Are Thornbridge’s 330ml Bottles a Con?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

The recent decision by Thornbridge to move their packaged beers from 500ml to 330ml has rubbed some people up the wrong way — are they pulling a fast one?

A particularly vocal complainant is Mark Dexter who used to blog at The Bottled Beer Year but who is nowadays busy being a successful actor, notably playing Prime Minister David Cameron in Coalition on Channel 4 a couple of years back. Yesterday, he repeated his objection to the switch to 330ml bottles:

For our part, we do find the indiscriminate switch to 330ml across the whole range a bit baffling — some Thornbridge beers at low ABV clearly suit drinking by the (near) pint — but actually rather welcomed it for the stronger stuff. Half a litre of Halcyon imperial IPA at 7.4% ABV? Too much. (Although we do at least have the option of splitting it between us.) The same goes for Jaipur too, probably, although we realise that makes us seem a bit pathetic what with it being a mere 5.9%.

Our gut feeling is that, for a lot of British drinkers, the point at which a pint becomes too much is somewhere around 5%. These days, that probably just translates to choosing a different beer, but we used to have a tradition in the UK of nip bottles (less than half a pint) for stronger, special beers such as Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale. Thornbridge and others who package at 330ml clearly believe, or hope, that drinkers can be convinced to buy stronger or otherwise ‘bigger’ beers if they don’t have to drink quite so much in one sitting.

So, in itself, the packaging change makes some sense.

But here’s the real nub of Mark’s objection: are they using the opaqueness introduced by the switchover to screw over consumers, as retailers were accused of doing back at the time of decimalisation?

First, we wondered whether the price rise people noticed with the switch to 330ml bottles might have happened anyway. This is far from scientific — we just grabbed info from Twitter and newspaper articles — but it does seem that the price-per-litre of Thornbridge Jaipur at Waitrose has been on the climb fairly steadily since 2012, going up by about 6 per cent each time. With the switch to 330ml, though, the increase was sharper at about 15 per cent, even though the absolute price of a bottle dipped back under £2. So, some sort of price rise was probably due, but the numbers certainly do seem fishy.

Then a good follow-up question seemed to be this: What kind of price increase have we seen on beers whose packaging hasn’t changed in the same period? Perhaps Thornbridge/Waitrose are merely following wider trends and the packaging size-change is a red herring.

Well, no. Oakham Citra, BrewDog Punk and St Austell Proper Job — similarly hop-focused beers from independent UK breweries — have all got cheaper at Waitrose since 2012.

So it seems Mark is right: Thornbridge is making a concerted effort to drag itself into the premium bracket and avoid the bulk-discount tendency, and the packaging change was a good opportunity to conceal the gear shift.

Even so, this is all just part of an ever-more crowded, complex UK market neatly segmenting itself. Jaipur is a great beer, sure, but these days it’s far from the only beer like that on the market, and plenty of those IPAs are still in 500ml bottles, for now at least. And we do after all live in an age of incredible transparency where packaging size conceals nothing with price-per-litre displayed right there on the supermarket shelf, and in the online shopping basket:

Waitrose screen display for Meantime IPA.

What could Thornbridge have done differently here? They could have stated outright that the price rise was to pay for investment in the brewery (have they said that somewhere?) and/or introduced the increase at a different time from the packaging change. But, seriously, are there many companies that self-flagellatingly honest?

Meanwhile, Mark and others — check Twitter, there are lots of others! — may stop buying Thornbridge in protest, but we suspect the brewery won’t much care. After all, it doesn’t seem as if they have trouble shifting every drop of what they brew, whatever they charge for it.

The Politics of Hops

Buy British Tea poster.

There’s been a flurry of discussion this week around the impact of last year’s EU referendum on British beer, and what might be yet to come, which has given us a new angle on the old schism.

First, there was this piece in the Guardian in which various figures in UK craft brewing expressed concerns about the supply of equipment and material in a post-referendum world:

‘Everybody’s noticed it and it’s to be expected because you’re importing hops from places like the US and Europe,’ said Andrew Paterson, head brewer at Dark Star Brewing in West Sussex. ‘It’s also the case for steel tanks, kegs, yeast manufactured in Holland, anything that’s imported. We’re not going to compromise on quality so it’s an ongoing cost.’

This isn’t the first article along these lines that’s appeared since last June and this response from our neighbourhood Euro-sceptic is a good summary of the reaction from conservatives (small c):

That same argument was made at greater length by veteran beer writer Roger Protz (disclosure: he’s always been very helpful with our research and we owe him many pints) in a letter to the Guardian yesterday:

The notion that British beer drinkers should have to pay higher prices as a result of rising costs of imported grain and hops is easily countered by suggesting brewers buy home-grown ingredients. It’s absurd to import grain when it’s widely acknowledged that maritime barley – as grown in Norfolk and Suffolk – delivers the finest flavour and the best sugars for fermentation… English Fuggles and Goldings [hops] are prized throughout the world for their distinctive aromas and flavours of pepper, spice, pine and orange. Is he unaware of such new English varieties as Endeavour and Jester developed in recent years that offer more of the rich citrus notes demanded by many craft brewers?

Of course he’s right — Britain does have great brewing ingredients and if hop and malt imports ceased outright tomorrow, life would go on. And, in fact, we would also like to see British brewers exploring British ingredients with fresh eyes and a bit of imagination.

But here’s the thing: it should be a choice, not an unintended consequence. Fuggles cannot adequately replace Citra or Simcoe, and using English ingredients purely out of grim necessity would be, as the Beer Nut suggested, a rather depressing compromise. Woolton Pie in beer form.

At the root of the Buy British school of thought it seems to us there are a couple of wrongheaded thoughts. First, we think some people believe the popularity of pale, hoppy American-influenced beers threatens the very existence of traditional English bitter — that they are the thin end of a wedge which will inevitably lead to total domination. It’s true that some brewers are producing proportionally less bitter and more hoppy golden ale than they used to but it feels to us like a balance, not a battle. If trad bitter really starts to look endangered, trust us, we’ll join you on the barricades, but who can seriously say they struggle to get a pint of something brown and old-school in Britain in 2017? Bitter and best bitter still occupy at least eight of the ten pumps at our local Wetherspoon, for example.

Secondly, there’s the idea that people ought to like beers other than the ones they currently profess to enjoy and that, with some pressure and education, they’ll learn to love the hops they’re with rather than yearning be with the hops they love.

There might be some room to bring people round to old-school flavours — to drink Harvey’s Sussex Best is to love it, after all– but we’ve got no doubt that there are plenty of beer drinkers out there who, if the only option was session bitter brewed with Fuggles or Goldings, would just switch to lager, or gin, or, blimey, anything else. They are interested in beer,  they have tried traditional bitter, and they just don’t like it. Seriously. Honestly. It isn’t a pose.

And there are quite a few brewers who probably feel the similar — who would rather give up altogether than brew with only UK hops. Can you imagine a chef specialising in Asian cuisine whose supply of coriander and ginger dried up getting excited at the prospect of going back to making steak and kidney pies?

You might say, ‘Fine, good riddance, I like steak and kidney pie, I’m alright, Jack,’ but we’ll be left with a less diverse, less healthy beer culture. Much as we love to wallow in the 1970s and 1980s in our research, we don’t want to restore that backup and lose 30 years of work, thanks very much.

Of course we don’t know how serious a worry this really is. Perhaps things will settle down and the C-hops will keep coming after all, or perhaps things will go off the rails altogether in which case we’ll have bigger things to worry about. Frankly, it’s hard to get a read at the moment because any discussion about the impact of the referendum, however thoughtful, is taken to be campaign propaganda by one side or the other and drowned out by yelling.

But while we wait for the dust to settle we’re going to drink as much as Oakham Citra as we can get hold of.

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.