The Great Beauty

A chat about the Italian craft beer scene with Giorgio Airaldi from Scurreria Beer & Bagel

 

It’s a hot, sweaty July afternoon in Genoa, (there’s something like 34 degrees, the asphalt is melting and so is my skin) when my half an hour walk in the sun finally ends up at the front step of Scurreria – Beer & Bagels.

I’ve had too many espressos already and I’m sweating all of them, pretty much instantly. The little craft beer pub now looks to me like an oasis in the desert. It won’t open until 5pm, but owner Giorgio Airaldi has kindly offered to meet me before opening time for a chat about his place and the Italian Craft Beer scene. Or Birra Artigianale, to be precise.

I figured, best to do it before starting to get pissed and forget to get notes.


The first time I met Giorgio was about two years before, when during my holiday back home a friend of mine took me to Scurreria, tired of listening to me going on about how good British beer was. I remember us drinking an awful amount of Super Tennents when I was still living in Genoa, so this was a pretty serious change in our drinking habits.

(Yes, if you’re wondering if I actually just mentioned Super Tennents, you’re not having blurry eyes: us Italians, man, we love a Super Tennents. No idea why, we just do. I guess for the same principle that makes the UK such a great importer of Fosters. My Aussie friends wouldn’t even get anywhere near it.)


I fell in love with the place straight away. Its design, a mix of wood and metal, giving both a nice, warm, welcoming feeling and the excitement of something new and experimental. When I asked Giorgio about it, he pointed out how Italy doesn’t really have a centuries old pub tradition, as Britain does, so it had to be something a bit different. So he took inspiration from Lambic Zoon in Milan, and used the same architect, to deliver that mix of tradition and innovation that makes Scurreria not just a place with really good beer, but also a really lovely nice little bar.


But most of all, the beer.

In my university years in Genoa, back in 2007 and on, when we had enough money to deviate from the classic bottle of Tennents, to be rigorously drank in the street, we used to get some “fancy” Belgian beer. Orval was my favourite. It was expensive, but so, so much worth it. There was no craft beer movement in Italy that I knew about, but back in those days I didn’t know there was such a thing as “craft beer” at all. There were though few bars with an impressive Belgian bottle selection. Those have always been the “good” beers.

But Italy’s traditional drink still is very much wine. Italians are estimated to drink about 31 litres of beer per capita (and only 6% of those litres are estimated being craft beer). Which makes me feel a bit shy as representative over here in England, when I compare it to the 67 litres per capita of the average British. I mean, there’s no competition.

Since basically everything I know about beer is what I learned in the past 5 years in the UK, I now need someone to take my hand and show me the Italian beer scene. Somehow, this scene seemed to  explode all at once the moment I left, and now I feel I’ve got a lot to catch up with.

So, the first question had to be


Why did you decide to open this place and focus it entirely on craft beer?


We [Giorgio Airaldi and co-owner Alessandro] opened Scurreria the 21 May 2015. We used to co-own a bar on the beach in Alassio;  it was a cocktail bar, as Alessandro’s background was on mixology, and the clientele was mostly composed of tourists. We had 200 cocktails on the menu, but only four beers on tap back then, and I wanted more. We decided it was time to open our craft beer place, but moving from Alassio to Genoa. Four years ago Genoa was one of the few big, prominent cities in Italy without an actual craft beer pub; a place that would focus entirely on curating an interesting, rotating beer list, both from the already established breweries and the new upcoming ones. So we did it, and we opened it not in centre of the “movida”, the streets and “piazze” were all students and young people go out to drink and party. We wanted it to be a place where to go, exactly because you want to go there. To drink beer.


What was the initial reaction?


The place was fairly busy since the very beginning. Most of our clientele are 30 to 50 year old, pretty much white collar people, and most of them were desperate for a place like this to open in Genoa. In fact, we’ve been lucky: opening in May gave us time to fix and adjust everything, since summer is the least busy period of the year, with everyone leaving the city for the beaches. Then, once Autumn kicked in, we became very, very busy!


So it was a success from the beginning: are most of your customers beer connoisseurs?


I think we have a good proportion between “beer geeks” and “normal” customers. Which is good, because bars and pubs still rely mostly on the average customer, rather than on the beer connoisseur, which most of the time “tastes” rather than “drink”. Lots of friends told us we had a tough task ahead, opening our place in an area surrounded by off license selling big brands beers for 2 euros. But the moment we opened our doors, so many people turned up. They’ve been waiting for a place like this to open for years. And then, for sure, we also created a fair amount of (craft beer) “monsters”!

As per the potential issue of the prices, we decided to price everything the same. According if you want a “piccola” or a “media” (the Italian half and pint, although in a smaller version), you’ll pay a certain fixed amount, no matter which beer style or abv you’re choosing. This way, we assure a constant rotation of the taps, and we push people to try everything at least once.


My eyes start to wonder over the 12 kegs taps, a good mix of Italian and German beers at the moment. I already had the chance to enjoy several of those beers the night before, thanks also to the clever pricing system. The slight hangover, still lingering on top of the many coffees, can’t stop my thirst to suddenly awake at the sight of one particular beer now on, one of the two cask lines: Jarl from Fyne. One of the evergreens of modern cask ale; one of my favourites. It still amazes me to find cask ale in Italy, although, as Giorgio says, there are very few Italian breweries making real ale. Giorgio has spent some years in England, and just like me he’s a big fan of cask ale. If you’re Italian and coming from many years of mainly lager drinking, the first time you try a proper, well conditioned and well poured real ale, it’s a pretty intense moment. Either you hate it or you love it. We both loved it.


At first, when we opened, the taps were almost exclusively Italian. Then we started to order some Dark Star on cask, and we started to expand our keg lines to include German beers first, then from all over Europe.

When it comes to beer styles, not having a real longstanding brewing tradition, Italian brewers had to “steal” from everywhere they could. Sometimes though, the student surpassed the teacher: now Italian breweries can produce some amazing lagers, Belgian style beers, sours and farmhouse, pales and IPAs.


And it’s about styles that I’m very interested to know more. It’s really hard to find small, independent Italian beers in the UK, especially on draft. I think the first one I had over here that blew my mind and got me to find out more about my own country’s beer scene, was a bottle of sour from Loverbeer. According to Giorgio, and according to my pretty intense drinking session from the night before (call it “research”), “Italians do it better”. 

Besides Loverbeer, for which I feel comfortable in declaring my everlasting love, there are plenty of new, amazing breweries emerging in the Italian landscape: Vento Forte is one of them. Their Session IPA on tap at the moment feels like drinking Gamma Ray again, when Beavertown was still at the beginning, and everything they’d do was just new, refreshing, and simply really, really good.

At the same time, there are lagers produced in Italy that hardly find equals in the UK (I would say with the exception of Lost and Grounded, which still produce some of the best lagers over here, in my opinion).

One of the reasons (or part of the issue) for the lack of a top quality British lager and Pilsner tradition can also be found in the lack of attention for the product at the end of the chain: Giorgio can spend a very long time pouring a pint of Pilsner, to be sure it’s served in the right way, and people don’t seem to mind having to wait in line at the bar for a bit. The same scene in a pub over here, would have most likely caused some sort of commotion, and people leaving complaining about slow service.

Weirdly the same can be said about cask beer. If you spent some time working in a pub, you know pouring a good pint of cask ale does take its time. You rush it, you ruin it. But British people, even with all their traditional politeness, don’t really like to be kept waiting at the bar.


But what I really saw in my few days immersion in the hot, sweaty Italian craft beer scene, was a freshness and enthusiasm I find harder and harder to encounter these days here in London.

Maybe because Italy’s beer is five years behind compared to the UK, and you can see it from the style mostly brewed: West Coast, bitter IPAs. Still no haze (!!).

Maybe because the wine tradition is still so strong, that most brewers approach the process as astronauts walking for the first time on Mars.

Maybe because they don’t use much Twitter.

Maybe it’s just me. 


It’s time to open the pub now, and it’s time for me to attend another interminable dinner, drink a couple of Tennents, a coffee and a couple of Amaro shots to digest.

Then back to Scurrera to work on my next Italian hangover.

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The Duke’s Head Fest 2019 – Almasty

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There are really few breweries out there that offer a perfect exemplification of craft beer better than Almasty.

Whichever idea or definition you decide to use to describe this movement, these guys from Newcastle fit in all of them, and they do it in great style – their style.

Mark Macgarry spent years travelling around the world, before deciding five years ago to finally set up his own brewery and take his chances in order to be able to “constantly change what I brewed rather than be tied to producing a core range”.

A bold decision, the first one of many others, that brought the brewery schedule to be as hectic and innovative as it can be.

We came across the brewery for the first time about three years ago.
The very first thing that excited us about Mark’s brews, was the quality and experimentation in cask beer. His strong point has always been, for us, this: whichever beer is scheduled, is then packaged both in kegs and casks.
Every month, three new different brews.
Last year, for example, when every brewery in UK was releasing at least a Brut IPA, Mark came out with his version, both on keg and cask. No one was expecting to see a Brut IPA on cask. Everyone loved it.
But most of all, if it’s hard to find a constant in a brewery that does not have a core range, we hardly ever had an Almasty that we didn’t like.
We had our favourites, sure, but every month we know we’re going to get a full pallet of delicious beer.

And when it comes to hazy and juicy beers, Mark has mastered the style.
There’s been lot of talking lately on breweries “abusing” of the hazy style, to compensate for mediocre beers.
That is not the case when it comes to Almasty. And if you think that cask ales should respect the traditional rules, we urge you to try Mark’s beers.
Where there’s passion, skills, and no fear to explore new routes, you can’t go wrong.

So the brewery is small, and totally independent.
Mark, owner and head brewer, brews different beers each month.
Everything that goes in keg, also goes into cask, making the oldest style of beer innovative, hazy, juicy.

This is what for us “craft beer” means.
It’s a great pleasure to stock Almasty beer every month, and to support them in their adventure.

Sometimes planned, sometimes right place, right time but always the constant thirst to explore.
An idea formed on a different journey and ignited by chance, this is the story that led to Almasty Brewing Co.

 

Stroke my beard and listen to electronic gamelan: the unbearable chutzpah of Brewdog and Cloudwater saving cask

The big news out there at the moment is that Cloudwater and BrewDog are coming in to help save cask beer.

Which I find particularly hilarious.

I’ll keep it short because this is not really a journalistic article citing numbers and statistics.

This is about my opinion. And some facts too. I’ve never been good with numbers and I never liked statistics. After all, “A man with his head in a hot oven and his feet in a freezer has statistically an average body temperature”.

The news is that cask beer is safe and, actually, it has never been better.

I run a small independent pub, with 8 cask lines. I almost always have a full line up, although in summer or weekdays the number might go down to 4 to 6 lines. They are all from small independent breweries.

I keep a line for a dark beer and a line for a traditional bitter. Everything else is pale, IPA, and open for experimentation.

YES, experimentation.

The hard truth in all this cask affair is that too many people have moaned about and identified the wrong issues, and ultimately, just completing missing the point:

 

There are too many pubs serving beer not at the right temperature and not in the right way.

Of course there are such pubs. Just do me a favour: simply don’t go there, and if you’re a brewer, don’t sell them your beer. Even if they’re part of a big company and they buy from you in massive quantity. Even if they’ve got a good (?) reputation because a few years ago they were great. It’s not easy to keep up with the quality standards, which is why we spend a fair amount of money to make sure the cellar is kept at the right temperature and the cask is served properly. From the moment we take the delivery to the moment we serve a pint.

If it was easy and cheap everyone would do it.

 

This *insert name of big old family brewery* is amazing!

No, it’s not. It’s trad AF, it has been brewed with the same cheap ingredients for 30 years, and most of all it doesn’t respect the modern beer scene on any aspect.

It’s the old reactionary system that, after unsuccessfully trying to crush the new, it’s sneakily trying to protect their position by corrupting the weakest ones.

I know we’re talking about beer and everyone has the right to have their own taste.

But we’re also talking about horrendous tax policies, pub monopoly, a race to the bottom in terms of prices, old patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes.

We’re feeding a monster that was destined to die years ago, and I can’t find a reason why.

I’m totally confused.

 

Cask beer is not competitive because you can’t price it as much as keg beer.

Yes, this issue it is a real issue. Cask beer should be paid the right fair amount. Just like keg beer. BUT there are many breweries out there selling their kegs for an impossible, ridiculous price. Not because they have to, but because they have to in order to be a bit more richer than the others. Or, if they’re not that good, just to spend more money in marketing.

There are other brewers that dedicate their life to the mission of making some great, innovative beers. I’m not saying they’re saints or martyrs. They don’t do it for free. They price their products an actual “fair” price, for them to pay suppliers, employees, rent and bills and live a normal life. Also you can make some really great beer without having to use the most expensive tools in the market. Apparently that is possible too, I’ve been told.

 

I don’t need BrewDog and Cloudwater to investigate my cellar temperature in order to decide I am worthy of their overpriced beer. Although I’m sure there will be many pubs fighting masochistically over that small “special” amount of casks (I swear I can’t wait to see how expensive they will be), without even realising that since Cloudwater’s decision to drop they’re real ale production, they’ve been massively dropping their keg production too. Just to be sure to maximise profits by bypassing pubs and bars (and even bottle shops) to go straight to the online direct sell. To hell with the social dimension of a pint in your local.

 

But, luckily for us, there are a few very good breweries that every month brew a different beer or constantly improve their recipes, and whatever incredible and hoppy beer they brew, they rack it in both formats, keg and cask.

Why do we constantly demand innovation and great modern flavours from keg but when it comes to cask we’re just happy to drink boring, if not disgusting, traditional British ales?

 

Why are we still paying so much money to import hops from all over the world instead of improving and breeding English hops, in a modern and better way? Only CAMRA likes those kind of hops and beer. And they’re also the ones that get very angry and disappointed when they have to pay more than 3 quid for a pint.

Maybe BrewDog/Cloudwater and CAMRA are two faces of the same coin.

Tradition is good, but everything needs to move on and improve. Otherwise the industry dies.

 

P.S. a sparkler it’s not necessary to pour a perfect pint. A sparkler, mostly, makes bad, gone off beer taste a bit less disgusting.

BOOM.

*All words are mine, apart from the amazing title, courtesy of a quite clever man.

Down and out in London

Technology is a beautiful thing.
Technology is shit, it’s the devil’s sphincter, the H bomb, the disgusting, out of place pineapple on pizza.
But, really, technology is a beautiful thing.
Technology reminded me today is my third anniversary in London.
Meaning, 3 years and a half ago I graduated from Uni, I pretended for 6 months to look for a job that was nowhere to be found anyway, failed at my attempt to become a sound engineer, and decided to pack my shit and move to London.
They said there’s always work in London.
They don’t say much of it is underpaid, over-exploited work.
But if you need to pay rent and bills, you take what you get. Long life to capitalism.
And that’s what I got for my first year. Glass collector and then bartender at the minimum wage. The place was hard work, but exciting enough for someone in his mid 20’s with still the energy to work 12 hours on a Saturday in one of the busiest pub in Camden, and still going out to then next pub/club/house at 3 in the morning.
Living the kind of life you want people to know or read about only if you end up being Keith Richards, or Carrie Fisher. Only you’re neither, and you end up being a sad parody of them, without glory or money.
The world is a funny place.
I don’t know how I got into craft beer. Or to be honest, I know how, but it’s not such an interesting story.
The way I got my job at the Duke’s Head, almost exactly 2 years ago, is quite funny though. I got my job by getting ridiculously drunk at my interview and falling off my chair.
I mean, there was more too, I’m sure there was something about me and my experience that probably helped. I suppose. But ultimately what really mattered was that I had a 4 hours job interview, started at 8pm and ended at 12am, where I got drunk as a donkey and fell off my chair, just to bounce back on my feet like nothing happened.
I most certainly didn’t expect them to get back to me the day after asking me “when can you start?”
Just one of those things that happens to work out perfectly without apparent reason, and since you can’t really find a reason for it, it’s just better to just accept it the way it is and enjoying the fact that, for once, it all went SO WELL.
Many things happened in these two years at the Dukes. I went from staff member, to supervisor, to manager in 6 months time.
Sometimes I forget how good I should feel about it, and I just feel tired, stressed or miserable. It’s bad, but it’s good too. It taught me to not take anything for granted.
To not take for granted that my bosses will always like what I do.
To not take for granted the rest of the staff will always like what I do or what I say.
To not take for granted I will always like what I do.
I get bored.
I get bored so easily sometimes I think it might be a sort of failure in my brain to process whatever or whoever happens in my life.
Craft beer happened for no reason. I wanted to get drunk and I found a better way to do that.
But ever more. I wanted to socialise, and craft beer gave me that too. The good and the bad.
If you want to know how bad was “the bad” you’ll have to wait until I turn into Keith Richards or Carrie Fisher.
For now, I can only keep on going and repeat to myself what was my mantra the moment the plane left Italy to England: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring”.

Manchester and The Marble Arch

Arriving at Manchester Piccadilly in a cloudy, grey afternoon was just like waking up in a Mike Leigh movie. All the way in the cab from the station to the ridiculously comfortable Airbnb (we managed to find), gave me the feeling of a working class city built on sweat, booze and concrete. Quite different from the show-off London I know, built on self-proclaimed artists and pretence.

Don’t get me wrong, I love London. I’m just one of those people who prefer to try to scrape through the dirt to find a diamond rather than trying to break a diamond to find…well, I don’t know, I guess even if you break a diamond you’re only going to find more diamond. Bit boring.

Either way, I usually need to get to the end of the pint to see the light and make up my mind. And at the end of a countless, shameless amount of pints, I got to fall for the grey of Manchester.

So here I am, in a city I’ve never been before, following my guides to the best pubs on the map. Of course I can’t really remember what exactly I’ve been drinking, or where, for the past two days. One of the many reasons why I might be the worst beer blogger in the World Wide Web. But then again, I’m just a humble bartender and a semi-professional alcoholic.

What I do remember though is many “modern” pubs, bars and cafés. The adjective probably doesn’t really give an idea of what I’m talking about. I can only try to put it in this way: most of the places we went to, seemed to be built on the ashes of something that never got the chance to become “ancient”, or “historical”. Manchester seemed to me
like a city that doesn’t have the time to grow old. So it was with a certain sense of gratitude and relief that I walked in, although the right word would be rolled down to, the old, familiar bar at The Marble Arch. Familiar not because I’ve been there before, but there’s always something about places like The Marble Arch that make me feel comfortable even in an unknown  environment. A weird sense of belonging to a place where people won’t stare at your funny hair, but are friendly enough to not completely ignore your presence.

The occasion was the launch of the new Dobber. I never had the chance to try the original one, but I can testify this new revisited version is pretty damn good too.
Sometimes you need to change something so that everything can stay the same.

So, while proper beer bloggers/writers were engaging in Q&A about the beer, I engaged in a tête-à-tête with it. A few Dobbers – and actually many cask pints of Pint – later, I was comfortably sitting at one of the old school tables, surrounded by fellow fairly drunk people. Staring at nothing in particular, chatting occasionally with someone. Mostly
listening.

In an odd way, there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to enter into what I call “the booze bubble”, without it feeling too odd for everyone around you.
The booze bubble, also referred to as “the beer stroke”, is something that can easily happen after spending a few days (three in my case) boozing hard: your feet go numb, your head is way too heavy on your neck, and even if you’re far from being actually drunk, your brain experiences all the symptoms of an anticipating hangover. Your mouth moves, but no words come out.
You’re done before you even start.

So I was in this bubble of numbness, and I enjoyed every bit. The Marble guys were absolute brilliant. There was no time to finish a pint, before another one was ready on the table. The atmosphere was just easy and relaxed and fun, just like I was expecting the moment I stepped into the pub. I was watching everything, smiling from my bubble. It was like sipping good beer in my own living room, with the plus of having the chance to interact with people. And, after all, isn’t this what a good pub experience should be?

I’ve never been a “home” drinker. Apart from a sporadic glass (bottle) of wine at dinner, my drinking happens entirely in pubs. More specifically, in places like The Marble Arch. Where the beer is perfectly served (sparklers!) and you don’t have to pay a ridiculous
amount of money for a pint, the place looks old and familiar, and so do the people. That place is not screaming at you, it’s just opening its arms to welcome you.

I’m gonna skip the bit where I sensibly left the pub one hour before anyone else, only to end up the day after in the brewery, not really sensibly drinking fresh beer out of the tank at 10am. But that was part of the fascination too.

Also, Jan and JK are pretty damn cool.

What else do you want?

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Going Home. Chased by the ghost of craft beer

When a few weeks ago I booked my tickets for my well deserved and very much needed holiday, what I was looking for was a massive break from my daily work-and-booze pub routine.

I wanted to find my Big Sur where I could get rid of the toxic fumes of London.
A place where Pub’s Paranoia and the Drunk Monkey on my shoulder couldn’t find me.

A place where “craft beer” sounds like a random combination of an exotic language that no one really understands and where the only hazy and juicy things on the market are fruit juices.

So, naturally, I went to Southern Italy. Where my messy, big and dysfunctional family lives.
When I left the sunny, boring desolation of my little hometown in Southern Italy, almost ten years ago, wine was still considered the national drink. Something I’ve been sipping at lunch every day since I was a child. Well, you know, we’re Italians. And there’s no way I’m going to drink Peroni or Heineken now. I mean, I’ve got a reputation, c’mon. So, you see, everything was perfectly set up for me to shut down my brain and just relax.

My flight was at the very inconvenient time of 7am. Which means, considering I had a night shift terminating at 2am, I decided I’d better spend the night at the pub and catch a bus straight to the airport at 4am.
For someone that spends a ridiculous amount of time in a pub between working and drinking hours, it becomes a sort of cathartic moment having to be there with locked doors and no one in. I might start getting seriously crazy (and I might also have many more proofs about me approaching the total mental breakdown), but after spending a considerable amount of time working in a pub, you start feeling like you exist only as an extension of the bar itself. A mythological animal, half human being, half pub.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you keep in mind to not take things too  seriously. Keeping the right distance is the key for a healthy life. And if you know how to do it, please do tell me.
But in those moments alone, late at night or early in the morning, when nothing happens and you’ve got the time to be still, in the middle of the room, you acquire a new, different sense of space, a feeling for the things that surround you, that makes the air you’re breathing  go lighter and softer through your lungs. There are no expectations to be fulfilled, no running from a table to another, no strangers walking in and acting as they own not only the place, but yourself too. If you’ve ever been drunk enough and in love with a place like this enough to  lean on the bar and press your ear against it as if to hear it breathing, then you’ll know what I mean. Everyone is capable to see the pub as a local and social institution. Feeling it as a living thing, keeper of people’s drunken dreams and stories, well, that takes few pints more. I’ve done that, and I can say so with only a little bit of embarrassment cause, let’s be honest, I’ve done far worse and more embarrassing things while drunk. Well, I’ve done worse things even being sober.  
So, with the thought in mind that that would have been my last beer for 6 days, I opened a bottle of Tu Mi Turbi I got that very night as a present. A “reconciliation present”, for a mess that I’ve actually mostly made myself. What can I say, sometimes I get good things even if I don’t really deserve them. Karma will balance out my good luck one day.

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I’m not going to describe how good that beer was. After all, this is not a blog on how a beer tastes. It’s more something that has to do with what happens around a pint. Or something like that, still not sure about it. Anyway, the beer was very good. And it gave me enough “liquid courage” to face the cold night and the long travel.

I won’t write anything about the experience of being in a full Italian flight after a sleepless night. You can imagine yourself. Clapping and everything else. Like, why do we clap when the plane lands?? Am I actually so loud everytime I open my mouth?? I DO NOT speak with that thick accent! Only, I actually DO speak with that very accent. Damn it.

The only curious detail about my flight is something that became a sort of unexpected, weird, constant for the whole trip. The haunting presence of bottles of Brewdog Punk IPA. Popping around me like mushrooms after a rainy night.
On sale on an EasyJet flight. Uhm. Nevermind. There’s no way I’m gonna find any British craft beer in my little Southern hometown.

So I closed my eyes and, in what felt as the time of a single blink, I opened them back and I was in Naples’ airport.

Walking through the stream of people down the centre of the city on my way to the train station, and getting a train back to my hometown, was a rather weird experience. I felt like I was tearing down that fictional wall between something happening on a cinema’s screen and real life. I was back home, in my personal, Italian version of Trainspotting 2.

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Naturally, old habits are hard to die, so I kissed my mum on the cheek and I went straight to the pub.
There was only a moment when I went out and realised I was wearing a Punk Ipa t-shirt, a t-shirt that I was absolutely sure I left in London…and yet I found it in my bag and I wore it without really paying much attention to it. Well, it’s just a t-shirt, it’s a casualty. It certainly didn’t slip in my bag on its own will as soon as I looked away. Cause that’d be absolutely crazy. Don’t be paranoid.

As I was expecting, no British craft beer, not even British kind of pubs. They’re a pale imitation of the real thing, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort.

They did have some nice Belgian beers in bottle though, that I really enjoyed free from the long claws of the craft beer life I momentarily left behind me in London. Apart for that t-shirt…

But it was all back to “normal” the morning after. I woke up and smiled to a sunny and warm world: definitely I’m not in London. There’s only one thing to do now. Let’s go for a pre-lunch Spritz. There’s a thing we do in South Italy, which is basically drinking and eating before lunch. So you can prepare your stomach to eat and drink more. Not sure how we make it work, but now you know why I gained a discrete amount of weight in just 6 days.

Sitting in a sunny and quiet square, enjoying a decent Spritz and eating nibbles is the kind of thing that can totally put you defence down. It’s not the booze, it’s your stressed mind releasing all sort of bullshit and surrendering to a much more pleasant dumbness of the soul.

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And it’s with this dumb body and mind that I got inside the bar to pay for my Spritz only to find myself facing a well lined up and ready to battle platoon of Brewdog Punk IPA bottles.

Do you ever have that feeling of deja-vu that creeps you out so much you just stand still, frozen, knowing that some weird shit is going on but you’re not sure what it is? Well, that’s what was going on through my sleepy brain while I was standing speechless in front of the counter.

No, this can’t be possible.

I mean, come on, this isn’t even a pub. It’s a bar. In a little, dull, godforsaken Southern Italian city.

Something inside my head clicked.

The British Craft Beer’s ghost is haunting me.
I paid and walked away, my head feeling a bit lighter than it should have been.
I only had the time to leave the sight of the bar behind the corner when my phone started ringing. Emails from work. I instinctively looked behind me, but the bar was out of sight and there was no angry bottle of Punk IPA running after me. I put my phone away and start a sort of race with myself to get back home before my paranoia.

Too bad you can’t ever run fast enough to break free from your own mind. I knew that very well, I just wasn’t expecting my merciless prison guards would have been those innocent looking, blue labelled bottles.

I went back home and made a burrito of myself wrapping my shaking body with my old duvet.
But, as in a Dante’s hellhole, there’s no rest for the sinners, and I find myself a few hours later back into another pub. Poetic justice, if you ask me.

It was only with a mild, hopeless and docile reaction that my brain registered the presence of Brewdog bottles everywhere around me. They were staring at me, with their long necks and blue dresses, pointing at me with the reflections on their smooth glass bodies. Laughing at me with their bubbling fizziness.

At the bar the owner is showing his list of beers. Mostly the list includes Belgium style beers. Which sounds familiar enough. The first time I had some really good beer was in that exact pub, when I was probably 16. Yep, no age proof needed, good old days. And what “good beer” meant to us in those days was saving some money during the week to get a bottle of Orval, or La Trappe, or Gulden Draak with some fries every Saturday night. The night would have gone on after that with some Peroni or Becks bought from a shop and drunk in the street. But that expensive tasty bottle of Orval…that was making our nights. The owner used to come to the table every time someone would ask for a very particular beer, and he would pour it for us while talking about the beer. We couldn’t understand a word and we would openly make fun of him, because we were teenagers and we wanted to show all we care was to get drunk and make fun of any authority. But, secretly, I think we all enjoyed that weird geek talking about hops and malts and fermentation times.
Now there he was,a bit older, still talking with the same passion of 12 years ago, to some random customer at the bar.

Between the two of us, four keg taps and a brand new, shiny cask handpump.
The last drop.

I interrupted his monologue dropping a total random line about craft beer with my poshest, most pretentious tone. He looked at me surprised, not sure if it was because he wasn’t expecting another “connoisseur” or because I looked like a total rude freak. What followed was a sort of fight in which we would both declare some random statement about beer to the poor group of customers, racing on who will be left with no more smart lines or interesting facts to drop to the astonished audience.

I don’t know why I engaged that challenge. I guess I was trying to make a point. I still had the bottles of Punk Ipa’s staring at me. I needed to get rid of that feeling of “there’s no escape”. Or I just wanted to let him know the times when he had lessons to teach me were long gone.

I reached the table where my sister and her friends are. When the barmaid approaches us, I order a Buxton, the others….Punk IPA. What I wasn’t expecting was the owner, my nemesis, following the barmaid with our beers to our table. He completely ignores the bottles of Punk Ipa, he grabbed the Buxton, looked at me and asked:
“Who ordered the Buxton?”

“Me”

For a moment the music stops, the lights go down and a sort of iced breeze goes through the room. Everyone is frozen in their position, like broken muppets, while our looks meet in a silent gesture of recognition.
Or this is how it would have been if it was a film.

He started to pour my beer and talk about it. I listened to him until the end, without saying anything.
“What about the Punk IPA?”
“Na, it’s a good beer, but it’s everywhere now. There’s much more out there apart from a famous branding”.

We looked at each other again.
Finally, I’m smiling.
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Let’s break out of the frame!

 

When I started this blog, I was driven by two essential needs: making a stand in the defence of cask beer and giving my random Wednesday night drunkenness an intellectual excuse.

While I was confusingly writing my thoughts and feelings about the argument, I came across a really simple, and yet, extremely blurred concept:

“What is the meaning of: “craft beer’”?

From the point of view of someone that until two years ago could, and without making any fuss at all, drink both a Budweiser and an Orval, it’s not easy to get into this debate. It might be relatively recent, but once you consider the amount of money, people and booze involved, you can easily understand it’s a tricky matter.

Well, first of all, it’s useful to make a distinction based on intents when deciding if the word following the definition “craft beer” is going to be “industry” or “movement”. Because, as often happens, the troubled waters where we’re diving have both an economic and social environment as a reason of existence.

After the recent Cloudwater “caskgate”, it became clear to everyone how the decision of dropping the production of cask beer is mostly down to the lack of decent profit of this  branch of production. Right, got it.

It has been said that you can’t blame someone for his aspiration of making profit. “Profit is not a bad thing”. Well, I’m going to try to keep my deep, profound Italian Marxism locked in a mental closet and avoid launching any “J’Accuse” to anyone or anything about this matter. But if it comes out every now and then…well, I said I’ll “try”.

Craft beer is an industry, and also a quite profitable one at the moment. Any business needs to rely on some decent profit. Starting with this simple frame, let’s find the subjects and try to draw a picture for the story.

Once upon a time there was a craft beer revolution, led by breweries such as Brewdog. They were revolutionary in many ways and they started to brew some pretty cool beer too. Suddenly the market for independent brewers started to get bigger and bigger and more profitable every year. What you need is a bit of money to get started, and some smart marketing moves. Oh, and some good beer too, obviously.

So what happens now?

Well, the big, bad, super rich companies can’t make as much money as they want anymore, so they need to get their hands on the small, good ones. The cake is there, baked and ready, but a slice won’t be enough for them. They want it all. So the big man starts to eat the small businesses, piece by piece.

There are organizations like Siba that should represent the interest of small craft breweries, but it looks like they’re spending much more time and effort in conciliating big companies demands.

So at some point in every brewery life, comes the moment to make a decision, because:

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”

And here’s the picture: we have craft breweries becoming huge, in a market still in expansion that is forcing big (“non craft”) companies to incorporate small breweries or find ways (read BEERFLEX) to use the craft beer movement in order to protect their large and unsustainable profits from the movement itself.

Which is, in the name of any economic law, ABSOLUTELY FAIR. Nothing wrong with it at all. Nothing illicit, maybe sometimes a bit morally despicable but hey, this is the market baby.

This is the craft beer industry.

You don’t change the industry, because this is how an industry works.

You change the people, you change the movement. You change and educate the social behaviour, and you do that by taking a decision. By making a stand. By spreading the word.

I don’t need to support Brewdog or Cloudwater. In fact, I don’t even need to rant about them. They’re businesses, and they make business choices in the frame of the industry. Let’s just not confuse opportunism for “honesty”.

We are the customers. But most of all, we are beer lovers. We are the movement. Ours is the choice.

When, for any reason, I end up in a big company pub (shit pub) or even in an independent pub (shit pub) that doesn’t have anything to do with the concept of “craft” in any form whatsoever, I don’t drink beer. I have my cheeky gin and tonics or my very classy bottles of Prosecco. I am shaming myself with pints of snakebite. Damn it, I’m downing shots and shots of Jagerbombs and Sambuca. But I am not expecting to find any of the breweries I love in these places. Cause this is not where they should be, not where they belong. And yet, their cans and kegs and casks are starting to pop up in some of the worst pubs you could ever walk in, and brewers might still complain about the way their beer is served.

Well, no shit Sherlock!

If you decide to get into those venues, what you achieve is not the chance to get your beer to a bigger audience. What you achieve is to sell a bigger amount of beer for a cheaper price, that will be kept and served by underpaid and untrained staff to someone that will probably forget the name of the drink 8 seconds after the transaction. He or she won’t have any capability or interested in explaining what he or she is drinking, and he or she won’t have any idea of what it means to drink a beer from a decent, well kept cellar.

What is missing is, again, the understanding of the pub experience. Not the fancy new yuppie place selling fancy craft beer. But more the old boozer selling fucking great beer. And for the real price. It amazes me that what the pub industry has taught me so far is the more fancy a place is, the more rich people want to buy cheap. In regular pubs, regular people are more open to understand the reason of a fair price for a pint.

Defending cask beer is not only a matter of principle or quality. It is, indeed, a matter of both. In defending one, you automatically guarantee the other.

And to be honest, even with all my considerable imagination skills, I can’t really figure out how someone could call himself a beer lover and at the same time take the British cask out of the equation. It’s just a bit sloppy.

So cheers to breweries like Hammerton, Siren, Tiny Rebel, Burning Sky, Magic Rock and SO MANY others, for brewing some amazing beer and giving us the chance to choose.

And cheers to us and to everyone that knows the deeper meaning of being part of a great community that doesn’t really fit in any frame.

We’re better (and drunker) than this.

Keg is the mp3, cask is the vinyl.

There has been quite a lot of talking about the Cloudwater blog post of few days ago about their decision on dropping the production of cask beer. I’ve got no claim of being an expert of any sort in the craft beer industry, but I do know a little. Mostly, I drink quite a lot.

This is just a sort of stream of consciousness from someone who loves beer and has the privilege to serve it everyday and have a glimpse of this industry from the inside.

The first thought I had is related to my obscure past as a failed sound engineer: “Keg is the mp3, cask is the vinyl”. I find the parallel quite right, and not necessary in terms of quality. I am a keg drinker as well, and I do appreciate a “cold, fizzy IPA” even more than I probably should. The symmetry of this equation find its reason in the motivated fear of losing a whole per se experience. In this case, the unique experience of a warm, complex taste given by the natural conditioning and continuing fermentation of British cask beer. Being Italian, and having moved to London right before the craft beer movement started to move its first steps in my country, I had never tasted any beer on cask. When I first got to try it, 2 years ago, I completely fell in love. It is something that simply doesn’t find any match with anything else I’ve ever tried. I’ve learn quite a lot since that first sip (and I still have to learn so much) and I realised in the eternal conflict between cask and keg beer it’s not a matter of having to choose a side where to stand. Some beer tastes better on keg, some on cask. Sometimes they’re quite the same. It’s a matter of having the possibility to choose.

The first issue brought up in the article is, of course, the cost. Sustaining the production of cask beer, as everyone who works in the industry gets to know quite soon, is not the most profitable choice in the business. It is indeed a type of beer usually sold for less than its real value; not to mention the cost of having to collect the empties. And, from a pub worker position, waiting for collection is definitely a storage issue (and I know it quite well, working in a small independent pub with a quite small cellar).

This seems to become a massive issue especially when the brewery decides to expand the production.

To me this point cannot be discussed without having a deep and honest chat about what exactly is and what exactly means craft beer today.

I understand the human desire of moving from a surviving situation to another one more safe and stable enough to guarantee some real profit.
But what I know is that, by economical law, increasing production means increasing costs. This is why, to maximise the profit, we usually assist to a consequent cut of costs of labour and costs of production in general, anywhere you can.

What I’m thinking is, after all, isn’t craft an idea of business completely opposite to industrial production?

Another issue was about the possibilities of experimenting with beer. It seems a quite popular idea that, even without considering the costs, the future of craft beer lies in kegs. All based on what the public demand is.

What is that people are asking for in terms of beer? Well, I work in a pub, so I know a little about it.

I can easily divide our customers in three categories:

  • Middle aged / old customers, who like the safe, well known taste of a bitter on cask.
  • Craft beer enthusiasts who are always looking for anything new, “weird” and possibly with a high ABV percentage, strictly on keg.
  • Regular customers who used to drink Stella and has no idea of what we are selling.

This is the easiest way to categorise beer drinkers. It is also, in my opinion, a shame and a big mistake to simplify the public’s taste in this way.

The enormous, amazing gift that the craft beer movement brought to us in terms of innovation and quality, can’t just preclude the access to good beer to a huge part of the public who wants, and after all has the right, to enjoy an “easy drinking” beer. Investing everything on research of a more elaborate, exotic and complex taste can’t just remove what is a fundamental concept in this matter: being able to offer a GOOD beer. Even a mild, not juicy, bitter.

And now let’s move to the last bit of this rant. This is something that is running through my head often, and it’s the very reason why I am writing this in the first place.

So, another assumption made in the Cloudwater post is about the potential of cans and kegs to be shipped across the ocean, creating the chance for the breweries to export their beer all over the world. Good. This is cool. But why spend money and time trying to preserve the freshness of a product so we can ship it all over the world, even knowing that the best condition to enjoy it will always be to consume it in its original environment? And this concept can be applied to any kind of drink and food. We are spending more and more money on infrastructures made mostly or only to move things and we are doing almost nothing at all to promote and preserve and defend the right of people to move. We all know and we all get how expensive is to reach an acceptable level of production to satisfy the public demand, both regional/national and international. But by making of a craft product something easy to get from anyone anywhere in the world without even having to move from our sofas, aren’t we just missing the whole point? Aren’t we just forgetting what the whole experience is? Having the chance and the curiosity to travel and try both traditional and special things where they are made in the first place? Do we really consider moving things a priority to our right and desire to explore the world and what it has to offer?

An mp3 is still a good quality and easily accessible format. But sometimes we need vinyl too, to enjoy frequencies that would otherwise get lost forever.