News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 December 2017: SIBA, Spitfire, Shaving Foam

There’s everything in beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week from the ethics of milk production to fake restaurants.

Let’s get actual news out of the way before we get into the fun stuff. First, as has rumoured for a while, Norwich’s Redwell Brewery has been struggling and formally went into administration on Monday last. But — good news for those facing redundancy in the run up to Christmas — it has now been acquired by a group of saviour investors. Doug Faulkner at the Eastern Daily Press broke the story here.

SIBA, the body that represents (some) small brewers (with increasing controversy) has acquired a majority stake in cask ale distribution company Flying Firkin. This further muddies the waters around SIBA’s role — isn’t it these days a primarily commercial operation in competition with its own members? Their responses to that and other questions are here, in a PDF.(Via the Brewers Journal.)

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) will have a new national chair from April next year as the forthright Colin Valentine hands over control to Jackie Parker, the current vice-chair. (Via Beer Today.)


Detail from the poster for the 2017 Pigs Ear festival.

Also sort of news, we guess: Rebecca Pate has dedicated herself to reviewing  beer festivals and events this year and her notes on the East London CAMRA Pig’s Ear festival are just about still topical as it runs until 23:00 tonight: “[As] a showcase of a huge amount of excellent and interesting cask beers, Pigs Ear demonstrated that cask events can achieve a great atmosphere with limited fuss, provided that the beer selection is worthwhile.”

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Plum Porter: Dividing Opinion

A plum.

We were a bit excited to come across Titanic Plum Porter in the pub last night, a beer many people worship and others despise.

We can’t say we’ve drunk it often enough to form a really solid view on how it is meant to be but have always enjoyed it. The first time we recall encountering it (that is, when we were paying attention) was at the Castle Hotel in Manchester where it struck us a heavy, rich porter with a fruity twist. At the Wellington in Bristol it seemed lighter in both colour and body and more like a British answer to a Belgian kriek or framboise — tart, and dominated by the hot crumble flavours of bruised fruit. Even at five quid a pint (yikes!) we had to stop for a second round.

When we Tweeted about it, acknowledging what we understood to be its mixed reputation, here’s some of what people said in response:

  • “When it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Consistency seems dubious.” — @olliedearn
  • “WHAT?! In what world is it divide opinion? Everyone I know loves it.” — @Jon_BOA
  • “My bete noire, was always dubious about it (even though I love other Titanic brews) – perhaps I need to revisit…” — @beertoday
  • “Having lived in Stoke + covered the Potteries beer scene I’d say it’s a good advert (flagship, I dare say!) for local beers, despite flaws.” — @LiamapBarnes

So, pretty balanced, from Ugh! to Wow!

Over the years we’ve seen yet harsher comments, though, some of which struck us as more about Titanic’s place on the scene than about this beer in particular. In general, we find Titanic’s beer rather middling — not bad, not great — but it is nonetheless a major presence in the Midlands and North West, and on supermarket shelves nationwide, and ubiquity breeds contempt. For some time, too, its owner Keith Bott was chairman of increasingly controversial industry body SIBA, so perhaps the beer tastes a bit of politics, the nastiest off-flavour of all.

This made us think about other beers that strike us as fundamentally decent but whose reputations might be similarly weighed down. Copper Dragon Golden Pippin, for example, is a beer we’ve always enjoyed — good value, straightforward, but with a bit more peachy zing than some others in the same category. When we expressed this enthusiasm a while ago, though, there seemed to be a suggestion that we shouldn’t enjoy it because the brewery has engaged in some complicated and newsworthy business practices.

And St Austell Tribute is a beer we’ll always stick up for. At the Nags Head in Walthamstow c.2009 we drank tons of it and found it every bit as good as, almost interchangeable with, the exemplary Timothy Taylor Landlord sold in the same pub. (Further reading: ‘The Landlord Test’.) But these days, even though Tribute is probably  better than its ever been in technical terms, it elicits groans from many enthusiasts. That’s because it’s become one of those beers you find in pubs that aren’t very interested in beer, pushed into the wrong bits of the country by keen sales teams and big distribution deals; and on trains, in hotel bars, under random rocks you pick up deep in the woods, and so on. That in-your-face national presence is not only annoying in its own right but also makes it harder to find a pint that has truly been cared for. But, as a beer, on its own terms… It can still taste great, and interesting with it.

The flipside of all this, of course, is that some mediocre or even bad beers get a free pass because the people that make them are good eggs, or underdogs, or have a good story to tell; or because they’re scarce, so that nobody ever really gets to know them, and is too excited when they do find them in the wild to be objectively critical.

It’s impossible to be objective, obviously, but it’s good to try — to attempt to blank out everything else and have a moment where it’s just you and the beer.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 21 January 2017: Bucharest, SIBA, Tasting Beer

This week we have been reading various bits of what may or may not be clickbait, notes on beers from Romania and Norway, and ponderings on the nature of taste. There’s also been some less sexy but nonetheless important industry news.

For the Guardian Victoria Coren-Mitchell expressed a seldom-heard point of view: pubs are terrible and beer is disgusting. This caused some irritation either because the very idea struck people as offensive, or because they perceived it as a deliberate attempt to bait beer- and pub-lovers for the sake of driving traffic. We were just interested to find put into words (with humorous intent, by the way) how a lot of people must feel:

People really love the pub. I say people. I mean my husband. Nothing makes my husband happier than settling down in the corner of some reeky-carpeted local boozing house for a good old sit. Maybe a chat. And, obviously, a beer. A sit and a chat and a beer. Beer and a chat and a sit. Sit, chat, beer. Chat, sit, beer. Sit, sit, beer beer, chat chat chat, sit sit sit… And nothing else is happening! It’s a different matter if you’re having some lunch or playing a pub quiz; that makes sense. I’m happy if there are board games or a pool table… But just sitting there, doing nothing, just slurping away at a beer and waiting for the occasional outbreak of chat: this is the pastime of choice for literally millions of people!


Beer O'Clock, Bucharest.

The Beer Nut has been on holiday again, this time in Bucharest, Romania, and has done his usual thorough job of tracking down all the beer of note from supermarket lagers to brewpub IPAs:

[The] other Hop Hooligans IPA, by the name of Shock Therapy… looks the same as the beer next to it, except for that handsome mane of pure white foam. It doesn’t smell fruity, though; it smells funky: part dank, part old socks. That’s how it tastes too, with a kind of cheesiness that I don’t think is caused by old hops. When I look up the varieties I discover that Waimea and Rakau are the guilty parties, and I’m not surprised. I’ve picked up an unpleasant funk from those high-end Kiwi hops before

Part 1: Craft Beer
Part 2: Big Indies/Contract Brewers
Part 3: Mainstream Brands

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SIBA Says This is Craft Beer

AIBCB logo.

While we were away SIBA announced a new certification scheme for British craft breweries – that is, a stamp of approval: ‘SIBA says this is Craft’. Having had chance now to get our heads round it a bit, here are some quick thoughts.

1. Our gut reactions to this are just on the positive side of neutral. Yes, it’s partly about SIBA attempting to seize control of the story and shore up its own status, which has seemed shaky in recent years, but they’re not doing anything evil, or that someone else (CAMRA, for example) couldn’t have done if they’d been bothered; and there are distinct benefits for both retailers and consumers.

2. As with the failed United Craft Brewers project, though, a lot will depend on whether anyone actually signs up. Many brewers who are, by almost any definition, ‘craft’ will not be able to afford the fee for accreditation. Others, meanwhile, have beef with SIBA over, for example, their middle-man wholesaler role. If a situation arises where certain outlets are inaccessible to breweries — we can imagine big pub/bar chains agreeing to sell only SIBA accredited craft, for example – then, yes, some holdouts might feel compelled to join, but others would feel even more resentful. SIBA will want to avoid the perception that it’s a way of bullying people to join.

Thornbridge, 2013.

3. SIBA’s definition of ‘craft’ is as valid as any other. We’ve long said that we’re quite happy with multiple overlapping definitions, and with working definitions designed for particular contexts. As it is SIBA’s definition…

* ‘Has agreed to abide by SIBA’s Manual of Good Brewing Practice’
* ‘Is truly independent of any larger controlling brewing interest’
* And brewing no more than 200,000hl per year.

…chimes very substantially with our own fairly broad Definition 1. That is, it allows for many traditional British brewers specialising in cask and isn’t just about the hip post-2005 keg-friendly scene. (Definition 2, same link.)

For confused licensees and retailers keen to do the right thing this may well be helpful, even if all they do is use SIBA’s definition, or react against it, to inform their buying decisions.

4. The flipside of the problem of some small brewers feeling financially excluded is that for once, the biggest multi-national brewers, however much money they have, cannot buy their way in. Independence and smallness are both blunt measures of ‘craft’-ness but they are something, and one that someone who doesn’t think about the politics of beer 24-7 might stand a chance of getting their head round. In fact, one of the best things about SIBA’s definition is that it reflects what the public think ‘craft’ means based on market research rather than attempting to dictate it to them:

46% of beer drinkers, by far the biggest group, regard craft beer as ‘made by small brewers rather than large corporations’, although one in ten beer drinkers are unsure what the term means. 35% regard craft breweries as ‘artisanal’ with 22% associating the term with ‘small’ and 14% with ‘local’.

5. It certainly moves the conversation forward – one that has been stuck in a loop since about 2009 – and, most importantly from our selfish perspective, gives us a solid answer to the question, ‘What is craft beer exactly?’ Being able to say, ‘Well, SIBA defines it as…’ will be much easier than the rambling and inconclusive lecture we’re currently obliged to give, and far more helpful than a baffled shrug.