Tag: cask ale

| Uncategorised

Barnsley man fails in quest to revolutionise pub, but gets credit anyway

Just writing a feature about the innovation that’s happening in cask ale dispense right now, with new hand pumps from Greene King, Bombardier, Black Sheep and others. And I just found out something that absolutely delights me.

The invention of the beer engine or handpump is commonly credited to one Joseph Bramah, a hydraulic engineer and locksmith who invented the hydraulic press, a decent toilet, a money printing press, and lots of other stuff.
On 31st October 1797 he successfully gained a patent for a manually operated beer-pump which he believed would have tremendous advantages for “the masters of families and publicans’.
Because there’s no previous patent, he is cited everywhere as the inventor of the modern beer engine. But the truth is that his device bore no resemblance to the modern (i.e. traditional) hand pump, and never dispensed a single pint of beer. Whereas hand pumps depend on pressure from the beer engine on the bar to create a vacuum that draws the beer up the line for the cask, Bramah’s sketches show a system of pistons inside casks, weighted with heavy bags of sand. The piston pushes the beer down inside the cask, through an opening in the bottom, and up the pipe to a simple tap at the bar.
There were two impracticalities here: one, pub cellars didn’t have the height to set up the pulleys and weights required. Two, we all know what beer casks look like. They have curved sides – making them utterly useless for any kind of internal piston action. The publican would have had to transfer beer upon delivery into special containers the piston could work with, which would have been far more work than just getting the pot boy to run down to the cellar and dispense the beer manually, which is what the system was meant to replace.
The story is confusing because the beer engine that actually worked was in widespread use just a few years after Bramah registered his patent. But whoever came up with the successful idea, there is no record of them – and it wasn’t Bramah.
Anyway, that’s all fine. But the thing that caught my eye is that while Bramah may have been a rubbish beer inventor, he was from t’Tarn! Joseph Bramah was born in Stainborough Lane Farm in Wentworth, South Yorkshire, just outside Barnsley. Of course, Wentworth is the wrong side of Barnsley – it’s out towards Rawmarsh. He may have been within walking distance of Jump, home of Percy Turner’s legendary pork pies, but south of Barnsley is still south of Barnsley. Anyway, in 1783 he made up for the error of his birth by going on to marry Mary Lawton, who came from Mapplewell – the village I grew up in!
He probably had a pint in the Talbot. He probably met Mary while going round tarn on a Friday night, maybe in Ye Walkeabout.
Anyway, the couple soon moved down south, to That London.
Well, they had to. If you tried being an inventor in Barnsley they’d just laugh at you and say “Thee and thi fancy hydraulics. Backbreaking labour in the white heat of the world’s first industrial revolution, man and machine chained together as one not good enough for thee and thi posh mates, is it?”
Two centuries later, I feel a certain bond with this man from Barnsley who tried to change the face of beer, failed, but is still remembered for something he didn’t actually do.
Detail on Bramah’s rubbish beer pump and the emergence of one that worked are from Peter Mathias’ excellent Brewing History in England 1700-1830. A bible to any beer historian since 1959.

| Uncategorised

Britain’s National Drink – the new Cask Report launches today

Cask beer – or real ale – is outperforming every other beer style. It’s returned to volume growth. The number of women drinking it has doubled year on year. It creates a unique ‘value chain’ that helps pubs become more profitable.

All this and more is featured in the Cask Report, which I’m launching with a press conference at Brew Wharf tonight.
This is the third year I’ve been invited to write this annual report, backed by micro, family and regional brewers, Cask Marque, CAMRA and SIBA. I got paid for writing it – hell, it takes four months to do – but I strive to remain independent while doing so.
The first cask report (then called The Intelligent Choice) showed that cask ale wasn’t doing quite as badly as everyone thought – it was declining by no more than the beer market generally.
Last year we showed it was declining at a much lower rate than other beers.
This year we’re revealing what will hopefully become a return to volume growth – cask grew by 1% in the first six months of 2009, and current trends suggest it will show a full year of growth by December. Remarkable given all the shit pubs are currently having to contend with.
This demonstrates that the taste for craft-brewed, flavourful beer is no longer confined to a beardy few. Great beer is going mainstream, and that’s a good thing.
The challenge with all this is persuading a few more pubs that there’s something in it for them. cask still sells at a lower price than most beers on the bar. Great for those drinkers on a tight budget, not so great for the publican who’s struggling to make a living.
The Cask Report reveals that cask ale creates a value chain that brings more affluent drinkers to the pub, more often and in greater numbers, who spend more money on everything – not just cask ale – while they’re in there. I’m not arguing that decent cask ale pubs are immune to recession, but they are closing at a much slower rate than pubs generally.
Please read the report, or at least the press release. Tell your friends. Tell your local publican. You rarely hear any good news in the broader beer market these days – and this really is great news.

| Uncategorised

Cask ale pricing is stupid: discuss

My latest monthly column for the Publican magazine is here.

There’s going to be a lot of chat about cask ale round here in the next month! New Cask Report coming out on October 5th. If I can finish writing it in time…

| Uncategorised

Hurrah for the Great British Beer Festival

Feeling very benign about the world this morning after a cracking 21st birthday bash for the British Guild of Beer Writers last night.

And I don’t know if it’s just that this year we’re all twittered, blogged and facebooked to the gunnels, but I’m feeling a real buzz of excitement about GBBF that I’ve never felt before.
I say that as someone who first made my name as a beer writer by dissing CAMRA and GBBF. Seven or eight years ago, when I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, I was sickened by the fact that no one ever seemed to criticise CAMRA in print. Even back then I went to the GBBF every year. I obviously thought it was a worthwhile event. But I saw big problems with it that prevented it from becoming even better. Many of those problems have now disappeared. Some are still there.
I still criticise CAMRA today – in fact I do so in this week’s Publican – because no one in the world is above criticism. But I’ll be queuing outside when the doors open at twelve. I’ll be there with people who will complain throughout the afternoon about the acoustics, about the weird way it’s organised by region, about the grumble between regional brewers and micros – both of whom will feel under-represented and hard done by compared to the other – and about the freakish volunteers enjoying their day in the sun, their moment of power, as they get to boss us around.
But for all that – we’ll be there. And we’ll have been looking forward to it for weeks. And we’ll all try beers we’ve never seen before, and all rush to sample the winners before they run out, and we’ll all have the same conversations we had last year with people we haven’t seen since last year and we’ll all end the day rhapsodising at the bieres sans frontieres bar and unwisely consuming one too many American extreme mofos before making our way unsteadily back to the tube. And we’ll look back on it with fondness.
GBBF isn’t perfect – but it’s pretty damn special, and I’ll admit to loving it through gritted teeth if you will.
I’m signing copies of Hops & Glory on the bookstand at 5pm today and tomorrow.
See you there.

| Uncategorised

Beer and marketing

I didn’t mean to sound too critical of the multinational I mentioned yesterday – it’s what I expected them to do.  At that scale, it is about branding first, brewing second.  And when your brewing all takes place inside shiny sealed closed tanks and happens at the push of a button, there’s not so much you can talk about anyway. Small brewers undoubtedly have an advantage when there’s a sense of a guy who brews the beer, who has a sort of marriage to it, and who can show you the insides of how it’s made if you talk to him or, even better, visit his brewery.

But many small brewers often go too far the other way and seemingly reject marketing as somehow evil.  I’ve – hopefully – recently worked my last day inside an ad agency because a great deal of what I had to do there made me feel dirty.  It wasn’t the process, the craft of marketing itself that was the problem – it was the kind of people it attracted, what they will do to get on, and what we were all obliged to do when unpleasant companies gave us the money that paid our frozen salaries and Martin Sorrell’s £60m bonus.
Sorry, this is going to turn into another long post – too much pent up blogging over the last few weeks!
If you take the tools of marketing and use them in a good way, they’re not evil.  Marketing does coerce people, but 90% of the time it does so with their consent.  People are marketing-savvy, and choose to either play the game or not.  And we live in a branded age – it’s simply how things work.  If you choose not to play, you go invisible, or look very dated and stuffy.
When I first started writing about beer, I was really pissed off with CAMRA in this respect. Prominent CAMRA members frequently wrote about how people only drank lager because they had been brainwashed by big brewers with shiny ads.  What an insulting, snobbish, elitist thing to say – “you proles have no individual will, and you are too weak to resist this mass social conditioning – whereas I am immune to it, because in some way, I am cleverer than the masses.”  And by refusing to play the marketing game, standing outside it, these people by default made CAMRA seem like a very stuffy, geeky organisation filled with the kind of people you wouldn’t want to associate or be identified with.
I’ve learned a lot about CAMRA over the last six or seven years. The organisation is modernising itself and learning to play the game, and at central office at least, there are people who are forward looking, PR-savvy, and are very effective at engaging with the broader world.  I’ve also learned that CAMRA is a loose umbrella that holds many divergent opinions.  The vast majority of members are ordinary, decent people who really like good cask ale and – gasp – occasionally, on the hot day, might have a pint of Heineken instead.  But I have also met a great many hardcore nutters who clearly wear tinfoil hats when they’re not releasing vile silent-but-deadly farts as they raise their personalised pewter tankards at beer festivals. You still hear these people saying lager is evil, that people who drink it are stupid, neither realising nor caring that they are actively discouraging new converts to cask ale by their appearance and behaviour.  It’s fantastic that CAMRA membership is about to break the 100,000 barrier.  But in the context that there are 7 million regular cask ale drinkers in the UK, it’s obvious many still feel the organisation doesn’t represent them.
(My only remaining gripe with CAMRA central on this score is that the weird, unpleasant anthropomorphic people with pints growing out of their heads is a long way past its sell-by date.)  
This is all a hideously overlong and rambling prelude to saying, ‘Hurrah!  The SIBA Business Awards are back!’  SIBA is a trade body for small and independent brewers in the UK.  The vast majority of the beer these brewers make is cask ale.  It could very easily have become like CAMRA of old, a fogeyish trade body mirroring the consumer movement.  But it hasn’t. Big brewers want to join SIBA.  It’s rapidly becoming seen by many as the major voice for the brewing industry.  And while they celebrate great brewing at their annual conference, as of course they should, the business awards celebrate best support of customers, best use of PR, best use of new media, best packaging, best launch etc.  
What these awards demonstrate is that effective marketing doesn’t require the multi-million pound budgets of the big four multinationals who dominate the British market.  I write regular features for the Brewers Guardian showing how tools like great label design, viral marketing and effective use of PR can be done by any brewer of any size with a little effort and time.
People like Stonch have blogged consistently about how depressing it is to see beers with names like ‘Old Pisshead’ or pump clips featuring scantily clad women.  It makes the whole industry, and the people who drink their products, look like twelve year-olds.  On the other hand, look at Thornbridge, Brew Dog, Wye Valley, Otley.  Brew Dog may be loved mainly for the bravery of its brews, and Thornbridge also brew beers that, as they say, are ‘never ordinary’.  But all four of these breweries give as much love and attention to creating modern, contemporary design – design that’s bringing in new people to try their beers.  They are all experiencing soaring sales.
So if you’re a brewer and you’re not entering the SIBA Business Awards, you need to ask yourself why. If the multinationals spend more time thinking about marketing than brewing, it’s because it works for them.  There are only a few breweries who are excellent at both brewing and branding.  And look how they take off when both are great. 

| Uncategorised

Hurrah for David Mitchell!

Fans of Peep Show or, slightly less likely, of That Mitchell & Webb Look, will be delighted to know that David Mitchell (yeah, the nerdy one) is a real ale fan, and not afraid to admit it (even though he simply calls it bitter, he goes to some lengths to distinguish it from ‘creamy’ bitters).

“Nicer than lager, more democratic than wine, and not in the least bit creamy.”  You can’t argue with that, really.
He talks some sense, which makes up for the fact that it’s not exactly laugh-a-minute.  N0-one said he had to be funny all the time, and there’s a meerkat in it if you think there absolutely must be some kind of comedy element.
I found this on i-tunes – it’s an episode of David Mitchell’s soap box, a regular video podcast. This is the first time I’ve attempted to upload some video.  

| Uncategorised

Cask Ale Caption Competition

So Cask Ale Week launched yesterday at the Betjeman Arms in St Pancras.  The first thing that struck me about the event was how stunningly beautiful Melanie Sykes is in the flesh.  The second thing that struck me is that the only journalists in attendance were me and a bloke from The Publican.

So in the face of total and utter indifference from the British press and, it seems, the beer community, let’s have a caption competition instead.  The winner receives a free copy of my new book Hops and Glory, on publication date – now a mere eight weeks away.
(Oh by the way, the less attractive person in this picture is TV’s Oz Clarke).
Away you go!

| Uncategorised

By ‘eck! It’s Cask Ale week!

The UK’s biggest ever celebration of cask ale starts next week.  When I posted about it a few weeks ago people were a bit, “um, what’s the point?”  So here’s a bit more detail.

Cask ale is the best performing sector of the British market, and the work in our Intelligent Choice report shows why.  It gives pubs a point of difference over supermarkets.  If it’s kept well, it speaks volumes about quality standards in the rest of the pub.  It attracts an older, more affluent clientele.  So that’s why it’s being promoted.  It’s the first time all Britain’s major cask ale brewers have pulled together to do something like this.
Things kick off with a press launch at St Pancras station at 10am on Monday 6th, where Melanie Sykes will kick things off and, perhaps unfortunately, Oz Clarke and James May will also be in attendance.  From noon till 7pm, thousands of samples of cask ale will be handed out to commuters – only 35% of people have ever tried it, but when people do 40% of them switch to drinking it.  If you write about beer and you’re nearby, it’s worth popping along.
On Wednesday there’s a big push to get women to try cask ale, because only 16% of British women have ever tried it. 
On Thursday there’s a big push to get ale drinkers to introduce a friend to it.
On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of breweries will be throwing open their doors to the public for tours.
And on Sunday, they’re going to attempt the world’s biggest toast, getting thousands of people in pubs up and down the country to raise a glass at the same time, monitored by the Guinness Book of Records.
Your local pub should have some interesting guest ales on.  At the very least, it’s an opportunity to have a few pints and maybe try to convert a friend.  I’m sure it won’t be perfect as an event, but it deserves to succeed and it can only be in any beer lover’s interest that it does.

| Uncategorised

Four weeks to go till Britain’s biggest celebration of cask ale

Apologies for the lack of activity in recent weeks – an unexpected close family bereavement has kept me away from the real world for three weeks or so.  The only consolation to come out of a pretty horrible time was becoming more familiar with beers around Wales, which I might rave about later at some point.

Anyway, back to business, and my first brush with the outside world came last week, when I attended a meeting of regional and local ale brewers who spent half a day discussing how cask ale might be promoted more bullishly and effectively.
The first thing to share out of this was the latest news on the first ever National Cask Ale Week, which starts on 6th April wherever you see this logo, and runs over Easter.  What’s special about this is it’s not just an initiative by CAMRA or Wetherspoons.  Organised by Cask Marque, it has active support across the entire beer and pub industry, with major pub cos, the Daily Telegraph, various celebrities and (to date) over 5000 pubs joining in, as well as the aforementioned stalwart cask ale champions.  
Full details are here.  
The idea is to recruit a million new cask ale drinkers over the course of the week, and I think they’ll do it.  Whatever happens, this kind of big idea, with support from so many bodies, is exactly what the brewing industry needs.