Big Beer is Part of a Healthy Culture

A market with only big breweries is pretty miserable, but that doesn’t mean we want a world with only small ones.

Alan McLeod is the global beer blogosphere’s Contrarian in Chief and he likes the Budweiser Superbowl advert that has others up in arms:

Poor widdle cwaft thinks that it is all about the big bad brewer running scared but it’s not. It’s gleeful assertion meeting commercial reality. The upstretched middle finger to some. The assertion of tribe to many others. An umbrella for those who buy the 80% or more of beer that is still light, inexpensive and easy to drain. It’s lovely.

(Stan is right — that’s a great blog post.)

We kind of agree with Alan here: there might be an oblique dig at craft beer and its drinkers but, in its own way, the ad is positive, and it’s certainly honest. Rather than pretend, unconvincingly, to be small and artisanal, Budweiser is being upfront about the awe-inspiring scale of its operation.

There’s almost something romantic about it, really, just as we were moved by the realisation of the town-within-a-town size of the old Bass brewery in Burton-upon-Trent when we visited the museum a couple of years back.

Molson Coors brewery in Burton upon Trent.

(Having said that, it’s hard to summon any sentimental feeling for the multi-national corporations that now own these beloved brands.)

We do reckon that, on the whole, the output of smaller breweries tends to be more interesting but most of our favourite beers — the ones we actually enjoy day to day — are from slightly larger ones, and are far from ‘wacky’.

So, no, we don’t want every beer in the world to be an IPA or an imperial stout, as long as we can get those things when the urge takes us; and we don’t expect every single beer to be made by a small business. But nor do we don’t want every beer in the world to be a variation on pilsner made by a giant company, and we would like a choice of stouts.

It’s not a battle between good and evil which only one side can win — it’s about achieving a balance, or even a tension. At the moment, there’s probably room for the Craft side to tug a tiny bit more of the duvet to its side but, really, things are looking pretty good aren’t they, with something for everyone?

Whichever Keg IPA They Have, Please

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

Last Friday in London I went out for a session with one of my oldest friends, someone I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, and was frankly a bit startled when he ordered a pint of BrewDog Punk IPA.

The thing is, as long as we’ve been going to the pub together (about 20 years) I’ve known him as a Guinness drinker. He’d never touch cask-conditioned beer, AKA ‘real ale’ — his fall-back was always lager.

Now, it turns out he’s ditched Guinness and drinks kegged American-style IPA or, at a push, pale ale. (By the pint, by the way — he’s a big lad, my mate, quite capable of drinking ten pints without seeming much the worse for wear, and he likes that these beers are on the strong side, getting him pissed at about the same rate as a little Hobbit like me drinking bitter.)

It’s only one case, of course, but we reckon it says something about (a) the continuing decline in the status of Guinness as The Alternative Beer Brand; (b) the rise of aromatic hoppy beer as a mainstream product and (c) the increasing availability of kegged PA/IPA in non-specialist pubs.

Whether this is good news probably depends on whether you hate Guinness or BrewDog more.

Pub History: Field Work in West London

After spending an afternoon reading about pubs in the National Archives at Kew we were keen to actually visit some and so decided on a crawl through the West London heartland of Fuller’s.

We started, as the sun began to set, at The Tap on the Line which is, handily, right on the platform at Kew station. A converted railway buffet bar inspired we guess by the Sheffield Tap, it’s also a bit like a mini version of the Parcel Yard at King’s Cross with which it shares a tendency to vintage tiling and scrubbed wood. There was lots of eating, not much seating, and a row of keg taps on the back wall. The ubiquitous Edison bulbs were also present and correct. It’s easy to admire the good taste with which it’s been put together, and pubs at stations are A Good Thing, but it did feel, frankly, a bit like drinking in the kitchen department of John Lewis.

Window at the Old Pack Horse, Chiswick.

On the tube to Gunnersbury we pondered what we did like in a Fuller’s pub and, rather to our own surprise, found ourselves thinking, wistfully, that we hoped the next one would be one of the mid-2000s refurbs with shiny orange wood and the full range of cask ales. With that in mind, The Old Pack Horse on Chiswick High Road was a sight for sore eyes: a grand, vaguely-art-nouveau exterior from 1905 with frosted windows full of gleaming light, advertising Public and Saloon bars. Though the interior was spacious there seemed to be lots of corners, cubby-holes and screens making it feel quite intimate. An antique metal sign advertising The Empire Bar lurked in the shadows above the bar evoking the period of pomp when the pub was built. The beer offer was cask-led… just — a new craft beer menu (mostly in bottles) was in the process of being rolled out, and was being pushed fairly hard by staff. The Thai restaurant at the back was a genuinely pleasing reminder of a decade ago when every pub in London seemed to have the same.

Continue reading “Pub History: Field Work in West London”

Predictions & Resolutions For 2016

Making predictions is difficult, but fun; it can make commentators seem like great seers, or complete idiots. (Usually the latter.)

In the wake of the takeover of Camden by AB-InBev a lot of people said, ‘Well, I saw this coming.’ Funny thing is, we didn’t, not exactly:

Most other breweries we can think of with slick branding and accessible flagship brands that aren’t brown bitters — Camden, Thornbridge, Williams Bros — seem less likely, but for some reason, we keep thinking of Purity. An outside chance, maybe, but perhaps worth a flutter.

But we won’t let that stop us from making this our first prediction:

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

1. At Least One More Big Beer Takeover of a UK Craft Brewer

Others with better insight than us — namely Melissa Cole and Martyn Cornell — seem to be of the view that AB-InBev might have done with the UK for now (UPDATE via Twitter) and will be roving the Continent looking for acquisition targets. Maybe they’re right but we reckon at least one more British brewery will go this year.

‘Who’s next?’ you ask.

Continue reading “Predictions & Resolutions For 2016”

What Is ‘Drinkability’?

That’s a thought-provoking and funny response to (we assume) this blog post by John Keeling of Fuller’s for Craft Beer London, in which he says:

[Beer] from kegs, cans and bottles has got a lot better over the last few years, they just don’t have that ultimate drinkability. That is cask ale’s trump card: if you’re having a few, there’s no doubt that cask ale is your best option. It’s better for flavour; a 3½ percent ale won’t work on keg but it can be superb on cask. For an occasion when you’re going to have four or five pints, cask is best.

‘Drinkability’ is one of those words that some people dislike, along with ‘refreshing’, ‘smooth’ and ‘creamy’, for reasons summed up in a post by American writer Bryan Roth last year:

Every beer, by virtue of being liquid, is smooth. But to declare a beer’s sensory characteristics simply as ‘smooth’ is no better than relying on its disgraceful cousin, ‘drinkability,’ which is essentially describing a beer as drinkable because it doesn’t kill you when you consume it… ‘Smooth’ is nothing more than word vomit, digested in the chasms of the brain, spewed from our mouths and flushed down our collective consciousness, only to reappear all around us, as if some form of contagious disease so easily passed from one person to the next.

Continue reading “What Is ‘Drinkability’?”