News, nuggets and longreads 15 July 2023: Anchor’s away

We bookmarked a bunch of good writing about beer and pubs this week. Here are the highlights, from beer duty to drinkflation.

The big news this week was the announcement by Sapporo of its intention to shut down San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, which it acquired in 2017. Anchor has a strong claim to being the first American craft brewery and was highly influential worldwide, especially its golden, hoppy Liberty Ale. The first place we went looking for a thoughtful take on this was Jeff Alworth’s blog Beervana and he did not let us down:

Anchor was never just a brewery. It was wrapped up in the myth of America. Throughout the country’s history, California played an important role as the place where the future was born. Decade after decade, strivers and dreamers poured into the Bay Area, from the prospectors who panned for gold to the entrepreneurs who sold them jeans (and beer) to the poets and musicians to the hippies and finally to the tech visionaries. All of that history was a part of the DNA of Anchor when Fritz Maytag bought the brewery. It didn’t brew ordinary lager, but rather a funny American style of beer developed specifically as a result of San Francisco’s unique location and history. And, a decade after Fritz bought it. Anchor became the Mecca young homebrewers visited, dreams of their own breweries sparkling in their eyes.

There was talk of the brewery and/or brand being sold but that didn’t come off, apparently. We wouldn’t be surprised if something gets worked out, though. Even in this age of consolidation and divestment, even if Anchor Steam is one of the least hip beers around, there must be some value left in this icon. Courtney Iseman’s take on the situation is also worth a read:

You could argue there’s just no place in our capitalist hellscape for brands to exist based on history… You could also argue that even if there was a place for just a few legacy brands, Anchor would be able to fill one of those limited slots, and the sad twist of fate is that a corporate buyer will just never get and honor that legacy.

Robinson's Brewery, Stockport

Back in January we gave our read on the state of beer in 2023 and suggested that maybe it wouldn’t be quite the bloodbath some were predicting, despite some bumps in the road. And we advised people to watch the numbers. The latest stats from SIBA, covering April to June this year, show that UK brewery numbers remain stable and, in fact, increased by two (2) in that period. Now, you wouldn’t want to report this as ‘Brewing boom continues!’ but it’s not ‘Brewing industry in collapse’ either. Andy Slee, SIBA’s chief exec, told The Morning Advertiser that…

Seeing the net brewery number rise across the UK is not only a sign that confidence in the sector remains, but that the demand for quality locally made beer continues to rise… However there has been a significant number of brewery closures and change of ownership, with some consolidation and buyouts alongside new businesses opening… So, while modest growth is ahead of expectations and common perception, it’s not quite the overly positive picture that the headline figures paint.

Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

For The Conversation Colin Angus of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group has written about ‘drinkflation’ and the inclination of big brewers to push up prices while reducing the strength of their beers. It’s full of interesting facts and stats but we found this one especially interesting:

[The] cost of living crisis has arrived at a tough time for the brewing industry. Yet, in spite of these challenging headwinds, the price of alcohol has risen much more slowly than other goods… With overall inflation sitting at 20.5% since January 2021 and the price of common goods such as milk, cheese and eggs having risen by over 50%, the prices of beer, wine and spirits have risen by 13.1%, 7.2% and 8% respectively. This is less than any other food and drink category. And so, although average disposable income has fallen, alcohol is more affordable than at almost any point in the last 30 years.

When we noticed how busy pubs seemed for the first half of the year, we wondered if it might be because they’d become the most affordable way of going out, at the expense of restaurants. These numbers support that thought.

HMRC building, Whitehall, by Steven Vacher.

Steve Dunkley at Beer Nouveau has a helpful explainer on changes to UK beer duty (tax) and what they mean in practice for (a) big breweries and (b) smaller ones. The most helpful part, perhaps, is a case study built around a fictional craft brewery which produces a mix of stronger and weaker beers:

With these production figures, this brewery would have a base duty rate of £12.28 per litre of pure alcohol for packaged beer, and £11.15 for draught beer… Or to put that another way, each of their 40 litre casks of Pale Ale 1 would be liable for £16.95 in duty. High strength beer is not liable for any relief, including draught relief, so the stronger beers are charged at the new base of £25.80 a litre of pure alcohol. So their 30 litre kegs of TIPA would be liable to £77.40 in duty… The difference in Duty rates between lower strength, mid-strength and higher strength beers is huge, and it’s potentially going to cripple smaller breweries looking to keep producing higher strength beers… For example, if this brewery didn’t produce those two high strength beers, their base duty rate would be £10.81 and their draught rate £9.82.

Light split (HSD and Light Ale).

Ron Pattinson is in the middle of a series of posts about beer in 1972 and this week wrote about ‘light ale’ which he describes as “another type of beer which had once been hugely popular but was rapidly going out of fashion”. We’ve always been fascinated by it, especially when it turns up in the fridges of old-fashioned pubs bearing the branding of long-gone breweries such as Whitbread. Ron explains:

It’s likely that the emergence of keg beer played a part in its decline. After WW I, bottled beer was very much on the rise. Mostly in reaction to poor quality draught beer. There was no room for the publican to bugger up beer which had been stabilised in the brewery. Mixing draught and bottled beer became common. Drinkers might well have preferred to drink just bottled beer, but it was too expensive. A half of Bitter topped up with a bottle of Light Ale was the answer… The keg beers which started popping up after WWII were effectively just bulk versions of bottled beer. Rather than mess around with a mix of bottled and draught, there was now a simple draught alternative. And the practice began dying out.

A pub table with beermats advertising Bonobo, a candle, and a glass of beer.

Lisa Grimm’s ongoing exploration of the pubs and bars of Dublin continues to provide tangential insights into beer culture more generally. Her review of Bonobo, a pub that ‘reside[s] comfortably in Craftonia’, gives us this:

I’ve seen the odd complaint on local Reddit that it’s ‘snobby’ but I’ve never personally found that to be the case; I’ve always had a warm welcome. Granted, it’s possible that being a purple-haired woman who knows all the breweries on tap may mean I am already among the elect, but there are plenty of ‘normal’ beers on tap – no difficult entrance exam is required… I’ve also heard someone refer to it as ‘one of those IPA bars,’ which is an interesting if worrying linguistic development – it’s bad enough that ‘craft’ meant everything and nothing, and now ‘IPA’ seems to be heading the same way.

Tapestries hanging on the wall of The Raven in Bath.
The Raven, Bath.

At Micropub Adventures Scott Spencer reports on a day out in Bath and Chippenham, doing a more thorough job of reporting on the pubs and taprooms than we’ve ever managed, despite it being 10 minutes on the train:

Kingsmead Street Bottle… opened in May 2021 and has both upstairs and downstairs seating, alongside seating outside at the front of the bar… [It has] wide variety of styles with 10 beers on keg to choose from, as well as a couple of fridges filled with cans and bottles. I went with ‘It’s Showtime’, a thick and fruity Pineapple, Peach and Florida Honey Sour. A collaboration between Tripping Animals Brewing Co and Corporate Ladder Brewing Co, both based in the US.

Illustrations of the process for emptying bottles and cans to an archival standard.
SOURCE: University of Glasgow Library.

It’s a long one this week but we couldn’t leave this out: via Mastodon, we came across these notes on how to archive beer from the team at the University of Glasgow Library. Not just papers. Actual bottle and cans of actual beer, with historic value:

Laura, our dedicated archivist expert, has been engrossed in the task of processing the remarkable Caledonian Brewery collection, which was deposited in December 2022. Overflowing with invaluable materials, this collection provides a captivating glimpse into an institution that played a pivotal role in Edinburgh’s brewing heritage… However, accommodating such a substantial collection of old beer bottles and cans presents its own unique set of challenges in terms of space efficiency and artifact safety. These vintage beer bottles and cans, often fragile with thin glass or aluminium walls, are particularly susceptible to damage. Metal cans, especially those made from tin-plated steel, are prone to corrosion over time. Exposure to moisture and air can lead to the formation of rust, jeopardizing not only the cans themselves but also neighbouring artifacts.

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

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