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.
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.
On Wednesday I opened the 33rd London Drinker festival, in a grand old hall just opposite St Pancras Station. For the first time, the festival was stocking exclusively beers brewed in London. This wouldn’t have been possible until recently – ten years ago London had two or three breweries. Today it has around ninety.
This was also the first time the festival had a keg beer stand. It was tucked quietly into a corner by the cider stall, but it was there. Festival organiser Christine Cryne told me she’d had some hate mail about the inclusion of beers that some feel are ‘the enemy of cask’, the ‘thin end of the wedge’ of some vast, corporate conspiracy, carefully woven over the last forty years, to exterminate cask ale, for reasons that have never been really made clear.
But Christine did say she’d had about the same number of messages congratulating the organisers for having a more progressive stance. CAMRA is not some single monolith, but a sprawling mass of people with differing views. Parts of it at least are moving with the times.
But on my way to the festival, I read something in one of CAMRA’s branch magazines that reiterated the old arguments against ‘craft keg’ – a phrase which, in its very existence, to me shows the absurdity of those making the argument, defining and judging beer by the container it’s served in rather than its style, ingredients, or the intent of the person brewing it. The whole argument feels like it should have gone away after 2010, and for most beer drinkers, it has.
So I don’t want to reignite a debate that’s pointless in that neither side is likely to change their minds, but I do want to share one observation, given that this was on my mind when I was looking around the festival and trying to think what I was going to say onstage to declare it open.
I was struck not just by the number of London brewers around, but also by the nature of the beers they were offering.
I didn’t even get chance to visit the keg bar: the central cask offering was utterly absorbing.
Most of the brewers didn’t exist ten years ago. Those that I know personally consider themselves craft brewers, and sell their beers in cask, keg, bottles and cans. I can’t speak for them, but I suspect many of them were inspired to give up their old jobs and start brewing because of the energy and momentum surrounding craft beer over the last decade.
The beers they were offering would certainly seem to bear this out. Alphabeta’s Best Bitter was quenching and refreshing at 3.8% ABV and wouldn’t have been out of place at any time in the festival’s 33 year history. But I doubt the same brewery would have been offering a brown ale aged in old bourbon casks if it were not for the pioneering work of American and British craft brewers in barrel ageing.
Anspach and Hobday’s pale ale, like many British pale and golden ales now, was brewed with American hops popularised by US craft brewers. Barnet’s Pryor Reid IPA was brewed to a Victorian recipe. Before US craft keg and bottle brewers rediscovered such old recipes, IPA had become a low strength session beer indistinguishable from any other bitter. Craft beer hasn’t just inspired brewers to try something new and different, but also to dig back deeper into our own past.
And so it goes on, all the way through the beer list: Brick’s American pale ale brewed with Cascade, Simcoe and Mosaic, Canopy’s session IPA, Clarkshaw’s Darker Hell – a dark lager, East London’s Oatmeal Stout brewed with vanilla, Howling Hops’ double chocolate coffee toffee vanilla milk porter, One Mile End’s blood orange wheat double IPA, Uprising’s wheat beer with American hops, Southwark’s Russian Imperial Stout…
The dependable milds and best bitters, the golden ales and ESBs are still there. But before craft beer came along, every brewer in the room would have been brewing in the same narrow template. The number of breweries is soaring. The range of cask beers those brewers are creating is unprecedented. And attendance creeps steadily upwards.
The first generation of American craft brewers were inspired by British cask ales from the likes of Fuller’s and Young’s. In turn, those American craft brewers are inspiring British brewers to brew not just ‘craft keg’ beers, but also breathe new life and creativity into cask.
If craft keg really is the enemy of cask ale, it’s doing a terrible job of trying to kill off cask, which has never looked more vibrant.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
Obviously you’ve already bought mine (or dropped strong hints to have it bought for you) but it’s been a bumper year for beer books. Here are my three favourites of 2016.
The World Atlas of Beer (second edition)
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, Mitchell Beazley, RRP £25
Michael Jackson’s first World Guide to Beer (and its vinous forerunner, Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine) set a template for coffee table drinks books that has slowly mutated over the years, and spawned off-shoots in the ‘how many beers to drink before you die’ mould that seem to be hitting the shelves daily. I question the need for books like this, partly because there are so bloody many of them and they’re all essentially the same, and partly because if you want beer reviews, the internet is a much more up-to-date and accessible way of getting them. But these books work because people love having them all in one place and ticking them off – or some people do, at any rate.
What’s surprising when you go back to Jackson’s first book now is that there isn’t a single page of bottle shots and tasting notes, just longer, highly readable articles about different countries, regions and styles.
In this second edition of their guide – the first of which established Beaumont and Webb as the natural heirs to Jackson in the format he created – the authors managed to convince the publishers to get rid of the pages of bottle shot and tasting notes that have crept in over the years, and use the space instead to actually write about beer rather than simply cataloguing it. That makes this book a blast of fresh air in a format that’s become stuffy.
The world of good beer has expanded greatly since Jackson first mapped it out, and that’s why a book like this today needs two authors, one on either side of the Atlantic, if it is to be as authoritative as it needs to be. Both Webb and Beaumont have been writing about beer for decades – they have about sixty years experience between them. They still travel regularly to both the obvious beer countries – the US, Belgium, Germany, UK – and those that are rapidly emerging as new craft beer stars, such as Brazil, Spain, Japan.
At times the book’s scope is stretched a little too thin – some of the minor countries get a page with a nice photo and just enough room to list three or four up-and-coming craft brewers – but in the countries you really want to read about, no one does it better than these two. They combine their knowledge with a very dry wit, and don’t suffer fools gladly. The tone is calm scholarship rather than breathless enthusiasm, and they’re unafraid to be critical. But on every page you feel like you’re in the company of experts who love their subject.
(Like big, epic beer tomes? You should also check out the gargantuan Belgian Beer Book by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker, Lanoo, RRP £45.)
Beer in So Many Words
Adrian Tierney-Jones (editor), Safe Haven Books in association with The Homewood Press, RRP £14.99
It’s not just beer writers who write about beer, and not all beer writing is good. To pull together an anthology of the best writing about beer (as opposed to ‘beer writing’) requires an extensive knowledge of the subject as well as being well-read much more broadly.
The contents page of the book is a delight to read in itself. As a community, beer geeks and writers need to be reminded fairly regularly that beer doesn’t belong just to us, that it’s a popular drink that is appreciated by a wide range of people. And here, names like Boak and Bailey, Roger Protz, Jeff Evans, Melissa Cole and, well, me, rub shoulders with Dylan Thomas, Ian Rankin, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Charles Dickens.
This is a book to lose yourself in, to wander back and forth through, to put down briefly and take a sip of something dark and rich while you ponder. It’s themed in sections: The Taste of Beer, Beer in Pubs, Beer People, Brewing, Beer Journeys, Beer and Food and The Meaning of Beer. It reminds you of what made you fall in love with beer (and reading, and writing) and is highly likely to give you fresh perspectives and insights on a subject you thought you knew all about.
(Like anthologies of writing about beer? You should also check out
CAMRA’s Beer Anthology: a Pub Crawl through British Culture, edited by Roger Protz, CAMRA, RRP £9.99)
Food and Beer
Daniel Burns and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Phaidon, RRP £29.95
Of all the avalanche of beer books being published right now, the most dramatic trend is in books about beer and food. Within the last couple of years, I’ve acquired a whole bookshelf full on this subject alone.
I’m a keen cook, and am always looking for inspiration. I use some of these books often, but am often frustrated that most of them seem to consist mainly of big hunks of red meat, of burgers, wings and pulled pork, of melted cheese and stout-braised ribs and sticky puddings with rich glazes. I’m sure it’s all very nice, but I’m already bored of the kind of food because it seems to be the only thing you ever get served in craft-centric pubs and bars. When I get home, I want to eat more healthily. At the same time, I want to push my cooking skills, taking time out of writing to do something absorbing and satisfying, learning new techniques and skills.
‘Food and Beer’ may not be the most exciting title of a book about food and beer (I’ve already got three different books called Beer and Food, and one other Food and Beer) but this is the topic getting a higher end, classier treatment than it’s ever had so far, and it’s no accident that ‘food’ comes first in the title. Chef Daniel Burns has cooked at Noma and the Fat Duck, and gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bergso founded Evil Twin brewing and also worked as beer director at Noma, routinely billed as the best restaurant in the world.
What I like about this book is that there’s stuff that is insanely ambitious for an amateur like me, with those kinds of recipe that are actually five separate recipes nested within one big dish that require two days of work. But there are also relatively simple things to test yourself out with – anyone can make a heritage tomato sandwich with cider-infused mayonnaise.
Having put this book through its paces in my kitchen, it has one major flaw. A friend of mine works as a recipe tester for various celebrity chefs, taking their ideas and cooking them in her well-appointed but strictly domestic kitchen, and working out the timings, quantities and temperatures that actually work in a kitchen a little less awesome than Noma’s. Like several other beer and food books I’ve acquired this year, this book really, desperately, needed her input. Some of the quantities in recipes are utterly nonsensical (Welsh Rarebit that contains ten times the volume of double cream to that of cheese? Really?) and whatever oven they worked out the cooking times on bears no relationship whatsoever to how mine works.
But with that fairly significant caveat aside, this is a book that combines two elements I’ve always wanted from a beer and food book: one, it seriously elevates beer as both an accompaniment and an ingredient. There’s nothing wrong with beer being allied with hearty pub and bar fare, but it’s good to see it in haute cuisine, showing its adaptability and scope. And secondly, it inspires me to be a better cook, and makes me believe I can stretch and do some of the more challenging dishes. (Although it might be a while before I attempt the pork broth and smoked egg whites on chrysanthemum base paired with smoked wheat beer.)
(Like reading about how beer and food go together? Also check out Mark Dredge’s Cooking With Beer, Dog & Bone, RRP £16.99)
Disclosure: I’m good friends with the authors of the first book and the editor of the second one. One big reason we’re good friends is that we admire each other’s work. I genuinely love these books, and have tried not to let friendship bias me in my opinion of them.
On Thursday night the British Guild of Beer Writers named me their Beer Writer of the Year, for the third time.
|I even bought a suit.|
It caps an incredible year for me and I’m obviously delighted. But I still wouldn’t recommend three simultaneous book contracts to anyone, and won’t be repeating this trick any time soon.
I won two categories before picking up the overall award. First was Best Writing in Trade Media, for my columns in the Morning Advertiser. Luck always plays a big part in any success, and I think this year I was particularly lucky to have some great stories fall into my lap. The rediscovery by Carlsberg of the earliest generation of modern brewing yeast, and their successful attempt to ‘re-brew’ with it, was a unique event. And my chance to interview the man who invented nitro dispense – the technology that makes Guinness so distinctive and is now being explored by forward-thinking craft brewers – just weeks before his passing was something I’ll always remember. The research for my forthcoming book on beer ingredients also led me to some stories that I could write up as columns without taking anything away from the book.
In case you’re interested, here are links to the pieces wot won it:
I also won Best Writing in National Media mainly, I think, for my new book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (which is currently being sold insanely cheaply on Amazon), but I also entered pieces I’ve written for Ferment and Belgian Beer and Food magazines. I’m not the only decent writer in these excellent magazines – if you haven’t done so already, you should do yourself a favour and check them out.
As I said on the night, I owe the success of The Pub to Jo Copestick, a long-standing editor and publisher who specialise in food and drink and design, who has worked with and encouraged most good beer writers out there. We first spoke about the idea for The Pub ten years ago. She plays the long game, and she made this book finally happen. Even though it’s my name on the front I’m only a third of the team. People’s first reaction to it is that it’s a very beautiful book, and that is nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jo and designer Paul Palmer-Edwards at Grade Design. Sitting around the table with these two and being perfectionist about layout after layout was a wonderful working experience.
Having won these two categories, the judges then decided that overall, I was their Beer Writer of the Year.
It’s a trick of the order in which these awards are presented that my two awards were near the end of the evening. Earlier, it had looked like Mark Dredge was going to walk away with the big gong after sweeping Best Food and Drink Writing for his book, Cooking With Beer, and Best Beer and Travel Writing for his book The Best Beer in the World. I really hope this isn’t the start of a trend of publishing multiple books in a year because that way madness lies, but hearty congratulations to Mark for running me so close, and to the winners and runners-up in all the other categories.
Some of the stuff you hear around all awards ceremonies gets so repetitive it sounds platitudinous, but when you’re in the thick of it, phrases like ‘the standard was really high this year’ and ‘the quality of entries continues to improve’ get repeated because they are true. Having won this year, I’ll be chair of the judges next year. I’ve done this twice before. It’s always an interesting task, but the quality of work, often from writers I’ve never previously come across, scares me even as it delights me. No doubt this time next year, I’ll be here writing ‘the standard of entries was very high this year’ and ‘the judge’s decision was an extremely difficult one.’
I already know this will be true. As beer continues to excite greater numbers of people in all walks of life, many who fall in love with beer want to communicate their passion, and more and more of them are very good at it.
For a full list of winners in all categories, and comments from the judges, see the full press release here.
Seems like America’s beer just can’t stop stealing things from southern Bohemia…
I was shocked late Friday night to see a really good beer ad from Budweiser. No, stop laughing. I’ve seen plenty of good ads from Bud before – stuff about frogs and lizards and whazaaap, but this was a good beer ad: it’s true, it’s centred on the product, and it says something good about the broader beer category – good lager takes time to mature.
Last I heard, Budweiser is matured for twenty days. That’s not as long as the classic lagers of the Czech Republic and Germany are matured, but it’s a hell of a lot longer than the 72 hours some leading brands allegedly spend in the brewery between mashing in and packaging. You may not like the (lack of) taste in Budweiser, but even now they do some things right, and deserve some credit for that. So I was pleased to see an ad that had made lager maturation look cool.
I said as much on Twitter and Facebook, and very quickly Simon George of Budweiser Budvar UK shot back that his new strategy is to focus on the Czech beer’s astonishingly long lagering time – five times longer than the American beer. Budweiser Budvar has been running this copy for about nine months, albeit without the huge TV ad budgets US Bud can afford:
The dispute between American Budweiser and Czech Budweiser Budvar is decades old. Bud founder Adolphus Busch told a court of law, on record, in 1894: “The idea was simple,” he testified, “to produce a beer of the same quality, colour and taste as the beer produced in Budejovice [the Czech name for the town known as Budweis in German] or Bohemia.” Even though that record exists, the company has since flatly denied that this it stole the name Budweiser from the town of Budweis, or even took any inspiration from there. (There’s a lot more on this dispute in my book Three Sheets to the Wind.)
Having stolen the idea, they’ve now gone the whole hog and even stolen the same copy. The Budvar headline above? ‘You can’t rush perfection.’ Spot the difference in the Facebook link to the ad below.
Come on, Budweiser. You’ve already stolen your name from the town in which Budweiser Budvar is brewed. You’ve copied their advertising idea (albiet in a fine execution) and now even their copy, word for word. You employ some of the best and most expensive advertising agencies in the world (even if you do try to shaft them on costs.) Is this the best those agencies can do?
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!
The reason I’m not blogging at the moment is that I’m deep into writing up my next beer book, What Are You Drinking? I’m hoping to finish this draft in the next two weeks, and it’ll be published spring next year.
I’m going through the four key raw materials of beer and telling their stories, and I’m currently up to water. It’s the toughest one to do. Today, after writing about Dublin and Bohemia, I’m writing about the special water that made Burton on Trent the ale brewing capital of the world, and I’ve gone back into my first draft of Hops and Glory for help. That first draft was 50 per cent longer than the book that was eventually published. I remember my editor reading it and saying, “Look, I’m enjoying it OK? But I’m expecting to read about a sea voyage to India and all I’m saying is I’m on page 156 and I’m still on a canal boat outside Burton.” My first attempt at editing it resulted in it being 5000 longer.
We had to be brutal. A lot of the granular history of Burton and IPA got cut, whole chapters summarised into a few lines each. I’ve sometimes regretted this because while many people tell me they enjoy the book, it doesn’t get mentioned in the canon of historical research on IPA very often. It was aimed at a general audience rather than a beer geek or brewer, and some of the stuff serious beer heads might find fascinating really slowed the pace down for everyone else.
So this morning, I’ve dug out the first draft hoping to find a previously unpublished treatise on the properties of Burton water and its suitability for brewing strong pale ale. It’s not quite there, and I’ve misremembered what a lot of the research actually told me. But I did find this, and I found it fascinating. If you’re a hardcore IPA nut, you might find it interesting too. Long-read blog posts seem to be in fashion at the moment, and this makes up for me not writing anything else here, and there’s no other way I can use it, so why not? If you don’t fancy spending 20 minutes reading detailed beer history, you can leave now and I’ll come back to proper blogging as soon as I can.
The following passage was cut down to about half this length in the book, and loses many of the primary quotes, which get summarised But in full, it tells the story of what happened when Burton IPA first arrived in India. In writing the book, I didn’t just want to get an accurate handle on what the beer was really like; I wanted to know why. What made it work in India? Why did it take off? Why did the British in India drink it? How was it served? What did they think of it?
So here we are. To set the scene: The London brewer Hodgson’s owns the beer market in India. He has good links with the East India Company’s sea captains and they make a lot of money by transporting and selling his beers. But Hodgson gets greedy and tries to hike prices, flooding the market with cheap beer whenever a competitor appears, then whacking them up again when the competitor backs off. Campbell Marjoribanks of the East India Company visits Samuel Allsopp in Burton and suggests that he might like a crack at the Indian market. He gives Allsopp a sample of Hodgson’s beer and Allsopp brews a version of it in Burton, unaware that the difference in brewing water compared to London (see?) will make it a dramatically different beer. But will its superior quality be enough to counter Hodgson’s sharp marketing practices? He places his first brew on two ships sailing from Liverpool: the Bencoolen and the Seaforth. They’re also carrying some of Hodgson’s beer. Six months later, they arrive at the dock in Calcutta…
enthusiasm for Burton ale, it’s perhaps fitting that Samuel Allsopp’s first consignment
of strong beer for India went on a ship of the same name. But much had changed in the century since the
Bencoolen public table’s legendary binge.
Affairs in the east were more organised, more civilised now. Beer was a
respectable drink, a sign of good standing, drunk by people who were creating a
New England that was different from home in only a few key respects: it was
much hotter, a bit more dangerous, and they were able to live like lords rather
window. Fanny Parkes, arriving only a
few months earlier, painted a vivid picture of the sight that would have
greeted the Bencoolen as she made her
final passage up the Hugli River:
off Calcutta gave me great pleasure; the fine merchant-ships, the gay,
well-trimmed American vessels, the grotesque forms of the Arab ships, the
Chinese vessels with an eye on each side the bows to enable the vessel to see
her way across the deep waters, the native vessels in all their fanciful and
picturesque forms, the pleasure-boats of private gentlemen, the beautiful
private residences in Chowringhee, the Government-house, the crowds of people
and vehicles of all descriptions, both European and Asiatic, form a scene of
beauty of which I know not the equal.
beer was still a luxury rather than the centuries-old staple it was back
home. The market Hodgson’s dominated was
not huge. John Bell, who compiled trade
figures for the Bengal authorities, estimated the average annual consumption of
beer at almost seven thousand hogsheads, a quarter of which went to Madras, the
rest to Bengal. ‘There is reason to
suppose that the demand would increase if the price was steady’, he wrote, ‘but
while it fluctuates from six to fifteen rupees a dozen it is not likely that
the consumption will be increased’. On
the contrary, ‘thousands would be compelled to give it up and take to drinking
French clarets, which are and have been selling at from three to eighteen
rupees a dozen’. French clarets? Less than a decade after Waterloo? No, we couldn’t have that. The supply of affordable beer had to be
similar price range to French claret speaks volumes about the quality of the
beer and the demand for it in this climate.
That quality was strictly upheld by the import agents. Some historians wax dramatically about how
rejected beer was poured away into the harbour.
This did sometimes happen – WH Roberts heard from a correspondent in
1845 of 80 hogsheads being poured away – but it would have had to have been
incredibly bad beer to warrant such measures.
The Calcutta Gazette carried
plenty of ads such as the one in April 1809 for ‘62 hogsheads of REJECTED BEER,
bearing different Marks, imported on the Honourable Company’s ship General
Stuart.’ Even broached casks – with beer
that could only have been stale – were sold for anything they could get: ‘8
full and one ullaged Hogsheads of Damaged Beer imported on the Honourable
Company ship Tottenham’ were sold by Captain Hughes once permission had been
given by the customs collectors.
muster had its uses. It might have
molasses pitched in, the sugar giving it an additional fermentation, then be
watered down and mixed with spices to disguise the rank taste. If it was too bad even for that, it could be
used to form the base of ketchup: one of the first recipes for ‘catsup’ was
devised by Hannah Glasse in 1747 ‘for the Captains of ships’. It could keep for up to twenty years, and
consisted of stale beer, anchovies, mace, cloves, pepper, ginger and
ketchup after the tasters had done their work.
The Burton pale ale was approved.
The cargo went to the city’s auction houses, and the Calcutta Gazette filled up with beer
swamp-the-market phase in his protectionist cycle. He must have got wind of Allsopp’s intentions,
because eleven and a half thousand hogsheads of beer were imported in the
1822-23 season, double the amount of year before, four times the amount the
year before that, and double anything that would be achieved for the rest of
the decade. The ads in the paper became
increasingly lyrical in their praise. In
April the front page boasted ‘prime picked’ Hodgson’s pale ale, which
‘surpasses in superiority of quality, any of the former season’s… as fine
Malt Liquor as ever was drunk’.
rupees per hogshead – the price of Allsopp’s ale was set at twenty. It was a good start, but it wasn’t great –
twenty rupees a hogshead when in some years you could get fifteen for a dozen
quart bottles was not the basis for a profitable business. John Bell wasn’t happy:
1822-23 was both unwise, and attended with great loss to those immediately
concerned with the trial of monopolizing the Indian market; and the sorrowful
winding up of that speculation, by forced sales of unsound beer… evinced a
want of proper discrimination on the part of those whose time would have been
more properly and advantageously employed in the immediate exercise of their calling.
better, helped by a fortunate bit of circumstance. When the second ship, the Seaforth, came in, Tulloh & Co as
usual offered ‘the finest stock of HODGSON’S ripe PALE ALE to be met with in
India’, but further down the page sat the following notice:
the CUSTOM HOUSE WHARF, by permission of the Collector of Sea Customs, at
eleven o’ Clock precisely, on Saturday next, the 28th Instant, 48
HOGSHEADS of Hodgson’s BEER, and 17 empty HOGSHEADS, landed from the ship
Timandra, and 30 hogsheads of Hodgson’s BEER, landed from the ship Seaforth.
spoiled. Allsopp’s beer, on the same
ship, had not. This time, it fetched
forty rupees at auction.
way, brewers in England had to wait for up to a year to learn how their
business had gone. But slowly, the
letters began to arrive back in Burton.
Mr Gisborne, a customer of the first order, wrote to Allsopp in July
1823 asking if the trade in Burton ale could be expanded, recommending that he
be given the authority to bottle the ale for retail on arrival. In November 1824, Mr J C Bailton wrote from
reference to the loss you have sustained in your first shipments, you must have
been prepared for that, had you known
that market as well as I do; here almost everything is name, and
Hodgson’s has so long stood without a rival, that it was a matter of
astonishment how your ale could have stood in competition; but that it did is a
fact, and I myself was present when a butt of yours fetched 136 rupees, and a
butt of Hodgson’s only 80 rupees at public sale.
turned out well, that a bigger shipment should be sent the following year, and
that even then it might be scarce. In
the same month, Messrs Gordon & Co. wrote:
friends, the demand for this article has since been very great, and we now have
orders to some extent for this ale. We
would, therefore, strenuously recommend Mr Allsopp to make further consignments
of it; and we have every reason to believe he will have a fair competition with
Messrs Hodgson & Co.
agents in Liverpool and London turned into a steady stream. In 1824 Allsopp sent out two thousand
barrels, and in October 1825, Captain Probyn wrote that large numbers of his
passengers preferred Allsopp’s to Hodgson’s ale, and that ‘many who had been
long in India, declared it to be preferable to any they had ever tasted in the
Burton ” 170
importation of Allsopp’s Highly Admired Pale Burton Ale’. Messrs Tulloh & Co, for so long in the
grip of Hodgson, (it was they who would go on to write the highly critical Circular on the Beer Trade of India) had
much pleasure in announcing to the public that they had available a small batch
of ‘ALLSOPP’S FAMOUS PALE ALE… Great attention was bestowed on the brewing of
this batch, and is it has come out in the short period of 105 days from
Liverpool, there is every reason to expect it will turn out as almost all
Allsopp’s Shipments have done, in excellent order’. They still sold Hodgson’s beer of course, but
now there was a worthy rival the copy for Hodgson’s seemed a little less effusive: ‘it will be carefully examined by Messrs
Watson & Co and none passed but such as is pronounced to be decidedly of
the very best quality’, they reassured us, and while it was still ‘the finest
beer that comes to the Indian market’, this was only ‘as far as the general
taste goes’. As Tizard put it, ‘the
spell had been broken’. In four seasons,
Allsopp had shattered Hodgson’s grip on the market.
odds, there was something about Allsopp’s beer that was powerful enough to
supplant the established, dominant market leader who seemingly held all the
cards. Of course some of this success
was due to the vision and determination of Allsopp himself, a man who ‘saw no difficulties
which time, perseverance, resolution, consistency, and steady, unswerving
honour could not overcome’. But there was more to it than that. What Campbell Marjoribanks couldn’t have
realised when he decided to court Allsopp is that he was approaching a brewer
who possessed a very special ingredient.
out of ancient rock, covered with a layer of sand and gravel anywhere up to
sixty feet deep. Rain water trickles
through these beds for tens of thousands of years, and as a result, by the time
it emerges from wells and springs it contains a unique composition of minerals
that makes it not only superior to soft, southern water from London, but the
best water for ale brewing found anywhere in the world. It has a higher sulphate content than any
other major brewing centre, giving a dry, bitter flavour to beer. Sulphate means brewers can add large amounts
of hops to the beer without it becoming too astringently bitter. Brewing scientists also claim that water for
ale should be high in calcium – Burton has the highest calcium content of any
major brewing region. It should be high
in magnesium and low in sodium and
bicarbonate – once more, Burton water is.
The strong, hoppy beer devised by Hodgson was given a whole new
dimension when brewed in Burton. It was
a phenomenal stroke of good fortune, bringing a style of beer that suited the
Indian climate to a place that would never have had good reason to brew it, but
was, in the words of one later Bass historian, ‘The one spot in the world where
the well-water is so obviously intended by Nature for kindly union with those
fruits of the earth, to give beer incomparable’.
porter brewery in Bristol that had decided to experiement with pale ale,
suggested that Hodgson’s beer simply didn’t match up to the new brews from
Burton. Writing to Willis & Earle in
Calcutta, he said of Hodgson’s ale, ‘We neither like its thick and muddy appearance
or rank bitter flavour’. Two years later,
when George’s joined the golden beer rush to Calcutta, the same partner
explained, ‘We made a slight alteration to the Ale by brewing it rather of a
paler colour and more hop’d to make it as similar as possible to some samples
of Allsopp’s ale’.
exactly in Burton, with the only difference being Burton instead of London
water, the Burton version would have been superior in quality and character
when it reached India. And Hodgson was
simply his own worst enemy. Having
already pissed off the East India Company to such an extent that one of its
directors went out of his way to find someone capable of putting up a fight,
Hodgson, surely expecting to rout Allsopp from the market, changed his terms of
business in 1824 and shut out the very people he relied on to get his beer to
India. According to the Circular on the
Beer Trade in India, the captains and officers of the East Indiamen had
been Hodgson’s best customers thanks largely to the generous credit terms he
extended to them. Hodgson’s ale was ‘one
of the principal articles in their investments’ until, in 1824, he not only
raised his prices to them, but refused now to sell on any terms except for hard
market, sent the Beer out for sale on their own account; thus they, in a short
time, became Brewers. Shippers, Merchants, and even retailers. These proceedings naturally and justly
excited hostile feelings in those engaged in the Indian Trade at home; while
the public here, seeing at last the complete control which Hodgson endeavoured
to maintain over the market, turned their faces against him, and gave
encouragement to other Brewers who fortunately sent out excellent beer.
forms. Happy customers were eager to
advise Allsopp not just on how to brew his beer, but when the best time was to
send it. Then as now, one of the things
that mattered most was that the beer was served cool, which wasn’t easy when
the temperature rarely dipped below thirty degrees C and refrigeration wasn’t
going to appear for another fifty years.
Happily, one of India’s main manufactures provided the answer. In 1828, when young Henry Allsopp was working
for Gladstone & Co, a Liverpool shipping agent, he received a letter for a
Mr Lyon in Calcutta:
in the month of November or latter end of October, to arrive here in March or
April; it is then our hottest season, and the quantity of Beer then consumed is
tremendous. Your Beer is certainly a
most delightful beverage during the hot season; it is always cooled with
saltpetre before it is drank; we can make it by this article as cold as ice.
article years later that ‘beer was always deliciously cooled with saltpetre,
when everything else was lukewarm; a point very much in its favour’.
immersed in a solution of saltpetre.
Water was added, and as it mixed with the saltpetre it would cool within
a few minutes. It was an effective
method but fiddly and expensive, especially given that a more lucrative use of
saltpetre was in the manufacture of gunpowder, which the Company still needed
even more than cold beer.
method came into use. Bottles were hung
outdoors, inside a cage or cradle, and covered with a wet cloth, the edges of
which sat in a trough of water at the bottom of the cage. The hot wind evaporated the water, and the
evaporation cooled the water. The cloths
sucked up more water, creating a continuous cooling process.
happening over at Allsopp’s. He’d
already experimented with pale malts a few years previously, and now, shut out
of the Baltic trade by Benjamin Wilson twenty years before, it was time for his
revenge. Forced to turn back to the
domestic market after the Baltic fiasco, Bass had built far better trading
links with important cities such as Liverpool, London and Manchester. Now, his network was more developed than
Allsopp’s, and he knew the canals better.
From 1823 there was a sharp increase in Bass sales to London
agents. By 1828 41 per cent of Bass’
output was going to London and Liverpool, much of it in large consignments for
export. In 1828 the Calcutta Gazette was advertising ‘Hodgson’s Allsopp’s and Basse’s
Beer in wood, and in bottle, of different ages, some all perfection, others
approaching it’, and most auction houses continued to promote all three brands
over the next few years. In 1832 Bass
exported 5193 barrels to Calcutta – slightly more than Hodgson and Allsopp’s
combined shipments. Although Michel Bass
didn’t live to see it (he died in 1827, leaving the brewery to his son, Michael
Thomas) his victory over Allsopp’s was decisive. The two would remain rivals for another
century, each far bigger than any other Burton brewer, but Allsopp would never
again quite challenge Bass’ supremacy.
trade had fallen off again, and that ‘the most remarkable deficiency is in
supplies from Hodgson; on the other hand, Bass and Allsopp have shipped more
extensively.’ A year later, he could
barely keep the triumph felt by Bengal’s populace from his remarks:
more than any other article perhaps imported into Calcutta. A very few years ago Hodgson stood alone in
the market, and the idea of rivalry was never entertained. Thus he was enabled to reach his own terms –
cash – without any guarantee as to quality; and success, for some time, gained
for him a name and wealth.
that the magic spell might be broken by the strong hand of competition; and
although some of those who first had temerity enough to enter the field against
so formidable an antagonist, supported as he was by the strongest prejudice,
suffered severely, Hodgson was at length defeated, and the market is now
supplied by a variety of brewers.
of brewers’ on how to prosper in India:
adapted for this market should be a clear-light-bitter-pale
ale of a moderate strength, and by no means what is termed in Calcutta heady;
it should be shipped in hogsheads which, we need scarcely observe, should be
most carefully coopered… Another point is, that by frequent consignments, you
acquire a name, which, as you may be
aware, is everything in India.
word was used freely in commerce, in order to succeed, these beers had to be
strong brands. This was Hodgson’s legacy: his name became
synonymous with quality. To beat him,
you had to beat him not only on quality, but also on sheer brand
awareness. It’s no coincidence that,
fifty years after establishing itself in India, Bass would become the UK’s
first registered trade mark.
Allsopp, and to an increasingly lesser extent, Hodgson, by 1833 brewers such as
Ind and Smith, Worthington, Charrington and Barclay Perkins of London and
Tennent of Glasgow were sending pale ale to India. By 1837 Bell notes the arrival of beer from
the United States and ‘Cape Beer’, but these were to make up a tiny amount of
the beer drunk in India – as Tizard states, it was ‘clear that England must
furnish the supply’.
stabilised prices, allowing the taste for beer to spread throughout
Anglo-Indian society, right through to ‘the poorer classes of British
inhabitants, which having once acquired, they will continue to indulge as long
as prices remain moderate’. Allsopp’s
‘Burton India Ale’ lost out to Bass in sales, but was still considered by many,
including Tizard, to be ‘the most salable’, thanks mainly to its ‘superior
lightness and brilliancy’. Soon,
according to Bell, ‘no less than twenty brewers now send out Beer from England,
where one occupied the field a very few years ago’.
in 1829-30 to 21632 rupees in 1833-34, with Bell observing that ‘this
once-favoured wine stands… as an example of the effects produced on trade by
the caprice of fashion… the sudden distaste for Madeira would almost lead us
to believe that some magic influence had been at work’. The consumption of spirits was ‘certainly not
so great as formerly’, port was ‘limited’ and other drinks such as champagne
and hock had ‘never been very great’. As
for the over-supply of Claret, ‘we hope that the French have at last seen the
folly of driving such a ruinous trade’.
1853, thanks to the many fine qualities of Samuel Allsopp:
reduced to the sad necessity of drinking French claret for the want of a
draught of good, sound, wholesome, and refreshing English Burton beer.