BWOASA: Marble Barley Wine from a dusty old can

One of the good things about this little project has been the nudge to go to different places, such as Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green.

Though we still think of it as that new bar we must get to at some point, it turns out to be five years old, and now part of a sub­stan­tial chain. Time slips away.

We had formed the idea, per­haps based on murky social media pho­tos, that it was a small, dark space on the cor­ner of a back street. In fact, it’s in a large rail­way arch with a decent beer gar­den and, on a sun­ny April after­noon at least, per­fect­ly airy and bright.

Though Moth­er Kelly’s does have draught beer, its sell­ing point is real­ly the wall of fridges on the cus­tomer side, packed with intrigu­ing beers from sought after brew­eries. We fig­ured there might be at least one bar­ley wine lurk­ing in there.

There were three, but they took a while to find, dur­ing which squint­ing, bent-backed hunt we con­clud­ed that fan­cy pack­ag­ing designs and quirky names are great and all that but they don’t half make it a chal­lenge to work out what you’re buy­ing.

We chose the cheap­est of the three at a drink-in price of £12 for 440ml. It was the 2017 vin­tage of Marble’s won­der­ful­ly clear­ly-named 12.4% bar­ley wine, BARLEY WINE. Being an antique, the can had spots of rust across its top, and crumbs and dust, so we asked for a quick clean up before pour­ing. We got it, albeit grudg­ing­ly – maybe a bit of filth on your tin­ny is con­sid­ered all part of the fun these days?

Marble Barley Wine in the glass.

Sit­ting down to drink a beer that you already resent is a good test of qual­i­ty. Any irri­ta­tion we felt in this case passed the moment we tast­ed it, which real­ly was fan­tas­tic – almost, maybe, per­haps £6-per-nip good.

It seemed pos­i­tive­ly lumi­nous in the dain­ty glass­ware, cycling orange, red and gold depend­ing how the light struck it. The con­di­tion was also excel­lent prov­ing that cans can work for this kind of beer.

Between appre­cia­tive purring, we talked it over: on the one hand, it did rather resem­ble Gold Label, but it also remind­ed us of a very par­tic­u­lar beer: an attempt to recre­ate Bal­lan­tine IPA using Clus­ter hops. Rasp­ber­ry jam, mar­malade, chewy syrup sweet­ness, clean-tast­ing and dou­ble-bass res­o­nance. Just won­der­ful.

And one more small twist: because of the dif­fi­cul­ty of pour­ing two clear glass­es from one can, we got to try this with and with­out (a tiny bit) of yeast haze. On bal­ance, though it was hard to resist the sheer visu­al appeal of yeast­less, slight­ly yeasty actu­al­ly tast­ed bet­ter – soft­er and silki­er, with a lit­tle less jan­gle.

We con­tin­ue to hold Mar­ble in high regard and will prob­a­bly go back to Moth­er Kelly’s some time, when we’ve saved up some pock­et mon­ey.

BWOASA: Our first taste of yer actual Watney’s beer

This really was a big moment. We’ve tasted clones, read plenty, and written a lot, but we’ve never actually tasted Watney’s beer.

We’ve been cor­re­spond­ing on and off with Tom Unwin for years. He grew up near Jess and we inter­viewed his Dad, Trevor, for Brew Bri­tan­nia. When Tom came into pos­ses­sion of sev­er­al bot­tles of a strong ale pro­duced by Watney’s in 1987 to cel­e­brate the sup­posed 500th anniver­sary of the found­ing of the Mort­lake brew­ery.

(You can read the inevitable Mar­tyn Cor­nell take­down of that sto­ry here.)

We set aside a lit­tle time to enjoy the expe­ri­ence of drink­ing this beer, 137ml each, even though we sus­pect­ed it was going to be rank. After all, Watney’s beer wasn’t well regard­ed even when fresh, and this had been stored for 30+ years in a sub­ur­ban side­board.

The label told us that the beer had an orig­i­nal grav­i­ty of between 1096 and 1104 – quite a range, giv­ing us a hint that it was prob­a­bly around 10–11% ABV.

Pop­ping the foil cov­ered cap, we were treat­ed to the barest hiss, and found the inside of the lid cov­ered in rusty sludge. It had a slight, bub­bly head that drift­ed away in sec­onds.

There was a whiff of roast­ed malt, we thought, or per­haps even smoke, and then a big punch of sher­ry.

It tastes like Pedro Ximénez – raisins, prunes, a bit of bal­sam­ic vine­gar. There was also an almond nut­tin­ness and a lay­er of dark choco­late.

Run­ning through all of this, stop­ping it from quite being out-and-out pleas­ant to drink, was a beefy, Mar­mite line.

If you’ve read any oth­er tast­ing notes on old beers, none of the above will be sur­pris­ing. We prob­a­bly could have writ­ten them before we even opened the bot­tle.

Still, it was spe­cial, and an expe­ri­ence we can now tick off our wish list.

News, nuggets and longreads 27 April 2019: numbers, mild, cult beer frenzy

Here’s everything that struck as as noteworthy in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from brewery numbers to the possible decline of lager.

Like many oth­er com­men­ta­tors, we’ve tak­en the total num­ber of UK brew­eries, and the amount by which it increas­es each year, as an at least par­tial­ly use­ful indi­ca­tor of the vigour of the craft beer boom. Accord­ing to a new report from accoun­tan­cy firm UHY, that growth might final­ly have begun to slow:

The craft beer boom in the UK has slowed sharply in the last year with the total num­ber of brew­eries increas­ing by just 8 ver­sus the 390 added in pri­or twelve months, our research shows… The total num­ber of UK brew­eries reached to 2,274 at the end of 2018, up from 1,352 five years ago… The craft beer mar­ket has become dif­fi­cult for new entrants as multi­na­tion­al brew­ers con­tin­ue to buy and invest the more suc­cess­ful “craft” brew­eries. The huge lev­els of invest­ment that the multi­na­tion­als then deploy through their “craft” sub­sidiaries throw up bar­ri­ers of entry against oth­er entrants. The multi­na­tion­als have been attract­ed by the high growth rates in the craft beer mar­ket and the pre­mi­um pric­ing they can achieve.

(This sto­ry got a bit man­gled in the retelling by some news out­lets which, tend­ing to pre­fer sto­ries of either total tri­umph or dread­ful doom, report­ed that only eight new brew­eries had opened in the past year.)


Relat­ed news: the total num­ber of pubs con­tin­ues to decline at a rate equiv­a­lent to 76 clo­sures per month, but the rate of clo­sures is quite clear­ly slow­ing.


Anoth­er nugget of news, unfor­tu­nate­ly from behind a pay­wall: finan­cial news ser­vice Merg­er­Mar­ket reports that both Truman’s and Five Points are active­ly court­ing investors or part­ners. There’s noth­ing we can link to at this stage but, well, keep your eyes peeled for fur­ther news.


Weyerbacher logo.

For Brew­Bound Justin Kendall offers com­ment on the strug­gles of yet anoth­er ear­ly-wave Amer­i­can craft brew­ery, Weyer­bach­er:

Most of Weyerbacher’s finan­cial issues stem from a 2014 expan­sion project that cost $2 mil­lion and includ­ed the addi­tion of a 40-bar­rel brew­house. Over the years, how­ev­er, the com­pa­ny dealt with increased com­pe­ti­tion — par­tic­u­lar­ly in the pump­kin beer cat­e­go­ry — as it strug­gled to grow sales and pay down debt.

We were expect­ing to see dou­ble-dig­it growth for a num­ber of years … and with the mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion that hap­pened in pump­kin and all of those oth­er things, that just didn’t pan out,” [Josh Lampe] said.

The mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion that hap­pened in pump­kin! What a time to be alive.


Illustration: beer bottles.

For Drinks Retail­ing News Antho­ny Glad­man has pro­duced a fas­ci­nat­ing piece on the strug­gle of inde­pen­dent bot­tle shops to attain sup­plies of the most sought after beers:

Any­thing DIPA or hazy goes real­ly fast,” says Dan Sandy, man­ag­er of east Lon­don craft beer store Kill The Cat. Beers from Cloud­wa­ter, Ver­dant and Deya are sub­ject to fierce com­pe­ti­tion because they will draw in cus­tomers and dri­ve sales of oth­er beers once peo­ple are through the shop door.

Every­one wants Deya cans but it’s not mak­ing very many,” says Jen Fer­gu­son, co-own­er of Hop Burns & Black, a craft beer retail­er in south east Lon­don. “The num­ber of Deya cans mak­ing it through to the dis­trib­u­tors is very small.”

Anoth­er exam­ple is Not­ting­ham brew­ery Neon Rap­tor. Alex Fitz­patrick, co-own­er of Brix­ton bot­tle shop Ghost Whale, found its beers became hard to get hold of seem­ing­ly overnight. “What hap­pened? Who pressed the but­ton that gave it this mag­ic rain­bow aura around every­thing it does?”


Beer being poured, from an old advertisement.

With CAMRA’s dec­la­ra­tion of May as the month of mild in mind, Ron Pat­tin­son has tak­en a look at how beer style come in and out of favour:

When styles start to decline, it can hap­pen sur­pris­ing­ly quick­ly. It always kicks off the same way: young drinkers don’t adopt it. Then a style begins to be asso­ci­at­ed with old men. And no-one wants to drink what granddad’s drink­ing… Lager sales real­ly took off in the late 1970s. The young drinkers who adopt­ed it back then are now around 60. How long before Lager becomes asso­ci­at­ed with old blokes?


Generic beer pumps in photocopy style.

One of the upsides to putting this round-up togeth­er slight­ly lat­er than usu­al is that it meant we caught a post from this very morn­ing by the Pub Cur­mud­geon in which the details of var­i­ous region­al quirks of dis­pense from the 1970s-90s are recalled:

But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the aver­age pub across much of the Mid­lands and North, you would be like­ly to be served your beer in an over­size glass with a thick head reach­ing almost to the top, where­as in the South you would get beer from a hand­pump with a head no more than a quar­ter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coat­ing of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with lit­tle or no head as well. Get­ting a pint a total­ly flat-look­ing beer with plen­ty of CO2 still dis­solved in it was a touch dis­con­cert­ing.


And final­ly, from Twit­ter, one of those too-neat expla­na­tions that nonethe­less sort of, maybe, kind of, checks out:

For more links and com­men­tary check out Stan Hierony­mus on Mon­day and Alan McLeod on Thurs­day.

News, nuggets and longreads 20 April 2019: Pub Crawling, Carlsberg, Craftonia

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that caught our attention in the past week, from Leeds to low alcohol beer.

For the Guardian Dave Simp­son writes about the devel­op­ment of the post-punk scene in Leeds in the late 1970s, which took place in pubs, with the York­shire Rip­per as a dark back­ground pres­ence:

Today, with its wood and tiles and punk sound­track, [the Fen­ton] is almost as it was; Gill observes that the juke­box has moved rooms. “Pre-mobile phones, you’d have to go where you knew peo­ple would be,” Mekons singer Tom Green­hal­gh explains, remem­ber­ing “intense polit­i­cal debates and insane hedo­nism”, and leg­endary scene char­ac­ters such as Bar­ry the Badge. “A huge gay guy cov­ered in badges from Arm­ley Social­ist Worker’s par­ty. He was rock-hard, but then he could just grab you, snog you and stick his tongue down your throat.”


Roger Protz has been writ­ing about lager in Britain for 40 years so his com­men­tary on where the new ‘Dan­ish Pil­sner’ Carls­berg has just launched in the UK fits in was bound to be inter­est­ing. Where oth­ers have been cau­tious­ly pos­i­tive, Mr Protz essen­tial­ly dis­miss­es the beer as more the same:

I was asked for my views by Carlsberg’s Lon­don-based PR com­pa­ny, who sent me some sam­ples. The bot­tled ver­sion said it was brewed in the UK – pre­sum­ably this means the Northamp­ton fac­to­ry – while the can says “brewed in the EU”. I said this made a mock­ery of the new beer being called “Dan­ish Pil­sner”… I added that 3.8 per cent ABV was too low to mer­it being called Pil­sner: the clas­sic Pil­sner Urquell is 4.4 per cent and all claims to be a Pil­sner should be judged against it. I found the Carls­berg beer to be thin and lack­ing in aro­ma and flavour.

A foot­note from us: we were asked to take part in mar­ket research by Heineken ear­li­er this week, which leads us to sus­pect some sim­i­lar post-Cam­den rein­ven­tion is in the pipeline there, too.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, nuggets and lon­greads 20 April 2019: Pub Crawl­ing, Carls­berg, Crafto­nia”

BWOASA: Bear Essentials Barley Wine

Barley wine on a bookshelf

A canned 13% bar­ley wine with rasp­ber­ries and vanil­la at £5.99 for 330ml? If we weren’t engaged in this BWOASA mis­sion for April, we’d have gone nowhere near.

A col­lab­o­ra­tion between Aberdeen’s Fierce and Newport’s Tiny Rebel, Bear Essen­tials turned up at Bot­tles & Books, our local craft booza­to­ri­um.

We drank it at home last night, approach­ing with some ner­vous­ness. This is where the twist is sup­posed to come, right? Well…

We didn’t real­ly like it. It was strong, but tast­ed thin. It was com­plex and weird, but not in a way that pleased us – a jum­ble rather than a cav­al­cade.

Specifics: it was red, had low car­bon­a­tion and a loose head, and smelled like Bakewell tart. The sug­ges­tion of almond and bis­cuit base car­ried through into the flavour, joined by a sub­tle mouth-tight­en­ing sour­ness, and a heavy lay­er of vanil­la.

White choco­late stout? Pas­try Fram­boise? Maybe. Bar­ley wine? Only because the label said so. Noth­ing about the look, tex­ture or flavour sug­gest­ed any con­nec­tion to Gold­en Pride or Gold Label.

So what does bar­ley wine sig­nal in a craft beer con­text? High alco­holic strength, sweet­ness, and the absence of either hops or roast­ed flavours, we think.