Friday, 11 August 2017

From the ashes



Like many other drinkers I was shocked and saddened when Glasgow beer business Hippo Beers suddenly went into liquidation. The group which ran a beer shop and just over a year ago opened its own bar, the Hippo Taproom, closed its doors and appointed liquidators at the end of July.

I’m particularly sad because I’ve seen the business start up right from the beginning and can imagine how much work the founders Derek and Alec put into it. When the Hippo shop on Queen Margaret Drive finally opened I was the first customer through the door (I wanted them to be able to say there were customers waiting outside).

One of the earliest events I remember was a brewing demonstration in the shop with the homebrewers who went on to form Out Of Town. That particular beer had to be dumped due to someone’s insistence on using far too much rye. The boys were back at Hippo Taproom a couple of years later to launch their brewery. Chris Lewis of Dead End Brew Machine also credits Hippo with giving him the impetus to go commercial.

I do not know the reasons for the liquidation but some people are speculating that there just wasn’t enough trade. Compared to other specialist stores Hippo was a bit out of the way, and not near any convenient public transport. Although the inhabitants of the surrounding area are precisely the demographic likely to buy its wares, perhaps a beer shop also needs to attract custom from elsewhere. The Taproom was rarely busy but put an extraordinary effort into organising special events and – unlike some beer bars – offered several well-kept cask ales. Perhaps its location, among the Saturday night drinking barns of Sauchiehall St, didn’t do it any favours either; though it made a pleasant pub crawl from there to the State Bar round the corner (and sometimes back again).

The liquidation came at a particularly inconvenient time, as the team were in the middle of organising their festival, the Great Scottish Beer Celebration, which had previously taken place at the Barras and this year was planned for the Art School. Happily, brewers and other beer retailers have come to the rescue and organised an ad hoc consortium to allow the festival to continue. “I was basically asked ‘do you fancy helping get the thing moving again’ … it’s been very much a collective since the beginning,” one of the organisers told me.

It will be on the same dates in the same venue, but under the name Beer Makes Glasgow (a take on the city‘s own PR slogan “People Make Glasgow”). Ticket holders for GSBC should contact beermakesglasgow@gmail.com or just turn up for the same session originally booked. Tickets can be obtained from https://event.bookitbee.com/e/w3bt3. Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Drumchapel Food Bank.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Beer’s cupcake phase



I don’t know whether the Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival’s invitation to brewers read “Come along, and bring your wackiest beers”, but it might as well have done. This “curated” festival (uh oh) promises to bring “the world’s finest breweries” (of course) to “celebrate passion, creativity and quality in brewing”. It didn’t sound like my kind of thing at all.

If you’re used to reading this sort of stuff, it will come as no surprise that the festival glass is a Teku, which in addition to its ugliness and awkwardness gets rather uncomfortable to carry around after a while.

The venue is one positive feature: The Biscuit Factory, is, believe it or not, a former biscuit factory (Crawford’s, if you care that much), and the semi-derelict industrial building offers a ready-made “authentic” backdrop for the hipster aesthetic that is now so often artificially created at great expense. The very steep and narrow staircase inside is a less positive aspect. Signposting is poor and some visitors may have missed the sunny and airy upper level entirely, which would be a shame as it is much more pleasant up there than on the gloomy ground floor.

Commonplace in the USA but still rather unusual in Britain is the ticket policy: entry is an initially eye-watering £38 per session, but beyond that you don‘t have to pay for beer and can just wander around having your glass filled with samples of whatever you fancy. This is probably the best way to serve some of the very strong beers anyway. A late announcement that visitors would be limited to a total volume of six pints caused some disquiet on social media, but seems reasonable to me (though heaven knows how they were planning to police it): the last thing you need on an unseasonably warm Friday evening is people tanning imperial stouts in an effort to get their money’s worth, especially given the potential for falls offered by that staircase.

One technical feature that other festivals would do very well to emulate is the provision of jerry-cans of fresh water for rinsing glasses.

The “Edinburgh” in ECBF is very much a description of the location, not the origin of the beer. Pilot from Leith are the only local brewery represented, and the majority of the breweries are from outside Scotland. Cromarty, Six Degrees North, Tempest, Fierce, Fallen, Speyside and, embarrassingly, supermarket-friendly media clowns Brewdog make up the remainder of the Scottish contestants.

I begin with Wylam, a criminally under-rated brewery from Newcastle. They specialise in properly bitter pale ale, and their Sorachi Ace pale is exactly what I expected from them, with the typical raspberry, plastic and sweat flavours of this divisive hop, followed by a long dry bitter finish. My biggest regret is not making it back to the Wylam stand.

More Sorachi Ace comes from Brooklyn Brewery, a vaguely saison-y thing with lots of yeast flavour and after the intensely bitter Wylam effort it seems unpleasantly sweet. Moving on to the Sierra Nevada stand, there are several beers not usually seen in the UK. Festival Bier from Sierra Nevada is a tasty, malty festbier perhaps a bit on the sweet side (one could, of course, make the same complaint about many German versions). Their Celebration fresh hop ale with its resiny hops smells curiously dated in this world of lychee and melon-scented beers. The flavour even more so: I’d almost forgotten about the love US brewers once had for huge amounts of caramel malt.

Cromarty have a Vienna lager, Arctic Swell, which holds its own well even among the boozy dessert-flavoured monster beers, with a nice toasty character and a reassuring sweetness. It reminds me a lot of Brooklyn Lager, but perhaps that has now become the international benchmark for the style.

I’d given up on Cloudwater after two separate purchases of their Mittelfrüh lager had an identical issue: non-existent head retention, with the foam shrinking to absolutely nothing within minutes of pouring. I gave them another chance. The good news is the foam was fine. The bad news is that the beer was riddled with sweetcorny DMS, and I was glad to be able to pour it away.

Do you remember a couple of years ago, when cupcake shops were popping up left, right and centre, purveying sickly sweet icing (sorry, “frosting”) atop a tiny sponge cake base? Despite being mostly white sugar and refined flour, and unutterably disgusting to boot, they found ready cheerleaders among food media that normally pray dutifully to the idols of local ingredients and fresh produce.


This appears to be the phase that “craft” brewers are now passing through.







Lactose merchants must be making a killing at the moment. Once a specialist ingredient used in only one style of beer – milk stout, which was practically dead anyway – brewers now seem to be throwing it into all manner of concoctions together with dessert or breakfast flavourings.

Maybe this fad will pass, but given the general novelty-chasing that characterises the beer scene, I’m not getting my hopes up. Can you imagine a winemaker anywhere on this earth proudly saying “Stoked to have made a cheesecake Pinot Noir with bacon and Golden Grahams”? I can’t. And cheese connoisseurs have only scorn for those who foist woefully immature Wensleydale with cranberries on consumers. They know that this bizarre phenomenon distracts from appreciation of the infinitely variable flavours and aromas of actual cheese. Perhaps one day the beer scene will achieve such maturity.

At the risk of developing diabetes, the eager enthusiast could choose from a barrel-aged flat white coffee stout (Left Handed Giant), a maple syrup, coffee and pancakes stout (Pilot) or even an imperial maple blueberry cheesecake stout at 12% (Dugges/Omnipollo). Pilot’s effort tastes of coffee and burnt toast, and they do this sort of thing better than most. For dessert, Northern Monk’s notorious Neapolitan Ice Cream IPA is also available. With almost no aroma beyond a vague milkiness, this does actually taste like Neapolitan ice cream, without the pleasure. It very quickly becomes overpoweringly sweet, and personally I’d rather have the ice cream.

At Põhjala from Tallinn, the lactose has even got into their raspberry Berliner Weisse. Predictably, the resulting drink tastes like a Munch Bunch fruit yoghurt.



Bristol’s Wiper & True have put some thought into their specials and used the festival venue’s heritage as inspiration to brew three biscuit-themed beers. There is a leaflet and everything. I only try one of them: many brewers accidentally make diacetyl bombs, but Wiper & True may be the first to do it deliberately and name it thus. Shortbread Diacetyl Bomb is intended to replicate the buttery flavour of said biscuit. I find it undrinkable, more due to the intense sweetness than the butteriness. It’s certainly educational, especially if you don’t already know what diacetyl tastes like, but the thought strikes me that this would be better set as homework for brewing students rather than inflicted on the public.

The “normal” beer on offer from Wiper & True is another semi-experiment: a Vermont-style IPA made with English hops, called Returning Ernest. The hops are Ernest, Olicana, Jester and UK Cascade and while these contribute New World-type fruity aromas, particularly pineapple, there’s an underlying texture of “English” woodiness too which is rather pleasant.

Ironically enough, it’s the American brewers who come up with sensible beers. Firestone Walker’s 805, though top-fermented, is what the Cloudwater Helles should be: clean, sweet, without off flavours. Sierra Nevada’s orange IPA sounds gimmicky but the pithy citrus bitterness enhances the beer rather than dominating it. Their Tropicuzu (apparently the only kegs of it in the UK) displays fruity hops and grapefruit zest with a peppery finish. Pretty nice.

It’s telling that one of the less ridiculous beers is a rhubarb and citrus sour. Fallen and Pilot have made it. It’s better than many, but more due to the strong scent of citrus zest than anything else, giving it a kind of adult limeade taste. Fallen’s new-ish double IPA, The Big 1, is nicely pungent, yet oily and sweet, which has become par for the course with such beers, since the staggering amount of hops needed to effectively balance out a gooey 8.5% beer is frankly nonsensical.

As the DJs turn the volume up and the place starts to resemble a goth disco, I decide it’s time to leave. ECBF is certainly doing something that other festivals aren’t, even if it is basically “drink tiny measures of very silly beers that you wouldn’t be able to finish a pint of anyway”; there’s a market for it and it definitely makes a change. I did enjoy myself, much to my surprise. More to the point, the punters who’d forked out to get in seemed to be having a good time too.

Disclosure: The PR company handling the event offered me a free ticket to the Friday evening session. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Due to the nature of the ticketing, this also meant that I drank for free all night. You decide for yourself whether you think my judgement is skewed by these facts.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Pedigree vs. Pedigree



There was disbelief and scorn aplenty a few months ago when Marston’s announced a radical rebranding of their core range. Say what you like: the defining feature of craft beer is distressed type and a style of graphic design that was briefly fashionable ten years ago. Nothing else matters. It can be cheap, expensive, brewed in a small brewery, brewed in a large brewery, brewed in somebody else’s brewery, made with silly ingredients, not made therewith, hoppy, bland, well made, badly made, anything. The only thing that counts is the distressed type.

Funnily enough, the old labels described the beer as “crafted since 1834”, but the new ones don’t. Gone, too, is the claim on the old label that Pedigree is “matured in oak barrels”, a lie so outrageous that I meant to blog about it two years ago, but never got around to it. The beer is also now an “Amber Ale” rather than Pale Ale – 200 years of Burton brewing heritage thrown in the canal just like that. It appears marketing people throughout the industry now consider a Pale Ale to be one of those vaguely citrussy golden things.

I don’t drink much Pedigree usually. I find the cask version quite bland, but frustratingly it is (like its cousin Bass) only a few steps and maybe some extra dry hops away from being a nice beer. I also crave the sulphury whiff which – equally frustratingly – Burton brewers have been successfully trying to eliminate from their beers for the last three decades or so. At times I have even thought the bottled version was superior, possibly because one has lower expectations of bottled beer to begin with.

Nevertheless, Pedigree is inarguably an iconic British beer, and I thought this change would be a nice opportunity to compare the old and new bottled versions.

Given the pig’s arse Marston’s have made of the branding, I am pleasantly surprised to report that the beer itself has improved. The major difference is that the bottles are now bottle-conditioned (and presumably, corollary with that, no longer pasteurised).

Both pour with a nice dense collar of foam. Old Pedigree appears much paler in the glass than New Pedigree, but that is possibly because, surprisingly, it is not entirely bright (remember, this is the brewery-conditioned one). Obviously this beer is a few months older than the new bottle (I bought it and then had to wait for the new version to appear on the shelves, which took longer than anticipated), but still well within the best-before date (31 July 2017). The aroma is slightly sugary, the taste crisp and minerally as a Burton Pale Ale ought to be, the finish dry and only slightly bitter. Sadly, this bottle is showing its age despite still having a notional five months of shelf life, which just goes to show you shouldn't buy old beer whatever the label says.

New is a generally cleaner and fresher-tasting beer, the sugary note on the nose has gone and although it is a lightly hopped beer, there is a fair bit of hop flavour and a decent bitterness. There is very little yeast sediment, and you’d probably never realise it was bottle-conditioned if it didn’t tell you on the label. Only on the nose, or if you swill the dregs around is there a bit of yeastiness. Whether the fresher taste is down to the bottle-conditioning, the lack of pasteurisation, or the fact it actually is fresher (best-before date 31 December 2017), I guess we’ll never know.


Sunday, 5 March 2017

A law unto himself




Cumbernauld is one of the Scottish “new towns” stamped out of the ground in the aftermath of the Second World War, to ease the overcrowding of the big cities and allow for massive slum clearance there. To outsiders, it’s best known as the setting for the Bill Forsyth film Gregory’s Girl.

It’s only a very short walk from Cumbernauld railway station to the little industrial estate, and if I were a Cumbernauld commuter I’d wish the brewery down the wooded path had an off-sales licence. Maybe one day, but on this still rather frosty morning it’s time to get to work.

With over 100 brewing operations now active in Scotland, it was inevitable that someone would start up a brewery here, and Craig Laurie was the man to do it with his Lawman Brewing Co.

The name comes from Craig’s legal studies at university; there, however, he discovered homebrewing and real ale, and on completion of his degree went to work at a brewery instead of at court.

Craig struck out on his own in late 2015, first brewing tiny amounts in his own kitchen and then moving to a dedicated unit. Brewers often like to latch on to the history of a previous, defunct local brewery, but that’s not an option here: as far as anyone can find out, Lawman is the first commercial brewery that’s ever existed in the town; the villages that made way for the New Town were too small to have supported one, even prior to the 1960s conglomeration of Scottish brewing.

Craig started out with an American pale ale, Horizon, and Steadfast, a Köln-style effort. The most impressive of these early beers to me was Weatherall IPA, a marmaladey strong country bitter which perhaps is not much like what people think of as an IPA these days, but none the worse for that.

The main beers now – at least the ones I see most often – are the pale ’n’ hoppy Pixel Bandit, featuring Admiral and Belma hops, and Onyx stout, which has been dubbed “Stouty Stout” by drinkers. A rye beer called Mr Beast followed and there’s a black IPA occasionally which I haven’t tried. 

Craig is brewing Pixel Bandit today. I’m “helping” (i.e. trying not to get in the way too much.) I once had the knack of pulling the rip-cord on these sacks of malt, but have lost it. Craig helpfully hands me a pair of scissors.

It is an extremely basic brewhouse at Lawman. Craig’s mash tun is basically a simple metal vat with no hatch or any other mod cons. That means stirring the mash, by hand, A lot. It also means that once the mash is done and run off, someone has to climb in and shovel out the draff. My turn. This is why I try to get to new breweries as soon as I can, before they expand: the smaller the brewery, the less mash I have to dig out. So I pull on my wellies and jump in … and immediately sink up to my ankles in the swampy, wet, very hot grain.

Digging mash is hard on the back and the wrists (if you’re an unfit softy like me, at any rate), but you have a strong motivation to clear a space to stand in as fast as possible, before the heat around your feet and calves becomes unbearable. Back in the old days, when even big breweries had to do this by hand, whole teams of draff men would be in the mash tun, stripped to the waist and with wellies filled with cold water for protection.

The newer beers too are still being developed: Pixel Bandit started quite dry and citrussy and has since become more full-bodied and tropical. Craig is enamoured of the effect of a small amount of Belgian melanoidin malt on the beer; less so of the effects of sudden changes to the mains water supply which led to unexpected problems with the beer.

Obsidian is the occasionally produced, stronger, barrel-aged big brother of Stouty Stout (inevitably titled Stoutiest Stout). Craig acquired some rather unusual whisky casks thanks to connections in the whisky trade of his investors – by unusual, I mean from distilleries that have not previously made a habit of passing their casks on to brewers. The resulting beer is smooth and rich and I think the best thing Lawman has produced yet. When I tried the beer on draught at the Paisley Beer Festival last year, the first thought that came to mind was that if I had tasted it blind I would have guessed it to be from Harviestoun – that’s a compliment, by the way.

Others agree, for the bottled version of Obsidian Imperial Stout went on to win the “craft beer” category in the Great British Food Awards, beating competition from Wold Top and Magic Rock. Not bad for a brewery less than a year old. Suspecting he was onto a good thing, Craig has roped in a well-known face on the Edinburgh brewing scene, Benji Bullen, a.k.a. Elixir Brewing Co, to help with the latest barrel-aging project.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Saturdays at Lommi



One of my must-dos on every Cologne visit is downing a few glasses of Kölsch at the splendid little boozer Lommerzheim, in Deutz on the east side of the Rhine. Like another of my favourite pubs, the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow, nothing much has changed in the fabric of the building for about fifty years. The sign outside advertises Dortmund beer, but inside Kölsch is the only beer on offer. Fortunately, it’s Päffgen, so that is no hardship.

In Cologne itself, the pub is already a cult and you have to know when to turn up if you want a seat, especially at the weekend.

When we arrive at 1620 there are already 60 people waiting for the pub to open at 1630. By the time the doors open the crowd has swollen to 80 or more. Thirty seconds after the doors open, every seat inside is taken. It seems a very efficient way to run a drinking establishment, and the place is, if anything, more popular now than when old Hans Lommerzheim was alive.

In the best Rhineland establishments, the single beer is served by gravity from a keg on the bar. Because there is no choice, the beer pours constantly, never becoming flat or warm. One waiter is dedicated to pouring beer. Clack-clack-clack go the small glasses as he rotates the round tray underneath the tap. The first keg is emptied and rolled away 25 minutes after opening time, replaced by a fresh one. This 25-minute rhythm holds up for at least another two hours.

We have the legendary Kotelett here, an enormous pork chop which is a minimum of an inch and a half thick and often closer to three. Tender and delicious, it’s served with chips just in case you’re not completely sated.

You might have assumed, from experience with over-vented British ale served by gravity, that gravity-tapped beer never has much of a head. Not a bit of it. The Kölsch at Lommerzheim is so saturated with natural CO2 that the beer pours milky at first and soon settles to show a dense, creamy head. I never tire of looking at a freshly poured glass. Sometimes I examine this incredible foam a bit too closely and the waiter asks with a concerned expression if there is something wrong.

You never leave a Cologne pub having drunk only one beer. Even a quick stop sees two or three notches on your beermat. I don’t mind.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Golden Pints 2016

Oh, hello. It’s yourself is it? Well, as you’ll have noticed, I’ve been blogging less in 2016. I have not stopped drinking beer, just found it increasingly hard to find the time to write about it. In fact, I’ve been on more trips than ever, even though there is also more going on at home in Glasgow than ever before.

Please note that I am so far behind with blogging that some of these awards are due to experiences that have not been written about here yet. If you’re curious about any of my choices, wait a while…

Best UK Cask Beer:

I know everyone is saying it (though I was saying it before them, if you must know), but these days I am looking for drinkable, subtle beers. However, due to the butterfly-like drinking behaviour that I, like many others, have succumbed to, it’s tricky to find examples that I have drunk more than once or twice. Aside from the usual suspects (Harveys, Bathams, etc), I guess the acid test are beers that I have gone back for a second pint of, and one of those is Orkney Brewery’s Corncrake, which was found in stunning condition on more than one occasion. On the face of it, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill golden bitter with nothing particularly notable about it, yet I find it massively drinkable. A chance encounter with RCH Hewish Mild in December was also extremely pleasant.

Best UK Keg Beer:

I don't drink much keg – more for financial reasons than on principle – but one that sticks out was Lost & Grounded Kellerpils. Even with more and more lagers appearing from independent breweries, it’s still rare to find one which comes close to the fresh, malty unfiltered lagers of Franconia. This one doesn’t quite match the best of them, but is well on the way there. A great achievement for such a new brewery. (Mind you, the only other beer I've had from them I didn’t like at all, so take your chances...)

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer:

Ahab from Up Front Brewing in Glasgow. Jake Griffin, the head of this outfit, is a master of stout grists, and this “American Stout” dances between coffee and chocolate Ready Brek. If drinking 6% stouts every day were sensible (it isn’t), it’d be in my fridge all the time. Look out for an Ahab variant in 2017.

Best Overseas Draught:

Ulrich Martin Pilsner from Hausen, Franconia; a delight of a beer, with marvellous foam and a magnificent citrus hop aroma; the perfect antidote to ignorant idiots and ideologically motivated craft beer fanatics who claim that German beer all tastes the same. Although looking at my photos would suggest I have drunk more draught Päffgen Kölsch than any other foreign beer.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer:

Probably Rodenbach for 65 cent a can from a Belgian supermarket.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label:

Cloudwater undoubtedly have have some of the slickest and most tasteful labels. Unfortunately every beer I've tried from them has been meh (see below), but one lives in hope. Boundary Brewing from Belfast have similarly attractive artwork, but the print quality lets them down. An honourable mention goes to Glasgow cuckoo brewer Gallus, whose minimalist branding is reminiscent of 1980s photocopier acrobatics (Their production is so tiny that you have to be quicker off the mark than me to actually get hold of their beer – I think I managed two of them all year – one literally the last glass out of the keg).



Under-Hyped Brewery Of The Year:

I’ve had a few very nice pints from Cumbria’s Fell Brewery, but never seen a blog or feature about them. Going by the quality of their beer, you ought to be hearing more about them.

Pub/Bar of the Year:

It was devastating to hear of the death of Jason Lyons of the State Bar halfway through the year. Hard as it must be to pick up the pieces and keep going, that is precisely what the State Bar has done, with the beer quality still holding up enough to win it the local CAMRA Glasgow Pub of the Year award for the third year in a row.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2016:

While Glasgow has a fast-changing restaurant scene, the rate of change in the pub scene is more relaxed. But there have been quite a few new openings worth mentioning. It was particularly delightful to see the Old Toll Bar re-opening after over two years of closure, bringing back a historic mahogany pub interior as handsome as any in Edinburgh. I have high hopes for the new Crossing the Rubicon in the west end, which adds another outlet to the Williams Bros empires and offers fine beer with freshly cooked curries. I have a soft spot too for the wilfuly unfashionable MacGregor’s Ale and Pie Howff, which as the name implies serves ale and pies and that’s it. My favourite of the new openings though is the Hippo Taproom on Sauchiehall St: an unlikely location given that street’s reputation for Stella binges and taxi-queue fights, yet the quiet basement space is an oasis. With seven changing keg lines and three casks, the draught beer selection is small but refined. That it is just round the corner from the State is a bonus.

Beer Festival of the Year:

I haven’t been to many festivals this year, something which needs to change.

Supermarket of the Year:

Not much change in this category. This has to be Booths (again): the last branch I was in had a display of cans and local bottles which outdid a few specialist retailers I can think of. Mind you, they were running a promotion of Warsteiner and Marston's EPA too.

Independent Retailer of the Year:

In Glasgow, several excellent new retailers are well bedded in that didn’t exist five years ago. The one I've been to the most, though, is Grunting Growler, which in March finally opened in its own location after a series of pop-ups. Sadly it doesn’t have an on-sales licence yet, which has limited boss Jehad’s ability to offer samples or run tastings. Hopefully the licensing board will see sense in the new year.

Best Beer Blog or Website:

For several years Lars Marius Garshol at Larsblog is going out week in, week out, doing the primary fieldwork that nobody has ever done before, interviewing Scandinavian farmer brewers about their beer and their way of brewing, breaking new ground in beer research. All this without any outside funding or sponsorship from a commercial operation. If you want to out-nerd your friends, buy his book on Norwegian farm ale now so you can say you had it before it was translated into English.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer:

Goes to @pilotbeeruk for frequently hilarious tweets.

Most Overhyped Brewery: 


Well, maybe it was just a dirty glass.
Even before Cloudwater had launched, complaints appeared about an alleged backlash against them which was, as far as anyone could tell, completely imaginary. A series of, in my view, deeply mediocre beers followed, which were praised to the heavens. Being fair, as far as I can make out none of the hype has actually come from the brewery. Their double IPA has been praised to the heavens elsewhere, but I won’t be forking out or queueing up for it, as I gave up when served this Mittelfrüh Lager which had lost its head entirely by the time I was half way down the glass.


Most Embarrassing Attempt To Be Down With The Kids:

There’s really only one serious contender for this: Marston’s rebranding of their entire range which throws their old-fashioned labels overboard in favour of new designs in a grungy style which was briefly fashionable ten years ago and makes their bottles look like supermarket own-brands. But hey, marketing consultants were paid a fortune to come up with this, so it must be good. My tip to Marston’s: it’s your beer that’s the problem, not your branding. Well, actually, now it’s your branding too, so well done there.

But this thing from Harviestoun for the new canned edition of Old Engine Oil is pretty poor, too. It doesn't match the branding on the bottles or on the other cans, and is gaudy and juvenile (It'll sell like hot cakes then).

Runner-up in this category is Hawkshead with their green-bottled Lakeland Lager, which, as they know full well, will be lightstruck by the time the drinker cracks the cap off. But craft brewing is all about quality over marketing, right?

Weirdest Own Tasting Note Of The Year:

“Amber, peaty, hot, toffee-ish. Smoked courgettes.” Absolutely no idea what I was thinking here.


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Oktoberfest visitors are ripped off more than ever, says consumer group

The venerable Munich-based beer consumer group Verein gegen betrügerisches Einschenken e.V. (Association Against Fraudulent Bier-Pouring) has once again hit out at the scandal of short pours at the city’s famous Oktoberfest beer festival.

The litre of beer at the festival, at between EUR10.40 and EUR10.70, is already significantly more expensive than elsewhere in Munich, and costs nearly twice as much as a Maß in the countryside. Drinkers always complain about the extortionate price, of course, but you might think that for the money you’d at least get a full litre in your glass. Not a chance, for the Wiesn is also notorious for short measures.

For many years the VGBE has carried out its own “People’s Pour Check” (Volksschankkontrolle) at the Oktoberfest. This year 40 volunteers bought 67 beers in the 13 big festival tents. The results showed that drinkers were being robbed of an average of 15% of the beer they’d paid for, with the average “litre” containing just 850ml of beer. In 2013 the average Maß was “only” 10% short.

The worst offender was the “Schützenfestzelt” tent, where the average glass contained only 770ml – stealing EUR2.40 worth of beer from the customer.

The VGBE estimates that over the course of the festival the short measure amounts to over six million Euro worth of beer which drinkers never receive in their steins.

The group accused the city’s trading standards authorities of failing in their duty, as they claimsto carry out their own checks, but never publish the results.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

“Nobody asks for a chalice here”

Picture from the Facebook group “Wij willen dat de Stella-ribbeltjesglazen blijven”

Like many large, lumbering brewing corporations, ABInBev appears to care little for its own heritage, save for those parts of it currently deemed useful for marketing purposes.

The latest wheeze from InBev’s marketing department is to abolish the classic Belgian Stella Artois glass – a simple branded tumbler with fluting at the base. The Belgian media reports that the brewery will now only supply a plain boerkje tumbler and the notorious “chalice” as used for Stella in other countries.

Not that I drink much Stella, but this makes me a bit sad. The ribbeltje glass reminds me of a time when Belgian cafés were perhaps more down-to-earth than they are now. When I first visited Belgium a typical café would have only one draught beer, Stella (or Jupiler, Primus or Maes), with all the more interesting specialities in bottles.

It was also usually the cheapest. As is widely known, despite the brewer’s attempt to punt it in other countries as a “reassuringly expensive” premium beer, in Belgium Stella is the bog standard café beer, with a basic, proletarian glass to match. This, of course, is precisely why the marketers hate the glass so much. It’s not chic enough for their pretensions.

InBev has been trying to introduce the ridiculous blingy chalice in Belgium for a good few years, in the interest of a globally identical brand, but has met with resistance from consumers, who think it’s a load of bloody nonsense, and say so. A barman in Leuven is quoted as saying “Nobody asks for a chalice here. Maybe that is different abroad, but here Stella is an ordinary people’s drink and they like it in a ribbeltje or a boerke.”

Now, in a massive two fingers to Stella’s own home town, the chalice is going to be forced on them whether they want it or not.

Other marketers have poked fun at Stella’s pretension in the past


Friday, 5 August 2016

Keep the faith

Busy bar at Jason’s memorial night

We said goodbye to Jason Lyons last Thursday.

Jason, of the State Bar in Glasgow, passed away on Saturday 11 June after a sudden brain haemorrhage the day before. After the initial shock, the staff organised a memorial night last week. Rightfully, the pub was absolutely packed with regulars and friends raising a glass in Jason’s memory. It was not a sombre occasion, either: there was a live band, and punters could even get an imitation of Jason’s trademark mutton-chop sideburns painted on their faces.

Drinkers queue to get into the State
Jason was a natural publican. Even when the pub was busy – and it often was – Jason could find time to say hello. It was largely due to him that the State rose to be one of the top real ale pubs in the city, winning the local CAMRA branch’s Glasgow Pub of the Year award in three out of the past four years.

Jason got to know the regulars, found out the kind of beer they liked to drink, and heavily pushed the cask business, adding more handpumps and introducing new microbreweries to the pub. The State is now particularly renowned for selling the Oakham Ales favourite Green Devil, which has its own dedicated Glasgow legion of fans.

Oakham had sent staff up to Thursday’s charity night in Jason’s memory, and more local breweries were well represented too.

Next to real ale, Jason loved cycling and Northern Soul, and thus “keep the faith” became the pub’s unofficial motto, appearing on adverts and promotional items – like the pint glasses for this year’s Glasgow Real Ale Festival. Sadly, Jason never got to drink from one.

The Brewer & the Barman: The Making of Fyne State from Urbancroft Films on Vimeo.
Ever wondered how real ale is brewed? We take an in-depth look into the brewing process of Fyne State; a Fyne Ales and State Bar collaboration beer.


Just over a year ago Jason went up to Fyne Ales to help brew a special beer, and local videographer Urbancroft made a film about it. I am so glad this video was made, because it captures Jason at his best. I cannot begin to explain how much I and others will miss him.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Shilling the rubes



Glasgow has had a chequered past with regards to brewpubs. There’s a long list of failures through the 1980s and 90s – only the venerable Clockwork survives from those days – but in more recent years things seem to be looking up. Even West, which now appears to be doing very well, had a difficult patch early on when the beer was pretty poor. Even then I hoped they would get through it, because another failure might well have put anyone off the idea of trying it in Glasgow again.

Since then, of course, we have gained Drygate, which has just celebrated its second birthday, and it is already hard to imagine it not being there. Yet when I look at the number of breweries in Glasgow proper, now five, I think there is still room for more. An inspiring thought is that Portland, Oregon has the same population as Glasgow.


The latest addition to the scene is the new Shilling Brewing Co in West Regent St, which bills itself as the first brewpub in the city centre, which I suppose is technically true, with West and Drygate being in the East End and the Clockwork on the south side. The company behind Shilling, Glendola Leisure, is best known for bringing us the Oirish-themed “fun pub” Waxy O’Connor’s, so some beer aficionados were sceptical at first.

Now nobody would call Glendola cutting-edge innovators. What they are good at is identifying a trend and then building well-funded businesses around them, buying in expertise where they need to. And it seems to work: Waxy O’Connor’s is still going strong decades after the fad for Oirish pubs peaked, and Gordon St Coffee is, as far as I am aware, as well regarded as any of the independent coffee places. Companies such as this moving in is a sign of a maturing sector.

The new head brewer at Shilling is Declan McCaffrey, formerly of the Clockwork Brewing Co on the South Side. Declan has made a noticeable improvement in the Clockwork’s beer in the time he’s been there, but having seen the extremely cramped brewhouse, I understand the attraction of brewing on much shinier equipment in the city centre (José Luis Bravo is moving from Arran Brewery to replace Declan at the Clockwork). Former cocktail barman Chris Nicol joins Declan as second brewer.

Oddly enough, the Shilling is not brewing any beers called 80 shilling or similar. The first beers announced are relentlessly modern: Unicorn IPA, a pale ’n’ hoppy effort called The Steamie (in honour of Dorothy Paul, apparently), and Glasgow Red (rather than 80 bob or heavy). I have no objection to this but find it a little odd to then choose such an old-school name. Declan is also bringing his trademark nettle beer, made with locally foraged weeds from Queens Park.


The copper-clad brewery is right behind the bar. From there the beer will be pumped into fermentation tanks in the basement of the building, and when it is ready, back up to the serving tanks mounted high above the bar. Most of the beer is dispensed by gas, but is unfiltered and unpasteurised. Shilling is also going the extra distance by producing and serving some cask-conditioned ale.

I’m not passing any judgement on the beers yet, as they are likely to change: as the brewing kit was only installed in the last week in May, the bar is opening with beer brewed at Drygate (I get a certain feeling of deja vu here, as I remember Drygate themselves having to do exactly the same thing at opening). The red ale is pleasant enough, fudgy with a bitter edge to it; the IPA is deep gold, harshly bitter and watery, the blonde is straw-yellow, harshly bitter and watery. On the other hand, the nettle saison is a pungent, almost overpoweringly fruity 6.2% beast.

I am sure the beers will improve once the brewery is actually in operation – the first real Shilling beers were only brewed in the week after opening. They are already getting the other aspects right – the bar is elegantly designed, with thought obviously going into every detail from the stylish typography of the menus to the rather odd backlit beer taps that for some reason are designed to resemble a spirit safe.

The staff too are friendly, polite and chatty and actually seem to know something about the beer they are selling, which is sadly still something worth mentioning. Even the pricing is not extortionate for the city centre, though it is not really in competition with the bar across the street that offers Tennent’s for £2.

It seems the burger craze is finally receding and being replaced by a pizza craze, for as well as the brewing kit, Shilling also features a pizza oven churning out pizzas for the punters. In these food-led days, what seems remarkable is that there is no food other than the pizzas. The pizza is pretty good too. We shall need to wait and see how the beer shapes up.