Monday, 14 September 2015

Stone Brewing Co To Lengthen "Enjoy By" Dates

It's been a big week for beer. Not only has Lagunitas made that announcement, but over at Stone Brewing Co, Greg Koch announced that he is to step down as CEO of the company (link here, with a hat tip to Stan), but just today I received this email from the UK importer of Stone's beers:

"We also can confirm that Stone have agreed to extend their dates on their beer from their original 90 days to 270 days! They’re incredibly happy with how the beer is performing over time and with our refrigerated shipping, and now have the confidence to extend this into an export market that needs slightly more shelf-life."

Which is great news, as it means that we can now enjoy Stone's beers fresher for longer, right?

I mean, it's not like anyone took any notice of the dates, is it?

Or should this comment now haunt us forever?

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Craft Creep

Craft creep. It's a scourge. The c-word has been hijacked by clowns, hucksters, chancers, opportunists. Some actually care, but can't get right. Some can get it right, but don't really care. Some can't get it right, but don't care. The good ones get it right because they care.

It all started when I tried to buy beer from a continental European craft brewery. As a diligent importer, we pay duty on imported beers at the appropriate rate. If a brewer falls under the UK ProgreSsive Beer Duty rate, then duty is paid at the lower rate "Can you send me your volume certification notice?" I asked "I don't even know what that is" came the reply. "We don't have a brewery, we cuckoo brew at a few places. Just think of us as a wholesaler". A quick squint at Ratebeer confirmed this, but it was news to me. And they didn't have any beer to sell. Did I want to order off a production schedule? Err, not right now, I need to place orders with breweries who actually have beer to sell, who have committed themselves to a course, not just speculatively dipped their toes in.

An email from Brewdog (edit for disambiguation: to mail-order consumers, via their website - edited 14.04 13/08/15): "Stone Clearance Offer: We are offering a selection of awesome Stone beers at, or nearing their Enjoy By date (90 days old). These beers are all still absolutely amazing, but as they have hit, or are close to their Enjoy By dates, we are selling them at these rock bottom prices". Err, hang on, when Beer-Ritz Leeds knocked out a few bottles of on-date Stone beers a couple of years back, and mentioned it on Twitter, we got a personal tweet from Stone Greg saying that if we were selling his beers in anything less than perfect condition, he would see to it personally that we wouldn't get any more (I can't find that damn tweet anywhere, but it happened)[EDIT 14/08/15- this was a Twitter DM to Ghost Drinker, who runs the shop - see below].

Endless emails from new breweries who are contract brewing, or cuckoo brewing, or who haven't even brewed a beer yet, but would like to have a meeting and talk about distribution, or potential distribution, although no, they haven't got anything brewed yet. Can nobody commit to actually fronting the money, buying the requisite stainless, and let their beers do the talking? Or will they just continue to let their talking be the beers?

"Cans are the future of craft beer". Yes, done right but again, you need to pony up and buy the best tech you can afford. Commit to it, realise that you are on the bottom of the 10,000 hour learning curve, and you need to be in it for the long haul.

Craft beer. It's beyond me why people insist that it's not a marketing term. It's only use is as a marketing term, but until it is invested with some sort of meaning, then it will continue to be used to spoof the unwary. The founders of United Craft Brewers have a tough act ahead of them. Their job is to stop craft creep, to try and reduce the bullshit, and to act with commitment and integrity. Looking at the people who founded UCB, I genuinely think that there are enough various vested interests to make it a success. There's no shame in acknowledging that (as I've said before), the beer business is about beer, and it's about business, and these are equally important words. They key thing that needs to be clung to is that this is a business consortium, promoting the interests of businesses that are built on such old-fashioned virtues as consistency, commitment and quality. It's not a free-for-all arty-farty-disco-party, it's not devil-horns awesome, it's about knowing your shit, knowing what CIP means (and having the kit to do it), understanding the value of the 10,000 hour rule.

Stamp out craft creep.

Monday, 9 March 2015

"Mikkeller's Big Book of Beer" by Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Pernille Pang

You can say what you like about Mikkeller, but damn, that is one successful brand. The beers are great, albeit with a few conceptual mishaps along the way. This book is similar, in that overall it's quite inspiring, but not without a few niggles.

There are the usual potted histories of beer, both ancient and modern, with a surprising (to me, anyway) hat-tip to the formation of CAMRA being a key point, as well the familiar story of the roots of American craft brewing. A big portion of the book is given over to a whistle-stop tour of the world's classic beers styles, along with a couple of Mikkeller beers that sit within that style, along with a couple of other examples. It's fair to say that most of the beers mentioned in the book are at the geekier end the spectrum, but equally there are mentions of Pilsner Urqell, Hoegaarden and Guinness as style exemplars.

There's a bit about ingredients, a bit about the brewing process, and then a load of recipes for homebrew versions of some of the beers the book. And not just the obvious Mikkeller beers - All Other Pale, Jackie Brown - but some of the trickier beers too - Beer Geek Bacon, anyone? A nice bonus is the inclusion of non-Mikkeller recipes - Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, Kernel Imperial Brown Stout, De Molen Hemel & Aarde will no doubt have brew kettles boiling everywhere.

Sure, there are a few howlers. Popular beer myths are retold. Almost every page had something that made me scurry off and check facts or assertions. In the homebrewing section, oxygenation is referred to as oxidation, which I'm assuming is just a remarkably unfortunate mistranslation. And no matter how many times I read this section on sour ales (exemplar: Rodenbach Grand Cru), I couldn't tell if was a deft linguistic game of logic, or just something that never got edited properly:

"As its name implies, a sour ale tastes sour like a lambic but, unlike a lambic, it is fermented with a traditional ale yeast and only then does get a mix of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast added. Unlike sour ales, wild ales are not necessarily sour. A subcategory of sour ales is wild ales, which are often paler and have Brettanomyces added. Unlike sour ales, wild ales are not necessarily sour"

Er, OK, let's just get to the summary, shall we?

This book is beer porn, a fetished, partial view of the beer world from one of its most successful niche operators. But equally, it's hard to know who this book is for. Beer historians and home-brewers may well wince at parts of it, but I guess it's not meant as a reference book or a how-to manual. It's the story and summary of an obsessed amateur's transition to an obsessed professional. Mikkeller have undoubtedly produced some amazing beers, and will continue to do so, albeit in the rarified upper strata of the beer world. It's Mikkel's view of the world of beer, and given his success, who am I to criticise?

Saturday, 7 February 2015

On Local Beer (And A Sudden Recant)

It was something I read over at Stan's blog that has had me thinking about local beer for months.The fundamental question that I kept coming back to was simple: what is local beer? It's a question that has spawned several long-lasting threads in my mind.

At one level, local beer is local beer. It's beer that is produced and consumed within a tight geographical locality. There are obvious geograhical constrraints to beer that is unique to, or celebrated as being from, a particular locality. Cantillon and Brussels, Schlenkerla and Bamberg. But that reply is too trite, too obvious - that means that all beer is local beer, and just by starting a brewery and brewing beer, you are making local beer. So that's obviously not quite right. And the extension of this is that if you become a successful brewery, and sell your beer nationally, or internationally, does that make you less of a local brewery, making less local beer? Is reach a factor in local beer?

So maybe it's more to do with engagement? So this takes the initial theory about local beer being just what it says on the tin, and adds how the community around the brewery engages with the beer, or conversely, how the brewery engages with the local community. So local beer isn't just about the beer, but it's how the brewery has been adopted by the people around it. Is engagement another thing to consider when talking about local beer?

That got me to thinking about other things that might have a local aspect. So football (that's soccer to my American readers) is something that over the last 50 years has moved from being a local phenomenon - geographically tight followers supporting a team made up of (relatively) local players - to a much more dispersed fanbase supporting a team with a much more geographically disparate membership. Can the same be said for beer? And can that beer be considered local?

Well, on the first count, I think it can. I cut my drinking teeth at a time when the beer business was largely simple and transparent (in relative terms). I drank at the Wyndham Arms in Salisbury when the Hop Back Brewery was in the back yard. The brewery eventually moved 10 miles down the road, but it's still a brewery making its own beer. But the beer business isn't like that any more. Start-ups now look to the export market as part of their business plan. It isn't even necessary to have a brewery to be a successful brewery - there are many globally celebrated "cuckoo" brands, and still more breweries who contract when capacity is exceeded. And that's all fine by me. You pays your money and takes your choice.

And are those international beer brands local? Well, this is where it gets messy, because what constitutes local has changed massively. In the relatively new world of the internet and social media (20 years old tops, and more like 10 years if you view Facebook as a key factor), you find communities that are geographically dispersed, but still hugely engaged with certain brands. And this operates across all sectors, from macro, to craft-macro (say Sierra Nevada) to craft-niche (say Mikkeller and Evil Twin). While these communities aren't geographically tightly located, they have their homes online, and essentially function as a locally engaged community.

Which brings us to the surprising conclusion that local beer is alive and well, but it means a variety of different things to a variety of different people, because the meaning of local has been changed by technology.

At least, that's what I thought until I saw it written down just now. But when I read the last bit back, it sounded like so much nonsense that I'm not so sure any more. So does a beer have to have genuine, geographically local support before it can be called local beer? Or is it less local the more widely that engagement is dispersed?

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Golden Pints 2014

If only to move that repulsive photo from the top of the blog, I thought I'd post my Golden Pints 2014. As a general caveat, please be aware that (a) I don't get out much, and so drink the vast majority of beer bottled, at home, and (b) I make my living buying and selling much of the beer I'm about to praise.

Best UK Cask Beer: the cask beer that I've enjoyed most consistently this year has been served in Tapped Leeds. They serve their cask beer under air pressure (I think), and slightly cooler than most places. If I had to pick one beer, the pint of Wild Beer Co Bibble I drank at Tapped during the Wild Beer Meet The Brewer was memorable, even if I did have a cold when I drank it.

Best UK Keg Beer: Magic Rock Cannonball gets my money every time

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer: the day-old Magic Rock Cannonball that we had at the first BeerRitz Meet The Brewer was certainly notable. This year I've bought more beer for personal consumption from The Kernel, with their Mosaic IPA being a particular high point. In fact, at one point I found myself scouring the internet to see if I could buy more when it ran out, something I rarely do these days. The Siren Craft Brew "Discount" (cedar-aged single hop IPA) series were all pretty outrageous, with Middle Finger Discount (Mosaic hops again - there's a theme developing here) being my favourite of the three.

Best Overseas Draught: it seems as though my palate has finally matured as I really enjoyed drinking draught Cantillon at Borefts Beer Festival this year.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: having failed to track down a can of Heady Topper in Amsterdam this year, and not having had access to a lot of really fresh American imports that seem to appear on Twitter regularly, I'd have to go for Tilquin Oude Geuze

Best Collaboration Brew: pretty much all of the Siren Craft Brew collabs have been amazing, with Middle Finger Discount being the best for me. Their head brewer Ryan Witter-Merithew also deserves a medal for the Rainbow Project, which this year looks set to be absolutely stunning. And Buxton Brewery are also doing some amazing things too.

Best Overall Beer: Magic Rock Cannonball. World-class IPA, brewed locally, served fresh.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label: Siren/Stillwater When The Light Gose Out is about the coolest bottle of beer I think I've ever seen.

Best UK Brewery: I love The Kernel for their consistency and purity of purpose, Magic Rock for their sheer world-beating class, and Siren for their restless innovation.

Best Overseas Brewery: I haven't drunk widely enough this year to have an opinion on this. I guess Tilquin by default, although of course, they are blenders rather than brewers.

Best New Brewery Opening 2014: pass.

Pub/Bar of the Year: Friends of Ham, for having the courage to move forward and expand when it would have been easy to stay the same

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2014: Bundobust. Craft beer, amazing food.

Best beer and food pairing: anything at Bundobust

Beer Festival of the Year: I only went to Borefts

Supermarket of the Year: Sainsbury's recently ran a promotion on Duvel which meant it was cheaper than buying it through the usual wholesale channels. That was quite good.

Independent Retailer of the Year: BeerRitz Leeds

Online Retailer of the Year: I concur with Boak and Bailey -

Best Beer Book or Magazine: pass [edit: I'm an idiot -  Brew Britannia was excellent, sorry Ray and Jessica]

Best Beer Blog or Website: all of the ones on my blogroll, with preference to Boak and Bailey and The Beer Nut. Although this post by Adrian Tierney-Jones moves me every time I read it.

Best Beer App: don't use any, so pass

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: Chris Hall is pretty good value

Best Brewery Website/Social media: pass. I'm starting to think I don't really understand social media.....

Thursday, 11 December 2014

What's Wrong With This Picture? Pub Toilet of the Year, The Horseshoes, Newmarket.

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) will know that I'm prone to flights of fancy and diversion from the subject of beer from time to time. In fact, over the past year this blog has sort of gone to rack and ruin, partly by virtue of me having nothing interesting left to say, and partly by me having less and less free time.

However, this moved me to write on so many levels. On one hand, the picture of the toilets in The Horseshoes, Newmarket, sent me into such a rage that I nearly didn't know where to start. I'd concede that the urinals might just about be classed as kitsch, some sort of Dutch (sorry Holland) pop art version of an Ernie Cefalu piece filtered through the banal postmodernism of Jeff Koons' mind - but only just. Your mileage may vary on that, and I can understand why.

However, what is that that thing in front of the sink? A pair of spread-legged female buttocks? Where to start with that. Not only did some 21st century grown-up designer conceive of this as being a good idea, but equally, someone saw it in a catalogue and thought "yeah, the big lip urinals are OK, but the splayed female buttocks are really going to give this refurb the edge." Yes, it's edgy, as in edgy and uncomfortable.

And then there's the text. First of all, the use of the word "strident" to describe any female colleague who has had the temerity to raise an objection to this cultural Chernobyl. Why is it that any woman with an opinion is referred to as "strident"? Oh yeah, it's because men hate a dissenting female voice. Why not go the whole hog and say "shrill", or "annoying"?

And what about "it's in the gents so they shouldn't see it anyway"? Yes, that's right, this is what men want in their toilets - some time spent away from the strident opinions of women, urinating into open mouths (I still think they are Dutch kitsch (sorry Holland)), before a quick handwash while bumping and grinding against a presented pair of female fiberglass buttocks (I wonder if they have a heater in them to make them more inviting?). Err, no, it's not OK to have this in the gents, away from the prying eyes and strident opinions of women because you know what? Not only is this offensive to women, it's also offensive to men. That bent-over fiberglass arse, placed for a comedy grind while you wash you hands (maybe it's to try and encourage men to wash their hands?) debases us all as human beings. It's not going to bring a smile to my face this Christmas, and I don't want to be friends with anyone who thinks it's funny.

In short, this whole thing is a fucking disgrace. The toilets are a disgrace, the article is a disgrace, the misogyny is a disgrace, and I think we all deserve better.

Link to original article

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Craft Beer in a Post-Craft World

A pair of blog posts over at Jeff Alworth's Beervana (here and here) has roused me from current torpor with a few observations. In fact, this started as a comment on the blog, but quickly spiralled out of control.

The first thought is that although there is a big difference in the legislation between the UK and US markets (see here for a summary of the US three tier system. In the UK, this doesn't exist), it seems as though in practice it doesn't make any difference. So when Jeff writes "But having an invisible layer in between the producer and retailer also offers an opportunity for hard-to-stop corruption", the important word in that sentence is "opportunity". In practice, this doesn't happen, it just adds another layer of sweeteners and kickbacks.

The big problem is that whenever anyone writes about the beer business, the tend to focus on the "sexy" bit - the beer - at the expense of the "dull" bit - the business. These two, as we've seen from Dann Paquette's accusations, are inseparable. You can make great beer, as in my opinion Pretty Things do, but if you can't get it to drinkers, why bother?

But this isn't anything new. In conversation with Garrett Oliver in (I think) 2007, he listed a few bars in New York who would call the Brooklyn Brewery regularly and say that they had a line available if the brewery wanted to let them have a few free kegs. Garrett's response when asked "What have you got for us?" was always "Great beer at a fair price". But if anyone thinks this sort of integrity will carry on as the number of craft breweries continues to rise, in the UK, the US and worldwide, think again. Have a look at what Sam Calagione says here. Anecdotally, every small brewer in the UK has a story about being undercut by another brewer offering cheaper beer of lesser quality, or worse still, being told by landlords and beer buyers that quality is less important than price.

You can expect a lot more of this as we move into the post-craft era. Uh-oh, there's a buzz-phrase that's going to annoy a few people. But heads up, because here's some bigger news. Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. I know, that's quite a rash prediction, but the beer business is going to stop being about beer, and become more about business.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. That doesn't sound very sexy, does it? It will get more consistent, more reliable, but ultimately, the technology of craft beer - focusing on quality and flavour without cutting corners to maximise profits -  has reached endgame. There is nowhere else to go. What this means is that craft beer will have to focus on the dull business of making great, reliable beer, giving people what they want every time. In short, they will become big brands, go mainstream, and flood the country - the world! - with great tasting, flavourful beer, free of production flaws, tasting the same every time you buy it. This is exactly what the top tier of UK craft beer producers has done - build a brand built around consistency and great tasting beer. Once the beer is good enough, you have to focus on the business end of things. Price. Distribution. Brand-building.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. It will be cleaner, more consistent, more reliable, less of a lottery. You might not like it, but Punk IPA will become the craft beer movement's Carling - a best seller, reliable, widely available, and reasonable priced. It's already happened. We all screamed "Judas!" when Punk IPA appeared in Tesco, but Bob Dylan's response to being called Judas was to simply say "I don't believe you, you're a liar" before telling his band to "Play it fucking loud!", and never looking back.

For earlier discussions of post-craft beer, please see Boak and Bailey, Pete Brown, The Pub Curmudgeon, and Justin Mason. They all (in the nicest possible way) focus on the sexy beer bit rather than the dull business bit.