Alternate Spoons in the Craft Continuum

We went to our local Wetherspoon pub twice last weekend and found its craft makeover quite startling.

As usual, what drew us through the door in the first instance was a craving for beer that isn’t local. Oh, yes, local beer is great, and very worthy, and all that, but blimey, can it get monotonous. During the regular Spoons real ale festivals, even our fairly conservative branch usually has something pale, hoppy and from up north on offer. On this occasion, Rooster’s Union Gap, at a mere £2.25 a pint, fit the bill admirably.

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More Signs of the Times

There’s been more evidence this week that the march into the mainstream of ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, continues apace.

Having tested the market in the last few months with bottles of BrewDog Punk IPA, Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn Lager and canned beer from Sixpoint, the Wetherspoon chain of pubs has made some interesting announcements in the last couple of days:

(This.Is.Lager is the absurdly-named new beer from BrewDog.)

And we’re sure we saw someone say on Twitter that selected Spoons outlets would also be getting BrewDog Punk IPA in kegs, too.

Then there’s this:

Finally, we note with interest that Butcombe, brewers of the brownest of brown bitters since 1978, are launching a (one-off) saison. It’s seems amazing to think that, in 2007, we’d never tried a single example of this somewhat challenging, mysterious Belgian style of beer.

The end is nigh — repent! Repent!

Trans-Atlantic Collaboration Woes

fan_club_beer_474

Yesterday afternoon, Matt ‘Total Ales’ Curtis posted about the Wetherspoon pub chain’s collaborations with American brewers.

Without mincing his words, he set out his irritation at finding a beer from an American brewer he admires in his local Spoons, where the punters are more interested, as he sees it, in value than quality:

Hop perverts in the UK would more than likely happily part with £10 for a can of [Heady Topper]… So with this in mind why has [John] Kimmich come to the UK and brewed a beer with Adnams to an almost minimal fuss?

His comments have raised hackles, and prompted accusations of snobbery, as daring to criticise Spoons tends to do, though a couple of lines did make us wince, especially “I imagine 99.9% of Wetherspoons customers have never heard the name John Kimmich before”. (We’ve never heard of him either.)

But the more interesting question is about how cult US brewers go about cracking the UK market.

In his responses to sometimes bad-tempered comments, Matt has elaborated on what makes him feel uneasy, and it seems to boil down to an idea imported from the world of music: that the most devoted fans ought to get first dibs on tickets, exclusive material, and their idols’ attention. (With apologies to Matt if we’ve read that incorrectly.)

We wonder if Kimmich even knows he has fans in the UK who were desperate to be serviced? Next time he’s in the UK, perhaps he’ll find time for them as well as for Spoons.

Or perhaps he thought brewing a beer especially for the UK market, to be made available on every high street at less than £3 a pint, would be enough? American beer geeks are probably green with envy.

And everyone hates DNA

On a related note, we’ve been observing the ongoing car-crash that is Dogfish Head’s ‘collaboration’ with Charles Wells. Though it’s been around for a while, its distribution seems to have expanded in the last month or so (has it appeared in Tesco?) leading to lots of this:

Matters of taste aside (it sounds dreadful but we haven’t tried it) why have Dogfish Head, who have a certain amount of ‘craft credibility’, chosen to pair up with a UK brewery more-or-less reviled by UK beer geeks, to produce something that’s more about logistics than flavour?(IPA concentrate shipped to the UK and watered down in Bedfordshire.)

The problem isn’t mass distribution and affordability — it’s when compromises made to achieve those aims lumber consumers with sub-standard products, and possibly do long-term damage to breweries’ brands.

Craftsploitation

Should small ‘craft’ brewers worry about the appearance of ‘craft beer’ in JD Wetherspoon pubs? Or should they welcome it?

Wetherspoons Craft Beers poster.

Beyond major cities, this will be the first time many people will have had the chance to enjoy a sexily-packaged American-style IPA in a pub. Do you remember the first time you tried Goose Island IPA? We do. That eye-opening moment ought to lead at least some people to decide that’s their thing:’I’m well into the old craft beers, me.’ That would be good news for smaller brewers.

On the other hand, at £5 for two bottles or cans, this might be the moment when the rug gets pulled out from under the price structure of ‘craft beer’. ‘Spoons may not be able to compete with the Craft Beer Company or The Rake on cosmopolitan ‘vibe’ or variety, but you don’t get much for £2.50 at either of those venues.

If JDW can keep the range rotating, even if the selection is middle of the road, they might lure some beer geeks (like us) who had previously turned their noses up, and who welcome the thought of an extra tenner in their pocket at the end of the night.

It doesn’t hurt that many of the recent US-UK cask ale collaborations have been excellent — the Sixpoint/Adnams Make it Rain tasted so good on Sunday that we ended up drinking more  than planned, despite the frankly dismal surroundings, and still spent less than the price of two bottles of Orval in a pub round the corner.

Disclosure: as we mentioned on Sunday, JD Wetherspoon sent us samples of their new Sixpoint American craft beer in cans: we weren’t impressed.

The Pub as Quasi-Happy Eater

Good George Pacific PearlOur local Wetherspoon’s isn’t a very good one. It rarely has anything other than Doom Bar, Ruddles or Greene King IPA on offer, usually a degree or two too warm, served in an ambience that brings to mind a faux-pub on a cross channel ferry. We pop in from time to time, though, just in case something exciting might be available and, yesterday, we were tempted to stop for a couple of pints from the international beer festival range.

Pacific Pearl, brewed by Good George of New Zealand (Kelly Ryan (PDF link)) was very good indeed though, yes, a bit warm. A sort of a black IPA or citrusy porter, like an oily Terry’s Chocolate Orange melted in a very posh coffee, it was certainly worth £2.15. Fly by Night, brewed by the chap from La Trappe in the Netherlands, on the other hand, was all sweaty socks and cardboard — bad rather than off, we think. Swings and roundabouts, eh?

As we drank, we talked about why, apart from the beer, we didn’t like the pub. Our conclusion: it feels like a fast food restaurant with some pub-like features — very convenient and obviously good value, but naff. Then, coincidentally, last night, we came across this passage in the 1985 CAMRA Good Beer Guide, on the subject of Host Group, Grand Met/Watney’s newly announced pub chain:

‘The Host packaged pub enterprise is as much of a threat to those who love individuality and consumer choice, as the packaged beer phenomenon was in the last two decades,’ says Peter Lerner of CAMRA’s Pub Preservation Group. ‘We cannot let our pubs decline to become chains of look-alike quasi-Happy Eater, Kentucky Fried Chicken bars or motorway service stations.’

A quasi-Happy Eater is a very good description of our local JDW.