Friday, 31 December 2010

The Golden Pints & 2010 Reviewed

Despite running one of the best beer shops in the UK, I don't really write about retailing a lot. The reason for this is that I want to be seen as a beer writer rather than beer retailer. That might make me sound insecure about the trophies on the sideboard, but that's why I rarely mention Beer-Ritz on here.

But being so close to the action brings you some fantastic insights into the beer market. I thought I might share some of these observations, based on what people have been buying at the shop. This isn't necessarily meant to be extrapolated to the beer-drinking populace as a whole, but there are some interesting trends apparent.

British beer is on the up: this year, people bought more British beer than ever before, particularly at Christmas, when they were buying presents for others. And I don't mean just from the usual suspects (BrewDog, Marble, Thornbridge - although they sell very well), but also generically as a category, from Hook Norton Old Hooky to Ilkley Mary Jane. I think that this signals a turning point for British beer, and people are finally realising that it is simultaneously a great national and also a local product.

Belgian beer is on the wane: fifteen years ago, Belgian beer (and I'm talking all across the board, from Leffe to Trappist to Palm to De Dolle) was new and relatively undiscovered. Five years ago, interested peaked, and today, it's a declining sector. There are certain niches that defy this trend, but overall, there isn't any growth left in Belgian beer in the UK.

American beer is on the verge of going stellar: Sierra Nevada have doubled the volume of imports into the UK each year for the last four years. People like American 'craft' beer because it is largely tasty and uncomplicated. I'm not talking Lost Abbey, I'm talking Odells, Flying Dog, Brooklyn et al. American craft brewing is also showing its most profound influence yet on British brewing.

My Golden Pints for 2010

Best UK Draught Beer - Roosters Nectar
Best UK Bottled Beer - Kernel Citra IPA
Best Overseas Draught Beer - Dogfish Head / Birra del Borgo My Antonia
Best Overseas Bottled Beer - Surly Furious (canned)
Best Overall Beer - Surly Furious
Best Pumpclip or Label - any of Johanna Bashford's BrewDog labels (although Kernel's no-design aesthetics are superb too)
Best UK Brewery - Kernel
Best Overseas Brewery - Sierra Nevada still do a wider range of things better than so many other breweries
Pub/Bar of the Year - The Grove, Hudderfield
Beer Festival of the Year - GBBF
Supermarket of the Year - Waitrose
Independent Retailer of the Year - modesty forbids
Online Retailer of the Year - modesty forbids
Best Beer Book or Magazine - anything by Adrian Tierney-Jones
Best Beer Blog or Website - Stuart Howe's 'Brewing Reality'
Best Beer Twitterer - @simonhjohnson
Best Brewery Online - BrewDog
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year - pigeon crostini and Worthington White Shied
In 2011 I’d Most Like To - get another book commissioned and brew more beer
Biggest Red Herring - the "keg revolution" and confusing modes of dispense with styles of beer


  1. People are starting to realise that Belgian beer is just a rationalisation of the use of filthy yeast and poor brewing technique.

  2. Interesting point about Belgian Beer, Zak. Hadn't really thought about it, but I reckon you're spot on. When I think of your shop layout in my head, it sort of illustrates it (wether intentional or not!). And yes, that Citra IPA was wonderful.

  3. Good choice of Pub! ;) Can't really argue with any of the other choices either, especially My Antonia. I adore that beer.

    I wonder if the fact that sales of Belgian beer are decreasing are because of those other 2 points. British beer is becoming more and more varied and interesting, whilst the US beers are a whole new to the majority of drinkers. The Belgians have a lot more competition on and behind the bars, and on the shop shelves of Britain now.

  4. So dose this mean a smaller amount of Belgian beers and a larger US setion in Beer Ritz?

    I guess I agree, but after visiting HopDuvel beer warehouse in Ghent Belgian beer still seemed rather exciting. De Struise are a still shining stars, there are loads of tiny micros but they aren't that easy to find over here.

    You could draw the same comparison with Germany?

  5. I'm with Leigh, good point about Belgian beer.
    I do really love Belgian beers, but I think here in Italy we're stuck to the equation Belgian=good.

  6. I think part of the problem (if it is a problem) with the Belgian beer scene to date has been the relative lack of new micros and the very belated discovery of hops. Things are changing though and there are some fantastic new beers being made there now - everyone talks about Struise and to a lesser extent Alvinne, but to my mind the real stars of the show are the likes of De Ranke and De la Senne as well as beer firms like Viven and Het Alternatief (these and others make, to my mind, consistently better beers than Struise and Alvinne).

    The lambic scene is also moving ahead Cantillon are becoming more experimental, producers like Timmermans have produced exceptional new produces and this year we have a brand new gueuze blender (Guezerie Tilquin) coming on stream.

    Howveer, if you really want a beer scene "to watch" then look north from Belgium to the Netherlands. The micro scene there, still under the formidable shadow of De Molen and still at times dogged by quailty issues, has some real rising stars - Emelisse, De Schans, De Eem and Ramses are four that spring immediately to mind.

  7. Interesting! I wonder what we'll be saying in three years time... The breweries that JC mentions are certainly interesting and they could perk up Belgian beer again? Or maybe people are happy enough drinking US brewed dubbels and spicy British blondes?

  8. Barm - I think that also there are more great options now than a decade ago - or actually, maybe that's part of the same argument.

    Leigh, Rob, Brian - I think it reflects a synergy between the British and US brewing scenes. I think that the British range at Beer-Ritz is going to expand a bit, and we'll continue to add as much good quality beer as we can, wherever it comes from. Of course, having Vertical Drinks a couple of miles away helps!

  9. John - I think you've obliquely pointed to the reason that Belgium may be losing popularity - they do a certain thing very well, but the frontier for new brewing is definitely on the other side of the Atlantic. Belgian beer has a slightly old-fashioned feel to it now. There's no question that when Michael Jackson 'discovered' it, people were fascinated, but there hasn't been anything to sustain that interest. Some might argue (myself included) that this is a good thing, and it would be a shame if things changed too much. There's always the odd release of Duvel Triple Hop and Chouffe Dobbelen Tripel IPA to keeps things interesting, though. And as interesting as Cantillon and Tilquin may be, they are never going to make a significant difference. That said, it will still be a serious destination for beer-lovers.

    Mark - I like to think that there is enough talent in the UK to make it as diverse as consumers can cope with. Real ale has been saved and is thriving, more people are more interested than ever before in good, tasty beer. As long as progressive beer duty gives small breweries a leg-up, I don't see why we won't see more characterful breweries and even brewpubs springing up.

  10. It seems to me that the Belgians are now suffering the same fate that befell French recently in the wine trade.

    A truly massive old school heritage matched with a refusal to recognise the successes of the 'new wave' - the embracing of which is inhibited by that very heritage itself.

    Call it the Trappist Trap.

  11. THG - of course, the paradox there is that the French producers who have modernised and produced the styles of wine that win Robert Parker points have had scorn heaped on them for betraying what was originally the thing that made them great. As you say, they are hidebound by tradition - and long may that continue

  12. Zak,

    Good points. It is interesting that the brewers in the Netherlands and to a lesser extent in Belgium itself, that are making the most waves, and the most interesting beer, are those who have eschewed the "Belgian tradition" - you know, setting for a tripel, a dubbel, a blond etc - and instead have absorbed more global (for which read ultimately USA) influences.

  13. John - indeed. For me, nobody in the world makes session beer like we do in the UK, and that is still the key draw of UK brewing. The Americans have profoundly misunderstood the notion of what session beer is, but if they ever start producing 4% abv beers designed to be sunk in a social setting, that will be a real eye-opener. Of course, no-one will import them - I think people still want to get a decent bang for their buck with any fancy beer, hence perhaps why Belgium and the Netherlands have a few iconic breweries - they have a history of strong beer, and have adopted modern brewing techniques (for which read 'American hopping schedules')

  14. Zak - yes, session beer is very much our speciality. When Marble took cask Pint across to the Borefts Bier Festival* last September most of the European beer geeks there were amazed that a beer of such modest strength could have such taste and character. I got the impression it was a real eye opener for some of them.

    *Will you be along this year? - I get the impression that more UK blogers and beer fans will be going this time. Marble will be back again and I believe Thornbridge may be there, too.

  15. John - Borefts sounds amazing, and I'd love to go, although from this far out it's hard to tell if I'll make it.

  16. Belgian beer certainly has a tired look in the U.K. But that’s the fault of the British not the Belgians. Pubs advertise ‘a range of Belgian beer’ but what that usually means is Chimay, Duvel and a few fruit beers. No Struise, Alvinne, De Dolle or Jandrenouille.

    I was at the Kerstbier festival in Essen (Belgium) just before Christmas and couldn’t imagine drinking better beer than I found there or in the bars of Brussels and Antwerp. Of course, U.S. craft beer is now the Emperor’s New Clothes. My opinion is that some is excellent but that some praise is over the top.

  17. Zak, would you care to expand on this comment for us Yanks who don't understand the British scene except through the blogs?

    American craft brewing is also showing its most profound influence yet on British brewing.

  18. I understand al your vieuws on Belgium beers but you only know the commercial beers, like Struise. Nowhere in the world you can find a variety of beers like in Belgium. There's a Belgian beer specially made for every man, woman or child in this world.

    It's not your fault that you don't know them because there are indeed some very hard too find. There are a lot of brewers who just like to brew good beer instead of making money so you won't find them abroad.

    But saying Belgian beer is on the wane might be a good reason to plan a visite to Belgium so you can taste yourself instead of reading about it.

  19. Birkonian, Anonymous - I can't disagree with what you are saying, and I will be the first to admit that perhaps I need to revisit Belgium in a big way. But I'm only reporting the trends that I've observed. Perhaps I should say "interest in Belgian beer is on the wane"?

    Jeff - I'll happily make some sweeping generalisations and open that can of worms! I think that over the last decade, British brewing has been influenced by the American use of hops. Put simply, this amounts to using more of them and using them later in the boil, giving big, overt hop flavours and aromas. Some breweries (most notably BrewDog) are brewing what amounts to (very tasty) copies of American craft beers. Others have managed to meld British and American traditions, and produced low %abv beers (4%abv and below) that have big hop characters without sacrificing drinkability / sessionability - for example, Oakham JHB, Fyne Ales Jarl, Marble Pint, Roosters YPA (and the list can go on and on and on). Equally, there are a few breweries breaking away from the tradional strengths of British ale, and making beers in the 5-7%abv that have all the drinkability of English ales, but the bold characters of American craft beers. Given that most British drinkers are still allied to the idea that beer is best drunk in pints, this can be a disastrous combinatin - but the beers themselves are sublime. Let the debate commence.

  20. Zak,

    Arrived here by way of Beervana, great website.

    I see that you mentioned Birra Del Borgo in your best of. Care to share a UK perspective on Italian brewing? I keep hearing that Italy is one of the fastest growing markets for both craft beer and craft breweries, and that they are heavily influenced by the American, British and Belgian styles. People seem to really like Birra Del Borgo, Baladin and Montegioco, but little of it makes it here to the states.


  21. Could it be that the relative lack of new imports of Belgian beer is contributing to this reduction in interest? It seems to me every time I look there are new American imports (to be expected at this stage I guess) to try but Belgian beer lists have a very familiar feel now.

    Without being outright tickers, a lot of beer fans want to try the "new thing." There is a certain excitement to trying a new beer and there aren't many chances to do this with Belgian beer at the moment (in Britain) in my experience.

    Off topic: When is Borefts beer festival this year?

  22. Kevin - welcome and thanks for the kind words. I spent a few days in Rome earlier this year (if you search for Rome in the search box, top left, you'll find the posts). The number of Italian 'craft' breweries has increased tenfold in five years. The beers have generally been well-received in the UK, but perhaps what speaks loudest is that the importer who was bringing in Birra del Borgo, Baladin and Amarcord has just delisted them. Lots of interested, but not enough sales to make it viable. Personally, I think that the suggestions by blogger Knut Albert that 'Italy is the new California' is true, but the Italians are producing a much wider range of styles, drawing on English, American and Belgian traditions to do so.

    John - ironically, a lot of the more interesting one-offs and special bottlings from Belgium seem to go straight to the US these days. And yes, the question I hear very frequently at the shop is "What's New?". Not sure about Borefts - late September, I'd guess.

  23. Answering to the question - What's new in Belgium - this site follows every development in Belgium on a daily base:

    Next month (hopefully) it will be interactive. We're testrunning now.



Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.