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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!

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Feeling privileged...

... because I was recently asked to name a new beer!  Seaforth is the latest release fromThornbridge, an 'English' India Pale Ale. 
This is blue and the text doesn't look weird until I post it here.  
I've no idea why blogger has had a go at changing the design.

What this means is that it's similar to Jaipur, but brewed with 100% English ingredients, making it much closer to what the early nineteenth century IPAs would have been like.  I haven't had chance to taste it yet, but it's dry-hopped, darker than many IPAs, and very hoppy, according to head brewer Stef.  I can't wait to try it.

Why Seaforth?  Well, it sounds like a good name for an IPA, doesn't it? BUt it has a very special place in IPA's history.

Anyone who's read J Stevenson Bushnan's 1853 book 'Burton and its Bitter Beer' will know that the two ships that transported the first cargo of Samuel Allsopp's India Ale from Liverpool to Calcutta were the Bencoolen and the Seaforth.  The Seaforth arrived a few weeks after the Bencoolen, so what makes it special?

Well, when I was in the Indian National Library in Calcutta, I found the edition of the Calcutta Gazette from 1823, around the time these ships arrived.  At that time, London brewer George Hodgson dominated the Indian market and was restricting supply to maximise his profit, refusing credit terms to everyone, and generally pissing off the most powerful corporation the world has ever known.  The cargo of Allsopp's ale that arrived on the Bencoolen sold for about two thirds of what Hodgson's did, such was his reputation, and on that basis Allsopp would have failed - and that would have meant no Burton IPA.  But one of the ads around the arrival of the Seaforth reveal an extraordinary stroke of luck:

To be sold by Public Auction, by Messrs Taylor & Co, on the CUSTOM HOUSE WHARF, by permission of the Collector of Sea Customs, at eleven o’ Clock precisely, on Saturday next, the 28th Instant, 48 HOGSHEADS of Hodgson’s BEER, and 17 empty HOGSHEADS, landed from the ship Timandra, and 30 hogsheads of Hodgson’s BEER, landed from the ship Seaforth. 

Hodgson had sent out a dodgy batch of beer on the same ship as Allsopp's second consignment, which had arrived in perfect condition.  This allowed Allsopp to get into the market, and the consignment on the Seaforth sold for double that on the Bencoolen.  People then tasted IPA brewed in Burton for the first time, realised how superior it was to London IPA, and the rest is history.  You can read that history in Hops and Glory of course.  

So what better name for an English IPA brewed just up the road from Burton? 

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Beer and marketing

I didn't mean to sound too critical of the multinational I mentioned yesterday - it's what I expected them to do.  At that scale, it is about branding first, brewing second.  And when your brewing all takes place inside shiny sealed closed tanks and happens at the push of a button, there's not so much you can talk about anyway. Small brewers undoubtedly have an advantage when there's a sense of a guy who brews the beer, who has a sort of marriage to it, and who can show you the insides of how it's made if you talk to him or, even better, visit his brewery.

But many small brewers often go too far the other way and seemingly reject marketing as somehow evil.  I've - hopefully - recently worked my last day inside an ad agency because a great deal of what I had to do there made me feel dirty.  It wasn't the process, the craft of marketing itself that was the problem - it was the kind of people it attracted, what they will do to get on, and what we were all obliged to do when unpleasant companies gave us the money that paid our frozen salaries and Martin Sorrell's £60m bonus.

Sorry, this is going to turn into another long post - too much pent up blogging over the last few weeks!

If you take the tools of marketing and use them in a good way, they're not evil.  Marketing does coerce people, but 90% of the time it does so with their consent.  People are marketing-savvy, and choose to either play the game or not.  And we live in a branded age - it's simply how things work.  If you choose not to play, you go invisible, or look very dated and stuffy.

When I first started writing about beer, I was really pissed off with CAMRA in this respect. Prominent CAMRA members frequently wrote about how people only drank lager because they had been brainwashed by big brewers with shiny ads.  What an insulting, snobbish, elitist thing to say - "you proles have no individual will, and you are too weak to resist this mass social conditioning - whereas I am immune to it, because in some way, I am cleverer than the masses."  And by refusing to play the marketing game, standing outside it, these people by default made CAMRA seem like a very stuffy, geeky organisation filled with the kind of people you wouldn't want to associate or be identified with.

I've learned a lot about CAMRA over the last six or seven years. The organisation is modernising itself and learning to play the game, and at central office at least, there are people who are forward looking, PR-savvy, and are very effective at engaging with the broader world.  I've also learned that CAMRA is a loose umbrella that holds many divergent opinions.  The vast majority of members are ordinary, decent people who really like good cask ale and - gasp - occasionally, on the hot day, might have a pint of Heineken instead.  But I have also met a great many hardcore nutters who clearly wear tinfoil hats when they're not releasing vile silent-but-deadly farts as they raise their personalised pewter tankards at beer festivals. You still hear these people saying lager is evil, that people who drink it are stupid, neither realising nor caring that they are actively discouraging new converts to cask ale by their appearance and behaviour.  It's fantastic that CAMRA membership is about to break the 100,000 barrier.  But in the context that there are 7 million regular cask ale drinkers in the UK, it's obvious many still feel the organisation doesn't represent them.

(My only remaining gripe with CAMRA central on this score is that the weird, unpleasant anthropomorphic people with pints growing out of their heads is a long way past its sell-by date.)  

This is all a hideously overlong and rambling prelude to saying, 'Hurrah!  The SIBA Business Awards are back!'  SIBA is a trade body for small and independent brewers in the UK.  The vast majority of the beer these brewers make is cask ale.  It could very easily have become like CAMRA of old, a fogeyish trade body mirroring the consumer movement.  But it hasn't. Big brewers want to join SIBA.  It's rapidly becoming seen by many as the major voice for the brewing industry.  And while they celebrate great brewing at their annual conference, as of course they should, the business awards celebrate best support of customers, best use of PR, best use of new media, best packaging, best launch etc.  

What these awards demonstrate is that effective marketing doesn't require the multi-million pound budgets of the big four multinationals who dominate the British market.  I write regular features for the Brewers Guardian showing how tools like great label design, viral marketing and effective use of PR can be done by any brewer of any size with a little effort and time.

People like Stonch have blogged consistently about how depressing it is to see beers with names like 'Old Pisshead' or pump clips featuring scantily clad women.  It makes the whole industry, and the people who drink their products, look like twelve year-olds.  On the other hand, look at Thornbridge, Brew Dog, Wye Valley, Otley.  Brew Dog may be loved mainly for the bravery of its brews, and Thornbridge also brew beers that, as they say, are 'never ordinary'.  But all four of these breweries give as much love and attention to creating modern, contemporary design - design that's bringing in new people to try their beers.  They are all experiencing soaring sales.

So if you're a brewer and you're not entering the SIBA Business Awards, you need to ask yourself why. If the multinationals spend more time thinking about marketing than brewing, it's because it works for them.  There are only a few breweries who are excellent at both brewing and branding.  And look how they take off when both are great. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

An interesting observation

Another thing keeping me busy is that I'm writing up thirty beers for a new coffee table book on great beers from around the world.  This involves phoning the brewery to check a few facts and see if there are any nuggets of trivia that will make my (very late) copy more interesting.

Every small to medium sized brewery I have approached has referred me to the brewer. Whereas tomorrow I'm talking to a large multinational brewery tomorrow, and they've put me on to the brand marketing team.

I've got nothing against beer marketers.  They pay me more to talk to them than publishers pay me for my books.

But I just thought the contrast was quite telling.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Normal service about to be resumed.

My audience at the Borders Book Festival was marginally bigger than that shown here.

It's been a crazy, fantastic few weeks around the book launch.  As you can tell by my lack of posting, my feet have hardly touched the ground.  There are so many stories I wanted to share, but I've forgotten most of them.

Billy and Declan proved to sceptical Three Sheets readers that they are indeed real, and that I did not exaggerate them in any way.  The Animal Lover With No Arms now looks at them suspiciously when they run into him in Galway, so we think they've been rumbled.  At first they thought they might get away with it because no-one in his family can read, but word has got out.  And Declan informed us that he has been diagnosed with scurvy.  When the doctor asked him when he had last eaten fruit, he replied, "Ah, that would be the early 1980s."

The following week, the drunkenness moved to Burton on Trent.  I was invited to lunch at the Burton Club - an institution I didn't even know existed when I wrote Hops & Glory, but which was founded by the men I've spent two years researching.  On to the Coopers Tavern for the Burton book launch.  A more intimate and less glamorous affair than Brew Wharf, but with attendees from White Shield, Thornbridge, Acorn, Burton Bridge and the Crown Brewery at Sheffield's Hillsbrough Hotel, it was great to get a gaggle of brewers around to taste the last remaining cask of Calcutta IPA.  At nearly two years old, it was starting to resemble the beer I opened in India after the journey.  A wonderful experience... until someone knocked the cask and it fell to the floor, churned up, but still about half full.  Ah well.  Was invited to brew IPAs by both Acorn and Crown, and will be doing so in July, around the Derby Beer Festival and my reading at the Devonshire Cat on the 9th.  Me and Mrs Pete Brown's Beer Blog will also be brewing again at Thornbridge that week.  I really am spoilt.  And getting Mrs PBBB to clean out the copper should be the spectator event of the year.

The following weekend saw me rubbing shoulders with Richard Stilgoe and John McCarthy on Excess Baggage on Radio 4, which seems to have gone down really well, and I got my sailing piece in the Guardian (before you follow this link - I'm sorry about the headline.  This was a sub-editor who simply didn't know any better.  I would never knowingly try to appropriate the title they gave me).  Sales went berserk as a result - Amazon ran out and everything, so I was well pleased.  Spent the day at the Beers of the World Live/BBC Good Food Show on the Worthington White Shield stand, and the response was fantastic - hopefully a lot of fathers were pleased last Sunday, because I signed an awful lot of books to people who felt they'd found the perfect gift.  

White Shield are sponsoring my reading tour and couldn't be more helpful.  If you live around the Midlands look out for Hops and Glory Ale, a special cask version of White Shield with the book cover design on the pump clip.  And soon, White Shield in Sainsburys will carry a neck collar offering a great deal on the book.  This legendary beer isn't that easy to get hold of, but it's having a huge renaissance and the ancient, creaking former museum brewery can't brew enough beer to meet demand.  It's a fantastic experience to take it round and introduce it to people who have never tasted it before - a true taste of a traditional English IPA.

And then it was off to Scotland.  Attendance at my Scottish launch event was disappointing because we'd moved the date from Thurs to Weds, only to find we'd moved it into a direct clash with an Oasis gig and, just a hundred yards away, the launch of the Edinburgh Film Festival.  But it was great to have the Caledonian Brewery to ourselves.  I had a fascinating chat with a woman from The Scotsman, and met a journalist whose girlfriend is a direct descendant of Samuel Allsopp!  I spent so long trying to find info on him, and here at the launch I was hearing that there are lots of family stories about him, few of which are complimentary.

And on Saturday, down to the tiny town of Melrose for the Borders Book Festival, which has nothing to do with the chain, but is organised by a bunch of wildly enthusiastic and kind people who live there.  It takes place in a few marquees in the grounds of a beautiful big old house.  And after I got over the shock and nervousness and feeling of being inadequate and a fraud to be in the same room and on the same bill as Ian Rankin, Vince Cable, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Jim Naughtie and David Aaronovich, I had a fantastic time.  My reading was well-attended, and the complimentary Deuchars IPA was swiftly despatched.  If you love books, do yourself a favour and go to this festival next year.  I certainly will be, even if it is as a paying punter rather than a performer.

My tour continues throughout the summer.  Please do come along if I'm near you.  There'll be free beer and everything.

Hopefully now though, I can get back to talking about beer and pubs and the wonderful and frustrating industry I find myself stuck in. 

Friday, 12 June 2009

Busy Weekend

Forgive the completely self-promotional nature of this post.  However: 
  • Tomorrow (Saturday 13th June) at 10am I'm the lead item on Excess Baggage on Radio 4.  If you're not sitting by a radio in the UK at 10am GMT you can probably listen to it here after transmission.
  • Tomorrow's Guardian also carries a long piece by me about life on Europa, the fantastic tall ship I took as part of my voyage to India.  Not only that, but the guide to summer pubs, free in tomorrow's paper, also features (hopefully) several of my reviews of my favourite pubs.
  • And if you're around the Midlands, come to the BBC Good Food Show.  Beers of the World Live is part of it.  The Worthington White Shield stand is part of that.  And I'm part of that - signing books.
Yes, it's the first ever Pete Brown media over-exposure day.  Get everyone you know to buy my book, and I promise I'll get out of your face.


Thursday, 11 June 2009

Hangover on tour

Great launch event in Burton last night for Hops and Glory - going to put photos up tomorrow.

Meanwhile tonight sees my first reading and signing at The Hob, Dartmouth Road, Lewisham, organised by Lewisham Library.  If you're close enough to beat the tube strike, come and join us!

Monday, 8 June 2009

Finally recovered the use of my hands and head

Editor, author and international beer smuggler.  From l to r: Larry Nelson, editor of Brewers' Guardian, Jeff Pickthall, beer blogger and smuggler, and me 

This seems a little trivial now in light of this morning's news, but my book finally launched on Thursday night.

It was even better than I'd hoped - a fantastic party that made me feel very humble.  Lots of IPA was consumed.  Loads of my mates came.  Loads of beer writers and bloggers came.  Neil Morrissey and Richard Fox came.  
Beer blokes from off the telly.

The secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group came.  
Robert Humphreys of the Parliamentary Beer group - no, he's NOT asking for a copy on expenses!

And Billy and Declan came.
Mrs Pete Brown's Beer Blog with Declan (l) and Billy (r, with crutch after kickboxing accident.  He was kicking some boxes and hurt his foot.)

More about Billy and Dec later, but if you read Three Sheets to the Wind and thought I'd made them up, or exaggerated them, I didn't.  They came from Galway to get drunk at my party.

Thanks to everyone who came.  Thanks to the people from Pan Macmillan for organising it and ALWAYS doing more for me and my books than they should by rights.

And thanks so much to Brew Wharf, which is where we held the party.  Since it opened, Brew Wharf, part of Vinopolis, never quite succeeded in being the beery mecca it so obviously should be.  It's a great space, but it's just round the corner from the Market Porter and the Rake, two of London's best beer pubs, and has never given the impression that it celebrates beer as much as you think it should - the fact that they had more wines than beers on their drinks list - in a place called Brew Wharf - kind of said it all.  

But all that is now changing.  I was contacted a few months ago by Ben, the new manager, who is passionate about beer and was very keen to build new links with the beery world.  They've expanded the beer range (now more beers than wines!) guest bottles change, there's a microbrewery on site which produces very palatable session beers, and I'm not sure if there's any left after my party, but Meantime IPA was on draft along with a number of other great beers.  If you've visited before and left unimpressed, it's time to give Brew Wharf another chance.  If you've never been before, now's the time to go! It was the perfect venue for my party.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Wicked Wikio!

Every month, Wikio compile rankings of UK blogs by subject, one of which is Gastronomy. Wikio explain that the position of a blog in the rankings is determined by the number and weight of incoming links from other blogs.  Then there's some stuff about RSS feeds and algorithms which many of you probably understand but which to me is just a noise.  But the result is what they can authoritatively describe as the 'most referenced' blogs in a particular subject area.

I remember months ago Stonch was contacted by them to give an exclusive preview of that month's rankings, because his blog featured in the top ten.  Of course, I had to have a look to see if I was in... and I crept in at number 48.  I was quite chuffed at having the 48th most referenced food and drink blog in the UK because it allowed me to make self-deprecating comments about my 'success', which are the only kind Mrs Pete Brown's Beer Blog will tolerate.

Well, I can't make them any more.  This month Wikio asked me to unveil the new figures, which I was very surprised by... then I saw I was up to number 6!

I'll admit that when I saw I was only number 48 it did spur me to write a bit more frequently, but I'm blown away by this.  Thank you so much to everyone who links to my blog, for both your frequency and... um... weight.  Here's the top twenty, due to be published tomorrow:
It's great, considering that this is all food and drink, and that the top one belongs to The Guardian, that beer blogs feature so prominently. It shows that despite a tendency to moan in this medium, blogging has been a revelation for the beer community, and has allowed enthusiasts to gain a genuine influence in the world of not just beer, but broader food and drink coverage. I've only just broached the top twenty, probably due to Hops and Glory buzz, but Stonch and Tandleman are there every single month, hovering around the top ten.  When mainstream media continue to meet pitches from beer journalists with "I'm sorry, we just don't cover beer, we don't have room," blogging reveals that there are talented writers, issues to be discussed, and an audience that wants to read them in the beer world.

And fair play to Wikio UK for categorising this area as 'gastronomy' - the US site follows the annoying trend that bookshops do and refers to 'food and wine', which always makes beer feel like a guest invited at the last minute to make up the numbers.  By accident or design, no beer blogs feature in the top 100.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Er... what's happening to the off-trade bottled ale revolution?

Bottled ales in supermarkets - brilliant!  OK, they have no idea whatsoever how to categorise and arrange beers, but they stock an incredibly diverse range at reasonable prices.  Or at least, they did.

I don't actually go to supermarkets very much.  I've just got back from my nearest big Sainsburys at Angel, Islington, for the first time in a few months  I've always been impressed by the range of stuff they stock - a full range of Taste the Difference beers (brewed by Meantime), 750ml bottles of Meantime Porter and IPA, comprehensive ranges from the likes of Fuller's and Marston's, plus loads of micros.  As Angel is a pretty upmarket area, I've often used this store as an example of how affluent, curious people are clearly embracing ale.  

And now, they've refurbished it, approximately doubling the floorspace.  This could only be brilliant for beer, right? Right?

In a store that's doubled in size, premium/speciality beers have been slashed from an entire aisle to two bays.  Premium bottled ale has been cut from three bays to one.  No Meantime.  No Micros.  No Taste the Difference.  In fact nothing that isn't made by Marstons, Fullers, Innis & Gunn or Hall & Woodhouse, save the odd exception.

So I went next door.  One of the reasons for the refurb is that the old Woolies has now turned into a medium-sized Waitrose.  Now they're the best supermarket chain for bottled beer.  They stock Deus and everything.  Um, not here they don't.  The same ranges from the big regionals, plus one or two locals, and that's it.

Nearer home, my corner shop has sold out and just reopened as a Sainsbury's local.  The Turks who used to run it knew nothing about beer, but they stocked a fine and constantly changing range.  The new Sainsburys stocks three ales and about four lagers, in much greater quantities.

I've read that in most categories in grocery, supermarkets will only stock the top two or three brands - higher quantities, better terms for them, less hassle, less choice for the consumer.  But until now beer has always been different.  

Is this now changing or am I just unlucky with my choice of store? If this is typical of what's happening across the country, it could be disastrous for smaller brewers, as supermarket chains don't look at range and diversity, just who the top three or four brewers are, and maybe the odd concession to someone else local.  No disrespect to Marston's, Fullers and H&W - I frequently buy their beers - but if they are going to be the only ones available outside specialist beer shops in future the whole category will be poorer for it.

Please tell me this is not happening in your local supermarkets too.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Bank Holiday Pub Fun Part two: Pub du Vin

Been meaning to try Brighton's Pub du Vin since it opened, and I'm very glad I finally got the chance.

They have a weird licence that mean s you can only order a drink if you have a seat, and this leads to a distinctly unpubby slew of 'reserved' signs on tables.  But we got there early - in fact we were the first customers.

Six hand pumps on the bar and a good range of bottles in the fridge.  Of the hand pumps, two were Harveys, two Dark Star and two guest micros.  I ordered a pint of Dark Star American Pale Ale and was very happy to see the barman carefully pull through the first pint and pour it away.  he talked knowledgeably about the beers when asked, and told me the range is constantly rotating, with local hero Harveys Best the only permanent fixture. 

To veer off the point a sec - the Dark Star pale ale was awesome, brimming with American hops but not too heady at a sessionable 4.7%.  And it was served in pewter tankards - a nice touch.

A chalkboard explains the concept - a pub from the award-winning Hotel du Vin chain - and that's exactly what the vibe feels like - not a local, not a hotel bar, but a pub with its Sunday Best on.  "Beer is the new wine.  This is your new local."  Finishes the manifesto.  So the only place they lose marks is when we ask to see the menu and are given a two page wine list, but no beer list.  This seems like such an easy own goal.  You wouldn't expect to see a beer list if they hadn't gone on about it, but with such a great range, and such a slogan, it's mystifying that they don't have one, and don't make any beer matching recommendations on the menu - the food certainly begs for suggestions.

One thing I love about the menu is that it contains a range of bar food - single oysters, sausage rolls, pork pies, pickled eggs, cockles, bread and butter, all between £1 and £4.50.  It mystifies me that, as with wifi access, more pubs don't offer this kind of thing.  We are seeing it a lot more now, but only in the poshest gastropubs, and yet it's basic, down to earth, honest good pub snacks that were universal sixty or seventy years ago.  How many times have you been peckish in a pub, not wanted a full meal, but wanted more than yet another bag of crisps or nuts?  A higher spend and a longer dwell time guaranteed.

We had a full meal and it was beautifully served, excellent food.  It's all locally sourced and while a bit fancier than average, it still feels like pub food rather than gastro - fish finger butties, bacon and egg baps, as well as stuff with chorizo and rocket - and you can hardly call a pub that serves cornish pasty and chips pretentious, though some would balk at the £8.50 price tag.

The toilets are worth a visit in their own right.  The tromp l'oeil mock-bare brick wallpaper is trying a little too hard.

We really were in there very early.  Half way though our meal, we were joined by a big family group at the 'reserved' table, who ordered a mixture of Pinot Grigio and pints of lager top to accompany their beer-battered fish and chips, smoked haddock fish cakes and steaks - aargh! That's why you need a beer list!  And then a couple of elderly women sat down and started talking about the MPs' expenses scandal. "When MPs were independently wealthy and did it part time we didn't have to pay them. And back then we had the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and no expenses scandal." Of course!  That's it! Let's simply roll back nearly two centuries of electoral reform and bring back colonialism!

So there you go - great food, great beer, pretty good surroundings, and moronic, ill-informed conversation conducted with great conviction.  Everything you could want from a pub.

And did I mention they stock one of my books in their little lounge?