In the age of hyperbole and knee-jerk social media reactions, the word 'legend' is thrown around an awful lot. However, very occasionally, such high praise is justified. In the beer world, it is hard to find a word to better describe Roger Protz; globe trotting writer and Good Beer Guide Editor. Protz has edited a mammoth 24 editions of CAMRA's flagship publication since first joining the organisation in 1976, not to mention authoring more than 20 books of his own inspiring a whole generation of beer writers.
Following the news that the 2018 edition of the Good Beer Guide will be his last, we sat down with Protz to discuss the state of the industry in which he has blazed a trail few others can possibly come close to imitating.
James Beeson (JB): Hi Roger, thanks for agreeing to meet me. You've just released your new book, IPA. Tell me, why did you chose to write about the style, and why did you chose now to write about it?
Roger Protz (RP): Because its become the most popular beer style in the world. It’s quite amazing really. By the start of the First World War the style was virtually dead. The Germans and the Americans drove IPA out of the colonies with lager beer, and then during the War because of duty IPA went from 7% down to about 3.6% which is a bit of a joke really. It virtually disappeared, but then as part of the world beer revolution, particularly in the states we discovered IPA again. It just took off and its now the most popular beer style amongst craft brewers all over the world
JB: Why do you think the style has had such incredible longevity?
RP: Colour and hops. People want really hoppy bitter beers now and IPA really fits the bill. The original IPAS were very, very hoppy because hops keep bacteria out of beer. They loaded the beer with hops, and that really fits the bill today. A lot of American brewers are now also producing session IPAs which are not as hoppy. Some of these really hoppy beers you can’t drink lots of them, and of course beer is all about being a sessionable drink.
JB: Of course. You've been writing about beer for a very long time now. Is this the most exciting time the industry has ever witnessed?
RP: Oh absolutely. Next week we are launching the new Good Beer Guide; it’s the 45th edition – I’ve done 24 of them, it’s my last one. I’m standing down. The early good beer guides had very few breweries - there were 105 in the first edition, there are now 1,700 in the UK. Everyone was brewing mild and bitter and nothing else. Now you look at the choice available and the change has been unbelievable.
JB: Is there any one brewery or trend that you think is behind the surge in popularity we have seen?
RP: I think of breweries in this country, obviously Brewdog - although I don't have a very good relationship with them - have been very influential. Also breweries like Thornbridge, The Kernel in London - there are so many. People are brewing beer with great passion and commitment, and as well as there being a lot of new styles out there, there are also breweries going back into old recipe books and looking at ageing beer in unbelievable things. I went down to Siren a couple of months ago and had to edge my way in between all these great big wooden barrels.
The other big influence has been from Belgium. Belgian beers have had a tremendous impact in the UK scene.Obviously they don't really brew IPAs, they're more famous for their Trappist beers, but Saison is becoming very popular as a style over here now too.
JB: But it's not all rosy is it? Breweries and also pubs still face a lot of threats to survival in the 21st Century. What are the main threats as you see them?
RP: Pubs are having a really tough time aren't they? It's a real worry that there are still 20 a week closing, not helped by the Government jacking up business rates. I live in St Albans where there are 50 pubs, but there is a real worry about how many of them will be forced to close because of the incredibly high business rates.
JB: It seems traditional pubs are are being affected by business rates the most. Why do you think that is?
RP: I'm not certain the Government has set out to penalise traditional pubs, but it is interesting that the pubs in the city centre have seen rates going up, whereas Sainsburys - just outside St Albans on a greenfield site - has had their rates cut. If you're not in the city centre you've got no worries, but if you are your rates go up. It's very, very unfair because pubs are the heart and soul of communities; you can't have pubs on greenfield sites because nobody would go to them.
JB: Do you think that we are seeing a change in the way in which people are consuming alcohol? Pubs continue to struggle but brewery taps and pop up bars are thriving.
RP: Yes I think we are seeing a change in that respect. I went down to Faversham on Sunday and the streets were packed out with people drinking beer and having a great time, and there were two pop-up pubs in the main street. They're doing a good range of beers and they're a very good value for money.
JB: Do pubs need to do more to diversify their offerings? Part of the problem seems to be that attitudes towards alcohol are changing, and pubs can't get away with just being a place for the working-class man to have a drink or three on a weeknight anymore...
RP: Yes, you're absolutely right, except I would say that the decline of wet led pubs is very sad. Not everybody wants to go into a pub to eat. I was in Wolverhampton a few weeks ago and had half an hour to wait for a train, so I went to a Green King pub and every table was set out for dining. It was 3pm so it wasn't that busy, but I would have felt uncomfortable at 1pm if I wasn't eating. All I wanted was a pint. There must be a place for people to just go and have a pint of beer after work.
On the other hand yes I think pubs need to diversify. So many pubs are doing their own mini-beer festivals, they're doing meet the brewer evenings and food and beer matchings which I think is very very important. All too often people go out and have a bottle of wine with what they are eating when beer might be a better match for their food.
JB: I went to an event run by the brewers at Sagar & Wilde in London last month and it was all about how to match beers with food, so I think there is some evidence that pubs and bars are adapting. Apart from business rates, what are the other major threats facing the industry?
RP: A lot of the problem is duty. With the exception of Finland we are the most heavily taxed beer country in the EU. We pay an extraordinary amount of tax on beer, not just duty but VAT and other taxes. I go to Belgium a lot and the prices are nothing like the prices here because the duty is so much lower. In Italy they don't bother to collect the tax, they just let the mafia do that for them!
We are penalised in this country by tax and that is the major problem. We had the duty escalator under Labour which Osborne eventually, under pressure, stopped, but then Hammond brought it back by the backdoor in his last budget. He said he wasn't but then you found out he had!
The other factor is unfair competition from Supermarkets. particularly now with the weather still being so warm you can go into a supermarket and see great slabs of Stella and its £1 a bottle; the same price as a bottle of water! If you go into a pub you pay what, about £4.50 for a pint?
JB: Let's talk about cask beer. You've long been an advocate of the merits of cask conditioned ale; do you think that it is too cheap as a product? Shouldn't people be prepared to pay a premium for a product that takes a lot more care and attention than keg?
RP: I think cask beer should be special. Cask beer is the wine of the country. No other country in the world produces cask conditioned beer like we do; its a unique thing and we should cherish and make more of it. I think people should be prepared to pay a premium for it. Having said that, what do you define as a premium? I was in The Rake on Tuesday and I had a pint of Moor Hoppiness that was about £7 a pint!
In this country we are not very imaginative when it comes to glassware, its either a pint of a half, whereas you go to Belgium and every beer has its own glass. We should encourage people to drink less and drink better.
JB: I certainly wouldn't disagree. You're someone who has had a long and very fruitful relationship with CAMRA - Do you think the organisation is as relevant as it has ever been, and if not, what does it need to do to remain relevant?
RP: Yes, absolutely I do think they are as relevant as they have ever been. I think people misunderstand CAMRA as an organisation. I mentioned going to the hop festival in Faversham, there was a CAMRA stand there with beers from local breweries. They were there for two days, run totally by volunteers who gave up their weekend to do that. I think people don't understand just how hard CAMRA members work to promote beer. It's an incredibly demanding job done by people who get no money from it. Nobody pays them to do it.
The critics of CAMRA don't understand that without CAMRA people like BrewDog wouldn't exist because there wouldn't be a market for it. Without CAMRA we'd all be drinking lager and keg beer and nothing else.
JB: But do they need to modernise at all?
RP: Yes, and I have said within CAMRA - and as I am standing down now from the Good Beer Guide I can say it publicly - that I think they have to embrace modern keg beers because I think they are very good. Too many CAMRA members think there are two types of CO2; good and bad. No, there's only one type of CO2. I went to several of the revitalisation meetings and I made the point that last year I went to Beavertown brewery in Tottenham and i thought their Bloody 'Ell beer is one of the nicest beers I've drunk for a very long time.
Unless CAMRA can attract younger people it will gradually lose its core. Next year's annual conference will decide whether we are going to embrace other types of beer. The threat to good beer is not craft keg, it is factory beer; Stella, Budweiser and Coors light and the companies that own them who are now starting to muscle into the craft market.
JB: Do you think that is a serious concern; that big beer will attempt to swallow craft whole?
RP: There's enough quality around but my worry is that the big lager brands will continue move in on the craft sector, and my concern is that the beers change when they are taken over by big breweries. It's all about cutting costs and using cheaper ingredients.
JB: Some breweries that have sold out make the argument that the extra investment and expertise from their parent companies will help improve the quality and consistency of their beer. What would you say to that?
RP: I don't buy that argument at all. I had a friendly discussion with AB InBev a few weeks ago because I said on my website that Goose Island IPA, a beer I've known since its inception in Chicago many years ago, is not the beer it used to be. They said they hadn't changed the recipe and I said 'Yes you have, because when it was family owned it had Saaz hops from the Czech republic.' ABI won't use ingredients from The Czech Republic anymore because of the dispute they have over Budvar.
The beer has changed, the recipe has changed and the yeast has changed as well. I spoke to a member of the brewing staff and he told me they had changed the yeast because of the different sized fermenters they now use. Yeast makes a huge difference to the taste of the beer. It's still not a bad beer, but it was the best IPA in the states for many many years.
JB: Can you ever understand the rationale of a brewer that decides to sell out?
RP: Of course! If I'd founded Meantime, and I know Alastair Hook very well, and had worked as hard as he has for nearly 20 years and then someone like SAB Miller said here's £120million... What would you do?
JB: I think I'd probably take the money and run as fast as I could! Thanks Roger, that's all the questions I have for you; would you like another beer?
RP: That would be lovely, thank you.
A version of this story originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser website.