In a fast-changing beer world, family brewers feel crushed between the national brewers and the growing army of craft beer makers… Belinda Sutton, née Elgood, managing director of Elgood’s in Wisbech, told me in an interview that she was under intense pressure from Adnams and Greene King along with a number of new micro-breweries in the Fenland region. Elgood’s qualifies for Progressive Beer Duty: family brewers who don’t benefit from duty relief are really under the cosh.
Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve…
Our view, in case you’re interested, is that it’s right to be wary per Mr Protz. Breweries in this category can feel dominant and even come across as bullies at a local level but they’re actually often rather vulnerable to predators. It wouldn’t take much for the last few to topple leaving us with complete polarisation between post-1970s microbreweries and national or multi-national giants. This middle ground — breweries with chimneys and dray horses — is an important strand of British beer culture and it would be a shame to see it disappear.
Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from South African hops (again) to Peter Pan.
Last week the chat in the beerosphere was dominated by AB-InBev’s control over the supply of apparently coveted (who knew?) South African hops. This week Lucy Corne, who literally wrote the book on South African craft beer, gives a different perspective for All About Beer:
What every article has overlooked is that while American brewers, for now at least, can’t get their hands on South African hops, there are microbreweries that can—in South Africa. The country now boasts almost 200 microbreweries, a number that has increased from just 50 in 2013… While some brewers utilize imported ingredients, many rely heavily on SAB—and now A-B InBev—for both malt and hops. The question of ingredients was of particular concern to South African microbrewers when the takeover was in progress last year, but their fears were somewhat assuaged by a clause in the agreement stating that ‘the Merged Entity shall continue to supply hops that are currently supplied by SABMiller to Small Beer Producers on the same terms and conditions as currently offered by SABMiller or otherwise on reasonable commercial terms.’
(Disclosure: we sometimes write for All About Beer too.)
The message? Yes. Manchester is a truly fabulous place to go drinking. But a short train journey from Piccadilly – and a little gentle walking – can take you on a fabulous beer journey. To four special and individually superb bars and pubs… But put them together? I’m still smiling.
The Bedford brewery site is the home of leading ale brands Bombardier, Courage, and McEwan’s and the sale also includes the UK distribution rights for Kirin Lager, Estrella Damm, Erdinger and Founders and the exclusive global license of the Young’s brand. In addition, Cockburn & Campbell, the wine merchants, will also transfer. Charlie Wells and John Bull beers will remain part of Charles Wells Ltd. Employees at the brewery in production, national sales, and brands marketing will transfer to Marston’s.
You might not care for Marston’s or Charles Wells beers but this seems to have been a genuine surprise for most industry observers and sees Marston’s go from BIG to HUGE. The list of brands it now controls — it already has Banks, Brakspear, Jennings, Thwaites and Wychwood — brings to mind the days of the Big Six in their acquisitive pomp. By our reckoning, something like a third to a half of the beers in your local supermarket premium bottled ale range could now be Marston’s owned. The same probably goes for the range of cask ales on the average high street. Astonishing.
Hate your job? Become a brewer. This is an example of why J. Nikol Beckham writes in a new collection of essays that ‘the microbrew revolution’s success can be understood in part as the result of a mystique cultivated around a group of men who were ambitious and resourceful enough to ‘get paid to play’ and to capitalize upon the productive consumption of fans/customers who enthusiastically invested in this vision.’ The title of this fourth chapter… is a mouthful: ‘Entrepreneurial Leisure and the Microbrew Revolution: The Neoliberal Origins of the Craft Beer Movement.’ Not surprisingly, there’s a considerable amount to define and discover en route to Beckham’s conclusion.
Now every brewery claims to be edgy and different. To be against big beer is required as an article of authenticity. The notion that breweries must be different and unique has been internalized. Every brewery press release emphasizes how ‘innovative’ they are (a claim now so distant from actual beer one hardly knows what it means). And just as it happened in rock and roll, once everyone’s a punk, no one is — which brings us back to Stone… Stone emerged as a revolutionary force. The problem is, once you’ve deposed the king, what comes next?
When we read all of these pieces together, we heard the sound of a dustbin-lid-sized penny dropping: something has changed, underdogs aren’t anymore, and the reason we’re rather bored of reading brewery profile pieces (and so rarely include them here) is that they’re so often the same stories about the same kind of people going through the same journey.
On a lighter note, but dancing around the same point, there’s this from Pilot — a brewery which also happens to toss out rather sharp commentary — which says an awful lot with great economy:
Most people describe diacetyl as buttery, to me, cheap margarine melting is a more accurate descriptor… and this beer smelled like plenty of it, and didn’t taste much better… If you follow the comments of the local beer intelligentsia, you might get the impression that diacetyl-laden beers have become a scourge, to the point that Jiří Kaňa wandered in Pivní.info whether 2016 wasn’t the year of diacetyl. And yet, that man sitting at the table in the opposite end of the room was clearly enjoying President 12°, and was probably in his fourth glass by then.
Previously, the selection on offer was almost exclusively Belgian. I don’t recall foreign beer featuring at all until the Delirium Café opened its Hoppy Loft extension a few years ago, and it was always a novelty, very much outside the mainstream. Then I guess you had Moeder Lambic Fontainas, still resolutely local but with occasional guest beers from abroad. And then BrewDog arrived with an outlet pushing its own wares alongside the Belgians. It still didn’t feel like Brussels had any real interest in imported beer until my last visit a couple of weeks ago. The most shocking feature was the Goose IPA taps, popping up like mushrooms in the most unexpected places… Something has shifted and in this case AB InBev are doing the pushing.
A visit to Malt Attacks, a bottle and homebrew shop on the elegant Avenue Jean Volders in the Brussels neighborhood of Saint-Gilles, makes his point clearly. Opened by Antoine Pierson in October 2014, it sells Belgian beer (but not Trappist ale) alongside offerings from around Europe, particularly Scandinavia and the UK. One day in early February, there were two draft beers available from the growler filler (the first, Pierson says, in Belgium): Wild Beer Madness IPA and Magic Rock Magic 8 Ball Black IPA, both of them brewed in England.
(Disclosure: we’re sometimes paid to write for BA.)
And for us, our marketing is built into this label. If you ban my ability to express my message, whether it’s a political message, citizens united, whether it’s a marketing message and idea, you’re effectively taking part of my identity away. This is unacceptable, so it went to [Alan Gura], a hero in Libertarian circles. Took our case, went to the ninth circuit, sixth circuit in Cincinnati. After several years the opinion was in our favor. And the minority opinion went so far as to say, ‘Yes, and they clearly violated your First Amendment right so go back and settle.’… We did… this was never about the money. We were awarded damages, obviously a lot went to legal fees. The rest went to form the First Amendment Society. This was never about the marketing, it was never about publicity.
The story about AB-InBev’s control of the supply of certain varieties of hops grown in South Africa blew up in the last couple of days after this Tweet:
Don't think macro brew acquisitions matters? Today we learned AB InBev is cutting-off all indie breweries from buying South African hops
It’s another front in the ongoing battle between those who believe Big Beer is attempting to crush, cripple or otherwise counteract smaller independent breweries, and those who are more pragmatic. Jamie Bogner’saccount for Craft Beer & Brewingis illustrated with a photo of some hops IN A POOL OF BLOOD:
‘Given this situation and what they’ve just done, I wouldn’t be surprised if [buying out other exclusive hops varieties] isn’t one of their targets,’ says [hop broker Greg] Crum. ‘They have the money to buy out the guys who own the patents [on certain hops varieties]. And if they buy up enough craft breweries who need these hops, they may look to control the [hops] market again.’
If I’m translating numbers correctly, the International Hop Growers Convention estimated the entire South African hop crop at 1.9 million pounds in 2016. It is project to drop to 1.56 million pounds in 2017. There are 1,047 acres of hops expected to be harvested in South Africa this year, or a stone’s throw away than the acreage of only Cascade grown just in Oregon in 2016… Is it unfortunate that American brewers won’t be able to get aroma hops like Southern Passion from South Africa or alpha hops like Southern Star? Sure. But these are varieties to play with, not with which you build a portfolio of brands.
(But it’s worth noting, as a sign of how fraught things are as much as anything, that some have questioned Roth’s objectivity because he writes for Good Beer Hunting which has/had various connections with AB-InBev.)
Finally, this is a real highlight of the week which deserves the widest audience possible: footage of the complicated way Guinness porter used to be served recorded at the exact moment it went extinct in 1973. This really ought to inspire some experiments.
When Martin, Amund, and I were invited to visit Roar to explore the local beer style stjørdalsøl, Roar figured that he might as well make use of the three visiting beer ‘experts,’ and have us do a set of talks for the local home brewing association… They’d set it up as a rather grand affair, and the mayor himself came by to open the evening. I was a bit surprised by this, until the mayor started talking. He said a few words about the cultural importance of the local brewing, and then added that ‘Usually, when I do something like this I give the organizers flowers. But in this case I thought beer would be more suitable.’ At which point he took out a bottle and handed it to the chairman of the brewer’s association. It turned out that the mayor is also a farmhouse brewer, and since this is Stjørdal, he of course makes his own malts, too.
The most simple answer is that these paintings are the early modern version of searching for “dog who thinks he’s a human” on YouTube. They’re funny. Paintings of intoxicated monkeys were actually a sub-set of a larger genre of paintings known as Singerie, which poked fun at occupations ranging from drunkard to painter by portraying the participants as frivolous simians… [But] I think that what we’re missing when we simply see these as a form of social satire is that these are also paintings about addiction.
Great atmospheres are created with our ears as much as our other senses. Conversation and laughter emit from secluded seats, across bars and around rickety tables. Why is this? The simplicity of the everyday – the nicks and scratches and bare wood – isn’t trying to be more or any better. As such, more honest and heartfelt and open conversations are debated around pub tables… Informality and a certain lack of posturing put people at ease. If you want to hear the truth from someone, talk to them in the pub. The point they put their drink down and say: ‘Look, the truth is…’ you’ve figuratively helped them remove their armour.
We were regaling the bar staff about our quest to explore all 270 London tube stations when a bystander sauntered over:
‘I used to do a similar thing, but on the national rail network,’ he boasted nonchalantly.
We made noises of the noncommittal variety, half impressed and half mistrustful.
‘Yeah, me and the lads would stick a pin in the rail map on a Friday night and go out boozing all weekend. Glasgow was a great one – I had to buy myself some new clothes there mind you.’
Since working on Gambrinus Waltz we’ve been itching to taste an authentic recreation of a 19th century Vienna beer — what were they really like? Now Andreas Krenmair, who is working on a book about homebrewing historic styles, has some new information from close to the source:
I visited the Schultze-Berndt library located at VLB and curated by the Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Brauwesens… [where] I stumbled upon a Festschrift regarding 100 years of brewing Vienna lager, aptly named ‘Schwechater Lager’. While not having that much content, it still had some bits and pieces that gave away some information, including the beautiful water colour illustrations… One image in particular contained something very interesting: pictures of huge stacks of hop bales… These hop bales clearly show the marking ‘SAAZ’.
Brewery Takeover News
It’s been a busy week in the US: AB-InBev swooped in to acquire Wicked Weed of North Carolina. Good Beer Hunting partners with AB-InBev on various projects and takes a broadly positive line to such acquisitions these days but its story covers the key points well: Wicked Weed is a niche buy for AB; fans have reacted with particular irritation to this one; and other breweries are responding in various ways, including withdrawing from Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium Festival.
Then the following day Heineken picked up the part of Lagunitas it didn’t already own. This story was covered at Brewbound which generally takes an editorial line which seems to us moderately critical of big beer and AB-InBev in particular. Its editor seems to spend quite a bit of time bickering about disclosure and propriety with Good Beer Hunting on Twitter, too.
Two Saturdays hence (May 13), AB InBev is hosting a massively expensive party in Bend. They’re promoting it the way only one of the largest companies in the world can–with prizes, a big music lineup (including De La Soul!), and the kind of overheated marketing gloss the finest agencies supply. The occasion celebrates the founding of a brewery AB InBev purchased in 2014. Shockingly enough, this is not the way they’re talking about it… Indeed, the entire event is an exercise in disguising this detail.
But we’re with Jeff: a brand built primarily on the value of Independence is being dishonest, even exploitative of consumers, if it doesn’t actively disclose its change in status for at least a few years after acquisition.
There’s more paperwork and bureaucracy to work through now, but not a lot more. I’ve worked in this industry for a while, and the biggest thing I learned during that time is how jaw-droppingly loosey-goosey most breweries are and how little structure there is with most craft breweries. You’d be surprised how many craft breweries don’t even know their real margins. It’s just basic business things. So to answer your question about whether there’s more bureaucracy and oversight now, I’d say no more than your average company; it’s just that most breweries have so little.
The only problem with this anonymous account is that it’s exactly the kind of thing we’d authorise if we worked in PR for AB — broadly upbeat with the only negatives, like the one above, actually being backhanded boasts.
But maybe this is really how it is and all this intrigue is just making us paranoid.
And, finally, this seems like a good advertisement for the Tour de Geuze which is underway in Belgium at this very moment:
Taking the argument a stage further; if the pub has a tap room then I’m okay with swearing in moderation. I’m as guilty as anyone. In all other areas of a pub then there is absolutely no need for swearing at all. End of discussion here, and I’m fully behind Sam’s on this. I just don’t get the blanket ban across the entire estate, in all rooms. I don’t want to get judgemental, and it takes all types, but trying to enforce a swearing ban in somewhere like the very busy General Elliot or The Duncan in Leeds city centre would be like trying to plait snot. I quite liked the CAMRA stance, reported on in The Morning Advertiser , ‘Pubs should be encouraging good behaviour rather than opting for complete bans on those who swear’. I might go a bit further here myself and say, ensuring good behaviour.
I transferred my wort into two 5 litre stainless steel cooking pots and tied cheesecloth over the top to stop any insects from getting in. I left these under the trees in my garden overnight (1 cherry blossom and 2 sycamores)… I’m going to leave this for at least a year. I’ll check on it from time to time to see if it needs ditching, I’m not expecting much, it’s more just for my own interest of witnessing a spontaneous fermentation in action.
Fundamentally, for me, interior design in pubs is a retro project; one at its best when it is intuitively sympathetic to the building, whether it dates to 1974 or the 17th century. That need not be executed in clichéd ways with Victoriana and Punch prints (alarmingly, The Hinds Head will feature ‘eccentric curiosities’), nor does it mean your pub must look old, tatty and dingy. Pubs can be polished up, sensitively.
Though they never asked for the attention it must be incredibly fulfilling to have your work praised by strangers in the pub. Still, there are continuing elements that must be draining. Like running a social media account where people feel the need to unnecessarily tag you in every comment they make regarding your beer. Or even worse, where people don’t tag the offending brewery, but the brewer’s personal profile themselves, in order to really garner attention.