No and low alcohol beer? Really?

There’s an elephant in the room in alcohol right now. Everyone seemingly is jumping on the no and low alcohol bandwagon. As well as new beers, BrewDog have launched an AlcoholFree only pub. Alcohol Free only breweries have opened. Craft breweries have launched multiple low and no alcohol beers in multiple styles: lagers, pale ales, hazy pale ales, sours. And commentators are fanning the fire too – ‘Top 10’ or ‘Top 20’ articles in the mainstream press; beer writers such as Pete Brown posting on his social feed on the topic.

But a few things bother me, and here’s why I remain unconvinced by the whole category.

  1. It’s been tried before. I know. I know. Long in the tooth. “We’ve tried it before” being the killer of new ideas and all that. Sure. But it has been tried before and frankly, with much greater scale than today (if less breadth). 30 years ago, in the days of the ‘Big 6’ vertically integrated nationals, no and low alcohol beer was the big thing. Not just in the UK, but abroad too. Back then, the predictions showed that by today alcoholic beer would effectively be a niche beverage for frankly, people with problems. Time and money was invested on creating brands; big brands that were were well distributed – bottles, cans, and draught – and were supported by huge advertising and marketing campaigns. Not a few social posts, but big, scale TV ads. Here’s one for Barbican (Bass). But there was Bass L.A. and Tennent’s L.A (also Bass, clearly). And Swan Light (Allied Breweries). And Kaliber (Guinness). And undoubtedly others. There were low alcohol wine brands too – Eisberg, anyone? Yep, this is when that delight dates from too.What’s different this time? Well, there are certainly more breweries giving it a go and there are certainly more beer styles being attempted. Oh, and of course, we’re all so much healthier and mindful of what we’re consuming today…. aren’t we?  Obesity crisis? Type 2 Diabetes rates anyone?
  2. There’s a difference between a trend and normal behaviour.  Here’s a stat for you to consider, what with all the coverage around plant-based eating, vegetarianism and specifically, veganism. The Vegan Society report that in 2019, there are 600,000 vegans in the UK (quadrupled since 2014 according to their statistics). That’s 1.16% of the UK population (this is presumably the whole population including non-decision makers such as children, but nevertheless). Yet, according to Mintel, 23% of food launches in 2019 were labelled as vegan. So it’s not vegans driving the growth, it’s those people who are choosing to cut down their meat consumption, but not cut it out – the so-called ‘flexitarians’ – people who are still consuming meat, fish, dairy as part of their everyday lives. And if that’s the case, why bother going to all the trouble of considerably more complex processes, complex sourcing and increased costs to make it vegan?Is this the future for no and low alcohol products? Part of the ‘smart’ repertoire for those moments when we either can’t drink alcohol, or want to cut down? Life hacks? Perhaps. But this was pretty much the same rationale 30 years ago too: drink drive laws were tightening. Fewer people drinking in regular ‘sessions’. Fewer ‘men only’ and more mixed gender social occasions with the bars and clubs that catered for them. And we were making healthier choices as our tastes expanded. What’s different? Really?
  3. Companies have to show willing. Brewers and alcoholic drink manufacturers are under more pressure today. There are voluntary codes. There are mandatory rules and regulations too, designed to prevent alcohol misuse and encourage moderation. There’s ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. There are frankly, good reasons to be doing this both for company purpose and good reasons to be doing it for the responsibility to wider society. But that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a genuine, long-lasting commercial opportunity. One that’s rooted in real insight about how we run our lives.
  4. What is the insight here? People choose to drink alcohol for a whole range of reasons. Because they’re partying and want to let go a bit, or because they’re unwinding and want to either re-energise or de-energise. They may want to mark a moment, either a celebration or just celebrating getting to Wednesday. They may want to connect, to bond. Or even to show off. But what’s at the heart is the effect of alcohol. There’s no point denying it or pretending that everything would be the same if it weren’t there. And let’s be clear too, humans want ‘drugs’. I mean, wouldn’t it be ironic if just as we get rid of the alcohol we started ramming everything full of CBD?
  5. A matter of taste. I’m cutting down on meat, for all sorts of reasons and  the one thing I’m not missing is the taste of meat. Why would I? Food is all about taste, and the days of healthy foods being a compromise are over. Look at the lunch time meal deal aisles today. It’s not just triangles of brown with a coloured centre any more, there’s bread alternatives that are purple and green; there are salad pots that are as vivid as a double rainbow, vegan and vegetarian products – whether they feature meat substitutes or not  -now inspire not depress.But the low and no alcohol products I’ve tasted still taste like compromises. And I’m not prepared to compromise with beer, because life is too short for bad beer, and if I’m driving and not drinking, frankly I’ll have something that is, at least, itself, not a pale imitation of something else.

    And so begins a little quest to find a low or no alcohol beer that really tastes like a beer. No compromises. No tricks or hood-winks. Any recommendations are welcome. Reviews will be short and to the point. Whilst I hope I find this holy grail, my reservations still persist. And even if I do: is there ever a beer occasion where I don’t want the very thing that defines ‘beer’ over water, coffee, juice or a soft drink? Let’s see.

New look, new Tinted

Today sees a new look and feel for Beer Tinted Spectacles.

Last year, I found my passion for writing about beer waning – something I couldn’t easily explain or reconcile. One factor was time; my own business is almost five years old and growing, placing an inevitable constraint on other things. But it was more than that.  For some reason, I was finding the world of beer and the narrative around it frustrating and… boring.

That’s a difficult thing to admit, and on the surface utterly counter-intuitive. The world of beer is as healthy as it’s been – arguably for 50 years. The number of new breweries; the plethora of choice; old styles being rediscovered, re-worked or bastardised. Who cares in the pursuit of great taste?

Yet, one debate – that of New England IPAs got my goat. Tit-for-tat arguments about whether such yeasty, sediment-rich, cloudy, turbid brews are genuine brewer-led innovation or the products of today’s ‘Instagram culture’. At the time from what I could see, the debate was getting personal and pretty nasty. And this is amongst so-called beer lovers.

Beer lovers who are losing the plot.

Let’s go back just 30 years. U.S. beer was dominated by one brewer, who focused on two brands: Bud and Bud Light. Everyone else was a runner-up. Marketing spend was aggressive and enormous. U.K. beer was dominated by half a dozen vertically integrated leisure conglomerates, who owned the ‘route to market’ pretty much from the point that the newly harvested barley crossed the gates in the Maltings to the point where the liquid touched the drinkers’ lips. Depending where you lived, this meant a limited range from pub to pub. Innovation was quashed, possibly inadvertently, but quashed all the same. Regional brewers struggled to co-exist. Micros weren’t even a fertilised egg. Love or loathe CAMRA, they were genuinely fighting big, hairy corporate beasts who wilfully or not, were shaping consumers’ tastes and controlling the market.

To bicker about whether a cloudy IPA is good or not is missing the point.  The threat of drink consolidation is looming again. In the short term, changes will seem imperceptible.  New owners will commit to keeping the breweries (or cider presses) of the acquired companies open; their brands will be lauded; their people extolled. But soon, all too soon, small changes will occur. Recipes will subtly change. Efficiencies will be found. Economies of scale will be sought. The heady drug of profit and the churn of staff will see promises reneged and old favourties become milking machines for bottom line growth.

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So, Beer Tinted is back. Stripped back, simplified, more picture-led, its core purpose nonetheless remains. To tell beer stories that celebrate great beers. To champion the people who have had the courage to risk everything in pursuit of a dream or a passion. To narrate a perspective on issues of the day from the point of view of someone who was once on the other side – the consolidator, the acquirer, the ‘big beer’ executive. To remind anyone who passes through these pages what we have, what we should cherish and what we will need to fight for.

Thanks for reading.

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.

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.

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