Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Funding success for new breweriana exhibition

Brass bushing from a wooden cask
Brewing Heritage Scotland, a new community interest company set up to create a permanent collection of Scottish breweriana, is on course to open its first exhibition.

The company was created by members of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association to find a home for the three-dimensional artifacts such as beer cans, keg fonts, promotional items, ashtrays etc. which have been donated to the Scottish Brewing Archive but cannot be usefully held at the archive’s base at Glasgow University.

BHS has now succeeded in winning funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order to transform its collection into an exhibition telling the story of Scottish brewing. The first exhibition is to be at the Central Library, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, from 1 to 31 October inclusive.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Heverlee pops up and pops out the new beers

You know, I’m starting to think that C&C, owners of Tennent’s and Magner’s, actually know what they’re doing in the beer market.

They’ve quietly (and not so quietly) been diversifying their product range for the last couple of years. There’s Tennent’s for the lads of course. Drygate for the experimenters and beer geeks, Heverlee to compete with Stella Artois, and most recently Menabrea to compete with Peroni and Moretti. All these appear as separate brands to the consumer, but enable C&C to serve diverse market segments without cross-contamination.

This is quite important, as a large part of the appeal of the premium brands is that consumers believe (in their own minds at least) that they are trading up to a superior product. The big red T has a peculiarly polarising effect on consumers. For selling standard lager it’s a big plus; but I’ve pondered before why it seems to be toxic for anything else.

It can also be amusing: I saw one drinker on Twitter telling Tennent’s in no uncertain terms to go to hell, as he now liked Heverlee better. I was slightly tempted to tell him that Tennent’s and Heverlee were the same company, but why be so cruel?

The latest episode in the promotion of Heverlee – and definitely one of the less quiet ones, where the PR machine has been revved up substantially – is the establishment of a “pop-up” bar in Glasgow’s Tontine Lane. This lane was sealed off to the public without explanation three years ago, and has now been opened for the bar – not “opened for the first time” as parroted by ignorant bloggers and journalists. We are promised Witte and two “secret” new Heverlee beers too.

The new beers turned out to be what might have been predicted – got the lager, got the wit, what else can we have? Yes, they are the classic double act of a blonde and a brune, as found on the menu of just about every Belgian cafe.

There is no information given about where the three new beers are brewed, so I’m going to assume that they, like the lager, are made at Brouwerij Martens in Bocholt. The bar promises to offer a line-up of other Belgian specialities, but there was no sign of these. It would be interesting to try Martens’ own Pils and Wit to see how different they are.

While Heverlee Witte has been popping up around Glasgow all summer, I hadn’t run into it yet, so it was nice to have a chance to try it (I’ll try any beer once). It’s noticeable that in the UK at least, witbier has become a style of beer that corporate breweries rather than small ones push. I guess it’s easy-drinking and therefore mass-market-friendly. There’s Hoegaarden, Blue Moon, Vedett and the rather odd but nice Flying Dutchman cask wit that Caledonian brewed with Henk Oexman as a nod to the Heineken mothership. Now Heverlee Witte joins them. It’s light-bodied, very heavily spiced with coriander and quite drinkable, certainly less bland than Hoegaarden.

Filament lightbulbs and incongruous bicycles
The lager is still a slightly better take on Belgian pils: decent hop character and surprisingly high bitterness for what it is. The pouring of it seems a quite crucial factor though: a subsequent glass just tastes of nasty metallic CO2. The bar staff faithfully skim the foam off the top of the glass with a wet knife, Low Countries-style. They do it for the blonde and brune as well as the lager. I’m not sure I like the effect this has on them, giving the head a smooth, plasticky sheen reminiscent of old-fashioned keg heavy.

The blonde (6.1%) is full-bodied but bland, with just a few yeasty notes to add interest and a crisp, candy edge which is pleasant enough.

Heverlee Bruin is my favourite of the four: Treacle toffee, a little umami, slight note of soy sauce, rich smooth caramel. At 7.1% a nice warming beer for these cold, rainy July evenings in Glasgow.

The bar itself is the a former workshop or loading bay of one of these old industrial buildings that stand around in Glasgow, unused and neglected even in the high-rent Merchant City district. The back court is an impressive edifice of white glazed brickwork, and houses Douglas Gordon’s artwork Empire – along with a genuine relic, the neon sign which once hung outside the Mitre Bar a few streets away.

It’s enlightening too to observe how easily the pop-up aesthetic has gone mainstream and been commodified. All the cliches are in place: glazed tiles; beer list written on the same tiles with a marker pen; painted pallets with flowers; cutlery in baked bean tins; and of course those bloody Edison light bulbs – the most inefficient bulbs in existence.

A nice touch is having the signs for the toilets in Flemish and French.

My portion of mussels and chips costs £12 – well, mussels are pricey and it is a generous portion. They are cooked in a tasty, slightly under-seasoned broth with onion and parsley and, allegedly, white wine. An achievement in itself, considering the temporary kitchen here is built of chipboard. There are several other mussel dishes on the menu, and I’m surely not the only one disappointed that in a beer-centric place like this, having the mussels cooked in gueuze is not among them.

I like the space and will be back. It’s a creditable offering and the beers are decent and workmanlike – certainly somewhat tastier than the brands they’re competing with in the UK market. Due to the location, if you feel like extending your Belgian fantasy, you can just nip along the street to Blackfriars afterwards and have some of their bottled lambic.

“Heverlee at Tontine” is open until 2 August. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

I drank bitter all night

I didn't intend to go to the Glasgow Real Ale Festival and spend all night drinking bitter from old-fashioned family breweries. I really didn't.

But as soon as I got into the hall and saw that there were five Harvey’s beers on sale my fate was more or late sealed. I love Harvey's and it's so rarely seen up here that I will take any chance I get to drink it, even though in principle I approve of the fact that it's hardly ever distributed far from its home turf.

The sweet yet dry and austere flavour of Harvey's is common across all the beers I sample from the proper 3.5% IPA to the stronger, sweeter Thomas Paine.

A new brewery in Great Yarmouth, Lacons, seems to draw on brewing heritage for inspiration too – it is named after a defunct former brewery in the town. Head brewer is Wil Wood, formerly of Fyne Ales, which is probably why the festival organisers have chosen to stock the beers. On tasting them the Wood signature of a clean, satisfying hop edge is immediately apparent. I've wanted to try these since Wil left Fyne, and I was not disappointed. The glorious 8% Audit Ale is rich and luscious with fresh orangey notes rather than the shrivelled raisin flavours found in other barley wines. A substantial resiny hop bitterness balances it out.

But it’s so luscious that a half is enough. I am greedy and try to cram in a second at closing time, and it's too much.

Theres wood of a different nature further down the bar. Theakston Old Peculier is by all accounts not the beer it once was. I only have it because it comes from a wooden cask. You can really taste the wood, notwithstanding Ron’s research suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to. It doesn’t save the beer though, which tastes of treacley water that's had some pencils in it.

You'd think that people wouldn't come to a beer festival to drink beers as common as Timothy Taylor Boltmaker, but they do. Well, I do. This mousy, unchallenging beer is subtly addictive and massively drinkable.
If Old Peculier has lost its mojo, on the other hand, I am reasonably sure that Timothy Taylor’s and Harvey’s beers have not changed much. There’s surely a reason these old-school breweries are so revered. So I spent my evening mostly drinking those. Not a bad choice, and there's always tomorrow. The G-RAF is on until Saturday.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Iain Turnbull

A while back I went to a brewer’s funeral. Iain Turnbull was a man I hardly knew at all—in fact I only ever met him twice; but he made such an impression on me that I had to go.

Iain was the type who would, and did, do things like request a Welsh-language census form while living in Stornoway, just for the fun of being wilfully vexatious. He worked at Courage before moving to Brains in Wales, took a break from brewing for some years and returned to work in microbreweries when they started to appear in Scotland. He was involved in the re-establishment of brewing in the once-famous brewing town of Prestonpans, and was one of the group who set up Restalrig and then Fisherrow breweries in Edinburgh, but the sudden death of their managing director David Murray hit the latter business hard and it closed a year later.

Iain was a believer in the adage “If you want something doing properly, do it yourself,” and had elected to conduct his own funeral service from beyond the grave, via a pre-recorded CD. It was something of a surprise to suddenly once again hear his light, melodious voice that had never quite fitted his beardy exterior. Before the service I had been told a rather indiscreet anecdote about Iain by an old friend of his, but Iain himself managed to outdo this by some margin. It was certainly one of the more eccentric funerals I have attended: the coffin arrived in a brewery van carrying three empty casks on its roof in the departed’s honour, and once we left the chapel to the strains of “Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” we were taken to the highly-regarded Staggs pub in nearby Musselburgh, where Iain’s funeral beer was on tap.

When I first met Iain he had already been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been featured in the press as the brewer who’s brewed his last beer with the proceeds going towards a cancer charity. This extremely strong and sweet beer had been in cask for three years since it was brewed. Iain had actually brewed his “last” beer several times, having neglected to die when the doctors had predicted he would. The last time I saw him a few years ago he was still working, consulting on some brewery project or other down south.

For a terminally ill man, I had thought Iain showed remarkable devotion to the cause of beer when he made the not inconsequential journey from his home in Stornoway to central Scotland to work at CAMRA beer festivals. But at the funeral one of his daughters mentioned that he had later undertaken even more arduous trips to South Wales to visit them — by public transport, mind you.

I meant to get in touch with Iain and interview him for this blog, and now it’s too late. The breweries he worked at, Restalrig and Fisherrow, are in danger of being forgotten, because they didn’t survive, coming in a rather odd period when the likes of Tryst and Fyne Ales were being set up but the explosion of new breweries of recent years hadn’t started yet.

There’s a much better tribute to Iain than I could write here, and some history of Fisherrow, in the form of its archived website over here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Wait, yes it IS your grandad’s homebrew – so what?

It’s a truism that advertising and other PR campaigns are disproportionately aimed either at the young and would-be hip, for reasons which are better explored elsewhere. It seems to me it’s as true of beer as of anything else.

Why the rest of us should care what the young and fashionable are drinking, however, remains something of a mystery. Nonetheless, much of the discourse – especially in the mainstream media and especially around beer festivals – focuses quite unnecessarily on demographic aspects. Does your beer festival attract young, trendy people? Great! Do an older, beer-bellied and tatty-jumpered crowd come? Uh-oh – no double page feature in the Sunday paper for you!

So it was quite refreshing to hear from the PR agency of the charity Royal Voluntary Services. Over the last weekend the RVS put on a one-day festival in Hoxton, GrandFest, “celebrating the craft skills of the older generations.”

Eight masterclasses were on offer, each given by a practitioner over 70 years old who has been doing it for years. One of the classes was homebrewing, given by George, who claims never to have drunk commercial beer. Here’s a wee video:

I asked George a few questions about his brewing.

I wanted to know whether George, who said in the video he’d been homebrewing since the 1970s, had done it continuously since, or given up for a while like many others. Continuously, more than ten litres of beer and wine a week, was the answer.

George’s favourite kit is Premier Bitter and he likes blackcurrant and elderberry wine,  although he says the Elderberry can take years to settle.

What commercial beer did George drink, if any? None! Only what he made. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Last goodbye to the Brauhaus

I’ve been hoping against hope that it wouldn’t come true, but — it looks like my brief taste of Brauhaus Schweinfurt beer in December was my last after all. The Russian brewery that was supposedly going to buy and continue the business cancelled at the last minute, and no other investor could be found to take on the brewery, which had been losing money for some years.

The doors finally closed at the end of April. The regional giant Kulmbacher (itself a merger of Erste Kulmbacher (EKU) and Reichelbräu) has bought such assets as were of any value to it, but the brewery itself no longer has a future in making beer.

It’s a sad end to a brewery with more than 150 years of history.  But Kulmbacher has been gobbling up its regional competitors for years, some much older than the Brauhaus – fifteen years ago it picked up the struggling 200-year-old Hiernickel brewery of Hassfurt (between Schweinfurt and Bamberg), and ten years ago it bought the Würzburger Hofbräu which had existed since the 1600s.

The only remaining brewery in the town is now the much smaller Brauerei Roth, which some years ago also had a struggle to regain its independence, having been sold to the Munich Löwenbräu conglomerate.

I cannot conceive of Schweinfurt without its brewery, because it has always been such a central part of my visits there. What’s worse is that no one much seems to care. There’s been no outpouring of grief as happened at the Brauerei Schwelm, for example; and going by the comments on online boards, many local drinkers had no appreciation for the Brauhaus beer anyway. It seems some would still rather buy a crate of Krombacher on special offer than have a local brewery of their own. And that’s a tragedy.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Well, what’s wrong with being sexy?

So now you know.

Our motion about sexism in the beer industry for the CAMRA AGM – many thanks again to all the people who commented and helped develop it – was rejected by the conference procedures committee on the grounds, basically, that everything we were proposing was already CAMRA policy and/or the law of the land.

It’s good that our main points are uncontentious, but as the point of bringing a motion to the AGM was to raise the profile of the issue, I am a bit disappointed that it will not be on the order paper there.

I have appealed the decision, but do not expect anything to come of it.

It would have been nice if CAMRA had taken the opportunity to have headlines reading “CAMRA raises call for fight against beer sexism” rather than “CAMRA issues sexist leaflet”.

But what do I know? I wasn’t the marketing genius who came up with this:

“If you don’t like it, submit a motion to conference,” is what gripers are always told. Well, it’s not as simple as that and perhaps we were naïve. You also need people who know CAMRA’s decision-making set-up and procedures inside out, just as you wouldn’t represent yourself in court or try to get legislation passed without professional advice.

However, next year’s motion is already written and much more concise, so I hope for more success. Here is the full text:

“Conference instructs the National Executive to read the existing equality policy.”

Monday, 6 April 2015

Every Scottish brewery now officially “craft”

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the United States a couple of weeks ago, due to the news that “craft” breweries, as defined by the Brewers Association, have achieved a share of 11% of the American beer market, reaching double digits for the first time.

Good for the brewers involved, but I’m afraid they have a bit of catching up to do. For another bit of news last week reveals that Scotland has achieved an amazing 100% market share, with every one of the nation’s brewers now making “craft beer”.

The Craft Beer Clan is a marketing effort aimed at boosting sales of its members’ beer, focusing at first on emerging markets in the Far East, but also with point-of-sale promotions run in UK convenience stores supplied by one of its principal backers, wholesaler J W Filshill. The alliance is run by a group of mostly ex-Diageo consultants, with the best-known face being Chris Miller, formerly of Caledonian and Harviestoun. We learn:

The Craft Beer Clan of Scotland have gathered humbly with a simple quest: to enjoy and share the finest Scottish craft beer with the world.
Our mission is to team up with Scottish brewers and partners, who wish to join us in our quest to introduce the great flavours of Scottish craft beer with new drinkers around the world. Drinkers who value quality over quantity, who seek out new and interesting flavours, and are never satisfied with the ordinary.

The breweries signing up to be involved in this – currently 19 are listed on the Clan website – range from tiny Jaw Brew through heavy hitters Inveralmond, Fyne and Williams Bros right up the scale to Heineken-owned Caledonian and lager behemoth Tennent’s.

Even though its core products are in long-term decline, with volumes slowly slipping year after year, Tennent’s still brews more than half the beer drunk in Scottish pubs. If they’re a craft brewer, then so are all the others smaller than them.

I am sure this will wind up many “craft beer” enthusiasts – for most of whom Tennent’s is the devil incarnate – tremendously, which is a very good thing. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The beer that changed my life

By Dr. Volkmar Rudolf/Tilman2007 (Own work)
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I was dismayed shortly after New Year to hear that the old-established Brauhaus Schweinfurt brewery from the town of the same name in Franconia had gone into liquidation. It’s a brewery that has a very special place for me, because it was the first beer I ever drank and enjoyed.

The Brauhaus is a typical regional Bavarian brewery of the type which still have a strong position in their local market, although their numbers are in long-term decline as more and more disappear, replaced by a Krombacher and Bitburger monoculture. You won’t find their beer in Britain either, although bizarrely enough their alcohol-free lager did turn up occasionally some years ago.

So, most beer drinkers will never come across it. Unless, like me, you come from Motherwell, a post-industrial dump in the West of Scotland. Due to a common interest in heavy industry, the formerly steel-producing Motherwell has a twin town partnership with Schweinfurt and its huge ball-bearing factories.

More than 25 years ago now, and through a complete coincidence, I got to take part in an exchange visit. This so nearly never even happened, as I was on the reserve list rather than in the original group. As a raw 18-year-old I was thrown into a week of worthy tours of factories and social enterprises – combined with evenings spent at beer festivals. The visit was in summer and at that time of year southern German towns are alive with local festivals organised by groups as varied as church choirs and the ward branches of political parties.

I swear I couldn’t have had a better introduction to beer than being submerged in this. We were confronted with litre glasses overflowing with frothy beer, whole evenings drinking with the other participants. Much of my knowledge of the German language has definitely been acquired by osmosis. Sat on the hard, orange-painted wooden benches typical of beer gardens, my command of it seemed to improve with every mouthful of beer I took.  

The golden liquid was strangely bitter to my inexperienced palate, but there was a rich sweetness to it as well. The taste grew on me, litre by litre, until by the end of the trip I was a lager drinker. I remember carrying ten bottles home in my luggage. The same year Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter series aired on British TV and I was enthralled.

How the Brauhaus Pils label looked when I first encountered it
So I’m perhaps a bit unusual among British beer lovers of my generation, in that I discovered the world of beer through proper lager rather than through cask ale. There was no real ale in Motherwell then (with the exception of Wetherspoons there still isn’t), so my first exposure to a beer that tasted good was the Bavarian stuff. I scorned other beers at first, turning up my nose at anything that wasn’t German, but the bug had got me and soon I was trying and sampling my way through as many of the locally available beers as I could afford. It was quite a simple methodology. There were no beer rating websites then. I simply bought every beer once. If I liked it, I bought it again. If I didn’t, I didn’t.

When I briefly lived in Schweinfurt a couple of years later, I got to know the Brauhaus beers better. I decided the Pils was still may favourite. They made wheat beer as well, but I thought those of the local rival – the long since taken over Werner-Bräu of Poppenhausen – were better. On the other hand, Brauhaus made better lagers than Werner. It was a good combination.

This week it was reported that an investor – a family-owned Russian brewery which has not been named – has been found to take over the Brauhaus business. As well as the brewery, the company is purchasing the (currently separately owned) land on which it sits, and promises significant investment in the plant.

As the alternative would have been a complete asset-stripping and closure of the brewery, I am glad that it will survive for at least a little longer. We can only speculate what plans the new owners may have in the long term. To me, what matters is that I will get to take at least one more trip to Schweinfurt to drink the Brauhaus beer that changed my life.

Recently – but before the insolvency news broke – I was in Schweinfurt again for the first time in years. It’s only about half an hour away from Bamberg so I tend to give the latter my attention. I only had time for one beer but dropped into the Brauhaus am Markt restaurant in the pretty town square opposite the Rathaus. This was the original site of the brewery before it moved a bit down the road to its current site shortly before the First World War, so seemed appropriate enough.

I didn’t know it at the time, but had no investor been found that would have been my last taste of Brauhaus Schweinfurt.

Ordering a Pils – “Peeels” as the waitress called it in the local accent – I was prepared for the worst: to find that nostalgia had coloured my memory of a dull, bog-standard lager that only a neophyte would find impressive. I once thought that Warsteiner and Hacker-Pschorr were superb, after all.

But when my beer arrived, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve thought for a long time that there is a distinct style of Franconian Pilsner, more similar to a Czech beer than to the Pils of northern Germany (which shouldn’t be that surprising when you observe the proximity of Bohemia and Franconia on a map). It was as good as ever, full-bodied with a slightly citrussy hop aroma. I was quite delighted, and I hope to be delighted by Brauhaus Pils again for quite some time to come.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

How can CAMRA lead in combatting beer sexism?

[Note: This post has been edited.]

I don’t have time at the moment to write an introduction explaining why this document is here, but I am just putting this draft up here so that people can comment. Thanks to all who have already made suggestions for improvements.

One of the starkest problems of British beer is that it is still widely seen as a drink for men. Many women who do drink it comment regularly that they experience sexist behaviour in the world of beer – whether from fellow drinkers, bar staff, festival volunteers or from the beer industry itself which regularly markets itself with material that assumes its audience is male (and also sexist).

Some people think that CAMRA is part of the problem. I think that CAMRA is actually a bit better than society in general, but being a bloke I could be grossly mistaken. If I’m right, CAMRA should be showing a good example and tackling sexism, rather than turning a blind eye to it. The idea that CAMRA should be in the forefront of making things better is one I owe to this post by Yvan.

On paper CAMRA is already committed to equality.

It’s time, I think, for us to adopt a stronger commitment to being on the right side of this, and the motion you can read below has been submitted to CAMRA’s AGM to be held in April.

After some discussion in the comments, we amended the motion as follows, which is the motion as submitted for the Members’ Weekend (struck-out portions have been removed, and additions are highlighted).

In the interests of reaching a consensus, we stop short of imposing mandatory sanctions on branches, pubs or breweries.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion.

Draft motion below:

CAMRA has a long-standing commitment to equality. We have never sided with self-styled "traditionalists" who maintain that pubs are men's domain. 
CAMRA has an existing policy that we do not tolerate racist or sexist harassment.
Yet time and again we hear from women who say they are not comfortable drinking beer in pubs and at beer festivals. They complain of being patronised, leered at and having to put up with inappropriate comments. 
This is not CAMRA’s fault., but CAMRA needs to step up and show through action that it is on the side of equality. We cannot solve the broad problem of sexism in society, but we can play a part in improving things.
Our aim should be that real ale pubs and CAMRA festivals are better than the average. We are already proud of the fact that fights at CAMRA festivals are extremely rare; we should try to ensure that sexual harassment is equally rare.
Festival volunteers should be aware that both male and female festival visitors may be experienced real ale drinkers, or have never tried it before, or anywhere in between.
CAMRA is pro-active in making the world of real ale welcoming and attractive to all.
CAMRA festivals must be exemplary in this regard. 
1. Measures for beer festivals
a) CAMRA beer festivals shall not order beers that have inappropriate or sexist names or pump clips. CAMRA festival beer orderers shall have discretion not to order beers that have inappropriate or sexist names or pump clips.
b) If branches have difficulty in determining what is inappropriate or sexist, the NE or RD may use their discretion to constitute some kind of formal adjudicating body.
c b) If necessary (e.g. repeated complaints), food and merchandise vendors may be vetted on similar criteria. 
d c) Festivals shall have a public policy against harassment (printed in the festival programme).
e d) CAMRA shall produce education materials and provide training for festival volunteers on tackling inappropriate behaviour. 
2. Measures for pubs
a) CAMRA shall communicate to pubs that equality is a concern for us. We encourage pubs to adopt similar measures to our own: training staff, not selling sexist beers and not tolerating harassment. 
b) Pubs that are known to be dangerous or unwelcoming for women shall not be eligible for the Good Beer Guide. Branches shall maintain a confidential register of pubs which are problematic, and ask members to provide feedback/complaints. b) Branches may maintain a confidential register of pubs which are dangerous or unwelcoming for women, and ask members to provide feedback/complaints. Branches may exclude such pubs from the GBG at their discretion.
3. General measures
a) CAMRA shall take steps to ensure that its own publications and publicity materials are not sexist.