Tag: Beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Advertising, Beer, Beer Marketing, Marketing

How Big Lager Lost The Plot And Developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder

As anyone who has read Man Walks into a Pub will know, my entry into the world of beer was via Big Lager.

I loved lager ads when I was growing up as a teenager.   

Later, once I was helping make those ads, I was fascinated by the tribal loyalty people had to their favourite beer brands. If you were a group of mates in your twenties, Carling or Heineken or Carlsberg was like another one of your gang, always there when all the best times happened. In research groups you sometimes do an exercise where you ask people to imagine what brands would be like if they were people at a party. Beer brands were always characterised as confident, friendly guys, witty and popular without being an arse, enjoying a drink but never getting too drunk. This guy was never the pack leader, not necessarily the most popular or pushy guy in the room, but everyone liked him.  

Things started go go wrong around 1997. Advertising regulations grew ever tighter and the funny campaigns of the eighties were no longer possible. And beer started to take itself seriously. It wanted to provide a bit of substance behind the good-natured banter. Fair enough. But the picture started to blur.  

As sales of Big Lager shifted from pubs to supermarkets, price became a more decisive factor than brand image. It was widely believed that all these brands tasted the same. Not true, but if you’re drinking your lager ice-cold straight from the can, you’d have to have a delicate palate indeed to spot the difference in flavour.   

With very similar products, preference had been shaped from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties by who had the best ads, the most likeable personality. (I once looked at thirty years worth of image research, and perceptions of which lager was the most ‘refreshing’ tracked the brand that had the funniest ads, rather than the brand that was banging on about refreshment specifically).   

By the mid-noughties, that differentiation was based on price.   

Incredibly, most shopping is still done by the wife/mother in a family. The person who buys Big Lager is usually not the person who drinks it. As the distinct personalities created by ‘Reassuringly Expensive’, ‘This Bud’s For You’, ‘I Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label’,  ‘Follow The Bear’ and all the rest receded, the lager buyer knew her fella had a set of big brands that were all OK – nothing special but fine, all as good as each other – and she knew she could buy the one that was on the best deal and he’d be happy enough.   Brewers hate offering these deals. Headlines like ‘lager is cheaper than bottled water’, whether they’re true or not, don’t do anyone any favours. Margins shrank to almost nothing. If any big brand could get away with not doing supermarket deals, they’d jump at the chance.  

So it’s completely understandable that in the last few years Big Lager has started trying to build a sense of value and worth back into brands. Beer is cheap and commoditised, so how can we make it special again?   

The strategy of putting some premiumness back into mainstream beer is a good one. The execution of that strategy, however, is starting to look pretty horrible.   

I haven’t worked on any of these brands for a long time, but I know exactly the kind of language that’s being used in meetings. I’d bet my house on the fact that most Big Lager brands have a creative brief in the system that’s about ‘creating differentiation’, ‘making lager special again,’ by ‘making the brand more iconic’ and ‘improving perceptions of premiumness’. I’ll bet they also all have research that shows you don’t do this by banging on about the quality of ingredients and provenance. These might be mildly interesting copy points, but as Kronenbourg has demonstrated recently, it doesn’t wash as your main message to a typical mainstream lager drinker, especially when the substantiation behind your claim is paper-thin.   

So what do you do?   

You create an iconic, premium image. High production values. Brand fame.    And before you know it, you turn your brand from the genial bloke at the party into an arrogant, preening narcissist.   

From Psychology Today: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behaviour, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships… Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g. fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment.”

    You demand to be revered, claiming outrageous titles for yourself with no justification.  

      You start telling your drinkers they’re drinking the product wrong, or using the wrong terminology. You demand they start showing some respect.

    You imagine that you are some kind of treasured prize, rather than a simple, straightforward beer.  

      You start to think you embody and represent something much bigger than yourself. 

    And lose all sense of perspective.

      On the bar, you make your fonts ever bigger – sorry, more ‘iconic’ – until punters can no longer see the people serving them and bar staff have trouble passing the drinks across the bar.   

Who do you think you are helping here? How exactly do you think you are ‘enhancing the consumer experience at the point of purchase?’      

My aim here is not to slag off any individual campaign – some of them have merits, and like I said, I understand where they’re coming from up to a point.   

My aim is to demonstrate the aggregation of so many big brands taking this approach at the same time. Brands demanding to be worshipped and respected, rather than liked and tolerated. The cumulative effect is dreadfully cold and alienating, aloof. This, for a drink that is supposedly all about the good times, about kicking back and relaxing with your mates.    Big Lager has lost its way and forgotten its place. This collective arrogance is not credible, and it’s certainly not appealing. Where’s the warmth gone? Where’s the sociability?   

Premiumness in beer is not about this kind of cock-waving, and it never was. It’s about the premiumness of the experience the beer creates – the experience for which the beer is the catalyst, not the central focus.   

Big Lager should be reclaiming its territory as the catalyst for the perfect occasion with friends. Ale is more for savouring, more introverted. Craft beer is more exploratory, adventurous and product-focused, and cider is more refreshing, but has a limit on how much of it you can drink in a session.   

Yet all these drinks are stealing share from lager. All are looking more interesting, engaging and appealing than that big lager at the moment.    Mainstream lager should be solid, dependable, and reliable, and I’m sorry if that’s not sexy enough for career marketers.   

As the Beer Marketing Awards demonstrated, in some areas – particularly social media and trade marketing, where you actually have to talk to people and deal with them on a one-to-one basis – Big Lager is doing some brilliant stuff.   

But in advertising and branding, it has collectively lost the plot. If you think your brand should be revered and worshipped by its drinkers, you need to get out of beer as soon as possible and into therapy. Or maybe Scientology. They’ll love you guys.

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I am so fucking bored by the beer discourse of 2015

It started off odd, like a beer that tastes OK at first, then has something nagging that attracts your attention, and on the second and third sips, starts to reveal something badly wrong. Suddenly it all got legal. Then, it got nasty.

When I write stuff for the consumer press about beer, I stick to the line – which I believe on good days, when the medication is working – that there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker. More brewers, more styles, more experimentation and inventiveness…

And whatever your views on big brewers trying to muscle in on craft, their intense interest proves that the old paradigm – that drinkers just want cold, fizzy suds and are scared of flavour – has been shattered.

When I write for the consumer press, the narrative is that ‘we’ – the people who read and write about beer, the sad minority who were often ridiculed until a few brief years ago – have won. We’ve done it. We – the brewers, the drinkers, the advocates, the aficionados, the fans, the proselytisers, the people who care – have managed to reposition good beer as something that is worth the average, non-beery person having a look at.

I’ve always said that the discourse around beer is happening in a bubble. Bloggers say shit about brewers and brewers worry about it; brewers say shit about beer and bloggers debate it; people wirrit away about big questions of style and definition; and it all takes place in a bubble outside which most people – most beer drinkers – are completely unaware of the discourse, and wouldn’t be interested in it if they were.

Then, in the last two years, the bubble has expanded. Non-beery mates started talking about what hop varieties they prefer. Old, traditional brewers started experimenting with new techniques and ingredients. My wife’s friends, increasingly, started to order beer by default in the pub rather than wine.

Everything was awesome.

But of course, it wasn’t really. Just like in the film.

Success makes people uneasy. Remove the easily identifiable enemy, and people become unsure what they’re fighting for, or against.

And so as soon as 2014’s Christmas hangover wore off, we turned on each other like a pack of starved, neurotic, Stella-drunk piranhas.

The sexism in beer thing needed to come to a head, but it seems to have had the effect of bringing sexist dickheads out from under their rocks for one final hurrah. Craft beer delegates organise events in strip clubs, while America’s biggest beer brand goes out with labels that fall into an uncomfortably rapey narrative. People insisting that “it’s all a bit of fun” show a distinct lack of humour and launch menacing attacks on those who call out their neanderthal attitudes. (Sorry, that’s an insult to neanderthals.)

Everyone got litigious, suing each other over degrees of similarity and pinhead dances about the difference between a style or description and a trademarked name.

New breweries are criticised for having widespread support when they launch, or for being good at promoting themselves, or just for being new. Older breweries are criticised for being older or bigger, or for being so good at what they do that they become commercially successful and grow.

And the fucking definition of craft beer debate lumbers on like a zombie, eating the brains of talented people who could otherwise be writing something inspirational, or at least interesting.

I count myself highly among the sinners. We’re all guilty.

The tipping point for this rant was the 43rd article I’ve read this week about the lawsuit against Molson Coors for their crime of calling Blue Moon a craft beer. Or maybe it was the 65th thing I’ve read about the dickhead American brewer who thinks it’s cool to peddle sexist shit because it’s all meant to be a laugh. I’m drunk, and I can’t really remember.

But this nasty, unpleasant, navel-gazing, paranoid, defeatist, frightened, hostile discourse is putting me off my beer.

It’s tedious. It’s boring. It’s negative. It’s against all that I love about beer.

Astonishingly, given that I’ve criticised CAMRA so often on this blog, they suddenly sound like a breath of fresh air, having passed motions that start to move the campaign into the twenty-first century. Moaning craft beer twats now sound more like flat-earth CAMRA twats that flat-earth CAMRA twats do.

My new beer book – one of three I’m currently writing – is about hops, barley, yeast and water. It’s returned me to a purer, distilled form of what I love about beer, and why I first started writing about it. It has me visiting hop gardens and maltings, thinking about the miracle of fermentation and attempting to find new ways of articulating what makes beer so special. I love working on it.

And then I keep making the mistake of checking out my Twitter feed or Facebook, and feel like the hop gardens have been ploughed up by orcs, like Sam’s vision of the shire when he peers into Galadriel’s pool.

I often comment on industry stuff, and I apologise for my part in perpetuating these negative, reductive debates. Shit needs to get called out. But can we please all try to remember that it’s beer? It’s just beer. Trivial and by-the-by. Beer, the simple liquid that’s capable of transforming meals, social occasions, friendships, perspectives on reality.

Cold we please have some conversations about beer that reflect what an utterly wonderful place beer is in right now?

Thank you. As you were. I am now going to finish the extra pint of Peroni which I probably didn’t need.

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Announcing my next beer book: “What are you drinking?” No really, do you know?

Following my announcement last night about my new crowdfunded beer book project, we go live today – and here’s the idea I’m working on.

Beer is many things.

It’s often cold, always wet, usually refreshing. It’s democratic, straightforward and accessible, but can also be complex and challenging. It can be blond, brown, red or black, strong or weak, light and spritzy, creamy and zesty, rich and fruity, chocolatey, coffee-like, spicy, piney, citrusy, caramelised, sour, or even salty.

Beer’s unique balance of exciting diversity and easy-going approachability have made it the most widely drunk alcoholic beverage on the planet. Only water and tea are more popular. In the twenty-first century, the global craft beer revolution is spreading beer’s astonishing palate of flavours and styles to people who previously thought it could only be fizzy and tasteless.

But behind all the excitement around the renaissance of the world’s most popular alcoholic drink lies an extraordinary fact: very few beer drinkers have much of an idea of what their beverage is made of.

Do you?

We all know that wine is made by fermenting pressed juice from grapes, and cider comes from doing something similar to apples. But what creates the flavour and texture of beer? Do you know what makes it that colour, or where the alcohol comes from? What creates that inimitable heady rush on the nose or that crisp, dry finish at the back of the throat?

For all its straightforwardness, beer is a complex drink. The typical drinker might mumble vaguely about hops without having any clear idea of what hops are, or they may even talk about ‘chemicals’.

And that’s a shame, because each of the four main ingredients of beer has an incredible story. 


‘What Are You Drinking?’* is a journey into the four main ingredients of beer. The book will tell their stories and uncover the little miracles in malted barley, hops, yeast and water, and how each of these contributes to the massive miracle that is beer. 
Mixing travel writing, nature writing, history and memoir, this book picks up four natural ingredients that are usually only ever discussed in technical brewing manuals and takes them for a spin through time and across continents.
From the lambic breweries of Belgium, where beer is fermented with wild yeasts drawn down from the air around the brewery, to the aquifers below Burton-on-Trent, where the brewing water is rumoured to contain life-giving qualities, this book won’t just describe what each ingredient is; it will tell the full story behind how and why it came to be in beer and why that matters. 
It’s a story that’s aimed at the general reader and curious drinker, but even brewers and hardcore beer fans will find facts and stories they didn’t know, or at least have them presenting in a refreshing new light.
‘What Are You Drinking’ will explain why hops grown in different parts of the world have such dramatically different flavours; it will give an eye-witness account of how the process of malting changes a humble barley grain into so much more, and will explain as much about the behaviour of yeast as you can handle without a degree in biochemistry.
We’ll travel from the surreal madness of drink-sodden hop-blessings in the Czech Republic, to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon, and to the hop harvest in the Yakima Valley in the Pacific North West of the United States. We’ll explore the history of our understanding of fermentation, the lost age of hallucinogenic gruit beers, and the evolution of modern hop varieties that now challenge grapes in terms of how they are discussed and revered.

Along the way, we’ll meet and drink with a cast of characters who reveal the magic of beer, and celebrate the joy of drinking it. And, almost without noticing, we’ll learn the naked truth about the world’s greatest beverage.

The ‘Brewing Elements’ series of books published by the US Brewers’ Association does cover these four ingredients, but they are strictly only for brewers and the most hardcore beer enthusiasts. (The one on water even comes with a health warning discouraging you from reading it unless you from reading it unless you are a trained brewer with at least a high school level of education in chemistry.) This will be the first time a whole book has been written about the components of beer in a way that will be interesting, educational and entertaining to the general reader who enjoys drinking beer, but had no idea how special it was – until now.
The book is now open for pledging at Unbound.co.uk. The book has its own page, where there’s a video from me talking more about the ideas in the book, and an exclusive excerpt from one of the chapters I’ve already written, about a visit to the hop farms of Slovenia where I learned about the effects of terroir on hop aroma, and the effects of salami on the human body and soul. There you’ll also see a range of different pledging options if you’d like to get involved. There’s also a Q&A section where I’ll answer any questions you have.
We need around 750 pledges in total. If you like the sound of this book, if you would like your name printed in the back of the book, and if you’d like a special edition of it that is unique to subscribers and will never be available anywhere else, pledge now. The quicker we meet the target, the sooner it will be published!
If you want to find out more about Unbound and how their hybrid model of crowdfunding and mainstream publishing works, see my previous blog post here
This is going to be an exciting adventure. Hope you’ll hop onboard!
* The title is a work in progress. It might change if we can think of a better one.

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What’s the difference between craft beer snobs and Kopparberg drinkers?

Are we really chasing authenticity, flavour and story? Or just endless novelty?

If you follow North American beer writers on social media (and if not, you should) you might have seen this piece from yesterday, in which formidable beer writer Andy Crouch writes a perfectly balanced profile of Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co, and craft beer’s first billionaire.

Jim, it seems, is pissed off. His brewery has become so big, the hip craft beer joints that arguably wouldn’t be here without his vision will no longer stock his beers. His brand is no longer new, and the beers themselves, according to detractors, are mediocre and middle of the road. And he doesn’t think that’s fair.

While the claim that Boston Beer Co ‘invented’ craft beer can be challenged (the likes of Anchor and Sierra Nevada would have ultimately fathered the current craft beer scene even if Boston hadn’t been there) it is undeniable that BBCo has shaped it more than any other. Jim Koch was a graduate of business school and brand consultancy, and he used the big corporate brewers’ own tactics against them to create a challenger brand that ultimately took craft beer mainstream.

Amid all this brandspeak, what about the beer? Is it really mediocre? Well, not in the eyes of the judges of every single beer competition I’ve ever seen it judged in. It’s always winning prizes.

BBCo’s sin is to brew a wide variety of traditional styles very well, from Bavarian-style lagers to English-style bitters, from wheat beer to Kolsch, from seasonal specialities such as pumpkin ale and Christmas ale to mainstream-style beers that balance flavour and accessibility. Andy’s article says that, reluctantly, Jim has now been forced to brew West Coast-style hop bomb IPAs just like every other craft brewer.

And Jim Koch is not alone. Another piece that went online yesterday features the brewers of Widmer and Deschutes – two more American craft beer pioneers – defending themselves from attacks from the craft beer community. Their crime? Being so good at what they do, they’ve grown substantially to become big businesses.

This all strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic.

Curiosity about flavour is one of the defining characteristics of people who like interesting beer. It’s always great to find something new. But with so much new stuff around, we can forget the old.

It happened for me with Belgian beer. Ten years ago Trappist ales were the centre of my world. And then I discovered North American IPAs, and then their British counterparts. When I found a dusty bottle of Chimay Blue in my cellar a few years ago, I realised I hadn’t had a Belgian beer in years, and tasting it rekindled an old love affair. Now, Saison Dupont, Westmalle Dubbel, Duvel, Orval, Rochefort and St Bernardus are back at my beery core, despite having no new news, no rock star brewers and little distribution in craft beer bars.

Forgetting old favourites in the rush of the new is one thing. But actively deciding that beers or brewers are boring, bland, middle of the road or sell-outs simply because they have been around for a while, or have grown much bigger than they were, is foolish, snobbish and blinkered.

This is why it pisses me off when craft beer neophytes slag off ‘boring brown beer’ and include all classic best bitter in that description. Sure, some traditional beers are boring and bland, just as some single hop IPAs are monotone and grating after the first pint. But there are wonderful examples of both.

Sure, some breweries do compromise on quality, ingredients and brewing time when they grow and the accountants take control. Others stick steadfastly to their principles. And as Gary Fish of Deschutes says in the second piece linked to above, commercial success can improve quality. Though it pains me to say it, Goose Island IPA is actually a better quality beer since it has been brewed with cutting-edge A-B Inbev technology than it was on knackered old microbrewery plant that couldn’t keep up with volume. Budweiser Budvar remains one of the best quality lagers in the world, thanks in no small part to its 90-day lagering. Timothy Taylor Landlord is one of the finest ales on the planet when kept well. All are dismissed by craft beer purists whose definition of the word ‘craft’ has more to do with scale and novelty than with any measure of skill or quality.

Which brings me to Rekorderlig.

I’m sure most fans of the latest craft breweries would run a mile from any suggestion of similarity to drinkers of a glorified alcopop constructed from industrial alcohol spirit, sugar and artificial flavourings. But the success of the faux-cider alcopops is based entirely on novelty: it’s all about which flavour variant is coming next. As soon as they run out of different combinations of fruit syrups, they’ll run out of road.

Let’s not allow the current momentum in beer go the same way. Because at the moment, it looks awfully similar. One brewer creates a single hop citra IPA, and everyone else does. Then that gets boring and it’s all about ‘saisons’ brewed with the contents of the brewer’s spice cupboard, some of which are about as authentically saison as Rekorderlig is cider. Then it’s endless different takes on Berliner-Weisse. And so on. And woe betide anyone who doesn’t follow the path, who instead simply carries on making great beer that was fashionable five years ago, and sells it in greater quantities now than they did then.

Last year, I was deeply impressed by relatively new kids on the block such as Wiper & True, Siren, Tiny Rebel and Orbit. I was also pleased to see the likes of Camden, Beavertown and Waen reach new levels of scale and skill. But I also wondered why Otley, Redemption and Windsor & Eton didn’t seem to be getting the chatter and buzz they once did.

Thornbridge celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. My adoration for what some argue is the ‘original craft brewery’ is no secret. But I’m starting to hear rumblings about them that would sound depressingly familiar to Boston Beer Co, Deschutes, Sierra Nevada and others: they’re too big. They’re blander than they used to be. They’re selling out and going mainstream.

Bollocks.

Craft beer, whatever you want to call it, has gone mainstream. Now, it’s growing up and maturing, and it already has several generations of brewers. Without the pioneers, the rest wouldn’t be here today. And while today’s newbies push the envelope ever further – which is what they should be doing – the bigger, older breweries are getting better at what they do, building bigger names, and providing a bridge between the mainstream and the cutting edge.

If you simply reject their achievements and their vital contemporary role in favour of what’s new this week, whatever that is, you’re not interested in authenticity and story at all. You’re just following the latest fad among your peer group. And that makes you no more discerning, no cooler, no edgier, than the guy pouring his strawberry and lime flavoured ‘cider’ over ice.

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The Beer Marketing Awards – Launch and call for entries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The number of styles being brewed is increasing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alliterative Book Review: Boak and Bailey’s ‘Brew Britannia’

Imagine if the history of rock music was done in the style
of beer writing:
“Unknown Pleasures by
Joy Division was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, between 1st
and 17th April 1979. It is 39 minutes and 24 seconds long and consists
of ten songs, which contain drums, bass, guitar, synthesisers and vocals, with
added special effects.”
There would then be an online debate about whether or not
the use of synthesisers meant that the record was ‘real indie’ or not, segueing
into a huge disagreement about whether the album should best be described as
‘indie’ or ‘goth’, or perhaps neither as, being completely original and
ground-breaking, it was in fact ‘not to style’.
I thought about this when reading How Soon is Now? – a
definitive history of indie music by Richard King. Read a biography of a band,
or a sweeping review such as King’s that seeks to contextualise and explain a
musical movement, and it’s not about what instruments they played or how big
the studio was: it’s about the people, how they were influenced previous bands,
other artistic forms or just what was in their air at the time, and how music
made them and their fans feel.
‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone wrote a history of
craft/good beer following the conventions of music journalism rather than beer
writing?’ I thought. ‘Not writing so much about cascade hops and the structure
of the industry, but more broadly about the trends and most of all the people,
the decisions and sacrifices they made, the chances they took, the ideas and
creativity that drove them. That would be a good book. I should give that a go.”
Of course, I never did. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey did it
instead. Sort of.
Boak and Bailey are two of my favourite beer bloggers. I
love their combination of obvious passion and clear reason. Occasionally their blog
posts can be a little too po-faced and navel-gazing, but their air of slight
detachment means they usually end up calling things right much more often than
most other bloggers, this writer included.
Their first book, Brew Britannia (Aurum Press, £12.99) seeks
to explain ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ from the 1960s to the present
day. While I’d quibble over the adjective ‘strange’ (interest in beer has
mirrored – and mostly followed – a similar rediscovery of flavour, tradition
and experimentation across many food and drink categories) it’s a smart
approach. Many beer history books (my own included) take the long view and deal only briefly
with the modern period. Whereas that idea of writing a history of craft beer
would probably have started around the early 2000s, would have been much too ‘of its
time’ and would have dated badly.
What we have here instead is a story of beer gradually
becoming something worth caring about, something to be appreciated – at first
by retired World War Two officers looking for an excuse for a piss-up, through
the foundation of CAMRA to the discovery of new ideas in beer, the growth of
the brewpub and the microbrewery, and finally, yes, the modern craft beer
phenomenon, in all its wonderful, frustrating, murky glory.
Anyone who follows B&B’s conjoined Twitter account will
be aware of how many months of painstaking research went into this book. It
seems as though they’ve read every old issue of What’s Brewing, tracked down every living person who has ever
brewed beer on a small scale in the last fifty years, as well as the surviving families
of those who are no longer with us, and then cross-referenced everything,
caveating any claim they were not able to wholly substantiate. In an age where
some observers obsess over tiny details rather than seeing the big picture, the
working here is meticulous.
But the big picture is there too. I knew that in its early
days, CAMRA had a fresher approach than the strict orthodoxy that binds it
today. But I had no idea that the founders didn’t even know what cask beer was
until the campaign had all ready formed with a semi-serious purpose to
revitalise ‘ale’, a word chosen simply because ‘it seemed solidly Northern and
down to earth – less pretentious… than beer’.
And modern ideas of ‘craft’ have much earlier roots than I
ever realised. I was aware that Sean Franklin, was using cascade hops at Rooster’s last
century, but had no idea that his craft – and that of others – went back to the
early eighties. Or that the current arguments between big brewers and
microbrewers have been raging in one form or another since the mid-1970s.
Sometimes the formal tone becomes a little stilted – the
insistence on putting anything from ‘real ale’ and ‘world beer’ to ‘greasy
spoon’, ‘foodie’ and even ‘tasting’ in ‘inverted commas’ often jars and
occasionally evokes those high court judges who need to ask someone to explain
what this ‘rap music’ is that the ‘youngsters’ are listening to.
But on the whole, the approach works. You need a steady hand
on the tiller when trying to unpick the various internecine squabbles and
Judean People’s Popular Front posturings of CAMRA, and give an accurate record
of the campaigns evolution. You need someone who doesn’t use words and phrases
like ‘squabbles’ and ‘Judean People’s Popular Front’. I’m sure there will be
some who feel their particular point of view on the use of gas dispense or
BrewDog’s Portman Group battles haven’t been given enough room, but no one on any side of the debate can
go so far as to be upset by such a clear-eyed and dispassionate account of
controversial and often confusing subjects.
What stops the detachment becoming boring is the
all-important contextualisation. Having just learned about Ian Nairn and hisideas of ‘Subtopia’ though an event at our recent literary festival, it was
fascinating to see how his ideas extended to beer – a passion that became his
eventual undoing. We learn that it was an appreciation of wine that eventually
led Sean Franklin to brew with cascade hops, that the Firkin chain – which had
an incredible influence before it was bought and cheapened into oblivion – was
originally a product of one man’s intuition and creativity. And that possibly
the most brilliant craft brewer you’ve never heard of (if you’re under fifty)
is now revolutionising the principles of banana growing – in Ireland.
Some writers who were quicker than me at reading and
reviewing this book have commented that it goes downhill at the end – that the
account of the last decade or so feels a little rushed and scrappy. Zak
suggested it’s perhaps too soon to analyse what’s just happened with the same
insight as things that happened twenty or thirty years ago. The last few
chapters do read more like blog posts from the end of 2013 rather than a
complete account of trends. But that’s OK too: the story is open-ended. It
hasn’t finished yet. Interestingly, many of my beloved music books – including
How Soon is Now – neatly avoid this problem by telling the story from one date
to another, flagging up an artificial cut-off point after which the
protagonists don’t necessarily live happily ever after, and the struggle
continues. I really don’t think that was an option here for a book that was
published as the story it tells is yet to reach its dramatic peak. 
If I had written my version of this story it would have been bloodier and more chaotic than this one: more evangelical, more
critical, more involved. I’d have made a lot more of the indie music analogy, and
gone Big Picture to the point of wilful digression.
Which is why I’m glad Boak and Bailey got there first and
did it their way. We need this account, in this form, if we are to fully
understand where beer is today, how it got here, and from there, to start to
speculate about where it might go next.
While they were pitching this book to publishers, Boak and
Bailey wrote a review of Shakespeare’s Local in which they kindly said I was a ‘writer
[publishers] think has really nailed it in commercial terms’ when it comes to
beer books. Here I can return the compliment by saying this is a book that I
wish I had written, but was beaten to it by people who have done a better job than I would have.                                                               

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Beer and cider and music and books and food in North London

I don’t often do sponsor-heavy sales blurby posts, but this is is a special exception each year. Apologies if you can’t make it to North London next weekend…

It’s nearly here – the fifth Stoke Newington Literary Festival takes place all around N16 from 6th to 8th June – that’s in just over a week!

The festival is the creation of my wife Liz, and is organised by her, me, and a bunch of die-hard volunteers. It’s a charitable venture that aims to improve literacy in the Borough of Hackney. More than that, it’s about everyone enjoying ideas, debate, comedy, and brilliant words of all kinds. Last year Irvine Welsh – one of our headliners – described it as “The real London LitFest,”and Time Out said it’s “Like Hay-on-Wye, but in Hackney.”

With me involved, there’s always a strong boozy element – so here are the bits that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

Drinks Sponsors
We receive no formal funding for the festival, and we keep ticket prices lower than anywhere else we know to encourage the widest possible access. The support I blag from friends in the drinks industry to run bars at events is therefore what makes the festival viable. If you come, every beer or cider you buy helps a small child to read! Budweiser Budvar are our main sponsor, and last year they introduced the Budvar Marquee – a fantastic, informal bar space where we have a rolling, loose programme of authors, poets, comedians DJs and musicians chatting away while you enjoy a quality pint.

Local favourites the Bikini Beach Band are back to do another set:

and Phill Jupitus will be back with his mate poet Tim Wells to spin some platters that matter and do a bit of dad dancing for your edification. 
The marquee is outside Stoke Newington Town Hall and you don’t need a ticket for any of the festival events to soak up the buzz and free events. (You do have to pay for the booze though.)
Our other key drinks sponsors are Aspall, who very kindly provide us with top quality cider, and local brewer Redemption who have been with us from the start, supplying a specially brewed festival cask ale that’s light, hoppy, and perfect for what will hopefully be a lovely summer weekend. Talking of which… 

Name the Festival Beer!
Andy from Redemption is routinely declared the nicest man in brewing. And not just by us.

Each year he brews a special festival cask ale and donates it to us, and since year two of the festival we’ve run a competition to name the festival beer. It’s usually a dreadful pun on one of the acts or strands in the festival. Edgar Allen Poe lived in Stoke Newington, and the year we commemorated this we went for ‘Cask of the Red Death’. When Alexei Sayle headlined, ‘Alexei’s Ale’ was an obvious winner.

Get the idea?

OK, this year’s programme is more diverse and eclectic than ever before, but it does have a strong music strand running through it. Our closing headliner is Ray Davies. Yes, the real Ray Davies out of the Kinks! If you can think of a beery pun based around Waterloo Sunset, You Really Got Me, All Day And All The Night or any other of the songs this man wrote that changed the face of British music, let us know. We’ve also got Thurston Moore out of Sonic Youth, because he now lives locally (and drinks Guinness or locally brewed hoppy pale ales). We’ve got Viv Albertine out of The Slits. We’ve got Ben Watt out of Everything But The Girl. All talking about books about music. Or check out the rest of the programme and see if anyone else inspires. It doesn’t have to be a pun. It just usually turns out that way.

The winner gets free beers and entry to an event of their choice at the festival. Or just the satisfaction of knowing hundreds of people will be saying your pun as a bar call if you can’t make it along. Send entries to info@stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com, marked ‘beer names’.

Beer and Music Matching – Sunday 8th, 7pm

I’ve been doing a lot about this recently, and my first event was at this festival two years ago. Now it’s back, bigger and better, with added neuroscience and real time experiments. Discover how your senses overlap and often deceive you. Learn how memory ‘primes’ your appreciation of flavour. And experience the Pavlovian brilliance of Duvel vs. the Pixies. Tickets available here, and the price includes a flight of outstanding beers. The event is on just before Ray Davies starts, in the venue just around the corner from his. Trust me, we will be finishing on time so I can get to see Ray too.

The Craft Cider Revolution – Saturday 7th, 4pm
As part of our food and drink strand, last year I hosted a panel discussion with local brewers. This year I thought I’d do the same with cider – but are there any local cider makers? Well, yes – London Glider make cider with apples foraged inside London – there are more of those than you thought, and the resulting cider is excellent. They’ll be joining me on stage along with the somewhat less local Andy Hallett of Hallet’s Cider, who will be bringing some of his brilliant ciders up from South Wales to try. (If you live locally but can’t make this event, don’t miss Andy’s Meet The Cider Maker this Saturday, May 31st at the Jolly Butchers). I’ll have some special stuff from our sponsors Aspall too. Tickets available here, and the price includes enough cider samples to give you a nice afternoon buzz.

The food and drink venue also has the legendary Claudia Roden being interviewed by Valentine Warner, Julian Baggini talking about the philosophy of food and drink, and the brilliant Gastrosalon – food confessions chaired by Radio 4’s Rachel McCormack.

It’s going to be our best festival yet. Please join us if you can.