News, nuggets and longreads 29 January 2022: In the doghouse

Every Saturday we round up the most interesting and informative writing about beer and pubs from the past week. This time, that includes BrewDog, (Not) Robert Burns and hop water.

On Monday night, BBC Scotland aired The Truth About BrewDog, a documentary that was highly critical of its business and employment practices. If you’re a UK TV licence payer you can watch it via iPlayer, or search the title to find open-access uploads elsewhere online. The story is also summarised in writing at BBC News Online.

Back in 2014, we devoted a whole chapter of Brew Britannia to BrewDog. We made a point of addressing both the positives and the negatives – mostly, at that point, around deceptive marketing and questionable details in the official origin story. (Read it, it’s good stuff, if we say so ourselves.) But that’s just the beginning for BBC reporter Mark Daly, who warms up by taking apart recent PR stories one by one: they didn’t change their names to Elvis, they didn’t brew beer on a plane, there is no employee of the month scheme, and so on.

Then things get serious with everything brought into question from their environmental credentials to the ethics of the Equity for Punks share scheme to the behaviour of CEO James Watt around female staff and customers. Those who follow Beer Twitter will have heard some of this already although even those jaded characters seemed shocked to hear that Watt bought shares in Heineken. We certainly were.

Watt is angry at what he calls, in vague terms, misinformation, and says he’ll be taking legal action. The BBC stands by its story – proving that, sometimes, ‘beer writers’ aren’t best placed to tackle the most important stories. Only with lawyers behind you, and serious journalistic training, can you really tackle these issues head on.

As for comment, Twitter was the place to be:

We don’t know anything about hop water. We’re not even sure we’ve heard of hop water. But Jordan St. John is here to set us right:

Hop Water is better than Non-Alcoholic Beer for a simple reason: Non-Alc Beer is less than the sum of its parts… With Hop Water, you remove the weight of expectation from the equation. Without fermentable material, you don’t have the claim that it’s beer prejudicing you against it. Perhaps more importantly, Hop Water is greater than the sum of its parts: A deceptively simple proposition that transforms its ingredients into a more complex whole… I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on how it works, and it bears some explanation… The first thing to look at is the ingredient list: Water, Hops, Yeast, Citric Acid… All of these ingredients have a role to perform. The absence of any fermentable material means that there’s no potential for alcohol or carbon dioxide. Fermentation doesn’t take place within Hop Water, meaning that it is always going to be a force carbonated product. Based on the firm can wall, probably closer to soda water than standard lager… This is important, because the increased carbonation is going to push volatile aromas towards you.

The Caledonian Mercury from 1791

Martyn Cornell has found an interesting artefact: a Scottish poem about beer from 1791, somewhat after the style of Robert Burns. Reading it requires a bit of concentration but Martyn has also provided detailed notes and a glossary:

Who wrote this piece, which appeared on the front page of an Edinburgh newspaper, the Caledonian Mercury, on Monday September 12 1791, appears to be unknown. It is written in the form known, after Robert Burns, as the “Burns stanza”, with each verse having the rhyme scheme a-a-a-b-a-b, and three lines of iambic tetrameter, followed by one of iambic dimeter, another iambic tetrameter and a final iambic dimeter. With the B rhymes in each of the 14 verses identical, this is the work of a skilled versifier. But it certainly wasn’t Burns who wrote it, or the poem would be much better known. (The Burns stanza is also known as the Scottish stanza, or six-line stave, and existed long before Burns adopted it: another name for it is “standard Habbie”, after a Scots poet called Habbie Simpson, who lived from 1550 to 1620.) The Latin phrase Ut antea, meaning “as before”, appeared at the end of the poem, suggesting that the author had already been named: and indeed, 11 days earlier, another poem written using the “Burns stanza” form had appeared in the Mercury, credited to “Thoma [sic] Scotus”, which actually mentioned “Ayrshire Rob”, or Burns). So Thoma Scotus undoubtedly wrote Gude Stout Ale as well. But who was he?

Robinson's Brewery, Stockport

From Stockport, via the Pub Curmudgeon, comes news of developments in the story of Robinson’s, one of the few family breweries still operating in the UK and still independent:

Last week, Robinson’s Brewery announced their intention to invest £12 million to vacate their existing premises in the centre of Stockport and concentrate all their activities on the site of their current packaging centre in Bredbury… The Bredbury facility was opened in 1975 and, as recorded in Robinson’s corporate history, “it was recognised that the site was considered to be of sufficient size to enable all of the company’s operations to be housed there at some future time, if this was considered desirable.”… This announcement certainly represents a substantial vote of confidence in the future of the company, and the current leading lights of the Robinson family, Oliver and William, have always given the impression of being committed to it in the long term.

When we visited the brewery tap very early in 2020, for what it’s worth, we were very impressed with the quality of the beer, even if it didn’t quite present as well in any of the pubs we visited. We’re glad to hear there’s road left to run for at least one of these old setups, even if the very impressive historic building is being abandoned.

Camden Hells.

Liam told us something we didn’t know this week: in Ireland ordering “a glass of beer” will get you a half-pint. He also tries to work out why:

In the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette in May 1867 the question ‘”Is a Glass a Measure?”’ was asked and again the content revolves around a court case of a landlord using glasses that did not hold a half pint, for which he was convicted and was then appealing. It was reported that ‘customers had said, “Of course we expect half a pint,” while others said, “A glass and half a pint are the same.”’ and it was also stated by the prosecutors that ‘when a person asked for a glass of ale, it was generally, but not universally, understood, that they expected half a pint.’… [A factor] which might have some bearing on the issue is our dependence in much of [Ireland] in the past on the bottle of beer in public houses, which meant that as long as that bottle was the correct size then the volume of the glass did not matter quite so much, and when kegged beer became more commonplace then maybe the word ‘glass’ for a half pint that had clung on without much controversy became more important, used and indeed useful.

Low resolution image of a glass of water.

We’ve often been puzzled by the irritation expressed by beer geeks at the word ‘drinkability’. It’s perfectly obvious to us what it means and why it might be regarded as a positive quality. But it has tended to elicit comments from Mr. Logic types: “Uh, it’s a liquid, so of course it’s drinkable, snort snerk.” At Appellation Beer Stan Hieronymus tells us ‘Drinkability is no longer a dirty word’ and explains that it’s bad reputation is due to an association with big beer:

Anheuser-Busch built a campaign for Bud Light around “drinkability” in the aughts… The brewers who at the time presented themselves as Davids taking on Goliath weren’t about to go anywhere near the word “drinkability.” And quite honestly, in 2011 when Dr. Michael Lewis, founder of the professional brewing programs at UC-Davis, wrote ‘Drinkability: Countering a Dash to the Extreme’ in the MBAA Technical Quarterly many brewers I talked to were offended.

Finally, from Twitter, a glimpse of German America:

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.

4 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 29 January 2022: In the doghouse”

On Robinson’s, I also thought the Unicorn in their visitor centre was superbly conditioned (in CAMRA scoring terms a 4.5), not always the case in brewery taps.

But after reopening last year I had the same beer in pretty much identical form in the Arden Arms and Swan with Two Necks, on a couple of visits when Stockport beer quality uniformly matched the quality of its pubs.

I feel for anyone who bought into BrewDog emotionally, let alone literally. I got my disillusionment in early – in fact I was never actually ‘illusioned’; I always thought the ‘rebel’ image and the PR stunts were ridiculous when they weren’t obnoxious, and never trusted the company to do anything other than become as big a player as possible. But I was still, reluctantly, a bit of a fan of the beer they brewed, right up till they stopped putting it in casks, on which topic I had Very Strong Views at the time.

That was 2012, and I didn’t think about them much from that point on – apart from the occasional supermarket impulse purchase – until 2019, when a BD bar opened near my work. I checked it out and, as I’d expected, didn’t really like anything about it… except the beer, which was excellent (they even had a cask line!).

So by the time I saw that documentary I was solidly back in the “great beer, shame the people running the company are such cynical, obnoxious gits” camp. If that documentary is to be believed, some of the people at the top (and some of the people setting the tone of the company’s culture) are considerably worse than that. Whether the thought of James Watt’s smiling face will be enough to make me go somewhere else for my after-work snifter I’m honestly not sure – it is really good beer, evidently made by talented brewers (and not by Watt personally, or by BD’s evidently delightful HR department for that matter). But it was a bit of a shocker.

I’ve been to the Chicago Brauhaus [defunct]. I feel compelled to inform you there are still two very fine Germanic pubs in pub-crawling distance on W. Irving Park Road. They are Resi’s Bierstube and Laschet’s Inn.
A committed pub crawler {and they should be 😛 ;)} could hit a number of pubs, bars, and even a couple of breweries on Irving Park Road from Ashland Ave. to Leavitt St.

I do hope that more hopped seltzer hits the shelves soon. I’ve only had Lagunitas’ “Hop Refresher” so far, but I thought that one did a great job of communicating the idea that it was beer-adjacent. All the drinkability ( heh ) of cheap gas station lager, except it actually tastes good and doesn’t have any pesky alcohol / carbs / etc.

Whereas NA beer is definitely getting better, but still doesn’t quite taste right to me until I’ve already worn down my palate with a few pints of the real thing.

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