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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
More new events added in Bristol, London and Edinburgh over April and May
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
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Thursday, 27 November 2008

Lovely Pub Hosts Festival of Lovely Beer This Weekend

The White Horse in Parson's Green has long been famous as THE Mecca for the luvvies of the beer world, if that's not too bizarre a concept (the idea of there being luvvies of the beer world, rather than them having a Mecca).  

There was a general feeling when landlord Mark Dorber left after 25 years that it wasn't going to be as good as it used to be.  And while Mark is an irreplaceable character (currently to be found being highly and very entertainingly opinionated at his new gaff in Walberswick), current manager Dan Fox, ably assisted by Ben Lockwood (a man whose unimpeachable and unquestionable passion for Barnsley FC mirrors my own) have ensured a seamless continuation of high standards for which they deserve recognition and acclaim.

A perfect example of this is this weekend, the White Horse's 26th Old Ales Festival.  From beer o'clock on Friday 28th November to I-should-remember-I-need-to-be-at-work-tomorrow on Sunday 30th, the pub will be showcasing at least fifty examples of historic styles like barley wine, old ale, mild, porter, stout and strong ale.  It's cold.  It's raining.  It's the credit crunch.  You don't need any more reasons than that.  But there are many more - including exclusive CASK beers from Meantime, and rare beers from North America.

See you there.


Why does this wanker hate pubs so much?


One aspect of this week's pre-budget statement that hasn't had much coverage is the fact that duty was raised on alcohol, tobacco and petrol to 'offset' the advantage they would gain from the reduction in VAT.  There's since been a rethink and it looks like the move will be reversed on spirits and alcopops - but not beer or wine.

I'm always conscious of trying not to swear too gratuitously on this blog - it's not professional.  And this move is all about financial revenue rather than doing anything to combat binge drinking.  But how fucking stupid do you have to be to give tax breaks on the drinks that teenagers are throwing up in the streets, and single out the beer that many people enjoy responsibly in community pubs for special punishment?

Pubs are already closing at the rate of five a day.  Beer sales are already at their lowest for forty years.  Beer has already received a record tax increase this year.  And now beer is pretty much the only part of the British economy that isn't receiving financial help in the credit crunch.  

The industry has calculated that the duty increase does more than offset the VAT drop - it creates a net price increase.  And while the VAT drop is temporary, the duty increase is likely to be permanent.  Together with the further swingeing duty increases already planned over the next four years, beer duty is set to increase by 40% - and it was already among the highest in Europe.

This fucking moron is killing our pub industry and he has to be stopped - and I say that as a lifelong socialist (I know that's not the same thing as being a Labour supporter any more, but you take my point).

The British beer industry has always been a bit rubbish at speaking with one voice.  The typical response on something like this is for CAMRA to do one thing, the Publican and Morning Advertiser to each mount their own separate campaigns, and the British Beer and Pub Association to do something different again, all of them without talking to each other.  

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and this morning the BBPA and CAMRA (and for some reason Jennifer Ellison and Kym Marsh) launched a five point "Axe the beer tax - save the pub" campaign.  It looks like there's some coordination (though I'd have thought inviting beer writers along to the event might have helped spread the word - I only got sent the press release afterwards).  Hopefully this is the start of a coordinated effort to actually do something.  Sustained, focussed lobbying CAN work.  We need everyone to get behind this campaign rather than start their own, and speak with one voice.  It's too late and too urgent for one body to say it doesn't entirely agree with the aims of another, or wants its name in lights and not theirs.  This is an issue that affects everyone in the brewing and pub industry, and beer drinkers throughout the UK - whether your favourite tipple is Bud or Timmy Taylor's.

So whether you're a brewer, writer, pub landlord, professional beer bore or just someone who enjoys the pub, go to www.axethebeertax.com, sign the petition, lobby your MP.  Save the pub.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Positively my last post about Stella Artois before a self-imposed three month moratorium (unless they go and do something REALLY stupid)

My local corner shop stocks a decent range of beers but has no beer knowledge - they're Muslim Turks who simply stock what sells and operate their business in response to the market.  It's the kind of place you go to on the way to a party, or on your way home when you're tired and don't have the energy to do a 'proper' shop.

They sell 330ml bottles of Heineken, Peroni, Budweiser (US), Budweiser (Budvar) and Corona for 99p.  They sell 330ml bottles of Stella Artois for 89p.

So long Reassuringly Expensive - Stella is now a 'value brand'.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Bemused beer bore wonders: is it me that's stupid, or the pub landlord?

We all know what's to blame for the fact that five pubs in Britain are closing down every day: the credit crunch, the smoking ban, the government and their cruel tax increase, the supermarkets and their evil low prices, the punter and their insistence on staying home. 

I beg to offer an alternative point of view.  My story doesn't apply to all pubs by any means, but I'd hazard a guess that most of the places that are being closed down have more rather than less in common with the establishment below.

Tonight me and BLTP went to a rather fine concert by Low at Koko, a very cool music venue let down only by the fact that you have to pay £3.70 for a lukewarm can of 1664 if you'd like a beer with your music.

As with most places in London the noise curfew is 11pm, which means the band usually shuffle offstage around 10.40 and you're outside 5 minutes later.  You've had a couple of drinks, but thanks to the combination of not wanting to miss much of the gig and the fact that you're paying £3.70 for a lukewarm can of 1664, you're not pissed.

Just across the road from Koko is The Crescent, a standard format town centre chain pub.  We got into The Crescent at 10.48.  They told us that the bar was closed - chairs were already on the tables, and they were cashing up.  

Now, I'm no expert, but if I was running a pub in an economic downturn which was claiming five pubs every day, and I was twenty yards away from a music venue that I knew would be turning out about a thousand punters onto the streets late at night, and I was the closest pub, I'd take an interest.  Admittedly, if I discovered the gig had been some secret set by Westlife, I'd bar the doors and windows - but I might set up a lemonade stand outside.  But if I knew the band in question had a target audience that consisted primarily of geeks and nervous middle-aged blokes, a few of whom had impossibly cute girlfriends dressed in Amelie-chic while the rest silently fumed 'how come he manages to find a cute indie girlfriend and I don't', and I knew the majority of these people probably wanted one drink to chat about the gig before catching the tube home because it's a Wednesday and they had to get up for work in the morning, I'd be seeing pound signs.

I'd be thinking, 'you know what, since the Licensing Act of 2005, I can take advantage of flexible opening, and for the sake of paying, say, two or three staff to work later, I could probably take an extra £500 over the bar in half an hour with a minimum of fuss.  And this happens two or three times a week!  I'm sitting on a fucking gold mine!'  

I certainly wouldn't be closing the pub EARLY in order to avoid the unnecessary hassle of all these punters coming in cluttering up the place.

It's not just this particular pub - though it's a particularly striking example of this phenomenon - it's a common experience BLTP and I have after gigs.  It was just about understandable when pubs had to close at 11pm - they just set the clocks ten minutes fast to avoid the hassle.  But when you have the option of staying open later, but you'd rather not have the bother... am I missing something?  Or are some publicans their own worst enemies? 

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Hurrah! A Decent Lager Ad Campaign!

Pilsner Urquell has a new poster campaign out - at Waterloo station the walkway between the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines is completely taken up by posters based on the theme that it's the detail that matters.
They're not going to win any creativity awards or convert millions to drinking Pilsner Urquell, but they're doing something really important and deserve to succeed.

Each execution shows a perfect drinking moment: one is the bloke on the sofa with a curry ordered, the wife out for the evening and a great DVD about to start.  Another is a class reunion with the boys really on form.  Another is a couple with the kids in bed and a long, relaxed evening ahead.  

In each, the details are pointed out ('DVD: Bladerunner, Director's Cut'; 'tomorrow: a long way off').  And then it's the detail in the beer that's equally important ('head: European': 'flavour: full-bodied').  

I love this because there's a misconception among large brewers that mainstream drinkers are scared of flavour, and this is not true.  It's telling people about a premium lager that has genuine heritage and tastes of something.

But more than that, what they've managed to do here is portray a positive drinking experience and get away with it.  In each scenario, alcohol - beer - is an integral part of a perfect moment.  The drink is definitely helping the flow of banter or the curve of relaxation, and yet no-one could argue that each scenario shows responsible drinking - there's suggestion of a beery buzz, but no hint of drinking to excess.

That might not sound like much, but in today's hysterical anti-drink environment, it's almost forbidden to suggest that the reason we drink is that we like the way it makes us feel.  It must have taken many iterations to get the balance of tone right, and no doubt someone somewhere will be offended by the suggestion that an adult can have a couple of beers without beating up an old lady and then dying a slow, lingering death from liver disease.  But well done to SABMiller for putting a stake in the ground on behalf of proper drinking.

Happy Hour Again

You must have seen the thing in the news the other day about the call to ban happy hours.  There's been quite a bit of debate about the fact that cut-price drinks are next in the firing line for the current gaggle of moral crusaders.

The positions on both side of the debate are very familiar and not worth repeating here.  What I think is fascinating is that the pub happy hour is the only aspect of this issue that anyone is talking about, when in fact the call from MPs has been for a ban on happy hours AND cut-price deals in supermarkets.  Any sane observer of the British drinking experience knows that it's ten bottles of Carlsberg for a fiver in Asda that's causing far more trouble than half-price pints between six and seven, but on the whole that's been ignored yet again.  

No doubt the pub industry will be up in arms about this - it's yet another example about how the media pick on the pub.  Yet again, the real culprits - the supermarkets - are getting away with murder.

But I think it's not that simple.  I think the reason for the imbalance in coverage is that the pub remains so culturally potent.  

As of this year we drink half our alcohol at home.  The latest slew of surveys shows that, for the first time in British history, a slight majority of people prefer drinking at home rather than in the pub.  But nobody wants to talk about supermarkets - they're boring.  The pub and the happy hour are cultural institutions.  To anyone outside the alcohol industry, that aspect of the current proposals is far more newsworthy, far more emotive, than whether or not Tesco's is going to get its wrists slapped.  

Yes, we should constantly remind anyone in a position to affect the alcohol trade that cheap deals in supermarkets are where the problem really lies.  But we should actually take comfort from the fact that people only want to talk about pubs.  When the regulation of what happens in your local boozer is no longer deemed newsworthy, that's when we really need to start worrying.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Is that the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin?

No, it’s the new TV ad for Stella Artois 4, the new 4% ABV addition to the Artois range of beers (not to be confused with Peeterman Artois, the, um, recent 4% ABV addition to the Artois range of beers).

I really, really don’t want this blog to turn into http://www.ihatestellaartois.com/ – that would be at least as boring for me as it would be for you. But they just keep doing things that make my jaw drop, and not in a good way.

When the ad came on my TV on Friday night I hadn’t seen it before or heard anything about it. Until the resolution where the brand is introduced, right at the end of the 40-second spot, I honestly believed I was watching a new ad for Lynx – the deodorant specifically targeted at teenage virgins who masturbate furiously to pictures of recent Big Brother contestants in Zoo and Nuts magazines.

Maybe this was intentional – a watered-down beer targeting the consumers of watered-down porn – but I doubt it.

Officially the ad has a James Bond theme. The campaign is set on the French Riviera. (Confusingly, while the entire dialogue is in French, the final bar call is for “une Stella Artois Four”, the number being the only English word used. Why?) While the plot may be Lynx-lite, the tone and feel are sub-Peroni: five years ago, Peroni was shamelessly stealing art-directional cues from Stella Artois. Now, too, that’s reversed.

One final thought: given that the whole launch of Stella Artois Four is aimed at helping Stella lose the ‘wifebeater’ tag, isn’t it a bit ill-judged that the whole plot is driven by the threat of physical violence meted out by one man to another who has been messing with his bird?

It’s fascinating watching the sheer velocity with which this brand is imploding.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Let's have a heated debate!

I've done enough pontificating for a few days and wanted to try something different.

Most of the people who read this blog really seem to know their stuff, so let me ask you a question: what's the next big thing in beer? What's the next thing we're excited about that has a real chance of going mainstream? Think about how Hoegaarden launched in the UK a decade ago: building slowly with little in the way of marketing hype, to the point where wheat beer is now an established sector in the beer market that doesn't scare the mainstream drinker.

Things are very exciting just now -we've got more choice and variety in beer than ever before if you know where to look for it. Deus and Kasteel Cru have pegged out a 'champagne beer' niche that seems to have a lot more room in it. Innis & Gunn has blazed a trail leading wood-aged beers into the supermarket and we've seen an explosion of whisky-aged beers from Schiehallion, Orkney, Brew Dog, and now Fuller's. Brew Dog's Punk IPA and Thornbridge's Jaipur show that British brewers can make big, American-style IPAs, and we're getting more of the US beers readily available. And what's happening in the States now? What's creating a beery buzz over there?

Will 2009 be the year we see another big beer style go mainstream?

I may be using some of the answers to this for a commercial project for which I will be paid money. If this offends your sensibilities and you feel it contravenes the unwritten ethics of blogging I apologise. I'm making this clear so that if you object, you can choose to withhold comment. But if you don't mind, I'd love to hear what you think and would hope that it would create an interesting thread!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Bye bye my first beery love

From a press release today that's been posted on the British Guild of Beer Writers website:

"Drinks giant Carlsberg has announced plans to close its historic brewery site in West Yorkshire with the loss of 170 jobs. The company blamed falling consumption, and higher duties for the decision to shut its Leeds site by 2011. Consultation with the workers has started and Carlsberg said it would seek to redeploy staff. There has been a brewery on site in the city since 1822 when it used to produce just Tetley beers. The brewery now produces Tetley and Carlsberg and is one of two owned by Carlsberg. The other site is at Northampton."

I've got little insight to offer here, but I'm gutted. I grew up in Yorkshire before leaving home to go to university in St Andrews. Trips between home and Uni usually involved getting the little local train from Barnsley to Leeds (there was a sign saying 'home of Tetleys' as you pulled into Leeds station), then the train from Leeds to York, then the intercity up to Scotland. Every time I was leaving home I'd stop at Leeds station and go for a pint of Tetleys in the little pub just outside the main entrance (now a M&S Simply Food). Coming back, I'd stop there again for half an hour before getting the train home. There was no decent beer in Scotland at that time and during term I confined myself to Tennents Lager. My ritual was about savouring a gorgeous, nutty, rich pint, and it was about thinking about my relationship with Yorkshire while standing on the point between past and future, my heritage and upbringing and what it meant to be leaving that behind. In other words, the perfect beer moment.

There are brown and white heritage road signs all around Leeds (a city with a thirving craft beer and real ale scene) directing you to Tetleys Brewery Wharf, which conjure up an image of a living, breathing, beer experience - a museum to a much-loved brand almost 200 years old and a powerful symbol of regional identity and pride, not just for me, but for thousands of Yorkshiremen and women. The reality is a development of 'luxury apartments' and identikit chain restaurants, behind which you can stand at a chain fence and watch lorries loading up on beer. The brewery has no visitors centre and doesn't officially run tours.

Tetleys now is a shadow of its former self. It's hilarious for the brewer to blame falling sales when they haven't spent a penny advertising the brand since God knows when, when they dropped the word 'Tetley' from the corporate 'Carlsberg-Tetley' moniker, when http://www.carlsberg.co.uk/ makes no mention of Tetleys whatsoever and when there is no corresponding stand-alone website for the Tetleys brand. None of this suggests Tetleys will be made welcome at its new home in Northampton. We're talking about a top five brand in a multi-million pound market, and it isn't even worth a bloody website - just how much contempt can you show a brand you're supposed to be looking after?

But none of Carlsberg's actions - or lack of them - are responsible for the brand's decline and the resultant brewery closure. Of course they aren't. It's falling consumption and higher duty that are to blame. In other words, it's the government's fault, your fault and my fault that one of the most popular ale brands in the UK takes a giant step closer to extinction.

Thanks for clearing that up, Carlsberg.

(And thanks for making me sound like a die-hard CAMRA fundamentalist. I really appreciate that.)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

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.