Monday, 7 November 2016

Carry a Big Schtick

I've never got my act together with a Session post before, and I'm a few days late with this one, but this month's request for thoughts on things that we're going to see more of seemed like a good opportunity to wrap words around an idea that I've been mulling over for a while.

The number of breweries in Britain is increasing. From a punter's point of view, this results in an ever more bewildering array of pump-clips and bottles appearing ever more fleetingly on bars and shelves. It's getting increasingly hard for a brewery, however good they are, to worm their way into a punter's consciousness and become a brand that they trust and seek out rather than one that they vaguely remember having seen at some point.

However, the market is also becoming more competitive, so that sort of recognition is something that breweries are going to have to try to build. Aside from just brewing great beer, there are a number of obvious ways of doing this - consistent branding, smart marketing, a tightly focused core range - but one which I'd expect to become more common is developing an identifiable "schtick" - a deliberate restriction on the range of beers that they brew that gives them part of their identity.

There's actually an element of this to a number of existing breweries. The Wild Beer Co started with a definite focus on wild yeast, the Kernel are almost synonymous with their rotating-hop pale ales and IPAs. More recently, Chorlton have had the audacity to focus strictly on sour beers. There's a hint of this to the way Burning Sky operate, as well. What else could someone try? How about

  • Focusing on classic German beer styles - some played straight and some given a modern twist.
  • A small range of beers that's constantly tweaked and iterated the way that Cloudwater do with their IPAs.
  • Regular use of local and foraged ingredients.
  • Brewing what are essentially a series of variants on a single beer, like the Kernel do with their pales.

For my money, this sort of idea has two benefits: firstly, in a crowded and confusing market, it makes it easier for punters to come to recognize the brewery and to know what to expect from them. But secondly, a restricted range of beers give the brewers the chance to develop real mastery within that field. The ultimate "schtick" brewery is arguably the Alchemist, and their schtick is Heady Topper. And that doesn't seem like too poor an example to want to follow.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Looking the Part

I was interested by the offhand suggestion in a recent Session announcement that Black IPA is becoming a "largely irrelevant curiosity". To be honest, I'm sufficiently far out of the craft loop that I can't say whether that's true or not, but it's certainly a style that I see rarely and am often underwhelmed by when I do try it.

This isn't to say that there aren't some great examples - Buxton's Imperial Black particularly does it for me - but as a style it seems to be particularly easy to do badly. I suspect that the one important reason for that - and the reason that it'll probably be a while before I try brewing one myself - is probably that it's essentially a bit of a ventriloquist's act, making the big, bright, tropical hop flavours of an IPA unexpectedly appear in what looks like a glass of stout. This seems like magic if it's done well, but if the hops flavours don't speak loudly and clearly then we can miss them entirely, rendering the whole trick a bit pointless. For brewers, myself included, who can't reliably pull off big, bright hop flavour, the safest bet for now is probably to stick to hoppy beers that look like hoppy beers, where the flavours stay in line with what the drinker expects based on the appearance of the beer, and where we'll probably get the benefit of the doubt if we don't quite hit the perfect hop schedule.

All of this calls to mind the famous "white wine dyed red" experiment, which isn't quite the knockout blow to wine tasting that it's sometimes presented as, but which does serve as a useful reminder that our senses interact and influence each other rather than each operating in a vacuum.

Another area where this sort of interplay of flavour and appearance rears its head is the perennially vexed issue of murky IPA. There often seems to be a clear generational divide between people who love them and people who hate them, and while the vehemence with which this apparently trivial matter of taste is pursued makes it look suspiciously like a proxy for bigger issues, the existence of a division in the first place seems like an obvious example of a learned association. For a long time, a cloudy pint was the all-too-common sign of dodgy beer - something that'll taste crap and probably give you the shits. Given this background, I can see how someone might be put off by a murky beer regardless of how it tastes. But our expectations for cask ale have generally risen over the past decades and that sort of properly off pint is mercifully rare, so for many beer drinkers the only real association for hazy beer is the big, resinous, hoppy pale ales themselves. This means that if anything we're actually going to prefer a hoppy beer with a bit of haze over a similar tasting one that's pin bright, because it looks the part as well as tasting it.

What conclusion to draw from this? Maybe that as haze becomes an increasingly accepted and expected feature of hoppy IPA as a style, the only real hope that the murk-o-phobes have got is to bring back the truly off pint. That or start learning to live with it.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Best Bitters on Ratebeer

One of the standard recurring discussons in the beer comment-o-sphere is about the relevance or otherwise of Ratebeer ratings. My personal view is that they're basically an extremely good way of finding out whether or not Ratebeer users like a beer. This isn't always a particularly useful bit of information,[1] but following on from my "craft cred" post, this might be one of the times when "what do Ratebeer users think" is actually an interesting question to ask. Hence, being a massive nerd, I've collated some information.

This doesn't really answer the question that I asked previously - there are other factors involved in "credibility" than how well regarded your flagship Best Bitter is, and Ratebeer users are just one part of the complicated and heterogeneous mess that gets lumped together as the "craft scene", but it was an interesting exercise anyway. So without further ado, here are the results:

BeerABVRatingNumber of rates
Timothy Taylor's Landlord4.30%3.51353
Fullers London Pride4.10%3.36510
Harveys Sussex Best4.00%3.3282
Bathams Best4.30%3.3 80
Adnams Broadside4.70%3.24267
Hook Norton Old Hooky4.60%3.2144
Sam Smiths Old Brewery Bitter4.00%3.12180
Shepherd Neame Spitfire4.20%3.11195
Adnams Southwold Bitter3.70%3.09238
Wells Bombardier4.10%3.07277
Greene King Abbot Ale5.00%3.04310
Batemans XXXB4.50%3.03104
Youngs Special4.50%3.02182
Theakstons XB4.50%3.0166
Mc Mullens AK4.30%2.9990
Everards Tiger4.20%2.97144
Marstons Pedigree4.50%2.94218
JW Lees Bitter4.00%2.9454
Brains SA4.20%2.92121
Thwaites Wainwright4.20%2.92120
Courage Directors4.80%2.88181
Robinsons Unicorn4.20%2.8389
Greene King IPA 3.60% 2.48358

Note that I've generally tried to pick the most popular brownish beer in the 4% to 5% range for any given brewer to give a decent base for comparison. For Adnams and Greene King I've included two as there wasn't an obvious "mid to high 4's" option. In almost all cases, Ratebeer treats the "cask" and "bottle" versions of the beer seperately, and I went with the cask version.

Any conclusions? Well, Harveys, Adnams and Fullers all do well. Spitfire, Bombardier and Abbot all score surprisingly highly, and Ratebeer agree with me on the Batemans vs (the Banks subbrand formerly known as) Thwaites issue. Bathams Bitter scores highly but apparently isn't particularly sought after. Meanwhile, Taylors' Landlord and Greene King IPA are clear outliers at the top and bottom respectively - I suspect that this is actually a case of credibility influencing the scores! Diehard real ale traditionalists might be pleased to hear that almost all of these soundly beat Tetleys Smoothflow (2.55), John Smiths Extra Smooth (2.51) and Worthington Creamflow (2.28), not to mention Stella (2.48), Carlsberg (2.0) and Fosters (1.76), although they do mostly lose out to the likes of Brewdog's Dead Pony Club (3.51) and Beavertown's Neck Oil (3.53). Interestingly, London Pride is clearly the most commonly drunk, followed by Greene King IPA and Taylor's Landlord. My guess would be that this is because Landlord and Pride are both relatively well thought of, while IPA and Pride are extremely widely available.

[1] I can't resist elaborating a bit. As far as I can tell, Ratebeer users tend to rate beers in terms of how immediately interesting it is to give them your full attention for a few sips.This is a bit like rating cars based on how much fun they are to nail round a track for a couple of laps - a fairly mediocre roadster is probably still going to seem better than a really great family estate in that context, but I know which one I'd prefer to have to take a family on holiday to Wales. On the other hand, this is arguably a feature - or at least a known limitation - rather than a bug, and if you do want a flashy sports car to take out at the weekend then it's not an unreasonable test. In practice, I tend to find that the ratings for things like US IPAs and Imperial Stouts are often useful for getting a general idea of whether a new-wave craft brewery are much cop, but that they're best ignored for more traditional breweries and not worth paying too much attention to for individual beers.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Geek Cred

In my experience it's a myth that all craft beer geeks reflexively dismiss traditional British family and regional breweries as producing "boring brown beer" that's not worth bothering with. What I'm more inclined to believe is that we have a typically geekish tendency to differentiate strongly and occasionally arbitrarily between between the breweries that, in our view, "exemplify a great brewing tradition" and the ones that "peddle mass-produced dishwater designed by accountants to a captive audience of tied houses."

Given this, and based on the fine beer blogging tradition of making general statements largely by extrapolating from your own opinions, I've assembled a non-comprehensive list of British family and regional brewers, ordered by how unsurprised I'd be to hear someone in the Craft Beer Co loudly telling anyone who'll listen that they actually make some really great traditional ales. As I said, this ranking is largely based on my own prejudices, and I'd be genuinely interested to hear any conflicting opinions - I might even try running a poll at some point to produce something a bit more authoritative.

With that out of the way, the rankings are as follows:

  1. Harveys
  2. Adnams
  3. Fullers
  4. Sam Smiths
  5. Timothy Taylor
  6. Theakstons
  7. JW Lees
  8. Hook Norton
  9. Batemans
  10. Brains
  11. Shepherd Neame
  12. Greene King
  13. Robinsons
  14. Thwaites
  15. Marstons
  16. Everards
  17. Mc Mullens
  18. Wells & Young

The "neo-nationals" on the list are assumed to include all of their subsidiaries and real ale sub-brands. Conversely, I've not tried to take account of how interested people might be in "craft" sub-brands - this is about how brewers are seen in their capacity as traditional brewers. St Austell would have ranked highly, but I've disqualified them for producing inadequately brown beer - their core range is practically a craft sub-brand in itself! Greene King are perhaps controversially high - this is based on the assumption that the rarity and interest of XX Mild and 6X outweight the ubiquity of IPA and Old Speckled Hen - whereas Harveys and Adnams seem like no-brainers for the top two - it's rare to hear a bad word spoken about either of them. And it's worth saying that even the lowest ranked of these aren't necessarily bad - I've happily drunk beer from almost all of them - just that I wouldn't expect them to inspire many beer geeks to actively seek out their pubs.

What do we learn from this? Well, I'm not a brand consultant, but if I was in a Hollywood bodyswap comedy where I'd woken up the body of one, and I had to bluff my way through a presentation aimed at reviving the fortunes of an ailing family brewer by helping them to connecting them with the younger, beer-geekier end of the market[1], here's what I'd say:

  • Brew distinctive, characterful beer. Obviously people can make a mint with nondescript but well marketed beer, but having a flagship product whose intrinsic properties make people want to tell their friends about it is a clear bonus.
  • Play to your strengths. Your strengths will probably be your history and regional identity, so see what you can do with those before trying to get all trendy. Be aware that everyone and his dog plays the history card, so you'll have to go the extra mile to be taken seriously on that front - it's not enough just to have old-fashioned pump clips or black-and-white pictures in your adverts, you'll need to have a quirky survivor of a style in your portfolio or start digging in the archive for historic recipes.
  • Be personal. Anyone can pay for advertising copy about how much they care about the quality of their beer, but if you have an opinionated head brewer who posts about it on Twitter then people might start to believe you.
  • A "craft" sub-brand isn't the answer in itself. If people think that your core range is designed by accountants, they'll probably assume that your "craft" range is as well.

[1] rather than following the potentially more lucrative strategy of connecting them with end of the market that isn't that interested in beer but can't be bothered with wine and knows that cider's for teenagers and yokels and lager's for football hooligans...

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Power to the Punters

In this post, Yvan from Jolly Good Beer talks straight about supply chain quality for beer, and the often frustrating lack of shits being given about it. Yvan suggests that a push for better practice should come from brewers, anxious to maintain their reputations by getting their beer into people's glasses in better condition.

As a punter, I see a more obvious source of pressure for better beer at the point of dispense, namely, me. My problem, though, is that if I have some particular beer that's just "okay" rather than "great", I can't always tell whether the beer's not fresh enough, not to my taste, or just not that good. Over time, I might start to associate some pubs with consistently good beer more than others, but it's a slow and uncertain process, and it'll take a long time to turn into any sort of market pressure.

So in an ideal world, if I'm going to pay top dollar for beers at a self-proclaimed craft beer bar, I'd like to be able to look at their website and see a note above their tap list reassuring me that all of these beers are going to be in perfect condition because the keg beer has barely been out of coldstore from the moment it left the fermenter to the moment it comes out of the tap. I'd also see when the hoppy stuff was kegged, too, so I'd know that it wasn't some months old keg they picked up for cheap. I wouldn't expect this from every village pub, but if you're going to charge me six quid a pint then I want to see some justification.

The reason that this doesn't happen is presumably that I'm a relatively unusual punter. I'm aware of this stuff through talking to people like Yvan, and I suspect that a lot of people, like me until quite recently, don't really think about what happens between the brewery and the glass at all. There's also a tendency to assume that keg beer is basically inert and so nothing you can do to it will make much difference to what comes out of the tap.

Which brings me round to this blog post from Matt "Total Ales" Curtis.

In it, he argues (again) that for the good of UK beer culture, we need to come up with a definition of craft beer. In the inevitable Twitter argument that ensued, he made the point that the US is light years ahead of us in terms of standards and professionalism - which is probably true - and that we need to start catching up.

For my money, the way that beer writers can help us to catch up is by educating drinkers about the stuff that we ought to care more about. It's not about telling us stories or spreading "passion", or even about defining "craft beer", fun though those things can be, but about making us aware of the relatively dry technical stuff that makes the difference between great beer and shonky cash-ins. It's about celebrating pubs who'd rather sell the freshest beer than the beer that makes the biggest margin, and the distributors who are proud of their coldstores. It's about questioning the "craft lagers" whose brewers keep suspiciously quiet about lagering times. It's not about the big picture of defining craft, but about the simple, quantifiable, objective stuff that could help punters to spot when they're being taken for a ride. It's about informed drinkers, who are going to challenge the industry to raise its game.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Local History

A comment by Gary Gillman on a recent Boak and Bailey post got me thinking:

"[...] another way to distinguish viz America is use English hops – Fuggle, Golding, Target, Challenger, Northdown, in quantities which are historical and helped to make the fame of English brewing what it was."

(There's a lot more to Gary's comment than this, but this is the bit that set me off on this particular train of thought...)

I've got a massive natural suspiciousness towards contrived bids for local distinctiveness. Historically, really interesting local traditions mostly seem to have evolved by brewers building on local experience to satisfy local tastes while dealing with local constraints, not out of someone sitting down and saying "yeah, but how can we make something that's more distinctive to our area?" Better understanding of brewing science and the easy availability of a range of international ingredients have removed a lot of the constraints - a brewer in Norwich can economically mix Belgian yeast with American hops, German malt and Burton water - but local experience and local tastes are still there. This is why California and Vermont are still places of pilgrimage for fans of US IPA despite the worldwide availability of all the ingredients and why, for my money, the hoppy light ale is a more interestingly British contribution to the world of beer than any amount of faffing around with forced rhubarb or foraged herbs is likely to produce. It's also why I've got no problem with British craft brewers - or anyone else - brewing in the "international style" of IPAs and coffee porters, because it seems almost inevitable that local branches of those family trees will also start to evolve.

However, beers brewed to historic recipes fascinate me. I could be convinced that this is just me being inconsistent. But I think I can come up with something in my defense.

A historic recipe isn't interesting because it's local. To some extent it's interesting because it is, in a very small way, an experience of a previous time - a direct connection with history. But as well as being a liquid museum piece, it's also interesting because the beer is probably actually quite good. London Porter and Burton Pale Ale didn't conquer the world by being "quite interesting". They did it by being, to the tastes of the time, "awesome" - like, world-beating, Ratebeer Best type awesome. And something which is awesome in a way that you haven't really experienced before - a way that you might take a while to get tuned into - is something that's really quite exciting to try.

Which is why, possibly modulo getting a better setup for brewing strong, hoppy beers, it won't be long until I have a bash at a historic IPA recipe.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Untouchables

There's been a bit of chat lately about whether some of the more revered new-wave UK craft breweries are now "beyond criticism" - whether they're so widely respected that no-one's willing to risk saying a bad word about them for fear of being torn apart by the fanboys.

There's a fair objection that this rather depends how deep into the bubble you operate - being rude about the current in-thing is also a quick way to position yourself as a straight-talking speaker-of-truth-to-power. But it does hit a bit of a nerve regarding the craft scene's relationship to criticism - this is also a scene where people seriously argue that you shouldn't tweet your dissatisfaction with a bad pint until you've given the relevant pub or brewery a chance to respond privately. And to me, this doesn't seem like a healthy attitude in the long run.

I think the real issue here is that brewers and drinkers are both very bad at dealing with the fact that taste is subjective - that not everyone likes every beer, and that one person not liking some particular beer doesn't mean that no-one else does or that the brewer is incompetent or dishonest. As a punter, I generally try to avoid contributing to this when I'm talking about small breweries by putting a comment in context if I can - saying that I don't like this beer as much as their others, or as much I used to, or as much as everyone else seems to - or at least by trying to keep the language subjective. On the flip side I'd hope that brewers (and fanboys) can deal with the fact that sometimes someone just won't like one of their beers, and that saying in public that they don't like it doesn't necessarily mean they're being a dick about it. It's important that we can do this because fundamentally, if you've only got nice things to say then you haven't got much to say at all.