It used to be the Bass Museum, then it was the Coors Visitors Centre, and for the last 18 months its been an abandoned, heartbreaking relic of the world’s greatest brewing town’s former glories. But tomorrow sees the official announcement of the opening of The National Brewery Centre. Coors have done a deal with a company called Planning Solutions to reopen the museum by Easter 2010. Planning Solutions run a host of leisure and tourism attractions across the country. According to Coors and Planning Solutions, “it will retain key elements of the existing facilities, updating and reorganising the site to create a unique visitor attraction that will ensure its success well into the 21st Century.” This comes after widespread protest from the town and the wider beer community. But I always felt that Coors were looking for ways to make it work – the PR mess that would have resulted from permanent closure would have been very damaging, and the people I’ve spoken to up there show a genuine enthusiasm for the chunk of brewing industry they now own. Planning Soluitons aims to introduce animatronics and ‘live’ actors to help entertain and inform visitors in full historical character. “The public’s expectation is ever-greater and we will make sure that all of the exhibits fully-engage with people of all ages,” says CEO John Lowther, “Having live actors fulfil roles previously held by plastic dummies, the visitor experience will be completely transformed. It will be a lot more interactive and immerse visitors into an historical setting.” Bars and restaurants will be incorporated in the plans for the new centre and these will be open to the general public and available for private bookings and live performances. The move has been welcomed by the town, its MP and the volunteers who have kept the exhibits in good condition while the museum has been closed. This enthusiasm stretches from the past to the future – the museum will feature a new 30-barrel brewery, overseen by Steve Wellington, legendary brewer of Worthington White Shield. This will be the hub for the full national launch of Red Shield, a new cask ale from the Worthington brand, and will also allow more brewing of legendary beers such as P2 Stout and No.1 barley wine. I spent two days in Burton a couple of weeks ago brewing with Steve and hearing about the future plans, and my fuller account of it will be in February’s edition of CAMRA’s Beer magazine.
I googled ‘Calcutta IPA’ the other day to see if anyone else had written about the beer that was brewed for my trip to India, and it led me to a forum at www.ratebeer.com where the White Shield Brewery was being discussed.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that one of the world’s biggest corporate multinational brewers is a curious fit with the tiny brewery sitting in the middle of one of its yards, but some of the ignorant, ill-informed vitriol aimed at the site in Burton made me laugh, then made me angry, then very sad.
I’m going to sound like an apologist for Coors simply because they made my trip to India possible (though just to make it clear, they brewed the beer – they in no way sponsored the trip, and they certainly don’t need my help). Anyway, it’s not just this one issue – this is merely an example of an attitude that sometimes makes me think of jacking in beer writing. I just don’t want anyone normal to think that I’m in any any like these sad, fanatical conspiracy theorists.
The subtext of the whingers is that because White Shield is now owned by Coors, it is therefore shit. Hmm. That’ll be why it won Champion Bottled Beer at GBBF in 2006, why sales are up by over 50% year on year, and why brewer Steve Wellington was named Brewer of the Year by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group last year is it? Or are these just more examples of corporate cronyism?
There are some astonishing claims made on the forum: most astonishing of all is that White Shield is a ‘mediocre’ beer. But it’s also asserted that White Shield is not really brewed here at all, that it is made in a factory, that it has no individual character, and that what was formerly known as the Museum Brewery no longer brews small batches of individual and eclectic one-off beers.
As someone who brewed such just such a small batch beer there last year, I beg to differ. You don’t even have to go that far – just walk into the brewery tap and you’ve a choice of several beers not available anywhere else. If the people writing this garbage had visited the brewery or taken the trouble to find any out any facts about White Shield by any means whatsoever, they would have quickly realised what drivel they were talking.
The White Shield Brewery is owned by Coors but is given near-total autonomy. It still creates boutique beers for individual landlords, and White Shield is still an astonishing beer, all of which is brewed on the premises. Steve Wellington is a universally respected brewer of enormous integrity.
The point is, there’s an attitude in beer appreciation that’s the same as the one I used to have when I was a teenage indie kid: back then, we thought anything on a major label was shit, anyone who actually got into the charts had sold out. It seems lots of beer fans enjoy being just as miserable as I was then. Big brewers churning out bland lager are easy hate targets, but when they start to show some interest in characterful beers, the vitriol only increases. Why?
It was the same when Inbev launched Artois Bock. The beer hasn’t fared brilliantly, it could have been marketed better, but here was the world’s biggest brewer creating a characterful Belgian ale and getting a shitstorm from many sides of the beer community for its efforts. Inbev do some really, really scummy things and often operate against the interests of beer drinkers, but this was not one of those times. It’s basic psychology that if you want to change someone’s behaviour you praise the the good at the same time as you condemn the bad. Otherwise, how can you blame them if they just carry on as they were?
This attitude doesn’t exist in, say, the whisk(e)y world. Michael Jackson used to judge single malts owned by Diageo on their merits alongside those from tiny distilleries. It’s a blight on beer that we can’t do the same, and it should come as no surprise when people dismiss the entire beer community as whining Luddites.
I believe we should be trying to persuade Inbev, SABMiller and Coors to turn their huge drinker bases on to more characterful beers, to use their huge marketing muscle to help develop a more eclectic drinking scene.
But am I wrong?
Is there a case for saying that craft beer should be the exclusive preserve of small craft brewers, that it’s healthier and more attractive overall if great beer was kept entirely separate from huge corporations driven by shareholder value who may somehow taint it?
I got a phone call a few weeks ago. “Hi Pete. We’re having a beer and food matching dinner, five courses with a different speciality beer matched with each. We’d like to invite you along to sit on one of the tables and just talk about beer to the guests.” How much better does it get than that? Oh hang on, what was that? “We’ll pay you for your trouble.”
And so last Monday night, deeply in love with life and wondering how, increasingly, I seem to be one of the most fortunate people in the world (to be honest, it is about time) I earned money by going to a free, beautiful dinner, and talking about beer, and drinking free beer.
But that’s not the only reason I was pleased the event was happening – the dinner was being organised by multinational brewing giant and brewer of Carling – Coors UK.
I did a bit of work with Coors about five years ago, and while we had some great conversations about beer, they guys from Coors eventually had to say, “Look, Pete, it’s great you feel so passionately about interesting beer, but the future is could lager and that’s what we’re brewing and that’s all we’re interesting in brewing.”
Since then ‘speciality beer’ (a sometimes frustrating term, because it suggests anything that’s not mainstream lager must necessarily be a bit – you know – “special”, but let’s go with it for now) has seen strong growth, admittedly from a tiny base. This has mainly been driven by Coors, with Hoegaarden and Leffe. They’re fine beers, but they could do with healthy competition from someone with similar distribution clout in the UK.
So Coors have assembled a very interesting line-up to enter the fray:
Brewed in Alsace with champagne yeast instead of beer yeast, a light beer with a fruity character, like a sweeter lager. It has definite hints of gooseberries and lemon zest, and finishes with that biscuity champagne bite. Drink from a champagne flute, and coo at the lovely champagne style bubbles. Goes very well with seafood and classy hotel bars.
Rolf Munding is a serial entrepreneur who has done a lot of work in the Czech Republic. Over the last fifteen years he felt the quality of Czech pilsners – the real best lagers in the world – was declining. Whether or not this was due to dumbing down after being bought up by big brewing multinationals is something I can’t comment on, but which Rolf does – often, and forcefully. So he went looking for a Czech brewery of his own and found it in the town of Zatec. Zatec’s German name is Saaz, and if that rings a bell it’s because the hops grown around Saaz make it a beery Bordeaux – these are simply the finest lager hops in the world. So with a brewery in the middle of the best hops, Rolf hired one of the best Czech brewers, and they created Zatec. Now, Budweiser Budvar is rightly recognised as a superlative beer, one I and countless other have praised to the skies. It has a long heritage and global reputation. Zatec is at least as good.
Hmm… a wheat beer to cash in on the trend begun by Hoegaarden, brewed under the auspices of a leading UK lager brand? Haven’t we been here before with Kronenbourg Blanc? Well, no, because while I’ve got a lot of time for Kronenbourg if you find yourself drinking in a place with a limited beer selection, Kronenbourg Blanc is virtually undrinkable. I was expecting something similar from Grolsch but, oh my, was I ever wrong. Half way between a spicy, lemony Belgian wheat beer and the heady banoffee character of a German Weissbeer, Grolsch Weizen knocks spots off the competition (if we define the competition as being wheat beers that are readily available right now in the UK). A perfect summer freshener on its own, like drinking a beer sorbet, and with food it’s like Daley Thomson (when he was winning decathlons, not now). The classic beer and seafood match, with the lemony creaminess of the beer complementing the food… check. The tricky match with hot, spicy food, assertive enough not to be swamped by your favourite curry and yet clean and refreshing enough to break down the heat… check. We haven’t found a dish yet that this beer doesn’t add something to.
An old, often overlooked classic from the Belgian ale stable. Antwerp’s de Koninck is better known by British beer buffs as a classic session ale, around 5%, to be drunk cool from a chalice glass on a hot day, brown and malty and slightly chewy but clean and refreshing too. Palm is very much the same. It went wonderfully with rich red meat. It’s a difficult one – I don’t have as much to say about it, but that shouldn’t make you think it’s not as good as the others – there’s just less of a story about it. But it is interesting about what happens when you put ale in a bottle and call it Belgian – people who would never drink a pint of real ale love Palm when they try it, which to me says they would also love real ale if they would give it a chance. Which brings us to…
Worthington White Shield
Not so much a speciality beer as a beer legend, WWS is now being promoted as part of the Coors speciality range. This is an extraordinary, complex, multi-faceted beer. There’s all sorts going on in there: bags of fruit, loads of spices, a hint of freshly baked bread, some treacle, caramel and toffee, all suspended in a fine balance, with no one flavour overpowering the other. We had this with a mature, assertive cheddar and people at our table who were not really beer fans were almost swooning with pleasure.
So if you see any of these beers, check them out. You won’t be disappointed. And bearing in mind that these beers are marketed in the UK by the same folk who bring us Reef and Carling, please remember you need to reward the things they’re doing well if you want them to shift attention from the things they’re doing that are – shall we say – not making such a vital contribution to the cornucopia of flavour and character available in our pubs.