Pubpaper 775 – Good Beer Guide 2015

Posted: 14th September 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

Last week the Good Beer Guide 2015 was published by CAMRA and the picture it paints is broadly a good one.  We lead the world when it comes to the number of breweries per head of population with 1 brewery per 50,000 people, and in the last year 170 more breweries have added to the books list.   Our brewing trade is back up to the levels last seen in the 1930’s and 1940’s before the mass consolidations which took place in the 4 decades which followed that era.

Looking at Yorkshire, we have 141 breweries listed in the guide, 18 of them new since last year, whilst 99 news pubs from the region are also listed taking it up to a total of 393 pubs.  Among the new brewery listings are some very worth entries, Bad Seed from Malton made some fantastic beers, whilst Stud Fold, local to Halifax, is producing some very nice session ales.  Whilst I’ve not tried their beers yet, but both Atom and Small World have also been garnering some very good feedback on their products.

When broken down, West Yorkshire is shown to be a hot bed of brewing activity in such a relatively small area, with 60 breweries in that area of the county.  Compare that to 46 in North Yorkshire, 25 in the south of the county and 10 to the east.  We only have a population of 2.2 million, which means we have a brewery for every 36,000 people, way above the national average.  However it must be noted that for their 46 breweries, North Yorkshire only has an official population of 601,000, so their 1 brewery per 13000 people beat us in West Yorkshire into a cocked hat, abhet in an area four times bigger than us.

When you compare Yorkshire to the combined forces of the Greater Manchester and the West Pennines (an area stretching from the M60 to Carlisle via Lancashire), a geographic region with similar areas of built up population and wide open countryside we come out very well indeed.  Greater Manchester has 42 breweries (7 new) and West Pennines has 70 (10 new), so still shy by 31 breweries.   We have some cracking beer cities and towns in gods own county, Leeds, Huddersfield, York and Sheffield among others, more locally there is Sowerby Bridge and Hebden Bridge, with numerous small towns following their lead across the county.

The fact is the number of breweries (a number we have no reason to expect to stop growing) and range of brewery types we have gives us a really healthy mix, from the relative heavyweights like Theakstons, Black Sheep, Copper Dragon, Ossett to the small one or two man operations brewing small batches of speciality craft beer with small to medium traditional brewers sitting in between.  We have enough bars interested in new breweries to support growth of the part time single person operation into a commercial business which can provide them a full time living.  Breweries are always moving up the pyramid in regard to scale of production, leaving room for those below to fill the gap.

Just look at the example of Mallinsons in Huddersfield, starting off as a two woman operation, expanding to employ a couple more people to help with the non brewing operations, then finding out the premises couldn’t support demand and moving to a brand new location with a brand new higher capacity brewing setup.  The old building? Sold with the full brewing plant to the recently formed Hand Drawn Monkey Brewery, linked to the beer shop of the same name in Huddersfield town centre, who are now getting their beer served across the country.  Hopefully they will too suffer the same fate on outgrowing the building and another small brewery will have the chance to go commercial off the back of their success.

For years, the beer industry consolidated and standardised into a handful of core breweries, with similar offerings across the brands.  We are now in the middle of a relative explosion of breweries, craft and traditional, we have more beer to try and most of it is at least good solid drinkable session ales.   If variety is the spice of life, then long may it continue.

Pubpaper 774 – Low alcohol beers and no decent ale bars.

Posted: 3rd September 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

Alcohol free beer has been with us as a mainstream product in the UK since the early 1990’s from my memory, when the main choice was Kaliber from Guinness.  This frankly was a terrible “beer” in most ways, it tasted chemically, had no fizz, left a rather bad aftertaste and after one you never wanted to try it again.  These days the most common brand you will see in pubs is Becks Blue, from the makers of its namesake full strength brother and despite being a much improved beer over Kaliber, it still suffers from being bland and lacking the fizz you expect from a beer.

Non alcoholic beer is produced by taking the full strength beer just before carbonation and bottling then boiling it to 78.3 centigrade, the boiling point of alcohol enabling it to evaporate leaving you with 95-96% of the original volume virtually alcohol free (<0.05%).  Water is then added to make up the volume leaving the flavour unaffected.  This liquid is then bottled and carbonated as per a normal beer.

So why are we discussing this?  A few weeks ago a survey came out stating that almost half of British adults believe “alcohol-free beer is more socially acceptable than it was five years ago”.  When was it ever not socially acceptable, did people fear they would get ostracized from their social circles because they bought a 0.05% ABV beer instead of a coke.   A good alcohol free beer can be a decent alternative to soft drinks if you are driving, especially when the police are much keener on drink driving now.   Becks Blue is drinkable, but German products such as Erdinger Alcohol Frei are much more balanced flavour wise when it comes to mimicking full strength beer.

The survey doesn’t reveal how the question was phrased, but the fact that this was commissioned by the makers of aforementioned Becks Blue should give some indication that the wording leaned towards positive sentiments towards non alcoholic beer.  I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised when a survey comes out with the result the paying client wants, thats what survey / public opinion companies exist for.   The figures they produced didn’t surprise me, 43% of adults and 59% of men have tried one of these beers and the most common reasons for trying was that people were driving (59%) or were simply curious (39%).  In fact Yorkshire and the Humber had a higher than average 52% when it came to adults trying a non alcoholic beer.

However what it did reveal is that 1 in 4 people “would not feel comfortable ordering alcohol-free beer in front of their friends in a pub, bar or restaurant”.  You have to ask why not, either there is a glut of people who don’t have backbone enough to simply order what they want without the wrath of their peers or there are some very judgemental friends out there.  I can think of no other reasons for people not to order this if they want to.  It’s like being scared of ordering the jacket potato at dinner instead of chips for fear of being thought a wimp.  Utterly baffling.

Moving back to the full strength stuff now with more venues who can’t see past the core Carlsberg, Tetley and Somersby Cider (also masquerading as Fosters, John Smiths, Strongbow combo)  as their draught beer offering.  I went to Fake Fest music festival in Filey for my birthday on Saturday after an afternoon on the beach drinking nice Czech beers mixed with the occasional G+T and a pub visit on the way with family and friends.   With no choice of where you got your drink from (having been searched on entry), they could have got at least one keg ale on draught, even on a short run if they did not want to risk waste.  Over the afternoon I ended up drinking Somersby, the only one I can stomach, and watched a few good bands, but come the return visit to the pub later in the evening it was a relief to get a decent beer again.   One thing I did notice is that Filey seemed to lacking a decent seafront pub, a few hotel bars, a licensed restaurant, but no pub for its length, all of them being back up the hill in the town centre.  You’d have thought there would be a demand for it!

 

I’ve been to a lot of pubs in Calderdale and the surrounding areas, but even now I can still be pleasantly surprised by discovery on a rainy day drive out.  The pub in question this time is The Cat I th’ Well Inn located somewhere in the middle of nowhere just above Mount Tabor.  Driving up looking for a pub for a couple of pints, I spotted the sign and recognised the name, passing 2 pubs which turning back round to get there (although the Delvers and Crossroads at Mount Tabor both look good pubs and are on my tick list to visit for the first time).

The pub is set on a single track road at points and located next to a stream at the head of the valley with fantastic views down.  A couple of miles up the road is ruins of Carr Castle.  However back to the pub, its what I call a proper pub inside, fireplaces, acres of wood, a bar room and lots of smaller areas to occupy.    A two tier beer garden with views down the hill rounds off the location nicely and the sound of running water is always a bonus anywhere.  Although we didn’t eat, the food and smelt very good and seemed reasonable priced.

Beer wise, I had a couple of Yorkshire beers and both were in very good condition.  4 pumps adorn the bar and mainstream drinkers are well catered for too, my only criticism is that they could offer a wider selection of cider on tap or bottled as not everyone wants a choice of Strongbow or Magners.   However the staff were friendly, service quick and a good attitude to family visits certainly helped to endear me to the place.

Another pub I really do like now is the Beck just outside Brighouse.  I’ll admit it took me a few visits to warm to the place, however it is one of the best pubs in the area in my opinion now.  A good ale selection with 7 pumps, 1 cider pump and 3 boxes ciders keeps both me and my wife happy on our visits.  The beer has always been in good condition on visits and it is carving itself a mean reputation in the local music scene with Jake Smallbones, Dave MacPherson and many other bands doing regular turns there.   Friendly and knowledgeable staff don’t do any harm here either.

Brighouse is becoming a real hotbed for music again now with Jeremys, The Beck and Commercial all contributing to this.  The Canal and Music festival just gone (as it will be when this is printed) can only cement this and when you have such a passionate core of musicians and organisers such as Jason Fieldhouse, you will find it hard to fail.  The town may not have the best music venue in the area, this honor goes to the Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge with its dedicated stages and sheer number of artists, but as a whole the town is possibly becoming the best place to see live music in the area.

I’m hitting 200 columns for this paper now, and it is still refreshing that the pub scene in the area keeps bringing up things to write about.  Old favourites still stay in my thoughts when choosing where to visit, with more joining that list.  A few have dropped out of favour and at least one of them is falling out of favour with others with its customer service based on a conversation I had at the bar at the Beck last Sunday.  It is not as if you are short of alternatives to a pub which has failings in one or more areas within Calderdale.

You name it there is a pub which caters for your taste. Craft beer, beers from small breweries, cider, live music or a penchant for stronger beers, there is a pub for you in the area.  You want a good local pub, we have dozens of the buggers.   We have number of towns which will provide a very respectable pub crawl with good beer all the way round.  Hell, we are the only place in the county where you can go dry slope skiing next to the pub.  Variety is the spice of life and we have a bag full of it here, enjoy it.

Pubpaper 772 – Bland Cold Beer

Posted: 21st August 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

Drink is an integral part of a meal, so it is a pity when a restaurant lets itself down with a poor beer selection.  They can have a rack of good quality spirits and a good wine list, but then disappoint with a bland draught beer.  The family meal at Chimichangas last weekend at the Broad Street Plaza didn’t disappoint, with them passing my acid test when it comes to a restaurant, can they make a good burger?   The burger in question was good, well seasoned, cooked until slightly pink in the middle just like I want it, with the extra pulled pork, chorizo, jack cheese and jalapenos helping to top it off.

Then came the beer, the Brazilian brand Bramha, possibly the one of blandest beers I have tasted, down there with Carling and Carlsberg, but it is classed as a premium beer in bars in the UK.  The bottle selection was Modelo Especial, Budweiser and Corona (strangely all of these are products from the AB-InBev Brewing Group), not exactly inspiring and at nearly £4 for just over ½  pint, I ended up taking the £4.40 pint of draught bland option.  It was the antithesis of the food and took the edge off the experience which was otherwise good.   How much effort would it be to source a good quality UK kegged pale ale to add to the Latin America themed choice.   Whilst on this theme, they only offered a tequila flavoured cider, again a bottled proper cider such as Thatcher Gold or Stowford press would not have gone amiss, whilst keeping mainstream recognition.

Beer (and cider)  is still overlooked in too many places with many a restaurant having the the stock Carling, Stella, John Smiths, Strongbow on single T bar, with the fridge dominated by a few premium big brand beers and Magners / Bulmers / Kopparberg as the second cider offering.    Most chains are guilt of the same laziness, sticking to a beer from their “brand homeland”.   These are not tied businesses, so the owners of these chains have choice and even if they are tied to buying from AB-InBev, there are 200 brands to choose from and most of them are better than Bramha.

Talking about making beer bland, how do you make an average beer even less interesting, that’s right you cool it down even more.   Take Guinness Extra Cold, for people who want to drink Guinness, but want the flavour chilled out it.   With Carling Cold and Carlsberg Cold, you are diluting negligible flavour to trace flavour.   However the Japanese brand Kirin (brewed by Youngers in the UK) are taking this one step further adding a frozen whipped top at -5c apparently keeping the beer cooler for an extra 30 minutes.  Every sip of beer will come through this cold layer killing any taste from lower in the glass.  Beer is reduced to alcoholic liquid, which without the taste is nothing really.

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, drugs and beer have been replaced by Soma, a drug which gives feelings of wellbeing and taking the user away from the real world in a simple pill.  These cold beers are the soma of the beer world, getting you to where you want to go without any memory of the journey there, rather pointless in my opinion.

Moving on to local news, I talk mainly about the on trade element of the beer business, but the off trade is used by most of us for our beer when we are not at the pub.  Over the last few years the two Beer and Wine Direct (aka OWLS) in Halifax and Brighouse have enabled me to sample some excellent bottled Yorkshire beers I’d not seen elsewhere in Calderdale including Summer Wine, Bad Seed and Great Heck as well as offering a range of the less common beers from people like Ilkley brewery.   These two shops closed down over the last 2 weeks, leaving a big gap for those of us who want to easily access products you won’t find in the big 4 supermarkets.  When a business puts the effort in to give a wide range of quality local beer at a good price, they deserve better than to close down and sadly it appears from their tweets this may have been beyond their control.

This week saw CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) take place at Olympia in London. Over 55,000 attendees and 900 beers to try, it is the biggest piece of publicity the organisation has each year, so quite rightly they launch their high profile campaigns around the same time. The last few years it has been the beer duty reduction campaign, but now that has got action, they have moved onto the people who serve that beer, the pubs.

As most of you will know, when a pub shuts down, a number quickly become part of one of the supermarkets mini mart chains (Sainsburys Local, Tesco Metro / Express etc), a number are turned into fast food joints such as McDonalds, others are turned into flats or the pub demolished to make room for a new development. The latter two conversions require planning permission to change the use of the land from commercial to residential, the former two do not need planning permission and hence the pub companies which own most of these shuttered sites are quite happy to take the purchase price or rent money from a supermarket chain and have a building they no longer have to maintain, manage or operate.

In fact the list of businesses that a pub can be converted to without permission is quite long, and extends past supermarkets to restaurants, estate agents, payday lenders among many others. CAMRA estimate that 31 pubs a week close in the UK, approx 1500 per year, out of a stock of about 50,000. This is up from 26 a week a year ago. Once a pub stops being a pub, it rarely ever returns to it original usage.  The reason for this easy conversion is a loop hole in a 1995 act of Government concerning planning rules.  Camra has called for the government to tighten planning legislation, making it harder for developers to convert pubs and obliging them to apply to local authorities for permission. Of course the Government are happy with the status quo with the minister for communities, Steven Williams warning that “excessive restrictions on changing the use of buildings would be counter-productive, leading to more empty, boarded-up buildings”.

This is from the same Government who are also attempting to stitch up the Statutory Code regarding the pub companies and their tied pubs so it suits the same pub companies who will benefit from easy disposal / rental of land and buildings to help pay off the huge debt piles which seem to go hand in hand with such businesses. Pub companies are also so keen on this option as it also means that competition for other pubs it might own in area will be reduced, where they hope for increased footfall and subsequent rent raising opportunities will occur.

The minister suggests using the Asset of Community Value rights to stop the conversion to other purposes, but this then relies on the community being able to raise the funds to buy the pub from the PubCo, who don’t exactly discount the premises when selling them. It has worked in Hebden Bridge, where you have a relatively close knit community and a good number of individuals who have retired whilst decent pension schemes were still running or with other disposable income who can invest. The Fox and Goose is going strong now and deserves all its success with congratulations to all who invested and help run the pub.   However the Dog and Duck on the local ex-council estate where there is higher unemployment or more people being supported by the state is not so lucky, who has the money in the immediate area to be able to put in £1000 or more, and where do you find 100 of them at least. It won’t happen and the pub will be converted in short time. You find that most pubs saved under the Asset of Community Value legislation is in relatively well off areas, the supply of money being no coincidence here.

A CAMRA report “Public Houses: How councils and communities can save pubs” says that “Pubs are more than just businesses, and more than just drinking establishments; they provide a very real and important service to many communities, in a variety of ways. They help to strengthen social networks between people who might not otherwise meet, host events, clubs and meetings that are necessary for community cohesion…once they are gone it is difficult to bring them back“. They are absolutely right, people don’t have meetings at Tesco Express, QuickQuid or Big Commission Estate Agents, people go for a social pint to discuss matters at hand or the world in general.

Add in that CAMRA estimate “pubs typically add £80,000 to local economies every year. They generate more revenue and jobs per pint of beer, than beer sold through supermarkets”.  I think that even without the money issue, the first point I quote is key. Pubs are for the community, many other businesses are not.

Pubpaper 770 – Huddersfield Food and Drink Festival

Posted: 9th August 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

The Huddersfield Food and Drink Festival is something I try to visit each year.  However its popularity is both a blessing and a curse as whilst generating a great atmosphere, at peak times the queues can be up to 15-20 minutes to get a drink or food.   By the time you get to Saturday tea time, a sardine is laughing at you for the space it has in its tin.  Over a quick pint on Thursday night, I was informed by a regular at the Red Rooster that the best time to go is on the Friday afternoon, so a plan was hatched to get over there as a family the following day.

He was right, you could get a proper table (shared), the queue for the food and drinks stalls were minimal if not non existent.  This made it a far more enjoyable experience, you can actually browse the stalls and bars looking for what you want rather than compromise and just buy for everyone from one stall to avoid a second queue.

If you like your beer and cider, there is plenty to keep you interested.  The Star Inn, The Sportsman, Vox Bar and Zepher all have a presence on the St Georges Square site among others.   Add the two railway station bars in the Head of Steam and the Kings Head and you could happily not leave the area for 3 days, bar sleeping.   Over a couple of visits that afternoon I tried beers from 4 of the bars.  None were overpriced, coming in between £3 and £3.50 a pint, slightly above regular pub prices, but a small festival premium I don’t mind as I appreciate the costs which go into setting up a temporary bar and paying for a pitch.

The Star Inn and Sportsman bars were up to their brick building parents standards in both quality and range.  The Star Inn was serving a cracking dual hopped Galaxy Columbus from Mallinsons, one of my favourite local brewers, but had a nice range of 8 or so pumps to pick from.  The Parched Cider bar was serving a lovely medium dry Somerset Cider, as well as a 100% cider slush puppy I never got round to trying.  Zepher had a nice range of continental and american beers, the German brew I had hitting the spot.

Last but not least was the Sportsman, with a set of 8 pumps.  This pub in one of my top 3 pubs in Huddersfield, joining the Grove and Hand Drawn Monkey, so a nice range of local and excellent beers from further afield was on offer as expected.  However, I kept it local with two brews from Magic Rock Brewery, with both Rapture and High Wire being spot on, this brewery consistently pleases me with their beer range.

From a food point of view, the Jerk Chicken from Barringtons was excellent, the first time I’ve tried the dish.  I was having a good chat to one of the chefs there whilst at the Chilli Jam stall (as my mouth rapidly got very warm indeed from their Yorkshire Dragon Chilli Jam, well recommended if you want to clear a cold quickly), and given my experience of the food and the people who run it, it’s a place I will definitely give it a chance.  The curries from Kabana and Ali Murad were good as well, especially the vegetable curry from the latter.

As evening started to beckon and the post work crowds started to build up, we retreated to Hand Drawn Money just around the corner.  A couple of the brews from their sister brewing operation rounded off the night perfectly whilst my wife finished off a day of good cider with more of the same.  The bar is currently being refurbished, and was halfway done on this visit with new toilets finished and a bigger “cellar” area allowing a new rack of 10 or so beer taps to come online soon, this adding to the existing pump and tap selection.   If you took the location on a back street, the half finished decor, relatively small floor space compared to other pubs in the town and a number of other factors, it should not work on paper.  But it works perfectly in reality, good beer, good bar snacks, good takeaway range and great staff.   The size generates a good atmosphere with less than a couple of dozen people.

This was my second visit this week, I popped in with “local music impresario” Jason Fieldhouse from the Commercial / Railway in Brighouse and even when there were only 3 people in the bar you didn’t feel conspicuous.  If you are about Brighouse on the 30th / 31st August please come down to the Canal festival as he is organising music for the event, as much support as possible would be fantastic.

All over this planet a monster called Anheuser-Busch InBev leaves it footprints.  But this monster is rather like the creature which was created when all the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers combined their powers to create a 300ft high robot, it is made up of many small companies from all over the globe which have been taken over throughout the years.

Let me give you the brief history of this giant brewer (concentrate, there will be a test at the end).  InterBrew was created when two Belgian brewers merged in 1987, Artois being one of them.  This company then took over a number of other Belgian brewing operations before buying up Labatts in Canada and Bass / Whitbread in the UK.  They then popped over the border and brought out Becks, before expanding into China at the turn of the century.

Ambev was formed when two of the biggest South American Breweries (Bramha being one) merged, they then purchased controlling interests in a number of their continental competitors.  In 2004 these two companies merged and formed AB InBev.   This newly formed company then expanded further into China and increased their footprint in Canada and South America.

Anheuser Busch is most famous for its core product, Budweiser and its offshoots as well as operating a small number of niche brewing operations.  In 2008, InBev paid $52 billion in cash to purchase Anheuser Busch, creating a giant now worth $171 billion (£101bn), sales of $43 billion (£25bn) and employing 154,000 employees across the globe.  After this was finalised acquisitions continued, the most significant when they took over Grupo Modelo, the biggest brewing operation in Mexico, one of the top 10 beer consumers in the world.

The brewery has 17 brands which make over $1 billion (£680bn) on their own, out of a total of over 200.  They is a massive product portfolio in any sense of the word.  There is now increasing speculation that this company want to take over MillerCoors, this company itself being the result of a joint operation between SABMiller and Molson Coors, although the two constituent parts remain technically separate.

SABMiller itself is the the result of a number of takeovers and mergers involving companies including South African Breweries, Miller, Fosters Group, Grolsch as well as a lot of the well known Eastern European, Italian and Polish brands imported to the UK.   Molson Coors is the result of the merger between the two well known lager brands.  There is a good chance that Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABInBev to his friends) will make a bid to take over SABMiller and the two companies which make up the partnership in the near future creating a company with nearly 400 brands, a significant market share of the world beer trade (50% of profits made in the beer market in fact) and a total worth of $290 billion (£171bn)

Let’s be frank, this will create a structure more complicated than the story arc for entire run of Game of Thrones so far.  However the result will not be half as interesting to consume.   If Game of Thrones is the equivalent of craft beer, then most of the beers these two companies produce are the equivalent of Coronation Street or Emmerdale, entirely interchangeable, not unlike most actors who appear in these soaps.  Occasionally you get a good interesting beer, especially  some of the Czech brands, but most are inoffensive and simply quench a thirst.

There is no doubt that this would not be a good move for the world beer market.  The fact that we have two companies this big already segmenting the beer market is not healthy.  Currently ABInBev and MillerCoors both operate in major economic areas such as Europe and America, but MillerCoors is dominant in Africa whilst ABInBev is very strong in South America regarding market share.  Bringing these two together will mean global domination of the beer market.

We all know that countries such as the USA, UK, Belguim, Germany and Canada all have a thriving independent brewing sector, craft or not, but the combined sales of all these companies won’t even touch the revenues or profits of just one part of this mega-company.   Just as in most bars you can only buy soft drinks from either PepsiCo or Coca-Cola Enterprises due to the supply deals being with a single distributor; outside of regulated markets such as Europe and North America, what is stopping this mega brewery offering a bar highly favourable supply costs for beer from a stable of nearly 400 brands, but only on agreement they stock nothing else.  This locks out the local independents.

If we have to have giant brewers, I’d rather we have 2 to fight over the market, rather than one dominate it.

 

Over the last few weeks I travelled to see, or spend time with friends in various parts of the country.  Three things make up a good time when real day to day life is not adding the complexities of life.  The first is being with the right people, the second is a good location, the third is good food and drink.  The third one is an important element of my life 365 days a year, probably to the detriment of my figure, but going further afield allows you to try different things especially the local beers you can’t get easily in my home area of Calderdale.

It is also a chance to take some of West Yorkshires fine collection of beers for others to enjoy. So on my first trip to see a long time friend in North Wales, a selection of Summer Wine Brewery and Mallinsons beer was coming along for the ride. An early morning driving through the fine scenery south of the Snowdonia to pick him up from his house (located in the middle of nowhere and then a bit further from anywhere), then driving up to Portmeirion set me up for a cracking day.  The village where they filmed “The Prisoner” is a stunning place to visit, with few places equalling it in the UK as a piece of complete architecture.

Stopping at the Town Hall Cafe after deciding that hot muggy weather is not the best time to go for a walk, we tried a couple of Purple Moose beers brewed up the road at Porthmadog, both of which are well recommended, the Snowdonia Ale (pale session beer) and Madog (reddish session ale) hit the spot, refreshing with a nice balance of hops.  Then after spending another hour or two discovering more the lines of sight that its founder Sir Clough William Ellis designed into the plan, we sat in the Hotel garden overlooking the straits from which the Afon Glaslyn flows into the sea and chilled over a pint of nice european beer, not local I admit, but certainly what was needed in the increasing heat.

On the way home we took a diversion via Barmouth (made a lot longer by the Porthmadog – Harlech toll bridge being out of action).   If you are ever in the town I implore you to try the Welsh Black Burger at the Anchor Restaurant on the front.  Not cheap, but worth every penny and you’ll not find a beef burger this dense in many places.  A quick pint of another quality local session ale (name forgotten) at the Cross Foxes near Dolgellau and then it was back for an evening of great home cooked food and equally good Yorkshire ales.

The following weekend I was up in the Lake District staying at the top of Lake Windermere for 3 days with another good friend, my eldest daughter and his daughter.  This will be the 5th year we have done the annual summer camping trip along with the winter camping barn trip each year.  Over the last couple of years since we started coming to the Lakes, we have been popping into Booths County Supermarket in Bowness to stock up on local beers.  This consisted of as many Hardknott beers as we had a choice of plus a couple of other local brews.

Hardknott beers are not that common in the pubs I visit, so when I can get them I do rather gorge on them.    The comment by my friend that the beer selection was “overkill for 2 nights” was proved slightly wrong when we ran out on night one.   Queboid is a really interesting beer, with flavours from all directions.  Code Black is a cracking example of one of my favourite styles of beer, the Black IPA (we also tried their own excellent Black IPA brewed by nearby Hawkshead Brewery).  Katalyst and Continuum are two session strength ales, the latter being more traditional bitter with some great fruity flavours coming through, whilst the former is a lighter ale, with a crisper flavour.  A return visit to Booths in Keswick the following day topped us up on several of these Hardknott beers.

During the day, we stopped at the Fish Inn at Buttermere after a very warm walk around the neighbouring lake, us adults not having benefit of swimming in the lake twice unlike the kids.  With 8 real ales on tap with some of the bigger regional brewers as well as Keswick and Hesket Newmarket from the smaller local brewery pot, a couple of which went down very quickly after a few hours in the humid heat.

Sitting by Lake Windermere, watching the kids mess about in the water, enjoying a good beer as the sun sets over the Lake District hills and mountains is really rather nice place to be in summer, and is hard to beat, much like the beers we were drinking.

The government is a bit of a chocolate fireguard when it comes to the pub sector, it puts up sensible policies initially which then melts away when any heat comes its way from big business.  So lets start this week by having a look at our new community pubs minister, Kris Hopkins.  His voting record does not inspire those in the beer and pub trade, he generally votes for higher taxes on beer, increasing the rate of VAT (which impacts beer prices post duty) and against forcing pub companies to offer rent only leases.   He is the MP for Keighley and Ilkley, home of several major regional brewing operations, so you would have assumed he wanted to support companies like Timothy Taylor, Ilkley Brewery and Naylors.

He is also a member of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group and has won the Parliamentary Beer Champion award, which is presented by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA).   His register of interests for the last 2 years is blank, which is suspicious, given the BBPA and its members support of the “honorable member”.  The award from the BBPA simply seals the fact that the already inked deal that is the “The Statutory Code governing the PubCo / Tenant relationship” will be a stitch up between the pub companies and their friends in Westminister.   Luckily for us, he will also have to make time to mess up local government, adult social care and planning of wind farms, so the damage will be spread thinly over a wide area.

I don’t have a high opinion of politicians generally and think most of them are a waste of the carbon molecules that make them up.   But looking at the records from the Houses of Parliament, it shows exactly why the big beer and pub companies get their own way and why the members of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group are merely patsies for their private paymasters.

Lets take a sample year and see who pays for the attention of these 20 MP’s.  In 2012-13, the following companies gave more than £5,000 to this group, Anheuser Busch In-Bev (AB InBev), Diageo, SAB Miller, Molson Coors (who are based in its chairmans constituency), Carlsberg (via two donations), Heineken and Punch Taverns.  Spot the missing influence, the small to medium operators from both the brewing and pub side of the business.  In 2013-14, there was a donation from the Society of Independent Brewers of £5,000, but other donations from the above list still weighed up to be much more.

The 2003 annual dinner must have caused a few hangovers the following morning as it was supported by 12 breweries and 9 pub companies.  The group has 20 members, so assuming each has 4 guests, that is 1 company for every 5 guests, not a bad ratio for influencing decisions over more than a few free beers, and I’m sure that the 12 breweries didn’t just turn up with 3 slabs of beer and dump it on the beer table for people to help themselves to.

Now lets move onto the BBPA.  This week they launched their vision for 2020.  On the surface it seems a good agenda, lowering of taxes to breweries and pubs, increasing the number of jobs in the sector and continued support of health and welfare initiatives.  However if you read between the lines and look at the language they use, the PubCo and big brewery agenda more than pokes it head out.

  • Campaign for lower rates of VAT on pub and restaurant food sales – but who owns most pubs who sell food, the big pub companies!
  • Reduction in beer duty?  The PubCo’s will pass on only part of this cut to tenants and make more money.
  • “Acceleration of the deregulation agenda” and “better enforcement of existing regulation” reads as can we have the status quo or better please.
  • Continued support for the tied, low-cost entry business model – they rather enjoy being the pimp for the thousands of pub tenants which are forced to pay their pound of flesh.
  • Self-regulation to be the default position ahead of legislation, they point to all the social and health awareness campaigns, but what they want is no statutory code, even the Tesco Value Orange Cordial of a code of conduct is too much for them.

The BBPA board is made up of representatives from Shepherd Neame, Enterprise Inns, Molson Coors, Charles Wells and Fullers, the latter two smaller names having no formal position.  The chairman Brigid Simmonds is a mouthpiece for the larger interests who support the organisation, the big brewing and pub operations.  They may have dozens of members, but who gets to sit at the top table at the annual dinner, its not a cider operation from Herefordshire but AB InBev, Diageo and Enterprise Inns.

As I have brought up many times before, Craft Beer is hard to define, however I saw this week a perfect definition which no one can argue about.  Put quite simply craft beer “is like pornography — you know it when you see it.”  These are the words from the head brewer of a Californian craft brewery.  To some a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Samuel Adams in your supermarket will be out of the ordinary, something interesting, to others it is a just another regular day to day beer.

The American craft beer market is more mature than the equivalent UK scene, it is bigger due to the wide geographical area and population factors that the USA brings to the party.  Small producers in the UK only have to ship products 350 miles at most to hit most populated areas in the UK.  In the US, you might do that to reach the neighbouring state capital and in places like Texas to reach the next major city.  To hit the US centres of population on the east and west coasts you are looking at up to 3000 miles a time if you are located on one of them.  So each major city has developed its own healthy craft brewing scene, when you have 1 million to 4 million people living in a city, it can support it.

In the UK we are closer to each other, generally living in far smaller cities and towns where there is no need for each urban conurbation to have its own brewery, with the right production capacity and a chain of distribution partners across the country you can be nationwide without need of investing in major infrastructure.    If you took a map showing the distribution of UK craft brewers it would show a fairly evenly distribution of dots up from the south coast to the M8 corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a series of dots running up the east coast to the biggest of them all, Brewdog and a smattering across the rest of Scotland.

I bring up Brewdog and the debate on when they will be too big to be craft, they currently produce 7.2 million litres of beer a year (based on 600,000l production figures from October 2013).  The same debate is brewing at the moment in the USA regarding the Boston Beer Company whose most famous beer in the UK is the aforementioned Samuel Adams.   Last year they were worth $2.9 billion and made $759 million in revenue (£1.7 billion and £443 million).  Their profit was about £40 million.  Brewdogs revenue in the 2013 financial year was £18.9, with a profit of £2.3 million.   You can see that that their margin vs revenue ratio is about the same and both are investing in production and expanding their brands.

In the UK, The Boston Beer Company would be considered a major brewer with production capacity rivalling the British operations of some of the major international brewing companies.  In the US, it is still small fry compared to the likes of Anheuser Busch InBev and Miller Coors who generate £7.24 billion and £5.32 billion in revenue respectively, the former brewing 40 million barrels a year.  These figures include the massive international nature of both these companies and the worldwide distribution of their products, but it shows the disparity in the US market, as we have a similar disparity regarding the money made by small brewers and major brewers in this country.

Samuel Adams and the Boston Beer Company is in the middle ground of being craft in nature and corporate in practice.  The owner Jim Koch’s description of them being the “tallest pygmy” in the craft beer field is spot on.  They are the first and only “craft brewer” in the US to launch a nationwide TV campaign, but if you are the “biggest pygmy” by a factor of 10 , then you are going to get shot at by the smaller villagers saying you are no longer one of them, and this is happening now to the Boston Beer Company.  Their line that “craft beer is the current big thing, but the Boston Beer Company has been doing this for 30 years and will do so into the future” is probably not the most diplomatic move they have made.  If Brewdog continue their growth at the current rate they will reach a similar position, it is inevitable for those on the border of a market sector.

The move from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in the sea is never the easiest one.

(original story – http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/is-sam-adams-too-big-to-be-craft-beer)