Posts Tagged Craft Beer

Elysian and AB-InBev. Brewers not Nazis

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The betrayed are out in force on twitter. “Goodbye Elysian” “Last time I EVER drink Elysian Beer”

“Traitors!”  “Sell outs!”

It was as if the founder of Greenpeace had just joined ACME petrol-chemicals Inc. and personally dumped toxic, radioactive waste directly on a whale’s head while laughing maniacally!

I realise that the craft beer is more than just great beer, carefully brewed by bearded artisans in railway arches and barns behind a pub. It has become a political movement that reflects the campaigns against the 1%, a liquid counterpart to ‘farm to fork’ and locavore groups.

The best breweries not only make the best beer, but often become successful. They need to expand and become …… Big! Big is not a word that fits well with an industry that started as home-brewers selling their liquid gold as a nano or micro brewery. The reality is that as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are available around the world and Boston Beer Company required the Brewers Association to change their definition of ‘Craft Beer’  to maintain their good-for-marketing label. The other side of this success coin is that those that are a manageable mid-size, and enjoy cult status as well as high desirability have and will become targets for takeover. This is not new or exclusive to the brewing industry. T’was ever thus.

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The accusation that owners Dick Cantwell and David Buhler have ‘sold out’ is tough. If you had built a business from scratch, worked evenings and weekends, cleaned out lauter tuns and fermentation tanks in the dead of night, drove from store to bar to sell your beer when no one was particularly interested, you might be tempted too. They can now keep on brewing, inventing great beers in their own brewery and know that their retirement and family are covered financially until the day they ‘call time’ on this mortal plane. Isn’t that the point of working hard all our lives?

You may be disgusted by their actions, and I am very disappointed, having visited Seattle many times and visited their bar and looked forward to every release that made it to the bar I managed in Vancouver. I do however, understand them.

Craft beer has evolved into quasi political movement, but not everyone is on-board with that!

So, boycott the beer if you must. (You’ll be missing out on some great brews!). Tell people of your disappointment. There is no point spouting hatred to the level that social media seems to propagate.

They are brewers not Nazis.

 

 

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Gipsy Hill Brewing – A chat with the brewers

GHBC LogoHidden away in a corner of southeast London, within stumbling distance of the famous Crystal Palace mast lies one of the newer additions to the burgeoning craft beer scene. Gipsy Hill Brewing Co. managed to find a street unencumbered by a micro-brewery, so moved in to realise their dream of hosing down coppers and fermenters, wrangling temperamental bottling lines and figuring out a cask storage conundrum.

Predictably another brewery moved in on the other side of the industrial estate moments later, such is the growth of the industry. In fact by the time I publish this there will probably be another one signing their lease and taking delivery of shiny new fermenters!

Starting your own brewery might be the dream of many, but the few that make it a reality know the level of commitment and hard work it takes, and Charlie, Sam and Simon are no exceptions. The whole time I was there  Simon did not stop hosing, cleaning and prepping the brewery equipment; Sam was at his desk, jabbing at a laptop while Charlie volunteered to chat for a while ….a good a reason as any to take a break from the daily toil of the brewery

 

 

 

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Charlie from Gipsy Hill Brewing Co.

I asked Charlie how the brewery got started and how they all met. Charlie had been working as a journalist, and when that path didn’t lead to total fulfilment he got his interest in brewing. After a part time job working at Five Points Brewing in Hackney he met Sam and they set about looking for a place to brew. This led them to my neighbourhood in Gypsy Hill. Simon then joined the crew with a wealth of brewing experience from Dorset’s Piddle Brewery

Charlie showed me the copper and fermenters, explaining that the equipment did not come cheap! Probably a blessing as I recently heard of a brewpub that bought a cheap copper boiler from China, it has now been condemned and the owner is left with a bill for buying a new one!

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The Gipsy Kings – Simon, Charlie and Sam

 

 

The two core beers so far is the Southpaw amber ale – an American style , with a healthy addition of stateside happiness but good malt body and the 3.8% Beatnick pale ale, a very light amber, refreshing hoppy beer, again taking some influence from the North American version, but at a very sessionable strength.

Sessionable is a popular term at this brewery as the original idea for an element of individuality amongst a growing field of new-wave breweries is to make beers of great flavour at the not so great strength of under 4.5% ABV. Charlie hits a note with me with his reasons. Having young children, like myself, drinking high alcohol beers that seem to be popping up everywhere from craft breweries all day, and getting falling down drunk is not an option! Those hangovers of our child-free past could be tended all day with peaceful tv marathons and delivery pizza.

Not any more.

Timmy’s got football at 8.30, It’s Jenny’s best friend’s birthday party, and we have no present yet! The baby is screaming and it’s not even 6 am. It’s a Sunday and, it’s right about now I’m grateful that I could drink a few pints that taste great and not turn me into an unwilling extra for an episode of “The Walking Dead”. There’s another reason too, beers at over 5% ABV enter into a different tax bracket and making session strength beers keeps the cost down.

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Firkin Tetris anyone?

 

There is soon to be an addition to the two brews so far, perhaps a darker style, Charlie hints, but he’s not sure yet. Seasonal beers are mentioned too, but it seems that it is too early commit to a style just now, but keep your eyes open, I’m sure something will be appearing at a pub near you.

That is where the majority of the beer goes; pubs that is. Whether it is near you is another question. I asked where their beer can be found and they are doing well at many local southeast London pubs, especially around Crystal Palace, Dulwich and Norwood. Their bottles are available at a few independent shops too, and they seem to be a favourite of some London beery pop-ups so look out, it’s early days but they’re certainly one local South London brewery to look out for.

All three are now full time and had a desire to turn their enthusiasm for great beer into a full time career and the ups and downs of self employment. The 15 barrel  (25 Hectolitre) brewery often operates at full capacity, and they have the enviable problem of finding enough cooler space for the popular casks,  and the growth of the craft beer market bodes well for those that can survive the first wobbling steps and evermore competitive arena.

Charlie cites influences as diverse as Stone Brewing from San Diego in California to his alma mater Five Points from Hackney in London, but their beers so far are not trying to be copies, but exhibiting the style and flavour that they want to make.

Despite competition from all the freebies that larger traditional real ale breweries hand pubs and the marketing of more established craft breweries, Charlie sees the expansion of quality beer over the mass produced fizzy yellow liquid as a positive for all craft breweries. The success of Camden and Meantime open doors for the smaller breweries in pubs that a couple of years ago would never had given breweries like Gipsy Hill a chance. He feels that there is room for all the new wave of breweries, and I hope so too; the rapid growth of breweries needs to be matched by growth of consumers for all the plethora of  great little breweries like this to succeed.

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Judge a beer by the colour of its glass?

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On returning to live back in the UK, one of the treats in store for me was to have a few bottles of some of the beers that I had loved in the era before the ‘Craft Beer Revolution’. These are beers that some young hipsters in East London might turn their nose up at these days, but in my view are as tasty and drinkable as any put out at £3.60 a bottle in a stall in Borough Market! They might be seen as old-fashioned, traditional or just plain boring, but these are the ones that I grew up with, and offered flavour and a certain ‘made with love and care’ feel at a time when there was not the plethora of crafty options that the modern drinker has at their disposal.

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As I found myself in a large supermarket, looking at shelves of bottles, lined up like soldiers waiting for inspection, I noticed that a regular tipple of mine (one I had in cask at my local in Twickenham more often than in bottle) was now in a clear bottle. 20 years ago, you would be hard pushed to find many beers in anything other than the traditional and trusty brown bottle.

Even Heineken and Carlsberg knew their beer tasted better from brown glass.

Then the marketing people took over.

‘The public want to see the colour of the beer’ they say.

‘Green is the colour of a premium European lager’ they chorus.

‘Great packaging will help you sell more’ they promise.

So what do I have against clear and green glass?

I hate the odour of a skunk.

Those readers outside of my former home of Canada or the USA may be unfamiliar with the incredibly musky, ammonia punch of squashed skunk on a road, but the smell is not nice. British readers might imagine a tomcats spray of musk and urine, and then let it fester a while with some sulphur to get some idea.

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This is a similar smelling chemical that is released (in thankfully smaller doses than an attack from an angry skunk) when ultra-violet light is allowed to react with  iso-alpha-acids present in hops creating a compound called 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol (MBT for short!)

The result for the less scientific among us is known variously as ‘lightstruck’, ‘sunstruck’ or just simply ‘skunked’. I have seen the term ‘catty’ used as well, but it all means one thing: The beer in your hand may well be off as was my bottle from Badger beers (Hall and Woodhouse). A good pint of bitter in the pub is transformed in clear bottle to a stinky smelling and tasting beer that has sat in clear glass under the glare of sunlight or the UV strip lights in a store. Green and clear glass let UV light in and brown glass (the darker the better)  largely keeps it out. It’s that simple.

So here is an appeal to brewers, marketing managers and drinkers alike:

Say NO to clear and green glass, show us some respect and do your best to ensure the beer that passes my lips is as close as humanly possible to the one that the brewer intends me to drink.

 

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Beer Store Focus: Market Row Wines, Brixton

Dave-Front-ShotWrangler Rating:

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Having moved from what I consider the centre of Canadian craft brewing, Vancouver, back to my old home in London, I quickly missed the range of cutting edge brews that were available in a number of stores around town. The British supermarket choice is fair at best but can’t compare with the specialist retailer I have been spoilt with for the last 6 years or so.

On a slow day searching for new employment opportunities I took a break and had a stroll around the fantastic Brixton Village and Market Row, the indoor arcade sections of Brixton Market. I came across a tiny wine merchant in the Market Row arcade and saw a number of interesting looking beers in the window.

Market Row Wines is run and owned by Dave Simpson who, like me and what seems like half the British wine trade, used to work for high street chain Oddbins. After having a browse and choosing one of each from the local Brixton Brewery range (reviews later in the week) Dave found time to have a chat. His wine and beer selection are squeezed into an area smaller than many living rooms, and as a former manager of wine and beer stores, I can only imagine how tough it is to shelve and store all that stock!

What Market Row Wines lacks in size it more than makes up for in quality. The fairly modest selection of 40 to 50  beer focuses on London craft breweries with a few other interesting choices from further afield.  Apart from the local Brixton Brewery beers, there are selections from the Bermondsy based Partizan Brewing, Camden Town, Wild Beer, Pressure Drop and the darlings of British craft brewing The Kernel Brewery amongst others.  Dave certainly knows his beer and gives honest and friendly advice and recommendations. I asked him how the craft beer selection is selling, and he enthusiastically explained that it just keeps growing and the only problem is keeping on top of new breweries and new beers that the ever demanding current generation of customer desires. The world of new wave brewing moves quickly and the retailer has to be one step ahead of the game to keep the eager “latest thing” obsessed consumer satiated.

If you live in the area or find yourself visiting the fabulous Brixton Market, then make your way to Market Row Wines for nice break from the norm, as they offer not only a nice selection of interesting beer but some hard to find wines too. If you find you don’t know what to get, don’t be shy and ask for some advice – it’ll be well worth it.

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Is there such a thing as “Craft Beer”

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What do these beers have in common?

 

Sharp’s Doombar

Goose Island IPA

Worthington White Shield IPA

Granville Island ‘Thirsty Farmer’ Saison

Leffe Brune

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The answer is that they are all delicious, well made beers by individual brewers who seem to care about the product that they make. Oh they also happen to be owned by two of the largest international mega brewery companies in the world; companies that most ‘craft beer’ fans treat with contempt, and are unlikely to be ordering any of their more visibly ‘industrial’ brands anytime soon. Those two companies are Molson Coors and AB Inbev. AB InBev are known for probably the most famous brand of beer in the world – Budweiser. Molson Coors own the  ‘silver bullet’ (coors light to you and me) as well as the top selling domestic range of lagers in Canada from North Americas oldest continually operating brewery – Molson.

These companies do not make craft beer, surely.. according to the (American) Brewers Association and now the guys at Brewdog, craft beer can only be made by a craft brewery, and AB InBev and Molson Coors are definitely NOT craft breweries.

James Watt and Martin Dickie have tried to define craft beer in the UK because,no definition exists as such. They are looking for SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) , CAMRA and the community as a whole to come together and define what ‘craft beer’ means in the UK. They point to the US and the Brewers Association’s (BA) definition as an example of how the US ‘defines’ it.  The roots of the BA lie in representing small brewers, but now the maximum output per year for members is 6 million US barrels (7.04  million hectolitres). This would be one huge brewery, hardly ‘small’. The Brewdog boys think 500,000 hectolitres annually is a suitable size limit for a ‘craft brewery’. SIBA (formerly Small Independent Brewers Association) reserve full membership for breweries who produce 200,000 hectolitres or less (above this then only associate membership is permitted) alongside provisions ensuring full independence from the big boys.

This brings me to my main point – does size matter?eoc_growler

There is no guarantee that small breweries, by anyone’s definition, whether that be 7 million hectoiltres or a nano-brewery producing less that 10 hectolitres annually will produce beer that is any good, let alone be defined as ‘craft’

For me it is about the beer, and its ingredients. Adjuncts seem to be important to many people when working out a definition. Are they used to enhance or reduce flavour? asks Brewdog and the BA. A brewer that uses rice (such as Budweiser) would argue that it does enhance the flavour by giving the beer a clean crisp taste that an all malted barley beer cannot give.  Craft beer fans would say it reduces flavour to the point where the drinker can barely taste anything.

It tastes great, but is it a craft beer?

It tastes great, but is it a craft beer?

So where does it leave us on defining what is and isn’t a craft beer? Well, one man’s craft beer could be another’s mainstream swill, so who am I or you to define it for everyone else?  I think that giant megabrew companies can own brands or companies that can make craft beer; the five at the top of the article are examples where they have bought up great breweries that produced great beer and still do.

Can the same beer made with exactly the same recipe in the same brewery by a great brewer one day be considered “craft brewed” and then as the shares are bought up by Coors Molson or AB InBev suddenly be industrialised swill? The beer has remained the same, just the ownership has changed!

The answer is that there is always going to be a large grey area that may well be impossible to define, and to try and put hard and fast rules may well be a fools errand. I thing it is worth defining “Independent breweries” and perhaps size as well. ‘Regional, Small, Micro and Nano’ might be worth defining if only to inform for the consumer, as well as qualifying for particular beer festivals that feature for example, just nano-breweries or just independent breweries.

Pigeon-holing a broad term like “Craft Beer” is trying to define different peoples perception of an ethos, quality, flavour, ‘honesty’ and artisanal-ness among other terms. It is not possible in my opinion and we should only try to define what is quantifiably definable, and I think size and independence as well as declaring a list of ingredients is what we should be aiming towards as they are far more useful and interesting things for the drinker to know as he or she sups on a tasty brew.

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