Greene King Craft, really?

Greene KingGreene King Craft beer. Oh dear. You know this isn’t going to end well. Let’s start by accentuating the positives. Greene King are one of the band of British regional brewers who helped keep real ale alive in the seventies. Abbott Ale had a deservedly strong following (though I never thought it a great traveller and like many others is nowadays rather anodyne by comparison).

Since then Greene King IPA has morphed into the Watneys Red Barrel de nos jours, Greene King have absorbed and closed other smaller regional breweries. They sit in marketing no man’s land between the big brewers and genuine regionals.

There is obviously plenty of heritage at Greene King with beers like the fine 5X Barleywine which is also used as a base in some other beer. However the marketing people have seen the craft beer revolution and thought this is the bandwagon for us. They have carefully noted the names of all these new fangled hops but have clearly neither tasted the beers or taken any note of the quantities needed to achieve these flavours.

Whether by accident or design the Belhaven offering is much better and sticks to its roots better. It is a much more convincing marketing and taste proposition.

Yardbird Pale Ale, 4.2% – Bright, refreshing pale ale with a hoppy finish. Bright and refreshing possibly, hoppy finish no, over carbonated yes. Full of hops and with a lasting fruity flavour, Yardbird is inspired by the bold American pale ales. Full of hops no, they could definitely have squeezed more in. Inspired in the sense that the bold American pale ales sell well and this is a bandwagon Greene King would like to jump on.

Noble Lager, 5.0% – Brewed with the tettnang hop to produce a crisp, light & aromatic finish. Brewed with an echt hop yes. Nothing wrong with it but extremely unremarkable. Samuel Adams Boston Lager uses the US clone of this hop and is produced on a much larger scale but is far superior.

Double Hop Monster IPA, 7.2% – Late hopped for maximum aroma & a refreshingly bitter finish. Oh dear. It is not a double hop monster, have these people never tasted a real double hop monster? What were they thinking?

Belhaven Scottish Oat Stout, 7.0% – Deep dark intense. Drink at room temperature. This is the type of thing they should be brewing. It’s a bit lacking in depth of flavour for the alcohol content but it’s all right. I wouldn’t mind a bottle of this in a Greene King pub given the other fare on offer.

Belhaven Twisted Thistle IPA, 5.6% – Bold bitter juicy. Amazingly an accurately description! Very much a English British IPA though it uses Challenger, Cascade and Hersbrucker. The flavours though are more hedgerow berries and the bitterness not face melting. It is really juicy, each mouthful leaves me salivating. This beer has gown on me and definitely breaches the ‘half-decent’ barrier.

What were the marketing department thinking of? Who were they trying to sell to? Hard to imagine. They have chosen to jump on the ‘craft’ bandwagon, compare and contrast with Guinness who have gone the heritage route with their new porters.

The beer geek – laughed out of court
The old bloke in the pub – why would he choose these?
The girls night out – uncool
The supermarket bottle drinker – just maybe for a change, but no repeat.
The ‘interested’ drinker – if the ‘interested’ drinker has discovered craft beer then this will be a severe disappointment

If I was in a large pubco pub in Scotland then I might have a Belhaven, that’s the best I can say.

Eagle eyed readers will be wondering where the reviews from Intoxicated Shep are. I did give him some bottles but didn’t seek his review on this occasion. It could have turned nasty.

Disclosure: I ‘won’ 4 cases of these beers at a draw at the excellent Imbibe exhibition but I was not asked to write about them. I have suffered for free so you don’t have to pay to find out.

Twickenham Fine Ales 10th Anniversary bash

twickenhamTwickenham Fine Ales have made it. From microbrewery roots 10 years ago they are now one half of the SW London duumvirate (Sambrook’s being the other) that has excellent distribution of cask ale, session beers throughout London. Both Twickenham and Sambrook’s have gone the cask ale, session beer route to create a sustainable, commercial business free of the vagaries of the latest trend to come out of Hackney. This doesn’t mean to say they make dull beer or uninventive beer. The main difference between the two is that Sambrook’s tend to be more malt based with English hops whereas Twickenham had American brewers early on and have always had more hop forward beers using more modern hop varieties. twickenham anniversaySo, ten years old, let’s have a party! Twickenham Brewery have a bar that is open on rugby matchdays but essentially this is an unglamorous working brewery on a small industrial estate. No matter. Good beer, good company and a great atmosphere with the added bonus of nice weather made for a most convivial day. I reviewed some of the core Twickenham beers a while ago at a meet the brewer event. Here I had the chance to try some of the more adventurous offerings. First up had to be Decade, brewed for this event, a beautiful 5% IPA showing that the style is not the preserve of craft keg brewers. Beers like this could make the pub drinker explore the whole world of new beers out there. Honey Dark was a monthly special in March, it is a strong mild [sic]. Whatever it is called or is, it works well, the honey adding a lovely, not overly sweet, body. Autumn Red I found a little ordinary, lacking the spiciness I was hoping for. Having said that I tried it after a bottle of Hill 60, one of a small series of beers aged in wood and for people who know me will know me this is right up my street. I believe I had the last bottle on sale so here goes with an inadequate description of a stonking beer. It is a blend of an aged dark ale and a fresh strong mild, at first sip the first thought is ‘slow down with bombarding me with all these different flavours!’. It is complex, boozy in an oloroso sherry type of way with the complexity of molasses and dark ale. Ending with a lovely sourness which leaves your heart wanting more and your head saying ‘hang on, this is 8% ABV’. Hill 60 may be gone but if you are quick then you might still be able to get hold of some Oud Bruin, a similarly inspired beer. The most striking thing though about all the beers was how good they were fresh. We all know fresh beer in perfect condition is so much more exciting (especially the more hop forward ones) but we often blame the beer and not the pub when we have a slightly dull one.

Date:                       Saturday, 13 September 2014
Venue:                    6.5/10
Beer selection:        7.5/10
Beer quality:            8/10
Atmosphere:            8/10
A good day out:       7.5/10
Total score:             37.5/50, 75%

London Velvet, an investment opportunity?

london-velvetLondon Velvet, a blend of porter and cider, is raising money through the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube. Should you invest?

London Velvet is made with a porter from the Burtonwood brewery of Thomas Hardy Brewing and Packaging and a cider from Bevisol, both on a contract basis. Not well known names to the general drinking public but both respected contract brewers/cidermakers.

The London Velvet company is involved in the management, distribution, sales and marketing. It is raising a relatively small amount of money and operating on relatively low margins.

It is aiming to tap into the craft beer market yet is made by contract brewers and sold by supermarkets. I can’t see it appealing to the craft beer market without better provenance. Porter and cider are made on a ‘craft’ scale in London – why not use these? I can see it filling a niche gap on the supermarket shelves very successfully though.

I haven’t tried London Velvet. But over 35 years ago I was enjoying pints of cider and Guinness, it’s a damn fine drink, so I am sure that London Velvet is also good. But herein lies the rub, cider and Guinness is, in effect, already available in almost every pub in the country. Surely if London Velvet takes off then Diageo Guinness have the nous and marketing muscle to say ‘thank you very much’ and grab the lion’s share of the market?

So I wish them the best of luck but, regrettably, I’m out.

Disclosure: Intoxicated Rich has invested through Crowdcube and is currently an investor in Hop Stuff Brewery, Little Beer Corporation and CMIC (CAMRA Members Investment Club).

Guinness Porter Review – brand new, old beers!

The SchtickGuinness ST JAMES'S GATE

The Brewers Project is a rather clever idea whichever way you look at it. Ostensibly it is a collaboration between the brewers and the archivist to recreate beers of long ago. However I am guessing that it was cleverly orchestrated by the marketing department who knew exactly the products they wanted – not that it is a bad thing at all. Full marks for identifying a gap in the market and using unique heritage to exploit it. It gives the brewers some fun times to play with real beer making in the pilot brewery instead of pressing buttons in the main brewhouse. It gives Guinness a chance to use their tremendous heritage and archive to best effect.

Porter and then ‘stout porter’ were the precursors of the stouts we know nowadays. After starting with ales, Guinness moved on to making porters. Early on there was a ‘town porter’ and a ‘country porter’. The country porter as its name suggests was the product shipped outside Dublin. It had more hops to preserve the beer over a longer time and, certainly once the products were exported, a higher alcoholic strength for the same reason.

To provide a counterpoint for this review, it’s also time to introduce Intoxicated Shep, he’s a brewer, so might be expected to know more about these things than me. But in his own words,
Intoxicated Shep says, having been asked to give my considered opinion on Guinness’s foray into, let’s call it the more artisan end of the beer drinking spectrum, I’ve thought back to what and how people are reviewing on various websites and social media. From “Nom, nom, nom” on Untappd, “A juicy banger” on Twitter and even recently “sexy sticky black and smells of vanilla laced treacle tart and patchouli oil”, which certainly isn’t on Mark Dredge’s crafty craft wheel of beer flavour or any wheel of beer flavour for that matter. As a child of the 80’s I have little idea what patchouli oil is, never mind what it tastes like (Can you drink patchouli oil? Ed: They will only serve it in thirds I believe). I know what sticky black is though, and what it tastes like. So this is going to be a straight down the line “say what you see” describing the organoleptic experience and maybe try to explain why, from a, dare I say, technical point of view.

The Beers

Dublin Porter , ABV 3.8%, available in bottles and keg.

GUINNESS DUBLIN PORTER 2Intoxicated Rich says, I decided to compare the bottle with a bottle of Guinness Original, so far so sensible. Then I made the noob mistake of having them in the fridge too long. Both beers improved dramatically as they warmed up, below, say 10oC, they have little character. Immediately the difference is in the head. The Dublin Porter had large quickly dispersed bubbles, not a traditional Guinness head (which will hold some volatiles nicely). The mouthfeel also reflected a highly carbonated product. Quite sweet and more biscuit than really toasty, I found this a simple pleasant beer. ‘Guinness Lite’? By contrast the Guinness Original had a crisper initial flavour, much bigger mouthfeel and altogether a more satisfying mouthful.

GUINNESS DUBLIN PORTER FOUNTNB: At the launch I also tried the keg version. A much better head and could see this as being a pleasant session porter in its own right. And it also makes a great adult cream soda when topped with a Guinness ice cream float!

Intoxicated Shep says, , pours frothy, loose head and has a faint aroma of roasted malt and very little else , if pushed, a little toffee. On taste, there’s very little sweetness, not much malt character, thin and leaves a drying astringency, I’m searching for more things to describe, to adjectivise, but I can’t.
In their press release, Guinness informed us that this beer was “fermented at a high temperature”, the dryness and lack of any roasty-toasty body is a symptom of this, the fermentation has been vigorous and probably too long, using up any residual sugar from the insufficient malt bill and giving birth to a beer that in the grand scheme of things is like a warm Diet Coke.

West Indies Porter, ABV 6.0% available in bottles only.

GUINNESS WEST INDIES PORTERIntoxicated Rich says, I compared this with two versions of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (FES), Dublin and Nigeria bottled versions. These weigh in at a hefty 7.5% ABV. They had a brief chill but they were much happier at room temperature than a few degrees below. All had a proper head, the WIP creamy and the FES more capuccino coloured. For aroma the Nigerian FES won hands down with great volatiles, but the head was quickest to dissipate. So, tasting the WIP it is a lovely smooth drink delivering toffee and slightly chocolate notes. All good until you try the Dublin FES, my favourite Guinness incarnation. A big boozy start, then bitter, then deep, complex and lingering – all in harmonious balance. Somewhat reminiscent of Nwankwo Kanu the Nigerian version flattered to deceive with it’s lovely aroma, proving to be altogether thinner and less complex – albeit still with the same boozy whack upfront.

Intoxicated Shep says, this seems a bit more serious, darker, thicker with a moussy head and a waft of dark fruit and chocolate. As expected, this is sweeter, (lactose sweet) and fuller than it’s poor cousin, the bitterness comes from the roasted malt, perhaps a hint of spice, smoke and a pleasant tangy linger. Not the travesty I thought it would be and for 6% in your local shops, not a bad fallback. Just for the record I had an FES too, …dark, boozy rum, molasses aroma. Very thick, lots of body, fruity sweet, coffee, chocolate, spice, a little bit of alcohol burn but smooth and delicious.

GUINNESS DUBLIN PORTER AND WEST INDIES PORTER 2Was it fair to compare these porters with their stout brothers? Probably not. Both the style and the age of the recipe are the precursors to the stouts so the stouts certainly should be ‘better’ in some respects. But enough wittering from us for a moment,

What will they think of them?

Dublin Porter

The beer geek – doesn’t drink 3.8% session porters
The old bloke in the pub – the 3.8% will appeal, crisper than a mild, different from a bitter, not as full on as a Guinness, he might like the keg version.
The girls night out – my feeling (having never been on a girls night out) is that if they want Guinness, they’d order Guinness
The supermarket bottle drinker – a bit boring to sit with by yourself at home? Nice label though.
The ‘interested’ drinker – it’s the back story that attracts and would be a must on any comparative tasting

West Indies Porter

The beer geek – might have fun working out the differences between this and FES but will come with a dose of big brewery scepticism, will end up preferring the FES
The old bloke in the pub – doesn’t always want the volume, sat by the inglenook on a winter’s evening with a bottle of this, nice.
The girls night out – sharing cool looking bottles of this might appeal
The supermarket bottle drinker – want a stronger ‘sipping beer’? This hits the spot.
The ‘interested’ drinker – worth trying but probably a stepping stone to FES

And I haven’t talked about food pairing. Do try WIP with a sticky toffee pudding.

To sum up…

Unlike some new beers I can see a place and an appeal for these beers. They are not ‘me-too’ beers or for ‘me-too’ markets. They fit nicely with Guinness existing range and aren’t a knee jerk reaction to go off on a ‘crafty double IPA’ tangent that would be out of character (Greene King take note). There is no serious aim here to try for the ‘craft’/beer geek/Hackney Hipster market, what they want is pub goers and home drinkers to have a new alternative with a great story behind it.

Disclosure: I was invited to a launch of these beers and asked if I would write about them

What’s Brewing, September 2014 – Agony Column

Whats Brewing AugustI do my best to help the troubled writers to What’s Brewing. (Despite the pic, this is September).

Maybe they don’t receive many letters but once we start getting responses to responses, GH of Bolton that’s you,  it suggests a lack of good content (mmm, I’d better get writing).

TJ of Hornchurch suggests we put excise duty and tax on coffee, ‘where people are happy to pay more than £2.50 a cup’. £2.50, yes, but only if it is an Imperial Russian Double Cappucino.

Of course, the great music and beer debate rumbles on. Apparently some people like it and some don’t. End of.

“Craft” demise! The headline must have caused a flutter of heady anticipation amongst many readers. The supermarket shelves have more beers labelled as craft, thank you Greene King. Meanwhile ‘good’ beer is still on the increase led by small microbrewers often producing keg beer.

RH of Cheltenham now wants the address of the brewer on the pumpclips too. His intimate knowledge of chemistry, fluoride adding water companies and the effects on beer make him want to decide accordingly. My advice, drink Budweiser, the sophisticated water treatment plant strips out all ions to produce probably the purest base water for any beer in the UK.

Guinness: Textbook marketing through the years

Guinness-original-logoEveryone likes Guinness, even the people who don’t like Guinness. Why’s that then Rich? Marketing! Oh, and a good product and factual story to back it up.

Marketing can be seen as a dirty word but done well, everyone’s a winner with one proviso – the marketing needs be backed up by the product, without that it is just ‘puff’. For years the advertisements have been both contemporary and legendary (Ed: Can you be contemporary and legendary at the same time? Rich: Semantics, you know what I mean.) There must be a Guinness pump in over 90% of the pubs in the UK, saturation point? No, some Genius comes up with the idea of serving an identical product two degrees colder. This gave Guinness the chance to double brand awareness at a stroke. (If you don’t believe in the subliminal effect of brand awareness look around you next time you are in a Brewdog bar, count the Brewdog logos, count the other logos you can see.)

Bitter (style, not attitude)drinkers who wouldn’t touch a pint of ‘nitrokeg’ or ‘creamflow’ bitter will often drink Guinness happily as a fallback such is the affection for the brand. People who don’t drink Guinness still like the brand. Only a smidgin of this love can be attributed to the UK’s fondness for some softly spoken, self-deprecating Irish blarney.

I have had the unalloyed good fortune to be the recipient of Guinness hospitality recently. On the first occasion this was as part of the European Beer Bloggers Conference (my advice – start a blog, attend, you won’t regret it). This included a sneak look at their big, shiny, new brewhouse (the fourth brewhouse they have built at St James’ Gate) followed by a reception at the Storehouse, the most prominent building on the site, with panoramic views over Dublin. Now you expect a professional presentation and a bit of free Guinness, right? This was so much more. All versions of Guinness including the two different export, higher strength versions were on offer together with some other beers and most interestingly, Night Porter. This was the winner of an internal brewing competition, a lovely chocolatey, tarry mouthful for a relatively modest 5.5% ABV. I always mention this because I would just love them to commercialise it. I digress, each stout was matched to a different food station – oysters naturally but lots of other good stuff. Apart from the quality of the beer and food, the most impressive thing were the staff. All were knowledgeable and informed, keen to talk about the product but not in any sort of pushy way. This doesn’t happen by accident, it is the result of excellent training and employees buying into the ethos of the company.

Then, a few days ago, I was invited to a Guinness event of ‘discovery’ at a ‘secret location’. My arm didn’t need twisting. Again, I was expecting a nice evening but was unprepared for how good (and exclusive) it was. I won’t make you green by describing the evening, let’s concentrate on the facts. It was to launch their new West Indies Porter and Dublin Porter, presented by the brewer and the archivist. There were some shadowy suits and little black dresses that indicated marketing people in the background but it turned out they didn’t bite and were indeed, without exception, quite charming.

GUINNESS SERVE 1These two new beers are based on old recipes, recreated as best they are able, from the archives. Sample problem, how big is a bale? From the brewing side this has been labelled ‘The Brewers Project’ and gives the brewers, technically skilled at producing consistent, large volume stout a chance to do some more interesting stuff than the day-to-day routine. All very well, but just another beer to market? No, all the Guinness marketing Genius is here. This is the brewer with the biggest heritage in the British Isles but it’s something they have cashed in on before. The style is one that was incredibly popular, witness the archives, yet is under represented in pubs nowadays. Pubs that are committed to a regular range of bitters might have no problem putting a porter alongside and it’s not a stout. Well, cynics might say it is ‘stout lite’ but when Guinness pull this type of stunt we just smile indulgently. And the markets they are aiming for don’t compete with their existing ones. Nice old labelling. It all comes together into a great marketing package – based on facts and real stories.

Diageo, owners of Guinness are primarily a spirits company. Kilkenny, Smithwicks and Harp complement Guinness in Ireland and North America. In Africa they have some local lagers to complement the famous Foreign Extra. However they have not dipped their toes in the murky waters of ‘craft beer’ either by acquisition or pilot brewery before. Wisely the word craft doesn’t appear here either, it’s about heritage, a far more tangible label. Nevertheless this is just a tiptoe into some markets where Guinness might not have been seen before.

So very neatly Guinness have avoided confrontation with best bitter or modern IPA. They haven’t engaged in the craft vs cask war. They haven’t gone for anything ‘new’. Competition for these new beers is relatively low in a market that is becoming increasingly saturated.

This has been rather gushing, hasn’t it? It is for the marketing. Guinness could be used as a textbook (also for exporting, but that’s another story). Sadly I am too much of a thrill seeker to drink a lot of Guinness nowadays but I love what they do.

A review of the actual beers is here.

In the meantime, a useless fact: My favourite time and place for a pint of Guinness is the open air, but covered bar underneath the Gold Cup restaurant at Cheltenham racecourse on Champion Hurdle day prior to racing. Watch the excited crowds stream in for the first day of the Festival, read the Racing Post, feel the anticipation of the winners and enjoy a pint of the black stuff – bliss.