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What's new?

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

Friday, 27 July 2007

Pete's Pub Etiquette - the first of an occasional series

Hello, pub-goers!

We all know that one of the most difficult aspects of going to the pub is toilet etiquette. It can be stressful for straight men, because as we know, gay men sometimes go to the toilet too, and any straight man knows that if he is in the toilet with a gay man, the gay man is sure to find him irresistably attractive and make inappropriate advances towards him. This means that not only do straight guys need to be on the lookout for gay men lurking in pub toilets, they also need to do absolutely everything possible to ensure they don't send out any signals whatsoever that they thenselves might be a bit gay.

This has given us the elaborate urinal ritual - so delicately coded that often, when you try to explain it to women they refuse to believe it. But hey, it makes going to the toilet more interesting! But where do you draw a line in your attempts to prove your assertive, hetero masculinity?

Here's a couple of thoughts.

Say I don't know you, but we're in the same pub and we go to the toilet at the same time. You're just in front of me, and you've clocked me and are aware that I'm a few paces behind you.

If you were to hold the toilet door open for me as you walk through, instead of allowing it to swing shut in my face, I promise this won't make me worry that you're inviting me inside for some hot bum sex. Instead, it'll just make me think you have manners and aren't some sort of twat.

Why not try it next time?

And on a similar vein - washing your hands after you've been to the toilet wouldn't make you look less manly. This message goes out with particular urgency if the reason you were in the pub toilet in the first place is that you're currently on duty behind the fucking bar.

Until next time!

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Pure Genius? Or sheer idiocy?

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by Marketing magazine to write a comment for their 'Brand Healthcheck' page, which looks at brands that are facing a rocky time and asks people what they should do. This one on Guinness was prompted by the fact that sales are down in the UK and Ireland, and there are rumours that Diageo (Guinness' owners) are thinking of closing down the St James' Gate brewery in Dublin, and brewing somewhere else more cost-effectively.

Here's what I said:

Anyone at Diageo who thinks it’s a good idea to close Guinness’ Dublin brewery should maybe also give some thought to abandoning the famous two-part pour, making it paler – lager-coloured say – brewing it in a shed just off the M1 and changing the name to something snappier – what about Harp? Oh, hang on…

Guinness is an unparalleled icon in the beer market, peerless in terms of quality. The brand team that walks away from this kills the brand.

Everyone I’ve ever met who has worked on Guinness knows what the real problem is – a problem that was recorded at least as far back as the 1930s. People think it’s heavy, harsh and bitter, a challenging taste, whereas it’s actually silky, smooth and deceptively drinkable. They think it’s a meal in a glass, whereas a pint of Guinness actually has fewer calories than lager.

Beer is about heritage, romance and tradition, whereas taste is transitory and often cyclical. Guinness has always stuck to its guns, and has ridden out all short term trends. It should continue to do so.

[Then you have to give a few bullet point, off-the-cuff marketing tips]

  • Step up experiential marketing – confront the misconception about the product head on by getting people to try it.

  • Events with vertical tastings of the many different Guinnesses available would only deepen people’s appreciation of the brand.

  • Don’t waver on ritual, and don’t lose the romance of the product

  • Try food pairings – why are so few people aware of what an amazing match Guinness is with chocolate desserts?

It's not that difficult, is it? I would bet my house on the fact that, if Guinness closed their brewery as a cost-saving measure, they would find themselves with a more impoverished business twelves months later. Why do so few marketers (and I say this as a marketer) fail to see that it's the romance of beer that contributes to profitable beer brands? Heritage, superstition, a respect for tradition, tribalism, belligerence, call it what you will, love it or hate it, all brand owners know that there is a huge but intangible value in the whole invisible history around any given brand. You can't prove it's there, so you can't quantify the impact of its loss. Until it's too late. And apart from that, isn't the world simply a duller place when this kind of thing gets overruled in favour of simple, measurable metrics? (Sorry, but that's what they call them - numbers.)

Hoegaarden closed the brewery in Hoegaarden, and there are rumours of industrial unrest leading to supplies runnign out in the UK - just as competitors like Grolsch Weizen appear on the scene. Boddington's clsoed its Strangeways brewery, and a year later announced that it was withdrawing advertising support (I would imagine, though Inbev would deny this, because the shrunken value of the brand doesn't justify a big spend).

Christ, it's hardly rocket science is it?

Thursday, 19 July 2007

What does it take to be fit to run a pub?

Just back from a night out at the theatre. We'd all love to think that someone who lives in London goes out to the theatre all the time, but it's not like that - we went to see a play because it had John Simm in it, and I can't remember the last time we went out to the theatre. The play was brilliant though.

Anyway, after we left the theatre, we went to a fairly iconic West End pub, which I won't name. But if you're a Sam Smith's fan lurking near Trafalgar Square, you can probably guess.

Anyway, it's got some really nice partitioned snugs, which were all full when we arrived. We got a perch near the end of one of them, which contained a young couple on one side of the table, and a pretty girl, maybe 22-ish, across from them. It looked like the couple were there with the girl, though I might be wrong. Anyway, the girl decided she'd be more comfortable lying flat on the seat at her side, and the people she was with left. If they did know her, then deciding to abandon her just as she slipped into unconsciousness makes them without doubt the villains of the piece - the kind of people for whom my wife Liz is happy to suspend the embargo she has on the use of the word "cunt". So these cunts left, and this girl is lying prone, quite a bit of shopping on the table in front of her, her eyes slightly open and a bit gluey. It doesn't look good, so Liz checks that she's actually still breathing. She is, and her legs are moving, so I think we're OK to leave her, especially since the bar staff are trying to get us to leave.

But then these bar staff come past once, twice, three times, collecting the empty crisp packets and glasses in front of the girl, but ignoring the comatose customer herself. Well no, that's not quite right - the third time, the bar person - a spotty Australian youth - comments "Jesus, that's disgusting. I've never been drunk like that in my life," before walking away. So he's clocked that this is someone who is in no state to get home on her own, but the idea of taking some kind of action to resolve this doesn't occur to him. Neither does the possibility that the girl might have had her drink spiked, or even intentionally taken something other than alcohol.

Liz and her mate Joan decide not to leave until we know this girl is going to be OK, but the bar staff are insistent that we leave. They tell us they've called an ambulance and that the manager is coming down, so we move outside. Then we see they have revived the girl to the point that she is just about able to walk, and are trying to shunt her out of the pub so she's not their problem any more. Liz and Joan make thier presence felt again (a fat northern bloke sticking his oar in was probably not what was needed) and they eventually agree to look after her until an ambulance arrives.

Look, we don't know what the story was: she might have just been really pissed. She might have been an insufferable pain in the arse who her 'friends' couldn't wait to get away from. She might have been a regular. But we have this tendency to say "It'll probably be OK, and anyway it's none of my business." And 99% of the time this is probably right. But it strikes me that every date rape victim, every person who has ever been attacked and/or robbed while pissed, probably thought "It'll probably be OK" up to the point that it was too late.

Here was a girl who was quite clearly incapable of getting home on her own, and quite clearly not with anyone who was left in the bar. So I genuinely don't know, and am asking if anyone does: what are the legal responsibilities of the bar/pub in this situation? And if we wanted to say "fuck whatever the law says, what about basic human fucking decency", what moral obligation do bar staff and management have?

Let's have a heated debate!

Thursday, 12 July 2007

It's official - I'm the second-best beer drinker in Britain!

The All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group is a group of MPs that does what it says in the title - MPs without any party agenda cooperate to promote and celebrate British beer. Every year they have an annual shindig, one of the highlights of which is they name the person they think has done the most for beer in the preceeding year, and award them the honour of "Beer Drinker of the Year".

Previous winners include Kenneth Clarke MP and Prince Charles, and this year's winner was Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux, who deserved it after introducing beer lists to complement the wine selection in restaurants like le Gavroche and Aubergine, spurring people to think about beer in a completely different light.

But the runner up to Monsieur Roux was... me! Of course, this being the beer industry - which we love for its ramshackle charm, don't we - this year, like every other year, I wasn't actually invited to the dinner and had no idea it was happening. So it was a surreal birthday morning (it's my birthday today - I'm thirty-bastard-nine) when I started getting e-mails and phone calls congratulating me on something I had no idea I'd done.

I'm told by those present that John Grogan MP, the chair of the group, read out a lengthy extract from Three Sheets, some of the stuff I wrote about how to enjoy beer properly, getting the buzz rather than getting wankered, and how the way to encourage it is to promote the virtues of this lovely middle state between sobriety and drunkenness rather than just telling people not to drink as much.

I'm absolutely delighted about this. It means a lot when people say they found the book funny, but the idea that people as influential as this are reading the serious message within the book and taking it on board makes me happy beyond words. It makes the abject misery of having to go around the world drinking beer seem worthwhile (Oh, alright - it makes the £20,000 cost, the two stone extra weight and the two years of writing seem worthwhile).

And I'm very chuffed about being the second best beer drinker in Britain. If I'd won I'd have felt like a bit of a cock telling people I was Beer Drinker of the Year. It's a bit like 'Rear of the Year' or something. Being second best beer drinker in Britain - now that's cool. I can put that on the bottom of e-mails and stuff.

I'll have to see if I can get Michel to buy me a pint.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

John White

The world of beer is a bit less interesting and much sadder today after the death of one of my fellow beer writers, John White. He was only 62.

I met John through the British Guild of Beer Writers - we've served on the committee together for the last two or three years. Unlike the rest of us, I don't think he ever missed a meeting. While some of us grumbled about the venue being on the other side of London from where we live, it made no difference to him - he had to come down from Grimsby every time.

Beer creates strange bedfellows, and I don't think John and I would have ever been in the same room if it wasn't for the Guild. When I first started writing about beer I liked to think of myself as bringing something new and fresh to it, creating a broader appeal. I saw people like John as the Old Guard - people for whom beer was a hobby, in the quintessential English tradition, bordering on the eccentric, and often crossing that border. On a day-to-day basis, it's very easy to see other people only in terms of an agenda, if that agenda is different from your own. It's only when something like this happens that you stop and appreciate the fully-rounded person for the first time. That's a lesson I intend to take on board.

Beer was John's life. He devoted countless hours and days to scrupulously cataloguing bars and beers, particularly Belgian beers, which were his real passion. He organised 'beer hunts' to Belgium and Germany, always seeking out the new. I spent four days in Belgium with him a couple of years ago, and if we ever went ot a bar that just had the same old selection on its list he'd be impatient, protesting that we weren't getting anything new here, and we didn't have long, so let's go to this bar he knew that had a really extensive list. We were the guests of the Wallonia Tourist Board, and they didn't know what to do with him. John was dismissive of brands like Duvel and Chimay because they were too popular, and he suspected them of having compromised on product character and brewing integrity to gain that popularity. We younger writers used to laugh at the idea of brands that most people haven't heard of being considered too popular, but I guess it's no different from what I used to be like around music when I was an 18 year-old, John Peel-loving indie kid. I'm not like that about music any more, but John kept that wide-eyed passion for beer his entire life. And as a result, he introduced me to Westverlateren, and I have to admit that he was right.

Another Guild committe member once told me that John referred to me as "the fourth best beer writer in Britain". I'm still not sure if this was a drunken wind-up, but it's easier to believe than not. From his very vocal passion about other writers, we quickly worked out who the other three would be, before moving on to speculate just how far down the list John had made it while cataloguing our vocation. We reckoned he'd probably got anything up to fifty of us in there somewhere, using a scale consisting of several key criteria giving an overall average score.

As you might expect from this description, John was the kind of guy who harboured a formidable collection of beer memorabilia in his cellar. The floods that have swamped large parts of the north of England swept into that cellar last week. John apparently lost most of his stuff, and was trying to salvage what was left and store it in his loft, when he collapsed and died.

It would be mawkish to speculate further on thse scant details, which I only heard third hand, so I won't. But it strikes me as the saddest thing I've heard in a long time.

I and the people I count as friends within the beer community didn't always see eye-to-eye with John, but we never doubted his passion, commitment and energy, his single-minded devotion to evangelising the beers he loved. He was the kind of person who had the potential to make committee meetings a real pain in the arse: he never did, not once. On the contrary, he was unfailingly polite and considerate, often very funny, always a fine drinking buddy.

Regards and cheers, John.