Saturday, 31 October 2009

Is the Professor a Nutt?

The claim by Professor David Nutt -- sacked on 30 October as the government's advisor on drugs policy -- that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis and ecstasy defies credulity.
In the course of my work, I visit scores of breweries in Britain and abroad. They are open, legal enterprises where skilled and trained brewers take the finest raw materials -- barley malt, hops, yeast and water -- to fashion beers packed with flavour that give pleasure to millions. To compare brewing with lock-up garages and underground laboratories where dubious people manufacture hallucinatory drugs is palpable nonsense. It is also deeply insulting to brewers.
Beer has been made since at least 3000 years BC. Nomadic people in Egypt and surrounding countries stopped roaming and built settled communities to grown grain and from grain to make bread and beer. Until comparatively recent times, water was insanitary and beer not only gave pleasure to people but kept them healthy.
The British are moderate drinkers. In the world league of alcohol consumption, Britain ranks Number 16. The overwhelming majoritty of British people handle alcohol sensibly and moderately. We drink it openly and don't inject it into veins in toilets and other secret places.
There is also a large body of work that shows that moderate consumption of alcohol can be beneficial and help ward off heart attacks and some forms of cancer. Beer is rich in Vitam B and folate, good for maintaining healthy skin and bones.
Professor Nutt's remarks fly in the face of the facts and he has done a great disservice to the alcohol industry.

Tax hikes could cripple beer recovery

A small but welcome recovery in beer sales could be short-lived if the government once again slams on new taxes in 2010. The latest figures from the British Beer and Pub Association show that beer sales declined by just 0.8% in the third quarter of 2008, a significant improvement on recent periods.
But the BBPA warns that any fragile recovery could be threatened by the VAT increase due in January, which could put a further 6 pence on the price of a typical pub pint. Beer tax rose by 8% duty in the Pre-Budget Report in December, cancelling out the 2.5% VAT cut enjoyed by other sectors.
And the slow down in falling beer sales contains more bad news for pubs. The major growth in sales comes from the supermarket sector, with beer sales up by 4.4%. Pubs on the other hand have seen sales slump by 4.7%. This means that 4.3 million fewer pints were drunk each week during July, August and September compared with the same period for 2008. On average, 52 pubs are closing every week, unable to compete with supermarkets.
These latest figures are further bad news for government tax receipts. Money collected from beer tax in the first nine months of 2009 are down £174 million compared with the same period last year.
Brigid Simmonds, BBPA chief executive, commented: "These latest figures signal that overall beer sales are beginning to stabilise but beer sales in pubs continue to decline, contributing to the pub closure rate. This is a fragile situation that could well be jeopardised by the wrong decision on tax in the forthcomiong Pre-Budget Report."

Friday, 30 October 2009

Lager brewers set up lobby group

There’s a new beer lobby group called, conveniently, LOBI. It stands for Lagers of the British Isles and its aim is to give producers of lager beer greater recognition and appreciation.
LOBI is the brainchild of Mike Knight, sales manager of the Freedom Lager Brewery in Staffordshire. He organised a festival of British lagers at the White Horse pub in Parson’s Green, south London, in October. The choice was significant, because Freedom was launched over the road from the White Horse in 1995, where the head brewer was Alastair Hook, who learned the skills of making proper lager in Munich.
Hook has moved on and runs his own Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. Freedom has also changed hands. The brewery moved in 2004 to Abbots Bromley near Lichfield in Staffordshire. It was owned at first by the Brothers Brewing Co but the plant was sold in 2007 to Ed and Susan Mayman, who live locally.
The Maymans and their head brewer, Ian Ward, use brewing kit imported from both the United States and China. Their beers are produced according to the German Reinheitsgebot – the Pure Beer Law that dates from 1516. The law says that only malted barley, hops, yeast and water can be used to make beer. The fact that Freedom adheres to these strictures has encouraged the company to launch LOBI.
Once all lager beer was produced by a classic system of cold fermentation and maturation – lagering – at low temperatures. It meant that, rather like malt whisky, a lot of cash was locked up for several months while beer quietly matured and improved in ice-cold cellars beneath breweries.
That system doesn’t suit modern global brewers. They want to produce and sell beer as fast as possible to get a good return on their investment. In recent years, I have visited breweries in Poland and Russia, owned respectively by Heineken and Carlsberg, where the entire production of so-called lager takes just 21 days, not much longer than warm-fermented ale. Craft brewers in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland still make proper lager but the market is dominated by beers that are not only made quickly but also use rice and maize alongside barley malt in contravention of the Reinheitsgebot.
Freedom has been joined in forming LOBI by two Scottish brewers, Harviestoun and WEST, and Cotswold, Hepworth and Rebellion in England. They are carving a small but distinctive sector in the beer market. As Ed Mayman says: 'We can’t match the global brewers. Customers have to buy in to what Freedom is about. If people want something cold, yellow and fizzy, then that’s not an outlet for us.'
The Maymans are producing around 2,500 barrels a year and have seen sales rise by 30% this year – a significant success at a time of recession and pub closures. They have no background in brewing – Susan worked in London marketing jewellery while Ed studied mechanical engineering and then sold computer software – but they have quickly learned how to both make and sell beer. Success has led to five new fermenters and two maturation tanks being bought from China and a bottling line has been added in order that all costs are contained and every part of the production process can be handled in house.
Production is divided 50:50 between draught and bottled beer, with 75% of sales going to pubs and the rest to restaurants. Most beer is sold mainly in London and the south-east but Freedom has outlets in Manchester and Glasgow as well. Draught beer is a major investment, involving cellar cooling equipment, pythons and bar dispensers and it’s vital for the brewery that staff knows how to handle proper lager. 'Training is vital,' Susan Mayman says. 'If a draught outlet goes wrong, that’s a big loss for us.'
To encourage the appreciation of their beers, the Maymans and Mike Knight are keen to see chefs in both pubs and restaurants matching beer with food. 'Chefs appreciate flavour – they can put serving notes with their dishes,' Ed Mayman says.
Freedom produces three beers. Organic Lager (4.8%) is the main brand, followed by a 5% Pilsner and Organic Dark (4.7%). Organic certification from the Soil Association is a major cost but it stresses that Freedom is reaching out to a more discriminating audience than the average lager drinker.
I toured the impressive brewhouse with Ian Ward. He uses special pale lager malt from Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire but his hops are all imported from the Czech Republic, Germany and the U.S. to give the floral and citrus notes he wants rather than aggressive bitterness. After mashing, boiling with hops and primary fermentation, the beers are lagered just above 0 degrees for a minimum of one month. Ian Ward prefers to give the beers as long as possible in the lager tanks, with his Pilsner in particular improving with age.
British lager may seem an oddity but in fact there is a long tradition of making cold-fermented beers here. Tennents in Glasgow was making lager in the 1880s and at one time there were lager breweries in such surprising places as Tottenham in north London, Shepton Mallet in Somerset and Wrexham in Wales. The Somerset brewery went by the imposing name of the Anglo-Bavarian Lager Brewery but the German connection made it unpopular during World War One and the company went out of business.
In common with cask beer producers who are recreating India Pale Ales and Porters, Freedom and the other members of LOBI are – surprising as it may seem – bringing back at an old British lager tradition. The trend may not worry the likes of Carling and Carlsberg but it should please drinkers who relish flavour in beer, whether it’s cask or lager.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

OFT rejects CAMRA pubco complaint

Government must overrule OFT decision on pub company ties
Pub company ties must be referred to the Competition Commission urgently

CAMRA, The Campaign for Real Ale, has criticised the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) for failing to protect consumers by taking no action following the consumer group’s super-complaint submitted in July and has called on the Government to refer unfair tie arrangements in the pub sector to the Competition Commission.
In this morning’s (22 October) response to CAMRA’s super-complaint, the OFT has said that consumers benefit from a good deal of competition and choice in the pubs sector, but CAMRA has challenged this at a time when prices are rising and seven pubs are closing every day.
CAMRA’s super-complaint followed the hard-hitting report from the parliamentary Business and Enterprise Select Committee (BEC) which called for urgent action to re-balance the relationship between pub-owning companies and their lessees in the interest of consumers.
Mike Benner, CAMRA’s Chief Executive said, “We do not accept that there is sufficient competition between pubs or adequate consumer benefit from competition and choice within this sector. The OFT decision fails to address the legitimate concerns raised both in our super-complaint and the BEC report and does nothing to address the imbalance in the landlord/ lessee partnership which is leading to higher prices, less choice and weak investment in pubs.”
Mr Benner added, “It is difficult to see how the OFT can argue that competition is working well in the pubs sector when demand is falling, yet prices are rising. Urgent action is now required by Government to stem the flow of pub closures, build a sustainable future and ensure that consumers get a fair share of the benefit from tied agreements as demanded by competition law.”
Mike Benner said, “There simply cannot be effective competition between all pubs when many pub landlords are placed at a huge disadvantage, by paying wholesale beer prices that can be around 50p a pint greater than their free of tie competitors.”
The OFT has found that higher prices exist for some products in tied pubs, but claims that these are marginal, with a pint of lager costing drinkers 8p more in a tied pub compared to a free house. CAMRA, however, claims that this fails to fully consider that higher prices in tied pubs lead to artificially higher prices in other local pubs through lack of effective price competition and contends that today’s cash-strapped drinkers would not regard an 8p premium as marginal.
CAMRA is urging Lord Mandelson to overrule the OFT by referring anti-competitive and unfair tie arrangements of the large pub operating companies to the Competition Commission for an urgent investigation. In taking this decision Lord Mandelson will help secure a sustainable future for Britain’s pubs and a fair deal for Britain’s 14 million pub-goers.
CAMRA is also calling on the Government to take immediate legislative steps to protect pub landlords and therefore consumers from unfair and anti-competitive contract terms.
CAMRA has called for a policy framework to support community pubs which benefit society following the publication of ‘Pubs and Places’ by the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) in March.
Dr. Rick Muir, author of ‘Pubs and Places’, said, “Pubs play a key role in community life by providing a friendly and safe environment for people to socialise with friends, family and their wider community. The positive social contribution of many pubs is under threat as a result of high rents and high tied beer prices imposed unfairly by large pub owning companies. Pub landlords are rightly very concerned that unfair tie arrangements are having a serious impact on their ability to compete by reducing prices and improving facilities. The relationship between large pub owning companies and pub landlords needs urgent rebalancing and both the Government and Competition Authorities have their roles to play. In addition a new Government policy framework is required to support, incentivise and reward well-run community pubs.”
In calling for referral to the Competition Commission, the BEC report stated the disappointment of the Select Committee that the OFT has previously failed to act on this matter and had refused to acknowledge the current problems in the market. The report said, on the point that the market is working, that “if pubcos push too hard and are too greedy they will fail. But on the way bad companies will inflict real damage on their direct customers, the lessees, and on their indirect customers, ordinary drinkers.”
Mr. Benner added, “The Business and Enterprise Select Committee have been proven correct in the view they expressed early this year that an OFT investigation would not be satisfactory and that the Government should now assume responsibility.”

Saturday, 17 October 2009

What future for Staropramen?

The future of the leading Czech beer Staropramen has been brought into question following the sale of the brewery by AB InBev. As a result of the merger in 2008 between Anheuser-Busch and InBev, the group has sought to reduce a debt burden of USD52bn. It has gone some way to reducing the debt by selling its European business to the London-based CVC Capital Partners for USD3.03bn ((GBP1.87bn).
CVC will acquire brands and breweries in nine countries, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Rumania.
The main brand that will be owned by CVC is Staropramen, the "Old Spring" brewery based in Prague. Following the collapse of the communist regime, Staropreman was bought by the British Bass group, which sold it on to InBev. Bass invested heavily in the plant, building a new, modern brewhouse and adding new fermenting capacity. Staropramen has become a regular imported lager beer in Britain as a result.
CVC announced, when it signed the deal with AB InBev, that it plans to turn Staropramen into an international brand. As the group will have brewing plant in nine countries, the announcement suggests that if Staropramen does become a big player on the international beer stage then it may well be brewed under licence in other countries as well as in Prague.
This has already happened to Pilsner Urquell, the first golden Pilsner beer, now owned by SABMiller and brewed under licence in Poland and Russia. This makes a nonsense of a name that means "original source of Pilsner".
InBev did plan at one stage to brew Staropramen under licence in Britain but the plans were abandoned when it was revealed that the British version would have a much shorter fermentation time and would use malt syrup to bulk out the grain. CVC may be less fastidious if it brews the beer in Eastern Europe.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Taking coals from Newcastle

From The Times, 14 October

You can take the beer out of Newcastle but you can't take Newcastle out of the beer. It may be a more robust drink than wine, with hops acting as a powerful preservative, but beer likes its roots and doesn't enjoy the game of pass the parcel.
Even if clever brewers use identical malt, hops, yeast and water, somehow the chemistry goes wrong and the taste of beer changes quite dramatically if a brewery closes and the brands are moved elsewhere. A good example is the classic bottled India Pale Ale, Worthington's White Shield, first brewed in Burton-on-Trent in the 19th century. When its owners, Bass, lost interest in the beer in the 1990s it was shunted around the country, to Yorkshire and then - ludicrously - to Sussex. The beer never tasted the same until it returned to Burton. It's now such a success that it's in the process of being moved from a small brewing plant to a bigger one cope to cope with demand.
More recently, Brakspear Bitter in Henley-on-Thames lost its flavour as well as its lustre when the Henley brewery closed and production was moved to Burtonwood in Cheshire. Henley was famous for its "double drop" fermenters - vessels ranged on two storeys – that created both a vigorous fermentation and a unique butterscotch note that was treasured by drinkers. Brakspear, complete with the original fermenters, is now back in Oxfordshire at a brewery in Witney and, with an almost identical water supply to Henley's, has got its butterscotch back.
In 2006, Young's, the legendary real ale brewery in Wandsworth, south London, closed and merged with Charles Wells of Bedford. Enormous care was taken in matching Young's Bitter and Special, with the former Young's head brewer, Ken Don, seconded to Bedford. At first the beers tasted radically different but three years later they have been restored to something like their former glory. But try telling that to diehard Young's drinkers in London.
Greene King in Suffolk has been brewing Ruddle's beers - originally from Rutland - for several years and doesn't pretend the beers are the same. The strengths are different and the hop varieties have been changed. Draught Bass has moved just a couple of miles within Burton-on-Trent to the Marston's brewery. It's a good beer but somehow that special magic has gone, not unconnected to the fact that Bass, in common with Brakspear, had a special fermenting system that created the beer's flavour.
The most ludicrous example of moving beer from its place of origin is the renowned Czech lager Pilsner Urquell. It was first brewed in Pilsen in the Czech Republic and the name means "Original Source of Pilsner". The beer is now owned by global brewing giant SABMiller, who brew the beer in both Poland and Russia. So much for "original source".
As for Newcastle Brown Ale brewed in Yorkshire... Man the barricades.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Heineken moves Newcastle Brown to...Yorkshire

One of Britain's iconic beers, Newcastle Brown Ale, will lose its credibility as well as its Tyneside home when Heineken UK, owners of Scottish & Newcastle, move the brand to the John Smith's brewery in Tadcaster in Yorkshire.
Heineken plans to close the Dunston brewery in Gateshead next year, claiming it's running at only 60% capacity. The Dunston plant is the former Federation Clubs brewery bought by S&N when it closed its Newcastle brewery and transferred production of all its beer there, including Newcastle Brown.
Newcastle Brown was first brewed in the 1920s and, along with other similar beers in the North-east such as Double Maxim in Sunderland, was the region's answer to Burton pale ales. Drinkers in the North-east engaged in such heavy industrial work as coal mining and shipbuilding wanted a sweeter beer than pale ale to restore lost energy after an 8-hour shift. At first Newcastle Brown was a blend of two beers, pale and dark. The result was an amber beer of 4.7% with a rich nutty and vanilla character. S&N stopped the blending process some years ago.
Until a few years ago, Newcastle Brown was the biggest-selling bottled beer in Britain but it has lost out to Greene King's Old Speckled Hen. If S&N had put more energy into promoting its Tyneside beers, the Dunston brewery might not be brewing at only 60% capacity. And if S&N had not abandoned cask beer, with the exception of John Smith's, it might be able to fill its brewing vessels to capacity.
The move of Newcastle Brown to Yorkshire is an insult to consumers everywhere but in particular to Geordies. Will the label still show the Tyne Bridge? Will there be protests under the Trades Description Act about the nonsense of a Yorkshire beer being labelled Newcastle?
The move shows how little Heineken knows or cares about Britain's beer heritage and culture. The Dutch group is interested only in brewing large amounts of pale industrial lager and doesn't give a hoot if the ale side of the S&N business withers on the hop bine.
But Heineken may face a problem if it moves Newcastle Brown Ale in Tadcaster. The Sam Smith's brewery in the town also brews a strong brown ale and may not be best pleased to have a fake Geordie brew a few hundred yards away.
And if Heineken dumps all its brewing capacity from Dunston at John Smith's plant, this could scupper plans to move Tetley Bitter there when Carlsberg closes the Leeds brewery.
The global brewers have made another fine mess.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

National Trust launches IPA

The National Trust is launching its first branded beer, Viceroy IPA, a 5% beer brewed by the Westerham Brewery in Kent. The triple hopped beer uses hops from Scotney Castle in Kent, which is the trust's last remaining hop garden.
Viceroy is available on draught and in bottle and uses barley grown on land adjoining Uppark, a National Trust property in West Sussex.
"This is truly a first -- a National Trust branded beer made using our own ingredients and with a wonderful story to tell," said the trust's head of agriculture, Rob Macklin.
Viceroy is described as golden, nutty and hoppy. It was inspired by Lord Curzon, the first Marquis of Kedleston, who was a generous donor to the National Trust.

Budvar's celebrated brewmaster is honoured

Josef Tolar, the legendary former brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar in the Czech Republic, has been inducted into the Hall of Fame of Czech Brewing by the country's Malt Association. The induction took place on the St Wenceslas day of celebration for Czech beer.
Tolar worked in the Budvar brewery in Ceske Budejovice for 24 years, starting in
1965. He was the second longest-serving brewmaster in the company's history. He contributed to production technology to improve the quality of Budweiser beer, which is matured or lagered for 90 days, the longest-known period for a premium lager beer. His work resulted in Budweiser Budvar gaining a PGI in 2004 from the European Union -- a Protected Gurantee of origin, similar to a French appellation for wine, which guarantees the beer is only made in its place of origin.
The brewery's output increased almost threefold during his tenure of office and it's estimated that he personally oversaw the production of 21.464 million hectolitres of beer during his time in charge.
Josef Tolar, who remains a consultant at the brewery, graduated from the Faculty of Food Technology at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague and immediately joined Budweiser Budvar in its laboratory. He worked in all parts of the brewery and became brewmaster in 1985. He was promoted to the position of brewing and technical director in 1992 and was in charge of the reconstruction and development of the brewery's capacity to 1.35 million hectolitres a year. He was awarded a gold tankard by the British Guild of Beer Writers when he was named as one of guild's prestigious Brewers of the Year.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

S&N bites the dust

Another great name in British brewing will disappear in November when Scottish & Newcastle is renamed Heineken UK. S&N was created in 1960 when Scottish Brewers (the result of a merger between McEwan and Younger) merged with Newcastle Breweries. For many years, S&N was the smallest of the "Big 6" national British brewers, finding it difficult to break out of Scotland and the North-east as a result of the dominance of the likes of Bass, Allied Breweries and Whitbread.
But when Allied was broken up and Bass and Whitbread left brewing in 2000, the way was open for S&N to become Britain's biggest brewer. But its fortunes declined instead of flourishing. It went on a rampage of brewery closures, axeing the historic George's Brewery in Bristol, Fountainbridge in Edinburgh, Courage in London, and the Newcastle Brewery. It had won a prestigious guarantee of origin for Newcastle Brown Ale from the European Union but lost it when it moved production to the former Federation Clubs Brewery in Gateshead. It announced it would close the former Courage Reading brewery in 2010.
Last year S&N was taken over by Heineken and many thought it was only a matter of time before the named changed. Heineken is left with the giant Royal brewery in Manchester, Gateshead and John Smith's in Tadcaster. It also owns the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh that produces the award-winning cask beer Deuchar's IPA. Cynics say Caledonian will survive as long as Heineken thinks Deuchar's is lager, not ale.
The company name will change officially on 23 November.
*The Big 4 British brewers are now all foreign-owned: AB InBev, Carlsberg (which will close Tetley next year), Coors and Heineken.