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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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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Beer judging and Burton on Trent

We shot this month's video blog in Burton on Trent at the Brewing Industry International Awards, a prestigious competition that's back after a six year absence.  800 beers from around the world judged only by active brewers - no beer writers, no industry figures, this was about excellence, peer-to-peer.

And there wasn't too much emphasis on beers being 'to style'.  The focus was on 'is this a great well-made beer?' and 'is this a beer that drinkers would/should love?'

Anyway, the competition took place in the reopened national Brewery Centre in Burton - a great location to talk all things beer. We talked to Steve Wellington in the new William Worthington Brewery and tasted a couple of beers.

Hope you enjoy!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Beer versus wine. In a nice way.

To the Thatchers Arms, Essex, a pub recently taken over by young Mitchel Adams, an ambitious publican who wants to create a destination food and drink pub. Via a combination of doing his job very well and using social media to promote the place, he's quickly succeeding in his aim. The Thatchers has already been named CAMRA's Pub of the Year in the region.

On Friday, Mitch persuaded Adnams to run a beer and wine matching evening with a five course dinner. As well as employing one of the UK's most talented young brewers in Fergus Fitzgerald, Adnams' Cellar and Kitchen stores boast a formidable wine selection. One of their main suppliers is New Zealand winemaker Forrest Wines, who sent Sam Lockyer to try to persuade us that the wines he'd chosen to go with the food were better than Fergus' beers. Both were matching blind: they'd seen the menu written on a piece of paper, but not tasted the dishes.

When it comes to the rivalry between beer and wine, when we're on the front line like this, I'm with Garrett Oliver, finding as I do on so many occasions that he's said what I want to say before me, better than me. Garrett says that, while campaigning for beer to be taken as seriously as wine, as a craft beer brewer and beer evangelist he has far more in common with a passionate sommelier who wants to educate and inspire people about flavour than he has differences with them.

As well as being true, it's a clever stratagem: anyone who goes around saying "beer is great and wine is crap", or "beer is ALWAYS a better match with food than wine," sounds just as blinkered as his opposite who dismisses the idea of beer ever being as worthy as wine. It actually undermines beer's credibility.

That's why, as we sat down, I was genuinely hoping that I would prefer wine to beer with at least one course. It would make beer's victories sound much more convincing...


To Start
Beetroot Risotto with a Spinach & Parmesan Pesto
Beer: Adnams ‘The Bitter’ Cask 3.7%
Wine: 2006 Chardonnay, Forrest Estate, Marlborough


The two misunderstood, much-maligned pariahs of their respective worlds. No, not Adnams and Forrest specifically, but brown bitter and chardonnay; the former often persecuted in craft beer circles for being dull, boring and characterless, the latter the tart of wine, going anywhere with anyone, so much so that it had a fictional WAG named after it. Can either cover themselves in glory?

Well, as individual drinks, each is impressive - a lovely subtle, fresh, herby hop balanced perfectly with liquid Twix, versus a sharp fruitiness with just enough, and not too much, buttery backbone.

With the risotto... hmm. The chardonnay's acidity stomps all over it, annihilating the food's flavour. The beer looks up hopefully, but fails to make any impression at all. For me it's a goalless draw, each side shooting wide. But others enjoy the match, and it splits the crowd down the middle with a narrow beer victory.

Aggregate scores out of five:
Wine 3.0 vs Beer 3.2

Fish Course
Mackerel & Horseradish Fishcake
Beer: Adnams ‘American IPA’ Cask 4.8%

Wine: 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, John Forrest Collection, Marlborough 

I always compare the aromas of American hops to those of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc - and here they are, head to head. I'm not sure the cocktail of Cascade, Amarillo, Chinook and Centennial is done full justice by being served on cask. American hops can become brutish thugs in cask beer. Sometimes their power and violence can be breathtaking, but more often it can just be a bit nasty. Carbonation elevates them, refines them, has them swapping studded leather jackets for Thomas Pink shirts and cravats.

But Fergus argues that there's a real breadth and depth of flavour here. He tells us there's a lot of bitterness, so he's whacked in a lot of malt for balance.

Sam talks about terroir. It's a wonderfully evocative advert for going to New Zealand. When he describes the smell from the wet stones by the river after rainfall as being the aroma of the wine, I think he has us seduced. Again, both are excellent drinks on their own.

But then...

Once again, the wine charges in and smashes the place up. This is my favourite wine style in the world. I often have it with fish, but here the acidity once again just creates noise. The beer fares a little better - there's the beginnings of a herby matching of flavours. But I'm not blown away. A narrow beer victory for me, and a total split in the room.
Wine 3.5 vs Beer 3.5

I'm obviously here as a beer fan. I want the beer to win. But on the basis of these two so far, I'm starting to wonder: is wine actually capable of matching with food at all? I'm so accustomed to looking for complementary flavours, I'm shocked by the boorish display of acidity here, too vulgar for an effective contrast. I adore these wines on their own, and resolve to stock up on them as soon as I can. But they need much bigger food than this to go with them. Even then, I'm not sure they would work. Is food and wine matching a myth?

And then, everything changes.


Main Course
Venison & Binham Blue Cheese Suet Pudding
(V) Mushroom & Blue Cheese Vegetarian Suet Pudding
Beer: Adnams ‘Oyster Stout’ Cask 4.3%
Wine: 2005 Cab Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec, Cornerstone, Newton Forrest Estate, Hawkes Bay


The oyster stout is a good stout. It's a good beer. As expected, it's full of coffee and dark chocolate and looks to all the world like a confident contender. Matching it with a venison pie is a no-brainer, a routine operation. It goes in, gets the job done, comes out again.

And then I nose the wine.

I first started getting into wine late in my university career. A year or two after the Iron Curtain came down, Hungarian and Bulgarian Carbernet Sauvignons began appearing in the supermarket for £1.99 a bottle. I mean, who would want to drink East European wine? Well, students for one. Initially buying it because it was even cheaper than Liebfraumilch, after the first bottle we drank little else thanks to its concentration of spiced Ribena blackberries on liquid velvet. These bottles quickly went up to £2.99, then £3.99... by the time we graduated they were £7.99, beyond our reach. And by the time I could afford them again, they just didn't taste the same. Either my palate had improved massively, or the wines had been dumbed down.

Here, Cornerstone reveals itself my first winey love, back from the dead, all aniseed, pepper and red berry compote. It swaggers in and sits down heavily next to the Venison and Binham Blue Cheese Suet Pudding, invading its personal space. No slouch itself in the flavour department, the pudding looks timid, nervous. "You and me. We're friends, right?" growls the wine. The food meekly agrees. It's a match, but only because the food knows it would get knocked about the room and bounced off the walls it if disagreed.

The beer tries a friendlier approach: a winning smile, some supportive overtures, a technically competent and absolutely complete matching of various elements of flavour.

The food likes the beer, but it just wants to be friends. The food looks at the beer sadly, takes the wine's hand, and checks its bag to make sure it's got the foundation it'll need tomorrow to cover up a black eye
I want to support the beer.  But when I'm with the beer, nodding and smiling with it, I'm secretly thinking of the wine. The wine may be a bastard, but I can't help loving it.

No contest.

And yet, bizarrely, for the first time the room overwhelmingly prefers the beer. The rest of this audience is obviously much nicer than me.

Wine 3.6 vs Beer 4.2


Dessert
Treacle Tart
Beer: Adnams ‘Tally Ho’ Bottle 7.0%
Wine: 2006 Botrytised Riesling, Forrest Estate, Marlborough


Our Botrytised Riesling is a kind of wine equivalent to lambic beers, both in how Sam describes its production, and in the effect it has on my palate.

It smells of petrol. But not in a bad way - I like the smell of petrol.

It tastes like cough syrup. But not in a bad way - I like the taste of cough syrup.

Well, sometimes.

Tally Ho is strong and dry with a not unpleasant hint of oxidisation that makes it come across as venerable and authoritative. Initially I think it lacks the sweetness I want from a dessert beer, and wish it was a barley wine instead.

It's OK with the tart, competent, but no more than that. But then I take a spoonful of the tart together with its accompanying vanilla cream, and it's like that bit in musicals where the back wall falls away to reveal the set for a big show tune. New flavours walk into shot, smiling, like carol singers during the finale of a Val Doonican Christmas Special. Chocolate, vanilla and caramel all sing harmonies, and beer, wine and cream become one.

The wine is way too phenolic, with or without the cream. It walks into the analogy in the above paragraph banging a drum and playing a tuneless harmonica until everyone stares at it coldly, willing it to leave.

Again, opinion is divided elsewhere - but a well-deserved victory for the beer overall.


Wine 3.2 vs Beer 3.4

OK, so on my palate I'm looking at one nil-nil draw, one beer victory by default, one bruising wine triumph and one graceful beer victory. I think the results don't reflect how close the play has been and things could still go either way. But oh dear - here comes the cheese.

And we all know about beer and cheese.


Cheese

Mrs Temple's Alpine, Suffolk Gold
Beer: Adnams ‘Broadside’ Bottle 6.3% & Adnams ‘Innovation’ Bottle 6.7%
Wine: 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Forrest, Marlborough


Sam stands up to introduce his late harvest sauvignon blanc with a dead look in his eyes. He knows he's already lost. It's almost unfair to make him compete in this round, and he knows it. The best I can say is that if he'd deployed this wine back there at the treacle tart's Christmas party, that result could well have gone the other way. It's a great wine with an unexpected flavour dimension. It's got interesting things to talk about.

But when the cheese comes out, it falls apart, makes its excuses, gets its coat and leaves quickly.

Maybe we could accuse Fergus of cheating by bringing a tag team, especially when its these two. But either one wipes the floor on its own. Broadside with the Suffolk Gold is magisterial. Innovation with Mrs Temple's Alpine is simply perfect.

Wine 2.2 vs Beer 3.9


I've learned a lot. And as I put my notebook away and Fergus celebrates his victory by producing some very special Adnams' beers that are possibly older than he is, Sam, he and I discuss the action. In the room it's 4-0 to beer with one draw - and this was not a room full of beer geeks, but a balanced audience of foodies who, if anything, might be expected to go with the wine. I'm happy because beer is the winner. But I did emphatically prefer the wine in one course, so my palate's conscience is clear.

It's dangerous to attempt to draw conclusions from one New World winemaker going up against one Suffolk brewer, but the general trend tonight has been that wine on the whole has been aggressive, thuggish and brutish. Even its victory on my palate was down to its power and intimidation, and this was emphatically the reason for its defeats. It's the beer that has demonstrated subtlety, sophistication and style, and this is arguably the reverse of the popular image of the two drinks. Beer is supposed to be a bit thick and dumb, wine intelligent and stylish. Across a menu of diverse flavours, the positions have been reversed, and I wonder if this is true in a broader sense.

But maybe not - maybe a match between New Zealand wines and US beers, or British beers and French wines, would have seen the contenders belonging to the same class, and given a more balanced result.

No matter - It was great fun, I've made new friends in both beer and wine, and every drink was excellent in its own right.

Thanks Fergus, thanks Sam, and thanks Mitch and everyone else. From my hazy recollection of aged beers and bar billiards, I think the night got even better after the dishes were cleared away.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Pete's Pub Etiquette: "This beer's off"


Here’s one that I think will divide along the lines of drinkers versus people who work behind the bar: what’s the right thing to do when a customer complains about a beer being off? Or rather, not the right thing, but the most realistically acceptable thing?

I’m pretty sure it’s not what happened to me in the Queens pub in Primrose Hill, NW1 the other week.

I ordered a pint of Young’s Special that was full of diacetyl.  This is a concentrated butterscotch flavour that can also have a greasy mouthfeel.  Hints of it can be positively wonderful in the right beer, but when it’s all you can smell or taste in the beer, it’s pretty horrible.  It occurs during fermentation and then normally falls away to very low levels.  So apparently, these excessive levels are due either to a prematurely ending the brewing process, or to bacterial infection.  I’m not an expert, but I could immediately identify the fault.  At the end of the day, if the beer tastes so horrible you don’t want to drink it, and you can identify the off-flavour, you have to take it back.

“This beer is off,” I said.

The first thing the barman did was to pour some more beer from the barrel.  He sniffed and tasted it.  “Do you think it’s getting near the end of the barrel?”

“No, it’s full of diacetyl,” I replied.

He made it clear with his facial expression that he wasn’t convinced, that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, but he replaced my pint with an alterative without saying anything else.

But then, he didn’t take the beer off sale.  He continued to serve it to other punters, who didn’t complain.

And here’s the dilemma: the reason I’m writing this is that this really pissed me off.  I’d told him the beer was unfit for sale, and specified why.  He had decided not to disagree with me, but by not taking the beer off sale, he was effectively telling me either that I was wrong, or that my opinion didn’t matter.

I hate taking pints back because I’m always worried that the conversation might reach a point where I have to make a ‘do you know who I am’ type comment to establish the fact that I know what I’m talking about, that I’m not one of those belligerent old punters who mumble about ‘the pipes’.  But when I’m standing in a pub watching a barman continue to serve a beer I’ve told him is unfit for sale, my only options are to accept that he is basically humiliating me – “I’m tolerating your complaint but it makes no difference to me” – or to make a complete arse of myself and start banging on about how much I know about off-flavours.

But look at it from his point of view.  He obviously didn’t know what diacetyl is.  He saw a punter complaining, replaced the pint, job done.  How was he instructed to handle this kind of incident by the management, by the PubCo? (This was a Young’s beer in a Young’s pub – it would be interesting to know what their policy is.)  If you threw away the barrel every time a punter complained that he didn’t like his pint, wouldn’t you bankrupt the business?  And no other punters were complaining, were they?

But I still think he was wrong.  Most people don’t complain – they just don’t go to that pub again, or don’t drink that beer again.  Sometimes, they can be turned off real ale for life.  They don’t know enough about beer faults, don’t have the confidence to take on a skeptical barman.  How many punters did that faulty barrel discourage from drinking that beer in that pub again?  And if you think I’m wrong, tell me.  Let’s loose the passive aggression.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Foster's (US) joins the Artois Academy of Marketing Nonsense

Oh dear.
Sometimes I feel have to apologise to the world on behalf of marketing.  Not because marketing has done something that's my fault, but because I occasionally still work in marketing and no one else who does is going to do the decent thing.

I've just been writing a piece for Garret Oliver's upcoming Oxford Companion to Beer on the subject of Foster's, and I found this, the brand's American website.  Here, on the landing page, we find a bold product claim that would put even Stella Artois to shame:

"Unlike other beers, [our hops] are added at the end of the brewing process to preserve their freshness."

Wow.

Foster's is different from other beers because they add their hops at the end of the brewing process?

And the reason they do this is to preserve the freshness of the hops??

Just how wrong can someone be???

For those of my readers who may be unfamiliar with the brewing process (such as those of my readers who work on Foster's in the US), hops add two key things to the character of beer (apart from their contribution to preserving it): bitterness and aroma/taste.

When you add hops at the beginning of the boil, the compounds break down, the alpha acids are released, and their pungent aroma disappears.  These hops add bitterness to the beer.

Towards the end of the boil you add more hops.  You don't give these a chance to break down.  The aroma compounds remain intact, and these hops give beer its floral, grassy, herby, spicy or fruity notes.

This is standard practice across brewing, and while there are probably some beers that do not have a late hop addition, I don't know of any.  Any book you read on the brewing process will describe an early addition and a late addition of hops as absolutely standard practice.  And Foster's is claiming it is unique to their beer.

Attentive readers may also realise that Foster's seems unaware why it is adding hops late in the boil.  They mention nothing about the aroma stuff I just described; they say it is to preserve the freshness of the hops.

If the person who write this had ever been near a brewery in their lives, they would know that even where brewers use whole hops, 99% of the time they have been dried and stored - they're not fresh to start with.  And most industrial brewers such as Foster's don't use whole hops anyway - they use dried, concentrated pellets, or even hop oil.  Freshness has nothing to do with it.

What makes me angry about deliberate misinformation like this is that it helps no one.  Having worked on the dark side, I can tell you that they probably come out with bullshit like this because as a 'premium' brand, they're looking for a 'reason to believe', a 'Unique Selling Proposition' that provides a rational basis for product choice.  They would probably argue that their 'target audience' is not beer nerds, but mainstream drinkers who have no knowledge of the brewing process.  They don't want to hear too much information, just enough.  And if that information is heavily distorted or even wilfully wrong, they're never going to find out, and wouldn't care much if they did.

This is insulting the intelligence of the people they're talking to - deliberately writing off any curiosity they may have.

It's distorting the truth of the market, insulting all other beers.

And it's exacerbating a problem facing craft brewer and corporate lager brewer alike: one reason wine is surging ahead, taking people from beer, is that it's premium, yet easy to understand - it's made from grapes.  There are different varieties of grapes, and you'll prefer some to others.  People aren't really aware of what beer's ingredients are, what each contributes, and what the brewing process does.  It's quite complicated, and that makes it hard to engage with. And when people who have a responsibility, or at least an opportunity, to act as ambassadors for beer, if they add to that confusion by wilfully, deliberately, further confusing, distorting and lying about the brewing process just to say something that sounds differentiating and simple, they betray their drinkers, their brand, and everything about beer.

And I don't even have the energy to take them to task on what they go on to say about yeast.

Shame on you, Foster's.  Next time, just stick to the image-based marketing that actually works for brands like yours.

More candidates will be inducted into the Artois Academy of Marketing Nonsense forthwith.

Monday, 7 February 2011

"Lager drinkers are brainwashed morons."

How CAMRA volunteers greeted guests at the Great British Beer festival a few years ago.

There was a welcome but just a teensy bit patronising piece in the FT on Saturday about how the sandals-and-black-socks twattish image of real ale - and CAMRA - is no longer accurate, particularly given that the latter has doubled in size over the last decade.  The number of - shall we call them 'characters' - in society has not doubled, meaning that while some of us may still have issues with the organisation in some areas, it is succeeding in reaching out to a broader base of people.  (And yes, I know some critics believe people are just joining for the Wetherspoons vouchers, and many join and are not active, but still.)

Next month is CAMRA's 40th anniversary, which is likely to generate a lot more media focus and a lot more debate.

But how's this for an extraordinary acknowledgement of some of the issues CAMRA has, some of the problems people like me have with the way the organisation can sometimes put itself across?

The following is a quote from Michael Hardman, one of the original four founders of CAMRA back in 1971.  Talking to the FT last week, what do you possibly think he could mean when he says:

“I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something,” he says, as measured as a well-poured pint. “There may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”

Any CAMRA member/activist who agrees with these sentiments from their founder - and I know there are many of you - will find no quarrel with me.

Mr Hardman MBE, next time I see you I owe you a pint.

(Thanks to Glenn Payne for pointing sending me the article.)

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Some facts about cheap supermarket beer prices

14p per unit

Listen: the idea of minimum pricing worries me a little.  I don't believe that there is a direct link between Britain's supposed binge drinking problem and the widespread availability of cheap booze.  And I don't lay sole blame for the plight of the pub at the door of supermarkets.  OK?

But I wanted to comment on the disquiet in the blogosphere about this whole question of whether supermarkets ever sell beer at below cost price, with some comments on this blog suggesting the entire idea is a myth, and others asking if it's really plausible that any retail business would sell something on which it makes a loss on a sustained basis.

I don't blame anyone for thinking this - in a logical world it sounds like an insane idea.  But supermarkets are not always logical - or rather, their logic is different from ours.

Below cost selling DOES happen in supermarkets.  I know this because I've had conversations about it with the brewers who sell their beer to supermarkets and with the supermarkets who buy it.  They wouldn't thank me for sharing this, so I'll keep it completely anonymous, but here are a few trade secrets.  Well I say that, a lot of it is common knowledge within marketing circles.

Beer is what's known in the trade as a loss leader.  It's a common concept.  Most beer bought in the UK off-trade is sold on price promotion.  When you have people spending £200 on a mixed basket of groceries, you can afford to lose a few quid on staple items because you make it back - and more - on the premium items they'll also be buying in your shop.

We do big supermarket shops in the car, stocking up on heavy items.  That means we keep an eye on the prices of bulky purchases.  Research consistently shows that people respond to newspaper ads for cheap beer, driving to one chain instead of the other because we can save a few quid on slabs of lager.  We assume that everything else will be pretty much the same price, and we may be right - but the cheaper beer supermarket is getting the whole of our spend that it wouldn't otherwise have, and therefore makes a profit overall.  When we stock up in bulk on beer - at Christmas, bank holidays and big sporting events - supermarkets have to cut deeper and deeper to compete with each other, and this is when it can go below cost price.

Ever wondered why beer is right at the back of the supermarket - about as far away from the door as you can get? As soon as you've walked through the sliding doors, the cheap beer has done its job.  You've got to walk past all the expensively packaged fresh salad, the healthy looking fruit and veg, the deli counter, the bakery with the smell of fresh bread being pumped into the store, to get the the cheap beer you came for.  That's why you end up putting a heavy 24-pack in the trolley on top of your bagged lettuce, fresh bread and eggs - doesn't make sense, does it?  Until you think about it from this perspective, that is.  I've heard one supermarket buyer say that if they could, they'd take beer off the shelf as soon as you walk in.  They don't like not making any money on it, but they see it as a necessity to drive footfall, so they make it work as hard as it possibly can to deliver profit. But it delivers this profit indirectly.

And what of the brewers? The people behind one big beer brand told me that on average, their profit margin is 1p per can.  It's a grim business.  That's the average profit - meaning that there's some volume they make more profit on, and some they make less on.  Meaning sometimes, they end up selling it at a loss.

They have to do this to keep the contract, which they need to maintain volume and market share. Once again, there's plenty of consumer research that shows mainstream lager drinkers view any big, established brand as being acceptable.  You may prefer Carling to Fosters, for example, but if they didn't stock Carling, or Fosters was a quid cheaper per slab, you'd be absolutely fine with Fosters instead.  The fact that most beer is put in the trolley by women - who don't often drink it themselves - further erodes loyalty to any one specific brand.  So supermarkets hold the threat of delisting over the heads of even the biggest, most popular brands.

Recently one chain delisted one very big brand and they eventually had to cave in and concede ground to the brewer.  This was significant, because most of the time the sheer volume market power of big supermarket chains means they can kick and bully all their suppliers - even the biggest - as much as they want.

Another popular ploy is for a supermarket chain to decide at the last minute to give a steep price cut on a brand, without getting the agreement of the brewer first, and then simply sending the brewer the bill for the money the supermarket lost by cutting the price!  I'm not saying the brewer always coughs up.  But sometimes they feel compelled to do so.

These are the tricks of the trade.  I'm not suggesting for one minute that all beer or most beer is sold by supermarkets at a loss.  But this is why some of it is.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Session: Keg versus Cask


I've been asked to take part in the session (a regular event where someone suggests a topic and bloggers the whole world over all write about it) a few times before now.  The fact that I have never taken part has nothing to do with me being Above That Sort Of Thing and everything to do with me simply not having time, or not having anything particularly interesting to say on the chosen topic on the day in question.

I'm taking part this month for two reasons: one, I was specifically asked to do so by Reluctant Scooper this month's host and one of the most underrated bloggers - nay, writers in any medium - on Planet Beer.  Second, because the topic Reluctant - or Simon as his mates call him - has chosen is one I've been meaning to blog for some time.

The topic is beer dispense: does it matter?  And I want to focus on the debate between cask and keg.  Because I think I've got it worked out now.

It's been a bit of an argument, and I waded in deep recently by slagging off people who think that good beer always has to be cask conditioned or, at a push, bottle conditioned.  One of the more sensible, but still devout, CAMRA members who commented on that post suggested that these days, one has to accept that there are some quality kegged beers around, but that any beer that's good on keg would de facto be better if it was on cask.

I disagree, and here's why.


I’m not a brewer.  I welcome corrections, rebuttals or even confirmation of my theory.  And this is NOT one of my anti-CAMRA posts – I’m not attacking anyone else’s beliefs or opinions, merely stating my own.

The idea came to me when I was in the Old Toad in Rochester, New York, a couple of months ago.  Local brewers Custom Brewcrafters had created an Imperial IPA for the pub's twentieth anniversary called, appropriately enough, OT20.  It was 9% ABV and full of the currently ubiquitous Citra hop.  Appropriately for one of the US's first cask ale pubs, it was available on cask as well as keg, so I had a half of each to compare.

The big differences were, unsurprisingly the temperature and the level of carbonation.  The hop aroma was much more prevalent in the keg - not surprising as carbonation helps release such aromas from beer. I was straining to get much from the cask.  And then in the mouth, the keg version felt lighter.  Obviously more refreshing, but also cleaner and more delicate.  By comparison, the cask version felt thick, oily, almost greasy.  The flavours were more complex and intense, but muddy somehow, bordering on unpleasant.  

This is a beer style that was invented (or rather, adapted in its modern guise) for keg, and it did not suit cask at all.  It's an American beer style.  It was never meant for English-style cask.

And that made me realise, conversely, why cask ale is so special.  It suits traditional British ale which, for the last hundred years or so, has mainly been at very low ABV, and very balanced.  What I'd experienced with a double IPA was a concentration of hop flavour and an intensity of character that had become unpleasantly cloying.  Take a 3.8% session ale that's relatively low in intensity, and filtration and carbonation would make it very bland indeed.  But that same concentration of flavour that cask bestows gives it a surprisingly interesting depth and layers of flavour, subtlety and character.  That's what makes session real ales so special and satisfying.

It also explains why some people who only drink session real ales cannot imagine any beer being as good if it were filtered and carbonated.

And it explains why extreme beer hopheads can often find cask a little unfulfilling.

So - if carbonation strips out hoppy depth and turns it into aroma, and cask turns moderate beer in on itself to give it complexity, the best method of dispense becomes a function of recipe and ABV.  Neither is intrinsically better than the other.

I was then able to admit to myself that, much as I adore Thornbridge Jaipur in any form, I've always seceretly harboured a preference for it in bottle over cask.  And why Elderfower-flavoured Badger Golden Champion is delightful in bottle but a dud on cask.  And why some people prefer Fuller's London Porter on keg.

So if I'm not talking out of my arse, where's the dividing line?  

Thornbridge's Kipling is 5.2%, and has recently been trialled on keg.  I tried it in the Euston Tap and was slightly let down.  I immediately had a hankering for the juicy body of the cask version.  It's a hoppy beer, sure, but not extreme.  And then, when I tried the side-by-side experiment in the Jolly Butchers with Camden Pale Ale, I much preferred the keg.  The carbonation was gentle - you'd have to be a Luddite twat to describe it as 'fizzy' - and the citrus hop flavour was very much to the fore, clean and incisive.  The cask, again, seemed oleaginous and out of balance.  So it's somewhere around 5%, and somewhere around reasonably full-bodied, and something to do with personal taste.

Doubtless some deniers will say I was on each occasion drinking cask that wasn't in top condition, but you're wrong, it was very good - different beers simply suit different methods of dispense.

So now can we all abandon irrelevant dogma, hold hands and live happily ever after in a sunny, harmonious beer world where everyone celebrates the bounteous diversity on offer?

No, thought not... 

Stella Cidre: a footnote

I don't like returning to the same theme twice.  It smacks of overkill, flogging a dying horse.

But for pity's sake, I'm only human.

Yesterday I invented a pisstake interview with Stella Artois, the brand, as a comment on the launch of Stella cidre.  I'm gratified that people found it amusing.  Then, yesterday afternoon, AB-Inbev CEO Stuart Macfarlane gave a real interview to Justdrinks.com.

It's even funnier than my pisstake.

To demonstrate this, below are six quotes: three from my pisstake interview, three from the real interview with Macca.  See if you can guess which are the genuine quotes and which are the parodies.  And remember - I wrote mine BEFORE the real interview was published.  I'm not taking the piss out of Macca here.  If anything, he's imitating me.  

Of course, you can cheat by following the link to his interview, and/or just scrolling down to read yesterday's post.  But you'd only be cheating yourself.

Here goes - answers in tiny type at the bottom:

"When you're the nation's favourite alcohol brand, consumers have raised expectations of everything. We've worked hard to make sure that our cider is significantly ahead of the industry benchmark."

"Stella Artois is dogged by an undeserved reputation as loopy juice, and some people even call it 'Wifebeater'. Giving our drinkers permission to create Stella snakebite seems like the perfect way to rid the brand of this entirely undeserved reputation."

"Stella Cidre can be the flywheel for cider category growth. We will bring more premium drinkers into cider than any other brands can do, because they don't transcend other categories like Stella does." 

"The Stella Artois brand can do what none of the other brands can do. This is game-changing, we are the first beer brand to move into cider."
"If more companies sought to find opportunities and to innovate more, they'd be more optimistic. I urge the people in our industry to find that opportunity. Other brewers need to start acting more like FMCG companies."

"As a company, we are leading innovation in drinks. Actually, I could argue that A-B InBev is leading innovation in the entire FMCG sector."

Answer: 
I lied.  Number two is mine.  Unbelievably, the rest are all genuine quotes.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Some cheap shots and infantile musings on the launch of Stella Cidre

Several people emailed and tweeted me yesterday with the news that Stella Artois is to launch a cider brand.  I don't know why you think I would be interested, but it seems some people are keen to hear my thoughts on the matter.


No, wait - this is going to blow your freakin' mind.


The thing is, Stella owners AB-Inbev and I are not on speaking terms at the moment.  I no longer get press releases from them, and I certainly don't get invited to events such as the launch of Stella Cidre, which happened yesterday.

Was it something I said?

Anyway, in the absence of any facts, I'm left with no alternative but to fabricate an utterly spurious and quite unfair conversation about this latest marketing triumph.

Hello, Stella Artois!
Hello, Pete.  You're not going to be mean to me are you?


Of course not.  I'm just going to ask you some questions.  So what's this latest launch of yours then?
Right, you're not going to believe what we've done.  As you'll know from what we've done to Stella Artois over the last ten years, we don't actually like the taste of beer.  Hops make us gag.  We've managed to get rid of as much of the flavour as possible, but even when we use these ingredients in homeopathic quantities, you still get a bit of a taste.  So we were thinking, like, what if we could invent a drink that's kind of like beer, but is made of something else and doesn't have to have horrid hops in it at all?  And then we had a flash of genius! You might not know this, but apples have fermentable sugars in them.  So we've invented this new alcoholic drink that's a bit like beer except it's loosely based on apples, and we've called it - cider!  Except we wanted to make it sound a bit French, so we spelt it wrong.  Cidre!!


But cider's existed since at least Roman times.
Has it?  Bollocks.  


Yes.  And it's really popular just now.  There are loads of ciders on the UK market, they're doing really well.
Well, it sounds like we got here just in time then!  But never mind that.  We decided to do something that no one else has EVER done before.  You'll never guess.  This is going to fuck with your brain.  What we're doing, right, is launching this 'cidre' in a pint bottle and get this - we're suggesting people drink it in a pint glass full of ice!  Now is that innovation or what?!


Well, no it's not.  Magner's introduced that concept to the mainstream UK cider market five years ago.  And every big brand has copied them.  You're kind of late to the party here.     
No, you must be mistaken.  Look here, our CEO says this is "another demonstration of our commitment to innovation and investment in Stella Artois".   Innovation means new, right?


OK, moving on.  It's been pointed out that the launch of this product means the Stella Artois brand now provides both ingredients for the infamously intoxicating cocktail, snakebite.  Any thoughts on that?
Absolutely.  Stella Artois is dogged by an undeserved reputation as loopy juice, and some people even call it 'Wifebeater'.  Giving our drinkers permission to create Stella snakebite seems like the perfect way to rid the brand of this entirely undeserved reputation.  And as an added value proposition, our consumers can also now interface with Stella Artois 'Snakebite and Black'? Heh heh!


Yes, but in this context, the word 'black' is short for 'blackcurrant'.
No it's not.  Not if we say it isn't.


Fair enough.  So what's in it then? What percentage apple juice is it?
Look, even if I knew or understood how cider was made, you know I wouldn't tell you.

Finally, most marketing theory advises against launching endless line extensions when the parent brand is in decline.  Positioning, The Battle For Your Mind, by Ries and Trout, is a marketing classic that refers to this as one of the most common positioning traps in marketing, giving countless examples of how, 90% of the time, it results in failure that can also further weaken the parent brand...
Ooh, get Mr Swotty here with his fancy marketing speak.  I don't know what any of that means, but let me tell you mister, we don't use the word failure around here.  Artois Bock?  Peeterman Artois? Eiken Artois? Stella Black?  Successes.  Every last one of 'em.

So no qualms about wilfully confusing what Stella Artois stands for and diluting brand equity rather than exploring Belgium's genuine cider making tradition and creating an intriguing new brand that just might have an air of authenticity about it then?
None whatsoever.

OK, until your next - what did you call it? - 'innovation' then, cheers!


Thanks to Chris Ainger for the snakebite observation, and to Chris G for the Snakebite and Black gag.  


There really is a Belgian cider making tradition.  Stella Artois Cidre will be brewed in Belgium.  Whether or not there is any connection between these two facts, we'll have to wait and see.  I will try Stella Cidre when I come across it, and if it tastes nice, I'll say so.



Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Molson Coors buys Sharps!

Transfer window madness: Burton-on-Trent buys Cornwall

Yes, it's the same story that will be appearing on about eight or nine UK beer blogs at this very moment:

Burton-based Molson Coors, brewers of Carling and Grolsch, have just announced the purchase of Cornwall's Sharp's Brewery, home of the fast-rising Doom Bar and a range of wonderfully eclectic, sometimes even visionary, but difficult to get hold of beers from top brewer Stuart Howe.

There's not too much info on the value of the deal, what it means for breweries and brands etc.  The press release quote from Molson Coors CEO Mark Hunter is:

The Doom Bar brand is modern and progressive.  It has a loyal following and excellent reputation amongst consumers and customers alike and has the potential to become a truly extraordinary brand. We have a wealth of experience with this type of venture and an excellent track record of building brands across all markets. We respect and want to preserve the unique culture of Sharp’s Brewery and the special appeal of their brands to beer drinkers.”

Stuart Howe adds:
“We are delighted to be joining the Molson Coors team, all of whom are passionate about Sharp’s Brewery and committed to the Doom Bar brand. We are incredibly proud to be voted the best regional cask beer by our customers, with the support of Molson Coors we’re looking forward to being recognised as the best cask beer in the country.”

So what does it all mean? Why has it happened? Here are some initial, ill-informed thoughts and speculations.


Firstly, before we get into the detailed ramifications, this represents a major change in direction for the UK cask ale market.  In four years of writing the Cask Report, we've been saying that the big national brewers have abandoned cask ale and left it to the regionals and micros.  Molson Coors have been talking a good cask ale game for a while now without doing much to deliver against it until recently.  This marks the creation, or reinvention, of a national brewer with a big commitment to cask ale.

Of course there are good and bad sides to that.  Many will ask why MC can't just leave cask ale to people who care about it.

But this is actually a great fit.  To beer aficionados, Doom Bar is an acceptable but very ordinary beer.  And yet it is massively popular with mainstream drinkers.  It looks contemporary on the bar and recruits new people to the ale market.  It's taken on by many pubs who are looking to trial cask for the first time.  Anyone who met the previous owners will have got the impression that they were aggressively building the brand, attempting to turn it into a national cask ale brand as quickly as possible.  It's only been going since 1994 and the original recipe was from a kit, so it's not as if there is any heritage here that's about to be trashed by a big corporate.  There's no better brand for MC to acquire - mainstream, modern, little specialness to lose.  With glorious hindsight, this is just the logical next step for Doom Bar's evolution.

So how does it fit with the Worthington brand, also given a reboot by Molson Coors with the building of the new William Worthington Brewery (which I wrote about in this week's Publican magazine)?  Doom Bar is at the moment stronger in the south, while Worthington's is bigger in the Midlands.  Mark Hunter told me that draught White Shield and the long-awaited Red Shield will be focusing on a radius around Burton.  My prediction is that MC will aggressively build Doom Bar as a national cask ale brand.  My hope is that they'll then nurture White Shield/Red Shield as something a bit more special.  If that's what happens to Doom Bar it'll be good for cask ale overall, making the gateway to the category that bit bigger for the kind of drinker who doesn't have the confidence to seek out flavourful beers without the reassurance of big brands. (Yes, I know I just described Doom Bar as a flavourful beer, spare me the wisecracks - I'm talking relatively).

And what of Stuart Howe and the rest of what he does at Sharp's?

Those of us who have met Stuart know he finds brewing Doom Bar a bit of a chore - it's growing massively, it's a routine to brew - and he has a huge imagination. The line from MC is that Stuart "Stays doing what he's doing but supported by more investment in the brewery and greater distribution capability." I'd like to think this means he'll be staying on in the new company, and will be given freedom to experiment, getting some of his Belgian-influenced ales out into the market properly. My mouth also waters at the prospect of collaborations between him and Worthington brewery legend Steve Wellington.

But whether or not this will actually this will happen within the well-meaning but slower, more corporate, conservative set-up of Molson Coors, I'm more doubtful about.  Stuart won't hang around if he's just brewing Doom Bar on a bigger kit, and if he does eventually jump ship, you can bet your life it will be to start something new with a greater focus on innovative beers.  So the craft beer drinker still wins out.

I'd say the only people who could/should be pissed off or alarmed by this are the regional brewers like Greene King, Marston's and Wells & Young's, who now face a serious new contender.  It's going to be interesting to see how they react.

Meanwhile, Howe's blog is going to make even more compelling reading than normal!