Friday, 7 August 2020

Back to Bamberg

After a day in the Franconian countryside, it was time to head for the Big City – or at least one of the biggest in the world of beer: Bamberg. The local beer scene has changed a fair bit since I was there seven years ago, so I was really looking forward to exploring some of the new places. The challenge, since the plan was a bit of touristing and shopping in the morning with the kids, before I got the afternoon to myself, was to find somewhere the kids would enjoy. Luckily, while it wasn’t easy to spot on its dusty suburban street, Hopfengarten Bamberg proved an excellent and friendly choice. 

At first, it looks like the entrance to a yard, then there's greenery hinting at a hidden garden, then a passage between dusty greenhouses, and finally it opens up into a huge area behind the houses. Hopfengarten is just a part of it, but there is indeed a hop garden with long tables under arches of hops, there’s a sandpit and a pond (=happy kids!), fruit trees, a herb garden and more. Gardeners were at work fixing things up – I think that, like many places, it had not long been open again after the long Coronavirus shutdown.

It was still early in the day, we were the only visitors and although the bar was advertising their special edition herbal and fruit beers, nothing was pouring. Thankfully, after we’d said hello and poked around the garden a bit, we were asked if we’d like samples – Kellerpils and Rotbier, straight from the fermenters of “the smallest brewery in town” (it looked to be a 100 or 200-litre brewkit). And very nice they were too, while we sat amongst the greenery.  

As we walked into the centre for the shops and some lunch, I spotted another new place to check out – Zum Sternla. Well, it’s not exactly new, in fact they claim the site dates back to 1380, although it’s only been a pub for 250 years or so. What is new though is that last year they put a brewhouse into an extension built onto the rear of the pub.

The biergarten in the courtyard here showed how seriously some venues here are taking social distancing. Large panels between the tables turned each one into almost an alcove, table staff everywhere wear masks or face-shields, and even outdoors in a biergarten you have to cover your face while moving around – the mask can only come off when you are seated. (In contrast, it felt really weird going into a pub in Chiswick this week where no one, not even the staff, had a mask on.) 

Zum Sternla Roggenbier, nur ein schnitt!
The beers were fairly typical for the area and for a German brewpub – a golden lager (Vollbier Export), a Pils and a Zwickel, which I believe is the Vollbier but unfiltered. Luckily, my visit also coincided with the first tapping of their new seasonal Roggenbier, which proved to be a nice example of the style – it’s a top-fermented beer similar to a Hefeweizen, but made with rye not wheat.

Of course it’s not all traditional local beer styles in Bamberg, but it can be hard to find anything else! So while I wanted to catch up with a couple of ‘new wave’ Bamberg brewers we’d met while we were all visiting Hamburg earlier this year, I knew it wasn’t going to be too easy. For a start, both Blech.Brut and Atelier der Braukunst are what’s known in Germany as ‘cuckoo brewers’, sharing or renting brewing capacity from others, so a brewery visit was out of the question. And most of the beer shops just focus on the wealth of traditional local brewing. 

Fortunately I’d been recommended to one that didn’t, namely the local branch of Die Bierothek, a group of craft beer shops. Again it was somewhere new to me – or at least I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there seven years ago, as I’d have walked past it on my evening perambulations between our rented apartment and Brauerei Spezial!

What's in the hand sanitiser?!
I find myself in two minds about craft beer shops. On the one hand, everything costs more – there’s classic Franconian beers in this one at €2 or €3 a bottle, but which I’d picked up the day before for €1 to €1.50 at a supermarket on the Memmelsdorf road. On the other, they have beers that I doubt you’d find anywhere else in the area – even some of the rural Franconian stuff probably doesn’t normally travel into the city! So I picked up a few cans – and once you’re into the €6/can area the additional margin is minimal anyhow – and made way for other shoppers. 

Of course something was bound to go wrong, and it did. I’d carefully avoided making my trip on the Monday, as that’s often the day-off for places that open over the weekend (“Montag Ruhetag”), but what I’d missed was that quite a few venues now close Mon-Weds or even Sun-Weds inclusive – and one of them was my next target, another newcomer called Landwinkl Bräu. Ah well, a restorative mug of Rauchbier in the Brauerei Spezial courtyard was only a few hundred yards away...  

Just two more targets left on my list. The first was Aecht Schlenkerla, not for a drink as time was running a bit short, but to pick up bottles of their three new low-alcohol beers: the unsmoked Bamberger Heinzlein Hell & Dunkel, and Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Hansla. They’re reputedly based on historical examples – the local equivalent of ‘small beer’, I assume. 

The last was a bit more of a struggle, but worth it – the long haul up Kaulberg to Brauerei Griefenklau. It’s another favourite venue, and I was just early enough to get half a table at the end of the biergarten, overlooking the gardens below and with this green and leafy view across to Die Altenburg on the hill opposite. A lovely place to sit and sip a Zwicklbier as dusk began to creep in. 

Monday, 27 July 2020

Monday in the land of breweries

Merkendorfer Kellerbier
One of the disconcerting things about travelling in Franconia, aka Oberfranken, is realising just how many of the place names I instantly recognise without ever having been to the vast majority of them. It comes from seeing them in the listings at Untappd, of course – and becoming familiar with all the many ways that visitors can misunderstand them...

A common one is that beers often have the name of their home town as a prefix, and foreigners assume that’s the brewery name. Or they mix up breweries of the same name but located in different towns. Scheßlitz? That’ll be Drei Kronen – the one I’ve not been to, but which often gets confused with the one I have, which is Drei Kronen Memmelsdorf. Drosendorf? That’s one of the two Brauerei Göller, And Schammelsdorf is of course Brauerei Knoblach. I think we saw all of those names on our way out on Monday morning, and we weren’t on the way to any of them!

Instead we were after one of the other things Oberfranken has in spades, which is lovely countryside. Paradiestal, or Paradise Valley, is a popular hiking trail just off the A70 autobahn between Bamberg and Kulmbach – confusingly, it also has an autobahn Parkplatz (a motorway rest area) named after it, but this is not the start of the hike. That instead lies in fields and is rather awkward for the visitor to locate, unless of course you are sufficiently non-German to be willing to drive through fields along tracks marked “Farm traffic only”, or are local enough to know that the real route is to go the other way off the autobahn then backtrack through the village of Stadelhofen. But I digress, as indeed did our route.

"The Watcher"
Anyway, once you make it, finally locate the trail map and head off across the fields and into the woods, you are rewarded first by green valleys alive with flowers and butterflies, and then by the fantastical rock shapes for which the trail is reknowned. Carved out of the limestone by wind and water, they stand sentinel around the valleys, or lure the visitor up to explore lofty pinnacles or spooky caves.

Although we kept to the shorter 7km loop rather than the full 11km, we were still tired as we headed back to our start point. Fewer weird rocks, but still plenty of nature between the wheat and maize fields, and along the line of ancient apple trees. Finding a place for lunch had been a bit of a challenge – it’s still fairly common for places to take Mondays off (“Montag Ruhetag”) and the Corona crisis has made it worse. Some bierkellers and biergardens currently only open from Wednesday and some only do Friday-Sunday.

Fortunately I’d spotted a name I know well – Merkendorf – and found that one of the town’s two breweries, Brauerei Hummel, was open for beer and food. (The other, Wagner Merkendorf – one of at least four Wagner Bräu’s in the area, hence the need for the town name as a qualifier – takes Mondays off.)

Unlike last night’s dinner venue, the Löwenbräu Keller in Buttenheim, this wasn’t a verdant Bierkeller. It was the brewery yard, laid out with tables and benches – and with the usual-for-Corona one-way system and 1.5m-apart queuing lines taped out on the floor. (Table staff are all masked everywhere here, and guests must wear face-covers while moving around or queuing, but can take them off once seated.)

But it had a bit of greenery around, including a large shady tree, a play area which the kids loved, and the food and beer were hearty and – with one exception – excellent. I had the pork belly, roasty, salty, chewy and delicious, accompanied first by a classic hoppy-bitter and faintly toasty Kellerbier and then by Räucherla, their lovely smoky Rauch-Märzen. My one disappointment was ending with their Cowboy Schwarzbier – so sweet and gassy that I couldn’t finish it. Still, the brewery ‘shop’ was open, they’d sold out of the Rauchfestbier but we have Pils, Märzen and Festbier-Hell to try later – I’m sure they will make up for it!

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Fuller's pubco to flog its brewery tap, as it moves upriver

The Mawson Arms (source: Fuller's)
Fuller's pubco is permanently closing the Mawson Arms/Fox & Hounds and putting it up for sale, according to reliable local reports. The pub is legendary for several reasons – as the Griffin Brewery tap and the watering hole for many brewery staff, for having two names*, for confusing people by closing at 8pm, and for serving the best Fuller's cask beer in town.

The Fuller's pub company's excuse for the closure is that it doesn’t need the pub now that its staff have moved out. But of course the brewery and distribution staff are still there, and Asahi UK has moved its staff up from Woking into newly-vacated offices at the Griffin Brewery, so there’s not exactly going to be a shortage of people in the area wanting lunch and a beer.

Sure, there’s the George & Devonshire on the Hogarth roundabout, but that’s not a brewery tap. And while Asahi can end future brewery tours at the bar in the brewery shop, instead of in the Mawson, there’s no food available there. 
Pier House
Meanwhile, Fuller's pubco has moved to Pier House by Kew Bridge. When first I spotted the new offices there, the red, black and gold Fuller, Smith & Turner lettering took me by surprise. I remember seeing this line of buildings – originally built as a laundry – being refurbished into offices a few years ago.

Of course, the staff now at Pier House lost their offices at the Griffin Brewery when Fuller’s owners sold the family silver for a mess of Japanese pottage. And Pier House does look the part, with the lettering on the facade and the brass company nameplates on the doorframes. Plus, they have an even clearer view of the river, just across Strand on the Green - and a short walk away is Fuller's Bell & Crown, which is also a reliable source of excellent cask ale.

The Mawson was always going to be in an odd position following the brewery sale – even though it was physically on the wider brewery site, it wasn’t part of the sale to Asahi, nor apparently were the adjacent houses (now offices) on Chiswick Lane South. When I asked pub staff at the time (pre-pandemic, of course), they only knew that the pub wasn’t part of the brewery sale.

So who would buy the Mawson, given that it’s Grade II* listed and not an obvious site for residential conversion? I can’t help wondering if the breadheads at Fuller’s are hoping to flog it to Asahi – it’s even possible that the Japanese didn’t realise it wasn’t part of the brewery purchase to start with.

Otherwise that’ll be another slice of London’s brewing history gone, and like so much else it’ll be the fault of locals who care less about our heritage than the Japanese do.

*Although the best-known version of the two-names story claims that the modern building was once two separate pubs, in the pub itself they instead tell a story of historical confusion. Apparently there was a time when you needed separate licences to sell beer and spirits, and an earlier licensee didn't realise that a single business could hold both, so he added the second name for the second licence. Believe whichever you like!  

Monday, 29 June 2020

Pubs are keen, brewers are cautious – but what of the drinkers?

With pub reopening set for this coming Saturday, I hope to enjoy a pint of cask beer before too much longer. But while I’m sure we all know someone desperate to hit the pubs as soon as they open, many of us and our friends will be more cautious – worried about safety, perhaps, or wondering what it’ll be like if we can only get served at a pre-booked table, or perhaps concerned whether unscrupulous owners will use distancing as an excuse to declare pubs ‘unviable’ and close them down.

So I was surprised during last week’s Brewers Lectures UK – actually a pair of online panel discussions – to realise just how split the two main chunks of the beer business are on reopening. In particular, while I knew the brewing side was cautious, I had not appreciated just how desperate many on the retail side are to open up again.

“On the retail side, everyone wants to get going – there’s such a big divide between the two industries,” said panel member Charlie McVeigh, perhaps best known for founding the Draft House chain and now the man behind Project Pint which campaigns to get ‘our pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants back, exactly like they were.’

And for all the uncertainty and fear around social distancing, contact tracing and so on, when I checked what publicans and others were posting on Facebook and Twitter it looked like quite a few others think the same way.

It’s understandable, I guess – even with staff furloughed for now, and with government grants, publicans have bills to pay. And while quite a few have switched to offering take-aways, it will not be replacing much of their previous turnover.

Then again, it’s not clear just how far this enthusiasm spreads beyond the retailers. For example, Project Pint’s online petition has been up for four weeks but still hasn’t reached its target of 2500 names.

And the brewers’ caution is understandable – they must now dump expired stock and buy new ingredients, for instance, even though many haven’t yet been able to pay their suppliers for the last lot of ingredients.

A trouble shared is a trouble halved

Those on the Lectures panel agreed that, in some ways, it’s been easier because everyone’s been affected. “The first thing we did was pause and talk to all our suppliers – there has been a huge amount of understanding,” said Wild Card’s head brewer Jaega Wise, while her counterpart at Northern Monk, Brian Dickson, added: “Everyone’s been in the same boat, they’ve been saying ‘We’ll make it work.’”

The challenge though is the transition back from that state of ‘all in it together’ to ‘business as normal’. As Adnams’ Fergus Fitzgerald put it, “Every supplier we talked to was amazing. But we are almost in the riskiest period now, because we have to start making stuff, buy ingredients, sell to pubs who don’t know how many people will walk in the door… Then it’s what we’ve already said we’ll buy for the next 12 months, such as hops, clearing out our hop stores, and so on.”

One thing seems certain from this combination of keenness and caution: I’ll be able to get that cask pint, but I’m not going to have the choice I’m used to – the cask ale supply chain is a bit too ‘fragile’ for that.

“We don’t know how many venues will be able to open, and there’s still the possibility of a second wave, so casks may have to wait,” said Brian, while Fergus explained that although Adnams is back in production, it’s aiming “to keep the range low. For our own pubs, they’ll probably open with two cask ales, not the regular five or six. It’s the usual rule – you try to sell it through in three days, so it’s start small and build up.”

Ah well, one or two good cask pints will be a lot better than none!

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Pub reopening is on the horizon, but will it be a false dawn for the beer industry?

Whatever you might think about the State of the Pandemic, it looks like people are taking early-July seriously as a date for the pubs to reopen. Not only is there quite a bit of chatter on the likes of Twitter from companies eager to sell line-cleaning and other essential services, but I heard the other day that a friend of a friend who is area manager for a pub company has been told he is coming off furlough this week. I suppose by now that means tomorrow...

This all ties in with what I was hearing last week on a webinar on the topic of how Covid-19 is impacting the beer & pubs industry. It was hosted by Katie Wiles from CAMRA’s communications department and Neil Walker from SIBA, the small independent brewers association, and while real ale was a key topic, we discussed a whole lot more.

The first big problem is we don't actually have a date yet. The UK government has a 'roadmap' which suggests July 4th, but what the industry really needs is definitive notification. That's because it’s all very well the government saying pubs can reopen, but as usual the devil is in the detail – and detail is one of the many things that BoJo and the Clown Crew are not good at.

Not only do the pubs themselves need to get everything clean and so on, they also need to figure out what they’ll be allowed to do and sell. Will they need to shift to table service to stop people coming to the bar? How far apart will the tables need to be? Will they even be allowed to serve beer indoors or will it be gardens only? That’d be pretty crap for most town and city pubs!

And then there’s the question of whether they’ll actually have any beer to sell. Neil pointed out that, according to the SIBA survey I wrote about a few weeks ago, most small brewers have slowed or stopped production. They will need at least three weeks to get going again, and preferably four if we want fresh real ale, he estimated.

That’s because even those breweries that have stayed in production have mostly switched to “small-pack”, meaning bottles and cans that they can sell either through retailers – especially for the few fortunate enough to have strong supermarket connections – or for many of them, direct to their fans and neighbours via hastily-built webshops and the like.

Those unfortunate enough to have a lot of casks and kegs in stock have been stuffed. Some pubs and brewpubs have been selling take-away draught beer, but it will have been a tiny volume compared to their usual draught sales. Many brewers will have to scrap that stock or will have already poured it away.

Similarly, there is a lot of beer and cider in pub cellars – around 70 million pints of it, according to the BBPA (British Beer & Pub Association) – and most, if not all, of it will have gone out of date by July. Hence the launch by the BBPA last week of Return Your Beer, a website where pubs can sign up to register that they have destroyed spoilt drinks, which of course they have to do in a legal and environmentally-acceptable way. They’ll then the able to claim duty refunds from the brewers who in turn will be able to claim back what they’ve already paid to the taxman.

This is almost certainly going to be even more complicated and painful than it looks, and not just because of pouring all that beer down the drain, when most of it is probably still perfectly drinkable, whatever the best-before says! I’m thinking more of the admin and paperwork (even if it is digital these days) and of course how long it will take everyone to actually get their money back.

And anyway, this only covers the duty. I know we in the UK are royally ripped off on beer duty and tax so it should be quite a substantial refund, but still, there’s a lot more cost that goes into brewing beer. Will there be grants to pay for all the wasted ingredients? Anyway, it explains a lot of why my pub manager acquaintance is already being called back to work.

Who will actually reopen?

The next big question is how many of those pubs will actually reopen. Neil quoted a number of other studies, including one on business confidence, where only one in three pub operators predicted that all their pubs would reopen, and a BBPA report that up to 40% of pubs could close if they don’t get additional government support. Katie added that the government's business interruption loan scheme "is welcome but too slow to process, and around 20% of pubs can't access it because their rateable value is too high."

Then there was a hospitality industry poll that claimed most pubs can only handle a 10% drop in sales before becoming unprofitable. Requiring drinkers to stay 2m apart could therefore be pretty much a death sentence – although perhaps they’ll take a lesson from New Zealand, where as I understand it, if customers arrive as a group they are allowed to sit together.

And there’s the question of who will venture back to the pub. CAMRA’s research suggests that 60% of pubgoers are looking forward to a pint of cask beer once pubs reopen, but there’s also reports that others will avoid pubs, either because we've all been told to be fearful of being indoors with strangers, or simply because they've got used to drinking at home.

"The big thing we're concerned about is the change in consumer habits," Katie said. "As much as people say they want to go back to the pub, the longer this goes on the easier it will be for them to not go back to the pub." 

Breweries and cidermakers meanwhile face a triple-hit. As well as all that out-of-date product that must be dumped and the prospect of lower sales once business reopens, they’re not eligible for the same grants and business rates ‘holidays’ that pubs can get. Many have also furloughed their marketing teams, so getting sales moving again is likely to be rather bumpy. 

Free local deliveries are keeping connections alive 
There is a little bit of better news, in that quite a few breweries have managed to ramp up their direct sales. Katie also mentioned CAMRA’s online Brew2You service, which allows you to find local producers and retailers willing to deliver or sell for collection. It looks particularly useful if you want to find draught beer in polypins or minikegs.

I have my doubts how much of this direct-sale business is sustainable, however. A lot seems to be dependent on staff goodwill – people are doing stuff that they’d not normally put up with, such as free local deliveries, because they know they need to engage locals and keep the business moving during the crisis. Once the crisis (we hope!) winds down there’s going to be a lot of social debt to pay off, never mind all the financial debt.

All in all, while I’m really looking forward to my first cask beer in many weeks – assuming reopening does indeed happen – I am definitely NOT looking forward to seeing how the fallout from the crisis hits the beer business over the coming months.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Small brewers are wilting under the COVID lockdown

SIBA photo
Last week I was wondering how many UK breweries were still operating during the COVID crisis, and this week I found out: just one-third of them – and most of those are brewing less than usual.

It’s all connected to an 82% crash in sales reported by small independent breweries, according to a survey of 282 of them which was carried out by their trade body SIBA and released today.

SIBA says that despite beer production being part of the food supply chain, making brewers officially 'key workers', few independent breweries have access to supermarket sales and the like. So the fact that there’s no pubs, bars and restaurants open has resulting in 65% of them stopping production altogether. Another 31% have reduced production, and only 3% say it has stayed the same. Somewhat surprisingly, 1% on those asked – that’s two or three breweries! – reckon their production has actually gone up. 

SIBA adds that the vast majority of brewers – eight in 10 – do not believe the UK government is doing enough to support them, with 54% of the UK’s independent breweries saying they are unable to access any government support. Nearly a third (29%) are now considering redundancies.

“Pubs, bars and restaurants have been receiving help from the Government, but none of the same schemes apply to our small breweries who saw their sales fall off a cliff almost overnight. They urgently need a package of measures to keep them going otherwise many won’t be able to reopen,” said James Calder, SIBA’s Chief Executive.

He added, “While many [70%] have launched local delivery services or online shops to try to stay afloat, the increase in online sales is a drop in the ocean compared to the overall decrease their beer sales have seen.”

Even then, a quarter of small breweries simply don’t have the right licences to deliver direct to drinkers – SIBA is calling on the government to relax the relevant laws as part of a targeted package of support for breweries and the brewery supply chain. It says government help needs to match the level received by pubs, including the grants and exemptions from business rates, as well as allowing brewers to defer beer duty payments.

Have you taken advantage of a local brewery's online shop, and if so, how was it? 

Sunday, 12 April 2020

CoViD conversations - the elephant in the room

It's an odd sort of state to be in as a beer blogger – there’s nothing to write about, and yet there’s everything to write about. No beer festivals, no travelling, no pubs open, and yet also the knowledge that in some unknown number of weeks’ time, life will be very different.

Some bloggers are handling this unexpected time by catching up on things they’ve been meaning to write for ages. Others who mostly do beer reviews still have quite a few cans and bottles to work through. And then there’s those who have a day-job and can work from home, but must now navigate the 24x7 presence of kids that you can’t even send off to a friend’s house for a play-date.

At least the beer supplies are holding up, especially since off licences and brewery shops were added to the list of essentials allowed to stay open, although how long they can last isn’t clear. I don’t even know how many breweries are still running, given the pressures of social distancing, quarantines and of course actual illness.

Many breweries and even quite a few pubs and bars have opened up mail-order sales to try to keep some income flowing, of course. It’s tough, not least because it’s a sales channel they’re not used to, so some are going to get the mechanics and pricing wrong – but then it’s less about making a profit and more about keeping things going. It also puts a lot of strain on the delivery networks at a time when they too are suffering – last week Verdant Brewing said they’d had to cancel and refund a stack of online orders when ParcelForce said it didn’t have the manpower to service them.

Sadly, despite the UK government discovering where it planted that Magic Money Tree that it told us didn’t exist, there’s likely to be quite a few businesses closing down. Shops and bars that just can’t survive the loss of trade, pubs killed off by greedy pubco bosses demanding rent from empty tills, incompetent bankers refusing to give breweries access by to the crisis loans that they’re supposed to be able to get.

The lockdown calendar
Thankfully several of the older brewing firms have given their pubs rent holidays, which has both earned them a lot of social credit and hopefully given their business a better chance long-term. But once the economy does finally reopen, what then? Some say “nothing will ever be the same” but I think many things will go more or less back as they were.

The scale or balance will have changed though. Hospitality will bounce back, but supermarket sales will have got a boost and we will lose quite a few smaller shops, bars and breweries. Plus, the shift to online sales and away from retail has accelerated – I wouldn’t be surprised if we lose several more big high street names. Yes, it might have happened anyway, but not this fast, surely?