The Questions We Ask Ourselves

A question mark leads a man by the hand.

Is this beer consistently tasty? Are the brewers good people? Is the project laudable? Is the beer, brewery or style in need of our support?

It’s entirely possible to answer yes to one question but not the others.

A dreadful idiot who behaves appallingly can brew a great beer, and a wonderful local brewery owned by the loveliest people on earth can produce complete rubbish.

That’s obvious.

For some people, ethics, localness or independence are the only important factors, and they can probably live with a mediocre or even flawed product on that basis. (Perhaps their brains even trick them into genuinely enjoying the beer more – a feature, not a bug.)

But others will say, no, beer quality is the only thing that matters. (We try to be objective like this, but we’re only human.)

Still others might make their decisions based on price, out of necessity, or through a principled belief that the market is the ultimate arbiter.

Where there might be a problem is when people fail to express the distinction between those different ideas of “good”, or perhaps even to understand it.

BrewDog, to quote a notable example, brews (on the whole) beer we enjoy drinking. But believing that and saying it doesn’t mean we endorse their values, or uncritically support everything they do.

On the other hand, we felt a little churlish the other day when we couldn’t give Tynt Meadow, the new British Trappist beer, a wholehearted recommendation.

It is interesting.

We’re glad it exists, and expect it to improve.

If we lived in Leicestershire we might even feel somewhat proud of it.

But we’re not going to say it’s GREAT! because we like the concept, just as we’re not going to say Punk IPA tastes bad (it doesn’t) to take a cheap pop at BrewDog.

Whether local equates to good when it comes to beer has been debated endlessly over the years. Increasingly, we’re coming to the view that while it’s never as simple as that, there are certain beers that get as close to good as they ever will when they’re consumed near the brewery, where people know how they’re supposed to taste, and the quirks of keeping them; and where there’s a chance the brewer might pop in for a pint every now and then.

We certainly hope people can read these codes when we use them:

  • ‘fond of’ or ‘soft spot for’ is personal and emotional;
  • ‘interesting’ is about narrative, culture and significance in the industry;
  • a mediocre beer that’s very cheap can be ‘good value’;
  • ‘worth a try’ means we didn’t like it, but can imagine others might;
  • and you might not want more than one glass of a beer that is ‘complex’.

In practice, of course, the question we’re most likely to ask is: “Which of this limited selection of beers is going to taste the best?” (Or perhaps, depressingly, “least bad”.)

These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs

Over a few beers the other week we found ourselves making a list of pubs we love and find ourselves longing to be in.

It’s not The Best Pubs, it’s not a Top Ten, it’s just some pubs we like enough to feel wistful for. We’ve been tinkering with it since and decided to share it.

Brains bitter at the City Arms, Cardiff.
The City Arms, Cardiff

10-12 Quay St, CF10 1EA
This is, in fact, the pub where we had the conversation. It was our first visit but love at first pint. The perfect mix of old school, new school, cask and keg, it just felt completely right to us. Worn in and unpretentious, but not curmudgeonly, and serving a revelatory point of Brains Bitter. (Not SA.) Is it an institution? We assume it’s an institution.

The Brunswick, Derby.
The Brunswick Inn, Derby

1 Railway Terrace, DE1 2RU
We loved this first time, and it’s still great. Flagstones, pale cask ale, cradling corners, a view over the railway, and the murmur of lovely local accents. Worth breaking a train journey for.

Continue reading “These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs”

The Pros and Cons of the BrewDog Blueprint

BrewDog bar sign.

A challenge floated across our Twitter timeline today: can anyone really write objectively about BrewDog’s new ‘Blueprint’?

Well, we’re going to try.

The blueprint is a document which sets out their intentions for the next decade – a business plan, effectively, only simplified and given a heavy graphic treatment, as is de rigueur in the corporate world these days.

Before we get into dissecting what is there, let’s look at what isn’t: any evidence of contrition or regret for several years’ worth of clangers and crassness in the marketing. This is as close as it gets:

We have done some amazing things, we have taken some insane risks and we have always worn our heart on our sleeve. We know that we can always get better and we work towards that every second of every day.

There are people we respect who regard BrewDog as irredeemably homophobic, sexist and transphobic, and the Scottish Brewery has been given lots of chances to get this right but keeps failing. Nothing in this new manifesto suggests the management really understand those complaints, or that they intend to address them.

We think there’s a vague, implied desire to do better but until it’s been, say, a year without any spunking beer bottles or similar, who will be convinced by that?

Cask ale

After a couple of false dawns and sidequests BrewDog is going to start producing cask ale again. (Yes, cask is back from extinction for the second time this week.)

Pros: This sends a long overdue conciliatory signal; if cask is endangered and needs support, well, here it is; and DPC is a good beer, so if it ends up being an alternative to Doom Bar in mainstream pubs, that’s fine by us.

Cons: For breweries scraping by supplying the hoppy cask ale niche the re-entry into the market of a large, well-funded, commercially aggressive competitor is probably bad news.

Allsopp IPA

We’ve known about this for ages, and even suspected Martyn Cornell’s involvement based on whispers here and there, but this is the most detail we’ve had on the project. It sounds cool, and they’ll probably do a good job of it.

Pros: This is an important beer and being able to taste what we hope will be a serious recreation will be exciting.

Cons: Historical recreations aside, is this really the opposite of a trad brewers sneaky craft sub-brand? Will the packaging be sufficiently transparent that people buying it will know it’s from BrewDog?

Beer on TV

Beer Bucket List, in which Martin Dickie tours UK breweries, probably won’t be for us, but we can imagine it going over well with people a few notches less geeky than us. It’s simple, will be cheap and fast to produce, and sidesteps the issue that has scuppered successive attempts to produce The Great British Brew Off: beer is sloooooooow.

Pros: Beer on TV! And they’re using the opportunity to promote independent breweries, too.

Cons: But it’s also a big BrewDog advert, isn’t it?

Ethics

As a team that is 50 per cent accountant we very much approve of the commitment to shorter payment terms for small suppliers.

There’s also a pledge to reduce plastic packaging, and a fund for investing in smaller breweries with a mission to promote inclusiveness.

Pros: This goes beyond posturing – it’s concrete and practical.

Cons: But it’s kind of the bare minimum really, isn’t it, for a firm that’s trying to reaffirm its indie cred. And we reckon the plastic reduction is being driven by the supermarkets anyway.

Supporting local breweries

There is a commitment to having local guest lines in BrewDog bars – a smart move to counter the impression that it’s a rootless chain. (Which it is.) There are also pledges to collaborate with smaller breweries – an interesting list which might be said to represent the current indie top table.

Pros: They don’t have to do this and it is something we’ve suggested larger breweries ought to do more of.

Cons: Who can tell what’s sincere and what’s about brand building at this stage; and it’s nothing they can’t withdraw from at the drop of a hat.

Franchises

This is a weird one, and a bit of a surprise. We’ve wondered in the past whether there might not be more BrewDog branded bars not run directly but BrewDog but expected it to be via a bigger partner such as Greene King. Now, they’re offering Equity Punk shareholders chance to open BrewDog branded bars of their own, with training and support.

Pros: More BrewDog bars in small towns, which we guess is good news for small town BrewDog fans; and these bars will probably be smarter and better run than some indie craft bars outside big cities.

Cons: It’s yet more high street homogenisation.

* * *

Overall, this blueprint reinforces what we already thought: BrewDog is an important presence in British beer culture, and always worth watching, but it becomes less human with each passing year.

If they really want to shore up their craft credentials, which seems to be at least in part the intention, then they’ll need to be a bit more radical than this. And, dare we say, a touch more modest.

It’s Easy to be Intrepid When You’re a White Bloke

Illustration: "Odd One Out".

Wandering into strange pubs in strange towns, perhaps even in distant countries, isn’t as fun for some people as it is for others.

This is something we’ve been brooding on for years, triggered by a passing conversation with a friend. We suggested meeting in the William IV in Leyton and she winced and shook her head. “I don’t feel comfortable in there,” she said. “I feel like people are staring at me because, you know… I’m a bit brown.”

To be clear: nothing ever happened, nothing was ever said, but she simply didn’t feel at ease — and unease, after all, is a finely honed human survival mechanism.

Even within this household there are differing thresholds. There are pubs which Ray (an average-looking white bloke) has visited and enjoyed, but where Jess felt on edge, and certainly wouldn’t particularly relish visiting alone.

Continue reading “It’s Easy to be Intrepid When You’re a White Bloke”

Session #138 — Return of the Wood Part II: Woody’s Revenge

A sea of wooden casks.

For the 138th edition of the Session Jack Perdue at Deep Beer has asked us to reflect on the wonders of wood.

Back in 2013 we wrote a post reflecting on the role of wood in the ‘rebirth of British beer’, observing that it was making something of a comeback:

More significant, perhaps, is the recent obsession with ‘barrel ageing’, derived from Belgium via the United States. Though it is not always used quite as Arthur Millard and the other founders of the SPBW might have hoped, hip young brewers positively fetishise wood. At the Wild Beer Company in Somerset, barrels — their source a closely guarded secret — are cooed over like newborn babies: ‘This one was used for Pedro Ximenez — smell it!’

In the past five years, that trend has continued.

It is now all but compulsory for substantial, ambitious UK craft breweries (def. 2) to have permanent wood-ageing facilities on the side: Beavertown, BrewDog, Cloudwatereveryone is doing it.

Wild Beer Co, with wood at the centre and ‘normal’ beer almost as an afterthought, has gone on to win major awards, carving a niche which it shares with an increasing number of other wood-first breweries such as Burning Sky and Little Earth.

In pure marketing terms, wood is a godsend — what better way to signal rustic authenticity? (Even if you fiddle it.)

But what’s interesting to us about all this is that it represents not just a growth in variety but a broadening of the palette (as in artist’s) — another variable, another way to add complexity and depth to even quite simple beers.

Imperial stouts are great and all that but it would quite suit us if the end-point of all this experimentation was a growth in the number of drinkable cask porters and IPAs with just a bit of something funkier blended in, Greene King 5X style.