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.

Marston’s Old Empire IPA

Marston's Old Empire IPA.Ever top­i­cal, a mere ten years after its first release, hav­ing men­tioned it yes­ter­day, we final­ly got round to try­ing Marston’s Old Empire with our review­ing hats on.

Before we talk about the taste, there are a few prej­u­dices on our part we ought to ‘fess up.

  1. It’s in a clear glass bot­tle. Though some brew­ers have rolled their eyes at us for bang­ing on about this, we’ve had over­whelm­ing­ly bad expe­ri­ences with beer from mar­ket­ing-led pack­ag­ing of this type, and, despite choos­ing a bot­tle from the shad­ows at the back of the shelf, went in expect­ing ‘skunk­ing’.
  2. The mar­ket­ing schtick is full of dodgy his­to­ry and the recipe is a com­pro­mise. On the one hand, it repeats the myth that it’s not a ‘real’ IPA if it’s not strong and aro­mat­i­cal­ly hop­py; and then, on the oth­er, the brew­ers admit­ted at the time of launch that they’d made it weak­er than the ‘real’ IPAs it was sup­posed to mim­ic for com­mer­cial rea­sons, and used Cas­cade hops because they were hip in 2003.
  3. Marston’s? Meh. We’ve only had one Marston’s beer that’s real­ly excit­ed us in recent years, and that was prob­a­bly a fluke. They’re sim­ply not, on the whole, ter­ri­bly char­ac­ter­ful.

First impres­sions were bad, and the unmis­take­able whiff of light-strike made the first mouth­fuls hard going. After some efforts to pin down what specif­i­cal­ly it remind­ed us of, the answer proved to be pret­ty obvi­ous: Coro­na lager. We were close to giv­ing up a third of a way in but, then, some­thing began to hap­pen that stopped us in our tracks.

By the ‘eck,” we man­aged to mut­ter with puck­ered mouths, “it’s bloody bit­ter!” With each gulp, the back of our throats became dri­er. The beer, at 5.7% ABV, isn’t weak, but every spot of sug­ari­ness has been fer­ment­ed out, leav­ing it rather thin and aus­tere, bring­ing to mind some­thing like the famous­ly bit­ter Jev­er Pils from the north of Ger­many. Is that what slugs feel like when they have salt poured on them?

As we got used to the skunk­i­ness and began to zone it out, a few sub­tleties of flavour and aro­ma emerged, too: med­i­c­i­nal throat lozenges (hon­ey, lemon, gin­ger?); net­tles or bit­ter herbs; and, per­haps wrapped up with that seri­ous bit­ter­ness, some­thing like cold Earl Grey tea.

Over­all, we were left feel­ing that what could be a clas­sic is being let down by shod­dy pack­ag­ing. The IPA they brew for Sains­bury’s is stronger (5.9%) and comes in a grown-up brown bot­tle, so we’d prob­a­bly rec­om­mend that over Old Empire.