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.

Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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 …

PBD, the issue that splits British brewing

A model of a brewery constructed on a half of a barley seed made by Ukrainian miniaturist Nikolai Syadristy

Now THAT’S a microbrewery: a model of a brewery constructed on half of a barley seed, made by Ukrainian miniaturist Nikolai Syadristy

If you want to start a punch-up, gather together some brewers from small operations, producing less than 5,000 barrels a year, add some brewers from larger concerns, producing 60,000 barrels or more, clamp a steel helmet on your head and then ask them to discuss Progressive Beer Duty. Never mind about discussions over the exact definition of “craft beer”, or whether keg beer is a valid choice for an artisanal brewer, PBD is the issue that splits the British brewing industry. Smaller brewers eligible for the tax cuts that PBD gives them, which can be equal to as much as 24p a pint, insist these are essential to help them compete with larger firms, and that as a result the choice to the British beer drinker has been greatly widened since its introduction. Larger brewers insist that PBD distorts the market, and that it unfairly hampers them in competing for business from the pub companies, because the pubcos, naturally enough, go to where they can buy beer cheapest, which means from those brewers being taxed 24p a pint less.

After a couple of news stories last week featuring two brewers, Arran Brewery and Black Sheep, who talked about the adverse impact PBD had on their own businesses, I wrote a comment piece for the day job about the inevitable distortions PBD causes in the marketplace. All taxes cause distortions: that’s just how economics works, and tweaking or adjusting taxes so that some sections are treated more lightly than others creates more distortions. You may feel the distortions that PBD creates are worthwhile because of the boost it seems to give to very small brewers, or you may feel that PBD is unfair and needs either serious tweaking or scrapping. Views seem to pretty much fall either way depending on whether the person expressing an opinion is a large brewer or a small one.

After my opinion piece came out, there was a minor twitterstorm, with small brewers totally denying Paul Theakston of Black Sheep’s thesis that pubcos were turning to smaller, PBD-entitled breweries to, effectively, snaffle that 24p-a-pint tax rebate for themselves. I had the commercial buyer of one medium-sized pubco, with more than 1,000 pubs, contact me specifically to deny that his beer-buying was influenced by whether or not the brewer he was buying from was entitled to PBD and could therefore afford to sell to him more cheaply. I had one small brewer demand: “Is there really a significant volume of market-distortingly cheap beer coming from small brewers?” Well, Black Sheep lost 6,000 barrels of pubco beer sales in the last financial year, and Paul Theakston appears to blame PBD allowing smaller rivals to sell cheaper beer. Another small brewer declared that PBD “helps a less efficient brewery compete, which is the idea.” But I don’t think I’m alone in believing that business shouldn’t be a handicap race, with the best being forced to carry a greater burden so that those not so good can have a chance of crossing the finishing line first.

Anyway, here’s the original opinion piece in full: I look forward to reading everybody’s comments!

The unintended consequences of Progressive Beer Duty

It’s a bitter irony that Black Sheep Brewery, one of the most successful of the “new” small breweries, now finds itself badly hit by a tax regime specifically fought for, and brought in, to encourage new small breweries. The problem is that Black Sheep, which brews excellent beers at its home in a converted maltings in Masham, North Yorkshire, is, after 21 years, no longer small – or, at least, no longer small enough to qualify for Progressive Beer Duty.

PBD, brought in by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2002, means any brewer making, currently, no more than 5,000 hectolitres of beer a year (a little over 3,000 barrels in old money) pays only half the normal excise duty, which, after VAT is taken into account, means an effective subsidy of 24p a pint. It gets complicated after that, as the tax relief slowly falls off with rises in production, but eventually full excise duty is payable on every pint once a brewer’s production goes over 60,000 hectolitres. The idea, as put forward by SIBA, the small brewers’ association (which had been campaigning for PBD since 1989) and the Campaign for Real Ale, was to enable small brewers to compete better, by removing some of the cost burden on them, and thus to encourage new entrants into the market and, as a result, improve consumer choice.

There is no doubt that new entrants have hit the market in a mighty tsunami: the number of breweries in the UK has boomed from around 450 in 2002 to some 1,150 today, a 155% increase. Gordon Brown has certainly had a lot to do with that explosion of new small breweries. But almost all those new entrants are competing in a minority segment of the British beer market, cask ale, and while cask ale may not be declining as fast as the overall UK beer market, it’s certainly not expanding. Those brewers under the PBD ceiling are, effectively able to sell their beer in a tight market up to 24p a pint cheaper than a brewer like Black Sheep, which finds itself having to pay full tax because it has been successful enough that it makes more than 60,000 hectolitres of beer a year. (It is not just Black Sheep that suffers from what many regard as an unfairly tilted playing field in this way, of course: so do almost all the old-established family brewers, from Fuller Smith & Turner to Adnam’s to Robinson’s.) The wholesale purchasers of beer (that is, the pubcos, mostly), naturally enough, go to where they can get it cheapest, and that is from those brewers who brew 60,000 hectolitres or less.

As a result, Black Sheep has found itself squeezed out, losing 6,000 barrels of pubco business in the 12 months to 31 March this year, and turning from profits of more than half a million pounds in 2011/12 to a loss of almost three quarters of a million pounds in 2012/13. Black Sheep’s founder, Paul Theakston, said: “Our Achilles heel has always been in our cask beer sales to the national pub companies, where … a policy of buying an increasing proportion of their cask beers from microbrewers, thus taking advantage of a significantly reduced buying-in cost through Progressive Beer Duty, has been the order of the day.”

What is happening, of course, is that the cost savings from PBD, instead of going to the small brewers, are going to the big pub companies, who can use the existence of a large number of alternative suppliers versus a comparatively small number of buyers (a condition known to economists as monopsony) to beat down the price of the beer they buy and pocket themselves a considerable slice of the 24p saved through PBD. This should not be a surprise to anybody. Indeed, it was specifically predicted in 2001, before Chancellor Gordon Brown even introduced PBD, in an article in the Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development by three economists, Geoff Pugh, David Tyrrall and John Wyld, called “Will Progressive Beer Duty Really Help UK Small Breweries?”

It’s a firm rule in journalism that the answer to any headline with a question mark at the end of it is always “No”. That normally only applies to such tabloid-style headlines as “Did the SAS kill Diana?” and “Will your pet give you cancer?” But the answer to the question Pugh, Wyld and Tyrrall posed seems to be pretty much in the negative, too. After a great deal of economists’ algebra, they concluded that, in the short term, “The overall effect of PBD will increase the profits of individual breweries, increase distributors’ profit and increase the quantity sold on the final market [because of a lower price].” However, “Over time increased profit for small breweries will attract new entrants … for the distributor, the ability to spread or reassign orders among an increased number of suppliers enables the price to be renegotiated downwards … the distributor is able to transfer increased profits from small brewers to itself.”

In other words, PBD gives you lots of breweries all right, but all that does is increase competition, squeeze profits in the brewery sector back down to where they were before PBD came along, and boost profits for the pubcos. That’s great if you’re a pubco, but it’s pretty tough if you’re Black Sheep, because you are suffering all the pricing pressures PBD allows pub companies to put on brewers, without being able to take advantage of PBD yourself. It also discourages those really small brewers who find themselves becoming successful from growing too much: earlier this week Gerald Michaluk, the MD of the Arran brewery in Scotland, which produces that country’s best-selling bottled craft ale, admitted he was delaying expansion deliberately to try to stay below the PBD threshold: “We have modestly grown the business because of our not wishing to exceed the half-duty production threshold without first upgrading our brewery on Arran to make the savings necessary to be able to afford to pay the extra 24p per bottle in tax that an increase in production would bring.” Any tax regime that inhibits growth and investment is a bad tax regime.

Black Sheep’s answer to the problem of competition from those with a better tax deal is to shift over, in part, to a sector where very few of those 700 new small brewers since 2002 will compete – keg beer. Announcing the move, Robert Theakston, Black Sheep’s MD, said: “I am aware of the preconceptions surrounding keg, but the opportunity the keg market brings is not to be dismissed. It will allow us to reach into the types of venues that can’t justify cask beer. There are an awful lot of sports clubs, hotels and restaurants than can only take keg beer that we currently can’t trade in.” This cannot be the result Camra would have wished for when it campaigned alongside SIBA for Progressive Beer Duty: one of the best-known (and best) new cask ale brewers being forced into making keg beer because PBD has brought so much competition into the cask market.

Cask ale ‘is unique to the pub’? Don’t bet on that

Beer Is Best Autumn nightsI’m as keen to big-up the attractions of the pub as anybody. But there was a big pull-out quote in the latest Cask Ale Report from a cask ale-selling publican in Bristol that “there is no future for a pub without cask ales. It’s the only thing in the pub not being taken by the supermarket trade.” For the day job these days I often write opinion pieces on the state of the pub and beer market, and here’s what I said last Friday on that particular claim: don’t bet on it. Because if anyone thinks cask ale will always remain the pub’s great usp, another think has already driven into your car park.

Despite the Cask Ale Report proclaiming (p5, column 2) that cask “is only available in pubs”, cask ale is in the British supermarket right now, albeit in the distinctively top-end Whole Foods Market, which is to Asda or Aldi what the American Bar at the Savoy is to a corner boozer in Balham. A number of the chain’s outlets in Britain sell draught beers and ciders to take away in “flagons” with resealable porcelain lids. The chain has even entered the UK on-trade: three months ago, the big Whole Foods Market in Kensington High Street was home to a week-long pop-up pub organised by Craft Beer Rising, which featured beers from Hogs Back and Otley Brewing, among others.

Whole Foods Market’s American origins made it open to the idea of a pop-up pub, since at least some of its stores in the US already have bars inside where you can settle down for a glass of draught beer. I first came across the idea of an off-licence (to use a British term) with a bar inside serving draught beers in Sonoma, California, nearly 20 years ago, and thought it an excellent idea. Try a brewer’s beers, and if you like them, buy a few bottles to take home.

That never caught on in the UK, for a range of reasons: licensing laws, drink-driving laws, the nature of British pub culture, the lack of space in most off-licences to install a bar and the other necessary facilities, and the conservatism of the British drinks trade. But today on the Venn diagram showing the drinks retailing market, the circles showing the on and off-licence sectors are slowly beginning to overlap. Many craft beer bars now have tall fridges on the customers’ side where they can take out bottles to drink there or go home with. Where I live in leafy West London, there are two off-licences nearby, Noble Wines in Hampton Hill and the Real Ale Shop in Twickenham, that each sell beer straight from the cask for customers to take home, an idea that has been around for decades, but which finally seems to be flying. I’m not aware yet of an off-licence with a bar, either regular or pop-up, in Britain yet. But it can only be a short while before they start to appear.

Meanwhile, if you’re calling in to your local offie to buy four pints of draught ale to take away, of course, you’re likely to pick up a bottle or six of beers for later in the week as well, and some wine, too, while you’re there. Don’t think Sainsbury’s and Tesco and even Waitrose haven’t noticed that phenomenon, don’t worry about people having a reason not to visit their own off-licence sections and aren’t wondering whether they can capture some of that take-away draught market themselves. We could, in what would be a hugely ironic move, see some of the pubs that have been converted into supermarkets selling cask ale again, albeit to take-away customers, rather than ones who hang around drinking.

Of course, the argument will still be that cask ale you take away even in a sealed container is not going to be as good as a pint freshly poured in a pub. The take-home beer loses carbonation, and starts to stale – though not, in my experience, as quickly as you might think. And it can still be a much better pint than is found in too many pubs. This is both a threat and, like all threats, an opportunity for pubs and brewers alike. Brewers, if they aren’t already, need to consider how they will cope with the inevitable request from supermarket chains for assistance in setting up take-away draught beer operations. Pubs need to consider how they are going to compete with an increase in the number of off-licences selling cask ale, by offering an easy take-home option themselves and/or by pushing hard on the superiority of the pub pint. And the authors of the Cask Ale Report need to include a look at the take-away cask ale scene in the next report.

A few fascinating cherries from the 2014 Cask Report

Cask ale reportThe seventh edition of Pete Brown’s yearly investigation into the state of cask ale in Britain, the Cask Report, came out this afternoon in time for Cask Ale Week, and as usual it’s full of fascinating cherries of information. Here’s a selection of random titbits you might miss in other stories about it:

● The report found that while cask ale drinkers wanted choice, licensees were changing their cask beer ranges quicker than drinkers liked or wanted. One in three cask ale drinkers thought a guest ale should be on the bar for at least a month, against only one in 12 licensees who would keep a guest ale on that long. Conversely, half of all licensees thought a guest ale should be on the bar a week or less, against barely one in five drinkers.

● Nearly one in five cask ale drinkers only tried it for the first time in the past four years.

● More than 10,000 pubs held beer festivals during 2012 – that’s getting on for one in six of all pubs, and one third of all pubs that serve real ale.

● Almost two thirds of licensees (63 per cent) who sell cask ale say cask ale is starting to attract younger drinkers into their pubs, and 61 per cent say cask ale is attracting women customers.

● One in five (20 per cent) of cask drinkers are aged under 35, only fractionally lower than the percentage under 35 for beer drinkers as a whole (21 per cent).

● Among people who have tried cask ale, the number who say it is their main drink has gone up by two thirds in the past year, from 6 per cent to 10 per cent.

● Two thirds of men have tried cask ale, and one third of women. Nearly six out of 10 – 58 per cent – tried it when they were under 25. When non-cask drinkers were asked what would make them try cask ale for the first time, 55 per cent said “nothing”, though 25 per cent said “free samples”. Not one person answered “stylish glassware”.

● On average, cask ale pubs stock 3.8 brands.

● Of all those who have tried cask ale, 90 per cent had heard of stout, although only 68 per cent had tried it. The most popular style was bitter, with 75 per cent having tried it out of 88 per cent who had heard of it. Only 72 per cent had heard of IPA – fewer than had heard of mild (75 per cent), though the same number had tried both drinks, 56 per cent. Half of cask ale drinkers had heard of Golden Ale, and 32 per cent had drunk it.

● Golden ale is the fastest growing cask ale style in the country, more than doubling its share of the market since 2008 and gaining 6,000 new stockists in the past year alone.

● Willingness to try new beers drops with age: on average, 18to 24 year-olds are likely to choose a beer they have never seen before 24 per cent of the time. This falls to just 10 per cent of the time for those aged 55 or over.

● “Craft beer” as a term is much better known in the trade than outside it: while 77 per cent of cask ale stockists have heard the term “craft beer”, only 37 per cent of all pub-goers are aware of “craft beer” as a concept, and 47 per cent of cask ale drinkers.

● Established cask ale brands from regional brewers are considered to be ‘craft’ by drinkers as much as if not more than newer breweries and imported beers.