The news that Heineken is buying most of the tied pub estate of Punch Taverns has been written about on one hand as a great and confident nod to the future of the British pub and by by others as the return of the pre Beer Orders beer world. Is either position really the case?
Ẁith the addition of 1900 pubs to its existing 1100 or so, soon Heineken will control over 3000 pubs and will apply, I assume, their rules to their new tenants. This will allow the tenants (in theory) access to a maximum of 176 cask beers, mainly chosen from big brewers. On the contrary, one of the good things about Punch in their latter days was the ability of its tenants to buy from far and wide, mainly through SIBA, though of course, Punch did apply their mark-up to the end product invoice. This allowed access to hundreds of beers. Jeff Bell describes the process here for those interested in it. As far as I know, Star Inns and Bars (Heineken's pub arm), allow no such flexibility. Indeed their tenants in my area tell me that far from being allowed access to the whole Heineken list, there is usually a much smaller list from which they must choose and requests for access to the bigger list, imperfect though it is, are stonewalled by area managers. One must assume that is done on grounds of profit, by Heineken purchasing and selling large volumes of a small amount of brands, led of course by their wholly owned offshoot, Caledonian Brewery. It puts Star Inns and Bars tenants at a considerable disadvantage over rivals who are not so hidebound.
Now the Beer Orders have been long since revoked and funnily enough, Punch were in the process of really cleaning their act up - a process presumably approved of by Heineken, as they have stumped up £305 million to take control - but will this massive tie really be good for choice? Heineken are clearly aware of this concern and issued a statement to the London Evening Standard. Reading this rather bland and wishy washy set of "assurances" you may not exactly be reassured. Lawson Mountstevens, head of Heineken’s Star Pubs & Bars UK
estate, told the Standard: “Our plan is to keep great London pubs as
high-quality venues." He added: "Around 15% of the brands we sell in each of our existing
pubs are not owned by us, so we use regional cask-ale brewers such as
Fuller’s. I want to reassure sceptics that, subject to the deal for us
buying the Punch pubs completing, we will aim to keep up this policy of
selling a number of non-Heineken beers.”. Convinced? Me neither. A huge loss of choice will do nothing for the dog eat dog situation of over supply and may well see off quite a few brewers as markets close to them. In this respect we are indeed heading back to the closed markets pre Beer Orders. The Good Old Days? For Heineken, maybe.
Heineken's boast of maintaining choice looks much less attractive of you look at it as Heineken selling 85% of brands they own in pubs.
To save you the arithmetic Heineken are paying an average of £160,000 a pub. Their partner, Patron Capital will retain and run the 'Punch B' pubs of which there are 1,329 as well as TopCo.
Frankfurt isn't exactly known as a beer paradise. It has a few brew-pubs of no distinction and actually, in the centre at least, not that many pubs at all, though there are one or two gems. Having said that, it isn't all about beer in Germany and with E's brother in tow, we enjoyed a few days there a couple of weeks ago.
The plan was basically to visit at least two Christmas markets, a couple of churches and for me at least, to drink a bit of cider, known locally as apfelwein and a regional speciality which I've written about before. There is almost always beer at German Christmas markets, but it is usually cheap and generic and as Frankfurt is home to Binding brewery, that was the beer of availability, though we did come across the odd Henninger tap, brewed also these days, by, well, Binding. You can tell how much an area cares about its beer in various ways and one sure give-away is that where the name of the brewery isn't displayed on the tap, the "care about beer quotient" is low. That's Frankfurt. Or maybe the whole state of Hessen. If you asked what beer they had, they answered "Ordinary beer and weissbier."
Now Binding Pils isn't bad. Technically perfect and all that, but boringly forgettable. We did stumble across a couple of decent boozers though. In one, just off the main market a fairly tipsy Santa was supping beer and gluewein and conversing loudly with a group of boisterous, black and yellow bedecked Borussia Dortmund fans, there for the game against Eintracht. He was still there, around three hours later when we came back to the market outside, but very much the worse for wear and still in his red and white suit. Whatever his duties were, they had clearly fallen by the wayside. It was at this point I got a beer worth drinking. At a nearby market stall, I was offered a dark beer which was absolutely delicious. In third of a litre measures, this was lushly malty, aromatic and fruity with a good alcoholic kick which gave a warming glow as the evening chilled. A bit of an enquiry later I found out that I was drinking Carolus, Binding's Doppelbock. It was so good I had three which certainly sent me on my way rejoicing! If you are in the neck of the woods at Christmastime, seek it out.
But what of the apfelwein I hear you ask? The mecca is Apfelhaus Wagner in Sachsenhausen. I wrote about it here in 2010 and it hasn't changed a bit. We enjoyed - or rather I did - a jug of the house cider which was pretty good, though I recommend Apfelwein Dax for a sheer no nonsense cider house which also sells beer in the shape of BrauereiHoelzlein from Franconia. The food is tremendous there too, but the boisterous, friendly atmosphere is pretty much unrivalled in the area. The cider is bloody good too. Go there.
One word of warning about the state of Hessen. It isn't very pubby at all. Wiesbaden with its lovely Dom (cathedral) is rescued by its Andechs owned Ratskeller but nothing else if the market was not in operation. We called into Mainz too to visit the thousand year old and utterly entrancing Dom. A couple decent pubs there, but mainstream beer was the order of the day. Still, at least we found pubs.
Mind you, Mainz isn't in Hessen, but is the capital of the Rhineland Palatinate. Maybe that tells you something.
I chalked up three cathedrals in this visit. I recommend them all, but Frankfurt's is scarcely original due to the attentions of the RAF in 1944. the same can be said though of the entire city centre. Go to Sachsenhausen. Wiesbaden was spared the bombing and is recommended for its architecture. Mainz seemed ordinary enough but gets marks for its decent pubs and the outstanding red sandstone Dom.
One other thing. The strength of cider is not stated in the pubs. It seemed strong enough to me, but is mostly around 4.5% - 6% alcohol.
When it comes to modern day mild, plenty it seems. Many brewers of mild have changed the name of the product to something considered more appealing. One of the first I recall was Brains, whose famous mild was renamed "Dark". Others have done so including my own local brewery, JW Lees whose award winning mild (GB Mild was Champion Mild of Britain) to Brewer's Dark in an attempt to widen its appeal, alas without much success if local volumes are anything to go by. Resisting this trend though is Joseph Holt whose name resolutely and defiantly remains as "Mild". But the point remains the same, that mild is in deep decline and even Holt's have succumbed to the trend. Where it would once have been unthinkable to go into a Joey's house and find no mild, now it is more or less the norm, though as in the case of JW Lees, stubborn, loyal pockets of mild drinking remain.
Another factor which needs to be taken into account is that mild, whatever it is called, is sometimes only able to be presented in cask form because of the relative success of smooth dark beer, the volumes of which allow cask beer to be sold where it is still required and without which, there would perhaps be none at all. Smooth and cask beer in these circumstances have a somewhat symbiotic relationship, which is all to the good for us as likes a pint of mild now and then.
Now, oddly enough, this isn't a post singing the praises of mild, though readers of this blog will know I mention it now and then such as in this post. When the Landlady ran the Tavern, my local, she sold Lees Brewer's Dark as a standard beer, though sales weren't high, but our current landlord John sticks to smooth mild beer, while pushing the range of seasonals that Lees brew and, on occasion, the lesser known of Lees standard beers. This was the case last Sunday when on the bar appeared Lees's other mild, Supernova. Now this is a tweaked version of Brewer's Dark, but much fruitier and with a more complex taste profile. On the few times I see it, I buy it. It is lush. John, our beloved landlord was pushing it for all its worth and it was interesting, in a packed pub, to see so many drinking it, both young and old, women and men. Whenever I looked up from our table the pump was being cranked and it was good to see so many drinking it. I somehow doubt that if it had been "Brewer's Dark" it would have sold nearly as well. The name helped. A lot.
I believe many regular producers of mild (not all, before someone corrects me) have given up on the name "mild", but this shows that when you have a good beer, the name is attractive and you push it, mild can still sell. OK. It will never achieve the heights it once did, but a swoopable, dark, creamy, cask conditioned beer like this is low calorie, weak in alcohol and can add variety, a great drinking experience and attract itself to new customers.
Mild can sell, so don't overlook it. Two things though. An attractive name helps, but essential is that tight, creamy head. Watery, flat beer is a general abomination, but much more so when it is dark. Sparkle dark beers, push them a bit and watch them fly out. Brewers Dark is a fine beer, but publicans reading this, try Supernova and sparkle it. And readers please remember. Mild beer is for joyous gulping, not sipping.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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