I’ll start this weeks column with a quick note regarding the forthcoming takeover of the London based Meantime Brewery by SABMiller. Announced a couple of weeks ago, the move is symptomatic of what is happening in the trade on the other side of the Atlantic. Large brewing concerns want their piece of the Craft Beer sector and as I said a few weeks ago, it is moves like this and the formation of “in house” craft brewers that will dilute the craft beer label over time until it becomes worthless. Just as Molson Coors brought Sharps Brewery to give it a real ale brand which real ale drinkers recognised, Meantime brewery, incidentally part owned currently by a former Miller Brands director, will become the public face of the SABMillers new premium craft beer range.
Some might say that we have lost a leading independent brewer, but others have been saying it has been going more mainstream for a while now, concentrating on its higher volume core brands than innovating new beers. Wherever the line lies, the truth is that some Meantime drinkers will move on from the brand due to the takeover, at least as many will be blissfully unaware of the news and keep drinking as before and an equal or more amount will not be bothered. Whatever it loses will however be more than compensated for on the sales line by the additional bar space it gets from the SABMiller distribution network. As a business deal there are no losers, however what this could be is the thin end of the wedge regarding the mainstream penetration of the craft beer sector.
But now to the main topic this week, I’ve been writing a lot about the craft beer sector over the last few weeks, so this week I turn back to the world of real ale. Real Ale is what got me into good beer, so will always be the core of my drinking consumption. I paid a visit to the Victorian Craft Beer Cafe in Halifax the other weekend, a business owned by the same team who operate and lease the Puzzle Hall Inn, Sowerby Bridge. They started off with 4 real ale pumps and 10 keg lines, they have now doubled their real ale range to 8 pumps, on the day ranging from 3.8% to 7%. I sampled one from each end of that range, as well as one of their keg beers. All were good beers, of that there is no doubt however the real ales gave me more satisfaction and in a mixed session do 99% of the time.
The following day I was at the Beck, Brighouse for a couple of pints whilst my daughter was otherwise engaged in town. I ordered a pint of real ale, the landlord offering me a taster (I say a taster, it wasn’t far off a half in reality) as others had said it was a bit too citrusy. I like a citrusy beer so had no problem with it. However the great thing about real ale is that it is a living breathing animal that changes over time as it sits in the cellar. The beer was labelled as a hoppy beer, and I have no doubt that a few days down the line towards the last quarter of the barrel that it will be a subtlety different beer and fit the beer pump description a lot more accurately. I’ve had real ale before where I’ve virtually had the first and last glass out of a barrel and you’d swear they were not the same beer. This variety of taste is something you don’t get with craft keg.
The downside of this living, breathing animal is that it needs more care to keep it in condition, a small movement of the barrel can unsettle a real ale and make it cloudy for a while (although normally to no detriment to the taste if it was good before). It needs time to settle before serving and has a more limited shelf life in the majority of cases. But in my opinion the product is worth the effort from the people the other side of the bar. It also leads to a good rotation of real ales in our pubs, giving us far more range than we would get if the equivalent lines were connected to a keg.
A good real ale is as good as a drink can get and there are thousands of them out there. Whatever your taste, there will be a “wow” ale out there somewhere and with the quality of many of our brewers, it is something I experience quite often at the pubs who know how to select and keep good beer. When the worse case scenario usually is “that’s a decent beer”, real ale can’t be doing that bad.