News, nuggets and longreads 22 January 2022: breweries for sale

There’s been a lot going on in beer, pubs and brewing history in the past week. Here’s our round-up of the most interesting stuff, from takeovers to divestments to dark mild.

First, some news: as reported by Darren Norbury at Beer Today, our favourite straight-to-the-point channel for industry news, the future of Magic Rock and Four Pure has become uncertain. Both were acquired by multinational Lion in 2019 and 2018 respectively but are now “available for sale”. We think Matt Curtis, on Twitter, has this right:

There’s lots of speculation and analysis about why Lion is offloading Fourpure and Magic Rock in my mentions so here’s my professional opinion: they fucked it… Maybe it was the pandemic, or maybe it was a lack of foresight, or maybe the UK is just drastically different to the US/Aus and what had worked for them elsewhere did not here… Magic Rock had an incredible brand, but that was built on the faith of a local Yorkshire faithful, and a few die-hard enthusiasts. Many of the latter turned away after the acquisition, local fans were put off after the zero hours contracts redundancies in Huddersfield… You can’t compare Lion to ABI or Heineken in the UK really. H has almost 3000 pubs via Star — lots of places to distro beer! ABI has similar with tied lines, if not its own chain… Buyouts are definitely not dead, but this (as well as Hop Stuff/London Fields) is evidence that you can’t just invest in a craft brand and expect it to perform.

A crushed beer can

At Beervana, in the wake of buyout news in the US, Jeff Alworth provides his usual thoughtful analysis of what it means for the “better beer” market more generally:

With 9,000 breweries in the US all buying from the same ingredients and equipment brokers and all trying to use the same, few (and quickly consolidating) wholesalers to get to the finite number of retail sales points, the industry is tightly interconnected. Canarchy isn’t a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan: it’s another front of storm clouds gathering overhead. Canarchy does not exist in a vacuum.

When the Canarchy/Monster story broke last week, we mentioned the theory that soft drinks producers might be seeking to secure supplies of water with the future in mind. Supplies of cans (metals) are also important, as Jeff observes.

And British drinkers might see that line about the “finite number of retail sales points” and, like Matt Curtis above, think of tied pubs. In the UK, those who control the boozers control the universe.

Magic Rock Highwire
SOURCE: Magic Rock

It’s probably fair to say that Michael at Bring on the Booze agonises about his choices as a consumer more than some. Although he isn’t so bothered about independence, in itself, he doesn’t stand for bad behaviour or dubious ethics from breweries. So, for him, the Magic Rock news feels potentially hopeful:

I didn’t note it [in 2019] but it seems more folk were up in arms about Magic Rock becoming available in the hated behemoth of Tesco than they were about the fact that the new sugar daddies had some very dubious connections in Myanmar… For now, on a personal level, if all goes well I am looking forward to trying Magic Rock Highwire once again, safe in the knowledge that my hard-earned pounds won’t end up in Burmese bullets.

Ron Pattinson posts something every single day and it can be easy to miss really crucial stuff in the stream of historical facts and figures, opinion and travel writing. This week, he quietly announced that he thought he’d found evidence of the moment mild started to go dark:

In the last couple of decades of the 19th century, Mild Ales began to darken. Well, some of them did. The process was very patchy and didn’t occur everywhere simultaneously. It’s also very difficult to pin down exactly when and to what degree Mild became darker… The biggest problem is the lack of hard data. It’s tricky calculating the colour from the ingredients, especially when sugar is involved. As this is mostly only described very vaguely. There are very few records of beer colour before WWI… At least that’s what I thought. Until I happened to notice that line in a Fullers brewing record. That ‘Tint’ number looked like it was in an understandable scale. The type of Lovibond used before WWII… Having multiple examples spanning a few years, it’s possible to get an idea about what was happening with the colour of Fullers X Ale.

SOURCE: Pub Gallery/Dermot Kennedy.

It’s hard to read Dermot Kennedy’s article about the historic pubs of Portsmouth at Pub Gallery without wanting to check train times. The colourful, well-composed photographs throughout the piece help demonstrate continuity in the local style, while the accompanying text does a great job of capturing the arc of the story of English pubs in the 19th and 20th centuries:

If you take a walk around Portsmouth and Southsea you can’t help noticing the number of spectacular pubs. Some have tall corner towers, some are richly tiled and others have prominent signs promoting long gone breweries… So how did Portsmouth come to have so many exceptional public houses? A few things gave rise to the “Golden Age” of pub building in the 1890s, but in Portsmouth the competition between local breweries (and the architects they employed) was probably the most important.

A plan of the Leopold Brewery. SOURCE: Brussels Beer City.

At Brussels Beer City Eoghan Walsh continues his exploration of Belgian brewing history with notes on the brewery building boom of the inter-war period:

In June 1930 Ziemann drafted plans for a new six-kettle, steam-powered Sudhaus (“brewery”) for Brasserie Léopold capable of brewing 92 Zentner (4600 kg) of malt per batch. It included Laüterbottichen (lauter tuns), Maischbottichpfannen (mash boilers), and a Hopfenmontejus (a hop-back), which Ziemann’s engineers recommended to avoid the leaching of “unfavourable bitter resins” from hop cones into Léopold’s beer… Construction and delivery would take Ziemann eight months and installation on-site in Brussels a further six. And the damage this would cause to Damiens’ and Léopold’s finances? The princely sum of 18,168 Reichsmarks (€63,360).

Finally, from Twitter, a particularly inviting looking pub:

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

beer in fiction / tv

Amazon’s Beer Masters: overall, good, with some off flavours

One of the things we did during our recent period of Covid isolation was to work our way through the Amazon reality show Beer Masters. It wasn’t a difficult task – there are only five episodes.

Ed Wray’s neat review has prompted us to add a few thoughts.

First, kudos to the producers, Electric Robin, for coming up with a way to make the Bake Off format work for a product which is slow to manufacture.

Our tongue-in-cheek post about TV formats from more than eight years ago was really intended to make the point that we couldn’t see how this could be done.

But, in the end, they found quite a clever mechanism: by keeping all the contestants in until the end, it simultaneously solves the issue of maturing time, while making for a gentler and what feels like a fairer format than the weekly elimination model that we’re all so used to.

This could lend itself to other crafts, too – The Great British Knit Off?

We also really liked that the final challenge required the contestants to make the same beer twice, testing their ability to deliver consistency.

The international cast was also a selling point, despite some occasionally awkward attempts to make the contestants banter in English.

It almost felt like a travel show at times with sequences at homes in France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as filming in breweries in Belgium and Holland. In these sequences, the visuals switched to the slick Netflix documentary style, all drone shots and depth of field.

A typical location shot from Beer Masters. SOURCE: Amazon Prime Video.

Jaega Wise made an excellent presenter, not mincing her words when the beer wasn’t up to standard, but always feeling kind and constructive.

Her co-host, James Blunt, filled a thankless role adequately, making the odd joke and asking daft questions on behalf of the layman viewer.

Some commentators have argued that the format removed all tension from the show, and indeed, it did feel at times as if drama was being contrived around, for example, a stuck sparge, or a slightly leaky tap.

Each episode also includes an on-the-day challenge, too. None of these were as interesting as the brewing but did provide a race-against-time quality and allowed the contestants to gather round and look nervous while being judged.

We wondered several times who this was pitched at. As (very) occasional homebrewers, we didn’t feel patronised, or out of our depth. The obvious wasn’t stated too often and there were some interesting insights into other people’s home brewing setups. And there were some extremely relatable moments, such as when one team lost their hop filter in the boiler.

Perhaps, however, they could have spent less time on the somewhat laboured descriptions of what makes an Abbey beer, or a pilsner, and told us a bit more about the contestants’ kits. We could see some interesting gadgets and arrangements that were never really discussed.

If the aim is to spark a home-brewing revolution, as was suggested at a couple of points, then this probably won’t do it.

Of course, you could say that who it was pitched at was the general beer consumer, in a clever piece of stealth advertising by AB-InBev.

All of the commercial beers featured are AB-InBev products, with carefully managed stories designed to highlight their ‘authenticity’ (Camden Hells, Tripel Karmeliet) and/or consistency (Stella Artois).

Some of this was interesting in itself, and it’s hard not to be impressed by professional brewers being professionals. In fact, we thought the explanation of how global quality control was enforced from the Stella Artois mothership was one of the most interesting nuggets in the whole show.

But, ultimately, the presentation of the stories of these beers was downright misleading at times.

We understand why the producers would work with AB-InBev: instant access to a whole raft of brewers and breweries without having to juggle multiple commercial partners. But it was a bit weird that the parent company wasn’t, as far as we noticed, mentioned even once.

Overall, the fact that we’re still talking about it suggests it’s got something about it. Concerns about transparency aside, we hope there’ll be a second series, with some tweaks to the format.

Beer Masters is available free for Amazon Prime Video subscribers in the UK.


News, nuggets and longreads 15 January 2022: heavy heavy monster sound

As the new year gets going and the nights start to get shorter, here’s our round-up of essential reading on beer and pubs from the past week.

First, some more-interesting-than-usual brewery takeover news from the US: a company that owns several American breweries including Oskar Blues and Cigar City has itself been acquired by the Monster Beverage Corporation.

Why should people in the UK care? Because some commentators (Tim Webb, specifically) have been warning for a while that the next big shake up is likely to be soft drinks companies buying up breweries – and here it is, or might be.

His suspicion, if we’ve got this right, is that it might be partly about securing access to water, with a rather worrying long-term view in mind. But it’s also a symptom of a general muddling of categories that often occurs in the later consolidation phase.

As always, Jeff Alworth at Beervana is our first port of call for measured commentary on these things but for now, he’s still in shock.

The Rhubarb -- street frontage.

And then some local news: things are looking up, just a bit, with regard to the saving of The Rhubarb, the last pub in our neighbourhood of Bristol. The planning application for its conversion to flats has been withdrawn after hundreds of objections were filed by the public and various organisations. It has also been declared an Asset of Community of Value. So, it’s not out of the woods yet, but things are looking more hopeful than they were a year ago.

Debit card illustration.

You can’t imagine our excitement on noticing a new Lady Sinks the Booze blog post from Kirsty Walker in our Feedly. She’s been back in the pub and has some reflections on Dry January, Try January and the British aversion to tipping:

Something I have noticed about this pub in particular is that they are tip averse. When you pay by card you are prompted to add tip or continue without, but I’ve found that the staff either tell you to press continue without tip or actually take the machine and do it for you. I wondered whether this was because of the inevitable pushback from locals who believe tipping is for the rich and the American, or whether something else was at play… By law, the staff have to be given their tips… but I discovered when they are paid by card they are rounded up at the end of the month and distributed equally among all the staff who have been on shift in one lump sum. Our waitress confided that someone had tipped £100 on Christmas day but due to the system, it had pushed up their monthly earnings and ended with them all being taxed more, as they mostly earn under the tax threshold a year on their part time hours. Not what the kindly gent hoped for, I’m sure. Hence they are not too bothered about tips through the machine and prefer the cash which they can just pocket without Rishi Sunak getting involved.

An old map of Brussels.

Eoghan Walsh is taking a break from his 50 Objects project but is still writing, this week providing us with a bit of psychogeography in the form of a walk along the Zenne Valley in Brussels:

In early January and February 2021, with Belgium suffering through a second lockdown in nine months, I walked the length of the Zenne from Lambic’s reputed origin in Lembeek to Brussels’ new brewing district in Laken, speaking with brewers and business owners to find out the state of brewing in the Zenne valley in this strange time. Originally, this was intended as a contemporaneous account but it (and me) fell victim to lockdown-induced fatigue… Which is why it is only appearing now, a year later. Instead of an on-the-ground report, it functions more as a snapshot of a particular moment when we didn’t know which way the pandemic was going to go. Which seems grimly appropriate as we wait in January 2022 to see which way the Omicron wave will break.


For Craft Beer & Brewing Randy Mosher has written about that hippest, most zeitgeisty of beer style – bitter. It’s a good overview of the style and especially of why it’s so hard for people outside Britain to experience at its fullest:

It’s cliché to say that beer is better when you drink it in its homeland, but it’s especially true in this case. Sad to say, great cask ale is quite rare outside of Britain. Elsewhere it is usually the passion project of a brewery or a pub. Nor does it travel well. I was involved in Ray Daniels’ Real Ale Fest, which offered more than 200 firkins of real ale at its zenith in the late 1990s, mostly from U.S. brewers. A sponsor paid to fly in British casks, but the ales were often imperfect, and many were pulled from service—apparently, even a few hours of truck and air transport was all it took to pull them to pieces. Even under the best circumstances, there’s a tempus fugit quality about cask ale, as inflowing air brings oxidation as well as infectious microbes just a few days after the casks are broached.

Five Points brewery kegs piled high

Des de Moor has just released a new edition of his excellent guide to London pubs. As part of that, he’s totted up how many breweries there are in the capital, and how that has changed over the years:

London’s brewery count rose from 131 at the end of 2020 to 136 at the end of 2021, with at least three likely to start operations in the early months of 2022. While six breweries closed, suspended production or moved out of London during 2021, another 11 either commenced or resumed selling their own beer… Following the boom of the 2010s, when London leapt from accommodating 14 commercial breweries in 2010 to over 100 by 2017, the year-on-year figures have been creeping up much more slowly recently: 125 at the end of 2018, 129 by 2019, 131 by 2020 and 136 today. But given the challenges of the past two years, it’s particularly remarkable that they are still increasing.

The bottle (brewed in 1970) and the beer.

Here’s a nugget from Ron Pattinson: Courage Russian Imperial Stout, he says, is the only British beer he can think of that survived two world wars and retained its strength, “being almost exactly the same gravity in 1986 as in 1847”.

Finally, from Twitter, news of an interesting development around the ongoing BrewDog culture story:

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

bristol pubs

Bristol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink

First published 07.06.2018; last updated 12.01.2022
Bristol has a huge number of pubs and bars and an ever-growing number of breweries. If you’re in town for a few days or hours, where should you go to drink?

We’ve been asked a few times for advice on this and so decided that, rather than keep typing up the advice in emails and DMs, we’d give it a sort-of permanent home here.

We haven’t been to every pub in Bristol, although we’re not far off having been to 264 and we’ve visited most of those in the city centre, and most several times.

In general, Bristol pubs are pretty easy to find, and fairly easy to read – chain pubs look like chain pubs, craft bars look like craft bars, and so on – so you won’t go too far wrong following your instincts. There are lots of hidden gems in the suburbs and up side streets, too, so do explore.

And if you want to keep things loose there are some decent crawls with varied and interesting pubs:

  • St Michael’s Hill – Zero Degrees, The Open Arms, The Robin Hood, The White Bear (sometimes), Beerd, The Highbury Vaults.
  • Gloucester Road – too many to list but start at The Inn on the Green and keep going until you’re done, or in town.
  • Kingsdown – The Hare on the Hill, The Hillgrove Porter Stores, The Kingsdown Vaults, The Green Man, The Highbury Vaults.
  • King Street – Small Bar, The Royal Naval Volunteer, The Beer Emporium, Llandoger Trow (German lager specialists), The Old Duke (jazz), among others.

Before we get down to business we must once again thank Patreon supporters like Jonathan Tucker, Peter Allen and Andrew Brunton who justified us spending a bit too much time putting this together. If you find this post useful please do consider signing up or at least buying us a pint via Ko-Fi.


Stolen stingo and slops in the mild: memories of Mortlake

Back in 2019 we wrote about Watney’s Red Barrel. Finding that post, Colin Prower has written to us with some of his memories of the brewery.

In the very early 1960s I did school and college holiday jobs in various departments of Watney’s Mortlake brewery, including on the Red Barrel production line.

Workers were given a freebie of a pin of Mild in the mess room but preferred to cause casks of Red Barrel to ‘fall off the line’ and drink it in vast quantities throughout shifts.

It didn’t strike me as too bad either! I gather the earlier recipe was better than later.

I also worked in the department to which pub-returned barrels were emptied into a tank for incorporation into Watney’s Mild only. No wonder the workers rejected that!

Most of the beer range at the time was produced by traditional methods. I particularly remember the maturing cellar for hogsheads of Stingo being positively Dickensian – and staffed by characters from his books.

Security there was tight but with a knowing knock at the door, men with bottles down their trouser legs and lengths of rubber tubing would be admitted and allowed to syphon off Stingo.

Happy days!

The above was lightly edited for clarity and consistency. The photo shows security staff at Mortlake and comes from The Red Barrel magazine for August 1961.