News, nuggets and longreads 7 May 2022: Sailing into the west

Every Saturday we round-up the best and most interesting writing about beer and pubs we’ve come across. This week we’ve got a surfeit of news and yet more on mild.

First, some sad and worrying news: Sheffield’s Kelham Island Brewery is closing after more than 30 years as an influential player on the British beer scene.

We wrote about Kelham Island extensively in our book Brew Britannia not only because it played a significant part in the popularity of paler, more evidently hoppy beers, but also because it acted as a training ground for important brewers.

Exe Valley, another first generation microbrewery, based in Devon, is also winding up:

We’re expecting to see a bit more of this in the coming year as a tough economic situation begins to bite. At the same time, new breweries are continuing to appear, tailored to current trends rather than chasing to keep up, so it’s not a given that the overall brewery count will be down when CAMRA does its annual tot-up.

BrewDog bar sign.

Meanwhile, the BrewDog story continues to roll on, getting messier by the month. Earlier in the week, a huge fanfare sounded as co-founder James Watt announced that he would be giving 5% of the company to staff, and former staff, in the form of shares and sharing a portion of the profit from bars. It’s certainly a substantial gesture but, of course, there’s small print, and those keen to see things change at BrewDog don’t think this addresses the issues. At the same time – and we find ourselves treading carefully – the lawyers seem to be busy bringing cases against people and getting articles unpublished.

A view of Bamberg along the river with spires and old buildings.
Bamberg in 2008.

It had never crossed our minds that it was even possible, or legal, to open a new brewery in Bamberg. And yet here we are reading The Beer Nut’s notes on a slew of them:

Apart from beer, the other thing Bamberg is famous for, at least locally, is market gardening. Zollnerstraße runs up behind the railway station, and from the street side seems perfectly normal, urban and commercial, but behind the buildings is a lot of green space and greenhouses. Kris Emmerling’s family owned one of these gardens and when he inherited the site he was determined to continue growing produce there. He added Bamberg’s smallest brewery – Hopfengarten – to the premises and in 2021 converted the former flower shop at the front into a taproom. Hopfengarten specialises in exotic recipes using botanicals grown onsite, and you get a hefty portion of horticultural education as a side order.

Ansell's Mild beer mat (detail)

For Good Beer Hunting Will Hawkes has gone to the Midlands to investigate its (just about) living culture of mild drinking:

When I visited the Bottle & Glass, I found Bostin’ Mild unavailable, replaced by a Chocolate Stout. (Bostin’ is a Black Country phrase, meaning fantastic or wonderful.) At The Park Inn, the taproom for one of the region’s historic breweries, Holden’s, the Mild was also off… The previous evening, I’d drunk a Mild brewed by Bathams, another cherished local brewery, at the Fox and Grapes pub in Pensnett. “How much of this do you sell?” I asked the young woman behind the bar. “How many pints of Mild do you drink each evening?” she shouted across to an older man in the corner of the pub. “Three?” “No, four.” “We sell four pints a night,” she told me as she put the beer on the bar.

(An interesting piece because it highlights a practical distinction between (some) journalism and (most) blogging: Hawkes spent some real time in the place he’s writing about, burned some shoe leather, and spoke to people. It makes a difference.)

Rosa Merckx. SOURCE: Ashley Joanna/Belgian Smaak.

At Belgian Smaak, as part of the ‘Humans of Belgian Beer’ series, Ashley Joanna has produced a portrait, in words and images, of Rosa Merckx, a 97-year-old brewing industry veteran:

Rosa Merckx began working at Oud Bruin specialists Liefmans in 1946 as a tri-lingual secretary to the brewery owner Paul Van Gheluwe after he knocked on her door to enquire if she’d be interested. He soon discovered that Rosa had an excellent palette and an acute business acumen. Production and management staff took her advice to change the profile of Liefmans products, and the resulting beers—less acidic, milder, and more balanced—became highly successful… Rosa then changed the name of the Ijzerenband beer (Iron Ring) to Goudenband (Golden Ring) and in so doing, avoided a lawsuit for Liefmans. It would go on to become iconic (her signature still adorns the label on bottles of Goudenband today). In 1972, after the death of Van Gheluwe, Rosa took over leadership of the brewery and propelled it into Belgian beer folklore.

Lager beer in the 19th century.

Martyn Cornell has been doing what he does best: ruining everyone’s fun by taking apart a cherished tale from brewing history. This time, for Good Beer Hunting, he’s questioned the foundational story of American lager brewing:

In front of a redbrick 1920s townhouse on a quiet, narrow street in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighbourhood, a cast-iron plaque stands in honour of “America’s First Lager Beer.” The memorial claims to mark the spot where, in 1840, a Bavarian immigrant by the name of John Wagner opened a brewery to make beer using bottom-fermenting yeast that he had brought from his homeland some 4,000 miles away. Since the start of the 20th century, the story of “John Wagner, American Lager-brewing pioneer,” has been repeated countless times in books and newspaper and magazine articles… Unfortunately, the story isn’t true. There is no evidence that a brewer named John Wagner ever existed, nor that Lager was first brewed in the United States in 1840… While Lager brewing in America did start in Philadelphia in the 1840s, the true story is odder, darker, and more mysterious than the one that’s been widely shared.

An A-board advertising growlers at Malt Attacks

At Brussels Beer City we’re right up to date with the ‘50 objects’ series as Eoghan Walsh looks at the arrival of the craft beer ‘growler’ in a city better known for tradition than for trendiness:

Malt Attacks wasn’t Brussels’ first craft beer shop – Ixelles-based Malting Pot opened in 2014 – but it had a unique selling point, which even in 2014 had a whiff of exoticism to it: it sold growlers of freshly-tapped beers for takeaway. But it’s not the availability of draught Bastogne Pale Ale or Nøgne Ø’s Two Captains Double IPA that make Malt Attacks’ arrival so significant, for me at least. When it opened I lived a few streets away, a new dad with a burgeoning interest in beer. Malt Attacks felt then like the Brussels outpost of an international beer movement of which I was still only dimly aware. It was where, for example, I bought my first Sierra Nevada and my first Punk IPA in November 2014.

Finally, from Twitter, one of those “hippy wigs in Woolworths” moments:

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

9 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 7 May 2022: Sailing into the west”

That’s interesting view on the Mild article as I was taken how it was pretty much a pleasant enough blog post from someone well versed who went for a weekend and wrote a few follow up email.

Point is, how often do you read a blog post (i.e. written for free, being given away free) where someone had those conversations, asked questions, and sends those follow-up emails? We do it occasionally but it’s a commitment of time and effort we can’t always afford to make for the sake of a blog post.

I like blogs; I like to see people talking to one another through blogs, not broadcasting to an audience from on high. I’ve been critical in the past of bloggers who seemed to see the blog as a stepping stone to “proper” journalism, or who seized opportunities to squeeze some money out of their blogs. But (it’s a big but), there’s only so much you can do at zero cost, even if you charge nothing for writing and thinking time. It’s a tough one.

That Lidl kveik IPA and Belgian DIPA are pretty good, incidentally, and the Baltic porter (from Love Lane) is excellent. Like the person quoted, I could afford to pay more, but not everybody can – and I’m never going to complain about good beer going cheap. Competition (including the competition between supermarkets) is always going to drive prices down, unless you can hang a ’boutique’ label on your product – and I don’t think labelling craft beer as a whole as a boutique product is the future.

Good points. I would note Lars with his Kviek (and B+B with the British pub and me with NY state brewing before 1820) had to happily put a huge amount of free time in to found not only the writing skills but also the breadth of research to warrant later payments. Too many self appointed experts skip that step. It shows.

Yes – maybe with some bloggers (glances modestly at our hosts) it’s a case of “there’s only so much you can do at zero cost… and we’ve done all of that”.

Well, the question could be how often can you read a blog post! I can’t discount or praise writing because of where it’s located but inventive creative writing sure has taken a hit in the good beer world. Payment has never amounted to quality in my mind, often the opposite. Yet it’s becoming more and more the case that it’s either paid for writing that’s pleasant enough or bits and bob that never seem to get enough time to be properly fleshed out. I can’t say I’m ever comfortable, for example, with histories published and paid for by the word – but who even has the time to put in a proper effort as the amateur’s act of obsession? Retirees, that’s who. They seem to be holding up their end of the bargain.

At the end of the day, someone is paying for beer writing. Either the reader is paying for it, or a brewer or retailer is paying for it – or the writer is paying for it. Which of these is least desirable?

I can assure you I have not been paid anything worth mentioning for my four co-authored books (one did get me almost $1000 but I spent more traveling to sell it) or about 20 years of writing on the blog. I expect the same from the fifth. Time in this sense is not money. Few beer writers are in much of a different position. I did earn over $30000 on blog ads back when Google hadn’t yet forced that to shut down. That was the gilded age of 2005-2010.

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