Gauging the Mood of the British Beer Scene

Twitter polls are ‘garbage’ as we were repeatedly reminded throughout the US election but, still, this might tell us something:

Twitter poll screengrab (link above).

Despite the pervading sense of gloom, perhaps the result of ennui on the part of hyper-vocal, deep-insiders who spend too much time thinking about all this stuff, the majority of the 502 respondents don’t seem to think a disaster is looming.

Now, it is worth considering the following points:

  1. Our followers are into beer which might translate into being blindly positive about its fortunes. Although, equally, it probably means they’re more aware of the bad news too.
  2. Some people might think a shake-out which sees, say, 10 per cent of breweries cease trading is good news. Equally, some people might feel pessimistic precisely because they think brewery numbers are going to continue increasing.
  3. The 8 per cent who think it’s about to go pear-shaped nonetheless represent a good old chunk. Inside information, or just miserable devils? We wish we’d done this last year, and will definitely do it next year, to monitor the change.
  4. Some of the reasons people gave for being anxious are interesting and, again, subjective: by far the most common concern is that American-influenced styles are pushing out traditional British ones; others were concerned about pubs which remain in trouble despite the brewery boom.
  5. Historian David Turner doesn’t think we’ll get a shake-out and instead predicts a plateau.

For our part, that poll and the rest of this week’s discussion is enough for now to confirm our gut feeling that, though 2017 is going to be bumpier than 2016, it’s not going to see some kind of beerpocalypse.

Breweries and bars will close, certainly, and we’ll keep logging those events, but we also know that plenty of new ones are on the way.

There might be some structural changes — perhaps further polarising of the market, for example — but that won’t look like a collapse.

We’d certainly be somewhat surprised if the launch of the Good Beer Guide in the autumn isn’t accompanied by news of a further rise in the overall number of breweries, for better or worse.

BREAKFAST DEBATE: Is the Cloudwater News the End of the World?

Eggs with sriracha chilli sauce.

The highly-regarded Manchester brewery Cloudwater is to stop producing cask ale — is this a portent of doom, or a drop in the ocean?

The news dropped this morning in a characteristically open blog post from brewery boss Paul Jones:

We worry that cask beer has backed itself into a corner that risks becoming unattractive to modern breweries. Where we can just about tolerate today’s market pricing for our keg and bottled beer… we see little sense in continuing to accept the labour of racking, handling, and collecting casks whilst we make insufficient margin… When we take into consideration the sort of beer the cask market laps up we see high demands for traditional beer, albeit with a modern twist. In comparison, the keg and bottle market demands our most innovative and progressive beer… There’s another often encountered set of issues we face with the cask beer market – if cask beer isn’t bright the quality is often questioned (and in some cases our slightly hazy casks are flatly refused, regardless of flavour), but if casks are still conditioning out, and because of that, or because of inadequate VDK re-absorption at the end of fermentation, tasting of diacetyl, then it’s all too often good to go.

In other words, for a brewery like Cloudwater, producing cask is fairly thankless task, offering poor financial returns, little satisfaction for the brewers, and huge risk to reputation because of point-of-sale issues beyond their control.

We read it bleary-eyed with our morning tea and then discussed over breakfast with this particular question in mind:

Boak: This does worry me. My impression — and it is just an impression — is that younger drinkers are less interested in cask than our generation was, and that this is part of an increasing divergence in the  market whereby cask is about price and keg is where the really good beer is. I keep thinking about that pub in Bolton that was selling some well-kept but pretty terrible cask ale purely, as the landlord admitted, to reach a price point his customers demanded, while at the same time my brother tells me [he works at Tap East] that some customers won’t drink cask at gunpoint even if the beer is better and cheaper than the nearest keg alternative.

Bailey: I think there’s some hysteria here, though. How many keg-only craft breweries do we actually have? Off the top of my head it’s BrewDog, Lovibonds, Camden, Buxton (kind of) and now Cloudwater. Let’s say there are a few more I don’t know about, or even let’s say the top twenty coolest craft brewers (definition 2) go keg-only — that’s still only a handful of the 1,800 total. Most brewers are really into it. And I don’t think we can equate the era of the Big Six with what’s going on today. Cloudwater’s keg beer isn’t Watney’s Red Barrel.

Boak: No, although there’s a different kind of homogeneity in craft beer. And your first point… That sounds complacent to me. I can easily see this being a tipping point for some breweries that have been considering going keg-only. Cloudwater is a role model for a lot of smaller, newer breweries — more so than BrewDog who have tended to alienate people. And I reckon we could quickly slip into a situation where the places that are known for good beer ditch cask altogether. Or where more distributors start to find it too much hassle to handle cask when keg is easier and more profitable so that even pubs that want to stock cask can’t get a steady supply of the good stuff.

Bailey: But that hasn’t happened! People are borrowing trouble. Cask ale is everywhere and, admittedly with a bit of research, you can reliably get good cask ale almost everywhere in the country. Sure, chalk this up as a warning sign and be wary, but do you really think we’re worse off for cask now than around 2005 when we started taking an interest?

Boak: I think maybe London is worse than it was, and I think it’s on the verge of getting much worse again. I love Fuller’s but the fact that we can have such a variable experience of cask ale in Fuller’s own pubs worries me. Oh, I don’t know… Maybe it’s not worse but cask in London hasn’t made much progress and I still find it hard to get satisfying pints there which surely can’t be right in the age of the Craft Beer Revolution.

Bailey: OK, so if this is one warning sign, what might be some others?

Boak: If a big regional went keg-only, I would be very concerned — Fuller’s, Adnams, one of the breweries that’s been experimenting with craft beer in keg. Or Oakham. Or Thornbridge! If they went keg-only, that would really freak me out.

Bailey: Me too but I can’t see that happening any time soon. I’d be more worried if Doom Bar or Greene King IPA suddenly became keg-only beers because I bet there are a lot of pubs that would ditch cask altogether without those — would literally, 1975-style, rip out their beer engines and lose the capacity to sell cask. The infrastructure would disappear.

Boak: If the Craft Beer Company stopped selling cask that would be a really bad sign. They seem pretty committed to it at the moment — lots of pumps — but who knows? I’d love to know how much they actually sell and what the split is with keg.

Bailey: That micropub in Newton Abbot sells 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent cask.

Boak: Hmm. Related to that, I guess micropubs might be the counterbalance, because (that one in Newton Abbot aside) they’re so cask-led, and so flexible when it comes to purchasing, that they might give that side of the industry a boost. But they’re not, to generalise, popular with young people, are they? So they don’t do much to win the next generation over to cask.

Bailey: There’s Wetherspoon’s, too — they’re playing with craft keg and cans and what have you but there’s no indication that they want to ditch cask. If anything, they seem more committed to it now than ever. Maybe what we need is a big chart with plus and minus columns for the health of the cask ale market in the UK.

Boak: That’s our homework, then. On balance, the reaction to this particular news does seem over the top, but I have to say I’m less confident in my view that The Battle has Been Won than I was when we wrote the book. I think it’d be pretty catastrophic if the only cask ales you could get anywhere were Doom Bar and GK IPA.

Bailey: Me too, I suppose, although I’m only a tiny bit concerned. As I’ve said before, we can’t be on a permanent war footing–

Boak: But we have to be ready to remobilise if the threat re-emerges and, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, make sure that the next generation is educated in the danger signs so that they don’t repeat the mistakes of history.

This has been edited to make it vaguely coherent. We actually rambled a lot more and you don’t need details of our discussion about what to have for tea.

Craft: The Lost Word

Graffiti illustration: CRAFT BEER?

There was a little flare up on Twitter yesterday over this post by Richard Coldwell in which he argues that Früh Kölsch is not ‘craft’.

A few years ago, when this debate was at its frankly tedious height, we were pretty happy with the meaning of the phrase as derived from Michael Jackson and other early beer writers: it was a catch-all term referring to any interesting, distinctive beer, as opposed to the uninteresting, homogeneous products of larger (often international) brewers. (Definition 1.) Sure, you could pick holes in it, but it was a broad, inclusive buzz-phrase that had room for cask ale, lager, Belgian beer, and for breweries founded 100 or more years ago.

But people who had the influence to shore up this definition opted out. They didn’t like the term and wanted nothing to do with it, which is fair enough, except rather than making it go away, that left it undefended.

Sometime around 2014-2015 it became obvious that the meaning had changed: to most people in the UK, ‘craft beer’, insofar as it meant anything, meant beer that wasn’t real ale, that wasn’t a pint of bitter, that wasn’t from an old brewery, and that looked something like this:

Samples of craft beer branding.

(That is, definition 2.)

Yes, this situation is messed up, and superficial, and especially baffling to people from outside Europe for whom our old brewing traditions are the epitome of craft. But it’s reality.

We like Richard’s blog — he writes regularly, interestingly, and tells us things we don’t already know, based on his own explorations — and we’re going to stick up for him here. Sure, we might have made the point a little more tentatively than he did but we don’t think, seen in context (he’s a bit disappointed with his craft beer advent calendar) that what he’s saying is especially outrageous, or even incorrect.

The fact is, in 2016, people ordering a mixed mystery box of CRAFT BEER probably don’t expect to find Belgian, British or German standards in the mix — the kind of things that appeared in Michael Jackson’s various beer guides between the 1970s and the 1990s. He certainly considered Früh Kölsch a craft, artisanal, boutique beer (all words he used at one point or another to mean essentially the same thing) but, again, that broad definition has slipped away from us. Someone who got into beer in the last year or two, or who is just learning their way, would probably find it baffling: to them ‘craft’ means, quite specifically, ‘A bit like BrewDog’ (or Stone, or Cloudwater — you get the idea).

The term got released into the wild, it evolved, and now it doesn’t care what you think it means even though you reared it from a cub. Or, to put that another way, you can’t reject and ridicule a term and then expect to police how it is used.

We blew it, chaps. Now we’ve got to live with it.

Session #117: With a Chance of Meatballs

 Illustration: 'Bloggs Cumulo Nimbus IPA'.For the 117th edition of The Session our host Csaba Babak asks us to ‘capture ONE thing you think we will see MORE of with an explanation of the idea’ — admirably simple and clear!

We couldn’t resist taking this opportunity to revisit our predictions for 2016 from last Christmas:

  1. Another big brewery takeover of a British craft brewery. (Not yet.)
  2. More beers making a feature of malt, herbs and actual fruit. (Kind of.)
  3. Birmingham goes ‘craft’. (Also kind of.)
  4. A mainstream hazy beer. (Not yet.)

We put forward that last one as a ‘flyer’ but it doesn’t feel as ‘out there’ as it did even ten months ago. CAMRA has made (let’s word this carefully) small gestures towards acknowledging unfined beer. Most of the canned IPAs and pale ales we’ve picked up lately have poured hazy and the people we’ve been drinking with — not beer geeks — weren’t appalled, if they even noticed. ‘New England IPA’, of which cloudiness is a key characteristic, has become the sub-style of the day. As we said back in December 2015, cloudiness is great for marketing people because it’s a verifiable and easy-to-spot point of difference which is already being exploited by big cider makers.

So, we’re going to refine our original prediction to sidestep debates about wheat beer: we expect to see the UK launch of at least one mainstream, hazy pale ale or lager from a larger brewery and, in general, more deliberately hazy or cloudy beer on sale outside specialist venues. Bearing in mind it’s taken John Smith’s et al 25 years to get on the golden ale bandwagon it might not be through one of those really big brands but we can definitely imagine seeing something on the ale shelves in a supermarket, perhaps from within the Marston’s empire.

Now, this isn’t something we’re wishing for — it’s just our read of the way the wind is blowing. Whether the clouds it is bringing are fluffy, friendly ones or the dark harbingers of a storm probably depends on your point of view.

Where Does the AB-InBev Craft Project End?

It’s been a while since AB took over a craft brewery but today, they struck again, taking over a Texas brewery we’d never heard of but…

Here’s a quickly hacked together map of the US states where AB-InBev has acquired breweries so far:

Map of the US with AB-InBev acquisition states (Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Illinois, Virginia, New York, Arizona, Colorado) marked in yellow.
SOURCE: Adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

(Note: that’s Alaska and Hawaii tucked in underneath for tidiness as is the norm for discrete maps of the US.)

Can you see a strategy emerging? We’re not sure we can, not quite yet, but there might be a vague correlation with states where people have relatively higher incomes. If what’s driving their decisions is that, combined with a reach for geographical coverage — which would make some kind of sense — then we’d be placing bets on the next target being a fast-growing brewery in the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, North Dakota). After that… Maybe they’ll just go all in and aim for a presence in every state?

Continue reading “Where Does the AB-InBev Craft Project End?”