Paddling in New Zealand craft

Beer is reflective of its country and beer in New Zealand’s no different. Telling it how it is, refreshingly honest but accessible to everyone is how New Zealand and its beer came across to me during a month long trip. There’s much to learn in NZ for UK brewers and pub operators and still much to be proud of about UK pubs and beers. For drinkers it’s a great trip.

Flights totalling nearly 24 hours mean it’s important to maintain discipline to avoid horrendous jet lag so no alcohol for me – until that Pavlovian response (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference to NZ meringue) when the trolley wheels could be heard. I’ll have a beer please, and out popped a can of ABC Stout from Singapore (Heineken’s Asia Pacific Brewery who also own Monteith’s in NZ) – no % alcohol labelling so it must have been re-hydrating. My walking mates and I have developed a theory that anything 3.8% or below is sufficiently close to water as to be re-hydrating.

2015-02-03 12.56.53

Can’t say no

A bit like tinnies on a train, it’s permissible for drinking standards to drop on a plane but a few ABCs, and that NZ staple, Speight’s on the last leg were perfectly acceptable ways of whiling away the hours. Speight’s, and many of the big NZ ‘craft-promoted’ names (Mac’s and Emerson’s), are part of the giant Lion Nathan enterprise based in Oz but Japanese-controlled. It remains a puzzle to me that the beer brand giants across the world (often managed by Brits) now seem capable of nurturing craft and traditional brands but in the UK only seem to neglect them. I expect that we will see some significant craft brewery acquisitions in the UK by the big players over the next few years unless they continue to be lost in their world of big tasteless keg brands?

Back to the beers – off to a mate’s place and an opportunity to nurse a Mac’s Great White wheat beer. Decent beers, an interesting range and readily available in all good stores, Mac’s became a standard until the great campervan disaster. Mac’s bottles have those ring pull tops that always seem such a good idea. Want to create the aroma of a brewery in your camper? Why not drive along a bumpy road and soon your floor will be awash with beer as the tops go flying. Those crown corks are there for a reason.

2015-02-08 18.19.31

Craft at the bleeding edge – must be the saison for it

Off to Hallertau Brewery, north of Auckland for food and craft beers. A few regular beers – pilsner, pale ale, red and plenty of specials (including blacks, porters and bitters) this seemed to be the craft beer theme for the trip.  With the tightening of drink drive legislation in England & Wales seeming inevitable, there are useful lessons for UK craft breweries from Hallertau and its ilk. Reasonably close to a large population centre but remote enough to require car transport, it’s picked up on the wine estate trick of food, drink and sometimes live music. Not fine dining but good NZ classics and paddles of beer made for a decent evening for all including the driver and well-behaved kids. Surely an ideal approach for someone like Thornbridge to increase the brewery tour spend and widen its brand positioning?

2015-02-04 18.02.31

Hallertau’s finest

2015-02-04 19.34.10

Close to the action

Supermarkets regularly offered Mac’s, Epic and Tuatara with Monteith’s and Emerson’s in some regions. Tuatara’s APA and Pilsner were ideal for those warm evenings – plenty of hop flavours but subtly done, worth savouring and good with ‘fush n chups’. Sadly I failed to get round to tasting enough of their range. Epic, whether pale ale or lager, to my taste seemed hops for hops sake. Epic’s description of their Pale Ale, “in fact there are 23 (hops) crammed into this bottle. Many brewers would call that ‘insane’. We call it flavour.”, reminded me of the PR obsessive end of the UK craft beer spectrum.

2015-02-11 19.36.24

A lizard of a beer

On to Wellington and its chilled-out waterfront and the national museum. Typical Kiwi welcome in the museum, “here’s a map, go and see if you can get lost and break a few things. If you lose him he’ll be in Mac’s next door.” Imagine that at the V&A? Mac’s brewery tap was a grand place for a paddle with Mac’s Gold lager and Great White achieving favoured status. Again beer and food was the norm for craft beer customers.

2015-02-12 19.09.30

Halves don’t count

On the east coast of South Island we rolled into Oamaru and parked up the campervan on the edge of the harbour, close to the town’s Victorian Quarter – grainstores and their like, strangely reminiscent of Burton’s brewery buildings. Life feels good when you realise you’re parked only 200 yards from Scott’s craft brewery. Sunday morning farmers’ market and a few beers on offer at Scott’s including guests. Scott’s had the usual NZ craft range but also a proper hand pump for a guest on their brewery tap bar. The Twisted Hop Brewery specialises in English-style cask conditioned real ales.

I’d like to tell you more about their Challenger Bitter but it was snaffled by Mrs TWM before I’d taken more than a sip. A brewery to look out for if you’re after a taste of Blighty. Like many businesses, Twisted Hop had to relocate after the Christchurch earthquake. The city still reels from the commercial aftershocks of the earthquakes – damaged buildings still subject to endless arguments between owners and insurers and to us it seemed difficult to spend the tourist dollar.

The Botanical Gardens near the centre of the city was an obvious place of safety for those escaping collapsing buildings in the CBD and it remains a tranquil haven for many. On the last day of our trip I enjoyed a Three Boys IPA in the café next to the glasshouses. Christchurch still has much to do but even craft brewers can play their part in raising spirits.

2015-03-03 13.51.47

Well done boys

The beer scene in NZ felt less exclusive than the craft and real ale camps in Britain.’ Want to drink decent beer, you’re welcome’ seems to be the general approach. It’s no surprise that the beer consumers’ association is called SOBA – gently irreverent and without pretention is the Kiwi way. The result is a bigger market open to all. Even small towns often had a small pub cum craft brewery as an alternative to the traditional ‘hotel’ bar in the town that I suspect was a home for the old six o’clock swill.

2015-02-20 13.16.46

Ready for a beer mate

As someone who doesn’t like their beer saturated with hops I’d still recommend New Zealand – the choice of beers is exceptional, all topped up by great scenery and the friendliest of people. I probably missed out 90% of the craft beers available in NZ but for what it’s worth Three Boys IPA was my best of the trip but a can or two of Speight’s after 19km on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing wasn’t far behind.

Advertisements

Clive of India Pale Ale

We embarked on a pre-Christmas dads and lads outing to St Albans’ pubs – it was difficult to work out who was leading who astray. Enough to say that any evening that starts with winter ales, has a middle of pub carol singing with St Albans’ Morris folk and ends with a kebab is unlikely to result in much erudition. However, somewhere in the mists of drinking, some of us (i.e. Clive and myself), discussed the problem of IPA. At The Goat pub the dads had gone for Redemption’s Big Chief IPA and a couple of the lads had chosen Well’s Eagle IPA (or whatever they are calling it this week).

Whilst Clive would even ask for a blood transfusion to have added Citra hops I’m more of a roasted malts man but we can agree on a beer needing some taste and complexity. The Well’s IPA tasted of – well it didn’t have a taste to be frank, whereas the Big Chief was full of flavour including some citrus stuff but so much more than a ‘we’ve bunged in a load of Citra hops to make a strong beer that’s like alcoholic bitter lemon’.  Anyway pity was taken on the errant lads and extra pints of Big Chief were purchased to much acclaim.

The essence of my complaint about IPA is that as a description it’s now about as much use as teats on a bull. A Google search has over 680,000 results for “India Pale Ale” reflecting the fact that it has become a meaningless term of no use to the beer drinker e.g. someone explain black pale ale to me. But in a way, worse than meaningless given that it’s become a label used to sell any old (or even new craft) sludge.

In my early drinking career Worthington’s White Shield was a good bottle-conditioned standby in Burton’s pubs and a useful finish to a night when another full pint was unnecessary. It was a classic IPA (I mean to say was) and today it remains a ‘proud member’ of the Molson Coors’ Global Portfolio…in fact they’re so proud of it coming from Burton on Trent (sic) they even illustrate the Worthington’s White Shield web page with that beautiful corner of Burton otherwise known as Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire. Marketing muppets.

Anyway enough of my anti-Coors ranting, I don’t ask for much, so please dear brewers if you label a beer as an IPA make sure it tastes of something, that it’s more complex than an alcoholic bitter lemon and remember its origins as a Pale Ale.

OK pub, wrong gear

You know how it is…it’s only a short stroll across the fields to the next village, the weather forecast is fine so I’ll go in jeans – amateur walker you cry, he’s in the wrong trousers, Grommit. It gets gloomy and then rains. Why do jeans become like a boa constrictor on your legs as the rain drips incessantly off the bottom of a jacket, just as I’m trying to traverse a field where the horses have decided to congregate by the kissing-gate. Why do animals always gather around a stile?

A few purchases at Cunnington’s Lighting Centre (the wonderful antithesis of multiple retailing), bulk sausage buying at the butchers over the river Lea and then I might as well have a pint at the re-opened Swan. A swan not a phoenix, although it did rise from the ashes of a fire in 2013. It’s a pub that worked hard to keep its community links alive through various guises during re-building, despite the sloth-like UK planning system.

As I opened the door I realised how important the ‘grey pound’ is to the lunchtime trade of a village pub – I felt young again. A good choice of beers and the Bitter & Twisted from Harviestoun perfect for a thirst. The beer revival has spread to the extent that a standard village local will often have a decent range of beers and keep them in good condition. All in all a good pub working hard at serving the local community.

pub drugs

The Wrong Gear

However every pub should think twice about informal notices – particularly about the wrong gear. The old folk in the pub were probably on plenty of drugs but it’s easy to make something appear wrong if you give out the wrong message. A bit like giving lines to a whole class when the teacher knows who did it.

Anyway time to head home and a good job I was riding Shanks’ pony otherwise the gate could have meant a dismount. A drizzly walk back home and low and behold the sun starts to shine. Oh BBC and your 20% chance of rain…

bridleway

Shetland pony riders only

The Perfect Pub: Mission Statement – coming soon

Who wants to be a millionaire – well you can’t, but how about taking on a pub as a step to untold riches? I’m always in awe of those good folk who are prepared to serve whilst the rest of us enjoy ourselves. They have to be a bit different to everywhere else, the beer and food can’t have an off day and the landlord needs to make a living without it seeming to be just a business (see final paragraph).

My recent experience is all on the customers’ side of the bar but as a child (see earlier post on my granddad’s pub) I saw the hard-knock life that a landlord’s world entailed. Always running the bar, doing the books after the evening session and then getting a nap after lunchtime closing. A very tough life on all fronts – physical, mental and metaphysical. Not surprising that my grandma could lift 8 one pint jugs in her hands. And in a world of cash and dodgy practices no one could be trusted to stand in. Their only night off I ever remember was the annual Licensed Victuallers ‘do’.

guinness

Granddad’s cufflinks: Perfect for the Licensed Victuallers

Since those days technology has improved the landlord’s lot but pub going has declined as legislation and other consumer choices have kicked in. However there still seem to be enough people who see a pub as their lifelong working dream – perhaps in part due to the joy of sitting the other side of the bar. Sadly I still stumble across pubs where you know within minutes that the new ‘mine hosts’ are ill-suited to running a successful pub.

I can’t see the long-term benefit to an operator of taking on lessees who won’t be successful but I guess the pubco’s will be even more keen to encourage the ‘dreamers with money’ if market rent only becomes an option. The pubcos websites still try and sell the dream to potential lessees and the Morning Advertiser featured pubs seem like nirvana rather than a bottomless pit to pour money down. A recent ad listed a village pub in Derbyshire that had ‘good potential for commuter trade’. I suspect it’s never seen a commuter in its life. Now That’s What I Call Marketing No 666.

Of course it’s not all gloom and doom – there are still pubs where I can walk through the door and all is well with the world. Like many I find it ironic that Wetherspoons brand-grabbed George Orwell’s ‘Moon under Water’ but I still believe in the search for the perfect pub. Interesting that the attributes described by Orwell haven’t changed a great deal, for some of us, in nearly 70 years.

On a stroll around St Albans with my mate Greedy we pondered as to why one pub works and another one doesn’t quite cut the mustard. And why is it almost an instant feeling as you open the door? Last night’s winners were the Farriers Arms and The Six Bells.

Open the door of the Farriers and it feels good to be in from the cold. Welcoming humour from the landlord, acknowledgment by the regulars and a solid pint of Betty Stogs from Skinners isn’t a bad start. It has that essence of the community pub – comfortable but unfussy, nooks and crannies for local groups and even an outside lav. And gentle encouragement from the landlord to have another.

The Six Bells, busy even on a Monday night and offering a good range of beers including a richly malted porter from the local 3 Brewers . The porter was a bit like a liquorice whorl and treacle toffee on bonfire night. The Six Bells is warm, friendly and the lighting is just right. It has that feeling of being loved and well run. I’m sure everyone is running in the background but all feels calm on my side of the bar.

As I said the pub magic trick is to make it seem it’s not a business but sometimes they can’t help themselves. The Old Chequers at Gaddesden Row has new owners. Their shiny website has no mention of beer but it proudly announces that the Mission Statement is coming soon. How did you miss that one off your list George Orwell?

Village pubs – do they make a community?

After a stroll through Rutland on an October ‘summer’s day’ we arrived at Seaton, a picture-postcard village not far from the magnificent Welland Viaduct with its 80 or so arches. The George & Dragon at Seaton is a modern day perfect village pub – good food, excellent beer (malty Bateman’s plus a local Grainstore ale) and well aware of its community role. Whilst food’s important to their success they are very happy to see people who just want a pint.

The pub’s got the builders in to add bedrooms but that didn’t interrupt normal service and a very friendly welcome. Of course like any successful village pub it knows its business model has to combine the local village folk as well as attracting customers from further afield. It’s a good base for a walking weekend – plenty of footpaths including the now dinosaur-free Jurassic Way.

Whilst enjoying my pint of Bateman’s XXXB I thought about the role of a pub in a village. The CAMRA ‘What’s Brewing’ for November 2014 carried an article from an academic researcher (‘Just like beer, pubs are good for you’) suggesting that, “simply speaking, opportunities for communal initiatives would be extremely reduced, if not inexistent, in these parishes without pubs.”

I’m all in favour of pubs in villages and no doubt a well-run pub is a positive factor in attracting some in-comers as are shops and schools. However I’m always wary of research where the analysis ‘shows’ the results the researchers want to hear, i.e. pubs make a village community and therefore we should legislate accordingly. A strong correlation between the presence of pubs and community activity does not necessarily mean that pubs are the determining factor in community cohesion. Is there anything else that drives community activity and delivers business to a pub? I think it’s people that make the difference.

Many villages, particularly in commuting distance from major towns and cities, have become an escape route for the affluent middle class. For example, the presence of ‘Wealthy countryside commuters’ and ‘Better-off villagers’ in CACI’s Acorn consumer segmentation shows how the older affluent groups use villages as an alternative to the suburbs. These affluent demographic groups have a high propensity for eating out and  community activities – fuel for both community cohesion and financially successful village pubs. (NB I used to work for CACI.)

Like bank branches (see the latest government requirement to ignore financial viability), pubs and community cohesion depend on the local population in term of its size and demographics. In my view, the idea that pubs provide the magic ingredient for a successful village, or any other community, is merely a comfort to those who want to preserve any pub whatever the circumstances. As Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville said, “it’s economy, stupid”. If the right people aren’t there in numbers it won’t work – preserve it and they will come doesn’t work.

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

A week away in Madeira got me thinking of desert island beers – what would I want washed up on the shore in perfect nick. That’s what fizzy lager and dodgy local spirits does to a man, you start hallucinating about favourite beers of the year. Of course, it’s not just the beer – the people, the journey and the pub all add up to the perfect pint.

For me it was a summer stroll across the Hertfordshire countryside to The Strathmore Arms and their ever changing roll-call of beers. Good company on the walk, decent weather and a thirst to be quenched set the tone for an excellent session. When the locals, with a glint in their eyes, told me my choice wasn’t much cop I guessed the American Red from Liverpool Craft might be worth a try. I’ll leave others to pontificate at RateBeer but on this day its caramel taste and refreshing bitterness was fine by me. So far it’s my beer of the year edging out Marlow’s excellent Rebellion IPA at the Cross Keys, Abbeydale’s treacly Brimstone at The Three Stags’ Heads and Harvey’s Best at the late lamented Gunmakers. (Thoughts welcome on your beers of the year.)

As I’ve written before, I’m a beer drinker looking for traditional bitter rather than trying to chase summer blondes. Strange then that my favourite is from a small brewery playing the ‘edgy’ craft beer card. Is this a forewarning of how the beer landscape might look in a few years? Who will be the winners and losers?

For those of us who remember the 1970s and 80s, the pubs of the independent family breweries (IFBs) were often the oases in a desert of tasteless keg – they were our real ale heroes, Young’s in London and Adnams in Suffolk. Could we be heading to a beer future where we only have our memories of those days and their beers? The production efficiency of new craft breweries, the issue of Progressive Beer Duty and a matter of taste may bring the downfall of some who kept the real ale flag a-fluttering.

Those of us from outside of the Shoreditch beer vibe still go weak at the knees when we catch sight of an old-fashioned tower brewery – to many it seems the epitome of an independent family owned brewery. For years it’s been a guarantee of local pubs with a decent pint. The likes of Hook Norton, Harvey’s and Samuel Smith’s have moved with the times but they retain a marketing image founded on traditional values. Surely on that basis, independent family brewers are set up for years of success? Maybe not.

On a tour of Thornbridge’s highly efficient beer factory on an industrial estate outside Bakewell we were told that the next batch of stainless steel would give them more capacity than Adnams on a much smaller footprint. Whilst many traditional brewery buildings are fitted-out with the latest equipment it has to be difficult to achieve similar sterile efficiencies in their often listed buildings. Chances are that a new craft brewery can achieve a much higher production capacity relative to floorspace compared to many traditional brewers.

These infrastructure disadvantages are overlaid with the issues of the capacity limits in the Progressive Beer Duty regulations. According to Adnams, the small craft brewers are at a duty advantage of £55 per barrel compared to the IFBs producing in excess of 60,000 hectolitres. The government’s assistance to small brewers has disadvantaged the brewers that gave real ale a chance of survival.

It’s a difficult world – the family brewers are less efficient due to history, they’re suffering a financial disadvantage and then we come to taste. The growth in the beer market is in part due to those drinkers who want innovation, new tastes and individuality. Whilst many of the IFBs have started their own microbreweries (for example, Thwaites’ Crafty Dan) and one-off brews, they struggle to achieve the ‘edginess’ offered by the market positioning of the craft breweries. The IFBs will live or die by their traditional beers sometimes cherished by an older demographic. And in my view, for some IFBs such as McMullen, Palmers  and Robinsons, the blandness of their regular beers don’t offer enough to get today’s punters through the door. Between them there’s many a decent pub but that’s no longer enough.

So next time you’re knocking back a beer from the new craft kid on the block spare a thought for the heroes of the battle for real ale survival. Old infrastructure, tax disadvantages and a struggle to stand out from the crowded world of craft beer could mean we lose some brewery gems, or at best they go down the  pub-only road travelled by Young’s and Brakspear.

The Burton Snatch – marketing triumph and brand failure

As a Burton-born boy I now view from a ‘down south’ distance the marketing triumph that is Marston’s Pedigree and the corporate failure to manage the Draught Bass brand.

I grew up in a Burton world where roads were criss-crossed by the spider’s web of brewery railways, pubs seemed to be on every street corner and more than a few blokes had taken advantage of drinking beer at work. I thought every town had a smell of spent yeast and Marmite. And the joy of a summer holiday job with free beer in the canteen. It wasn’t just the workers – I remember having to carry a case of beer up to the Bass board meeting for ‘tasting’.

Time moved on and drinking choices in town became clear – Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, Marston’s Pedigree or Bass. Whether it was the choice of pubs or the taste of the beers, it’s lost in nostalgia but I’d hope I’d been able to recognise that Burton beers are not all the same. Pedigree to me is so sulphurous you might be drinking water from a volcanic lake, Burton Ale was too much for a session but Draught Bass was the business.

As I’ve said before it’s just my taste but if I’d had to predict a beer capable of national success as real ale became mainstream it would have been Bass. A great brand in the UK and abroad, perfect for a session and a superb traditional bitter taste. In Burton it even had a tower named after it – until Coors rode into town.

Where is it now? It’s a stand back in amazement moment when you see it on a bar. Too many times recently I’ve stared wistfully at that Bass triangle on the outside of a pub only to face the inevitable Doom Bar inside. It’s easy to say it’s not the same Bass taste anymore but there’s still a hint of what might have been when it’s gently supped. (Congratulations to the Shoulder at Barton for keeping a very good pint.)

From a business perspective Marston’s has done a superb job on placing Pedigree as one of the key contenders for a real ale national treasure. Its sponsorship of England cricket hits the perfect demographic, the advertising pulls gently on nationalistic heartstrings and then there’s the taste (oh well you can’t have it all). They started with product, some regional brand-strength and a growing market and they’ve achieved wonders.

On the other hand InBev had the national (even worldwide) Bass brand – the perfect session product for the only growth market in town and they’ve failed completely and utterly. On the AB InBev website Bass is categorised as a lowly ‘local champion’ and without a hint of irony they note that “the brand has had an incredible pedigree (my italics) for centuries”. The marketing maestros probably don’t even realise it is brewed by Marston’s these days.