Category: Beer

| Beer, Beer tasting, Craft Beer

Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Being faced with a flight of beers I had no desire to drink made me think philosophically for a bit, and wonder if there’s a different narrative to tasting and enjoying beer.

I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It’s one of my favourite competitions, because it’s global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you’re tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and… well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard.

Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you’re going to get. You accept you’re going to get some that you’re not best friends with, but hope that it’ll balance out and that you’ll get some good ones. Sometimes – as I found with the Tripels the year before – getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?

At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.

These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?

There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you’ve ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it’s a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was ‘to style’ or not?

In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s going on in the mouth, and that’s fine – beer is a social lubricant, and while you’re drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven’t taken it in because you’ve been thinking about something else, or there’s music playing and you can’t recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there’s a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it’s in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else.

I’ve seen many craft beer fans necking beers they’ve paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There’s nothing wrong with that – even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you’d look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you.

But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what’s going on with it, and not just when you’re judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here’s my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that’s correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to ‘get’ notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here’s an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:

 

“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”

If you’re into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what’s it doing, really? I honestly can’t tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can’t be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it?

I don’t think so.

Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of “She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes.”

This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details.

But I’m meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole.

Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here’s a strawberry beer. “I’m getting strawberries.” OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?

The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and felt like they belonged together.

By the end of the morning I’d enjoyed several of the beers, and I’d scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I’m in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.

APPEARANCE
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It’s also dependent on the context of the beer you’ve ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?

AROMA
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It’s also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness.

It’s flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from ‘retronasal olfaction,’ meaning you really get it when it’s in your mouth/when you’re swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose.

Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not?

Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma’s promise. But overall, I’m looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn’t doing it, it’s not working.

TASTE
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there’s an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I’m increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip.

Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional?

Here, I then start to think about whether I’m actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What’s it trying to be, and does it succeed?

If it’s trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I’ve nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it’s trying to do.)

If it’s trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea).

FINISH
Aftertaste is a sensory experience – partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you’ve swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing – how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you’ve paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz compel you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?

By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I’d enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them – even the ones I didn’t like – to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it.

What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty.

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Writing

Beery Books for Christmas

Obviously you’ve already bought mine (or dropped strong hints to have it bought for you) but it’s been a bumper year for beer books. Here are my three favourites of 2016.

The World Atlas of Beer (second edition)
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, Mitchell Beazley, RRP £25

Michael Jackson’s first World Guide to Beer (and its vinous forerunner, Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine) set a template for coffee table drinks books that has slowly mutated over the years, and spawned off-shoots in the ‘how many beers to drink before you die’ mould that seem to be hitting the shelves daily. I question the need for books like this, partly because there are so bloody many of them and they’re all essentially the same, and partly because if you want beer reviews, the internet is a much more up-to-date and accessible way of getting them. But these books work because people love having them all in one place and ticking them off – or some people do, at any rate.

What’s surprising when you go back to Jackson’s first book now is that there isn’t a single page of bottle shots and tasting notes, just longer, highly readable articles about different countries, regions and styles.

In this second edition of their guide – the first of which established Beaumont and Webb as the natural heirs to Jackson in the format he created – the authors managed to convince the publishers to get rid of the pages of bottle shot and tasting notes that have crept in over the years, and use the space instead to actually write about beer rather than simply cataloguing it. That makes this book a blast of fresh air in a format that’s become stuffy.

The world of good beer has expanded greatly since Jackson first mapped it out, and that’s why a book like this today needs two authors, one on either side of the Atlantic, if it is to be as authoritative as it needs to be. Both Webb and Beaumont have been writing about beer for decades – they have about sixty years experience between them. They still travel regularly to both the obvious beer countries – the US, Belgium, Germany, UK – and those that are rapidly emerging as new craft beer stars, such as Brazil, Spain, Japan.

At times the book’s scope is stretched a little too thin – some of the minor countries get a page with a nice photo and just enough room to list three or four up-and-coming craft brewers – but in the countries you really want to read about, no one does it better than these two. They combine their knowledge with a very dry wit, and don’t suffer fools gladly. The tone is calm scholarship rather than breathless enthusiasm, and they’re unafraid to be critical. But on every page you feel like you’re in the company of experts who love their subject.

(Like big, epic beer tomes? You should also check out the gargantuan Belgian Beer Book by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker, Lanoo, RRP £45.) 

Beer in So Many Words
Adrian Tierney-Jones (editor), Safe Haven Books in association with The Homewood Press, RRP £14.99

It’s not just beer writers who write about beer, and not all beer writing is good. To pull together an anthology of the best writing about beer (as opposed to ‘beer writing’) requires an extensive knowledge of the subject as well as being well-read much more broadly.

The contents page of the book is a delight to read in itself. As a community, beer geeks and writers need to be reminded fairly regularly that beer doesn’t belong just to us, that it’s a popular drink that is appreciated by a wide range of people. And here, names like Boak and Bailey, Roger Protz, Jeff Evans, Melissa Cole and, well, me, rub shoulders with Dylan Thomas, Ian Rankin, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Charles Dickens.

This is a book to lose yourself in, to wander back and forth through, to put down briefly and take a sip of something dark and rich while you ponder. It’s themed in sections: The Taste of Beer, Beer in Pubs, Beer People, Brewing, Beer Journeys, Beer and Food and The Meaning of Beer. It reminds you of what made you fall in love with beer (and reading, and writing) and is highly likely to give you fresh perspectives and insights on a subject you thought you knew all about.

(Like anthologies of writing about beer? You should also check out 
CAMRA’s Beer Anthology: a Pub Crawl through British Culture, edited by Roger Protz, CAMRA, RRP £9.99)

Food and Beer
Daniel Burns and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Phaidon, RRP £29.95

Of all the avalanche of beer books being published right now, the most dramatic trend is in books about beer and food. Within the last couple of years, I’ve acquired a whole bookshelf full on this subject alone.

I’m a keen cook, and am always looking for inspiration. I use some of these books often, but am often frustrated that most of them seem to consist mainly of big hunks of red meat, of burgers, wings and pulled pork, of melted cheese and stout-braised ribs and sticky puddings with rich glazes. I’m sure it’s all very nice, but I’m already bored of the kind of food because it seems to be the only thing you ever get served in craft-centric pubs and bars. When I get home, I want to eat more healthily. At the same time, I want to push my cooking skills, taking time out of writing to do something absorbing and satisfying, learning new techniques and skills.

‘Food and Beer’ may not be the most exciting title of a book about food and beer (I’ve already got three different books called Beer and Food, and one other Food and Beer) but this is the topic getting a higher end, classier treatment than it’s ever had so far, and it’s no accident that ‘food’ comes first in the title. Chef Daniel Burns has cooked at Noma and the Fat Duck, and gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bergso founded Evil Twin brewing and also worked as beer director at Noma, routinely billed as the best restaurant in the world.

What I like about this book is that there’s stuff that is insanely ambitious for an amateur like me, with those kinds of recipe that are actually five separate recipes nested within one big dish that require two days of work. But there are also relatively simple things to test yourself out with – anyone can make a heritage tomato sandwich with cider-infused mayonnaise.

Having put this book through its paces in my kitchen, it has one major flaw. A friend of mine works as a recipe tester for various celebrity chefs, taking their ideas and cooking them in her well-appointed but strictly domestic kitchen, and working out the timings, quantities and temperatures that actually work in a kitchen  a little less awesome than Noma’s. Like several other beer and food books I’ve acquired this year, this book really, desperately, needed her input. Some of the quantities in recipes are utterly nonsensical (Welsh Rarebit that contains ten times the volume of double cream to that of cheese? Really?) and whatever oven they worked out the cooking times on bears no relationship whatsoever to how mine works.

But with that fairly significant caveat aside, this is a book that combines two elements I’ve always wanted from a beer and food book: one, it seriously elevates beer as both an accompaniment and an ingredient. There’s nothing wrong with beer being allied with hearty pub and bar fare, but it’s good to see it in haute cuisine, showing its adaptability and scope. And secondly, it inspires me to be a better cook, and makes me believe I can stretch and do some of the more challenging dishes. (Although it might be a while before I attempt the pork broth and smoked egg whites on chrysanthemum base paired with smoked wheat beer.)

(Like reading about how beer and food go together? Also check out Mark Dredge’s Cooking With Beer, Dog & Bone, RRP £16.99)

Disclosure: I’m good friends with the authors of the first book and the editor of the second one. One big reason we’re good friends is that we admire each other’s work. I genuinely love these books, and have tried not to let friendship bias me in my opinion of them.

| 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.