Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

Continue reading “Twenty-First Century Brewpub”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 10 February 2018: Lancashire, Lager, Lambic

Here’s everything on the subject of beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from northern pubs to northern clubs via Belgium.

First up, a post from Katie at The Snap & The Hiss which offers some insight from behind the bar into what pubgoers really want to drink, and how they feel about being confronted by a world of choice:

Marketing a product to people who already love that product is about trends and loyalty and surprises. Finding new fans is a more difficult endeavour, especially if you’re so far down your own rabbit hole that you don’t know what they don’t know. A large percentage of drinkers aren’t invested in the breweries you care about/you are. Many people don’t understand what they’re buying. A lot of drinkers aren’t actually sure what the difference is between cask and keg. And yes – some drinkers, to our constant unfair derision – truly believe that cloudy beers are off. It’s time to admit it: we’re answering the wrong questions about beer.


Four brewers.

Will Hawkes, one of the few bona fide nose-poking journalists working in beer, sniffed out the story that Mahrs of Bamberg was opening a brewery in London. Now, for Imbibe, he has all the fascinating details, including the fact that the brewery is now called Braybrooke Beer Co and actually ended up in Northamptonshire:

It’s the result of a collaboration between restaurateurs Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali, who run 10 Greek Street, distributor Nick Trower of Biercraft and Stephan Michel, the owner of Mahr’s Bräu, the craft-beer world’s favourite traditional German brewery…. The result is a kellerbier, an unfiltered and unpasteurised amber lager inspired by Mahr’s world-renowned ‘Ungespundet’ (known as ‘U’). It’ll be made with German malt and hops, fermented with Mahr’s yeast, and brewed in the traditional way, including a single decoction step and four weeks’ lagering.


Vintage SIBA sign on a pub in London.

If you’re interested in the non-sexy behind-the-scenes business of the beer industry then this post from brewer Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau offers an interesting take on moves by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) into distribution and wholesaling, and its deepening connections with pub companies:

SIBA have created an expensive box-ticking exercise that replicates what breweries already have to do legally. They’ve removed a route to market for non-members, are taking money from PubCos intent on dropping cask from local breweries, and are risking further reducing choice for drinkers whilst also increasing profits for PubCos at the expense of brewers and drinkers alike…. I really can’t see how they can claim to represent the interests of independent breweries, and I can’t see how CAMRA can continue to use Flying Firkin [which SIBA recently acquired] as a recommended wholesaler whilst it runs the very real and emerging risk of reducing consumer choice.


Collage: a fractured pub.

This week saw the release of statistics from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) suggesting that though beer consumption overall is up, sales of beer in pubs and bars (the on-trade) was down by 2.4% based on the previous year, equating to some 88 million fewer pints. Tandleman has some thoughts here: “For those with jobs and ‘just about managing’, choosing to drink cheap beer at home as pub prices increase on those already wage squeezed, is rapidly becoming a no brainer.”

(We’ve said similar ourselves: the problem is that nobody has any money!)


Illustration: lambic blending.

For Beer Advocate Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro offer a portrait of a new wave Belgian ‘nano-blendery’. As well as a discussion of the cultural significance of a new blendery charging what by Belgian standards are eye-watering prices for challenging products (cinnamon Framboos!) it’s also full of interesting details on the process:

Souvereyns combines three inoculated wort components for all of his beers, relying on relationships with three Lambic producers: Girardin, Lindemans (in Vlezenbeek), and De Troch (in Wambeek). In particular, he believes the De Troch influence is key to his flavor signature. “De Troch is one of those breweries that is so underrated. The Lambic [it] makes is phenomenal but people only relate that brewery to sweetened products,” he laments, referring to quickly-produced fruit beers which subsidize the old brewery’s limited Oude Gueuze production.

(We’re not quite sure when this piece appeared online but we only noticed it this week.)


We’ll finish with this archive film from the BBC on the boom in northern clubs during the 1960s. It contains lots of shots of foaming pints.

How Come Nobody Criticises That Rosé de Gambrinus Label?

We admit it: the rhetorical “Where’s the outrage?” winds us up.

What it so often means is, because you forgot to mention This, you must now shut up about That, AKA ‘whataboutery’ — a means of shutting down rather than adding to an ongoing discussion.

In relation to beer we’ve seen this argument rolled out a few times lately as part of the renewed discussion around sexist beer labels. Here’s the latest nod in that direction (a very mild one, it must be said, and hardly malicious) which directly prompted us to post today:

At this point, we chipped in: people do talk about this label. We’ve seen them do it. We were involved in a Twitter discussion about it ourselves just before Christmas  prompted, of course, by someone asking “Why is nobody complaining about Cantillon’s classic Rosé de Gambrinus woman getting touched up on a bench?”

It also featured in this widely shared 2015 list of sexist beer labels from Thrillist; was mentioned in passing by Natalya Watson in a well-read blog post in January 2017;  has been picked up by Mike from Chorlton Brewing on a couple of occasions, e.g. here; and it has frequently come up in discussion at Beer Advocate and RateBeer. People have noticed it and aren’t 100 per cent comfortable; it has not sailed beneath the radar.

But, yes, it’s true it isn’t one of the top beers on the hit list, and we can’t find any really impassioned posts by any of our fellow beer bloggers calling for that particular label to change or be removed from shelves.

In fact if you go back far enough you’ll find various people sticking up for it and, indeed, citing criticism of the label as evidence of humourless puritanism. Here’s Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin, for example, writing in 2006 about US censorship of the RDG label: “I cringe every time I think what prudes we are as a nation and how ridiculous we must seem to the rest of the civilized world.” Here’s the one that will probably most surprise people, though: Melissa Cole saying something quite similar a decade ago. It’s so at odds with Melissa’s current stance that we felt compelled to ask her about it via Twitter DM:

I was wrong. I also didn’t realise it was a pattern of wider misogyny in the naming of the beers at Cantillon, I only found out what Fou’ Foune meant relatively recently and given that they are happy to change their mind for commercial reasons in the US, how about they change their minds for the sake of coming into the 21st century too?

I was probably also a bit worried about taking aim at one of the ‘untouchables’ as well. At that time I had taken about six months of quite serious stick and was being denied information and quotes by a cabal of brewers who were closing ranks and trying to keep me quiet by making it very difficult to do my job – fortunately most of them have now retired or folded.

I’ve never claimed to be a perfect person or a perfect feminist (if either of those things actually exist!) and I’m happy to say I got that one wrong and I’ve been quite happy to be vocal that it needs changing recently partly because I don’t worry about being bullied any more and partly because, even if people do come at me, I feel I’ve got a far better way to communicate my points these days – a decade of challenging issues of inequality in the industry, even imperfectly, will do that for you!

The bar has clearly moved and the boundaries are continuing to change. Things that seemed fine a decade ago, or even a couple of years back, have acquired an unpleasant stink. The Rosé de Gambrinus label isn’t violent or sweaty; it’s so soft it seems almost abstract; and the beer doesn’t have a baldly suggestive name to go with the picture. In 2018, though, none of that quite washes, and we suspect there will be more direct criticism of Cantillon in the next year or two. And, yes, we suspect Cantillon probably were given a bit of a pass because they are cool, interesting and mysterious in a way microbreweries in middle England rarely are.

But it does seem to us that we’re reaching a point where there are (per Melissa’s very honest admission) no longer any untouchables, and rightly so, at least in part because of people asking “Where’s the outrage?”

In the meantime remember, if you think this label or that is particularly nasty, there’s nothing stopping you from writing about it. You don’t have to wait for Melissa or Matt Curtis to do it.

* * *

Having said all that, there are plenty of good reasons why British commentators might choose to concentrate on British beers. First, this is our turf and we feel entitled to a say in what goes on here, whereas it feels somehow presumptuous to put pressure on brewers operating in different countries or cultures.

Secondly, as consumers and commentators in this ecosystem, we stand a faint chance of influencing the decisions of brewers and retailers, so it feels worth the bother. Or, to put that another way, the folk at Castle Rock might just care what we and others think, whereas we doubt the aloof enigmas of Cantillon, who can’t brew enough beer to meet global demand, give a flying one. If someone did want to pressure them, how would they do it? When Cloudwater drops a clanger its Twitter feed blows up; Cantillon isn’t on Twitter, and is barely on Facebook.

Finally, there’s the fact that Rosé de Gambrinus might as well not exist in our world. We don’t remember the last time we had it or saw it for sale, and if we did we probably wouldn’t want to pay the asking price. For us, and probably for many other, it simply doesn’t come to mind. Teignworthy Bristol’s Ale or Castle Rock Elsie Mo, on the other hand, are beers we have actually encountered in a pub in the last month.

* * *

There’s also, of course, an argument for not mentioning particular breweries at all. There’s not much here that can’t be discussed in terms of general principles, is there?

Yes, Greene King — More of This

For some years now we’ve been repeating one message: old family brewers should be focusing on their heritage, not trying to keep up with BrewDog. So we were delighted to hear that Greene King has upped its historic beer game.

Their new limited edition bottled heritage range doesn’t quite approach the full-on authenticity of Fuller’s Past Masters series being, as far as we can tell, only vaguely ‘inspired by’ archive recipes rather than painstakingly recreating them. What is notable is their use of a once near-extinct variety of malting barley, Chevallier, the revival of which you can read about here:

Starting a few years ago with only a handful of seeds, by 2013 half a tonne was available for brewing…. Now the 2015 harvest is nudging 200 tonnes and there’s Chevallier malt aplenty. With another 15 tonnes reserved for seed, the expectation is that similar harvests will be possible in future years…. “People that have tasted it say that it has a very rich, malty flavour. We’ve had comments back from the States such as, ‘It’s the most aromatic malt that I’ve ever brewed with.’ … There’s a perception of a difference, of richer maltiness.”

We bought one bottle of each of Greene King’s heritage beers at our local Tesco supermarket for £2.49 each. That’s a touch pricier than many bog standard supermarket ales but then the bottles are full-pint sized and the beers are both relatively strong.

Suffolk Pale Ale at 5% ABV knocked our socks off. We found it vigorously bitter, almost too much so, with a remarkable freshness that suggests the pop of just ripe gooseberries. (It’s bottle-conditioned which perhaps helps.) It has a beautiful aroma which is hard to pin down — a certain sappiness might be the way to describe it, with some suggestion of fresh-baked bread. There’s nothing of the new world about it though the use of German hops (obvious once you read the label) offer a subtle twist, herbal rather than fruity. If you can’t bothered to brew one of the 19th century pale ale recipes from Ron Pattinson’s book this is a decent substitute. It’s delicious, thought provoking, and perhaps the best Greene King beer we’ve ever tasted. In fact, it’s one of the best beers we’ve come across in recent months.

Vintage Fine Ale at 6.5% less brilliant but it’s still very much a step in the right direction for Greene King. Deep red-brown in colour it has a distinct autumnal feel. On the plus side there were the various facets of richness — golden syrup, Christmas pudding and plums. The only things holding it back were a husky stale note (which we suspect might disappear with a few months ageing) and the fact that Fuller’s already makes similar but better beers in this style. On the whole, though, we liked it and would — indeed probably will — buy it again.

Let’s hope these sell well, that the Pale Ale becomes a regular, and that there are more heritage beers to come. But, seriously, when do we get the funk? Bring out the nip bottles of 5X and let’s get some blending going.

Revitalisation: Compromise, Politics & Progress

Illustration: "FORWARD!"

Even though everyone is thoroughly weary of the topic there is a lot being written about CAMRA’s Revitalisation project so we’re going to highlight some of it here, and throw in some passing thoughts of our own.

The main event in the last week has been the publication of a manifesto by Bradley Cummings of Tiny Rebel brewery who is running for the CAMRA National Executive. Out gut feeling is that this feels like a PR move more than anything and we’re not sure brewers should be on the NE, though of course there are lots of historic examples of people moving back and forth from the industry to CAMRA. (Martin Sykes of the Selby Brewery was an early NE member; Christopher Hutt became a pub entrepreneur; Michael Hardman worked for Young & Co after leaving the NE; Chris Holmes founded Castle Rock, and so on.)

Here’s Mr Cumming’s manifesto (PDF at Google Drive):

Let’s face it: CAMRA isn’t very cool. How many of its nearly 200,000 members would end a sentence that starts “I’m a CAMRA member” with “for my sins”?

A new generation of beer fans is incredibly passionate, knowledgeable and energetic, but CAMRA has alienated them instead of seeing their efforts as consistent with CAMRA’s aims.

Let’s not forget – CAMRA was established to give consumers a CHOICE. But CAMRA has lost that forward thinking, progressive outlook and instead adopted a position of preference.

I do not believe for a second that the new generation of drinkers wish to remove real ale from the British beer landscape. On the contrary, I believe they want to get back to the roots of CAMRA and promote informed choice, and protect cask ale as an exciting and important part of our beer scene. I should know – I’m one of them.

Here’s a passionate, pointed rebuttal by Kirst Walker, our 2017 Golden Pints blogger of the year:

I’m dismayed at how little scrutiny has been given to some of the ideas beyond the banner headline of ‘don’t judge beers by method of dispense’. Yes, there are some wide ranging ideas, not particularly radical, which we can all get on board with. But there are also some chilling statements around the treatment of pubs and publicans which seem to have gone under the radar, and some bombastic messages which have gone unchallenged, such as ‘Brewers know beer best. That is undeniable.’…. Is it? I don’t think so.

And here’s a cautious almost endorsement from Tandleman:

You can pick and choose the elements you like and dislike and while there isn’t an awful lot that is entirely new, except perhaps that one of the brightest stars of brewing, in one of the most enterprising companies, actually wants to get involved with CAMRA and sees CAMRA still has potential. He wants to motivate members and get them directly involved in CAMRA’s democracy and is willing to stand for election to rummle things up a bit, which many (including me) will see as a positive…. On the other hand, personally, I am very wary and can’t reallyconcur with (possibly inadvertently) repositioning  CAMRA as a kind of offshoot of industry, though some closer involvement would be sensible.

In general, we’re inclined to agree with the general thrust of that argument. The Revitalisation proposals are by necessity a compromise between many subtly different positions, most of which shake out into two major camps: conservative and progressive. You might object to specific elements of language or like some parts while hating others but when push comes to shove, as in real world politics, you can only vote for the candidates on the ballot paper on the day and hope to nudge things roughly in your preferred direction.

For our part we’ll be voting in favour of the Revitalisation proposals or, rather, “to change the Articles of Association to allow the Campaign to enact the recommendations made by the National Executive”.

Whether we vote for Mr Cummings for the National Executive will depend on what the other manifestos look like; suffice to say, we’ll be choosing candidates who are broadly progressive, even if (as is almost certain) we don’t agree with their stance on every single issue.

There’s bound to be some muddle, argy-bargy and further disgruntlement, but Heading That-A-Way! and working out the problems when they arise seems to us better than doing nothing until CAMRA simply ossifies.