Saturday, 9 May 2015

Last goodbye to the Brauhaus

I’ve been hoping against hope that it wouldn’t come true, but — it looks like my brief taste of Brauhaus Schweinfurt beer in December was my last after all. The Russian brewery that was supposedly going to buy and continue the business cancelled at the last minute, and no other investor could be found to take on the brewery, which had been losing money for some years.

The doors finally closed at the end of April. The regional giant Kulmbacher (itself a merger of Erste Kulmbacher (EKU) and Reichelbräu) has bought such assets as were of any value to it, but the brewery itself no longer has a future in making beer.

It’s a sad end to a brewery with more than 150 years of history.  But Kulmbacher has been gobbling up its regional competitors for years, some much older than the Brauhaus – fifteen years ago it picked up the struggling 200-year-old Hiernickel brewery of Hassfurt (between Schweinfurt and Bamberg), and ten years ago it bought the Würzburger Hofbräu which had existed since the 1600s.

The only remaining brewery in the town is now the much smaller Brauerei Roth, which some years ago also had a struggle to regain its independence, having been sold to the Munich Löwenbräu conglomerate.

I cannot conceive of Schweinfurt without its brewery, because it has always been such a central part of my visits there. What’s worse is that no one much seems to care. There’s been no outpouring of grief as happened at the Brauerei Schwelm, for example; and going by the comments on online boards, many local drinkers had no appreciation for the Brauhaus beer anyway. It seems some would still rather buy a crate of Krombacher on special offer than have a local brewery of their own. And that’s a tragedy.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Well, what’s wrong with being sexy?

So now you know.

Our motion about sexism in the beer industry for the CAMRA AGM – many thanks again to all the people who commented and helped develop it – was rejected by the conference procedures committee on the grounds, basically, that everything we were proposing was already CAMRA policy and/or the law of the land.

It’s good that our main points are uncontentious, but as the point of bringing a motion to the AGM was to raise the profile of the issue, I am a bit disappointed that it will not be on the order paper there.

I have appealed the decision, but do not expect anything to come of it.

It would have been nice if CAMRA had taken the opportunity to have headlines reading “CAMRA raises call for fight against beer sexism” rather than “CAMRA issues sexist leaflet”.

But what do I know? I wasn’t the marketing genius who came up with this:

“If you don’t like it, submit a motion to conference,” is what gripers are always told. Well, it’s not as simple as that and perhaps we were naïve. You also need people who know CAMRA’s decision-making set-up and procedures inside out, just as you wouldn’t represent yourself in court or try to get legislation passed without professional advice.

However, next year’s motion is already written and much more concise, so I hope for more success. Here is the full text:

“Conference instructs the National Executive to read the existing equality policy.”

Monday, 6 April 2015

Every Scottish brewery now officially “craft”

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the United States a couple of weeks ago, due to the news that “craft” breweries, as defined by the Brewers Association, have achieved a share of 11% of the American beer market, reaching double digits for the first time.

Good for the brewers involved, but I’m afraid they have a bit of catching up to do. For another bit of news last week reveals that Scotland has achieved an amazing 100% market share, with every one of the nation’s brewers now making “craft beer”.

The Craft Beer Clan is a marketing effort aimed at boosting sales of its members’ beer, focusing at first on emerging markets in the Far East, but also with point-of-sale promotions run in UK convenience stores supplied by one of its principal backers, wholesaler J W Filshill. The alliance is run by a group of mostly ex-Diageo consultants, with the best-known face being Chris Miller, formerly of Caledonian and Harviestoun. We learn:

The Craft Beer Clan of Scotland have gathered humbly with a simple quest: to enjoy and share the finest Scottish craft beer with the world.
Our mission is to team up with Scottish brewers and partners, who wish to join us in our quest to introduce the great flavours of Scottish craft beer with new drinkers around the world. Drinkers who value quality over quantity, who seek out new and interesting flavours, and are never satisfied with the ordinary.

The breweries signing up to be involved in this – currently 19 are listed on the Clan website – range from tiny Jaw Brew through heavy hitters Inveralmond, Fyne and Williams Bros right up the scale to Heineken-owned Caledonian and lager behemoth Tennent’s.

Even though its core products are in long-term decline, with volumes slowly slipping year after year, Tennent’s still brews more than half the beer drunk in Scottish pubs. If they’re a craft brewer, then so are all the others smaller than them.

I am sure this will wind up many “craft beer” enthusiasts – for most of whom Tennent’s is the devil incarnate – tremendously, which is a very good thing. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The beer that changed my life

By Dr. Volkmar Rudolf/Tilman2007 (Own work)
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I was dismayed shortly after New Year to hear that the old-established Brauhaus Schweinfurt brewery from the town of the same name in Franconia had gone into liquidation. It’s a brewery that has a very special place for me, because it was the first beer I ever drank and enjoyed.

The Brauhaus is a typical regional Bavarian brewery of the type which still have a strong position in their local market, although their numbers are in long-term decline as more and more disappear, replaced by a Krombacher and Bitburger monoculture. You won’t find their beer in Britain either, although bizarrely enough their alcohol-free lager did turn up occasionally some years ago.

So, most beer drinkers will never come across it. Unless, like me, you come from Motherwell, a post-industrial dump in the West of Scotland. Due to a common interest in heavy industry, the formerly steel-producing Motherwell has a twin town partnership with Schweinfurt and its huge ball-bearing factories.

More than 25 years ago now, and through a complete coincidence, I got to take part in an exchange visit. This so nearly never even happened, as I was on the reserve list rather than in the original group. As a raw 18-year-old I was thrown into a week of worthy tours of factories and social enterprises – combined with evenings spent at beer festivals. The visit was in summer and at that time of year southern German towns are alive with local festivals organised by groups as varied as church choirs and the ward branches of political parties.

I swear I couldn’t have had a better introduction to beer than being submerged in this. We were confronted with litre glasses overflowing with frothy beer, whole evenings drinking with the other participants. Much of my knowledge of the German language has definitely been acquired by osmosis. Sat on the hard, orange-painted wooden benches typical of beer gardens, my command of it seemed to improve with every mouthful of beer I took.  

The golden liquid was strangely bitter to my inexperienced palate, but there was a rich sweetness to it as well. The taste grew on me, litre by litre, until by the end of the trip I was a lager drinker. I remember carrying ten bottles home in my luggage. The same year Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter series aired on British TV and I was enthralled.

How the Brauhaus Pils label looked when I first encountered it
So I’m perhaps a bit unusual among British beer lovers of my generation, in that I discovered the world of beer through proper lager rather than through cask ale. There was no real ale in Motherwell then (with the exception of Wetherspoons there still isn’t), so my first exposure to a beer that tasted good was the Bavarian stuff. I scorned other beers at first, turning up my nose at anything that wasn’t German, but the bug had got me and soon I was trying and sampling my way through as many of the locally available beers as I could afford. It was quite a simple methodology. There were no beer rating websites then. I simply bought every beer once. If I liked it, I bought it again. If I didn’t, I didn’t.

When I briefly lived in Schweinfurt a couple of years later, I got to know the Brauhaus beers better. I decided the Pils was still may favourite. They made wheat beer as well, but I thought those of the local rival – the long since taken over Werner-Bräu of Poppenhausen – were better. On the other hand, Brauhaus made better lagers than Werner. It was a good combination.

This week it was reported that an investor – a family-owned Russian brewery which has not been named – has been found to take over the Brauhaus business. As well as the brewery, the company is purchasing the (currently separately owned) land on which it sits, and promises significant investment in the plant.

As the alternative would have been a complete asset-stripping and closure of the brewery, I am glad that it will survive for at least a little longer. We can only speculate what plans the new owners may have in the long term. To me, what matters is that I will get to take at least one more trip to Schweinfurt to drink the Brauhaus beer that changed my life.

Recently – but before the insolvency news broke – I was in Schweinfurt again for the first time in years. It’s only about half an hour away from Bamberg so I tend to give the latter my attention. I only had time for one beer but dropped into the Brauhaus am Markt restaurant in the pretty town square opposite the Rathaus. This was the original site of the brewery before it moved a bit down the road to its current site shortly before the First World War, so seemed appropriate enough.

I didn’t know it at the time, but had no investor been found that would have been my last taste of Brauhaus Schweinfurt.

Ordering a Pils – “Peeels” as the waitress called it in the local accent – I was prepared for the worst: to find that nostalgia had coloured my memory of a dull, bog-standard lager that only a neophyte would find impressive. I once thought that Warsteiner and Hacker-Pschorr were superb, after all.

But when my beer arrived, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve thought for a long time that there is a distinct style of Franconian Pilsner, more similar to a Czech beer than to the Pils of northern Germany (which shouldn’t be that surprising when you observe the proximity of Bohemia and Franconia on a map). It was as good as ever, full-bodied with a slightly citrussy hop aroma. I was quite delighted, and I hope to be delighted by Brauhaus Pils again for quite some time to come.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

How can CAMRA lead in combatting beer sexism?

[Note: This post has been edited.]

I don’t have time at the moment to write an introduction explaining why this document is here, but I am just putting this draft up here so that people can comment. Thanks to all who have already made suggestions for improvements.

One of the starkest problems of British beer is that it is still widely seen as a drink for men. Many women who do drink it comment regularly that they experience sexist behaviour in the world of beer – whether from fellow drinkers, bar staff, festival volunteers or from the beer industry itself which regularly markets itself with material that assumes its audience is male (and also sexist).

Some people think that CAMRA is part of the problem. I think that CAMRA is actually a bit better than society in general, but being a bloke I could be grossly mistaken. If I’m right, CAMRA should be showing a good example and tackling sexism, rather than turning a blind eye to it. The idea that CAMRA should be in the forefront of making things better is one I owe to this post by Yvan.

On paper CAMRA is already committed to equality.

It’s time, I think, for us to adopt a stronger commitment to being on the right side of this, and the motion you can read below has been submitted to CAMRA’s AGM to be held in April.

After some discussion in the comments, we amended the motion as follows, which is the motion as submitted for the Members’ Weekend (struck-out portions have been removed, and additions are highlighted).

In the interests of reaching a consensus, we stop short of imposing mandatory sanctions on branches, pubs or breweries.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion.

Draft motion below:

CAMRA has a long-standing commitment to equality. We have never sided with self-styled "traditionalists" who maintain that pubs are men's domain. 
CAMRA has an existing policy that we do not tolerate racist or sexist harassment.
Yet time and again we hear from women who say they are not comfortable drinking beer in pubs and at beer festivals. They complain of being patronised, leered at and having to put up with inappropriate comments. 
This is not CAMRA’s fault., but CAMRA needs to step up and show through action that it is on the side of equality. We cannot solve the broad problem of sexism in society, but we can play a part in improving things.
Our aim should be that real ale pubs and CAMRA festivals are better than the average. We are already proud of the fact that fights at CAMRA festivals are extremely rare; we should try to ensure that sexual harassment is equally rare.
Festival volunteers should be aware that both male and female festival visitors may be experienced real ale drinkers, or have never tried it before, or anywhere in between.
CAMRA is pro-active in making the world of real ale welcoming and attractive to all.
CAMRA festivals must be exemplary in this regard. 
1. Measures for beer festivals
a) CAMRA beer festivals shall not order beers that have inappropriate or sexist names or pump clips. CAMRA festival beer orderers shall have discretion not to order beers that have inappropriate or sexist names or pump clips.
b) If branches have difficulty in determining what is inappropriate or sexist, the NE or RD may use their discretion to constitute some kind of formal adjudicating body.
c b) If necessary (e.g. repeated complaints), food and merchandise vendors may be vetted on similar criteria. 
d c) Festivals shall have a public policy against harassment (printed in the festival programme).
e d) CAMRA shall produce education materials and provide training for festival volunteers on tackling inappropriate behaviour. 
2. Measures for pubs
a) CAMRA shall communicate to pubs that equality is a concern for us. We encourage pubs to adopt similar measures to our own: training staff, not selling sexist beers and not tolerating harassment. 
b) Pubs that are known to be dangerous or unwelcoming for women shall not be eligible for the Good Beer Guide. Branches shall maintain a confidential register of pubs which are problematic, and ask members to provide feedback/complaints. b) Branches may maintain a confidential register of pubs which are dangerous or unwelcoming for women, and ask members to provide feedback/complaints. Branches may exclude such pubs from the GBG at their discretion.
3. General measures
a) CAMRA shall take steps to ensure that its own publications and publicity materials are not sexist.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Giving succour to the enemy

Dear old CAMRA seems to have a knack for putting its foot in things.

For Tuesday night saw the award for CAMRA’s Parliamentarian of the Year go to the MP for Burton-on-Trent, Andrew Griffiths.

The rationale is that Griffiths has -- as he well ought to do as chair of the All-Party Beer Group -- supported the cut in beer duty that CAMRA has called for for many years, and was finally implemented in 2013.

But another of CAMRA’s key campaigns has been for reform of the parasitical pub companies that are making it impossible for so many publicans to make an honest living. This campaign too had a major parliamentary success at the end of last year -- but it was no thanks to Griffiths, who was arguably the parliamentary leader of opposition to the reform and fought against the legislation every step of the way.

It makes no sense to dish out awards to people who are enemies of your most important campaigns, whether or not they were allies in the past. It negates the acres of editorials and the thousands of pounds of its members’ money that CAMRA has spent arguing for reform.

It will most certainly alienate the struggling publicans that CAMRA has allied with to fight for pubco reform -- and it will also drive away many of CAMRA’s own members who have -- at the request of St Albans, by the way -- spent time and effort lobbying MPs.

What is the logic here? I genuinely can’t see it.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Maclays Inns in administration

Monogram detail from former Maclays brewery
I was as surprised as anyone to hear yesterday that Maclay Inns had gone into administration. I have no inside knowledge of the company, so am not going to speculate as to the cause.

But on reflection, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. The company has a history of making decisions which – with the benefit of hindsight – can be seen to have been spectacularly stupid. First among these, of course, is its decision in 1999 to give up brewing and concentrate on running its estate of pubs – just as a wave of new brewery openings began to revive the Scottish beer landscape. The last remnant of the brewery offices in Alloa, now a shitty Belhaven pub, is a reminder of Maclays’ folly.

Hindsight is easy, of course. Perhaps Maclays didn’t have the means in the late 1990s of hanging on for a few more years. It wasn’t a large brewery. That’s why it was still independent. Larger breweries like George Younger or Aitken’s of Falkirk had been bought up and closed in the 1960s. According to this contemporary article the brewery was worn out, needed rebuilding and the business wasn’t profitable enough to finance that.

Maclays has in recent years made considerable investments in the pubs it has retained, and now runs some attractive pubs, which by all accounts are profitable. Hopefully all the pubs will continue trading without job losses. Perhaps those of their staff who know about beer – if they are still in work – may even relish the prospect of no longer being forced to run ridiculous “craft beer festivals” featuring beers from the once revered, but now widely derided Caledonian Brewery.

It is quite possible that Tennent’s and Magners maker C&C – which already owns 25% of Maclays – will seize the chance of buying the rest. We know that C&C is looking to get back into the on-trade – its abortive bid for the Spirit pubco shows that. If not C&C, I am fairly optimistic the pubs will find other buyers.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Here come the nanos

Around eighteen months ago I was talking to someone who asked me about the beer scene in Glasgow. I said that I thought we were on the cusp of something big about to happen. And for once, I was right – although it was hardly a difficult prediction.

For several years we have looked east with slight envy as new brewery after new brewery sprang up in and around Edinburgh and the Forth Valley. Meanwhile, an hour to the west Loch Lomond started up in an enviable location – making it all the more inexplicable that local pubs in Balloch wouldn’t sell their beer, but they have been able to build up trade in Glasgow and Edinburgh. 2014 saw the launch of Bute Brewing Co in Rothesay. Adam has visited and provided a much better report than I could have done. It could be that the Clyde Coast could experience a renaissance as a tourist destination, now that there are more and more places to get a decent beer.

In Glasgow city proper, scarred by a legacy of failed brewpubs (Pig & Whistle, Millers Thumb, Glaschu, Leonardo’s, etc.), we still had only three breweries since 2006 – Clockwork, Tennents and WEST. We have the same population as Portland, Oregon, who have ten times as many. It took until 2014 for the dam to break as two micros began operating – Jaw Brew in Hillington, technically inside the city, and the achingly hip Drygate, clinging to the side of the Tennents site in Dennistoun.

Within days of the beginning of 2015 we already have news of two new outfits in Glasgow city, and one slightly outside.

Ride Brewing Co. is the brainchild of Dave Lannigan, one of the names behind 2013’s South Side Beer Festival. This is a tiny operation which, as I write this, is setting up in the basement of a relatively recently opened restaurant in Drury St, bang slap in the city centre. The brew kit is the German-made Speidel Braumeister, an automated piece of equipment which the manufacturers actually target at wealthy homebrewers. Ride promises to support local good causes with any profits – which is just as well, as I can’t see it (or any of the others mentioned below) being viable as a commercial operation. Drury St (the bar and restaurant) plans to bring a new high-end beer bar to Glasgow, but without the high-end prices charged at some other locations. With its neighbours the old-school Victorian gin palace the Horse Shoe Bar, a lap dancing club on one side and the pro-independence “Yes Bar” on the other, Drury St (the street) is becoming one of Glasgow’s more eclectic back alleys.

Chris Hoss started brewing when he lived in New Zealand. Returning to Glasgow he introduced Callum Mcleod to the joys of making beer at home. The pair tried several very experimental batches including a “South East Asian Pale Ale” with lemongrass, lime leaves, coriander seeds, chili flakes and ginger. Now as Monolith Brewing with the addition of Sean Brown, a bottled IPA, Bellwether, described as “big and fruity” has been launched commercially and the trio, currently brewing on the studio kit at Drygate, are looking for investment to acquire their own premises and equipment. “We've been approaching our brewing like making music: every beer’s like a song with its own reason and meaning and eyecatching cover art.” says Chris.

Just outside Glasgow in Cumbernauld, Lawman Brewing Co is a hobby nanobrewery and proof that you can in fact run a commercial brewery from your kitchen. Craig Laurie is the man behind this and the name comes from his university law studies, before he decided to go into brewing instead. The first beers were launched at Cloisters Bar in Edinburgh before Christmas: Horizon, a juicy APA; Steadfast, a Kölschalike beer that isn’t quite sure it’s not actually a Pilsener; and Obsidian, a strong export stout. A prototype imperial stout is even richer and smoother than Obsidian.

It’s only January. I fully expect to see more new producers springing up throughout the year.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Golden Pints of 2014

Every year I find myself rooting backwards through my Untappd checkins to try and remember what outstanding beers I have consumed; and every year I resolve to blog and check in more, to make the Golden Pints task easier. But life getting in the way of beer ticking is a blessing, not a curse.

Best UK Cask Beer
I am tempted to nominate Batham’s Bitter, as I spent all day drinking it with a friend back in March and still wanted more. However, there is a more suitable candidate that is available in Glasgow, though also not a local beer: Oakham Green Devil. There is a group of dedicated drinkers who follow this beer around the city, waiting to pounce on it as soon as it appears. Cosy free house or city-centre Spoons, the presence of Green Devil is the key criterion. And I can’t say I blame them. It is a superb beer, both tasty and consistent: it looks great (with deep yellow colour and dense white foam), it smells great and it tastes great.

Best UK Keg Beer
Fourpure Pils. Since I raved about it in the summer, I’ve been to the tap room and tasted some of their other beers. They were perfectly alright but not outstanding in the same way as the Pils. I don’t care. One beer of this quality is enough for any brewery. As runner-up, I really enjoyed Drygate’s Inevitable Conclusion, a 9.9% double IPA with gorgeous tropical fruit and root ginger aromas, and if I could have afforded to, I’d have drunk far more of it than would be wise.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Five Points Railway Porter has become a reliable, tasty go-to beer.

Best Overseas Draught
Spezial Lager

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier as usual.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
Ah, who cares?

Best New Brewery Opening 2014
It’s taking some time for them to find their feet, but we have already seen some more than decent beer coming out of Drygate and I think the best is still to come. Every time I have the bog standard Bearface Lager I am reminded of how good it is, and several of the bottle-only or draught-only pilot brews have been really nice.

Runner-up here is Fallen. Paul Fallen has been getting his beer contract-brewed for a couple of years now. Since earlier this year he’s got his own gaff and the difference in the beers is like night and day. One of my major beery regrets of 2014 is not having drunk more of Paul’s beer.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2014
I really liked Grunting Growler’s pop up in the Halt Bar – read why here. Since the sudden end of that, Jehad has found space in the Drake Bar just down the road.

The runner-up here is the Raven on Hope St. I’ve found myself going in here quite a bit with friends. There is usually a more than decent cask beer available and the prices are very reasonable by city-centre standards. Some of Maclays’ other establishments could take lessons here. The music is always too loud.

Best beer and food pairing
People still do that? On the other hand, a pint of barley wine, some cubed beef and about 16 hours in the slow cooker makes an excellent pie filling.

Beer Festival of the Year
For some reason I have failed to make it to the usual round of festivals this year. I made it to Larbert and Paisley and GBBF, and of course the Glasgow CAMRA festival, but missed SRAF, Alloa and others. FyneFest stands out as ever; there is nothing quite like drinking a fresh pint of cask beer in a field.

Supermarket of the Year
To tell the truth, you cannot complain about any of the supermarkets – they all now have a range of perfectly drinkable beers. Not that I buy much beer in them. But this year I got to a Booths store for the first time and the praise this chain gets for its beer is well deserved.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Oh, this is a tough one. Hippo Beers should, by rights, get this as they have gone to considerable lengths this year: from hosting a homebrewing demo to commissioning their own beers from friendly local breweries to launching their own beer festival in the coming spring. I would like to use the award to honour a shop that is providing a splendid selection of beer in a much more challenging location: Maxwells in Pollokshields. Far more than a convenience store that sells decent beer, the range here makes it the best beer retailer on the entire South Side of the city.

Online Retailer of the Year
I have bought beer online precisely once this year. Worthy of an award? The beer arrived safely and postage wasn’t too expensive, but that’s about what you would like to be able to expect.

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.