Category: Uncategorised

| Uncategorised

The Cask Report shows how cask ale helps keep good pubs open

Today sees the launch of the Cask Report, the annual state of the beery nation I write on behalf of a loose consortium of brewers and beer industry bodies.
Every year I think ‘how can we do another one without just getting repetitious?’ and every year we somehow get enough insight and data to give us more understanding of why cask ale is increasing in popularity and why this is good news for publicans (the main target audience for the report). Everything can be downloaded from the Cask Report website, if not now then by the end of the day, but here are the main summary highlights…  

Cask ale is outperforming  the total beer market by 6.8%

Cask declined marginally by 1.1% in 2012, versus a total beer market decline of 7.9%, and the long-term trend remains one of steady improvement. Cask grew in value by 3% (thanks to increasing prices). Cask’s ale’s share of total draught ale has increased to 55%. Cask continues to grow its share of all beer with a 16% share of all on-trade beer. Although cask ale’s performance is flat, that’s much better than the general decline in beer.

Cask ale continues to grow in awareness and interest 

More pubs are stocking more cask ales on the bar. 57% of pubs now stock cask – up from 53% in 2009 – stocking an average 3.8 different brands. 

The growth in range is helped by the 184 new breweries that have opened in the last year

That’s three new breweries a week. We now have 1147 breweries in the UK, the vast majority of which brew cask ale.

Cask ale plays a major part in keeping pubs open 

Cask ale pubs see better results across the whole beer range, and cask drinkers are far more likely to visit the pub, far less likely to say they are doing so less often. Many people say they are going to the
pub less often than they used to, and 47% of the population say they are drinking less alcohol than they did a year ago. (So where are all the binge drink scare stories coming from?) The reasons they give are obvious, but interesting nevertheless. Only a tiny minority cite issues like the smoking ban as the reason for not going to pubs as often. 73% of drinkers say they are drinking more at home because it is cheaper. And the main reasons people are drinking less is that they want to get healthier. This is really important for pubs: if they want to stem the decline, it suggests we need some value alternatives, lower ABV drinks, better (and better value) soft drinks, and healthier food options on menus. Only 20% of cask drinkers (as opposed to 47% of all adults) say they are drinking less, and 25% say they are drinking more. Those who are drinking more are doing so because they perceive improvements in the quality, range and availability of cask. So cask drinkers are bucking the trend of declining pub-goers.

Cask ale has outgrown its traditional base 

It’s now a drink for men and women of all ages. Our research among drinkers shows a big take-up among a wider audience, and most cask ale publicans believe cask is bringing more women and younger drinkers into their pubs. One in five cask ale drinkers tried it for the first time in the last four years – proving cask is attracting new drinkers. 

A major appeal of cask to both drinkers and publicans is its variety

Both publicans and drinkers talk about the huge array of styles and flavours. The optimal cask range is a mix of style, colour, ABV, familiarity and provenance, and should be rotated on an on-going basis. But consumers want guest ales to stay on the bar for longer than licensees currently keep them, and want a core of familiar brands as well as new and different beers. Big and small both have a role to play.

Recent interest in ‘craft beer’ is driving awareness and appreciation of cask

Despite people on both sides of the ‘craft’ debate stirring up conflict on blogs, at events and in the trade press, creating the impression that new-style craft beer and traditional cask ale are threats to each other, most people – at least most who are aware of craft beer – think the two styles go hand-in-hand and have a large overlap. Awareness of ‘craft’ is not as widespread among consumers as it is in the industry. 77% of licensees are aware of craft beer, but only 37% of drinkers (this rises to 47% among cask ale drinkers). Those who are aware of it believe it denotes quality and is worth paying more for, and consider most cask ale to be ‘craft’. It’s a good thing. And it’s a real boost – not a threat – to cask ale.

Pub beer festivals are increasingly popular

33% of cask ale pubs – around 10,000 pubs in total – have run a beer festival in the last
year. This is a major source of trial for new drinkers. 39% of women who drink cask beer, for example, do so at festivals.

Cask ale publicans cannot imagine a future for pubs without cask. 

We carried out some original, independent research among licensees who stock cask. It was brilliant to hear from them about how at the novice end of the spectrum, people who start to learn about cask never having drunk it before quickly develop a genuine personal interest in it and start drinking it themselves. They go on to become passionate advocates for it. Most see it as an essential part of any quality pub’s product mix.

The launch of the report is timed to coincide with and kick off Cask Ale Week, which seems to be getting bigger every year. Go out and drink some cask ale. It’s a good thing.

| Uncategorised

“Events, dear boy, events!” (As Harold Macmillan probably didn’t say)

autumn is busy at the best of times and I have a book coming out in October.
Here’s what’s keeping me on the road and off the streets for the next couple
This one goes out to all the ad industry planners doing the job I used to do. I’m leading a meander of planners around Southwark tomorrow lunchtime, discussing Shakespeare’s Local and ending up in The George. Contact Sarah Newman at the APG to book a place if you’re interested.
I feel a bit bad that a pub named after George Orwell – one of the greatest ever English writers – was changed to the name of one of my books. But not too bad. The Hops & Glory is an excellent pub at the top of Essex Road in Islington. This Bank Holiday Weekend it’s having an IPA festival, and they invited me down to do a talk on the history of possible the greatest ever beer style. I’ll be talking, reading from Hops & Glory, signing books and tasting beers.
(After my talk, I’ll be checking out two other excellent Bank Holiday events in pubs that are walking distance from the Hops & Glory, purely as punter: a weekend-long cider festival at The Alma on Newington Green, and a celebration of East London Breweries at the Duke of Wellington on Balls Pond Road.)
Meantime’s Old Brewery hosts a monthly beer dinner where you get to taste a stunning array of beers bound together by a loose theme. I was delighted to be asked back to do a new one after a successful IPA dinner at the end of last year. The theme for this one is the role of beer throughout British history, and a look at the different forces that have shaped the development of beer, and the way beer has in turn influenced the development of society. The beers on the menu are a symbolic, rather than literal, representation of key styles over time, starting from the present day and moving back in time. Here’s the menu in full:
A History of Britain According to Beer
The Old Brewery Beer and Food Night Menu
Meantime London Pilsner
Timothy Taylor Landlord
Smoked eel, carrot and beetroot salad, horseradish
Hobson’s Mild
Beef Wellington, Welsh potato cakes, ale gravy
Redchurch Great Eastern IPA
Apple pie with custard & vanilla ice cream
Meantime London Porter
A selection of British cheese with beer chutney &
St Bernardus Pater C
To finish
Kernel Export Stout
Full details and ticket booking are available at the Meantime Old Brewery website.
The ‘Glastonbury of Food Festivals’ (copyright: the entire foodie media) has become a bit of a regular fixture for me and every year it’s so good I decide that I’m emigrating to Wales before subsequently sobering up. This year Bill Bradshaw and I will be talking about World’s Best Cider and sampling a few different ciders from around the world. 
Tickets for this event have already sold out! Returns may be available. But the next day, Bill will be interviewing one of my favourite cider makers – Simon Day from Once Upon A Tree. Simon’s ciders are quite unlike anything you might imagine, recalling the seventeenth century tradition of Herefordshire fine cyder. I’ll be in the front row holding my glass up. Tickets are available here.

The book hits the shelves! We’ll be doing various events around the country. Details will go up here when confirmed. 

| Uncategorised

How to survive the Great British Beer Festival.

Huzzah! GBBF trade day dawns. If a bomb fell on Olympia this afternoon, there would be no British brewing industry left. And no British beer bloggers either… don’t get any ideas now.

GBBF can be a gruelling event, especially for the uninitiated. So here’s a guide based on 15 years experience – a few simple DOs and DON’Ts to maximise your beery enjoyment:

  • DO look after your glass. Repeat after Me: “This is my glass. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My glass is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My glass, without me, it’s useless. Without my glass, I am useless. My glass and I know that what counts in this festival is not the beards we wear, the noise of our burps, nor the silent-but-deadly farts we make. We know that it is the beers that count. I will keep my glass clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. Before God, I swear this creed.”
  • Men, DON’T extend this duty of care to holding your pint in one hand while holding your penis in the other, pissing into the urinal. It’s not a great look, especially if you drain the dregs of your glass while shaking. Leave your glass with trusted friends, or finish your pint before you go to pee and use the opportunity to rinse your glass when you – here’s a hint – WASH YOUR HANDS.
  • DO eat before you go. You’ll need some stomach lining and you may not want to rely on the food concessions on site. Rumour has it that some of the burgers date back to the first time the festival was held at Olympia in 1992. And who eats olives? No but really though?
  • DON’T head straight for Bieres San Frontieres, the ‘foreign beer bar’. Yes, we all know it’s going to have the most interesting, rarest, most flavoursome brews, but they’re all at least 10% ABV and if you start on them your time at the festival will be dramatically curtailed.
  • DO be kind to the volunteers. This is their day in the sun – literally. Sometimes, it’s the only day they see the sun all year. They aren’t used to being around so many people and can startle easily. But they only lash out when frightened – making inappropriate ‘jokes’ about health and safety regulation infringements is not big or clever and if you do so you deserve all you get. They do a great job and the festival could not run without them. in recent years, they’ve even acquired admirable social skills.
  • DON’T bother trying to make sense of how the beers are organised and laid out. You’ll just be wasting valuable drinking time. Instead, treat GBBF as a magical mystery tour. Relax and go with the flow, wandering the bars at random and just trying anything that takes your fancy. There are over 800 beers and ciders and there’s bound to be something worth trying whichever bar you find yourself in front of, however random the combination of region, alphabetical order and association with British historical figures might be. 
  • DO take advantage of the fact that both pint and half pint glasses have a third of a pint marking on them. It is socially acceptable to order small measures and because the volunteers are really touchy about being served short measures in pubs, they pour almost a half when you ask for a third anyway, making it a great value way to drink. If you’re still worried, just get a third poured into a pint glass and pretend you’re a really fast drinker.
  • If you want to take non-beery friends along to show off your beery prowess and introduce them to some great brews, DON’T take them on Hat Day (Thursday). Hat Day is the great Gathering of the Nerds. Hat Day will make your non-beery friends look at you with the same expression they would wear if you had invited them to Torture Garden.
  • DO takes advantage of the fact that you’re in the same physical space as all your beery acquaintances and PUT THE SMARTPHONE DOWN. You can say the word ‘awesome’ to each other repeatedly in person instead, which is much nicer.
See you down the foreign beer stand real soon.

| Uncategorised

Flavour: there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. (Or tongue, or nose, or ears…)

A couple of weeks ago, I received a press release from the Tring Brewery, which announced that their beers have been relaunched with a new look that uses ‘applied colour psychology’ to improve their appeal to drinkers.

Palettes of colours were carefully examined and one specific palette was selected to to convey the right messages about the brewery. According to research, these ‘autumnal’ tones are warm and comforting, suggesting natural ingredients and care for the environment.

It’s a clever move. And if it sounds to you like so much marketing psychobabble, prepare to have your perceptions of reality challenged.

The story reminded me of a dinner I attended as part of this year’s Edinburgh Science Festival. That the dinner just happened to fall on April Fool’s Day had no bearing on what followed, but provides a nice backdrop of incredulity – which itself could potentially play a role.

It all started when I began doing beer and music matching events.  I wrote a few years ago about experiments at Heriot Watt university which suggested that the flavour of wine – or the perception of it – could be altered by different styles of music. I took this as an inspiration to mess about pairing great beers with classic albums, the basis of an event I’ve done at literary festivals and corporate gigs a few times now. With a sound basis in science, it was an excuse to have a bit of fun and find a different way to present beers to people.

Word of my doing this eventually reached Professor Charles Spence, who spends his life looking into something called ‘crossmodal research’, or ‘multi-sensory perception’. He invited me to bring my party piece to Edinburgh’s Sensory Dining dinner. Here, 150 people had their senses challenged, and flavour was revealed to be far more complex and mysterious than anyone outside the fields of neuroscience or molecular gastronomy would have thought.

I learned far too much for one blog post, but here are a few highlights that show influencing our perceptions via colour palettes is merely the tip of a humming, red-hot iceberg. That smells of bacon.

Taste and Aroma

Most people who write about beer (and many who enjoy it) will already know that ‘flavour’ is not synonymous with ‘taste’, as we often use it to be, but is in fact a combination of taste and aroma – of which aroma makes up about 80%. 
So here’s a question: if four-fifths of flavour sensing is happening in the nose, why do we experience it – or think we do – in out mouths? It’s only by isolating nose and mouth that we can show ourselves what’s really going on, for example by holding your nose while eating. Psychologists, neuroscientists and even philosophers are currently exploring the question.
The coffee flavour wheel – but it’s not as simple as that.
I’ve always told people that if you hold your nose – or drink beer from a bottle, which is the same thing – you’re cutting out that 80% of flavour. But our first experiment gave an interesting development on this. We were given bags of Skittles, tiny sweets with intense fruit flavours. We held our noses and placed them in our mouths, and could taste nothing but sugary sweetness.  But then, with out mouths closed, we let go of our noses and the flavours flooded in, instantly recognisable as lime, lemon, strawberry etc. This is ‘retronasal’ activity – when the nasal passages are clear, air breathed in through the nose brings alive flavour which you think is in your mouth, but isn’t. You’re not ‘smelling’ it, but experiencing it in your nasal cavity via the passages linking the nose and the back of the mouth.  
Taste and Sight
It’s often been said that the first bite is with the eye. But that goes way beyond something simply ‘looking appetising’. For this experiment, we were served black ravioli, green mushrooms and purple pesto. It has to be said, it didn’t look great:
Black pasta is at least familiar, and I ‘tasted’ squid ink even if it was only food colouring. The green mushrooms were a real struggle, and the pesto didn’t ‘taste’ of pesto at all, but to me, of something quite fruity. 
This was a toned down version of a previous experiment that had been thought apocryphal, but which Charles Spence has managed to track down. In the early 1970s a bunch of people were fed a meal of steak, chips and peas under very low lighting. Halfway through, the lights were turned up and everything was the wrong colour. The steak was bright blue, and the sight of it caused half the diners to vomit, even though the steak was fine. 
Colour perception in food and drink is hardwired into our evolution. In evolutionary terms, fruit turns into beautiful, attractive colours when it is fully ripe and ready to eat. It wants to be eaten, because its seeds are then spread in the spoor of animals who move around and spread it over a wider area. 
Adding red food colouring to certain foods makes it ‘taste’ 10% sweeter.
But meat and fish are not meant to be blue. 
This reminded me of another press release I received back in March. An American company called DD Williamson gave teenagers three different drinks: one clear, one brown, one pink. They were, of course, identical apart from the colour. The respondents (81% of them) correctly identified the clear drink as having a lemon-lime flavour. The best they could do with the brown one was describe it as ‘sweet’ or ‘fruity’ (34%) with 15% saying it tasted of cola. The red one was considered ‘fruity’, ‘berry’ or ‘sweet’ by 38%, with others suggesting cola or ginger ale.    
A couple of years ago, Brew Dog and Stone collaborated to produce a ‘pale imperial oatmeal stout’. I tasted it with a blindfold at the launch of Brew Dog Camden, and was suitably amazed when the colour was revealed. 
Taste and Sound
Back to Edinburgh, and next up it was my gig. After what I’d experienced so far I was worried I might be bringing the tone down by pairing the Pixies’ Debaser with Duvel and simply saying, ‘Good, innit?’ (It is though – it really works!) 
So I decided to go a bit further. With Chimay Red, I chose Debussy’s Clair de Lune (specifically, from about 1.46 on this clip) because I thought it paired well with elegance, structure and swirling, mysterious depths (though Chimay Blue might have been better for this). I faded it out halfway through, and brought up Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower instead, for its darkness and heaviness. Just about everyone thought the flavour of the beer changed. And 70-80% of those who did felt it tasted better with Hendrix.
But Charles Spence went one better – because he does this shit for real. He has briefed a composer to take one simple, tonal piece of music and arrange it in the style of ‘sweet’, ‘bitter’, ‘salty’ and ‘acidic’. He played each piece, and asked us to choose which flavour it aligned with. Obviously we could be back in pretentious territory here. But every time Charles does this, he gives the audience buttons to press which record their responses, so over time he’s building up a database of the choices people make. In our session, between 70-80% of respondents agreed on which piece of music went with which taste, and these findings were consistent with Charles’ norms. We may not be able to explain why, but we make consistent connections between certain sounds and certain flavours. 
Taste and touch/texture
For this course/experiment we had a nice shepherd’s pie with a leek and potato mash, and a range of utensils to eat it with. It tasted completely different when eaten with wooden, plastic and stainless steel spoons. It’s all about how the texture of the spoon influences the food. Interestingly, stainless steel, even when scratched, will react with the air and ‘repair’ the coating that prevents food tasting of metal. It’s therefore actually better than silver.  According to Mark Miodownik, the materials scientist who presented this course, we’re the first generations to be able to taste our food without its flavour being compromised.
As a tip – this is why you shouldn’t taste something from a wooden spoon while cooking – unless your guests are also going to be eating with wooden utensils, it’s going to taste different when served.
Mixing it all up – synaesthesia
This next bit is where the headfuck really kicked in for me. 
Synaesthesia, where the senses get mixed up, affects around one in 23 people. (It’s difficult to say for sure because there are so many different varieties of it and many people aren’t aware they have it.) Like many who consider themselves creative, I’d like to think I have a form of it but have never been sure, suspecting I was probably making it up. 
How synaesthetes might see letters and numbers – for some, each has its own colour
Julia Simner, a neuropsychologist and leading expert in synaesthesia, gave us each two lumps of sugar, one a cube, the other round. She told us one of them had been impregnated with a lemon flavouring and the other had not. Which one was flavoured? 
Jumping ahead, I guessed that shape would be influencing our perceptions, and that the two lumps were probably the same. I stared at them. “OK, if I have synaesthesia, the square will taste of lemon,” I thought to myself. Then I tasted them. “Oh no, it’s the round one – that really does have lemon flavouring, she wasn’t messing about. It’s really very clear.”
She then told us that neither shape had flavouring added – they were both just sugar.
So I have a crap palate then, I thought, or I’m just susceptible to suggestion. 
But here’s the thing – I went back for another taste, and even after being told there was no added flavouring to either, that they were identical, the round one still tasted of lemon – even though I knew objectively and rationally that it didn’t. 
Was she lying? Was this a double bluff? 
I put the two shapes behind my back, broke off a piece from each, swapped them around, tasted when I could not possibly know which shape each had come from – and they both just tasted of sugar, and nothing more. I looked at them again, tasted again, and the round one tasted of lemon. This carried on until I’d broken off so many bits the shapes were eroded. Eventually they were both just similar-looking blobs of sugar. The lemon flavour disappeared. 
I have no idea what practical use this newly discovered link between shape and flavour could possibly be, but it’s there, for me at least.

And totally screwing it around – the miracle berry
Finally, we were each given a miracle berry pill. This small fruit is sometimes used as a sweetener, not because it is sweet itself, but because it contains a compound which affects the tastebuds and blocks out sour flavours. 
After eating the berry, we ate a dessert of lemon and lime wedges, which tasted like fresh, sweet oranges.
The truth about what we ‘taste’ is that most of it happens not in the mouth, but in the brain. “Taste is, ultimately, just the firing of neurons,” said one of the speakers. “You don’t have to actually eat or drink to experience it.”
You can make someone ‘taste’ a roast beef dinner by opening their skull and stimulating the parts of the brain where taste is experienced (though you should not try this at home).  LSD makes people experience synaesthetic sensations. And due to advances in neuroscience and our increasing ability to map brain activity, we can now both manipulate it and understand it without sawing into people’s craniums.
All of which has amde me very nervous indeed about writing beer tasting notes.
After dinner, a few of the flavour academics and I sauntered to the bar. We were in a student union building and there was just one decent beer – Stewart’s IPA on cask. We carried on talking about synaesthesia and flavour perception for half an hour or so, and then Charles Spence noticed me frowning and grimacing and asked, “Is there something wrong, Pete?”
Yes there was. I was not enjoying my beer at all. It was dreadfully sweet. There was no hop character whatsoever, and it tasted like someone has stirred three sugars into it to compensate. I should have known better than to trust a student union bar with only one cask handle. 
Julia Simner smiled. “How long ago did you eat the miracle berry pill, Pete?”
“About 45 minutes ago, why?”
“The effect lasts for about an hour.”
Let’s hope this research never falls into the wrong hands.
Charles Spence has now thrown down the gauntlet to me to up my game in how apply some of this learning to beer and music matching. I will be attempting to do so at my next beer and music matching event, which is happening lunchtime on Sunday 18th August at the Green Man Festival. Given the amount of drugs the audience will have consumed by that time, I’m feeling pretty confident.

| Uncategorised

Alcopop: the drink that dare not speak its name.

Where’s George Orwell when you need him?

The inventor of double speak, already one of the best writers on pubs we’ve ever had, would have loved the shenanigans happening in the drinks market today.

A couple of days ago, the BBC proclaimed ‘The quiet death of the alcopop‘.

These are – or were – alcopops.
Under the image above, they told us that the ready-to-drink, flavoured alcoholic beverage sector of the drinks market (alcopops to you or me) has halved in size since 2005. Interestingly, the decline is blamed on the tacky, garish image of the products above. Not much is said about the desire for sickly sweet, fruit-flavoured alcoholic beverages, and whether that has gone away or not.
The truth is, our desire for these concoctions is just as strong as ever. Sales of alcopops are soaring. The leading brands just don’t want you to call them alcopops, and some get angry if you do. 
A few weeks ago I wrote in my column for the Publican’s Morning Advertiser that Kopparberg and Rekorderlig, which refer to themselves as ‘premium fruit ciders’, are nothing of the sort. They are alcopops in disguise – admittedly a very fetching, stylish disguise, especially in the case of Rekorderlig, whose packaging and labels are so beautiful that it sometimes takes a mental struggle to remember how unpleasant the product was – to my palate – when I tasted it. 
And this is another alcopop.

I understand that both brands were rather angry with the PMA for printing my opinion. I don’t understand why. I based my contention that these producers are not cider simply by quoting the ingredients they list on their labels/websites.

This is also an alcopop.

Kopparberg is made from ‘naturally occurring soft water’, fruit juice, sugar, acidifier (citric acid), flavouring, and potassium sorbate.

Likewise, Rekorderlig consists of ‘fresh spring water, pear and apple wines, sugar, acids: citric acid and sodium citric, berry flavours, preservatives: E202, E220 and caramel colour.’

Cider, on the other hand, is made from apples. The character of any cider depends on the varieties of apple that are blended, just as most great wines are about the blend of grapes (you can of course have single varieties of either). Even a leading commercial cider such as Magner’s – which many cider geeks would not consider cider at all – proudly talks on its website about the 17 varieties of apple used to make it. Say what you like about Magner’s, and I don’t drink it myself, but the draught version contains more Dabinett apple than the bottle does, a specific move to compensate for the fact that it’s going to taste different when not poured over ice.

By contrast, I can find no mention of apple varieties anywhere in Kopparberg or Rekorderlig’s promotional material. Rekorderlig’s website has a tab telling you about ‘flavours’. When you click on ‘apple’, this is what it says:

“Made from the purest Swedish spring water, traditional yet modern Rekorderlig Apple Cider is best served over ice for a crisp, cool and refreshing experience.” 

IN THEIR OWN WORDS, the ‘apple-flavoured’ variant of their ‘cider’ is made from water rather than apples.

Click on the ‘history’ bit on Kopparberg’s website, and the word ‘apple’ doesn’t appear once. Instead it talks about the minerality in ‘Koppaberg’s lakes and waters’, which proved inspirational to Kopparberg’s first ‘brew master’. Cider is not ‘brewed’. And once again, cider is made from apples. Not water.

It’s sad that we have such a lax regulatory environment that these alcopops are allowed to get away with calling themselves ciders. They do so, of course, because cider is so much more fashionable these days than any kind of flavoured alcoholic beverage.

But this post is not just about faux ‘fruit’ ciders – the current alcopop boom is much broader than that.

This, too, is an alcopop

Jeremiah Weed has had a brilliant launch. Again, it looks and feels too posh to be called an alcopop, but as a ready-to-drink, flavoured alcoholic beverage, that’s exactly what it is. It reeks of authenticity and heritage. In fact it has none whatsoever – it’s entirely a creation of 21st century Big Marketing. That aside, at least it doesn’t claim to be a different kind of product from what it is.

Or that’s what I thought – until the second comment below from alerted me to this news story from last month – it seems Jeremiah Weed is now a cider too! In the company’s own words, although this product:

This is an alcopop, also

has not changed from when it was launched as a ‘ginger brew’, it is now, apparently, a ‘Kentucky style cider brew’. (Remember, cider isn’t brewed. At all.) And why have they pulled off this astonishing feat? Why have they changed one type of product into a completely different type of product, while not changing the product AT ALL? Why, “to help consumers, retailers and bar staff to better understand the brand’s exciting and innovative offering and [entirely fictitious] Kentucky heritage” (my italics). That’s right: they’ve started calling something a cider that isn’t a cider and didn’t used to be called cider to help people better understand what it is.

And then there’s the recent summer sensation: Crabbies ginger beer.

This is a tricky one, because ‘ginger beer’ is a recognised style of drink. You could get into an awful lot of semantics here because a true ‘ginger beer’ is brewed from a combination of ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice and a bacteria called ‘ginger beer plant’, and this fermentation process produces alcohol. But while it may be called ‘beer’, it resembles what we commonly understand as ‘beer’ in no way whatsoever – it has a completely different base of fermentable sugars and flavour ingredients from any beer. In terms of ingredients and process, it looks a lot more like an alcopop. And that’s assuming Crabbie’s is brewed in the traditional way – which it isn’t.

This is – oh, you get it by now.

But this ambiguity has now led to something truly absurd, something which makes the whole long-drinks market look utterly farcical, even more ridiculous than water-based ‘ciders’. Here’s the trade ad for Crabbie’s that ran on the back of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser last week:

I don’t know what the hell this is, but it’s certainly not a premium ale.

A cloudy alcoholic lemonade. Haven’t we had these before? Oh yes, they were the original alcopops weren’t they? Before the riot of different flavours came along. Surely there is no argument whatsoever that this is an alcopop.

But no: look at the second bullet point down: on the basis that ginger beer could be confused with actual beer, Crabbie’s claims to be not an alcopop at all, but a premium ale. That’s right: an alcoholic lemonade is classed as being the same kind of product as Fuller’s London Pride, Thornbridge Jaipur, and any other ale between 4.2% and 7% ABV.

Alcopops are enjoying a boom to rival anything they saw in the mid-90s, but they’ve learned their lesson and are now seeking to establish a credibility that will allow them to outlive the natural ‘fad’ life cycle they enjoyed last time. Because they do not have any intrinsic credibility of their own, the leading brands are stealing it from beer and cider, ashamed to admit what they really are.

A lot of people like them and that’s fine – not everything has to be crafted and balanced in flavour. But by claiming to be something they are not, they displace other products that have some integrity, increase confusion among paying punters, and denigrate the image of the drinks they are masquerading as.

| Uncategorised

The Guide to Welsh Cider and Perry

Wales has got its mojo back. The last refuge of off-colour jokes about people based on their nationality or ethnicity has flourished since getting its own Regional Assembly in the late 1990s (and a healthy wodge of EU funding), transforming itself from a ravaged post-industrial slumpland into a vibrant, exciting tourist destination that has stunning scenery and great food and drink at its heart.

Take the Abergavenny Food Festival – for one weekend every September, the whole of this beautiful market town is taken over by a riot of food and drink producers chefs, writers, beer tents and the occasional random performance artist for a joyous appreciation of food and drink. It might be lazy to refer to it as ‘The Glastonbury of food festivals’, as some journos have, but it’s not inaccurate.

Abergavenny also sits at the heart of Welsh cider country. Monmouthshire shares climate and geography with neighbouring Herefordshire – one of England’s two great cider making regions. And the last fifteen years have seen an extraordinary revival of a Welsh cider making tradition that had all but disappeared by the 1970s.
In 2000, two Welsh cider makers founded the Welsh Perry and Cider Society to promote what was then an embryonic re-birth. Now, the society has over forty producer members, from people who make a few gallons in their sheds for competitions, to large brands such as Gwynt Y Ddraig, which has nationwide listings in ‘Spoons among others. By the mid-noughties, Welsh ciders were winning more than their fair share of awards in national competitions, and today, from virtually nowhere, Wales is one of the most important cider making regions in the UK.
Last year the WPCS invited people to tender to write the Guide to Welsh Perry and Cider. Bill Bradshaw and I won the pitch. 
The Guide is now available. Self-published by the Society, it’s not as widely available as a book via an established publisher would be, but if you are interested in cider I’d humbly suggest it’s worth tracking down. 
The job of the book is to give details of everyone who makes cider commercially in Wales, as well as details of pubs that serve good cider, and festivals and events where you can try a decent range. I wanted to make this entertaining as well as informative, to capture some of the personalities and a sense of place. Bill’s excellent photography more than delivers on that. Like any great cider making region, Wales has a good smattering of eccentrics and visionaries with stories to tell. Wherever cider is drunk, an element of joyful anarchy is loosed, and it doesn’t hurt that you’re surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in the UK. 
The book is available through Amazon here, and will be selling at events and in Welsh bookshops and tourist centres.
Talking of events, I will hopefully be doing something around the book at the Green Man Festival next month, which has a fully fledged Welsh beer and cider festival within it this year. (I’m already confirmed to do a beer and music matching event on the Literature Stage at 2pm on the Sunday). And Bill and I will be talking about the book and doing a tutored cider tasting at this year’s Abergavenny Food Festival – by which time, our World’s Best Cider book may also be available…
Iechydd da!

| Uncategorised

Reasons pubs are closing #453

Last week I was invited to the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group annual dinner.

It was a great event, with some wonderful beer and food matches and a bunch of awards handed out. Fergus Fitzgerald from Adnams was named Brewer of the Year – a richly deserved accolade for someone who is running a great range of traditional ales and an exciting programme of craft beer innovation side by side.

George Osborne was recognised and awarded for dropping the Beer Duty Escalator and for the first cut in beer duty since 1959. I loathe this man more than almost anyone alive, and being in the same room as him made my skin crawl. But it is right that he was applauded – he did something the industry had been asking for for years, something that benefits every pub in the country, and it’s right and proper we say thank you for that before getting back to hating him for his open warfare on the poor and disadvantaged, his arrogant shattering of the social contract that exists between a government and its people.

Also honoured was Andrew Griffiths, the MP for Burton-on-Trent. His was an easier gong to cheer. He’s a Conservative MP, a tireless campaigner for and genuine lover of beer, a great constituency MP, and a thoroughly decent bloke. He’s the proof that you don’t have to be arrogant, venal and cruel to be a Tory MP, even if many of them are. He made a long speech about the campaign against the duty escalator. He could have scored some easy party political points by pointing out it was introduced by a Labour government, but he didn’t. He could have scored more points by pointing out it was a Tory government that scrapped the escalator – instead, the first thing he said was that the campaign had been a cross-party effort. A thoroughly decent man who you’d happily buy a pint for – but that would involve getting to the bar before him…

After the dinner was over, a few of us – Griffiths included – wanted to go on for another drink somewhere else. It was late, and we were in Westminster, where licensing laws are overseen by a council that hates the very existence of pubs and refuses pretty much any requests for late licenses, so it was the kind of evening where you have to make compromises. Griffiths suggested the Players Bar, a late night place in Villiers Street in Charing Cross, apparently popular with MPs and their staff.

As you’d expect, the beer selection wasn’t great: A-B Inbev had inflicted their range on the bar, and draught beers consisted of Stella, Bud, Becks Vier and the loathsome Stella Artois Black. But alongside the Becks and Bud bottles in the fridge there was also Staropramen – not an immediate choice of mine, but I can drink it without complaint.

Or at least, I can when it’s served in a drinkable state.

When we were served our second round, I took a sip from my beer and discovered it was warm – room temperature in a hot room.

“Excuse me, this beer is warm,” I said to the barman.

“So?” He replied.

“Well, it’s undrinkable.”

“But you’ve had some out of it.”

“Yes, that’s how I know it’s warm. I can’t drink any more of it. Can I have another one?”

“I could give you a glass with some ice in it.”

“No, I don’t really like ice in my beer, thanks. Could you just replace it?”

He took the beer away and handed me a fresh, cold one.

“That’ll be £5.”

“What? You’re charging me to replace a beer that wasn’t fit to drink?”

“You’d drunk out of it.”

At this point Andrew Griffiths, ever the gentleman, stepped in and paid for the beer.

Conflict was averted. It would have been rude to have pressed the point when Griffiths – our host – had acted so decisively to head off the argument. But it spoiled my evening. We often make the comparison between pubs and coffee shops. It’s highly unlikely you’d ever be handed a stone cold cup of coffee. But if you were, it would be replaced with a hot one without question. Pubs like this – mercifully rare – seem incompetent and unfriendly by comparison. If this is where MPs come to drink, and this is the kind of service they get, no wonder so many of those who weren’t at the dinner tonight don’t seem that bothered about pubs disappearing.

| Uncategorised

“Let There Be Beer!” Wonderful idea, flawed execution – so far…

In my first book Man Walks into a Pub there’s a chapter called ‘When People Stopped Going To The Pub’, about how in the 1920s and 1930s, new gadgets at home and more stuff to do outside it meant people drifted away from pubs.

Sound familiar?

This situation gravely worried Britain’s brewers because at that time nearly all beer was drunk in the pub. So they came together and organised a generic campaign to remind people of how brilliant beer is. Advertising was so much more straightforward back then, and the whole thing ran with a simple strapline, ‘Beer is Best’.

The campaign ran for 40 years, culminating in this classic, ‘Look in at Your Local’, where the legendary Bobby Moore drinks beer and patronises his wife down the boozer (15 seconds in):

After that, we entered the age of big brand advertising, with subsequent ads on the above reel helping make lager the preferred choice of the nation, and inspiring me to get the job in advertising which would eventually, circuitously, lead me to become a beer writer.

Beer, like the rest of history, is circular, and last night I was at the launch of ‘Let There Be Beer!’ – a new, high budget campaign aiming to remind people how wonderful beer is and get non-drinkers or lapsed drinkers to reconsider drinking it.

Memories are short in marketing – the video we were shown to whet our appetites claimed this was ‘the first time ever’ that brewers had come together to promote what marketers insist on calling ‘the beer category’ (even I still use that term when I’m not concentrating.)

As you can see, it’s not. But the structure of British brewing has changed beyond recognition, and it’s certainly the first time that these particular brewers have come together to promote beer, and that is no mean feat. I’m about to be quite critical of a lot of what followed at the launch, but before I am, I want to stop and emphasise this point.

Most of the British brewing industry is now in the hands of foreign-owned global brewing conglomerates (of the twelve brands being served at the launch, only three were British beers). These huge corporations play hardball. They have colossal budgets, view the beer market as a battle between brands rather than beers, and in mature/declining markets such as the UK, they slug it out like punch-drunk heavyweights, trying to grab percentage points of market share from each other. Last night, senior representatives of the five biggest brewers on the planet (they were never introduced to the audience so I don’t know who they all were) sat next to each other, chatted, and drank each other’s beers rather than their own. That these people even agreed to be in the same room as each other, let alone work together long term and actually produce a campaign, is miraculous and worthy of heartfelt congratulations.

Like them or loathe them, these are the guys who have the money in British beer – their budgets dwarf those of all the regional, family and microbrewers put together. And they have committed a sizeable chunk of that budget to a three year campaign to promote all beer – none of their brands will feature specifically, it’s about pushing the entire ‘category’. The British Beer and Pub Association has played a major role in bringing the whole thing together and is central to the whole thing, and CAMRA is firmly on board as a partner too. While smaller brewers have not been involved directly, they have apparently been ‘consulted’, and several regional brewers were there last night to show their support.

Whatever else happens, whatever criticisms I have, this is a bloody wonderful thing that I wholeheartedly endorse and hope everyone else will too. I hope my criticism will be seen as constructive, and I hope anyone else who cares about beer will attempt to be constructive too rather than simply dismissing the whole initiative from the start.

So in that spirit, here’s more of the good stuff first: this is going to be an integrated campaign that runs across advertising, social media and much more. The Facebook page is here, and the Twitter feed is here. In a move that will delight anyone who has ever pulled their hair out in frustration at the lack of beer in TV food programmes, there will also be a tie up with Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, exploring beer and food matching. Chef Simon Rimmer is a genuine, bona fide beer fan, so this should have some real integrity to it. There’s going to be an online ‘beeropedia’, which I haven’t seen yet but which promises to be a great resource around all kinds of beer.

Big budgets committed for three years. Brands put aside in favour of ‘all beer’. What’s not to love?

Well for me, the main problem is that, being big lager brewers, they’ve managed to produce a generic big lager ad.

There are three scenarios in the TV ad that acts as the flagship for the whole initiative: a bloke battling his barbecue, another bloke nervously meeting his girlfriend’s dad, and a woman in a nightmarish office anxiously awaiting 6pm so she can get down the boozer. These are three of the seven classic beer advertising tropes: beer as refreshment, beer as social bonding agent, beer as reward – all seen on our screens countless times in lager ads over the years. And in every single scenario in this ad, the beer in question is lager. Despite repeated assurances that the campaign will celebrate ‘lagers, ales, bitters, pilsners and stouts’ (er… you really might want to rethink that as a description of beer styles or types, chaps) they’ve made a reassuringly familiar lager ad.

Here’s a sneak preview clip:

“Well that’s perfectly understandable,” some people said to me last night, “They’re the guys putting the  money in, it’s only right that it’s their products that are featured. And despite what you craft beer ponces say [OK, they didn’t quite say it in these words] lager is still where the volume is in beer.”

Both points are true. But my abject disappointment with this mainstream lager ad is not grounded in my personal preference for craft beer or real ale; but in my dodgy past as an adman. I think the execution scuppers the likely effectiveness of the campaign, for various reasons:

  • This is a campaign that hopes to improve the image of all beer. Within beer, lager now suffers a boorish, laddish image and is seen as a commoditised product. Craft beer and real ale are already driving positive image associations about beer, recruiting new drinkers, and creating interest. Featuring these beers in the ad wouldn’t just help promote a broader appreciation of beer, it would make people see lager in a different context, as part of a broader range – lager would get a positive halo effect from being next to more stylish and interesting beers.
  • It’s not just that lager is the only style of beer featured. The tone of voice of the ad – the situations, the comic stylings, the hammy acting – all feel like deeply familiar lager territory. They reinforce current perceptions of lager (therefore beer) rather than prompting us to reappraise them. These big brands spend tens of millions of pounds a year making ads like this, and they haven’t stopped people drifting away from beer. So why on earth would yet another typical lager ad prompt people to do anything different just because it doesn’t have any brands in it?
  • Following on from that, I’ll bet you a month’s salary (or ten quid, whichever is higher this month) that when people see this, because it looks exactly like a lager brand ad, they will misattribute it to one of the brands involved. Even if they enjoy it, it will be, “Have you seen that new ad by… ooh, was it Fosters or Carlsberg?” If there had been a range of beers featured, and if the styling of the ad had been different, it would have been (excuse me while I put my marketing hat on) disruptive to category norms and more likely to prompt reappraisal – in other words, impossible to mistake for a lager brand ad. And that would have been of more benefit to all styles of beer, lager included.
Apart from that, the other really annoying part of it is that in a thirty second ad, there is one fleeting shot of a pub – about three seconds long, if that. And it’s more of a ‘bar’ than a pub (probably a ‘bar and kitchen’).
Astonishingly, for a campaign that purports to be embracing all beer, they’ve even managed to find a place that only has lager fonts on the bar – no real ale handpulls. It’s actually quite difficult to find a stylish pub or bar these days that doesn’t have handpulls on the bar, but somehow they managed it. I’m guessing the brains behind the ad disagree, but in my view the pub improves positive associations around beer, and simply mirroring people’s out-of-pub drinking misses a trick.
If the campaign is three years long, I hope that when this commercial fails to prompt people to reappraise beer or remind them how good it is, some of these points might be taken on board and new, better executions might follow. We were given no opportunity to ask questions last night – instead, bizarrely, an occasionally sexist Eamon Holmes conducted a scripted interview with the brand owners*. But when I raised my concerns with individuals I was told that other beer styles would be featured in the layers of detail behind the TV ad. Fine, but they must surely be in the ad as well.
About that detail: we were told that this is a campaign they would like the whole beer and pub industry to get behind. So if you’re looking for interesting content, might it not have been a good idea to approach the Guild of Beer Writers at some point, or the broader beer writing community? To the best of my knowledge, writers and bloggers have simply been told about this campaign, rather than being asked for any input. (Disclosure: I did some paid consultancy with the ad agency that went on to win the pitch to make the ad, but that was at a very early stage.) One of the major themes of the campaign is ‘conversation’ – the great conversations that happen around beer. Perhaps if there had been more conversation about the aims and ideas of the campaign before it launched, its flaws might have been avoided.
This is early days in what promises to be a long-term campaign to support beer and make people think about it in a different way. The TV ad launches on Saturday morning, at half time in the British Lions game, and I’m guessing (there was no press release available last night) that the website and social media stuff will all go live at that time too. There’s loads more to come. Some of the best TV ad campaigns in history only really found their feet with the second or third executions, once they’d worked out what the idea was really about. I hope ‘Let There Be Beer’ will eventually fall into that category. I also trust that the wider campaign will indeed do much more for beer than the TV ad does. But the TV ad is where the biggest chunk of money is. For now, for aims, intention, initiative and thinking: 10 out of 10 – outstanding. For execution: 6 out of 10 – must improve. I still think this execution is better:

* Woman on panel: “I was given my first ever pint of beer by my boyfriend at the time.” Eamon Holmes: “Well, we know what he was after!”

| Uncategorised

Great news for the weak-wristed and those searching for that last-minute father’s day gift!

My fourth book, Shakespeare’s Local, is out now in paperback!
This new edition has the same text and pictures as the old one, but it has a different cover, is lighter to hold, and has the words ‘As read on BBC Radio 4’ on the front.
If you didn’t buy it for your father or pub-loving hubby for Christmas, you can now atone for that oversight by buying it for Father’s Day!
This is less a beer book, more a social history of one pub in one part of London that in turn tells a history of day-to-day life from the perspective of the bar stool. Pubs have endured for a thousand years, and while the basic principle and function of them is amazingly constant over time, how that is expressed changes constantly. 
The four sets of legs standing at the bar together illustrate the variety of people who have enjoyed a pint at the George Inn, Southwark, over the centuries it has stood as a living, breathing boozer. Any great pub has colourful individuals propping up the bar. Over the centuries the George has played host to villains, rogues and royalty, welcoming Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Taylor, Beyonce and the Stuart era’s finest Fart Poet, and hosted a lock-in for Princess Margaret with the Bishop of Southwark.

The Guardian said the book was ‘engaging and irreverent… brimming with fascinating stories and forgotten characters’. The Wall Street Journal said while it was ‘an entertaining stream of facts and stories’, but that its author was ‘an amateur… hucksterish, juvenile and occasionally vulgar… at first, pleasingly engaging and then, alas, more and more tiresome.’ 

The only element of this that jars is that the reviewer says it as if she thinks it’s a bad thing.


Available now in all good bookshops.