Monday 28 December 2020

Floats like a butterfly, Stings like a beer

You know those old stories about mulling beer with a red-hot poker? It turns out there’s a very similar tradition in Germany, too – and my Yule gift from my brother-in-law was a genuine beer-mulling tool, or Bierstachel. (This translates as beer-stinger, so I assume it’s a wordplay on Bienenstachel or bee-stinger.) 

It begins
So it begins...
The first time I came across one of these was about eight years ago at one of the very first craft beer festivals in Germany. A rep from Schneider Weisse was using a long red-hot poker thingy on glasses of Aventinus, and the delectable brew was becoming even more gorgeous as it acquired a tight foam, a caramelised note and a slight warmth. 

His Bierstachel had a hollow cylinder on the end, while mine (and others I’ve seen since then in photos) has a spherical end. 

Anyway, tonight I gave mine its first use. The instructions say 100 seconds on a gas burner, then plunge it in. The visible result was the same as eight years ago – a tight foam erupts from the liquid, with a renewed foaming if you move the poker around. 

end result
The end result
And the taste? Hard to say really – it’s knocked out the excessive gas, obviously, and lifted the temperature a bit, though less than one might expect. There’s a little more caramelisation perhaps, but with a dark beer (this was Dark Season from Bitburger's crafty arm Craftwerk, allegedly a 5.6% stout but more like a dark ale really) it’s hard to be sure. 

But definitely intriguing! My immediate thought though was they’re way too cautious (or optimistic) with the heating instructions. 

When I’ve seen others doing it, they’re using a blowtorch or equivalent and getting the thing to a dull red, which I’m not even sure I can do on a gas cooker. So, a hotter source of heat needed – and more experimentation. Oh dear, what hardship. 😂

Saturday 7 November 2020

Under lockdown, maybe we can travel by beer instead?

I had hoped to be trying out the latest addition to London's beer tourism this weekend: the Blackhorse Beer Mile in Tottenham, which takes the walker to the Exale, Wild Card and Signature breweries, and also the Truman’s Social Club which I understand is the new Truman’s brewery tap. Sadly, the inept B Johnscum and his corrupt crew of venal dullards and sociopathic idiots put paid to that. 

Thankfully though, I can still enjoy a little bit of canned Tottenham at home, courtesy of the afore-mentioned Signature Brew. Despite the pandemic, their musically-inclined brewers have been churning out new brews this summer and autumn, as well as their core beers. 

What caught my interest in particular was that they had done a couple of Bavarian classics. Now maybe it’s my imagination, or maybe it’s the brewers’ lockdown restlessness, but I get the sense there’s a bit of international beer style sharing going on. For instance, via Untappd I’ve seen quite a few German micros and brewpubs doing red ales for autumn, while some of the UK brewers have been working on classic German styles in return. 

The two they kindly sent samples of were In The Dark, a 5.1% Bamberg-inspired Rauchbier, and Luftballon, a 5.5% Helles Festbier, usefully labelled with the warning, “Please do not drink 99 of them.” 

So, how do they stack up to their prototypes? In The Dark has all the right pieces – beech smoke, burnt toffee notes, some dry bitterness – but somehow they don’t quite fit together. I suspect it’s just a bit too light-bodied – all the Franconian Rauchbiers I can think of are maltier than this, and most are at least 5.4%. Even my mug a few weeks ago of Spezial’s Rauchbier Lager (4.9%) had a bit more body than this. 

On the other hand, for all that Nena is from North-Rhine Westphalia rather than Munich, Luftballon is bang in the landing zone. Sweetish and lightly bready, with a dry-grassy hoppy bitterness, it’s a little chewy like its Bavarian brethren. Essentially it does exactly what a Festbier sets out to do, which is to take a Munich Helles and wind it up to 10. (One day they’ll get it to 11, but not yet!)

While I’m here, I should also mention some other Signature specials. C-Sharp is one of the modern breed of fruited sours, which is to say they’re not actually very sour – in fact, most of them are out-tarted by the macro-brewed Berliner Kindl Weisse you can buy in most German supermarkets. 

C-Sharp’s differentiating point is lemon, not just from Citra hops but also from Sicilian lemons. It puts me in mind of both Limoncello and the Limoncello beers I’ve tried – despite the lemon juice aromas, C-Sharp is more lemon-and-lime tangy than tart, and fairly sticky-sweet too. It's intriguing, but I think I’d prefer it a bit more beery – if I had another can I’d try blending it with a West Coast IPA or somesuch.

The next is Equaliser, whose gimmick is to take a hazy New England IPA and transpose it to the Antipodes, substituting Australian and New Zealand hops for the usual American varieties. And by gum(tree), it works really well. Notes of white grapes, orange and lychee, smooth and juicy, and with a firm bitter kick – very nice.

And then there's this year's brew of Signature Festival Saison – clean and dry-sweet, lightly funky and fruity, with hints of pepper and St Clements. Quite delicious! So, no black horses but three palpable hits and a couple of near-misses. That'll do for now. Cheers...

Sunday 6 September 2020

On the Bierkeller, not in it

LöwenbrĂ€u Buttenheim 
Normally, you know where you are with a Bierkeller – in a large basement hall, full of tables, benches and yes, beer. It means ‘beer cellar’, right? Yet there we were, actually drinking on a wooded hillside in Franconia. So why do the locals call what anyone else would say is a Biergarten, a Bierkeller?

The answer is that there will indeed be a real Keller, or cellar, under here somewhere. Back in the days before artificial refrigeration was invented, breweries needed somewhere cool to lager their beer for months on end, especially during the warm summers when they couldn’t brew.

If there weren’t natural caves around to use, they went into the hills around the town and dug their own – cellars that stayed at a constant 8 degrees C all year round, thanks to their earth insulation. And if there weren’t already shady trees on top, they planted some – typically broad-leaved horse chestnuts, Kastanie in German, which is why so many Bierkellers (and Biergartens) have names such as Kastaniengarten.

So now you have a cellar in the woods, full of beer. What’s more natural than to put a few tables and benches out the front, and drink some of that beer? And the name stuck, but you go “auf den Bierkeller” – on the cellar, not in it.

As luck would have it – well, in truth luck had very little to do with it – our recent trip to Buttenheim put us within walking distance of two popular Bierkellers. In need of dinner on our arrival, we were told LöwenbrĂ€u Buttenheim had the better food offering, even if it wasn’t the more scenic of the two.

The food was indeed good, and so was the location – OK, so its view of the town was dominated by the tower of local rival St. GeorgenBrĂ€u Buttenheim, but the bierkeller itself rises up the hillside in tree-shaded terraces. At the top is a covered area, like a hall with no walls, and beyond that are the woods – and in the woods, a play area complete with zipwire which delighted the kids. As with most Bierkellers, it’s all self-service – you order food and beer at serveries, the beer to take back to your table with you and the food to pick up when your number is called. You clear your own table and return the empties to the appropriate hatch, too.

It's a simple menu at Roppelt's
A couple of days later we again needed a place to eat and for the kids to run about, so I grabbed the opportunity for a return visit to somewhere I fondly remembered from seven years ago: Roppelt’s Keller, not far away in Stierlimbach. It was already busy by late afternoon on a weekday, but thankfully we were just early enough to get both a parking space and a table – of course by the time we left, still in daylight, it was even busier.

 There’s obviously been changes in the time since our last visit – the playground, which was large even back then, had been seriously upgraded and I think moved, the woods had grown (surprise!) and I reckon there’s more tables now. But as long as you ignore the wasps, it’s lovely – great beer, nature, stuff to amuse the kids, and a good range of the local equivalent of pub-grub, so sausages, sandwiches, chops and so on. Bang on trend, they even have an alcohol-free version of their Kellerbier, and pretty decent it is too.

Buttenheim at sunset
Talking of beer, at most Kellers you’ll only find one or two draught offerings. First and foremost is the Kellerbier, then there might also be a Weizen or a seasonal, such as a MĂ€rzen. There’s usually a few bottles on offer, often the Weizen will be bottled too.

It wasn’t until late on our last evening in town when I finally made it to the St. GeorgenBrĂ€u Keller. I’ve had a few of their beers before – the brewery is fairly substantial and its bottled beers are fairly widely distributed. They even can their Kellerbier now! It feels more planned and organised than most other Bierkellers I've been to, and perhaps just a little less characterful – there’s a proper bar, and the terraces are even and straight. But whatever – there’s excellent Kellerbier and Helles on tap, plenty of room, and the sunset view across the town is gorgeous.

Friday 7 August 2020

Back to Bamberg

After a day in the Franconian countryside, it was time to head for the Big City – or at least one of the biggest in the world of beer: Bamberg. The local beer scene has changed a fair bit since I was there seven years ago, so I was really looking forward to exploring some of the new places. The challenge, since the plan was a bit of touristing and shopping in the morning with the kids, before I got the afternoon to myself, was to find somewhere the kids would enjoy. Luckily, while it wasn’t easy to spot on its dusty suburban street, Hopfengarten Bamberg proved an excellent and friendly choice. 

At first, it looks like the entrance to a yard, then there's greenery hinting at a hidden garden, then a passage between dusty greenhouses, and finally it opens up into a huge area behind the houses. Hopfengarten is just a part of it, but there is indeed a hop garden with long tables under arches of hops, there’s a sandpit and a pond (=happy kids!), fruit trees, a herb garden and more. Gardeners were at work fixing things up – I think that, like many places, it had not long been open again after the long Coronavirus shutdown.

It was still early in the day, we were the only visitors and although the bar was advertising their special edition herbal and fruit beers, nothing was pouring. Thankfully, after we’d said hello and poked around the garden a bit, we were asked if we’d like samples – Kellerpils and Rotbier, straight from the fermenters of “the smallest brewery in town” (it looked to be a 100 or 200-litre brewkit). And very nice they were too, while we sat amongst the greenery.  

As we walked into the centre for the shops and some lunch, I spotted another new place to check out – Zum Sternla. Well, it’s not exactly new, in fact they claim the site dates back to 1380, although it’s only been a pub for 250 years or so. What is new though is that last year they put a brewhouse into an extension built onto the rear of the pub.

The biergarten in the courtyard here showed how seriously some venues here are taking social distancing. Large panels between the tables turned each one into almost an alcove, table staff everywhere wear masks or face-shields, and even outdoors in a biergarten you have to cover your face while moving around – the mask can only come off when you are seated. (In contrast, it felt really weird going into a pub in Chiswick this week where no one, not even the staff, had a mask on.) 

Zum Sternla Roggenbier, nur ein schnitt!
The beers were fairly typical for the area and for a German brewpub – a golden lager (Vollbier Export), a Pils and a Zwickel, which I believe is the Vollbier but unfiltered. Luckily, my visit also coincided with the first tapping of their new seasonal Roggenbier, which proved to be a nice example of the style – it’s a top-fermented beer similar to a Hefeweizen, but made with rye not wheat.

Of course it’s not all traditional local beer styles in Bamberg, but it can be hard to find anything else! So while I wanted to catch up with a couple of ‘new wave’ Bamberg brewers we’d met while we were all visiting Hamburg earlier this year, I knew it wasn’t going to be too easy. For a start, both Blech.Brut and Atelier der Braukunst are what’s known in Germany as ‘cuckoo brewers’, sharing or renting brewing capacity from others, so a brewery visit was out of the question. And most of the beer shops just focus on the wealth of traditional local brewing. 

Fortunately I’d been recommended to one that didn’t, namely the local branch of Die Bierothek, a group of craft beer shops. Again it was somewhere new to me – or at least I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there seven years ago, as I’d have walked past it on my evening perambulations between our rented apartment and Brauerei Spezial.

What's in the hand sanitiser?!
I find myself in two minds about craft beer shops. On the one hand, everything costs more – there’s classic Franconian beers in this one at €2 or €3 a bottle, but which I’d picked up the day before for €1 to €1.50 at a supermarket on the Memmelsdorf road. On the other, they have beers that I doubt you’d find anywhere else in the area – even some of the rural Franconian stuff probably doesn’t normally travel into the city. So I picked up a few cans – and once you’re into the €6/can area the additional margin is minimal anyhow – and made way for other shoppers. 

Of course something was bound to go wrong, and it did. I’d carefully avoided making my trip on the Monday, as that’s often the day-off for places that open over the weekend (“Montag Ruhetag”), but what I’d missed was that quite a few venues now close Mon-Weds or even Sun-Weds inclusive – and one of them was my next target, another newcomer called Landwinkl BrĂ€u. Ah well, a restorative mug of Rauchbier in the Brauerei Spezial courtyard was only a few hundred yards away...  

Just two more targets left on my list. The first was Aecht Schlenkerla, not for a drink as time was running a bit short, but to pick up bottles of their three new low-alcohol beers: the unsmoked Bamberger Heinzlein Hell & Dunkel, and Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Hansla. They’re reputedly based on historical examples – the local equivalent of ‘small beer’, I assume. 

The last was a bit more of a struggle, but worth it – the long haul up Kaulberg to Brauerei Griefenklau. It’s another favourite venue, and I was just early enough to get half a table at the end of the biergarten, overlooking the gardens below and with this green and leafy view across to Die Altenburg on the hill opposite. A lovely place to sit and sip a Zwicklbier as dusk began to creep in. 

Monday 27 July 2020

Monday in the land of breweries

Merkendorfer Kellerbier
One of the disconcerting things about travelling in Franconia, aka Oberfranken, is realising just how many of the place names I instantly recognise without ever having been to the vast majority of them. It comes from seeing them in the listings at Untappd, of course – and becoming familiar with all the many ways that visitors can misunderstand them...

A common one is that beers often have the name of their home town as a prefix, and foreigners assume that’s the brewery name. Or they mix up breweries of the same name but located in different towns. Scheßlitz? That’ll be Drei Kronen – the one I’ve not been to, but which often gets confused with the one I have, which is Drei Kronen Memmelsdorf. Drosendorf? That’s one of the two Brauerei Göller, And Schammelsdorf is of course Brauerei Knoblach. I think we saw all of those names on our way out on Monday morning, and we weren’t on the way to any of them!

Instead we were after one of the other things Oberfranken has in spades, which is lovely countryside. Paradiestal, or Paradise Valley, is a popular hiking trail just off the A70 autobahn between Bamberg and Kulmbach – confusingly, it also has an autobahn Parkplatz (a motorway rest area) named after it, but this is not the start of the hike. That instead lies in fields and is rather awkward for the visitor to locate, unless of course you are sufficiently non-German to be willing to drive through fields along tracks marked “Farm traffic only”, or are local enough to know that the real route is to go the other way off the autobahn then backtrack through the village of Stadelhofen. But I digress, as indeed did our route.

"The Watcher"
Anyway, once you make it, finally locate the trail map and head off across the fields and into the woods, you are rewarded first by green valleys alive with flowers and butterflies, and then by the fantastical rock shapes for which the trail is reknowned. Carved out of the limestone by wind and water, they stand sentinel around the valleys, or lure the visitor up to explore lofty pinnacles or spooky caves.

Although we kept to the shorter 7km loop rather than the full 11km, we were still tired as we headed back to our start point. Fewer weird rocks, but still plenty of nature between the wheat and maize fields, and along the line of ancient apple trees. Finding a place for lunch had been a bit of a challenge – it’s still fairly common for places to take Mondays off (“Montag Ruhetag”) and the Corona crisis has made it worse. Some bierkellers and biergardens currently only open from Wednesday and some only do Friday-Sunday.

Fortunately I’d spotted a name I know well – Merkendorf – and found that one of the town’s two breweries, Brauerei Hummel, was open for beer and food. (The other, Wagner Merkendorf – one of at least four Wagner BrĂ€u’s in the area, hence the need for the town name as a qualifier – takes Mondays off.)

Unlike last night’s dinner venue, the LöwenbrĂ€u Keller in Buttenheim, this wasn’t a verdant Bierkeller. It was the brewery yard, laid out with tables and benches – and with the usual-for-Corona one-way system and 1.5m-apart queuing lines taped out on the floor. (Table staff are all masked everywhere here, and guests must wear face-covers while moving around or queuing, but can take them off once seated.)

But it had a bit of greenery around, including a large shady tree, a play area which the kids loved, and the food and beer were hearty and – with one exception – excellent. I had the pork belly, roasty, salty, chewy and delicious, accompanied first by a classic hoppy-bitter and faintly toasty Kellerbier and then by RĂ€ucherla, their lovely smoky Rauch-MĂ€rzen. My one disappointment was ending with their Cowboy Schwarzbier – so sweet and gassy that I couldn’t finish it. Still, the brewery ‘shop’ was open, they’d sold out of the Rauchfestbier but we have Pils, MĂ€rzen and Festbier-Hell to try later – I’m sure they will make up for it!

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Fuller's pubco to flog its brewery tap, as it moves upriver

The Mawson Arms (source: Fuller's)
Fuller's pubco is permanently closing the Mawson Arms/Fox & Hounds and putting it up for sale, according to reliable local reports. The pub is legendary for several reasons – as the Griffin Brewery tap and the watering hole for many brewery staff, for having two names*, for confusing people by closing at 8pm, and for serving the best Fuller's cask beer in town.

The Fuller's pub company's excuse for the closure is that it doesn’t need the pub now that its staff have moved out. But of course the brewery and distribution staff are still there, and Asahi UK has moved its staff up from Woking into newly-vacated offices at the Griffin Brewery, so there’s not exactly going to be a shortage of people in the area wanting lunch and a beer.

Sure, there’s the George & Devonshire on the Hogarth roundabout, but that’s not a brewery tap. And while Asahi can end future brewery tours at the bar in the brewery shop, instead of in the Mawson, there’s no food available there. 
Pier House
Meanwhile, Fuller's pubco has moved to Pier House by Kew Bridge. When first I spotted the new offices there, the red, black and gold Fuller, Smith & Turner lettering took me by surprise. I remember seeing this line of buildings – originally built as a laundry – being refurbished into offices a few years ago.

Of course, the staff now at Pier House lost their offices at the Griffin Brewery when Fuller’s owners sold the family silver for a mess of Japanese pottage. And Pier House does look the part, with the lettering on the facade and the brass company nameplates on the doorframes. Plus, they have an even clearer view of the river, just across Strand on the Green - and a short walk away is Fuller's Bell & Crown, which is also a reliable source of excellent cask ale.

The Mawson was always going to be in an odd position following the brewery sale – even though it was physically on the wider brewery site, it wasn’t part of the sale to Asahi, nor apparently were the adjacent houses (now offices) on Chiswick Lane South. When I asked pub staff at the time (pre-pandemic, of course), they only knew that the pub wasn’t part of the brewery sale.

So who would buy the Mawson, given that it’s Grade II* listed and not an obvious site for residential conversion? I can’t help wondering if the breadheads at Fuller’s are hoping to flog it to Asahi – it’s even possible that the Japanese didn’t realise it wasn’t part of the brewery purchase to start with.

Otherwise that’ll be another slice of London’s brewing history gone, and like so much else it’ll be the fault of locals who care less about our heritage than the Japanese do.

*Although the best-known version of the two-names story claims that the modern building was once two separate pubs, in the pub itself they instead tell a story of historical confusion. Apparently there was a time when you needed separate licences to sell beer and spirits, and an earlier licensee didn't realise that a single business could hold both, so he added the second name for the second licence. Believe whichever you like!  

Monday 29 June 2020

Pubs are keen, brewers are cautious – but what of the drinkers?

With pub reopening set for this coming Saturday, I hope to enjoy a pint of cask beer before too much longer. But while I’m sure we all know someone desperate to hit the pubs as soon as they open, many of us and our friends will be more cautious – worried about safety, perhaps, or wondering what it’ll be like if we can only get served at a pre-booked table, or perhaps concerned whether unscrupulous owners will use distancing as an excuse to declare pubs ‘unviable’ and close them down.

So I was surprised during last week’s Brewers Lectures UK – actually a pair of online panel discussions – to realise just how split the two main chunks of the beer business are on reopening. In particular, while I knew the brewing side was cautious, I had not appreciated just how desperate many on the retail side are to open up again.

“On the retail side, everyone wants to get going – there’s such a big divide between the two industries,” said panel member Charlie McVeigh, perhaps best known for founding the Draft House chain and now the man behind Project Pint which campaigns to get ‘our pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants back, exactly like they were.’

And for all the uncertainty and fear around social distancing, contact tracing and so on, when I checked what publicans and others were posting on Facebook and Twitter it looked like quite a few others think the same way.

It’s understandable, I guess – even with staff furloughed for now, and with government grants, publicans have bills to pay. And while quite a few have switched to offering take-aways, it will not be replacing much of their previous turnover.

Then again, it’s not clear just how far this enthusiasm spreads beyond the retailers. For example, Project Pint’s online petition has been up for four weeks but still hasn’t reached its target of 2500 names.

And the brewers’ caution is understandable – they must now dump expired stock and buy new ingredients, for instance, even though many haven’t yet been able to pay their suppliers for the last lot of ingredients.

A trouble shared is a trouble halved

Those on the Lectures panel agreed that, in some ways, it’s been easier because everyone’s been affected. “The first thing we did was pause and talk to all our suppliers – there has been a huge amount of understanding,” said Wild Card’s head brewer Jaega Wise, while her counterpart at Northern Monk, Brian Dickson, added: “Everyone’s been in the same boat, they’ve been saying ‘We’ll make it work.’”

The challenge though is the transition back from that state of ‘all in it together’ to ‘business as normal’. As Adnams’ Fergus Fitzgerald put it, “Every supplier we talked to was amazing. But we are almost in the riskiest period now, because we have to start making stuff, buy ingredients, sell to pubs who don’t know how many people will walk in the door… Then it’s what we’ve already said we’ll buy for the next 12 months, such as hops, clearing out our hop stores, and so on.”

One thing seems certain from this combination of keenness and caution: I’ll be able to get that cask pint, but I’m not going to have the choice I’m used to – the cask ale supply chain is a bit too ‘fragile’ for that.

“We don’t know how many venues will be able to open, and there’s still the possibility of a second wave, so casks may have to wait,” said Brian, while Fergus explained that although Adnams is back in production, it’s aiming “to keep the range low. For our own pubs, they’ll probably open with two cask ales, not the regular five or six. It’s the usual rule – you try to sell it through in three days, so it’s start small and build up.”

Ah well, one or two good cask pints will be a lot better than none!

Sunday 7 June 2020

Pub reopening is on the horizon, but will it be a false dawn for the beer industry?

Whatever you might think about the State of the Pandemic, it looks like people are taking early-July seriously as a date for the pubs to reopen. Not only is there quite a bit of chatter on the likes of Twitter from companies eager to sell line-cleaning and other essential services, but I heard the other day that a friend of a friend who is area manager for a pub company has been told he is coming off furlough this week. I suppose by now that means tomorrow...

This all ties in with what I was hearing last week on a webinar on the topic of how Covid-19 is impacting the beer & pubs industry. It was hosted by Katie Wiles from CAMRA’s communications department and Neil Walker from SIBA, the small independent brewers association, and while real ale was a key topic, we discussed a whole lot more.

The first big problem is we don't actually have a date yet. The UK government has a 'roadmap' which suggests July 4th, but what the industry really needs is definitive notification. That's because it’s all very well the government saying pubs can reopen, but as usual the devil is in the detail – and detail is one of the many things that BoJo and the Clown Crew are not good at.

Not only do the pubs themselves need to get everything clean and so on, they also need to figure out what they’ll be allowed to do and sell. Will they need to shift to table service to stop people coming to the bar? How far apart will the tables need to be? Will they even be allowed to serve beer indoors or will it be gardens only? That’d be pretty crap for most town and city pubs!

And then there’s the question of whether they’ll actually have any beer to sell. Neil pointed out that, according to the SIBA survey I wrote about a few weeks ago, most small brewers have slowed or stopped production. They will need at least three weeks to get going again, and preferably four if we want fresh real ale, he estimated.

That’s because even those breweries that have stayed in production have mostly switched to “small-pack”, meaning bottles and cans that they can sell either through retailers – especially for the few fortunate enough to have strong supermarket connections – or for many of them, direct to their fans and neighbours via hastily-built webshops and the like.

Those unfortunate enough to have a lot of casks and kegs in stock have been stuffed. Some pubs and brewpubs have been selling take-away draught beer, but it will have been a tiny volume compared to their usual draught sales. Many brewers will have to scrap that stock or will have already poured it away.

Similarly, there is a lot of beer and cider in pub cellars – around 70 million pints of it, according to the BBPA (British Beer & Pub Association) – and most, if not all, of it will have gone out of date by July. Hence the launch by the BBPA last week of Return Your Beer, a website where pubs can sign up to register that they have destroyed spoilt drinks, which of course they have to do in a legal and environmentally-acceptable way. They’ll then the able to claim duty refunds from the brewers who in turn will be able to claim back what they’ve already paid to the taxman.

This is almost certainly going to be even more complicated and painful than it looks, and not just because of pouring all that beer down the drain, when most of it is probably still perfectly drinkable, whatever the best-before says! I’m thinking more of the admin and paperwork (even if it is digital these days) and of course how long it will take everyone to actually get their money back.

And anyway, this only covers the duty. I know we in the UK are royally ripped off on beer duty and tax so it should be quite a substantial refund, but still, there’s a lot more cost that goes into brewing beer. Will there be grants to pay for all the wasted ingredients? Anyway, it explains a lot of why my pub manager acquaintance is already being called back to work.

Who will actually reopen?

The next big question is how many of those pubs will actually reopen. Neil quoted a number of other studies, including one on business confidence, where only one in three pub operators predicted that all their pubs would reopen, and a BBPA report that up to 40% of pubs could close if they don’t get additional government support. Katie added that the government's business interruption loan scheme "is welcome but too slow to process, and around 20% of pubs can't access it because their rateable value is too high."

Then there was a hospitality industry poll that claimed most pubs can only handle a 10% drop in sales before becoming unprofitable. Requiring drinkers to stay 2m apart could therefore be pretty much a death sentence – although perhaps they’ll take a lesson from New Zealand, where as I understand it, if customers arrive as a group they are allowed to sit together.

And there’s the question of who will venture back to the pub. CAMRA’s research suggests that 60% of pubgoers are looking forward to a pint of cask beer once pubs reopen, but there’s also reports that others will avoid pubs, either because we've all been told to be fearful of being indoors with strangers, or simply because they've got used to drinking at home.

"The big thing we're concerned about is the change in consumer habits," Katie said. "As much as people say they want to go back to the pub, the longer this goes on the easier it will be for them to not go back to the pub." 

Breweries and cidermakers meanwhile face a triple-hit. As well as all that out-of-date product that must be dumped and the prospect of lower sales once business reopens, they’re not eligible for the same grants and business rates ‘holidays’ that pubs can get. Many have also furloughed their marketing teams, so getting sales moving again is likely to be rather bumpy. 

Free local deliveries are keeping connections alive 
There is a little bit of better news, in that quite a few breweries have managed to ramp up their direct sales. Katie also mentioned CAMRA’s online Brew2You service, which allows you to find local producers and retailers willing to deliver or sell for collection. It looks particularly useful if you want to find draught beer in polypins or minikegs.

I have my doubts how much of this direct-sale business is sustainable, however. A lot seems to be dependent on staff goodwill – people are doing stuff that they’d not normally put up with, such as free local deliveries, because they know they need to engage locals and keep the business moving during the crisis. Once the crisis (we hope!) winds down there’s going to be a lot of social debt to pay off, never mind all the financial debt.

All in all, while I’m really looking forward to my first cask beer in many weeks – assuming reopening does indeed happen – I am definitely NOT looking forward to seeing how the fallout from the crisis hits the beer business over the coming months.

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.