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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The comments below the articles about CAMRA’s latest outrage in this week’s national dailies are damning:
“And because of that I’ve just cancelled my membership.”
“Right, thank you. I will not be renewing my CAMRA membership. This is absolutely disgusting.”
What have CAMRA done that’s so terrible?
Well, it seems they have been “overrun” by “woke communists”.
“I will just have stop drinking real ale now because it has just become “Unreal Ale”. An utter woke joke.”
“That’s my membership cancelled , can’t believe camra has gone disgustingly woke”
“Go woke go broke. Another organisation overrun with communists who will now lose membership.”
“You have just lost this normal person with your wokery.”
“CAMRA try to appease B,la c k Lives Mateer Marxists because they are scared. of them”
In doing so, the supposedly real-ale-supporting organisation has revealed that, far from wanting to preserve one of our greatest cultural assets, its secret agenda is to destroy Britain itself.
“When will the real people in this country take it back from those who want to destroy it.”
Obviously, CAMRA is not powerful enough to do this on its own. It’s obviously become part of a global conspiracy.
“Why does all this seem Co-ordinated world-wide? Who is the global puppet master?”
(I could take a pretty good guess at the kinds of people the commenter thinks might be behind this.)
But here’s my favourite comment, and this one is dedicated to the overworked people at CAMRA’s head office and the thousands of volunteers who make the organisation run with no financial reward in return:
“Looks like CMARA has gone the same way as the NT and the British museum,and quite a few more our national institutions,they are now run by overpaid woke and PC executives.”
‘Going woke’ is a terrible crime, particularly in the eyes of people who use the term daily without having the slightest clue of what it means.
So what form has CAMRA’s wokeness taken? Has it banned beards? Has it insisted that everyone at GBBF must take the knee before the bars open? Given that it is now run by communists, has it called for the means of beer production to be seized by the proletariat?
No. Worse than that, CAMRA has asked people to complete a QUESTIONNAIRE.
CAMRA has asked for feedback. Via a SURVEY.
What evil fucking Commie bastards they are. Why don’t they just burn Olympia to the ground like they so obviously want to?
After years of being criticised for only being relevant to white middle-aged men, CAMRA is asking how it might broaden its audience from that base. After decades of women reporting that they are patronised, ignored ridiculed, harassed or even assaulted at beer events, CAMRA is asking people for their experiences, to gauge how serious the problem is and, if necessary (spoiler alert: it is) to do something about it.
Speaking as an overweight, bearded, middle-aged real ale drinker, I’d say this is long overdue, and is to be welcomed. Many people like me on Twitter share the same view. But the sewers that run below the lines of Daily Mail articles contain creatures that are less happy:
“what the hell do women know about beer…”
More than you know about how to write a sentence, mate.
“I better stop drinking, then they can have more of the other lot”
“One of the last bastions of being a white middle aged man is going. Can we have nothing that is ours alone, why does everything have to be shared with minority groups!!”
Dudes. Not enough people are drinking beer for all the people who make it to stay in business. There’s lots of real ale. If all the women, gay people, trans people, black and brown people, and all the people I have not mentioned in this sentence all start drinking it, there’ll still be more than enough left for you and your mates. And didn’t your mummy tell you that it’s nice to share?
This is the odd thing about people who are frightened of sharing the planet with other people who are different from them in some way. They believe rights and freedoms are like a cake – or a pint, I suppose. We middle-aged white men have more rights and freedoms than most. If other people win more rights and freedoms – the (lack of) thinking goes – then that must mean we lose some, because the cake is only finite in size.
If we’re not scared – or “triggered” – by the thought of sharing a space with people who are a bit different from us, we might actually gain quite a lot. The size of the whole cake grows. Which is better for everyone.
Eventually, this fear turns itself inside out and becomes slightly surreal:
“If CAMRA do not give up this woke nonsense then you expect there to be a splinter real real ale group that ANYONE can join, no questions asked, you just need to like real ale.”
Yep – if CAMRA carries on trying to broaden its appeal so that anyone who likes real ale can feel happy to join, then don’t be surprised if there’s a rival organisation springing up to replace it, based on the radically different principle that anyone who likes real ale can feel happy to join.
It’s easy – and necessary – to take the piss out of small-minded, ignorant bigots. It’s alarming to live in a world where initiatives to be open, friendly and tolerant are seen as evil, disgusting and communist, and people who despise anyone different from them, who feed on hate, somehow feel that it is they who are normal and decent.
I get that some of this driven by genuine fear, however misguided or based in ignorance that fear might be. But I’d suggest the fear of being ignored, patronised or physically or verbally assaulted that women and minority groups share is more justified, based as it is on real-world experience.
Since the 2010 Equalities Act, it is illegal for any public body, company or organisation to allow discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the basis of:
marriage or civil partnership (in employment only)
pregnancy and maternity
religion or belief
If CAMRA did preside over a culture where such behaviour was endemic, then like any other public body, society, workplace or organisation, it would be breaking the law. Workplaces must have policies in place to protect their employees against such behaviour. Even before you get to the fact that it might be a nice idea if flagging real ale sales could be boosted by making it more relevant to more people, CAMRA has a legal responsibility to make sure people feel safe at its meetings, events, and offices.
It’s also worth noting that CAMRA is asking everyone to complete this survey. Nowhere does it say that overweight, middle-aged white blokes are excluded. I filled it in weeks ago, and I didn’t get a response saying “Sorry, you don’t count.”
If membership and punters respond and say there’s nothing wrong, that everyone feels safe and happy at beer festivals etc, and there’s no evidence of widespread discrimination, then fine – nothing needs to change, does it?
But somehow, I doubt that will happen. I suspect the survey will uncover stories as troubling as craft beer’s “Me-too” moment did last spring. And if that does happen, then CAMRA has an obligation to act. It’s incredibly positive that the organisation is being so proactive in recognising that. So please, take the survey, whatever age, weight, ethnicity, gender, sex, colour, race or sexual orientation you are. The whole point of this is that everyone matters.
And you know what? In the unlikely event that CAMRA is taken over by woke communists who go out of their way to put women, people of colour, trans people and differently abled people into every key position in the organisation, even then, the stereotypical CAMRA man will still be as welcome in every aspect of the organisation as he is now.
Except the people who left the comments I cut and pasted above, and the far worse comments I felt I couldn’t repeat.
Those people can fuck right off.
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The case of beers I put together with mail order company Best of British Beer to accompany my next book club event is designed to reflect the mercurial, elusive character of the craft beer world’s favourite beer style.
IPA is the most popular – and most argued over – beer style in craft beer. Everything about it, from its hazy origins to its colour, character and (increasingly murky) appearance, is debated passionately across social media and print publications. Its story has been mythologised, misunderstood, and endlessly redefined. Like the broader concept of craft beer itself, I’m not just fascinated by it, I’m fascinated by the fascination around it, by the varying degrees of passion, agitation and disdain it inspires.
This is why, for my third book, I undertook the frankly stupid endeavour of recreating its legendary journey by sea from Burton-on-Trent to Calcutta. This project almost broke me, in many ways, but hey – I got a great book out of it, and we’re discussing that book, and the story behind it, at my third Beer Book Club on Wednesday, 12th May.
For each of these book clubs, I’m attempting to put together a themed case of beers (or ciders, where relevant) that people attending may choose to order to drink along to the chat. Best of British Beer volunteered to help me out with a case for this one, and sent me a bottle of every beer they had in stock with “IPA” on the label. From that, I chose six beers that tell a potted history of the beer that used to be known as India Pale Ale – all quite different from each other, each excellent in its own way.
IPA was never ‘invented’ as such – it evolved from strong beers meant for keeping, and it has continued to evolve ever since. According to contemporary reports, in the 1780s it was quite dark, murky, and very bitter. In nineteenth century India, it was bright and sparkling, compared to champagne more than anything else. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, changes in taxation and drinking habits saw a steep drop in its alcoholic strength. A few years ago, beer geeks would rage that a beer such as Greene King IPA was not a “proper” IPA because it was only 3.6% ABV. Those critics should know that a few years ago, the original 1928 recipe for GK IPA was discovered, and it’s hardly changed in the almost century since. If you could go back to the mid-twentieth century, any British brewer would have told you that it was typical of what “IPA” was at that time. And anyway, the rise of “session IPAs” means that the strength argument can no longer be coherently made by craft beer scenesters.
The American reinvention of IPA only really took off in the UK a little over a decade ago, and since then the pace of evolution has sped up dramatically. What we now think of as ‘West Coast IPA’ is referred to by some as ‘Old School IPA’. If a beer style that can only be traced back in any meaningful sense to the 1990s is now ‘old school’, what does that make IPA’s 200-year-odd history up to that point?
In a very meaningful sense, the dominant style of the moment – New England IPA – is the opposite of what IPA was before it came along. India Pale Ale became the definitive beer style of the nineteenth century, and cast its shadow over the next, because it was designed to be stored and/or to survive a long sea journey in which it was subject to massive fluctuations in temperature, which contributed to its unique character, in which hop bitterness was assertive.
Now, IPAs have next to no bitterness at all, and we’re told that we must keep them cold from packaging to consumption and drink them fresh, because their delicate character disappears after a few weeks.
The British soldiers and clerks drinking IPA in Calcutta in the 1860s would have spat out a NEIPA claiming that it was too green, that it hadn’t ‘ripened’. The modern NEIPA fan would (and often does) dismiss traditional IPA as not being IPA at all, because it is not pale enough, not juicy enough.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), commonly regarded in the craft beer world as the arbiter of beer styles, goes so far as to state: “The term ‘IPA’ is intentionally not spelled out as ‘India Pale Ale’ since none of these beers historically went to India, and many aren’t pale.”
So there we have it: IPA isn’t actually India Pale Ale at all, but an acronym without a home, or even a new word in its own right, a word commonly pronounced “eepa” by beer drinkers who’s first language isn’t English.
In 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont threw his hands up and said, “Fine, let’s face it, every beer is now an IPA.” With that in mind, here are the six beers I’ve chosen that all stake a claim to the title of IPA. I like them all – otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen them – but because of my age and experience, my heart will always be in the Old School.
Wold Top – Scarborough Fair – true to the traditional British style – crisp, bitter and balanced
Hafod – Freestyle – A great take on what we now call West Coast IPA, resiny and piney with a firm malt backbone
Mor – Ish – Mid-twentieth century-style IPA, gently bitter and clean, lower ABV.
Windsor & Eton – Conqueror – The tautology that is a Black India Pale Ale – a blend of fresh hoppy aromas and deep, chocolatey malt.
Loch Lomond – Zoom Time – Hazy, juicy and with low bitterness, a perfect example of the New England IPA style.
Stonehouse – Vanilla Milkshake – Brewed with vanilla and lactose for an even smoother, creamier body – is this the future of IPA?
The Hops & Glory six-pack is available to buy at £21.95 from Best of British Beer. Ticket-holders for my Hops & Glory book club event on Wednesday 12th May can claim a 10% discount code. Sadly the beers are for UK delivery only, but the event is on Zoom so you can come along wherever in the world you are, and bring your own IPAs, whatever colour, clarity, strength and character they happen to have.
In the late nineteenth century, a Romantic textile designer from Walthamstow invented the modern concept of “craft”. Yeah, it’s all his fault.
William Morris was born on 24th March, 1834. If you could have asked him him about that a few years later, and he would have told you this was 600 years too late. As a kid, he had his own suit of armour and would run around his family’s big garden pretending to be a knight. As a young adult, he vehemently rejected contemporary aesthetics in favour of medieval nostalgia.
Morris wasn’t alone. The Industrial Revolution may have started long before the Victorian era, but by the time Morris was at university the pace of progress was so rapid, and the human and environmental cost so great (it could also be argued that Morris was the godfather of the Green movement) that some people began to question whether it was “progress” at all.
He believed industrialisation had robbed people of dignity and purpose. Before factories and mills, if you made bread, or shoes, or chairs, or beer, you were a baker, a shoemaker, a furniture maker or a brewer, and your work was your own. Your craft involved the mastery of a number of different skills, and if you were any good, the way you combined them meant the end result of your skill and labour was unmistakably yours.
By contrast, when you went to work on a production line, you were reduced to doing one task over and over again, while the person next to you did another task, and so on, until at the end of the line, all the shoes or chairs looked exactly the same, and your contribution, your mark, was as invisible as everyone else’s.
Morris created workshops where skills were recombined, and individual craftspeople were allowed to make their own products as they saw fit. The craftsperson was given autonomy, control, job satisfaction, and ultimately, a sense of dignity that were not available to their counterparts in factories. The workers, the ideas they presented and the products they created became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The word “craft” goes back to at least the 10th century, but its specific meaning today was invented by Morris. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmanship was just the way things were done, the way they’d always been done. Arts and Crafts arrived at a time when industrialised productions had become the normal way things were done. “Craft”, in its modern sense, is an alternative, a choice, a reaction against mainstream industrial production, against the way things are normally done.
As we sit here, reading and writing on our personal electronic devices while sitting on comfortable chairs in heated rooms, it’s a point of view many of us might feel sympathy with. But Morris and his work exposed the problems and contradictions at the heart of the idea of craft.
The reason industrialised production took off is because it allowed products to be made quicker and cheaper, and therefore more affordable. Factory workers may have been miserable at work, but at the end of the week they could actually afford to buy a pair of shoes, or a loaf of bread. (A new chair used to be something out of the reach of most people. Now you can buy an IKEA IVAR chair with the proceeds of two hours working on minimum wage.)
If you’re going to allow individual craftspeople the time and space to make things themselves, how they want to, and pay them fairly for doing so, their products can only be more expensive than those made in factories. The great irony of the Arts & Crafts movement was that pretty much the only people who could afford to buy what they made were the wealthy industrialists who they stood against. The movement eventually fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
But Morris’s ideas stuck around. The idea that something produced by a craftsperson was somehow inherently better that something made in a factory takes many forms. We assume it will be better quality than something mass-produced – even though this is by no means always true.
(Mainstream lagers may be bland and insipid, but craft products are far more variable.)
But many people also believe there’s a moral dimension to it – it’s better for the maker, who has a more fulfilling, meaningful job, but it’s also better for the consumer, because they’re supporting a small producer rather than big corporation, a more sustainable and less moral dubious form of business, one that isn’t big enough to bully its competitors, strip-mine the planet of resources, or exploit poorly paid workers.
(“Craft beer people are good people” and all that.)
Interestingly, Morris had a revival of interest in the 1970s – precisely when CAMRA began campaigning in the UK and what would later be called craft brewers started mashing in in the United States. Today, as interest in what we loosely refer to craft beer shows no sign of abating, interest in arts and crafts more broadly is booming again – FFS, even macramé is currently hip.
The picture of Morris above was taken when he was 53 – a year older than I am now. I suspect I could get away with using it as a picture of a middle-aged writer about craft beer today and no-one who doesn’t recognise him would suspect me of foul play. Not only does William Morris look like an ageing craft beer hipster, he would recognise all the contradictions and frustrations at the heart of craft beer, the discussions around it, the incessant need to define it, to own it or protect it, and, increasingly, the desire among producers to abandon the term.
His legacy shows why that might be a bad idea. Arts & Crafts, like craft beer, was easy to criticise, easy for those who wanted to to exploit it and manipulate it to do so, easy to dismiss as being expensive and over-hyped. But a century after its supposed demise, both it and its founder remain culturally vital. As long as we have cheap, mass-market, industrialised production making goods for everyone, we’re going to have niche craft versions produced as a counter-cultural alternative – available for anyone who can afford to buy them.
Enjoyed reading this? There’s a much fuller discussion of the relationship between craft beer and the broader origins of craft in my book Craft: An Argument – named Best Beer Book at the 2020 North American Beer Writers Awards.
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Beer – it doesn’t matter what the marketing is like, it’s the taste that counts, right? Not according to the outcry that’s greeted the Anchor Brewery’s rebrand.
When we were researching my latest book, Beer By Design, I approached Anchor several times, through various channels, to ask them for some artwork or photography of their labels and bottles. I was completely ignored – even though the brewery follows me on Twitter.
Anchor acknowledged the spirited reaction yesterday by issuing a statement acknowledging the depth of feeling among its fans and defending its position.
The engagement is welcome. The fact that they felt the need to issue the statement underlines the depth of feeling around the change, which is all the more fascinating when you consider how many craft beer fans insist that what’s on the outside of the package doesn’t matter – it’s what’s inside that counts. (Anchor even felt it necessary to reassure fans that the beer itself hadn’t changed.)
My personal reaction was immediate: as a standalone piece of visual design, I think it looks cheap and generic. From a more dispassionate branding point of view, I think it has broken a fundamental law of good branding by throwing away completely a distinctive and much-loved visual identity.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write this, Anchor’s PR team got in touch with me and offered to give me some more context and background for the change, so I delayed writing this until they could give me their side. They’ve been really helpful. They haven’t changed my mind about the result, but they’ve given me some valuable insight into the process of how they got there, and I don’t disagree at all with a lot of the thinking.
So I thought, for anyone who is particularly interested in branding, this might make for an interesting, long-read case study that has a bit more to it than me simply saying how much I dislike this new look.
Background: What is Anchor and why is it important?
Anchor is widely regarded as the first modern American craft brewery. It actually dates back to 1871, was named Anchor in 1896, closed during prohibition, and then struggled on afterwards until, on the point of closure, it was bought by Fritz Maytag in 1965. Maytag continued brewing the unique Steam Beer, taking years to get it right, and bottling it for the first time in 1971. Over subsequent years he reintroduced porter to North America, and after a trip to England, brewed a tribute to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord using an experimental hop that later became known as Cascade. Anchor stood alone as a small, independent brewery creating beers that didn’t taste like generic macro lager, and in Liberty Ale, arguably invented the style that would go on to become American pale ale.
Back when Steam was first bottled, its labels were hand-drawn and homespun by necessity. But they evoked an indie, rootsy aesthetic that increasingly made a statement against corporate brands that looked increasingly slick, shouty, and, later, computer-generated. This folksy, hand-illustrated style was also taken up by other craft beer pioneers such as Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams and Full Sail.
That was over forty years ago, though. The craft beer shelves are now far more crowded than they were. Even if that were not the case, times change. Everyone needs to update their wardrobe every now and again, and brands are no different. On top of that, Jim Stitt, who started drawing Anchor’s labels in 1974, has now retired from doing so – at the age of 93.
So the packaging definitely needed a refresh, there’s no doubt about that. Having accepted that, there are two basic stages to the process:
Principles and strategy of rebrand – what are the aims of the rebrand? What do we want to achieve and how?
Execution of rebrand – how do we bring that strategy to life in words and visuals?
Principles and strategy of rebrand
There should be specific reasons for a rebrand rather than just “I fancy a change”/ “I need to put something on my CV”.
Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design in a crowd. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as ‘Anchor Steam Beer’ and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said. “While Steam will always be at the heart of the brewery, we designed the new look to create visual continuity between all of Anchor’s classic beers, as well as the new styles we’ll be debuting this spring.
Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten.
Strategically, this is the only part that bugs me, for two reasons.
The first is that Anchor is partly right – the craft beer market has shifted towards being more novelty driven. Some of the recent Twitter responses to the rebrand can be summed as “So what? They’re Old School. Fuck ‘em.”
Obviously, there’s a generational element in play. Obviously, innovation and new thinking are vital for any dynamic market to retain its energy. Cask ale in the UK foundered precisely because it didn’t move quickly enough to keep pace with changing tastes. But craft beer succeeds when it is a balance of tradition and innovation playing off each other. If you’re a craft beer fan for whom anything old is irrelevant and crap simply and only because it is old, then you’re not a craft beer fan at all. You’re simply a trend-chasing little kid who has just moved on from fidget spinners and Pokémon Go, and you’ll be out of here whenever some influencer tells you it’s now cooler to drink Hard Seltzer, or CBD-infused spirits, or, I dunno, space rock-infused liquefied cronuts or something. Don’t let your-sticker-loving, badge-encrusted, designer label-clad arse hit the door on the way out.
The second reason is that I think Anchor has drawn the wrong conclusion from the correct analysis, that conclusion being: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you’re being put in the shade by faddy, dayglo brands, you have no option but to look like one yourself.
Weirdly, this conundrum seems to affect beer more than other markets. Levi Strauss is way older than Anchor. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs. But it remains relevant by staying in touch with contemporary issues, while never wavering from its core identity.
It’s the same for other “old-school” brands such as Coca-Cola, Rayban, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s, who all remain contemporary and yet true to their roots at the same time.
Updating your wardrobe is one thing. Throwing out a wardrobe of, say, bespoke Savile Row suits because they’re old and grey, and replacing them with a bunch of G-Star, Stone Island and Burberry, is quite another.
Execution of rebrand
When you’re deciding on how to execute a rebrand, you have the choice of gentle evolution or more radical revolution. Any brand needs to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, most brands obey category cues that make them fit in. You don’t see much laundry detergent that you could mistake for beer, and vice versa. Do you stand out by doing category cues better than anyone else? Or do you stand out by looking like no one else does?
Anchor has clearly gone for a revolutionary approach. But there are many examples in beer of brands that maintain their relevance by a process of gentle evolution.
To those who say Anchor needed to change because it hasn’t done until now, it has in fact evolved gently over the years:
Clearly, Anchor no longer felt evolution was enough. But brands such as Budweiser proudly make a point of constant evolution:
Bud’s newest redesign actually found greater relevance by going more old-school, having everything redrawn by hand rather than created via desktop publishing. Here’s a before and after:
It’s won every design award going, and had a dramatic uplift in sales as a result.
On the point about needing to make design work for the range rather than one flagship beer, Anchor’s peer Sierra Nevada had no problem making this work in a gentle evolution of the original illustrated style:
Within craft beer in the UK, Vocation answered the same problem Anchor was facing with regard to clarity and standout on crowded shelves, while retaining all the key elements people were familiar with, but just cleaning them up and making them stand out more:
When Camden Town was bought out by a macro, it managed a rebrand that made it bolder, clearer and more commercial without sacrificing any of its “Camdenness”:
Even if this is not enough – if you decided you had to be more drastic about it – that still doesn’t mean throwing out everything you had. Harvey’s latest rebrand was pretty drastic, but it still looks more like Harvey’s used to look than it looks like anyone else.
Lancashire brewery Moorhouse’s old world was hopelessly outdated, perhaps the closest example in my recent memory to where Anchor imagines it was.
The new stuff looks nothing like the old stuff – but it still draws from the same inspiration, and more crucially, it doesn’t look like any of its competitors:
The key point for me is that a brand has to be true to itself and not try to be someone else.
In its follow-up, Anchor makes a spirited defence that it has done exactly this. And when you actually pick up a pack to have a closer look, it has a point.
Firstly, there’s a new strapline, “Forged in San Francisco,” and reference to Anchor’s heritage. The brewery says:
“For the first time, we are showing our original brewery on all packages, so every lifelong Steam drinker and new drinker has an understanding of our San Francisco roots and heritage. The illustration is inspired by an archival shot of the Gold Rush-era Anchor brewery showcasing the steam that billowed off our rooftops as the wort cooled.”
The pack also tells the story of Steam beer itself:
“Until now, we’ve never told our fans what makes Steam so special. People only knew the story of Steam and why it tastes the way it does if they went on a tour at our brewery in San Francisco (or did research), so part of preserving our legacy was aimed at sharing our stories via our packaging.”
And then there’s the big anchor on the front itself. There are many different anchors in San Francisco’s port heritage, and the new logo “is a combination of many of them, but it is most directly inspired from our 1909 brewery signage when we were located in the Mission District.”
This is all great. I have no problem with any of it in theory (apart from whether or not that is the real story about how steam beer got its name, which is by no means certain). But in order to appreciate any of this, you have to pick up the pack in the first place. And if this is what you’re going to see on shelf, I’m not sure how many people will:
It’s got an Anchor on it, but it doesn’t have Anchor’s values, Anchor’s tone of voice.
The strategy is fine, the execution flawed. Maybe it’ll look different on shelves in San Francisco – maybe the visual aesthetic is different there. But by UK standards, as many have pointed out, with its simplicity and blocks of primary colour, it resembles generic supermarket own label craft beer:
I also worry that a big, simple anchor reminds people of all those generic clip-art logos you can buy by the dozen:
Here’s Anchor’s old logo, next to the new one:
Compare this to the last rebrand on Guinness in 2016, where they felt the world-famous harp logo had become too simplified over time, too desktop-publishing, and redrew everything by hand, to put the craft values back into it:
As other big, established brands learn from craft that people want authentic, handmade cues, Anchor has moved in the opposite direction. Its packaging may now be telling the brewery’s story better, but a visual identity built up over almost 50 years has been trashed at a stroke. The real problem is not that it looks different from how it did, but that it looks too much like everything else, and is too easily replicable.
I hope I’m wrong, but I still think a more rigorous evolution would have been more successful than this drastic revolution, which succeeds in damaging existing brand equity, without providing enough new, ownable, distinctive memorable equity to replace it. I have been wrong about branding many times. Let’s hope this is one of them.
Beer by Design, published by CAMRA Books, is out now.
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With around 2500 breweries in the UK, many of whom sell core ranges, seasonals, limited editions and collabs, it’s never been harder to stand out from the pack. That’s why the look of beer has become the most creative and diverse of any packaged product. And that’s why my wife and I did a book about it while (white) shielding.
Before I was a writer, I worked in advertising – and enjoyed it for a time. I was fascinated by the idea of brands: originally a simple mark of ownership, they evolved into carriers of additional meaning. At first, they were symbols of trust, of consistency and quality. Every tin you buy with a Heinz logo on it, every Cadbury’s chocolate bar, is going to taste the same as the last one. If we like that taste, we remain loyal to most things that carry that logo. Then, brands took on a more abstract sense. If lots of people who are like you all think that a certain brand is cool, then by extension, in their eyes, you’re cool if you wear it. Over the last thirty years we’ve all learned to use this abstract quality of brands, whether we do so consciously or not. We use brands and logos to build an idea of ourselves that we want to project to the world.
After Bass became the UK’s first registered trade mark, beer brands developed certain stylistic conventions that remained fundamentally unchanged for over a century. The oval, or “racetrack” shape, use of a simple symbol, various cues of quality. It all started to look a bit… samey.
In the 21st century, craft beer tore up the rulebook of how successful beer branding was supposedly done. It set itself directly in opposition to conventional design to prove that it wasn’t part of the mainstream.
This led to an extraordinary explosion of creativity. Among people who insisted they were influenced by the beer and not the marketing, like mainstream drinkers were, some enormously powerful brands were built.
Not all of it works as successful commercial branding, but most of it is gorgeous to look at, and some of it works as art in its own right.
And this branding revolution has affected the whole beer market, inspiring even established mainstream brands to rediscover the craft and art of design. This was pretty welcome for some older cask ale brands that had previously started to look dated and out of touch, and could now look contemporary in ways they never would have dared before craft moved the goal posts.
Sometimes, creative use of type, combining heritage typefaces with a few modern tricks, can make a brand look cool while still remaining true to its roots: a hard thing to pull off when it’s much easier to look like you’re desperately dad-dancing in a market you no longer understand.
Alternatively, a distinctive style of illustration can establish a common look across a wide range of beers at the same time as marking them out as different from everyone else.
Even the biggest brands realised there was more to the broader idea of craft than being small and independent, and rediscovered an idea of craft in their design that was firmly based in their heritage and longevity.
My wife Liz, who spent years working in the design industry, worked as picture researcher on this book. She had countless conversations with designers, artists and people working for breweries, and eventually gathered artwork from over 220 different breweries. When it came to making a book that looked as beautiful as a tome on design should, we didn’t have room for all of it. (We feature about 145 breweries in the book in total.) That’s why Liz will be launching a new blog – BeerByDesign.co.uk -tomorrow, and has also set up @BeerByDesignUK on Twitter and Instagram. This book is only the start of a conversation about design in which we aim to show some work in more depth, give behind the scenes peeks at how things develop, and interview designers and brewers about their work.
There’s still a lot of shit design out there, and there are conversations to be had about what should or shouldn’t go on a beer label, how it’s regulated, and whether or not it works. But for now, we’re keeping Beer By Design to the good stuff, things we like to look at, and things we believe help sell beer. If there is a job to do on the poor stuff, then maybe by showing the good stuff, we can inspire others to raise their game.
So please, if you’re a brewer, artist or designer who thinks your work should be featured, or if you’re a big fan of someone you believe should be here, go to BeerByDesign.co.uk and let us know!
You can of course buy the book from Amazon, but I’d prefer if you bought it from the CAMRA bookshop, for two reasons. Firstly, I think it’s great that CAMRA were prepared to publish a book like this. It’s a real sign that the organisation is taking a more modern, inclusive approach to beer than it has in the past, so it would be nice to show them how right they were to do it. And secondly, I get a significantly higher royalty on copies sold through CAMRA than through anywhere else.
Finally, we’re holding the official launch party via Zoom tomorrow night, Thursday 26th, at 7pm, and you’re invited. If you’d like to see me and some of the featured brands and designers talking about the book, and have a chat, sign up here. It will almost certainly end with one of these.
There’s a longer, more in-depth preview of the book over on my Patreon. You can sign up from just £1 a month. But sign up at the £25 level, and you’ll get a free, signed copy of the book as a thank you. same goes for any future book I publish while you’re still signed up at that level.
The latest farrago of bullshit and utter confusion to emanate from the world’s largest brewer centres on a dispute around a Brazilian brand offending the Hindu religion by linking a holy deity to a beer that still uses sexist tropes in its marketing. But that’s not the best part…
An interfaith coalition including representatives of the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faiths is calling on Anheuser-Busch InBev to rename Brahma, one of its biggest brands, because it is the name of the Hindu god of creation.
The coalition particularly objects to the deity’s name being associated with marketing that frequently uses sexual imagery to sell beer (the pic above, of Megan Fox, is from a campaign in which she appears to strip her top off. I deliberately chose it as one of the, ah, milder images that came up on a Google search.)
I don’t want to get into the sexism, and I don’t want to get into any “Why now?” or “Political/religious correctness gone mad!” debates here. What fascinates me in particular about the story is AB InBev’s response, which is just… so AB InBev:
“Lucas Rossi, head of communications for Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Latin America subsidiary, said Tuesday the beers were named in tribute to Joseph Bramah — an Englishman who invented the draft pump valve — and not for the Hindu deity. The spelling was changed, he said, to make the name work better in the Portuguese language.”
OK, so let’s start from the top and work down from there.
Firstly, at face value, I’ve heard more believable stories from kids trying to explain where their homework is. I’m amazed anyone can say anything like this and keep a straight face. It’s obviously not true.
To check, I did some digging around the history of the brand. This claim about Joseph Bramah doesn’t seem to exist anywhere before Lucas Rossi and his team obviously made it up.
Villiger & Cia, Companhia Cerverjaria Brahma was founded in 1888 by a Swiss national called Joseph Villiger. I’ve been trying to put myself in his mindset and imagine why would a Swiss national working in Brazil would name his beer company after an engineer from Barnsley, but I have to tell you, I’m coming up blank.
The giant that would become AB-InBev acquired Brahma in 1999. When they acquired Whitbread around the same time, they destroyed its archive, so I’m guessing they didn’t spend too long sifting through any old documents they found in the brewery in Sao Paulo to carefully research the brand’s origins. In the mid-noughties I actually helped an ad agency work on a pitch for Brahma (we didn’t win) and not a single fact about the brand’s history was ever mentioned. In truth, they have absolutely no idea where the name came from.
But that’s still not the best bit.
(By the way, in case this looks a bit weirdly obsessive, I’ve done a lot of research about Joseph Bramah over the years since I learned that he was born and raised in Stainborough in Barnsley, and married a woman from Mapplewell, the former pit village just outside Barnsley, where I grew up.)
Joseph Bramah didn’t invent ‘the draft pump valve’, largely because there is no such thing.
There are pump valves, and there are draft pumps, which have certain aspects in common, but are two quite different things.
Bramah does have a connection to both. He patented a new type of valve for the flushing toilet (which was in fact invented by his boss) in 1778.
But I think what Rossi was attempting to claim was that Joseph Bramah invented the ‘draft pump’ beer engine, the system of beer dispense that is today still used to pull cask ales from the cellar through a swan-necked tap to dispense cask ale. Famously, AB-InBev executives are easily confused when it comes to the details of the products they make, and ‘draft pump valve’ was probably a mangled attempt to describe something they should know a lot about, but evidently don’t.
The problem is: Bramah didn’t invent the beer engine either – although it is widely claimed that he did.
The first beer engine was developed in 1691 by John Lofting, a Dutch inventor, merchant and manufacturer. The London Gazette dated 17th March that year states:
“the patentee hath also projected a very useful engine for starting of beers and other liquors which will deliver from 20 to 30 barrels an hour which are completely fixed with brass joints and screws at reasonable rates.”
A century later, Bramah, attempted to improve upon Lofting’s design, and in 1797 patented a manually operated beer pump which he believed would have tremendous advantages for “the masters of families and publicans”.
Unfortunately Bramah’s handpump was rubbish.
Whereas hand pumps depend on pressure from the beer engine on the bar to create a vacuum that draws the beer up the line from the cask, Bramah’s sketches show a system of pistons inside casks, weighted with heavy bags of sand. The piston pushes the beer down inside the cask, through an opening in the bottom, and up the pipe to a simple tap at the bar. It would never have worked, because it failed to take account of both the dimensions of casks, which are bowed, and the height of cellars, which were too low for his pistons. Bramah’s idea never poured a single pint.
So: a made-up story, that doesn’t make any sense and has no foundation in historical records, falsely claims a Swiss brewer working in Brazil named his business after a bloke from Barnsley, on the grounds that he invented something that doesn’t exist, because it was getting confused with something he is often credited with inventing, but in fact never did.
AB InBev’s skill in layering bullshit upon falsehood upon ignorance upon misunderstanding is almost admirable.
(H/T to Laurent Mousson for posting about this on Facebook and picking out the key paragraph posted above.)
When we were looking at March data for beer sales versus the same period last year, we had to bear in mind that we were looking at half a month where people were starting to avoid pubs because of fears of Covid, and half a month where pubs, restaurants, hotel bars etc. were on mandatory lockdown. The figures didn’t represent a full month of lockdown. Now we can see what that looks like.
In April and May, on-trade sales were obviously down -100% versus 2019.
Off-trade, sales were up by +39% in April, lowering to +25% in May.
That adds up to TOTAL beer sales being down -24% in April and -30% in May.
Add up total beer sales in March to May and compare it to the same period in 2019, and volume sales are down 22% overall.
Breaking it down, ale fared far worse than lager: total (i.e. on-trade plus off-trade) ale sales were down 31% in March, -58% in April and -59% in May, whereas total lager sales were down -10% March, -15% in April, and -22% in May.
Some observations on this…
One, as lockdown progressed, we drank less.
It’s worth noting that weather is a key factor in beers sales, particularly for lager. April was unseasonably warm and sunny, but May was a scorcher, officially the sunniest calendar month on record. Yet beer sales were lower in May than in April. One possible reason for this is that panic-buying early on in lockdown meant we bought less as it went on. Another is that we simply started getting out of the habit of drinking beer in the absence of the on-trade. But based on the weather, we should have expected sales to be better in May than in April.
Two, Lockdown has hit small, independent craft brewers and cask ale brewers far harder than Big Beer
Ale fared so much worse than lager because ale skews far more to the on-trade than lager does. Before lockdown*, supermarkets and off-licenses already accounted for around 55% of the lager we drank, whereas with ale, we were still drinking 70% of it in pubs, and only 30% at home. In volume terms, if my sums are correct, while ale had an 18% share of total beer sales before lockdown, it has accounted for 38%% of the total beer market volume loss during lockdown.+ Stout is counted separately. Together, ale and stout used to account for 22% of total market volume, and have taken 48% of the total volume loss.
This is the most worrying aspect for fans of craft beer and cask ale. Ale is far more skewed to small, independent brewers than lager is. The vast majority of lager is brewed by giant multinationals. So here is incontrovertible proof that while all brewers have suffered due to the closure of pubs, and while Britain is drinking significantly less overall, lockdown has hit craft and cask ale brewers far harder than it has Big Beer.
SIBA’s survey of their membership during lockdown was based on a smallish sample of their members and didn’t use audited data, so I always thought (or rather hoped?) that their claim that, on average, SIBA member brewers’ sales were down 82% was overly pessimistic. Having looked at total market data and broken it down like this, I now suspect it’s pretty close to the mark.
Now lockdown is easing, things don’t look much better. It seems that, despite predictable media sensationalism about “Super Saturday”, only half of pubs have reopened so far. Those that did reopen are seeing trade pan out at half its normal level. 25% of pubs cannot open viably even with social distancing reduced to one metre. These are smaller pubs, particularly micropubs, which are more skewed towards ale and craft beer than the average pub.
To really rub salt into the wounds, smaller and wet-led pubs got nothing from the chancellor’s mini-budget that reduced VAT on food sales and incentivised eating out, but provided nothing to support beer.
So please, if this upsets or concerns you, why not get online, or go to the pub if you feel safe doing so, and buy some beer from your local craft/cask ale brewer? They need our custom now more than ever.
For more detailed insight on the future of post-pandemic craft beer, with some light at the end of this long tunnel, check out this summary of my report on Craft Beer After Covid.
*For “before lockdown,” I’ve used figures for total beer sales for the calendar year to December 2019.
+ Calculated by working out total beer volumes March to May 2019 and comparing it with total beer volumes March to May 2020.