Category: Uncategorised

| Uncategorised

The power of talking

Anxiety seems to be an increasing issue in the beer world. Hell, never mind that – in life generally. If you’re hurting, please tell someone…

After giving this a lot of thought, I’ve decided I’d like to tell you about Andy.

I just said goodbye to Andy. I’ll probably never see him again. This is a bit of a wrench: for the past seven years, he has been my counsellor, my therapist. As I slowly grew to trust him, he also became my friend, and in many ways, my surrogate father.

Seven and a half years ago, my world caved in. I learned things about my family, and about myself, that rocked my very sense of who I was. Feelings of grief, betrayal, shock, guilt, panic, anger and loss queued up to take turns on me. I felt like I was drowning. My wife, Liz, was my lifejacket. She saved me. But I needed pulling out of the water, and Andy did that.

Once a week, I went to talk to him for an hour at a time. He pushed me hard. For a while, it was twice a week. The rest of my diary was structured around the fixed points of these sessions. For the first few years I dreaded them, and came out feeling like like I’d had the mental equivalent of an hour in a boxing ring.

I realised pretty soon that the things that had driven me to see Andy were part of a wider pattern, that for my entire adult life, I’d developed an elaborate coping mechanism to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety, panic and paranoia. This system had worked extremely well for a long time, but was now damaging me. I was a stressed out, unhappy, dysfunctional workaholic who soothed himself by eating and drinking too much. In your forties, this shit starts to catch up with you. I began to develop health problems that would become significantly more serious unless I changed direction.

My relationship with Andy was unequal: I told him absolutely everything about myself, and he gave away very little in return. That’s how it works. I knew we shared things in common around our upbringings, but I never discovered the details. I was scared of mumbo jumbo and psychological claptrap. I felt uncomfortable with how much he wanted me to open up to him.

And boy, it was fucking frustrating. We talked things through and worked things out. I’m a bright bloke, and I could see the workings, see where he was trying to go. I got things intellectually, understood the point, but it made absolutely no difference to how I felt. We had the same conversations over and over again. For fucking years.

And then, gradually, it started to change. I grew to trust Andy. I started to look forward to the sessions. And inside me, very slowly, things started to shift. Every now and again I’d take a step backwards, and we’d have to go through something yet again. But gradually, I came to know myself more, to understand myself. I started to forgive myself, to cut myself some slack.

Andy retires next month: we just had our final session. I was thinking that it was probably time to raise the subject of ending my therapy, and when he announced his retirement, that settled it. In our last few sessions he opened upon a bit more, made it more equal. We even had a few laughs.

The feelings never go away. Therapy can’t ‘cure’ you or ‘fix’ you. Andy doesn’t talk in terms of mental illness or mental health – in his words, I wasn’t ill, but I was disturbed, and now I’m less disturbed. Now, I can spot when feelings or behaviours are emerging and go, “Oh, I’m doing that again,” and I can shut it down – no, that’s not right – I can allow it to be, allow it to express itself, give it space and be comfortable with it, and move on without it becoming a disturbance. I can cope with things that used to get the better of me, and now no longer do.

I’m sharing this with a certain degree of trepidation. But I’m sharing it because I know I’m not alone. Anxiety, self-doubt and depression can be killers. Some people in the beer scene  have started to talk more openly about mental health on social media and there have been one or two powerful and moving longer pieces written. Despite its progressiveness (in places) the beer scene is still incredibly macho. We might often feel like we have to put a mask on and go out with our bros and buddies and smash some awesome beers and have a frikkin awesome time, when inside we might be hurting or drowning or feel ourselves disappearing. Having been there, I can tell when people are suffering – sometimes they even admit to it – and it’s becoming increasingly widespread.

So I’m sharing this for two reasons.

Firstly, I simply want to say to people who may be hurting that I’ve been there too. Many of us have.

Secondly, I want to say that if you’re drowning or falling or disappearing (like I was) or if you’re throwing up with nerves before heading out to a beer event, if you’re getting wankered to try and shut down nervousness or anxiety (like others I’ve spoken to) or if you’re worried that everyone else is having an awesome time and you’re alone in pinning on a mask and dreading being found out – please, talk about it. Tell someone. Go see someone. I’ve been paying Andy a good chunk of my income for the past seven years, but it was worth every penny. I saw him privately, but you can get referred to a therapist via the NHS. There’s no need to suffer in silence. And with enough talking, it really does get better.

I imagine I might get a bit of shit for posting this, but if it helps just one person, it’s worth it. And thanks to Andy, I’m much better at dealing with the shit than I used to be.

| Uncategorised

The Campaign for Good Brown Beer

Is the boom in craft brewing actually narrowing the choice of different beer styles we have?

Last week I was invited to Germany to attend the magnificent Bar Convent Berlin, a huge trade show featuring a mind-boggling array of drinks producers across the board and from across the world, plus talks, seminars and debates. 

Yes, they have hipsters in Germany too. But this was an amazing trade show. 

This year there was a special focus on the UK, and I was asked if I’d run a tutored tasting with Sylvia Kopp, European Ambassador for the American Brewers’ Association, the idea being that we’d pick a variety of beer styles that were British in origin, and do side-by-side presentations of British and American beers in that style. It sounded like a lovely idea, so I readily agreed. 

Sylvia checked with the American brewers at the show and came up with an attractive-looking list of styles:

  • Brown ale
  • Scotch ale
  • IPA
  • Stout

As a list, it has that warm glow of classic British beer about it. As a flight of beers, it felt comforting and autumnal, the corner pub on a rainy Tuesday night with a small fire in the grate and George Orwell sitting in the corner with a newspaper. 

And maybe, to young British brewers, that’s the problem with it. 

Stout was straightforward enough, although we both ended up with flavoured styles rather than straightforward ones. IPA was of course very easy to find. But we wanted to put up a British style against an American style IPA, and finding a British IPA that didn’t have a heavy American hop influence was a much more difficult task.* I could think of two that were widely known, but neither of them was available in Germany. 

The other categories were much more difficult. For brown ale, I had the choice of Newcastle Brown, which is insipid, and Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. I don’t promote Samuel Smith’s beers, for ethical reasons. That left me with… nothing. 

As for Scotch ale? I was offered Belhaven Scottish Ale. I mean, yeah, but… wasn’t there anything else in that style? No.

I’ve just searched for Scotch Ale on Beers of Europe. They stock one from Belgium, three from the US and just one from the UK. Brown ale is a more complicated category to define, but again, they stock quite a lot of Belgian brown ales (not quite the same thing) several American examples based on the British style and no British ones. Beer Hawk currently lists no Scotch ales at all, several American brown ales, and a couple of British-brewed ‘American-style’ brown ales, but no English-style examples. It’s a similar story across various other retailers. 

I’m not saying no British brewers are brewing decent brown ales or Scotch ales any more. But I am saying these traditional styles are much harder to find than they used to be, and pretty much invisible compared to American-hopped IPA and pale ale, black IPA, Berlinerweiss, craft lager (or pale ale fraudulently labelled as lager), and experimental beers involving fruit. The same goes for barley wine, mild, old ale, and winter warmers. Again, Beers of Europe now lists an Austrian, a Belgian, a Norwegian and three American ‘English-style barley wines’ but no British examples. 

Eventually, Sylvia and I had change the styles we presented. On my side, I had a golden ale, an American-style British IPA, a chocolate stout and Fuller’s Vintage Ale. All great beers, but not the showcase of British styles we’d been hoping for.

This is not a post-Brexit ‘British beer for British people’ rant. I welcome the new styles and the innovations and adore the character of American hops. But as we face more beer choice than we’ve ever had before, it frustrates me that the British disease of ‘what we do is always crap, if its from abroad it must be better’ means that we’re not innovating with styles developed here. You can’t just argue that it’s because those styles are boring or lack character, because as the above examples show, brewers in other countries, particularly the States, find them interesting and inspirational. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Finkel, founder of the Pike Brewery in Seattle and one of the original catalysts of what has now become the global craft beer movement. (If you don’t already know him, read this short biography, it’s incredible.) As we sat down in his brewpub and he asked me what I’d like to drink, the core range gave me a rush of nostalgia for the time I first started writing about beer. It consists of a golden ale, an amber ale, a couple of IPAs, a Scotch ale, a Belgian-stye Tripel, and a stout. There’s no fruit, no blurring of boundaries, no attempts to reinvent anything. And yet it’s an exciting list that has something for everyone, a breadth of style and flavour it would take an awfully long time to get bored of. 

British beer styles were the direct inspiration for the American craft beer revolution. I find it sad that with nearly 2000 brewers in Britain now, there seems to be little enthusiasm for taking these native styles on and doing something interesting with them.

Another point: most of the beer styles in Sylvia’s original list are more reliant on malt for their character than hops. At a time when three new brewers a week open their doors, phone up hop merchants such as Charles Faram and then grumble darkly about not being able to get hold of any Citra or Galaxy hops because the entire supply was spoken for as soon as it was harvested last year (and no, not just by the macros, but also by the 150 new breweries that opened last year, and the year before that) and at a time when British brewers buy more US hops than British hops, and the collapse of the pound means those hops just got a lot more expensive even if you’re lucky enough to find any, it beggars belief that brewers aren’t exploring these older, maltier styles and applying their undoubted creativity to making them relevant again. 

Before last week, the only time I’d visited Berlin was in 2004. Back then, Berlinerweisse was regarded as little more than a joke beer, sold from street kiosks and sweetened with a range of fruit syrups. It’s now, I would argue, the most hip beer style on the global craft brewing scene. So why not mild next? Why not Scotch ale or barley wine?

There are, of course, exceptions. Tonight I’m doing an event at the Harp Pub in Covent Garden with Five Points Brewing, who are launching… a new brown ale! I haven’t tasted it yet. Those who have say it’s great, and that the traditional cask version is even better than the keg. Five Points is also the last brewery I can remember launching a new barley wine. They seem to be doing pretty well out of it. I imagine other brewers could too.

*Before anyone jumps in, yes, I know nineteenth century IPAs were often brewed with US hops. I’ve seen some of the recipes. But they weren’t defined by the fresh, zingy character of those hops like modern IPAs. 

| Uncategorised

Why don’t you switch off your smartphone and go out and do something less boring instead?

… such as coming to one of my summer festival events?

This weekend it’s the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Set up by my wife Liz in 2010, it’s now become recognised as one of the coolest small festivals in the UK, thanks to a combination of it being a nice place with some lovely venues to sit and listen and talk about books, having an excellent audience, amazing volunteers, and Liz’s boundless enthusiasm and extraordinary knack for programming events. Even if I had nothing to do with it you should still come if you can, for legendary novelists, celebrations of Punk’s 40th birthday, a little bit of politics, some food, drink and superb comedy.

But I also happen to be doing a couple of events too.

Amended from the original after I first posted it. Thanks, Tom Stainer!

On Saturday at 6pm I’ll be welcoming four of London’s best breweries to chat beer in Stoke Newington Town Hall. Is London’s brewery boom showing the first signs of slowing down? Are we getting bored of Citra hops yet? Is our love affair with craft beer turning sour? Or are we set for an ever-expanding beery universe after London brewing’s 2010 Big Bang? Such questions can only be answered with a beer in hand, so Redemption (who have sponsored Stokey Litfest since its inception) London Brewing Co (who are helping us run the festival bars this year) 40FT (who are possibly the closest brewery now the Stoke Newington) and Brewed by Numbers (who are currently making my favourite London beers) will each be bringing one of their beers along for you to taste while they share their thoughts. We did a similar event at Stokey Litfest three years ago. It sold out, and people are still talking about it. Tickets for London’s Brewing are £5 and available here, and include four beer samples. It’s the best deal you’ll get on London craft beer anywhere this weekend.

The festival bars will feature loads of great beers and ciders, and not o be missed is the marquee outside the town hall, sponsored by our lead beer partner Budvar. The Czech brewery will be bringing their new krausened beer as well as the original Budvar, and the tent will feature performances by bands, poets and musicians across the weekend including the phenomenal Andy Diagram (ex-James) doing things with a trumpet that will blow your mind – here he was at the festival two years ago:

and the legendary Edward Tudor Pole out of Crystal Maze and Tenpole Tudor (suit of armour probably not included this time).

If I can tear myself away from that, I’m doing a second event on Sunday. My friend and fellow N16 author Travis Elborough has written a fine book about the role of parks in shaping, enhancing and defining our communities, and we thought pubs – the other great people’s institution – had a lot in common with that, and I have a new book on pubs coming out in the summer. The affable and engaging Mark Mason’s new book looks at Britain by postcode, and how they shape the way we think of an area. The three of us had a chat on stage at the festival three years ago and everyone wanted it to carry on in the beer tent afterwards, so we’re all back with our new books this year to pick up where we left off. According to the official programme, we’re Stokey’s literary boy band. Terrifying. Tickets for Pubs, Parks and Postcodes are £4 and are available here.

Later in June, I’m ridiculously excited to be making my gigging venue at the Glastonbury Festival. At 3pm on the Friday, I’ll be talking apples and tors, orchards and Celtic myth, and about how ridiculously excited I am to get to see Phillip Glass’s Heroes Symphony live. If you’re lucky enough to have got s ticket to Glasto this year, try to find me at the Free University of Glastonbury Stage.

A couple of days after that I’m getting on a plane to South Africa! Beer Boot Camp is a one day conference with a difference – it goes on tour! I’ll be chatting beer ingredients and my forthcoming book to brewers and beer enthusiasts in Jo’burg in the 2nd and Cape Town on the 9th. More information and tickets here.

And finally for now, I’ll be at the Green Man Festival from 18th to 21st August. My beer and music matching at Green Man has turned into a regular gig and one of my favourite events of the year. With 100 beers and ciders in the beer tent and a wonderfully eclectic line-up across the stages, I’ll be kicking off Green Man 2016 at noon on Friday by pairing the beers and performers of the festival. we had over a thousand people packed into the literary tent last year for this so if you are going to Green Man, get there early to get a seat!

| Uncategorised

Why I haven’t been blogging much

A cautionary tale, with a happy ending. 

About two years ago I started getting shooting pains down my left leg. I went to the doctor about it and they said it was sciatica. Although the pain was in my leg, it was actually a result of nerves in my spine being irritated. “It’ll go away eventually,” said the doctor. “If it gets too bad, just take some painkillers. Exercise will help, as would losing a bit of weight.”

Eventually the pain did go away, but every now and then it would return. In January 2015 it came back and didn’t go away.

One morning at the end of January, I was in a hotel near Heathrow airport where I was attending a brewer’s brand conference and workshop. I woke in quite extraordinary pain, the worst I’ve ever felt. I went from thinking “This is embarrassing. I hope there’s no one next door who can hear me screaming,” to thinking, “Actually, I hope there IS someone next door who can hear me screaming, and they call for help.” I realised I was in quite a lot of trouble and decided to phone someone. My phone was six inches away from my grasp on the bedside table. It too me half an hour to reach it.

Very soon after I did, I was in the back of an ambulance greedily sucking down most of a canister of gas and air. When I got to the hospital they gave me liquid morphine. It took the edge off a bit, but I still couldn’t move without yelling.

Two days later I was discharged with a pile of drugs including Tramadol and Diazepam. I spent the next three weeks feeling fucking wonderful in a kind of dissociated way.

It turned out I had two slipped discs at the base of my spine that were pushing against my spinal cord. I had to have an injection of steroids into my spinal column to sort it out. I’m fine now, but the pain is still there as suggestion, reminding me of my promise to lose weight, improve my posture, take regular exercise and build my core strength so it never comes back properly again.

I haven’t yet kept that promise, mainly because of what I did when I was fucked and bombed on very strong drugs.

About a week after I stopped taking the drugs, the latest issue of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser came through the door. As soon as I saw it I thought, “Shit! I was supposed to write my column for this week!” I briefly wondered why they hadn’t chased me for it, before turning to the page where it usually runs to see what they’d done instead.

There was my column.

I had written and submitted it as usual, but had absolutely no memory of doing so. Technically it was a bit sloppy, but it was uncharacteristically warm and affectionate.

I later discovered that I’d written four different features while I was high. Four that I’ve been able to find, anyway.

I had also done something else that was really, really stupid.

My last narrative book, Shakespeare’s Local, was very successful when it launched. It was picked up by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week and read out by Tony Robinson, who made it much funnier than my writing is, and the book spent the week before Christmas sitting comfortably in Amazon’s Top 100, outselling Hunger Games books and Downton Abbey tie-ins. It was easily the most successful book launch I’ve had to date. And it almost killed my book publishing career.

The issue was, it represented a transition point from my being a beer writer to being a mainstream, general non-fiction author. The publisher who had bought my first four books – and specifically, the man who had edited the last two – felt quite understandably that my next book should push me right into the bestseller lists, that I should be, if not the new Bill Bryson, then perhaps the next Stuart Maconie or Simon Garfield. I was very happy to agree.

The problem was coming up with an idea for a book that fit the bill.

I spent the next two years submitting ideas that were rejected. The usual response was along the lines of “Well, I’d read it like a shot, but I’m not sure it’s going to sell beyond your current audience.”

Mainstream publishing is changing and getting more difficult. There’s no longer room for ‘the midlist’ – books like mine that sell OK and cover their costs but don’t build and break out. My confidence began to plummet, until we reached the break-up conversation that goes along the lines of, “If you’d like to move on and see other people, that’s OK with me.”

I started pitching ideas to other people. I didn’t have a clear strategy, I just knew I wanted to start work on another book. If writing books is what you do – and for me, everything else is filler that keeps me busy and pays the mortgage between books – whenever you finish one you’re effectively unemployed until you sign a deal for the next one.

Did I want to carry on trying to crack a different, broader market? Or did I want to go back to writing about beer and pubs? Yes.

So I was having various different conversations with various different publishers about various different ideas when my back went and I got taken to hospital.

Then, during a particularly rotten, bleak and desolate comedown from the drugs that was every bit as miserable as the high was euphoric, I realised that I’d signed three different contracts, with three different publishers, to deliver three different books – all within the same timescale.

This was a really fucking stupid thing to do.

It normally takes me two to three years to write and research a book. Now, I had to write and research three in little over a year. And I had to break it to each publisher that while I was very happy about our new relationship, I was also seeing someone else.

This did not make for the kind of stress-free time I needed if I wanted to get happier and healthier. And so I haven’t. But now, fourteen months later, I’ve just finished writing the second of the three books, and I’ve managed to delay the third one, which I’ve started writing up today. I’ve mentioned them all at various times here and there, but with the first two now out of the way and with their release dates confirmed, here’s what’s coming up.

The Pub: A Cultural Institution
Publication Date: 18th August 2016

For all I’ve written about pubs, I’ve never really done pub reviews. This book is one of those coffee table, picture-led affairs with lots of gorgeous photography of old inns, pubs signs and real ale casks. But I also wanted it to be much more than that.

The book contains reviews of 300 pubs across the UK. 250 of these are short, 80-word listings, but fifty of them are double-page spreads featuring longer essays. Rather than just say what beers are on or what the decor is like (information which would quickly go out of date and is better sourced from websites) I’ve tried to review each of these pubs on its atmosphere, which is, after all, the main reason we choose one pub over another.

It’s much harder to do than reviewing the physical space or offering, and I don’t quite succeed with every one of the fifty. But I’ve also tried to make each one a story about the many different reasons why pubs are so special: a couple focus on legendary publicans, some focus on the relationship between the pub and its environment, one celebrates the ritual of that coming-of-age moment many of us experienced in our first pub, another talks about the institution of the pub juke box. One is about a marriage proposal, while another sees a pub help sort out an old man who has been made temporarily homeless.

I’m now going through the inevitable phase of “Sounds good! Did you write about the Three Old Codgers in Little Frumpington? Whaaaaat? You’ve never been to the Codgers? You haven’t lived, mate.” If you know the best pub ever, it’s probably not in here. But I promise you the 300 featured pubs are very good indeed.

Available for pre-order on Amazon – click the pic above for a link.



The Apple Orchard
Publication Date: 29th September 2016

When I wrote World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw, I spent a lot of time in orchards. I was moved by these beautiful places, enraptured by the customs and traditions around apple growing, and the people who kept them alive. I made loads of quite lyrical notes and observations, most of which never made it into the cider book because it wasn’t that kind of book. So I decided I wanted to revisit the subject.

The result is a book that follows the apple year, from blossom time in spring through to wassail in January. It explores the cultural meaning of the apple as well as its practical value. Was the apple the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden? Could it have been? Does it matter? If it wasn’t, why do we think it was? Exploring questions like these was like pulling a loose thread that led me all over the place. There are ancient Pagan festivals, an appreciation of soil, discussions about GM, and quite a bit of morris dancing. It turned into a sort of affectionate tour of British life and customs, as well as an exploration of our relationship with food and where it comes from. It’s possibly the best piece of writing I’ve done to date. It has nothing to do with beer, although quite a bit of cider is drunk.

I’m enormously chuffed that Penguin will be publishing The Apple Orchard under their ‘Particular Books’ imprint. We haven’t quite sorted the cover yet, but it is already listed on Amazon and available for pre-order here.

What Are You Drinking?
Publication Date: TBC Spring 2017

I’ve already written quite a bit about my book on hops, barley, yeast and water because it’s being published by Unbound, who use crowdfunding to cover the cost of publication, so I’ve had to flog the idea quite hard to potential subscribers.

The best thing about this is that by having to tell people about the book before I’d really done very much work on it, the process of funding changed the shape and scope of the book. Brewers, maltsters and hop growers have been in touch suggesting I visit them to learn more about what they do, and something that started life as quite a theoretical idea has become much more hands-on. I’ve picked hops in Kent, sat on a combine harvester as it reaps Maris Otter barley, watched speciality malts being made in Bamberg, seen hops being picked in farms in the Yakima Valley that are bigger than the entire British hop crop, visited the laboratory in Copenhagen where single strain brewing yeasts were first isolated and cultivated, drunk Burton well water straight from the ground and delivered fresh, green Galaxy hops to a brewery in Australia and dry-hopped a beer with them. It’s been utterly amazing, and if I can only do justice to the incredible source material I’ve gathered, the book will be worth the wait.

We reached our crowdfunding target back in October, but you can still become a subscriber if you want. Subscribers get their name in the back of the book, get access to exclusive updates about how the book research and writing process is coming along, and will also get their copies a month or so before publication. If you’re interested, here’s the link.

Some people have been uncomfortable with the idea of a crowdfunded book. If you don’t like the idea that’s fine, because on publication the book will receive the same distribution as any book from a traditional publisher and you can buy it on Amazon or any good book shop.

I will be blogging more frequently again now, having got the first two books out of the way. Sorry the last little while on here has mainly been me trying to flog stuff. I’ll be doing some actual beer blogging again very soon.

| Uncategorised

Beer Marketing Awards: New Awards Date, Deadline for Entries Extended

The second annual Beer Marketing Awards have been moved from 14th April, and will now take place in 8th September at the Boiler House, the Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London E1.

The postponement follows some uncertainty about availability of the venue. Everyone who attended the first event in 2015 thought it was a perfect venue for such an event, but for that reason it’s a very popular space, so we decided to do it later and do it as well as we possibly can.

This means that the deadline for entries – which was originally this week – has now been extended until 31st March. Entries have been coming in thick and fast, but if you were running out of time for yours, now you have time to give it an extra polish.

The idea behind the awards is to celebrate the promotion of beer across all channels. In today’s communications landscape, effective marketing is no longer about who has the biggest budget – the strength of an idea can compete across various channels. Last year we had global, regional and microbrewers going head-to-head in some categories, and it was by no means assured that those with the biggest budget and external agencies won out.

After feedback last year, we have also introduced staggered entry fees based on the size of the brewery (or if you’re an agency, the size of the brewery you work for), to make it mort affordable for small brewers to enter.

More details and entry forms are available at http://beermarketingawards.co.uk/.

| Uncategorised

If you think you're a pub and… (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

If you think you’re a pub and you try to ‘up-sell’ someone by forcing your staff to ask
‘Would you like some crisps or nuts with that?’ every time someone orders a
pint,
If you think you are solving the problem of bar staff
motivation and retention by ‘empowering’ your zero hours, minimum wage, untrained staff simply by referring to them as ‘colleagues,’
If you advertise free WiFi but ‘free’ turns out to mean
‘free for 20 minutes and then you pay,’
If you pour a pint for a customer that foams over the sides
of the glass so vigorously that you have to wash your hands after pouring it,
but you expect your customer to pick up the soaking glass from its puddle,
knowing their hands will get wet and sticky, but not giving a shit about that,
If you advertise ‘craft beers’ and offer Peroni or Amstel to
those who ask for them,
If you refer to yourself as a ‘Beer House’[1],
‘bar and kitchen’, ‘cellar and eatery’, ‘Ale dispensary and hob’ or any other
similar term because you think you’re better than a mere pub,
If you charge more than £5 for a pint of beer without being able to tell the customer why
it costs that much,
If you think the brand
is more important than the guv’nor,
If you have keypads on the doors to the toilets because
you’re so paranoid about walk-ins using the loos without buying a drink that
you’re prepared to humiliate your customers by making them come to the bar to
ask for the code,
And if, the code secured, your customer opens the door to
the bogs and reels back physically from the ammonia stench of stale urine
burning their nostrils from urinals that haven’t been cleaned for days,
Then you don’t have the first clue about what matters to the earth nor anything in it , and – which is more – you ain’t no pub, my son!

[1] For example, in a train station such
as London Waterloo or Paddington.

| Uncategorised

The British Beer and Pub Industry in 2016

Just before Christmas, The Publican’s Morning Advertiser asked me for my predictions about the events that will shape the UK pub industry in 2016. They said I could be irreverent. This is a bit parochial if you’re not close to the UK pub industry, but if you are, just call me Nostradamus…

After a slow start to the year,
notable only for a combined team of scientists from CERN, MIT and NASA
discovering the true definition of craft beer, things hot up when the
AB-Inbev/SABMiller deal finally goes through. The new combined entity decides
to cut to the chase and announces its purchase of the entire continent of Europe,
with Carlos Brito declaring himself President. All beer apart from Stella
Artois and Becks is immediately banned.
In a desperate move, BrewDog
launches Equity for Punks X and raises $100 trillion for a hostile takeover. As
President Brito is making his President’s Question Time debut in the House of
Commons, James Watt and Martin Dickie drive a tank into the chamber and
announce that the National Anthem will be replaced by the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. The Daily Mail gets confused as to whether
to launch a vicious smear campaign against BrewDog for being disrespectful and
challenging authority, or Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to sing the punk anthem,
and self-combusts.
Brito doesn’t go down without a
fight and launches weapons of mass destruction inside parliament, but because
they’ve been made with the cheapest ingredients possible, they don’t work
properly. Chemical weapons hit the toilets, and from the green haze emerges the
dishevelled figure of Greg Mulholland, wearing his underpants over his suit.
Realising the chemical soup has at last given him the superpowers he craves,
Mulholland dispatches Brito before laying waste to the nation’s PubCos,
reducing them to rubble with his laser eyes and thunderous voice. Anti-PubCo
campaigners continue to blame Punch and Enterprise for pub closures anyway.
Against the backdrop of a declining
beer market overall, cask ale volume rises by 0.3%.

| Uncategorised

Beer Marketing Awards return for second year – call for entries

Last year I was part of a team that launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards in the UK. The competition, and the event, was a great success, and the awards are now open for a second year.

There are two main ideas and ambitions behind the awards:

  • Rightly, there are a great many awards for beer quality. That’s as it should be. But there’s no point making great beer if no one knows about it. With 1700 breweries now in the UK, it’s never been more important to make your beer stand out and let people know about it. At a time when some beer promotion is dodgy to say the least, we want to celebrate the best, and hopefully inspire the rest to do better.
  • Marketing is seen by some as the preserve of big brewers, but everyone does it in some way. What you call your beer, what you put in the label or pump clip, how you tell pubs about it, what you say about it on social media, all of it counts. These awards are not just about big budgets: our ambition last year was to have the world’s biggest brewers competing with the UK’s smallest on a level playing field. In categories such as social media and packaging, they did, and the gongs went to the best ideas rather than the biggest budgets. There’s a category that suits any brewer of any size. We want this to be an event that could bring the whole industry together.
We’ve slightly rejigged and expanded the categories this year. Here’s a full list:
  • BEST ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN – PRINT
  • BEST ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN – BROADCAST 
  • BEST ONLINE COMMUNICATIONS
  • BEST PUBLIC RELATIONS CAMPAIGN 
  • BEST BRANDING/DESIGN 
  • BEST USE OF COMPETITIONS 
  • BEST INTEGRATED CAMPAIGN 
  • BEST STUNT/GUERRILLA MARKETING 
  • BEST BUSINESS TO BUSINESS CAMPAIGN 
  • BEST INNOVATION 
  • BEST NEW LAUNCH 
  • BEST USE OF SPONSORSHIP 
  • BEST USE OF MERCHANDISE 
  • BEST EVENT 

And two special awards at the discretion of the judges:

  • OUTSTANDING INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT 
  • OVERALL WINNER: BEER MARKETER OF THE YEAR
You can see a bit more description of the categories here, and download an entry for for any of these categories here. If you’d like to see the spread of winners from last year, who represent all corners of the British brewing industry, check them out, and learn why they won, here.
One criticism we received about the awards last year is that we charge for entry. We appreciate that small brewers don’t have much money to spend, but we’re a small start-up too with no external financial backing, and we need to make the event cover its costs. We have to charge something, but this year we’ve introduced a staggered entry costs along the same lines that our friends at Craft Beer Rising use to charge exhibitors:
  • £60 (£50 + £10 VAT) for brewers under 5000 hectolitres
  • £144 (120 + £24 VAT) for brewers between 5000 hectolitres and 60,000 hectolitres
  • £180 (£150 + £30 VAT) for brewers over 60,000 hectolitres
We’re delighted to welcome Boutique Beers by Matthew Clark back as our headline sponsor. If you’re a brewer, client or supplier to the brewing industry who would be interested in sponsoring a category, drop me a line.

Entries are now open. The deadline for submitting them is 22nd February 2016. The Awards ceremony takes place in Brick Lane on 14th April 2016.

Good luck!

| Uncategorised

I just realised how the debate about craft beer is changing

Last week, my latest column for the Publican’s Morning Advertiser focused on the response to craft beer by the giant, global brewing corporations that dominate the beer market. It was inspired by a new project at Guinness which has produced some beers I consider to be very good indeed. I suggested that maybe we’re getting to the end of the usefulness of the term ‘craft beer’, because it disguises the fact that breweries of any size can and now sometimes do make really good beer. 
The response to the piece was mixed, from sentiments along the lines of ‘Damn right, it’s all about good beer, whoever brews it,’ to ‘No! Big brewers are shit by definition and we will always need craft brewers to stand against them.’
The more I thought about these differing views, the more I realised they were arguing about different things. 
The narrative of craft beer is a familiar one: global brewers make boring bland beer because they are trying not to offend anyone, they always want to cut costs, and they sell style over substance. Craft brewers saved us from mediocrity by brewing more interesting, flavourful beers, operating a more nimble business model, driven by passion and flavour rather than shareholders, marketers and accountants. Medium-sized brewers – such as regional and family-owned real ale brewers in the UK, or brewers who were craft but have grown huge, sit somewhere in the middle and generate most of the argument about what is and isn’t craft.
It can be expressed as a linear continuum along which you can plot your favourite and least favourite brewers and beers:
I think this is how most of us see the issue. But it’s rather too simplistic. If it ever was right, things have moved in beyond it.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think every beer created by a craft brewer is good – there are some awful beers out there from passionate beer advocates who simply aren’t very good brewers, or who might be walking the craft beer walk but are in reality just as cynical as the big brewers, but operating on a small scale hoping to get rich quick from the latest craze. And on the other hand, there are big brewers who have bought smaller brands and haven’t (yet) screwed them up. And there are the occasional beers – such as the best ones I tasted at Guinness, and Carlsberg’s Jacobsen range – that are simply very good beers made by brewers employed by a global corporation, that in a blind tasting would be considered good craft beers. 
So it would be more accurate to look at the market on two axes rather than one continuum, like this:

Now, if you were to plot every beer brand in the world on this chart, the vast majority of global brewers’ brands would still be in the bottom left quadrant, and the majority of craft beers would probably sit top right. But there would be notable exceptions, so I think the reality of the beer world today probably look like this:

When you look at the market in this way, your emotional response to it will tell you what you really care about in beer, and different people care about different things at different times. That’s why we sometimes talk at cross-purposes in debates about craft versus big.
Given a free choice, I’d prefer to drink in the top right quadrant. I prefer to drink good quality beer brewed by a small, passionate company. I’m sure most of you would agree. But if these beers weren’t available to you, would you rather have a very good beer brewed by a big, nasty corporation, or an inferior beer brewed by a really great guy under a railway arch just down the street?
If the quality of the beer is the most important thing, you’ll happily drink a great beer from Carlsberg or Guinness. But if that thought makes you angry, then you aren’t actually thinking about the beer at all. You’re thinking about the craft beer movement, and your decision is driven by your beliefs, politics and morality rather than your taste buds.
I’m not knocking either approach. What I am saying is that if we confuse arguments about beer quality and flavour with arguments about an unfair balance of power, the importance of supporting small local businesses and the excitement of feeling like part of a movement, we end up sounding stupid. Anyone who genuinely believes big brewers are incapable of making and releasing good beers simply doesn’t know anything about brewing. And anyone who thinks any small-scale craft beer is automatically good because of where it comes from has their head in the sand. 
This made me think about where I stand as someone who makes a living writing about beer. If I discover a great beer made by a big brewer and I refuse to write about it, or I say it’s shit when it isn’t, I’m not doing my job properly. I can choose what I want to focus on in the most detail, but I do have a duty to report interesting stuff that I find out in the course of doing my job. If I was thinking purely as a fan of beer, I might have a different view. 
The craft debate will rumble on. Beer gets under our skin precisely because it is many things – that’s why I started writing about it in the first place. In most cases, it’s not just about the quality of the beer – it’s about expressing who we are, making choices that say something about us. It is politics and fashion and identity as well as flavour. In reality, it’s these aspects that are driving most of the current debates about the future of craft beer.
It’s your choice what you drink. If you choose to boycott any beer made by a large corporation, no matter how good it is, I’d have some respect for that point of view. Just don’t tell me you’re doing it because the beer is shit.