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Some reflections on PubCo reform

This most difficult and complex issue in the pub industry probably hasn’t got any easier after a landmark victory in parliament yesterday for anti-PubCo campaigners. But whatever your views, no one except the campaigners has come out of this looking good.

I’ve not written much about the long-running battle between the biggest pub companies in Britain (pubcos) and the publicans who feel ripped off and/or abused by them. I’ve taken no joy whatsoever in writing about it when I have. It’s the most emotive, bitter and unpleasant issue I’ve come across in my time as a beer writer, and beer writing is meant to be a joy.

THE BACKGROUND
If you don’t know the history of this dispute, here it is in brief (if you do, skip to the next bit). For most of the twentieth century, pubs were owned by the breweries that supplied them with beer. Breweries paid for things such as upkeep and decoration in return for the pub not selling anyone else’s beer but theirs. (There’s more in my book Man Walks into a Pub on how this came about). In 1989, the government decided this was anti-competitive, and passed the Beer Orders, which severely limited the number of pubs any one brewery was allowed to own. Thousand of pubs instantly hit the market, and were bought up by investment banks, repackaged, split up, parcelled out, and eventually came under the ownership of a few big pub companies accounting for about half of Britain’s pubs.

These pubcos were not tied to any one brewery, but many felt that the situation was even less openly competitive than it had been before: pubcos could drive hard deals with the brewers that supplied them, and the range of beers in a typical boozer actually shrank. Instead of Whitbread beers in Whitbread pubs, Courage beers in Courage pubs and so on, the same big national brands were installed wherever you went. And crucially, from a publican’s perspective, the pubs were still tied – not to a brewery, but to a property-owning company which had astonishing debts after buying thousands of pubs just at the time Britain’s leisure habits changed and we started doing most of our drinking at home.

The tied deal offered by a pubco looks good on paper and, to be fair, does seem to work for a lot of publicans. The pubco makes its money via a combination of property rent and the purchasing tie. In theory, someone with not much capital to invest and not much experience in the trade can go into a pub on a low rent, but the company makes the money back by selling stock to the pub at inflated prices, above the market rate the publican could buy the same stuff for elsewhere. But the publican still makes money, because the pubco is a business partner offering help and advice, takes care of the repairs and so on, and the combination of rent and tied stock prices works out OK over the year, optimised to work with things like projected cashflow.

That’s the theory. And it is important to repeat that this model seemingly works perfectly well for thousands of happy publicans. But it is also undeniable that this system has been abused by the pubcos, if not on a systematic basis, then certainly at a widespread enough level for it to be seen as a pattern rather than an aberration. I’ve spoken to many publicans who feel they were misled when signing their leases, given false information about how profitable the pub was before signing up to how much money they would pay over, being made liable for essential and costly repairs they weren’t told about, or punished for succeeding by being given eye-wateringly high increases when rent review time came around.

While many campaigners will vehemently disagree with me on this point, it’s my belief that the worst excesses of the pubco abuse are in the past: they have cleaned up their act, because they had to – they simply couldn’t carry on getting away with it. That’s not to say problems and disputes have gone away – far from it – but the pubcos are not taking the piss like they once did.

THE CRUCIAL VOTE
Anyway, there’s a Bill going through parliament that sets up a statutory code to regulate the dealings between pubcos and their tenants and lessees. Naturally, the pubcos oppose this, and have lobbied for it to be as light on them as possible. But the campaigners, facilitated by self-styled pub champion Greg Mulholland MP, requested an amendment to the bill that would make it mandatory for pubcos to offer a ‘market rent only’ (MRO) option, effectively allowing any tenant to rent a pub from them free of tie. Yesterday, MPS voted to include that amendment in the Bill, after many were swayed to vote against party lines by a campaign from pubco opponents. (Apart from its importance to the pub industry, the vote was significant for being the first government defeat in a whipped vote since the coalition came to power in 2010).

Of course the Bill still needs to be passed into law with the amendment intact, but the rush of reaction from both sides after yesterday’s vote makes it seem like everyone expects it to survive.

I don’t have a coherent point of view on this, and for a more knowledgeable insight on what this might actually mean for the future of the pub market you should read an insightful blog by a level-headed, balanced publican – but even he can’t say what will happen for sure. But I do have some disconnected observations…

1. This is a remarkable victory for the campaigners 
Whether you agree with them or not, this is a grassroots campaign that has convinced politicians, upset the government and triumphed over some powerful lobbying groups. I’ve criticised the campaigners in the past for being too emotional, too aggressive, and alienating those who could be supportive. All that evaporates in the face of a coherent, well-organised campaign with just the right amount of emotive force.

2. If they really were being fair, I don’t understand why the pubcos are so upset
This is entirely due to my naivety about the mechanics of the deal, and I have no desire to be educated on it in more detail than I already know. Sometimes naivety can be a good thing. If pubcos make their money via sliding levers, moving rent up and tied stock prices down and vice versa to get to the deal that works best for both parties, then surely they will be no worse off? If someone wants a market rent only tenancy, I’m sure that market rent will be much higher than what they currently pay. If they don’t like it, they can stick with a tied deal. If the tied deal is as fair as the pubcos say it is, surely most pubco tenants will stick with it, and if they don’t, the pubco won’t make any less money from a market rent only deal? As Stonch points out, they already do offer market rent-only deals to some operators – at very high market rents. What does this vote change apart from offering that option to more people?

3. CAMRA’s response is a little disappointing
Within an hour of the vote, I received a press release from CAMRA claiming the credit for the vote. The statement begins “CAMRA is delighted that, after ten years of our campaigning, MPs have today voted to introduce a market rent only option for licensees tied to the large pub companies – a move that will secure the future of the Great British Pub” and ends “Thank you to the 8000 CAMRA members and campaigners who lobbied their local MP to help make this happen and to those MPs that voted to support pubs. CAMRA are now urging the Government to accept the outcome of the vote.” I’m not saying CAMRA didn’t help in this campaign – they played a significant role – but to imply this was their campaign, and theirs alone, doesn’t make them look good. As a CAMRA member, I can’t recall receiving any communication from the organisation urging me to support the campaign. (I’m not saying they didn’t send me anything, just that if they did, it wasn’t noticeable.) In the week running up to yesterday’s vote the activity from grassroots groups such as Fair Deal For Your Local was unmissable across social media. @camraofficial, by comparison, issued one tweet on November 12 urging its members to lobby their MPs to support the amendment. Of course CAMRA played a key role, but it was one of many groups, and I find it disingenuous that they were so quick to claim all the credit.

4. The BBPA’s response is even more disappointing
The BBPA describes itself as “the leading body representing Britain’s brewers and pub companies”. Most of the time, this means it is the official voice speaking on behalf of the whole beer and pub industry, and when it does so, it does an increasingly effective job. Unlike many pubco campaigners I don’t see the BBPA as The Enemy. I have worked with them in the past and hope to do so again. I even count several people who work there as friends. But yesterday’s press release in response to the vote was unbecoming of them.

Chief Executive Brigid Simmons is quoted as saying the vote will “hugely damage investment, jobs, and result in 1,400 more pubs closing, with 7,000 job losses – as the Government’s own research shows.” But this is not quite true. The government research to which Simmons refers actually says the move could result in between 700 and 1,400 pubs closing, with between 3,700 and 7,000 job losses. Now I’m not saying that’s a good thing, and I have no idea whether this research is right or not – we’ll have to wait and see. But by only quoting the uppermost figure as if it were the only figure, and not the top limit in a very wide range, at best the organisation responsible for promoting beer and pubs is being overly gloomy and pessimistic about their future. At worst, the BBPA is being deliberately misleading and alarming on an issue that hasn’t gone their way. This is the kind of nonsense I expect from Alcohol Concern, not the beer and pub industry’s official mouthpiece.

Simmons also says, “This change effectively breaks the ‘beer tie’, which has served Britain’s unique pub industry well for nearly 400 years.” As someone who has written a history of beer and pubs in Britain, this came as a great surprise to me. If the beer tie has been around for nearly 400 years, that means its been around for longer than the big breweries that invented it: large scale commercial brewing only really became the dominant model of British beer in the mid-eighteenth century, after the industrial revolution. While tied pubs may have existed in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, they didn’t become the norm until the late nineteenth century, when beer consumption peaked and brewers floated on the stock exchange to buy up the pubs that sold their beer. The tied house system was only the norm for a century or so, and even then, ‘serving the pub industry well’ surely has to be questioned as a statement. It’s always been problematic, always been fought against, never perfect.

Finally, again, is this really the end of the tie as Simmons claims? Does the freedom to opt out of a tied relationship with a pubco mean the end of the tied relationship as a model? Surely this is only the case if that tied relationship is so intrinsically flawed that all, or even the majority, of publicans will exercise their new right to opt out of it? 
The pubcos and their lobbyists can’t have it both ways: if the tie works for the majority of publicans, and is as fair as we have always been told it is, then the majority of publicans will stick with it. If the chance to opt out of the tie really does spell the end of the tie, then that means the pubcos and their supporters have been lying to us all along, and it really was institutionally unfair on publicans.
I have no idea what the right answer is. But the pubco stance on this issue simply doesn’t add up. Or am I missing something obvious?
I really do hope yesterday’s vote will lead to a fairer, more equitable deal for publicans, and will not result in the closures and job losses being gloomily forecast by those who have lost. Because this conflict brings out the worst in our industry, and because I would be really happy not to ever feel obliged to write about it again.

UPDATE
I just found the London Economics report on which the scary pub closure figures are based. I’ve only got time for a quick scan as I really do have other work to be getting on with. But it seems to me that the reason they are forecasting MRO would lead to pub closures is that Britain is currently oversupplied with pubs – essentially, it’s saying pubcos are currently managing to keep pubs open that would otherwise close in a freer market, pubs where under the current system neither pubco nor publican are making enough money. It doesn’t seem to be saying at all that a given MRO pub would be worse off than it is now because it goes MRO.

They may be right or wrong about this – pubco campaigners believe they are definitely wrong. I believe there is some truth to the idea that struggling and poor pubs will fold if they’re subject to free market pressures. But I can also point to countless examples of failing or underperforming pubs that have been shed by Enterprise or Punch and are now thriving under new ownership and a different business model.

The most crucial point though is that the London Economics study models the number of pubco pubs that will close. It does not project closures on a total pub market basis. It’s undeniable that MRO will accelerate the rate of disposal of under-performing pubs from the pubco estates. But what the pubcos and BBPA fail to point out is that London Economics “estimate a third of these would re-open under alternative management.” So that makes the 1400 pubs and 7000 jobs claim dishonest on two counts: as well as this being only the highest figure within a wide range, these are not net closures in the pub market as is currently being implied; rather, they are modelled net loss closures to the pubco estates – not to the economy as a whole. If we take into account London Economics figures for reopenings under alternative management, the report is saying that, net, between 462 and 924 pubs will close, not 1400, with between 2442 and 4620 job losses, not 7000.

The London Economics report speculates that MOR may lead to
the end of a large scale tied pub system – not that it definitely will. And even if it does, it suggests that “This, however, may not be as disastrous as it initially sounds.” (All quotes from Executive Summary of the report, page vii).

The ‘government’s own research’ that is being wheeled out in today’s papers to signal the death knell for the British pub isn’t quite saying what the BBPA and pubcos would like you to think it is saying.

Again, if I’m getting the wrong end of the stick here I welcome clarification and correction from anyone more familiar with the issue than I am.

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Please vote for me in the UK Blog Awards

Look, I don’t like to ask, really I don’t. It’s demeaning. But if I didn’t ask, you wouldn’t know about it, so I have to.

There’s a thing called the UK Blog Awards. I decided to enter it this year for the first time. I’ve been blogging about beer and pubs, and more lately cider, since 2006, which makes me the second or third oldest beer blog in the UK. Over that time I’ve completed the transition from freelance adman and part-time writer to full-time writer. I now write for a variety of publications, but this blog remains the place for me to air thoughts and musings that don’t quite fit anywhere else.

Last year I expanded it to give more details of events etc, and links to the other writing I do – there are pages of links to all my Publican’s Morning Advertiser and London Loves Business columns, for example.

I’m enormously proud of this blog and what it’s achieved, so when I saw these awards I thought ‘why not’? Beer blogging is a brilliant and often overlooked corner of the blogosphere and by entering these awards I hope I’ll bring a bit of attention to it.

The first round of judging is a pubic vote which is open from now until 3rd December. All you have to do to vote is follow this link and leave your name and email address – it’ll take less than a minute.

I’m not going to do a hard sell because that would be demeaning to us both. But if you have ever enjoyed reading this blog over the last eight years, please gimme a click.

Cheers.

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The Beer Marketing Awards – Launch and call for entries

I’m very proud to announce (after a false start a couple of years ago, the launch of the Beer Marketing Awards.
There are plenty of awards schemes – and rightly so – that celebrate excellence in brewing. But few great beers sell themselves. We’re not just talking about glossy TV campaigns for lager brands, influential though they are – label design, social media presence, stunts, events and merchandising are all important in making sure beer gets noticed and bought by the people who want it.
The awards are open to all brewers with a presence and focus in the UK – and their agencies. The awards will recognise excellence in the following categories:

• Best advertising campaign – print
• Best advertising campaign – broadcast
• Best use of social media
• Best branding / design
• Best public relations campaign
• Best use of competitions
• Best integrated campaign
• Best stunt / guerrilla marketing
• Best B2B campaign
• Best website
• Best use of sponsorship
• Best use of merchandise

From these, an overall winner will be announced as well as an award for ‘Outstanding Individual achievement’, which will highlight the individual who, in the minds of the judges, has had the most impact in the way beer is marketed in the UK. 
The judges, led by me, will include leading on- and off-trade operators, beer journalists, bloggers and award-winning marketeers.
The reason I think this is such a powerful idea is that there is currently no awards scheme that is relevant to every single brewer in the industry, nothing that brings them all together. The idea of this competition is that it celebrates ALL beer. Irrespective of the size of your budget, there’s a category that’s relevant to you – there are obviously some categories here that are out of reach of small micros. But there are others where micros are currently succeeding much better than the big boys. The overall competition is about celebrating creativity at all levels, and any category winner, large or small, could walk away with the top prize. 
There’s been a great deal of debate recently about various aspects of beer marketing, from corporate campaigns to controversial use of sexist imagery and language. It seems particularly important in light of this to celebrate the very best work that brewers and their marketers do, and hopefully inspire those who are not so good to up their game.

This may sound naggingly familiar to long-time readers of this blog. That’s because we first announced this idea in August 2012. Back then, in retrospect, we had neither the time nor the right people on the team to make it work properly. We postponed the event when we realised we’d double-booked it with at least one other leading industry event, and lost momentum. But the idea was too good to let go, and we have fixed those problems. The team behind these awards now has all the skills necessary to make it happen. Just to be sure, we have waited until we have confirmed the date and venue, secured some of our sponsors and most of our judges before making this announcement. 

Entries are open from now until 23rd January 2015. Details of how to enter can be found at

Winners will be announced at an event on 14th April 2015 at the Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London. Tickets to this event are available to anyone interested in coming along. It most definitely will not be a black tie event. Sponsorship of individual categories is also available to any company wishing to have a profile at the event. Details of all of this are available via the contact form at the above website.
Finally, here are two old beer TV ads that sum up why I want to do this and why I think it’s so important. The first is, for me, the perfect beer ad. The second is something I found while researching a talk this year on the history of beer advertising. 
Enjoy.

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Extreme Beer Judging

No, not the practice of judging extreme beer, but the sometimes dangerous pastime of being a beer judge, as I discovered on a trip to Tuscany back in September…

If you’re going to spend Sunday morning judging a beer competition, this is where you want to do it.

We’re inside an old villa atop a gentle hill just outside the Tuscan village of Buenconvento. The stone building is cooled by its high ceilings, and huge double doors are flung open onto an avenue of cypress trees leading down to freshly ploughed fields. I’m joining a mix of sommeliers, beer writers, importers and brewers to judge the Belgian-style section of a home brew competition as part of Villaggio della Birra, a beer festival now in its ninth year, which began as a celebration of imported Belgian beers and has now grown into something much bigger. Italy is steadily developing its own, original beer styles, but Belgium still seems to be the dominant influence from outside.

The standard of beers in the competition is incredible. I taste a saison that’s easily the best beer I’ve had since arriving in Italy three days ago. And then it goes one better: a dark Trappist-style beer that would substitute quite happily for Rochefort 10, in my opinion one of the best beers in the world.

But we’re asked to be harsh in our marking. We judge these beers to the same standard as if they were created by professional brewers. Out of a possible fifty marks, anything that scores less than thirty doesn’t get through to the next round. Despite the excellent stand-out beers, most score somewhere in the mid-twenties. We fill out our scores on the kinds of forms used in beer judging competitions around the world, giving marks for appearance, aroma, taste and so on. We are asked to give comments that will be fed back to the brewers, and we write our names at the top of each sheet.

The judging is over by lunchtime, and we head into the bright sunshine with a slight jolt. Belgium is cloudy and rainy as a rule, and one thing its beers do not mix well with is bright, hot sunshine. I take shelter in the barn where the main beer festival is taking place, spending tokens on a mix of Belgian, Italian and American beers. After a morning of strong Belgian beer, it doesn’t take long for the whole event to become woozy and floaty.

Around 4pm the judges are asked to assemble in a corner by the bar as the results of the competition are read out to the public. A combination of my being drunk and not understanding any Italian means it takes a little while before I figure out what’s going on. Then, with mounting discomfort, I recognise a sheet with my handwriting on it. I watch as the chair of the judges reads out an Italian translation of my comments – and then passes the sheet to a man who is obviously the brewer of the beer.

This is not how it was meant to go. It’s not that I don’t stand by my comments, it’s just a bit awkward where we’ve been critical in an unvarnished way, assuming we’ll never meet the people whose babies we’ve just called ugly.

And now here’s a seven foot-tall monster, a Death Metal fan with a gigantic ponytail hanging down his back like thick ship’s hawsers, boots like Judge Dredd and a Nordic storm giant’s beard, striding forward through the crowd to claim his sheet. He reads it and shakes his head, a movement that causes weather fronts to gather over the Tuscan hills. He frowns, and lightning bolts shoot from his eyes. I don’t think he’s happy with the scores he’s been given. I don’t think he agrees with them. I don’t think the person who judged his beer is going to be alive for very much longer. I can’t run – that would look bad. So I crane my neck around to see the piece of paper in his hand… the handwriting is not mine.

I breathe a sigh of relief. My shoulders slump. The last score sheet is handed back, and the ordeal is over.

And then there’s a tap on my shoulder.

“Pete, what is this word, ‘cloying'”?

This is worse than the threat of being dismembered by the giant. This is a young, slight, nervous guy in his early twenties, with big brown eyes that have gone slightly watery. He’s holding a sheet with my name on it, an I’ve pissed on his dreams. I’ve given his beer 24 out of 50, and he wants to know what the word ‘cloying’ means, because that’s how I’ve described his beer.

“It means sweet,” I stammer, “but not in a good way… they asked us to judge to style you see. It was quite sweet for the style, that’s what I meant. I liked it! But it wasn’t quite to style.”

He doesn’t seem satisfied, but there’s nothing else to say. He nods once and walks off. Ashamed of myself, I crawl away for another beer.

Disclosure: I visited Tuscany for a week courtesy of www.to-tuscany.com, who gave me a villa for the week to allow me to explore and learn about the Tuscan craft beer scene. I paid for all other expenses such as flights, care hire etc. I stayed at La Torre at Pretaccione, in the heart of Chianti, and will be writing more about the trip in various places.


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Let There Be Beer? Let’s start again.

This weekend sees the re-launch of
the marketing campaign formerly known as Let There Be Beer. After the
disappointment of the last campaign, can it redeem itself?

Disclosure and disclaimer: I have
been paid for my time to act as a sounding board for the development of this
campaign and to say a few words at the launch event. I have not been paid to
endorse it in any way and would not risk my reputation by writing anything
about it that I did not believe.
There was never any doubting the intent, or that it was a good idea on paper: a generic campaign that promotes all beer, that seeks to get people who have stopped drinking beer and stopped going to pubs, people who turn their noses up at beer and think that wine – any wine – is intrinsically better than beer – any beer – people who think that beer is just lager and lager is just for football hooligans – to think again about beer, to reappraise it, to question their bias.

It was a great idea in principle. It’s just a crying shame that the first attempt at executing such a campaign, funded by a collaboration of the world’s biggest brewers, was so disappointing. 

The big-budget launch ad was a let-down, and it just went sharply downhill from there. By the time the ad was banned from TV thanks to a coordinated campaign by neo-prohibitionist twats, it was almost a mercy killing.
Let There Be Beer has been carrying on in the background, and some of the low-level PR stuff has been quietly improving, selling beer on its diversity and getting promoted features in national press pushing beer as an accompaniment to various activities and events. But mostly the campaign was keeping its powder dry, having a rethink, bringing on board new executives and new agencies, chucking the money that couldn’t be spent on the old ad into the pot for a new approach that wasn’t going to be launched until it was right.
Along with representatives from CAMRA and the big brewers, I was invited in at various stages to see work in progress. Immediately, the difference in approach was obvious. The thinking last time had been that people who were walking away from beer just needed to be reminded how great it was, and if Big Lager was pretty much the only product featured, well, Big Lager was paying the bills.

But consumer research and industry comment both pointed out that people hadn’t simply forgotten about beer. How could they when it’s still being promoted so hard in the pub, at the supermarket and on the telly? 

Beer had become commoditised, boring, taken for granted. The last thing people needed was to be reminded of what they already thought. They needed their perceptions changed.

So the new campaign set out to get people to think again about beer by focusing on beer’s variety, its quality and its versatility as a drink. You could write books on this – and many beer writers have – so it was decided that a simple way to launch this approach was to focus on beer’s suitability with food. 

This doesn’t tell the whole story because that’s an impossible task for one ad campaign. But it’s a great place to start – anyone who’s taken part in a beer and food matching dinner knows what a powerful way this is of changing opinions. More and more alcohol is drunk with food these days. And it’s classic wine territory – even when people start off drinking beer, they switch to wine when the food comes out simply because they think That’s What You Do. And when beer has managed to alienate 50% of the population by being boorish and sexist in its advertising for decades, meals are a great way to make it seem more refined and suitable for everyone.
So, once again, the theory is great. How do you make sure the execution works this time? By hiring one of the best film directors in the country, and persuading him to make his first ever ad.

Michael Winterbottom (24-Hour Party People, The Trip) can shoot people brilliantly, food wonderfully, and he loves beer. Here’s what he did.

It’s real and naturalistic, and avoids all the cliches of the first film. It’s warm. And it does that thing that’s so hard to do – show modern Britain in all its brilliant diversity without seeming forced or contrived. 
Trainspotters can sit and pick up the different beer styles in each scene. We can go online and discuss a particular scene and whether the Beer For That really is a wheat beer, or maybe it’s a pilsner or a pale ale, and I’m sure many of us will. You can argue they should have mentioned more beer styles by name, or should have shown more shots of pubs, or more hipsters, or fewer hipsters.
But you have to look at the broader takeout here. Most people won’t take away specific beers from this campaign, whether we’re talking Carling Zest or Weihenstephan weissbier. What they will hopefully take away is that beer is part of the cultural fabric of our lives, that’s it’s versatile and rewarding, that it can be everyday or special, craft or mainstream, ale or lager, big or small, and that however much you think you know about it, it’s always got something new to offer.

The target audience for this ad is people like my wife’s friends who still think I’m eccentric for being a beer writer, who smile indulgently and ask if I’ve ever thought of writing a ‘proper’ book, and who always, always choose wine – because That’s What You Do. I can imagine then watching this ad, then asking hesitantly, “So… what beer DO you think I might like with my Chow Mein?”*

And the best thing is, if anyone thinks they have an idea to make it better, the framework is now there for us all to input, for people who know about beer to pool their knowledge so it can be communicated more widely. There’s a massive social media element to the campaign that will be launching over the next few weeks, and Tim Lovejoy will be nowhere near it. Instead, beer writers and beer sommeliers will be providing beer match suggestions to hundreds of dishes on Twitter, and hosting live social media ‘beer clubs’ on classic styles. (I’m doing Belgian beers on 28th November). If you think you can do better than what’s out there, the nice thing is that, this time, they’d love to hear from you and for you to get involved.
For me, this campaign puts right pretty much all of what was wrong with the last one. It’s what I hoped the last one was going to be. The timing of it is perfect. I believe people are open for this kind of message right now, and think ‘There’s a Beer for That’ will capture, solidify and amplify the current excitement around beer.

You’ll always be able to pick faults in a campaign like this, that has to go through careful research validation and approval by committee. But it’s a bold and extraordinary move on the part of the big global brewers to celebrate so much of beer, so far beyond the core of mainstream lager. This isn’t a campaign to promote craft beer or real ale or mainstream lager; it’s a campaign to promote all beer.

I like it. I hope you do too. Whatever your tastes, this is a good thing for beer.

*OK, they don’t really eat Chow Mein. We live in Stoke Newington.

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Sexy or sexist? This is not just CAMRA-bashing

I wasn’t going to comment on this. But I started leaving a comment on someone else’s blog and it started getting a bit too long so I thought I should stick it here instead.

In case you haven’t heard: CAMRA, quite reasonably, would like to recruit more young people. To help do so, it produced and distributed a leaflet for use by university real ale societies. Some people who saw the leaflet were offended by it, finding it sexist. One even started a petition to have the leaflet withdrawn.

The outcry was a success. CAMRA has withdrawn the leaflet and apologised ‘for any offence caused’, defending its actions by revealing that sizeable numbers of young men and women were consulted on the design, and liked it. Crucially CAMRA’s statement stops short of acknowledging that there was any real justification for people to be offended.

It’s a classic beer industry ding-dong. Now the offending leaflet has been withdrawn and CAMRA has admitted that they ‘got it wrong’, some on either side think it’s time to let the matter drop. But with opinions ranging from not seeing what all the fuss is about to wanting to burn CAMRA’s offices to the ground, it’s not going to go away easily.

It’s important then that before we move on, everyone – especially CAMRA – needs to acknowledge what the problem is.

Everyone I’ve shown the leaflet to – mainly people outside the beer industry and with little interest in either CAMRA or CAMRA-bashing – has been appalled by it.

Whatever your views on sexism (or not) the women are highly sexualised and stylised, whereas the bloke in the top picture is just wearing an ordinary T-shirt. That gives a very clear contextual suggestion that the sexualised women are there for the ordinary ale-drinking bloke’s delectation.

The front of the leaflet is sort of better in that both the man and woman are dressed in the same period costume. That would make it forgivable, were it not for the fact that in the pose, the man is physically possessive of the woman. You see, it’s not just the clothes: in both sets of images, the women are portrayed as being subservient to the men.

The picture of the woman on her own shows a pose I have never seen a real woman strike when she’s drinking a pint. Again, it’s highly stylised, highly sexualised, and clearly has its roots in the imagery and shapes of Burlesque dancing.

Burlesque has been championed by some women as empowering, but ridiculed by others as ‘middle-class stripping’. If a woman wants to dress like this, stand like that or even take her clothes off in public, she has every right to do so, but the choice is hers.

The problem here is that the women shown are presumably there to demonstrate that women drink real ale too. The reason CAMRA wants to communicate that message is that CAMRA, real ale and beer generally are still seen as being male-dominated. This broader context again reinforces the suggestion that these women are not empowered, but are here as eye candy for the lads.

There is still a great deal of sexism in the drinks industry, and real ale is no exception. I’ve just been working at drinks trade shows where young women were leered at and openly complemented on the merits of their tits and arses, sometimes by senior figures in the industry. Every female real ale drinker I know has at some point been subject to sexist comments for daring to drink real ale.

If these tasty birds had been in a Foster’s or Carling ad, or in a lad’s magazine, few would have defended their use as anything other than lairy, laddish titillation. If they’d been in an article about beer in Cosmopolitan magazine, I think they would have caused less offence, but I suspect ale-drinking women would still have seen them as condescending and patronising. Context is all.

And then there’s the student context: when the LSE’s rugby club has had to be banned for persistent misogyny, and Oxford and Cambridge have had to introduce compulsory sexual consent training, and the National Union of Students has published a report on the increasing prevalence of harassment,
stalking, violence and sexual assault, it’s obvious that campus sexism is a real danger to female students and not just harmless ‘banter’.

In the recent Cask Report, one of our main and most widely repeated headlines was that real ale drinkers no longer agree with the statement that ‘real ale is not a drink for women or young people.’ But nearly half of all publicans still DO agree with this statement.

The industry is behind the times when it comes to gender equality and relations with women. Someone in CAMRA – even if they personally felt the leaflet was fine and operated within the style and tone of contemporary studenty imagery – should have realised that it was simply too risky for a supposed consumer champion to use. If I try to tell my female friends that beer has thrown off its sexist image, as we were trying to suggest in the Cask Report, they could simply bring up this leaflet and laugh in my face.

It’s good that CAMRA reacted so quickly and withdrew the offending article, but the damage is done. And what still upsets those who complained is that, while the organisation genuinely did not want to cause offence, it doesn’t seem to understand why it did.

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A cynical attempt to get more readers by writing a blog post tenuously linked to Great British Bake Off

Beer, cider and Mary Berry…

I have a confession to make: I am one of the few people in the United Kingdom who did not watch the final of Great British Bake Off on Wednesday night. In fact I’ve never watched the programme. It doesn’t interest me. The smirky gags about ‘soggy bottoms’ are tired, and I’ve started getting a twitch whenever I hear someone say something ‘has a good crumb’. There are loads of crumbs. Which one is good? What about the other crumbs all over the table?

It might also have something to do with Mary Berry. I know she is now virtually the Queen, but she and I don’t really get on.

I’ve met Mary Berry twice. The first time was when we were both guests on a daytime cooking programme called Great Food Live. I went on there originally to promote my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, and they kept inviting me back to do beer and cider items. Just when I was getting quite good at doing it, becoming their resident drinks person, the show got cancelled. It was a shame – it was a great show.

At this point Mary was not a household name, but she had been around for ages as a solid, dependable cookbook writer and presenter who could turn her hand to anything. The show was recorded as live, in one take, with minimal editing. As well as doing my drinks round-up I would usually be asked to find something to pair with a dish that one of the chefs was demonstrating. On this occasion someone made a rich treacle tart, and I selected a sweet barley wine to go with it. Four of us stood in a line behind the cooking station, facing the camera, and Mary was standing next to me. Just before I was about to do my bit introducing the beer, she turned to me, gestured vaguely towards the bottle and whispered, “I hope you’re not expecting ME to drink THAT.”

I was gobsmacked. The whole idea of the show was to try stuff. It was an informal set-up and everyone just dug in, grabbing spoons and talking over each other. In all the TV I ever did, it was the first of only two occasions when someone simply refused to try the drink I’d taken on.* I began to say something like, “Well, I’d expect you to give it a try, given that’s the reason you’re standing here,” but before I could I was up and had to do my bit, which I fluffed slightly having been so flustered.

The next time I met Mary Berry was six months ago, at the presentation of the BBC Food and Farming Awards. Because I was presenting the award for best drinks producer, I was sitting in the front row, two seats down from Jamie Oliver (who was friendly, decent and not at all a knob). Mary Berry arrived and spotted someone she wanted to talk to sitting just behind me, so she came over and leaned heavily on my shoulder as she stretched across to have a conversation. She’s only little, but the conversation carried on for several minutes during which she leant her entire weight on me, and I could do nothing but sit there patiently. At no point did she acknowledge me, apologise or make a joke about the situation. Other than the fact that she was using my shoulder like a crutch, it was like I wasn’t there. When she had finished her chat, she said nothing to me and walked away.

I hear she’s quite direct on the telly. In my limited experience in person, she’s the rudest woman I’ve ever met.

But while she may not like beer, she bloody loves cider. While I was researching World’s Best Ciders, I discovered that back in 1977, she even wrote a book about it.

It’s full of recipes for all kinds of dishes, organised by season, with a section at the end featuring cups, coolers and cocktails. For Bake Off fans, there’s even a ‘Crunchy Cider Cake’, a stodgy looking thing that calls for ‘1/4 pint sweet cider such as Woodpecker’. 
Woodpecker?
Why yes. In fact if you look closely at the front cover, that’s a two-litre bottle of Woodpecker she’s pouring from. That’s because the book was published by H P Bulmer & Son. Almost every recipe calls for a sweet cider such as Woodpecker or a dry cider such as Strongbow. Many of the cocktails include that lost classic of the cider world, Pomagne.
I don’t have a problem with this – Bulmer’s stumped up the cash for the book and actually, doing a cookbook as a way of promoting your brands is a great idea. I would even cook with these ciders today if I had them lying around.
But I wonder if Mary Berry still drinks them?
*The other person who flatly refused to drink the beers I took on a show was Gordon Ramsay’s wife Tana, when she was one of the presenter’s of Great Food Live’s successor, Market Kitchen. After needing five takes to walk towards the camera while saying ‘Hello and welcome to Market Kitchen’, she simply shook her head when I presented each of several beers to her and co-hosts Matthew Fort and Tom Parker-Bowles.

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Cask ale is booming as part of the craft beer revolution – new Cask Report launches today

Every year I’m paid to compile the Cask Report on behalf of Cask Matters – a loose affiliation of brewers and industry bodies including SIBA, CAMRA, Cask Marque and most of the leading regional and family brewers in the UK. The eighth report launches today to coincide with the start of Cask Ale Week.

Success makes people nervous, and with some justification. When you’re struggling on your way up, as a business, or as a person or organisation putting forward a point of view, argument or campaign which you hope will change hearts and minds, you know very clearly what you have to do: get your head down and keep plugging away, working steadily towards your goal.

When you succeed, what then? Is your job done? Do you need to redefine your goals? Is it true to say the only way is down? Now you’ve achieved, is someone going to come along and try to take it all away from you?

Until about two or three years ago, the aims of the Cask Report were very clear: persuade publicans and commentators around the beer industry that cask ale was not in terminal decline, that it had a role to play on the pub bar, that it had something to offer drinkers beyond the traditional stereotypes.

Now, the job has changed. There’s little point banging the drum that cask ale is successful. Whether they accept and believe it or not, people have heard this before. The questions now are, how does cask ale deal with success? And given that all the chatter in beer now focuses on craft beer, does this mean cask ale’s days are numbered? What’s the relationship between cask ale and craft beer?

Here are a few summary points from this year’s report that attempt to answer these questions.

1. Cask ale is still thriving
Cask ale volume sales grew by 1.1% in 2013 and 1.4% so far in 2014. If those sound like small figures, bear in mind that total on-trade beer volumes fell last year – cask ale is doing 4.5% better than beer in pubs overall. And when you bear in mind that cask ale is only really available in pubs, and 31 pubs a week are closing, for it to be growing in a declining market is some feat. More people are drinking cask ale and pubs are stocking a wider range of beers. But big volume drinking is declining. More people are drinking a wider variety of beers, but doing so less often as healthier lifestyles become more common.

There are two different estimates of the number of breweries now in the UK, but the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) puts the number at over 1470 – more than at any time since the early 1930s. Three new breweries open every week. And while craft keg is booming – 19% of SIBA’s member breweries claim to be producing some keg beer now – the vast majority of microbrewery beer is cask.

The number of styles being brewed is increasing:

There’s more good beer available now than at any time in living memory.

I’ve also heard a few people say that craft keg is killing off cask ale, that you rarely see cask in good craft beer pubs these days. That’s not reflected in total market figures. The craft keg surge is not enough to stop cask increasing its share of all draught ale versus keg – over the last decade, their relative positions have reversed.

2. Cask ale and craft beer are not the same thing, but neither are they entirely separate – there is a pretty big overlap
It’s increasingly popular in beer geek circles now to say that craft beer is over as a thing – that the only people who use the term are big brewery laggards seeking to cash in on an exploited, used up trend.

You might think this, but there are millions who disagree with you. They might not know what the definition of it is, but according to Mintel six million UK adults think they’ve drunk craft beer in the last year.

We did a survey where we asked cask ale drinkers and publicans serving cask ale the same or similar questions. Craft has pretty widespread awareness and acceptance among both:

They have some pretty definite views on how to describe craft beer even if they don’t know how to define it. Views that craft beer has to contain loads of hops, be served on keg only or be influenced by American styles are only held by a minority. The main characteristics of craft beer, according to the majority of people who drink it, are that it is made by small brewers, or brewed in small batches or limited editions, or is only available in limited places.

We can see that people decisively reject the idea that any cask ale is by definition a craft beer. But the overlap between cask and craft is strong. The top three characteristics here apply just as much to most cask beer as they do to craft keg. Furthermore, the most popular format of craft beer is draught dispense – that’s how 80% of craft beer drinkers have tried it. Cask is still far more widely available than keg, and a lot of drinkers claim to be drinking craft cask beer.

There’s a lot more to say on this, which I’ll expand on in a separate blog post in the next day or two But the message of the Cask Report is clear: most cask ale is craft beer, and (in the UK) most craft beer is cask ale.

3. The pricing of cask ale relative to craft keg beer is dangerously screwed up
There are factors in the production of craft keg beer that mean it is more expensive to make than cask ale. But the current differential between the two is way bigger than this would dictate. Wide variations in the price of craft keg beer reveals that there is a degree of opportunism on the part of some licensees. Example: there are two pubs near me that sell Kernel Pale Ale on keg. It costs £4.80 a pint in one, and £6.50 a pint in the other. (And before the Fair Pinters kick in, neither is tied to a pubco.) On average, data from market analysts CGA Strategy hows that craft keg retails for over £1 a pint more than craft cask.

This automatically positions craft cask as hugely inferior to keg. Whatever your preference, as a blanket statement this simply isn’t true. It’s also worth noting that where the price of craft keg is lower on average – guess what? – pubs sell more of it.

This massive price differential damages the quality perceptions of cask ale. It limits sales of craft keg. And the hyper-inflation of craft keg pricing pushes it dangerously close to being seen as a cynical fad rather than a permanent shift in the market – when the novelty wears off, what reasons will drinkers have to pay £6 a pint instead of £3.80? Craft beer publicans need to think about sacrificing short term profiteering in favour of long term market development. I repeat – yes, there is a justifiable price premium. But it’s currently too wide.

4. Drinkers don’t know how much goes into serving the perfect pint of cask
Drinkers are far less likely to appreciate the relative difficulty of serving cask beer than are publicans.

Drinkers also believe that bar staff receive much less training around keeping and serving cask beer than publicans claim:

On every single aspect of the perfect cask ale serve, publicans claim to be training staff more than drinkers believe.

So are publicans exaggerating the extent they care for cask, or are drinkers unaware of how much hard work goes into it?

It’s probably a bit of both, with the emphasis on the lack of knowledge among drinkers. Higher prices mean people expect a more premium product. If drinkers are educated more about what goes into cask ale they’ll think of it as more special and will drink more of it and potentially be happy to pay more for it.

So education is key to cask’s continued success – but so is good training of bar staff. One interesting point coming from our research is that we also asked what promotional tactics work in selling more cask ale. In answer to that question, 81% of publicans said that personal recommendations by bar staff were the most important way of selling more cask ale. Yet in the graph above, you can see that only 57% of publicans say they encourage their staff to taste cask ales so they know more about them. How can bar staff be expected to recommend ales they know nothing about?

5. Publicans don’t necessarily know their drinkers
We’ve been saying for years now that the old stereotypes of real ale drinkers no longer apply. CAMRA membership has increased from less than 60,000 ten years ago to over 170,000 now. It has nearly trebled. The number of middle-aged beardy men wearing socks and sandals and carrying leather tankards on their belts has not. Cask ale is reaching a broader audience. 15% of all cask ale drinkers tried it for the first time in the last three years. 65% of these new drinkers are aged 18-34. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask ale. Of these three-quarters say they still drink it at least occasionally.

Whenever we ask drinkers about the old stereotypes, they’re disappearing. But we get a different view when we ask publicans:

If as a publican you don’t think women are into cask ale, or you don’t think it’s for younger drinkers, and if you don’t position it to appeal to them, you’re immediately cutting off more than half your potential audience.

Summary
There’s a lot more in the report, which is free to download from the link above from late this afternoon. But these are the points that stick with me after weeks of writing, editing, summarising and debating.

We are in the middle of a beer revolution in Britain, and cask ale is at its heart. It’s brilliant that the whole craft beer thing is moving the debate about what makes good beer away from packaging format and towards style, flavour, where it comes from and who makes it.

But I had a tweet this morning saying that all this was ‘bollocks’, that craft beer was just keg beer with better PR. And I also hear far too many people automatically excluding the entire cask ale market from any discussion about craft beer. Now that really is bollocks. We should be celebrating what a brilliant time we’re in for good beer in any format, and making sure that these different formats complement each other if we want to ensure their long term success.

Disclosure: The Cask Report is a paying gig for me and I write it on behalf of cask ale brewers and interested bodies. While it always looks for the positive news on cask, it is honest and accurate. I never distort or excessively spin the facts, and I never write anything in it that does not reflect my own personal views. 

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When will the anti-alcohol lobby stop lying about the ‘£21 billion’ cost of alcohol to society?

They’re at it again.

Yesterday a cross-party committee of MPs (working with the professional liars at Alcohol Concern, natch) demanded that health warnings become mandatory on alcohol labels in order to combat what they described as an ‘epidemic’ of alcohol related harm. It claimed the costs of alcohol abuse to society are “ever increasing”. It also said we need a minimum unit price for alcohol, that alcohol advertising needs to be more tightly controlled, and that the drink drive limit should be lowered. 
There’s so much misleading rhetoric, distortion by omission and outright falsehood here it’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s have a go.
The urgent need to combat drink driving is particularly ironic given that another report published yesterday – which obviously didn’t get a fraction of the coverage that the anti-drink scaremongers did – reveals that drink driving deaths have just fallen to their lowest level since records began
There’s also a call to tighten the marketing and promotion of alcohol in order to protect children from the possibility of alcohol abuse. This, despite there being not a single study that has managed to successfully link alcohol advertising and under age drinking, and also despite the news last month that under age drinking has also fallen to the lowest level since records began.

And then there’s the call for ‘sobriety orders’ which we apparently need in order to ‘break the cycle of alcohol and crime, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence. Leaving aside the deeply offensive slur that drinkers are more likely to beat their partners, yet again it’s curious that we need these new measures when violent crime is falling dramatically, and academics who have studied this decline cite a dramatic fall in binge drinking as the main reason for the fall in violent crime.

And overall, I’m confused as to how the cost of alcohol to society can be ‘ever increasing’ when alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest level for twenty years. (Are you starting to see a pattern here yet?)

The ‘£21 billion’ figure for the cost of alcohol to society continues to be quoted without question across the entirety of our news media. Yet here’s the independent fact verification body FullFact discrediting the figure and declaring it unreliable over two years ago. Two of the reasons they give for this criticism are that they were unable to find anyone who worked on calculating it, and there seems to be no existing record of how the figure was actually worked out. 
This is only the tip of the iceberg as to why £21 billion cannot be relied on, as I’ve described many times before. And on top of all that, if there has been an 18% fall in alcohol consumption since the figure was calculated ten years ago, how the hell can cost of that consumption to society still be as high as it was, let alone ‘ever increasing’? (The figure was nudged up from £20 billion to £21 billion at random, with no recalculation, even as alcohol consumption in the UK went into decline. FullFact were unable to find anyone at the Department of Health who could explain why.)

The biggest part of alcohol’s cost to society according to this figure is the effects of alcohol related crime. As we’ve already seen, violent crime is falling sharply, thanks to a reduction in binge drinking behaviour. So I ask again – how can the cost of that crime to society not also be falling sharply?

When you read the arguments why we need to crack down on our binge drinking ‘pandemic’, all these facts are conveniently ignored. They focus instead on the rise in alcohol related hospital admissions (which, as I’m fond of saying, is highly dubious), and the rise in liver related health complaints. This latter is a cause for concern. But health costs are the smallest part of the £21 billion total. The argument simply falls apart under the mildest scrutiny – yet no one in mainstream media will give it that scrutiny.
There’s no denying that a group of people are drinking harmfully. But the behaviour of that group is not in line with overall population trends. Measures that affect all drinkers – such as minimum pricing or restricted availability – not only punish moderate drinkers; they don’t get to the heart of the problem for harmful drinkers. The problem is not the general availability of price of booze – it it was, the more affluent we are, the more harmfully we’d be drinking. In fact, the opposite is true: demographically, the less affluent you are, the more likely you are to suffer alcohol-related ill-health. 
Health warnings on packs will do nothing to deter hardened drinkers. But they will help demonise alcohol for everyone else. Why is no work being done to discover why a minority are drinking increasingly harmfully when the vast majority of the population – every time they are asked – claim to be cutting down on their alcohol consumption, and falling booze sales suggest they are telling the truth? 
The very people who claim to be most Concerned about Alcohol are betraying those most in need of their help every time they distort the true picture by suggesting we have a society-wide problem when any impartial analysis shows the problem is specific to certain groups, or at the very least shows the problem is in decline, not worsening. I honestly don’t know how they can live with themselves.

Despite all its flaws,  I’ve been told that in the autumn the anti-alcohol lobby will be launching a massive social media campaign to ‘raise awareness’ of the cost of alcohol to society using the hashtag #£21billion, despite knowing full well that that figure has been discredited, and that even if it was accurate when it was first ‘calculated’, it can’t possibly still be right now. MPs from all parties are taking part in a campaign deliberately to misinform, mislead and create undue alarm. 

Who’d have thought?