Sunday, 31 January 2010

One of Britain's greatest pubs

I had one of the most memorable days of my drinking life on Friday when I went to the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford, West Yorkshire. I was in Yorkshire for a beer talk and tasting at The Works in Sowerby Bridge and went to Castleford the following day at the invitation of landlord Dave Parker, known to all and sundry as "Tetley Dave".
Dave is a former Tetley drayman. After a number of run-ins with Enterprise Inns, owners of the Shoulder -- who at one point tried to evict him with 24 hours' notice -- Dave now owns the pub and is his own master. As well as selling vast amounts of Tetley Dark Mild and Bitter, he has beers from many Yorkshire micros. When I arrived in the pub, I was confronted by a pump clip bearing my image. The beer is called Jolly Roger and is brewed by the Great Heck Brewing Co. It's porter-style beer, creamy and luscious,just like me.
The pub,based in a wasteland of former coal mines and potteries,is a great, no-nonsense old boozer. The George Formby Society performs there every Wednesday -- how I would have loved to see them -- but Dave was persuaded to get out hus ukelele and play a few old Formby numbers.
In the course of a few riotous hours I met local TV celebrity Ian Clayton, a local historian, retired miners, workers from Thomas Fawcett's maltings and brewers from Coors of Tadcaster and Sam Smith's. The Coors man told me that Tadcaster alone brews 1.4 million barrels of Carling a year. I've never drunk it -- perhaps I'm missing something (but I suspect not). I also met a woman known as the Beer Monster who claims to have sampled 1,500 beers -- or was it 15,000? -- and Viv Nicholson, the woman who famously won a fortune on the Pools in 1961 -- worth £3 million in today's money -- and blew the lot. She lives in Castleford and drops into the Shoulder on a regular basis where everyone is happy to buy her a gin.
An amazing pub with amazing beer and people and masses of old Tetley memorabilia. If you're ever in the area, don't miss it.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Stella faces malt crisis

As a result of continuing industrial action in Belgium by workers employed by AB InBev, the brewer says it's running short of malt at the plants that produce such delights as Stella Artois and Jupiler. The workers are protesting against plans by the global giant to close plants in Belgium, with the loss of many jobs.
It will come as a surprise for beer lovers to learn that Wife Beater actually uses malt. Come on InBev, you can do better than this -- surely there's plenty of rice, maize and grits you can use.

Fuller's Vintage on special offer

My branch of Sainsbury's is selling the 2009 Fuller's Vintage Ale for £1.68 -- that's half price. There were only two bottles left and I naturally snaffled both of them. I imagine they are walking off the shelves at this price but it might be worth checking out your nearest branch to see if there are any left.
Not good for Fuller's but a wonderful bargain for beer lovers.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Magnet loses its pulling power

Heineken UK, Dutch owner of Scottish & Newcastle, has announced it will stop production of John Smith's Magnet. "What is John Smith's Magnet?" I hear you cry. The beer is so little seen that most younger beer drinkers have probably never heard of it let alone drunk it. The last time I came across it was in a pub in Southampton in 2005, a long way from Yorkshire. Not that it's been brewed in Yorkshire for some time: S&N didn't let such a low-volume beer trouble its fermenters in Tadcaster and had it brewed under licence elsewhere.
The reason given by Heineken is that the beer is now sold in only 100 outlets. That speaks volumes for the priorities of the global brewers. I can think of many brewers who would love to have a beer that was sold in 100 outlets but brewers the size of Heineken can't be bothered with such tiny volumes.
Magnet was a 4% cask beer and it was a nice drop. While it was only 2% stronger than John Smith's Bitter and had an identical recipe, it had an appealing malty and fruity character. And it has been a victim of the law of diminishing returns: a brewer doesn't promote a beer then wonders why it doesn't sell and finally cuts off the blood supply.
It makes me wonder what future such once revered cask brands as Boddington's, Draught Bass and Draught Burton Ale have. Bass once accounted for more than two million barrels a year but first Bass and now AB InBev have allowed it to wither on the hop bine. When I first drank Boddington's in Manchester in the 1970s I didn't think beer could be that good. But that fine beer has all but disappeared.
Draught Burton Ale was a such a sensational success in the late 1970s that it played a vital role in the first cask beer revival. It's the only beer produced by a national brewer to have won the Champion Beer of Britain competition. It was an Ind Coope brand brewed in Burton but when the brewery closed it moved to Tetley in Leeds and has scarcely been seen since. When the Tetley brewery closes either this year or next, I have no doubt that Burton Ale will fall into the mass grave of unloved and unpromoted beers from the past.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Frightening future for global beer

Hard on the heels of the news of AB InBev's job cuts and falling beer sales comes news of developments in brewing that could be grasped by the global producers as key ways of cutting costs.
The latest issue of Brewers' Guardian is devoted to the Brewery of the Future and is concerned about how beer can be made in a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable way. Many of its suggestions are eminently sensible: in countries threatened by drought, it's clearly vital to make the best possible use of water. The magazine also looks at the possibility of making beer in African and Asian countries from local grains such as sorghum, cassava, rice and corn when barley is difficult or impossible to grow.
But some of the steps being taken, while good for the environment, may not be good for beer or drinkers. Denmark's Harboe Brewery has launched a beer called Clim8 using 100% raw barley. The company says CO2 is saved by not malting the barley. All Very worthy, but beer traditionally is made from malted grain that contains the natural maltose that can be fermented into alcohol. Raw barley on the other hand offers starch, not sugar. It appears that the only way maltose can be extracted from the grain is for large amounts of industrial enzymes to be added during the brewing process.
In Japan, where low-malt and no-malt beers have been developed, brewers are now looking at the possibility of making beers they call "third category" -- aimed at the Third World -- from soya protein, pea and corn.
It would be the height of western impudence to tell brewers in Africa and Asia how to brew their beers. But the worry is that the global producers, who are feeling the pinch from falling sales, will look at these developments as a way of cutting costs of the beers they produce in Europe and the Americas. In recent years, the global brewers have drastically cut the time they lager or mature beers -- many international lager brands are now produced as quickly as ales -- and they may be prompted to look at the possibility of reducing costs still further by using cheaper grains.
Of course, craft brewers won't be distracted by this and will continue to use the finest raw materials for their beers. But it's a worrying thought that in a few years the lager drinker standing at the bar next to you may be drinking a global brand made from soya or peas.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Beer giant to axe European jobs

The world's biggest brewer, AB InBev, has announced it will cut around 10% of its workforce in western Europe "to reflect falling demand for beer". That should really read "falling demand for over-promoted fizzy industrial lager". The number of jobs lost will be 800 from a total European workforce of 8,000. Of the 800, 263 jobs will go in Belgium alone. Workers at the Jupiller lager factory were so enraged by the announcement of job cuts that they took two managers hostage for several hours on 8 January.
There are likely to be job cuts in Britain and Germany as well. A spokeswoman for AB InBev said consumer demand for beer had fallen consistently in recent years. She added: "Western European consumers are drinking differently and AB InBev needs the right commercial focus". She said Belgians were drinking a "more diverse range of premium beer in lower quantities."
In which case, why doesn't the producer of Budweiser and Stellar Artois get the message, fill its mash tuns and coppers with good ingredients and produce beers with aroma and flavour? Could work a treat. The group's sales in Belgium fell by 2% in the first nine months of 2009.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Czech beer feels impact of 'free market'

When the Czech Republic enthusiastically joined the European Union it didn't expect its world-famous beer Pilsner Urquell -- the original Pilsner -- to be hammered by price cutting in neighbouring Germany. As a result of cross-border trading, visitors to some Czech stores and restaurants find bottles of Pilsner Urquell bearing German labels. This is the result of lower wholesale prices in Germany encouraging some Czech companies to re-import the beer in order to boost profits.
The price of Pilsner Urquell has been rising in the Czech Republic for several years. The suggested retail price in 2000 was 14.6 Crowns and this had risen by 2009 to 19.9 Crowns. Jiri Maracek of the Pilsen brewery said: "There's no way we can dictate retail prices. The recommended price in Germany is 75 cents, which is roughly 20 Crowns."
That makes the German price equivalent to the Czech price but it doesn't take into account the fact that special promotions in Germany can lead to drastically lower prices, which are the main reason for re-importing the beer from Germany. Value added tax is lower in Germany than the Czech Republic and individuals can import up to 100 litres of beer without having to declare it to to Customs.
According to data from the Czech Statistical Office, the value of all beer re-imported from Germany was 62 million Crowns in 2009.

Magazine calls for re-think on 'binge culture'

In an article in the Spectator magazine (30 December) Leah McLaren says much of the medical profession's concern with alcohol misuse is over-hyped and fails to understand the benefits of moderate drinking. McLaren points out that a £100 million campaign run by the Drinkaware Trust is funded, among others, by Tesco and Waitrose, and that such suggestions as serving water at dinner parties, starting the day with a brisk walk and eating lots of bananas will have no impact on serious alcoholics.
McClaren points out that the overwhelming majority of the British drink sensibly and moderately and that so-called "dangerous levels" of consumption in Britain would be considered the norm in France and most of Europe.
McClaren points to the bewildering change of attitudes in the medical profession. Pregnant women used to be encouraged to take a moderate amount of alcohol -- Guinness, rich in iron, was singled out in this respect -- but now they are told to avoid alcohol entirely. Research shows, McClaren says, that regular moderate drinking is good for health, especially the heart: moderate drinkers have fewer heart problems than total abstainers.
The article quotes Professor David Hanson, a sociologist at New York State University and an expert on the sociology of drinks, who says the British government's statistics on unhealthy drinking are wildly exaggerated. "There's this idea that almsot any alcohol is bad," Hanson adds. "You've got this idea that alcohol is poison and that we need to reduce consumption and that will solve all our social problems. That simply doesn't bear out historically. In the U.S., for example, Prohibition actually introduced the practice of heavy drinking by making liquor an illegal substance."
McClaren points to the cultural benefits of drink. "The pub is Britain's finest institution. The death of the pub leads to young people going to nightclubs. The local pub might well be the government's best weapon when it comes to getting young people to 'drink safe' or 'know their limits'."