Friday 28 December 2012

What William Said

I mentioned a little while ago, that we (CAMRA Rochdale, Oldham and Bury) were visiting JW Lees Brewery as their guests, not to tour the brewery, but to hold a business meeting there. Naturally on the night, we asked William Lees Jones, the Managing Director, to say a few words.  It went roughly like this:

William first of all re-iterated his own view that CAMRA was a positive force for good in the industry and that he always told fellow brewers that a good relationship with CAMRA is vital.  In a wide ranging speech, highlights were that careful spending on the brewery itself, with programme of re-building over the years, had meant that the brewery was in tip top condition. As well as the ranges of cask beer being produced, the brewery has a completely up to date and flexible lager plant producing Golden Original and Carlsberg.  He mentioned that Golden Original sales were very impressive and that in a recent blind tasting (in which I was involved),  it had come top against leading standard lagers. William mentioned that additionally Lees are sole importers of Draught Bohemia Regent Lager which is available throughout the estate and free trade.  Lees even “export” Carlsberg Lager back to Carlsberg itself.  The estate will remain around 170 or so, give or take. Small pubs still give concern and where a living cannot be made for either tenant or the brewery, pubs will be sold. Trading conditions remain difficult, but the brewery has been able to increase profits slightly by buying good quality pubs from the likes of Punch and bringing out their potential.  Free trade has been badly affected by micro brewers being able to undercut Lees due to Progressive Beer Duty.  William felt that micros cater for a segment of the market that mainstream brewers will never cover as well and that it provided choice for consumers, though PBD does give them a considerable competitive advantage.

For the future, there will also be more investment in brewery plant and pub décor as there is no intention to quit brewing or to become a Pub Company. 
  • Three standard cask beers plus a seasonal was the aim for all managed houses
  • Tenants encouraged to stock more from range
  • More promotion of seasonal ales
  • All seasonals 2013 will be single hop beers
  • Possible collaboration on experimental beers with a local micro
  • No room in Brewhouse for a pilot plant hence considering above
  • Pubs will continue to be bought and sold with the estate remaining around 170
  • £1 million is being spent on new German kegging plant (being installed currently)
  •  Vintage Harvest Ale selling massively in the US in various forms
  • Manchester Star a big success in Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt
 This was a very lively, informative and open meeting with William being questioned closely on the company's products, policies and plans.  While Lees do rely on food, as William put it "I'm not here today to discuss the quality of our chips", The focus was on beer and it was good to see a local brewery still totally committed to brewing.  You certainly didn't get the feeling that Lees are stuck in the past, rather, keenly aware that times are challenging and changing.

On the social side, we had a preview version of Plum Pudding, the Christmas beer and all the beers were, as you'd expect, on top form, particularly the Brewer's Dark, which I'd been looking forward to.  I was rather impressed too with John Willies, a beer you don't come across all that often.  I even managed to resist (just) a pint of Bohemia Regent.

And the home made meat and potato pie (from the Old Boar's Head I believe) with red cabbage was lovely too!

This article first appeared in the Winter Edition of our own More Beer Magazine.  The photo is William Lees-Jones addressing members, with Head Brewer Michael Lees-Jones looking on.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Golden Pint Awards

Well Folks, put down that glass of Birra Obscura and pin back your lugholes.  This is the feet on the ground, 'Golden Pint Awards. No strange beers that you have to choke down while holding your nose, or collaborations between brewers, who have you pay for them meeting up with their chums and no beers aged in feta cheese barrels or any other such bollocks and no beers to share. Just good old beer that you buy yourself and drink yourself.   The key to my selections is always drinkability. Boring eh, but you are stuck with it.

Best UK Draught Beer   

Tricky one this.  There is always the delight of  Hawkshead Windermere Pale, or NZPA, which never fail to please, or Brodies All Brett IPA, or their Sunshine even.  What about great beers from Allgates or Green Mill Cat's Whiskers? (my best mild of 2012). Many worthy possibilities, but my awards goes to Ossett Citra.  A beautiful example of a single hopped beer, which I just kept repeat ordering until the last bus.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

 Even trickier since I rarely drink any. I have enjoyed the beers from my local Wilson Potter Brewery, which mimic cask so well and anything from Stringers in a bottle is very worthwhile. Thornbridge beers in bottle have a wonderful freshness that I really like, so it is Thornbridge Chiron. Balanced, hoppy and with great drinakability.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

Bohemia Regent is a strong contender - a lovely beer. Schneider Mein Hopfenweisse also impressed me greatly, so is a contender, but is has to be Rodenbach. In a great little boozer in snowy Blankenberg, it was oh so drinkable, with its touch of sourness and oh so memorable. Since I write almost nothing down these days, it has to stick in the memory and does. 

 Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer 

Schneider Meine Hopfenweisse.  Dangerously drinkable.

Best Overall Beer

No overall winner. I just couldn't pick one. Different beers are best in certain circumstances. 

Best Pumpclip or Label

Lees Bitter. It means home to me beer wise. 

Best UK Brewery

My "go to" breweries are Hawkshead and Thornbridge, but even though I haven't mentioned individual beers, it has to be Summer Wine.  If they have a house style, it is cleanness.  Their beers, no matter whether on cask or keg, complex or not, are wonderfully clean.  They even do styles I don't like that much well and they are one of the few breweries whose keg beer has something to recommend it. Now that I think about it, their Rouge Hop could have been beer of the year and I don't like red ales.

Best Overseas Brewery

De Cam.  Spectacularly good beers as I wrote in my blog.

Pub/Bar of the Year

I drink in a lot of really good places, so again it is down to good times with good people. Honourable mentions to the Holborn Whippet, Port St Beer House, that little pub in Blankenberg, the Ship in near home, my local the Tandle Hill Tavern and many more. There isn't an overall winner, but I'd rather be drinking "twiggy" beer with friends than great beer with strangers.

Beer Festival of the Year

 National Winter Ales of course.  I do help organise it after all.   And GBBF was rather good back at Olympia.

Supermarket of the Year

No views

Independent Retailer of the Year

No views

Online Retailer of the Year

No views

Best Beer Book or Magazine

Beer Magazine

Best Beer Blog or Website 
Honourable mentions to Boak and Bailey - relentless, but very insightful at times. Pete Brown for authority, Curmudgeon for topicality, Paul Bailey for pubs and Beer Nut for tasting notes. Overall winner though is Pump Clip Parade  for its campaigning role against sexism and bad taste in British Brewing.

Best Beer Twitterer

Kristy McCready.  She is brilliant. A great loss to the industry, but still interested in it you can tell.

Best Online Brewery Presence

Hardknott. Funny and likeable and they are lovely people.
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

I'll pass on this one, but everything at the European Beer Bloggers Conference worked well.

In 2013 I’d most like to...

Still be here. 

Open category - Most Improved Cask Ale Brewery

Allgates of Wigan.  These boys are hitting their stride 

Biggest Tossers in British Brewing?

Guess? Correct!

Sorry about the formatting. I had terrible trouble with it.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

If it's Good Enough for the Consumer?

Most - the huge 90% plus majority of beer is sold by big brewers.  That's a fact.  When people slag off big brewers, they are, by and large dissing almost everyone that drinks beer.  It isn't usually looked at that way, but that's really how it is. I'd say if that isn't snobbery, what is?  But of course, I'm a beer snob too. Not as much as some, but a snob nonetheless.

There was an interesting piece in E-Malt the other day about craft beer, written (or rather his words were reported) by Graham Mackay, who it turns out, is none other than the Chairman of SAB Miller Brewing, who are pretty big in the mass produced big brands game.  Noting that In the US, craft beer saw a 13% increase in volume in 2011, while overall beer sales were down by about 1.3% by volume during that same period, he said "the elimination of harsh and intense flavors has been the central sweet spot of the beer industry for decades, if not generations. If we go back 30 or 40 years and look at the formulations for the big brands that still exist, their bitterness levels in the U.S. are 7 to 9 [measured in International Bitterness Units]. Those brands, 30 or 40 year ago, were up at the 17, 18, 19 kind of level. European lagers are somewhere between 20 and 25."  Today, the consumer has gone back to saying, "Let's get a bit of interest, let's have a bit of difference." So, there's been the growth of craft beer."

Now the fact that flavour and character has been eliminated from big brands is hardly a revalation, nor is the fact that a lot of consumers are turning to craft brewing as a way of getting that flavour, not only back, but enhanced.  He went on to tell us that SAB Miller is entering the craft market, but admitted that it is "difficult for big companies to incubate small brands. That, at its heart, is the dilemma. To start a small brand in a credible, consistent, sticking-to-it kind of way is hard for big companies. That's what small entrepreneurs do best.”  When they do enter the market, craft brewers feel "we're stealing their authenticity. What we say is, 'Let the consumer decide.' If we're authentic enough for the consumer, that's authentic enough for anyone.

Mackay sees difficult times ahead for craft beer.  "I don't think the craft movement in its current guise will continue to grow indefinitely. I don't think it can. It's not economic. Too many people won't make any money. Too many of them will go out of business. And I think it will become less fashionable. These things are fashion to some extent,"

So how much of that do you agree with? Will the craft bubble burst? Will the big players whittle it away, or will they just whittle away at at it? Is it just fashion?  Do these observations which are largely aimed at a US audience have much traction here? I'm not sure.  I think there are two markets running on parallel lines.  I doubt if craft beer will have a crash here, though they ought to watch the warning signs on overpricing, which is endemic and complacency about the big guys, which is institutional, as well as the inevitable dog eats dog situation that will develop if the market continues to grow and recession continues to provide an unhealthy backdrop to spending on beer.

At the end of the day, Mr Mackay is right about one thing. If it is authentic enough for the consumer, that's authentic enough for anyone.  That's not just a warning, but a prophecy.

Read the full article here in E-Malt. Or above really!

Saturday 15 December 2012

Propping Up the Bar

For a change on Thursday I phoned my mate Colin and suggested that most old fashioned of things, a tea time pint. We chose the Ship Inn because Colin lives near it, we know the tea time crowd and the landlord and it is directly on my bus route  In short, we know it as a convivial pub that is handy and where we know lots of people.

Now the tea time pint used to be beloved of the after work crew, though I'm guessing that isn't the case so often now, except of course in London, where almost everyone comes to work by public transport.  (As a particularly important aside, if more people went to work elsewhere by bus or train, it would surely be of benefit to pubs?) I used to like it myself, but for many reasons, I gave it up years ago, long before I retired from the daily grind.  Mostly it was because there was always that temptation to have one more than you should, and I felt it was a habit I ought to kick, despite enjoying the conviviality and the beery winding down.

The Ship still has a regular tea time mob, all living locally and all as far as I can tell either retired or dropping in after parking up at home. Few people at any pub want to chance even two pints and drive home afterwards, but where you have a relatively local living customer base, it is still the same cheery atmosphere I used to enjoy.  So I stood at the bar and joined in with it all - swapping tales of this and that - a bit of banter and of course a touch of gossip, as there is a fair crossover between the Ship and my own local. They are pretty near neighbours and it is a great little pub which I like a lot.

It is a pity that there isn't more of this these days, as it lifted my spirits and of course, unencumbered by work the next day and the strain taken by the 17 bus, I had half a dozen pints of Lees Bitter.  Maybe I'll do it more often.

Good for business too for sure.

I normally drink Bohemia Regent in the Ship, but the Lees Bitter was on good form. Unchallenging maybe, but I wasn't there to be challenged by the beer.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Book Review - Britain's Lost Breweries and Beers

Over the last few decades and longer, Britain has lost many of its famous breweries and beers and this book documents a few of them, not so much as history, but anecdote. Names like Boddington and Tetley seem too recent to appear alongside Tamplins, Simpkiss and Bullards and it is a  personal shock to see just how many of the breweries were around when I started drinking beer and how many seem tantalisingly close even now so many years later.(I have drunk original beer from 19 of the 30 beers listed.)

The author, Chris Arnot has obtained some stunning photographs to accompany his prose and the eye is touchingly drawn to the faces looking out from drays, cooperages and pubs, for this is as much about people as breweries and beers and Chris has taken the time to seek out ex-employees to tell the story from their point of view. For many, these days are among the best of times and even when they no longer drink beer, they look fondly on the breweries and bosses and even the (benevolent) paternalism that many of these companies showed. Many of the owners were true characters, who knew every employee by name and treated them to birthday tenners, bottles of champagne, doffed hats and sometimes, downright eccentricity, as illustrated by John Young, who fought to the end against the closure of his beloved Wandsworth Brewery, often wearing boxing gloves to repel boarders and who ironically died just days before the brewery closed. Poignantly and fittingly, beer from the last Wandsworth brew was served at his funeral.

Beer too is featured too, with former brewers describing the output and drinkers fondly remembering the brews.  Sad tales abound, like Boddingtons, whose iconic beer was slowly bastardised and tinkered with until the brewery was finally closed by InBev in 2004, or Shipstones, whose marvellously bitter beer was closed in pursuit of Greenall's vainglorious tour of destruction.  Greenalls are rightly identified as villains of the piece, along with the asset stripper, Michael Cannon, who saw off Morrell's of Oxford, Devenish and Eldridge Pope.

For all its charm and nostalgia, this is not a book without faults. Tales of family and corporate greed, ineptitude, fecklessness and recklessness that pointlessly destroyed companies with fine brewing heritages stretching back over 200 years, are underplayed or go unremarked for reminiscences from the tap or sample room.  Sometimes we are told what caused breweries to close, but not always, which leaves the reader wanting to know the details behind the anecdote. We have a photo of Jonathan Simpkiss who sold out his brewery and its sixteen Black Country pubs to Greenalls, with the last brew famously being poured down the drain, thus cruelly denying regular drinkers a last farewell . A haunting tale of corporate unfeeling thoughtlessness indeed, but frustratingly, not the "why" behind it. I'd have liked just a little more consistency about why these wonderful companies disappeared.

Nonetheless these are small negatives in what is an engaging and personal book which reminds readers of a time where beer really was local, where breweries and the people employed in them were part of the warp and weft of local communities and a source of pride to them.

 This book is sheer nostalgia and none the worse for that. It is a must for those like me, that remember these companies and for those that don't, it is a touching reminder that our brewing industry has a very local and personal heritage. A second volume beckons surely, as sadly, there are plenty more closed breweries to go at.

Britain's Lost Breweries and Beers is  published by Aurum, who kindly supplied this review copy.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Passion and Brewing

Are you passionate about beer? Does it consume your every waking moment,or is it just a drink that you enjoy with enthusiasm, while keeping perspective clearly in view and your feet firmly on the ground? Now most people reading this blog are likely to be keen on beer. Very keen on beer. Too keen on beer even, but degree will vary. Within the beer fraternity you tend to have a broad church and a few zealots. This zealotry can exhibit itself in many ways; the real ale, fiend, the dedicated Guinness drinker, the ticker, the lager man, the craft keg devotee, etc. etc. Whether these are passions or just preferences or mild obsession is moot, but beer to the devotee, brings out strong feelings.  Not so unusual, as products of all kinds, from cars, to biscuits or whatever, have their specific adherents. It is human nature and what makes (some of) us tick.

That's drinkers though. What about the passionate brewer? I read constantly about the new breed of craft brewer and passion. Thornbridge has the word embedded into its slogan and advertising.  Even Gazza Prescott, erstwhile ticker, brewer and a bit of a sceptic where such things are concerned, speaking on Twitter,  thinks there is something to this. Brewers with passion are better brewers, is both implied and stated. (Not just by him I hasten to add). Now let's consider this. Most micro brewers are unqualified except by experience. This isn't to insult them, but most have been home brewers, beer fanatics, or whatever and learned as they go along. They may have had a Brewlabs, or Dave Porter Brewing course, but they are basically playing it all by ear. Nothing wrong with that. That's the art of brewing, but not the science. It is partly what makes beer so approachable. Anyone can do it really. Some better than others of course, but if you have passion, that's even better.  You see, passion, it is implied, makes better beer than qualifications or science and sets some brewers apart. Well, maybe.

Now of course there is always  a place for passion in what you do or believe in. It drives you forward. It makes you push at the barriers and get up in the morning. It allows you to recover from setbacks and to enthusiastically do what you do. It doesn't replace training, knowledge, skills, technique or qualifications though. It just supplements them in the best of cases, or is used as a mask to hide behind in others. Big brewers don't have passion is the unspoken part of this message. I am not so sure about that.  They may well be restricted by environment and by corporate or other diktats, but many have just as much passion as the small brewer in his pride.  I'll tell you a story. A couple of years ago, one Saturday, I met J W Lees Second Brewer and Brewhouse Manager in the pub. He was looking particularly dusky, so I enquired as to the reason. He'd just come back from his hols. "What time did you get back?" I asked. "Early this morning" he replied. "Ah", says I, "Back to work on Monday then?" "Yes" he said "though I've been in already." "What just now?" I asked, for it was afternoon? "No, about five am. this morning, when we'd got back from the airport. I just wanted to check the fermentation and see if the Brewhouse was OK."  Was that passion or dedication? A large slice of both I'd say.

Small brewers are constantly looking for ways to set themselves apart from their larger rivals. So is passion one way to do it? Does passion  actually make a difference or are you better just knowing your stuff? Possibly, but neither is limited to small artisanal brewers, or innovative ones, or even dedicated ones. Does passion make you a better brewer? Quite likely, but I'd venture only if you are a good brewer in the first place.

 I think passion is a word that needs to be used sparingly and in context. It is far more common though throughout British brewing than some would have you think.

Passion is an intense emotion compelling feeling, enthusiasm, or desire for something.  Both Thornbridge and Gazza are used for illustrative purposes only.

Friday 7 December 2012

Times Change

Five years ago I was remarking in my blog about the high cost of of a bottled beer in the Marble Arch. I wrote "Also available for purchase by the 33cl bottle was "Decadence" an organic bottle conditioned Imperial Russian Stout of 8.2%. At a whopping £4.50 a bottle."

Doubt if anyone would bat an eyelid now.

Actually maybe they would.  I have a bottle. It is 75cl and 8.7%.  Think it was around £15. Not that I paid for it obviously. I don't think it is organic either.

Monday 3 December 2012

Muddled Thinking and Downright Misrepresentation

Yesterday's Sunday Times had a substantial piece by Dominic Lawson about minimum pricing of alcohol.  He concluded, correctly, that "A minimum price per unit of alcohol is a form of collective punishment" and pointed out that "a minimum price for alcohol is likely to lead to a significant transfer of revenue from consumers to producers and retailers". But we know that don't we?  That's why people like Greene King and BrewDog support it.  Not out of any kind of altruism, but good old money.  Contrast that with Tim Martin of Wetherspoon who isn't noted for high prices, calling supporters of minimum pricing "Flat Earthers". It is altogether remarkable that otherwise intelligent people support it in the vain hope of stopping something they have read about in the papers or seen on television called "bad behaviour", or in the case of Alcohol Concern, to pursue a prohibitionist agenda (first control the price, then make it difficult to buy it, then ban it.), the real but misguided concerns of doctors - why not address individual problem drinkers? - the equally misguided wishful thinking of CAMRA that somehow this will translate into more pub going, or whatever this rag, tag and bobtail of do gooders want to do to the rest of us.  (My only hope on that one is that CAMRA is following a policy of keeping friends close, but enemies closer still, but somehow, I doubt it.)

What is remarkable is how Dominic Lawson tears apart every argument.  He rubbishes the idea that you need to legislate on price to deal with late night rowdiness. He suggests instead that the Police just lock up the perpetrators for being drunk and disorderly and repeatedly do so.  Seems like a good idea surely?  Lawson reserves particular scorn for Sheffield University for its "wild exaggeration and incompetence" in dealing with alcohol statistics and has a swipe at BrewDog's bizarre take on it all (James again) by saying "Sounds as though he has been celebrating".  Instead he counters with some actual facts such as alcohol consumption has fallen by nearly 20% since 2006 and points out that somewhat inconveniently, this has not resulted in a fall in alcohol related deaths, which would have happened if what Sheffield University purports to be true, actually was true.  He quotes extensively from the Adam Smith Institute who have been studying this subject for 40 years.  The leading experts within this field state "We are in the unusual position of being able to empirically disprove  a prediction about policy which has not yet been introduced."

Now of course Lawson wasn't looking at shifting drinkers into pubs, but he does also hammer the idea that supermarkets are indulging routinely in below cost sales. Such happenings account for less than 1% of alcohol sales and have no real effect on consumption

If, like me you think they are out to get us, it is a real good read.  It does seem that there is some hitting back taking place, so let's see more of it.

I'll drink to that.  Responsibly of course.

I'd like to have linked to the article, but it is hidden firmly behind the Sunday Times's paywall. The Morning Advertiser has a good piece here however.

Sunday 2 December 2012

JDW and My Home Town

I was in Dumbarton last week to see my mother. One of the first bits of news she gave me was that Wetherspoons are likely to open a pub in Dumbarton. It would be in the old Woolies Store I remember so well from my childhood.  It closed in December 2008 when Woolworths crashed out of business.  The next day when the new local paper came out, it confirmed that planning permission was being recommended to the local council.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it will bring real ale back to the town together with much needed competition and vastly improved choice.  On the other hand it could damage pub trade in a very depressed town, though fears of that may well be exaggerated.  However, if you read the County Reporter, the usual concerns are being trotted out. It was interesting to read JDW's take on this.  A spokesman said " "Wetherspoon's has almost 900 pubs across the UK including around 55 in Scotland. We're not aware of any of our pubs causing others to lose money or close down. In fact, the opposite is true, we encourage people to come into towns because of our brand, which leads to other businesses opening.

" The pubs in this area are already in competition with each other, we will be just one more pub to compete against, and it is the customer's choice where they go." 

Now there will be some that disagree with the first paragraph, but  surely few can disagree with the second?

Photo is from the County Reporter. The main article is here.