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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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What's new?
My latest piece for @Mygenbeer - nostalgia - a 'hypochondria of the heart'
What Are You Drinking is up to 67% funded! Click here to get involved.
My latest Publican's Morning Advertiser column: the lure of wild beer.
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Monday, 20 July 2015

Another summer of beer - check out these live events!

Every summer, the amount of beery events happening everywhere seems to multiply. Over the next few weeks, I'm taking two new event formats out for a spin.

Firstly, there's a talk to support my new part-crowdfunded book, What Are You Drinking? If you missed it, this is a new venture with award-winning publishers Unbound, where you can crowdfund the publishing costs of a book, and in return get an exclusive edition of the book that's a bit classier than the one that will eventually go on sale as normal in bookshops and on Amazon etc, and all copies of the book will have your name in the back as a subscriber.

Normally when someone writes a book, the order of events is that you publish the book, then go out on the road to do readings to persuade people to buy it. I'm now doing it the other way around -  we're closing in on the funding target, and I haven't written the book yet, but I'm going out doing events to persuade you to buy it before it's written.

The advantage of this is that you can help shape what goes in the book. What Are You Drinking is an exploration of the ingredients of beer, getting really deep into what makes the most popular alcoholic drink in the world. I've been visiting maltings and sour beer festivals, I've been to Burton on Trent to drink its legendary well water, and this week I'm going to be helping out with a Maris Otter barley harvest. As I learn, I'm pulling stories together and sharing them with live audiences, and on the basis of their reaction I'm figuring out what goes in the book, and what, if anything, gets left out. I'm also planning on making malt porridges and hop teas so you can taste the ingredients in isolation and see how they impact the finished beer. And obviously we'll be tasting some finished beers that showcase particular ingredients.

It's all meant to be light-hearted, but unless you're a professional brewer with a degree in microbiology I can guarantee you'll learn at least one new thing that will surprise and possibly even amaze you. If Unbound are feeling generous, I might even be able to get a special code for discounts on pledges for people who attend the events.

The first one is this Sunday - and readers of this blog can get a great discount.

Food Meets Beer Festival At Borough Market

Jubilee Place, Borough Market, London SE1 1TL

18.00-22.00 Friday 24th July
12.00-17.00 and 18.00-22.00 Saturday 25th July
12.00-18.00 Sunday 26th July

This is a food and beer festival running on one of the best markets in the world. You buy a ticket for a whole session, and this gets you a half pint of Budvar tank beer and a book of beer and food pairing tips. Throughout each session there will be a variety of tutored tastings and cooking and pairing demos, with events featuring Melissa Cole, Mark Dredge, Matt Curtis, Des de Moor, Andy from Partizan brewing, and brewing legend Derek Prentice.

I'm on at 'the ingredients table' at 2pm on Sunday. And if you go here to buy tickets and enter the code PETEBROWN, you get a whopping 40% off the standard ticket price for that session. And it's at Borough Market. What more could you want?

What Are You Drinking at London Beer City

BrewDog Shepherd's Bush, 15-19 Goldhawk Road, London, W12 8QQ

Saturday 15th August, 2pm

This brilliant programme of events returns for a second year, linking up the old institution of the Great British Beer Festival and the new challenger the London Craft Beer Festival within a week featuring scores of beery events, many of them with free admission. I'm doing the ingredients thing at BrewDog Shepherd's Bush, one of the two London Beer City hubs. Proud to be part of this brilliant initiative. Tickets for this event aren't quite on sale yet but watch this space or check out my main events listing page for updates.

It's the Drink Talking at London Beer City

Hack & Hop, 35 Whitefriars Street, City of London, EC4Y 8BH
Saturday 15th August 6pm.



This is my new pub-based chat show which I debuted at this year's Stoke Newington Literary Festival. each evening I invite three guests, including at least one brewer or other drinks wizard, to chat about pubs, drink and drinking, to enjoy someone tutored tasting with the audience and to take part in the already legendary meat raffle. Guests are still to be announced but we'll be discussing London Beer City and its various works, the highlights of the week, and anything else that takes our fancy. Tickets are available here.

There are more events on my events page - and more will be added. See you in a pub soon.



Wednesday, 3 June 2015

How Big Lager Lost The Plot And Developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder

As anyone who has read Man Walks into a Pub will know, my entry into the world of beer was via Big Lager. I loved lager ads when I was growing up as a teenager. 

Later, once I was helping make those ads, I was fascinated by the tribal loyalty people had to their favourite beer brands. 

If you were a group of mates in your twenties, Carling or Heineken or Carlsberg was like another one of your gang, always there when all the best times happened. In research groups you sometimes do an exercise where you ask people to imagine what brands would be like if they were people at a party. Beer brands were always characterised as confident, friendly guys, witty and popular without being an arse, enjoying a drink but never getting too drunk. This guy was never the pack leader, not necessarily the most popular or pushy guy in the room, but everyone liked him.

Things started go go wrong around 1997. Advertising regulations grew ever tighter and the funny campaigns of the eighties were no longer possible. And beer started to take itself seriously. It wanted to provide a bit of substance behind the good-natured banter. Fair enough. But the picture started to blur.

As sales of Big Lager shifted from pubs to supermarkets, price became a more decisive factor than brand image. It was widely believed that all these brands tasted the same. Not true, but if you're drinking your lager ice-cold straight from the can, you'd have to have a delicate palate indeed to spot the difference in flavour. 

With very similar products, preference had been shaped from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties by who had the best ads, the most likeable personality. (I once looked at thirty years worth of image research, and perceptions of which lager was the most 'refreshing' tracked the brand that had the funniest ads, rather than the brand that was banging on about refreshment specifically). 

By the mid-noughties, that differentiation was based on price. 

Incredibly, most shopping is still done by the wife/mother in a family. The person who buys Big Lager is usually not the person who drinks it. As the distinct personalities created by 'Reassuringly Expensive', 'This Bud's For You', 'I Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label',  'Follow The Bear' and all the rest receded, the lager buyer knew her fella had a set of big brands that were all OK - nothing special but fine, all as good as each other - and she knew she could buy the one that was on the best deal and he'd be happy enough.

Brewers hate offering these deals. Headlines like 'lager is cheaper than bottled water', whether they're true or not, don't do anyone any favours. Margins shrank to almost nothing. If any big brand could get away with not doing supermarket deals, they'd jump at the chance.

So it's completely understandable that in the last few years Big Lager has started trying to build a sense of value and worth back into brands. Beer is cheap and commoditised, so how can we make it special again? 

The strategy of putting some premiumness back into mainstream beer is a good one. The execution of that strategy, however, is starting to look pretty horrible. 

I have't worked on any of these brands for a long time, but I know exactly the kind of language that's being used in meetings. I'd bet my house on the fact that most Big Lager brands have a creative brief in the system that's about 'creating differentiation', 'making lager special again,' by 'making the brand more iconic' and 'improving perceptions of premiumness'. I'll bet they also all have research that shows you don't do this by banging on about the quality of ingredients and provenance. These might be mildly interesting copy points, but as Kronenbourg has demonstrated recently, it doesn't wash as your main message to a typical mainstream lager drinker, especially when the substantiation behind your claim is paper-thin. 

So what do you do? 

You create an iconic, premium image. High production values. Brand fame. 

And before you know it, you turn your brand from the genial bloke at the party into an arrogant, preening narcissist. 

From Psychology Today:
"Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behaviour, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships... Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g. fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment."





You demand to be revered, claiming outrageous titles for yourself with no justification.




You start telling your drinkers they're drinking the product wrong, or using the wrong terminology. You demand they start showing some respect.


You imagine that you are some kind of treasured prize, rather than a simple, straightforward beer.




You start to think you embody and represent something much bigger than yourself. 




And lose all sense of perspective.




On the bar, you make your fonts ever bigger - sorry, more 'iconic' - until punters can no longer see the people serving them and bar staff have trouble passing the drinks across the bar. 



Who do you think you are helping here? How exactly do you think you are 'enhancing the consumer experience at the point of purchase?'



My aim here is not to slag off any individual campaign - some of them have merits, and like I said, I understand where they're coming from up to a point. 

My aim is to demonstrate the aggregation of so many big brands taking this approach at the same time. Brands demand to be worshipped and respected, rather than liked and tolerated. The cumulative effect is dreadfully cold and alienating, aloof. This, for a drink that is supposedly all about the good times, about kicking back and relaxing with your mates. 

Big Lager has lost its way and forgotten its place. This collective arrogance is not credible, and it's certainly not appealing. Where's the warmth gone? Where's the sociability? 

Premiumness in beer is not about this kind of cock-waving, and it never was. It’s about the premiumness of the experience the beer creates – the experience for which the beer is the catalyst, not the central focus. 

Big Lager should be reclaiming its territory as the catalyst for the perfect occasion with friends. Ale is more for savouring, more introverted. Craft beer is more exploratory, adventurous and product-focused, and cider is more refreshing, but has a limit on how much of it you can drink in a session. 

Yet all these drinks are stealing share from lager. All are looking more interesting, engaging and appealing that big lager at the moment. 

 Mainstream lager should be solid, dependable, and reliable, and I'm sorry if that's not sexy enough for career marketers. 

As the Beer Marketing Awards demonstrated, in some areas - particularly social media and trade marketing, where you actually have to talk to people and deal with them on a one-to-one basis, Big Lager is doing some brilliant stuff. 

But in advertising and branding, it has collectively lost the plot. If you think your brand should be revered and worshipped by its drinkers, you need to get out of beer as soon as possible and into therapy. Or maybe Scientology. They'll love you guys. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Why SABMiller's acquisition of Meantime is a good thing.

I wasn't going to write about this because I'm too busy and I don't have time. But I've read too many comments about it and I can't help myself.

Just to be clear, I'm not an apologist for big, corporate brands, OK? And I'll fight with anyone who says I am.

I think most people who love craft beer, good beer, real ale, interesting flavourful beer, whatever you want to call it, share a belief that mass market consumerism and the centralising of production into ever fewer, ever bigger corporations, goes hand-in-hand with cost-cutting, homogenisation, blandness, and a triumph of style over substance. It happens in all markets and it's happened in beer as much as anywhere - I'm old enough to remember when the likes of Stella Artois and John Smiths were well-made, flavourful beers, and it pains me to see what's become of them.

The small scale of craft brewers allows them to be nimble, adaptive and experimental in a way bigger companies simply cannot do.

Also, if you put the rational arguments to one side, emotionally there's an excitement to feeling like you're part of something important, something that challenges the big bad drones of the mainstream. It's a battle between good and evil, or at least good and mediocre, and we're the underdogs and we're winning! It's something that, for many, goes beyond being what you drink and becomes part of who you are, how you define and project yourself. I'm the same with music, and I'm increasingly like that with food and drink more broadly.

So I get it that people feel sad, disappointed, perhaps even betrayed, when one of us sells out and becomes one of them. I understand.

I guess there are breweries which I'd be upset and horrified about if they sold out to the Man. But Meantime, having announced their acquisition by SABMiller, isn't one of them. Not because I don't care from them - far from it - but because knowing and liking them, I think this was always their destiny.

One of the more moronic memes in all the comments online goes along the lines of "Well, I never drank their beers anyway because they're bland/they're keg/they're lagers [delete as applicable depending on how much of a prick you really are] so this changes nothing." As if every craft brewer has to be experimenting with too many hops, a saison yeast, black malts and pinot barrels.

Yes, the innovators are exciting, and much of the time the beers are good. But the person who argues that the only beer that matters is beer that is bold and shocking to a mainstream palate is simply the lagered up twat who orders the hottest curry on the menu to impress his mates, in a beardy disguise.

Meantime pre-dated the modern British craft revolution. Alastair Hook is one of the most talented brewers in the world. If you talk to him, one reason he started Meantime was because he couldn't bear how bad mainstream beer was. He remains one of the fiercest critics I know of the cosy blandness of the British beer establishment. His lagers and pale ales are accessible and easy drinking, but far better made than their mainstream equivalents. It's pointless to judge Meantime's beers in comparison to the outer reaches of crafty experimentation, because they were simply never designed to. They should be judged against the mainstream, as a serious step up from the mainstream. That, to me, is what Meantime has always been about, and that's why their sale to SABMiller doesn't have me rending my garments and wailing.

Craft beer is big and diverse. While some fanatics may disagree, I don't think there should be a huge gulf between craft and mainstream. I think it's better for everyone if there are slight gradations in product character and complexity. I have seen people jump straight from Stella to barrel-aged Imperial Stout in some kind of quasi-religious conversion, but it doesn't happen often. And even when it does, you don't want a barrel-aged Imperial Stout - or even a massively hopped IPA - every single day of your life (If you do, you're lacking imagination just as much as the Foster's drinker.)

The more common complaint abut today's news is from people who did like Meantime's beers, and who now worry that the integrity of those beers will be compromised.

That is at least a worry that is justified, as explained above. But the modern beer world is moving so quickly I think you have to take each case on its own merits.

The paradigm has shifted for the big global brewers. They grew so big in a world where everyone wanted cold, fizzy lager that didn't taste of much, and used the economics of scale to grow and put their competitors out of business. When the market plateaued, they bought each other and consolidated, and now we have four big brewers who each have far too many boring lager brands that they don't know what to do with. They've each tried to make their leading brand the global beery equivalent of Coca Cola or Nike, and they've each failed because the world doesn't want a global, homogenous beer brand.

Now, in most parts of the world, the beer market is stagnant. The big brewers' business model simply isn't delivering organic growth any more. The big money and the smartest talent is going into the developing world, especially the so-called BRIC countries, where there's still lots of scope for growth.

In the old, traditional markets, craft may still be small in volume terms, but its the only bit people are talking about and the only bit that's making any money.

And it works in a way that's almost entirely the opposite of the way the big brewers have learned to make and sell beer. They don't understand craft at all. Talking to some of them, it's like they're looking at some kind of alien life form and trying to figure out how it moves. This means they can't launch their own craft ranges, so if they want a slice of the action they can only buy a craft brewery with a proven track record.

So when you look at it from that point of view, having bought a craft brewery, would they then change it to be exactly like their old, failing business model? Or would they simply put a bit more money into it and see how it goes?

This is not the first and will be far from the last craft acquisition by a major. I have absolutely no doubt that some of these acquisitions will be botched, and that once-great beers will be murdered.

When that does happen, it will be by accident rather than design, the bungling of stupid, weak people.

Within big breweries, the accountants will be wanting to put pressure on costs because that is their job. The marketers will be wanting to grow sales massively because that is their job. The brewers - where the original craft brewer remains in the business - will likewise want to carry on making great beer. A strong business leader will balance these imperatives.

Too many weak businesses allow the accountant to call the shots because that's the way to keep the City happy. That's what happens when it goes wrong, and you can see that it's bound to with some businesses at some point.

But I've seen a few examples now where this hasn't happened - yet.

I visited Goose Island last year and the product quality is actually better since the Anheuser Busch acquisition, because they've been given better equipment. So far, they have not been asked to compromise on ingredients or process. AB may be a cost-cutting company, but it knows that Goose Island sells for a lot more than Bud, and it understands that one of the main reasons for this is that the Goose Island drinker cares about what's in the bottle. They'd be idiots to mess with that, and whatever else they are, they're not idiots.

When Heineken acquired the Caledonian brewery via their purchase of Scottish & Newcastle, my mate Stephen Crawley was MD. He told me that a team from head office came and looked around the brewery, were obviously bemused by it, and said, "Well, you clearly know what you're doing. So long as the numbers look as good as they are, just carry on doing it." Two years later, when I visited again, the only change to the brewery was better health and safety signage.

When Molson Coors bought Sharps, everyone involved was interested in making Doom Bar the UK's biggest cask ale. Now, it is. But since the acquisition, Sharp's has released some astounding beers under the Connoisseur's Choice label.

Meantime fits the bill for a major player's foray into craft. Its beers don't scare people. Meantime has now become ubiquitous in London. If I'm in a great craft beer bar, I won't usually drink it. But when I go to a pub that's under, say, an Enterprise lease and therefore has a dull selection of beers, Meantime Pale Ale or Yakima Red are always there, so there's at least one beer on the bar that I know will be good. Today's deal basically means that you'll get this safe choice much more widely in ordinary boozers across the UK, and that's great. Meantime's accessibility and scale will help bring people into craft beer in much greater numbers, providing a useful bridge between mainstream and esoteric.

It's not a cut and dried thing either way, and that's what many people struggle to accept. But on balance, I think this is a good deal for craft beer and for curious beer drinkers.

Finally, several people I know and like have just made an awful lot of money. They deserve it. They backed a pioneer, the first of the new breweries in London, and put a lot of hard work into making it a success. The London craft beer scene would be very different if Meantime hadn't existed. Alastair Hook deserves his millions. And if you still think he's a sell out who has no right to sell the brewery he built from scratch, I dare you to say so to his face.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The dawn chorus, the apple, and another forthcoming book from me

I've managed to end up working on three new books, with three different publishers. Here's a story about the second of those three.

I've already talked about my new beer book, What Are You Drinking? It's a crowdfunded project with a new type of publisher that I'm doing (a) because it's a really good model for both readers and authors and (b) my ex-editor, who made my first two beer books happen, is leading the project. It's more than 50% funded. If you haven't pledged for it yet and you're kind of intending to, please do - it'll help shorten the gap for those who have already pledged before the book comes out and they get their special copies.

Another reason I'm publishing that book through the crowdfunded model is that, while I've been very lucky so far to have my books published as general non-fiction books by a big mainstream publisher, those kind of publishers don't want any more beer books (at least, not from me) at the moment. They do want me to write more books, but about what they see as broader subjects than beer.

I'm not averse to the idea. While I intend to write about beer as much as I can for the foreseeable future, my ambition was always to be a writer, period. My interests are broader than beer, and they grow as I write more: one of the many great things about beer is that it links you into history, sociology, cultural studies, travel, biology, biochemistry, gastronomy and lots more if you want it to. The luckiest thing about being an author is that every book takes you in a journey of discovery and leaves you in a different place by the time you've finished it.

Two years ago I co-wrote the first ever world guide to cider. It was enormous fun. Along the way I spent time in barns in Somerset working an ancient Norman cider press, in dark orchards in midwinter participating in the ancient rite of Wassail, getting stoned with new friends on the shores of Lake Michigan, and so much more.

The thing about the cider book is that it was my first time writing a coffee table-style book of listings, the basic format to most beer books. There was no room for the kinds of long, narrative passages that made up my first three books. I loved the cider book, and it has done very well. But the best pieces of writing I did while working on it never made it into the book.

These pieces of writing had one more thing in common: while cider ran through them like a golden stream, they weren't necessarily about cider. They were at least as much about cider makers, apples, orchards and orchardists, and the land in which they stood. I've been a city boy for most of my adult life, but my time in orchards allowed something new to take root.

I spend most of my life staring at a screen. It's fine - that will never change. But I need a counter-balance to it - increasingly so, as more of what I see on screen depresses me. I need an escape, and I feel drawn ever more strongly to a world of trees and fields, orchards and hills. When I'm there, it resets everything, reconnects me with reality, slows down the rhythms of life to a normal pace, recharges my batteries and feeds my soul. The need is getting bad - so bad that I've even become a convert to gardening, tending my own twenty-foot plot and trying to coax it into some semblance of nature's beauty and bounty. (As I write, I'm missing the fern I planted in a shady corner three weeks ago, and wondering how it's doing.)

Drawing all this together, I realised there was a book to be written about the humble apple - about its power, its symbolism, that fact that, hiding in plain sight, pretending to be utterly normal and inconsequential, it's actually one of the most powerful totems we have.

So I put together a synopsis for a book that tells the story of the apple in both the real and the mythical world. In the real world, it's the story of a fruit that originated in Kazakhstan that is now as French as Camembert, as English as the Archers and as American as mom's apple pie. In the mythical world, it's the forbidden fruit of Eden (even though the Bible never says it is), a mainstay of Greek and Nordic myth, a key character in the legend of King Arthur, and the centre of the action in countless fairy tales.

Often, when you're around apples, the real world and the mythical world still meet.

Last week I visited Herefordshire to help celebrate their Blossomtime festival. At this time of year, it's a magical place. One of the things I'll be doing in the book is to try and put some of the pictures I took, and they thoughts and feelings they inspired, into words.

At this time of year, the Marcle Ridge is frosted with apple blossom wherever you look. And the rainbow was a nice touch.

On the morning of 1st May, we climbed May Hill in Gloucestershire to greet the sun. 

Northwest, 5.30am 

We had to get up at 4am to be up there in time, and the sun rose at about 5.35 am. There were around 300 people up there, and I quickly realised that this wasn't just some quaint local custom: we were in fact celebrating the ancient Celtic festival of Beltain.

This did, inevitably, mean that Morris dancers were involved.

I'll be discussing Morris dancers in some detail in the book.

The most annoying thing about the Morris as that they danced all through the actual sunrise, completely ignored it, didn't comment on it at all. They actually stood between the crowd and the sunrise. They seemed to think we'd got out of bed in the middle of the night and walked up a steep fucking hill in the freezing fucking cold, to watch them, rather than the sun.

Luckily, this year at least, the sun upstaged them.

Even if it did benefit from a handy bit of lens flare.

I spent the rest of the weekend learning about orchards, the cycle of the seasons, and the rhythms of natural life. Orchards are of course a sometimes uneasy compromise between natural order and and human meddling, but right now they just look amazing.

Whether we're talking traditional 'standard' trees... 


Or more modern, more engineered 'dwarf' or 'bush' trees...
Each has its own incredible beauty, and as the blossom falls from pollenated blooms, we see the tiny, young fruit having 'set', which will now start to grow into apples.

Baby Cider

The wonderful timing of this event means that May Day and the celebration of the blossom, the returning of life after the dead of winter, coincides with the previous year's cider being ready if it has been fermented traditionally over the winter. I was asked to hand out the awards in the local cider and perry competition, and many of the ciders on display had only been tapped and drawn from the fermenter over the previous 24 hours. Some of it benefited from being young, fresh and vivacious. Others showed promise, but will clearly benefit from a little more time, a little more maturity. I'm already learning that apples and apple trees have an incredible amount in common with humans.

And that's what the book is really about. Provisionally titled 'Comfort Me: the apple and us', it's not (just) a biological history of apples and orchards; it's the story of us, told through the fruit we hold more dear than any other.

It has been commissioned by Penguin, and will be published under their Particular Books imprint towards the end of 2016 or early 2017. Between now and then, I've got me wellies and me hiking boots on, and I'll be getting in touch with my Pagan side.

Was heil!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

I am so fucking bored by the beer discourse of 2015

It started off odd, like a beer that tastes OK at first, then has something nagging that attracts your attention, and on the second and third sips, starts to reveal something badly wrong. Suddenly it all got legal. Then, it got nasty.

When I write stuff for the consumer press about beer, I stick to the line - which I believe on good days, when the medication is working - that there's never been a better time to be a beer drinker. More brewers, more styles, more experimentation and inventiveness...

And whatever your views on big brewers trying to muscle in on craft, their intense interest proves that the old paradigm - that drinkers just want cold, fizzy suds and are scared of flavour - has been shattered.

When I write for the consumer press, the narrative is that 'we' - the people who read and write about beer, the sad minority who were often ridiculed until a few brief years ago - have won. We've done it. We - the brewers, the drinkers, the advocates, the aficionados, the fans, the proselytisers, the people who care - have managed to reposition good beer as something that is worth the average, non-beery person having a look at.

I've always said that the discourse around beer is happening in a bubble. Bloggers say shit about brewers and brewers worry about it; brewers say shit about beer and bloggers debate it; people wirrit away about big questions of style and definition; and it all takes place in a bubble outside which most people - most beer drinkers - are completely unaware of the discourse, and wouldn't be interested in it if they were.

Then, in the last two years, the bubble has expanded. Non-beery mates started talking about what hop varieties they prefer. Old, traditional brewers started experimenting with new techniques and ingredients. My wife's friends, increasingly, started to order beer by default in the pub rather than wine.

Everything was awesome.



But of course, it wasn't really. Just like in the film.

Success makes people uneasy. Remove the easily identifiable enemy, and people become unsure what they're fighting for, or against.

And so as soon as 2014's Christmas hangover wore off, we turned on each other like a pack of starved, neurotic, Stella-drunk piranhas.

The sexism in beer thing needed to come to a head, but it seems to have had the effect of bringing sexist dickheads out from under their rocks for one final hurrah. Craft beer delegates organise events in strip clubs, while America's biggest beer brand goes out with labels that fall into an uncomfortably rapey narrative. People insisting that "it's all a bit of fun" show a distinct lack of humour and launch menacing attacks on those who call out their neanderthal attitudes. (Sorry, that's an insult to neanderthals.)

Everyone got litigious, suing each other over degrees of similarity and pinhead dances about the difference between a style or description and a trademarked name.

New breweries are criticised for having widespread support when they launch, or for being good at promoting themselves, or just for being new. Older breweries are criticised for being older or bigger, or for being so good at what they do that they become commercially successful and grow.

And the fucking definition of craft beer debate lumbers on like a zombie, eating the brains of talented people who could otherwise be writing something inspirational, or at least interesting.

I count myself highly among the sinners. We're all guilty.

The tipping point for this rant was the 43rd article I've read this week about the lawsuit against Molson Coors for their crime of calling Blue Moon a craft beer. Or maybe it was the 65th thing I've read about the dickhead American brewer who thinks it's cool to peddle sexist shit because it's all meant to be a laugh. I'm drunk, and I can't really remember.

But this nasty, unpleasant, navel-gazing, paranoid, defeatist, frightened, hostile discourse is putting me off my beer.

It's tedious. It's boring. It's negative. It's against all that I love about beer.

Astonishingly, given that I've criticised CAMRA so often on this blog, they suddenly sound like a breath of fresh air, having passed motions that start to move the campaign into the twenty-first century. Moaning craft beer twats now sound more like flat-earth CAMRA twats that flat-earth CAMRA twats do.

My new beer book - one of three I'm currently writing - is about hops, barley, yeast and water. It's returned me to a purer, distilled form of what I love about beer, and why I first started writing about it. It has me visiting hop gardens and maltings, thinking about the miracle of fermentation and attempting to find new ways of articulating what makes beer so special. I love working on it.

And then I keep making the mistake of checking out my Twitter feed or Facebook, and feel like the hop gardens have been ploughed up by orcs, like Sam's vision of the shire when he peers into Galadriel's pool.

I often comment on industry stuff, and I apologise for my part in perpetuating these negative, reductive debates. Shit needs to get called out. But can we please all try to remember that it's beer? It's just beer. Trivial and by-the-by. Beer, the simple liquid that's capable of transforming meals, social occasions, friendships, perspectives on reality.

Cold we please have some conversations about beer that reflect what an utterly wonderful place beer is in right now?

Thank you. As you were. I am now going to finish the extra pint of Peroni which I probably didn't need.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The best thing I have ever read about alcohol - and possibly anything else

I hate the patronising language of social media clickbait because it debases what were once perfectly good terms and insults the intelligence of its audience. But just for once, I wish I was writing for one of those wanky clickbait sites because my headline could only be 'This fruit fly drank some booze. You will not BELIEVE what happened next!'

I seem to be writing three new books simultaneously. I'll explain how, why and what in a later post. But two of these books - one of them being What Are You Drinking, my new crowdfunded book with ace publishers Unbound - are taking me onto a bit of nature writing. It's quite the thing right now, just like travel writing was around the time I did Three Sheets to the Wind. That's the thing about beer - write about it, and you can turn it into writing about whatever you want. You can be a comedian or a stocktaker, a philosopher or a troll.

Leavening a bit of nature writing into my work feels like a nice thing to do at this point. I was never big on science at school. I feel like a deeper analysis of the way things like yeast and malting work is the next step in my own personal education about beer. And if I can write about it in a non-nerdy, not-too-technical way, it might also appeal to a broader, mainstream, curious beer audience.

On top of that, there's also the personal journey that accompanies and dictates any book. Right now, as I spend most of my waking hours looking at screens, I find myself increasingly drawn to the natural world as some kind of counter-balancing weight to keep my sanity level. I just spent the whole weekend gardening and baking bread, and slept better, and felt happier, than I have in months working at the screen.

Both the personal and professional have led me to this book, by my new favourite author:




I seriously believe this may be one of the most important food and drink books of the last fifty years. Its treasures are too many for me to go into here. I'm boring everyone I speak to about how it has changed my life - or at least, endorsed and spurred on many of the changes I was already trying to make to my life. You like beer, right? And proper barbecue? And sourdough bread? And good cheese? Of course you do. And it's like he looked into your mind and conceived this book to appeal to you, and only you - and, of course, everyone else like you.

But anyway, never mind the life-changing lessons, the astonishing insights and inspiration. What I want to write about here is a footnote on page 374 that took me ten minutes to find when I went back to check it. That's how good this book is: the most astonishing fact it contains can be thrown away in a hidden footnote.

It's in a section where Pollan is writing in praise of alcohol and its effects. He does so in a calm and rational, yet warm and engaging manner, and succeeds in making it seem obvious that alcohol is - on balance - an overwhelming boon to society in a way I wish I could but can't stay calm enough to do.

He talks about the many species of animal that actively seek out alcohol and enjoy the benefits of intoxication. The footnote concerns Drosophila Melanogasta, otherwise known as the common fruit fly, or vinegar fly.

I've been reading more about it, and the male Drosphila Melanogasta has an endearing (to an extent) quirk. When it reaches maturity, it tries to mate with anything it can. It tries to court other completely incompatible species of insect, other males of its own species, even, rather dodgily, sexually immature female fruit flies. It reminds me of a hapless insect Sid the Sexist from Viz magazine, with absolutely no idea of how to pull.

But as it gets rebuffed, it seemingly learns. Progressively, it figures out what is and is not compatible, and spends less and less time on lost causes, smartening up its act, until it finally succeeds with an appropriate partner. Scientists studying fruit flies are very excited by what seems like evidence of learning and modifying behaviour in this tiny animal rather than simple blind instinct.

But that's not the brilliant bit that Michael Pollan wrote about.

Again, like Sid the Sexist, fruit flies also love alcohol. as you will appreciate if you've ever had a glass of beer outdoors. Do they think it helps their pulling technique? Scientists have yet to determine that.

But it does help keep them alive.

Drosophila Melanogasta suffers from having a tiny parasitic wasp that lives in its stomach. Yes, you read that correctly. I know a fruit fly is tiny. But it has an even tinier wasp that can get into its stomach.

If it stays there, the wasp will kill the fruit fly. So the fruit fly drinks alcohol, which it enjoys, and finds non-fatal. But it's a different story for the tiny parasitic wasp. It can't cope with its drink at all. When the fruit fly drinks, the booze kills the tiny wasp in its gut... by making it violently shit out its insides through its arse.

This incredible discovery - which surely ranks alongside the discovery of penicillin or the the atom - was made by Neil F Milan et al, and written up in a paper called "Alcohol Consumption as Self-Medication against Blood-Borne Parasites in the Fruit Fly," published in a journal called Current Biology, vol 22 no.6, published in 2012.

Congratulations sir. The drinking world salutes you. And bravo, Drosophila Melanogasta. I will never swat you away from my pint again.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Beer Marketing Awards pit micros, regional and global brewers against each other

I helped organise the inaugural Beer Marketing Awards. The awards event is on 14th April, and the shortlist tells us a great deal about where the beer industry is today.



When I was approached to be a partner in the first ever Beer Marketing Awards, the thing that sold it to me was that there were categories that appeal to brewers of any size. 

There's a misconception in some quarters of the beer world that marketing is by definition a bad thing, which is a bit like saying breathing is evil because some people say mean things when they do. 

Marketing is essential for any brewery, of any size. And what's exciting just now is that just as beer itself has been revolutionised, so has the way in which it engages people and builds relationships with them. 

Gone are the days when an ad by Heineken or Carling in the middle of Coronation Street would be seen by every drinker who wasn't already in the pub. TV ads aren't as good as they were because regulations have been tightened and marketers are more cautious. Some individuals in the craft beer movement have more followers on Twitter than the world's biggest beer brands. The rules of design have been broken. And while budget will always separate big from small, you can get noticed without spending anything at all if your idea is good enough. But does telly still have a role to play? Can sponsorship be something useful rather than simply being an irritant? Of course. 

Across all marketing disciplines, there' a lot of crap, but the good stuff shines out from it. By celebrating the good, we hopefully encourage more people to do better marketing. So I couldn't wait to see what our shortlist would look like. And here it is:

Best Branding or Design (Sponsored by Co.Bir) 
  • Beavertown 
  • BrewDog 
  • Daniel Thwaites Brewery for Crafty Dan 

Best Use of Competitions (Sponsored by PUB16) 

  • Thornbridge and Waitrose, with BrewUK  - 'Homebrew Challenge’ 

Best Use of Merchandise (Sponsored by Vektor) 

  • Ales by Mail - ‘Beer Advent Calendar’ 
  • Duvel Moortgat, Vedett Extra Blond - ‘Vedett Extra’ 

Best Use of Sponsorship (Sponsored by Dark Star) 
  • Budweiser - 'FA Cup Open Trials' 
  • Carling - ‘World Cup ITV Coverage’ 
  • Estrella Damm - ‘Gastronomy Congress’ 

Best Public Relations Campaign
  • Britain’s Beer Alliance - ‘There’s a Beer For That’ 
  • Greene King Old Speckled Hen - 'Old Speckled Christmas' 
  • Marston’s Pedigree - ‘Making Local PR Count’ 

Best Stunt or Event (Sponsored by Charles Wells) 
  • Greene King - ‘Charity Ball’ 
  • Sol - ‘Sol Street Food’ 
  • Wychwood Hobgoblin - 'Hobgoblin Roadshow' 


Best Business-to-Business Campaign (Sponsored by Ella Communications) 
  • Butcombe Bottle Ales - ‘Premium Bottled Ale Report’ 
  • Carlsberg - ‘Crafted’ 
  • Heineken - 'Our Shout' 

Best use of Social Media (Sponsored by Poppleston Allen) 
  • BeerBods - ‘#BeerBods’ 
  • Brew Dog - '#MashTag' 
  • Estrella - ‘#EstrellaLife’ 
  • Trooper by Robinsons and Maiden Brews - ‘Trooper Tracker’ 

Best Print Advertising Campaign (Sponsored by Britain’s Beer Alliance) 
  • Belhaven Best - ‘To a Pint’ 
  • Fuller's London Pride - 'Made of London' 
  • Old Speckled Hen- ‘Seek Out Something Different’ 

Best Broadcast Advertising Campaign (Sponsored by Craft Beer Co.) 
  • Britain’s Beer Alliance - ‘There’s A Beer For That’ 
  • Old Speckled Hen - ‘Seek Out Something Different’ 
  • Shepherd Neame Spitfire - 'Bottle of Britain' 

Best Integrated Campaign (Sponsored by the BII) 

  • Britain’s Beer Alliance - ‘There’s A Beer For That’ 
  • Marston's Pedigree - ‘Live a Life of Pedigree’ 
  • Purity Brewing - ‘Cycling’

We'll also be giving out an award for 'Outstanding Individual Contribution' (sponsored by Charles Faram) and an overall Grand Prix, chosen from the category winners and sponsored by Boutique Beers by Matthew Clark, our event partner and title sponsor. 

It's probably no surprise that the regional brewers dominate many categories, as they have decent budgets but not enough to just blanket everywhere. We're very happy some global brewers have joined in as in marketing they set the pace, and spend most of the money in the category. We didn't get as many entries from smaller brewers as we'd perhaps hoped - this may have something to do with the entry fee, which we couldn't avoid having in our start-up year but may be up for review in future.

When I look at 'Best Integrated Campaign' and see a pan-industry initiative funded by big global brewers, a campaign from one of Britain's largest cask ale brands and another from a small but rapidly growing craft brewer; or 'Best Social Media' being fought out between a regional, a world beer owned by one of the big global brewers, a campaign by a craft beer brand built through social media and a club set up by a craft beer fan, I know we succeeded in what we set out to achieve in these awards. Any brewer of any size can do good - or bad - marketing.

The awards evening is at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, East London, on Tuesday 14th April. Tickets are available here. We're keeping formalities to a minimum, with not a black tie to be seen, a short awards presentation, a few street food carts, some great beers on tap and a DJ till midnight. Just as the awards seek to celebrate all beer, so the event itself will allow the whole industry to get together to enjoy a drink and a chat.

If you're a journalist who wants to cover the event, please contact me to talk about press tickets. If you're a finalist who hasn't yet booked, you get one place free or a discounted table rate.

It's been a long old awards season this year - which you have to expect if you organise a brand new awards scheme from scratch I suppose. I'm looking forward to this event so much (though I've got an awful lot of work to do writing my awards presentation speech). Afterwards, I'm going to surprise everyone by actually writing about beer, pubs and cider on this blog 

But if this focus on the way beer is sold persuades just one brewer to put as much thought into how their beer is presented as to how it tastes, if it stops one company from doing crude, lazy, sexist or embarrassing marketing and encourages them to do something more thoughtful instead, it will all have been worthwhile.