Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Anchor Brewing Sale: implicationsforpunks?

The craft beer world witnessed a changing of the guard yesterday, as US craft legend Fritz Maytag sold his Anchor brewing and distilling businesses to The Griffin Group.

Maytag famously bought the moribund brewery while twiddling his thumbs as a post-graduate student in San Francisco in 1965, learned brewing, improved the quality of his beer and identified a new market for high-quality local beer at a time when brewing in the US was dominated by a handful of giant brewers. According to Maureen Ogle in her "Ambitious Brew", Maytag bought his initial 51% stake in the brewery from two marketing types who couldn't work out how to make money from the business. So perhaps there's some symmetry to his selling out to Griffin, an "alcoholic beverage" consultancy.

It seems the announcement of the deal was mishandled, and Griffin's press release leaked out early Monday afternoon local time, and was picked up by mainstream local media later on Monday. Nobody was in a position to answer any questions until Tuesday (the scheduled announcement day), but the deal was confirmed and principals in a position to respond to questions.

In the footnotes to the deal announcement, was a reference to BrewDog USA LLC. This company was set up to handle the brewer's US business, and is described thus in Griffin's press release from yesterday.
BrewDog PLC is UK’s leading craft beer brewery and Scotland’s largest independent brewery. The Griffin Group acquired a minority stake in BrewDog in 2009 and formed a joint venture, BrewDog USA, to further develop BrewDog’s US presence.

(We'll overlook this "UK's leading craft beer brewery" statement)
BrewDog USA LLC is to be affiliated to the new Anchor Brewers & Distillers LLC, which the new owners have established to manage the Anchor operation.

So far, so good. But what I'm wondering is, does any of this have any implications for those people who invested in the "Equity For Punks" IPO BrewDog issued last autumn? In a blog post on 22 October, James Watt had this to say:
In addition we have set up a US Company (BrewDog USA LLC) to handle sales and marketing in the US. Equity for Punks investors will also own part of this company.

I tried to find out more about US LLC incorporation requirements, and it seems that EFP investors couldn't 'own' BrewDog USA LLC, but instead would be members, since rules allow investors to participate. They would be able to take income from earnings, presumably nett of local taxes.

LLCs can act as standalone entities, enabling businesses to operate in diverse markets and industries without extending liability to non-relevant areas. However, it does seem strange that Griffin would want to pop BrewDog USA LLC under their new Anchor umbrella.

I expect their reasons for this, as well as their plans and vision for the new business, will be shared over time. Opinions around the blogosphere and on boards is split about the future for Anchor, but we'll all have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you bought an EFP share, you might want to ask BrewDog what this means to you.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Beer Sects (1): The Hipster Douchebag

Now, you might think I spend all my time despising tickers, hoarders and traders. No. Oh no. They angry up my blood at one end of the craft beer spectrum, namely the spooge end. There's another odd sub-grouping who drink at the other end, and whose existence made me curious. There it would have remained but for an event a couple of years ago.

I'm talking about "Hipsters", almost always usually paired with the pejorative, "Douchebag". Learn more here. In New York, a large enclave can be found in the emerging neighbourhood of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn.

I recall visiting NYC in Spring 2005, when a topic of conversation was the rising popularity of old-time lite beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz(1). Turned out that the NYC hipsters had turned on to their dad's beers, decided they were "ironic" and "relevant", and consequently demand was through the roof. Amusing, but so long as good beer bars weren't being swamped by these weird kids stopping me from sampling the best of American Craft, a footnote.

Fast-forward to November the same year. I was heading back to the city after a trip to Southampton Publick House on Long Island. I had spooge to share with some mates, and we agreed to meet at Barcade, then a newish bar in Williamsburg notable for its banks of retro arcade games like Frogger and Galaxian. Ironic enough to be on the Friday night HD pub crawl. The place was empty when I got there, but soon started to fill with identikit lads, all with Morrissey specs, black Peter Pan haircuts, knitwear and black drainpipe jeans. The women they were squiring were straight out of the HD catalogue. All looked the same. All sounded the same, All drinking bloody PBR. I was fascinated.

My mates and I moved on to Spuyten Duyvil, an excellent watering-hole some 20 minutes away from Barcade. A few beers, some food and chat, and around about midnight, it was time to finish off. I turned from my seated position at the bar, to see Robert Smith from the Cure in deep conversation with some girl. I shook my mate Scott by the arm to check. It wasn't, but I swear, if Robert Smith had decided to sell insurance instead of crafting melancholy guitar-pop, this guy was him. I couldn't hold it in any more, and started to laugh. The Hipster Douchebags all eyed me up. Why is that fat English guy laughing? What's so funny? Doesn't he KNOW how shit life is?

And how do I know that's what they're thinking? Because in 2008, I had to spend some time with one. I didn't think I'd find one in Park Slope, an area of Brooklyn becoming very upscale with young professional couples and their spawn. My friend Pete had another mate called Mark Bello over to demonstrate pizza-making. Mark makes sublime pizza in the best city for pizza in the world. I got there quite late due to an attack of "Split Thy Brooklyn Skull IX"(2) and messed-up weekend subway. On arrival, there were some new faces, including this very weird kid. Half my age, dressed in drainpipe trews, a buttoned-up shirt, narrow tie and yellow cardigan. Think Andy Warhol in High School. Having declined with commendable ennui, an invitation to spin pizza dough around and look silly, he then gave forth with the view that, at 23, his life was over. I couldn't help it - I'd been drinking strong ale all day. I looked at him, snorted and laughed like a drain.

Anyway, ramble over. This trip down memory lane was sparked by the following, for which I thank Tri-State beer geek legend Loren Verkovod...
More mocking toons here.

Footnote (1): I'm currently reading "Ambitious Brew", Maureen Ogle's account of the rise of US brewing. A good read if you want the backstory to the growth of A-B, Pabst etc.
Footnote (2): If you're viewing the pics of Split Thy Skull, the old guy looking like Captain Birdseye is called Jimmy. He's reputed to sell PBR around the Five Boroughs, and he was the first New Yorker I spoke to about beer. That's a whole different story...

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Spooge Breaks Out At CBC 2010

Each year, brewing's great and good (and Don Burgess) convene in a large US city and celebrate craft beer. Each city will extend a welcome to the gathering, with special events in beer bars and brewpubs. There is a jamboree feel. I remember being in Philadelphia in 2005 and catching the back end of the event, a disco at the old Independence brewpub. Pints $1.

This year, the fun took place in Chicago. As well as all the networking and imbibing, CBC features a comprehensive series of seminars covering all aspects of brewing business. This year for instance, Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River gave a talk on successful barrel-aged sour beer programmes, market research mob Neilsen presented on brand loyalty in a proliferating market, and there were discussions on connecting with the craft beer drinker and key trends.

The one that caught my eye was entitled "Keeping Demand in Front of Supply: How to Build Grassroots Excitement for Limited Release Beers". Chaired by the Godfather of Extreme Beer, Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione led a panel including the aforementioned Vinnie Cilurzo, Patrick Rue from the Bruery and Scott Vaccaro from Captain Lawrence, through a discussion which encompassed:
* Percentage of sales going to non-core beers.
* Percentage of these beers sold through distributors vs. directly from their breweries.
* Processes leading to the release of specialty beers.
* Motivation and education of distributors to care about these beers as the world of retail/wholesaler consolidation and SKU proliferation becomes more challenging.
* POS/marketing/events/strategy that best allows them to captivate and intensify the excitement for these beers.
* What role do packaging and container size play in these releases?

The composition of the panel was interesting, as it included three brewers who are making beers which are targets for the spoogebeerian community. I don't believe the Brewers Association break down figures in the craft sector by "core" and "non-core" (i.e. one-offs) production, but I'd love to see the split for smaller brewers such as Three Floyds (their 2010 Dark Lord Day occurs this Saturday coming), Captain Lawrence and brewpubs such as Portsmouth, whose 2010 Kate The Great launch caused so much ill-feeling.

What didn't appear to be up for discussion (although you'd need to be a fly on the wall to know for sure) is as interesting. Clearly, not all brewers' beers generate the same excitement. Captain Lawrence released something called Barrel Select Batch #1 last Saturday, and while the brewery was busy, it wasn't the mayhem that accompanied the release of Rosso e Marrone, which is a GABF Gold Medal Winner, acclaimed world's best beer blah blah blah.

Then there's the matter of the secondary market around the most sought-after beers. Go to ebay's US site, and browse under the breweriana>glass bottles section in collectibles. Beers from Three Floyds, Russian River, Bells, even Westvleteren, all on offer at prices in multiples of retail.

In the wake of the Kate The Great launch, I wrote to a number of US brewers to ask how they felt about this market. No-one replied, but I do wonder how somebody like Scott Vaccaro feels to see his company accused of price-gouging by raising the price of Rosso e Marrone this year, knowing that beer tickers and hoarders are gaming the system by using mules to buy multiple bottles for selling on at multiples of his retail price.

Finally, who makes this market? I suppose Dark Lord Day provides a sort of template for a brewery-based event. It targets a local community, even if that community mean to make big bucks via ebay. But, can a brewer manage this non-core market? Tickers are notoriously fickle. They tend to flutter from one brewery to the Next Big Thing. The Bruery has been on the end of it. And Firestone-Walker. And Lost Abbey. Is the movement of this annoying but financially-significant niche predictable or manageable? Is the 'grassroots' Sam Calagione refers to, a different consumer demographic than the tickers and hoarders? Or, are the brewers sensing a South Sea Bubble they'd like to manage before it bursts?

Monday, 12 April 2010

Moby Dickheads

I very much enjoyed the little heated debate between The Beer Nut and The Boy Dredge which was provoked by spooge beer. BN set forth the proposition that hard-to-find beers and brewery launches, as seen in the US mostly, were Bad For Beer. Mark, all enthusiasm and curiosity, set out a counter-argument that we could do with more of what he called Blockbuster Beers. There were some great contributions, including from Cookie. For the record, I tend to agree with Beer Nut, although I'm not sure the breweries are loving it all as much as they might.

Now, I've got some very good sources who provided me with information about some of the most recent US launches. I was going to regale you with anecdotes about the idiots who pitched up at Southampton Publick House at around midnight on one of the coldest nights of the year to queue for a couple of beers. Or the spoogebeerians who protested about the price of the Captain Lawrence 2010 Rosso e Marrone, then were seen with many more bottles than the per-person limit. All, no doubt going on eBay, or for trades.

Then, more seriously, there was the fall-out from the Kate The Great Imperial Stout launch at Portsmouth Brewing in New Hampshire, when local Beer Advocates who picked up on rumours of place-holding in the queue, stampeded and panicked the brewpub into changing their opening arrangements at very short notice and with no warning, meaning people who drove from as far away as Boston arrived to find the bottles all sold. Meantime, bottles were being pre-sold on eBay. I hear Portsmouth are thinking about a better way to handle this for next year. I'd suggest one way is to ignore greedy tickers who only want the beer to hoard or sell on.

I was going to set out some of the traders' lexicon - talk about the so-called 'White Whales', the rare beers which make tickers tremble with desire. The circle-jerkery of BIF. The hot-housing of a craft-beer niche by online groups. As Beer Nut proposed, all bad for beer.

Then, I found this.

You don't have to watch it all - you'll get the idea. I think it ought to have had a soundtrack. "Raising The Count" by Cabaret Voltaire, or some dramatic Hammer Horror music would have done. Otherwise, I leave you with one thought. If this guy loves beer, he loves it the same way Josef Fritzl loved his kids. And that isn't good.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

BITE Me...

These are tough times for pubs. Declining footfall, rising costs. Regulation and extra scrutiny from licencing authorities and representative groups. Why would anybody want to open a pub when the waters have never been so full of sharks? To open a pub that within six months is shortlisted for your CAMRA branch pub of the year is pretty good going. To be acclaimed for offering a wide range of top quality cask ales alongside the best of Belgium and Germany. To have received the benediction of members of the blogerati. All good stuff. All good messages for drinkers keen for a new experience. Gets the word out. Gives your place the feel of a Destination Pub. Can't have too many of those, even in London.

Now, suppose your pub is included on those listings sites. Good, right? They have directions from public transport, maps. Pick a postcode, do a search, bingo. They do have drawbacks, though. Some of these sites carry reviews. "One man's meat...", and all that. Then, some of them have ratings. So, good? Nope, sometimes, it's bad.

Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico has been open since August of last year, and in that short time has achieved all of the stuff I mentioned up top. I try and pop in every week or so. It's the best ale pub close(ish) to where I live. I like the pub, and I like the people running it. Call that a declaration of interest.

There seems to be something rotten occurring on one of these pub review sites, Beer In The Evening (BITE). They've removed Cask from some listings, removed over 200 reviews and rating points for the pub which they say were "fake", and, more seriously, have alleged that Cask staff were posting reviews of other pubs with low scores in order to improve their own position. I caught the end of all this a week or so ago, when Martin Hayes at Cask was posting rebuttals to these allegations at three on a Saturday morning, all apparently to no avail.

I contacted BITE for comment, and to ask how they resolve these situations. They told me that they couldn't comment on individual pubs. Fair enough, I'm just being nosy and it's none of my business. What is worrying for Cask is that they can't find out what is going on either. Martin says all emails and calls have been ignored, and reference to his pub has been expunged from any reference to the West London CAMRA shortlist. He is in the Kafkaesque position of trying to refute charges without knowing who his accusers are, or being able to put his case. In the meantime, his pub is subject to snide comments about ratings fraud on the BITE forums, and there's no way he can stop any reputational damage beyond expecting site moderators to do their jobs.

I don't know much about BITE, except that they are owned by a company which operates dating websites. They have policies with regard to offensive or hateful posts and reviews, but unless the site has robust moderation there is the opportunity for reviewers with a grudge to put the boot in. I suppose they'd say their processes work, but it seems Cask can't get a hearing. That to me is a weakness in their process.

It might be a small corner of the world of beer, but in these straitened times for pubs, having to try and find a way through this kind of crap means less time to devote to the business. I for one, am glad to have an (almost) local like Cask and will continue to patronise it. And as for pub listings sites? Bite me.

You can still find Cask on the BITE site - look up any other Pimlico area pub, and it'll be shown as a nearby pub, or search under anything.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Cask Ale Week: I Dunno, But...

Is it that much of an Event? I mean, there were lots of different things going on, but it doesn't feel like there's an Event. You know, some focal point, something that the week builds to, something that really tells people who are participating and watching, that we're celebrating something worthwhile.

I was thinking back to last year. I remember that 'launch' at the Betjeman Arms - Oz Clarke pulling a pint for Melanie Sykes to the accompaniment of the chirruping of Looney Tunes cartoon crickets. I know it's all a new thing, but I wondered last year, why in Spring? Why not fold it into the real celebration of our beer culture - GBBF?

Reading the blogosphere last August, there was a palpable feeling that something exciting was happening at Earls Court. I was at the early part of the Trade Session, and I can't ever recall seeing so many people smiling and contributing to a hugely upbeat atmosphere. That's the beauty of a meeting-place and marketplace for cask. I didn't get that sense last year for Cask Ale Week, and it was missing again this time.

I went out for a few beers on Wednesday - hit Cask (becoming a favourite), had a few at The Rake. But, there was no branding, no advertising to suggest this week was any different to any other. I enjoyed my beer - I always do. But I wasn't offering any thoughts to The Week as I imbibed.

I don't know if Cask Ale Week will prove to have legs. Seems to me it offers a period for sober reflection about all the challenges facing the beer we like and the places we drink it, among the Greene King 'mobile pubs' and 'Ale-Team' hilarity. Me? I can't wait for GBBF...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Greene King, BrewDog, To Collaborate!

Suffolk brewing giant Greene King have announced an exploratory brewing collaboration with wacky Scottish new kid on the block, BrewDog.

James Watt, in naming GK CE Rooney Anand "Honorary Emperor Penguin", said he was thrilled to be able to engage in a new project with the often-derided PLC. When asked how 'punk' this was, he drew comparisons to the legendary boy band, The Sex Pistols, comparing himself to charismatic singer John "Johnny" Rotten, while Mr. Anand was band manager Malcolm McLaren.

Is THIS Rooney Anand?

Mr Anand, dressed as the now-familiar zany penguin,momentarily removed his head to express his delight at the link-up. He said the first beer the brewers would work together on was 'Firpool Ale', a 15% gooseberry ale, aged in thousand-year old port casks recovered from a shipwreck, and then re-seeded with brett, laid down for two years and taken on the Mersey Ferry to replicate sea conditions somewhere.