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Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
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Friday, 15 May 2015

Why SABMiller's acquisition of Meantime is a good thing.

I wasn't going to write about this because I'm too busy and I don't have time. But I've read too many comments about it and I can't help myself.

Just to be clear, I'm not an apologist for big, corporate brands, OK? And I'll fight with anyone who says I am.

I think most people who love craft beer, good beer, real ale, interesting flavourful beer, whatever you want to call it, share a belief that mass market consumerism and the centralising of production into ever fewer, ever bigger corporations, goes hand-in-hand with cost-cutting, homogenisation, blandness, and a triumph of style over substance. It happens in all markets and it's happened in beer as much as anywhere - I'm old enough to remember when the likes of Stella Artois and John Smiths were well-made, flavourful beers, and it pains me to see what's become of them.

The small scale of craft brewers allows them to be nimble, adaptive and experimental in a way bigger companies simply cannot do.

Also, if you put the rational arguments to one side, emotionally there's an excitement to feeling like you're part of something important, something that challenges the big bad drones of the mainstream. It's a battle between good and evil, or at least good and mediocre, and we're the underdogs and we're winning! It's something that, for many, goes beyond being what you drink and becomes part of who you are, how you define and project yourself. I'm the same with music, and I'm increasingly like that with food and drink more broadly.

So I get it that people feel sad, disappointed, perhaps even betrayed, when one of us sells out and becomes one of them. I understand.

I guess there are breweries which I'd be upset and horrified about if they sold out to the Man. But Meantime, having announced their acquisition by SABMiller, isn't one of them. Not because I don't care from them - far from it - but because knowing and liking them, I think this was always their destiny.

One of the more moronic memes in all the comments online goes along the lines of "Well, I never drank their beers anyway because they're bland/they're keg/they're lagers [delete as applicable depending on how much of a prick you really are] so this changes nothing." As if every craft brewer has to be experimenting with too many hops, a saison yeast, black malts and pinot barrels.

Yes, the innovators are exciting, and much of the time the beers are good. But the person who argues that the only beer that matters is beer that is bold and shocking to a mainstream palate is simply the lagered up twat who orders the hottest curry on the menu to impress his mates, in a beardy disguise.

Meantime pre-dated the modern British craft revolution. Alastair Hook is one of the most talented brewers in the world. If you talk to him, one reason he started Meantime was because he couldn't bear how bad mainstream beer was. He remains one of the fiercest critics I know of the cosy blandness of the British beer establishment. His lagers and pale ales are accessible and easy drinking, but far better made than their mainstream equivalents. It's pointless to judge Meantime's beers in comparison to the outer reaches of crafty experimentation, because they were simply never designed to. They should be judged against the mainstream, as a serious step up from the mainstream. That, to me, is what Meantime has always been about, and that's why their sale to SABMiller doesn't have me rending my garments and wailing.

Craft beer is big and diverse. While some fanatics may disagree, I don't think there should be a huge gulf between craft and mainstream. I think it's better for everyone if there are slight gradations in product character and complexity. I have seen people jump straight from Stella to barrel-aged Imperial Stout in some kind of quasi-religious conversion, but it doesn't happen often. And even when it does, you don't want a barrel-aged Imperial Stout - or even a massively hopped IPA - every single day of your life (If you do, you're lacking imagination just as much as the Foster's drinker.)

The more common complaint abut today's news is from people who did like Meantime's beers, and who now worry that the integrity of those beers will be compromised.

That is at least a worry that is justified, as explained above. But the modern beer world is moving so quickly I think you have to take each case on its own merits.

The paradigm has shifted for the big global brewers. They grew so big in a world where everyone wanted cold, fizzy lager that didn't taste of much, and used the economics of scale to grow and put their competitors out of business. When the market plateaued, they bought each other and consolidated, and now we have four big brewers who each have far too many boring lager brands that they don't know what to do with. They've each tried to make their leading brand the global beery equivalent of Coca Cola or Nike, and they've each failed because the world doesn't want a global, homogenous beer brand.

Now, in most parts of the world, the beer market is stagnant. The big brewers' business model simply isn't delivering organic growth any more. The big money and the smartest talent is going into the developing world, especially the so-called BRIC countries, where there's still lots of scope for growth.

In the old, traditional markets, craft may still be small in volume terms, but its the only bit people are talking about and the only bit that's making any money.

And it works in a way that's almost entirely the opposite of the way the big brewers have learned to make and sell beer. They don't understand craft at all. Talking to some of them, it's like they're looking at some kind of alien life form and trying to figure out how it moves. This means they can't launch their own craft ranges, so if they want a slice of the action they can only buy a craft brewery with a proven track record.

So when you look at it from that point of view, having bought a craft brewery, would they then change it to be exactly like their old, failing business model? Or would they simply put a bit more money into it and see how it goes?

This is not the first and will be far from the last craft acquisition by a major. I have absolutely no doubt that some of these acquisitions will be botched, and that once-great beers will be murdered.

When that does happen, it will be by accident rather than design, the bungling of stupid, weak people.

Within big breweries, the accountants will be wanting to put pressure on costs because that is their job. The marketers will be wanting to grow sales massively because that is their job. The brewers - where the original craft brewer remains in the business - will likewise want to carry on making great beer. A strong business leader will balance these imperatives.

Too many weak businesses allow the accountant to call the shots because that's the way to keep the City happy. That's what happens when it goes wrong, and you can see that it's bound to with some businesses at some point.

But I've seen a few examples now where this hasn't happened - yet.

I visited Goose Island last year and the product quality is actually better since the Anheuser Busch acquisition, because they've been given better equipment. So far, they have not been asked to compromise on ingredients or process. AB may be a cost-cutting company, but it knows that Goose Island sells for a lot more than Bud, and it understands that one of the main reasons for this is that the Goose Island drinker cares about what's in the bottle. They'd be idiots to mess with that, and whatever else they are, they're not idiots.

When Heineken acquired the Caledonian brewery via their purchase of Scottish & Newcastle, my mate Stephen Crawley was MD. He told me that a team from head office came and looked around the brewery, were obviously bemused by it, and said, "Well, you clearly know what you're doing. So long as the numbers look as good as they are, just carry on doing it." Two years later, when I visited again, the only change to the brewery was better health and safety signage.

When Molson Coors bought Sharps, everyone involved was interested in making Doom Bar the UK's biggest cask ale. Now, it is. But since the acquisition, Sharp's has released some astounding beers under the Connoisseur's Choice label.

Meantime fits the bill for a major player's foray into craft. Its beers don't scare people. Meantime has now become ubiquitous in London. If I'm in a great craft beer bar, I won't usually drink it. But when I go to a pub that's under, say, an Enterprise lease and therefore has a dull selection of beers, Meantime Pale Ale or Yakima Red are always there, so there's at least one beer on the bar that I know will be good. Today's deal basically means that you'll get this safe choice much more widely in ordinary boozers across the UK, and that's great. Meantime's accessibility and scale will help bring people into craft beer in much greater numbers, providing a useful bridge between mainstream and esoteric.

It's not a cut and dried thing either way, and that's what many people struggle to accept. But on balance, I think this is a good deal for craft beer and for curious beer drinkers.

Finally, several people I know and like have just made an awful lot of money. They deserve it. They backed a pioneer, the first of the new breweries in London, and put a lot of hard work into making it a success. The London craft beer scene would be very different if Meantime hadn't existed. Alastair Hook deserves his millions. And if you still think he's a sell out who has no right to sell the brewery he built from scratch, I dare you to say so to his face.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The dawn chorus, the apple, and another forthcoming book from me

I've managed to end up working on three new books, with three different publishers. Here's a story about the second of those three.

I've already talked about my new beer book, What Are You Drinking? It's a crowdfunded project with a new type of publisher that I'm doing (a) because it's a really good model for both readers and authors and (b) my ex-editor, who made my first two beer books happen, is leading the project. It's more than 50% funded. If you haven't pledged for it yet and you're kind of intending to, please do - it'll help shorten the gap for those who have already pledged before the book comes out and they get their special copies.

Another reason I'm publishing that book through the crowdfunded model is that, while I've been very lucky so far to have my books published as general non-fiction books by a big mainstream publisher, those kind of publishers don't want any more beer books (at least, not from me) at the moment. They do want me to write more books, but about what they see as broader subjects than beer.

I'm not averse to the idea. While I intend to write about beer as much as I can for the foreseeable future, my ambition was always to be a writer, period. My interests are broader than beer, and they grow as I write more: one of the many great things about beer is that it links you into history, sociology, cultural studies, travel, biology, biochemistry, gastronomy and lots more if you want it to. The luckiest thing about being an author is that every book takes you in a journey of discovery and leaves you in a different place by the time you've finished it.

Two years ago I co-wrote the first ever world guide to cider. It was enormous fun. Along the way I spent time in barns in Somerset working an ancient Norman cider press, in dark orchards in midwinter participating in the ancient rite of Wassail, getting stoned with new friends on the shores of Lake Michigan, and so much more.

The thing about the cider book is that it was my first time writing a coffee table-style book of listings, the basic format to most beer books. There was no room for the kinds of long, narrative passages that made up my first three books. I loved the cider book, and it has done very well. But the best pieces of writing I did while working on it never made it into the book.

These pieces of writing had one more thing in common: while cider ran through them like a golden stream, they weren't necessarily about cider. They were at least as much about cider makers, apples, orchards and orchardists, and the land in which they stood. I've been a city boy for most of my adult life, but my time in orchards allowed something new to take root.

I spend most of my life staring at a screen. It's fine - that will never change. But I need a counter-balance to it - increasingly so, as more of what I see on screen depresses me. I need an escape, and I feel drawn ever more strongly to a world of trees and fields, orchards and hills. When I'm there, it resets everything, reconnects me with reality, slows down the rhythms of life to a normal pace, recharges my batteries and feeds my soul. The need is getting bad - so bad that I've even become a convert to gardening, tending my own twenty-foot plot and trying to coax it into some semblance of nature's beauty and bounty. (As I write, I'm missing the fern I planted in a shady corner three weeks ago, and wondering how it's doing.)

Drawing all this together, I realised there was a book to be written about the humble apple - about its power, its symbolism, that fact that, hiding in plain sight, pretending to be utterly normal and inconsequential, it's actually one of the most powerful totems we have.

So I put together a synopsis for a book that tells the story of the apple in both the real and the mythical world. In the real world, it's the story of a fruit that originated in Kazakhstan that is now as French as Camembert, as English as the Archers and as American as mom's apple pie. In the mythical world, it's the forbidden fruit of Eden (even though the Bible never says it is), a mainstay of Greek and Nordic myth, a key character in the legend of King Arthur, and the centre of the action in countless fairy tales.

Often, when you're around apples, the real world and the mythical world still meet.

Last week I visited Herefordshire to help celebrate their Blossomtime festival. At this time of year, it's a magical place. One of the things I'll be doing in the book is to try and put some of the pictures I took, and they thoughts and feelings they inspired, into words.

At this time of year, the Marcle Ridge is frosted with apple blossom wherever you look. And the rainbow was a nice touch.

On the morning of 1st May, we climbed May Hill in Gloucestershire to greet the sun. 

Northwest, 5.30am 

We had to get up at 4am to be up there in time, and the sun rose at about 5.35 am. There were around 300 people up there, and I quickly realised that this wasn't just some quaint local custom: we were in fact celebrating the ancient Celtic festival of Beltain.

This did, inevitably, mean that Morris dancers were involved.

I'll be discussing Morris dancers in some detail in the book.

The most annoying thing about the Morris as that they danced all through the actual sunrise, completely ignored it, didn't comment on it at all. They actually stood between the crowd and the sunrise. They seemed to think we'd got out of bed in the middle of the night and walked up a steep fucking hill in the freezing fucking cold, to watch them, rather than the sun.

Luckily, this year at least, the sun upstaged them.

Even if it did benefit from a handy bit of lens flare.

I spent the rest of the weekend learning about orchards, the cycle of the seasons, and the rhythms of natural life. Orchards are of course a sometimes uneasy compromise between natural order and and human meddling, but right now they just look amazing.

Whether we're talking traditional 'standard' trees... 

Or more modern, more engineered 'dwarf' or 'bush' trees...
Each has its own incredible beauty, and as the blossom falls from pollenated blooms, we see the tiny, young fruit having 'set', which will now start to grow into apples.

Baby Cider

The wonderful timing of this event means that May Day and the celebration of the blossom, the returning of life after the dead of winter, coincides with the previous year's cider being ready if it has been fermented traditionally over the winter. I was asked to hand out the awards in the local cider and perry competition, and many of the ciders on display had only been tapped and drawn from the fermenter over the previous 24 hours. Some of it benefited from being young, fresh and vivacious. Others showed promise, but will clearly benefit from a little more time, a little more maturity. I'm already learning that apples and apple trees have an incredible amount in common with humans.

And that's what the book is really about. Provisionally titled 'Comfort Me: the apple and us', it's not (just) a biological history of apples and orchards; it's the story of us, told through the fruit we hold more dear than any other.

It has been commissioned by Penguin, and will be published under their Particular Books imprint towards the end of 2016 or early 2017. Between now and then, I've got me wellies and me hiking boots on, and I'll be getting in touch with my Pagan side.

Was heil!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

I am so fucking bored by the beer discourse of 2015

It started off odd, like a beer that tastes OK at first, then has something nagging that attracts your attention, and on the second and third sips, starts to reveal something badly wrong. Suddenly it all got legal. Then, it got nasty.

When I write stuff for the consumer press about beer, I stick to the line - which I believe on good days, when the medication is working - that there's never been a better time to be a beer drinker. More brewers, more styles, more experimentation and inventiveness...

And whatever your views on big brewers trying to muscle in on craft, their intense interest proves that the old paradigm - that drinkers just want cold, fizzy suds and are scared of flavour - has been shattered.

When I write for the consumer press, the narrative is that 'we' - the people who read and write about beer, the sad minority who were often ridiculed until a few brief years ago - have won. We've done it. We - the brewers, the drinkers, the advocates, the aficionados, the fans, the proselytisers, the people who care - have managed to reposition good beer as something that is worth the average, non-beery person having a look at.

I've always said that the discourse around beer is happening in a bubble. Bloggers say shit about brewers and brewers worry about it; brewers say shit about beer and bloggers debate it; people wirrit away about big questions of style and definition; and it all takes place in a bubble outside which most people - most beer drinkers - are completely unaware of the discourse, and wouldn't be interested in it if they were.

Then, in the last two years, the bubble has expanded. Non-beery mates started talking about what hop varieties they prefer. Old, traditional brewers started experimenting with new techniques and ingredients. My wife's friends, increasingly, started to order beer by default in the pub rather than wine.

Everything was awesome.

But of course, it wasn't really. Just like in the film.

Success makes people uneasy. Remove the easily identifiable enemy, and people become unsure what they're fighting for, or against.

And so as soon as 2014's Christmas hangover wore off, we turned on each other like a pack of starved, neurotic, Stella-drunk piranhas.

The sexism in beer thing needed to come to a head, but it seems to have had the effect of bringing sexist dickheads out from under their rocks for one final hurrah. Craft beer delegates organise events in strip clubs, while America's biggest beer brand goes out with labels that fall into an uncomfortably rapey narrative. People insisting that "it's all a bit of fun" show a distinct lack of humour and launch menacing attacks on those who call out their neanderthal attitudes. (Sorry, that's an insult to neanderthals.)

Everyone got litigious, suing each other over degrees of similarity and pinhead dances about the difference between a style or description and a trademarked name.

New breweries are criticised for having widespread support when they launch, or for being good at promoting themselves, or just for being new. Older breweries are criticised for being older or bigger, or for being so good at what they do that they become commercially successful and grow.

And the fucking definition of craft beer debate lumbers on like a zombie, eating the brains of talented people who could otherwise be writing something inspirational, or at least interesting.

I count myself highly among the sinners. We're all guilty.

The tipping point for this rant was the 43rd article I've read this week about the lawsuit against Molson Coors for their crime of calling Blue Moon a craft beer. Or maybe it was the 65th thing I've read about the dickhead American brewer who thinks it's cool to peddle sexist shit because it's all meant to be a laugh. I'm drunk, and I can't really remember.

But this nasty, unpleasant, navel-gazing, paranoid, defeatist, frightened, hostile discourse is putting me off my beer.

It's tedious. It's boring. It's negative. It's against all that I love about beer.

Astonishingly, given that I've criticised CAMRA so often on this blog, they suddenly sound like a breath of fresh air, having passed motions that start to move the campaign into the twenty-first century. Moaning craft beer twats now sound more like flat-earth CAMRA twats that flat-earth CAMRA twats do.

My new beer book - one of three I'm currently writing - is about hops, barley, yeast and water. It's returned me to a purer, distilled form of what I love about beer, and why I first started writing about it. It has me visiting hop gardens and maltings, thinking about the miracle of fermentation and attempting to find new ways of articulating what makes beer so special. I love working on it.

And then I keep making the mistake of checking out my Twitter feed or Facebook, and feel like the hop gardens have been ploughed up by orcs, like Sam's vision of the shire when he peers into Galadriel's pool.

I often comment on industry stuff, and I apologise for my part in perpetuating these negative, reductive debates. Shit needs to get called out. But can we please all try to remember that it's beer? It's just beer. Trivial and by-the-by. Beer, the simple liquid that's capable of transforming meals, social occasions, friendships, perspectives on reality.

Cold we please have some conversations about beer that reflect what an utterly wonderful place beer is in right now?

Thank you. As you were. I am now going to finish the extra pint of Peroni which I probably didn't need.