Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Meeting the Revisionists

Early last year, Marston's released a new range of beers under the Revisionist Beers brand, to be distributed in cask and keg, and in bottles via Tesco. The idea was that the company's several brewmasters were each given the opportunity to recreate a beer style that appealed to them, but which might normally not be associated with a name like Marston's.

The styles chosen were pretty varied, from Hefeweizen and Black IPA, to Saison and California Steam Beer. To be honest, so were the results – some were good, others were forgettable, and overall it was hard not to get the sense that the brewers were staying on the safe side of the road.

So when the news came through that the range was to be extended, both on cask and in bottle, and that Marston's was to add another new seasonal range – this time of single-hopped Revisionist cask ales – I was intrigued, to say the least.

Some drinkers seem to dislike Marston's. They tar it with the same brush they use for Greene King, which is notorious for buying and closing down smaller breweries, then transferring their beers to its own brewery but pretending they were still brewed in the original location.

Yet Marston's isn't like that at all. Sure, it has bought other breweries, such as  Jennings, Banks's, Wychwood/Brakspear and Ringwood, but it has deliberately kept them open and in production. Yes, it has an overall brand and a big company image, and yes, sometimes it moves beer brands around, but there's no pretence or dishonesty about it – if you want to know where a beer was brewed, in my experience you can usually find out.

When I got to meet some of the people behind the Revisionist and single-hop beers, it was interesting to see how much the various breweries in the group cooperate and collaborate, and also to ask about the thinking behind the new beers – and whether there is any dumbing-down coming in from the sales and marketing department.

The answer to the last question was a definite no. Instead, I got a sense that the brewers already know their market (which is firmly grounded in Marston's own pubs, although quite a lot of beer also goes to other pubcos) and just how far they can go off-piste.

This is of course one of the biggest problems in any industry – when the market changes, how do you get your people to let go of all the assumptions that underpin what they do, and which have become so deeply embedded that they probably don't even realise they are there?

It's why engineering companies set up 'skunkworks' and it's probably why AB-InBev is busily buying small US craft breweries instead of getting its own highly-skilled brewers to produce Triple IPAs and Imperial Oatmeal Stouts. And if both Guinness and Greene King have not had the success they would like with their crafty beer ranges, it explains that too.

Genevieve Upton
In some ways though, I can see Marston's geographically-diversified structure offering some help here. Its breweries have retained their own beers and identities, to some extent anyway. Talking to Genevieve Upton, brewmaster and 'innovations brewer' at Marston's Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, I gathered that having different breweries available adds all sorts of flexibility. That's not only in the type of brewing kit available but in its capacity too – some of the other breweries, such as Ringwood, can handle short-run products much more efficiently than the main Marston's plant, for instance.

Genevieve also mentioned that some of the Revisionist beers – in particular the cask ales – take a process that brewers must carry out anyhow, which is doing test brews with new hops, and turn it to commercial value, allowing beer lovers to join in the process.

So while the single-hop Archer that I tried earlier this year had a pleasant earthy bitterness with hints of white strawberry (yes, really!), it also lacked depth and complexity – in essence, it showed why brewers normally use several hops in a beer, each one for a particular purpose.

And without brewing Revisionist single-hop Archer, Genevieve and her colleagues wouldn't know how best to use this new hop in the future. I rather like being able to join in with that process – how about you?

Monday, 24 August 2015

Belgium, man! Belgium.

So, only just back from family holidays in Germany, and in a few days it will be time to leave again. I'll be hopping on the train to Brussels for a weekend debating the nature of beer journalism and ways to 'do better social media' at this year's European Beer Bloggers Conference.

I've been to two of these before, in Leeds and Dublin, and each time I came away having learnt a lot in all sorts of areas, whether it's how to make better use of Twitter and YouTube, how to describe beer better and pair it with food, or the way local beer cultures all over Europe are growing ever richer, more complex and more interesting.

Seeing as we're meeting in Belgium, and two of the event's sponsors are Visit Flanders and the Belgian Family Brewers association (others include Pilsner Urquell and several more individual Belgian brewers), the brewery visits and the sessions on the evolution of Belgian beer past, present and future is likely to top my agenda. It's a big area of interest for me – it's a good few years since I discovered and enjoyed my first Gueuze, followed by other interesting Belgian beers whether sour or sweet. Then three or so years ago we attended the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival and discovered yet more innovative Belgian brewing, among much else.

But I'm looking forward almost as much to the blogging-related conference sessions, and to the ones on beer-pairing and – a special for Belgium, this – on the science of brewing and ageing sour beers. And of course to visiting Brussels, a city that's often unfairly disparaged in Britain for hosting large parts of the EU machinery, but which has charms and fine food and drink of its own, and which I've not visited in at least two decades.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Beck's crafty triad is less inspired than it claims

So earlier this year, the boys from Bremen made their pitch for the craft beer market with the launch of three new beers, Beck's Pale Ale, 1873 Pils and Amber Lager - and atl ast I have managed to catch up with all three.

The packaging is undeniably lovely and it's clearly a pitch at the modern-twist-on-a-historical-classic market. Kudos to them for trying that, and especially for not lazily cloning Sierra Nevada Pale Ale like everyone else.

Unfortunately, whether they were constrained by the Marketing department or simply by the innate corporate unwillingness to risk frightening the horses, the results are lacklustre - not actually bad, but definitely missing their targets.

Take the Pale Ale. "Inspired by England" it says on the bottle, so at 6.3% it appears to be a modern take on a 19th century pale ale. Sadly it instead ends up as the bastard child of a Märzen and a bitter Pils - there's a bit of toasted caramel and tropical fruit in there, but all under a lingering acrid bitterness.

Meanwhile the "Inspired by Germany" 1873 Pils at 6% is more uninspired than inspired. Grainy, dry-bitter and rather one-dimensional, it exemplifies those unimaginative German brewers who think hops are just for bittering, and that flavour and (non-grassy) aroma hops are only for foreigners and other weirdos.

The best of the three for me is the 5.7% Amber Lager, a slightly hopped-up take on a classic Vienna lager, with toasty toffee notes. However, it too gets a harsh bitter finish, and on the label is "Inspired by Australia" - WTF is that about?

Together, I guess these beers show that 'craft beer' (whatever you take it to mean, and German brewers are as likely to tie it to tradition as to US craft beer) is now totally mainstream in Germany. There's hardly a brewery big or small that isn't trying to do something crafty.

Unfortunately, while some of the results are excellent and intriguing, too many are definite me-too offerings. In short, Germany's craft beer bandwagon is still rolling, but how much longer can it keep going under the weight, as everyone and his hund jumps aboard?

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Guest post: Getting trained for a job in beer

This guest post comes from Ran at the Carling Partnership -- a recruitment company specialising in the brewing industry, not the Danish brewer! It's an overview of some of the training opportunities available world-wide for anyone wanting a job in beer. If you know of any other good ones, do please add a comment.

Beer Industry Courses and Qualifications
Over the past five years, the global beer industry has demonstrated high levels of growth, increasing in size by an average of 3.2% per annum (Ibisworld.com, 2015). The industry directly employs nearly half a million people world-wide with global revenues reaching an estimated $136 billion USD in 2015.

In recent years, growth in established beer markets like Europe and the United States remains relatively stable, while the levels of growth from emerging economies like China has accelerated. Between 2002 and 2011, the Chinese beer market went from being the same size as the US market, to double the size of the US market (Platologic.co.uk, 2015). In fact, the most popular beer in the world is a Chinese beer! Every day more people in emerging economies are beginning to enjoy beer which is driving the industry forward.

The Growth of Craft Beer
The past 10 years have been a period of great change within the beer industry. Many beer companies have been involved in mergers and acquisitions, creating huge multi-national businesses. The biggest four brewers in the market (AB InBev, SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg) now have a combined global market share of more than 50% (Economicsonline.co.uk, 2015).

At the same time, diversity has increased with new players entering the market and the craft beer movement taking off. In the United States it is estimated that craft beers now make up 11% (22.77 billion USD) of the market share, driving 22% ($19.6 billion USD) of sales growth (Sizemore, 2015). There are now thousands of small-scale craft breweries around the world.

This increase in diversity is good news for people looking to make a career in the industry. There are more employers competing for the best people and more job opportunities in diverse locations. The positive outlook for the global beer industry is a very good sign for people interested in working within the sector.

Job Opportunities in the Beer Industry
Jobs in the beer industry tend to fall into one of four broad categories:
  • Jobs in Beer Production
  • Jobs in Beer Marketing & Sales
  • Jobs in Hospitality
  • Jobs in Beer Distribution and Administration
Jobs in Beer Production
One of the quickest ways to get into the beer industry is by working at an entry-level position for a brewery. Some of the entry-level positions in beer production include:
  • Cellar work — keeping the brewery clean and running well, moving equipment
  • Packaging and distribution — working on the factory line and putting beer onto trucks
  • Basic Maintenance work — replacing worn equipment and installing new equipment
There are often opportunities for people to work their way up from these entry-level positions to more advanced jobs in beer production. If you are working at a smaller brewery, you may find yourself doing all kind of jobs around the place including helping the brewer with manual work.

Other roles at the production level which require more experience and training include:
  • Assistant brewer — making beer to the instructions of the head brewer
  • Head Brewer — the main person responsible for how the beer is being made
  • Brewhouse Operations — keeps the facilities that make the beer running smoothly
  • Packaging Operations — keeps the bottling and packaging processes running smoothly
  • Quality Control Tester — ensures the final product is of a certain quality
For many of these production line roles in a brewery, various kinds of technical skills and experience are necessary. For example, to work in brewhouse operations, you will probably need experience working in factories, ability to maintain machinery, experience with electrical appliances and familiarity with the raw materials that go into making beer.

Some of the more advanced roles in beer production may require a college degree. Working as an operations manager for a large brewery will probably require a business, supply chain management, logistics or engineering degree.

Some of the most reputable courses which can help you get started in beer production include:
  • Central Washington University Craft Beer Certificate (USA)
Jobs in Beer Marketing & Sales
Sales and marketing jobs in the brewing industry can be at the wholesaler, distributor or consumer level. You might be designing advertising campaigns for consumers, marketing your product to liquor shops or getting your brewery’s beer into more bars. Most sales and marketing jobs will require relevant experience with some requiring a college degree.

If you already have sales and marketing experience or a degree, you could also undertake a further education for the beer industry specifically, for example:
Many marketing and sales positions only require sales experience and a general familiarity with beer and the brewing industry. That level of familiarity can be gained by working in a bar, liquor shop or by being a home-brewer.

Jobs in Hospitality
With the increase in craft breweries, there has also been an increase in brewpubs. That is where the brewery has a pub directly attached to it. Brewpubs require hospitality workers with good beer knowledge. There are many jobs available for event managers, tour guides, beer educators and tasting room servers within the beer industry.

All of these roles require experience in the hospitality industry and a good working knowledge of beer. One way to acquire this knowledge is by taking a course. Some of the best beer knowledge course include:
Jobs in Beer Distribution and Administration
Just like any other business organisation, breweries need accountants, warehouse managers, logistics managers, administrators and business managers.

It can be an advantage to add relevant industry knowledge by adding a qualification like:
Information by The Carling Partnership an international recruitment agency in the beer and brewing industry.

Ibisworld.com,. (2015). Global Beer Manufacturing Market Research | IBISWorld. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from ibisworld.com/industry/global/global-beer-manufacturing.html

Economicsonline.co.uk,. (2015). Brewing. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from economicsonline.co.uk/Business_economics/Brewing.html

Platologic.co.uk,. (2015). PR World Beer Market 2012 and Top Brands 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from platologic.co.uk/pr_world_beer_market_2012_and_top_brands_2011.htm

Reuters,. (2015). Global beer market to grow by 2 pct in 2015 - Plato. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from reuters.com/article/2015/02/27/beverages-beer-idUSL5N0W12XS20150227

Sizemore, C. (2015). Why Big Beer is Struggling in the Age of Craft Beer. Forbes. Retrieved 8 July 2015, from forbes.com/sites/moneybuilder/2015/06/09/why-big-beer-is-struggling-in-the-age-of-craft-beer/

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

More stuff to read....

A few interesting reads from around the web. The first's an article from Craft Beer & Brewing, a US site that's mainly aimed at homebrewers. Many of its articles are too US-centric for my taste, but it does also carry some thought-provoking pieces, including this one, Do IBUs matter? Some drinkers – notably hopheads – are obsessed with IBUs, apparently believing the higher a beer's IBU rating, the better it is. This article explains why IBUs tell you something about a beer, but not everything, not by a long chalk!

Like CAMRA's technical committee, which has finally acknowledged that you can have keg-conditioned real ale, I've had more than a few of those cask vs keg discussions where you try to point out that today's kegs are a world apart from the Red Barrels of the 1970s, then someone says “Well, what about the xyz-keg?” and you have to admit that, actually you don't know that one. So it was great to read this long piece on the Ale is Good blog which is basically explaining from a distributor or server's point of view what all the different kegs are. He doesn't really cover the real ale aspects, but hey, there be dragons...

Original 1930s conetop beer cans
And then earlier today, I picked up an item on Jeff Bell's blog where he quotes a tweet from Fuller's John Keeling, expressing the latter's doubts over micro-canning – doubts which Jeff shares. It reminded me that I never really flagged up my own article on the subject of micro-canning, which was published earlier this year in Engineering & Technology, the magazine of the Institution of Engineering & Technology. I was very pleased with the way it came out in print, and the online version's pretty nice too.

This last one was sent in to me, it's an incomer's view of The Best Bars in Neukölln – a hip district of Berlin that is now gentrifying, after decades as a big Turkish & Lebanese area. I mention the article partly because it reminds me how different people have quite different motives for loving bars and pubs. Berlin is home to a bunch of great breweries, several of them in Neukölln including Berliner Berg which is one of the newest, and Privatbrauerei am Rollberg which is inside the old Berliner Kindl brewery building (and which seems to have overcome my initial misgivings to become very well liked). Yet in all his discussion of bars the only beer he mentions is Neumarkter Lammsbräu which is from Oberpfalz in Bavaria!

Saturday, 18 July 2015

For goodness Saké

“Saké, that's that Japanese rice wine, isn't it?” For most of us this is probably the limit of our understanding, perhaps augmented by having had hot saké after a meal at a noodle or sushi restaurant – certainly it was my understanding until not very long ago.

But hey, this is Japan we are talking about, and nothing much seems to happen there without several layers of added complexity and tradition... And sure enough, once you dig in, there is a quite a bit more to saké than appears on the surface, as I discovered when I was invited to the Japanese Embassy in London for a tasting of medal-winning sakés from this year's International Wine Challenge

Mashing saké
For a start, while it is usually considered a wine, its production is a lot more like beer. Just like malt, but unlike grapes and other fruit, rice contains lots of starch but little fermentable sugar; it also lacks amylase, the starch-converting enzyme that barley has. That means it must be steamed then mashed with a special mould which converts the rice starch into sugar. After a few days you add water and yeast, the mould continues producing sugars and in parallel the yeast ferments them into alcohol.

To add complexity, not only are there dozens of different varieties of saké rice, but they can be prepared in different ways, giving rise to multiple grades of saké. More variation comes from the many types of yeast available – another parallel with beer brewing, where two different yeasts can produce utterly different results from the same wort – and the water used. Then to top it off, for some grades of saké the brewer adds a small proportion of distilled alcohol before pressing the liquid out of the mash, this dries the wine out a little and extracts more flavour from the mash.

That said, the range of flavour is rather narrower than with beer or wine. There are no added flavourings – no hops or spices – no tannic grape skins, and the grains are not roasted to alter their character, unlike barley malt. So most sakés are clear or very lightly coloured, and like a white wine the flavours range from dry and crisp to sweet and fruity, sometimes with lightly earthy or spicy tones. For instance, Katafune Tokubetsu Honjozo (a medium grade, above regular Honjozo) from Takeda Shuzo offered notes of melon and butter on the nose, with a touch of ginger in the body.

A big part of the difference in flavour comes from how much the rice is polished to remove the husk and the outer layers of the core, explained Nobuo Shoji of Yumegokoro Shuzo (Shuzo means sake brewery). It's expressed in terms of what percentage of the grain is left after polishing, and of course the more you polish away the less is left to mash and ferment so the higher the price. The most expensive Daiginjo might be 50% or even 30%, while everyday Honjozo or Futsushu table saké might use 70% or more of the grain.

To demonstrate he offered me tastes of two different sakés, his 70% Futsushu being dry and spiritous, with a pleasantly rustic and slightly chewy quality, while the 50% Junmai Daiginjo (Junmai means it's all rice, with no added alcohol) was smooth with notes of melon and honey, also dry yet with a sweet edge.

I found something similar with the sakés from brewer Kenji Ichishima of Ichisima Shuzo. His Hidematsu Aka, a 70% Honjozo style, was dry, faintly spicy and again spiritous, with light hints of pear and lychee, while Hidematsu Yamabuki (another Junmai Daiginjo) was rather smooth and mellow, dry-sweet with aromas of green apple and a little tropical fruit.

One thing that did surprise me was how strong most of the sakés were – there was very little under 15%, and some were over 18%. Kenji explained that there has been quite an improvement in fermentation yields in recent decades, but he added that 15% remains the norm – it became the standard, with stronger brews diluted to 15%, because it used to be that anything above 15% was taxed more highly.

Less surprising was the fairly traditional nature of all the saké on display here – with Japan's ongoing craft beer revolution, some saké brewers have diversified into beer, but not the ones I spoke to. There are a few saké variations – aged or sparkling saké for instance, and Aizu Homare's brewer said he also produces fruit-flavoured saké which is popular with younger drinkers and in North America. I guess alcopops get everywhere. Thankfully he had none of that with him, so instead I enjoyed his aromatic and dry-sweet Banshu Yamadanishiki Junmai Daiginjo, with an earthy and slightly funky nose that reminded me of a Saisonbier.

And that tradition is part of what the saké brewers are hoping to sell abroad. It's understandable – saké's flavour range is much narrower than many other drinks can manage, so they have added complexity in other ways, especially tradition and ritual. That said, there is definitely more depth and subtlety to saké than many of us non-Japanese initially realise, and it's amazing what flavours you can get from just rice and yeast. Try it, next time you get the chance.

Sadly, I couldn't take any photos – the embassy's worship of the jealous god Security means a blanket ban on photography, even when the subject is just a glass of liquid sitting on a white tablecloth.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Moor Weird beer please!

Are brewery taproom visits like buses – you wait for ages, then two come along at once? Maybe it's something to do with the great weather too, but either way, it's been a fruitful weekend, meeting family at Moor Beer in Bristol on Saturday, then cycling with the tribe to Weird Beard's open day in Hanwell on Sunday.

We first met Moor about 10 years ago, when it was run by a Somerset farmer and his daughter, who had just won 2004 Champion Winter Beer of Britain for one of her beers, called Old Freddy Walker. A few years later, she had moved on and her father sold the brewery, and then last year the new owner (and brewer) moved it from Somerset into Bristol, rightly realising that the Bristol beer scene had taken off in a big way and that it could be the ideal place for a brewery with a taproom.

And what a nice little site he has created. Sure, it's in an unlovely and somewhat run-down area behind Temple Meads station, bounded by roads and the railway, but it's just about walkable from the city centre and inside is a bright bar with ten keg taps, while outside is a gravelled beer-garden (well OK, a beer-yard) with several picnic tables.

If there's a tiny gripe (apart from the lack of cask ale!) it's that you can buy third-pints for indoor drinking, but only halves and pints to take outside. I guess it's because they use plastic cups for outdoors and they don't have these in thirds. It does make one a bit wary of enjoying the 6% or 7% beers though. Still, you can always buy bottles to take home instead – including Old Freddy Walker, by the look of it the only beer left from Moor's previous incarnation – or buy a two-litre growler and have that filled up.

But whatever, we enjoyed several very nice ales. They ranged from the new 3.8% jasmine-infused Rider's Revival, brewed to celebrate the Tour de France, via Radiance, a 5% golden ale brewed with German malts for a Helles-like character, and Illusion, a piney 4.5% black IPA, through to Hoppiness, a chewy and fruity American IPA at 6.7%. The chilli-dogs and cheeseburgers from the July 4th-themed barbeque were jolly good too!

Then on Sunday was one of Weird Beard's periodic open days at its Hanwell brewery, on a small industrial estate near West Eaing. This isn't the easiest place to get to, certainly not by public transport, but it still seems to attract a good crew of locals who can walk or – like us – cycle there. In fact its closest transport medium is the Grand Union Canal which is right next to the industrial estate, and while a road route might be marginally shorter than the bendy canal – it's actually the canalised River Brent at this point – the waterside route is much nicer and can be a doggie walk too.

After a slow drive back from Bristol in heavy traffic, then cycling along the waterside and nearly losing a dog on the way, we reached Weird Beard with less than an hour to go before its 7pm close. I'd missed one that I wanted to try, but there were still three beers on tap, plus of course bottles in the fridge. We both enjoyed the new incarnation of Little Things that Kill, just 3.8% but full flavoured, and hoppier than many session IPAs.

I also had the Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja – I'm told this could be the last batch of this 5.5% Citra-hopped Pilsner, as they need their remaining stocks of Citra for other beers, but we can expect to see new versions with different hops. (Faceless Wordprocessor Ninja? Database Ninja?) Also still on tap was Something Something Darkside, their 9% black beer which I love – it's somewhere between an Imperial Stout and a Double Black IPA, and is rich and complex.

The tribe enjoyed themselves too – the kids ambled about, with the boy discovering the one-armed bandit, and the dogs made new friends. It was really nice to see the WB crew again too. At last though it was time to head off, along with a few bottles for later consumption. Back along the canal and already looking forward to the next one. We'll try to be earlier next time!