The Great CAMRA Revitalisation Project

camraI’ve been meaning to attend some CAMRA stuff and this looked a perfect opportunity. First let’s read the small print on the CAMRA website. This is not to attract new members it is intended for the existing members to decide how they want to proceed.

By a lovely quirk aka Sod’s Law I currently live in west London but by the time of the Ealing consultation I will be living in east London. So I went to the east London at Leyton. Just over 50 people attended according to my headcount. There were two women, most people were in the 40-60 age range according to my guess, over 50% were members of more than 20 years standing and over 50% were ‘active’ members – volunteers and campaigners.

The meeting was opened by the charismatic Michael Hardman, one of the four founding fathers. First time I’d seen or heard him and he seems a lovely chap, not at all hardline. It was also quite clear the organisation was set up to represent good beer. No good keg was available so the real ale definition made perfect sense to exclude it. (Though even then I imagine there were some poor cask ales as well.)

In response to a question it was clear that the intention of this project is not to reach out to non-members (or even the vast majority of inactive members) but to satisfy the members on the way foward. In answer to the question ‘why did you join CAMRA’ real ale was mentioned a lot, though many chose to say why others joined CAMRA.

Given my own sardonic comments on CAMRA you might ask why did I join? Well, I believe that a body who campaigns for good beer is necessary and CAMRA are the only credible kid on the block. And they did help save us in the early days. The reduced entry to beer festivals and ‘Spoons vouchers make it a no brainer, whether you agree with all their principles or not. I still fail to understand why cider and perry are included, I’m not particularly interested in pub campaigning. I’m here for the beer, good beer, preferably made by a small, local brewer.

So it was all very predictable. Everything CAMRA is doing is right and all we need is more existing members to become active. Across the country the first macro results bear this out. There was a strong request for online survey filling but 6k of the 22k respondees chose the Freepost option costing CAMRA money.

Since I first drafted this, James Yeomans, founder of Hop Stuff Brewery has been co-opted onto the panel. A young, modern brewer who recognises the need for good local cask ale and innovative keg beer this is a really positive step. James just relies on his beer tasting good, method of dispense is not important and many of his beers are available in either format.

So, what do we think? Will CAMRA change? The people at the top recognise the need for it and are not absorbed by the threat of carbon dioxide but I fear that the active members will resist substantial change.

This leaves a vacuum for the proper representation of small, local, independent brewers. The ‘craft beer’ industry has failed to come out with a unified voice or organisation, SIBA want to have a stab at it but are funded by the large independents in effect and the people with the money and time to do it are the big brewers who would not be qualified to enter.

As you were then, carry on drinking what you fancy.

Changes at Brewdog bars?

brewdog-logo1Some of you will know that I am no fan of Brewdog, the disingenuous, corporate, mainstream brewer. However I have always been a huge advocate of their bars but after a couple of months away from them, things have changed.

  1. The non-Brewdog offering is very much the same in all the bars, little individuality, same breweries. Stone, Beavertown, Cloudwater, Mikkeler and very little new UK stuff.
  2. Menu now consists of 6 pizzas and 1 chicken wings. That’s it. There used to be a range of dogs, burgers, wings, and all the craft street that goes with it. In fact, all the type of food that goes with craft beer.
  3. Staff. Certainly at my regular most of the familiar faces have gone and been replaced by less knowledgeable, less friendly (imho) staff. Table service is rare.
  4. Fresh beer. Being served a pumpkin beer in June 2016, brewed in the fall of 2015 was surprising.

It looks as though the accountants have taken over. There has never been a brewery logo in Brewdog apart from Brewdog, it now appears they don’t even want the guest beers apart from their mates and sell off bargains. Food, it slows down the drinking and as the bars are full at peak time – you wouldn’t want that.

From my London-centric point of view, (If you lived in the City would that be EC-centric? – Ed.) I think Barworks and Draft House have got the formula right for customers. Brewdog make lots of money, if you think that is success.

A Pint of London please!

Brewers spend years perfecting recipes when maybe they should spend years perfecting names. The power of marketing, eh?

Timothy Taylor renamed one of their old beers Boltmaker and immediately it becomes Champion Beer of Britain. Does anyone really believe it is the champion beer of Timothy Taylor even? That sort of thing really degrades the title imho.

London PrideIn London of course, London Pride is well established and it’s a case where the beer popularity has grown in age before super saturated marketing. It’s a good beer, that’s made and sold in London. Any tourist arriving in London won’t be disappointed if they want to try a typical, local, London beer.

Best pubco in London?

Best pubco in London?

London Pride used to be a fixture in the Taylor Walker pubs, part of Spirit Group. Now, for a relatively large pubco, Taylor Walker pubs are some of the best in London. They are proud of their brand and have a great estate of good old fashioned pubs in Central London. This is not a pubco that hides it’s brand, tries to entice customers with promises of real ale and continental lagers (that’ll be Doombar and Heineken then). They also usually have a couple of craft keg lines and the Spirit ‘bible’ includes a number of microbreweries who can deliver direct without selling their soul (and profits) to national distributors. Notwithstanding a few bulk drops and head office deals, the publicans generally like to support local micros and have ‘something different’.

So, Greene King acquire Spirit. Greene King and Fuller’s are competitors.All of a sudden,

Really?

Really?

London Pride is ripped out, London Glory appears (no, don’t, I’m serious) made by Greene King natch. Now, London Pride probably does a few sales from tourists but there are a lot of core Pride drinkers out there. Faced with no London Pride they will go with the next best, established bitter that they know. Isn’t that obvious? Well not to the GK marketing department obviously. But to many wry smiles, the word on the street is that selected Taylor Walker pubs will be ‘trialling’ London Pride soon.

Little Tenderness from my beloved Little Beer Corporation is a great beer. A 5.4% American amber, it’s got a great big malty body lifted by clean, fresh tasting American hops and gentle carbonation. But people try it first because of the name.

Make a good beer yes, but if you want people to try it then get the name right.

Brewdog, losing the plot?

brewdog-logo1Perhaps this is an easy target. I have never been a fan of Brewdog as company or as a brewer, nothing to do with the quality of their beer though. I have always been a tremendous fan of their bars which offer a great selection of good beer and great service. The Shepherds Bush bar is my local and is a lovely, open airy venue with a variety of seating and good pinball machines.

Recently though things have changed. It seems there is much more central buying. Neck Oil, Gamma Ray, Black Betty and Holy Cowbell are all good Beavertown beers but they are hardly cutting craft edge and having all four on at once seems excessive. Did they have to bulk buy to get the Lupuloids series? The remainder is also mainstream – Stone, Magic Rock, Weird Beard, BBNo all good but hey, we can get these anywhere. Camden Hells is the only non-Brewdog lager!

Staff have changed, service is slower, queues now exist at quiet times. More subtle things, I don’t see the manager having laid back team talks, staff aren’t interacting. (As a Chelsea supporter I notice these things.)

It may well be part of the corporate plan, Brewdog are an intensely commercial operation and the UK’s craft behemoth. Have they reached the limit of craft beer enthusiasts and to entice more mainstream customers in they have to offer names they have heard of like Beavertown etc. Become more like a normal pub? A pub for punks obviously.

Discuss.

Bite Size Reflections on #EBBC15, Belgium and Bloggers

EBBC15badgeSo the dust settles on another European Beer Bloggers Conference and once again the first place to start is with a massive thanks to all the sponsors and Zephyr Adventures for a brilliant few days of generous hospitality, high quality beers, stimulating discussion and much revelry. It really wouldn’t be possible without them and the conference represents astounding value for money.

Much has been written as a result and a good place to catch up is the Facebook page. For now I’d just like to add some bite size reflections…

Quaint – Before and after the conference I’ve started to follow the sponsor breweries on Twitter, as you do. Several have clearly joined just recently, it’s a long time since I started following a world famous brewer who had only tweeted about 20 times with a few hundred followers. I guess we’ll have to tell them about Facebook soon. Or are we wasting our time? They have been successful enough without it.

They are family

They are family

Family – The Belgian Family Brewers were a major sponsor. They are family, they care. No fast track entry scheme, 50 years it is. They will experiment, they will innovate – but not on you. Once they have got it right, then they will release it. Admirable imho. Some modern breweries make me feel like a guinea pig, they know some stuff won’t work, they don’t know which, are they real brewers?

Heritage – The Belgian Brewers are a more inclusive group as the name suggests but there is still a massive thing about heritage. Although diminished from the numbers in their heyday they know they brew some of the most famous and iconic beers in the world. Why would you want to change that? Belgian traditions and heritage are such that anything new is viewed with healthy suspicion. It might be good but experimental does not necessarily equal good and consistent quality is paramount.

Bloggers – Quite a lot of introspection here. The British blogging scene certainly represents a bit of a love-in sometimes. No surprise when a fair percentage are doing it partly as a reason to get free beer and ‘access all areas’ invitations – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The real writers are a slightly different kettle of wort, but again, there is not much constructive criticism. People trying to make a living (or a ligging) can’t afford to be too critical it seems.

Language – It was taken for granted that the whole conference was conducted solely in English. Yet the non-native speakers (viz, every Belgian brewer for starters) consistently had impeccable colloquial English. Bravo. I am ashamed of myself.

Belgian Beer & Food – Paul Walsh, the editor moderated several of the talks and Brendan Kearney (sorry for the omission of your crazy Irish accents). Proper journalism. Asking probing questions, not stopping until answers were given instead of lapping up the marketing PR along with the free samples. There is a big gap in the UK market for something like this in my humble opinion. If you are travelling to Belgium or just interested in keeping up to date with the Belgian beer scene this mag is indispensible.

Belgian beers – It’s all been said and it’s all good. I feel slightly sorry for Pilsner Urquell, they bought a lovely fresh tank of beer which we didn’t make a big enough dent in – all eager to go exploring and pub crawling Brussels.

Innovation – We saw dry hopped beers, we saw saison in cans, we saw Cantillon in disposable kegs, we saw a brewer encouraging us to blend his beers in the glass, we saw popular old beers that had been revived. We also saw history, tradition and the heritage of some of the world’s great beers, beers that people try to copy everywhere in the world. We didn’t see any experimental brews on sale that hadn’t been fully developed, or brewers with a ‘we’ve brewed it so we might as well sell it’ attitude.

The Wars – Don’t mention them. Older British brewers should feel incredibly lucky that their businesses and breweries and kit were not destroyed by invading armies. Mentioned several times this is clearly a big factor in the reduction of Belgian breweries and the renaissant state of the industry for the last 40 years.

Beer Tourism – Major sponsors included Visit Flanders and other Belgian tourist groups. They know what they’ve got. I’ve never seen any tourist board activity of this sort in the UK. Certainly in Surrey you can’t even get a brown road sign pointing to your brewery.

It’s going to be a hard act to follow.

I’ve sat on these thoughts so long that I’ve forgotten my other incisive comments. The end.

Not the greatest beer festival London has ever seen

Chutzpah is us

Chutzpah is us

Billed as ‘the greatest beer festival London has ever seen’ you’d never accuse the Craft Beer Co of lacking chutzpah. These guys know how to organise festivals, their Craft100 festivals have featured 100 of the best beers in the country including several rare, special and new releases. In fact it’s been a victim of it’s own success in some ways, the Clapham bar is nowhere near big enough.

So the London Beer Carnival was going to be different. 50 of the best beers from around the world chosen for taste, not marketing considerations (no tittering at the back), unlimited 90ml pours, £50 a ticket, a venue in Waterloo. It had to be done. So imagine my surprise dear reader, when I received an email advising me monies were being refunded. So what went wrong? Who knows? Team Stonch normally have their finger on the pulse but may or may not have missed the mark, though Craft Beer Co’s Martin Hayes left more questions unanswered than answered with his reply.

But never fear, the beer was bought and various events were planned instead. The headline act was ‘Route CBC’ at the Clapham bar featuring the American beers. Now we know rare, strong, artisanal beer does not come cheap but some were £6.50 for a 1/3? In some cases they were not high abv and, according to the check-ins on Untappd, not particularly rare. (I am currently sitting in a Brewdog bar where a De Molen/Fyne 9.5% collab is £4.90 a half and Stone Old Guardian, 11.2% is £4.55 a third). Unlike Craft100 festivals there was no programme, just a menu mentioning name of beer, brewery, abv and price – nothing else. And there was £3 deposit for a glass, why? The bar at the front was operating as normal but also with deposits on glasses.

Some of the beers were great, they were all in good condition, lots of BA goodness. The number of breweries represented curiously low. But hey-ho, there was also the free bus to the Brixton bar where they had the Nordic beers. We cashed in our glasses and headed out front. Sightings of the free bus had been rare (not every 30 mins as per menu), but it did exist. So we had a couple of nice ordinary beers in the front bar – still having to pay a new £3 deposit. Eventually we gave up waiting and took an ordinary bus. Of course we forgot to get our £6 back, it’s so unusual to pay a deposit for a glass when you are sat at a bar for simple half. Halfway to Brixton, sat on the bus I realised this. I could faintly hear the kerching of the CBC accountant’s till and a triumphant ‘gotcha’ ringing in the air.

This was my first time in CBC Brixton, it is small but in a trendy area, the serving area of the bar is particularly small. A nice bar on a normal night, this wasn’t. First impression was a relief to see normal prices, most were under £3 a third. Regrettably the beers were exceptionally normal too, this was a poor showcase for the Nordic lands.

Intrepid is our middle name at Team Intoxicated. We could still make it to Leather Lane in the City for the German and Polish beers. The evening took an upturn with the arrival of a Scotch egg and the militant wing of Bexley CAMRA but otherwise more dreary beer, not even a menu here as far as we could see.

On the Sunday there was an uninspiring list of Irish and Italian beers to coincide with the rugby. Then a week later Covent Garden CBC had some of the Route CBC beers with new additions. The Intoxicated litigation fund being what it is, I will not call them the dregs.

What a letdown. The more so because of the previous great beers at Craft100 festivals. So what went wrong? Staffing issue, low ticket sales, some weird H&S concern? I would suspect that craft beer bubble has reached an optimum size, it hasn’t burst. There are a lot of people who really enjoy a beer festival where they will pay a fiver a pop for half a dozen premium halves (or more). But the thought of sticking up £50 in advance is a different matter, one that appeals to a limited audience – indeed if the beer list was the same as we saw at the events above even I would have felt short changed. And nobody likes ticking a box (or getting a badge) as much as me.

Craft Beer Co competes in the London market with Brewdog, Draft House and Barworks. To my mind, despite being a ‘family firm’, they are the most achingly hip. As a beer salesman they are the most difficult to engage with. Their beer selection is certainly no better than Barworks or Brewdog. The vibe is cooler in Barworks, more laid back in Draft House. Brewdog service and knowledgeability is, I hate to say, the best.

Without doubt though, CBC have the worst toilets. Now, when I was young drinking gallons of cheap session bitter in spit and sawdust pubs this didn’t matter. Now I am in my dotage and drinking premium beer at a premium price I expect a premium sanitary experience as well.

Have CBC got a bit up themselves and not noticed the trends? Is the firm run by accountants, not beer lovers? Did you enjoy the events? Have I got it wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time.