Category: Beer

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Craft Beer, Dark Star, Fuller's, The Business End

What Do You Do When Your Favourite Brewery Gets Sold To The Man?

Yesterday, it was announced that Dark Star Brewing had been bought by Fuller’s. In a much longer reader than I’d anticipated, here are some thoughts on how we might process such an event if it’s our favourite brewery being acquired…

                      You say ending, they say new beginning. Who’s right?

 

In every business, companies get bought and sold all the time. Brewing is, when all is said and done, a business first and foremost, in that if you don’t make more money by selling stuff than you spend on making it, you cannot survive.

But to many, craft brewing often feels like something more than just a business. It’s also a movement. Our favourite breweries often represent a set of principles and attitudes, a lifestyle, perhaps even a moral point of view, as well as making beers we enjoy drinking. This might entail a commitment to experimentation over convention, independence over conformity, living large rather than being cautious, or some other kind of anti-establishment or anti-corporate stance. Many craft beer fans are stuck in corporate jobs themselves, unable or unwilling to take their own risky leap into the unknown, and so they live vicariously through their favourite brewers, buying their beers to support principled decisions and actions they identify with and aspire to.

When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.

These are not always rational or fair reactions, and they’re certainly not always justified, but given the high degree of emotional involvement around craft brewing, they’re entirely understandable.

Craft brewers have a long history of collaboration with each other, but rarely, if ever, do two craft breweries of comparable size decide to merge to further their mutual interest. Invariably, it’s a case of a larger, older, more conservative and established business buying a smaller, younger, more adventurous one. And that’s always going to set the alarm bells ringing. Instinctively, that alarm is rationalised through a fear that the beers will change: the accountants and marketing people will get involved. They’ll cut costs so the beer won’t be as good. They’ll dumb it down to appeal to a mass market. They’ll close the brewery down and brew it in a big factory instead, and it will never taste the same. Then you move on to the company itself: people will lose their jobs, and I care about these people (even if I’ve never met them.) But it’s the emotional bond, the identification with the brewery, that underlies such concerns.

But such takeovers are going to become increasingly common over the next few years. Craft beer as an overall segment looks set to grow indefinitely, even if the rate of that growth will slow down as the scene matures. But the number of outlets available in which to sell craft beer are arguably fixed – the number of pubs is declining. Supermarkets are steady. Specialist bottle shops are growing, as are alternative outlets such and festivals and special events. But these account for a tiny proportion of the total route to market. We’ve had such an incredible growth in the number of breweries in the UK – more than trebling since the millennium – that we have a massively increasing number of breweries chasing a limited number of fonts on the bar and spaces on the shelf. The most exciting – and, it has to be said, the most fashionable – breweries have no trouble securing their route to market. But many struggle to get space. Even when they get a place on the bar, the fickle consumer says, ‘Yes, I’ve had that one, what else have you got?’ and there’s always another one waiting to take their place.

Some brewers just can’t make a living. Others are getting by, but want to grow so they can make themselves and their families more financially comfortable, or hire more people so they can work fewer than eighty hours a week. Growth takes investment, and investment requires more growth to pay it off – if you can secure it in the first place in an uncertain financial climate when you’re one of several hundred breweries seeking it. For some, the answer is crowdfunding, but how many breweries are you going to invest in? Sometimes, selling simply makes most sense. And like I said, it happens in every single industry.

So when your favourite brewery goes, is it a catastrophe or is it salvation? Ultimately, only time will tell. I hate making predictions because they’re often wrong. But there are some questions you can ask that might provide clues – if you can discern the true answers beneath the spin, that is…

 

Did the brewery want to sell or not?

If it’s a hostile takeover, you can be sure there will be blood. But such takeovers usually only take place if both companies are already listed on the stock exchange. If a brewery is privately owned, no one can force them to sell. Someone can make them an offer they can’t refuse (commonly known as ‘a Camden’) but there are two actors in any sale, and too often we just look at is as the big guy snapping up the small guy.

 

What’s in it for the seller?

Obviously, for the individuals running the brewery, there’s personal wealth. If you’re doing a well-paid job to support yourself and a family, I’d think very carefully about accusing someone of ‘selling out’ on this score. Those people likely put their houses and all their savings on the line to build this thing, and worked longer hours, for less money, than you ever have.

But that’s rarely the only reason for selling – there can be benefits for the brewery too. That beer you love is getting access to a bigger sales force with a wider distribution. The biggest limit on a brewery’s growth is its fermentation capacity. New fermentation vessels are expensive. When Molson Coors bought Sharp’s, many predicted the Cornish brewery would be closed by its new owners. Instead, those new owners delivered lots of shiny new fermenters. OK, so bottled Doom Bar is now brewed in Burton, where there’s greater bottling capacity, but six years after the acquisition, Sharp’s cask ale is still brewing in Cornwall (like it or not.)

On the other hand, is there any dissent in the ranks? When Elysian was bought by A-B Inbev, while the official line was delight around ‘joining forces’, the head brewer quickly walked. Watching how long the key people stick around beyond any mandatory period is usually a good indicator of whether or not the sale was just for the money.

 

What’s in its for the buyer?

It does seem as though the strategies of the big guys are changing. Historically in the UK, most pubs were owned by breweries. When a brewery was taken over, invariably it was so the acquirer could get their hands on the pubs, and the brewery itself would invariably be closed down (take a bow, Greene King.) It’s also common practice traditionally in any market to buy an annoying competitor just to get rid of them, running down a business you couldn’t beat in the marketplace.

If a non-craft brewery buys a craft brewery that doesn’t own a big pub estate, they want it for the beers themselves and/or for the brand. They want it because they can’t brew and sell those beers within their existing brand portfolio. Now, they don’t lack the brewing expertise to do that – they probably have far better equipment and access to higher quality raw ingredients, and it’s easy (and much cheaper) for them to poach a brewer from a small craft brewery rather than buy the whole thing. What they’re paying for is credibility, an established audience, goodwill, and to a lesser extent, recipes (which they could replicate pretty closely if they had to.)

But the main reason bigger breweries buy smaller ones is that their systems and scale prevent them from acting in the same way as smaller, nimbler, craft brands. Processes designed to sell big commodity brands can’t keep pace with the craft market. So when they do buy these breweries, they tend to run them as separate entities that don’t conform to the same practices as the big brands. A-B Inbev’s many craft acquisitions sit in a separate craft division with its own CEO. Carlsberg is running London Fields as a separate company. Heineken knows it hasn’t a clue about cask ale, so when it acquired Scottish brewery Caledonian, they went big on improving health and safety but apart from that they left the brewhouse alone. These companies aren’t being altruistic about this – they know that if they tried to run it directly, they’d fuck up the thing they just paid a lot of money for.

If the purchased brewery’s brands start getting brewed in the big brewery, using big brewery logistics, there may be some cause for concern (or they may actually be improved on more modern kit.) But if the beer is still being made in the original brewery, by the same people under different management, there’s a chance that even your understandable suspicion that the recipe may be dumbed down is unfounded. I hate the rebranding of Goose Island IPA as ‘Goose’, but Bourbon County Stout, and the range of wood-aged beers produced by Goose Island, remain at least as outstanding as they ever were.

The real threat of these acquisitions is to the broader world of craft, and is a little more insidious and harder to detect. The brewer wants your favourite craft brand because they don’t have anything similar themselves. They don’t want to fuck it up. The brewhouse is probably safe. But then it gets into the hands of an aggressive sales force. The brand might be discounted to push it into wider distribution, which is great for a skint drinker but can take the sheen off the brand’s standing. Or, if it’s a very popular brand, it might be used as a bargaining chip: “Yeah, we’ll sell you the super-cool, sexy craft beer brand we just acquired, but only if you permanently take these other craft beer brands off the bar, and stock our shitty lager as well.” Your favourite beer is still safe, but the brand is tarnished by the new company it keeps, and by the fact that it’s no longer allowed to mix with its old mates. This may sound like paranoia, but it’s common practice. When I worked on Stella Artois, I saw first-hand how both aggressive discounting and aggressive package deals were used to massively inflate the growth of what had been a niche, cult brand with a good deal of credibility. A few years later, it became what we know it to be today.

 

 

What past form does the buyer have?

So is your favourite craft beer brand going to go down this route or not? Well,  there’s big and big. I’m always confused by the outcry when Duvel Moortgat buys a craft brewery, because Duvel Moortgat makes some of the best beers in the world. One Dark Star fan lamented yesterday on social media that his favourite brewery is now part of just another corporate behemoth. Fuller’s may be many things, but it’s a minnow in the world of corporate beer. Fuller’s has also demonstrated a commitment to the world and ethos of craft beer matched by few of its peers. Yes, Fuller’s also closed the Gales brewery and quietly retired some of its brands after buying that, but the circumstances were different than they are with Dark Star.

Ultimately, each case has to be judged individually.

 

As craft brewery acquisitions gather pace, there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that the demise in the quality and integrity of a once-loved brand is by no means guaranteed. But if your true objection to acquisitions is that they run against the ethos of whatever you define  ‘craft beer’ to be, that big corporates should have no place on the indie scene, then prepare for further disappointment: ultimately, everyone is for sale.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Food, IPA

The Craft of Balance

As in music, as in food, as in life, as in beer: extremes can be thrilling, but harmony is ultimately more satisfying.

 

I’m a huge fan of Felicity Cloake’s series of articles in The Guardian, where she takes a beloved recipe and tries to distil the perfect version of it. She does so by consulting various chefs who are each famed for their own versions, reading about its development, trying different variations with her friends, and synthesising an overall best version with the help of their comments. Recipes are like language: they evolve and adapt, and everyone puts their own signature on them. Felicity’s are of course influenced by her own tastes, which aren’t always the same as mine, but the articles are never less than compelling.

Last week, she did Vindaloo, a dish I’ve been obsessed with ever since I studied and subsequently went to India for my third book, Hops & Glory. You may well know that, strictly speaking, Vindaloo isn’t an Indian dish at all, but is in fact Portuguese in origin. Neither chillies nor tomatoes are native to India – both were introduced by Portuguese sailors, who picked them up in South America. Before they did so, the heat in Indian food relied primarily on pepper, which is quite a different heat altogether. As Felicity points out in her piece, it’s kind of ironic that carne de vinha d’alhos (meat in wine vinegar and garlic) has become a bastion of competitive British male masculinity given that it was perfected in Portuguese Goa – one of the few parts of India never ruled by Britain.

In the hands of the typical Anglo-Asian curry house, Vindaloo has become an exercise in chilli intensity. Ever wondered how a high street restaurant can have such a wide menu and serve dishes from any part of it so quickly? They work from a very small number of basic sauces, and simply add more of less chillies, plus a few other ingredients, to great different permutations on them. So while in India, Madras and Vindaloo are entirely different dishes with different spice bases, in England, one is the same as the other only with more chilli.

Vindaloo is my usual order. I like the English version, and am fascinated by the high variance I get in heat from different restaurants. But I also yearn for the ‘proper’ version. So as soon as I saw it, I tried Felicity’s recipe.

Fuck me, it was good.

My wife Liz has much lower tolerance for chill heat than me. She had a tiny spoonful of it, and just managed to say “That’s gorgeous” before the screaming started. “Never bring that near me again,” she said between gulps of water. But a couple of days later, when I heated up the last of it for my dinner, she couldn’t resist having another taste. She knew it was going to hurt, but she was compelled to try the incredible depth and layering of flavour once more.

There’s a a lot of chilli in Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Vindaloo (and on this occasion, that title is justified). There’s more chilli heat in it than I’ve had in any high street curry house version I’ve had outside the Midlands.

But that chilli goes into a masala marinade along with a shit-ton of cloves and cinnamon as well as the usual Indian spices, and then there’s more garlic than anything else, with the vinegar and tamarind adding yet a another layer. It’s hot. It’s complex. But it’s balanced. And it’s all the more irresistible for it. The chilli may be the lead instrument, but it sounds so much better with a backing band rather than completely solo.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with some marketers at a British regional ale brewery a few months ago. I was saying that what I admired about their beers was their balance, but they’d just done a lot of market research with their old guard of drinkers and younger craft beer drinkers, and they came back and said, “Oh no – for the younger craft beer drinkers, balance is boring.”

I was surprised and saddened by this, but it’s just one feature of the quest for novelty that seems to be giving the beer scene much of its momentum these days.

I wonder if it’s based on a misunderstanding, a perception that balance = bland. And that’s why I offer up The Perfect Vindaloo as an analogy for great beer. The image of the graphic equaliser above shows a balanced music mix. It happens to be in the middle of the scale. But it could be higher (more intense and full-on) or near the bottom (quieter) and it would still be balanced. My Vindaloo was as perfectly balanced as a good korma, but at a very different point of intensity.

Aggressively hoppy beers changed my life. They blew my mind like my first proper curry did, and I’ve used that as an analogy ever since. But even a beer with a hundred IBUs (bitterness units) can be balanced. A full, malty backbone in such a beer gives the hops something to work from, just like the rhythm section behind a scorching axe solo or the cinnamon and cloves behind the chilli. I taste a lot of hoppy beers these days where the hops are one-dimensional. They’re hoppy, but they’re not that interesting. For me, it’s the lack of balance that is becoming deeply boring.

Sour beers are exactly the same. Beers that shove a massive icepick of sharpness through your skull with nothing else to offer may shock initially, and that shock can be quite thrilling. But if there’s nothing else to it, it soon becomes dull and monotone. With the best ‘sour’ beers, that word is hopelessly inadequate, because the sharp sourness is in concert with earthy funk and bright fruit.

I think this is why novel beers come and go, but old favourites that you probably find boring at certain points in your beer journey will inevitably come back and claim you. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Rochefort 10, Orval and Harvey’s Best are not dull beers, nor bland crowd pleasers, but they are balanced. And that’s why generations of beer drinkers not yet born will still be drinking them in thirty or forty years time, when some of today’s most hyped beers will have been long forgotten.

| Beer, Brewing, Harveys, Hops, Yeast

A Trip To Lewes Cathedral

Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes, Sussex, is as old school as they come. Sometimes, no matter how much you think you know about brewing, or how forward-looking you are in terms of what’s new in beer, you need to revisit a place like this to ground you and remind you what it’s all about.

We were in Lewes for a strategy day. Along with publisher Daniel Neilson and editor Adrian Tierney Jones, I’m now one third of Original Gravity magazine, the latest edition of which is just out. We got together a couple of weeks ago for a day or so to work out the future direction of the mag (clue: it’s really exciting). After a few beers the night before, the conversation loosened, and we got onto a bit of a riff I could clumsily title ‘Beers some people take for granted and others ignore completely because they’ve been here forever but if they were launched tomorrow by a hip new brewery you would totally lose your shit over how good they are.’

We came up with a pretty impressive list. Near the top was Harvey’s Best Bitter. I think we were excited because we knew that after our morning’s session, we had a tour of the brewery planned.

Harvey’s is an unusual brewery in that it’s smack in the middle of the town of Lewes, dominating the skyline. And it’s uncommonly beautiful to look at. It’s a Victorian ‘tower brewery’, where all the ingredients are hoisted up to the top floor, and then steadily make their way down through the various brewing vessels with the assistance of gravity. There are other Victorian tower breweries in town centres, but Wadworth in Devizes is the only other one that springs immediately to mind as such a compelling tourist attraction. Harvey’s has the edge on it: there’s a waiting list of two months here for brewery tours.

Miles Jenner – the third generation in a family of brewers – has been head brewer at Harvey’s since 1986, and joint Managing Director since 2000. His office, with its carefully painted door, is just opposite the main brewing copper. From the outside, with its coloured glass and gabled window, it looks like a small chapel in a Tudor Manor House.

The religious comparison doesn’t stop there.

“People often refer to the brewery as Lewes cathedral,” says Miles when we meet him in the brewery yard. “I changed the sign really to see if anyone would notice.”

Harvey’s was founded in 1790, and has been on this site since 1838. It’s been rebuilt and added to ever since, and there’s currently a lot of scaffolding and ladders around the place. It’s all done with an incredible attention to detail in preserving the feel of the original. It’s a lovely story, but the building is now Grade II listed. From an architectural point of view, so it should be. But for a live brewery, that occasionally needs to install new brewing or fermentation vessels – which are usually so big as to require a roof to be taken off or a wall dismantled to get them in – it’s a curse as well as a blessing.

That helps explain why even a lot of the new stuff at Harvey’s is quite old. Mash Tun number one looks like it belongs on the Nautilus. No matter what the agenda of the host, when you get to this room any group of visitors ignores everything else and stops to take photographs, trying to capture it’s deep sheen and industrial romance.

Eventually Miles drags us away and takes us through to the hop store. Harveys only ever uses whole leaf hops rather than pellets. It’s just proper. The hops are kept refrigerated by the hop merchants to preserve their freshness, and called into the brewery about a week before they’re needed. The brewery’s labelling system displays the name of the grower as well as the hop variety – Harvey’s isn’t far from the hop gardens of Kent and Sussex, and Miles likes to have close relationships with his growers.

Harvey’s mainly uses English hop varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings. In the age of the citrusy, tropical fruit delights of new world hops, these more conservative varieties often receive short shrift, being described as dull and twiggy. The Fuggles here are fresh and spicy, peppery with a hint of lemon meringue. If you can only make dull, twiggy beers with these hops, you’re either not buying from the right place, keeping them badly, or you’re not a very good brewer.

 

Those hops often end up in the old Harvey’s copper, which isn’t as old as it seems, and hasn’t been here for as long as you might think. When Miles opens the hatch towards the end of the boil, we brave scalding steam to see the drama inside and try to win an inhalation of that deep, spicy aroma.

Harvey’s still has open fermentation vessels, which means you can actually see the beer being made in the truest sense of the word. Different fermenters hold beer at different stages in its fermentation period. The yeasty head goes from brilliant white foam in the first to beige sludge in the older second, the scummy sides suggestive of the orgy of consumption and reproduction the yeast has enjoyed over the last couple of days.

All of this plays its part in making Harvey’s beers somehow better than others in their style. There’s just something more here, a slight wildness in the yeast – undetectable in the Best Bitter, but more pronounced in the Imperial Stout once its been aged for a few months. The quality of the hops. The experience of a head brewer who’s been in the job for over thirty years. the reverence this building inspires.

“There’s always speculation that we’re going to sell up and move, especially when there’s all this scaffolding around,” says Miles. “I mean we could. We could sell this place for an absolute fortune for redevelopment, and move to an industrial park outside town. But that would destroy everything that Harvey’s is about. So what would be the point?”

| Brooklyn Brewery, Miracle Brew, US Craft Beer

My Spin-Ale Tap Tour: A Look Back at America

Last month I did my first ever book tour of North America. I had intended to blog the tour as it progressed, but the sheer amount of time and effort it took, combined with limited access to wifi, meant I couldn’t do much at all while I was over there. So here, on the faint off-chance that it might be interesting, is the first part of my highlights of a beery ten days over the pond.

Part One: New York, 14th-17th October

When you fly into the US from Europe, beating jet leg is easy: you just have to stay up really late the first night. (It’s so much more difficult the other way round.) For this trip I’m staying in Queens. I’ve only ever stayed in Manhattan before, but in terms of affordability, that may as well now be Mars. Most of my events are in Brooklyn, so it makes sense to stay close. An AirB&B just over the border in Queens is the limit of affordability on this trip.

Queens reminds me of parts of North East London where I live: a highly ethnically diverse population (in this case Latin American) with the first signs of creeping gentrification. The first of these signs are, inevitably, the artisanal coffee shop and the craft beer bar. There are plenty of the former around my apartment (some doubling delightfully as second-hand bookshops) and there’s one of the latter just at the bottom of the road I’m staying on, amid the 24-hour delis selling six-packs and microwavable heart attacks. The coffee shops are all closed by the time I’m settled in, so it looks like it’s going to have to be the craft beer bar.

Craft Culture has only been open a few months. It follows the craft beer bar template: brightly lit, minimally modernist, with big fridges, a wide array of taps and a generosity with the wifi password I never find in more traditional bars or pubs. (Bars like this recognise that the punters’ Instagram accounts are their primary marketing channel.)

I ask what’s local, and among the suggestions is a ‘gose cider’. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to create this particular combination, so I have to give it a try.

Murky. Minimally carbonated. Massively fucked about with. And unutterably refreshing and enlivening. The perfect dislocated jet lag cure.

‘Peaks and Valleys’, from the Graft Cidery in Newburgh, New York, is one of a range of ‘Gose ciders’ that is itself part of a broader range of sour ciders. It’s another lovely example of what can happen when you start messing with stuff where you don’t have established traditions to hold you back. There’s a trend for sour beers. A lot of farmhouse and a great deal of Spanish cider has sour characteristics. What happens if you play in the space between the two?  This seasonal, ‘Not Pumpkin Cider’ has been created with the addition of birch bark, cinnamon, anise & sea salt. They say it ‘tastes like a spiced birch beer!’ I say it’s one of the most absurdly refreshing drinks I’ve ever tasted and should be given out as a mandatory tonic to any non-teetotallers immediately at the end of a seven hour flight. I have no idea what a traditional West Country cider maker would say about it, but I imagine you’d have to stand well back while they were saying it.

I move on down the road to the Ridgewood Alehouse, for my traditional New York ritual – namely, sitting at the bar late at night, trying to understand the sports on the banks of TV screens behind the bar, insisting on figuring it out for myself and resisting the friendly attempts at explanation from my fellow bar flies, and just soaking up the atmosphere.

The commercial breaks come every five minutes, and every time it’s the same ads. There’s one for Taco Bell, showing a quesadilla being made with a ton of cheese, covered with deep-fried chicken nuggets and then folded over. My arteries fur just watching it. The strapline at the end is ‘Live Mas!’ or ‘Live More’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an advertising line that’s more at odds with the product it’s showing.

One of these has 650 calories and contains 65% of your daily recommended intake of saturated fat, 25% of your daily cholesterol and 62% of your daily salt. They are always shown in servings of four. Live More!

Most of the other people here are drinking shots now rather than beers, bourbon poured into chunky glasses that shape the liquid within into a brown bullet. The proprietor of a blog called naughtygossip.com is being interviewed about Harvey Weinstein. California is going up in flames and Donald Trump still hasn’t mentioned it. The new Lexus ad is an action movie with a constant stream of subtitles such as ‘Professional drivers, do not attempt,’ and ‘collision damage not covered by warranty.’ Another ad for college football cuts between images depicting an ancient battlefield, corpses lying with feathered arrows in their backs, and the football team striding purposefully towards the camera.  This is the land of the free, whose origin story is defined by scarcity, and now allows us to let loose our appetites like nowhere else in the world. The whole country hankers after excess. Trump waddles to a podium, and I realise the only thing he cares about is being top of the news cycle, all the time. He doesn’t care why he’s there, he just has to be. Melania stands behind him, a waxwork in big dark glasses.

I’m not drunk. I’m not tired. I’m in a grey limbo beyond both, my sober mind locked in a panic room, believing it’s still calling the shots. But I’ve made it. It’s late. I have no idea how long I’ve been awake, how long ago that first drink in the departure lounge was. I can go now, back to my studenty apartment. If I want to. I’m not sure I do. The capacity to make decisions has long gone.

The next day I kill my laptop. I spend two hours walking across Brooklyn and realise that on its own, it’s bigger than most other cities I’ve ever visited. I take the subway into Manhattan, ready to spend a day being a tourist. I have one column to write before I can relax into my schedule here, and decide to do it sitting at a bar watching the ballgame. As I finish the column, I reach for my pint of IPA, go in a little too high and tip it over, pouring it into my keyboard. Over the past decade I’ve done this twice before. I turn the computer off, flip it upside down, stuff it with paper towels, but I know it’s pointless. It’s dead. I need to work while I’m here and I need to present the slides for my talk tomorrow night. So I spend my one touristy afternoon in New York spending money I don’t have on a new laptop, going back to my apartment and downloading my life back from the cloud. And then rewriting the bastard column.

Monday, it’s time to get to work. Back over in Brooklyn I’m due at the Heritage Radio Network. Just around the corner is a ramen place, where I stop for lunch. Back in the nineties I ate in the first branch of Wagamama just after it opened, when there were queues around the block. I thought I knew what ramen was. Now, I can never eat in Wagamama again. Ichiran is a traditional ramen place opened by a family that immigrated from Japan and does Tonkotsu ramen and nothing else. You’re directed to a private booth, separated from the kitchen by a bamboo screen. You order a customisable ramen, where you can choose the softness of your noodles, the heat, the richness of the stock and additional toppings and sides, by ticking boxes on a slip of paper. You hand this over, and the bowl arrives within five minutes. The servers – whose faces you never see – then bow deeply and lower the bamboo screen, and you eat your ramen in splendid isolation.

Reasonably spicy, rich stock, extras mushrooms, special red sauce.

I will never eat ramen again until I can be assured it will be this good. It’s a terrible curse: taste it once, experience bliss, knowing it’s changed you and made things that were once OK taste like ash by comparison. If I have to sell my house in London and buy a shoebox in Brooklyn to eat this again, it would be worth it.

On to the radio station – deliciously situated in the back of a wonderfully homely pizza restaurant and bar broadcasting Halloween movies, with a courtyard featuring an extra pizza grill and a tiki bar. Heritage Radio is an entire network devoted to praising the joys of local food and drink. With its origins in the Slow Food movement, it’s as if the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme gets to take over the entire schedule.

Typical weekly schedule for Heritage Radio. Let’s start one here in London.

I record an episode of Fuhmentaboudit, a show that covers all things fermented, from cheese to tempeh, but with a focus on home brewing. You can listen to my episode here.

Fuhmentaboudit!

Then, it’s off to the Brooklyn Brewery to record an episode of the Steal This Beer podcast, with Augie Carton and John Holl. You can listen to my episode here.

And then, straight into a presentation of Miracle Brew to the Legion of Osiris. This is basically a group of beer fans masquerading as some kind of freemason cult. They’re hilarious, passionate about beer and insanely welcoming. I’d put up a link to them singing their song, cribbed from this Simpsons scene, but I fear I might be breaking some rules of the ancient order of Osiris if I did so. It’s a brilliant event – a great start to the tour. And it ends with Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver pouring secret, unlabelled bottles from his experimental stash until I can no longer see.

Next day it’s over to Jersey City for a tour with my friend John Holl and a look around the Departed Soles Brewery. Saying you tasted wonderful IPAs in this country is like saying the sun rises here, but these guys make a really wonderful IPA. So there.

Back over to Brooklyn and Heritage Radio, to do Beer Sessions, with Jimmy Carbone. This is my third programme talking about Miracle Brew in two days, but everyone has wanted to explore different things within the book, and I’m on the programme with Jason Sahler, the founder of the Strong Rope Brewery, which makes a point of using ingredients entirely from New York state, so we have a great chat about terroir and the role of place in beer ingredients. Jason’s stuff really is worth checking out. You can listen to our show here. 

Afterwards, it’s great to go out and explore a few bars with Jason, Qurban Walia from Crafted Exports, who ships beers both ways between the UK and US, Ed Valenta of Harpoon Brewing who flew down from Boston to have a beer with us, and Qurban’s friend who looks eerily like Eric Cantona, and has no idea who that is until I spend all night telling him how much he looks like Eric Cantona.

Yes, a German Style IPA. You got a problem with that?

 

My new ‘trying to keep my eyes open’ pose.

 

His Cantona is way better than my Russell Crowe, which seems to have faded…

And that’s New York. A whirlwind of breweries, bars and banter, and hardly any of it in Manhattan itself. It’s so nice to get a picture of the broader city, the different rhythms and textures within it. Does it make any difference to book promotion? I have no idea. But Miracle Brew was already being stocked in Barnes & Noble, and being able to see that alone made the trip.

Next Time: Boston and Vermont.

Miracle Brew is my third book to receive a bespoke US publication, but the first where the publisher has devoted so much time and expense to promoting the title. I’m enormously grateful to Chelsea Green Publishing for flying me across and organising my itinerary. Thanks so much guys.

| Barley, Craft Beer, Hops, Miracle Brew, Water, Yeast

Miracle Brew – and me – to hit North America!

My new beer book is published in the United States and Canada this week. And I’m going to be doing a short tour to promote it. 

My latest book, Miracle Brew, is a globetrotting adventure into the nature of beer. It’s a tale that grew in the telling, with some parts going back as far as ten years, coalescing into the idea for a book about the ingredients of beer back in late 2014.

Why a book about the ingredients of beer? Well, it’s a timely thing: recent research in the UK by the There’s A Beer For That campaign shows that only 22% of people know what beer is made of, which is odd given that it’s the third most popular drink on the planet.

So in response: Miracle Brew presents a complete natural history of beer and emphasizes the importance of place—or terroir—that each ingredient brings to the finished glass. I travelled from the vast hop gardens of the Yakima Valley in Washington State to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon. The book explores explores traditional malting techniques, the evolution of modern hop breeding, water chemistry, and the miraculous catalyst that is fermentation to show how craft beer brewing has become a part of the local food movement and is redefining how the world perceives beer.

There’s more information about the book, and reviews, here.

So I have a short but very busy promotional schedule as follows. If you’re in town, have any beer or cider tips for me, or want to interview me or chat about the book, just let me know!

Saturday 14th October to Tuesday 17th October – New York

I’ll be doing some interviews and podcasts, and on Monday 16th taking part in an event for the Legion of Osiris.

Wednesday 18th October – Somerville, Massachusetts

An evening event with Aeronaut Brewing.

Thursday 19th October – TBC

Friday 20th October -Brattleboro, Vermont

An evening event with Hermit Thrush Brewing.

Saturday 21st to Sunday 22nd October – Toronto

On the Saturday afternoon I’m delighted to be doing a book signing alongside friend and fellow author Stephen Beaumont at the magnificent Cask Days festival. Then on Sunday evening I’m doing an event with Henderson Brewing.

Monday 23rd to Tuesday 24th October – Boston

On the evening of Monday 23rd I’m doing an event with Harpoon Brewing, then kicking around Boston for the day before flying home on Tuesday night!

Madly excited about my first ever North American book tour. I’ll be adding more dates back home in the UK on my return.

| Beer, Books, Cider, Writing

Welcome to petebrown.net!

I’ve upgraded my blog to a new website that covers all my writing and events, and aims to reflect the ongoing developments in communicating about beer, cider – and writing beyond that.

The tools of my trade.

I used to have a beer blog once. At one point I was blogging two or three times a week. I used to enjoy it. Then, various things happened. Firstly, I got screamingly busy with books and journalism, and didn’t have much time to blog any more. Also, my writing started to diversify from beer into other subjects. And then, one day, my blog suddenly looked so old-fashioned, with broken links all over the place, a cheesy photo and outdated backgrounds, that I got embarrassed about it. Even when I had something I wanted to write, I was put off the idea by one look at my sorry homepage.

I took a look at some other blogs and online beer writing. Sites like Good Beer Hunting and superb blogs from writers like Matt Curtis and Jeff Alworth showed me how important good visuals have become to the experience of communicating about beer (something I need to work on) as well as great words and ideas. They and others also demonstrated how the possibilities for – and expectations of – layout and design have vastly improved since I last gave my old blog a polish in 2012.

When I started blogging in 2006, the impetus was purely to promote my books. There were only one, maybe two other beer blogs in the UK at the time, and blogging as an end in itself hadn’t really been established.

Back then I had two books to promote. Now I have eight, with a ninth on the way in 2018. Every time I meet someone who proudly tells me they’ve read all three of my books, I realise I could be doing more on the book promotion side of things.

The realities of modern book publishing also mean that, just like the music business, if you want to promote books you really need to do so via live events. I’ve been doing a great many of these but not really sharing enough information about them beforehand, so my events page will be markedly improved from now on.

So part of this is hard-edged commerce: the landing page of this site, and various other pages, work like many an author’s website does across fiction and non-fiction, famous names and first-timers, to give the latest news of what I’m up to and promote my wares.

But on top of all that, blogging as a discipline isn’t going away. Over the years I’ve seen many people dabble and even make their names as bloggers before moving away from the medium when they get professional writing gigs. It’s great that blogging allows us to do that. But it can also do things professional writing can’t always do. For example, I love having my column in the Morning Advertiser every month, but the lead-times mean I have to write it two to three weeks before it appears in print. I’ve seen so many stories recently that I’ve wanted to comment on, just in a few words, to provoke discussion, make a point, ask a question or just get something off my chest. They’re things that need to be said in the moment, and said in more than 140 (or 280) characters.

So take a look around. All the content from my old blog has been transferred across. Explore links to writing I’ve done for other publications, learn more about books you may not have read yet, arrange to come and see me doing an event near you – whatever, I hope you just enjoy the writing. I’ll be adding more stuff, tidying up categories and links etc, over the coming weeks.

One final word – blogging has become murky water these days when it comes to brands, marketing and public relations. These days, PRs ‘reach out’ to us, not to give us ideas for stories but to ‘work with us’. Companies offer to write guest posts for us, occasionally for money if we agree not to mention that this is a commercial transaction, which breaks all kinds of laws and regulations around ethical advertising. The only way this website will make money is by helping me sell my books and events, and possibly other beery products in a forthcoming online shop. I never have and never will take a penny in advertising (though I don’t have a problem with people who do – at least it’s open and above board) or in underhand sponsored/paid for content. There is a lot of talk these days about ‘junkets’. I know some bloggers who began blogging simply to blag free beer. I don’t need to do that. But I do sometimes get sent free beer. I also frequently take hospitality from brewers and other bodies in the industry. I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I didn’t accept trips to breweries etc – I don’t earn enough from doing this to always get there at my own expense. It’s common practice in this and other industries, but for some readers (and writers) this is also an ethical issue around trust. So I will always make a note wherever trips, visits, free samples etc are relevant to something I’m writing about. I know they don’t unduly influence what I write, but you’ll be well informed enough to decide for yourself.

This site is all about celebrating good beer, good pubs, good cider – but also, good writing. Above all, that’s what I’m most passionate about. That’s what I always strive for personally, and celebrate elsewhere. This site will increaingly cover a broader subject area than beer and cider. But I hope whatever is featured here, it will always be worth reading.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Hops & Glory, IPA

A Quick Blog Post For IPA Day

If you really want to know why IPA was supposedly so strong and hoppy, look not to the breweries, but to India…

Today is apparently International Let’s Argue About The Mythology Of IPA Day.

One of the main points of contention about this much-mythologised style is whether or not it really was strong and hoppy, and if it was, why it was.

Wherever I’ve seen this point argued, it’s been exclusively to do with the nature of the beer itself: did it have to be strong and/or hoppy to survive the journey? What do the brewing records say?

Some eminent brewing historians have found evidence of low strength, relatively low-hopped IPAs making the journey, which is fascinating. But some commentators have then taken this as evidence that disproves the ‘myth’ that IPA was strong and hoppy.

But the logic of that is flawed: evidence of weaker, less hoppy proves that IPA did not have to be strong and hoppy. It does not disprove that strong, hoppy beers went to India.

In my research for my book Hops & Glory, I found requisition orders from the India Office from the 1870s which specified the gravity, hopping rate, size of barrel, even the width of the bung on the barrel, for both India Pale Ale and Porter. When we translated the specs into modern brewing, we had a beer that was around 8% ABV and had an insane amount of hops. When we recreated it with Everards Brewery, the volume of hops clogged up the kettle and the beer was green when it came out. It was so hoppy we had to new the same beer again without any hops, and blend to two to get a beer that was still damn hoppy. But what’s important to remember is that the alpha acid content – the potency of hops – is far higher now, far more concentrated, than it was then. You’d have had to had far greater physical quantities of hops in 1870 to get the bitterness from hops you get today.

Anyway, these requisitions prove that at least some IPA that went to India was very hoppy and very strong. But its presence against other less hoppy, weaker beers, proves that it did not have to be like this in order to survive the journey.

What does this tell us? Well, there’s only so much that looking at the production end of things can tell us. For further clues, we have to look at the consumption side. What did people in India want their beer to be like? Throughout the whole of brewing history, this is a question that is asked all too seldom.

Another contentious ‘myth’ is that IPA was brewed for the troops. For some reason, there’s a school of thought that it wasn’t. Certainly, it wasn’t the only think they drank. And yes, the civilians in India drank it too. But the big orders I saw for requisition were specifically for the he numbers of troops that were sent to India after the 1857 first war of Indian Independence (referred to by colonialists as the Indian Mutiny.)

Being a soldier in India was a life of short periods of extreme violence separated by long stretches of total boredom. The soldiers filled that boredom by drinking.

When Fanny Parkes went India on a ship full of soldiers in 1827, she came to know many of her fellow passengers and was shocked at how quickly many of them died. The average life expectancy of a soldier serving in Calcutta was just three months. Disease was a far bigger killer than combat, and much of it was caused by alcohol.

Beer couldn’t be brewed well in India, but a drink known as arak could be made simply by drawing off palm sap and letting it ferment in the hot sun. Arak drinking contests claimed the first European casualties in India when the Dutch and English spice traders got there. One binge could be fatal.

So, in order to keep soldiers alive, they had to be given alcohol that was strong and flavourful, like arak, but not fatal. IPA was strong because if it wasn’t, the boozy soldiers would have drunk arak instead.

As for hoppiness? The vivid hop characters we love today would have vanished from the beer after months on a hot ship. But the flavours changed. The locals used to say IPA ‘ripened’, and when it was ripe, they described it character as being like champagne. My sea-matured IPA certainly had that character to it – somewhere between what we think of as IPA and barley wine.

So – at least some IPA was strong and hoppy. It didn’t have to be. It was like that because that’s how people wanted it to be, so they drank it instead of the local gut rot.

| Barley, Beer, Books, Craft Beer, Hops, Miracle Brew, Water, Writing, Yeast

‘Miracle Brew’ is coming – at last!

My first book about beer since 2009 hits UK shelves next week – and North America later this year.
It’s been a long wait – nearly two and a half years – for those who pledged when I first announced that I was publishing my new beer book through crowd-funding publisher Unbound.
Ironically, from announcing the book and opening pledges to the date of publication, its taken about a year less than any of my first three beers books took to research and write. Books like these take you down a long and lonely road.
There was a degree of consternation over the decision to crowdfund a book. Did it mean I couldn’t get published in a traditional way? (No.) What do investors get? (A book, for the price of a book, with your name listed in the back.) Was it vanity publishing? (No – in many ways, it’s the opposite.) But quite quickly, enough people pledged – around 530 – so that Unbound could give it the green light.
Those who did pledge should be receiving their copies this week. (If that’s you, please tweet or post when you get it!) The book is also available to pre-order on Amazon,  and because Unbound have a distribution deal with Penguin Random House, it’ll be in bookshops just like any other book from Thursday 1st June.
I did have a few readers in North America complain about the shipping cost when they tried to pledge for the book – for some, it was more than the book itself. The good news there is that Chelsea Green, a publisher that has produced some of my favourite food and drink books, has just bought the North American rights to Miracle Brew and they’ll be publishing a slightly tweaked* edition in the autumn – sorry, fall – probably early October, and it looks like I’ll be doing an American publicity tour to support it! Maybe see you at the Great American Beer Festival.
I’m enormously proud of this book. In terms of tone and content, it picks up on elements of Man Walks into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, but also reflects the fact that I’m a decade older than when I wrote those books. The first was a history book about beer, the second a travel book about beer, and the third combined the two with a bit extra. Judged by the same standard, this is a science and nature book about beer, with a lot of travel and history, and plenty of extra, all thrown in. At 400 pages long it’s a chunky bastard – just like its author these days…
I daresay I’ll be writing more here about it soon.
* Because references to a cheeky Nando’s with the Archbishop of Banterbury still aren’t travelling that well.
Miracle Brew is published in the UK by Unbound on 1st June, hardback, RRP £16.99

 

| Advertising, BrewDog, Craft Beer, Marketing, The Business End

Why I can’t get too excited about BrewDog’s big ‘sell out’

The bad boys of brewing recently sold a 22% stake of their company to an investment firm. So?

First, I have a terrible confession to make. Remember when John Lydon made those butter ads? I’m afraid I was partly responsible for that.

It wasn’t my idea or anything like that, but in my role as a planner I was responsible for putting together the research among butter buyers to find out who the best celebrity would be to front the campaign. It was one of the last freelance planning jobs I did before being able to switch to writing and beer consultancy full time.

We tested Lydon against a bunch of other people, and he came out top among Britain’s housewives because they felt he was so uncompromising, he’d never just do an ad for the money – he’d only do it if he genuinely believed what he was saying.

In other words, he was the best person to do what we were paying him to do, because he would never do what we were paying him to do, so if he did that, it’s OK.

Predictably Lydon got some stick for ‘selling out’. Because this is Johnny Rotten we’re talking about, he didn’t give a shit. Where he deigned to give a response, he said that punk was always about grabbing the filthy lucre from the big guys, and that’s exactly what he was doing here.

(If you ever tire of arguing about the definition of craft beer, head over to music and have a go at defining punk. As I witnessed last year at an event to mark punk’s 40th anniversary, it makes craft beer look simple.)

So I’ve witnessed a similar situation before to the one this week where BrewDog announced they were selling a chunk of the company to TSG Investment Partners in San Francisco – the same people who also help finance Vitaminwater, popchips and US beer brand Pabst – and were greeted with cries of ‘sell out!’

I can’t get too excited one way or the other about this.

Firstly, it’s hardly surprising, is it? BrewDog has been on an astonishing growth spurt for ten years. It already has 44 bars around the world and exports to 55 countries, and has double or even triple digit growth every year. The company has always been about rapid expansion, and this is a logical next step, which, if it has any lesson at all, is that, as Martyn Cornell has written, crowdfunding can only get you so far.

Second, BrewDog is maturing. Being ‘punk’ makes perfect sense when you arrive and overturn all the tables in the temple of beer, but they’re ten years old now, and that’s ancient in craft beer years. Martin Dickie and James Watt are in their mid-thirties with young families, and they employ, at the last count, about 450 people. A couple of years ago they did a re-brand that ever so subtly made them look and feel more grown up, less brash.

Before
After

BrewDog stopped being ‘punk’ when they grew into a stable, successful business that supports hundreds of people’s livelihoods instead of putting their foot through the mash tun and throwing the fermenters into a swimming pool before overdosing on End of History in a seedy hotel room. Behind the image and the increasingly infrequent brash stunts, they employ marketers, PR people, accountants, HR managers as well as brewers who all know what they’re doing, because you can’t function as a large business if you don’t. That doesn’t sound very punk, does it?

Thirdly, James Watt individually still owns more of the company than the investment firm he’s sold a chunk of his business to. If you insist on going by the US definition of craft beer, the sold stake is less than the threshold that disqualifies BrewDog from being craft.

I doubt anyone can be truly surprised by this move. I’d be amazed if anyone was genuinely upset by it. I think any outcry is merely the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘I told you so.’

As this spoof makes clear, the one significant part of this is that BrewDog will find it increasingly difficult to get away with grandstanding ‘4 real’ behaviour. I’ve sensed a move away from this over the last few years anyway.

The punk attitude has helped BrewDog build an amazing brand that pays a lot of people’s wages and genuinely does encourage more people to enjoy great beer than would otherwise have been the case.

Punk is dead. But the punks won.

Okay, now you can tell me how the Sex Pistols were never really punk anyway.