Monday 21 December 2015

Translating Big Craft

As the KLF said in 1987, "What The Fuck Is Going On?".

I saw ABInBev's two recent acquisitions described as a rampage on Facebook - it's hardly a rampage, but it is significant. And it's also unlikely to be the end of it - more acquisitions (or mergers, if you prefer) will come, that's for sure. But what's really going on here?

Much has been made of the big players suddenly realising that they have been left behind, but left behind in what sense? Craft beer has finally become cool, but the big brewers don't care about that. They genuinely have no desire for craft beer credibility, what they want is to somehow revive their falling market share and hard pressed margins.

It's true that the more craft breweries that are acquired by the big players, the less route to market there is for anyone else. There is only a finite (and shrinking) amount of bar space, and no matter how many craft bars open, the linear mileage of bar top is shrinking, getting more crowded.

It's also true that, historically, great beers have been ruined by accountants gradually cutting corners, reducing the quality of the ingredients, dropping %abv to pay less duty but not passing the saving on - all tiny things that gradually add up to royally bastardise a once great beer. Ask Pete Brown about Stella Artois. I'm not so sure that this is the particular tactic with this round of acquisitions, and we'll return to why shortly.

I also made a throwaway comment on the back of the Ballast Point acquisition that (a) they'd overpaid massively (recouping in 30 years or so at current size) and following on from that (b) how's everyone's hop contracts looking? Because the thing is, Ballast Point aren't going to remain static, they are going to grow hugely. Maybe the quality will stay the same, maybe it won't - that's not the issue right now. Ballast Point - and Goose Island, and Camden, and whoever else gets hovered up - will grow massively, and will need lots of hops to do that. Lots of hops grown expensively under license, that will only get more expensive, even as more acreage is planted.

Ironically, this could be the thing that sees Big Craft prosper. Big Craft wants to acquire small breweries with big ideas, big reputations and crucially, big margins. I'm guessing that a tipping point has been reached in the boardrooms where no more savings can be made, products cannot be squeezed any further to reveal greater margins. One of my mantras as a retailer was don't cut costs, add value. If people can taste that a product is superior, they will happily pay more for it. Sure, in global terms, that's a niche market, but that's where the growth is, and that's what Big Craft is all about.

So my prediction is that breweries aren't being bought up to be dumbed down, run down and closed down, but are genuinely being bought to grow and produce flavourful craft beer on an industrial scale. Sure, there will be a monopoly created as Big Craft takes up more of the available bar space, and swallows up all the hops that little craft needs. But Big Craft is storming the barricades and launching a counter-attack on the revolution.

And what do we think about that?

Sunday 13 December 2015

Golden Pints 2015

So, once more into the list, dear friends. Having made the list below, I thought I'd check back on last year's, and perhaps predictably, not a lot has changed. This means I'm either a lot more set in my ways than I thought, or that things aren't going to get a lot better. I suspect that my exposure to new beer is a lot less than it has been in previous years, due mainly to not getting out as much, and being deluged by new breweries wanting listings has conversely made me try less new beer rather than more.

We already handle a good slice what I consider to be the top tier of UK brewing via Beer Paradise and BeerRitz, but having re-read my nominations for this year, I was surprised to see I'd missed a few breweries from the list. Tempest Brewery, for example - their Brave New World and Face With No Name are two amazing hoppy beers that are unlike anything else brewed in the UK, tipping their hats more towards "classic" American IPAs. Buxton Brewery have a solid core range and them smash it out of the park with amazing specials - Double Axe most notably. Beavertown's expansion this year hasn't been plain sailing, but they've kept the beer flowing and growing like perhaps no other, under the expert guidance of Jenn Merrick. And god knows what Arbor Ales have started putting in their beers, but sales of them have picked up spectacularly of late.

Anyway, the list. It's perhaps a little conservative, even predictable, but as I say above, I think that speaks more about my desire for reliable beer rather than a desire to try new things that might be more hit and miss. Maybe that says more about the state of the industry this year.

Best UK Cask Beer: I'm always delighted to see Roosters cask beers on a bar, and would still wade through a freezing river to get to a pint of Magic Rock High Wire.

Best UK Bottled Beer: What have I drunk most of this year? Probably various Kernel pale ales and IPAs, and Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake

Best UK Canned Beer: What have I drunk most of this year? Brewdog Dead Pony Club, Roosters Yankee, various Vocation, and Wild Beer Bibble, with Magic Rock appearing too late in the year to win on volume grounds, but Cannonball wins. Because, Cannonball.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Loving that Tilquin. Really enjoyed Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter, for a slightly weird innovation in processing, although I couldn't quite shake the idea that I was drinking something slightly artificial. Mind you, that Pliny is all dextrose and isomerised hop extract, you know?

Best Overseas Canned Beer: I canned some Tilquin Geuze at IndyMan. That was pretty great, for a whole host of reasons. I resisted skulling it on the train home, for reasons that are still unclear. Although now I think about it, it was probably because I was drunk already.

Best Collaboration Brew: the Centennial Amarillo IPA I brewed at The Kernel last month was pretty enjoyable.

Best Overall Beer: out of those listed above, the beer that I've found most satisfying, and have laid in stocks of, is Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake.

Best Branding: the Magic Rock cans are pretty epic, aren't they? And although the Vocation cans are all labelled, their branding is particularly arresting, to my eye at least.

Best Pump Clip: To Ol have given up making pump clips. The Kernel send out self-adhesive bottle labels. I like both those approaches.

Best UK Brewery: it's got to be one of those mentioned above. Or maybe Arbor Ales, who seem to have really hit their stride this year. Man, these questions are hard!

Best Overseas Brewery: Loving Tilquin, although I guess they're not strictly a brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2015: Vocation

Pub/Bar of the Year: can't chose between Friends of Ham or Bundobust. I think this year I've eaten more in Bundo, but drank more in Fram.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015: Magic Rock Tap, obviously. Game changer.

Beer Festival of the Year: I only managed to get to IndyMan

Supermarket of the Year: the Morrisons round the corner. They've got Duvel for two quid a pop.

Independent Retailer of the Year: It's BeerRitzLeeds, of course

Online Retailer of the Year: It's BeerRitzByMail, of course

Best Beer Book or Magazine: I still haven't read the Steven Beaumont book I got sent, and I'd like to read Jeff Alworth's book. In summary: no idea.

Best Beer Blog or Website: Stonch's cage-rattling is always fun

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: TheBeerNut or BroadfordBrewer