The Session takes place on the first Friday of every month across the beer writing world. One blogger suggests a theme and others post their thoughts or responses. For March 2011, the Session is hosted by Stan Hieronymous at Appellation Beer – and the theme is a ‘regular’ beer.
This topic for the 49th Session is meant to be as wide-ranging in scope as possible, to encourage people to write about pretty much any beer they want to. There’s no set definition of ‘regular’ beer – other than it’s the opposite of ‘irregular’, i.e. not relating to 17% walnut-aged imperial black saisons. Living in Edinburgh, when I think of regular beer there’s one that instantly springs to mind – and it’s one that divides opinions.
Deuchars IPA is the flagship of Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery – the sole survivor in a city that once supported over forty producers. The modern brewing resurgence has created newer kids such as Stewart Brewing, Innis & Gunn and Knops Beer Co – but these all are (technically) based outside the city, or contract brew in locations many miles away. When you think of Edinburgh brewing, you think of the Caley, because they dominate what goes on here. And what goes on the bars here is mostly Deuchars.
First brewed in 1991, Deuchars (3.8%) was crowned CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain in 2002 – the first Scottish beer to win that accolade (Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted won the year after – the only other champ from north of the border). Having gained over forty brewing awards, Deuchars is one of Scotland’s most lauded beers. In the 2010 Publican Brands Report it features in the top ten beer brands in Scotland, having risen from the top 30 in 2009.
The reasons for this are probably to do with the ownership of the company rather than the beer itself. Caledonian were sold to Scottish and Newcastle in 2004, with S&N taking full control four years later. In turn, they were acquired by Heineken and the behemoth company really started pushing Deuchars in Scottish (and then English) pubs. Unsurprisingly, Heineken lager now appears in the 2010 top 50, having not appeared in the 2009 report at all (reciprocity being alive and well in the industry).
So far so good – a local company, the last survivor of the golden age of Edinburgh brewing (having been established in 1869) producing a much-awarded flagship product that is now even more available due to the successful nature of takeovers and mergers. So where’s the problem? Well, there are two – ubiquity and consistency.
Firstly, walk into any Edinburgh pub and chances are that if they serve at least one cask ale, it will be Deuchars. I had a quick look at the winter 2010 edition of Pints of View, the Edinburgh CAMRA newsletter – their ‘Capital Quaffing’ section on what real ales are being offered lists 36 city pubs, of which 18 of them had Deuchars IPA on when the investigator walked through the doors.
Are there any other British cities with one beer brand served in half of its pubs? Does London Pride have that reach? If you negotiate the potholes on the M8 seemingly every pub in Glasgow sells Tennent’s lager – it’s probably a good thing that the Wellpark doesn’t brew ale, otherwise it would be everywhere (not to mention the East vs West competition). But again – is this necessarily a bad thing? A local beer must dominate it’s home city – where else are they going to sell it?
Well, all that would be fine if it wasn’t for the second problem with Deuchars – the consistency. I’ll say right now that I’ve had some lovely pints of it – as a lightly bitter session beer it can be really good. It can also be awful. Prone to the odd diacetyl moment, coupled with the fact that the brewery sells to so many outlets means the quality of the serving varies enormously – and bad things happen. So much so, that I won’t really order it now, unless there is absolutely no alternative.
In fact, I’ve also had plenty of even worse pints because it was either ‘Deuchars or X’ – and X turned out to be far worse. Also now that Heineken – and before them S&N – have their muscle behind it the brand appears with more regularity south of the border. It can be a struggle to make Deuchars travel well, judging by some of the comments on RateBeer from those who sample it outside the Lothians.
Edinburgh’s regular beer – one that is sold in half of the city’s real ale establishments – is not without its patrons. It wouldn’t have that demand if people didn’t drink it. On a good day, it’s a ‘knock a few back’ session bitter – not to mention a useful benchmark for judging other real ales by. But tainted by over-familiarity and consistency problems – at source or from the dispense – lead me, and others, to now look elsewhere. But then don’t all beer bloggers delight in shunning the regular for the irregular?