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.