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


‘Bucket Lists’. Inherently morbid, Gothic things, Bucket Lists. I managed to exorcise them from my thoughts for many a good year but alas, they kept on scritting and scratting away, finally breaking through and floppily landing, like a dark, flappy-winged and rather sadly pathetic Angel of Doom into my Grey Cells. Must be age. They’re pervasive too, especially, and strangely I find, in the world of beer. If ‘The Good Beer Guide’ is a Penguin Classic, ‘100 Beers to Try Before You Die A Mournful And Slow And Agonising Death’ is the Necronomicon.

But there we go, sometimes you have to swim with the tide and Bucket Lists have broken through. I’ve started to mentally compile them. Six weeks in New Zealand. Return to Iceland. Circumnavigate the coast of Britain. Explore Australia. Ride around the North Sea*.

Yet there’s a more persistent – and seemingly banal – one: to explore The Netherlands. Oh, I grant you, it’s hardly one of Eight Wonders of the World. And that’s rather the point. Holland, if I may call it that for brevity’s sake, really shouldn’t be. It is one of the most civilized societies hewn from the least promising beginnings. Most of it lies below sea level, swampy river deltas and the crushing weight of the North Sea held back by some earthen ditches, a few industrial-scale pumps and a little lad with a fatigued finger. To the north, Friesland, was once a collection of islands; around Amsterdam, enormous lands and new cities sprang out from the sea bed of the Zuider Zee. All through damming and pumping.

And whilst it’s a country I have travelled to frequently, it has invariably been on business and the stereotypes persist: laid-back urbanites with their perfect English, sit-up-and-beg bikes and relaxed attitudes to prostitution and soft drugs; outside the cities, rural cheese-makers, wearing wooden clogs and growing tulips under glasshouses you can see from space. Their Belgian neighbours complain that whilst the Belgians have the flair, slightly barking creativity and variety, the Dutch have focus and effectiveness. Take cheese: two sorts, Edam & Gouda, sold the world over. And take beer: Heineken and Grolsch, pale lager beers, sold the world over.

Of course, the truth is different. Just as the Dutch also make wonderful Ewe and Goat milk cheeses (or even smoked Gouda with caraway seeds), so too do Dutch brewers make a wider range of beers. When I worked for Grolsch a few years back, they brewed a range of seasonal beers – de Vierjaargetijdten – which proved that there was more to them as a brewer than pilsner and swingtop bottles. The main variant was Herfst Bok – Autumn beers being a popular category in Holland. Grolsch’s was sweet and malty. Gulpener’s was more hoppy with a green hop-leaf character. Brand’s was dry. There was a winter warmer, Winter Vorst,  a citrusy, grassy summer beer, Zomer Goud and my favourite was the well balanced and only marginally more pronounceable, Lente Bok, a spring beer with a strong malt backbone, a lemony freshness and a warming alcoholic kick.

Today, the truth is even more different. Today, craft beers in Holland are blossoming and the craft brewery Grand Daddies, Brouwerij ‘T Ij and Brouwerij de Molen are making an impact outside of their home country. I recently got hold of a couple of de Molen beers and another, a collaboration between the two. T’Ij is based in Amsterdam, a ferry hop across the water from the main train station. If you go to Amsterdam, ignore the ‘delights’ of the Red Light district and get over to their beer garden, it’s fantastic. I’ve not been for a few years, but their beers were always characterful and packed some oomph – their website today reveals a wider range – but all looking as beautiful as I remember. De Molen is south of Amsterdam, in Bodegraven, in the cheese-wielding, tulip-waving farmlands at the centre of the triangle formed by Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam. And to stereotypical form, the brewery is both named after and is situated in, a windmill.

Here is the evidence that Dutch brewers are now doing variety as well as efficiency, nettle clad yarg not just industrial pseudo-Cheddar. The collaboration between ‘T Ij and de Molen is a Double IPA; a deep, caramel brown beer with a cream-tan head, persistent if not profuse. On breaking the crown, a crisp, malty biscuitiness is foremost, then layers of hop, leafy, green, grapefruity. And if the Dutch deserve their reputation for thriftiness, it was not in evidence here, with four hops – Simcoe, Amarillo, Columbus and Cascade – but not overplayed at all, a well balanced beer working off a dark malt base. A double IPA by name but done with the best of new world hoppy swagger and old world drinkability (and at 9% too – you’d probably not guess). Vuur en Vlaam is not only a great beer – not only, in fact, a terrific beer – but it also enjoys a name to make it famous. Fire and Flame. Sturm und Drang. Cagney and Lacey.  Four hops aren’t enough here; it is intensely hopped with six varieties yet, again, retains a quality so often missing in new wave IPAs, a satisfying moreishness. I wish I’d bought more.   And finally Zwaart en Wit, black and white. An 8.4% dark IPA. This is not just a dark beer, but jet black with an oil spill head; a head that was effusive with a loose bubble, with roast aromatics leaping up from it. This was perhaps more fire and brimstone than the previous beer. But no: it is handled dexterously: with only a light roastiness to smell, and whole hops bursting through not subdued and not overbearing, and even a juicy citrusiness evident as well. To taste: a happy bitterness, not overdone with a roasty dryness. Three wonderful Dutch beers.

Going back many years, Grolsch had a ground breaking TV campaign. ‘Vakmanschap is meesterschap’ it pronounced: ‘craftsmanship is mastery’. Now it seems, that mantle has moved on.

de Molen_fotor

*This is not as wet as it sounds. You basically follow the east coast of the UK, through the Orkney’s and Shetland, down Norway and Jutland and back around through Germany & Belgium. Ferries for the moist bits, clearly.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

At Sam and Benny’s

The Frankie and Benny’s experience was not one to write home about. It was wrong on three subtle, but I feel important points: service, quality and price. Dirty glassware and incorrect brand first off, then the wrong brand for the glass second time around. The meal – well, it was average (I wasn’t expecting much so don’t give me that ‘Well I never‘ look) and in fact at £9.85 was a lump of purest rip off. This for a plate a penne al’ arabiatta which can best be described as ‘part-scratch’ (pasta out of a packet, sauce out of a tub, fresh herbs thrown on top and no hint of the brilliant Eddie Izzard ‘Death Star Canteen’ on YouTube sketch). Served by staff who clearly would rather be sitting in front of the Lottery Results waiting for life to deal them a better hand.

Forget that though. The beer. I ordered a Sam Adams Boston Lager.  Have in mind that this had travelled a couple of thousand miles to my table.  It was enough to almost forgive Frankie and Benny’s for the rest of their culinary sins.

Let’s start with the aroma…noble hops? I know they use Hallertau Mittelfrüh, but is that the only contributor to the magnificence of the aroma – surely not?  This is a restrained hop aroma for many American new wave beers which marks this out as even more special. Judicious is the word – leading to an aroma that is an experience in itself.   Sipping it…mouthfeel. I’m guessing that there must be some weeks of lagering as the beer has a rounded quality in mouthfeel and a delicacy of linger of the aftertaste with again, the herbal and leafy hop throughout.   Colour: coppery bronze like the sun kissed thigh of an olive-skinned beach lovely. But most remarkable to me was the head. I pour a small quantity with two fingers (a legacy of working for Grolsch and experiencing that beer ‘the Dutch way’) and like a thick head*. It’s a good test both of the beer’s inherent structure and clean glassware. Fortunately this time round I had both. And what an experience…a dense just-off-white head, thick but not imperviously compact like a nitrobeer. And northern ale like lacing and rings were left down the glass as I drank, which as a former student of dendrochronology makes me happy inside.

I was particularly pleased about this as I hold a torch for Sam.  Not only were they in the early wave of US craft brewers, not only were they entrepreneurial in brewing a great beer when they didn’t have a brewery, but they are brewers of principle. All malt beers, adjuncts only for flavour, whole hops, many noble varieties but above all a real commitment to taste.  And for Boston Beer there’s a clear link. Take shortcuts with the process, take shortcuts with the ingredients and taste suffers. If taste suffers eventually you can’t charge what you want and the spiral down commences.

I had the privilege of meeting Jim Koch, Boston Beer’s founder in 2006. It was an incredible trip, an in-and-out, but Jim and Martin Roper his English born CEO, gave of their time and of their lunch and we talked beer and business.  They gently chastised my company for the use of adjuncts yet praised it for their support to Boston Beer in tougher times. They showed off Utopias to me and gave me a real hand baggage challenge (the bottle is a mini Copper and not so much lighter than the real thing). Thoroughly nice chaps brewing thoroughly good beer… making good money now, but not being ruled by it. There’s probably a lesson there for us all, and certainly for Frankie and Benny’s.

Boston Lager logo

*That’s on my beer not my head per se.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted in Posterous, April 2012