Category: Beer

| 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.