News, Nuggets and Longreads 30 March 2019: Magic Rock, Bottle Shop, Light Ale

Here’s all the news and commentary on beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from takeovers to light ale.

First, some big news which would be more exciting if it hadn’t seemed inevitable, and if we hadn’t been through this cycle multiple times in the past decade: Huddersfield’s Magic Rock has been acquired by multinational brewing company Lion.

We’ve always found Magic Rock’s Richard Burhouse to be a frank, thoughtful sort of bloke, and his statement strikes home in a way these things often don’t:

Of course, I realise that this news will not be universally well received but I’m also conscious that internationally renowned brewing companies don’t invest in Huddersfield every day, and I’m delighted that the journey we started eight years ago has got us to this point… I’m proud that we continue to be a good news story in the town; the deal with Lion secures growth and longevity for Magic Rock, genuine job security for our employees and enables us to hire more people and contribute more to the economy of the local area going forward.

It’s interesting that of the four breweries involved in the founding of United Craft Brewers in 2015, three have now been bought by multinationals. We said at the time that UCB represented a statement of ambition, which ideas seems to have been borne out by the passage of time. Anyway, that’s one rumour down, leaving one more (that we’ve heard) to go…


More news, not perhaps unrelated to the above:


Light split (HSD and Light Ale).

Justin Mason at Get Beer. Drink Beer. has been researching and reflecting upon one of the most popular 20th century beer mixes, light and bitter:

Light and Bitter is, as you might expect, a half of Bitter (usually a bit more, three quarters wasn’t uncommon) served in a pint glass or mug with a bottle of Light Ale as an accompaniment. This was to be mixed as you saw fit, either in measured stages but more usually as half the bottle, taking it almost to the top, and the other half when you were down to the half pint level again… I couldn’t remember the last time I saw anybody order or drink a Light and Bitter in any pub I was in for at least ten years…


A mural in south London.

Staying in the realms of the old school, Deserter has been touring the working men’s clubs of south London:

Have you ever walked past those huge old buildings that have a Courage sign from another epoch, but offer no encouragement to enter? They’re members’ clubs, where the beer is as cheap as fibs and ‘refurb’ means a new snooker table. Liberal Clubs, Working Men’s Clubs, Social Clubs. A mystery to most. A sanctuary to some… Roxy and Gail had become members of a CIU club and that entitled them to visit any of their 1800+ clubs in the UK and take in their special ’70s-ness, low-price pints, massive function rooms and strong cue-sports presence. I borrowed a card and kicked off our club tour at the Peckham Lib.


J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2002 & 2009.

Archive article of the week: can you imagine a newspaper today publishing anything as niche and geeky as this set of vertical tasting notes by Michael Jackson on J.W. Lees Harvest Ale from 1995?

The exact influence of age is open to argument. Ninety-nine out of a hundred beers will go downhill. Only the strong and complex might improve. Before this tasting, I would have said that Lees Harvest Ale might develop favourably for three to six months. Now, I think six or seven years. Beyond that, oxidation creates Madeira-like notes, which can become dominant. From day one, the herbal floweriness of the hop can recede, but it was still definitely evident in the 1990.


For more good reading, check out Alan on Thursday and Stan on Monday.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 11 March 2017: Queues, Le Coq, Suffragettes

Here’s all the beer and pub writing that grabbed us in the last week, from business rates to faux-Belgians.

Written as part of his journalism degree James Beeson’s piece on the threat to pubs from forthcoming business-rate hikes, aimed at mainstream audiences, is a handy primer:

According to rates and rents specialists CVS, 17,160 pubs will have to pay more in business rates from April, and this is just the start, with rates expected to rise by £421m in the next five years.  This hike means that pubs will need to pour an extra 121 million pints to fund increases in property taxes paid to councils. CVS estimate that high business rates have contributed to one in five pub closures in England and Wales over the last six years.

As it happens, in his budget on Wednesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced business rate relief for pubs, as reported by the Morning Advertiser, albeit coupled with an increase in beer duty.


Price list in a pub.

We’ve already linked once this week to Peter McKerry’s thought-provoking piece on why people choose to drink at home or the pub but there’s been more chatter around this interesting subject, notably from Mark Johnson who argues that drinking at home isn’t really cheaper. He roots his argument with a welcome discussion of price-per-litre and relative value:

Bottles of good beer aren’t cheap. I very rarely purchase, in my most frequented bottles shops, a beer for under £3. Most of the time I’ll purchase 5 or 6 bottles at a time and this shop is never under £25… 5 or 6 pints in the pub doesn’t cost me £25+… A pint of cask beer in my favourite pub ranges from £2.60 – £3.60, dependent on strength and purchase price. This is for a 568ml measure of beer as opposed to the standard 330ml size for bottles or cans in the beer shop. In terms of quantity equivalent (ml to ml) 6 beers in the pub will cost approximately £18.60. The bottles will cost me approximately £43 for the same amount of beer.


A queue at Magic Rock's brewery tap.

Staying with the same author, Mark also asked this week why on earth people would go to Huddersfield and join a long snaking queue for the Magic Rock brewery tap when there are so many other great pubs in town:

This is an anecdote that canvasses my feelings at present about anything that involves queuing or FOMO. This won’t be the only time I see people queue for a pub I’m sure. It’s just like those that scurry for online beer releases the moment it goes on sale. It is only for certain breweries with certain beers. It is the same ones doing the rounds on Facebook forums. There’s no frenzy for beers that aren’t universally praised, just like there seems little desire to drink in establishments that don’t have some form of bucket list status behind them.

(For what it’s worth, if we’d gone all the way to Huddersfield specifically to visit the MR tap for whatever reason, we’d probably have joined the queue, but when we found a similar line running out of the door at the Wild Beer Co bar in Bristol the other week, we walked.)


The Crynes on a beer festival balcony.
The Crynes at the GBBF in the 1980s.

For Craft Beer London, the website that accompanies the book and very useful smartphone app of the same name, Will Hawkes trailed the London Drinker Festival with a profile of two key figures in the British beer scene, Christine Cryne and her husband John:

‘We’ve had hate mail!’ says Christine. ‘Some stalwarts think having keykeg is the sell-out of sell-outs.’ She doesn’t seem overly concerned. ‘For me it’s about also being commercial. We need to make this beer festival a success. Young people don’t distinguish between real ale and non-real ale – for them it’s all craft. That’s what we’re doing here: for people who aren’t into real ale, we want to encourage them to try it. If we don’t do that, how will we get those youngsters in in the first place?’


The Shades, Hartlepool, closed and boarded.
A closed and boarded pub in Hartlepool.

An interesting nugget from Tandleman: looking back over his considerable archive he found mention of a pub that was doomed in 2009 and wondered what had become of it since. (It would be an interesting project to look back at a whole lot of stories like this and see how often they have a similar punchline.)


Text from a bottle of Harvey's Imperial Stout: A Le Coq.

You might not have the stomach for the in-depth details of his family tree that follow but the headline in this story about Albert Le Coq by Martyn Cornell is a killer for beer history nerds:

Le Coq is remembered as a 19th century exporter of Imperial stout from London to St Petersburg, whose firm eventually took over a brewery in what is now Tartu, in Estonia to brew Imperial stout on what was then Russian soil. The brewery is still going, it took back the name A Le Coq in the 1990s, and an Imperial stout bearing its brand has been brewed since 1999, though by Harvey’s of Lewes, in Sussex, not in Estonia. But every reference to the company founder, Albert Le Coq, apart from in the official history of the Tartu brewery – which is almost completely in Estonian – says he was a Belgian. He wasn’t.


A bit of brewery closure news from the US: two Californian outfits have folded in the past week, San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers and Orange County’s Valiant Brewing.


And, finally, amongst the flood of cheering, inspiring images and stories that accompanied International Women’s Day on Wednesday this 1908 cartoon stood out:

(You can see the original at the US Library of Congress website.)

Magical Mystery Pour 23: Magic Rock Salty Kiss + Special Guest Star

The penultimate beer of a set chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is an old favourite: Magic Rock’s take on the salty, sour native beer style of Saxony.

We’ve drunk this beer many, many times, and have written about it often, including in our short and short-lived columnette in the Guardian Guide back in 2015. Nonetheless, we were very happy to give it fresh consideration, especially as we had a twist in mind.

People have been telling us to try Westbrook Gose (South Carolina, USA) for ages but despite its being theoretically widely available in the UK we’ve only ever seen it accompanied by the words OUT OF STOCK. But this time luck was on our side and we managed to nab a single can at £4.90 for 330ml from Honest Brew.

Which leads us to a first point of comparison: Salty Kiss cost £1.99 per 330ml can from the same source, which means Westbrook Gose has to be more than twice as good — stratospherically brilliant, in fact — to justify its asking price.

We drank both side by side. They looked remarkably similar in the glass — hazy gold, soft peaks — but the Westbrook gave off a more obvious sour smell, like a lemon in the compost bin.

The head on a glass of Salty Kiss.

Salty Kiss is made with gooseberries but does not taste of them, is not green, and will not strike you as all that weird if you’ve ever had a Fentiman’s lemonade. If any fruit comes to mind, it’s strawberries, but maybe that’s because of the design of the can, like a grown-up version of that experiment from Home Economics lessons at school where banana-flavoured milk dyed pink so easily fools the palate. Gose’s eyebrow-raising headline ingredient is salt but we don’t really taste it, perhaps because it is in balance with beginner-level sourness. Nor do we particularly latch on to any coriander, which presumably means its been used with the light touch 21st Century craft brewers (def 2) are so often chided for lacking. Our impression this time, as always, is that this is a classy, well-constructed beer that closely resembles the beers currently sold as Gose in Leipzig and around, only with a bit more punch, which is why it’s on the A Team.

Our first impressions of Westbrook Gose were of a much greater sourness. If Salty Kiss is Victorian pop, then this is some kind of sports drink designed to be chugged from a plastic bottle under the Friday Night Lights. The sourness is of a particular type: a sweaty, cheesecake funk; milk left too long in the sun. The obligatory fruit comparison: peaches. It clings to the tongue like peach tin syrup, too. There’s a line beyond which this kind of thing ceases to taste much like beer and, from our perspective, this beer is on the wrong side. Which is not to say we didn’t enjoy it — there is something moreish about it, and it’s not insanely sour or anything. If you always Go Large when the option is presented then, of the two, this might be the Gose for you.

Going back to Salty Kiss after the Westbrook Gose was a revelation. It was almost a different beer — lighter, fresher, hoppier, its pale ale DNA suddenly rampant. Different and, yes, better. Amazingly great. We’re still in love.

Magical Mystery Pour #14: Magic Rock Inhaler + Special Guest

This fourth round of Magical Mystery Pour was chosen for us by David Bishop, AKA @broadfordbrewer, AKA Beer Doodles (@beerdoodles), and kicks off with a new beer from Magic Rock.

In case you’ve missed the previous instalments Magical Mystery Pour is where we ask someone else to select a few beers which we then buy with our own money. The idea is to broaden our horizons and get ourselves out of a rut we may or may not have been in. (We admit nothing.)

Most of the beers David chose for us are from Yorkshire and he suggested we order them from Leeds-based retailer Beer Ritz, which we did. Inhaler (4.5%) was £2.66 per 330ml can and David says:

It’s new to the Magic Rock range and one that fits the bill for a post-bike-ride beer. Refreshing, juicy, session beer…. packaged for portability, or something.

The can, like almost all craft beer cans, is very pretty and tactile. Magic Rock beers initially followed the BrewDog colour-coding system — green for pale ale, blue for IPA, red for amber, pink for prawn cocktail and so on. This one is a luxurious black and red which made us expect cherries and chocolate until we read the label: JUICY PALE ALE.

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What Happened to the United Craft Brewers?

United Craft Brewers logo.

United Craft Brewers (UCB) launched in the UK last year and seemed to be a pretty big deal, but has since fizzled out. How come?

Having written about it at some length last summer, and being nosy, we approached one of the founder members, Richard Burhouse of Magic Rock.

Our impression from various interactions over the years — we’ve never met him — is that he’s a relatively straightforward person not prone to spin and we thought we might rely on him to give us a fairly direct answer.

Here’s what we got from a short phone call.

*

So, what happened?

Like I said when we agreed to speak, there’s not a lot to say. I’m conscious of… I don’t want to criticise any individuals.

The main issue was not being able to come to a definition. I thought we were making progress but it sort of slipped away. It kept falling down on technicalities, like, what happens if you’ve outside influences and investors. What percentage? Etcetera. It was all very nebulous, hard to pin down.

Continue reading “What Happened to the United Craft Brewers?”