Social Media Buttons



What's new?

What's new?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!

Monday, 28 January 2008

The first nail in blogging's coffin?

OK, maybe not the first - but certainly the first one that makes me personally feel Death's chill hand groping for my virtual collar.

I got an e-mail today. Does it look familiar to any other bloggers out there?

I am writing to draw your attention to a new online platform we have put together. Our President and Chairman is Pierre Chappaz, co-founder of Kelkoo, and our name is ebuzzing.

ebuzzing allows bloggers to earn money by publicising things they actually like, and even to define their own price for doing so.

They browse ad campaigns posted by advertisers, then create content for their blog highlighting those products and services that they genuinely wish to talk about and are paid for each article.

You can learn more about ebuzzing on our Blogger's Page and also our FAQ. And we would love you to sign up and be part of our community of bloggers.

So just to be clear, they're offering you money to take ads, and turn them into editorial on your blog. In other words, they're bribing you to deceive the people who are kind (or sad) enough to read your blog that it's not advertising at all, but the genuine opinion of someone whose words they, for some reason, value.

I said no.

The whole thing made me a little sad. But when I'm feeling low, I always find the tonic that puts a smile back on my face is Heineken, brewed in Holland since the 187os to an unchanged recipe that uses only the finest hops and barley and is available in all good off-licences - at prices that won't put a hole in your pocket!

Friday, 25 January 2008

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

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: 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...

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

We're all only here for the beer

I was very pleased that the post about beer snobs provoked such a reaction. It shows how important beer is to people. And it got me to thinking about why.

In September this year it'll be ten years since I first had the idea to write a book on the social history of beer. I figured I'd write that book, then once I was published I could move on to write about other subjects, maybe even get cracking on my novel.

It would take me almost five years to get the book published, and over that time I became obsessed with beer. I'm now writing my third book on the subject, am marketing editor of a beer trade magazine, talk about beer on radio and TV, and spend every spare minute writing and thinking about beer, and most of my money on travelling the world learning about beer and beer drinkers. It pays me less than I need to live on, and I abandoned a lucrative career in advertising to do it. The novel is a distant memory. It would probably have been shit anyway.

Why does beer exert such a powerful hold?

That's the key question. I suspect my answer may be a little different than it is for many beer bloggers, but I hope anyone who cares about beer will at least respect it, even if they don't entirely agree. I'm defensive about it, because it automatically brings up the subject of beer snobbery again.

The people we/I call beer snobs love the amazing variety and intensity of flavour and character they get from lovingly-brewed craft beers. They believe small brewers who are doing what they love make the best of these beers. And they belive that these small brewers, lacking the marketing muscle of the macros, need all the support they can get to make their voices heard. I agree strongly on every point. But for me, the beer world is bigger than this. Beer is more important.

When I started writing about beer I loved cask ale, but not exclusively. I was thirsty to find out more about American micros, but my knowledge of Belgian beer stretched as far as Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, and they were my favourite beers. Don't get me wrong - I preferred the taste of Pete's Wicked Ale or Sam Adams Boston Lager when I could get them, but beer for me has always been about more than taste.

What first fascinated me about beer was the way that, in my old marketing days, when we did focus groups beer would engage a marketing-weary audience more than any other product was capable of. Young lads determined to look cool in front of their peers would talk about it with a passion and enthusiasm otherwise reserved exclusively for their football team.

When I decided to find out why, I discovered that beer is the most sociable drink in the world, and always has been. The ancients drank beer from communal pots through long straws not because they were poor, but because it was more sociable that way. When we really admire someone, we say "He's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with," not a cup of tea or glass of wine. The pub remains an environment where you leave the cares of the world at the door and treat each other with respect, as equals, and beer is the soul of the pub. Beer is why pubs are like this and wine bars are not.

The history of beer is the history of ordinary people. Beer brings history alive and makes you realise what it would have been like to be a seventeenth century diarist or thirteenth century pregnant woman, the strong birthing ale on standby for when labour began.

Beer remains the most popular drink in the world. While customs and habits vary, the underlying truth of beer is constant - getting together to relax with friends, in a safe environment, kicking back and being your true self.

If you were reading the fifth paragraph and thought to yourself "Why is he talking about Pete's Wicked Ale and Boston Lager? There are far more characterful brews out there. Sam Adams is little better than a bland macro", ask yourself if you're really getting what beer is all about. One of beer's strengths versus wine is the fact that it's not elitist and difficult. Of course there are better beers than Boston Lager. But that doesn't mean that Boston Lager, or Heineken, or even (God forgive me for saying this) Budweiser are completely without merit. If you cannot agree with that because you only ever see beer in terms of product character, and if you always judge product character in terms of "more is better", then I'd argue you're only seeing a small part of the whole picture.

Like most beer fans, given a perfect choice I'd always go for a resiny IPA, spicy Belgian saison or vinous Imperial stout. I'd much rather give my money to a guy running a one barrel plant who's excited because he's just got his first bottling line, goes to bed dreaming of new recipes and wakes up itching to brew, than I would to a corporation run by former Coca-Cola marketers who view beer as just another marketable beverage. But that's me and my drinking, and that's about as significant as an atom on a football field in the whole world of beer. If promoting the virtues of (please, please have mercy) Bud Light was the only possible way to get someone to even consider allowing beer past their lips, then I'd do it.

Beer's beauty is its unparalleled scope, its amazing variety, its depth of meaning in the world.

This blog will continue to cover the efforts of the biggest and smallest brewers in the world. It will judge beers and beery initiatives on thier own merits. It will call out rubbish, and celebrate the good stuff. It will be irreverent at times, because beer should never take itself too seriously.

If I write a piece on, say, Heineken and its efforts to introduce a genuine continental serve to the UK, before you post a reply explaining that Heineken are corporate whores and there are far better lagers out there - I KNOW. So does everyone who is likely to read this blog. If someone else comes up with something amazing about the history of Miller in the nineteenth century and you want to tell them that Miller beers are now characterless compared to most micros - guess what? They probably know that too. But there may still be something of value in what they're writing.

Beer is a broad church, and I've realised that's what I love most about it. I am not saying writers who meticuolously analyse flavour profiles of obscure micros and nothing else should start writing about beer culture or corporate marketing. I'm glad they do what they do and I find it very helpful. I'm simply asking that those guys recognise they're dealing with just one facet of what makes beer the best drink in the world.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Two great words, together at last

Spotted today outside The York, Islington, London. Every now and again, but increasingly rarely, marketing is capable of genius and poetry. Let the man (or woman - but I'd bet particularly heavily that this one was a man) who coined the phrase "Pie Gala" be given a knighthood for services to the pub industry.

If only it wasn't detox month...

Monday, 7 January 2008

For Christ's sake, cheer up!

I googled 'Calcutta IPA' the other day to see if anyone else had written about the beer that was brewed for my trip to India, and it led me to a forum at where the White Shield Brewery was being discussed.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that one of the world's biggest corporate multinational brewers is a curious fit with the tiny brewery sitting in the middle of one of its yards, but some of the ignorant, ill-informed vitriol aimed at the site in Burton made me laugh, then made me angry, then very sad.

I'm going to sound like an apologist for Coors simply because they made my trip to India possible (though just to make it clear, they brewed the beer - they in no way sponsored the trip, and they certainly don't need my help). Anyway, it's not just this one issue - this is merely an example of an attitude that sometimes makes me think of jacking in beer writing. I just don't want anyone normal to think that I'm in any any like these sad, fanatical conspiracy theorists.

The subtext of the whingers is that because White Shield is now owned by Coors, it is therefore shit. Hmm. That'll be why it won Champion Bottled Beer at GBBF in 2006, why sales are up by over 50% year on year, and why brewer Steve Wellington was named Brewer of the Year by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group last year is it? Or are these just more examples of corporate cronyism?

There are some astonishing claims made on the forum: most astonishing of all is that White Shield is a 'mediocre' beer. But it's also asserted that White Shield is not really brewed here at all, that it is made in a factory, that it has no individual character, and that what was formerly known as the Museum Brewery no longer brews small batches of individual and eclectic one-off beers.

As someone who brewed such just such a small batch beer there last year, I beg to differ. You don't even have to go that far - just walk into the brewery tap and you've a choice of several beers not available anywhere else. If the people writing this garbage had visited the brewery or taken the trouble to find any out any facts about White Shield by any means whatsoever, they would have quickly realised what drivel they were talking.

The White Shield Brewery is owned by Coors but is given near-total autonomy. It still creates boutique beers for individual landlords, and White Shield is still an astonishing beer, all of which is brewed on the premises. Steve Wellington is a universally respected brewer of enormous integrity.

Rant over.

The point is, there's an attitude in beer appreciation that's the same as the one I used to have when I was a teenage indie kid: back then, we thought anything on a major label was shit, anyone who actually got into the charts had sold out. It seems lots of beer fans enjoy being just as miserable as I was then. Big brewers churning out bland lager are easy hate targets, but when they start to show some interest in characterful beers, the vitriol only increases. Why?

It was the same when Inbev launched Artois Bock. The beer hasn't fared brilliantly, it could have been marketed better, but here was the world's biggest brewer creating a characterful Belgian ale and getting a shitstorm from many sides of the beer community for its efforts. Inbev do some really, really scummy things and often operate against the interests of beer drinkers, but this was not one of those times. It's basic psychology that if you want to change someone's behaviour you praise the the good at the same time as you condemn the bad. Otherwise, how can you blame them if they just carry on as they were?

This attitude doesn't exist in, say, the whisk(e)y world. Michael Jackson used to judge single malts owned by Diageo on their merits alongside those from tiny distilleries. It's a blight on beer that we can't do the same, and it should come as no surprise when people dismiss the entire beer community as whining Luddites.

I believe we should be trying to persuade Inbev, SABMiller and Coors to turn their huge drinker bases on to more characterful beers, to use their huge marketing muscle to help develop a more eclectic drinking scene.

But am I wrong?

Is there a case for saying that craft beer should be the exclusive preserve of small craft brewers, that it's healthier and more attractive overall if great beer was kept entirely separate from huge corporations driven by shareholder value who may somehow taint it?

Friday, 4 January 2008

The campaign for real ale is almost two hundred years old!

Where does the term ‘real ale’ originate?

Any CAMRA member or beer historian will tell you that in the early seventies, four discontented beer drinkers founded the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, before amending this to the snappier Campaign for Real Ale, coining a term to differentiate cask conditioned ales from what they saw as worthless, ersatz fizzy brews.

Whatever disagreements I’ve had with CAMRA in the past, I’ve always said that this was a PR masterstroke. So I was astonished to discover this loaded term being used long, long before CAMRA’s hated keg beers were even a twinkle in some demonic corporate brewer’s eye.

On April 13 1809, the Calcutta Gazette carried countless ads for beer. Most of these were for pale ale (not yet referred to as India Pale Ale), the majority promoting “HODGSON’S very best PALE ALE, Brewed for this Climate and warranted of a Superior Quality.”

But one ad was different. I couldn’t make a copy of it, as the paper would have disintegrated, but it read:


To be sold by Public Auction
By Williams and Hohler
At their Auction-room
On MONDAY next, the 17th April 1809,
ONE Hundred and Forty-three Dozen
of excellent REAL ALE, warranted
good, the property of an Up-Country Trader,
leaving of business.

For the convenience of Purchasers, it
will be put up in lots of Three Dozen.

So what was the ‘false’ ale they were seeking to differentiate from? Well, maybe keg ale, or something similar to it, is older than we thought too. W L Tizard, a Professor of Brewing, wrote the following in his account of how to brew beers for export in his 1843 book Theory and Practice of Brewing:

“It is imperatively necessary that all extraneous vegetable matter which forms the yeast, lees &c. be removed; because the agitation during the voyage would otherwise produce extreme fretting, leakages and premature acidity.”

So ‘real ale’ is beer that still has yeast present in the cask, whereas other beers have the yeast removed. If IPA and other nineteenth century beers had all their yeast removed, does that mean they were not technically real ales at all, but the forerunners of the dreaded keg?

And could the ad above therefore be evidence that some CAMRA hardliners have perfected time travel and gone back to protest against what might be an uncomfortable bit of trivia for anyone who thinks the only decent beer is one that is carrying on a secondary fermentation in the cask? Or is the fight for cask beer older than we thought?