Thursday, 22 May 2014

Slowly does it – Drygate opens

Several years ago someone told me that Portland, Oregon has the same population as Glasgow, which means that our three breweries look slightly puny compared to their thirty-five. Never mind, we are catching up and from the weekend we now have four breweries (and a fifth is due to follow in a couple of months)! 

The people behind Drygate Brewing Co have been tight-lipped for the last few weeks, but the bar-restaurant in the East End is opening in May as promised after all – this weekend in fact.

The ground floor houses the restaurant, the breweries and a small beer shop. The kitchen is run by people transferred from Leith’s The Vintage, and judging by the canapes they fed us, the food looks likely to be every bit as good as you would expect. Upstairs is a beer hall and a multi-functional space that can be used as a venue or exhibition space.

A young triumvirate of brewers has been assembled: Jake, late of Fyne Ales; Edward has left Traditional Scottish Ales to come here; and Alessandra joins the team from Harviestoun. Food and beer are treated holistically here – Jake and Ed worked in kitchens before becoming brewers, and Alessandra studied at Carlo Petrini’s “slow food” university. Scott Williams says the brewers will have freedom to get on with creating new beers alongside the Drygate core range.

The brewing kit is Italian-made and a lauter tun system. The main vessel can be heated for mashing and heated further for boiling, with the mash being pumped into the lauter tun for separating the wort from the grains and clear wort pumped back to be boiled. This system is flexible enough for pretty much any mashing regime you can think of, from a simple infusion to a stepped mash to triple decoction. There is a chamber within the copper for non-hop aromatics – handy for brewers in the tradition of using odd botanicals.

Because of delays in commissioning the brewing kit, the bar will be opening with Drygate beers brewed at Williams Bros in Alloa for the first few weeks. The beer will inevitably change once production actually starts up at Drygate and the brewers get used to the new system. Thus there’s not a lot of point in an in-depth critique of the beers at this stage. I will say that all three core beers seem cleaner and improved on the prototypes we were offered back in February. The Bearface lager is fresher and seems more bitter. Gladeye IPA is paler and better balanced, but still needs more aroma. Even the apple ale has blossomed into an approachable, very sweet drink.

As well as the core beers, there will be any amount of one-off brews and guest draught beers, plus fridges stocked with enough bottles to keep anyone happy.

I am looking forward to drinking here immensely – not least because it will make an excellent end to the three-brewery cycling tour we can now do, starting at the Clockwork on the south side, stopping at WEST on Glasgow Green and ending up at Drygate. It will be most splendid to relax on the sun deck where you can gather outside with a beer and enjoy the late afternoon sun – while gazing over the yard of Tennent’s brewery next door and its delivery trucks laden with kegs.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The times they are a-changing

Grotty station pub in the process of being refurbished into “beer house”.

Glasgow Central station has been abysmal for beer for years. I can count on one hand the number of times in twenty years I’ve stopped for a beer in the station itself, rather than nipping round the corner to the Horse Shoe, the Pot Still, the Drum & Monkey or the Laurieston. 

I’m not getting my hopes up expecting a Sheffield Tap-style transformation. By all accounts this is a bit of bandwagon-jumping by the operator, SSP, who had the Arrol before and have all the other rubbish bars in the station too. If you’ve ever wondered why food outlets in stations tend to share the grim anonymity of mediocre products and extortionate prices, it’s because they’re all the same company.

Beer House outlets in other stations have received less than gushing reviews. The bar is due to re-open this week. I’ll try it and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Cask-conditioned McEwan’s returns – not with a bang but a whimper

It was with no announcement or advertising that the once proud name McEwan’s returned to the world of cask-conditioned beer.

Just a tweet from parent company Wells & Young’s, and a silent website update, alerted me to the news that three new cask ales were on the market in Scotland. What a contrast to the pots of cash spent launching McEwan’s Red last year.

The first two, Amber and Signature, have been available in clear glass bottles for a while now. I’d tried them and they were drinkable but forgettable. But after waiting so long for the promised return of cask McEwan’s, I was more than willing to give them a chance in “real” form.

One revelation which made me chuckle was the news that the third beer in the range is a “brand new brew” McEwan’s IPA. Well, it may be a new recipe, but IPA a new brew?

McEwan’s Export still sells well, and many drinkers are aware of it having the nickname Red Death – possibly more than those who remember that it was once the brewery’s IPA, as the label below shows.

The very same weekend two of the beers were on sale in one of my favourite Glasgow pubs, the Pot Still.

And do you know, I was pleasantly surprised. The Amber is not amber, but golden, full-bodied with some real hop flavour and respectable bitterness, and much tastier than the bottled version. The IPA is golden too, but crisp and clean – maybe slightly too clean – and very drinkable (and nothing at all like Export). I found them good solid beers worth a try, and I’ll drink them again.

Wells & Young’s have bought an iconic Scottish brand, but they still seem slightly afraid of it; the Cavalier is nowhere to be seen on the new pumpclips, and the new cask beers themselves are not much like the McEwan’s of old in flavour either. Not that that’s a bad thing: I have said before that if they want to make a success of the brand in a vastly more competitive market, the beer will have to be better than the stuff described as “thin-bodied with a cloying metallic, caramel flavour” in the Good Beer Guide twenty years ago.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Brewmeister: crooks or just sad wannabes?

If you are going to tell a lie, said Hitler, make it a big lie. A big lie has a certain credibility just by virtue of its audacity. People will assume it is the truth because they have difficulty believing anyone would dare make such outrageous claims otherwise.

If you haven’t yet read Rich’s post at the Beer Cast, you should. Rich has been on the trail of Keith-based brewery Brewmeister for the best part of a year, since they announced they had produced “the strongest beer in the world”. He’s now posted the story of an encounter with the company at which they freely admitted the beer, claimed to be 65%, was nowhere near that strength, and in fact they had had no idea how strong it was.

I wasn’t at this event, but I trust Rich’s account and I don’t trust Brewmeister in the slightest.

Reading Rich’s post strengthens everyone’s suspicions about why Brewmeister were always so evasive when asked to supply evidence about the strength of the product. In March I asked them on Twitter if there was a lab analysis proving that their beers are as strong as they claimed to be.

But two months later, we’re still waiting to see this analysis.

After Rich’s post, Brewmeister announced more bottles had been sent for testing. The results “will speak for themselves”, we are told. What happened to the original analysis spoken of above? Did it ever exist? If the currently promised analysis ever actually appears, will it be reliable?

Of course, Brewmeister are not the only cynical chancers in Scottish brewing.

It’s really weird to see – in the same week – all and sundry condemning Brewmeister, and at the same time cheering on Brewdog’s latest infantile publicity stunt, as if we were all seven years of age and one of the class had sworn at the teacher in an act of MARKETING GENIUS.

But Brewdog did their shtick first, and they did it competently. They are still doing it because, puerile and childish as it is, it is effective. That’s also why it’s still being copied, most recently by London’s Beavertown, who called a beer Barley Champagne and then pretended to be surprised when the Comité Champagne told them to stop it.

Brewmeister, on the other hand, are johnny-come-latelies and try to do the same thing without any of the skill, and as a result they look like sad wannabes.

If Brewdog were al-Qaeda, Brewmeister would be the bungling fools who tried to attack Glasgow Airport, but instead set themselves on fire and got their arses kicked by a baggage handler.

Beer geeks and beer writers need to face up to the reality that we have created the ground for Brewmeister to exist. We have rewarded Brewdog’s obnoxious behaviour by continuing to buy their beer and making them inordinately successful.

It was utterly inevitable that others would see this and learn the Brewdog Rules: the road to success is to manufacture cynically staged controversy; there is no such thing as bad publicity; it is fine to bottle and sell your mistakes; if you get critical comments on your blog, just delete them; making “the world’s strongest beer” will get you much, much more coverage than anything else you might do, however interesting. And if people call you out on your bullshit, do a quick reverse ferret and play it humble for a day or two: we are only a young company, still learning, and we will do things differently in the future – never mind that this vitiates all previous claims to be the saviours of brewing.

Brewdog, though, had the advantage that their beer was very good, which is the reason people put up with their ridiculous antics in the first place. On the other hand, I have only tasted one of Brewmeister’s beers myself: the “bock” called 10, which had inappropriate berry-fruit notes and an off-putting aroma of cheap vodka; the opinions of others about their other beers have also been decidedly mixed.

One last point. Brewdog have been careful only to pick fights with organisations that can’t do them any significant damage in return. The Portman Group might get one of their beers delisted in Tesco (we don’t know, for example, whether Tesco were delisting it anyway, or whether Brewdog were planning to keep it in their core range), but it won’t affect specialist stores. And it takes no political courage whatsoever to have a joke at the expense of a foreign head of state, on a topic that is uncontroversial among your target market, in a country where you don’t sell any beer. On the other hand, I don’t recall Brewdog having anything to say about the bedroom tax or library closures.

Brewmeister are not quite so clever. Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue have very sharp teeth and they don’t take kindly to people trying to take the piss. Hopefully Brewmeister will soon discover that. 

You might innocently think, “How can Brewmeister be so stupid? How did they imagine they could get away with this, and even be so brazen as to admit it to a blogger?”

The answer is: refer to Hitler’s advice above. The other answer is: they still are getting away with it. They have not yet been prosecuted, and they still have the money that they obtained from customers for the beers in question.

For Brewmeister are not quite as stupid as they seem. They know that hardly anyone reads beer blogs, and far more people read the uncritical hype in news media. There’s a secondary scandal here: it’s the fact that supposedly serious news media, staffed by professional, paid journalists, unquestioningly parroted Brewmeister’s press releases: in the Record and the Scotsman and the Metro and the Mail and on STV. Not one asked for evidence or doubted the company’s claims. And that’s not to mention the host of content-farming websites repeating the tale.

If there is one positive aspect to this whole sorry story, it is in the comments on Rich’s blog post. Possibly America’s highest-profile brewer, Garrett Oliver himself, weighed in in the frankest terms to condemn the appearance of what he calls “clown breweries”, who put the brand before the beer.

Perhaps the real division in the near future will be, not so much “craft vs. crafty”, but brewers vs. clowns.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Brewers versus fakes

Brand-builders who get their beer brewed under contract, but pose as breweries, came under attack in Belgium this week with the publication of an open letter from brewers in the newspaper Le Soir. Thanks to there is also an English translation.

The brewers, including those from such heavyweight enterprises as Brasseries de la Senne, De Dolle Brouwers and Cantillon, pull no punches.

Contract brewing has always taken place, and there is nothing wrong with it in principle. But recently, say the brewers, “the manipulation of the consumer through the media [has reached] unprecedented levels. This should be considered a fraud on the consumer … our industry is beginning to attract a great many impostors who cynically exploit the credulity of the public to make a profit.”

The person who actually makes the beer is reduced to the status of a labourer, while the brand owner poses as the creative “craft brewer”. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples of this from countries outside Belgium.

Now much of this stuff is actually not aimed at the type of trendy fake brewers who nowadays like to call themselves “gypsy brewers”; it’s directed at a group of beer sellers who’ve been around much longer: the marketers of the piss-poor sugary blonde and brown beers and beer-based alcopops that infest the Belgian beer market. They don’t make it into export markets very often because, well, they’re not good enough, but buy a selection of unfamiliar beers in a Belgian shop and you’re quite likely to hit upon one or more of these, especially if it doesn’t say on the label where it’s actually brewed.

Tim Webb has been moaning about this sort of thing for years, so in a way it’s quite surprising that it’s taken the brewers so long to speak out about the damage they see being done to the image of Belgian beer.

The brewers demand that there should be some sort of protection so that not just anyone can call him or herself a brewer or claim their company is a brewery. More concretely, they insist on transparency as a minimum: that every bottle of beer should state exactly where the beer is made, however fanciful the rest of the label is. That seems fair enough to me.

It’ll be interesting to see whether beer geeks in the rest of the world pay any attention to the opinions of the brewers they claim to revere so much.