Siren’s blast

Back in August last year, after encountering Siren Craft Brew’s American IPA at the London Craft Beer Festival, I promised: “I shall definitely be drinking more Siren.” Since then I’ve drunk the brewery’s beers whenever I find them, and I’ve never been so impressed with the products of a new brewery since we started having new breweries in Britain again. There hasn’t been one I wouldn’t score an eight, at least. It should be clear, I think, from the first sip of any of the brewery’s beers that in the 31-year-old American Ryan Witter-Merithew, Siren has found a brewer of supremely rare talent, someone with a “palate imagination” powerful enough to give him the ability to pull off stunts other brewers leap at and fail to achieve.

Whiskey Sour beerIn particular, he seems to have an amazing ability to blend two ideas together and get a whole considerably greater than the parts. His Whiskey Sour beer contains two of my personal nightmares – beer brewed with actual lemons in it, and beer aged in oak casks sufficiently for the flavour of oak to enter the ale. Yet I find it a marvellous drink, full of depth, totally integrated, the oak, the lemon, the bourbon and the citrussy hops producing a symphony of harmonious flavours: a beer I’m eager to try matching with different foods

I was delighted to get an invite to meet Darron Anley, the founder of Siren Craft Brew at a “showcase” organised by the property agency Davis Coffer Lyons at the East London Liquor Company in Bow Wharf, East London, the first bar-with-a-distillery (actually two stills, beautiful copper affairs) I have seen. It would be very unfair to call Anley a dilettante brewer, since he is clearly serious about what he is doing and it’s not merely a hobby, but like a few others in the modern UK brewing scene, it was making a fortune elsewhere, in his case building up and then selling an IT security company, that gave him the freedom, and the finance, to become a brewer. His previous company was sold in 2011, but Anley’s interest in beer went back a lot further than that, he revealed:

Darron Anley

Darron Anley

I’d been into my beers for a really long time, and by 2009 I was a lot more interested in what was coming over from the US, a lot more interested in the more hop-forward style of beer, which at the time when I got out of IT there were probably still only three or four people making those kind of beers. I had never made beer in my life, but I did a lot of playing around and I started thinking, ‘I could do this!’ I wasn’t supposed to be setting up any more businesses, I was supposed to be on a bit of a break. But it kept calling me – I had this nagging feeling, where I wanted to go and create something from scratch, have a bit of fun and do something very, very different. I’d never created a brand before. So that’s where the name ‘Siren’ comes from – I heard the music and that was that.

Before starting, Anley went to a “brilliant” conference of small brewers in the United States, where

two of the best bits of advice I got was, one, no matter how good your home-brewing is – and mine was OK, passable, if not quite amazing – get a professional brewer in. It just makes the whole process easier. The other was, whatever size brewkit you’re thinking of starting off with, double it, and if you can afford it, triple it.

While in the US I met up with a bunch of people, and off the back of that they all sent out various tweets saying, ‘This guy’s looking for a brewer,’ I think I interviewed 12 people through that, and [Ryan Witter-Merithew] was one of them. [He] had been brewing some really cool beers over in Denmark [at Fanø], he’s American, very well-known for his creativity, willing to try almost anything – and that fitted with what I wanted to do. [But] it was the hardest job in the world to try to get an American in for a brand new job, [dealing with the immigration authorities] that was the stuff of nightmares.

A base was found in Finchampstead, Berkshire, close to Anley’s home, and brand-new kit was acquired from Malrex in Burton upon Trent. Anley is happy to admit his debt to BrewDog in Siren’s line-up of “core” beers, with at least two overtly tracing an influence from brews in the Scottish iconoclasts’ catalogue:

What we wanted from our four core beers that were going to be about all year round were beers that started off with something that takes you on a nice, easy journey to start with, up to something perhaps a little bit more challenging. So you’ve got Undercurrent, it’s an oatmeal pale ale – not overtly hoppy, not overtly bitter, lot of oats in the grist to give a nice smooth mouthfeel, the hops we use have a herbaceous quality to them, bit of floral, bit of citrus as well. It’s a nice easy balance to get started with. The next thing you’ve got is a West Coast IPA [Soundwave] which is a little bit more like Punk IPA – I’d like to say better, but I’ll let you decide on that. It’s quite aggressive on the nose, loads and loads of citrus, passion fruit, tropical fruit; we’ve gone for a less bitter approach, I didn’t want it to be overtly bitter. We’ve then got a red IPA [Liquid Mistress], and the idea behind that was one of my favourite beers from an early day, my early forays into this market, was 5am Saint, I love that kind of malty play with the hops, so we’ve gone for a much more malty version, a little higher in abv at 5.7%. Again you’ve got that nice malt sweetness and a good aggressive hope note on it. Then our 6.7% Breakfast Stout [Broken Dream] – “breakfast stout’ so you can have it for breakfast – chocolate, oats, milk and (to a response from the audience of “alcohol!”) alcohol, that’s it. There’s a little bit of smoked malt in there to give you that slightly meaty quality, the chocolate, obviously, from the grist, milk – we add lactic sugar, to give that nice, smooth unctuousness – is that a word? It is now. The idea is to make sure we’ve got those four core, staple beers there all the time and then add a good range of things to play around with.

Shattered Dream

Shattered Dream, an ‘imperial’ version of Siren’s bresakfast stout, Broken Dream

Part of what we do is about cores and stability, the rest is trying to help people explore the flavour palate of what beer can be, so the first beer we brewed on our system, before we brewed any of our core beers, was a project called Maiden – the reason for the name was that it was the first beer, so a maiden voyage. It was a big barley wine, 11 per cent, we separated it out into various different barrels, including Bourbon, brandy, Armagnac, Cognac, run and tequila. After a year we got some help from some wine guys, and Compass Box Whisky, who make some fantastic whiskies, and know all about blending stuff. The aim was to take each one of these individual components and make a blend that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a great product, and we’re carrying it on, so the first beer we brewed 2014 was the base beer for Maiden this year – we’re got some new barrels to add to it, including some [Jack] Daniel’s, Sauternes and all kinds of different stuff. It’s all about trying to explore different ideas, different tastes, explore the flavour landscape, so that it’s not just about malt and it’s not just about hops. A lot of brewers now, it’s about how much citrus you can get pumping out of a 5 per cent IPA – I do like those beers, personally, but there’s other things to do: there’s sour, there’s barrel-aged, there’s all sorts of things. We’ve done a worm beer for a festival – the guys at Nordic Food Labs [part of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant regarded as the best in the world] did a thing called the Pestival, where every course had something to do with insects, and we were asked to make a beer with mealworms. It was originally supposed to be crickets, but something went wrong and we got sent worms instead.

For a moment earlier this year it looked as if Witter-Merithew would be returning to the US, but fortunately for Siren, and beer drinkers in Brirtain, he decided to stay: “There was a period of time when he didn’t settle very well in the UK, they were thinking of going back but they ended up staying. Obviously we would have been gutted to see him go, because he’s a very experimental brewer, very much in the forefront of what we do,” Anley says.

The company turned over £300,000 in its first year, and is on the way to doing £1 million this year, a remarkable achievement for a start-up concern. Siren has now added to the capacity at the brewery sufficiently that it could double what it did this year, “although we won’t be doing double, the idea is to slow down a little bit, the new tanks are much more about making sure the tanks we have got are used to capacity with the core beers, and the rest will be the more experimental, the more fun stuff,” Anley says. Output is split almost exactly one third cask, one third keg and one third bottled, and around half the beer is exported, to Europe and “a reasonable amount” to the US. Little is available around Finchampstead, however: ” We have a terrible local scene – we send one van out a week locally. And we miss out on London because we’re not a London brewery either. We’re doing very well in London but it’s hard to get people to come out.”

I find that reluctance difficult to plumb. In the past few weeks I’ve been trying three of Siren’s experimental DIPAs, Ten Finger Discount, all-Citra and aged on cedar, Ten Toe Discount, same malt bill and hop dosing, again aged on cedar but with Amarillo hops; and Middle Finger Discount, the same again, but with Mosaic hops. Each is full of depth, character and flavour, a snappy retort to those who dismiss American IPAs as simply “too hoppy”, because without the carefully weighted application of masses of hop the experiences here would be weak and wimpy. These are beers made by a man who knows how to get exactly what he wants out of his ingredients, and they deliver an experience it is hard to imagine could be bettered.

Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst:

All at once, I found myself borne onward with great velocity by a torrent which burst upon me so suddenly as almost to deprive me of breath. A roar as of falling buildings at a distance, and suffocating fumes, were in my ears and nostrils. I was rescued with great difficulty by the people who immediately collected around me, and from whom I learned the nature of the disaster which had befallen me. An immense vat belonging to a brew house situated in Banbury street [sic – now Bainbridge Street], Saint Giles, and containing four or five thousand barrels of strong beer, had suddenly burst and swept every thing before it. Whole dwellings were literally riddled by the flood; numbers were killed; and from among the crowds which filled the narrow passages in every direction came the groans of sufferers.

Accounts today of the Meux brewery beer flood are full of claims of “besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” and claims that “many were suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” and “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma”. None of this is borne out by any newspaper reports at the time, and nor are the stories about riots at the Middlesex Hospital when victims were taken there stinking of beer, because other patients smelt the porter and thought free drink was being given away, or the floor at the pub where several of the victims’ bodies were laid out collapsing under the weight of sightseers and more people being killed. All those stories appear to be completely made up. It would be an interesting exercise to track these myths back and see when and where they first arose.

Here’s an account of the accident from a contemporary journal:

DOMESTIC INTELLIGENCE

DREADFUL ACCIDENT

Monday night, the 17th October, one of those accidents which fortunately for the inhabitants of the metropolis is of rare occurence threw the neighhourhood of St Giles’s into the utmost consternation. About six o clock one of the vats in the extensive premises of Messrs Henry Meux and Co in Banbury street St Giles’s burst apart; in a moment New street George street and several others in the vicinity were deluged with the contents of 3,555 barrels of strong beer. The fluid in its course swept every thing before it. Two houses in New street adjoining the brew house were totally demolished. The inhabitants, who were of the poorer class, were all at home. In the first floor of one of them a mother and daughter were at tea; the mother was washed out of the window and the daughter was swept away by the current through a partition and dashed to pieces. The back parts of the houses of Mr Goodwin, poulterer, of Mr Hawse, Tavistock Arms, and Nos 24 and 25 in Great Russel street were nearly destroyed. The female servant of the Tavistock Arms was suffocated. Three of Mr Meux’s men employed in the brewery were rescued with great difficulty. The site of the place is low and flat, and there being no declivity to carry off the fluid in its fall, it spread and sunk into the neighbouring cellars, all of which were inhabited. Even the cellars in Russel street were inundated and breaches made through the houses. The inhabitants, to save themselves from drowning, had to mount their highest pieces of furniture. The bursting of the brew house walls and the fall of heavy timber materially contributed to aggravate the mischief by forcing the roofs and walls of the adjoining houses. It was feared at first that the lives lost exceeded 20, but we are happy to find the account reduced to eight, whose bodies have been all recovered.

And here’s a report of the coroner’s inquest:

On Thursday a Coroner’s Inquest was held on the dead bodies at St Giles’s workhouse. George Crick deposed that he was store house clerk to Messrs H Meux and Co of the Horse Shoe Brew house in St Giles’s, with whom he had lived 17 years. Monday afternoon one of the large iron hoops of the vat which burst fell off. He was not alarmed, as it happened frequently and was not attended by any serious consequence. He wrote to inform a partner, Mr Young, also a vat builder, of the accident, he had the letter in his hand to send to Mr Young, about half past five, half an hour after the accident, and was standing on a platform within three yards of the vat when he heard it burst. He ran to the store house where the vat, was and was shocked to see that one side of the brew house, upwards of 25 feet in height and two bricks and a half thick, with a considerable part of the roof, lay in ruins. The next object that took his attention was his brother, J Crick, who was a superintendent under him, lying senseless, he being pulled from under one of the butts. He and the labourer were now in the Middlesex Hospital. An hour after, witness found the body of Ann Saville floating among the butts, and also part of a private still, both of which floated from neighbouring houses. The cellar and two deep wells in it were full of beer, which witness and those about him endeavoured to save, so that they could not go to see the accident, which happened outwardly. The height of the vat that burst was 22 feet; it was filled within 4 inches of the top and then contained 3555 barrels of entire, being beer that was ten months brewed; the four inches would hold between 30 and 40 barrels more; the hoop which burst was 700 cwt, which was the least weight of any of 22 hoops on the vat. There were seven large hoops, each of which weighed near a ton. When the vat burst the force and pressure was so great that it stove several hogsheads of porter and also knocked the cock out of a vat nearly as large that was in the cellar or regions below; this vat contained 2100 barrels all of which except 800 barrel also ran; about they lost in all between 8 and 9000 barrels of beer; the vat from whence the cock was knocked out ran about a barrel a minute; the vat that burst had been built between eight and nine years and was kept always nearly full. It had an opening on the top about a yard square; it was about eight inches from the wall; witness supposes it was the rivets of the hoops that slipped, none of the hoops being broke and the foundation where the vat stood not giving way. The beer was old, so that the accident could not have been occasioned by the fermentation, that natural process being past; besides, the action would then have been upwards and thrown off the flap made moveable for that purpose.

Richard Hawes deposed that he lived at No 22 Great Russel strcet Bloomsbury, the Tavistock Arms Public house; about half past five o’ clock on Monday evening witness was in his tap room when he heard the crash; the back part of his house was beaten in and every thing in his cellar destroyed; the cellar and tap room filled with beer so that it was pouring across the street into the areas on the opposite side; the deceased, Eleanor Cooper, his servant, was in the yard washing pots at the time the accident happened; she was buried under the ruins, from whence she was dug out about 10 minutes past eight o’ clock; she was found standing by the water butt, quite dead.

John Cummins deposed that he was a bricklayer and lived in Pratt’s place, Camden Town, being the owner of some houses in New street where the principal part of the persons who were lost, resided; he attended on the spot all day on Tuesday to render assistance to the sufferers. Elizabeth Smith, a bricklayer’s wife, was the first body they found, about twelve o’clock in the ruins of a first floor. Sarah Bates, a child, was discovered in about an hour afterward in the ruins of No 3 New street. Catharine Butler, a widow, Mary Mulvey and her son Thomas Murry, a boy three years of age, were found about four o clock, on Tuesday afternoon. Hannah Banfield, a girl about four years and a half old, with her mother and another child, were at tea on the first floor; the two former were washed by the flood into the ruins; the dead body of Hannah Banfield was found in the ruins about half past six; the mother was carried to the Middlesex Hospital, and the last mentioned child was found nearly suffocated in a bed in the room.

The Jury without hesitation, returned a Verdict of Died by Casualty Accidentally and by Misfortune.

Why did they store such huge quantities of porter at the brewery in such enormous vessels? Because experience had shown that porter stored for months in vats acquired a particularly sought-after set of flavours, and storing it in really big vessels reduced the risk of oxidisation (since the surface area merely squared as the volume cubed). This “stale” (meaning “stood for some time”, rather than “off”), flat and probably quite sour aged porter was then send out in casks when ready, and mixed at the time of service in the pub with porter from a cask that was “mild”, that is, fresh and still lively, and probably a little sweet. Customers would specify the degree of mildness or staleness they would like their porter drawn, having it mixed to their own preference. Tastes changed over the 19th century, “stale” porter fell out of favour, and by the 1890s the big vats were being dismantled, the oak they were made from recycled into pub bar-tops. Quite possibly there are pubs in London now whose bars are made out of old porter vats.

The Meux (pronounced “mewks”) brewery stood at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street until the early 1920s, but production was shifted in 1921 to Nine Elms (itself now demolished and the site of New Covent Garden flower and vegetable market) and the Horse Shoe brewery was replaced by the Dominion Theatre. The Horseshoe Inn next door remained open until the 1990s or so, but eventually closed itself: you can still get a drink on the site, as a branch of Cafe Rouge now occupies the ground floor, but you can’t, alas, get a pint of porter.

At the Brewery History Society we have been trying to get a plaque put up to commemorate the event, and honour the victims, but with no success: I believe the American company that owns the Dominion Theatre failed even to reply, while the Camden Historical Society, inside whose borough the site now falls, took the strange view that “not enough people died” to make it worthwhile having a permanent memorial. How many dead women and children is enough, Camden?

The Meux brewery at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street exactly 100 years ago, in 1914

The Meux brewery at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street exactly 100 years ago, in 1914

(There’s a rather fuller account of the flood, and the history of the Horse Shoe brewery by me here.)

The 40pc leap in capacity at the Doom Bar brewery and the 2014/5 Cask Report

One of the items of news that may have shot by you recently is that Molson Coors is pumping enough money into the Cornish economy to boost capacity at Sharp’s brewery to a potential 350,000 barrels a year of Doom Bar ale, a 40% expansion. There is no guarantee it will be able to shift that amount of what is already the UK’s biggest-selling cask ale, of course. But if it did, that would mean Doom Bar had become a brand one tenth the size of Carling lager. That might not sound much, but blimey, there’s not been a cask ale brand with that kind of clout in the market for decades.

It would be fascinating to know what all those drinkers of more than a million pints of Doom Bar a week  think the beer actually is: do they believe they are drinking “craft beer”? Do they know it actually comes from one of the biggest brewers in the country?

It’s also an interesting question as to whether any other cask ale brand, even with the weight of Molson Coors behind it, could ever have contemplated looking at potential sales that recall the heyday of Draught Bass, even in an era when cask ale drinkers may be entitled to feel more optimistic than they have been able to be for almost two decades. Has Doom Bar’s popularity any connection with it coming from the village of Rock, described by the Daily Telegraph as “the Kensington of Cornwall”, populated during the summer by affluent teenagers staying at their friends’ multi-million-pound holiday homes, and surrounded by expensive Michelin-starred restaurants owned by big-name chefs? Plenty of Rock’s affluent young visitors will be drinking in the Mariners, the pub owned jointly by Sharp’s and the celebrity chef Nathan Outlaw, and Doom Bar is likely to be the tipple for many. Does that at all put a halo on the beer that helps it rise to sales levels effectively unheard of for a single cask beer brand?

Cruikshank's draymen

Draymen, by George Cruikshank. Note the chequers on the doorpost, an indicator of a public house.

Well, probably not, but it is certainly the case that you are indeed much more likely to find the young and affluent drinkers who flock to Rock to meet mates (and mate) drinking cask ale than you would have even ten years ago. As the latest Cask Report revealed, a third of all 18-34 year-olds have tried cask. And it’s not that they have tried it and walked away back to Carling or Peroni vowing “never again” – of all those who have ever tried real ale, 86% still drink it to some extent. Nor is it just young men trying out real ale. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask – and, again, 75% of women who have tried cask still drink it.

Sadly, this fact seems not to have penetrated deeply into the trade. Even among licensees who stock cask ale, two out of five think women don’t like cask ale. Male cask ale drinkers are considerably more liberated: four out of five think women DO, indeed, enjoy a handpulled pint.

I’m pulling these plums from the 2014/5 Cask Report (on which Pete Brown has done his usual terrific job) because they tend to be overlooked in the rush to plaster up the headline items, like the call to raise the price of cask ale to bring it more in line with the prices being charged for craft keg beers.

It is not, in fact, a new phenomenon that cask ale, one of the glories of Britain, at its best a sublime celebration of the marriage of malt and hops, is sold too cheaply. In the early 1970s, Carlsberg draught lager in London cost 18p a pint, while cask ale was 13p a pint or so: a 28% price differential. By 1984 the difference was less but cask ale, at 72p, was still cheaper than lager, at 81p. Today cask ale is only is around 6%, or 20p, cheaper than draught lager. But if draught lager can no longer command the massive premium it once did, “craft keg” is being sold for premiums vastly superior to anything the early Carlsberg marketeers ever dreamed of. The same drink has been spotted in the same North London “craft beer bar” for £3.50 from a cask and £5 from a keg. Not all craft keg is that expensive: the average in the UK now is £4.04 a pint, although some, particularly if it has been imported from the United States and it’s up at the top end of the abv range for a draught beer, say 9% and above, will be in excess of £7 a pint. But that is against an average price for a pint of cask ale of just £3.19.

So why did lager – and before it the original keg beer, such as Red Barrel and Double Diamond, your fathers and grandfathers rushed to buy, and after it the “craft keg” beers on offer from such highly regarded brewers as Meantime, Camden Town, BrewDog and Lovibond – command a premium? Part of it was and is image, or course. But much of it was the promise of consistency. Drinkers really will happily pay more if they know they’re not being invited to gamble their £3.19 on the possibility of a pint of cloudy vinegar – and then have to argue with bar staff who will try to tell them: “It’s real ale, it’s meant to taste like that.”

Watney's Red Barrel

Worth a premium over cask ale?

To quote from another segment of the Cask Report: “Premium bottled ale is almost twice as expensive in the off-trade as premium lager, and yet sales are growing faster, despite a wider growth of interest in budget and value brands. People are prepared to pay more for interesting, flavourful beer, and expect to do so.” Well, quite. But the point about bottled beer is that it’s almost 100% reliable. If it’s tasty and interesting as well – that’s worth paying extra for. The report declares: “The current price differential between cask ale and ‘craft keg’ beer damages both the image of the former and the sales of the latter.” But it’s hard to see how the high prices being charged for craft keg are damaging its sales: pubs and bars are pretty good at charging what the market will bear, and the market, particularly in London, seems happy to bear £4.50 and upwards a pint and more for the perceived benefits of craft keg, those benefits being (a) flavour and interest without (b) any risk of your pint being undrinkable. The problem is not that craft keg is too dear, but that cask ale is too unreliable, and what damages the image of cask ale is not its perceived cheapness but its perceived risk. Lower the risk, and pubs will be able to charge for cask ale what they are currently charging for craft keg – more, indeed, since it’s almost always, all other things being equal, a superior product.

Fortunately the trade recognises this, and the excellent work being done by Cask Marque in raising the standards of cask ale at the point of delivery is now being expanded upon with the launch of the Cask Matters website. Already, the second most looked-at item on the site is a video on looking after cask beer in the cellar from Peter Eells, head brewer at the Yorkshire brewery Timothy Taylor’s. There looks to be a mass of other help and information on the site, from offers of free online training on looking after cask ale to a CD called “A Bar Person’s Guide to Real Beer” to links to Beer Academy courses to downloadable comprehensive what-to-do lists on everything from line cleaning to glass care. As Pete Brown said at the launch of the latest Cask Report, when he brought out the first one in 2007, his job was to try to convince the industry that cask ale wasn’t dead. Today cask beer is sitting in the middle of what Brown correctly called a beer revolution, with three times the number of breweries in operation now than were operating at the Millennium. But if pubs are really going to benefit from that, they need to tackle the issue of poor quality. Hopefully, initiatives such as Cask Matters are giving them the tools they need to do that.

Unfortunately, one’s hopes are undermined in the section of the Cask Report that covers drinkers’ perceptions of how much training bar staff get in cask ale, compared to how much training licensees said they gave their staff. Edited highlight: Publicans think their staff get a lot of training in looking after and serving cask ale; drinkers don’t.

Cruickshank's barman

Barman and cusrtomer, by George Cruikshank. Did the barman receive training in serving cask ale?

Nine out of ten licensees said staff get training in what to look for in a good or bad pint. Less than half of cask ale drinkers believe this to be the case. Two thirds of licensees say staff get training in how to look after cask ale in the cellar, with half saying staff get a lot more training in cask ale than with other kinds of drinks. Again, less than half of cask ale drinkers believe this happens. Four out of ten cask ale drinkers, indeed, believe bar staff get hardly any training in cask ale, while only one in 16 licensees say training is that poor. Two thirds of licensees say staff get training in different styles of cask ale. Barely one third of cask ale drinkers believe this happens. The report says: “There are only two ways to explain the difference in perceptions of training … either publicans are deceiving us (and perhaps themselves) on how much they care for cask, or drinkers don’t realise how much care and attention goes in to presenting the perfect pint.” Actually, there’s a third, and one that seems to me to be easily the most likely – that drinkers see little evidence their side of the bar of all the training publicans say goes on, because they’re getting too many poor pints, served to them by bar staff who aren’t knowledgeable about the product. The fear has to be that landlords will persist in thinking their staff (and they) know all about cask ale and don’t need the help of Cask Maters, while the evidence from the customers’ side of the bar continues to be that they don’t.

There are plenty of other important findings in the report. For example, landlords and drinkers are still in disagreement over how often the line-up of beers on the bar-top should be changed, with drinkers much more conservative than the trade. The report repeated the findings from last year, that among all drinkers who have ever tried real ale, 56% want to see a selection that changes every month, and only 20% want a selection that changes every week, while 15% want to see the same beers on the bar all the time. Publicans, however, believe they should be rotating guest beers once a week.

The report also found that the cliched image of cask ale drinkers is commoner among licensees than among cask ale drinkers themselves: Two in five publicans actually stocking cask ale still think that most cask ale drinkers are middle-aged men with beards and sandals. Only one in five of male cask ale drinkers think that.

Drinkers and publicans also disagree about what promotional activities work for particular beers: 81% of cask ale publicans back staff recommendations, against just 58% of cask ale drinkers, while 51% of drinkers are attracted by seeing brands at local beer festivals, while only 24% of landlords think this effective, and 28% of drinkers like seeing food matching suggestions on menus, while only 10% of landlords go for this. Nobody likes beer mats: just 5% of drinkers and 9% of landlords think they are an effective promotion.

Another interesting difference in perceptions is that among cask-stocking publicans, 74% think serving beer in the right branded glasswear is “quite important” or “very important”. Only 53% of cask ale drinkers feel the same, while 47% couldn’t give a stuff. Half the number of drinkers, just one in five, think branded glasswear “very important” compared to publicans who feel the same.

On the often heated subject of the definition of “craft beer”, among both cask ale drinkers and publicans stocking cask ale, six out of ten say it means “beer from a small brewer”, and half of each thought craft beer had to be “a beer you don’t find in many places”. Only one in five of cask ale drinkers thought it meant “very hoppy, American-style ales”, against a third of cask ale-stocking landlords, and just one in 20 cask ale drinkers and one in 13 cask ale-stocking landlords thought it meant “any cask ale”. Whatever the definition, while cask ale has a 16% market share of total on-trade beer, “craft beer” in other, formats (keg, bottle, can) scores only 2%.

The report is also interesting in what it reveals about attitudes to the Campaign for Real Ale. Among cask ale drinkers, 6% said they were Camra members: all of 37% of cask ale-selling publicans carry a Camra membership card. Only 2% of cask drinkers said they didn’t like Camra, against 5% of cask ale-selling landlords. Almost half – 47% – of cask ale drinkers said that while not members, they admired what the organisation did, against 36% of cask-selling licensees who felt the same. Nearly as many cask beer drinkers, however, 45%, said they had not strong feelings one way or the other about Camra, a feeling shared with almost a quarter, 23%, of landlords. If even among cask ale drinkers, 47% are indifferent to Camra or opposed to it, you have to wonder about the organisation’s claims to be “the leading voice of beer drinkers in the UK”.

Devenish Golden AleJust finally, there is also a fascinating survey in the reoport of the range of beers brewed by members of SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, which covers around half of all the 1,500 or so brewers in the UK. Almost all – 97% –  brew a “golden ale”, although there’s no indication as to whether this is a Summer Lightning-style golden bitter, or a more West Coast American Pale Ale. Around nine out of 10 – 89% – brew a “traditional” bitter, three out of five (60%) a strong bitter or IPA (although, again, it would be useful to know how many of these are American IPAs). Less than a quarter (23%) sell a traditional mild (boo!) and only one in five (20%) a strong mild or old ale. Fewer than one in ten (9%) make a strong ale or barley wine, which surprises me, and even fewer, just one in 20 (5%) brew a stout or porter. One in five (19%) make something they call a “speciality beer”, which presumably covers a very wide category of sins. In all, SIBA members make 4,000 regular cask ales and another 5,800 seasonals and one-offs every year, which the report suggests means when non-SIBA members are added in, means almost 19,000 different cask beers every year. A ticker would have to be drinking 16 beers a day, every day, just to cover all SIBA members’ seasonals and one-offs …

This blog is (mostly) an amalgamation of two pieces that originally appeared on the Propel Info website.

It’s not your father’s beer can – but is it yours?

Considering it was (little-known fact alert) a European brewery that first produced canned beer, in 1933, in Lorraine, France (the Americans only followed two years later) we Europeans have been distinctly sniffy about beer in cans. One French website, talking about the record of the Brasserie Vezelise, “Premiere brasserie Française a mettre de la biere en boite”, adds: “Helas!”. In Britain, anyone who reckoned they knew about beer knew canned beer was, to quote the 1984 Good Beer Guide, “inferior” – tinny-tasting and cheap .

An advertisement from 1933 for canned beer

An advertisement from 1933 for canned beer

In fact canned beer did not have a universally wonderful reputation even in the United States, which invented the name “Joe Sixpack” for Mr Average. When the first canned craft beer appeared there – just 12 years ago, in 2002 – it shook up considerable controversy. Even in 2005, there were not much more than a dozen US craft breweries who had followed Oskar Blues, the Colorado brewer that pioneered craft beer in cans, onto the canning line. By 2012, however, that number had grown to more than 200 brewers making canned craft beer. Today, according to the Cantastic database, the figure is 413 breweries, canning 1,484 different craft beers in 94 styles across 49 states and Washington DC (the one non-craft beer canning state is West Virginia).

But is it any bloody good? I first had canned craft beer in Hong Kong, where several small Japanese craft brewers, such as Yo-Ho, have their beers on sale in cans in classier supermarkets, and where semi-pro American beer importers bring in West Coast craft beer in cans, and lo, ’twas frequently very tasty. Indeed, Yo-Ho’s Yona Yona pale ale became one of my favourite fridge beers. Back in the UK, though, I’ve returned pretty much 100 per cent to bottles for my home beer consumption, simply because the places I buy beer from pretty much solidly don’t sell craft in cans: there still are very few craft beer brewers in Britain canning their beers. But if there were canned beers as good as some of the canned beers I tasted in HK easily available, then I’d be happy to buy them.

Canned beer from Barclay Perkins in 1940

Canned beer from Barclay Perkins in 1940

I was delighted, thus, to get an invitation to last week’s Indie Beer Can Festival, which was set up by the Can Makers, the trade body for British beverage can makers. It was a well-thought-out competition: brewers did not have to be canning their beer already to enter. Out of the initial entrants – and some 70 brewers put themselves forward – 12 were to be picked, and any of the 12 who were not already canning would be given a “limited edition” canning run. They would all go into a blind tasting, and three winners chosen.

All the finalists were available in can for sampling on the day, and I went round with cup, pen and notebook making my own judgment – which one of the entrants’ canned beers would I most like to take on a picnic? The “Breakfast Stout” from Arbor Ales, was tarry, sweet, smooth and warming, but at 7.4%, too strong for a picnic – too strong for breakfast, probably. Longhorn IPA, normally a craft keg beer, from Purity Brewing, 5% abv, had an initial fullness not matched, unfortunately, by the follow-through, and felt comparatively slight against many of the other beers there. Springhead‘s Roaring Meg was light for a 5.5% beer, with honey and grain: a picnic possible. There were two beers from established family brewers in the final, each of which was already being canned: Thwaites’s 13 Guns delivered a lovely mango nose, but frothed up badly in the glass (or plastic cup, rather) which lost it picnic points, while Adnam’s Ghost Ship was a solid, down-the-middle pale ale, but failed to bowl me out.

The one Irish entrant, Blacks of Kinsale‘s Kinsale Pale Ale, was restrained for an American Pale Ale, with biscuit malt more apparent than the tropical notes in the mouth, though there was a good long lingering bitter aftertaste, and I thought this was going to be the picnic test winner. Then I tried Concrete Cow‘s Dirty Cow. Did anything good ever come out of Milton Keynes apart from the A5 to London? Yes, this, a lovely 5% abv mix of American pale ale and wheat beer, a little sour, tangy, with hints of fruitbowl, refreshing when cool, but – and this is the clincher for a picnic beer – with a collection of flavours that suggest it will still taste good when it’s warmed up over an English summer afternoon. Give the picnic prize to the Cow.SONY DSC

You’ll not, I’m guessing, be surprised to hear that the official judges didn’t agree with me at all. The gold medal went to Adnams’ Ghost Ship, the silver to Thwaites’s 13 Guns, the two experienced canners taking the top prizes, while the bronze was snatched by Arbor with its Breakfast Stout.

Still, it confirmed that craft beer does indeed belong in cans. And cans, as the Can Makers will declare, do have advantages over bottles: the beer inside a can is far less likely to be affected by beer’s big enemies, oxygen and light, which ruin far too many bottled brews, while cans are also lighter than glass – ten or eleven times lighter, in fact – and cool down faster in the fridge. So are we likely to see more British craft brewers speedily follow BrewDog (who began canning in 2011), Beavertown, Camden and Fourpure of Bermondsey?

Well, not if Rob Lovatt, brewmaster at Thornbridge, is correct. In a blogpost this week that is essential reading, Rob points out that the sort of small canning line that is all most craft brewers in the UK are likely to be able to afford is not going to be able to guarantee the benefits that canning beer is supposed to bring:

Although the can format is being sold as the best way to eliminate oxygen from the beer after packaging, it is during the packaging process itself that the greatest danger lies. I am unconvinced that the canners towards the lower end of the market are capable of sealing the can without potentially picking up detrimental levels of dissolved oxygen.
It would seem that it is possible to produce good beer on a budget canner, but personally I’m not convinced. Although I am sure we could achieve extra sales and the exposure would be great having beer in can, I feel that on the flip side of the coin, customers drinking oxidised beer from a can would do no favours for our reputation.

So there we are. Today’s craft brewery canned beer is not your father’s canned beer, but it’s not necessarily the answer to a beer drinker’s prayers.

An advertisement from 1958 for canned beer

An advertisement from 1958 for canned beer

Don’t tell London’s second-oldest brewery it’s London’s second-oldest brewery

If you point out to the chaps at Meantime Brewing Company that theirs is now the second-oldest independent brewery operation in London, they won’t be thanking you. Venerability is not something that appeals to Meantime’s core demographic of 25 to 40-year-olds. But it’s a fact that of the ten or so other breweries in the capital when the company’s founder, Alastair Hook, first fired up his brewing kettle on the outskirts of Greenwich in 2000, only the positively antiquarian Fuller, Smith and Turner further up the Thames at Chiswick is still going.

Meantime copper boilingOf course, in the past four or five years, London has seen an explosion in new small breweries, fuelled by the enthusiasm among just those 25 to 40-year-olds that Meantime attracts for beers of a type rather different than those an older generation seeks out: brewery conditioned, not cask conditioned, and not “boring brown” bitters, but crisp lagers and aromatic American-style pale ales, cloudy wheat beers and chocolate-flavoured porters.

It’s not just the second-oldest, but the second-biggest, too, with production this year likely to top 70,000 hectolitres: a long way behind the 342,000 hectolitres Fuller’s produced in the previous 12 months, but still probably more than the next eight or ten small London brewers put together, and certainly as much or more as a number of long-established family brewers.

And yet the man in charge of this young giant among the minnows comes from a background where even Fuller’s output would be thought of as not very much at all. In 2011, Meantime appointed Nick Miller, then managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, as its new chief executive. Miller was the first sales and marketing heavyweight ever to join a UK craft brewer. He had 20 years of experience in sales, strategic projects and marketing with Coors UK (formerly Bass), where he was director of sales, before he joined Miller Brands as sales director in 2005. His new employer boasted then that Miller had “a history of consistently delivering improved customer relations, sales and profit”, and he rose to be MD at Miller Brands in 2008. Under Miller, sales of Peroni, SAB’s Italian lager, rose in the UK from 160,000 hectolitres a year to 850,000 hectolitres (today, for what it’s worth, the brand is probably selling more than a million hectolitres in the UK). In other words, Miller boosted yearly sales of Peroni in the UK by as much as Meantime would currently produce in a decade.

Inside Meantime's new brewery in Greenwich

Inside Meantime’s new brewery in Greenwich

Sitting in the garden of Meantime’s one “proper” pub, the Greenwich Union (opened in 2001), on a sunny summer evening with a pint of the brewery’s own lager in front of me, I put it to Miller that had he stayed with SAB, he would most likely have continued on the sort of stratosphere-soaring corporate career currently being enjoyed by a former colleague, Mark Hunter, who started with Bass in the 1980s, just like Miller did, rose to be head of Molson Coors UK and then chief executive of Molson Coors Europe, and who was named at the end of July as the new chief executive and president of Molson Coors Brewing Company in the United States. So, having already risen high, and with that sort of potential career ladder in front of him, what persuaded him to make the swing away from the mega-brewery world to be in charge of an operation that makes less beer in a year than SAB Miller probably spills down the drain by accident?

“It’s a long and convoluted story how Meantime came about,” Miller replies after a sip at his own pint, “but it was one of those, ‘well, do I go abroad and do the big plc thing or do I take my chances and take a share in the business, see if we can grab hold of the craft beer revolution, shake it up, and change the way people think about beer, take a small business and turn it around?’ It’s been a great experience. I’ve always been in love with beer and the beer industry, and Meantime was one of those opportunities you would not want to miss. It took a lot of thinking about, because obviously it was a very lucrative job where I was – pensions, share schemes – it was a massive gamble. But it’s one, hopefully, that’s paying off, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s great grabbing hold of a business and working with someone like Alastair to create something different, and something exciting for beer drinkers.”

Miller (who, rather ironically, currently lives in one half of a former Shepherd Neame pub in Greenwich) actually began his working career as a shoe shop manager, before moving into the beer business. “I was born and brought up seven miles north of Burton on Trent, and weaned on things like Bass and Pedigree, and I had an interest in beer. But there was no real planning in terms of a career. I ended up, via a contact, being afforded an opportunity to work for Charrington’s in London in 1986, at the former Anchor brewery [the Mile End one, rather than either of the two by the Thames – MC]. The beer industry in 1986 was completely different to the way it is now, the Big Six brewers controlled the market place, it was still vertically integrated, the orders would come in from the pubs, which is where they made all their money, and brewing was, essentially, the poor man of the enterprises that were operating at that time.

Whisky casks at Meantime brewery

Wait for it … whisky casks from the St George’s distillery in Norfolk, filled with Meantime beer and slumbering beneath the brewery’s vessels in Greenwich

“I started at the bottom in sales and worked up to become a sales manager, then did the tactical, vertically integrated brewer route – retailing, ops, marketing. I did 16 years with Bass, which was bought by Coors, I was sales director for Bass looking after the on-trade, then in 2005 I had the opportunity to go and be sales and marketing director at SAB Miller, when we set up Miller Brands, and then two and a half years after that I became the MD of Miller Brands.”

The effects of the Beer Orders in 1989 “sharpened people up to making big brands bigger, to get efficiencies and overhead recovery out of having big brands, through long runs in breweries, but they probably then somewhat neglected consumer choice, variety, style: I don’t think it did the beer industry, the beer genre much good,” Miller says. “And it had a lot more competition coming in for disposable income – mobile phones, and the rest.

“When I started in the industry the off-trade was about 20% of the market place, and the market place was well over the 70 million hectolitre mark. We’ve seen an accelerated decline down to around, what, 45 million hectolitres, roughly. Why is that? The industry hasn’t engaged consumers, hasn’t engaged drinkers, hasn’t talked about the possibilities in matching with food, drinking on different occasions, styles of beer relative to different times of the day. I think that’s what Meantime tries to do – it tries to celebrate all styles of beer.

At Meantime, Miller says, “My job is to try to keep things contained, in a commercial sense. But the day you stamp on innovation is the day you start ringing the death-bell. Yes, there’s a hierarchy, but we rarely have to use hierarchical tactics in Meantime because the culture’s right with the people within it. Blending good financial systems and standards, backed by great creativity and not being frightened to fail, is absolutely crucial if you want to be a pioneering company. We will screw things up, but hopefully we get eight or nine decisions out of ten right. You have to accept that sometimes a test brew isn’t that good. Fair play. I run this company, but the one thing I will never attempt to run is the quality of the beer. I’ve got someone [Alastair Hook] who’s a million times better at judging the quality of the beer than me. Therefore you trust him to do that. I’m a marketeer. I can do the strategic framework and what I want to see delivered, but I let Alastair loose to do the work.”

The company’s board consists of two executive directors, Miller and Hook, and three non-execs, including the chairman, the South African former brewery industry exec Gary Whitlie, who was recommended to the post by Miller – “he was my first boss at Miller Brands, so if you’ve had a half-decent boss, you might as well pick him again,” Miller jokes, since Whitlie has just joined us in the Greenwich Union garden. “Best boss he ever had,” Whitlie retorts.

Meantime hop garden Greenwich

Meantime’s hop garden, in sight of the O2 arena on the Greenwich Peninsula

Miller’s contacts mean he knows where to go to get advice: hence the arrival at Meantime in July of Martin Harlow as a consultant. “We are in an absolute growth spurt, and we need to become a bit more processed and efficient in how we run our supply chain,” Miller says. “Martin was our supply chain director at Miller Brands, I needed someone, so why not go to someone you’ve worked with for five years.”

His experience outside the UK while working for Miller Brands also means he can suggest ideas that others might not think of. Brewery Fresh, which delivers unpasteurised, unfiltered London Lager from special five-hectolitre tanks in the pub cellar, was Miller’s initiative, inspired by the similar “tankova” system he had seen in Prague while working for SAB. “The outlet will pay for the installation, and we’ll pay for the tanks,” Miller says. “We then sign an agreement that they must hold those tanks for a certain period of time. The cost differential between tank and keg is reflected in the price, though there’s not a lot of difference. But the beer’s been kept at a constant temperature, with no air and no light – it’s probably the purest, freshest beer you’ll ever drink in a bar. It’s had less chance to be affected because it stays at a constant 2C from the brewery to the tank. It sells about twice as much as you would do through a keg – at a price premium. So the retailer enjoys better cash margins. We’re here to provide styles, variety, choice for the drinker, but at the same time you mustn’t forget the middle man, the guy that’s actually putting it in front of the drinker. They’re investing heavily in providing an experience for the drinker, we have to supply something that’s relevant for them.”

Meantime brewed 43 different beers last year, and had brewed 14 new beers by the end of July this year, and 19 in all. The biggest is the pale ale, followed by London Lager, pilsner and Yakima Red, a “one-off” two years ago that proved so popular it became one of the brewery’s standard lines. “We’re always doing lots of NPD down at the Old Brewery [the microbrewery/bar/restaurant at the Old Naval College in Greenwich],” Miller says. “We’ll play with lots of different things. But we are firmly keg. There’s too many others playing in the cask arena. Let them get on with it. We’ll do things with modern keg beer, which is unpasteurised, unfiltered on some occasions, such as Brewery Fresh. We celebrate all styles and genres – but we are a commercial enterprise, you brew what the drinker wants to drink.”

Meantime timeline

1983 Teenager Alastair Hook, a great fan of the cask ales he drank around his home in South London, visits the Hopland Brewery in Mendocino, California, only the second brewpub to be set up in the United States, and is hugely impressed with the flavours he finds in the brewery’s chilled, kegged beers.

1985 Hook, who back-packed across Europe and Asia with Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer at the age of 17, realises he has a growing passion for beer and quits his Economic and Social History degree at York University (where he was doing a research project on Guinness) to take up a brewing degree at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

1988 Hook graduates from Heriot-Watt, learns German and enrols at the University of Munich’s Weihenstephan campus, the most famous brewing school in Germany, for postgraduate study. His first job upon graduating is for a German brewery, Kaltenberg, in Italy.

1991 Hook is asked to set up a German-style brewhouse at the Packhorse Brewery in Ashford, Kent, brewing Continental-style beers including Dunkle (dark) lager, Vienna and Pilsen-style lagers and Dortmunder Alt. The brewery closes in 1994, and Hook turns to importing beers to sell in the UK to make a living, using his contacts in Germany.

1995 Hook helps set up the Freedom Brewing Co in Fulham with property developer Ewan Eastham, making a non-pasteurised, bottled Pilsen-style beer.

1996 Hook is poached by the restaurateur-cum-entrepreneur Oliver Peyton to open Mash and Air, a brewery-and-restaurant in Manchester.

1998 Hook and Peyton open a branch of Mash and Air off Regent Street in Central London called simply Mash.

1999 Hook raises more than £500,000 from family and friends to launch the Meantime Brewing Company on Penhall Road, Charlton, South London, close to Charlton Athletic football club, where Hook is a season ticket holder.

2000 In April, Meantime brews its first beer, Union Lager.

2001 Meantime opens its first pub, the Greenwich Union.

2007 Output at Meantime hits 13,000 hectolitres a year. A further £500,000 has been raised from shareholders to install a modern packaging line.

2008
Hook is named the Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers.

2010 Meantime opens its new brewery in Blackwall Lane, Greenwich at a cost of £2m. At the same time it opens a six-barrel microbrewery and restaurant at the Old Brewery in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, costing £200,000.

2011 Meantime announces it wants to increase production fourfold from 25,000 hectolitres a year to 100,000hl in the coming five years. Nick Miller, former managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, becomes the brewery’s new chief executive.

2013 Meantime launches Brewery Fresh, the UK’s first tank beer, delivering its London Lager unpasteurised and without extraneous carbonation from specially installed five-hectolitre (880-pint) cellar tanks.

2014
Meantime builds an “urban hop farm” on the banks of the River Thames directly on the Greenwich Meridian Line. Meanwhile the brewery closes in on 70,000 hectolitres a year.

Why the Micropub Association should be furious with Camra

The Micropub Association should be absolutely raging with the Campaign for Real Ale. Because under the misguided idea that it is “saving” the British pub, Camra is trying hard to make sure no new pubs ever get opened again.

Once again this is a case of not properly thinking through the implications of a proposed policy. What Camra wants to do is to try to make it much more difficult to close pubs (more on why that’s a stupid idea later). So why will making it more difficult to close pubs also make it much more difficult to open new pubs, in the way that the Micropub Association has been doing so successfully over the past few years, at a rate currently running at two a month (a better new pub opening record, afaik, than any pub company is currently achieving.)

The problem is that the restrictions Camra wants to put in the way of anyone trying to shut a pub means that landlords will be extremely reluctant to let their property be turned into a new pub. And similarly banks, building societies and other lenders will be deeply unwilling to give anyone a mortgage to buy a property they want to turn into a pub. Why? Because if the new pub business goes nipple-skywards after a year or three, the landlord now has a property that, under Camra’s proposed rules, needs planning permission to be turned back into something other than a pub. So instead of speedily being able to find another tenant, the landlord now has to go through the expensive and time-wasting procedure of getting the building “depubbed” again before it can once more become a coffee shop, an opticians or whatever. Similarly the potential mortgage lender is not going to want to risk having to repossess the building that housed a failed new pub business, and, again, having to find the staff, time and money to put in a planning application (do you know how long it takes to get a planning application through?) for change of use so they can then flog the place to a non-pub user. So – finance for people wanting to open new pubs is going to dry right up, because Camra has a dumb idea it thinks will help pubs stay open.

Indeed, the first move should anything like Camra’s “planning permission to close pubs” idea approach the statute books will be a rash of pub closures, as pub owners shut their marginal pubs before they have to seek local councillors’ permission to do so. But even if such a law did come in, does anyone seriously believe it would prevent a single pub from closing? Of course it wouldn’t. And trying to preserve failing pubs in aspic is a remarkably dumb idea anyway, because the ultimate effect is to damage successful pubs by depriving them of business they deserve.

The whole idea that pubs need special protection is nonsense, anyway, as I have frequently argued. Pubs are not sacred. The rights of pubgoers do not trump the rights of property owners. The disappearance of any pub is not the same as, eg, the disappearance of a Saxon church. Pubs are, and have always been, “churned” all the time: one closes, another one opens. (It may surprise you to learn that JD Wetherspoon has closed more than 100 of the pubs it has opened over the years). If a pub is making less money for its owner than it would under another use, the owner must have the right to maximise their income. If a pub closes, and a community feels it needs a pub, let someone open a new pub, in a more viable site with fewer overheads. Except that if Camra has its way, opening that new pub will be much more difficult.

Camra can’t even get its own arguments straight. It complains about pubs being turned into shops and then declares that “69% of all adults believe that a well-run community pub is as important to community life as a post office, local shop or community centre.” So – shops are important, too! Indeed, the reason why so many pubs are being turned into shops is because to many communities, local shops are MORE important than pubs, in the sense that more people use their local shop and spend more money in it, than use their local pub. I would guarantee you that any pub turned into a Tesco now has a wider selection of the community crossing its threshold, more frequently, than ever happened when it was the Duck and Dive, or whatever. Most pubs have a remarkably low number of real regulars, and the importance to the community that Camra ascribes to them in the 21st century is a product of sepia-tinted nostalgia for the times before the last old maid bicycled to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning (G. Orwell).

If there is one single thing that would increase the chance of survival of the British pub – and I won’t yield to you, Camra or anyone in my desire to see our pubs strong and thriving – it would be a dramatic improvement in the standard of cask beer served in those pubs. Cask beer is (or should be) the unique selling point of our pubs, and Camra would do a far better job thinking up ways to improve the quality of our pints than inventing stupid tweaks to planning laws that won’t work, and will actually have a seriously detrimental effect on the efforts of people like the Micropubs Association trying to open pubs of just the sort Camra members approve.

Second thoughts on the mysterious origins of AK

There are times when the honest historian has to put his hand up and say: forgive me, for I was wrong. Prompted by a sharp dig from Ron Pattinson, I’ve finally withdrawn a piece I wrote six years ago about the origins of the beer designation AK, in part because research by Ron has made my stance untenable. I suggested that the K in AK came from koyt, the name of a hopped beer found in the Low Countries and Northern Germany in the 15th century and later, and the A was from ankel, the word in Old Flemish for “single”. “Single koyt” certainly existed, and was the name of a lower-strength beer, the stronger version being called “double koyt”. But there’s no actual evidence at all to link “single koyt” with AK, which was a very popular designation for a comparatively light-gravity, lightly hopped (or at least not heavily hopped) pale bitter beer in Victorian England, and which is still around as a (now rare) beer name today. Good historians don’t make evidence-free suggestions.

McMullen's AK posterThere is certainly evidence AK was once a popular name for a beer. In the very early 1970s, you would still have found several beers called AK. Fremlin’s of Faversham, then owned by Whitbread, made one. So did another Whitbread-owned former independent, Strong’s of Romsey, in Hampshire. In Hertfordshire two brewers, McMullen’s of Hertford and Rayment’s of Furneux Pelham, also made beers called AK. These, and the Fremlin’s and Strong’s AKs were sold as light milds. In the Courage empire, the ex-Hole’s brewery at Newark in Nottinghamshire brewed an AK bitter, while the group’s Bristol brewery sold an AK that was a primed version of its George’s bitter, made for customers of the former Phillips brewery in Newport, Monmouthshire, which had closed in 1968. Just before it closed in 1985, Simpkiss of Brierley Hill in the West Midlands started brewing an AK light bitter.

At least three brewers also sold beers called KK: Greene King, which brewed a light mild under that name at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade; Ind Coope, which made KK light mild at its Romford brewery; and Hardys and Hansons of Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, which sold a keg beer called KK.

What all these beers had in common was that they were light, in both colour and gravity, and also lightly hopped. Today only McMullen’s AK survives, and though it has risen in gravity since the early 1970s, from 1033 to 1035, and is now described as a “bitter”, it is still comparatively light and lightly hopped (with WGV, Whitbread Goldings Variety).

However, if you look at Victorian brewers’ advertisements, it becomes clear that AK, was a very widespread name for a beer. More than a dozen other brewers in Hertfordshire besides McMullen’s and Rayment’s once made an AK. A single edition of the Richmond and Twickenham Times, dated July 8 1893, carries advertisements from five different brewers in south and west London, four of whom offered a beer called AK or KK.

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

The noticeable point about these advertisements is that they (almost) all give AK the same price, one shilling a gallon, implying a strength of around 1045-1055 OG. The descriptions of AK are pretty consistent as well: “light bitter ale”, “light sparkling ale”, “family bitter ale”, “light pale ale” and so on. One of the few brewers not to sell AK for one and a half pence wholesale was actually the earliest I’ve found, the Stafford Brewery, which was selling AK Ale, “a delicate bitter ale”, in 1855 at 14 pence a gallon. But, again, the beer was clearly not heavy, albeit bitter. The idea of AK as a low-strength pale ale is confirmed by the few written references to the beer. Professor Charles Graham in his talk to the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881 gave the original gravity of AK as 1045, with an alcohol-by-weight percentage of 4.3, very much as the bottom end of the Victorian beer strength league. The Burton brewer James Herbert said of AK ale in his book The Art of Brewing, published in 1871:

This class of ale has come very much into use, mostly for private families, it being a light tonic ale, and sent out by most brewers at one shilling per gallon. The gravity of this Ale is usually brewed at 20lbs [that is, 1056 OG]

Crowley’s brewery in Croydon High Street in 1900 described its AK in one of its advertisements as “a Bitter Ale of sound quality with a delicate Hop flavour”. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard in 1889 gave almost identical tasting notes to Crowley’s on the “AK shilling ale” brewed by WJ Rogers at the Jacob Street brewery in Bristol: “most pleasant to the palate … a bright sparkling beverage of a rich golden colour and possesses a nice delicate hop flavour.” (Rogers actually used the letters AK as its company trademark.) When he visited Thompson & Son’s brewery in Walmer, Kent, Barnard wrote: ” We were much pleased with the AK light bitter – a delicious drink, clean to the palate and well flavoured with the hop.” The brewing books of Garne & Sons of Burford, Oxfordshire in 1912 show AK being brewed at an OG of 1040 and with a colour of 14, a reddish-brown hue. ( PA for comparison, was brewed to an OG of 1056 and with a colour of 18, a darker medium brown.)

So where did the name AK come from? In the First World War, drinkers joked that AK stood for Asquith’s Knockout. Herbert Asquith was Prime Minister in 1914 when the tax on the standard barrel of beer took off like a Fokker eindekker, from seven shillings and ninepence to 23 shillings, in order to help pay for fighting the Kaiser. Weaker beers paid less tax, of course, and AK was always weaker than standard bitters, leaving it a more affordable “knockout” than regular beers. (“Squiffy” Asquith was also notorious for being fond of his drink.) Unfortunately, AK as a name for a type of beer is found at least as long ago as 1855, when Asquith was only three years old. Another suggestion is that AK was invented by a Victorian brewer called Arthur King, and took his initials, a tale found at both Hole’s of Newark and Courage in Bristol. The problem with this story is that no such brewer has ever been traced – Arthur King seems to be as mythical as King Arthur – and it fails to cover AK’s sister beer, KK. As Roger Protz once said, who invented that one – King Kong?

Rayment’s claimed AK meant Ale for Keeping. Certainly, Ron Pattinson’s research has pretty much proved that, as far as London brewers were concerned, a beer with “K” in its name, or at least multiple Ks, was a well-hopped keeping or stock beer. To quote from his blog:

In the middle of the 19th century, Barclay Perkins brewed two sets of Ales: X Ales that were sold mild and K Ales that were sold matured. X, XX, XXX and XXXX. Then KK, KKK, KKKK. The equivalent beers (XX and KK, XXX and KKK) were exactly the same gravity, but the K Ales had about 50% more hops.

A couple more examples: Mann, Crossman and Paulin in the East End of London brewed a KKKK ale, and Alfred Barnard drank some in 1888: “Two years old, of a rich brown colour and with a Madeira odour, a good generous drink for those who can stand a full-bodied beer.” Barnard also revealed that Mann’s brewed a London stock ale they called KKK. Taylor Walker of Limehouse, East London brewed “KKK Burton”, which again would have been a strong stock ale. Outside London, Adey and White of St Albans made KKK stock ale and the Tadcaster Tower Brewery in Yorkshire sold KKK “Old Tom”, both costing 15s a firkin, meaning they must have been around 1090 OG.

 

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that's K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that’s K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

However, the problem is that AK and KK, and the rather rarer K, are always described as light bitters, which would not, surely, have been keeping ales. Yes, Mann’s brewed KKKK and KKK stock ales, but a Mann’s advert from 1898 also shows KK medium bitter ale at 10s 6d a firkin, about 1055 OG, and K light bitter ale at 9s 6d a firkin, about 1045 OG, as well as AKK Family Pale Ale at 1s 2d a gallon, around 1055 OG again, and AK Dinner Ale at, yes, 1s a gallon.

So: the K in KKK, and KKKK, and XXXK, and the other strong beers with K in their name, stands for “keeping” – there can be little doubt about that. But the K in AK and KK? K-for-keeping doesn’t seem to apply here, because they weren’t keeping beers. And what about the K Mild, ten pence a gallon, sold by Lucas, Ledbetter and Bird of High Wycombe in 1894, and the K Mild Ale sold by the Heavitree Brewery of Exeter in 1895 for 1s 2d a gallon? Or the K Light Ale Collier Brothers of Walthamstow were selling for ten pence a gallon in 1890, and the K Tonic Ale A Gordon & Go of Caledonian Road, Islington sold for the same sum in 1889? Cleary K doesn’t stand for “keeping” here. Again in 1889, Lewis & Ridley of Leamington seemed to be using “K” as equal to half an X, with XXXK mild ale following XXXX strong ale, then XXX mild ale, XXK mild ale, XX mild and and X mild ale. Again, these were milds, not keeping beers. Henry Lovibond & Son of the Cannon brewery, Lillie Road, Fulham actually called its shilling-a-gallon AK “mild bitter” in 1885.

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

There is evidence that the K designation was more common in the south than elsewhere in England. Rose’s brewery of Malton, Yorkshire produced an AK, and the Tadcaster Tower brewery had a range that included four K beers. Robinson’s of Stockport sold AK Ale at the beginning of the 20th century. But few other brewers north of Newark, in the East Midlands, seem to have used Ks. In 1898 the Brewers’ Journal said the X mark was “almost universal in provincial towns, the alternative K being equally common in the London district”. But this does not help us much in finding out the origins of AK.

At least the process by which the K beers that survived to near the end of the 20th century became known as milds, when the style started out as a type of bitter ale, is easy to explain. Mild by the 1930s means to drinkers a low-gravity, low-hops, cheaper beer. In the Great Gravity Drop during and after the First World War, AKs fell to around 1030-1033 OG, and cost (in the 1930s) five (old) pence a pint, the same as best mild and less than “standard” bitter. Taylor Walker, the East London brewer, actually advertised its verson as “5d AK” probably because it sold cheaper than London dark mild, at six pence a pint. Being low-gravity, cheap and light on the hops, these AKs and KKs fell within the “modern” definition of milds.  Fordham’s of Ashwell, North Hertfordshire in 1934 sold XX mild and AX bitter at four pence a pint, XXX mild and AK bitter at five pence a pint, stout at six pence, PA bitter and XXXX at seven pence, IPA at eight pence and OO old ale at one shilling. The OG of Fordham’s AK was by now around 1030.

McMullen's AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

McMullen’s AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

All those other AKs eventually vanished with the brewerrs that made them, leaviong only McMullen’s. At one stage, McMullen was describing AK on pump clips as a “mild bitter”, though the beer was sold in polypins in the 1980s as “Trad bitter”. The company dropped the description “mild” for AK only in the early 1990s.

So, although we can still drink AK, since there is no evidence to support the koyt derivation, and little support for the idea that the K in low-gravity, lightly hopped AK could have meant “keeping” the way it does in KKKK and KKK, I’m afraid we still haeeve to solve the mystery of where the K – and indeed the A – in AK come from.

Update: Bailey of Boak and Bailey has been doing some excellent searching through old digitised newspapers and pushed back the earliest mention of AK to 1846, in an advertisement from the Chelmsford Chronicle of October 23 1846 that lists Ind Coope AK. A slightly later ad, from the Ipswich Journal of June 15 1850, lists under “Romford Ales” (Ind Coope again, almost certainly) “AK, a light bitter ale” at 19 shillings for 18 gallons, as well as XK bitter ale and XXK “Ale” at 24 shillings and 31 shillings a kilderkin respectively: only the XXK looks like a “proper” stock ale, at perhaps 1080 to 1090 OG. An even more interesting ad from the same paper three years later, June 18 1853, refers to “The Romford A.K. or Light Bitter Beer, so much in request for Summer beverage”, which can be supplied for one shilling a gallon.

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846