Trans-Atlantic Collaboration Woes

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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.

Not a proper pub, but not so bad

Sometimes, holding an establishment up to the standard of the mythical perfect English pub can be unfair because there are now so many different business models operating successfully under that banner.

One of the most common alternative models is one we associate particularly with Wetherspoons, although we’ve got no idea if they originated it. These kind of pubs:

  • are “food-led”, but certainly not gastropubs
  • high turnover
  • operate on a “what’s your table number?”, order food at the bar basis
  • are usually based in very big hall-like buildings and
  • have some of the trappings of a traditional pub, e.g. dark wood.

In Cornwall, with its busy tourist trade, there are lots of these places, half empty in the winter but heaving in summer. Most are run by St Austell but not all.

What does a good pub of this type look like? Let’s take a St Austell pub in Newquay as an example.

  • Despite being food-led, a great range of beer in tip-top condition.
  • Efficiently run — not too much waiting, food delivered quickly.
  • Clean and tidy — no peas rolling around the floor or crumbs on the tables.
  • As cosy as possible — big enough to house a Zeppelin but warm, with booths and pillars to hide behind.
  • No illusions — this pub doesn’t claim to be traditional, historic or characterful.

We’ll always choose a proper pub first but, in their own way, pubs of this type give beer a home in unhospitable territory. They’re rarely charming, but they surely have their place.

Bailey used to work in a pub like this as a student waiter (a “Brewer’s Fayre”). One of his jobs was picking chips and peas out of the revolving sauce tray and stirring in the crust on the ketchup. That is why they always have sauce in sachets these days.

Hunting for Ale in Exeter

A pint of Exeter Brewery 'fraid Not at the Waterfront pub

We couldn’t find many recommendations for pubs in Exeter on the Blogoshire, so thought we’d use our instincts and try out a few places on spec.

We started with the Wellhouse Tavern which is attached to Michael Caines’ hotel and restaurant on the cathedral square. We’re always interested when chefs say they like beer: it’s usually done in the middle of a spiel about how normal they are and how nothing hits the spot like good beer, after which they proceed to recommend Innis and friggin’ Gunn. Anyway, in this case, Chef or (at last his bar manager) turns out to have decent taste with five west country ales on offer, and not just the usual suspects. Standouts were O’Hanlon’s Stormsayer, a gingery, chunky 5% beer, and Bay’s Up and Under, a refreshing and moreish amber bitter. The pub itself can’t quite decide if it’s trying to be a real ale pub (large selection of beer), a party pub (bangin’ dance tunes and Jäger bombs) or a gastropub (sandwiches with pancetta) but definitely worth a look.

Thanks to the Baedeker raids, where there ought to be quaint backstreets and half-timbered buildings, there are post-war shopping complexes, and so the city centre seems short on pubs. We headed out of the immediate centre towards the Topsham Road and came across the White Hart. This is a proper, wonky old coaching inn with a courtyard, hidden rooms and cosy corners, despite attempts by Marston’s to turn it into a plasticky chain pub. Of particular interest is their unique house beer, Old Wallop (5.6%), brewed by Ringwood (part of the Marston’s empire). It’s got a really rich, chewy toffee character, set off nicely by that famous Ringwood yeast. Good stuff.

Down by the quayside, there is The Prospect, another large, historical pub. Unfortunately, they’ve gone even further down the chain pub route having done away with the cosy corners, leaving one great big echoing chamber. It feels like an upmarket Wetherspoons or a cut-price Pitcher and Piano. Cotleigh Old Haka, with Motueka hops, was in good nick, though, and the first beer from this brewery we’ve really enjoyed in a while.

The Waterfront, a few metres further along the quayside, was a pleasant surprise. From outside, it looked like a chain tapas bar but, inside we found attractive arched brick ceilings, friendly bar staff and regulars, and several ales in absolutely excellent condition. It’s the first time we’ve had O’Hanlon’s Yellow Hammer in a state where we could appreciate the subtle spiciness. ‘Fraidnot (4%) by the Exeter Brewery was the highlight of the trip — a golden ale with the kind of lip-smacking, doughy, bready malt flavour we associate with JW Lees Bitter and Bristol Beer Factory beers.

The Hourglass, around the corner on tucked-away Melbourne Street, is a fabulous old pub building with early 20th century brewery livery and some quirky decor, like a backstreet bar in Brussels. Lots of laptops and Moleskines about, if you catch our drift. It’s a pity that the beer was in indifferent condition and that the range included two from Otter (a brewery we just don’t get). They had another Exeter beer, Avocet Ale, which was herbal, watery and, frankly, weird tasting. This is probably an amazing place in which to drink red wine and philosophise but, on the beer front, we’d recommend the Waterfront over this.

It’s probably an indictment of the Exeter beer scene that one of our top recommendations is still the Imperial, a Wetherspoons that’s a ten minute walk from the station and occupies the old Imperial Hotel building, including its incredible orangery. The beer is reliably good and they have by far the best range of unusual local beer. We particularly enjoyed Bath Ales’ Ginger Hare (not very gingery, more like singed cinnamon UPDATE: and maybe not Ginger Hare at all, as Bath Ales tell us they’ve not done a cask for a while — did someone forget to change the pumpclip?) and Eddystone by South Hams  — a rare West Country beer with veritable hops!

We didn’t find any really top-notch pubs and began to realise the benefits of big regional brewers: with no St Austell or Fuller’s of its own, Exeter is being filled with invasive species: Marston’s and Greene King pubs. Not local and certainly not exciting.

Finally, a food tip: Lite Deelite is a very authentic Chinese/Japanese snack bar and restaurant on the Cathedral Square. We’ve been twice and been very impressed by the food on both occasions. The gangs of trendy Chinese students tapping away on their iPhones only add to the atmosphere.