Breweries need more bottle
Published:  14 May, 2010

The grand reopening of the National Brewery Centre must surely be cause for celebration. Setting aside the faint niggle that they should actually have called it the National Brewing Museum, the two-year hiatus of its recent closure is now over.

I’m ashamed to say I never got there before the closure, and that’s something I must put right as soon as humanly possible. It looks like a lot of fun, not least the live performers engaged to play a selection of period characters. That’s not a bad idea – perhaps at the shop we should have themed weekends where we dress up as alcohol-related characters from history. I volunteer to play the figure in Edward Munch’s “The Scream” – not strictly speaking alcohol-related, but it’s a fair depiction of how I feel these days.

Of course, nothing ever goes quite to plan. The invited guests (sadly, I didn’t make the cut) were treated to reception drinks and canapés on arrival. Nothing odd there, you might think, but there was a certain amount of brouhaha about the fact that everyone was served Champagne. At the opening of the National Brewery Centre. Does that not strike you as a little mismatched??Granted, the evening progressed to a beer and food-matching dinner that was, by all accounts, a great success. But it got the evening off to a false start for many of the great and good of the beer world.

Like it or not, Champagne is still seen as the celebratory drink of choice. From wedding toasts, to celebrating newborns, to a taste of luxury as a present, the French fizz is the default choice.

No doubt the appeal lies as much in the packaging and presentation as it does in the drink inside. There’s something about unwinding the wire cage and easing out the cork that is special – I guess it’s not the sort of thing one does every day, unless you’re very lucky. In fact, even the cheapest Champagnes have the cork-and-cage closure, so you can still indulge in the ritual even if you’ve skimped on the quality of the bubbly. A lot of Champagne that can only be described as poor-quality still gets the fancy closure and heavy bottle.

It was with this thought in mind that I looked, half-excitedly and half-sadly, at a couple of newly released beers gracing the shelves of my local supermarket. Both Marston’s and Wychwood have released super-premium version of their flagship beers, pumping up the flavour and the price in the process. I tried them in the spirit of research, and although both were clearly upper-end brand extensions (with my preference being for the Marston’s), there was something about it that left me a little flat.

It seems a shame to bother to create the beer equivalent of a cuvée prestige and package it in the same old bottle. Sure, the label was a little fancier, but aside from that, there was nothing to give it the edge. Encouragingly, both beers were priced in excess of £2, something that is getting more common, and not caused solely by duty rises and inflation.

Currently, Meantime is the only British brewery in general distribution which bottles in corked 75cl bottles, and it’s a great look – and crucially, something the beers inside the bottle deserve. Heavy wine bottles aren’t a mark of quality, but of ambition – it would be great if more brewers followed this lead.

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