Category: Beer

| Beer, Beer Writing, British Guild of Beer Writers, Writing

Write (or tweet, or Instagram, or podcast) about beer? If so, what can we do to help?

Calling fellow beer communicators – what, if anything, would you like the British Guild of Beer Writers to be doing?

 

Like, for instance, should we change this logo, or does it still work?

 

I’ve sent a version of this post by email to all Guild members this morning. Now I’m posting it here to reach people who communicate about beer who may not be members of the Guild.

Last month I was elected Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, succeeding Tim Hampson who steps down after twelve very successful years during which he dragged the Guild into the twenty-first century, overseeing a growth in membership to record levels, a significant improvement in what the Guild offers its members, and a transformation in how fun and successful events such as the annual dinner and summer party are. 
 
I have some big shoes to fill.

We say it an awful lot, but twenty years after starting work on my first book I really believe it: this is the best time there’s ever been to be drinking and writing about beer. 
 
But at the same time, there’s arguably never been a worse time in recent memory for people seeking to make a living from writing. Print titles are struggling, and word rates and book advances are going down. For those of us who spend most of our time doing this, I doubt there’s a single one of us who hasn’t been asked to do what we do for free, or rather, for that precious currency, ‘exposure’. Of course, if you’re doing this as a hobby, maybe that’s OK – it’s easier than ever to get your thoughts, opinions and stories in front of people if you’re not expecting anything in return. And the Guild must represent your views too.    
 
The nature of beer communication is evolving so rapidly I doubt there’s a single one of us who can keep track of the full scope of what we all do and how we do it. 
 
The Guild exists to help its membership communicate about beer. To do that well, your board needs to know what you want from us. We’re working on loads of different projects and over recent years the Guild has greatly expanded the services it offers members. 
 
But there’s more that we could be doing. To work out what that should be, I’d like to make the board a bit more transparent and encourage you to engage with us more.  
 
The board meets approximately once every two months. We’ll post the dates of these meetings well in advance, so that if there’s anything you would like bringing up or would like discussing at a board meeting we can make that happen. 
 
Pretty soon we’ll be setting up a ‘members only’ section. of the Guild website where, if you’re interested, you’ll be able to see key documents such as minutes of board meetings. 
 
We’re also considering having meetings in different parts of the country. This would mean an increase in expenses, but if members outside London would be interested in meeting and chatting to the board where you’re based then that may be a good investment. (If that doesn’t appeal to anyone, we’ll save the money!)
 
And I’d like to ask you now: if you have any thoughts, ideas, opinions, inspiration, complaints, concerns, or bounteous praise (especially that last one) about the Guild and how the board is running it, please share them with me below. Anything I can deal with myself, I will. Anything that needs taking to a board meeting, I’ll make sure it’s on the agenda.
 
If you’re based in the UK and you communicate about beer but you’ve decided for whatever reason that you don’t want to be a member of the Guild, I’d love to hear if there’s anything we could be doing that would make you consider (re)joining. Should we be doing more to represent podcasters? Do you want to see more training? Do you want us to organise brewery visits? Could or should we be doing more to improve access to brewers? I’m open to all suggestions.

If you can make it next week, I look forward to sharing a pint with you there.
 
Cheers
 
Pete

| Beer, CAMRA, Cask ale

What should CAMRA do now to save cask ale – and itself?

CAMRA members who voted against a motion to extend the remit of the organisation think they did so to preserve cask ale. In reality, they’re killing  it. 

On Saturday, the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA’s) Revitalisation Project reached its conclusion. At the organisation’s AGM, members voted on a range of measures that would modernise the campaign and broaden its scope. All but one of these measures was passed, and there is undoubtedly cause for celebration that the campaign has resolved to promote the benefits of moderate social drinking, show more support for pubs, and think more about inclusivity. But the one proposal that would have really changed everything – that CAMRA should “act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers” – was not passed. 72% of CAMRA members voted for it, but it needed 75% to pass. A small minority of the organisation’s members have prevented the majority from moving it forward.

I’ll concede that this tweet, posted on Saturday night when I heard the news, was a bit melodramatic:

But I stand by the feelings of sadness and dismay that prompted it. I really didn’t anticipate that it would cause so much discussion on Twitter yesterday, with agreement and disagreement both being expressed passionately. The comments of many of those who delighted in the motion’s failure only deepened my feelings that both CAMRA and cask ale are in deep trouble. So I’m going to outline why here, in a lot more than 280 characters.

First, let’s deal with some of the predictable responses and get them out of the way.

 

1.”Real ale is the only beer worth drinking. CAMRA is right to fight for it exclusively because anything else is fizzy industrial piss.”

If you really think this, I have nothing to say to you. You might as well stop reading now. You know nothing about beer. Go and do something else.

 

2. “Duh – the clue is in the name! Its the campaign for REAL ale.”

No, the clue is not in the name. It’s not called the Campaign for Cask Ale. (Although CACA is perhaps a more descriptive acronym for the campaign at the moment.) Cask ale has a precise technical definition. ‘Real ale’ is a marketing and campaigning slogan created by CAMRA when it was already two years old. CAMRA invented the term and decided what it meant, and can change that meaning whenever it chooses. Leaving aside the campaign’s support for cider and perry, its commitment to pubs, and its arm’s-length support for traditional German, Czech and Belgian beer styles (so long as they stay over there) CAMRA already has changed the definition of what it considers to be real ale. It did so when it decided bottle-conditioned beer also counted as real ale, and again more recently when it declared key keg to be real ale. It has the freedom to apply the term ‘real ale’ to anything it wants, because it invented the term, and controls its definition.

 

3. “OK, I do like some other beers, but cask ale is always better so we should stick to campaigning just for that.”

No it’s not. Green King IPA is not a better beer than Westmalle Tripel. Doom Bar is not a better beer than Pilsner Urquell (although ultimately, it comes down to individual taste). British brewers are now making decent lagers and Belgian style beers, among others, that do not have cask conditioning as part of their traditional production or dispense. Is cask special? Absolutely. Does it deserve to be supported and campaigned for? Totally. But you don’t have to pretend it’s always better than anything else in order to support it. If you do, you sound like me and my fellow Barnsley FC supporters, standing on the terraces at Oakwell chanting that our club is by far the greatest team the world has ever seen, when clearly they aren’t.

 

4. “If you love keg beer so much, go and start your own campaign for keg beer.”

This is the most important and complex issue to address, and I’m going to spend the rest of this blog on it.

I suppose it’s easy to assume that the reason people like me want CAMRA to support a wider range of quality beers is that we want the the campaign to help what CAMRA drinkers insist on calling ‘craft keg.’ But for me at least, that’s not the point. And anyway, craft keg os doing just fine without CAMRA’s help. The point is that segmenting the market into cask and keg is no longer the most relevant and useful way of looking at things, if it ever was. There’s the obvious point that what ‘keg’ beer is has changed fundamentally since CAMRA was founded. But it’s about much more than that.

Cask ale’s health has recently gone into severe decline. Over the twelve months to February 2018, and in the twelve months before that, cask volume declined by over 4% each year – that means almost ten per cent of the entire cask market has vanished in the last 24 months.

It’s curious, perhaps, that this decline comes at a time when CAMRA’s membership is increasing. It’s easy to equate CAMRA’s growth with burgeoning interest in cask. Clearly, this is not the case. Cask ale has gone into steep decline as CAMRA’s membership soars. CAMRA does many fine things in support of cask, but the sum total as it stands is not doing enough to protect cask ale. So something has to change.

What I find most alarming is that no one in the cask ale industry wants to ‘fess up that there’s a serious issue here. This is a recipe for disaster, like the middle-aged man who won’t go and get that pain checked out at any the doctor because he’s scared of what he might hear, and anyway it might just go away. Last year. when I wrote about the quality issues around cask in London, I was comprehensively attacked from all corners of the industry, in a number of different publications.  Now, the plight of cask is actively being covered up. From 2007 to 2015, I wrote eight editions of the Cask Report. Every single one of them contained a figure for cask ale’s value and volume performance versus the previous twelve months. The two editions of the report that have come out since I resigned from doing it have not contained this figure – because it’s so bad. The most recent edition of the Report stated that cask had declined by 5% over the last five years, which was in line with the overall beer market. The reason they gave a five-year figure is to disguise the fact that almost all that decline has come in the last two years.

It also disguises the fact that cask, for the first time in a decade, has begun to perform worse than the rest of the beer market.

One of the central arguments of the Cask Report since year one was that while cask ale was in steady decline, it was actually outperforming the rest of the on-trade beer market. This is no longer true. The total on-trade beer market is steadily improving while casks performance worsens.

The other thing that used to be true was that cask was performing way better than keg. It was strongly increasing its share of total ale as people turned away from smoothflow and traditional keg. While that is surely still happening, the arrival of craft keg finally seems to be having an impact on total keg’s performance. For a long time, keg was in seemingly terminal decline. Now, it’s outperforming cask. (Although it would be useful if craft keg could be separated from old keg to get a clearer picture.)

Now, I imagine that to some seasoned casketeers, this chart will represent a battle cry. “See? We were right! Evil keg is making a comeback, we must protect cask at all costs! Keg is or enemy!”

Well, good luck with that. It really was nice knowing you. You know those clickbait headlines that tell you you’ve been brushing you’re teeth wrong your whole life? To a non-cask drinker, that’s what you sound like., only more annoying. And if you want to save cask ale, you need to get more non-cask drinkers to start drinking cask. You can’t do that by going on about how awful keg is. Especially when it’s not true.

Year after year, research for the Cask Report showed us that there were no deep-seated objection to cask, not in significant numbers. any way. The main reason people hadn’t tried it was that they hadn’t been given a reason to. Cask needs to be made relevant to these people in the context of what they’re already drinking: if you like that, you might like this. Craft keg drinkers are a soft target for cask to convert – they’re half way there already, as this piece of research commissioned for Box Steam Brewery (which produces both traditional cask and modern craft beers) shows.

Source: Big beer ballot 2018, Colour and Thing

Most drinkers just want good beer, irrespective of who made it or what it comes in. Most cask ale brewers now brew in other formats as well – cask now only accounts for 74% of SIBA members’ output, which puts CAMRA in the strange position of endorsing some but not all of the beer of the breweries it claims to support. Most cask drinkers also drink other drinks. Back in my advertising days. I had access to a big survey database that asked pretty much anything you could think of. One attitude statement was ‘The only beer worth drinking is real ale.’ I took people who ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement, and split them to see what beer brands they claimed to drink ‘most often’. Top of the list was Stella Artois. Some cask drinkers switch to Guinness if they’re in a pub with nothing good on. Some Stella drinkers have a pint of cask with their dads when they go home to visit. Many drinkers I know make a choice based on style, ABV or brewery before they decide whether they want cask or keg. From both a producer’s and drinker’s perspective, saying you’re only going to support cask and keep it in some isolated bubble actually confuses things rather than helping get the message across.

To engage the occasional or non-cask drinker more often, cask needs to speak to them on their own terms, where they are, and in a way that’s relevant to them. In other words, in order to save cask ale, CAMRA needs to engage with and represent the interests of all pub-goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers – precisely the thing its most reactionary members have just voted against.

Craft keg is not the enemy. There are many reasons people are walking away from cask. Look at the graphs above – no sector is having a great time here. Pubs are closing, partly because we’re visiting them less often than we used to. We’re drinking less alcohol overall, which is being exacerbated by increasingly blatant lies from the anti-alcohol lobby. Within that shrinking market, we’re drinking more at home than we do out of the home. When we do fancy a drink, we’re increasingly likely to order wine or spirits – both of which are in growth at beer’s expense. And within this scenario, cask is doing worse now than any other beer style because of its appalling quality issues – which need to be saved by training and education as a matter for urgency – and because the price of this premium product has been depressed to such an extent that publicans can sell other beers – which are easier to keep and have less wastage than cask – for a lot more money. The are the main reasons cask is in decline. CAMRA’s leadership do of course recognise all this, and deserve huge credit for working so hard to moderniser the organisation. But while CAMRA members are still spending most of their time fretting about the kind of container beer comes in, they are not tackling these other, far more important issues as urgently as they could. Broaden the remit to good beer, establish cask’s relevance within that broader remit, and champion the bigger picture. You just might turn cask’s fortunes around.

Or you could just sit there and carrying on ranting like these guys, and fade into deserved irrelevance.

| Beer, Beer Marketing, Catalonia, Craft Beer, Skullwatch

Craft Beer Skull Watch: The first in an occasional series

Last month I went on amazing press trip to Catalonia. We visited about fifteen breweries in six exhausting days – and I quickly spotted an interesting trend…

I blame Beavertown. While their beers are always excellent, part of their astonishing success surely rests on the brand world created by Creative Director Nick Dwyer. It’s modern yet retro, shocking yet fun, and was, when it first appeared, utterly unlike anything else in the beer market. Beavertown’s packaging set a standard for craft beer that many of the brewery’s contemporaries have risen to, and others have aspired to.

So we got to Catalonia on Friday 16th March, just in time for the Barcelona Beer Festival the following day. I’ve written in the latest issue of Original Gravity about how exciting and inventive the beer scene is over there, and how it’s not just in the centre of Barcelona (which now has over thirty breweries) but throughout the entire region.

We met several brewers at the festival itself, and then spent the next four days travelling around the whole of Catalonia, from the wine region just outside Tarragona in the south, to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the north. I don’t think we tasted a single bad beer, and there were very few average ones. Craft beer culture may be new to Catalonia, but it’s always had a strong gastronomic sensibility that’s democratic rather than exclusive, and craft beer has fitted into that as if it was always meant to be.

We experienced everything from traditional British-style cask bitter, to Belgian-style dubbels and fruit-influenced sours to the inevitable New England-style IPAs. But while the beers themselves were astonishingly diverse in their scope, a consistent pattern in their design quickly emerged.

Sour Skull from Cervesa Marina is a blend of stouts aged in red wine barrels for three years. It’s astoundingly bright and zingy on the palate, with a hint of balsamic vinegar and a lot of wood – you can taste the age. You just want to roll it around your entire mouth and keep it sloshing. The label has a giant, cracked skull rearing over the name.

But Cervesa Marina is pretty found of skulls generally.

 

They’re not then only ones. NaparBCN is a very classy craft beer bar in the heart of Barcelona. I would love it if there was a bar like this just round the corner from me, but then I’d love it if the buildings around the corner from me were as elegant as those in the centre of Barcelona.

There’s a consistent theme to Napar’s promotional activity.

From Napar, we went to a beer and food pairing dinner at Raco d’en Cesc, which has an astonishing reputation based largely on the talents of its sommelier, the talented Edgar Rodgríguez. As beer dinners go, it will always remain in my memory as one of the very best – both for some of its individual parts (the best egg I’ve ever tasted, my first opportunity to try the legendary Xyauyù barley wine from Baladin) and for the way the whole lot was woven together into a wonderful journey for the palate. If you’re ever in Barcelona, please try to get a reservation there. You won’t regret it.

Towards the end of the meal, we were served veal cheek that had been slow cooked for eighty and a half hours, paired with a Doppelbock:

Doppelgänger, from Cerveza Menduiña, took the richness of the dish as far as it could go, creating a pairing that was sticky, sweet and heavy. The beer label also bravely branches out from the norm, into skulls of other animals.

Up in the Pyrenees, where we were surprised by a sudden heavy snowfall, we saw this theme developed to reflect then local wildlife by CTretze in the small village of La Pobla de Segur. These guys are using beer and food, plus regular live music in their wonderful state-of-the-art brewery and taproom – and animal skulls of course – to try to put their brewery firmly on the tourist trail.

One brewery that’s already making waves in the UK is Cerveses La Pirata. The beers are stunning, particularly the west coast-style Imperial IPAs.  These guys really understand hops.

They also understand that if you style yourself around a pirate vibe, skulls become central to your concept. I think that’s why they chose the name.

Not far down the road from La Pirata, we were next welcomed by La Calavera, named after La Calavera Catrina, a key symbol in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations

The name translates as ‘Dapper Skeleton’ or ‘Elegant Skull’, and the guys at the brewery have embraced this theme wholeheartedly, fusing it with other craft beer tropes such as punk (there’s a giant mural of Johnny Rotten on the outside of the building) outrage (past beers include ‘American Motherfucker’ and ‘The Original Piss of Cat’) and simply not giving a shit. Their Medicinal Stout has some of the best packaging I’ve seen in a very long time.

And the theme of “Ooh, I bet the Portman Group wouldn’t like that” is developed quite wonderfully in the secondary packaging.

On our final day, we visited Cervesa del Montseny, one of the oldest and largest breweries in the region. As befits one of the few breweries that sells into supermarkets and is introducing craft beer to new drinkers for the first time, the core range packaging is quite conservative. There are two markets in Catalonia: the beer geeks who are in touch with international trends, and the majority for whom serious beer is a new thing. The brewers seem proudest of their range of Imperial stouts, which are indeed excellent – my favourite is the one aged for eight months in fifty-year-old brandy barrels from southern Spain, which presents laced with marzipan, fruitcake, liquorice and a spiritous warmth. Given that these are the beers for the craft aficionado, for this range, some design concession have been made.

I wish more of these beers were available in the UK. Hopefully, some of them soon will be. Catalonia has, in the space of a few short years, become one of the world’s most exciting and dynamic craft beer regions, taking its brewing cues from all over the world – even if it does take its design cues quite specifically from Tottenham.

CraftBeerSkullWatch will return – if it needs to.

Disclosure: This post was written after a trip organised and paid for by the Catalan Tourist Board. You can find out more about Catalonia’s gastronomic heritage at www.catalunya.com        

| Beer, Craft Beer, Journalism, Media bollocks, Social Trends, The Business End

The Premature Demise of Craft Beer: How Fake News Really Works

You may well have seen recent news stories on how craft beer is over, that it’s entered a period of decline. There’s just one problem: this is completely untrue. 

Remember the olden days, when these guys were reporting annual volume growth of 55%? How times have changed since, er, 22nd March this year.

 

“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”

I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty. Was it a trick question? That ‘why do you think this is?’ implied the person asking the question was obviously expecting me to say yes. This was confirmed by a follow up question that asked me to comment on possible reasons why craft beer is “not as popular as it once was.”

A professional journalist working for Munchies – the foodie bit of Vice.com – had somehow become convinced that craft beer was over, and was asking me, via questions posed to the British Guild of Beer Writers, why I thought this had happened.

The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running. I’d found that seven million British people – equivalent to 14% of the total adult population, or one in four people who drink any alcohol at all – claim to drink craft beer on a regular basis when they’re out in pubs, bars or restaurants. And yet here was a food and drink website believing that craft beer was in decline.

I decided to work out how this had happened.

Munchies was basing its story on a trade press article in the Morning Advertiser, which ran with the headline, ‘Craft Beer Fatigue is Setting In.’ No ambiguity there: no ‘claims so-and-so’, just a simple statement of fact. The leading trade magazine for the beer and pub industry was categorically stating that we’re tired of craft beer. And the MA wasn’t alone: in the same week, Beer & Brewer magazine ran with ‘Craft beer fatigue sends APAC [Asia and Pacific] consumer elsewhere‘, while Catering Today ran ‘Craft Beers Fail to Impress Consumers’.

Read these articles, and none of them actually say that craft beer has gone into decline. But a cursory skim of the headline and opening lines of copy, without going into the detail of the claims, could reasonably lead to the impression that craft beer is in decline.

The basis for all these stories is a press release from a market research company called GlobalData, which runs with the title ‘Craft beer fatigue is sending beer and cider consumers in APAC in search of new options.’ Again, that seems pretty definite. The first line of the press release reads, “Alcoholic beverage consumers tend to be novelty seeking, but constant bombardment with craft launches and unusual flavors has led consumers to feel that they are overloaded with choice.” But once again, while a cursory reading of the headline and first few lines of copy would cause any reasonable person to assume craft beer is now in decline, the body of the press release – which is published to promote a new report that costs $1450 to access – doesn’t actually contain any data that supports the idea that craft beer is in decline.

So what does it actually say?

Well, there are certainly some interesting points, even if none of them are exactly news to anyone involved in craft beer.

The main point – the one that seems to be offered in direct support of the headline claims – is that “words such as craft and artisanal are just an excuse to charge extra.” In the Asia-Pacific region – and in North America – 46% of survey respondents agreed with this statement. What none of the UK-based publications who reported the story will tell you is that in Europe, this figure falls to 38% – the lowest of any region in the world. Now, those are, as report author Thomas Vierhile told me in an email, “significant percentages”. But they are still minorities. And as anyone who has been involved in a craft beer discussion on social media or been below the line of a beer story in any national newspaper can attest, it’s hardly new – people have been grumbling about this for years. I first wrote about it for the Morning Advertiser three years ago. At the time, I said that it was a threat to the growth to craft beer, and I still believe it is. But it’s quite a leap to get from there to the claim that people are already walking away from craft beer because of it. This wasn’t true then, and I doubt it’s true now. The research data released by GlobalData’s does not show it to be true, but their press release claims it is.

The press release and summary for the report make two further solid claims. The report states that consumers are becoming more interested in experiences that simple products, citing that 57% of consumers (in Asia Pacific) prefer new experiences to new products. I totally agree, and have done since I worked in advertising twenty years ago, when we said this regularly to our clients. Craft brewers understand this perfectly which is why, instead of building their brands with flashy TV ads (which they couldn’t afford anyway) the most successful craft brewers over the last ten years have built their popularity with experiences and events such as meet the brewer evenings and tap takeovers, limited edition and rare bottle launches, and the growing number and range of beer festivals and other events. The experience economy is a driver of craft beer’s growth – not a threat to it.

Finally, the GlobalData report states that healthier lifestyles and a growing interest in lower alcohol alternatives is a major threat to craft beer. In the Asia Pacific region – it’s not clear why this is the geographic emphasis for a report that did its research globally, unless it could be that this is where the highest figures are – 51% of consumers say health claims influence their choice of alcoholic drinks (hang on – I thought alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed to make any health claims?) and 53% say they plan on cutting down on booze for health reasons. These figures fall to 38% and 37% if you look at the global data, but never mind that. I doubt anyone would disagree that this is a significant trend. That’s why, unless craft brewers start to develop lower strength session beers, explore concepts such as table beer and start to make some decent tasting low/no alcohol beers,  they could be heading for a fall. Oh no, hang on – my mistake – these have been some of the most dynamic trends driving craft beer’s development for several years now. Never mind.

So: a level of cynicism about the appropriation of the term ‘craft beer’ to charge higher prices, growing interest in experiences over products, and growing interest in healthier drinks – all of which the craft beer industry has known about and acted upon for years – are being added together by GlobalData to create the claim that drinkers feel ‘overloaded with choice’ and that this has led to a ‘devaluation of the “craft” concept’ which is now ‘sending beer and cider consumers… in search of new options’. This, in turn, has led drinks trade press journalists to state definitively that we are suffering craft beer fatigue, and this in turn has led at least one consumer food and drink publication to ask why craft beer is in decline before eventually running with the headline ‘Is Craft Beer Dying?

I hope my answers to the questions I was posed by Munchies helped get that title turned into a question rather than a statement. But still, this is how fake news happens. In researching this piece, Google took me to articles going back several years claiming that the craft boom is over, when hindsight shows it wasn’t. GlobalData was behind a similar flurry of these back in August last year,  but they’re not the only culprits. I chose the picture of BrewDog, above, because on the same day Munchies asked if craft beer was dying, the Scottish craft beer pioneer posted results showing 55% volume growth in 2017. Some commentators pointed out that this is lower than in previous years. As if 55% growth in a year is somehow a bit shit.

“We are not necessarily saying that craft beer has gone into decline,” admitted GlobalData’s Thomas Vierhile when I challenged the company over their claims. “But we are saying that the category is edging closer to thin ice as the craft concept becomes stretched, leading more consumers to express skepticism toward the concept.”

I think that’s absolutely fair enough.

He continued, “As popular as craft beer is, it does not appear to be moving the global beer consumption needle and it may not be the savior for the beer industry that some may perceive it to be,” citing the fact that while other categories of alcoholic drinks are growing, the total global beer market is shrinking. This means that either the growth craft beer is experiencing by recruiting new drinkers to beer is not enough to compensate for existing beer drinkers drinking less/switching to other drinks, or that craft is cannibalising mainstream beer, taking volume from the big boys within a declining market.

That’s certainly food for thought, and craft brewers should certainly take note of the report’s genuine findings stated above, if for some reason they weren’t already aware of them. But GlobalData’s press release – which I’m sure Thomas Vierhile didn’t write – categorically states that consumers are suffering craft beer fatigue and are going looking for something else instead. The data presented simply does not show this at all, says nothing about a ‘bombardment of new launches or unusual flavours’, and presents no evidence that consumers are walking away from the category. But these claims have been picked up and repeated, without question.

So why would a company that produces market research reports that cost $1450 a pop want to spread false claims about craft beer? Well I dunno, but who in the beer industry can afford to spend $1450 on a 57-page market report? And what would companies like that feel about craft beer? What would they want to happen to it? I’m just spitballing here, merely speculating to create specious claims. But that does seem to be par for the course these days.

| Beer, Beer and Music, Craft Beer

Easter Quiz: Craft Beer or Eighties Indie band?

What if we run out of names?

Could this be the lead singer of Wu Gang Chops the Tree?

 

There’s a common joke in my circle of friends, and I last heard it last night: when someone says or writes a phrase that sounds unusually poetic, unusual or pretentious – I think last night’s was something like “Whirpool volatile preservation” – you can raise a knowing titter by saying something along the lines of “I prefer their earlier stuff” or “Didn’t they headline Friday in the John Peel Tent at Glastonbury in 1997?” It’s not the funniest joke ever, but it always makes me laugh.

Thinking about how and why this works, I realised that the analogy between beer and music is always finding new levels to operate on, and one of them is in naming. “Where do they get those names from?” was a common refrain on John Peel’s radio show in my youth, and it’s a phrase I’m regularly hearing again now as craft brewers struggle to come up with something that sets their latest new launch apart.

So I decided to create a quick quiz. Here are ten names. Some of  them are from long-forgotten eighties Indie bands (or perhaps not that forgotten – some of them are still going.). The others are from recent craft brews. Can you tell which is which? See how many you can get right!

  1. 1. I, Ludicrous

2. Beard of Zeus

3. Bosko

4. Eyeless in Gaza

5. Brood in Obscurity

6. Quiet Release

7. Front 242

8. Strange Advance

9. Age of Chance

10. Whiplash Bone Machine

No cheating – scroll down for answers below!

 

 

I’ll be back at the Green Man Festival in August doing my beer and music matching show, where I pair a selection of the 70-odd beers in the main bar tent with the bands playing the festival. Tickets for the festival are on sale now. It’s like Glastonbury used to be before it got huge. I haven’t yet seen the beer list, but am pretty certain Public Service Broadcasting, Anna Calvi, Fleet Foxes and Kelly Lee Owens will all be jostling to get on my playlist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. 1. Band

2. Beer

3. Beer

4. Band

5. Beer

6. Beer

7. Band

8. Band

9. Band

10. Beer

 

 

 

| Beer, Beer Writing, Marketing

Under The Influencer

Exploring the tricky territory of free stuff and paid-for recommendations.

 

Last week, I was asked if I’d like to become an Amazon influencer. “The idea is pretty simple,” said the e-mail from the guy at Upfluence.com, “You’ll have your own page on Amazon.com where you can recommend your favorite products and earn money on qualifying purchases made through your page.”

This guy, Doug, approached me because he’d seen my Twitter profile and thought it made me a perfect candidate. I’m guessing he was looking simply at the number of followers I have rather than anything I actually tweet, because if he’d read my tweets he’d have realised pretty quickly that I live in the UK and therefore don’t have any dealings with the American Amazon.com. But that’s not the main reason I’ve ignored Doug’s emails.

Is its just me or is this a really odd concept? Is anyone reading this and thinking, “Ooh, I occasionally read Pete’s writing about beer or cider, I wonder what deodorant he’d recommend or what brand of toner refill cartridge he uses?”

I just find the whole idea of identifying as an ‘influencer’ really odd. I hope I am influential: I’ve spoken to several people who left their jobs and started working in beer or even opened their own breweries after reading something I’ve written. But it’s like being labelled a ‘consumer’ or ‘shopper’ – it’s something we do, not something we are.

I’m aware that some people make their money doing this, creating vlogs or Instagram feeds where they talk about the latest make up products they’ve been sent for free. It strikes me as a rather sad way of living, and I’m astonished that it works: if you know someone is recommending products purely because they are being paid to do so by the people selling them, why would you believe anything they say?

It reminds me of another disturbing trend in the beer world.

Each week, I get sent beer and cider for free by brewers or cider makers who are keen to hear what I think about it. I’m always grateful to receive it. If someone asks me for personal, private feedback, I always endeavour to give it, but sometimes fail if I’m too busy. I now review beers for Original Gravity magazine, and if I really like a beer, I’ll write it up for that. But I don’t do beer reviews on this blog: it’s not the aspect of beer writing that interests me personally, and there are a great many other people doing it perfectly well.

Increasingly, I’m getting e-mails from brewers – or more often, from junior PR execs working on their behalf – offering me free beer in exchange for a review. Sometimes, they offer free beer in exchange for a positive review. Each time I get an email like this, I write back thanking them, and explaining my approach as outlined above – I can’t promise a good review, or any review at all, but it might get one if it’s really good, so if that sounds OK, here’s my address. And every single time, I never hear from them again – no response to my email, and no beer in the mail.

I don’t do this job to try to get free beer, and I think there’s something dodgy about people for whom that’s a main motivation. But there’s also something dodgy about brewers or PRs who see this as a transactional relationship. I guess the reason they never write back is that they’d have to admit in writing that they’re only interested in sending beer out to people who promise to write something nice about it, and that really doesn’t look great on paper. If you know you’re only getting a positive review because that was the condition on which the beer was sent, how can you take any satisfaction from reading it? And how can anyone trust the person writing it?

Some of us draw the line in different places. I know some writers who refuse any free beer and will only review stuff they’ve paid for themselves. I respect that, even if I don’t go that far. I get a lot of free beer, and I only review a small fraction of it, so I know that the fact that I didn’t pay for it has not influenced my decision to review it. The few reviews I do write are always a mix of beer I’ve been sent and beer I’ve bought and paid for in a pub or bottle shop.

Next week, I’m off on a press trip to Catalonia. This is being fully paid for by the Catalan tourist board. I expect that at least some of us on the trip will receive some fairly sharp criticism on social media when we start tweeting about it, for accepting such hospitality. Again, I know writers who never accept such trips and respect them for it. I’m going because I’ve been keen to check out the explosion in Spanish craft beer for several years now and think there will be some genuinely interesting stories, but haven’t been able to afford to do it under my own steam. Will my reporting of the trip be influenced by the fact that I’m being given hospitality? I don’t believe so (beyond the fact that I’m actually there, of course.) But any story I write about it will carry a disclaimer explaining that it’s been paid for by someone else, so the reader can make up their own mind.

Communicators in any discipline who have a decent-sized following are in a privileged position. People put their trust in what we write. Especially when we write about our own personal experiences, there’s an unwritten contract with the reader that we will be open and honest. If I were to start recommending things purely because I was being paid or rewarded for making those recommendations, my integrity would be trashed. The trust of my readers would, quite rightly, evaporate.

We live at a time when big data is replacing creativity. The Upfluence guy only cared about the number of followers I have on Twitter, not the content or nature of my tweets, nor why those people have chosen to follow my account. The brewery’s PR firm isn’t really interested in what I think of the beer; they just want to submit a report boasting of how many pieces of coverage they achieved.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think true influence is harder earned, and much more precious than that.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Dark Star, Uncategorised

Some Important Musings on the Nature of Craft Beer

Seriously, these Musings are Very IMPORTANT. 

A picture of a beer that is a craft beer, yesterday.

 

One of the more curious comments I’ve seen repeated by various people this week in the wake of Dark Star being bought by Fuller’s is the idea that Dark Star is/was not a craft brewer because it is mainly known for producing cask ale. The idea that cask ale is not and can not be craft beer is an intriguing one, and one that I don’t fully understand. So if you subscribe to this point of view, I wonder if you can help me understand it by answering the following questions? Thanks!

  1. 1. If a small, independent brewery produces beer across a variety of formats, what percentage of cask ale is it allowed to produce before it no longer counts as a craft brewery?

2. If that brewery produces both keg and cask beers, are its keg beers craft and its cask beers not craft?

3. Where do cans fit into this?

4. Or bottles?

  1. 5. If, say, Magic Rock brews a beer called High Wire and puts some of it into cask and some if it into keg, is the cask stuff not craft and the keg stuff craft?

6. If the cask High Wire is not craft but the keg High Wire is craft, how does that work? Does High Wire start off as a craft beer in the brewhouse, and when the cask stuff gets packaged into the cask it stops being craft? Or is it the other way round: High Wire starts off not being craft, but when the keg stuff gets packaged into kegs, that’s when it becomes craft?

7. What is it about the cask process/format that stops it from being craft? Is it the live yeast that requires more skill, care and attention to look after? Is it the container itself, which is more traditional than a pressurised keg? Is it the shape of the cask? Or is it the sound of the word ‘cask’, which doesn’t sound craft enough?

8. If Greene King were to produce a 5.5% west coast-style pale ale using acidulated, Golden Promise, Munich, Vienna malts and Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Columbus and Magnum hops which gave it mango, lychee and lip-smacking grapefruit flavours that harmonised against a smoothly composed malt base, which develops into a crisply bitter finish, and they called it Why Hire, would that be craft or not? If not, would it help if they packaged some of it in key kegs?

  1. 9. If you buy a can of your favourite craft beer on Monday and the brewery gets bought by a corporate brewer on Tuesday, is the can of beer in your fridge still craft or not?

10. If it’s not, when does it stop being craft? When the deal was done? When you found out about the deal? If the deal was done last Friday, before you bought it on Monday, but it wasn’t announced until Tuesday, was your can of beer still craft when you bought it or not? Are you allowed to revise its status retrospectively? If you are, what authority or qualifications do you need to be able to make that call?

I look forward to reading your answers!

 

A picture of a beer that is not a craft beer, yesterday.

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Craft Beer, Dark Star, Fuller's, The Business End

What Do You Do When Your Favourite Brewery Gets Sold To The Man?

Yesterday, it was announced that Dark Star Brewing had been bought by Fuller’s. In a much longer reader than I’d anticipated, here are some thoughts on how we might process such an event if it’s our favourite brewery being acquired…

                      You say ending, they say new beginning. Who’s right?

 

In every business, companies get bought and sold all the time. Brewing is, when all is said and done, a business first and foremost, in that if you don’t make more money by selling stuff than you spend on making it, you cannot survive.

But to many, craft brewing often feels like something more than just a business. It’s also a movement. Our favourite breweries often represent a set of principles and attitudes, a lifestyle, perhaps even a moral point of view, as well as making beers we enjoy drinking. This might entail a commitment to experimentation over convention, independence over conformity, living large rather than being cautious, or some other kind of anti-establishment or anti-corporate stance. Many craft beer fans are stuck in corporate jobs themselves, unable or unwilling to take their own risky leap into the unknown, and so they live vicariously through their favourite brewers, buying their beers to support principled decisions and actions they identify with and aspire to.

When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.

These are not always rational or fair reactions, and they’re certainly not always justified, but given the high degree of emotional involvement around craft brewing, they’re entirely understandable.

Craft brewers have a long history of collaboration with each other, but rarely, if ever, do two craft breweries of comparable size decide to merge to further their mutual interest. Invariably, it’s a case of a larger, older, more conservative and established business buying a smaller, younger, more adventurous one. And that’s always going to set the alarm bells ringing. Instinctively, that alarm is rationalised through a fear that the beers will change: the accountants and marketing people will get involved. They’ll cut costs so the beer won’t be as good. They’ll dumb it down to appeal to a mass market. They’ll close the brewery down and brew it in a big factory instead, and it will never taste the same. Then you move on to the company itself: people will lose their jobs, and I care about these people (even if I’ve never met them.) But it’s the emotional bond, the identification with the brewery, that underlies such concerns.

But such takeovers are going to become increasingly common over the next few years. Craft beer as an overall segment looks set to grow indefinitely, even if the rate of that growth will slow down as the scene matures. But the number of outlets available in which to sell craft beer are arguably fixed – the number of pubs is declining. Supermarkets are steady. Specialist bottle shops are growing, as are alternative outlets such and festivals and special events. But these account for a tiny proportion of the total route to market. We’ve had such an incredible growth in the number of breweries in the UK – more than trebling since the millennium – that we have a massively increasing number of breweries chasing a limited number of fonts on the bar and spaces on the shelf. The most exciting – and, it has to be said, the most fashionable – breweries have no trouble securing their route to market. But many struggle to get space. Even when they get a place on the bar, the fickle consumer says, ‘Yes, I’ve had that one, what else have you got?’ and there’s always another one waiting to take their place.

Some brewers just can’t make a living. Others are getting by, but want to grow so they can make themselves and their families more financially comfortable, or hire more people so they can work fewer than eighty hours a week. Growth takes investment, and investment requires more growth to pay it off – if you can secure it in the first place in an uncertain financial climate when you’re one of several hundred breweries seeking it. For some, the answer is crowdfunding, but how many breweries are you going to invest in? Sometimes, selling simply makes most sense. And like I said, it happens in every single industry.

So when your favourite brewery goes, is it a catastrophe or is it salvation? Ultimately, only time will tell. I hate making predictions because they’re often wrong. But there are some questions you can ask that might provide clues – if you can discern the true answers beneath the spin, that is…

 

Did the brewery want to sell or not?

If it’s a hostile takeover, you can be sure there will be blood. But such takeovers usually only take place if both companies are already listed on the stock exchange. If a brewery is privately owned, no one can force them to sell. Someone can make them an offer they can’t refuse (commonly known as ‘a Camden’) but there are two actors in any sale, and too often we just look at is as the big guy snapping up the small guy.

 

What’s in it for the seller?

Obviously, for the individuals running the brewery, there’s personal wealth. If you’re doing a well-paid job to support yourself and a family, I’d think very carefully about accusing someone of ‘selling out’ on this score. Those people likely put their houses and all their savings on the line to build this thing, and worked longer hours, for less money, than you ever have.

But that’s rarely the only reason for selling – there can be benefits for the brewery too. That beer you love is getting access to a bigger sales force with a wider distribution. The biggest limit on a brewery’s growth is its fermentation capacity. New fermentation vessels are expensive. When Molson Coors bought Sharp’s, many predicted the Cornish brewery would be closed by its new owners. Instead, those new owners delivered lots of shiny new fermenters. OK, so bottled Doom Bar is now brewed in Burton, where there’s greater bottling capacity, but six years after the acquisition, Sharp’s cask ale is still brewing in Cornwall (like it or not.)

On the other hand, is there any dissent in the ranks? When Elysian was bought by A-B Inbev, while the official line was delight around ‘joining forces’, the head brewer quickly walked. Watching how long the key people stick around beyond any mandatory period is usually a good indicator of whether or not the sale was just for the money.

 

What’s in its for the buyer?

It does seem as though the strategies of the big guys are changing. Historically in the UK, most pubs were owned by breweries. When a brewery was taken over, invariably it was so the acquirer could get their hands on the pubs, and the brewery itself would invariably be closed down (take a bow, Greene King.) It’s also common practice traditionally in any market to buy an annoying competitor just to get rid of them, running down a business you couldn’t beat in the marketplace.

If a non-craft brewery buys a craft brewery that doesn’t own a big pub estate, they want it for the beers themselves and/or for the brand. They want it because they can’t brew and sell those beers within their existing brand portfolio. Now, they don’t lack the brewing expertise to do that – they probably have far better equipment and access to higher quality raw ingredients, and it’s easy (and much cheaper) for them to poach a brewer from a small craft brewery rather than buy the whole thing. What they’re paying for is credibility, an established audience, goodwill, and to a lesser extent, recipes (which they could replicate pretty closely if they had to.)

But the main reason bigger breweries buy smaller ones is that their systems and scale prevent them from acting in the same way as smaller, nimbler, craft brands. Processes designed to sell big commodity brands can’t keep pace with the craft market. So when they do buy these breweries, they tend to run them as separate entities that don’t conform to the same practices as the big brands. A-B Inbev’s many craft acquisitions sit in a separate craft division with its own CEO. Carlsberg is running London Fields as a separate company. Heineken knows it hasn’t a clue about cask ale, so when it acquired Scottish brewery Caledonian, they went big on improving health and safety but apart from that they left the brewhouse alone. These companies aren’t being altruistic about this – they know that if they tried to run it directly, they’d fuck up the thing they just paid a lot of money for.

If the purchased brewery’s brands start getting brewed in the big brewery, using big brewery logistics, there may be some cause for concern (or they may actually be improved on more modern kit.) But if the beer is still being made in the original brewery, by the same people under different management, there’s a chance that even your understandable suspicion that the recipe may be dumbed down is unfounded. I hate the rebranding of Goose Island IPA as ‘Goose’, but Bourbon County Stout, and the range of wood-aged beers produced by Goose Island, remain at least as outstanding as they ever were.

The real threat of these acquisitions is to the broader world of craft, and is a little more insidious and harder to detect. The brewer wants your favourite craft brand because they don’t have anything similar themselves. They don’t want to fuck it up. The brewhouse is probably safe. But then it gets into the hands of an aggressive sales force. The brand might be discounted to push it into wider distribution, which is great for a skint drinker but can take the sheen off the brand’s standing. Or, if it’s a very popular brand, it might be used as a bargaining chip: “Yeah, we’ll sell you the super-cool, sexy craft beer brand we just acquired, but only if you permanently take these other craft beer brands off the bar, and stock our shitty lager as well.” Your favourite beer is still safe, but the brand is tarnished by the new company it keeps, and by the fact that it’s no longer allowed to mix with its old mates. This may sound like paranoia, but it’s common practice. When I worked on Stella Artois, I saw first-hand how both aggressive discounting and aggressive package deals were used to massively inflate the growth of what had been a niche, cult brand with a good deal of credibility. A few years later, it became what we know it to be today.

 

 

What past form does the buyer have?

So is your favourite craft beer brand going to go down this route or not? Well,  there’s big and big. I’m always confused by the outcry when Duvel Moortgat buys a craft brewery, because Duvel Moortgat makes some of the best beers in the world. One Dark Star fan lamented yesterday on social media that his favourite brewery is now part of just another corporate behemoth. Fuller’s may be many things, but it’s a minnow in the world of corporate beer. Fuller’s has also demonstrated a commitment to the world and ethos of craft beer matched by few of its peers. Yes, Fuller’s also closed the Gales brewery and quietly retired some of its brands after buying that, but the circumstances were different than they are with Dark Star.

Ultimately, each case has to be judged individually.

 

As craft brewery acquisitions gather pace, there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that the demise in the quality and integrity of a once-loved brand is by no means guaranteed. But if your true objection to acquisitions is that they run against the ethos of whatever you define  ‘craft beer’ to be, that big corporates should have no place on the indie scene, then prepare for further disappointment: ultimately, everyone is for sale.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Food, IPA

The Craft of Balance

As in music, as in food, as in life, as in beer: extremes can be thrilling, but harmony is ultimately more satisfying.

 

I’m a huge fan of Felicity Cloake’s series of articles in The Guardian, where she takes a beloved recipe and tries to distil the perfect version of it. She does so by consulting various chefs who are each famed for their own versions, reading about its development, trying different variations with her friends, and synthesising an overall best version with the help of their comments. Recipes are like language: they evolve and adapt, and everyone puts their own signature on them. Felicity’s are of course influenced by her own tastes, which aren’t always the same as mine, but the articles are never less than compelling.

Last week, she did Vindaloo, a dish I’ve been obsessed with ever since I studied and subsequently went to India for my third book, Hops & Glory. You may well know that, strictly speaking, Vindaloo isn’t an Indian dish at all, but is in fact Portuguese in origin. Neither chillies nor tomatoes are native to India – both were introduced by Portuguese sailors, who picked them up in South America. Before they did so, the heat in Indian food relied primarily on pepper, which is quite a different heat altogether. As Felicity points out in her piece, it’s kind of ironic that carne de vinha d’alhos (meat in wine vinegar and garlic) has become a bastion of competitive British male masculinity given that it was perfected in Portuguese Goa – one of the few parts of India never ruled by Britain.

In the hands of the typical Anglo-Asian curry house, Vindaloo has become an exercise in chilli intensity. Ever wondered how a high street restaurant can have such a wide menu and serve dishes from any part of it so quickly? They work from a very small number of basic sauces, and simply add more of less chillies, plus a few other ingredients, to great different permutations on them. So while in India, Madras and Vindaloo are entirely different dishes with different spice bases, in England, one is the same as the other only with more chilli.

Vindaloo is my usual order. I like the English version, and am fascinated by the high variance I get in heat from different restaurants. But I also yearn for the ‘proper’ version. So as soon as I saw it, I tried Felicity’s recipe.

Fuck me, it was good.

My wife Liz has much lower tolerance for chill heat than me. She had a tiny spoonful of it, and just managed to say “That’s gorgeous” before the screaming started. “Never bring that near me again,” she said between gulps of water. But a couple of days later, when I heated up the last of it for my dinner, she couldn’t resist having another taste. She knew it was going to hurt, but she was compelled to try the incredible depth and layering of flavour once more.

There’s a a lot of chilli in Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Vindaloo (and on this occasion, that title is justified). There’s more chilli heat in it than I’ve had in any high street curry house version I’ve had outside the Midlands.

But that chilli goes into a masala marinade along with a shit-ton of cloves and cinnamon as well as the usual Indian spices, and then there’s more garlic than anything else, with the vinegar and tamarind adding yet a another layer. It’s hot. It’s complex. But it’s balanced. And it’s all the more irresistible for it. The chilli may be the lead instrument, but it sounds so much better with a backing band rather than completely solo.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with some marketers at a British regional ale brewery a few months ago. I was saying that what I admired about their beers was their balance, but they’d just done a lot of market research with their old guard of drinkers and younger craft beer drinkers, and they came back and said, “Oh no – for the younger craft beer drinkers, balance is boring.”

I was surprised and saddened by this, but it’s just one feature of the quest for novelty that seems to be giving the beer scene much of its momentum these days.

I wonder if it’s based on a misunderstanding, a perception that balance = bland. And that’s why I offer up The Perfect Vindaloo as an analogy for great beer. The image of the graphic equaliser above shows a balanced music mix. It happens to be in the middle of the scale. But it could be higher (more intense and full-on) or near the bottom (quieter) and it would still be balanced. My Vindaloo was as perfectly balanced as a good korma, but at a very different point of intensity.

Aggressively hoppy beers changed my life. They blew my mind like my first proper curry did, and I’ve used that as an analogy ever since. But even a beer with a hundred IBUs (bitterness units) can be balanced. A full, malty backbone in such a beer gives the hops something to work from, just like the rhythm section behind a scorching axe solo or the cinnamon and cloves behind the chilli. I taste a lot of hoppy beers these days where the hops are one-dimensional. They’re hoppy, but they’re not that interesting. For me, it’s the lack of balance that is becoming deeply boring.

Sour beers are exactly the same. Beers that shove a massive icepick of sharpness through your skull with nothing else to offer may shock initially, and that shock can be quite thrilling. But if there’s nothing else to it, it soon becomes dull and monotone. With the best ‘sour’ beers, that word is hopelessly inadequate, because the sharp sourness is in concert with earthy funk and bright fruit.

I think this is why novel beers come and go, but old favourites that you probably find boring at certain points in your beer journey will inevitably come back and claim you. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Rochefort 10, Orval and Harvey’s Best are not dull beers, nor bland crowd pleasers, but they are balanced. And that’s why generations of beer drinkers not yet born will still be drinking them in thirty or forty years time, when some of today’s most hyped beers will have been long forgotten.