breweries opinion

Are family breweries really such a great idea?

marcaurel.jpgThere’s been lots of talk in the UK press this week about inheritance, in the wake of Nigella Lawson’s decision not to leave her wealth to her kids.

In their coverage of the story, the BBC came up with a piece of research by Economist Nick Bloom which suggests that businesses where the CEO is the oldest son of the founder aren’t likely to be the best:

We looked at 5,000 companies and we found that around a third of medium-sized manufacturing firms were family owned. In about half of them the eldest son was the CEO. They are very badly managed.

There is a perception in the world of beer that family run breweries are good; breweries run by accountants and marketing people are bad.

Although there are some breweries where the heirs do seem to have a real passion for brewing, what happens if the son just isn’t interested in beer or brewing, or is rubbish at running a business? I was at university with the scion of a great British brewing family. He was the thick, boorish product of a boarding school; prone to shouting homophobic abuse at people for drinking orange juice, reading books, not vomiting enough and so on; and didn’t show very much interest in ale at all, preferring alcopops and pound-a-pint lager, from what I recall. He will almost certainly end up running the family business one day. I shudder to think.

People should learn from the Five Good Emperors of Rome. They chose their heirs from outside the family and trained them from youth. When Marcus Aurelius broke this unwritten rule and handed control over to his son Commodus, the Roman Empire began its long collapse and 2000 years later, we were forced to endure Ridley Scott’s abysmal Gladiator.

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A good pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord

postll.gifA while back, I moaned that it had been a while since I’d had a good pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord. Well, I’ve broken my run of bad luck — the Nag’s Head in Walthamstow, east London, served me a beauty this week. It was fresh, full of flavour and, just as important, bursting with exciting aromas.

The ale in the Nag’s Head hasn’t always been on great form, but  in the last year or so has seemed to be much more reliable. And we’ve never had anything but a cheery “thanks” when we’ve taken a dodgy pint back.

There are usually four or five cask ales on offer, including Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde Mild and Sharpe’s Cornish Coaster and/or Eden.

This comes hot on the heels of my parents excitedly reporting that they’d enjoyed TTL at the Vintage in Wellington in Somerset a couple of weekends ago. My Mum isn’t a big fan of real ale, but she says a pint that good could win her over. My Dad is a fan of ale and a former pub landlord. He says it was in perfect condition — “perfect temperature, long lasting head, a really good pint of beer”.

So maybe it does travel after all.

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Mail order beer that works

livingbeer.gifIt used to be that ordering beer online was more trouble than it’s worth, but the people at have managed to convert us.

More than once, we’ve placed carefully composed orders with reputable suppliers only to find that when the box turned up several weeks later, there were broken bottles, and that most of the beers we’d asked for were out of stock and had been substituted with stuff we could get in our local supermarket.

Livingbeer’s big selection box sidesteps at least part of that process — it’s just 48 different bottle-conditioned beers from all over the UK. You don’t pick and choose, you just wait to see what you’re going to get.

So, although it means we’ve got some beers we might not have chosen ourselves, opening the four massive boxes was like Christmas Day. Each bottle was like a little gift to unwrap. We’d heard of about one fifth of the beers in the selection and had only tried a handful before. So, our cellar now looks very healthy.

And this time, we didn’t get any broken bottles. The beers were very securely wrapped and all were intact.

If you’ve got a hundred quid to spare, we heartily recommend giving it a go.


We’d previously come across through Google, but were tempted to give it a go by the 33% off January offer advertised earlier this month on Stonch’s blog.

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Duesseldorf part five – Frankenheim and further pontification on the nature of Alt

frankenheim2.jpgWe’re almost there. We ended up having Frankenheim twice. First, on Saturday night, after Schumacher and Schloesser, in a restaurant / pub called Brauerei Zum Schiffchen. It’s allegedly Duesseldorf’s oldest, going back to 1628. It doesn’t brew its own now, stocking Frankenheim instead.

Frankenheim was OK – good malt flavour with hints of chocolate, not much bitterness. Sufficiently decent to make us decide to visit their enormous brewery tap, which is about 20 minutes walk from the old town on Wielandstrasse. This place was considerably quieter than the old town pubs, possibly because of the distance, and possibly because it was Sunday afternoon, and even the Duesseldorf party animals have to rest some time. We also committed some kind of faux pas by sitting on a regular’s table. (Why else would they have sat on our table when the pub was two-thirds empty?)

So those were all the alts we got to try. There are a few others that we didn’t try – Diebels, Gatzweiler and Rhenania, to mention a few. Enormous thanks to Ron Pattinson for bothering to put together his Duesseldorf pub guide, as it certainly saved us considerable effort in planning this trip.

So, some conclusions. As a “style”, alt is very varied — the beers we tried had different bitterness levels, different malt flavours, different bodies. It’s certainly more varied than various Koelsches (more on that soon). Our favourites from the trip were Schumacher and Zum Schluessel, but this didn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the others.

We’re looking forward to a return trip, particularly as Duesseldorf is well-placed to get to other beer destinations (Muenster, Cologne, Dortmund). Plus there’s the draw of the “Sticke” — the stronger version, produced and sold on two days a year. See this article on Ron Pattinson’s Duesseldorf pages for more.

But, and this is perhaps the sacreligious part — the alt itself would not be the key draw. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy it enormously, but you can get similar beers in the UK.* It’s the atmosphere, the tradition and the liveliness. We’d happily move to Duesseldorf for a year or two to call some of these places our locals.


*To recreate the Alt effect at home: Get a nice brown bitter that you like, chill it for a couple of hours, and pour it carelessly into a 250ml tumbler so that it eventually settles down to half beer, half head. We tried it — it works. A good alt is very like a cold, super bitter English ale. In our humble opinion, this better recreates the alt experience than buying a tired bottle of boring Diebels from your local specialist beer emporium.

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Duesseldorf part four (oops) — Brauerei Zum Schluessel

schluessel2.jpgOn Saturday night, we couldn’t get through the door of Brauerei Zum Schluessel. The pub was packed to the rafters and the street outside was crammed with football supporters celebrating a win. We cut our losses and came back for lunch on Sunday.

Duesseldorf’s pubs are arguably not as atmospheric at lunchtime. In the evenings, there’s a real buzz — they’re full of people of all ages crammed close together talking and laughing. Duesseldorf is a very touchy-feely place by German (or British) standards. But at lunchtime, they seem to be colonised, in the main, by middle-aged couples. There is a murmur of conversation, rather than the roar of jolly bacchanalia. This is still a pleasant atmosphere, but hardly exciting. A necessary compromise, though, which allowed us to sit down, eat and stroke our chins in nerdish appreciation of the beer.

Schluessel’s alt is a beauty. Ron isn’t kidding when he says it’s hard to choose between them — they all have their charms. This one was on the dry/bitter side, partly from hops and partly from some burnt sugar flavours. It also seemed to have a fuller body than some of its competitors.

But enough waffle — look at this:


Hmm. That’s made us thirsty. We’re off to the pub. More tomorrow.