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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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Monday, 24 October 2016

Budweiser: You Can't Rush Plagiarism

Seems like America's beer just can't stop stealing things from southern Bohemia...

I was shocked late Friday night to see a really good beer ad from Budweiser. No, stop laughing. I've seen plenty of good ads from Bud before - stuff about frogs and lizards and whazaaap, but this was a good beer ad: it's true, it's centred on the product, and it says something good about the broader beer category - good lager takes time to mature. 



Last I heard, Budweiser is matured for twenty days. That's not as long as the classic lagers of the Czech Republic and Germany are matured, but it's a hell of a lot longer than the 72 hours some leading brands allegedly spend in the brewery between mashing in and packaging. You may not like the (lack of) taste in Budweiser, but even now they do some things right, and deserve some credit for that. So I was pleased to see an ad that had made lager maturation look cool. 

I said as much on Twitter and Facebook, and very quickly Simon George of Budweiser Budvar UK shot back that his new strategy is to focus on the Czech beer's astonishingly long lagering time - five times longer than the American beer. Budweiser Budvar has been running this copy for about nine months, albeit without the huge TV ad budgets US Bud can afford:


The dispute between American Budweiser and Czech Budweiser Budvar is decades old. Bud founder Adolphus Busch told a court of law, on record, in 1894: “The idea was simple,” he testified, “to produce a beer of the same quality, colour and taste as the beer produced in Budejovice [the Czech name for the town known as Budweis in German] or Bohemia.” Even though that record exists, the company has since flatly denied that this it stole the name Budweiser from the town of Budweis, or even took any inspiration from there. (There's a lot more on this dispute in my book Three Sheets to the Wind.)

Budvar spent a long time capitalising on its David V Goliath relationship with Budweiser and has recently decided to move on and focus on its ageing process instead, as part of a new strategy to remain relevant in a market where craft beer means drinkers are more interested in product specifics. But it seems Budweiser are still hung up on their namesake. Nine months after Czech Budvar focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer, American Budweiser focused their marketing campaign on how long it takes to make their beer:




Having stolen the idea, they've now gone the whole hog and even stolen the same copy. The Budvar headline above? 'You can't rush perfection.' Spot the difference in the Facebook link to the ad below.


Come on, Budweiser. You've already stolen your name from the town in which Budweiser Budvar is brewed. You've copied their advertising idea (albiet in a fine execution) and now even their copy, word for word. You employ some of the best and most expensive advertising agencies in the world (even if you do try to shaft them on costs.) Is this the best those agencies can do?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Campaign for Good Brown Beer

Is the boom in craft brewing actually narrowing the choice of different beer styles we have?

Last week I was invited to Germany to attend the magnificent Bar Convent Berlin, a huge trade show featuring a mind-boggling array of drinks producers across the board and from across the world, plus talks, seminars and debates. 

Yes, they have hipsters in Germany too. But this was an amazing trade show. 

This year there was a special focus on the UK, and I was asked if I'd run a tutored tasting with Sylvia Kopp, European Ambassador for the American Brewers' Association, the idea being that we'd pick a variety of beer styles that were British in origin, and do side-by-side presentations of British and American beers in that style. It sounded like a lovely idea, so I readily agreed. 

Sylvia checked with the American brewers at the show and came up with an attractive-looking list of styles:

  • Brown ale
  • Scotch ale
  • IPA
  • Stout

As a list, it has that warm glow of classic British beer about it. As a flight of beers, it felt comforting and autumnal, the corner pub on a rainy Tuesday night with a small fire in the grate and George Orwell sitting in the corner with a newspaper. 

And maybe, to young British brewers, that's the problem with it. 

Stout was straightforward enough, although we both ended up with flavoured styles rather than straightforward ones. IPA was of course very easy to find. But we wanted to put up a British style against an American style IPA, and finding a British IPA that didn't have a heavy American hop influence was a much more difficult task.* I could think of two that were widely known, but neither of them was available in Germany. 

The other categories were much more difficult. For brown ale, I had the choice of Newcastle Brown, which is insipid, and Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. I don't promote Samuel Smith's beers, for ethical reasons. That left me with... nothing. 

As for Scotch ale? I was offered Belhaven Scottish Ale. I mean, yeah, but... wasn't there anything else in that style? No.

I've just searched for Scotch Ale on Beers of Europe. They stock one from Belgium, three from the US and just one from the UK. Brown ale is a more complicated category to define, but again, they stock quite a lot of Belgian brown ales (not quite the same thing) several American examples based on the British style and no British ones. Beer Hawk currently lists no Scotch ales at all, several American brown ales, and a couple of British-brewed 'American-style' brown ales, but no English-style examples. It's a similar story across various other retailers. 

I'm not saying no British brewers are brewing decent brown ales or Scotch ales any more. But I am saying these traditional styles are much harder to find than they used to be, and pretty much invisible compared to American-hopped IPA and pale ale, black IPA, Berlinerweiss, craft lager (or pale ale fraudulently labelled as lager), and experimental beers involving fruit. The same goes for barley wine, mild, old ale, and winter warmers. Again, Beers of Europe now lists an Austrian, a Belgian, a Norwegian and three American 'English-style barley wines' but no British examples. 

Eventually, Sylvia and I had change the styles we presented. On my side, I had a golden ale, an American-style British IPA, a chocolate stout and Fuller's Vintage Ale. All great beers, but not the showcase of British styles we'd been hoping for.

This is not a post-Brexit 'British beer for British people' rant. I welcome the new styles and the innovations and adore the character of American hops. But as we face more beer choice than we've ever had before, it frustrates me that the British disease of 'what we do is always crap, if its from abroad it must be better' means that we're not innovating with styles developed here. You can't just argue that it's because those styles are boring or lack character, because as the above examples show, brewers in other countries, particularly the States, find them interesting and inspirational. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Finkel, founder of the Pike Brewery in Seattle and one of the original catalysts of what has now become the global craft beer movement. (If you don't already know him, read this short biography, it's incredible.) As we sat down in his brewpub and he asked me what I'd like to drink, the core range gave me a rush of nostalgia for the time I first started writing about beer. It consists of a golden ale, an amber ale, a couple of IPAs, a Scotch ale, a Belgian-stye Tripel, and a stout. There's no fruit, no blurring of boundaries, no attempts to reinvent anything. And yet it's an exciting list that has something for everyone, a breadth of style and flavour it would take an awfully long time to get bored of. 

British beer styles were the direct inspiration for the American craft beer revolution. I find it sad that with nearly 2000 brewers in Britain now, there seems to be little enthusiasm for taking these native styles on and doing something interesting with them.

Another point: most of the beer styles in Sylvia's original list are more reliant on malt for their character than hops. At a time when three new brewers a week open their doors, phone up hop merchants such as Charles Faram and then grumble darkly about not being able to get hold of any Citra or Galaxy hops because the entire supply was spoken for as soon as it was harvested last year (and no, not just by the macros, but also by the 150 new breweries that opened last year, and the year before that) and at a time when British brewers buy more US hops than British hops, and the collapse of the pound means those hops just got a lot more expensive even if you're lucky enough to find any, it beggars belief that brewers aren't exploring these older, maltier styles and applying their undoubted creativity to making them relevant again. 

Before last week, the only time I'd visited Berlin was in 2004. Back then, Berlinerweisse was regarded as little more than a joke beer, sold from street kiosks and sweetened with a range of fruit syrups. It's now, I would argue, the most hip beer style on the global craft brewing scene. So why not mild next? Why not Scotch ale or barley wine?

There are, of course, exceptions. Tonight I'm doing an event at the Harp Pub in Covent Garden with Five Points Brewing, who are launching... a new brown ale! I haven't tasted it yet. Those who have say it's great, and that the traditional cask version is even better than the keg. Five Points is also the last brewery I can remember launching a new barley wine. They seem to be doing pretty well out of it. I imagine other brewers could too.

*Before anyone jumps in, yes, I know nineteenth century IPAs were often brewed with US hops. I've seen some of the recipes. But they weren't defined by the fresh, zingy character of those hops like modern IPAs. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Apple Porn

The simple pleasures of tramping round an orchard.





Autumn is a season of two halves. Both are definitely autumn, but one is summer's older sibling, looking back fondly, while the other is winter's harbinger. The change comes almost overnight some time late in October, just before the clocks go back. By this time we've all been remarking for several weeks that the nights are drawing in and it's getting a bit chilly, but then, around the 21st - which is, coincidentally (or not) now celebrated as Apple Day - the season finally shifts its weight to the other foot. 

Before the change it's all about crisp blue skies with a chill at the edge, the leaves turning and sweaters coming out of the wardrobe. After, it's mud, rain, bare branches and those recently beautiful golds and yellows and browns clogging the drains and flying in your face. In short, Autumn Part One is a time to be outside. Part Two is the bit where you rediscover the joys of open fires, home baking and soup.

Every year, it's a panicked rush to make sure I enjoy Autumn Part One as much as I can. It's a very busy time of year with festivals, events and trade shows, and from early September to mid-October I'm invariably living out of suitcase most of the time. So when Thatcher's Cider invited me down to Somerset for a walk in their orchards - with no other agenda than simply catching up with each other - I jumped at the chance. 

Thatcher's has grown at an incredible rate in the last few years. Many locals still remember when it was a small cider farm, but now it's a national brand. Thatcher's Gold is pretty much a mainstream cider now, dismissed by purists but superior to the likes of Magner's, from which it seems to be soaking up a lot business. It doesn't appeal to me personally, but there are other ciders within the Thatcher's range that do, particularly the crisp, satisfying oak aged Vintage. The new special vintage blends of apple varieties, such as Tremletts and Falstaff, are also really interesting. 

But for me, the most exciting thing Thatchers has done recently is to create a periodic table of the apples they use. 



I can't really post a big enough picture of it here to do it justice, though you should hopefully be able to enlarge it. 

Apart from it being ridiculously clear and informative, and fascinating if you're an apple nerd like me, this is what the whole cider industry needs to be looking at. Good cider is made from apples. Obvious I know, but bad cider is made from cheap, imported apple concentrate of indeterminate origin. 

Different apples have different characteristics, just like different grapes or hops. Wine became popular in the UK when people began to discover their favourite grape varieties. Craft beer exploded when people started to learn about different hops. It really doesn't take a genius to see apple varieties as the key building block for a stable, established premium quality cider market.  

Martin Thatcher is genuinely fascinated by apples, after having spent his whole life around them. Walking around the massively expanded cider production facility at Myrtle Farm in the village of Sandford, he points to the house where he was born. "I've moved house six times in my life," he says, "And I think they're all within about 600 yards of each other." 

Between these houses there are over 500 acres of orchards. 

Martin is currently experimenting with the effects of terroir. He's planting stands of the same apple varieties in different types of soil and monitoring the results, and is convinced the fruit will show significant differences.

You can see where this hunch comes from down in the Exhibition Orchard. 



Here there are 458 different cider apple varieties. When the Long Ashton Research Station's Pomology and Plant Breeding programme was disbanded in 1981, Martin's father John took cuttings from as many different trees as he could and grafted them onto rootstock in his own orchard. It's just as well he did: the Long Ashton orchards were bulldozed soon afterwards, and a library of old cider varieties could have been lost for ever.




Walking around the Exhibition Orchard in a brief but wonderful interval of clear blue skies, I'm compelled to take photos like some kind of apple ticker. My cider comrade Bill Bradshaw always says that when he was commissioned for a photography project about apples and cider making, he found he couldn't stop afterwards. I now see why. He's a professional photographer. I'm a bloke who can just about work out how to point a smartphone in the right direction. But the apple demands to be captured and recorded. It's the centre of still-life art. The artists who create Pomonas - the visual guides to apple varieties - obsess over capturing their beauty far more than they need to for simple identification purposes.











 At various points, Martin stops and points to groups of trees bursting with life and fruit, and to others next to them, small and wizened, like the last kids to get picked when a school games lesson splits into two football teams. "These were planted at the same time, in the same soil, and given exactly the same watering, pruning and spraying regime," says Martin. "Look at the difference."




If you're a grower, that's fascinating. But if you're a lucky tourist in the orchard at harvest time, you have eyes only for those that have decided this particular soil type, this precise elevation and position,  is just right, and have shown their gratitude in the best way they know.

My new book The Apple Orchard is out now. This week's BBC Radio 4 Food Programme is about the book, and is broadcast for the first time on Sunday 9th October at 12.32pm.