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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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What's new?
New events added including Stoke Newington Literary Festival
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cask ale is booming as part of the craft beer revolution - new Cask Report launches today

Every year I'm paid to compile the Cask Report on behalf of Cask Matters - a loose affiliation of brewers and industry bodies including SIBA, CAMRA, Cask Marque and most of the leading regional and family brewers in the UK. The eighth report launches today to coincide with the start of Cask Ale Week.

Success makes people nervous, and with some justification. When you're struggling on your way up, as a business, or as a person or organisation putting forward a point of view, argument or campaign which you hope will change hearts and minds, you know very clearly what you have to do: get your head down and keep plugging away, working steadily towards your goal.

When you succeed, what then? Is your job done? Do you need to redefine your goals? Is it true to say the only way is down? Now you've achieved, is someone going to come along and try to take it all away from you?

Until about two or three years ago, the aims of the Cask Report were very clear: persuade publicans and commentators around the beer industry that cask ale was not in terminal decline, that it had a role to play on the pub bar, that it had something to offer drinkers beyond the traditional stereotypes.

Now, the job has changed. There's little point banging the drum that cask ale is successful. Whether they accept and believe it or not, people have heard this before. The questions now are, how does cask ale deal with success? And given that all the chatter in beer now focuses on craft beer, does this mean cask ale's days are numbered? What's the relationship between cask ale and craft beer?

Here are a few summary points from this year's report that attempt to answer these questions.

1. Cask ale is still thriving
Cask ale volume sales grew by 1.1% in 2013 and 1.4% so far in 2014. If those sound like small figures, bear in mind that total on-trade beer volumes fell last year - cask ale is doing 4.5% better than beer in pubs overall. And when you bear in mind that cask ale is only really available in pubs, and 31 pubs a week are closing, for it to be growing in a declining market is some feat. More people are drinking cask ale and pubs are stocking a wider range of beers. But big volume drinking is declining. More people are drinking a wider variety of beers, but doing so less often as healthier lifestyles become more common.

There are two different estimates of the number of breweries now in the UK, but the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) puts the number at over 1470 - more than at any time since the early 1930s. Three new breweries open every week. And while craft keg is booming - 19% of SIBA's member breweries claim to be producing some keg beer now - the vast majority of microbrewery beer is cask.

The number of styles being brewed is increasing:


There's more good beer available now than at any time in living memory.

I've also heard a few people say that craft keg is killing off cask ale, that you rarely see cask in good craft beer pubs these days. That's not reflected in total market figures. The craft keg surge is not enough to stop cask increasing its share of all draught ale versus keg - over the last decade, their relative positions have reversed.




2. Cask ale and craft beer are not the same thing, but neither are they entirely separate - there is a pretty big overlap
It's increasingly popular in beer geek circles now to say that craft beer is over as a thing - that the only people who use the term are big brewery laggards seeking to cash in on an exploited, used up trend.

You might think this, but there are millions who disagree with you. They might not know what the definition of it is, but according to Mintel six million UK adults think they've drunk craft beer in the last year.

We did a survey where we asked cask ale drinkers and publicans serving cask ale the same or similar questions. Craft has pretty widespread awareness and acceptance among both:



They have some pretty definite views on how to describe craft beer even if they don't know how to define it. Views that craft beer has to contain loads of hops, be served on keg only or be influenced by American styles are only held by a minority. The main characteristics of craft beer, according to the majority of people who drink it, are that it is made by small brewers, or brewed in small batches or limited editions, or is only available in limited places.


We can see that people decisively reject the idea that any cask ale is by definition a craft beer. But the overlap between cask and craft is strong. The top three characteristics here apply just as much to most cask beer as they do to craft keg. Furthermore, the most popular format of craft beer is draught dispense - that's how 80% of craft beer drinkers have tried it. Cask is still far more widely available than keg, and a lot of drinkers claim to be drinking craft cask beer.

There's a lot more to say on this, which I'll expand on in a separate blog post in the next day or two But the message of the Cask Report is clear: most cask ale is craft beer, and (in the UK) most craft beer is cask ale.


3. The pricing of cask ale relative to craft keg beer is dangerously screwed up
There are factors in the production of craft keg beer that mean it is more expensive to make than cask ale. But the current differential between the two is way bigger than this would dictate. Wide variations in the price of craft keg beer reveals that there is a degree of opportunism on the part of some licensees. Example: there are two pubs near me that sell Kernel Pale Ale on keg. It costs £4.80 a pint in one, and £6.50 a pint in the other. (And before the Fair Pinters kick in, neither is tied to a pubco.) On average, data from market analysts CGA Strategy hows that craft keg retails for over £1 a pint more than craft cask.

This automatically positions craft cask as hugely inferior to keg. Whatever your preference, as a blanket statement this simply isn't true. It's also worth noting that where the price of craft keg is lower on average - guess what? - pubs sell more of it.

This massive price differential damages the quality perceptions of cask ale. It limits sales of craft keg. And the hyper-inflation of craft keg pricing pushes it dangerously close to being seen as a cynical fad rather than a permanent shift in the market - when the novelty wears off, what reasons will drinkers have to pay £6 a pint instead of £3.80? Craft beer publicans need to think about sacrificing short term profiteering in favour of long term market development. I repeat - yes, there is a justifiable price premium. But it's currently too wide.


4. Drinkers don't know how much goes into serving the perfect pint of cask
Drinkers are far less likely to appreciate the relative difficulty of serving cask beer than are publicans.


Drinkers also believe that bar staff receive much less training around keeping and serving cask beer than publicans claim:


On every single aspect of the perfect cask ale serve, publicans claim to be training staff more than drinkers believe.



So are publicans exaggerating the extent they care for cask, or are drinkers unaware of how much hard work goes into it?

It's probably a bit of both, with the emphasis on the lack of knowledge among drinkers. Higher prices mean people expect a more premium product. If drinkers are educated more about what goes into cask ale they'll think of it as more special and will drink more of it and potentially be happy to pay more for it.

So education is key to cask's continued success - but so is good training of bar staff. One interesting point coming from our research is that we also asked what promotional tactics work in selling more cask ale. In answer to that question, 81% of publicans said that personal recommendations by bar staff were the most important way of selling more cask ale. Yet in the graph above, you can see that only 57% of publicans say they encourage their staff to taste cask ales so they know more about them. How can bar staff be expected to recommend ales they know nothing about?


5. Publicans don't necessarily know their drinkers
We've been saying for years now that the old stereotypes of real ale drinkers no longer apply. CAMRA membership has increased from less than 60,000 ten years ago to over 170,000 now. It has nearly trebled. The number of middle-aged beardy men wearing socks and sandals and carrying leather tankards on their belts has not. Cask ale is reaching a broader audience. 15% of all cask ale drinkers tried it for the first time in the last three years. 65% of these new drinkers are aged 18-34. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask ale. Of these three-quarters say they still drink it at least occasionally.

Whenever we ask drinkers about the old stereotypes, they're disappearing. But we get a different view when we ask publicans:


If as a publican you don't think women are into cask ale, or you don't think it's for younger drinkers, and if you don't position it to appeal to them, you're immediately cutting off more than half your potential audience.


Summary
There's a lot more in the report, which is free to download from the link above from late this afternoon. But these are the points that stick with me after weeks of writing, editing, summarising and debating.

We are in the middle of a beer revolution in Britain, and cask ale is at its heart. It's brilliant that the whole craft beer thing is moving the debate about what makes good beer away from packaging format and towards style, flavour, where it comes from and who makes it.

But I had a tweet this morning saying that all this was 'bollocks', that craft beer was just keg beer with better PR. And I also hear far too many people automatically excluding the entire cask ale market from any discussion about craft beer. Now that really is bollocks. We should be celebrating what a brilliant time we're in for good beer in any format, and making sure that these different formats complement each other if we want to ensure their long term success.


Disclosure: The Cask Report is a paying gig for me and I write it on behalf of cask ale brewers and interested bodies. While it always looks for the positive news on cask, it is honest and accurate. I never distort or excessively spin the facts, and I never write anything in it that does not reflect my own personal views. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

How to fail completely at social media: an object lesson from @StrongbowUK

Good marketing practice is not that difficult. It just seems that it's so much easier to screw it up.

Whenever I've been in a meeting room where marketers are discussing social media, everyone agrees unanimously that the difference between it and straightforward advertising is that it's a two-way street. Twitter and Facebook are platforms for conversations. In strategic meetings, at conferences and in marketing textbooks everywhere, everyone says they understand this.

And yet in practice, it's so very different.

Today, this tweet appeared on my timeline.


It made me quite annoyed. While I'm sure there is the equivalent of the juice from eight apples in a pint of Strongbow, by omission it very clearly implies that this is all there is. It suggests that the apples are squeezed, the juice is fermented, and that's basically it.

But this is completely untrue. Strongbow is approximately 37% apple juice . If that's the wrong figure, I'll happily correct it if anyone from Bulmers - now part of Heineken - cares to tell me the correct figure. But they won't, because they don't want you to know. Anyway, I've been told on good authority that it's 37%.

That juice has been reconstituted from concentrate, much of which is shipped in from abroad. Bulmers does use a lot of apples from Herefordshire as they claim, but there are not enough apples in Herefordshire to cater for the huge volumes it makes.

Strongbow then has more water added to bring the alcohol strength down from its natural 7-8% ABV, and lots of sugar, additives and flavourings to stop it tasting so watery.

So the tweet above is misleading, if not downright dishonest.

You can get away with that in advertising (though I will also be complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority about this tweet) but you can't get away with it in the conversation that is social media.

You might be able to make out the first response above: "that's bollocks and you know it!"

Further down the page, the responses come thick and fast:

"haven't mentioned fermented apple juice & glucose syrup,water sugar,carbon dioxide,acid:E270,E330,antioxidant:E224(sulphites)"

"how come I can't taste them then?"

"..and then bung in a load of artificial sweetener, right?"

There's even a correction to the incorrect terminology on the tweet:

"You'd probably find it easier to press them [apples] rather than squeeze."

This reminds me of the claim in another tweet from the brand which claims Strongbow is 'brewed in Herefordshire'. I'm not sure how Strongbow is made, but I do know that cider is not 'brewed'. Brewing is the heating/boiling of water with infused ingredients, such as tea leaves or hops. Cider is 'made' - at least in the method that Strongbow claims to follow here - and no brewing takes place. You'd really expect the UK's biggest cider brand to know a little bit about how cider is made.



You could argue that people who drink Strongbow don't really care about this, and there are enough 'so what?' comments on the thread to suggest you would have a point. 

But either way, what is Strongbow's response to this? How does the brand react to having its claims challenged in a conversational medium? 

It completely ignores them.

The above statements, which are potentially very damaging to the brand, remain completely unanswered. As does every other comment on the thread. The above pic was first posted on 9th August, and Strongbow UK have not responded to a single comment. 

You could argue that with regard to their critics, they simply stopped digging - but I still believe it's foolish to leave these criticisms up there, unanswered. But elsewhere in the thread there are real fans of the brand who get the same silent treatment: several people ask semi-seriously if a pint of Strongbow counts towards their five a day. One fan asks if he can blag some beer mats or other swag for his pub shed. Another asks if the tall glass featured in the shot is available to buy.

Curious, I went through a few other tweets, and its the same story every time: a mix of stinging criticism and genuine questions from passionate fans, ignored. Having looked at five or six threads, I can't find a single follow-up comment from the brand.

What a genius way to do marketing! 

Join a conversational medium and use it as free advertising space. Make outrageous claims that you couldn't get away with on TV. Then allow your critics to take potshots at you on your own timeline, leaving them there for everyone to see, making you look stupid and dishonest, and also piss off your most loyal fans by ignoring them as well.

No wonder this brand with a marketing budget running into millions has got fewer than 10,000 Twitter followers. They're actually lucky they don't have more people to watch online brand marketing commit painful suicide. 

Boys and girls of Strongbow, I'm afraid you really haven't earned it with this sad, sorry show.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

When will the anti-alcohol lobby stop lying about the '£21 billion' cost of alcohol to society?

They're at it again.

Yesterday a cross-party committee of MPs (working with the professional liars at Alcohol Concern, natch) demanded that health warnings become mandatory on alcohol labels in order to combat what they described as an 'epidemic' of alcohol related harm. It claimed the costs of alcohol abuse to society are "ever increasing". It also said we need a minimum unit price for alcohol, that alcohol advertising needs to be more tightly controlled, and that the drink drive limit should be lowered. 

There's so much misleading rhetoric, distortion by omission and outright falsehood here it's difficult to know where to start, but let's have a go.

The urgent need to combat drink driving is particularly ironic given that another report published yesterday - which obviously didn't get a fraction of the coverage that the anti-drink scaremongers did - reveals that drink driving deaths have just fallen to their lowest level since records began

There's also a call to tighten the marketing and promotion of alcohol in order to protect children from the possibility of alcohol abuse. This, despite there being not a single study that has managed to successfully link alcohol advertising and under age drinking, and also despite the news last month that under age drinking has also fallen to the lowest level since records began.

And then there's the call for 'sobriety orders' which we apparently need in order to 'break the cycle of alcohol and crime, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence. Leaving aside the deeply offensive slur that drinkers are more likely to beat their partners, yet again it's curious that we need these new measures when violent crime is falling dramatically, and academics who have studied this decline cite a dramatic fall in binge drinking as the main reason for the fall in violent crime.

And overall, I'm confused as to how the cost of alcohol to society can be 'ever increasing' when alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest level for twenty years. (Are you starting to see a pattern here yet?)

The '£21 billion' figure for the cost of alcohol to society continues to be quoted without question across the entirety of our news media. Yet here's the independent fact verification body FullFact discrediting the figure and declaring it unreliable over two years ago. Two of the reasons they give for this criticism are that they were unable to find anyone who worked on calculating it, and there seems to be no existing record of how the figure was actually worked out. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg as to why £21 billion cannot be relied on, as I've described many times before. And on top of all that, if there has been an 18% fall in alcohol consumption since the figure was calculated ten years ago, how the hell can cost of that consumption to society still be as high as it was, let alone 'ever increasing'? (The figure was nudged up from £20 billion to £21 billion at random, with no recalculation, even as alcohol consumption in the UK went into decline. FullFact were unable to find anyone at the Department of Health who could explain why.)

The biggest part of alcohol's cost to society according to this figure is the effects of alcohol related crime. As we've already seen, violent crime is falling sharply, thanks to a reduction in binge drinking behaviour. So I ask again - how can the cost of that crime to society not also be falling sharply?

When you read the arguments why we need to crack down on our binge drinking 'pandemic', all these facts are conveniently ignored. They focus instead on the rise in alcohol related hospital admissions (which, as I'm fond of saying, is highly dubious), and the rise in liver related health complaints. This latter is a cause for concern. But health costs are the smallest part of the £21 billion total. The argument simply falls apart under the mildest scrutiny - yet no one in mainstream media will give it that scrutiny.

There's no denying that a group of people are drinking harmfully. But the behaviour of that group is not in line with overall population trends. Measures that affect all drinkers - such as minimum pricing or restricted availability - not only punish moderate drinkers; they don't get to the heart of the problem for harmful drinkers. The problem is not the general availability of price of booze - it it was, the more affluent we are, the more harmfully we'd be drinking. In fact, the opposite is true: demographically, the less affluent you are, the more likely you are to suffer alcohol-related ill-health. 

Health warnings on packs will do nothing to deter hardened drinkers. But they will help demonise alcohol for everyone else. Why is no work being done to discover why a minority are drinking increasingly harmfully when the vast majority of the population - every time they are asked - claim to be cutting down on their alcohol consumption, and falling booze sales suggest they are telling the truth? 

The very people who claim to be most Concerned about Alcohol are betraying those most in need of their help every time they distort the true picture by suggesting we have a society-wide problem when any impartial analysis shows the problem is specific to certain groups, or at the very least shows the problem is in decline, not worsening. I honestly don't know how they can live with themselves.

Despite all its flaws,  I've been told that in the autumn the anti-alcohol lobby will be launching a massive social media campaign to 'raise awareness' of the cost of alcohol to society using the hashtag #£21billion, despite knowing full well that that figure has been discredited, and that even if it was accurate when it was first 'calculated', it can't possibly still be right now. MPs from all parties are taking part in a campaign deliberately to misinform, mislead and create undue alarm. 

Who'd have thought?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The truth about under-age drinking

This time it's so blatant even the Daily Mail couldn't distort the truth: the number of school-age children drinking alcohol has fallen to the lowest level since records began. 

The decline has been long, steady and consistent. In recent years, when the figures have been released most media coverage has stated the percentage of school children who admit to having drunk alcohol - 39% according to the latest study - with headlines like "four in ten children boozing! Mass epidemic!" while deliberately avoiding telling you that this figure was, say, 61% in 2003 for example. The liars at Alcohol Concern would resort to using older data to artificially inflate the problem when more recent, freely available data showed the numbers were in sustained decline. The deliberate obfuscation around the issue even led to supposedly reputable newspapers writing headlines claiming that under age drinking was 'soaring' when they very data they were reporting on showed it was in fact falling, not rising.

Now the decline is so steep, and so sustained, that there's no getting away from it. Last week's headlines were unequivocal - under-age drinking is no longer cool:
  • 39% of pupils said they had drunk alcohol at least once. This continues the downward trend since 2003, when 61% of pupils had drunk alcohol, and is lower than at any time since 1988, when the survey first measured the prevalence of drinking in this age group.
  • 9% of pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week. This proportion has fallen from 25% in 2003.

Bouyed by this undoubted good news, the Portman Group undertook some research among parents of school-age children to learn if they were aware of the fact that their children are not drinking. 

Unsurprisingly given the media coverage the issue receives, 9 out of 10 parents had no idea about the 34% decrease in children who have drunk alcohol. The same proportion were similarly unaware of the 33% decrease in the number of kids who think it is OK to drink alcohol on a weekly basis.

I don't normally reprint infographics that are sent out as press releases, but I believe this one, summarising the Portman Group's research, is important and should be disseminated as widely as possible.


What the Portman Group are too polite/professional to suggest is that the national media, fuelled by neo-prohibitionist groups, are deliberately creating concern over an issue that is much smaller than we are being led to believe.

What's also fascinating is that when parents were informed of the truth, they were asked why they believe attitudes and behaviour around alcohol among children are changing. Overwhelmingly, the most popular answer is that they believe the trade is getting tougher on serving alcohol that might be intended for under-age consumption. In distant second place, with 25% versus 57%, was the suggestion that kids are too busy talking to each other on social media to go out and drink.

Of course, even now, the media can't quite bring themselves to credit the alcohol industry with responsible behaviour. Last week's headlines were all about Facebook and Twitter stopping kids from drinking, and the main reason - at least as far as parent's believe - was ignored. 

Admittedly the social media angle is a more interesting headline because it says something about social change. But I think it's a red herring. Think about it: where do kids use social media these days? In their bedrooms? Maybe. But also on the bus, in the park, on the street - everywhere they go, including the places where kids traditionally sneak booze. Social media is mobile, and its use doesn't preclude traditional under age drinking behaviour.

I'm not saying the trade can claim all the credit. I do believe there is a social change going on. If I had to guess, I'd say kids seeing their parents necking a stress-relieving bottle of wine or two when they get home from work every evening kind of takes the glamour off drinking. When I was a kid, boozing was something that happened in pubs and working men's clubs, places from which I was forbidden, that had a mystery and an allure. Now we're much more likely to drink at home, in front of our kids. Through their eyes, I doubt we look as cool as we think we do.

Either way, we can now look forward to the end of scare stories about kids drinking themselves to death, illustrated with picture of cask ale being served at the Great British Beer Festival. Right?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Alliterative Book Review: Boak and Bailey's 'Brew Britannia'

Imagine if the history of rock music was done in the style of beer writing:

“Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, between 1st and 17th April 1979. It is 39 minutes and 24 seconds long and consists of ten songs, which contain drums, bass, guitar, synthesisers and vocals, with added special effects.”

There would then be an online debate about whether or not the use of synthesisers meant that the record was ‘real indie’ or not, segueing into a huge disagreement about whether the album should best be described as ‘indie’ or ‘goth’, or perhaps neither as, being completely original and ground-breaking, it was in fact ‘not to style’.

I thought about this when reading How Soon is Now? – a definitive history of indie music by Richard King. Read a biography of a band, or a sweeping review such as King’s that seeks to contextualise and explain a musical movement, and it’s not about what instruments they played or how big the studio was: it’s about the people, how they were influenced previous bands, other artistic forms or just what was in their air at the time, and how music made them and their fans feel.


‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone wrote a history of craft/good beer following the conventions of music journalism rather than beer writing?’ I thought. ‘Not writing so much about cascade hops and the structure of the industry, but more broadly about the trends and most of all the people, the decisions and sacrifices they made, the chances they took, the ideas and creativity that drove them. That would be a good book. I should give that a go.”

Of course, I never did. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey did it instead. Sort of.

Boak and Bailey are two of my favourite beer bloggers. I love their combination of obvious passion and clear reason. Occasionally their blog posts can be a little too po-faced and navel-gazing, but their air of slight detachment means they usually end up calling things right much more often than most other bloggers, this writer included.


Their first book, Brew Britannia (Aurum Press, £12.99) seeks to explain ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ from the 1960s to the present day. While I’d quibble over the adjective ‘strange’ (interest in beer has mirrored – and mostly followed – a similar rediscovery of flavour, tradition and experimentation across many food and drink categories) it’s a smart approach. Many beer history books (my own included) take the long view and deal only briefly with the modern period. Whereas that idea of writing a history of craft beer would probably have started around the early 2000s, would have been much too ‘of its time’ and would have dated badly.

What we have here instead is a story of beer gradually becoming something worth caring about, something to be appreciated – at first by retired World War Two officers looking for an excuse for a piss-up, through the foundation of CAMRA to the discovery of new ideas in beer, the growth of the brewpub and the microbrewery, and finally, yes, the modern craft beer phenomenon, in all its wonderful, frustrating, murky glory.

Anyone who follows B&B’s conjoined Twitter account will be aware of how many months of painstaking research went into this book. It seems as though they’ve read every old issue of What’s Brewing, tracked down every living person who has ever brewed beer on a small scale in the last fifty years, as well as the surviving families of those who are no longer with us, and then cross-referenced everything, caveating any claim they were not able to wholly substantiate. In an age where some observers obsess over tiny details rather than seeing the big picture, the working here is meticulous.

But the big picture is there too. I knew that in its early days, CAMRA had a fresher approach than the strict orthodoxy that binds it today. But I had no idea that the founders didn’t even know what cask beer was until the campaign had all ready formed with a semi-serious purpose to revitalise ‘ale’, a word chosen simply because ‘it seemed solidly Northern and down to earth – less pretentious… than beer’.

And modern ideas of ‘craft’ have much earlier roots than I ever realised. I was aware that Sean Franklin, was using cascade hops at Rooster’s last century, but had no idea that his craft – and that of others – went back to the early eighties. Or that the current arguments between big brewers and microbrewers have been raging in one form or another since the mid-1970s.

Sometimes the formal tone becomes a little stilted – the insistence on putting anything from ‘real ale’ and ‘world beer’ to ‘greasy spoon’, ‘foodie’ and even ‘tasting’ in ‘inverted commas’ often jars and occasionally evokes those high court judges who need to ask someone to explain what this ‘rap music’ is that the ‘youngsters’ are listening to.

But on the whole, the approach works. You need a steady hand on the tiller when trying to unpick the various internecine squabbles and Judean People’s Popular Front posturings of CAMRA, and give an accurate record of the campaigns evolution. You need someone who doesn’t use words and phrases like ‘squabbles’ and ‘Judean People’s Popular Front’. I’m sure there will be some who feel their particular point of view on the use of gas dispense or BrewDog’s Portman Group battles haven’t been given enough room, but no one on any side of the debate can go so far as to be upset by such a clear-eyed and dispassionate account of controversial and often confusing subjects.

What stops the detachment becoming boring is the all-important contextualisation. Having just learned about Ian Nairn and hisideas of ‘Subtopia’ though an event at our recent literary festival, it was fascinating to see how his ideas extended to beer – a passion that became his eventual undoing. We learn that it was an appreciation of wine that eventually led Sean Franklin to brew with cascade hops, that the Firkin chain – which had an incredible influence before it was bought and cheapened into oblivion – was originally a product of one man’s intuition and creativity. And that possibly the most brilliant craft brewer you’ve never heard of (if you’re under fifty) is now revolutionising the principles of banana growing – in Ireland.

Some writers who were quicker than me at reading and reviewing this book have commented that it goes downhill at the end – that the account of the last decade or so feels a little rushed and scrappy. Zak suggested it’s perhaps too soon to analyse what’s just happened with the same insight as things that happened twenty or thirty years ago. The last few chapters do read more like blog posts from the end of 2013 rather than a complete account of trends. But that’s OK too: the story is open-ended. It hasn’t finished yet. Interestingly, many of my beloved music books – including How Soon is Now – neatly avoid this problem by telling the story from one date to another, flagging up an artificial cut-off point after which the protagonists don’t necessarily live happily ever after, and the struggle continues. I really don’t think that was an option here for a book that was published as the story it tells is yet to reach its dramatic peak. 

If I had written my version of this story it would have been bloodier and more chaotic than this one: more evangelical, more critical, more involved. I’d have made a lot more of the indie music analogy, and gone Big Picture to the point of wilful digression.

Which is why I’m glad Boak and Bailey got there first and did it their way. We need this account, in this form, if we are to fully understand where beer is today, how it got here, and from there, to start to speculate about where it might go next.

While they were pitching this book to publishers, Boak and Bailey wrote a review of Shakespeare’s Local in which they kindly said I was a ‘writer [publishers] think has really nailed it in commercial terms’ when it comes to beer books. Here I can return the compliment by saying this is a book that I wish I had written, but was beaten to it by people who have done a better job than I would have.                                                               

Monday, 7 July 2014

Crap Beer - it's the future

Friday, late afternoon. Stranded in Chesterfield waiting for The Beer Widow, who is attempting to come up the M1 from London to meet me before we go on to the Great Peak Weekender at Thornbridge. The journey will eventually take her seven hours (it should take no more than three), so sitting in Chesterfield station's dispiriting concourse isn't an option. 

I follow signs to the town centre and walk for about ten minutes without seeing a single shop, pub, restaurant or commercial premises of any description. I'm dragging a suitcase. It starts to rain, hard, and I'm getting desperate. There is no one on the streets: it's like 28 Days Later, only less pleasant.

Eventually a find a pub. In the window it advertises a 'wide range of cask ales'. I smile to myself and go in. On the bar there are just two handpumps: one serving Doom Bar, the other Greene King IPA. But there's a half pint glass over the GK pump, so my 'wide range' consists of Doom Bar. As I occasionally do at times like this, I order a pint of Kronenbourg. It's utterly undrinkable, so I drag my suitcase back into the rain.

A little further down the street, I spy a Marston's logo outside another pub, the Crooked Spire. Oh well, a pint of Pedigree will do. I walk in. Once again, there are just two handpumps on the bar. They look like they haven't been used for some time. It's not that the pumpclips are turned around: there are no pumpclips at all. The keg fonts are Budweiser, Becks Vier, Strongbow.

"Do you have any cask ale?" I ask.

"No," replies the barman. 

"Do you have any Marston's beers at all?" I follow up.

He just shakes his head. 

For only the second time in recent memory, I say apologetically that I'll have to try somewhere else because there's nothing on the bar I want to drink.

I walk a little further, starting to feel desperate, and finally I find the Blue Bell, advertising not just cask ales, but also craft beers on a permanent sign just outside the door. Relieved, I go inside.


The whole pub stinks of BO. Undeterred, I walk to the bar. Here is the standard selection of two handpumps: this time Hobgoblin and Jenning's Cumberland Ale. The weighty pump clips suggest they are permanent and unchanging. I look along the bar for the craft keg fonts. Finding none, I scan the fridges, but there's only Bud, Becks, Bulmer's and Koppaberg.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" asks the very friendly barmaid.

"There’s a sign outside saying you sell craft beer," I reply.

She looks confused. "Sorry?"

"Craft Beer?"

"What? CRAP beer?"

"No, CRAFT beer."

"Oh. What’s that?"

"There’s a sign by the door saying you sell it."

"I’m sorry love, I don't even know what craft beer is. I've never heard of it."

"I think they mean that," says one of the regulars at the bar, pointing to the Hobgoblin. 

But that would come under cask ale. They say they sell both craft beer and cask ale outside, I want to say. But I'm too confused. Could it be that someone who works here has never read the signage outside the front door? And why is it there anyway? 

"I'll have a pint of Kronenbourg thanks."

*

Over an excellent weekend at Thornbridge, I'm informed by many people that Chesterfield has some brilliant pubs selling a fantastic range of beers. I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. I just managed to pick a very unlucky route through the town centre.

On our way back home on Sunday, we decide to try again, and find a nice country pub on the outskirts of the city that advertises food served from 12 noon to 3.30pm. It's now 2.30pm. The pub is about half full - certainly not busy.

"I'm sorry, we've run out of food," says the bar person.

"What, no food left at all?"

"No, absolutely none." 

Some pubs simply don't deserve to stay in business. And I really need to get my pub radar fixed.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Why Farage's foaming pint is a testament to European integration and immigration

Thanks to an amazing Stoke Newington Literary Festival I haven't had time to blog for about a month, which means I missed my chance to comment on the biggest visibility beer has had in national media for ages. 

What a shame it had to be under such circumstances.

Over the European elections last month, beer geeks across the country gloated at the seemingly daily photoshoots of everyone's favourite bigoted former stockbroker hoisting a pint of cask ale, because most of the time, Ukip's leader seemed to opt for a pint of Greene King IPA. I can't imagine there were too many happy executives in Bury St Edmunds each time Farage's gloating, froglike face appeared with their distinctive branded glassware.


Of course, it was perfect stage management by this most politically astute and media-savvy party leader. Nothing is more iconic of Britain than a foaming pint of real ale. And Greene King IPA initially seems like the perfect choice. Loathed by the trendy craft beer-drinking liberal London media elite, it was until recently the best-selling cask ale in Britain, the drink of the common man Farage pretends to be. 

But how this pint came to be in Farage's hands is in fact a brilliant case study of the benefits of immigration and European integration - the very things Farage campaigns against so fiercely.

Hopped beers first became popular in England in the fifteenth century, when they were imported into East Anglia (Greene King's home) from Holland and Zeeland. The first recorded imports were for Dutch workers who weren't great fans of sweet, Old English ale. (While hops were among a range of other flavourings used in beer from at least the 8th century, they start being mentioned with increasing regularity from the early fifteenth century). Their tastes soon caught on with the English. Over the next century, immigrants from Holland and Zeeland settled in England and began brewing hopped beer that was so good it was exported back to the continent.

By the seventeenth century there was a thriving hop industry across the Weald of Kent. This was established by refugees from the Low Countries, fleeing religious persecution. Hop farms went on to become a defining feature of Kent - which is part of Farage's constituency as an MEP - thanks entirely to European immigrants.

Flemish brewers also settled in Southwark. Excluded from the City of London by the powerful trades guilds, they set up business just outside the city walls and soon became celebrated for the quality of their beer. There were of course those who opposed this trend, and some of the protests against these brewers strayed into xenophobia. While the story of Henry VIII banning hops is a myth, their cultivation was banned in Norwich in 1471, in Shrewsbury in 1519 and Leicester in 1523. London's ale brewers harassed and disparaged the immigrants they felt were coming over here and taking their jobs, which led to a writ being issued to the Sheriffs of London to proclaim that:

"All brewers of beer should continue their art in spite of malevolent attempts made to prevent natives of Holland and Zeeland and others from making beer, on the grounds that is was poisonous and not fit to drink and caused drunkenness, whereas it is a wholesome drink, especially in summer."

The descendants of these brewers eventually made Southwark one of Europe's great brewing centres, and hopped beer gradually replaced unhopped sweet English ale. 

While we're talking about hops, the varieties we have today is another direct result of international cooperation and trade. Hops are creatures of climate, and change their character entirely if grown in a different terroir. While Greene King IPA uses English Challenger and First Gold hops, other Greene King beers use hops grown in Slovenia. Hops such as Styrian Golding and Aurora are the descendants of hops that emigrated there from the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. These delicate plants grow better in the microclimate of the Savinja valley, which is broadly similar to souther England but more stable and protected from damaging winds and storms.

At the same time as English hops were venturing abroad, foreigners were coming to Britain to help improve the quality of our beer. Louis Pasteur's pioneering work with yeast finally solved the great mystery of how fermentation happened. He introduced the microscope (invented by Dutchmen) to British brewers for the first time, showing Whitbread and others how to analyse and understand the behaviour of yeast. A decade later Emil Hansen - a Dane - successfully isolated the first single cell yeast strains that allow brewers to brew consistent beer. 

These innovations helped create 'running beer' in the 1870s. Before we understood how fermentation worked, beer brewed in warm weather would spoil thanks to infection. Old beer styles such as porter and IPA would be brewed only in winter months, and were brewed strong enough to store and mature in cool cellars. Some of these 'stock ales' would then be blended with fresh beer before serving. But once we understood how yeast worked, and how to control it via temperature (using the scale developed by the Swede Anders Celsius, or perhaps the German Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit) we could brew beer all year round and serve it fresh from the cask, without long periods of storage. These 'running beers' essentially form the origin of modern cask ale.

Throughout this entire period - the golden age of brewing science - it was customary for brewers to undertake study tours around the great breweries of Europe to compare notes. While the work of French and Danish brewing scientists with yeast helped lead to the creation of real ale, English pale malt expertise influenced the development of golden pilsner lager. Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg studied at Everard's Brewery in Burton on Trent. Pilsner was born of a combination of Czech ingredients and German skill. Burton on Trent would never have become the home of brewing that gave us IPA if it were not for a previous strong relationship with the Baltic states.

Like so many of our national icons, the British cask ale is the child of immigration and European integration. The first recorded fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant in 1860. The Great British cuppa comes from India. The designer of the Mini was a Greek immigrant. Buckingham Palace was originally built for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz - the German wife of George III. The famous clock and dials of Big Ben were designed by the son of a French draughtsman who fled to England during the Revolution.

And as for Nigel's favourite brand, Greene King? 

Whether you like Greene Kings beers or not, the business has prospered under the leadership of current MD Rooney Anand, who took the reins in 2005. Rooney was born in Delhi and arrived here as an immigrant with his parents at the age of two.

Sorry Nige - the closer you look, the more you realise your German wife is merely the most obvious example of how all you hold dear is founded on the things you hate: on tolerance and understanding, on the movement of people, ideas and influences around Europe, on Britain welcoming immigrants in, allowing them to shine, and watching as they help define our country with us.