Sunday, 27 January 2019

Will Fullers transfer leave cask facing relegation battle?

"Well we never saw that coming" was the comment that many made after Fullers announced they were selling their beer business to Japanese multinational company Asahi. Indeed, it was quite a shock, but for Fullers an understandable move. The majority of their profit is contributed from its pub and hotel sector, in the order of 85% apparently. Inside knowledge from working in the industry for many years I know this to be a fact, brewing and selling beer is not as profitable as running pubs and hotels. So for Fullers, on the surface the right decision, but for the cask ale sector it could be yet another nail in the coffin.

For many years Fullers have been one of the major players in championing the cask sector. They understood that cask ale not only needs to leave the brewery in pristine condition but furthermore, ensuring it's quality on its path to being finally served in the pub is just as important. Fullers have been one of cask ales major lynch pins in recent years, demanding quality and consistent beers and showcasing their ales at their best where-ever possible.

I might use an analogy of a football team. Cask AFC playing in the Premier League - Fullers were the solid dependable centre half and captain of the team, successfully defending all attacks and leading from the front, setting an example to the rest of Cask AFC. Now Fullers has been transferred to PubCo Rovers and a new player, Asahi has been signed from abroad as a replacement. As with all new players Asahi will need to adapt quickly if Cask AFC is not to be relegated from the Premier League, he can't afford too many errors. He has some strong fellow team members, the spine of the side; Marston's another centre half, Greene King, the much disliked midfield player who never gets the plaudits but when he's not in the team they often lose; gifted playmaker St Austell Brewery, much maligned centre forward Doombar (Molson Coors), fast and tricky winger Thornbridge and experienced goalkeeper Shepherd Neame.

Ok, its a bit of fun, but the point I'm making is if Fullers were a top player in Cask AFC, without them and their commitment to maintaining quality and a desire to sell cask ale, the future for Cask AFC could be threatened with relegation from the Premier League! Lose one of your best players and many teams have faltered as a result.

How new boy Asahi does in the number five shirt remains to be seen. One has to have doubts. Will he really take the long term view on cask, nurture London Pride on hand-pull with a desire to build the brand so it's cask format can challenge for the top honours in the world of beer, or will London Pride be re-focused on export markets and UK keg format allowing its cask brother to slowly sink down the leagues? If one has to have hope then looking at how Japanese companies have established themselves in the UK Car market and their commitment to the long term is commendable. If Asahi can follow this lead and become the next Honda or Nissan of the UK beer market then perhaps there is hope. Only time will tell.

乾杯 which is  pronounced Kanpai, cheers in Japanese (according to google).

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Reflections on Swindon Beer Festival - there's life in the old dog yet!

St Austell Brewery bar
An odd title for a blog post and no reflection on the 32nd Swindon Beer Festival which again was well up to standard. Congratulations to Swindon CAMRA and also the venue, the Steam Railway Museum. Both combine to deliver a unique and interesting event. There are not many more attractive venues than Steam, its the museum for GWR showcasing a Swindon that was at the very heart of rail travel development to the South West for many years. It's a very fitting venue for an event that promotes traditional cask ale.

I attended for two days bringing some fabulous St Austell Brewery beers from Cornwall for the festival goers to enjoy. There were 120 different cask ales in total and four brewery bars. CAMRA make it very easy for brewers to attend and this year besides St Austell - Ramsbury, Hop Kettle and Flying Monk were in attendance. The latter three are local brewers to Swindon and there are fewer better ways for such brewers to build their brands and encourage sampling with their local market than attending here.

Cooling jackets & cooler shown behind the bar
Thankfully all brewers except Flying Monk were applying cooling to their beers, although the first blast of artic air of the autumn did mean that casks without cooling were served at an acceptable temperature. However, there is certainly a case that if you want to showcase your beers at their best, an investment in cooling is a must for these events. The beers served by CAMRA had no cooling, but they have a bigger challenge to provide cooling for a vast number of casks which is both expensive and logistically challenging, so that's another story.

So back to my headline which is really an observation on the number of people who attended the festival. Attendances for the Thursday session were down, about 100 people was muttered under the breath of some CAMRA members. I feared the worse in that the significant decline in the cask beer market was showing itself at this grass roots level and there would be vast amounts of beer left. However, I need not have worried!

I was delighted that the following two sessions were significantly up with the final session a sell-out. Even better was CAMRA had an excellent selection of beers. Most brewers, let alone their beers I had not heard of before so there was interest to try lots of new flavours. It was great to see so many people enjoying cask ales, all served in good condition hence my blog title, there is life in the old dog yet!

On the St Austell bar our Halloween beer, Bucket of Blood is an old favourite at this event and a past Champion Beer of the festival. We sold double of this beer than any of all our others, but it was also very pleasing to see established brands like Tribute and Proper Job sell very well. As much as people like to try new beers, there is still plenty of scope to build consistently good brands that stand the test of time that customers recognise and want to drink.

To sum up the event, I would comment that beer festivals bring people together and are very social events, where those with a passion for beer can share their enjoyment of trying new brews or remind themselves of some old favourites. If cask ale is to survive the current fashion for keg craft beer it needs well run beer festivals like Swindon to provide entertainment, but most importantly of all, to showcase what's great about cask ale. Bravo Swindon CAMRA and Steam, here's to the 33rd featival in 2019.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The humble Bottle Opener

My favourite opener
At beer talks I normally tell people that the start of drinking and enjoying a beer is their choice of an appropriate glass. Before they buy any beer they should first acquire a glass they enjoy drinking from as it will enhance their enjoyment of the beer. However, I now realise there is something that comes before the glass and that is the humble bottle opener. For ones pleasure in enjoying a beer does not start with a favourite glass, it begins with a favourite bottle opener!

Just like a glass, a bottle opener is a personal item and we'll all have our favourite. For me, if I can't use my favourite opener the beer drinking experience gets off to a bad start. Of course, the bottle opener has no impact on the quality of the beer but its about the subliminal relaxation of enjoying a beer, so the very start point of opening the bottle is very important. It is the first impression that counts and that begins with the use of your chosen opener, the kiss as it breaks the seal and releases the CO2 pressure within, which leads to the expectant anticipation of the delicious contents that are about to be enjoyed.

My favourite opener is a Homer Simpson Duff Beer opener, not that I'm a big fan of the Simpsons, it was a Christmas present from my wife's grandsons around eight years ago and I have used it ever since. I know they chose it for me so its something special and even though its now somewhat rusted, I still enjoy using it. A bottle opener is a very personal thing, much like a cherished tie or coffee mug.

Church key style traditional bottle opener
The bottle opener has been around since the invention of the crown cork. As ever with new inventions there is some conjecture as to who was responsible but its generally recognised to be William Painter in Baltimore in 1892. Until the invention of the crown cork soda and beer bottles were round ended and mostly sealed with corks. They were then stored on their sides to avoid the corks drying out. The invention of the crown cork not only changed the seal, it also changed storage methods and bottle shapes as bottles could now be stored upright.

More importantly, the new crown cork required an opener. These were traditionally flat pieces of metal and some resembled ornate church keys, hence they become known as "Church Key" openers. There is no record as to how and when they officially came by their name but there is certainly a similarity between the church key and the bottle opener of yesteryear.

From the 1900's onwards bottle opener designs literally exploded like an over conditioned bottle beer. Brewers and soda producers in the USA were quick to see the marketing potential of such items. Some even included a pin on the reverse so they could be spun like a spin the bottle to see who bought the next round. Other designs included the speed opener, which is now known as the bar blade and of course the wall mounted opener allowed bottled beer to be opened with one hand.

British brewers were more conservative with their bottle openers, but wonderful vintage designs for the likes of Guinness and Carlsberg are readily found via google. What has changed very little for the past century is the design of the crown cork, so all bottle openers have the same opening mechanism. Everyone should have a favourite opener, whether its a traditional design or a promotional item and it should be cherished and loved as the start point of many an enjoyable beer drinking experience.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Reflections on GBBF 2018

Another Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) done and dusted for this year. Well done to all the CAMRA members who work so hard to put on the UK's biggest and yes, best beer festival. We should not forget that the vast majority of these people are unpaid volunteers so a big thank you goes to all of them. I was lucky enough to attend for the whole event so here are my thoughts on the good, bad and the ugly reflections for 2018. Lets start in reverse order, the ugly.

CAMRA attracted Greene King as a main sponsor and well don't both parties for the marriage. GK are perhaps the UK's largest cask ale brewer. I don't like all of their beers but respect them hugely for their efforts in promoting their cask beers and brewing consistent beers that their customers want to drink. If they invest in promoting the likes of Old Speckled Hen it helps lift the whole cask market - they are not just investing in their own beers, they are investing in the category. Why then when the GK XX Mild was announced Champion Mild was large booing heard in the main hall. If you are a CAMRA member and were part of this may you hang your head in shame. The beer was fairly judged to be the winner and as such deserved its place on the winners podium. Furthermore, you don't bite the hand of your major sponsor!

Hopefully the GK marketing team will not be put off by this ill-judged response from a minority. I for one tasted the mild and agree its a fine beer, worthy of the award.

Now for the bad. It has to be the attendance figures. I never saw the final figures but was keeping a daily track. I estimate this to be at least 5,000 down on the previous year. A very disappointing response. Its easy to blame GBBF and say its all the fault of the festival, but the facts are cask ale is having a tough time at the moment with sales significantly down so its as much a declining interest in the category. CAMRA wont be able to sustain the event at Olympia if the figures continue to decline so we all hope this trend begins to reverse next year.

It is also true other established regional food and drink festivals are struggling for attendances so GBBF may well be caught up in the same scenario.

Lets finish on the good. CAMRA are trying hard to bring a fresh look and feel to the event. The Planet Rock sponsorship was a great fit. Beer festivals have to offer more than just beer and the band line up for the Thursday seemed to attract a lot of interest. CAMRA need to take a leaf from the craft beer festivals where they have a programme of DJ sets running. It attracts younger people, its not just about the beer. The street food line up this year was also excellent, a big variety from the usual pie and pasties to Indian and Mexican. I think there were circa twenty-five food stalls so the choice was superb.

One interesting newcomer to the event was Budweiser Budvar. they were serving live tank beer, at last a lager style beer readily available. CAMRA do need to grasp the nettle here and extend and actively promote key keg, tank, craft beer, whatever you want to call it. Cask beer will always be king at this festival but the other beers attract a different customer that the festival badly needs.

A busy night on my brewery bar
Brewery bar support has been declining but this year saw significant players Greene King, Fullers and St Austell all supporting the event, plus their were interesting new comers like Thornbridge. The brewers really need to support this festival, why would you not want to showcase your brands at an event in the capital city that attracts lots of media interest with an attendance of circa 40k people? The cask market has big problems at the moment so rather than shunning such events the brewers should be actively supporting both this event and other major regional festivals and working with CAMRA. Both brewers and CAMRA want the same thing, to promote cask ale so cost/budgetary restrictions accepted, it seems a little odd that more brewers don't want to be represented.

Finally, having spent the last week at the festival on a brewery bar I can say its hard work at times, but also very rewarding with the chance to share a love of beer and pubs with lots of like minded folk. I enjoyed my week and look forward to 2019.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Beer Review May 2018

I tried four new beers over the Bank Holiday weekend. Here are my thoughts on all four.

Windhoek Lager 4.0% abv
Packaged in a green bottle which always makes light strike susceptible (the dreaded Becks aroma!), I'm glad to say this beer was clean with no evidence of the said off flavour. It was actually a pretty good 4% lager, easily out performing the bigger standard brands of similar abv (you know who your are Mr Fosters etc). The nose was very clean and the flavour quite full and malty with a bit of biscuit and slight hop bitter finish. I would not describe it as crisp as the malt flavours came to the fore, but I'd gladly enjoy another

Really liked the embossing on the rear of the bottle and the label suggested a beer of tradition and quality which the beer backed up. The brewery (Windhoek) is based in Namibia so a first for me to drink a beer from this country, they date back to 1920 and are of German heritage and use traditional ingredients to produce a first class beer. They are now part of the Heineken stable, which means their beers may become more accessible and there will be further importance based on quality and consistency. A good beer, I'd certainly drink again.

Pelforth Blonde 5.8% abv
Having visited northern France a few times (an easy trip living in Plymouth), I can confirm I'm a bit of a fan of some of the French beers of this region and the Pelforth beer did not disappoint. A bit spicy perfume on the nose, the palate was quite delicate with a hint of a Belgium style beer about it. Perhaps a bit peppery with an understated sweetness followed by a dry finish. I liked the beer and would drink again.

The branding is bit fussy and confusing to a non-Frenchman but maybe that's part of the charm, it certainly had shelf standout. The bottle shape too was unusual, the tapered body narrowing to the base is not something we see a lot of in the UK.

The name Pelforth is derived from the word Pelican which was once a popular dance and the Pelican brewery was established in 1914. Production ceased during World War Two but began again in 1950. Pelican was changed to Pelforth over time and it too is now part of the Heineken stable of beers.

Quilmes Beer 4.9% abv
Perhaps my favourite of the beers I tried here, this beer originates from Argentina. It as quite dry which I like and helps with drinkability. Clean, crisp with just the hint of honey and at 4.9% offered enough abv to make it interesting. A good beer and one I would drink again.

The brewer was founded in 1888 from German heritage, it is now established as a huge brewer in its homeland with a market share in excess of 70%. Perhaps that makes it less interesting to some but the beer I tasted was pretty good so I'd be happy to drink again. The branding has a flamboyant touch to it and perhaps not something that's going to help if it wants to crack the UK market. The name too does not flow of the tongue, unlike the beer which clearly did!

Krombacher Low Alcohol Pilsner 0.5% abv
A beer of less than 0.5% abv is not something I reach for that often and my expectations were not high. It was ok, a bit worty both on the aroma and the palate. Reminded me a grain store smell. Quite sweet but not the fullest, it has a hint of lager and lime about it. The brewery, Krombacher brews to the Reinheitsgebot and is a brewer of tradition and quality.

Its difficult to be objective about these beers so one has to put aside the natural desire for an alcoholic beer. In Germany all the bigger brewers will have a low abv offering and they'll be popular beers in their own right. This beer was certainly on a par with some of the beer non-alcoholic beers such as San Miguel 0.0. Perhaps that's as  far as I can go with this one!

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Beers of the Bird Table

The early spring is a fine time to observe garden birds and their feeding habits around the bird table and feeders. Different bird species have individual characters just like beers, so for fun I've listed an analogy of birds and the more popular ales. Hopefully I won't offend anyone, either bird fanciers or beer enthusiasts with my comments, it's just for fun!

Black Cap & Brewdog Punk IPA
The Black Cap is a recent interloper on many garden bird feeders and something of the bird table bully. He does not care about other birds, he is unconventional, does it his way and takes what he wants when he wants. However as a new visitor he is a welcome addition to any bird table despite his selfish habits.

As a beer analogy, that just has to be Brewdog. A recent arrival in the beer market and totally unconventional, they do the opposite to what other brewers do and are happy to step on a few traditional toes! None-the-less the beer is still pretty good and a welcome option on many bars and supermarket shelves.

House Sparrow & Doombar
An unremarkable grey/brown bird and ten-a-penny on many bird tables. They are always there, normally arriving in small flocks, they ascend the table for a short while then disappear. Perhaps the most frequent of all birds on the table, its easy to take them for granted but without them the table would be a lot less busy and by their very brown nature, they allow the brighter marked birds to strand out from the crowd. So in many ways, they provide the essential background for the other birds to shine. If we have no sparrows, we'd surely miss them.

The beer equivalent would be Doombar. An unremarkable but inoffensive brown beer its everywhere. but, just like the sparrow, without Doom to set the playing field, how would we know the other beers are so good? Some might be pleased if we had no Doombar, but there have always been big volume if somewhat bland beers that dominate the market i.e. Courage Best etc. They are essential as often drinkability is what required most and that means a beer that's easily available with a non descript but accessible flavour.

Bullfinch & Proper Job
The Bullfinch is a shy but common bird. When you see him its always a thrill. Superbly marked, Mr Bullfinch is unmistakable and certainly stands out from the crowd. Mrs B is not that bad looking either and its common to see pairs rather than single birds. However they are a reserved couple, never the first to the party and often heard rather than seen. If you get Bullfinches cherish them and encourage them to stay, they are one of the stars of the bird table.

Proper Job is the Bullfinch of the beer world. On draught it's common but not often seen. A frequent visitor as part of many a guest ale programme, its still not easy to find. However once you have it, then it's unmistakable rich citrus hop and bitter backbone, combined with the sharp golden straw colour make it a welcome guest and a beer to encourage the licensee to keep.

Chaffinch & Old Speckled Hen
The Chaffinch is a handsome looking bird. When first seen the male in particular is a good looking fella, but then you come across other more striking birds, the fore-mentioned Bullfinch, the Goldfinch or the Great Tit, all birds that arguably challenge the place of the Chaffinch in terms of looks. However, the Chaffinch is a staple and frequent visitor to garden bird tables, its just they are not quite the stars.

A beer analogy would be Old Speckled Hen. Once the beer of choice of many, its a good beer but not quite a great beer and has been surpassed by many new more interesting arrivals to the bar. The Old Speckled Un as it was originally known, was the forerunner of guest beers from the late 1980's and set the playing field for later arrivals. Its easily dismissed now by beer enthusiasts and those who don't appreciate the commitment to the beer market of the brand owners Greene King. A bit like the Chaffinch, a little under appreciated.

Magpie  & Hobgoblin
The Magpie is a big noisy bird, strikingly marked, its also a very loyal bird as couples bond for life. Their reputation for thieving and bullying smaller birds is probably warranted. When it visits the bird table everything else disappears, including our cats! They muscle in, will empty a meal worm feeder in less than an hour then pose as if to say, come on, I'm not frightened of anything. You cant help admiring the Magpie, for all its cheek and bravado.

The beer analogy would be Hobgoblin. Just like the Magpie, it has a band of loyal enthusiasts and it shouts from the shelves with its quirky label design. Its a big bold beer as well, not subtle, its full flavoured, raisins and toffee the marked flavours. Hobgoblin always stands proud on the shelves and bars, nothing to hide, as if to say, that's who I am, if you don't like me I don't really care, I'm here stay. There are better beers out there with far more complexity of flavour, but none-the-less, Hobgoblin will be a regular part of many a BBQ or party over the summer months.

I hope you enjoyed my ramblings here, its just for fun and not mean't to upset anyone. Other suggested garden bird and analogy beer combinations would be as follows.

Raven & Guinness
Goldfinch & Thornbridge Jaipur
Blue Tit & Fursty Ferret
Blackbird & Fullers London Porter
Robin & Adnams Ghostship

Sunday, 11 March 2018

CAMRA - the winds of change

So at last the day is here and members of CAMRA are being asked to vote on the biggest fundamental change to their objectives since their inception in the early 1970's. CAMRA has done a fantastic job over the years to help preserve cask ale, breweries and pubs but the market is changing so its only right that CAMRA itself considers change.

I am a member of CAMRA and have been so for many years in full agreement of their beliefs, but my view now is that CAMRA needs to move with the times, looking to the future to be around as an effective body supporting the beer industry for many years ahead. Therefore, I for one will be voting for change and I'd urge other CAMRA members to have their say and cast a vote likewise.

The biggest change for me is the move away from being totally committed to preserve and promote cask ale to a body that now speaks for all beer, cider and perry drinkers. This includes beers that are in keg or can format served with a sediment or cloudy. I applaud this move but would challenge and ask why they do not extend this to all keg, can and bottled beer, whether its a sediment or clear beer? The consumer wants to enjoy good quality beer and are they really worried how the CO2 is delivered in their beer or how its dispensed?

I also think the old adage, keep your friends close and your enemies even closer is a good one - its easier to influence something if you are part of it rather than trying to do it from the outside, so to promote all good quality beer, including all formats of keg, can or bottle would seem right to me. If CAMRA want to preserve cask, then they really need to fully embrace the keg format as well. The danger of ignoring the craft world is that it will happen without them and the rise of craft beer festivals, where beers are seen as exciting and innovative will have more appeal than the traditional CAMRA run events.

There are other changes. To promote and protect pubs and clubs as social centres and part of the UK's cultural heritage is admirable. Last week we saw the "Beast from the East" overpower the UK's normal weather patterns and snow fell across most of the country. Where did everyone head too? Strangely, many pubs were full as communities came together, to share the experience of the unusual conditions together. Without pubs and clubs this would not have been possible. Its a small example, but relevant to the time of year.

Another change is to increase the recognition of responsible and moderate social drinking which makes perfect sense. There is quite a threat here to the future of beer and cider. Everyday we hear of the health issues, both positive and negative of drinking beer. The danger is that beer becomes like cigarettes and we see a rise in taxes and other restrictions on the market. This may drive prices higher and make it harder for brewers to promote their brands. It is good that CAMRA have recognised this concern and are promoting the benefits of moderate drinking and representing those people who enjoy alcohol at this level.

So, my thoughts are that CAMRA members must vote for change, without them the movement risks becoming stale and no longer relevant. Of course the enjoyment of cask ale will always be foremost in many members thoughts and there is nothing wrong that, its great that cask ale still has many champions to preserve it. Finally, I don't expect the changes to be welcomed by everyone if they do get voted through, but please all do try to make them work, CAMRA is too good to lose and that could be what's at risk.