Monday, 28 March 2011

BrewDog Avery Brown Dredge - The Launch

When BrewDog's James Watt asked me, Pete Brown and Mark Dredge if we'd be interested in hosting a beer dinner at Musa in Aberdeen, and then brewing a beer the next day, the answer was an easy yes. Of course, the bigger discussion was: Who gets their name first on the label?

BrewDog Avery Brown Dredge is an homage to the beers and brewing traditions that have rocked our world. Classic traditional Saaz hops married to continual hopping. The old and new brought together to try and make a statement about where beer has come from, and where it should be heading. A beer born of blood, sweat and tears. Well, that was the idea. In the end, we were so partied-out from the beer dinner the night before that no amount of lifting malt and digging out mash tuns could shift the sense that we'd had a chance for greatness, but blown it by overindulging.

But wait, what beer from yonder fridge breaks? It is the Hotpoint, and Avery Brown Dredge is the sun. The sample I have in front of me is a pre-release taster, before the dry-hopping was carried out. It's a big, malty beast of a beer, initially bready, but with a familiar slightly antiseptic snap of Saaz hops. In the mouth, the hops kick hard against the pale malt sweetness. Dry-hopping will up the aroma. What have we created? It is only a matter of time before hopfen-helles-bock becomes a globally adopted and celebrated beer style. Or is it, as the label suggests, an imperious pilsner? Come along, try some, and decide for yourself.

Kill your heroes. Make your own idols. Whatever. Just drink our beer.

7.30pm, Leeds, North Bar. Or London at The Rake and The Jolly Butchers.


Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Lowdown: Beer-Ritz / Beer Paradise

OK, it's been a crazy couple of weeks, but here's what happened.

Basically, some information came to light regarding the structure of the company, and how that impacted onto UK company law. We had to stop trading immediately and resolve the situation, but for one reason and another, this was less than straightforward. The upshot was that the entire business, comprising the shop, the wholesale business Beer Paradise, and the mail order service had to stop trading immediately and indefinitely.

It wasn't a solvency issue - the business is solvent and viable. But equally, we were advised by a fancy, serious, £400-an-hour lawyer (and it was a loooooong meeting) not to do anything on behalf of the company, so if you called me and I seemed less than helpful, I'm sorry. But read on, because there's good news.

Myself and the company operations manager rushed around trying to find a solution, and have happily succeeded. We organised a management buy-out - basically, we made an offer for the entire company (shop, wholesale and mail order), which was accepted. We are going to continue trading, honouring all existing debts and liabilites, and are going to carry on and build an even more successful business, buying and selling great beer to businesses and consumers across the UK and beyond.

At a company level, we are incredibly grateful for all the understanding and offers of support that people have given us. It's often implied that the beer business is friendly and gentlemanly, but to have it demonstrated so freely and generously is a humbling experience. At a personal level, I'd like to thank James Clay, Vertical Drinks and BrewDog for coming up with offers of employment that most people would tear off an arm to get. I'm sorry I couldn't take up your amazing offers, and I'm genuinely floored and flattered by them.

There are still some challenges that remain to be overcome, but as the Batman of Brewing Stuart Howe said recently, "true strength is forged on the anvil of adversity". I'm sure that we can continue to build a great company. Whether I can do that while continuing with a career as a writer is another matter. Frankly, I hope so, but things may go a little quiet here for a bit.

Lastly, thanks very much for all the kind words that people have written on their blogs and tweets over the last few weeks. It's been great to hear all of that enthusiasm, not only for the shop, but also for the sector as a whole. The great news is that the sector is still in growth - what has happened isn't bad for the craft/alternative/independent beer scene in the UK, it's good news. We're going to be around for years to come, and I haven't even told you the best bit: I now have a half share in a fork-lift truck. If that's not something to get excited about, I don't know what is.

Do what you love, love what you do. Message ends.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

"Hop-Forward, And In The Modern Style"

There's a phrase I hear myself using a lot lately to describe lots of British beer - "hop-forward, and in the modern style". What does that mean? It's a fairly broad-brushed way of talking about beers from breweries that have embraced the cornucopia of dazzling flavours that new world hops can offer. To get slightly more technical, I'd guess that it also means that the brewery is using hops later in the boil, in a way that draws exuberant aromas from hops, and dry-hopping extensively to boost that aroma. Of course, as a broad-brushed phrase, it's not very precise, and so the two local breweries that I visited a few weeks ago both fall under that description, albeit in different ways.

Mallinson's Brewery is in Huddersfield. They're certainly no slouch with darker beers, but they've gained a reputation for brewing pale beers that showcase new world hop varieties. A quick squint at their entry lists a whopping 96 beers, and many of the single-hop beers read like a roll call of must-have hop varieties; citra, simcoe, nelson sauvin, pacific jade. Then there's the brilliantly titled "Let There Be Hops", the prequel (presumably) to "Let There Be More Hops". The ones that don't reference hops reference any one of number of things - buses, local landmarks, hell there was even a series devoted to dodgy cars of the 70s and 80s. All of this points to two things - they like their hops, and have an endearing lack of pretension when naming their beers. They're not going to call a beer "The Eternal Hallucination of Princess Lupulina" when they can name it after a local landmark, or even a Skoda (I'm not making it up).

Mallinson's make solid, reliable beers, which make them sound a bit workmanlike - or workwomanlike, given that they are an all-female team - and actually, that's damning them with faint praise. They are a good, traditional British ale brewery who have kept a weather eye on what's going on in the rest of the brewing world, but always keeping focus on what makes British beer great - drinkability. I had a couple of pints of their golden Crescent Hop (3.8%abv) recently. I only wanted one, but when I went back to the bar for a pint of something else, and the barman mistakenly poured me the same beer again, I thought: "You know, I don't mind, that's a cracking beer anyway".

A few miles up the valley from Huddersfield, another new brewery has also been studying the use of hops with a Blumenthal-like glint in their eyes. Again, it would be unfair to characterise them as overly-focused on one ingredient, or one style. Summer Wine brewery, near Holmfirth, cast themsleves unashamedly as craft brewers (see here for some heated polemic on that subject), and make sure that everything they do is packed full of the passion that they feel for their vocation. They've taken John Lewis' strapline of 'Never Knowingly Undersold', stuffed it chock-full of excitable hops and unusual speciality grain, dry-hopped it, and made it their own: Never Knowingly Underbrewed. While Mallinson's are a brewery whose beers I will happily try when I see them, Summer Wine's beers are ones that I've actively sought out. Have a look at the original meanings of the Michelin guide's star system and draw your own conclusions from that.

Of the beers that I've tried from Summer Wine, mid-gold Diablo (6%abv) has to be the best, delivering a classic tropical and citrus kick of (I think) chinook and amarillo hops over a pale malt base. It's certainly at the more extreme end of "hop-forward, and in the modern style", but it pushes all my buttons. At the other end of the scale, their pitch-black Teleporter Ten Grain Porter (5%abv) has a smooth, oaty goodness combined with a mocha finish that makes the beer feel nourishing and revitalising, like a rub down with warm grain fresh from the mash tun. If you're lucky, you might just catch the first beer of their series of none-more-hip black IPAs - Nerotype #1 (Simcoe). It may not have been the blackest black IPA I've had, but there's no doubting its IPA credentials.

One person's 'drinkability' is another person's 'boring'. One person's 'boundary-pushing' is another person's 'weird'. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I honestly believe that if you approach the bar with an open mind and a slight thirst, there's never been a better time to be a beer drinker.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Crafterati

I write for the trade publication Off Licence News. They're good enough to let me write more or less what I want, as long as it's related to retail. Although the main news pages are always up to date, the "industry comment" sections aren't. So below is the column that was published today. It's not really so much about craft beer, more how that beer is enjoyed, and how that impacts on the marketplace.

What I will say is that there is something about beer that makes people exceptionally passionate about what they believe, even in the face of reason. For what I consider to be one of the text-book examples of the chest-beating that gets aired whenever we beer geeks get aggravated, see this thread on Tom Cannavan and Roger Protz's And stone me if I don't find much to agree with in one of Cooking Lager's recent posts, not to mention Phil at Oh Good Ale.

I'm not "doing a Kevin" and not asking brewers to brew beer within narrow constraints. Quite the reverse, I'm celebrating diversity, and trying to underline the fact that, from the bottom to the top, the British brewing scene is as lively and diverse and stuffed full of passionate people as it ever has been. That's what the SIBA's "Proud of British Beer" video is about - sure it's a plea to the Chancellor to stop shafting the industry via punitive taxes, but it's also about the incredible diversity in beer at the moment. With very few exceptions, the brewing community is tightly-knit and celebrates that diversity. How come the consumers don't?

Anyway, here's the column in full - I hope it provokes some thought and comment.


There's a discussion rumbling around the beer blogosphere at the moment that is related to the rise in interest in American craft beer. The nice thing about American craft beer, apart from it being as tasty as hell, is that it has both a standardised definition by the American Brewers Association, and also by shorthand use. The ABA's definition relates to volume of production and an emphasis on flavourful beer. It's basically set up to talk about tasty beer from largely small, largely independently owned breweries.

But the problem that has arisen is that a lot of vocal beer geeks (and I use that term with love, and recognition that I am one) have started using the term 'craft beer' to talk about the rise in American-influenced beer brewed in the UK. Whereas a few years ago, we had premium bottled ale, and even super-premium bottled ale, now we find that these terms aren't enough to describe the rise in small-production, American-accented beers.

The big problem comes because nobody can define what craft means in a UK context. Whereas 'real ale' has a text-book definition, pertaining to the beer's method of storage and maturation, there is a big problem when you start bandying the term 'craft' around, as it seeks to exclude a tranche of the brewers in the UK who are producing perfectly decent British beer.

The joy of British beer is that it draws on a long heritage, has been gently influenced over the centuries by improvements in brewing practices and, lets not forget, the introduction of hops in the 15th century from mainland Europe. It's quite apparent to anyone who drinks (for example) a Greene King IPA, and then a BrewDog Punk IPA, that these two beers are dancing to two very different soundtracks. In my opinion, both have a place in the repertoire of the beer drinker. Many disagree about being so eclectic, and both of these beers that draw on the IPA moniker have their vocal champions, and also their vociferous denouncers. But that doesn't mean that one has more right to be brewed, or drunk, than another.

But this is where the 'craft' argument starts to unravel. BrewDog are seen as craft brewers by what I'm going to call the crafterati, producing bold, American influenced beers with an iconoclastic streak. The crafterati see Greene King as a dinosaur brewery, making boring beer for boring people. Of course, they conveniently overlook the fact that Greene King have been wood-ageing beers since Noah was a boy, and not in a way that gives a beer the seductive, easy-to-understand polish of the bourbon barrel, but in a huge vat, blackened by time, gently sending beer sour and being blended to produce a classic old ale.

The crafterati are producing a division in the beer world, seeking to endorse some beers and denounce others, sanction some breweries and our scorn on the rest. In its most complex iteration, the crafterati will divide a brewery's output into craft and non-craft – see for example, the smaller volume output of Stuart Howe at Sharp's brewery vs. Sharp's flagship brand (and undoubtedly Molson Coors' target in the recent takeover) Doom Bar. Doom Bar, ordinary brown bitter – Monsieur Rock, high-concept craft beer.

As you can tell from my vague distancing myself from the crafterati, I'm not sure that this point of view is an entirely welcome development in beer appreciation in the UK. But from a retail perspective, it's important to understand how the marketplace is changing. What you decide to do with that understanding, however, is up to you.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Iechyd Da!

Having trawled the interwebs extensively, I'm pretty sure that this 2009 piece that I wrote about Wales for Beers of the World magazine (RIP) isn't available anywhere. I thought I'd post this as (a) it's St David's Day today, and (b) Brain's have very kindly sent me a few SA Gold, and I haven't got time to even drink one today, let alone write anything meaningful about it. Much to my chagrin, I STILL haven't had a chance to try Brain's Dark on smoothflow, although I'm going to Cardiff at Easter and am going to do my damnedest to do so then. Any tips on where to make that particular tick will be gratefully received.

From the end of the article, I've trimmed off a (pretty exhaustive) list of breweries and their choicest beer, so I'm not trying to claim this piece as a definitive article, just a report of a mad two-day scramble from one end of the country to the other.

So, drink Welsh beer, eat Welsh lamb, and 'iechyd da' to the whole Welsh brewing community.

Tom Jones, coal mining, sheep, leeks, male voice choirs, daffodils, rugby and hard-to-pronounce place names. There, that's all of the clichés out of the way in the first sentence, so now we can move on and talk about the beer.

I didn't realise it at the time, but my overall impressions of the Welsh brewing industry were set very early on in my visit. As I was being shown around the Breconshire Brewery by brewer Justin “Buster” Grant, he pointed to a chap washing out kegs. “That's Clive – he's the company secretary” said Buster. “Industrious chap, turning his hand to anything” I thought. It was a thought that reoccurred with surprising frequency over the following couple of days.

Buster Grant barely looks old enough to have legally attended the Great British Beer Festival in 1992, but he did, and it clearly had an influence on him. A decade later, Breconshire's Golden Valley made its first appearance there. Six years further on, the pale golden beer is still one of their best sellers. It uses only British ingredients, something that Buster is passionate about, but not as passionate as the idea of using locally sourced Welsh malt and hops. “Welsh hops are still a few years away, but I hope we'll get there” he says. It certainly won't be at the expense of quality, though.

Moving quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous, Buster takes me through to the storeroom and shows me two comically huge whisky casks, each holding many firkins of Ysbrid y Ddraig (“Spirit of the Dragon”). It's all due to be casked, although after seeing my imploring expression, Buster says that “some” might get bottled. If its final packaging is a reflection of the rest of the range (90% casked, 10% bottled), there should be some Welsh cask-aged beer available in bottles soon.

If you've ever tried any beer from family-run Otley Brewery at Pontypridd, you'll have had an impression about it even before the beer was poured. Their sleek, modern branding, based on the initial letter of the family name, is a clear statement of intent. Nick Otley explains: “We were determined from day one to be different, we wanted to appeal to a different market”. It's an approach that has served them well, but all the branding in the world would be wasted on a sub-standard product. But with awards given to them on a seemingly monthly basis since their founding in 2005, form and function are clearly in happy harmony. Add to that their recent first batch of exports (to Copenhagen, on the back of their presence on the British stand at the 2008 European Beer Festival, as covered in these pages last year), and it becomes clear that the Otleys have their sights set high.

In the cramped brewhouse, brewer Charlie Otley is up against a logistical problem. He literally can't brew enough beer. Even without seeking new outlets, and having turned down several supermarket contracts (“They devalue a craft product” says Nick), they can only meet existing orders and supply their own pubs. And it was to one of their pubs, The Bunch of Grapes, that Nick excitedly directed me, to sample their newest beer, Colomb-O. Pungent with the peach and citrus aroma of Columbus hops, this barrel is dry hopped, adding a forceful elegance to the golden beer. It will be a hit, if they ever find time and space to brew it in quantity.

Space isn't a problem for the Rhymney Brewery – in fact, space-age might be a better description. In a brewery equipped with gadgets that most small breweries wouldn't even dream of (a Canadian low-volume canning machine, a Japanese malt-mill with stone rollers – they mill their own malt here), father and son team Steve and Marc Evans produce a small portfolio of beers, including the Champion Beer of Wales 2008, the nutty, fruity, smoky Rhymney Dark. Steve explains that when they founded the brewery in 2003, they wanted to “create a commercially successful brewery based on quality and consistency”. If that sounds more pragmatic than romantic, you only need look at the success of Rhymney Dark, and the fact that they handle the bottling for a few other breweries, to see that their heart is in the right place.

You can't talk about beer in Wales without mentioning Felinfoel, Wales's oldest brewery, founded in 1878. And you can't mention Felinfoel without mentioning that it was the first European brewery to put beer in cans in 1936, pipped at the post for a global first by American brewery Krueger, who did the same a couple of years earlier. Of course, this is a bit of a red herring (rather than a red dragon), and the real interest is what Felinfoel is brewing these days. Their Double Dragon ale (a flavour-packed ruddy-brown ale with a notably nutty, toasted quality) is labelled as “The National Ale of Wales”. On the basis of their iconic red dragon logo and bilingual labels, I feel ill-equipped to argue.

But one brewery who might dispute that claim is Brain's of Cardiff. The name of Brain's is tightly bound up with its home city. Not just bound up, in fact, but also painted on, screwed to and generally leaping into one's eyeline at every opportunity. As a result of over 125 years of residence, the name of Brain's is painted on railway bridges, embroidered onto rugby shirts, and found fluttering on flags all over the city. All of this would be intensely irritating if it was a global brand of lager, but the close association of the city and the brewery somehow feels right.

Its portfolio of beers reflects its evolution. Brains Dark was the brewery's most popular beer, until the 1980s. It's neither really a mild nor a stout, but a delicious dry, dark bitter. It has now been eclipsed by Brain's SA, the beer of Welsh rugby, a soft, rounded sweetish beer with a faintly toffeeish centre. The newest addition to the fold, SA Gold, is a beer that somehow has a pronounced hop character, but without much accompanying bitterness. Head brewer Bill Dobson feels it fits in well with the traditional preference for beers with a low bitterness: “The Welsh palate doesn't like overly hopped beers, they prefer easy, quaffable session beers”.

The northern and southern parts of Wales are very different. Welsh as a first language is more common in the north, perhaps as factor of being further from the capital and its fancy affectation of adopting English as a first language, or perhaps as a way of maintaining a distinct identity from the influx of English from the industrial north west.

Although it's a country of two halves, Wales isn't very big, but it does take a long time to drive from bottom to top. For the weary traveller on a beer journey, there is salvation between the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia. In Llanwrtyd Wells, the Neuadd Arms Hotel is popular with walkers, climbers and mountain bikers. It has a certain sort of endearingly lived-in character that is the antithesis of modern boutique hotel style. The food is simple and hearty, the countryside is a rugged paradise, and the Heart of Wales brewery is in a converted stable out the back. It's hard to believe that self-taught brewer Lindsay Ketteringham has only been brewing for about two and a half years, and has learned on the job, with just one trial brew as his guide. “I learned from my mistakes – a lot of beer had to go down the drain initially” he says ruefully. The mistakes were worth making, as the beers he brews now are delicious, and perilously drinkable.

Should you decide to get an early night there and break camp early for the jaunt to north Wales, you could do worse than head straight for Porthmadog. There are many reasons to head there – the Welsh Highland Heritage railway, the Italianate village of Portmeirion nearby – but if you're in a beery mood (and I'll bet you are), then tucked away on a back street near the railway station is the Purple Moose brewery. Unusually, the brewery has a kerbside presence, with a walk-in shop in front of the brewery. From this sleepy backstreet location, brewer Lawrence Washington has steadily garnered a string of awards, producing clean, crisp ales in the modern style. “I would definitely say that I've been influenced by the new-wave of Scottish craft brewing” he says.

Heading north, an easy stopping off point, with a campsite and its own station on the Welsh Highland Railway, is the Snowdonia Park Brewpub at Waunfaur. Owner and brewer Carmen Pierce has the enthusiasm and energy of a zealous convert to brewing and to real ale. In her own words, she “used to be a lager lout, but now I love it”. Initially daunted by finding herself in charge of a pub, kitchen, campsite and brewery, she met the challenge head-on and, as another self-taught brewer, has come to love what she once found intimidating. Standing proudly in the tiny brewhouse, she says of her journey from rookie to brewer: “I used to come out here and cry, but now I know we can do it, and I want everyone to know”. Delicious fresh ales at the bar (and sampled straight from the cellar) suggest that this fighting talk will end in a victory dance.

Press on to the north coast, and there are two breweries within a few minutes of each other. Jonathan Hughes, owner and brewer of the bucolic Great Orme Brewery at Conwy, is a happy refugee from the world of management consultancy. Brewing in a converted barn on his family's farm, he loves the authenticity, honesty and transparency of brewing beer, “80% of which is sold within thirty minutes of the brewery, and I'm quite keen to maintain that. Local is important”. This interest in local produce is echoed by Gwynne Thomas at Conwy Brewery, who says “North Wales has had nothing that they can call their own for ages. Now, even relatively conservative drinkers are making the switch to locally produced cask ales”.

On the face of it (and this article only lightly scratches that face), it might seem as though there are a lot of breweries in Wales, all competing for a slice of the same market. However, as with the brewing industry the world over, the only rivalry that exists is a friendly one. In fact, so friendly is the rivalry that the brewers have set up a trade body to better promote their interests. The Association of Welsh Independent Brewers exists to try and enhance awareness of the resurgence of Welsh real ale brewing.

For a country that isn't really known for its brewing tradition, other than the grip that smoothflow beer has on south Wales, there is as much quality and variety to be found here as anywhere else in the British Isles. It would be hard to pick out exactly what makes Welsh beer so good, but many of the brewers claim that the quality and abundance of fresh water running off the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia was a big factor. I think that there is a lot of truth in this statement, albeit in a slightly oblique way.

For me, what makes Welsh beer so good is the spirit of the people who make it – they'd rather point to the quality of the water than the quality of the workmanship behind the beer. Everyone I spoke to, whether trained brewer or amateur turned professional, had a real entrepreneurial flair, and didn't let a lack of knowledge or experience stop the starting a brewery. It's truly an industry driven by passion for great beer. This dogged enthusiasm has seen a recent flourishing of the Welsh craft beer scene, to the point where high quality Welsh real ale seems set to become the new cliché – something everyone involved in it will no doubt be modestly bemused by.