Thursday, 31 March 2016

Rocking the boat to stop the ship sinking. Essex Beer: One year on.

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.


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