Monday, 26 October 2009

Home brew

Missed in the beer blogging world, as far as I can see, were BSkyB's stellar 3Q earnings. Pretax profits rose 39.5% y/y while revenues shot to £1.38bn, boosted by the addition of 94,000 subscribers. The twitterati may be spluttering into their lattes about Rupert Murdoch's quaint belief he'll be able to make cash from online content by sticking it behind a paywall, but his son James knows his onions (even if he is, like his dad, a rightwing bastard).

Pubs, normally seen as a stable sector in a downturn, have endured terrible trading conditions in this recession. This reflects a number of changes in society, both its leisure options and attitudes to alcohol. As I've written before, with the likes of facebook making the spontaneous pint a thing of the past, that just-pop-in-for-a-brew trade is dying
(see if Steve and Mary fancy a drink, organise where to meet - the tarted up cocktail bar, the Aussie wine place or is it on with the pullovers to that pub with the ales?). We work long hours, so we flop home - these days an attractive place to be, especially with the internet, on demand TV (who needs DVD boxsets?) and an exciting wave of bottled beers available from a range of sources. To the non-beer connoisseur, the price difference is far too much to warrant going to the pub frequently.

The pub is in this recession facing unparalleled leisure competition.

Add to this the puritanical tone of the baying press, constantly howling against 'Binge Britain' and I suspect there are plenty who avoid conspicuous consumption out and about and prefer to indulge at home with the husband, wife, significant other, kids or whoever they see so little of.

In this context, £30 per month for Sky+ is a no-brainer, especially given that's almost the cost of one night out down the pub if you're eating there, too.

Which means one thing - there are too many pubs and many more need to close for the sector to be competitive and for those running them to be able to make a living. This does not mean the fight to retain rural pubs is lost. There can and should be review of planning laws that assumes a community must have a pub
as standard and CAMRA ought to more robustly market its knowledge on how locals can jointly campaign to save pubs and even club together to run one.

But the broader picture is this - for pubs to survive there need to be fewer of them and we need margins to rise, especially for real ale - a premium product sold at a ludicrous discount to megabrew swill. Prices will need to jump. Anyone who's boozed in Ireland will know where we're heading.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Roman holiday

While the two-week honeymoon my wife and I enjoyed from Rome through Umbria in September was, perhaps, a little too geographically limited to qualify on the eighteenth century Grand Tour scale of mind expansion (we didn't, after all, visit many brothels), some of the beers we enjoyed certainly did. Italy is incubating a beer culture that looks almost ready to pop out of its parochial shell.

On his blog, Jeff has waxed lyrical about the Trastevere district of Rome and its stellar pub Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà - none of which will stop me doing the same. First of all, the tiny, long corridor of an interior, with wood smothered in footie memorabilia (chiming with the establishment's nickname as 'The Football Pub') is in itself tremendously imbued with the charm of its locals, exuding warmth
and humour. On mentioning I knew Jeff a little, Manuele (pictured above, left with jesusjohn) was generous to a fault and invited his locals to regale us with anecdotes of their trip to see Jeff and experience CAMRA's GBBF a couple of years ago. To hear Romans excitedly claim, seemingly with genuine affection, 'I love Earl's Court - it's a special place' was one of the more surreal experiences of the trip, but lovely for all that.

Manuele's beer selection is first class and his sourcing of these nectars, on questioning, seemed to rely on byzantine links of friends with vans and hauliers able to grab some bottles, a keg or a cask (yes, cask) or two on their way back from other business. All a bit Smokey and the Bandit, I thought.

The mind-boggling collection of international beers was striking (BrewDog Chaos Theory on keg, Tokyo* in its bottle - not many places you'd find that here in Blighty - among many others), but the Italian offering was com

Would that I could wax lyrical about a selection, but Manuele directed me to Urtiga (4.8%) from Milan's very own Birrificio Lambrate and I dropped on that for most of the session. With a slight haze, orange-gold hue and generous head, the impact was gorgeously earthy, with herbal hops and a well-matched body of malt. A superb lesson in the art of balance and proof, if any were needed, that mid-ABV beers can deliver a distinctively pleasing experience (something I think we beer enthusiasts lose sight of all too often in the quest for novelty).

The clientele spilled into the street; young and cosmopolitan, the crowd was split between those there for the beer, those there for the football - crammed round a tiny TV right in front of the bar itself and those who just wanted a good time.

All are well-served by this terrific institution, which could teach bars the world over a thing or two.

Do watch that Smokey & the Bandit video, incidentally (link above).

Here, gratuitously, is a trailer for Andre de la Varre Jr's epic Grand Tour '70, which is described in what I can only assume is de la Varre Jr's characteristically modest tone as 'probably the most important travel adventure you've ever seen'.

I'll let you be the judge of that.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Smoking out brews at Octoberfest (sic)

While we're still clinging on to the month, it seems fitting to report back on Cambridge CAMRA's excellent Octoberfest (sic), the third in what I hope will be a long succession of such events.

Some thirty-odd real ales were on, including Milton Brewery's annual rauchbier effort. Lovely stuff.

But the real star was Olaf Schellenberg (pictured above, peering in from the right - I'm no photographer, eh?), a friend of the area who has imported German beers for more than 25 years. In addition to fest favourites from Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr and Spaten, focus turned inevitably to Bamberg's very own Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen. Olaf is keen to evangelise about this thick, gluggable, rich dark brown and powerfully smoky tincture. Served on draught, the body of the beer is certainly more viscous than from the bottle and this seems to enhance the sweetness of the malt, pleasantly balancing the smoke attack. But don't let this p
ut you off buying it in bottle - to obsess over the difference is splitting hairs**.

Dark lager Nothelfer Trunk Dunkel on draught was my prize find. Richly, decadently malty with a hint of warming spice, it's a mince pie of a beer sporting Belgian dubbel characteristics. It seems pretty rare to find over here, so when I learned local beer paradise the Cambridge Blue would be having its own Oktoberfest, I pleaded with Olaf to send them some. He graciously agreed, though in the bottle (as it was at the pub), it was quite thin and seemed to have lost some complexity vs the draught. Still very good, though.

It's to CAMRA's credit that they have foreign beers at festivals but I am particularly pleased the Cambridge branch takes this opportunity to put them centre stage. Turnout was poor this year; last year's weekend was a washout while this year (and this is something a branch official conceded)
it was both poorly advertised and scheduled. It was held 2-3 October; two weeks later and the students would all have been back and chomping at the bit.

I sincerely hope this doesn't mean the event will not run again in 2010. The first fest in 2007, correctly scheduled and well advertised, was a big success. My personal view is that CAMRA should keep its focus on cask but do much more to celebrate good beer from all countries and - yes - all dispense types. My key example is this - that CAMRA could not bring itself to showcase Taddington Brewery's superb Moravka lager, even on a special stall, just bemuses me.

So big congrats to the branch for getting the balance right. With some logistical tweaking, it'll run and run. After all, their May festival - the third largest in the country - is an absolute stormer, with a very diverse following.

** I should add the Schlenkerla Helles is terrific - no smoked malt is used at all, but as it's brewed in the same vats and kettles as the Märzen and other of their beers it has a light peaty aftertaste. Absolutely superb.

Olaf is an experienced importer and an absolute gent. Here are his contact details:
Olaf Schellenberg (U.K.) Ltd., P.O.Box 71, Perth, PH1 5YG. Tel: +44 (0)77 537 1750

Boak & Bailey - the UK's beer blogging dynamic duo - have written about Trunk here and on Bamberg and Schlenkerla here.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Dogged journalism

A clarifying post on the BrewDog website and a brief email exchange with MD James Watt throw up some interesting points re. Equity for Punks.

While I still rate the valuation too high in and of itself (it puts BrewDog at £25.56m) and the entry level rich at £230 per share, help is at hand for us paupers.

Up to four people can sign up for one share and all four would be 'eligible for the [20% off beer on the website for life] discount!' -
as I say, this is from the horse's mouth.

This makes investment a far more compelling proposition indeed and, assuming I can find willing partners - I have feelers out, an investment will come BrewDog's way.

Good job, lads.

Apologies to those bored to horrible tears by all word, deed, act, suggestion, marketing, press-baiting - indeed anything - BrewDog. Normal service will henceforth be resumed.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Dogging with bloggers...

Apologies to those who've reached this expecting hot geek-on-geek in car park action. My headline refers, of course, to Tuesday's BrewDog shindig launching Equity for Punks. Through the scheme, you can buy a share in the brewery for £230, with the capital raised to be chanelled into a Bond villain-esque new brewplant project with environmental sustainability a key feature. The plans impress.

BrewDog is arguably Britain's most exciting brewer, so I toyed seriously with signing up. And I certainly don't wish to dissuade others from doing so. The key perk is considerable, namely a 20% discount on the BrewDog website for life - effectively a guaranteed dividend in addition to the discretionary dividends they hope to pay from 2012.

But the valuation is a little crazy (£230 gets you 1 share of 10,000 being sold, with the 10,000 shares accounting for 9% - that values BrewDog at £25.56m), all the more so given the fact the shares will not be publicly listed. Those who've signed up say they're supporting the brand, while the brewery itself mentions the intangible assets (brand, essentially, but also the vision of founders James Watt and Martin Dickie) and the support of gazillionaire US booze investors Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio.

With my financial journalist's hat on (for that is the day job), I'd say if they're wedded to the valuation, they could at least have made the share offer more liquid. If the shares had been, say, £50 a pop with a 5% web discount, or £100 with a 10% discount, I suspect uptake would be higher and thus the capital raising more successful.**

Known for their brash marketing, James and Martin are admirably approachable and charming face-to-face and it was a pleasure to be introduced to them - a point also picked up by fellow blogger Woolpack Dave.

One slightly sour note - they have struck the wrong tone by employing the use of eye-candy at the party and in promo material, a point raised by Impy Malting who hits the nail on the head with her realisation the scantily-clad goth/emo girls at the launch were 'BrewDog's answer to the Bud Girl'. Ouch.

But having drunk their beer (Punk Monk, a stunning IPA made with Belgian yeast stood out), I can only salute what they're doing. The brand is terrific and I am sure they will achieve the astonishing growth they forecast.

Detractors say BrewDog's all spin and flash media savvy but the beer lives up to the hype. Given the choice of style or substance, I take both. So does BrewDog.

STOP PRESS: Impy Malting points out in the thread on her blog that BrewDog would've seen investors' cash go up in smoke courtesy of a range of fees if they'd set the entry price lower. I well believe this - banks make a huge amount of dosh for simple transactions. But it's a shame nevertheless that a way could not be found to spread the Punk ethos slightly further down the food chain.

**STOP PRESS II: James from BrewDog has commented below, linking to their rationale behind the £230 per share price tag.

I should add it was a real pleasure to meet Impy, Woolpack Dave, Pete Brown and others at the launch, all of whom were delightful.