breweries Generalisations about beer culture opinion pubs

The state of beer in 2023

Another year begins and, once again, things feel uncertain and unsettled for pubs, breweries and beer drinkers.

For most of 2020/21 there was a sense that if businesses could survive the worst of COVID-19, and make it out the other side, things would get better.

There was evidence of pent-up demand. Consumers were keen to get out and about and had perhaps learned not to take hospitality for granted.

Government grants and loans, though inevitably regarded as miserly by those on the receiving end, helped keep businesses afloat and even to invest in improvements.

Others were given the nudge they needed to develop online sales and delivery capability.

Then 2022 happened, with a whole new set of challenges on top of a lingering long-tail of pandemic-related problems.

It’s no wonder we’re entering 2023 with people saying things like “I have a generalised bad feeling about what 2023 will bring to the small and independent brewing sector”.

We’re not completely pessimistic – more on that later – but it’s certainly worth facing the facts head on and sitting with them a bit.

A brewery.

We’re not used to breweries closing

In 2022, especially towards the end of the year, a number of UK breweries closed. Steve Dunkley has taken on the administrative job of maintaining a log. At the time of writing, he lists more than 80 closures, including:

  • Box Steam
  • Exe Valley
  • Leeds Brewery
  • Newtown Park
  • Twisted Wheel
  • The Wild Beer Co

It feels mean to say what’s going to come next but if we’re not here to be honest, what’s the point?

The breweries above were known to us but many of the others that have closed so far were relatively obscure and/or second-ranking.

We’d never heard of most of them, and we do pay attention somewhat. Those we did know weren’t necessarily highly regarded, or “hyped” if you prefer.

That’s not to say they were bad, only that they were no doubt already having to work harder to stay afloat without word-of-mouth and national profile.

Kelham Island is an interesting example. It closed and was then saved by Thornbridge. Kelham Island is a beloved brand with plenty of clout behind it; and Thornbridge is clearly not struggling if it felt able to make this move.

And we’ll never get any brewer to say this on record but surely there’s a certain sense of relief that comes with a thinning out of the field, at last.

“There are too many breweries” has been a constant refrain for the past decade and we’ve heard plenty of off-the-record complaints about undercutting and amateurism.

There’s a general expectation that more closures will be announced in January, when breweries tot up their Christmas take and decide whether slogging on is worth it.

Each individual closure is, of course, sad. Jobs gone. Someone’s dream shattered.

But if we try to float above all that, aloof and objective, if 2023 ends with half the number of breweries in the UK, that’s still more beer than we’ll ever get round to drinking. And certainly more than there was in 1984.

Watch out for…

  • brewery closures to be announced in January 2023
  • the number of breweries listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide in autumn 2023
A jumble of pubs.

When were pubs ever not under threat?

Earlier this year CAMRA published statistics on pub closures during 2021. The numbers aren’t entirely dismal and this table in particular might suggest reasons for cautious optimism:

RegionNet change
East Midlands+4
East of England-3
Greater London+14
North East-1
North West-11
South East+3
South West+1
West Midlands0
Yorkshire and the Humber+36
Long-term closures July-December 2021 based on data from

Stats from the Office for National Statistics published a few weeks ago were similarly uncooperative in the decline-and-fall narrative:

“There are 1.6% more high street pubs and bars since the first Covid lockdown… The data, which tracked the percentage change in the number of establishments between March 2020 and March 2022, was conducted by the Ordnance Survey and the BBC.​ The Ordnance Survey data found 700 more pubs and bars were operating after the pandemic.”

But even if you take these figures at face value (and not everyone does) things feel very different in January 2023 than they did in March 2022. Increased fuel bills are just now beginning to bite both drinkers and drinking establishments.

And many pubs will have been hanging on for the combined World Cup, Christmas and New Year take before deciding on their future.

There’s no doubt it’s going to be tough. But perhaps a combination of tactical closures – shutting early if it’s quiet, going into hibernation – and temporary adaptations to the offer can help fundamentally healthy pub businesses weather this, like they weathered COVID.

Watch out for

  • CAMRA’s pub closures report in spring 2023
  • ONS business demography report in autumn 2023
A neon sign reading TAVERN in a pub window.

Yes, but how does it feel?

As you probably know, we’ve been blogging about beer since 2007.

We a book subtitled “the strange rebirth of British beer” and another about the state and fate of the English pub.

We’ve also provided a couple of hefty updates, in 2015 and 2018, covering notable developments on the scene.

All of which is to say, we think we’ve been watching pretty closely, and thinking about the mood as much as the facts.

In a nutshell, we think pubs feel at marginally less risk now than a decade ago, but brewing feels deflated and tarnished.

Accepting that the plural of anecdote is not data, and so on and so forth, anecdotes are helpful when it comes to checking the vibe. In Bristol, it feels as if pubs are back – at least in the city centre, and more affluent suburbs.

The reopening in November of The Kings Head near Temple Meads under the stewardship of Good Chemistry is perhaps a sign of a fundamental shift. It’s a proper pubby pub with a low-key craft beer offer and has been constantly busy. And they’re not daft; they wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t good business.

Micropubs might be an evolutionary dead end, the jury’s still out, and of course they’re not all wonderful. But those that work really work. In our old neighbourhood on the other side of Bristol, The Drapers Arms, now seven years old, has become a fixture of the community, varying from full to uncomfortably crowded on our recent visits.

Further afield, in London and Sheffield, we keep finding ourselves unable to get into, or find seats in, pubs that have any kind of reputation.

If a pint of beer has become a luxury, perhaps it’s at least a relatively affordable one. And if what your soul needs is to be out with friends, even £5 pints are a cheaper way to achieve that than a £60-a-head restaurant dinner.

Brewing is different and perhaps the feeling there is tied to the rise and fall of BrewDog, and the other members of the United Craft Brewers:

Beyond that, there’s also the uncomfortable business of the Cloudwater redundancies, and bitterness over the Wild Beer Co crowdfunding problem.

There was perhaps some naivety a decade ago, but anyone who got the tattoos and joined the fan clubs has surely now had that shaken out of them.

Maybe it’s good for us all to have the rose-tinted spectacles off… but things do look nice through rose-tinted spectacles. That’s why they tint ‘em.

And consumers feeling upbeat and enthusiastic is good for business.

breweries bristol

An incomplete history of Smiles Brewery of Bristol, 1977-2005

Smiles Brewery came and went, leaving small traces of itself all over Bristol. As is so often the case, however, it is the breweries that failed in living memory whose stories are hardest to trace.

This post isn’t intended to be definitive. We just want to put together the facts that are available, with a little digging, so that others can find them – and perhaps tell us more.

Why does it matter? Because Smiles was one of the first UK microbreweries, founded in the CAMRA-led boom of the 1970s.

And because – it does not feel an exaggeration to put it this way – it was the pride of Bristol.

It’s also a story familiar to those who’ve tracked the craft beer boom of the past decade or so, with idealism eventually giving way to commercial pressure.

Let’s go back to the start, to the back room of a restaurant, at the tail end of the 1970s.

Bell’s Diner in 2018. It is now Bianchis.
A fair haired man in a check shirt.
John Payne. SOURCE: YouTube (see below).

Smiles Brewery and Bell’s Diner

“It began as a plastic bucket effort,” John Payne, founder of Smiles, told beer journalist Brian Glover. “I ran a vegetarian restaurant with my girlfriend, and we thought we might as well sell decent beer with the meals.” [1]

Payne was born in Scotland in 1953 and came to Bristol later in life. When? We don’t know. Why? We don’t know. If you know, let us know in the comments below. And actually, was he Scottish? This is only mentioned in one source.

What we do know is that from November 1976 he was running Bell’s Diner alongside his partner, Shirley Anne Bell, and by 1977 was brewing on the side.

He was not by any means a professional. The official history of Bell’s Diner suggests that he “began brewing beer in a tea urn under the stairs”.

Another source, a 1980s promotional video for the brewery, of doubtful provenance, says in its voiceover that he “started brewing at university” and then got a “brewing bucket” for Christmas. (The video says this happened in 1978; it was more likely 1976.)

This makes sense. Home-brewing was booming in the late 1970s, with features in national newspapers and equipment increasingly easy to buy in high street shops.

In all accounts of these early days, there is a common theme: the reaction of restaurant customers to Payne’s homebrew was positive. That encouraged him to stick at it, and to think about going professional, on a larger scale.

He asked some pubs, free of any tie to the dominant local giant Courage, to try selling his beer over the bar and report back on customer reaction. [2] The response was good. It was time for phase two.

The exterior of a pub.
The Colston Yard pub in 2017.

Smiles Brewery at Colston Yard

The back page of CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing for November 1977 contained a small story under the headline ‘Bristol Ale’:

The West country is to get its second new brewery within six months… John Payne has produced his traditional Smiles Bitter for his restaurant, Bells Diner, York Road, Bristol, for the past year. Now he has got permission to set up a new brewhouse in the heart of the city at Colston Yard. Production will be about 30 barrels a week and Mr Payne says he already has strong interest from the local free trade.

‘Bristol Ale’, p.12

Colston Yard was a Victorian industrial space off Upper Maudlin Street, behind a row of shops, where there is currently an Indian restaurant called Haveli.

Permission to brew was one thing but paying for the building of a new brewery was another. Payne mortgaged his house to find the £6,000 needed – about £30,000 in today’s money. [3]

The new brewery was ready by 1978 and Payne set about learning how to brew in this new, more professional environment.

In a 1981 interview he said:

In the early weeks I relied heavily on a friend of my father’s, a brewing chemist… He was like a doctor. I would tell him everything I had done and when I had finished he would tell me where I had gone wrong.

‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Payne, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.

By April that year, he was happy with the quality and consistency of the beer being produced.

That first beer, Smiles Best Bitter, was brewed without sugar or malt extracts, with an original gravity of 1040 (about 4% ABV). It was fermented with yeast from the Courage brewery in Bristol. [4]

In November 1978, with winter coming, Payne added a second beer to the line-up: Champion, at 1051 (around 5.3%).

He took on his first employee, Harry Mansfield, the former cellarman at the Bristol Student Union, initially as a part-timer. [5]

They worked flat out through 1978 and 1979, including a particularly hectic Christmas in 1979, which saw them working 18-hour days to brew “265 barrels” in four weeks. [6]

Payne claimed to have drawn no salary himself in this period [7] but it was clear the business was on the right track.

As Brian Glover wrote in his decade-on retrospective:

By 1981 demand had out-stripped production, and the self-made brewery was completely re-equipped to increase capacity three-fold, backed up by a new laboratory.

New Beer Guide, 1988.

In 1982, Smiles acquired its own pub, The Highbury Vaults at the top of St Michael’s Hill. This was a response to the disappearance of freehouses in Bristol as larger brewers such as Allied, Marston’s, Eldridge Pope and Devenish snapped them up.

Payne was especially frustrated by CAMRA’s decision (or rather, that of CAMRA Real Ale Investments) to sell its own Bristol pub to Marston’s:

[They] said they were pulling out of The Old Fox as their job was done. But they sold out just when they were needed as the free trade was beginning to disappear then.

‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, David Jarvie, What’s Brewing, October 1983.

Until this time the brewery’s de facto brewery tap had been The Sea Horse, across the main road from the brewery. When it began to seem under threat, Smiles entered a bidding war with Marston’s and Allied for The Highbury Vaults instead.

They were rumoured to have paid £125,000 for the pub – a shocking price for a small neighbourhood boozer at the time. [8]

Payne doesn’t seem to have wanted to buy a pub, or to have much enjoyed being responsible for it. “It diverts a lot of our attention,” he told CAMRA’s David Jarvie in 1983.

But it was vital because, according to Payne, there were only four other suitable outlets in the city.

A glance at copies of the Good Beer Guide from the period backs this up: almost every pub listed was selling beer from Courage, or was tied to an out-of-town brewery such as Wadworth or Davenport’s.

A vintage lorry outside The Pickwick Inn.
The Smile’s Brewing Co. dray c.1994 by Mark Shirley.

Real People making Real Ale

The brewery continued to grow through the 1980s, as recorded in this rather marvellous artefact – a promotional video apparently from 1984:

There’s not much information on its source, why or exactly when it was made, or who uploaded it. Enjoy it while you can.

It tells us that by the mid-1980s Smiles was brewing more than 3,000 gallons of beer each week (about 83 barrels) with Harry Mansfield now as full-time head brewer.

We also meet three other new employees: Sue Pinnell, a brewery assistant; Nicholas Martin, a spectacularly bearded drayman; and Peter Taylor, a rather dashing marketing and sales executive.

There are various clues to the brewery’s brand identity in this video: old-fashioned barroom piano music; the vintage Bedford dray of c.1950; and faux-vintage hand-painted graphics on every surface.

The slogan at the end is: “Smiles – real people making real ale.”

A second video from the same source is an out-and-out advertisement, attempting to compete with those from, say, Courage, or Whitbread.

This has more of the same, including flat caps all round, knitted vests and ten-sided pint glasses. Smiles, the advert implies, has been serving Bristol for years – for generations, even. 

Never mind the facts.

Four young people in 1990s clothing stand slightly awkwardly around the bar in a pub.
A promo photo for the newly launched Brewery Tap (Colston Yard) via What’s Brewing for February 1992. We think that’s Nicholas Martin, the pub’s designer, on the right.

The Pride of Bristol

In 1992, when the brewery was approaching its 15th anniversary and owned multiple pubs, John Payne gave a rare interview to Stephen Cox for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing.

Cox was a fan of Smiles and the piece is celebratory, not only of Smiles 15 years’ of success but also of Payne’s approach to the business of beer.

“I dream of locking some brewery executives in the Tap for a week with John Payne”, he wrote. “But I doubt the common sense would rub off.”

In the interview, Payne attempted to articulate “the Smiles Way”:

All you can do is be committed to a quality product, put out your stall, and let them decide. If it’s any good, it doesn’t need advertising.

A colleague, Martin Love, expanded on the idea: “It’s something to do with not forcing things down people’s throats.”

We learn that Smiles’ pubs didn’t serve stout or draught lager on principle, only the brewery’s own beer, along with guest ales from other independents.

Nor did they have gambling machines.

“If you measure the space they take up,” Payne is quoted as saying, “and fill that space with drinkers, you make as much money. Besides, pubs are about talking to people.”

This preceded similar policies and rhetoric from the micropub movement by about 20 years.

All of these principles were put into practice in a brand new pub, The Brewery Tap, constructed in front of the brewery premises on Upper Maudlin Street in 1991. (It was later known as The Colston Yard.)

It was notable for opening at 8am to serve breakfast, extending the business’s viable hours beyond those when it could legally sell alcohol. [9]

In 1992 it won CAMRA’s pub design award – the first time any pub had proved worthy of the prize since 1985. An article in What’s Brewing described its “clean cut, attractive appearance”:

Ash wood and a slate bar, together with a black-and-white tiled floor, give an impression that is reminiscent of a good Belgian café. The Brewery Tap manages to be in the mainstream of the traditional pub without resorting to tiresome alehouse clichés.

Behind the scenes, though, the brewery was struggling.

Four men in suits outside a pub.
From left to right: Martin Love (sales manager), Ian Williams (new owner), John Payne (founder), Nigel (Harry?) Mansfield (head brewer).

The management buy-out trend

A month after Stephen Cox’s gushing interview with John Payne, and in the same month the design award victory was announced, Iain Loe’s regular column in What’s Brewing for February 1992 included this item:

The first brewery news to reach me is another brewery takeover – the first of 1992. But the deal doesn’t feature a well-known company whose shares are traded on the Stock Market but a micro-brewer who has sold his company to someone who liked the brewery enough to stump up £2 million… The purchaser, Ian Williams, has an accountancy background… and has financed the £3 million deal, which includes covering bank borrowings of £1 million, with the help of a £½ million input from [private equity firm] 3is.

Williams had worked for the accountancy firm which managed Smiles’ accounts and he knew the business well. So, although not part of the Smiles management team, this was nonetheless reported as a form of ‘management buyout’.

Management buyouts were a big thing in the 1990s – see the Redruth Brewery for another example.

More usually, they involve people already working in a business to acquire it from either the founder (perhaps a hippy hipster brewer) or a larger corporate owner (such as Whitbread) which had lost interest.

They offered a route for businesses that were stumbling or failing to go on, with new leadership that was either more money-minded or more passionate about the product, depending on circumstances.

Smiles continued to expand under Ian Williams until it eventually had 17 pubs – a substantial estate for a regional independent less than 20 years old.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable. In November 2000, most of the pub estate was sold to London brewery Young’s for £5.8 million. [10]

Thereafter, what was at that point Bristol’s only remaining brewery seemed to be in retreat, though local real ale drinkers continued to regard the beer fondly.

The brewery was sold again in 2003 to City Centre Breweries Ltd, a new company run by Ron Kirk, formerly managing director of Mansfield Brewery.

Then, in December 2004, it was announced that the brewery had gone into administration. Staff were laid off and production of Smiles-branded beer was moved to the Highgate Brewery in Walsall. [11]

Smiles-branded beers seem to have disappeared from the market altogether after 2007, at least as far as we can tell from online beer review websites.

Tatty old posters on a brown pub wall.
Smiles memorabilia at The Highbury Vaults.
A tatty photo of men drinking beer.
A still from the 1984 promo video on the pub wall.

Just about remembered

There are still occasional reminders of Smiles to be seen around Bristol, most notably at The Highbury Vaults.

Beneath 20-plus years of Young’s branding can be seen the odd bit of Smiles signage – and a photograph from that early 1980s promo shoot still hangs on the wall in the snug.

We’re frustrated by the bittiness of the story we’ve been able to tell above. It feels unfinished – and we’re certain people are going to have additions and corrections.

To which we say, bring it on!

We’d love version two of this post to have more human voices, more pictures, and more detail from the frontline.

If you worked at Smiles, or, indeed, founded it, we’re contact@boakandbailey, or @boakandbailey on Twitter, if you want to get in touch.


  1. New Beer Guide, 1988, p.52.
  2. ‘The Renaissance of Real Ale’, Mitch Pryce, Illustrated London News, 1 February 1981.
  3. Pryce, 1981.
  4. ‘Selling beer: it’s Payne and Love’, What’s Brewing, January 1992.
  5. Promotional video, 1984.
  6. Pryce, 1981.
  7. Pryce, 1981.
  8. ‘Bolting the bars again in Bristol’, 1983.
  9. CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1992, published in 1991.
  10. The Times, 17 November 2000.
  11. ‘Smiles Brewery Closed’, Richard Brooks, Pints West, Spring 2005.
breweries london

Notes from a Godson’s dogsbody c.1980

When Robin Davies stumbled across a mention of Godson’s Brewery in one of our blog posts, he got in touch to tell us he worked there as a young man.

Godson’s was founded by Patrick Fitzpatrick in East London, in 1977. We’ve previously described him as “the original Hackney hipster brewer” and interviewed Fitzpatrick for our 2014 book Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer.

Now, we have another angle on the same story – not from the boss’s perspective but from someone who really got their hands dirty. Here, in his own words, are Robin’s memories.

* * *

It was the early 1980s when I left school which was just up the road from the brewery.

I’d messed about my whole time at secondary school and came out with next to nothing other than having learnt how to swear, fight and play drums – all useful stuff in the East End right?

Even though they were plentiful at the time I’d no idea how I was gonna get a job.

A mate of my brother in law said that he knew or had met Patrick Fitzpatrick, the Godson’s owner, and that he’d put in a word for me if I fancied it. After bumming around for a few months I was just about ready to work so why not?

I wasn’t  really expecting anything to happen but I said “Yeah, if he’ll have me I’ll give it a go” As if by magic, a couple of days later, I was off to meet the main man.

On meeting Patrick he seemed like a nice bloke, and indeed he was, always friendly, sometimes firm, made the odd joke or two, a decent boss and I guess he thought I was OK because he offered me the job.

Dogsbody? No, not really, but I did do a bit of everything from making tea to cleaning out the mash tun, all for the sum of 80 quid a week, and I loved it.

I got up early every day and couldn’t get there quick enough. I loved the work, I loved the smell of the place, which in the beginning had the effect of making me feel slightly drunk.

It was great and I was learning loads, the whole brewing process from start to finish. I watched and soaked everything up like a sponge. I soaked up the odd glass of the brewery’s finest, too, and after a hot day’s work it tasted amazing.

It was a very small team at Godsons. There was Patrick, of course. Chris and Lorraine, I think their names were in the office. There were the two dray men, tough old East Enders that I’m pretty sure were both called Roy. The older one appeared to hate my guts from the off and talked to me like dirt but I could just about handle it and every now and then I got the guts to tell him where to go.

From time to time Patrick’s brother Finnian would show up. If I remember rightly, he would normally be out and about trying his hardest to sell the various ales. A real nice bloke that used to brighten the place up whenever he returned to the brewery.  Always a big smile on his face.

Once or twice my least favourite of the brothers would turn up for a bit of work when he had nothing better to do.

About a year before I left we got a new brewer who also happened to be called Robin, again a real nice bloke who I was more than happy to work with. I often wonder what he’s up to but he was a smart bloke so he’s probably retired and living in luxury somewhere. I hope so anyway.

Robin picked up the workings of the brewery pretty quickly and soon I think we were teaching each other a thing or two.

One time Robin went on holiday which left me doing the lot. I did the week’s brew completely alone from start to finish, plus all my usual work. This all went perfectly and I was left feeling pretty proud of myself – had I really learnt all this from nothing? I decided to call myself the assistant brewer and if I felt like impressing someone I’d say I was a brewer. No one else ever called me that but to be fair I got a few compliments. Happy days!

How did it all end? 

I worked as hard as I could for the place, and at times felt I was running myself into the ground, so I did the inevitable and asked for a pay rise. My 80 quid was no longer going very far at all so I had to go for it.

A week or so later, Patrick called me into the office and said that he’d had a good think about it; he would give me a raise; and at this stage he considered the raise to be a substantial one.

I was excited so didn’t even ask how much but instead just carried on as normal and waited until Friday for my new super-massive pay packet.

Come Friday, I opened up my little brown envelope to find an extra fiver inside.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very happy. Being young and stroppy, I decided there and then that this would be the last day at the brewery. Not the way to leave a job, especially one I loved, but it seemed like the thing to do.

Sadly, some months later, I heard that things had gone south and the brewery was toast. I didn’t know the full story of what had gone wrong but I felt quite sad for the place and maybe a little angry towards Patrick for allowing Godson’s to fail, though I’m sure it wasn’t his fault.

I can’t actually remember how long I was there myself but it must have been around three years.

If anyone out there gets the chance to work at one of these little breweries, grab it, you’ll love it. It can be hard work but there’s something special about it!

These are Robin’s words with some edits for style and clarity.

If you want to learn more about Godson’s check out our book Brew Britannia.

And if you worked at a brewery at any time in the past 60 years, please write something down and, ideally, publish it somewhere.

Main image via the Brewery History Society Wiki.

Beer styles breweries bristol

West Country Weizen

Bristol is good at German-style wheat beer, it turns out – we’ve had three this year that might be beer-of-the-year contenders.

It makes sense, we suppose. When we think of the defining Bristol style, what pops into our heads is slightly hazy, soft-edged, fruity, barely-bitter pale ale.

From there to Weizen is only a short hop.

The first one that grabbed our attention earlier this year was Bristol Beer Factory’s Lost in Munich. You might regard it as a step between the two styles, in fact, being an open homage to Schneider’s Hopfenweisse – Weizen with IPA hopping.

BBF’s version, available in 440ml cans, actually pours stubbornly clear, or at least only faintly hazy. It has vanilla in the aroma and, of course, a bunch of banana. At 5%, it’s not as strong as the Schneider original – or, indeed, as most standard German wheat beers.

We liked it so much we bought a box of 12 to drink at home. Perhaps others don’t share our enthusiasm, though, because it was discounted to £25.60 – about £2 per tin. At present, they don’t have any in stock.

A bigger surprise, perhaps, was Left Handed Giant’s take. We say it’s a surprise because we don’t always click with LHG beers, which often sound and look better than they taste.

LHG Hefeweizen is another 5%-er and, we gather, is regularly available at their colossal, rather impressive brewpub-taproom at Finzel’s Reach, on the site of the old Courage brewery.

We found it on draught at The Swan With Two Necks and Ray (the bigger wheat beer fan of the two of us anyway) loved it so much he stuck on it for the entire session.

Our notes say ‘pretty convincing… less banana, more strawberry’. The point is, though, that it isn’t a ‘twist’ on the style; it doesn’t have fruit, or unusual hops, or breakfast cereal. It’s a straight-up, honest beer.

The same might be said for Good Chemistry’s punningly-named Weiss City, also with an ABV of 5% (was there a memo?), and on draught at their taproom the last couple of times we’ve been.

To underline the point we made at the start of this post, here’s how it looks alongside their session IPA, Kokomo Weekday, which is at the back:

Two similar looking beers, both hazy and golden.

We’re not sure we’d know it wasn’t an authentic German product if we were served it blind, in appropriate glassware.

That is a problem, of course: all the examples above were served in standard UK pint glasses, with little room for the customary meringue-whip head.

Perhaps at some point we’ll re-run the wheat beer taste-off we did a few years ago from which we concluded…

German wheat beer is more subtle than we had realised — an end-of-level-boss technical challenge for brewers. Too much of those characteristic aromas and flavours and it tips over into caricature, or just becomes sickly. Despite looking dirty, it actually needs to be really clean to work: acidity knocks it right off course, and there’s no room for funk or earthiness. The carbonation has to be exactly calibrated, too, or the beer simply flops: bubbles are body.

It feels as if perhaps things have moved along since then. But until we drink these Bristol beers alongside, say, Franziskaner (bang at the centre of the style in our minds) then it’s hard to say for sure.

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.


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.


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.


Yeah, what’s the point there?


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– 


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


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


Back to boycotting, though– 


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.


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


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!


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.


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


He’ll have anyone on – Jordan Peterson!


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.


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.