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.

The Bare Minimum Number of Pubs

Thesis: any settlement — a village,  estate or neighbourhood — needs, at the very least, two pubs.

We’re deep into reading and research about the design and distribution of pubs in the mid-Twentieth Century — how did the authorities and breweries decide how many to put, where, if they bothered at all? (See here for some context.) Reading about estates with no pubs at all, or with one lost amid a domino rally of tower blocks, has got us thinking about how many pubs is enough.

Years ago, on a visit to North Wales, we were told a joke about why every town needs two churches: ‘There’s the one I go to, and the one I don’t.’

We reckon that same logic applies to pubs.

Idealists might say one pub, where everyone goes and gets along, laughing merrily as they debate the issues of the day, is fine. But, in practice, people fall out, get divorced, come to blows over the organisation of the Maypole committee, and so on, at which point they need another pub to strop off to.

People need to feel they have a choice — the opportunity to exercise personal preference (sometimes, that might even be about beer) and to choose their company.

Perhaps there’s another requirement implicit in that: the two pubs need to be different — not a strong point of pub building and management in the 1950s and 60s.

Breweries with Chimneys: Endangered Species?

The number of breweries in the UK keeps growing every year but, at the same time, a certain type of brewery keeps on disappearing: that is, big old ones.

They have great towers and gateways, their own wells, signs you can see for miles across town, and shelves creaking with dusty leatherbound brewing logs. They were ‘Est.’ between the 17th and 19th centuries. They brew bitter and best bitter and maybe even mild. Their founders might have looked a bit like this:

Henry Boddington I, aged 33, in 1847, a year before he became a partner in the Manchester brewery he would later take over and to which he would give his name.
Henry Boddington I, aged 33, in 1847, a year before he became a partner in the Manchester brewery he would later take over and to which he would give his name.

They are at the romantic end of industrial, you might say, where the whiff of horses and beeswax is potent.

In his 1973 book The Beer Drinker’s Companion Frank Baillie listed 88 ‘Regional (Independent) Brewers’, from Adnams to Young & Co. We’ve just reviewed that list (only quickly, mind) and realised that, in the last 40+ years, something like another 47 of that number has been lost.

(Where ‘lost’ means that the brewery buildings have gone, are derelict, or have been converted to other uses, even if the trading name lives on.)

Here’s the list of casualties as we reckon it:

Boddington’s, Border Breweries (Wrexham), Brakspear, Matthew Brown, Buckley’s, Burt’s (Ventnor), Carlisle and District State Management, Castletown (IoM), Cook’s (Halstead, Essex), Darley’s (Doncaster), Davenport’s, Devenish, Eldridge Pope, Gale’s, Gray & Sons (Chelmsford), Guernsey Brewery Co, Hardy & Hanson, Hartley’s (Ulverston), Higson’s (?), Home Brewery, Hoskins, Hull Brewery, Simpkiss, King & Barnes, Maclay & Sons, Mansfield, Mitchell’s (Lancaster), Morland, Morrell’s, Northern Clubs Federation, Oldham Brewery Co, Paine (St Neot’s), Randall’s (Jersey), Ridley’s, Ruddle’s, Shipstone’s, South Wales & Monmouthshire Clubs, Thwaites, Tollemache & Cobbold, Truman, Vaux, Usher’s, Ward’s, Workington, Yates & Jackson, Yorkshire Clubs, Young & Co.

So that’s about half, allowing for quibbles, some of which have gone as recently as the last five years. That’s something of a counter to the narrative (one to which we’ve contributed) of Upward, Ever Upward, for British Beer!

Yes, we have a lot of breweries now; and we’re still not sure anyone should drink beer they don’t like out of a sense of duty; but this particular type of brewery constitutes a kind of endangered species and that does make us think, well, maybe we ought to force down the odd pint of Wadworth 6X when we see it.

Session 107: Am I Your Friend?

The Session this month is hosted by a brewery, Community Beer Works, on whose behalf Dan asks:

Do you want your feeds clear of businesses, or do you like when a brewery engages with people? Can you think of anyone who does it particularly well, or poorly?

Let’s break that down.

1. Do we want our feeds clear of businesses? No, we do not. Businesses make the beer, and we spend an inordinate amount of time observing businesses, interviewing people from businesses, and wondering what businesses will do next. We opt in to the Tweets and Facebook updates of plenty of breweries — amazing, really, when you think of the lengths we and others go to to avoid advertising in other contexts.

2. Do we like when a brewery engages with people? Yes, to an extent, in a way, within certain parameters. We love it when brewers answer technical questions with (apparent) honesty, or ask questions of the people who drink their beer. It’s great when they reveal a little of what makes them tick, or tell us things we wouldn’t otherwise know — a sense that we’re being rewarded for following with ‘the inside skinny’. As consumers, the more engagement we can get, the better; with our little writers’ hats on, though, a little distance is appropriate: we can’t really be pals.

3. Who’s really good at it? Richard Burhouse at Magic Rock seems to strike the right balance of openness and good taste, never seeming any less than honest. John Keeling at Fuller’s dispenses bite-sized nuggets of wisdom which, one day, will be compiled into a little book for other brewers to keep in their blazer pockets. Fergus Fitzgerald at Adnams gives a real sense of what it is like to be head brewer at an old family brewery: he answers questions freely, and comes across as warm and genuine. And this post sharing every last detail of a highly-regarded recipe from last week, sharing every last detail of a highly-regarded recipe, was great. What they all have in common, we guess, is that there’s no sense of the hard sell about them, and no feeling of being PRd at.