I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: what happens when you lose your way.
Word count at the start of this week: 40381
Word count this morning: 38345
There’s a point when you’re running a marathon where you hit a wall – or so I’ve been told. And if writing a feature or blog post is a sprint, writing a book is a marathon. The wall is waiting here too, halfway through. Everything stops. Your confidence runs like piss down your legs. You’re a fucking idiot for even trying this. What were you thinking, you deluded twat. Go home. Get under the covers. Never show your face again.
I try to achieve something different, something more, as a writer with each book I write. I go to different places. I wrestle with how much of myself to put into the text. It’s always difficult – I make sure of that. My last book was my most personal yet, in a subject area I hadn’t really written about before. It got really tough in the middle. At one point I turned to Liz and said, “I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised to the publisher. I think I’m going to have to pay back the advance. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.”
She looked at me steadily and said, “Lovely, you’ve said that in the middle of every single book you’ve written.”
This time is different, but of course it always is. This time there’s no advance, and Liz is the publisher. The motivation to keep going has to come entirely from within.
This project was designed to provide structure and purpose to our lives during an indefinite period of lockdown, and also to provide a source of income at some point in the near future. It’s a buttress against the stress we all feel around Covid-19, but yesterday the fear and anxiety got through.
I had a bad day.
I bet every single one of us is having bad days and good days. Yesterday I heard some grim projections about the future for pubs – even grimmer I should say – and became very pessimistic. I compartmentalise as a way of dealing with negative thoughts, and yesterday the bulkheads went and they flooded in.
This happened when I was already struggling with the book itself. Last week I talked about thickets. I’ve been in a really big one. People often say to me, “Ooh, you write just how you talk!” It’s the biggest compliment anyone can give me, because it shows I’ve succeeded in hammering the subject into my style. But because my style is easy and open and readable, people sometimes think it must therefore be easy to write like that. It really isn’t. Especially when you’re dealing with complicated topics that are new to you, and you’re trying to understand academic writing, retain it in your head, put your perspective on it, and then get the whole thing down in your own tone of voice and make it look simple and conversational.
I’m currently writing about the history of work, division of labour, and scientific management. I’m lightening this with reminiscences of going through the round window on Play School, and the enduring popularity of The Good Life, then trying to round it off with the story of a car advert from 1979. At the end of this bit in my notes, there’s 2500 words on tools and machines and their relationship to craft and craftspeople. It doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t belong anywhere. But it’s really important that it goes in somewhere. I can’t find where it fits, but it has to. Whether it goes here or not, I need to link either it or the car ad directly to the meditation on nostalgia that follows, which then jumps to a bit about Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, before coming back to nostalgia again in a craft beer-specific context via a discussion of pricing. In other words, despite all my careful planning, it’s a fucking mess.
I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.
I can of course, because I have nine times before. As a source of – not comfort exactly – but bitter, empty strength, I remember my favourite line from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I pissed away yesterday afternoon playing Warhammer Total War, drank too much, slept through my alarm this morning, got to my desk two hours late.
And then I sat down, said goodbye to the 2500 words that had been blocking me, and started writing again. It’s going quite well. I wouldn’t have had the energy to stop and procrastinate and write this instead if it wasn’t.
It happens to all of us. The difference between people who want to write a book and the people who have written books is the stamina to get through this wall.
When I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, one Saturday morning I heard the thwack of something heavy hitting the doormat. It was an A4 brown envelope which contained – I think – the fifth round of changes requested by my editor. “I can’t do this,” I said to Liz. I threw the envelope and its contents in the bin. I said “Fuck it. For the first time in six months, I’m going to read something that isn’t about beer. Maybe I’ll try again to be a novelist instead!”
I went to the book shelf and picked up a novel by Chuck Palahniuk. I got as far as the dedication, which said something along the lines of “To my editor, for saying this is not good enough. Again, and again, and again.” I went to the bin, too out the envelope, and got to work.
That stage is still to come – Liz has promised me she will be as tough as she needs to be when she assumes the role of editor. So this is not the last wall. But it is the first. I think I’ve got over it. Or through it. Now I just need to go on.
My new book The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. It really bloody well will.
I got invited to a birthday party in Burton-on-Trent that was quite unlike any other – a mass tasting of six legendary beers known as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
On 16th December 1869, Ratcliff Ale was mashed in at Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton in Burton-on-Trent to celebrate the birth of a son to the Ratcliff family. It was a fairly common tradition in brewing families for such beers to be brewed ready for when these scions reached their majority at the age of 21. The story I heard was that young Master Ratcliff never made it that far, so the beer was never opened.
On 16th December 2019, I’m in Burton to drink some Ratcliff Ale on its 150th birthday, along with five other variations on these beers designed for ageing, know to connoisseurs and collectors as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
Bass fan and Burton beer historian Ian Webster, ably assisted by passionate fellow Burtonian beer collector Gary Summerfield, wanted to commemorate Ratclliff Ale’s anniversary, and put an appeal around Burton. Burton responded, with people donating scores of bottles – a total of 75 beers are opened for tonight’s audience of 100 or so people. This is an incredible act given that some of these bottles trade on EBay for £300 or more. I thought I knew these beers well, but I’m astonished to find there are pint bottles and quart bottles, with the occasional ultra-rare magnum.
The way these strong ales were made was to boil the wort for twelve hours, reducing the liquid to create a very high concentration of fermentable sugars. This led to an alcohol content of around 12% ABV which, aided by heavy hopping rates, vastly reduced the chances of microbial spoilage as they aged, according to Burton Brewer and Chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, Dr Harry White. Harry explains the difference between the effects of microbiological spoilage – infection that means the beer goes ‘off’ – and the effects of ageing, which is all about oxidation.
Oxidation as ‘a complex series of interactions’ that begin with whatever oxygen is left in the bottle when it is sealed. There’s always some, and a bottle-conditioned beer needs it to start its slow, secondary fermentation. The yeast mops up the oxygen during this process, but then, when there’s nothing left for it to eat, it dies. When beer is a few years old it can taste stale, papery, or wet doggy. But there’s not a straight line into old age and decrepitude – other reactions continue to happen, and various different aspects of the beer come and go in a process John Keeling, when he was head brewer at Fuller’s, likened to sine waves, during vertical tastings of Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Those tastings were truly memorable – but even the most venerable Vintage Ale – from 1997 – is fifteen years younger than the most youthful Bass Corker, which is…
Prince’s Ale, 1982
Starting with the youngest first, the idea is you get some kind of progression. This 37-year-old, brewed to commemorate the birth of Prince William, tastes more like a three-year-old barley wine. There’s chocolate and caramel on the nose, some fruity notes reminiscent of ruby port, and no hint of papery oxidation at all. It tastes different rather than old, with a hint of meaty umami character, some acidity, but mainly a warming, welcoming fusion of malt character, alcohol and microflora.
Princess Ale, 1978
This has a much paler caramel colour than its younger sibling. It’s much lighter on the nose, toffeeish, with hints of spice and incense. On the palate it’s lighter again, with a bitterness that’s curiously tannic rather than hoppy. Overall, it tastes old and woody – not as engaging as the beer four years younger, but just as drinkable. Maybe it’s something to do with Princess Anne having mashed the beer in, given that she doesn’t like beer.
Jubilee Strong Ale, 1977
This is much darker again, chocolate-coloured. There’s a little tartness on the nose, which reminds me of Rodenbach, and a bit of smokiness. On the palate, it’s sweet, sour and bitter – I swear there’s still a bit of hop character to it – and something that is not directly derived from hops, barley, Burton water OR Bass ale yeast.
I’m on a tasting panel with Roger Protz and a selection of former Burton Brewers. My old friend Steve Wellington – another former brewer and the man who recreated A 19th century Burton IPA for the voyage to India I recounted in Hops & Glory – is in the audience. Steve once told me that when you taste aged beers, you get a different reaction from professional brewers than you do if you assemble a broader panel of taste experts – and so it proves with this beer. The brewers up here speak of mild infection, of something getting into the bottle that shouldn’t be there. Whereas I’m thinking that Brettanomyces means ‘British fungus’, so named because it was originally associated not with Belgian sours, but vatted strong British ales. This beer reminds me that Rodenbach – one of the finest sour beers in the world – took its original inspiration from none other than Greene King.
Prince’s Ale, 1929
Why was there a jump of fifty years between this beer and the previous (or rather, subsequent) one? I don’t know. The war was an obvious factor, but why was there not one for the Queen’s coronation? I can vaguely remember her Silver Jubilee and the incredible wave of patriotism that came with it. It was also around the same time that a large stash of the 1902 Kings Ale was discovered in Bass’s cellars, so maybe that inspired the idea for the start of the second wave of corkers that ran from 1977 to 1982.
But now we’re on to the end of the first wave, mashed in by Edward, Prince of Wales, who went on to become king for a few months before abdicating to marry an American divorcee. It had the shortest brew length of all the corkers, and is therefore the rarest. Apparently, it was still on sale in 1945, for £5 a bottle. or over £200 today – one for people who moan about ‘modern over-priced craft beers’ to think about.
Well, if I had a spare £200, I’d pay that for a bottle today. The nose is of dried fruit – dates, prunes, figs and currants – with a hint of church incense again. The fruity character is intense, combining the complex sweetness of dried fruit with the sourness of overripe fruit. Then there’s an umami meatiness that some of my colleagues on the panel describe as marmite.
I’m not so sure.
There’s a moment of panic whenever you’re trying to taste something with the aim of identifying that taste and communicating it to others. It’s the moment when your taste buds and olfactory bulb all flash with sensation and send blind signals deep into your cerebral cortex, and your brain seeks to contextualise what you’re experiencing versus your established knowledge and memory. When you’re primed to expect a particular flavour – when you know what you’re drinking and what it’s meant to taste like, or when someone asks you to look out for a particular flavour note – the brain usually identifies it straight away, or thinks it does. ‘Marmite’ is a common flavour note for aged beers, and if you know this, you can detect it and tick it off – flavour successfully identified. But if you didn’t know this, I’m not sure Marmite is what you’d pull out here. I’m conscious that I’ve already used it as a flavour note myself, but Marmite is a shortcut, an easy port of call, similar to when we categorise and tick off the complexity of lambic beers with the term ‘horse blanket’. It often stops us from probing further. This is spicier yet subtler than Marmite, the meatiness just one component of something broader.
King’s Ale, 1902
The danger with the Bass corkers is you can never be quite sure how well the contents stand up. If the wax seal around cork has broken, it’s probably not worth it, as the beer will have been assaulted by oxygen over the years. So you look for the wax seal – but how do you know it wasn’t broken, and then resealed by someone decades later? When it comes to the Kings Ale, brewed by Lord Bass’s mate Edward VII, there’s an easy way to tell: the original bottlings came with a lead seal, and that’s what we’ve opened tonight.
I opened a bottle of Kings Ale in 2009, to celebrate winning Beer Writer of the Year for the first time. There’s a blurry video of it on YouTube somewhere. My bottle didn’t have a lead seal. It poured with the look and consistency of gravy and tasted like of cork, marmite – for real this time – and death.
Tonight’s is… better than that. There’s a big waft of balsamic vinegar on the nose, and a surprisingly yeasty element. Umami here is not marmite, but porcini mushrooms. There’s chocolate, acidity and fruit on the palate. It tastes like an older, raggedier version of the Prince’s Ale, which makes sense. But still, it’s far from unpleasant.
Ratcliff Ale, 1869
These bottles were originally sealed with red wax, so if your wax is black – like one of mine at home is – that means the contents may not be good. This one smells really clean, and pours bright and clear, like Madeira. The now-familiar incense is there, and it smells like Christmas cake. There’s bitterness and acidity, coffee and spice, alcohol heat, Madeira wine, and elements I simply don’t have the vocabulary for. It tastes like nothing else.
By the end, I’m surprised how much I’m feeling the effects of drinking a flight of 12% ABV beers. I’ve often heard that the alcohol decays and loses its potency in beers like this. My intense desire for sleep, and the spidery handwriting in my notebook, suggest otherwise.
I’ve tasted beers that are alive and vibrant, and I’ve had beers that taste dead and decayed. The beers we’ve tasted tonight are somewhere between, having visited both poles before embarking on their own, unique journeys. There’s far more here than the effects of oxygen-driven ageing: these beers are complex processes. Tate two different bottles of the same beer, and their character can be quite different. It reminds me of the ‘generative music’ experiments created by Brian Eno, where a few simple elements are fed into a randomising system to create something that is ever changing, never quite repeating. Here, tiny differences in the microflora in each bottle can lead to ever-widening variations over time, magnified by the conditions in which each individual bottle matures – temperature, humidity, whether it’s stored upright or on its side, and so on.
Will there be more Bass corkers? Could there be? Well, the Queen’s Ale for Brenda’s 50th Jubilee was bottled in 500ml with a crown cap, but is still well worth seeking out. Apart from that, around ten years ago, Steve Wellington invited me to brew a new batch of Bass No.1 Barley Wine – the original recipe for Ratcliff Ale. We loaded an incredible amount of malt into the mash tun and left it for its 12-hour boil. A curry and a few hours’ sleep later, we were back in the brewery and running off a thick, dark wort that looked and smelled amazing. A few weeks later, Steve, almost tearful, informed me that it had been so long since the Bass yeast had had to contend with such a mighty wort, it simply hadn’t been up to the task. Fermentation hadn’t taken place, and the batch had had to be poured away.
And that’s not the only problem.
In the complex world of corporate beer trademarks and ownership, the archive of Bass recipes is now owned by a different company from the people who own the Bass brand. Anheuser Busch-Inbev continue to commit many travesties with Bass, but ABI has more than one face and more than one set of opinions. Mike Siegel of Goose Island is genuinely passionate about recreating old beers from the past, as evidenced by his recent collaboration with Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice, the wonderful Obidiah Poundage. Mike recently asked Molson Coors – owners of the Bass archive – if he could gain access to old Bass recipes with a view to reviving something akin to these legendary corkers, and was given a pretty categoric and final refusal.
Earlier tonight, Harry White made a heartfelt plea to the audience for the archives to be used much more.
Come on guys, it’s Christmas – let’s join the dots. And could whoever currently owns the famous Bass yeast get it to some kind of yeast gym in the New Year?
The print format of our beer magazine is taking a break. But it’s only a temporary one…
When Daniel Neilson created Original Gravity at the end of 2014, his vision was for a different kind of beer magazine, one that was like ‘your slightly more knowledgeable best mate, full of interesting, readable stories that appealed to both beer novice and expert’. It has always been singled out for the design by Adam McNaught-Davies (lindoneast.co.uk).
Pulling together a quality print magazine that consistently lives up to expectations is a lot of work — too much for one person. So at the start of 2017, Daniel brought on board award-winning beer writers Adrian Tierney Jones and Pete Brown, as editor and editor-at-large respectively. As a team of three, we raised our ambitions even further, with a lofty mission of attempting to become ‘the New Yorker of beer’. Big goals should always be out of reach — you have to try much harder to reach them, and we think we made some big strides, introducing fresh and incredibly talented voices to beer who had real human, engaging, often moving stories to tell.
OG is distributed to quality bars and pubs and is free to pick up. Every penny of production costs has to be met by advertising. We pay the writers we commission and hopefully, there may even be some profit left to split between the three of us. Achieving the required amount of ad revenue has been getting increasingly difficult. We don’t press the ‘Go’ button until we know there’s a surplus. Original Gravity #23 was due to drop in September, but it didn’t hit that surplus.
For the moment then, the UK print edition of Original Gravity is temporarily on hold (the Canadian edition launches in Alberta as well as Ontario next year). We still believe the model works, but we need to take time out and rethink it in the UK. In the meantime, we’ll be publishing original content on originalgravitymag.com, including commentary on issues in beer that we feel we want to talk about (as well as continuing with occasional Original Gravity Live events). At the moment there is no budget for new writers, so it will be Pete Brown and Adrian Tierney-Jones who will be putting in the words, which means that the message of OG that has been there from the start — independent, asymmetrical, unconventional — will still be heard.
A big thank you to all the advertisers, distributors, stockists, writers and readers who have supported us so far. We’re not giving up. And we’ll let you know as soon as OG is ready to return to print.
One of the biggest frustrations for brewers is when people who self-identify as lovers of good beer insist that it should always, without exception, be inexpensive. Is it fair to condemn this inverse snobbery? Or could the industry and beer communicators be doing a better job of explaining and justifying the high price tags attached to some beers?
Notwithstanding the steady descent of Twitter generally into a platform for people to get furious over trivia and hurl abuse at people they don’t know, there’s been a spat going on over the last few days between a couple of contrarians and a bunch of beer people over the ‘outrageous’ price of a beer someone mentioned.
I immediately intervened on the side of the industry people defending and justifying the expense of some beers, tweeting:
“I find it amazing every time someone who claims to love beer asserts that beer can never be worth more than what you pay for the average pint. I’ve never heard a wine lover declare that Chateau Lafite, for example, should cost the same as Blossom Hill.”
I steadfastly believe in the validity of this comparison. But looking at the sheer ignorance of the people we were debating with, two things occurred to me. One, yes, it’s probably not worth bothering engaging with people who for some reason have chosen to spend their precious time on this planet arguing with people they don’t know about subjects on which they are entirely ignorant. But two, the frequency with which this particular attitude surfaces suggests that perhaps we’re at fault too. It’s not just on social media: in pubs and bars, when there’s some strong, rare beer being sold in thirds or halves only, there’s always someone who works out the cost of a pint (even though you can’t buy a pint) and decries how outrageous it is. Sometimes it even makes national news. And yet, we never see stories about what a rip-off it is that a pub wine list has a house white at 13.5% ABV for £14 and another wine at £65 that’s also £13.5% ABV. Even those (perhaps especially those) who are ignorant about wine are quite happy to accept that some wines are intrinsically worth more than others. If asked to explain why, they might invent an answer, but they would probably be more likely to come up with an explanation that sounds plausible to their ears rather than crying foul on pricing.
That such people are unable to do the same for beer surely says more about them than it does beer, but we can’t let them shoulder all the blame. Some of the replies to these people have been impatient, perhaps even condescending, and I thought: why would we assume people would have this knowledge when, unless they’re avid readers around beer or visitors of breweries, no one has told them?
So, in a blog post that won’t make a blind bit of difference to the professional contrarians whose only motivation is winding people up on Twitter to afford the illusion that their sad little lives mean something, here are three examples, offered with the best intentions, to explain why some beers cost more than others. These are not the only three – but they’re the three that came to my mind first.
1. Some beers have more stuff in them than other beers.
Here’s an interesting stat: in North America, craft brewers account for around ten per cent of total beer volume brewed. But craft brewers buy 25 per cent of all the hops grown in America. That means on average, craft brewers put two and a half times as many hops into their beers as mainstream commercial breweries. That means the cost of the hops going into each pint is at least two and a half times higher. (Possibly more when economies of scale and sizes of contracts are taken into account.) If you don’t like hoppy beer, or don’t want to pay a premium for it, that’s your choice. But surely the financial logic is undeniable. And that’s before you take into account the extra expense of ensuring a very hoppy beer remains chilled from the point of packaging to the point it’s bought by the drinker, to preserve the freshness of the hops.
2. Some beers take longer to make than other beers
There are various examples of this, but let’s look at lager. The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’, and it’s generally accepted that a good quality lager should be lagered, or conditioned, at low temperatures for at least four weeks. This is because the yeast throws out various flavour compounds as it’s fermenting and conditioning. But left long enough, the yeast will then reabsorb these compounds, leaving a fresh, clean beer that’s crisp and refreshing but still has flavour and character. Not only does the lagering process tie up your capital for weeks because you can’t sell the beer you’ve just bought all the ingredients for and paid someone to make, it needs to be stored at cool temperatures – around two degrees Celsius. Keeping huge rooms full of tanks at that temperature consistently costs a serous amount of money. Budweiser Budvar lagers its beers in this way for at least ninety days. Some mainstream commercial brands go from brewing to packaging in 72 hours. If asked, they’ll tell you that modern technology has removed the need for lagering time. But taste a properly lagered lager alongside one that’s been made in a few days, and you might be sceptical about this.
3. Some beers use rare or special ingredients or processes
Lambic and geueze beers were at the centre of the recent Twitter spat. There are many, means reasons why these beers are expensive compared to a mainstream lager, but I want to focus on just one.
Instead of adding laboratory-cultured yeasts to start the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, lambic brewers rely on the natural yeasts in the air around them. It’s not quite the same thing as sourdough versus regular bread, but it’s close enough for comparison. The air around us is filled with a swirling cocktail of microflora, and its composition changes depending on where you are. There are certain parts of Belgium where this airborne biome produces great results in beer: other parts, not so much. So beers in this style are tied to particular places. But the cocktail doesn’t just change depending on where you go; it changes depending on the time of year, too. In warmer months, the party gets a little crowded, and as well as the ‘good’ yeasts you want in your beer, there are lots of uglier critters floating around that will spoil the beer and made it undrinkable. This means lambic producers can only brew during certain months of the year. The traditional season runs from October to April, when the average temperature is between -8 degrees Celsius and +8 degrees Celsius. But global warming means this window is now narrowing: the unseasonal warm weather we’re having now is catastrophic for lambic brewers. At Cantillon, the world’s most famous lambic brewery, the limited brewing window has contracted from 165 days in the early 1900s to about 140 days today. Within that period, sudden spikes mean a beer has to get poured away. This is a small, family business – the beer you brew over 140 days – once it’s been stored for three years, matured and blended – has to support people’s livelihoods for the whole year round. Prices have to rise, or the company will go out of business.
I’m not denying that there are opportunistic brewers and retailers who are cashing in on the craft beer boom to sell beers at artificially inflated prices because there are people who are willing to pay them. But I offer these three stories as examples that not all beers are the same. Brewing is an extraordinarily complex process and the ingredients of beer are each complex in their own way.
As with anything you buy in the supermarket, there are cheap versions and expensive versions – if all you can afford is an Iceland spag bol at £1 for an individual portion, it would be wrong to judge. But surely you’d appreciate that a scratch-cooked version using better quality tomatoes and beef is going to taste better? Brewers face similar decisions to you. If you’re not interested or not able to afford the better quality stuff, fine. But it’s simply inverse snobbery to criticise those who would rather splash out.
If anyone is interested in learning more about beer’s complex and wonderful supply chain, and the incredible lengths growers, breeders and scientists go to help brewers produce great beer, try Miracle Brew:
You’ll never see beer in the same way again. I know I didn’t.
Fuller’s is selling its beer portfolio to Asahi. The commercial logic of this is undeniable. The issue is, many of us place sentimentality above commercial logic.
As someone who (a) loves beer and (b) also aspires to being seen as a level-headed commentator with a degree of insight into the market, whenever something like this happens I have two reactions: the emotional and the analytical. Sometimes they match up with each other. Other times they don’t.
So let’s get the emotional reaction out of the way first: when I saw Asahi trending on my Twitter timeline on Friday morning, and then clicked on it to see what it was about, I was absolutely gutted. People asked me for my reaction on Twitter. The editor of Imbibe phoned me to see if I had a comment on it. An email thread of beer writers asking if anyone knew before the announcement or had any hot take on it spiralled through my inbox. And I had no words at all. I felt a bit stupid. The thing was, I didn’t understand it.
I don’t want to sound too melodramatic: it wasn’t like a bereavement or anything. It was more like, imagine you have two mates. One of them is a bit lairy and is often asked to keep it down in the pub. The other one is quiet and thoughtful and one of the sweetest people you know. And one day, someone says, “Hey, there was a ruckus in the pub last night. The police were called and your mate was arrested.”
“I’m not surprised. He probably had it coming,” you reply. “You know what he’s like.”
“No, not him,” the person says. “Your other mate! The quiet, nice one.”
The offence is the same. But it feels worse because of who did it. Fuller’s don’t owe me anything, nor do they have any obligation to anyone else. But I had an idea in my head of the kind of company they are – entirely of my own creation – and just like it was for many people when Beavertown did their deal with Heineken, that idea now seems tarnished. Like I said, it’s an emotional reaction. It’s pointless trying to pick it apart, analyse it or argue with it – it’s just how I feel.
Now, given a day or two’s thinking time, here’s the rational reaction: one, it was probably as inevitable as it was surprising. And two, it’ll probably be OK.
Why was it inevitable? Because it’s part of the pattern. A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a panel for a Q&A session at a Greene King management awayday. There was me, and a bunch of serial entrepreneurs, City analysts and financial people. I was asked to speak first. I was doing the Cask Report at the time, and I spoke about how cask ale was looking good, and how that meant Greene King were in a good place if they stuck with it. And everyone else on the panel said, “Why are you talking about beer? It’s irrelevant. It’s the pubs that matter. This is a property company, a retail company. That’s where all the money is. The brewery is just a distraction.”
If you’re only looking at the money side of things, this is inarguable. In the early nineties, when the Beer Orders mandated that breweries could no longer own thousands of pubs, every one of the ‘Big Six’ brewery conglomerates that had dominated British brewing since the sixties eventually decided to sell off the beer and hang on to the pubs (which is why we’re in the extraordinary position of not one of the top ten beer brands in the UK – one of the world’s greatest brewing countries – being owned by a British company.)
Beer is in long-term decline, and brewing is a low-margin business. Pubs are property, and property is worth a lot of money. Pubs also sell a lot more than beer – as a sector, they now make more money from food than drink. If you had to choose to give up one or the other, only the most sentimental of brewing companies would choose to stick with the beer.
Of course, Fuller’s were not forced to choose between one or the other. They’re well below the limit for the maximum number of pubs a brewer can own. And yet they decided to dispose of the brewing business anyway.
From what I can understand from off-the-record chats, very few people in the business had any inkling of this happening. Not only were they not told, they were always under the impression that the board at Fuller’s were indeed very sentimentally attached to the brewing business. Ever since Young’s sold its brewing operations and shut its brewery in Wandsworth in 2006, there has been speculation that Fuller’s would – or even must – do the same. But the received wisdom among the upper echelons of the business was that the families of Fullers and Turners who still occupy board positions wouldn’t want to face the ignominy of turning up at their boxes at Twickenham, Lords, Glyndebourne or wherever and having to introduce themselves as ‘shopkeepers’ rather than brewers. I guess they’ve swallowed their (London) Pride on that score.
I’m writing this blog post in a newly opened Fuller’s pub. Like every Fuller’s pub that’s been opened or refurbished in the last few years, it’s magnificent. We hear a great deal about pub closures, and while Fuller’s have long received praise for their brewing prowess and approach, they’ve not received enough credit for the care, attention and confidence they show in the pub sector. £250m, minus costs and yachts, houses or whatever else the beneficiaries might buy, remains a significant chunk of money to invest in pubs. Those pubs will all still stock Fuller’s beers, as Asahi will be their main beer supplier.
From Asahi’s point of view, this sale sees them building up a very respectable portfolio of western beer brands now. I have to admit that as a drinker, the prospect of Fuller’s, Dark Star, Meantime and Pilsner Urquell, plus Cornish Orchards cider, all on the same team, is an enticing one. Martyn Cornell also raises the sharp observation that this is a foreign lager brewer making a massive vote of confidence in British cask ale. Fuller’s flagship beer, London Pride, has been suffering sustained decline, squeezed between the big multinationals’ marketing power and the rise of craft beer. London Pride and the rest of the Fuller’s portfolio now belong to a company with much deeper pockets.
And the point many of us miss is that these big companies have a global outlook. You have a well-respected traditional British beer called LONDON PRIDE that now has access to huge distribution in big, beer-hungry, and often massively Anglophile markets in Central Europe and Asia. People often ask me why the hell Carlsberg bought a toxic brand (within the UK beer bubble) called London Fields. Same reason.
Many who, like me, remain sad about the deal despite this commercial logic, try to put their fears into rational terms by suggesting that a multinational lager brewer might screw up their beloved beers. I genuinely don’t think this will happen. Asahi has absolutely no experience in cask ale. They wouldn’t risk blowing their £250m investment by trying to change what they don’t understand. They’ll leave Fuller’s and Dark Star well alone to do what they know how to do best, merely providing them with more production capacity and wider distribution, and a shitload more health and safety notices around the workplace. That’s what they did with Meantime. And after a couple of false starts, they’ve actually handled Pilsner Urquell pretty well.
I’m almost talking myself into cheering this sale rather than mourning it. But I can’t quite get there. It’s not just the keyboard warriors who want to keep craft beer pure even as they sit in comfortable corporate jobs drawing salaries from big multinationals who are sad about this sale. Brooklyn Brewmaster Garret Oliver told me that, “Fuller’s, more than any other brewery, is responsible for my becoming a brewer.” Last year I interviewed John Hall, founder of Goose Island, when he came to Fuller’s to brew a collaborative beer to celebrate that company’s 30th anniversary. On business trips to Europe, he used to detour via London simply so he could drink London Pride at the Star Tavern, a Fuller’s pub in Belgravia. When he finally changed out of his business suit and into brewer’s overalls, he brewed Honker’s ale to try to emulate his favourite beer. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale began life as an attempt to imitate Fuller’s ESB. ESB itself is now a category, a bona fide beer style brewed all over the world and judged in international competitions, when it was once simply the name of a tasty, strong beer in the Fuller’s portfolio.
Fuller’s was the brewery that inspired the breweries that inspired the modern craft beer boom. Arguably no other brewery in the world is as responsible for shaping craft beer. These individual stories of inspiration – and there are many more – cannot be measured on a balance sheet. But they create value nonetheless.
Asahi are not evil and they’re not going to screw up these beers. Fuller’s are not sellouts who deserve to be shunned by beer ideologues. And yet we’ve still lost something. We’ve lost some of beer’s romance and heritage. We’ve lost a sense of stability and continuity. We’ve lost a bit of magic. Yes, I’m being sentimental. But even the most hard-nosed businessman should be wary of scorning or dismissing such sentimentality. Because it’s the basis of loyalty – no, devotion – a fierce passion for some beers and breweries that few if any other products can summon among their core customers.
My warning to Asahi would be to respect this irrational devotion and sentimentality and to honour the beers and the brewery that created it. I suspect they will do a fairly decent job of that, because the business they just bought depends on them doing so. But it still won’t quite be the same.
Finishing off my analysis of the research I undertook for this year’s Cask Report, having looked at consumer and market dynamics, here are some thoughts about cask and the trade.
As part of my research for the Cask Report, in August I conducted a survey among publicans who stock cask ale. The results made curious reading, and took a bit of time to work out, but in terms of solving the issues cask faces in the trade, the answers are pretty simple.
If you ask people to fill in a survey about cask ale, those who like cask are more likely to respond than those who don’t, so it would be wrong to draw any conclusion about the total market from our respondents – a significant majority said cask was becoming more important to their business, which clearly doesn’t tally with cask’s steep overall decline. What it does tell us though – and we have to be mindful of this – is that behind the overall decline, there’s a group of pubs that are genuinely prospering from cask – more on that later.
Taking those who say cask is becoming less important toothier business than it was, more of these pubs blame the rise of craft beer than any other factor. In their own words, craft in formats other than cask is what drinkers are demanding, because it is ‘interesting’, ‘varied’ and ‘colder’. A few also say that, for them, craft is more profitable and more consistent.
But craft isn’t the only thing pulling drinkers away from cask. Many publicans cite the growth of craft spirits as a significant factor too. Some say the pubco tie stops them from getting the ales their drinkers demand, and importantly, a fair few say they can’t compete with local pubs where cask has become a speciality.
It must be noted that for some pubs, the growth of craft beer more generally, irrespective of format, is helping cask ale. Among those who say cask is becoming more important to their business, by far the most common reason is growing consumer demand. Interest in beer styles and the growth of small, local breweries is driving demand for cask in places that do it well.
When it comes to issues around quality, it’s very clear that messages around cellarmanship, perfect serve, training and engaging with drinkers are getting through. The problem is whether publicans and bar staff are acting on this information or not. Ask them if they’re aware of training, if they find it useful, if they know how long a cask needs to be on stillage before serving, how long it should remain on sale once tapped, and what to do if a drinker brings back a dodgy pint, and they know all the correct answers. The trouble is, compare these answers to market data, and publicans who say they sell a beer for three days are actually selling it for seven. Pubs that say they’re training their staff are not. And pubs that say they replace a dodgy pint without question are in reality shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘It’s cask, it’s meant to be like that.’
Why would publicans choose not to treat cask correctly when they know how to? I can only speculate, but I think it’s obvious, and have discussed it with other people in the industry who have reached the same conclusion. It’s tough running a pub. You’re working at least a sixty-hour week, probably more, and you just can’t get to everything you want to do, or should do. So that little bit of extra work on cask doesn’t get done.
John Keeling, recently retired from Fuller’s, thinks there’s one issue at the heart of all this: margin. “If you make less off a pint of cask ale than anything else, it’s going to come bottom of your list,” he told me. Keeling believes cask’s low margin compared to any other drink on the bar is why it doesn’t receive enough marketing investment, enough training, enough care and attention generally.
This was echoed in my research. Some publicans even said they used craft beer and expensive spirits to subsidise the lack of profit from cask, just so they can keep cask on either out of love or for the reputation of the pub, such as maintaining a place in theGood Beer Guide.
There are of course exceptions to this. On my questionnaire, before we got onto the business side of things, I asked respondents how they felt about cask themselves. Now – I split the data by size of pub, by whether it was freehold, leased, tenanted or managed, whether or not it had Cask Marque accreditation, and there was little variation in the data. The one difference that was significant was when I compared publicans who said they personally adored cask and drank it themselves to everyone else. These were the guys for whom cask ale was making money, who put in the extra time, who trained their staff properly.
That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The people for whom cask is a vocation rather than just part of the job are those who have the greatest investment in cask being perfect.
You see this playing out in other pubs. Some of those who said they struggle with cask cited the presence of a nearby cask ale shrine or micropub as the main reason. If you’re a typical boozer, you can’t compete with cask aficionados on range or quality. I have no solid data to back this up, but I suspect we’re starting to see cask drinking gravitate towards pubs that have a particular specialism in cask. If there’s one of those in the middle of a town, we’ll start to see cask disappear from other pubs near it.
So if we want cask to succeed, from a trade point of view, there are two options.
Firstly, if you’re a cask pub and you’re not that into it yourself, hire someone who is, to be a ‘cask champion’. Pay them a little extra for their knowledge and passion. Give them the leeway they need to indulge their passion. There are plenty of people like this out there, and cask is still recruiting new acolytes.
Secondly, if cask is to have a long-term future as a mainstream drink rather than a specialist niche, it needs a better margin, either from an increase in price or a reduction in duty. If pubs are making more from cask, they’ll look after it better. If breweries are making more on cask, they’ll invest more in promotion and marketing, and in quality control and technical support for the pubs they sell it to. Sort these issues out, and all the issues we previously addressed on the consumer side will start to fade.
So there we have it: seemingly simple on the surface, how to save cask ale for the nation in two easy steps. Let’s wait and see how that turns out, shall we?
After talking last week about some general attitudes and behaviours around cask ale, this week I’m focusing in on the sense I got from research about some specific issues around how cask is presented to the consumer.
Everyone has their own opinions about cask. The main reason we do research is to test those opinions for conformation bias – do you see what you want to see? Is your opinion the same as that of most people? In my experience, most research is a mixture of confirming things you thought, because they’re bleedin’ obvious, and throwing up a few surprises that may seem counter-intuitive but make sense when explained.
Here’s what I found out via a mix of eight focus groups in four locations around the country, and quantitative research with just over a thousand people in the sample.
People in the industry – and drinkers – have long known that the variability of cask ale can be an issue. A few years ago, when cask was resurgent, it got stocked in more pubs, and the typical cask pub started stocking more lines. Cask went into pubs that didn’t really know how to keep it, and too much cask was stocked for the throughput of the pub. Quality suffered because the beer stayed on the bar too long, which meant people drank less of it, which meant it stayed on longer, and there you go.
This is still an issue, and the scale of it is not fully apparent. Anyone who has taken a dodgy pint back to the bar will have been told at some point, “Well no one else has complained.” That’s because most drinkers don’t feel confident enough to complain. A YouGov survey for the Cask Report showed only 34% of people say something when they get a dodgy pint. They’re more likely simply to leave it, and not come back to the pub, or at least to avoid cask from then on.
I used the focus groups to explore why this happens. Apart from the obvious reason that conflict over a bad pint creates the opposite atmosphere and emotions than those you went to the pub to experience, quality is closely linked to awareness and knowledge of cask.
It’s another vicious circle: cask is recessive on the bar. People really don’t notice it that much. Because it’s recessive, they’ve never really learned much about it, and don’t feel any urge to change that. And because they don’t know much about it, when they do occasionally drink it and don’t enjoy the taste, they have no idea whether they simply don’t like it, or if there’s something wrong with it. Therefore, they just leave it and don’t say anything. As someone who has often taken back stale, vinegary, infected, or unintentionally cloudy pints only to be told, “It’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that,” I can sympathise.
Every focus group summed it up by saying “Even my mate who drinks loads of cask says it can be variable. You know where you are with other drinks. Best to stick with what you know.” Now people are generally going to the pub less often than they used to, the stakes are higher. You don’t just shrug off a bad pint any more. You expect better. So even people who don’t like lager that much will order it instead of cask if they’re not confident about how it’s going to taste.
People like drinks to be cooler these days. I even see craft beer geeks chilling down Imperial stouts. I’ve always been a believer in the principle that telling someone they’re eating or drinking something in the wrong way is not a brilliant business building strategy. If that’s how they prefer it, they’re not wrong; they just have different tastes.
I asked my research sample what temperature cask ale should be served at if they were to drink more of it. I tried to help them have some clarity by stating in the question that room temperature was around 20 degrees, while lager was served at 2 to 4 degrees. 64% of them said they would prefer it to be colder than the current recommended cellar temperature of 11-13 degrees: 30% said it should be the same temperature as lager; 34% said it should be between 5 and 10 degrees celsius. When we split the sample down, and look just at people who say cask is the beer they drink more often than any other style – real cask aficionados – 56% say they would like it to be served cooler than cellar temperature, with only 29% saying they prefer to at the correct cellar temperature.
You might expect this to be skewed by younger drinkers, but its consistent all the way up, in every age band until you get to people in their mid-fifties and older. Even among 55-64 year-olds, who show a warmer preference than everybody else, more would prefer it to be cooler than prefer it at current cellar temperatures.
Now you can say – as some on social media already have – that these people are ‘wrong’ if you like. Good luck with that. I also appreciate that serving cask colder is not without it’s problems. But the research is clear: if you want more people to drink cask more often, you need to offer at least one option that’s cooler than cellar temperature.
Clearly, Sharp’s have already discovered this on their own. It’s going to be interesting to see how Doom Bar Extra Chilled performs.
Moreover, Cask Marque ran a cellar audit at the same time as I was doing my research, and discovered that 64% of pubs audited were selling cask ale warmer than 11-13 degrees. That makes for grim symmetry: 64% of drinkers want it cooler than cellar temperature; 64% of pubs are selling it warmer than cellar temperature. Suddenly, double-digit year-on-year decline starts to make sense.
*There is one significant caveat: all this research took place during the July heatwave. Surely this will have exacerbated both the drinkers’ desire for cold pints and the pubs’ difficulty in keeping beer cellar-cool. I’m hoping we can run the research again in December to compare. My hunch is that the figures won’t be as extreme, but the trend will still be evident.*
When brewers talk of stopping or deprioritising cask, they tend to talk about issues around guaranteeing the quality of their beers in the pub, and the struggle to get a decent margin from cask compared to beer in other formats.
For historical reasons, cask ale tends to be the cheapest pint on the bar. This delights large sections of CAMRA and some ale drinkers, but makes it much harder for brewers and publicans to make a decent return on stocking cask.
In his commentary on the Cask Report, Matthew Curtis rightly pointed out that pricing wasn’t really discussed in the report. It is an omission, but it’s one I think I can understand. The Cask Report is an industry publication, backed by CAMRA and many other industry bodies. CAMRA, rightly or wrongly, campaigns for cask prices to be kept low, and the rest of the industry is eternally involved in campaigning agains rises in beer duty and, in some quarters but by no means all, opposing measures such as Minimum Unit Pricing. Let’s just say I can imagine the difficulties involved in getting all those bodies to agree to a message that says cask ale is underpriced relative to other drinks. I can also see the potential for some embarrassing PR if someone were to fashion a story about the beer industry publicly saying beer should be more expensive.
So I get it. But as an independent writer, I don’t have the same difficulties – I can just express a personal opinion and people are free to either agree or disagree with it.
I asked drinkers how much they thought cask cost compared to other beers on the bar. In focus groups, no one really new. In the quantitative research, roughly a third said it was priced cheaper than standard lager, a third about the same, and a third said it was more expensive. In other words, an entirely random split – drinkers have no idea what a pint of cask costs relative to other drinks.
Again, I’m not really surprised when I think about it. We either buy in rounds and have no idea what drinks cost relative to each other unless we look at the receipt, or we buy one pint at a time, and you’d only really notice the price difference if you were switching between cask and mainstream lager, and even then you’d have to be paying particular attention.
But there was a second part to my research question. I asked people how much a pint of cask was compared to standard lager: cheaper, the same or more expensive. But I also asked if drinkers – whatever price they thought it was – thought it should be priced like that relative to standard lager.
Now, bear in mind that no one is going to complain that their pint isn’t costing them enough money. But among those who said cask was cheaper than standard lager, 45% of them – almost half – said it was wrong that cask was cheaper, that it should be more expensive than standard lager. Among those who thought cask ale was more expensive, only 28% said that it was ‘wrong’, and that it should be cheaper. 72% of people who currently believe cask ale is more expensive than standard lager think that it should be. But it isn’t. It’s cheaper.
We have to be careful how we interpret this. People are NOT telling us here that they want to pay more for their beer. What they are saying is they don’t now how much it costs, and that it would be fine for most if cask were in fact more expensive than standard lager.
A separate piece of research, conducted for the 2017 Cask Report by YouGov, asked drinkers “How likely, if at all, would you be to pay more for a pint of cask ale or ‘real ale’ that has been well looked after?” 67% said they would be either ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to pay more.
Price is a thorny topic to get to the bottom of. As a cash-strapped drinker, of course I don’t want the price of beer to go up. But as an adviser to brewers and pubs, I’d say there’s a lot more potential margin in cask if you want it – and if the quality is good.
That’s it for this post. I have two more lined up: one on the relationship between cask and craft, and the final one on attitudes towards cask in the trade rather than among drinkers. I hope it’s useful, particularly for brewers and publicans.
I’m delighted to be doing one of the keynote speeches at the inaugural Beer Cities’ Forum, as well as chairing a British Guild of Beer Writers session with Roger Protz, Adrian Tierney-Jones, Frances Brace & Susanna Forbes in the afternoon. It’s the first of its kind and a great chance for people to learn about and discuss the very best beer cities and beer weeks in Britain.
Calling fellow beer communicators – what, if anything, would you like the British Guild of Beer Writers to be doing?
Like, for instance, should we change this logo, or does it still work?
I’ve sent a version of this post by email to all Guild members this morning. Now I’m posting it here to reach people who communicate about beer who may not be members of the Guild.
Last month I was elected Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, succeeding Tim Hampson who steps down after twelve very successful years during which he dragged the Guild into the twenty-first century, overseeing a growth in membership to record levels, a significant improvement in what the Guild offers its members, and a transformation in how fun and successful events such as the annual dinner and summer party are.
I have some big shoes to fill.
We say it an awful lot, but twenty years after starting work on my first book I really believe it: this is the best time there’s ever been to be drinking and writing about beer.
But at the same time, there’s arguably never been a worse time in recent memory for people seeking to make a living from writing. Print titles are struggling, and word rates and book advances are going down. For those of us who spend most of our time doing this, I doubt there’s a single one of us who hasn’t been asked to do what we do for free, or rather, for that precious currency, ‘exposure’. Of course, if you’re doing this as a hobby, maybe that’s OK – it’s easier than ever to get your thoughts, opinions and stories in front of people if you’re not expecting anything in return. And the Guild must represent your views too.
The nature of beer communication is evolving so rapidly I doubt there’s a single one of us who can keep track of the full scope of what we all do and how we do it.
The Guild exists to help its membership communicate about beer. To do that well, your board needs to know what you want from us. We’re working on loads of different projects and over recent years the Guild has greatly expanded the services it offers members.
But there’s more that we could be doing. To work out what that should be, I’d like to make the board a bit more transparent and encourage you to engage with us more.
The board meets approximately once every two months. We’ll post the dates of these meetings well in advance, so that if there’s anything you would like bringing up or would like discussing at a board meeting we can make that happen.
Pretty soon we’ll be setting up a ‘members only’ section. of the Guild website where, if you’re interested, you’ll be able to see key documents such as minutes of board meetings.
We’re also considering having meetings in different parts of the country. This would mean an increase in expenses, but if members outside London would be interested in meeting and chatting to the board where you’re based then that may be a good investment. (If that doesn’t appeal to anyone, we’ll save the money!)
And I’d like to ask you now: if you have any thoughts, ideas, opinions, inspiration, complaints, concerns, or bounteous praise (especially that last one) about the Guild and how the board is running it, please share them with me below. Anything I can deal with myself, I will. Anything that needs taking to a board meeting, I’ll make sure it’s on the agenda.
If you’re based in the UK and you communicate about beer but you’ve decided for whatever reason that you don’t want to be a member of the Guild, I’d love to hear if there’s anything we could be doing that would make you consider (re)joining. Should we be doing more to represent podcasters? Do you want to see more training? Do you want us to organise brewery visits? Could or should we be doing more to improve access to brewers? I’m open to all suggestions.
If you can make it next week, I look forward to sharing a pint with you there.