Tag: Beer

| Beer, Brewing, Craft Beer

Let’s Make Craft Beer Great Again

It may look like the golden years of the craft beer boom are over. But this is not the time to give up. It’s the time to remember why we’re here in the first place.

The bad news just keeps on coming. For as long as we can remember now, every day seems to bring more news of UK breweries that are closing or in trouble. Sometimes it’s someone you’ve never heard of. Other times, it’s someone you thought was too big, too popular to fail.

Among those who are still here, it’s very much survival mode. When I wrote the first Sheffield Beer Report in 2016, the city’s brewers were tiny, but two-thirds said they were planning expansion and investment in the near future. When we asked the same question this year, the response was “Are you fucking kidding?” Whatever cash reserves brewers once had are gone. For many, it’s a question of just hanging on until some unspecified scenario causes things to improve.

The problems facing small brewers are many. But they can be simplified to a sickening Catch-22: costs of production are soaring, so brewers need to either put up their prices or sell a lot more beer to remain profitable. But they can’t sell more beer because their routes to market are increasingly tied up by big corporations. And this means they can’t put their prices up because they have to discount their beer to compete for limited available spaces on the bar. The bar in turn has to buy on price because drinkers are themselves facing a cost of living crisis, which means they’re spending less in pubs and bars.

One by-product of all this is that the sheer energy and joy that once characterised craft beer is no longer the spirit that defines it. It is still there, in tap rooms and at festivals, but it’s slightly jaded. The naïve sense of adventure seems to have gone.

You could say the industry has matured. You could say it needed to. But it’s also in danger of losing what made it exciting in the first place.

As a humble writer, I can’t do much about routes to market and raw material costs. But maybe I can offer some context and commentary that might prove useful.

There’s a new generation in craft brewing now – drinkers, brewery workers, commentators – who don’t remember what it was like before all this happened. I’m conscious that, being older, I can develop a tendency to dismiss new things (I’m just not that keen on hazy, juicy pales, OK? Or brioche buns being used for bacon rolls. And I accept that some of that is my problem.) But at the same time, some younger people can reflexively dismiss anything that came before their time, and that’s at least as problematic. (Last year I was talking with a talented brewer who not only said that all IPAs are hazy, and that a clear beer cannot be an IPA, but that it had always been thus. He simply denied the existence of the clear IPAs we were all drinking until about twelve years ago.)

These people don’t remember what it was like before the craft beer boom – they were too young. So let’s look at the current situation with a bit of longer-term context.

For decades, beer and brewing weren’t interesting to anyone beyond people who worked in the industry (and not always then) and a handful of hobbyists. I began working in the industry as a strategist helping to create ad campaigns for Stella Artois and Heineken. Back then, many of my clients couldn’t tell you what beer was made of, what hops were, what the difference between ale and lager was, or the history of their beers. They said no one wanted beer to have flavour or character. They said people “drank the advertising.” They said beer was “fuel” for 18-34-year-old men on a big night out. And that was it. Oh, there was the Campaign for Real Ale, but they were all really old (i.e. over 40), set in their ways and fuddy-duddy, so there was no point talking to them. They said.

Every few years there’d be a pink beer aimed at women, with pictures of stilettos or jewellery on the label, and it would fail just as spectacularly as the last one.

The situation for good, flavourful, interesting beer back then was a lot worse then than it is now.

I started writing about beer instead of making ads because I thought my Big Beer clients were wrong. People were becoming more interested in flavourful food and drink, more curious about where it came from and who made it. I simply didn’t believe that this could apply across every single aspect of food and drink except beer.

And I was right. The introduction of progressive beer duty in 2002 created an explosion of small brewers. Then a few of us discovered American craft beer. Eventually, brewers such as Thornbridge, Dark Star and Roosters began experimenting with American hops, and reinterpreting American takes on traditional British beer styles, such as IPA, stout and brown ale, in a friendly game of transatlantic craft-brewing tennis.

This all came with a culture of openness, idealism and joyful optimism. We were a small community, and most people knew each other. People who met online would meet up IRL for “Twiss-ups.” We’d travel miles for the opening of a new craft beer bar. Beer blogging side-stepped the (still current) near-total blackout of beer reporting in mainstream media, to document the scene in real time as it evolved.

This spirit, this energy and optimism, helped make craft beer attractive to a previously non-beery audience. Mainstream beer had become something you bought on price, by the slab, from the supermarket. But within a few years, beer was cool again. It was new and exciting. It captured the public imagination. Its cultural value – which had always been there – was finally recognised.

Maybe I’m just out of touch these days, but it feels like this spirit has been lost. We seem to talk so much about the issues and problems in the industry, the gossip and scandal, the bad practice and culture, who’s gone under and who’s been bought out, that there isn’t much time for talking about the joy of beer and brewing and drinking.

Things are still way better now then they were back in the day. I still believe that craft beer has the potential to grow further if it remains interesting and fun. So if you are feeling jaded and wondering where to go, I’d like to offer some prompts to rediscovering creativity and joy.  

  • Remember why you got into this in the first place. What was the beer that made you go crazy about beer? What made you give up your old job or hobby for this one? Is that beer still around? Have you had it recently? How did it make you feel? What ideas did it inspire? Who did you share it with? If you had forgotten about this until now, write it down now and capture it. Because if you see someone drinking Madri and they seem to be having more fun than you, maybe you’ve lost your way.
  • Look to home brewers for inspiration. Ever since the first days of the North American craft-brewing revolution, home brewers have brewed the styles they yearn for but can’t get hold of commercially. This is how modern craft beer started. Today, it’s fascinating to judge home brews in competition, because if the beer isn’t everything the brewer wants it to be, they don’t send it in, so the standard of beers that do make it to the competition is very high. I’ve judged a couple of home brew competitions in Continental Europe recently, and they’re increasingly interested in traditional British ale styles. Partly they’re looking for session-strength beers, but with some interesting flavours. But is there something else behind it too? What will they look to next?
  • Remember you’re allowed to like more than one thing. Increasingly, social discourse is binary. Short attention spans reward constructs like, “Are you Team A or Team B?” “This random thing: good or bad?” The world isn’t like that. Not all big brewers are awful and not all small brewers are good. Mild doesn’t have to be either the coolest thing going or utterly irrelevant. You can enjoy both cask and keg, craft and macro, Batham’s Bitter and Vault City 24k Maple Caramel Carrot Cake. Drinkers do. Be more pluralistic. Less binary.
  • If you’re a brewer, read a book. It doesn’t have to be one of mine (but it would be nice if it was.) But books take a long, broad view, stepping back and taking things in. They reveal history and explain things. The best compliment I get as a writer from brewers is “You made me want to do this” or “You reminded me why I do it.” Maybe inspiration and joy still lurks on the shelves.
  • If you’re a commentator, do a brew day. I understood brewing on an intellectual level for several years before I actually went to a working brewery. It was only then that I truly got it. It’s the aromas – the stomach-rumbling breakfast cereal smell of mashing in, the heady perfume of the hop addition. Even today, after twenty years, any time I’m in a working brewery on brew day it reminds me why I do this, and I grin like a loon.  
  • Try something that’s not on-trend. But don’t do it because it’s not on-trend. It’s not about trying to make dark milds cool again. It’s about brewing and/or drinking a dark mild (or a tripel – please – or a wheat beer, or a saison – remember them?) on its own terms, and asking yourself, have I missed anything here?
  • Answer this question honestly. Why don’t you think of Timothy Taylor Landlord as a Craft Beer? Or Budweiser Budvar? Or Orval? You do? Great! You’re still in touch with what most people out there think of as craft beer. If you don’t – why not? Is it because you don’t rate that particular beer? Or is it because, secretly, your own personal definition of craft beer isn’t about quality and flavour and ingredients and process and intent, but about whether it’s new and it’s got a label with cartoons on it and it’s using this year’s cool new hop? If so, I’m afraid you’re starting to sound a bit like my old Stella and Heineken clients. Craft beer has always been around, even if it hasn’t always been called that. It always will be, in some form.

For my own part, I’m going to search for the good news stories. And when I find them, I’m going to share them. This is me relaunching my blog, after neglecting it for years. It’s Friday. It’s sunny. Let’s go drink something great.

| AB InBev, Bass Ale, Beer, Beer Marketing, Brewing, Brooklyn Brewery, Cask ale, Craft Beer, Dark Star, Fuller's, Goose Island, Lager, The Business End

Who Really Owns/Brews Your Favourite Beer?

There are many reasons to drink craft beer or real ale. There are other reasons to drink exotic ‘foreign’ lagers. But if ‘authenticity’ or supporting small, independent brewers is one of your motivations, you might find this useful.

There’s no getting away from the economic reality that if something challenges a big player in any market, the giant will either try to destroy it, replicate it, or if that doesn’t work, buy it.

As craft beer went mainstream, it attracted a much bigger audience than just beer geeks. It sold at a premium compared to mainstream lager. Big brewers had commoditised their own brands, so they got jealous and wanted a piece of craft’s action. (You might think that’s unfair, but if you were working for one of these big brewers, that’s what you’d do too.)

Many leading craft brands have now been acquired by the giants. That’s just how it is. Now – the ownership structure of the beer industry may be of no interest to you. If you’re already drinking mainstream lagers from global giants and you just occasionally fancy something hoppier, that’s up to you. I won’t judge.

However, if one of your motivations for drinking craft beer – or just as importantly, cask/real ale – is that you want to support small, independent businesses, it’s not always obvious whether or not the brand in front of you is the real deal. Big corporations pay a lot of money to acquire the cool cachet of craft brands, and they’re not always eager to tell you the truth.

So I’ve compiled a list of who owns what. If your favourite brand is not here, then it is what it claims to be – independent at least, if not always small.

I’m passing no judgement here. Some of the beers below remain excellent beers, and there are quite a few that I regularly buy myself. I’m not telling you not to buy them. I’m just providing the information.

As I went through the corporate websites, I also encountered a lot of what we now call “world lagers.” People often buy these beers partially because they’re buying into an idea of the country of origin, believing that they have been imported to the UK. But most of these lagers are in fact brewed in the UK. Some of them have never even been near the place they are supposedly brewed. So all the beers below are brewed in the UK unless otherwise stated.

First, here’s a list of brewery/beer brands in alphabetical order, so if you want to check on a particular beer, you can find it easily:

AmstelHeineken
Asahi (Brewed in Italy/UK – seems to be moving aroubnd a bit.)Asahi
BackyardCarlsberg Marstons
Banks’sCarlsberg Marstons
Bass (Brewed by Carlsberg Marstons)AB-InBev
BeavertownHeineken
BecksAB-InBev
Blue MoonMolson Coors
BoddingtonsAB-InBev
BrahmaAB-InBev
BrixtonHeineken
BrixtonHeineken
Brooklyn (not owned outright but Carlsberg Martsons has brand rights in Europe – they brew and sell the beers here)Carlsberg Marstons
BudweiserAB-InBev
Caffrey’sMolson Coors
CaledonianHeineken
Camden TownAB-InBev
CarlingMolson Coors
CarlsbergCarlsberg Marstons
CobraMolson Coors
CoorsMolson Coors
CoronaAB-InBev
CourageCarlsberg Marstons
Dark StarAsahi
DesperadosHeineken
Deuchars IPAHeineken
Eagle (Waggledance, Eagle IPA etc.)Carlsberg Marstons
Erdinger (Independently owned and brewed in Germany. UK marketing and distribution by CM.)Carlsberg Marstons
Estrella Damm (Independently owned and brewed in Spain, packaged in UK. UK marketing and distribution by CM.)Carlsberg Marstons
FostersHeineken
Franciscan WellMolson Coors
Fuller’sAsahi
Goose Island (Brewed in UK)AB-InBev
Grimbergen (brewed in Belgium, France, Poland and Italy)Carlsberg Marstons
Grolsch (Brewed in Netherlands)Asahi
Heineken (Brewed in Netherlands)Heineken
HobgoblinCarlsberg Marstons
Hoegaarden (brewed in Belgium)AB-InBev
HolstenCarlsberg Marstons
JenningsCarlsberg Marstons
John Smith’sHeineken
Kirin Ichiban (Owned by Kirin, brewed and marketed in UK by CM)Carlsberg Marstons
KronenbourgHeineken
Lagunitas (brewed in Netherlands)Heineken
LechAsahi
Leffe (Brewed in Belgium)AB-InBev
Lowebrau (Brewed in Germany?)AB-InBev
MadriMolson Coors
Marstons (Pedigree and all others)Carlsberg Marstons
MeantimeAsahi
MichelobAB-InBev
Miller Genuine DraftMolson Coors
MorettiHeineken
Murphy’s Irish StoutHeineken
Newcastle BrownHeineken
Peroni (Really brewed in Italy!)Asahi
Pilsner Urquell (Really brewed in Pilsen!)Asahi
PorettiCarlsberg Marstons
PravhaMolson Coors
Red StripeHeineken
RingwoodCarlsberg Marstons
Sagres (brewed in Portugal)Heineken
San MiguelCarslberg Marstons
Sharp’s (Doom Bar and all others)Molson Coors
ShedheadCarlsberg Marstons
ShipyardCarlsberg Marstons
SkolCarlsberg Marstons
SolHeineken
StaropramenMolson Coors
Stella ArtoisAB-InBev
Tetley’sCarlsberg Marstons
TigerHeineken
TuborgCarlsberg Marstons
TyskieAsahi
WainrightCarlsberg Marstons
Warsteiner (Brewed in Germany)Carlsberg Marstons
Worthington’sMolson Coors
WychwoodCarlsberg Marstons

Now, here’s the same list sorted by corporation – just for interest really – so you can see who owns what:

Bass (Brewed by Carlsberg Marstons)AB-InBev
BecksAB-InBev
BoddingtonsAB-InBev
BrahmaAB-InBev
BudweiserAB-InBev
Camden TownAB-InBev
CoronaAB-InBev
Goose Island (Brewed in UK)AB-InBev
Hoegaarden (brewed in Belgium)AB-InBev
Leffe (Brewed in Belgium)AB-InBev
Lowebrau (Brewed in Germany?)AB-InBev
MichelobAB-InBev
Stella ArtoisAB-InBev
Asahi (Brewed in Italy/UK – seems to be moving aroubnd a bit.)Asahi
Dark StarAsahi
Fuller’sAsahi
Grolsch (Brewed in Netherlands)Asahi
LechAsahi
MeantimeAsahi
Peroni (Really brewed in Italy!)Asahi
Pilsner Urquell (Really brewed in Pilsen!)Asahi
TyskieAsahi
BackyardCarlsberg Marstons
Banks’sCarlsberg Marstons
Brooklyn (not owned outright but Carlsberg Martsons has brand rights in Europe – they brew and sell the beers here)Carlsberg Marstons
CarlsbergCarlsberg Marstons
CourageCarlsberg Marstons
Eagle (Waggledance, Eagle IPA etc.)Carlsberg Marstons
Erdinger (Independently owned and brewed in Germany. UK marketing and distribution by CM.)Carlsberg Marstons
Estrella Damm (Independently owned and brewed in Spain, packaged in UK. UK marketing and distribution by CM.)Carlsberg Marstons
Grimbergen (brewed in Belgium, France, Poland and Italy)Carlsberg Marstons
HobgoblinCarlsberg Marstons
HolstenCarlsberg Marstons
JenningsCarlsberg Marstons
Kirin Ichiban (Owned by Kirin, brewed and marketed in UK by CM)Carlsberg Marstons
Marstons (Pedigree and all others)Carlsberg Marstons
PorettiCarlsberg Marstons
RingwoodCarlsberg Marstons
ShedheadCarlsberg Marstons
ShipyardCarlsberg Marstons
SkolCarlsberg Marstons
Tetley’sCarlsberg Marstons
TuborgCarlsberg Marstons
WainrightCarlsberg Marstons
Warsteiner (Brewed in Germany)Carlsberg Marstons
WychwoodCarlsberg Marstons
San MiguelCarslberg Marstons
AmstelHeineken
BeavertownHeineken
BrixtonHeineken
BrixtonHeineken
CaledonianHeineken
DesperadosHeineken
Deuchars IPAHeineken
FostersHeineken
Heineken (Brewed in Netherlands)Heineken
John Smith’sHeineken
KronenbourgHeineken
Lagunitas (brewed in Netherlands)Heineken
MorettiHeineken
Murphy’s Irish StoutHeineken
Newcastle BrownHeineken
Red StripeHeineken
Sagres (brewed in Portugal)Heineken
SolHeineken
TigerHeineken
Blue MoonMolson Coors
Caffrey’sMolson Coors
CarlingMolson Coors
CobraMolson Coors
CoorsMolson Coors
Franciscan WellMolson Coors
MadriMolson Coors
Miller Genuine DraftMolson Coors
PravhaMolson Coors
Sharp’s (Doom Bar and all others)Molson Coors
StaropramenMolson Coors
Worthington’sMolson Coors

This list is correct to the best of my knowledge but clearly things will change. I am more than happy to accept corrections and additions from either the brands and brand owners themselves or from drinkers who spot something I’ve missed. I will keep it up to date from now on.

| Beer, Brewing, Water, Yeast

What is beer? No, seriously.

I’ve been writing about it for twenty years and drinking it for forty. But after a mind-bending dive into beer history, I’m not even sure what it is any more.

Last weekend I was in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, at the Ales Through the Ages Conference. I was honoured to be giving the keynote speech, which was titled “The Highs and Lows of Researching Beer History.” (You can see the full speech and slides if you sign up for my Patreon.)

In the speech, I questioned some of our assumptions about history. I basically took 45 minutes to say what Hilary Mantel said far more elegantly than I ever could in a couple of sentences: “History is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.”

And that record changes. As new technologies evolve and new discoveries emerge, the picture we have of the past changes: history changes. The past doesn’t change – obviously – but our understanding and knowledge of it does.

In a stroke of great fortune, these thoughts dovetailed perfectly with the opening speech of the conference proper. Travis Rupp, “The Beer Archaeologist,” spoke on the subject of “Defining Beer in the Ancient World.”

When I first started writing about beer, the consensus was that brewing began around 3000BC in Sumeria, because that’s how far the oldest evidence dated back. Within a couple of years, new carbon dating technology had pushed this back to around 7000BC. Then, in 2018, the whole ancient history of beer was rewritten once more.

Archeo-botanical evidence shows that the Natufian people of the Levant were fermenting grains 13,000 years ago, most likely to produce a drink for honouring the dead.

Does this make beer the oldest drink in the world?

Going into the conference, I’d followed the belief that mead must be older, because honey just got made in hives that hung around in forests. But Rupp completely disagrees. “It was very difficult, and very expensive, to gather enough honey to brew mead,” he says.

What about wine? Well, if we’re talking about something made from 100% grape juice, that’s pretty recent too. Wine was given a great press (so to speak) by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but before then, beer seems to have been dominant. New discoveries suggest the ancient Egyptians had commercial breweries capable of 5,000-gallon brews – way bigger than most craft breweries today.

But when we get back as far as the Natufians, we have to ask whether what they were making could technically be called beer. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’re ignoring the obsolete Middle Ages distinction between “beer” and “ale.” Hops were a very recent addition to beer across the total sweep of its history.)

I’ve always had a very simple distinction. All fermented drinks are based on sugars that yeast converts to alcohol. If those sugars come from fruit, the drink is wine (real cider is, effectively, apple wine.) If those sugars come from grains the drink is beer (which is why Japanese sake is technically rice beer rather than rice wine.) The domestication of grasses such as barley and Emmer wheat is pretty much the earliest marker for stable, permanent communities as opposed to nomadic wandering.

Ah. Says Rupp. But of the starches in the Natufian beer, only 34.2% came from grasses. The rest were a mix of starches from a wide variety of plants including lentils, tubers, leaves, even flowers. Fruit was likely added not primarily for flavour, but because the yeast on the skins would have started the fermentation.

So is this still beer?

For Rupp, it is. The key difference between the fermentable sugars in fruit and those in other plants is that the sugars in grains and tubers are stored as starch. Sugars in fruit will start fermenting as soon as yeasts can get to them. Starch needs to be modified in some way before yeasts can start to ferment. That’s why we malt grain in the brewing process, and why the evidence of Natufian brewing involves the grinding of both grains and tubers.

So for Rupp, “beer” is a drink that has been through a process we can loosely call brewing: it’s probably grain-based, but it has been mashed and heated in its production, before fermentation.

As the present changes the past, so the past changes the present. Just when you thought craft brewers had added everything imaginable to beer, let’s look forward to lentil, potato, rose and wheat beer…

Enjoyed reading this? Then please have a look at my Patreon and consider subscribing, from as little as £1 a month. It features exclusive and preview content and many other benefits such as free books, depending on your subscription level.

| Beer, Dave Wickett, Kelham Island, Thornbridge

Sheffield’s legendary Kelham Island Brewery saved from closure

Back in May, the announcement of the closure of Sheffield’s oldest brewery felt too awful to contemplate. Now, a group including Thornbridge Brewery have stepped in.

The press release says:

Kelham Island Brewery, Sheffield’s oldest independent brewery, has been saved from closure by a group from Sheffield. 

The brewery’s rescue is a collaboration between Tramlines co-founder and Sheffield venue owner James O’Hara, his brother and financial analyst Tom O’Hara, Simon Webster and Jim Harrison of renowned Thornbridge Brewery, Peter Donohoe, founder of Sheffield based creative studio Peter and Paul and Ben Rymer marketing manager from beer festival organisers, We Are Beer. 

James O’Hara, who put the group together after hearing about the brewery’s closure, said: “Kelham Island Brewery, and its flagship beer Pale Rider, are known and revered beyond Sheffield. It’s heritage that we, as a city, should be really proud of. We couldn’t let that just disappear, it means too much within the city and to the UK’s beer culture for it to become another Wikipedia entry.”

Finally, some good news.

The closure of any brewery that is run by dedicated, enthusiastic people and produces good beer is a tragedy, and there have already been too many of those post-pandemic. But Kelham Island was more than that.

When the closure was announced in May, brewery owner Ed Wickett blamed “a whirlwind of problems,” a list topped by Covid and lockdowns. They were being hit by surcharges on fueL and other utilities, and at the same time the brewery was in a dilapidated state and needed new investment. In a broken cask ale market that is indulging in a foolhardy race to the bottom on price, there was simply no margin to survive.

Ed ran the brewery for ten years almost to the day following the death of his father, Dave. He has done a great job and devoted ten years of his life to Kelham Island. But I imagine somewhere in the sadness over the closure, there was also relief.

A generation of craft beer drinkers has emerged since Dave passed away from cancer in May 2012, aged just 64. I might be wrong, but it feels like his name is not known to many these days. But he was a pioneer in Britain’s craft beer revolution. Our beer scene today would not look the same without him.

Wickett the pioneer

Kelham Island Brewery was a trailblazer. When Wickett opened it in 1990, it was the first new brewery opening in Sheffield for over a century. Everyone told him he was mad. But they’d said the same to him when he opened the Fat Cat pub ten years previously. Wickett’s favourite beer was Timothy Taylor Landlord – it’s never been out of stock in the Fat Cat. The brewery were so sceptical of a new real ale-centric pub in the centre of Sheffield’s decaying industrial district that they refused to deliver to him. So Wickett drove a van up to the brewery in Keighley and picked it up himself. When he was back a day or two later for more, they started to believe in him.

Kelham Island’s flagship was – sorry, is! – Pale Rider, a pale blonde ale with pronounced citrusy hop aromas. It won Champion Beer of Britain in 2004 (the year everyone thinks Greene King IPA won – it actually came second.) But Pale Rider’s significance was far greater than that.

Wickett was a stubborn maverick who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He acknowledged that he wasn’t always easy to work for, and there was a steady revolving door of brewers in and out of Kelham. The thing is, when they left – either fired or storming out after being unable to work with Wickett any longer – they’d often go just up the road and open their own brewery. Grudgingly or not, they still wanted to brew pale, citrusy cask ales in Sheffield’s now post-industrial heart. There was a cloud of small, independent brewers around Kelham Island years before they started spreading across the country. And that pale rider-inspired blonde ale has become Sheffield’s signature brew.

The birth of British craft beer

Exact recollections of events vary between him and some of the people he worked with, but here’s how he told the story to me.

By the early 2000s, Kelham Island was struggling to keep up with demand. One day Wickett was visiting his mate Jim Harrison, who had recently moved into the magnificent but then run-down Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire. They went past an old stable block in the grounds and Wickett (everyone called him Wickett, never Dave) joked that it would be a perfect spot for a small brewery. They talked some more, and agreed that Thornbridge Brewery could be a handy overflow for when Kelham Island needed extra capacity. Instead of hiring some seasoned old cask ale brewer, Wickett interviewed two young men just out of brewing school, Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie.

Neither was especially wedded to the Sheffield cask pale ale tradition. They were excited by new hops from America and New Zealand, which at that point had hardly been seen in Britain. Thornbridge began brewing British cask ales with American hops, used American style. Their flagship, Jaipur, went on to win just about every award possible, and Wickett ended up having to build a new brewery for Kelham Island instead. In 2007, Martin Dickie left to do some kind of start-up brewery in Scotland, and Cossi left soon after. But the Thornbridge blueprint was established.

Family saves the day

I don’t know too much about the other people involved in the consortium, but I do know Tramlines now defines Sheffield as much as the brewing tradition Wickett began. But it feels so right that Thornbridge is part of this move. Without Kelham Island, there would be no Thornbridge. Now, without Thornbridge there would be no Kelham Island. There couldn’t be a more perfect end to what started out looking like a tragic story.

Writing this has made me think a lot about the time Wickett invited me to the Fat Cat to do a talk about my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, back in 2006. I had been invited to meet Thornbridge the following day, and they were putting me up at the hall that night. As Wickett took me out to the taxi, he said, “I’m jealous of you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re going to Thornbridge.”

“But you’ve been loads of times!”

“Yeah, but you’re going for the first time. You can never get that feeling again.”

Welcome home, Wickett.

| Beer

Why I’m giving up my best beers for Ukraine

Loads of people are doing what they can to help Ukraine, and we all have our reasons – from simple compassion and empathy through to personal involvement. I’m auctioning a tasting of the rarest beers from my cellar partly because of a basic desire to do something, and partly because I remember drinking beer in Kyiv and Lviv so fondly. I love these mad fuckers.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.

In 2012 – please don’t @ me for this, cider fans – I took money from Carlsberg Ukraine to go to Kyiv and help them launch their Somersby “cider”. The less said about that, the better. But after the launch event, two young Ukrainian beer bloggers hung around and insisted on taking me to the city’s best beer bars.

We had a cracking time – so good that I forgot to make any notes. My abiding memory is of a rather special bar snack – sundried fish. A selection of these sat in a case below the bar in several of the pubs we went to. They were of different sizes and all had numbers written on them in pen. These numbers were how many hryvnia each individual fish cost.

You pointed to the one you wanted, got it served with your beer, tore it apart with your bare hands, and then spent the next week trying to get the smell of dead fish off your skin.

I loved that trip, and would happily launch any number of dodgy cider-derived concoctions to repeat it.

But I didn’t have to.

The following year, the MD of Carlsberg Ukraine, which owns Lvivskie, the country’s oldest beer brand, liked my first book Man Walks into a Pub so much that he arranged for it to be translated into Ukrainian and Russian, to be given out to company employees and their favoured clients. They then invited me over to do some presentations, beer and food matching sessions and interviews.

After some events in Kyiv, I was put on a sleeper train to Lviv, about 300 miles west. Having just seen Kraftwerk at the Latitude Festival a few days before, I was deliriously excited about my own Trans-Europe Express. I was less excited when the train stopped in every single tiny station along the way, each stop accompanied by a loud lengthy PA announcement of all other stops the train was making. Despite being rocked like a ship on a stormy sea, I didn’t sleep.

Straight off the train I was whisked into a live TV interview with Lviv’s breakfast TV station. It happened to be the day after the birth of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s first child. As a Brit, everyone congratulated me on the royal birth, and the first question on the live TV interview was how I felt about it. Tired and wired, I replied that it had nothing to do with me, and I was prepared to take a DNA test to prove it. They didn’t quite know what to make of me. I’m not sure they nor I knew why I was there.

I was hooked up with a local historian who gave me a tour of Lviv’s best bars. We kicked off with a bar dedicated to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, son of Lviv, author of Venus in Furs, and the reluctant inspiration for the term “masochism”.

The statue of Masoch outside the bar is shiny from constant touching down one side. My guide urged me to put my hand in the statue’s open pocket.

Inside, you can feel his shiny bronze cock and balls.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.

My first impression of Lviv was that everyone there was obsessed by pervy sex. When you enter the Masoch bar you get whipped across the arse and snarled at by leather-clad dominatrixes. There was bondage equipment wherever we went, and even the twee chocolate shops sold chocolate karma sutras.

Next, we went to a grand apartment block, up a wide stairwell, and knocked on a door. A man in pyjamas came to the door and shouted at us for waking him up. My guide said something to him which caused him to invite us into his tiny, shabby, cramped apartment. There was a large cupboard on one wall, and my guide opened it, stepped in and invited me to follow him. It turned out to be a secret passageway into a huge ornate bar, an ironic temple to capitalism featuring vintage classic cars, and furniture made out of currency.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.

From here, we went to another residential door. This time it was opened by a man in full battle dress, pointing a rifle at us. Again, my guide gave a password, and we were ushered into what turned out to be a resistance hideout that was used last time Russia was occupying Ukraine.

In a courtyard camouflaged by combat webbing, people who hadn’t even been born during that occupation sat and drank beneath propaganda posters, guides to spotting enemy versus friendly planes, and sculptures made from parts of old military equipment.

The memory of resistance was fresh. The people I spoke to regarded Russia with a mixture of ridicule and contempt. I was vividly reminded of them at the start of this war, when the defenders of Snake Island told their invaders to go fuck themselves. This was totally in keeping with my impressions of Ukrainians.

So why was I there? Why all this hospitality? How did translating a book about the history of beer and pubs in the UK do anything to help Carlsberg sell more of a perfectly pleasant but entirely mainstream lager in a country that has little in common with Britain?

The answer is that Ukraine has more in common with Western beer drinking than I realised. My guide around Lviv told me many passages in Man Walks Into A Pub chimed with what he’d discovered about beer in his own country. Those beer bloggers had read my stuff and related to it so much that they came along to kidnap me from a corporate event and show me the good bars.

If any of those guys are still in Ukraine today, they are most likely fighting invasion once again. I wonder where and how they are. When I heard that Putin had invaded a month ago, my first thought was the resistance bar in Lviv. And I said to myself, “Oh, Vlad. This is not going to go as you planned.”

That’s why I’m auctioning the rarest beers I have. For the crazy, sex-mad fuckers I drank with a decade ago.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.


| Beer, Beer tasting, Events

Vintage Beer Tasting for Ukrainian Humanitarian Relief

This auction is now over. Thank you so much to everyone who bid. If you bid £175 or more per place, please e-mail me via the ‘contact’ form to sort details.

I’m delighted to announce a never-to-be-repeated beer tasting event inspired by, and in support of, the excellent work being done by Drinkers for Ukraine.

I’ve been writing about beer for twenty years, and every now and then I come into possession of a rare bottle that needs to be saved for something special.

Such as?

I never know.

I have no interest in selling them – they are to be opened and shared at some point in my life. And for seven of my rarest, most special beers, that point is now. From today, you can bid for one of five places at a tasting event to be held on 7th April in London at 7.30pm.

Happily, I’m doing this event ini association with Stephen Beaumont, who is holding a similar event in Toronto on the same day. If you’re reading this in North America, please check out Stephen’s auction too.

Here’s what I’ll be opening.

Bokke Zommersaison 2017

From the most exciting young geuze blender around at the moment, if you’re lucky enough to be in one of the five or so bars in the world that sells their beers, a bottle like this will set you back about £65. A meeting of geuze and saison, it’s one of the most sublime beers I’ve ever tasted.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale 1997 £350

You can only buy this very first Vintage Ale at auction – bids on Ebay start around £350. Over the years it has been shown to go up and open over time in term of its quality. What does it taste like at 25 years old? You could become one of the few people in the world to find out.

Thomas Hardys Ale 2003

The by-word for vintage beers. This may not be one of the true classic vintages, but it is pretty special and fiendishly hard to find.

Ratcliff Ale 1869

The ultimate in aged beers. It’s impossible to know the full 160 year history of this bottle, so I can make no guarantees that it will be pleasant to drink. If it’s a bad one, it will taste like cold Bovril. If it’s a good one, it will taste like the best Madeira you ever had. Either way, you’ll be sniffing and swirling one of approximately 30-40 bottles left in existence.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 40

Harviestoun became – I believe – the first British brewer to age beer in whisky casks, through an association with Orkney’s Highland Park. The beer aged in 12 year-old whisky casks is readily available and sublime. They experimented with older and older casks, until one year ageing beer in casks that had held whisky for 40 years. These casks fell apart as they were emptied, so this is one of the few remaining bottles of the best expression of this wonderful beer.

Goose Island Bourbon County 2018

The original brewer of whisky-aged beer created this as a celebration of their 1000th brew, giving it everything they had learned since first brewing it in the early 1990s. With near-perfect scores on beer rating websites, you can still pick it up for about $30 in the States. Here in the UK? Not really.

Samuel Adams Utopias 2005

Of all the beers that have ever claimed to be the strongest in the world, this is, for me, the one that’s the most pleasant to drink. New vintages of Utopias start at around $240. I wasn’t able to find the 2005 for sale anywhere online, but the 2012 was going at auction for around £500.

RULES FOR BIDDING

Bids must be made in the comments below and should include the bidder’s real name. At the close of bidding, the five highest bidders will be notified and be given five days in which to provide proof of donation to the ICRC Humanitarian effort . (If any bidder fails to provide such proof during the given time period, the opportunity will fall to the next highest bidder.) If there is a tie for the fifth highest bid, each of the tied bidders will be given one opportunity to increase their bid, with the highest bid securing the seat at the tasting. 

Do feel free to bid for more than one place. If you wish to do this, please state clearly how many places you are bidding for in your bid message, and we’ll divide your total bid by the number of places to see how you rank.

Bidding is open now and closes at midnight on March 31st.

BIDDING STARTS AT £100.

TASTING EVENT DETAILS

The tasting will take place in a private room in a central London pub, beginning at 7.30pm on 7th April. Full details will be disclosed to successful bidders.I

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Craft - An Argument

The future of “craft beer” depends upon us changing the arguments around it.

My new book, Craft: An Argument is published today. Written and self-published in the last thirteen weeks, it’s an argument at least ten years in the making.

Does anyone still care about the meaning of the term “craft beer”?

I’m afraid I do – passionately.

Debates – sometimes furious arguments – have been going on for at least fifteen years now. I often hear craft beer dismissed as a “meaningless marketing term”, both by people who think it’s been co-opted by big brewers, and by people who think it never meant anything in the first place, on the grounds that it lacks a tight, technical definition.

Attempts by industry bodies to create such a definition have been fighting an orderly retreat since 2005: they began as multi-faceted lists of all the attributes many of us visualise when we think of craft beer. Thanks to both the growth and diversification of craft brewers and the attempts by Big Beer to co-opt craft, from an industry point of view, the only meaningful aspect of “craft beer” is that it is produced by an independent brewery. Brewer’s Associations around the world are steadily rebranding as associations of independent brewers, and seem to be quietly retiring the word “craft” from use, just as they did “microbrewery” a decade ago.

So “craft beer” is in all kinds of problems. If we say craft = independent, like the US Brewers Association currently does, then Yuengling Light – a cheap, adjunct-filled mass-market lager made by a massive corporation – is officially a craft beer. Meanwhile, Goose Island Bourbon County Barrel-aged stout – regarded by many as the best barrel-aged stout in the world – is not a craft beer, on the grounds that Goose Island is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. In this warped reality, it’s hardly surprising if people think “craft beer” has lost its usefulness.

The thing is, millions of people around the world are really into something they call “craft beer”. To many of them – particularly the early adopters and the people who are really engaged whit the industry, independent ownership is a really important part of what they’re buying into. But to people who are already happy drinking beer owned by large corporations, and just getting into craft, telling them they “should” be drinking independent beer is a bigger task.

So this book is an attempt to separate craft beer from independence, and express its meaning in a way that works for any beer or brewery.

I argue that small, independent breweries not only need protection from rapacious Big Beer for their own sake, but also because they give the whole beer market the energy and dynamism that keep it healthy.

But that’s no longer quite the same thing as craft, because big breweries and craft breweries change as they affect one another. So to find a new understanding of and relevance for the idea of craft beer, I’ve looked at the much older idea of craft as it applies beyond beer.

Firstly, there’s this nonsensical idea, which many craft beer fans are reluctant to acknowledge, that craft beer has to be from a newish brewer rather an a traditional, long-established firm, and that it has to come with cool, funky packaging and design. There is no other area of craft where these factors are even considered. But every time someone argues that traditional British cask ale, which is produced in small batches by a master craftsperson, marketed locally, using established techniques and ingredients to create a product that is more flavourful and complex than mainstream beer, is not a craft beer, they expose the fact that for them, craft is more about image than the beer itself.

Looking closer at the broader idea of craft puts real ale at the heart of craft beer. And maybe that’s why these are the beers that directly inspired the US craft beer movement the first place.

In addition, I found that independence and ownership are never mentioned in discussions of “craft” outside beer. Craftspeople always had wealthy patrons, sponsors or customers. What really matters is that craftspeople have some independence of action – that they are in charge of how they work, and can feel some degree of ownership over the tools they use, and a say in how the work turns out. It is far, far more likely that this will happen in a small, independent organisation than a large corporation, but not exclusively so.

Another important point to note is that we assume crafted products will be higher quality than mainstream, mass-manufactured products, and that the person making them will have a higher than average degree of skill. We expect this in craft beer and take it for granted. But it is absolutely not guaranteed. Craftspeople in other areas serve long apprenticeships before they can adopt that title. While there are apprenticeships and qualifications in craft brewing, no one is under any obligation to take them before buying a brew kit and calling themselves a craft brewer. Problems of quality and consistency in craft brewing are a threat to its integrity.

Finally, craft is as much an emotional idea as it is a practical one. It’s a rejection of the values of a mainstream that enforces homogeneity and conformity. When you can buy a cheap, perfectly made thing of reliable quality, even if it’s a bit dull – be that an IKEA chair, a Big Mac or a can of Budweiser – you’re making a statement by spending more money on a crafted alternative. You’re buying into a set of ethics and values as well as buying a thing.

Again, it’s far more likely that small, independent brewers will embody all of these aspects, but it’s not guaranteed that a big brewer never will or a small craft brewer always will. So there’s a crucial difference between small and independent, and craft.

This doesn’t get us to a tight, measurable definition of a craft beer or a craft brewer. But tight, measurable definitions go against what craft is all about. Craft is the embodiment of innate knowledge and skill, to the extent that many people who possess this skill cannot begin to put it into words. Craft beer is a concept that is full of meaning, far richer than any attempt to pin it down to a tight definition has ever captured. The lack of such a definition doesn’t really diminish that meaning. For craft beer to survive and flourish, we need to hold any brewery to account on the skills and behaviours that truly make it craft – or not. Because this is what any craft beer drinker – be they a passionate flag-bearer for independence or a mainstream drinker looking for a change from Bud – is expecting when they buy the product.

Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential,is available now in e-book format on nearly all major platforms around the world.(Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site, Kobo, Nook, and Google Play. It will be on Apple iBooks as soon as we figure out their Kafkaesque bugginess.) The book will also be available in a print-on-demand version by the end of the week, and an audiobook as soon as the incessant fucking drilling outside our house allows us to finish recording it.

Advance Reviews of Craft: An Argument

“One of the leading beer thinkers of our time, Pete delivers up well crafted, important insights into the nature of modern brewing. A must-read for brewers wanting to find their sense of place amongst the shifting sands of marketing, business, consumers and trends.”
Matt Kirkegaard, Brews News

“In 2009’s Hops and Glory, Pete Brown took a cask to India in order to reveal the true nature of India pale ale. In 2020’s Craft: An Argument, he does the metaphorical equivalent to arrive at the meaning of ‘craft’ as it pertains to beer. While the journey is certainly shorter, it is no less rigorous, compelling, or splendidly entertaining.”
Stephen Beaumont, co-author, The World Atlas of Beer

“Exciting and exuberant, this is a fascinating and fantastically articulate argument and polemic that heads straight to the heart of craft beer, written by a master craftsman at the height of his literary powers.”
Adrian Tierney-Jones, 1001 Beers: You Must Try Before You Die

| Pubs, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

An Ode to the Pub

Today I was asked by BBC Radio 4 to write and record a short piece for the World At One about pubs, and the news that they are due to reopen on 4th July. If you missed it, or you enjoyed it and want to read over it again, here’s what I said, with an extra intro that was cut for length.

I loved pubs before I could even say the word. 

One of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms in a space that glowed with polished brass. It was also red and green with Christmas decorations, and everyone around me was laughing so hard their cheeks shone too. 

I didn’t know why, but I understood that these people – my parents and their friends – were happier here than I’d seen them anywhere else.  

The British pub is so much more than a place to buy drinks. For a nation that’s famously awkward socially, every aspect of pub life is designed to break down social barriers and bring us together. For much of the last thousand years, the pub is where we’ve socialised with friends, met spouses, celebrated birthdays and weddings, and said goodbye to loved ones.   

The pub is where we play – darts, dominoes, board games, quizzes – and most of the sports we love originated either in the pub or on the village green just outside. 

George Orwell celebrated the pub as part of the informal cultural network that we choose for ourselves rather than having our leisure pursuits chosen from above. 

His 1946 essay, The Moon Under Water, remains the best thing I’ve ever read about pubs, despite spending twenty years trying to write something better. Orwell’s pink china mugs, liver sausage sandwiches and barmaids who call you ‘dear’ may sound archaic now, but the congenial spirit they create – where as a punter you feel not just like a customer, but a stakeholder in the establishment – is still present in ways Orwell would recognise. 

So when pubs were ordered to close on the 20th of March, it felt like Coronavirus was attacking not just our bodies, but our very culture and the bonds that tie us together. We knew it was coming, and on my last visits to the pub, I drank in their everyday routine, their pace and rhythm, as lovingly as I sipped my beer. 

I’ve enjoyed many great beers under lockdown, supporting my local breweries by buying from them direct. But nothing is quite like a freshly poured pint. The weight of the glass, cooling your skin. The bubbles rising. And the first hit at the back of your throat, clearing the dust and cobwebs of the day. 

The only thing that makes this better is being somewhere with others enjoying the same experience, a silent moment of communion with friends you’ve known for years, or even friends you’ve only ever met in your local, knowing that you’re sharing a moment that is simultaneously normal and banal, yet also marvellous to a degree where you might just remember it for the rest of your lives.

You can hear the programme here. I’m on at 42 mins…

| Beer, Beer Writing, Books, Craft - An Argument, Craft Beer

Lockdown Book Project Week 7: “Write Drunk, Edit Sober”?

I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: a major milestone, and my experience of combining drinking and writing.

If it looks a little thin, that’s because (a) it’s printed double-sided, and (b) it’s a bit thin – compared to my previous books.

Final word count, Tuesday night: 53,572

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT!

Ten days later than scheduled when I started, I reached the delicious moment of printing out the first iteration of the book. There’s still a long way to go: I reckon 8,000 to 10,000 of those words need to come out. There’s a lot of repetition, and a lot of digressions, some of which help, and some that don’t.

Even though most editors I work with now work online using Microsoft Word’s ‘Track changes’ tools, I like to start with a physical copy. A few weeks ago I talked about Stephen King’s book, On Writing. One of my favourite bits is his advice on what to do when you finally reach this point. He suggests a total change of pace – “Go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle.”

Jigsaw puzzle it is then. I spent most of yesterday putting together a painting of Padstow Harbour.

But here’s the best part:

“How long you let your book rest – sort of like bread dough between kneadings – is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, ageing and (one hopes) mellowing.”

I don’t have six weeks. I’ll be leaving it for about four days. But it’s a lovely image, with wonderful results:

“If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange and often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognise it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”

That phrase is King’s analogy for the hardest bit you will face if you write something book length: there will be a sentence or paragraph that you love, the best thing you’ve written. And it won’t belong in this book and you must cut it out. But that’s still to come…

To get to this point, I had to play with the famous quote in the title above. Like most great snappy quotes, it was never said by the person to whom it is commonly attributed. Ernest Hemingway was, if anything, a vocal opponent of trying to do good work while drunk.

But Hemingway wasn’t a drinks writer.

I’m not necessarily recommending writing drunk, but I thought it might be worth sharing my experiments and experience with it.

I normally write completely sober, in the mornings. But when I’m travelling, or covering beer events, my note-taking usually happens when I’m not. I wrote many of the notes for Three Sheets to the Wind while living up to the book’s title. It’s hilarious to go back through those old notebooks and see how my handwriting deteriorates as the day wears on:

Notes written in Dublin, around opening time.

Notes in the same notebook from Madrid, written around 2am.

The thing is, if you can decipher the writing, there’s some good stuff there. This went on to become one of my favourite passages in the book, because I managed to capture the giddy joy of closing down a bar in a strange city at 3am. Often, when we wake the next morning after a boozy night and can vaguely remember laughing till we were fit to burst, we know we had a good time but we assume whatever we are laughing at can’t really have been that funny – it was just because we were drunk. My experience of trying to record drunken nights revealed to me that when we are drunk, often we really are funnier – a lot of these notes made it into the final book, and it is without doubt the funniest of all my books.

That’s writing while drunk, as in, capturing the experience of drinking. But what about writing up your final draft? What about drinking as an accompaniment to writing, rather than the notes above, which are writing as an accompaniment to drinking?

The first thing to note is that the quote in the title falls into the common trap of treating drunk/sober as binary, when they are in fact two points tethering either end of a scale.

Think of inebriation as a graph, with the x axis as time and the y axis as some measure of how drunk you are. The path of inebriation follows a curve. One reason I’ve always loved beer is that it provides a gentler, more manageable curve than wine or spirits. I find that between one and three pints in, there’s a buzz of inebriation that seems to make the blood flow quicker and opens the synapses. Ideas flow more quickly, inspiration comes more easily. But I’m not drunk. Any more than three pints, and my typing becomes clumsy and my flow starts to become disjointed. It’s harder to focus. I rarely go beyond this point.

On Monday night, I did.

I hadn’t been happy with that day’s work. I was in bed with my eyes wide open, and I decided to get back up and do an experiment. I drank spirits and took the time to write very carefully and slowly, allowing the ideas to come but spending longer clearing up my typing than getting it down in the first place. I wrote till 4.30am.

The next morning, the few paragraphs I had were not nearly as good as I thought they had been when I wrote them. The flash of inspiration I thought I’d had was not nearly as bright as I’d believed. But there was something there, something that I hadn’t been able to reach while sober. More than that, I was in a different place in relation to the book than I had been the day before. Something from the night before had stayed with me. I wrote for the next ten hours straight, finished the first draft, and the last paragraphs I wrote are better than anything else in the book at the moment. Just as I had found my voice, I’d finished. But we still have the edit to go.

Apart from unlocking the inspiration I needed to finish, sometime around 4am I also had the idea to write this blog post. I’ll finish by transcribing the notes I left for myself, written in wonky capitals to ensure they would still be legible:

WRITE SOBER – IS THIS WORD WORKING HARD ENOUGH? IS THERE A BETTER WORD?

EDIT DRUNK – THERE IS NO EDIT DRUNK.

WRITE DRUNK – IS THIS WORD PLAYFUL ENOUGH? MIGHT THIS OTHER WORD TAKE ME SOMEWHERE I DIDN’T EXPECT?

EDIT SOBER – (I think I’m referring to the output of writing drunk here) RESULTS MIGHT BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK.

My new book Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)