Tag: stout

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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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All at sea again: Imperial Russian Stout is coming home.

I am SO going on this.

This is old news now, but I’ve been meaning to promote it for ages and, having just paid my deposit, now seems like the perfect time.

This June – almost four years since I recreated the journey of IPA from Burton-on-Trent to India – a group of brewers corralled by a man almost as mad as I am will be recreating the Baltic Run, from London to St Petersburg.

This is the journey that foreshadowed IPA, and its recreation is taking place on the kind of epic scale, and with the a level of authenticity, that I only wish I could have achieved with my adventure.  Tim O’ Rourke, a longstanding figure in the beer industry, had the idea a few years ago after a chat I had with him about my IPA voyage, and he’s worked tirelessly to make it a reality.

He’s hired Thermopylae – the yacht above – and convinced eleven brewers to create Imperial Russian Stouts that will be loaded on board after a special beer festival in London, running from 12th to 15th May.  The ship will then set sail across the North Sea, and will tour pubs and beer festivals around the Baltic, with the intention of arriving in St Petersburg on 15th June.  The journey will be in stages, and volunteer crew are still needed for various bits of it.  It’s a non-proft making venture and hiring a round-the-world clipper plus professional skipper and watch captains doesn’t come cheap, so it costs £700 per person per week.  But it’s worth it to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime – sod that, once-in-two-centuries -experience.

It’s a common misconception that stout was shipped to Russia by Burton brewers in the days of the Czars.  Well, while some stout may or may not have gone in later days, the beer that made Burton famous was strong, sweet, nut-brown ale.  Years later though, London’s porter brewers got in on the act and started exporting their beers to Imperial courts that fell in love with strong British beer styles.  British ships originally went to the Baltic to source wood for barrels, and figured they needed to take something on the outward journey to make it worthwhile.  So they took beer, and it really took off.  Maybe it was because of Staffordshire glass blowers working on the new palaces of St Petersburg.  Maybe it was inspired by attempts to keep up with Peter the Great, who served it at royal banquets, or Catherine the Great, who was ‘immoderately fond’ of British beer.  But the Baltic was Britain’s first great export market, until a combination of Bonaparte and prohibitive duty rates killed the trade off.  Back in Burton, it was the infrastructure and knowhow developed for the Baltic trade that allowed Burton brewers to crack the Indian market.

On the modern day version, the beers taking the trip come from:

1.     Harveys
2.     Coors Museum Brewery/William Worthington Brewery
3.     Wadworth
4.     Shepherd Neame
5.     St Austell
6.     Elgood’s
7.     Thrornbridge
8.     Meantime
9.     Bartram Brewery
10.  Black Sheep
11.  Fullers

I wish I could go along for the whole voyage, but I’ll be helping The Beer Widow organise Stokey Lit Fest again at the start of June.  Happily, we have just enough time to recover from the Litfest before getting a flight to Helsinki, where we’ll meet the ship and her cargo for the final leg to St Petersburg and what will hopefully be a triumphant arrival.

Middle of June, Baltic, a sun that never sets… I might even take the Beer Widow with me this time.  Go to www.thegreatbalticadventure.com if you’re interested in joining us.

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Happy St Paddy’s Day!

After having the naked audacity yesterday to suggest that a large regional brewer doing something that improves beer quality might actually be a Good Thing for beer drinkers, I’ve decided to completely blow any remaining credibility I might have with the miserable indie kid wing of the beer fraternity and write a post in praise of Guinness.

Beer Nut – I’m not necessarily calling you a miserable indie kid but I know how you feel on this particular issue. It might be best if you just look away now.
I like Guinness. Sorry, but I do. I like it as a brand – it’s stuck to its guns with mould-breaking, innovative creative advertising for eighty years now – and I occasionally like it as a beer. If there was a better porter or stout on the bar, of course I would choose to drink that instead. But the point is, in 99 out of 100 pubs, there isn’t a better porter or stout on the bar. There’s no porter or stout at all. Apart from Guinness. In fact when you think about it, the fact that Guinness – a dark, bitter stout – is as ubiquitous as it is in a world dominated by pale, tasteless imitation pilsners, it is a remarkable achievement. You might be about to comment that Guinness has been dumbed down and isn’t a patch on what it used to be. I’m not in a position to disagree with you. You might also be about to comment that Guinness isn’t a ‘real’ stout, that it’s way too bland or even that it actually tastes of nothing at all. There, I would have to disagree. Guinness is a big brand, one of the few beers that can truly claim to have a global presence. And the main reason it’s not even bigger? Survey after survey shows that the vast majority of beer drinkers find it too bitter, too challenging, too full-bodied. If Guinness were to reformulate to something as robust as the craft-brewed porters we all know and love, it would kill the brand stone dead. It might not be challenging to you, but it is to 99% of drinkers who ever come across it. And still it survives. The success of Guinness should actually give us hop that there are enough people who like challenging beer to make brewing something a bit more challenging worthwhile. If Guinness hadn’t kept the dark flame alive when porter and stout were otherwise extinct globally, would those styles have made the triumphant comeback that’s happened over the last ten years? And there’s one other thing. It’s St Patrick’s Day. If you really, truly believe that Guinness is shit, then go to a pub in Galway tonight and tell the people drinking there that they have crap taste in beer and don’t know anything about drinking. Good luck with that. I’ll be in the Auld Shillelagh in Stokie tonight, having a few pints, otherwise I’d come with you and help try to find your teeth on the floor of the pub. Guinness probably holds the world record (ironic that!) for number of books written about a single beer brand. Today there’s a new one out – Guinness ®: An Official Celebration of 250 Remarkable Year, from Octopus publishing. I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but it does have some recipes in it, and the publishers asked me if I’d put one up ande give the book a plug, so I am, because it’s Paddy’s day and I. Like. Guinness. So here’s one for Iced Chocolate, Guinness and orange cake. Slainte! This sumptuous cake is perfect for a special occasion. The recipe may seem a little involved, but it’s easy to accomplish if tackled stage by stage. Preparation time 45 minutes Cooking time 1 hourServes 8 2 large oranges250 g (8 oz) caster sugar175 g (6 oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing150 g (5 oz) self-raising flour25 g (1 oz) cocoa powder2 teaspoons baking powder3 free-range eggs, beaten25 g (1 oz) ground almonds5 tablespoons draught Guinness 150 ml (¼ pint) double cream Icing20 g (¾ oz) unsalted butter50 g (2 oz) caster sugar3 tablespoons draught Guinness 100 g (3½ oz) plain dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped step 1 Peel one orange. Finely grate the zest of the other orange and set aside. Using a sharp knife, pare away the pith from both oranges. Cut the oranges into 5 mm (¼ inch) slices. Put them in a small saucepan and just cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add 50 g (2 oz) of the sugar and continue to simmer until all the liquid has boiled away, watching carefully to ensure that the oranges don’t burn. Leave to cool.step 2 Beat together the butter and the remaining sugar for the cake in a large bowl until very pale and fluffy. Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder, then beat into the butter mixture alternately with the eggs. Add the ground almonds, reserved grated orange zest and Guinness and beat for 3–4 minutes until you have a soft dropping consistency.step 3 Grease and line the base and sides of 2 x 20 cm (8 inch) round cake tins, then divide the cake mixture equally between the tins, smoothing the surface. Bake the cakes in a preheated oven, 190°C (375°F), Gas Mark 5, for 25 minutes until risen and firm to the touch. Leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes before carefully turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely.step 4 Whip the cream in a bowl until soft peaks form, then spread over one of the cakes. Arrange the cooled orange pieces over the cream and carefully place the other cake on top.step 5 To make the icing, put the butter, sugar and Guinness in a small saucepan. Stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved, then bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Leave to soften, then beat gently with a wooden spoon. Leave to cool and thicken. While still warm but not too runny, pour the icing over the cake and use the back of a spoon or a palette knife to spread it evenly.