News, nuggets and longreads 1 June 2019: Bubbles, Boozers, Business

Here’s everything that struck us as noteworthy, informative or entertaining in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from worrying to Wegbier.

Writing, oddly, for the blog of beer industry marketing agency Mash, Matt Curtis offers a balanced, detailed rundown of the state of UK brewing in a week when there has been much discussion of brewery closures:

About five years ago, if I was given a pound for every time I was told that the “beer bubble” was about to burst, I’d have, well, several pounds. Enough for a round of “London murky” in a trendy craft beer bar at the very least. At the time, it felt as though beer was reaching its apex. As it turned out, it still had further to climb before it did.

Now, however, I’m beginning to think that, although some of those hot takes came far too early, that in today’s market, they might be right.


Augustiner bottles

For VinePair Evan Rail writes about the German culture of Wegbier – literally beer that you drink on your way from A to B.

“A Wegbier is a simply a beer that you drink while you’re walking,” Ludger Berges, owner of the Hopfen & Malz bottle shop in Berlin, says. “Actually, ‘Weg’ means ‘way,’ so it’s a beer for the road. If you’re on your way to a party or on your way home from a party, maybe it’s 10 minutes by foot, many people in Berlin will walk that distance, and many people will drink a Wegbier along the way. It’s cool, it’s relaxed. Everybody does it.”

The concept of Wegbier seems fairly specific to Germany. Despite the country sharing a border and lager-brewing (and -drinking) history with the Czech Republic, there is no Czech-language equivalent of Wegbier. Nor is the concept in neighboring countries like Belgium or Poland.


Pubco advertisement for landlords.

In another area of the industry, the Guardian has a piece by Rob Davies on how the Market-Rent-Only option is working out for publicans whose pubs are owned by the much-reviled pub companies:

Pub tenants and MPs have been “duped and betrayed”, according to the British Pub Confederation, which said the MRO was little more than a myth.

It accused pub companies of seeking to scupper MRO applications by any means necessary, including spooking them with eviction notices. The group also cast doubt on the independence of assessments used to set rents.

The BPC chair, Greg Mulholland, who pushed the MRO option through parliament as a Liberal Democrat MP, said that in its current form “tenants do not have the rights they were promised by ministers”.


Thornbridge, 2013.

Reason, a conservative American publication which sits in around the same space as the UK’s Spectator, has an interesting piece by Alex Muresianu on how the imposition of steel tariffs has affected the US brewing industry:

The justification for import taxes is usually that they will protect American jobs from foreign competition. Tariffs on a specific good, like aluminum, might help workers in the industry which produces that good. However, workers in industries that use that good as an input suffer.

“I have heard from brewers large and small from across the country who are seeing their aluminum costs drastically increase, even when they are using American aluminum,” Jim McGreevy, president and CEO of The Beer Institute, said in March, when the group released a separate report detailing $250 million in higher costs created by tariffs and tariff-associated price increases.


We haven’t had chance to watch this yet but the Craft Beer Channel has produced a 70-minute documentary about beer in New England which is clearly a labour of love.


Historic England is trying to save a revolutionary 18th century building in Shrewsbury that was built as a flaxmill and converted into maltings in the 1890s. They call it ‘the first skyscraper’. You can find out all about the Flaxmill Maltings at the History Calling blog.


And finally, there’s this eloquent account of why you might start a brewery, and what might move you to stop:

For more, check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday. (Stan Hieronymus is taking a break.)

Lederhosen in Lidl, Beer for Breakfast: Some Reflections on Munich

We’ve been to Munich several times, but rarely for more than a couple of days, and not often together.

This time we went with the specific intention of really being in Munich — not jumping on trains to other nearby towns, or racing from one beer destination to another in pursuit of ticks and trophies.

We began by finding accommodation in the suburbs, partly to save money, but also because the best times we’ve had on recent trips abroad have been beyond the immediate centres of cities.

The neighbourhood we ended up in was one where people live, walk their dogs, drowse on benches, smoke behind school bike sheds, and use ten-foot plastic pluckers to pick plums. The houses were post-war but conservative (Bavaria is not a hotbed of modernism) with concrete lions on their gateposts and plastic elves in their flowerbeds.

Every corner had a political poster or two: BAVARIAN PARTY — CHOOSE FREEDOM! ÖDP — YOUNG, AND FIERCELY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS! The only AFD posters we saw in our part of town had been either torn down or vandalised, the candidates given square black moustaches with swipes of marker pens.

We drank our first beer in Munich at a pub-restaurant above the tube station, on the main road into town, as rain hammered the parasols in the empty beer garden.

Ayinger Helles beer.

Ayinger Helles isn’t from Munich, it’s from Aying, and after a twelve-hour train trip, tasted great.

The pub was somehow both a bit too posh (tablecloths and ornaments) and nothing special — limp salad, service on the SCREW YOU! end of brusque — but the beer was served with all due ceremony. The glass, a simple Willibecher, was so clean it sang at the touch of a finger, and had plenty of room for a crown of foam.

Look at the room through the beer and everything seems clearer than without. It certainly looks warmer.

A touch sweet, a touch of corn, almost watery, and yet… Yes, another, please.

After all, as everyone knows, several thin coats rather than one thick leads to a more even, consistent finish.

A good start.

Continue reading “Lederhosen in Lidl, Beer for Breakfast: Some Reflections on Munich”

The First British Attempt at German-style Wheat Beer

Vaux Brewery logo

In 1988 a new German-style wheat beer was launched on the British market — the first, its brewers claimed, brewed in the UK.

This post follows on from our contribution to the Session back at the start of July in which we were frustrated in our attempts to pin down when Samuel Smith started brewing Ayinger wheat beer under licence.

As it happens, the August 1988 edition of CAMRA’s monthly newspaper What’s Brewing contains two articles useful for pinning this down:

  1. A double-page profile of Samuel Smith and its head brewer by Brian Glover.
  2. A back-page splash headlined FIRST BRITISH WHEAT BEER!

The former lists all of the Ayinger-branded beers then in production at Smith’s from D Pils to VSL (very strong lager, we think, at about 8% ABV) but does not mention a wheat beer.

The latter tells us that Britain’s first German-style wheat beer was brewed in… Sheffield. It was branded as Vaux Weizenbier but brewed at a Vaux subsidiary, Ward’s.

Vaux beermat.

The operations director at Sunderland, Stuart Wilson, explained the thinking behind this remarkable first:

We have noted the popularity of wheat beers in West Germany and in the USA. Wheat beers are 15% of the Bavarian beer market. So with the increasing interest in speciality beers, we have decided to brew this classic style.

The article tells us that the beer had an ABV of 5% and was served on draught from “ornate ceramic founts” in elaborate branded glasses, with slices of lemon available “for those who prefer to complete the Bavarian picture”. Oddly, perhaps, it was filtered and presented clear — cloudy beer being perhaps a step too far for British drinkers in 1988?

Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson blurbed the new product: “[It has] a clean, lightly fruity palate.”

In a follow-up piece for The Times on 11 May 1991 Mr Glover was still crediting Vaux with launching the first UK-brewed German wheat beer (meaning nobody came forward to prove otherwise) and stated that there had been no others since.

But by 1994 Roger Protz was reporting in the Observer (29 May) that Vaux had begun importing Spaten wheat beers, with no mention of their own-label product.

So, there you go: Sam Smith didn’t get into the wheat beer game until the 1990s, and anyone Googling ‘first British wheat beer’ now has a plausible answer. (Unless anyone out there knows otherwise.)

Timeline

  • 1988 Vaux brews the first British take on German-style wheat beer
  • 1988 Hoegaarden hits UK market
  • 1991 Taylor Walker begins selling Löwenbräu across its estate
  • 1993 Hoegaarden in Whitbread pubs
  • 1994 Alastair Hook begins importing German wheat beers to the UK
  • 1994 wheat beer festival at the White Horse organised by Hook and Mark Dorber
  • 1994 continental wheat beers in UK supermarkets

Session #137: “Banana Beer”

This is our contribution to Session #137 hosted by Roger at Roger’s Beers.

Our introduction to German wheat beer happened long before we were interested in beer and before we’d ever thought of going to Bavaria.

It was at the Fitzroy, a Samuel Smith pub in central London, in about 2001, where the house draught wheat beer was a version of Ayinger brewed under licence in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

We had encountered Hoegaarden by this point — it was ubiquitous in London at around the turn of the century — but hadn’t considered ordering any other wheat beer until a friend urged us to try Ayinger. “I call it banana beer,” they said, “because it tastes like puréed banana.”

At first we didn’t quite get it. To us, it tasted like beer. Weird, soupy, sweet beer. So we had a few until we understood what he meant. And yes, there it was — the stink of blackened bananas left too long in the bowl. “It gives you terrible hangovers, though,” he added, a little too late to save us. We couldn’t think of it for a year or two after that session without feeling a little overripe ourselves.

Pinning down anything relating to the history of Samuel Smith beers is trickier than it ought to be but, in the absence of firm evidence, we reckon it’s a safe guess that they started brewing Weizen in the 1990s, during or after the brief craze for wheat beer among the British beer cognoscenti (Hook, Dorber et al) during 1994-95. (As always, solid intel proving otherwise is very welcome.)

Sam Smith’s take might not have had the cool of a genuine import — the hip kids raved about Schneider — but it had the advantage of being both accessible and accessibly priced, and we can’t help but wonder how many other British beer geeks were first introduced to German wheat beer this way.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 12 May 2018: Bass, Bavaria, Bambini

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the past week, from the masculinity of beer to the fascination of Bass.

Dea Latis, an industry group dedicated to promoting beer to women, and challenging the idea that beer is a male preserve. It commissioned a study from YouGov into women’s attitudes to beer which is summarised here, with a link to the full report:

Beer Sommelier and Dea Latis director Annabel Smith said: “We know that the beer category has seen massive progress in the last decade – you only need to look at the wide variety of styles and flavours which weren’t available widely in the UK ten years ago. Yet it appears the female consumer either hasn’t come on the same journey, or the beer industry just isn’t addressing their female audience adequately. Overtly masculine advertising and promotion of beer has been largely absent from media channels for a number of years but there is a lot of history to unravel. Women still perceive beer branding is targeted at men.”

We’ve already linked to this once this week but why not a second time? It’s a substantial bit of work, after all.

There’s some interesting commentary on this, too, from Kirst Walker, who says: “If we want more women in the beer club, we have to sweep up the crap from the floors and admit that flowers are nice and it pays not to smell of horse piss. How’s that for a manifesto?”


Bass Pale Ale mirror, Plymouth.

Ian Thurman, AKA @thewickingman, was born and brought up in Burton-upon-Trent and has a lingering affection for Bass. He has written a long reflection on this famous beer’s rise and fall accompanied by a crowd-sourced directory of pubs where it is always available:

It’s difficult for me to be unemotional about Draught Bass. It was part of growing up in Burton. But what are the facts.

The EU AB InBev careers’ website accurately describes the relative importance of their brands to the company.

“The UK has a strong portfolio of AB InBev brands. This includes, global brands, Stella Artois and Budweiser, international brands, Beck’s, Leffe and Hoegaarden, as well as local brands, including Boddingtons and Bass.”

We’re fascinated by the re-emergence of the Cult of Bass as a symbol of a certain conservative attitude to pubs and beer. You might regard this article as its manifesto.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 12 May 2018: Bass, Bavaria, Bambini”

Session #134: Zum Biergarten

For the 134th edition of The Session, in which beer bloggers around the world write on the same topic, Tom Cizauskas has asked us to think about beer gardens.

A good beer garden is a kind of fairy tale that allows you to wallow in summer, and to imagine yourself above or outside the modern world.

We first became aware of how magical a German beer garden could be after Jessica went to the World Cup in 2006 and came back in love with the Englischer Garten in Munich where she saw thousands of football fans served litre after litre of Helles with unruffled efficiency.

A sunny beer garden.

When we think of Germany, we think of beer gardens: the high altitude majesty of the garden at the top of the Staffelberg; the backup garden of Würzburger Hofbräu we found by accident, which feels as if it’s deep in a forest despite the ring road on the other side of the hedge; or the riverside idyll of the Spitalbrauerei in Regensburg where this blog was born.

Continue reading “Session #134: Zum Biergarten”

British Beer Exports in Pictures

Ron Pattinson at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins has recently been mining data to tell the story of British beer exports in the 20th century. We thought we’d compliment that with some pictures from our collection of in-house magazines.

The pictures come from editions of The Red BarrelThe House of Whitbread and Guinness Time, mostly from the 1960s and 70s. (Yes, Guinness is Irish, but had it’s corporate HQ and a huge brewery in London from 1932.) It’s pretty well content free but we have plans to write something more substantial about all this at some point in the future.

Belgium
A Belgian pub.
Whitbread’s Taverne Nord, Boulevard Adolphe Max, Brussels, c.1933.
A portrait of a man in an office.
C. De Keyser, Whitbread’s Belgian sales manager from 1937.

Continue reading “British Beer Exports in Pictures”

Session #127: Festbier auf Englisch?

Autumn leaves somewhere in Europe.

For this month’s edition of the Session, when beer bloggers around the world write on one topic, Al at Fuggled has asked us to hunt down and consider Oktoberfest beers.

This is another one we were going to sit out because we haven’t seen any on sale and didn’t have chance to go hunting. But then we decided, once again, to just be the kind of idiots who ignore the instructions and come at it sideways instead.

So here’s the question we asked ourselves: what’s the English equivalent of Festbier?

First, we need to get our heads round what Festbier means in Germany. Yes, we’ve been writing about beer for years and should know by now but the fact is, it seems a bit vague; has been the victim of some apparently incorrect explainer articles over the years; and, being seasonal, hasn’t often been on offer when we’ve been in Germany.

So, without getting bogged down in its history, what does it mean now? What does a German consumer expect from a bottle with Festbier or Oktoberfest on the label? We decided the quickest way to get some kind of working answer was to ask a German, namely Andreas Krenmair (@der_ak) who blogs about beer and brewing at Daft EejitHe says…

Good question… personally, I’d expect it to be slightly stronger than an Export-strength beer but not quite as strong as Bockbier. For a Festbier, that would essentially mean a scaled-up Helles, with a thicker mouthfeel, possibly a slight booziness, and maybe a tiny bit more bitterness, but still relatively restrained. If it’s advertised as Märzen, I’d expect an amber to pale-brown colour, with noticeable melanoidin flavours, i.e. that maltiness coming from darker-kilned malts like Vienna or Munich malt.

Disappointing with a beer labelled as Festbier/Oktoberfest-Märzen would certainly be either not enough or too much alcohol, any of the obvious off-flavours that some lagers suffer from, too much bitterness or an assertive hoppiness. In the case of Märzen, the lack of that typical maltiness would be especially disappointing, as it would be an indicator for an industrially brewed Märzen that is essentially Festbier coloured with Sinamar (Ron Pattinson once mentioned that some Munich brewery does that for the US export market, but I forgot which brewery it was). All in all, my expectation of a Festbier or Oktoberfest-Märzen is that I can drink at least 1 Maß of it without getting drunk, and wanting more afterwards, so drinkability is key…

As a bonus, if the beer is served from gravity instead of keg, and with slightly lower carbonation, that makes a good Festbier even more drinkable in my opinion.

That’s something to go on, and more or less fits with what we thought it meant.

So, an English equivalent would be a stronger, richer, smoother version of an everyday style, and a bit stronger than the norm but not Super Strength. Stronger, richer, smoother, 5 point something… That sounds a bit like ESB for starters, doesn’t it? The only problem is, ESB is available all year round, and a Festbier probably ought to be withheld if it’s to feel special.

With that restriction in mind, Spingo Special, from the Blue Anchor in Helston, occurred as an option. It only turns up occasionally, and is certainly rich. The only problem is… it’s not very nice — just so, so sickly sweet, and way too strong. It certainly fails AK’s drinkability test.

Another candidate might be St Austell Tribute Extra which is a stronger, maltier version of the famous ale that tends to appear on cask in November and December. (That’s right, not September, when Oktoberfest happens, or October when people understandably think it does.) Quite a few other breweries (a bit of Googling suggests) have winter versions of their standards ales along the same lines. So maybe that’s as close as we get, timing notwithstanding.

As it is, British autumn seasonals tend to be things with Red in the namerye in the grist, or both, and that’s fine, but it might be nice if those beers were also a full percentage point or so stronger.

Actually, ‘autumn ESB’ has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? How would you go about brewing one?


UPDATE 13:47 01/09/2017: Johannes Weiss (@weizen) works at Weihenstephan and says:

As for Oktoberfestbier, original gravity needs to be even higher than for Festbier, and in Germany only Munich breweries can call it Oktoberfestbier by law.

So there’s nothing there that really applies to Britain, but it’s an interesting distinction.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 29 July 2017: Germany, Quality Control, Staly Vegas

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that’s grabbed us in the last week, from the politics of micropubs to the price of a six-pack.

Suzy Aldridge (@lincolnpubgeek) brings interesting news from Lincoln which might or might not be meaningful in the wider scheme of things: the keg-heavy local craft beer bar has morphed into a cask-led micropub. Suzy quotes the local CAMRA chair:

As I see it, the craft scene is predominantly aimed at the younger market, and with Lincoln’s nightlife being predominantly student led I could foresee such a business struggling during the University break. Who knows in the future things may change, but for now I will support “The Craft Rooms” in its new incarnation as “The Ale House”.

This certainly fits with our reading of how micropubs and craft beer bars fit together — as versions of the same thing, both essentially products of changes in licensing law and renewed enthusiasm for beer, but catering to different demographics.


Detail from the cover of a German brewing textbook.

Ben Palmer (@Johnzee7) is a British apprentice brewer studying in Germany. On his blog Hop & Schwein he has gathered some observations on German brewing culture based on his experience so far:

The reason I make the generalisation about ‘German brewers’ in the first place is because they must all jump through the same educational hoops in order to become recognised as a brewer… I estimate that 99% of people in production based brewery roles have at some point completed this apprenticeship, sat the exams and, most importantly, received the certificate to prove this. Germans really like certificates. And official stamps too.

His thoughts on how this might be changing with the rise of learn-on-the-job American-influenced Craft Beer brewers are especially fascinating.


Anonymous beer can viewed from above.

At Beer and Present Danger Josh Farrington provides a useful round-up of recent quality control incidents in UK brewing — exploding cans, dumped batches, product recalls — and reflects on why some breweries continue to let customers buy flawed beer despite the current culture of highly-publicised self-flagellation:

Even in the past weekend, I had two canned beers from a pair of small breweries, only to find one was a scorched earth of smoky phenols crammed into a supposed Bavarian helles, while the other was a classic English IPA that had become a metallic soup, like slurping on a slurry of batteries. I can accept that mistakes happen after the beer is packaged – that everything was given the okay in the first instance, that the first swig tasted swell – but there’s no excuse for not making regular checks, or taking samples from across the range, to ensure that what you’re sending out to market is as good as you think it is.


The Wharf Tavern.

One of our favourite blog post formats is the thoughtful home town pub crawl and this week’s contribution is from Mark Johnson at Beer Compurgation who has been exploring Stalybridge, Greater Manchester. He starts by setting the scene:

To many in the north-west it is famous for its nickname of Staly Vegas, that came about (as far as I’m aware) through… a sort of revitalisation project around the central canal area by the new Tesco, improvements to two bus stations and an influx of age-restricting, dress-code-enforcing bars and pubs… The concept of Staly Vegas began to die around 2007 and officially broke in 2011, with the lowering of strict entry policies bringing delinquent youths and drug dealing to the once respectable bars. What the town has been left with for six years is numerous boarded up buildings once used as venues that seem to be no longer use or ornament.


Fry: "Shut up and take my money!"

Jeff Alworth at Beervana has some interesting thoughts on beer pricing that take into account the question of reputation over time:

Every decision a brewery makes about pricing has benefits and risks. Budget-pricing may move product, but it reduces profit margins and may eventually damage a brand’s reputation, miring it in the lower tier in consumers’ minds. Once there, it’s difficult to raise prices. On the other hand, pricing beer at the upper end increases profits, establishes a brewery as a premium producer, but may appear like gouging once the shine has worn off the brewery’s reputation.

(The first comment there is interesting, too, reminding us that even if conversations about price/value aren’t visible on social media doesn’t mean they’re not happening.)


And, finally, here’s some eye candy from the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London which has recently been digitising some fantastic images of pubs from their archives, as shared on Twitter by Stef Dickers, Special Collections and Archives Manager.

A London pub in black-and-white, c.WWII.

Session #121: Bock! (Absence Of.)

Illustration adapted from a vintage bock beer poster.

For this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree Jon Abernathy has asked us to think about Bock, which left us in a pickle.

You see, in multiple UK cities over the course of several weeks, we haven’t seen a single Bock for sale. Perhaps surprisingly there was a Cornish Bock from St Austell (very decent, too) but if it still exists, it’s in deep hiding.

So we were going to swerve this Session altogether until, researching an article on Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson last week, we got thinking about Dortmunder.

Dortmunder, like Bock, is one of the 25 or so varieties of beer listed in the style guide in Jackson’s original World Guide to Beer back in 1977, and of which multiple examples were listed in our Bible, his 1998 throwaway, picture-heavy Great Beer Guide. But we can’t remember the last time we encountered anything calling itself a Dortmunder. (Although there are a few Exports around.)

Absent from his 1977 style guide, however, is Gose, examples of which are fairly easy to come by these days. That’s odd, isn’t it? That sour beer with salt and coriander should be more readily available than what you’d think might be a more accessible strong lager.

Well, maybe not. To many drinkers — even those with quaite refained palates — lager is lager is lager, and not terribly interesting. And a strong lager with a narrower focus on unsexy malt over hops is an even harder sell in 2017, especially to British drinkers who really do expect fireworks to justify an ABV of more than 5%.

UPDATE 11:20: Oh, except that we did have a Dortmunder at BrewDog Bristol in February. No Bock, though.