This week Good Food Revolution hooks up with our old pal UK Master Brewer Alex Barlow. It was way back in early 2012 that we last saw Alex, and so it was a real delight to catch up with him again and find out what he has been busying himself with at All Beer.
Good Food Revolution: So Alex, it’s been quite some time since we have seen you on these shores. What have you been up to?
Alex Barlow: How long have you got Jamie? Well, my time has been split between earning projects and development projects. The earning projects are mostly consultancy on start-up breweries, and have included a few in the UK, one in Turkey and one in India. Added to that I’ve given and ALL BEER makeover to the three courses offered by The Beer Academy (http://www.beeracademy.co.uk) and become their Director of Training and Chief Sommelier Examiner.
My development projects are for Sentinel Brewing Co., a production brewery, tap room and restaurant with mezzanine meeting/ presentation space in central Sheffield, which I hope to open in Spring 2016 and a new website and App for ALL BEER Finder, which is what brought us to this point.
GFR: And what is happening in the world of brewing in the UK right now?
AB: It’s buzzing. While the volume of beer sold overall is flat, or in marginal decline with big brewers brand volume slipping, there is an explosion of craft and artisan breweries, currently around 1500, which gives us more per head of population that anywhere in the World. The level of innovation is superb, taking a feed from the US as well as re-interpretation of traditional UK and Continental styles.
GFR: There appears to have been an explosion in the craft brewing scene since I left some 20 years ago. What are your thoughts on how that came about and where it stands today?
AB: Indeed, there has. There were a number of contributory factors – the growth in popularity of cask beer thanks to CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and dissatisfaction with increasingly bland lager and ‘cream’ ales helped by duty rebates for smaller brewers. The cost of entry for those brewing cask beer was pretty low too. Strangely it seems we have gone full circle and there are start-ups now who only brew keg lager and ales and don’t touch cask.
GFR: How do you feel about some of those more EXTREME breweries? Brew Dog comes to mind… to an outside observer it looks like a hell of a lot of style over substance, but I could be wrong here.
AB: Oh, there’s plenty of substance, with some pretty strong beers. I genuinely like some of their beers. Of course, you can have as much style and provocative marketing, shout as loud as you like, if the beer is no good there’s a limit to how popular it can get. They’re doing alright, and of course their ‘small’ is true relative to the AB-Inbev and SAB monolith.
GFR: And how are the old stalwarts of the UK brewing scene holding out in this new environment?
AB: If by ‘old stalwarts’ you mean the long-established family brewers, most of them are doing OK, though they have had to adapt and reinvent themselves a little to keep up. Thwaites sold their big brands to Marstons and became a small craft brewery with a pub and hotel chain, Robinsons brewed a beer with Iron Maiden which became the best-seller, others state with varying degrees of confidence that they “have always been craft brewers”. You pay your money and take your choice.
GFR: I see that Guinness recently released an American Blonde Lager over here, perhaps thinking to diversify their portfolio (although didn’t they do that with Harp?)… and quite frankly, it’s utter, utter pish. Have you had a taste?… and why do you think they would bother with such a thing?
AB: I’ve not had a taste, though I’ll not be in a rush with your ‘recommendation’. The rise of craft beers threatens all the big established brands in the mature markets and many are losing share. My guess is that they realised that the lager is more in their comfort zone than launching an IPA, they have tried it before in other markets, though without much success.
GFR: So you have been working on the ALL BEER app recently, initiating a Kickstarter project to find funding. Tell us a little more about that? What makes your app so special?
AB: Any App that relies on information provision can only be as good as the information in it’s database. We believe we have the most detailed flavour evaluations, with over 55 data points for each beer. That means the App user can access that info from whatever angle they want, whatever features interest them. It could be flavour characteristics, beer style, colour, ABV, flavour intensity, balance, food match even pack format and that’s just for starters. Yet we will be making the most common ‘QuickSearch’ features available using simple sliders to make it really intuitive. You shape the beer that interests you and we’ll find a beer that matches.
GFR: Have you seen the Vivino wine app? I have to say that I think that is a superb app for consumers, maybe a little less for trade. I’d think that there would be quite a few elements from that you could borrow?
AB: I’ve seen it, though not used it. There are some nice features there that we plan to bring in like adding in personal preferences, your own notes and sharing favourites or recommendations with friends.
GFR: And where can people go to find out more and back the project?
AB: We’re on with Kickstarter until 4th December, so don’t delay. The link is here. We really want to get this app out there and continue to build the database, as users will be able to suggest beers for us to evaluate.
GFR: Any plans to make it over to Canada anytime soon? When will we see another collaboration with our great friends at Beau’s? That Mates With Dates brew you make was stellar!
AB: Well thank you. I loved working with Beau’s on ‘Mates’ and would definitely love to collaborate with them again – but I owe them one when Sentinel Brewing Co. opens. I’m really keen on making it over to Toronto for ‘Cask Days’. I love what Ralph does and would love to attend, maybe bringing some Sentinel beers over, who knows?
GFR: Thanks for your time Alex, and best of luck with the app. I’ll look forward to seeing the final project!
AB: So do I, thanks Jamie. Cheers!