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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!

Friday, 18 December 2015

Beer Marketing Awards return for second year - call for entries

Last year I was part of a team that launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards in the UK. The competition, and the event, was a great success, and the awards are now open for a second year.

There are two main ideas and ambitions behind the awards:
  • Rightly, there are a great many awards for beer quality. That's as it should be. But there's no point making great beer if no one knows about it. With 1700 breweries now in the UK, it's never been more important to make your beer stand out and let people know about it. At a time when some beer promotion is dodgy to say the least, we want to celebrate the best, and hopefully inspire the rest to do better.
  • Marketing is seen by some as the preserve of big brewers, but everyone does it in some way. What you call your beer, what you put in the label or pump clip, how you tell pubs about it, what you say about it on social media, all of it counts. These awards are not just about big budgets: our ambition last year was to have the world's biggest brewers competing with the UK's smallest on a level playing field. In categories such as social media and packaging, they did, and the gongs went to the best ideas rather than the biggest budgets. There's a category that suits any brewer of any size. We want this to be an event that could bring the whole industry together.
We've slightly rejigged and expanded the categories this year. Here's a full list:

And two special awards at the discretion of the judges:
You can see a bit more description of the categories here, and download an entry for for any of these categories here. If you'd like to see the spread of winners from last year, who represent all corners of the British brewing industry, check them out, and learn why they won, here.

One criticism we received about the awards last year is that we charge for entry. We appreciate that small brewers don't have much money to spend, but we're a small start-up too with no external financial backing, and we need to make the event cover its costs. We have to charge something, but this year we've introduced a staggered entry costs along the same lines that our friends at Craft Beer Rising use to charge exhibitors:
  • £60 (£50 + £10 VAT) for brewers under 5000 hectolitres
  • £144 (120 + £24 VAT) for brewers between 5000 hectolitres and 60,000 hectolitres
  • £180 (£150 + £30 VAT) for brewers over 60,000 hectolitres
We're delighted to welcome Boutique Beers by Matthew Clark back as our headline sponsor. If you're a brewer, client or supplier to the brewing industry who would be interested in sponsoring a category, drop me a line.

Entries are now open. The deadline for submitting them is 22nd February 2016. The Awards ceremony takes place in Brick Lane on 14th April 2016.

Good luck!

Monday, 14 December 2015

I just realised how the debate about craft beer is changing

Last week, my latest column for the Publican's Morning Advertiser focused on the response to craft beer by the giant, global brewing corporations that dominate the beer market. It was inspired by a new project at Guinness which has produced some beers I consider to be very good indeed. I suggested that maybe we're getting to the end of the usefulness of the term 'craft beer', because it disguises the fact that breweries of any size can and now sometimes do make really good beer. 

The response to the piece was mixed, from sentiments along the lines of 'Damn right, it's all about good beer, whoever brews it,' to 'No! Big brewers are shit by definition and we will always need craft brewers to stand against them.'

The more I thought about these differing views, the more I realised they were arguing about different things. 

The narrative of craft beer is a familiar one: global brewers make boring bland beer because they are trying not to offend anyone, they always want to cut costs, and they sell style over substance. Craft brewers saved us from mediocrity by brewing more interesting, flavourful beers, operating a more nimble business model, driven by passion and flavour rather than shareholders, marketers and accountants. Medium-sized brewers - such as regional and family-owned real ale brewers in the UK, or brewers who were craft but have grown huge, sit somewhere in the middle and generate most of the argument about what is and isn't craft.

It can be expressed as a linear continuum along which you can plot your favourite and least favourite brewers and beers:
I think this is how most of us see the issue. But it's rather too simplistic. If it ever was right, things have moved in beyond it.

We're kidding ourselves if we think every beer created by a craft brewer is good - there are some awful beers out there from passionate beer advocates who simply aren't very good brewers, or who might be walking the craft beer walk but are in reality just as cynical as the big brewers, but operating on a small scale hoping to get rich quick from the latest craze. And on the other hand, there are big brewers who have bought smaller brands and haven't (yet) screwed them up. And there are the occasional beers - such as the best ones I tasted at Guinness, and Carlsberg's Jacobsen range - that are simply very good beers made by brewers employed by a global corporation, that in a blind tasting would be considered good craft beers. 

So it would be more accurate to look at the market on two axes rather than one continuum, like this:

Now, if you were to plot every beer brand in the world on this chart, the vast majority of global brewers' brands would still be in the bottom left quadrant, and the majority of craft beers would probably sit top right. But there would be notable exceptions, so I think the reality of the beer world today probably look like this:

When you look at the market in this way, your emotional response to it will tell you what you really care about in beer, and different people care about different things at different times. That's why we sometimes talk at cross-purposes in debates about craft versus big.

Given a free choice, I'd prefer to drink in the top right quadrant. I prefer to drink good quality beer brewed by a small, passionate company. I'm sure most of you would agree. But if these beers weren't available to you, would you rather have a very good beer brewed by a big, nasty corporation, or an inferior beer brewed by a really great guy under a railway arch just down the street?

If the quality of the beer is the most important thing, you'll happily drink a great beer from Carlsberg or Guinness. But if that thought makes you angry, then you aren't actually thinking about the beer at all. You're thinking about the craft beer movement, and your decision is driven by your beliefs, politics and morality rather than your taste buds.

I'm not knocking either approach. What I am saying is that if we confuse arguments about beer quality and flavour with arguments about an unfair balance of power, the importance of supporting small local businesses and the excitement of feeling like part of a movement, we end up sounding stupid. Anyone who genuinely believes big brewers are incapable of making and releasing good beers simply doesn't know anything about brewing. And anyone who thinks any small-scale craft beer is automatically good because of where it comes from has their head in the sand. 

This made me think about where I stand as someone who makes a living writing about beer. If I discover a great beer made by a big brewer and I refuse to write about it, or I say it's shit when it isn't, I'm not doing my job properly. I can choose what I want to focus on in the most detail, but I do have a duty to report interesting stuff that I find out in the course of doing my job. If I was thinking purely as a fan of beer, I might have a different view. 

The craft debate will rumble on. Beer gets under our skin precisely because it is many things - that's why I started writing about it in the first place. In most cases, it's not just about the quality of the beer - it's about expressing who we are, making choices that say something about us. It is politics and fashion and identity as well as flavour. In reality, it's these aspects that are driving most of the current debates about the future of craft beer.

It's your choice what you drink. If you choose to boycott any beer made by a large corporation, no matter how good it is, I'd have some respect for that point of view. Just don't tell me you're doing it because the beer is shit.

Friday, 4 December 2015

It's not how big it is, it's what you do with it etc...

The first Friday in December is often one of my worst hangovers of the year, because the first Thursday evening in December is the night of the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards.

Last night, I was delighted to pick up gold in the category 'Best Beer Communicator Online' for this blog.

And also genuinely surprised. As you may have noticed, I haven't blogged much at all this year. In fact, I've posted fewer pieces than in any year since I first started blogging properly in 2007. I've written an awful lot this year, but most of it won't see the light of day until late 2016 - it's been a hell of a year for books.

You're allowed to submit up to six entries in each category, and I could only find four this year that I wanted to submit to the competition. In case you missed them, here they are:

This win comes on top of winning Best Online Drinks Writer at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards back in May, so it really does look like the less I write, the more people like my blog. I'll bear than in mind.

I really do want to blog more though, and will do so once I'm over the hump with the three books I'm writing just now. I've finished a book about the British pub, am halfway through writing my book about apples and orchards, and when I submit that in January I'm spending early 2016 writing up my Unbound book, What Are You Drinking. The research for all three of these books has taken up most of the year and left very little time for anything else, but it's thrown up some amazing stories that I'm looking forward to sharing.

The silver award in this category was won by Matt Curtis, whose work rate this year at his blog Total Ales has been astounding, and whose energy and enthusiasm make me feel very old. The overall winner of Beer Writer of the Year was another first time award winner, Breandan Kearney, who smashed it in two categories - Best Young Beer Writer and Best Food and Beer Writing - before taking the overall title. He writes a lot of his stuff in Belgian Beer and Food magazine (which I just did my first piece for.) If you haven't seen it yet, get yourself a copy.

Massive congratulations to Matt, Breandan and all the other winners.