Are family breweries really such a great idea?

marcaurel.jpgThere’s been lots of talk in the UK press this week about inheritance, in the wake of Nigella Lawson’s decision not to leave her wealth to her kids.

In their coverage of the story, the BBC came up with a piece of research by Economist Nick Bloom which suggests that businesses where the CEO is the oldest son of the founder aren’t likely to be the best:

We looked at 5,000 companies and we found that around a third of medium-sized manufacturing firms were family owned. In about half of them the eldest son was the CEO. They are very badly managed.

There is a perception in the world of beer that family run breweries are good; breweries run by accountants and marketing people are bad.

Although there are some breweries where the heirs do seem to have a real passion for brewing, what happens if the son just isn’t interested in beer or brewing, or is rubbish at running a business? I was at university with the scion of a great British brewing family. He was the thick, boorish product of a boarding school; prone to shouting homophobic abuse at people for drinking orange juice, reading books, not vomiting enough and so on; and didn’t show very much interest in ale at all, preferring alcopops and pound-a-pint lager, from what I recall. He will almost certainly end up running the family business one day. I shudder to think.

People should learn from the Five Good Emperors of Rome. They chose their heirs from outside the family and trained them from youth. When Marcus Aurelius broke this unwritten rule and handed control over to his son Commodus, the Roman Empire began its long collapse and 2000 years later, we were forced to endure Ridley Scott’s abysmal Gladiator.

A good pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord

postll.gifA while back, I moaned that it had been a while since I’d had a good pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord. Well, I’ve broken my run of bad luck — the Nag’s Head in Walthamstow, east London, served me a beauty this week. It was fresh, full of flavour and, just as important, bursting with exciting aromas.

The ale in the Nag’s Head hasn’t always been on great form, but  in the last year or so has seemed to be much more reliable. And we’ve never had anything but a cheery “thanks” when we’ve taken a dodgy pint back.

There are usually four or five cask ales on offer, including Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde Mild and Sharpe’s Cornish Coaster and/or Eden.

This comes hot on the heels of my parents excitedly reporting that they’d enjoyed TTL at the Vintage in Wellington in Somerset a couple of weekends ago. My Mum isn’t a big fan of real ale, but she says a pint that good could win her over. My Dad is a fan of ale and a former pub landlord. He says it was in perfect condition — “perfect temperature, long lasting head, a really good pint of beer”.

So maybe it does travel after all.

The etiquette of taking your pint back

Real ale can be a beautiful thing — nothing can beat it for its fresh taste and fruitiness. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid — sour and farty. So what do you do?

(a) exercise your rights, take it back and ask for something else

(b) leave the pub, never to return.

I bet most readers of this blog go for (a) whereas most Brits go for (b) or possibly even (c) — continue to drink it coz it’s a vehicle for alcohol on a Friday night.

It took me years to progress to option (a). Why? Well, partly because for the first couple of years of drinking ale, I really wasn’t sure if I had a bad pint, or if that was just how it was supposed to taste. Ale is an acquired taste — more acquired than it ought to be, in fact, because it’s off more than it ought to be.

Also, I’m British, and therefore not one to make a fuss or cause any possible awkwardness.

However, as my ale-drinking has progressed, I now have no problem taking back a dodgy pint. And every time I do it, it’s the same ritual:

Me (choosing a quiet moment if possible, using maximum possible “indirect” language):
Er….I think this might possibly be a bit off.

Bartender (shrugs and/or feigns perplexion): Are you sure?

Me: Yes. Try it yourself.

Bartender: Tastes fine to me.

Me: Well, it definitely tastes off to me.

At this point, the bartender usually shrugs, caves in and asks what you want instead. But they always try to convince you you’re wrong. As if you’ve got over your doubts about your own judgement, and your typical British reserve, just to walk away at this point. Must be something they learn in pub school? Or maybe the perplexion is genuine — maybe not that many people complain?

I’ve come to think you should always take a bad pint back. Firstly, they never refuse to give you a new one, once you’ve gone through the ritual. Secondly, you’re doing them a favour — lots of barstaff don’t like ale, remember, and have no way of knowing if it’s off unless you tell them.  In the case of the chain bar in central London where they hadn’t rinsed the bleach out of the pipes properly before serving me my Pride, maybe I even saved a life by fighting my way to the front of the queue to complain…

Boak

Mail order beer that works

livingbeer.gifIt used to be that ordering beer online was more trouble than it’s worth, but the people at Livingbeer.com have managed to convert us.

More than once, we’ve placed carefully composed orders with reputable suppliers only to find that when the box turned up several weeks later, there were broken bottles, and that most of the beers we’d asked for were out of stock and had been substituted with stuff we could get in our local supermarket.

Livingbeer’s big selection box sidesteps at least part of that process — it’s just 48 different bottle-conditioned beers from all over the UK. You don’t pick and choose, you just wait to see what you’re going to get.

So, although it means we’ve got some beers we might not have chosen ourselves, opening the four massive boxes was like Christmas Day. Each bottle was like a little gift to unwrap. We’d heard of about one fifth of the beers in the selection and had only tried a handful before. So, our cellar now looks very healthy.

And this time, we didn’t get any broken bottles. The beers were very securely wrapped and all were intact.

If you’ve got a hundred quid to spare, we heartily recommend giving it a go.

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We’d previously come across Livingbeer.com through Google, but were tempted to give it a go by the 33% off January offer advertised earlier this month on Stonch’s blog.

Duesseldorf part five – Frankenheim and further pontification on the nature of Alt

frankenheim2.jpgWe’re almost there. We ended up having Frankenheim twice. First, on Saturday night, after Schumacher and Schloesser, in a restaurant / pub called Brauerei Zum Schiffchen. It’s allegedly Duesseldorf’s oldest, going back to 1628. It doesn’t brew its own now, stocking Frankenheim instead.

Frankenheim was OK – good malt flavour with hints of chocolate, not much bitterness. Sufficiently decent to make us decide to visit their enormous brewery tap, which is about 20 minutes walk from the old town on Wielandstrasse. This place was considerably quieter than the old town pubs, possibly because of the distance, and possibly because it was Sunday afternoon, and even the Duesseldorf party animals have to rest some time. We also committed some kind of faux pas by sitting on a regular’s table. (Why else would they have sat on our table when the pub was two-thirds empty?)

So those were all the alts we got to try. There are a few others that we didn’t try – Diebels, Gatzweiler and Rhenania, to mention a few. Enormous thanks to Ron Pattinson for bothering to put together his Duesseldorf pub guide, as it certainly saved us considerable effort in planning this trip.

So, some conclusions. As a “style”, alt is very varied — the beers we tried had different bitterness levels, different malt flavours, different bodies. It’s certainly more varied than various Koelsches (more on that soon). Our favourites from the trip were Schumacher and Zum Schluessel, but this didn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the others.

We’re looking forward to a return trip, particularly as Duesseldorf is well-placed to get to other beer destinations (Muenster, Cologne, Dortmund). Plus there’s the draw of the “Sticke” — the stronger version, produced and sold on two days a year. See this article on Ron Pattinson’s Duesseldorf pages for more.

But, and this is perhaps the sacreligious part — the alt itself would not be the key draw. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy it enormously, but you can get similar beers in the UK.* It’s the atmosphere, the tradition and the liveliness. We’d happily move to Duesseldorf for a year or two to call some of these places our locals.

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*To recreate the Alt effect at home: Get a nice brown bitter that you like, chill it for a couple of hours, and pour it carelessly into a 250ml tumbler so that it eventually settles down to half beer, half head. We tried it — it works. A good alt is very like a cold, super bitter English ale. In our humble opinion, this better recreates the alt experience than buying a tired bottle of boring Diebels from your local specialist beer emporium.