Tag: Beer

| Uncategorised

Bruce Dickinson: lead singer of Iron Maiden, pilot, and now brewer – guess which bit I interviewed him about?

I’ve just been on tour with Iron Maiden.

When I say ‘tour’ I mean ‘brewery tour’, and when I say ‘Iron Maiden’ I mean the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson.

But still.

When I was at school in South Yorkshire in the early eighties, music was tribal. As my generation reached musical awareness at roughly the same time as puberty it was simple: you were either a mod or a rocker. A fishtail parker with targets and badges or a denim jacket with sewn on patches.

I was a Mod – or at least, I imagined I was. I graffitied my desk in ‘O’ Level German with the logos of The Jam and The Specials. The following week my slogans had been defaced and shouted down by Motörhead and Black Sabbath logos. This graffiti war escalated until it covered the entire desk. At one stage I lost the moral high ground by defacing the inscription “Stairway to Heaven” with the words “are shit” underneath. It was years before I learned it was the title of a somewhat famous song and not the name of a band.

To this day I have never willingly listened to anything ‘heavy’, even though metal legends Saxon were from Barnsley and lead singer Biff Byford’s daughter was in the year below me at school. The first album I ever bought was this one:

Madness were associated with the Mod movement because of their early involvement with the 2-Tone label. And weirdly, and rather wonderfully, I’m going to be helping them launch their own beer next week.

But weeks before that, Stockport brewer Robinson’s gave me the exclusive beer trade interview with their latest collaborator, on the project that has turned very quickly into the most successful beer launch they’ve ever had:

A few weeks before the official launch of Trooper, I’m invited to Maiden’s press office. It’s a Friday afternoon and Dickinson, an affable and absurdly fit and healthy-looking bloke in his early fifties, is fussing about getting some bottles of Trooper cold enough for us to try. Every ten minutes he interrupts his flow to ask his friend and publicist, Iain Macauley, to check the fridge.

Like Madness, Maiden today are no eighties nostalgia circuit band: they’re selling more records than ever, and writing new material for every tour. It surprises me in my pre-interview research to discover an ethic of discipline and professionalism that would be impressive in any industry, let alone the supposedly sex and drugs-fuelled world of hard rock. And the polymath Dickinson takes this perfectionist approach with everything he turns his hand to.

“That’s something that was drummed into me by my Dad,” he says, after deciding his beer is not yet the perfect temperature and must be returned to the fridge. “He taught me that it doesn’t matter what you do – if you’re a road sweeper, be a good road sweeper. Take pride in who you are and what you are, whatever you are. That’s a good starting point. If you’re just in it to make a fast buck, you demean yourself at the same time as being fairly scornful of the rest of the human race.”

When Dickinson took up sword fencing, he ended up representing Great Britain in the sport. After qualifying as a pilot, he not only flies the band’s jet while on tour; he pilots commercial flights in his down time. And when he decided to brew a beer, he was very particular about the type of beer it had to be.

“I live in Chiswick, 600 yards from the Fuller’s brewery, and I’m an ESB drinker,” he says. “It’s a lovely beer, but you can only have a couple of pints. On the other hand, 3.5% beers don’t cut the mustard for me. I wanted a beer that’s full-flavoured and punches above its alcoholic weight.”

To test how serious Dickinson was, Robinsons put him through his paces with a blind taste test – “The first time I’ve had to audition in twenty years!” as Dickson puts it.

“We wanted to work with someone who was genuinely passionate about beer,” says Robinson’s head brewer Martyn Weeks. “So we set up this tasting, including some of his favourites. Out of ten beers he was actually able to name six of them, including the ones he said were his favourites, and he got them all right! He really took his time to work out a recipe he liked. He spent ages in the hop room picking out his favourite hops. The result is a genuine collaboration. Bruce likes his southern English, full-flavoured beers, and Trooper has turned out unlike any other beer we brew.”

Dickinson is also delighted with the result. “It punches above its weight in terms of flavour but sits just the right side of brain damage,” he says, “Everyone can have a good session and we can all go away friends.”

This easygoing sessionability has proved surprisingly subtle for commentators who were expecting more of a punch after being by charged by a demented zombie on the pump clip. It may lead to accusations of blandness from some. But the whole point of this beer is that it is a genuine passion rather than a gimmick constructed by marketers aimed at a specific group of fans. I mean, if it were that, wouldn’t you expect a metal band to maybe brew a lager instead, like Lemmy did?

“I don’t drink mainstream standard lager,” says Dickinson. “If I was thirsty in a pub with no real ale I’d rather have a lime and soda. But anyway, we haven’t positioned Trooper as a beer from a metal band – it’s a brand of beer brewed by Robinsons that we’ve developed with them. They’ve had six generations of brewers there, they’ve got some highly respected beers, and what they don’t want is a bunch of rock stars coming up and duffing up their reputation, because they’re still going to be there in another two or three generations.”

So we get it – Dickinson is a real ale fan. As well as Fuller’s ESB, he namechecks Doom Bar and Wadworth 6X as two of his favourite beers (and picked them out successfully in the blind taste test). It would be easy to infer from this choice that Dickinson knows only safe, familiar, established real ale brands – easy, but completely wrong.

“I’m a big Belgian beer fan as well,” he says, “I love the Trappist beers – they have such a great tradition over there. Their beers are unique as well, like our real ales. I just hate bland beers. I can’t stand Budweiser. They’re the Great Satan, and they’re trying to shut down one of my favourite Czech breweries. There’s something I instinctively dislike about Budweiser. I won’t have it in the dressing room when we’re touring.”

Has he had a chance to try American microbrews then?

He hesitates, before replying, “They get it almost right. It’s not bad beer necessarily, but it’s trying too hard. The hops are a bit too much. You have half a pint and you’re not sure about having another one – they don’t seem to have got the thing about sitting down and enjoying a beer. I want to be able have a beer at lunchtime and feel OK in the afternoon.”

So Dickinson’s firm preference for trad English real ale is an informed choice. And it’s a liking that goes hand-in-hand with that symbiotic partner to beer, the Great British Pub.

“I’m quite traditional in terms of pubs – always have been. Even as a kid, I always liked the idea of a country pub in the city, a haven from racket and noise and jukeboxes and people being loud and boorish. A sanctuary where you can just sit and talk.”

Can he still find such sanctuary now he’s a world-famous rock god?

“Absolutely! I mean, it varies geographically. Brazil? Forget it. But I’ve got my local pub in Chiswick and I go there all the time. Sometimes metal fans ask for my autograph but they’re always so polite!”

Like so many bands, Iron Maiden started playing together in pubs. Is the pub still important to bands on the way up?

“My son is in a band now and the scene is exactly the same as it always has been – people want to get together to do some gigs with their mates somewhere. The number of places they can do that has been decimated by endless pressure from the government. It’s fine if you want to have three hundred football hooligans watching telly, but if you have even a folk group in corner, suddenly it’s a massive health and safety issue, you need a special licence and all that nonsense. It’s done a massive amount of damage to the idea of live music in pubs, which is taking ages to recover. And the world is full of NIMBies now. As soon as you open a pub door and there’s a bit of noise coming out – especially if it’s live music – people complain. There needs to be a concerted effort to get live music back in pubs.”

He becomes increasingly passionate as he warms to his subject.

“And then there’s the bouncers and doormen who look like the anti-terrorist squad standing outside pubs. It’s a pub! We should all be friends here. I find it intimidating and loathsome to be honest. Beer and pubs are the centres of out communities and those communities are being decimated. We need to do more to protect this great British institution.”

A few weeks later we meet again at the official launch of Trooper in Robinsons’ brand new brewery visitors’ centre.

Bruce pulls the first pint of Trooper on cask, and I’m surprised to find it much better than the bottle, because the bottle wasn’t bad. The cask is hoppier, with a building dryness that makes it naggingly drinkable, a pint that seems to evaporate from the glass.

Bruce insists on conducting the collected journalists, trade people and liggers around the new brewery himself. He talks confidently and knowledgeably about the history of the brewery and the intricacies of brewing process, without notes.

“He’s done this tour once, with me,” whispers John Robinson, the brewery’s brand manager, as we stand by the copper. “We rushed him round in twenty minutes and look at him – he knows it off by heart.”

Dickinson repeatedly says “we” when referring to Robinsons. By the end of the tour, I’m convinced he’s angling for a permanent job. Forget the adulation of fans across South America: I think he’d rather be mashing in every morning in Stockport.

Would he like to do another brew?

“One of the most enjoyable things about beer is that you can never know it all,” he replies. “There’s always more to learn, always the unknowable to throw a spanner in the works. It’s like flying – it’s not an exact process. I’m fascinated by it. But I want to spend several months with this one before embarking on another. It’s like writing songs – you build up a creative head of steam, and all of a sudden there’s a big splurge. You’ve got to feel inspired by something to do it. My inspiration for Trooper was just to have a beer that gave me the same feeling as when I discovered the beers I love. The moment when you taste it for the first time and it’s, ‘Oh. Oh wow. That’s nice’. I’d like Trooper to be like that, to become an old faithful.”

Back at the end of our interview weeks before, as I pack up my tape recorder and notebook, Dickinson mentions offhand that for his next trick, he’d like to get some decent beer onto planes. I mention one or two practical difficulties with this and he fixes me with a cold stare. And there we are for another twenty minutes, trying to solve the problem.

I’d sort of half-expected a chat about beer with someone going through the motions on the latest example of an increasingly vogueish marketing stunt between brewers and musicians. Instead, despite the protests of my inner Mod, I’ve enjoyed spending time with one of the most passionate beer enthusiasts I’ve ever met.


A much briefer version of this piece appeared originally in this week’s edition of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser.

| Uncategorised

Too much confusion on all sides about problem drinking

If I said ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ to you, what would come to mind?

For me, it would be malt whisky – my favourite high strength alcoholic drink. It’s the perfect end to a special evening. If I have too much of it, it’s the thing that gives me a hangover like nothing else, so I keep it at arm’s length, a rare treat – after all, it’s at least 40% ABV. You have to treat stuff like that with respect.

But for legislators on alcohol, a ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ is nowhere near that high – to them, high strength alcohol is 6-7%. In fact, they’d like it defined as anything over 5.6% ABV.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the ongoing debate about the impact of alcohol on Britain’s health, this might strike you as bizarre and useless because it classes almost all alcoholic drinks as ‘high strength alcoholic drinks’ – ALL spirits, ALL wines, fortified wines and sherries, liqueurs, and quite a few beers and ciders. To legislate against all of those is tantamount to total prohibition.

But then, those seeking to tackle problem drinking seem to have an entirely different definition of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’. Apparently, wines that average 13.5% ABV, spirits that average 40% ABV, sherries that average 17% ABV etc. are not high strength at all. But a beer of 7%ABV is.

I just did a Google picture search using the phrase ‘high strength alcohol’ to illustrate the absurdity of this position. But it seems it’s me that’s being absurd by believing that 7 is a lower number than 13 or 40. Here are the first product images that search returns:

Ah yes, of course. Once again, if we’re talking about alcohol in the context of it being a problem, it must be beer or cider.

I started thinking about this because of a report in The Grocer magazine the other week which said that local authorities are seeking voluntary bans on ‘high strength alcohol’ – a story that was illustrated by the final picture above. After plans to introduce a minimum unit price were dropped, more than twenty towns and cities in England have introduced bans on what they and The Grocer and the rest of the media specifically refer to as ‘high strength alcohol’ in their attempts to reduce problem drinking.

I don’t oppose attempt to curb problem street drinking. And I agree that for the most part (but not exclusively) the drink of choice of the problem street drinker is what we commonly refer to as ‘super strength’ lager or cider. But this laziness with terms – making high strength beer and high strength alcohol synonymous – highlights just how little anyone understands alcohol and how careless we are with legislating it.

If a wine were 7% alcohol, legally it wouldn’t be allowed to be called wine – it would be too weak. But this same alcohol level in beer is considered dangerous. This is why any beer over 7% must already pay extra duty, thanks to a clumsy measure that makes no distinction between a strong, flavourful craft beer that costs nearly a pound per unit of alcohol and something vile like White Lightning that currently retails at an average of 25p per unit.

Measures like this denigrate the overall image of beer and cider and muddy our understanding of relative strengths. If they referred to ‘high strength beer and cider’, then we’d only have the problem of trying to distinguish between the cheap stuff that’s consumed purely for it’s intoxicating effect, and the higher strength stuff that stretches the boundaries of what quality beer can be. But when drinks of 7% are banned while drinks of 13-17% are considered exempt, we have a much bigger problem, not least of which is that hardcore street drinkers will simply move on to cheap sherry, which is more than double the strength of what they’ve just been told they can’t drink.

As the above pictures demonstrate, if ‘high strength alcohol’ is commonly only understood to apply to super strength beer and cider, then as well as being patently absurd it also continues to make beer and cider the scapegoats for problem drinking, when as anyone who has ever been to a pub or known a non-street drinking alcoholic knows, most problem drinkers favour spirits, and wine is playing its part too.

So what can we do?

Well, brewers and cider makers could always stop making the nasty drinks that are causing the problem in the first place.

The manufacturers of super strength beer and cider offer defences such as ‘We should focus on the problem drinker, not the drink’ and ‘They’d just move onto something else’. I agree with both these points – in fact I just used the last one two paragraphs ago. They are true, valid arguments. But that doesn’t excuse the manufacturers of such products.

It’s simple: if anyone who makes revolting crap like this

can look me in the eye with hand on heart and say that their main target audience is NOT the problem drinker looking for the biggest bang for their buck, I’d love to hear it. If you have any evidence that moderate drinkers include these products within their repertoire and drink them responsibly in small measures, I’d love to see it.

Since I left my full-time advertising job, on my occasional dabbles into marketing it’s becoming clear to me that marketers do not see their ‘consumers’ as real people. When you reduce everything to a PowerPoint presentation of pie charts and graphs and brand essence models full of euphemisms and jargon, this insulates you from the fact that your C2DE male 35-54 budget-conscious consumer is an alcoholic who you are helping to kill.

And when manufacturers and retailers look to legal action to overturn voluntary bans on their products so they can carry on helping kill people – well, then you’ve dropped any pretence of being anything other than nasty, amoral bastards with no sense of the social consequences of your actions – a purely sociopathic organisation.

The manufacturers of these products profit from the alcoholism of troubled people. And while they’re doing so, they damage the image of beer and cider generally, and quality high strength beers and ciders in particular.

So problem drinkers would move onto other products? Fine, it would no longer be beer’s problem. And more importantly, we would start to think of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’ in a way that has some bearing on reality.

We should focus on the drinker rather than the drink? Absolutely we should. But that does not mean we should happily carry on selling these concoctions to them while we wait patiently for local authorities and government to figure that out.

It’s not just black and white. Except when this entire issue is explored in one of Viz magazine’s truest characters – then it’s black and white.

| Uncategorised

Beer and Booze at Stoke Newington Literary Festival 2013

When I’m busy writing a book my wife goes beyond the call of duty by looking after me, talking me down when I’m stressed, bringing me regular cups of tea and feeding me, telling me I’m a good writer when I am, and telling me I’ve written something awful on the far more frequent occasions when I’ve done that instead.

She’s brilliant.

And then, for the last four years, every May/June she effectively goes, “Right, now it’s my turn.”

The first full weekend in June is the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, widely hailed now as one of the best small scale book/reading festivals in the UK. This is her brainchild, and she organises it entirely voluntarily, for no fee and (so far) with no funding. A team of volunteers work their butts off to make it happen and it gets better every year, to the point where last year it looked to the outside world like it was professionally run.

I help out, doing the marketing and overseeing the festival bars. So if you’re anywhere around London between 3rd and 9th June, there’s no better place to come and do a bit of beer and brainfood matching.

The full programme is available to download here, and the main festival website with up to the minute details is at www.stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com.

This year we’ve got our best line-up yet. Headliners include Irvine Welsh being interviewed by John Niven (almost sold out), Thurston Moore and friends playing an intimate local gig (sold out), Turkey’s most successful female author Elif Shafak, bookish comedians John Hegley and Robin Ince, Danny Baker chatting to Danny Kelly, Caitlin Moran talking to Suzanne Moore (sold out) and lots of politics, sci-fi, hot new fiction, music – and food and drink.

But never mind all that – on Friday 7th I’m going to be interviewing the fabulous Cleo Rocos!

The legendary Kenny Everett Show muse is now President of the Tequila Society, has her own tequila brand Aqua Riva, and has written a book called The Power of Positive Drinking. OK so she hardly mentions beer in it. But she does talk about the virtues of many other drinks, and will be telling stories about taking Princes Diana out drinking with Freddie Mercury, so that’s good enough for me.

On Saturday 8th I’m hosting various London brewers and beer writer Will Hawkes at an event called London’s Brewing, which you may be surprised to hear is an overview of the craft beer explosion in the capital over the last three or four years.

Will is the author of Craft Beer London, and we’ll be joined onstage by brewers from Sambrooks, Five Points, Beavertown and Pressure Drop, who will be bringing along their beers for everyone to taste while we muse over how brilliant London’s brewing scene is just now, and where it might go next.

Later that night, I’ll be happy to be a few drinks to the good as I rather trepidatiously become a contestant in Literary Death Match.

This irreverently bookish evening originated in the US, where it is now being made into a TV pilot, and has now gone global. It’s gaining an increasing reputation over here as a refreshing antidote for anyone who’s ever been bored of hearing an author droning on about form their book. Four authors compete for the love and affection of the audience and the judges, who score them on content, delivery, and ‘intangibles’. The two heat winners then go head to head in a a final that’s basically whatever the hosts can think of to stop the authors talking and make them look a little foolish.

If I survive that, I’ll be joining two excellent writers onstage on Sunday 9th to discuss London by Bridge, Tube and Pub.

At the same time as I was writing Shakespeare’s Local (which is released in paperback on 6th June) a neighbouring author, Travis Elborough, was crafting a book about the famous yarn of London Bridge being bought by an American millionaire and shipped to the States.

Often misunderstood and misquoted, the truth is often stranger than any exaggeration. Meanwhile, Mark Mason decided it would be a good idea to visit every station on the London Underground, not by taking the tube between them, but by tracing the lines above ground. 

It gave him a unique psychogeography of the city, and the three of us will be chatting to each other about the different ways London reveals itself, and competing to be the first to use words such as ‘psychogeography’.

When I’m not onstage I’ll probably be helping to run the bars. Every year a range of brewers and drinks makers kindly donate stock that we then sell. With no other arts or commercial funding of any description, this makes the festival financially viable and allows us to keep ticket prices lower than most other literary festivals.

One of our most enduring sponsors has been Budweiser Budvar, and for the first time this year they are sponsoring a marquee just outside Stoke Newington Town Hall, which will be the festival hub and home to various speakers, comedians and musicians throughout the main festival weekend. Budvar will also be available in the bars in our three main venues: the Town Hall itself, the Library Gallery, and Abney Hall.

It will be joined by a special festival beer from Tottenham’s Redemption Brewery, thanks to Andy Moffat, the nicest man in the world, as well as great ciders from Aspall, more beer (and award-wining English fizz) from Chapel Down and Curious Brew, and a smattering of Brew Dog beers. And some other wine and stuff.

We’ve found over the last few years that great writing is best appreciated and new ideas best communicated with a drink in hand. The festival ups the ante on all fronts this year – see you there.

| Uncategorised

Get dissolute this weekend!

Collaboration brews with beer writers, bloggers and other non-brewers are commonplace now and get a mixed reception. Some see these beers as exciting novelties, while others feel it’s nothing but ego-stroking or half-arsed marketing. I guess it depends on whether or not the resulting beer is any good, and whether that beer would have happened anyway without the collaboration. But I’m proud of all the beers I’ve helped co-create, and am a big fan of those by other writers too.

Whatever your views, Brains Brewery have taken the whole idea of collaboration/guest brewing to another level. Brains is Wales’ largest brewer by some distance, and has a sizeable tied pub estate. Most of their beers are mainstream and uncomplicated, because that’s what most drinkers in their pubs want. But last year they decided to open a twenty barrel plant in the heart of the main brewery to produce craft beers, often in association with various guests. 2012 was all about IPAs, and two resulting collaborative brews have gone into national supermarket distribution.

This year it’s all about European beer styles. I was one of the last people they approached who responded – obviously Saisons and other currently fashionable varieties were bagsied first by other people. So what could I brew?

I thought back to my first visit to Belgium, about ten years ago. I was on my own, knew very little about beer styles and was wide open and impressionable. (It’s great to be a ‘beer expert’ now, whatever that is, but I do miss the excitement of discovery of those early days.) I had my copy of Good Beer Guide to Belgium, in which I’d starred some interesting-sounding bars, and worked my way through them trying beers I’d never heard of before.

In the middle of the first afternoon I found myself with my first ever Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist beer at 7%ABV. Like many people who meet such beers for the first time, I was intimidated by it. But a few days before that I’d done my first ever beer tasting course, courtesy of the Beer Academy, and I sniffed and swirled and thought and swallowed and savoured, and that was probably the moment when my interest in the society, culture and history of beer was joined by a genuine passion and enthusiasm for ingredients and style, the essence of the thing itself. It was rich and chocolatey with a slight hint of sherry and spoke to me of layers of depth still waiting to be revealed.

It took me an hour to drink it, and while I was doing so I looked out of the bar window and saw a coach load of Japanese nuns pull up outside, closely followed by two men in electric wheelchairs racing down the middle of the cobbled street, one with a dwarf hanging off the back, and then a man in a karate suit came up the street from the opposite direction, doing his moves, and I fell in love with Belgium and all its surreal weirdness both inside and outside the beer glass.

In the first few years after I came back from that first Belgian trip I kept beers like Westmalle Dubbel, Westmalle Tripel, Orval and Chimay Blue as permanent mainstays in my cellar. But as the whole craft beer revolution took off, such old guard mainstays seem to have become unfashionable. Saturated by novelty, it’s easy to lose sight of the classics.

What would I like to brew? A copy of Westmalle Dubbel please – sorry, I mean a “tribute” to Westmalle Dubbel.

We called it Dissolution (geddit?) and it’s brewed with Munich and Dark Crystal malts, Saaz and Styrian Golding hops and a traditional Trappist Ale yeast. It’s turned out dark, full bodied and complex,  full of rich and fruity plum flavours with a sweet raisin aroma and a spicy, warming finish.

It should now be on the bar in Brains pubs across Wales. But the brewery has also kindly sent a couple of kegs to a pub of my choice on my manor.

I chose the Cock Tavern in Hackney, because it’s my new favourite London pub, and it’s just a brisk walk down the road. On Bank Holiday Monday 6th May at 6pm, we’ll be doing a ‘meet the pretend-brewer’ event I guess, pouring the beer and chatting to anyone who’s interested in chatting about it. There may even be some beer being poured for free. And if you don’t like my beer, there’s a microbrewery in the basement where they make some damn fine brews of their own. As far as I know it’s the only time this beer is scheduled to appear in London, so get there in good time for a taste of pseudo-Belgian magic.

| Beer, Craft Beer

Is anyone still interested in a definition of craft beer?

I wonder…

It’s been a depressing spectacle this last couple of years watching people who share a love of great beer tear each other apart over trying to define what craft beer is.

I’ve been using the term for years in a very loose way to describe most things that are not mainstream commercially produced lager. But in the last three years, as craft has become a defined movement, some people have felt an increased urgency to give it a proper technical definition. Others have asserted that because it doesn’t have one, it does not and cannot exist – an attitude that seems to me to display a curious mix of arrogance and paranoia.

There are various obstacles to coming up with such a definition.

One is competing interests. The nearest thing we have to a definition is that put forward by the American Brewers Association. It talks about size of brewer, ownership and adjuncts. The thing is, this is a trade association’s description designed to benefit members of that trade association. It serves their purposes, not the drinker’s. It changes to suit the evolving needs of its members. Which is fair enough – for them. What’s not fair is when they seek to impose this definition on the whole world of beer. The best beer I’ve had this year is a bourbon aged Imperial stout with cherries from Goose Island. According to the BA, this is not a craft beer because it’s owned by A-B Inbev. Now I hate A-B Inbev as much as anyone, and I’m deeply wary of their intentions to Goose Island. But any universe where the beer I had is not a craft beer is a strange place indeed.

Then at the other end there’s the whole “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…” school of thought, which says you don’t need to be able to define a craft beer to spot one. This has been criticised for reducing things to “I like this beer so it’s a craft beer.” I think that’s a bit disingenuous. Amid all the debates about what is and isn’t craft beer, those arguing could probably agree on nine out of ten beers being craft or not. But many people would rather spend their time arguing about the one out of ten that’s ambiguous.

The definition I have the least time for is the “craft beer is quality beer that is served in keg” school. This is absurd and feeble minded. The kind of people who say this in a positive way do so to distinguish ‘craft’ from what they see as ‘boring brown’ cask ale. It’s nonsense. By taking this stance against the real ale diehards who believe anything in a keg is bad, they’re merely proving themselves to be a mirror image of those diehards, just as ignorant and bigoted. If craft beer is about anything specific, it’s certainly not about the container it’s in – the whole point of it is that it should be all about the beer.

My personal view, as I expressed in response to Mark Dredge’s excellent recent post about craft beer whiners, is that it’s more useful to think of craft as an adjective rather than a noun. Not as a specific style of beer, but as a general description, the same way we’d say ‘dark’ or ‘full bodied’ or whatever – deliberately non-specific, but carrying a degree of commonly understood meaning.

That’s how I’ve always thought about craft beer. But I’m all too aware that many people in the beer world NEED technical definitions – it’s how they navigate the world.

Well if you’re one of those people, how about this?

At a recent conference on innovation in beer, St Austell brewer Roger Ryman gave a presentation about craft beer in which he quoted an article by Dan Shelton, which appeared in the last edition of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium. This guide is currently out of print because a new edition is launching this summer. But editor Tim Webb very kindly sent me a copy so I could read the piece and write about it here.

Dan Shelton clearly has some axes to grind of his own, but I found his multi-part definition of craft beer quite compelling. He identifies five aspects:

  • – Ingredients: does the brewer seek the best possible ingredients or is s/he more concerned about keeping costs down?
  • – Methods and equipment: the brewery’s intent – does the brewery do everything it can to maintain quality or does it let things slip as it grows? Is the brewery making the best beer it can?
  • – The brewer’s spirit: hard to measure, but does the beer reflect the brewer’s personality or is it simply generic and lacking in faults? Are they just following the market, or trying to do something special?
  • – Company structure: who’s calling the shots? It’s not necessarily about company size, but does the brewer decide what beers are brewed or does the marketing department?
  • – Control: is the brewer able to exercise some control over how the beer turns out or is s/he simply throwing in ingredients and hoping for the best?

Everyone who I would call a craft brewer ticks each of these boxes. What I like about this definition is that it’s objective. A global giant could produce a craft beer if they followed these rules, but they don’t. Their structures don’t permit it. But it doesn’t rule them out on size or ownership. It’s about intent.

And this definition does what no other does – it excludes small brewers who aren’t very good. Any idiot can throw an extra bag of citra hops into a copper, it doesn’t make them good brewers or their beer good beer. I’ve tasted bland beers that are not craft created by huge corporations, and I’ve tasted bloody awful beers created by tiny breweries that call themselves craft when they are not, because craft has to be about skill as well as size. I don’t know how you measure some of these criteria, but of it’s a neutral, objective detailed definition of craft you want, I think this does the job.

But like I said, I’m not sure we need it. While I was thinking about this post, I looked up ‘craft’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and it says “An activity involving skill in making things by hand.” Do we really need it to be any more complex than that?

| Uncategorised

And finally… Bondi Beer!

I can’t really write any more on this blog until I’ve closed the story of Bondi Beer.

The story so far: in December I saw an appalling advertorial in The Grocer magazine for a beer called Bondi, which was calling itself a craft beer. I wrote a scathing blog post about it, assuming (I could find very few details about it online) that it was another cynical attempt to move into craft territory by a big brewer. I found a beer called Bondi online being promoted by Paris Hilton and obviously thought it was the same beer. (It wasn’t – turns out that was a different brand, different company, with the same name from the same country!)

Days later, the owner of Bondi beer contacted me. He was pretty angry and asked me to take the piece down. At first I resisted, and then I realised that this was in fact a very small company and that they were trying to do the right thing. They admitted the advertorial was rubbish and were very upset at the way it had been heavily edited. They asked me to meet them and taste the beer, and I agreed. I took my original post down – the first time I have ever done so – and explained why.

I’ve owed them this write-up ever since, but as you can see, I’ve hardly been blogging, because I’ve been so busy up against book deadlines. I could have slipped this post in at a time when this blog wasn’t really active, but I thought that would be the equivalent of trying to bury bad news at a time no one would see it. I wanted to wait until this blog was properly active again to guarantee this would reach my full audience. Sorry that has taken so long.

I met the Bondi guys in the fantastic Porterhouse in Covent Garden, which stocks their beer. We had a few beers and made peace. It was a good meeting. And it was a very, very good beer. Bondi is a four per cent lager that does not taste like you’d expect a four per cent lager with Australian branding to taste. It is contract-brewed in the Czech Republic, and it shows. There’s a brilliant Saaz hop character on the nose, bready and grassy, and a perfect balance of flavour, with proper body, a good buzzy finish, and yet the crisp refreshment of a good lager. It drinks way over four per cent – you’d guess at five, easily – so it’s very satisfying at such a low ABV.

I would heartily recommend this beer to anyone. I wouldn’t call it a ‘craft’ beer, as the advertorial originally did, but it’s a far better lager than any of the main commercial brands.

And that’s it, apart from two caveats.

One, I’m not writing this because Bondi asked me to. I promised them I would, and that was four months ago. They’ve put no pressure on me at all to get this post up here. I’m not saying it’s a great beer because anyone has told me I have to, I’m saying it because it’s a great beer, and if it wasn’t, I’d say that too. The only reason this didn’t appear before now is that I haven’t had time to blog about anything until the last week or so.

Two, in my defence, I just want to reiterate one point given that I took my original post down. A few commenters have been very keen for me to issue this clarification. One or two have accused me of slagging off a beer without having tasted it. I never did that. In my original post, I made no mention at all of the taste of the beer. I was slagging off the marketing – something I went way over the top with and regret in retrospect – but I make a professional point of not dissing a beer’s character without tasting it. (I took a similar approach with previous posts dissing the launches of Stella Black and Stella Cidre, following up with posts about the drinks themselves when I was able to try them).

Now I have tasted Bondi, I’m more than happy to talk about how good the beer is. I still think the launch marketing approach was ill-advised, and we talked about that too. The best thing Bondi can do is forget the jargon and sloganeering, and just put all their effort into trying to get beer into people’s hands.

I wish them all the luck in the world in replacing other Aussie beers on British bars.

| Uncategorised

The mischievous Swede and the truth about Stella Artois

A few months ago I was contacted by Jonas Magnusson, a Swedish TV programme maker who wanted to interview me for a series of programmes he was making about beer. We met in the George Inn and had a great chat.

I normally confine remarks to stuff I feel positive about in interviews such as this – when talking to a mainstream audience, I’d rather concentrate on what’s great about beer than moan about what’s wrong. But somehow we got on to big global megabrands that don’t actually care about beer at all, and we talked a bit about Stella Artois in particular in this respect.

A couple of days ago Jonas e-mailed me a link to a YouTube clip of when he went to Leuven to interview AB-Inbev about Stella. “You might be interested in this,” he said.

24 hours later there was another email titled ‘Did You Watch it’? I thought this was a bit pushy, as I’ve been frantically busy, but Jonas seemed really, really keen that I watch the clip.

And then, this morning, writer and blogger Max Brearley posted a link to the clip on Twitter, urging me to watch it.

I took the hint.

Here’s the film: if you’d like to watch it without my commentary, go ahead now. If you don’t have eleven minutes to watch it through, skip below to read about why you should.

Meet Jean-Jacques Velkeniers, Marketing Director for both Stella Artois and Jupiler in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. Jean jacques is a career marketer who is clearly passionate about his brand.

He says “it all started” with the merger of Interbrew and AmBev to create Inbev in 2004.  (Funny, because I thought Stella was a giant brand before then and was already in steep decline in the UK by this time.) He tells Magnus that these two companies shared the same vision and passion for beer.

What is this vision and passion?

“Conquering the world, market by market, using fantastic brands like Stella Artois,” replies Jean-Jacques.

Magnus then asks what would seem to be a fairly straightforward question: what does this world conquering beer actually taste like?

To which Jean-Jacques replies: “Can we cut there? That’s a very difficult question.”

The man responsible for marketing Stella Artois across a good chunk of Western Europe is unable to describe what the beer tastes like.

After consulting two colleagues he recovers his poise and claims he just didn’t know the words in English – this is astonishing as (a) so far his English has been impeccable – he has a perfect grasp of marketing jargon especially – and (b) even if he’s telling the truth, this means that as Marketing Director he’s never been asked what his beer tastes like in English before.

After being briefed on what his product tastes like, he tells us that it is very refreshing with a full-bodied taste, “crispy” (let’s be fair and put that one down to genuine translation issues) and that “after a couple of seconds you get that bitter after-note in your mouth that makes it quite unique.”

Yes, you read that right.

The marketing director of Stella Artois thinks his beer is unique because it has a bitter aftertaste.

To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they’re off the clock, so maybe he wasn’t to know that bitterness is a common characteristic in almost all  beers – and that his brand rates pretty damn low in the bitterness stakes compared to most others. But still, you might have expected Jean-Jacques to have been given special dispensation given his role.

You might expect a man responsible for selling a huge beer brand in four European countries to have the first clue about what a typical beer’s flavour profile is.

But we press on. Magnus asks Jean-Jacques if he would be able to pick out this special, unique flavour in a blind taste test. He’s definitely up for it – you can’t fault him on his conviction.

But what he doesn’t know is that Magnus has already been out on the streets of Leuven, doing blind taste tests with people who regularly drink Stella and are loyal to the brand. It quickly becomes clear that no one can taste any difference at all between Stella and its sister brand, Jupiler. They do come from the same brewery – Jean-Jacques looks after them both – so perhaps they are – ahem – very similar beers packaged differently?

To make things more interesting, Magnus then gets out a cheap, crummy can of Swedish beer. “Yes, that’s definitely Stella,” say more Stella drinkers. “I had a pint five minutes ago and that tastes just the same.”

Back at AB-Inbev HQ, Jean-Jacques is gearing up for the blind taste test between Stella, Jupiler and the crappy Swedish beer when Natasha, the PR person intervenes. She tells Jean-Jacques that there was a pre-agreed script for the interview, and that this was not part of it.

If you want to interview someone from AB-Inbev you have to give them prior approval of a script!

As they discuss whether the taste test is going to be possible or not, Natasha briefly mulls over whether it would be OK just with Stella and Jupiler (Jean-Jacques is never allowed to drink a non-AB Inbev beer, remember) and Jean-Jacques has to remind his PR person that “They are filming everything we say.”

In the end, they decline to take part in any taste test, for three beautifully crafted reasons:

  • The beer is the wrong temperature
  • Jean-Jacques is “not prepared”
  • You need a glass of water to clean the mouth between beers 
I guess a glass of water was not available.
This is a sublime piece of film making. The number of different ways it skewers this marketing organisation, demonstrating that not only do they not care about beer, they don’t even know what it tastes like, is sublime.
You might not think there’s much difference between commercial lagers. But when I worked on Stella Artois fifteen years ago, before the merger that created Inbev, before the relentless cost-cutting came in, before everyone at Interbrew who had a genuine passion for beer was fired and replaced by career marketers like Jean-Jacques, everyone on our team could have picked out Stella in a blind taste test. We pursued this old-fashioned notion that you can’t sell a product properly unless you know and understand it. And you can’t do that unless you can train your palate to taste it – no scratch that – unless you can even be bothered to try it every now and again.
It’s something craft brewers do every day of their lives. And even among big global corporations, if you asked a similar corporate drone working for, say, Heineken or Carlsberg, they’d be able to tell you what the beer tastes like and why. They’d know that beer tends to have a bitter finish. They might not even have learned it for themselves in tutored tasting sessions, but if not they’d have access to some sort of cribsheet.
But of course, AB-Inbev is not a brewer, and Stella Artois is not a beer. It’s a fantastic brand that is too busy conquering the world, market by market, to worry about such trivial things as what the product is, or what it tastes like. 
The Great Beer Tour consists of three one-hour episodes, and starts on SVT (Swedish television) on 16th April. 

| Uncategorised

Beer Awards

I hate the Beer Writer of the Year awards.

It should be a special occasion where you just socialise with all your mates in the industry.  Instead, if you’ve entered your work, you sit there with a snake writhing in your guts, desperately anxious that your work be recognised, and when somebody else wins you have to be happy for them and try to hide the self-doubt and jealousy that try to consume you.

The year I won Beer Writer of the Year for Hops & Glory was actually the worst, because I was so anxious about winning.  I felt I’d given the awards my best shot, and if I didn’t win that year I would never win. So I could hardly eat anything, and when I was announced as the winner I’d managed to get myself into such a state that my only emotional response was relief.

What an idiotic way to live.

But I don’t think I’m the only person trying to make a living from writing who is an idiot, emotionally.

Last night was this year’s Guild of Beer Writers dinner and Beer Writer of the Year awards.  And for the first time I managed to work out a more grown up approach to it.  I didn’t have a book out (Shakey’s Local would fall into next year’s awards) and I’ve only ever won a category with a book before. There was a record number of entries.  While I thought I’d written some good stuff, I was aware that there has been so much beer writing and communication this year that I was able to go to the dinner for the first time with no hopes, expectations or anxieties about winning, and just enjoy the night.

When I got runner-up in online communication for this blog, I was happy but knew that was it – the rules are you can only win one category,  and only category winners go through for the final award.

So I was happily texting my wife when my name was read out as winner of the Trade Communications category for my column in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, and I was genuinely shocked when chairman of judges Ben McFarland started reading out one of my blog entries in the run-up to his announcement of Beer Writer of the Year 2012.

I’m very happy and proud to win this award for my journalism, because somehow it feels easier with a book – it creates a bigger splash.

And I’m gobsmacked given what else was in contention this year.

I hadn’t realised Tim Webb and Steve Beaumont’s World Atlas to Beer was being entered this time – I thought it would be next year.  When it was announced as winner of the Travel Category, I texted the wife to say it was obvious now that it would win overall.  I’ve been meaning to review it for ages.  Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer set the bar for beer writing.  It takes balls to try to measure up to that book.  And at the same time, anyone trying to do so needs to make a case for why they should even bother trying.  Do we really need another beer coffee table book, especially when the information at its core is precisely the kind of stuff that now fills beer blogs and websites?  This book answers the call brilliantly.  There’s easily enough knowledge and authority between the two writers to make it worthwhile.  This sings through in the text, which acknowledges the changes that have happened since Michael was writing, updating this style of book for the twenty first century and the state of craft brewing today.  It even acknowledges mainstream beer, with the brilliant term ‘convenience beers’.  And it looks great.  You should obviously have my new book on your Christmas list, but if you can stretch to two, you need this one as well.

Tim Hampson does a great deal of work behind the scenes as Chairman of the Guild of Beer Writers and rarely gets any credit publicly.  His book on beery days out was runner up to Tim and Steve, and would have stormed the category any other year.

What a year for beer books though. On top of these two there was Roger Protz’s History of Burton which scooped Gold in the award for national writing (Roger was also runner up in trade for his PMA column) and Melissa Cole’s book Let Me Tell You About Beer – a book aimed at the beery novice rather than the geek – which would also have been a worthy winner.

Dan Saladino’s Food Programme is evidence that beer is being taken seriously on a wider scale and finally making inroads into mainstream media consciousness.  And Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London app, which deservedly beat this blog to the online/social media top prize, demonstrates the new possibilities open to beer writing.

Martyn Cornell showed he can write about matching beer with food as well as he can its history, and Alastair Gilmour, who has won the top gong about a zillion times for his regional journalism, won that award again for his own magazine about beer and pubs in the north east, which should make any other region jealous that it doesn’t have something similar.  And props to Simon Jenkins for being runner up in that category, proving his triumph a couple of years ago was no one-off.

Ben McFarland says the final choice of Beer Writer of the Year was an incredibly difficult decision.  From that line up, I’m not surprised.

So yeah, I’m well chuffed.

In explaining the decision, Ben mentioned my obituary to Dave Wickett and then, to the consternation of some in the room cos it’s weird), read out an extract from my review of the Guinness film on the excellent Roll Out the Barrel DVD.

I’m delighted that both these pieces gained recognition.  I know I can sometimes be overbearing, facetious, irritating or just plain wrong. I know not everyone likes my style or the way I approach beer. But thanks for reading my stuff.

Check out the links to the rest of the work mentioned above too.  I don’t think there’s ever been so much good stuff being written about beer by so many different people.

| Uncategorised

Two contrasting responses to the growth of craft beer from two different big brewers

The big global brewers are coming for craft beer.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Craft beer, interesting beer, flavourful beer, microbrewed beer, whatever you want to call it and however you insist on defining it, is the only part of the beer market where there is any significant margin. In First World, mature, developed beer markets, brewers have willingly commoditised big brands and increasingly treat them no different from pet food or toilet roll.  The power of retailers has stripped any profitability out of these brands for the manufacturer, which is why all the big guys are now focusing on developing markets such as China, India and Brazil.  The huge scrap over who gets to own Tiger beer shows just how important these markets are to the giants of beer.

But the guys left in boring old Europe and North America still need something to do.  They can’t simply give up on beer’s homelands.  So they’re hearing all this noise about craft, and coming over to see what all the fuss is about.

This year I’ve had several conversations with global brewers about craft – from the very rich companies who say “please tell us in detail who all the main players are, the secrets of their success, what the main drivers of craft are, who’s drinking it and where it’s going to go,” and then decide they don’t need to know after all when I ask for a fee in return for this insight, to those who seem genuinely interested in developing more of a craft-like arm to their business.

You know it’s getting serious when you see a ‘segmentation’ of craft beers buyers, like I did this summer.  I used to do this kind of thing for a living, and it requires lots of expensive research to put together.  There were four different kinds of craft beer drinker in this study – each segment was a different size, with a different level of knowledge and different reasons for drinking craft.  And you know what?  You were in one of those segments.  Yes, YOU.  So was I.

So the big boys are going to start flirting with craft, to see if they can take some dollars, pounds and euros from hopheads and beer geeks.  In fact, they’ve already started – with Anheuser-Busch having dabbled with a half-decent pumpkin beer, Blue Moon of course, Carslberg’s Jacobsen range, and now, new offerings from A-B and Carlsberg that talk about ‘craft values’ in their launch press releases.

Some of these things are going to be horrible.  Some will be badly thought-out and misconstrued.  Some will even be insulting to the intelligence and the palate of craft beer drinkers.

But will they all be?  I don’t think so.  We all know there are some very talented brewers within the global giants. The question is, will any of them be allowed to make interesting beer that will then be given sympathetic support by the rest of the organisation?

In recent weeks, I’ve learned about two different approaches to craft by two different beery behemoths.

One is excellent, the other is cynical, lazy and contemptuous.  Let’s deal with the good one first – no reading ahead, I’m sure you can guess who the poor relation is.

Last month I went to see my mates Steve and Rudgie in Toronto.  Steve is the world’s greatest beer writer* and Rudgie works for MolsonCoors.** Rudgie will be familiar to readers of Hops & Glory as one of the key men who made my whole trip to India possible, and is now the world’s greatest Professional Canadian.  (Not bad for someone who spent the first three and a half decades of his life being a northerner from Warrington.  But he says al-oo-minum now and everything.)

So anyway, last time I went to see Rudgie, he took me to Creemore Springs, a craft lager brewer in the heart of Ontario that proudly boasts of being ‘a hundred years behind the times’ and was bought by MolsonCoors seven and a half years ago.

Having watched what happens when giant brewers buy little brewers, you could be forgiven for expecting these excellent beers, including a sublime kellerbier, to have become blandised, cheapened and bastardised.  Instead, MC invested in increasing capacity and worked on spreading distribution, and simply left the brewing alone, with the clear admission that if they did get involved they would screw it up, because they didn’t understand how the market worked at that level.

In a global market that usually looks no further ahead than two years for return on investment, if they were going to screw it up, they would have done so by now.

Then they took over Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing – possibly the first craft beer I ever drank when I spent a lot of time in Canada in the 1990s.  Same arrangement.  Granville Island gets sales and distribution support, and doesn’t get accountants sniffing around the hopping rates.

Last year, this flirtation with craft was expanded and consolidated.  Molson Coors bought a brewpub the founders didn’t want any more and created the Toronto Beer Academy.

Here, the brewery makes a range of interesting beers as authentically as possible, from classic styles around the world to new craft creations.

They’re brewed by good brewers who want to make good beer (and have significantly improved the old kit so they can do so), and are sold on site.  Creemore Springs and Granville Island beers are also sold here, in a bar that celebrates beer in all its shapes and colours.
Together, Creemore Springs, Granville Island and Beer Academy are now part of an independent unit within Molson Coors called the Six Pints Specialty Beer Co.  It’s part of MC, but not controlled by it.  It runs as a separate unit, to different rules. There is no MolsonCoors branding here, and no MolsonCoors brands are stocked.
The bar holds brewmasters dinners, and seminars on beer ingredients and the brewing process.  There are new beer launch nights, beer and cheese matching evenings and beer dinners.  All stuff a good microbrewer should do, and done well.
Talking to the guys who run this, there’s a philosophy of enlightened self-interest.  It’s only going to work if it’s done right – and that means not doing it the MC way.  But if it’s done well, it might just create a halo effect that makes people think a little bit more of beer in general, in relation to wine and other drinks.  And that would, ultimately, help the rest of the MC business. 
I’m not saying it’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted, and I’m not saying Beer Academy is the best beer bar I’ve ever been in.  I am saying that this is proper craft beer, served in a proper craft beer bar, and that there is no evidence whatsoever of the ultimate owners trying to screw anything up with short cuts, dumbing down, cost cutting or corporate bullshit.
It’s an extraordinarily intelligent response to the growth of craft beer.
Compare that then, with the billboard spotted in Los Angeles by ace beer photographer Robert Gale:
Photo: Robert Gale – his blog has photos of way nicer beery stuff than this
That’s right: the biggest brewery conglomerate in the world reacts to the growth of craft beer by trying to claim that one of it’s top three priority brands for global domination is somehow in the same space as microbrewers and craft beer.

No shame. And no clue whatsoever.

You might feel that you would always want to support a true micro rather than a big brewer, and that’s a view that’s difficult to argue with.

But not all big brewers are the same.  They all want a piece of craft.  Personally I’ll be welcoming the stuff they do well, in the hope of killing off the crap, insulting stuff as quickly as possible.

* In joke. Not saying it isn’t true of course.

** Full disclosure following the admission that I do some consultancy in this area – while Rudgie is a mate, I have not been paid any consultancy or PR fee by MolsonCoors, and have had no advisory role or any other involvement in what’s discussed here