Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement

I gave a presentation in Denmark to a conference called to discuss “Ny Nordisk Øl” – “New Nordic Beer” – on “Beer and terroir from an international perspective” on Friday November 7. This, slightly tweaked, expanded in a couple of places and cut in a couple more, is that presentation.

The brewers of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are already enthusiastically making beers that reflect the place they are made, using local ingredients: you can read about some of those beers here. But what the Ny Nordisk Øl movement is doing is just part, albeit a tremendous part, of a wider movement to get away from internationally reproducible styles of beer, a movement that is finding expression in North America via campaigns such as “Beers made by walking about” and by brewers such as the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco, the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, the Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois and Plan Bee brewery in New York state, in Italy, in New Zealand, and in Australia, most eloquently by Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall brewery in Tasmania.

As I researched for my presentation, it became clear that the “place-based beer” movement is a growing global phenomenon, albeit as yet those engaged in it often seem unaware that others are fighting a similar crusade. This is a long blog but, I hope you’ll agree, fascinating in its implications for the future of craft beer.

Beer and terroir coverBefore I begin talking about beer terroir, it would be best to say exactly what I mean by the term in the context of brewing, what I think you need in order to be able to say that a beer has characteristics that fall under the name “terroir”, and some of the problems of trying to talk about “beer and terroir”.

There are plenty of complicated ways of defining “terroir”, and what it takes for “terroir” to be reflected in a beer. But the one I like best was said by an American craft brewer who said he was attempting to achieve in his beers “the essence of here”.

How do you achieve “the essence of here”? In beer, there are, I hope you will agree, six major variables that affect the “hereness” of a beer:

● Grain
● Hops and other flavourings
● Water
● Yeast
● Brewing method
● Style – to the extent that style is not dictated by one or more of the other five factors.

Any one of those, I suggest, can be “local”, and capable of variations that can give the brewer a legitimate claim to be reflecting something of his or her region or people. With hops, the effects of terroir are widely accepted, though with grain there are more doubts: Mark Dorber, co-founder of the Beer Academy in the UK and a judge at the Great British Beer festival, said in 2012: “I certainly believe that the delicate citrusy Goldings grown in the East of Kent are markedly different from the more deeply perfumed Goldings of clay lands in Hereford and Worcester. But whether barley has ‘terroir’ as well is unclear. Barley’s plumpness, nitrogen content and general health may be more a function of annual weather patterns than of the soil and microclimate of its area of birth.” However, it seems unlikely that with hops, grapes, apples and other agricultural products reflecting where they are grown, barley grown in different terroirs and soils would not also show variable flavour characteristics.

Finnish-style kuurna

Paul Arney of the Ale Apothecary brewery, Bend, Oregon and his Finnish-style kuurna

Different yeasts have demonstrable effects on the flavours in beers, and the same is true of brewing methods. A decoction mash produces a different beer to an infusion mash. An IPA brewed in a Burton Union set will be a different beer to one brewed using exactly the same ingredients but in Yorkshire squares, and each can be legitimately said to reflect different regional traditions – including how a beer is served, with a “Yorkshire Square” beer suited to a specifically regional type of presentation, with a very tight head, that itself has implications for flavour and aroma – and different definitions of “here”. Each one of those variables can and will feed back into the others, and outside factors also reflecting “hereness”. If, for example, the local cuisine tends towards fatty foods, the local beer is likely to be more carbonated, to help cleanse the palate. If the local culture tends towards lengthy times spent socially in a bar or pub, the local beer is likely to be weaker than places where beer is more an adjunct to meals.

The difficulty we have in maintaining that there is such a thing as “beer terroir”, of course, is that all the factors that directly make a beer what it is can be reproduced, today, anywhere in the world. Grains, hops and other ingredients can be transported, if necessary, around the world. Water can now be demineralised and remineralised to match any location you like. Off-the-shelf yeasts to brew any style of beer you desire can be bought via the internet. And you can install a Yorkshire Square in Adelaide, or a Finnish kuurna in Argentina, or any other piece of kit anywhere you like, to imitate the brewing traditions of a land thousands of miles away.

A rare example of a British ale with place-specific ingredients

A rare example of a British ale with place-specific ingredients

Every brewing style we have inherited started as a local beer somewhere, reflecting local ingredients, local brewing methods, local tastes and local requirements for food matching and the like. Land-race barleys meant every region had malts made from barley varieties that had been bred, consciously or semi-consciously or entirely unconsciously, to suit the soils and environments in which they grew. Beers were made from local ingredients, in local styles that suited the local foods and the tastes and lifestyles of the local people. In some places this is still true. Across the Czech Republic, certainly for the majority of brewers, the barley they get for their Pilsner malts is almost always locally grown, with maltsters being very demanding in the barley cultivars they will accept, helped by the existence of an EU protected geographical indication (PGI) for “Czech Beer”, with the barley varieties allowed for production of beer that can use the “Czech Beer” PGI characterised by, among other things, a lower apparent attenuation limit, causing the presence of residual extract, with all that implies for taste, mouthfeel and so on.

Similarly the hop varieties will be limited to those traditionally used in classic Czech styles, and most be grown in one of the Republic’s three demarcated hop-growing territories, Žatec (or Saaz) and Ústí (or Auscha) in the north and Tršice (or Trschitz) in Moravia to the east, all of which have their own protected appellations. Most of the brewers of at least the “regional” size have their own labs and thus, most likely, their own yeast strains, and most breweries will use their own well-water to make their beer with. All of the beers will be made using variations on the decoction method of mashing the malt, which adds its own flavours and mouthfeels and so on. And Czech beer styles – Pilsen aside – are pretty much restricted to Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, particularly the most popular style, the pale, low-strength lager Světlé Výčepní pivo (literally “light draught beer”), which seems designed to fit into the Czech cultural preference for drinking vast quantities. So here we have an entire country whose beers strongly reflect place in pretty much every possible way: grain type, hop varieties, water, yeast, brewing methods and styles. Yet the idea that Czech beer has a terroir is seldom heard. The Czechs themselves seem not to make very much of the concept of “beer terroir”, and the rest of the world appears to regard Czech beer as just another, if generally superior, example of “global lager”, without recognising how much of it contains “the essence of there”.

Other Old World beer styles that sprang from a very specific place seem to suffer from the same problem: that because they can be reproduced anywhere and everywhere, no one regards them as particularly reflecting the “hereness” of where they sprang from. Dunkel lager may seem – it does to me – to be particularly suited to the pork-based cuisine of Bavaria, but nobody links this to the terroir of Franconia. Kölsch is another beer with PGI protection, and strict restrictions not only on the area within which it can be brewed and the types of barley and hop varieties that can be used to make the beer, but even on the style of glass it can be served in. But nobody seems to talk about how the beer is the essence of Cologne, and dozens of other breweries outside Germany make Kölsch-style beers without anyone calling them out. The same is true of other specifically geography-based German beer styles, such as Weissbier, and is happening with recently rediscovered styles, such as Grodziskie from Poland, or Gose, once very specifically a style of beer from Leipzig. Now American brewers, for example, are making their own versions of Gose, and not asking why and how this sour, salty style of beer grew up, and what it was about the region of Saxony that encouraged the development of that particular beer.

Wyeast Lambic packet

‘Payottenland in a packet’

In Belgium, home of probably more geographically defined beer styles in a small space than anywhere else, the lack of attention paid to any idea of “terroir” is even more remarkable. Lambic has to be made in a very specific area – Payottenland – in a very specific way, allowing fermentation by wild yeasts that are very specific to that geographical area, using very specific ingredients. But nobody talks about Lambic, or its blended version, gueuze, being the “essence” of the countryside west of Brussels. Anyone can buy Wyeast 3278 Lambic blend, with its mixture of Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces yeasts and Lactobacilli, “Payottenland in a packet”, and make a “Lambic-style” beer themselves. And hundreds do, particularly in the United States, where “Belgian-style” ales of all kinds find an enormous and welcoming market. Nobody seems to mind that their “lambic” did not come from anywhere close to the Belgian village of Lambeek.

Britain had its regional beers once, and once again they became internationally reproduced, global styles. Porter originated in London, was made from London well water, excellent for dark beers, with dark malt from neighbouring Hertfordshire and hops from neighbouring Kent, and was for 150 years the beer most associated with London. Having tumbled to vanishing point in the UK for two or three decades in the 20th century, porter is back, but still a minority beer in the UK today, with only one in 20 brewers nationally making one. In London, however, 40 per cent of the capital’s new small brewers, apparently aware of the city’s brewing traditions, make a porter: is a porter brewed in London today, because of the style’s origins in London, a “bière de terroir”, to invent a phrase?

If Britain no longer has specifically regional beer styles, according to Ali Capper, spokeswoman for the British Hop Association and a farmer who grows 40 hectares of hops in the Herefordshire-Worcestershire area, the country’s second most important area for hops, British hops have a unique terroir, with lower levels of myrcene, one of the flavour oils found in hop cones, and more British hops are being exported to the United States and Australasia because they are more delicate and complex in flavour than those grown in places such as Oregon, Tasmania and Nelson. In 2012, she told a meeting of 320 British craft brewers, in an attempt to persuade them to use more local-grown hops, rather than the deeply fashionable American, ones that the country’s hop-growing terroir was found nowhere else: “Every other hop-growing region in the world is continental; hot summers, colder winters, very different to Britain’s uniquely maritime climate. As a result we grow some of the most delicate, complex and complimentary aromas in the world.”

However, while Britain has brewers who can point to their specific water supplies, or their local malts or hops, and brewers such as Shepherd Neame, of Faversham in Kent, who can and do claim to use entirely local ingredients, in this case, Kentish hops and Kent-grown barley, plus its own well water and its own house yeast, very few British brewers seems to have taken on board the word “terroir”, perhaps fearing ridicule. Even though it is noticeable that the London brewer Fuller Smith & Turner, which uses essentially the same ingredients as Shepherd Neame, makes beers with very different flavours, in large part because of the influences of the two breweries’ house yeasts, again there is no claim by Shepherd Neame to any sort of Kentish terroir. It is ironic that Kent is also home to some of England’s best wine growers, who are making some very highly regarded sparkling wines, and who are keen to point to the similarities of their soil to that of the Champagne region, and to claim a similar sort of terroir to the place where the most expensive sparkling wines come from.

One British brewer not afraid to use the ‘T” word is the Lancashire company Moorhouse’s of Burnley, which has persuaded farmers in its home county to start growing Maris Otter, the now traditional “cask ale” barley, and one which, perhaps significantly, has clear genetic links with landrace barleys of the past. In July this year, Moorhouse’s managing director, David Grant, said: “We aim to build a ‘terroir’ similar to that for French wines. We want publicans to know they can have cask ales with real provenance from Burnley – ales brewed in Lancashire from the best Lancashire malt. By ensuring a market we are helping it to survive, for our own sustainable future and for the industry.”

Wild Beer: reflecting the Somerset terroir

Wild Beer: reflecting the Somerset terroir

Another is the Wild Beer Co of Somerset, founded in 2012 by Andrew Cooper and the perhaps aptly named Brett Ellis. Both were working at another brewery, but felt there was an opportunity to present a unique brewery concept in the UK, concentrating on barrel-ageing, wild yeasts and unusual ingredients. Among their beers is one called Somerset Wild, first brewed in October 2013, made with extra pale, wheat and acidulated malts, and yeast harvested from local apple orchards in Somerset, a county known for its ciders. The beer is very pale and hazy, dry, cidery and lemon-sour, and its use of local wild yeasts, Cooper and Ellis say, is “an homage to the Somerset terroir.”

There are a few British brewers using local ingredients, most notably, of course, Williams Brothers, which has ploughed a more or less solitary furrow since first making Fraoch heather ale 20 or so years ago. Williams Brothers has inspired brewers outside the UK to take up using local ingredients, but very few have repeated the company’s efforts back home, apart from occasional special brewings. I was involved in one such effort earlier this year, when the Windsor and Eton Brewery went to the London Amateur Brewers group and asked its members to take part in a competition to find a recipe for a beer to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which was signed (or to be historically accurate, sealed) at Runnymede, a sort distance down the Thames from Windsor. One of the group’s members, Manmohan Birdi, approached me to ask about Berkshire hops, and I suggested that it would be slightly more authentic to use herbs such as yarrow and ground ivy/alehoof in the ale, since these would probably have been used by 13th century brewers and would be found in the Runnymead area growing wild. Manmohan followed my suggestion, and his beer won the competition, with Windsor and Eton brewing a commercial-sized batch of the beer for bottling.

The brewery managed to source commercial quantities of yarrow and ground ivy, but Paddy Johnson, the head brewer, wasn’t happy with the look of the ground ivy – rather dried-up – and went out the evening before brewing was due to take place to see if he could find some growing along the Thames. He was staring at a patch he though was the plant when a man walking his dog came along and asked Paddy what he was doing. The brewer explained that he was after ground ivy, to brew with, but wasn’t sure of the plant in front of him was the right one, and the dog-walker said: “Well, I’m a botanist, and yes, that’s ground ivy all right.” What are the chances? So Paddy filled the plastic bags he had brought with him, and Magna Carta Ale contains ingredients that grew just a short distance from Runnymead.

Like the beers made by the Williams brothers, Grant, Cooper and Ellis, however, this seems to be a rare exception of a beer with the “essence of here” among the ingredients. So is “beer terroir”, the belief that you can reflect the “essence of here” in a beer, a non-idea for commercial brewers, because what makes a beer “from here” is so easily reproducible everywhere? The makers of the many traditional formerly locality-based European beers seem to think so, because even when they attempt to protect themselves with PGIs and the like, the concept of “terroir” is not one they consciously wield.

However, there ARE brewers not afraid to pick up the idea of beer terroir and run with it wherever it might take them, though ironically, it is brewers working outside the older brewing countries who are the enthusiasts for the possibilities of local beer that reflects local environments, local authenticities, local tastes and local uniquenesses. In the Americas, North and South, in Australia and New Zealand, in Japan, and in countries such as France and Italy that are familiar with the concept of terroir as it applies to wine, brewers are experimenting with local ingredients, local yeasts, local flavours and partnerships with other local alcohol traditions to make beers that do indeed contain the ineffable “essence of here”.

Sometimes these efforts seem to be nothing more than an attempt to show that something can be done: for example, the Ontario Beer Company in Canada and its two “all-Ontario beers”, 100 Mile Lager and 100 Mile Ale. Both hops and barley are grown in Ontario, but not in huge quantities, and Ontario brewers would normally get their hops from the United States and their malted barley from Saskatchewan. To make all-Ontario beer (using Lake Ontario water) in commercial quantities, 35,000 litres, brewer Brad Clifford had to buy Chinook and Cascade hops from five different farms in the province to get the 300 pounds – 140kg – he needed, and place a special order with the Canadian Malting Company for sufficient malt, well in advance of brewday. But nothing very much is being claimed for the two beers in the way of Ontarian terroir.

Sierra Nevada Estate AleRather more is made of Estate Ale, made by Sierra Nevada in California. Although it is now a substantial brewer, employing 400 people and producing more than a million barrels a year, Sierra Nevada also has a positively minute operation at its home in Chico, California where two full-time farmers look after 30 acres of organic barley and nine acres of organic hops: Cascade, Chinook and Citra. The barley is harvested and turned into malt every autumn, which is then ground to make wort, the hops are picked and added undried to the brewery kettle (since Sierra Nevada has no kilns to dry them), and a tiny 800 barrels of 6.7 per cent abv Estate Homegrown Ale is made. Unlike in a normal brewing operation, there is no chance for the brewer to blend the malts and hops used to make the beer to try to achieve consistency, and thus, far more than in regular beers, each batch of Estate Ale reflects the weather – rainfall, temperature and humidity – over the time that the barley and hops were growing, and each year’s beer will be subtly different from previous years. This is exactly the sort of “terroir” influence that winemakers talk about, and Sierra Nevada is not afraid to use the word “terroir” when describing the flavours found in Estate Ale, such as grass, green vegetables and cedar. Some of those flavours come from the use of “wet” – undried – hops, and Ken Grossman, founder and now president of Sierra Nevada, was one of the pioneers of “wet hop” beers, in 1996, a process that ties the beer made with wet hops into a very specific time: the hops, if not dried, have to be used within 12 hours or less of being harvested. Wet hop beers are becoming increasingly popular as a sort of “Beaujolais Noveau” of beer, with brewers racing to be the first to get freshly harvested hops into the copper. Few, though, are making anything to the “terroir” aspect of using fresh, undried hops.

In a slightly different take on the same “brewery farm” idea, the Oregon brewer Rogue Ales leases 265 acres from Oregon farmers for growing two varieties of barley, called Risk and Dare, and 42 acres for raising seven strains of hop, which are used to make specifically Oregon brews. The beers made from those hops and that barley go out under the Chatoe Rogue name, and the bottle label goes so far as to give the latitude and longitude of the “micro” hopyard and barley farm. Five different beers have been made so far, including an amber ale called OREgasmic Ale, a wet hop ale, again, and a black lager.

These are, however, expensive beers to make, and perhaps only big, successful brewers like Sierra Nevada and Rogue can afford the luxury of their own hopyards and barley farms. Ken Grossman has said that, including labour, it costs his company $170 to grow a pound of its own Estate hops, against the mere $2 a pound it would pay for hops on the open market. At the same time having the fields where the Estate Ale hops and barley are grown certified organic cost Sierra Nevada tens of thousands of dollars.

For brewers in the right parts of the world, there is no need to have your own farm. The Seven Brides Brewery is in the Willamette area of Oregon, the heart of the Pacific North West hop-growing area, and uses local-grown malted barley and hop varieties grown within three miles of the brewery: Willamette, an American type, but also Hallertau and Perle, originally from Germany, Fuggles from England and others. Jeff DeSantis, owner-brewer at Seven Brides, says that the soils of the Willamette valley produce hops with distinctive flavours and oils compared to their European counterparts, so that even with the same recipes and same varieties, his beers are going to show a definite Oregon terroir.

It can be argued that “terroir” was properly discovered in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when brewers in California first started deliberately using massive amounts of Cascade hops, inventing the “American Pale Ale” style, the continent’s first indigenous style, which quickly revealed a previously untapped desire among drinkers for strongly hop-forward beers. The Cascade hop’s parentage undoubtedly includes some contribution from the wild American hops that were already growing across the continent when European settlers arrived with their own hop varieties. Those European hops interbred with their wild American cousins, which contributed flavours to American varieties such as Cluster that European brewers dismissed with adjectives such as “rank”, “piney”, and “catty”. But from 1980 onwards, with the influence of beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, made with Cascade, the flavours that hops with a contribution from native American varieties gave to beer became increasingly popular. Again, while American Pale Ale reflected its terroir, through the use of hops with an American ancestry, there were and are no barriers to brewers elsewhere making beers with the same hops, not any barriers to hop growers elsewhere growing those same hops, and indeed, Cascade is now grown in Australia, in New Zealand and in England: in Australia and New Zealand, at least, there is a definite “terroir” influence, with New Zealand Cascades, according to one brewer who knows both varieties well, having a more grassy/chlorophyll character.

Neomexicanus hops

Neomexicanus hops: a genuinely American variety

However, brewers are now moving on from “half-breed” Euro-American hops to the full-blooded version: there is increasing interest in brewing with actual wild American varieties, and breeding those wild varieties to find types that can be cultivated by farmers. Of the three varieties of wild hop in North America, the one exciting most interest goes under the botanical name of Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus, which as its name suggests, is found in New Mexico, and right through the Rocky Mountains area, from the Mexico border to Saskatchewan. A man called Todd Bates has been home-brewing with wild neomexicanus hops he finds around his home near Taos, New Mexico since the mid-1990s. The best varieties that Bates has discovered are now being grown on a hop farm in the Yakima Valley in Washington, and the first commercial beers made with neomexicanus appeared this year, one made by Crazy Mountain Brewery of Colorado, Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale, and the other, almost inevitably, by Sierra Nevada, which releases its Neomexicanus Wild Hop IPA next month, December. Sierra Nevada said of the beer: “These bizarre, multi-headed, native US cones have a flavour like nothing we’ve tasted, and for the first time, we’re showcasing their unusual melon, apricot and citrus aromas and flavours in our beer.” Without a doubt, a large part of the appeal of these and what seem certain to be many more neomexicanus hop beers to follow will be customers’ desire to taste a truly American beer made with a truly “essence of here” hop.

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan

Others find terroir in a different way. Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan of the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco say they “aim to create something special and uniquely Northern Californian” with a brewery “dedicated to producing seasonal artisan ales, brewed specifically to complement local cuisine, sourced and prepared with the same great care and craft. Each harvest we partner with a different Northern California farm to supply the fruit used for our next brew. Every beer is a collaboration between us and the local terroir. Before brewing ever begins, we collaborate on ideas for interesting, unusual and seasonal beers. Once we’ve settled on that idea, we carefully select our partner farm – focusing on small, family-run operations, just like us. Then we start with the basics. Water, malt, yeast and hops are combined to create a balanced beer with equal parts sweet and bitter. Then the fruit is added, so that the hungry yeast can eat the sugars in the fruit as well. This creates a beer that has all of the flavours of the fruit, without overbearing sweetness. All of our base recipes are rooted in, but not limited to, classic beer styles and brewed in small batches. When ready, our beers are released to our favourite local restaurants and retailers to be enjoyed with food and friends.” Among the Almanac Beer Company’s beers is one called Golden Gate Gose, at five per cent abv.

A similar line is taken by Kim Kowalski, brewer at the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, who says: “Anything we can harvest locally is what I like to use. Local honey, local vegetables or fruits or herbs is really fun because it says who we are, speaks for the area it comes from.” Some go further than just harvesting herbs, At the Ale Apothecary brewery in Bend, Oregon brewer Paul Arney felled a 200-year-old spruce tree that grew down the hill on the brewery grounds in 2012 and hollowed it out to make a Finnish-style kuurna, the rudimentary, rustic trough-like log that acts as a lauter tun in sahti brewing, though he lined it with a lattice of Oregonian spruce branches rather than the juniper branches used in Finland. About the spruce, Arney says: “There’s a connection with the American colonial brewer and it grows on our brewery property.” After lautering, Arney boils the wort before adding a small amount of hops for bitterness or, in the spring, fresh, herbal spruce tips, and selling it as Sahati.

Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson

Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson

It is, however, the growing farm-brewery movement that is the among the most specifically enthusiastic about beer terroir. Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson, is the only brewery to currently make every one of its beers with all-New York ingredients. The hops and barley are grown in the state, with many of the hops coming from Watson’s back yard, and his current house yeast strain was originally found on Muscadine grapes growing in his back yard as well, and developed through repeated brewing sessions. Watson is currently experimenting with other yeast strains: a peach tree strain, strawberry yeast, and a newly cultured honey yeast. Watson wants to find a larger property, of around 15 to 30 acres, put most of it to over to growing grain, with an acre of hops. With that, he hopes, Plan Bee can source every ingredient from its own property, with a larger apiary, a malthouse, a hop-oast, and a small orchard.

The Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois “focuses on farmhouse beers and other styles brewed with home-grown and locally farmed and foraged ingredients.” The brewers describe what they are doing as “an uncharted frontier in modern brewing, showing the nearly limitless possibilities of brewing and bittering with plants other than hops in combination with modern malts, yeasts, and global beer styles.” It produces more than a dozen different sorts of gruit beer, sparking up traditional beer styles with the addition of local ingredients, including nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion and maple sap. The brewery’s beers include an unhopped burdock sahti, a sour Finnish ale bittered with cedar and roasted burdock root; hickory leaf IPA, an “English-style” IPA made with fresh hickory leaves, which add a dry bitterness to the end of the palate, and in particular 105, a strong saison made with 105 different “previously living organisms”, all herbs, roots, fungi, fruit. The brewers describe it as “an aroma of earth and herbs … complimented by a complex flavour of citrus, pepper and dirt created by the myriad of Southern Illinois’ ingredients: the essence of here.”

Foraged ingredients are one of the important strands in experimental new brewers’ search for a terroir of beer, a strand that looks back to pre-hop brewing traditions, and what was known on the mainland of Europe – although not in Britain – as gruit beer, when flavourings were whatever herbs, plants, roots and leaves could be found in the local woods or on the local moors. One of the forces behind the nascent “place-based beer” movement in the United States is the Beers Made by Walking project, founded by Eric Steen in 2011. Brewers are invited on hikes, and then brew beers inspired by those hikes, using ingredients found and identified on those hikes. To quote Steen, ” Each walk is different, each beer is a portrait of that landscape … Each beer becomes a drinkable look into the specific place that inspired its creation.” Among the plants that have gone into beers from the Beers Made by Walking project, a fair few are well-known pre-hop ale herbs, such as yarrow and spruce tips, but more unusual additions have included rose hips, huckleberries, Melissa mint, vanilla leaf, red cedar tips, Saint John’s wort, wild ginger, sumac, bee balm, pineapple weed and amarinth

In Britain, the Pilot brewery, which opened in Leith, just outside Edinburgh in 2013, linked up with the Vintage bar and restaurant in Leith, which has been using foraged food in its seasonal menus. The restaurant supplied the brewery with foraged ingredients for a gruit ale to be sold to diners – scurvy grass, a relative of horseradish; laver, a variety of edible seaweed; crab apples; black lovage, a celery-like plant now naturalised in Britain but originally from Macedonia; sea buckthorn; and juniper branches. The Ilkley brewery’s 5% gruit ale, called Doctor’s Orders, uses a recipe put together by beer sommelier Jane Peyton containing a couple of very traditional herbs for flavouring pre-hop ale, yarrow and bog myrtle, along with rosemary, sage, heather flowers and heather foraged from Ilkley Moor. In Corsica, Brasserie Pietra makes a wheat beer called Colomba that is flavoured with herbs gathered from the local “maquis”, or shrubland.

Other have been adding ingredients that are simply there, rather than ones that have to be foraged for. In Italy, a country with almost no native brewing traditions, the host of new small brewers have been enthusiastically throwing whatever is at hand into their brews. Several brewers have been combining local grapes with beer: Nicola Perra of Birrificio Barley in Sardinia takes Cannonau grapes right after they have been harvested, boils them for 16 hours, adds wort from mashing six types of British malt and Cascade hops and ferments it all to make a brew called BB10. Similarly LoverBeer in Piedmont brews a tart and citric beer incorporating local Freisa grape must. Many put chestnuts into their brews, in the form of chestnut flour, roast chestnuts, chestnut pieces, as in Birra Amiata Artisinale of Tuscany’s Vecchia Bastarda – “Old Bastard” – chestnut honey and chestnut jam. Chestnut beers have become such a characteristically Italian style that they now have their own category in the country’s annual beer competition. This is terroir – using local produce – almost forcing itself upon brewers.

Draught GoseIn New Zealand, brewers have been reflecting where they are by flavouring their beers with indigenous trees and shrubs. The Good George brewpub in Hamilton made a Lime and Horopito Gose, which included lime zest and juice, leaves from the horopito shrub, native to New Zealand, and also called a pepper tree because its leaves have a hot taste, Marlborough sea salt, and Motueka hops. The Wigram Brewery from Christchurch makes a spruce beer in memory of the 18th century Captain James Cook, who himself made a spruce beer when he landed in New Zealand, and like Cook they use leaves from the native manuka tree, the New Zealand tea tree, which give menthol flavours to the beer.

In Japan, while beer has been taken up enthusiastically since it arrived in the 1870s, there has been no sense of anything that might be recognised as “terroir” about the country’s beers. A few years ago, one man, Shiro Yamada, a financier who had spent time studying in England and had fallen in love with European beers, decided that what his country needed was beers that could pair with Japanese cuisine. When I met him, he told me: “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK, beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.” Yamada picked two typically Japanese flavourings, sanshō, or Japanese pepper, and yuzu, a citrus fruit that looks like marriage between a grapefruit and a mandarin. Yamada says he went to Japanese brewers to try go get his beers made “but in terms of quality and passion” nobody matched Wim Saeyens, the brewer at De Graal in Belgium. Thus to make his beers, Kagua Blonde and Kagua Rouge – Kagua meaning “Japanese aroma” – the sanshō and yuzu that give them their aroma and flavour are grown by “top quality producers who have exceptional reputations”, according to Yamada, harvested, and flown out to Belgium from Japan, 6,000 miles. Once the beer is brewed, then it has to make the journey back again, to go on sale in Japanese restaurants and bars. Kagua is a beer that, through the flavours derived from the Japanese ingredients, certainly reflects “hereness” better than most Japanese beers, but a 12,000-mile round trip may detract from the “localness”.

Yamada’s aim was comparatively simple: to make a Japanese beer that could complement Japanese food. The most radical expression of the search for beer terroir today comes from a few thousand miles south of Japan, in Tasmania, and from a man who was originally not even a brewer, but a wine-maker. Ashley Huntington was born in Australia, trained as a wine maker, worked in the Languedoc in France for six years and came back to Tasmania, where he bought a farm with the intention of making wine. “I soon realised that 60% of Australian hops were grown all around me and yet not a single brewery was located within cooee … odd! It smelt like opportunity and, with the wine industry in meltdown, I jumped in head-first.” Huntington knew so little about brewing, he thought he had to grow his own ingredients, setting up a small hopfield and harvesting his own cereals.

Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Brewery, writer of what could be the place-based beer brewer's manifesto

Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Brewery, writer of what could be the place-based beer brewer’s manifesto

The first brews from his Two Metre Tall brewery were hit by wild yeasts – but Huntington welcomed this, figuring that the esters and acidity the wild yeasts brought made for better, more drinkable beers. He experimented with steeping fruit from neighbouring orchards in barrels with his acidic beer. Today all the brewery’s beers are made from ingredients either grown on the farm or sourced locally. They include a Sour Cherry Ale, made with whole Morello cherries grown locally and oak-barrel fermented for seven months, and a Sour Plum ale, made with wild plums collected from along the river around the farm. Huntington says: “The fruit is thrown into the barrel with its skin on and the indigenous yeast goes to work. Wild beer is a beautiful, natural, risky technique and no result is guaranteed – just the way I like it.” All his beers, he says, reflect “the desire to create expressions of place and time. Beer terroir!” Two years ago, Huntington won a $20,000 Churchill scholarship which enabled him to travel to Europe and America, talking to brewers and maltsters about farmhouse brewing, spontaneous fermentation and the use of fruits in beer. At the end of the trip, Huntington wrote a report summarising his experiences which could serve as a manifesto for those who, like him, believe in the possibility of beer terroir:

” I could envisage in my mind’s eye the very alluring prospect of travelling around the world drinking beers which were not a slavish local mimicry of some internationally ubiquitous “beer style”, but beverages produced by creative and inventive brewers harvesting their local ingredients – cereals, hops or local significant spices and aromatics – and transforming these worts into beers of provenance by harnessing the fermentative powers of the microflora indigenous to the location of the brewery. It recalled the very best of the international wine industry, and evoked the elements common to the most flavoursome, the most sought after and the most revered foods on the planet; time, place and individual. Even more alluring was that such a concept in beer could emerge from the intellectual ruin of the profiteering multi-nationals, who for their own profit, have reduced the imagination of brewers and the expectations of consumers to the very baseline. No, beer is not simply the common beverage of the poor, just as it is a fiction that wine will somehow raise the social standing of those who are knowledgeable about it. Beer deserves its place as one of the oldest, most important, most nutritious and most culturally significant foods offered to humankind and it is very much the remit of the brewing craftsman to deliver against this ambition.”

Many thanks to all those who supplied me with information for this presentation, including Kelly Ryan, Graham Reeks, Gary Gillman, Max Pivero, Eugene Tolstov, Ricardo Aparicio and Stefano Ricci

Why the Micropub Association should be furious with Camra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much is a pub worth? The Lib Dems don’t know

I don’t like people telling me what to do: very probably you are the same. I don’t just get angry at people telling me what to do: I also get angry when people try to tell other people what to do, arrogantly and without cause, people like James Watson, who holds the position of East London Pubs Preservation Officer for the Campaign for Real Ale.

I live in a nice Edwardian house that has a covenant in the original deeds which declares that it can never be used as licensed premises. Do you think that’s wrong? I think that’s wrong – it’s my house, and within the limits of the law, I should be able to do what I like with my own property. If I want to turn it into a freehouse called the Duck and Dive, then – provided I don’t inconvenience my neighbours more than is reasonable – that should be my right.

Turn that covenant on its head, and any major restriction on my right to do what I like with my property within the bounds of the law applies just as much – that is to say, if there were a covenant on this dwelling saying it could only ever be used as a pub, that it must be a pub for all time, that would be just as wrong. It’s mine, I own it – don’t tell me what to do with it.

James Watson, however, disagrees. A gentleman called Sandeep Johal has bought an old Victorian pub called the Prince Edward, in Wick Road, Hackney. I’ve never been in it, but from the outside it looks like a pretty typical East End boozer. Mr Johal wants to knock it down, and build a five-storey block of nine flats in its place. He owns it – it’s his property, and within the law, surely he should be permitted to do with it what he likes. Nine flats in Hackney – sit down now if you’re reading this outside London, but flats in E9 can go for anywhere between £500,000 and £750,000 each. I’d guess that even after the cost of acquisition and building, Mr Johal would be looking at a profit of £3 million or more, minimum. Is anyone going to pay him £3 million more than it cost him to acquire the Prince Edward, just to keep it open as a pub? Is he going to make £3 million in rent in any time under 30 years if it continues to run as a pub? (Clue – no, twice.)

Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters

Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters

Mr Watson says otherwise. He told the Hackney Citizen “The only reason [Mr Johal] wants to bulldoze this pub and build flats is for short term financial gain for himself” – James, you’re saying that as if it’s a bad thing – “at the expense of this community, and as a representative of a consumer rights organisation that champions responsible drinking, I think that stinks.” As a member of that same consumer rights organisation, and as a strong supporter of responsible drinking, I can’t see what either consumer rights or responsible drinking have to do with someone’s right to do with their own property what they want to.

According to the Hackney Citizen, Mr Watson then went off on a rant against hipsters, apparently based on the fact that the Prince Edward’s customers are largely working class and, in considerable part, of West Indian origin. The Citizen quotes Mr Watson as saying: “The problem with gentrified hipster Hackney is that you leave other people behind. You leave behind working class, dare I say poor, downtrodden people. [You may dare say, James, but I fear you sound like a pretentious, patronising prat for so daring] These are salt of the earth people who are not going to pay £5.50 for a bottle of craft beer. They want to be in a place where they recognise the food offering. Many of these people’s parents and grandparents have been coming here and marking their life events here for years. They are almost the forgotten people of Hackney, but these people are council tax payers and they have been here a lot longer than the hipsters.” There you are, Mr Johal: the rights of the people to eat sausage, egg and chips and drink cheap beer trump your right to do what you want with something you bought.

I love pubs, and I hate pub closures just as much as James Watson hates pub closures. (I quite like hipsters, though – I like the way they’ve brought the dimpled beer mug back into fashion.) I’m as sorry as James Watson is that the people of Hackney look like losing a place that has been a part of their lives since the 1860s. But the idea that because a building is or has been used as a pub, that makes it special and privileged, and deserving of protected status is nonsense. It’s just the same nonsense that saw the self-styled “pro-pub party”, the Liberal Democrats, pass a motion at their spring conference in York a couple of weeks ago under the title “A Better More Sustainable future for British pubs”, proposing to give pub tenants the right to buy their freehold at an independently assessed market value if their pub company puts the site on the market. But “market value” as what?

A premises might have a market value of £500,000 as a pub, since the returns on its usage as licensed premises would only support that valuation, but a value much more as a supermarket, if the returns on its use as a supermarket supported that value, and a value of millions if it was a suitable site for conversion into a block of flats. If the law the Lib Dems want brought in says the tenant can only buy his pub’s freehold at a price that reflects its higher value as a supermarket, or a block of flats, then if he buys it, he is going to struggle to cover his costs trying to run it as a pub. If, on the other hand, under the Lib Dem proposals, he can buy it at its value as a pub, but it is still worth more as a supermarket, or a block of flats, the first thing any smart tenant will do is flog the pub to Tesco, or a property developer, himself, thus (1) transferring hundreds of thousands of pounds of value from pubco to tenant and (2) still losing the “community” an “asset”. Is this really what the Lib Dems want?

The debate about “protecting” pubs from closure is conducted as if there were only a finite number of sites capable of ever being pubs, and every pub that becomes a supermarket, or a private home, or even a coffee bar means a permanent reduction in the number of pubs there could ever be. But this is total nonsense, of course: even in the days when it was much harder to open a new pub than it is now, Tim Martin, to name just one entrepreneur, was putting up his signboards on premises that had all sorts of previous uses: banks, cinemas, shops, post offices, and the rest. The same process is still going on, all around the country: the micropub movement, for example, has seen pubs open in premises that were formerly, to pick just a few examples at random, a butcher’s shop, an antiques shop, a taxi firm’s offices, a hairdresser’s, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a tattoo parlour, a kitchen showroom, a bookshop, a launderette, a bakery, a health food shop … you are, I’m sure, getting the picture. There are even a couple of micropubs opened up in premises that had been pubs originally, but which had closed 80 or 100 years ago. If the will, and the demand, is there, pubs can spring into being almost as easily as nail bars and tattoo parlours, kebab outlets and coffee shops.

Pubs don’t need their existence protecting by legislation because, as has been demonstrated hundreds of times over the past couple of decades alone, if the demand is there a pub will arise, and if the demand isn’t there, a pub will close. People get emotional when they read headlines that say “Village loses its last pub”, but almost every time the pub is closing because villagers aren’t using it in sufficient numbers – and if there really is genuine demand, there is little or nothing to stop a village entrepreneur opening a new pub, micro or otherwise, to replace the one that is closing. A pub is not an irreplaceable asset, the way a Norman church is.

If a pub is truly an “Asset of Community Value”, as defined by the Localism Act of 2011, then the community will be showing how much it values that asset by walking through the door and spending enough money every week to dissuade any pub owner from closing it. Truly thriving pubs, pubs that make more money as pubs than they would do as anything else, don’t need protection. It will be argued that many pubs would thrive without the overheads of the pubco on their backs: but this ignores the very considerable support, visible and invisible, the pub receives from the pubco, and the fact that any tenant buying a pub from a pubco won’t be getting that support and will now have the overheads of his new mortgage-provider on his back instead. It will be argued that some pubcos, desperate for money because their bondholders are putting the squeeze on, will sell even a thriving pub to a supermarket if it can get that quick hit of much-needed cash from the sale. But again, just as nobody will run a pub if they can make more from it as a supermarket, a supermarket operator isn’t going to run a supermarket in premises that would genuinely make more as a pub.

It will also be argued that in places like Hackney, the price of property is a threat to every pub, that the money to be made from redeveloping each and any pub site into blocks of $500k-a-pop flats means even the most thriving pub is in need of protection. That may be true, though I note that even around Oxford Street, where rents are truly shocking (this is no hyperbole – I saw a room full of experts literally gasp a couple of weeks ago at the news that the rent on an Oxford Street restaurant site was £2.3 million a year), pubs still manage to stay open. But I still don’t believe that if a building is a pub, it must be a pub for ever: I cannot see how somewhere that was operating as a nail bar, for example, suddenly becomes privileged because it has been turned into a pub. And I strongly believe that the only results of the Liberal Democrats’ new policy would be either to persuade some pub tenants suddenly able to buy the pub a pubco wants to sell to try to keep unviable pubs going at their own expense, with every likelihood of failure, or to rob pub owners of much of the value of their pubs and hand it to tenants for nothing, while still ending up with a closed pub.

(Parts of this rant appeared on the site on March 14 2014)

Moral panics, Tim Martin and motorways

Did you see the news? It was in all the papers last week, and on TV and radio too. Apparently someone’s opened a pub within less than 750 yards of a road.

Journalists, I’m sorry to say, love a moral panic. If we can get someone to be vocally outraged, our day is made. And there were plenty of people delighted to be vocally outraged over the opening of a Wetherspoon’s pub at a motorway service station. You would think Tim Martin, Wetherspoon’s bemulleted founder and chairman, had set up a stall on the hard shoulder of the M40 and was handing out free tequila shots and pints of wine.

A pub by a road

The Old Crown, Highgate, Middlesex, a pub alongside a road

Now, the point about this particular motorway service station is that it’s not actually ON the motorway – it is, indeed, all of 750 yards away, as the roadkill-sated crow flies. You have to pull off at Junction 2 and drive for a couple more minutes before you finally get to the Hope and Champion pub. It is because the pub is also accessible from the A355 that it was allowed to be built. Places serving alcohol at service stations only accessible from a motorway are still banned.

But the substantive point is, of course, that the Hope and Champion is no different from almost every other pub in Britain, in being by, near or actually on a road of some sort. Even mainland Britain’s most isolated pub, the Old Forge at Inverie, has a road running past the front door, though it doesn’t actually connect up to the rest of the country’s road system. Pubs have been opened alongside roads since Anglo-Saxon alewives stuck bushes on poles outside their hovels to indicate that a fresh brew was available inside. Plenty of pubs – hundreds, if not thousands – are still open alongside fast main roads, like the famous Ram Jam Inn near Oakham, a landmark on the A1 for generations of motorists. You can (or could – apparently it’s boarded up right now) drive out of the Ram Jam Inn’s car park straight into the A1’s northbound carriageway, where the speed limit is just the same (for cars, at least) as on a motorway: if you’re not paying attention, a 38-ton artic may leave its imprint on your boot. It’s a lot more dangerous than joining the M40 after leaving the Hope and Champion.

So where is the recognition that if you have hundreds of pubs like the Ram Jam Inn, then you can’t create a fuss about the Hope and Champion? Swamped in a sea of illogical spit-and-fury. The RAC declared that with a pub now open at a motorway service station, “the temptation to drink and drive can only be increased by easier access to alcohol,” without, apparently, considering that there is already easy access to alcohol for drivers in roadside pubs north and south, east and west. The safety campaign group Brake declared: “The opening of a pub on a motorway is deeply concerning, and presents a potentially deadly temptation to drivers,” without saying how the Hope and Champion is any more of a potentially deadly temptation than the Ram Jam Inn was to drivers on the A1, or the old Bull at Stanborough, near Welwyn Garden City, whose visibility from the A1(M) saw it featured in a 1980s TV ad, or the Royal Oak, Farnham, a Chef & Brewer pub about three minutes’ drive down the A355 from M40 Junction 2 and thus barely more inconvenient for motorway drivers tempted to get lashed than the Hope and Champion is.

The stupidest, most crazed response came from Sky News presenter Eamonn Holmes (well, the man’s an idiot anyway), who managed to call Wetherspoon’s PR spokesman, Eddie Gershon (very nice man, Eddie) the “devil in disguise” in a rant on TV, proclaiming that a pub would change a “perfectly nice” motorway services into “a scenario of hell”. It’s probably too cheap to say that for any rational human being, a motorway service area already IS a scenario of hell, but Holmes’s argument, apparently, was that coaches would pull up full of revellers from stag or hen’s parties, or football supporters. “One coach will pull in with a load of football fans, then a second coach will pull in with rival fans. What will happen then? You’re putting temptation in people’s way. You’re the devil in disguise – aren’t you? You’re offering a scenario of hell – are you not?” he frothed at Eddie G, who was far calmer than I would have been, and failed to call Holmes out for being an idiot who had apparently forgotten that coach parties of football supporters (1) have hundreds of other pubs with large car parks to meet their rivals in, and (2) won’t necessarily require alcohol for it all to kick off anyway.

The Spaniards, Hampstead

The Spaniards, Hampstead, another pub by a road

What is even more frustrating than the illogicality of these arguments, and the willingness of newspapers, TV and radio programmes to give people space to promote these ridiculous claims, instead of slapping them about the head and telling them not to react as if drivers are like toddlers at a supermarket check-out, who can’t resist grabbing for the bad-for-you goods on display, is the framing of the debate about the availability of drink once again as an argument solely about intoxication and its evils. It’s something the whole drinks industry, from producers to retailers, colludes in, and it’s why personally I believe setting up the Portman Group was an extremely bad idea, because its existence plays to the anti-alcohol lobby’s agenda-setting. By banging on about “responsible” drinking, the drinks industry’s own warrior in the “alcohol awareness” wars destroys the main argument for drinking: that it’s fun. No one is ever allowed to say that drinking is fun, because fun and responsibility don’t mix.

Which means that another recent news item, one that ought to have been a powerful weapon in the fight against the sort of wowsers who rage against pubs being opened near roads, has been largely ignored, because it doesn’t fit the anti-drink message, and the pro-drink lobby seems too frightened of the puritans to pick it up out of fear that they’ll be accused of encouraging drinking whose primary purpose is other than being “responsible”. I’m talking about the discovery by the Medical Research Council in Scotland, reported two weeks ago, that a pint in the pub with friends is good for a man’s mental health. Well, of course, you are saying, that’s obvious. But having a proper study point up the positive sides of drinking is such a change from the torrent of negativity about alcohol normally corroding the public debate that the industry really should be making much more of it.

The researcher behind the study, Dr Carol Emslie, said: “We have to understand drinking is pleasurable, it’s sociable, it’s central to friendships. If you ignore that part of it then you are not understanding the context in which people drink. You’re drinking together, you’re laughing and joking and it’s uplifting. It helps you to open up and relax. It was very much the idea that alcohol or drinking in these communal groups had this positive effect on your mental health.” Exactly. But could we ever see an ad campaign that said: “A pint with your pals – it’s good for your mental health”? It may be true, but nobody seems to want to say so.

Of course, the anti-alcohol army, unable to dismiss a properly conducted piece of research completely, still tried to sneer. Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, told The Scotsman newspaper: “Drinking together in the pub may be a positive way for men to build relationships and seek support from each other, as long as this isn’t at the expense of a damaged liver or other health problems.” Please, Evelyn, lighten up. Have a drink.

Still, at least the public are generally more sensible than Sky TV presenters. A survey by the local newspaper in Bucks asked people: “Should the Wetherspoon’s M40 pub at Beaconsfield be allowed?” At the last looking, the response was 83 per cent saying “yes”, with just 17 per cent saying “no”.

A slightly shorter version of this rant appeared on the Friday Opinion page of the Propel Info websire on Friday January 24 2014.

The words nobody wants to hear about the on-trade

Get out the pitchforks and the blazing torches: I’m about to talk again on the subject of pub companies and their tied tenants.

Pint-holding lionThe trouble with trying to have a rational debate about the tied pub system, where pub tenants have to buy their beer from a list provided by the company that owns their pub, is that a fair number of pubco tenants have lost a great deal of money trying to run their pub, and, understandably, they’re angry – very angry. Naturally, they’ve looked around for someone to blame for their losses, and the obvious culprit, as far as they are concerned, is the pub company. Clearly, they say, if the pub company had not been charging them so much rent for the pub, and so much extra for their beer than that beer costs on the open market, then they would have been able to make a success of their business.

If anyone tries to suggest that maybe the pubco isn’t totally responsible for their failure as pub-running entrepreneurs, that person will be subjected to howls – screams – of outrage and fury. The pubco, its failed tenants will insist, is a scam, a conspiracy designed to rip off people who only want to make a reasonable living and who are prevented from doing so by the despicable activities of the company that owns their pub and conned them into signing a lease on it. You, however, for daring to suggest anything otherwise, are (and this is only a selection of the names I’ve been called in the past couple of weeks) a writer of “inaccurate, delusional gumph”, “peddling, paid or not, pubco propaganda”, a “lazy sofa-lounging beer blogger” (I like that one – I might have it printed on a T-shirt), “a zombie”, “a lazy journo who can’t grasp the subject”, someone who “very obviously [doesn’t] know what you’re talking about, either that or you are a liar”, “arrogant, patronising, blinkered and myopic”, and “a denier, a make believer, a fantasist”.

However, it’s clearly nonsense to suggest that the pubco model is responsible for every operator of a tied tenanted pub who goes belly-up, when you consider the following simple fact: one third of all small businesses – regardless of the sector that they are in – fail in the first two years. You would expect, therefore, even given the cushions that tenants of pub companies have around them (the cheap start-up costs inherent in someone else leasing you the premises in which a going business is already running, free training on how to run a small business, free advice on tap from the pubco BDM, or business development manager, assigned to them to help out, help with promotions, discounts on everything from insurance to Sky TV, and so on) that a considerable number are going to crash quickly, simply because that’s what small businesses do.

Even if they get through the first year and are beginning to succeed, counter-intuitively, perhaps, it is when very small businesses start to expand that they are most in danger. According to the credit monitoring company Experian, when a business grows to six to 10 employees, the flexibility it benefited from as a micro-business starts to disappear. Fixed overheads become greater and cash flow starts to cause more serious issues if not carefully monitored. From cases I have studied, it is cash flow that seems to do for most, if not all pub tenants whose businesses collapse: not having the ready money to pay the VAT man, the rent, the bill for the beer, the power companies and so on. Indeed, cash flow problems probably cause most small business failures: I had a mate who ran a micro-brewery in Hertfordshire, and his business went under because, although on paper it was profitable, his cash flow was wrecked by pubs not paying him for the beer he had delivered, and the taxman wouldn’t wait for his own slice.

Continue reading

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 …