Summer, wheat and Senf

I’ve been meaning to write more about wheat beers for some time – probably over a year in fact.  It’s a beer style which I find the most intriguing and always seems to be throwing up surprises. Lambic, for example, is a wheat beer – in fact, probably the most wheaty wheat, with a soupy, gelatinous mashy concoction from unmodified wheat and barley. Then there’s the other Belgian wheats, the fire lit by the revival of Hoegaarden and now a style full of momentum and innovative flair. I have fond memories of the banana and spice packed Korenwolf of Gulpen (over the border in Dutch Limburg) which I’ve written about before, as well as US styles, a personal favourite from Cigar City Brewing, Florida Cracker, which we drank in the swimming pool overlooking the sand bars and Keys on the Gulf Coast; and even *dare I say* a zesty, orangey Blue Moon straight from the sampling valve of the maturation tank in the Sandlot brewery under Coors’ Field. If they could sell that version of Blue Moon in the UK, I’d die happy.

Anyway, I had been intending to write about wheat beers and I had intended to do it right.  I selected the ones I wanted, ordered them online, even cooled and stored them properly for once – not too cold – as is my wont. But then..but then… John came round and rather than making tasting notes, we just drank our way through them one by one, animatedly pouring them from a height into wine glasses for a profuse, billowy head – ripe like September peaches with aromas of cloves, grass, allspice – as intoxicating as the smell of warm rain on a sultry late afternoon walk. We mixed in a couple of Double IPAs too; put the World to rights and burnt pistachio shells on the chiminea simply to watch them flare like fireflies under a dark Summer sky.

In truth though, it is still worth putting pen to paper, for there is something eminently sociable about wheat beer – I don’t know; there’s something less macho than ‘pints’; something less blokey than ale or ‘lager’. Perhaps it’s this overhang I have, having drunk wheat beers in Bavaria so often. Vine and bine clad beer gardens spring to mind; wood smoke; the smell of lightly charred würst, crackling and spitting with hot fat, dense rye bread – the caraway always evoking the Middle East and bazaars for me – to soak it all up and that mustard, that vinegary, spicy, tangy yet lashingly wolfable Senf. That Senf, that doesn’t just show off the sausages but amplifies the beer too in a mutual and cyclical love-in. Forget beer and peanuts; forget beer and pizza even – this is the combination of Summer; this is the Last Supper meal request.

Because my first wheat beer love is definitely a Bavarian Mädchen, not a Belgian liefje. There is elegance in the simplicity of Bavarian wheats; no adjuncts; no concoctions of dried fruits and spicing. The complexity is in the simplicity: the yeast driving the tang; the wheat producing the dryness; the hops, what hops there are, that diaphanous veil of floral aroma. It’s a sublime blend. And a versatile one too; it’s a beer style I’ve always found equally appealing to men and women; to younger drinkers perhaps seeking voluminous refreshment, to older drinkers on a quest for taste reward. And it’s a beer style – pure of heart look away – that also takes to adding twists; a quick cut of lemon perhaps, or even poured over soft red fruit.  Yes, there’s more to the elegant simplicity of wheat beers; there’s a backbone of steel too.

SchneiderI do remember the first one John and I tucked into. It was from Schneider Weisse, their ‘Tap 7’, ‘Unser Original’. If all you’ve ever experienced is an Erdinger -pleasant enough but always rather thin, I feel, then this beer will create some Sturm und Drang. It is an assault of nature: full on spice (cinnamon? apple?) and cut hay and new baked bread. And it’s dark; not dark like chocolate, but dark like stained oak; the natural sediment and yeast the stippled bark, the deep, long lasting head the froth of its Spring and Summer leaf. It is a complex beer; resonant and multi-layered; it is beer that demands a second sip. It too, is a Last Supper meal request. And there was a Weihenstephaner in there too – again, the classic Hefe Weissbier – and possibly more like the style you’d picture – a zippy, luminous golden colour, a bright white head, a restrained intricacy; but again, there is the layered depth – the quenching initial bitterness; giving way to a rounded, clovey, coating mouthfeel and a slightly tart linger.

All of which got me wondering why there’s no dedicated British wheat beer brewery – something relatively common in Bavaria. Perhaps it’s just familiarity; do we still see haziness as an off character? Are these wheat beers too surprising, challenging perhaps?  But that was only a fleeting thought; I soon moved on to wondering why barbecue smoke always drifts towards you no matter where you sit, and why pistachio shells flare like fireflies under a dark Summer sky.

Sparking clogs

We used to drive into Manchester past Maine Road (Manchester City’s old ground), through Moss Side and the always-steaming Royal Brewery of Scottish & Newcastle; then skirt past Whalley Range to the top of Deansgate just as the arced roof of GMEX came into view, or swerve a tighter left to Old Trafford, like Ryan Giggs cutting in from the wing. Moss Side remains my first impression of Manchester, a city which, despite years living in the Midlands now, still feels ‘mine’. But boy, what an impression: the street fronts then, as most are today, were Victorian terraces – strong, red, Ruabon brick, glossy but tarnished, clothed by plastic shop facades of a range of implausible businesses, 48 sheet poster hoardings and spray-paint tags. Behind was the urban ‘improvement’: low rise local authority dwellings where once were the back-to-backs; low-rise, red or blue flags fluttering depending on your allegiance, set off on battleship grey and cream concrete. Not far north of here is the city centre; back in the ’80s the blooming was only just beginning and this area was tough, rough and uneasy on the eye.

And Manchester’s beer weren’t that easy on the throat back then either.  I’ll be honest, whenever I drive home, I see my first Robinson’s pub (The Lawton Arms usually) and there’s a pang of ‘I’m home‘. But I never got on with their beer.  There was Boddington’s of course, Boddies, which had mythical status growing up – pale, strong, smooth, hardy somehow, brewed up next to the prison, it somehow erred on the boundaries of good and evil.  Then Whitbread got hold of it and turned it into a confection, a very successful one for a few years I grant you, what with all the ‘Cream of‘ and Blue Tits and Wafer Cones and that, but a confection nonetheless; a confection that today it is reaping the rewards from. It’s largely gone (unless you’re in a Whitbread owned Premier Inn, well known for their beer range) and it’s mythical presence is lost forever.  And there was Hydes, but they were confined to their own pubs so were off my radar. And that was it; my mental landscape: Manchester, rich, industrious, ambitious in all but beer.

It would be trite to say it’s changing – there are so many craft breweries now that even many villages have one – what am I saying? There’s one on top of a Moor – but there are Manchester beers that now have that ‘edge’ just as the city has in industry, in architecture, in music, in media, in sport.  So many in fact, that I worry – a worry that I know many don’t share – but I worry about how these breweries can survive in an environment where we are drinking less in general, drinking less beer in turn and where the big boys are waking up to the threat and the opportunity posed by craft.  The key of course, even if your exit strategy is to sell up, is to create a brand, and a brand built off beer that is superbly brewed and truly different.

That’s what Cloudwater are doing.  A tongue-in-cheek riff on Manchester’s rep for precipitation, the rainy season is at the heart of the brand – although every time I’ve been up recently it’s been unseasonably warm and bright.  Cloudwater are up round the back of Piccalilli Station and they’re brewing seasonal beers – seasonality in fact, is at the heart of what makes them different. Perhaps it’s the stories of queues round the block for Russian River’s ‘Pliny the Elder‘ that drew them to it; or perhaps it’s just a philosophy of ‘we’ll sell what we brew’ – a philosophy that takes you away from having to worry about the economies of brewing to a tight ‘product specification’ band, worrying more about brewing efficiently and consistently rather than the taste, a skill in itself (and a skill the big boys are better at than many craft players). That neck of the woods, Ancoats, is Lowry territory of course, and there are more than hints of it today. Victorian factories lying dormant or repurposed; narrow streets, still lain to setts or tarmaced over, the setts peeping through down the edges or where wear and tear has scuffed off the surface. From improbable nooks and crannies, buddleia springs out with its attendant insect life as if to warn that if we don’t reclaim the buildings, they will.

Cloudwater DIPA v3 2It’s this ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ word of mouth that seems to be fuelling Cloudwater’s burgeoning reputation.  Their Double IPA v3 (DIPA v3) has a menacing, grasping hand jumping out as a greeting: it sports bittering hop in abundance and then four aroma hops Citra, Chinook, Comet and  Mosaic, a blend of east coast, west coast and the Pacific all raining down in Manchester. With the addition of brewing sugar, this beer is a whopper and it seems to cover every dimension of IPAdom: piney and tangy, like you’re shoes scuffing up pine needles in a forest; grassy and dry, with the aromas of newly mown lawns in Spring and that spiciness, both I think, from the prodigious hopping and the yeast strain. I drank it whilst reading the paper (at 9% ABV, I should say whilst I could read the paper – it got a little blurry after a while, but that could be age) and the ever-so off white head lasted and lasted as only the real cream of Manchester could.

Cloudwater Dark LagerI was actually more impressed though with their Dark Lager from their winter range. A more modest 5.5% ABV, but actually a ‘dark’ ‘lager’, i.e. it was dark from the more roasted proportion of the malt, but it’s many stratifications of flavours, its layers attested to good lagering. This wasn’t a mild ale that’s been laid-low for a week more and masquerades as ‘lager’. This had that rounded smoothness, that matured and assured depth of character where no single element overwhelms – and – and this is important, it is drinkable, sessionable, call it what you will.  A lager in name, with the character of a refined ale. And there is something of the Lowry about these beers; seemingly simple – from the labels, to the styles – but underneath it is beguilingly complex and fulfilling. A fitting revitalisation to a part of Manchester that has been under a raincloud for many years.

Revitalisation

This week The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) announced their ‘Revitalisation Project’, called ‘Shaping The Future’. The subtext describes it as a review of their purpose, focus and strategy and has been brought about by the raft of changes and issues that have occurred since the consumer group founded in 1971.

Issues such as scope and purpose: should CAMRA be about real ale only, good beer, real ale, cider and perry or any number of potential combinations and additions? How widely should CAMRA campaign and on what issues?

Issues such as their frame of reference: should CAMRA be about beer drinkers, all alcohol drinkers, pub goers or frankly anyone with an interest? And should CAMRA focus on the on trade, with challenges around declining and closing pubs, often in rural communities and / or should it focus more on the increase in drinking in home?

Issues such as the changing nature of socialisation. In their data, they claim that there could be more coffee shops 10 years from now than pubs, and many of these coffee shops could be serving beer (and unlikely, you imagine, to be serving real ale, cider or perry).

Issues such as governmental pressure: actually it only gets a brief mention, but when you have the Chief Medical Officer and anti-alcohol pressure groups both making (many have argued, deeply spurious) claims about what constitutes a healthy level of alcohol consumption, then whether you’re Big Beer or craft beer, you need to consider your response.

The review needs to be root and branch. The issues are existential, or, at least, they are fundamental to what CAMRA is all about.

CAMRAPossibly the biggest issue, wide ranging in scope and for some pernicious in nature is rooted in the rise of craft beers that came about following the introduction of Small Brewer Duty Relief in 2002. A brief background: the increase in the number of breweries was something to be celebrated by CAMRA, they played a pivotal role in the policy and there’s no doubt that the increase in small breweries went hand in hand with the increase in number of cask beers available, not just because of our brewing and drinking culture but also because the process of brewing and packaging cask beer is more straightforward (which is not to say it is easy) and fundamentally, cheaper. There’s no need for pressurized kegs, expensive pasteurisation and filtration systems, automated filling machines and all the paraphernalia that attends filling kegs. With beer in casks, the ability to keep, handle and deliver a quality product is as much the responsibility of the publican as it is the brewery, if not more. And there in a nutshell, is the rub. Many craft brewers, not just the more ambitious, but also those dedicated and passionate about quality soon have an issue with cask. Put simply, that precious quality is just too variable. The result: more investment in kegging; more stimulus from the U.S. brewers (untroubled by the cask / keg question) and more ‘craft keg’ beers available.

Skip back 40 odd years to see the parallels. The ‘Big Six’ breweries actively managing down and phasing out their cask beer due to, you’ve guessed it, the variability in quality (amongst other things, like cost), often put down to the lack of training and skills of publicans. There were, of course, many publicans then, just as there are now who could serve a cracking pint of cask. And there were many, probably more, who find keeping cask, fettling it, tapping, spiling, broaching – all of that – troublesome and perhaps not worth the effort.

Another issue for cask is seemingly prosaic but critical – yield. In a keg, the central spear reaches down through the inside of the keg and almost touches the base. The beer is propelled out using a dispense gas. Finish one keg; wrench off the coupler, attach to the new keg, carry on serving. Industry estimates of waste from a keg put it at around 5-8%. Not so with cask. More beer is left in the cask (some because it is the yeast sediment, the remainder due to the cask shape) and more is lost as the last drinkable beer splutters through from the old cask and the first draughts are pulled through from the new. And then there’s the beer left in the pipes overnight, which (you hope) is pulled through and discarded. How much is lost? Well estimates vary from 15% up to 30% and more (that’s from an industry source by the way, not an arbitrary guess). Put simply, it’s very easy to pour 30% of your profits from cask down the plug-hole.

Which is not, in any way, to say ‘give up on cask’. But to not recognise – and in this case, for CAMRA to not fully recognise – that today, the situation is wholly different that it was when they founded. We are not talking about replacing Draught Bass with Worthington ‘E’. We are not replacing Courage Directors with Watney’s Red Barrel. We are not talking about getting rid of John Smith Magnet and shoving on Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter or Trophy Best.  We are talking about a bar or pub having a crack at selling any one of thousands, literally thousands, of exciting, tasty, experimental, classic, not-quite-right, full on, challenging, mundane, surprising beers that just so happen to be packaged in a container called a ‘keg’.

As someone who runs a brand building company as my day job, there’s an interesting parallel here and something for CAMRA to consider. Whatever they do, they mustn’t believe that ‘the job on cask is done’. The revival of cask beer has been sensational, but despite appearances to the contrary perhaps, it remains fragile. Most beer drunk in the UK is keg lager. Pubs are closing at 27 per week (according to CAMRA) and many, many more remain unsustainable. In a typical bar, there are only a few cask lines, and now with the amount of new breweries, there is so much choice for the publican that running a small cask led brewery is horrendously tough – commercially in particular. Lay on top of that all the issues with keeping cask, serving a high quality product and lower yields and the odds remain stacked against it. We need cask champions still. We need a consumer group fighting its corner. We need to keep on educating publicans to the wonders of cask beer and the criticality of quality. We cannot afford to get bored or distracted. CAMRA must keep the core of what they do – protecting real ale (and for me real cider and perry too – they probably need the help even more) – keeping it alive and fundamental to their central purpose. Great brands keep their core dynamic and fresh. CAMRA’s core is cask.

Yet great brands also focus on what’s coming up – what’s new and may be the ‘core of tomorrow’. So CAMRA must have a duel focus on cask and great beer, no matter how the brewery chooses to package it. Of course, ‘great beer’ is subjective. Pilsner Urquell, served from the tank at The White Horse in Parson’s Green is delicious. It is ‘great beer’. But PU, like many others is now a cart horse in the stable of a large multi-national, consolidating brewery. Not only do they have enough money to look after themselves, they are also only driven by profit. If PU proves to be a challenge to grow, it will sadly be reprioritised or even discarded and the focus will move elsewhere. So we are talking about a different form of ‘great beer’. CAMRA must champion beer from independent brewers, who are fashioned as much from sharing their passion, championing brewing and brewing heritage, making products with integrity not just efficiency, as they are from making a decent wage. And not just small brewers either – but independent brewers. From Elgood’s to Fuller’s, from Brew By Numbers to Magic Rock, from Marston’s to Skinner’s – even, whisper it – to BrewDog too.

Because let’s be clear. CAMRA have done a terrific job saving cask beer. But the independent craft beer ‘movement’ has done a significantly better job in making the whole beer category fresh and vibrant and attractive to people wouldn’t have even considered beer in the past at all. It might not have been directed nor seem coherent, but it’s done it – and in a quarter of the time. If CAMRA isn’t willing to stand for that, then it deserves to lose its relevance.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

Rice, Clogs and Fettuccini

For the third largest global economy, the fourth largest exporter and a population of almost 130 million people, the influence of Japan on global brewing has been slight. It’s been, in broad terms, a follower rather than a leader, perhaps reflecting the influence of other nations on Japanese identity and culture since the nineteenth century.   And as with many beer cultures, which Japan surely is, its brewing scene was (and is) dominated by large national players; and in a similar parallel, only comparatively recently has a new wave of start ups and craft brewers started to make an impact. Despite this the craft scene is slower to emerge and in quantity at least (overall volume, share of market and number of craft breweries) behind other ‘beer nations’.

Part of this is cultural and behavioural: the Japanese are very proud of the achievements of their companies and traditionally the mutual bonds of paternalistic management with the honour and pride of working for these companies strengthens this. When it comes to beer therefore, Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi have been the mainstays on the islands of Japan for many years. And their interests stretch more broadly across drinks, particularly into distilling (whiskey), sake brewing and soft drinks.

Asahi have always intrigued me: for many years they languished behind Kirin as the leading brewer, with beers dating back to the late 1800s (Asahi Gold is one still brewed today). Traditionally, Japanese beers were heavily German inspired and were frequently malt-accented, leaning towards the Bavarian helles style (only maltier) as well as other German styles too, including black lagers and dunkels. But what propelled Asahi forward was their launch of ‘Super Dry’ in 1987. Pernicious whispers suggest that it was actually based on the recipe of an American light beer that they had been partnering with, but in body it is more like a north German pils: not as hop forward as Jever, but extremely well attenuated, flinty and crisp. I’ve never found it a beer that forms and keeps a good head, but in Japan this is not seen as a particular signifier of quality and for Super Dry less so, often drunk from the bottle as it is, or served in a small glass – it’s high carbonation cleansing the palate well when drunk with food – as beer in Japan so often is. So, a fairly typical, mass produced lager then? Well, yes, but also much more – the beer that saved Asahi in fact. Their performance and share had been falling relative to their peers, but Super Dry was an instant hit – so much so that it changed the character of the Japanese beer market,  and Asahi’s competitors struggled to copy it and catch up.

Asahi 1 DickieFor a brief period, I marketed Asahi Super Dry in the UK. Success with the brand was reasonable over here, albeit, it was always more ‘push’ than ‘pull’ and the relationship with the team from Asahi themselves was always an interesting one – a ‘quick dip’ into some of the differences of business conducted Anglo-Saxon style from that conducted Japanese style. The contract, for example, was always used as a guide by the UK team (de facto) – whereas for the Asahi team it was always ‘de jure’. One year, slightly behind the contractual volumes, the Japanese team decided to deliver the remainder to the UK depot anyway, even though it hadn’t been ordered. Twenty trucks rolled into Burton on Trent carrying enough Super Dry to keep shelves stocked for – well – let’s just say, you could over-winter pretty easily on it. But as far as the Asahi team was concerned, we had committed to a given volume in a contract and we had to find a way to sell it (no B&M Bargains in those days).

Overall though, the Japanese have played it close to home with their expansions beyond the shores of Japan. Kirin invested in Australia and New Zealand; Sapporo, in possibly the most ambitious move, bought Sleeman in Canada whilst Asahi opportunistically snaffled up a stake in Tsingtao from Inbev when it sold that company to oil the wheels of the Anheuser-Busch mega deal.

It’s now a mega-mega-deal that sees the first real expansion of Asahi out of Asia. Should it go ahead, one of the wheel greasers for the SAB acquisition by ABI is European crown-jewel selling. To overcome anti trust rules in the US and to free up cash to reduce the borrowing required, ABI put Grolsch, Peroni and Meantime up for sale. There were many suitors apparently, but Asahi were successful. It’s an interesting move: there are no real synergies (efficiencies or cost savings) as Asahi have no European operations. Shepherd Neame will probably have to find another brand to replace the volume they brew for Asahi in time, but other than that Asahi will be operating three stand alone businesses: the second largest in Holland, second largest in Italy and a significant London craft brewer.   And you can forget the Japanese and Anglo-Saxon business culture differences – they’re going to be nothing compared to Dutch vs. Italian approaches. It’ll be a Bitterballen vs Bolognese bun fight.

But this isn’t a synergy play. This feels quite different and is possibly one of three moves. The first is desperation. It could be that Asahi see the global brewing world consolidating at such a rate of knots that they felt they had to move. An option, but unlikely – these are, after all, wonderful brands and whilst they have paid a premium, they’ve not over paid (about £2bn – chicken feed compared with the £70bn ABI are forking out for SAB). Second, and most likely is that this is an export move. Suddenly, Asahi have a premium portfolio of brands that they can take to most markets: Italian style, Dutch substance and the trendiness of one of the world’s largest brands. Add in, over time, Tsingtao, Meantime and anything else that they can bring to the party, and here is an interesting and powerful range for potential customers. A range that could perhaps nip away at Heineken, or Molson Coors, or even ABI here and there. Thirdly, and the most difficult to gauge is whether this a more strategic growth play. Are we now seeing Asahi build a platform for further consolidation? Will they now use their European base to target mid tier independent brewers (or unloved brands)? Will they use their base to buy into craft brewers (as they have in Australia)?

Whatever transpires, the move will be interesting for the European beer landscape as new morning rays from the rising sun shine down upon it.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

Ale Conners* and Saggar-Makers Bottom Knockers**

Today, it’s perfectly reasonable to challenge the assumption that the future of British manufacturing is abroad. A conversation with a former colleague, now working in the pottery industry confirmed this.

It’s a subject very much alive and relevant when you live in a county that to a large degree defined the Industrial Revolution: Staffordshire. Stoke-on-Trent was and is synonymous with pottery of course. Through the trade network of the British Empire, it supplied the world. The Five Towns tend to get talked down and are seen as a victim of deindustrialisation nowadays. The truth though is that the pottery industry is not on life support; the pot banks still fire, they’re just a different shape from the ones of old. And beer came from Burton-on-Trent, still a town shaped by its malty legacy and still the home of one of Europe’s largest breweries, the majestic Burton Union sets at Marston’s and a small crop of craft brewers – but like Stoke, Burton too has seen decline and deindustrialisation as its rather scratty appearance is testament to. And this is to say nothing about the nails and screws and rivets and tools from the Black Country’s ‘workshop of the World’.

Why then is there hope – and why are skilled brand builders at the heart of this?

Added value skills – the base to work from. Whilst there is always of risk of losing skills during deindustrialisation, British manufacturers are getting their heads round relearning the added value skills. We may not need ale conners (*beer quality inspection officials) or saggar-makers bottom knockers (**the ceramic case used for protecting the fired pottery) any more, but there are skills that can’t just be outsourced and commoditised. Designers, brewers, painters…

And an onerous responsibility lies with these individuals. The responsibility to create the sustainable value that allows manufacturing to stay at home. Take Emma Bridgewater. You can argue, it’s just a range of pottery. Yet it is so much more. The brand value is in the consistent application of an appealing look, values you aspire to, a fit with your lifestyle. And where is the Emma Bridgewater range made? Stoke-on-Trent.   And there’s an increasing range to choose from Denby, Portmeirion, Burleigh (located at Middleport, home of ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’.)

The future is bright, the future is branded. In our “Millennial” infatuated marketing world, there’s a tendency to think that only products that eschew ‘marketing’ and tell an authentic story are the ones that will win. No. Brands that decide to use their truth in their positioning and communicate it single-mindedly have the better chance of winning. At the end of the day, the brand is where the value is. Take Camden Town Brewery, only 6 years old, but just sold to brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev for £86m. “Brewery”? Well not really, for Camden Town doesn’t have a significant brewery at all – just some small mash tuns and fermenters under the railway arches, with the rest of their beer made in Belgium. Does that diminish it? Of course not, because it’s the brand that’s been bought. An instantly recognisable brand and tone of voice rooted in London (the larger brewery in London is to follow). A brand expandable here and highly exportable too.

Beyond the green and pleasant brand. British brands often struggle to use ‘Britishness’ domestically, yet it’s a real asset internationally and according to a recent piece in The Telegraph, there’s a premium of £2.1bn to be had by more clearly marketing a brand as ‘Made in Britain’. And it’s the brand that’s important: the quality conveyed by being manufactured in Britain is important, but it’s a point of parity, it’s expected. Today, we have so much more than just our ‘green and pleasant land’ perceptions of Britishness to leverage abroad. There’s more to how we’re perceived, brands like Mini have a contemporary edge that’s informed by our past yet fired up by our present, the edge from our music and creative industries – from our very culture in fact.

Category reinvention. Beer paints a stark picture of how British brewers failed to leverage their native beer styles to their advantage.   It’s not that long ago – 15 years, no more – that British ale was a holed ship, sinking fast with the rats exiting at speed. It’s the reinterpretation of British beer styles – Pale Ale, India Pale Ale (IPA), Porter, Mild, Brown Ale, Stout – by American craft brewers that’s rekindled the brewing scene over here. IPA is now the second most widely consumed and recognised beer style after lager globally. The US craft brewers have shown that it’s possible to reinvent categories in a relatively short period of time – and with it, even towns, regions. But bravery and imagination are needed. The bravery to inspirationally re-purpose the past and the imagination to paint a view of what the future can be.

In this post-industrial world, where we increasingly define ourselves by what we buy and consume, it’s these brand-building skills that can fuel British manufacturing again.

Plug: originally posted by David Preston at The Crow Flies. It’s his ‘real job’. If you’re interested in beer and brands and how they interact get in touch. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260 

The rise of the Nitro’ns

This morning I got an e-mail through from Beer Hawk, offering me a discount on a case of interesting U.S. beers in advance of the Superbowl. And were it not for a coincidence, that would have been that. But there it was, as plain as day, a bottle of Left Hand Brewing Co’s ‘Nitro’ – the stout in fact, one of a number available in their nitro series. The coincidence? Well, at a workshop I was running the other week, the same beer was brought along as an example of something new, an innovation. *draws breath*

Nitro beers. Well, clearly not an innovation: the first one I had was a ‘nitrogen flushed’ can of Draught Bass, and that was definitely in the late ‘80s. Actually, it only had a small proportion of nitrogen in it, the idea was to pour it moderately quickly and let it settle into a creamy head. The settle was quick too but it was a smooth drink and enjoyable too, although quite different to cask Bass. Then of course was the Widget Decade. Nitrogen flushed beer simply has mixed gas – CO2 and nitrogen. The widget beers have a canister, containing the nitrogen which is released upon opening. Guinness Bitter, Boddington’s, Worthington’s Geysir Flow™, Caffrey’s and then all manner of beers launched in a sort of nitrogen-fuelled technology arms race. We had fixed metal widgets, floating plastic widgets, balls, barrels and cylinders – you name it. There was even a Boston Beer Co beer (an ale-lager hybrid Boston Beer), distributed by Whitbread.   Some of these beers are still around: Boddington’s is in cans and of course, Guinness still has a widget variant.

Left-Hand-Brewing-Co-Nitro-IconsBut there is a problem. For everything the widget (and the nitrogen) gives in smooth texture and a bit of rippling theatre, it takes away in taste. I recently read a Sam Adams blog on the subject which, to paraphrase, said that ‘some beers work and others don’t’. I’d be surprised by this: at one point I ran an innovation project for a brewery and we put every beer the company brewed into widget and nitrogen flush cans – every single one either had suppressed flavour overall, or the nitrogen had an unbalancing effect, effectively emphasising one particular flavour component of the brew. Never positively.

Although there seem to be some differences this time – nitro products in glass for one, and a fully inverted pour, it feels like a circle coming round to the start again. I watch the (re)rise of the Nitro’ns with interest. And with scepticism.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

Sell out

Crikey – talk about the hissy fit in UK craft beer. Camden Town sell out to ABI, particularly following Meantime falling to SAB and Brewdog, most publically, have a meltdown, kick out Camden products and declare Perpetual Independence.

Let me tell you up front though. I put some money into Camden Town Brewery. This doesn’t make me anti-Brewdog nor pro Camden. In this case, it was an investment, nothing more. I believe now, as I believed when assessing whether to make an investment in them, that they were a sound place to put some hard-earned brass. Here is (was) my rationale:

Firstly, the owners were not the types to be in it for the long term; amongst them Sir John Hegarty. He’s an Advertising Man – he has helped companies build their brands to increase the value of their companies all his working life; he’s also built businesses himself and become a ‘Sir’ as a result. We’re not talking about fighting for a ‘cause’ here like Keith Grossman or Jack McAuliffe or Fritz Maytag were in the 1960s and 1970s USA. Back then, beer was on its knees; behemoth brewers with gargantuan breweries churning out identikit pale ‘lager’. There was something to fight for. London, 2010 – the year Camden Town Brewery was founded? Frankly the craft beer craze was maturing, or accelerating at least. You could well ask 5 years ago, just as much as you could now: do we really need another craft brewery?

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Camden: pops form the bar; instantly recognisable; consistent ‘hellish’ attitude = brand

Well yes, in a way – and here’s my second point. Camden Town was pushing for difference. It built itself around lagered beers, as well as some well brewed specialities – their Wit stands out in particular for me. Most other craft brewers – as much for practical and cost reasons than anything else – stick to ale and top fermentation. So do we really need another craft brewery? No, unless, like Wild Beer Company say, you do something that stands out. You can argue that Camden beers aren’t that different – but in a sea of craft brewed ale, there was little craft brewed lager in 2010; and even accounting for Meantime, still plenty of capacity to push into that space in London alone.

Thirdly, brand. Oh, I know what the purist will argue: the whole point that craft fights against is mass produced brands of non-descript lager: Carlsberg, Carling, Fosters, Stella, Peroni. But that’s an assumption based on a generalisation: that we all want something different. We don’t. Most of us, most of the time, want choices that are reliable and safe. That doesn’t – and I must stress this – doesn’t mean bland, everyday choices – but choices that we feel confident in; that we discovered, found ourselves, trust and that make us feel different. And it doesn’t mean niche. What the team at Camden did brilliantly is screw together an incredible brand: an amazing brand design and identity across the whole range that sings from the bar. A hellishly beautiful tone of voice that unites all their communication. Events, that bring you in to the Camden community and locality, yet which speak to us more widely. These guys didn’t set out to build a brewery, they set out to build a brand and they have done it incredibly.

And whilst I was in it for the long term – looking forward to my ‘Hells Raiser’ annual beer and trips to the AGM – equally, I fully expected Camden to sell; I just wasn’t expecting it to be in the first six months.

Throughout this, Brewdog’s behaviour has been fascinating – and two-faced. Immediately stopping-selling Camden products in their bars, because ‘they don’t sell anything by ABI’ (the small matter that the deal hasn’t gone through yet is a mere trifle) is one thing; but changing their origin story is another. Read their guff; it’s moving; it’s from the heart. But it’s a story. It’s economical with the truth. When Brewdog launched they were quite happy to trade with the mega-breweries they now despise to get their product to market. With Carlsberg. With Molson Coors. With Tesco. With Punch Taverns. I imagine that they still do. They were perfectly happy to buy into the hard work of these companies in building distribution channels and quite happy to grow their brands off the back of them. But that’s been deleted out of their official history now. But the real irony? Brewdog is a lesson in branding. There beers are fine – nothing more. They’re no better or worse than other craft beers of their styles. The real difference is in the clothes that they wear; their attitude and use of the f-word like a teenager trying to impress his mates. If we truly drunk with our mouths and tastebuds and not our eyes we would all see Brewdog beers for what they are: great brand, average beer.

And there’s an interesting footnote here too: Camden went for about £85m; Meantime about £115m. Molson Coors back in 2010 bought Sharps for £20m… £20m for a larger brewery; in a beautiful location that gives the brand romance, with a leading brand in Doom Bar. Molson Coors must be having a little chortle to themselves now. But it also shows that the money is to be made in great brands – and more interestingly it seems, in lager.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016