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Video Blog: The SIBA Conference

SIBA is the Society of Independent Brewers, kind of the equivalent to the Brewers’ Association in the US, and it’s doing a grand job of fuelling the growth of great quality beer from small producers in the UK.  It is a beer trade body, and as such it has its political struggles, battles with other bodies, internal strife and all the rest of the issues that plague every trade body in beer.  But SIBA events are fun.  And the people who organise and run them are decent, talented people who you enjoy having a pint with.  I wrote here about the time I had at the conference last year, so it was a pleasure to go back with the film crew this year.

So what happens in this episode? It’s twelve minutes long, so let me guide you through it.

First, Peter Amor talks to SIBA head Julian Grocock about the society, what its stands for and what it does to help promote beer.  SIBA organises a year-long brewing competition, where beers judged at regional heats go through to a national final, with the winners announced at the conference.  I then sneak into the bar while the conference is going on in the next room, and help myself to a sneak preview and tasting of all the category winners (or rather, all bar one in the final edit – not everyone likes the fact that SIBA judged a national keg beer competition this year).  This gets interspersed with interviews with some of the young, new cask ale brewers who were at the conference this year, where we seek to uncover the motivations behind a new generation entering the brewing industry.  This concludes with an interview with the brewer who created this year’s grand champion.  Which of the beers was it?  Well, if you’re eagle-eyed during the tasting segment, you’ll spot it well before I did…

These video blogs now have their own home on the web too.  Go to http://www.britishbeervideoblog.blogspot.com/ if you want to see them all together, and there’ll also be the odd extra bonus clip knocking around there too.  You can also find the embed code there now that allows you to feature them on your own site of you wish.

Finally, can I ask for some feedback?  This year of video blogs represents a significant financial investment, which aims to help spread beer appreciation beyond the usual community of beer aficionados and hopes to reach a wider audience.  If you’ve been following them for the last six months you’ll see that we’ve tried different formats and ideas, and also that we’re steadily learning our craft as presenters (the filmmakers already knew what they were doing).  We want to make them as good as we can. Any constructive comments would be very gratefully received!

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Proud of British Beer

We have a curious relationship with pride in Britain.

Maybe it’s guilt over our colonial past.  Maybe it’s British understatement.  Or maybe the notion of national pride has been so poisoned by the Daily Mail, UKIP and the far right, that we are scared of sounding boorish and nationalistic.  We don’t know how to be proud without sounding arrogant and objectionable – even though it’s something other countries seem to manage with ease.

Why else does St Pancras station – a magnificent British building – try so hard to be French? There are no English pubs or shops at the stations on the other end of the Eurostar, in Paris Gare du Nord or Brussels Midi, and nor should there be – they are our points of entry to exciting foreign countries with different cultures and cuisines than ours.  But St Pancras is half-French – it’s almost apologising to travellers for arriving in Britain, with its champagne bar, Des Vins Cafe,  Crepeaffaire, Paul, and Pain Quotidien.

Why else does Britain have fewer local food and drink items protected by European Protected Designation of Origin status (PDO) in total than France has for cheese alone?  Far fewer even than germany or Portugal?  Why do ‘British’ delicatessens stock Italian and French cheeses but no English cheeses?  Come to think of it, why are we calling them delicatessens?

Why, as I pointed out last year, can an American brewer rhapsodise about how Britain is the only nation on earth able to consistently brew beers of such quality and depth of character and flavour as real ales, at alcohol levels below 4% ABV, when you rarely hear moderate and reasonable British people expressing a similar opinion?

It’s a weird one.  And it’s a condition that’s being tested again today by the launch of SIBA’s answer to last year’s American ‘I am a craft brewer‘ film.  It’s simply called ‘Proud of British Beer’, and here it is:

SIBA chairman Keith Bott said, “Nobody could have made a more convincing, compelling case for British beer than the brewers captured on this film. Their pride in their beer, and the pubs that sell it, jump out from every frame and will be felt, and we hope shared, by all who view it.”

Personally, I love it. But then I would – I wrote the script.  And while we’re on the theme, I’m proud to have been asked.  I’m proud to have contributed.  I’m proud to be a part of this film.

It was pulled together in an incredibly short space of time on a small budget, and I think everyone involved did a grand job.
It’s designed to raise awareness, and to lobby MPs, most of whom are emphatically not proud of beer (the House of Commons shop sells a variety of souvenir wines – bottled in France – but no souvenir beer).  There’s an alternative version with a different ending that challenges politicians, asking why they would commit to duty increases that massacre pubs, create job losses, hurt one of our last manufacturing industries, and actually result in lower revenue to the treasury.
The film has been leaked early on Twitter, before its press launch.  Some of the early comments already illustrate the problem we have with pride, the discomfort we feel with people who express it.  Please, if this is your initial reaction on watching the film, challenge yourself on it.  I’m not asking you to lie if you think there are serious flaws in how it has been made, but try to overcome that difficult pride thing and at least judge it on its merits.
If you do like the film, and if you are proud of British beer, then please get the embed code from the Vimeo link above and post it on your blog.  If you are a brewer, or CAMRA, or a trade press magazine, or any other beer body, put internal politics to one side.  Forget the fact that it’s not just talking about real ale, or it features a macro brewer, or you weren’t asked to be in it.  Post it.  Talk about it.  Publicise it.  And help get the message out to as broad an audience as possible.

Alternatively: take the piss.  Parody other people’s efforts to help save and promote British beer while you sit on your arse and do nothing.  But don’t then complain when you’re favourite pub closes, or your favourite beer is no longer brewed.

Come on people.  If we don’t start to show some pride in what we do then basically, we’re fucked.  Let’s try being a little positive for a change.

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At conference

Writing this on my way home from the SIBA annual conference, on a cold, draughty train with no tables, no refreshment trolley, no power sockets. Wedged sideways on a hard, narrow seat, developing pins and needles in my left leg which is curled up to provide a surface for the laptop, the cold grey light, bare branches and churned, muddy fields gliding past the window, everything conspiring to accentuate what was a surprisingly mild hangover, draw out the nuances of it, develop the waves of pain and nausea like a symphony orchestra playing variations on a theme, and turn it into something that forces me to seriously contemplate tearing my eyeballs from their sockets. But it was worth every groan, whimper and noxious whiff. I first went to SIBA two years ago, to present a summary of the first Cask Report. They treated me well, looked after me, and I said yes like a shot when they asked me back to present on the second cask report a year later. But three years running felt like overkill, so this year I wasn’t invited to speak. It got to Monday and I thought, sod it, there’s no actual reason for me to go this year, but it’s such a good crack I’ll go anyway. Not for the speeches and presentations – even though some of them were quite good, they weren’t really aimed at me – but for the chance to be in a room full of brewers sharing their beers. Every year a local MP or mayor will open the conference and inevitably talk about how real ale is not a binge drink, and everyone will nod furiously, and throughout the day the theme will be referred back to in presentation after presentation – real ale drinkers are moderate drinkers, responsible drinkers, you can’t really binge drink real ale, and we all nod every time it comes up, and then at 5pm the speeches finish and we charge the bar and get riotously, deliciously hoonered on real ale. SIBA conference drinking is drinking with gusto, with relish. It’s hearty drinking, lustful for life drinking, and more importantly, it’s only £1.50 a pint. The conference (or just ‘conference’ without the definite article according to the people running the thing – it makes it sound more important) also sees the announcement of the winners of the SIBA National Brewing Competition, which is becoming a serious contender to CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain. The overall winner was Triple Chocoholic from the Saltaire Brewery in Bradford, also winner of the speciality beer category. Brewed with chocolate malt, actual chocolate and chocolate syrup towards the end, it’s a very easy beer to write tasting notes for; a very difficult beer to write good tasting notes for. It’s very, very chocolatey and very, very gorgeous. Sorry, that’s the best I can do. Saltaire also won their category for their Cascade Pale Ale. People have been murmuring about Saltaire for a while now, they’ve won a bagful of awards already, but this felt like a coming out party for them. Definitely a brewery to watch, and after chatting to the brewer after dinner I’m looking forward to arranging a visit as soon as I can. Thornbridge Lord Marples, Bank Top’s Dark Mild, Salopian Darwin’s Origin, Green Mill Big Chief Bitter, Dorothy Goodbody’s Country Ale, Blue Monkey Guerilla and St Austell Proper Job were the other category winners. And Christ, I’ve laughed a lot in the last two days. Sometimes I laughed at someone’s expense (I’m sorry, but even if the bloke selling stillaging units has never seen Swiss Toni on The Fast Show, he still can’t be forgiven for that haircut, moustache and grey suit combination) but mostly I laughed because the people I was in conversation with were extremely funny. The theme of the conference was people – working with people, valuing people you work with, getting the best out of them. It brought home just what a people business the beer business is. That’s a rubbish thing to say, because every single business on the planet is a people business, but what we mean is that it’s a sociable business. Someone on my table at dinner last night told a story about when he was at another conference in a hotel, and in the bar afterwards he was sitting enjoying a few beers with some of the other delegates. There was another conference in the same hotel – packaging or IT systems or insurance or something – and the guy in charge of that conference decided to – ahem – ‘work the room’. He came over to our brewer’s table and said, “Hi, what do you guys do?” “We’re brewers,” replied the brewer. “Right! Cool. Which brewery?” “Well… we all work for different breweries.” The guy was incredulous. “I’d get fired if I did something like that! There’s no way we could simply sit round a table having a laugh with our competitors. It just wouldn’t happen.” This is one of the things I love most about beer. You doubtless have a pile of stories yourself that illustrate the same point. And it’s why I get so bleeding angry when the infighting starts. We’re better than that. We have something no one else has. SIBA has its critics, as do small brewers generally (I was in a room recently where one big brewer turned a small brewer he’d only just met and said “You lot are all parasites.”) And SIBA itself has its own share of infighting and politicking. There are always issues and genuine areas of disagreement, competing priorities and conflicts. And I’m lucky that I can stay half in, half out of such conflicts, not being a brewer or pub owner myself. But the sociability and the common cause are much greater, much more important. Which is why I’ll be at ‘conference’ again this time next year.

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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.