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

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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Back Garden Bliss

OK while the weather holds, this is too good not to share.

A couple of people picked up on the reference to beer brined chicken in my Garrett Oliver post.  Now your barbecue has seen some sausage and burger action, it's time to raise it to the next level.

The following recipe is adapted from this book, which has changed my life:


It looks like a novelty book.  It looks like it should be rubbish.  But it contains secrets, such joyful secrets.

The problem with bbq food is that it gets burnt and dry.  Now this might be common knowledge in the States, where barbecuing gets taken much more seriously, but we tend not to know it over here because bbq weather is so rare - the secret to moist, flavoursome barbecue meet is brining.  Marinade the meat in a herby, spicy solution with lots of salt and brown sugar, which tenderises and keeps it moist.

If you just did that, it would be pretty good.  But you can go further - once your meat is marinaded, about half an hour before putting it on the grill, just as the coals are flaming and you're waiting for them burn down into embers, dry off your chicken/lamb/pork/beef and coat it in a salty, sugary rub.  This caramelises very quickly, giving you a tasty burnt layer on the outside but protecting the meat inside and locking in the moisture and flavour.

With these principles you can't go wrong.  The following recipe is the one form the book that I've cooked six times in the last few weeks, but with the principle established, you can mess around with different seasonings.

First you do the brine:

Half cup of firmly packed brown sugar
Half cup sea salt
1 cup hot water
1 tsp chopped/grated lemon zest
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
3 bay leaves
2 tsp ground black pepper
2 bottles beer – I think anything works, but something quite fruity and mid-brown has worked best for me.

Dissolve the sugar and salt in the water, then add everything else. Marinade the chicken for as long as you can – four or five hours is perfect.

Then you’ve got the rub:

2tsp fennel seeds (it says ground but I use them whole)
Pinch of chilli flakes to taste
2 tsp chopped lemon zest
1 tsp brown sugar
3 tsp salt

Drain the marinade off the chicken, coat in the rub, stick it on the barbie!  Simple.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it's a heavenly beer match waiting to happen.  Because of the variety of spicy flavours in there I've found an American IPA/pale ale - not a hop bomb of varnish-like bitterness but something with some nice resinous, spicy notes, such as Sierra nevada Pale Ale or Norrebro's Bombay Pale Ale - goes amazingly - the latter is one of the most swoonsome matches I've ever tasted

And to follow? Well, while we're outside, me and the Beer Widow went camping last weekend.  We had a campfire every night (No firelighters.  First night - paper and about five matches.  Second night - just kindling from the forest floor and three matches.  Final night - forest kindling and one match!)  I'd got a hunch from tasting whisky barrel-aged beers while judging the International Beer Challenge, which I wanted to check out - and I was right.  When you're sitting around a campfire, as the moon rises and nearby campers launch lanterns into the darkening sky, you can play with beer and fire matching.  Something like an Ola Dubh 30 or 40 year old is the perfect accompaniment - the smoke from the air mingles in your nostrils and brings out nuances in the beer, and at the finish, as you swallow, you can taste the embers of the fire on your tongue.  One of the most remarkable, multi-sensory tasting experiences I've ever had.

Now where are those matches?

Friday, 16 July 2010

Bavaria versus AB-Inbev/FIFA: a postscript

I'm not going to rant again about the whole ambush marketing/erosion of human rights in favour of commercial gain fiasco of this year's World Cup, but I received an interesting press release yesterday from Hall & Partners, who were always the most intelligent and useful research agency we used back in my advertising days.

Their - ahem - WebWordTM tracker has revealed that during the World Cup, in the blogosphere (not the beer blogosphere, the whole kit and caboodle) Bavaria trounced Budweiser.


WebWord is a "social media listening tool" that tracks online conversations in real time.  Following the expulsion and detention of the 32 women wearing unbranded orange dresses at Holland's game on 14th June, H&P tracked "Budweiser AND (FIFA or World Cup)" versus "Bavaria AND (FIFA or World Cup)" to see which combination of terms got the most mentions online for the duration of the tournament.

They found that Bavaria gained 371% more blog buzz than Budwesiser.  Interestingly, it also beat every other World Cup sponsor - Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates, Hyundai, Sony and Visa.

But who needs expensive research to prove this?  Simply Google 'World Cup Beer', and see how many stories come up about Bavaria before you get any mention of the official sponsors.

FIFA has shown itself to have an extraordinarily aggressive attitude to ambush marketing.  But these figures show that the more they fight against it, the more powerful they make it.  Big, ugly corporations still have much to learn about marketing in social media.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mr Oliver comes to London

This week I’ve been lucky enough to spend two evenings with Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and arguably the world’s most compelling voice about beer, especially when he’s talking about beer and food matching.

The first night was – to put it mildly – unexpected.  Last Saturday we had a barbecue at our house for my birthday.  I turned my friends on to my newly discovered masterpiece of beer-brined chicken in fennel rub – a recipe from one of those kitsch, 1950s-style novelty cookbooks that turns out to be the best thing I’ve ever cooked.  Sublime with a Sierra Nevada-style pale ale, perfect with Norrebro’s Bombay India Pale Ale.

The following day we were nursing hangovers, prodding at the tidying up and enjoying the sunshine when Garrett dropped me a line to say he was in London, had no plans and did I fancy a pint?  I explained that I was incapable of leaving the house but that he was welcome to join us for the last of the beer-brined chicken and the World Cup FinalTM if he wanted, and to my surprise and delight he said yes.  After the poor sod roamed Finsbury Park for an hour in search of a cab – bloody football – he finally made it to Stoke Newington.  I managed to find three beers in the cellar he’d not had before, and I think he liked two of them.  After watching the Dutch lose to Spain in the Ultimate Fighting Challenge, we stayed up talking till long after bedtime, drinking Ola Dubh 40.  A memorable and wonderful evening, entirely worth writing off the whole of Monday for.

Two nights later Garrett was at the White Horse giving a beer and cheese pairing.  I do this kind of thing quite a bit myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever uttered one word about how well cheese and beer go together that Garrett hadn’t said to me first.

If you haven’t seen Garrett do his thing before, here’s a brief summary of his spiel, after which I’ll say a note on the beers and the cheeses, and how well they went together.

The first thing he’s at pains to point out is that he loves wine as well as beer.  “Some of my best friends are sommeliers,” he didn’t quite say.  Seriously, he argued that people who are passionate about evangelizing any kind of food or drink are all “flavour people.  It’s natural that it’s intertwined.”

Having established this, he then talks about how beer is a better match with cheese than wine is.  He often participates in tasting duels versus sommeliers. A cheese expert chooses six cheeses, Garrett and the wine guy choose drinks to match with them, and in front of a voting audience Garrett usually wins. 

There’s a technical part to why and, in Garrett’s mind, a more romantic, esoteric explanation which is just as real.  The technical bit is that cheese is mainly fat and salt, which coat the tongue.  Wine simply bounces off this coating, can’t break it down, and therefore you don’t really taste much of what remain two very separate elements in the mouth.  But beer, with its carbonation, breaks through, scraping the fat off your tongue, revitalizing the flavours.  Sometimes beer enhances cheese, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes they combine to create a 3D flavour sensation that’s much bigger than either beer or cheese can achieve separately.

The more romantic part – which is not to say it doesn’t make perfect sense – is that beer and cheese are obvious natural pairings.  They both come from a farm, and historically they were both made by the same person.  “Both are essentially made from grass,” argues Garrett.  “Barley is a type of grass.  Cheese has a cow or a sheep in the middle, but it starts as grass.”

And so on to the tasting.  All the beers were Garrett’s own, some of them rarely if ever seen this side of the pond. 

ROSARY GOATS CHEESE WITH BROOKLYN SORACHI ACE

Sorachi ace is a rare, new hop with a powerful, unique aroma of lemon rind and lemongrass.  The beer of the same name is a Belgian Saison style ale that tastes like a warm summer evening. 

Goat’s cheese seemed like an obvious match, and this particular one was one of the best I’ve ever tasted – a bold initial tartness that melts into a lake of milkiness. 

Together, the lemon character of the beer and the strong citric hit of the cheese somehow cancel each other out and fade away to leave a new flavour, rounder and mellower with no sharp edges, sweet with the tiniest hint of malt.  Wonderful.

BRILLAT SAVARIN WITH BROOKLYN LOCAL 1

Brillat Savarin is to my mind the best ever writer on food, famous for his aphorisms, my favourite of which is “A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”  I don’t much care for the cheese that was named after him though.  It’s like eating solidified cream.  I hate cream.  It’s too cloying and sickly and I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s a treat. 

The beer though is something I’d be perfectly happy to receive as a birthday present.  And I mean a ‘proper’ present.  It’s recognizable as a Belgian Saison in style but it’s smoother, more elegant.  You want to say ‘dumbed down’ but that would be completely inaccurate.  Yes, it’s more accessible than some of the funkier farmyard Saisons, but the cheesy, musty, sweet and sour, spicy flavour journey of a Saison is all present and correct. 

This is a match where the beer comes out best.  The cheese helps push its tartness to the fore, a brief spike of flavour emerging slowly and elegantly, like the spine of a humpback whale cresting the ocean surface before, submerging again.  

On the other hand,  the cheese just tastes even creamier, which I could really do without. 

HEREFORD HOP WITH BROOKLYN LAGER

The Brooklyn beer you can get fairly easily in the UK was the first they brewed, and is a faithful recreation of what beer used to be like in New York a hundred years ago, prompting Garrett to exclaim that the current craft beer boom is not a fad or a trend, but a return to normality after a the late twentieth century’s obsession with plastic and standardization. 

I realize that we spend too much time thinking about beer in terms of ‘hoppy’ or ‘malty’.  Brooklyn lager is neither, or rather, both.  It’s toffee in a very expensive designer label suit that makes it shine and sparkle.

The cheese is sticky and cloying and glutinous in a good way, sweet and salty and slightly acidic.  Together I don’t find much alchemy – both are nice separately and nice together, but with nothing much added.

OSSAU IRATY WITH BROOKLYN BROWN ALE

This is an interesting one.  Ossau Iraty is made from sheep’s milk and has an aroma of lanolin or ‘wool fat’, the smell you get off a wet woollen jumper and, once it’s been pointed out, the sweet smell you get from roast lamb.

The beer is all about chocolate and caramel, with a slight grassiness towards the end.

Together, they are in total harmony – beer and cheese blend into each other around an axis of sweet caramel.  Just lovely.

SOME OTHER CHEESE WITH BROOKLYN DARK MATTER

This one wasn’t on the menu and I’m starting to lose track.  Dark Matter is an 8% version of the brown ale that’s been aged for four months in bourbon and wine barrels to give it a strong American oak character.  To me it smells initially of nail varnish, but that’s a smell I’ve always liked.  On the second whiff I can isolate the coconut that Garrett’s talking about, and then you can get the strong vanilla essence behind it, a hint of sherry, and then a faint molasses character on the tongue.

I hardly notice the cheese.  I’m all wrapped up in the beer, and the match doesn’t change much about it.

MONTGOMERY’S CHEDDAR WITH BROOKLYN EAST INDIA PALE ALE

IPA with strong mature cheddar has always been my favourite match of any beer with any food, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The dry saltiness of the cheese ands the fruitiness of the beer just body barge each other, exploding in a carnival of colour and partying on your tongue.  Weirdly, Garrett compares it to a forceful physical dance, like a tango, just after I’ve written in my notebook that they’re slam-dancing.  I  might be on the same wavelength as him, but I just don’t have his class.

COLSTON-BASSET STILTON WITH BROOKLYN CHOCOLATE STOUT

This pairing was born by accident.  Garrett was at an event where he’d asked for either a barley wine to match with Stilton (which is another awesome match) or chocolate stout with truffles.  He turned up to find chocolate stout and Stilton, panicked, tried it, and found it worked wonderfully.

The dark chocolate character in the stout comes from chocolate malt only – no actual chocolate - and develops with a hint of sherry, followed by an inky Shiraz character on the palate with some bitter coffee grounds mixed in.

The Stilton is lovely.  “People who don’t like Stilton… well… they’re just bad people,” says Garrett.  “I’m serious.  If you don’t like Stilton you can’t come to my house.  You can’t pet my dog.”

The match is an elegant marriage which makes me think of high tea with a maiden aunt in a stately home.  Don’t ask me why.



So what did I learn?  The main thing is that in craft brewing there are craftsmen, artisans, entrepreneurs, chefs, mavericks, scientists, technicians, innovators and mad professors.  But Garrett is one of the few true artists.  The beers reflect the man: daring, elegant, refined, cultured, Europhile, principled and courteous. At my house on Sunday he was telling us about a beer he’s designed in honour of a legendary Italian filmmaker, and to hear him talk through his thinking, the influences he wanted to incorporate, and how he chose to weave them together, was enchanting.  All my guests – including the ones who never drink beer – were absolutely rapt.  And the brews we had on Tuesday demonstrated that he can deliver in the glass what he weaves in words.

I also learned that the best way to talk about beer versus wine is not to dismiss wine, or fight against it, but to complement it.  This is too long a post, so I’m just going to finish by quoting Garrett in summary:

“The frustration in the States, and now here, is people trying to force wine into places where it doesn’t want to go.  What we eat now, with Japanese and Indian and Thai food, is not what we were eating twenty years ago.  Let wine go where it wants, or it’s a recipe for misery. 

“Beer has a wider range of flavours than wine.  That’s not opinion, that is incontrovertible, verified fact.  When chefs and restaurants complement a great menu with a great wine list and just two or three industrial beers, it’s like an artist saying ‘I’m only going to use half the colours’, or a composer saying ‘I’m only going to use half the notes.’  It just doesn’t make sense.”

I’ll be in my salon if you need me.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Big Boys

Last week I posted yet another piece dissing A-B Inbev for their increasingly entertaining wrong-headedness.  It's almost a weekly occurrence these days, and I got to wondering why I do it.  

I'm so glad I no longer spend much time in rooms like this.  Just as well really, given this post.

It must look like I have a vendetta against that particular company, perhaps motivated by sour grapes over the fact that I used to work for one of their advertising agencies.  I don't, honestly - it's just that they're the only company who send me really stupid press releases, or who I see in the newspaper doing something so disturbing that I feel compelled to have a go at them for it.  If any other brewer - oh hang, on, sorry, they're not a brewer, they're an "FMCG marketing company that happens to sell beer" - if any other brewer sent me press releases about pointless line extensions, or had FIFA arrest and harass innocent civilians on their behalf, or systematically raped and killed one of the greatest beer brands ever, I'd be just as critical.  But, with the odd exception, they tend not to.

Some readers - people who are die-hard craft beer devotees - often comment on the fact that all I'm doing is calling attention to the universal follies perpetrated by big, 'macro' multinational brewers.  There's a sense in some parts of the beer community that they're all just as bad as each other.  But the frequency with which I attack A-B Inbev suggests they're not.  

So I thought it might be fun to just look at the big megabreweries here in the UK and give a fair assessment of each of them, from a beer lover's point of view, and from the point of view of someone who understands the realities of marketing a megabrand.  

These brewers can never just say "You know what? Let's just stop selling these cheap but enormously successful tasteless lager brands and invest all our money in intriguing craft brews which are preferred by only a small minority of beer drinkers."  But successful big business management is all about shrewd portfolio brand management. The niche beers of today may be the giants of tomorrow, and with a market that's shrinking (except the craft beer part) you'd hope to see some consideration given to serious beer (which is also the only part of the beer market that can charge serious profit margins) , as well as a level of thoughtfulness in the big beer brands that doesn't just approach drinkers from the lowest common denominator.  So here goes.

I know, I know.  Where to begin?

Lead brands in UK: Stella Artois, Becks, Budweiser

They used to be good - I think that's where my background level of anger and frustration comes from - but increasingly they resemble the beer world's Evil Empire.  To understand them properly you have to look at their constituent parts, and how they came together.  

In the late 90s Interbrew was a Belgian brewery that had gone global.  Stella Artois was a phenomenal success story in the UK which they attempted to replicate all over the world (something they've had a reasonable amount of success with, despite the disaster the brand has become in the UK).  They had a clever positioning as 'The world's local brewer', which recognised the importance of local brands and regional differences.  

People talked about how Stella was an 'ordinary' lager in its home country, but this is Belgium we're talking about - it was a perfectly decent, respectable pilsner style beer, even attracting praise from the likes of Roger Protz in the context of its home country.  

In taking Hoegaarden and Leffe international, Interbrew created the commercial end of the global 'speciality beer' market, a move that made things much easier for smaller craft brewers to reach a wider, curious market.  

Then came the merger with South American conglomerate Ambev, to form Inbev.  After boardroom politicking didn't quite go as planned, the South Americans emerged as the dominant strategic force driving the company.  Whereas Inbev had had a culture focused on brand building, and enjoyed a deep heritage in interesting beer, Ambev was all about cost cutting - something that was easy to sell to a company that was cash-starved after the takeover.  Brands were rationalised, mainstream marketing principles were applied, and a focus was put on a few lead global brands.  At this point, any notion of beery romance left the company.  They clearly thought it was merely sentiment that saw Hoegaarden brewed in the town of Hoegaarden, or Stella matured for something resembling a decent lagering period, not realising that money invested in brands made them premium, and therefore loved, and therefore able to charge higher prices.  Inbev's unofficial corporate slogan was surely "show us a cost and we'll cut it", with no thought given to how that cut might affect brand health long term.  Anyone who still believed beer was special in drinkers' hearts and could not therefore be marketed the same way as washing powder or dog food was disappeared from the company, and replaced by marketing executives from Coca Cola Schweppes or Procter & Gamble - many of whom didn't actually like beer.   

And then came the merger with Anheuser-Busch - a brewery that has long enjoyed a reputation for being fearsomely aggressive, and extraordinarily litigious.  They seem to actually resent the existence of any competitive brewer.  Interestingly though, as I argued in a recent lager seminar, while Budweiser may not be a very nice beer, it is certainly a high quality beer - look at the spec for it's manufacture and I dare you not to at least admire them, even if, like me, you'd rather drink your own urine than the resulting beer.  I can see the bullying attitude surviving much longer than the commitment to brewing quality, sadly.

In the UK they've had some success, with Artois 4%, and helped make that 4% 'quality' band credible.  But at such a cost to the main Stella Artois brand, which used to be so good, but seems to have had everything that was good about it deliberately stripped from it: flavour, quality ingredients, a very successful association with film, great ads, the distinctive embossed can, the Queens tennis tournament - all gone.   

They also have Becks, a great survivor in the beer wars.  It still tastes of beer, but is a touch too metallic for some.  The Becks association with art is something I constantly refer to as a good example of successful sponsorship.

They have quite deliberately run Bass and Boddington's - two beers that, in their own way used to be great - into the ground, withdrawing all marketing support, and have openly said they are completely uninterested in ale.  Hoegaarden and Leffe also seem increasingly unloved - they called the former spectacularly wrong when they tried to close the brewery. I'd argue that aggressively divesting from the only sectors of the market showing volume growth and significant margin shows you simply don't understand the business you're in.

So there you have it - a rapacious, all-devouring conglomerate, the world's biggest brewer, run by people who neither respect nor understand beer.  That's your problem, right there.  I'd dearly love someone from A-B Inbev to challenge me and prove me wrong.  But remember the Stella Black launch, the beer that's "matured for longer"?  They've ignored my query about how long it's actually brewed for.  The press release proves everything I've said - here's a launch of a 'quality', 'premium' beer, with not one word of detail on the ingredients, brewing process or flavour profile of that beer.


Brewed in Yorkshire? Not for long, matey.

Lead brands in UK: Carlsberg, Tetleys, Tuborg

Feels lost, somehow.  

Carlsberg bought the remains of what used to be Allied Breweries, which had a bunch of interesting brands, and some infamously bad ones.  Renaming the company Carlsberg Tetley showed their direction, and then dropping the Tetley from the corporate name left no one in any doubt.  The decision to move Tetley's cask production out of Yorkshire has led to a righteous outpouring from beer fans, but as an Evil Empire, Carlsberg is unconvincing.  They definitely called it wrong with Tetley's, but they've been neglecting the brand for years.  I know specific people within the organisation and I know their commitment and enthusiasm for quality beer.  Clearly, their voices are not loud enough at the top level.  

Carlsberg UK is now seemingly no more than a branch office of Carlsberg in Denmark.  I've never had anything against Carlsberg the beer itself.  The proper 'export' beer is fine if unremarkable, and if pushed the 4% version is bland without being offensive to the palate like some of its competitors.  They've done a very successful job of marketing the beer with its association with the English football team and sponsorship of the European Cup.

What confuses me is that in Denmark Carlsberg responded to the rise of craft brewing with its Semper Ardens range, which were really good.  There were a couple of special 'Jacobsen' beers launched half-heartedly in the UK but no serious push was put behind them - I've never been sent any information about them, offered samples or anything like that, and I don't know anyone who has - it's a real shame.

Instead they put far more effort behind launching Tuborg in the UK.  When you already have a leading standard lager and a 5% export version, in a market that is declining and has too many interchangeable brands already, I'm baffled as to what the thinking was behind this.

They could be quite good, but they just seem to drift rather aimlessly in the wake of their bigger competitors.    


You can't build a brand as successful as this without being a pain in the arse.

Lead brands in UK: Fosters, John Smiths, Kronenbourg, Newcastle Brown

An interesting company.  Before its takeover by Heineken, S&N was clearly focusing on lager.  It was good for them and good for the beer when they sold the Courage beers to Wells & Young's, who took a neglected brand and made it feel loved again.  They regard John Smiths as a brand just for ageing working class men in working men's clubs in the north, which I think is a travesty.  They've lost their way with it, totally.  When Smoothflow beers appeared in the mid-nineties, there was at least a commercial logic to taking out failed cask beer and launching a brand that was consistent (if dull) across the country.  But they also took cask out and replaced it with Smoothflow in its heartland, where the cask version had been working perfectly well.  This did more to send cask ale into a seemingly terminal decline at the time than any other single action.  

They've never totally got their lager brands but on the back of excellent distribution and advertising that occasionally hits the spot they've done well.  Fosters I find to be undrinkable - not just tasteless but offensive, and my failure to understand its popularity makes me wonder if I understand beer at all.  Kronenbourg, however, I kind of like.  Within its market it's a good beer and one I order in pubs that don't have any beer I really like.  They did some good line extensions on it, but I've spoken to people who worked on the launch of Kronenbourg Blanc (the wheat beer) and even they find it undrinkable.

We still don't know what the takeover by Heineken is going to mean long term.  I have found the Dutch Heineken company incredibly frustrating to work with - they're very arrogant.  But this arrogance was borne of a cultural belief that Heineken was simply the world's best beer.  It's not of course, but compare it to other big lager brands and it is a class apart.  It has a distinctive flavour profile, a bit sweet for some, but it's a world away from what Stella has now become.  And the decision to simply axe the 3.4% cooking lager variant and launch Heineken as the genuinely imported, full strength beer they adore so much shows the opposite of the short termism evident in so many other parts of the market.

By buying S&N, Heineken now also owns Caledonian, home of Deuchars IPA.  There are already people saying that this beer has been dumbed down by its new owners - there are always people who sill say that.  But word is that Heineken like what they have there, and are at least doing some research into the cask beer market.

They're always going to be about Fosters and Kronenbourg first and foremost, and a perusal of the UK website makes me feel distinctly uneasy.  I also wish they'd stop fucking up John Smiths.  But I suspect we'll see some interesting things from them in the near future.  


One of the world's greatest beers.  Brewed by the same people who brew Carling.

Lead brands in UK: Carling, Grolsch, Worthingtons, Coors Light

A game of two halves.  I love Carling as a brand, hate it as a product,  but when I was forced to drink it recently it wasn't as bad as I thought.  There's no point to Coors Light at all.  Grolsch is quite decent, another survivor with a distinctive taste (compared to its peers).  

You can read some bias into this one of you must, because Molson Coors helped me out with Hops and Glory.  But they could only do that because they had taken ownership of Worthington White Shield and not fucked it up.  The White Shield brewery was left to do what it wanted, indulged by its American corporate parent, and they now seem culturally the most attuned of the big boys to the cask revival.  That's not saying much, but it is significant.  The fact that they are launching a new cask ale - Red Shield - is something none of their competitors can claim.  

The problem is that being so big, they're so bloody slow.  Why is the Red Shield launch taking so long?  Why is the new cask ale brewery still not being built?  They're going to struggle if they really do want to compete in this market.

Molson Coors also imports and markets Grolsch Weizen - one of the best wheat beers around - Zatec lager, Palm and Kasteel Cru.  Not everyone is going to like each of these beers, but they do show a genuine desire to do something different.  And when they own the number one mass-market lager in the country, you can only praise their decision to not just go all monocultural.  The speciality beers (and White/Red Shield) are marketed through an offshoot company, Different World Drinks, which specialises in sampling, education, and beer and food matching events. 

Molson Coors is now surely the best of a bad bunch.  With a bit more fluency and speed, they'd be a class apart from their competitors in terms of understanding and promoting decent beer.


The best beer marketing campaign of the last decade?

Lead brands in UK: Peroni, Pilsner Urquell

Smaller by some way than the other brewers listed here, SABMiller are able to perform more like a boutique brand specialist rather than mass market.  Peroni is a fascinating brand.  It's kind of where Stella was ten or twelve years ago, and its owners are determined not to make the same mistakes that brand did.  It may not be all that as a beer, but it's fine.  Where it excels is that has a premium image, adds something to the beer category, people seek it out and think of it as special.  Marketing it as a fashion brand rather than a beer brand was a stroke of marketing genius and one that other brewers should study.

Pilsner Urquell is a legendary beer.  They've changed it a bit since they acquired it, and had one or two attempted relaunches too many, but if left to incubate and find its own feet it could still become as famous and respected as it deserves to be. 

SAB Miller also deserve kudos for the non-brand specific research and general beer category promotion they do.  I'm always getting press releases from them that are interesting to read - stuff on beer etiquette, exhibitions of photography of beer culture from around the world and so on.  

This is a company that gets beer, understands it.  Some readers will be nonplussed at how I can praise a beer like Peroni.  I'm sure this company will have something that will interest those readers too before too long.


I like Guinness.  So sue me.

Lead brands in UK: Guinness, Red Stripe.

I like Guinness.  I know it's a dumbed down version of what it should be but I've written before about why that is.  I just hope they don't give in to dumbing it down any more than it absolutely has to be.  Diageo is a spirits company, the world's biggest, and it doesn't really get beer.  They have some interesting brands in their wardrobe and it would be nice to see them do something with them. But the 'Diageo Way of Branding' - or 'Dweeb' as its known internally - is a hideously slow and inflexible checklist process that stifles innovation before it's born.  It makes sense if you're trying to keep emerging markets in line so they don't screw up a brand like Smirnoff or Johnny Walker.  It stands in the way as a roadblock to the successful expansion of, say, Tusker lager from Kenya.


So: purely my (informed) opinion, but 'the multinationals' are not interchangeable, not all as bad as each other.  I think each has something, however small, that deserves praise.  On the whole, I find there are pockets of passion for beer.  But when you're managing brands this big, you can also see how smaller, nimbler competition will run rings around them.  And you can hopefully see why, when one of them gets it really, disastrously wrong, consistently wrong, its necessary to call them out on it - because they could instead still be doing something interesting.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Wikio Rankings for June 2010

Yes, it's that time of the month again, that time when people get grouchy and irritable and are prone to sudden mood swings, when something inconsequential gets blown up into an object of genuine anger...  no I'm not talking about pre-menstrual tension, I'm talking about the Wikio blog rankings!

1Pete Brown's Blog (=)
2Pencil & Spoon (=)
3The Pub Curmudgeon (+3)
4Called to the bar (+6)
5Brew Dog Blog (-1)
6Tandleman's Beer Blog (+1)
7The Beer Nut (-4)
8Boak and Bailey's Beer Blog (-3)
9Woolpack Dave's beer and stuff blog (=)
10Spittoon (+1)
11Zythophile (+1)
12Beer Reviews (+1)
13The Bitten Bullet (-5)
14Rabid About Beer (+12)
15Reluctant Scooper (-1)
16Real Brewing at the Sharp End (+2)
17Travels With Beer (=)
18`It's just the beer talking` ? Jeff Pickthall's Blog (-3)
19Brew Wales (=)
20Taking the beard out of beer! (+1)

Ranking by Wikio

Nice to see a few movers and shakers in there.  Glyn at the Rake has been devoting a lot of time to his blog when, as a newlywed, you'd think he had better things to do.  And Adrian Tierney Jones' lyrical West Country musings deservedly enter the top five for the first time.  Also, it's worth noting that there are now only two wine bogs in this top twenty of 'beer and/or wine' blogs.  

Last time I posted the results - at the beginning of May - I suggested that beer blogging had become boring, introspective.  Too many tasting notes, and too many in-jokes for other bloggers.  It's a difficult path to resist, because other bloggers tend to comment more often than readers who don't blog, but I think we ignore a general readership at our peril.

A couple of people have asked "Well, how did we do?"

I thought about this for a while and the question made me a bit uncomfortable.  To answer it in a way that discusses individual blogs would be to make myself some kind of self-appointed judge of what's good and bad in the blogging world, and I don't think I should do that.  We're all entitled to a personal opinion and I'll offer some general thoughts that are just that - purely my opinion, to be agreed or disagreed with.  

If you do want me to judge your work, there is an opportunity to do that: custom dictates that the winner of the British Guild of Beer Writers' Beer Writer of the Year chairs the judging panel for the following year, and this year that responsibility falls to me.  There is a category for Best Communication Online, celebrating the best beer writing, and/or the best use of V-Blogs, social networking sites, etc.  In its first year Zak Avery won the award and went on to win the overall Beer Writer of the Year title on the back of his excellent blog, and I was runner up.  Last year Mark Dredge won, with Dave Bailey coming second.  It's definitely worth entering.  But I think you should enter your work and ask for it to be judged before I start making any comments on what's good and what's bad.

So with regard to my challenge to the blogging world two months ago, just a couple of general thoughts.  Lots of bloggers didn't seem entirely happy with me for laying down the challenge in the first place.  Sorry about that - no one had any right to tell you what you should or shouldn't be doing with your blog.  

What I did remain firm on though was that if the reason you're blogging is to attract as many readers as you can, with a view to improving as a writer and perhaps making the transition into paid-for writing, then you have an obligation to constantly try to improve - we all do, no matter what level we're at.  And I took my own challenge, realising that I too had been starting to toss off quick posts that were really for the entertainment of the people listed above.  I've gone back to writing more thoughtfully, never assuming that people are 'in' with the world I'm writing about.  I hope I've succeeded in making it more interesting for the kind of people who never leave comments.

For the rest of you, I think many people did rise to the challenge.  You may not have liked it, it may have been "Yeah? I'll show you writing, who do you think you are?" rather than "Hmm, good point, Pete", but many people did something different.  It caused a lot of introspective articles about why people blog, why they write about beer, and most of those were great to read - not too navel-gazing at all, but thoughtful and articulate and above all, passionate.

Beyond that, I felt the range of writing increased, people did try to do different stuff, take a few risks, and think about what they were writing.  

All I'm saying is I've enjoyed reading beer blogs much more.

But a few people said "Why are we now writing about blogging when we should be writing about beer?" and I think that's an excellent point, and a good argument for finishing this post right now.