They Have Beards, Don’t They?

Beardo and Mojo beers from Robinson's.
SOURCE: Robinson’s/Beer Today

Yesterday news broke of yet another traditional brewery, this time Robinson’s, launching pointedly craft-style beers outside the main range. Like several others that have preceded it, this sub-brand featured perhaps the obvious signifier of 21st Century hipsterness: facial hair.

Our reaction to this was to think it was a bit obvious rather than to be annoyed by it but many others were.

Why? Well, for one thing, there are the general problems that come with established brewery craft sub-brands: the sense of desperation, the cringe-inducing self-consciousness (‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ as the popular meme has it), and also one thing that really does bother us: the fear that this is an attempt to trick people into buying what will turn out to be little more than bog standard bitter. That’s a wheeze that will work once but probably not twice, and can feel like a breach of the contract between brewer and customer.

(But we haven’t tried these beers and who knows, maybe they will live up to the promise of ‘craftness’ that the packaging makes.)

This kind of exercise also suggests to us that someone up on high thinks craft beer is a fundamentally superficial trend — that it is primarily about appearance and image rather than the quality of the product.

We also wonder if this particular approach betrays something more — actual disdain for craft beer drinkers. Not only are they superficial, it seems to say, but they’re vain: if they see a picture of themselves on the label, or perhaps of the person they want to be, they won’t be able to resist it.

Even if none of that bothers you, you might feel that this approach has become a bit hackneyed, like skulls and faux-graffiti. A case might be made for contract-brewers Flat Cap having started this back in 2012 we reckon this spate of hipstersploitation really started with Bath Ales’ craft offshoot Beerd back in 2013, which we don’t recall causing much annoyance — perhaps a bit of eye-rolling?

Beerd Brewery pumpclips from 2013.
SOURCE: @beerdbeers on Twitter (29/05/2013)

Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager turned up in 2015 and seemed to rile people more, perhaps because the gulf between the stuffy parent company (Charles Wells) and the aspirations of the sub-brand seemed wider, even though the relationship itself was more transparent. The design, too, is more overt — not just a beard, which could mean anything, but also tattoos. And just call me ‘Charlie’? Sheesh. By all accounts (we haven’t tried it) the beer isn’t great either so that’s a full house of annoyances.

Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager.
SOURCE: Charles Wells.

Later in the same year Yorkshire brewery Black Sheep came out with Pathmaker which has several positive things going for it. First, that’s supposed to be a portrait of brewery founder Paul Theakston on the label rather than a lazy caricature of a 21st Century hipster — that’s a first-time-round real ale beard! Secondly, it’s actually a pretty great illustration into which someone has clearly put a bit of thought and effort, unlike the effort above which looks like it was doodled on an iPad.

Pathmaker poster 2015.
SOURCE: Black Sheep.

But, still, that’s probably two beard-based sub-brands too many, and we suspect there are other examples we haven’t noticed or have forgotten about. (Let us know below and we’ll add them.) And that’s before we even get to the bona fide craft breweries with beards on their labels, of which there are many.

Anyway, if we were a bigger and/or established brewery trying to impress younger drinkers, this is not how we’d do it. What we’d do is pay up-and-coming designers to create something genuinely interesting and genuinely original — something which style-conscious drinkers might actually find visually appealing in its own right, even if we didn’t get it ourselves. Labels are only a tiny part of the equation but it is probably best, on balance, if they’re not patronising or insulting.

Turning Out the Lights: When Breweries Close

Nortchote Brewery logo.

It can be difficult to get people to talk frankly about the challenges of running a small brewery and especially about the decision to shut up shop but, back in 2013, Jennifer Nicholls gave us a glimpse behind that usually closed door.

When we were working on Brew Britannia we did lots of research that didn’t end up being quoted or overtly referenced in the finished product but which did help to shape our thinking and give us a rounded picture of what was going on. As part of that, we approached Jenni whose brewery, Northcote, had recently ceased trading.

She was kind enough to give substantial answers to our question which, in the wake of several notable brewery closures in the last year, we decided to unearth. With a few edits for readability, and with Jenni’s renewed permission, here’s what she told us back then.

B&B: Can you give a brief history of your brewery?

We set up the brewery in 2010, incorporating on 24 January as Northcote Brewery Ltd, after the road we live on. I’m just looking over out old Facebook page now actually. We got the premises 18 June and the first brew was in October that year.

The beers were first commercially available at the Norwich Beer Festival on 27 October. Cow Tower, our bitter, was the first available – the name comes from a Norman tower in the city. Then came Golden Spire (a golden ale), referencing the the cathedral. Jiggle Juice IPA was named after our friends’ boat that we used to drink our sample brews on, and kind of stuck. Brewed This Way was a raspberry wheat beer brewed in conjunction with Norwich Pride, the name being a little nod to the Lady GaGa track. Sunshine Jiggle was a lower ABV summer drinking version of Jiggle Juice that we called a ‘citrus blonde’. Bishy Barnaby was a red spicy ale, that being a Norfolkism for a ladybird. Snap Dragon Stout was named after the dragon that leads the Lord Mayor’s parade and lives in Norwich Castle. Finally, there was El Salvador IPA, our coffee IPA, made in collaboration with The Window coffee shop

The very last beer we brewed was One for the Road, made in conjunction with the Euston Tap.

Continue reading “Turning Out the Lights: When Breweries Close”

QUICK THOUGHT: Do We Need to Worry More?

Brewery flags on a wall in Burton-upon-Trent.

There’s been the odd brewery closure in the last year, most of which we’ve taken note of without regarding them as HARBINGERS OF DOOM. But maybe we’re being complacent.

Breweries come, and breweries go, but the overall number continues to climb. Now that we live in a country with 1,800 breweries it’s hilarious to read articles from the early 1980s in which people fret about how crowded the microbrewery market was becoming with something like 35 in operation UK-wide.

If a brewery closes every now and then, even if it’s a tragedy for those involved, it’s part of the healthy operation of the market.

But what if you do that thing that people hate and categorise breweries: is the ‘craft’ end of the market (def 2.) in more trouble than the brewing sector as a whole?

We ask because this Tweet from Craig Heap grabbed our attention:

We’d missed the news about Otley. If you’d asked us to name Welsh craft breweries without reference to other sources we’d probably have mentioned the three in that Tweet plus Tiny Rebel (still going strong), which makes this seem rather concerning.

If we could somehow come up with a list of the UK’s Most Definitely Craft Breweries, how many would there be? And what would the attrition rate look like compared to breweries overall? We’ve a sudden creeping feeling that, with closures at one end and takeovers at the other, it might be noticeably worse.

Or maybe we’re just not paying attention to all the old-school microbreweries that are also folding, quietly, in market towns and villages where the neon don’t shine?

(Almost) Microbrewing in 1919

1914 Punch cartoon of a village pub.

Microbreweries as we know them today came into being in the 1960s or 1970s (see Brew Britannia for more on that) but did you know something along the same lines nearly emerged half a century earlier?

The Chelmsford Chronicle for 25 December 1914 carried the following story under a headline which gives us another term to throw into the jargon soup along with ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’: REVIVAL OF COTTAGE BREWING IN ESSEX VILLAGES.

One result of the additional tax of one penny per pint on beer and ale has seen a revival in the cottage brewing several Essex villages. The extra tax was of course put upon beer to help to pay the cost the war, and there was direct authority that the increase should be carried to the consumer by an extra halfpenny per glass, one penny per pint, on beer sold in licensed houses. This tax has incidentally led a notable return to the custom which prevailed in many Essex villages half a century ago of cottagers brewing their own beer. By law a cottager whose house is assessed at £8 or under per annum — most of the genuine rural cottages are assessed at about half that figure — can brew beer for his own consumption without paying any duty… In a town like Braintree, for instance, home brewing is practically unknown, but the country there has been just enough brewing at cottages or farms to keep the industry alive. So far the impetus to cottage brewing has been chiefly observed in villages Shalford and Stisted, where there are now several brews of Essex ale maturing for Christmas!

The article goes on to quote a local expert:

I have actually seen the brews being made in one place, and ascertained that there are eight cottagers waiting to use one copper which is supposed to make exceptionally good beer. Of course the home-brewed beer is not so nice-looking as good brewery beer, for the art of brewing has reached high perfection. The cottage beer that I have seen lacks sparkle and brightness of a nice bottled beer, but there is no doubt it is full of strength, and contains what the farm labourers call ‘plenty of bite.’

Cottage beer is strong, hazy and a bit chewy. That sounds familiar. He goes on:

The arrangements prevailing in Essex villages where I have seen ‘home’ beer being brewed is for the cottager to purchase malt, and hops, then to pay an experienced man in the Village 5s. to brew the beer to fill the cask, generally a hogshead.

That’s a fascinating arrangement — like the shared oven model for bread-making — but not quite what we’d recognise as microbrewing, i.e. a newly established small brewery producing beer for sale to the general public. A few years later, however, on 29 March 1919, the Licensed Trade News repeated much the same story of East Anglian cottage brewing but with an added twist. Citing an original article in the Evening Standard that we haven’t been able to track down, they reported that one social club in the London suburbs had been inspired by the home-brewing craze to consider applying for a licence to sell its own small batch, hand-crafted, artisanal products. (Our words, not theirs.)

As far as we know this didn’t go ahead (the big brewers weren’t happy and they tended to get their way, up to a point) but what would have happened if 1919 had seen the first new commercial ‘cottage brewery’? Might there have been ten by 1925, and 150 at the start of World War II?

UPDATE 05:32 24/08/2016

This newspaper report is a garbled account of the founding of the famous clubs breweries, isn’t it? The connection with East Anglian homebrewing is spurious.

More on the Revival of Magee & Marshall of Bolton

Our recent blog post about the revival of Magee & Marshall came to the attention of the reviver himself, Edd Mather, who got in touch with a bit more info.

The following is a straight transcript of a phone conversation with Edd, a native Lancastrian.

First, can you say a bit about yourself? What’s your background?

I’m 40-years-old. I’ve always been interested in beer – how it’s kept, how it’s brewed – and I was fortunate a few years ago to find a bit of unpaid work, if you know what I mean, with a local brewery, and out of that I developed a bit of knowledge.

I’ve also always had an interest in history – brewing history and local history in general.

I heard on the grapevine that the company that owned the rights to Magee & Marshall were going into liquidation. From 1853 to 1958 it was in family ownership, then from 1958 to 1970 it was owned and operated by Greenall’s group. The brewery shut down in 1970 but the brand and company was owned by Greenalls PLC up until 1999 when it became De Vere Group, and later Ereved Group Holdings. I did a bit of digging and found that the Magee & Marshall company was still active. I thought, right, if I can get it for the right price, I will, and took ownership in March this year.

Continue reading “More on the Revival of Magee & Marshall of Bolton”