Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The coolest bar you’ll never get to go to

This is not quite the post I expected to put up today, but I’d started so I’ll finish, as they say.

Earlier this year I posted about Grunting Growler, the growler station opened in Glasgow’s West End by Chicago native Jehad Hatu. Happily he had a good residency at the Bike Station with the hipsters of Kelvingrove flocking in. A second guest spot in up-and-coming Dennistoun followed at Dennistoun BBQ where the food is excellent (if you’re not yet fed up of barbeque), but didn’t last as long as hoped.

Jehad’s latest venture is in the unused space of the former Halt Bar, which is scheduled to become West on the Corner in the New Year. The old Halt had two distinct rooms, one the pub and the other for music events. Itself operating as a “pop-up” until they get around to refurbishing it, West are in the pub and Grunting Growler is operating in the former music venue. This must surely be the first pop-up within another pop-up.





It’s a nice space and is the closest Glasgow has yet got to the vibe of the railway-arch taprooms of East London, without any of the pretentiousness (actually, the East London places themselves are not pretentious either – that comes from the hype they get in the mainstream press).







At this stage, I was going to say that Grunting Growler is at 160 Woodlands Road for the rest of December and possibly the beginning of January (Wear warm clothes, because it’s freezing!)…

But you’ve missed your chance. As I heard yesterday, building work has started earlier than expected and the popup is already over. That’s the risk involved in attaching yourself to someone else’s project, I suppose. Hopefully Jehad will find another space soon.


Friday, 12 December 2014

T & J Bernard’s beer range in 1960

As we saw the other day, when Scottish Brewers took over Edinburgh rival T&J Bernard in 1960, Bernard’s were requested to supply details of their beer range, so that the most suitable substitute from the McEwan’s and Younger’s ranges could be found. Here’s the list they supplied.


Bernard beers in 1960
Bottled AlesGravitySize of Bottle
India Pale Ale103010oz 20oz
Brown Ale*103010oz
Special Export104310oz
Grouse Export104510oz
Double Brown Ale104310oz 20oz*
Strong Ale10686.5oz
Export Stout104510oz
Canned AlesGravitySize of Can
India Pale Ale103016oz
Export Beer104316oz
Grouse Ale104516oz
Export Stout104516oz
* Gateshead only

That looks like a pretty standard range for a Scottish brewer of the time. Weak IPA. A Strong Ale and a Stout. The theory of Northern and Southern English Brown Ale is further undermined, as we have a weak and a strong Brown Ale from the same brewer. What is puzzling me are the two Export beers with very similar gravities.

And the four canned beers, presumably the most popular, IPA, Export, Grouse and Export Stout. I can imagine some house parties fueled by those after pub closing time. Pubs closed earlier back then of course.

Draught Ale Qualities and Gravities
Scotland
QualityGravityRemarks
No 21036S.F. Priming at 1148º is added to both Qualities at the rate of 1pt. per brl. except during periods of warm weather e.g. July to end of September.
No 31031
Newcastle & District
QualityGravityRemarks
Special (No 1)1046No priming added
No 21036"
No 31031"
Grouse1045Supplied to one customer only (Dunston Social Club, Gateshead)

In common with other Scottish brewers, there was a significant trade with the Newcastle and Gateshead area, with beer being produced specially for that market. Did you notice that? Bernard’s had more different draught beers for the North East market than they did in Scotland. And there’s the Double Brown Ale packaged in pint bottles for the Geordies. I wonder what that was meant to compete with?

Also, they didn’t trust the locals with their strongest draught beer, No 1. If you wanted to get steaming, you’d have to neck the odd bottle of Strong Ale or glass of whisky between pints.

No priming was added in warm weather, or when beer was going to tropical Gateshead. Which suggests, to my naïve mind, that they were using a poorly attenuating yeast which took a long time to reach final gravity. Or perhaps they were racking to casks above final gravity as brewers do nowadays.

One more point. The other day, when we saw sales reps being instructed to make it clear to publicans that the substitute beer they’d be getting was going to be “container beer”, or keg as we call it today, I said that implied Bernard were still selling cask-conditioned beer. This proves it. The talk of priming is proof that the draught beer was cask ale.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Colours of Bernard, Younger and McEwan beers in 1960

I posted this document before because of the information in it about the mysterious names McEwan’s gave their beers. It shows the remarkable extent to which both Younger and McEwan and their Edinburgh rival T & J Bernard sold basically the same couple of draught beers in several different colour variations.

At the time, I didn’t know the provenance or precise date of the document. Now I do. I also know where it comes from, why it was written and when. Which makes it all a lot more exciting.



When Scottish Brewers, as they then were, took over T&J Bernard in 1960, the sales reps of the doomed and soon-to-be-closed Bernard brewery needed to be informed of the McEwan’s and Younger’s beers that were going to replace their own. See post from the other day.

The colour of the beer was obviously very important to customers. That’s why all three breweries were in the habit of making up several differently coloured versions of each draught beer, and why Scottish Brewers had to produce this overview of the colours of their own and Bernard’s beers.



Here are the colours of the beers made at Younger’s (Holyrood) and McEwan’s (Fountain) as brewed:


But it doesn’t end there by a long chalk. Beer was also coloured up before being sent out to certain customers, to a surprising number of different shades:


While at Holyrood:



How were they doing things at Bernard? Well, when it comes to colour, Bernard’s were doing their fair share of colouring up – even more, actually, but at least using the Lovibond scale instead of a made-up one of their own like Fountain did.


Colour No 3 Ale
For easy reference colours are generally known as:–
Light Tint25
Ordinary32
A shade of colour38
Dark45
Extra Dark58
Tint 8080
Inverness Dark150

Amazing stuff. No 3 was Bernard’s lowest gravity draught beer at 1031, so would have been sold as Light. Like the Light that you can still find in a rapidly shrinking number of Scottish pubs today, it was dark. I don’t pretend to understand the Lovibond colour scale, but isn’t 32 already pretty dark? What was the point of colouring it up to 80 or 150?


Colour. The scale used is 52 Series Lovibond and is the tint determined in a 1" cell.

No 2 Quality (Scotland) Tint 16. This colour is general in Scotland although there are some exceptions but not many. Newcastle Tint 25.

No 3 Quality
Colours vary according to the district.
3 customers in Dundee & one in Aberdeen25
Dundee32
Edinburgh32
Fife58
Inverness150
Borders45
East Coast45
Glasgow 25%45
50%58
12 1/2%80
12 1/2%150
Newcastle32
* Newcastle only

Here’s the consolidated table listing all the variations the three breweries produced between them:

Colours of Bernard, Younger and McEwan beer in 1960
Lovibond colourBrewerOld trade nameNameTypeRemarks
16BernardNo 2No 2Pale AleAs sold in Scotland
21YoungerP60/–XXPPale Ale/Light
21YoungerP70/–XXPSPale Ale/Heavy
21YoungerP80/–I.P.A.Pale Ale
24McEwan60/–5/aPale Ale/Light
24McEwanP70/–P70/–Pale Ale/Heavy
24McEwanP80/–P80/–Pale Ale/Export
25BernardNo 2No 2Pale AleAs sold in Newcastle
25BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/Light3 customers in Dundee & one in Aberdeen
32BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/LightDundee
32BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/LightEdinburgh
32BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/LightNewcastle
45BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/LightBorders
45BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/LightEast Coast + a couple in Glasgow
47YoungerP60/–XXPQPale Ale/Light
56McEwan60/–G5/aPale Ale/Light
58BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/LightFife + a couple in Glasgow
77YoungerP60/–XXPV
80BernardNo 3No 3Pale Ale/LightOne or two customers in Glasgow
88McEwan60/–D5/aPale Ale/Light
150Bernard No 3No 3Pale Ale/LightInverness + one or two in Glasgow


Each brewery seems to have had its own internal colour scale. At Fountain it was no different. Note the remark “Every effort should be made to take beer as brewed.” Which suggests to me that the demand for darker beer was from the customers, not the brewers.

Very few people living in Scotland can possibly remember Light beer being anything other than very dark. The BJCP, however, claims Scottish Light is an amber to copper beer. With the colour ranging between 21 Lovibond (Younger’s) and 150 (Bernard’s sold in Inverness), the reality in the heyday of Light was evidently more complicated than either scenario. Bernard used four different shades for Glasgow alone. If you bought your draught beer from T & J Bernard’s, you could get it pretty much any colour you wanted!

More seriously, we are probably seeing here the beginning of the period when Light moved to being dark generally.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Pub sells real ale for the first time in 54 years – and here's why it stopped

I’ve written a little about the Imperial Bar just off St Enoch Square before. I rather like it there, and have often wished that it sold cask beer.

The Imperial a couple of years ago

Well, sometimes wishes come true, but not exactly as you wanted them to.

For a couple of months ago, hand pumps appeared on the bar. But when I first tentatively asked for a pint from the unlabelled pump, it was vinegary and unpleasant, and it was only because I’d recently returned from Belgium that I was able to force it down. On my second visit the cask was equally poor and I had to content myself with a bottle of Old Peculier from the fridge. When I went in for the third time I finally got an acceptable glass of beer.

The Imperial since its recent refurb. The leaded glass panels have been
safely relocated inside the pub.
But here’s the sad part: I’m not sure the beer will ever get better than acceptable, because it comes from the Caledonian Brewery. Normally I wouldn’t cross the street for their beer, because the quality has declined so much. It’s a terrible shame, because Deuchars IPA was once a marvellous beer and one I was happy to drink anywhere.

I can’t fault the pub: it’s a brave step but they are tied to Heineken and have to sell what the Heineken-owned Caley produces. Indeed, the pub has been in the hands of Heineken, and Scottish & Newcastle before them, as far back as I can trace. And that’s what makes this particular story interesting: because we can state with an unusual degree of confidence exactly when the Imperial last sold real ale.

It was the autumn of 1960 — 54 years ago! – and Maitland’s Bar, as the pub was then, belonged to Edinburgh brewer T & J Bernard. In that year Bernard and its Edinburgh Brewery was taken over – and closed down – by Scottish Brewers of McEwan’s and Younger’s fame (the merger that formed S&N was still to come).

There was none of the nonsense you see today about continuing to brew the brands at another location. The first thing the new management did was send their sales reps round all their pubs to tell their tenants that in future they were going to get McEwan’s or Younger’s beer, as this memo to the reps shows:



Strictly Private and Confidential.

Instructions to Representatives of T. & J. Bernard, Ltd.

The following instructions are to be complied with on and after 22nd August, 1960 and not before that date.

DRAUGHT BEER.

Each representative will be given a list of his present customers and will notice that against each bulk customer is marked in ink a Y or an M or M/Y or Y/M.

Y denotes Wm. Younger & Co’s Bulk
M     " Wm. McEwan’s Bulk
M/Y or Y/M  " either brand

On and after 22nd August, 1960 each representative will visit his customers and advise them that production will cease at the Edinburgh Brewery shortly. He will then tentatively suggest the proposed new beer, Y or M as marked on his list. If the customer agrees to the suggestion, the change can take place immediately. If, however, the customer objects and insists on the opposite beer:–

(a) In the case of free customers, the customer should be allowed his choice.

(b) In the case of loan customers, the representative should hedge and report back for further instructions.

(c) In the case of tenanted properties, the customer must accept the beer offered.

When the beers have been substituted the representative will require to state the shades when giving orders and, if necessary, he may submit samples to the Abbey or Fountain Brewery.

The following table is for reference when suggesting the substitution of beers.

B.Y.M.
No. 3XXP 60/–
No. 2XXPS70/–

Only filtered and carbonated beer is supplied by Y and M in 11 gallon containers with the above qualities.

DISCOUNTS.

No discount is to be given to any customer in cash. Discounts will be deducted from accounts except in certain cases when six-monthly cheques will be sent. Discount is limited to 3/–d. per barrel. In certain cases which will be specified to each representative concerned only 1/6d. per barrel is allowed.

BOTTLED BEER.

(1) The retention by Scottish Brewers of the maximum possible proportion of existing Bernard’s Bottled Beer trade is just as important as the retention of draught beer trade.

(2) There is here no question of any particular emphasis on Y brands. The applicable ruling is that where there are duplicate qualities (e.g. Export, Strong Ale, Pale Ale, etc.,) the emphasis and preference is M qualities, since these are in all cases the better sellers. Every effort should also be made to substitute Younger’s Sweet Stout for Bernard’s Stout.

(Source: Scottish Brewing Archive, document TJB 6/1/2/4)

A very revealing document which gets down to the nitty gritty of how Scottish Brewers worked to push their own beers to publicans, complete with details of how to tackle reluctant customers and how much leeway the sales reps were allowed to give them.

In the last paragraph we see that there was a policy of pushing the McEwan’s brands rather than Younger’s – I don’t know exactly why.

The curt note “Only filtered and carbonated beer is supplied by Y and M in 11 gallon containers with the above qualities.” is the key. “Container beer” – or keg as it later became known – was all that was going to be offered to Scottish Brewers’ involuntary new customers. This implies that Bernard must have still been supplying cask-conditioned beer – or “beer” as it was known then — to at least some of its customers.

Instructive is the table of what the brewery regarded as equivalent beers:

BernardYoungerMcEwan
No. 3XXP60/–
No. 2XXPS70/–

Note the use of the word “quality” to distinguish different strengths of beer — I’m not sure if this is a particularly Scottish usage, but it is common in old documents, and I know of at least one brewery where it is still used today.

More details on the actual beers to follow.



Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Will WEST wreck what Punch couldn’t?

The new layout as proposed by Punch in 2012
The saga of the Halt Bar continues. I’ve been sent drawings of the proposed refurbishment to be completed in the next few months as the transformation of the pub, presently trading as “Pop up WEST”, into “WEST on the Corner” is completed.

Sadly it looks like the same thing is being planned that Punch tried to do in 2012. The Edwardian central bar is to be removed and a new bar installed at the edge of the space, to make more room for seating. It looks like the separate snug – a very rare feature in Glasgow – will also be ripped out. CAMRA’s Heritage Pubs Group said in 2012 that these features along with the wood panelling on the walls are of significant interest.

Plan proposed for Noah Beer (WEST’s holding company) in 2014


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Narziss slams the state of German brewing

Professor Ludwig Narziss wrote the book on German brewing. Literally. His two-volume work (with Werner Back) titled simply Die Bierbrauerei is one of the standard textbooks for brewers, so much so that it is referred to just as “der Narziss”. He was already teaching brewing science at Weihenstephan in 1964.

So when the veteran professor, now 89, got up to sharply criticise the decline in standards in German brewing last week, it should have been a big deal.

As news site Biertäglich.eu reports, Narziss spoke at a seminar run by the Austrian Brewers' Federation at the end of October. His remarks were about the development of flavour in German beer in the last fifty years. And when you have been around as long as Narziss has, you can demonstrate long-term change with data.

Before 1993 the German beer duty regime was based on strength categories: Schankbier, Vollbier, Starkbier, etc., with a flat rate within each category. The move to taxation strictly on the basis of alcoholic strength brought with it the possibility of shaving off a couple of points to save some tax. Narziss showed that this was precisely what had happened in recent years, with a significant drop in the original gravities of beers. Even half a degree Plato has a discernible effect on the beer’s flavour, said the Professor.

Boiling and fermentation too have been compromised for the sake of efficiency; the decoction mash of the past largely abolished, and in some cases the wort is not even boiled vigorously enough to drive off the DMS which gives beer that sweetcorn aroma.

A slight acidification of the mash before brewing has many advantages and has therefore become widespread practice, said Narziss, but this has also meant convergence of flavour.

The development over the last 50 years has been toward ever more similar, more and more neutral beers. Distinctive house flavours from esters, higher alcohols, resins have been reduced, and the use of high-alpha bittering hops and hop extracts have robbed beer of the complexity that the other components of hops give it. Narziss finished by challenging the assembled brewmasters to return to beers of character, with a proper three-addition hopping schedule; to experiment with different hopping techniques and new varieties.

Narziss’ critique is in line with what other observers have been saying for several years. This 2012 documentary has not been the only TV programme on the subject. A couple of weeks ago the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine too ran an article on the same topic, focussing on the closure of the once proud Iserlohner brewery.

All have come to the conclusion that beer is being dumbed down to compete at the unsustainably low prices forced on the brewers by supermarkets. When the brewers formed an illegal cartel in defence, they were pilloried in the press. Three out of every four crates of beer are now sold at a promotional price as low as eight euro.

Eight euro for a crate of 20 half-litre bottles: it may sound like a paradise for beer drinkers, but the consequence of such low prices is that the beer itself must be bastardised – and there are, as Professor Narziss points out, plenty of ways to do that within the constraints of the Reinheitsgebot.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A visit to Jaw Brew

Industrial estates are generally pretty grim places, and the one on the south-west edge of Glasgow where Jaw Brew is based is no exception. But it’s a sunny day, the train station is not far and there is an attractive view of the Kilpatrick hills in the distance, beyond the airport. That’s more than most such estates have going for them.

Jaw is just off the main drag and round a corner, where owner and brewer Mark Hazell is in the middle of a boil on his tiny 5-barrel kit. In the last few months Mark has done a good job of getting his beer into local outlets. It’s become such a common sight that I often forget how new the brewery still is – he’s been brewing commercially only since May.

Mark is particularly proud that his own local pub sells Jaw beer, and has landed another coup by getting it into the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow, which usually sells Fyne Ales exclusively. Pubs are generally quite happy to take his beer, says Mark – it’s the big pub companies that are the problem. They have a list of suppliers they can be bothered to deal with and the tied pubs can only take what they are given. Some of the smaller pubcos are no better either.

Mark pretending to take a sample from the fermenter for the photo

Jaw Drop and Jaw Drift are the two main beers, one selling more in cask, the other in bottle. Unusually (I think), the two main beers are both pale. Drop can taste a little burnt to me with a rather harsh bitterness. I am keener on Drift, which is sweet and full-bodied but bitter at the same time, with a gently floral hop flavour.

Today though Mark is brewing a new beer for the first time in the brewery – a mild provisionally entitled Fathom. The grist contains Maris Otter, crystal, chocolate and black malt. We taste a sample of the trial brew: it’s rich, oily and liquoricey with a genuinely surprising thick, viscous mouthfeel that suggests a beer of 8% or more, not the sub-4% ale it actually is. Perhaps it’s a bit too full for the quaffing beer it’s meant to be.

Mark has little time for new-fangled beers with weird ingredients. “Simple” is a word he keeps using. Plain beers for people to drink in quantity. So far, there seem to be plenty of customers who agree. Between my visit and finishing this post, Fathom has been released to pubs and won Jaw’s first SIBA award – pretty good going for a beer that’s been brewed once.
Photo courtesy of Laurieston Bar (hi Joe)

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why can’t Tennent’s make a success of a premium lager?

The 1980s was the decade of “premium” lager. All manner of well-known lager brands – even Harp – sprouted premium extensions, the formula of slighter higher gravity and more sophisticated packaging being an easy one to replicate.

Tennent Caledonian – then part of the Bass empire – came up with Gold Bier, a lager that many still remember today. I remember that I liked it a lot, though I can’t say whether I would like it now. It had nice typography and glossy double-page adverts with stylish copywriting, in the days when lager drinkers were treated as literate.


Gold Bier lasted well into the 1990s and seemed to be fairly popular, but it eventually disappeared. I have no evidence for this claim, but I have always assumed it got the chop after the Belgian group Interbrew bought Bass and Whitbread. The merged group already had heavyweight premium lagers Stella Artois and Beck’s and didn’t need Gold Bier competing with them.



Tennents had another go in 2008 with a beer called 1885, after the putative date when Tennents, according to themselves, started brewing lager (there has been some dispute in the Scottish Brewing Archive’s journal as to whether this claim is accurate). 1885 was another pale, green-bottled 330ml effort, with a husky, grainy flavour. It didn’t last long. Apparently there was an ad campaign for it, but I don’t remember ever seeing it.



Fast-forward now to Tennent’s Original Export Lager, launched just two years ago. Original Export had very plush packaging indeed and some impressive adverts. The beer was quite drinkable too, all-malt and full-bodied; I’d have bought it regularly if there had been a few more hops. Both the beer and marketing were, in my view, head and shoulders above that of the keg ale Caledonian Best launched around the same time.



And yet Best has flourished and Export flopped, which just goes to show that brewers shouldn’t take my advice about anything.

I’m looking at a six-pack of the new Black T. It’s Original Export re-branded, I am told – I haven’t tasted it yet. I suppose the idea is to link it with other allegedly premium products: Stella Black, Smirnoff black label, Johnnie Walker black label. Whether it will be any more successful than its predecessors remains to be seen.

Why have Tennent’s efforts to get into the premium sector failed so regularly?

Well, that has, I think, something to do with who drinks (or doesn’t drink) Tennent’s and how they regard it. I tend to divide them into four groups.

1. TL fans. These folks love Tennent’s Lager and consider it the best lager available. They like the standard lager, so have no real motivation to buy the premium version (You see expat examples of these on the Tennent’s Facebook page, begging to know where they can get a frosty can of TL in Australia or America).

2. Tennents-haters. Do not believe anything remotely drinkable can ever come out of Wellpark. It should be fairly obvious why a new beer is not going to sell well among this group.

The Tennents brand is quite peculiar in being loved by the first group, but toxic among the second. 

There is a third group which I think is a bit unusual.

3. Contemptuous consumers
. There is in Scotland a discernible group of consumers who think Tennent’s is rubbish. But they drink it anyway.

Why exactly this contempt exists, I’m not sure. Perhaps the local, ubiquitous beer will always be scorned, irrespective of its actual quality. I think Tennent’s is no worse than most standard UK lagers and better than some. It’ll never be my favourite beer but it doesn’t deserve the abuse it gets from some quarters.

Which brings me onto my fourth group, which consists of me and three or four other people.

4. Agnostics. I am not joking about the small size of this group. Every Scottish drinker, it seems, has an opinion on Tennents; it’s almost as divisive as Marmite. I have only ever met one other person who was willing to judge a Tennent’s beer on its merits (I’m vain enough to imagine that I try to be objective).

Over and above that, though, we have to consider other factors: the commoditisation of premium lager itself, and whether there is actually room for another brand. But that’s for another time. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

If Scotland goes independent

What would change for beer drinkers, if Scotland were to vote on Thursday to become independent?

I’ll give the answer first of all: we don’t know, but – I suspect – not really very much.

For the question on Thursday is on the general principle of independence, not the details. As long as it’s not yet cut and dried what currency we’ll use, then the type of thing that would affect beer, such as rates of beer duty or fuel costs, are still a long way from being certain.

I read somewhere that duty harmonisation was one of the long-term goals of the EU. We don’t seem to be making much progress in that respect – the Germans would not stand for the pittance they pay in beer tax going up, and the neo-prohibitionists of Britain will not dream of cutting it. However, I do think it’s unlikely that actual duty rates would differ very much. Other factors are another matter entirely.

We do already have a more restrictive licensing regime in Scotland. As I understand it, in England and Wales the presumption is that you apply for a licence and you will get it – unless there is a good reason not to grant it. In Scotland, would-be licensees have to argue why they should be granted one in front of an often reluctant licensing board; in some areas the board has agreed a “no new licences” policy. I know of at least one microbrewery which is unable to open a tasting room at the brewery for this reason.

The SNP government has enacted several measures in Scotland such as banning multi-buy promotions of alcohol (e.g. three bottles of wine for a tenner or four bottles of beer for a fiver), and is at the forefront of trying to introduce minimum pricing. These are devolved matters and we have them whether Scotland becomes independent or not. It’s worth noting that Westminster would also like to do these things, but has just found it politically difficult.

Currently I can buy London microbrewery beer in Glasgow for pretty much the same money as at the brewery. If I want Belgian beer, I can expect to pay two or three times what it costs in Belgium. Out of self-interest, I wouldn’t like to see the price of English beer rocket, so let’s examine why Belgian beer is so much more expensive by the time it gets here. Basically the beer duty is vastly lower in Belgium. Once it arrives in the UK, it becomes liable for UK duty, and because much of it is above 7.5%, also attracts the higher rate for strong beer.

I asked several brewers and beer sellers what they thought would be the effects of independence on beer. In general, all – like most businesses – took a “wait and see” attitude. None made melodramatic claims that they would be forced to stop trading in Scotland. I suspect that most businesses who make public statements either for or against independence are really doing it due to the existing political affiliations of their owners. For that reason, I didn’t ask brewers who I already knew were personally Yes or No.

A substantial brewer with a presence in both countries made a cautiously PR-friendly statement that they were committed to their businesses in both, and were sure they had the flexibility to cope with any variations in different markets. 

The preservation of the existing reduced rate of duty is very important to the smallest brewers, and Dave Whyte of Demon Brew has written to the Scottish Government to call for assurances that this will continue.
 
While the current Scottish Government may be quite anti-alcohol on a social policy level, one brewer had praise for its support of the food and drink sector; the fact of independence might well enhance the brand “Scotland” in export markets.  

One thing we can say for definite: there will be more paperwork. Not necessarily an excessive amount, but in cross-border trade, beer duty will have to be paid to two different revenue authorities. It’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle, and surely professionally-run businesses should be able to automate such routine tasks.

It should not affect individual breweries too much, as (as far as I am aware) most beer trade between Scotland and England already goes through wholesalers. Unsurprisingly, the beer distributors I spoke to were rather less enthusiastic than the brewers – probably because they will be the ones who end up doing the additional paperwork. 

This is a very theoretical view I am putting forward here, of course: in the short term there may be a shortage of wholesalers who are set up with the appropriate know-how and registrations. One wholesaler I spoke to said that frankly there are too many unknowns, and that beer would the least of our worries if there should be a crisis of confidence in Scotland.

At the CAMRA AGM in May, chairman Colin Valentine, a Scot, was asked what the potential implications for CAMRA would be, if Scotland went independent. His answer was that they hadn’t given it much consideration and that in the event of a Yes vote, the process of independence would take at least eighteen months, which would be enough time to sort out anything that needed sorting out.

At the time the opinion polls showed a double-digit lead for No in the referendum campaign, so the prospect of a Yes seemed far more remote than it does now. The position remains the same – there will be an issue at the time there is an issue.

CAMRA is in a reasonably easy position. It’s not a bank like RBS or Lloyds with any great regulatory framework to service.

One branch officer thought the structure might have to change and have the Scottish branches grouped across Scotland, rather than together with Northern Ireland as they are now. (I confess I cannot see the reasoning for this unless the organisation were to split.)

There will of course be technical and financial questions – it may be that CAMRA in Scotland would need its own financial arrangements, especially if it ends up with a different currency. Transferring funds between Scottish branches and St Albans might have implications for the current tax efficient CAMRA practice. In principle I don’t see why this should be any great problem – other businesses set up registered offices and subsidiary companies all the time, and CAMRA need not be any different.

However, if there is a popular backlash against the Scots down south, we might see some ugly letters in What’s Brewing. I have seen one post on an unofficial forum which assumed that all Scottish pubs and breweries would be deleted from the Good Beer Guide and the space redistributed to the English and Welsh CAMRA branches.

I doubt it will come to that. CAMRA is a voluntary organisation, not an asset of the UK to be fought over or divided up, and there is no major political or technical reason it cannot operate in two countries.

A quick aside. One of the misconceptions surrounding the referendum is the idea that it has come about as a result of a rise in Scottish nationalism, or that we dislike English people more than we used to. Media elsewhere might represent it such, but this is a misleading interpretation.

It is misleading because the electoral success of the Scottish National Party does not in fact reflect a shift to nationalist ideology among voters. Scots have continued to vote for pretty much the same sort of social-democratic mixed-economy policies they have supported for the last fifty years. It’s just that this particular political space has been vacated by the Labour Party, and the SNP has filled the gap, hoovering up former Labour voters.

Why is this particular insight relevant to beer? Well, it’s because I want to argue that recent years have not seen a growth of national chauvinism with regard to beer either. In fact, when it comes to beer I think the reverse is true.


 

Even though the brewery has gone and the brand is now owned by Wells & Youngs of Bedfordshire,  beer brands like McEwan’s are seen as iconically Scottish. It wasn’t always thus.

The ideology of earlier times can be well seen in this McEwan’s advert. The kilted Scottish soldier shares a pint with the English redcoat, but both are standing in front of the Union Flag. The old McEwan’s globe logo itself reminds every drinker of the Empire, on which the sun supposedly never set. Indeed, in the nineteenth century McEwan’s had huge contracts with the British military, arguably contributing substantially to the brewery’s success and growth.

Tennent’s too was happy to ride on the coat-tails of the Empire, and at one point was the world’s leading exporter of bottled beer.

The development of modern Scottish nationalism since the 1940s is too much to go into here, and not enough to do with beer. Yet somehow by the 1970s the taken-for-granted Unionism had vanished from Scottish & Newcastle’s advertising. It was a time of confidence and record-breaking sales of beer, despite early signs of economic decline. S&N demolished the old Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh and built a vast new complex in its place to produce more and more Tartan Special and McEwan’s Export, believing the thirsty long-haired young men in denim who still poured in and out of the shipyards and steelworks every day would be there for ever.

OK, this is an extreme example, as it involves football, when all assumptions
of political common sense go out the window
If you think much of the culture of beer drinking is macho now, you should have seen Scotland in the 1970s. I am reminded of a throwaway Billy Connolly line from a routine about going to house parties: “You’d better get some Bacardi – there might be women there.” This is actually quite revealing: it tells us both that women didn’t drink beer, and that it was not unusual for a drinking party to be an all-male gathering.

One of the early activists of CAMRA in Scotland, Alan Watson, found it necessary to criticise Scottish chauvinism in beer in an early article in 1975:

‘It is ironic that it should be the Scots who make such a fetish of their ability to hold their drink, who should show least concern for the way that beer has been adulterated and weakened over recent years. As a nation we respond too quickly and uncritically to any appeal to our chauvinism e.g. “Tartan”, “Burns Special” and Piper Export, and knowing “for a fact” that Scottish beer IS stronger, are impervious to any objective evidence that in terms of specific gravity not one of the common keg beers sold in Scotland would be placed in the top twenty British beers.’ (Glasgow University Guardian, 13 March 1975).
No longer the beer of the Empire … but
every Scotsman knows McEwan’s is best,
says this 1972 advert

The tendency of Scots drinkers to dismiss English beer as not worth drinking was tempered by the limited availability of it. There was no guest beer system then, so sightings of English beer were few and far between. According to one CAMRA veteran, though, Draught Bass was so good that a blind eye was regularly taken to its country of origin.

The keg equivalent, Bass Special, did not fare so well. In the early 1980s Tennent Caledonian, then part of the vast Bass conglomerate, was trying to push Bass Special in its Scottish pubs. Eventually market researchs discovered that, to put it over-bluntly, the punters didn’t want English beer. The dilemma eventually led to the creation of Tennent’s Special as a home-grown brand for the Scottish market, announced in the brewery’s in-house paper:

“Tennent’s Special will eventually replace Bass Special, which research has shown as not the best brand name to attack effectively Younger’s Tartan Special, in what represents the largest sector of the Scottish Ale Market … the product itself, when researched ‘blind’, i.e. when the consumers were unaware which brand they were drinking, certainly measured up to the others in quality and consistency and, quite often, was rated as preferable.

“It was only when the consumers were told that they were drinking Bass Special that … [it] suddenly became ‘weak, flat, uninteresting, watery’ and, most nonsensical at all when one was measuring the effect on taste-buds, — ‘non-Scottish’! Almost chauvinism run riot showing that the problem basically has been psychological!” (Tennent’s Times, Autumn 1983).

While Scots and Englishmen still like to jovially insult each other’s beer, just as drinkers in the North and South of England do, it is difficult today to imagine a beer brand from outside Scotland meeting such consumer resistance here as is described above. What happened? Well, further concentration of the brewing industry happened.


The 1960s had seen most of the smaller Scottish breweries swallowed up into larger combines. “No fewer than ten of the above Scots firms have disappeared into the Bass Charrington maw, their breweries for the most part razed like Carthage,” raged Watson (Glasgow CAMRA, it seems to me, has always prided itself on a splendidly immoderate turn of phrase).

This continued until by the 1990s only a few Scottish-based breweries remained, with most beer marketing controlled by increasingly multinational companies. These were more interested in promoting huge multinational brands than the local brands they’d acquired.

All beer drinkers were forced to embrace a less regional beer culture. It would not be correct to say more homogeneous, for the number of brands and beers available mushroomed.

For drinkers of mainstream beers, the culture did not become British so much as global, with names like Drybrough and Alloa falling by the wayside in favour of Miller, Budweiser, Peroni, John Smiths, Heineken, Fosters, Stella Artois. It didn’t matter so much that they were nearly all brewed under licence in the UK. The point is that it became increasingly difficult for a would-be chauvinist to stick exclusively to Scottish beer.

Drinkers of CAMRA-approved real ale, on the other hand, began to see increasing numbers of English beers appearing to supplement the rather meagre choice available from the remaining Scottish breweries. Drinking English beer was often a necessity if you wanted any variety. So for real ale drinkers too, material reality intervened to make anti-English sentiment ridiculous.

It would be ridiculous anyway, as English-born members have contributed a huge amount to CAMRA in Scotland. The Scottish branches have a disproportionately large number of activists who learned to drink real ale in England, came north and fought for it here too. The brewing scene too owes a great deal to breweries owned and/or run by people who have come to Scotland from elsewhere.

Judging by the popularity of the likes of Oakham and Dark Star round here, an appreciation for English brewers’ art is not going to go away, whatever happens.

(Although I have promised not to name them, I am very grateful to all the people I spoke to for this post for their insights).

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Probably the best lager in Bermondsey


There’s a fine line between being a critical consumer and being that miserable bastard who doesn’t like anything. I feel I sometimes err on the latter side too often. So it’s a great pleasure to come across a new beer I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Fourpure is one of the newest London breweries. But most of London’s breweries are new these days, and that doesn’t really tell you very much.

The beer I am so keen on is their Pils. Just Pils. No fancy barrel-aged hibiscus flower saison; it’s a Pils and a damn good one.

Occasionally your mouth tells you “wait a minute, maybe this is just a little too bitter”, and then you drink it again and decide it isn’t after all.

I have no idea whether Fourpure’s other beers are also as good as this, and to be honest I don’t really care. One beer as good as this is plenty for any brewery.

In Scotland Fourpure is available at bars and shops supplied by A New Wave. In London, I guess you can get it at the brewery. Possibly most of England is still missing out.