Category Archives: Editorial

Beer Trends for 2018

It’s been a while but after a couple of months distanced from my fifty-two beer year (although in truth I managed a lot more than 52) it’s back to the grindstone with this, a look ahead into 2018 and a few trends I think will become apparent over the course of the year. As ever feel free to quote these back at me at some point. Thankfully nobody has ever actually done this, allowing me to get away with such screamers as predicting sours would take over back in 2010* and beer sold in PET plastic would be the new thing in 2016. I did sort of predict the session IPA though, so you have me to blame for that.

*Note to self, must renew 3rd-party hosting on Photobucket.

1. More Crowdfunding

Ok so this one is a freebie. Writing a year preview post in early March means I’ve missed the first couple of months where Northern Monk hit their £500k target in three hours and Bristol-based Left Handed Giant hit their £450k target in one hour. Just think about that for a minute – particularly if you’re not overly familiar with either of those breweries. A combined £950,000 raised in four hours. At time of writing Northern Monk have now raised £815k and LHG £580k. This is astonishing.

Now I’m not crazy into motorsport but I do know that when there’s a wet race and the conditions dry out, the teams wait and see which of their rivals will be brave enough to pit for dry-weather tyres first. Once that person does, and posts fast lap times, they all pit. Well the teams from Leeds and Bristol have pitted first and holy cow is the running good. It’s an easy prediction to make but look for more regional craft breweries to crowdfund asap, I would think the guys at CrowdCube are going to get a lot of cases of beer on their doorsteps soon. And why not? People buy brewers breweries these days.

The motor racing analogy doesn’t quite hold though of course – Northern Monk weren’t the first to come into the pits. BrewDog were there at the end of the first lap, and are so far down the track as to be a dot. Currently with a combined £54 million raised in the five rounds of Equity for Punks they are off to the races. But the recent CrowdCube raises show that there is still mileage in crowdfunding, and then some. Back at the end of 2017 Cloudwater’s Paul Jones suggested he was open to the idea. Look for them to pull the trigger in 2018 and all hell to break loose. Who will be first to £100M?

2. Loyalty Cards

I’ve been wondering for a while why this concept isn’t more prevalent when it comes to beer. With recent developments (again, via the medium of crowdfunding) of things like the Beer Merchants Tap, where an online retailer funded a real-life bar in London – and yes, online is real life too, I know – I think the greater concept at play could become more prevalent. With more competition than ever, rewarding your regular customers takes on a new level of importance. Will 2018 be the year we see a brewery loyalty card?

So if you spend money in the (say) Magic Rock taproom you get a discount from their online store (or vice-versa). I know these kinds of things do exist, and places like Beer Merchants have redeemable codes for discounts but aside from BrewDog’s Equity Punk ID Card I can’t think of another actual, physical card that you carry with you. Swipe your Buxton card every time you visit the Buxton Tap, say. Maybe even have it scanned every time you buy a Beavertown can, whether in Mother Kelly’s or Wetherspoons, with the data collected on your account online. And what do cans make?

3. Cyclical Styles

Why couldn’t Black IPA be the style of 2018 like it was a decade ago? (I did have a list of the styles of the year somewhere but have sadly mislaid it – I think it went Black IPA, craft lager, saison, sour, session pale, saison again, sour again, NEIPA – with a few years in between the styles). Let’s all adopt the retro-vibe that never actually goes away and get on board with the first wave of styles that hit the UK’s nascent beer appreciation scene. It’s like Stranger Things but with booze.

4. Taprooms away from the Tap

These days there’s no need to have your taproom actually physically attached to your brewery. Or at least, the second one you build. Look for 2018 to be the year that breweries take a punt on locations in other cities (as Moor Beer have done so well with their arrival in London). If the capital’s brewers are jaded with the Bermondsey Beer Mile, why not a selection of UK brewers taking over the arches? That really would be a beer festival every weekend – for good and bad. And why stop there? Would people not head to a Moor Tap in Birmingham? Or Newcastle?

5. Wax

It pains me to write it, but wax just won’t go away. In fact, more wax will be here this year, as the dip-club gains new members and America’s greatest scourge runs over this country anew. Full disclosure – I work for a brewery that releases wax-dipped bottles. But I still struggle (both literally and metaphorically) with the messy, brittle seal that adds a needless five minutes to my enjoyment of the beer. But as it looks cool and it’s catching on, expect to have to reach for that carving knife more often in 2018.

So that’s it. Any screamers in here? Let me know…

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.

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.

New England IPA – craft beer’s magic bullet

A midsize boardroom, with two ponytailed execs standing at one end of it talking to an invited group of guests

Gentlemen. Ladies. Welcome to FlashBrands Inc. We are consultants to the big leagues and our awesometer hit 110% this morning when we knew you guys from the New England IPA Marketing Board were booked in for us to pitch to you. Why? Because we share your dream. With the right support – and the right amount of attitude [they high-five each other] – we can help you get your beer style into the places where saisons, Black IPAs and all those other losers couldn’t.

We love NEIPA. It’s patriotic. Drink Saison? Stupid weird foreigner. Like Porters? Get back to medieval times, grandpa. Prefer sours? Are you kidding me? They are basically draino for humans. We are all living in New England IPA time. And we want to help you supplant Miller Time. We can help you capture hearts and minds where those styles didn’t. Here’s how we do that.

Kyle, get the lights!

1. Drinkability

Boom. To get craft beer into the common hand, this is on the first page of the playbook. New England IPA is the perfect beer for this – it is the poster-child for drinkability. Brewed with oats for a softer mouthfeel, served hazy to not strip the chewy, floral yeast esters from the beer, and hopped with stone-fruit and soft citrus flavours in mind – these beers are the most drinkable beer style of the last decade. So this is the #1 focus. They arose in direct competition with the bitingly resinous West Coast IPAs of the United States. Want to keep your enamel intact? Chose NEIPA.

Here’s how it should fly – every New England IPA brewed is packaged with copy stating how balanced it is, how drinkable the beer is as a result. Make these beers rewarding, not challenging. Emphasise that they have cross-border appeal with their US-inspired hop levels but at session-strength flavour (even if they aren’t session-strength themselves. Gloss over that). But push the fact they are beers anyone can enjoy. Open up the access.

2. Provenance

Ok, the boys in the office here love the New England vibe – this location we can run with. From mountains to the sea, it conjures up images of the outdoors, high treelines, fishing boats bobbing at barnacled jetties. You guys know how hard it is to brand a sour? When the best thing it has going for it is grumpy Belgians in cobwebbed outbuildings? That’s a hard sell. But New England? Summer evenings on the deck. Crisp autumn strolls through the changing leaves. Hell, you can pull a lobster from the sound for the perfect beer pairing. OMG. There’s the campaign. ‘Make lobster great again’

The one thing craft beer has as a whole is the sense that the people who make it do it for the right reasons. Even if that isn’t true at all, that’s what we tell people to sell the sector – it’s the reason the c-word is appended to beer to make it more appealing. We used to call them microbrewers until that sounded like they spent the day spilling bacteria down their lab coats. No, craft beer is about provenance. And New England IPA has it in spades.

3. Flavour

We touched on this earlier but this completes the trifecta. With NEIPA, WYSIWYG. Actually, let’s come back to what you see. The taste is the lead here. How many times have you seen people try their first craft beer and grimace? Choose something from the taplist of fifty because it has cherries or says it tastes of lime and they realise they have made a £7 mistake? Man! These errors put people off for months. Years even. But New England IPA is here to save the day. The unvarying, unpuckering, unagonising layer of peach, apricot and citrus flavour. Loved Um Bongo as a child? Here’s your new bae.

No, we didn’t say bae out loud let’s move on. But the key thing about these beers is their approachability. Any time someone appears at the bar and looks uncertain give them a taster of a NEIPA. Get your staff to give them the magic words. ‘Soft’ ‘Balanced’ ‘Fruity’ ‘Easy’. That’s all you need to do to hook them in. These beers are the gateway you have been climbing the walls to look for.

4. The acronym

NEIPA. Love it! We couldn’t get ‘bee-pa’ off the ground, but then dark beers are hard to shift unless the month has four syllables. And ‘dee-pa’ sounds too much like a term for…well…let’s roll with ‘nee-pa’ for our new saviour the New England IPA. It sounds great when you say it out loud and has almost a touch of the exotic about it, don’t you think Kyle? I guess the only thing we need to work out is whether the plural is ‘nee-pas’ or just ‘nee-pa’. Because people are gonna order these in the multiples, just you wait.

Let’s go ahead and order those ‘Got Nee-Pa?’ t-shirts, Kyle.

Ok so this is all awesome and we love the New England IPA. I mean, it’s the bomb. But we need to…address the elephant in the room. Is there any way we can make it look less like a breakfast buffet juice, because the focus groups really didn’t go for that at all. No, wait guys! Come back!

Why AB InBev bought into RateBeer…and why they didn’t

So, Anheuser-Busch InBev are at it again. The deepest chequebooks in beer(TM) have purchased another chunk of the global brewing scene to add to their portfolio. Except, this time it isn’t an American craft brewery of which you’d never heard and now the Twitter crafterati are shunning with a vengeance. You’d be forgiven to have thought that since AB InBev bought Wicked Weed a month ago (sorry, ‘partnered with’) they would have powered down their volcano-based control room for a while as their executives all suddenly tried to like sour beer for the first time. But no, they’ve now dipped into their pockets and acquired…RateBeer?

For those unfamiliar, RateBeer is an online portal where people record their reviews and scores of any beer they have tried, from Bud Light to SmashPow Brewing Co’s Imperial Buckwheat and Melon Weizengose. It is the tattered moleskine notebook for the digital generation. With thousands of users, and the most prolific of which having logged tens of thousands of unique beer ratings, it’s quite the catalogue. There’s been plenty of speculation since the news leaked as to why on earth a colossal brewing conglomerate like AB InBev would want to acquire the largest jotter on the internet. So let’s take a look at why they might have done so – but first let’s run through why they probably didn’t.

Why AB InBev didn’t buy into RateBeer

1. Industry dominance

Firstly, AB InBev acquired a minority share in RateBeer; a non-controlling amount. Ok you say, that’s their turndown service before they jump fully into bed with someone, but I’m not sure that’s the case here. The monetary terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but this isn’t a standard ABI pulverising blow, where their CEO’s sweep the board with the back of a well-manicured hand. The deal with RateBeer was so far under the radar it actually took place in October and has taken six months to come to light. The story was broken by Good Beer Hunting following a loose-lipped developer on LinkedIn mentioning RateBeer and ZX Ventures working together.

ZX Ventures are the venture capitalist arm of AB InBev – if the latter is Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham, ZX are Guy of Gisborne and half a dozen Norman flunkies with crossbows. The enormous irony here is that another of ZX’s portfolio items is the upmarket beer magazine October, owned by Conde Nast and whose executive editor is one Michael Kiser, owner and founder of…Good Beer Hunting. The arms of AB InBev run deep, even if they don’t own LinkedIn as well (or if they do, wisely they aren’t admitting to it).

2. User Data

I’ll come back to data in its widest sense later, but specifically AB InBev cannot and would not be able to get hold of user data even if they wanted to. Anyone thinking they are going to subsume a load of passwords and soforth and will start causing trouble is mistaken. As part of the deal, ABI cannot access any of RateBeer’s Personally Identifiable Information (PII) – and secondly if they wanted the base data collected by RateBeer; the scores, weightings and so-forth, then these are not only readily available but accessed via an online form, as can be completed here.

Buried in the Terms and Conditions of the RateBeer API form is the caveat ‘You may not separately extract and provide or otherwise use data elements from the RateBeer Data to enhance the data files of third parties.’ So even if they did pony up and get hold of the info RateBeer provide to external companies they couldn’t then simply CTRL + V into the colossal spreadsheet we all know Big Beer has, listing every time we said bad things about Bud Light. Which brings me to…

3. To Boost Their Reviews

The super-cynic would imagine a scenario where a multinational corporation buys an independent review site solely to bump up their ratings. Well this isn’t the case either here – AB InBev are not only aware of the negative reviews of their products (for a sample selection of Bud Light reviews, see below) but as I understand it, their subsidiary ZX Ventures have asked the RateBeer ownership to continue to allow for negative reviews of AB InBev’s beers to be added to the RateBeer database and for them to be verified by the site Admins (of which I am one myself, for my sins).

So just as there won’t be a flurry of 5-Star reviews for their products from new accounts such as ‘Mr.B Weiser, St Louis’ (existing protocols ensure these are weeded out), neither will there be any censorship of car-crash diatribes as below. On the face of it this is the strangest part of the entire deal – why would a company pay a group of go-getters to acquire a third-party site that almost uniformly says their products are awful and not worth buying?

Why AB InBev did buy into RateBeer

Let’s take a look then. Here are three reasons why – in the short term at least – they can stomach those bad reviews.

A. Money

This is always what it comes down to. RateBeer has a huge customer base but is run as a labour of love by Admins who work for free and an ownership who work all hours with a shoestring budget. It’s amazing what they have achieved. With a small influx of cash (a minute influx by AB InBev standards), RateBeer could reasonably quickly become a fantastic platform. The UI can be improved. A new App developed, one that rivals Untappd. And then AB can have their adverts display on the site as soon as they are ready. Each one linking to Beer Hawk or other ABI-owned online retailers.

It’s a win-win for ABI, as premium membership of RateBeer (which costs $12.99 a year) removes most of the adverts from view. So either you see the ads and AB get the reach, or you pay and they are gone but the money goes – potentially, depending on the undisclosed details of the buy-in – to the same place in the end. ZX Ventures are experts in the bright and shiny, as their magazine October demonstrates. Adding tech to RateBeer and unleashing the power it has, with advertising on board, is a great move for them.

B. Beer Trends

Ok so whilst AB InBev may not be able to look through your webcam as you rate your latest purchase following this deal (and then follow-up with embedded adverts for new curtains as a result), they are after the bigger picture. This deal is not about the people themselves and their review scores – to them, the people do not matter. If they did they would purge the site of all the negativity towards them. No, AB InBev care about the brewers and the beers. Every year RateBeer have their awards and the ‘RateBeer Best’ of the shining lights arriving on the scene. That is what ABI are after.

In fact, it would surprise me if they didn’t do this sort of thing already. Search for a beer community with lots of ratings > Asheville. Search for beer style rated above the percentile > Sours. Search for highest rated producer of style in community > Wicked Weed. Search for email address > SEND. The one slight the crafterati love to throw at RateBeer, not without some justification, is that it skews towards the high-abv, the rare, the barrel-aged. What better resource to look through for potential new acquisitions?

C. Disruption

Finally, the third reason I think AB InBev pulled the trigger on their minority investment in RateBeer was just to stir up the shit a little. And boy did it work. This is their genius, this recognition that their name is so toxic that as soon as they append it to something the craft beer community implodes with rage. This self-applied negativity is like spitting in your pint before you go to the toilet. Nobody else can drink from it, but everyone who sees it is disgusted. And what’s the one thing that craft beer does, again and again? They fall for it.

Within hours of the announcement being made brewers were asking to be removed from RateBeer, even before Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head posted a blog post to that effect. There’s no way in hell RateBeer will remove breweries – why on earth would they, for one? But even if they considered it as soon as one is removed, whoever it is, it devalues the entire service for its users. Brewers can’t remove their entries from RateBeer – however they can make it harder for the volunteer Admins to collect imagery, ABV info and so-forth, which may well happen. Either way, ABI (like the Sheriff of Nottingham) spread discord.

That last point is the only one on which I think the site itself may suffer. It’s entire M.O. is to have everything on there, so that its raters can rack up the entries and complete more of their hobby. If at the end of this, AB InBev score some more metric-based data to add to their strategising, it is up to the eventual targets of their strategy to stand firm or sell out. I know this is bordering on the ‘guns don’t kill people’ type of argument, but there you go. RateBeer is a resource for a community of like-minded enthusiasts. If ABI bought into that to get their fingers on the pulses of what is going on in craft beer then they are going to get an awfully narrow view of it. But then, that could be exactly what they are after.

Spot the Difference

What you may think yourself is irrelevant. What the brewery thinks as a whole…that is the standard for judgement. You repress your own standards.

The other day I caught up with a documentary that had a number of fascinating moments, as it went behind the scenes at several breweries to get a more intimate look at what goes on within the industry. These are always interesting as irrespective of how many breweries you have visited there are always things that you can learn or may not have seen before. Plus the bottom line is that the people who work to create things we love to drink are – more often than not – engaging and have plenty of stories to tell. And as is so often the case these days, the documentary cleaved a point of difference between the two halves of the industry – the traditional, embracing the old techniques, and the young modern upstarts doing things how they wanted to strike out in another direction.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing in new technology. But you have to respect the tradition. When we brew we want to bring that tradition to life

That was from the young-looking owner of a historic brewery, interviewed sitting in front of a display of crusty-looking bottles from previous generations and interspersed with slow-mo shots of steaming tuns, wooden eaves and workers moving around the brewery, quietly taking care of the many tasks that they needed to do to create the finished product. They were shown milling the grains, with the importance of this step understated, as how much of the outer shell is deliberately damaged by the milling process will have a huge effect on the fermentation process. It also traced this step right back into the fields, with the special varieties grown especially for brewers; chosen due to the large grain size.

Next to the workers, barking orders, is the head brewer.

The quote at the top of the post comes from a one-on-one the documentary makers filmed with the head brewer – like chefs I guess there are different types – the ones who lead by example, the ones that try to fit in – and there are the ones who take the pressure onto their shoulders by being the figurehead, the guy at the top of the pyramid. This particular brewery had just such a head brewer (of course the cynic in me thinks it made for a much more interesting documentary as a result – and that was exactly the case). It talked about the early starts the brewers put in, and gave an interesting analogy for the top-down approach employed by this particular brewer – ‘on a ship it is very clear who the captain is, and the people below must do what the people above tell them.’ Ouch!

Brewing is not managed on a scientific basis. What we do is wilder and more primitive. All we do as brewers is create an environment for the microbes to do it for us

Every brewery is different but this acknowledgement that it is the yeast who do the real work is universal. The documentary made this clear as it showed the brewhouse workers mixing the mash by hand in the traditional fashion before working through the other steps and monitoring fermentation – which can take up to a month as the brewery is situated in a cold region to the north of the country. After fermentation is complete, the liquid is removed and aged for a year which as ever indicates to me that the ‘modern fad’ of barrel-ageing is far from the recent invention fans of the craft side of the industry sometimes think it is. Anyway, speaking of the modern the focus then switched to a city where a brewery doing things very differently was located.

What we do here, we like to defy convention

With striking modern bottle designs and a state of the art in-house laboratory for analysis and yeast culture, the second brewery featured couldn’t have been more different. The young guy in charge – described as a ‘master of his art’ is fond of brewing unfiltered versions and some that are barely milled, to get the flavours out. They still want to embrace the past – so barrel-ageing is a big part of what they do – but are trying to bring the entire industry back into prominence and get a new generation interested in the work of all of them. It was fascinating, and a tale we have seen elsewhere for some time.

The documentary also focused on food pairing – something else that has traditionally been taken for granted, or been a backseat to wine – but these modern breed of new brewers are using the parallels between flavours to embrace a new outlook and prove that wine isn’t the automatic addition to mealtimes. Watching the whole thing I got the impression that the brewers are trying to move with the times, although the fourteenth-generation brewery owner stating that one of his special lines is for women as it is ‘soft and elegant’ isn’t exactly going to win him any favours these days.

Despite this, the industry looks back at its heritage whilst striking out in a new direction for a modern audience.

The world of sake is fascinating.

Prime Japan, Episode 10 – Sake