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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?
New beer and music events added for Brighton - click here to book.
The possible rebirth of the British hop industry? My latest Publican's Morning Advertiser column
The 2014 Cask Report is out now. Click here to download.
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Saturday, 28 March 2009

National newspaper in anti-beer bias shocker

Today The Independent carries a hatchet job on 'extreme beer', claiming that the likes of Brew Dog and Thornbridge are targeting young binge drinkers.  It uses my recent Beer 2.0 piece for The Publican as background research, and creates a master class in hypocrisy that would be funny if it wasn't for the fact that it might damage brewers I care about who spoke to me in good faith, and find themselves featured here as a result.  Here's an extract (sorry, but if you read this blog regularly you know I'm unforgivably wordy) of my response to the editor and the journalist concerned.  If this issue makes you angry, please write to the paper and complain:
  • It is entirely inaccurate to suggest that these beers are targeting the 18-25 age group.  They may ‘remind’ the guy from Alcohol Concern of alcopops, but Alcohol Concern is a pressure group funded by anti-alcohol campaigners which is regularly quoted in articles like yours as if it is an official health body.  It’s not.  Some of these beers are marketed in a stylish and modern way – that is not the same thing as targeting younger drinkers.   Each of these brewers has a strong corporate feel to their range, so how can you imply that the 8% beer has been designed and packaged to appeal to younger drinkers any more than the 4% beer has?  To suggest that stylish packaging can only be appreciated by the under-25s is patronising to the people these beers are really aimed at – affluent, stylish drinkers in their late twenties and older – in other words, your readership.  Secondly, As Martin Dickie points out, these beers are expensive.  One of Brew Dog’s beers may be sold in Tesco, but as a rule they are sold by specialist beer shops, beer bars and online retailers, and cost upwards of £4 a bottle.  Anyone simply seeking high ABV is going to buy something else first.  My Publican feature even points out that one of the brewers you’ve mentioned – Otley – actively refuses supermarkets who wish to stock their beers and sell beer at steep discounts.  Thirdly, anyone who works in the drinks industry would tell you that the trend among young binge drinkers is for drinks that combine a high alcohol content with an unchallenging flavour.  The whole point of these beers is that they are full-flavoured, designed for savouring and almost impossible to glug quickly.
  • The alcohol levels in these beers are not ‘mind-blowing’ - this is entirely inaccurate, misleading and potentially damaging.  Some of these alcohol levels may be cause for concern if the beers were sold in pints, with the expectation that several would be consumed in one sitting.  But these beers are hardly ever, if at all, sold on draught.  As your feature points out, they are sold in 33cl bottles.  They are designed for sipping and savouring.  Wine is sold in 75cl bottles, which are commonly shared between two people.  If a 33cl bottle of beer at more than 10% is more than daily recommended alcohol intake (and almost all the beers you mention are not this strong) what’s half a bottle of wine (37.5cl) at 12-14%?
  • Building on these points, Saturday’s Independent demonstrates breathtaking hypocrisy which does a disservice to its readership.  The magazine carries its usual page of wine hagiography (funny how you hardly ever feature beer in this way, even though a cursory look at TGI readership data would show you that your readership are enthusiastic consumers of quality beer).  This week  Anthony Rose talks us through Italian whites.  In total 18 different wines are given enthusiastic endorsement.  There’s not even a single mention of the alcohol content of any of these wines.  And yet I can promise you that every single one of them has a higher ABV than any of the “mindblowing” beers in your extreme beer article, three of which are illustrated with alarmist starbursts drawing attention to their alcohol levels – levels  that are so low that if wine was to be produced to that strength, EU law would prevent it from being called wine because it would be too weak.  
  • But it gets better.  In the main paper, 24 pages after the “extreme beer” feature, there’s an article entitled ‘War of the rosés’, about a scheme to make French rosé wine more popular.  Here is a direct quote from that piece: “If we are forced to put the word ‘traditional’ on our bottles, people will think, especially young people, that it is a fuddy-duddy wine, an old-fashioned kind of drink.  That will ruin everything we have achieved.”  That’s from a winemaker.  And here’s the journalist himself:  “Young people, especially, have taken to rosé as a fun drink, which is refreshing, uncomplicated and relatively cheap.  (Anjou rosé sells in the UK at between £5 and £8 a bottle.  Other French rosés sell for as little as £3 a bottle.)”  Despite the clear admission that rosé winemakers are targeting younger people, despite the fact that rosé wine is being sold cheap and marketed in a contemporary fashion in order to lure these drinkers, there is no worried quote from Alcohol Concern.  No sensationalist headline.  No mention of the ABV of rosé wines.  The attractive illustration of three glasses of rose – unlike your illustration of extreme beers – carries no bold starbursts.  The inference is clear: when winemakers admit that they are selling cheap wine (12-14% ABV) and actively targeting young people with 750ml bottles for as little as £3, that’s OK.  But when a brewer creates a beer (6-12% ABV) and sells it in a 33cl bottle that retails from £4 upwards, and tells you it is emphatically NOT targeting young drinkers, you run the piece with a ‘health fears’ headline and a subhead that claims the beers are, in fact, targeting younger drinkers – despite the fact that this is a lower ABV drink, being sold at a higher price. 

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Sod's Law and that G-word again

Got me best clothes on today because I've been invited to film an episode of Market Kitchen on UKTV.

They're having a week of 'save the gastropub' programmes.  I have no idea why they had to single out gastropubs to be saved - whether they think they are more under threat than ordinary pubs, whether they think they are more worthy of saving, or whether it was just that they felt they had to say gastropubs in order to be allowed to do the feature.  I'll try to find out.

Anyway, I've been asked to compere a pub quiz, with the contestants being the regular presenters and today's special guest, Rodney Marsh.  It's the first time I've been on the show for over a year so I was keen to do it.  It could be brilliant, it could be disastrous.

The way the day is going, I'm guessing the latter.  I've been wearing my hair long for about 18 months now.  Every single day for at least the last three months, when I've dried it it's just fallen quite naturally into a shaggy, wavy style that I've never been totally convinced by but which people insist looks nice and suits me.  Today I did exactly the same things I do every morning and ended up with a hairstyle I've never seen before that makes me look like a paedophile.

Added to that, I've developed a stinking cold as the morning has worn on.   I can't stop sneezing and every time I try to speak I have a coughing fit.

This is going to be comedy gold, for all the wrong reasons...

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Pubs and class

I've tried to write about what's really wrong with pubs many times, and think I've made some valid points.  But Boak and Bailey just hit the nail on the head quite squarely and with minimum verbiage via the simple expedient of asking Boak (or Bailey's) working class mum and dad why they didn't go to the pub any more.

In this industry we spend a lot of time talking about how hard it is for publicans, and not enough time looking at the problem from the drinker's perspective.  Anyone who runs a pub or works for a PubCo should read this post.

British Beer 2.0

In my end of year review I argued that there had been a fundamental shift in the attitudes of brewers - that the likes of Brew Dog and Thornbridge were now spearheading a much wider movement of more experimental and innovative brewing.

This week I expanded on that thought in a feature for The Publican.  I like writing for this magazine.  They keep putting my features on their website so I can link to them.  But don't let that put you off buying the mag too, there's loads more good stuff in it.

Am I right?  Or am I making a mountain out of a few speciality beer crown caps?  To continue my music analogy, have I spotted punk or acid house, or am I the sad sack author of Romo or the New Wave of the New Wave? (see Melody Maker in the early 1990s if you don't know what I'm talking about - yo probably don't.  And that's my point.)  

The true cost of the smoking ban (to someone who doesn't run a pub and wasn't that bothered either way)

Had a slight mourning the other day - I had to go out and buy a box of matches.

I've never smoked, but whenever visiting a bar or restaurant if there were books or matches available I'd slip one or two in my pocket.  At its peak, I had a biscuit tin overflowing with different matchbooks, which we'd use to persuade our old stove into life or light candles (Liz likes candles almost as mush as she likes fairy lights).  Every time you had to rummage in there for a new matchbook you'd be hit by a wave of reminders of all these places you'd been to.  Often, you'd be taken back to a particular evening or trip you'd long forgotten about, the way you do when you smell a particular scent for the first time in years.

Since the smoking ban - before it actually - pubs and restaurants have stopped doing branded matchbooks - there's no need.  And so my stock has dwindled, and now the biscuit tin is empty.

Last night BLTP and I had a fine meal in The Duke, and they still had a big bowl full of branded matchbooks.  I'd like to think this is because they see the value in this as a branding exercise that ties people to the pub a little closer, rather than that they ordered a job lot of them and forgot the smoking ban was coming in.  It would be lovely if more places still did the same.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Minimum Drink Pricing - would it have been a good idea?

So Gordon's come out against a minimum price per unit because he doesn't want to penalise the majority of moderate drinkers.

Hmm.  

A minimum price per unit would, obviously, increase the price of stronger drinks relative to weaker ones.  Beer, especially ale, being the lowest strength drink in the bar on average, would suffer less than other drinks, if at all.  Maybe this is why SIBA and CAMRA were both in favour of a minimum price per unit - it would have done beer some good, and helps to underline the fact that ale in particular is not a binge drink.

On the other hand, I've read lots of research that suggests price increases don't deter hardcore drinkers - they'll compromise on other things instead.  To quote (yet again) from The Daily Mash
Emma Hollis, a wine drinker from Twickenham, said: "If the price of alcohol doubles I will have to rethink my weekly shopping budget. What I can say is that, one way or another, by nine o'clock on a Friday night I am going to be completely and utterly off my tits."

Maybe Gordon Brown has seen the same research, and that's where he's coming from in this decision.  Or maybe he bases his decisions on satirical comic news sites.

But it does stick in the craw somewhat.  Alcopops and strong cider are currently charged at lower duty rates than beer despite being (a) stronger drinks and (b) the tippled of choice for your bingeing teenager.  When the duty rise to offset the VAT reduction in November was applied to most alcoholic drinks, a quiet word from the spirits guys meant that spirits were latterly exempted from this increase.  I guess that's why I agree with CAMRA's press release today that the government has been hypocritical on the issue.

The government is always keen to attack binge drinking.  But to judge it by its actions, you'd think they were more anti-moderate drinking.  Yet again they seem to have little clue on how to tackle the problems that exist in drinking, and it's beer and pubs that get shafted as a result. 

Or am I wrong - would a minimum price per unit drive prices up across the board and make beer suffer even more?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Those other Hops & Glory legals in full

I posted the other day about how evil lawyers are making publishers like mine very jumpy indeed by reading books for anything they might conceivably make a libel suit out of, then hounding people who have been written about to try and make them sue.  

So here's an experiment - let's see if they're as attentive on blogs.

I'd like to tell you the other lines we've agreed to censor to avoid legal action over the book.  See if you think I'm in trouble:
  • I'm not allowed to refer to Mariah Carey as a "deranged diva"
  • I'm not allowed to describe a "cave full of evil, bad-tempered little goblin cooks" and follow this with the phrase "shit, imagine that - a whole tribe of Antony Worral-Thompsons"
  • And I'm strongly advised not to include the following passage, which was intended to illustrate my own incompetence in organising my sea journey to India, as well as highlighting the pretentiousness of the North London, self-loathing middle class of which I'm part.  My editor didn't think it was good enough to go in the book anyway - it didn't make him laugh, and didn't move the story forward, and given that we were quite far over the agreed length, no-one wanted it in except me.  But it was legal worries that finally killed it.  The conversation is presented word for word as it happened:

It was hopeless combing the outer reaches of the internet like this. What I needed was a specialist travel agent, someone who organised Travel with a capital ‘T’ and pointed and laughed at squares like me who queued at Heathrow to board flights with businessmen and families with screaming children like everyone else.  But where would I find someone like that?  Did such a place even exist?  It must do.  But where? 

 

The retrospectively obvious answer flashed at me from a TV screen one morning while I was torturing myself in the gym.  I’d been walking past ‘Intrepid Travel’ in Upper Street, Islington, almost every day since it opened about four years ago.  Islington.  Of course.  Islington could never make do with an ordinary travel agent.

 

It was next door to Black’s, the outdoor and camping equipment shop.  How could I have forgotten this?  Intrepid Travel.  Christ, yes.  That was me. 

 

The façade of the shop was built from slightly distressed wood, like you might find at a chandlery, for example.  Stencilled onto the woodwork, in paint that looked like it was designed to withstand salty sea storms, I read: 

Intrepid is for those with a yearning to explore, a sense of fun and a wish to get off the beaten trail.  Intrepid travellers want to experience a country and its people.

 

They enjoy a flexible and relaxed attitude to travel, come from all corners of the world and are of all ages.  Some travel with friends, though many by themselves.  They are real travellers.

 

Fuck yeah. 

 

Real travellers!  That was me!  I wouldn’t have dared go in here before planning this journey because they would have laughed at me.  Now, I adopted my best Traveller’s body language and expression – yeah, I’ve BEEN there – and walked in.

 

“Do you organise sea voyages?”

 

“What, like to Antarctica?”

 

“Sorry?  Well no, not necessarily.  I meant generally, like container ships or maybe tall ships.  I’m writing this book you see and –“

 

“It’s just that we don’t do that.”

 

“No, no, I don’t want to go to Antarctica-”

 

“I mean, we don’t do any kind of sea travel.”

 

“You don’t book voyages by sea of any description?”

 

“No.”

 

“How do people travel on your adventures then?”

 

“Well… they fly, obviously.”

 

“So the unbeaten track starts at Luton Airport, does it?”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“Nothing.  Doesn’t matter.”

 

“I can give you the name of a website.”

 

“That would be great!”

 

“It’s called travel without flying.  Or fly free travel.  Something like that.  Something for people who are frightened of flying, anyway.”

 

“I’m not frightened of flying!  I’m trying to be more adventurous.  I thought that was the point!”

 

“We’ve never used them, but someone told me about it once.”

 

I walked out, staring at the façade again to make sure I’d read it correctly.  “Not really that intrepid then, eh?” I said just loud enough to be heard, because the alternative was bursting into tears. 

 

I stared at Black’s, and realised that, along with most people who shop in Islington, I’d only ever been in there during the third week in June – just before the Glastonbury Festival.  


What the hell was I going to do? 

Friday, 13 March 2009

Why are all the pubs closing? ask people who never go to the pub

Those Daily Mash boys have been at it again.  This has been sent to me by two people so far so I think it deserves to be shared here.  Thanks Rudgie and Peter Russell.

MILLIONS of people across Britain who never go to the pub were last night asking why all the pubs were closing down.
Image
At least none of these bar stools are smoking
As it was revealed that 2000 pubs have closed in the last year, non-pub goers said their community would not be the same without the local pub they never went to.

Margaret Gerving, from Peterborough, said: "I was delighted when the smoking ban came in because it meant I could finally go to the pub without being killed.

"But then I didn't, mainly because I'm not the sort of person who likes going to pubs. I prefer to stay in with a carton of pomegranate juice and a bag of pine nuts and make long lists of all the things I want banned.

"Now it turns out that nobody else is going either because quite a lot of the people who used to go to the pub also liked to smoke. But none of this explains why all the pubs are closing down."

Julian Cook, from Devon, said: "Our local pub looks really lovely from the outside. It's got flower baskets and a nice old fashioned sign. Unfortunately it's used by local people with accents who dress differently from me and who are, I suspect, incredibly racist."

Former pub owner Charlie Reeves, from Hereford, said: "We were told that the smoking ban would mean lots of young mums and dads bringing their children in. But that didn't really help because there's only so much Guinness you can pour down a three year-old before it falls asleep.

"Then there's the added factor that a pub with children in it isn't really a pub, it's a fucking hell hole."

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Fat Lori ov Derby is a Slag

Hops & Glory is just going through legal proof reading just before it goes to design and print, and it's throwing up some bizarre battles to keep in some of my favourite pet lines.

It seems that legal issues over books have intensified since I slagged off Anheuser Busch in Three Sheets to the Wind to the point where I included the unproven allegations about one Busch family member escaping a manslaughter charge because the evidence that would have proven it mysteriously disappeared.  

Those were the days!

Now, it seems that lawyers are reading non-fiction books with the sole purpose of finding something they can create a libel case out of, then contacting the injured person or institution, making them aware of what's said and trying to persuade them to launch a libel action - largely because Britain has the harshest libel law in the world.  My publishers have been hit with five writs in as many weeks, for stuff they thought was safe.  Makes a change from chasing ambulances I suppose.

Anyway, one of several contentious issues arises early in the book, when I'm trying to convey the atmosphere in Burton on Trent today and harking back to its former glories.  In the middle of this bit comes the following passage:

Behind the storm fencing and DANGER KEEP OUT signs outside the derelict Riverside shopping centre and the abandoned Club Extreme, the Salt’s Brewery well still runs beneath the litter-strewn concourse, workers’ portaloo and graffiti informing us in emotive and disapproving terms that Fat Lori of Derby is liberal with her sexual favours, complete with her mobile phone number.   

It turns out that there has been a case where someone has referred to graffiti like this, then when the book is out the person on the graffiti has suffered harassment and sued.  Would Fat Lori share the same fate?  

The building in question was derelict at the time.  I figured if it had been pulled down by now, the number would have vanished and no-one could harass poor Fat Lori.  So I phoned my mate Rudgie (who you'll get to know well in the book) and he confirmed the building is still there.  However, he left his very busy desk at Coors to go and see if the graffiti still adorned it.

It seems the building has been fenced off and you can't get near it.  And someone has nailed what looks like a door to the wall which obscures most of the message, so all you can read is:

Fat Lori
is a
07

It looks like me, Pan Macmillan and Fat Lori are all safe.  But in the book Lori has become Jodie, just to be sure.
 


Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Four weeks to go till Britain's biggest celebration of cask ale

Apologies for the lack of activity in recent weeks - an unexpected close family bereavement has kept me away from the real world for three weeks or so.  The only consolation to come out of a pretty horrible time was becoming more familiar with beers around Wales, which I might rave about later at some point.

Anyway, back to business, and my first brush with the outside world came last week, when I attended a meeting of regional and local ale brewers who spent half a day discussing how cask ale might be promoted more bullishly and effectively.

The first thing to share out of this was the latest news on the first ever National Cask Ale Week, which starts on 6th April wherever you see this logo, and runs over Easter.  What's special about this is it's not just an initiative by CAMRA or Wetherspoons.  Organised by Cask Marque, it has active support across the entire beer and pub industry, with major pub cos, the Daily Telegraph, various celebrities and (to date) over 5000 pubs joining in, as well as the aforementioned stalwart cask ale champions.  

Full details are here.  

The idea is to recruit a million new cask ale drinkers over the course of the week, and I think they'll do it.  Whatever happens, this kind of big idea, with support from so many bodies, is exactly what the brewing industry needs.