Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

It's that time again! The time of year when I struggle to find the time and energy to write anything creative, and so fall back on the crutch of populating a list in order to give my online persona some semblance of animation!

·         Best UK Cask Beer
This year I've given up any pretence of drinking widely and variedly (as espoused in my first, and to date only, book 500 Beers, now sadly out of print), and have just abandoned myself to a year-long lupulin clusterfuck. I've been banged senseless by hops this year, and have loved every minute of it. It's of course impossible to pick out a single beer that best sums up my total hopslaggery, but highlights are the nigh-on peerless Magic Rock High Wire (still a mile better on cask than on keg) and the ruiner of men and women everywhere, Oakham Green Devil.

·         Best UK Keg Beer
Most of the UK keg beer I've drunk this has merely served to confirm my hunch that by eliminating cara-malt from their IPAs, British brewers are making beers that don't have enough residual sweetness to carry a keg serve. I should also point out that this has only just occurred to me, so you can file that under "reactionary bullshit", although I like the sound of it anyway. Beers that have confounded this theory are few and far between, although they include beer drunk at The Kernel brewery (worth it just to see the horrified look on MagicRockStu's face as Keykegs were used to serve beer that was brewed mere meters away - surely some serving tanks might be in order, Lord O'Riordan?). Magic Rock Cannonball, one of the UK's best beers, served to me by Ryan Witter, one of the UK's best brewers, at IndyManBeerCon, one of the UK's best beer festivals, was also understandably a high point. A late highlight last weekend was also Alpha State Orange Zest Farmhouse IPA.

·         Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I mean, what the fuck? What sort of question is that? Why is this so hard for me to answer? I guess because as a bottled beer wholesaler, I seen an awful lot of bottled beer this year, and by that I really mean AN AWFUL LOT OF BOTTLED BEER. I really can't single out highlights, but beers that have come home with me more frequently than others are: Bristol Beer Factory Independence, Kernel IPA and Pale Ale, Oakham Citra, Roosters High Tea / Outlaw Mad Hatter, any of the Salopian small-bottle series (hell, any of their beers, full stop). One beer does stick out though, for being proof that you can still filter and bottle a beer and make it taste amazing, and that beer is Kirkstall Dissolution IPA. I'm not sure if it really qualifies, as from what I gather, it's not really a souped-up version of the cask version, rather a watered-down version of Kirkstall Generous George, but hey, ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.

·         Best Overseas Draught Beer
I don't get out much, and when I do, I like to drink British beer, so if anyone can say that they've seen me enjoying an overseas draught beer this year, please do let me know

·         Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
I really enjoyed Firestone Walker Wookie Jack, purchased at the GBBF this year, and as we import BrewFist, having Spaceman within arm's reach at all times is a bit of a bonus. Also, Kern River Citra Double IPA that MagicRockStu shared with me earlier this year was a bit like having Citra-infused hallucinogens blown up your nose by a Yanomani shaman and an intense, short-lasting Citra-based trip. Or was that last year? That's the thing about hallucinogens - it's so hard to keep track of time.

·         Best Collaboration Brew
Wild Beer Co / Good George / Burning Sky Shnoodlepip was pretty fucking epic.

·         Best Overall Beer
Oh please. "If you could only drink one beer for the rest of your life, what would it it be?" Piss. Off.

·         Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
I really liked those enormous chrome wicket bar fonts that, oh who used it now, who was it, oh sorry, no that was just the Citra trip wearing off. Whose bottles look best lined up alongside each other? Red Willow, stupid.

·         Best UK Brewery
The Kernel are in a pretty good place right now, with Magic Rock pursuing a different furrow, but making equally great beers.

·         Best Overseas Brewery
I like what BrewFist are up to, but I am biased

·         Best New Brewery Opening 2013
No idea. [Human beard-mountain Ryan Witter informs me that Siren, where he is head brewer, opened for business this year, and they have made some pretty special beers too]

·         Pub/Bar of the Year
Pubs and bars are essentially outmoded concepts, and the sooner we lose the last of them and get to drown our empty selves, the better. But I have had some fun times at Friends of Ham this year.

·         Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

·         Beer Festival of the Year
This is such a bogus category. How do you judge that? "Where have you been that had a lot beer that was all served in perfect condition by people you wanted to chat to for hours? Err, nowhere, thanks. It may as well be "Best Night Out You've Had This Year". Pass

·         Supermarket of the Year
They're all rubbish, although my local Morrisson's usually has Duvel for a couple of quid, so that's OK.

·         Independent Retailer of the Year
BeerRitz, duh.

·         Online Retailer of the Year, duh

·         Best Beer Book or Magazine
I haven't read much this year. Although I would just use this opportunity to bemoan the total dearth of coverage in the mainstream media food and drink columns about the revolution that is happening in beer currently. I had an exchange with a prominent food writer this year that summed up nicely the blinkered attitude that the broadsheets have towards beer. I sent an invite to this person for the 25th Anniversary do of the British Guild of Beer Writers, only to receive a an email back explaining that they didn't really like beer. This just doesn't compute with me - how can someone so well-placed, eloquent and versed in matters of taste and flavour say something so utterly bollock-brained? If they said to their editor that they didn't like cheese, or wouldn't eat lamb, they'd be thrown off their column/pedestal/velvet cushion. I offered to send them a mixed case of beer that would help them change their mind - this didn't even warrant a reply. If the British Guild of Beer Writers' Writer of the Year 2008 and owner of a beer mail-order/wholesale company can't give away a case of beer to a food writer, then something is seriously fucked-up.


I am available for both written and broadcast commissions.

·         Best Beer Blog or Website
I haven't read much print this year, but I continue to enjoy the non-linear relationship with narrative that Adrian Tierney-Jones has on his blog, and John The Beer Nut is always worth a look. And Matt Curtis at Total Ales reminds me of me when I was younger, which probably also means that he masturbates too much.

·         Best Beer App
Don't use any. Fuck you, Will Hawkes.

·         Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Chris Hall and Craig Heap are pretty entertaining. As are Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham

·         Best Brewery Website/Social media
Don't know, care less.

·         Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
A late entry, but the Alpha State Orange Zest Farmhouse IPA and fionocchina (or whatever the fucking fennel salami is called at Friends of Ham) was a belter.

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Stewart Brewing "First World Problems"

First World Problems. They surround us. I'm a blogger, I'm a writer, I'm a beer wholesaler, I'm a beer retailer, I'm not supposed to do this because, boo hoo, I've got too much invested to write anything impartial. Poor me, poor me, pour me another.

The press release comes on a scratty bit of paper, and tells the now familiar story of the victory in a home brew competition being put into production. It's basically the X-Factor of beer - figure out what people like, then sell it back to them. It mentions 80 IBUs. It mentions the 6 hop varieties, without naming one of them. It's not a great bit of PR. That's a first world problem right there.

The label is pretty cool, all cross-hatched graphic novel font and Lichtenstein half-tone comic strip frames. It makes me immediately suspicious. But the beer - oh God, the beer.

I've no idea what the exemplar for Belgian IPA is, or where the style originates, but this immediately reminds me of Flying Dog Raging Bitch. It's not all about the flavour, although that's a big part of it. There's a character to this beer that's almost a texture, an interplay between a spiciness, a minerality, and a faint suggestion of sunshine and crushed aspirin that I associate with a surfeit of Amarillo hops. There's a flat, wet stone quality to the beer, ending like a licked pebble on the beach, but in a good way, a slightly savoury, celery-salt snap in the finish, like a really fresh pilsner.

And the aroma is nuanced to be a tightrope walk between an IPA and a Belgian triple. What strain of yeast has wrought these remarkable effects? A kind of hyper-refined IPA that plays on bitterness, cleanness, a bruised fruitiness.

I've run out of Belgian IPA. Another First World Problem, if you please.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

What BeerRitz Did Next.

It's been quite a year for the many-tentacled beast covered by the obligatory punning name that is BeerRitz. At least, I think it's a pun - what the hell does BeerRitz even mean? Is it a clash between everyday - beer - and high-falutin' - The Ritz? Is it meant to allude to the chi-chi Mediterranean resort of Biarritz? I've no idea.

Anyway, as I say, it's been quite a year for BeerRitz. Not only has it had a major refurb (lovingly documented by 'Ritz stalwart Ghost Drinker), but we also made the shortlist for the Observer Food Monthly 2013 Awards in the online category (we're right at the bottom of the page). I guess this is technically for the webshop, but we know that a lot of our loyal customers at the walk-in bricks-and-mortar shop in Headingley also voted for us, so thanks to everyone who took the time to vote.

To round off a mammoth year, we've today just had a visit from the roving judge for the Drinks Retailing Awards (basically, the Oscars of drinks retailing, if you can imagine such a thing). We're delighted to announce that we've been shortlisted as a finalist in the Independent Beer Retailing category, along with the incumbent champions Real Ale in Twickenham and Stirchley Wines & Spirits in Birmingham.

Looking through the trophy cabinet, it's interesting to note that we won this very same award back in 2003, and so there would be a very pleasing symmetry to win it again a decade later. Like all significant events, it's hard not to look back and see what has changed in that time. The main thing really is the breweries that have sprung up since then, who we now have close relationships with: Bristol Beer Factory (2004), Thornbridge (2005), Hardknott (2005), BrewDog (2007), Arbor Ales (2007), Buxton (2009), Ilkley (2009), Kernel (2009), Magic Rock (2011), Beavertown (2012) - anyway, you get the general gist of what I'm saying.

The awards are given out at an absurdly decadent event in early February 2014 (like, bottles of whisky on the table decadent) at The Dorchester Hotel in that there London, and in true awards ceremony style, nobody finds out what the results are until the envelope is opened. Watch this space for more info around the time, and thanks again for all of your support over the years. LOVE YOU XXX

(The picture is of me on the morning after the night before, in 2004. And no, I didn't steal the robe)

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Grayson Perry On Craft Beer

Image for Beating the Bounds
I caught the first of Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures on craft beer this week. They're broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (link), and the first lecture was largely to do with how we actually define craft beer.

Well, I'm twisting his words slightly. He was actually talking about art, but really all the arguments he deploys are equally applicable to craft beer. How do you define it, what it is, what it isn't, and who gets to make those decisions. Who gets to buy and consume it. Really, it's interesting, you should listen to it, just substitute the word "beer" every time you hear the word "art"

That's the good bit of the post over. The rest is about beer/craft beer and quality control.

I still think that craft beer is "a thing", but I'm still not sure that it's anything to do with beer. At IndyManBeerCon last year, I was part of the panel that James also sat on, the panel he mentions in the opening paragraph here. It's my recollection that we did actually talk about what craft beer was. Being the contrarian, I talked about craft beer in terms of what it wasn't (link here), and how the whole movement was about trying to define oneself in opposition to the mainstream. Hey, I'm a failed academic. Maybe it was a bit fine-grained, but James very kindly told us all that we'd missed the point, and showboated about Blue Moon for 10 minutes. Sheesh, if that's not defining yourself as the other, I don't know what is.

IndyMan is the dream of craft beer made flesh. I can't pretend that I get to many beer festivals, or even many beer bars these days, but IndyMan has a special place in my heart. It is everything that is great about Britain rolled into one. Britain has a reputation for being an early adopter, which might explain the endless reinvention and global domination of (for example) fashion and pop music. Couple that with a celebration of history, and a long weekend of craft beer in the crumbling splendour of a Victorian swimming baths couldn't be any more British.

I do wonder, though, if an idea as brilliantly conceived and expertly executed as IndyMan is almost done a disservice by some beer (craft beer, by definition, I guess).

At the Great British Beer Festival this year, I set myself a challenge: no beer that I'd drunk before, and a decent selection of stab-in-the-dark beers that I knew nothing about as a way of trying to gauge a cross-section of the market. It wasn't an entirely enjoyable experience, with dull, poorly conceived and/or badly made (or all three) beers easily found, and mostly from brewers that would, by any definition put forward, be classed as craft brewers.

While I didn't set any such criteria at IndyMan, I was surprised to experience a similar set of disappointments. Phenolic, astringent golden ales. Beer that smelled of freshly mashed grain. Beers that had a peculiar quality that I could only describe as "the opposite of drinkability". This isn't peculiar to IndyMan, or to craft beer, but there are a group of breweries who have quality control nailed, and rarely disappoint. They get my money every time. The others, not so much.

And what of the drinkers? One brewer reported to me having had a conversation with a craft beer enthusiast who was loving the butterscotch edge in their beer. It turned out to be diacetyl, although the drinker had never heard of it, and was adamant that they were enjoying it. Fair enough, for that drinker it was more important to be drinking craft beer than to be understanding it. For me, it's the other way around, but like I said earlier, I'm a failed academic.

Is quality control important? I think it's the one major challenge that faces beer, craft or otherwise. It's the elephant in the room. Having a trade body to "protect" craft beer (whatever that means - I think really it means a brewer-funded body to promote themselves, in the way that the Brewer's Association does in the US) is secondary to some way of ensuring that when people do eventually try beer (craft or not), it's a positive experience.

Put it another way: I'm not interested in your credentials if you've paid for them. Let the beer do the talking for you. It's part of the reason that I've worked in this industry for so long, because I genuinely believe that tasty, well-made beer is a life-enhancing experience, in the same way that good food is.

But that's just me - failed academic, beautiful dreamer.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Stewart Brewing Yoga Chef

Like the changing seasons, my tastes change periodically. One of this year's surprises has been my reaction to stout. After months and months of pale hoppy beers, smoky stouts have assumed an oddly acrid, unpleasant edge. Doubly so coffee stouts, with their characteristic "touch of ashtray" notes. Lord knows when I will revisit that style.

So my heart sank a little bit when I held up this bottle of Stewart Brewing Yoga Chef to try and get a sense of what I might be in for. Dark beer, humph, and humph again. It sat rejected on my desk for a few days. Then, sod it, the weather changed, and suddenly, so did I.

Yoga Chef pours very dark brown, with ruddy highlights, and a quickly dissipating head. Soft, autumnal aromas, ripe fruit, a hint of undergrowth. Slightly sweet on the palate, though light-bodied, finishing with an impression of berries and crushed leaves. Very new world, but somehow traditional at the same time. New wave mild?

A really good, interesting autumnal beer, from a brewery who have consistently impressed me this year.

(Stewart Brewing sent me this bottle for review)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Portrait Of A Brewer ~ An Eye For Detail

Portrait of a brewer
from Paul Bates on Vimeo.

I'm sure you've seen this by now. It's a really nice short film about one man's relationship with brewing, his inspirations, thought processes, and take on what brewing is. At a surface level, it's nicely shot, showing some of the tools and processes of the brewer's craft.

It's wonderfully calm, miles from the shouty "look at me and my bulging hopsack, WOOF!" sort of approach. It eschews the need to emphasise passion as a reason for doing something. If you spend your life doing something, that passion doesn't need to be underlined.

Dig a little deeper, listen to what's being said, and you get a feel for why brewing can captivate people, and why it can inspire such fervour (David touches on that theme too here).

Pay proper attention, and you'll notice the fine details. Like the fact that Andy Skene is pouring Pitfield beer at the end, and that there is a long tale behind why he's doing so.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Market Town Tavern Yorkshire Beer Awards

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited as a guest to attend the inaugural Market Town Taverns Yorkshire Beer Awards. There is no doubt that the UK is in the grip of a beer frenzy, and outside of London it's clear that Yorkshire is the most seething hotbed of brewing activity - there are lots of them, and the quality is very high.

Market Town Taverns is a chain of 15-odd pubs that was built by Ian Fozard (now director of Rooster's Brewing Co), and more recently sold to Heron & Brearley, a many-tentacled business based on the Isle of Man, hence the presence of a lot of (latterly very good) Okells beers within the MTT estate.

As it explains on their website, the Market Town Taverns Yorkshire Beer Awards "has been born out of passion for beer and the pride we have in our Yorkshire breweries. Over 100 Yorkshire breweries were invited to submit their beers for a blind tasting by our judges which took place in early May 2013, where the finalists in each category were decided on". The awards dinner was where finalists were announced, and here they are:

Best Bitter:
Great Newsome Frothingham Best
Ilkley  Joshua Jane
Saltaire Pride
Winner: Saltaire Pride

Pale/Golden Beer:
Great Heck Citra
Abbeydale Dewception
Bradfield Farmer's Blonde
Winner: Great Heck Citra

Dark Beer:
Old Bear Black Maria
Rooster's Londinium
Black Sheep Riggwelter
Winner: Rooster's Londinium

Rooster's Fort Smith
Saltaire Stateside IPA
Great Heck Yakima IPA
Winner: Saltaire Stateside IPA

Brass Castle Bad Kitty
Black Sheep Imperial Russian
Partners Tabatha
Winner: Black Sheep Russian

Craft Keg:
Wold Top Humber Light
Saltaire Gold
Great Yorkshire Blackout
Winner: Saltaire Gold

Best Newcomer: Magic Rock

Overall Champion: Saltaire Pride

Should you still be reading this and be slightly "say what?" about the whole thing, let's go through the pictures. Denzil from Great Heck Brewery (Best. Website. Ever) giving it large in one of his trademark Shite Shirts. Tom and Ol from Rooster's, looking like a buffed up version of the Blues Brothers. Stu from Magic Rock in a three piece suit, looking every inch the Victorian steampunk brewer. The ever-glamorous Marverine Cole presenting the awards. Really, what's not to like?

Congratulations to all of the finalists, and special congratulations to all the category winners, maybe especially to Saltaire Brewery, not only for the overall win, but just for their ability to place in so many categories - the upcoming expansion is clearly going to move them to the next levelThe beer scene in Yorkshire isn't just full of great beer, it's full of great people - the sort of people that attracted me to this industry in the first place. Long may they prosper, and long may Market Town Taverns celebrate and reward their prosperity.

Movie via Bibulous Me

Thursday, 25 July 2013

We're Hiring!

We have a vacancy coming up at our warehouse, located between Wetherby and York. It's a varied role, taking in everything that happens here.

For the wholesale side of the business (Beer Paradise), you will take and process customer orders by phone and email, advise them over any stock issues, inform them about new products, arrange deliveries, and make sure that our customers receive the high level of service we are proud to give them.

On the mail order side of the business ( you will be required to pick, pack and process customer orders accurately and quickly, deal with any issues that arise, delivering the fast and attentive service our customers are used to.

In-house, across both businesses you will get involved with stock control, managing goods in and out, keeping customers informed by newsletter and social media about what we're up to, and generally ensuring that everything runs smoothly. This means that sometimes you'll be Tweeting about beer, and at other times you'll be stacking or unstacking pallets in the warehouse.

It's likely that you'll occasionally make local deliveries, so a full driving licence is preferable. You might even have to provide the odd bit of cover at our shop, Beer-Ritz in Headingley, although this will be the exception rather than the rule.

In the first instance, please send a CV and covering email to zak (at)

Saturday, 13 July 2013

EBBC2013 - Live Beer Blogging

Badger Roaming Roy Dog 7.5% - "dark porter style ale" according to the brewery, complex malt, Galaxy and Bramling Cross. Big mouthfeel, warming, very characteristic Badger style, melony ester, bitter finish. Very fruity, not really a porter-style beer, a bit sweet and light bodied, perhaps too much fruit and not enough fruit [this should read "too much fruit and not enough chocolate"]. Bottled straight from the fermenter and recommended from keeping. It's OK, very Badger, good to see them pushing the envelope a bit

Traquair Jacobite Ale 8% - big on the heritage story, and rightly so - brewing since 1965, fermenting in unlined oak tuns, output of 1000hl per year (tiny). Like dark black tea in appearance, quite bright for an unfiltered beer.Sweet, big burst of spices on the palate, silky smooth, superb balance and length. Epic, needs to be rediscovered

Innis & Gunn Oloroso Cask 7.4% - be still my pounding heart, a beer aged in a sherry cask should be right up my calle. Sweet oak dominates the nose, and the palate. Perhaps thrown into the shade a little bit by the previous beer, this seems a little one-dimensional. Perceptive questions about provenance and process from my compatriot bloggers. The beer is "dry-oaked" rather than dry hopped. Smooth, easy to drink, a little tannic - not really my thing.

Toccalmatto Surfing Hop Double IPA 8.5% - wanted to create something new, with a bigger malt profile - Blegian malt profile, special B, and other speciality malts. Big dry hopping charge, really American technique. Copper brown, but really massive hop character - citrussy and slightly floral, big and sweet mid-palate, drying out nicely at the end. Hilarious disconnect between brown appearance and huge punchy hop character. Really a PHWOAR beer - appeals to the monkey part of my brain.

Inveralmond  Blackfriar 7% - described by head brewer Ken as a Scotch ale. Made with a double mash and "boil the bejaysus out of it", getting caramelisation through Maillard reactions (nice to hear this term, you know your your shit Ken). Pitch yeast at 20c, rises to 26c, producing lots of of fruity esters. Really sweet but not cloying on the palate, superbly enjoyable.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 30th Anniversary Ale 11% - from a 40yr old first-fill sherry cask, and click on my face if yu can't tell the sherry character bursting out of the glass. Thick, gloopy, oozing onto my palate like Eartha Kitt shimmying out of an opium den. Chocolate, spice, sherry, and slight hint of funkiness. I cannot conceive of getting a better beer today.

Shepherd Neame Brilliant Ale 5.6% - part of a heritage range of beers trawled from the brewer's logs, the recipe for Brilliant Ale is based on an old recipe, augmented by an addition of new hops. Brilliant bright gold, classic Sheps character (the use of East Kent Goldings hops probably makes that) with a hint of fruitiness. Bears up amazingly well after the sexy shimmy of Ola Dubh, feels brilliantly clean and bright, refreshing. A hit!

WEST Brewery St Mungo 4.9% - "a lager somehwere in between a pils and a helles" say Ruth from WEST. Brilliant gold colour, slightly grainy nose, nice carbonation on the palate. Easy-drinking, slightly sweet on the palate, some dryness building in the finish. Nor very beer needs to be a symphony, but this is a decent opening movement.

Ilkley Brewery The Mayan 6.5% - "Ilkley is a spa town, so we have fantastic water" explains Luke. The Mayan is part of the Origins range, part of the specials range where they explore different styles of beer around the world. Chocolate chilli stout, majoring perhaps a bit too much on the chocolate flavour, with cocoa nibs and powder in the mash. Luke claims to have enjoyed a second pint of this - it's a good beer, but not one to session

European Beer Bloggers Conference 2013 - Keynote Address

Garrett Oliver has finally come of age. That's not my judgement - who am I to pass judgement on such a man? - he says it himself in the keynote address below. It's interesting to hear what he says about  becoming the brewer he wants to be, and how that resonates with the 10,000 hour rule pointed out by Boak and Bailey, and my general stab in the dark as to what craft brewing really means. Garrett sums up the c-word nicely in the talk, by the way.

He kicked off showing this video:

The talk picks up where the video leaves off. The quality is a bit shonky, sorry, but the content is worth listening to:

Online recording software >>

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Rise of The Cuckoo (Part 2)

OK, that last post upset a few people, and some other people enjoyed it. It's fair to say that it was pretty broad-brushed, made some sweeping generalisations, and made uncomfortable reading for at least a few people that I know personally. So in the interests of balance, a clarification.

I'm not a huge fan of Ricky Gervais, but during one of his misanthropic rants about the nature of fame and celebrity a few years ago, he made the point that "wanting to be famous" isn't actually a career aspiration. He made the point that when you see (for example) George Clooney on the red carpet, waving, it's as a by-product of his work. He didn't work to get famous, he worked to become an actor - the fame is a by-product of his work.

The current explosion of interest in beer has led to a lot of people getting into the business, by whatever route. Some see it as an exciting career opportunity, a way to make their hobby their job. Others see it as a way of riding the new trend and making some money while it lasts. Others want to be part of the party, and just see what happens as a result. And you know what? That's fine by me, I'm happy that beer generally is finally getting the exposure that it deserves.

And I was somewhat misplaced in my singling out of cuckoo brewers as the target of my irritation. What I realised last night, in a flash of lupulin-inspired clarity after a series of somewhat disappointing beers, is - pay attention to this now - owning a brewery is no guarantee of good beer.

There, I've said it.

And you know what else I'm going to say?

That's what craft beer is all about.

Brewing is a craft, something diligently learned, endlessly studied, repeated until the actions are second nature, in a way that belies the years of effort taken to acquire it. A profound understanding of the process and how to make it go right. Making beer is easy, but making great beer is hard. The glass of beer that satisfies in an exceptional and yet undefinable way, that's the papped photo of George Clooney (your icon may vary), chiselled and dapper, breathtakingly handsome, waving to his fans on the red carpet, a single perfect moment crystallised by years of craft.

There's more to it than that. of course. Cuckoo brewers might actually turn up, brew their own recipe, dig out the mash tun, and genuinely rent the down time on a plant to brew their own beer. Sometimes they might collaborate with a technically skilled brewer to make a beer to their that the skilled brewer wouldn't ever think of making. Sometimes, they might contract a brewery to make a beer to recipe, but not actually get involved beyond that. And sometimes, an entrepreneur might contract a beer in a particular style with no more input than asking for a modern hop-heavy IPA.

So yeah, maybe you have a point. Maybe I would rather drink a well-made cuckoo-brewed beer than a badly-made nouveau-craft car-crash-in-a-glass

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Rise of The Cuckoo - or - 2013 (What The Fuck Is Going On?)

This is written from the perspective of my day job - hell, my only job. For those of you who don't know, as well as the shop Beer-Ritz in Leeds, I also co-own and co-manage the wholesaler Beer Paradise.

Part of my job at the moment is saying no to people. Not customers, not drinkers, but producers. Brewery numbers in the UK have topped out around 1000, a high point in our lifetime, even for old gits like Zythophile.

Almost a year on from writing this and this about cuckoo/gypsy brewers, I find myself swamped, besieged, inundated by enquiries from people who have brewed (or are about to brew) beer, and wondering if I would be interested in helping with the distribution of it. Some of it is pretty damn solid, and none of it is actually bad. Some of it is still words on a piece of paper, or images in a thought bubble brought to life by the excited passion of the recently converted.

I'm torn. It started out about nine months ago, saying no to perfectly decent beer purely because we had our next couple of months' listings figured out ahead of time. Then the supply from our favourite breweries started to run short, overcome as they were by demand from the newly-converted drinker. It got ridiculous, with large scale breweries (some of whom I mentioned in this article as people who we had been buying from since year dot) unable to fulfill orders.

Couple to this the fall-off in consumption of more traditional British ales, and it doesn't take much for someone with (say) a 20 barrel plant to suddenly find that they have spare capacity, as the demand for their trad brown starts to wane. What better way of keeping things ticking over than to contract for some eager brand visionary with a sack of hops under one arm, and a sack of money under the other.

So it's good business sense all round. Capacity is filled, drinkers are satisfied, cuckoos sing happily. A new generation of gypsy brewers starts the journey with a single step, following the trail that has been blazed for them by Mikkel. Indeed, so revered is Mikkeller now that it doesn't seem to be a brand - it's a brewery, a person, a story being told in water, malt, hops and yeast.

So why is it all starting to leave me a bit cold? Is it the fact of being sold to before there's a product to buy? Is it that I somehow perceive cuckoo brewing as not being fully committed? Do I perhaps smell a rat in the sense that people are seeing a market to exploit, and creating products to do just that, as Ed points out elegantly in his recent post?

That can't be it, as I have visited breweries who make a virtue of producing commercially accessible, consistent beers with a cutting edge leaning - not very romantic, but solid, tasty beers nonetheless. I feel that's better than the scattergun approach of many breweries who are learning their trade in public, missing the mark they were setting out to hit, but selling the beer anyway.

To paraphrase the KLF: 2013 - What The Fuck Is Going On?

That picture of me was taken at Sharp's Brewery in 2009. I look much older now. Much older.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Thou Shalt Always Blog

Thou shalt not get so drunk you ruin other peoples' evenings.
Thou shalt not drink Desperados or shout Lager Lager Lager.
Thou shalt not take the names of Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman, Jack Macauliffe, John Gilbert, Sean Franklin, Evin O' Riordan or Dave Wickett in vain.

Thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 with a beard and sandals is a CAMRA member. Some people are just cool.
Thou shalt not read beer blogs.
Thou shalt not stop drinking a beer just because the brewery has upscaled.
Thou shalt not question Garrett Oliver.

Thou shalt not judge a beer by its IBUs.
Thou shalf not judge BrewDog by inches of news.
Thou shalt not buy ABInBev products.
Thou shalt not buy SABMiller products.
Thou shalt not look at your brother's home brewery, buy a load of stainless, and build a better one.
Thou shalt not get impressed so easily.

Thou shalt not use you beer blog and Twitter feed to get into a brewery's pocket.
Use it to get into their heart.
Thou shalt not drink Fosters.
Thou shalt not attend homebrew group and then leave as soon as everyone's tried your double IPA, you hopheaded numbskull.
Thou shalt not email beer importers asking them if they can get you any Hill Farmstead beers - it's never going happen mate.
Thou shalt not put beers and breweries on ridiculous pedestals, however important they may seem.

Pliny The Elder: it's just a beer
Westvleteren 12: Just a beer
Dark Lord: Just a beer
Speedway Stout: Just a beer
Hopslam: Just a beer
Pannepot: Just a beer
Beer Geek Brunch: Just a beer
Cannonball: Just a beer
Orval: Just a beer
Ola Dubh: Just a beer
Racer 5: Just a beer
Xyayu: Just a beer
Fat Tire: Just a beer
Yorkshire Stingo: Just a beer
Cantillon Geuze: Just a beer
The next big thing: just a beer

Thou shalt give equal consideration to non-American IPAs as to American IPAs - freshness really matters, you know?

Thou shalt remember that water, malt, hops and yeast are the four elements of beer, and that's it.

Thou shalt not join the Campaign for Cooking Lager,
Thou shalt not join the Campaign for Cooking Lager,
Thou shalt not join the Campaign for Cooking Lager,
Thou shalt not join the Campaign for Cooking Lager.

Thou shalt not "hate to see it leave"
Thou shalt not "say cidre, not cider"
Thou shalt not "refresh the parts other beers cannot reach"
And thou shalt not follow the bear

When I say "malt" thou shalt not say "hops"
When I say "hip" thou shalt not say "hops"
When I say, he say, she say, we say, craft beer - kill me.

Ah, I forgot where I was, hang on.

Thou shalt not "Belong"
Thou shalt not be "a bit gorgeous, pet"
Thou shalt not wish you beer had a few more hops

Thou shalt spell the word "Belgian" B-E-L-G-I-A-N, not B-E-L-G-I-U-M, regardless of what you read on Beer Advocate

Thou shalt not express your confusion at the latest barrel-aged lambic IPA by saying "AWESOME!"

Thou shalt drink for yourselves.

And thou shalt always...

Thou shalt always blog.

With apologies to Scroobius Pip and Dan Le Sac. 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Beer-Ritz - Bottling Success.

This is just a little heads up about Leigh Linley's interview of, er, me, over at Culture Vultures. It was very nice of Leigh to take the time to do this, and also interesting because it was more focused on independent business than on beer.

The most telling thing aspect of it, for me, was the fact that I started working at the shop in 2000. My claim that ‘We were selling beer before a lot of the current cream of UK brewing existed. We were pretty pleased when they finally joined the party’ isn't hyperbole or braggadocio, it's just fact.

Anyway, times change. Beer is certainly hip right now - whether that translates into it becoming popular, reversing the apparent decline of recent years, is something that only time will reveal.

On a related note, the nominations for the annual Observer Food Monthly Awards are open. While it's obvious who I want you to vote for, there are other categories that we don't fit into, and other businesses that need your support and recognition. You can vote here (it's a bit weird - you have to submit your details first - but I'm sure you'll get it).

Thursday, 18 April 2013

European Beer Bloggers Conference 2013

This just in from the organisers of the conference - press release starts starts here:
The 2013 European Beer Bloggers Conference takes place July 12-13 in Edinburgh, Scotland The conference offers industry representatives and members of beer media the opportunity to get together for a few days to talk and learn more about beer and the beer industry. There are over 1150 non-industry related beer bloggers in the world. We expect 120 of the most enthusiastic “new media” beer influencers to attend in 2013.

This is the number one event in which you can meet, learn from, and make connections with beer bloggers - the "citizen" influencers who write about beer on a regular basis on the internet. The content is also geared towards using social media in the beer world, which is a huge part of today's industry marketing.

You or someone at your brewery may use social media to promote your beer events or your latest brew. Good idea. If you want to learn about using social media more effectively attending the conference as a participant is also a good idea. You or they can register here:

The following marketing opportunities are still available. Benefits and costs of the sponsorships are listed below the signature.
  • 2 more breweries to take part in Live Beer Blogging

  • One brand has the opportunity to host an After Hours event at the Edinburgh City Council Chambers starting at 9PM on Saturday evening, July 13th

  • Sponsor to host lunch on Saturday, July 13th from 12:00 to 1:30. This is an opportunity to share a variety of beers, food and information.

  • Premier & Event Sponsors

Press release ends here.

Anyone interested in the last few sponsorship opportunities should contact Reno Walsh ( reno(at) ).

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Dangerously Foreign Practices.

I really tried hard to bite my lip about this whole thing.

I said nothing when I first read it, because I've managed over the years to stop going off the deep end when I read something on the internet that irritates me. The truth is, if you look hard enough, you can find someone saying something ridiculous at any point on the web.

I said nothing when everyone went mental on Twitter about it - I even ignored this tweet from BrewDogBarJonny, sticking the boot into CAMRA (Wandsworth Beer Festival isn't a CAMRA festival). But that's not my battle to fight - if you look long enough on the web, you'll find all manner of lunacy going on. You might even find members of BrewDog's band of merry pirates saying things like "we took the recipe and BrewDogged it". Fine, I think I understand that, and jolly good luck to you. Hope it all works out.

I didn't say anything when the debate took a craft keg dimension over at Hardknott Dave's blog. I've softened my slightly rabid line on the term "craft beer", even occasionally dropping it into conversation in industry company, and watching to see if anyone flinches, or says "AHA! WAIT! YOU SAID CRAFT BEER!". I understand why people get all passionate and aerated about the debate, and sometimes think that if all that passion was channelled into the business of making great beer, and all of the tedious detail that goes along with it like proper cleaning schedules and quality control checks, the beer world would be a more reliable playground (please note: this isn't directed at anyone in particular, just a general observation based on frequently buying - and being being sent - an apparently endless parade of faulty, poorly-conceived or badly made beers, both in bottle and on draught).

But I've finally cracked. This post over at the ever-excellent Boak & Bailey actually had me LOLing and almost ROFLing. This is a great example of what happens when you take too seriously something that is obviously a ludicrous outpouring of ill-informed nonsense from someone with an ill-formed agenda. If I get this right, the thrust of the argument being taken seriously here is that bland beers are being disguised by giving them flavour. This is clearly buffoonery of the highest order. It's like moaning that some cultures disguise fundamentally bland food - chicken, say - by adding garlic, chilli, cumin and ginger to make something that is a betrayal of its source. That argument is, frankly, bollocks.

I'm starting to think that the idea of "good beer" is fundamentally flawed. There is beer that is well made, and beer that is badly made. And there is beer that I like, and beer I don't like. I tend to like well-made beer across a variety of styles. I can tell if a beer is poorly-conceived but well-made. And I can tell a badly-made beer a mile off (with the exception of the output of Cantillon, where I understand that I am in such a minority that my view is probably fundamentally wrong). But I can tell if the spices in a curry are there to disguise poor quality ingredients, or a lack of skill in the kitchen.

The lack of skill rarely resides in the quality of ingredients, but it can be glaringly obvious in how those ingredients are deployed to produce an end result.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Resisting The Wine-ification Of Beer

That's a litre of homebrew, fresh as a daisy, glistening with condensation. PHWOAR!

You want to moan about beer getting too fancy? Oh look, Rome's on fire - grab a violin and join the party.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Are You Missing Something?

Are you missing something? You are if you haven't read this post by David Preston, and the very well thought out response to it.

To summarise: There is a conflict between reports of the beer industry being in steady decline and the current buzz around the industry.

Why are these two factors at odds?

Is it an artefact of only using stats that are readily available (e.g. data from electronic point of sale tills derived from larger on- and off-trade chains)?

Is it that the growth at the micro- to middle-sized end of of the brewing industry isn't being charted?

Is anyone recording total brewery output and/or sales across the whole industry, from the majors to the boys and girls brewing in sheds?

One further point not raised by David or his lone responder: What effect on this decline does drafting in the accountants to save £6.6 million by reducing the strength of John Smiths Extra Smooth from 3.8%abv to 3.6%abv? Is that part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Your thoughts please, if you have any on this subject.