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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

AB-Inbev *hearts* Goose Island. So now what do we do?

I know I'm probably the last beer blogger on earth to weigh in with a comment on the news that AB-Inbev has bought Goose Island, but comment I must - even if I repeat what everyone else has said.

At the outset it looks tricky: I've criticised AB-Inbev more than any other macro, not out of any prejudice, but simply in response to their actions.  And Goose Island is one of my favourite brewers in the world, with their IPA my standard issue secret weapon for converting people who 'don't like' beer.

AB-Inbev do not like beer.  Most people I have met personally who work for the corporation don't even drink it.  I have argued with AB-Inbev marketers, trying to convince them that, if you want to make money from selling beer, you must recognise that it is not like other grocery products - that it has more romance, charm and mystery around it, that people take a greater degree of ownership in beer brands than they do in other product sectors.  And those marketers have disagreed with me, stating categorically that they feel beer is no different from any other product and can be standardised and treated exactly the same.  Stuart Macfarlane, CEO of AB-Inbev UK, has said that he works not for a brewer, but for an FMCG marketing company that happens to sell beer. It's a company that has an industry-wide reputation for being a ruthless cost cutter - after all, their relentless expansion has to be paid for somehow.  The tragedy of Stella Artois is that it was once a special beer, and the last ten years have seen every single ounce of value stripped from that beer.  AB-Inbev is also a company where, if you are an employee and you are seen drinking a beer from a different brewer - even on your own time, off the clock, when the company is not paying you - this can be, in the words of more than one former employee, "a career ending move." (Apart from anything else that completely transgresses employer-employee relationships, making working for AB-Inbev a form of indentured slavery, and I look forward to the day when some ex-employee sues their asses over this disgraceful policy.  And if what I am saying is not true, I invite AB-Inbev to sue me for libel.  I'm not short on potential defence witnesses.)

So no - I don't think it's good news that a mean, ruthless, cost focussed, heartless, acquisitive, jealous company run by people who don't even like beer has bought one of the best craft brewers in the world.

But this is not because "they're a macro" - it's because of the specific organisational policies and practices I've outlined. Interbrew in the old days were not like this.  Not all AB-Inbev's competitors are like this.  My point is, it's not about how big they are, it's about what they do - it's about their record.

I can only hope that people on Twitter who talked about their Goose Island beer 'turning from a micro to a macro' when they were half way down a pint were joking.  As many people have pointed out, AB have long had a stake in Goose Island - they've just upped the size of that stake into a controlling interest.  If your problem with this is the mere association, the smell of a macro brewer, then - actually, you know what? You just stick with that.  I'm not going to try to convince you otherwise.  But I don't think you'll end up a happier drinker because of it.  The Goose Island products that are currently sitting in your beer fridge, in your local craft beer pub, your supermarket or beer shop, are no different than they were a week ago.

This takeover occurred, weirdly, just two days after I finished a piece for Brewers Guardian on innovation and new product development.  In that piece, I argued that the brand management culture of big companies is entirely different from the entrepreneurial spirit of smaller companies.  One can manage and grow brands on a global scale, but is incapable of nurturing genuinely new ideas to market.  The other is the opposite.  If a big company really wants something fresh and new, the best way for them to get it is to buy it, once it's reached a point where it has proven to be a profitable and sustainable niche product that is ready to make the transition to something bigger.  And if a small company wants to grow beyond that point, the best thing they can do is to sell to a company that has processes, channels and people in place who know how to do that.

I think it's a perfectly valid argument for a craft beer fan to say, "Yeah, but we don't want them to grow! We want them to stay small and crafty."  It's your opinion - beers are built by fans and fans have a say, and God knows, I'm all for supporting small companies because they are not multinationals.  But remember, when a big company buys a small company in this way, the small company also wants to sell.  If the people who built this thing from scratch, who devoted 20 years of their lives to it, decide this is the next step in the evolution of the business, you have to respect that.

So where does all that theory leave this particular acquisition?  I'm in total agreement with Nigel Stevenson of James Clay, the importers of Goose Island into the UK.  He says,

"Anheuser-Busch has acquired an American brewer of high acclaim, we thereby feel they recognise the potential within this market and appreciate that genuine craft beer brands cannot be 'invented' by a large Multinational organisation.

"At James Clay we are immensely proud to have been involved in Goose Island's growth and development over the years.  We urge Anheuser-Busch to respect the culture of experimentation and innovation that has made Goose Island the world renowned brewer it is today. James Clay will continue to work with Goose Island in the UK but will monitor the impact of Anheuser-Busch closely.”

To illustrate what this could mean: I'm currently consulting with another global macro brewer who is doing a deal not dissimilar to this (though on nothing like the same scale).  It's not something I will cover as a writer because that would be a conflict of interest, and I can't say who it is until it goes public later in the year.  But the macro in question is saying to itself internally, "We can't manage brands like this the way we normally do - if we apply our standard processes to the craft market, we'll only fuck it up." The deal therefore gives the craft beer access to far greater distribution channels and new investment in the brewery, and gives the macro a slice of the profit plus a little kudos, and the chance to see how craft beer works.  But the macro has committed to not trying to interfere with how the micro makes its beer.

Similar deals occurred in Canada a few years ago, when Molson Coors acquired craft brewers Creemore Springs and Granville Island.  These beers now have far greater distribution, but so far their craft brewing values and ways of doing things have not been compromised by pressure from the macro.

Will AB-Inbev follow a similarly enlightened process? Who knows? It would be nice if they told us - the only comment so far, unless I've missed something, is from the Goose Island guys.  On the one hand, their record makes me very pessimistic.  On the other, despite recent evidence to the contrary, they can't actually be total morons.  If they wanted to make Craft Beer Lite, they could do so without forking out $39m for Goose Island.  One can only hope they've bought it for the right reasons - that they recognise the value of craft beer, concede that they cannot do it themselves, and have a deal in place that will allow the craft brewer to continue doing that they do best, but on a larger scale.

I wouldn't bet money on this, but I have my fingers crossed.  Either way, I'll be waiting until they completely screw it up before I start attacking them for having done so.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Brew Dog hires rank amateurs to create its latest beer

Entering the revolutionary spirit

Well, it was an offer we couldn't refuse.  Especially when, with their trade mark hyperbole, Brew Dog publicly referred to us as 'the rock stars of the beer blogging world'*.

On 27th January, massively and pathetically hungover after hosting a beer dinner at Musa Aberdeen, Mark Dredge, Zak Avery and me were whisked up to Fraserburgh to brew a beer we had designed.  (When I say 'we', I mean mainly Zak and Mark thought about it and designed it and I said 'yes'.)

We went into the hops store and chose the hops.  We tipped the frankly worrying amount of malt into the mash tun, which we filled almost to the top, and we made Young Dredge stand on top of a ladder and do a continuous addition of hops throughout the boil.  I've no idea how long this took him, because I bailed out early and was on my way home by then (to be fair, my flight was booked weeks before and brewing somehow took a lot longer - or started a lot later - than we had thought.)

The result is a 7.5% 'Imperious Pilsner'.  Zak wrote some label copy that goes on about killing your ideals and worshipping your heroes and stuff, which is really good and adorns the bottle label.  But basically it's doing to lager what new wave brewers such as Brew Dog have done to pale ales, porters and stouts.  (I'm not saying we're the first - just that that's what we did.)  It features an insane amount of Saaz hops, and was lagered for a full six weeks before being dry-hopped with yet more Saaz.

If we were music writers being offered the chance to go and make a record with a popular and influential band, the result would be horrible beyond belief.  One of the nice things about the brewing world is that an idea like this can actually work out quite well.

The result of our collaboration is a bitter, hoppy character that's refreshingly different from the prevailing, ubiquitous Citra-sy trend.  It's more elegant, more structured, more noble - a classy beer, a very firm, gentlemanly shake of the hand rather than a slap around the face.

We're giving Avery Brown Dredge a triple-headed launch this Thursday, 31st March, at three separate locations.  Zak will be at the North Bar in Leeds,  I'll be at the Jolly Butchers, London N16, and Mark will be at the Rake, London SE1, at 7.30pm.  We'll probably link up with something like a #ABD hash tag on Twitter and try to do some Live Aid style three headed technology shenanigans.

Brew Dog MD James Watt will be joining me at JBs, and various other Brew Dog honchos will be at the other locations.  These will be the only three outlets in the UK with the beer on draught, with just one keg each, so get there fast.  I wouldn't be surprised if there were other Brew Dog treats turning up as well...

Post launch, the beer will be available only from the Brew Dog online shop.  We hope you enjoy it!

*Being called rock stars, we had to decide which ones we were.  Well, I did.  Mark is obviously one of McFly.  Zak is Flea out of Red Hot Chilli Peppers (I did not see his sock).  And I' hoping to be Hooky out of New Order, but am probably Gary Barlow.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Beer duty: the facts, presented handily

Not going to go on about this again but I just received a very useful press release from the BBPA. The trade body is calling for a 'return to clarity' over beer taxation, noting as I did yesterday that with an 'escalator' in place, announcing 'no new taxes' is wilfully misleading.

There were a few questions and comments after my post yesterday about how all the various figures and calculations around the swingeing duty increase add up, so I thought it would be useful to share the following table for the release.

Predicted increase in tax of a typical pub pint
Average new price of a pub pint of lager (4.2 per cent abv)
New typical duty on a pub pint of lager
New typical VAT on a pub pint of lager
Combined VAT and duty increase this year
Beer Tax increase since March 2008
British Beer Tax, times higher than France
British Beer Tax, times higher than Germany
British Beer Tax, times higher than Spain

The release also contains one crucially important piece of information, which I urge you to share with everyone you know, especially your MP: with the 7.2% rise yesterday compounded by the 2.5% rise in VAT in January, 2011 has already seen the highest EVER increase in tax and duty on beer in any single year.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Chancellor punches beer and pubs in the face with one hand - but gives us a clever gift with the other

I have no plans to kick this oleaginous, deceitful, dishonest, callous multi-millionaire (inherited) repeatedly in the face*

Today's budget has been called many things. 'A budget for growth'. A 'tax cutting budget'. It comes one week after David Cameron promised to 'remove all obstacles to growth' from small businesses.  You know, businesses like, ooh, craft breweries.  Or pubs.

So it's pretty repulsive that in what is indeed being hailed by the media as a budget for growth, George Gideon Osborne hit beer with a whopping 7.2% tax increase, bringing the total increase in VAT and duty on beer to a whopping 32.4% since October 2008.

"Whoa, hang on there, Pete!"  I hear you saying.  "I've been watching the budget, and Osborne specifically said that beer tax wasn't going up."

Did he?

Oh yes, he must have done.  Look, the Guardian says "No change to rates of alcohol duty."   The BBC confirms this in its coverage, categorically stating that the chancellor "froze alcohol duties."

That must mean alcohol duty didn't go up, right?  There is no other possible meaning of the words being reported right there.


What Osborne actually said was there would be "no additional rise" in alcohol duty.

No additional rise.  But that means it's not going up, surely!  Well, that's what it means to any casual observer.  The man in the street.  In fact, anyone who does not have a thorough working knowledge of treasury tax plans in relation to the brewing industry.

If you DO know those plans (and if you don't work in beer or pubs, there's no reason you should), you will know that Labour instigated a 'beer duty escalator' of inflation plus 2% every year, and that one of the first things Osborne did on coming to power was to extend this so that it happens every year until 2014.  So when Osborne says there are no additional rises, he means no rises in addition to the 7.2% he was already planning to slap on.  

See what he did there?  

By saying he was only going to increase tax by the amount he planned to increase tax by, that is, by saying he isn't going to implement any tax rises on top of the tax rises he was already planning to implement, he's conned everyone - including intelligent, major, reputable news outlets - into thinking he hasn't increased taxes at all.

If you didn't know about the duty escalator, you would have no idea what he'd just done.

True, he's only applying the tax increases Labour would have done.  But at least Labour told us honestly and clearly that they were shafting us, and how much by.

So it's a tragedy for everyone really.  Pubs will close because of this.  Jobs will be lost because of it.  The price of a pint will go up 10p because of it.  And the most stupid part is, the effect it will have on demand means that the treasury will actually make less money because of it.  Stupid beyond belief.

But while we lick our wounds over this latest battering, we should reflect on the marvellous gift Osborne has given us with this new piece of spin, a greasy deceit that even Malcolm Tucker would applaud.

Because we can all take this same linguistic construct, this same extreme economy with the truth, and use it in our every days lives.

Say, for example, that I haven't had anything to drink for five days, and tonight I plan to go out and drink ten pints and get rat-arsed.  If you ask me, "Are you going to have another night off the beer tonight?" I can simply reply, "My plans relating to drink tonight remain unchanged.  I won't be drinking any additional beer." Unless you know I was already planning to drink ten pints (and you won't, because I haven't told you) you'll think I'm not going to drink.  Hah! But the joke is on you, because I am!

Here's another one.  I'm very angry with George Osborne, even angrier now than when I first saw his pompous, arrogant little face sneering down at the rest of us while he rubbed his multi-million pound inheritance all over his pasty white doughy skin.  I have always thought that if I ever met him, I would kick him repeatedly in the face.  

But you don't know that.  

So, say I was invited to a Parliamentary Beer Group function at which he was going to be a guest, and someone took me to one side and said, "Pete, we know you're very angry with Mr Osborne about his wilful deception and deliberate misleading of the media and the British people over beer duty increases.  You're not hoping to kick him repeatedly in the face or anything are you?"  

I could in all honesty reply, "The way that upper class, over-privileged, callous, pig-ignorant dickhead misled the nation over alcohol duty has not increased the likelihood of me kicking him repeatedly in the face.  Not one bit.  I have no additional plans to kick him in the face repeatedly."  And unless you were listening very, very carefully, you'd think I meant I wasn't planning on kicking him repeatedly in the face.  

It's brilliant!

I'm going to use it all the time from now on.

*Or rather, what I mean is, the plans I have to do so have not changed.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Champagne beers: they're lovely!

It strikes me that, for a beer blog, I don't actually write much specifically about beer itself on here. Partly that's a conscious decision - there are roughly a gazillion blogs providing reviews and analysis of favourite beers and I'm not sure we need another one.

But hey, it's a beer blog.  The reason we're here is that we enjoy drinking beer.  And every so often, beers come up that are too remarkable not to comment on.

I've always loved 'champagne beers'.  Up to now there have been too few of them to attempt anything so anal as defining the 'style', and I'd resist that even now, because I think the inspiration of champagne, the selective application of some champagne ingredients and/or processes, signals a creative approach that combines classiness and elegance with a wonderfully liberating playfulness, and I would resist at all costs attempts to stifle that with anything so boring as a style guide.

But there are certainly enough of them around now - all different - to suggest, if not a style, than a loose coalition, a movement, a trend.

The first one on most people's radar was Deus, still magnificent, a Belgian Tripel matured with champagne yeast in champagne caves, using the traditional methods of remuage and degorgement, where during secondary fermentation, the bottles are turned and angled so the yeast collects in the neck, where it can be frozen and extracted.

Simpler - in both process and flavour - is Kasteel Cru.  This is simply a lager fermented with champagne yeast, and while as such it's easy to dismiss, it has some merit - it's light, spritzy and has a grapey hint, a great aperitif that prompts re-evaluation among people who 'don't like beer'.

There are other Belgians who have followed Deus' lead, most notably (for me) Malheur Brut, which is possibly even better than Deus.

But I've recently been given three new champagne(style) beers in quick succession, and they each make me very happy indeed.  In no particular order...

Infinium, by Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan

Roll up! Roll up!

Samuel Adams is a brewery that understands the value of special, premium packaging, but can sometimes err into gaudy rather than premium.  This one stays on the right side of the line, but only just - with the result that it looks magnificent - like it was created by some insane genius who lives within a travelling funfair invented by Terry Gilliam.  Whether your initial reaction to the following image is a laugh or gasp probably reveals something deep about your psyche:

Brewers by appointment to Dr Parnassus
But what about the beer?

The press release is full of superlatives.  German Weihenstephan is 'the world's oldest brewery', and this collaboration has 'shattered industry preconceptions of the limits of the German purity laws', by remaining faithfully within those laws to produce a beer that's 10.5% ABV that will be in 'selected outlets for discerning consumers prepared to pay vintage champagne-style prices.'

I was lucky enough to be sent a bottle.  It made me want to wait for a special occasion to open it, but I couldn't - I gave in, celebrating the fact that I was at home for once on a Sunday (the Beer Widow would argue that this is an event rare enough to celebrate with vintage Krug.)

It pours an amazing, alluring bronze colour, beautiful and rich.

It has complex nose of caramel, that biscuity vintage champagne aroma, with a hint of sherry sweetness. It's one of those rare, special beers where you enjoy nosing it so much, you almost forget to drink it.

You should though.

On the palate there's banana, lemon, caramel, perfectly judged winter spices and a brief, intense sweetness before a nice champagne-like dryness and a hint of earthiness at the back.

It's classy, elegant and sophisticated, yet fuller and bolder than other champagne beers I've had.  It's available in a mere two outlets in the UK: Vino Wines in Edinburgh, and Inspire, a cafe bar in Coventry.  Utterly random, but there you go.  More info is available from Branded Drinks.

Bowland Artisan Gold
If the location for an artisanal champagne beer surprises you, the quality of that beer will surprise you further still.  Bowland is a microbrewery some miles north of Burnley, Lancashire, which has been doing a good job of crafting quality ales since 2003 (its Admiral Best Bitter was named Champion Best Bitter of Britain in the recent SIBA awards, and I reviewed it on the Vlog from those awards).

Bowland brewer Richard Baker decided the only way he could absolutely guarantee perfect beer time after time would be to produce a top quality bottled beer.  He wanted to use bottle conditioning, but didn't want to leave a sediment - and that made him think of champagne-style secondary fermentation.  Baker studied champagne methods in depth and reproduced them as closely as he was able, and this is the result:

You want premium?  You got premium

It's a remarkable beer.  It has all the refinement and complexity of any other champagne beer - though perhaps not the dense layers of flavour - at a low (for champagne beer) ABV of 5.7%.  I'm afraid I didn't make too many tasting notes on this one, just lots of adjectives like 'classy' and 'elegant'.  The mix of noble and new world hops gives it a lot of fruit, but it's held in check by a smooth dryness.  I felt I was wasting it, enjoying it in front of the TV with a bowl of pasta, and I was very sad indeed when I finished the bottle, because it's very quaffable despite (or probably because of) its structure and complexity.

Richard Baker told me, "I am hoping that Artisan Gold will help to open up the minds of people in Britain to the fact that beer is not just for swilling down in back street pubs up North (although there’s nowt wrong with that!) but that there are craft brewers all over the country producing a wide range of beers that we should be massively proud of and that there really is a beer for everyone if they just opened themselves up and gave it a try."

It should certainly work.  Served in a glass like the one above, it's one of those beguiling drinks you can't pin down into a category.  You may not even be certain it's a beer at all.

Artisan Gold is available only from Northcote Manor - the Michelin-starred restaurant a few miles from the brewery - the brewery itself, and the online shop, where you can buy it mail order for £15.99.  

The price tag made me hesitate, and that made me think - I'd pay that happily for Deus, at 11.5% ABV, but was hesitant here because the beer is only 5.7%.  Fascinating, because I don't know about you, but I like to think I'm above paying for alcohol units, that for me, it's all about the quality of the beer.  I always bang on about how quality is not necessarily linked to ABV.  With Artisan Gold, you're paying for the time, the care and attention, the method, and the experience of a beer that is easily worth the price tag.  It may require you to overcome a prejudice you may not even have been sure you had, but it's worth the effort.

Chapel Down Curious Brew Brut

This isn't quite the same deal as the previous two. But I include it here to show the breadth of champagne(style) beers.

By the standards of Infinium and Artisan Gold it's more of an everyday drink.  But by the standards of draught lager - which is how we should be judging it - it's just as special as the previous two.

Chapel Down is one of the leading English wineries, based in Kent.  Their wines are seriously good, and if your experience of English wine stretches as far as fruit wines that are half a step away from home brew, you need to shift your frame of reference south, to the Loire valley and the champagne region - Kent has a similar climate and terroir, and Chapel Down wines easily stand alongside their French cousins.

The thing is, the MD of Chapel Wines is a former beer man, having worked for Whitbread and Heineken (full disclaimer: he's an ex-client and current friend of mine) and he's been dabbling for a few years with getting winemakers to approach beer with a wine sensibility.  Bottled Curious Brew Brut, Admiral Porter and Cobb IPA are all well worth seeking out, each with a winey twist.  Now, Brut has been revamped and launched around Kent on draught.

It's a premium strength lager, lagered for a decent length of time, and brewed with sparkling wine yeast.  As such it's along similar lines to Kasteel Cru, but the end result is quite different.  It's a fuller, more assertive beer, more fruity and rounded, that grapey sweetness getting a much bigger stage to show off on, but still reined in at the end by a crisp dryness.  Refreshing and satisfying, the true test of it is that it feels vulgar drinking it from a pint, as I first did.  Get it in the correct half pint glass, and it's a lovely halfway house between beer and sparkling wine in every way, and proved to be the perfect aperitif before dinner at the winery's excellent restaurant last weekend.

It's currently brewed by Hepworth's, who do a lot of contract brewing, but Chapel Down is considering commissioning its own brewery alongside the winery just outside Tenterden.  If the current sales growth continues, that should be happening pretty soon.

So, that's some seriously fancy drinking right there.  And I've just remembered why I don't write as many beer reviews as I should.  It's 12.19, and I'm now gasping for a beer...

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Video Blog: The SIBA Conference

SIBA is the Society of Independent Brewers, kind of the equivalent to the Brewers' Association in the US, and it's doing a grand job of fuelling the growth of great quality beer from small producers in the UK.  It is a beer trade body, and as such it has its political struggles, battles with other bodies, internal strife and all the rest of the issues that plague every trade body in beer.  But SIBA events are fun.  And the people who organise and run them are decent, talented people who you enjoy having a pint with.  I wrote here about the time I had at the conference last year, so it was a pleasure to go back with the film crew this year.

So what happens in this episode? It's twelve minutes long, so let me guide you through it.

First, Peter Amor talks to SIBA head Julian Grocock about the society, what its stands for and what it does to help promote beer.  SIBA organises a year-long brewing competition, where beers judged at regional heats go through to a national final, with the winners announced at the conference.  I then sneak into the bar while the conference is going on in the next room, and help myself to a sneak preview and tasting of all the category winners (or rather, all bar one in the final edit - not everyone likes the fact that SIBA judged a national keg beer competition this year).  This gets interspersed with interviews with some of the young, new cask ale brewers who were at the conference this year, where we seek to uncover the motivations behind a new generation entering the brewing industry.  This concludes with an interview with the brewer who created this year's grand champion.  Which of the beers was it?  Well, if you're eagle-eyed during the tasting segment, you'll spot it well before I did...

These video blogs now have their own home on the web too.  Go to if you want to see them all together, and there'll also be the odd extra bonus clip knocking around there too.  You can also find the embed code there now that allows you to feature them on your own site of you wish.

Finally, can I ask for some feedback?  This year of video blogs represents a significant financial investment, which aims to help spread beer appreciation beyond the usual community of beer aficionados and hopes to reach a wider audience.  If you've been following them for the last six months you'll see that we've tried different formats and ideas, and also that we're steadily learning our craft as presenters (the filmmakers already knew what they were doing).  We want to make them as good as we can. Any constructive comments would be very gratefully received!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Stunning hypocrisy proves alcohol regulators simply don't get the point.

The venue used by a government minister to launch British Tourism Week is BANNED from selling beers above 5% ABV - but faces no restrictions on the wine and spirits it can sell.

"Can I have a Worthington White Shield?"
"No! Fancy a Tequila slammer instead?"
I spotted this story yesterday in The Publican.  At first it was mildly irritating, and then, while I was being pissed off with the total and utter ineptitude of both O2 and my email so-called provider, Fasthosts, I realised I was very angry with this too.

The newly rebuilt Grand Pier at Weston-Super-Mare was used by tourism minister John Penrose, along with Weston's local MP, to launch British Tourism Week this week.  Presumably, this location was deemed significant because it represents what's great about British tourism and British culture.

However, the Publican learned that when the pier, previously destroyed by fire, reopened last October, police intervened in the licensing application process and demanded that the owners enforce a ban on beers over 5% so the location would not become “known as somewhere that sold strong beer”.  No such stipulation was made regarding wines and spirits.

So a quality, classic British ale like Worthington White Shield (5.6%) is banned, but shots and shooters are not.

OK, so are they doing this because they hate beer?  Of course not.  They're doing it because Weston is home to 11% of the UK's entire stock of drug and alcohol rehabilitation places, and piers in seedy seaside towns are classic venues for hardcore drunks to gather over a few purple tins.

But it's yet another case of stupid action following reasonable intent.  The pier staff say it doesn't bother them - presumably they don't see a market for Belgian ales, American IPAs or even nice homegrown winter warmers and strong ales in the average promenader.

But what if that were to change?  Duvel, for example (8.5%), is growing by 40% year on year and appearing in fashionable bars not normally noted for beer geekery.  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6%) and Brooklyn Lager (5.2%) are similarly breaking out into mainstream pubs, bars and restaurants, but are banned from Weston pier for the foreseeable future.

This is a classic example of our obsession with ABV in beer masking the real nature of the problem.  It's insulting to brewers and drinkers to show no distinction between them and the tramp drinking Tennent's Super.

But worse than that, as is always the case with rulings like this, I doubt it does much to help the people it's meant to.

The eternal frustration in the debate about alcohol is how little attention those regulating it actually pay to the data.  I've said many, many times that alcohol consumption, binge drinking, alcohol related disorder etc are all in long term decline.  The one anomaly is that liver-related hospital complaints are still up (or they were until last year, when that figure fell too).  What this demonstrates is that while the total population is drinking less, a particular segment is drinking to increasingly harmful levels.

So what are they drinking?  Well, beer volumes over the last twenty years have gone off a cliff.  But within that total decline in alcohol consumption, wine and spirits consumption is actually up.  Every significant drinking epidemic in history is strongly linked with a sharp rise in spirits consumption, and that's what's happening here - the vast majority of people who drink solely to get drunk do so on spirits.  If you don't believe me, just ask them - I did.

And that's the real tragedy - the recovering alcoholics of Weston-Super-Mare are still able to go on to the pier and drink as much vodka as they wish.  Meanwhile, beer is yet again made a completely unjustified scapegoat for alcohol abuse.

Ignorance.  Complete and utter ignorance.

The strange relationship between the Local and the Regular

So it's looking like the Publican mag is on its way out - shame, I've really enjoyed writing for them.

Here is the piece I've done recently that I'm most proud of.  They haven't put it on the web edition so I thought I'd share it here.

It’s one of the most complex and enduring relationships in modern life.

Statistics recently showed that we’re more likely to get divorced and remarried than change your bank.  Well, if that’s the scale of comparison, we’re probably more likely to change our bank and love the new one so much that we divorce our partners and marry our bank managers than we are to voluntarily change our choice of local pub.

The ‘Local’ and the ‘Regular’ – each a British icon on their own right – together tell you approximately 84.3 per cent of everything you need to know about the rituals, rigmarole and rhythms of the Great British Pub. 

“The usual, John?”

“Jeff been in yet?”

 “You can’t sit there, mate.  That’s Bill’s chair.”

I remember the important rite of passage to maturity of becoming a regular in my first local, as clear as if it were yesterday.  I’d been at St.Andrews University for about six weeks.  My new mates favoured one particular pub, the Niblick, because that’s where the second years said they went, and we wanted to fit in and appear urbane.  It was run by Tony, a man as physically tiny as his presence was huge, one of those special bar managers who imprints his authority on a pub with effortless ease. A man whose approval you craved and anger you feared, whether you were an eighteen year-old student or a windcreased, hard-as-nails Old Course caddy.  This one November night, I walked through the door and looked towards the bar’s golden glow.  It was busy, one or two deep, with two people serving.  One of them was Tony.  He peered over the punters’ heads (not easy if you’re five foot three, but that’s what I mean – once behind that bar, he could do anything), nodded and smiled at me, “Alright Pete!” and had my beautiful pint of Tennent’s Lager – yeah, alright, Tennent’s Lager, I was eighteen – waiting for me on the bar by the time I made it through the crowd.

Tony knew my name!

We were spoilt for choice for pubs in St Andrews.  But nine in every ten pints I drank during my university career from that day on were sunk in the Niblick.

The Regular is the person who has his own tankard on a hook behind the bar, and woe betide the newbie who serves him a beer in a different glass.  He’s the guy who sends a postcard to the pub on the rare occasions he goes somewhere else on holiday.  Who takes quiet pride when a photo of him from New Years Eve gets blu-tacked up beside the optics.  The guy who a Leicester Local has to keep an Everard’s Beacon pump on the bar for, because even though he and his mate (they’ve never been to each other’s houses – only the pub) are the only punters who drink it, it’s the only beer they will drink, and they get through a nine between them every week.

This is a relationship with as much loyalty, love, bickering and fractious argument, frustration and fatalism as any great marriage.  Each needs the other to survive. 

All of which brings me to my shameful confession: I’m currently a bigamist.

When I first moved to Stoke Newington, my closest pub, the White Hart, spoke to me in a way no other pub had since the Niblick all those years ago.  I could tell you about the food, the beer garden, the Sunday afternoon footie… It was all of that and none of that.  It just felt like my local.

And then, last year, the Jolly Butchers opened just up the road.  Eight handpulls standing proud along the centre of the bar.  Staff keen to hear from me what beers they should be getting in.  Cracking food, a beer and cheese pairing menu I helped put together. 

Now, every time I’m in one, I miss the other.  And the smiles of the respective guvnors are growing brittle.  Whenever I walk in either, it’s “Oh, we haven’t seen you for a while.  Been there, with them I suppose, have you?”  Recently I’ve been so busy with work I’ve hardly been in either, and now each thinks I’ve abandoned them for the other.

Guys, if you’re reading this, I love you both, very much indeed.  It’s just… complicated. 

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Happy Paddy's Day!

While I was writing Three Sheets I found this great book called Planet Party.  Basically it's an analysis of ten of the world's greatest festivals, from Munich's Oktoberfest to the Mexican day of the Dead.

The central thesis of the book is that civilizations need rules, conformity and order to survive.  But as we live most of our lives like this, we also need occasionally to let off steam, to throw over the rules and routine and go a bit batshit, safe in the knowledge that everyone is doing so, that this is a temporary suspension of order, permissible anarchy.  Author Iain Gately then travels the world demonstrating this principle in every continent and culture on the planet.

The only problem with the book is that for such a joyous subject, he writes it in a very dry, semi-academic fashion.  Perhaps that's partly why it's now out of print.  Since reading it I've wanted to do a similar book, going to the most extreme drinking festivals on the planet, following the same principle but getting stuck in as I do so rather than observing from outside.  The publishers won't buy it though: it feels too much like a direct sequel to Three Sheets, and that's the poorest selling of my three books (it sold well - just not as well as the other two) and it feels like it would serve the law of diminishing returns.

I haven't let that stop me enjoying myself along the paths Gately has illuminated though: I go to as many of these festivals as I can.  The Jack in the Green Festival in Hastings on May Bank Holiday is a marvellous release of pagan lust and joy until about 4pm, when everyone goes back home and puts the kettle on.  And I'll soon be writing about various Wassails I went to in January - hundreds of people standing in a muddy farmyard at night in the middle of January, worshipping trees and getting riotously pissed, smack in the middle of the grimmest time of the year - it makes me tear up just thinking about what a wonderful expression of the human spirit this is.

Which brings us to St Patrick's Day, celebrated around the world today.

Here's are ten things that I really, really don't want to talk about today, because it utterly misses the point (even though I might have done in the past - today is not the day):
  • How St Patrick wasn't really Irish
  • Why we celebrate St Patrick more than our own patron saints
  • How tedious it is that everyone seeks an Irish connection
  • How the Paddy's Day Angry Birds update is possibly racist
Did someone say "Thieving Irish pigs"?
  • Plastic paddies and bad Irish theme pubs
  • The fact that stout (or rather, the porter that led to it) actually originates from London
  • Opinions as to whether Guinness is any good or not in a world where we now have lots of quality stouts and porters
  • Whether or not Guinness tastes better in Ireland
  • Whatever Guinness is doing marketing/PR-wise on its biggest day of the year
  • Why people who drink Guinness today don't drink it the rest of the year

What I shall be doing instead is marvelling at the way people across our entire planet use a flimsy excuse to give themselves permission to celebrate, not celebrating anything in particular, not really, but rather adopting an oversimplified version of one of the world's greatest drinking cultures and pretending to be part of it for one night, knowing that everyone else in pubs and bars the world over is doing the same.  And I'll be marvelling that beer is at the heart of this, that beer's sociability, its miraculous ability to bring joy to its groups of drinkers, is at the core of the ritual. 

What will I be drinking myself?  Well, I'll probably go to the Auld Shillelagh on Stoke Newington Church Street and fight my way to the bar in what is normally a quiet Irish pub, and have a couple of the best pints of Guinness in North London.  I might come home early and open the bottle of Otley porter I was sent for St David's Day, or the stunning Imperial Stout that debuted the Meantime College Beer Club, or the Quantock Brewery Stout that won bronze in SIBA's national bottled beer competition and turned up on my doorstep yesterday.  It doesn't matter.  I'll be drinking dark beer because that's what you do on St Patrick's Day.  It's what everyone does.

And that is, in my view, what's really worth celebrating.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Celebrating the Beer Hunter

This month the Brewery History Society releases a very special edition of its magazine, focused on the life and work of Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter.

When I won UK Beer Writer of the Year in 2009, it was a particular honour because it was the first year when the award was named after Jackson.  And it was even more of an honour some months later when, as the winner of that award, I was invited to guest-edit this collection of pieces about Michael and his immense contribution to beer appreciation and beer writing.

There are more details of the result here, and you can download my introduction here.  But in a nutshell: the BHS' Tim Holt came up with the idea, and suggested we approach various writers with topics they might want to cover.  With one exception, everyone we approached immediately came back and said yes, and delivered their pieces promptly.

I took a while to get around to reading the collection we'd assembled.  But when I finally did, I read the whole lot in just about one sitting.  When I was judging the beer writers' awards last year, there was so much to get through we had to skim-read the entries first time around to whittle them down.  With such a big pile to get through, it was rare indeed to find a piece that you ended up reading the whole way through, and left you disappointed that you'd got to the end and there was no more.  Every time that happened, you knew you had a winner from the 400+ entries in front of you.

I'm not just being obsequious here, but that happened with each one of the pieces of writing in this collection.  What makes it even more compelling is the way it builds, so you turn to each new chapter going, 'What, he did that as well?'  It truly is staggering to see Michael's entire contribution to beer writing and beer appreciation, even the welfare and development of beer and brewing itself, summarised so comprehensively and so well.

We're launching the collection at The Rake in Borough Market, SE1, on Sunday 27th March at 6pm - I only just found out that, appropriately enough, this is the anniversary of Michael's birthday.  Tim Holt, continuing his excellent job at making this whole project happen, is trying to get as many of the writers as possible to attend. Mark Dredge and I will definitely be there.  Others would have to travel from further afield, but include Zak Avery, Roger Protz, John Keeling, Jeff Evans, Carolyn Smagalski, John Richards and Martyn Cornell.

The magazine goes out free to BHS members and costs £4.50 otherwise.  If you can't make it on the night, I guess you can get them from the Brewery History Society website.

Hope to see you there.

Friday, 11 March 2011

All at sea again: Imperial Russian Stout is coming home.

I am SO going on this.

This is old news now, but I've been meaning to promote it for ages and, having just paid my deposit, now seems like the perfect time.

This June - almost four years since I recreated the journey of IPA from Burton-on-Trent to India - a group of brewers corralled by a man almost as mad as I am will be recreating the Baltic Run, from London to St Petersburg.

This is the journey that foreshadowed IPA, and its recreation is taking place on the kind of epic scale, and with the a level of authenticity, that I only wish I could have achieved with my adventure.  Tim O' Rourke, a longstanding figure in the beer industry, had the idea a few years ago after a chat I had with him about my IPA voyage, and he's worked tirelessly to make it a reality.

He's hired Thermopylae - the yacht above - and convinced eleven brewers to create Imperial Russian Stouts that will be loaded on board after a special beer festival in London, running from 12th to 15th May.  The ship will then set sail across the North Sea, and will tour pubs and beer festivals around the Baltic, with the intention of arriving in St Petersburg on 15th June.  The journey will be in stages, and volunteer crew are still needed for various bits of it.  It's a non-proft making venture and hiring a round-the-world clipper plus professional skipper and watch captains doesn't come cheap, so it costs £700 per person per week.  But it's worth it to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime - sod that, once-in-two-centuries -experience.

It's a common misconception that stout was shipped to Russia by Burton brewers in the days of the Czars.  Well, while some stout may or may not have gone in later days, the beer that made Burton famous was strong, sweet, nut-brown ale.  Years later though, London's porter brewers got in on the act and started exporting their beers to Imperial courts that fell in love with strong British beer styles.  British ships originally went to the Baltic to source wood for barrels, and figured they needed to take something on the outward journey to make it worthwhile.  So they took beer, and it really took off.  Maybe it was because of Staffordshire glass blowers working on the new palaces of St Petersburg.  Maybe it was inspired by attempts to keep up with Peter the Great, who served it at royal banquets, or Catherine the Great, who was 'immoderately fond' of British beer.  But the Baltic was Britain's first great export market, until a combination of Bonaparte and prohibitive duty rates killed the trade off.  Back in Burton, it was the infrastructure and knowhow developed for the Baltic trade that allowed Burton brewers to crack the Indian market.

On the modern day version, the beers taking the trip come from:

1.     Harveys
2.     Coors Museum Brewery/William Worthington Brewery
3.     Wadworth
4.     Shepherd Neame
5.     St Austell
6.     Elgood's
7.     Thrornbridge
8.     Meantime
9.     Bartram Brewery
10.  Black Sheep
11.  Fullers

I wish I could go along for the whole voyage, but I'll be helping The Beer Widow organise Stokey Lit Fest again at the start of June.  Happily, we have just enough time to recover from the Litfest before getting a flight to Helsinki, where we'll meet the ship and her cargo for the final leg to St Petersburg and what will hopefully be a triumphant arrival.

Middle of June, Baltic, a sun that never sets... I might even take the Beer Widow with me this time.  Go to if you're interested in joining us.

Monday, 7 March 2011

We've got to acc-en-tu-ate the positive

Sorry - really long post - really big topic.

I’ve seen lots of conversations recently that all come together around a central theme that is, to my mind at least, one of the key themes for beer this year.  Namely this: factionalism and blind prejudice – on various sides – is threatening to kill, or at least stall, the beer revolution.

The people's front of Judea and the popular Judean people's front.  Or is it the other way round?

It first struck me when Martyn Cornell expressed his dismay that seven of the supposed ten best beers in the world are Imperial Stouts, which began a war of indignation that has currently run to almost 150 comments on his blog.  Then, after my recent posting on a very good-natured and enjoyable beer versus wine matching dinner, Cooking Lager temporarily dropped his comedy mask to make the very good observation that in wine, you never hear people promoting good wine by slagging off cheap wine.  And, last week, I was talking to Zak Avery about my growing concern over negativity in the beer scene, and he said, ‘wait till you see my next column’.  Zak published his thoughts on the subject yesterday, arguing for more inclusivity and tolerance.

As Zak says, the passion that people have for beer can only be a good thing, and I would never want to deter anyone from expressing their passion.  I’d just ask you to think about the way in which you express it (and by the way, I’m not exempting myself here – I’ve been guilty too).

When I first started writing about beer, I was infuriated by CAMRA because it was the only voice in the UK championing good beer, and it did so in a way that I felt was blinkered, bigoted, and downright insulting to beer drinkers who were not already part of the club.  CAMRA-friendly beer writers would not only dismiss mainstream beers as ‘industrial yellow fizz’, but also their drinkers as brainwashed morons.  It was only half a step away from the nasty abuse of ‘chavs’ or ‘pikeys’ under which class prejudice hides today – sometimes not even that far.

CAMRA has since changed and become more open, and has seen its membership double.  I think the two are not unrelated.  (From now on, I’m going to refer to the rump of unreconstructed CAMRA diehards who hate anything new or different as Old CAMRA, to differentiate them from the broader-minded but still real ale-loving mainstream CAMRA).

But CAMRA is no longer the only voice championing good beer.  We now have what Zak refers to as the ‘crafterati’ – beer bloggers and other vocal drinkers who champion great beers from or influenced by the North American brewing scene.  I’d like to believe I was among the first of these in the UK.  But now I look at what Martyn calls ‘the extremophiles’, and I’m seeing a similar unpleasant snobbery to that of CAMRA ten years ago – just coming from a different direction. Where the rump of Old CAMRA members still dismiss even quality Czech and German lagers as ‘yellow fizz’, the extremophiles similarly deride ‘Boring Brown Beer’.  Each dismisses vast swathes of beer, denigrating perfectly good brews simply because they are not of the style they prefer.

Old CAMRA and the extremophiles do at least agree on one thing – that any beer brewed by a big brewery must be shit.  In the US, the definition of Craft Beer hinges on the size of the brewery rather than the ingredients and processes used, or the passion of the brewer.  Over here, Old CAMRA now forgets that it was regional brewers like Young’s and Greene King who kept real ale alive long enough for the micros to arrive, casting them in the role of evil big brewers oppressing the micros, while extremophiles dismiss their beers as hopelessly square and bland.

All of this is childish, and ultimately damaging for beer – all beer.

I just got back from the SIBA conference, where one of the prevailing attitudes was inclusivity about what makes good beer.  During the closing panel session, Roger Protz cut an increasingly isolated figure as he defended CAMRA’s stance on only promoting cask ale.  One minute he said CAMRA could only ever promote real ale because that is what it is for, suggesting that this forty year-old body is simply incapable of changing to reflect changing times. The next minute he boasted that CAMRA had proudly defended Budvar for twenty years.  The brewers of quality British lager – some brewed locally – who were in the room were left scratching their heads as to why CAMRA could promote a foreign quality lager but not a British one.  Roger confessed to enjoying some quality keg products and exhorted fans of them to form a campaign for keg ale.  But in doing so he missed the whole point – it’s not about cask or keg.  It’s now about a broader championing of good beer in an age where method of dispense is no longer the key differentiator of quality.  The audience - comprising mainly of cask ale brewers - was then asked if they thought CAMRA should broaden its remit.  A show of hands revealed roughly 80% believed CAMRA should – and I repeat, these are brewers of cask ale.  Roger said he was ‘horrified’ by this result.

At the other end of the scale, we had a Guild of Beer Writers meeting last week, and after the meeting, we all enjoyed pints of Gales Seafarers, Adnams Bitter and London Pride.  These beers were perfectly kept, wonderfully tasty, but some of us who might be counted as ‘crafterati’ (me included) felt a need to justify or at least comment upon the fact that we could enjoy these ‘boring brown beers’ as much as we did.  I’ve enjoyed great pints of Greene King IPA on occasion – in the right pub at the right time – and I now reject a beer scene where anyone needs to be defensive about that, just as much as I reject a beer scene that says cask ale is the only beer worth drinking.

There was a different aspect of the same thing with some of the criticism of the Proud of Beer video.  Why was Carling in there? Wasn’t this supposed to be a video promoting craft beer?  Well, no.  It was supposed to be a video promoting the British beer industry.  Because if Old CAMRA, the extremophiles, those arguing that SIBA brewers are parasites, those who believe Molson Coors are going to close down Sharps (even though the Cornish brewery has just had some brand new fermenting vessels delivered), those who hate beer tickers, those who say cask is dead, those who say keg is de facto shit, those who think any beer with under 50 IBUs is shit – if you could all just lift your heads out of you navels and look around for a bit, you’d see the real picture. 

There’s a war on drink at the moment, and beer is the scapegoat.  Every article on Britain’s binge drinking epidemic uses the pint as its frame of reference, despite the fact that beer sales overall are nose diving while wine and spirits sales increase.  Tax on beer has gone up by 26% in the last two years, and will go up by another 7% in this month’s budget.  Beer is massively under-represented in popular press coverage, and most people in the general public still perceive it as uninteresting and not for them.  Pubs are closing at the rate of 29 a week.

So if you care about beer enough to write about it, or evangelise it in any other way, it would be really great if you could do so positively.  Anyone who looks in on our industry, our beer scene, from the outside, sees a pack of squabbling kids.  If you’re a curious drinker who might try beer, it puts you off pretty quickly.  If you’re a minister wondering whether the industry deserves a break, you see a fragmented and ineffective lobbying body.  By focusing on internal battles, we’re allowing wine and spirits on one side and teetotallers on the other to reposition beer as something not worth bothering with.  We simply don’t make Planet Beer look like a very attractive place to be.

I’m not saying don’t be passionate about your favourite beer or favourite beer style.  But I would ask you to try one experiment.  If you do write about beer, and you write something about a beer you like, and you use what you regard as a crap beer as a point of comparison, save it and put it to one side.  Then, try to write the same piece without slagging off inferior beers.  Now, find a friend whose opinion you trust, who isn’t as passionate about beer as you, and ask them which they think reads better, which makes them want to try your beer – the one that praises the beer on its own merits, or the one that slags off what it is not?

Also – anticipating the first wave of comments and cries of hypocrisy here – I’m not saying never be critical, and I’m not saying don’t call bullshit when you see (or taste) it.  But do judge something on its own merits.  

Think of, say, a Jay Rayner restaurant review.  He does negative reviews – and how – but he does these on the basis of the restaurants own merits or lack of them, visiting it, and taking it on its own terms.  He doesn’t slag off a kebab shop for not having a Michelin star, or a provincial family-run restaurant for not being in the West End.  

See what I’m saying?  I hope so.  When I slagged off Stella Black, for example, I did so on the basis of tasting it, judging it as the super-premium lager it claimed to be.  It was revealing and sad that Cooking Lager expressed surprise that I had actually tasted it before slagging it off – what does that say about our perceived prejudices? 

What I am saying is two things:

Firstly, let’s not draw these ideological lines in the sand any more.  Let’s try to celebrate beer

Secondly, when we celebrate the beers we love, let’s do that, rather than constantly using what they’re not as a frame of reference.  Because you know what? It’s lazy, and it comes across as really insecure.

I look forward to all your positive, inclusive and constructive comments, people.