Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Revitalisation Again

There's been a bit more talk recently about the CAMRA Revitalisation Project and the Special Resolutions that have been proposed for this year's AGM off the back of it. Phil at Oh Good Ale gives a really good summary of the changes that the Special Resolutions would make to the Articles of Association, although, as will become apparent, I don't entirely agree with his interpretation of them. Tandleman has also had a crack at the subject, and makes some good points.

For me, the proposed changes reflect two underlying needs.

The first is the need for a call to arms with some sense of urgency. While real ale arguably isn't out of the woods yet, it doesn't feel like it's under immediate threat in the way that it was when CAMRA were founded, and it's that sense of immediate danger that activates volunteers. On the other hand, you don't have to look very far these days to find people - not necessarily stereotypical CAMRA types - protesting against the closure of an apparently cherished local pub, and whatever you think of the merits of these campaigns, they undeniably generate strong feelings. By putting a bit more focus on the general defense of pubs and of drinking, the RP is presumably hoping to rekindle some of the old crusading spirit and get more members active.

The second is the need to remain a respected and authoritative voice in the wider world of beer. This has become an awkward double bind for CAMRA - on the one hand, talking up real ale won't achieve much if drinkers don't respect them as a credible source of information while on the other hand, with more beer drinkers at least dipping their toes into the accessible end of craft keg, talking up cask while ignoring or disparaging all other forms of beer will make them look increasingly blinkered and untrustworthy. Despite my previous rants about wording, the RP proposals seem like a reasonable stab at finding a way out of that, by letting them present real ale as a special and important high point in a broader landscape of Quality Beer.

How well all this will actually work - and whether the proposals will even get past the membership at the AGM - remains to be seen. But I'll be voting for them.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

When Do Breweries Sell Up?

So yeah, the Fullers buyout of Dark Star.

It's hard not to suspect that there will be more of this sort of thing to come, and Boak and Bailey have been pondering what you might want to look out for if you fancy playing "the prediction game." One of their conclusions is that breweries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase — it’s during the come down that they’re vulnerable.

In fact, I'd say that there's something else interesting here from that angle. A couple of years ago, at the height of the US craft acquisition fever, I noticed that a lot of the breweries being bought out were founded at about the same time. And that in fact, that there seemed to be a fairly standard age for selling up - a few years either side of 20 - and that this applied to a lot of British real ale breweries, too: Bath Ales, for instance, and Sharps. Since Dark Star (founded 1994) seem to fit reasonably well into that pattern, I thought I'd actually get some data and see if it stacks up.

Methodology: this is clearly a selective list, but it's selective based on what I can remember / have heard of - I haven't consciously picked and chosen examples to fit my theory. I've stuck to full acquisitions, or at least controlling stakes, rather than including partial things. The only example that I've deliberately excluded as a special case was the Brooklyn / Carlsberg takeover of London Fields. I've also ignored breweries that I wouldn't consider "newish" - Courage, for instance, or Hardy and Hansons, because I don't think it'd add much to the data. I generally haven't been particularly careful about how I define founding dates, having mostly gone with the first thing that I found on the web.

So here are the numbers:

BreweryYears IndependentAge When Sold
Camden 2010 - 2015 5
Wicked Weed 2012 - 2017 5
10 Barrel 2006 - 2014 8
Meantime 2000 - 2015 15
Sharps 1994 - 2011 17
Wychwood 1983 - 2002 19
Ballast Point 1996 - 2015 19
Elysian 1996 - 2015 19
Firestone Walker 1996 - 2015 19
Bath Ales1995 - 2016 21
Lagunitas 1993 - 2015 22
Goose Island 1988 - 2011 23
Dark Star 1994 - 2018 24
Boulevard 1989 - 2013 24
Achouffe 1982 - 2006 24
Ringwood 1978 - 2007 29

Make of that what you will.

Update: okay, here's one interpretation. With a few exceptions, people don't generally open breweries to get rich, they do it because it's fun and interesting. For the ones that are lucky enough to create a large and successful business the fun and interesting element keeps going for a while, but fifteen years down the line it starts to get samey. At this point "would you like to exchange personal control for a large amount of money (and maybe the opportunity to focus more on the parts of the business that you find interesting while we pay for some suits to handle the boring stuff)" seems like a more attractive offer than it did before.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Getting what you pay for

It's good to see some talk about class and price in craft beer coming up again. For all that pricing issues generate endless bickering, it's a subject that shouldn't be ignored. How many people are put off by the cost of craft beer? Is it socially responsible to create a culture that has a financial barrier to entry? Should craft brewers be more concerned with making beer that's more widely affordable - affordable as a regular night-out drink, not just for one reverentially sipped half a month?

The focus in this last suggestion is often on ingredients. Picking and choosing high-grade malt adds to a brewer's costs. So does using large quantities of the currently fashionable hop varieties. So does picking fancy extra flavouring ingredients - single estate coffee or Madagascan vanilla pods. Could a craft brewer use less expensive raw materials, maybe just for one beer, to produce something that's still great, still representative of modern beer, but is affordable to a much wider market?

The problem with this is that ingredient costs aren't the whole story - in fact, they're sometimes a relatively small part of the whole story. Breweries are also spending money on, among other things, rent, wages, capital, utilities and transport costs and small breweries are generally going to be less efficient and less able to save money on those costs than a larger operation, even if they're brewing an identical beer. They won't have spent the effort ruthlessly optimising their process, their equipment and their business to keep overheads as low as possible.

In short, when you pay "craft prices" for a pint in a pub, you could actually be paying for quite a lot of things:

  • You might be paying to support a bar that's designed for comfort rather than capacity.
  • You might be paying to support a pub that doesn't compromise its character by doubling up as a coffee shop or a family restaurant.
  • You might be paying for beer that's been kept in chilled storage and sold fresh rather than being kept at ambient temperature for months on end.
  • You might be paying to support one of a number of a small, independent business rather than a larger and more efficient industrial operation.
  • Or you might be paying for more hops and higher quality malt.

I don't really have a simple pronouncement to make on what's right and wrong here. In practice, I suspect that a lot of different approaches can co-exist, from Punk IPA in Wetherspoons to the priciest teku of nanobrewed barrel-aged stout in a modernist craft-temple. But I do think that when we ask for beer to be cheaper, we need to think about what we'd actually be willing to compromise on to get it there, because just using unfashionable hops won't do it on its own.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Pinnacles and Paternalism

So, the long-awaited report from the CAMRA Revitalisation Project has finally arrived and is already attracting some attention.

From a quick skim through - there's quite a lot in there - a lot of it seems to be sensible, pragmatic stuff. It did make me grind my teeth in places, though.

For instance, the proposals include the following:

  • CAMRA should promote the virtues of well-produced, well-kept, cask conditioned beer as the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft.
It also proposes that CAMRA should:
  • Permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.
Hooray! However, while doing so, they should also:
  • Ensure the layout of festivals and literature associated with them reinforces CAMRA’s belief in the superiority of cask-conditioned ale.
  • Inform and educate members, other consumers and the trade about good beers of all types, while highlighting the comparative excellence of real ale.

This talk of "pinnacles" and "superiority" is, essentially, bollocks, and exemplifies the problem that a lot of people have with CAMRA. An individual drinker might reasonably prefer a perfectly kept pint of Harveys Sussex Best to the freshest American IPA or the richest and most complex Belgian abbey beer, but for an organisation to imply that it's an objective fact that breweries from Cantillon to Augustiner to Hill Farmstead are falling short of "the pinnacle of their craft" because they don't cask condition comes across as fundamentally parochial and bigoted. This essentially tells brewers - who may have taken considerable care to choose the most suitable dispense for a particular beer - that they don't know what they're doing and that CAMRA know better than them.

Real Ale is absolutely worth campaigning for - it's a wonderful, unique, special thing that could easily be wiped out by the economic imperative to simplify and homogenise. I fully support the idea that it should retain a special place at the heart of CAMRA's strategy, and I could probably even accept a proposal that it should remain CAMRA's single central concern. But I'm not going to pretend that it's inherently and objectively better than anything else.

Honestly, I hope that this is a deliberate compromise aimed at sweet-talking the more hardcore dinosaurs into accepting some real progress. I hope that in practice, the sensible concrete step that non-real British beer can be served CAMRA festivals speaks louder than the condescendingly paternalistic way that it's officially talked about. I still see CAMRA as a force for good in general, I'm still a member, and I'll probably vote to support these proposals. But still...

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Predictions: cynical and naive

I guess it's a bit late for a New Year crystal-ball-gazing post, but I've come up with a nice format so I'm going to use it. To whit: two jaded, cynical predictions about how nice things that everyone's looking forward to probably won't happen, and two naively credulous ones about different nice things that I'm hoping will.


Craft lager won't be massive. At least not in the way that some people seem to hope. As much as people like to go on about the wonders of a crisp, balanced Bavarian Helles, for the majority of drinkers, the added value of microbrewed lager over decent-ish import or domestic stuff isn't enough for them to be willing to pay a super-premium craft price on a regular basis. What we might see more of is traditional regional brewers and multinationals knocking out large quantities of poor-to-middling quality pilsners and calling them "craft lagers", because you can write craft on anything these days. The margins here are a lot bigger.

Farmhouse style sours - spontaneously fermented, barrel aged and blended - will be a tough sell, too. It's price, again, and consistency. An aged and blended sour like a gueuze is fundamentally quite expensive to produce. The consequently high prices are pretty offputting to British punters even when the producer has decades of history and makes reliably fantastic beer; for newer brewers who are basically learning on the job and trying to build a rep, it's going to be a very hard sell indeed. I'd expect to see a lot of "farmhouse brewers" leaning heavily on traditional pale ales to cover the rent.


On the optimistic side, I think we're going to see more Belgian-influenced session beers - things like Wylam's DH Table Beer, De La Senne's Taras Boulba, Lost and Grounded's Hop Hand Fallacy. We're talking light, fresh, fun beers with a balance of hops, yeast and malt character, and maybe some subtle spicing. This sort of beer is distinctive but drinkable and fun to brew, allowing the brewer to exercise both delicacy and creativity. They're also relatively economical to produce, and interesting enough for the geeks but not too extreme for the wider market, so provided someone can think of a way of labelling them as a variety of IPA, we could really be in business.

Secondly, I'm hoping that freshness will come to be more of a selling point in the land of Serious Craft. We're sort of seeing this already with the cult of just-off-the-canning-line NEIPA, but as the UK craft landscape gets increasingly competitive and everyone and his dog has twenty lines of trendy beers from exciting local craft brewers, would it be too much to hope that those that can will also start to sell on freshness? I don't think we're far from the point where a bar that guarantees that hoppy beers were all kegged in the last two months and have been kept in coldstore throughout distribution and cellaring is more of a draw than the one that has ten extra lines of stuff that might have been sat in a warm warehouse for six months. This would be a rather good thing for those of us that don't want to spend top dollar on a fancy IPA unless we're pretty sure that it'll taste of hops rather than wet grass.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Session #131 - Three Things In 2018

For an emergency session topic, Jay Brooks has asked us three questions for the coming year. Thus:

1) What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

Erm, I can't help much on this one. I'd struggle to think of a single defining characteristic of beer that I'd like to drink beyond the fact that I'd like to drink it, so I'm not sure that there's anything that a word or phrase could helpfully encapsulate. Sorry!

2) What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Underrated is always a tough one - do people have to actively dislike them? Or can they be a solidly respected brewery who just aren't currently at the absolute peak of hype?

In any case, I'm going to stop overthinking it and pick De Ranke and Buxton. Both at the "respected but not currently hyped" end of the spectrum, they're excellent breweries who are too easy to take for granted because "continuing to make great beers" isn't really news.

3) Name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of.

i) Classic US IPA. This seems like an odd one in the Age of IPA, but the real West Coast deal - strong (6% and up), clean, bitter and loaded with pine and citrus hop aroma - is a surprisingly rare beast in our neck of the woods, so more of those, please. Fresh, too, if you don't mind - let's see some kegged-on dates!

ii) Imperial Stout. Proper ones, not cloyingly sweet or barrel aged with a vanilla and cocoa nibs or laden with novelty flavorings, but serious and forbidding, with wave after wave of chocolate, coffee, dried fruits, liquorish and treacle flavors coming in like a Merzbow album for your tastebuds. Like US IPA, this is the kind of thing that I'd like to see become more entrenched in the UK beer scene, not an occasional thing, but a standard offer that you expect to find at least one really solid example of wherever beer geeks gather.

iii) Belgian session beer. Not a style as such, but every now and then I get a beer like Lost and Grounded's Hop Hand Fallacy or De La Senne's Taras Boulba - balanced, refreshing, drinkable beers with a bit of upfront yeast character - and wonder why this isn't more of a thing. Let's make it one!

Friday, 22 December 2017

Golden Pints 2017

So, 2017. Apart from anything else, it's been an interesting year from a personal point of view because my partner spent five months on a work placement in Brussels. Thanks to the magic of remote working, this meant that I was able to spend about one week in three charging around Brussels drinking everything that moved, a fact which is reflected in some of the picks below. In beer terms, the hype has been all about sweet, sticky "dessert stouts" and hazy, juicy NEIPAs, both of which are styles that I can normally take or leave. On the other hand, there's been a lot of other stuff going on, a lot of it very much to my tastes.

(For reasons of time, I've not proofread the following very carefully. Foreign names in particular are liable to be horribly misspelled. Apologies in adavance.)

Best UK Cask Beer

Moor So Hop. A classic example of how well fruity new-world hops can work in a cask pale ale. We had it in top form at the Mill in Cambridge.

Honorable mention: Magic Rock Dark Arts. Still good!

Best UK Keg Beer

Green Jack Baltic Trader (3 year aged). Despite drinking a fair amount of UK kegged, bottled and canned beer, I find these sections hard - I don't log my drinking so I can't go back through my tasting notes, but the nature of Cambridge bars means that interesting non-cask beers tend to pop up briefly and then disappear again, so I don't remember things because I've had them repeatedly, either. But I'm pretty sure I enjoyed the aged Baltic Trader at Cambridge Beer festival, and I also like the fact that it's a proper unadulterated Imperial Stout and that it was Imperial Stout being served aged, from a keykeg, at a CAMRA festival.

Best UK Bottled Beer

Burning Sky - Saison a la Provision. As above, I may have had individual British bottles that wowed me more at the time but they were generally one-offs and I've largely forgotten them, but this is great and I've drunk a lot of it.

Best UK Canned Beer

Magic Rock - Inhaler. Likewise!

Best Overseas Draught

No Science - Psycho. Genre-defying table beer from a new Brussels micro who might be going interesting places fairly soon. We spent a fun but expensive evening with some friendly beer geeks in Moeder Lambic after the Cantillon Open Brew Day, and out of everything on offer, this was the beer that no-one would shut up about.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer

Kees - Barrel Aged Caramel Fudge Stout. Yeah, so I can normally take or leave big sweet dessert-themed stouts, but this one has the depth to back up the initial impression and it's great.

Honorable mention: Oud Beersel Vandervelden 135. Just an exemplary youngish gueuze.

Best Overseas Canned Beer

De Molen - Rasputin. It's always been pretty great, and now it comes in a can. Another one for the Campaign for Real Imperial Stouts, too.

Best collaboration brew

Blaugies / Hill Farmstead - Vermontoise. This is just joyful stuff. Classy but just a bit rustic, there's a lot going on but you could happily drink it all night.

Best Overall Beer

It's still Orval, isn't it? As an aside, there seems to be some rule that all beer cafes in Belgium have to have Oude or Vieux Orval on the menu regardless of whether they currently (or ever) have the stuff in, which has resulted in me being on the wrong end of a lot of apologetic shrugs this year.

Best UK Brewery

For combining a solid, consistent core range with fun and exciting specials, this one's a toss-up between Northern Monk (the new Magic Rock) and Magic Rock (the old Magic Rock).

Best Overseas Brewery

Brouwerij De Ranke. Just a ludicrously consistent brewer. Nothing wacky, but pretty much everything they do - XX Bitter, Guldenberg, Noir de Dottignes, Saison de Dottignes, Cuvee de Ranke, Kriek de Ranke - knocks it out of the park.

Honorable mention to Cantillon. I mean derp, it's obvious, but they are just fantastic. They're also commendable for bloody-mindedly sticking to their guns in terms of ethics, style and quality while also doing their best to be affordable and inclusive and to welcome everyone who comes to the brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2017

Burnt Mill - I'm cautiously excited about what seems to be a new wave of East Anglian "farmhouse style" breweries, and Burnt Mill beat Duration to the punch here by actually having a physical brewery up and running with beer in pubs.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Amere a Boire, Brussels. Pretty much the local for Alison's flat in Ixelles, but I think it'd be one of my favourites anyway. It's convenient for the ULB architecture department, so it's always lively with immaculately dishevelled Rive Gauche types, the bottle list is generally excellent, with less bulking-up-numbers chaff than a lot of Brussels bars and you can normally get Tilquin Gueuze on tap at a reasonable price. The food offer is basically cheese with celery salt and mustard, but you can always get some of the best chips in town a short walk away on Flagey.

Honorable mention to The Castle, Cambridge, which is kind of our joint-local at home. A lovely settleable place that does a consistently immaculate pint of Ghost Ship.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2017

Small Bar, Cardiff. Didn't actually open this year, but it's opened since I was previously in Cardiff last year so I'm counting it.

Beer Festival of the Year

Probably the Tour de Gueuze, if only for the conga line that broke out in Boon at about 9pm. We wandered around the Lot / Beersel / Lembeek area on foot and by public transport rather than getting on an official bus, which I think was a good plan.

Honorable mention (as ever) to the Cambridge Beer Festival.

Independent Retailer of the Year

Bacchanalia, Cambridge. The shop that largely spoiled me for actually going to Belgium.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

About the only new beer book I've actually bought this year is Boak and Bailey's 20th Century Pub, which I haven't got around to reading yet. I'm sure it'll be great, though!

Blogs / Twitter

I've enjoyed a lot of beer folks on Twitter and on blogs this year, but singling one out as the best seems almost contrary to the spirit of the thing, to be honest. However, mentions should probably go to Boak and Bailey, Retired Martin, BRAPA, Ms Swiggy, the Beer Nut, Crema, Ed's Beer Blog, Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell among many others.

Best Brewery Website/Social media

Pierre van Klomp! Although Pilot run him close.