News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 June 2017: Reflecting, Rambling, Reading

After a week off here we are again with all the news and writing about beer and pubs that’s grabbed our attention in the last seven days, from the nature of community to psychogeography.

Phil Cook works behind a bar in Wellington, New Zealand, and this week reflected on the role of bars (pubs) in the community in a post entitled ‘A bar is just a church where they serve beer…

The ‘beer community’ is frequently celebrated as a special thing and one of the reasons this is a rewarding hobby to have, and a nice industry to work in. And that, broadly speaking, is right and true. But since switching back to bartending I’ve been struck more and more by the distinct — although obviously overlapping — nature of bar culture and the nice ways that a good one can have a community all of its own. The title here comes from an excellent Jim White song that gets stuck in my head whenever I’m pondering this and marvelling at the myriad ways that people use the bar to share little moments of celebration or of solidarity or anything in between, including weirdly heartwarming mundanity — and: beer.

(As always with Phil’s posts, the substantial footnotes are half the fun — almost material for a blog post each — so don’t skip them.)


A sign on a pub wall.
“The Piss Artist”.

Alec Latham continues to use beer and pubs as a hook on which to hang ambitious attempts at proper writing. In his most recent post he retraces the route he took to drink his first legal pint as an 18-year-old, with birth certificate in hand, 20 years ago:

In 1996, I was like a boy queuing for the fun house peeking through the canvas to glimpse the attractions within… I’d gone through the yellow pages to ring the Harrow in advance to confirm the opening times. It feels so weird writing this now. Two decades ago pubs didn’t have websites and even if they did, I had no mechanism to view them.


Weldwerks Brewing.
Weldwerks Brewing Co.

For Craft Beer & Brewing magazine Tom Wilmes has spoken to several US craft brewers about the difficulties that come with sudden adulation and consumer demand. Yes, yes, we know — tiny violins and all that — but this is a topic that interests us with, e.g., Kelham Island or Cloudwater in mind. This bit struck us as especially interesting:

All of Side Project’s beers are extremely limited releases that King himself has brewed, barrel-aged, and blended. Even if he brews larger batches and fills more barrels—which he has—many barrels just don’t perform and are discarded. Most are mixed-fermentation projects that take many months to reach fruition. He could scale up and hire more people to brew and package the beer, but all of Side Project’s beers are a product of King’s singular blending, palate, and perspective. What does he stand to lose if that changes?


Detail from the cover of "Miracle Brew"

We have a copy of Pete Brown’s new book Miracle Brew and but haven’t got round to reading it yet, hence no review. Ed Wray has, though, and breaks it down here in nitpicking detail:

The book is a pleasure to read, and the author travels to key places, historic and contemporary, in his quest for knowledge, and consults with a wide range of experts. The fact I’d finished the book on the kindle before the hard copy arrived is testament to how much I enjoyed reading it. If you haven’t yet got yourself a copy I can certainly recommend you do… And now I’ve got the praise out of the way I can start on the anal retentive OCB Wiki style commentary on where I think he went wrong, or more information is needed.


Pub, South London: 'Take Courage'.

Peter McKerry at Brew Geekery seems to have found his muse: the complicated issue of gentrification. In his latest post — dashed off, by his own admission, but those are often the best kind — he reflects on how London pubs have changed during his 13 years in the city, and what that says about class and culture:

One Stoke Newington pub that has stubbornly refused to [change] is The Yucatan. When I first moved to the area it was my local in the literal sense, and it was with joy when I first walked through the doors to see Celtic memorabilia adorning every available space, including a window sticker of a young Celtic-supporting boy urinating on the jersey of our erstwhile rivals. It transpired that the pub’s manager was a Dubliner and, like me, a Celtic fan. I henceforth became a regular, with 12 pm kick-off times ensuring an extended stay. It was, and is, regarded as dodgy by some, but while it always had an ‘edge’ I always found it welcoming. It also remains the pub with the most ethnically diverse patronage I’ve ever drank in, a phenomenon more common to London’s working class pubs than its more salubrious venues.


We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Glen Humphries’ ‘Five things about…’ is a great format for beer reviews. Here he tastes Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA and uses it as an opportunity to reflect on bottled-on and best-before dates.


And, finally, here’s a Tweet with which we strongly agree: these glasses are crap and an absolute danger sign as far as we’re concerned — we only ever seem to encounter them in pubs that think they all that when they ain’t.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 3 June 2017: Rating, Flyposting, Logging

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the last week, from flyposting to secret manoeuvring.

First, the big story of the week: for Good Beer Hunting Dave Eisenberg has ferreted out the news that Ratebeer, the website where serious beer geeks log scores and notes for the beers they drink, is now partly owned by AB-InBev:

Through its so-called ‘global disruptive growth group’ ZX Ventures, Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired a minority stake in RateBeer, one of the most popular and reputable beer ratings and resource websites in the world… But the deal isn’t exactly new. In fact, it closed this past October following eight months of talks.

That last bit is the weird wrinkle here. Usually, takeovers or partnerships, or whatever you want to call them, are announced immediately, but this was kept quiet (to paraphrase GBH‘s report) so that the partners could prove that RateBeer wouldn’t be changed by the arrangement. Reading between the lines what that means is that they were worried about suddenly losing half the membership overnight, which might still happen.

(GBH has connections with AB-InBev which are set out in a disclosure statement midway through the article. Judge for yourself whether you think this has skewed the reporting; we think pointedly not.)


Biscuit beers on a blackboard.

Barm at I Might Have a Glass of Refreshing Beer (AKA @robsterowski) attended the Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival and used the opportunity to reflect on ‘wacky’ beers and craft beer culture:

Do you remember a couple of years ago, when cupcake shops were popping up left, right and centre, purveying sickly sweet icing (sorry, ‘frosting’) atop a tiny sponge cake base? Despite being mostly white sugar and refined flour, and unutterably disgusting to boot, they found ready cheerleaders among food media that normally pray dutifully to the idols of local ingredients and fresh produce… This appears to be the phase that ‘craft’ brewers are now passing through.

It’s interesting that some people seem to have read this post as a slam of a festival — ‘Why go to events you know you’re going to hate?’ — but, despite the author’s general tendency to speak his mind, this struck us as quite an objective, ultimately positive account: ‘I did enjoy myself, much to my surprise. More to the point, the punters who’d forked out to get in seemed to be having a good time too.’


BrewDog bottles in a supermarket.

Suzy AKA The Pub Geek is not impressed by BrewDog’s latest crowd marketing campaign:

They’re asking their ‘Equity Punks’ to flypost across a country which carries a potential £80 fine (higher for Scottish ‘punks’) legislated by the Highways Act 1980. Not only do Brewdog want  the ‘Equity Punks’ doing unpaid labour for the cause but they’re potentially breaking the law and they have actually paid for this privilege.


Detail from an old brewing log.

Brewer and beer writer Mitch Steele, late of Stone Brewing, is worried about the decline of the leather-bound hard copy brewing log and what that means for the legacy of the craft beer era:

I suspect there are a lot of craft brewers over the years who have followed a similar pattern. They have graduated from handwritten brew logs, that are filed and stored in a box somewhere, to spreadsheets, or maybe even to more complex equipment supplier automated databases or ERP systems. But in 100 years, who is going to be able to find any of it if they want to document how beers were brewed during our current times? Especially if breweries continue to grow quickly or get sold or close shop… I’m wondering right now if a concerted effort could be made by the industry to preserve some brewing logs from early craft brewers in a safe place, like a library or a museum, where researchers in the future could go back and learn about the techniques and ingredients being used today.


Mild taste-off: multiple milds in plastic beakers.

Ryan Moses, AKA The Beer Counsellor, has taken a month to organise his thoughts on the takeover of Wicked Weed by AB-InBev before reaching any conclusions. Acknowledging the full range of arguments he has nonetheless concluded that buying local is best thing consumers can do in this situation:

Let your love of craft beer inform your buying decisions of what and where you buy.  If you have local breweries near you, frequent them.  Buy their beer, their growlers, and their swag.  If you go to a local brewery and their beer isn’t as good as you had hoped, don’t frag them on social media. Send a personal email or letter to the owner/brewer expressing your concerns in a thoughtful and respectful manner. We must be the ones who control craft beer. Not the faceless conglomerates who could just as easily be selling ball bearings rather than beer.

Counterpoint: Michael Agnew at A Perfect Pint argues (using the strongest of strong language) that critics have a right, if not a duty, to ‘be mean’:

The criticism of my critique is often that I’m not giving brewers a chance. I’m too quick to name the problems. These brewers are young and passionate. They have dreams. I’m stepping on these dreams when all they need is time to work things out. It’s a difficult step to go from brewing ten gallons at a time to brewing ten barrels. Rather than publicly calling them out, I should go in and talk to them… In what other industry do we say this?

We’re probably more Agnew than Moses here but we think blogger and sometime blog commenter Dave S has this right:


A screengrab of the Braciatrix blog.

And, finally, a recommendation for a blog to watch rather than a pointer to specific post: at Braciatrix Christina Wade is considering ‘the history of beer through the women who brewed, consumed, sold, and sometimes, opposed it’. So far it’s proving to be something quite fresh. Take a look.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading we’ve particularly enjoyed in the last week, with a connecting thread about the fate of family brewers.

Commentators have now had time to digest the news of the sales of the Charles Wells brewery to Marston’s. Our pick of the analysis is this piece by Roger Protz in which he argues that we should be worried about this development, and the threat of more to come:

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.

For balance, though, there’s a similarly authoritative view from Martyn Cornell who argues that there isn’t much to worry about in this particular case:

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.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 May 2017: Hops, The Heatons, Homogoneity

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 Beershop (shop frontage)

Jim at Beers Manchester highlights what looks like a fun crawl of micropubs that happen to be near each other in ‘the heatons’ (Heaton Moor and Heaton Chapel) in the suburbs of Stockport, Greater Manchester:

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.


Charles Wells brewery.
Marston’s Gets Bigger

On Thursday the large family brewery Charles Wells of Bedfordshire announced that it had sold its beer brands and brewing operation to Marston’s:

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.


A can of Stone Brewing beer.
No More Patience with Peter Pan?

We’re going to finish with a series of interconnected posts. First there’s Stan Hieronymus’s review of a book, Untapped: exploring the cultural dimensions of craft beer:

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.

That, and Alan McLeod’s comment on the same piece about Peter Pan syndrome (expanded upon here) made us think of a piece from a day earlier by Jeff Alworth: ‘Remember When Stone Was Cool?’ He says:

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:

This post was scheduled late on Thursday. If anything broke on Friday we probably missed it. Sorry.

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 13 May 2017: Butter, Brussels, Belfast

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the last week, from buttery Czech beer to South African hops.

Max ‘Pivni Filosof’ Bahnson uses a report of a visit to a Prague bar to make some observations about trends and local tastes:

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.


Goose Island on sale in Brussels.

The Beer Nut has been writing up a recent trip to Belgium from which we get this post observing the arrival of multiple taps of non-Belgian beer in Brussels:

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.


Brussels Beer Project brewer Antoine Dubois, and founders Olivier de Brauwere and Sébastien Morvan.

Very much related is a piece from Will Hawkes for Beer Advocate about the growing influence of outside cultures, and especially the London brewing scene, on young Belgian brewers:

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.)


Video screengrab: Jim Caruso.

Here’s something thought-provoking: US centre-right news and opinion magazine/website Reason has a sympathetic account of the legal battle around Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch from a conservative free-speech perspective. It is built around an interview with the brewery’s boss, Jim Caruso, an avowed libertarian, available as video, or provided as raw (occasionally incorrect) transcript:

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:

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’s account for Craft Beer & Brewing is 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.’

Meanwhile, the perpetually level-headed Bryan Roth has broken this story down, concluding that it’s a storm in a pint pot:

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.