Category: Craft 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.

| 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, 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.

| Beer, Beer tasting, Craft Beer

Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Being faced with a flight of beers I had no desire to drink made me think philosophically for a bit, and wonder if there’s a different narrative to tasting and enjoying beer.

I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It’s one of my favourite competitions, because it’s global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you’re tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and… well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard.

Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you’re going to get. You accept you’re going to get some that you’re not best friends with, but hope that it’ll balance out and that you’ll get some good ones. Sometimes – as I found with the Tripels the year before – getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?

At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.

These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?

There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you’ve ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it’s a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was ‘to style’ or not?

In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s going on in the mouth, and that’s fine – beer is a social lubricant, and while you’re drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven’t taken it in because you’ve been thinking about something else, or there’s music playing and you can’t recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there’s a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it’s in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else.

I’ve seen many craft beer fans necking beers they’ve paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There’s nothing wrong with that – even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you’d look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you.

But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what’s going on with it, and not just when you’re judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here’s my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that’s correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to ‘get’ notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here’s an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:

 

“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”

If you’re into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what’s it doing, really? I honestly can’t tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can’t be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it?

I don’t think so.

Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of “She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes.”

This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details.

But I’m meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole.

Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here’s a strawberry beer. “I’m getting strawberries.” OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?

The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and felt like they belonged together.

By the end of the morning I’d enjoyed several of the beers, and I’d scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I’m in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.

APPEARANCE
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It’s also dependent on the context of the beer you’ve ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?

AROMA
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It’s also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness.

It’s flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from ‘retronasal olfaction,’ meaning you really get it when it’s in your mouth/when you’re swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose.

Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not?

Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma’s promise. But overall, I’m looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn’t doing it, it’s not working.

TASTE
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there’s an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I’m increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip.

Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional?

Here, I then start to think about whether I’m actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What’s it trying to be, and does it succeed?

If it’s trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I’ve nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it’s trying to do.)

If it’s trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea).

FINISH
Aftertaste is a sensory experience – partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you’ve swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing – how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you’ve paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz compel you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?

By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I’d enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them – even the ones I didn’t like – to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it.

What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty.

| Beer, Craft Beer

Stop the presses: the definition of craft beer

Yet again, I’m in the middle of writing a piece that addresses the idea that craft beer is ‘a meaningless term,’ that ‘craft beer’ doesn’t exist because it had no precise, technical definition.

To argue the point I’m making, I hauled out my massive copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to look at the definition of the word ‘craft.’ And lo and behold, just below the three different definitions of ‘craft’, the next entry is ‘craft beer’!

So according to the OED:

‘craft beer (also craft brew) noun (US) a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region.’

I kinda like that. You may not. I think it gets to the point of what it’s all about. You may disagree with it, you may think it’s incomplete, you may think it misses the point. I really don’t care. Because craft beer has a strict tight, pithy definition, created by the people whose job it is to define what words mean. This is the definition of craft beer whether you like it or not. If you disagree, you might as well argue with the definitions of the words ‘cramp,’ ‘cranial,’ ‘crannog’ or ‘crap hat.’

This may not solve many of the issues in craft beer, but it does hopefully mean an end to the fatuous argument that the problem with craft beer is its lack of a strict definition. If you have a problem with craft beer, it’s probably not about the definition of the word, but about what you feeling being done to the concept.

By the way, my personal big-ass copy of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 2003, so (a) apologies to anyone for whom this is old news and (b) that means craft beer has had a definition all this time we’ve been arguing over whether it does to not. Tchoh!