News, nuggets and longreads 23 May 2020: Marston’s, Duration, Urquell

Here’s a round-up of beer-related news, commentary and history from the past week, from Carlsberg to classified information.

The week’s big news was the announcement of a ‘joint venture’ between multinational giant Carlsberg and the UK’s largest independent brewery, Marston’s. The new company, Carlsberg Marston’s, is 60% owned by Carlsberg and does not include Marston’s estate of 1,400 pubs. Carlsberg now owns, to all intents and purposes, not only the Marston’s brand but also Brakspear, Ringwood, Banks’s and others.


Martyn Cornell informs us that yesterday was the 299th anniversary of the first known mention of porter in print:

The passing mention came in a pamphlet dated Wednesday May 22 1721 and written by the then-23-year-old Whig satirist and polemicist Nicholas Amhurst (1697-1742). Amhurst implied that porter was a poor person’s drink, writing that “Whigs … think even poverty much preferable to bondage; had rather dine at a cook’s shop upon beef, cabbage, and porter, than tug at an oar, or rot in a dark stinking dungeon.”… The fact that Amhurst (who is buried in Twickenham, less than a mile and a half from where I am writing this) felt no need to explain what porter was suggests it would have been a familiar word to his audience, even if no one had ever put it into print before.

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 May 2017: Hops, The Heatons, Homogoneity

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from South African hops (again) to Peter Pan.

Last week the chat in the beerosphere was dominated by AB-InBev’s control over the supply of apparently coveted (who knew?) South African hops. This week Lucy Corne, who literally wrote the book on South African craft beer, gives a different perspective for All About Beer:

What every article has overlooked is that while American brewers, for now at least, can’t get their hands on South African hops, there are microbreweries that can—in South Africa. The country now boasts almost 200 microbreweries, a number that has increased from just 50 in 2013… While some brewers utilize imported ingredients, many rely heavily on SAB—and now A-B InBev—for both malt and hops. The question of ingredients was of particular concern to South African microbrewers when the takeover was in progress last year, but their fears were somewhat assuaged by a clause in the agreement stating that ‘the Merged Entity shall continue to supply hops that are currently supplied by SABMiller to Small Beer Producers on the same terms and conditions as currently offered by SABMiller or otherwise on reasonable commercial terms.’

(Disclosure: we sometimes write for All About Beer too.)


The Beershop (shop frontage)

Jim at Beers Manchester highlights what looks like a fun crawl of micropubs that happen to be near each other in ‘the heatons’ (Heaton Moor and Heaton Chapel) in the suburbs of Stockport, Greater Manchester:

The message? Yes. Manchester is a truly fabulous place to go drinking. But a short train journey from Piccadilly – and a little gentle walking – can take you on a fabulous beer journey. To four special and individually superb bars and pubs… But put them together? I’m still smiling.


Charles Wells brewery.
Marston’s Gets Bigger

On Thursday the large family brewery Charles Wells of Bedfordshire announced that it had sold its beer brands and brewing operation to Marston’s:

The Bedford brewery site is the home of leading ale brands Bombardier, Courage, and McEwan’s and the sale also includes the UK distribution rights for Kirin Lager, Estrella Damm, Erdinger and Founders and the exclusive global license of the Young’s brand. In addition, Cockburn & Campbell, the wine merchants, will also transfer. Charlie Wells and John Bull beers will remain part of Charles Wells Ltd. Employees at the brewery in production, national sales, and brands marketing will transfer to Marston’s.

You might not care for Marston’s or Charles Wells beers but this seems to have been a genuine surprise for most industry observers and sees Marston’s go from BIG to HUGE. The list of brands it now controls — it already has Banks, Brakspear, Jennings, Thwaites and Wychwood — brings to mind the days of the Big Six in their acquisitive pomp. By our reckoning, something like a third to a half of the beers in your local supermarket premium bottled ale range could now be Marston’s owned. The same probably goes for the range of cask ales on the average high street. Astonishing.


A can of Stone Brewing beer.
No More Patience with Peter Pan?

We’re going to finish with a series of interconnected posts. First there’s Stan Hieronymus’s review of a book, Untapped: exploring the cultural dimensions of craft beer:

Hate your job? Become a brewer. This is an example of why J. Nikol Beckham writes in a new collection of essays that ‘the microbrew revolution’s success can be understood in part as the result of a mystique cultivated around a group of men who were ambitious and resourceful enough to ‘get paid to play’ and to capitalize upon the productive consumption of fans/customers who enthusiastically invested in this vision.’ The title of this fourth chapter… is a mouthful: ‘Entrepreneurial Leisure and the Microbrew Revolution: The Neoliberal Origins of the Craft Beer Movement.’ Not surprisingly, there’s a considerable amount to define and discover en route to Beckham’s conclusion.

That, and Alan McLeod’s comment on the same piece about Peter Pan syndrome (expanded upon here) made us think of a piece from a day earlier by Jeff Alworth: ‘Remember When Stone Was Cool?’ He says:

Now every brewery claims to be edgy and different. To be against big beer is required as an article of authenticity. The notion that breweries must be different and unique has been internalized. Every brewery press release emphasizes how ‘innovative’ they are (a claim now so distant from actual beer one hardly knows what it means). And just as it happened in rock and roll, once everyone’s a punk, no one is — which brings us back to Stone… Stone emerged as a revolutionary force. The problem is, once you’ve deposed the king, what comes next?

When we read all of these pieces together, we heard the sound of a dustbin-lid-sized penny dropping: something has changed, underdogs aren’t anymore, and the reason we’re rather bored of reading brewery profile pieces (and so rarely include them here) is that they’re so often the same stories about the same kind of people going through the same journey.

On a lighter note, but dancing around the same point, there’s this from Pilot — a brewery which also happens to toss out rather sharp commentary — which says an awful lot with great economy:

This post was scheduled late on Thursday. If anything broke on Friday we probably missed it. Sorry.

Why Do People Care About the Marston’s Rebrand?

Marston's rebranded beer range.
SOURCE: Marston’s, via the Morning Advertiser. Yes, we’re sick of this image too.

Marston’s announced a major rebrand yesterday and it seems to have made lots of people, on both sides in the culture war we’re apparently having these days, a bit irritated.

Traditionalists like the Pub Curmudgeon are annoyed at the apparent pandering to the youth market — what’s wrong with appealing to middle-aged and older people? Isn’t their money good enough any more?

Others are dismayed by the lack of respect for history and heritage: Pedigree, a brand invented in the 1950s, is a classic in its own way, so why pretend it was conceived in the 21st Century? (Note: they tried the retro look in 2012.) Why give Oyster Stout, one of the Marston’s beers that is better-loved among beer geeks, a would-be trendy name when the old one was quirky and interesting enough? And what’s with calling Pedigree ‘amber ale’ all of a sudden — is ‘bitter’ a dirty word now?

On a somewhat related note, colonial booze historian Dr Sam Goodman quietly rolled his eyes at the laziness of the new design for Old Empire IPA:

For our part, we instinctively felt it a misstep and, after a bit of chat over the porridge, decided that the problem was the potential confusion and disappointment for consumers. Someone who isn’t an expert but is vaguely interested in trying a beer similar to BrewDog’s might casually pick these up at the supermarket only to be let down by the contents. You might trick a consumer into buying once with misleading packaging (what we’ve previously called craftsploitation) but it doesn’t win repeat custom.(Note: we haven’t tried the new pale ale and maybe it really is a super-hoppy and bitter session IPA.) Meanwhile, those who prefer old-school beer are likely to give these a miss, or (see above) feel that their custom is not wanted.

Among those more soundly in the ‘craft’ camp the reaction was sharp. For starters, the design just isn’t as cool as its creators think it is, as Charlie ‘The Crafty Beeress’ Worthington confirmed when she asked a graphic designer pal what they made of the new branding: ‘I think the boat has sailed on all that distressed looking type stuff that BrewDog were doing 7 years ago.’ In desperately seeking relevance they’ve somehow made themselves less relevant.

Others were insulted by the suggestion that people who make a point of buying and drinking craft beer are actually just idiots buying labels who can be duped with a wave of the brand manager’s wand. For what it’s worth, we don’t think they’re actually after craft beer drinkers, though — just people who might be vaguely aware of the idea and don’t like ‘old man’ beers. Which, of course, leads to a sense that this is just a crass attempt at co-opting a thriving culture by an organisation that, as Richard Coldwell observes, is a modern equivalent of Whitbread or Watney’s in their 1970s pomp.

So, that’s everyone annoyed, for different reasons. Probably not the intended result.

The funny thing is, beneath all the hoo-ha about the clumsy re-brand, there is actually something interesting going on: Pedigree is now bottle-conditioned. That’s a material change that might — let’s even say will probably — improve the quality of the product. It’s certainly not something they had to do and, we suspect, is a deep-level gesture to beer geeks, and especially to CAMRA members. We’ll give it a go when we get the chance and report back.

A Surprise Infatuation

We didn’t expect to like this beer but, blimey, we really do.

We found it on our local Wetherspoon, The Tremenheere, where we go a couple of times a month in search of something a bit interesting. Quite often we end up turning round and walking out, unexcited by the choice of Abbot, Doom Bar or Ruddles. We nearly did that this time but something told us to stop and give Jenning’s Sneck Lifter a try.

They’re not a cool brewery, Jenning’s, not least because they’re part of the Marston’s empire these days. We’ve always found their bottled beers a bit dull and the cask — most often Cumberland Ale — fine without being thrilling.

Perhaps it was the fact that we felt sorry for them having been flooded but more likely it was the realisation that, despite having it mentally filed under ‘usual suspects’, we couldn’t remember actually having tried Sneck Lifter from cask. We’ve heard the name, of course, and we think we’ve had it in bottles, when it barely registered, but, no, we’re pretty sure never cask-conditioned.

It’s hard to say, really, why it excited us. Something about it suggested those Fuller’s Past Masters beers so, to a certain extent, it’s that it tastes antique — like a pint of mild that’s made it across the gulf of time from before World War I. (The brewery pitches it as a ‘winter warmer’ but it could just as easily be branded ‘strong mild’.)

More specific tasting notes feel a bit redundant because, really — it’s just a satisfying beer — but we’ll try.

It’s strong by British standards at 5.1% ABV, and fairly dark — so red it’s almost black, from certain angles. It’s easy-going but rich, in the same territory as Adnam’s Broadside. That is to say, plummy, raisiny and rich without being full-on luxurious. It’s sweet in a way that feels nourishing but before it has chance to become sickly, a countering dry bitterness starts to build up in the mouth: it is balanced in the sense of having flavours tugging two ways rather than as a synonym for bland.

What we’re saying, we suppose, is that if you see Sneck Lifter on cask, you should give it a go, even if you’re a Jenning’s/Marston’s sceptic.

Supermarket ‘Craft Lagers’

Lager written on a pub window.

At least in terms of the number of brands available, we are currently spoiled for choice when it comes to ‘craft lager’ in supermarkets.

London brewery Fuller’s have been trying to launch a successful lager for decades. An early effort, K2, back in the 1980s, was a flop, but Frontier (4.5% ABV) seems to be achieving considerable success, at least if the sheer amount we saw being consumed on a recent trip to London is anything to go by. It might be benefiting from the fact that its stylish packaging rather implies that a trendy new brewery called Frontier is behind it, the Fuller’s name being all but hidden in tiny lettering.

Fuller's Frontier Craft Lager.Thought we’ve found the draught version perfectly fine if uninspiring, the bottles we tried hovered between just-about-drinkable and downright unpleasant. We would have liked some fruitiness, some sulphur, some Continental hop character, or some bread dough in the aroma, but got only a vague whiff of cream crackers. It seemed stale and ‘cardboardy’, with a throat-lozenge honey character where we wanted crispness. A victim, perhaps, of harsh treatment in the supermarket distribution network?

Marston's Revisionist Craft Lager.Marston’s Revisionist lager didn’t fare much better. We both suspected that, had we tasted it blind, we would have easily identified its brewery of origin. In fact, packaging aside, there wasn’t much to distinguish this from any number of standard ‘golden ales’. At first, we enjoyed its delicate elderflower and peach notes, but it finished badly, with staleness and stickiness building until the last mouthfuls were an effort. Though very cheap in Tesco (not much more than £1 a bottle), we can’t say it was good value.

We’re happy to see British brewers producing more lager, but, in general, they need to clean it up, jazz it up, or ideally both.

If you really want to pick up a UK-brewed ‘craft lager’ with your weekly shop, we haven’t found one more enjoyable than the now pretty solid St Austell Korev. If you don’t insist on a British product, Pilsner Urquell is still the best of the readily-available big brands in terms of taste, while Czech-brewed ‘own-brands’ continue to represent a bit of a bargain.