The future’s bright…

For every trend, there’s a counter trend. For every artisan baker firing the ovens at 3am to conjure up beautiful rough cobbles of sourdough, there’s a new ‘Chorleywood’ enzyme innovation; textureless white sponge with seeds, or bits of fibre you can’t see, or just a new whiter-than white White. For every back street coffee bean roaster, filling the air with their smokey perfume, there’s a new micro-grind instant from some multinational hiding their true colours.

And so it is in beer. At one end, the focus is on old styles dusted down, or new styles drawing inspirations from as far back as Mesopotamia; from fermentation with wild yeast, or bacteria grown on mouldy fruit, or kettle souring or barrel-ageing. Of Quintuple IPAs or session beers hopped to the Copper top to make up for lack of alcoholic body: and this is good; no, this is awesome – it’s the producer-powered, purpose-fuelled revolution against the brewing as Economics not as Art. It’s the rivulet of reactionaries that’s become a flood – a flood that even the Big Brewers can’t resist; entering through mimicry, partnering or acquisition. Yet, oddly, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong place.  Perhaps, in the quest for solving the problem of the decline in mainstream, mass-produced lager they’re looking to  craft, and artisan, and hand-produced and small-scale and then looking to scale these up. And undoubtedly, much of this will be successful, despite the claims that a backlash will defeat it.

IMG_0457But there’s something going on in their core.  Drinkers are turning back to lagered beer.  And yes, they’re undoubtedly turning to the real deals: like Budvar, brewed with Moravian Malt and Saaz hops and matured for 102 days; or like Brooklyn Lager, brewed to a recipe from before Prohibition, with it’s deep conker-red colour, and off-white head and thick, coating body or they’re discovering little gems like Windsor & Eton’s Republika, which may not be true to a particular style, but is as damn fine a lager beer as you’ll find.

It’s more though. It’s drinkers not rejecting the likes of Camden Hells or Meantime’s London Lager, just because they’ve been acquired by someone bigger – but continuing to be pulled towards them. And it’s also the rise of a new wave of Big Beer brands: Nastro Azzurro, Estrella Damm, Amstel. Sniff all you like, but these brands are growing – maybe not drunk by you, or me, but growing… because people want to drink them.

We’ve got to look beyond the sensibilities of ownership, the emotions of scale, to see what’s going on. There’s a return to lager amongst drinkers, and it’s accelerating.  It’s a return that will soon spur the current losers in this battle – the likes of Carling, Carlsberg and Foster’s to react in the only way they can, by properly listening to what drinkers want and innovating.  This is a good thing too. It’s signalling a return to a beer style that stands the test of time. The span of flavour profiles within lager may not be as broad as top-fermenting or wild-fermented beers (well, certainly if you exclude smoked lagers anyway), but it’s robust. There’s something for everyone: tastier beers like Pilsner Urquell at one end, to simply sessional everyday quaffers at the other. There are lagered specialities like dunkel beers in the mix, as well as *faints* light beers. This is a beer style that didn’t conquer the world through force of arms, but through drinker preference. In the UK it may have started as a beer for women but it didn’t take longer to become the beer for louts. That’s some shift. And it’s a shift that’s behind us now: lager is legitimised; lager’s time is coming again.

Advertisements

Is it ‘craft’, really?

Few can have failed to have noticed, read about or become embroiled within the debate about the definition of ‘craft’ beer. A veritable game of semantic ping-pong or something much more serious, central to the very existence of independent, quality and taste-forward brewers? Yet, rather like many terms in business, ‘craft’ has moved from becoming something aspirational and positive, to something that is now merely an ‘amplifier’ – slipped on to a word to add weight and a veneer of artisan connotations to a brewer’s otherwise (likely) mundane credentials.

Most come at this debate through the lens of small, independent brewer defence: how dare these global multi-nationals (falsely, they say) claim our territory? These mass-manufacturers with their cost-orientation, process and efficiency fetishism, brewing imitations of the real deal. These profit-inebriated numbers machines that are only bothered about Executive remuneration and shareholder return. And damn them, these hard-nosed, ruthless bastards who have determined they can’t win the battle through imitation, so are intent upon gobbling up true craft brewers either through stealth or manifest over-bidding.

Switch views though. Plop yourself in the seat of a start up brewery, doing well, say three or four years in. Launched the company through skill and passion and vision. The head brewer is perceived to be the face in the brewery tap, but in reality he or she is putting in 16 hour days, with little help;  up with the lark to prepare the first brew of the day, and then lost in a fug of measuring, tasting, scrubbing out, washing down, problem solving, fire-fighting and customer-handling before having to down tools and go out and sell to pubs where there is no shortage of choice, enjoying an effective over-supply price war and frankly, such variable standards of serve that you have no guarantee that what you’re brewing will taste anything like i’s intended to. It’s no game for slackers; and that raw, nerve-tingling passion and drive can only take you so far when the only thing you are truly drunk with is the creeping, imperceptible fatigue of non stop graft.

What are the options then? You sell out; or you drive growth, efficiency and mind your costs.  Take a moment to read this extract from Four Pure Brewing’s recent blog on their upcoming expansion:

The heart of the expansion will be a state of the art 4 vessel Craft-Star brewing system from GEA. The Brewhouse is best in class for automation and beer quality, it’s the first of its kind to hit the UK and places us at the forefront of what is an increasingly demanding industry. In addition to production capabilities, it also supports our long standing commitment to sustainability and reducing the environmental impact by deploying outstanding credentials from water use and energy saving to heat recovery and vapour condensing.

The investment also includes the purchase of some additional pieces of the quality puzzle including an upgraded centrifuge, a precision carbonation module, malt and spent grain silos and 12 shiny 200hL fermentation tanks.  All of this equipment will be installed over summer and producing beer in September.

Determined to lead in education, efficiency and quality control, we’re not just focused on our brewing and packaging capabilities, there is a real drive to optimise process and practices across the business

This is no gibe at Four Pure, whose plans are exciting and heartfelt. Keeping brewing in the Capital; reinforcing sustainability, increasing capacity. But really look at it. The truth is that change the name and the scale of the fermentation vessels and you have a large, transnational brewer. This is the language of process and efficiency; heavens above, even the word “optimise” is used, and that’s a Four Pure10 pointer in our game of Business Bullshit Bingo™ here at Tinted Towers.

So, is this ‘craft’? Really?  How can we spend our time debating what ‘craft’ means when the ‘craft’ brewers are doing what the big brewers have been doing for years – recognising that making profit in brewing is damned hard and to be successful, you have to brew consistently excellent product, as efficiently as possible and brew it right, in terms of your people and the planet.  Wait! Did I hear you scoff?  Sure, corporate programmes of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ may be some politically correct window dressing for some of these companies, peppered with buzzwords and shrouded in a cloak of ebullient social feeds, but don’t doubt that these companies don’t mean it; and don’t doubt that they won’t make a difference.

The point is, big or small, you have to run your business well. And the ‘craft’ brewers who don’t will fail. It’s a tough, unrelenting and unforgiving beer world. There’s no point being a poet about it.

And it also shines a light on what we must protect in beer – what 30 years ago had almost been lost entirely. Because there clearly are significant differences between these up-and-coming ‘craft’ brewers and shareholder owned, profit-driven multinationals. Sometimes it’s the soft, intangible factors: a purpose or ‘credo’ as Brew Dog would have it. Often it’s about the manifesto that these companies have for their people; how they deal with one another and their customers. But the truth is, the real discriminator can only be one thing: that at the heart of the business, like a Framboise Supernova, is the beer.  Really at the heart of the business; not fancy words and nice pamphlets for the company induction days. The commitment to brew beer that is true to itself, is incisiveness in pushing the boundaries in technique and taste, is vehemently aggressive in protecting flavour and how that flavour is arrived at.

Take a look at how the big brewers products change over time and track them. What you see that beer is peripheral to their businesses. It’s just a tool for printing coinage.  Product flavour profiles changing; alcohol levels falling for the savings; ingredients bought more cheaply or switched for inexpensive or more high-yielding alternatives; processes shortened and switched to squeeze more out of the metaphorical tea bag. In fact, you can guarantee that the tea bag brewing process is currently being pursued – so much easier to clean the Copper.  It doesn’t mean that these companies can’t brew great beer: of course they can. They’re brimming with talented, passionate people who want to do the best they possibly can. But they’re knowing or unknowing puppets to the profit machine and personal beliefs and integrity around beer count for nothing.  That’s what’s under threat from the rafts of ‘craft’ acquisitions currently gong through. It’s the culture and commitment to beer that goes, enshrined in independence that protects what’s really important. When that’s gone your beer will not be far behind. A threat then to your beer; not today, not tomorrow and probably not next year but soon, very soon.

The tyranny of choice

There’s been something of a furore over Carlos Brito, AB Inbev’s top dog, over his comments about beer drinkers being tired of choice – and for balance, it’s important to mention that he was specifically talking about distributors and retailers, and how much choice they could actually carry on shelves. Yet customer and consumer are umbilically linked, so by default he is saying the consumers too, are tired of choice.  And according to ABI’s earnings release briefing, craft beer sales in the U.S. are slowing, hence it must be so.

As you can imagine, a furore.  Because surprise, surprise, here are AB Inbev, now commanding one third of global beer sales, concerned about any affront to their brands, their competitive edge, their ability to dominate the market.  An agenda of consumers ‘tired of choice’ means ‘you don’t need to stock unusual craft brands, but you do need to stock nationally / globally recognised brands‘ – ooooh, and look – we have lots of them.

The thing is though, the provocation from Brito does have more than an edge of truth about it, depending on how you view the world.  Take the U.K. beer scene at the moment. ‘Explosion’ is not too dramatic a term for the number of breweries that have opened and continue to open. Each month sees a closure, but each month see many more openings. The leaky bucket overfloweth.  Go one level below this and there are serious implications.  Each brewery will have, say, a minimum of three brands, probably three of four core brands and then a selection of in / out products too. So let’s say that there are now (round numbers), 2000 breweries, each selling five beers. That’s 10,000 brands of beer minimum (someone I’m sure will have the actual numbers on this, providing they’re watching the press releases daily.). There are about 150,000 licensed premises in the UK.  In theory that means most bars can carry an entirely different range from one another (OK, there may be 14 other ones carrying the same range nationwide).

Now clearly, this is theoretical. Because the truth is more stark. In fact, most bars have a limited number of taps and lines. Choice, in draught in particular, is not finite. Many of these lines will be keg, a small number hand pull. And of the 10,000 brands of beer on sale, probably 9,800 are craft and cask brands. The number of mainstream, keg dispensed, national brands is slight in comparison, dominant in sales though they are.  9,800 beers competing for, say, one of three hand pull spaces on a bar or God forbid, one of the keg lines owned by a multinational.

You can’t build recognised brands in this environment, unless you own an estate and demand they carry your range.

And there’s the rub.  The truth is that there’s so much choice now that the market isn’t saturated, it’s super-saturated.  Just like the supermarkets have bred a generation of deal junkies, rather than being tired of choice, we have a spoilt generation of beer drinkers who are trial junkies.  You can see it where every you go. Looking along the bar. Spotting the new beers. Examining ABVs. Asking for recommendations, a sip, a third. Buying a flight of different beers. Every beer a different beer during the session. Switching between styles. Ever more choice at home.

Oh sure, there are implications for drinkers.  It can be bamboozling. So many choices, where to start?  Which style between the many I like? Which strength? Colour? Hoppiness or maltiness? Sweet, sour, bitter, dry?  How to make sense of that, goodness knows.

There are implications for customers too. If you are in some way tied in to a brewer or supplier, how to offer the choice? How to run a business based on strong sellers with the roller coaster of guest beers being so important? How to manage the tensions (under the bar) between keg and cask, cider and lager, craft and real ale, spirit vs wine, whilst all the time having to deliver a stonking food offer.  I love pubs, but it’s a hell of a job to get right, particularly with those damned drinkers constantly demanding something new every week.

But what’s the alternative?  Take London just 10 years ago. I was in beer sales down there at the time. Most bars had some combination of Heineken, Kronenbourg, John Smiths and Strongbow, or Stella, Boddingtons, Becks Vier. Becks, Budweiser in the fridge. Everything else scrapping for space round the edges. Ok – so perhaps this picture is a little dramatised, but even if it’s only half true, compare it with today.  Bars bursting with choice. Beers on rotation. New breweries introducing new styles. Rarely a Stella or Bud to be seen, at least in a place where you’d want to be seen too.  Do we want to go back to a world of Stella, Becks, Corona wherever we go? Do we want to see Mr Brito’s thin, assassin smile widen further?

Give me the tyranny of choice any day.

 

Fomenting fermentation

It’s been a year of fermentation’s growing influence in my life. Not just beer, that’s been there throughout my adult years, but much wider, much deeper, more frequent. It’s the old ‘Law of Selective Attention’ I think, which says that once something has been pointed out to you, you notice it all the time, whereas prior to that, you didn’t notice at all (even though it was there all the same). And at the moment it’s fermentation.

First it was pickles. I’ve always loved them as tracklements; that particular blend of vinegar and mustard; the acid spiciness; that ability to cut through anything with a sharp tang, an oniony bite, yet not overwhelm. To coax flavours and enhance. To be a wingman perhaps, not over-shadowing the main event. It’s like piccalilli, named after the station in Manchester*, a beautiful yet under-rated condiment. After trying it for the first time, an old Dutch friend of mine once said, “Why is it the English love these strong flavours?”. It blew him away, yet, a few years later he told me that he was secretly taking home pots of Branston and Haywards piccalilli and, “eating them with everything”. It is, we deduced, that partial fermentation, that cold meat umami-ness that just works as a chaperone and proves to be irresistible.

Then it was horseradish. Here’s a root that we Brits have just plopped into a box marked, ‘Ready Made Sauce. Only Serve With Beef.’ which is missing the point entirely. Not so long ago, I was eating it with everything. Pork pie? Natch. Cheese sandwich. Why not? As a spread instead of mayo. Definitely. As a marinade on oily fish. Oh yes. Not convinced? Try it: in-cred-i-ble. Which reminded me that the Germans have got horseradish right. Travelling once across central Germany, my brother and I stayed in Würzburg and in the evening ate in the town’s main restaurant, below the Räthaus. We ate eel, in a creamy, sharp, tangy horseradish sauce and drank first a spicy, yeasty wheat beer and then a gently smoked lager. Both went well with the dish, but not as well as the horseradish went with the eel. Sublime. (My horseradish overdosing only stopped because I moved onto piccalilli)

And so it went on. Chutneys, (we are about to enter the chutney making season here in the Tinted house: the dog lives in fear after smelling of vinegar and vegetables for a week last year), spicy relishes, savoury jams. Mustards aplenty.

The re-emergence of fermentation spreads its wings further however. First was sourdough. There’s a tangy sharp starter in our fridge right now, provoked into creation from a godisgood story that a client told me about – how, like a Tamagotchi, your responsibility is to nurse and tend the starter, to pass it one and expect the recipient to do the same. Some starters are generations old, particularly in countries where baking is still revered – Germany again, Belgium to a degree and some Eastern European countries. That’s my aim – to pass on my starter to friends and family. To have Tinted bread being kneaded and baked 50 years from now. Maybe with a dash of brown ale in there for good measure.

Then there’s pickled veg. Chefs are serving them with everything, and you know it’s mainstreaming when you get them offered as an option in a lunchtime sandwich bar and you can buy different sorts of pickling vinegars (Mirin, balsamic based, red & white wine pickling vinegars) in your local Tesco. But why not? They bring the extra dimension: the lift, the breadth, the wafting of the flavours into new realms. They may be trendy but they’re not new. Foolishly we let our tastes and skills drift; now we’re learning them again.

And of course, there’s beer, where fermentation is assumed and the status of ‘natural bedfellow’ is assured. But what’s glorious about fermentation now is how we’re rolling back the boundaries again. Why ferment with saccharomyces cerevisae alone when you can ferment with brettanomyces for it’s earthy, musty qualities? And why ferment with brett when we can use bacteria from wood or air? Why do we need to use crazy amounts of hop when fermentation can push the boundaries wider (particularly as hop shortages threaten)?

What’s important as brewers and beer lovers is that we don’t lose sight of the scope of fermentation. It’s not just used in making alcohol and vinegar. Chefs and food companies are waking up to where fermentation can take flavour, where the experience of eating can be enhanced still more. If we keep our eyes open, the possibilities are endless.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

*True, that.

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