Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

Imperial stout blurredIs Fuller’s Imperial Stout the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months? It didn’t stir a lot of enthusiasm when it appeared last autumn: much muttering about the beer being too sweet, very little character, “a bit anonymous”, not drinking to its 10.7 per cent abv, not worth its £7-plus a bottle, not worth buying again. An air of disappointment settled down around it, a feeling that an Imperial Stout from the Griffin brewery, with its reputation for terrific tasty brews, really ought to have been much more of a sock-fryer than this beer was.

Fair? I tried the Imperial Stout myself when it first came out in September (IIRC it was a free bottle actually given to me by John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer) and yes, it was over-sweet and shallow. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though: this was a strong, dark, bottle-conditioned beer that had only been brewed four months earlier, and was barely out of the maturing tanks. To expect it to be anything other than one-dimensional at that age was like expecting a still-sopping newborn to show the depth and maturity of a 40-year-old. There was no reason to think this beer would not improve considerably as it aged, and the yeasts in the bottle munched away at those heavier sugars that were currently making it taste so sweet. So, feeling flush just before Christmas, I invested in a case, to see if this ugly duckling would turn into a black swan.

My feelings had been strengthened when John Keeling himself tweeted in November about the Imperial Stout: “Hang on to it – it will be better in 6 months”. That’s this coming May, at which stage it will be a year old. But how’s it tasting now? Already a lot better than it was in September, is my opinion. It’s still sweet, but there’s a complexity starting to appear, with thoughts of liquorice toffee, golden syrup and plain chocolate digestive biscuits. (Rose buds? If you say so.) There is still little hint that you are drinking a 10.7 per cent abv brew, but it’s a very smooth sipping beer with a full, slightly peppery mouthfeel. It’s also a beer that needs to breathe a bit, at least at this stage of its ageing: the complexity becomes more apparent the longer the beer is in your glass. It’s also still clearly, to me, a beer that will happily benefit from yet more time being left alone in a darkened room.

If you have a bottle of Fuller’s Imperial Stout, my advice is not to open it until at least the end of May – and I don’t think it will do you or the beer any harm to wait until November. If you have two bottles, try one this April or May and the other next April or May. If you’ve been put off buying it by the bad reviews in some places, I’ll tell you what: buy two bottles, drink one in May, if you don’t like it, I’ll buy the other one off you.

The big problem has been, I think, that we’re not used to beers that don’t deliver their best as soon as we buy them. We understand ageing in other foods: cheese, for example, or meat. I know a restaurant in Hong Kong, the Blue Butcher in Hollywood Road, Central, that has a glass-walled meat store lined with Himalayan pink salt bricks, visible from the tables, where you can ask for your own personal virgin female Japanese wagyu beef steak to be dry-aged for an extra six weeks until it and you are ready. But we’re not yet up to walking into a bar and saying: “I’d like an Imperial Stout, please, aged for another nine months: I’ll be back in December to drink it.” Instead, brewers have been mostly ageing their beers that require ageing for us – Fuller’s keeps some of its Brewer’s Reserve series literally for years before releasing them on to the market when they’re ready. With Imperial Stout it didn’t, to the confusion of many.

Another problem, for some, is the price: £7 a bottle on the Fuller’s website right now. That’s the same as three bottles of Chiswick bitter. But it’s no coincidence that a bottle of 10.7% abv Imperial Stout contains the equivalent amount of alcohol as those three bottles of 3.5% abv Chiswick: you’re getting just the same alcoholic bang per penny whichever you buy. Which gives you more pleasure, only you can reveal.

More great lost Guinness art: new evidence for the genius of Gilroy

If we didn’t already know John Gilroy, creator of so much iconic beer advertising, was a genius, then the latest images to surface from the mysterious “lost” art archive of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson would surely convince us: marvellous pastiches of other iconic works of art, sadly unseen for the past 60 or so years.

I’ve already talked here about the mysterious stash of 800 or more pieces of Gilroy advertising artwork that disappeared, existence unknown to Guinness experts, on the sale of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson in 1971, and how items from the collection began to turn up for sale on the American market from 2008 onwards. These are oil paintings, done by Gilroy to be shown to Guinness for approval: if approved, a final painting would then be made which the printers would use to make the posters. Now they are being sold by a couple of art dealers in the United States on behalf of their anonymous possessor for tens of thousands of dollars each. It has been estimated that the 350 or so paintings sold so far have gone for a total of between $1 million and $2 million.

Van Gogh by John Gilrou

‘I’d give my right ear for a pint of stout’

Much of the stuff that has been turning up was never actually used in advertising campaigns, for various reasons. There was a series of posters featuring Nazi imagery, for example, commissioned from Gilroy because Guinness was thinking of exporting to Germany in 1936.

This week, David Hughes, who has written an excellent just-published book, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, about Gilroy that includes some 120 reproductions of artwork from the “lost” stash, gave a talk at the St Bride’s Institute in London on Gilroy and Guinness. During the talk he revealed that he had recently been shown something new from the Benson collection, too late to include in his book – a series of 21 takes by Gilroy on “Old Master” paintings, copies with a Guinness twist  of works by painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Michaelangelo, that had been commissioned in 1952 with the intention that they would hang in the Guinness brewery at Park Royal in London. They were never used, however, and instead ended up hidden in the SH Benson archive, vanished from (almost all) human ken.

Picasso by Gilroy

From Picasso’s ‘Brown (stout)’ period …

Now the paintings are on sale as part of the general disposal of the Benson Gilroy collection, they are being swiftly grabbed by eager collectors with thick wallets: the “Michaelangelo” went for $20,000. I would love to own the “Van Gogh” – somehow Gilroy has captured the essence of the mad Dutchman’s art even as he subverted it with a bottle of Guinness on the chest and a pint of stout on the chair – a humorous homage, done, I am sure, with love and affection. Note Gilroy’s signatures on that and the “Picasso” – cheeky takes on the originals.

A few others are in the “great but not fantastic” category, but the “Toulouse-Lautrec” really does look as if little Henri himself had been commissioned to design an ad for la fée noire. I haven’t seen any of the other 21 apart from those here, but they would have made a superb series of advertising posters, and would be as much loved now, I am sure, as Gilroy’s toucans, sea lions and men with girders. It’s a huge pity they never went into proper production. (Some of the reproductions on this page – the obviously rubbish ones – are from photos taken by me off the giant screen David Hughes was using at the talk, subsequently poorly “tweaked” in Photoshop – my apologies, but I thought you’d be more interested in at least seeing something now of these marvellous illustrations than waiting an unknown time until you could see them reproduced perfectly.)

In the audience for the talk was Edward Guinness, 90 this year, the last member of the family to hold an executive position on the Guinness board, and a man to whom brewery historians owe a huge debt: it was while Edward was chairman of the Brewers’ Society that the Society commissioned Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson to write their mammoth history of brewing in Britain from 1830 to 1980, a massive resource. He also helped ensure Guinness the company supplied the money to make John Gilroy’s last few months comfortable, after it emerged that the artist who had done so much to promote the Guinness brand was seriously ill and could not afford private health care. It appears that David Hughes is helping Edward Guinness write his reminiscences – bugger, that’s another Guinness book I’m going to have to buy.

Michaelangelo by Gilroy

The ceiling of the Sistine Saloon Bar – don’t you love the strategically placed shamrock?

Millais by Gilroy

Gilroy’s take on John Everett Millais’s Boyhood of Raleigh of 1871: “Sod the potato, bring the world stout!’

Mondrian by Gilroy

Piet Mondrian’s hugely influential ‘Composition in Black and White’, painted after his death in 1944

Vermeer by Gilroy

Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pint of Guinness”

Toulouse-Lautrec by Gilroy

Henri ‘Half-Pint’ Toulouse-Lautrec advertises Guinness in the Paris of the 1890s

Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth

Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):

“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,

“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign [1237], were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”

The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.

St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen

But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.

She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”

In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”

Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.

Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that

“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”

The well on Ockley Green, DorkingSo: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.

On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.

The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.

Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging

Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

That’s not to say there were no ales brewed with herbs in Britain. I’ve tracked references to between 40 and 50 different herbs and plants that were added to ale at some time, both before and after the arrival of hops (you can read more in the “Herb beers” chapter of my book Amber, Gold and Black, from which a fair part of this post is nicked.) There are a couple of East Anglian recipes for herb-flavoured ale dating from around 1430, in the collection known as the Paston Letters:

Pur faire holsom drynk of ale, Recipe sauge, auence, rose maryn, tyme, chopped right smal, and put this and a newe leyd hennes ey [egg] in a bage and hange it in the barell. Item, clowys, maces, and spikenard grounden and put in a bagge and hangen in the barell. And nota that the ey of the henne shal kepe the ale fro sour.

In modern English: “For a fair, wholesome drink of ale, chop finely sage, wood avens [or Herb Bennet, Geum urbanum, a common perennial plant with yellow five-petalled flowers, found in woodlands and hedgerows], rosemary and thyme and place in a bag with a newly laid hen’s egg, and hang the bag in a barrel. Second recipe: grind cloves, mace and spikenard (probably ploughman’s-spikenard, Inula conyzae, an English perennial flowering plant found in scrubland whose roots have a strong, spicy aroma] and put in a bag and hang in the barrel. Note that the hen’s egg will keep the ale from going sour.”

I’d love to see either of those recipes reproduced. John Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, printed a similar sort of recipe for sage ale in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597, declaring: “No man needs to doubt of the wholesomeness of sage ale, being brewed as it should be with sage, scabious [probably field scabious, Knautia arvensis], betony [Betonica officinalis, a bitter grassland plant], spikenard [Inula conyzae again], squinanth [squinancywort or squinancy woodruff (Asperula cynanchica), a scented, white or lilac-flowered plant formerly used in the treatment of quinsy, a throat infection] and fennel seeds.”

Scurvy grass

Scurvy grass

Those “multi-ingredient” herb ales are similar to the two new ales bought out by the Pilot and Ilkley breweries, both of which have “foraged” for their ingredients, using herbs and botanicals than can be found near their breweries. The ale from the Pilot brewery, which opened in Leith late last year, has been brewed at the request of the Vintage bar and restaurant in Leith to celebrate the restaurant’s first anniversary. The restaurant has been using foraged food in its seasonal menus, and it supplied the brewery with foraged ingredients for the ale – scurvy grass, Cochlearia officinalis, a relative of horseradish, used historically to brew “scurvy ale”, which was taken aboard ships for its high vitamin C content; laver, a variety of edible seaweed; crab apples; black lovage, Smyrnium olusatrum, a celery-like plant now naturalised in Britain but originally from Macedonia; sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides; and juniper branches. Juniper branches are a traditional part of Norwegian home brewing: while there’s little or no evidence British ale brewers used juniper, I’d be surprised if they didn’t, at least occasionally.

Yarrow

Yarrow: you may recognise it from your lawn

The Ilkley brewery’s 5% gruit ale, called Doctor’s Orders, uses a recipe put together by beer sommelier Jane Peyton containing a couple of very traditional herbs for flavouring pre-hop ale, yarrow and bog myrtle. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a common grassland weed, small and feathery-leaved. For pre-hop brewers it gave bitterness, a preservative effect and, if the flowering plants were used, strong herby aromas. Its taste is described by one brewer as astringent, and vaguely citrussy. It had a reputation in Scandinavia for making ale more potent, perhaps because it is said to contain thujone, the narcotic ingredient also found in wormwood. Too much yarrow is said to cause dizziness and ringing in the ears, “and even madness”. Bog myrtle/sweet gale has a similar reputation: I wrote about it here. Viking warriors, according to some authorities, consumed large quantities of bog myrtle to bring on hallucinations and, literally, drive themselves berserk before battle. But gale ale, made by adding leafy branches of bog myrtle to the hot wort, is an old Yorkshire tradition. Peyton also used rosemary, sage, heather flowers and heather foraged from Ilkley Moor to flavour an ale made with six malts, Maris Otter extra pale, oats (6%), crystal, chocolate, brown and smoked, and a small amount of Fuggles hops, for preservative purposes, if not total historic accuracy.

Alas, I’ve not had this ale yet, but Luke Raven, sales and marketing manager at Ilkley Brewery, said: “The beer is delicious. The fragrant mixture of gruit herbs and heather from Ilkley Moor really packs a punch and yet it’s a beer you could happily enjoy with a Sunday roast or pheasant.”

Butler's Head

The Dr Butler’s Head near Moorgate in the City of London in the 1960s

I suspect it is called Doctor’s Orders in part as a nod to Dr Butler’s Ale, a medicated or “purging” ale that was the invention of William Butler, the court physician to King James I, who died in 1617. Inns that sold the ale often went under the sign of the Dr Butler’s Head, and there is still a Butler’s Head in the City of London (now owned by Shepherd Neame). Eighteenth-century recipes for the drink used for betony, sage, agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, a wayside plant popular in herbal medicine), scurvy-grass, Roman wormwood (less potent than “regular” wormwood but still bitter), elecampane (Inula helenium, a dandelion-like bitter plant still used in herbal cough mixtures) and horse-radish, to be mixed and put in a bag which should be hung in casks of new ale while they underwent fermentation. It was described in 1680 as “an excellent stomack drink” which “helps digestion, expels wind, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good against colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest, and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.”

It’s my suspicion, however, that when British brewers used herbs in the past, they were much more likely to use them singly than bung in three, four or more different types. There are only a tiny number of actual medieval references to herbs and spices used in ale: in William Langland’s long poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, written in the late 1300s Beton the brewster tempts Glutton away from his journey to church, telling him: “I have good ale.” When Glutton, asks if she has any “hot spices” to hand she replies:

“I have peper and piones [peony seeds] … and a pound of garlice,
A ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fastyng-dayes.”

The “peper” would have been “long pepper”, made from the long rod-like structure made from merged berries that develops on Piper officinarum (from India) or P. retrofractum (from Indonesia). However, it is not until we get to Stuart times that we get more frequent mentions of herb-flavoured ales. One of my favourites is from The Bacchanalian Sessions: or The Contention of Liquors, by Richard Ames (1643-1693), a long paean to drinks of all sorts, which contains a submission to Bacchus from the ales:

Whether Scurvy-grass, Daucus, Gill, Butler, or Broom,
Or from London, or Southwark, or Lambeth we come;
We humbly implore since the Wine in the Nation,
Has of late so much lost its once great Reputation;
That such Liquor as ours which is genuine and true,
And which all our Masters so carefully brew,
Which all men approve of, tho’ many drink Wine,
Yet the good Oyl of Barly there’s none will decline:
That we as a body call’d corp’rate may stand,
And a Patent procure from your Seal and your Hand,
That none without Licence, call’d Special, shall fail,
To drink any thing else, but Strong Nappy Brown Ale.

That’s five herb ales, of which only one, “Butler” (Dr Butler’s) is mixed. Scurvy-grass we have talked about. “Daucus” is wild carrot seed: William Ellis wrote in The London and Country Brewer, which first appeared in 1736, that when hops were dear “many of the poor People in this Country gather and dry in their Houses” daucus or wild carrot seed from the fields, which gave a “fine Peach flavour or relish” to their beer.

Ground-ivy

Ground-ivy or alehoof

Gill ale was made with ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea also known as alehoof (from its hoof-shaped leaves) or Gill-go-over-the-Ground, a creeping plant common in woods and hedgerows all over the British Isles: it can be used as a salad herb, and even cooked and eaten like spinach. The pre-Norman English cultivated ground-ivy, and a recipe in an Anglo-Saxon leechdom, or medical book, distinguishes between the wild and cultivated or garden varieties: another name for the plant, tunhoof, comes from tun meaning enclosure or garden rather than tun meaning cask. It was steeped in the hot liquor before mashing, and it seems to have been a widely used plant in brewing ale, even after the arrival of hops: John Gerard said in 1597 that “the women of our northern parts, especially Wales and Chesire, do turn Herbe-Alehoof into their ale.” It gives a bitter, very strong, tannic flavour to ale (described by Stephen Harrod Buhner as like black tea), but more importantly it helps fine the drink, clearing new ale overnight, according to Culpepper. Gill ale was being advertised on the signboard of the [Red?] Lion pub in Bird-Cage Alley, Southwark in around 1722, “Truly prepared and recommended by famed Doctor Bostock”, Bostock being the pub’s landlord.

The young green tops of broom, Cytisus scoparius (or Sarothamnus scoparius), were used in season to give a bitter flavour to ale. Among the bitter compounds found in broom is sparteine, a narcotic alkaloid which can cause hallucinations in very large doses, and probably gives a buzz even at low levels. Broom was one of the bittering agents specifically banned under the Act of Parliament in 1711 that imposed a penny a pound tax on English hops: the only let-out was that retailers could infuse broom and wormwood in ale or beer “after it is brewed and tunned, to make it broom or wormwood ale or beer.” Wormwood has been used to make bitter wine-based drinks since at least Roman times, and is the origin of the word vermouth. Maude Grieve, author of A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, said that shepherds had long known that sheep who ate broom became excited and then stupefied, “but the intoxicating effects soon pass off”. Broom also contains tannins, which would help to preserve ale, and make it taste more astringent. Broom ale is another one I’d love to see revived.

The hop tax banned other bittering agents purely to try to crush tax-avoidance, despite a claim that it was done because “it had been found by experience that hops used in the making of malt drinks were more wholesome for those that drink the same and of greater advantage to the drink itself than any other bitter ingredient that can be used.” It did not stop home brewers using herbs: William Ellis said when hops were dear, some used “that wholsome Herb Horehound, which indeed is a fine Bitter and grows on several of our Commons.” This was white horehound, Marrubium vulgare, “extremely bitter” according to Stephen Harrod Buhner, rather than the nasty-smelling black horehound or Stinking Roger. Horehound is still used in herbal cough mixtures, and was sometimes used in a “beer for coughs”. The juice of horehound, according to Ellis, was also used to spruce up used hops and sell them to the gullible, when dried, as new.

Just over 20 years before the hop tax was imposed, Thomas Tryon, in his A New Art of Brewing Beer, Ale, and Other Sorts of Liquors, published in 1690, list 13 herbs that could be added to ale, and said there were “a great number of brave Herbes and Vegitations that will do the business of brewing, as well as hops, and for many Constitutions much better, for ’tis custom more than their real virtues that renders Hops of general Use and Esteem.” His two favourites, “noble” herbs, of “excellent” use in beer or ale, were balm, or lemon-balm, Melissa officinalis, an introduced herb from the eastern Mediterranean, and a relative of ground-ivy, and pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, a small-leaved member of the mint family, with a bitter flavour and a pungent odour, which grows wild on the muddy edges of ponds. Tryon said it made “brave, well-tasted Drink”; today, however, it is regarded as dangerously poisonous, not least because it can induce abortion. It is now an endangered species, known from only a dozen or so places. Don’t try (on) this one.

The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies

Casks at the Fraserburgh breweryThere is, I suggest, a thick slice of what the Irish call begrudgery in the responses around the British beerosphere to the success of BrewDog. Here are these young guys, starting in their early 20s, who managed in a few years to build one of the best-known and fastest-growing breweries in Britain, worth on the order of £10m, in part through a series of stunts including reporting themselves to the drinks industry watchdog just for the publicity, selling beer at £500 a pop in bottles that had been stuffed into dead animals, and calling the Advertising Standards Authority “motherfuckers”.

Martin Dickie and James Watt now have their beers on bar and supermarket shelves not just in Britain but around the world, a growing and increasingly international chain of bars of their own, and even their own American TV show, FFS, now entering its second series. Uniquely among British brewers, Dickie and Watt have made a huge success of crowd-sourced funding, raising around £9m from some 14,000 customer-investors to fund their extremely impressive growth (that’s about £650 an investor, to save you working it out). Around 5,000 of those investors are expected to make the trip to Aberdeen this summer for the BrewDog AGM. You wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it’s Kool-Aid rather than Punk IPA they’ll be drinking.

While their fan base is clearly considerable, and happy to hand over lots of its cash, you certainly won’t search long to find vicious criticism of BrewDog on the web: “BrewDog are horrible marketing-type suit people who make terrible beer”; “a lot of juvenile rhetoric, devious marketing stunts and grotesquely cynical ‘punk’ references”; “There’s absolutely nothing ‘punk’ about Brewdog. We’re sick and tired of their shit marketing and faux-persecution complex … their beer is total shite.”; “shallow, arrogant hyperbolic fuckwits”; “Next to a genuinely class brewery like Beavertown or The Kernel, BrewDog are an embarrassment … Punk IPA – a truly dreadful beer … they’re a successful marketing company who happen to use beer labels as their medium, rather than a genuine craft brewery” – you’re getting the picture.

There is, of course, a simple answer to all that criticism: you say that, but you don’t have 14,000 investors and your own American TV show, and nor are your marketing tactics being used as case studies for other businesses.

I’ve had disagreements with BrewDog myself, but I’ve always thought that Dickie and Watt had no reason to care about what I thought, any more than they would be bothered by any of their other critics: if some people don’t like their beers and their marketing tactics, a more-than-sufficiency of others do. So I was surprised to be approached by the company and asked if I’d like to join nine other beer bloggers and writers from as far away as Finland, Norway and France to be flown to Aberdeen, taken round the 13-month-old Ellon brewery and beered and dined at BrewDog’s expense. Were BrewDog on a charm offensive? Apparently so: last week they flew up a load of journalists who had written about BrewDog in the past, for a similar jolly, which resulted in, eg, this review in the Morning Advertiser. But why woo me? According to Alexa, this blog ranks number 32,360 among UK websites: that’s really not very influential.

But, hey, I like looking around breweries at other people’s expense, even if it means having to get up at 4am to drive to Gatwick for a flight on the EasyJet red-eye. And yes, I was interested in meeting Dickie and Watt, probably the finest guerrilla marketers currently operating in Britain (and easily the best guerrilla marketers the British brewing industry has ever seen). I don’t know how much they actually spend on marketing, but I doubt it’s a huge amount, which makes their ability to generate column inches all over the world from apparently tangential events quite brilliant – come on, what other British brewer do you know who could get stories in newspapers from Sweden to Thailand publicising their new beer launch?

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog's Ellon brewery

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog’s Ellon brewery

Still, if it isn’t ultimately about the beer, what is it? And I have to say that I came away from Ellon having seen the shiny big new brewery, and the rather less shiny, very much smaller original BrewDog brewery in Fraserburgh, having tasted large amounts of BrewDog beer, having heard Dickie and Watt talk about their vision, and having been given an excellent beer-and-food matching evening at Watt’s Aberdeen restaurant-cum-arts venue Musa, feeling that the hype almost certainly was secondary: that for Dickie and Watt the beer definitely does come first, and the marketing is there merely to promote the beer.

I think what probably finally persuaded me of that was discussing the brewery’s “hop cannon”, which fires 20 kilos of hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks, as BrewDog’s take on dry-hopping. Each 600-hectolitre conditioning tank gets 600 kilograms of dry hopping. The hidden cost is that 600kg of dry hops will soak up 20 per cent of the beer in the tank while it is releasing all those yummy resins and flavourings. That’s 120 hectolitres – 73 barrels – of beer that has to be, effectively, thrown away (although those used hops get used by the farmers of Aberdeenshire to fertilise their fields). In other words, BrewDog wastes (if you want to look at it like that) more beer a week than many other micros brew. If you’re prepared to sacrifice a fifth of your production to ensure you don’t sacrifice any of the taste you’re after, hey – you’re putting the beer first. And I have to say that I didn’t have a bad beer on the trip, while at least one, the new AB15, a 12 per cent abv imperial stout with added salt caramel, aged in both rum and bourbon casks, was exceptional, a lovely salty-sweet brew with huge depth of flavour.

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The new brewery may have wacky murals and exhortatory neon slogans on the walls, but its kit smacks of no-expense-spared: the brewery lab has a machine that will check the precise levels of diacetyl in the beer, for example, which saves on the time and trouble of having to send samples away for analysis and speeds up decision-making on whether a beer has reached maturity. A new water treatment plant has been installed, which will allow precise levels of oxygen to be maintained in the brewing water. BrewDog is the biggest buyer of Nelson Sauvin hops in the world. The brewery can currently produce 100,000 hectolitres of beer, with room to expand to 250,000hl – 150,000 barrels. In the new warehouse, pallets are stacked with ekegs and bottles to be shipped to more than 40 different countries: Greece, Sweden, Thailand, Belarus and so on. “Their beer is total shite”? I’m sorry, sir, there appear to be an awful lot of people who don’t agree.

Photo Gallery

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

BrewDog's head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer's Beard

BrewDog’s head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer’s Beard

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station at the BrewDog brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station The brewer’s sink at the BrewDog brewery – see comment below by MikeS for a fuller explanation

More underwater-themed murals for punks ...

More underwater-themed murals for punks …

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps ...

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps …

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

The bottling line

The bottling line

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

Why Shakespeare liked ale but didn’t like beer

The trademark registered by Flower's brewery of Stratford upon Avon

The trademark registered by Flower’s brewery of Stratford upon Avon

An old friend of mine gained a PhD in the relative clauses of William Shakespeare, with particular emphasis on the later plays. Ground-breaking stuff, she told me, and I’m sure that’s true. My own contribution to Shakespearian studies is rather less linguistic and more alcoholic: I seem to be the first person in centuries of scholarly study of the works of the Bard of Avon to point out that his plays clearly show Shakespeare was a fan of ale, but didn’t much like beer.

To appreciate this you have to know that, even in the Jacobean era, ale, the original English unhopped fermented malt drink, was still regarded as different, and separate, from, beer, the hopped malt drink brought over from continental Europe at the beginning of the 15th century, 200 years earlier. It was made by different people: Norwich had five “comon alebrewers” and nine “comon berebrewars” in 1564. In 1606 (the year Macbeth was performed at the Globe theatre) the town council of St Albans, 25 or so miles north of London, agreed to restrict the number of brewers in the town to four for beer and two for ale, to try to halt a continuing rise in the price of fuelwood.

This separation of fermented malt drinks in England into ale and beer continued right through to the 18th century, and can still be found in the 19th century, though the only difference by then was that ale was regarded as less hopped than beer. Even in Shakespeare’s time, brewers were starting to put hops into ale, though this was uncommon. In 1615, the year before Shakespeare died, Gervase Markham published The English Huswife, a handbook that contains “all the virtuous knowledges and actions both of the mind and body, which ought to be in any complete woman”. In it, Markham wrote that

“the general use is by no means to put any hops into ale, making that the difference between it and beere … but the wiser huswives do find an error in that opinion, and say the utter want of hops is the reason why ale lasteth so little a time, but either dyeth or soureth, and therefore they will to every barrel of the best ale allow halfe a pound of good hops

.

The book’s recipe for strong March beer included a quarter of malt and “a pound and a half of hops to one hogshead,” which may be three times more hops than Markham was recommending for ale, but is still not much hops by later standards, though Markham said that “This March beer … should (if it have right) lie a whole year to ripen: it will last two, three and four years if it lie cool and close, and endure the drawing to the last drop.” In his notes on brewing ale, Markham said: ” … for the brewing of strong ale, because it is drink of no such long lasting as beer is, therefore you shall brew less quantity at a time thereof …. Now or the mashing and ordering of it in the mash vat, it will not differ anything from that of beer; as for hops, although some use [sic] not to put in any, yet the best brewers thereof will allow to fourteen gallons of ale a good espen [spoon?] full of hops, and no more.”

Markham was writing in the middle of a battle fought for more than two centuries to try to keep ale still free from hops, and separate from hopped beer. In 1471 the “common ale brewers” of Norwich were forbidden from brewing “nowther with hoppes nor gawle” (that is, gale or bog myrtle). In 1483, the ale brewers of London were complaining to the mayor about “sotill and crafty means of foreyns” (not necessarily “foreigners” in the modern sense, but probably people not born in London and thus not freemen of London) who were “bruing of ale within the said Citee” and who were “occupying and puttyng of hoppes and other things in the ale, contrary to the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used.”

Andrew Boorde, who hated beer

Andrew Boorde, who hated beer

Almost 60 years later, in 1542, the physician and former Carthusian monk Andrew Boorde wrote a medical self-help book called A Dyetary of Helth which heavily promoted ale over beer. Boorde, who declared in his book: “I do drinke … no manner of beere made with hopes,” said that “Ale for an Englysshman is a naturall drynke,” while beer was “a naturall drynke for a Dutche man” (by which he meant Germans), but “

of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men; specially it kylleth them the which be troubled with the colycke, and the stone, & the strangulion; for the drynke is a cold drynke; yet it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appear by the Dutche mens faces & belyes.”

(There is a great story suggesting why Boorde hated beer so much: a rival writer named Barnes said that when Boorde was studying medicine in Montpelier he got so drunk at the house of “a Duche man” [which probably meant a German rather than someone from the Netherlands], presumably on the Dutchman’s hopped beer, that he threw up in his beard just before he fell into bed. Barnes claimed that when Boorde woke up the next morning, the smell under his nose was so bad he had to shave his beard off. For Boorde, the loss of his beard, in a period when a lengthily hirsute chin was the essential badge of every intellectual and scholar, must have been enormously embarrassing.)

A century on, another English writer, John Taylor, in Ale Ale-vated into the Ale-titude, “A Learned Lecture in Praise of Ale”, printed in 1651, agreed that “Beere is a Dutch Boorish Liquor, a thing not knowne in England till of late dayes, an Alien to our Nation till such time as Hops and Heresies came amongst us; it is a sawcy intruder into this Land.” Earlier, a poet called Thomas Randall, who died in 1635, made the same point, in a poem called “The High and Mighty Commendation of a Pot of Good Ale” that

“Beer is a stranger, a Dutch upstart come
Whose credit with us sometimes is but small
But in records of the Empire of Rome
The old Catholic drink is a pot of good ale.”

Mermaid TavernShakespeare, being a far subtler writer than Boorde, Taylor or Randall, never made such obvious statements about his preferences. But he was a Warwickshire boy, country-bred, and he brought his country tastes with him to London. In 1630 a pamphleteer called John Grove wrote a piece called “Wine, Ale, Beer and Tobacco Contending for Superiority”, in which the three drinks declared:

Wine: I, generous wine, am for the Court.
Beer: The City calls for Beer.
Ale: But Ale, bonny Ale, like a lord of the soil, in the Country shall domineer.

Shakespeare’s country-born preference for ale, and disdain for the city’s beer, pops up across his plays. Autolycus, the “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, makes his appearance in The Winter’s Tale singing:

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge,
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.

By which he means that he can steal the sheet someone has left out to bleach in the sun, and exchange it for a quart of excellent ale in a nearby alehouse (which were, alas, sometimes places where stolen goods could easily be disposed of). But if ale is a dish fit for a king, small beer, according to Prince Hal – soon to be a king – in Henry IV, is a “poor creature”, and he asks Poins: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” Similarly the malicious Iago, in Othello, declares that the perfect woman is fit to do nothing more than “suckle fools and chronicle small beer”.

Nor was Shakespeare impressed by strong beer, judging by the fate of the villainous Thomas Horner, the armourer, in Henry VI, written around 1590-92, who is so drunk on sack, charneco (a wine from Portugal) and double beer given to him by his supporters (“Here’s a pot of good double beer, neighbour: drink it and fear not your man”) that his apprentice, Peter Thump, is easily able to overcome him and kill him in their duel.

What was double beer? The 17th century writer William Yworth, in a book called Cerevisiarii Comes or The New and True Art of Brewing, published in London in 1692, said double beer was “the first two worts, used in the place of liquor [water], to mash again on fresh malt”, so that, in theory, the wort ended up twice as strong.

Certainly double beer was strong enough to keep well. Yworth gave a typical 17th-century pseudo-scientific explanation that the double wort “doth … only extract the Sweet, Friendly, Balsamic Qualities” from the fresh malt, “its Hunger being partly satisfied before.” He continued that double beer “being thus brewed … may be transported to the Indies, remaining in its full Goodness … whereas the Single, if not well-brewed especially, soon corrupts, ropes and sours.” (Ropey beer has a bacterial infection which results in sticky “ropes” appearing in the liquid. Note, incidentally, the implication that strong beer was being exported to hot climates even in the 17th century.)

Shakespeare pub signThe opposite of doubele beer was single beer. A recipe for 60 barrels of single beer printed by Richard Arnold in 1503, during Henry VII’s reign says: “To brewe beer x. quarters malte. ij. quarters wheet ij. quarters ootes. xl. lb weight of hoppys. To make lx barrell of sengyll beer”, that is, 10 quarters of barley malt, two quarters of wheat and two quarters of oats, plus 40lbs of hops, to make 60 barrels of single beer. It is very unlikely this would have produced a beer of anything less than 1045 OG, or four per cent alcohol by volume. A modern-day brewing to this recipe by the home brew expert Graham Wheeler, using modern yeast, modern malted barley (which would probably have given a higher extract than 16th century brewers could have achieved), malted oats and Shredded Wheat, came out at 1065 OG and 6.7 per cent ABV.

Unfortunately, this guide to the strength of single beer is completely contradicted by a declaration from the authorities in London in 1552, during the reign of Edward VI, regarding the amount of malt that should go into double and single beer. For “doble beare”, they said, a quarter of “grayne” should produce “fowre barrels and one fyrkin” of “goode holesome drynke”. To make single beer, twice as much drink should be brewed from the same quantity of grain. This would have produced double beer with a strength of around 1047 OG at the bottom end, perhaps 1058 at most (barely five per cent ABV), while the single beer could not have been stronger than around 1025 OG, less than two per cent alcohol.

Both these strengths seem far too low – indeed, they seem to use exactly half the malt one might expect, given Arnold’s recipe for single beer, and evidence from other writers. Recipes from the 17th century show beers of around 1035 to 1045 OG being described as “small beer”. Gervase Markham called a beer of approximately 1045 OG “ordinary beere”. Perhaps the London authorities in 1552 were deliberately trying to force the city’s brewers to make weaker beers.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Tudor ale was stronger than Tudor beer. Elizabethan commentators believed you could make twice as much beer from a quarter of malt as you could ale, because the hopped beer did not have to be as strong as ale to stop it going sour too quickly. Reynold Scot in 1574 said a bushel of “Mault” would make eight or nine gallons of “indifferent” ale but 18 or 20 gallons of “very good Beere”.

In London in 1574 (when Shakespeare was 10) there were 58 ale breweries and 32 beer breweries. But the ale brewers consumed an average of only 12 quarters of malt a week, while the beer brewers were on average consuming four times as much. The average Elizabethan London beer brewer’s output in pints was thus probably on average eight times larger than the average ale brewer’s production. Even the biggest London ale brewer was smaller, on this calculation, than the smallest of the capital’s common beer brewers. The biggest Elizabethan London beer brewer consumed 90 quarters of malt a week, enough to make around 14,000 barrels of beer a year, very roughly, which would be a medium-sized brewery even in the 18th century.

It is difficult to be precise without knowing what proportion of grain went into single ale and beer, which used less malt per barrel, and what proportion went into double brews. But very roughly, again, it looks as if, even though there were nearly twice as many ale breweries in the capital, Londoners were drinking four times as much beer from the common brewers as they were ale. Some ale and beer would still have been made by alehouse and inn brewers, but their output probably made little difference to the ratio of ale to beer drunk in the capital. When John Grove said in 1630 that “The citie call for Beere”, it looks as if beer was the city of London’s favourite since at least the 1570s.

It was drunk, generally, from hooped wooden mugs: Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, promising his supporters great bounties when he is ruler of England, declared that as well as seven halfpenny loafs for a penny, “the three-hooped pot shall have 10 hoops.” The wealthy used something grander than wood: the Frenchman Estienne Perlin, a visitor to London in the 1550s, wrote that the English drank beer “not in glasses but in earthenware pots with silver handles and covers”.

Many of the beer brewers were still immigrants from the continent. In St Olaph’s parish, Southwark in 1571 there were 14 Dutch brewers. One, Peter van Duran, who had emigrated from Gelderland 40 years earlier, employed nine servants whose nationalities were given as “Hollanders, Cleveners [from Cleves, on the German/Dutch border] or High Dutchmen [that is, Germans]”, and who included a brewer, three draymen, three tunmen and a boatman.

The size of the London brewing industry was causing pollution problems: in 1578 the Company of Brewers wrote trepidatiously to Queen Elizabeth saying that they understood Her Majesty “findeth hersealfe greately greved and anoyed” with the taste and smoke of the sea coal used in their brewhouses. The brewers offered to burn only wood, rather than coal, in the brewhouses closest to the Queen’s home, the Palace of Westminster.

Flowers IPA labelThe Queen herself was a considerable brewer: like her father, Henry VIII, she had both a beer brewer, Henry Campion, who died in 1588, and ale brewers, two men called Peert and Yardley. (Campion’s brewery, according to John Stow’s Survey of London in 1602, was in Hay Wharf Lane, at the side of All Hallows the Great church in Upper Thames Street, which puts it on the same site as the Calverts’ later Hour Glass Brewery.)

Elizabeth also had naval and military brewhouses in operation at Tower Hill, Dover, Portsmouth and, probably, Porchester by 1565, to supply the army and navy. The first royal beer brewery in Portsmouth was built by Henry VII in 1492, and its operations were enlarged by Henry VIII in 1512/13 at a cost of more than £2,600 to enable it to produce more than 500 barrels of beer a day. It seems quite possible this was one of the biggest breweries in the world at that time. But the beer consumption of the Tudor navy was enormous: perhaps 3,000 barrels a week. It was calculated that a ship of 100 tons, carrying 200 men for two months, needed 56 tuns of beer, (that is, around a gallon a man per day, one tun being equivalent to six 36-gallon barrels), 12,200 pounds of biscuit, three tons of “flesh” and three tons of fish and cheese. Water would turn brackish and unhopped ale would go off: beer would last the tour.

The Tudor army certainly ran on beer. In July 1544, during an English invasion of Picardy, the commander of Henry VIII’s forces complained that his army was so short of supplies they had drunk no beer “these last ten days, which is strange for English men to do with so little grudging.” Relief arrived a couple of days later with 400 to 500 tuns of beer from Calais and ten of “the king’s brewhouses” (presumably mobile breweries) together with “English brewers”.

Thje last insult: used to advertise keg bneer

The last insult: used to advertise keg bneer

Whatever soldiers liked to drink, Shakespeare’s opinion of the hopped drink was so low, if we can assume he was putting his own thoughts into the mouth of Hamlet, that he could think of nothing more depressing than being used after death to seal the bunghole in a cask of beer. Referring to the practice of using clay as a stopper in a barrel, the gloomy Dane tells his friend:

“To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole? … follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam (whereto he was converted) might they not stop a beer barrel?”

In Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, Launce lists as one of the virtues of the woman that he loves the fact that “she brews good ale”, and tells Speed: “And thereof comes the proverb, ‘Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.’”

Centuries after his death, Shakespeare was adopted as a trademark by Flowers, the biggest brewer in his home town, Stratford upon Avon. (Flowers was founded, incidentally, by Edward Fordham Flower, who had emigrated to the United States, aged 13, in 1818 with his brewer father Richard. The Flowers settled in southern Illinois, near the Wabash river, on what later became the township of Albion – family legend says they turned down a site further north on the shore of Lake Michigan, believing it to be too marshy. Others were less fussy, and the city of Chicago was eventually founded there. Edward and Richard returned to England in 1824 and Edward began brewing in Stratford in 1831.) Fortunately nobody ever pointed out to Flowers that Shakespeare wouldn’t have liked the hoppy brew they were selling.

(A much shorter version of this piece appeared in Beer Connoisseur magazine in 2009. Other parts have been adapted from Beer: The Story of the Pint, published 2003, with additions

Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Guinness …

Mein Fröther

Mein Fröther: the image even Guinness probably wouldn’t have tried to get away with, Hitler with a pint-of-stout moustache

There are some images that are just wrong: uncanny, creepy. One of them is a poster of a smiling, steel-helmeted Nazi-era German soldier holding a pint of stout, with the words in Gothic script: “Es ist Zeit für ein Guinneß!” What makes this poster even weirder is that it’s by John Gilroy, the artist who produced so much classic Guinness advertising imagery, from the flying toucans with glasses of Guinness on their beaks to the Guinness drinker carrying the huge girder. Even people born decades after those ad campaigns ended know the posters.

The German soldier saying: “Time for a Guinness!” is one of a number of images Gilroy produced in 1936 for the advertising agency SH Benson in connection with a campaign in Germany that never went ahead. Today those putative posters look – well – naïve. Guinness-bearing toucans flying over a swastika-draped Berlin Olympics stadium? More Guinness toucans flying escort to a swastika-decorated airship? “Guinness for strength” demonstrated by a mechanic lifting a German army half-track single-handed? Guinness toucans zooming past the Brandenberg Gate, as a man who looks like the Guinness zoo keeper dressed in what appears to be the uniform of the SS Feldgendarmerie stares up, alarmed? (Bizarrely, these were the very first use of the “flying toucans” image, which did not appear in Britain until 1955, and the famous “toucans over the RAF aerodrome” poster.)

Guinness German soldierThey all appear in a fascinating new book by David Hughes, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, which features a mass of material from the SH Benson archive in London that mysteriously vanished in 1971 and, just as mysteriously, semi-surfaced in the United States a few years ago, when canvases from the archive started appearing on the art market.

As well as the German material, there are a host of other draft posters by Gilroy in the book, mostly painted in oil on canvas. Many are for other overseas campaigns that never actually appeared: toucans flying over the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Brooklyn Bridge and the Kremlin; Greek and Israeli farmers pulling the cart with the horse in (changed to a donkey) to illustrate “Guinness for Strength”: men popping out of manholes and holding up Russian and Israeli steamrollers. There are illustrations of cars, used to advertise Guinness on posters and in calendars, which show what a fine automobile artist Gilroy was – although, again, seeing a picture of Hitler’s six-wheeler Mercedes staff car with “Congratulations from Guinness” underneath, or one of another iconic German vehicle over a pint of stout with the words “VolksWagen – Volks Bier” is weird, weird in an alternative-universe, “What if Germany had won the war?” way. Some are for domestic campaigns that, again never saw daylight: a series of posters for the 1948 London Olympics on the theme of “My Goodness – My Guinness (a sprinter running off with the timer’s pint, for example), and “Guinness for Strength” (a Guinness-powered javelinist hurling his javelin way out of the stadium).

Hughes, who produced the excellent A Bottle of Guinness Please, an extensively illustrated and thorough round-up of the history of Guinness bottling with lots of Guinness-fact goodies (spoilt only by the lack of an index), gives the fullest account I have seen of Gilroy’s life and art in Gilroy was Good for Guinness. I wasn’t going to buy it (on the grounds that I already have far more books on Guinness than any sane man should own) but I couldn’t resist the Nazi Guinness pics.

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The book has a good account of Gilroy’s portrait-painting, which included several members of the royal family, and politicians and military men, such as Churchill and Eisenhower. The trouble is that the pictures in the book show Gilroy wasn’t a very good portrait painter, in the sense that his paintings, while technically excellent, just fail to hit the target: they appear to be of entrants in a famous-person-lookalike competition, rather than who they are actually meant to be. If you don’t know who the person is, then nothing appears to be wrong. If you know that it is meant to be, say, Prince Charles, you can see that it isn’t quite right.

It also contains one revelation I certainly didn’t know: that when Benson’s lost the Guinness advertising account in 1969, and thus Gilroy was no longer producing ads for the stout brewer, Guinness felt it owed the artist so much for all the pints and bottles of stout his artwork had helped to shift that it offered him a £2,000-a-year honorarium for life, a sum worth perhaps £27,000 in today’s money: not a huge amount for a man who was a member of the Garrick Club and living in Holland Park Road, Kensington, but much better than a poke in the eye with a paintbrush.

It also attempts to detail the story of the Benson advertising agency’s archive after Benson’s was sold to Olgilvy and Mather in 1971. Somehow the archive, including the Gilroy Guinness collection of original artwork for poster campaigns both used and unused, was sold to, or acquired by, an anonymous American. Parts of the archive began to appear on the market in the United States in 2009. Subsequently more and more of the collection appears to have been disposed of, with canvases selling for up to $14,000. Unfortunately the parts of the story of the archive are scattered through what is an unfortunately frequently bitty book, which could have done with a good editor to pull it all more tightly together. That same editor could have prevented the occasional infelicity and error, such as spelling the name of the actor Kenneth More incorrectly.

All the same, if you’re interested in Guinness, or in breweriana, Gilroy was Good for Guinness is probably worth its £20 price tag. In many ways, it’s Guinness porn at its best. And those German posters really are disturbing.

Update: hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for this – there’s a far better account of the mystery millionaire who bought the Benson’s archive than the book gives, and lots more great illustrations from the book, on the Collectors Weekly website here.

The nine beers every 16-year-old needs to try

This post has its roots in something my 14-year-old daughter said to me this morning, about how she would never drink tea or coffee. “You will,” I told her, thinking that, as with so many pleasures, the joys of the Chinese camellia and the Arabian coffee bush were hard to understand when you are only young. It would certainly be pointless brewing up a cup of roasty Sumatra for her now, and insisting: “Try this, you’ll like it!” How old was I when I began appreciating tea and coffee? Seventeen, at the earliest, I’m sure, maybe 18, and even then I still needed plenty of sugar in each cup. And yet, I was only 14 when I was handed my first pint of beer, by my father – a pint of Fremlin’s bitter, in the garden of the Rose in Bloom, Whitstable – and took to it immediately, instantly seduced by its uncompromising hoppiness.

Fremlin's showcard

I remember the elephant …

So how old should people be when we thrust a glass of beer at them, declaring: “You must try this!” I’m pretty sure that for most, 14 would be too early. Alcohol – you’ve perhaps forgotten this – actually tastes horrible when you first try it. Most beers will be very bitter, to almost anyone not used to the drink. But at 16, when it’s legal, in the UK, to drink beer and wine in a pub or restaurant, provided it’s an accompaniment to food, I believe it’s essential to start introducing teenagers to good beer, to show them what the drink is capable of and, most importantly, to show them that what their mates might secretly be drinking – most probably mainstream lager – is definitely not the acme of the beery arts.

Right: what beers should you give a 16-year-old to show them beer’s range, without overwhelming them and making them run away? Here’s my pick of an educational nine, all (in the UK, at least) relatively easy to get hold of, all of which point up a particular lesson about beer. They should be presented in the order I’ve deliberately listed them, and no more than a couple a day: another very important lesson teenagers should have drilled into them is that alcohol is for enjoying, and getting drunk is not actually the prime purpose. Indeed, while the buzz, enjoyed safely, is an aspect of the appeal of drinking, being drunk shouldn’t, properly, be any part of the purpose at all.

Woodforde’s Wherry – English bitter Let’s start where I started, with an English bitter. I’ve spoken before about how I fell immediately in love with this beer the first time I tasted it, at a beer festival in Cambridge in the early 1980s. Other bitters are available, but Wherry manages to be both complex and easy to drink at the same time, a very tough trick. If you can, drink this with your 16-year-old in a pub (over a meal, to be legal). Ask them what they notice in the beer. Don’t lead them, unless they get completely stuck. Talk about the ingredients, mention that much of the flavour comes from the single hop, Goldings. Point out that at 3.8 per cent alcohol, this is a beer for easy sipping over a session chatting with friends, and yet, if you want to, you can notice all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the depths of the glass.

Sierra Nevada pale ale On next to a beer that looks not too dissimilar to the Wherry – somewhat paler – but provides a complete contrast in taste, aroma and intent. “OK, kid,” you can say, “you’ve had a gentle, friendly introduction: this is what happens when you let the hops loose.” Point out that, theoretically, both this and the beer before are part of the great superfamily “pale ale”. Ask your 16-year-old what differences, and similarities, they find between the two beers. Ask them what flavours they are finding, what those flavours remind them of. Tell them that, once again, there’s only one type of hop in there, this time Cascade. Talk about American hops versus European ones. Ask if this is a sipping and chatting beer, or something else. They will, I hope, be interested to know that SN pale ale is one of the most influential beers in the world, having inspired hundreds – thousands? – of brewers to make something similar.

Fuller’s London Porter For the second session with your 16-year-old, present them with something completely different, in appearance and flavour. Fuller’s porter is not my favourite porter, but for a teenager, it’s a good training wheels beer, slightly sweet, which will counteract the bitterness. Explain that the colour, and much of the flavour come from roasted grain. Ask what tastes and aromas they are getting, what the mouthfeel is like, and how that mouthfeel might differ from the two beers they had before. You might talk briefly about how this was THE beer of London’s working classes for more than a century, just to give them an idea of beer’s historical aspects. Ask them what foods they think this beer might go with.

Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout Finish off the session with something you’ll have to warn your 16-year-old they might well find horrible. Explain how this is the big daddy of the beer they’ve just had, with everything ramped up to 11. If they can take much more than a sip, ask them, again, to describe the flavours, and to say what similarities and differences they find compared to the porter. Tell them how this beer is stored for 12 months before being bottled, to let it mature. Slip in a bit of history again – how this was Catherine the Great’s favourite type of beer. Ask them how they would use this beer: as an aperitif, or an end-of-the day winder-down?

Orval Session three is a very brief introduction to Belgium. You don’t want to scare your 16-year-old too much. Still, the bitterness, and the funk, of Orval should, again, show them that “beer” covers a vast world of impressions and experiences. Ask them to sniff the beer and describe the aroma. Explain about the Brettanomyces yeast, how it imparts something some describe as “cheesy”, or “barnyardy” to the beer, and how the Brett means the beer tastes different as it ages in bottle.

Liefmans Kriekbier Then cheer them up with a beer that ought to appeal to any 16-year-old. Once again, this is designed to be an eye-opener as to the enormous range of flavours that can be found under the headword “beer”. Try to open the bottle out of sight, and don’t tell your teenager what’s gone into it: if they’ve never heard of cherry beer, this is likely to be a complete surprise to them. Ask them if they’d recommend it to friends. Tell them about cherry beer ice-cream (mmm – cherry beer ice-cream …)

Weihenstephaner Hefe-Weisse For session four, we can present our 16-year-old with something rather less challenging, though still likely to be outside the range of beers they might have been secretly drinking at parties while they thought your attention was elsewhere. Here’s where you can talk about yeast: explain to the teenager that the cloudiness of the beer is no fault, but a result of using wheat, and having yeast left unfiltered in the bottle. Tell them much of the flavour in the beer comes from the particular yeast used, and ask them, once more, what flavours and aromas they find. Ask them to say when and where this might be a good beer to drink, and if it would go with any particular sorts of food.

Budweiser Budvar Ease them down with something a lot closer to the type of beer a 16-year-old is likely to have encountered. Explain how this beer undergoes 90 days of lagering, and tell them what lagering is and what that maturation does to a beer. Ask them what they are finding as they taste the beer, and if they are getting an after-taste as they swallow. Ask them how this beer compares, in their memory, to other lagers they might have drunk. Talk a bit, if you like, about the difference between this and American Budweiser.

Stella Artois Finally, for the last lesson, take them down to the pub for a meal and order them a pint of Stella, or similar mass-produced lager. What? Yes – then ask them to describe anything they are getting off the beer, and tell them to compare it to the beers you have introduced to them. Hopefully, a lesson will have been learned that will last them the rest of their drinking life. Then ask them if they would like to replace the Stella with something else. If they say “no”, and it’s your 16-year-old, disown them immediately.

Sunny Seventeen light beer

Well she was just seventeen, you know what I mean …

In praise of Ted Tuppen

It is a truth universally asserted, at least in the comments section of the Morning Advertiser, that Pubcos Are Evil, their business model consisting solely of luring the naive into their sticky webs, where, entrapped, the poor victims can be sucked dry of all their money and spat out, poorer and sadder. All their policies, the pubcos’ highly vocal opponents proclaim, from charging their tenants more for their beer than the cost of that beer to freehouses to the ways they deal with struggling publicans trying to stay afloat, are Evil, Evil, Evil. Pubcos, the antis assert, should be broken up, or at the least highly regulated, with the dreaded beer tie taken away.

Ted Tuppen as Gabbitas

Ted Tuppen creeps round the wood one way …

Now, there’s no doubt that one model, the highly leveraged pubco, turned into a slow car crash, as running up billions of pounds of debt to buy thousands of pubs and grow as big as possible turned out to be an OK plan in an economy that was doing well, but an absolutely dreadful idea in an economy that was tanking and with income from pubs  falling.

But it doesn’t need much analysis to realise that the idea that pubcos constantly, cruelly and deliberately exploit their tenants, that they maximise the tenants’ pain for their own gain, is nonsense. The best, most efficient way for a company owning pubs to make the maximum amount of money is to ensure the people running its pubs make the most money they can, too. A failing tenant is no use to any pubco – indeed, every tenancy that fails costs a pubco thousands of pounds, in lost revenue and lost rent, plus all the associated expenses of closing a pub up temporarily, finding new tenants, dealing with the fall-out and so on. Pubcos, I can tell you, because I’ve talked to them about it, invest much today into trying to attract the best possible tenants, and providing them with training and support.That’s rather more than used to happen 30-plus years ago when it was the big brewers who had all the tenancies, and too often all they wanted to see in a prospective tenant was a pulse and a deposit.

Stephen Billingham is Thring

… Stephen Billingham creeps round the other way

Yes, you can point to cases, some of them high-profile, that show pubco tenants who have put huge efforts into their pubs, and subsequently crashed and burned, with, allegedly, only hindrance from their pubco. But I’d bet on most/nearly all pub failures being down to people simply not having all the necessary talents to run a pub: as I am about to assert several more times, it doesn’t make economic sense for a pubco to do anything other than put as much effort as it can to keeping a tenant on the road and a pub open.

The claim is that the big pubcos take an unfair share of the profits made by the pubs they own, that they make “huge excess profits” by forcing “the publican and ultimately the consumer” to pay high prices for the beer they buy. But there is no evidence I know of that beer in pubco pubs is more expensive to the consumer: how could it be, for very long, when the consumer is free to go where the beer is cheapest? Nor would it make business sense to restrict the choice of beers in a pubco pub compared to free-of-tie houses, if a wider choice of beers gives freehouses a business advantage over pubco pubs, because once again pubcos would be damaging their own revenues by driving customers away through restricting beer choice. And, indeed, the evidence is that even tenants of the biggest pubcos can choose from many hundreds of different beers from several hundred different breweries. Oh, and there’s not a lot of evidence right now of “huge profits” at the pubcos, though that, of course, is down to trying to pay down the huge debts the bigger ones accumulated when they were expanding.

GAbbitas and Thring capture a new pubco tenant

A young man is captured and carried off to be a pubco tenant (with many apologies to Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle)

In addition, it is claimed that as well as high “wet rents”, over-the-market-price charges for beer, pubcos also charge their publicans above-market-rate “dry rents” for the pubs they let out to them. But there are two things going on here. Again, there is the nonsense that a pubco would demand from its tenants such a high return that it damages the tenant’s business. I repeat: the pubco wants the tenant to keep going. The pubco wants the tenant to succeed. The pubco is not going to act against its own interests by charging its tenants so much that they quit.

Second, the pubco looks to get a return from its asset, the pub, balancing the “wet rent” money made through imposing a beer tie (where the return, while volatile, will go up quickly if the tenant does well and sells more beer) and the “dry” rent, which is less easy to adjust quickly. Removing the “wet rent” aspect means the pubco – which is, after all, a stakeholder in the pub – loses its share of any rising success in the pub. Is that fair? You might think so. I don’t believe a pubco’s shareholders – again, stakeholders in the pub, just like the tenant – would agree. The pubco and its shareholders provide the tenant with the opportunity to increase his (or her) profits, and deserve a rising slice if those profits do increase.

The call has been made for a mandatory free-of-tie option to be offered to pubco tenants. I can tell you what will happen if that is brought in: large numbers of the best currently tenanted/leased pubs will be turned into managed houses, and those pubs not suitable for a managed operation that look as if they will not bring in an adequate return to their pubco owner as free-of-tie operations will be sold to the highest bidder – likely to be Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrisons.

All the above springs from my musings last week on the announcement that Ted Tuppen, chief executive of Enterprise Inns, one of the two biggest pubcos, will be retiring early next year. That went up on the Propel Info website: here it is again, below. I don’t expect anybody commenting here to agree with me in my analysis: indeed, I expect to be told, as I already have been, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve had enough people comment favourably on my analyses to think that actually, I do. You all know you’re free to add comments disagreeing.

When Ted Tuppen spoke this week at a results meeting for City analysts right after it was announced that he would be resigning as chief executive of Enterprise Inns after 23 years in charge, he joked that he felt like Sachin Tendulkar walking to the crease for the last time, “but without the talent and without the adulation”. It’s a regrettable fact that to many people, who fail to understand how the pub industry works, and what Tuppen has achieved, he is less the “little master” and more the moustachioed, top-hatted pantomine villain, cloak swirling, evicting a stream of innocent struggling publicans into the snow. Alas, the tens of thousands who have been given the opportunity, through Enterprise Inns, to achieve their ambition of running a pub, and who are happy to be doing so, are nothing like as newsworthy as one angry publican in a North London suburb with lots of media types living nearby.

It’s a too-little-recognised fact that the rise of the big pubcos was not the result of the “law of unintended consequences” it has been presented in, for example, the book “Government Intervention in the Brewing Industry”, published earlier this year. It is certainly a fact that everybody involved in the Beer Orders of 1989, which ordered the then Big Six brewers to dispose of a large swath of their pubs, never realised that they would lead to massive pubcos dominating the industry: but they should have. Indeed, the rise of large, non-brewing, pub-operating companies in Britain was predicted almost 40 years before the Beer Orders. In a display of astonishing foresight, an economic analyst called Arthur Seldon, writing in The Economist in 1950, foresaw the rise of dominant, heavily advertised national beer brands, and the eventual division of the industry, as a result, into specialist brewers who had disposed of their pubs and “chains of ‘free’ houses … selling the beer in greatest demand.”

The Beer Orders, then, applying Seldon’s analysis, merely pulled the bolts from the dam gates, releasing the long-existing economic pressures on the big brewers to sell their outlets and concentrate on brewing. In the end, it did not matter that the Beer Orders watered down the original proposals of the Mergers and Monopolies Commission, and only ordered the big brewers to sell a proportion of their tied estates: once they had to sell some of their pubs, there was little remaining economic logic in keeping any of them.

The result was that hundreds of small pub companies arose to buy the blocks of pubs the big brewers were selling off. Among them was Enterprise Inns, founded by Tuppen in 1991 with the purchase of 375 pubs from Bass. Even in 1995, when it floated on the Stock Exchange, Enterprise still controlled fewer than 500 pubs. But clever manoeuvring and a stream of takeovers of other now forgotten pub companies, such as Mayfair Taverns and Century Inns, plus purchases of blocks of pubs from the remaining holdings of the big brewers, saw Tuppen’s baby grow to 3,400 pubs by 2001, and, just three years later, to more than 8,500 pubs, with the purchase of Laurel and Unique. In 13 years, then, Tuppen had grown his company to become more than 22 times larger than when it started. That’s a very rare achievement: positively Tendulkar-like.

Of course, much of this growth was powered by some pretty considerable borrowing: at the peak, Enterprise’s level of net debt was £3.8bn, equal to more than 250% of shareholders’ funds. But – and for once this IS a good excuse – everybody else was doing it, or at least, Enterprise’s main rivals were, and it was a case of borrow to grow, or go under and be swallowed yourself. In addition, it is difficult to blame Tuppen for the exuberance – what he himself this week called “massive over-excitement” – that pushed Enterprise’s share price to a peak of 774p in 2007. Nor was he responsible for the global financial crisis, and all the other problems which hammered pub incomes, and saw that share price plummet to 32p at the start of 2009.

Earlier in the presentation to analysts, Enterprise’s chairman, Rob Walker, had declared that Tuppen’s contribution to the success of the company he founded “cannot be under-estimated”, an unconscious slip (he meant “cannot be over-estimated”). But after presiding over such huge growth, Tuppen appears to have shown himself a leader for bad times as well as good. Today, Enterprise looks like a company on its way back. It has slashed the poorest performers out of its estate, which is now down to 5,500 pubs. It is now no longer having to sell better-performing pubs in order to cut its debts, though it has reduced its debts by well over £1bn in total, and its bank overdraft is now just £41m net. It is into its second quarter of like-for-like growth in income per pub. The shares, from being as low as 27p in January 2012, are now around 150p. There have been worse times for Tuppen to announce his retirement.

Not that his achievements are likely to stop the sneerers, who seem to want to blame Tuppen for every Enterprise pub that shuts down. But one of many points that critics of the pubco model fail to grasp is that a pubco doesn’t want its tenants and lessees to fail, because every failure costs it thousands of pounds, in lost income and other expenses. Last year the average cost of a pub failure to Enterprise was £18,000 – a total of more than £5m. This year it has managed to cut that cost per failure to £14,000, and reduce the number of failures by 21%. At the same time it is investing considerable effort into trying to ensure its publicans do not fail, including setting up an “intensive care unit”, the Beacon estate, where it takes over much of the running of the pub from struggling tenants. The idea that Enterprise is simply out to screw as much money out of its publicans as it can by pushing up rents as much as possible and charging them as much as possible for their beer is one only someone who doesn’t understand how businesses operate could hold. The pubco-tenant relationship is one of balance – if Enterprise’s bosses did not understand that, the company would have disappeared many years ago.

And there we come to another point that pubco critics fail to grasp: what the pubco does for the tenant. It is still a fact that by far the cheapest route into running your own business in Britain is through a pub tenancy. It’s a route thousands of would-be entrepreneurs find extremely attractive: Enterprise is still getting 70 applicants a week from people who would like to run one of its pubs, a figure than has risen 40% from last year. That’s more than 3,500 people a year. The company could replace every one of its current publicans in 18 months. What those applicants get from Enterprise is a choice of hundreds of pubs across the country, and, if they taken up a tenancy, the considerable amounts of aid and assistance that make up the “scorfa” – the “special commercial or financial advantage” – on which the pubco tied house business model is based. To quote Simon Townsend, Enterprise Inns’ chief operating officer and CEO-designate, “it’s inconceivable that these levels of investment, resources and discretionary financial support would be available were it not for the tied pub model.”

What seems to particularly rile people who don’t understand how the business works is that the “tied house” aspect allegedly “limits the range of beers the pub can sell”, and at a higher price than those beers can be bought for in the free trade. But Enterprise offers its publicans beers from 489 brewers (that’s more brewers than even existed in the UK ten years ago) and more than 1,400 cask ales, all of which can be ordered via one phonecall and delivered on one vehicle. Some limit. At the same time, the higher price of the beer is keeping the pub rent down, and helping pay for the other benefits of being a pubco tenant, including training, support services, marketing and promotional advice, one-stop supply ordering, and deals such as free wi-fi installation, and cheaper sign-ups with Sky and other broadcast providers.

There’s a good argument for saying that if it wasn’t for the pubco model and the support it provides licensees, even more pubs would have gone under in Britain than have so far. As one of the longest-lasting and most-successful pubco chief executives, having outlasted at the wicket most or all of his rivals from the early 1990s, Ted Tuppen can walk away from the crease, pulling off his batting gloves, with plenty of satisfaction.

BrewDog couldn’t be more wrong in wanting an ‘official’ definition of craft beer

Ancient Order of Frothblowers“Never be afraid to be controversial” is less a statement of policy and more like a reason for living, as far as the BrewDog guys are concerned. Last week James Watt, the brewery’s co-founder, put up on his blog an impassioned argument putting the case for an “official” definition of craft beer to be adopted in the UK. Below is my response, published originally over at the day job, showing how he’s completely wrong.

I won’t yield to anybody in my admiration for James Watt’s abilities as a guerrilla marketeer. He and Martin Dickie, co-founders of Brewdog, have skillfully turned a small independent brewery in – with the greatest respect to the people of North Aberdeenshire – the rear end of nowhere into one of the leaders of the small independent brewery sector in the UK. They now have a reputation among many beer drinkers as perhaps the most iconoclastic, “edgy” brewers in the country, a growing empire of their own bars around the UK, and a presence on the shelves of leading supermarkets and in any “craft beer” bar worthy of that name. From last month the pair even have their own TV show, Brew Dogs, on the Esquire cable TV network in the United States, where they travel across America, visiting bars and breweries and creating “locally inspired” beers. Fantastic. And yet, Watt’s latest campaign, to try to get an “official”, “industry recognised” definition of “craft beer”, to “protect the fledgling craft beer movement in the UK and in Europe” and also to “protect and inform the customer”, suggests to me he doesn’t actually understand the business environment he is working in as well as he thinks he does. What is more, his arguments for the need for an “official” definition of craft beer are entirely nonsensical and totally evidence-free.

Watt says the reason a proper definition of “craft beer”, “to be recognised by both CAMRA and SIBA and also at a European level by the Brewers of Europe Association” is required is because of “three words – Blue Fucking Moon”. Just like many small brewers in the US, he is clearly annoyed that Molson Coors’ Belgian-style wheat beer comes in packaging that could pass as a product from a much smaller operator, and does not declare itself in huge type to be made by one of the giants of the American beer market. He quotes approvingly Greg Koch of Stone Brewing in California, who also wants to define “craft beer” as something in opposition to “the industrialised notion of beer” that has been “preying on the populace for decades”. Unfortunately it’s not clear if Koch, or Watt, are really interested in “saving” the drinking public from “industrialised” beer, or protecting their own sales from a much bigger rival.

Watt insists that the British craft beer movement is being held back because of the lack of an official definition of craft beer, and “the US craft beer movement has only been able to grow as it has because of the US Brewers’ Association’s official and accepted definition of craft beer.” Naturally, Watt fails to give any evidence for these assertions, because there isn’t any. They’re total nonsense. Good grief, the definition Watt points to only came into existence eight years ago, in 2005, when the Brewers’ Association was formed of a merger between two other industry organisations and the combined membership decided to rig the rules so that the “big guys” would be excluded from their club. Nobody ever said before 2005: “I’m thinking of trying Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, but without an official and accepted definition of craft beer, I’m really not able to.” The boom in the US craft beer scene over the past 30 years has not been because anybody came up with a definition of “craft beer” and suddenly “craft beer” was able to take off: but because a wave of new producers dedicated to making small-batch, artisanal, flavourful beers met a wave of consumers happy to drink those sorts of beer.

This mistaken idea that consumer movements can only prosper when they have “official” guidelines to channel their enthusiasm leads Watt to assert that while “we want retail stores, bars, restaurants and hotels all to have a craft beer section in their offering,” it is “almost impossible to get them to commit to this without being able to offer them an official definition of what craft beer is.” More evidence-free nonsense. I don’t believe that any supermarket, any bar owner, any restaurant ever said to any small brewer: “I’d like to stock your beers, but without a definition of craft beer I’m just not able to do so.” Watt also declares: “What we don’t want, is for them to a create a craft beer section in their shop or menu only for this to be carpet-bombed by beers that are not craft.” What’s the matter, James – afraid that if a bar is selling Blue Moon alongside 5am Saint your beer will do badly?

The truth is not just that trying to define craft beer is impossible anyway. Watt suggests that the definition should be a completely circular one, that “craft beer is a beer brewed by a craft brewer at a craft brewery”, with the argument then devolving onto what a “craft brewer” and a “craft brewery” are – but his idea that the Campaign for Real Ale, an organisation Brewdog regularly chooses to battle with, would back any definition of “craft beer” Brewdog and SIBA might come up with is another nonsense.

The real point is that, despite Watt’s fantasy, any “official” definition of craft beer, will have little to no impact on the marketplace. Those operators who might be defined as “craft beer brewers” and “craft beer retailers” seem to be doing very well in the UK without any official definition of what they are making and selling – and in any case the UK’s small brewery movement seems to me to be well beyond the “fledgling” status Watt is trying to claim for it. If Brewdog is trying to trip up the likes of Sharp’s – now owned by Coors and thus, under the definition that Watt would like to see made “official”, not a maker of “craft beer” any more – Watt really needs to realise that getting craft beer “properly” defined will make no difference at all to the amount of Doom Bar being sold across British bar tops. Overwhelmingly the beer-drinking public, in Britain, in the US and elsewhere around the world, care nothing for “official” definitions of what they are drinking: that goes for the minority who are “craft beer” drinkers, and, of course, the vast majority who prefer those beers Watt and Koch define as “the industrialised notion of beer”, and wouldn’t drink a craft beer if you gave it do them free, no matter what category you said it was in.

Over to you …