've said before), the beer business is about beer, and it's about business, and these are equally important words. They key thing that needs to be clung to is that this is a business consortium, promoting the interests of businesses that are built on such old-fashioned virtues as consistency, commitment and quality. It's not a free-for-all arty-farty-disco-party, it's not devil-horns awesome, it's about knowing your shit, knowing what CIP means (and having the kit to do it), understanding the value of the 10,000 hour rule.

Stamp out craft creep.

Monday, 9 March 2015

"Mikkeller's Big Book of Beer" by Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Pernille Pang

You can say what you like about Mikkeller, but damn, that is one successful brand. The beers are great, albeit with a few conceptual mishaps along the way. This book is similar, in that overall it's quite inspiring, but not without a few niggles.

There are the usual potted histories of beer, both ancient and modern, with a surprising (to me, anyway) hat-tip to the formation of CAMRA being a key point, as well the familiar story of the roots of American craft brewing. A big portion of the book is given over to a whistle-stop tour of the world's classic beers styles, along with a couple of Mikkeller beers that sit within that style, along with a couple of other examples. It's fair to say that most of the beers mentioned in the book are at the geekier end the spectrum, but equally there are mentions of Pilsner Urqell, Hoegaarden and Guinness as style exemplars.

There's a bit about ingredients, a bit about the brewing process, and then a load of recipes for homebrew versions of some of the beers the book. And not just the obvious Mikkeller beers - All Other Pale, Jackie Brown - but some of the trickier beers too - Beer Geek Bacon, anyone? A nice bonus is the inclusion of non-Mikkeller recipes - Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, Kernel Imperial Brown Stout, De Molen Hemel & Aarde will no doubt have brew kettles boiling everywhere.

Sure, there are a few howlers. Popular beer myths are retold. Almost every page had something that made me scurry off and check facts or assertions. In the homebrewing section, oxygenation is referred to as oxidation, which I'm assuming is just a remarkably unfortunate mistranslation. And no matter how many times I read this section on sour ales (exemplar: Rodenbach Grand Cru), I couldn't tell if was a deft linguistic game of logic, or just something that never got edited properly:

"As its name implies, a sour ale tastes sour like a lambic but, unlike a lambic, it is fermented with a traditional ale yeast and only then does get a mix of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast added. Unlike sour ales, wild ales are not necessarily sour. A subcategory of sour ales is wild ales, which are often paler and have Brettanomyces added. Unlike sour ales, wild ales are not necessarily sour"

Er, OK, let's just get to the summary, shall we?

This book is beer porn, a fetished, partial view of the beer world from one of its most successful niche operators. But equally, it's hard to know who this book is for. Beer historians and home-brewers may well wince at parts of it, but I guess it's not meant as a reference book or a how-to manual. It's the story and summary of an obsessed amateur's transition to an obsessed professional. Mikkeller have undoubtedly produced some amazing beers, and will continue to do so, albeit in the rarified upper strata of the beer world. It's Mikkel's view of the world of beer, and given his success, who am I to criticise?

Saturday, 7 February 2015

On Local Beer (And A Sudden Recant)

It was something I read over at Stan's blog that has had me thinking about local beer for months.The fundamental question that I kept coming back to was simple: what is local beer? It's a question that has spawned several long-lasting threads in my mind.

At one level, local beer is local beer. It's beer that is produced and consumed within a tight geographical locality. There are obvious geograhical constrraints to beer that is unique to, or celebrated as being from, a particular locality. Cantillon and Brussels, Schlenkerla and Bamberg. But that reply is too trite, too obvious - that means that all beer is local beer, and just by starting a brewery and brewing beer, you are making local beer. So that's obviously not quite right. And the extension of this is that if you become a successful brewery, and sell your beer nationally, or internationally, does that make you less of a local brewery, making less local beer? Is reach a factor in local beer?

So maybe it's more to do with engagement? So this takes the initial theory about local beer being just what it says on the tin, and adds how the community around the brewery engages with the beer, or conversely, how the brewery engages with the local community. So local beer isn't just about the beer, but it's how the brewery has been adopted by the people around it. Is engagement another thing to consider when talking about local beer?

That got me to thinking about other things that might have a local aspect. So football (that's soccer to my American readers) is something that over the last 50 years has moved from being a local phenomenon - geographically tight followers supporting a team made up of (relatively) local players - to a much more dispersed fanbase supporting a team with a much more geographically disparate membership. Can the same be said for beer? And can that beer be considered local?

Well, on the first count, I think it can. I cut my drinking teeth at a time when the beer business was largely simple and transparent (in relative terms). I drank at the Wyndham Arms in Salisbury when the Hop Back Brewery was in the back yard. The brewery eventually moved 10 miles down the road, but it's still a brewery making its own beer. But the beer business isn't like that any more. Start-ups now look to the export market as part of their business plan. It isn't even necessary to have a brewery to be a successful brewery - there are many globally celebrated "cuckoo" brands, and still more breweries who contract when capacity is exceeded. And that's all fine by me. You pays your money and takes your choice.

And are those international beer brands local? Well, this is where it gets messy, because what constitutes local has changed massively. In the relatively new world of the internet and social media (20 years old tops, and more like 10 years if you view Facebook as a key factor), you find communities that are geographically dispersed, but still hugely engaged with certain brands. And this operates across all sectors, from macro, to craft-macro (say Sierra Nevada) to craft-niche (say Mikkeller and Evil Twin). While these communities aren't geographically tightly located, they have their homes online, and essentially function as a locally engaged community.

Which brings us to the surprising conclusion that local beer is alive and well, but it means a variety of different things to a variety of different people, because the meaning of local has been changed by technology.

At least, that's what I thought until I saw it written down just now. But when I read the last bit back, it sounded like so much nonsense that I'm not so sure any more. So does a beer have to have genuine, geographically local support before it can be called local beer? Or is it less local the more widely that engagement is dispersed?