Friday, 28 May 2010

Dunston -- end of an era

A small but important piece of British social history will disappear at the end of May with the closure of Heineken UK’s brewery in Dunston on Tyneside. The use of the name Heineken does history a disservice for, until 2004, this was the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery. It was created and run by working men for clubs in North-east England. Its closure truly marks the end of an era.
Working men’s clubs sprang up throughout the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries to provide small havens of comfort for people who worked long hours in often degrading circumstances in pits and factories. The clubs did charity work and helped people down on their luck.
And, naturally, they offered what at the time was called “a healthy beverage” – beer. The healthy beverage was in short supply during World War One but the clubs in the North-east found themselves still short of deliveries when the war ended. Malt and hops were rationed and brewers concentrated in the main in supplying their own pubs.
And when supplies did get through to clubs, the stewards found it was often heavily watered down. The brewers were charging the clubs the full price for beer and were raking in huge profits as a result of cheating. That old musical hall song about “the very fat man that waters the workers’ beer” was not fantasy.
The clubs complained that the brewers were charging the full excise duty on beer but were supplying casks that had often been watered down from 570 standard gallons to make 851.
The anger at the activities of the brewers led clubs in many areas to plan their own breweries. The Federation or Fed for short became the biggest and best known of the clubs breweries but there were others in Yorkshire, the Midlands and south Wales. Clubs on Tyneside and throughout Co Durham and Northumberland raised the funds to launch their own brewery. Their first attempt ended in embarrassing failure. In 1919, they bought a brewery in Alnwick that turned out to be unusable. It had not brewed for years, the buildings were falling down and the brewing vessels were rotten with rust.
Smarting from this disaster, the clubs’ leaders turned to a brewery closer to hand and bought J.H. Graham’s plant in Newcastle. Brewing started in 1921 and the enterprise was such a success that in 1931 the Fed moved to bigger premises in John Buchanan’s brewery in Hanover Square.
The relationship between clubs and brewery was in sharp contrast to the one that existed between a tied pub and its brewery. The Fed was a co-op owned by all the participating clubs. In return for their shares, they received good quality beer sold at prices far cheaper than those offered by commercial brewers. The annual dividend – the famous co-op “divi” – paid out to the clubs every year enabled them to extend their premises and offer facilities beyond the means of pubs in the impoverished years of the 1920s and 1930s.
The most remarkable aspect of the Fed was that it was run by a different breed of people to the regional brewers of the time. It was said in Victorian times that in well-to-do circles the less intelligent young men who failed the army and the church would be sent off to run the family brewery.
The Fed, in sharp contrast, was run by men who often left school at 12 to go down the pits or work in foundries. In their spare time, they poured themselves in to running local clubs and some of them moved from the clubs to managing the brewery in Newcastle.
In order to keep pace with demand for its beer, the Fed installed a new brew house in 1957 that cost £450,000 and which was capable of producing 7,500 barrels a week and 50,000 bottles. The brewery moved with the times in very way. In the 1960s, as more and more clubs opened, commercial brewers attempted to muscle in on the Fed’s trade by offering a new type of beer to clubs – tank beer.
This was a halfway house between cask ale and keg beer – bright, filtered but unpasteurised beer. I recall, some 20 years later, touring clubs in the North-east and marvelling at their size, the vast number of people using them and the enormous quantities of beer being consumed.
In 1980, the Fed was on the move again to a custom-built site at Dunston on the Gateshead side of the Tyne. The new brewery cost £20m and at its peak produced 10,000 barrels a week.
The decline and eventual sale of Dunston to Scottish & Newcastle in 2004 was the result of massive changes in the fabric of social life in Britain. Industry went in to sharp decline as both Tory and New Labour governments decided financial services would form the basis for the country’s financial future. Mining communities disappeared and many clubs went with them.
For those of us that think there is more to a happy life than just financial gain and self-interest, Dunston will not be forgotten. For close on a century, working men and women banded together out of compassion and a belief in the common good to produce a healthy beverage for their friends, neighbours and work mates. They deserve to be remembered with thanks and affection.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

InBev to sell off Bass brands

InBev, the world's biggest brewer, is planning to dispose of the Bass and Whitbread ale brands it acquired when it bought both the breweries in 2000. It plans to sell off such once leading brands as Draught Bass, Boddingtons and Flowers, with an asking price of £15 million.
It's understood that Marston's, Molson Coors and C&C (owners of Magners Cider) are potential buyers of all or some of the brands. Hydes, the Manchester independent, might be interested in buying Boddingtons as it currently brews the beer under licence for InBev. Marston's would be an obvious fit for Draught Bass, as the company currently brews the beer for InBev.
The sale of the brands could kickstart them after years in the doldrums. Draught Bass was once the undisputed premium cask ale in Britain, with sales of around two million barrels a year. With no support or promotion from InBev, sales have declined to fewer than 100,000 barrels and the beer is hard to find in many parts of the country. In the 1970s and 80s, Boddingtons had an iconic status as a straw-coloured Manchester beer, but it has dropped off the radar since it became an InBev brand.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Oz beer awards

The Australian International Beer Awards announced in Melbourne 20 May:

Champion Large Brewery
Weihenstephan, Freising, Germany

Champion Small Brewery
Nogne O-Det Kompromisslose Bryggeri, Grimstad, Norway

Premier Trophy Victoria for Best Victorian Beer
Voodoo, 2 Brothers Brewery

Best New Exhibitor
Big Sky Brewing Co, Quebec, Canada

Champion Hybrid Beer
Black Butte XXI, Deschutes Brewery, Oregon, US

Champion Wheat Beer
Emerson's Weizenbock, Emerson's Brewery, Dunedin, New Zealand

Champion Lager
Hoss Rye Lager, Great Divide Brewing Co, Colorado, US

Champion Ale
The Runt, Feral Brewery, Western Australia

Champion Stout
Beer Geek Brunch Stout, Mikkeler, Copenhagen, Denmark

Champion Porter
Hunter Chocolate Porter, Hunter Beer Co, NSW, Australia

Champion Reduced Alcohol Beer
Redoak Bitter, Redoak, NSW, Australia

Champion Scotch & Barley Wine
Samuel Adams Longshot Barley Wine, Boston Beer Co, Boston, Mass, US

Champion Belgian & French Ales
The Sixth Glass, Boulevard Brewing Co, California, US

Friday, 14 May 2010

I&G scoops top awards

Innis & Gunn Brewing Co from Edinburgh has been named "Business of the Year" at the annual Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards in a ceremony at Benromach Distillery in Forres. The innovative brewer, whose Oak Aged Beer has created the interest in storing beer in whisky, wine and other spirit casks, also picked up three further awards: Product Innovation of the Year for its oak-aged beers, Best Drink and International Business of the Year.
Innis & Gunn's managing director, Dougal Sharp, said: "We are absoutely delighted with this achievement. To be acknowledged for excellence among Scottish producers is a huge honour."
Innis & Gunn started in 2003 when Dougal Sharp discovered a revolutioanry process for creating oak-aged beers. Asked by William Grant to produce a special beer to seaon the inside of whisky casks, to produce an "ale cask-finished whisky", the beer was due to be discarded as a bi-product until distillery workers told Dougal of its delicious flavour transformation during the maturation inside oak barrels. Since this discovery, Innis & Gunn has become Scotland's leading independent beer company and Oak Aged Beer is now the best-selling British bottled beer in Canada and the Number Two bottled import ale in Sweden.

Federation to close

Heineken UK -- Scottish & Newcastle as was -- has announced it will close the Dunston Brewery on Tyneside at the end of May. Dunston was the former Federation Clubs Brewery, a co-op owned by workingmen clubs in the North East.
Production of the Tyneside beer, primarily Newcastle [sic] Brown Ale, will transfer to the John Smith's Brewery in Tadcaster. It will be interesting to see if Heineken retains the Tyne Bridge logo on the label of Newcastle Brown. Well, sort of interesting. Does anyone care what happens to such raddled and Bowdlerised brands?

Coopers Ales to get British distribution

Bibendum has taken on the exclusive distribution of Coopers Ales in Britain. Coopers of Adelaide is one of Australia's best-loved breweries. It was founded in 1862 by Thomas Cooper from Yorkshire and the company is now run by the fifth and sixth generations of the family. Famous for its Pale Ale and Sparkling Ale, Coopers uses only the finest malt, hops, water and sugar, with no preservatives, additives or chemicals. The beers are bottle conditioned.
Bibendum, the leading independent wine and spirits merchant, will distribute Cooper's Pale Ale and Sparkling Ale in multiple grocers, independent retailers and the pub trade. Pale Ale will cost £1.65 and Sparkling Ale £1.85.

Boom time for Castle Rock

Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham is to triple its capacity following a £600,000 investment in plant and premises. The brewery, part of the Tynemill pubs group owned by former CAMRA national chairman Chris Holmes, currently produces a maximum of 110 barrels a week. The new plant -- which will eventually lead to the closure of the existing brewery in Queensbridge Road opposite Nottingham railway station -- will operate five days a week with a maximum capacity of 330 barrels a week.
The venture will overcome current shortages of some Castle Rock beers and will see the creation of six new full-time jobs in brewing and marketing. The new plant will also widen the availability of the brewery's regular and seasonal beers.
Chris Holmes says the popularity of Castle Rock's beer portfolio continues to grow: "Harvest Pale, CAMRA's 2007 Champion Beer of Britain, has become so popular in the free trade that its production is putting immense pressure on the brewery. We've now got to the stage where too many valued customers, from national chains, small local groups and even pubs in the Castle Rock estate, are being denied their first choices of ale. To do nothing would have let down landlords and their customers."
The new brewery will be based in part-Victorian, part-1960s workshop and office premises. The brewing equipment will be put in place in early May, with the first trial runs expected in June 2010.
Castle Rock currently supplies eight own brand ales ranging in strength from 3.5% to 5.5%. They include Black Gold, Harvest Pale, Hemlock, Preservation Fine Ale, Elsie Mo and Screech Owl. A different beer is brewed on a monthly basis to support Nottingham Wildlife Fund. The Tynemill pub estate numbers 23 outlets.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The row rumbles on...

"Earwig go again," as John Lennon once said to another member of the Beatles. I've been slow to respond to the latest debate as I was stuck in Scotland yesterday as a result of volcanic ash, but here goes...
I'm sorry, Pete, but it just won't do to say you were not attacking CAMRA as a whole. The title to your piece was "CAMRA's noxious culture of entitlement". That, de facto, is an attack on the whole organisation. The implication is clear: CAMRA officially creates a climate in which its members believe they should be given preferential treatment in pubs.
Now you're saying, "Oh, I didn't mean that -- I'm not attacking the whole of CAMRA." That's Daily Mail-style journalism, the "broad brush approach" that condemns all members of a group. We're all too aware of this: the Mail repeatedly runs stories that prove Britain is about to topple into the alcoholic abyss because a few idiots get battered in a few town centres on Saturday nights. We know it's not representative, it's a distortion of the truth, but a lot of people believe it.
It's equally untrue that CAMRA members as a whole behave in the manner of the train spotters in the Sheffield station tap -- if they were CAMRA members.
Let me make it clear: I don't think CAMRA is a perfect organisation. No such organisation exists. As a devoted atheist I don't, as one contributor suggests, want to turn CAMRA in to a religious experience. The lavatory at the Three Ravens Brewery in Melbourne, Australia, is wall papered with back issues of Viz magazine and its strip about CAMRA. I laughed so much I thought I'd have a seizure. Everybody I know in CAMRA thinks the strip is hilarious. But it's humour and so it's an exaggeration, just as the old Private Eye parody of all CAMRA members having 10-ton beer guts, beards and sandals is also a distortion.
Back to the Burton dinner, which I can speak about with some authority, as I was there. The picture painted by Pete is just not true. Now he says he wasn't including me in his criticism and he appears to also be absolving John Arguile. That doesn't leave many CAMRA members left. Keith Spencer wasn't at my end of the table and he was not involved in the amiable banter with Steve Wellington. I can assure you that if Steve had been heckled,ridiculed and forced out in to the rain I would have used what little authority I have to stop it. I deplore such behaviour but...IT DIDN'T HAPPEN. I repeat that Steve returned to the dinner with a broad grin on his face, carrying three bottles of P2 and was greeted as a hero. It was also in good fun, juvenile fun perhaps, but not malicious.
A few years ago, Pete and I fell out when he wrote several times that CAMRA wasn't interested in how beer tastes. This was palpable nonsense: every year at the Great British Beer Festival, several beer writers conduct a series of tutored beer tastings. Jeff Evans and I do the same thing every year at the BBC Food Show. At a World of Beer event last year, I invited Pete join me in a beer tasting I was conducting. So Pete has dropped that attack but can't stop having a go at the CAMRA body politic.
I need to get back to serious work and hope we can bury this issue. But you will see from the home page that beer-pages is offering a link to a Hall & Woodhouse discount for beer or wine in its pubs. Hope this doesn't generate an article attacking "beer-pages noxious culture of entitlement".
Happy drinking!


Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Outrageous slur on CAMRA

In recent months I have attempted to avoid controversy on this blog. The unpleasant slanging match with BrewDog a few months ago proved to me that I should write straight news stories in this space that might be of use to fellow beer drinkers. However, I have to depart from this self-imposed exile from controversy by replying to an attack on CAMRA by Pete Brown on his blog. I'm sorry to have to do this as I like Pete, get on with him well and was grateful for his sympathetic words when the BrewDog row was at its height. But I feel his attack, which in the main concerns an event I was present at, requires a measured response. You can read the full text on Pete's own blog but I will present an edited and fair summary here.
His piece carries the inflammatory title "CAMRA's noxious culture of entitlement". It begins by reporting on an incident in the Sheffield Station Tap when two train spotters came in, ordered beers and said in loud voices that they should get a discount as they were CAMRA members "and we spread the word about places like this." This by any measure is appalling behaviour but the first question a counsel for the prosecution would ask is: "How do you know they were CAMRA members?" Over the years I have on several occasions heard people claiming to be CAMRA members when moaning about service in a pub or at a beer festival who turn out to be either not members or who lapsed some time before. In general -- and I have more than 30 years' membership behind me -- I do not find that CAMRA members demand discounts or behave badly in pubs or other public places. The campaign does not support bad behaviour or demands for discounts. In extremis, a few members have been expelled from the organisation for bad behaviour -- and that includes a member of the National Executive.
Warming to his theme, Pete says that some CAMRA members have the power to make or break pubs. As the editor of the Good Beer Guide, I know that members take the selection of pubs for the guide with enormous seriousness, down to votes -- including postal votes -- at branch meetings. They are objective in their selections and realise they must be objective even when some publicans will be deeply disappointed when they are excluded from the guide.
(In passing I would add that I have suggested to the relevant members that the Sheffield Station Tap must be included in the next edition of the guide even if it breaches the rule that a pub or bar must sell beer of the highest quality for six months before it can be considered for inclusion.)
Pete's main complaint concerns a dinner last Thursday at the National Brewery Centre in Burton-on-Trent to celebrate the re-opening of the site and to thank those who campaigned to save it. I was present and sat on the same table as Pete. Each course of the dinner was matched by a beer chosen by brewmaster Steve Wellington, who runs the White Shield Brewery and will soon move to a new plant within the brewery centre. Pete claims that CAMRA members on the table repeatedly heckled Steve when he described the chosen beers with the demand for P2, the strong stout brewed in the White Shield Brewery. Pete says the heckling became louder and was "fucking rude". According to him, Steve Wellington was forced to go out into pouring rain to find some bottles of P2.
This is a travesty of the truth. John Arguile, a CAMRA member from Derby who has played a central role in saving the brewery centre, was sitting next to me and politely asked Steve if any P2 was available. When Steve next got up to speak some us chanted in a humorous manner "We want P2". It may have been schoolboy humour but it was not rude, fucking or otherwise. Steve then explained to us that his office was locked but he would attempt to find a key and see if any bottles of P2 were there. He did indeed go out in the pouring rain -- all praise to him -- and returned with three bottles of P2 (Pete says five but I think three), roaring with laughter as he received applause from us.
Pete then says we attempted to commandeer the bottles at our end of the table. Not true. I would not be a party to such behaviour. I poured myself a small glass and handed the bottle on -- I think to Pete himself.
All of this amounts to calumny against CAMRA. I'm not aware that Pete objected to our behaviour on the night and he would have been hard-pressed to have done so as his report does not match the actual events. I'm not aware that Steve Wellington was upset -- on the contrary, he took the demands for P2 as as the kind of genial banter that takes place at such events.
It's especially upsetting that John Arguile should be drawn in to this as he is a quiet and unassuming person who has worked so hard to save the brewery museum and deserves better than this.
By the way, the brewery centre offers a 20% discount for CAMRA members. The campaign did not ask for this. Perhaps the owners of the centre appreciate CAMRA's role in supporting and helping save the centre that celebrates the historic home of pale ale brewing.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Marston's Fast Cask spreads

Marston's new Fast Cask system for storing cask beer will be used in every Piano & Pitcher bar along with any other sites that take the brewery's new EPA brand. Fast Cask employs "yeast beads" that drop straight to the bottom of casks but allow a normal secondary fermentation to take place. The system was launched during Cask Ale Week in March. Justin Wray of Marston's said the system had been well received. "CAMRA's endorsement -- or at least a lack of opposition to it -- has been really good news for us."
As reported exlusively on, the concept allows beer to "drop bright" almost immediately, which means it can be served from upright casks in bars or pubs that do not have conventional cellars. Fast Cask removes the problem of casks being knocked and having to wait for several hours for it drop bright again.
The system is being rolled out to Pitcher & Piano sites as a programme of refurbishments for the bars is completed. "We've also had pubs in the free trade signing up for Fast Cask and these are pubs that have never had cask ale before," Wray added.
Fast cask was initially available for two beers: Marston's Pedigree and Wychwood Hobgoblin but it's now also available for Marston's EPA, which was launched on St George's Day.
"EPA is a new product and it will only be avilable using Fast Cask, whereas the other brands are also available in conventional form," Wray said. "As a result, we think it should be a lot easier to encourage trials of Fast Cask via EPA."

Mild comes storming back

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, kicks off celebrations today (1 May) for national Mild Month with research showing an increased profile for the Mild Ale beer style. In a survey of 500 real ale drinkers spread across Britain, CAMRA found that 84% have seen an increase in the number of Mild beers served in pubs and at beer festivals during the past five years. Similarly, 75% of those surveyed also noted the availability of Mild beers in pubs and brewery shops within a 30-mile radius of their home.
The aim of Mild Month is to encourage locals pubs to stock the style throughout May and to encourage trials of the traditional beer style through such initiatives as "try before you buy" with a third-of-a-pint sampling measures, Mild beer and food matching events, and Mild beer tasting sessions.
Once classified as an endangered style, there are now more than 200 Milds beer brewed in Britain, more than twice the number at the end of the 20th century. CAMRA's research shows that even a proportion of real ale drinkers are unaware of the variety available, with 41% unaware of the fact that there are more than 200 Milds brewed today.
Duncan Woodhead, CAMRA National Beer Styles Co-ordinator, says: "In the past six months alone, some of Britain's leading brewers have reverted back to calling their renowned brands a Mild. With the overall growth of the real ale sector coinciding with figures showing 50% of British drinkers have now tried real ale, there's a real opportunity for Mild to return to its former glory, when in the 1950s it was the nation's most popular beer style."
In the survey, CAMRA asked drinkers to name their best-loved Milds. The top three were Rudgate's Ruby Mild from York, which is CAMRA's current Champion Beer of Britain, Sarah Hughes of Sedgley's Dark Ruby, and West Berkshire Brewery's Magg's Magnificent Mild.
*Daniel Thwaites of Blackburn has launched Highwayman (4%) to coincide with Mild May. The beer is described as smoky and dark in colour, with a rich, plummy sweetness dervived from roasted chocolate malt.