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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.
The most impressive part of Bermondsey-based Fourpure Brewing Co's set up isn't its state-of-the-art canning machine, capable of sealing 12,000 cans per hour. Nor is it its vast quantities of oak foudres, in which small batch and highly complex beers are being aged ready for consumption. No, the most exciting thing about Fourpure is a small rectangular room located up a drab staircase and far removed from the brew house itself. In this room, three old laptops are lined up against a wall, separated by white polyester boards. In front of the laptops are beer samples in small plastic cups.
It is here where Fourpure's beers are rigorously tested by the 31 members of the brewery team trained in sensory analysis. The results are meticulously logged into the brewery's database and any samples containing the slightest of off flavours are further analysed to detect flaws in the brewing process.
It is this level of attention to detail and technical, scientific approach that has seen Fourpure become one of London's most commercially successful and recognisable craft breweries in just over four years. Since being founded in 2013, the brewery has at least doubled its volume sales every year, and is now in the midst of a significant expansion programme that is reported to have cost in the region of £2million.
“We’re always keen on making that next investment which will take us to the next level as a brewery,” Fourpure's head brewer John Driebergen tells me over a pint in the brewery's on-site taproom. “We’re currently operating on a way higher technical level than we ought to be for our capacity.
That capacity is about to get a whole lot bigger. The brewery has ordered a four vessel, 40hl fully automated brew house, manufactured in Germany, as well as 12 new fermenters that will allow the brewery to increase its capacity by up to 300%. The new brew house will allow Driebergen and his team to brew up to eight times per day and be fully operational 24 hours a day if necessary.
“What I’m most excited about is that we’ll be able to brew three beers in the time it takes us to brew one and a half," Driebergen laughs. "The quality and consistency will be incredible. As the wort quality improves you will see an improvement in the hop extraction; everything is engineered to such a high degree of specification and so highly optmised. It’s going to be a little bit like driving a luxury car as opposed to the clunker we are driving around now."
The expansion, due to be completed in November, will also help improve the brewery’s sustainability; something that has always been at the forefront of every decision Fourpure has ever made. The brewery chose to produce its entire core range of beers in cans at a time when few others in the market were doing so, a decision heavily motivated by the smaller environmental impact it would create.
"We knew right away that we wanted to can all of our beers; Dan (Lowe, the brewery's co-founder) was very keen on that, and had a clear vision in terms of leading the way in terms of sustainability," Driebergen explains. "It was definitely a huge gamble at a time when canned and kegged beer was, quite wrongly, still associated with a lower quality product."
"As a brewery our investments are driven by the two categories of beer quality and sustainability,” he continues. “Those are considered to the same degree, and are the driving factors behind every investment we make”
“The new brew house itself is far more efficient, we’re moving over to a steam boiler which is a lot more efficient, and there will be a lot less energy wasted because we’ll be brewing a lot more frequently. We’re also investing in a new fully automated carbonator which should use about 5% of the carbon dioxide that we currently use to carbonate our beers.”
Despite the remarkable growth that Fourpure has enjoyed in recent years, Driebergen is keen to emphasise that the brewery, and indeed the craft beer sector as a whole, remains only a tiny slice of the overall market. “We now employ 47 employees, having started with just three,” he says. “The only thing currently holding us back is our capacity. We’ve seen tremendous growth in recent years, primarily driven by the craft beer sector.”
“However, less than 1% of the market by production volume is from independent breweries. We (craft brewers) are all focused on the same thing and have the same goals, and hence we are more willing to be collaborative and help each other.”
Around a third of the quite considerable quantity of beer produced by Fourpure (around 100hl per day at present) is lager. With another of London's big lager breweries Camden Town having recently opened a huge new £30m site in Enfield following its buyout by AB InBev, it seems possible that lager could be the next big craft beer trend in the UK. However, whilst Driebergen believes the style will grow in popularity, he is keen to stress that breweries ought to continue to innovate in their own way, and not chase market trends.
"The thing about trends is that they’re always kind of hard to predict," he says. "I think it's important for breweries not to focus on what may or may not be trendy but focus on innovation in your own way. We like to focus on quality and experiment in all sorts of ways, and as long as breweries stay true to that we will eventually stumble across the next trend in an accidental sense anyway.”
“Lager will continue to grow for sure. There are a lot of people who drink lager and who are now discovering craft beer and realising that provenance does matter, quality does matter and that locally produced fresh beer does taste better.
“If they like lager then they will have a better experience drinking a lager from a local brewer than from a big industrial brewery. So yes, I think craft lager will grow but I don’t think it will necessarily set the world alight in the way New England IPA’s have done in the last year or so.”
Well-spoken, articulate and charming, Driebergen is a difficult character to dislike. Indeed, it is hard to imagine him being irritated by anything at all. Determined to discover his bugbears, I ask what he would like to see pubs and bars do more of to help spread the growth of craft beer.
His response is initially diplomatic. "I think in general the bars and pubs in London have been great in terms of supporting craft brewers and the rise of craft beer," he says. "I’ve been really impressed by the degree to which that really good craft beer has become more widely available."
"However, I think it is really important that bars and pubs focus on training their staff," he divulges. "Often pubs have people who are employed on a short term basis. They need to make sure they are continually training their staff on what makes craft beer different, why that difference matters, and the importance of things like stock rotation, hygiene and keeping beer lines clean.
“Ultimately if the customer has a bad experience drinking a beer, most of the time the problem won’t be the beer, it will be the hygiene of the pub, but the drinker will blame the brewery, and that will affect that pubs greater sale of craft beer and they will lose customers."
This education is of particular importance if pubs wish to retain customers and develop a good reputation for serving craft beer, he warns. “With the craft stuff you really have to make sure you are paying attention to hygiene if you want to get repeat sales and attract the types of customers who want to drink craft beer.”
“These people are younger, they have more disposable income and are more interested in spending money in bars and restaurants, but if you want to keep those customers you have to have an interesting range, you have to train your staff, you have to rotate your stock, order from a good distributor and you have to look after the hygiene.
“If you do that then you’re going to keep customers. If you think ordering the beer is enough, then it’s not necessarily going to work out for you.”
Despite his friendly demeanour and affable personality, it is clear that Driebergen is fiercely proud of his work and determined to see his beer showcased at its very best. Indeed, part of the brewery's decision not to brew cask beer came from his dislike of the lack of control over how the final product tastes to the consumer.
“As a brewer the reason I like keg beer is that you can brew and mature the beer and package it up and its exactly the state I want the customer to drink it,” he says. “The problem with cask is that you are outsourcing a third of the process, the conditioning and cellaring, to a third party who may or may not know what they are doing. As a brewer that has no appeal to me.
"Additionally I think the beer styles we are producing are less suited to cask anyway. I have a lot of admiration for a lot of cask brewers but I have no experience of making it and most of my team have very limited experience with it, and its not something we see as fitting within our range of beers.”
On the brewing side, Driebergen is happy to let his beers speak for themselves. He smiles and hands over a glass of Southern Latitude - the brewery's session-strength interpretation of a New England IPA - before departing in search of dinner. At the rate at which it I drink it, it's a good job Fourpure will be producing a lot more beer come this November.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Morning Advertiser
It’s been quite a rise to fame for Newport’s Tiny Rebel brewery. In less than ten years, the brewery has gone from two men producing two beers out of a converted garage to a 60-employee strong organisation, brewing on a dual steam 30-barrel brewhouse and exporting beer to over 20 countries around the world. Along the way, the Welsh brewery has found favour among craft beer geeks and traditional real ale enthusiasts alike, but undoubtedly the key moment in its history came in August 2015, when its flagship 4.6 per cent red ale, Cwtch, took home the ‘Champion Beer of Britain’ at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.
“The week after we won the award I think we brewed Cwtch six times out of eight,” laughs Niall Thomas, the brewery’s Regional Sales Manager. “It was just Cwtch cask after Cwtch cask…but you’ve got to give the people what they want!
“Winning Champion Beer of Britain was absolutely huge for us; we’re the youngest ever brewery to have won it, and the only brewery from Wales. It’s the top brewing award in the country and to have won it so quickly after opening is an enormous achievement. A lot of breweries can only dream of it.”
Tiny Rebel’s journey began in a similar way to that of many other breweries in the industry. Brad Cummings and Gareth Williams (Gazz) were thrown together after Gazz married Brad’s sister and the duo became brothers-in law. Gazz, a keen homebrewer and cask ale lover, roped Brad into his brewing experiments in a converted garage on the weekends. After receiving some positive feedback from friends and family, the two men invested in a fifty-litre homebrew kit and began to perfect their recipes.
In February 2012, the brewery officially launched with two beers, Fubar, a 4.4 per cent pale ale, and Urban IPA. These were swiftly followed by Cwtch and Dirty Stop Out, the brewery’s 5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout.
“It was a pretty quick rise from there,” admits Niall. “The first year we were eligible, our beers took a one, two, three at the Great Welsh Beer Festival – the first time any Welsh brewery has taken gold, silver and bronze at the same festival – and the year after that, we won gold again, which was the first time anyone has defended a gold.”
The following year, Cwtch won Champion Beer of Britain.
With interest in their beers soaring, Tiny Rebel were soon struggling to cope with the demand. “We’d already been at capacity at the old brewery before we won at GBBF,” Niall explains, “and when you win an award like that you’re the biggest news in the brewing industry for the next couple of months. It can put a huge strain on production.” To cope, the brewery squeezed two more fermenting tanks into their old site, and switched to shift patterns, brewing twice a day, ten times a week.
Eventually, however, a new site was needed. Plans were drawn up and investment sourced for a new £2.6m brewhouse site, ten minutes away from the old brewery. The new brewkit was installed in December 2016, and production moved at the start of this year. “All the profits for the past five years have gone into the new site,” Niall says, “the new brewhouse is a dual stream 30 barrel; each stream can brew 5,000 litres and they can run virtually side by side. Going forward if we really wanted to we could go back to a shift pattern and brew four times a day, but at the moment we’re brewing at most twice a day.”
The new brewhouse is certainly an impressive sight, with on site canning and bottling lines, as well as plans for a glass-fronted taproom overlooking the Welsh valleys. So what has been the secret behind Tiny Rebel’s rapid ascent to success?
“I think the key for us has been organic growth,” Niall explains, “We’ve never tried to run too fast; we wait to see where the demand takes us, and we’ve found that whenever we’ve grown, the demand grows, probably quicker than we can. We’re producing as much beer as we can, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to the demand for it, which seems to be a sign that we’re doing well.”
“We’ve also got a really good and talented team. We like to promote and utilise those resources as best we can. I joined the sales team from one of the bars; the management teams in the bars were all previously existing bar staff. We like to foster skills and reward people.”
Looking to the future, the brewery’s focus is on finishing work at the new site, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be releasing any new beers anytime soon. Indeed, one big new release is planned in the next month or so, but is still very much under wraps, so much so that we are forbidden from taking photos or writing about it. “We love experimenting,” Niall says, “Last year alone we released 30 new beers. The new brewery site obviously takes a bit of time and attention away from that sort of thing, but hopefully soon we’ll have the time to do a few more exciting things.”
One thing Tiny Rebel won’t be doing, however, is turning their backs on cask beer, as other breweries in the industry have recently done. “For us personally, we see cask as our personal origins,” explains Niall, “it’s what Gazz was brought up with and what sparked the idea for the brewery. But also it’s the origin story of beer in the UK; it’s a very British style and we see it as an integral part of the beer scene here.”
Nonetheless, Niall is keen to emphasise that the brewery don’t begrudge any of their fellow brewers turning their backs on the style. “It’s their business at the end of the day and they know their customer base better than anyone,” he says. “It would be silly to commit to something that’s going to lose you money, and from a beer perspective you’ve got to brew what you like brewing.”
“It’s down to local preference, but the key is to brew what you love; that’s the only thing we can do.”
*This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*
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.
Forest Road Brewing Co. isn’t your typical London brewery. While most of the capital’s emerging small brewers produce small quantities of a wide range of beers on tiny, cramped kits on industrial estates, Forest Road’s head-brewer Pete Brown heads out to Belgium every couple of months to brew 15,000 litres of Work, the brewery’s signature 5.4 per cent ale, at the family-owned Brouwerij Van Eecke in Flanders. Pete began homebrewing in New York city back in 2008, and since then the jovial American has amassed over seven years of experience brewing at four international breweries including Siren and Camden. Whilst at Siren, Pete moved into a house on Forest Road in Hackney, and after several successful homebrews, he quickly convinced his housemates they should set up a brewery.
“To build the kind of brewery I wanted to build I needed a shit load of money that I didn’t have,” Pete explains over a pint of Work in The Prince Arthur, a few doors down from the Forest Road flat where the beer was born. “I hit up some guys around the UK saying ‘I want to brew this much beer, this is how I want to do it, this how I want it packaged,’ but the only people who got back to me were people saying ‘we can do it but we can only do cask’ or ‘we can do it but we can’t use your yeast strain’ or whatever. I wasn’t in this to make money, I wanted to brew my fucking beer the way I wanted to.”
Frustrated, Pete turned to Belgium, and managed to convince an old family run brewery in Flanders to allow him to brew on their kit. “I went over on a complete whim to this old brewery and had this meeting with these Flemish guys… they’re not a contract brewery; I was the first person that had ever brewed on their kit that wasn’t part of the family since they opened in 1624.”
While some UK breweries are content to contract out their brewing to Belgium and import the finished product, Pete insists on being involved with every stage of the process. “It’s not like I go over there and its all set up for me,” he says. “I have to source the malt, the hops the yeast – I get my yeast from Copenhagen. It has to get there, we have to propagate it three days before we brew; all this shit needs to be done before we can brew.”
The first brew wasn’t without a few hitches along the way. Two weeks before he was scheduled to go out to Belgium, Pete received a call from the Van Eecke brewery informing him they’d been unable to source the hops he needed. After begging, stealing and borrowing Chinook, Equinox and Mosaic hops from friends in the industry, he headed out to Flandres in November 2015 to brew 150 hectolitres of Work, listing his flat as the delivery address because the brewery didn’t own anywhere to store the beer at the time.
The resulting beer arrived in the UK in February 2016, and three more batches have been brewed since, with Pete heading out to brew a fourth this month. An unfiltered, hoppy ale, low in bitternes but big in flavour, Work certainly doesn’t appear to have suffered from traveling across borders. “There’s no oxygen inclusion, its unfiltered, everything is done the way we want to do it,” Pete says proudly. “I want it to speak for itself. There’s nothing on the bottle about what kind of beer it is. As an American I don’t like seeing mediocre beers being marketed as American pale ales. It drives me nuts. Why is it called American pale ale, just because you used American hops?”
“I don’t put bullshit in my beer, and I don’t do gimmicks. If you want to get fruit flavours out of a beer they should come from the hops, it’s not about putting raspberries in it or any of that shit.”
Of course, Pete doesn’t intend to brew in Belgium forever. The brewery already has a storage unit and bar in Hackney, and has put in an offer for a brewery site “on the river.” In-between prank calling neighbouring Five Points and playing with his one-year old rescue dog Cassie, Pete excitedly tells me that Forest Road are planning to open “the UK’s most sustainable brewery,” in the next year.
“We want be ahead of the curve,” he explains, “we want to do things right, even at a greater cost up front. At the moment people are just dumping shit down the drain and burning electricity. Our kit will be very efficient. It really is amazing.”
“We’re going to build a fucking sweet 25 hectolitre kit in the centre of London. It’ll be London’s most advanced kit – nobody that will have a better kit than us.”
*This article originally appeared in Issue 12 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*