Category: Beer

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, British Guild of Beer Writers, Journalism, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

Beer Writer of the Year

On Thursday night the British Guild of Beer Writers named me their Beer Writer of the Year, for the third time.

 

I even bought a suit.

It caps an incredible year for me and I’m obviously delighted. But I still wouldn’t recommend three simultaneous book contracts to anyone, and won’t be repeating this trick any time soon.

I won two categories before picking up the overall award. First was Best Writing in Trade Media, for my columns in the Morning Advertiser. Luck always plays a big part in any success, and I think this year I was particularly lucky to have some great stories fall into my lap. The rediscovery by Carlsberg of the earliest generation of modern brewing yeast, and their successful attempt to ‘re-brew’ with it, was a unique event. And my chance to interview the man who invented nitro dispense – the technology that makes Guinness so distinctive and is now being explored by forward-thinking craft brewers – just weeks before his passing was something I’ll always remember. The research for my forthcoming book on beer ingredients also led me to some stories that I could write up as columns without taking anything away from the book.

In case you’re interested, here are links to the pieces wot won it:

 

I also won Best Writing in National Media mainly, I think, for my new book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (which is currently being sold insanely cheaply on Amazon), but I also entered pieces I’ve written for Ferment and Belgian Beer and Food magazines. I’m not the only decent writer in these excellent magazines – if you haven’t done so already, you should do yourself a favour and check them out.

As I said on the night, I owe the success of The Pub to Jo Copestick, a long-standing editor and publisher who specialise in food and drink and design, who has worked with and encouraged most good beer writers out there. We first spoke about the idea for The Pub ten years ago. She plays the long game, and she made this book finally happen. Even though it’s my name on the front I’m only a third of the team. People’s first reaction to it is that it’s a very beautiful book, and that is nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jo and designer Paul Palmer-Edwards at Grade Design. Sitting around the table with these two and being perfectionist about layout after layout was a wonderful working experience.

Having won these two categories, the judges then decided that overall, I was their Beer Writer of the Year.

It’s a trick of the order in which these awards are presented that my two awards were near the end of the evening. Earlier, it had looked like Mark Dredge was going to walk away with the big gong after sweeping Best Food and Drink Writing for his book, Cooking With Beer, and Best Beer and Travel Writing for his book The Best Beer in the World. I really hope this isn’t the start of a trend of publishing multiple books in a year because that way madness lies, but hearty congratulations to Mark for running me so close, and to the winners and runners-up in all the other categories.

Some of the stuff you hear around all awards ceremonies gets so repetitive it sounds platitudinous, but when you’re in the thick of it, phrases like ‘the standard was really high this year’ and ‘the quality of entries continues to improve’ get repeated because they are true. Having won this year, I’ll be chair of the judges next year. I’ve done this twice before. It’s always an interesting task, but the quality of work, often from writers I’ve never previously come across, scares me even as it delights me. No doubt this time next year, I’ll be here writing ‘the standard of entries was very high this year’ and ‘the judge’s decision was an extremely difficult one.’

I already know this will be true. As beer continues to excite greater numbers of people in all walks of life, many who fall in love with beer want to communicate their passion, and more and more of them are very good at it.

For a full list of winners in all categories, and comments from the judges, see the full press release here.

| Anheuser-Busch, Beer, Budweiser Budvar, Lager, Marketing

Budweiser: You Can’t Rush Plagiarism

Seems like America’s beer just can’t stop stealing things from southern Bohemia…

I was shocked late Friday night to see a really good beer ad from Budweiser. No, stop laughing. I’ve seen plenty of good ads from Bud before – stuff about frogs and lizards and whazaaap, but this was a good beer ad: it’s true, it’s centred on the product, and it says something good about the broader beer category – good lager takes time to mature.

Last I heard, Budweiser is matured for twenty days. That’s not as long as the classic lagers of the Czech Republic and Germany are matured, but it’s a hell of a lot longer than the 72 hours some leading brands allegedly spend in the brewery between mashing in and packaging. You may not like the (lack of) taste in Budweiser, but even now they do some things right, and deserve some credit for that. So I was pleased to see an ad that had made lager maturation look cool.

I said as much on Twitter and Facebook, and very quickly Simon George of Budweiser Budvar UK shot back that his new strategy is to focus on the Czech beer’s astonishingly long lagering time – five times longer than the American beer. Budweiser Budvar has been running this copy for about nine months, albeit without the huge TV ad budgets US Bud can afford:

The dispute between American Budweiser and Czech Budweiser Budvar is decades old. Bud founder Adolphus Busch told a court of law, on record, in 1894: “The idea was simple,” he testified, “to produce a beer of the same quality, colour and taste as the beer produced in Budejovice [the Czech name for the town known as Budweis in German] or Bohemia.” Even though that record exists, the company has since flatly denied that this it stole the name Budweiser from the town of Budweis, or even took any inspiration from there. (There’s a lot more on this dispute in my book Three Sheets to the Wind.)

Budvar spent a long time capitalising on its David V Goliath relationship with Budweiser and has recently decided to move on and focus on its ageing process instead, as part of a new strategy to remain relevant in a market where craft beer means drinkers are more interested in product specifics. But it seems Budweiser are still hung up on their namesake. Nine months after Czech Budvar focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer, American Budweiser focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer:

 

Having stolen the idea, they’ve now gone the whole hog and even stolen the same copy. The Budvar headline above? ‘You can’t rush perfection.’ Spot the difference in the Facebook link to the ad below.

Come on, Budweiser. You’ve already stolen your name from the town in which Budweiser Budvar is brewed. You’ve copied their advertising idea (albiet in a fine execution) and now even their copy, word for word. You employ some of the best and most expensive advertising agencies in the world (even if you do try to shaft them on costs.) Is this the best those agencies can do?

| Beer, Craft Beer

Stop the presses: the definition of craft beer

Yet again, I’m in the middle of writing a piece that addresses the idea that craft beer is ‘a meaningless term,’ that ‘craft beer’ doesn’t exist because it had no precise, technical definition.

To argue the point I’m making, I hauled out my massive copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to look at the definition of the word ‘craft.’ And lo and behold, just below the three different definitions of ‘craft’, the next entry is ‘craft beer’!

So according to the OED:

‘craft beer (also craft brew) noun (US) a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region.’

I kinda like that. You may not. I think it gets to the point of what it’s all about. You may disagree with it, you may think it’s incomplete, you may think it misses the point. I really don’t care. Because craft beer has a strict tight, pithy definition, created by the people whose job it is to define what words mean. This is the definition of craft beer whether you like it or not. If you disagree, you might as well argue with the definitions of the words ‘cramp,’ ‘cranial,’ ‘crannog’ or ‘crap hat.’

This may not solve many of the issues in craft beer, but it does hopefully mean an end to the fatuous argument that the problem with craft beer is its lack of a strict definition. If you have a problem with craft beer, it’s probably not about the definition of the word, but about what you feeling being done to the concept.

By the way, my personal big-ass copy of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 2003, so (a) apologies to anyone for whom this is old news and (b) that means craft beer has had a definition all this time we’ve been arguing over whether it does to not. Tchoh!

| Beer, Books, Hops & Glory, IPA

Long Read: Burton IPA’s arrival in India.

The reason I’m not blogging at the moment is that I’m deep into writing up my next beer book, What Are You Drinking? I’m hoping to finish this draft in the next two weeks, and it’ll be published spring next year. 


I’m going through the four key raw materials of beer and telling their stories, and I’m currently up to water. It’s the toughest one to do. Today, after writing about Dublin and Bohemia, I’m writing about the special water that made Burton on Trent the ale brewing capital of the world, and I’ve gone back into my first draft of Hops and Glory for help. That first draft was 50 per cent longer than the book that was eventually published. I remember my editor reading it and saying, “Look, I’m enjoying it OK? But I’m expecting to read about a sea voyage to India and all I’m saying is I’m on page 156 and I’m still on a canal boat outside Burton.” My first attempt at editing it resulted in it being 5000 longer. 


We had to be brutal. A lot of the granular history of Burton and IPA got cut, whole chapters summarised into a few lines each. I’ve sometimes regretted this because while many people tell me they enjoy the book, it doesn’t get mentioned in the canon of historical research on IPA very often. It was aimed at a general audience rather than a beer geek or brewer, and some of the stuff serious beer heads might find fascinating really slowed the pace down for everyone else.


So this morning, I’ve dug out the first draft hoping to find a previously unpublished treatise on the properties of Burton water and its suitability for brewing strong pale ale. It’s not quite there, and I’ve misremembered what a lot of the research actually told me. But I did find this, and I found it fascinating. If you’re a hardcore IPA nut, you might find it interesting too. Long-read blog posts seem to be in fashion at the moment, and this makes up for me not writing anything else here, and there’s no other way I can use it, so why not? If you don’t fancy spending 20 minutes reading detailed beer history, you can leave now and I’ll come back to proper blogging as soon as I can.


The following passage was cut down to about half this length in the book, and loses many of the primary quotes, which get summarised  But in full, it tells the story of what happened when Burton IPA first arrived in India. In writing the book, I didn’t just want to get an accurate handle on what the beer was really like; I wanted to know why. What made it work in India? Why did it take off? Why did the British in India drink it? How was it served? What did they think of it?


So here we are. To set the scene: The London brewer Hodgson’s owns the beer market in India. He has good links with the East India Company’s sea captains and they make a lot of money by transporting and selling his beers. But Hodgson gets greedy and tries to hike prices, flooding the market with cheap beer whenever a competitor appears, then whacking them up again when the competitor backs off. Campbell Marjoribanks of the East India Company visits Samuel Allsopp in Burton and suggests that he might like a crack at the Indian market. He gives Allsopp a sample of Hodgson’s beer and Allsopp brews a version of it in Burton, unaware that the difference in brewing water compared to London (see?) will make it a dramatically different beer. But will its superior quality be enough to counter Hodgson’s sharp marketing practices? He places his first brew on two ships sailing from Liverpool: the Bencoolen and the Seaforth. They’re also carrying some of Hodgson’s beer. Six months later, they arrive at the dock in Calcutta…

Given the Bencoolen factory’s historicreputation as a disease-blown, drink-sodden, last chance saloon that convicts rather hang than be posted to, and its censure by ‘John Company’ over its
enthusiasm for Burton ale, it’s perhaps fitting that Samuel Allsopp’s first consignment
of strong beer for India went on a ship of the same name.  But much had changed in the century since the
Bencoolen public table’s legendary binge.
Affairs in the east were more organised, more civilised now.  Beer was a
respectable drink, a sign of good standing, drunk by people who were creating a
New England that was different from home in only a few key respects: it was
much hotter, a bit more dangerous, and they were able to live like lords rather
than clerks.
But an exotic world still lay outside the
window.  Fanny Parkes, arriving only a
few months earlier, painted a vivid picture of the sight that would have
greeted the Bencoolen as she made her
final passage up the Hugli River:
Passing through the different vessels that crowd the Hoogly
off Calcutta gave me great pleasure; the fine merchant-ships, the gay,
well-trimmed American vessels, the grotesque forms of the Arab ships, the
Chinese vessels with an eye on each side the bows to enable the vessel to see
her way across the deep waters, the native vessels in all their fanciful and
picturesque forms, the pleasure-boats of private gentlemen, the beautiful
private residences in Chowringhee, the Government-house, the crowds of people
and vehicles of all descriptions, both European and Asiatic, form a scene of
beauty of which I know not the equal.
A further key difference is that here,
beer was still a luxury rather than the centuries-old staple it was back
home.  The market Hodgson’s dominated was
not huge.  John Bell, who compiled trade
figures for the Bengal authorities, estimated the average annual consumption of
beer at almost seven thousand hogsheads, a quarter of which went to Madras, the
rest to Bengal.  ‘There is reason to
suppose that the demand would increase if the price was steady’, he wrote, ‘but
while it fluctuates from six to fifteen rupees a dozen it is not likely that
the consumption will be increased’.  On
the contrary, ‘thousands would be compelled to give it up and take to drinking
French clarets, which are and have been selling at from three to eighteen
rupees a dozen’.  French clarets?  Less than a decade after Waterloo?  No, we couldn’t have that.  The supply of affordable beer had to be
stabilised.
The fact that pale ale occupied a very
similar price range to French claret speaks volumes about the quality of the
beer and the demand for it in this climate.
That quality was strictly upheld by the import agents.  Some historians wax dramatically about how
rejected beer was poured away into the harbour.
This did sometimes happen – WH Roberts heard from a correspondent in
1845 of 80 hogsheads being poured away – but it would have had to have been
incredibly bad beer to warrant such measures.
The Calcutta Gazette carried
plenty of ads such as the one in April 1809 for ‘62 hogsheads of REJECTED BEER,
bearing different Marks, imported on the Honourable Company’s ship General
Stuart.’  Even broached casks – with beer
that could only have been stale – were sold for anything they could get: ‘8
full and one ullaged Hogsheads of Damaged Beer imported on the Honourable
Company ship Tottenham’ were sold by Captain Hughes once permission had been
given by the customs collectors.
Because even beer that couldn’t pass
muster had its uses.  It might have
molasses pitched in, the sugar giving it an additional fermentation, then be
watered down and mixed with spices to disguise the rank taste.  If it was too bad even for that, it could be
used to form the base of ketchup: one of the first recipes for ‘catsup’ was
devised by Hannah Glasse in 1747 ‘for the Captains of ships’.  It could keep for up to twenty years, and
consisted of stale beer, anchovies, mace, cloves, pepper, ginger and
mushrooms.
But there was to be no Samuel Allsopp’s
ketchup after the tasters had done their work.
The Burton pale ale was approved.
The cargo went to the city’s auction houses, and the Calcutta Gazette filled up with beer
ads.
Hodgson was clearly at the
swamp-the-market phase in his protectionist cycle.  He must have got wind of Allsopp’s intentions,
because eleven and a half thousand hogsheads of beer were imported in the
1822-23 season, double the amount of year before, four times the amount the
year before that, and double anything that would be achieved for the rest of
the decade.  The ads in the paper became
increasingly lyrical in their praise.  In
April the front page boasted ‘prime picked’ Hodgson’s pale ale, which
‘surpasses in superiority of quality, any of the former season’s… as fine
Malt Liquor as ever was drunk’.
The price of ale plummeted.  Hodgson’s beer was selling for twenty-five
rupees per hogshead – the price of Allsopp’s ale was set at twenty.  It was a good start, but it wasn’t great –
twenty rupees a hogshead when in some years you could get fifteen for a dozen
quart bottles was not the basis for a profitable business.  John Bell wasn’t happy:
The enhanced scale of importation which took place in
1822-23 was both unwise, and attended with great loss to those immediately
concerned with the trial of monopolizing the Indian market; and the sorrowful
winding up of that speculation, by forced sales of unsound beer… evinced a
want of proper discrimination on the part of those whose time would have been
more properly and advantageously employed in the immediate exercise of their calling.
Allsopp’s second consignment fared
better, helped by a fortunate bit of circumstance.  When the second ship, the Seaforth, came in, Tulloh & Co as
usual offered ‘the finest stock of HODGSON’S ripe PALE ALE to be met with in
India’, but further down the page sat the following notice:
REJECTED BEER
To be sold by Public Auction, by Messrs Taylor & Co, on
the CUSTOM HOUSE WHARF, by permission of the Collector of Sea Customs, at
eleven o’ Clock precisely, on Saturday next, the 28th Instant, 48
HOGSHEADS of Hodgson’s BEER, and 17 empty HOGSHEADS, landed from the ship
Timandra, and 30 hogsheads of Hodgson’s BEER, landed from the ship Seaforth.
A good portion of Hodgson’s beer had
spoiled.  Allsopp’s beer, on the same
ship, had not.  This time, it fetched
forty rupees at auction.
With a journey of up to six months each
way, brewers in England had to wait for up to a year to learn how their
business had gone.  But slowly, the
letters began to arrive back in Burton.
Mr Gisborne, a customer of the first order, wrote to Allsopp in July
1823 asking if the trade in Burton ale could be expanded, recommending that he
be given the authority to bottle the ale for retail on arrival.  In November 1824, Mr J C Bailton wrote from
Calcutta:
I have watched the whole progress of your ale… With
reference to the loss you have sustained in your first shipments, you must have
been prepared for that, had you known
that market as well as I do; here almost everything is name, and
Hodgson’s has so long stood without a rival, that it was a matter of
astonishment how your ale could have stood in competition; but that it did is a
fact, and I myself was present when a butt of yours fetched 136 rupees, and a
butt of Hodgson’s only 80 rupees at public sale.
Captain Chapman wrote that the ale had
turned out well, that a bigger shipment should be sent the following year, and
that even then it might be scarce.  In
the same month, Messrs Gordon & Co. wrote:
After bottling off a portion, which was approved by our
friends, the demand for this article has since been very great, and we now have
orders to some extent for this ale.  We
would, therefore, strenuously recommend Mr Allsopp to make further consignments
of it; and we have every reason to believe he will have a fair competition with
Messrs Hodgson & Co.
The trickle of orders coming in via
agents in Liverpool and London turned into a steady stream.  In 1824 Allsopp sent out two thousand
barrels, and in October 1825, Captain Probyn wrote that large numbers of his
passengers preferred Allsopp’s to Hodgson’s ale, and that ‘many who had been
long in India, declared it to be preferable to any they had ever tasted in the
East’.
In the Calcutta Weekly Price Current of November 1826, the following entry
occurs:
Rupees
ALE –      Hodgson, per
Hogshead    170
                 Allsopp’s
Burton    ”       170
No other beer is quoted.
In the Calcutta Gazette, the auction houses were advertising ‘a fresh
importation of Allsopp’s Highly Admired Pale Burton Ale’.  Messrs Tulloh & Co, for so long in the
grip of Hodgson, (it was they who would go on to write the highly critical Circular on the Beer Trade of India) had
much pleasure in announcing to the public that they had available a small batch
of ‘ALLSOPP’S FAMOUS PALE ALE… Great attention was bestowed on the brewing of
this batch, and is it has come out in the short period of 105 days from
Liverpool, there is every reason to expect it will turn out as almost all
Allsopp’s Shipments have done, in excellent order’.  They still sold Hodgson’s beer of course, but
now there was a worthy rival the copy for Hodgson’s seemed a little less effusive: ‘it will be carefully examined by Messrs
Watson & Co and none passed but such as is pronounced to be decidedly of
the very best quality’, they reassured us, and while it was still ‘the finest
beer that comes to the Indian market’, this was only ‘as far as the general
taste goes’.  As Tizard put it, ‘the
spell had been broken’.  In four seasons,
Allsopp had shattered Hodgson’s grip on the market.
In the face of seemingly insurmountable
odds, there was something about Allsopp’s beer that was powerful enough to
supplant the established, dominant market leader who seemingly held all the
cards.  Of course some of this success
was due to the vision and determination of Allsopp himself, a man who ‘saw no difficulties
which time, perseverance, resolution, consistency, and steady, unswerving
honour could not overcome’. But there was more to it than that.  What Campbell Marjoribanks couldn’t have
realised when he decided to court Allsopp is that he was approaching a brewer
who possessed a very special ingredient.
The Trent Valley is a broad trough carved
out of ancient rock, covered with a layer of sand and gravel anywhere up to
sixty feet deep.  Rain water trickles
through these beds for tens of thousands of years, and as a result, by the time
it emerges from wells and springs it contains a unique composition of minerals
that makes it not only superior to soft, southern water from London, but the
best water for ale brewing found anywhere in the world.  It has a higher sulphate content than any
other major brewing centre, giving a dry, bitter flavour to beer.  Sulphate means brewers can add large amounts
of hops to the beer without it becoming too astringently bitter.  Brewing scientists also claim that water for
ale should be high in calcium – Burton has the highest calcium content of any
major brewing region.  It should be high
in magnesium  and low in sodium and
bicarbonate – once more, Burton water is.
The strong, hoppy beer devised by Hodgson was given a whole new
dimension when brewed in Burton.  It was
a phenomenal stroke of good fortune, bringing a style of beer that suited the
Indian climate to a place that would never have had good reason to brew it, but
was, in the words of one later Bass historian, ‘The one spot in the world where
the well-water is so obviously intended by Nature for kindly union with those
fruits of the earth, to give beer incomparable’.
In 1828 a senior partner at George’s, a
porter brewery in Bristol that had decided to experiement with pale ale,
suggested that Hodgson’s beer simply didn’t match up to the new brews from
Burton.  Writing to Willis & Earle in
Calcutta, he said of Hodgson’s ale, ‘We neither like its thick and muddy appearance
or rank bitter flavour’.  Two years later,
when George’s joined the golden beer rush to Calcutta, the same partner
explained, ‘We made a slight alteration to the Ale by brewing it rather of a
paler colour and more hop’d to make it as similar as possible to some samples
of Allsopp’s ale’.
Even if Hodgson’s recipe was recreated
exactly in Burton, with the only difference being Burton instead of London
water, the Burton version would have been superior in quality and character
when it reached India.  And Hodgson was
simply his own worst enemy.  Having
already pissed off the East India Company to such an extent that one of its
directors went out of his way to find someone capable of putting up a fight,
Hodgson, surely expecting to rout Allsopp from the market, changed his terms of
business in 1824 and shut out the very people he relied on to get his beer to
India. According to the Circular on the
Beer Trade in India,
the captains and officers of the East Indiamen had
been Hodgson’s best customers thanks largely to the generous credit terms he
extended to them.  Hodgson’s ale was ‘one
of the principal articles in their investments’ until, in 1824, he not only
raised his prices to them, but refused now to sell on any terms except for hard
cash:
Hodgson & Co., confident of the power they had over the
market, sent the Beer out for sale on their own account; thus they, in a short
time, became Brewers. Shippers, Merchants, and even retailers.  These proceedings naturally and justly
excited hostile feelings in those engaged in the Indian Trade at home; while
the public here, seeing at last the complete control which Hodgson endeavoured
to maintain over the market, turned their faces against him, and gave
encouragement to other Brewers who fortunately sent out excellent beer.
That ‘encouragement’ took many
forms.  Happy customers were eager to
advise Allsopp not just on how to brew his beer, but when the best time was to
send it.  Then as now, one of the things
that mattered most was that the beer was served cool, which wasn’t easy when
the temperature rarely dipped below thirty degrees C and refrigeration wasn’t
going to appear for another fifty years.
Happily, one of India’s main manufactures provided the answer.  In 1828, when young Henry Allsopp was working
for Gladstone & Co, a Liverpool shipping agent, he received a letter for a
Mr Lyon in Calcutta:
I would advise your father to ship his Beer
in the month of November or latter end of October, to arrive here in March or
April; it is then our hottest season, and the quantity of Beer then consumed is
tremendous.  Your Beer is certainly a
most delightful beverage during the hot season; it is always cooled with
saltpetre before it is drank; we can make it by this article as cold as ice.
‘F.E.W.’ reminisced in a newspaper
article years later that ‘beer was always deliciously cooled with saltpetre,
when everything else was lukewarm; a point very much in its favour’.
A bottle or flask of ale would be
immersed in a solution of saltpetre.
Water was added, and as it mixed with the saltpetre it would cool within
a few minutes.  It was an effective
method but fiddly and expensive, especially given that a more lucrative use of
saltpetre was in the manufacture of gunpowder, which the Company still needed
even more than cold beer.
Gradually, an even more ingenious cooling
method came into use.  Bottles were hung
outdoors, inside a cage or cradle, and covered with a wet cloth, the edges of
which sat in a trough of water at the bottom of the cage.  The hot wind evaporated the water, and the
evaporation cooled the water.  The cloths
sucked up more water, creating a continuous cooling process.
Michael Bass soon noticed what was
happening over at Allsopp’s.  He’d
already experimented with pale malts a few years previously, and now, shut out
of the Baltic trade by Benjamin Wilson twenty years before, it was time for his
revenge.  Forced to turn back to the
domestic market after the Baltic fiasco, Bass had built far better trading
links with important cities such as Liverpool, London and Manchester.  Now, his network was more developed than
Allsopp’s, and he knew the canals better.
From 1823 there was a sharp increase in Bass sales to London
agents.  By 1828 41 per cent of Bass’
output was going to London and Liverpool, much of it in large consignments for
export.  In 1828 the Calcutta Gazette was advertising ‘Hodgson’s Allsopp’s and Basse’s
Beer in wood, and in bottle, of different ages, some all perfection, others
approaching it’, and most auction houses continued to promote all three brands
over the next few years.  In 1832 Bass
exported 5193 barrels to Calcutta – slightly more than Hodgson and Allsopp’s
combined shipments.  Although Michel Bass
didn’t live to see it (he died in 1827, leaving the brewery to his son, Michael
Thomas) his victory over Allsopp’s was decisive.  The two would remain rivals for another
century, each far bigger than any other Burton brewer, but Allsopp would never
again quite challenge Bass’ supremacy.
In 1835 John Bell noted that the beer
trade had fallen off again, and that ‘the most remarkable deficiency is in
supplies from Hodgson; on the other hand, Bass and Allsopp have shipped more
extensively.’  A year later, he could
barely keep the triumph felt by Bengal’s populace from his remarks:
Beer is an article subject to the vicissitude of caprice
more than any other article perhaps imported into Calcutta.  A very few years ago Hodgson stood alone in
the market, and the idea of rivalry was never entertained.  Thus he was enabled to reach his own terms –
cash – without any guarantee as to quality; and success, for some time, gained
for him a name and wealth.
People in England and India, at length began to discover,
that the magic spell might be broken by the strong hand of competition; and
although some of those who first had temerity enough to enter the field against
so formidable an antagonist, supported as he was by the strongest prejudice,
suffered severely, Hodgson was at length defeated, and the market is now
supplied by a variety of brewers.
Tizard was happy to advise this ‘variety
of brewers’ on how to prosper in India:
The first point of consideration is Quality… The ale
adapted for this market should be a clear-light-bitter-pale
ale of a moderate strength, and by no means what is termed in Calcutta heady;
it should be shipped in hogsheads which, we need scarcely observe, should be
most carefully coopered… Another point is, that by frequent consignments, you
acquire a name, which, as you may be
aware, is everything in India.
While it would be a long time before the
word was used freely in commerce, in order to succeed, these beers had to be
strong brands.  This was Hodgson’s legacy: his name became
synonymous with quality.  To beat him,
you had to beat him not only on quality, but also on sheer brand
awareness.  It’s no coincidence that,
fifty years after establishing itself in India, Bass would become the UK’s
first registered trade mark.
As well as the triumvirate of Bass,
Allsopp, and to an increasingly lesser extent, Hodgson, by 1833 brewers such as
Ind and Smith, Worthington, Charrington and Barclay Perkins of London and
Tennent of Glasgow were sending pale ale to India.  By 1837 Bell notes the arrival of beer from
the United States and ‘Cape Beer’, but these were to make up a tiny amount of
the beer drunk in India – as Tizard states, it was ‘clear that England must
furnish the supply’.
Imports doubled through the 1830s.  The competition and regularity of supply
stabilised prices, allowing the taste for beer to spread throughout
Anglo-Indian society, right through to ‘the poorer classes of British
inhabitants, which having once acquired, they will continue to indulge as long
as prices remain moderate’.  Allsopp’s
‘Burton India Ale’ lost out to Bass in sales, but was still considered by many,
including Tizard, to be ‘the most salable’, thanks mainly to its ‘superior
lightness and brilliancy’.  Soon,
according to Bell, ‘no less than twenty brewers now send out Beer from England,
where one occupied the field a very few years ago’.
Beer now quickly supplanted other drinks.  Sales of Madeira collapsed from 85204 rupees
in 1829-30 to 21632 rupees in 1833-34, with Bell observing that ‘this
once-favoured wine stands… as an example of the effects produced on trade by
the caprice of fashion… the sudden distaste for Madeira would almost lead us
to believe that some magic influence had been at work’.  The consumption of spirits was ‘certainly not
so great as formerly’, port was ‘limited’ and other drinks such as champagne
and hock had ‘never been very great’.  As
for the over-supply of Claret, ‘we hope that the French have at last seen the
folly of driving such a ruinous trade’.
As Bushnan remarked in
1853, thanks to the many fine qualities of Samuel Allsopp:
Since the year 1824 no Englishman has been
reduced to the sad necessity of drinking French claret for the want of a
draught of good, sound, wholesome, and refreshing English Burton beer.

| Beer, Beer Writing, BrewDog, IPA

When Michael met Stef and Martin

Trawling through old notebooks can yield unexpected treasures.

The new beer book I’m currently working on was initially inspired by a few experiences that I’d never properly written up and used.

Sometimes I’ll visit a brewery or go to an event and I’m inspired by it, taking pages of notes, and I’ll decide to write them up for one of my columns. A typical column is 700-800 words long, and while the column itself might be good, it only skates across the surface of the notes and observations I’ve made.

When I decided to write a book about hops, it was because I knew I had unused material that I’d gathered on a visit to the National Hop Collection in Kent, a jaunt to Slovenia to see the hop farms there, and a hazy account of Chmelfest, the hop blessing festival in the town of Zatec in the Czech Republic, home of the revered Saaz hop. I’d written up the National Hop Collection and Slovenia for short Publican’s Morning Advertiser columns, but I’d never known quite what to do with the Chmelfest notes. That’s where the idea for this book was born. About thirty seconds after deciding to use these three stories as the basis for a book about hops, I thought, ‘Why just hops?’ And What Are You Drinking? was born.

So now I’m deep into pulling the book together, writing up notes from trips over the last year and digging into my pile of old notebooks to find bits from over the last few years that also belong in this book.

I went to Chmelfest back in 2007, just as I was starting work on the first Cask Report and while I was trying to plan the sea voyage that would become my third book, Hops and Glory. So I dug into my pile of notebooks trying to find the one I’d been using in early 2007.

It turned out to be the same one I’d been using in late 2006 – number 6 in the stash of anally numbered notebooks I began when I first started travelling to write about beer. Chmelfest is about two thirds of the way through, and the notes are more intact and coherent than I have any right to expect. But near the front of the book, undated, is a short set of notes – just two pages – about a meeting between Michael Jackson and Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie, who were then two young brewers at a new brewery called Thornbridge.

I remember this meeting taking place at the legendary White Horse pub in West London. I can’t remember why I was there, why I’d been invited, but the two brewers were sitting against the wall with Michael facing them across a table. I was sitting two seats down, watching, not daring to join in.

I remember being inspired by Michael that night, and later feeling lucky that I was there. A year on from this meeting Michael would be dead and Martin would have left Thornbridge to start up BrewDog. Martin has spoken often about what an inspiration the meeting was to him. It’s become part of BrewDog folklore, a key event in the origin story, which makes me feel weird that I’d been there as a silent observer.

The occasion was the launch of a new beer called Kipling. Michael thought it was interesting because it used a new hop called Nelson Sauvin which came from New Zealand, and no one had brewed in Britain using New Zealand hops before. (In my notes I wrote ‘Nelson Sauverne’, which is how it sounded when Martin said it.) Martin and Stef had encountered a sample of these hops and immediately ordered some in. They wanted to make a beer that celebrated their flavour, because they were already, according to my notes, ‘bringing in obscure US hops’ for beers like Jaipur.

In a demonstration of my stunning beer writing skills at the time, my tasting notes stretch to ‘grapefruit in the finished beer.’ I also wrote down ‘Fills in the gaps that are left by the flavour spikes in spicy, deep-fried spring rolls.’ I don’t know if I wrote this because that’s what the beer was paired with because I didn’t write any more detail about what we were eating and drinking. I may have been quoting someone. (Does anyone really think spring rolls have flavour spikes?)

I’ll spare you my clumsy notes about Thornbridge and my observations about its two young, moody brewers. The reason for sharing the reminiscence is the notes I made about Michael Jackson. I was paying more attention to him during the interview than I was to the two brewers.

I’m tempted to tidy up my notes and write them better. It’s a rubbish piece of writing, embarrassing in parts, but I wanted to share the sentiments it contains, so here it is quoted as I wrote it, unvarnished by later experience or hindsight:

Michael going on – interesting enough stories. Meeting some of these people is a bit special. He’s created this thing, still sees it w the novelty he genuinely discovered for the first time.

Gentle, warming method of questioning that draws the best out of his subject – “Why this beer?” “What did you think of the hop the first time you tasted it?”

It doesn’t seem like much, written up. But this was an absolute inspiration to a fledgling beer writer. The obvious passion, undimmed after thirty-odd years. And the focus on the people, how they felt, making it about them and getting the best from them. I remember sitting there thinking, “THIS is how you do it.”

I still think that. My own notes are better now.

| Advertising, Beer, Beer Marketing, Marketing

How Big Lager Lost The Plot And Developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder

As anyone who has read Man Walks into a Pub will know, my entry into the world of beer was via Big Lager.

I loved lager ads when I was growing up as a teenager.   

Later, once I was helping make those ads, I was fascinated by the tribal loyalty people had to their favourite beer brands. If you were a group of mates in your twenties, Carling or Heineken or Carlsberg was like another one of your gang, always there when all the best times happened. In research groups you sometimes do an exercise where you ask people to imagine what brands would be like if they were people at a party. Beer brands were always characterised as confident, friendly guys, witty and popular without being an arse, enjoying a drink but never getting too drunk. This guy was never the pack leader, not necessarily the most popular or pushy guy in the room, but everyone liked him.  

Things started go go wrong around 1997. Advertising regulations grew ever tighter and the funny campaigns of the eighties were no longer possible. And beer started to take itself seriously. It wanted to provide a bit of substance behind the good-natured banter. Fair enough. But the picture started to blur.  

As sales of Big Lager shifted from pubs to supermarkets, price became a more decisive factor than brand image. It was widely believed that all these brands tasted the same. Not true, but if you’re drinking your lager ice-cold straight from the can, you’d have to have a delicate palate indeed to spot the difference in flavour.   

With very similar products, preference had been shaped from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties by who had the best ads, the most likeable personality. (I once looked at thirty years worth of image research, and perceptions of which lager was the most ‘refreshing’ tracked the brand that had the funniest ads, rather than the brand that was banging on about refreshment specifically).   

By the mid-noughties, that differentiation was based on price.   

Incredibly, most shopping is still done by the wife/mother in a family. The person who buys Big Lager is usually not the person who drinks it. As the distinct personalities created by ‘Reassuringly Expensive’, ‘This Bud’s For You’, ‘I Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label’,  ‘Follow The Bear’ and all the rest receded, the lager buyer knew her fella had a set of big brands that were all OK – nothing special but fine, all as good as each other – and she knew she could buy the one that was on the best deal and he’d be happy enough.   Brewers hate offering these deals. Headlines like ‘lager is cheaper than bottled water’, whether they’re true or not, don’t do anyone any favours. Margins shrank to almost nothing. If any big brand could get away with not doing supermarket deals, they’d jump at the chance.  

So it’s completely understandable that in the last few years Big Lager has started trying to build a sense of value and worth back into brands. Beer is cheap and commoditised, so how can we make it special again?   

The strategy of putting some premiumness back into mainstream beer is a good one. The execution of that strategy, however, is starting to look pretty horrible.   

I haven’t worked on any of these brands for a long time, but I know exactly the kind of language that’s being used in meetings. I’d bet my house on the fact that most Big Lager brands have a creative brief in the system that’s about ‘creating differentiation’, ‘making lager special again,’ by ‘making the brand more iconic’ and ‘improving perceptions of premiumness’. I’ll bet they also all have research that shows you don’t do this by banging on about the quality of ingredients and provenance. These might be mildly interesting copy points, but as Kronenbourg has demonstrated recently, it doesn’t wash as your main message to a typical mainstream lager drinker, especially when the substantiation behind your claim is paper-thin.   

So what do you do?   

You create an iconic, premium image. High production values. Brand fame.    And before you know it, you turn your brand from the genial bloke at the party into an arrogant, preening narcissist.   

From Psychology Today: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behaviour, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships… Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g. fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment.”

    You demand to be revered, claiming outrageous titles for yourself with no justification.  

      You start telling your drinkers they’re drinking the product wrong, or using the wrong terminology. You demand they start showing some respect.

    You imagine that you are some kind of treasured prize, rather than a simple, straightforward beer.  

      You start to think you embody and represent something much bigger than yourself. 

    And lose all sense of perspective.

      On the bar, you make your fonts ever bigger – sorry, more ‘iconic’ – until punters can no longer see the people serving them and bar staff have trouble passing the drinks across the bar.   

Who do you think you are helping here? How exactly do you think you are ‘enhancing the consumer experience at the point of purchase?’      

My aim here is not to slag off any individual campaign – some of them have merits, and like I said, I understand where they’re coming from up to a point.   

My aim is to demonstrate the aggregation of so many big brands taking this approach at the same time. Brands demanding to be worshipped and respected, rather than liked and tolerated. The cumulative effect is dreadfully cold and alienating, aloof. This, for a drink that is supposedly all about the good times, about kicking back and relaxing with your mates.    Big Lager has lost its way and forgotten its place. This collective arrogance is not credible, and it’s certainly not appealing. Where’s the warmth gone? Where’s the sociability?   

Premiumness in beer is not about this kind of cock-waving, and it never was. It’s about the premiumness of the experience the beer creates – the experience for which the beer is the catalyst, not the central focus.   

Big Lager should be reclaiming its territory as the catalyst for the perfect occasion with friends. Ale is more for savouring, more introverted. Craft beer is more exploratory, adventurous and product-focused, and cider is more refreshing, but has a limit on how much of it you can drink in a session.   

Yet all these drinks are stealing share from lager. All are looking more interesting, engaging and appealing than that big lager at the moment.    Mainstream lager should be solid, dependable, and reliable, and I’m sorry if that’s not sexy enough for career marketers.   

As the Beer Marketing Awards demonstrated, in some areas – particularly social media and trade marketing, where you actually have to talk to people and deal with them on a one-to-one basis – Big Lager is doing some brilliant stuff.   

But in advertising and branding, it has collectively lost the plot. If you think your brand should be revered and worshipped by its drinkers, you need to get out of beer as soon as possible and into therapy. Or maybe Scientology. They’ll love you guys.

| Beer, Cask ale

Why Farage’s foaming pint is a testament to European integration and immigration

Thanks to an amazing Stoke Newington Literary Festival I haven’t had time to blog for about a month, which means I missed my chance to comment on the biggest visibility beer has had in national media for ages. 

What a shame it had to be under such circumstances.

Over the European elections last month, beer geeks across the country gloated at the seemingly daily photoshoots of everyone’s favourite former stockbroker hoisting a pint of cask ale. Because most of the time, Ukip’s leader seemed to opt for a pint of Greene King IPA. I can’t imagine there were too many happy executives in Bury St Edmunds each time Nigel Farage’s froggy face appeared with their distinctive branded glassware.

Of course, it was perfect stage management by this most politically astute and media-savvy party leader. Nothing is more iconic of Britain than a foaming pint of real ale. And Greene King IPA initially seems like the perfect choice. Loathed by the trendy craft beer-drinking liberal London media elite, it was until recently the best-selling cask ale in Britain, the drink of the common man whom Nigel pretends to be. 

But how this pint came to be in Farage’s hands is in fact a brilliant case study of the benefits of immigration and European integration – the very things Farage campaigns against.

Hopped beers first became popular in England in the fifteenth century, when they were imported into East Anglia (Greene King’s home) from Holland and Zeeland. The first recorded imports were for Dutch workers who weren’t great fans of sweet, Old English ale. (While hops were among a range of other flavourings used in beer from at least the 8th century, they start being mentioned with increasing regularity from the early fifteenth century). The tastes of the Dutch soon caught on with the English. Over the next century, immigrants from Holland and Zeeland settled in England and began brewing hopped beer that was so good it was exported back to the continent.

By the seventeenth century there was a thriving hop industry across the Weald of Kent. This was established by refugees from the Low Countries, fleeing religious persecution. Hop farms went on to become a defining feature of Kent – which is part of Farage’s constituency as an MEP – thanks entirely to European immigrants.

Flemish brewers also settled in Southwark. Excluded from the City of London by the powerful trades guilds, they set up business just outside the city walls and soon became celebrated for the quality of their beer. There were of course those who opposed this trend, and some of the protests against these brewers strayed into xenophobia. While the story of Henry VIII banning hops is a myth, their cultivation was banned in Norwich in 1471, in Shrewsbury in 1519 and Leicester in 1523. London’s ale brewers harassed and disparaged the immigrants they felt were coming over here and taking their jobs, which led to a writ being issued to the Sheriffs of London to proclaim that:

“All brewers of beer should continue their art in spite of malevolent attempts made to prevent natives of Holland and Zeeland and others from making beer, on the grounds that is was poisonous and not fit to drink and caused drunkenness, whereas it is a wholesome drink, especially in summer.”

The descendants of these brewers eventually made Southwark one of Europe’s great brewing centres, and hopped beer gradually replaced unhopped sweet English ale. 

While we’re talking about hops, the varieties we have today are another direct result of international cooperation and trade. Hops are creatures of climate, and change their character entirely if grown in a different terroir. While Greene King IPA uses English Challenger and First Gold hops, other Greene King beers use hops grown in Slovenia. Hops such as Styrian Golding and Aurora are the descendants of hops that emigrated there from the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. These delicate plants grow better in the microclimate of the Savinja valley, which is broadly similar to southern England but more stable, protected from damaging winds and storms.

At the same time as English hops were venturing abroad, foreigners were coming to Britain to help improve the quality of our beer. Louis Pasteur’s pioneering work with yeast finally solved the great mystery of how fermentation happened. He introduced the microscope (invented by Dutchmen) to British brewers for the first time, showing Whitbread and others how to analyse and understand the behaviour of yeast. A decade later Emil Hansen – a Dane – successfully isolated the first single cell yeast strains that allow brewers to brew consistent beer. 

These innovations helped create ‘running beer’ in the 1870s. Before we understood how fermentation worked, beer brewed in warm weather would spoil thanks to infection. Old beer styles such as porter and IPA would be brewed only in winter months, and were made strong enough to store and mature in cool cellars. Some of these ‘stock ales’ would then be blended with fresh beer before serving. But once we understood how yeast worked, and how to control it via temperature (using the scale developed by the Swede Anders Celsius, or perhaps the German Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit) we could brew beer all year round and serve it fresh from the cask, without long periods of storage. These ‘running beers’ essentially form the origin of modern cask ale.  

Throughout this entire period – the golden age of brewing science – it was customary for brewers to undertake study tours around the great breweries of Europe to compare notes. While the work of French and Danish brewing scientists with yeast helped lead to the creation of real ale, English pale malt expertise influenced the development of golden pilsner lager. Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg studied at Everard’s Brewery in Burton on Trent. Pilsner was born of a combination of Czech ingredients and German skill. Burton-on-Trent would never have become the home of brewing that gave us IPA if it were not for a previous strong relationship with the Baltic states.

British cask ale is the child of immigration and European integration, like so many of our national icons: the first recorded fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant in 1860. The Great British cuppa comes from India. The designer of the Mini was a Greek immigrant. Buckingham Palace was originally built for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – the German wife of George III. The famous clock and dials of Big Ben were designed by the son of a French draughtsman who fled to England during the Revolution.

And as for Nigel’s favourite brand, Greene King? 

Whether you like Greene Kings beers or not, the business has prospered under the leadership of current MD Rooney Anand, who took the reins in 2005. Rooney was born in Delhi and arrived here as an immigrant with his parents at the age of two.

Sorry Nige – the closer you look, the more you realise that all you hold dear is founded on tolerance and understanding, on the movement of people, ideas and influences around Europe, on Britain welcoming immigrants in, allowing them to shine, and watching as they help define our country with us.

| Beer, Craft Beer

Is anyone still interested in a definition of craft beer?

I wonder…

It’s been a depressing spectacle this last couple of years watching people who share a love of great beer tear each other apart over trying to define what craft beer is.

I’ve been using the term for years in a very loose way to describe most things that are not mainstream commercially produced lager. But in the last three years, as craft has become a defined movement, some people have felt an increased urgency to give it a proper technical definition. Others have asserted that because it doesn’t have one, it does not and cannot exist – an attitude that seems to me to display a curious mix of arrogance and paranoia.

There are various obstacles to coming up with such a definition.

One is competing interests. The nearest thing we have to a definition is that put forward by the American Brewers Association. It talks about size of brewer, ownership and adjuncts. The thing is, this is a trade association’s description designed to benefit members of that trade association. It serves their purposes, not the drinker’s. It changes to suit the evolving needs of its members. Which is fair enough – for them. What’s not fair is when they seek to impose this definition on the whole world of beer. The best beer I’ve had this year is a bourbon aged Imperial stout with cherries from Goose Island. According to the BA, this is not a craft beer because it’s owned by A-B Inbev. Now I hate A-B Inbev as much as anyone, and I’m deeply wary of their intentions to Goose Island. But any universe where the beer I had is not a craft beer is a strange place indeed.

Then at the other end there’s the whole “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…” school of thought, which says you don’t need to be able to define a craft beer to spot one. This has been criticised for reducing things to “I like this beer so it’s a craft beer.” I think that’s a bit disingenuous. Amid all the debates about what is and isn’t craft beer, those arguing could probably agree on nine out of ten beers being craft or not. But many people would rather spend their time arguing about the one out of ten that’s ambiguous.

The definition I have the least time for is the “craft beer is quality beer that is served in keg” school. This is absurd and feeble minded. The kind of people who say this in a positive way do so to distinguish ‘craft’ from what they see as ‘boring brown’ cask ale. It’s nonsense. By taking this stance against the real ale diehards who believe anything in a keg is bad, they’re merely proving themselves to be a mirror image of those diehards, just as ignorant and bigoted. If craft beer is about anything specific, it’s certainly not about the container it’s in – the whole point of it is that it should be all about the beer.

My personal view, as I expressed in response to Mark Dredge’s excellent recent post about craft beer whiners, is that it’s more useful to think of craft as an adjective rather than a noun. Not as a specific style of beer, but as a general description, the same way we’d say ‘dark’ or ‘full bodied’ or whatever – deliberately non-specific, but carrying a degree of commonly understood meaning.

That’s how I’ve always thought about craft beer. But I’m all too aware that many people in the beer world NEED technical definitions – it’s how they navigate the world.

Well if you’re one of those people, how about this?

At a recent conference on innovation in beer, St Austell brewer Roger Ryman gave a presentation about craft beer in which he quoted an article by Dan Shelton, which appeared in the last edition of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium. This guide is currently out of print because a new edition is launching this summer. But editor Tim Webb very kindly sent me a copy so I could read the piece and write about it here.

Dan Shelton clearly has some axes to grind of his own, but I found his multi-part definition of craft beer quite compelling. He identifies five aspects:

  • – Ingredients: does the brewer seek the best possible ingredients or is s/he more concerned about keeping costs down?
  • – Methods and equipment: the brewery’s intent – does the brewery do everything it can to maintain quality or does it let things slip as it grows? Is the brewery making the best beer it can?
  • – The brewer’s spirit: hard to measure, but does the beer reflect the brewer’s personality or is it simply generic and lacking in faults? Are they just following the market, or trying to do something special?
  • – Company structure: who’s calling the shots? It’s not necessarily about company size, but does the brewer decide what beers are brewed or does the marketing department?
  • – Control: is the brewer able to exercise some control over how the beer turns out or is s/he simply throwing in ingredients and hoping for the best?

Everyone who I would call a craft brewer ticks each of these boxes. What I like about this definition is that it’s objective. A global giant could produce a craft beer if they followed these rules, but they don’t. Their structures don’t permit it. But it doesn’t rule them out on size or ownership. It’s about intent.

And this definition does what no other does – it excludes small brewers who aren’t very good. Any idiot can throw an extra bag of citra hops into a copper, it doesn’t make them good brewers or their beer good beer. I’ve tasted bland beers that are not craft created by huge corporations, and I’ve tasted bloody awful beers created by tiny breweries that call themselves craft when they are not, because craft has to be about skill as well as size. I don’t know how you measure some of these criteria, but of it’s a neutral, objective detailed definition of craft you want, I think this does the job.

But like I said, I’m not sure we need it. While I was thinking about this post, I looked up ‘craft’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and it says “An activity involving skill in making things by hand.” Do we really need it to be any more complex than that?