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My latest Publican's Morning Advertiser column: the lure of wild beer.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

A case study of the problem with craft beer bars

I've spent the last few days touring around Seattle and Yakima having one of the best beer experiences of my career. The most hyped bar in the city just spoiled it, and should be avoided. 

The trouble with drinking is that if something goes wrong, you're not in the best position to defend yourself. In relation to the authority figures who are supposedly looking after you, you're somewhat infantilised - there's an assumption that if you're intoxicated, you must be in the wrong. Or at least, there is if you're dealing with arrogant arseholes who have forgotten their position role.

It was such a perfect night. We started by visiting Fremont Brewing. Situated on the northern lake shore of the fractal coastline that makes Seattle so stunning, it was one of those brief moments when you think life simply can't get any better. The beers were stunning, the atmosphere was amazing. It reminded me of the bars on South London's celebrated Bermondsey Mile, but it was more confident, more relaxed, more grown up. We could have stayed there all night.

Instead, we decided to move on to Pine Box, a craft beer bar that had been recommended by everybody to whom I mentioned my impending trip to Seattle.

Before we left Fremont, a few of our party visited the merchandise shop. For as long as I've been writing about beer, I've always thought north American craft brewers have got merch nailed. They make you excited to be around them, and they have a knack of making stuff you'll spend money on. At Fremont, one of out party bought a metal sign to bring home, about two feet tall, embossed, like this:

So then we went to Pine Box. It was OK. It's in a converted space that was once a bank or church or something, and it reminded me strongly of a Wetherspoons, only with better beer. We had a couple of beers, and then called it a night and headed back to our hotel.

Outside Pine Box is a flight of stone steps leading down to the street. We were standing on these steps, waiting for our cab, when a female member of staff came out, snatched the Fremont sign and said, "You are not taking this away, because you stole it from our wall."

Naturally, this provoked a strong reaction from us, and soon a member of security and another male member of bar staff were blocking our way, preventing us from getting my friend's sign back.

The bar staff disappeared back inside, while the security guy prevented us from following them. A minute or so later, the male member of bar staff - tall, with a long, hipster beard and a topknot - came back out and returned the sign, apologising for the confusion. No, of course he didn't, because we're talking about someone who had already accused of stealing without actually checking to see if anything had been stolen. He came back out waving the sharp metal sign, narrowly missing slicing another member of our party across the face with it, and said, "Don't you ever DARE lay a finger on a member of my staff again." He thrust the sign into my friend's hands and disappeared back inside. Needless to say, no one had touched the bartender who stole our sign. We had tried to take it back from her, as you would if someone tried to take something from you that you had just bought. There was no apology. Even with our sign back, the guy had gone out of his way to make us feel like it we who were in the wrong.

The security guy was conciliatory and did what security guys are supposed to do, and often don't - instead of inflaming the situation, he tried to defuse it and calm us down. But from the bar staff, that was it - no apology for ruining our night and accusing us of being thieves, no admission that they had made a mistake.

I can understand why, on a Saturday night, if you see someone walking out of your bar with a big metal sign you might be worried. But if I was in that situation, the first thing I would do is look at the wall where my metal sign was hanging and see it if was fucking missing before accusing a customer of stealing it. (We never spotted a Fremont sign on the wall, but I'm guessing there must have been one. They must have checked this after taking our sign, and that must be why they returned it.) Having realised my mistake once I'd attacked and stolen from a customer, I would then have been profusely apologetic. I certainly wouldn't have swung the sign in a way very likely to cause injury.

This was a serious incident that could have escalated. Making a mistake is one thing, and is understandable to an extent. But having accused a customer of being a thief, upon realising your mistake it's surely imperative to try to resolve the situation and make sure everyone goes way happy. The staff at Pine Box not only failed to do this, they further inflamed the situation by acting extremely aggressively, attacking us rather than apologising for their error. I simply would not feel physically safe drinking in a place run by these people.

The owner of Pine Box responded very quickly to this and has issued a full apology to the person who was attacked by his staff. I'm sure our treatment there was very out of the ordinary because so many people recommended the place to me - that's why we went. But I blogged this publicly to make a point about this kind of thing, to see what would happen.

I've changed the title of this blog to be less inflammatory about Pinebox, but it stands as a commentary and a case study on a much wider problem. It's generated some interesting debate. Everyone I know has had surly treatment in craft beer bars. Everyone has been 'served' by people who clearly think they are better than the customers they are supposed to be looking after. But everyone has a voice. Staff really can't afford to treat their customers with contempt.

Next time I'm in Seattle, I'll go back to Pinebox for their phenomenal beer list. I hope we have a completely different experience.

Friday, 25 September 2015

What Are You Drinking? Almost There

I'm currently writing three books. One of them - the one about beer - is being crowdfunded. And it's almost reached its target.

Crowdfunding is a thorny topic in the beer industry just now, so it was a ricky experiment to try crowdfunding a book about beer. But the experiment has paid off - we're almost there.

This is a final push/plea/reminder - there's no time limit in the Unbound model, and I know people who are intending to pledge but haven't got round to it. If you're one of those people, now is the time to make your pledge - we're just over 90% funded and on course to reach the target very soon.

In case you missed it, here's a recap: provisionally titled 'What Are You Drinking?' this is an exploration of the four key ingredients in beer: hops, barley, yeast and water. Books on these exist, but they cater for the professional brewer rather than the general reader. They get discussed in many books on beer, but I want to do an in-depth exploration of them for the first time. I'm looking at their history, how they ended up in beer and what they add. I'm also looking at them holistically - the cultivation and agriculture, the people who grow them, their link with terroir and place. It's a narrative of my journey of exploration - harvesting Maris Otter barley, picking hops in Kent, drinking well water in Burton on Trent... today I'm in Washington's Yakima Valley, rubbing and learning about American hops. (n.b. Your pledge money does not pay for me to go travelling around the world. The funding is specifically tied to the physical editing, production and distribution costs of the book).

You can choose your pledge level - and watch a video and read an extract from the book - here.

If you're undecided, here are a few things to help you:

  • By pledging for the book, you're not investing in the equity or anything like that - you're buying a book, and perhaps a few extra perks, such as invitations to the launch party etc. (Trust me, you wouldn't want a share of the profits. The margins in publishing are slender. There are over 400 subscribers to this book and any profit would be sliced up wafer-thin if it was divided between them.)
  • The book you get as a subscriber is different from the one you'll eventually be able to get in the shops - it will be an exclusive hardback edition. It will also have your name in the list of subscribers at the back.
  • I'm still researching the book at the moment, and will be researching and writing it well into 2016. The lead times on books are long, and this one involves me doing research all around the world and then writing. I think we'll be looking at a publication date in early 2017, so there's a bit of a wait before you get what you've paid for.
  • If you don't like the idea of subscribing, when the book is published it will be available to buy just like any other book. Unbound has a distribution deal with Penguin Transworld, the world's biggest publishing group, so it will be available in bookshops, Amazon etc.
  • If you do decide to subscribe, you'll get your copy of the book several months before it goes in sale publicly, as a thank you for waiting so patiently.
So I'm not begging you to subscribe if you don't like the idea of it - that's absolutely fine. But if you're thinking about it, now's the time to act.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Cask Report 2015: Why Pubs Need Cask Ale Drinkers

I've written the Cask Report for the last nine years. This year was my final one. Here are the headlines, and some thoughts on what's happened to the market over the time I've been doing the report.

I presented the 2015 Cask Report this morning.  Each year we start with a blank page and try to pull out some interesting stories that are going to help publicans make money from cask, and hopefully grab a few headlines. It gets tougher every year to find something new to say, but this year, thanks to some new research, I think we managed to produce some really useful stuff.

Cask ale is thriving

The numbers are modest, to say the least, but they're going in the right direction. Cask ale has now shown consistent volume growth every year for the past three years. In 2014 it grew by 0.2%.  In the first six months of 2015 it grew by a further 0.5%. If that sounds tiny consider that cask ale is only available in pubs, and 29 pubs are closing. Also consider that the total beer market is in volume decline. Cask continue to outperform the market as a whole.

  • The value of cask ale has grown by 29% since 2010
  • Cask ale is now available in 70% of pubs
  • Pubs are selling more if it - the average sales per pub per week of cask have gone up by 8% in volume and 32% in value since 2011
  • Cask is forecast to account for 20% of all on-trade beer sales by 2020

Why should pubs stock cask?

Cask may be doing well, but why should this be of interest to struggling pubs if it sells for less than other drinks on the bar? We did research with 2000 drinkers to show why:

Cask drinkers visit the pub more often

Cask drinkers are more loyal to pubs

Percentage who say they are going to the pub more often now than they did three years ago

Cask drinkers spend more in pubs

By multiplying the average number of visits per year by the average spend per visit, we are able to show that cask ale drinkers spend almost double the amount the average person spend in pubs, and significantly more than any other group of drinkers

Cask drinkers take other drinkers to pubs with them

People drink in mixed groups. It's likely the cask drinker makes the decision about which pub they'll go to.

Cask ale and craft beer

Cask ale and craft beer are not the same - and neither are they totally separate. There's a significant overlap between the two.

Avoiding the torture of trying to DEFINE craft beer, it's possible to look at beers on a beer by beer, style by style basis and say 'that one is definitely craft' and 'that one definitely isn't'. Among everyone obsessed with trying to define craft, it;s hard to imagine anyone arguing that, say, Magic Rock High Wire is not a craft beer, or that John Smith's Smoothflow is craft beer. So by looking at the market one brand at a time, analysts CGA Strategy have compiled (an admittedly subjective) list based on ingredients, beer styles and brewers so that craft can be measured even if it can't be defined. With me? Good. On that basis, we can show that:

  • Craft beer has grown by 533% in five years and now accounts for 8% of total on-trade ale
  • Cask ale is by far the biggest format of craft beer

Sure, keg and can are growing strongly, but in the British on-trade, most craft beer is sold on cask.  If you;re still one of those people who thinks craft beer is defined by packaging format, you need to learn more about beer.

Quality and training

You don't just get a share of the profits by sticking a few handpumps on the bar and waiting for people to flock in. As cask ale grows, training and quality become more important than ever. Basic cellar training increases the yield from an average cask by 7%. You'd have to be stupid to serve cask ale and not train your staff to look after it, appreciate it, and serve it properly.

Reclaiming summer

There's loads more on the full report, which you can download here, if not now then very soon:

I've been writing the Cask report for nine years. In the first year, our message was that cask ale wasn't doing quite as shit as everyone thought, that it was performing no worse than the rest of the beer market. Back in 1997, I'd never have believed we would ever be saying that cask was in sustained volume growth, or that it was worth more to pubs. It's been an incredible ride.

There's more to be done - particularly around education, trial, staff training, food matching, and the relationship between cask and craft - which I think is crucial to the future prosperity of both in the UK.

But I want by summers back. I'm working on three books and a literary festival and for the first time in a decade I'd like to have some time off next summer. So I won't be doing the Cask Report again. It's been a blast.

Friday, 7 August 2015

The simple reason why anti-alcohol campaigners fail to understand British drinking habits

Despite alcohol consumption and binge drinking continuing to fall, we're still being warned that we drink too much. Coverage of the latest research reveals that we're talking at cross-purposes.

When I wrote my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, I made a big deal about binge drinking in the UK compared to other countries. Despite having listed up to 200 words to describe drunkenness in Man Walks into a Pub, it struck me that we didn't have a good word to describe the state between drunkenness and sobriety.

For Three Sheets I travelled through fourteen different countries exploring beer drinking culture. In Spain, I found the word chispa - literally translated as 'spark'. They use it to describe the state when you've had a few drinks and the world is suffused with a warm glow. You probably wouldn't drive a car or operate heavy machinery, but it would be pushing it to say that you're pissed. Social inhibitions have eroded, and you're probably a bit more animated, a bit more talkative. But you're not in a state where you would do anything you regret, or anything you can't remember. Your speech isn't slurred and you can still walk straight. You just feel nicer.

In Germany, they have a word Gem├╝tlichkeit, which translates most closely as 'cosiness', and is used to describe a similar state. In Denmark it's hygge. Since then, I've discovered the same concept in various other countries.

The best equivalents we have in English are 'merry' or 'tipsy', which sound like they only apply to your aunt at a wedding. The Americans say 'buzzed', or they might talk about 'getting a buzz on', but this is imprecise and doesn't exclude outright drunkenness. So we usually end up describing this state by saying that we got 'a little bit pissed.'

This is hopelessly misleading and inadequate. Talk to the Spanish, and they make a clear distinction between chispa and drunkenness. As in, 'I reach chispa two or three times a week, but I haven't been drunk since I was eighteen.' It's a separate state, a specifically different level of intoxication, just as different from outright drunkenness as it is from sobriety. Whereas we in the UK are on a sliding scale - as soon as we're not completely sober, we're a little bit drunk, with the implication that we're inevitably heading further along the spectrum.

I'm reminded of this by the dangerous language around new research released by a group led by the University of Sheffield into British drinking habits.

It claims that the British are rejecting advice on 'binge drinking' guidelines because trying to measure it in units has no relation to how we actually drink.

Fair enough, I can relate to that.

It finds that most of us don't drink every day (so why the daily guidelines?) but that when we do fancy a drink, we drink a fair bit. So now, there are calls for telling us "how much we can safely binge drink on a Saturday night,"

And this is where researchers and reporters queue up to show how little they understand about drinking.

Lead Researcher Dr John Holmes, from the University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, says, “What we found is that the guidelines at the moment kind of assume that people drink a bit too much, very often. In fact we were finding people saying’ I don’t drink too often but when I go out I do want to get a bit drunk.” He then goes on to argue that this is different from the European drinking culture of "little and often."

I'm not going to claim that there's no such thing as a northern European binge drinking culture. But what's being implied here is that this binge culture is the norm. And here's where the use of language is shockingly, dangerously, misleading.

People saying they want to go out and get "a little bit drunk" is now being portrayed as the same as "binge drinking."

I'd argue that people wanting to get "a little bit drunk" is them wanting to drink enough to feel the effects of alcohol (which for the vast majority, means more than the current daily guidelines). I would suggest that this is exactly the same as chispa, the Mediterranean culture that is supposedly so different from ours.

This research gets some things right, in that it is genuinely trying to understand the reasons people drink - and drink to excess. The reporting of the research doesn't seem to be intentionally alarmist, and I haven't seen much in the way of trying to twist it to suggest that we're drinking ourselves to death.

But by equating "a bit drunk" with "binge drinking", and by making no distinction between tipsiness, buzz, mild intoxication, whatever you want to call it, and the big occasions when we get wasted, it suggests a completely inaccurate picture of British drinking habits.

Most people I know go out and occasionally get pissed. Yes, there's some bravado about it. Yes, we might have an irresponsible cheerfulness about it. But I'd argue that most British people, most of the time, drink enough to feel a buzz, but not enough to wake up with a stinking hangover the next morning. And increasingly, these drinking occasions happen less often.

Alcohol is an intoxicating drug. That's one of the main reasons we drink it (not the only reason mind). We drink it to feel an effect. And as a society, we currently have a real problem with that - an automatic assumption that if we want to change our brain chemistry with the use of drugs, that is some kind of moral failing, even a crime. The source of our problem around drink policy is that we're scared to admit this - alcohol advertising is banned from suggestion that drink can be a factor in enhancing social occasions, when that is the main reason we have it at social occasions, because it DOES.

And so we get the sheer daftness of home secretary Theresa May trying to ban 'legal highs' by bringing forward a bill for the outright prohibition of any and all psychoactive substances, which then makes specific exemptions for those in common use, such as alcohol, coffee, and I presume, chocolate, pro plus tablets, snuff, paracetomol, Berocca, and anything else that the ingestion of which changes people's moods, depending on how the government is feeling.


Every human society, at every stage of human history, has used psychoactive substances to change brain chemistry and mood. In stable societies with proper guidelines around their use, these mood changes enhance our lives and bring us closer together. When societies are unstable and uncertain, and when the controls around these substances are unfit (which is just as likely to mean that they are over-controlled rather than not controlled enough, driving usage underground, criminalising and deregulating supply) they are more likely to cause harm.

It is not a moral failing, nor is it objectively dangerous, to seek to change our brains with the use of intoxicating substances. It is dangerous to over-indulge.

But to drink enough to feel an effect, to get "a bit drunk", which is the best translation of chispa we have, is NOT the same as binge drinking. To suggest that it is is to overwhelmingly misunderstand what drinking is all about.

Drinking to get drunk, as we commonly understand it, is to seek oblivion through drink - to blot out the end of a relationship or a terrible, stressful job.  To drink to get "a bit drunk" is to relax, chill out, get closer to people and form social bonds. It is to heighten life experience, not blot it out. Crucially, it's about the pattern of drinking, the context of drinking, the speed of drinking, and what you're drinking, at least as much as it is about the amount you drink. How else do you explain the fact that middle class people drink more than poor working class people, but poor working class people are more likely to suffer from alcohol related harm than middle class people?

Until those influencing government policy understand this, we haven't got a hope of there being any sensible advice on how much it is safe to drink.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Another summer of beer - check out these live events!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Meets Beer Festival At Borough Market

Jubilee Place, Borough Market, London SE1 1TL

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

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

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

What Are You Drinking at London Beer City

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

Saturday 15th August, 2pm

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

It's the Drink Talking at London Beer City

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

How Big Lager Lost The Plot And Developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do you do? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And lose all sense of perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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