News, Nuggets and Longreads 16 February 2019: Beer Duty, BridgePort, Brussels

Here’s everything in writing about beer and pubs from the past week that struck as especially noteworthy, from colonialism to brewery closures.

For the Guardian Dutch journalist Olivier van Beemen offers an article based on an extract from his book Heineken in Africa: a Multinational Unleashed. It offers a glimpse into the practices of a European brewing giant operating in Africa, and how, despite the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility, it cannot help but echo the behaviours of the colonial era:

Further research [into promotion girls] in DRC, the country where the most abuse was reported, revealed that unwanted advances came not only from customers but also from Heineken staff. “The enormous uncertainty of keeping a job combined with the absence of employee rights of legal status makes PW [promotion women] vulnerable for misuse from several stakeholders,” the internal report notes. Often, the women, who earned very little, had to sleep with managers if they wanted to keep their job. But if they needed to see a gynaecologist or get an abortion, which was often illegal and dangerous, they had to sort everything themselves, and pay for it. They also had to drink five to 10 large bottles of beer every working day, in order to persuade customers to consume more.


Sighing bar staff.

This week’s big viral story, for quite understandable reasons, was this expression of righteous fury by Canadian beer writer Robin LeBlanc in response to a bizarre sexist ramble in an American brewing magazine by its publishers, Bill Metzger, who has since resigned:

That’s right, folks. He managed to take a piece about cask ale and turn it into a whiny, self-indulgent, sexist, heavily misogynist, and creepy as hell work. In fact he did this so expertly that it actually broke my brain and I need to break it down and go over most of the particularly offensive quotes with you all because if I don’t I’m going to keep thinking about it until I have a brain aneurysm.

Alright. Let’s start with the very first sentence of the article.

“Like most men, I struggle with my my primal self.”

Oh boy, strap in folks, because we know exactly where this is going.


De la Senne beers in Brussels.

For Brussels Beer City Eoghan Walsh provides a rundown of the history of cult Belgian brewery de la Senne, constructing his tale around five specific beers:

Before there was Brasserie de la Senne, there was Zinnebir. Bernard Leboucq was home-brewing in the basement of a central Brussels squat in 2002, and he was invited to brew Zinnebir as the official beer for that year’s Zinneke parade. Yvan De Baets, already passionate about beer, was a social worker working alongside youth groups on the parade. A meet-cute was inevitable.

“I saw this guy pulling a big trolley of beer,” says De Baets, “and I told the guys working with me to take care of the kids, I have to meet him. He offered me a beer, a second, a third.” Two years later De Baets joined Leboucq as unofficial brewing advisor in their first iteration of Brasserie de la Senne.


The Quest for the Perfect Pub

The Pub Curmudgeon has dissected a largely forgotten book from 1989 in which brother Nick and Charlie Hurt report on a three-month Quest for the Perfect Pub:

The thirty years since the book was published have, not surprisingly, not been kind to the pubs listed. Some, fortunately, are still in existence in little-changed form, such as the Yew Tree at Cauldon in Staffordshire and the Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham in Cheshire. Others, such as the Stagg at Titley in Herefordshire and the Durham Ox at Shrewley in Warwickshire, have very much gone down the gastro route and can no longer be regarded as community boozers, while many, such as the Horse & Jockey at Delph in the former Saddleworth district of Yorkshire and the White Lion at Pen-y-Mynydd in Flintshire have long since closed. Indeed, I doubt whether either of those long survived the publication of the book, and the Horse & Jockey has long been a roofless, crumbling ruin.


Abstract illustration of pubs.

Roger Protz has written an interesting piece about the specific issues faced by those running houses owned by giant pub companies:

“My agreement meant I could buy wines, spirits and minerals free of tie but I was tied for beer and cider. The main Ei beer list had Dark Star Hophead. Jack had sold three 18 gallon casks a week of Hophead but Ei said I couldn’t have it as it was outside SIBA’s delivery area – SIBA has a 25-mile radius for beer orders.”

Courage Best is a popular beer among regulars. Harry found he would have to pay £30 a barrel more than Jack had paid – and Jack had sold 100 barrels a year.


Carling Black Label beer mat.

At Ed’s Beer Site Ed provides some fascinating details of how Carling lager is actually brewed:

Very high maltose syrup is used in the kettle to give 20% of the grist. For those not familiar with high gravity brewing very high maltose syrup is important because it reduces the amount of esters produced during fermentation, something which high gravity brewing raises.


Jim at Beers Manchester is angry about the weaselly ways of the UK’s larger breweries which are lobbying for changes to Progressive Beer Duty from behind the facades of various organisations, such as the Independent Family Brewers of Britain:

Let’s look at the IFBB in more detail.

Richard Fuller. Secretary of The Independent Family Brewers of Britain.

Hang on. Fuller. As in that brewery that is no longer “Independent”? Hmmm.


A notable brewery closure: BridgePort Brewing of Portland, Oregon – one of the first of the modern IPA brewers, launching its flagship hoppy pale beer in 1996 – is shutting up shop after 35 years. Jeff Allworth offers context and commentary here.


And finally, from Twitter:

For more links see Stan Hieronymus’s blog on Mondays and Alan McLeod’s on Thursdays.

Crossover Event: Beavertown & Heineken

Heineken sign

Beavertown has sold a substantial stake to Heineken  — they’re not specifying how much but 49 per cent seems a reasonable assumption — and our Twitter mentions have gone a bit mad.

That’s because a few weeks ago, you might recall, we wrote a piece reflecting on signs one might look out for to indicate that a brewery is readying itself for sale, pointing to Beavertown as an example of a firm that seemed to be glowing hot.

Now, let’s be clear: our post was actually pretty tentative — might this, possibly that — and, though we named AB-InBev as a possible suitor in the quick Tweet we fired off before the post, we didn’t specify any names in the post proper because we didn’t have a clue.

Even if we’d guessed Heineken would have been low down the list given its fairly recent acquisition of another London brewery, Brixton.

(Although within minutes of our posting multiple people had messaged us to say, “It’s Heineken”, and proper journalists soon ferreted out the story.)

So, yes, we’re feeling pleased that our logic was tested and seems to have held up but, no, we don’t feel like soothsayers or a pair of Mystic Megs. What we came up with was half educated guess, half luck.

In the PR around today’s news Beavertown has addressed a few important points head on, admitting to having swerved telling the truth because (as we acknowledged in our post) businesses don’t generally talk about deals while they’re being negotiated and, indeed, are usually legally prohibited from doing so:

It’s been an uncomfortable few weeks as speculative rumours have been flying about.  The reality is that sometimes in business you can’t share everything and I’m a true believer in not talking about anything unless it is a done deal, and up until this very day there was no deal.

It’s at this point, though, that we’ll refer to an even older post of ours, from May last year: breweries could avoid a lot of the criticism and high emotion that hits on takeover day, and lingers for months and even years after, if they made a point of saying from much earlier on in the cycle something like, “We sometimes talk to potential investors and would never rule out selling a stake in the company, just so you know.”

People will probably understand if you have to keep the specifics of particular deals quiet, as long as the very idea that you might be talking to whichever global giant isn’t a nasty surprise.

Whatever the logistics behind the decision, however good the news for the company, regardless of whether the beer stays the same, there will always be people who feel stung when a company which was selling a set of values as much as pale ale decides that one of those values doesn’t matter any more.

Sponsored by One Green Lager or the Other

Carlsberg and Heineken logos side by side.

When someone asked us this week to remind them of the official beer of the London Olympics, we couldn’t remember. “One of the lagers that comes in green tins,” we said. “Carslberg, we think. Yeah, that’s it, Carlsberg.”

Having checked, it turns out its Heineken, the Dutch one.

Or is it Danish? No, it’s Carslberg that’s Danish. The one that sponsored Euro 2012 last month. Or was that Heineken as well?

It wasn’t Grolsch or Becks, was it?

They should toss a coin and let the winner keep green, or maybe play a football match for it.

No Nonsense is Nonsense

John Smith’s have a carefully worked out ‘brand identity’: everything is written in the voice of a “no nonsense” Yorkshireman.

Screenshot of marketing copy from John Smith's.

But the funny thing is this: the idea that they can’t be doing with all that ponced up marketing bullshit… is marketing bullshit. There probably are some “no nonsense” businesses that employ marketing agencies, but we can’t think of any off the top of our heads.

Of course, big food producers (including breweries) have very good reasons to suggest that taking an interest in the taste, ingredients and process of manufacture is pretentious: we, the punters, ought to know our place, viz. buying and consuming without question.

When we asked for information on the ingredients in John Smith’s Extra Smooth (we’ll explain why another time) Heineken customer care (ee, by ‘eck, etc.) told us that it uses “premium malts”. There is definitely a tiny bit of nonsense in that phrase.

While we’re at it, here’s another example of ‘no nonsense’ as a brand value, this time from Newcastle Brown.

License Brewed to Kill

Olga Kurylenko in a Bond tie-in Heineken ad
Olga Kurylenko in a Bond tie-in Heineken ad

Most critics have picked up on one major irritation in the latest films in the resurgent James Bond franchise: product placement.

This time round, with Quantum of Solace, we’re expected to believe that Heineken is James Bond’s beer of choice.

Heineken is a bog-standard, bland lager, readily available in every corner of the Earth, usually brewed under license. Is anyone convinced it’s the right beer for James Bond?

It makes about as much sense as his current penchant for Ford hatchbacks.

Irish pubs in Spain

guinness.jpgI used to avoid Irish pubs, particularly when abroad, thinking they´d be full of tourists. Then I discovered that in a lot of places they´re actually really good places to meet the locals thanks to (a) the bizarre belief that Irish and British things are just inherently cool (b) the fact that they´re shunned by self-righteous tourists like me. So I became more tolerant, and stopped going into a sulk everytime someone suggested going to an Irish pub. But now I’ve been in a few here in Spain, I find myself very unnerved by the fact that they are, here at least, another weapon in the fearsome armada of Heineken International.

Salamanca has at least four Irish pubs and for various reasons I’ve now been in three of them. They´re all Heineken beasts so you get Paulaner and other delights such as Adelscott and Desperados. You may also come across an advert for the local Octoberfest franchise, a subject I blogged about a couple of months ago.

More sinister still (I find) are the various efforts to make the locals drink more and more. Special offers for large drinks, for example. Even the pub quiz turns out to be a syndicated marketing effort.

The very things about the drinking culture in Spain and France that the Government in the UK want us to emulate — moderation and smaller measures — are an anathema to people in the business of selling.

It’s not all bad news though — some of these Heineken outlets do have a guest beer from another brewer. Guinness. Sigh.

Adelscott and Desperados — eugh!

beer_bottle.jpgAdelscott is a golden (orange) ale made with whisky malt (although many bars mistakenly advertise it as containing whisky). Desperados is a Mexican-type beer with a shot of tequila in each bottle (or, rather, “aromatised” with tequila). They are brewed by Fischer (Heineken) in France.

Both beers are available in almost every bar there. They cost a euro or two more than ordinary lagers, and are pushed as “specialty beers” or “beers for tasting”.

We thought Adelscott might be interesting — Boak’s boss had raved about it. We weren’t expecting much from Desperados. But, just to make sure, last week we sat in a bar in Montpelier and ordered one Adelscott and one Desperados.

And guess what — both are foul. Desperados tastes like a particularly sickly lemonade; Adelscott tastes like Lucozade. Both are full of flavourings and unfermented sugar, so taste like alcopops. They are also quite strong, at nearly 6% each.

Avoid ’em. We’d rather drink Heineken — and that’s saying something.

Image: interesting detail from an entirely unrelated beer bottle.

El Legado de Yuste – Spanish abbey beer

yuste.jpgBoak is on tour in France and Spain.

A few years back Heineken España brought out El Legado de Yuste, “the first spanish abbey beer”, apparently brewed in the tradition of the master brewers of Flanders. I picked some up yesterday to give it a go.

It has a nice aroma – possibly slightly Belgian, definitely very malty. Initially a very good malt flavour but this quickly fades. It has an extremely weak body and quite a watery aftertaste. Some bitterness but no hop aroma or flavour. It´s too carbonated for a Belgian abbey ale. My initial reaction was that it was a watered-down Salvator (as in the Paulaner dopplebock – not that inconceivable – they are all part of the Heineken conglomerate). Because of its wateriness, it might be quite refreshing on a hot Spanish day – except for the fact that at 6.5%, you´re not going to drink many in the sun before the “heatstroke” sets in.

Ron Pattinson has listed it in his European beer guide and says that he´s not sure if it´s top or bottom fermented. I´m none the wiser from the bottle, it just says it´s made with “exclusive” yeasts (and vienna malt and specially selected hops) . It strikes me more as an amber lager effort than a belgian ale, whatever they use.

There is a website in Spanish devoted to this product, if you´re really interested. Lots of “history” of the product, suggestions on how to serve it (with game, apparently) and even a comprehensive guide to different types of beer. So I­t´s obviously targeted at the would-be connoisseur. But it doesn´t do anything for this amateur. I´ll stick with Salvator – maybe over ice?

Boak

Bierfest by numbers in Don Quijote country

Boak is on tour in France and Spain.

I was extremely surprised to see posters advertising an Oktoberfest in Cuenca. Cuenca is a beautiful town in the Castille-La Mancha region of Spain (the dry bit in the middle), famous for cheese, honey, cooking with strange bits of animal… but not really for its beer. A closer look revealed the event to be “sponsored” (i.e. organised) by Paulaner, who have organised similar festivals in other Spanish cities. The Cuenca local authorities then tagged on a tapas festival, where different restaurants and bars have stalls and offer a couple of dishes each.

Obviously I had to go along and have a look. It appeared to be in the car park of a housing estate, with a huge Paulaner tent dominating the proceedings (not in the photo). Inside was the requisite oompah band, Paulaner on tap, a mixture of German and Spanish snacks and some tacky souvenirs.

The outside was definitely where it was at — I got the impression the locals weren´t quite sure what they were supposed to do in the tent. They were certainly slightly bemused by the band. That said, the tent was beginning to fill when I left, and no doubt it turned into a wild fiesta afterwards. Perhaps.

Like the locals, I´m not sure what to make of it all. On the one hand, the combination of good beer and tapas is a match made in heaven. On the other hand, this is not so much a genuine cultural exchange as a mass-marketing technique by Paulaner. If you read Spanish, here´s an article from Marketing Magazine last year, which says that by promoting these festivals, Paulaner want to develop the appreciation of beer in Spain. Well, that´s nice of them. Funny that their generosity doesn´t extend to promoting beers from other breweries. Here´s a link to the London Bierfest, which looks identical.

Do we really want these Identikit beer festivals springing up all over the place? Sure, I dream of a world where every town has a beer festival — but not exactly the same festival wherever you go.

Boak