Tag: News

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Goodbye large scale British brewing

Scottish & Newcastle, the last remaining ‘macro’ brewer in British hands, is no more. This morning the board agreed the price they’re prepared to take from Carlsberg and Heineken to be bought and broken up between the two companies.

The offer, through newly-formed joint venture Sunrise Acquisitions, will see Carlsberg take full ownership of Eastern European joint venture Baltic Beverages Holding, as well as S&N’s French, Greek, Chinese and Vietnamese operations. Heineken will own S&N’s operations in the UK and Ireland, Portuguese, Finnish, Belgian, US and Indian operations.

This means John Smith’s – the UK’s largest ale brand – will be owned and run by Heineken. I wonder if they’ll do the brand as much justice as Carlsberg did Tetley?

It does mean that the likes of Greene King, Fuller’s, Wells & Youngs and Marston’s are now the largest British brewers. I quite like that.

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The slow death of a once wonderful brand

From this…
This week Young’s pubs announced that they were delisting Stella Artois because it was no longer premium enough. All Bar One also recently delisted the brand on the same grounds.
I’m enormously sad about this, because however unlikely it seems, it was Stella that caused me to become a beer writer.
Ten years ago I was a strategic planner working on the “Reassuringly Expensive” TV campaign. The ads were set in Provence, filmed as cinematic epics, and widely considered to be among the best stuff on TV, ads or programmes. Polls revealed that it was the brand more desired by Publicans than any other. Research among drinkers showed that the brand was seen as authentic, ‘genuinely continental’, and above all, premium. That was its cachet. The nineties was a decade when people who couldn’t afford flash cars or designer clothes started to trade up to premium versions of everyday goods – freshly squeezed orange juice, Haagen Dazs ice cream, and Stella instead of ‘standard’ lager. No other mainstream beer brand – with the exception of Guinness – came anywhere close to it in terms of image and desirability. In one or two research groups I did, one or two people told me it was nicknamed ‘wifebeater’ because of its strength, but I never heard this on a day-to-day basis.
We hadn’t intended for it to become so popular. We didn’t know how it had happened. It was the right brand in the right place at the right time, and we knew that somehow, it had managed to be a mainstream brand that was simultaneously perceived as special. Millions of people were drinking it, but each one of them believed they were making a more discerning choice than everyone else in doing so.
To some extent Stella is a victim if its own success. Most beer in the off-trade now is sold at steep price discounts that brewers are powerless to control. As the most desirable brand, Stella ended up being featured in promotions more than most, and this damaged its ‘expensive’ positioning.
But it was walking a tightrope. If retailers were pulling it towards the mainstream and the everyday, the brand’s owners needed to counter this by doing a whole lot more to increase its premium image. Instead, following the merger that created Inbev, the brand’s new owners chased volume.
For a short time, they got it, but the brand was starting to rot. Kronenbourg sold a fraction of Stella’s volume, but started to innovate – a wheat beer, a stronger beer called Grand Cru, a new ultra-premium font, extra-cold serve, beautiful large bottles to be shared over a meal… Stella did nothing.
In 1999 I was asked to write the first positioning presentation for Artois Bock. The truth about Bock is that it is the first beer ever brewed by Sebastien Artois, thirty years before Stella. It was a great story – a TRUE story (which is more than can be said for the recent campaign claiming Stella has been brewed by the Artois family for 600 years, which has just been banned for being a big fat lie).
Reviving Bock would have increased the sense that the brand was different, premium and continental, at a time when people already loved it. The idea was shelved, even while the market for imported Belgian speciality beers was growing by 30-40% a year.
Bock was finally launched in 2005, when Stella had already started to decline. Launching a new variant from a position of strength is completely different than doing it when you’re in trouble, when it’s often seen as an act of desperation. Every student of marketing knows that – it seems Inbev didn’t.
Likewise, Peeterman Artois is a decent enough beer if you’re looking for something cold at no more than 4%. It should have been premium – within weeks of launch it was on special offer on massive displays in Sainsbury’s.
Instead of investing in image, they chased volume. Every bar owner who wanted Stella got it, so it started to appear in dives, product quality began to vary, and drinker image changed. I’ve often said that the main thing preventing many British men from drinking cask ale is the fear they would be lumped in with the socks-and-sandals ticker stereotype. By the mid-noughties there was an equally repellent drinker image at the other end of the scale – the binge drinking lad who made ‘Stella-ed’ into a verb shortly before trying to pick a fight with a policeman. Inbev did nothing – certainly nothing that was visible to the average lager drinker – to counter this.
I last worked on Stella in 2000, but it was a great brand for several years after that. Then Inbev simply seemed to ignore everything we had learned about the brand and managed to turn 19% growth into double-digit decline in the space of three years. Of course, the people who wrecked the brand will have worked on it for two years before being transferred to something else, picking up their bonus for achieving short-term sales volumes and leaving someone else to clear up the mess they created.
There are good people inside big brewers, even good people inside Inbev, people who are as passionate about beer as any beer blogger. I wish the people they answer to would realise that this is what happens when you ignore the good people. But I doubt it.

… to this, in five short years.

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Never mind what beer you drink – how do you drink it?

British men are among the most generous in Europe – three quarters of us would buy a round for up to six people even if we thought we might not have the favour returned that night. But the politics of drinking highlights some confusion between the sexes: eighty per cent of blokes believe they should pay for all the drinks on a first date or even out with their regular partner, while fifty per cent of British women say they’d be perfectly happy to pay their way, and a further 20% say they should be paying for the whole night!

This all comes from new research published yesterday by SABMiller. I have to declare an interest – if you listen to British regional radio stations you may have heard me yesterday commenting on the results alongside Dr Max Farrar, a sociologist.

In a week when the national media COMPLETELY ignored the fact that binge drinking levels are falling across the board, it was great to get exposure for a positive story that shows how beer drinking shapes and illustrates our culture.

The SABMiller research was conducted with a big sample size across 15 European countries. Increasingly these countries are homogenous when it comes to the kind of cars they drive, the kind of fast food or expensive coffee they neck or the trainers they wear, but as is always the case, ask about beer and you still see a rich variation between nations.

If you have the appetite for some lazy stereotyping, it’s impossible to resist noting that compared to the 77% of generous Brits, only 16% of Germans would buy a round if they weren’t sure it would be reciprocated that night.

But it’s when you look behind the figures that you start to appreciate the differences in how we drink beer, even as we all drink it for the same reasons. In a British pub you’re going to the bar for each round – it makes sense for one person to go. And while you may not get your drink back that night, you’d expect it to even out over a period of weeks. If you never bought a round, you’d soon become known as “the bloke who never buys his round”, and that’s a stigma in British society on a par with being known as “the bloke who likes to hang around school playgrounds”.

But in many other countries, you’re getting beer served at the table and you get a bill at the end of the night. It makes much more sense to split it – why would one person insist on paying for all the drinks?

The sexes thing shows that what we say and what we do are not necessarily the same. Only 30% of women think it’s right that their partner should pay for all the drinks. How many men would agree that this is what their partner believes? Turning that round, how many women would agree that their man is happy always to treat them to all their drinks without a murmur of complaint?

The report also shows that beer is considered a perfectly acceptable drink across a wide variety of occasions – at a wedding, at a restaurant meal, at home with the family. We all know that on here, but it’s nice to see that around 80% of people agree.

The report’s available on SABMiller’s website and, if nothing else, provides plenty of fuel for impassioned banter down the pub. Where, I believe, it’s your round.

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Looking forward to seeing extensive coverage of this story in the Daily Mail over the next few days

UK: Binge drinking on decline in UK – research

23 January 2008 Source: just-drinks.com editorial team

The number of people in the UK that are drinking alcohol irresponsibly has fallen, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

The General Household survey said yesterday (22 January) that, between 2000 and 2006, the number of men that drank over 21 units a week has reduced by 6% and the number of women who consumed over 14 units per week has decreased by 5%.

Binge drinking among 16-24 year-old men has also continued to decline in the last year, with levels among young women in the UK stabilising, the statistics revealed.

The survey also demonstrated that awareness of alcohol units has risen from 79% of the population to 85% in the last ten years.

Commenting on the survey, the_Portman_Group‘s chief executive, David Poley, said: “It is pleasing that the long-term trends in the nation’s harmful drinking levels continue to improve. More people are now aware of the risks associated with harmful drinking and have changed their drinking accordingly. There is still a long way to go to eradicate the problems caused by alcohol misuse which remain deeply embedded in our culture. But the evidence suggests that the sensible drinking message is getting through to people.”

Hang on… I thought more liberal licensing laws were going to result in the end of civilisation, like theyhave in every other country around the world that has a relaxed attitude to drinking? I’m confused…

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Hello Wales!

The face of Welsh beer drinking – if you type ‘Welsh Beer’ into Google picture search, that is.

Tonight (8th June) at about 8.15pm, I’m being interviewed by BBC Radio Wales to promote the new edition of Three Sheets and talk about pubs in general. That’s nice, isn’t it?

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I hope you won’t think of me as a vulgar, shameless self-publicist but LOOK AT THIS!!!!

Have you ever seen a better Father’s Day present IN YOUR LIFE?!

The mass-market paperback edition of Three Sheets is in shops now, with a much more direct, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin cover.

Encouragingly, it’s on promotion in Borders and Books Etc. People sometimes ask if being involved in Three for the price of two or Buy one get one half price deals is a good thing or not. It is. I get the same pittance as my share whatever price the book sells at, and the fact that they’re putting it out on tables and promoting it means they are putting marketing support behind it, not ignoring it. They can pick and choose what books they feature, so it’s a real result to get that kind of visibility in-store.

And there are some great quotes on the back cover:

“Carlsberg don’t publish books. But if they did, they would probably come up with Three Sheets to the Wind.” – Metro

“The story of the armless drinker in Galway is worth the price of the book alone.” – Express

“A well-intentioned, good-humoured, flush-faced kind of book, which grabs you firmly by the coat lapels and will not let you go until they’ve regaled you with one more hilarious story” – Guardian

“The strength of Brown’s breezy, informed book is showing how beer reflects national culture rather than defines it” – Financial Times

You know you want it…

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Idle Beer

The Idler is a magazine that celebrates freedom, fun, and the fine art of doing nothing,” according to the intro in the front of each twice yearly issue.

It’s an antidote to modern life, a reminder that we don’t have to subsribe to a life that is defined by brands and celebrities, where shopping can be considered an end in itself, where we read newspapers to make ourselves feel anxious, buy goods to make ourselves feel better, running up debt that makes us carry on behaving like good little workers.
OK, so I’m a heavily in debt, anxious workaholic who seeks solace in a constant supply of books, CDs and beer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t aspire to an idler, freer life, and you can too.
Why not start with the latest issue, which came out at the beginning of May and contains an article from The Idler’s new beer correspondent – me! My first idle piece, naturally enough, is on the art of home brewing, and why it’s no longer about a kit of syrup from Boots that you stick in the airing cupboard until you’re absolutely sure it’s dead, before drinking it through gritted teeth and telling each other hey, it’s only 10p a pint, before getting the shits for a week.
Available via the link, or commonly found in the humour section of good bookshops

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Telly appearance in delay shocker!

The good news – they’re making the bit on pubs longer than they originally planned, which is nice.

The bad news – that means extra editing time, so I’ll now be on telly on Saturday 16th June, not Saturday 26th May. They’re also running it then so it’s closer to the smoking ban, and a bit more topical.

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A Passage to India – New Book Under Way

I’ve started work on a third book. It’ll be my best one yet, if I can make it work – but that is a very big if.

It started when Three Sheets to to the Wind won the British Guild of Beer Writers Travel Bursary Award just before Christmas. I got a nice cheque inside a rather wonderful tankard, and everyone simply assumed I’d be spending it on a new adventure rather than a quiet weekend away with Liz, my wife, detoxing at some retreat somewhere.

Chris then suggested that Three Sheets was more a list of great beer locations than a travel book per se – what about writing about a great beer journey? But beer doesn’t travel well. There aren’t really any great beer journeys unless… oh, there is one. Not just a big one; an epic one.

India Pale Ale was developed as a beer style in the heyday of the East India Company, when this private corporation ruled half a continent. Before refrigeration it was too hot to brew in India, and it took about six months for beer exports to get there. The beer was often flat, sour and undrinkable when it arrived. India Pale Ale (IPA) was an attempt to get beer there in decent condition. It was brewed with loads of hops – which act as a natural preservative, high alcohol content – again, alcohol has grat preservative qualities – and was dry-hopped for good measure (fresh hops added to the cask before it is sealed).

It was then sent on a journey through the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Indian Ocean to Calcutta. The constant rolling motion and the temperature fluctuations of up to 30 degrees C didn’t ruin IPA like other beers – these conditions matured it in a unique way, so it arrived not just drinkable, but bright and sparkling – perfect for the climate. If you’re familiar with this story, you’ll know a few more of the details, but not much more. IPA is currently enjoying a bit of a resurgence and people are doing all sorts with it – making it with new styles of hop, pushing up the alcohol content… but no-one has recreated the journey that made the beer what it is.

So I’m having a Burton-on-Trent brewer recreate a beer to the old-style recipe, and we’re going to take it by barge from Burton, then by ship, on the old IPA route. Not so much ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge’ as ‘Round the Cape with a Cask.’

It’s going to take about three or four months. We might get attacked by pirates. But it’s one of those ideas that, once you’ve had it, you simply have to follow through.

I’ll be posting regular updates here thoiughout the journey, and we have some speculative interest from TV, press and radio people.

So it’s very exciting. The only problem is finding a boat.

Since the Suez Canal opened in 1869, people don’t go this way any more. That’s what makes it interesting – but interesting is often just another word for difficult. If you know anyone with a ship who might be interested…