Tag: lager

| Advertising, Beer, Beer Marketing, Marketing

How Big Lager Lost The Plot And Developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do you do?   

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And lose all sense of perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a sneak preview clip:

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Brew Dog hires rank amateurs to create its latest beer

Entering the revolutionary spirit

Well, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.  Especially when, with their trade mark hyperbole, Brew Dog publicly referred to us as ‘the rock stars of the beer blogging world’*.

On 27th January, massively and pathetically hungover after hosting a beer dinner at Musa Aberdeen, Mark Dredge, Zak Avery and me were whisked up to Fraserburgh to brew a beer we had designed.  (When I say ‘we’, I mean mainly Zak and Mark thought about it and designed it and I said ‘yes’.)

We went into the hops store and chose the hops.  We tipped the frankly worrying amount of malt into the mash tun, which we filled almost to the top, and we made Young Dredge stand on top of a ladder and do a continuous addition of hops throughout the boil.  I’ve no idea how long this took him, because I bailed out early and was on my way home by then (to be fair, my flight was booked weeks before and brewing somehow took a lot longer – or started a lot later – than we had thought.)

The result is a 7.5% ‘Imperious Pilsner’.  Zak wrote some label copy that goes on about killing your ideals and worshipping your heroes and stuff, which is really good and adorns the bottle label.  But basically it’s doing to lager what new wave brewers such as Brew Dog have done to pale ales, porters and stouts.  (I’m not saying we’re the first – just that that’s what we did.)  It features an insane amount of Saaz hops, and was lagered for a full six weeks before being dry-hopped with yet more Saaz.

If we were music writers being offered the chance to go and make a record with a popular and influential band, the result would be horrible beyond belief.  One of the nice things about the brewing world is that an idea like this can actually work out quite well.

The result of our collaboration is a bitter, hoppy character that’s refreshingly different from the prevailing, ubiquitous Citra-sy trend.  It’s more elegant, more structured, more noble – a classy beer, a very firm, gentlemanly shake of the hand rather than a slap around the face.

We’re giving Avery Brown Dredge a triple-headed launch this Thursday, 31st March, at three separate locations.  Zak will be at the North Bar in Leeds,  I’ll be at the Jolly Butchers, London N16, and Mark will be at the Rake, London SE1, at 7.30pm.  We’ll probably link up with something like a #ABD hash tag on Twitter and try to do some Live Aid style three headed technology shenanigans.

Brew Dog MD James Watt will be joining me at JBs, and various other Brew Dog honchos will be at the other locations.  These will be the only three outlets in the UK with the beer on draught, with just one keg each, so get there fast.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other Brew Dog treats turning up as well…

Post launch, the beer will be available only from the Brew Dog online shop.  We hope you enjoy it!

*Being called rock stars, we had to decide which ones we were.  Well, I did.  Mark is obviously one of McFly.  Zak is Flea out of Red Hot Chilli Peppers (I did not see his sock).  And I’ hoping to be Hooky out of New Order, but am probably Gary Barlow.

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Mainstream lager makes decent ad

Kronenbourg’s advertising strategy has, over the years, always seemed a little lost to me – like the brand doesn’t really know what it wants to be.   It’s arty – or maybe not.  It’s French – OK, but does anyone care?  It’s got small bubbles in it – oh, puh-leease.

The new campaign launches this weekend, and it’s based on the idea of slowing things down.  I’m not yet convinced by this as a strategy for a mainstream premium lager – it feels more like ale or stout territory.  But as this is what I used to do for a living, I can take a decent stab at post-rationalising how they got here.

They’re not talking to bitter or stout drinkers but to people who almost always drink lager.  Lager has become commoditised, boring, indifferent an interchangeable.  It has a loutish image.  Kronenbourg is positioning itself as a more thoughtful, grown up brand.  Its French heritage allows it to do this, because French cafe culture is slower and more laid back than British pub culture.  How am I doing, BBH guys?  I’ve almost convinced myself here.

So, on to the ad itself:

French face culture is slower – just look at the effect it’s had on Lemmy (who, famously, was recently told that he had to slow down by doctors, now he’s in his sixties and suffering from illness.  His manager famously said, ‘He is slowing down – he now takes ice in his Jack Daniels’.)

The fact that Ace of Spades is a classic song and actually works well as a blues number stops the ad from becoming a cheap, one-shot joke, and the docu-realism of the way it’s shot means it cleverly navigates the thorny issue of doing slow, mellow and mature in a way that’s stylish and contemporary.

And there’s a longer, showreel version of it here:

I’m almost there on the strategy of Kronenbourg doing slow, but not quite.  But never mind that – the ad itself shows there are still great things that beer advertising can do, and I think it will be successful.

The track will soon be available to download.  You can follow the campaign on Twitter http://twitter.com/K1664slow , where they’re asking people to help pull together the ultimate slowed down playlist.

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What I did on my holidays

Post Cask Report launch, the Beer Widow and I took a much-needed week’s holiday and went to Majorca.

I’d heard that there were nice parts of it, that it wasn’t all Costa del Puke.  What I wasn’t expecting was for the vast majority of the island to be beautiful, with loads of fantastic historic towns and villages, with the seedier side of British and German holidaymaking confined to a few small strips of coastline.  It’s a wonderful place.

Admittedly it doesn’t start well, when this is what greets you even before passport control:

Oh.  Great. 
Spain has some great lagers.  They’re not finely structured Pilsners.  They don’t have a delicate nose of grassy, spicy Saaz hops.  But they come with a tight, creamy head, and they have flavour – a nice full-bodied sharp sweetness followed by a drying bitter finish.  There’s substance in the likes of Estrella and Cruzcampo.  They’re satisfying drinks.
We didn’t do much in Port de Pollensa.  We read books and sat on terraces along the unspoiled, pine tree-lined pathway along the bay shore, relaxing and gazing at sunsets like this one:
“Of course they were much better than this on board Europe you know.”
“Yes dear.”
Wary of the airport Carling ad, for the first few days I asked what the beer was whenever I ordered one, and it was always Estrella or Cruzcampo.  The latter soon emerged as my favourite, and we gravitated to the bars that served it.
And so I relaxed.  And I grew complacent.
On our fourth night we tried a new restaurant, and I just asked for a beer.  When it arrived in a Strongbow pint glass, an alarm bell started ringing in my head, but not quickly enough.  I took a mouthful of something that was thin and watery, and yet still managed to taste offensive – overly sweet and cloying, like watered down Cresta soda.  
“That’s Fosters,” I spluttered, to an eye-rolling Beer Widow.
The thing is, I can actually drink Carling.  If you haven’t yet had a beer that day, so your palate hasn’t yet been woken to the flavour profile it expects, Carling is merely bland.  It’s unremarkable but inoffensive, like a sense memory of a decent beer that you almost evoke, but not quite. Whereas Foster’s is one of those special beers that manages to be bland and actively taste foul at the same time.  I’ve never been able to understand how they do that.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part was that later, when I went inside to the loo.  I walked past the bar and saw that there were two draught beer fonts: Fosters (so I had identified it correctly – get me) and next to it, Cruzcampo.
My heart sank.  Because this meant that when I’d ordered my Cerveza with a heavy English accent, the waiter hadn’t even bothered to explain that there was a choice of beers, and ask me which I would like.  He’d simply heard my accent, and assumed that I would be a Foster’s drinker.  I was English.  Therefore I would want the shit, English beer rather than the halfway decent Spanish one.  He knew this.  He didn’t even have to ask.
When I wrote about Chodovar I wondered why we Brits actively choose to drink shit quality lager.  I pointed out that well made lagers were no more challenging or difficult to get into, no less fizzy or refreshing.  They were just nicer.  Now, more depressing than that, we actually insist on taking our inferior beer abroad with us, and drinking it when there is a much nicer beer waiting there for us.  I’m sure it costs more to buy Foster’s in Spain than Cruzcampo, and there’s simply no comparison between them.  Depressing.
To cheer myself up, we went to the offie.  I was hoping to find a decent Fino or Madeira.  I failed, but we found something much better – the two best spirits brands I’ve ever seen.
First up, here’s Capitan Huk rum:

I’ve no idea who makes this.  I’m guessing it’s not Diageo.
This is one of the best brands I have ever seen in my life.  I can imagine the meeting that gave birth to it. Translated from the Spanish, it went roughly as follows:
“OK, so we’re going to launch a rum. How should we brand it?”  
“Well, the history of rum is tied inextricably with the British navy.  If we’re going to sell this to holiday-making Brits, that would be a good association to evoke.  They’re always wearing England shirts and that, so if we create a sort of naval ensign flag that combines the Union Jack and the St George’s Cross we’re onto a winner!”
“Brilliant!  Let’s do it! So who shall we get to draw the label then?”
“How about my eight year old son?”
“Brilliant!  Does he know what the Union Jack looks like?”
“OK, but given that we’re investing a sizeable amount of money in launching a new brand, should we at least perhaps give him some visual reference so he gets it at least partly accurate?”
“No, fuck it, I’ll just describe vaguely what a Union Jack looks like, and then invest several thousand Euros in printing up the first thing he comes up with.”
“OK, cool.  So what about a name?  Something English and naval…”
“How about Captain Hook?”
“Wasn’t he a pirate in a children’s story, and therefore both fictitious and absolutely nothing to do with the British navy?”
“Ok, works for me.”
But Capitan Huk was not the best brand in that offie.  Oh no.  The best brand, high on the top shelf, out of reach without the use of a stepladder, was this muscular bad boy:
It says ‘Viking Ship’ on the bottom.  In case you don’t know what the drawing is.

LARSEN, the cognac of vikings.

The very concept of a ‘cognac of Vikings’ is wrong in so many different multi-layered ways, the person who dreamed it up can only be genius.

Every single part of the execution of that concept reinforces the original wrong-headedness of it.

The random inclusion of ‘fine champagne’ just to reinforce the quality cues.

Labelling it with ‘Viking Ship’ like a child would label his drawing.

‘Le Cognac des Vikings.’

I’m in mourning that I didn’t go out and get a stepladder and buy this, just so I could look at it every day when I needed to smile.

Sparkly hat
Anyway we had a great holiday, even if we did have to fly Ryanair.  At the airport on the way home we, along with a long, snaking queue of other budget holiday makers, used unstaffed check-in desks to weigh our bags and repack them to stay within the airline’s draconian baggage weight restrictions.  Here and there, items were discarded.  And in one waste bin, about half an hour’s queuing away from the one check-in desk Ryanair deigned to open, we saw this:


At some point, the glittery cowboy hat has replaced the Kiss-Me-Quick policewoman’s hat in British holidaymaking law, quickly and completely.  If a picture paints a thousand words, this one tells you the story of a thousand Mediterranean holidays, encapsulated perfectly.  The object itself.  The fact that it’s been discarded.  The fact that it was only discarded minutes before check-in.

Did its owner intend to take it home then change her mind? Or did it symbolise her holiday, and was she clinging to that holiday till the last possible second?

Did she think “Oh I can’t be arsed to take this on board now I think about it,” or did she think, “I can’t bear to part with you, and all that you represent.  But I must.  For tomorrow I have to go back up Tesco’s.”

The tanlines fade.  But the pint of Carling will always be there for us.

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Chodovar and the Bohemia/Bavaria beer nation

So after the future comes the past.

An hour or so on a minibus from Prague to Plzen, delayed by Tierney-Jones’ alarm not going off.  Bags dropped in a charming pension in town, then back on the minibus and out along motorways through forests and fields towards Chodovar.
There’s a big hotel, a brewery behind it, and as we drive around the back of this complex, the entrance to a tunnel.

You wouldn’t believe what’s inside this cave entrance…

Inside is a vast labyrinth of caves hewn from granite over a period of six centuries.  Now there’s a restaurant at the heart of it, busy on a Friday lunchtime with families, couples, goths, and gangs of sweet little old ladies, all drinking pints of Chodovar beer.  

These caves were originally hollowed out to store or ‘lager’ the beer, cut from solid granite.  The natural temperature in here os between 3 and 5 degrees celcius, and beyond the restaurant and the tourist tat, horizontal fermentation tanks are still embedded in the rock.
Jiri Plevka’s family have worked here as brewers for 220 years.  In 1992 they took over as managers, and Jiri now runs the place.  “Every member of the family is a brewer,” he says. “Beer is our blood.  What matters to us the most is the quality of the beer.  Money comes second.” 
They certainly make a lot of money – we’re only nine miles form the German border, and this complex has all the hallmarks of a coach trip tourist trap – so if money only comes second, the beer has to be amazing.  
And it is.  
Jiri brings us pints of unfiltered, unpasteurised lager straight for the cellar, a beer that’s only available in this restaurant.  It’s an elixir to my hangover, a bready, spicy, grassy Kellerbier.  
Chodovar is a geographical curiosity.  I’ve always said that Bohemia and Bavaria, separated by a national border, are in fact two halves of a beery nation that belong together, and you really feel that here.  Josef Groll, the brewer who made Plzen famous, was a Bavarian.  You get the impression that Chodovar does more business with Germans than Czechs, and there are German influences in the brewing.  But the region has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status form the EU, meaning that ‘Chodske Pivo’ is unique – only ever brewed with ingredients from this region, including Saaz hops.
Just to confuse the regional identity further though, the local pronunciation of ‘Chodske’ sounds very similar to the way the Czechs talk about ‘Scotland’, and they joke that Scotland is the most northerly part of Chodske.  “Both places enjoy rainy weather, beautiful countryside, and have the same crops – you make whisky from the same ingredients as beer,” says Jiri.  
He underlines this by distilling a clear spirit from his beer.  But maybe he’s taking things a bit too far when he insists that he plays bagpipes at home.

OK it might just look like an empty room.  But this is a traditional floor maltings! In a brewery!

After this first beer we get a tour of the brewery.  It malts its own barley in an impressive maltings, with three female maltsters.  The traditional back-breaking work of turning the grain is made substantially easier with the help of little sit-on lawnmower-type machines that turn the malt.

The brewhouse itself is lovely, like all Czech brewhouses, all gleaming copper and long, fat, shiny pipes.

They do know how to build a lovely brewhouse in the Czech Republic

But it’s those granite cellars where the magic happens.  In the week that A-B Inbev shamefully refused to tell journalists how long the new “premium” Stella Black is matured for – despite having the audacity to launch it on a positioning that it is ‘matured for longer’ –  Chodovar gave us a powerful reminder of the magic and integrity of true lagering, and a demonstration of how keen a brewer is to talk about lagering times when they have nothing to be ashamed of on that score.

The main lagers are aged for four to six weeks.  That’s because a true lager has to be aged for that long to give it its unique, delicate character.  A real lager is not less flavourful than a good ale; it’s just flavoured differently, and it’s as beautiful as any ale, and a lot more drinkable.  Taste this stuff and I defy you to not start sounding like the worst kind of CAMRA loon.  It defies belief that most of the beer we drink exists on a scale of tasteless to offensive, when it’s supposed to be like this.  This stuff is not more challenging or complex than mainstream British standard lager, it’s not more difficult to get into, it’s no less refreshing or crisp or any other things we want form standard lager.  It’s just better.  And that’s because it’s been made with love and care – and time.  This beer is lagered for four to six weeks.  If rumours are correct, certain leading british lager brands are lagered for one day – or even less.  

Go figure.

Deep in the granite caves, this man is about to make Tierney-Jones quite tearful

If that’s me getting a bit emotional about lager, you should have seen Tierney-Jones when we were given a tour of the lagering tanks, bricked into narrow granite passages with wet floors, and Jiri poured off some of his ‘Spezial’ beer, a Marzen style brew that will be ready at the end of September.  It’s been i the tanks for one and a half months so far.  It’s absolutely divine.  Jiri thinks it’s getting there.

In the brewery yard is a fountain that springs from the brewery’s well.  A statue to St Joseph presides over the fountain.  Behind his back, there’s a second tap from the wellspring, out of which comes beer.  You pray to St Joseph for great beer, and he delivers.

Not much has changed here for 600 years.  Obviously lager styles have (they call it lager here, not Pilsner – they don’t believe Plzen brews the best beer) and technology has, but the soul of the beer, the love for it, the sheer bloody loveliness of it, is as eternal as the granite.

Chodovar’s slogan is “Your beer wellness land”.  This is largely because it is the home of the beer spa, which we visited.  But that deserves a post all of its own – coming soon…

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Ice Cold in Alex

“They served it ice-cold in Alex…

For the moment that he shut his eyes, he could see every detail of that little bar in the lane off Mahomet Ali Square; the high stools, the marble-topped counter, the Greek behind it. The sound of the place came back… the purr of the overhead fan, a fly, buzzing drowsily, the muffled noise of the traffic seeping through the closed door…

Then he thought about the beer itself, in tall thin glasses, so cold that there was a dew glistening on the outside of them, even before they were put down on the counter; the pale amber clearness of it; the taste, last of all.”

I like to look at how writers who don’t normally write about beer treat it when it crosses their path – some of the best ‘beer writing’ doesn’t come from beer writers at all.  They’re starting from a different perspective and with a different frame of reference. If they’re good, they can make even the most knowledgeable and experienced beer enthusiast think again about the essence and the role of great beer.

Christopher Landon served as a ‘Desert Rat’ in North Africa in the Second World War. In 1957 he fictionalised his experiences for a novel that went on to become one of the most famous war films of all time: Ice Cold in Alex. It contains possibly the most iconic beer drinking shot in the whole history of cinema – but we’ll come to that later. A few months ago I spotted a reprint of the novel in a bargain bookshop. Tempted by the cover illustration of a tall, full, pilsner glass, I decided to give it a go.

The opening passage above forms the opening of the book. Captain George Anson is a man ‘with too much sun, too much sand, too much of everything to bear.’ Stuck in Tobruk as a circle of Nazi armour closes around it, he’s succumbing to alcoholism, cauterizing his senses with a repetitive, metronomic swigging of the whisky bottle.

As the fall of Tobruk becomes inevitable, all non-essential personnel are shipped out to Alexandria before the noose closes. Anson is charged with getting two nurses in an ambulance to safety. He takes with him his faithful mechanic, Sergeant Major Tom Pugh, and on the way they pick up Zimmerman, a stranded South African officer who is not all he seems.

(Oh alright, he’s a German spy.)

Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan. They’re forced to detour deeper and deeper into the desert to avoid the German armour. At one point a German armoured column fires on them, killing one of the nurses. As the Germans decide whether or not to let them go, Anson’s old self emerges, and he swears off the whisky for the duration of their journey:

“Anson’s voice went on, it was different, held a faraway, dream-like quality. “If he has… I’m going to tell you something right now, Tom. It will be a sort of peace offering. Do you know the next drink I’m going to have? A beer, Tom. A bloody great, tall, ice-cold glass of Rheingold in that little bar off Mahoment Ali Square in Alex… and I’ll buy you one, all of you one, because I’m bloody well going to get you there.”

Rheingold was an American lager, from a New York brewery founded in 1883 by a German Jew called Samuel Liebmann.  Anson calls it “The best and coldest Yankee beer in the Delta”. But reading about it in this context, its German name and ancestry says something in and of itself about war’s bitter ironies.

The biggest character in the book though is the desert itself. Landon’s descriptions of the mirage – a solid, shimmering wall throwing all manner of illusions at them – the blazing sun and the unyielding, hostile but ever-changing sand, render North Africa as a different planet. As the book forces you to consider the desert from the point of view of the average Briton in the early 1940s – it strikes you that it might as well have been.

Anson, Tom Pugh and Diana the surviving nurse figure out that Zimmerman’s a kraut spy pretty quickly. But the desert forces them to unite against a common enemy, survival coming before the war against Nazism.

Anson rallies and his inspirational leadership galvanizes the other three. The beer has become totemic to him, not just for the alcoholic hit he’s denying himself until they reach safety, nor for the promise of near-orgasmic refreshment after the parched dessert: he’s promised to buy them a beer. And to buy them a beer, he has to get them to Alexandria.

One night, Anson and Diana are talking on watch, under the stars:

““Let’s talk about something else… Beer.”

“But I thought that was out.”

“It is – until that date in Alex. Do you know – I’ve been thinking about that one particular drink all day. I’ve told you about the bar, haven’t I? But that Rheingold – it’s so bloody cold that there’s a sort of dew on the outside of the glass. I always run my finger up and down – to make a sort of trail – before I have my first sip.””

Beer is hope.

I wrote in Man Walks into a Pub about some ancient myths in which beer is a gift of hope to humanity, a consolation prize for having to cope with knowledge, sin and inevitable mortality. Here it’s a rock that Anson can cling to, to prevent himself from falling apart.

On the outskirts of the city, KATY the ambulance is on her last legs – or last wheels I suppose – rattling and wheezing and leaking and steaming as the city reaches out and pulls them in. The book flits between the perspective of each of the four characters, and as the finale approaches we’re with mechanic Tom Pugh:

“He was not hungry, not thirsty – but once when the captain said, “I hope that beer’s bloody cold,” his mouth started watering uncontrollably.”

Finally, they make it. The bar is just as Anson described it, empty because it’s still early. The barman sees four unwashed, filthy tramps until Anson rouses him with a parade ground bark.


When they came up, again they were as he said they would be, pale amber in tall thin glasses, and so cold, the dew had frosted on the outside before he put them down. They stood in a row now, but Tom waited, as he knew the others were waiting, for Anson to make the first move. He stared at his for a moment, looking all round as if it were a rare specimen, then ran his finger up and down the side of the glass, leaving a clear trail in the dew. He said, “That’s that,” and lifted the glass and tilted it right back. Tom watched the ripple of the swallow in the lean throat, and there was a tight feeling inside him and his eyes were smarting and he knew that in a moment he would cry. So he lifted up his own glass and swallowed it fast.

When Anson put his glass down it was empty. “I quite forgot to drink your healths,” he said. Then to the barman, “Set ‘em up again.””

It’s ready-written to be the climactic scene of the film adaptation. This is the ultimate thirst, the best beer you’ve ever tasted, a reward for the hardest day’s work imaginable. It works perfectly in the film – so perfectly, in fact, that all it took was one editor’s snip, one line of dialogue and a title to turn it into the second-best beer ad of all time.

Of course, the fact that for some reason the filmmakers switched Rheingold for Carlsberg detracts a level or two from the meaning. But without that bit of corporate chicanery, there’d have been no ad. And if there hadn’t been an ad, I would have forgotten about the film. And if I’d forgotten about the film, I would never have read this powerful, moving little book.

I can’t find the ad itself on YouTube, and blogger won’t let me upload the mpeg I have of it from my laptop, but here is the piece of film Carlsberg later used in the ad, without title and voice over:

So let’s hear it for the ice-cold, dew-dropped glass of lager. Given the choice I tend to go for cask ale these days. But if you were in Anson’s baked, cracked shoes, you’d have to be some kind of pervert to fancy anything other than one of these frosty bad boys.

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The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Ever wondered why Stella Artois had the gall to call itself ‘Reassuringly Expensive’?

It goes back to the yuppie-tastic eighties, when the brand really was a cut above its rivals. At the time, most lagers in the UK were brewed to around 3.5%, pale imitations of the European brews they claimed to be. Stella never compromised in order to get into pubs – it was the full 5.2%, sat pretty much on its own in this category, and was therefore comparatively more expensive and premium than its rivals. But ABV wasn’t the only measure of worth.

Stella was celebrated in beautifully-written, long-copy press ads – the kind you don’t see any more in our attention-deficient age. This one’s my favourite:

I dug this ad out because I’ve been thinking about the campaign in the context of an apocryphal story in marketing that’s usually attributed to a leading soup brand. Every year, the story goes, the manufacturer cut the cost fractionally by saving money on ingredients. Every year, a bowl of soup made to the old recipe and one made to the newer, cheaper recipe is brought to the MD, who is challenged to taste the difference, and he can’t. One year a new MD comes in, can’t taste any difference, and says, ‘bring me a bowl made to the recipe from ten years ago’. This causes some consternation, but eventually they manage to find the recipe and recreate last decade’s product. When everyone tastes this compared to the latest version, the difference is incredible – they’re hawking a shadow of what the product used to be, and didn’t even know it.
Now let’s come back to the Stella press ad. Great advertising works in a very simple way. You make a bold and attention-grabbing claim, and then you give the consumer reasons to believe this claim.
The above ad is a beautiful gag about how expensive the beer is. But why is it so expensive? You might not be able to read the copy from the image (though you might be able to enlarge it if you click on it), so let me tell you:
  • Stella Artois is only brewed with the best female Saaz hops
  • The beer is malted only with Europe’s finest barley
  • Unlike other, cheaper lager beers, Stella is lagered for six weeks

Taking those in turn: Stella does still use Saaz hops. But it clearly uses far fewer of them than it once did. Stella used to perform poorly in blind taste tests because it had a distinctly more bitter character than the British lager-drinking palate was used to. Taste Stella side-by-side with Budvar, even Kronenbourg today, and this is no longer the case. At a recent seminar on lager organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers, former Stella head brewer Paul Buttrick diplomatically explained that large-scale brewers generally are using fewer hops than they once did, which means that “Many beers that became global brands have less distinctive character than they originally had”.Malted using only Europe’s finest barley? Stella now proudly advertises the fact that it is brewed with maize which, far from being reassuringly expensive, is a more economical source of fermentable sugar than barley, and produces a blander beer. Stella’s beautifully-produced website, which harks back to an entirely fictitious origin of the brand in 1366 (they word it very carefully, never actually claiming that Stella was first brewed in 1366, but leaving you with a very strong impression that it was) doesn’t address the issue that maize is indigenous to North America – which wasn’t discovered for another 126 years.Fermented for six weeks? Oh, my aching sides. To be fair, there is at least a basis for a debate here, one raging between brewing traditionalists and those who have to deal with the reality of the economics of modern brewing. The latter claim you simply don’t need to condition beer for as long as we used to, that modern fermenters and ingredients can achieve the same results over a shorter time period. That may well be so, but whatever the optimal period now is, Stella is lagered for a far shorter time than many of its rivals – a week is now standard in lager. I’ve heard from an authoritative source – but without being able to get confirmation I’d better leave it vague – that Stella is fermented for considerably less time even than that.On its website, Stella claims that it is still brewed “with the same process of mixing and fermentation as in the old days”. I suppose your view on whether or not this is a bare-faced lie that insults both the drinker and the brand itself depends on how closely you define the word ‘process’. I used to love this beer – both the brand and the product itself. I was proud to have my stint working on the ad campaign. I think the ad above demonstrates exactly why I no longer feel the same way. I suspect that if a batch of Stella was brewed to the spec it had ten or fifteen years ago, and if we were permitted to taste it side-by-side with the modern version, Inbev would be the proud inheritors of one of marketing’s most enduring and revealing fables.