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

What's new?

What's new?
More new events added in Bristol, London and Edinburgh over April and May
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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Monday, 19 May 2008

Brand Tags - what do you really think of a brand?

There's an amusing site that was pointed out to me by people at the ad agency where I'm currently moonlighting.

It's based on a principle that we all use in adland: you can write a definition of what you would like your brand to stand for, but a brand is an abstract concept, so the only real definition is the one that exists in people's heads. The site therefore prompts you with a logo and asks you to write the first word or phrase that comes into your head. It then collates these into a word map, a true definition of the brand in question.

It's largely American, so its use to us Brits is a little limited, but I laughed out loud when I checked out what Budweiser really means to people. Bud Light is even better. Compare this with Sam Adams, and you realise that there's hope for the mass palate yet. We're confused about Heineken, which maybe reflects how that brand is perceived differently in different parts of the world, but we absolutely love Guinness.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Three Sheets to the Wind and the deleted scene

I've just finished a first read-through of the first half of the new book, which has involved slashing lots of stuff out because I write too long. It reminded me of last time I did this, two and a half years ago. I had to cut about 40,000 words from the first draft of Three Sheets, and some good stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. I fought to keep the following scene in because it's one of my favourites, but I lost. It makes me laugh whenever I think of it, and I hope it raises a smile for you too. I'm just east of Greenwich Village, New York. It's late afternoon during a long day of pub crawling, when I still have a couple of hours to kill before meeting Garret Oliver for the first time...

An hour later, walking again when the rain has slackened fractionally, I spot a bar painted all black outside, with red curtains pulled closed across the windows. Through the door, all I can see is a dull red glow. The smell of a university gig venue wafts out.

A stag’s head perches above the bar, almost hidden under a collection of lacy red, black and pink bras draped from its antlers. A sign taped on the mirror behind the bar reads, “Do not touch the bartenders.”

I order a Sam Adams. The guy leaning on the bar next to me, bulging T-shirt and wispy ponytail, snorts with derision when I speak. All the guys perched at the bar are drinking bottles of Bud, apart from one who is nursing a Pabst Blue Ribbon. I didn’t think they even made this stuff any more. I find out later that there is a growing market for ‘relic beers’, the brands that disappeared in the Beer Wars. Now brewed under licence as budget brands, they sell for nostalgic reasons, but also benefit from the protest against globalisation and saturation marketing. In Portland’s one anarchist bar Pabst outsells Miller Lite.

Something tells me that my friend here is not drinking it to demonstrate solidarity with the anti-capitalists. I’m at the corner of the bar, and the guy who sneered at my Sam Adams is talking across me to another guy whose arms are covered in tattoos. “Yeah, when I was doin’ time, I used to do a lot of painting. Guys would come up to me all the time and ask me to do tattoos. The whole thing – they had the needles and ink ready to go. I’m like, no, no, I don’t work on skin. But they just kept on and on.” He shakes his head and takes a long pull from his bottle.

“So… did you do ‘em?” asks the tattooed guy.

“Well, no. I told you, I don’t work on skin.”

“Oh.”

They go back to contemplating their beers in silence.

I become acutely aware that I’m carrying a Saks Fifth Avenue bag. This is only because I always buy underwear whenever I come to New York because it’s half the price it is at home, but these guys don’t know that, and my poncey craft beer has just arrived (in a Bud Light glass, admittedly – maybe the barmaid is trying to protect me.) Suddenly, with overwhelming certainty, I realise I am Niles Crane.

There’s one vacant stool at the bar, between the Sam-Adams-hating Prison Artist and the – really rather large – tattooed man. I decide to head for a table instead. This means I stand no chance of being able to strike up a conversation, but maybe that’s for the best.

I can choose between two tables: one right by the exit, the other by the jukebox. The only other seating in the place is a long bench running around two walls. A pool table dominates the centre of the room, a Galaxian video game and a pinball machine the remaining wall. I take the jukebox table, to prove (to myself) that I’m not totally chicken.

Someone has scrawled above the juke box in pink chalk, “Play 4202 and Jamie will dance.” I wonder if Jamie is the barmaid on duty. She looks like she might dance, if the music was suitably industrial: tall, stick-thin, dressed head-to-toe in black with lace, rips and piercings throughout. Or maybe Jamie is a boy’s name. He might be one of my new friends at the bar.

A couple of guys go outside for a fag (sorry, I really should say ‘cigarette’ while we’re in here). Even here the no smoking rule is observed. They come back in, and now the barmaid goes out. Then the guys all follow her back out to chat to her while she smokes. Suddenly I’m entirely alone in the bar, with a big bunch of guys outside blocking the exit.

The bar is called 2 by 4 because it’s on the corner of 2nd Street at 4th Avenue. (You can visit next time you’re in town). But now the name suggests a piece of two-by-four; a hefty chunk of wood, such as you might use to beat someone to death. Once you’ve broken all the pool cues.

Perhaps now I could go and check out what 4202 is, but I really, really don’t want them to think I’m about to put on some music in their pub. I waver too long, and they drift back in. My exit clear, I dart out and head west, carrying my Saks bag low.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Neo-Prohibitionism Update

Some news headlines from the last seven days:
  • Boris Johnson's first policy announcement as London mayor: drinking to be illegal on public transport from June 1st
  • Westminster council to prohibit all outdoor drinking (including in Soho)
  • Tesco to ban alcohol sales to parents shopping with their children to discourage under-age drinking
  • Glasgow Celtic and Rangers to remove Carling logo from replica kits sold to children to discourage under-age drinking
  • Binge drinking blamed for 10% rise in crime among girls as young as ten

Ever wished you could just slap a hysterical country around the face?

There is no objectivity here whatsoever. Absolutely no research or reasoning that any of these measures will discourage the minority of people who drink dysfunctionally.

We're demonising drink. Independent anthropological research by Brown University in the US shows that it is this demonisation - this removal of drink from the context of ordinary life - that plays a major contribution in developing a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. If you don't believe me, spend an afternoon on the ferry between Elsinore (Denmark, where drinking laws a relatively liberal) and Helsingor (a couple of miles across the water in Sweden, where dirnking laws are extremely tight). Which nationality do you think are sitting outside cafes in the sun, sipping a beer slowly, watching the world go by? And which do you think is loading up trolleys with beer, tearng open cartons in the street and necking cans as fast as they're able?

The perfect pint - does it exist in an objective reality?

I read two completely different things yesterday that together prompted the above question.

I've just started reading Beer and Philosophy, edited by Steven D Hales. It's a collection of essays, sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek. In one essay, "Good Beer, or How to Preoperly Dispute Taste", Peter Machamer argues that the notion of 'ideal beer-tasting conditions' is nonsense, because beer appreciation is so closely linked to its context. He gives the example (it's an American book) of Samuel Adams Honey Porter - "lousy when sitting in the hot sun on a summer picnic, but fabulous in front of the fire on a snowy winter's evening".

It's the same thing as the eternal holiday beer conundrum - you fall in love with the local brand, but when you stick a couple of bottles in your case and bring them home, a miraculous transformation to urine occurs inside the bottle.

This all reminded me of a favourite game I play with drinking buddies. Ask someone what their favourite beer is, and they may insist that it changes over time, but they'll give you the name of a beer, or maybe a list. But ask them what is the best beer they've ever had, and they'll tell you that it was on their honeymoon, at this fabulous hotel, and they'd just had a wonderful day on the beach/on safari/walking in the hills, and the sun was shining and they were sitting by a pool and they were so damn thirsty, and the beer was brought over and condensation was running down the glass, and... you interrupt them and say, "Yes, but what was the beer?" They often reply, "Oh. I can't remember the actual beer. But it was definitely the best one I've had."

While thinking about this yesterday, I saw a story in the news: researchers at Herriott Watt University have discovered that the type of music listened to by people drinking wine has a significant affect on how the wine tastes.

They used four different styles of music:

  • Carmina Burana by Orff - "powerful and heavy"
  • Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky - "subtle and refined"
  • Just Can't Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague - "zingy and refreshing"
  • Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook - "mellow and soft"

The white wine was rated 40% more 'zingy and refreshing' when that music was played, but only 26% more 'mellow and soft' when music in that category was heard.

The red rating changed by 25% with 'mellow and soft' music, and a whopping 60% with 'powerful and heavy'.

This is apparently due to something called "cognitive priming theory". I just googled this term and got scared and ran away, but apparently it's to do with the music sets up the brain to respond to other stimulus in a certain way.

Does all this mean that there is no such thing objectively as a good beer or a bad beer? Is Rate Beer a complete waste of time? Was that last question rhetorical?

It's unarguable that beer can taste completely different from one occasion to the next due to factors that have nothing to do with temperature, condition, food matching etc. Combine cognitive priming theory with the huge variations in taste buds from person to person, and it's no wonder that the beer community's favourite occupation seems to be arguing.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Meet the UK's newest champion of cask ale

Alright, so I'm generally quite liberal in my views towards beer appreciation and resistant of beer snobbery, but this has given me pause. In fact I think I might have to run a little poll, because it's got me flummoxed.

The country's biggest tabloid is going into the beer business. Market research organisation Mintel reported last week that the plan is to launch a lager under the page three 'brand' -interesting to see what the Portman Group and every other alcohol regulatory body will have to say about that one, given that it is strictly forbidden to link beer and sex these days - and a cask ale under The Sun brand.

On the one hand, I despise Rupert Murdoch and all his works. I never pay any money to anything to do with News International if I can at all help it. On the other, you can't help but think this will benefit the market as a whole.

Why is The Sun launching a cask ale as well as a lager? It can only be because they think it's worth their while doing so. It ties in with the fact that premium cask ale is now consistently outperforming the rest of a dire beer market.

And The Sun has phenomenal power to change people's opinions. At the very least, it puts beer on the media agenda more firmly than it has been for ages. We currently have the worst decline in beer volumes for nearly thirty years. Surely this can only help. It is bound to upset purists who drink ale partly in order to show how different they are from the stereotypical Sun-reading, white van-driving lager lout, but how much of that is really about the age-old pastime of pouring scorn on working class men?

Will it be shit beer because most things The Sun does tend to be lowest common denominator? Or given that what they do, they do well (Sun journalism is actually very skilful), will they produce something that's accessible, but decent quality?

Good or bad, it's going to be interesting.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

I am so having one of these...

It's my fortieth birthday in a couple of months and I want to go out with a bang.

So imagine my delight when this was forwarded to me:

In case you can't see it from the pic, it's an inflatable pub. Pitch it wherever you like to redefine your local!

You can hire one here.

I've just spotted the pun in my first sentence. I didn't even realise.