Saturday, 19 July 2014

Probably the best lager in Bermondsey

There’s a fine line between being a critical consumer and being that miserable bastard who doesn’t like anything. I feel I sometimes err on the latter side too often. So it’s a great pleasure to come across a new beer I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Fourpure is one of the newest London breweries. But most of London’s breweries are new these days, and that doesn’t really tell you very much.

The beer I am so keen on is their Pils. Just Pils. No fancy barrel-aged hibiscus flower saison; it’s a Pils and a damn good one.

Occasionally your mouth tells you “wait a minute, maybe this is just a little too bitter”, and then you drink it again and decide it isn’t after all.

I have no idea whether Fourpure’s other beers are also as good as this, and to be honest I don’t really care. One beer as good as this is plenty for any brewery.

In Scotland Fourpure is available at bars and shops supplied by A New Wave. In London, I guess you can get it at the brewery. Possibly most of England is still missing out.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Grunt work

One side effect of the slow, self-inflicted death of traditional high street off-licence chains is that space has been created for others to get in on the act. Some of the most disruptive entries are corner shops or convenience stores. Now this is not strictly a new thing because I distinctly remember buying unusual beers from a licensed grocer in Glasgow twenty years ago; but more recently more and more such shops have discovered that there's a market for beer beyond the slabs of Carling and Kestrel.

It’s all the more delightful to come across one of these because you expect – well, I do – to go to the corner shop and be faced with a depressing line-up of bland, mass-market beers. How nice it is to be able to choose from interesting local beers instead.

On the south side of Glasgow is Maxwells, in the middle of the rapidly hipsterising Pollokshields. Walk in and you see the cans of baked beans, tea bags and disposable nappies. Then you notice the beer shelves, stacked with the products of independent breweries: Stewart, Cairngorm, SixºNorth, Williams and more. I am told by people who know about these things that the wine range is not half bad either.

But I’m mentioning Maxwells chiefly because I think it was the first shop in Glasgow proper (barring Whole Foods in Giffnock) to do take-away growler fills. For about six months you’ve been able to go in and get draught Williams Joker IPA or WEST St Mungo to take out. Since I was last in they’ve added two lines from a clown brewery in Aberdeenshire too.

Take-away beer has a long history, of course. Some pubs still have engraved glass panels advertising “Jug & Bottle Dept” or “Family Dept” where containers would be filled. That practice nearly died out, at least round my way; as long as I can remember, pubs have rarely seemed interested in catering for off-sales. And while I will drink cask beer in the pub until the cows come home, it doesn’t respond well to being decanted into a bottle. It loses carbonation going into the bottle, the temperature isn’t low enough to stop it frothing all over the place, it sloshes about while you’re carrying it and you end up with flat beer. Some cask beers are so stunningly good that they even still taste nice after this treatment, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

It’s no real surprise then that the new wave of growler vendors are all doing it with keg beer, which has enough CO2 that it can afford to have some of the fizz knocked out in transit.

In addition to Maxwells, Valhalla’s Goat has got their own growler station up and running in the last few weeks too. And I have just been to see the man who’s launching a pop-up growler shop in the West End. Chicago-born Jehad Hatu plans to open his “Grunting Growler” shop three days a week in the premises of the Bike Station cycle shop near Kelvingrove Park. The plan is not to raise capital to later open a permanent shop, but to first of all demonstrate that the business model is viable.

As a student, explains Jehad, he and his friends couldn’t buy beer on a Sunday because local regulations prevented liquor stores from opening. But restaurants were allowed to sell growlers to take away, so they would get those instead. The growler thus has something of an emotional import to him – he wouldn’t want to open a beer shop or a bar. He’s also keen to improve the standard of growler filling. Most places, he explains, just fill the bottle straight from the tap, leading to oxidised beer that goes stale quickly. Grunting Growler will use sanitised growlers and fill them with a device which first flushes them with CO2, then fills them through a tube from the bottom to minimise splashing. Jehad wants to serve beer in the best quality possible: he has good beer from great breweries and doesn’t want to be to blame for customers getting beer in poor condition.

Jehad will have four keg taps to start with, but dreams of some day expanding to as many as twenty-four. Beer will be about £6.50 a litre and the pop-up opens for the first time on Thursday.

Grunting Growler
Glasgow Bike Station
65 Haugh Road
G3 8TX
10am–6pm, Thu–Sat between 17 July and 9 August

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Nicht mehr haltbar?

Another sad chapter in the history of Woodlands pub the Halt Bar came to a close a couple of weeks ago, when the pub was found padlocked at unexpected times. However, the pub’s Facebook page was still being updated and various comedy nights were still taking place. In the latest issue of the Glasgow Guzzler we said that it was still open, because we weren’t sure and didn’t want to report it closed if it really wasn’t. Just a few days after the magazine went to print, though, it was impossible to be unsure any longer.

I wrote about the struggle to save the Halt from redevelopment when it was under threat from the pub company in 2012. Then the owner Punch wanted to gut the place and turn it into an anodyne food-led bar of the kind that litter nearby Bath Street. But a loud campaign (as well as the fact that Punch apparently couldn’t find anyone willing to put in the six-figure investment they had in mind) prevented that happening. Instead, Punch appeared to have realised what a gem they had on their hands and leased it to new operators, who gave it a lick of paint, put some candles in wine bottles on the tables and tried to make a go of it. A year ago, it seemed to have been saved.

Unfortunately, even this very mild gentrification drove away the previous clientele of hipsters who had appreciated the cheap White Russians, and while I quite liked both the old and new guises, the beer was painfully expensive for what it was. Occasionally I’d go in and have a pint of mild – I discovered the splendid Cotswold Spring OSM here – but I wouldn’t have two or three as I might otherwise have done. More importantly, I couldn’t get friends to go there with me when they could get much more interesting beer 25% cheaper  at the State Bar round the corner.

As time went on, the tenants played it safer and safer, trying to sell Black Sheep Bitter and even Tetleys. At £4 a pint. The inevitable closure followed.

It wasn’t the tenants’ fault. The beer couldn’t be any cheaper, because they were having to pay through the nose for it to the pubco. I have no doubt the reason for the pub’s failure is down to Punch’s greed in trying to squeeze more profit out of the pub than it was actually able to generate. CAMRA in Scotland is therefore rightly demanding that the pubco adjudicator legislation the Westminister Government has at last introduced should be followed by the Scottish Government too, and preferably strengthened.

On the positive side, the Halt will not be closed for long. A couple of days ago the painters were in giving the interior a coat of light grey. The rumours are true: the local West brewery is taking over the bar, supposedly as a pop-up. It might seem an odd time to take on a new bar. Demand for West beers is now high enough that on sunny days the brewery has difficulty keeping its own beer hall fully stocked.

Weirdly, the bar is going under the name “WEST on the corner”, missing the opportunity for some sort of linguistic pun – “haltbar” in German means something along the lines of “tenable”, “hard-wearing” or “durable”. Perhaps not the most appropriate name for a pop-up, but it will be sad to see the historic name disappear. I hope it doesn’t.

The sign was ugly but it’s still a bit sad seeing the pub denuded

Sunday, 6 July 2014

England’s Franconia

For several years I have talked about making a trip to Dudley to drink dark mild. It started as a joke, but the more I found out about the beer culture of the Black Country the more serious my plans became. I learned that the home of the famous Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild was round there, and also the Swan, in the 1970s one of the four remaining old-time home-brew pubs in England.

Most of all I had heard old CAMRA boys speaking with reverence of a brewery called Batham’s, whose beer was divine nectar. But you can’t get it anywhere else; you have to go to the Black Country for it. I made up my mind to go.

I'm meeting an old friend in the Lamp Tavern in Dudley, because it’s the most central of the pubs we want to visit. And because it’s a Batham’s pub and I want my first drink of the day to be my first taste of these legendary beers. C is already there by the time I arrive; he has a pint of mild in front of him, so I get one too.

The mild is heavenly. When we switch to the bitter, it’s even better, a golden revelation of a beer, sweet and substantially bitter all at the same time. Very few British beers really taste of malt to me, but this one does. We learn from the barmaid that the Lamp is more a bitter drinkers’ pub … which doesn’t surprise us. 

There are a couple of surprises behind the bar too. Bottles of Gold Label (I thought they’d been discontinued years ago), but not brown nip bottles: stubby green bottles like the ones cheap French lager comes in. And the pork scratchings. This part of the world is famous for pork scratchings, of course. But this pub sells four different brands of pork scratchings. That’s taking scratchings seriously. 

Our next stop is the geographically nearest: Ma Pardoe’s aka the Swan. Either it’s not as close as it looks on the map, or we get lost on the way. 

Never mind. We pile in to the parlour bar, see no pumpclips, so head through to the back to see what’s on. Ah. No pump clips here either. They don’t use them – the available beers are just chalked up on a blackboard. There’s a surprise for me here too: on ordering two pints of mild, I am immediately asked “light or dark?” We go for the dark, which is delicious. After circumnavigating the warren of interconnecting rooms, we end up in the beautiful red front bar and have a pint of the pale mild. Which is also delicious. There’s also “Entire”, another slighty stronger amber beer, not a porter as you might expect, and Old Bumblehole (arf, arf, etc.).

The Swan is a wonderful pub. There are great pubs in nearly every city, but very few of them have the magic of this place. It’s this magic that reminds me of Franconia. Old, wood-paneled, multi-roomed taverns, brewers who carry on doing things as they always have, not paying much attention to what trends are moving in the metropoles, and all this in a region foolishly regarded as a backwater by people elsewhere. And yet these pubs are completely embedded in the local community and couldn’t exist anywhere else in the same form. I’m even starting to like the local accent, which is much pleasanter to listen to than the malicious caricature of it you sometimes hear on television.

With some reluctance we leave the Swan, and the reason is that we are trying to get to the Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill before it gets dark. 

Batham’s Bitter is golden with very little, if any, caramel or crystal malt.
More evidence that bitter is not always brown.
This pub, also called the Vine, is regarded as Batham’s brewery tap. Again, there are multiple rooms and the pint-pulling is done by two silver-haired matrons. More Batham’s Bitter is drunk here. Not just by us, by everyone. It seems that almost everyone in the pub, including most of the women, has a pint of the golden beer in front of them. You can definitely see how the brewery survives with only a few tied pubs.

Oh, it’s gone all dark by the time we leave…

There is one more pub we want to see with some urgency: The Britannia. The peculiar feature of this pub is that it has a room with no bar counter at all, just a set of beer engines mounted by the door. That room is only opened on Saturdays, so this is our only chance to see it. By the time we arrive the pub is bouncing and there’s no chance of getting a seat in the holy room, but we get to stand in the doorway at least.

When planning this trip I thought that four pubs in a day wasn’t very much, but it was more than enough; I could happily have spent all evening in any of them. There is one pub I had been hoping to visit that we couldn’t have gone to even if we’d had time: The Shakespeare, recorded in CAMRA’s National Inventory and detailed in issue three of the wonderful Doghouse magazine. But just a few days before the trip I learn that it closed back in September last year.

We make it back to the Lamp in time for a last pint of Bitter – about three minutes before last orders in fact.

The next morning there is some culture in store. Well, the pubs don’t open until twelve and you have to fill the morning somehow. The Black Country Living Museum is a splendid collection of old buildings, painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed on this site to form pseudo-original streets. There are various shops, a trade union hall where we get a decent breakfast, a working fish and chip shop, trams and trolleybuses – and a pub.

The Bottle & Glass in the Living Museum
The pub is the Bottle and Glass which once stood in nearby Brockmore. It’s pretty much exactly as it was fifty or a hundred years ago. It’s wonderful to sit in one of the sparse little rooms next to the coal fire. Even better is the knowledge that there are still pubs like this out in the wild round here.

The Bottle & Glass does still serve beer, but as they pour it in plastic cups, which kind of ruins the experience, staying for a pint here is not a must-do.

(These niggles aside, it’s a far better reconstruction than the terrible mess Glasgow has made of the pub exhibit in the Riverside Museum. That is nothing like the interior of the old Mitre Bar that it claims to be, and the whole thing seems intended to remind people of the evils of drink more than anything else. As for being able to get a pint there, even in a plastic cup, forget it.)

It’s easy to spend hours at the museum and still only scratch the surface, so by the time we leave it’s well past opening time and I’m starting to fancy a refreshing glass of beer. I know where, too – the Beacon Hotel in Sedgley. We have saved this pub till last, as it’s the home of the potentially dangerous 6% Sarah Hughes mild.

Once again I have misjudged the distance, and we waste valuable drinking time walking to Sedgley. It’s only around three miles, but in the sunshine in our hungover state it feels like ten. I don’t recommend it; the walk is neither pleasant nor useful.

On the way we unexpectedly pass the Holdens brewery, but don’t have time to stop, because it’s Sunday and afternoon closing is still sacrosanct here. We are in danger of not reaching the Beacon in time at all. But we get there, and at eighteen minutes to three are standing on the other side of the road. Walking for miles in the scorching sun has a slight tendency to make you thirsty: five minutes later I am queueing at the serving hatch for my second pint. The beer that slides down so fast is Amber; despite the name it is golden in colour. Thanks to the Amber taking the edge off our perishing thirsts, and to the generous drinking-up time the pub allows, we are able to treat the following pint of Ruby Mild with the respect it deserves.

Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild in its natural habitat

The magically restorative power of the Mild means that after just the 45 precious minutes in the pub we are relaxed and refreshed again and able to jump on the convenient next bus to Wolverhampton for the train home.

I was expecting to be disappointed in this trip and have my romantic illusions destroyed. Instead I found a real living beer culture, both surprising and endearing. OK, central Dudley is a bit run-down, but the pubs are magical and the beer is even better. I can’t wait to go back.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

You’re having a G-raf

This is going to be – is – another busy week. For the first time in over 25 years Glasgow CAMRA is running a beer festival – the Glasgow Real Ale Festival (G-RAF) opens on Thursday at the Briggait, the city’s former fish market. Significant support has come from Renfrewshire CAMRA who have been running the Paisley Beer Festival for almost as long and know what they're doing.

Glasgow has not one, but two new breweries. Drygate has had plenty of coverage, but, surprisingly, the first to get commercial beer (brewed on their own kit) to market is the much smaller outfit Jaw Brew, based in Hillington. Owner Mark Hazell will have his beer at the G-RAF on Thursday. But Drygate won’t: even though their on-site brewery is now in production, business has been so good that they have run out of the initial stocks of Williams Bros-brewed beer, and their first few brews are going into restocking their own bar.

The preliminary G-RAF list had Drygate’s core beers on it, but it could have been predicted that at least two of them were non-starters: Bearface lager would take far too long to be ready, and it is doubtful if Outaspace Apple Ale can be put in a cask with live yeast at all. It contains about 35% unfermented apple juice which would immediately start fermenting out – if the cask didn’t blow its shive first.

Maclays’ newest city-centre venture “The Raven” opened today, promising both craft beer AND cask ale (sigh…) along with slow-smoked meat. While vegetarians may be praying for the pulled-pork-and-brisket fad to end, it certainly seems to be more of a beer-oriented venue than the office-girls-n-pinot-grigio format Maclays chose for The Hope a couple of streets away – it’s worth noting that the latter has recently done a U-turn and started selling cask ale, after saying at the start that it wouldn’t (Told you so).

Re-opening after refurbishment tomorrow is the Clockwork Beer Co on the south side, also Maclays-owned. I don’t know much about what’s changed, but I have heard the Clockwork will be adding WEST beer to their newly “craftified” range. This is interesting because, until a few weeks ago, that would have put it in the position of selling all three Glasgow-brewed lager brands: WEST, Tennent’s and their own Clockwork lager. Now that Drygate is open, it means there’s still no pub that sells all of the city’s lagers!

While I’m on the subject of Maclays, the veteran cellarman at the legendary real ale pub The Three Judges, Ronnie Anderson, has retired. Ronnie knows more about beer than just about anyone in Glasgow – by a considerable margin – and on his watch the Judges specialised in beers from English microbreweries. Generally there would be at least one brewery represented on the bar that I’d never heard of before. It’s to be hoped the Judges will maintain the same standards without Ronnie, but they are some damn big shoes to fill.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Slowly does it – Drygate opens

Several years ago someone told me that Portland, Oregon has the same population as Glasgow, which means that our three breweries look slightly puny compared to their thirty-five. Never mind, we are catching up and from the weekend we now have four breweries (and a fifth is due to follow in a couple of months)! 

The people behind Drygate Brewing Co have been tight-lipped for the last few weeks, but the bar-restaurant in the East End is opening in May as promised after all – this weekend in fact.

The ground floor houses the restaurant, the breweries and a small beer shop. The kitchen is run by people transferred from Leith’s The Vintage, and judging by the canapes they fed us, the food looks likely to be every bit as good as you would expect. Upstairs is a beer hall and a multi-functional space that can be used as a venue or exhibition space.

A young triumvirate of brewers has been assembled: Jake, late of Fyne Ales; Edward has left Traditional Scottish Ales to come here; and Alessandra joins the team from Harviestoun. Food and beer are treated holistically here – Jake and Ed worked in kitchens before becoming brewers, and Alessandra studied at Carlo Petrini’s “slow food” university. Scott Williams says the brewers will have freedom to get on with creating new beers alongside the Drygate core range.

The brewing kit is Italian-made and a lauter tun system. The main vessel can be heated for mashing and heated further for boiling, with the mash being pumped into the lauter tun for separating the wort from the grains and clear wort pumped back to be boiled. This system is flexible enough for pretty much any mashing regime you can think of, from a simple infusion to a stepped mash to triple decoction. There is a chamber within the copper for non-hop aromatics – handy for brewers in the tradition of using odd botanicals.

Because of delays in commissioning the brewing kit, the bar will be opening with Drygate beers brewed at Williams Bros in Alloa for the first few weeks. The beer will inevitably change once production actually starts up at Drygate and the brewers get used to the new system. Thus there’s not a lot of point in an in-depth critique of the beers at this stage. I will say that all three core beers seem cleaner and improved on the prototypes we were offered back in February. The Bearface lager is fresher and seems more bitter. Gladeye IPA is paler and better balanced, but still needs more aroma. Even the apple ale has blossomed into an approachable, very sweet drink.

As well as the core beers, there will be any amount of one-off brews and guest draught beers, plus fridges stocked with enough bottles to keep anyone happy.

I am looking forward to drinking here immensely – not least because it will make an excellent end to the three-brewery cycling tour we can now do, starting at the Clockwork on the south side, stopping at WEST on Glasgow Green and ending up at Drygate. It will be most splendid to relax on the sun deck where you can gather outside with a beer and enjoy the late afternoon sun – while gazing over the yard of Tennent’s brewery next door and its delivery trucks laden with kegs.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The times they are a-changing

Grotty station pub in the process of being refurbished into “beer house”.

Glasgow Central station has been abysmal for beer for years. I can count on one hand the number of times in twenty years I’ve stopped for a beer in the station itself, rather than nipping round the corner to the Horse Shoe, the Pot Still, the Drum & Monkey or the Laurieston. 

I’m not getting my hopes up expecting a Sheffield Tap-style transformation. By all accounts this is a bit of bandwagon-jumping by the operator, SSP, who had the Arrol before and have all the other rubbish bars in the station too. If you’ve ever wondered why food outlets in stations tend to share the grim anonymity of mediocre products and extortionate prices, it’s because they’re all the same company.

Beer House outlets in other stations have received less than gushing reviews. The bar is due to re-open this week. I’ll try it and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Cask-conditioned McEwan’s returns – not with a bang but a whimper

It was with no announcement or advertising that the once proud name McEwan’s returned to the world of cask-conditioned beer.

Just a tweet from parent company Wells & Young’s, and a silent website update, alerted me to the news that three new cask ales were on the market in Scotland. What a contrast to the pots of cash spent launching McEwan’s Red last year.

The first two, Amber and Signature, have been available in clear glass bottles for a while now. I’d tried them and they were drinkable but forgettable. But after waiting so long for the promised return of cask McEwan’s, I was more than willing to give them a chance in “real” form.

One revelation which made me chuckle was the news that the third beer in the range is a “brand new brew” McEwan’s IPA. Well, it may be a new recipe, but IPA a new brew?

McEwan’s Export still sells well, and many drinkers are aware of it having the nickname Red Death – possibly more than those who remember that it was once the brewery’s IPA, as the label below shows.

The very same weekend two of the beers were on sale in one of my favourite Glasgow pubs, the Pot Still.

And do you know, I was pleasantly surprised. The Amber is not amber, but golden, full-bodied with some real hop flavour and respectable bitterness, and much tastier than the bottled version. The IPA is golden too, but crisp and clean – maybe slightly too clean – and very drinkable (and nothing at all like Export). I found them good solid beers worth a try, and I’ll drink them again.

Wells & Young’s have bought an iconic Scottish brand, but they still seem slightly afraid of it; the Cavalier is nowhere to be seen on the new pumpclips, and the new cask beers themselves are not much like the McEwan’s of old in flavour either. Not that that’s a bad thing: I have said before that if they want to make a success of the brand in a vastly more competitive market, the beer will have to be better than the stuff described as “thin-bodied with a cloying metallic, caramel flavour” in the Good Beer Guide twenty years ago.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Brewmeister: crooks or just sad wannabes?

If you are going to tell a lie, said Hitler, make it a big lie. A big lie has a certain credibility just by virtue of its audacity. People will assume it is the truth because they have difficulty believing anyone would dare make such outrageous claims otherwise.

If you haven’t yet read Rich’s post at the Beer Cast, you should. Rich has been on the trail of Keith-based brewery Brewmeister for the best part of a year, since they announced they had produced “the strongest beer in the world”. He’s now posted the story of an encounter with the company at which they freely admitted the beer, claimed to be 65%, was nowhere near that strength, and in fact they had had no idea how strong it was.

I wasn’t at this event, but I trust Rich’s account and I don’t trust Brewmeister in the slightest.

Reading Rich’s post strengthens everyone’s suspicions about why Brewmeister were always so evasive when asked to supply evidence about the strength of the product. In March I asked them on Twitter if there was a lab analysis proving that their beers are as strong as they claimed to be.

But two months later, we’re still waiting to see this analysis.

After Rich’s post, Brewmeister announced more bottles had been sent for testing. The results “will speak for themselves”, we are told. What happened to the original analysis spoken of above? Did it ever exist? If the currently promised analysis ever actually appears, will it be reliable?

Of course, Brewmeister are not the only cynical chancers in Scottish brewing.

It’s really weird to see – in the same week – all and sundry condemning Brewmeister, and at the same time cheering on Brewdog’s latest infantile publicity stunt, as if we were all seven years of age and one of the class had sworn at the teacher in an act of MARKETING GENIUS.

But Brewdog did their shtick first, and they did it competently. They are still doing it because, puerile and childish as it is, it is effective. That’s also why it’s still being copied, most recently by London’s Beavertown, who called a beer Barley Champagne and then pretended to be surprised when the Comité Champagne told them to stop it.

Brewmeister, on the other hand, are johnny-come-latelies and try to do the same thing without any of the skill, and as a result they look like sad wannabes.

If Brewdog were al-Qaeda, Brewmeister would be the bungling fools who tried to attack Glasgow Airport, but instead set themselves on fire and got their arses kicked by a baggage handler.

Beer geeks and beer writers need to face up to the reality that we have created the ground for Brewmeister to exist. We have rewarded Brewdog’s obnoxious behaviour by continuing to buy their beer and making them inordinately successful.

It was utterly inevitable that others would see this and learn the Brewdog Rules: the road to success is to manufacture cynically staged controversy; there is no such thing as bad publicity; it is fine to bottle and sell your mistakes; if you get critical comments on your blog, just delete them; making “the world’s strongest beer” will get you much, much more coverage than anything else you might do, however interesting. And if people call you out on your bullshit, do a quick reverse ferret and play it humble for a day or two: we are only a young company, still learning, and we will do things differently in the future – never mind that this vitiates all previous claims to be the saviours of brewing.

Brewdog, though, had the advantage that their beer was very good, which is the reason people put up with their ridiculous antics in the first place. On the other hand, I have only tasted one of Brewmeister’s beers myself: the “bock” called 10, which had inappropriate berry-fruit notes and an off-putting aroma of cheap vodka; the opinions of others about their other beers have also been decidedly mixed.

One last point. Brewdog have been careful only to pick fights with organisations that can’t do them any significant damage in return. The Portman Group might get one of their beers delisted in Tesco (we don’t know, for example, whether Tesco were delisting it anyway, or whether Brewdog were planning to keep it in their core range), but it won’t affect specialist stores. And it takes no political courage whatsoever to have a joke at the expense of a foreign head of state, on a topic that is uncontroversial among your target market, in a country where you don’t sell any beer. On the other hand, I don’t recall Brewdog having anything to say about the bedroom tax or library closures.

Brewmeister are not quite so clever. Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue have very sharp teeth and they don’t take kindly to people trying to take the piss. Hopefully Brewmeister will soon discover that. 

You might innocently think, “How can Brewmeister be so stupid? How did they imagine they could get away with this, and even be so brazen as to admit it to a blogger?”

The answer is: refer to Hitler’s advice above. The other answer is: they still are getting away with it. They have not yet been prosecuted, and they still have the money that they obtained from customers for the beers in question.

For Brewmeister are not quite as stupid as they seem. They know that hardly anyone reads beer blogs, and far more people read the uncritical hype in news media. There’s a secondary scandal here: it’s the fact that supposedly serious news media, staffed by professional, paid journalists, unquestioningly parroted Brewmeister’s press releases: in the Record and the Scotsman and the Metro and the Mail and on STV. Not one asked for evidence or doubted the company’s claims. And that’s not to mention the host of content-farming websites repeating the tale.

If there is one positive aspect to this whole sorry story, it is in the comments on Rich’s blog post. Possibly America’s highest-profile brewer, Garrett Oliver himself, weighed in in the frankest terms to condemn the appearance of what he calls “clown breweries”, who put the brand before the beer.

Perhaps the real division in the near future will be, not so much “craft vs. crafty”, but brewers vs. clowns.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Brewers versus fakes

Brand-builders who get their beer brewed under contract, but pose as breweries, came under attack in Belgium this week with the publication of an open letter from brewers in the newspaper Le Soir. Thanks to there is also an English translation.

The brewers, including those from such heavyweight enterprises as Brasseries de la Senne, De Dolle Brouwers and Cantillon, pull no punches.

Contract brewing has always taken place, and there is nothing wrong with it in principle. But recently, say the brewers, “the manipulation of the consumer through the media [has reached] unprecedented levels. This should be considered a fraud on the consumer … our industry is beginning to attract a great many impostors who cynically exploit the credulity of the public to make a profit.”

The person who actually makes the beer is reduced to the status of a labourer, while the brand owner poses as the creative “craft brewer”. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples of this from countries outside Belgium.

Now much of this stuff is actually not aimed at the type of trendy fake brewers who nowadays like to call themselves “gypsy brewers”; it’s directed at a group of beer sellers who’ve been around much longer: the marketers of the piss-poor sugary blonde and brown beers and beer-based alcopops that infest the Belgian beer market. They don’t make it into export markets very often because, well, they’re not good enough, but buy a selection of unfamiliar beers in a Belgian shop and you’re quite likely to hit upon one or more of these, especially if it doesn’t say on the label where it’s actually brewed.

Tim Webb has been moaning about this sort of thing for years, so in a way it’s quite surprising that it’s taken the brewers so long to speak out about the damage they see being done to the image of Belgian beer.

The brewers demand that there should be some sort of protection so that not just anyone can call him or herself a brewer or claim their company is a brewery. More concretely, they insist on transparency as a minimum: that every bottle of beer should state exactly where the beer is made, however fanciful the rest of the label is. That seems fair enough to me.

It’ll be interesting to see whether beer geeks in the rest of the world pay any attention to the opinions of the brewers they claim to revere so much.