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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?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!
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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Brew Dog London opens!

Blimey - a look at my Wikio ranking (if anyone still looks at Wikio rankings) shows what happens when you don't blog for six weeks...

In case you've not been following, the reason I seem to have given up blogging is that I have to focus on my new book.  It's going well: I've written about 45,000 words (about 140 pages) so far, but with a mid-January deadline I won't be having much of a Christmas, and I won't be blogging too often before it's finished.

But I just wanted to do a quick post because I went to the journalist's launch of Brew Dog's new London bar last night in Camden, North London.

And it's really just to reiterate what I said when I visited their Edinburgh bar in the summer, and express my delight that they've opened one a bit closer to my house.

No brewer divides opinion and stirs up as much controversy as Brew Dog.  And they do that deliberately.  Sometimes I write to slag off their childish pranks, sometimes to praise them.  About two years ago half the blogosphere was devoted to discussion of their antics (oh, and their beers) and I've read some people say they gave up reading blogs because they were sick of reading about Brew Dog.

But the company is four years old now and maturing rather nicely.  And the bars - which are starting to spread to many major UK cities - really are excellent.

Purists will be upset that they don't do any cask beers at all, but this would be a good experiment: if you're prepared to be open-minded, it's worth going along and challenging the keg offering to deliver.  I think there's something there for everyone.  Last night I was talking to someone who writes for London Drinker, CAMRA London's magazine, and we were disagreeing about keg beer - he was saying he could still taste the gas in the beers he was drinking and that he didn't like that and wished they were available on cask.  But later, he tried some of the stronger beers and came back to tell me they were excellent.

So there's a great range on offer.  And the other thing I love about Brew Dog bars is that when I walk in, and I feel a little bit old and that the bar might be too cool for school, this is dispelled as soon as I actually get to the bar.  Brew Dog bars could so easily be too cool for school, and they're not.  They're unpretentious and run by people with a genuine passion for beer, a passion they want to spread.

Finally, I went here directly from a new 'bar and kitchen' (ugh!) run by a reasonably large pub operator, that's moving with the times by stocking an interesting range of craft beers that will be familiar to geeks but you really don't see in many places at all.  That's to be welcomed.  But £4.25 for a pint of cask Meantime Pale Ale (4.2% ABV), brewed less then ten miles away, was taking the fucking piss.  By contrast, the prices at Brew Dog were perfectly reasonable for what you were getting.

Gotta leave it there - got to go and write about Princess Margaret and the Bishop of Southwark having a lock in.

But if you're in London, go to Brew Dog Camden.  And of you're not, don't worry - a Brew Dog bar will probably be opening a bit closer to you sooner than you think.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Someone is wrong on the internet.

Add caption
No time to blog at the moment as I struggle to get back on track with my book.  But this is all I have to say anyway.

Thanks to my best mate Chris for first sending me this a while back, last time someone was wrong on the internet.  And kudos to the original cartoonist, whoever that may be - the image has been repeated so often I wasn't able to find out.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Blogging, ethics and payola - what is OK?


As beer blogging matures as a medium there are an increasing number of discussions on what constitutes ethical blogging.  Is it OK to write about a brewery's beers if they've taken you on a tour or sent you free product? Or if you've done some kind of consultancy for them?

I'll come back to these in a minute - different bloggers have different points of view, and there are many shades of grey.

But I've recently been approached and asked to participate in one activity that, by any standards, is not OK at all.  It's ethically wrong.  In fact, it is probably illegal.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a man called Barry Sonders who works for an agency called Translation, some kind of PR/communications agency based in New York.  Barry's email read as follows:

Hey Pete, 

I'm working with a beer brand that is looking to "seed" some stories
on blogs like yours about a new beer that is being released. 

I was wondering what the cost would be for me if I wanted to seed
1 story a week for a month. Basically, what I mean by seeding is 
that you'd blog or someone would write something saying... "I heard this
beer is X% alcohol content, etc"... 

Let me know if this is something you'd be interested in doing and again, 
if so, what is the price tag associated with that. 

Thanks! 

Barry

Now there was no way I was ever going to agree to this, and I immediately decided to write this blog post about it.   But before I did so, I wanted to be better informed.  Firstly, I wrote back to Barry to see if I could find out what brand was trying to persuade me to sacrifice my integrity in this fashion:


Hi Barry, 

It kind of depends on the brand, to be honest.  Are you able to reveal which beer or brewer?

Pete

Barry, seemingly, could not be drawn that easily:

To be honest, I can't right now. It's a major brand, definitely not in the craft beer arena
or of a mass audience, middle america appeal. 

However, there was a link to Translation's website at the bottom of his email.  I followed this link, and found a client list that included Coors among a list of reputable companies such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson.

So I contacted Kristy at MolsonCoors UK, who immediately replied that she was 'appalled' by this proposal, and contacted MillerCoors in the US (Coors is in a different JV over there) to see if this was something they knew about.  She got this reply from Pete Marino at MillerCoors HQ:

This has nothing to do with MillerCoors or any of our brands.  Translation does not do any work for MillerCoors, nor have they ever. They did at one time work for legacy Coors Brewing Company and they have the Coors logo on their website under the title “brands they have influenced…”. This doesn’t mean those brands are active clients and I can assure you we don’'t work with Translation.  I am not sure who they are representing here, but... we don’t have any association with Barry or Translation and we do not condone this behavior.  

Further down the email trail between Coors people, someone suggests the whole thing might be a hoax, as there are certainly no plans for a new US beer launch by MillerCoors at the moment.

I wanted to make all this very clear before moving on, because this is serious shit, and it's important to state that whichever brand it is, it's nothing to do with MolsonCoors or MillerCoors, who object to such practices on both legal and ethical grounds.  (I only mention this in detail because if you Google Translation's website, you would think it was Coors).

Personally, whatever your views on free beer, hospitality etc (and I will come back to that) what's happening here is that I am being offered money to blog views and opinions about a beer as if they are my own, when they are not.  By taking money it becomes advertising, and I am being asked to present it as though it is not advertising - clearly misleading my readers, and being dishonest in my writing.

I would never do that, for three reasons.  One - integrity - I have some.  Two - career practicality - if I did this, and someone found out that I'd done it, no one would ever trust anything I wrote ever again. My writing career would be over.  And three - it is probably illegal.  It certainly breaks any general journalistic and blogging standards of behaviour.

To get a clearer picture on this last point, I contacted both the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Advertising Standards Authority.

The NUJ admitted that it's still early days for standards in blogging but the rules generally - and there's no reason why they shouldn't cover blogging - are very clear.  Writing paid for by a brand should be clearly identifiable as advertising or an advertising feature so the reader understands that it's not under editorial control. The NUJ’s code makes it clear that payments, threats or other inducements should not affect what you write.  Chris Frost, Chair of the NUJ Ethics Council, said:

“I’m shocked to hear that a company is trying to bribe a blogger who’s a member of the NUJ to write material that is not necessarily his honest opinion. Whether a journalist is a blogger or works in more traditional media, trust in what they write is central and the NUJ does all it can to protect that with our code of conduct.”

The ASA took a little longer to respond, but I got their reply yesterday.  There's a new code, recently extended to cover online advertising.  Here's what they had to say about it:

In short, yes, this practice would represent a breach of the CAP Code (marketing communications must make it clear that they are so)... we know that the Office of Fair Trading are also interested in looking into this area, as this type of practice represents a serious breach of consumer legislation.

This last point relates back to a test case last year in which the OFT investigated a company called Handpicked Media who were paying bloggers to write for them.  The company was co-operative with the investigation, but it was judged that their activities may be operating in breach of the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and was engaging in unfair commercial practices.  There will be more test cases to establish whether that 'may' actually is an 'is' or not.

But either way, whether this turns out to be technically legal or not, it's morally and ethically wrong.  The whole point about blogging is that it is a subjective medium, that writers write from interest and passion.  I do write paid for commercial stuff, but I write it in a very different style than I blog, and it's always very clear that I am doing so.  I have never taken a penny from anyone for anything on this blog.  If other people, who don't get as much paid writing as I do, choose to take money for paid-for ads on their blog that's fine - so long as it's very clear that this is advertising.  But what Barry and his agency is suggesting undermines the whole principle and foundation of blogging.

So is this the same as accepting free booze or hospitality from brewers?  There are different views on this, but I don't think it is the same at all.  Fiona Beckett wrote an article for the Guardian recently about accepting payment for wine reviews, and much of the ensuing discussion was about free samples rather than payment.  

I get sent free beer all the time, and it comes down to one's own personal ethics.  I've got so much beer, I'm constantly trying to give it away before it goes stale.  If someone sends me free beer and I like it, I'll say so.  If I don't like it, I probably won't say anything unless the brewer is really insistent.  But I certainly won't say I like a beer just because someone has sent me some for free.  


Hilariously, earlier this year someone sent me a bottle of a very well-known beer brand, and seemed to think that, having done so, I would of course be including this brand in my Publican's Morning Advertiser rundown of my fifty favourite UK beers.  Needless to say, it wasn't there and never will be. 

It's trickier with trips/hospitality.  If someone takes you on an all-expenses-paid trip around Belgium, it's kind of expected that you'll use the experience to write a piece.  It doesn't mean you have to write aglowing report of every beer if you didn't really like it.  But if someone shows you a good time, you're more likely to feel warm towards them - that's human nature.  I'd like to think that a combination of full disclosure and personal integrity should mean you avoid saying things you don't really believe and misleading your readers.

As for consultancy - I do some of that.  But I always tell brewers that while I'm working for them, I won't be writing about them, and I won't be promoting the work we've done together from a journalistic point of view.  If I ever do write about it - like I did with the launch of Martson's Fast Cask - I will do so with full disclosure of my relationship, so readers can make up their own minds as to whether they can trust what I'm saying or not.

I know there are some bloggers who would see my standards as too lax, and others who would read this post and say, 'What's the fuss about?  If you can get free stuff, take it'.  I'm happy to agree to disagree with both, and am not really interested in attacking either.

But I would hope everyone, on every side, would see that taking payment in return for lying to your readers goes against everything that beer blogging is about.  


I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been approached by Translation.  If you have too, I hope you're not tempted - you just might end up being the next legal test case.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Bastards: a cautionary tale


So, I got my laptop nicked.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll already be weary of the trials, tribulations and swearing that followed.

I hadn't backed up - I have two separate external hard drives, but both had stopped working.  I know I should have backed up online (or in the 'cloud' if we really must) but I never seemed to have time to sort out the best way of doing so.

I was in the Jolly Butchers last Wednesday.  I was filming for a TV programme, and after that it was Emma Cole's leaving do.  Emma has made the beery reputation of the Butchers, and now she's defecting to the Spotted Dog in Brighton. (Brighton, you are lucky to have her.)

At 6pm I put my laptop bag down beside Emma's chair. At 10.05pm I went back to it, and found the bag thrown under the table, with no laptop in it.  I know the timings because I spent the following day watching CCTV footage from two angles, and saw myself do these things.

I also saw a photo shoot to celebrate the Butchers being named 'Beard-friendly pub of the year', and a giant panda emerge from the toilets and go outside.  But even though the party table was in the middle of the screen from one of the security cameras, I did not see anyone go under the table, pick up a laptop, or put one in their bag.  At no point is the table left empty - there are always at least three people - people who were part of our crowd - sitting down at it.  You've got to admit, these bastards are good at what they do.

And I'm stupid.  Really, really stupid.

Look at those timings again: I left a very expensive laptop with every single piece of writing I've ever done, all my music, my accounts, all my photos, alone for four hours in a public place.  For half that time I was standing outside the pub.

I'm only writing this now as a cautionary tale, because I'm not the only person who is this stupid.

The Jolly Butchers is a lovely pub, one of my locals, and there's rarely a time when at least some friends aren't in it.  I feel comfortable there, as comfortable as I do in my home - that's what great pubs are all about.

But without taking away from that, this comfort lulls you into a false sense of security.  You extend your trust to cover everyone in the pub.  You start behaving as if you are at home.  I wasn't the only person to leave my bag unattended that night (I wasn't the only person whose bag was tossed).  Every time I'm in this or other pubs, I see bags on backs of chairs with purses and valuables in them. I see phones left on tables when people go to the bar or toilet.  I see jackets hanging with wallets in them.

And when I'm out of the pub, I see poster campaigns from the police like the one above, which is currently running all round London.

You never think it will be you - but eventually it is.

As the poster shows, thieves look for the easiest lift they can get.  If you make it easy for them - if you INVITE them to take your stuff, as I did - it's hardly surprising if they accept the invitation.

So I'm writing this to everyone who goes in pubs, who loves them, and feels relaxed in them enough to chill out and forget you're in public: don't be the person who makes it easier for thieving bastards than everyone else does.  Just keep your stuff with you, and out of sight.  It sounds boring. It sounds nannyish. It makes you think of things you'd rather not think of while you're enjoying yourself.  But it's absolutely necessary.

Oh yes, and do back up your computer.  Religiously.  Don't keep putting it off like I did, because shit WILL happen.

Right! Now to start my new book from scratch...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Dank

I learned a new word while I was over at the Great American Beer Festival. Or rather, I learned a new usage of a word I hadn't really heard for ages.

When I was a kid, we used to buy this really cheap washing up liquid called Sunlight.  I can't find a picture now of how it used to look - there's no reason why I should be able to.  It was one of those cylindrical white plastic tubes that you willed empty so you could glue Airfix model parts onto and spraypaint silver to make a rocket like they showed you on Blue Peter. Or maybe that was just me.

But anyway.

It had a really cheap artificial lemon smell, and from the pack above I'm guessing that hasn't changed.  And we used to have a thick, heavy dishcloth that never got washed or replaced (our house was superficially spotless but some of the detail was well dodgy).  This dishcloth was used to wipe down surfaces and clean plates, and after the cleaning was done it was never hung over the tap to dry out; it was just left in a bundle in the bottom of the bowl.  And so it acquired a kind of damp smell, but the artificial lemon aroma was so powerful it override the damp smell, and the smell of grease.

This lemon-wet-damp-cloth-grease smell sounds disgusting. But I liked it.  I don't know why, I just did.  And it's a smell, or a sense memory of one, that I get from some ultra-hoppy IPAs.  Just as runny French cheese might be described as 'sweaty socks', or certain aged beers as 'farmyard', divorced from its context - or perhaps even because of it if we're driven by bravado - it's a negative association used to describe an appealing smell.  If you've ever heard me describe a beer as smelling of 'wet dishcloth', this is a more detailed description of what I mean.

Over at GABF last week, I heard people describing hop character as 'dank' - this was a new one on me.  I wasn't even sure if it was a descriptor or a new hop variety I hadn't heard of.  According to my OED, dank means 'unpleasantly damp and cold', and is of Middle English origin, probably from the Swedish word for 'marshy spot'.  And the ever-helpful Stan Hieronymous explained to me that it was being used here to describe a full-on West Coast hoppy character, big on citrus - big on everything - and best exemplified by Simcoe hops.

When I sniffed a proffered example, there it was: my old mum's damp, artificial lemon dishcloth smell.

It's probably more than coincidence that US hop freaks have chosen a word that means 'damp' to describe an extreme hop aroma that I associate with an eternally damp, lemon-impregnated dishcloth.

I'm feeling ambivalent about extreme hops at the moment - which I'll write more about in due course - but I'm glad I now have a word to describe one of my favourite extreme hop aromas.  I love it - it's a good word, slightly dangerous and a little alienating, and therefore perfect.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Most Essential Beer Book You Can Buy (apart from any of mine of course)

The Oxford Companion to Beer is out (well, it is in the US, and it will be in the UK on 27th October).

This book has doubled the weight of my carry-on luggage home

Let's get the quibbles out of the way first: in today's world of forensic pedantry surrounding beer, some people are bound to find errors. Others will take offence at subjective entries. Others still are bound to find glaring omissions, and some bits will have been out of date by the time the book went to press.

It's impossible to capture every single fact, statistic and morsel of wisdom about beer into one book, but this is as close as anyone is going to get.

On Thursday night I attended the contributors' party at the Great American Beer Festival and managed to snaffle a copy.

Obviously, I haven't read it all - that would be silly - but I wanted to give the book a heads up, and give you an impressionistic view of what it's like just from flipping through it.  

To give you an idea of how good this book is, I don't normally like reading encyclopaedias about beer, and when I picked it up, I was in a room full of friends I hadn't seen for ages, some who I was meeting in person for the first time, and some people whom I didn't know but wanted to meet.  And it was a struggle to get my nose out of the book and say hello to them.  You open a page at random and you start reading, and you lose yourself in trivia, history, and bits of brewing science you always wanted to know but never got round to asking.  

It's about two and a half years since I was first asked to contribute to the book.  I filed my last piece about a year ago.  And I was just one of 165 contributors, my 20 just a fraction of the 1100+ entries, which span 920 pages.  This gives you an idea of the incredible scale of this project.  My own pieces stretch from meaty topics such as IPA, Great Britain (how do you 'do' a whole country and its brewing tradition in 3500 words?) and Prohibition, to shorter entries on subjects like Farson's Lacto Milk Stout, Snakebite, BYOB, Oast Houses and the Quarter (an obscure unit for measuring malt, about which I think my 250 words have probably doubled the amount written).  

Opening the book at random, pages 520-521 cover Koningshoeven Brewery, kosher beer, Kostritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei, krausening and kriek.  Flipping to pages 358-359, there are two meaty entries on Flanders and flavo(u)r.  Pages 426-427 cover heather, hectoliter, hedge hops, hefeweizen and Heineken.

Get the picture?  Just about everything any sane person could want to know about beer is in this book, and most of the entries I've dipped in to so far are surprisingly readable for such a weighty, authoritative tome.  

The Oxford Companions to wine and food are regarded as peerless and essential by many working in those fields.  I'd say the Oxford Companion to beer is the same: if you write about beer, study it or brew it, you simply cannot do without this book.  And if you're simply interested enough in beer to be reading this blog, you kinda need it too.

If you don't yet possess any of my three books you should buy them first, obviously.  But when you've got them and you're back on Amazon, you simply have to buy this.  

Your postman won't thank you, though.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Ten initial observations about the Great American Beer Festival 2011


1. You've got to love a beer festival where there are touts on constant patrol outside the venue, because tickets sold out after just one week

2. Something has changed.  This event is louder, more raucous, more masculine than it was five years ago, last time I was here.  There are fewer women here than there used to be.  The vast hall is a constant roar.  I think there might be a link between extreme hops and elevated testosterone.

3. “There’s no margin in having enemies” – John Hickenlooper, Governor of the state of Colorado and former craft brewer, perfectly sums up the good business sense that drives the spirit of cooperation in craft brewing everywhere.

4. A sample pour size of 1oz (ie one twentieth of a UK pint) is not enough to really coat the tongue, so it’s impossible to taste any beer properly.

5. After fifteen years, in business, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head is still constantly behind the Dogfish Head stand, still selling his beers personally to a queue of fans stretching down the hall, tirelessly greeting everyone who wants to shake his hand, have their photo taken with him, have him sign stuff.  You still want to not be impressed by him, to not be taken in by his boyish charisma.  But you still are.

6. It’s too busy.  Despite the tiny sample pour size, every single beer I’m interested in trying has a huge queue to get those miniscule measures.  The size of the measures simply feeds back into making the queues bigger.  It’s therefore impossible to get a good taste of a great beer.  The system is broken.

7. In general, it reminds me a lot more of the Great British Beer Festival than it did when I was last here five years ago.  I think this is partly due to the GABF not being quite as good as it once was (see points 2 and 6), but mainly due to the GBBF being quite a bit better than it once was.

8. Wells & Young’s have relaunched Courage Imperial Stout here.  Wells & Young’s is often criticised in the UK for having a dull portfolio of beers relative to its competitors.  (They rationalised the range of interesting Young’s beers when they took over that range, and they don’t place as much emphasis on seasonals and limited editions as their key competitors do.)  Now, they’re reviving a truly legendary beer – but it’s only going to be available in the US.  It won't be available in the UK for another year.  I have no idea why, in the present British beer climate, any company with such an amazing asset would be so over-cautious with it.

9. There are carpets.  And the teeny sample glasses are made of plastic.  (All events are a mix of good and bad, swings and roundabouts)

10. There is life after extreme hops. And it's here too.  And that's good.

Friday, 30 September 2011

A jolly weekend in Cockermouth (stop sniggering at the back)

Great weekend last weekend, but I have to slow down and get this damn book written.

After the Social Media Beer Tasting in Glasgow, I went down to the Lake District for Taste Cumbria.  They're really doing an awful lot to promote Cumbria as a food and drink destination, and it's working really well.

Friday night I stayed at the Kirkstile Inn just outside Cockermouth, one of those pubs where the thick stone walls, wood fires and silence outside save for the hiss of river and tree lull you to sleep like a baby.  Another reason to go there is that it's the brewery tap for the Loweswater Brewery, also known as Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  Their Loweswater Gold was named Champion Golden Beer of Britain at this year's Great British Beer Festival, and the only thing better than sinking a few pints of it would be doing so after tramping across some of the irresistible mountains just outside.  They were calling to me, I tell you. They just weren't calling as loudly as the comfy seat by the fire, or my bed, or one other very noteworthy beer.

CLA also brew Croglin Vampire.


Completely out of keeping with a range of beers that's very nice but nothing you wouldn't expect from a Cumbrian brewer, Croglin Vampire is an 8% Doppelbock, rich and spiritous, dark and brandy-like, and utterly wonderful.  Currently the Kirkstile Inn is about the only place you can get it.  Don't worry, it's a worthwhile trip.  Just as well they have rooms.

Next day we were off into Cockermouth - yes, Cockermouth - for the festival itself.  This is where Jennings Brewery is.  Again, the beers are good quality but nothing that you wouldn't expect here.  But I love the story of Jennings brewery.  I'm not an apologist for big regional brewers - I just have an open mind about them.  I find this quite an interesting place to be. When Jennings was bought by Marston's in 2005, the local CAMRA branch shouted that Marston's were going to close the brewery, and continued to shout this even when Marston's invested £250,000 improving the brewery.  If Marston's had the slightest intention of closing the brewery, they had the perfect excuse to do so when it flooded in 2009.

Photo: Vanessa Graham on www.visitcumbria.com

But they didn't.  They invested millions getting it open again.  I don't know if anyone still thinks Marston's are going to close Jennings, but if anyone does think that, I've got some magic beans you might want to buy.

But I digress.  On the first day of the festival, Jeff Pickthall and I were doing a beer and food matching event.  We're both a bit vague about organisational stuff, and so were Taste Cumbria, so we ended up with about two hours to put some pairing suggestions together from food and beer being exhibited at the festival.  Not everyone was keen to have their stuff featured.  It was like an episode of the Apprentice. But as people filed into the room, we were just about succeeding in putting plates together for the following:

Mitchell Krause Hefe Weizen with goats cheese from Wardhall Dairy

Hardknott Cueboid with smoked cured boar

Jennings Sneck Lifter with lovely raisin fudge from Duerdens Confectioners of Burnley

Coniston Brewery's Blacksmith ale with an amazing chocolate cake from Ginger Bakers in Ulverston

(We swapped these two around - people were split on what went best)

The aforementioned Croglin Vampire with Parsonby, another cheese from Wardhall which has been rind-washed in The Black Galloway porter from Sulwath brewery.  Beer washed cheese is the future, if you like your cheese smelly and overpowering like I do.

Thanks to everyone who agreed to donate stuff for us.  Amazingly, despite time constraints, exploding hefe weizen bottles and seventy extra people turning up just when we thought we'd done enough plates of food, it all went rather well, and the matches were ace.

Later, we sampled the delights of Cockermouth nightlife.  And encountered the Boogie Bus:

The 'Big Boogie Bus' - does that mean there's a little one somewhere?

As you can see, it's a pink bus that has pole dancers and lap dancers and glowing dance floors inside it. It roams the streets of Cumbria, stopping to lure stag and hen parties on board.  Then it glows brightly, drives off, and the stag and hen parties are never seen or heard from again.

Jeff and I decided to pass.  Instead we roamed the pubs in search of good beer.  And finally, after trying everywhere else, we found Cockermouth's perfect pub, a place I'd be happy to see in any town.

1761 is modern and stylish without trying too hard.  It has Guinness, Strongbow and Carlsberg on the pumps because that's what people want.  But it also has a good selection of local cask ales, and a small but perfectly formed range of craft beers in bottles including Little Creatures, Orval, Duvel, and Pietra.

There isn't a full kitchen, but they do something I wish more pubs would do - a small, simple tapas menu.  We had stuffed jalapeno peppers, a cured meat platter, cheese platter, and some chorizo cooked in wine, which formed a great alternative to the curry and Cobra we were planning on.

I write about 1761 because it deserves to be written about.  It's not a fully fledged craft beer pub, but it's a pub with aspirations that understands the needs of its local community, is independent, and friendly.  It's not boring like some.  It's not too raucous like others.  There should be more pubs like it.





Monday, 26 September 2011

The Cask Report: everything you ever wanted to know about cask ale, launches today

The Cask Report was conceived four years ago to help solve the paradox of the UK cask ale industry: there are few if any national brands, it's a fragmented industry consisting of over 800 brewers with many voices and little internal structure.

This is what appeals about cask ale: its relative lack of corporate bollocks, its regionality and localness.

It's also one of cask ale's biggest weaknesses: no one voice putting a coherent case for the industry as a whole.

So it's brilliant that, despite their differences, CAMRA, SIBA, the key large regional players, the Family Brewers of Britain, and Cask Marque, can come together and agree to jointly issue a keynote industry report.  I'm paid by these people to write this report every year, and this is the fifth time we've done it.  Of course it's positive, but as an independent writer (who likes cask ale and likes a great deal of other beer as well) I try to keep it objective, accurate and informative, and resist the desire to make it too sales-y.




This year's report is out today and you can download it at www.caskreport.co.uk.  It's primarily aimed at publicans who may (or may not) be interested in stocking cask ale, but some of it may be of interest to others who write about beer, or are interested in it.

It's been a really tough year for pubs generally - and cask ale is only available in pubs.  The story for the last few year is that cask is in decline, but compared to the decline in the overall beer market, cask's decline is very small.  It's been getting smaller every year, but has not quite managed to get back into sustained volume growth.  With 25 pubs closing every week, beer duty up by 35% in three years and the total on-trade beer market down by more than 7%, that's not surprising - what is surprising is that cask is doing as well as it is.  Here are some positive indicators in a difficult year:

  • Cask ale drinkers are more than twice as likely to go to the pub regularly as drinkers who don't drink cask ale
  • The number of cask ale drinkers has fallen overall - but the number of young people drinking it (18-24) has risen for the second year running
  • This represents a broader recruitment trend - of all people who say they drink cask ale, 10% of them started drinking in the last year.  37% started drinking it in the last ten years.  Cask ale drinkers are leaving the market at one end, but they are entering it at the other - a clear sign of the revival of interest in cask ale
  • 2500 more pubs are stocking cask ale this year
  • Cask ale's share of on-trade beer has increased to 15% - getting on for one in six pints served in the pub
So if it's so good, why isn't volume increasing?  Because for most drinkers, cask is an occasional drink within the repertoire.  Cask ale drinkers are more curious, experimental, have broader interests, go out more and try new things more than non-cask ale drinkers.  This is both a blessing and a curse - it means they're more likely to try cask ale - it also means they're more likely to try other things too.

So the task is to get people to drink more of it, more often.  This year, we commissioned some independent qualitative research to find out how publicans might do that - nine focus groups, across the country, probing attitudes to cask ale, and behaviour around it.

The results make for interesting reading.  Some of the solutions sound obvious - but if they were, more pubs would already be doing them.  I won't go into a full analysis here, but some of the most interesting things for me were:
  • Only the beer industry and beer geeks debate the merits of micros versus big regional brewers.  For most drinkers, the dynamic in the market is about 'familiar' versus 'unfamiliar' beers - it doesn't matter who brews them.  Depending on who you are and where you drink, Thornbridge Jaipur could be more familiar than Adnams Bitter.  Pubs need a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar brands.  If you have, say, three hand pumps, three familiar brands is boring, while three unfamiliar brands is too eclectic (unless you're a specialist craft beer pub, frequented by passionate beer geeks).  Most drinkers want to experiment, and then go back to what they know.
  • The single best way to sell more cask ale is to pre-emptively offer tasters to people who look unsure at the bar.  We've been saying this for five years now.  It's still the first thing that comes up in research.  Yet so few pubs do it.
  • Another failsafe method - which sounds so obvious - is a chalkboard featuring names, ABV and, if you like, something about taste, style and provenance.  At a busy bar people can't scrutinise hand pumps properly and feel pressured into making a quick decision.  Often, they'll default to Guinness or lager.  A clearly visible chalkboard gives them plenty of time to choose a cask ale
  • We didn't ask this, people told us: cask ale is natural, flavoursome and 'a little bit cool'.  The explosion in the number of new beers available, and the growth in the number of pubs selling them, suggests that cask beer has momentum, and it's becoming generally regarded as cool in an 'old school' way rather than uncool in an 'old fashioned, way.
Those, for me, are the points anyone interested in promoting cask ale should be banging on about.  There's plenty more in the main report.  I hope you find it interesting and useful.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Social Media Beer Tasting - Tonight! In fact, in about 7 minutes!

Social media and the world's most sociable drink: and the explosion in beer blogging has shown, the two go together like Worthington White Shield and Keen's cheddar.

This week is world Social Media Week.  Real world events across a whole host of subjects are happening in Glasgow, Chicago, Vancouver, Milan, Berlin, LA, Beirut, Bogota, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aries and Moscow, and being broadcast in real time.

Right now I'm at the WEST brewery in Glasgow, which is hosting a social media beer tasting.

I'll be tasting beers and meeting the brewers of WEST, Harviestoun, Magic Rock and Kelburn, tasting their beers and talking to them about their beers, beer generally, social media, and anything else that comes to mind.

It's being filmed and broadcast live, and you can see it here.  And if you can't get the same beers as us, get a different beer!  We'll also be monitoring the #smwbeer hashtag on Twitter, and unless you're being rude about our personal appearance we'll probably work in some of your tweets to the discussion, in a gigantic virtual feedback loop of beery social medianess.

So open a cold one and come and join us!

UPDATE 28TH SEPT:
Here's the video of the event if anyone wants to relive it!

Watch live streaming video from smw_glasgow2 at livestream.com

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Me and Mr Flintoff


Can I just say, it was him, not me, who insisted on this photo being taken and then tweeted it to his half a million followers.

He describes himself as 'currently unemployed', and gave a strong impression that 'beer writer' would be a good place to go.

Freddie Flintoff: "So how do you get to be a beer writer then?"

Me: "Well I was really shit at sport..."

Thanks to Thwaites for taking me to the cricket, introducing me to Freddie, and blowing me away with an amazing range of limited edition beers that any young buck micro would be proud of.

Elbow: From "Build a Rocket Boys" to "Brew a Beer, Boys"!

I love the band, Elbow, for a great many reasons.  And even though it's the greatest cliche in popular music history, I've loved them since their early stuff.

As a wordsmith, even one of the everyday hack variety, I love Elbow for lyrics such as:

"I'm proud to be the one to hold you when the shakes begin"

"You little sod I love your eyes/be everything to me tonight"

"Grow a fucking heart, love"

"Throw these curtains wide/one day like this a year would see me right"

"We still believe in love, so fuck you"

"Dear friends/you are angels and drunks/you are Magi"

"You were freshly painted angels/walking on walls/stealing booze/and hour long, hungry kisses"

"The violins explode inside me when I meet your eyes/and I'm spinning and I'm falling like a cloud of Starlings.............darling is this love?"

I love them because of their cleverness, their instrumentation, their openness.



I love them because they are five crumpled northern blokes who look like they could be my mates.  (And I secretly love the fact that people keep telling me I look a little bit like lead singer Guy Garvey, especially around the saggy, weary eyes).

I love them because Guy Garvey genuinely seems like one of the nicest men in the world (I'd love to see him and Andy Moffat from the Redemption brewery each trying to buy the other a pint - I really wouldn't bet on who would crack first and accept the other's hospitality rather than give it).

I love them because they absolutely reek of the pub.  I know they spend their time in pubs, and their music feels like it was born in pubs, it feels like that's where it should be performed, even though it works in vast arenas and on Glastonbury's main stage.

And now I love them because they've brewed their own beer:



The beer itself is not news: it was announced a good few weeks ago now, and is just about to be launched.  It'll be officially launching at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival, where I'm attempting to arrange an interview with them about the beer.

What's new is that the beer is now going to be available in bottle, so fans outside the north west can enjoy it.  And that a percentage of profits will be donated to Oxfam. Because they're really nice lads.

If I can anticipate the inevitable "Why did they choose such a dull brewer to work with?" comments - Elbow specifically selected Robinsons because they wanted to work with a brewer local to them in the north west.  And if I was to imagine what an Elbow beer is like, it's not some flashy, hop-heavy imbalanced beer: an Elbow beer is an accessible, traditional beer, one of those pints you'd have with your dad when you go back home, one of those beers that you can drink a few pints of, is balanced, fruity with a dry finish.  And that's exactly the kind of beer Elbow went for.  So long as it's done well, there's always a place for it, and Robinsons brew it perfectly well.

There will soon be a website for the beer, telling you where you can get it and stuff.

In the meantime, if you can't get the Build a Rocket Boys! beer, you can still get the Build a Rocket Boys album, and if you haven't done that yet, I suggest you do.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion


Shameless plugging: it's a good thing.  It's the first reason I started this blog, on my editor's advice.  Little did he know what he was setting in motion, but let's get back to basics with a run-through of some events I'm doing over the next few weeks.  If the idea of meeting me face to face repulses you, look away now.

This weekend, Ed Davies, ambitious young manager of Kilverts in Hay-on-Wye, is staging his second annual Beer and Literature Festival.  Me, Young Dredge and Adrian Tierney-Jones are the beer writers in residence.  Tomorrow night I'm doing a beer and food pairing dinner, nicking from John Keeling at Fullers the idea of pairing each course with two contrasting beers to help people explore what matches best.  It ended up being Wales vs rest of the world with each course. I'm expecting the Welsh beers will fare better than the football team (after all, you can't finish 117th if there are only handful of countries being featured). Then on Saturday I'm doing my Beer and Book Matching talk, with one or two tweaks from last time.  Orwell, Amis, Hamilton, Dickens, Burton ale, lager, porter - but who goes with what?  Adrian and Mark will be doing a second beer and food matching dinner on Saturday night, and there are all sorts of other goodies going on, with an impressive array of beers on keg and cask.

Then me and Mr Bill Bradshaw board a plane for the US - we're being looked after by the utterly fabulous North American cider community with what promises to be a thrilling and unforgettable tour of craft cider.  As a tiny thank you we offered to do our cider talk (which went down very well in Wales) at the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Festival in St Johns, Michigan on 10th and 11th September.  As you might guess, we're quite looking forward to that one.  Not sure which day we're on or what time but think the event is on course to sell out, so if you are in the unlikely position of being a reader of this blog who is based near the Great Lakes and enjoys cider, get your ticket quick!

Back in the UK, 17th-18th September it's the Abergavenny Food Festival, which is now firmly established as one of the top food festival in the country, with as many celebrity chefs and chutney stalls as you could ever need.  I'm going to be busier than ever this year, with a beer and food matching dinner on the nights of the 16th at the Bell Inn in nearby Glangrwyney, a joint event with Nick Otley on the 17th, where we'll be using Otley beers to showcase a world of beer styles, and a talk on Sunday where me, Ian Marchant and Paul Ewen discuss the enduring appeal of the British pub.  I'm excited about all these events, especially the last one - Ian wrote the excellent The Longest Crawl - a book I would have written myself if he hadn't done it first - and Paul is the one-man 'Campaign for Surreal Ale', thanks to his hilariously disturbing book of London Pub Reviews.  Three of us in a room together promises to be interesting.  I can't link to the events individually but tickets for all of them are available on the festival website.  

The following week is Social Media Week, with events happening in various cities around the world linking up in real time.  The hub of it all this year is Glasgow, and you know who's in Glasgow? WEST brewery, that's who, the finest and possibly only Germano-Scottish brewery on the planet.  On 22nd September from 6-8pm GMT I'll be joining them for a global real time tutored beer tasting, featuring beers from various participating cities including Vancouver, Chicago and Milan.  More details as we work them out.

I go straight from Glasgow down to Cockermouth, for the Taste Cumbria Food Festival.  Me and Jeff Pickthall will be doing beer and food matching masterclasses and beer trials on Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th, somewhere around Cockermouth. 

The week after that, after launching the 2011-2012 Cask Report on Monday 26th September I'm off to the Great American Beer Festival. No events planned for there, but I'm open to offers!  Really looking forward to meeting North American friends and readers, many of whom I've become friends with online but have not yet met in person.

When I finally get back to London I'm running a pub quiz at the excellent Snooty Fox in Canonbury on the evening of 6th October.  The owners say one of the Pippettes works behind the bar there - it'll be the first time I have ever been start struck by a barmaid.

The next day we're down to Lewes for their Octoberfeast shindig.  The Snowdrop Inn is one of the most exquisite pubs I've ever been to, and last year they hosted me for a Hops & Glory reading that was one of the highlights of my year.  I'm doing Beer and Book Matching down there this time, on 7th October, and staying overnight so I can find out what Melissa Cole's Scotch Egg event is all about the following afternoon...

And finally (for now) I go straight from there up to the Manchester Food & Drink Festival to host another beer and food dinner on October 9th.  I shall be stalking Elbow.  

When I finish all that, I have to hibernate to write three books.  I probably shan't be surfacing till the New Year.  At which point I might have a day or two off.  Hope to see you at an event!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

First ever International Cider Festival - this weekend in Wales!


It seems odd writing about drink the day after the city I live in descended into anarchy.  But having just got back in after going to help clean up the streets of Hackney a mile down the road, I found a crowd of 500 people had had the same idea, and all of us had been beaten to it by the awesome council street cleaners.  We passed burned out cars being taken away, shops with the shutters down unable to clean up until the police had checked the scene, but the streets were clean and showing next to no evidence of rioting.

In other words: extraordinary times.  But life goes on, and should go on as normal.

Walking home I felt conflicting emotions: overwhelming pride at being part of a community which is starting to fight back agains thuggery, coupled with an overwhelming desire to get out of town and go to a festival or something.

And then I remembered I'm doing exactly that.

This weekend is the first International Craft Cider Festival, and it's happening in Caerphilly, South Wales, from 12th to 14th August.

I'm particularly intrigued by it because it's a real festival - it's over a weekend, there are various venues, bands playing, and we'll be camping.  It looks like it's going to be amazing.

And the other part of it is that it truly is an international festival.  I'm currently working on a book about cider with ace photographer Bill Bradshaw, and we're discovering small cider making communities all around the world who are only just starting to realise they're not alone.  This is one of the first events in the world that will offer some kind of international perspective, from the Apfelwein culture around Frankfurt to the flamboyant sidra performance pouring of Asturias in northern Spain.

There will be tasting masterclasses on tasting and cooking with cider, three cider bars - England, Wales and International, food and that, and a bustling marketplace.

Oh, and Bill and I will be giving an illustrated talk: 'The Secret Stories of Cider: A journey around the world's most misunderstood drink'.  It's going to be an update of where we've got to, the adventures we've had so far.  As such, it's an absolutely exclusive opportunity to hear extracts form one of my next books months, if not a year or more, before publication - I've never done this before.  But better than that, it'll be illustrated by Bill's wonderful photography, which I'm really not doing justice to here:




There are day and weekend tickets available - day tickets only £10 a day, weekend tix £25.  You pay for talks and tastings on top of that, but our talk is a mere £2.50.

Hope to see you there.  Looking forward to - well, maybe normality might not turn out to be the right word, but life-affirming, optimistic and joyous - I think they're good words, and we could all do with a bit of them just now.

Friday, 5 August 2011

FINAL Video Blog - It's August. It's GBBF!

I would say it's been a long twelve months but it only seems like last week that our motley crew assembled in Nottingham for the first time, to talk to last year's Champion Beer of Britain one month on from GBBF 2010.

That's when we began our series of 12 monthly video blogs over the course of the year, financed solely by Peter Amor of Wye Valley Brewery, who wanted to put something back into an industry he felt he'd done rather well out of.

Peter's brief was strictly to champion British real ale, and to address the lack of pride and attention we have for it.  Regular readers will know I'm becoming increasingly frustrated by partisanship and the creation of false enemies within the beer world, no matter what side it's on.  Single-minded real ale advocates have long been the worst for this, but craft beer snobs are making efforts to catch them up.

But wherever your own beliefs lie, no one can argue that British real ale, while not entirely unique, is one of the most special, individual, eccentric, flavoursome, well crafted beers in the world.  It is the only style of beer that can pack in a flavour explosion at 3.8% (excepting beers that are so hop-imbalanced they're undrinkable - and I say that as a hophead).  Belgian and American beers are just as wonderful on their day - but they only seem to start being so at around 5% ABV.

If real ale were French, it would no doubt be iron-clad in appellation controlees and EU Protected Designations of Origin. It would be as famous globally - and as celebrated in its homeland - as Bordeaux wine, French cheeses and foie gras.  It is a peculiarly English trait to be indifferent or even negative about things we're good at.  I've never met a single non-real ale drinker who nevertheless sees our brewing prowess as something to be proud of, and I've met many real ale drinkers who believe it is not.

So even though I get frustrated with Old CAMRA diehards and am personally at least as likely to enjoy an American craft beer or German lager as I am a pint of best bitter, I was proud to be asked to co-present these blogs.  We've toured the country, seeing a year of beer first hand, trying many excellent ales and meeting people from brewers large and small who love their craft.  Every pub we've drunk in has been of outstanding quality.  We've hopefully shown that Britain really should be proud of its beer and its pubs.

This final blog is from GBBF 2011 - edited and finished in time for you to watch it and then go along and try both the beers and the atmosphere.  We both use the occasion to make some points we've come to feel strongly about on the journey.  And I get to taste some beers that we missed along the way, several of them among my all-time favourite real ales.  We didn't get chance to get everywhere in the country, and I'll always regret missing out Yorkshire and, to a slightly lesser extent, Kent and Sussex.  But maybe there will be chance of another series.

Anyway - hope you enjoy the blog:




Thanks to Eggy, Kaz and Dave, to Ian for channeling an exasperated primary school teacher as he tried to direct and produce us, and especially to Mr Amor for the funding, the cantankerousness, and most of all the hats and bow ties.

IPA Day: the morning after the night that didn't happen for me

Oh balls.  Was not feeling great yesterday, and by 4pm I really wasn't feeling very well at all.  This was no hangover - hangovers get better as the day goes on, not worse.  A combination of too much beer, not enough sleep and far too much work combined with some very dodgy chicken wings from GBBF to lay me low. You know when you put something in your mouth and your whole body goes "hang on, this isn't right"?  If you're going to GBBF, please avoid the hot wings stall.  I spent most of IPA Day in my bathroom, and drank nothing stronger than water.  

So I missed the Dean Swift dinner, which I'm very upset about.  Here's the menu - read it, and you'll see why I was particularly unhappy not to be there:

Toulouse sausage Scotch egg
with
Keg Kernel Black IPA and Brew Dog AB:06

Calamari with sweet chilli mango sauce and timbale of avocado and crayfish
with
Brew Dog Punk IPA and Maui Big Swell

Goats cheese stuffed peppers 
with
Kernel Centennial 100 and Kernel Centennial 2010

Tandoori chicken with a cauliflower veloute
with 
Stone Ruination IPA

Lamb Mechoui
with
SWB Kahuna, Magic Rock Cannonball, Stone IPA, Sierra Nevada Torpedo, all on draught

Raspberry and Limoncello Jelly Tartlet
with
Mikkeller Sorachi Ace

I've never seen a beer style put through its paces like that, never seen such an ambitious beer and food matching menu.  It would have been amazing.  But this week, it would have killed me.  I still feel dreadful this morning.  Can't imagine how I'd feel if I'd attempted that.

But it does confirm the Dean Swift as one of London's most exciting beer pubs.  I hope to eat there as soon as possible.  And I hope they'll let me host a beer and food matching event with similar ambition in the near future.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cheers to International IPA Day



What a great opportunity to take stock.  What a smart use of social media.

Two tweeters decided it might be a nice idea to get the online beer community to have a global celebration of the craft beer world's favourite beer style, and the day was set for today, 4th August.

As far as I can tell there is no central organisational structure, no big budget or organisation, and yet it's an idea that has caught the imaginations of beer lovers and gone global.

So what are we supposed to do?  What actually happens?  That's up to you.  It's up to breweries, pubs and drinkers to organise tastings, drinking, events, whatever really.  A quick google search shows that many people across the planet have taken up the challenge.

Why IPA?  It's a perfect meme for every aspect of beer appreciation.  It's a definable style - even though that definition mutates continually over time.  It has a long, deeply chronicled history - and that history has given birth to more myths, mythbusting, speculation, misinterpretation and debate than anything else in beer.  It's a perfect showcase for hops - the facet of beer that craft drinkers get most excited about.  And it's the style that caught the imagination of the US craft beer movement, that symbolises it.  It's the constant across the many styles craft brewers brew, a shop window for their craft.  The union of a traditional old-style IPA recipe and the tropical orchard of flavours and aromas bestowed by New World hops lit a fire in craft brewing that's now burning world over.

For me, my first taste of an American IPA was the equivalent of my first taste of a real curry: it was like tasting in colour for the first time, as if everything I'd tasted before was black and white.  From there it became an obsession that would profoundly change my life.  In 2007 I embarked on a mission to recreate IPA's historic voyage from Burton to India around the Cape of Good Hope for the first time since 1869.  My attempt to recreate the effects of the journey was partially successful, as was my attempt to write the most thorough, detailed history of IPA to date.  Neither of these partial successes has stopped the arguments, the mythbuilding and busting, the speculation, and that's entirely how it should be.

The resulting book, Hops & Glory, moved me up a big notch in my career, earned me the Beer Writer of the Year gong, and to date represents the best writing I can do.  I can never look at IPA the same way again.

Tonight, my contribution to the celebrations is that I'll be tweeting from a 6-course IPA day feast at the Dean Swift, London SE1.  It's a lovely little pub run by passionate, knowledgable people, and they've pulled together what looks to be an amazing menu, which I'm not allowed to share.  If you want to know how that goes, follow @PeteBrownBeer on Twitter from 7pm UK time.

And raise a glass to the world's most talked about beer style, and the people who have harnessed the power of social media to celebrate it in such a great way.




I promise I will go back ranting and/or trying to be funny after this post.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Perfect Pub Service - how to charm and delight your customers in one easy move

While in Edinburgh last month filming the latest video blog, I made time to visit the newly opened Brew Dog Bar in the city.  We didn't feature it in the Vlog because it doesn't serve any cask beer, and that particular Vlog is about cask beer.  But as we were filming on my bleedin' birthday, once we'd finished I hooked up with my old mates Allan and McAlastair and we hit the town.

We ended up here:

I don't think it's ever this quiet

after 11pm, on a Tuesday night, and the place was buzzing, mainly with young, studenty people who seemed more passionate and knowledgable about beer than you might expect.

Brew Dog make headlines, and increasingly piss people off (or simply bore them) the way some people pick their nose.  They just can't help it.  Like Aesop's scorpion who stung the frog carrying it across the river, it's in their nature.  And perhaps the greatest shame about this is that it hides some of the true facts of their operation behind a screen of punk attitude.  Because much of what they do is really very good indeed.

The service in Brew Dog Edinburgh was incredible.  In parts, it was the best service I've ever seen in a pub or bar.

The main element of this is that if anyone looked hesitant or unsure, or simply paused a beat too long at the bar, the member of staff serving them would pour a small taster into a shot glass and offer it to them.  They might ask what kind of beer people like, or they might say, "This is my favourite beer, it's amazing, you've got to try it." Then another member of staff would say, "No, try this one, this is my favourite beer ever and they say they're not going to brew it again. I'm trying to make it sell really quickly so they realise they have to."

The bar was covered in sample glasses.  As soon as one person swept them up, they'd start dropping on the bar again as the relentless tide of tasters kept coming. And the money flowed over the bar in the opposite direction.

We've currently putting together the fifth Cask Report.  This year, we'll be recommending large programmes of samples and pro-active offering of tasters as the main strategy to overcome various barriers to drinking cask ale.  The thing is, we've recommended it every year, and it hasn't happened yet, even though every time we do research asking people why they don't drink real ale, they tell us this would make them drink more.  I've mentioned it before on here too.  I don't understand why more pubs don't do it more often.

Now here's a bar that does it in spades, does it brilliantly - and is rammed every night of the week with people paying premium prices for interesting beers.

Brew Dog Edinburgh's bar staff are young, hip and good-looking - as you'd expect from a company so concerned about its image.  I was quite worried they were going to be a bit too cool for school - not the case. They also happen to be friendly, enthusiastic, and visibly knowledgeable and passionate about beer.

Forget the CAMRA spats, the Portman groups spats, the SIBA spats, the stupidly strong beers and the roadkill.  Brew Dog should be getting headlines as a case study in how to hire, train and motivate brilliant bar staff, brilliant ambassadors for beer.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

July Video Blog: Scotland!

I bloody love Scotland, me.  I lived there for five years while at university, getting a degree and booking bands in the students' union in St Andrews, going to buy records and get drunk in Edinburgh, going to chill out in the stunning beauty of the Trossachs.

This month I got to reminisce about all this as we attempted to cover the brewing scene of an entire country in about twenty minutes.

Why?

Because this particular series of video blogs is all about cask ale, and from an admittedly low base, cask ale is growing in Scotland at about 30% year on year.  When I was at uni there were three types of beer, all from Tennent's, all a bit tasteless and horrible, apart from the ones that tasted of burnt sugar and were horrible.  So bad was Scottish beer I switched from being a cask ale drinker to a standard lager drinker.  It took me ten years to recover.

It is very, very different now.  Brew Dog, who we don't visit here (their Edinburgh bar is all keg, and the man who pays the vlog bills wants to focus on cask) is merely the most visible of Scottish brewers who are currently displaying extraordinary levels of invention and enthusiasm.

In the Guildford Arms in the centre of Edinburgh I find one of my old favourites.  Then we go to Caledonian, where Peter looks round one of the most stunning traditional breweries you will ever see.  Many in Scotland are unhappy about the takeover of Caledonian by Scottish & Newcastle, and more recently Heineken. Not without justification, there was a feeling that things would be bastardised and cheapened.  But I visited before Heineken took over, and now going back again, the unique coppers, the hop room full of whole leaf hops, the open fermenters, the range of beers, are all unchanged.  The only real difference is a massive commitment to health and safety, a more corporate head office presence through boards displaying targets for reducing accidents and so on.  The brewing process and the resulting beers are unchanged.

I have a chat with Steve Crawley, MD of Heineken, in which we discuss whether the brewery's flagship, Deuchar's IPA, really is 'not as good as it used to be'.

And then we're off to Bridge of Allan, just outside Stirling, where Peter gets a bit tipsy talking to a round table of four brilliant Scottish brewers about the state of brewing in the country: Fergus from Inveralmond, Douglas from Traditional Scottish Ales, Amy from Harviestoun, and Tuggy from Fyne Ales (who I'm currently trying to persuade to adopt me).  I review a Scottish Wit Bier, try to sum up the style of stout in under a minute, and by the end we're struggling to do a decent outro.  It's hardly surprising.


Next month - next week in fact - we are filming our final video blog of this series at GBBF.  If you're there on trade day, come and say hello.  If there's anyone you think we should be going to talk to, please shout!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Do women need their own beer?

Alongside beer styles, craft beer, cask versus keg and other such burning issues, the notion of 'beer for women' reared its head again this week with Molson Coors' launch of Animee, a new attempt to persuade the 79% of British women who don't currently drink beer to start doing so.  I was at the launch on Monday night. So was Melissa Cole, who is true to form in her outspoken views on the subject here.  Sophie Atherton also weighed in on the Guardian blog here.

I agree with the gist of what both are saying, but not on every single point.  I also get a sort of itching in my brain when commenters who have not seen, smelled or tasted these products dismiss them as 'piss'.  How do you know?  Even when I slag off something like Stella Black, I taste the damn stuff first.

I believe the launch of Animee is misguided and flawed, but there are some good points in there if you look hard enough.  I'll sum this up in a list of positives and negatives, to make it easy.



Negative:
The whole idea of a beer for women in the first place. It's never worked, because it's not what's needed.  I'm not surprised Melissa feels patronised - I'd feel the same if someone tried to flog me a 'wine for men'. As Melissa points out, women don't want a product that segregates them - they just want a product that doesn't actively alienate them.  Wine, cocktails, cider and premium spirits are neither masculine nor feminine, and they all seem to be doing just fine.  The only reason beer is overtly masculine is the long heritage of macho advertising in the UK - beer is far more unisex in other countries.  In Spain, 40% of total beer volume is drunk by women, and it's mainstream lager, same as here.  (Nice mainstream lager though, it has to be said.)



Positive:
The fact that Molson Coors are trying.  This was presented on Monday as part of a broader programme of ideas and initiatives to really promote beer across the board.  Molson Coors are a big multinational brewer who talk about beer in marketing speak (the subject of another piece). But I get the impression they do actually care about beer.  They show signs of understanding it, and respecting it.  Growing Sharps and Worthington are as much part of their plan as boosting Carling - which, by the way, also got a shout on Monday night.  A new 4.8% 'premium' version, Carling Chrome, is bland, pretty tasteless, but not watery and without the nasty aftertaste some of these beers have.  On the beer for women thing, they've spoken to tens of thousands of women and really got to the heart of what's keeping them from beer.



Negative:
Given all that research, I just don't understand Animee as a response to it.  The main barriers are all about image - not the product.  So why launch a different product?  I find the beers that convert women who 'don't like' beer tend to be very strongly flavoured - American IPAs or Imperial porters and stouts - because these women are currently drinking wine that has comparable characteristics.  I don't see the need to launch a product that doesn't actually look or taste like beer at all, and don't understand how a product that doesn't look or taste like beer, that has different language around it from beer ('clear filtered', 'lemon' and 'rose' anyone?) is going to attract women to drinking beer more generally.  It's actually only beer because Molson Coors say it is - it's not going to change anyone's attitude to what 'beer' is or can be.  Any women who drink this will do so despite it being called beer.



Positive:
It might not be beer, but actually I thought the product wasn't bad.  It wasn't remotely like beer, but I did enjoy it, especially the clear filtered one.  Light and refreshing, it would be a pleasant summer drink, an alternative to mainstream cider.  I also think the packaging, if you look at it for what it is, manages to be unisex and quite stylish, a few beers cues here and there, not too girly.  I know, I know, it's in clear glass.  That is a marketing decision because - and I say this as someone who has done countless focus groups over the last 15 years - every single drinker who is not knowledgable enough about beer to know about light strike says they overwhelmingly prefer clear glass.  It just looks better, and for many drinkers, beer is about style over substance.  Of course I don't agree with that or like it, but it's true.


So overall, I suspect Animee will go the same way as all other attempts to market a beer specifically for women.  But I hope Molson Coors don't give up.  I hope they will try some different strategies.  And I hope other big brewers will follow their example.  I also hope they will read the comments from the many women responding to Melissa's and Sophie's pieces saying there are beers for women, in the shape of cask ale.  And I also hope they will look very closely at this:


Project Venus is a collaboration between female brewers. On 28th July, Kathy Britton, of Oldershaw Brewery, Sara Barton of Brewster's, Michelle Kelsall from Offbeat Brewery, Sophie de Ronde from Brentwood Brewing Company and Sue Hayward from The Waen Brewery will gather at Oldershaw's to brew their second cask ale. The whole thing will be filmed by Marverine Cole, AKA Beer Beauty.

Of course Project Venus is tiny compared to Animee.  But I'd be fascinated to see a side-by-side tasting of the two, and see which women prefer.