Friday 22 April 2016

When is a brewery not a brewery?

Brewing kit at Ubrew
London now has 101 breweries, according to recent figures. Except that it doesn’t – talking to CAMRA folk in the know*, their estimate is that at least 10 to 15 of the brewing companies are actually nomad brewers**, who brew batches from time to time at one of three or four sites where you can go along and rent a commercial-grade brewkit. The best known of these ‘open source breweries’ is Ubrew in Bermondsey.

Then there’s another half a dozen that are ‘resting’ for whatever reason, and a few more where you have two brewers sharing a brewkit. This all means that the total of actual physical breweries is probably still in the 75-80 region.

That means it has pretty much stabilised in the last couple of years. There have been a few closures, but they’ve been more or less matched by new openings – often with the latter using the brewing kit sold off by the former.

The nomad issue echoes a conversation I had at London Drinker Beer Festival with a couple of brewers from more established (and here I mean a few years, not 100 years!) breweries. As one of them noted, “Ubrew is messing up the market. The beers are still good, but it confuses things because people are saying they’re a new brewery when they’re actually using Ubrew.”

Sour grapes, or are the nomad brewers genuinely sowing confusion in the market? Their beers certainly look the part, but does actually owning the brewkit make a difference to the quality?

*London CAMRA (of which I'm a member) tracks its local brewing closely, even though a lot of it isn’t real ale. It’s partly for completeness and partly because even breweries that mostly do keg beer often also do bottle-conditioned beers and cask-conditioned specials.

**Nomad has become popular as the least potentially-offensive of the available terms. ‘Gypsy’ as preferred by the likes of Mikkeller, is regarded by many as pejorative, and ‘cuckoo’ has unpleasant connotations – would you put up with a cuckoo brewer in your brewery if you knew they were planning to elbow your own chicks over the edge of the nest?

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Raising a toast to Her Maj

As I write this, tomorrow is the 90th birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II. You might think that when you’re one of the richest women in the world, with pretty much unlimited medical resources available, reaching 90 is no great surprise. But none of the previous Windsor monarchs made it past 77, and even if you go back to the Hanoverians, even George III and Victoria only just made it into their 80s.

So I was quite happy to raise a glass to Her Maj this afternoon, at the launch of the first Royal birthday-themed beer I’ve seen so far: Greene King’s Purple Reign. If you want to follow suit, Purple Reign’s due to be on 1000 Greene King bars around the country through May and June as one of their seasonal specials.

The beer itself is a fairly average 4.2% malty-sweet golden ale that isn’t going to frighten the corgis. Apparently it includes four different hop varieties: Challenger, Pilgrim, Styrians and First Gold. I found this hard to believe at first, but after a second try they emerged blinking into the sunlight – or rather, into an earthy and faintly herbal bitterness with distant hints of berries.

As to the name, the GK crew alluded to purple as a royal colour, and of course most people will know the song. Or will they? GK might have been thinking of Prince’s Purple Rain, but had they looked further there’s also some rap-crap actually called Purple Reign, with lovely lyrics such as:

If young Metro don't trust you, I'm gon' shoot you
Aye somebody uh, calls somebody get some molly
I need some good sauce, clean sauce

Mind you, you could wonder about the aptness of Prince’s lyrics:

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted one time to see you laughing

But still – beer, the pub, and the Queen. What more could any decent Brit ask for? 😃

There's chocolate cake in there somewhere!

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Exploring Belgian beer beyond the abbeys

With several British companies already offering subscribers a monthly box of new bottled beers, you might think there isn’t much room in the market here for yet another monthly beer box. Belgibeer’s Dario Ceccarelli thinks otherwise though, and having built up his business across mainland Europe, he has just opened a UK office as well.

The difference is that other beer clubs might focus on British brewers, say, or try to do a world’s-best type of thing that’s great for new explorers but probably won’t impress aficionados (“A bottle of Orval/Vedett IPA/Flensburger Gold? Mr Ambassador, you’re spoiling us!”). However, each monthly Belgibeer box contains only beers from a single brewery – and as its name implies, all the breweries are Belgian.

Dario opens a box of beer...
“With its similar culture, France is our biggest market now, but the UK is our next target,” said Dario when I met him over a glass of Piraat Triple Hop at the opening of the London office. He added, “We want to broaden people’s expectations beyond abbeys – we work with ‘the other’ Belgian brewers.”

He said that even though many drinkers – and most Belgians – think they know Belgian beer, they don’t really. That’s due to the market dominance of AB-Inbev (Stella, Jupiler, Leffe, Hoegaarden...) and to a lesser extent Heineken (Maes, Grimbergen, Affligem...), which means that pretty much anywhere you go in Belgium, you will see the same macrobrews on the menu. Yet the country has hundreds of good small brewers, almost all of them little known abroad. Some produce only traditional Belgian styles, a few focus on international craft styles, and many brew the best of both worlds.

The volume he’s able to buy means that these brewers will sometimes do specials for him, for example packaging a beer that’s normally only in 70cl bottles in smaller ones instead. Also in the box you get a Belgibeer magazine profiling the brewery and introducing the beers – they visit each brewery they work with. It’s trilingual (English, French and Dutch) and is both slightly cute and a bit politically incorrect, in a way that suggests Belgium must be fortunate enough to lack a bunch of humourless drinks-nannies like the Portman Group.

As well as subscribing for regular deliveries, you can buy one-off cases and a range of ‘extras’, ranging from branded glasses to bottles of Westvleteren 8 and 12. Dario noted that beer boxes have become a popular gift item – he said that in France 80% of Belgibeer’s clients are women, with many of them buying the boxes as gifts through a gift-box website.

If I have a minor reservation, it is that other beer clubs typically send eight (or 12) different bottles. Like most smaller brewers though, Belgian breweries produce a relatively modest range of beers at any one time, so each Belgibeer box only contains four different brews (two bottles of each). Still, the aim is to have each box as internally varied as possible, and the breweries chosen are often little known outside their provinces, never mind outside Belgium.

For example, I’d not heard before of some of the breweries featured recently, such as Brasserie de Cazeau and Brasserie Sainte Hélène, both in Wallonia. Others I’d heard of but barely sampled, such as Vicaris and De Dochter van de Korenaar. One recent box was from van Steenberge, and while I’d had the regular Piraat 10.5 before, the box’s other three beers were new to me – including the excellent Triple Hop and the Gulden Draak 9000 Quad.

Belgibeer’s UK pricing depends how long you subscribe for, fitting in with the competition at around £3 a bottle. That’s pretty good for delivered beer, especially when quite a bit of it is over 6% – and much of it is likely to be unavailable anywhere else in the UK.

Sunday 3 April 2016

CAMRA's revitalisation project pits faith vs fitness

Error: Purpose not found?
In the business world, a fitness-for-purpose review is pretty standard these days. When you’ve been going for a few years, the chances are that your founding mission – massively innovative as it once was – no longer matters as much, and while you might still be doing OK commercially, the real growth is going to younger, more in-tune competitors.

Seen in that context, CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project, which has been seizing headlines for the last few days, merely prompts the question: How come it took you so long?

But of course with a membership organisation it is not quite as simple as it is in business. That’s even more true when some of your members are so stuck in the 1970s mud that they still think all kegs are the work of the devil, or that there is no such thing as American cask ale (I’ve read both of these opinions recently).

It’s more like working with a religion rather than a business – sure, you can ordain change from on high, if you’re willing to accept schism. Otherwise change is more likely to be measured in decades or centuries.

The allusion to religion ties in too with the rise of non-cask craft beer (as opposed to traditional cask craft beer, of course!). All of a sudden, the comfortable faith that cask is the One True Way to tasty beer is being undermined, both in public opinion and in the trade. No one should be surprised if some cask zealots* react by hardening rather than softening their stance, no matter how shaky or absurd their reasoning might seem by objective standards.

Some have suggested CAMRA didn’t entirely help with its “Is this the end of CAMRA?” teaser. What it meant was that the campaign might decide to choose a new mission and a new name. However, when you’re an editor trying to grab readers, or a TV presenter more concerned with displaying your sarcastic wit than with exploring the topic (hello BBC Breakfast), of course an invented conflict such as ‘CAMRA vs craft beer’ makes much better headlines than the scrupulous truth.

Thankfully, most of the stories beneath the headlines have been pretty balanced, and the coverage achieved – for which CAMRA’s publicity team should be commended – means there can’t be many drinkers unaware of the Revitalisation Project.

I’m not going to pre-judge the process – the consultation has barely started, and while the meetings scheduled around the UK are members-only, the survey is open to both members and non-members alike.

All I know is it’s going to be tough. A new mission for CAMRA will undoubtedly lose some members, but should also bring the opportunity to pick up more.

*Now that I think about it, this probably applies to the anti-CAMRA zealots too. You know, the ones who still think it’s all twiggy brown bitter, drunk by stereotypical bearded and sandalled Enemies of Progress.