Thursday 13 April 2023

London's summer of beer, 2023

We are gearing up for a summer of beer, both here in London and elsewhere. Does London have the most beer festivals of a UK city? I don't know, but it would make sense if it did. 

Beer and industrial chic at Brew//LDN
We kick off – not counting local real ale festivals, that is, like the one I'm typing this at – in four weeks time with Brew//LDN, in its final appearance at Printworks in Rotherhithe* on Friday 5th and Saturday 6th May. Expect rows of small brewery bars and others, often built out of rough wood and/or industrially-styled to match the venue. 

The event begins with a trade session on the Friday afternoon – it's quite a big event for publicans and others to meet new producers of food and drink, then it's open to the public that evening and the following day. 

"The best value day out in London, at the UK's largest and most diverse craft beer festival," the organisers claim, ambitiously but not unreasonably. Tickets are a shade under £30 per session, or £25 each if you buy six – and those prices include the booking fee, for which I applaud the organisers, as I’m fed up with being stung extra for rip-off ‘booking fees’! The ticket includes live DJs and music, but not the beer, which averages a fiver a pint or so, or the street food vendors.  

I've been to Brew//LDN several times, admittedly mostly for the trade session when it’s quieter and the actual brewers are often in attendance. I’ve always enjoyed though: it’s friendly, with a good variety of beer and beer people – and often some discoveries to make. As well as new beers, in the past I’ve also met interesting new mead, spirits and liqueur producers there – that's one of several ways it's diverse. 

Beers in the Fuller's brewery yard 

One I missed when I first published this blog – because although I had been told it was on again for the first time in four years, I didn't have the actual date yet – is the London Brewers Alliance festival, on Saturday 17th June**. Even better, this excellent event is back in the brewery yard at the Fuller's Griffin Brewery, thanks to former Fuller's brewing director John Keeling pulling some strings, I believe! 

JUST IN: The LBA festival has been postponed "Due to circumstances beyond our control"  – it's now booked for Saturday 16th September. I'm rather disappointed because I was looking forward to it not for Kingy's birthday, but as an early Fathers Day treat! 

The 2018 LBA festival
A change this time is they're switching from a single six-hour afternoon session to separately ticketed afternoon and evening sessions. Hopefully this will even out the numbers  – in 2018, the last time I was able to get along, the entrance queue really built up as the afternoon wore on. It's more breweries too, up to 50 from 40 last time, all LBA members and each offering two draught beers at a time, mostly keg but I expect some bright cask beer, and a few bottles and cans as well. Tickets aren't cheap at £40 per session, or £75 for the day, but that does include all your beer samples for four hours per session, and the inevitable souvenir glass. See you there?

The next biggie is of course the Great British Beer Festival, once again at London’s Olympia and this year running from Tuesday 1st August to Saturday 5th. There’s publicity for this all over the web (and Facebook) so I probably don’t need to go into detail, except to say hundreds of real ales plus some “real keg” and the foreign beer bars. Lovely!

August is London beer month

Immediately after that – so if you’re planning a trip to London, make it that fortnight – is London Craft Beer Festival with four sessions across Friday 11th and Saturday 12th August at Tobacco Dock in Wapping. It’s brought to you by the folks from We Are Beer, who also run the Manchester and Bristol craft beer festivals. 

Woodfest casks
Tickets are a shade over £60 for most sessions. That looks steep, but this is a US-style all-inclusive event, so the ticket includes your beers as well as admission, music and a glass (though not of course food or anything else). It’s mainly keg beers from the UK and abroad, but there’s also a Cask Yard, and this year they’re also planning a focus on the new Blackhorse Mile breweries of Walthamstow. I’m looking forward to it, having not been for several years

A late entry onto this festival list isn't huge, but it is a 'national event', technically at least! It's the 4th National Woodfest of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW). with more than 30 beers not just in casks, but in wooden casks. Last year I enjoyed the 3rd Woodfest, which was held in Twickenham. This year it's actually just outside London, in Egham, but it's still only a shortish train ride out. 

Undoubtedly there will be more – I know there’s various fringe events planned for the first two weeks of August, for example, and then there's all the CAMRA local festivals such as Ealing, but I think that will do for now. Cheers! 

*This is the former Harmsworth printing factory, which printed newspapers until 2012, then became a music and events location, and is now sadly due for demolition so the owners, British Land, can build offices instead. Yes, more offices, of which London already appears to have a surplus. I really despise property companies sometimes – no, most of the time. 

 **My diary tells me this is also the King's birthday, but while it would make a great birthday outing for you or me, I fear his security would eff it up for the rest of us! 

Monday 10 April 2023

Can craft mead break into the big time?

Where next for mead? Or perhaps it’s more important to start with “What is mead, and what should it be?” 

I don't just mean what's it made from – I suspect many people know it's got honey in – but thinking about what defines it, and how varied it is. Because if your idea of mead is just that super-sweet syrupy stuff you see in some souvenir shops, then it's time to think again. 

Authentic, local and sustainable values

“The general mead story is a very compelling one around sustainability, authenticity and localism – we are very interested in sustainability, we’re supporting bees and all pollinators* with 10p donation per pint,” said the eponymous Tom Gosnell (left), speaking at a ‘meadia briefing’ ahead of last month’s British Mead Festival at the Gosnells mead taproom in London’s Bermondsey.  

“It has opened up a lot more in the last 10 years, but there’s still a lack of knowledge,” he added, with some people wondering if it will be 'like drinking honey.'

“The average consumer may not understand what mead means at all,” agreed James Lambert, MD of the other big UK producer, Lyme Bay Winery, which makes mead alongside grape and fruit wines. “We are seeing demonstrable consumer demand, with growth in excess of 10% year-on-year, there’s demand here and abroad, we’re seeing more searches on our website,” he added. 

“But within that, the biggest challenge – the one we’re struggling with – is the gatekeepers. Who do you talk to?” He explained that with restaurants, supermarkets and so on, there’s category buyers for wine, cider and beer, but there’s no one responsible for mead. 

But standards and definitions are currently missing

James Lambert
Another problem is definitions, the two meadmakers agreed. You can’t define it by strength, for example – Lyme Bay’s meads are rich honey wines of 10% to 14.5%, while most Gosnells mead is much lighter, at around 4%, and of course they’re aimed at rather different audiences. James said Lyme Bay sells a lot of bottles through garden centres and the like, and is the sole supplier to English Heritage, whereas it’s not unusual now to see Gosnells flagship Wildflower Mead on tap in pubs and brewery taprooms. 

And at the moment, in the UK it’s not even required to be made from at least 50% honey – although most craft meaderies use 100% honey, and James said Lyme Bay’s is about 55%, some of what’s sold as mead is mostly made from other ingredients such as grape wine or sugar, with honey added more as a flavouring than a fermentable. 

There’s a good reason for that, of course, which is price. “Honey is expensive, and there’s not enough of it in the UK, so we use honeys from elsewhere in Europe and especially from Mexico,” James said – apparently the Yucatan is famous for its honey. 

One way around this is to make session meads, as Gosnells does, but even at less than one-third the ABV of the heavy honey wines, they’re 100% honey so still not cheap to make. Tom noted though that where Lyme Bay pays duty at wine-rate, “the 8.5% tax-break [due in August 2023] will help us, we’ll also be able to take advantage of the draught relief.”

Seeking a sweet future

“What’s the future of mead?” asked James. “The challenge is to get consumers to understand what it is first, only then can we start to differentiate. Chilled and neat in a wine glass, or slightly warmer, we’re starting to see traction in cocktails too. Our sweeter style lends itself well to that.”

Tom agreed. “We give pubs simple cocktail recipes that are easy to make behind the bar,” he said. “It keeps the mead tap busy.”

Looking further ahead, if the UK follows the US, as it has for craft beer, we may well see quite a few more meaderies. When I first encountered American craft mead almost 20 years ago, at a presentation in Denver alongside the Great American Beer Festival, there were perhaps 30 producers present. “Now there’s maybe 1000 in the US,” says Tom. “There’s a lot of session mead – their session mead is more like 7% though!”

And with mead – unlike most wine – offering many of the same positives as beer and cider, such as craft, authenticity and localism, it’s going to be an increasingly attractive option for bars and consumers alike. That’s sweet news for the mead-makers, as long as they can work out how to make it pay. 

*This is a reference to recent news reports that, with so many more people taking up beekeeping during the pandemic, there is a risk of honeybee overpopulation. The problem is that honeybees are far from the only pollinators around – there's also various other bee species, moths, etc – but they are very efficient, so the danger is that they'll outcompete the others and cause species declines.