All posts by Richard

Sours – Big Beer’s Latest Sweetener?

This week has seen a flurry of newly-announced ‘strategic partnerships’ between small independent breweries and larger corporations. Two days ago, Colorado’s Avery Brewing Company sold 30% to Mahou San Miguel, yesterday Heineken UK took a minority stake in the Brixton Brewery – and overnight news appeared that Pirate Life in Australia had been acquired by AB InBev outright. It’s interesting that the first two of these deals are minority stakes, but to me the most interesting titbit was what AB InBev said about the buyout of Pirate Life – because it hints at a new way in which Big Beer can buy, but attempt to appease the beer fans. And it relates to sours.

Yes, craft beer’s latest magic bullet – or it was, until New England IPA arrived – could just be the carrot that breaks the camel’s back. It goes like this.

The most likely vociferous complainants about a former craft brewer being taken over by Big Beer are the beer-loving community, vocal on social media and who regularly attend Meet the Brewer nights, order beer online and generally know what’s what. Now these people happen to also be pretty much the only market for sour beer (aside from a sizeable pocket of people in the Low Countries). Like it or not, sours are nowhere near the mainstream and likely never will be. As Garrett Oliver [CLANG] told the crowd during a Brooklyn Ghost Bottle event in Edinburgh in 2016 – “Sour beers are less than one half of one percent of craft beer. But they are 95% of what craft beer fans talk about now.”*

*For 2017 replace sour beers with NEIPA and this comment just keeps on trucking

The interesting thing came partway down that press release from Pirate Life/AB InBev on the buyout. Essentially PL were in a bind having grown as much as they could with their current kit and needing larger premises. Enter the Big Boys with their oversized cheques – which beer commentators down under had been expecting apparently, due to the rapid rise in expansion Pirate Life had recently undergone. But the release confirmed the cashflow injection would be for a shiny new Pirate Life brewhouse and facility. And the existing one? It will now be used for small batch, experimental beers and sours.

If that isn’t a lightbulb moment for Big Beer, nothing will flick that particular switch. We’ve seen them acquire sour-leaning breweries before (as when North Carolina’s Wicked Weed also sold out to Ab InBev, back in March). But for potential acquirees who are sitting on the fence? Wondering about the backlash? Pondering what to do with their millions? ‘Hey guys, it’s fine. We’ll build a new brewery for your core stuff and push it to market. You can keep the old kit and go wild on it. Brew what you like! Go for IT! HIGH FIVE. NOW. HIGH FIVE US LIKE A DUDE. RADICAL!’

This could just be the new sweetner Big Beer needs for these deals. The cherry (beer) on top. They know that these niche beers are so small-scale, it doesn’t matter if they don’t sell. In fact, it’s probably better for them if they don’t. It removes a distraction from churning out their newly-gained IPA for supermarkets. And for the brewer who accepts a deal from Big Beer (either entirely or as a minority partner)? They get to let their hair down a little. Get back to brewing things that challenge them and forget about the punishing nature of building a business.

Want to take a chunk out of a smaller brewery? Don’t promise them the world – just sours.

Beer of the Week – Cross Borders Porter

Friday is with us once again and that can mean only one thing. It’s time to hit the town. But if you’re saving yourself and that extra-special Christmas jumper for the host of December parties, maybe just hit the town and pick up a single beer to drink at home. Yes it’s another unsung beer recommendation from yours truly – every week this year I have been talking about a specific beer I believe to be amazing and worthy of your time.

And if I’ve learned anything along the way, it’s that we are a fantastic collective nation of Porter brewers up here. The dark beers of London, Dublin, and anywhere else have a serious underdog scrapping at their heels in the beer producers of Scotland. This week’s selection is another quite brilliant native Porter, from the guys at Cross Borders in Dalkeith. With only a handful of places up for grabs in the 52 beer-series, it deservedly takes one of them.

47. Porter (4.2%)
Cross Borders Brewing Company, Dalkeith, Midlothian
Style: Porter
330ml can

Pick it up here:
At at eebria online (as individual 330ml cans)

What do you want from a porter? Something dark, roasty and bitter. Classic styles like this are at their very best when replicated down the line, and Cross Borders Porter is a true classic. Slightly smoky, something like roasted nuts, comes to the fore but then the faint sweetness arrives to balance it all out. There’s also coffee, chocolate and the whole thing is massively easy to drink. It’s a brilliant Porter.

Beer of the Week Series:
1. Fyne Ales Highlander
2. Swannay Old Norway
3. Broughton Old Jock
4. Traquair House Ale
5. Tempest Easy Livin Pils
6. Cromarty Brewed Awakening
7. Fallen Chew Chew
8. Black Isle Hibernator
9. Isle of Skye Red
10. Harviestoun Old Engine Oil Engineer’s Reserve
11. Orkney Skull Splitter
12. Windswept Wolf
13. Kelburn Dark Moor
14. Alechemy 5ive Sisters
15. Loch Ness Light Ness
16. St Andrews Eighty Bob
17. Harviestoun The Ridge
18. Orkney Dark Island
19. Williams Bros Seven Giraffes
20. Cairngorm Black Gold
21. Strathaven Craigmill Mild
22. Black Isle Red Kite
23. Spey Valley Spey Stout
24. Top Out Schmankerl
25. Cross Borders Braw
26. Williams Bros Midnight Sun
27. BrewDog Kingpin
28. Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack
29. Deeside MacBeth
30. Drygate Ax Man Red Rye IPA
31. Swannay Orkney Session
32. Fallen Platform C
33. Black Isle Porter
34. Top Out Altbier
35. Black Metal Gates of Valhalla
36. Fierce Beer Cranachan Killer
37. Loch Lomond Southern Summit
38. Tempest Old Parochial
39. Williams Bros Profanity Stout
40. Windswept Tornado
41. Campervan Pacific Zest
42. Swannay Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout
43. Cromarty Ghost Town
44. Fyne Ales Vital Spark
45. Knops Musselburgh Broke
46. Orkney Red MacGregor

Caveat Emptor – Don’t Grab and Go…

Recently in the last couple of weeks something has happened to me – twice – that has never happened before. Maybe it’s a sign of my advancing years, I don’t know, but it certainly was something I never remotely considered back in the day. I guess it happens to every beer fan as they get older.

On two different visits to bottle shops, I bought the wrong beer.

When I say that, I don’t mean I had heard about the latest imperial chia seed and papaya weizengose and inadvertently selected one from a different brewery. I mean, I went in to buy one specific beer (that I know and love) and somehow picked up another and paid for it without noticing.

Just the other day I went to Beer Zoo here in Edinburgh to buy a bottle of Swannay’s Imperial Stout, and only noticed when I went into the cupboard to get it out that I’d actually bought Swannay Orkney Porter.

I know, Champagne problems, right?

The strange thing is that I realised my erroneous purchase only after picking the beer up, putting it on the counter, paying for it, putting it in a [Boots carrier] bag, taking it home, putting it in the beer cupboard and then reaching for it later. At no point during any of those moments did I twig that I’d mistaken one for the other. And it happened to me a few weeks ago as well. So what’s going on?

Well it could be one of two things – either I am getting more careless in my advancing years and don’t look twice at the shelf before snatching what (I think) I want, or the retina-blistering array of craft beer that shines from your average beer shelf just looks too confusing for frail old forty-somethings like myself. You only have to glance at a shelf of cans from Beavertown, Magic Rock, Drygate and Flying Dog to need a sit down.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I ended up with one of the best beers in the world so it’s all good. Maybe the inconvenience of having to drink every drop will make me think twice about looking away whilst grabbing a beer. Keep your eyes on the prize beer fans. That’s the lesson here. Caveat Emptor.

Beer of the Week – Orkney Red MacGregor

The end is in sight, but there are still a few more amazing unsung Scottish beers on the horizon before we hit the 52nd and final beer in this series – and that beer, I should say at this point, is going to be the overall singlemost unsung beer we have currently in this part of the world. So stay tuned for that, due up on Friday the 29th of December. Before then, it’s time to head all the way to Orkney for beer #46.

It’s yet another version of the quasi-style that Scotland does better than anyone. I say quasi-style as a) it makes me sound sophisticated and b) this particular beer falls into the bracket we have seen a lot of so far. Red Ales. Ruby Ales. 80/-. Scottish Exports. Amber Ales. Essentially, what they sometimes hang on the great branching tree of bitter down in England, the roots of which don’t quite get past Carlisle. Anyway you care to categorise them, these beers are cask-hearty and taste amazing at this time of year. Like Orkney’s Red Macgregor.

46. Red MacGregor (4.0%)
The Orkney Brewery, Quoyloo, Orkney
Style: Ruby Ale
500ml bottle

Pick it up here:
At at Scottish Real Ales online (as individual 500ml bottles)

‘Delicate and sophisticated’ goes the byline, and I can totally get this as the amber ale here (or ruby) is toasty, with a caramel backbone and a fair bit of red berry fruit about it. Yet there’s an easy-going nature about it throughout. Soft and floral, this could be the ideal session beer for the late Autumn months as the nutty and bready quality give off a feeling of all the best desserts you can consume at this time of year.

Beer of the Week Series:
1. Fyne Ales Highlander
2. Swannay Old Norway
3. Broughton Old Jock
4. Traquair House Ale
5. Tempest Easy Livin Pils
6. Cromarty Brewed Awakening
7. Fallen Chew Chew
8. Black Isle Hibernator
9. Isle of Skye Red
10. Harviestoun Old Engine Oil Engineer’s Reserve
11. Orkney Skull Splitter
12. Windswept Wolf
13. Kelburn Dark Moor
14. Alechemy 5ive Sisters
15. Loch Ness Light Ness
16. St Andrews Eighty Bob
17. Harviestoun The Ridge
18. Orkney Dark Island
19. Williams Bros Seven Giraffes
20. Cairngorm Black Gold
21. Strathaven Craigmill Mild
22. Black Isle Red Kite
23. Spey Valley Spey Stout
24. Top Out Schmankerl
25. Cross Borders Braw
26. Williams Bros Midnight Sun
27. BrewDog Kingpin
28. Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack
29. Deeside MacBeth
30. Drygate Ax Man Red Rye IPA
31. Swannay Orkney Session
32. Fallen Platform C
33. Black Isle Porter
34. Top Out Altbier
35. Black Metal Gates of Valhalla
36. Fierce Beer Cranachan Killer
37. Loch Lomond Southern Summit
38. Tempest Old Parochial
39. Williams Bros Profanity Stout
40. Windswept Tornado
41. Campervan Pacific Zest
42. Swannay Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout
43. Cromarty Ghost Town
44. Fyne Ales Vital Spark
45. Knops Musselburgh Broke

Beer of the Week – Knops Musselburgh Broke

It’s Friday once again, so time for another in my (now long-running) series of weekly recommendations on a single Scottish beer that should be in your tasting glass if you haven’t already had the chance to try it. With so much amazing new beer out there, sometimes it can be hard to keep up – but there is a fall-back option. Stick to the classics. The beers that, even if unsung, are worthy of a place in anyone’s beer cupboard.

For this week, it’s a play on a Scotch Ale. It’s no co-incidence that as the months are moving on I’ve been pulled towards the darker end of the spectrum – for one thing, Scottish breweries produce more amazing dark beers than anyone gives them credit for – and for another (and more obvious) they are just more fitting for this time of year. But Scotch Ales don’t have to be thick, meaty and enjoyed in an armchair – just ask the guys at Knops Brewing.

45. Musselburgh Broke (4.5%)
Knops Brewing Co, Dirleton, East Lothian
Style: Scotch Ale
330ml bottle

Pick it up here:
At at Real Ale Warehouse online (as individual 330ml bottles)

Brewed with Crystal and Chocolate malts and roasted barley, there’s no prizes for guessing the stars of the show – this is a beer rich in woody, toffee-like nutty flavours that verge into molasses territory at times. It’s bitter at first, but then all of these flavours arrive to move the beer into that typically Scotch-esque warming richness. A malt-forward session-strength brew – what Scotland is renowned for; and justifiably so.

Beer of the Week Series:
1. Fyne Ales Highlander
2. Swannay Old Norway
3. Broughton Old Jock
4. Traquair House Ale
5. Tempest Easy Livin Pils
6. Cromarty Brewed Awakening
7. Fallen Chew Chew
8. Black Isle Hibernator
9. Isle of Skye Red
10. Harviestoun Old Engine Oil Engineer’s Reserve
11. Orkney Skull Splitter
12. Windswept Wolf
13. Kelburn Dark Moor
14. Alechemy 5ive Sisters
15. Loch Ness Light Ness
16. St Andrews Eighty Bob
17. Harviestoun The Ridge
18. Orkney Dark Island
19. Williams Bros Seven Giraffes
20. Cairngorm Black Gold
21. Strathaven Craigmill Mild
22. Black Isle Red Kite
23. Spey Valley Spey Stout
24. Top Out Schmankerl
25. Cross Borders Braw
26. Williams Bros Midnight Sun
27. BrewDog Kingpin
28. Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack
29. Deeside MacBeth
30. Drygate Ax Man Red Rye IPA
31. Swannay Orkney Session
32. Fallen Platform C
33. Black Isle Porter
34. Top Out Altbier
35. Black Metal Gates of Valhalla
36. Fierce Beer Cranachan Killer
37. Loch Lomond Southern Summit
38. Tempest Old Parochial
39. Williams Bros Profanity Stout
40. Windswept Tornado
41. Campervan Pacific Zest
42. Swannay Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout
43. Cromarty Ghost Town
44. Fyne Ales Vital Spark

Beer of the Week – Fyne Ales Vital Spark

After last week’s two-for-one edition, this time it’s back to just a single beer recommendation on which to end the week. With less than ten to go, you’d think I might be struggling to still find unsung Scottish beers to feature in this series – but the opposite is true.* There are so many amazing beers being created by the brewers of this country that this is a selection you could continue well into another year I think. Although I am not for one minute going to do that.

*The real struggle has been getting them in time to write one per week…

Anyway – here’s this week’s unsung hero of Scottish brewing, and this is a beer I had to feature, as it’s the single individual that prompted this entire exercise. The most under-rated beer this collection of windy islands and wind-scoured mainland can produce – Fyne Ales Vital Spark. Whether discovered on cask or bottle, this is a fantastic beer and one that is worthy of any and all exploration of exactly what Scottish brewing is and where it is currently at.

44. Vital Spark (4.4%)
Fyne Ales, Argyll
Style: Dark Mild
500ml bottle

Pick it up here:
At at Fyne Ales’ online shop (as 12x500ml bottles or 5 litre mini-cask)

Let’s begin with that style note – this is my pigeon-holing as Fyne themselves say it’s hard to categorise; floating between stouts porters and milds. It’s got the roastiness in there but with that deep ruby colour and balanced finish I’m going to call it a dark mild. Not that it matters in any way, Vital Spark is delicious and a perfect beer for the start of winter. It’s the best room-temperature beer in the country, too – don’t let this one anywhere near your fridge. Chocolate, a slight hint of liqourice and a whack of blackcurrant fruit – this is a masterpiece and one of the best beers to have emerged from Scotland.

Beer of the Week Series:
1. Fyne Ales Highlander
2. Swannay Old Norway
3. Broughton Old Jock
4. Traquair House Ale
5. Tempest Easy Livin Pils
6. Cromarty Brewed Awakening
7. Fallen Chew Chew
8. Black Isle Hibernator
9. Isle of Skye Red
10. Harviestoun Old Engine Oil Engineer’s Reserve
11. Orkney Skull Splitter
12. Windswept Wolf
13. Kelburn Dark Moor
14. Alechemy 5ive Sisters
15. Loch Ness Light Ness
16. St Andrews Eighty Bob
17. Harviestoun The Ridge
18. Orkney Dark Island
19. Williams Bros Seven Giraffes
20. Cairngorm Black Gold
21. Strathaven Craigmill Mild
22. Black Isle Red Kite
23. Spey Valley Spey Stout
24. Top Out Schmankerl
25. Cross Borders Braw
26. Williams Bros Midnight Sun
27. BrewDog Kingpin
28. Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack
29. Deeside MacBeth
30. Drygate Ax Man Red Rye IPA
31. Swannay Orkney Session
32. Fallen Platform C
33. Black Isle Porter
34. Top Out Altbier
35. Black Metal Gates of Valhalla
36. Fierce Beer Cranachan Killer
37. Loch Lomond Southern Summit
38. Tempest Old Parochial
39. Williams Bros Profanity Stout
40. Windswept Tornado
41. Campervan Pacific Zest
42. Swannay Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout
43. Cromarty Ghost Town