Friday, 12 August 2016
The Moral High Ground
Shades of grey
Once upon a time we all knew who the good guys and the bad guys were.
Macro-breweries, Big Beer if you like, were the enemy. Evil empires run by money men, focused on profit, churning out enormous quantities of homogeneous ice-cold beer, irrespective of brand. It didn't really matter what it tasted like as balance sheets were king, maximum profit for minimum cost in the quickest possible time.
The good guys, of course, were the small regional breweries. Guarding their territory, putting quality first, making a superior product at a price point that, although it might be slightly higher than Big Beer, we all were willing to pay.
By buying their beer of these regional or micro-breweries as they were called, championing their cause, we held the moral high ground. We were the consumers raging against the machine. We were the worms that were turning. We prayed for a revolution, a spark that would ignite and spread across the land like a wild fire, sweeping away Big Beer and bringing a new age of beer. A beautifully beery new dawn. We gazed into our pints, imagined this impossible brave new world, let out a sigh and came back to reality.
Now things are different. Beer is booming, and big business as well. Where have those oh-so-clear dividing lines gone? Things that would once have outraged us to the point of getting up out of our chairs and actually doing something about it; brewery closures, selling controlling interests to larger breweries, even Big Beer, now have many of us shrugging, mumbling on social media that we won't drink beer from them again (although by the following week we've forgotten all about it and drink it again), and feel a the warm glow of the self-righteous. I'm as guilty of this as the next drinker.
Forty-odd years ago of course, back in the early days of CAMRA, they organised demonstrations. Proper ones. In November 1973 around 600 members "from as far apart as Northumberland and Kent"(source: What's Brewing - December 1973) protested the closure of the Joules Brewery in Stone, Staffordshire by Bass Charrington by organising a protest march culminating in an orderly rally at the brewery gates where Christopher Hutt, the then CAMRA Chairman and author of the excellent "Death of the English Pub", and Bill Young, the district secretary of the local branch of the Transport and General Worker Union, both gave speeches. The following year there was a similar protest at the Barnsley brewery in South Yorkshire with a turn-out of reportedly twice that number. Although both of these were unsuccessful, both breweries were closed fairly soon afterwards, it showed that, despite a relatively small membership (9,000 by 1974 compared to 181,543 today (source; CAMRA website)) it was able to mobilise members to travel and protest a cause. If you make a direct comparison with the estimated 1,200 that protested against pub closures and the beer duty escalator outside the Houses of Parliament in 2012 then surely it means that its members are, on the whole, less involved, less militant, and couldn't really care less.
This state of apathy is not unique to beer of course it can be seen right across our society, look at the percentage of the electorate who actually watch the news let alone vote, but even though many of us feel we have a strong sense of justice, what our actions say we have is just a general feeling of unease or discomfort, a malaise.
Recently I was invited to a brewery launch party at The Rake by 'French' brewery, Le Brewery. The quote marks around 'French' are there for a reason, because even though the brewery is based in north-western France it was founded by Steve Skew, an Englishmen, and continues to be run from England by, as I discovered on the night, a consortium who had purchased it as an investment when Steve put it up for sale around 18 months ago. I reviewed their Norman Gold in July 2012, and you can read about it here should you so wish.
I looked at the website, which showed a range of eight beers and one cider so I was expecting to taste a variety of beer when I arrived and introduced myself to the team from Le Brewery. Sadly I was to be disappointed. Only two beers, Mysterieuse Lady, an elder flower blonde, and Norman Gold, the beer I had previously reviewed, the two least interesting and the lowest in abv were available to try, along with the cider, their re-designed labels still showing an interpretation of the images of the Bayeux Tapestry, but one that had been settled on by a committee of marketing men. Bland and uninteresting. It transpired that these were the bottles that had been sent to supermarkets to try and spark an interest in the brand (not the brewery I noted) to enable them to gain a foothold in the UK market. As I was talking to them a gentleman who introduced himself as someone who had run successful charities before turning his attention to crowd-funding, arrived with a bottle of their beer and took their attention. I didn't stay much longer after that, although my attention was diverted by one of their older, oxidised, but infinitely superior bottle of Harold's Revenge, a 7.6% English Old Ale, that they had found whilst clearing out the cellar of old stock.
After being initially shocked by this blatant marketing exercise I was perhaps even more shocked by my process of rationalising the evening. If I had bought a brewery as an investment without being completely immersed in the culture and lore of beer this would probably be precisely the route I would follow. It's a well trodden path, one that pays off in many industries and seeing that beer is making headlines and reading about the money being handed to breweries by multi-national companies in mergers and take-overs then why wouldn't you want the chance to get on that train when it arose? Does it make them bad people or just shrewd marketeers? I wasn't so sure as I used to be.
I'm sure we all remember the outcry on social media when Camden Town brewery was acquired by AB-InBev in December 2015, the last, and most headline-grabbing, from a UK drinker's point of view, of the takeovers, mergers and purchases of a busy year for such things.
Among the most vocal, Matt Curtis let his disappointment be know when he wrote this post about the situation, although he did conclude that he would just have to come to terms with it.
If you follow his writing you probably already know that last month (July 2016) he published an interview with Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town on the Good Beer Hunting website. I urge you to read it as it explains some of the reasons, other than financial, that Jasper says he had for accepting the reported £85million offer from the brewing behemoth, and it makes for interesting reading. Investment in a bigger brewery in Enfield, on the outskirts of London, access to business, beer and brewery knowledge, and expansion into new markets, particularly the US, are all cited as reasons and the argument is convincing. I do notice that Matt doesn't have a closing paragraph on this occasion, preferring to finish instead with a future projection question, leaving you to draw your own conclusion.
So while I continue to buy and enjoy as I'm sure many of you do, Camden Town's beer, the fact that I'm paying my money to AB-InBev is an inconvenient truth that I'd rather not acknowledge. I still wouldn't buy Budweiser, but I did go to an event organised by Goose Island, another AB-InBev acquisition, the day before Craft Beer Rising this year because Bourbon County continues to be an amazing beer.
Perhaps, given what I've experienced, that things have changed. Big Beers isn't all bad and obviously transparent marketing of a product (as opposed to this example highlighted by Pete McKerry) isn't the worst thing in the world after all?
So who has the moral high ground now?
Certainly not me, if I ever did. My halo, such as it was, has slipped and things aren't as black and white as I once perceived them to be. All I'm left with is shades of grey and that bothers me a lot less than I think it should.
Still, there's always a new brewery, a new beer release, an event to attend, or a parcel arriving on my doorstep, that will mean that I don't really have to worry about it for too long.
Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Ferment and Beer52.com
"We want to be the voice of a somewhat fragmented UK beer world and to do that we want to explore beer in an adventurous and fun way" Erin Bottomley, Editor, Ferment magazine. Taken from the editorial in Issue 1.
Just over a month ago I was delighted to discover that a beer orientated magazine had gone overground hit the newsstand, or more specifically WHSmith's. With the exception of CAMRA's "BEER" magazine which I have occasionally seen for sale, I think it was "Beers Of The World", relaunched in 2012, that was the last regular beer magazine available in the UK. Now not only could I buy it for myself, I could tell others about it and, what's more, some of the contributors are people that I'm proud to call my friends.
Of course, Ferment isn't a new magazine. Subscribers to the Beer52.com beer club have been receiving it every month with their beer order, and will continue to do so, but even though I wasn't a member I could now read it for myself.
I devoured every page of course, enjoying some parts more than others (I'll expand on that a little later on), and had seriously considered subscribing judging by the beer that they were sending out (more on that later too), so was surprised and delighted to be contacted by Ben Black from Beer52 asking me if I'd like some beer to review.
I accepted without hesitation, (you can see a disclaimer coming here, can't you?), and the beer arrived around a week later as promised. Unlike the magazine I didn't pay for this (told you so!), and was genuinely excited at the chance to write about the beer I received and relate it to some of the articles in Ferment magazine. This is something I'm assuming that existing subscribers have been doing for some time, but the chance for me to add a new dimension to my beer drinking was something that I simply couldn't pass up.
Trying to match the beer to some of the articles was relatively easy in some instances as you will see, but where I hadn't had the beer before it proved a little more challenging,. I also didn't want to re-write what was already written as the original authors have far more experience and clever wordsmithery than I could ever hope to have.
Realising that this was going to be a little harder than I had at first thought, I reasoned that the best place to start was at the beginning.
"Craft beer is many things to many different people ... Maybe it's time to take a deep breath, sit back, and enjoy the beer."
Beery state of the nation by Pete Brown. Beer Pairing: Lerwick Brewery - Azure.
Pete Brown is one of this country's foremost beer writers. His books and articles have taken both himself and beer around the globe, but in this opening piece he looks at where we are at this moment in time in the UK with respect to what's happening in the rest of the world, specifically the US. Mergers, takeovers, hipsters and IPAs all fall under his gaze, and his conclusion along the lines of don't worry, be happy, and drink the beer, revisiting some old classics alongside the new breed, is sound advice. If you look at history then it's only (almost) business as usual.
The Lerwick Azure. Pale Ale brewed with American Cascade and New Zealand Rakau hops nicely encapsulates much of what has led this particular craft beer revolution. It starts worryingly, bitter, with some pithy citrus notes, but it is it's conclusion, a precise dry finish that lets you know that evrything's going to be alright. A zingy palate awakener leaving you wanting more, much as you'd expect from a magazine's opening gambit. Job done.
"The funny thing is that we love the person who comes into the bar and says 'I don't like beer'. We love being able to change their perception of beer and help them find something that they'll enjoy."
Lunch with Mikkeller by Heather Naismith & Fraser Doherty. Beer Pairing: Mikkeller - Vesterbro Pils
I have to admit to being a bit of a Mikkeller fanboy. If you ask me what my favourite beer of all time was then I'd certainly consider their 10.9% Beer Geek Brunch Weasel and 5.3% Spontanale, both would make it into my top ten, and back in May 2012, when my blog was very much in its early stages, I wrote reviews of twenty-four Mikkeller beers is thirty-one days. I still stand by those reviews, so as you'd expect an interview with the elusive brewer and founder of Mikkeller, Mikkel Borg Bjergso, a man renowned for not giving interviews, is an article that I'd turn straight to and devour, much as the food and atmosphere is devoured by the lucky interviewers who met with him in Copenhagen's famous brewpub, War Pigs. It's a rare insight into the life and ethos of a man with a passion to change peoples perceptions of beer and make the consumer more discerning, a tough task perhaps, but one he shows no signs of easing up on.
Managing to be both juicy and dry at the same time the aroma of peach and mango in the Vesterbro Pils is immediately enticing. Named for the district of Copenhagen that is home to the War Pigs Brewpub, this beer floods the mouth with mango, peach and passion fruit flavours whilst almost instantaneously drying the mouth with a crisp bitterness, preparing you for the next swallow. Perfect with creamy cheese, I had it with a selection which included Manchego and Goat's cheese that I had for my lunch today, it also stood up well to the robust strength of mature Cheddar, and I can imagine it engaging in some light interplay with a cheesecake for dessert, whether it be plain or, and this would be my preferred choice, one with an apricot puree, echoing the exchanges of conversation in the article. This is definitely a 'light lunch' beer, but one that rewards the drinker with some beautifully nuanced touches. A beer as rarely seen outside of Copenhagen as the brewer himself, an exclusive to this Beer52 box, it has that little bit of something extra, something different, that ignites my passion for all things Mikkeller.
"We followed hash-smoked air into the middle of the freetown melee, pausing in a bar with seaside sensibility, a wooden hut filled with crusty, pleasant-faced men with wild beards, big zoots and crinkly smiles."
The Danish Caper by Craig Ballinger. Beer Pairing: To-Ol - Baltic Frontier.
There are two very different ways to explore a brand new city. The first is to prepare an itinerary well in advance, marking the key places you must visit, researching opening times, distances and methods of transport between attractions or, as described here, to go with the flow of the city itself, letting it take you to wherever it wishes, accepting new encounters and embracing their spontaneity. Of course you may have in mind some idea of the places you like to go to, and maybe you have some appointments you need to keep, such as the meeting at To-Ol in this piece, but the freedom to roam with no agenda is both eye-opening and surprisingly both full and light simultaneously.
"...an IPA beaten with Juniper Berries and Sea Buckthorn and trashed with hops" says the label, and using natural ingredients shaped by the skill of the brewer's hand is what makes a really good beer, and this is a really, really good beer. A dry botanical aroma switches to a tart, sweet gin-edged flavour, building and drying suddenly with a fruity nectarine and grapefruit encased pop. Ebbing and flowing like the street-life parade, punchy and fresh, like the day starting easily, rising to a crescendo of activity in the evening before dissolving into nothingness in an instant, this beer is exciting, challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
"In many cases this just forces brewers to use their ingenuity and knowledge to work out ways to make their beers with hops that are more readily available, and, in the process, create some brand new beers for us to try."
In Hop Pursuit by Erin Bottomley. Beer Pairing: CAP Brewery - Don't Break the Oat.
Concerns over hop shortages have been rumbling away in the background for some time now, and it's an issue that affects brewers who want to bring plenty of good quality beer to the market place, and the consumer wanting a consistent well-rounded product packed full of flavour. Heavily hopped Pale Ales and IPAs, DIPAs, and more recently their younger brother Session IPAs, have fuelled the craft beer movement, bringing a glut of new drinkers demanding big bitter palate-bashing bruisers to quench their seemingly never-ending thirst. When the scales of supply and demand become more and more unbalanced then something obviously has to give. But it isn't all doom and gloom, in fact, with a little skill and 'outside-the-box' thinking the future could brighter than ever.
I'll confess that it was the fact that this beer uses solely Bramling Cross hops, a British hop in seemingly plentiful supply, that influenced my decision for this pairing, although on closer inspection of the label I realise that I've actually shared a few beers with one of the brewers, Danko. It's also pays tribute to the British style of brewing so I'm already warming to it before I've taken a sip. A smoky creamy chocolate aroma reminds me of many a bigger beer and I'm a little disappointed that it's thinner over the tongue then I had anticipated. A brief pause, then the flavour hits. More smokiness, more chocolate, this time tempered with a touch of cola nut, a nudge in the direction of coconut, then it washes itself cleanly away leaving behind a cheeky ghost of its former self. It's delicious, and I wish that I had another bottle.
"It can be easy to forget about a brewery like Chimay in a world of increasingly more adventurous and radical breweries."
A Little Respect. A Visit to the Chimay Brewery, Belgium by Matt Curtis. Beer Pairing: Chimay Gold.
One of the most enduring constants since I was legally allowed to drink beer, and probably a little before that, has been my love of Belgian beer. A local off licence stocked bottles of Chimay Blue (Grand Reserve) and Red (Premiere) alongside cans of William Younger's Tartan and Inde Coope's Double Diamond. Exotic, strong and flavoursome, taking four or so bottles to a party guaranteed a good nights drinking and usually a sore head in the morning. Matt Curtis is someone I've known almost since the minute I started writing about beer. We started our blogs around the same time, and have spent quite a few drunken evenings discussing beer and propping up bars, so to discover that he also had an early encounter with the delights produced at the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Scourmont brought a huge smile to my face. This is the tale of Matt's visit to both the abbey and the brewery, a totally absorbing read.
This beer pours a wonderfully golden colour with a head as pure and white as the robes of a Trappist Monk with a subtly understated aroma of lemon and white pepper. Clean tasting,refreshing and with a deliciously full body, its flavour of subdued lemon zest and crushed coriander seeds sublimely across the tongue punctuated with a spicy bitter bite that fades gently away. By far the easiest pairing to make of the five, this beer isn't a brash and boozy as it's bigger brothers but for my taste it is simply divine.
It doesn't end there for Ferment Magazine. I haven't told you about Melissa Cole's Views from the Bar, Mark Dredge's Guide to Pale Lagers or, and this was one of my favourite pieces, Archie McDiarmid's A Beer Drinkers Guide to the Wine List,to name but three, but I'll let you find out about those for yourself. Nor was it the end of the box I was sent; My Pils by To Ol, Nazca by Chilean brewery Rothhammer, Vesterbro Wit by Mikkeller, Red Doe by the fantastic White Hag Brewery in Sligo, Ireland, and Hefe from Edinburgh's Stewart Brewery rounded out the excellent selection. When a selection of beers this mouth wateringly good along with the brilliant writing in Ferment magazine as part of the package then why wouldn't you want to be a part of the Beer52.com experience?
Those wonderful people at Beer52.com have given me an exclusive code to share with you that will give you a whopping £10 off your first order. Simply follow this link to www.beer52.com and enter the coupon code GBDB10 after your payment details and some fantastic beer to drink on its own or as I did, while you read Ferment magazine, will be delivered to your door in a matter of days. The second issue of Ferment magazine came out on the 7th July and focuses on the burgeoning London beer scene, meaning a great new selection of beer from Beer52.com for you to enjoy. A regular subscription will mean you never miss an issue or fantastic beer, some of which are exclusive to Beer52.com. What are you waiting for?
Sunday, 3 July 2016
Beer In Essex:
Visiting Great Wakering
It starts to rain just as my train pulls into Southend Victoria station, the end of the line, the grey sky fittingly echoing a melancholy you can almost taste in this rundown Victorian seaside town. I hurry through through the generic 'every-town' centre and catch the bus to Great Wakering.
The journey takes me just six miles inland but it seems a world away, and the sun breaks briefly through the crowd as I walk past the church and duck pond to Home Farm on whose land George's Brewery resides. I'd written a potted history of the brewery itself in June last year in the second part of my exploration of Essex bottled beer, you can read about it here if you want to, and despite having received an invitation to visit soon afterwards I finally had an opportunity to do so. Incidentally, should you wish to know the full history of the brewery, and the associated Hop Monster brand, then this link will take you to the official version written by owner Mark Mawson.
When I get there Sam (Martyn, George's very capable brewer) is part way through brewing a batch of Checkpoint Charlie, their 4.0% bitter with tangerine, peach and notes, ably assisted by their pony-tailed delivery driver/jack-of-all-trades Steve. Even though they are clearly busy I'm warmly welcomed and handed a box of beer that Sam had organised for me from when I first said I was coming. I'd previously met Sam and his German girlfriend Pia at the Essex Winter Beer Festival in Chelmsford earlier in the year, and my wife, Sarah, and I had spent a good hour or so in their company chatting and drinking quite a lot of beer, not all of it good sadly.
After making a cup of tea and taking a few pictures, I'm commandeered into hop duty and I'm soon up a ladder piling hops into the kettle. This is something I've done before at several breweries but it's the first time I've done this in a kettle where the lid flips up completely, it's certainly easier than pouring them (and mostly missing) into the small opening that I've previously experienced.
George's is a five barrel brewery housed in a converted barn that's thick with cobwebs around the exposed wooden beams, the spiders help keep the flies at bay I'm told, it is after all on a working farm. The brewery equipment came from Eddie Gadd when he upgraded his Ramsgate Brewery in Kent, and he had previously obtained from a Firkin brew pub, and considering its age it's doing rather well, although this does have a decent pedigree. Having a scout around I get a little excited when I find a now unused conditioning tank. Painted white, although it has got a little dirty with age, I see that it still bears the trade marks of Scottish and Newcastle, William Younger's, McEwan's, and Newcastle Brewers. Considering that these companies merged Scottish and Newcastle in 1960 (Younger's and McEwan's had previously merged in 1931) I'd anticipate that this tank is around fifty years old. It would be great to see it in use again.
Brewing, as you probably already know, involves an awful lot of involved and often frantic work followed by extended periods of waiting, and I use one of these to spend some time with Sam, talking about him and beer in general. He's easy to talk to and generous with his his time, and I start by asking about his background, both beer and non-beer related and how he came to be brewing at George's.
"I was born in 1993, and grew up in Rochford (Essex, around six miles west of Great Wakering). My earliest memory of beer and pubs in general was going to The Chequers in Canewdon (once owned by TV chef Jamie Oliver's uncles and closed in 2010) with my grandparents as a teenager. It was a great pub but sadly no longer there."
"My original plan was to be an actor, I'd trained as one at college and was going to go to drama school to continue my studies to BA level. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful at the auditions and had to wait until the following years entries to try again. Having an unplanned gap year to fill I got a job as the Guest Services Manager at a local activity centre, and this proved to be a big turning point in my life. It was during this time that I met my partner, Pia, and started dabbling with home brew."
"I stayed at the activity centre for three years, but decided that I really needed a new challenge, so I quit my job and used the money that I'd originally set aside for a new car to move to Munich in Germany and stay with Pia. I took German lessons, ate great food, drank great beer, and spent lots of time researching the things that really interested me. I even applied for either MI5 or MI6 at one stage, I can't remember which, but it was during this period that I realised that brewing was the path that I really wanted to follow."
"My last month in Germany was filled with brewing related research. I crammed my brain with as much information about the brewing process as I could and applied for an apprenticeship at Partizan Brewery in Bermondsey, London. On my return to England I went for an interview with Andy (Smith, Partizan Brewery founder and brewer) but it didn't work out, so I decided to look a little closer to home to see what I could find. I contacted Mark at George's and we met for a chat. He clearly saw something in me that he liked as he invited me for a brew day trial, and the rest, as they say, is history."
"I've been here for about eighteen months now, starting as the assistant initially but I'm now the only brewer with an assistant of my own who I'm now training. My first recipe, Checkpoint Charlie, a batch of which we are brewing today, is now part of our core range, and my latest, Huell Melon is also going well. I'm still saving for that new car though!"
I'm sure he'll get that car soon if he continues along these lines, both beers are very good indeed.
Huell Melon is a German hop, and as he spent some time in Germany I ask him whether there's any German influence in the beer that he brews, or if there's anything due along those lines.
"Of course", he replies, "but I can draw inspiration from anywhere I go. I went to Berlin for my birthday last year, and it was touring the city that I got the inspiration and the name for Checkpoint Charlie. I like the beers I make to have a personal connection as I think it makes it a more enjoyable experience for the drinker when each beer tells them a little about the person who made it."
Leading on from this then, is there a beer that you'd love to brew but haven't yet had to chance to?
"I'd love to do a Weiss Bier, a proper traditional Bavarian one, and I love drinking Hopf when I'm in Munich. In fact I love that beer so much we have it on most of the time at Mawson's (George's micropub in Southend), it proves popular too. Wheat beers are a style that I feel are a little under-appreciated in England, and when a brewery brews one over here it tends to be an American-style hoppy version or a Belgian Wit.
So are there any beers from a UK brewery that you'd wish you'd brewed yourself?
"Easy one, it has to be Dark Star's Espresso Stout. I absolutely love that beer, and in my opinion it's exactly how a stout should be. I can't believe that it's not permanently available on cask."
Any other beers you look out for?
"Anything that is new or different to be honest. I'm really interested in finding new flavours and different takes on a style, whatever it may be."
That's a feeling I know well, and I'm sure many of you do too., so lastly I ask him about what's next for George's, which direction are they going in?
"Over the next year we plan on putting our Hopmonster Freakshow beers and maybe Wakering Gold into KeyKeg. We'll also have two strong ales being released later this year; Gaspar's Star which we've used an Abbey Ale yeast in, and Nebuchadnezzar which has a Saison yeast. We're hoping that our bottles may soon be available from an online retailer."
"The Huell Melon is selling incredibly well, the first cask was sent to Mawson's and sold out in under four hours, and I've been told it's gone down well in other pubs as well. I really want to see George's Brewery continue to grow and I'm sure that it will."
I'm sure that it will too.
Owner Mark arrives at this point, and I have a brief chat with him before I leave. I have a beer tasting for another Essex brewery to attend that evening, but I want to head to Mawson's before that as I've never been before.
Just missing the bus, I have to wait twenty minutes for the next one, but find that Mawson's was worth the wait. I settle down with a half of Brew By Numbers fantastic 05|15 (Citra & Azacca) on keg just as Sam arrives. Having finished for the day he has decided to join me, getting me a half of Gerorge's excellent Columbus before I have to go. His generosity doesn't stop there either and he drives me into Southend, close to where the tasting is being held. I feel thoroughly spoilt.
George's Brewery beers are available in a wide range of pubs all over Essex, usually as guest beers, and you can find the bottles in many places as well. I have to say that I prefer them on cask, and even though the bottles are very good they have recently switched where they are being bottled and I've had some issues with yeast in suspension in some of the early ones. I'm sure this problem will be ironed out by now however.
Should you want to know more about the brewery and their range, and to be honest why wouldn't you, then you can follow this link to their website: www.georgesbrewery.com where you'll also find a link to my reviews.
I had a fantastic day at George's Brewery, and I hope to catch up with them again soon. Should you want to try there beers then you'll get a chance to do so at the Chelmsford Summer Beer Festival that starts this Tuesday, 5th July 2016 at Admirals Park, Chelmsford and runs until Saturday 10th July. A link to the website, beer list and events can be found right here. See you there.
Thursday, 23 June 2016
The Geese and Fountain
Scotch Eggs and Peacocks
If you want to find out where the best pubs are then you can do a lot worse than ask a local brewer, and if that brewer or more appropriately brewster in this case, is as well respected as Sara Barton then you'd do well to heed their advice.
Planning an overnight stay in Grantham with the aim of visiting both The Angel & Royal, where King John, that most villainous of English monarchs once held court, and The Beehive, the pub with the living sign, I found a hotel online that just so happened to be a stones throw from Brewsters Brewery. After sending an inquisitive tweet about the best place to find their beer we were invited to the brewery itself and spent a good couple of hours there drinking beer and chatting with Sara and Sean. Discussing the best places to eat and drink locally they recommended The Geese and Fountain on the main road between Grantham and Melton Mowbray as the best place to have lunch the following day, particularly after discovering we were headed that way (the historic Anne of Cleves pub was another on my list of places to visit and the famous pork pies an obvious draw). They thought we'd be as suitably impressed as they were, and they'd had their daughters birthday party there not that long ago so having our children along with us wouldn't be a problem either.
After a slight detour to Newark which included a visit to the impeccably stocked Real Ale Store lunchtime beckoned. Heading back down the A1 to the same junction we'd encountered it earlier that morning, a six mile drive along the A607 brought us to the front door of The Geese and Fountain.
When I arrive at a pub to find a sign stating "Over 100 beers in bottles and cans" my pulse tends to quicken ever so slightly, and I have to confess to hurrying across the threshold so see what was within leaving my family to organise themselves in the car park. This is a tactic I regularly employ, ostensibly to enquire if children are permitted but in reality it's so that I can take in the beer selection and plan my route along it. This was definitely the case on this occasion, and such were the riches arranged before me I took rather longer than usual to re-emerge and give them the all-clear.
Opting for a half of Hopcraft Brewery's Killing Joke, a smooth Jester hop accented Pale Ale from Wales, I remarked on the fact that there were several other Welsh beers available on both cask and keg. Nick Holden, the landlord, explained that they were just finishing a Welsh beer festival and handed me a list of the fourteen beers and cider that he had featured during the week. I had already noticed that they still had Waen Brewery's sublime Lemon Drizzle on keg and made a mental note to have a half of that before I left.
Food was required but as we'd had an extensive full English at the hotel buffet a few hours before we chose scotch eggs and pork pies from the lighter pub food menu, and when they arrived we immediately knew we had made the right choice. The scotch eggs were freshly cooked and wonderfully warm, crisp on the outside with meat that was perfectly savoury and a bright yellow yolk that was exactly the right balance between firm and runny. These had featured, we were told with a justifiable degree of pride, in a Telegraph article on the Britain's best pub snacks written by Adrian Tierney-Jones someone who, as beer geeks and readers of the Telegraph will already be aware, has impressive credentials in both beer and pub grub. You can read the full article here and if you compare Adrian's picture with mine then it might be argued that they're possibly even better now. The pork pies, from a single producer, was chosen from a single supplier in Melton Mowbray after a full tasting of all available locally and selected because it hit the right peppery notes.
Suitably impressed in and sated in all departments I approached Nick for a few words while my wife and children, having finished eating, picked one of the board games to play.
He was more than happy to talk and show me around the pub whilst another member of staff covered for him behind the bar, so I started by asking him about the Geese and Fountain, how long it had been here and how he came to be running it.
"It wasn't always called the Geese and Fountain," he told me, "that's the name we gave it when we re-opened it in August 2015 after it closed in 2012. Before that it was called the Peacock Inn and you can still see that name picked out in black tiles on an outbuilding in the car park. The peacock appears on the coat of arms of the Duke of Rutland who owns the land around here, and all the pubs on his estate shared the same name. It was originally two cottages, not a pub at all we think, however there are records showing it as coaching inn dating back to the eighteenth century. It had been a Whitbread's pub at some point too, and behind our sign on the front door there still is a large Whitbread sign, but I don't think that any other breweries have owned it."
"I took over the pub with my partner Kate Ahrens as we both felt that this was an exiting time to be in the trade. We are both former health care workers and although I'd previously worked in the industry, at the Magnesia Bank in North Shields and running a vegetarian restaurant in Lewisham, London, I hadn't been behind a bar in twenty years, and Kate had never worked in the trade at all."
With the background established I was keen to press Nick about how he felt about what was happening with regard to beer both nationally and locally and in particular presenting it alongside food of such quality.
"There's been a renewed interest in beer and brewing recently and it's the real ale and craft beer cross over that excites me the most. We're lucky that we have so many good local breweries practically right on our doorstep and while the Vale of Belvoir has a great reputation as a food destination it hasn't, in the past, done enough to promote local beers as the perfect accompaniment to local food. You'd find so many places selling excellent local meats, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese and locally farmed vegetables and fruit but having pretty standard wine and beer offerings that bypassed the local producers in favour of more mainstream brands."
"When we're travelling we always like to experience the produce of the whichever area we are in at the time, and we really wanted to establish the Geese and Fountain as a pub that offers the best in local food and drink. This underlies our commitment to local ales, lagers and ciders as well as local spirit producers, Burleigh's gin is produced in Loughborough and Two Birds produce a range of flavoured vodkas and some unique gins in Market Harborough, and we're always adding more to our range."
It's easy to think of these locally sourcing specialist retailers as being solely the preserve of larger cities, especially when beer is part of the equation, but this obviously isn't the case. We had decided to visit The Geese and Fountain purely on Sara's recommendation, it didn't feature in any books or online guides I'd read when we'd been planning our visit and, believe me, I'm rather meticulous, not wanting to miss out on any hidden treasures, and yet here I was in a talking to the landlord of a pub that was making my heart sing. I realised that I was sporting a huge grin as I ordered that half of Lemon Drizzle I'd promised myself so, not wishing to make myself appear a gushing loon I adjusted my expression and asked Nick about the change of name and the pubs unique sign.
"Whilst we were of course aware of the historic name of the pub we wanted something that reflected the village of Croxton Kerrial itself. If you follow the road down the hill you'll find that there is indeed a fountain and a pond with geese on it. It seemed a natural fit."
"The sign above the main entrance, a little tableau of geese and the model fountain was put together by Adam Mills who is a plumber and kitchen/bathroom fitter. He lives in the house opposite the pub, a large part of which he built himself, and he decided to build us a model of a fountain, or water spout, when his mum turned up at his house one day with some metal geese she'd bought at a garden centre. We're rather pleased with it."
As well they should be, it's a striking feature, one that would make you stop on your travels to view on its own and, as you'd stopped anyway, head inside for curiosities sake.
I freely admit that I could have happily spent the rest of the day in The Geese and Fountain, and had we not had to be home that evening we could well have stayed, there are six Bed and Breakfast rooms available and plans afoot for more development, using an old skittle alley as function room and community cinema, and setting up an allotment gardening area, but at the moment they're quite rightly focusing on getting the basics right.
There is much more I could tell you but it's more fun to let you discover it for yourself (see if you can find the clues as to which football team Nick supports, for example) and you'll find that all the staff are friendly and happy to chat.
So, if you're heading either up or down the A1 as I know many of you do, I'd encourage you to break your journey at Grantham and head along the A607 to The Geese and Fountain. Whether lunchtime or evening, perhaps for an overnight stay, you might find yourself having a rather longer visit than you'd planned. You can thank me later.
You'll find The Geese and Fountain at:
1 School Lane, Croxton Kerrial, Grantham, NG32 1QR
Telephone: 01476 870350
On Facebook at: The Geese and Fountain
And on Twitter at: @Geese_Fountain
Tuesday, 24 May 2016
Whatever Happened to
The Local Guides?
Whatever happened to local beer and pub guides? Those local CAMRA pub guides. Slim of width and back pocket friendly, handy (sometimes fold-out) map enclosed. Visiting a strange town never seemed quite so strange with a trusty guide firmly in hand.
When planning a trip for business or pleasure they were, for me at least, an essential purchase to ensure that however bad the accommodation, terrible the food, and inclement the British weather I could always find good beer close by. Relying on an army of enthusiasts sent out to visit every pub in their county, they contain the name address, telephone number, opening times, brief description and, because these were CAMRA guides, the real ale (or not) that could be found there.
The opening pages are often simply an introduction to the guide and a list of the (incredibly few) local breweries contained within the county's borders whilst others have more lengthy prose, providing an insight into the issues of the day. Frightening headlines such as "Nitrokeg - the new threat?", "New Keg. New Threat.", "Pubs in Peril", and "Coming Soon ... The £2 Pint" seem as relevant to the Campaign now as the ever were, although if you consider that the last one is from the 1992 edition of Avon Ale, a county that no longer exists, then perhaps we're not as badly off as What's Brewing's letters page might have you believe. There are some lighter and more informative articles too. The Real Ale Drinkers Guide To Kent Pubs (1993) includes one on Pub Games In Kent and Hop Research At Wye (college, the home of the worlds oldest hop research department, a Derbyshire guide (of which more below) has one on Fly-fishing, and The North London Pub Guide (1995) has a handy guide to night bus routes in the North London area.
Most counties had several editions with a new updated versions every three to five years on average some, Essex for example stretching to nine, the last of which was published in 1997. I don't recall seeing any reviewed in What's Brewing's book section any later than the turn of the century, although there may have been one or two, but most county's final editions were published long before this. For a recent excursion I ordered the latest Derbyshire edition I could find from an online store and even though I expected it to be out of date I didn't quite expect it to be nearly a quarter of a century old.
I know this is the digital age where guide books are something archaic. Many cities have applications that can be downloaded (Craft Beer London for example is excellent), enabling you to pin-point your position and find the nearest pub or bar, or even plan your route to your destination of choice but, for me at least, a smart phone in one hand and pub guide in the other is a beer explorers delight.
There are of course some more modern guides, good guides that will take you to the best bars and pubs in key European cities, and I can certainly recommend the Cogan&Mater published "...In 80 Beers" guides if you're visiting the cities covered as I have used them myself on several occasions. I've put some of my favourites in the picture below, a mixed bag but all worthy of investment if you're visiting the areas covered.
Inevitably some cities have lots of guide books, constantly updated. London and York in particular have a glut of 'best of' books that will tell you where to find a pub or bar to suit any whim or persuasion. Good those these are I do have a hankering for the return of those Angus McGill Evening Standard London Pub Guides of the 1990s, their mixture of wit and information meant they were the only guide books I have read through from cover to cover on more than one occasion, and I still look through them now and again.
I have asked myself whether I'm just being nostalgic, looking not-very-far back at a time when mobile phones were actually phones and not the gateway to everything and everywhere they are today but the more I think about it then the more I'd like to see the return of the local guide. While I appreciate that things move faster these days, with new breweries and venues on a seemingly daily basis, it's the successful ones that thrive and grow, staying the course year on year. The Good Beer Guide is limited by space and it's championing of real ale, surely there is a need for these guides now, directing visitors to the best places today and serving as reference guide for the next generation of drinkers and further generations to come who might look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Sunday, 10 April 2016
Irish Craft Beer: Is now the time?
If you didn’t know there had been a craft beer revolution in Ireland similar to the explosion of new breweries and beers on this side of the Irish Sea then you might be in for a bit of a shock. What you could be forgiven for however is thinking that it had been on a fairly low key scale, such has been the small amount of Irish craft beer reaching these shores up until now.
It’s strange to consider the amount of beer that reaches the UK from the United States with logistically harder obstacles of transport and trade to overcome as well as freshness issues to be taken into account, that we don’t see more from nearest neighbours.
Recently I was invited to attend the ‘Spirit of Sharing’ event organised by Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, and held at the Irish Embassy in London. Hosted by Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall who proved himself to have a good working knowledge of Irish beer, highlighting an example of a beer and food menu in a restaurant he had visited relatively recently.
The purpose of the evening was to bring together food and drink writers, bloggers, and retailers with small Irish drinks producers from the areas of whiskey, poitin (which I’d never had and developed an immediate taste for), cream liqueurs and beer.
There were representatives of six Irish breweries present: Boyne Brewhouse, Carlow Brewing Company (O’Hara’s), Drew Fox Brewing (Clever Man), Galway Hooker, White Hag Brewery, and Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company, all showcasing their wares. To have six stands out of a total of fourteen dedicated to beer shows how seriously it is now being taken.
All the beer I drank was of a good or very good standard, with the best being on a par with some of the more well-respected UK craft brewers, and the worst the equivalent of our established family breweries.
It was an excellent evening, the canapes and chocolates that accompanied the alcohol were delicious, all Irish of course, and we were even given bottles to take home however, even though I got to have some conversations there wasn’t the opportunity to talk in depth that I would have liked.
Fortunately I had another chance a few weeks later when The Rake held a celebration of Irish beer, “Thank Goodness, No Guinness”, for St. Patrick’s day, featuring both cask and keg beers and celebrating some of the best that Ireland has to offer.
It was busy when I got there, but thankfully I spotted a few faces I knew; Steve from the Beer O’Clock Show and Simon Sanders, both of whom had been at the Irish Embassy. The casks were set up on stillage in the outside drinking area and I opted for a pint of the dry-hopped Kinsale Pale Ale from Blacks of Kinsale Brewery. Steve pointed out that standing immediately behind me was the man that had brewed it, Sam Black.
Based in Cork, Sam completed an MSc degree in Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh’s Herriot Watt University in 2012 and opened the brewery with his wife, Maudeline, the following year. Currently brewing around ninety barrels a week, most of his output is currently bottled.
“We keg the remainder of our beer normally,” he tells me, “as there are only around eight or so pubs in Ireland who actually know how to serve cask beer.”
“The Irish Craft Beer scene, is very small at the moment, around two percent of the market. If you imagine the menu at McDonald’s, for example, it’s the equivalent of those little tubs of tomato sauce you get to dip your chicken nuggets in, probably even smaller than that. Heineken is by far the most popular drink, not Guinness as many people believe, so there’s a huge potential for growth.”
I ask him if it’s difficult to find craft beer outside of the main cities or towns.
“Not really,” he says, “you can generally find at least one outlet in most places, wherever you might be, that you’ll find some good craft beer. The older pubs that were there at the start of the Irish craft beer boom that have survived, and many went under, were the best in most instances. People have just started to make a profit out of it in the last two years.”
Having related this to others, I’m not convinced that you can find good beer everywhere you go but I gather from speaking to Pierce Cooney (otherwise known as Sonovagun, and who I’ll coming back to later) some breweries, such as Bru, have nationwide supermarket contracts that gets their beer the exposure they need.
Wanting to find a different viewpoint I found Liam Brogan from Ireland Craft Beers, the company responsible for bringing the beers over to The Rake for this event. He is the only full-time employee with the title of Chief of Operations, and far more enjoyable than his previous job as a chartered accountant.
“We see the whole of Ireland as one market,” Liam tells me, “and even though we’re based in Belfast we treat deal with the both Northern Ireland and the Republic as one market.” More like the Irish rugby team rather than the separate football teams I speculate. “Yes, exactly that,” he says.
“There are ninety breweries in the whole of Ireland, Northern and Eire” he explains, ”including contract brewers, and we see our job to be introducing them to a larger markets. We don’t sell in Ireland though, instead we’re currently concentrating on expanding into the UK, particularly London in the Brewdog bars, and in New York with its Irish immigrant community which we hope will give us a foothold in the US.”
I’m curious to find out how they overcome any trade and currency barriers, and how the beer gets to its destination at point of sale. He initially responds with a well-rehearsed sound-bite, which I suppose is the unofficial company slogan.
“We are the ‘One stop shop for all your export needs’. We collect from the brewery and deliver to the bar. We pay all the duties, taking all the trouble away from the buyer, and use existing hauliers to actually transport the beer, which cuts our costs overall.”
“The craft beer market has seen a huge global boom in the last five years, and we want to be part of that.”
I checked his figures concerning the number of breweries in Ireland on the Beoir website which provides a comprehensive list, particularly as I’d heard the Irish Ambassador quote sixty as the figure the previous week. If you consider the area as one, Liam’s figure is closer to the actual number but I’m assuming that Mr. Mulhall was only referring to those from the Republic.
There’s one man that I particularly wanted to speak to before the evening is out, and I manage to grab a few words with him just before he was about to leave for another event.
Rick Levert from Kinnegar Brewing grew up in upstate New York, meeting his partner Libby Carton in Germany where she convinced him to follow her back to her homeland and set up a brewery. The brewery is (unsurprisingly) in Kinnegar, County Donegal, they also have links with nearby Rathmullan house, a four-star hotel, having set-up a brewing academy offering weekend courses dealing with both the theory and practice of brewing.
I ask him first about the size of his brewery, before moving on to his future plans and the likelihood of us seeing his beer in the UK.
“Our system is currently around eight and half barrels, and we brew somewhere around nine to ten thousand litres a week, if you’ll allow me to use American units of measurement,” he tells me in his soft but firm East Coast accent, “which works out at around four-hundred thousand litres of beer a year.”
Hopeful signs that we might see more beer from Kinnegar in the foreseeable future, it’s just that we’ll have to wait a little longer.
I did manage to have another conversation with an Irish brewer, although it wasn’t that particular evening. I’d sent an email to Malcolm Molloy from Drew Fox (Clever Man) Brewery having spoken briefly with him at the Irish Embassy, and he kindly telephoned me the week after the event at The Rake to answer my questions.
Based in Wexford, County Wexford in the South-East of Ireland, Malcolm had previously spent a long time in Chicago, having his own pub there, The Grafton, which gave him plenty of experience of craft beer, both selling and tasting.
With his children growing up and having a hankering to come back to Ireland, he made the decision to move back to Wexford in 2010. As he knew, as he says “a bit about beer” and drawing on his experiences he began planning his brewery in the middle of 2012, eventually opening around a year ago. He currently brews around twice a week on his two thousand litre kit, and is very open and honest with his answers.
I start by talking about the beer I’d had at “Thank Goodness, No Guinness” evening, referring to cask beer in general, and he re-iterates what Sam Black had previously told me.
“I don’t do cask beer, we’re strictly keg and bottle only,” he says. “Unlike the UK, Ireland doesn’t have cellarmen, and there’s no real training or education in keeping and selling cask beer. It’s much easier to clip on a keg and have a stock of bottles for both convenience sake and keeping the beer longer. By keeping to keg and bottle, every establishment that sells beer is a potential customer as there is no tie system over here.”
I’m guessing it’s not quite that straight forward but he refuses to be drawn, preferring instead to talk about the beer and how he views the UK market.
“As a nation we’re really just dipping our toes in the craft beer waters. With plenty of demand in Ireland expanding into the UK at this stage would bring a huge element of risk. There is plenty of opportunity for Irish beer to make inroads into the UK, being Irish still carries a great deal of provenance as a location and there are lots of people living there with Irish roots, but whether the time is right, well I’m not so sure.”
“The recent Irish craft beer scene has developed along different lines from typical English beer, taking its cue from, and emulating, American styles. We are lucky in that even though there is a constant yearning for newness, there is also a desire to drink what’s local.”
“We have to sell our beer through pubs at the moment and not on our own premises as a tasting room would be illegal under current Irish law. I doubt this will change either, as there would be a lot of resistance from Irish publicans and they form a big pressure group over here, carrying a lot of political weight.”
Having more of an understanding of the problems facing breweries there I ask him about his future plans.
“We’re looking to become the next Budweiser!” he jokes. “When we came to the market, we had a range of four core beers but something a little different from most breweries, with an Amber, an American-style Pale Ale, a Kolsch-style beer, and a peat-smoked Stout. When I planned the brewery I had already factored in potential growth and we have plenty of excess capacity, but at this stage we’re purely looking at establishing our footprint locally before considering other markets, although this most certainly would include the UK.”
Having spoken to those inside the industry I wanted some insight from some consumers, so I approached Pierce Cooney with whom I’d previously exchanged beer (I sent him some from Brentwood after he sent me a bottle Ejector Seat, that turf-smoked stout from Cleverman), and Wayne Dunne, the Irish Beer Snob, who releases the excellent beer podcast of that name with his wife Janice, and knows many of the brewers in Ireland personally.
I asked them both the question I posed in the title of this piece, whether or not they thought the time was right for Irish beer in the UK, and if so (or not) then why? The first to respond was Pierce as Wayne had other commitments to fulfil before getting back to me.
“Why isn’t there more Irish craft beer in the UK? That’s a good question. It’s probably a question of demand meeting supply. Craft beer has grown massively in Ireland and breweries are just meeting local/Irish demand at the moment, I’d imagine that they’re just not brewing enough to export. There is a lot of expansion going on at the moment however, and breweries are constantly stating that in order to survive they must export.”
“Secondly, in my opinion a lot of Irish beer just isn’t good enough to export anywhere at the moment. Most core ranges consist of a Pale Ale, a Red Ale and a Stout, and most of these are just bog-standard. It would be my guess that many importers in the UK have turned down Irish beer purely on the grounds of its (lack of) quality.”
“We’re still behind the UK in terms of innovation and scale, there’s nothing here of the standard of Brewdog, Buxton or Thornbridge for example, and a lot of times the beer from the UK that we actually see over here has been that which breweries haven’t been able to sell over there, so it’s shipped over here close to its best before date. I could be wrong, but that’s my theory, and my fear would be that due to a crowded market the UK would get Irish craft beer that’s just not selling in Ireland.”
“Having said that though, I do have a feeling that you’ll be seeing more Irish craft beer in the UK very soon.”
Wayne, along with Janice, has a similar take on the situation but with some surprising information when it comes to exports.
“Our take on it is that brewers who are setting up are first and foremost concentrating on getting the quality right along with satisfying demand in their local market. That in itself is a challenge given the relatively small scale on which some of these guys operate. We are constantly seeing new start-ups having to increase capacity within twelve months of opening. According to the latest figures, around forty percent of Irish brewers are exporting, although to be honest the main markets would be the US, Canada, as well as parts of Europe. The UK market, specifically England, is a much harder nut to crack, especially given the quality of some of the beers being produced there right now.”
“The overall quality is improving, but I do think that part of the problem is tying up some good distribution partners, those who won’t price their beers out of the market, particularly in relation the strength of Sterling versus the Euro.”
“It used to be that only the distilling side of our alcohol exports were being promoted abroad, so it’s good to see beer and cider being featured as well. For the first time ever Irish craft beer was sent to the President of the USA as part of a St. Patrick’s Day package. That was O’Hara’s (Carlow Brewing Company), and I know that they teamed up with Wetherspoons for their recent Cask Festival, and they have a dedicated UK distributor, but are they just another brand in a bulging portfolio? This is where distribution selection is crucial.”
“To sum up, it’s down to satisfying local demand first, then struggling to find suitable partners for export. From what I understand Bord Bia are starting to mentor companies who are ready to export, with operations like Ireland Craft Beers helping getting into the markets that they want to target.”
Looking at all the evidence, I’d have to conclude that whereas I’d personally like to see more Irish craft beer readily available over here I’m going to have to learn to be a little less selfish and wait a little while longer. Irish brewing, ignoring the old established brewers for the moment, is still in its infancy and needs to develop at its own rate. Somebody at The Rake said they were about five years behind what’s been happening in the UK, and whilst I don’t think that’s true, they’re proving to be fast learners, I think that they still have a fair way to go.
All is not lost however, and if you want to find some great Irish beer then you just need to know where to look. Bru, for example, have over eighty draught accounts in the UK and you can find at least one O’Hara’s beer, the County Carlow Irish Stout, in most larger Marks and Spencer stores countrywide. If you want a little more choice then you could do a lot worse than check out Honest Brew’s online store, featuring beers from both Eight Degrees and White Hag, and if you know anywhere else I can find Irish craft beer over here then please be sure to let me know.
Wayne Dunne on Twitter, Janice Dunne on Twitter and the Irish Beer Snob website including links to their podcast
Thursday, 31 March 2016
Beer In Essex
Rocking the boat to stop the ship sinking
Essex Beer: One year on
It's been just over a year since I wrote this open letter to Essex brewers and breweries and I've been taking some time recently to reflect on how things have moved on, if at all. Looking back on my posts, the people I've spoken to, notes I've made, and perhaps most importantly the beer I've tasted, I have been collecting my thoughts and coming to conclusions that don't make for comfortable reading in some instances.
There's no doubt that 2015 was a big year for beer both in the UK and abroad and 2016 looks set to continue the trend. The number of new micro-breweries opening in the UK grew by 24% from 2013-2014 to 361, with a new brewery opening nearly every day (source: UHY Hacker Young), whilst in the US the number of breweries surpassed the previous high point of 1873, hitting a phenomenal 4100.
The global multi-nationals put big money on the table, buying controlling stakes in many well-known and highly respected 'craft' breweries. Starting with Elysian in the US being acquired by AB InBev in January, Meantime being sold to SAB Miller in May, Lagunitas selling a 50% stake to Heineken in September, and Camden Town Brewery becoming a wholly owned subsidiary on AB InBev in December, it was a year that saw Twitter erupt with bile, outrage and indignation, whilst self-righteous drinkers vowed never to touch beer from breweries they previously worshipped despite the beer itself not changing a drop.
Whilst Essex itself wasn't subject to such upheaval, there has been a marked growth in some significant areas. The number of breweries in the county increased from 29 to 33, and this was despite 1 confirmed loss (with the kit at Witham finally being removed), meaning that we've actually gained 5 new breweries (Watts & Co., Moody Goose, The Rock Brewing Co., The Pumphouse Community Brewery, and most recently Keppels) an increase of just under 14%.
The biggest area of increase that can't have escaped your notice is the growth of the micro-pub. What began with the Hop Beer Shop opening Moulsham Street, Chelmsford in late 2014 has now expanded to Billericay, Upminster, Southend, whilst Maldon proudly boasts two, and with more in the planning stages drinkers in Essex will soon have an enviable choice of places to drink. Brewery taps continue that theme, with fresh beer direct from the brewery being an attraction not to pass up.
I could of course tell you all to give yourselves a huge pat on the back, quote Harold Macmillan and tell you that "our people have never had it so good", and while that would be right to a degree there's still an awful lot that is troubling me.
The first thing that I come across time and again is inconsistency. Whether it be from cask or bottle I know that I'm certainly not alone in wanting the same taste that I remember from the last time I had the beer. To be fair when it comes to cask this is generally very good, however I have been known to contact brewers directly to ask if they've changed the recipe of a certain beer as it has tasted far better (and in one particularly memorable case far worse) than when I previously had it. You could say that this would be a move in the right direction and it would be if it was maintained, but if I've had occasion to come back to the beer again I have found that often it's back to its former state. I've been embarrassingly caught out more than once introducing friends to a beer after extolling its virtues only to find it a shadow of the previous pint.
Before you berate me about breweries having no control over the way cask beer is served in pubs I am fully aware of that, but this isn't just a pub thing as I've noticed it at beer festivals too, and anyway I'll be coming on to cask beer presently.
If I had to highlight one particular area that several Essex breweries have a big problem with it would be their bottled beer. Some of it simply is not good enough, not by a long stretch. One of the biggest problems is that it is seriously lacking in carbonation. Bottle-conditioning your beer might keep you 'in' with your local CAMRA branch (you wouldn't want to upset them would you?) but if it doesn't work, and I assure you in most cases it really doesn't, all you're left with is a lifeless limp liquid with none of the nuance and sparkle a great tasting pint of beer has. The yeast tastes stressed, with its muddy taste often prevalent and whilst I try to muddle through, picking out what flavours I can, others have a different way of dealing with it. They tell me about it too.
I'm often asked to recommend local beer to people, and whilst this isn't actually a very difficult job I find myself quoting the same beers from the same breweries as I know they won't go far wrong. When people find out that I write about beer they usually have something they want to tell me and it's not always great. Bottles poured down the sink, being bought back to point of sale, and customers telling retailers that they wouldn't touch a particular breweries beers ever again are just some of the stories that have been told to me from drinkers across the county and beyond. Many of these bottles were bought as gifts, a treat for a loved one or friend, or maybe just because they wanted something a little different. Well they certainly got something a little different, a beer or brewery, or possibly even a whole county's output they forever file under 'Avoid!'.
There's a saying in customer service circles that if someone gets a good experience then they'll tell another person, but if they get a bad one then they'll tell 10 people who will in turn tell 10 others. Surely the purpose of running a business is to grow and bring more customers in, or am I missing something?
So, on to cask beer. A fantastic pint of cask-conditioned pint really is a thing of beauty, and we are lucky in some ways as well-kept cask beer is readily available in very many places in our county and the country as a whole. Contrast this with a conversation I recently had about another piece I'm writing where I discovered that the Irish Republic only has around a dozen pubs that know how to keep cask beer properly, then you'll realise how well off we are. Because of the Irish situation the breweries produce keg and bottled beer for the pubs there, but despite more and more keg and bottle outlets being opened up and down the country the vast majority of our breweries are seemingly not noticing what has been happening in the last few years. Whether this is intentional self-blinkering, thinking that the whole 'craft' thing is just a fad that will pass soon enough, or not wishing to fall out with the (in some instances rather scary) local CAMRA members I'm not sure. What I do know is that the beer scene in this country has changed in the last decade, and it has changed forever. Whilst I'm pleased to see some movements towards keg, and some have dabbled for a little while now, I appreciate that not all will want to look that way, however the writing is starting to appear on the wall. When it comes down to survival of the fittest then it might be a little too late to started re-inventing yourself.
It's time for me to get out my own particular drum and start banging it now, and some of you that know me reasonably well will know I've been playing this one for around six months now. Don't you know that it's good to talk?
I don't mean exchanging pleasantries at beer festivals, or picking up the phone to see if you have any spare hops, I'm referring to a real exchange of ideas or trying to work out problems together. I know that some of you are frightened about competitors doing the same beer that you've been planning for ages, but this isn't the Cold War for goodness sake, we need more trust in this day and age not less after all. In any case, any rival brewer would be foolish to rush out a beer that you've spent time perfecting (provided that you have) and brewing properly, putting out an inferior product before you are ready, and nothing will stop then trying to copy or better your beer after you've released it anyway, whether you've spoken to them or not. If that hasn't occurred to you then you haven't really though it through properly have you?
An avenue that some of you have turned to is to bring in a consultant, someone who has worked in the industry for a while with a 'proven' track record. I also know what some of you think of them when you've had a chance to reflect. Perhaps that might be a good topic of discussion to start with when you finally pick up the phone to each other.
Finally, if you think that I'm quite fortunate in that I don't have to change or move out of my comfort zone and it's all too easy for me to pass judgement then you'd be right, or at least you would have been a year ago. In the last year, having been with the same company for the last 28 years I found that I wasn't happy with the way things were going. I needed a challenge, something new, so I took on a new role. A new role meant training, extra hours, the possibility of failure (which would have cost me my job) and I have to admit that it wasn't easy. However, after some considered trial and error, having the excellent support of my peers and colleagues, and not being afraid to try new things, things that took me way out of my comfort zone at times, it all came together, the hard work paid off and began to reap the rewards. I continue to do so, it's a job I enjoy immensely, but I'm not so foolish that I can't see that I need to stay one step ahead of the game and that there is always something that I can improve on an work at, all the time keeping one eye on the competition. Can you see where I'm coming from now?
One very last note. I'm not going to name names or point fingers at this point as I can't see that being anything other than destructive at this stage, so don't even ask me if you see me. That doesn't mean that I'd never go there, just that I don't feel that the situation warrants it at the moment and I'd like to think it wouldn't get to that point. I will say that if you have a suspicion that any of these situations apply to you or your brewery than you may be right, and if you think that they definitely don't then you might want to think again.
With reference to the slightly mixed metaphor in the title, I hope that rocks the boat just a little bit.