Category: London

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Craft Beer, Goose Island, London, US Craft Beer

Goose Island Bourbon County 2019

Last night I was invited to an exclusive beer launch. Exclusivity around beer – some beer, sometimes – is no bad thing. But that doesn’t mean you need to be an arse about it.

Nice. I’ll have a pint, thanks.

“Sorry mate, there’s a private party tonight, the bar’s closed.”

If you’re the poor bastard charged with being on the door with a clipboard, there are two ways you could handle your role.

One, you could say hello to anyone approaching the door and ask, “Are you here for the Bourbon County event?” If they say no, you could explain the bar is closed. If they say yes, you could then ask for their name and, if it’s there, tick it off the list. This is what happens at most events I go to.

The other way is to look at the person approaching the door, make a snap judgement, assume that this is a person who couldn’t possibly have been invited to this kind of party, and bar them entry, your voice making a rare downward turn at the end of the sentence, the word ‘closed’ being definite, with no hint of a question about it.

There’s no way this guy thinks I might actually be on the list on his clipboard – he’s making that very clear. Maybe it’s my body shape. Maybe it’s what I’m wearing. But I suspect it’s my age: I now look less like a craft beer drinker than a craft beer drinker’s dad who’s turned up with their lift home. (If you’re truly wondering whether something is fashionable or not, just observe whether ageism has crept into the scene yet.) Whatever it is, when the account exec from the PR agency was given his piece of paper on what to expect from an exclusive beer launch, I clearly wasn’t it.

Happily after being made to feel like shit on the door, things improve rapidly.

Inside Goose Island Shoreditch, I’m immediately welcomed with a glass of smoked porter that the resident brewer, Andrew Walton, has created for the season. He likes dark beers. So do I. I wish more people did: it seems we can only have dark beers these days if they’re absolutely massive and/or incredibly complicated. But on days like this, when it’s already darkening outside and the roads and pavements shine blackly, it’s nice to have at least one drinkable choice that’s a little darker than a pale ale.

And dark beers are the order of the night tonight. The invite-only crowd is here for the 2019 launch of Goose Island Bourbon County. In a scene full of hyped beers that people queue for and then trade, with no small amount of instagramming and YouTubing, this is one of the hypiest. And with good reason.

Goose Island was a pioneer of whisky barrel-aged beers. First brewed in 1992 to celebrate the 1000th batch of Goose Island beer, it was aged in Bourbon barrels. Kentucky is south-east of Chicago, a mere four-hour drive from the brewery. As Bourbon barrels are used for the character of freshly charred oak, they can only be used once by whisk(e)y makers. Back in the nineties, any brewer wanting to use them to age beer had a ready supply. If you’re wondering whether Goose Island truly was a pioneer, when they first entered Bourbon County into the Great American Beer Festival in 1995, it was disqualified because it didn’t fit any of the style guidelines at the time.

Since then, the brewers have learned more about the process and played around with the different barrels available to them. Andrew Walton declares it to be ‘The most important beer Goose Island make.’ He tells us how Chicago’s baking summers and sub-zero winters are perfect for the ageing process, making the wood expand and contract, so the beer really gets into the wood, and the wood gets into the beer.

One of Goose Islands’ massive barrel ageing rooms in Chicago, taken 2014

The sense of anticipation builds as Andrew leads a tutored tasting, beginning with two more dark beers he’s brewed here in the Shoreditch brewpub. The first, a stout brewed with sour cherries and tonic beans, is like a spicy Black Forest gateau, and I can’t decide whether it’s a perfect beer to go within dessert or dessert in its own right.

That bottle came straight home.

Nemesis is a Doppelbock aged in Madeira barrels, a collaboration with Orbit brewing, and it’s a revelation. Doppelbock is obviously lighter than a stout or porter and you might think it wouldn’t take the characteristics of ageing as well, but it’s buttery, rummy, juicy and fruity, with a huge amount of madeira character.

Finally, we get two vintages of Bourbon County: the new 2019, and last year’s 2018. Both were aged for a year in Bourbon barrels, but this year they played around with the mix: a combination of Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace. The 2018 has a huge dose of marmite on the nose. It’s a familiar ageing trait, but it’s here by the bucketload. Then you get a bunch of flavours that all go together, and I realise for the first time that each one is a special treat to the people who love it: Bourbon, chocolate and tobacco, all sitting there together, the taste of a gentleman’s club or, more appealingly, the lounge of an upscale Scottish Highlands hotel. Standing around a waist height table in the brewpub, the beer screams for a big leather Chesterfield for full enjoyment.

The 2019 expression is very different. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever said this about a 15.2% beer, but it’s cleaner and lighter. The chocolate and vanilla characters are much more straightforward. It’s neither better nor worse than 2018, just intriguingly different. If you haven’t had the 2018 first, it’s a beer to finish the night on, especially if you haven’t had much else beforehand. It’s almost impossible to imagine having one of these to yourself, sir drinking it in less than an hour if you do.

Anheuser Busch-Inbev have done a great deal wrong since they took over Goose Island in 2011. It feels like they don’t have a clue what to do with it. Once an absolute craft beer pioneer – Goose Island IPA is the beer I used to introduce countless people to craft beer a decade or so ago – it now feels like it’s lost its way and been eclipsed by its rivals. People always say this about beers that get taken over, and they’re not always right, but GK IPA is definitely not the same beer it used to be. New launches such as ‘Goose Midway’ seem to be aimed squarely at the mainstream lager drinker while offering no real reason why they should choose it over Foster’s or Stella. The abbreviation to ‘Goose’ smells of the kids at school who say ‘my name is Steve but people call me The Space Cowboy’ when only Steve himself does.

But they’ve got a couple of things absolutely right, and they’ve done that mainly by not interfering with something that was working well. The barrel-aged programme – which includes Belgian-style fruit beers aged in wine barrels as well as the whisky barrel-aged stuff – produces beer after beer that are uncompromised and , almost without exception, stunning.

Fruit cake.

Mike Siegel, head of the barrel programme, is largely left to his own devices, as evidenced by the recent launch of Obidiah Poundage, a three-way collaboration between Goose Island, beer historian Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice. These people had. great deal of fun making these beer, at Goose Island’s expense – and also to Goose Island’s benefit.

The only real change that’s happened to the annual Bourbon County released is that there’s now more hype around it. The scarcity value of the beer has increased massively – given that I’m so old I look to some people like I shouldn’t be here tonight, I can remember simply going down to Utobeer on Borough Market and buying a four pack. I did wonder at one point if I was imagining this, but I found the evidence at the back of my cellar:

Not sure what year this was…

Sadly the bottles are long gone.

The only intervention ABI seem to have made around Bourbon County is to put some PR agency thinking behind it. And I have to say, I think they’ve done the right thing here. Do I wish Bourbon County was cheaper and more widely available, like it used to be? Well, I don’t think so. I wish I had some more of it in my cellar, but that’s different. It’s good that a beer that is so innovative, that takes over a year to make, that’s stronger than most wines, should have a halo of mystique around it. There are literally thousands of different beers on sale in the UK right now. We don’t need all of them to be affordable and accessible. The existence of a few like this gives the beer scene a bit of a halo. And when Andrew says ‘This is my favourite beer to introduce non-beer drinkers to,” – yes, this 15% monster with huge dollops of wood and Bourbon character pressing in on already complex, malty beer, rather than the IPA – it’s clearly doing something for beer as a whole.

If you feel like treating yourself or a loved one, you can buy Bourbon County from Beer Hawk, seeing how it’s also owned by AB-Inbev.


| Beer, Craft Beer, Fuller's, London, The Business End

Fuller Love: The Beery Heart and the Head for Business

Fuller’s is selling its beer portfolio to Asahi. The commercial logic of this is undeniable. The issue is, many of us place sentimentality above commercial logic. 

And Vintage Ale. And Dark Star, And Cornish Orchards.

As someone who (a) loves beer and (b) also aspires to being seen as a level-headed commentator with a degree of insight into the market, whenever something like this happens I have two reactions: the emotional and the analytical. Sometimes they match up with each other. Other times they don’t.

So let’s get the emotional reaction out of the way first: when I saw Asahi trending on my Twitter timeline on Friday morning, and then clicked on it to see what it was about, I was fucking gutted. People asked me for my reaction on Twitter. The editor of Imbibe phoned me to see if I had a comment on it. An email thread of beer writers asking if anyone knew before the announcement or had any hot take on it spiralled through my inbox. And I had no words at all. I felt a bit stupid. The thing was, I didn’t understand it. 

I don’t want to sound too melodramatic: it wasn’t like a bereavement or anything. It was more like, imagine you have two mates. One of them is a bit lairy and is often asked to keep it down in the pub. The other one is quiet and thoughtful and one of the sweetest people you know. And one day, someone says, “Hey, there was a ruckus in the pub last night. The police were called and your mate was arrested.” 

“I’m not surprised. He probably had it coming,” you reply. “You know what he’s like.”

“No, not him,” the person says. “Your other mate! The quiet, nice one.” 

The offence is the same. But it feels worse because of who did it. Fuller’s don’t owe me anything, nor do they have any obligation to anyone else. But I had an idea in my head of the kind of company they are – entirely of my own creation – and just like it was for many people when Beavertown did their deal with Heineken, that idea now seems tarnished. Like I said, it’s an emotional reaction. It’s pointless trying to pick it apart, analyse it or argue with it – it’s just how I feel.

Now, given a day or two’s thinking time, here’s the rational reaction: one, it was probably as inevitable as it was surprising. And two, it’ll probably be OK.

Why was it inevitable? Because it’s part of the pattern. A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a panel for a Q&A session at a Greene King management awayday. There was me, and a bunch of serial entrepreneurs, City analysts and financial people. I was asked to speak first. I was doing the Cask Report at the time, and I spoke about how cask ale was looking good and that meant Greene King were in a good place if they stuck with it. And everyone else on the panel said, “Why are you talking about beer? It’s irrelevant. This is a property company, a retail company. That’s where all the money is. The brewery is just a distraction.”

If you’re only looking at the money side of things, this is inarguable. In the early nineties, when the Beer Orders mandated that breweries could no longer own thousands of pubs, every one of the ‘Big Six’ brewery conglomerates that had dominated British brewing since the sixties eventually decided to sell off the beer and hang on to the pubs (which is why we’re in the extraordinary position of not one of the top ten beer brands in the UK – one of the world’s greatest brewing countries – being owned by a British company.)

Beer is in long-term decline and brewing is a low-margin business. Pubs are property, and property is worth a lot of money. Pubs also sell a lot more than beer – as a sector, they now make more money from food than drink. If you had to choose to give up one or the other, only the most sentimental of brewing companies would choose to stick with beer. 

Of course, Fuller’s were not forced to choose between one or the other. They’re well below the limit for the maximum number of pubs a brewer can own. And yet they decided to dispose of the brewing business anyway. 

From what I can understand from off-the-record chats, very few people in the business had any inkling of this happening. Not only were they not told, they were always under the impression that the board at Fuller’s were indeed very sentimentally attached to the brewing business. Ever since Young’s sold its brewing operations and shut its brewery in Wandsworth in 2006, there has been speculation that Fuller’s would – or even must – do the same. The received wisdom among the upper echelons of the business was that the families of Fullers and Turners who still occupy many board positions wouldn’t want to face the ignominy of turning up at their boxes at Twickenham, Lords, Glyndebourne or wherever and have to introduce themselves as ‘shopkeepers’ rather than brewers. I guess they’ve swallowed their (London) Pride on that score. 

I’m writing this blog post in a newly opened Fuller’s pub. Like every Fuller’s pub that’s been opened or refurbished in the last few years, it’s magnificent. We hear a great deal about pub closures, and while Fuller’s have long received praise for their brewing prowess and approach, they’ve not received enough credit for the care, attention and confidence they show in the pub sector. £250m, minus costs and yachts, houses or whatever else the beneficiaries might buy, remains a significant chunk of money to invest in pubs. Those pubs will all still stock Fuller’s beers, as Asahi will be their main beer supplier.

From Asahi’s point of view, this sale sees them building up a very respectable portfolio of western beer brands now. I have to admit that as a drinker, the prospect of Fuller’s, Dark Star, Meantime and Pilsner Urquell, plus Cornish Orchards cider, all on the same team, is an enticing one. Martyn Cornell also raises the sharp observation that this is a foreign lager brewer making a massive vote of confidence in British cask ale. Fuller’s flagship beer, London Pride, has been suffering sustained decline, squeezed between the big multinationals’ marketing power and the rise of craft beer. Pride and the rest of the Fuller’s portfolio now belong to a company with much deeper pockets. 

And the point many of us miss is that these big companies have a global outlook. You have a well-respected traditional British beer called LONDON PRIDE that now has access to huge distribution in big, beer-hungry, and often massively Anglophile markets in Central Europe and Asia. People often ask me why the hell Carlsberg bought a toxic brand (within the UK beer bubble) called London Fields. Same reason. 

Many who, like me, remain sad about the deal despite this commercial logic, try to put their fears into rational terms by suggesting that a multinational lager brewer might screw up their beloved beers. I genuinely don’t think will happen. Asahi has absolutely no experience in cask ale. They wouldn’t risk blowing their £250m investment by trying to change what they don’t understand. They’ll leave Fuller’s and Dark Star well alone to do what they know how to do best, merely providing them with more production capacity and wider distribution, and a shitload more health and safety notices around the workplace. That’s what they did with Meantime. And after a couple of false starts, they’ve actually handled Pilsner Urquell pretty well. 

I’m almost talking myself into cheering this sale rather than mourning it. But I can’t quite get there. It’s not just the keyboard warriors who want to keep craft beer pure even as they sit in comfortable corporate jobs drawing salaries from big multinationals who are sad about this sale. Brooklyn Brewmaster Garret Oliver told me that, “Fuller’s, more than any other brewery, is responsible for my becoming a brewer.” Last year I interviewed John Hall, founder of Goose Island, when he came to Fuller’s to brew a collaborative beer to celebrate that company’s 30th anniversary. On business trips to Europe, he used to detour via London simply so he could drink London Pride at the Star Tavern, a Fuller’s pub in Belgravia. When he finally changed out of his business suit and into brewer’s overalls, he brewed Honker’s ale to try to emulate his favourite beer. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale began life as an attempt to imitate Fuller’s ESB. ESB itself is now a category, a bona fide beer style brewed all over the world and judged in international competitions, when it was once simply the name of a tasty, strong beer in the Fuller’s portfolio. 

Fuller’s was the brewery that inspired the breweries that inspired the modern craft beer boom. Arguably no other brewery in the world is as responsible for shaping craft beer. These individual stories of inspiration – and there are many more – cannot be measured on a balance sheet. But they create value nonetheless.

Asahi are not evil and they’re not going to screw up these beers. Fuller’s are not sellouts who deserve to be shunned by beer ideologues. And yet we’ve still lost something. We’ve lost some of beer’s romance and heritage. We’ve lost a sense of stability and continuity. We’ve lost a bit of magic. Yes, I’m being sentimental. But even the most hard-nosed businessman should be wary of scorning or dismissing such sentimentality. Because it’s the basis of loyalty – no, devotion – a fierce passion for some beers and breweries that few if any other products can summon among their core customers. 

My warning to Asahi would be to respect this irrational devotion and sentimentality and to honour the beers and the brewery that created it. I suspect they will do a fairly decent job of that, because the business they just bought depends on them doing so. But it still won’t quite be the same.

| Beer, Beer Festivals, London

Why ‘craft keg’ is the saviour, not the enemy, of cask ale

The vibrancy of London’s brewing scene in 2017 shows just how antiquated the argument over format has become. 

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.