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.

Why is Camra still getting beer history so very badly wrong?

Excuse the indentations in my forehead, that’s where I’ve been banging my head hard against my desk.

I’ve been reading the “Beer Styles” section in the just-published 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. Ron Pattinson gave a comprehensive triple kicking last year to the effectively identical section in the 2013 GBG, and yet this year the GBG’s claims about the history of British beer styles are still just as horribly, awfully wrong. It’s as if nothing Ron, or I, or other researchers into the history of beer have written over the past ten to 15 years or so had ever existed: a stew of errors, misinterpretations, myths, erroneous assumptions and factually baseless inventions. All of the errors, frankly, even before Ron gave them a good pounding back in 2012, were heartily demolished (apologies for the sound of my own trumpet) in my book Amber Gold and Black, published three years ago (and which sprang, as it happens, from a series of articles published in Camra’s own What’s Brewing on the history of beer styles). But since the GBG sells far more every year than AG&B has, that’s many thousands of beer lovers being fed gross inaccuracies about the history of the beers they drink, and only a few thousand getting the truth.

Rising Sun Enfield

Pale and stock ales advertised as on sale at the Rising Sun, Enfield circa 1900: you won’t find stock ales in many style guides, but they were aged versions of the drink otherwise sold “mild”, in other words, “old ales”.

What exactly is the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide getting wrong? Let’s begin with its insistence that “pale ale” and “bitter” are different products, which leads to the nonsensical statement (p29, last paragraph) that “From the early years of the 20th century, Bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” This is completely wrong, and a total misunderstanding, as I pointed out back in 2007 here. From the moment that bitter beers started to become popular in Britain, around the beginning of the 1840s, “bitter beer” and “pale ale” were used by brewers and commentators as synonyms. There never was any difference between the two. Why did “pale ale” come to be appended as a name mostly to the bottled version of bitter? Because generally in the 19th century brewers called the drink in the brewery “pale ale”, and that’s the name they put on their bottle labels, but in the pub drinkers called this new drink “bitter”, to differentiate it from the older, sweeter, but still (then) pale mild ales.

The section also claims that pale ale was invented because IPA was “considered too bitter for the domestic market” – total made-up rubbish, there is no evidence anywhere for this, and if IPA was “too bitter for the domestic market”, why did so many brewers advertise an IPA as part of their line-up? The weaker pale ales, below IPAs in brewers’ price lists, simply reflected 19th century brewers’ practice of selling two, three or four examples of each beer type, ale (that is, old-fashioned lightly hopped ale), porter/stout and the newer bitter/pale ale, at different “price points” (to use a modern expression) for different budgets. Thus, for example, the Aylesbury Brewery Company in 1899 sold four grades of pale ale, BA (for Bitter Ale), at the IPA “price point” of one shilling and sixpence a gallon (almost all “IPAs” sold at 1s 6d), BA No 2 at 1s 2d a gallon, BPA at one shilling a gallon and AK at 10 pence a gallon; four grades of mild ales, from XXXX at 1s 6d to XA at 10d; and three black beers, from Double Stout at 1s 6d to Porter at 1s. Shepherd Neame two years earlier was calling all its four grades of bitter beers “India Pale Ale”, from “Stock KK India Pale Ale” at 1s 8d a gallon through East India Pale Ales Nos 1 and 2 at 1s 4d and 1s a gallon to East India Pale Ale AK (sic) at 11d a gallon.

That brings us to the section on IPA itself. There’s the usual canard about the original IPAs being “strong in alcohol” to survive the journey east, although as Ron P has shown conclusively, at around 6 to 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 19th century IPAs were in the middle of the contemporary strength range, and weaker than 19th century milds. The GBG also asserts that India Pale Ale “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, and “the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were pale bronze in colour.” Wrong again – for a start, pale ale was around from at least the second half of the 17th century, a good hundred years before the Industrial Revolution began, as I showed in 2009. Second, almost ALL beers called “ale” in the 18th and 19th century were made from pale malt, as Ron Pattinson has comprehensively demonstrated with extracts from actual brewers’ records, which led eventually to “ale” meaning any malt liquor pale in colour, with “beer” restricted to the dark kinds, stout and porter, something I wrote about here. So in appearance, IPA wasn’t new at all. What it was, was the first bitter, well-hopped pale ale, as opposed to older sorts of pale ale that, following the style of malt liquors in Britain of the post-1710s “ale” type, were hopped (unlike the original unhopped ales) but less-hopped than “beers” such as porter and stout, and which were sold either “mild” (fresh) or “old” (aged).

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A tale of two beer festivals: GBBF versus LCBF

If I had wanted confirmation that the “non-macro” British beer scene is now split into two separate camps, serving different constituencies, with remarkably little cross-over between them, considering that both sides are dedicated to the pursuit of terrific beer, two events a couple of weeks back could not have made it clearer.

In West London, the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual Great British Beer Festival at Olympia delivered the products of around 350 different cask ale brewers to some 50,000 people over five days. Meanwhile, over (almost symbolically) on the other side of the city in East London, at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green, the first London Craft Beer Festival, on for three days in a considerably smaller venue, served beers from just 20 brewers, (only four of whom were also at GBBF*), most or all of it dispensed from pressurised containers that would have kegophobe Camra members fobbing with fury.

The most remarkable contrast between the two events was not the rather different attitudes to the idea of how “good beer” could be dispensed, however, but the very different sets of people attending each festival. The GBBF crowds were a wide selection of the sort of drinkers you might find in any pub in a middle-class area, minus the families though mostly male and skewed, it appeared to me, towards the over-40s – indeed, I’d say the number able to get to Olympia using their Boris bus pass (ahem – like me) was considerably greater than in the pub population at large.

The GBBF crowd

The GBBF crowd: older, mostly male. Your dad’s beer festival

The LCBF crowd, in contrast, was in parts almost a parody of hipsterdom: man buns and “ironic” short-back-and-sides with beards, plenty of checked shirts and Converse All-Stars, and with the hipster “ironic band T-shirt” (where you display on your chest the image of a beat combo popular with teenyboppers in the late 1980s) replaced with the “ironic beer T-shirt” (Tusker lager – I must dig out my Foster’s Special Bitter T-shirt from 1994 …). There were far more women as a proportion of the audience at the LCBF, and the age range was considerably narrower (and younger) than Olympia: I was older than 95 per cent or so of everybody else at the Bethnal Green event by a good 20 years, and (unlike Olympia), while there were plenty of beards, I was wearing one of the very, very few showing any signs of grey.

your little brother's beer festival

The LCBF crowd: younger, hipper. Your little brother’s beer festival

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Five facts you may not have known about India Pale Ale for #IPAday

‬IPAday 2013 logoIPA in India in the 19th century was drunk ice-cold

There are several references to “light bitter beer” being drunk “cold as ice could make it, the most refreshing of all drinks in this climate” in the journals and letters of expats in India from the 1820s to the 1850s.

The earliest use of the term India Pale Ale appears to have been in Australia

An advertisement for East India pale ale in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of Saturday, August 29 1829 is, at present, the earliest known sighting of the phrase “India Pale Ale”. Unfortunately the ad didn’t say who the brewer was, buy another advertisement in an Australian newspaper a few months later, the Colonial Times of Hobart in Tasmania on Friday, February 19 1830 lists “Taylor’s Brown Stout, East India Pale Ale (the best summer drink) and XXX Ale for sale”. “Taylor’s” almost certainly refers to Taylor Walker of the Barley Mow brewery, Limehouse, by the Thames in London, which can thus take the laurels as the first named brewer of a beer specifically referred to as IPA.

There are no actual references from the 19th century to the four-month sea-voyage out to India improving the flavour of IPA by the time it arrived in Calcutta or Bombay

This “fact” appears to have started as guesswork by 20th century writers, based at least in part on the fact that Madeira wine DID improve on the journey to India, so it was assumed that beer must do the same. Recent experiments suggest that, indeed, the long, slow heating and cooling that IPA would have undergone as it travelled in the holds of sailing ships from Britain would have altered and mellowed its flavours, but a full-scale trial has yet to be held …

The rise to fame and power of Burton upon Trent’s great brewers, such as Bass and Worthington, as brewers of India Pale Ale was at least in part because of a Russian import ban.

The Burton brewers’ biggest market until the very early 1820s was the Baltic region, and in particular Russia, where they sold a strong, dark, sweet brew called Burton Ale. When the Russians banned imports of ale (but not stout or porter) in 1822, Burton’s brewers were persuaded to replace this lost market with India, and to start brewing a pale, bitter beer for the first time.

Pale ales have been made for millennia

It has always been possible to make pale malt, from which pale ale is made, simply by sun-drying the malt. But that was always a risky affair in a wet climate. The invention of coke-fired maltings around the middle of the 17th century enabled maltsters to have much greater temperature control over the malting process, and from the start of the 18th century mentions of “pale ale” start to become more common.

The highs and lows of Hong Kong’s bar scene

La SalamandreIt is a truth universally acknowledged – in Wan Chai, at any rate – that a single man walking down Lockhart Road at night-time must be in want of a nice Filipina lady friend to be the Suzie Wong to his Robert Lomax. Hong Kong’s most persistent mama-sans will tug at your sleeve, trying to persuade you into their lap-dancing bars, where smiling young women from Manila or Luzon (so I am told) will attempt to get you to buy them drinks, at HK$300 – £25 – a time.

But while the image many people have of Hong Kong’s bar scene is probably based on Wan Chai’s pole-dancing clubs and places like the Old China Hand, where homesick expats can watch Six Nations rugby while washing down a full English breakfast with a pint of Stella, in fact the former colony’s drinking places are far more diverse and, sometimes, far, far better than anything you’ll find in Wan Chai. For the over-50 Westerner, Wan Chai is the place to go for a Friday night out. For anybody younger, Hong Konger or expat, the area known as Lan Kwai Fong, in Central, a couple of MTR stops to the west of Wan Chai, is now the wildly thumping heart of Hong Kong’s entertainment world: there is a whole grid of streets where practically everything is either a bar or a restaurant.

But drinking in Hong Kong is not just the Friday night rave scene in Lan Kwai Fong, either. While Hong Kong is not quite yet among the planet’s must-visit bar destinations, it has one of only two bars in Asia to appear in a list of “Great Craft Beer Bars Around the World” in a book by A Multiple Award-Winning Beer Writer due to be published in September, I can reveal (though I probably shouldn’t); it has the highest bar in the world, measured by distance from the ground; it has what must be one of the most unexpectedly situated craft beer bars in the world; and it has one or two of the world’s greatest beach bars. And while the beer in Wan Chai is generally pretty shoddy, if you know where to look you can find an impressive selection of terrific brews elsewhere in Hong Kong.

Agnès b Gough StreetIn fact Hong Kong is starting to be a place where you’ll discover great beer in outlets you’d never have thought had any interest in the idea. One of my favourite places to drink isn’t a bar in any conventional sense, but a French-style cafe chain run under the name of the Agnès b fashion group. They sell the usual sorts of French cafe foods – croques monsieur, baguettes, omelettes, pasta, salads, pastries and cakes – there’s a rather fine florist’s rammed into one corner, and an excellent range of nine or so organic, unfiltered beers from three breweries in the west of France that are the match of anything the best brewers elsewhere in the world can do.

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Gambling on finding good beer in Macau

Macau, today, is dedicated to the excellent pursuit of separating idiots from their money. This little peninsula on the west side of the Pearl River Delta, not even three miles long, and the two islands to its south that make up the Macau Special Administrative Region, both part and not-part of the Peoples’ Republic of China, now pull in annual gambling revenues of US$38 billion: bigger than the whole United States gambling industry and four times the turnover of Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined.

Idiots speeding across the Pearl River Delta to throw tbheir money away in Macau

Idiots speeding across the Pearl River Delta to throw their money away in Macau

But if hundreds of thousands – many from across the border in China “proper”, where organised gambling is illegal – now come to Macau to throw away their cash, does anyone ever go there for the beer? Well, I did – but then, I’m a different sort of idiot.

Actually, Macau is worth visiting for its own sake, not just if you’ve got too much money and can’t think how to get rid of it quickly. Its history – the Portuguese persuaded the Chinese to let them establish a permanent settlement there in 1557, and never gave the place back until 1999 – means that you can find old Chinese temples, pastel-coloured Roman Catholic churches and monuments to sheer over-the-top worship of money all within one 10-minute taxi ride. The food, as you would expect, is a cross between Cantonese/Chinese and Portuguese-colonial, which means Hainan chicken AND chicken piri-piri. Every Macan bakery supplies the lovely Portuguese egg custard tarts, of which I am very fond, hot and nommy. And the wildly bonkers casino architecture is entertaining in itself, even if you don’t put a single pataca in a slot-machine (not that you can: Macau’s own currency isn’t accepted in the casinos, only Hong Kong dollars). A replica of St Mark’s Square, Venice, with canals and gondolas? An 856-feet-tall tower modelled after a lotus flower? A 140-foot-tall fake volcano that “erupts” every evening? Come to Macau.

It’s one of the puzzles of Macau: do the people who visit it to gamble not look around and realise that the spectacular buildings, the rampant showing-off that, for example, filled in the sea between the islands of Coloane and Taipa to make the 250-acre Cotai Strip to provide land to build more casinos (and hotels to provide places for the gamblers in the casinos to sleep when they’re not gambling), the hotels and casinos themselves, each complex costing a couple of billion dollars or so, is all paid for out of their pockets? That however much they dream of winning, the number one rule in gambling is: “In the long run, you’ll never beat the house”, and that everything they see around them is a monument, literally, to that rule?

Macau Beer today

Macau Beer today

Still, there are other ways of gambling. A man called Mark Myrick gambled in 1996 on opening Macau’s first ever brewery, the Macau Brewing Company, in its entire 440-year history as a place of European settlement. It produced three different beers in bottles and kegs from an industrial building about halfway between the ferry terminal and the border with China proper, but was sold to local investors in 1999. They in turn sold the brewery, and all its kit to Kirin, the Japanese brewer, in 2002. The brewery equipment stayed where it was until 2011, when it was removed, but most, if not all, of what Kirin marketed as “Macau Beer” (with a picture of Macau’s most famous landmark, the ruined façade of St Paul’s Cathedral, on the label) was brewed at Kirin’s brewery in Zhuhai, across the border. Certainly today the “Macau Beer” you can buy in Macau – when you can find it – is almost definitely from Zhuhai.

When you CAN find it, it’s a pleasant enough mid-gold beer at the malty end of the rainbow, refreshing cold on a day when the temperature is in the 30s centigrade and you’ve been slogging the streets of Macau trying to discover a bar that offers more than the unholy quartet of Carlsberg, Heineken, Tsingtao and San Miguel. I don’t know why I thought the drinking places in Macau’s casino complexes might offer gamblers wanting a respite from throwing their capital away across the green baize something decent to drink, but clearly gamblers don’t care about what it is they wash away the sorrows of losing with. Hey, Steve Wynn, your Wynn Macau resort may be spectacular (the “Tree of Prosperity”, which rises periodically from the floor in one of the lobbies, is a full 15-minute light-and-sound show), but for a former drinks importer, the beer selection in your casino’s bars is rubbish. Continue reading

The Bass red triangle: things AB-InBev won’t tell you

Bass pale ale labelThere are stupid marketeers, and there’s AB-InBev. The Belgo-Brazilians have decided to rename one of the oldest beer brands in Britain, Bass pale ale, a literally iconic IPA, as “Bass Trademark Number One”. It’s a move so clueless, so lacking in understanding of how beer drinkers relate to the beers they drink, I have no doubt it will be held up to MBA students in five years’ time as a classic example of How To Royally Screw Up Your Brand.

The move is predicated upon the red triangle that is found on every bottle of Bass pale ale, and on every pumpclip of the draught version, being the first registered trademark in Britain. The generally accepted story is that after the passing of the Trade Mark Registration Act of 1875, when applications to apply for trademark registration opened on January 1, 1876, a Bass employee was sent to wait overnight outside the registrar’s office the day before in order to be the first in line to file to register a trademark the next morning, and that is why the company has trade mark number one. There is no evidence for this story: but it is certainly true that a label with the triangle on it, and the words “Bass & Co’s Pale Ale” is indeed the UK’s Trade Mark 1, having been the first to be registered on New Year’s Day 1876.

So why now rename a beer that has been around since the 1820s, when Bass first started brewing a bitter pale ale for the Far East market, after an event that happened when that beer was already 50 or more years old? Because AB-InBev is flailing around for a way to rescue the beer, once the most famous in the world, from the miserable position it has been in since, to be honest, long before what was then Interbrew acquired the Bass brands in 2000. Some idiot marketing focus group got together and tried to think of a unique selling point for the beer: and the only one they could come up with was that it bore the UK’s first registered trade mark.

As Pete Brown has already remarked, this is pretty much a result of the AB-InBev mindset, which knows far more about trademarks than it does about beer. Bass pale ale is a beer with a fantastic heritage: it was, for more than a century, a hugely highly regarded brew, globally as well as in the UK (my grandfather told me that before the First World War, he and his pals would scour North London looking for pubs that sold draught Bass), so much so that it suffered more than anyone else from lesser brews being passed off as the red triangle beer. That was one reason why Bass was so keen to register its own trademark as speedily as possible.

Before we continue, here’s a panegyric on Bass from a book published in 1884 called Fortunes Made In Business which will show you how much Bass was an icon:

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Beerfest Asia Singapore: the sublime and the ridiculous

Brewerkz IPA 2Young Singaporeans love to PARTAAAY. Which means that while Beerfest Asia, held in the city every June since 2009, now places a hefty emphasis on craft beers from small producers, for very many of the more than 25,000 people who pour in over four days to the festival site, the 400-plus different beers available, from Sweden to New Zealand, and Japan to Belgium, are less important than the opportunities to get pissed with friends, wear very silly hats, listen to very loud music and dance on the tables.

This probably explains why no one seems to think it incongruous that alongside all the craft beers (such as the highly regarded and multi-awarded Feral Brewing from Western Australia, Mikkeller from Denmark via various other places, Hitochino from Japan, De Molen from De Nederlands, Stone from California, Moa from New Zealand and our own dear BrewDog) there was not only a large stand for Jagermeister, but big bars run by AB InBev (featuring Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser) and by Asia Pacific Breweries, the Far Eastern arm of Heineken, selling the Dutch brewer’s eponymous eurofizz, plus Strongbow cider, Desperado tequila beer, and Sol. Truly the sublime being served alongside the ridiculous. Continue reading