Tuesday 18 February 2014

Good Honest Ales

I was born and grew up in Lincoln so by the time I was old enough to drink beer in pubs I was already very familiar with the Batemans pump clips that littered many of the bars dotted around the local villages. Batemans are based in the Lincolnshire village of Wainfleet which lies just outside the dilapidated seaside town of Skegness and the Brewery which is housed in a beautiful although sadly now sail-less windmill are celebrating their 140th anniversary this year. I don't really remember my first taste of XB, their flagship beer but it was probably supped from my Dad's pint pot back in the days before I began enjoying the good stuff. It's a super solid British bitter that shouldn't be scoffed at when it's on cask and on form, it's the kind of beer that has built this brewery their reputation but in this rapidly changing industry how is a traditional brewery such as Batemans going to keep pace?

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to the launch party for Batemans new range of 'craft' beers and their new look branding, which was held at the Folly, a trendy wine bar which lies within the City of London's square mile. Attached to the invite was a preview of the new branding and the brief press release was smothered with the word 'craft' like dripping butter on hot toast, it was unnecessarily excessive. I pondered the images before me and wondered why they needed to do this, Batemans have a solid image and a likable slogan in 'Good Honest Ales' so why do they feel the need to reinvent themselves in this fashion? The craft scene is growing rapidly and there is a need for tradition in this industry but in brewing the beer speaks the loudest, not the branding, so why not let it do the talking.

As a Lincolnian I felt a vested interest in heading to this launch and when I arrive at the Folly I'm a bit surprised by the choice of venue. Firstly, why not use their beautiful brewery and invite people down on a weekend and give them a tour of the historic site instead of cramming 50 people ranging from hacks like myself to people who actually work in the beer trade into a tiny room at the back of a wine bar. From what I could see the bar itself didn't even sell cask beer and if they did it would be a token, seldom used pump that poured either Pride or Doom Bar as it's likely they're the only two ales that the clientele would be familiar with. A sweeping generalisation I know but this really isn't a bar that a cask beer lover would ever seek out. 

Still, I soldier on and to my delight the hosts have brought with them a cask of XXXB, the more robust cousin of XB and it's just been tapped. It's all stewed plums and burnt sugar with a sharp hop bitterness, it's exactly what a best bitter should be and it's delicious, a real taste of home, if you will. I'm early and there aren't many people about but I'm soon approached by Jaclyn Bateman who despite being on crutches supporting a shattered pelvis due to a skiing accident is taking the time and effort to speak to all of the attendees which I found incredibly admirable. The other cask on offer was called Winter Chocolate Biscuit beer, part of their new seasonal range of 'biscuit beers' with a different offering for each season. Yes, you read that right, biscuit beer and to my surprise this beer smelled and tasted exactly like a chocolate digestive. I'm still not sure whether this was a good thing or not, I mean, they'd achieved exactly the flavour they were looking for but is this a flavour that a beer drinker looks for? I know plenty of people that don't really like beer that much but are big fans of chocolate biscuits so it's an interesting angle that's for certain. 

Littered around the room are various bottled beers which we are told to help ourselves to during a rousing speech by co-owner Stuart Bateman in which, bizarrely he tells us that he wants to dispel the myth that 'all craft brewers have bandannas, pony tails and nose piercings' I don't think I've ever met a brewer with a nose piercing. He gives us his own definition of 'craft brewing' with nods to tradition and family history. On the face of it there is no argument to say that Batemans aren't a craft brewer and I certainly wasn't going to argue with them but I'm still not sure a stark re-brand is the best way to convince those that think like I do. Anyway, help ourselves to bottles we do, first tucking into the new Sovereign range which much like the biscuit beers do exactly what they say on the neatly designed label which sits on a tidy 330ml bottle. Mocha tastes like, well, coffee and chocolate and it's no great surprise that Mocha Amaretto tastes of almonds and coffee and Hazelnut Brownie might as well have been a batch of cake whazzed up in a blender and mixed with XB. The only failure here was Orange Barley which was about as appealing as two Berocca dissolved in a watered down glass of white spirit. These beers aren't going to win over lovers of craft beer but they are going to win over people who like coffee and cake, Batemans just have to hope it's beer that these people want in the first place.

To me the new branding looks a little rushed, like it was the best option in a marketing meeting that's agenda was along the lines of 'how the devil are we going to stop those crafty bastards taking our market share.' Maybe that's a little extreme but ardent fans of heavily hopped IPA or imperial stout aren't the target market here and this sudden change in style will only serve to alienate their existing customer base. I counted no less than four different ranges of beer from Batemans on offer at the launch party and as Chris Hall so eloquently put it in his take on the re-brand "If they have the capacity and ideas to keep all of those balls in the air, I will be very impressed".

Despite my criticism Batemans must be doing something right, they've won the Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt for the past two years running with their Mocha and B-Bock respectively and there's no doubting that their beers are very well made. All evening I kept sneaking back to that cask of XXXB, it was a delicious beer, the kind I would happily sit in a Lincolnshire pub and sup until I needed to be carried home, singing songs of fair Lincoln town as my legs dangled, swaying gently in the North Sea breeze.

I look at the branding again, long and hard, trying to make sense of it and decide if this really is the Lincolnshire brewery's best option. It's been two weeks since the launch party and it's still not been rolled out on either their own website or their twitter account. I look again at the new, much pointier windmill logo and suddenly instead of the windmill I see the maniacal Purple Tentacle from Lucas Arts classic point 'n' click videogame Day of the Tentacle. Once you see it, it cannot be unseen. It's funny because after a skinful of Batemans I most certainly felt smarter, more aggressive and like I could take on the world.

New branding, new beers, the use of modern dispense methods such as key keg. Batemans are certainly putting in the effort to be a part of this rapidly evolving beer industry, I'm just not sure that they really need to.

Thanks to Batemans for the invite, the company and the beer but mostly for the Lincolnshire Plum bread which I hadn't enjoyed for over 10 years. Now that's something that washes down beautifully with a pint or two of XB.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Price of Craft

My more avid Twitter followers will have recently witnessed a brief tirade against what I felt was an excessively high price for imported cans of Oskar Blues Deviant Dale's IPA, one of my very favourite double IPA's. The cheapest price I could find was £6.49 for a single 455ml/16oz can which even I, a true advocate of getting what you pay for when it comes to great beers, thought was over the odds. I raged at the internet for all of fifteen minutes and still the price remained and so I took it upon myself to email the brewery to find out why these cans were being sold at such a premium. I fail to understand what I see as gross inconsistencies between prices of imported American craft beers and suddenly it felt like it was my very birthright to get to the greasy bottom of the import saucepan.

Now here's the kicker, I not only work in distribution, albeit for a company that imports high end music technology equipment rather than beer but my job is to price up our various lines and work out cost and recommended retail pricing in an effort to make both ourselves and our network of dealers what I think is a decent margin. Many of our lines come from the US, a few from California, one from Louisiana and one from North Carolina but we also import from Finland, Australia and China so I like to think that I have a bit of a handle on the costs of international distribution. So, for some unknown reason, despite not actually being at work, I booted up Excel and started laying out a table that will probably only satisfy my own pointless curiosity.

I wanted to do this because I bloody love American beer and I want to drink lots of it while paying a price that I, the consumer deem to be fair. I'm aware that with import costs, our higher tax rates and higher costs to suppliers, retailers etc that it's never going to be the superb price you usually find in the US but why is one IPA just over two quid a bottle and one just over three? They've both travelled a similar distance and have a similar ABV so is the distributor taking a larger cut? Is the retailer pricing beer perceived as being rare at a greater margin because they're confident it'll sell or are the costs genuinely higher. It sounds just like a game of Fiz, doesn't it.

My first step was to produce a small list of American craft beers available on both sides of the pond which I then sent to my roving reporter in Colorado or 'Dad' as I usually refer to him. 'Dad' then went into his local liquor emporium Wilbur's Total Beverage (which if you're into booze is basically where you want to end up when you die) and wrote down a load of prices for me. My first disappointment was that he couldn't acquire the prices of beers from Brooklyn Brewery because they don't distribute to Colorado and this particular liquor store wasn't currently stocking any Flying Dog so they were also out of the window. I do realise that I could have just asked him to go to another store but he demands a ridiculous wage and I couldn't afford the overtime. The prices he did get were all for six or four packs bar a couple of 22oz bombers which are sold singly, I then got my maths on and did some intensive division to work out the individual bottle or can prices. 

Then things got really technical, I converted the individual bottle dollar prices to pound sterling using an exchange rate of 1.58 dollars to the pound which is about average at the moment and then searched for the cheapest off trade price in the UK for the list of beers that remained. It's important to mention that this is purely a look at the off trade because pubs work on different markups and well, I'm going to try and make a point and predict the future in my conclusion, wish me luck with that one. I then trawled the off licences of the internet for the UK prices and a couple of local ones including Waitrose with the thought being that if I can find and buy it easily then it's going on the table. You might think, hey no fair, supermarkets work on lower margins and higher turnover than independent retailers and you'd be right. Tough titty I say, the premium beer marketplace is going to become hella competitive, even more than it already is and business is dog eat dog, you've got to take the heat if you want to play with the big boys.

Interestingly, in Colorado you can't buy any of these beers in a supermarket because of a State law known as the 3.2 law. This ruling indicates that supermarkets cannot sell products that contain more than 3.2% alcohol by volume and this has given rise to masses and masses of specialist independent liquor stores, the largest of which are as big as a large supermarket and price aggressively to try and win business in an overcrowded marketplace.

So with most of my figures intact and my diminished table missing the key players of Brooklyn and Flying Dog as well as Ska and Maui brewing because I forgot to ask my Dad to check those ones I then worked out the margin of difference between the US price (converted to £ sterling) and the cheapest UK price I could find. The results were not particularly conclusive with the majority of beers being around 55% more expensive per bottle in the UK than they are in Colorado. Here, have a look at my table (click to enlarge):

55%, that's actually quite a lot isn't it, well you've got to take into account shipping costs and import duty right? Then why the fuck are most of these beers significantly cheaper than equivalent beers brewed in the UK. Well probably because the cost of running a business in the UK, particularly one that sells alcohol is prohibitively more expensive than in many parts of the US. I do wonder what will happen when the more successful new wave of UK breweries do expand and have a turnover that supports lower margins, it looks like it's already happened to Thornbridge with their incredible beers being seemingly excellent value at the moment.

I digress, what does this table actually show us? Well first it shows us that Deviant Dale's is not only quite expensive in the UK but also in its native State of Colorado. In fact the margin of difference is in fact greater on the seemingly decent value Dale's Pale Ale which not only has a higher markup but also comes in a smaller container. Odell IPA which seems like pretty good value on the face of it is actually sold at similar markup with their 90 shilling being lower presumably because it's a harder beer to shift and it probably costs the retailer a bit less. Goose Island Bourbon County has one of the lowest margins of difference despite its whopping 15% ABV and this will be thanks to the might of their owners AB InBev, god bless them I say, at a bargainous £7.49 a bottle I'll be stocking up. 

Sierra Nevada and Anchor, well established breweries the both of them seem to be offering the UK punter the best deal despite their beers travelling greater distances. 'Oh but Odell and Oskar Blues are smaller so they have to charge more!' I hear the naysayers yapping at the back, well I've been there and while they might fit the American definition of small (like an Elephant is a 'small' mammal) they make our 'small' breweries look positively microbial. They have the might and the demand forecast that says 'hey exporting to the UK is going to make us money!' Well they're not just doing it for the love of it are they. It's a logistical nightmare after all and why would Brooklyn choose to expand into the European market before satisfying the demand on their own shores? Colorado's New Belgium, Americas third largest craft brewery after The Boston Beer Company and Sierra Nevada respectively seem hell bent on getting established in every beer drinking State before even thinking about shipping to us thirsty Brits. 

Did anyone see how great the value of Hoppin' Frog B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher is? *Fills virtual shopping basket*.

So here's the thing, the craft beer boom we are experiencing in the UK is not going to go away, it is only going to continue to grow and flourish. This is not a fad, there are some wonderful people producing some outstanding beverages that stand shoulder to shoulder with the worlds best wines and spirits right now but their number is only going to increase. Many will fall by the wayside, like poor New Albion did in the early eighties but few will leave such a legacy. We're already seeing more and breweries open seemingly by the day which is having a knock on effect of new specialist bars opening and existing bars having to improve their range to continue being competitive. You can buy a pretty great range of beers in most supermarkets but small and independent specialist off licences are also having to raise their game to satisfy demand. Two of my local wine specialists now give over 25% of floor space to craft beer with one even renaming the beer part of its business in order to capture punters attention.

In addition to the bars and breweries a new wave of specialist drinks retailers are about to burst forth, in fact it's already happening and the fact that Brewdog's next big move is to open an off licence in London should come as no surprise, it's unlikely that it'll be their last. More beer retailers will continue to open, each one trying to find a different angle than the last but there will be a crossover, there are brands that you simply have to stock and with the same beers on the shelf you are then left with two weapons in your arsenal, service and price. I ran an independent musical instrument shop for three years, providing top level service day after day is really, really hard and life finds a way of throwing the worst wankers at you when you really don't need it and even the most golden level of service can't satisfy them. So then you're left with one thing, having the best price. With quality beers on offer then surely price isn't an issue? Well, yes it is, we're miserly and British after all and we want the best value possible. That's why many of you reading this now have cupboards and fridges full of Thornbridge beer right now, after all.

I'm not sure that any conclusive results were discovered in my little survey or in fact if there was any point in the exercise at all but one thing I do know is that I want to drink imported American craft beer and I want to drink it regularly but I still won't pay £6.49 for a can of IPA, even one as good as Deviant Dale's.

The lovely photograph at the top was taken by Dianne Tanner.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Sunday Sessions at Draft House Charlotte

It's a grey, wet Sunday afternoon and I'm strolling down Tottenham Court Road, reminiscing about the time I used to work around here, in the heart of London. I hang a right on to Goodge Street and after a few more paces I'm standing outside the small and yet perfectly formed Draft House Charlotte. This little pub/bar... whatever you want to call it has quickly become one of my favourite places to drink in London thanks to its modest range of keg, cask and bottled beers as well as a well thought out range of wines and spirits. It also, arguably via some kind of wizardry or mastery over quantum physics manages to cram in a kitchen and serves a range of American inspired bar food such as burgers, brats and some seriously hot wings but if a big feed doesn't suit you there's also a superb selection of chartucerie to snack on.

A couple of months ago I was sat with the the less than thirty or so other attendees of Draft House Charlotte's second 'Sunday Session' an intimate meet the brewer that on this occasion was with the charming and handsome Logan Plant of Beavertown. As Logan introduced his great beers and mingled with the punters happily answering any questions they had for him Draft House Manager Max Chater ran around like a blue-arsed fly serving small but immaculately formed plates of food carefully selected by himself to pair perfectly with each beer served. There was no queueing for drinks, no long waits for food and each and every pairing was explained with genuine enthusiasm. Despite having great food and beer it's the excellent staff and the service they provide that puts this boozer a level above others.

It's this reason why I'm back at the third Sunday Session after it took a break over Christmas to meet the team from Weird Beard Brew Co and to see what fantastic little plates Max had prepared to match with their beers. I arrive early and I'm soon leaning against the bar and chatting away with Tom from The Euston Tap as I pre-load with a tasty half of Brewdog's Raspberry Blitz Berliner Weisse. Soon I'm sat at a table with some lovely friends, too many to list as I attempt to keep these paragraphs succinct but they all know who they are and soon Max calls for our attention and starts proceedings. There's only about 30 of us here but there's not an empty seat in the house, it's cosy but not cramped, the event is sold out but I get the feeling that with the quality of these events the limited tickets will soon become a highly sought after commodity.

The ticket was a mere twenty-five of my pounds and this got me six thirds of beer, five of which are paired with an beautifully designed small plate of food and the sixth with a 'bump' as Max likes to call it, who also prides himself on his beer and spirit pairings, in this case a Dalmore 12 with Holy Hoppin' Hell Double IPA. Highlights include Dorset cured beef with mushrooms and a soya vinaigrette paired with Something Something Dark Side, a vinous black IPA packed with citrus and berry flavours and my personal favourite; Sea Bass Cerviche served with the dry and moreish Saison 14. With each course the conversation gets louder and the gesticulation wilder, as the afternoon draws to a close bottles are being opened and shared amongst wide eyed and content lovers of food and booze.

Eventually we bid our goodbyes to Draft House and meander towards the Euston Tap which has become the unofficial but highly fitting after venue for Sunday Sessions. It's a wonderful way to wile away a Sunday afternoon but I'll try not to leave it another month before I visit the wonderful Draft House Charlotte as I'd surely be doing myself an injustice.

Tickets for the next Sunday Sessions, which take place on the last Sunday of every month bar December, will soon be available on the Draft House website here and although the brewer has not been confirmed yet you can be sure that Max and his team have another top afternoon in store. The last event was a sell out and spaces are limited so be sure to book your ticket quickly if you want to guarantee your spot, I can assure you this is one Sunday afternoon pub session that's not to be missed.