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BOOK REVIEW: Modern British Beer by Matthew Curtis

Modern British Beer (RRP £15.99, 256 pages) by Matthew Curtis comprises a series of short pieces covering 80 or so beers that the author feels reflects the breadth and range of beer on offer in the UK today.

As in our review of the official history of CAMRA, we’ll start with an observation that this is an interesting choice of book for CAMRA to commission and publish.

It suggests they’ve moved quite comprehensively past the debate about whether it is ever appropriate for the Campaign to support or endorse beer that isn’t ‘real’.

The book features a good spread of breweries, from the very new to stalwarts of the real ale scene such as Durham and Oakham. It’s fair to say, though, that the book leans towards those founded in the 21st century.

We often feel we’ve fallen out of the loop since writing Brew Britannia and all too often fall into the trap of writing off a lot of modern beers as hazy and/or sweet, and not to our taste. A book that provides a manageable hit list and helps us find our way to the good stuff in a crowded market might, we hoped, make us feel more on top of things.

This book delivers precisely that. Like the book we started out with all those years ago, Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers, it offers page after page of delightful descriptions accompanied by enticing photography.

Perhaps wisely, the choice of image goes beyond glossy product or pack shots and instead seeks to convey a sense of what ‘modern British beer’ means in practice. That is, lots of stainless steel, industrial units and taprooms.

We’ve drunk maybe only a third of the beers listed. There are a few breweries in the book we’ve never come across in the wild and which, having read Curtis’s impassioned tributes, will definitely be seeking out.

We know we won’t like everything he recommends but the hit rate is likely to be higher with a guide than without.

Particular kudos is due to the author for making the effort to list plenty of beers that aren’t hazy IPAs.

As with Michael Jackson, the tone is positive and uncritical – perfect for generating enthusiasm in the reader. There is a sense that the text takes the various breweries’ marketing lines and origin stories at face value, usually with a personal recollection of where the author first tasted Beer X or first met Brewer Z.

In a couple of cases, this highlights the weakness of books as a format for covering the here and now. For example, between writing and printing, the environmental credentials that form a large part of the BrewDog story here came under fire in the national press. And a passage about the head of one brewery who ‘has always done things her way’ prompts an involuntary cringe in the wake of bullying allegations which led to her recent resignation.

Books can only ever be snapshots, however, and capturing the moment is worthwhile, too. We can presumably expect a new edition of this guide every two or three years and it will be interesting to see who is in, and who is out.

One final quibble: we’re also not sure about the definition of modern British beer, or whether it even needs defining.

That is, we’re not convinced that being focused on ingredients, or being rooted in the local community, is something that sets the breweries listed here apart from, say, Bathams, or Adnams.

The point isn’t laboured, though, and is hardly that important. Really, it’s all about the list, the guiding hand and the sense of infectious glee.

The book is already well-thumbed and is, as we speak, informing our plans about where to go on holiday later this year.

We bought our copy direct from CAMRA at a pre-order price of £13.00 plus delivery.

Generalisations about beer culture marketing

Why people choose to buy beer brands

Consciously or otherwise, people take into account all sorts of factors when choosing which beer brands to buy – and when it comes to indie/local status, there’s plenty of ground between ‘I don’t care’ and ‘I would die before buying from a multinational’.

In the pub on Friday night, we were amused to hear two lads discussing Beavertown at the bar.

“Ah, they’ve got Neck Oil!”

“Tell you what, you see that everywhere these days.”

“They’ve done really well for a small independent brewery, haven’t they?”

A large chunk of Beavertown is, of course, owned by Heineken, which is why it can afford to have ads on the side of every bus in Britain and now turns up in all sorts of unlikely places.

Do we think these lads would have ordered something else if they’d known about Beavertown’s ownership? Probably not.

Do we think they’d have been furious or felt betrayed? Again, probably not. But we bet they’d have looked a bit crestfallen and said, “Oh.”

We say that because we’ve had this conversation with friends and colleagues, with regard to both Beavertown and Camden. These are people who like beer and are conscious of their choices but not, it’s fair to say, obsessed with it.

To generalise about their response, we’d say (a) mildly disappointed and (b) a bit embarrassed not to have known already – a sense of having been tricked by sneaky marketing.

Without conducting a full-on survey (tempting) we can’t say with any certainty how people weight different factors when buying beer. We reckon, though, that for most people, it’s something like this:

1. Want a lager or IPA.
2. Want the best available version.
3. Like the brand.

If you break down ‘liking the brand’ you might find all sorts of other stuff going on, including a preference for independent and/or local.

When you learn that a beer isn’t independent/local, it might stop you buying it – but you’ll probably still want the best IPA or lager on offer in the pub you’re at.

That’s certainly how it goes for us.

But if there’s a choice of another beer that’s also in the right style, and tastes decent, but is also indie/local, you might choose that instead. In fact, you might even be willing to compromise a bit on the quality. It’s a matter of preference.

As we’ve said before, if multinational brewers didn’t think independent/local appealed to consumers, they wouldn’t keep buying independent/local breweries and would proudly declare their ownership on the packaging.


Further thoughts on the pubs of InBetweenland

A couple of weeks ago, in our Saturday round-up, we linked to a very informative, honest and thought-provoking piece by David Hayward at A Hoppy Place.

In it, he wrote:

“One thing that I am certain of – is that this ‘great unlocking’ has been far from that… To be quite frank, it’s been pretty shit.”

We’ve been thinking and talking about various things in this article ever since and thought we’d respond with a similar level of honesty about how our habits have changed.

Obvious caveat upfront: we are massive pub enthusiasts. We go out of our way to try new pubs and, in the beforetimes, would probably indulge in at least one multi-pub crawl per week. That preference underlies what follows.

First, then, we are probably drinking out slightly less overall than we were before. This is despite being several months double-jabbed and not that anxious, at this stage, about catching COVID.

When we say slightly less, what does that mean? We’re probably now having two pub sessions a week, maybe three, whereas it would have been three, maybe four, most pre-pandemic weeks. Our pub sessions are also shorter and we’re visiting fewer establishments per session.

We don’t think we’re drinking at home more, in terms of volume or occasions. We are making more of a fuss about it, so rather than mindlessly necking a few favourites in front of the telly, we might sit at the table, listen to some music, talk, and make an effort to try new beers or new breweries.

We very much recognise David’s point about the dangers of breweries selling direct to consumers like us. We have tended to order reliable beers from breweries we already know.

During lockdown, however, we did also try on a few occasions to mix things up, ordering selection packs from indie beer shops.

Now we’re out of lockdown, if we’re honest, our online ordering is probably focused on getting in staples and favourites – ironically, often from our closest brewery, Lost & Grounded.

That’s because we’ve been hoping to be able to try new stuff on draught when we’re out and about, rather than from cans and bottles.

We’re spending less time in pubs for a variety of reasons. Partly, we are still conscious of the risk of contributing to the spread of COVID, so we’re tending to space out our pub sessions so we can be reasonably certain we’re clear of infection before going out.

And, like many people, we’ve got a backlog of family and friends to catch up with and not all of those occasions take place in the pub, despite our best efforts. Some of those people are vulnerable, too, so we’ve been minimising other social contact before we see them.

We’re also in a new bit of Bristol so we’re still getting to know which pubs, bars and taprooms work for us. (Anecdotal evidence suggests lots of people have made bigger moves than this in the last 18 months, to new cities, or to the country, so maybe this is behind the more general issue David Hayward has noticed.) 

All of the above are temporary factors that might point to a recovery in our pub going habits at some point.

Having said that, we have also discovered new hobbies and exercise regimes as a way to stay sane during lockdown. That means there are now more things we want to fit into the weekend than before. As a result, we’re less likely to spend an entire afternoon and evening out on the sauce.

Working from home also means we’re less likely to do a big post work session in the town centre in the middle of the week or on Friday evening.

We find our tastes have changed, too. We’re now favouring pubs with outdoor spaces and taprooms, particularly when meeting with other people.

To our minds, a drinking session outside doesn’t really count as a risky activity so we don’t need to ration those in the same way as a visit to a cosy indoor space.

One final point impacting on volume of drinking out, and hopefully this is also temporary, is that, frankly, the quality of the beer available hasn’t always been the best.

This is not surprising given fluctuating supply and demand – but it’s felt unhelpful to point this out when the industry is clearly struggling.

To improve quality, most pubs we can think of are offering a smaller range of beer, which is a sensible response to unpredictable demand, but it has also tended to mean less variety, not just during the session but also from visit to visit.

We’ve had a few weekends where we’ve deliberately tried to drink new things and have had to go out of our way, or resort to ordering things that we suspect we’re probably not going to like. 

We’ve had a number of pints that are not bad, as such, but not especially good, either. Just ever so slightly tired.

Of course, we’re no strangers to a mediocre pint and they’re not the end of the world. It’s part and parcel of the pastime. However in this case, we’re talking about places that we know usually do excellent cask ale, so this must be a direct result of unpredictable customer flows. We’ve even heard bar staff indiscreetly saying as much when challenged.

So if you are running a pub, what can you do about us fickle customers?

Ultimately, it’s going to depend on the type of pub and the target market. Are your customers just being slow to return, or are they gone for good?

While you work that out, we’d suggest it makes sense to stick to what you’re best at. If you’re known for your cask ale, make sure it continues to be of an excellent standard and try to balance reliable favourites with both new things and bona fide classics. We’d happily trek across town to anywhere with Jarl on tap, for example, if we saw a post about it on social media.

Clear communications about rules and COVID precautions might help. While some people may not care, others do. We are aware of people who are less comfortable going to pubs now that there are no restrictions.

Unfortunately, it may be a case of waiting it out a bit longer and we think there will be long term winners and losers.

City centre pubs will need to find a raison d’être beyond cramming in office workers for two hours on Friday night. Previously unloved suburban locals, on the other hand, may find themselves with new customers, particularly if they’re clear about their offer.

A final note on micropubs, some of which are very dear to our hearts. The very thing that makes the good ones good – the cosiness, the chance conversations with strangers – are the sorts of things which will be the last things to come back in pub culture because of the very specific nature of this virus.

We’re hopeful and optimistic that they will eventually return but perhaps micropubs will need a little further help to weather the storm. Continuing to do takeaway seems sensible, for example.

We’ll leave you with a note of optimism. Last weekend, we went to The Drapers Arms. After a while, a couple of friends walked in and before we knew it, we were in the midst of the kind of casual chat we’ve really missed. The beer was great, the company was great, and we could see the path out of the woods.


News, nuggets and longreads 18 September 2021: of cats and casks

As usual, we’ve spent the past week looking out for interesting stories about beer, brewing and pubs. Here’s our regular round-up of the best of what we found, from Belgian classics to Derg-Lind.

‘Person bags dream job’ stories are usually dreadful PR clickbait but this one, from BBC East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, is rather heartening: a professional historian has been given the job of collecting oral history recordings from Lincolnshire pubs. Architectural historian Marc Knighton says:

“We know about the historic fabric – the buildings are there – but we want the intangible history… The legends, the ghosts.”

When we were researching 20th Century Pub we relied heavily on a couple of local oral history projects from Waltham Forest and York and think they’re a great thing.

Poking around in unusual sources Martyn Cornell consistently finds new angles on, and details from, beer history. This week, a 19th century Australian newspaper revealed the extent to which cats were part of the landscape of brewing:

“A malt-house would be a paradise for rats but for the destroying angels, in the shape of cats, that the maltster keeps to guard his portals. The rat that would attempt to eat the sack that held the malt would speedily be killed by the cats in the brewery that Mr. Aitken has built. He actually doesn’t know how many cats he has. He said at one time, mildly, about 1,000; afterwards, that he was personally acquainted with at least 50, but that there were wild ones in the recesses of his cellars at whose presence he trembled. There must be queer games played on the roofs of a brewery on moonlight nights.”

SOURCE: BeerFoodTravel/Google Books.

It seems as if English people insisting on writing about Irish red ale has finally goaded Liam into polishing up his long-gestating three-part epic on that subject. Part one landed this week, digging into the deep history of the style – or, rather, its absence:

On the 15th of July 1856 Eugene O’Curry, who was Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic University of Ireland, delivered a lecture relating to ecclesiastical manuscripts… In it O’Curry relates in his own words a fragment of a story where Conn and his companions were led to a ‘royal court, into which the entered, and found it occupied by a beautiful and richly dressed princess with a silver vat full of red ale, and a golden ladle and golden cup before her.’ This was translated from Old Irish and O’Curry could not date it exactly but implies it must be from before the middle of the 11th century. Looking at a copy of his source material reproduced in old Irish script, the word that is important to our story is ‘Derg-Lind’ and later in the same source the word is repeated as ‘Derg-Laith’, which was translated as the Irish words for ‘Red Ale’.

De Dolle logo

For Pellicle John Rega writes about the appeal and history of De Dolle Oerbier, which isn’t as old as its personality might suggest, and which is very much at the mercy of the supply chain:

Then in 2000, De Dolle faced a massive shock. Rodenbach, after a change of ownership, cut off its yeast supply. [Brewer] Kris [Herteleer] attempted to propagate the strain (or, to be more accurate, various strains) as best he could, but the complex nature of this yeast made it difficult to tame. Over time, it changed… A hungrier, more robust team of yeasts—as well as bacteria including Lactobacillus and Pediococcus—now holds sway, producing a beer with softer acidity and stronger fermentation. Kris has adjusted with a stronger malt profile and yet more hops… Recently De Dolle has been forced to adapt yet again, as its original maltster, Huys, went out of business. Kris tells me how he had to tweak for the loss of a particular malt within his complicated grain bill featuring a blend of six pale and caramel malts, now sourced from Dingemans. 

SOURCE: The Beer Nut.

The Beer Nut has provided a bumper set of entertaining tasting notes on a bunch of beers from British breweries such as Cloudwater and Newbarns:

I expected a big kick from the hops as none of Rakau, Simcoe and Galaxy are shy and retiring. Sure enough the aroma is an insanely strong funky, savoury buzz, like long-fermented silage and hot sparks of flint. The flavour goes all out for dryness, an extreme sort of sesame paste with added chalk dust and oily sage. “Earthy undertones” says the label but they’re far from undertones, leaving no room for the promised peach, passionfruit and apricot. This is the opposite of juicy and was probably sucking juice from the other cans in the fridge.

A topic always bubbling away in the world of beer is the apparent reluctance of ‘craft’ breweries to produce ‘trad’ styles. Jeff Alworth made a point about that on Twitter this week…

… and Gary Gillman offered some typically careful thoughts on why English ale styles might be difficult to replicate:

4. Whether bottled, cask, or keg, hop rates in Britain in the last generation, speaking generally, are relatively modest. Even in the 1970s craft pioneer Fritz Maytag was struck for example by the modest quantities used for dry-hopping bitter ale.

5. Such beers, when emulated in craft conditions and served cold and fizzy, do not show to best advantage. In contrast, Helles and pilsener retained a unity of style, so the path of emulation was clearer.

Guinness 0.0
SOURCE: Lisa Grimm.

We’ve been somewhat intrigued by the idea of non-alcoholic Guinness – how important is alcohol to the mouthfeel and flavour? At her blog Weird Beer Girl HQ, Lisa Grimm, an American living in Dublin, provides notes on both this beer and a newly-launched Guinness competitor:

[Heineken’s] Island’s Edge has been expressly positioned as a stout for people who don’t typically drink stout, and to that end, it includes tea and basil in the recipe to make it, to paraphrase, less bitter and more refreshing, though none of the flavours of tea or basil are noticeable in the resulting beer. So, having had a pint of it recently, I can confirm that it does, indeed, lack those flavours…along with most other elements of flavour. It’s oddly thin, creamy head notwithstanding, and barely registers anything beyond roasty water – it’s less a stout and more the ghost of one.

Finally, from Twitter, there’s this vision of the high life…

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


News, nuggets and longreads 11 September 2021: Takeovers and startups

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from Kölsch to Dortmunder.

First, a bit of good old-fashioned brewery takeover news from Australia: Lion (Kirin) has bought Stone & Wood outright. Now, we’d never heard of Stone & Wood until this week, and gave up reporting every single global takeover a while back, but this is interesting because…

Meanwhile, there is evidence that BrewDog (settle down, stop booing) might be entering a new phase. As reported by Beer Today, it has entered into a joint venture with Asahi under the name BrewDog Japan:

BrewDog is looking to boost its sales in Asahi’s home country of Japan sixfold in five years. It already has a bar in Tokyo, but could set up a brewery there, too… BrewDog is also reported to be considering an initial public offering (IPO) in London, and is being advised by Rothschild.

A brewery.

For Ferment, the promo mag of a beer subscription service, Sarah Sinclair asks what it’s like to launch a UK craft brewery in 2021 compared to a decade ago:

In many ways, being a craft brewer is like being the hero of a Greek tragedy. There’s a strictly prescribed, formal journey these characters must undertake, from disillusionment with an existing career, to brewing 30-litre batches in their garage as a means of escape. An act of extreme faith and vision propels our hero into the heady days of a new commercial brewery (in which they must complete legendary trials: finding a distributor, losing an entire batch to an unreliable mobile canning line etc). Even as they ride high on a wave of hype juice, we the audience are looking out for the fatal flaw that will perhaps bring them low in Act 3 (and we’ve seen plenty of those lately).

Früh am dom

For Craft Beer & Brewing Jeff Alworth has written an overview of Kölsch, a beer style that, as we know it, isn’t as old as people might think and which definitely isn’t ‘an ale’:

This close forebear held onto its bitterness all the way into the 1960s, though in other ways it closely resembled modern Kölsch. At that point, local breweries still made other beer styles, but a culture was beginning to form around the pride of hometown Kölsch. By the 1980s, Kölsch had become so popular that Köln’s breweries banded together to protect it from lesser imitators. In 1985, two dozen of them signed a document called the Kölsch Konvention. It stipulated certain benchmarks to prevent the beer’s debasement… Americans sometimes call these “hybrid” beers, but the Germans have a better term: obergäriges lagerbier, or top-fermenting lagered beer. To call them hybrid is to suggest an awkward in-between state, but Kölsch is nothing of the kind – it’s exactly as it’s meant to be.

Eoghan Walsh’s tour through the history of Brussels beer continues with a post on the 18th century Brewer’s Oath which gives us a glimpse into the culture of guilds:

The brewers’ guild, like all of Brussels’ medieval artisan guilds, was a monopoly, a position they leveraged for self-enrichment. They also used it to occasionally flex political influence, having – alongside the other guilds – been granted consultative input into Brussels’ governance in 1421. Each guild was a member of a nation, a grouping of similar trades; brewers were part of the St. Jacques nation alongside bakers and pastry bakers, millers, coopers, cabinetmakers, tilers and wine traders. As well as the right to a say on administrative matters, the guild used their monopoly position to determine the quality, quantity and price of raw materials, the price of beer, the way it was brewed, and how it was sold. 

(This is a great example of how a project can enliven and sustain a blog; if you want to start or restart a blog, coming up with an angle like this removes the biggest obstacle – the lack of ideas, the blank page.)

Dortmunder -- no.

At Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, Ron Pattinson highlights a curious nugget from European beer history:

Style Nazis… Actual real Nazis. Not just people I disagree with. Ones with swastika armbands and NSDAP membership cards… Because in the countries occupied by the Nazis, they really did start interfering with style names. They weren’t happy with German-derived names being used for Dutch beer. In particular, Dortmunder.

Finally, from Twitter…

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