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.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Raiding the Midlands for Winter Ales


It’s always fun when I can take part in judging for Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival, held every in London every August, but there’s one thing I always miss: dark beer. Sure, there’s plenty on the festival bars, but the judging for those categories takes place elsewhere and six months earlier.

Instead of GBBF, it’s at what used to be the National Winter Ales Festival but was renamed GBBF Winter a couple of years ago to reflect that it’s not just about winter ales. This travels around the country, spending a couple of years in each venue – which is usually somewhere in the English north or midlands.

So far I’ve been too lazy to schlep up to Derby, Norwich or wherever and pay for (or cadge) somewhere to stay, when there’s lots of good festival at the same time of year right on my doorstep. Yeah, I know – it’s horribly metropolitan of me!

This year though, I’m breaking my GBBF Winter ‘fast’, thanks to the coming together of two factors: first, it’s in Birmingham his year, less than two hours by train from London, and second, an invitation to judge dark beer at last! 

There’s minor snags, like CBoB judging being in the morning, and being self-funded. Which means I’ve either got to go up the night before and find accommodation, pay silly money for a rush-hour train, or get up at 5am for a train at a sensible price. So night-bus into the station it was, and here I am on a train heading for New Street, which I used regularly as a student but haven’t visited now for maybe 20 years.

Anyway, GBBF Winter 2020 opens this afternoon and runs until Saturday 8th Feb, so you still have time to get a ticket and make your way there! It’s at the New Bingley Hall, which is about 30 minutes walk (or a short bus ride) from New Street – I’m planning to walk as I’ve not seen Birmingham for so long.

It’ll be interesting to see how much the place has changed – maybe I will find myself planning to come back for a longer visit next time! And if you are coming to GBBF Winter this afternoon, maybe I’ll see you there. Cheers! 

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Craft beer rises into Brew London

Apologies, but I missed a London winter event off my last post - somehow Brew//LDN 2020 had completely failed to appear on my radar. Was it the tricksy name? The fact that it's taken over from Craft Beer Rising, but without taking over CBR's media list because the CBR founders jumped ship? Who knows!

Anyhow, it's a drinks industry showcase with producers of all sizes and origins booked in, ranging from lots of UK microbreweries to international brands such as Guinness (via its Open Gate brand/subsidiary), Brooklyn and Lagunitas. Obviously a lot of the overseas names will be via their UK distributors - for example, as well as Mikkeller I see other Euroboozer clients such as Steigl, Schremser and To Øl on the list. There's also several drinks other than beer represented.

And although there's macrobrew names involved, the 'LDN' name is not at all unjustified - there's a large chunk of the London microbrewery scene booked in.

The people behind Brew//LDN are the ex-founders of CBR, which explains a lot. For example it's at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, which was formerly the venue for CBR, and at the same time of year - which this year means Thursday 27th to Saturday 29th February.

The format is remarkably similar too - the Thursday and Friday afternoons are trade sessions while the others are open to the public, with tickets starting at £15 plus fees.

CBR got a lot of stick from some people for the way it mixed genuine independent craft producers with brands owned by multinationals. But while some macrobrewers are guilty of deceptive practices in making their products look like independent craft, and they can use their weight and distribution strength to squeeze the independents out, I always enjoyed CBR when I went along to the trade sessions. It was interesting to see what 'the big boys' were up to - it gave a more comprehensive view of the overall market. Plus of course the big boys have money, which I'm sure helped keep the event afloat!

Brew//LDN will undoubtedly get similar criticism. Plus there's the question of how successfully you can turn what's basically a trade show into a beer festival for the paying public. Especially when there's already a lot of competition in London for events targeting the drinks trade, what with The Pub Show next month, Imbibe Live in June, and several others including trade days at GBBF and elsewhere. It will be very interesting to see how it goes - I'm looking forward to it!

PS. If you're wondering what happened to Craft Beer Rising, as far as I can tell the company running it first got sold to a midsized drinks company, then that company was bought by an even bigger one. After that, the founders jumped ship and the CBR company was closed down. 

Personally, I'd argue that a drinks company has no business buying or running a trade show, but what do I know? The company backing Brew//LDN, Brewbroker, looks a rather better fit as it is more of a beer industry intermediary. 

Thursday, 9 January 2020

London's winter beer scene warms up

A few years ago, the winter beer scene in London was pretty dull. After the Battersea Beer Festival’s final run in February 2014, there was nothing much to break the gloom between early December’s Pig’s Ear festival and March or April, when events like London Beer Week kicked off.

Now, all that’s changed. Perhaps it’s a symptom of just how crowded the craft calendar has become overall, but more festivals and other events are popping up in February and even January. As well as the keg-only Love Beer London charity event which I’ve written about before, the February weekend immediately after will see its cask-only counterpart Cask 2020.

Last year’s Cask 2019 was well organised with good and unusual ales on offer – some of them were normally keg-only but put in cask specially for the event. The one thing many visitors didn’t like was the venue: a set of atmospheric but damp and dripping (yes, really!) railway arches in Bermondsey. So this year it’s moving further south to Peckham, which has apparently gentrified now to the extent of having a Cultural Quarter. Anyway, at £35 a session for all you can drink from around 30 of the country’s best and most interesting brewers, I highly recommend this one.

And now it turns out we don’t even have to wait until February, as there’s January events popping up. The most worthy, and one I’m looking forward to, is another charity event – this time an ad-hoc one to raise funds towards the dreadful Australian bushfire crisis. Called Help A Mate, it’s on Saturday 25th January (with horrible irony, or perhaps Aussie black humour, this is also Burns Night) at Pressure Drop’s brewery in Tottenham. Several other breweries have already donated beers for the event, and there’s also going to be a raffle with an impressive list of donated prizes.