News, nuggets and longreads 23 March 2024: Riding High

Every Saturday we round up the best writing about beer, pubs and brewing. This week, it’s been unusually emotional.

Let’s start this post with some scene-setting news via Darren Norbury at Beer Today: UK brewery insolvencies nearly doubled in 2023, according to a new report from accountancy firm Mazars. The numbers are still relatively small – up from 38 in 2022 to 69 in 2023 – but it’s a definite move of the dial.

And from the world of mergers and takeovers there’s a story that’s caused some concern: ‘parts of’ craft beer distributor Eebria have been bought by Beer52 leaving many suppliers with invoices unlikely to be paid. We had an email from one of those suppliers writing that “we have been informed that all orders placed with us through Eebria that haven’t been paid (essentially all orders in the last 4 weeks) will likely not be paid out to us, and won’t be the responsibility of the new owners”. At The Grocer James Beeson provides insight into the practicalities and ethics of the pre-pack administration model:

“Proponents argue it allows an otherwise doomed business to continue with minimal disruption, and protects jobs that would otherwise be lost… Critics, however, argue pre-packs let previous management off the hook for running a business into the ground, allowing them to stiff creditors and investors in turn.”

1905 illustration: Siberian Red crab apples.

Katie Mather and her husband, Tom, opened a bar in 2019 and kept it afloat through perhaps the most challenging time for hospitality since World War II. Then, in 2023, they closed it and stepped away. For Pellicle she writes about how picking apples for cider helped them overcome their sense of grief at losing their dream business and, at the same time, a friend:

What I didn’t consider when I signed up to do orchard work was how much time I would have alone with my thoughts. Perhaps it was too early. I could have used a month or so of decompression time before I tried to deal with stress and grief head-on. But how long are you supposed to sit in it for? When does it feel easier to tackle? Harvesting in vineyards has been some of my happiest times. Being useful. Being outside. Working. I hoped it would be the same here… The repetitive action of picking apples sends me deep into myself. For hours at a time I’m silent, although I don’t realise it—the noise inside my head is a deafening cacophony of musical earworms, repetitive thoughts, and intrusive imaginary scenarios. I see faces. I hear voices.

The word 'wild' in an antique-style font over a woodcut illustration of winds and cloud.

For Punch Tony Rehagen tells the story of a brewer whose unique yeast strain, captured from the air of a small town in Missouri, is his only link with his late father, after who the strain is named:

By all accounts, Robert Schaaf was a character. Raising his family in conservative 1980s small-town Missouri, he loved Motown music and dressed in drag for Halloween. He leaned into his ne’er-do-well reputation by giving himself the nickname Tomcat… In April 2015, [DeWayne] Schaaf’s father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Schaaf sought refuge in his own backyard. He brewed up a 5-gallon batch of wort, added hops to fend off bacteria, and poured the boil into hotel cooking pans as a makeshift open-fermentation vessel (what he calls a “hillbilly coolship”). He covered it with a cheesecloth to keep out leaves and other detritus, and let it sit overnight, collecting microbes from the breeze blowing off the Mississippi River.

A detail from an old book with the word 'Yeast' beneath a drawing of yeast cells.

Sticking with yeast beer historian Andreas Krennmair asks exasperatedly why he even bothers with liquid yeast in his homebrewing:

It’s March 2024, and I spent €11.49 on a pack of liquid yeast, allegedly the Pilsner Urquell “D” strain, for which I had to create a starter using malt extract to multiply its cell count and improve its vitality. What really happened though was that the yeast was dead, completely dead, and I only noticed it when the starter did not elicit any fermentation activity whatsoever after more than 24 hours on the stir plate… Instead, I had to resort to my backup plan and rehydrated and pitched two sachets of W-34/70, probably the most widespread bottom-fermenting yeast strain these days. Full disclosure: I got these two sachets for free from a friend who in turn had gotten them at BrauBeviale last December, but if I had had to buy it myself, it would have cost me €9.98. Not much cheaper, but a lot less hassle, because that W-34/70 was rehydrated and noticeably very active in less than 40 minutes…

An Art Deco illuminated sign advertising Gueueze Mort Subite hanging from the ceiling of the eponymous Brussels cafe.

Eoghan Walsh continues his consideration of his own solo drinking habits in Brussels by asking why he likes one cafe, but not another, when both are so similar on paper:

The Greenwich was unknown to me, an uncharted spot on my mental map of downtown Brussels cafés. But what had I to lose? I stopped hokey cokey-ing and crossed the threshold… It’s nice here, and while I drink I write in my notebook: “why have I not been here before?” How, despite its reputation and its location, had I not been in for a drink in over a decade, when I’ve pretty much gone to every single bar within a 300 metre radius of its entrance. Well, I’d never been there because I’d never been there, if that makes sense? When I first arrived in Brussels and undertook my cartographical survey of its downtown bars, unconsciously compiling the collection of places I would rotate through over the next decade, I’d failed to even consider the Greenwich.

Top marks for the headline on this one, too: “Greenwich Me Time”.

The Adnams brewery logo mounted on a stone wall in Southwold.

Veteran beer writer Roger Protz has been following the story of British real ale for decades. He posts his regular columns for CAMRA on his blog a little while after they’ve featured in What’s Brewing. This week he shared thoughts on Adnams whose recent financial difficulties he calls “an arrow in the heart”:

The major cause of the problems was a 25 per cent decline in sales of cask beer since 2019 and the impact of the Covid pandemic and pub lockdowns. As a result, its operating losses in the first half of the last financial year rose to £2.4 million. Its shares fell by 50 per cent and their value dropped by almost two-thirds… A glimmer of hope comes in its report of improved trading this year but there’s clearly a long and slow road to recovery. Adnams won’t go out of business – it’s too big and respected for that to happen. It’s call for help will be met and let’s hope it won’t be in the form of hedge funds or investment companies looking for a quick buck with some asset stripping thrown in for good measure… The brewery runs 45 pubs, inns and other properties and it might be tempting for the wrong sort of new investor to say that some of that real estate should be sold to help pay off the debt.

Finally, from BlueSky, a fantastic photo of a pub in which we have a particular interest

A post from Adrian Tierney-Jones with a faded 1950s photo of a pub called The Britannia: "Going through a photo album of a late great aunt and found this pic of her outside the Whitbread Britannia in Brussels, which was part of the 1958 Expo".

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

2 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 23 March 2024: Riding High”

It’s also important to note that pre-pack administration set ups (if not managed correctly) are not a perfect solution in all cases. They are not immune from supplier backlash or even allegations of fraud related to the “packing” process. As always, suppliers with concerns related to questions on possession v ownership of stock in hand should seek qualified independent legal advice. There is also a UK police hotline, ActionFraud, which specifically deals with firms “fraudulently trading immediately before being declared insolvent, or phoenix companies.” No comment on current situation other than to say suppliers have sources of professional assistance.

Questions have to be asked of the Eebria directors as to the possibility of their knowingly trading the company while insolvent.

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