News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 March 2018: Glitter, Ilford, AK

Here’s everything we’ve read about beer and pubs in the last week that excited us enough to hit the bookmark button, from glitter beer to Kölsch.

And what a week it’s been — a positive flood of interesting writing, lots of it on the hefty side. We’ll never work out the rhythms. It’s just odd that some weeks we post five links and think, well, that’s it, we’re done, and then on other occasions… Well, brace yourself.

Madeleine McCarthy (L) and Lee Hedgmon holding glasses of glitter beer.

First, a story we didn’t expect to care about but which did something interesting: it actually changed our minds. Glitter beer is the latest Oh, Silly Craft Beer! trend, easy to dismiss out of hand, but Jeff Alworth made the effort to go and try some and was won over:

What you can’t appreciate from still photos is that glitter exposes how dynamic a beer is. The tiny flecks ride the currents in bands and whorls, following the convection of released carbon dioxide or the motion of the drinker’s hand. As you look down into the glass, you see it roil and churn. It’s riveting. Beyond that, imagine drinking a green, shimmering Belgian tripel and trying to make it track to the taste of, say, Westmalle. It’s an object lesson in how much appearance factors into our mental formulation of “flavor.” The slight breadiness and vivid effervescence have fused in my mind with the qualities that define a tripel; looking at Lee’s beer, I was forced to go back to the basics of what my palate could tell me.

We’re not saying we now desperately want to drink a glass of sparkly pale ale but if we see one on sale, we’ll definitely try it, which is not what we’d have said last Saturday. Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 March 2018: Glitter, Ilford, AK”

Thought for the Day: SIBA & the Family Brewers

St Austell Brewery.

Last week SIBA members voted not to permit larger independent brewers to join as full members, against the urging of SIBA’s leadership. And we reckon, well, fair enough.

Yes, family brewers are an endangered species and worth preserving. Fuller’s and St Austell are fine breweries whose beer we generally love, and a different breed from Greene King and Marston’s. They’re certainly a million miles from AB-InBev and are ‘goodies’ in the grand scheme of things. (Disclosure: we’ve had occasional hospitality from St Austell over the years.)

At the same time, Fuller’s and St Austell already have significant advantages over genuinely small breweries, not least estates of pubs which those small brewers are effectively locked out of. They also have national brands, apparently substantial marketing budgets.

If we ran a really small brewery and were struggling every day to keep our heads above water, competing for free trade accounts and scrambling for every last sale, we’d be pretty pissed off at the idea of those two breweries muscling in on what little benefit SIBA membership seems to bring.

And much as we admire Fuller’s and St Austell we don’t think either is perfectly cuddly. If they were keen to join SIBA as full members it was probably out of a (entirely reasonable) desire to secure some further commercial advantage. If we’re wrong, if we’re being too cynical and it was simply a matter of longing to belong, then they clearly have more work to do getting that message across.

Helping those small brewers to sell a bit more beer, without strings attached, would probably be the most directly convincing way to go about it.

Further Reading

More on Fuller’s and Dark Star, Plus Links

Illustration: dark star -- SOLD

Having reacted in the immediate aftermath of the news that Fuller’s has acquired Dark Star we’ve been thinking and talking about it since, and seeking additional input.

First, we asked on Twitter whether they thought this was good or bad news. Predictably, lots of people wanted a not sure, don’t know, don’t care option, which we deliberately omitted because we were after a decisive result. But of course that’s the camp we’re in, though erring on the optimistic side — Dark Star seemed in the doldrums to us and this is more likely to lift it than destroy it. Of the 425 people who did feel strongly and sure enough to vote, 65 per cent leaned that way too:

In the meantime some concrete information has emerged. For the Morning Advertiser James Beeson interviewed Dark Star MD James Cuthbertson who said:

“There will be some overlap in our accounts and sales teams, and there will be some redundancies, which we will hope to keep to a minimum. However, Fuller’s have worked very hard to make sure their ex-staff are well looked after, and this ties back into the overriding point which is that they just ‘get it’; they know how to treat beer and treat people.”

There have also been substantial reflective pieces from Pete Brown, who is typically keyed into the emotional aspect of the story:

When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.

And Roger Protz, who is generally critical of takeovers and sensitive to corporate skullduggery, but here says:

The success of the craft beer sector is creating a number of acquisitions…. These takeovers have been driven to a large extent by rapidly declining sales of global lager brands and old-fashioned keg ales. Fuller’s on the other hand is not a global brewer and its beer sales are not in decline. But working with Dark Star and creating collaboration beers with Moor Beer of Bristol and Marble has shown the kudos that can be gained by identifying with a craft sector that has such appeal to younger and discriminating drinkers.

His summary of the background to Fuller’s takeover of Gale’s in 2005 is helpful, too: an uninterested family, a decrepit brewery, and little choice for Fuller’s but to close it down; but lingering local resentment all the same.

* * *

Some people seem puzzled or even irritated at the focus on this story, especially those who don’t live in or anywhere near London and the Home Counties, but of course it’s not just about Dark Star — it’s a case study in what might happen elsewhere in the country.

If you want to play the prediction game perhaps start by looking for a brewery with a convincing modern craft beer identity and high profile, but that has seemed a unsteady in recent years. Dark Star, the example at hand, lost its superstar head brewer, Mark Tranter, in 2013, after which its beer was widely perceived as having dipped in quality. It also seemed to be struggling to maintain its relevance in a world of Cloudwaters and BrewDogs, always one rebrand behind the zeitgeist.

Or, to put all that another way, breweries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase — it’s during the come down that they’re vulnerable.

Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star

Fuller's pumpclips.

News broke this morning that Fuller’s has taken over Dark Star, one of the pioneering UK craft breweries. (Definition 2.)

Those who have studied their British beer history, or happen to have lived through it, will perhaps wonder if this is Fuller’s moving into Whitbread territory. Back in the post-war period Whitbread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of smaller breweries until they had become a national operation — the precursor to the rather faceless international brewing firms we know today.

The difference, it seems to us, is that back then (to generalise very broadly) Whitbread were after pubs, not brands. They wanted outlets for their own products — a hundred pubs here, a hundred pubs there — but did away with local brands and closed down local breweries, which maximised the impact of national advertising campaigns and kept things simple, if bland.

Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pressure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, owning a portfolio of smaller breweries or at least brewery names is a great way of doing so while controlling margins and simplifying supply chains. Some people call this ‘the illusion of choice’ which is accurate if you define choice as the ability to decide where your money ends up. But often it really is choice, at least in terms of styles and profiles, to a degree. Better than nothing, at any rate.

Fuller’s has tried selling its own craft brands, with some success, but Dark Star really is something different. Fuller’s has golden ales and summer ales but no Hophead of its own and we imagine that’s the specific beer this deal has been done to secure. (Perhaps based on sales figures from The Harp, a central London freehouse acquired by Fuller’s long-regarded as an unofficial town tap for the Sussex brewery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are neither here nor there — probably more trouble than they’re worth — and Fuller’s is not Whitbread circa 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to general outrage, and we’d be very surprised if production of Dark Star beers moves to west London anytime in the next decade, given increased interest in provenance and transparency among consumers.

Chainpub Encounter

Our mission to visit every pub in Bristol means we’re going to interesting places we might otherwise give a miss, like The Old Post Office in Fishponds.

It looks, sounds, smells and acts like a branch of Wetherspoon, but isn’t, which is fascinating to us. It’s clearly part of a chain but unlike JDW pubs the brand isn’t blazoned on the building’s front or mentioned anywhere else that we could see.

“This is a daft question but… which chain is this pub part of?” we asked the person who was serving us.

“It’s not Wetherspoon’s,” they replied instinctively, even though that wasn’t what we’d asked. “Everyone thinks that but it’s actually part of a company called Stonegate. I’d never heard of them until I started working here but it turns out they’re huge. Great to work for, too — fantastic benefits and training.” (All this offered freely and apparently sincerely without any additional prompting.)

It’s true — Stonegate is a big company, running almost 700 pubs and bars from behind the cover of several well-known brands such as Yates’s, and Slug & Lettuce. The Old Post Office is part of their Proper Pubs sub-brand: “Our Proper Pubs are the perfect place to enjoy a quiet drink, grab a mid-week bite, get together at the weekend or enjoy the best sports coverage around.”

The pub itself isn’t lovely — too plastic for our taste, lacking even the distinctiveness of decor Wetherspoon pubs generally shoot for, even if they don’t always score. Nonetheless, it was absolutely crammed with families sharing meals, and groups of football fans arranged in various odd ways around their tables so that they could see the TV screens. It felt, as the cliche goes, like a pub truly serving its community — buzzy and informal, but smart with it.

The beer range wasn’t as titillating as a typical Spoons either with a smaller range of interesting bottled beers and no novelty guest ales. Instead, there were five pumps for Sharp’s Doom Bar, Fuller’s ESB, Harvey’s Sussex Best, London Pride and Wadworth 6X, with the last two tagged as Coming Soon. If you’re going to have a line-up of old-school brown beers, though, Harvey’s and ESB are good choices — enough to get us a little bit excited, anyway. Sussex Best wasn’t quite at its most thrilling but was still very good — quirky, dry, a little leafy — but the ESB… Well, that’s where we had a problem.

The member of staff who pulled it saw at once that it wasn’t right, forming no head at all. “It might be the glass,” they said, and tried with another. This time, it was not only flat but also hazy, and obviously so.

“Don’t worry, just make it two Sussex Best instead.”

But at this point what we assume was a manager got involved, apparently the final arbiter of whether a beer is off or otherwise. He said firmly, even sternly, “No, it’s meant to be like that,” and rushed away.

Now we know, and you know, that ESB is not meant to be hazy or headless, but the member of staff pouring the beer had clearly been put in a tricky position. So, chalking it up to experience, we broke the deadlock and agreed to take it, bearing in mind that it seemed to be a mere £2.40 a pint and, cosmetics aside, tasted acceptable, if a touch sweet and subdued.

Sitting outside on the patio watching the traffic go by we couldn’t help compare this experience to our recent experiences in Wetherspoon pubs, where the slightest complaint seems to trigger a full apology and a replacement without hesitation. We wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions based on one visit to a Stonegate Spoonsalike, and one fumbled transaction, but it’s certainly a first mark on the scorecard.

Disclosure: we sold a copy of 20th Century Pub to someone who works at Stonegate the other day.