Terroir and history are the two pillars upon which this Suffolk microbrewery is built.Read More
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.
By all accounts, Pete Brown hasn't had a bad career. The three time winner of The Guild of Beer Writers' beer writer of the year award is currently in the middle of promoting his eighth book -‘Miracle Brew’ - his first exclusively about the subject of beer since 2009. I sat down with the globe-trotting author to find out why it took him so long, what motivated him to write the book, and where he sees the industry going in the future. "It feels quite hilarious that I stepped away from writing about beer just as craft beer was taking off," he tells me. "I always wanted to write it the broader arena of food and drink, so I think it was a case of getting that established that saw me move away from the subject, but I did leave it a bit too long."
"It takes about two or three years from starting to think about the idea for a book to it finally being published so I was kicking this idea around in 2013, and this is how long it has taken to come to fruition."
The book focusses almost entirely on the four core ingredients that make up the nation's favourite brew - barley, hops, yeast and water for those less educated in the subject - and Brown admits that the decision was based on a desire to speak to a more mainstream audience about the product.
"Most of my mates who now drink beer very enthusiastically don’t actually know what it’s made from," he says.“Beer is the most popular drink in the world after water, tea and coffee. Everybody knows that wine comes from grapes and cider comes from apples, but when you talk to people about beer they go ‘it’s made from hops isn’t it?’ They don’t know what hops are or what they do, they just think that beer is made out of them, which isn’t exactly true.
“I just thought it was so weird that everyone is so into food and drink and where it comes from, yet so even most beer drinkers don’t know that much about what they’re drinking.”
Despite this desire to educate and inform, Brown's book steers away from some of the more technical elements of producing beer, instead adopting an anecdotal and accessible style. "I generally write in the engaging conversational style and not get too technical," he admits. "I’m not a biologist or a scientist, so where I do get technical I’ve had to reduce it so that I can understand it myself! I’m hoping I’ve given it to people in a way that is engaging and interesting.
"Before I wrote this book I thought I knew a lot about hops and barley and yeast and water, and I decided to put everything I knew to one side and I just learnt so much new stuff, and got a new appreciation of beer all over again."
That's not to say that the book doesn't offer anything for the more advanced reader, and Brown tells me he has even had brewers get in touch with him to say it has taught them things about water and barley that they weren't previously aware of. "Even though it’s written for an introductory audience I think there’s something in there for everyone," he says proudly.
Another motivating factor behind writing Miracle Brew was Brown's desire to see beer elevated to the status enjoyed by drinks such as wine, which he does not see as in any way superior to his favourite amber nectar. "When people talk about wine they talk about terroir all the time, but terroir is in beer more than it is in wine," he says. "Take the water that is used in beer, for example; it falls as rain and then soaks into the ground and runs through rock or shale.
“It is a product of that land, which is the very definition of terroir. The water in Burton on Trent is totally different from the water in Pilsen, and hence beer is really tied with place and with location.”
One thing is for certain, Brown is certainly not someone who is tied to location. Whilst writing his latest book, the jovial adopted Londoner travelled far and wide, visiting breweries from the Czech Republic to Belgium. On his travels he became aware that other cultures had a greater sense of pride in their brewing traditions than the UK, something he hopes to see change in the future.
“British drinkers think that cask ale is a bit old and dull, but you go anywhere else in the world and people say how amazing it is,” he says. “Marris Otter malt gets exported across the entire world and is regarded as the best malt from Japan to America, and we don’t take that much pride in it.”
“We just don’t take a genuine pride in our styles and our ingredients and products in the way that other countries do.”
Nevertheless, he is at pains to point out that in order to take pride in British output, the product must be at its very best. In January of this year, he drew criticism for an article in which he claimed to have almost stopped drinking cask beer due to the poor quality of the product in most pubs and bars. Today, he stands by that position, and says that pubs are doing cask beer a disservice by serving it in poor condition.
"“There are publicans out there who are desperately proud of their cask beer,” he says. “But I think if you’re not proud then don’t stock it. If you’re not genuinely proud of it, just don’t serve it, because you’re doing it a disservice by serving it below par, which is what most pubs do.
"There are plenty of pubs that serve good cask and I’d rather just see it in them. When I was writing The Cask Report the message was always to try and improve and increase distribution and I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do anymore.”
"In America they recognise that hop aromas are incredibly delicate and they recognise that heat kills them, and so all craft beer is distributed with cold chain distribution, the beer is chilled from the moment it is packaged to when it reaches the consumer. British cask beer is different but can be just as good as American craft beer if you use the right methods for distribution and cellaring. When you see pubs with casks sat outside in the sun or being thrown around it’s like ‘god, treat it with a bit of respect.’"
Turning to the subject of pubs themselves, the subject of another of the writer's many books, Brown warns that unless local boozers do more to attract customers they would continue to face closure due to changing social patterns.
“Pubs have got more competition than ever before, beer is spreading outside the pub and the pub is no longer the default,” he says. “There are so many other places that serve beer now. Look at festivals, pop-ups, supermarkets. My local barbers offers craft beer when you go in for a haircut!
"We say in the industry ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to pubs, but that makes going to the pub sound like something we should feel guilty about not doing; Great, let’s turn the most pleasurable thing in life into a chore. Whether it’s great food, the pub quiz, the best conditioned cask beers, the greatest range of craft beer, pubs have got to have a USP.”
He does, however, have some sympathy with pub owners, who he says often face a near-impossible task for little financial gains. "I appreciate that all these things are really difficult, and running a pub is really difficult. When I’ve written about pubs that are great, they’re usually run by people who are very very clever who have got a massively wide range of skills."
"A lot of them choose to run a pub because they really, really like it; and the industry relies on people doing the job not because of the renumeration but because of they’re prepared to do a job that is far harder than it should be for the money they are earning because they really love it."
Turning finally to future trends, one thing that Brown believes will continue to grow in popularity over the coming years is low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers, which he states are now catching up in terms of flavour due to the rise of craft beer. "When you drink a pint of lime and soda, you don’t want a second one, whereas when you drink a good beer you want four or five, so that’s the challenge for low alcohol beers," he says. "What’s the point in having a low alcohol beer that doesn’t taste like a good beer? But now all of a sudden they do."
"It’s about the ritual of having something in your hand that you enjoy doing, so if I could do that with low alcohol beer I’d be quite happy to have two or three days off a week.”
A version of this article originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser, and has been reproduced here with their permission.
With business rates climbing ever higher, Brexit forcing up the price of imported drinks and young people drinking less than ever before, could this be the end of the British pub as we know it?
By all accounts, it ought to be a golden age for British pubs. In 2016, the number of UK breweries rose by 8% to number around 1,700, whilst almost 50 new gin distilleries opened in the UK in 2015 alone. Fuelled by the growth of independent, small-batch ‘craft’ producers, one would expect the industry to be booming. So why are pubs in England and Wales still closing at a rate of 21 a week?
The most immediate threat to the British pub is the much-publicised hike in business rates. The rates, the commercial equivalent of council tax, are being reset to take into account rises in property values this April, and it is pubs, which generate 0.5 per cent of turnover across the economy yet pay 2.8 per cent of the business rates bill, and small independent businesses, that will be hit hardest by the changes.
According to rates and rents specialists CVS, 17,160 pubs will have to pay more in business rates from April, and this is just the start, with rates expected to rise by £421m in the next five years. This hike means that pubs will need to pour an extra 121 million pints to fund increases in property taxes paid to councils. CVS estimate that high business rates have contributed to one in five pub closures in England and Wales over the last six years.
Sean Hughes, landlord of The Boot pub in St Albans, said his rates are set to soar by nearly 300% in April from £14,000 a year to £52,000. "It leaves us in a very difficult situation,” he told BBC Radio 4's You And Yours programme, "we've worked out we'll have to sell an additional 22,000 pints of beer a year just to pay for the increase. I can't see how we're going to do that. It'll have a huge impact on our family run business.
“It makes you wonder if it's worth it."
The backlash against the surge in business rates does appear to be growing, however. Wetherspoon Chairman Tim Martin, who faces paying £8,000 more per pub in rates, has questioned why supermarkets are expected to receive further rate reductions in April, whilst UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge has also warned that the rise could risk undoing the good work of ending the beer duty escalator – which put the price of a pint by 2% above inflation every year – if it is too punitive. Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested he may take measures to ‘soften’ the impact of rate rises in the Budget, after The Association for Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) asked for more transitional relief for the sector.
Business rates aside, however, another threat looms on the horizon for British pubs, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in June of last year. The resulting fall in the value of the pound has sent the cost of imports spiraling. The impact of this on pubs is twofold. Firstly, producers using imported ingredients in their products are likely to hike prices to absorb the higher cost of their raw materials, cutting into pubs margins. Secondly, pubs that import goods directly will face higher prices. Italian wines, Belgian beers and French brandy have all become more expensive for British pubs, which either have to suck up the increases or pass them on to their clientele.
Alex Greig, owner of Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, has already had to increase the price of his Belgian lager by around five per cent since last June in response to the Brexit vote. “About 30 per cent of my sales are of products imported from Europe,” Greig says, “and hence our prices have risen as a result of the exchange rate tumbling.”
“I want to be investing in the business and in my staff, so ultimately it’s meant I’ve had to pass that price rise on to consumers in order to achieve those goals.”
It’s not just small-batch, luxury products becoming more expensive for pubs. Just last month, International brewers Heineken and Carlsberg became the latest beer makers to raise prices, following Carling and Budweiser in attempting to compensate for the value of the pound. Martin, an active supporter of the Brexit campaign, suggested in November that Wetherspoons would consider switching to British drinks brands if prices continued to rise.
However, not everyone thinks Brexit will necessarily be a bad thing for the industry. In a letter to the Guardian, Roger Protz, beer writer and editor of The Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Good Beer Guide, insisted that encouraging UK breweries to use more British grown ingredients could mitigate for the weaker pound. However, whether these savings would necessarily be passed onto the pubs actually purchasing the beer remains uncertain.
Another huge worry for landlords and publicans is the news that people, in particular those under 25, are drinking less than ever before. The latest statistics from the ONS show that spending on alcohol and cigarettes has almost halved in 15 years as Britain seeks to become a more clean-living nation.
Dr Richard de Visser of Sussex University 's Centre of Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth, has suggested that fewer young people are drinking due to having greater opportunities for socialising in non-alcoholic environments, and not having enough money after covering the costs of studying. With more than a quarter of Britons under 25 now teetotal, pubs find themselves increasingly struggling to stay afloat.
Lucy Barron Reid, who has been forced to close two of the three pubs she runs with her husband in Kent in the last six years years, said she believed changes in the way young people socialise have contributed to the decline in fortunes of British pubs.
“People just aren’t coming to the pub in the way they used to socially,” she says, “when I was growing up we used to go to the pub to meet people as our first port of call, but for youngsters nowadays their first port of call is on their telephone, via Snapchat or Instagram, and consequently we’re not finding that next generation of people interested in coming to the pub.”
“Combine this decline with the huge tax levies that the Government put on the sale of alcohol in pubs, plus the costs of heating the building and paying the staff, and there isn’t a great deal left in the pot for the publican.”
It’s little wonder, therefore, that CAMRA, an organisation long committed to protecting pub from closure, remain concerned by the threats posed to Britain’s watering holes. With the UK brewing and pubs sector supporting nearly 900,000 UK jobs, the rate of pub closures remains a huge concern. Campaigners have called on the Treasury to reduce beer duty by 1p a pint in next month’s budget, in the hope of mitigating against rising costs. Tom Stainer, CAMRA’s Head of Communications called on the Government to do “whatever it can” to help pubs survive.
“Pubs are facing numerous threats which make it more difficult to survive in an already difficult market,” he said.“With high taxation, changing consumer drinking habits and the recent review of business rates, the government needs to do whatever it can to help them survive.
“A duty cut is essential as it will offer a saving for customers - more than half of which perceive the price of a pint as ‘unaffordable’. Limiting further cost increases will encourage pub going and boost pub business.
“It will also boost confidence in the industry, promoting growth and investment in pubs and creating more jobs.”
Ultimately, however, beer duty reduction or not, pub owners still face a huge struggle to overcome the challenges they face in the 21st Century. It’s not quite kicking out time yet for the British tavern, but if things continue to deteriorate, it won’t be long before the landlord is calling time at the bar.
Spoiler alert: I love cask beer. To me, there is no greater pleasure in life than the first sip of a properly conditioned, well kept, cask beer, served at the right temperature. You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, when Cloudwater, one of the most exciting new breweries to emerge in the UK in the last two years, announced last night that they intend to cease production of cask beer entirely in 2017, joining the likes of Buxton, Beavertown and Brewdog in turning their backs on Britain's most famous dispense method. But why exactly are breweries like Cloudwater choosing to abandon cask beer, and what threat does this pose for the future of that particular segment of the market?
In a nutshell, Cloudwater are stopping cask production for two simple reasons: Money and reputation. The margin of profitability on cask beer is too small, and poor cellarmanship can lead to an end-product that simply does not meet the high standards that Cloudwater are seeking for in all their beers. Breweries can spend hours upon hours honing their craft and improving their skills, only for the final product to be spoilt by being served at the incorrect temperature, or left on the bar well past its best.
For a long time, I've always been baffled by exactly why cask beer is so much cheaper than keg. From spending over two and a half years working in the industry, it is perfectly clear that cask beer requires far more care, time and attention to detail to get right, both from the brewers themselves, and the publicans who serve it. Combine this with the fact that cask beer should be drunk within five days or so of going on the bar, and its almost impossible to see why exactly it is that cask beers are regularly a pound or so cheaper than their keg counterparts.
Part of the reason for this is, of course, historical. When the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA), was launched in the 1970s, one of the main ways in which they sought to promote cask beer was by offering it up as a cheaper alternative to mainstream kegged products at the time. The organisation still supports Wetherspoons, a chain notorious for its bad cellar-care and poorly conditioned beers, by offering members vouchers for 50p off cask beer or cider in their pubs. The sad reality is that for many CAMRA drinkers, the dispense method and price has become more important than the quality of the beer itself, and as a result cask beer is now fundamentally undervalued in the market, with many punters simply refusing to pay the price that well-kept quality beer deserves.
That's not to say, however, that all of the blame for the devaluation of cask beer lies squarely at CAMRA's door. There are also plenty of breweries who are happy to peddle shit cask beer to pubs and consumers that just want crappy beer at a cheap price. But there does appear to be a distinct lack of willingness, particularly amongst older, more traditional drinkers, to pay the £4+ a pint price that premium, properly kept cask beer deserves, and hence breweries have no choice but to accept lower margins in that segment of the market.
For breweries such as Cloudwater, this means selling their cask beer at a far lower price than ought to be the case, especially when the added time and costs associated with handling, racking, collecting casks is factored in. With more effort for far less reward, it's difficult to see why any brewery in the UK continues to package beer in cask at all.
I think that there is a real danger of complacency in the UK market with regards to cask beer. Not only are many breweries turning away from the dispense method, but many pubs, particularly in London, also seem to think its no longer worth their while. CAMRA think that the battle has already been won and - if the non-event that was their new Revitalisation Project is anything to go by - they cannot be relied upon to take the steps needed to save the it.
To make cask beer attractive to both breweries and punters again, two things need to happen. Firstly, the price has to go up. The end-price of the product has to reflect the time and money involved in producing it. Secondly, the quality needs to be far greater that what we are currently seeing in some pubs at present. Is it any wonder that young people are put off cask beer when it is often served warm, flat, through dirty lines or just downright infected?
CAMRA could and should have a vital educational role to play here, as should breweries, industry leaders and writers. Tell that dickhead mouthing off in the pub exactly why the pint of bitter is 20p more expensive than it used to be. Send that warm/flat pint of porter back to the bartender and ask to speak to the manager. Educate and inform people about the extra time and effort that goes into the production and maintenance of cask beer, and why it deserves to be respected and treasured.
I'm bitterly disappointed to see a pioneering brewery like Cloudwater turning their backs on cask beer. I think that as well as being a unique and fantastic British tradition, cask beer is one of the most difficult skills to master and represents the very pinnacle of brewing. When it is served correctly and given the love and care it deserves, I rarely find myself wanting to drink anything else. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, and looking at that particular segment of the market at this moment in time, I can totally understand why Cloudwater are choosing to stop making it.
*BEEP*, *BEEP*… *BEEP*, *BEEP* It’s five forty-five am on a Thursday morning, and I’m rudely awoken by the unpleasant sound of my alarm clock, jolting me out of a deep slumber. I groan, haul myself out of bed and into the shower, before getting dressed and slipping out the back door at just gone half six. My destination is the brewery of Tunbridge Wells based Pig & Porter, located on a small industrial estate a few minutes from High Brooms station. I’ve volunteered to help out on a brewday in exchange for the opportunity to learn more about the brewery, and to observe the process of brewing on an industrial scale.
The story of Pig & Porter isn’t a simple one to map out, having no real definitive beginning or official start date. “It wasn’t the most planned of businesses from the word go,” Robin Wright, who runs the administrative side of the brewery, admits, “I’d known Sean (Ayling) for twenty odd years through cricket. He was a keen homebrewer and used to keep foisting various different brews upon me. I was living in a very remote part of East Sussex, running a Recruitment business and also getting quite involved with all the activities in the local village; flower shows, fetes etc., and I just thought to myself; burgers and beers might be a little bit more interesting than this!”
Sean, meanwhile, was struggling to make ends meet in the sales industry after changes to his company’s pay structure. Finding it cheaper to brew than buy beer in the supermarket, he started to produce more beer in the hope of selling it with Robin at the Ashburnham village fete. “We got some of Sean’s beers in on a very small scale,” Robin recounts, “we then we started getting asked to do barn-dances, peoples weddings, and we started to think to ourselves ‘is there some mileage in this?’”
Around this time, Robin went blind in one eye. “All of a sudden I woke up one day having lost the sight in my right eye,” he recalls, “It required a series of operations to fix and gave me a load of time off work” Whilst recovering, Robin came up with a plan alongside Sean to take the business further, hoping to run an event catering business that produced a little bit of beer, thus giving birth to the Pig & Porter name. “We started to really get things off the ground late in 2012 as a registered business,” he says, “and around that time we were ringing around various different breweries asking to brew on their kits. A couple of them said yes and they explained to us that what we needed for events was a fraction of what even a microbrewery could produce, but that we may as well do a full brew and sell the rest to pubs.
So on New Years Eve of 2012, Sean brewed Pig & Porter’s first proper beer, a tried and tested homebrew recipe called Red Spider Rye, a 4.8 per cent red ale with rye malts that still makes up a part of the brewery’s core range today. The beer was a huge hit, with Robin managing to sell it to local pubs that were interested in their fledgling brewery. “We brewed at about six different places, including at one point brewing more than Bedlam brewery were on their own kit,” Robin tells me with a smile, “but I think we only did about eight brews up until the end of the summer whilst we were doing the event catering business. We were just too busy.”
Around the end of that summer, Sean and Robin were made aware that the Old Tunbridge Wells Brewery site was available, having been sat idle for some time. They agreed a deal to share the 10-barrel site, which still remains their home to this day, with Tumanny Albion Brewing Company. “Sean wasn’t able to give up his day job at this point so that meant brewing on a Saturday,” Robin continues, "which also rather conveniently meant we had to make a decision about the food because all the events were on the weekends.” In the end, Pig & Porter decided to focus on the beer, relinquishing the catering side of the business, although their love of food remains as strong as ever, evidenced by the almighty fry up Sean cooks for us after mashing in the grain.
After around a year of sharing, it became clear that both breweries needed to expand, and Pig & Porter eventually took over the entire Tunbridge Wells site themselves. “That was the point where Sean had to make a decision about the day job and we had to decide to take the plunge ourselves and try and make this work as a business,” Robin says, “and since then we’ve been full time and reached capacity some time ago.” In May, the brewery added a shiny new 15-barrel fermenter from China to the existing three 10-barrels they already had, and they now produce around 80 casks a week. “We’ll reach full capacity again at some point soon, and then its really a case of working out how big we want to grow and how we do that organically,” Robin says, “We didn’t come into the industry with any track record or any master plan, and it really has evolved quite quickly.”
Another huge step in the brewery’s growth came with the appointment of George Fisher as assistant brewer on a full-time basis (also in May), enabling Robin to focus on the administrative side of the business. “I’ve done assistant and helper to Sean, and I find the process of creating new beers really interesting,” he says, "but that’s really his area. He runs the brewery and I run the business.
“George coming on board was another big step because its just taken the sheer exhaustion out of it, and the slightly split shifts we’re operating means that Sean doesn’t have six 5 am starts on the trot which is a bit much!”
Far from just being an extra pair of hands, George leads the brew on the day of my visit, with Sean having to rush off to make some deliveries. The beer in question being brewed is Dance First, a 4.2 per cent Stout with crystal, chocolate and black malts. Whilst we wait for the kettle to boil, we busy ourselves by putting some Weird Pig, a 5.5 per cent Californian Common Ale originally brewed in collaboration with Weird Beard, into kegs outside. The brewery has also collaborated with numerous other breweries across the country, including Blackjack and Runnaway brewery in Manchester. “I think there’s a lot to be said for doing collabs,” Robin enthuses, “you’re making something that’s a one off, two heads are definitely better than one, you share a lot of information and you have a lot of fun doing it”
“I think they certainly helped us a lot at the start, particularly when we brewed with Blackjack. It gave us a foothold into some of the most famous bars up there, and a soft introduction to that area by a brewery that people know and like.
“We haven’t done quite as many recently, but they’ve helped position us slightly differently in the market as to what kind of a brewery we are – as a small little brewery coming out of Kent where there isn’t a lot of ‘craft’ so to speak – we wanted to get ourselves out there and say ‘this is the kind of brewery we are, these are the kind of beers we’re making.’”
As Pig & Porter have grown, their repertoire of beer has expanded quite significantly from their initial core range, having recently brewed Pig Cubed, a mango saison to celebrate Birmingham Beer Bash, and Double Think, an 8.6 per cent double IPA. “We’ve produced a lot of new beers recently; we’re also looking at making a very full on imperial stout,” Robin tells me, “but unfortunately we cant keep brewing new things with only a limited amount of fermenters. There’s a point at which we have to keep regularly brewing the ones that are becoming established, such as the Skylarking (a 4 per cent session IPA).” Nonetheless, the brewery are also planning to start ageing some of their beers, doing limited bottling in-house, and recently launched a new single hop pale ale series.
As the brewday comes to a close, I ask Robin what he thinks the best bit about being a part of the brewing industry is, and what the biggest challenges Pig & Porter face are. “I love the variety and the people in the industry,” he says, “compared to any other job I’ve had it’s a really nice industry; very open, very friendly, very collaborative – even if you don’t get out much to actually talk to all these lovely people!
“I’d say the biggest problem is keeping the plates spinning as you’re growing; you’ve got to think long term about where you’re going as a brewery but there’s hardly ever any time in the week for that. We’ve got sales, brewing, distribution, keeping the cashflow going, and taking a step back from all of that is really hard work. I thought I got my weekends back about a year and a half ago but it never really happened!”
Looking forward into the future, Sean and Robin are on the lookout for new investment to help further grow the brewery site, “you might find it hard to believe having just spent a day here but we reckon we can squeeze one more 15-barrel fementer in here at this site,” Robin chuckles, “but after that we’ll be looking at some possible alternatives.
“It’s been an interesting experience brewing on a kit that we didn’t commission; we would never have started with this if we’d had the vast investment that some breweries have had, but it’s helped us to learn a lot about all the different systems and processes. I think we’re going to try and source some funding for a new place in about two years time somewhere a bit closer to home (Sean lives in Whitstable and Robin is from Hastings), maybe in the Ashford area”
With plans to move into canning their beer sometime in the future, as well as eventually having a taproom at a new site, it seems unlikely Sean, Robin and George will be getting their weekends back again anytime soon…
In return for my agonisingly long day of back-breaking manual labour, the guys at Pig & Porter provided me with a traditional brewday breakfast, a growler of Skylarking pale ale and four bottles of their Gothic Imperial Stout to take home. Seemed like a fair trade to me!
“I like it because I can drink several pints of it and not fall over on the way home,” laughs Alex Grieg, as he takes the first sip of Kent session pale from a jug. We’re sat on a pair of slightly tired looking red sofas in the back-end of Fuggles Beer Café, the artisan pub-come-bar owned and run by Alex in Tunbridge Wells. Approaching it’s third birthday in November, Fuggles has become one of the most popular haunts in the town, as well as gaining a reputation for having the most varied and exciting beer selection in the South-East outside of London. The pub now boasts over a hundred beers on tap and in bottles and can rightly claim to be at the very forefront of the craft beer movement. I sat down with Alex to ask him about exactly why he thinks Fuggles has been so successful, and what he has in store for the future. Alex’s story is similar to that of many within the beer industry, having worked in the trade for over twelve years. Starting out working in an off license at the age of eighteen, before moving up through the ranks of Pitcher & Piano, Indian Pale Ale wasn’t a term he had even heard of in his twenties. “I was a lager drinker like most of us probably were – Kroenenbourg was my tipple of choice at the time,” he tells me, “but then, when I was working in Chester, I had my first craft beer – a Brooklyn lager.” However, it wasn’t until the second beer; Goose Island Honkers, an English style bitter that Alex was truly converted to the cause; “I’d never tried anything like it; it was well hopped, it was well balanced. It was fantastic at the time.” Enthused, Alex left Pitcher & Piano, came back home to Tunbridge Wells and took a job in a pub called The Wells Kitchen: “that’s where the craft beer thing really started for me.”
Now a passionate advocate about the merits of good beer, Alex needed an outlet. Working at St. John’s Yard, he began to plot an escape. “I’d worked with some not particularly nice people (although not at St. John's Yard) and it got to the point where it was getting me down and I wasn’t happy,” he says, “so I had to do something for myself.” That something, as it turns out, was Fuggles. With £40,000 scrapped together – half from his Mother and Grandmother, half from a Government backed loan, Alex rented a run-down shoe-shop in the middle of Tunbridge Wells, and turned it into a “fairly threadbare” beer café, opening its doors to the public in November 2013.
Fuggles was an instant hit. Initially serving four cask ales, ten keg beers and a number of bottles from Belgium and the UK, the pub enjoyed a huge level of success within the local community and was soon expanding to serve a range of spirits and whiskies. The pub now boasts over forty different gins, and a similar number of whiskies, something which Alex tells me was a hugely important factor in the success of the business: “It (the gin) was something at the time which was really growing and I could see that it was a really great add-on to what we already did,” he notes. “As a bar, as a pub overall, it meant we appealed to more people that improved the atmosphere and everything else we were doing, I think.”
As we chat, I order a cheese and ale toastie from the food menu. Made with local farmhouse cheddar and Belgian Westmalle ale, as well as four types of leek and onion, the sandwiches are freshly prepared each morning, and are served alongside a range of cheese and charcuterie boards as the main food offerings in the pub. “All we wanted to do was something that was simple to prepare, tasted good, easy to put on a plate and went really well with the products we were selling,” Alex admits, “it was as simple as that. We never had room for a kitchen, so we had to keep it small.” Nonetheless, he takes does pride in giving a platform to local businesses, with many of the products sold coming from the surrounding areas in Kent. “Local provenance and local products are vital to what we do. We’ve got some fantastic breweries and some fantastic food producers within thirty miles or so of us – that’s amazing, we’re so lucky. It’s not our sole focus, but it’s lovely to have local products and to know where it comes from, and it’s nice to know and support the guys that make it, who are only round the corner.”
Of course, the main focus of Fuggles, is, and always will be beer. Naming the pub after a local hop was a obvious way of ensuring the pub and its bartenders never forget their original purpose, but watching the staff at work, it’s evident that probably won’t ever be an issue. “I’m adamant that staff know what they’re selling and how it tastes and how to sell that to a customer,” Alex says. Now in his early thirties, sporting a receding hairline and an obligatory bushy beard, he very much fits the bill of a craft beer pub owner. Watching the (predominately also bearded) barstaff chat with customers and recommend styles based on their preferences, it’s immediately evident that Alex invests a lot of time in training his staff. “A lot of the time the customers come to the bar and they’ll ask for a beer and they’re not sure want they want,” he explains. “They’ll ask for something light and hoppy for example and we need to be able to interpret that as bartenders and know what they mean by it. It’s largely to enhance the customer experience and service; we have to be able to offer customers the right product.”
On the particular day of my visit, Alex and his staff are busy preparing the bar for that evening’s event; a tap takeover with ten beers from Buxton Brewery. A brewery at the very vanguard of the beer movement in the UK, Alex is excited for his punters to try their new Belgian range. “One of the reasons we really wanted to get them down is that we specialise in Belgian beer and Buxton have just completed their range of Belgian inspired beers. We felt it was the perfect time to get them down to really showcase what they were doing with the influence they’ve had from Belgium alongside their core range and specials.” Amongst the beers available to try from the Derbyshire brewery are their Belgian Tripel and new Double IPA, Kingmaker. “Buxton are without a doubt up there in terms of UK breweries in general. They’re up there in the top ten quite happily sitting alongside Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Dark Star, Beavertown, Arbor, Kernel, Burning Sky etc,” Alex enthuses. “Its nice to give our core beer drinkers something to showcase a brewery that we really respect and really like.”
Alex explains the main reason he initially decided to feature Belgian beers in Fuggles came after being inspired by numerous visits to the country. “There’s almost a theatre around the way the Belgians serve their beer,” he says, “you get the correct glassware, the way the beer is poured and the effort that goes into it. Also the flavours and drinkability of some of the stronger beers just blew my mind and I really wanted to showcase that.” There certainly does seem to be an almost Belgian-feel to the bar, with its dimmed lighting and rustic, cobbled together furniture. A number of signs from various breweries adorn the walls, and dotted on each table is a candle in an independently brewed spirit bottle. Nonetheless, Alex is determined that the focus on Belgian and British beers does not limit Fuggles’ range, and has recently expanded to include beers from breweries such as De Molen and Kees brewery in Holland.
Part of the reason behind Fuggles’ immense success has been down to the pub’s ability to create a brand for itself, with the beer café now stocking T-shirts, bar-blades and growlers, enabling drinkers to take home up to two litres of their favourite draft beer with a twenty-five per cent discount. “When you open up a business like Fuggles you’re effectively creating a high street brand,” Alex states, “and you have to get your name out there and get people talking about your business; it’s free advertising basically!” Refusing to compare the Fuggles brand to that of high-intensity and outlandish breweries such as Brewdog, who have made a name for themselves through their ‘punk ethos’ as much as through their beer, he prefers to label his own strategy as more of “a slow cooking form of viral marketing.”
Despite being a huge success both financially and with local punters, Fuggles hasn’t always quite found favour with some more traditional beer drinkers, finishing runner up two years in a row in West Kent CAMRA’s pub of the year awards, despite Alex’s frankly obsessive nature when it comes to the condition of his cask ale (as we speak he tests his pint with a thermometer before declaring irritably that it is “just the wrong side of twelve degrees” before sending a co-worker down to the cellar to investigate.) “We’ve had a lot of really good press, we keep coming runner up in various things,” he acknowledges, “which obviously its nice but I’d love to win at some point – West Kent CAMRA if you’re listening, seriously, come on!”
On the topic of CAMRA’s future, a topic that has been the subject of much debate within the beer community in recent weeks, Alex has mixed feelings. He is unequivocally an advocate of promoting cask beer, “I think what’s fantastic about cask is that it’s a uniquely British product – there’s nobody else really doing it - I think it’s an underrated art form,” but questions the policy which has seen the organisation promote badly-conditioned beers on cask over more reliable keg beers. “I wish they (CAMRA) would focus more on cask beer in the marketplace. Generally they’re a good thing for the industry but they’re pushing a product that is so indifferent in so many pubs and that frustrates me," he sighs, "it’s not easy to go up to a Landlord and say: ‘Your beer tastes like shit mate, sort it out.’ but at the same time if the beer is too warm or it tastes like vinegar, I think that as part of the campaign maybe they ought to be mentioning it.” On what he would like to see the organisation do more of in the future, Alex is clear: “I think there’s an educational thing CAMRA could do, it’s members are very knowledgeable and they certainly know how beer should be tasting. That’s what I’d really like to see CAMRA doing – Improving the quality of cask ale.”
Whilst we are on the topic of the future, I enquire as to whether Alex believes the level of growth we have seen in the beer industry is sustainable, and in what direction he thinks the next step ought to be for UK breweries. “I’d like to hope that the industry will keep growing and keep expanding as it has done,” he replies, “and I hope breweries will continue to be more experimental and continue to revive old historical styles of beer.” He does think, however, that there remains room for improvement in terms of the quality of beer being produced by some breweries. “There’s a few breweries out there doing a huge load of new beers and collaborations yet the actual quality of the beer is not great, they’re just trying to get their name out there rather than focusing on making a really good core range and making that really solid and consistent.” Indeed, he warns that unless this standard can be met, some breweries will fall behind. “New breweries are opening left right and centre with a lot of money behind them such as Cloudwater, and the beer has been largely fantastic so far. That’s the benchmark. If you cant keep up with that you’ll struggle to create a long term, viable brewery.”
And what does the future hold for Fuggles? Rumours of expansion have been on the cards for some time now, with the pub having hosted a pop-up bar throughout November last year in Tonbridge Fire-station. “Yes, we’d love to expand,” Alex says coyly, “Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll be able to get cracking on Fuggles number two.” On the location of this new bar, he refuses to be drawn, but tells me it will almost certainly be local. In the meantime, however, with more tap-takeovers, a beer club launching and a big refurbishment in the pipeline, the team have more than enough to be getting on with. “It should be enough to keep me busy until Autumn, I hope!” Alex laughs, before excusing himself to prepare for the evening's tap takeover. If I take one thing away from our talk, it’s that Fuggles certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.