Tuesday 20 February 2018

The Bermondsey Beer Mile is flourishing again

A couple of years ago, I came to the conclusion that the Bermondsey Beer Mile had lost its appeal. It had jumped the shark, a victim of its own success. The Kernel had closed its drinking area, and the other brewery taps were often overwhelmed – some, like Partizan, had a bar but little seating space.

What a difference those two years have made. OK, even on a freezing day in February, respected and well known places such as Brew By Numbers and Anspach & Hobday still get busy, and Eebria – one of the newer bars – was so rammed I didn't even bother trying to get served. Apart from that, and despite the many groups of people strolling from venue to venue, it mostly felt comfortable.

Fourpure, now times two
The overall story is expansion – existing breweries moving and growing, new ones moving in, more beer retailers, and so on. At the eastern end, Fourpure has taken over into the industrial unit next door. This has added a lot of production and workspace for them, but has also allowed the taproom to expand, with more seating space and a new bar. They also now have a proper spacious indoor toilet block, which highlights just how shamefully dismal are the loos in pretty much every other local brewery and bar.

Heading west, Partizan’s move to a new and much bigger site, with both indoor and outdoor seating, was long overdue. Being an industrial building, the taproom might be a bit overly echoey and noisy for some, but it has much more space and a bigger bar (right) with guest taps too – when I visited, there were several Kernel beers on.

The move also freed up two railway arches on Almond Road, making room for not one but two new breweries. Well, one isn’t totally new – the highly experimental Affinity Brew Co moved down from Tottenham. And the other, Spartan Brewery, isn’t totally a brewery as it doesn’t yet have its brewkit in (they’re brewing up the road at Ubrew for now).

To make it even better, while the other breweries on the Mile – with the notable exception of Southwark – are keg-focused for their draught beers, both these new ones plan to package a significant proportion in cask. Sadly, neither had cask on when I visited, although Spartan co-founder Colin Brooks said he’d like cask to eventually become the majority of their production, and they’ll have casks at London Drinker Beer Festival next month.

Meanwhile, Affinity (left) is organising a weekend Bermondsey cask beer festival for April 7th-8th. Co-hosted by Partizan, this will feature 30 breweries from up and down the country, each brewery supplying two different casks, one for Saturday and the other for Sunday. Tickets are available online and cost a fiver for each day – that covers a glass, a programme and your first half, then it's a fiver a pint. And no, I don't know if there's a refund on Sunday if you still have your glass from Saturday!

Saturday 17 February 2018

Low-alcohol is the future – but for whom?

Do you drink low or non-alcoholic beers? Why – or more importantly, why not?

The beer and pub establishment has largely failed to notice or build on a growing interest in low and non-alcoholic drinks. That’s according to producers and promoters speaking in a panel discussion (pictured below) at the recent PubShowUK in London – and when I think about what I‘ve seen in the industry, I think they could well be right.

Initially I was cautious – like other bloggers who’ve written on the topic, I’ve seen low & non-alcoholic (LNA) beers* come and go over the years. And even after I tried a few of the new breed and found them pretty good, I wasn’t sure I would actually go on to buy them regularly.

What I’m being reminded though is that I and those other writers are not the target market. We more typically seek out new and flavoursome beers – which often means high ABV to carry the flavour, with LNA as an occasional curiosity. But the wider market is rather different, with retail analyst company Nielsen last year reporting that annual sales were up 17% by volume, which it said was the highest growth in five years.

It helps that there’s now a much wider range of LNA beers available – and the NA ones in particular are miles ahead of the stuff we were offered 10 or 20 years ago, such as Kaliber or Swan Light. Most of this is down to greatly improved brewing techniques, including new yeasts that produce fermented flavours but very little alcohol – most modern craft NA beer uses these, rather than de-alcoholisation. It means you can even get acceptable NA stouts and American IPAs.

And that’s before we take into account other LNA drinks that a pub or bar might serve, such as ‘mocktails’, craft sodas and even specialist teas.

They look old, but aren't
I’ve certainly seen an upsurge in craft sodas in Germany – it sometimes seems as if every beer brewery now also markets a non-alcoholic Fassbrause**. These “brewer’s sodas” (right) are sometimes shandy (radler) made with NA beer, but most often they’re just flavoured sodas – a few are even hop-flavoured. As an aside, they’re usually marketed with a heavy dose of history and tradition, yet they are very much a modern trend. And being packaged like a beer, with a brewery label on, they’re clearly acceptable to many beer drinkers.

Complicating all of this in the UK, though, is the soft drinks levy, or ‘sugar tax’, which takes effect in two months time. This is going to add to the cost of anything with added sugar – and it includes drinks with up to 1.2% alcohol. That’ll exempt packaged 2% shandies, say, and anything with no sugar added, such as drinks based on pure fruit juice, but it will cover drinks mixed at the bar, whether it’s a ‘lager-top’ or a St Clements. According to the trade press, suppliers are already responding by reducing the sugar content of their sodas, but it’s still an issue.

So, back to the LNA panel debate at Pub18. They were saying that what the market really needs – and what’s already appearing, but needs more support from the pub and bar trade – is a new breed of grown-up soft drinks. Whether that’s non-alcoholic (or yes, low alcohol) beers, fruit juice mixes, mocktails or flavoured tonic waters is up to you.

A (very tasty!) adult soft drink
When the presenter, Laura Willoughby of ‘mindful drinking’ (ie. LNA) promoter Club Soda, asked for questions from the floor, I waited to see if any of the assembled licensees, barstaff and other trade figures would ask about pricing. No one did, so I asked it: how do you justify charging as much for LNA as for a fully-taxed alcoholic drink?

With the benefit of hindsight, the answers from Laura and other panellists – who included Gemma Catlin from The City Pub Company and twin sisters Joyce and Raissa de Haas, whose company Double Dutch Drinks does the afore-mentioned flavoured tonics – were predictable. They’re ‘premium products’ (and craft beer isn’t?), they’re produced in small batches which puts up the production cost (must be getting less true as volumes rise, eg. with LNA beers), they require the same amount of work from barstaff, they’re lifestyle choices, and so on.

All true, of course, but I suspect they omitted the biggest one, which is “Because we can.” By which I mean, because they’re targeting a different, new and fashion-conscious customer base: the Generation Zs and Millennials who have money to spend and want entertainment, but are drinking less alcohol, or so we are told.

Laura came closest to it when she pointed out that all if a bar can offer is a sticky-sweet lemonade or cola, then adults like her will choose water – and that means zero revenue to the bar. On that basis, if 'soft drinks for grown-ups' get people back into pubs and bars, and that helps keep those open for the rest of us, then seriously, I am not complaining!

So, back to the original question: do you drink low or non-alcoholic beers, and why – or why not?

*Of course, what counts as low-alcohol varies from place to place. For example in Germany, where the norm is 5%, light (Leicht) beers are typically 3% or 3.5%, whereas in the UK the norm is more like 4%, and ‘lower’ for tax purposes means below 2.8%

**Many already do at least one NA beer, either one that meets the legal definition of under 0.5%, or increasingly one that is actually 0.0% alcohol.