Monday 24 September 2018

Which Way for Beer, Pubs and Brewing?

Last week two things in the beery firmament really caught my attention. Firstly there was the news that Dave Bailey's Hardknott Brewery will shortly be no more. Dave is giving up the whole shooting match which is a great shame.  He has always, in my opinion, been one of the good guys. The other was an excellent post by Glynn Davis in his Beer Insider blog where he takes a close look at that currently in vogue way to raise money, Crowdfunding.

Is there some connection between the two? Perhaps, but the real thing I took from both is that under the surface, all isn't as rosy with the beer world as some would have you believe. Firstly let's have a look at what Dave Bailey says about the beer industry. (This isn't a post about why Dave is giving up, so if that's what you are after, get in touch with Dave). One point he makes forcibly on his blog though is that basically big business is determined at all costs to shove the small guy out. He cites for example, where a major supplier of mainstream lager offered one of his customers £2000 to remove Dave's sole keg font.  Not nice and potentially very harmful to his business. No doubt they weren't picking on Hardknott as such, but it is probably safe to assume this is typical behaviour.

There is also it has to be said, too many breweries. In a world where the number of pubs continues to fall, (though there is some offset where closed pubs are replaced by other outlets such as cafes, bars and other non traditional outlets) the fight for bar space continues apace. This is the world of dog eat dog, with lower prices being demanded by bar owners and an eager rush to join the race to the bottom price wise just to get a beer on the bar.  That isn't a mutually beneficial market for anyone. Prices at the bar continue to rise in a buyers market, though many would argue that far from profiteering, any money made is being gobbled up by rent, business rates and more.  All in all, a lose/lose situation. As a corollary, home drinking continues to take market share and will likely continue to do so.

Many of the 2000 or so brewers are very small. Some are what I'd call hobby brewers. These are people who brew and sell beer, but don't rely on it as their main income.  These though are the ones that compete on a daily basis with those such as Dave, who rely on their business to put food on the table. A tricky one.  At the top end, as Dave points out, quite a few of the top businesses and brands have been bought out by the big brewers. As we discover daily, most of those are increasing their capacity hugely, so the possibilities for the mid sized brewer become severely limited.  Tellingly Dave has done a bit more analysis. I quote him directly: "Below 5,000hl annual production profitability is extremely slim. It's a sliding scale and closer one gets to this important number the more likely a brewery is to make profit, but that profit is still likely to only really satisfy an owners short-term living requirements. Below 2,000hl my research strongly points towards a loss making operation. What this means from a business valuation point of view is that within the range of brewery sizes we are talking about any exit strategy for the business owner looks poor. Making return on investment is highly unlikely without some sort of growth.

What will be the effect of this? Unsaleable assets and a business worth little. I quote Dave again: "This will have repercussions. Dave puts it thus: "My prediction is that most breweries will struggle to grow and therefore leave the owners without a plausible exit strategy".  Of course this gloomy picture, which you can choose to believe or not, does not put off those who see their future in much different terms.  There is always the prospect of success, but the failures will outweigh the sucesses.

I turn now to Glynn's piece about crowdfunding.  There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand you have people believing, that while they may not make much of a return on their investment, they have a reasonable expectation of avoiding wipeout and the tantalising possibilty of maybe a bit of money coming back. On the other, you have a sort of fan based club where people buy in to be associated with the company much as a football fan might.  They get special offers from the brewery, but little else. Commentator to Glynn's piece, Martyn Cornell, has wise advice "Regard all money invested in these schemes as cash torn up and thrown in the bin. You are very unlikely to ever see it again. " The analysis here by Glynn reveals that in making the "offer" to the interested (gullible) some very optimistic and arithmetically unsound predictions of growth are being made. Here is where Hardknott Dave's analysis and Glynn cosy up to each other.  The market is in overall decline. The cake is getting smaller. There actually isn't room for all. Relying on taking someone elses's market share is at best problematic. Nor is the take home market is unlikely to prove much of a salvation for most. The big players will always dominate here.

So where does this leave us? There will be further casualties and it won't always be the bad guys who will fail. It won't neccesarily be the ones with the worst beer. It may be your favourite small to medium local brewer and it may well be that even the optimists who are using other people's money to grow won't be successful either.

The market is changing and it is highly likely that if you want to survive you must have a guaranteed route to market.  Or find a niche that you fit neatly into. Growth is uncertain. Failure looms large.  Hard times ahead for many I fear.  Too many brewers and not enough market isn't a cheery thing to contemplate.

Tap rooms and micro pubs are one way to survive.  Their increasing popularity will ensure variety will endure.

There is also a squeezed middle here. Medium sized brewers will increasingly find themselves between the hobby brewers and the large breweies and already many are vacating the free trade as margins get trimmed away.

Photo used with permission under the Creative Commons

Thursday 13 September 2018

Mercato Metropolitano

According to the blurb Mercato Metropolitano is a "Community based Food retailer with an Italian soul that promotes sustainability, craftsmanship and community." (OK there is a needless repetition of "community" there, but hey ho, I'm not that much of a pedant.) Anyway that sort of thing is right up my right on street, so I had to go.

Fortunately its location on Newington Causeway is easy to get to from my London place and even easier from where I was when I set off.  Taking a break from my endeavours at the Dispensary Pub, I nipped round the corner to Aldgate Bus Sation and hopped on the 40 bus which drops you right outside the door. Lovely.  Only it didn't. As I was early to meet E for drinks and a bite to eat, I hopped off a stop early and went for a quiet pint of Harveys Mild in the Royal Oak.  And quiet it was too. Being mid afternoon I was the sole customer for most of my visit. But that was fine. It was rather restorative sitting with a pint and just reflecting on things. However man does not live by family brewers and inner contemplation alone, so after one, I bid my farewell and left.

Confirming the bus stop was indeed opposite the entrance to the rather anonymous looking building housing Mercato Metropolitano - think cross between a market and an abandoned Scottish League 2 football ground - in I went.  It was impressive. I entered through a area which sold all sorts of excellent looking comestibles from all over - but mostly from all over Italy.  All looked fab frankly, particularly the bread. I'll certainly be back for some of that. Leaving by a side exit into the main body of the kirk, my eye was immediately caught by brewing vessels and the home of Kraft, making authentic German beers with proper German ownership, braumeister etc.  "This should be good" I thought.  I started off with the helles, Heidi Blonde,  which was unfiltered. A bit chewy and grainy this, with a somewhat muddled flavour. Not bad, but no Weltschläge.  Next up was the Edel Weiss, which was much more on the money. It ticked all the weissbier boxes, with bubble gum, and cloves evident, though it would have been better in the traditional weissbier glass, rather than a handled pint mug.  I finished off as E arrived - from a completely different direction than I expected - thus surprising me. If I'd been a sentry, my throat would have been cut. Hopfen Kiss Pale Ale was rather a decent, just hoppy enough, bottom fermented Pale Ale. Very drinkable and probably my favourite.

E didn't fancy any of the beers at Kraft - she has a deep and well founded suspicion based on bitter experience, of opaque German beers - so we set off to explore. There really is something for everyone to eat and drink here. Plenty of craft beer choice, very decent wine and food from all over the world, sensibly not overlooking that staple of the traditional hipster/craftie - burgers. But seriously, good stuff abounded.  By the time we'd wandered round it and it is a good size, the place which had been virtually empty when I arrived, was filling up with the after work crowd. We found a seat and ordered some beer. My choice, from cheery Italians (I think) was a remarkably good Das Kölsch from Howling Hops.  This was such a good (and rather authentic) brew that my tentative half was immediately followed by a pint, though the glassware, a non nucleated nonic, was not perhaps the best way to present such a delicate beer. E being E had a pils of some sort from an entirely different stall, which is the beauty of the setup. Again, getting into the spirit of the place, I had Vietnamese food while E hopped continents to South America. I think I had the better of that though, which is rarely the case.

This is a seriously good place to visit. We will certainly be back and I now know I must visit Howling Hops soon. That Kölsch was good.

Handily the 40 bus is outside on both sides of the road, though road works made our return to Aldgate less handy.

Only complaint is that your clothes are likely to smell of cooking after a couple of hours. There is a lot of it going on, but that's a small price to pay.

Friday 7 September 2018

It's Not Difficult

Readers of this blog know I have shall we say, some issues in finding top quality cask beer in London. It always puzzles me why. Apart from the obvious antipathy to keeping cellars at the appropriate temperature of course. I get that. Not why they don't, just the fact that they don't. Let's be quite clear here. Too high temperature buggers up cask beer. You start off wrong and there  is no way back. Chemistry and all that.

I've been down in London helping my friends Annie and David with their beer festival at the Dispensary in Leman St. It's my local when down here and though not far away at all from Tandleman Towers South, it isn't the nearest pub, but it is the one where the beer is kept properly.  The cellar is kept at around 10 -12C and the beer is properly conditioned. Even without a sparkler, it sparkles. Just look at the photo of London Brewed Dark Star Hophead. Perfect.

I've looked after the stillaged beers in the bar. They are cooled and could do with being a little colder - but that's just me - I'd much rather have colder. Beer warms up. Customers have been fine with them and the beers are in great nick. How? Simple. Keep the bloody condition in them. Avoid soft spiles for a start. Most modern beers don't need them and they bleed condition. Porous hard spiles are the cellarman's or indeed cellarwoman's friend.  Keeping cask beer is not, despite what some would tell you, difficult. It just needs common sense and a little know how.

As long as you follow a few basic rules that is. They all begin with C. Cleanliness, condition and cellar temperature are the basics. The other is somewhat contrived, but is chronology. Time. Rack the beer to settle. give it a day at least. Vent when the beer has rested. Know when the beer went on and when it ought to be sold by. Nobody wants knackered beer and that can happen even if otherwise the basics have been observed.There is a bit more to it of course, but follow these guidelines and experience will provide the rest - or the questions that you need to ask.

The final C is for check. Check the beer before serving and at intervals. The last person that should find out a duff pint has been served is yet another C. The customer.

Reckon you can't afford to keep your cooling on?  False economy. Put a few more pence on a pint rather than do that.

Fullers seem to have done a smashing job matching Hophead at Chiswick. Well done on that one.