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?

Friday, 13 March 2020

WTF is Hard Seltzer?

Asking the important question
“WTF is Hard Seltzer?” asks the wittily-labelled can, before answering its own question: Alcoholic Fizzy Water.

The other thing to know is that it’s also the latest drinks craze to hit the US, where ‘hard’ is a euphemism for alcoholic. It’s so fashionable there that even beer rating site Untappd, which once allowed nothing but beer, cider and mead, now also permits you to list Hard Seltzers (alongside a few other oddities such as alcoholic Kombucha, which is fermented tea).

When first I came across the idea, I assumed it was the latest iteration of what in Britain and much of the rest of the world we call alcopops, and which the Americans of course call hard soda. That’s the likes of WKD and Hooper’s Hooch – sticky concoctions that concealed their alcohol content under a wave of sweetness, and came to be regarded by many as a Bad Thing that encouraged kids to get drunk.

Brick's Raspberry Hard Seltzer
Having at last tried a couple of London-brewed examples though, I can say I was only partly right. There’s a growing number of modern Craft Soda brands designed to be not quite as sweet as the average fizzy pop and more inventive in flavour, and some Hard Seltzers – such as Brick Brewery’s bright red Raspberry Hard Seltzer – are very much in that mould. Still a bit sticky-sweet, and with the 4% ABV well hidden, but properly fruity and tangy. Millennial hard soda, you could say.

However, when I opened the can of 5% “alcoholic aqua” gifted to me by London Fields Brewery at Brew//LDN the other week, it was very different. Yes, there’s dextrose (sugar) on the ingredients list, but that’s highly fermentable as the light and dry texture shows. Then there’s guava puree and red grape skins for flavour and colour – in this case that’s a blush-pink, and a dry and intriguing mix of tropical fruit and wine lees.

What a revelation – and definitely not an alcopop or likely to appeal to kids! Clearly, Hard Seltzer is something a creative brewer can have a bit of fun with. Indeed, London Fields admits in its promo material that its brewers "genuinely had no clue what hard seltzer was suppose to taste like" so they just had a play. Good on them.

My problem is that I've no idea yet which way the majority of Hard Seltzers swing, but given that many flavoured waters are actually sweetened too, I suspect they'll be the same. Sure, for non-beer drinkers the right one can be lighter than cider and a lot more quaffable than wine. I’m still not convinced though that they have a place on a beer website, and at least Ratebeer still agrees with me – for now, anyway.

What do you think – are you willing to give this stuff a try, and does it belong alongside beer and cider?  

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Brew//LDN serves up a worthy beer fashion show

If you thought that maybe the current fashions in craft beer were wearing thin, think again. At least, that’s my takeaway from an afternoon at Brew//LDN, the tradeshow-cum-beer festival at London’s  Old Truman Brewery this week. Almost every brewery stand seemed to feature at least two out of a “dessert beer”, a sour of some sort and a hazy IPA, and sometimes all three.

I suppose the popularity of dessert beers – by which I mean all those rich and dark concoctions from pastry stouts, through milk stouts and Baltic porters, to barrel-aged Imperials and so on – shouldn’t surprise. After all, I don’t expect dessert to go out of fashion either.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise to hear just how fast they can sell. For instance, I stopped by the London Beer Factory bar to hear from brewery rep James that they were down to their very last keg of Gateaublaster, their 11.1% Black Forest Gateau stout. “They’re not core, but people love them,” he said.

Barrel-aged Baltic Porter on cask!
It was a similar story at Fourpure, where I was told that “dessert beers are big business.” They had not one but two on – Into The Woods is a 5.9% ‘festive gingerbread ale’, while Midnight Diner is a 7.5% New York cheesecake stout. Oddly though, I found that while both were almost spot on in aroma terms, the flavours didn’t match up. Oh well.

Roll out the barrel

As already hinted at, another way to get that dessert quality is barrel-aging. This can be a tricky one to get right, ensuring that the barrel complements the beer rather than overwhelming it. One that definitely managed it was Double Agent from Legitimate Industries of Leeds – all its beers have ironic crime-related names. Although it had spent an amazing two years in bourbon barrels and could have been harsh as a result, Double Agent’s heavy body and 10.4% ABV had instead left it mellow and rich, with smooth vanilla and cocoa notes.

Whisky barrel aging also did the job for Good Chemistry Brewing’s Becoming North, which easily qualifies as dessert despite being a ‘mere’ 6% ABV. Its smooth chocolatey texture is a result of the bottom-fermentation, according to brewery co-founder Bob, and while Baltic porters can be overly sweet, in this case the woody warmth keeps that in balance.

Sour, not 'just a bit tangy'!

Tart and tangy currant Gose
As to the sours, there’s been way too many naff ‘fruited sours’ in the shops that’re basically just sweetish beery fruit juice. So I was pleased to find several here that were actually sour or tart – not as mouth-puckering as a Lambic or Flemish Red, say, but tart enough to be interesting. The first I tried was Blackcurrant Brine Springs, a fruited Gose – I normally find these fit that ‘naff’ category extremely well, but this one was a revelation. Coming from Redditch’s Lab Culture Brewing – yet another brewery new to me – it even uses local salt (from Droitwich, one of several historic English Spa towns). The key is that there’s enough of that and the tart currants for their flavours to shine through unsweetened.

The second I’ll mention isn’t actually a sour – it’s a raspberry Witbier. It comes from another newcomer, Möbru, which has taken over this and other fruited Witbiers from Elgood’s (who now brew them for Möbru). The nice thing is it’s not over-sweetened, allowing the tartness of the berries to complement the tang of the beer. 

And what of the hazy IPAs? I’d a few of these in Germany last week, where some modern craft brewers make almost nothing else, and there’s no sign they’re going away in the UK either – though fewer and fewer people seem to be using the ‘New England IPA’ label now. But while some are delicious, others are just fruity hop soup – and a few have been harsh, with unpleasantly clashing textures and flavours.

Mantis passionfruit IPA
Thankfully, none of today’s fell into the latter group – for example, there was passionfruit IPA Mantis, from new gypsy brewers Flowerhorn, which was deeply herbal and dank thanks to its mix of Mosaic and the new Strata hop, and lightly tart from the fruit. And then there was Kveik Your Eyes Peeled, from Dundee’s 71 Brewing, was estery, tart-dry and funky-sweet, no doubt thanks to the use of orange zest alongside the eponymous farmhouse yeast – though hey guys, it’s Kveik, not ‘kviek’, and Kveik means yeast so you don’t write ‘Kveik yeast’.

Ageing hops in hazy IPAs

Talking to various brewer folk both here and in Germany, it seems there’s a few keys to getting these bigly-hoppy hazy beers right. One is the right hops and brewkit, but perhaps more important is the way the hops age. Straight from the fermenter they can be dank and fresh for a couple of days, but then there’s a period of at least a week and maybe longer when they roughen, before smoothing out again. It’s all most odd, and I welcome any clarifications or additional info from those in the know!

Anyway, it was a good afternoon out with an amazing range of beers (plus some ciders and other drinks) from all over the country and around the world. Yes, there’s big brewers there too, but as equals – it’s not ‘their event’. There’s still two Saturday sessions to go, and you have tickets – Eventbrite seems to think “this event has ended” for some reason – you’re in luck.