Monday 27 January 2014

The Truman show

Anyone who has lived around London will probably recognise the name Truman. It still decorates pubs all over the city, the legacy of Truman's Brewery, one of the great 19th century London brewing companies – and for a short while in the late 1800s, the largest brewer in the world.

Truman's was one of the victims of the British brewery mergers of the 1960s and 70s, murdered by Grand Met following a vicious battle with Watney's. Its huge brewery on Brick Lane closed in 1989, and although many of the buildings survive they now house all sorts of start-up businesses and shops.

But in 2010, the name was revived, bought from Scottish & Newcastle (which had been left holding the parcel when the merger music stopped) by two Londoners who wanted to bring it back to the East End. When I read last year that they were building a 40-barrel plant in Hackney Wick – for a start-up, when the norm is more like 10 barrels! – it would have seemed like extreme hubris if they hadn't spent the intervening years proving the market by brewing and selling beer, first brewing at Nethergate and then when its capacity was insufficient, at Everards.

And when the Kew Gardens Hotel just 10 minutes away held a meet-the-brewer evening with Truman's, I jumped at the chance. Sadly, the brewer himself couldn't make it, even though Kew Gardens is just a single train ride of 50 minutes from Hackney Wick (wimp!). Fortunately his substitute, the brewery's on-trade sales boss Paul Ramsay, was well able to talk about the brewery and its plans – and he had plenty of beer with him...

Truman's Runner is the new – sorry, re-established – brewery's flagship, but Paul says they are going straight into offering a range of three regular beers, with four seasonals, plus occasional one-offs as well. A classic 4% brown bitter, Runner was on tap alongside Swift, a clean, crisp and well-balanced 3.9% golden ale with Cascade and Saaz hops. The third regular will be Eyrie, the recipe for which isn't final yet, but the plan is for a best bitter of around 4.5%.

The current seasonal was on tap too – Emperor, with a penguin logo, is a brown ale – American Brown Ale style, says the brewery, but I'm not sure it's hoppy enough for that – featuring the original Truman's yeast plus Cascade and Aramis hops, the latter being a French variety that's new to me and I suspect to most people here. It's very nice – fruity, with hints of coffee and a little chocolate. Confusingly though, while the recipe is new, the name isn't, as Truman's did a bitter called Emperor two years ago – this is not the same beer!

Holding the banner for the occasionals was Truman's Original Porter. Made from a mostly brown malt grist in the old style London Porter, this is chocolately yet quite light bodied despite its 4.6%, and was sadly the least impressive of the beers on offer.

Paul had also brought along some Truman's London Keeper 1880 Double Export Stout, a limited edition of 2000 bottles priced at £17.50 each. Every bottle is sealed with ivory wax and bears a hand-printed, hand-signed and numbered label from a specialist craft printer also in the East End. A publicity stunt to help publicise the new brewery, where this was the very first brew on the new brewkit? Absolutely, but not just a stunt – the 8% beer is based on two recipes in the Truman's archive, and is hugely rich with umami dryness, cocoa and treacle notes, and an earthy bitterness. Somehow reminiscent of a Dunkel Doppelbock, it should indeed improve with keeping. 

An interesting aside was that Paul said the Truman's seasonals will all be 4.2% ABV. This is to make it easier for SIBA to list them as pubco guest beers – they will appear as a single entry, and the publican will get whichever one is current. I heard the same story from the guys at Twickenham Fine Ales a couple of months back (their seasonals are 4.4%), so I suspect we will notice a lot more of this tactic.

All in all, Truman's is a great addition to the London brewing scene, and has already done a good job of getting its beers embedded on bars and its name back in the pubic eye. It's certainly one I'll be happy to see on a bar in the future.

Saturday 25 January 2014

How not to open a brewpub

The beer's good quality, but the brewery is really just decoration
My thanks to Boak & Bailey for pointing me at this interesting piece on the Bear-Flavored blog, How Not To Open a Brewery. In it, the author Derek points out how many US craft breweries are now the product not of passionate brewers but of investors who see it as a good bet and a hot business to be in. He wonders which ones will last - the products of passion, or the investments.

It immediately made me think of my experiences with German brewpubs - I realised that while the best fitted the 'passion' category (eg. Klindworths, Heidenpeters, Eschenbrau), many of them really just felt they'd been added to give the bar a bit more atmosphere and identity, and make it a bit more of a destination. OK, they'd hired a trained brewer so the beer was good quality, but otherwise they were little different from any other investment in the premises, from new furniture or an updated loo, and the beer was little different from all the other Pils around.

With a brewpub the risk could be less than with a brewery, because you have a guaranteed market for the product. It costs money and management time though, and as an investor you need to get a return on that investment. And there is evidence of this return not happening, in the number of brewpubs that have closed and reopened under new management, or which are still operating as bars but with the brewkit standing derelict, now merely a decoration.

And it reminded me of the tag-line that English ale brewery Batemans ("Craft brewers since 1874") came up with: A brewery run by brewers, not accountants.

Of course you can't do without accountants - or at least, a knowledge of how to do business and an eye to the bottom line. Yes, running a brewery is still a business.

But really, how much mileage is there left in craft beer and ale if it's now just another "hot investment opportunity" for shysters and spivs?

Sunday 19 January 2014

Greene King's crafty rebrand

Greene King is in the process of rebranding several of its beers with new, more consistent labels in a hand-drawn style clearly meant to look handcrafted. Here's a pop-up exhibition banner showing several of them.

The existing beers getting new labels are St Edmunds, Strong Suffolk (which also now gets the suffix "Dark Ale" instead of "Vintage Ale") and Yardbird. You can (for now) see the original labels and pumpclips here.

Also getting a new label are Twisted Thistle IPA (an ex-Belhaven brand) and Noble - yes, in case you hadn't realised, "Noble Craft Lager" is a GK brew. Even the manager in one of my local GK pubs was surprised when I pointed this out to him!

And there's some new beers coming to this family, including Double Hop Monster IPA, Suffolk Porter and St Edmunds Anniversary Ale.

What do you think - does GK stand a chance, branding these as craft?

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Contract or collaboration?

The other week I dropped into the Moon Under Water in Hounslow - a JD Wetherspoon that's a Good Beer Guide regular - to see a Bale Breaker Field 41 Pale Ale pump-clip. It wasn't from Yakima in Washington State though, where Bale Breaker is based, but from Devizes in Wiltshire. Yes, it was another of JDW's popular guest beers where they get the US brewer to come and do a beer at one of several UK breweries - Wadworth's, in this case.

It set me thinking - are these contract brews, or are they collaborations? JDW is rightly quite clear where they come from, with most clips proudly bearing the name of both the guest brewer and the host brewery, and they are never exactly the same beer. For a start, the UK versions are cask-conditioned, whereas the US ones will mostly be kegged or bottled.

Typically the ABVs will differ too - UK Field 41 was 4.8%, versus 4.5% in the US for example - and the recipes may need to be adapted. For example, Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing wrote extensively on his blog about the process of brewing a version of Stone's Supremely Self-Conscious Ale at Adnam's (5% UK, 4.5% US), which he describes as a true collaboration. The two versions used different hops and yeast - as well as different water of course.

Most times though, all we have to go on is the information that brewer X brewed their beer Y at brewery Z. Does that make it a collaboration, or is it merely a contract brew, where the same recipe could be brewed, with appropriate adjustments, on any number of different sites? And do they count as different beers or as the same one?

On the Untappd forums, it's been interesting to see what appears to be a geographic split on this. US voices have tended towards the "same beer" view, I guess to them it's no different from contracting your best-selling beer to a bigger brewery in order to meet demand. Maybe it's also important for it to remain "an American beer". UK voices on the other hand seem to see them as American-inspired but different and collaborative - perhaps it's partly nationalist, but it's also a recognition that the recipe and process will need to change to produce a cask-conditioned ale, and that local expertise will inevitably need to be involved.

(On Ratebeer the two versions always get separate listings. but then Ratebeerians were already very serious about differentiations such as where a beer is brewed, how it's served, etc.)

So is there a dividing line that makes one beer a collaboration and another not, and if so, where is it? Or should I stop worrying about it and have another pint? (-:

Friday 3 January 2014

A sad sight

The derelict brewkit in the now-misnamed Lamb Brewery pub in Chiswick (formerly the Barley Mow, among other names). Installed in 2012, the brewery ran for barely a year before being closed last October by Mitchells & Butler when it bought the pub from Convivial.Indeed, it closed so fast that I never got to drink here while it was open (though I did try a couple of the ales elsewhere).

I'm told a final decision on the future of the brewery (and on its sibling at The Botanist in Kew) is due in February, when the pubs close for refurbishment, presumably to fit them into M&B's Castle chain. It looks most likely that both will go, especially as both brewers have left, but you never know...

One piece of good news that's come out of it is that the Lamb's former brewer, Conor, has a new job at the George & Dragon in Acton - they're installing the kit to turn this into one of London's newest brewpubs later this year.

Another possible silver lining is that if two smallish brewkits come onto the market around February, we might see two more new London brewpubs before too long. Here's hoping!