Category: Craft Beer

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer

What Ails Cask Ale? Part 3 of 3

Finishing off my analysis of the research I undertook for this year’s Cask Report, having looked at consumer and market dynamics, here are some thoughts about cask and the trade.

Photo: Frances Brace for Cask Report 1014

As part of my research for the Cask Report, in August I conducted a survey among publicans who stock cask ale. The results made curious reading, and took a bit of time to work out, but in terms of solving the issues cask faces in the trade, the answers are pretty simple. 

If you ask people to fill in a survey about cask ale, those who like cask are more likely to respond than those who don’t, so it would be wrong to draw any conclusion about the total market from our respondents – a significant majority said cask was becoming more important to their business, which clearly doesn’t tally with cask’s steep overall decline. What it does tell us though – and we have to be mindful of this – is that behind the overall decline, there’s a group of pubs that are genuinely prospering from cask – more on that later.

Taking those who say cask is becoming less important toothier business than it was, more of these pubs blame the rise of craft beer than any other factor. In their own words, craft in formats other than cask is what drinkers are demanding, because it is ‘interesting’, ‘varied’ and ‘colder’. A few also say that, for them, craft is more profitable and more consistent. 

But craft isn’t the only thing pulling drinkers away from cask. Many publicans cite the growth of craft spirits as a significant factor too. Some say the pubco tie stops them from getting the ales their drinkers demand, and importantly, a fair few say they can’t compete with local pubs where cask has become a speciality. 

It must be noted that for some pubs, the growth of craft beer more generally, irrespective of format, is helping cask ale. Among those who say cask is becoming more important to their business, by far the most common reason is growing consumer demand. Interest in beer styles and the growth of small, local breweries is driving demand for cask in places that do it well. 

When it comes to issues around quality, it’s very clear that messages around cellarmanship, perfect serve, training and engaging with drinkers are getting through. The problem is whether publicans and bar staff are acting on this information or not. Ask them if they’re aware of training, if they find it useful, if they know how long a cask needs to be on stillage before serving, how long it should remain on sale once tapped, and what to do if a drinker brings back a dodgy pint, and they know all the correct answers. The trouble is, compare these answers to market data, and publicans who say they sell a beer for three days are actually selling it for seven. Pubs that say they’re training their staff are not. And pubs that say they replace a dodgy pint without question are in reality shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘It’s cask, it’s meant to be like that.’

Why would publicans choose not to treat cask correctly when they know how to? I can only speculate, but I think it’s obvious, and have discussed it with other people in the industry who have reached the same conclusion. It’s tough running a pub. You’re working at least a sixty-hour week, probably more, and you just can’t get to everything you want to do, or should do. So that little bit of extra work on cask doesn’t get done.

John Keeling, recently retired from Fuller’s, thinks there’s one issue at the heart of all this: margin. “If you make less off a pint of cask ale than anything else, it’s going to come bottom of your list,” he told me. Keeling believes cask’s low margin compared to any other drink on the bar is why it doesn’t receive enough marketing investment, enough training, enough care and attention generally. 

This was echoed in my research. Some publicans even said they used craft beer and expensive spirits to subsidise the lack of profit from cask, just so they can keep cask on either out of love or for the reputation of the pub, such as maintaining a place in the Good Beer Guide.

There are of course exceptions to this. On my questionnaire, before we got onto the business side of things, I asked respondents how they felt about cask themselves. Now – I split the data by size of pub, by whether it was freehold, leased, tenanted or managed, whether or not it had Cask Marque accreditation, and there was little variation in the data. The one difference that was significant was when I compared publicans who said they personally adored cask and drank it themselves to everyone else. These were the guys for whom cask ale was making money, who put in the extra time, who trained their staff properly.

That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The people for whom cask is a vocation rather than just part of the job are those who have the greatest investment in cask being perfect. 

You see this playing out in other pubs. Some of those who said they struggle with cask cited the presence of a nearby cask ale shrine or micropub as the main reason. If you’re a typical boozer, you can’t compete with cask aficionados on range or quality. I have no solid data to back this up, but I suspect we’re starting to see cask drinking gravitate towards pubs that have a particular specialism in cask. If there’s one of those in the middle of a town, we’ll start to see cask disappear from other pubs near it.

So if we want cask to succeed, from a trade point of view, there are two options.

Firstly, if you’re a cask pub and you’re not that into it yourself, hire someone who is, to be a ‘cask champion’. Pay them a little extra for their knowledge and passion. Give them the leeway they need to indulge their passion. There are plenty of people like this out there, and cask is still recruiting new acolytes.

Secondly, if cask is to have a long-term future as a mainstream drink rather than a specialist niche, it needs a better margin, either from an increase in price or a reduction in duty. If pubs are making more from cask, they’ll look after it better. If breweries are making more on cask, they’ll invest more in promotion and marketing, and in quality control and technical support for the pubs they sell it to. Sort these issues out, and all the issues we previously addressed on the consumer side will start to fade.

So there we have it: seemingly simple on the surface, how to save cask ale for the nation in two easy steps. Let’s wait and see how that turns out, shall we?

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Craft Beer

The Market for Flavourful Beer

When trying to categorise beer, it may be time to drop subtle distinctions – because there are signs the beer drinker already has. 

Cask? Craft? Both??
(photo credit: James Beeson)

I’ve always argued that traditional cask ale is craft beer. Many of these who founded the first wave of American craft breweries think so too. 

In this long-running argument, opponents of my view may concede that some cask ale is craft beer, but not the stuff that’s bland, or ‘twiggy’. To which I reply that if the actual quality or flavour appeal of the beer has anything to do with it, there are scores of modern craft breweries turning out bland or downright horrible stuff too.

The real reason many craft fans struggle with cask is best summarised by the slide below, which I’ve used several times before. 

Cask is a traditional part of British heritage, whereas craft is modern, trendy and American. Despite the protestations of craft beer die-hards that it’s all about the integrity of the product, they’re as image-led as anyone – it’s just that the image is communicated via different channels. 

But as well as the chart above – which was based on extensive research among drinkers of both cask and craft in other formats – there’s growing evidence that the broad mainstream of drinkers see at least a partial overlap between craft and cask, perhaps even more than that. 

When compiling research for the Cask Report, I missed one or two fascinating nuggets contained in Marston’s On-Trade Beer Report. Check this out:

Drinkers who say they understand what craft beer is and claim to drink it were asked to name a craft beer brand. A majority of them – 55% – named a beer the researchers felt was a ‘traditional ale’. Tellingly, the report’s authors say that 45% ‘correctly’ named a brand they deem to be craft – implying that those who named a traditional brand were incorrect in doing so. 

Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Blimey, over half of people who think they’re drinking craft beer don’t even know what it is.’ Maybe to you this is a sign of how bigger brewers have co-opted the term ‘craft’ and made it meaningless. Maybe you just think these people aren’t as knowledgeable about beer as you are. Or maybe – just maybe – they’re right and you’re wrong. 

Craft has gone mainstream. That means it no longer belongs solely to the bloggers, geeks, brewers and experts. And that means we don’t get to have the final say on what is and isn’t craft. When people say craft has become a meaningless marketing term, they need to clarify that it has become meaningless to them. When 13 million UK adults say they enjoy drinking craft beer, it takes some pretty extraordinary arrogance to say that they’re all wrong – that what they’re drinking is not craft, or that craft actually doesn’t mean anything. 

If you want to carry on those debates, that’s up to you – but please do it somewhere else out of my earshot. I’ve been having this argument for eight years now and it’s boring. 

My reason for bringing up this consumer perception that craft and cask are pretty similar, if not the same, is that I think it’s increasingly useful to view the market in this way. Because if a majority of drinkers think they’re the same thing, people analysing the market should probably do so too. If you look at them as the same from a data point of view, it’s pretty interesting.  

If you add together the on-trade volume sales of cask ale and craft beer in other formats, you see that in September 2014, they accounted for 18.9% of all beer sold in the on-trade. Now that’s already quite impressive. But by September 2018, that joint figure had increased to 23.5%. If we call this ‘the market for more interesting or flavourful beer than the mainstream’, it’s on course to account for one in four pints drunk across the entire on-trade.

This is important for a whole bunch of reasons:

  1. You can no longer call it a niche: craft and cask together are bigger than the entire premium lager category, which accounts for 22% of the on-trade. 
  2. Craft is not just cannibalising cask: yes, cask is in decline and many publicans cite the growth of craft in other formats as the main reason, but the growth of craft is many times bigger than the decline in cask. Craft is bringing new people into this ‘interesting beer’ segment.
  3. Mainstreaming might help everyone. There’s some understandable paranoia that big players muscling in might snatch the market away from ‘true’ craft brewers. But there’s that hackneyed phrase, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ When big players come in, they have the budgets to do proper marketing. They have the reach to get to places smaller players can’t. They familiarise a much bigger audience with the whole concept of craft beer. At least some of the people they bring in are going to move on to ‘true’ craft brands as they learn more. This is exactly what happened when Magner’s created the cider boom of the 2000s. There were small, artisanal cinder makers who loathed the brand, but still thanked it for their very existence because even they saw the benefit of new people coming into a market that had been in seemingly terminal decline. 

So from now on I’m going to be talking about ‘the market for interesting beer, across all formats’. It just needs a catchier, more accurate name. How about ‘craft’?

n.b. Thank you to Heineken’s Andy Wingate for supplying me with the CGA data that confirmed my hunch.

| Beer, Beer Marketing, Catalonia, Craft Beer, Skullwatch

Craft Beer Skull Watch: The first in an occasional series

Last month I went on amazing press trip to Catalonia. We visited about fifteen breweries in six exhausting days – and I quickly spotted an interesting trend…

I blame Beavertown. While their beers are always excellent, part of their astonishing success surely rests on the brand world created by Creative Director Nick Dwyer. It’s modern yet retro, shocking yet fun, and was, when it first appeared, utterly unlike anything else in the beer market. Beavertown’s packaging set a standard for craft beer that many of the brewery’s contemporaries have risen to, and others have aspired to.

So we got to Catalonia on Friday 16th March, just in time for the Barcelona Beer Festival the following day. I’ve written in the latest issue of Original Gravity about how exciting and inventive the beer scene is over there, and how it’s not just in the centre of Barcelona (which now has over thirty breweries) but throughout the entire region.

We met several brewers at the festival itself, and then spent the next four days travelling around the whole of Catalonia, from the wine region just outside Tarragona in the south, to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the north. I don’t think we tasted a single bad beer, and there were very few average ones. Craft beer culture may be new to Catalonia, but it’s always had a strong gastronomic sensibility that’s democratic rather than exclusive, and craft beer has fitted into that as if it was always meant to be.

We experienced everything from traditional British-style cask bitter, to Belgian-style dubbels and fruit-influenced sours to the inevitable New England-style IPAs. But while the beers themselves were astonishingly diverse in their scope, a consistent pattern in their design quickly emerged.

Sour Skull from Cervesa Marina is a blend of stouts aged in red wine barrels for three years. It’s astoundingly bright and zingy on the palate, with a hint of balsamic vinegar and a lot of wood – you can taste the age. You just want to roll it around your entire mouth and keep it sloshing. The label has a giant, cracked skull rearing over the name.

But Cervesa Marina is pretty found of skulls generally.

 

They’re not then only ones. NaparBCN is a very classy craft beer bar in the heart of Barcelona. I would love it if there was a bar like this just round the corner from me, but then I’d love it if the buildings around the corner from me were as elegant as those in the centre of Barcelona.

There’s a consistent theme to Napar’s promotional activity.

From Napar, we went to a beer and food pairing dinner at Raco d’en Cesc, which has an astonishing reputation based largely on the talents of its sommelier, the talented Edgar Rodgríguez. As beer dinners go, it will always remain in my memory as one of the very best – both for some of its individual parts (the best egg I’ve ever tasted, my first opportunity to try the legendary Xyauyù barley wine from Baladin) and for the way the whole lot was woven together into a wonderful journey for the palate. If you’re ever in Barcelona, please try to get a reservation there. You won’t regret it.

Towards the end of the meal, we were served veal cheek that had been slow cooked for eighty and a half hours, paired with a Doppelbock:

Doppelgänger, from Cerveza Menduiña, took the richness of the dish as far as it could go, creating a pairing that was sticky, sweet and heavy. The beer label also bravely branches out from the norm, into skulls of other animals.

Up in the Pyrenees, where we were surprised by a sudden heavy snowfall, we saw this theme developed to reflect then local wildlife by CTretze in the small village of La Pobla de Segur. These guys are using beer and food, plus regular live music in their wonderful state-of-the-art brewery and taproom – and animal skulls of course – to try to put their brewery firmly on the tourist trail.

One brewery that’s already making waves in the UK is Cerveses La Pirata. The beers are stunning, particularly the west coast-style Imperial IPAs.  These guys really understand hops.

They also understand that if you style yourself around a pirate vibe, skulls become central to your concept. I think that’s why they chose the name.

Not far down the road from La Pirata, we were next welcomed by La Calavera, named after La Calavera Catrina, a key symbol in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations

The name translates as ‘Dapper Skeleton’ or ‘Elegant Skull’, and the guys at the brewery have embraced this theme wholeheartedly, fusing it with other craft beer tropes such as punk (there’s a giant mural of Johnny Rotten on the outside of the building) outrage (past beers include ‘American Motherfucker’ and ‘The Original Piss of Cat’) and simply not giving a shit. Their Medicinal Stout has some of the best packaging I’ve seen in a very long time.

And the theme of “Ooh, I bet the Portman Group wouldn’t like that” is developed quite wonderfully in the secondary packaging.

On our final day, we visited Cervesa del Montseny, one of the oldest and largest breweries in the region. As befits one of the few breweries that sells into supermarkets and is introducing craft beer to new drinkers for the first time, the core range packaging is quite conservative. There are two markets in Catalonia: the beer geeks who are in touch with international trends, and the majority for whom serious beer is a new thing. The brewers seem proudest of their range of Imperial stouts, which are indeed excellent – my favourite is the one aged for eight months in fifty-year-old brandy barrels from southern Spain, which presents laced with marzipan, fruitcake, liquorice and a spiritous warmth. Given that these are the beers for the craft aficionado, for this range, some design concession have been made.

I wish more of these beers were available in the UK. Hopefully, some of them soon will be. Catalonia has, in the space of a few short years, become one of the world’s most exciting and dynamic craft beer regions, taking its brewing cues from all over the world – even if it does take its design cues quite specifically from Tottenham.

CraftBeerSkullWatch will return – if it needs to.

Disclosure: This post was written after a trip organised and paid for by the Catalan Tourist Board. You can find out more about Catalonia’s gastronomic heritage at www.catalunya.com        

| Beer, Craft Beer, Journalism, Media bollocks, Social Trends, The Business End

The Premature Demise of Craft Beer: How Fake News Really Works

You may well have seen recent news stories on how craft beer is over, that it’s entered a period of decline. There’s just one problem: this is completely untrue. 

Remember the olden days, when these guys were reporting annual volume growth of 55%? How times have changed since, er, 22nd March this year.

 

“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”

I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty. Was it a trick question? That ‘why do you think this is?’ implied the person asking the question was obviously expecting me to say yes. This was confirmed by a follow up question that asked me to comment on possible reasons why craft beer is “not as popular as it once was.”

A professional journalist working for Munchies – the foodie bit of Vice.com – had somehow become convinced that craft beer was over, and was asking me, via questions posed to the British Guild of Beer Writers, why I thought this had happened.

The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running. I’d found that seven million British people – equivalent to 14% of the total adult population, or one in four people who drink any alcohol at all – claim to drink craft beer on a regular basis when they’re out in pubs, bars or restaurants. And yet here was a food and drink website believing that craft beer was in decline.

I decided to work out how this had happened.

Munchies was basing its story on a trade press article in the Morning Advertiser, which ran with the headline, ‘Craft Beer Fatigue is Setting In.’ No ambiguity there: no ‘claims so-and-so’, just a simple statement of fact. The leading trade magazine for the beer and pub industry was categorically stating that we’re tired of craft beer. And the MA wasn’t alone: in the same week, Beer & Brewer magazine ran with ‘Craft beer fatigue sends APAC [Asia and Pacific] consumer elsewhere‘, while Catering Today ran ‘Craft Beers Fail to Impress Consumers’.

Read these articles, and none of them actually say that craft beer has gone into decline. But a cursory skim of the headline and opening lines of copy, without going into the detail of the claims, could reasonably lead to the impression that craft beer is in decline.

The basis for all these stories is a press release from a market research company called GlobalData, which runs with the title ‘Craft beer fatigue is sending beer and cider consumers in APAC in search of new options.’ Again, that seems pretty definite. The first line of the press release reads, “Alcoholic beverage consumers tend to be novelty seeking, but constant bombardment with craft launches and unusual flavors has led consumers to feel that they are overloaded with choice.” But once again, while a cursory reading of the headline and first few lines of copy would cause any reasonable person to assume craft beer is now in decline, the body of the press release – which is published to promote a new report that costs $1450 to access – doesn’t actually contain any data that supports the idea that craft beer is in decline.

So what does it actually say?

Well, there are certainly some interesting points, even if none of them are exactly news to anyone involved in craft beer.

The main point – the one that seems to be offered in direct support of the headline claims – is that “words such as craft and artisanal are just an excuse to charge extra.” In the Asia-Pacific region – and in North America – 46% of survey respondents agreed with this statement. What none of the UK-based publications who reported the story will tell you is that in Europe, this figure falls to 38% – the lowest of any region in the world. Now, those are, as report author Thomas Vierhile told me in an email, “significant percentages”. But they are still minorities. And as anyone who has been involved in a craft beer discussion on social media or been below the line of a beer story in any national newspaper can attest, it’s hardly new – people have been grumbling about this for years. I first wrote about it for the Morning Advertiser three years ago. At the time, I said that it was a threat to the growth to craft beer, and I still believe it is. But it’s quite a leap to get from there to the claim that people are already walking away from craft beer because of it. This wasn’t true then, and I doubt it’s true now. The research data released by GlobalData’s does not show it to be true, but their press release claims it is.

The press release and summary for the report make two further solid claims. The report states that consumers are becoming more interested in experiences that simple products, citing that 57% of consumers (in Asia Pacific) prefer new experiences to new products. I totally agree, and have done since I worked in advertising twenty years ago, when we said this regularly to our clients. Craft brewers understand this perfectly which is why, instead of building their brands with flashy TV ads (which they couldn’t afford anyway) the most successful craft brewers over the last ten years have built their popularity with experiences and events such as meet the brewer evenings and tap takeovers, limited edition and rare bottle launches, and the growing number and range of beer festivals and other events. The experience economy is a driver of craft beer’s growth – not a threat to it.

Finally, the GlobalData report states that healthier lifestyles and a growing interest in lower alcohol alternatives is a major threat to craft beer. In the Asia Pacific region – it’s not clear why this is the geographic emphasis for a report that did its research globally, unless it could be that this is where the highest figures are – 51% of consumers say health claims influence their choice of alcoholic drinks (hang on – I thought alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed to make any health claims?) and 53% say they plan on cutting down on booze for health reasons. These figures fall to 38% and 37% if you look at the global data, but never mind that. I doubt anyone would disagree that this is a significant trend. That’s why, unless craft brewers start to develop lower strength session beers, explore concepts such as table beer and start to make some decent tasting low/no alcohol beers,  they could be heading for a fall. Oh no, hang on – my mistake – these have been some of the most dynamic trends driving craft beer’s development for several years now. Never mind.

So: a level of cynicism about the appropriation of the term ‘craft beer’ to charge higher prices, growing interest in experiences over products, and growing interest in healthier drinks – all of which the craft beer industry has known about and acted upon for years – are being added together by GlobalData to create the claim that drinkers feel ‘overloaded with choice’ and that this has led to a ‘devaluation of the “craft” concept’ which is now ‘sending beer and cider consumers… in search of new options’. This, in turn, has led drinks trade press journalists to state definitively that we are suffering craft beer fatigue, and this in turn has led at least one consumer food and drink publication to ask why craft beer is in decline before eventually running with the headline ‘Is Craft Beer Dying?

I hope my answers to the questions I was posed by Munchies helped get that title turned into a question rather than a statement. But still, this is how fake news happens. In researching this piece, Google took me to articles going back several years claiming that the craft boom is over, when hindsight shows it wasn’t. GlobalData was behind a similar flurry of these back in August last year,  but they’re not the only culprits. I chose the picture of BrewDog, above, because on the same day Munchies asked if craft beer was dying, the Scottish craft beer pioneer posted results showing 55% volume growth in 2017. Some commentators pointed out that this is lower than in previous years. As if 55% growth in a year is somehow a bit shit.

“We are not necessarily saying that craft beer has gone into decline,” admitted GlobalData’s Thomas Vierhile when I challenged the company over their claims. “But we are saying that the category is edging closer to thin ice as the craft concept becomes stretched, leading more consumers to express skepticism toward the concept.”

I think that’s absolutely fair enough.

He continued, “As popular as craft beer is, it does not appear to be moving the global beer consumption needle and it may not be the savior for the beer industry that some may perceive it to be,” citing the fact that while other categories of alcoholic drinks are growing, the total global beer market is shrinking. This means that either the growth craft beer is experiencing by recruiting new drinkers to beer is not enough to compensate for existing beer drinkers drinking less/switching to other drinks, or that craft is cannibalising mainstream beer, taking volume from the big boys within a declining market.

That’s certainly food for thought, and craft brewers should certainly take note of the report’s genuine findings stated above, if for some reason they weren’t already aware of them. But GlobalData’s press release – which I’m sure Thomas Vierhile didn’t write – categorically states that consumers are suffering craft beer fatigue and are going looking for something else instead. The data presented simply does not show this at all, says nothing about a ‘bombardment of new launches or unusual flavours’, and presents no evidence that consumers are walking away from the category. But these claims have been picked up and repeated, without question.

So why would a company that produces market research reports that cost $1450 a pop want to spread false claims about craft beer? Well I dunno, but who in the beer industry can afford to spend $1450 on a 57-page market report? And what would companies like that feel about craft beer? What would they want to happen to it? I’m just spitballing here, merely speculating to create specious claims. But that does seem to be par for the course these days.

| Beer, Beer and Music, Craft Beer

Easter Quiz: Craft Beer or Eighties Indie band?

What if we run out of names?

Could this be the lead singer of Wu Gang Chops the Tree?

 

There’s a common joke in my circle of friends, and I last heard it last night: when someone says or writes a phrase that sounds unusually poetic, unusual or pretentious – I think last night’s was something like “Whirpool volatile preservation” – you can raise a knowing titter by saying something along the lines of “I prefer their earlier stuff” or “Didn’t they headline Friday in the John Peel Tent at Glastonbury in 1997?” It’s not the funniest joke ever, but it always makes me laugh.

Thinking about how and why this works, I realised that the analogy between beer and music is always finding new levels to operate on, and one of them is in naming. “Where do they get those names from?” was a common refrain on John Peel’s radio show in my youth, and it’s a phrase I’m regularly hearing again now as craft brewers struggle to come up with something that sets their latest new launch apart.

So I decided to create a quick quiz. Here are ten names. Some of  them are from long-forgotten eighties Indie bands (or perhaps not that forgotten – some of them are still going.). The others are from recent craft brews. Can you tell which is which? See how many you can get right!

  1. 1. I, Ludicrous

2. Beard of Zeus

3. Bosko

4. Eyeless in Gaza

5. Brood in Obscurity

6. Quiet Release

7. Front 242

8. Strange Advance

9. Age of Chance

10. Whiplash Bone Machine

No cheating – scroll down for answers below!

 

 

I’ll be back at the Green Man Festival in August doing my beer and music matching show, where I pair a selection of the 70-odd beers in the main bar tent with the bands playing the festival. Tickets for the festival are on sale now. It’s like Glastonbury used to be before it got huge. I haven’t yet seen the beer list, but am pretty certain Public Service Broadcasting, Anna Calvi, Fleet Foxes and Kelly Lee Owens will all be jostling to get on my playlist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. 1. Band

2. Beer

3. Beer

4. Band

5. Beer

6. Beer

7. Band

8. Band

9. Band

10. Beer

 

 

 

| Beer, Craft Beer, Dark Star, Uncategorised

Some Important Musings on the Nature of Craft Beer

Seriously, these Musings are Very IMPORTANT. 

A picture of a beer that is a craft beer, yesterday.

 

One of the more curious comments I’ve seen repeated by various people this week in the wake of Dark Star being bought by Fuller’s is the idea that Dark Star is/was not a craft brewer because it is mainly known for producing cask ale. The idea that cask ale is not and can not be craft beer is an intriguing one, and one that I don’t fully understand. So if you subscribe to this point of view, I wonder if you can help me understand it by answering the following questions? Thanks!

  1. 1. If a small, independent brewery produces beer across a variety of formats, what percentage of cask ale is it allowed to produce before it no longer counts as a craft brewery?

2. If that brewery produces both keg and cask beers, are its keg beers craft and its cask beers not craft?

3. Where do cans fit into this?

4. Or bottles?

  1. 5. If, say, Magic Rock brews a beer called High Wire and puts some of it into cask and some if it into keg, is the cask stuff not craft and the keg stuff craft?

6. If the cask High Wire is not craft but the keg High Wire is craft, how does that work? Does High Wire start off as a craft beer in the brewhouse, and when the cask stuff gets packaged into the cask it stops being craft? Or is it the other way round: High Wire starts off not being craft, but when the keg stuff gets packaged into kegs, that’s when it becomes craft?

7. What is it about the cask process/format that stops it from being craft? Is it the live yeast that requires more skill, care and attention to look after? Is it the container itself, which is more traditional than a pressurised keg? Is it the shape of the cask? Or is it the sound of the word ‘cask’, which doesn’t sound craft enough?

8. If Greene King were to produce a 5.5% west coast-style pale ale using acidulated, Golden Promise, Munich, Vienna malts and Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Columbus and Magnum hops which gave it mango, lychee and lip-smacking grapefruit flavours that harmonised against a smoothly composed malt base, which develops into a crisply bitter finish, and they called it Why Hire, would that be craft or not? If not, would it help if they packaged some of it in key kegs?

  1. 9. If you buy a can of your favourite craft beer on Monday and the brewery gets bought by a corporate brewer on Tuesday, is the can of beer in your fridge still craft or not?

10. If it’s not, when does it stop being craft? When the deal was done? When you found out about the deal? If the deal was done last Friday, before you bought it on Monday, but it wasn’t announced until Tuesday, was your can of beer still craft when you bought it or not? Are you allowed to revise its status retrospectively? If you are, what authority or qualifications do you need to be able to make that call?

I look forward to reading your answers!

 

A picture of a beer that is not a craft beer, yesterday.

| 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.

| 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.