Category Archives: opinion

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

George Simonds

Brewery owner George Simonds c.1910

We know that the idea of small vs. big in the world of brewing isn’t new, but it was in the post-war period that brewers in Britain got really big to the point where it began to seem problematic.

They were complacent, arrogant and confident in the belief that consumers wanted consistency and familiarity above all else, and as a result, removed much of the diversity and flavour (for better or worse) from British beer.

It’s too much to say that big beer has been ‘overthrown’ in the last fifty years, but it has certainly been challenged — not only by consumers and small brewers, but also by governments which supported vibrant entrepreneurship over tweedy stolidity.

But none of those Big Six breweries began life as faceless monoliths. They were all small breweries once, founded by plucky individuals who saw an opportunity to challenge the status quo and make some money on the way. Eventually, though, they had to hand over control to sons and grandsons until, hundreds of years later, push-me-pull-you committees of cousins, in-laws and outsiders with no real interest in beer were in charge.

Our suspicion is that, of the current wave of new brewers (1970s to now) some will inevitably become the new Whitbreads and Watneys.

That doesn’t mean their beer will necessarily become terrible overnight (Watney’s beer was pretty good in the 1920s, it seems) but big breweries with lots at stake take fewer risks, and are more easily tempted into diminishing the beer for the sake of profit.

We don’t see, say, Sierra Nevada going into the Lite Lager business any time soon, but we can imagine, in thirty years time, a business which seems complacent and arrogant, and of which people will say: “They’re so dominant that no-one else can get into the market, and all they produce is that bland, dumbed-down, sub-6% pale ale crap…”

If that does happen, there will be plenty of brewers waiting to challenge them, and the cycle will continue.

This was prompted by a conversation between Alan McLeod and Stan Hieronymus.

Haves and Have-nots

This morning, Huddersfield’s Magic Rock made Un-Human Cannonball, their 12% 11% ‘Triple IPA’, available for purchase. It sold out online within 20 minutes.

The last week has seen a constant buzz from beer geeks, trigger fingers twitching over mouse buttons, desperate to get their hands on this limited edition, once-a-year speciality. Though we’ve generally been very impressed by Magic Rock’s beer, we refused to play.

Beer, we’re beginning to think, ought to be a repeatable experience. That’s one reason we prefer St Bernardus Abt 12 to Westvleteren 12, and probably why our ‘cellar’ is full of ‘special’ beers we never seem to get round to drinking.

And, anyway, how good can this particular beer actually be?

For all our aloofness, though, when the starter’s gun sounded, we did, for a brief moment, feel the urge to join the race — to avoid being ‘left behind’ and place ourselves among the raptured:

The fact is, this kind of marketing event just works. If we ran a brewery, we’d be doing exactly the same.

If you’re in Manchester or London and want another shot at getting your hands on UHC, there are launch events taking place this evening at the Port Street Beer House and Craft Beer Company (Islington) respectively. Good luck!

Stuffed Full of Goldings

Hops

Traditional hop varieties such as Goldings and Fuggles are seen by many UK beer enthusiasts and brewers as a key signifier of ‘the bad old days’.

Self-consciously ‘craft’ brewers tend not to use them, or at least not to advertise their use, just as they tend not to brew mild, bitter or best bitter.

But talking to people like Sean Franklin and Brendan Dobbin, both of whom helped to kick off the widespread use of pungent ‘new world’ hop varieties such as Cascade in the UK, we began to wonder if the baby hadn’t been thrown out with the bathwater. Neither man subscribes to a simplistic ‘foreign hops good, British hops bad’ point of view, and both described memories of great, flavoursome, highly aromatic beers made with Goldings.

Then, last week, we saw this from Ron Pattinson:

I’m really happy that the 1839 Reid IPA has been brewed. Even happier when I taste it. There’s that magical effect of a shitload of Goldings. It’s a flavour I’m learning to love. When will a professional brewer pick that up? OK, Dann has done in the past with the 1832 XXXX Ale. But where is a regularly brewed beer stuffed full of Goldings?

That helped to crystallise our thinking. The problem isn’t Goldings, or traditional hop varieties in general, but their absence: because they are associated with ‘balanced’, ‘classical’ brewing, when they are used, it is often not in sufficient abundance to really make an impact on the palate of the modern beer geek.

We’re sure there are exceptions. For example, Meantime’s India Pale Ale (link to annoying age protected website) has US-style ‘oomph’ and a huge, juicy aroma, achieved, as we understand it, entirely using Kent hops. We’re going to track down a bottle as soon as possible and get reacquainted.

We have also been asked to suggest a recipe specification to Kirkstall Brewery in Leeds, whose beer we don’t know at all, so that they can brew a beer to coincide with our appearance at North Bar in May. After racking our brains, we’ve asked for something with lots of Goldings designed to evoke the Young’s Ordinary and Boddington’s Bitter in their supposed 1970s prime. Let’s see how that goes.

A revival of British hops and British styles among British brewers who have, for the last decade, been looking to the US and Europe for inspiration… well, that would be ‘post craft‘, wouldn’t it?

Controlled Inconsistency

Spot the difference.

Might there be benefits to inconsistency in brewing beyond acting as a badge of ‘authenticity’?

As we understand it, the brain is wired to detect change and movement, so that which is new is stimulating, while repetition or stasis are irritating and/or boring.

We suspect that a beer brewed to exactly the same specification for many years will suffer the same fate: “It’s not what is used to be.”

Perhaps, therefore, barely detectable adjustment in the hop profile or malt bill might be just the thing to help a beer continue to stand out.

A change is, after all, as good as a rest.

The Good, the Bad and the Interesting

Interesting and curious (illustration)

Bob Arnott’s post about Blue Moon and this from Ed prompted a few thoughts in the pub last night:

  1. Bigger breweries run by ‘suits’ do not necessarily make bad beer.
  2. Smaller breweries run as co-operatives by ethically sourced organic druids do not necessarily make good beer.
  3. Beer from bigger breweries is more likely to be consistent but it is also more likely to be boring.
  4. ‘Craft’, as used in the conversation around beer, might be a synonym for ‘interesting’.
  5. Boring does not mean bad, and interesting beer does not always taste good.
  6. ‘Interesting’ and ‘boring’ are wholly subjective.