Thursday 27 September 2012

Move Over Keykeg?

One of the things about keykegs, you know these bag in a box, one way delivery systems beloved of certain brewers that like to get their beer into craft beers bars, is that they add considerable expense to the end product, as they cost quite a lot to buy in the first place. I don't know how much exactly, but somewhere around £12 seems to ring a bell. (Somebody may care to put a more exact figure on it I dare say.) The positive side of course is they are "fire and forget" weapons. No need to worry about when you'll get the empties back, or to concern yourself with tracking containers, cleaning the empties and other such overheads, so there is a plus side. They seem to have a bright future. Or do they?

 I received a press release today that got me thinking. Usually press releases fail to capture my imagination, but this one did, because it comes up with something which even if not new, would seem to have a very positive future. The product isn't a new beer, but a new container. It is called the Petainer Keg, from and is essentially a large PET bottle with a keg fitting. Holding 20 litres it is a relatively cheap, 100% recyclable, one way container and will be used by Frederic Robinson of Stockport for export of their own beers and those of their contract customers. Presumably, and the press release gives a passing mention to this, they could be used for the domestic market too. Robinsons is stated to have "one of the finest bottling and contract packaging plants in the beer industry with over 40 family-owned and SIBA customers."

“The next logical step was to look at draught exports” explains Managing Director, Oliver Robinson.  “Regular kegs cost a lot, especially when it takes 6 months for them to be returned, so we were delighted when our export partner, Sovereign approached us about a one way keg solution.  Petainers are effectively a PET box which fits neatly inside a rigid cardboard outer which can be fully branded. So we can use these for our own beers and those of our contract customers and the initial feedback has been fantastic, we already have 6 customers keen to start exporting. They are recyclable, improve cash flow, require lower set up costs,carry no risk of keg theft and are more efficient in freight containers and to top it all, deliver a great quality product 6 months after filling.  In fact they can be very useful for certain domestic customers too such as hotels and sports clubs.We have the capacity to fill at least 20,000 in year 1 with a maximum of around 40,000- all in 20 litre kegs which attach to a coupler like any other keg beer.

Sounds like an interesting development, which could have implications way beyond Frederic Robinson and Co if the price is right.

I assume the beer could be pasteurised or not according to the customer's wishes. I don't know who owns the idea either. The press release doen't say.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

How Many Then?

There is sometimes talk about how CAMRA excludes keg producing breweries from its festivals. You may have noticed this and it is of course untrue. CAMRA excludes keg beers from its festivals. Those that produce both are welcome to put their cask offerings forward.

The Good Beer Guide 2013 (GBG) indicates that there are 1008 (have I got that right?) breweries operating in the UK. Almost all produce cask beer. It must therefore be a tiny percentage that are thus excluded.

 Does anyone know how many keg only breweries we have in the UK?

Why am I asking? Because I just don't know and wondered. 

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Short Date Beer

Mudgie has published a link to a highly dubious account of so called goings on at CAMRA in Cornwall. Like most of these rants, it is full of drivel about what the writer hears and assumes and various other things like that, not what he knows, can verify, or can quote.   In a response, RedNev has demolished him in a few sentences.  Of course it is highly entertaining - even I find it so - to read about these CAMRA branches that are run as secret societies, where everything is done behind the scenes, in (formerly smoke filled) rooms, with nods and winks.  Everyone with half an ounce of brains knows this is simply not so.

Anyway, I digress.  What I did note within the fairy tale, was that hoary old fable about JD Wetherspoon only buying short date beer.  This has so much credence among the gullible, that when interviewed by Roger Protz , Chairman Tim Martin felt obliged to deny it without Roger even asking. He pointed out that they make a lot less on each cask sold, but simply sell a lot more casks. Pile it high and sell it cheap still works. 

Going back to short dated beer, I wonder about this. Now of course, like milk in a supermarket, some is likely to be nearer its sell by date than others, but unlike milk, it isn't so likely to go off. To me, buying beer that is short dated would be tricky.  How would one set about such a task. Ring up a brewer and say "Keep me some beer back that you can't sell and I'll buy it at a discount." Would that work if you have 800 or so high turnover pubs?  I kind of doubt it.  Would it work if you had one pub?  I kind of doubt it too.  In fact, clearly if you think about it, the idea you could run a business like that is plain bonkers.

I've looked after thousands of casks of beer in my time and yes, I have had the odd short dated cask and the odd one that has clearly had the label removed or changed.  What I do and no doubt most, if not all cellarmen do, is keep a very careful eye on it and if it turns out remotely dodgy, it goes back for a refund.

CAMRA and JDW. Fellow travellers in the sleight of hand? Hardly.

Incidentally Tim Martin also says about minimum pricing: “It’s not tackling the problem. Supermarkets would continue to undermine beer in pubs. There’s not a snowball’s chance of minimum pricing benefiting pub customers."  Too true Timbo.

Monday 24 September 2012

Great British Beer Festival 2013

While it may not be an exclusive, it is hot off the press. I can reveal that next year's Great British Beer Festival will be at Olympia between Tuesday 13th and Saturday 17th August 2013. I'm glad. As a worker, it would have been hard to return to the dungeon that is Earl's Court.  In fact I doubt that it would have been as attractive to customers that had experienced the light and space of Olympia. I  regard that as very good news indeed and am sure it will be better (and brighter) than ever. Get the date in your diaries now.

Only one niggle. Can we have a tube service please?

Of course Earl's Court may have been knocked down by then anyway. Or not. 

Friday 21 September 2012

A Crafty Conundrum

I've been thinking about craft beer definitions recently. Well it's better than counting sheep when you can't sleep at night and it works a treat as your mind seizes up and Morpheus takes blissfully over. In short my nocturnal deliberations get me nowhere. You see I have to think of it, because I'm on a panel to debate this thorny issue at Indy Man Beer Con in Manchester. I'll be discussing the finer points with some weighty characters too. Well their characters are weighty anyway. Their bodies are sylph like and rakish. Unlike mine, but I like beer and am very old.  We have Zak Avery, a writer, beardist and beer seller of some renown ; John Clarke, a CAMRA Chairman, quaffer of the exotic and all round good egg, James Watt,  maker and purveyor of  top dollar carbonated drinks, taxidermist and cask beer sceptic, Toby McKenzie, local brewer of cask, keg and some smoky stuff and err, me. Occasional cask beer drinker, well known voice of reason and recluse. I expect it all to be rather inconclusive, but to be done in the best possible taste. If no-one gets too mischievous that is. Or drunk.

Of course I must keep my powder dry on this one, but one thing comes up repeatedly that, I'd like your opinion on.  It is this. Is cask beer craft beer?  Is it craft beer sometimes, always, never, it depends? There's a handy little poll on the left - or will be when the new user hostile blogger interface is mastered - so give it some thought, then give it a go.  It will be interesting to have some "facts" from the assembled geekdom.  That's you lot.

I predict the poll will be inconclusive too. Craft beer. Inconclusive? Could be.

CAMRA has sent something out on craft beer.  We should be nice to it essentially. What I said in Beer Magazine yonks ago really.  Told you I was reasonable.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Up to Their Neck in Debt

I've written before about the Pub Companies. The big ones at least, are not ones that most would reckon to be the landlord's friend. Nor indeed the drinker's friend. I know they give all that guff out about how their interests and those of their licensees are identical, but what they never mention is that they are up to their eyes in debt. That makes the relationship more akin to a starving man to a man with a large pie. The starving man needs to get that pie to live and he will do so at all costs.

Back in 1989, when the Beer Orders came in, the existing large breweries were to be limited to a couple of thousand pubs.* It wasn't anticipated that rather than go along with this, sell off the excess and compete for business, that they'd side step the arrangements by setting up Pub Companies and thus defeat the whole point of the new legislation. What isn't always appreciated is that to raise the money, the new Pub Companies took out loans or mortgages on the pubs, most of which were debt free, having been acquired by the big breweries long since and the loans paid off likewise. Every time a merger took place of  Pub Companies it was paid for by borrowing to pay off those that had borrowed to set it all up in the first place. It explains why the Pub Companies are, not to put too fine a point on it, sinking under a sea of debt.

The Sunday Times had an excellent article on this last Sunday, in which they explain that the sharks are circling around one of the biggest, Punch Taverns. This is a company with a share base worth £41 million and owes a staggering £2.3 billion - 56 times its worth. It owns around 5000 pubs, which in turn are mortgaged to an average of £460,000 each. Any wonder then that they squeeze their landlords until the pips squeak? These pubs are mostly tenanted (some leased) and in an effort to reduce the debt further, the aim is to sell off another 2000 pubs. Isn't it ironic that these estates are being brought down to a sensible level now after creating giants that have devastated the industry? Rather like the Beer Orders intended - the numbers that is - not the devastation.

So good news? Yes and no. There is already a lot of pubs available at a time when the market is weak, the economy flat lining and demand for pubs sluggish at best. The pick of the crop is either in the floated off Spirit Group (the managed house arm which has become a separate company - again!), being held back against a rainy day (it is pissing down at the moment and everything is effectively for sale), or have been sold off already. Don't look for good news soon I'd say.

Oh and what of the circling sharks. When blood is scented they appear in numbers. Vulture funds have hoovered up around half of the companies shares to be in a position to strike when it all goes tits up.Who knows what will happen then? It could go either way, but will it be good for pubs and drinkers or bad?

Time will tell, but it looks like we might find out about Punch sooner rather than later.

I've written previously about Pub Companies - none of it particularly positively I'm sorry to say. Click here for details.  

* See John Clarke's very important comment too, as areminder it could have all been very different.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Bottling It Up

I don't buy expensive bottles of beer by and large. It's a risky investment, even from those you think might know what they are doing.* Most small brewer's bottling operations are wing and a prayer stuff, so you might be lucky and get the beer exactly as the brewer intended and then again, hopefully on far, far fewer occasions, you might not. If you buy a beer from a supermarket, you could take it back and argue the toss. They'll likely exchange it anyway, as it isn't in their interests to piss you off over a bottle of beer, when you might be next spending £100 on your shopping.  If you buy it elsewhere, then you may be on far more uncertain ground.

Now when it comes to buying it from t'internet,  I'm guessing if a beer is bad and lots complain, you'll get a replacement, but often expensive beers are bought from sources that aren't exactly easy to take it back to, such as shops in strange towns, brewery shops, over the counter in a brewpub or brewery tap, beer festival and so on.  Anyway,  there is always the old "It's meant to taste that way, you wooden palated dolt" excuse to fall back on, which can be a difficult one to argue, when it might be something matured in old feta cheese drums or whatever.  Shaky ground indeed.

Why do I bring this up?  When I was away I read a thread on Twitter, where several people complained severely about the undrinkability of a beer that had set them back £10.99.  In fact more than one beer from the brewery was complained about.  I won't name the brewery as it is the general point I'm addressing and apart from the fact I wasn't affected, for all I know, those complaining may have taste buds with the sophistication of the average meths drinker.  Either way though, it is a bit of a bummer to pay so much for a drain pour.

I really don't know the answer, but those that produce expensive beers have a duty, no matter how "challenging" it may taste, to convince assure the buyer of a beer, that it is indeed "meant to be like that".  Hiding behind cutting edge and experimental isn't good enough. Especially at top dollar.

Maybe this is a what might be termed an "occupational hazard" for the adventurous drinker and can be shrugged off as such?

*Belgians excepted. By and large they know how to do it.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Bethnal Green Blues

I've written before about how much I enjoy Mason and Taylor on Bethnall Green Road, London. It is handy for our flat and I've found it to be one of the friendliest of places, with excellent bar staff and a great range of beers. It embraces the best of both worlds, in that while it is undoubtedly a craft beer bar, it is one that has the good sense to sell both cask and keg beer, thus appealing to a broader crowd and of course, providing something for everyone. A bringing together of the new with the old, rather harmoniously and dare I say it, with some style and charm?

Imagine my disappointment therefore to find that the owners have not only decided to sell it, but to sell it to those most divisive of upstarts, BrewDog. No doubt the handpumps will be ripped out and replaced by ultra expensive BD plus even more expensive, imported, fancy pants beer at top dollar. Certainly a look at the promises for the future of the place on the BrewDog site holds out little hope for the retention of cask beer.  It wouldn't fit in with BDs's image and of course, it couldn't be sold at the eye watering prices that BD will undoubtedly wish to charge.

I don't know why Mason and Taylor are turning up their toes, but there can be only two plausible reasons.  Either they were losing money and this is a way to cut their losses and run, or, they were made an offer they couldn't refuse.  The twitter rumour is that they are using the money to open a new place in "Hipsterville Hackney", but who knows? So, despite the chorus of "awesomes" - is there a more annoying word around than that? - on the BD website, BD would have expanded in London sooner or later anyway. It is a great pity it had to be at the expense of rather a good boozer with a much more inclusive outlook.

 I don't feel at all that this is progress. I reckon we've all just lost much more than we've gained here. 

I see too that the Scottish Government has just given BD a half million quid to help them expand. Hope it will be spent wisely.

Monday 17 September 2012

Social Cohesion

 Keen readers of this blog will know that I have mentioned what I call social cohesion as a key to the way that Germany and its pubs operate.  So it is interesting to note, that in rural Spain at least, that same kind of togetherness dominates drinking proceedings, albeit in a rather different way. I've been in Spain you see. Rural Spain actually, so I won't be telling you about all the exotic beers I have been drinking because, well, there weren't any. Sorry about that. You'll have to make do with some observations and dodgy conclusions instead; not about beer, but about drinking beer, or anything else alcoholic for that matter, in a different environment entirely.

Alhama de Granada
is a small town in spectacular mountainous country not that far from Granada. It really is rather lovely. There are no pubs exactly; rather a set of bars and restaurants that act in much the same way. Two weeks there and a touch of observation told us that "locals" operate much as they do here. The indigenous drinkers all have their favourites and are rarely seen frequenting other bars. Drinking at least in the early part of the day and after work is a male dominated pastime, with small glasses of beer seeming to be a background to social intercourse, rather than the point of the visit. Early morning drinking - well say ten o'clock onwards - is seen as normal though there was some old soaks getting stuck into the booze - brandies and red wine/lemonade mixes were popular - and one bar in particular reminded me of a Wetherspoons - not in size, but in the dedication of its early morning topers. They even seemed to hang about outside there, somewhat forlornly, on the rest day when the bar was closed.

In the outside areas frequented more by families, a request for a beer would result, more often than not, in a small glass of beer (0.2l. These are sipped very slowly by locals and we soon "got it" and surprised ourselves by making these tiny measures last a half hour or so. It just would have somehow seemed wrong to gulp and order repeatedly, particularly as each came with a small snack or tapa. The behaviour of others did indeed change our behaviour, which would seem to give some credence to the positive effect of nurture over nature.

The inclusive thing was most noticeable at night.   Now of course, I don't doubt that late night boozing in the cities is an entirely different kettle of calamares, but in the sticks, teenagers happily mixed with grannies and grandads, mums, dads, aunties and uncles. They seemed content and at ease, chatting away and we didn't see a sullen face at all. Even the local travelling fair seemed to bring out whole families, who would meet friends, but always remain together. Shared snacks were the norm, with even young children happily eating whatever the adults were having. Mixed groups of young men and women sat happily yakking away (at top volume - well they are Spanish after all) with no real drinking going on. It all made for an utterly relaxing and sober atmosphere, though at night we could revert to type over wine with dinner. There was a choice of beer, depending on where you went, of Mahou, Alhambra or Cruzcampo. Only the Cruzcampo had anything you'd describe as character, but even that was pretty ordinary. It didn't matter though. The place and the time were what mattered. The booze was background.

It was a timely reminder that beer should be, at least some of the time, an accompaniment to fun rather than the fun itself. Not a bad reminder either I'd suggest. The real fun was in people watching. 

At no time did I feel like a frustrated drunk. Of course, I tanked up before I went out. Think I went native altogether?