Thursday, 5 March 2015

Craft Beer Rising: meeting Lagunitas

Increasingly, the biggest threat to European breweries trying to emulate American beer styles is the Americans themselves. At CBR, I had a chat with a local rep from one of those breweries, California's Lagunitas, whose eponymous and classic American IPA was hard to find in the UK not long ago, but is now available nationwide via JD Wetherspoon.

“The Wetherspoons exposure is great for us,” said "ales & marketing" rep Ben Caruso, who was busy pouring IPA, Lagunitas Pils and the hoppy 7.85% golden ale Lagunitas Sucks. (The latter was originally a one-off, brewed as a self-deprecating apology one year when the company had to cancel production of its winter seasonal Brown Shugga Ale. Ironically it turned into a bigger hit than the seasonal it apologised for.)

It really doesn't suck!
What surprised me was that all the beers were on draught, when the Wetherspoons distribution is all bottled. Apparently Lagunitas has invested in ramping up its keg distribution here, selling on via Adnams – Ben explained that it takes just 12 to 14 days now to bring kegs over in a refrigerated ship, “so they're as fresh here as they are back home.”

He said Lagunitas prices its kegs for the beer to retail at around £5 or £5.50 a pint – intending a reasonable price for a fresh premium import, rather than a rip-off. “You get some American beers selling here at £8 a pint, and that's for beer that isn't even fresh,” he exclaimed.

Initially it's just the IPA on draught here, with IPA, Pils and Sucks imported in bottled form. More kegs will follow though, with Pils probably being the next addition to the UK regular line-up.

Could Lagunitas follow other US brewers in setting up production in Europe? There's nothing planned, but it would certainly be a lot cheaper without all those import taxes, Ben said. He added though that it would have to be their own brewery, because they'd never licence their beers to another brewer.

This is the second in a series of write-ups from London's Craft Beer Rising, which took place on 19th-22nd February 2015 at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Bishop and Doctor Brown

I picked up an interesting bit of information today about the Fuller's London Brewers Alliance programme. This is a great tie-up which sees Fuller's pubs showcase beers from other London Brewers Alliance members, and all kudos to Fuller's for running it.

What I hadn't really realised until I was chatting with one of the staff in the Mad Bishop & Bear at Paddington station today was just what a challenge this is for some LBA members. The programme only runs in 15 Fuller's pubs, but even so it requires the brewer to commit to supply 70 firkins of the chosen beer. This is to allow the pubs to order multiple casks – the bigger ones might take eight, for example.

That's a lot for a small brewery – the typical 10-barrel brewkit produces 40 firkins at a time, while for smaller breweries such as A Head in a Hat's five-barrel plant at the Florence in south London, it means brewing the same beer four times. This makes it quite impracticable for some, if they don't have the spare capacity.

I mention A Head in a Hat because that's who is supplying the March LBA beer, and the Mad Bishop has it on sale already. It's Dapper Ales' Doctor Brown, a recreation of a 1928 double brown ale brewed in London by Barclay Perkins, and named after Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was a great friend and benefactor of the Thrale family who founded the brewery that became Barclay Perkins.

Dapper Ales is a new series of beers, produced in collaboration between two beer historians, A Head in a Hat's Peter Haydon, and Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer author and fellow blogger Ron Pattinson. Peter has attempted to recreate the beer as faithfully as possible, going back to original boil times, and parti-gyling the wort streams. The original hops used were Pacifics, Bramling, Fuggles and Golding, and care has been taken to get as close as possible to this original bill. American Cluster are what would have been meant by Pacifics, and while Bramling is no longer grown due to its disease susceptibility, its daughter Early Gold is, so that has been used instead.

The result is a rich and toasty ale, deep red-brown with touches of smoke and tart red fruit, and a burnt-bitter caramel edge. An excellent example of an English brown ale, I suspect, and well worth seeking out.

Addendum: And as Ed quite rightly points out in the comment below, one opportunity to seek it out is when Peter and Ron get together on Saturday 28th March from 3pm to formally launch the Dapper Ales project. I would very much like ot be there, but sadly I'll be out of town.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Beer, beer, everywhere....

My first thought on entering Craft Beer Rising last Thursday was “What a zoo!” and the second was that although it seemed crammed with people, it was smaller than I expected. Then I spotted a doorway through which was another room, also crammed with people, then I saw another doorway, and another, and.... There is a logic to it somewhere, and a floor-plan in the programme, but on the ground it's labyrinthine. This impression was accentuated by architecture reminiscent of a multi-storey car park, and the many bars apparently constructed of wood and hessian.
Once I started to look around, there were bars everywhere – and from such a variety of names. Many of the old family brewers were there, but so were pretty much all the 'names' from modern craft, plus there were a goodly number of overseas brewers, some distributors, and even a few craft cider producers. And all of them had drinks for you to sample in your third-pint festival glass – or to buy a bigger measure if you wanted.
Could anyone sample everything? No way – there were seventy-odd bars, and hundreds upon hundreds of choices. So I wove (and sometimes pushed) my way from here to there. I spotted names I've read about or seen elsewhere but not tried yet, and faces I knew but hadn't seen in a while, and I stopped for a chat and a spot of something interesting to drink – or in one case, to eat. (I'll write more here on all of these things soon.)
And I thought to myself that this is just the trade session – how much worse is it going to be when it's open to the public? Then someone told me that even for this session they were turning people away at the door, so maybe it was already at the fire limit. Hopefully the public session crush will have been eased by more people moving into the large central hub set aside for food and music – just about the only thing going on in there during the trade session was a speed-dating session, with brewers and retailers chatting each other up. Well, that and confused people like me walking in through one doorway, out through another, and going “Hang on a minute, where am I now?!”

Anyway, 9pm and session-end came all too soon – I could easily have spent the whole weekend there. Such is life.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

London's Craft Beer Rising

Another month, another beer festival - and this one's looks to be a doozie: London's Craft Beer Rising opens tomorrow, with 76 stands/bars pouring hundreds of interesting beers.

I missed it last year, being off pillaging, but this time the longship's firmly docked and the drinking horn is ready... Skål!

Check out the programme here, and the Twitter feed here. I'm told there are still tickets available for the public sessions.

A fistful of Brewfist: say hello to Italian craft beer

Italy's best known drinks might be wine and forgettable Euro-lagers, but to the surprise of many it has now become one of the hottest markets for craft beers, and yes, even real ales. So in the week that London's first Italian craft beer bar has opened – almost inevitably named The Italian Job – here's an interview with that country's top brewers, Pietro Di Pilato of Brewfist, based not far from Milan.

We met last month at Brewfist's tap take-over at the Three Johns in Islington. A dozen of Pietro's beers – including collaboration brews with the likes of De Molen, Beer Here and To Øl – were on keg and the place was buzzing.

Brewfist is not well known on the British market, but has been growing fast in other countries. Pietro said that its number one export market is the US, followed by Japan and Scandinavia (the craft beer market in the Nordic countries has exploded in recent years), but with Russia growing fast and bidding for the number two spot. “In 2015 we want to break into Brazil and Canada, those are two countries we're missing,” he added.

His range is broad – “20 beers in regular production, and every year we add three or four.” They run from Stouts to Saisons via the odd Imperial Pils, although like most craft brewers he also does quite a few in the American Pale Ale and IPA mould. “Italian people said 'IPA is just a fashion' – it's not just a fashion,” he declared. Interestingly, he added that Saisons are very popular in Italy.

One of the challenges of doing so many different brews is that you may end up having beer in storage for a while. Pietro said that's why Brewfist recently invested in a new refrigerated warehouse with a capacity of over 400 pallets. They are also getting a centrifuge so they can remove yeast without needing to filter: “The Italian market expects clear beer,” he said.

Brewfist now produces some 6000 hectolitres a year on a 20 barrel (32 hl) kit, which is pretty big by Italian standards. For example, Pietro estimated that in two weeks he produces about as much beer as Loverbeer [another very highly regarded Italian craft brewery] brews in an entire year.

“People said we were crazy, but now there's over 700 craft brewers in Italy,” he continued, adding though that only 10 to 15 of those are really good, while another 50 or so are average. (My own experience of Italian craft beer tends to confirm that.)

Another problem I've noticed with Italian craft beer is excessive pricing, and Pietro confirmed that too (as did the price list at the Three Johns!). He said it is partly the very high cost of running a company – any company – in Italy, to the extent that people can import craft beer from America and sell it cheaper than a locally made brew. “Italy is the worse country in Western Europe for doing business,” he said. “There's around 65% tax on business when everything's included.” But it seems it's also a business decision by some of the other brewers, who have gone for expensive packaging and so on in order to compete with wine.

Thankfully, that expensive – and probably largely futile – route is not one that Brewfist is following. The beers on tap that night were almost all very good, and some were quite excellent. Particular stand-outs were two of the stronger ales: Spaghetti Western was an 8.7% roasty and dry Imperial Stout that's a collaboration with US brewer Prairie Artisan Ales, while One Way TripHell was Pietro's 9.5% take on a Belgian Tripel that expertly blended the sweetness of an abbey beer with the dry spiciness of something like a strong Pils.

So, tasty beer out of Italy! I think this means I had better get myself over to The Italian Job soon and find out more – especially as it's only a couple of miles away in Chiswick.

Monday, 2 February 2015

What does 'local' mean to you?

A PR person contacted me today to promote “a client who specialise [sic] in locally brewed ales.” Mildly curious I investigated a little, only to find it's actually Marston's, wearing its Classic Ales hat...

Much as I respect Marston's – and yes I really do, as it produces some excellent beers and hasn't closed down pretty much every brewery it acquired, unlike say Greedy Ker-ching – it is not exactly my idea of 'local'. If I still lived in the West Midlands it would be different, but as it is I think its closest site would be Wychwood, some 60 miles away.

Ah well, they got their client mentioned here anyway, so well done. (-:


*As CAMRA notes on its LocAle page, "The Sustainable Communities Act, which CAMRA strongly supports, provides a definition of local as up to 30 miles from the point of sale."

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Beer sales rise in Britain and Germany, but not in pubs

Annual beer sales were up last year by 1.3% in Britain and by 1% in Germany. The small increases followed eight consecutive years of decline in Germany, and a job and pub-destroying nine years which saw British beer consumption tumble by 24%.

Statisticians and other commentators tried to credit the jump to football, tax cuts, or as Germany's The Local reported, the growing popularity of ready-made beer-mixes such as Radler and cola-beer. Sadly, none of them seemed to think it might be down to a wider choice of interesting, non-industrial beer, or because craft brewers of all varieties have made beer cool again.

However, when you dig into the numbers in the press release from the official German stats agency Destatis, most of the increase actually came from export sales and the home-brew segment. Are they exporting or home-brewing cola-beer? I suspect not. Meanwhile in Britain, the growth was all in off-sales. Indeed, off-sales actually exceeded on-sales for the first time on record, according to the Quarterly Beer Barometer published by the BBPA.

Even though the percentage increases are so similar, it is hard to draw conclusions. In the BBPA press release, its chief executive Brigid Simmons uses the figures to call for another cut in beer duty. Of course that would be welcome, given that a succession of short-sighted, greedy and frankly dim Chancellors have ignored economic reality to squeeze the beer trade past the tipping point where with each tax hike the revenue declines, instead of increasing. It misses the point though: Germany's beer tax rate is tiny by comparison, yet it too has had a decade of declining sales.

Conversely, the Destatis spokesperson rambles on about international football boosting beer sales, then dismisses as a blip 2010, when sales fell despite a soccer World Cup. That's the sort of statistical cherry picking that normally gets researchers into trouble, isn't it?

Something that neither of them tell us is how the value of the beer market shifted. Because one thing these two beer-drinking countries have in common is a strong focus on drinking cheap supermarket beer at home.

Which is why this increase should be a cause more for concern than celebration for the beer trade. Not only does it mean less business for the pub and bar sector and more for the supermarkets, but I wonder what effect it has on new brewers if they must vie for fewer bar taps and ever busier supermarket shelves.