The Good, the Bad & the Murky – Brew Britannia: One Year On

The Good, The Bad & The Murky -- cover image -- a can of craft beer.

This piece is 11,000 words long so you might want to con­sid­er down­load­ing it to read on your tablet or smart­phone via Pock­et, Instapa­per or anoth­er offline read­er. It is also avail­able as a free e-book in var­i­ous for­mats via Smash­words.

Contents

  • Intro­duc­tion
  • A Lon­don Par­tic­u­lar – why every­one is talk­ing about ‘murky’ beer
  • I Can I Can’t? – the rein­ven­tion of the tin­ny
  • Crowds & Com­mu­ni­ty – crowd­fund­ing: exploita­tion or fan ser­vice?
  • On the Turn – signs of ten­sion
  • Ver­ti­cal Inte­gra­tion – brew­eries with bars, bars with brew­eries
  • Almost Too Wee – the rise of the microp­ub
  • Sor­ry, Ron­nie! – craft beer on the high street
  • Break­ing Away from the Pelo­ton – Unit­ed Craft Brew­ers
  • Per­e­stroi­ka & Glas­nostCAMRA hints at change
  • Poochie is One Out­ra­geous Dude! – the big boys do craft beer
  • Approach­ing Total Beer – an after­word
  • Appen­dix – Where Are They Now?
  • Acknowl­edge­ments

New section.

Introduction

We sub­mit­ted the text of our book, Brew Bri­tan­nia: the strange rebirth of British beer, in Octo­ber 2013 and it was pub­lished in June the fol­low­ing year. Because the ‘strange rebirth’ it described was still under­way, it wasn’t pos­si­ble to pro­vide a sat­is­fy­ing full stop to our attempt to tell the sto­ry of how British beer got from Big Six monop­oly of the ear­ly 1970s to the vibrant scene we cur­rent­ly enjoy. The pur­pose of this update is to sum­marise devel­op­ments in the past 18 months, to explain how (if at all) they fit into the ongo­ing nar­ra­tive, and per­haps also to see if a punch­line might be in sight.

In doing so, we have con­sid­ered the ongo­ing creep of ‘craft beer’ into the main­stream – or is it the main­stream annex­ing and absorb­ing ‘craft’? We have also iden­ti­fied points of stress and increas­ing ten­sion in an indus­try in which there is a decreas­ing amount of elbow room.

Like the last cou­ple of chap­ters of Brew Bri­tan­nia, this is com­men­tary rather than his­to­ry. It is in many ways a greater chal­lenge to squeeze the truth out of peo­ple who are run­ning active busi­ness­es than it was to get 40-year-old gos­sip out of CAMRA vet­er­ans of pen­sion­able age. Nonethe­less, as with the book, we have tried where pos­si­ble to track sto­ries back to their sources, to pin down dates on the time­line, and to avoid mak­ing assump­tions – ‘Sez who?’ has been our con­stant chal­lenge to each oth­er. In a hand­ful of instances, how­ev­er, the only answer has been, ‘Sez us’.

New section.

A London Particular

In Brew Bri­tan­nia we wrote about Moor Beer Co. whose unique sell­ing point is that its beers are not fined (that is, cleared of sus­pend­ed yeast using ‘fin­ings’) and thus may be served in any state from clear to cloudy depend­ing on the pref­er­ences and skill of each pub­li­can. As we observed in the book, that alarms many drinkers who believe firm­ly that beer should always be per­fect­ly clear – a proxy for under­ly­ing qual­i­ty – and the debate has con­tin­ued to rum­ble on, giv­ing birth to a buzz-phrase in the process: ‘Lon­don murky’.

In Sep­tem­ber 2013, Glas­gow-based blog­ger and CAMRA activist Rob­bie Pick­er­ing wrote that, ‘Five Points Pale Ale is in the “Lon­don Murky” style pio­neered by The Ker­nel.’ In an email, he explained what prompt­ed him to come up with that turn of phrase:

In 2011 or so, there were three things that dis­tin­guished The Kernel’s beers: their flavour, their down­right cloudy appear­ance and the inex­plic­a­bly thick lay­er of sed­i­ment in the bot­tom of every bot­tle. It seemed to jus­ti­fy giv­ing a name to this sort of beer which was dif­fer­ent to any­thing else in the UK mar­ket at the time.

There was some­thing catchy about the phrase ‘Lon­don Murky’ and, before long, it began to crop up fre­quent­ly in the con­ver­sa­tion around British beer. Though Pick­er­ing did not intend it as pejo­ra­tive, those irri­tat­ed by the idea of craft beer as a move­ment, and prone to com­plain­ing about fan­boys, hip­sters, hype and hazy beer, found it easy to weaponise. Tony Nay­lor, one of the few peo­ple reg­u­lar­ly writ­ing about beer in the main­stream press, had this to say in a Guardian arti­cle enti­tled ‘Unfil­tered beer: would you drink a cloudy pint?’ pub­lished in May 2014:

I’m torn. I can’t deny the aes­thet­ic appeal of the per­fect clear pint. But I also realise that is a rather daft, inher­it­ed prej­u­dice. More­over, this crit­i­cism of ‘Lon­don murky’ (the argu­ment is that upstart hip­ster brew­ers are using the excuse of mak­ing raw, nat­ur­al, big-impact beers as a cov­er to chuck out hap­haz­ard, unbal­anced rub­bish) seems to spring from a gen­er­al cyn­i­cism about the febrile cre­ativ­i­ty of the craft beer scene, rather than objec­tive fact.

Else­where, how­ev­er, there are signs that it might yet become a vague localised style like Irish stout or York­shire bit­ter. In May 2015, The Pelt Trad­er, a City of Lon­don bar run by the Blooms­bury Leisure Group (Hol­born Whip­pet, Euston Tap), was fea­tur­ing this descrip­tion of a beer on its web­site:

The Ker­nel 4cs IPA 7.1% £3.00/half – Punchy Bermond­sey IPA in the ‘Lon­don Murky’ mould.

Beer writer and blog­ger Bryan Betts has even attempt­ed to define the para­me­ters of this pos­si­ble new style describ­ing ‘cloudy gold­en ales with some under­ly­ing sweet­ness, trop­i­cal fruit notes, and lots of hop­py bit­ter­ness’. In the same piece he also sounds a note of cau­tion, sug­gest­ing that some Lon­don brew­ers are ‘delib­er­ate­ly over-murky­ing things, which is just sil­ly’. (And note the use of murky as a verb – this beer is not mere­ly pas­sive­ly unfined.)

We would not be sur­prised to see this new Lon­don style, which some love and oth­ers hate, recog­nised for­mal­ly in brew­ing com­pe­ti­tions in years to come. When we can buy a bot­tle of Lon­don murky brewed in Berlin, Barcelona or San Diego, then we’ll know for sure it has become ‘a thing’, as Lon­don porter did cen­turies before.

New section.

I Can I Can’t?

When we were writ­ing Brew Bri­tan­nia canned beer remained large­ly the pre­serve of big­ger brew­eries. Bass and Lon­don Pride could be found in cans in super­mar­kets, priced more cheap­ly than in bot­tles, but the canned beers that tend­ed to come to mind were things like Carls­berg Export, Stel­la Artois and Fos­ters, or maybe Gold Label Bar­ley Wine and Mack­e­son stout. Real ale drinkers by def­i­n­i­tion like their beer on draught, in a glass, and, depend­ing on their age, might equate canned beer with either Ind Coope Long Life or with UK-brewed glob­al lager brands. Mean­while, most craft beer afi­ciona­dos were hung up on ele­gant glass­ware, corked bot­tles and draught keg.

Once again, we must look to Brew­Dog as the source of a change in the those per­cep­tions and pref­er­ences. Seek­ing ideas from the US scene, as they have always tend­ed to do, James Watt and Mar­tin Dick­ie took inspi­ra­tion from an Amer­i­can brew­ery, Colorado’s Oskar Blues, which start­ed can­ning its beer in 2002. In 2010, Brew­Dog began to dis­cuss with their fans on the brew­ery blog the idea of can­ning their own beers. The reac­tion was fas­ci­nat­ing with com­ments falling into two broad camps. First, there were those appalled by the idea, like ‘JH’:

No way to the can!! The design is good grant­ed but your beers are way too high qual­i­ty to be put in a can – cans are for mass pro­duced shite like Foster’s. How on earth are we meant to enjoy an impe­r­i­al stout out of a can?! This wouldn’t be inno­vat­ing-it would be try­ing to dri­ve more sales and mar­gin out of your prod­uct but at the expense of your prod­uct. You are pio­neers in bring­ing the UK scene up to scratch with the US scene but this would be a kick in the teeth to those aspi­ra­tions. Don’t become Foster’s!

Oth­ers, how­ev­er, were ten­ta­tive­ly inter­est­ed, either because they had been impressed by canned beer from the US, or because they could see oth­er advan­tages as sum­marised by ‘Tom’:

More envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly, eas­i­er to store & ship, you can take cans to many beach­es and camp­grounds where bot­tles are pro­hib­it­ed, AND it’s bet­ter for the beer too – less light & air makes for a much fresh­er brew!

After sev­er­al more such blog posts and dis­cus­sions, by Feb­ru­ary 2011, the first cans of Punk IPA were rolling off a line at Daniel Thwaites’s brew­ery in Black­burn. Hav­ing lis­tened to feed­back from cus­tomers on pre­lim­i­nary designs, they were small 330ml con­tain­ers of the kind more usu­al­ly used for soft drinks  which helped to set them apart from the 500ml or 440ml cans used by mass-mar­ket brands. That sum­mer, many dis­cov­ered the appeal of a fast-chill­ing, more portable ves­sel and cans found their fans, though the bulk of Punk IPA and BrewDog’s oth­er beers con­tin­ued to be sold in bot­tles.

From 2011 to 2014, beer geeks got used to the idea of a beer they liked in a for­mat for which they had pre­vi­ous­ly reserved deri­sion, more US imports in cans began to appear on the UK mar­ket and, soon, cans became a kind of fetish, each new canned prod­uct being greet­ed with fizzing excite­ment on social media. Cam­den Brew­ing acquired a can­ning line in 2013 and sud­den­ly Cam­den Hells, a good but unex­cit­ing beer, gained a new glam­our in gleam­ing post-box red 330ml con­tain­ers.

The UK brew­ery which is per­haps most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with canned craft beer, how­ev­er, is anoth­er Lon­don firm – Beaver­town. It began life in 2011 in the kitchen of a pub-cum-bar­be­cue restau­rant in Hack­ney, East Lon­don. In 2013, its founder, Logan Plant, son of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, moved to larg­er stand­alone premis­es and then, in May 2014, to an even big­ger indus­tri­al unit at Tot­ten­ham Hale, out near the top end of the Vic­to­ria Line. With the move came the instal­la­tion of a new toy – a can­ning line from the same Cana­di­an firm, Cask Brew­ing Sys­tems, that had sup­plied Cam­den. Nick Dwyer is part of Beavertown’s man­age­ment team, though he joined the com­pa­ny as an illus­tra­tor, which is telling in its own right – it is a high­ly image-con­scious busi­ness. We spoke to him in May this year and asked, first, why Beaver­town began can­ning:

We were bot­tle-con­di­tion­ing our beer, hand-fill­ing bot­tles, and found that it tast­ed a cer­tain way at pack­ag­ing but, down the line, the taste was chang­ing. The seal was bad on the bot­tles, and light-strike was affect­ing them with­in min­utes of leav­ing the brew­ery.

He con­firmed that the idea came from Amer­i­ca – ‘Logan spends a lot of time in the US and had been hang­ing out at Oskar Blues’ – but also via Brew­Dog, with whom Beaver­town have close ties. Even in 2014, the reac­tion was not uni­ver­sal­ly pos­i­tive:

We did have peo­ple say, ‘I’ll nev­er buy your beers again!’, and ask­ing, ‘Cans? Why?’ But all it took, real­ly, was a cou­ple of leaflets explain­ing the ben­e­fits and peo­ple became more pos­i­tive, and before long it was, ‘What are you putting into cans next, guys?’

As far as Mr Dwyer is con­cerned qual­i­ty and shelf-life were the pri­ma­ry dri­vers but he acknowl­edged the aes­thet­ic appeal of the can, too:

Cans are a great can­vas, although they can be hard work. You’ve only got six colours to play with, and the under­ly­ing metal­lic colour of the can, and you can’t real­ly do spe­cial fin­ish­es. We did ask for a var­nish to make them more mat­te, more tac­tile. The designs aren’t any­thing spe­cial – you wouldn’t want them as prints in their own right – but if you don’t know the beer, they’ll grab you.

Beavertown’s colour­ful cans, splashed with Dwyer’s quirky sci-fi art­work, speak of youth­ful­ness and a hip sen­si­bil­i­ty which is very dis­tinct­ly not that of your real ale drink­ing uncle. When we vis­it­ed the brew­ery last sum­mer as part of our book pro­mo­tion tour, no-one was inter­est­ed in buy­ing bot­tles from the on-site shop and bar – all they want­ed to know was which cans were in stock, and which beers were being canned next. At around £2 each, the cans were good val­ue and, cru­cial­ly, easy to car­ry on bus­es and the tube.

Not every­one on the indus­try side is con­vinced by ‘craft can­ning’, how­ev­er. Rob Lovatt, head brew­er at Thorn­bridge, wrote a blog post explain­ing exact­ly why the UK craft beer pio­neers had no plans to jump on this new band­wag­on:

Although the can for­mat is being sold as the best way to elim­i­nate oxy­gen from the beer after pack­ag­ing, it is dur­ing the pack­ag­ing process itself that the great­est dan­ger lies. I am uncon­vinced that the can­ners towards the low­er end of the mar­ket are capa­ble of seal­ing the can with­out poten­tial­ly pick­ing up detri­men­tal lev­els of dis­solved oxy­gen.

When we spoke to Roger Ryman, head brew­er at St Austell in Corn­wall, he echoed these sen­ti­ments, and expressed scep­ti­cism that the kind of can­ning lines being installed in small­er brew­eries are real­ly up to the job. (Though St Austell does have its Korev lager pack­aged in 330ml cans under con­tract at a larg­er brew­ery.)

Nonethe­less, in the last year, hard­ly a week has gone by with­out one brew­ery or anoth­er announc­ing that they have acquired the capac­i­ty to can their beer, or are at least mak­ing plans to do so. Com­pa­nies oper­at­ing mobile can­ning lines have even popped up, set­ting up on site at brew­eries around the coun­try to pack­age lim­it­ed runs of beer in unprint­ed cans to which labels are lat­er applied. These ad-hoc prod­ucts look rough and ready and, in our expe­ri­ence taste rather the same way. But appar­ent­ly, while can fever con­tin­ues, that almost doesn’t mat­ter: they are still cute-look­ing, con­ve­nient, cold after 15 min­utes in the fridge, and, per­haps most impor­tant­ly, are sim­ply some­thing dif­fer­ent in a cul­ture which craves nov­el­ty.

New section.

Crowds & Community

BrewDog’s Equi­ty for Punks (EFP) crowd­fund­ing scheme closed in Jan­u­ary 2014 while Brew Bri­tan­nia was on its way to print. It raised more than £4 mil­lion and reached its fund­ing tar­get a month ear­ly. Grum­bling from habit­u­al crit­ics of Brew­Dog, how­ev­er, was a taste of things to come.

Beyond the world of beer, so-called ‘crowd­fund­ing fatigue’ has been grow­ing for some time and real­ly seemed to set in dur­ing 2014. It is a response part­ly to the over­whelm­ing growth in the num­ber of such cam­paigns – in 2011, 11,130 projects were suc­cess­ful­ly fund­ed through the Kick­starter plat­form; in 2014, it was 22,252, even in the face of increased com­pe­ti­tion from a flood of new ser­vices work­ing the same ter­ri­to­ry. But it is also an inevitable response to attempts by the already wealthy to exploit this new source of finance for their projects. Scrubs actor Zach Braff’s attempt to fund a film through Kick­starter caused a major stink – why didn’t he pay for it him­self?

It is in that con­text that there was a strong neg­a­tive reac­tion to a project launched by Stone Brew­ing in 2014. Greg Koch, founder of the San Diego brew­ery, has long tak­en a men­tor­ing role with BrewDog’s James Watt and Mar­tin Dick­ie who are open in the inspi­ra­tion they take from him and his brewery’s beers. In August that year, Koch launched an IndieGoGo crowd­fund­ing cam­paign to help raise mon­ey for a bold Euro­pean expan­sion plan. There was an imme­di­ate back­lash, as sum­marised by Cana­di­an beer writer Jor­dan St. John:

When a real­ly large brew­ery cre­ates a Kick­starter it’s absolute­ly inex­cus­able. Stone’s cur­rent Indiegogo cam­paign is shock­ing­ly exploita­tive and cyn­i­cal. Worse than that, it is active­ly evil.

Stone raised the $2.5 mil­lion they want­ed but Koch, whose pub­lic per­sona usu­al­ly tends towards the brash and sar­cas­tic, felt oblig­ed to issue an unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly meek video state­ment in which, though he stopped short of apol­o­gis­ing, he expressed his sad­ness that the scheme had upset peo­ple, and attempt­ed to reframe it as a ‘beer pre-sales event’.

What all this meant was that when, in Feb­ru­ary 2015, Cam­den Brew­ery launched a crowd­fund­ing scheme of their own under the name ‘Hells Rais­er’, it was not greet­ed warm­ly by worn-out com­men­ta­tors or some hard­ened beer geeks. Camden’s pub­lic image did not help. Though it is, for the moment, much small­er than either Brew­Dog or Stone, Cam­den is a slick out­fit with high-gloss brand­ing and a point­ed­ly com­mer­cial main­stream lager, albeit a good one, as its flag­ship prod­uct. None of its beers, even Pale Ale, are cask-con­di­tioned thus alien­at­ing a sub­stan­tial body of more tra­di­tion­al drinkers who equate ‘real ale’ with good beer. A pro­por­tion of Cam­den Hells has at times been brewed in Ger­many and Bel­gium, despite the impli­ca­tions of its name, and this fact was, if not con­cealed from con­sumers, then at least obscured, which irri­tat­ed those (includ­ing us) who val­ue trans­paren­cy. Cam­den has also been involved in two trade­mark dis­putes, of which more lat­er, and, in both cas­es, though Cam­den did noth­ing wrong, per se, they emerged faint­ly tar­nished as cor­po­rate-mind­ed bul­lies push­ing around under­dogs. There were, how­ev­er, also crit­i­cisms of Camden’s scheme based on the num­bers they pre­sent­ed, as explained to us by finan­cial jour­nal­ist and for­mer beer blog­ger John West:

Cam­den Town Brewery’s crowd­fund­ing effort looks to raise £1.5m in return for a 2% stake. On this basis, they are valu­ing the group at £75m… That is an eye­brow-rais­ing val­u­a­tion.

He crunched some num­bers and was unable to come up with a val­u­a­tion any­thing like Camden’s. He also point­ed out that the val­ue of a key investors’ perk in the form of dis­counts on Cam­den prod­ucts was not as excit­ing as it might seem at first:

Pony­ing up £100 will give you a life­time 5 per cent dis­count; £1,000 a 10 per cent dis­count. As with BrewDog’s Equi­ty for Punks Mk.1 in 2009 (which offered a 20 per cent life­time dis­count to par­tic­i­pants), mileage will vary on the use­ful­ness of this reward: dis­count­ing the Cam­den invest­ment to zero by way of illus­tra­tion, to break even on the reward alone would mean spend­ing £2,000 on Cam­den Town Brew­ery beer online or in their tap and pubs (of which there are cur­rent­ly just three venues, all in Lon­don).

Despite all that, Cam­den not only reached their tar­get but smashed it, rais­ing 188 per cent of their ini­tial goal.

Brew­Dog launched Phase IV of Equi­ty for Punks in May 2015, seek­ing to raise £25m in 12 months; with­in a month, it had already reached £5m. Peo­ple out­side the com­menterati are, we might con­clude, less cyn­i­cal and fatigued, and per­haps also just less cold­ly log­i­cal: they know they might not make a prof­it or even get their mon­ey back (Brew­Dog are oblig­ed to warn them of that fact at every turn) but the game itself is fun. As well as being an extreme­ly attrac­tive source of finance, crowd-fund­ing schemes are also yet anoth­er way for brew­eries to offer ‘fan ser­vice’, and to engage with their con­sumers.

New section.

On the Turn

In the last 18 months, there have been a hand­ful of pub­lic spats between brew­eries over trade­marks, most notably:

The first on that list arose when Cam­den mount­ed a legal chal­lenge against Red­well, a small brew­ery in Nor­wich, on the grounds that, by call­ing one of their beers Hells, like Camden’s best-known prod­uct, they were attempt­ing to mis­lead con­sumers (‘pass­ing off’). As part of their response Red­well, who had pre­vi­ous­ly defeat­ed a sim­i­lar trade­mark claim from ener­gy drink brand Red Bull, launched a crowd-fund­ing cam­paign aim­ing to raise £30,000 to cov­er legal fees. Despite its rel­a­tive­ly mod­est tar­get and an under­dog sto­ry, it closed in March 2015 hav­ing raised less than £2,000.

Some dis­putes, though they have also gone pub­lic, remained civ­il, such as Chapel Down vs. Mag­ic Rock, which was resolved by Mag­ic Rock agree­ing to change the name of one of their beers – Curi­ous pale ale became Ring­mas­ter because Chapel Down’s Curi­ous Brew had a stronger claim to the name. Brew­ers have told us, how­ev­er, that these are just the tip of the ice­berg: Oliv­er Fozard of Rooster’s reports ‘a few’, while Mag­ic Rock’s Richard Bur­house says that his brew­ery has had four such dis­putes, all solved behind closed doors, though he sus­pects there have been hun­dreds across the indus­try. There are only like­ly to be more such con­flicts, some no doubt nasty, as the mar­ket becomes more crowd­ed, and as bet­ter estab­lished brew­eries grow and have more at stake.

Mean­while, we have begun to receive emails and pri­vate mes­sages via Twit­ter that sug­gest more wide­spread ten­sions, unfor­tu­nate­ly usu­al­ly on the con­di­tion that we won’t share details or name names. For exam­ple, we have been told of small brew­eries strug­gling to com­pete with, first, even small­er ones will­ing to sell their beer cheap, if they get paid at all, for the sake of expo­sure; and, sec­ond­ly, with an emerg­ing class of well-estab­lished firms who can afford to shift beer in bulk, and have the cash-flow to wait for pay­ments. At the same time, the own­er of one tiny brew­ery has told us that he has been all but bul­lied by exist­ing local con­cerns who feel they have first dibs on the hand­ful of free-hous­es and farm­ers’ mar­kets in town.

Of course beer is a busi­ness like any oth­er – Richard Bur­house says it is ‘naive that peo­ple think brew­eries wouldn’t want to pro­tect their brands’ – but for con­sumers who have bought into the admit­ted­ly facile mantra that ‘beer peo­ple are good peo­ple’, and an ide­al of com­mu­ni­ty co-oper­a­tion between ‘lit­tle guys’, it is rather sad­den­ing. When a nation­al or mul­ti-nation­al com­pa­ny brings in the lawyers and ‘bul­lies’ a small brew­ery, there is a reli­able good­ies vs. bad­dies nar­ra­tive, but that is not always the case when one part of the sup­posed com­mu­ni­ty butts up against anoth­er.

Anoth­er blow to the idea of the inher­ent good­ness of The Beer Folk came with the news in Novem­ber 2014 that the founder of Hackney’s Lon­don Fields Brew­ery, Jules de Vere White­way-Wilkin­son, had been giv­en more time by courts to repay a £3.2 mil­lion debt to Her Majesty’s Rev­enue & Cus­toms (HMRC) result­ing from a 2004 con­vic­tion for deal­ing and smug­gling cocaine and oth­er drugs. (Joel Gol­by of Vice mag­a­zine called him ‘the hip­ster Tony Mon­tana’.) Though his past had not exact­ly been hid­den it came as a sur­prise to many. When he was arrest­ed on a sep­a­rate charge of tax eva­sion in Decem­ber the same year, and the brew­ery was raid­ed by police, there was a pal­pa­ble sense of dis­ap­point­ment. Lon­don Fields looked doomed but, in fact, has strug­gled on, its own­er hav­ing con­vinced the courts that the best way to ensure he is able to pay his debts is by con­tin­u­ing to sell beer. In March 2015, it was revealed that brew­ing staff had been made redun­dant as pro­duc­tion of beer was moved to Tom Wood Beers in Lin­colnshire – a PR prob­lem for a brew­ery with ‘Lon­don’ in its name, regard­less of prac­ti­cal­i­ties.

New section.

Vertical Integration

In the 20th cen­tu­ry, the largest British brew­ers did every­thing: they had brew­eries, bot­tling plants, fleets of lor­ries, teams of sales­men, PR depart­ments, cooper­ages, car­pen­try shops, brass bands, typ­ing pools and, of course, vast estates of pubs. The kind of micro-brew­ery that emerged in the 1970s has tend­ed to reject all of that, remain­ing instead small, lean and agile, large­ly out of finan­cial neces­si­ty. But, like grav­i­ty, the urge to ‘bring it in house’ seems to be an irre­sistible force and, even as Brew Bri­tan­nia was at the print­ers, we observed an inter­est­ing devel­op­ment: more and more hip bars were set­ting up brew­eries, while at the same time brew­eries were build­ing bars.

The Sheffield Tap’s brew­ery was up and run­ning when we inter­viewed Stu­art Ross there in 2013. Mark Dor­ber, for­mer­ly of the White Horse in West Lon­don and now run­ning two pubs in East Anglia, as well as the Beer Acad­e­my train­ing pro­gramme, com­menced brew­ing at the Swan in Strat­ford St Mary in 2014. Small Bar in Bris­tol acquired a small brew­ing kit in the sum­mer of the same year, and Leeds’s North Bar (Brew Bri­tan­nia, chap­ter twelve) announced the launch of their brew­ing com­pa­ny in May 2015. There are more, and more on the way.

At the same time, UK brew­eries have begun to realise the ben­e­fits of sell­ing draught beer direct the to the pub­lic. Tra­di­tion­al­ly in the UK brew­ery taps, if they exist­ed at all, were in pubs near the brew­ery gates rather than on site or, in the case of larg­er brew­eries, were on site but reserved for staff and cor­po­rate events. In the US, how­ev­er, where many craft brew­eries grew out of brew­pub setups, the tap room has long been a quin­tes­sen­tial part of the expe­ri­ence. For British brew­ers inspired by the Amer­i­can scene the idea of deliv­er­ing beer straight into the wait­ing hands of drinkers, as fresh as can be and with­out inter­fer­ence, in styl­ish indus­tri­al-min­i­mal­ist sur­round­ings – bars made from old pal­lets, con­crete floor­ing and so on – was irre­sistible.

The Ker­nel brew­ery launched in Bermond­sey, South Lon­don, in 2010 and began open­ing its doors to drinkers on Sat­ur­days from 2011 – ‘basi­cal­ly two tables with rick­ety bench­es right out­side the tiny brew­ery’ as recalled by Lon­don-based beer blog­ger ‘Jez­za’ who now co-man­ages the web­site BeerGuideLondon.com:

[It was a] huge­ly enjoy­able oppor­tu­ni­ty to drink the fresh­est pos­si­ble beer at source, in amongst the brew­ing equip­ment with a chance to chat to the own­ers, brew­ers and staff.

Two more brew­eries, Par­ti­zan and Brew by Num­bers, run by dis­ci­ples of The Kernel’s founder Evin O’Riordain, opened near­by in the fol­low­ing year so that, by 2013, a low-key, ultra-hip bar crawl had been estab­lished. That July, food and drink blog­ger Matt Hick­man wrote a post on his web­site, MattTheList.com, sug­gest­ing a route tak­ing in the three tap rooms and, with Dis­tillery Row in Port­land, Ore­gon, part­ly in mind, referred to it in a throw­away com­ment as the ‘Bermond­sey beer mile’. He explained how that par­tic­u­lar term came to stick:

It came up in con­ver­sa­tion many times with friends who live in Bermond­sey, in a very harm­less way real­ly (hence why it’s quite under­stat­ed in the blog). It is my inven­tion as far as I know … Lots of peo­ple were already writ­ing about it, call­ing it sim­i­lar things – Beer­mond­sey made a few appear­ances – and some­body else would sure­ly have got to Bermond­sey Beer Mile soon after us.

In the months that fol­lowed, more brew­eries arrived in the area – Four­Pure (2013), Anspach & Hob­day (2014), South­wark Brew­ing (2014) and U-Brew (2015) – along with an upmar­ket bar-off-licence called the Bot­tle Shop, and the Bermond­sey Beer Mile became longer and even more entic­ing. Matt Hick­man recalled, how­ev­er, that efforts to mar­ket the Beer Mile, dri­ven pri­mar­i­ly by Jack Hob­day of Anspach & Hob­day, caused some fric­tion between the brew­ers:

A Twit­ter feed was set up just to retweet tap lists and open­ing times, and to gath­er pho­tos and friend­ly tweets as peo­ple enjoyed their Sat­ur­day after­noons. A web­site was con­sid­ered but after chat­ting to oth­er brew­ers, not every­one was keen for under­stand­able rea­sons and we end­ed up not tak­ing it any fur­ther. I think had it not been called Bermond­sey Beer Mile (which has the ring of a boozy stag-do unfor­tu­nate­ly) and just been a nice info account, it might still be there.

Regard­less, like The Rake back in 2008, Bermond­sey attract­ed jour­nal­ists and blog­gers who liked the catchy name and the sense of a ‘hap­pen­ing’. As a result, it was soon over­run with vis­i­tors who had read about it in the Evening Stan­dard or Time Out, in search of some­thing new and inter­est­ing to do with their pre­cious leisure time. Here’s how Rate­beer forum user ‘imdown­thep­ub’ described it in April 2015:

The first time, a year ago, was with the Rate­beer crew and I remem­ber it hav­ing fam­i­lies and cou­ples pop­ping into the Brew­eries, all civilised and very pleas­ant. Now I’m not sure I had rose coloured spec­ta­cles on for the first trip, but this sec­ond trip seemed very dif­fer­ent. There were huge groups of lads get­ting pret­ty drunk, stag par­ties and a very con­fused Hen Par­ty, rather over dressed for the occa­sion… Huge queues for sin­gle loos, peo­ple uri­nat­ing in the fac­to­ry unit areas, The Ker­nel clos­ing ear­ly due to the issues, no fam­i­ly groups that we could see just a few cou­ples cling­ing together.

So we should per­haps not expect too many more such crawls to be estab­lished in oth­er cities, though it seems now almost oblig­a­tory for start-up brew­eries to include space for a bar in their plans – show­rooms for their style as much as com­mer­cial ven­tures. We asked Richard Bur­house of Mag­ic Rock what lay behind the deci­sion to open a tap room at his brew­ery in Hud­der­s­field, after some false starts:

Essen­tial­ly so the brew­ery has a ‘heart’, some­where we can serve the beers as fresh and well looked after as pos­si­ble. Doing it this way is con­ve­nient as the tap can help con­tribute to the lease of the whole brew­ery site. Plus peo­ple are very  inter­est­ed in vis­it­ing brew­eries, and hav­ing the tap at the brew­ery means they can do a tour while they’re here. It just makes a lot more sense to me than run­ning a bar off site. Although that might fol­low at some point.

In Novem­ber 2014, thanks to cam­paign­ing from a ded­i­cat­ed group of pub­li­cans, CAMRA, and oth­ers, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of more small-brew­ery owned pubs per­haps came a lit­tle clos­er with­in reach. It was then that the Gov­ern­ment intro­duced a com­pul­so­ry ‘mar­ket rent only’ (MRO) option for pub licensees, loos­en­ing the grip of ‘pub­cos’ on Britain’s pubs. Pub­cos (pub com­pa­nies) are the large and large­ly unpop­u­lar busi­ness­es which acquired sur­plus pubs from the Big Six brew­eries in the 1990s when the so-called Beer Orders took effect. Their busi­ness mod­el relies on lur­ing pub­li­cans with the promise of low prop­er­ty rent which is then made up by requir­ing them to pur­chase beer and oth­er stock through a cen­tral sup­ply net­work, from a lim­it­ed range, at inflat­ed prices. MRO now gives those pub­li­cans the oppor­tu­ni­ty to say, when their rent is reviewed, that actu­al­ly, they’d rather pay full-whack for rent on the pub and then buy what­ev­er stock they like, from whomev­er.

That joins anoth­er piece of poten­tial­ly sig­nif­i­cant leg­is­la­tion on the books – the pow­er to des­ig­nate pubs as ‘assets of com­mu­ni­ty val­ue’ (ACV) as intro­duced in the 2011 Local­ism Act. Where pub com­pa­nies had pre­vi­ous­ly been in the habit of sell­ing off sup­pos­ed­ly unprof­itable pubs for repur­pos­ing as shops or for demo­li­tion, the ACV pow­er, as long as some­one is moti­vat­ed to evoke it, now gives them moti­va­tion to sell such ‘com­mu­ni­ty locals’ on to busi­ness­es, cam­paign groups or indi­vid­u­als who might be able to make some­thing of them. ACV has already, accord­ing to a Gov­ern­ment state­ment at the end of 2014, already saved some 100 pubs.

None of this is like­ly, frankly, to lead to a flood of par­a­disi­a­cal free-hous­es burst­ing with micro-brew­ery beer – pub com­pa­nies have already begun moves to side­step the chal­lenge by con­vert­ing some of their premis­es to man­aged chain pubs rather than ten­ant­ed hous­es, and many pub­li­cans are under­stand­ably most excit­ed by the free­dom to buy not bet­ter or more inter­est­ing beer, but cheap­er. Nonethe­less, it may well give room for manoeu­vre to enter­pris­ing indi­vid­u­als, exist­ing pub chains and, of course, brew­eries. Thorn­bridge, for exam­ple, already run many pubs in the Sheffield area, most of them through an arrange­ment with pub com­pa­ny Enter­prise. With mon­ey rolling in from prof­itable brew­ing oper­a­tions and the MRO enshrined in law, brew­eries keen to take on pubs ought now to find it eas­i­er to do so, and it is just pos­si­ble that estates of tied hous­es, Big Six style, could make a come­back.

If so, how­ev­er, they might well find them­selves in com­pe­ti­tion with a new, small­er, more agile com­peti­tor.

New section.

Almost Too Wee

A cou­ple of peo­ple have asked why we didn’t write about microp­ubs in Brew Bri­tan­nia. The hon­est answer is that we’d hard­ly reg­is­tered their exis­tence. When we start­ed writ­ing our book, there were around 15 microp­ubs in the UK and by the time we sub­mit­ted our draft, there were 40 or so. But, 18 months on, there are 116 with more on the way, and the founder of the orig­i­nal microp­ub, Mar­tyn Hilli­er, believes this is only the begin­ning:

The FT asked me last year – how many will there be in five years’ time? I think there’ll be 10,000 if they keep open­ing at their cur­rent rate but I couldn’t bring myself to say it – I thought they’d laugh – so I said 5,000.

If microp­ubs were a chain then Mar­tyn Hilli­er would be the CEO. As it is, he runs his own tiny pub in Herne Bay, Kent, while act­ing as the fig­ure­head for some­thing that, for once, tru­ly does deserve to be described as a move­ment. Born in Ruis­lip in North West Lon­don in 1959, he grew up there and in Kent, mov­ing back to the city when he was 21. As a young man in the 1970s, he gave up on his pre­ferred draught mild because it was so often of poor qual­i­ty and became instead a lager drinker. Then, in the 1980s, he dis­cov­ered David Bruce’s Firkin brew­pubs which led him to become a fer­vent believ­er in real ale. (Though, as it hap­pens, CAMRA did not con­sid­er the Firkin beer to be ‘real’ under the strict terms of their tech­ni­cal def­i­n­i­tion, as explained in chap­ter sev­en of Brew Bri­tan­nia.) A few years lat­er, Hilli­er moved back to Kent and opened an off-licence in Can­ter­bury sell­ing cask ale to take away and bot­tled Bel­gian beer, along­side the usu­al wines and spir­its. After many suc­cess­ful years, that was put out of busi­ness by  the open­ing of a big-brew­ery-owned off-licence near­by in 1997, and so Hilli­er moved again, to Herne Bay. There, he took on a for­mer butcher’s shop and con­vert­ed it into anoth­er off-licence. In 2003, he had a bad-tem­pered con­ver­sa­tion with a local licens­ing offi­cer, which con­clud­ed with a sug­ges­tion from the police­man:

He said, ‘You know they’re chang­ing the licens­ing laws, don’t you? You could open a pub.’ I thought, ‘A pub!? Me?’ Pubs were all lager drinkers and smok­ers and trou­ble. But I thought, ‘Hang on – this would be my pub, so no smok­ing, no lager.’

Until 2003, would-be new licensees were required to demon­strate the need for a new pub or bar in a giv­en area, which it was all too easy for brew­eries, pub com­pa­nies and oth­er com­peti­tors to chal­lenge. Gain­ing a new licence was expen­sive and fraught. With the intro­duc­tion of the Licens­ing Act 2003, all they had to do was con­vince mag­is­trates that there would be no increase in crime or pub­lic nui­sance, and no risk to pub­lic safe­ty or chil­dren – a far eas­i­er and, cru­cial­ly, much cheap­er process. By the time it came into effect in 2005, Hilli­er was ready to go and imme­di­ate­ly turned his off-licence into a tiny pub under the name The Butcher’s Arms. It has space for a hand­ful of cus­tomers and no bar to act as a bar­ri­er between Hilli­er and his cus­tomers.

With­in three years, it was CAMRA Kent pub of the year. In 2009, I sup­plied beer to the region­al CAMRA AGM, and then got invit­ed to deliv­er a pre­sen­ta­tion to the nation­al AGM in East­bourne… So I stood up in front of 400 peo­ple and told them to open their own. Most of them didn’t get it – when I said microp­ub, they thought I meant micro­brew­ery, and that I was get­ting my words mud­dled… Peter [Mor­gan] from Hartle­pool got it straight away, though – he under­stood it. He opened [the Rat Race] with­in six months, and then Just Beer in Newark opened soon after.

The appeal of the microp­ub to would-be pub­li­cans is easy to under­stand, as espe­cial­ly as explained by the evan­gel­i­cal Mr Hilli­er:

Microp­ubs make mon­ey. Some of them have turnover of £250k a year… I stay below the VAT thresh­old and I don’t have any staff. Shops are ten-a-pen­ny thanks to super­mar­kets and what else do they do oth­er than turn them into char­i­ty shops, pound shops, book­ies? I don’t pay busi­ness rates – I’m at less than £6000 rate­able val­ue… Run­ning  a microp­ub is per­fect for a 55-year-old who’s just tak­en ear­ly retire­ment. I take the piss – if the pub is emp­ty at 9, I close up, because it’s my pub. (It’s usu­al­ly busy, though.) It’s the 10th anniver­sary on 24 Novem­ber and it’s flown by because it’s not like work.

With a cer­tain type of drinker, too, they are undoubt­ed­ly pop­u­lar. Sus­sex-based beer blog­ger Glenn John­son is a huge fan of microp­ubs and explained why in an email:

The appeal of microp­ubs to me is their sim­plic­i­ty. Beer plays a mas­sive as they all sell an ever-chang­ing beer range from inde­pen­dent micros which is what I want from a pub. Many towns are now dom­i­nat­ed by Wether­spoons when it comes to a decent beer range but microp­ubs offer a bet­ter beer range with­out the dis­trac­tions, in an inti­mate friend­ly envi­ron­ment. They are all run by beer enthu­si­asts from what I have seen so you won’t be fobbed off with any­thing that isn’t in great con­di­tion and the beer novice will be guid­ed to a beer they might like depend­ing upon what they nor­mal­ly drink. This per­son­al ser­vice also has great appeal. They are prob­a­bly aimed at real ale drinkers in their 40s + who feel alien­at­ed by mod­ern town cen­tre pubs.

But how impor­tant are microp­ubs in the sto­ry of beer and brew­eries? By def­i­n­i­tion (that is, the offi­cial def­i­n­i­tion pro­vid­ed by the Microp­ub Asso­ci­a­tion) they serve only real ale and their focus (to gen­er­alise very broad­ly) is on ses­sion-strength bit­ters and gold­en ales, usu­al­ly with a local con­nec­tion. For brew­eries too small to deal with Tesco or Enter­prise Inns, but not trendy enough to gen­er­ate huge amounts of excite­ment among geeks – that is, the kind of brew­ery that makes up the vast major­i­ty of the much-trum­pet­ed c.1,300 – they might well be a boon. Mar­tyn Hilli­er is cer­tain­ly con­vinced that they are good for small brew­eries which, instead of sell­ing via SIBA, pub com­pa­nies or dis­trib­u­tors, can deal direct­ly with pub­li­cans, thus max­imis­ing the prof­it on each cask of beer sold.

We gave quite a bit of space in the book to the emer­gence of ‘craft beer bars’ – a type of drink­ing estab­lish­ment that was and is point­ed­ly not a pub – but they remain fair­ly scarce, even with BrewDog’s rapid expan­sion across the coun­try, and are pri­mar­i­ly found in larg­er cities. Might it be that the microp­ub is part of the same phe­nom­e­non but expressed dif­fer­ent­ly to suit the needs of small­er towns with old­er pop­u­la­tions? That is, an alter­na­tive to cor­po­rate bland­ness and cen­tral con­trol which could not have exist­ed before the Beer Orders of 1989 under the iron grip of the Big Six brew­ers, or (in most cas­es) before changes the 2003 Licens­ing Act made it eas­i­er to turn a retail unit into a drink­ing estab­lish­ment.

At any rate, there can scarce­ly be any town in Britain that does not have emp­ty shops and that can­not muster 20 ded­i­cat­ed real ale drinkers, so we’ll be sur­prised if there aren’t 500 microp­ubs by 2017.

New section.

Sorry, Ronnie!

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments of the past 18 months has been the launch by the J.D. Wether­spoon (JDW) chain of a ded­i­cat­ed craft beer menu with its own Brew­Dog-style logo and pun­ning sub-brand, ‘Craft­work’.

There are more than 800 Wether­spoon pubs around the UK occu­py­ing prime spots on high streets. The first opened in 1979 when Nor­wich-born, New Zealand-raised entre­pre­neur took on a pub in Muswell Hill, North Lon­don, and renamed it after one of his school teach­ers. To a cer­tain extent a prod­uct of the CAM­RA-led ‘real ale rev­o­lu­tion’ of the 1970s, for a long time, JDW pubs were pop­u­lar because they had beers oth­er than the usu­al sus­pects – ‘We were offer­ing a range that oth­ers couldn’t – like the craft beer bars do today, I sup­pose,’ Tim Mar­tin told us in an inter­view in Feb­ru­ary 2015. Nor did it hurt that those beers were sold at below the usu­al price, in clean, com­fort­able, tra­di­tion­al­ly pub-like sur­round­ings, even though the units they occu­pied were often for­mer shops or show­rooms. In the 1990s, the chain went nation­al and became more ambi­tious, tak­ing over old cin­e­mas and oth­er large premis­es, while retain­ing a steely focus on low prices.

These days, the pubs divide opin­ion. They can lack char­ac­ter and, in an age when tra­di­tion­al pubs are under threat, some­times seem to rep­re­sent a Wal-Mart ten­den­cy, out-pric­ing com­peti­tors. Those who love them, how­ev­er, dis­miss crit­ics as snobs and point to Martin’s con­tin­ued com­mit­ment to offer­ing a keen­ly-priced and var­ied range of real ale – even quite aver­age branch­es offer six or so at any one time – as an exam­ple oth­ers should fol­low.

Even those who turn their noses up, how­ev­er, had their atten­tion grabbed by new arrivals from New York City which hit the shelves of JDW pubs in March 2014: three dif­fer­ent and exclu­sive canned beers from Brooklyn’s hip Six­point Brew­ery. Since 2013, JDW had been car­ry­ing Brook­lyn Lager, Goose Island IPA and Brew­Dog Punk IPA but those beers had lost their glam­our through ubiq­ui­ty (all three are read­i­ly avail­able in super­mar­kets) and, in the case of Goose Island, big-brew­ery takeover. But Six­point was dif­fer­ent: these beers were not brewed under con­tract in the UK, or under a sly sub-brand owned by a mul­ti-nation­al brew­ing com­pa­ny, and so by most stan­dards, and cer­tain­ly under the def­i­n­i­tion estab­lished by the US Brew­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion, they are bona fide ‘craft brew­ers’. Nor were they oth­er­wise avail­able in the UK. As if that were not lure enough for Britain’s beer geeks, JDW sold the cans in the first instance at two for £5 – cheap­er than most bog stan­dard lagers in the aver­age UK pub. (And as of June 2015, they are avail­able in our local branch for £1.99 a can.)

Some beer geeks refused to play along, insist­ing that they would con­tin­ue to sup­port inde­pen­dent local busi­ness­es rather than a colos­sal chain. Oth­ers, how­ev­er, bought cans unopened and took them home to drink, or began to use JDW to bring down the over­all cost of a night out by ‘pre-load­ing’ on bar­gain craft beer before head­ing to a more expen­sive spe­cial­ist bar. Some were sim­ply pleased to know that they could rely on JDW for an inter­est­ing beer dur­ing their Sat­ur­day after­noon shop­ping trips.

JDW must, to some extent, have been hap­py with this first phase as the range was expand­ed six months lat­er, in Octo­ber 2014, when the Six­point cans were joined by kegged beers from Brew­Dog (This Is Lager) and US brew­ery Dev­ils Back­bone (though the beer is actu­al­ly made at Banks’s in Wolver­hamp­ton), as well as bot­tles from Rogue (Ore­gon) and Lagu­ni­tas (Cal­i­for­nia). Types of beer that were once to be found only at North Bar in Leeds or the Rake in Bor­ough Mar­ket are now avail­able, at pock­et mon­ey prices, a few steps from WH Smith and Boots the Chemist, every­where from Pen­zance to Inver­ness – a remark­able change in the land­scape of British beer.

Have Wether­spoon cus­tomers tak­en to the new offer – are peo­ple actu­al­ly buy­ing these beers? Per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, JDW are not will­ing to share com­mer­cial­ly sen­si­tive sales infor­ma­tion and gave us only a bland PR state­ment in response to that ques­tion. Mem­bers of staff we have asked in var­i­ous JDW pubs in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try have, how­ev­er, giv­en sim­i­lar answers: they sell well enough to be worth the both­er. One barper­son said, ‘We get through ‘em, but it’s usu­al­ly the same few peo­ple who come in and drink a few in one sit­ting – they tried them and got a taste for them and now that’s what they drink.’ Mean­while, com­men­ta­tors have observed deep dis­count­ing in some pubs, which they have inter­pret­ed as a sign that the exper­i­ment is fail­ing. In an email, how­ev­er, one expe­ri­enced indus­try jour­nal­ist ques­tioned that assump­tion:

My per­cep­tion, and this is entire­ly anec­do­tal, is that the JDW craft exper­i­ment has been a bit patchy. They have def­i­nite­ly been using dis­counts and deals to shift the Six Point cans, the Brew­Dog bot­tles and some oth­ers, but the thing to bear in mind is that JDW, iron­i­cal­ly giv­en [Tim Martin’s] views on super­mar­kets, oper­ates a lot like Tesco in that they have a built in pro­mo­tions strat­e­gy so there will always be cer­tain prod­ucts from every range offered on dis­count or buy-one-get-one-free style deals. The craft beer is no excep­tion, so it might be that the bar­gain bin offers and dis­counts that I’ve seen, and clear­ly oth­ers have report­ed to you, are planned rather than pan­ic.

Ulti­mate­ly, the best indi­ca­tor of the suc­cess of the Wether­spoon craft beer pack­age will be whether it is still there when it the chain’s menus are refreshed in autumn 2015. If the craft beer range is not sell­ing, we can be sure that Tim Mar­tin won’t hes­i­tate to ditch it.

New section.

Breaking Away from the Peloton

The announce­ment in May 2015 of the launch of a new body called Unit­ed Craft Brew­ers (UCB) may or may not be big news – not enough time has passed, nor enough detail been spec­i­fied, for us to say at this stage. Its found­ing mem­bers, how­ev­er, are an inter­est­ing bunch. Along with beer dis­trib­u­tors and importers James Clay they are:

  • Beaver­town (Lon­don)
  • Brew­Dog (Aberdeen­shire)
  • Cam­den Town (Lon­don)
  • Mag­ic Rock (Hud­der­s­field, W. York­shire)

Whether those are the best brew­eries in Britain today is open to debate but they are cer­tain­ly some of the most talked about who, between them, occu­py a huge amount of space in the con­ver­sa­tion around ‘craft beer’ in the UK.

Inspired by the high­ly suc­cess­ful US Brew­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion (BA), UCB aims to pro­duce its own def­i­n­i­tion of the con­tentious term ‘craft brew­er’ in con­sul­ta­tion with mem­bers with the inten­tion of pre­vent­ing com­pa­nies such as, for exam­ple, Greene King from suc­cess­ful­ly mar­ket­ing them­selves as such. With the mar­ket­ing nous of the names above, and the media clout of Brew­Dog in par­tic­u­lar, we would be sur­prised if they are not to some degree suc­cess­ful in that endeav­our. Here’s the BA’s def­i­n­i­tion, which will like­ly form the basis of UCB’s:

Small

Annu­al pro­duc­tion of 6 mil­lion bar­rels of beer or less (approx­i­mate­ly 3 per­cent of U.S. annu­al sales). Beer pro­duc­tion is attrib­uted to the rules of alter­nat­ing pro­pri­etor­ships.

Inde­pen­dent

Less than 25 per cent of the craft brew­ery is owned or con­trolled (or equiv­a­lent eco­nom­ic inter­est) by an alco­holic bev­er­age indus­try mem­ber that is not itself a craft brew­er.

Tra­di­tion­al

A brew­er that has a major­i­ty of its total bev­er­age alco­hol vol­ume in beers whose fla­vor derives from tra­di­tion­al or inno­v­a­tive brew­ing ingre­di­ents and their fer­men­ta­tion. Fla­vored malt bev­er­ages (FMBs) are not con­sid­ered beers.

(Those num­bers will, of course, require adjust­ment for the UK mar­ket – all but a hand­ful of the big mul­ti-nation­als oper­at­ing in Britain would meet those cri­te­ria.)

With the Cam­paign for Real Ale rep­re­sent­ing cask ale pro­duc­ers to a lim­it­ed extent, and SIBA rep­re­sent­ing bet­ter-estab­lished inde­pen­dent brew­ers (i.e. micro­brew­eries found­ed from the 1970s-2000s), there may well be increased ten­sion between these fac­tions… Or per­haps, if over­lap between mem­ber­ship is lim­it­ed, help­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion?

Regard­less of its suc­cess, the con­fi­dence of the founders of UCB in found­ing an entire­ly new organ­i­sa­tion is per­haps a sign that Britain has an emerg­ing class of young brew­ers who are the most like­ly to fol­low the path set by Sier­ra Neva­da in the US, which is now so big that it oper­ates across mul­ti­ple sites in the US and has a vast fleet of trucks to ser­vice them.

New section.

Perestroika & Glasnost

There are signs, at last, that the Cam­paign for Real Ale is tak­ing active steps to find a way to live with ‘craft beer’, though the organisation’s lead­er­ship daren’t state it quite so bold­ly for fear­ing of prompt­ing hard-lin­ers to mobilise the tanks.

In March 2014, Mike Ben­ner stepped down as Chief Exec­u­tive of CAMRA and took a job at SIBA. In Sep­tem­ber, he was replaced by Tim Page who, after 27 years in the army, worked in gov­ern­ment and the char­i­ty sec­tor. The Chief Exec­u­tive is to Col­in Valen­tine, the cur­rent chair of CAMRA, as a per­ma­nent sec­re­tary is to the sec­re­tary of state in a gov­ern­ment min­istry – that is, osten­si­bly a ser­vant of the elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive but, in fact, pow­er­ful in his own right. In April 2015, at CAMRA’s annu­al gen­er­al meet­ing (AGM) in Not­ting­ham Page gave an ago­nis­ing­ly care­ful speech in which he repeat­ed­ly empha­sised his love of real ale and his belief in its qual­i­ty, while also attempt­ing to send sub­tle sig­nals about the need for change:

My key role, as I see it, is to chal­lenge the organ­i­sa­tion. At the moment I still con­sid­er myself a bit of an out­sider – I’m still learn­ing. And because I’ve got no past his­to­ry in the cam­paign I can come in and ask, quite legit­i­mate­ly, some ques­tions – you’ve been inside the organ­i­sa­tion maybe you’ve just thought, well, there’s no point in ask­ing it. Well, I’m ask­ing those ques­tions and per­haps in doing that, I might act as a cat­a­lyst for change, where change is appro­pri­ate – change for the bet­ter, not just change for change’s sake.

Lat­er in the same pre­sen­ta­tion, he sug­gest­ed that CAMRA ought to be ‘inclu­sive rather than exclu­sive, tol­er­ant rather than intol­er­ant’. This may have been an oblique acknowl­edge­ment of CAMRA’s ongo­ing strug­gle to address the issue of sex­ism in its ranks – in Octo­ber 2014 a leaflet dis­trib­uted to uni­ver­si­ties with the aim of recruit­ing young mem­bers fea­tured a young man flirt­ing with bur­lesque dancers, and sex­ist car­toons and arti­cles con­tin­ue to crop up in branch mag­a­zines. In the run-up to the AGM, Rob­bie ‘Lon­don murky’ Pick­er­ing attempt­ed to pro­pose a motion address­ing this prob­lem which was not put for­ward on the grounds that the bulk of what he sug­gest­ed was already pol­i­cy; that pol­i­cy was reaf­firmed at the AGM and there is evi­dence of steps being tak­en to tack­le instances of sex­ism in branch mag­a­zines in its wake.

Talk of tol­er­ance and inclu­siv­i­ty served dou­ble-duty, how­ev­er, as a ref­er­ence to the pol­i­tics of beer dis­pense and cul­ture, and Page went on to observe that, like him, many who lat­er fall in love with cask-con­di­tioned beer do not start out that way. Though he didn’t say as much out­right the impli­ca­tion was that those who are excit­ed by kegged craft beer are primed for con­ver­sion to the cause, and should not be seen as the ene­my. We spoke to Tim Page and, though his every word was cho­sen with care, he did make more explic­it his own atti­tudes to ‘craft beer’:

There’s a dis­tinc­tion between accep­tance and recog­ni­tion – we can acknowl­edge that there are oth­er types of beer out there while still pro­mot­ing real ale as the ‘pre­mier cru’… I think the dis­pute with CAMRA [in 2011] was can­ny PR on the part of Brew­Dog but I also believe there is a false dis­tinc­tion, and my own kids are evi­dence of that. They’ll drink some­thing like Adnams in one round and then, in the next, some craft beer at £6 a bot­tle, which they also enjoy, because it’s very clever and tasty.

He was also at pains to empha­sise, how­ev­er, that his views are not fun­da­men­tal­ly impor­tant:

I’ve been out and about meet­ing and greet­ing branch mem­bers and some have been wary, while oth­ers have said, ‘Oh, great – you’re just the man we need.’ And I have to say, well, wait a sec­ond – I’m not here to force change the mem­ber­ship doesn’t want. I’m con­fi­dent that com­mon sense will pre­vail and that the will of the major­i­ty of mem­bers will win out. Will there be some who don’t like change, how­ev­er care­ful? Of course.

Vet­er­an beer writer Tim Webb, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer among many oth­er vol­umes, has been a mem­ber of CAMRA since 1974. In recent years, how­ev­er, he has become an elo­quent crit­ic of the Campaign’s fail­ure to react to the emer­gence of good beer that does not con­form to its def­i­n­i­tion of ‘real ale’. For exam­ple, in a let­ter to CAMRA’s news­pa­per, What’s Brew­ing, that appeared in Feb­ru­ary 2014 he wrote:

The chal­lenge for the Cam­paign is how to adapt to the much-improved world of beer it helped cre­ate. Luke warm accep­tance of, or being not against the great­est improve­ments to beer tastes in a cen­tu­ry, is not a good enough stance. To younger eyes it makes CAMRA look like a much-loved grand­par­ent who wants to keep dri­ving even though they can’t make out the road ahead.

He expand­ed on his views in an email in June 2015:

I am fre­quent­ly shocked by the lack of knowl­edge a large num­ber of old­er Cam­paign­ers have about beer, a fact reflect­ed in the dot­ty def­i­n­i­tion of ‘real ale’ that has been per­fect­ed in recent years. Obsessed with the pres­ence of yeast and the absence of extra­ne­ous car­bon diox­ide it has noth­ing to say about ingre­di­ents, brew­ing meth­ods or even the type and quan­ti­ty of con­di­tion­ing,  Two gen­er­a­tions of beer drinkers now seri­ous­ly believe that a fast for­ward ver­sion of light ale, often bare­ly con­di­tioned at all, is the finest achieve­ment of 300 years of British brew­ing, while at the same time most of the rest of the world enjoys dis­cov­er­ing infi­nite vari­a­tions on the beer styles that put British brew­ing on top of the world for two cen­turies.  It’s igno­rant and what is worse a size­able pro­por­tion of these cognoscen­ti don’t want to learn.

In recent months, though, Tim Webb has grown more opti­mistic. Tim Page has con­vinced him that he means busi­ness and, in prac­ti­cal terms, in the kind of ges­ture that would have excit­ed Cold War Krem­li­nol­o­gists, in the spring of 2015, Webb was invit­ed to join CAMRA’s influ­en­tial Tech­ni­cal Com­mit­tee. This announce­ment about a motion passed at the AGM sent a sim­i­lar sig­nal:

CAMRA’s tech­ni­cal group pre­vi­ous­ly con­firmed that beer served from Key Kegs can qual­i­fy as real ale (pro­vid­ing there is yeast in the keg which allows sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion and it is served with­out gas com­ing into con­tact with the beer) – how­ev­er this motion called for the intro­duc­tion of a pro-active labelling sys­tem to help pro­mote and high­light real ales being served via key-kegs.

Unlike tra­di­tion­al casks, key-kegs pre­vent oxy­gen com­ing into con­tact with the beer inside. Unlike the stan­dard design of keg, how­ev­er, nor do they allow it to come into direct con­tact with car­bon diox­ide (which gives stan­dard keg its fizz), instead using gas to press down on the out­side of an inner sac which con­tains the liq­uid. That liq­uid might have been car­bon­at­ed with an injec­tion of gas but, in many cas­es, any fizz it has was acquired as through the action of yeast as it fer­ment­ed and con­di­tioned in large tanks at the brew­ery. Their exis­tence has high­light­ed a divi­sion between, on the one hand, those who believe ‘real ale’ requires live yeast and the absence of car­bon diox­ide and, on the oth­er, those who appar­ent­ly believe it requires the beer to come into con­tact with oxy­gen.

The announce­ment sought to pla­cate mem­bers who might be anx­ious that the way was being opened for CAMRA to embrace Watney’s Red Bar­rel by reas­sur­ing them that this was noth­ing new while, at the same time, send­ing a sig­nal to ‘pro­gres­sive mem­bers’ that the jug­ger­naut was grind­ing slow­ly for­ward. And that’s how we expect CAMRA to play this in the years to come – slow change with­out big announce­ments – mere­ly the occa­sion­al sound­ing of a dog whis­tle through select­ed chan­nels. That way, they will hope to avoid scar­ing away con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers many of whom (not all) also hap­pen to be old­er and there­fore, for var­i­ous rea­sons, make up the bulk of the active mem­ber­ship. But even if the process of change does prove tur­bu­lent, as Tim Page put it:

There’s nev­er been a bet­ter time to under­take this process of navel gaz­ing. We’ve got more mem­bers than ever – 173.5k – and we’re in good health finan­cial­ly, with trad­ing and so on. So now, while we’re rid­ing high, is the right time to make changes…  if they are need­ed.

New section.

Poochie Is One Outrageous Dude!

Larg­er, bet­ter-estab­lished brew­eries have con­tin­ued to make attempts to engage with the craft beer craze with mixed results, often invit­ing deri­sion in the process. In the first instance, they have con­tin­ued to launch sub-brands and spin-offs.

In the spring of 2014 Marston’s of Bur­ton-upon-Trent – who own sev­er­al oth­er brew­eries includ­ing Ring­wood, Banks’s and Jen­nings – launched a range under the Revi­sion­ist name with its own dis­tinct brand­ing and web­site. It includ­ed a black IPA, steam beer, Ger­man-style wheat beer, Bel­gian-style sai­son and sev­er­al oth­er such styl­is­tic odd­i­ties. These beers were made avail­able in kegs through the Marston’s pub estate and else­where and in bot­tles as an exclu­sive own-brand line for Tesco super­mar­kets. The Marston’s name appeared promi­nent­ly on the labels and there was no attempt to pass the range off as the prod­ucts of a small­er inde­pen­dent brew­ery.

In the autumn of the same year, though it already had a range of bot­tled and kegged beers being pitched as ‘craft’, Greene King of Bury St. Edmunds launched a range under a new name, Met­ro­pol­i­tan, also dis­trib­uted exclu­sive­ly through Tesco. Few brew­eries agi­tate beer geeks like Greene King and this prompt­ed grum­bles, notably from beer writer Will Hawkes, who described it on Twit­ter as ‘Greene King pre­tend­ing to be a small brew­ery’. Oth­ers argued that these projects and oth­ers like them were good news – hadn’t we all been demand­ing strong IPA and sai­son in super­mar­kets for years? And now we had it, we still weren’t hap­py.

In Jan­u­ary 2015, a piece of cre­ative mis­chief by Jon Rowett cast a light on how awk­ward it can be when lum­ber­ing beasts attempt to imi­tate more agile inde­pen­dents. Trolling in the old-fash­ioned sense, he post­ed what pur­port­ed to be an email from the Greene King mar­ket­ing depart­ment announc­ing a prod­uct launch to an unof­fi­cial Face­book forum for CAMRA mem­bers and sat back to watch the reac­tion:

Fol­low­ing a bumper year in 2014, which saw over 22% real sales growth in our craft range (Old Gold­en Hen, Hop­py Hen, and Greene King IPA Gold)  this Feb­ru­ary we are launch­ing a fresh new beer: Greene King IPA X-Treme.

Ini­tial­ly avail­able at select Greene King pubs in Lon­don and the South East, Greene King IPA X-Treme is a hopped-up, punked-out IPA for the Down­load Gen­er­a­tion. Weigh­ing in at 4.5% ABV and dry-hopped with North­down, Cen­ten­ni­al and Fug­gles hops to a blis­ter­ing 35 BUs, this new addi­tion is guar­an­teed to cre­ate a stir amongst craft beer afi­ciona­dos and die-hard real ale fans alike. This IPA has been hand-craft­ed by our cra­zi­est beer anar­chists in Bury St Edmunds and we’re rather proud of it!

It was per­haps a touch too believ­able in a world where Charles Wells, brew­ers of the staid Bom­bardier Bit­ter, works with US brew­ery Dog­fish Head to pro­duce DNA New World IPA. Before long, social media was alight with out­rage and mock­ery: ‘Frankly it made me want to be sick on my own face’ said one Twit­ter user; ‘that’s like giv­ing David Cameron a Mohi­can’ said anoth­er. (Some of the com­menters knew it was a hoax but were sim­ply join­ing in the trolling.) Greene King issued a denial through the trade press and the excite­ment passed. It was only a bit of fun but, like all the best jokes, it was amus­ing because it had the ring of truth about it: it was just the kind of thing every­one expect­ed Greene King might do.

Greene King are big but they are not mul­ti-nation­al, and huge mul­ti-nation­als tend to take a more direct approach: they increas­ing­ly buy into ‘craft’ sim­ply by buy­ing craft brew­eries. In recent years, brew­ing com­pa­nies such as AB-InBev have been on a shop­ping spree acquir­ing estab­lished Amer­i­can craft brew­eries such as Chicago’s Goose Island. When they took over the Seat­tle-based Elysian Brew­ing in Jan­u­ary 2015, we won­dered on our blog when they might turn their atten­tions to the UK and, when they did, which brew­eries might be in their sights. Beer writer Melis­sa Cole repeat­ed her pre­dic­tion that South London’s Mean­time, found­ed by Alas­tair Hook (Brew Bri­tan­nia, chap­ter eleven), was a like­ly tar­get in the wake of the appoint­ment in 2011 of a new CEO who had pre­vi­ous­ly worked at SAB-Miller. There was lit­tle sur­prise, there­fore, when in May 2015 it was announced that SAB-Miller had indeed bought Mean­time.

What were SAB hop­ing to achieve? Meantime’s brand remains strong and its posi­tion in the Lon­don mar­ket – a sta­ple of restau­rants, style bars and 1990s-style gas­trop­ubs – was no doubt appeal­ing. From Meantime’s point of view, there was cash in hand for the founders and investors (most of whom are Alas­tair Hook’s friends and fam­i­ly), the promise of invest­ment in the brew­ery, and access to SAB-Miller’s sales and dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work. Meantime’s cred­i­bil­i­ty among true believ­ers has been some­what dimin­ished, though it had already been on the wane for some years before­hand; and SAB-Miller has per­haps gained a lit­tle sec­ond-hand ‘cool’. It makes com­plete sense com­mer­cial­ly but it is hard not to feel a lit­tle sad at Meantime’s loss of inde­pen­dence and, per­haps more impor­tant­ly, anx­ious for what the future might hold. In June 2015, report­ing for the Busi­ness Insid­er web­site, busi­ness jour­nal­ist Oscar Williams-Grut said that Cam­den Brew­ery had fend­ed off a takeover attempt from an unnamed mul­ti-nation­al dur­ing their crowd-fund­ing cam­paign. (The offer was of $116 mil­lion dol­lars, said Williams-Grut, so per­haps that £75m val­u­a­tion wasn’t so eye­brow-rais­ing after all.) Cam­den refused to respond to his queries. We can expect much more of this in the next year or two.

Co-opt­ing craft beer through sly imi­ta­tion or buy-outs is not the only way for estab­lished firms to breach the gulf: friend­ly coop­er­a­tion makes for much bet­ter PR. Ear­ly in 2015, Adnams of South­wold col­lab­o­rat­ed with one of the stars of the craft beer scene, Mag­ic Rock of Hud­der­s­field. What­ev­er antag­o­nism beer geeks may feel or per­ceive between these two camps is not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect­ed in the feel­ings of the brew­ers them­selves. Fer­gus Fitzger­ald, head brew­er at Adnams, and Stu­art Ross of Mag­ic Rock are of sim­i­lar ages and are both easy-going. When they worked togeth­er to brew a cask-con­di­tioned sai­son called The Herbal­ist ear­ly, it gave Adnams a bit of glam­our but with­out wind­ing up those on the look­out for evi­dence of big beer muscling in on craft turf. Friend­ly coop­er­a­tion is ulti­mate­ly more appeal­ing to many con­sumers than ‘them and us’ rhetoric.

New section.

Approaching Total Beer

There is a sense in the air that a gold­en age has passed – that the days of gid­dy excite­ment are over, when almost any­one could snap up a vacant indus­tri­al unit, brew some­thing half-way inter­est­ing, and then wait for the cash and adu­la­tion to roll in. There is less room for the home­spun and the naive in 2015 than there was in 2013 – peo­ple are still hap­py to pay a pre­mi­um for the strange, the rare or the local, but they want to get their money’s worth. In the words of Andy Park­er, the award-win­ning home-brew­er behind the embry­on­ic Hamp­shire-based brew­ery Elu­sive, ‘Who would start a brew­ery in Lon­don sell­ing hop­py pale ales today?’

I wouldn’t want to rely on it. There are many estab­lished brew­eries who are like­ly to have a more refined prod­uct and much more capac­i­ty than the new kid on the block.

Indeed, the boom in Lon­don brew­ery num­bers appears to have peaked in 2014 after a fran­tic few years which saw the total surge from less than 10 to more than 70. (See Des de Moor’s recent­ly pub­lished sec­ond edi­tion of London’s Best Beer for more detailed infor­ma­tion.) With the arrival of the much-laud­ed Cloud­wa­ter among oth­ers, 2014–16 appears be Manchester’s moment. Per­haps Birm­ing­ham will be next? Depend­ing on which list you con­sult, Britain’s sec­ond biggest city has only five or six active brew­eries, none of them of the post-Brew­Dog school, which sug­gests there might still be at least some ter­ri­to­ry wait­ing to be seized.

So, micro-brew­ing, craft beer, or what­ev­er you want to call it, is leav­ing its ‘growth spurt’ phase, but there’s no need for gloomi­ness: the fact remains that the mod­ern British beer drinker is spoiled com­pared to those who blazed the trail in the 1970s. Ten­sions or not, there are more brew­eries and more beers than there have been for decades, and more styl­is­tic diver­si­ty than there has ever been in the UK with every­thing from Ger­man-style Gose to old-fash­ioned Bur­ton ale cur­rent­ly in pro­duc­tion. (And con­trary to hys­te­ria from some quar­ters, this broad­en­ing of vari­ety has not put tra­di­tion­al bit­ter in dan­ger of extinc­tion, though mild might be said to have fall­en between the cracks.)

Look­ing at the IPAs in Wether­spoon and sai­son in Tesco, per­haps the lega­cy of 50 years of alter­na­tive beer cul­ture is that the stan­dard – the qual­i­ty and vari­ety of beer on offer in non-spe­cial­ist out­lets, no hunt­ing required – has been tugged a lit­tle near­er the ide­al.

New section.

Appendix: Where are they now?

One of the prob­lems with tra­di­tion­al media such as books is that no soon­er has a draft been sub­mit­ted than it is out of date. With that in mind, here are updates on some of the key play­ers men­tioned in Brew Bri­tan­nia.

  • Mike Hall, chair of the Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood, who capped the book off with a sin­gle-line per­fect sum­ma­ry of 50 years of beer his­to­ry, sad­ly died not long after that meet­ing took place.
  • David Bruce, founder of the Firkin chain, has once again failed to retire: the advi­so­ry role he was tak­ing with the West Berk­shire Brew­ery has become a more hands-on involve­ment and anoth­er ven­ture, the City Pub Com­pa­ny, has seen him involved in open­ing a new brew­pub at Tem­ple in cen­tral Lon­don.
  • Bren­dan Dob­bin has been busy work­ing with Con­wy Brew­ery in Wales to recre­ate his own 1990s clas­sic Yaki­ma Grande Pale Ale, and con­tin­u­ing to advise oth­er brew­eries, includ­ing sup­ply­ing them with recipes and yeast. We pro­filed him in some detail, based on a new inter­view, in the Sum­mer 2015 edi­tion of CAMRA’s BEER
  • Moor Beer, the brew­ery around which we based a sub­stan­tial chunk of Chap­ter 16 of Brew Bri­tan­nia, has moved lock, stock and keg to Bris­tol, clos­er to the action on the craft beer front than the remote Som­er­set lev­els.
  • The revival of inter­est in Ian Nairn, who we men­tion in sev­er­al places in the book, has con­tin­ued apace. His 1966 clas­sic Nairn’s Lon­don, which includes much mate­r­i­al on Lon­don pubs and beer, was final­ly reprint­ed in a fine fac­sim­i­le paper­back edi­tion in Octo­ber 2014 and sev­er­al of his clas­sic 1970s pro­grammes have been made avail­able by the BBC through its online iPlay­er ser­vice.
  • Thorn­bridge turned 10-years-old this year and cel­e­brat­ed with the launch of Jaipur X, a one-off strong ver­sion of the beer that made its name. Dada, the keg-led craft beer bar the brew­ery ran in Sheffield, closed in 2015; though we found it qui­et on our vis­its, they insist the clo­sure was a result of rou­tine issues to do with build­ing main­te­nance and the lease.
  • When we inter­viewed them in 2013, Andrew Coop­er and Brett Ellis of The Wild Beer Co had plans to use wild yeast to fer­ment their beer, which have since been realised. Som­er­set Wild (5%) rather resem­bles scrumpy cider, as you might expect. As of June 2015, they have announced their inten­tion to open their first per­ma­nent bar, in Chel­tenham, with more to fol­low, along with a sec­ond brew­ing site.
  • An ear­li­er ver­sion of this arti­cle stat­ed that the recent­ly opened Pic­cadil­ly Tap in Man­ches­ter is a sta­ble­mate of the Sheffield Tap and Euston Tap; in fact, as a cor­re­spon­dent has informed us, the PT is owned by Blooms­bury Leisure who, though they do co-own the Euston Tap, have no con­nec­tion with the Sheffield Tap, which is run by Pivo­var.

New section.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Alex Buchanan (Thorn­bridge), Richard Bur­house (Mag­ic Rock), Stephen Dunk­ley, Nick Dwyer (Beaver­town), Oliv­er Fozard (Rooster’s), Jez­za, Chris Hall, Matt Hick­man, Mar­tyn Hilli­er, Glenn John­son, Daniel Lowe (Four­pure), Des de Moor, Tim Page (CAMRA), Andy Park­er, Rob­bie Pick­er­ing, Ed Raz­za­ll, David Ship­man, Neil Walk­er (CAMRA), Tim Webb, John West, along with sev­er­al peo­ple whose input was pro­vid­ed on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty.

And spe­cial thanks to ‘Paul in Eal­ing’ (@aleingpaul) who sug­gest­ed the title and John ‘The Beer Nut’ Duffy for edi­to­r­i­al advice.

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