Tag: Beer

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Telling Stories and Drinking Beer

It’s less than six weeks now until the launch of my new book, Shakespeare’s Local.

I had some very exciting news about the book yesterday, which I can’t reveal until contracts have been signed in a few days’ time.  It’s also been confirmed that the book will have a US edition some time next year.

But books don’t sell themselves these days, so I’m gearing up for various events up and down the country where I’ll be reading, talking about the book, and doing beer tastings.

Here’s the schedule so far:

Saturday 29th/Sunday 30th September – Taste Cumbria, Cockermouth
At 3pm this afternoon I’ll be tasting a world of Cumbrian beers as part of this excellent food and drink festival, and maybe doing the odd reading.  I’ll be repeating the tasting again at 1pm tomorrow.

Monday 1st October – Beer tasting mash up at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival
They asked me to do an event.  I said yeah, I could do a tasting of local beers, or beers that match with my books, or a beer and cheese pairing maybe?  Or what about beer and music matching?  It’s the right city for it.  And they said, they all sound great – can you do the whole lot?  So I’ll be attempting to weave together four completely different events at 7pm on Monday in the festival hub.

Tuesday 9th October – Ilkley Literary Festival
I had a blast here with Hops & Glory a few years ago.  Can’t wait to go back and unveil the new show I’ve put together around Shakespeare’s Local – it’ll be a multimedia extravaganza I tell you!  And it’s already sold out! No pressure then…

Thursday 8th November – Official Book Launch!
Finally hits the shops. I may have a celebratory beer at the George.

Monday 12th November – Corbridge
Details to follow

Tuesday 13th November – Urmston
Details to follow

Wednesday 14th November – Caught by the River at Rough Trade East
I love Caught by the River.  I love Rough Trade East.  Thrilled to be doing an event with them.

Wednesday 21st November – Richmond Literary Festival
An event in a beer shop.  And not just any beer shop – realeale.com’s HQ is beer paradise.

There will be many more events to follow, including a few at the George itself in the run-up to Christmas.

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Cask ale in volume growth! How to stock the perfect range! Yes, it’s the launch of the Cask Report

Cask ale, real ale, handpulled ale – call it what you will – grew by  1.6% in 2011.  This is the first time cask volume has grown (as opposed to not declining by very much) for twenty years.  Sales in 2012 to date are steady, which is still excellent news given that the total UK beer market – down 3.5% in 2011 – is down again this year.  Cask now has such momentum behind it that it has overtaken keg as the most popular draught ale format.

This all made my launch of this year’s Cask Report last night very pleasant indeed.  When you’re the messenger, it’s nice when no one wants to shoot you.

This is the sixth time I’ve written the Cask Report.  Up to now, it’s been a weighty tome that acts as a snapshot of what’s happening to cask ale, who’s drinking it and why, and a detailed source of information for licensees about how to choose, stock and sell cask ale in a way that will increase pub turnover and profitability.

This year we’ve done it a little differently.  All the advice for licensees is now running as a monthly section of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser called ‘Cask Matters‘.  With greater frequency we can tailor the advice more precisely, examining in detail how cask can contribute to the character and bottom line of the pub in different ways, with case studies, Q&A’s, advice, industry comment and the occasional bit of whimsy from yours truly.  You can download PDFs here.  We should probably do Boxing Day TV ads saying you get a free binder with the first issue and it builds up into a beautiful collection or something.

The market stats are now in a thinner, flimsier Cask Report that gives a much more concise and easily navigable picture of what’s happening to cask ale.  Apart from the basic stats, this year’s report examines in further detail two issues that have emerged as key in the last couple of years:

  • What are the main drivers fo cask ale growth?  Why do drinkers like it?  And what are the barriers to trial among those who have never tried it?
  • What range of cask ales should a landlord stock?
Drivers and barriers
53% of British adults have now tried cask ale.  Among those who have tried it, 84% have gone on to drink it, at least occasionally.  People like cask because of its flavour and variety – microbrewers are now brewing a wide array of different beer styles:
The problem for cask is that 71% people who’ve tried it drink it occasionally or rarely.  Only 13% claim to drink it often or regularly.  Like ‘Guinness drinkers’ who only ever have a pint on Paddy’s Day, an awful lot of cask ale drinkers are people who tend to order a Peroni or Stella, until the rare occasions they go to a beer festival or visit a nice country pub. 
Those who love cask, as well as loving the flavour, tend to have other reasons for drinking it too.  Some like to support a local producer, others a great British tradition. Some like it for its natural ingredients.  Cask ale allows people who know it to support causes or make statements about things they care about.  This gives brewers and pubs a list of things they could say about cask to encourage trial, or get occasional drinkers more interested.
Among those who haven’t tried cask, there are no real barriers – they just haven;t been given a good reason why they should try it:
  

The negative stereotypes about it being warm, flat or an old man’s drink are tiny reasons compared to a simple lack of any reason why they should care.  Again, looking at committed drinkers gives us some good clues as to what those good reasons might be.

Stocking the optimal cask ale range
Talk to a beer blogger and they’ll tell you you should be stocking awesome craft ales from the awesome new wave of microbrewers using awesome New World hops and awesome wood ageing and an awesome lack of finings.  Talk to a regional brewer and they’ll tell you people want to see familiar, tried and trusted brands on the bar.

Both are right.

If I were to open a pub in London tomorrow, London Pride and Doom Bar would be on the bar permanently.  I would then have a seasonal beer from a traditional British family brewer, and three pumps stocking a range of IPAs, milds, porters, stouts, golden ales, all depending on seasonality and availability, the most eclectic and exciting mix I could find.

Most readers of this blog, I would guess, are dismissive of Doom Bar.  So am I. But it sells by the bucketload, and it sells to people who would never buy Magic Rock Human Cannonball.  There are at least 3000 different cask ales in Britain, which is amazing.

But know what?  The top 39 most recognised brands account for half of the total market volume.  Most pubs are stocking too many unfamiliar beers and not enough recognised brands.  Sales go up the more familiar, established brands you have on the bar.

Conversely, it’s eclectic, unfamiliar beers, often brewed by micros, that are driving the current excitement in the cask ale market.  Stock only familiar brands and people will think your range is crashingly dull, and rightly so.

Also – and this is common sense, but you’d be surprised – know your audience.  If you are a self-declared craft beer bar and you know that your clientele consists of people who actively seek out new beers, weigh your range to rotating new and unfamiliar beers.  If you’re a typical high street pub, refresh your range constantly, but always have a few favourites on the bar.

Whoever you are though, it’s good business sense to have both.  75% of cask ale drinkers say a familiar, trusted brand is important when choosing what beer to drink.  And 78% say they like to try new beers from microbreweries.  You may have noticed that adds up to more then a hundred – the same people want both familiarity and novelty – and that’s consistent across every piece fo research we did for the report.

Download.  Digest.  And maybe we can stop arguing – from a commercial point of view at least – about what’s best, big brands or micros?  Both are essential from the point of view of a good pub.

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Announcement: The Beer Marketing Awards

Older readers will know I came into beer writing via a somewhat unlikely route.

My favourite of all the ads I helped create.  (No, I didn’t write it.)

I used to work in advertising, and one day I was appointed to work on the campaigns for Stella Artois and Heineken.  I was responsible for strategy, and this entailed looking at trends and deeper dynamics in society and culture to establish the motivations behind the brand choices people made.  When I had to do this with beer it completely captivated me and ignited an interest that went much deeper than what I had to do for the latest Stella ad.  It ultimately led to me writing my first book, which in turn led to me developing a much broader love for and interest in beer.

When I tell this story at events or readings, it usually gets a good-natured chorus of booing and hissing. There’s a suspicion among many beer fans about marketing – in its purest form, the belief is that advertising brainwashes people to drink shit, bland commercial beer instead of interesting, quality beer produced by nice people.  At best, there is at least a suspicion that many people choose beers for style over substance.

And to be fair, there is some truth in that.  Back in the day we used to tell each other that people ‘drink the advertising’ – but only when the beers themselves were interchangeable and pretty much identical.  Advertising can’t really persuade someone to drink standard lager instead of a microbrewed IPA if the standard lager doesn’t appeal to their tastebuds, but it can sure make you drink one standard lager instead of another.

Beer ads were the ads that made me want to in advertising in the first place.  The ad below is the one that I talked about in all my interviews, and I still think that it’s a pretty perfect beer ad:

Great gags, plays to the obsession of its target audience, brand name in the punchline. Perfect.

But if beer marketing was ever just about TV ads, it isn’t now, and won’t ever be again.  Back when ‘Dambusters’ played there were only two commercial TV channels and you could be sure pretty much everyone in the target audience saw it.  And regulations meant you could get away with outlandish claims so long as you were obviously joking about hose claims.  One casualty of our binge drinking paranoia is that advertising regulatory authorities have lost their sense of humour.

Marketing in its broadest sense is, at worst, a necessary evil, and at best a great, positive addition to the experience of choosing and drinking beer.  Whether we like it or not, we are a brand-literate, marketing savvy world these days.  I regularly see great beers stymied by awful label designs.  Branded, shaped glassware is at least as much about marketing as it is about enhancing the flavour of beer.  And with more beers than ever before to choose from, we’ve got to find out information about them somehow.  If a brewer chooses to impart some of this information themselves rather than rely entirely on crowd-sourced web reviews, that’s marketing.  When a brewer chooses a bottle shape, designs a label, launches a website, hosts a meet the brewer event, issues a press release, tweets or blogs or sends a punk dwarf to petition parliament, that’s all marketing.

Beer marketers now have to be much smarter.  The tightening regulation and the explosion of different media channels, not least social media, means it’s a much more complex game – but the playing field for that game is more level than it was.  Simply having the biggest budget is not enough (if it ever was – remember Watney’s Red Barrel?)

This is why I was very excited indeed when two industry acquaintances approached me and asked if I would like to be involved in organising the inaugural Beer Marketing Awards.  We have so, so many awards that celebrate the beer itself – and rightly so.  But marketing should not and canot be ignored, and the best stuff deserves to be equally celebrated.  If it takes off, it might even help raise the standard of the shit stuff.

And the joy of it is, it’s about the whole industry.  If you’re AB-Inbev, we want to hear about the best TV ad you’ve made this year.  If you’re Heineken, we want to know how proud you are of sponsoring the Olympics.  If you’re Brew Dog we want to hear how successful your best PR stunt was.  If you’re Magic Rock we want to hear about your Twitter presence.  And if you’re Wye Valley, tell us about your label redesign.  Huge or tiny, established or new, every brewer does marketing of some form or another, and there’s a category for everyone.  Here’s the full list:

Best Advertising Campaign – Print

This category rewards outstanding marketing activity in print media. Designed a standout campaign for national newspapers? Publicised your brand to great effect in glossy magazines? This category’s for you.
—–

Best Advertising Campaign – Broadcast

If you’ve implemented a TV ad campaign that’s really caught the attention of the viewing public, or a series of radio slots that stop people in their tracks, you’ll want to enter this category.
—–

Best use of Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or whatever other social media channel floats your boat – if you’ve devised a campaign that has provoked thousands of comments, likes and follows, get your entry written.
—–

Best Public Relations Campaign

If you’ve generated column inches by the score, captivated journalists with your creative approach, or devised an industry focused thought leadership campaign, use your most persuasive talents to tell us why you should win this category.
—–

Best Branding / Design

Making sure your product stands out on the shelves or behind the bar requires a well-designed and consistent brand. You’ll have a good chance of winning this category if you can demonstrate success in this area.
—–

Best use of Competitions

If you’re into competitions, you’ll no doubt have noted that these awards are a fine example of the genre.  If you’ve created a competition or promotion that has gained a high profile for your brand, submit your entry here.
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Best Integrated Campaign

Jack of all trades? Accomplished all rounder? If you’ve created a high quality multi-platform campaign that hits print, broadcast, social media and anything else, add it all together and submit it for this category.
—–

Best Stunt / Guerrilla Marketing

If, like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, your chief weapon is surprise, try and catch us unawares with your specialism for stunts or your gift for guerrilla marketing.
—–

Best Business to Business Campaign

Targeting the trade can be as exciting and innovative as targeting the consumer, so if you’ve concocted a campaign that persuades landlords to serve your beer, or masterminded an approach to the off-trade, here’s your category.
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Best Website

HTML, CSS, jQuery, JavaScript, PHP – if these terms make sense to you, think about developing (geddit?) an entry for this category. You’ll need to have created a site that is creative and compelling as well as technically brilliant, mind.
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Best use of Sponsorship

Sporting events, celebrities, TV programmes – if you’ve created a sponsorship package that has complemented and benefited from a partnership with any of these, you know what to do.
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Best use of Merchandise

From beermats to t-shirts, branded glassware to bottle openers – and beyond. If you’ve branded up complementary merchandise to add to your marketing campaigns, let us know how and why you did it.
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Overall Winner

No need to enter this one – we’ll choose the most impressive, innovative and successful campaign from all the above categories and give it a special award. You can bet it will deserve it.
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Outstanding Individual Achievement

Again, no need to enter this – if you’ve overachieved, chances are we’ll have heard about you anyway. You’ll need to have created a stunning body of work, either this year or throughout your career. We’ll make sure everyone hears all about it.

We’re recruiting a panel of judges from the brewing, pub and creative marketing industries, as well as prominent beer writers and other industry figures.  (Some brewers will doubtless be encouraged to hear that I won’t be judging myself – it’s incompatible with helping organise the event and encouraging entries.)

There will be a media launch at Craft Beer Co in London on 12th September.  The competition is now open for entries, and you can enter here.  Entries will close on 10th December, and the awards event will take place at the Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, on March 13th 2013.  More details will be on the BMA website, which will now be updated on a regular basis with chat about beer marketing as well as details about the competition.  If you’d like to sponsor one of the above awards, we’d love to hear from you.

I’m proud to be associated with this great idea.  Whether you’re a brewer or drinker, we hope you’ll be as excited by it as we are.
  

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“How many beer bloggers does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“Take my head brewer.  No, seriously, please, take him.”

That was the question I asked on Twitter on Saturday afternoon.  
Some people thought I was angry, that I’d been pushed over the edge by one too many pedants at GBBF last week.  Not at all.  I was hacking away at the garden, feeling a bit bored and a little mischievous, and thought it might be a bit of harmless fun – remember that?
I think it’s safe to say the replies address the whole spectrum of beer blogging.  Some are very similar and I’ve grouped those together.  Some are funnier than others, though this may depend on who you are, so I’ve featured the whole lot below – about half are my own, half other people’s.  I’ve structured some as conversations because they work better that way.
So, how many beer bloggers does it take to change a lightbulb?
“That’s not the question. The question is, what is the true definition of a lightbulb?”
“12 – One to change it & 11 to sit around talking about how much they preferred to old one!”
“4 – 1 to rate it on http://ratebulb.com . 1 to video it. 1 to retweet it. 1 to Google an electrician.”
“Don’t we all just sit in the dark?”
“None. They just stumble around in the dark and end up
peeing in the airing cupboard.”
“We don’t change the lightbulb, we just sit in the dark
arguing about cask vs keg.”
“It depends. If the lightbulb’s in the cellar and there’s
no beer, then one and all.”
“Why oh why do so many people persist in repeating the
unfounded myth that the lightbulb needs to change?”
“A dozen take turns at it whilst pronouncing the old bulb
‘boring’ & the new one ‘awesome’. But nothing actually gets changed.”
“None – as you’re not going to actually find a blogger who
can do the thing they want to moan about.”
“They go on at great length about the importance of an
‘authentic’ light bulb but somehow nobody gets round to it.”
“It all depends who made the lightbulb. If it was mass-produced it was probably shit at giving out light anyway.”
 “I prefer these
local, artisanally produced lightbulbs instead of those cheap macroluminiscent
excuses for illumination.”
“Is it an artisan produced bulb, or mass produced yellow
fizz of light?”
“But how is the electricity made ? I’ll sit in the dark if
it’s not wind power.”
-> “I’m a CAMRA member. I won’t
conform to this new ‘energy saving’ rubbish.”
“One to form a bunch of committees. Then another 140,000 to
sit around reminiscing about the old days before electricity.”
-> “Tallow, it’s the future.”
“I actually preferred the Mk2 lightbulb, which they made for
6 months before they were closed by Mazda.”
“To be real thing, the gas should be vented before turning
on the bulb, although obviously it won’t last as long, about 3ms.”
“I change my lightbulbs every two minutes. That way I know
they aren’t sell-outs.”
“No matter how many try, they’ll never do it as well as
Michael Jackson did.” 
“Why did the proverbial lightbulb die in the first place?”
“Those Americans are doing things with lightbulbs that we
Brits can’t even begin to imagine.”
“Your old lightbulb was shit. The lightbulb revolution
starts here.”
“I think you’ll find that there is no direct proof the
lightbulb was ever invented.”
“That has nowhere near enough wattage to be classed as a lightbulb.”
-> “It’s not the quality of the
light, but the provenance of the inert gas within the bulb.”
“WTF? Lightbulbs!? Why aren’t you guys talking about halogen
striplights?! FFS”
-> “I cannot BELIEVE you people are
still talking about ‘strip’ lights. The correct term is TRACKLIGHTS. JESUS.”
-> “I just bought some AWESOME
tracklights!!!! Over a hundred units of brightness. Awesome!!!”
-> “I think you’ll find they’re
called lumens, not units of brightness.”

“I’m keeping the old lightbulb in, to see how it ages.”

Thangyouverymuch, I’m here all week, etc…

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A bit of an update

I’d like to apologise to anyone out there who actually reads this blog for pleasure – if you exist, I’ve been letting you down of late, with whole months passing between posts.

Thing is, I’ve been massively busy with stuff, including a lot of other writing – the old-fashioned kind that (just about) pays the mortgage.  At one point a few weeks ago I did my To Do list on Monday morning and realised I had thirteen deadlines all theoretically due that week.

Anyway, I’ve cleared them all now, so I thought I might do a catch-up post to fill in any remaining readers on the bits of busy-ness you might be interested in.

SHAKESPEARE

My new book, Shakespeare’s Local, is all done bar the shouting.  It’s coming out on 8th November as a selfless, humanitarian gesture to help you or those close to you make some tricky Christmas gift decisions much easier.  With a hardback cover featuring a silver embossed design it certainly looks like a proper present.  I’ve been trying out a few readings from it at the Latitude and Port Eliot festivals, and I’ll be working this into an audio-visual one hour talk that I’ll be doing at the Ilkley Literary festival on October 9th, and then a residency at the George Inn in Southwark, with one event a week from launch date till Christmas.  Hopefully there will be many more events around the country too – several are currently in the planning stages.

FOOD…

I wrote here a few weeks ago about how I’ve been judging beer and cider in broader food and drink competitions, where it sits alongside everything else and is evaluated by people from across the spectrum of food and drink rather than just beer people.

I think there is room for both kinds of competitions – you want to be judged by your peers to establish and reward technical excellence and superior brewing craftsmanship, but these broader competitions allow beer to play on a wider stage and be recognised more broadly.

First up were the Great Taste Awards, which had categories for both bottled beer and bottled cider.  Great Taste was set up as an antidote to supermarket ‘Finest’ and ‘Taste the Difference’ ranges, as an independent hallmark of great quality.  Some great beers were recognised in these awards – so much so that the Great Taste people invited me and food writer (and ardent beer fan) Charles Campion to put together a showcase menu at London’s swanky Cadogan Hotel. The info on this website is in imminent need of updating, but on Tuesday 14th August our menu using an award-winning beer in every course, created with chef Oliver Lesnik, goes live for a media launch.  I’ve matched beers with each dish, and there’s also going to be a beer and cheese matching menu in the afternoons.  The menu will run in the Cadogan’s restaurant, at a very reasonable £28 for three courses, for a couple of months.  I’ll write about how the press launch goes – if it goes well…  

… AND FARMING
Next up is the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards.  I’ve been asked to judge the drinks category along with wine writer Victoria Moore.  The Beeb want to inject a bit of drama this year by pitching beer and cider against wine.  Interestingly, a brewery has won the drinks category for the last two years, but this year English wine has finally started getting the international recognition it deserves – is it time for wine to strike back?  I’ve seen the first lot of nominations and the brewers are certainly the most enthusiastic again – if there’s a drinks maker of any description you’d like to see entered, find out more at the link above.  But hurry – nominations close on 12th August.  

APPLES AND PAIRS

One of Bill’s best cider images

I’ve been hinting at various adventures in cider over the last year or so, and things have finally come to fruition (sorry) on that score.  The whole Magner’s thing has led to revived interest in quality cider, and craft cider around the world at the moment is in a similar place to craft beer twenty years ago.  I’m working on cider with Bill Bradshaw – ace photographer and cider fanatic.  His beautifully shot cider blog is here.  Together, Bill and I are currently hard at work on the Guide to Welsh Perry and Cider, for the Welsh Perry and Cider Society.  This guidebook is going to be published in spring 2013 and maps for the first time the unsung hero of British cider (after Somerset and Herefordshire).  It is ridiculously good fun to research.

Mad Asturian bloke ‘throwing’ cider

At the same time, we’ve just signed the deal on the first ever world guide to cider – provisionally entitled World’s Best Ciders.  Hugh Johnson did it for wine, then Michel Jackson did it for beer.  We’re enormously proud to be doing a smilar job for cider, from the established classic regions like Somerset and Normandy, to the explosion that’s now happening in the US, to the ice wines of Canada, the eccentricity and tradition in Asturiàs, northern Spain, and emerging scenes such as Australia and Japan.  Sadly budget doesn’t allow us to travel to every single country, but we’ve already had various adventures, some of which will be in the book, some of which will emerge elsewhere.

CASK
Quite a few people have asked me if there’s going to be another Cask Report this year.  The answer is yes, sort of, but not quite.  We’re doing something called ‘Cask Matters’ instead this year, which is a monthly section in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser aiming to give more practical hands-on advice to publicans, and allow the flexibility to be topical.  There have been three so far, that can all be downloaded as PDFs from the PMA’s website:

We will also be producing a much shorter annual summary report which will detail how cask is doing, who’s drinking it, why you should stock it and so on.  This will be launched to coincide with Cask Ale Week at the end of September.

WORDS
I’ve also been writing tons of columns and a few pieces for national press.  You can see my regular Publican’s Morning Advertiser columns here; my stuff for London Loves Business here, and my stuff for Just Drinks (you  may need a password) here.  And here is a nice piece I got to do for Shortlist Magazine about the rise of craft beer.

Sorry this is such a busy, listy post – I’ve been meaning to write properly about all these things individually and ended up with a huge pile-up, which this post has now hopefully cleared.  From now on I’ll try to post a bit more regularly again.  On top of all the above I’ve been doing loads of travelling, and have some great stories about getting drunk in Ukraine, visiting hop farms in Slovenia, learning more about lager in Ceske Budejovice, and stacks more, so there’s so much to write about if I can find the time!

Thanks for reading.
  

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Beer is not as fattening as you think – and that’s official

No, the number of calories in a pint has not somehow miraculously fallen, or found to be overstated.  But new research carried out by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has found that a significant majority of people in Britain believe there are more calories in beer than there really are.

When asked, 60 per cent of men overestimated the calories in a pint, and a whopping 74% of women did the same.

The fact that three out of four women believe beer is more calorific than it really is is surely a significant factor in the very low proportion of women who drink beer, and one that is easily remedied – hey, brewers, you could simply do an information campaign informing people of the truth rather than spending million on a patronising clear ‘beer’ in a bottle with pretty flowers on.

Revealing details of the research, the BBPA included some handy stats which you may want to share with weight-conscious friends down the pub:

  • A half pint (284ml) of 2.8% ABV bitter is 80 calories
  • A half pint (284ml) of 4% ABV lager is 96 calories
  • A 175ml glass of 12.5% red wine is 119 calories
  • A 175ml glass of 12.5% white wine is 131 calories

Yes, a pint is more than a glass of wine.  But at 220 calories for a pint of premium cask ale, that’s really not too many (and the point is, it still remains much lower than most people think).  I once did WeightWatchers, and a pint of ale has the same points value as a naked baked potato with no filling, no butter, nothing.

I’m not sure there are many people who would describe a baked potato as fattening.  So why do people who drink beer get fat (because yes, some of them – me as a case in point – do)? Well, you wouldn’t have a nice dinner and then go out afterwards and eat five or six baked potatoes, would you? 

It’s all about moderation – the beer itself is not fattening, but eat or drink too much of anything and over time it will start to show.

And of course, the industry sanctioned lined – which also happens to be true – is that a bag of crisps almost doubles the calorific value of a round, while a packet of peanuts contains twice as many calories as a pint of beer.

On another note, you might have spotted the comparison above with a 2.8% pint of beer.  That’s because the research (carried out by ComRes with a sample of over 2000 adults nationwide) also asked people if they would consider drinking a 2.8% beer as a refresher on a hot day.  This follows the new tax break that came in last year for beers of 2.8% or below as an effort to get people to moderate their alcohol consumption.   (Something we could all have welcomed if it wasn’t being paid for by a tax hike on beers of over 7%, which hammers the craft beer industry and displays a total lack of understanding of the beer market).

A lot of drinkers – myself included – are sceptical about whether a beer can deliver flavour at 2.8%, and wonder why the limit wasn’t set at 3.4% – not a huge difference in alcohol, but a massive one in terms of what a brewer can do.  (Trinity from Redemption Brewery at 3% ABV is a beer that some people drink because it’s low ABV, but most drink in spite of its ABV – it’s simply a wonderful beer; forget the alcohol.)  But the research shows that about a third of people – more women than men – are happy to give 2.8% a go.

That figure would surely have been higher if the limit had been a little more realistic, but that’s what we’re stuck with and many brewers are now rising to the challenge of making beer at 2.8% that’s still worth drinking.  I’ll be doing a blind tasting of a wide range of low ABV beers very soon, damning the bad and praising any we find that are worth a go.  I know craft beer is playing in high ABVs just now, but when you drink as much beer as I do, it’s very nice indeed to have a low strength alternative.

And if it’s lower in calories too, well, that does us no harm at all.

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Guinness for You – A Warning From History

We’re in a hip East End Record Shop – a fitting venue for the headfuck that is about to follow.

It’s the launch of this excellent Double DVD from the BFI:

This is a collection old promotional films for pubs made between the 1940s and 1980s, and I’ll be writing more about the amazing collection of moving, educational and sometimes hilariously bad films in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser soon.  (There was a good if over-pessimistic review in the Guardian this week.)

On launch night, Robin Turner, author of this excellent book and the DVD sleeve notes, tells us we’re about to get ‘a ghostly view of what pubs used to be like’, does a reading, and then shows us a heartwarming film of pub life in 1945 that was made for troops fighting abroad, to show them what they were fighting for.  It brings a tear to the eye.  Luckily the lights are down.

After a short break for another beer (Sambrooks is sponsoring the event) one of the chaps from the Pub History Society introduces the next film.  It’s a short, experimental piece made in the early seventies for Guinness, basically looking at the production process, the care and attention that goes into a glass of Guinness, and was designed to be shown in cinemas.  Guinness has an unrivalled pedigree of TV advertising over the decades, but this is another story – the film is fifteen minutes long.  I’m suddenly very interested, never having come across it on any historical showreels in my time in advertising.  The Pub History Man keeps repeating the word ‘experimental’.  

“If any of you have tabs of acid, now is the time to take them,” he suggests.

There’s no need.

The next fifteen minutes shows what happens if you take the typical ‘making of beer’ film that every brewery has as part of its brewery tour, and you process it through a 1960s lysergic filter then broadcast it on Mars.  It’s a film about how a beer is made, but it’s more interested in colour, shape and texture than narrative. Guinness has never made – and never will make – anything as bold, daring, experimental and pure batshit crazy as this short film ever again.  And on balance, we should be thankful for that.

Bottles resemble aliens, the production line a spaceship.  The popping of a cork is like watching Martians fucking.  The printing of labels resembles insects eating.  The manufacture of bottle tops a plague of crickets having an orgy.  

Shit, we haven’t even got to the beer itself yet.

The bottling line is an Orwellian stew of rutting dead objects, filing to their doom as Arthur Guinness gazes on.

And then we’re onto barley growing, and it’s growing in a scary way, nature transmuted into a sinister force.  Your instincts tell you that you must never go near that awful field.  A combine harvester appears and turns the field into a concentration camp, a charnel house, the grassy final solution.  

There’s brief respite when we get to the hop farms, where the jagged electronic soundtrack is replaced by a wonderful, soaring cor anglais over peaceful images of hop bines and oast houses.  But hang on, what’s happening?  Now the hop bines are dancing like tripping triffids, and the cor anglais mutates into squawking, mewling modern jazz.

Water is something creepy and dangerous. Barley malt is a plague of locusts, the malting process the work of these countless billions of insects.  

Sparging offers us another brief interlude of beautiful visual poetry, but the results of the mash are landscapes devastated by nuclear war. As we prepare for the addition of the hops the music creates rising tension and fear, and then the boil is accompanied by a noise so terrifying this DVD should not have a PG certificate.

I can’t even bear to describe the timelapse imagery of yeast fermenting inside padlocked storage vats.  Let’s just say I won’t be able to sleep for about a week.

These scenes are intercut with a glass of Guinness being poured, the familiar anticipation as the drink makes its way to you.  Each time we cut to the glass we get monks chanting like they do on the Omen films just before someone gets cut in half or skewered by a spike.  By the time you see a human hand raising the glass, you want to cry “Nooooooooo! Don’t drink that, it’ll turn you into Swamp Thing!”

We never see the drinker.  But the film ends with multiple sighs of enjoyment that are cut artificially short – proof that this has actually happened.

Shaken, I turn to the sleeve notes.  The film was written and directed by Eric Marquis and the music was by ‘experimental British composer’ Tristram Cary, who also did music for Dr Who and for Hammer Horror films.  This makes a lot of sense.

Cary is no longer with us, but Marquis is, and fair play to the BFI, they not only track him down but publish the full details of their exchange with him.  He begins by saying he has ‘little memory of it’, and describes it as ‘twenty minutes or so of clever-dicky images’.

The BFI then sends Marquis a copy of the film to refresh his memory, and he replies, “My first reaction has been reinforced (and multiplied). If you do not wish this disc returned I will cheerfully burn it and wish that all other copies extant could also be destroyed!  I can only say that I am deeply ashamed of having had anything to do with the making of it.  And you can quote me if you like.”

What better endorsement could there be?

Hats off to the BFI for pulling this collection together. Buy it now. Just make sure there’s no one of a nervous disposition in the room when this particular film comes on.

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Dave Wickett, Beer Legend, RIP

Dave Wickett died. Bastard cancer.

This award-winning, iconic Sheffield pub would not have existed without Wickett

Wickett gave cancer more than it bargained for.  When cancer said, “You’ve got six months,” Wickett replied, “Fuck you,” and went off and planned and opened a new brewery, and carried on living life to the full for another two years.

Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on 16th May 2012.

He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2010.

How’s that for six months?

The much-loved 2004 Champion Beer of Britain would not have existed without Wickett

Beer is a tight-knit community.  If you’re reading this blog, you may well have met Dave Wickett.  If you didn’t, you probably know someone who did. And if you don’t think you did, I promise you you’re more closely connected then you might think. You’re probably no more than two – at a maximum, three – degrees of separation away from one of beer’s singular heroes.

I knew Wickett (everyone just called him Wickett) pretty well.  Not as well as his close friends and colleagues, but pretty well, because I was supposed to be ghosting his autobiography.  To my shame I didn’t get as far with that as I wanted to before he died – not by a long way.  I hope it will eventually reach fruition, but that discussion is for some time later.

Wickett grew up on the outskirts of London in the swinging sixties. He saw England win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 (football was his great passion before beer ever was), and off the back of that, in a somewhat unlikely fashion (the story of his life) ended up in Sheffield – a city he much preferred to the UK’s capital. That, in itself, is a big clue – here was a man who saw things differently.

You’re probably familiar with the story of how CAMRA came to the rescue of British cask ale in the 1970s.  You may be less familiar with what Wickett did.  He never threw himself into committees and mock funerals for closing breweries.  He had little interest in the politics of the organisation.  But he read and absorbed, and used the fledgling Good Beer Guide like a bible. But as a Polytechnic Economics lecturer, he also balanced passion for real ale with objective business nous – which brought him to the same place as his passion.  So he bought a run-down freehouse pub in a derelict area of Sheffield, named it the Fat Cat, and set out a stall consisting of a decent real ale selection and a food menu that always had a veggie option, winning heaps of awards over the next 30 years.

This brewery would probably never have happened without Wickett

In order to make the pub work as he wanted it to, Wickett challenged the declining 1970s real ale brewers to change the way they did business. They had to, if they wanted to supply him – and this new business arrangement would change the fortunes of countless other pubs.

In his lectures, he used real ale as a case study to prove how big business was distorting the ‘principles’ of the free market by using anti-competitive measures to deny choice to the consumer – something even Margaret Thatcher would have objected to – and when the Tories did object, and created a guest beer rule that freed pubs from a 100% brewery tie, Wickett opened his own brewery, Kelham Island in Sheffield. Kelham Island Pale Rider was Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, an early example of the golden ale that has now come to dominate Britain’s cask ale revival.

He’d been busy in the day job too, and had taken on responsibility for an innovative student exchange/placement programme that saw some of his Sheffield business students going to Rochester, New York, to run the first proper English pub in the US – the Old Toad, which helped pioneer cask ale in America.

The brewer on the left was hired for his first job in brewing by Dave Wickett

Wickett was never in it to make a high pile of cash.  He wanted to live a comfortable life doing what he loved.  He often compared himself to J D Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin, who opened his first pub in the same year Wickett did.  Wickett sometimes pondered if he should have gone down a more aggressive, chain-building route, and was often asked why he didn’t do that.  But he was always happy with his choices – he preferred running what he had, and taking on new challenges as and when they interested him.

So while Wetherspoons expanded with a fixed format across hundreds of branches, Wickett decided to open Champs, a sports bar in Sheffield.  Then he decided to invest in and guide the development of a tiny new brewery called Thornbridge.  He hired the two young brewers – one of them being Martin Dickie, who would later go on to co-found Brew Dog. But when Thornbridge wanted to grow at a greater rate, Wickett pulled out amicably, wished them well, and looked for new projects.

Sheffield is the real ale capital of the world thanks to Dave Wickett

After he was diagnosed with cancer, he opened another new brewery, Welbeck Abbey, as part of the School of Artisan Food.  It’s still in its infancy, but as part of a brilliant set-up that teaches people about great food and drink across the board, offering lessons in disciplines such as baking and butchery, with the makers of Stichelton cheese also included as part of the set-up, it’s another innovative operation that will help take serious beer appreciation onto a broader foodie stage.

Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, the ripples of Wickett’s actions were extraordinary.  Wickett wasn’t always an easy taskmaster, and over the years various brewers fell out with him, felt frustrated with his direction, or weren’t good enough to keep their jobs.  The extraordinary thing is that just about everyone who quit or was fired from Kelham Island went on to start a brewery of their own, often less than a couple of miles away.  Kelham is now at the centre of a dense cloud of microbreweries, and Sheffield has more cask ales on tap at any one time than any other city in the world.

Dave Wickett leaves an extraordinary legacy to the beer world.  Not just from his own actions, but from the people he inspired and who have imitated him.  The ripples of his brilliant life and career will continue to influence the beer world for years to come.

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Beer? Books? Classic Albums? Perfect Pubs? GIN?! It can only be Stokeylitfest

If you’re in North London, or fancy making the journey, you should wear your clever drinking boots on Jubilee Weekend.

The Stoke Newington Literary Festival is organised every year by my wife, and it takes place this year on 1st to 3rd June, and between stocking bars, introducing acts on stage, running to CostCo and directing volunteers, I’ll be doing a couple of events you might be interested in.

On Saturday 2nd June I’m teaming up with Robin Turner to talk perfect London pubs.  Robin is one of the co-authors of this excellent book, which you should definitely read, and not just because I’m in it:

I’ve often spoken about my huge admiration for The Moon Under Water by George Orwell, the best thing anyone has ever written about pubs.  Robin and his co-writer Paul Moody, who together run the excellent Caught by the River, travelled the country trying to find Orwell’s vision.  Yes, they looked in Wetherspoons, and they looked in many other places as well, including London.  As my new book is about a legendary London pub, the George in Southwark:

we thought we’d get together and chat about some Perfect London Pubs, and what makes them so.  We’ll be doing that over a beer upstairs in the White Hart (one of my perfect London pubs) on Saturday 2nd at 1pm.

The following day, I’ll be back in the same place for a beer and music matching event.  Last year I did beer and book matching and it went down pretty well, so I’ve moved it on this year.  I wrote ages ago about how scientists have proved that listening to particular styles of music can actually change the taste of what you’re drinking.  It’s called Cognitive Priming Theory, and means that particular combinations can create a greater overall sensory experience.  I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and in February I put it to the test with a feature in WORD magazine where I matched up ten beers with ten classic albums.

Duvel, for example, poured from the bottle into its tulip glass, is so feisty it tries to climb up the walls off the glass as if it’s trying to get out and claw your face off.  This is exactly the same experience as the opening chords of Debaser by the Pixies.  Put the two together and it’s wildly exhilarating.

Hopback Summer Lightning is too mellow to go with the Pixies and would jar slightly, but put it with Higher than the Sun of Slip Inside This House from Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and you create a woozy, sun-kissed tip that takes you half way to Ibiza.  Brew Dog Abstrakt 08 with Public Enemy? Thornbridge Jaipur with the Stone Roses?  The possibilities are endless.  I’ll be choosing six at 1pm in the White Hart.

The link back to books from that one may be tenuous, but Stokeylitfest has always had a strong musical bent too, and this year we’ve also got Wilko Johnson, a retrospective on the NME with some of its most illustrious former hacks, a review of indie music, and loads more.  Check out the website for full details.

And that’s not the end of the booze.  Refreshed after my event (some beers will be included in the admission price) you may want to toddle along to the talk being hosted by festival sponsors Hendrick’s Gin.

They’re going to take us on a tour through the history of gin, and some of the legendary writers and characters it has inspired, with some free samples throughout.

With a unique festival beer brewed by Redemption, and other bar sponsors including Aspall’s and Budvar, we’ll be showing how brain food and booze are the perfect combination.

See you there.