Tag: Beer

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Golden Pints 2013

I don’t normally join in this annual beer bloggers’ exercise in navel gazing because I’m too busy and I think I can do something similar but better and used to do my own round-up before they came in. But this year I’m not too busy and, more importantly, I can’t think of anything better, and Zak Avery just did a really wonderful post that has urged me to try my own hand, so let’s see how we get on.

Two things happened for me in 2013: one, I turned 45, moving into the 45-54 demographic. I’m middle bloody aged and that came about far too quickly. Second, I celebrated Man Walks into a Pub, my first book, being in print continuously for ten years. In 2003 I was a fresh young voice in beer writing, younger than pretty much every other writer I met. Now I’m an establishment old fart. That’s how quickly it happens and it’s just not fair.

In keeping with this development, I’m becoming curmudgeonly and going retro. This year the headlong rush of craft beer in London started to get a little wearing.

No you’re not, you’re a hipster chancer who needs to learn how to brew a balanced beer. Remember how Picasso had to learn how to paint properly before he could do all those seemingly random paint splashes and make them work? You need to know how to brew boring brown ale well before you’re qualified to mess around with more diverse stuff. And cloudy, yeasty, alcoholic grapefruit juice became the new boring blond beer in 2013.

No. You really haven’t. Go away, drink a Saison Dupont and think about what you just said.

Well what the fuck do you think you’re doing charging people four or five quid for it?

There were brilliant new craft beers this year of course. But for me 2013 was the year I remembered about Belgian Trappist ales, perfectly balanced, crystal clear best bitters, the original American IPAs, and stopped worrying about whether or not I was keeping up to speed with the latest new opening.

Best UK Cask Beer
How should I know? If I drank all 4000 of them I’d be dead. Because of what I said above, the beer that had the biggest impact on me was Truman’s Runner. It took me back to simpler times when I first got into beer, and anyone who dismisses this style as ‘boring brown beer’ needs to figure out whether they actually understand flavour.

Best UK Keg Beer
Camden Hells. The best lager in the world. I was there when it was judged to be so and rarely have I seen an international group of brewers unite around something so completely.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Thornbridge Chiron. The once unimpeachable Jaipur has become a little patchy of late. Chiron simply rules – a slam dunk that pulls me up short whenever I’ve tasted it.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
A popular choice in the GPs, Lagunitas IPA. I was delighted to see it appear in craft beer pubs this year. One of the first US IPAs I ever tasted back in ’04, despite the marketing moving on and becoming bolder and more diverse around it, it still kicks ass.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Rochefort 10. Always.

Best Beer For quiet contemplation
Worthington White Shield still nails it for sitting there and being mindful, always revealing more, always developing.

Best Beer for gabbling with mates and seizing the day
The beer that has evaporated from the glass, pint after pint, while we make plans and put the world to rights, is probably Howling Hops Pale Ale number 2.

Beer I haven’t drunk enough of in 2013
Magic Rock.

Welcome surprise beer style that crept up on us and is likely to be huge next year 
Rye/RyePA/Red ales

Best beer for crying into
The new Fuller’s Imperial Stout. A case of this arrived at my door about ten minutes before the vet who came to put Captain the Celebrity Beer Dog to sleep after ten brilliant years with us. Two bottles of this 10.7% ABV magnificent bruiser gave him his wake.

Best Branding, pump clip or Label
Box Steam’s Brewery’s lovely Evening Star is the only beer I’ve impulsively tweeted a picture of like a giddy fanboy.

Best UK Brewery
Sharps. No really. I’ll never knowingly drink another pint of Doom Bar, but the Connoisseur’s Choice range has been consistently excellent and thought-provoking without being weird for the sake of it. Although I still haven’t yet tried the beer brewed with woodlice. Not weird for the the sake of it at all. 

Adnams were a very close second, making any debates about a supposed distinction between craft brewers and real ale brewers irrelevant.

Best Overseas Brewery
I haven’t visited any overseas breweries this year so on the basis that nothing has come across my radar to change the view I’ve held for years, it’s Brooklyn Brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
I dunno. I’m going with Wild Beer Co. Yes I know they opened in 2012, but I didn’t do the Golden Pints last year so I can include them this year if I want to.

Pub/Bar of the Year
One’s local is a strange thing. There are lots of pubs we go into regularly, but few to which we give that special distinction. It’s a relationship we change less frequently than marriages or bank accounts, but I changed mine this year. My new local, 25 minutes walk from my house, is the Cock Tavern in Hackney.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
Like what I said about Wild Beer Co, the Hops and Glory opened in late 2012, but still feels new and exciting to me. 

Beer Festival of the Year
The only one of the new wave of craft beer festivals I managed to get to this year was IndyManBeerCon. I’m glad I made it – craft beer growing up, showing its longevity as well as its imagination and creativity.

Supermarket of the Year

Independent Retailer of the Year
Geerts Drankenhandel in Oostakker on the outskirts of Ghent is the best beer retailer I’ve ever visited. €1 for Saison Dupont? €10 for Deus 750ml? €1.25 for Rochefort 10? I should coco. €318 euros later the car boot was so full the axle was groaning.

Online Retailer of the Year
Haven’t really used any but there are some interesting new ones coming up – Eebria is very new but looks like it could become really interesting – love their approach.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Pocket Beer Book by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. Because together they’re two of only maybe four or five writers on the planet who could honourably take up the reins that Michael Jackson left. And because it’s the book that told me about Geerts Drankenhandel.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Zak Avery chose Adrian Tierney Jones’ blog for its “non-linear relationship with narrative.” I’ll echo that, with Zak as runner-up for that observation alone.

Best Beer App
Craft Beer London is the only one that seems worth using at the moment.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Simon Bloody Johnson of course! He’d already done enough before his cruelly premature passing in May to walk this one.

Best Brewery Website/Social media
I wish I could say Let There Be Beer, but the execution got off to the worst start imaginable. The intent is sincere, but the execution was botched. They are trying to remedy this now and not giving up, and I’ve been chipping in a bit of advice. Hopefully there’ll be a turnaround next year. But given how rubbish it was in 2013, I think the winner this year goes instead to Brew Dog. I don’t always agree with the beers they brew or the things they say, and inevitably they’re not as fresh as they were with so many people inspired by them now setting up in competition, but James Watt and Co still know how to use social media better than anyone. 

Music and Beer Pairing of the Year
Jimi Hendrix’s take on All Along the Watchtower paired with Chimay Blue. 

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Dinner cooked by Tim Anderson at Dukes Brew & Que back in May. Not all of it successful but all of it audacious and interesting. Gave me the most epic food hangover I’ve had this year, and my best celeb namedrop story ever.

Now – time to try that woodlouse beer…

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Brewer from Huddersfield brings California to rainy London: Magic Rock at Draft House Sunday Sessions

Back in the olden days, all the way back in 2009, I did a review of the year in which I gave my personal ‘Brewer of the Year’ award to Fullers’ John Keeling, and the runner-up to Stuart Ross, then working in a three-barrel plant in the cellar of Sheffield’s Hillsborough Hotel. “Stuart just brews what he feels like brewing, constantly experimenting,” I wrote, “I don’t think he knows how good a brewer he is.”
I think he does know how good he is now. But he’s still brewing the beers he wants to drink.
In 2011, Richard Burhouse, who ran an internet beer mail order company called MyBreweryTap, whisked Stuart away from Hillsborough and enabled him to design and build the brewery his talent deserved. In May of that year, Magic Rock opened for business.
The Magic Rock iconography. Stuart once dressed as the bearded lady on the left. It made me want to put bleach in my eyes.
Both men shared a passion for American West Coast pale ales and IPAs. They branded these beers in cool, quirky, circus-based iconography and gave them names like High Wire and Cannonball. They chimed with the taste of the emerging craft beer scene, and as Stuart points out, benefited hugely from

Brew Dog’s decision to cease production of cask beer. Within months, Magic Rock had a national profile and has been struggling to keep up with demand ever since.

Having known Stuart for so long, I was very proud of him when he turned up for the first of a new series of meet the brewer events at The Draft House in Charlotte Street, in central London, dubbed Sunday Sessions.  
Any resemblance between the characters above and the monumentally hungover guests in the room is purely coincidental. 
‘NoHo’, as I have never called it, is quiet on a Sunday and the pub is usually shut. This meant the whole intimate space could be given over to a ticketed event, with just the occasional speculative punter having to be apologetically shown the door. Max Chater, whose Russell Kane-style quiff has previously brought joy to customers of Brew Dog and the excellent Dean Swift, wanted a relaxed, easy Sunday afternoon feel, and a food matching element to the tasting of the beers. This gave him an excuse to show off various culinary tricks such as truffles with ‘bacon dust’ and hot wings that made the Beer Widow weep and choke quite dramatically – much to everyone’s amusement.
Perhaps the late morning fry-up beforehand had not been a good idea.
The first beer, Circus of Sour (3.5% ABV) was a sour Berlinerweisse, “a very simple style of beer that can be very difficult to make”. The sourness comes from natural lactobacillus on the wheat malt. Normally in brewing this could be killed by the boil, but here the wort is steeped in the kettle for 24 hours to allow it to get to work and sour the malt. You then get a sour beer without using a wild yeast. The resulting beer is thin in a good way, tart and cleansing, vaguely reminiscent of freshly made lemonade. 
The food match didn’t really work for me – the Lancashire Poacher was a beautiful cheese, creamy and nutty, but instead of the beer cutting through the cheese as it should in theory, my palate instead felt like it had been hooked up between two horses trying to gallop in opposite directions.
Clown Juice (7% ABV) is a hoppy Belgian style wheat. Before you know this, the combination of citrus hops and big banana notes from the yeast fool you into thinking you’re tasting some kind of tropical fruit infusion. It was paired with sausage and sauerkraut which squared off against each other, the beer bringing them together much more cohesively – a great pairing. 
High Wire (5.5% ABV) is a ‘San Diego-style’ pale ale according to Stuart. He got to go to San Diego a year ago and tour some of the breweries that inspired him. He was encouraged by how close his beers were to what he tasted over there. 
He says that while Magic Rock still packages most of its beer in cask, beers like this work much better on keg. “There’s a peak to it that only lasts about a day on cask,” he says, “after that, as soon as there’s oxygen in the cask, the hop character starts to decay.”
The wings come out with this one, the heat steadily growing until your palate is aflame. The beer is a cooling balm, and when the fire is out, the hops just sing.  
You can tell he’s a craft brewer. That beard is where he carries his hops.
Cannonball (7.4% ABV) is Stuart’s favourite beer. Very dry, very hoppy, it’s West Coast through and through. Matched with a gently spicy chorizo, the piney, resin hops wrap up each mouthful very nicely, like a present.
Rapture (4.6% ABV) is an amber ale, a style I’d love to see a lot more of. Hops, much as we love them, tend to shine best not when they are the one and only dimension to a beer, but when they have something to work off and spar with. Stuart is feeling the effects by this point. “Er… Red beer. Lots of hops. That’s about it,” he says by way of introduction, before diving for one of Max’s curry-scented Scotch eggs.
The slow pace suits the afternoon perfectly. It seems everyone in the pub has a stinking hangover. By the time the High Wire came out, the pain had receded to be replaced with the ‘Hey, we can DO this!” euphoria that the hair of the dog brings. But the energy is short-lived, and we’re pining for duvets by the time Dark Arts (6% ABV) comes out. 
This muscular stout was aged in a Bruichladdich barrel that had already had a beer aged in it. Perhaps because of where the barrel had been, after a few months the beer started to develop a sour character that shouldn’t have been there. If it’s going to go sour, it should be the right kind of sour, thought Stuart, and he added raspberries and a lambic starter to create a geueze stout. There’s vibrant, fizzy fruit that almost hides the coffee and dark chocolate until the end. The truffles, one with the special ‘bacon dust’, vanish too quickly for any serious thoughts about how good the match is, which is probably all that needs to be said anyway.
Fridges positioned where you can see their contents. Who knew?

There’s a lot to love about Draft House, which somehow makes the craft beer scene feel welcoming to a broader audience. And one thing I love the most is their enthusiasm for third-of-a-pint glasses. The glassware is elegant, stemmed and branded, and feels like a great way to sample these beers. Over four hours, we’ve drunk a total of two pints. It feels like more.

The Sunday Sessions will take place on the last Sunday of every month. The next one, at the end of November, is with Logan Plant from Beavertown. Tickets are £20 a pop and well worth it for a lazy Sunday afternoon that taxes your tastebuds and, occasionally, your brain, and could only be improved by the option of being tucked in for a little nap half way through.

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My new website: www.petebrown.net

After months of talking about it, I’ve finally had my blog revamped as more of a full website with more permanent content.

I’ve always struggled with trying to put stuff on here and not being able to, and setting it up like this means I can take self-promotion stuff out of the main blog feed and put it somewhere else, and make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for.

I’ve also registered the domain petebrown.net, which is easier to remember and redirects to this site.

So there are some new tabs along the top – here’s a brief guide to what’s behind them.

  • What’s new? Keep an eye on the black newsstrip feed, where I’ll talk about new blog posts, events, newly posted articles elsewhere etc.
  • Home – the main blog page. Hello.
  • About Pete – a brief bio, longer description and hi-res press shot – I get asked for these a lot! Now they’re here.
  • Events – I do loads of readings and corporate events. I’m going to keep an ongoing list of events I’ve been booked for, complete with details of tickets etc. There is also some information here about the variety of events I do, from straightforward book readings to experimental beer and music evenings to full dinners, and how to book me for an event.
  • Books – a summary page for all the books I’ve written, in order of publication. Click on each title and you’ll go to a page on that specific book, with more blurb and a bit of background, and some reviews with links to any I’ve managed to find in full online. In time, most of these pages will also have a photo gallery relating to the book.
  • Other writing – the main reason I don’t blog as often as I used to is that I have two or three press deadlines a week. I thought it might be nice to collect links to these so that if I haven’t posted for a while and you are for some reason desperate to see what I’ve been thinking about, you can read more of my stuff here. I’ve only put a fraction of it on here so far but will eventually build it to be comprehensive.
  • Consultancy – very few people can make a living just from writing these days. I do consultancy for drinks manufacturers and their agencies (which I keep entirely separate from my writing) and here’s a bit of a sell page on what you can hire me for
  • Links – I’ve gone for a cleaner design overall. Soon I’ll put a blog roll back up here as well as links to other useful resources.
  • Contact – there’s a form here that sends messages to my personal email.
Sorry to blog about my own blog, but this helps me get my career on a more professional footing, and hopefully helps you find what you want.
The next step of course, now I’m not working on a book for the first time in three years, is to start posting some more interesting content on the blog itself, now I don’t have to clutter it up with posts about events etc. I’ve got so much to write about – some stories going back over a year – so will try to post more often from now on.

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Beer festivals and festival beer: how Carslberg is missing a trick with its music sponsorship

You can have anything you want. So long as you want Tuborg.

When I’m not propping up the bar in a good pub, I like nothing better than jumping up and down and shouting at men with guitars.

I’ve been doing a great deal of the latter this summer at music festivals. The first time I went to Glastonbury in 1987 most people hadn’t heard of it, and for those who had, to suggest going was about the same as suggesting you quit your job, start freebasing crack and buy a mangy dog on a piece of string.

In 1987, the only mention of Glastonbury in the national media was the number of arrests (it was never pointed out that this number was always far lower than in any town of a population size equivalent to the festival over the weekend). Now it gets wall-to-wall coverage, and tickets are impossible to come by. And so we’ve seen a huge proliferation of festivals, with several happening every weekend from June to September. When we look at declining beer sales figures every summer, it’s a shame these events aren’t monitored. The picture might look a little different if we could take into account a hundred thousand people drinking steadily for three days each weekend.

Festivals are now big business, and big brands are all over them. And this led to two very different beer experiences at the festivals I attended this summer.

The Latitude Festival is held just outside Southwold in Suffolk. Recently it was taken over by Festival Republic, who also run Reading, Glastonbury and various other festivals. The organisation has signed a deal with Carlsberg to supply Tuborg lager and Somersby cider to all these festivals. At Latitude, at the ten or so bars around the festival site, Tuborg was the only lager on offer, Somersby the only cider. Hobgoblin was on sale too – for some reason. Whether Carlsberg thought this was a better bet than their own Tetley’s beer, or festival republic signed a separate ale deal with Marston’s, I’m not sure.

I have nothing against Carlsberg really, even if I don’t drink much of it myself.  Tuborg is no better or worse than its mainstream competitors. Personally I don’t like Somersby, but other people do. And while I like the odd pint of Hobgoblin, it’s far too dark and heavy for a sunny festival weekend. After all, it’s achieved huge success by positioning itself as a beer for late Autumn. With these beers as the only choices on offer, anywhere, for four days, I ended up simply not drinking very much beer.

The Green Man Festival in South Wales is very different. It’s still independent. This year there was a real ale tent stocking 99 different Welsh ciders and cask ales. At the other beer tents on the festival site,
the selection was different from the Festival Republic formula, but just as narrow. 
And here we saw a fascinating experiment emerge. 
The queue in the real ale tent was never less than six deep, from midday to midnight. Men and women from eighteen to sixty stood around discussing the list, asking each other for tips. It took at least twenty minutes to get served. The ciders and perrys started running out on the Thursday night, before the festival had even begun properly. By Saturday everything had gone, and they were sending vans around Wales to grab whatever beer and cider they could to fill the empty stillages. 
By contrast, you could walk up to any other bar on site and get served straight away by bored staff, grateful for something to do. Ironically, after championing cask ale for a living and writing so much about interesting beer, I spent a lot of Green Man drinking their generic lager because I didn’t have time to queue for the good stuff between bands.
I’ve been in meetings where brand sponsorship of events is worked out. According to its website, Carlsberg likes to think that “the Tuborg brand is building a youthful, fun image through sponsorship of music and live festivals.” I’m sure the idea is that people will try Tuborg or Somersby at festivals, having no choice to drink anything else, and then grow to like it and order it next time they see it, because they now associate it with good times. 
But I fear it doesn’t work like that. People go to festivals (of any kind) because they want to see and try something different from the norm – whether that be bands, comedians, writers, food or drink. It’s one of the biggest examples of consumers seeking ever-greater variety in all walks of life. To go to a festival and be confronted with a range of drinks that any pub in the country would consider too narrow is anathema to the whole experience, and leaves a lingering bad aftertaste.

Of course as a beer purist it would be easy to say Carlsberg shouldn’t sponsor festivals, festivals shouldn’t be corporate, and everyone should celebrate small and independent. But the real world doesn’t work like that. Green Man retains an overall better atmosphere than any other festival I know because of its independence, but the price of that independence is that there’s no budget to book decent headliners – at least, there wasn’t this year. Thanks in part to Carlsberg’s dosh, I got to see Kraftwerk at Latitude. 
So the bog brands aren’t going to go away. I just wish they’d be a bit cleverer and show more of an understanding of what festival-goers want. Like any other multinational brewer, Carlsberg has a wide range of brands in their portfolio and is always looking at new product development. They have the Jacobsen and Semper Ardens beers, dark lagers and Belgian beers and stouts and wheat beers from around the world. Why not use festivals as a testing ground instead? With this captive audience, why not try new brews under the Tetley’s brand, or see how Carlsberg and Tuborg perform side by side, or see if there’s a UK market for their eastern European bocks or amber lagers?

I’m sure sales figures from the summer’s festivals were great. But as the glorious, independent experiment at Green Man proved, I’m positive they could have been even better.

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

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

Cask ale is outperforming  the total beer market by 6.8%

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

Cask ale continues to grow in awareness and interest 

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

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

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

Cask ale plays a major part in keeping pubs open 

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

Cask ale has outgrown its traditional base 

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

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

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

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

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

Pub beer festivals are increasingly popular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taste and Aroma

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

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

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Alcopop: the drink that dare not speak its name.

Where’s George Orwell when you need him?

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

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

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

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

This is also an alcopop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, too, is an alcopop

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

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

This is an alcopop, also

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

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

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

This is – oh, you get it by now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reasons pubs are closing #453

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So?” He replied.

“Well, it’s undrinkable.”

“But you’ve had some out of it.”

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

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

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

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

“That’ll be £5.”

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

“You’d drunk out of it.”

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a sneak preview clip:

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

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

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

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