Sixteen years ago I developed an idea for a social history of the Working Men’s Club movement. Last year, a publisher finally bought it. Here’s why I have an eternal fascination with an overlooked aspect of British social history.
One of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms in a space that glowed.
I know the memory is genuine because it’s disjointed; a sequence of random impressions that only make sense in retrospect, now I understand things I didn’t at the time.
It was Christmas, and in a community like Barnsley, you don’t do Christmas by halves. Every wall, every inch of ceiling, was covered by hanging decorations made from shining metallic paper. Tinsel adorned every corner and ledge. And behind it, the brass bar tops and beer fonts gleamed a fiery, welcoming glow. Perhaps it was fairy lights, possibly candles, but everywhere there was light, and the surfaces in the pub caught this light, refracted and amplified it, until it seemed that the very air shone. I had no understanding of alcohol, no concept of why we were here, but it was a magical place.
And this wonderland transformed the people within it. Faces that were normally grey and drawn were now shiny and red, adding to the colour. They looked each other in the eye as they laughed. They were ostentatious in their generosity. The women were gorgeous, all long frocks, dangly earrings and blue eye shadow, and the men were open and expansive, generous and warm, somehow thawed out in the midst of the winter chill.
For a long time, I used to associate this memory with the pub. But my parents hardly ever went to the pub. My dad, when he drank at all, was a club man.
Pub versus Club
I first became interested in the story of working men’s clubs when I was researching Man Walks into a Pub in the early noughties. These establishments were first created for rather than by working men, essentially to keep them out of pubs and “improve” them in the eyes of well-meaning and progressive, but ultimately naive, clergymen and noblemen.
But clubs didn’t really take off until upper class people realised working men needed to determine their own destiny. A separate club licence had been introduced, which meant that politicians could introduce licensing laws forcing pubs to close, but still go to their gentlemen’s clubs and carry on drinking afterwards. Working men proved they had been underestimated when the realised they could get club licenses of their own, defying the hypocrisy of their supposed betters.
Working men’s clubs, when run by working men, were a form of emancipation. A man could work in a factory or mill during the week, and then go and be on a committee at his club, responsible for a turnover that rivalled the company he worked for. Many committee members went on to be mayors or even MPs. Or he might go onstage and be a comedian, a ventriloquist or singer. Clubs provided libraries, financial support, clothing banks and washing or showering facilities decades before the welfare state began helping people who didn’t have enough.
In terms of entertainment, as variety theatres disappeared, clubs became the launchpad for what TV execs would later call ‘light entertainment’. Everyone from Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey to comedians like Les Dawson, Little & Large and Cannon & Ball got their first breaks on the club circuit. Talents as diverse as Paul Weller, Noddy Holder and Steve Davis all played in working men’s clubs before they played anywhere else – Davis getting his first break in a very different sense than the others.
There is of course the issue of women, especially given the name of these organisations. Some clubs were more progressive than others, and the story of how women gain equal rights in clubs is both shocking (it didn’t happen until 2007) and inspiring, beginning with a woman being banned from playing snooker and going on to form a campaign called “A woman’s right to cues”, and essentially breaking new ground for female representation in sports more widely. It’s one of the best stories in the book. Many clubs have dropped the “working men’s” bit from their names, and women now play a key role at every level of club organisation.
A long and winding road… to the north
I started discussing an idea that captured this remarkable, hidden story with editors around 2005. I pitched the idea seriously in 2012 and again in 2016. It got nowhere. People in London publishing houses would see it as no more than a nostalgia fest for people who went to clubs in the 1970s, or would get that it was more than that, buut say, “Well I’d read it avidly, but I don’t think enough other people would.”
Then, in July 2020, I got an e-mail from an editor at Harper North, a new, Manchester-based subsidiary of Harper Collins. Did I have a book idea that would suit a list that had a northern tilt to it?
Yes I did.
“Clubland” will be published by Harper North in June 2022, to coincide with the 160th anniversary of the Club and Institute Union (CIU). It probably won’t be called “Clubland” by then. It will be my twelfth full-length published book and I am enjoying researching it enormously.
Tell me your story
Some of the stories in this book have already exceeded my wildest hopes when I began researching it. The many different ways in which clubs have influenced people, communities and society as a whole are mind-boggling, sometimes very moving, often utterly hilarious.
In early July I’m going to be visiting clubs around the country and talking to people who run them and use them. If you think there’s a club that has particular historical or contemporary interest, one that has a remarkable story to tell, please let me know. And if you have your own stories that deserve to be told, tell me now!
(For information: I’ve already had at least three people tell me the tale of Shirley Bassey and the backstage sink and claim it was them.)
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The case of beers I put together with mail order company Best of British Beer to accompany my next book club event is designed to reflect the mercurial, elusive character of the craft beer world’s favourite beer style.
IPA is the most popular – and most argued over – beer style in craft beer. Everything about it, from its murky origins to its colour, character and, increasingly, murky appearance, is debated passionately across social media and print publications. Its story has been mythologised, misunderstood, and endlessly redefined. Like the broader concept of craft beer itself, I’m not just fascinated by it, I’m fascinated by the fascination around it, by the varying degrees of passion, agitation and disdain it inspires.
This is why, for my third book, I undertook the frankly stupid endeavour of recreating its legendary journey by sea from Burton-on-Trent to Calcutta. This project almost broke me, in many ways, but hey – I got a great book out of it, and we’re discussing that book, and the story behind it, at my third Beer Book Club on Wednesday, 12th May.
For each of these book clubs, I’m attempting to put together a themed case of beers (or ciders, where relevant) that people attending may choose to order to drink along to the chat. Best of British Beer volunteered to help me out with a case for this one, and sent me a bottle of every beer they had in stock with “IPA” on the label. From that, I chose six beers that tell a potted history of the beer that used to be known as India Pale Ale – all quite different from each other, each excellent in its own way.
IPA was never ‘invented’ as such – it evolved from strong beers meant for keeping, and it has continued to evolve ever since. According to contemporary reports, in the 1780s it was quite dark, murky, and very bitter. In nineteenth century India, it was bright and sparkling, compared to champagne more than anything else. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, changes in taxation and drinking habits saw a steep drop in its alcoholic strength. A few years ago, beer geeks would rage that a beer such as Greene King IPA was not a “proper” IPA because it was only 3.6% ABV. Those critics should know that a few years ago, the original 1928 recipe for GK IPA was discovered, and it’s hardly changed in the almost century since. If you could go back to the mid-twentieth century, any British brewer would have told you that it was typical of what “IPA” was at that time. And anyway, the rise of “session IPAs” means that the strength argument can no lager be coherently made by craft beer scenesters.
The American reinvention of IPA only really took off in the UK a little over a decade ago, and since then the pace of evolution has sped up dramatically. What we now think of as ‘West Coast IPA’ is referred to by some as ‘Old School IPA’. If a beer style that can only be traced back in any meaningful sense to the 1990s is now ‘old school’, what does that make IPA’s 200-year-odd history up to that point?
In a very meaningful sense, the dominant style of the moment – New England IPA – is the opposite of what IPA was before it came along. India Pale Ale became the definitive beer style of the nineteenth century, and cast its shadow over the next, because it was designed to be stored and/or to survive a long sea journey in which it was subject to massive fluctuations in temperature, which contributed to its unique character, in which bitterness was assertive.
Now, IPAs have next to no bitterness at all, and we’re told that we must keep them cold from packaging to consumption and drink them fresh, because their delicate character disappears after a few weeks.
The British soldiers and clerks drinking IPA in Calcutta in the 1860s would have spat out a NEIPA claiming that it was too green, that it hadn’t ‘ripened’. The modern NEIPA fan would (and sometimes does) dismiss traditional IPA as not being IPA at all, because it is not pale enough, not juicy enough.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), commonly regarded in the craft beer world as the arbiter of beer styles, goes so far as to state: “The term ‘IPA’ is intentionally not spelled out as ‘India Pale Ale’ since none of these beers historically went to India, and many aren’t pale.”
So there we have it: IPA isn’t actually India Pale Ale at all, but an acronym without a home, or even a new word in its own right, a word commonly pronounced “eepa” by beer drinkers who’s first language isn’t English.
In 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont threw his hands up and said, “Fine, let’s face it, every beer is now an IPA.” With that in mind, here are the six beers I’ve chosen that all stake a claim to the title of IPA. I like them all – otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen them – but because of my age and experience, my heart will always be in the Old School.
Wold Top – Scarborough Fair – true to the traditional British style – crisp, bitter and balanced
Hafod – Freestyle – A great take on what we now call West Coast IPA, resiny and piney with a firm malt backbone
Mor – Ish – Mid-twentieth century-style IPA, gently bitter and clean, lower ABV.
Windsor & Eton – Conqueror – The tautology that is a Black India Pale Ale – a blend of fresh hoppy aromas and deep, chocolatey malt.
Loch Lomond – Zoom Time – Hazy, juicy and with low bitterness, a perfect example of the New England IPA style.
Stonehouse – Vanilla Milkshake – Brewed with vanilla and lactose for an even smoother, creamier body – is this the future of IPA?
The Hops & Glory six-pack is available to buy at £21.95 from Best of British Beer. Ticket-holders for my Hops & Glory book club event on Wednesday 12th May can claim a 10% discount code. Sadly the beers are for UK delivery only, but the event is on Zoom so you can come along wherever in the world you are, and bring your own IPAs, whatever colour, clarity, strength and character they happen to have.
Most people who follow me online do so because they enjoy my books. So I thought I’d organise a beer book club on Zoom to revisit my backlist.
I’ve largely enjoyed Zoom events – I’m lucky, I haven’t had to do too many during the day at work, so they’ve remained a bit of a treat. I’ve also spoken to people at online beer events who actually prefer these chats to meeting up in real life – either because they can get to them more easily and cheaply, or because they feel more comfortable attending from the safe space of their home. I can’t wait to do physical events again, but even when we’re back at pub gigs and festivals, I still plan to both attend and run events online in addition to IRL.
Last week, I pushed an idea out on social media – what if I do a Zoom book club? Each session, we focus on one book from my backlist. I do a talk or presentation about it, then open it up to a Q&A. After we get to the end of the formal bit, if anyone wants to stay on and chat longer, we can. It got a great response, so here we go.
I’ll be going through the books in chronological order, starting with Man Walks into a Pub on 28th April. I’m charging a small ticket price of £3.50, and tickets are on sale now.
Obviously, we thought it might be nice idea to do this with a drink in hand. You don’t have to drink through the talk, but you may well want to.
My intention is to link up with an online retailer and try to come up with some kind of offer for event attendees. I want to try to make these, in an idea world, bespoke cases that fit with the theme of the book.
For Man Walks into a Pub, I have the perfect case ready to go, with a special offer for event attendees that’s a bit complicated, but very good. I’ve done a series of cases with Beer52 for a Master Beer Taster qualification. There are four cases in total, covering the classic beer styles associated with four great brewing powerhouses: the UK and Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and the USA. Each case comes with a short book covering the history, beer styles, quirks and trivia of brewing in that country. The UK case makes the perfect accompaniment to Man Walks into a Pub and is available here.
Beer52 would like to support this project but are not set up to give a discount on this case specifically. However, if you buy a ticket for any Book Club event, you’ll be given codes for some great discounts on other Beer52 stuff.
Here’s my provisional schedule for all the events. I’ll update details on this blog post as we go, and also post them on the events page of this website. In case you’re not familiar with my full backlist, the links on the book titles below take you to more information on each of my books.
In the late nineteenth century, a Romantic textile designer from Walthamstow invented the modern concept of “craft”. Yeah, it’s all his fault.
William Morris was born on 24th March, 1834. If you could have asked him him about that a few years later, and he would have told you this was 600 years too late. As a kid, he had his own suit of armour and would run around his family’s big garden pretending to be a knight. As a young adult, he vehemently rejected contemporary aesthetics in favour of medieval nostalgia.
Morris wasn’t alone. The Industrial Revolution may have started long before the Victorian era, but by the time Morris was at university the pace of progress was so rapid, and the human and environmental cost so great (it could also be argued that Morris was the godfather of the Green movement) that some people began to question whether it was “progress” at all.
He believed industrialisation had robbed people of dignity and purpose. Before factories and mills, if you made bread, or shoes, or chairs, or beer, you were a baker, a shoemaker, a furniture maker or a brewer, and your work was your own. Your craft involved the mastery of a number of different skills, and if you were any good, the way you combined them meant the end result of your skill and labour was unmistakably yours.
By contrast, when you went to work on a production line, you were reduced to doing one task over and over again, while the person next to you did another task, and so on, until at the end of the line, all the shoes or chairs looked exactly the same, and your contribution, your mark, was as invisible as everyone else’s.
Morris created workshops where skills were recombined, and individual craftspeople were allowed to make their own products as they saw fit. The craftsperson was given autonomy, control, job satisfaction, and ultimately, a sense of dignity that were not available to their counterparts in factories. The workers, the ideas they presented and the products they created became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The word “craft” goes back to at least the 10th century, but its specific meaning today was invented by Morris. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmanship was just the way things were done, the way they’d always been done. Arts and Crafts arrived at a time when industrialised productions had become the normal way things were done. “Craft”, in its modern sense, is an alternative, a choice, a reaction against mainstream industrial production, against the way things are normally done.
As we sit here, reading and writing on our personal electronic devices while sitting on comfortable chairs in heated rooms, it’s a point of view many of us might feel sympathy with. But Morris and his work exposed the problems and contradictions at the heart of the idea of craft.
The reason industrialised production took off is because it allowed products to be made quicker and cheaper, and therefore more affordable. Factory workers may have been miserable at work, but at the end of the week they could actually afford to buy a pair of shoes, or a loaf of bread. (A new chair used to be something out of the reach of most people. Now you can buy an IKEA IVAR chair with the proceeds of two hours working on minimum wage.)
If you’re going to allow individual craftspeople the time and space to make things themselves, how they want to, and pay them fairly for doing so, their products can only be more expensive than those made in factories. The great irony of the Arts & Crafts movement was that pretty much the only people who could afford to buy what they made were the wealthy industrialists who they stood against. The movement eventually fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
But Morris’s ideas stuck around. The idea that something produced by a craftsperson was somehow inherently better that something made in a factory takes many forms. We assume it will be better quality than something mass-produced – even though this is by no means always true.
(Mainstream lagers may be bland and insipid, but craft products are far more variable.)
But many people also believe there’s a moral dimension to it – it’s better for the maker, who has a more fulfilling, meaningful job, but it’s also better for the consumer, because they’re supporting a small producer rather than big corporation, a more sustainable and less moral dubious form of business, one that isn’t big enough to bully its competitors, strip-mine the planet of resources, or exploit poorly paid workers.
(“Craft beer people are good people” and all that.)
Interestingly, Morris had a revival of interest in the 1970s – precisely when CAMRA began campaigning in the UK and what would later be called craft brewers started mashing in in the United States. Today, as interest in what we loosely refer to craft beer shows no sign of abating, interest in arts and crafts more broadly is booming again – FFS, even macramé is currently hip.
The picture of Morris above was taken when he was 53 – a year older than I am now. I suspect I could get away with using it as a picture of a middle-aged writer about craft beer today and no-one who doesn’t recognise him would suspect me of foul play. Not only does William Morris look like an ageing craft beer hipster, he would recognise all the contradictions and frustrations at the heart of craft beer, the discussions around it, the incessant need to define it, to own it or protect it, and, increasingly, the desire among producers to abandon the term.
His legacy shows why that might be a bad idea. Arts & Crafts, like craft beer, was easy to criticise, easy for those who wanted to to exploit it and manipulate it to do so, easy to dismiss as being expensive and over-hyped. But a century after its supposed demise, both it and its founder remain culturally vital. As long as we have cheap, mass-market, industrialised production making goods for everyone, we’re going to have niche craft versions produced as a counter-cultural alternative – available for anyone who can afford to buy them.
Enjoyed reading this? There’s a much fuller discussion of the relationship between craft beer and the broader origins of craft in my book Craft: An Argument – named Best Beer Book at the 2020 North American Beer Writers Awards.
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Beer – it doesn’t matter what the marketing is like, it’s the taste that counts, right? Not according to the outcry that’s greeted the Anchor Brewery’s rebrand.
When we were researching my latest book, Beer By Design, I approached Anchor several times, through various channels, to ask them for some artwork or photography of their labels and bottles. I was completely ignored – even though the brewery follows me on Twitter.
Anchor acknowledged the spirited reaction yesterday by issuing a statement acknowledging the depth of feeling among its fans and defending its position.
The engagement is welcome. The fact that they felt the need to issue the statement underlines the depth of feeling around the change, which is all the more fascinating when you consider how many craft beer fans insist that what’s on the outside of the package doesn’t matter – it’s what’s inside that counts. (Anchor even felt it necessary to reassure fans that the beer itself hadn’t changed.)
My personal reaction was immediate: as a standalone piece of visual design, I think it looks cheap and generic. From a more dispassionate branding point of view, I think it has broken a fundamental law of good branding by throwing away completely a distinctive and much-loved visual identity.
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to write this, Anchor’s PR team got in touch with me and offered to give me some more context and background for the change, so I delayed writing this until they could give me their side. They’ve been really helpful. They haven’t changed my mind about the result, but they’ve given me some valuable insight into the process of how they got there, and I don’t disagree at all with a lot of the thinking.
So I thought, for anyone who is particularly interested in branding, this might make for an interesting, long-read case study that has a bit more to it than me simply saying how much I dislike this new look.
Background: What is Anchor and why is it important?
Anchor is widely regarded as the first modern American craft brewery. It actually dates back to 1871, was named Anchor in 1896, closed during prohibition, and then struggled on afterwards until, on the point of closure, it was bought by Fritz Maytag in 1965. Maytag continued brewing the unique Steam Beer, taking years to get it right, and bottling it for the first time in 1971. Over subsequent years he reintroduced porter to North America, and after a trip to England, brewed a tribute to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord using an experimental hop that later became known as Cascade. Anchor stood alone as a small, independent brewery creating beers that didn’t taste like generic macro lager, and in Liberty Ale, arguably invented the style that would go on to become American pale ale.
Back when Steam was first bottled, its labels were hand-drawn and homespun by necessity. But they evoked an indie, rootsy aesthetic that increasingly made a statement against corporate bands that looked increasingly slick, shouty, and, later, computer-generated. The folksy, hand-illustrated style was also taken up by other early pioneers such as Sierra Nevada, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams and Full Sail.
That was nearly over forty years ago though. The craft beer shelves are now far more crowded than they were. Even if that were not the case, times change. Everyone needs to update their wardrobe every now and again, and brands are no different. On top of that, Jim Stitt, who started drawing Anchor’s labels in 1974, has now retired from doing so – at the age of 93.
So the packaging definitely needed a refresh.
At this point, there are two basic stages to the process:
Principles and strategy of rebrand – what are the aims of the rebrand? What do we want to achieve and how?
Execution of rebrand – how do we bring that strategy to life in words and visuals?
Principles and strategy of rebrand
There should be specific reasons for a rebrand rather than just “I fancy a change”/ “I need to put something on my CV”.
Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as “Anchor Steam Beer” and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said. “While Steam will always be at the heart of the brewery, we designed the new look to create visual continuity between all of Anchor’s classic beers, as well as the new styles we’ll be debuting this spring.
Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten.
Strategically, this is the only part that bugs me, for two reasons.
The first thing that bugs me is that Anchor is partly right – the craft beer market has shifted towards being more novelty driven. Some of the Twitter responses to the rebrand can be summed as “So what? They’re Old School. Fuck ‘em.”
Obviously, there’s a generational element in play. Obviously, innovation and new thinking are vital for any dynamic market to retain its energy. Cask ale in the UK foundered precisely because it didn’t move quickly enough to keep pace with changing tastes. But craft beer succeeds when it is a balance of tradition and innovation playing off each other. If you’re a craft beer fan for whom anything old is irrelevant and crap simply and only because it is old, then you’re not a craft beer fan at all. You’re simply a trend-chasing little kid who has just moved on from fidget spinners and Pokémon Go, and you’ll be out of here whenever some influencer tells you it’s now cooler to drink Hard Seltzer, or CBD-infused spirits, or, I dunno, space rock-infused liquefied cronuts or something. Don’t let your-sticker-loving, badge-encrusted, designer label-clad arse hit the door on the way out.
Where I think Anchor is wrong is in the implication that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That if you’re being put in the shade by faddy, dayglo brands, you have no option but to become one yourself.
Weirdly, this conundrum seems to affect beer more than other markets. Levi Strauss is way older than Anchor. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs. But it remains relevant by staying in touch with contemporary issues, while never wavering from its core identity.
Same with other “old-school” brands such as Coca-Cola, Rayban, Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s.
Updating your wardrobe is one thing. Throwing out a wardrobe of, say, bespoke Savile Row suits because they’re old and grey, and replacing them with a bunch of G-Star, Stone Island and Burberry, is quite another.
Execution of rebrand
When you’re deciding on how to execute a rebrand, you have the choice of gentle evolution or more radical revolution. Any brand needs to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, most brands obey category cues that make them fit in. You don’t see much laundry detergent that you could mistake for beer, and vice versa. Do you stand out by doing category cues better than anyone else? Or do you stand out by looking like no one else does?
Anchor has clearly gone for a revolutionary approach. But there are many examples in beer of brands that maintain their relevance by a process of gentle evolution.
To those who say Anchor needed to change because it hasn’t done until now, it has in fact evolved gently over the years:
Clearly, Anchor no longer felt evolution was enough. But brands such as Budweiser proudly make a point of constant evolution:
Bud’s newest redesign actually found greater relevance by going more old-school, having everything redrawn by hand rather than created via desktop publishing. Here’s a before and after:
It’s won every design award going, and had a dramatic uplift in sales as a result.
On the point about needing to make design work for the range rather than one flagship beer, Anchor’s peer Sierra Nevada had no problem making this work in a gentle evolution of the original illustrated style:
Within craft beer in the UK, Vocation answered the same problem Anchor was facing with regard to clarity and standout on crowded shelves, while retaining all the elements people were familiar with, but just cleaning them up and making key elements stand out more:
When Camden Town was bought out by a macro, it managed a rebrand that made it bolder, clearer and more commercial without sacrificing any of its “Camdenness”:
Even if this is not enough – if you decided you had to be more drastic about it – that still doesn’t mean throwing out everything you had. Harvey’s latest rebrand was pretty drastic, but it still looks more like Harvey’s used to look than it looks like anyone else.
Lancashire brewery Moorhouse’s old world was hopelessly outdated, perhaps the closest example in my recent memory to where Anchor imagines it was.
The new stuff looks nothing like the old stuff – but it still draws from the same inspiration, and more crucially, it doesn’t look like any of its competitors:
The key point for me is that a brand has to be true to itself and not try to be someone else.
In its follow-up, Anchor makes a spirited defence that it has done exactly this. And when you actually pick up a pack to have a closer look, it has a point.
Firstly, there’s a new strapline, “Forged in San Francisco,” and reference Anchor’s heritage. The brewery says:
“For the first time, we are showing our original brewery on all packages, so every lifelong Steam drinker and new drinker has an understanding of our San Francisco roots and heritage. The illustration is inspired by an archival shot of the Gold Rush-era Anchor brewery showcasing the steam that billowed off our rooftops as the wort cooled.”
The pack also tells the story of Steam beer itself:
“Until now, we’ve never told our fans what makes Steam so special. People only knew the story of Steam and why it tastes the way it does if they went on a tour at our brewery in San Francisco (or did research), so part of preserving our legacy was aimed at sharing our stories via our packaging.”
And then there’s the big anchor on the front itself. There are many different anchors in San Francisco’s port heritage, and the new logo “is a combination of many of them, but it is most directly inspired from our 1909 brewery signage when we were located in the Mission District.
This is all great. I have no problem with any of it in theory (apart from whether or not that is the real story about how steam beer got its name). But in order to appreciate any of this, you have to pick up the pack in the first place. And if this is what you’re going to see on shelf, I’m not sure how many people will:
It’s got an Anchor on it, but it doesn’t have Anchor’s values, Anchor’s tone of voice on it. The strategy is fine, the execution flawed. Maybe it’ll look different on shelves in San Francisco – maybe the visual aesthetic is different there. But by UK standards, as many have pointed out, with its simplicity and blocks of primary colour, it resembles generic supermarket own label craft beer:
I also worry that a big, simple anchor reminds people of all those generic clip-art logos you can buy by the dozen:
Here’s Anchor’s old logo, next to the new one:
Compare this to the last rebrand on Guinness in 2016, where they felt the world-famous harp logo had become too simplified over time, too desktop-publishing, and redrew everything by hand, to put the craft values back into it:
As other big, established brands learn from craft that people want authentic, handmade cues, Anchor has moved in the opposite direction. Its packaging may now be telling the brewery’s story better, but a visual identity built up over almost 50 years has been trashed at a stroke. The real problem is not that it looks different from how it did, but that it looks too much like everything else, and is too easily replicable.
I hope I’m wrong, but I still think a more rigorous evolution would have been more successful than this drastic revolution, which succeeds in damaging existing brand equity, without providing enough new, ownable, distinctive memorable equity to replace it. I have been wrong about branding many times. Let’s hope this is one of them.
Beer by Design, published by CAMRA Books, is out now.
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My latest project is a book written in lockdown about writing books in lockdown, written specifically to help anyone deciding – or trying to pluck up the courage – to take the plunge and start their own.
We all have our lockdown routines, the bits that are functional and the bits that are dysfunctional. A key part of mine – and I’m not sure which category this falls into – is to get my doomscrolling done early. As soon as I wake up, I scan the headlines first, then check in on Twitter and Facebook, and read until the despair hits some kind of internal alarm that kicks me out. Then, I get on with my day.
While I was doing this on Monday this week, a tweet on my timeline caught my eye. It said something along the lines of “Yay. The start of another week of my life on hold.”
This made me incredibly sad on behalf of the person who had written it. Of course I get it: the sacrifices we are having to make are not easy for any of us. But I found the idea of not being able to go anywhere, not to see people and hug them, not to go to the pub or a party or go browsing in shops, adding up to not having any life at all, to be unbearably sad.
If you’re lucky, lockdown offers opportunities as well as limitations. I can’t speak for key workers who still have to risk everything by going to work, or parents who are now having to home-school their kids for at least five hours a day while trying to hold down jobs and run a household. They all have my sympathy and admiration. But what they are experiencing is anything but life on hold. If you’re not in these groups, or even if you are and you’ve managed to work out a system that gives you free time, then there can be more to lockdown than working your way through box sets.
Maybe it’s time to start writing that book that you keep thinking about.
During the first lockdown, there was plenty of middle-class frottage about how to use this time to learn a language, start your sourdough culture, read Ulysses, or make an Airfix diorama of the D-Day landings (OK, that last one may have come from a drunken Zoom call rather than the pages of the Guardian.)
I’m not talking about these things, these “self-improvement” initiatives that you feel like you should do. Back when I was in therapy, Andy banned me from using the word “should”. To paraphrase Yoda (which Andy didn’t – he was a serious therapist) “Want to. Or want not to. There is no should.”
I think there are probably very few people who feel they “should” write a book, in the way we might feel like we should get healthier, or we should declutter the wardrobes or the book shelves, or we should learn to speak better Spanish before we go on holiday again. But I meet (or at least used to meet) a lot of people who want to to write a book. I used to get asked how to do it at every live event I ever did. Even people who haven’t got to the stage of wanting to write a book will often tell me they could write a book, that they have an idea for one kicking around in their heads and demanding their attention.
I made the transition from wanting to write a book to having written a book by taking annual leave from work and, instead of going on holiday, locking myself away somewhere quiet with no distractions and staring my desire to write in the face. Now, we’re all in a similar situation. If you really do want to write a book, there have never been better circumstances to start – and hopefully, all other things considered, there never will be again.
There are many excuses for not writing the book you want to write. Not having the time is one of them. You can always make time if you’re serious about doing it, and now, time is one thing many of us have in greater abundance than we have had for a very long time.
Another cloud of excuses surround the idea of not knowing how to do it – how to start out or plan it or see it through. Will it be good enough? Does it make sense?
The flippant answer to these questions and fears is simple: just sit down and write. Any problems with a piece of writing can be sorted once it’s down on the page far more effectively than they can while it’s still in your head. The act of writing clears up a lot of them in the process, as well as giving you the confidence to challenge those that remain.
I’ve provided a somewhat longer, more detailed answer to all these questions and more in my latest lockdown project. When I wrote Craft: An Argument last year, I did a series of blog posts about the process and the experience of writing a book in lockdown in 13 weeks. I decided to gather these blog posts together, tidy them up a bit, and turn them into a little book. The collected blog posts came to about 11,000 words. The “little book” is now 43,000 words. I’m nearing completion of the second draft, which will probably top at at 45,000.
This in itself is an illustration of the point the book is making – that writing can be a joy, a distraction, a catharsis. Everything I’ve learned from writing eleven books and having them published, plus all the other attempts at books that never did get published, poured out of me and found its way into this manuscript. Back in late November, when I started it once Beer by Design had been published, I couldn’t stop the words coming out of me.
I’m mostly resisting the temptation to read and incorporate other people’s advice on the subject, to make it as comprehensive a guide to writing non-fiction as I possibly can. It’s based entirely on my personal experience, with a little help from one or two writers much more famous than me. But as I’ve had books published by big publishers, smaller publishers, crowdfunded publishers and self-publishing, with an agent and without, successes and failures, I figured I could cover the subject pretty comprehensively.
We’ll be self-publishing this through our own Storm Lantern imprint in early February, and it should be up for pre-order by the middle of next week. Towards the end of February I’ll be running a training course for members of the British Guild of Beer Writers based on the first half of the book, which covers developing ideas and voice, getting into a routine, and not giving up. This too will be officially announced towards the end of next week. I’m planning further online courses which I’ll be running independently – more details to follow.
You can of course write your book without any more help from me or anyone else. And even if you are thinking of buying my book and/or attending a course, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you already have an idea of what you want to write, and you’ve spent a bit of time developing that idea.
So I urge you – for your own sake and no one else’s – if you kinda want to write but have been putting it off, start today. I promise you, as I finish my third book since March last year, that losing yourself in writing is about as good a way of surviving lockdown as you’ll find.
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With around 2500 breweries in the UK, many of whom sell core ranges, seasonals, limited editions and collabs, it’s never been harder to stand out from the pack. That’s why the look of beer has become the most creative and diverse of any packaged product. And that’s why my wife and I did a book about it while (white) shielding.
Before I was a writer, I worked in advertising – and enjoyed it for a time. I was fascinated by the idea of brands: originally a simple mark of ownership, they evolved into carriers of additional meaning. At first, they were symbols of trust, of consistency and quality. Every tin you buy with a Heinz logo on it, every Cadbury’s chocolate bar, is going to taste the same as the last one. If we like that taste, we remain loyal to most things that carry that logo. Then, brands took on a more abstract sense. If lots of people who are like you all think that a certain brand is cool, then by extension, in their eyes, you’re cool if you wear it. Over the last thirty years we’ve all learned to use this abstract quality of brands, whether we do so consciously or not. We use brands and logos to build an idea of ourselves that we want to project to the world.
After Bass became the UK’s first registered trade mark, beer brands developed certain stylistic conventions that remained fundamentally unchanged for over a century. The oval, or “racetrack” shape, use of a simple symbol, various cues of quality. It all started to look a bit… samey.
In the 21st century, craft beer tore up the rulebook of how successful beer branding was supposedly done. It set itself directly in opposition to conventional design to prove that it wasn’t part of the mainstream.
This led to an extraordinary explosion of creativity. Among people who insisted they were influenced by the beer and not the marketing, like mainstream drinkers were, some enormously powerful brands were built.
Not all of it works as successful commercial branding, but most of it is gorgeous to look at, and some of it works as art in its own right.
And this branding revolution has affected the whole beer market, inspiring even established mainstream brands to rediscover the craft and art of design. This was pretty welcome for some older cask ale brands that had previously started to look dated and out of touch, and could now look contemporary in ways they never would have dared before craft moved the goal posts.
Sometimes, creative use of type, combining heritage typefaces with a few modern tricks, can make a brand look cool while still remaining true to its roots: a hard thing to pull off when it’s much easier to look like you’re desperately dad-dancing in a market you no longer understand.
Alternatively, a distinctive style of illustration can establish a common look across a wide range of beers at the same time as marking them out as different from everyone else.
Even the biggest brands realised there was more to the broader idea of craft than being small and independent, and rediscovered an idea of craft in their design that was firmly based in their heritage and longevity.
My wife Liz, who spent years working in the design industry, worked as picture researcher on this book. She had countless conversations with designers, artists and people working for breweries, and eventually gathered artwork from over 220 different breweries. When it came to making a book that looked as beautiful as a tome on design should, we didn’t have room for all of it. (We feature about 145 breweries in the book in total.) That’s why Liz will be launching a new blog – BeerByDesign.co.uk -tomorrow, and has also set up @BeerByDesignUK on Twitter and Instagram. This book is only the start of a conversation about design in which we aim to show some work in more depth, give behind the scenes peeks at how things develop, and interview designers and brewers about their work.
There’s still a lot of shit design out there, and there are conversations to be had about what should or shouldn’t go on a beer label, how it’s regulated, and whether or not it works. But for now, we’re keeping Beer By Design to the good stuff, things we like to look at, and things we believe help sell beer. If there is a job to do on the poor stuff, then maybe by showing the good stuff, we can inspire others to raise their game.
So please, if you’re a brewer, artist or designer who thinks your work should be featured, or if you’re a big fan of someone you believe should be here, go to BeerByDesign.co.uk and let us know!
You can of course buy the book from Amazon, but I’d prefer if you bought it from the CAMRA bookshop, for two reasons. Firstly, I think it’s great that CAMRA were prepared to publish a book like this. It’s a real sign that the organisation is taking a more modern, inclusive approach to beer than it has in the past, so it would be nice to show them how right they were to do it. And secondly, I get a significantly higher royalty on copies sold through CAMRA than through anywhere else.
Finally, we’re holding the official launch party via Zoom tomorrow night, Thursday 26th, at 7pm, and you’re invited. If you’d like to see me and some of the featured brands and designers talking about the book, and have a chat, sign up here. It will almost certainly end with one of these.
There’s a longer, more in-depth preview of the book over on my Patreon. You can sign up from just £1 a month. But sign up at the £25 level, and you’ll get a free, signed copy of the book as a thank you. same goes for any future book I publish while you’re still signed up at that level.
Last month I set up a Patreon in the hope that a modest regular income would allow me to spend time researching key stories in much greater depth than I normally can unless I’m being paid a consultancy fee. In the first of these deep dives, I’ve looked at the future of craft beer post-lockdown – from the perspective of being fresh from “Craft: An Argument” – and tried to draw some conclusions. This is a summary of that work, with a fuller report with stats and detail available to Patrons.
Seeing both sides of an argument is different from sitting on the fence.
There’s no point trying to play down the huge negative impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown it necessitated. The hospitality sector has been hit worse than most, and within that, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest the craft sector, consisting mainly of small, independent businesses, will end up faring worse than the mainstream:
– Small pubs and micropubs will find it more difficult to reopen than larger chains.
– While some small, independent brewers have done well with online sales and (free) local delivery, overall small brewers suffered an 80% drop in volume during lockdown and 65% had to close.
– The lack of sufficient notice that 4th July would definitely be the reopening date did not give small brewers enough time to prepare.
– With lower capacity, pubs are likely to reduce the number of lines on the bar – in fact they’d be wise to.
– Big brewers are giving huge support to pubs, including thousands of pints of free beer. Helpful to pubs, yes, but likely to pressure small brewers off the bar even further.
There will be a colossal short-term impact. Businesses are going bust and people are losing their jobs. They’ll continue to do so.
But that’s only half the story.
While I wrote “Craft” during lockdown, I deliberately avoided speculating on what lockdown might mean for the craft beer movement, because that would have dated it quickly. In the book, I look beyond the issues of ownership and independence that have come to dominate the debate over what is and isn’t ‘craft’.
The recent boom in craft – in beer and beyond – is a reaction to a mix of factors including the 2008 global financial crash, the spread of superfast, handheld mobile computing and communications, open plan office culture, the growing degree to which algorithms dictate our decisions and behaviours, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, and the ongoing creep of corporate dominance and homogenisation in all aspects of our lives.
These factors combine to create two separate but related themes that drive craft. One, the personal need to do more with our hands than tap or swipe; to engage with the world around us in a more meaningful, physical way, and two, the desire to escape the corporate rat race, to live better, to be better, to be more fulfilled.
If we can’t do these things personally, we console ourselves with actively choosing products from people whom we believe have done it on our behalf, and live vicariously through them.
There have been many changes in lockdown, and we see some of them as positive. Almost all the positive ones feed directly into this narrative around the broader idea of craft. If, before lockdown, we wanted to reject a bland, boring mainstream, to slow down, to experience life more vividly and personally, to support local businesses, to be kinder and more compassionate, to reject the open-plan, “computer says no” office environment, lockdown has not only heightened those desires – it’s shown that it is possible for all of us to act on at least some of them.
Those craft brewers that survive the short-term hit will face an environment that, while remaining subdued, will be far more in tune with the principles that motivate the brewers, retailers and drinkers of craft beer than it was pre-Covid. At the moment, it seems that the underlying motivations and themes that make craft beer so appealing to an ever-increasing number of people are being strengthened by people’s experiences. For all its negative effects, for all the death and hurt the virus has caused and for all the economic hardship to come, lockdown was time-out, a chance to reflect.
Stripped of the daily commute, the constant travel, the endless crowds, the noise and spectacle with which we usually fill our lives, we’ve had the chance to discover – or re-discover – what really matters to us. We’ve realised that, while this state of affairs is far from ideal, there are some good bits.
Craft brewers – rightly or wrongly – are generally perceived as, among other things, smaller and more independently-minded, more progressive in their attitudes, kinder, friendlier and more collaborative than their corporate, industrialised rivals, more face-to-face in their communications, more physically engaged with both the nature of their work and the communities they exist within and do business with. All of this has become more appealing as a result of lockdown.
The future – eventually – will be bright.
The full report is available on Patreon to anyone who signs on at the £3 tier or above. (While it’s a regular monthly subscription, you’re perfectly free to sign just for a month and then cancel.)
Craft: An Argument is available here on Kindle and here as a print-on-demand version. The audiobook will be ready as soon as the drilling stops outside my house.
My new book, Craft: An Argument is published today. Written and self-published in the last thirteen weeks, it’s an argument at least ten years in the making.
Does anyone still care about the meaning of the term “craft beer”?
I’m afraid I do – passionately.
Debates – sometimes furious arguments – have been going on for at least fifteen years now. I often hear craft beer dismissed as a “meaningless marketing term”, both by people who think it’s been co-opted by big brewers, and by people who think it never meant anything in the first place, on the grounds that it lacks a tight, technical definition.
Attempts by industry bodies to create such a definition have been fighting an orderly retreat since 2005: they began as multi-faceted lists of all the attributes many of us visualise when we think of craft beer. Thanks to both the growth and diversification of craft brewers and the attempts by Big Beer to co-opt craft, from an industry point of view, the only meaningful aspect of “craft beer” is that it is produced by an independent brewery. Brewer’s Associations around the world are steadily rebranding as associations of independent brewers, and seem to be quietly retiring the word “craft” from use, just as they did “microbrewery” a decade ago.
So “craft beer” is in all kinds of problems. If we say craft = independent, like the US Brewers Association currently does, then Yuengling Light – a cheap, adjunct-filled mass-market lager made by a massive corporation – is officially a craft beer. Meanwhile, Goose Island Bourbon County Barrel-aged stout – regarded by many as the best barrel-aged stout in the world – is not a craft beer, on the grounds that Goose Island is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. In this warped reality, it’s hardly surprising if people think “craft beer” has lost its usefulness.
The thing is, millions of people around the world are really into something they call “craft beer”. To many of them – particularly the early adopters and the people who are really engaged whit the industry, independent ownership is a really important part of what they’re buying into. But to people who are already happy drinking beer owned by large corporations, and just getting into craft, telling them they “should” be drinking independent beer is a bigger task.
So this book is an attempt to separate craft beer from independence, and express its meaning in a way that works for any beer or brewery.
I argue that small, independent breweries not only need protection from rapacious Big Beer for their own sake, but also because they give the whole beer market the energy and dynamism that keep it healthy.
But that’s no longer quite the same thing as craft, because big breweries and craft breweries change as they affect one another. So to find a new understanding of and relevance for the idea of craft beer, I’ve looked at the much older idea of craft as it applies beyond beer.
Firstly, there’s this nonsensical idea, which many craft beer fans are reluctant to acknowledge, that craft beer has to be from a newish brewer rather an a traditional, long-established firm, and that it has to come with cool, funky packaging and design. There is no other area of craft where these factors are even considered. But every time someone argues that traditional British cask ale, which is produced in small batches by a master craftsperson, marketed locally, using established techniques and ingredients to create a product that is more flavourful and complex than mainstream beer, is not a craft beer, they expose the fact that for them, craft is more about image than the beer itself.
Looking closer at the broader idea of craft puts real ale at the heart of craft beer. And maybe that’s why these are the beers that directly inspired the US craft beer movement the first place.
In addition, I found that independence and ownership are never mentioned in discussions of “craft” outside beer. Craftspeople always had wealthy patrons, sponsors or customers. What really matters is that craftspeople have some independence of action – that they are in charge of how they work, and can feel some degree of ownership over the tools they use, and a say in how the work turns out. It is far, far more likely that this will happen in a small, independent organisation than a large corporation, but not exclusively so.
Another important point to note is that we assume crafted products will be higher quality than mainstream, mass-manufactured products, and that the person making them will have a higher than average degree of skill. We expect this in craft beer and take it for granted. But it is absolutely not guaranteed. Craftspeople in other areas serve long apprenticeships before they can adopt that title. While there are apprenticeships and qualifications in craft brewing, no one is under any obligation to take them before buying a brew kit and calling themselves a craft brewer. Problems of quality and consistency in craft brewing are a threat to its integrity.
Finally, craft is as much an emotional idea as it is a practical one. It’s a rejection of the values of a mainstream that enforces homogeneity and conformity. When you can buy a cheap, perfectly made thing of reliable quality, even if it’s a bit dull – be that an IKEA chair, a Big Mac or a can of Budweiser – you’re making a statement by spending more money on a crafted alternative. You’re buying into a set of ethics and values as well as buying a thing.
Again, it’s far more likely that small, independent brewers will embody all of these aspects, but it’s not guaranteed that a big brewer never will or a small craft brewer always will. So there’s a crucial difference between small and independent, and craft.
This doesn’t get us to a tight, measurable definition of a craft beer or a craft brewer. But tight, measurable definitions go against what craft is all about. Craft is the embodiment of innate knowledge and skill, to the extent that many people who possess this skill cannot begin to put it into words. Craft beer is a concept that is full of meaning, far richer than any attempt to pin it down to a tight definition has ever captured. The lack of such a definition doesn’t really diminish that meaning. For craft beer to survive and flourish, we need to hold any brewery to account on the skills and behaviours that truly make it craft – or not. Because this is what any craft beer drinker – be they a passionate flag-bearer for independence or a mainstream drinker looking for a change from Bud – is expecting when they buy the product.
Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential,is available now in e-book format on nearly all major platforms around the world.(Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site, Kobo, Nook, and Google Play. It will be on Apple iBooks as soon as we figure out their Kafkaesque bugginess.) The book will also be available in a print-on-demand version by the end of the week, and an audiobook as soon as the incessant fucking drilling outside our house allows us to finish recording it.
Advance Reviews of Craft: An Argument
“One of the leading beer thinkers of our time, Pete delivers up well crafted, important insights into the nature of modern brewing. A must-read for brewers wanting to find their sense of place amongst the shifting sands of marketing, business, consumers and trends.” Matt Kirkegaard, Brews News
“In 2009’s Hops and Glory, Pete Brown took a cask to India in order to reveal the true nature of India pale ale. In 2020’s Craft: An Argument, he does the metaphorical equivalent to arrive at the meaning of ‘craft’ as it pertains to beer. While the journey is certainly shorter, it is no less rigorous, compelling, or splendidly entertaining.” Stephen Beaumont, co-author, The World Atlas of Beer
“Exciting and exuberant, this is a fascinating and fantastically articulate argument and polemic that heads straight to the heart of craft beer, written by a master craftsman at the height of his literary powers.” Adrian Tierney-Jones, 1001 Beers: You Must Try Before You Die