Monday, 6 August 2018

The price of a pint

Today's headline news in the Guild of Beer Writers eshot was a story run by CAMRA relating to a YouGov survey on the topic of the price of a pint. (If you're a member you can see the story here.)

Here's the quote: "56% of people surveyed who expressed an opinion believe the price of a pint of beer in a pub in the UK is unaffordable." That's quite a lot of people, at first glance.

Of course, this raises quite a few questions with regards to the survey sample size etc. so here are the details on those particulars:

Total sample size was 2,070 adults, of which 1,473 expressed an opinion.
Fieldwork was undertaken between 6th-9th July 2018. 
The survey was carried out online. 
The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). 

The actual questions the YouGov survey asked was: “In your opinion, is the price of a pint of beer in a pub in the UK affordable or unaffordable, or is it about right? (Please select the option that best applies)”

In response, 45% said "fairly unaffordable" and 11% said "very unaffordable".

Affordability is quite an abstract concept, isn't it? In my experience as someone who's lived in extreme poverty and in relative comfort and all the incremental stages of debt, exhaustion and erratic spending in-between, things like pints come down to how much you value them. They're not essential - unless you have an addiction - and yet as part of our culture they're a central point of our social lives. Would I pay £4.50 for a pint of Fosters? No. Would I pay £4.50 for a pint of Inhaler? Get out of my way, I'm running to the pub to do that right now. Unfortunately, the number of pubs selling mass-produced beer at premium prices because they have to in order to pay their staff and keep the doors of their boozer open is increasing. Where can you go for a basic pint for pennies? Wetherspoon's. Budget high-street pubs like Wetherspoon's low prices have given people a skewed idea of how much beer costs. These two factors (among many, many others) are helping to encourage the idea that pubs are ripping punters off.

The ideology of the Great British Pint as a birthright makes the pint into something much greater than the sum of its parts. Here's where the idea of value starts to fork. For some, £3.50 for a pint - above the national average, according to the I paper - is a small price to pay for the enjoyment of good beer in good company. For others, its an affront to ask customers to pay a premium on a product that's part of their culture, and used to be much, much cheaper than that. Both responses come from people who love beer.

Recently I wrote about drinking in Blackburn for Ferment magazine and in it, there's a conversation I had in one of the town's newer pubs about the price of beer in a deprived town. £2.50 gets you a pint of locally brewed beer, and when money is tight, that's about the limit of what people will pay. People here talk about "London prices" when anything reaches £3.00. God forbid they ever see the price of third of a DDH special in Clitheroe.

Money's a touchy subject. The brewing scene in the UK is full of recipes as incredibly diverse and exciting as our population, but there will always be a barrier stopping many from trying them because of cost. It's a huge limitation to millions of people in this country. And that's not to say the brewers are at fault either. Producing beer independently is a costly business with very expensive ingredients, add to that the rates, taxes and other costs meted out to those brewing alcoholic beverages and you can end up with a product that's too expensive to shift in certain areas. Tell a person in a bar in Blackburn that a £5.20 pint is worth it because of the expensive hops used to create it and suggest that perhaps they have a half instead and you'll come off exclusionary and toffy-nosed. That's wine-speak. Whatever happened to a quiet pint at a pub on the corner of your road? Why is something that was as cheap as a can of pop now out of their price range? It's too long of an explanation to give at the bar. 

And that's another point. Hand-in-hand with the public perception of expensive beer comes the closure of pubs, which is a subject almost everyone enjoys getting passionate about. These issues are one and the same. People felt they could no longer afford to drink beer outside of their homes, so they stopped going to the pub. Pubs started closing - so people had to walk further to their local, and so they stopped going. Someone once told me they blamed the Millennium for the increase in people drinking at home. "People learned that throwing a party at home was cheaper than a night out. They found out that buying a slab of Bud was the cheapest way to get drunk. They found out they didn't need pubs anymore."

As sceptical as I am that this is all NY2K's fault, it's true that pub use has been in decline since then - although pub closures do seem to be slowing.

Critics are putting this down to the continued interest in "craft beer" and "craft gin". 

Which leads me to a different point.

People will complain about a pint that's £3.50. They will not complain about a gin and tonic that's £7.00. Independently brewed beer is a small-batch, artisan product packed with expensive man-hours and hidden penalties. However lovely it tastes, your favourite gin could be bulk-bought ethanol with herbs in it. Fight me.

If pints are unaffordable for the people who answered this survey question in the affirmative, I would like to know a little more. Where do they go out for a drink? Is their "local" so far away that a taxi ride home (or even a budget hotel stay) is included in the price of their beer? Have they given up drinking altogether due to the prohibitive cost? If wages were raised in line with inflation, would this make a difference to them? Do they just not really like beer enough to spend money on it? If the smoking ban was suddenly lifted, would value of drinking out in a pub be more worthwhile to them? How much would they be able to afford on a pint? Maybe after asking these questions, we'd be able to better understand why so many people aren't visiting pubs anymore. Perhaps we need to fund our own survey.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Manchester Union Lager - Launch

I'm early for everything. When I'm with my other half it doesn't matter so much because he's chronically tardy, but when I'm organising a trip by myself I'm meticulous about my ETA, like a retired Sergeant Major who can't shake the military out of their mannerisms. So, marching up Shudehill from Victoria Station, here I was arriving for an event a full 20 minutes early. The first one to arrive - always. My hosts for the evening were much more attentive than I hoped as I skulked in the shadows and they spotted me immediately, and welcomed me into the basement room of The Patron on Thomas Street where marketing materials had been laid out to announce the launch of Manchester Union Lager. I'm then led to the bar.

The shared dream of marketing professional Jamie Scahill, brewer Ian Johnson (formerly of Six O'Clock Beer) and director of Cave Direct Will Evans, Manchester Union Lager is something of an oddity. Manchester's railway arches and disused units are already crammed with independent breweries pumping out beers that taste amazing, win awards, and cause tourists to leave the sanctity of London and travel north. To stand out here, to be different, you need to do something nobody else is doing. Behind the bar, Will Evans pours me a heavy tankard of amber-gold lager and hands it to me with a genuine beamer of a smile. "You're the first to taste this - outside of us lot," he says, gesturing around the room at the people who helped make this beer happen. Sometimes being early has perks.

It's darker than I expected - almost the colour of Vienna lager. A little hazy too - a fact that's pointedly remarked on by both Will and Manchester Union Lager's brewer Ian Johnson. According to Will, they're filtering that out in a revised version of the beer which will be heading to market later this year.

On the nose (I learned that at the World Beer Awards), it's light and airy, tinted by what I always describe as a nourishing smell of malt (think Horlicks), with absolutely no diacetyl sweetness or metallic scents drifting through. Will explained that in finding the right recipe for this beer, he wanted to create a blend of Central European attributes, keeping the aspects he enjoyed, ditching the ones he didn't. For him, Czech butterscotch-sweetness wasn't desirable, and neither was the metallic scrape of pilsners from northern Germany.

"I wanted to create a beer that was balanced, above everything else. I wanted bitterness and maltiness - but not too much. I wanted the body and mouthfeel of Bohemian beers, but I wanted to add more depth, and a bit more swagger." - Will Evans, Manchester Union Lager

Tasting it, a big hit of malty mouthfeel demanded another sip, where my tastebuds then caught up with the bitterness Will was talking about. I cornered brewer Ian for some answers. He told me currently the beer is sitting at around 35 IBUs (smack bang in the middle of a German pilsner, right at the lower end of Bohemian) but they're considering taking it to 32 depending on feedback from drinkers. Personally, I hope they don't. The level of bitterness it's currently at plays off squarely with the light hoppiness they've chosen to run with - saaz for aroma, and Polish marynka for bittering - and with the hefty oomph of body I'm assured comes from decoction and decoction only. For me, the lack of sweetness which I was expecting from the colour came as a bit of surprise. An explanation of the flavours within helped me to understand what the beer was; essentially, their unique take on what a lager can be, but I wonder how many drinkers will care to dig deep enough to figure that out. In my opinion, they'll probably be too busy polishing off their pints. For a beer with such body it's refreshingly swiggable. To a lager drinker used to lighter, commercial styles, I feel like it's balanced enough to appeal, drawing you in with easy-drinkability before delivering a flavoursome smack in the mouth.

Jamie topped my glass up and I asked about the brewery. It's been three years in the making, and to use the hackneyed phrase "labour of love" here wouldn't just be lazy, it'd be true. Ian, Will and Jamie have spent those three years going over the details - water chemistry, recipe development, market research, location scouting, kit design and build - until they were happy to release their beer to the world. Well, Manchester.

Sourcing and installing the kit itself was one of the most difficult parts of the process, Will informs us via powerpoint presentation. Dead set on brewing via single decoction, they looked to manufacturers from Hungary to China to try and find a suitable kit... before finding exactly what they needed in Vince at Johnson Brewing Design in Bury. Designed and built locally, the whole steam brewery is now ready for its final stages of completion.

"Basically, we wanted to create a lager in Manchester for the people of Manchester to be proud of. Our mission statement is that we're not just another brewery. We're Manchester's only lager brewery - and that's all we'll ever brew. We brew lager with a Mancunian swagger." - Will Evans, Manchester Union Lager

Choosing to only brew lager is oddly rare in the UK. Despite lager making up 65% of all beer sales in the UK, drinkers are more likely than ever to choose a premium brand at the bar. Manchester's pubs are proud to offer the incredible selection of Mancunian beers to customers, but local lagers are nearly always brewed as one-offs, or special editions. What Manchester Union Lager hopes to achieve is unique - to brew one successful beer that will always be popular, and make it available only within the local area. Oh, and they're not doing cans. Ian told me in no uncertain terms that they're staying in kegs, served in their branded glassware (the style of which by happy coincidence is called a "Howard Mancunian.") "We'll maybe try bottles," he said, "but I'm not sure, and I do know that cans won't work for us. The glassware is part of the experience."

Also a part of the experience is the marketing, which enables Jamie and Will to discuss the brewery's story at length. There's a tie here to lager being the people's drink, and reclaiming it as a product that's good and valued and appreciated instead of patronised. If you're wondering about the Trade Union influence, they found out that lager was created at the same point in history as TUs were founded in the UK so they decided to have a bit of fun with that.

As well as supplying to pubs in the local area, the brewery are putting plans in motion to get their tap room up and running for Autumn 2018. I asked them if they'd just be selling lager there, or if they'd be offering festival brews too - perhaps a Marzen or an Oktoberfest? Ian told me that they'd been experimenting with recipes and would love to do this. He then explained how they'd created a Stein beer using rocks heated to around 1000 degrees Celsius. "It was delicious," he said, "But incredibly dangerous. I wouldn't try it at home." Sensing my disappointment he added, "If you do, make sure you use granite. Everything else explodes."

So, soon you'll be able to proudly drink a pint of fizzy lager in Manchester (and the surrounding areas, if you ask nicely) that's made in Manchester by Mancunians. And I hope you do. I really enjoyed it.

Monday, 30 July 2018

The world's newest world beer awards judge

I'm new to this game. Not to drinking - I've been doing that for years - but to writing about drinking, finding new ideas about drinking, learning about our idiosyncrasies towards the beers we drink, the places we drink in and the breweries we favour. It's still interesting to me. Exciting, even. I've been told that will wane. So far, so good.

Being new means you find lots of fresh opportunities. All that energy, all those ideas. No major enemies yet. Happy to contact anyone, go anywhere, try anything. Super jazzed to be here, sharing this space with people you've learned to look up to. If you use this window right, there's plenty of work out there for you. I know. I'm in that window currently, forcing myself to not just step outside of my comfort zone but basejump from its precarious little platform high above the scary jungle of industry/human interaction.

I went full-time freelance in March, after years of working in an office as a content marketer - one those people Bill Hicks told to kill themselves. It took me two and a half years to be brave enough to hand in my notice and make the jump. Incidentally, that jump ended up feeling more like a tentative step down the front step of my house in the dark. Not actually that bad. I felt a bit silly to have made such a fuss about it. Turns out I'd been prepping internally for it for ages.

That didn't make it any less terrifying to sit down on my first day at the kitchen table and think, "Everything I do now is my own fault."

When I was asked if I'd like to judge at the World Beer Awards this year, there was an element of "oh what have I done now" as I read the email. If you've ever experienced imposter syndrome, you'll understand. Somehow, I'd successfully convinced some beer industry bigdogs that I knew something about beer. How did that happen?

Well, I'll tell you.

  1. I do actually know some things about beer.
  2. I've worked really hard to put myself in the right places to find opportunities like this.
My brain continued to tell me otherwise and I actually said "thanks but no thanks" first, before getting a bollocking from nearly everyone I know and changing my mind. And I'm so glad I did.

Travelling to London is actually Quite A Big Deal to rural northerners.

The World Beer Awards was a brilliant experience for a newcomer to the industry. Sitting at a table with an expert beer sommelier (Nigel Sadler) who was happy to answer all of my millions of questions was great. Being taught how to judge correctly was great. Having the opportunity to taste beers and give an honest opinion - which was listened to - was great. Putting all the reading I've been doing over the past year or two into practice was great. Meeting loads more people with the same interests as me was great. The whole thing was an amazing experience and I have to thank the whole World Beer Awards team for being so welcoming, especially to nervous newbies like me.

If you have a passion you want to pursue and you're grounded by anxiety, self-doubt and The Fear, I wanted to write this post to assuage that. You are worth the space you take up. Your voice is valuable and new. Your ideas are interesting and exciting. Nobody else is like you. No matter how slow-going it feels at times, your skills are becoming more honed each and every day. If you're not as good now as you want to be - don't worry. I take solace in the fact that I will never be as good as I want to be. It's necessary to force personal growth on yourself, and this makes sure I always strive to be better. Maybe you're not as severe as I am. That's cool, whatever works.

I'm still a content marketer, I'm just freelance now. That's how I can afford to visit pubs and breweries so that I can write about them. What's changed is my attitude. Beer hasn't just given me a new job, it's given me something I've never really had before - confidence in my abilities. 

But maybe that's the pint I've just sank.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Victorian Protein Shake IPA

Back in March, I wrote about brewing with Moorhouses, and how I'd tasted the wort of our soon-to-be brown ale and called it a "Victorian Protein Shake". It made sense to me - it tasted filling and sweet, and full of old-fashioned nutrition. Like a strongman would down a pint of it every morning with a dozen eggs before heading off to lift anvils over his head. Then, Steve from Beer Nouveau decided that this was actually an excellent name for a beer.

I headed down to Beer Nouveau's Temperance Street brewery in Manchester back in March to bring this idea to life. The brewery's focus on heritage ales and recipes from the past suited the project perfectly, because making a Victorian Protein Shake requires a real Victorian recipe, and all-Victorian ingredients. Both of which were plentiful here. Steve's enthusiasm for ye olde ales(e) meant that for weeks prior to my visit he'd been busy finding recipes to work with.

When I arrived, he poured me a glass of Bygge Bere, a gruit made with six-row bere grain (a heritage grain grown exactly the same way it would have grown 1200 years ago) and meadowsweet to a Viking recipe dug out by Archaeologists on Orkney. It was totally unlike anything I'd ever tasted before and it took a few sips to understand what I was drinking. One I got the hang of it - much easier than you'd expect - it went down easily, hiding its AVB well with a little sweetness. I felt like a historian. It set the tone for the day well.

So, I looked over the notes Steve had made about recipes he'd been researching and we decided on a splicing of two recipes - one for a traditional Victorian IPA, and one for a New England IPA that added wheat and flaked oats to the mash and plenty of American dry hop to finish. Also, because we needed to replicate the hop degradation rate of  authentic Victorian IPAs without casking it for 18 months, we looked at other ways to create this effect - drying it out with brett and amending the recipe to suit a much shorter storage time of a couple of months.

Brewing at Beer Nouveau also means being lucky enough to utilise some of the brewery's specialist Chevallier Nouveau grain - a grain that's actually unique to Beer Nouveau. For any nerds reading this who are interested in this sort of thing, it's a blend of Chevallier malt and a malt that's been kilned at the right 1846 pattern especially for Beer Nouveau. Hence the name "Nouveau".

This splicing would jump from the origins of the style to the modern day in one fell swoop, with no messing about in the middle bits. We were excited about this. It might go horribly wrong.

Grain bill
Chevallier - Nouveau: 16kg
Wheat: 1.30kg
Flaked oats: 1.30kg

Boil Hops
Goldings: 150g
Fuggles: 150g
Cluster: 150g

Hop Stand Hops
Cluster: 200g

Dry Hop Hops
Cluster: 150g

As you can see, this beer was hoppy af. We step mashed it, and then for a rest, tried some of Origami Brewing's Fortune Teller, as Pam who had brewed it popped in. As a cuckoo brewery, Origami sometimes operate from the Beer Nouveau arch (which also explains the hundreds of origami cranes in rainbow colours hanging from the tap room ceiling.) It was a bright, crisp pale, with plenty of hop to kick start my wearing mashing arms again after a quick break.

Unfortunately for me, here's where my involvement ends - I had to dash off across town to catch a rail replacement bus (thanks a lot Northern Rail) and left Steve to finish the job. Sorry Steve.

Over the weeks, exciting developments were Tweeted to me. By all accounts, Victorian Protein Shake was developing well, and gaining some slightly unexpected flavours. After crash cooling a month after we brewed it, Steve kegged it and left it to age for a month, upon which it developed a mad bitterness and wood-age taste "like licking a plank". We decided to keep it ageing until the Manchester Beer Week Temperance Street Party, on the last Saturday of Manchester Beer Week.

As it turned out, this was an excellent idea because England were playing in the quarter finals of the World Cup, everyone was in a great mood, the tap room was packed, the Temperance Street Party was a total blast and I was able to force as many people as possible to drink it.

But what did it taste like?

Let me tell you first that I was extremely impressed with us both. Although all I really did was stir the mash and give some ideas at recipe development stage, I was chuffed to bits with what I was calling "my beer".

It was darker in colour than an IPA (so you could mark it down for that if you wanted) but the taste was really well-rounded and full of grassy, juicy notes. Add to that an underpinning bretty dryness and we basically nailed exactly the type of beer I'm enjoying at the moment. We were both very happy with the result.

We were also very happy with the football result too.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Describing Beer

I want to start off by saying this: I am not interested in starting another "define craft" debate. At all. In fact, I can think of a million other things I'd rather do, and topping that list is being chased down the Amazon by a hungry caiman, or having dinner with a drunk and handsy Nigel Farage.

What I am interested in, however, is what we call our beer. I started this week off with a poll, because nobody likes working on Mondays.

What I tried to find out is whether people in industry use this term regularly, or if it's become shorthand for something else. Those of you who know me will be well aware of my geeky love for words and how, over time, they stretch and adapt to suit different uses, sometimes changing their own definition entirely in common parlance. It turns out that it's a fairly even distribution of people avoiding it but occasionally finding no suitable alternative, and people who use it because that's what the beer they like is called (to them). Interesting.

"Craft beer" has become something of a sticking point for many drinkers. As you'll see from some of the comments, a couple of people took offence to the question. "Beer is beer!" is the bellowing cry from those who'd just like to drink and for everybody to shut up about it. And fair enough. Beer, to the majority of people who drink it, is simply beer. Now go and get us a packet of pork scratchings.

It's a convenient phrase though, especially if you're looking to describe a different type of beer to someone who might not be familiar with it. Saying "it's just beer" is true, and all well and good, but offering a passionfruit gose to a person who understands "beer" to be either Fosters or a pint of bitter will leave them confused, stunned, and no doubt disgusted. It's about context, but it's also about understanding.

I hear this a lot. In the pub, there are customers who see ale, lager and beer as different things. I look at it like the dinner/lunch/tea conundrum. Words that can be synonymous to some have a totally different meaning to others. When you say "buttery" to me, I immediately think of a delicious Aberdeen rowie. Can't help it. It's how I'm made. So, to one person, beer and lager might be identical, but for another, beer is only that frothy stuff from the hand pull. Another person might only call that bitter, no matter what it is. You see how this is difficult to pin down?

Like Mike here, I'm going through the same process. I used to use the term all the time, thinking it was the correct way to describe the beers I was drinking - particularly since they were new and totally different to any other beers available to me in rural Lancashire. Then I got more interested in beer, and more involved with the industry, and realised actually calling craft beers "craft beer" was a bit lame. Like calling punk "punk rock" or wearing all your festival bands until they fall off. I fell out of love with the term, because like a lot of people, it was better to call it "beer". Now that <INSERT DESCRIPTIVE TERM> beer is more popular than ever in the UK, I'm struggling to think of euphemisms for it to distinguish it from the beer we're used to. In the pub I work in, for example, people have a better idea of what "craft beer" is than if I was to say "hazy double dry hopped IPA" (although this is changing slowly.)

Ah yes, "craft ale". The sulphurous spectre that won't leave the room after four exorcisms and an entire sage-burning purge festival. The main reason I try not to use the term "craft beer" is because it in some way links itself to the meaningless non-phrase that is "craft ale" - a term made up by supermarkets and big breweries to shift bottles of Old Crafty Hen to unwitting customers who just want to choose something nice. A hideous, lumbering monster made from odds and ends found in a skip outside the independent brewing scene's HQ, the term "craft ale" is one thing we can all rally against. It means nothing. Real ale means exactly the same thing its trying to convey, and in fact is much more meaningful. Plus - get this - people actually know what it is. "Craft ale" is something said on adverts on the Dave channel and we should ignore it until it goes away and takes its steampunk pocketwatch and jemble vocabulary with it.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the word "craft" became meaningless. In shops, "craft beer" is now used as a synonym for "quality", "handmade" or even "luxury" - the words used in food and drink marketing to bump prices up and "help" customers choose "better" items for themselves. Unfortunately this has started to make instances of hearing people say things like "I don't drink any crap, I drink craft beer" more regular and I hope everyone who made this happen's offices are far to hot this week. Conversely, it's giving the impression that craft beer isn't available to everyone, which is damaging.

So what do we call it then? If "craft beer" is out the window, do we start describing beers as they taste? This article from Cara Tech certainly thinks so, and even maps out a potential system for describing beer styles at the bar. The one hitch is that it would need to be universal, and implementing that would be a logistical nightmare. Just imagining trying to convince some of our customers that what they want is actually a mildly-balanced, straw coloured 3.8 per center is making me break out in a cold sweat. If we could get past that, it's a good first stab at solving the issue of having no fricking idea what to call the drinks we're drinking.

Other than "beer".

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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Selling out, and other bad words

Today, there was some news that everybody knew was coming. Despite denials and backlash for around a month, we've all kindof known that B-town were getting into some sort of investment opp with Heineken. I don't even know why I knew that. I guess I'm on Beer Twitter too much.

It's lovely to report that people have generally been pretty supportive of Beavertown and the people who work there - particularly Kamilla who manages their social outreach and can't have had an easy day. Being that I've spent my day writing an extremely boring SEO article I feel like I've been on the front lines of a breaking story, following the tweets as they happened, interested to see what the consensus would be. After all, I know bugger all about business, and I've got precious little to say about corporate buyouts. All I wanted to know was: would people care? And if so, how much?

One of the first visceral negative reactions was by Cloudwater, who, disgusted by what they saw as blatant "selling out", withdrew their attendance from Beavertown Extravaganza 2018.
Then I saw this - which I will admit, made me laugh, if only for what I perceive to be total hypocrisy and opportunism.

I've been attempting to understand this stance and I think what I'm getting from it is - independent breweries should always remain independent. They should gain their investment through non-macro methods, and the ultimate aim should be to grow naturally as the brewery expands, rather than view it as a business to be expanded or an investment opportunity to be exploited.

Okay. But whether breweries like it or not, they are making and selling a product and paying wages, and bending to supply and demand. A non co-op brewery is not at it's heart a revolutionary enterprise. Once it begins to grow, more staff need paying, more equipment needs replacing, more costs are incurred. Growth begins to bring in fewer returns. Soon, you need more investment. Of course, some breweries manage this just fine with crowdfunding, but just how many drinkers are willing to pay their good money to help people they don't know build their dreams? And when will kickstarter fatigue kick in?

"The notion of selling out is such a quaint one, after all. At what point does one actually sell out? ...I wasn't keeping it real declining their offers... I was just too narcissistic and loved myself a little too much to be able to handle waking up in the morning, looking in the bathroom mirror - and seeing the guy from TV. I knew I wasn't saving my cherry for principle. I'd just been waiting to lose it to the right guy." - Anthony Bourdain

I guess I've just never really cared as much as I should about the plight of small brewers versus the vulturous swoopings of Big Beer. I know this is sacrilegious, but I'm being honest; this being an opinion piece after all. Maybe it's because when I began being interested in the industry, everyone was over the tough times. It's been a veritable fiesta of good beer and fruitful collaborations ever since I've known it, with new breweries reaching into the spotlight of a nourishing, welcoming industry environment. People have learned to support their local brewers and champion the little guy. Part of that has been through the banishment of the big guys, yes, but as far as I've seen it from my little Northern part of the world, big and small have begun to co-exist well. The main issue we've had recently is CAMRA's continuing refusal to give keykeg a chance - a throwback to when times really were hard for the little guy, this is now actively excluding some independent brewers from events and the like. Ironic, isn't it?

I suppose, as James Beeson points out in this much more accomplished piece on the subject, it's a question of credibility. Will joining forces with Heineken, even as a minority stakeholder, damage Beavertown's credibility as an independent brewer? I'd like to point out two things from my own personal experience:

1. People at the pub I work at already started telling me they thought Neck Oil's recipe had changed around a month ago, and would not be consoled or appealed to under any circumstances. This is, obviously, total nonsense. I get the feeling some of the nastier know-it-alls had heard half the story we'd all heard and told the well-meaning indie supporters some BS that it was now being made at a Macro Brewery.

2. Beavertown beers have paved the way for most of the other independent breweries being drunk in Clitheroe. If Neck Oil and Gamma Ray did not exist, I sincerely doubt many of our locals would be trying - and enjoying - half of the interesting beers from all over the country we get in now. They are hugely popular here in the Ribble Valley and I'm not sure many drinkers would care about the beers' provenance even if I told them Vladimir Putin made it in his bathtub.

Credibility is a rocky road. On the one hand, building a brand at the end of it leads to total consumer loyalty. On the other, any wavering from the path of righteousness can see customers not only feeling disappointed, but cheated. Worse - they feel that they've been taken for a ride. From my first point, it's clear that some people will never feel right drinking beers brewed in conjunction with one of the Big Boys. Fair enough. For me, I don't feel like Beavertown have ever made me feel like their brand was based on simple, homespun socialism anyway. As long as I've understood that they were different from the rest of the breweries on the market - and they are, in my opinion - they've made great beers, they've concentrated on expanding that side of the business (even closing Duke's Brew and Cue to make beer their number one brand priority) and they've grown consistently. Even knowing their first beer were made on a stovetop, that doesn't make me feel like I want them to return to those roots. They're just a business with a unique, in-demand product coping and benefitting from that demand. Why wouldn't they look for external investment to grow? Reminder - businesses are supposed to make profit. And sorry to break it to you, but breweries are businesses. I'm not saying I agree with the model, I'm just saying that that's how things work here in Capitalism Land.

The amount of small brewers I've spoken to who cite Beavertown's success story as one of their inspirations for getting started is uncountable. Admittedly, I have discalculia. In my extremely humble opinion, we can all stop Holden Caulfielding them. They aren't phony. They're a big reason why the UK's indie beer scene has continued to flourish, and why more people than ever are trying different beers all over the country.

Also, fuck Holden Caulfield. Worst literary character in history.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Slaynt Vie - Drinking at The Isle of Man TT 2018

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin
(Good health, a long life, a wet mouth, and death in Mann)

When I raised my plastic pint glass in celebration outside The Railway Inn in Union Mills, there were plenty of reasons why. For one thing, we'd made it: our four hour early-am ferry ride over the Irish sea was over, our tent was up, we'd napped, showered, eaten bacon and egg butties from a van and walked until we found a pub. For another, a stunt team had arrived out of nowhere on an army of Honda c90s, and proceeded to race up the steps of that same pub, through the bar and into the beer garden out the back. In general though, I felt elated that I was here, on this island, with thousands of other people just as excited to be there as I was.

A man driving into a pub on a Honda c90

The Railway Inn sits on the elbow of Union Mills, the first right-handed bend before a swift S on a busy 30mph road just before the local Methodist church and the old post office. Usually steady with traffic moving to-and-from Peel, today nobody's on it. We're not even allowed to step on the pavement. The sun has strengthened to a midday sizzle in a stonewashed denim sky. Red and white crash barriers, hot to the touch, stand between us, Victorian stone walls and the road. A set of yellow crowd control bars have been shifted to block off a connecting minor junction, to state in full-colour that we are not to leave our temporary island, and that we should stay here, where it's safe, where we can be out of the way, and where we're in close proximity to good beer, clean toilets and burgers with fried onions. We tune in our radios to the local station as heat shimmers over the tarmac and we listen for the first chupa-chupa-chupa of the press helicopter, announcing the advance of today's heroes.

I knew as soon as I arrived at The Railway that it would end up in my heart. What you'd call a "proper" pub, its white walls reminded me of the Lake District, much like the endless country roads across the island lined with rhododendrons blooming in pink and purple, and hornbeams growing across the road in high, green archways. Inside, the stone flagged floor and comfy lounge rooms made me briefly wish for snow, so the fireplaces could be lit. One of the rooms had a TV, reserved for Moto GP and British Superbikes and it was packed with bikers ready to move out of my way at any moment. And the loos - clean, airy, bright and with the day's racing piped through the speakers, they were a chilled haven. Any person visiting the toilets at The Railway will tell you the same. I mention it because it's important. The owners could easily let them fall to ruin and they'd still have thousands of visitors every TT season, but they don't. They care. That's a glaring sign of a good pub.

The beers on offer were all TT-specific and named to suit the island's 40,000 motorbike fanciers who would visit over the main three weeks of practice races and main events. I did my best to try them all for the sake of fair journalism and I can say quite confidently that I didn't have a bad beer on the Isle of Man. This is mostly thanks to two local breweries on the island, The Hooded Ram and Bushy's who between them had an excellent selection of bitters, IPAs, dark ales and even a delicious lager with just enough yeastiness to make me happy by Bushy's called Norseman, which went perfectly with a seaside sit-down on my third worse-for-wear day.

Repping Manx Radio TT and 100 other local businesses with my snazzy Norseman cup

I found out while I was over there that the Isle of Man has its own purity laws brought in by the founder of local brewery Okells, dating back to 1874, allowing only malt, water, sugar, hops and yeast. While they were amended in 1999 to allow local breweries to make wheat and fruit beers, the law is maintained to ban the use of preservatives. Interestingly, this means for the most part, locals drink local ale as a matter of course. Manx people are fiercely patriotic about their beautiful little island. The beers aren't dull, either. My favourite from my entire trip was Conrod by The Hooded Ram, a beautifully hoppy IPA with citrus notes that went perfectly with the freak heatwave. I mentioned in my usual, delicate way that it might actually be even more delicious with a bit of a carbonated kick and they replied:
A bit of an explanation then: a con rod connects the piston to the crank shaft in an engine. This beer was also made by Manx rider Conor Cummins, who races for Padgetts and also gets called Conrod from time to time. See, when they make Liberty East Coast Pale at this time of year, it's a biker pun for the TT Races! And also, I was right, it is nice when it's fizzy.

The beers weren't named after bike parts and racers just for the fun of it - Bushy's and The Hooded Ram take an active interest in the TT Races, sponsoring events on Douglas promenade and helping the local pubs take advantage of the influx of thirsty mainlanders from all over the world. Bushy's beer tent on Douglas prom has been a TT staple as long as anyone can remember, but now they have their own Bushy's Village, with an even bigger beer tent, merch, and a huge stage for bands and food stalls. Bushy's has a big biker following and maintained the feel of a bike rally well, even considering the outdoor Victorian winter gardens location. I felt like I was back at the Bulldog Bash, grinning uncontrollably at men with big bushy beards in leather pants trying to eat a 99 without losing credibility.

Bushy's Beer Tent as it was in 2016 (Photo courtesy of Bushy's history page)

Bushy's Village now - there's a giant stage behind that big beer tent too.

One of the most prominent features of Douglas seafront during my stay was the Hooded Ram festival area, with live music and stunt shows taking over the main road and prom for the whole TT season. As every performer and stunt rider was contractually obliged to state, it was entirely down to The Hooded Ram and its investors that such a large event should be able to happen in Douglas - which for the rest of the year is as much of a semi-deprived seaside town as Blackpool. While the marketing was aggressively overt, there was no denying that this was a local brewery sharing its wealth with the town it came from. Which I liked to see very much.

For me, this trip to the TT meant a lot. I'd not visited since I was six and there was so much I hadn't understood or had forgotten. The atmosphere of togetherness was pretty intoxicating, and very unexpected. But, I guess if you force several thousand people with one common interest into a couple of small towns far out at sea, it's not going to be long before they're all getting drunk together.

And at The Railway, getting drunk with strangers was easy and fun, in the way that you wish every trip to the pub could be when you're in the mood. I was there for the bikes, and the riders, but I didn't expect the pubs to be such a huge part of what made my trip so unforgettable. When I look back, I'll think about meeting Peter Hickman and seeing Dean Harrison win Supersport race 2, but I'll also think about standing out of the front of that pub with a crowd of people, hemmed in by barriers, sun on my face, factor 50 in my eyes, anticipating the next rider, feeling the squeeze of my heart as the radio announces another sector record, pint of Bushy's Shuttleworth Snap tightly clutched. And that's why we've already booked our seats on the ferry next year.

Here's to TT 2019. I can't wait.

If you've reached the end of this blog post and are surprised that you enjoyed reading about motorbikes, why not let me know? I would very much appreciate a financial nod in the form of a Ko-Fi. Everything donated via this method goes towards my endless pursuit of beer knowledge. This time, I'm saving up for my Cicerone course. Thank you very much!

Friday, 27 April 2018

Pub Culture Songs: Same Old Thing

If there's one thing I love, it's music that tells a story. As a kid, I always loved songs that put me in a totally different place and made me think about things - things like lust and nightclubs and fit girls and something hiding in the woodshed - I'd never heard of before.

This love has endured and now I'm in my 31st year of life, I still love a song that takes me somewhere I didn't intend to go. There's something totally transportive in hearing an embellished anecdote disguised by the artist as a tune. It's like peeking round the kitchen door in their house and hearing them chat to their mate about it on the phone. I always feel like I'm there in their imagination with them, seeing what they saw, indulging in the little exaggerations they've added to make it a more interesting tale. All the best storytellers do it. I first noticed it as a 7 year old when I heard Disco 2000 for the first time and assumed it was about people at my school meeting in Lancaster "by the fountain down the roaaaa-hoad." Jarvis Cocker became a beanpole Shakespeare to me, before I understood what Shakespeare really was, telling me about the squirming, bawdy underbelly of life and how it could be revelled in, showing me the human experience before I'd even turned 8.

I had another such revelation when I was 16 and over my metal-only phase and Mike Skinner entered my life. A man intent on telling the stories of his resolutely average life in full, flashing neon, I ate Original Pirate Material like a meal every day for a year. It was so refreshing to me, to hear the everyday in such blunt and brilliant terms, patched right from one brain to mine.

In particular, I loved The Streets' central themes of dossing about in the pub. Every day was the same, but different, and most of them ended draining pints or cans, depending on how skint he was. When I left home at 17, I could suddenly relate hard.

Who's round is it?
Down that beer quick, smash my glass back down
Fall over the table, all rowdy and pissed
Seems the only difference between mid-week shit
And weekend is how loud I speak

When Thursday beers down the pub (it's the quiz!) turn into a cheeky couple on a Tuesday (rude not to, the pool table's only 30p) become your life, it's easy to turn your local's lounge into your own front room, meeting your mates there every day for crisps and shit-talk. You're not necessarily there for the beer, it's just somewhere to be, something to do, but you're appreciative of it all the same. It loosens up the grip of boredom. Makes it feel like you're making sense of the world.

Pick a bottle off the table, peel the label, tell a fable

Time moves differently in your local, a fact Mike Skinner knows too well. The last pint always ends up penultimate. No matter your intentions, no matter how much time you spend in there, you're somehow always there too long, running late for some prior engagement, nefarious or otherwise.

Gotta see a man about a dog, can't be late, I'm always late
Raining cats and fog but nice and dry in the Black Dog
Down it in one, my son
Can't sit here, gotta run, things need done

You hate the boredom of the place, but it's an extension of your home too. A shelter from the shitty, grey world outside, somewhere where there's always somebody to listen to your thoughts, no matter who they are. Leaving's a wrench, especially on a wet Thursday, even when all you have in there is the sound of the fruities and enough change for another two Carlings. Mike's adept at talking about male loneliness and depression and I think although this tune is more a tongue-in-cheek look at wasting your life down the Dog, there are aspects of these themes surfacing. As they do in life. That's why I like him. He's so good at what he does.

Apparently there's a whole world out there somewhere
(It's right there, right there)
I just don't see it, I just don't see it

What I love most about "Same Old Thing" is the monotony dredged right up from his tarry lungs. But even inside that loop of stabby strings (used throughout the album - he loves a bit of classical drama does Mike) there's a glint of comfort. He likes the familiarity of his everyday - moaning about nothing changing in your own shithole town is just a pastime. You might mean it, but you're not changing it anytime soon. You're not trapped, you're just... Anyway, who's getting the next ones?

If you like The Streets, please read this fantastic interview with Rut Blees Luxembourg, the photographer and artist whose work "Towering Inferno" was used as the album art for Original Pirate Material. Her insights are extremely on point.

If you like me and my writing, please consider buying me a pint via my Ko-fi page. It really puts me in a good mood!

Monday, 16 April 2018

Stropping off: Wetherspoon's decision to quit social media

I've decided to call any company's snap decision to quit social media as "stropping off", a term that simultaneously combines the banal act of logging off from social media with being loud about your reasons for doing it in an entirely tiresome way. Wetherspoon's Tim has decided it's their prerogative to be the first in what he sees as a tidal wave of businesses quitting Facebook and Twitter for good; a great example to put my new phrase into context.

He's decided once and for all that his company doesn't need social media to succeed, a decision that no doubt suits since I'd wager it was highly unpopular with him to begin with. Like many large businesses, social media at Wetherspoon's was at best a direct complaints network, used by customers to air grievances about 75p surcharges for poached eggs and to ask where missing items from redesigned menus had disappeared to. Their Twitter account never really became the hub of pro-Wethers activity the company had no doubt hoped it would be, and with managers of each individual pub being given the task of running individual accounts too on top of their regular floor and bar duties, there was no real sense of cohesion. Without proper company-wide training and a level of respect and time given to digital marketing, this was a project doomed to fail.

That's the thing about social media marketing though. If you only use it because everyone else is, you shouldn't be on it. Get far away from it. Go outside. Paint a noticeboard and hand out flyers, they'll proabably be far more useful to you. If you see social media marketing as a hindrance and an exercise in time wasting, as Wetherspoon's Tim has said in a recent statement, you're not doing it right. Get somebody in who understands how to use it effectively and who can give you statistical proof of its effectiveness each month. Train your staff to be able to do this and give them the time to do the job properly, or get rid of your platforms. After years of one star Facebook reviews getting ketchup all over his page, he's chosen the latter.

As a former Wetherspoon's employee and a freelance content marketer, I feel like I can say with some confidence that I know where this went wrong. It was the moment that Tim thought Facebook was a totally free marketing tool where visitors to his pubs could frolic freely amongst themselves, liking photos of Steak Night plates with genuine enthusiasm, sharing anecdotes from their most recent #spoonssesh until they went viral. It could have been glorious. Oh what a cruel mistress the reality of online marketing truly is.

Everything comes at a price. Twitter might be free to use, but the daily cost of seeing highly visible negative #content pile up like dirty all-day breakfast plates is too much for some companies, especially if they're not well versed in social media crisis management. In an age when everyone has a camera and access to the entire world in their pocket, you're going to need to be around to see what they say and to counter any bad feeling with an appropriate response. By getting rid of his accounts, Tim has effectively cancelled Wetherspoons online, and opened up the door to a thousand unfunny hoax accounts, the lowest form of Twitter wit.

It takes time and effort to run a successful business social media account, and rather than being an idle pursuit for the terminally bored and lazy, it's becoming ever more complicated. Customers want to engage, but in very specific ways often known only to them and working it out takes longer than typing out "Happy hump day!" and hitting send. Sadly I presume most of the team leaders tasked with creating online 'Spoons microclimates were given roughly four seconds per shift to do so. In fact, this quote from his official statement says it all:
"We were... concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers" - Tim Martin, from an official statement, 15.04.18
If your boss feels part of your job isn't "real work", of course it's going to take a lower priority than wiping the bar down every 30 seconds. After all, if you're leaning, you should be cleaning; not interacting directly with your customers.

Essentially, I feel like this decision has been made bullishly and with little regard for how much being able to update the work Instagram account made people's jobs a little bit more enjoyable. By claiming Wetherspoon's withdrawal from social media is due to a backlash against the unhealthy nature of social media is quite hilarious. How many people have complained that they wished they could delete their Facebook app but simply couldn't afford to miss the latest news from their favourite chain-owned local? At least we've still got Carpets of Spoons to keep us company.

Quotes pulled from Tim's statement and how I chose to translate them:

"We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business."

"I have been told by a number of paid professionals that digital marketing can be incredibly effective, but quite frankly what with GDPR and other things cropping up that I don't have the time to get to grips with, I don't care. It's all millennial nonsense. Get rid."

"I don't believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever."

"It's laughable that anyone could say that not being part of something sad people do instead of going to the pub could ever affect my business. What's a Twit anyway? Who wants to see what Stormy had for breakfast? Bloody hell, I think I know what's best for my business, not the people I paid to do my market research."

"...This is the overwhelming view of our pub managers"

"We asked our pub managers if they felt that updating their pub's social media accounts and dealing with complaints took up a considerable amount of their time, and they agreed."

"If people limited their social media to half an hour a day, they'd be mentally and physically better off."

"Everyone is on their phones these days instead of talking to each other. Really talking to each other. Really getting to grips with each other's psyches. Reaching into the depths of human existence until it stares back at them, the maw of eternity at their feet, willing them to take one step further into the abyss; endless, endless blackness engulfing them, until they are nothing more than the atoms they were formed from at the dawning of creation. And if they could do that at their local Wetherspoon's over a bottle of Villa Maria and two orders of scampi and chips, so much the better."

"It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion."

"People don't know what's best for them. They are lucky that somebody like me is out there telling them what to do so they can be better citizens."

If you enjoyed reading this bit of pseudo-analysis fun, why not take a quick look at my Ko-Fi page, where you can support me as a writer by giving me a tip? Think of it like busking, only I'm not playing the bagpipes and you've chosen to come here and read my post all the way to the bottom. Thanks!

Thursday, 12 April 2018

What was the first beer you drank?

It's a simple question, unless you're being asked it point blank on live radio. There should be a simple answer - some small glint laying there in the past that points towards the moment you decide, "this is mine."

Well, sometimes you don't want to share that moment. Maybe it's private. But then maybe you feel self-conscious, because it's only beer after all, and the person was only asking to be polite. So you make something up. I do that a lot. Then, the made-up version becomes the truth and I tell it easily. So on the radio, I heard myself tell a story that wasn't true, but I'd said it with such ease that I'd believed myself. And that's why I've decided to take some time to get to the bottom of it. What got me interested in beer? And while we're at it, when did I first drink it?

The funny thing about beer is that, for me at least, it's deeply personal. Beer is a social lubricant and for most people, it comes hand in hand with the most social of our situations - the pub. When I talk about my enjoyment of beer, I'm simultaneously discussing my love of pub culture, which in turn encapsulates a love of people, their stories and their own individual lives. To me, you can't separate the two. That's why it's difficult to unearth the truth about what interested me in it. I'm having to dive deeper than my first pint. It's far more ingrained than that.

And this is where it gets personal. Was my first positive experience of beer in the warmth of a local bar? Or was it with friends at the park? No, I think it was earlier than that. The metallic smell of cheap lager and the sound of cans being drained and crushed is wrapped around some of my earliest memories like fishing line. Those cans, enjoyed in the sun on some camping field at a bike rally - maybe Kent Custom Bike Show, maybe the Bulldog Bash - were a sign of relaxation. Holiday time. I'm trying to think of any moments when the adults in my life drank in front of me other than this, and besides maybe the odd pint in a pub, I'm struggling to recall. I knew they did, when they headed out to Town, or stayed in with the mysterious Jack Daniels that sat on the high countertop, but I didn't see them drink it. I just knew it.

Because of this, I think, beer has never left a shadow hanging over my life, and I feel lucky for that. I've maintained a cheerfully positive view of alcohol throughout my life. Nevertheless, it's always been present, as I'm sure it has for many, and there was never any doubt that I'd be a beer drinker.

I feel like I'm not being totally honest. I can't get nostalgic without talking about something I never talk about, and so far I've been extremely evasive. One of the reasons I hate answering the question "when did you first drink a beer?" is because it's an intimate family portrait of a girl and her father. They're sat at a small, round table in a pub, and she's taken a gulp of his Guinness while he'd turned his head. He's laughing. She's grimacing.

I don't speak to my dad. I know where he lives, I know what he looks like and I know his phone number, but we've been estranged since I was 14 years old. If he saw me in the street, he wouldn't recognise me. I know this because he's walked past me before, without a flicker of recognition. I talk about him in the past-tense, because he's a man I used to know, a long time ago, when cans of Boddingtons in fields of tents with family friends dressed in ripped denim and fringed leather were the exciting normality of my life. He's the man who shaped my taste in music and gave me a short temper, a mean streak and an interest in garages full of motorbike parts. If he ever comes up in conversation, I stick to the safety of my past-tenses and hope this pointed grammatical quirk underlines my desire to never mention him again.

The thing is, he does get mentioned again. In everything I do, there's always a memory of him, or an imagined memory of him, that begins to surface. So now that beer is something I really care about; a topic I enjoy learning; an industry I can see myself trying harder and harder to gain purchase in, naturally his influence, however tenuous, begins to show itself. And for so long I was doing this by myself, totally for myself, and that was fantastically freeing. But now, in my head, he's back.

"When did you first drink a beer?"

I first drank a beer with my dad. I used to steal the foam from the top of his pint with my tiny fingers, hoping that this time it would have developed a delicious, vanilla-cream flavour to match the texture my eyes had already tasted. This is one of the only good memories I have of him, and I'm choosing to share it, because beer is something I love and I'm not letting sad old thoughts attach themselves to it.

The first beer I ever drank was a Guinness, during a stolen moment between a man and his daughter. Over the thousands of times I've recalled that scene, it's been worn to a polish. Now what I have instead of a first drink is a loaded image of a table in a pub. We probably all have one. That's one of the things about beer though, isn't it? That it's so very, very personal.

I was inspired to write this because of Drinks Maven's amazing recent piece for Original Gravity. If you enjoyed reading this piece, please consider buying me a pint over on ko-fi. It really is appreciated!

Monday, 26 March 2018

Craft Beer in Burnley: Moorhouse's Rebrand

"Brewed in the shadows of Pendle Hill" says the crisp new strapline, branded indelibly into Moorhouse's well-worn hide. For years, the Burnley brewery has enjoyed steady business with a loyal and local customer base who would never dream of straying from their beloved Premier. Now, with margins squeezing every last drop of profit from wet products, bottling and distribution have become more of a focus than ever to the business in order to stay afloat in this age of high-competition.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned the appointment of MD Lee Wiliams, the former Marketing Manager behind Thwaites' foray into craft. Their IPA 13 Guns has become one of their most popular beers in gastro pubs around Lancashire - of which there are seemingly hundreds. Wainwright too was an exercise in the power of the rebrand, an unassuming pale ale given new life by association to a Northern hero and clever visuals.

For Moorhouse's, the product wasn't the only reason a rebrand was necessary. It would be an understatement to say that the sexy-witch branding of old was detrimental to the brewery's reputation. Plenty of beer lovers found it tone-deaf and increasingly outdated in a modern world; many contacted the brewery over the years to explain their unhappiness - that the beer was fine, but the labelling was not. The days of the accepted and ubiquitous use of women as bar-dressing without comment or creative alternative have gone. All breweries now know the general consensus - that degrading their customers in any way leads to negative publicity and an impact in sales. And if they claim not to, this is through sheer ignorance, stubbornness or stupidity. (Cask Marque's recent Twitter turd a la Robinsons shows that there are still pockets of resistance to common sense and courtesy, however the backlash was encouraging, if not exhausting for all concerned who just wished they wouldn't have to keep repeating themselves.)

New pump clips - a better view of the photography inside the images
But back to Moorhouse's. 

"When I joined, Moorhouse's was a strong brand, tied into the provenance of the local area," said Lee when I met with him a couple of weeks ago. "But we are guilty as charged. Our branding was indefensible and really could have happened sooner. What I wanted to make sure of was that when we did this, we did it right. I wanted Moorhouse's to set out its stall, to bring in a new brand ready for the future. We hold our hands up."

New Moorhouse's branding - local photography and witches' familiars.
Doing away with the Moorhouse's witches is a solid first step in bringing a traditional brewer into the modern world. Another interesting development is the brewery's designs on using their temperance roots to inspire more experimental beers. Larger breweries have a tendency to promise experimental hop bombs and deliver four indistinct versions of session pales, so it'll be interesting to see where these sarsaparilla/ginger/juniper/low ABV plans lead to. One such beer they've already begun trading in bars and pubs across East Lancashire is Malkin, a 4.1% keg beer (yeah, keg from Moorhouse's) brewed with Citra, Eldorado, Calypso and Cascade hops that'll also be - get this - sold in little crafty cans. It'll be followed by further additions to their keg range, and a lager. 

A bit of background - Malkin Tower was where the Pendle Witches were said to have summoned the devil. 
But back to the sexism. When I spoke about visiting Moorhouse's to brew on their new 100l kit - an installation they've acquired to test out batches of brand new crafty beers - I realised the extent of the disappointment people felt over the old branding. I was glad that other people were speaking out for me. I'm not a confrontational person, even from behind a keyboard. I've been taking notes from the people I admire who do the most in the name of equality in the beer industry and hope I can do better in the future. Sexism in the beer industry isn't going to go away overnight, but the constant reiteration of our expectations is doing good things. I hope this rebrand stirs up conversations around this important issue in the places that it matters - not just online where we agree with each other, but in CAMRA meetings, pub lounges and supermarket aisles.

I've recently taken the plunge and gone totally freelance. I rely on being paid to write these days - I know, mad right? - so if you enjoyed reading this post, or any on this blog, please consider buying me a pint over on ko-fi. It really is appreciated!

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Craft Brewing and Snooping at Moorhouse's

I'm an enthusiastic student if the subject interests me. If you've caught my attention, you can be assured that I'll do my best to make you proud - I'm the human equivalent of a golden retriever. I'm hoping this came off as endearing when I spent the morning with the team at Moorhouse's in Burnley on Tuesday 13th March. Being invited in to use their new 100l brew kit on my second full day of freelancing was an exciting prospect and once I'd finished my Nutella sandwich breakfast I was ready for a day of hard graft and learning. Lots of learning.

Assistant Brewer Jordan would be my teacher for the day and my first task was to walk through the brewery getting to know the equipment and the team busily working to a soundtrack of BBC Radio 6 (no complaints from me.) Jordan came to Moorhouse's after an early career in bar management. He told me he decided he liked the nightlife industry aged 15 when he began working as a cellarman for a local nightclub and continued to enjoy it as a bar manager until he saw a trainee brewer position come up.

"I just went for it, I thought, what have I got to lose? You've got to try."

Well, quite. It's not like I've not had the same exact internal monologue for the past three months. It's a hard logic to ignore. I asked him what he thinks made them choose him despite his lack of experience.

"I was really enthusiastic," he said. "And when they asked me what beer I'd like to brew, I told them a lambic, in a bathtub outside."

Next to the huge stainless steel equipment all around, the 100l craft kit looked tiny. Cute, even. I was shown the grains we were going to use, and the hops, and then we set to work mashing in with an extremely technical wooden paddle.

Jordan had helpfully written out the brewing record for "my" american brown ale before I got there. As you can see, there's a bit of torrified wheat for head retention and dextrin for body. On the whole, the grains were chosen to create a lovely malty taste but avoiding biscuitiness so the juicy Citra and Ekuanot can do some shining. I asked Jordan about the ratios and he said he'd asked a few people and read a few recipes to gauge what might be the best option.

"The best way to weigh a cow is to ask 200 people," he said, cryptically. "You'll get some outlandish answers but you'll get a lot of medians. In there is the right answer." Wiseness or insanity? Well, it seemed to work.

Once we'd mashed and cleaned up a bit, I went to speak to head brewer Dan, who after deciding to change careers in his 20s from a biochemist to a brewer, studied brewing at Herriot-Watt university. He's brewed for Jennings, Tetleys and a number of large breweries across the north of England, and perhaps surprisingly given his background, he has a passion for brewing experimental beers. During our conversation - which was much more like me asking him endless questions and him displaying the patience of a saint - we talked about sours and geuezes and his desire to brew bretted beers at Moorhouse's ("but we'd need to do some serious thinking about that because of the fear of contaminating the other beers with different yeasts.") He also told me he's a fan of hop-forward beers and that Cloudwater are his favourite new brewery.

It's conversations like this that a geek like me lives for. If you'd have told me that by visiting a traditional brewery in Burnley I'd end up talking at length with a very experienced brewer who's favourite beers are dank juicy boys, I'd have told you you were being silly. But here we are. Never judge a brewer by his hometown.

While I waited for the mash to do its thang, I enjoyed looking around the lab by myself, mainly because it made me feel like I was in a game about to replenish my inventory.

The most interesting thing about looking around the lab was finding ingredients for the experimental brews that'll be created on the 100l kit I was using. Juniper berries, spices, fruit extracts and herbs were sat patiently waiting for their day to come. Being able to let everyone loose with the experiment kit has piqued a lot of interest and saved a lot of potential wastage - at least if anything goes wrong, there's only 100 litres of bad beer to drain pour. It's much harder to justify letting your brewers experiment with huge, industrial scale equipment to the people paying for the ingredients and counting on a return. Another secret snoop found me a wooden barrel. I wonder what's going in there once it's been refurbed?

Back to work - it was time to test the colour of the run-off and would you look at that? It's brown af! 

Using another hi-tech stick we added our initial hops to the brew, went for lunch, then came back to siphon it all into the copper with a good dose of Moorhouse's own-grown yeast that's unbelievably valuable and smells very delicious. Before we did that we had a bit of a try. Hot, un-alcoholic, un-yeasted beer is an experience. It's got a healthy taste, but also old-fashioned in its vague sweet vegetableness. Like a Victorian protein shake.

Look at that yeasty cloud. What a babe.
Once all the brewing was over, I took a trip upstairs to see Lee the MD. He wanted to talk about the future of the brewery, and he also wanted to set some records straight. Although most of what we talked about is under embargo at the moment (I've got a feature on standby for when it's lifted,) what I can say is that he said he's looking forward to stepping away from the sexist branding on his products - and I believe him. It's almost common knowledge that Moorhouse's are undergoing a rebrand at the moment and Lee hasn't kept it a secret, but he wants the reveal to have impact and be on the brewery's own terms. All I can offer is the most un-newsworthy thing ever - I like it. I like the concept and the aesthetic. It's good. And this is my blog, so if you want to call me biased because I met and liked these people, you should also remember that this is a place for personal opinion. And that I've never lied to you before.

There's a lot riding on this rebrand. A brewery with beers that have been credited with awards for their quality and consistency is looking to become more inventive, more exciting and more relevant with a newer type of drinker. No matter how popular they remain, it will still cause controversy among some long-time fans. 

"The recipes are remaining entirely the same," I was assured, more than once. "We're looking to the future but we aren't forgetting what Moorhouse's is. We are not changing the taste or recipe or brewing methods of any of our beers.*"

On Monday 26th March, I'll be able to talk at length about the rebrand and so will you, because it'll be officially launched. I'm very interested to see what sort of reception it receives. I also wondered how the team felt about the future, but they're secure. Dan said when I asked him about what he thought of it all:

"I like it. Lee's at the front steering the ship and we all trust him."

*Full list of current beers: Pendle Witch, White Witch, Blond Witch, Pride of Pendle, Black Cat, Premier Bitter and Stray Dog.

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