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Brew Britannia breweries

BrewDog in 2022: tarnished but complicated

The BBC has released a podcast series, The Good Ship BrewDog, which over the course of six episodes tackles everything from the bro culture at HQ to allegations of bullying and harassment.

This got us talking about BrewDog – what’s their status in the beer world in 2022? And why haven’t we felt moved to boycott them, or remove their bar from our Bristol pub guide?

It turns out we don’t have a neat party line on this and so, for the first time in a while, we thought we’d share something like the raw text of our debate.

Jess

My first question is why exactly the BBC is going into this level of detail about the running of one particular business. There’s some shocking stuff in the podcast but lots of it also just sounds like how a lot of businesses are run.

Ray

I guess it’s partly that it’s a BBC Scotland production. BrewDog is prominent in the UK and worldwide but in Scotland it’s a really significant business. But, yes, I agree that this does feel a bit unusual. Especially when you get five minutes dedicated to James Watts’s annoying ‘Imperial March’ door jingle.

Jess

Yeah, what’s the point there?

Ray

That he’s an autocrat who imposes his will, not a cool team player, I think. The serious stuff is serious, though. The story about the employee being refused a promotion because they thought she might be planning to have a baby– 

Jess

Terrible. As in, the very basics of running a proper, compliant business. Amateurish.

Ray

But they’d say – the documentary says this – that it’s just part of “cutting through the red tape”.

Jess

That’s where that whole anti-red-tape populism gets you: discrimination against women and minorities in the name of “just getting it done”.

Ray

So, why don’t we boycott them? I know a lot of our peers are of the view that enough is enough, cut off the supply of cash, stop buying their stuff.

Jess

I definitely think it’s time for the supply of free PR to be cut off, but that’s kind of happened, hasn’t it? When we wrote our chapter on BrewDog in Brew Britannia we felt quite out of step because it was pretty negative.

Ray

It was objective! But it probably did tell a more negative, questioning version of their origin story than was usual at that time. A lot of the same themes as in the documentary: they weren’t poor, they weren’t original, and they lied all the time. Some people were a bit irritated at us for being critical of BrewDog at all.

Jess

Until a couple of years later when, suddenly, we weren’t critical enough! The thing is, I would still rather have more BrewDogs than Heinekens in the market.

Ray

That’s a thing that comes across well in the podcast. There’s a clip of Pete Brown talking about how well the beers did in a blind-tasting back in 2007 or 2009 or whenever it was and it really reminded me how exciting Punk IPA tasted.

Jess

Still does. I’ll die on this hill. It’s a good beer, and consistently good. I’m always happy to drink it.

Ray

So, we don’t boycott them because, first, their influence has been, on balance, positive; and secondly, because the beer is good. Doesn’t sound super convincing.

Jess

In my day job [charity finance] I spend a lot of time thinking about environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing and reporting and it’s always a bit more complicated than “just divest”. You look at a range of things a business does. And individual things that they do badly might not be enough to make you withdraw support. Without in any way condoning James Watts’s behaviour, if BrewDog is genuinely doing the right things on the environment, you might say that gives them credit in the bank. I’m fascinated by their B Corp status.

Ray

Do you think B Corp might be forced to withdraw their endorsement of BrewDog?

Jess

I doubt it. They must have this with a lot of the businesses they work with. It’s about points and thresholds. And it’s been a standard line of attack from the right, and from lobby groups, to try to discredit things like Fair Trade.

Ray

We’ve found one exception, or one bad actor, so the whole thing is pointless!

Jess

Exactly. I’d rather have a system that’s imperfect but moves things forward, or shifts the window, than nothing at all.

A display of canned beer in a supermarket.
One of the first cracks in BrewDogs moral armour was its partnership with Tesco more than a decade ago. This is a dedicated, permanent display in a branch of Sainsbury’s in June 2022.

Ray

I do struggle with the hypocrisy issue. I don’t really care about companies selling out or selling up – we sort of know that’s the plan, or at least an option, for any serious growth-focused business. But BrewDog has been so insistent on the importance of independence, even after, it turns out, they were actively trying to arrange a sale to Heineken. That is a recurring theme of the podcast: that James Watt will say or do anything to move the business forward.

Jess

The podcast makes it sound as if he’s entered into a Faustian pact with the venture capitalists which is driving a lot of that.

Ray

Back to boycotting, though– 

Jess

Who else do we boycott? I try to buy from businesses I think are good, and making a positive contribution. I said I’d rather have more BrewDogs than Heinekens but I’d also rather have more Good Chemistrys than BrewDogs. But we live in the world we live in. We still use Amazon occasionally despite my best efforts. We still shop in the supermarket.

Ray

As it happens, we’ve haven’t been to BrewDog’s bar in Bristol for ages because–

Jess

Partly because we’re trying to support more local companies that we think are making a more positive contribution. But also – It’s always too busy!

Ray

This was a point Martyn Cornell made on Twitter…

…and despite the BBC coverage, despite the total disdain among beer geeks, the shine has not gone off the brand out in the real world.

Jess

Bloody hell, people love BrewDog on LinkedIn. I see James Watt is going to be on Steven Bartlett’s podcast soon.

Ray

He’ll have anyone on – Jordan Peterson!

Jess

Yeah, that bro-y capitalism thing still seems, unfortunately, to have further to run and that’s what puts me off BrewDog the most. That said, I just can’t see a positive in BrewDog crashing and burning. It’s not just about the loss of jobs. It’s the fact that the company is still doing some things that are positive. In particular, the environmental thing. Yes, it’s true to point to flights to Las Vegas as a problem, that hypocrisy again, but if you manage to create an enormous manufacturing plant that is genuinely carbon neutral, that is an impressive feat.

Ray

I guess you might say the important thing is to keep talking critically about BrewDog in particular, and ethics across the industry as whole.

Jess

Especially with people who aren’t totally immersed in the beer world, but are interested.

Ray

Blimey, like religious obsessives, knocking on people’s doors: “Can I share the bad news with you today?”

Jess

Ha ha, no, but just maybe gently correcting the narrative when you see it on social media or it comes up in conversation. BrewDog should not be a go-to example of how to run a business. James Watt should not be an aspirational business-bro pinup.

Ray

And there’s a lesson for drinkers, too – don’t hero worship these people. Don’t be a ‘fan’. You’re just setting yourself up to be let down.

Jess

But having said all that, I’m going to reserve the right to pop into a BrewDog bar every now and then if I feel like it, and to buy a can of Punk if it’s the best option available.

The Good Ship BrewDog is available on all major podcasting platforms and via BBC Sounds in the UK.

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Brew Britannia breweries

A pale’n’hoppy timeline

Yesterday we re-shared an article we wrote back in 2015 about the emergence of the pale’n’hoppy style of ale in the UK. As you might expect, people had plenty of other suggestions for pioneering contenders; we’ve used that info to pull together a list.

You’ll note that we have also thrown in some notable IPAs because the line between the two styles is pretty fine.

It’s not exhaustive – these are just the names that popped up on Twitter yesterday. There are some here we don’t think count as PNH (e.g. Tribute, which isn’t especially pale) but we’ve included them for completeness.

Various relatively pale bitters e.g. Boddington’s | < 1980
Franklin’s Bitter | c.1979 | Cascade (US)
Goose Eye Pommie’s Revenge | 1984 | Fuggles, Goldings (UK)
Exmoor Gold | 1986 | Challenger, Goldings and Fuggles (UK)
Hop Back Summer Lightning | 1989 | Goldings, Challenger (UK)
Dobbin’s (West Coast) Yakima Grande Pale Ale | 1989 | Cascade (US)
Deuchars IPA | 1991 | Willamette, Goldings, Fuggle (UK, US) (source)
Butterknowle Conciliation | c.1991 | Challenger (UK)
Roosters Yankee | 1993 | Cascade (US)
Oakham JHB | 1993 | Mount Hood and Willamette (US)
Kelham Island Pale Rider | 1993 | Willamette (US) (source)
Durham Magus | 1994 | Challenger, Goldings (UK)
Dark Star Hophead | c.1996 | Cascade (US)
Ossett Silver King | 1998 | Cascade (US)
St Austell Tribute | 1999 | Fuggles, Willamette (UK/US)
Crouch Vale Brewers Gold | 2000 | Brewers Gold (UK)
Pictish Brewers Gold | 2000 | Brewers Gold (UK)
Crouch Vale Amarillo | 2003 | Amarillo (US)
Castle Rock Harvest Pale | 2003 | Cascade, Centennial, Chinook (US)
St Austell Proper Job | 2004 | Willamette, Cascade, Chinook (US)
Meantime IPA | 2005 | Fuggles, Golding (UK)
Thornbridge Jaipur | 2005 | Chinook, Centennial, Ahtanum (US)
BrewDog Punk | 2007 | Chinook, Ahtanum, Crystal, Motueka (US/NZ)
Oakham Citra | 2010 | Citra (US)
Fyne Ales Jarl | 2010 | Citra (US)
Brodies Citra Pale | 2011 | Citra (US)

As we said in the Twitter chat yesterday, it’s not about who got there first or ‘invented’ the style – it’s more a matter of a slow evolution.

In general, it’s interesting how often people assume a beer is older than it actually is – and how often people remember as pale and citrusy beers that evidence suggests were brownish, with UK hops. (As far as we can tell – brewers are often coy about this stuff.)

If you’ve got suggestions, feel free to comment below – and if you can provide a reliable (referenced) ‘first sold’ date and info on hops, that would be great.

Categories
Brew Britannia

The evolution of ‘pale’n’hoppy’ ale in the UK

This piece first appeared online at the now defunct All About Beer in 2015. It’s collected in our book Balmy Nectar but, as there’s been some chat lately about when and how the UK got the taste for the perfume and flavour of US hops, we wanted to share it here, too.

Some of the best beers being made in Britain today belong to a style that has no name. They are the colour of pilsner, usually made with only pale malt, but they are not mere ‘golden ales’ – because ‘golden’ is not, after all, a flavour.

They have extravagant, upfront New World hopping suggesting tropical fruits and aromatic flowers but they are not US-style India Pale Ales because their alcoholic strength is likely to be somewhere between 3-5% ABV.

Though this might sound like a description of US session IPA, beers of this type have been around in the UK for more than 20 years. If they are given a name at all, as in Mark Dredge’s 2013 book Craft Beer World, it is usually a variation on the simply descriptive ‘pale’n’hoppy’.

In the mid-20th century there were several British beers noted for their pale colour, Boddington’s Bitter from Manchester being the most notable. That particular beer was also intensely hopped although the hops were English and were used to generate a bitterness that ‘clawed at the back of your throat’ rather than a delicate aroma.

As the 1970s and 80s wore on, strong dark beers such as Theakstons’s Old Peculier and Fuller’s ESB became cult favourites among beer geeks, while pale yellow lagers became fashionable with mainstream drinkers. Boddington’s Bitter darkened in colour and gradually lost its bitter edge.

As a result, when, in the late 1980s, the first golden ales emerged, they seemed positively and refreshingly innovative. Exmoor Gold from the Somerset-Devon border can claim to be the first of this new breed but it was really Hop Back Summer Lightning, first brewed in 1989, that triggered a trend.

Summer Lightning

Conceived by former big-brewery man John Gilbert as a cask-conditioned lager, it instead became an ale that merely looked like lager, which he hoped would lure drinkers back from then highly fashionable brands such as Stella Artois. It won a string of awards and, before long, any brewery hoping to appeal to connoisseurs had to have a golden ale in its range.

That cosmetic trend coincided with another new development: the arrival in Britain of American and New Zealand hop varieties, along with US beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Liberty, which showed those hops off at their best.

Sean Franklin first experimented with American Cascade hops as far back as the early 1980s. Having worked and been trained in the wine industry he was an expert in the characteristics of different grape varieties and believed similar subtlety could also be drawn out of hops. His first brewery didn’t work out, however, and he ended up driving a taxi for five years. When he returned to brewing in 1993, he had, in effect, conceived a new type of beer, as he explained in an interview we conducted in 2013:

I’d had Summer Lightning and that was a great inspiration, a lovely beer. Flavour is about competition, the different components coming up against each other. So, when you use crystal malt and Cascade, you get orange and toffee. When you use Cascade with just pale malt, you don’t get orange – just that floral, citrusy character. The plainer the background, the better. It allows the essential character of the hops to show much more clearly.

The flagship beer of his new brewery, Rooster’s, was Yankee – straw-coloured, hopped with then-obscure Cascade and, though still essentially a golden ale, a touch more aromatic than most UK drinkers were used to at the time.

At a mere 4.3%, however, it also fit comfortably into British pub and beer festival culture, which then, even more so than now, required beers to be drinkable by the pint and, ideally, in multiple pints over the course of several hours. Along with a range of stronger beers brewed by Brendan Dobbin in Manchester at around the same time, it turned many British real ale drinkers into confirmed hop fanatics.

Oakham JHB pump clip.
SOURCE: Oakham website.

A contemporary product developed quite independently was Oakham’s Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, or JHB, also first brewed in 1993.

Despite its name, which suggests something old-fashioned and varnish-brown, it too was inspired by Summer Lightning and has always been golden with extravagantly fruity late-hopping (a combination of Challenger and Mount Hood) suggestive of elderflower and lemon peel.

Hopping levels have been constantly nudged upwards over the last 20 years to accommodate the palates of drinkers spoiled by double IPAs – head brewer John Bryan estimates that there are about two-and-a-half times as many hops now as in 1993 – but it still seems relatively restrained compared to some newer iterations of the style.

Oakham’s own Citra, for example, was the first UK beer to use that hop variety, in 2010, and is even more flamboyantly pungent than its older sibling.

Nigel Wattam, Oakham’s marketing man, says that the majority of Oakham’s range is ‘very light, or really dark, with not much in-between’. On the appeal of ‘pale’n’hoppy’ beers more generally he says, “I think we’ve converted a lot of lager drinkers because it’s the same colour, but it has more flavour.”

Kelham Island brewery

There is a similar logic behind Kelham Island’s Pale Rider, which was first brewed in 1993 in Sheffield, the northern industrial city made famous by the film The Full Monty. The brewery was founded by the late Dave Wickett, an influential figure on the British beer scene with a hand in several other breweries, and whose former employees and associates include many of the current generation of UK craft brewers.

Writer Melissa Cole credits Pale Rider with arousing her interest in beer and in her book, Let Me Tell You About Beer, records that it was initially conceived to appeal to female drinkers, with restrained bitterness and ramped-up aroma.

Popular among northern real ale drinkers for a decade, it became nationally famous in 2004 when it was declared Champion Beer of Britain by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). It is best enjoyed in Sheffield at the brewery tap, the Fat Cat, where its feather-light body and punchy, peachy perfume makes it easy drinking despite its 5.2% ABV. Nonetheless, the brewery has also produced Easy Rider, a similar beer at 4.3%.

A perfect pint of Dark Star Hophead.

Another cult favourite is Hophead from Dark Star, a brewery in Brighton, a fashionable coastal resort an hour’s train ride south of London. Mark Tranter, recently voted the best brewer in the UK by the British Guild of Beer Writers for his work at his own brewery, Burning Sky, worked at Dark Star from the 1990s until 2013.

He recalls that, at some time after 1996, one of the owners of the Evening Star pub where the brewery was then based went to California and came back with Cascade hop pellets.

These, along with other US hops available in small quantities via hop merchants Charles Faram, formed the basis of ‘The Hophead Club’, conceived by Dark Star founder Rob Jones. At each meeting of the club members would taste a different single-hopped beer.

“Cascade was the customers’ and brewers’ favourite, so it was not long until that became the staple,” recalls Tranter.

When he took on more responsibility in the brewery, Tranter tweaked the recipe, reducing its bitterness, and, in 2001, dropping its strength from 4% ABV to 3.8%. 

Today, with the brewery under new ownership and with a different team in the brew-house, the beer remains single-minded and popular, giving absolute priority to bright aromas of grapefruit and elderflower.

If the style isn’t officially recognised, how can you spot a pale’n’hoppy on the bar when out drinking in the UK? First, turn to smaller microbreweries.

The larger, older family breweries have not been hugely successful in this territory, perhaps being too conservative to embrace the fundamental lack of balance that  characterises the style. (There are exceptions: Adnams Ghost Ship, for example, has been a notable success both among beer geeks and less studious drinkers.) 

Secondly, look for a conspicuous mention of a specific hop variety on the hand-pump badge, along with names that include ‘Hop’, ‘Gold’ and sometimes (but less often) ‘Blonde’.

Pointed mentions of citrus are another giveaway.

Finally, a very broad generalisation: breweries in the north are particularly adept — we once heard the style jokingly referred to as ‘Pennine Champagne’ after the range of hills and mountains that runs from Derbyshire to the Scottish border.

Salopian Oracle (Shropshire, 4%), Burning Sky Plateau (Sussex, 3.5%), Marble Pint (Manchester, 3.9%) and Redemption Trinity (London, 3%) are among the best examples.

Rooster’s Yankee, Kelham Island Pale Rider, Oakham JHB and Dark Star Hophead are all available in cans or bottles, though they are best tasted fresh and close to source.

From US brewers, the nearest equivalents are among the new breed of session IPAs and pale ales, such as Firestone Walker Easy Jack.

These two distinct traditions – UK pale’n’hoppy is traditional session bitter with a glamorous makeover, whereas American brews are big beers reined in – have ended up in a remarkably similar place.

For all of those who like to wallow in hops over the course of hours, both are good news.

Categories
Brew Britannia

FAQ: What was the first UK microbrewery?

This is another in our new series of short posts attempting to give straight answers to direct questions.

In our book Brew Britannia, we dedicate a chapter to mini histories of a number of breweries that we think have a claim to be the first modern microbrewery.

We specify ‘modern’ because most breweries began as microbreweries.

For much of its history, beer was brewed in domestic settings – either in ale houses for sale to the public or within country houses, colleges and other larger institutions.

Withi in the 19th century came bigger breweries, and then consolidation and mergers led to the situation where in the mid-1960s, most beer was being produced by one of the ‘Big Six’.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a number of pioneers began to brew their own beer, independently of each other but all finding a niche and space to operate within an increasingly homogenised market.

The first of these, by a long way, was Traquair House, Scotland. Beer had been brewed on site for years, and at sufficient volume to warrant purchase of a 200 gallon boiler in 1739. In the nineteenth century, the house and brewery fell into disrepair. In 1965, the then Laird, Peter Maxwell Stuart, found the brewing equipment as part of his renovations, and started to brew Traquair House Ale. What began as an experiment became a product sold on site and then shipped elsewhere. It’s still available, and brewing continues under the lady Laird Catherine Maxwell Stuart, who grew up brewing alongside her father.

The next brewery that we cover in Brew Britannia is the Selby brewery, which had fallen dormant but survived into the 1970s as a bottling outlet for Guinness. Martin Sykes was living there when his uncle decided to close the business, and persuaded him otherwise, “mainly to safeguard my living accommodation”. He had the idea to restart brewing, and was fortuitously approached by Basil Savage, then second brewer at John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster, who was looking for other opportunities. Sykes and Savage began brewing in November 1972, and enjoyed some success selling to student bars and local pubs.

Both Traquair and Selby operated on existing sites, although with newer equipment. The first microbrewery to open in a new location was the Miners’ Arms at Priddy, in Somerset. This was the brainchild of an eccentric scientist, snail farmer and restaurateur, Paul Leyton. In 1961 he took on the running of the Miners’ Arms. In 1973 he decided to add beer to his list of home grown products and brewed beer in 40 pint batches, which he bottled in nip bottles and sold alongside meals.

So, in conclusion:

The first of the modern UK microbreweries was Traquair, which began (or rather, re-started) brewing in 1965, and is still brewing today. The first microbrewery to produce beers for the wider market was the Selby Brewery, which began brewing in 1972, again, on an established site. The first ‘new’brewery microbrewery, that is the first one to be established in a new location was the Miners’ Arms in Priddy, in 1973. 

Categories
20th Century Pub Beer history Brew Britannia

Brew Britannia: new evidence in the case – CAMRA Branch Bulletin

The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.

We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.

Pub preservation

In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.

We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.

The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.

The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.

Here’s his concluding argument:

Pyrrhic Victories
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.