Category: Beer

| Beer, Brewing, Water, Yeast

What is beer? No, seriously.

I’ve been writing about it for twenty years and drinking it for forty. But after a mind-bending dive into beer history, I’m not even sure what it is any more.

Last weekend I was in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, at the Ales Through the Ages Conference. I was honoured to be giving the keynote speech, which was titled “The Highs and Lows of Researching Beer History.” (You can see the full speech and slides if you sign up for my Patreon.)

In the speech, I questioned some of our assumptions about history. I basically took 45 minutes to say what Hilary Mantel said far more elegantly than I ever could in a couple of sentences: “History is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.”

And that record changes. As new technologies evolve and new discoveries emerge, the picture we have of the past changes: history changes. The past doesn’t change – obviously – but our understanding and knowledge of it does.

In a stroke of great fortune, these thoughts dovetailed perfectly with the opening speech of the conference proper. Travis Rupp, “The Beer Archaeologist,” spoke on the subject of “Defining Beer in the Ancient World.”

When I first started writing about beer, the consensus was that brewing began around 3000BC in Sumeria, because that’s how far the oldest evidence dated back. Within a couple of years, new carbon dating technology had pushed this back to around 7000BC. Then, in 2018, the whole ancient history of beer was rewritten once more.

Archeo-botanical evidence shows that the Natufian people of the Levant were fermenting grains 13,000 years ago, most likely to produce a drink for honouring the dead.

Does this make beer the oldest drink in the world?

Going into the conference, I’d followed the belief that mead must be older, because honey just got made in hives that hung around in forests. But Rupp completely disagrees. “It was very difficult, and very expensive, to gather enough honey to brew mead,” he says.

What about wine? Well, if we’re talking about something made from 100% grape juice, that’s pretty recent too. Wine was given a great press (so to speak) by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but before then, beer seems to have been dominant. New discoveries suggest the ancient Egyptians had commercial breweries capable of 5,000-gallon brews – way bigger than most craft breweries today.

But when we get back as far as the Natufians, we have to ask whether what they were making could technically be called beer. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’re ignoring the obsolete Middle Ages distinction between “beer” and “ale.” Hops were a very recent addition to beer across the total sweep of its history.)

I’ve always had a very simple distinction. All fermented drinks are based on sugars that yeast converts to alcohol. If those sugars come from fruit, the drink is wine (real cider is, effectively, apple wine.) If those sugars come from grains the drink is beer (which is why Japanese sake is technically rice beer rather than rice wine.) The domestication of grasses such as barley and Emmer wheat is pretty much the earliest marker for stable, permanent communities as opposed to nomadic wandering.

Ah. Says Rupp. But of the starches in the Natufian beer, only 34.2% came from grasses. The rest were a mix of starches from a wide variety of plants including lentils, tubers, leaves, even flowers. Fruit was likely added not primarily for flavour, but because the yeast on the skins would have started the fermentation.

So is this still beer?

For Rupp, it is. The key difference between the fermentable sugars in fruit and those in other plants is that the sugars in grains and tubers are stored as starch. Sugars in fruit will start fermenting as soon as yeasts can get to them. Starch needs to be modified in some way before yeasts can start to ferment. That’s why we malt grain in the brewing process, and why the evidence of Natufian brewing involves the grinding of both grains and tubers.

So for Rupp, “beer” is a drink that has been through a process we can loosely call brewing: it’s probably grain-based, but it has been mashed and heated in its production, before fermentation.

As the present changes the past, so the past changes the present. Just when you thought craft brewers had added everything imaginable to beer, let’s look forward to lentil, potato, rose and wheat beer…

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| Beer, Cask ale, Pubs, Real Ale

Six Reasons Cask Ale-Loving Publicans Should Immediately Whack the Price Up*

(*Relative to other drinks they serve)

It sounds counter-intuitive. Especially when drinkers face the prospect of losing any disposable income we may have had. But all the available market data suggests that the best way to sell more cask ale is to make it more expensive in comparison to other drinks on the bar. Here’s why, in six handy points.

1. People who already drink cask are perfectly happy to pay more

Cask drinkers have always been, on the whole, older, more upmarket and more affluent than the average beer drinker. They have a higher than average income, and spend more on average when they go out to the pub. In one survey of reasons why they drink cask, “price” scores 10th on a list of 13 options, with just 21% saying it’s important, versus 53% citing “flavour” and 39% saying it’s important that it’s “brewed locally.” In a separate study, “better value for money” comes 8th in a list of ten factors, with 25% saying it’s relevant versus 74% again claiming “flavour” is what matters. 72% of all ale drinkers say they tend to buy quality rather than quantity, compared to 44% who say they tend to be influenced by what’s on special offer.

It’s worth noting that cask ale drinkers are drinking less cask ale than they did. What are the drinking instead? Craft beer in other formats such as keg. 67% of all craft keg beer sells for north of £5 per pint, whereas over 70% of cask ale sells for less than £4 a pint.

Cask ale drinkers are telling us they care about quality more than price, and proving this by switching from cask to drinks that are far more expensive.

2. Non-cask drinkers already think – wrongly – that cask is more expensive than the fancy Mediterranean lagers they’re currently drinking. So what have you got to lose?

Get a load of this recent story from spoof news website The Daily Mash:

It’s a funny story – ignorant and badly informed, based on a premise that’s entirely false – but funny nonetheless. On average, cask ale is cheaper than any other pint on the bar apart from bog-standard cooking lager. And yet, the rapier wits at the Mash aren’t the only people who believe it’s eye-wateringly expensive.

In a survey of beer drinkers who do not drink cask ale, when asked what the barriers, are, “price” comes second in a list of 15 possible reasons, just behind “taste”, and well ahead of the clichés we all tell ourselves matter, such as the perception it’s warm (3rd), old-fashioned (6th) or flat (9th). Almost by definition, these people are already drinking beer that’s more expensive than cask ale is in reality. So putting the price up isn’t going to deter them any more than they already are. And they could afford it just fine if they had a reason to want to buy it.

But why do they think it’s so much more expensive than it really is? Partly, people assume darker beers are more expensive. Many also mistakenly believe cask is on average higher in ABV than other beers, and therefore more expensive. But the main reason, to my mind, is that outside the beer bubble, among the vast majority of drinkers and in places like the Daily Mash, people see cask ale and craft beer as synonymous. (And why shouldn’t they?) Check out this splash from a feature in the Guardian from 2019: A “craft beer enthusiast’s guide to Manchester”… illustrated with a pic of six cask ale handpumps.

If craft beer is expensive relative to other drinks (and it is) and real ale is the same as craft beer, then that’s also going to be expensive – isn’t it? Makes you wonder why the opposite is true.

In terms of price, non-drinkers of cask wrongly assume it is priced close to craft beer. You could always seek to correct this perception and point out how cheap cask is… but you’d be wrong to do so.

3. People are increasingly choosing more premium products across the board

“Premiumisation” has been one of the dominant trends in marketing for at least the past thirty years, and it’s not going away. For anyone above the poverty line, there’s a basic version of most consumer goods that’s easily affordable. As status-driven beings, we therefore actively seek out premium versions of the products that matter to us, to help us stand out and feel special. Yeah, you do.

In beer, this is why Peroni exists. The most recent example of premiumisation across the board is the performance of different beer styles as the on-trade had opened back up post-pandemic, versus their relative price. As a general rule, the more expensive something is (the blue bar) the better its volume performance when comparing 2022 with pre-pandemic 2019 (the red bar). The best performing segment in the whole of the on-trade drinks is “Mediterranean lager”, likely to be the most expensive mainstream beer on the bar, beaten only by craft. Standard lager and cask ale – the cheapest pints on the bar – are performing worse than anything else in the pub.

People are premiumising their drinks choices because they’re going to the pub less often and so need things to be a bit more special when they do go. It’s not necessarily that they WANT to spend more – but they are PREPARED to spend more rather than accept something they see as inferior.

4. This applies even – especially – during economic hard times

When money is tight, certain types of treat become more, not less, important. Premium versions of mainstream brands tend to do best during economic downtimes: “I can’t afford a nice holiday. I can’t afford a new car. Sod it, I’m going to splash out on a more expensive cut of meat/fresh orange juice/morning coffee.”

In June, CGA Strategy asked a broad range of consumers, “If your disposable income is reduced as a result of rising costs, which of the following do you plan to prioritise for spending over the next 12 months?” People were given 12 options for things they were most reluctant to cut down on, and invited to tick as many as they liked. The top answer was “visits to hospitality venues”, with 35% saying this would be important to them – double the percentage who cited entertainment packages such as Netflix.

Having said that, people still believe they will be spending less money overall on going out. But how are they planning on economising? The top answers revolve round going out less often, and drinking less when they do. Choosing cheaper, less premium versions of what they drink came second-bottom, with just 12% saying they’d consider this, just below visiting less premium outlets. More people said that the cost of living crisis will make them MORE LIKELY to choose quality/premium drinks (32%) than those who say it will make them LESS LIKELY (28%).

Economic hardship makes us more, not less, likely to choose more expensive/premium drinks.

5. Pub groups actively don’t want to sell more cask right now

So here’s a weird and slightly unsettling thing. At the beer industry seminar for which I gathered all this research, CAMRA and SIBA presented a new marketing campaign to get people to drink more cask ale. They’re seeking funding from across the industry to get it going. After the presentation, there was some grumbling from some people in the room who run groups of pubs. They protested that if the campaign were successful, it might make people drink cask ale rather than drinking other beers. Given that they were there because they are part of an industry body called Cask Matters, you might think they saw this as a good thing, not to say the whole damn point. But no: they were concerned about this possibility. Their pubs are struggling. The last thing they want just now is for people to stop drinking expensive world lager or craft beer, which pays pubs a decent margin, and start drinking more cask beer, which delivers a lower margin, instead. Therefore, with relative prices as they are, large pub groups are likely to OPPOSE any marketing activity that seeks to grow cask at the expense of other beer. We are in the ridiculous situation where companies selling cask beer – sometimes even companies that brew it – are potentially actively opposed to growing cask ale’s share of total beer.

Let’s be frank: if this remains the case, cask beer is utterly fucked outside the specialist independent pubs that make it their mission. The only possible way of changing this is to raise the price of cask beer relative to other beers on the bar.

6. Where cask is more expensive now, it actually sells more

If you still aren’t convinced, if you need one final argument, it’s this: where cask ale is more expensive on the bar currently, it actually sells more quickly. Surveying 4765 pubs across the country in 2019, CGA strategy found that in pubs where a pint of cask cost more than £3.70, it sold 32.5% more pints than in places where it cost less. Stripping out London and looking at the rest of the UK, it sold 9.5% more pints where it was selling for more than £3.45.

Now – chances are, these pubs were not just selling cask more expensively. They were probably nicer pubs charging a premium across the board. Interestingly, drinkers tend not to judge price in absolute terms. You know that in one venue, drinks generally are going to cost more than in another venue. If you’ve ever chosen to go to a nice pub instead of a nearby Wetherspoons, you know what I mean.

Across ale generally, the brands that are succeeding are the brands that are most expensive. Check out the growth in the top ten ale brands (cask and keg) between 2019 and 2022:

Beavertown Neck Oil has grown by 482% since before the pandemic – I guess not many people are too bothered by it selling out to Heineken. A substantial chunk of this growth will be due to Heineken’s powerful sales force shoving it out to pubs across the country. But even if simple distribution growth were responsible for, say, 70-80% of this growth, it’s clearly still selling like hotcakes in the pubs it’s flying into. This proves that drinkers have a thirst for a flavourful, sessionable pale ale – if it looks good on the bar, comes in a nice branded glass etc. The growth of Camden Pale makes the same point, somewhat less emphatically.

When we get to cask, the only brand in the top ten experiencing similarly strong growth is Timothy Taylor Landlord – a beer that sells into the trade at a higher price than its rivals, is less likely to do deals on price, and therefore tends to cost more at the bar.

So there are lots of contributing factors to this, and it’s not necessarily a direct correlation. But the data shows that if you’re keeping and selling cask properly, you can charge more for it – and sell more of it as a result.

The cask ale industry is currently in a pricing death spiral. Pubs are looking to buy it as cheaply as possible, and among 2000 breweries serving a shrinking market, there’s always a brewer who will undercut their rival. This is stripping value out of the market, which is why small brewers are switching to keg, publicans are often keeping cask badly, there’s not enough investment in marketing it to make it relevant to image-conscious, promiscuous drinkers, so it’s staying on the bar too long, so it tastes shit, so even die-hard cask drinkers are going “Hmm… not sure about the quality in here. Best stick with a Neck Oil just to be safe.”

Just put the fucking price up, guys.

I was a marketer long before I was a beer writer, and I still like to keep my hand in. For more marketing insight, sign up to my regular industry newsletter, or get exclusive, paywalled content via my Patreon. If you’d like to have a chat about you business specifically, drop me a line.

| Beer, Dave Wickett, Kelham Island, Thornbridge

Sheffield’s legendary Kelham Island Brewery saved from closure

Back in May, the announcement of the closure of Sheffield’s oldest brewery felt too awful to contemplate. Now, a group including Thornbridge Brewery have stepped in.

The press release says:

Kelham Island Brewery, Sheffield’s oldest independent brewery, has been saved from closure by a group from Sheffield. 

The brewery’s rescue is a collaboration between Tramlines co-founder and Sheffield venue owner James O’Hara, his brother and financial analyst Tom O’Hara, Simon Webster and Jim Harrison of renowned Thornbridge Brewery, Peter Donohoe, founder of Sheffield based creative studio Peter and Paul and Ben Rymer marketing manager from beer festival organisers, We Are Beer. 

James O’Hara, who put the group together after hearing about the brewery’s closure, said: “Kelham Island Brewery, and its flagship beer Pale Rider, are known and revered beyond Sheffield. It’s heritage that we, as a city, should be really proud of. We couldn’t let that just disappear, it means too much within the city and to the UK’s beer culture for it to become another Wikipedia entry.”

Finally, some good news.

The closure of any brewery that is run by dedicated, enthusiastic people and produces good beer is a tragedy, and there have already been too many of those post-pandemic. But Kelham Island was more than that.

When the closure was announced in May, brewery owner Ed Wickett blamed “a whirlwind of problems,” a list topped by Covid and lockdowns. They were being hit by surcharges on fueL and other utilities, and at the same time the brewery was in a dilapidated state and needed new investment. In a broken cask ale market that is indulging in a foolhardy race to the bottom on price, there was simply no margin to survive.

Ed ran the brewery for ten years almost to the day following the death of his father, Dave. He has done a great job and devoted ten years of his life to Kelham Island. But I imagine somewhere in the sadness over the closure, there was also relief.

A generation of craft beer drinkers has emerged since Dave passed away from cancer in May 2012, aged just 64. I might be wrong, but it feels like his name is not known to many these days. But he was a pioneer in Britain’s craft beer revolution. Our beer scene today would not look the same without him.

Wickett the pioneer

Kelham Island Brewery was a trailblazer. When Wickett opened it in 1990, it was the first new brewery opening in Sheffield for over a century. Everyone told him he was mad. But they’d said the same to him when he opened the Fat Cat pub ten years previously. Wickett’s favourite beer was Timothy Taylor Landlord – it’s never been out of stock in the Fat Cat. The brewery were so sceptical of a new real ale-centric pub in the centre of Sheffield’s decaying industrial district that they refused to deliver to him. So Wickett drove a van up to the brewery in Keighley and picked it up himself. When he was back a day or two later for more, they started to believe in him.

Kelham Island’s flagship was – sorry, is! – Pale Rider, a pale blonde ale with pronounced citrusy hop aromas. It won Champion Beer of Britain in 2004 (the year everyone thinks Greene King IPA won – it actually came second.) But Pale Rider’s significance was far greater than that.

Wickett was a stubborn maverick who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He acknowledged that he wasn’t always easy to work for, and there was a steady revolving door of brewers in and out of Kelham. The thing is, when they left – either fired or storming out after being unable to work with Wickett any longer – they’d often go just up the road and open their own brewery. Grudgingly or not, they still wanted to brew pale, citrusy cask ales in Sheffield’s now post-industrial heart. There was a cloud of small, independent brewers around Kelham Island years before they started spreading across the country. And that pale rider-inspired blonde ale has become Sheffield’s signature brew.

The birth of British craft beer

Exact recollections of events vary between him and some of the people he worked with, but here’s how he told the story to me.

By the early 2000s, Kelham Island was struggling to keep up with demand. One day Wickett was visiting his mate Jim Harrison, who had recently moved into the magnificent but then run-down Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire. They went past an old stable block in the grounds and Wickett (everyone called him Wickett, never Dave) joked that it would be a perfect spot for a small brewery. They talked some more, and agreed that Thornbridge Brewery could be a handy overflow for when Kelham Island needed extra capacity. Instead of hiring some seasoned old cask ale brewer, Wickett interviewed two young men just out of brewing school, Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie.

Neither was especially wedded to the Sheffield cask pale ale tradition. They were excited by new hops from America and New Zealand, which at that point had hardly been seen in Britain. Thornbridge began brewing British cask ales with American hops, used American style. Their flagship, Jaipur, went on to win just about every award possible, and Wickett ended up having to build a new brewery for Kelham Island instead. In 2007, Martin Dickie left to do some kind of start-up brewery in Scotland, and Cossi left soon after. But the Thornbridge blueprint was established.

Family saves the day

I don’t know too much about the other people involved in the consortium, but I do know Tramlines now defines Sheffield as much as the brewing tradition Wickett began. But it feels so right that Thornbridge is part of this move. Without Kelham Island, there would be no Thornbridge. Now, without Thornbridge there would be no Kelham Island. There couldn’t be a more perfect end to what started out looking like a tragic story.

Writing this has made me think a lot about the time Wickett invited me to the Fat Cat to do a talk about my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, back in 2006. I had been invited to meet Thornbridge the following day, and they were putting me up at the hall that night. As Wickett took me out to the taxi, he said, “I’m jealous of you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re going to Thornbridge.”

“But you’ve been loads of times!”

“Yeah, but you’re going for the first time. You can never get that feeling again.”

Welcome home, Wickett.

| Beer, Cask ale, Pubs, Real Ale

If you love cask ale… set it free.

It’s Cask Ale Week, and Britain’s ‘special’ beer style is in freefall. It’s time to cauterise the wound that’s bleeding out.

Last week, at the launch of Cask Ale Week, I was asked to present a summary of all the market data and research that various brewers were willing to pool and share. I learned a lot. But here’s one of the most urgent points for cask ale brewers.

The whole on-trade drinks market is still recovering from Covid (just in time to be pummelled by a cost of living crisis and the collapse of the economy). But some parts of it are suffering worse than others. Standard lager is struggling as people trade up to “premium” options such as the newly invented “Mediterranean lager” category. Still white wine is having a rough time as people – especially young people – switch to cocktails instead.

It’s not looking good for cask ale

But down there at the bottom of the table is poor old cask ale. A quarter of the volume of the market had already disappeared in the decade to 2019. And as the rest of the on-trade makes its slow and difficult way back to parity with the pre-pandemic year, cask languishes a further 25% down in volume versus three years ago. The number of pubs stocking it is down. And in the pubs where it remains, it’s selling 18% less than it used to.*

There are far too many reasons for this to fit in one blog post – same as there are far more things that could be done to alter the decline. But what’s abundantly clear is that the strategies cask ale brewers, stockists and fans have been pushing up to this point are not working. If you want cask to survive, you need to change the conversation and actions around it.

When I write stuff like this, this is usually the point where some cask die-hards chip in with the “It’s snowing outside my house therefore global warming is a myth” argument. “I know loads of great cask ale pubs,” they say. “The quality and range in them is excellent. They are busy and punters are happy. Therefore you are talking bollocks, Pete.”

The premises of this argument may be true, but they don’t lead to that conclusion. Yes, there will always be great cask ale pubs that will make a profit from selling cask ale. And the people who love cask ale will seek out those pubs and drink in them. But what percentage of all cask ale pubs are like that? And if you look at the overall figures, how awful must the other pubs be to create such nightmarish headlines overall?

Well, now we know.

Throughput is king

One of the biggest of the many issues facing cask is throughput. While some brewers disagree, the industry consensus is that once it is on the bar, a breached cask should be sold in three days. After that, the quality starts to decline. It starts with it just tasting not as good as it should – not as good as an experienced drinker knows it could be – and it ends up tasting like vinegar. In pubs that are not core cask ale pubs, you probably wouldn’t take a pint back. If you did – trust me on this – the staff, who are not trained in perfect cask ale, will say, “Well, no one else has complained” or “It’s cask, mate. It’s meant to taste like that.”

The data shows that if you’re an experienced cask drinker, you’re 39% likely to never visit the pub again. You’d tell your mates not to go there either. But the vast majority of cask drinkers only do so occasionally. And what those people do is go, “Oh, I guess I don’t like cask ale.” They blame the drink rather than the pub. They order a pint of Neck Oil (up 482% in volume since 2019 – and no, that’s not one of my frequent typos) or a Negroni (on-trade spirits up 16% since 2019) instead.

This is a huge problem, and it’s getting bigger. Brewers would love it if publicans who don’t sell a cask in three days take it off sale. But as cost pressures on the publican mount, that’s the last thing they’re going to do. Only 24% of pubs selling cask sell enough of it to guarantee a maximum three-day shelf life. If you were to just look at the peak selling time of Thursday to Sunday, that number is 54% – but that’s down from 62% since 2019.

So pubs that can’t sell cask fresh enough are actively driving people away from drinking cask. And over the course of the week, that means three out of four cask pubs are actively turning people off cask. The industry has loads of quality and training initiatives. It also has loads of passionate landlords who pride themselves on their cask ale as the sign of a good pub. But they’re not in these pubs. So why are these pubs selling cask?

The Oxford Partnership looked at flow data measuring beer going through the pumps in a sample of designed to reflect the national average. They then segmented these pubs on the basis of how quickly they sell cask ale on one axis, and how big cask ale is as a share of all the beer that pubs sells on the other axis.

The results are interesting.

If you were a sandwich maker, would you put 20 fresh sandwiches into a shop that only sells three sandwiches a day?

Adding up the bottom row, we see that 21.7% of pubs are selling more than 72 pints of cask a day on average. No throughput issues here. These 21.7% of pubs account for 42.1% of all the cask ale sold.

Whereas look at the top left boxes. 39.3% of all pubs sell less than 48 pints of cask a day. Frustratingly, this is a different measure than the 24 pints per day that needs to be sold to keep cask in good nick. But the principle still holds. They’re not selling it quickly enough, which is why nearly 40% of all pubs selling cask can only muster 13.9% of all cask volume between them.

These are the pubs where there’s maybe one handpull on, or three with two turned round for most of the week. That handpull probably serves Doom Bar or Greene King IPA, because if you’re reducing your range after lockdown, in theory it makes sense to stick to familiar brands. But this simply reinforces the dull, staid image of cask, on a bar where spirits, cocktails, craft beer and lagers like Madri all have a bigger, more colourful presence than they did three years ago. And so the cycle accelerates.

So maybe it’s time to rip cask out of those 39.3% low volume, low share pubs, or at least a good proportion of them. (This is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of anyone involved in Cask Ale Week.) An additional 13.9% volume loss might seem unbearable on top of the volume loss the market is already suffering. But you’d be cauterising the wound. You’d be getting rid of the vast majority of shit pints of cask beer that are being served every day.

You’d break the cycle of poor quality pints turning off occasional drinkers. Only serve cask in outlets where it sells enough for the quality to be decent.

Once you’ve stopped the rot, you can start the recovery. Once you can be sure that curious, younger drinkers will be served a pint that won’t put them off for life, you can feel safe giving them good reasons to try it. But that’s another story…

*All figures Oxford Partnership research, Feb-April 2022

I was a marketer long before I was a beer writer, and I still like to keep my hand in. For more marketing insight, sign up to my regular industry newsletter, or get exclusive, paywalled content via my Patreon. If you’d like to have a chat about you business specifically, drop me a line.

| Beer, Beer Marketing

The 2022 Beer and Cider Marketing Awards: Winners Revealed!

It’s been a rocky road back after four years away, but last Thursday we once again pitted brewers and cider makers of all shapes and sizes against each other to celebrate creativity on the outside of the bottle, can, glass or plastic tub.

We did the first Beer Marketing Awards in 2015, and added cider in 2017. The awards last ran in 2018. This year, in conjunction with Brew//LDN, we revived the contest. The idea for this event has always been that it is for the whole industry: a craft brewer with an idea and a social media account can compete against a multinational with a seven figure budget if the idea is good enough. Everyone has the same amount of space on a can or bottle label, or the same 280 characters on Twitter.

We had also hoped to host an event where the whole industry could come together under one roof to socialise and network. By 2018, our awards ceremony had built a strong reputation as a breath of fresh air in industry events. But in these strange and uncertain times, most of our entrants preferred an online, virtual presentation instead. So we broadcast a short announcement last Thursday, which you can view here:

Hopefully we can all get together again physically next year.

We made awards in thirteen categories, with our overall Beer and Cider Marketer of the Year chosen from those category winners. You might notice a distinct absence of cider – we only had TWO cider entries this year. I hope that changes next year. Anyway, the results were as follows.

Best Branding/Design

Gold: St Austell – Korev

This is such a big step change from where the brand was and pulls it away from the traditional cask style branding previously being used. It created a clear set of assets that have been consistently applied, and delivers a broad appeal whilst still anchoring back to the brewery’s Cornish roots with the nice line, “The coast is our compass”, combined with imagery inspired by the Cornish coastline.

Silver: The Potting Shed – Little Big BrewCo

Great approach literally applying named identities to each of their range. Although using some tried and tested visual approaches from the craft world, the result is a clean look and feel that position the product well in the market place.

Highly Commended: Asahi – Dark Star rebrand

Highly Commended: Vocation rebrand

Best Community Engagement

Gold: Brixton – The Beer Exchange

The Beer Exchange campaign promotes keeping things in the spirit of the community, wherever you are.
The brewery has created a first-of-its-kind beer “exchange,” encouraging beer lovers in New York and London to buy each other a pint from across the pond. This transatlantic brewery collab came about in June 2021, as the Harlem and Brixton Business Improvement Districts started an exciting twinning partnership to celebrate the shared heritage, culture and values of the areas. Brixton Brewery has donated all the proceeds from the exchange to Norwood & Brixton Foodbank. 

Silver: No award made.

Best Corporate Responsibility Initiative

Gold: Place of the Way – Please/Thank You

The goal of this charity is to raise awareness of mental health issues in the hospitality industry, which it did with colour and verve. They worked with no budget, collaborating with brewers who paid for production and artists’ time. Otherwise, they pitched for investment, received donations (mostly people’s time) or did the project for free. A great way to help an industry that serves us with a smile, by donating towards one-to-one therapy. They created a truly big impact with minimal resources.

Silver: Toast Ale – Companion Series

No strangers to these awards, Toast Ale’s founding mission is to create great beer while reducing food waste. This year they amplified their message by collaborating with a range of brewers to create beers using food waste to rase funds for charity partners and to send a message to world leaders in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit.

Highly Commended: Portobello – Polari

Best Digital Marketing 

Gold: No award given

Silver: Untold Agency and Budweiser Budvar “Greetings From the Republic of Beer”

The aim of this campaign was to evoke the spirit of the Czech Republic in the minds of every Budvar drinker. The results were impressive across the board, resulting in Budvar overtaking its main competitor, Pilsner Urquell, to become the most successful export lager from the Czech Republic.

Best Experiential Marketing

Gold: Asahi UK, Peroni – House of Peroni

House of Peroni has been one of the most lavish and impressive experiential brand activations for years now. In 2022 they took the concept to BST Hyde Park, elevating the festival drinks experience in a way that was easily shareable with the wider world.

Silver: Cannabrew – Head in the Clouds

Not really experiential in the way we mean it, but what’s not to love about strapping your mum to the wing of a plane with a can of your new cider stuck in her hand in order to launch the new CBD-infused drink? Mum knows best!

Best Innovation

Gold: Signature Brew – Beer Grant

Signature Brew’s founding proposition is that music and beer go hand in hand. Giving beer grants to struggling live music venues post-Covid put their money where their mouth is, did genuine good and worked well for the brand too.

Silver: Place of the Way – Please/Thank You

A great charity initiative that raised awareness around mental health in the hospitality industry. The campaign put spotlight on a very important issue. 

Best Integrated Campaign

Gold: Lucky Saint – Dry January 2022

This perfectly executed 2022 Dry January campaign was run in multiple platforms, from socials to newsletters, from on-trade to off-trade, from e-commerce to PR, and from sponsorships to events.
A great job from a team that with a single beer has helped changed the perception of the Alcohol-Free category among premium brand drinkers.

Silver: Black Sheep – Drink Cask Beer

A lovely initiative to support local pubs and real ale, with a very simple message that’s executed in a fresh, modern way in a sector that’s often seen as conservative, old-fashioned and behind the times.

Best New Launch/Start-up

Gold: Anspach & Hobday – London Black

A nitro porter aiming to provide an alternative to Guinness. There’s a sly dig at Guinness with the tagline “Some beers taste better in Dublin. London Black tastes better everywhere.”  Also, the offer to install nitro lines free of charge and take professional photos of the pubs for them to use as promo shots, are both great touches in growing relationships.

Silver: No award given.

Highly Commended: Place of the Way – Please/Thank You

Best Public Relations Campaign

Gold: Heineken – No and Low Product Placement

Used product placement for the first time in soaps to market Heineken 0.0 by placing in the viewers’ subconscious that no and low products are available and now part of the normal pub landscape. A bold new way to market alcohol to a wide audience.     

Silver: Heineken – I am the twelfth woman

Used the opportunity of Women’s Euros to create a campaign to challenge gender bias in football. They created an advert with famous faces in men’s and women’s football in the UK and created and sold a T-shirt (I am the12th Woman) with all the profit going to Women’s Football. 

Best Trade Marketing Campaign

Gold: Anspach & Hobday – London Black

Although small scale, this approach is a really great example of a mutually beneficial approach to trade support. Providing hi-res photographic assets is a great value add to maintain distribution alongside sharing that content through brand channels to add further value and create great content. 

Silver: No award given.

Highly Commended: Magic Rock – Saucery

Best Use of Merchandise/Point of Sale Material

Gold: Brixton – Tap Handles

These US craft beer-style tap handles did a great job, helping the pubs that have decided to stock their beers as well as the brand itself, by creating really strong impact.

Silver: St Austell – Korev

The Korev rebrand that begins on the bottle and pump clip extends naturally and effectively into pubs and bars.

Best Use of Sponsorship 

Gold: Asahi UK – Fuller’s London Pride x The British & Irish Lions

A sponsorship idea that genuinely links the ongoing strategy of the the brand with a core truth about the sport being sponsored. The depth in the sponsorship is great to see in terms of the content created and the use of ambassadors, and content in and around the fixtures themselves. The trade customer activity really landed how well the brand understood the tournament, celebrating not only the Lions team but also the host nation. 

Silver: None

Overcoming Adversity

Gold: Place of the Way – Please/Thank You

The judges loved how the campaign managed to engage with a consumer base without the conversation becoming too heavy.

Silver: No award given.

Grand Prix: Beer and Cider Marketer of the Year

There were three or four strong contenders, with Heineken in particular deserving a special mention for simply owning the PR category for most of the history of these awards. To take both gongs in the category in the same year is an incredible feat.

But our winner – for the second year running – is St Austell, this time for the rebrand of Korev lager. It may have won gold in best branding, but it worked well across the board: great visual presence in outlet, and some nice activation activity outside. There’s a creative idea at the heart of it. It’s bold, eye-catching, linked to a strong sense of place and to the brand itself. The result: growth that outpaces even the runaway success of the world lager category.

Think you can do better? Look out for details of next year’s awards!

I was a marketer long before I was a beer writer, and I still like to keep my hand in. For more marketing insight, sign up to my regular industry newsletter, or get exclusive, paywalled content via my Patreon. If you’d like to have a chat about you business specifically, drop me a line.

| Beer, Beer Marketing, Marketing

How to win big at the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards

Our awards are under three weeks away and entries close this week. But there’s still time for you to send in something that’s going to win a shiny gong. Yeah, you need to have done some really good work. But you also need to write a good entry. Here’s how.

Judging the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards is always an educational experience. 

Our judges are recruited from across the industry to provide a cross-section of opinions. I’m always delighted to find that when we get everyone together in a room, discussion is friendly, but robust. 

One year, we had an entry that was all about a piece of experiential marketing at a beer event. It was an installation I’d visited personally, and when we came to discuss it, I waxed lyrical about how brilliant it had been, how original and immersive it was, how professionally it had been executed, describing all the little details that made it truly special.

The rest of the judges looked at me blankly, and when I finished, one of them said gently, “Yes, Pete, but none of that is on the entry form.”

I looked again, and realised all we had actually been given was a very brief written outline of what the event entailed, with little supporting imagery. I had to concede the point. The entry didn’t win its category. 

It should have, because it was one of the most original and engaging pieces of marketing I’ve seen in recent years. But it was let down by a poor entry form. 

Conversely, I’ve judged many pub awards schemes in the past. These usually consist of written entry forms in the early rounds, followed by scheduled visits to the shortlisted pubs. There was one particular pub that I’d seen shortlisted in every competition I’d judged. Every time, I was entranced by the stories of the location, the building, the events they put on, the beer selection, the energy and enthusiasm that leapt off the page. I was desperate to visit, so much so that when it came up one more time, I offered to do the site visit myself, at my own expense. 

I went and stayed at the pub the night before my morning visit with the licensee, in one of the rooms they had to let (it really did have everything.) The service was lackadaisical to the point of rudeness. The food was awful. The beer wasn’t conditioned properly, and the whole place was shabby. When I met the licensee the following morning and they asked me if I’d come far, when I replied that I’d stayed the night before without their knowledge, the look of horror in their eyes said it all. This was a licensee far better at writing entry forms than actually running a pub.

The quality of the entry form in any awards scheme that asks you to present your case in narrative form rather than just submitting work is vital. 

I’ve been in these situations myself. I know that something like an entry form keeps getting bumped down the To-Do list until the last possible minute, and then gets rushed. 

But I also know that once you create some space, if there’s time to sit down and do it properly, you get genuine joy out of reflecting on your achievements and presenting your case to someone else. If the entry is one you genuinely believe in, it reminds you of why you do what you do.  

If you’re proud of your work, it deserves a strongly written entry. There’s a saying in advertising that nothing kills a bad product as quickly as good marketing, because you drive people to the product in droves and they quickly discover it doesn’t meet up to expectations. That’s what happened with my multi-awards nominated pub. 

But conversely, nothing kills a claim to great marketing quicker than a rushed or poorly written awards entry. So here are a few tips on avoiding a premature demise:

  • Read the form through first. There’s a shape to it. You shouldn’t be repeating yourself endlessly in each section.
  • Make time – do a really bad early draft that you can come back to and polish later. It’s always easier to edit than to start from scratch.
  • Use the space you’re given – if there’s one sentence in each section, they’re going to have to be pretty amazing sentences to make much of an impression.
  • Think of it as an argument rather than a form filling exercise. You’re not presenting information; you’re trying to convince a knowledgeable, engaged reader. Each section should support the others, building your case. By the time we’ve finished reading the form, we should be desperate to look at the work.
  • Avoid jargon. You may be being read by an expert in your discipline, or you may be being read by a brewer or publican who is very smart but doesn’t come across reach and OTS, spontaneous and promoted awareness or CAGR in their jobs.
  • When you have a draft, show it to someone outside your team, preferably someone unfamiliar with the work, and ask them if it reads in a convincing way.
  • It may sounds obvious, but please include examples of the work! If you’ve done TV or press advertising, it kind of helps if you send the ads in for people to look at. If you’ve done an event, think how best you can capture it and bring it alive. If there’s video, press coverage, captured tweets – anything – send them to us. 
  • Confidentiality – you’ll have your own internal guidelines on this. If there’s anything on the form that you don’t feel comfortable answering or are unable to answer, just explain this and give us the best indication you can. No specific details or information will be shared beyond the judges without your permission.

Entries should be submitted here. The clock is ticking. Good luck!

| Beer, Beer Marketing, Events, Marketing, The Business End

The UK Beer and Cider Marketing Awards are Back!

The awards ceremony is back after a four-year hiatus, and is happening on the trade day of BrewLDN on 6th May.

As one of the original founders and Chair of Judges for the UK Beer and Cider Marketing Awards, I’m delighted to team up with the guys at BrewLDN to bring the awards back. We’re going to be holding them in the evening of the Trade Day, at Printworks in London.

Back in 2015, when James Cuthbertson, Jo Miller and I first launched these awards, we had two specific goals in mind. 

Firstly, we wanted to create something that was relevant to the whole brewing and cider industries, from the biggest global brewer to the smallest start-up. When I first joined the industry, the best work came from those with the biggest budgets, but this simply isn’t true any more. In the four editions of the awards we ran between 2015 and 2018, we gave out our heavy, pint-shaped trophies for everything from international sponsorship campaigns to cool T-shirts. If a great Insta story or fifty quid spent on sponsoring a local bike ride showed as much creativity and effectiveness as a TV ad, it stood just as much chance as winning – if not more. 

Second, we wanted to break the mould of industry events. We know people come to big events to network. So there’s no black tie, no bloke off the national lottery making booming announcements, no rubber chicken. We’re informal, we’re businesslike and efficient with the awards presentation, and we allow as much time for mingling and chatting as we can.

My founding partners have both stepped back from the awards now, and with their blessing, I’m delighted to enter a new partnership with BrewLDN. We quickly managed to build a reputation as one of the best nights in the industry calendar and this is the perfect fit to carry that reputation forward and build on it.

Entries are now open and we have some new categories to broaden the opportunities for small and medium-sized brewers and cider-makers to get involved. So if you sell beer or cider t any scale, or work for someone who does, there’s an award for you. Entries close mid-April, so check out the website here and write your way to glory!
https://www.beermarketingawards.co.uk

| Beer

Why I’m giving up my best beers for Ukraine

Loads of people are doing what they can to help Ukraine, and we all have our reasons – from simple compassion and empathy through to personal involvement. I’m auctioning a tasting of the rarest beers from my cellar partly because of a basic desire to do something, and partly because I remember drinking beer in Kyiv and Lviv so fondly. I love these mad fuckers.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.

In 2012 – please don’t @ me for this, cider fans – I took money from Carlsberg Ukraine to go to Kyiv and help them launch their Somersby “cider”. The less said about that, the better. But after the launch event, two young Ukrainian beer bloggers hung around and insisted on taking me to the city’s best beer bars.

We had a cracking time – so good that I forgot to make any notes. My abiding memory is of a rather special bar snack – sundried fish. A selection of these sat in a case below the bar in several of the pubs we went to. They were of different sizes and all had numbers written on them in pen. These numbers were how many hryvnia each individual fish cost.

You pointed to the one you wanted, got it served with your beer, tore it apart with your bare hands, and then spent the next week trying to get the smell of dead fish off your skin.

I loved that trip, and would happily launch any number of dodgy cider-derived concoctions to repeat it.

But I didn’t have to.

The following year, the MD of Carlsberg Ukraine, which owns Lvivskie, the country’s oldest beer brand, liked my first book Man Walks into a Pub so much that he arranged for it to be translated into Ukrainian and Russian, to be given out to company employees and their favoured clients. They then invited me over to do some presentations, beer and food matching sessions and interviews.

After some events in Kyiv, I was put on a sleeper train to Lviv, about 300 miles west. Having just seen Kraftwerk at the Latitude Festival a few days before, I was deliriously excited about my own Trans-Europe Express. I was less excited when the train stopped in every single tiny station along the way, each stop accompanied by a loud lengthy PA announcement of all other stops the train was making. Despite being rocked like a ship on a stormy sea, I didn’t sleep.

Straight off the train I was whisked into a live TV interview with Lviv’s breakfast TV station. It happened to be the day after the birth of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s first child. As a Brit, everyone congratulated me on the royal birth, and the first question on the live TV interview was how I felt about it. Tired and wired, I replied that it had nothing to do with me, and I was prepared to take a DNA test to prove it. They didn’t quite know what to make of me. I’m not sure they nor I knew why I was there.

I was hooked up with a local historian who gave me a tour of Lviv’s best bars. We kicked off with a bar dedicated to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, son of Lviv, author of Venus in Furs, and the reluctant inspiration for the term “masochism”.

The statue of Masoch outside the bar is shiny from constant touching down one side. My guide urged me to put my hand in the statue’s open pocket.

Inside, you can feel his shiny bronze cock and balls.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.

My first impression of Lviv was that everyone there was obsessed by pervy sex. When you enter the Masoch bar you get whipped across the arse and snarled at by leather-clad dominatrixes. There was bondage equipment wherever we went, and even the twee chocolate shops sold chocolate karma sutras.

Next, we went to a grand apartment block, up a wide stairwell, and knocked on a door. A man in pyjamas came to the door and shouted at us for waking him up. My guide said something to him which caused him to invite us into his tiny, shabby, cramped apartment. There was a large cupboard on one wall, and my guide opened it, stepped in and invited me to follow him. It turned out to be a secret passageway into a huge ornate bar, an ironic temple to capitalism featuring vintage classic cars, and furniture made out of currency.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.

From here, we went to another residential door. This time it was opened by a man in full battle dress, pointing a rifle at us. Again, my guide gave a password, and we were ushered into what turned out to be a resistance hideout that was used last time Russia was occupying Ukraine.

In a courtyard camouflaged by combat webbing, people who hadn’t even been born during that occupation sat and drank beneath propaganda posters, guides to spotting enemy versus friendly planes, and sculptures made from parts of old military equipment.

The memory of resistance was fresh. The people I spoke to regarded Russia with a mixture of ridicule and contempt. I was vividly reminded of them at the start of this war, when the defenders of Snake Island told their invaders to go fuck themselves. This was totally in keeping with my impressions of Ukrainians.

So why was I there? Why all this hospitality? How did translating a book about the history of beer and pubs in the UK do anything to help Carlsberg sell more of a perfectly pleasant but entirely mainstream lager in a country that has little in common with Britain?

The answer is that Ukraine has more in common with Western beer drinking than I realised. My guide around Lviv told me many passages in Man Walks Into A Pub chimed with what he’d discovered about beer in his own country. Those beer bloggers had read my stuff and related to it so much that they came along to kidnap me from a corporate event and show me the good bars.

If any of those guys are still in Ukraine today, they are most likely fighting invasion once again. I wonder where and how they are. When I heard that Putin had invaded a month ago, my first thought was the resistance bar in Lviv. And I said to myself, “Oh, Vlad. This is not going to go as you planned.”

That’s why I’m auctioning the rarest beers I have. For the crazy, sex-mad fuckers I drank with a decade ago.

Place your bid in the comments on this linked post.


| Beer, Beer tasting, Events

Vintage Beer Tasting for Ukrainian Humanitarian Relief

This auction is now over. Thank you so much to everyone who bid. If you bid £175 or more per place, please e-mail me via the ‘contact’ form to sort details.

I’m delighted to announce a never-to-be-repeated beer tasting event inspired by, and in support of, the excellent work being done by Drinkers for Ukraine.

I’ve been writing about beer for twenty years, and every now and then I come into possession of a rare bottle that needs to be saved for something special.

Such as?

I never know.

I have no interest in selling them – they are to be opened and shared at some point in my life. And for seven of my rarest, most special beers, that point is now. From today, you can bid for one of five places at a tasting event to be held on 7th April in London at 7.30pm.

Happily, I’m doing this event ini association with Stephen Beaumont, who is holding a similar event in Toronto on the same day. If you’re reading this in North America, please check out Stephen’s auction too.

Here’s what I’ll be opening.

Bokke Zommersaison 2017

From the most exciting young geuze blender around at the moment, if you’re lucky enough to be in one of the five or so bars in the world that sells their beers, a bottle like this will set you back about £65. A meeting of geuze and saison, it’s one of the most sublime beers I’ve ever tasted.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale 1997 £350

You can only buy this very first Vintage Ale at auction – bids on Ebay start around £350. Over the years it has been shown to go up and open over time in term of its quality. What does it taste like at 25 years old? You could become one of the few people in the world to find out.

Thomas Hardys Ale 2003

The by-word for vintage beers. This may not be one of the true classic vintages, but it is pretty special and fiendishly hard to find.

Ratcliff Ale 1869

The ultimate in aged beers. It’s impossible to know the full 160 year history of this bottle, so I can make no guarantees that it will be pleasant to drink. If it’s a bad one, it will taste like cold Bovril. If it’s a good one, it will taste like the best Madeira you ever had. Either way, you’ll be sniffing and swirling one of approximately 30-40 bottles left in existence.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 40

Harviestoun became – I believe – the first British brewer to age beer in whisky casks, through an association with Orkney’s Highland Park. The beer aged in 12 year-old whisky casks is readily available and sublime. They experimented with older and older casks, until one year ageing beer in casks that had held whisky for 40 years. These casks fell apart as they were emptied, so this is one of the few remaining bottles of the best expression of this wonderful beer.

Goose Island Bourbon County 2018

The original brewer of whisky-aged beer created this as a celebration of their 1000th brew, giving it everything they had learned since first brewing it in the early 1990s. With near-perfect scores on beer rating websites, you can still pick it up for about $30 in the States. Here in the UK? Not really.

Samuel Adams Utopias 2005

Of all the beers that have ever claimed to be the strongest in the world, this is, for me, the one that’s the most pleasant to drink. New vintages of Utopias start at around $240. I wasn’t able to find the 2005 for sale anywhere online, but the 2012 was going at auction for around £500.

RULES FOR BIDDING

Bids must be made in the comments below and should include the bidder’s real name. At the close of bidding, the five highest bidders will be notified and be given five days in which to provide proof of donation to the ICRC Humanitarian effort . (If any bidder fails to provide such proof during the given time period, the opportunity will fall to the next highest bidder.) If there is a tie for the fifth highest bid, each of the tied bidders will be given one opportunity to increase their bid, with the highest bid securing the seat at the tasting. 

Do feel free to bid for more than one place. If you wish to do this, please state clearly how many places you are bidding for in your bid message, and we’ll divide your total bid by the number of places to see how you rank.

Bidding is open now and closes at midnight on March 31st.

BIDDING STARTS AT £100.

TASTING EVENT DETAILS

The tasting will take place in a private room in a central London pub, beginning at 7.30pm on 7th April. Full details will be disclosed to successful bidders.I