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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?
We've just launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards - click here for more details!
I'm doing a Masterclass in beer writing with the Guardian in February. Click to find our more.
My latest Publican's Morning Advertiser piece - some pub etiquette tips for Christmas visitors.
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Friday, 30 October 2009

Barnsley man fails in quest to revolutionise pub, but gets credit anyway

Just writing a feature about the innovation that's happening in cask ale dispense right now, with new hand pumps from Greene King, Bombardier, Black Sheep and others. And I just found out something that absolutely delights me.

The invention of the beer engine or handpump is commonly credited to one Joseph Bramah, a hydraulic engineer and locksmith who invented the hydraulic press, a decent toilet, a money printing press, and lots of other stuff.

On 31st October 1797 he successfully gained a patent for a manually operated beer-pump which he believed would have tremendous advantages for "the masters of families and publicans'.

Because there's no previous patent, he is cited everywhere as the inventor of the modern beer engine. But the truth is that his device bore no resemblance to the modern (i.e. traditional) hand pump, and never dispensed a single pint of beer. Whereas hand pumps depend on pressure from the beer engine on the bar to create a vacuum that draws the beer up the line for the cask, Bramah's sketches show a system of pistons inside casks, weighted with heavy bags of sand. The piston pushes the beer down inside the cask, through an opening in the bottom, and up the pipe to a simple tap at the bar.

There were two impracticalities here: one, pub cellars didn't have the height to set up the pulleys and weights required. Two, we all know what beer casks look like. They have curved sides - making them utterly useless for any kind of internal piston action. The publican would have had to transfer beer upon delivery into special containers the piston could work with, which would have been far more work than just getting the pot boy to run down to the cellar and dispense the beer manually, which is what the system was meant to replace.

The story is confusing because the beer engine that actually worked was in widespread use just a few years after Bramah registered his patent. But whoever came up with the successful idea, there is no record of them - and it wasn't Bramah.

Anyway, that's all fine. But the thing that caught my eye is that while Bramah may have been a rubbish beer inventor, he was from t'Tarn! Joseph Bramah was born in Stainborough Lane Farm in Wentworth, South Yorkshire, just outside Barnsley. Of course, Wentworth is the wrong side of Barnsley - it's out towards Rawmarsh. He may have been within walking distance of Jump, home of Percy Turner's legendary pork pies, but south of Barnsley is still south of Barnsley. Anyway, in 1783 he made up for the error of his birth by going on to marry Mary Lawton, who came from Mapplewell - the village I grew up in!

He probably had a pint in the Talbot. He probably met Mary while going round tarn on a Friday night, maybe in Ye Walkeabout.

Anyway, the couple soon moved down south, to That London.

Well, they had to. If you tried being an inventor in Barnsley they'd just laugh at you and say "Thee and thi fancy hydraulics. Backbreaking labour in the white heat of the world's first industrial revolution, man and machine chained together as one not good enough for thee and thi posh mates, is it?"

Two centuries later, I feel a certain bond with this man from Barnsley who tried to change the face of beer, failed, but is still remembered for something he didn't actually do.

Detail on Bramah's rubbish beer pump and the emergence of one that worked are from Peter Mathias' excellent Brewing History in England 1700-1830. A bible to any beer historian since 1959.

Moral panic and shameful distortion

My latest column for the Publican is a return to one of my favourite themes - the wilful distortion by the British media of the facts around binge drinking. I do go on about it but that's because it's a live issue and one which every beer fan must engage with - as this piece demonstrates.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Cape Verde

having woken up one day last week realising I hadn't written an invoice since July, I'm currently hard at work trying to fill the gaping hole left in my finances after a summer successfully promoting Hops and Glory.

This leaves me no time to write up the many, many blog posts I've got backed up.

So instead, here's a thing. Hops & Glory is about 130,000 words long. When I submitted it to my editor, it was 180,000 long. One of the bits that I was quite happy with that ended up getting cut was Cape Verde, the group of islands we stopped at for the night on Europa, the tall ship taking me from Tenerife to Brazil. It didn't really move the story on in terms of anything about IPA or me getting my beer to brazil, so it was reduced to its bare bones. I quite liked it though, and the bits on the cutting room floor aren't going anywhere, so here, for your edification, I offer the uncut story of my night in Cape Verde.

If you haven't read the book the characters will be unfamiliar. I hope this makes you read the book. If you have read the book, I hope you enjoy a bit more depth. If you think this is far too long to post on a blog, I hope you know the drill by now - don't let me keep you. :-)

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE:

CAPE VERDE

Cape Verde is made of compacted cigarette ash, it’s covered in flies and the beer tastes of wet cardboard.

That’s all you need to know.

No, really.

OK, I’ll expand a bit.

In weeks to come, the thought of a mere six days out of sight of land would seem like nothing but a brief hop. But at the end of that first week on board, the excitement of seeing land again was enormous. We all loved being on Europa, but the idea of some other stimulus – different people, different food, something new to look at and hear and smell – made us giddy from early afternoon that first Saturday.

There’s always a faint haze where the sea meets the sky, even on the clearest days, and land doesn’t just peek gradually up from under the horizon. It suggests itself as a grey outline, a rubbed out sketch, and you dismiss it as cloud if you notice it at all. Then you look again minutes later and it’s there, a silvery-olive hulking lump full of possibility.

There were two islands rearing up before us, and as they gradually took on definition, developing like a photograph, revealing cliffs and rocks and beaches, our mobile phones came out of hibernation. I was pleasantly surprised by how few people rushed to grab them when they realised we had a signal, but I was one of the two or three, desperate to call Liz. A week without speaking seemed like ages.

We sailed between the islands, ragged and volcanic in close-up. I was eager to see what this remote tropical island community looked like, and to start with, my reaction was… quizzical. We were making for Sao Vicente, the biggest island. Ruined, Biblical houses perched high on its grey cliffs, flat, square and monochrome with windows like eyeless sockets. Eventually the cliffs and houses gave way to Mindelo, a wide harbour dotted with rusting container ships and Second World War motor torpedo boats dragged from retirement to serve as coast guard vessels. Incongruous beside these, a few luxury yachts dawdled nonchalantly.

We moored at the very end of the concrete harbour wall, as if for a quick getaway. Ten minutes later, every surface on the ship was covered in a fine grey dust which must have been volcanic in origin, but looked and felt exactly like cigarette ash. Sheltered from the sea breeze, the air was suddenly hot and sticky. Workers rushed to help with ropes and then stood staring at the masts. It seemed to take an inordinate number of customs officials to clear us, and once everything was in order they hung on, as unwilling to leave as Alberto had been on Tenerife. This is what it must feel like to be going out with a supermodel, I thought – men staring at her wherever you go. I was proud that I was with her, accepting that I was invisible to others who desired her.

The harbour wall was a mural of different ships and the sentiments of their crews. American war ships had left bulldogs, giant eagles of fire and huge cannons, “War ready to preserve peace,” a tiny, permanent invasion with spray paint. Crews from countless other nations were content to leave their names and depictions of their ships, and messages no more warlike than “Welcome to Russia.”

In the sunset we could see a few palm trees planted on the sea front where it curved round the bay away from us, suggesting a little more affluence, the only break from grey earth tones. It struck me that whoever named this place Cape Verde was obviously suffering from colour blindness – the entire island was the colour of the ash that now coated Europa like ugly snow. But as I was about to discover, the very name of these islands was simply the greatest example of their favourite national pastime: lying.

Night fell quickly. We dressed properly for the first time in almost a week and struck out for the town. I fell in with Paul, Paddy, John and Cosmic Joe, strolling down to the port entrance self-consciously. We didn’t know where we were going or what we would do when we got there, but we were new friends on shore leave, giddy for dry land, eager to discover whether or not we would still be able to walk straight without swaying.

Outside the harbour gates local men were waiting for us. One immediately fell in step beside us. “I take you bars? You want see city?”

“No thanks, we’re fine on our own, thank you.”

“OK,” he replied, walking alongside us.

“No really, we’re fine.”

“Yes, I know. We go bars yes?”

Most of us being English, there was nothing else we could do at this point apart from allow him to take us to a bar, give him some money and hope he would be gone by the time we re-emerged.

To be fair, it was a fine bar. Upstairs a wooden balcony overhung the street and we colonised it, uncomfortable, wondering if we could feel our sea legs after all or whether the balcony was really swaying. We watched girls tottering past on stilt-like heels and men loping up the street carrying freshly caught dorada by the gills. The crumbling colonial architecture and big old cars made it feel like most people who have never been to Cuba imagine it to be.

The local beer, Strela, was fine served cold, but it only came in fun-sized portions – 25ml bottles that seemed to evaporate in the heat of the moment. After two rounds the bar had none left, so we moved on to Sagres. This Portuguese beer usually earns a little more respect than most of the world’s interchangeable lagers, but in Mindelo it really did taste like wet cardboard, and we couldn’t finish it.

We went in search of more Strela. Klaas had recommended we look for the yacht club, which sounded alluring, but we couldn’t find anything that looked as classy as the name suggested. In fact, we couldn’t really find much of anything at all. The whole town seemed to be deserted apart from the few people we’d seen earlier. Eventually we discovered another bar on the harbour front. It was empty, and the waitresses seemed surprised to see us.

We spread out across the empty seats, and talked about Europa. None of us were booked on for the Antarctic voyage, and I was now starting to think that this might be a great trip to do. It reminded me of a story one of Liz’s friends told me not long after we were together, and I couldn’t resist sharing it. Liz once saw a nature programme, or someone told her about it, which pointed out a new crisis for Antarctica’s penguins, as if they didn’t have enough to cope with already. An increasing number of planes are flying over the Antarctic, and because the penguins have never seen them before they look up to watch them go past. But they’re not accustomed to looking up, and often they fall over on their backs. And once a penguin falls on its back, it can’t get up again. OK, seeing it written down the story looks less than convincing. But Liz is the most compassionate person I know and immediately resolved to go to the Antarctic to help up penguins who had fallen over while looking at planes.

Everyone laughed except Cosmic Joe, who seemed troubled. “Ah, but they are a nuisance, you know?”

“Penguins? A nuisance? How’s that Joe?” asked Paul.

“In Cape Town, it is full of penguins. They are everywhere, tearing up gardens. They are destroying property prices. They are a menace.”

Cape Town? In South Africa? Penguins?”

“Yeah. They are menace. It is very bad.”

I tried to work out if there was a word in there that Joe had misunderstood, and then a fail-safe mechanism kicked in to prevent me trying to think like Joe did. It could be dangerous. We ordered another round of drinks instead, but with our first one we’d drunk this bar dry of Strela too.

From here we wandered back in the direction of the ship. There was nowhere else to go. There was one more bar to try, promisingly named Club Nautico, but it turned out not to be the yacht club as we had hoped. Locals glared at us, and my pubsense told me we were sitting at their regular table. Anton strode by, determinedly, on some kind of lone quest. Cosmic Joe drifted away. Five minutes later, he was back, telling us that the mythical yacht club was just across the road, and everyone else was there.

And so they were. The entire crew of Europa (except Anton) sat along the bar and took up half the floor. Even Val had stopped working. Everyone was dressed in their smart clothes, looking uncomfortable, as if at a school disco.

You’d never describe the yacht club as stylish or glamorous, but I was starting to realise that Mindelo wasn’t the place to come if that’s what you were looking for. It was busy and lively, and that was good enough. Our crowd occupied the entire space in front of a stage in one corner. Two guys played guitars and sang a mixture of Cape Verdean and Brazilian tunes and old jazz standards, and very good they were too. Cosmic Joe stood swaying on his own, eyes closed, grin splitting his face, dancing in a trippy style of his own making, possibly to the music being played on stage, or perhaps to another tune only he could hear.

Margriet was also enjoying herself. Her holiday reading was an encyclopaedia of jazz, and her most treasured possession was an antique saxophone. She carried a picture of it with her, and showed it to us like a baby photo. The band started one number, which she later informed me was a famous international jazz standard from the 1950s.

“Oh, I love this one!” she cried when she recognised it.

A local man sitting near her leaned across. “Ah, you like this? This is a very popular Cape Verde tune. My nephew wrote this!”

Dieter, wankered off his tits after two small beers, decided it was time to demolish the myth about Germans and their sense of humour once and for all. He approached Margriet and me and announced, “A man fell down a flight of stairs. He turned to his wife and said, ‘I’ve lost my hat.’ She said, ‘Oh, I thought you said you had lost your head.’”

We waited a few seconds to see if there was any more of the joke, but that was it. I thought I must have misheard, or missed some of it, but a few days later I was talking to Janet and Peter and they told me they’d had the same joke inflicted on them too, and that was definitely how it went.

After we’d drunk the yacht club out of not just Strela but all its beer, and the band had packed up (to catch a plane to play a gig at Madison Square Garden, I’m sure) we decided to head back to the ship. It was midnight as we boarded, and straight away Val started applying rubber sealant to the planks on the main deck, without even pausing to change out of her party clothes. The poor girl hadn’t worked for at least two hours.

With no watch necessary, the rest of us went to bed for a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep. Or so I thought.

I woke up at 4am unable to breathe. The air was so hot it felt like the oxygen had been burned out of it. I staggered up to the deck and collapsed onto a seat in the deck house, where I was a little cooler. I dozed, and woke up three hours later covered in flies.

Sunday morning in Mindelo is dog washing day. The children of the town marshal the surprisingly healthy-looking mutts that run free in the streets and drag them determinedly into the sea to be scrubbed (some more willing than others). I paused to watch for forty five seconds, and just as it occurred to me that Mindelo is much more attractive when you have your back to it, Umberto sidled over for a friendly chat.

“I show you Mindelo?” he asked after telling me his name.

“I’ve seen it, thanks.”

“I take you to bar? To girls?”

“No, I have to go back to my ship now. I know the way. It’s right over there, look. Anyway, nice talking to you. Goodbye.”

I set off down the promenade, and Umberto fell in step beside me. “There are no jobs in my country,” he began. And for the next twenty minutes he talked in a spiral, weaving a Gordian knot from a mouthful of deceptively simple strands. First came his visits to England: “I’ve been to London, Belfast and Brighton. People do not believe me when I tell them I have been to Brighton. But I say to them, you know the large container port near the pier? You come out of there and there is a big disco on the left. Then they know I tell the truth.”

Second, he was at pains to point out his honesty, so unusual on these islands: “I want to earn money, I want to feed my babies. I no rob you, I’m not like that.”

And finally, back to his one-man efforts to promote Mindelo as a pleasant tourist destination: “If only we had met last night, you would have had a good time. I show you things. I show you all of Cape Verde. And maybe girls? Some people take you to see girls, and while they are there, they rob you. Not me, I’m not like that. I tell you, I am honest.”

We neared the harbour. “I’ve got to get back to my ship, sorry. I know the way, it’s right down here. I’ll be fine from now, thanks.”

“You want to drink some beer?”

Oh, why the hell not?

“I tell you my story,” said Umberto.

Fine. I wanted to know a little more about life here. I had an hour to kill (not that he knew that), I could use a beer in the heat, and maybe if I asked the right questions, I might learn something interesting.

We entered the ferry terminal that serves the passages between the islands. On the fly-blown tarmac outside, a few women sold odd pieces of fruit and anything else they could lay their hands on. Inside, a bar selling not just drinks, but also chocolate, biscuits, shampoo and razors, provided us with the first draught beers I’d seen since leaving Oceana. “Can I have a cigarette as well?” asked Umberto. I nodded. Seconds later, he was back from the bar with a packet of twenty Marlboro. “Thanks,” he said, waving the packet before pocketing it.

I tried to persuade him to elaborate on his rote speech. He repeated that there were no jobs on the islands, and said most of the money in Cape Verde comes from handouts. I struggled to understand why the islands campaigned for independence from Portugal. There’s nothing here on which to base a free-standing economy, apart from ash and flies. I realised this is where tourism comes in. “Have a look at the property out there,” Liz had told me, “all the magazines say it’s a great place to buy holiday homes as an investment.” That can only be because the government here are being very persuasive in making such a case. They must be desperate. I couldn’t believe that Lamb woman off the holiday programmes had fallen for it. They must have sent her a better liar than Umberto.

“I left Cape Verde when I was eighteen, nineteen. I followed my brother onto the ships, and on my first voyage he died!”

“That’s terrible,” I said.

“I still wanted to work on the ships. I went to Greece, to Marseilles, to England. I went to Belfast, London and Brighton. You know the big container port in Brighton?”

And we were off again, the same few lines. I tuned out while Umberto talked and smoked.

“Where are you going on your ship?” he asked suddenly.

“Brazil,” I replied.

“Ha. Brazil. Cape Verde is better. We have more beautiful women here. And more beautiful beaches.”

“You have beaches here more beautiful than Copacabana and Ipanema?”

“Of course!”

We finished our beers and Umberto insisted on walking me back to the harbour gate. I gave him all my change, the unwanted Portuguese escudos that the old mother country had no use for after the introduction of the euro. There was the equivalent of about six euro worth, which I thought was a decent half hour’s work for him given how hard I had tried to explain I didn’t need walking back to the harbour, then bought him not only a beer, but a packet of Marlboro. But Umberto disagreed. He tried to push the change back on to me, saying, “No, no, you keep this as a souvenir of your time in Cape Verde. You give me paper money. I want notes. Haven’t you got any paper money?”

No I fucking well hadn’t got any paper money. Actually, as a matter of fact, I knew I had one 2000 escudo note left in my wallet, (about 20 euro). But I’d had enough. I decided to keep that as a souvenir of my visit to Cape Verde instead. “I walk to your ship with you. I come in with you,” Umberto was saying. The guard looked at me and I shook my head. Seconds later, I was on one side of a barred gate and Umberto on the other. A pro to the last, he actually had the gall to look affronted by my cold, parsimonious behaviour.

By the time we were ready to cast off, a thirty-knot wind was barrelling through the straits between the islands, sending breakers crashing over the sides of a battered old cargo freighter anchored out in the strait. As soon as we were clear of the protective harbour wall Europa heeled over, every sinew straining, singing in the wind. Getting the sails up this time was a serious, tightly controlled operation. While I was working on the main deck, a wave hit me square in the back and swept me across the planks, and we all realised we needed to be careful.

Once we were in front of the wind we shot forward, peaking at eleven knots, only two below Europa’s maximum recorded speed. Our jet-propelled escape seemed to lift the spirits of everyone on board. We all felt dirty. Everyone wanted a shower.

The sky was thick and steamy, and as the sun sank the light took on a solid hue. The whole sky turned a pale, golden straw colour, and the sea was purple.

It took a week to get rid of the flies from the deck house.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Pete's Pub Etiquette: no.3 in an increasingly rare series

Bar staff: if for some reason you think it's more important to collect glasses than to serve a customer waiting at the bar, in a pub that's not particularly busy, why not try acknowledging the customer by saying something like. "I'll be with you in just a minute," rather than totally ignoring them?

That way, your customer will feel like they are more important in life's grand scheme than an empty crisp packet.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Danger: ale drinker on the loose

I'm having another go at media coverage of binge drinking because I've been asked to talk about it in my next Publican column.

Even Google is biased: I needed a stat yesterday for the (GROWING) number of teetotallers in the UK. I typed into Google "What percentage of the UK population is teetotal?" and the first page of hits was dominated by links titled "What percentage of the UK population suffers from alcohol abuse?" You just can't win.

The seventh link down was to a PDF of a booklet called Alcohol and Drinking Problems, published by Family Doctor Publications Limited in association with the British Medical Association.

There's a cartoon strip illustrating a case study of a man who used to drink a bit too much, and now doesn't. It's so bad it's almost good!

First thing - as work pressure gets to Mr Roberts and he turns to alcohol to solve his stress problems, guess what drink he turns to? That's right! A pint of ale, that well-known heavy alcoholic hit so beloved of problem drinkers.

See how the pint of ale makes him use threatening body language to his exasperated wife when he gets home. He's probably very close to beating her.

And then, the serious medical consequences - his blood pressures is "a little high"! See how the doctor immediately, with no discussion or further tests, KNOWS with absolute certainty that the "a little high" blood pressure is linked to drinking (and not the work stress that drove Mr Roberts to drink in the first place).

So he gives up drinking, and now he doesn't drink he's a good father to his son, helping him with his homework instead of getting boozed up in the pub. Ale drinkers never help their kids with their homework, I bet. And the work stress, the high blood pressure, and probably every other problem he's had, have all gone away. He's even had time to change into some casual clothes instead of the dishevelled suit he wore all the time when he was drinking.

I love that the title of the page is 'Understanding Alcohol' - the people who put it together clearly don't.

The earth didn't move. But that's OK

In the end it was typical Brew Dog: a good, original, interesting idea, overhyped so ludicrously that the reality was a bit of a letdown, but having created enough debate and discussion to make you suspect this is what they intended all along.

If this blog is the only thing you've ever read on the internet, you may be unaware that yesterday, after teasing us for months, Brew Dog announced the launch of Equity for Punks, essentially an IPO offering fans of the beer the chance to own a tiny sliver of the brewery. The money raised by the share issue will finance the building of a new brewery.

It's certainly had a mixed reaction. The shares are stupidly overpriced - the 10,000 shares represent 9% of the total equity which, at £230 a share, would mean the brewery itself is worth around £23 million. It's not.

But that's not the point. I doubt Brew Dog will sell all 10,000 shares, but the people who are buying are buying something more than a 0.0009% stake in the most exciting brewery in the UK. The people buying are people who don't normally buy shares. They're buying this share because they want to align themselves with something interesting and iconoclastic, to be part of an adventure. Think of it less as a share, more like a T-shirt or badge saying "I'm one of these cool, interesting people who's part of this cool, interesting thing." And remember the lifetime 20% discount on the beers too.

Will I buy my share? Probably. The only thing I'll say though is that if the shares were a tenner each, I'd probably have bought £500 worth. Many Brew Dog fans won't be able to afford the £230 price of entry. There's an exclusivity here that's not very punk. It's actually going to be a stretch for me, but I don't want to miss the ride.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

New Beer Club

Just received an introductory box of beer from myBrewerytap.com, a new mail order beer club. (Disclosure: they sent me the box for free in return for me writing about them).

The idea is that you get 13 bottles of beer each quarter - not enough to keep you going, I know, but the first box certainly provides an interesting addition to the cellar. It's a really thoughtful selection of beers and the ones I've had so far - Burton Bridge's Burton Porter and Eccleshall Brewery's apallingly-named 'Top Totty' (Please, guys. Stop it. Now.) were really great beers.

I may be wrong - I may just have been lucky - but I suspect that there's some quality control happening on beers that are included. There are ones I recognise from Meantime and Breconshire, but most of them are form micros around the country I haven't come across before.

And you get free glasses and bottle openers and stuff too, and some notes about each beer.

Well worth checking out.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Inside Beer, and inside my book

Jeff Evans is a veteran beer writer and very nice bloke, editor of the Good Bottle Beer Guide, author of loads of books and winner of a pile of awards.

He recently launched a new website, Inside Beer, which is far, far more than just a blog or place to plug stuff. You can get lost in there with loads of features, reviews and handy hints.

Right now there's an interview with me about Hops and Glory too.

What more could you ask for?

More good beer stuff in a national newspaper

Today The Independent features their 50 best (bottled) beers. I was asked to be one of the contributors, along with Roger Protz, Jeff Evans and Zak Avery.

I submitted about 18 out of the 50, but obviously there was some overlap between us so not all of mine are in. But it's a great selection overall.

The website navigation is pretty dodgy, so if you're interested, I'd suggest buying a copy of the paper if you can.

How to sell barley wine

If you're interested, here's the text of my speech from the Guild of Beer Writers seminar last Monday - it seemed to go down pretty well.

The best book on marketing I ever read was called Positioning: the battle for your mind. It was the best book because it contained one simple idea. It repeated this idea over and over again, with countless examples, until you got it. And it’s an idea that can help you sell anything worth selling.

Basically, the idea is this: the way the human brain works, when we are introduced to a new thing or idea, we automatically try to make sense of it by filing it in our brains next to things we already know. We understand it by relating it to things we’re deeply familiar with. The first cars were known as horseless carriages. Television was like radio, but with pictures. And Seven-Up launched in the United States as ‘the uncola’. In each case, the product is defined – positioned – against a product that’s already familiar.

Think about when we write tasting notes for beers – the best way to describe an American IPA to a wine lover is to compare it to a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Imperial porters are “vinous”. And who can say they don’t regularly describe the combination of hops, barley, yeast and water as chocolatey, fruity or biscuity?

The term ‘barley wine’ is a classic piece of positioning thinking – we know what wine is. It’s made of grapes. This is wine that’s made from barley. Of course, technically its beer, not wine, but if a potential drinker, never having heard of it before, hears this phrase, they can decode a lot of product information from it. It’s going to be strong in alcohol and in flavour. It should be sipped and savoured from a small glass, not drunk in pints. It’s going to come in a 750ml bottle, designed for sharing, that’s going to look great and cost a lot of money and be suitable on a dinner table and… oh hang on.

It’s quite interesting to see where the analogy breaks down, isn’t it? The very name, barley wine, sets accurate expectations about what the product will deliver. But not about what to expect from how it will be packaged and sold.

And there’s another problem: if you say ‘barley wine’ to older drinkers, they have another concept in their heads which means they don’t actually get to wrestle with the metaphor of the name to unlock those rich associations. To them, barley wine is rocket fuel, cheap and nasty, something that was around in the seventies. To win them over, you need to do something that breaks the association between the term and the drink they used to know.

The solution to both is simple enough: a different approach to presentation and packaging.

If you package a very strong beer in the same type of bottles in which you package ordinary beer, give it a similar name and labelling, and sell it at a not too dissimilar price point, people are going to think that it’s like other beer – carrying the same associations, to be drunk in the same fashion. This is why people think of an 8% beer as insanely strong when they’re perfectly happy to drink 12% wine in similar quantities. Present it in a different way, a more premium way, and people will think of it differently.

Drinkers have two sets of associations in their heads: beer, and wine. Barley wine can and should play with both. A clich├ęd advertising proposition for barley wine would be “the beer that thinks it’s a wine”. You can immediately see the associations that conjures up. But you have to do it justice. Think about quality. Presentation. Ritual. When you get a bottle of barley wine that looks like it’s worth paying seven quid for before you’ve even picked it up, you’ve probably got it nearly right.

You might not like the fact that we’re using wine as a benchmark of quality. But you have to work with what’s already in people’s heads. And it is called barley wine.

The business of beer

Had an interesting week that's seen me on me feet three times telling people something about the selling of good beer: on Monday I was asked to do a short speech at the British Guild of Beer Writers Barley Wine seminar. On Wednesday I was asked to present the prizes for packaging and design at the International Beer Challenge, after chairing that part of the judging (the other tables got to drink the beers - we got to look at them!) And on Thursday I was asked to make a short speech and present the overall winner of the SIBA Business Awards.

This all represents a bit of a development for me - I haven't been asked to present anything before and it was very nice to be asked now.

I thought it was interesting that all three were linked to the marketing and selling of beer - I suppose that's my strong point, if I have one - and that all three fell in the same week.

At the SIBA awards I said that marketing has long been a dirty word in beer circles. Because global bland brands use a lot of marketing to sell beers that have very little character, marketing itself gets the blame. But what we're seeing now is lots of brewers starting to engage with it.

On TV, megabrands spunk more in one commercial break than the vast majority of brewers will ever have to spend on marketing in a year. But the world is changing. If you bottle your beer, everyone has the same space on which to create an attractive label. Same with a standard handpull pumpclip. On Twitter and Facebook, everyone from AB-Inbev to that bloke down the road with a one barrel plant in his garage has the same space to play with. The playing field is level in many key respects. And the big brewers will tell you that TV is less effective these days - what you need to do is get in at a grassroots level and work closely with pubs and consumers to give them something they want in a more tightly defined target audience. Smaller brewers are at least as well, positioned, if not better positioned, to do community and grassroots stuff than big brewers are.

But as more people take an interest, the standard is improving. I'm not going to name names, but there were some truly horrible beers submitted to the IBC design and packaging awards - stuff that was meant to look premium and just looked cheap and tacky, and stuff where there had been no thought given whatsoever to how this bottle was meant to persuade someone to pick it up form the shelf. There's nothing about being a great brewer that means you're more likely to be a great graphic designer too. And small, independent designers are all over the place, looking for ways to prove themselves and not charging the earth to do it. Getting it done properly is a very worthwhile investment.

And at the SIBA awards, we saw an awful lot of entries where a brewer had created a one-off brew with a special pump clip to help celebrate an event, or to promote awareness of a charity and give a donation from every pint sold. This is sound business practice, solid promotional thinking and proves that small brewers are worthy members of their local communities. But it ain't award-winning stuff. The winners went further and created big ideas, put marketing and/or entrepreneurialism at the heart of their thinking rather than a bolt-on at the end.

It's a tough market out there - there's no reason why any brewer can't compete on equal terms. But it's got to be done properly. And more and more brewers are realising that.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Getting grumpy about beer provenance

So Scottish & Newcastle - the company that has already closed all its breweries in both Scotland and Newcastle - is going to start brewing Newcastle Brown in Yorkshire.

Now we all know that Yorkshire must be the best place in the world to brew beer, because Yorkshire beers are the best in the world. But this is a silly business decision because Newcastle Brown is a Newcastle beer and a Newcastle brand and a Newcastle legend.

OK, so Broon has been brewed in Gateshead rather than Newcastle for the last few years. That was bad enough. But it was just across the river and most people were prepared to overlook a technicality that only Geordies really cared about. It was still Newcastle really.

Now, S&N have taken a commercial decision which they think is a good one: to create vital cost savings by closing a brewery that, on paper, it no longer needs. There's brewing capacity at Tadcaster, and Broon is produced on such a big corporate scale that moving it isn't going to make the slightest bit of difference to the product as it now stands. In a declining market, big brewers can't afford to be sentimental, and have to bow to the demands of the balance sheet and the stock market.

The problem for S&N is that this is not a good commercial decision. It's a really, really dumb commercial decision.

It's a dumb decision because it has really, really pissed off the brand's core audience - in other words, the people who drink most of it. This decision is a slap in the face to the brand's core drinkers. In fact it's more than a slap in the face. It's a happy slap and a really offensive "your mum" joke and pinning the drinker to the ground and farting on their head all rolled into one. It's saying that local provenance in beer and local pride is less important than short term balance sheet savings.

It's a dumb decision because even if you don't live in Newcastle, beer provenance is part of why you choose a brand. A lot of people think Geordie style and culture is quite cool in a strange way, and they buy a bit of that cool when they buy a bottle of dog (which is what they call it cos they've heard that's what real Geordies call it).

It's a dumb decision because it's called Newcastle Brown and has a picture of Newcastle on the label and if it's brewed nowhere near Newcastle then it's just a deeply average brown ale with no roots, provenance or authenticity.

It's a dumb decision because premium bottled ale has been in steady growth for ten years - up 5% last year - as most other sectors of the beer market are in decline. Broon is the market leader in premium bottled ale. To make such a public statement of disinvestment and deprioritisation of a brand that is brand leader in the most successful segment of the beer market is, to put it a little too bluntly, really fucking stupid.

Next month, S&N are changing their name to Heineken UK, after being bought by the Dutch brewer at the start of 2008.

And that reveals why this decision is not just stupid, but really insulting too.

Because it would be easy to say that Heineken simply don't understand the role of provenance and place in beer brands, in the way that, say, Inbev clearly don't. But Heineken understands this very well.

Ten years ago Heineken in the UK was a standard lager brewed here under licence by Whitbread. It was the fourth biggest beer brand in the country, with over 1.1 million barrels sold annually. But it was an anomaly to a company that is passionate about the quality and consistency of its product. They axed the standard Heineken. Heineken in the UK is now a decent quality 5% premium pilsner lager, brewed in Holland and imported to the UK - because to build the brand, they feel it's important that it comes from where it claims to come from.

So here's a company that's saying its own brand, with its name on it, is very important. Its provenance is a crucial part of its appeal and that's why we only ever import it from Holland. But Newcastle Brown? This brand we inherited when we bought a company to get our hands on UK on-trade distribution for our beloved Heineken? Well it might be important to you northern peasants, but we couldn't give a shit about it. Yorkshire? Newcastle? It's all the north, innit? What are you complaining about? That's what they're saying. Honest it is.

I'm not one of those reactionaries who slags big breweries just because they're big. I like some of what Heineken do. But this is nasty, stupid and offensive.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Festivals and that

My latest pieces in the Publican:

I've been inspired by all the different kinds of festivals I've been privileged to appear at this summer, and it made me think about how pubs might benefit from the psychology they create. I wrote about it here.

If you read this blog much you'll have read about the Cask Report already. But if you'd like to read me writing about the same points using slightly different words, you can do so here, and see a nice chart I'm quite proud of.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Cask Report update

Amazing response to the Cask Report - we printed 10,000 copies and they've all gone. Hopefully printing more.

The Publican's Dan Pearce came along to the launch on Monday and brought his clever little phone. He did a video and put it on YouTube. Apart from convincing me to go on a diet and detox for a month before I ever allow myself to be filmed again, it's quite good:

England Ukraine update

There was a bit of debate the other day about how pubs might stream the internet-only game tomorrow.

Well tough shit to everyone who thought there was a way. According to The Publican, pubs are actually BANNED from doing so. Venal bastards Perform - the rights holders to the game - have mandated that the game cannot be screened for "any commercial purpose whatsoever" and will be checking the IP addresses of people who fork out for the game to ensure that pubs are not accessing it.

According to the greedy C***-in-chief at Perform, they looked at the possibility of streaming the game into pubs and decided it was "not viable". So if you're one of the people who said it could be done quite easily, Perform say you're wrong.

No doubt rubbing wads of tenners around his scrotum while he did so, the git claimed that England fans have responded to the company's sucking out the soul and spirit from our national game in a way that he is "encouraged" by.

If you'd like to discourage them future highway robbery, please go here and tell them how wrong they are.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Things I should have posted over the summer no.1: Adur Brewery

It's been a privilege over the last four months to travel the length and breadth of the country doing signings, readings and tastings to promote Hops and Glory. I've met new people and made new friends, and made many mental notes to blog about some of the fantastic beers, brews and people I've met. I'm embarrassingly late on this and now, finally, have time to do a bit of catching up. My appreciation of the Crown Brewery and Hillsbrough Hotel, Acorn, Thornbridge, Lovibonds in Henley, Nantwich, the fantastic Welsh brewers at Abergavenny, beer and food dinners with Purity and White Shield, and trip to Belgium will all be up in the next week or two. But let's start with the Adur Brewery down in Steyning in Sussex.

This was quite special in a number of ways. Andy Dwelly was on holiday a couple of years ago, reading Three Sheets to the Wind. And when he got to the end, he decided to set up a brewery. I never imagined I might influence someone to do something so drastic!

My Hops & Glory tour coincided with the brewery's first birthday, so I thought the least I could do was go down and help them celebrate.

The brewery itself is right in the heart of the South Downs, in an outbuilding behind a big house down a leafy, quiet, single lane road. You're right out in the country, and this gives the whole place a very mellow, relaxed feel.


Andy makes several beers - I started off with Ropetackle, a 3.4% golden ale that's doing incredibly well in the local community, then Velocity Bitter (4.4%), Black William Stout (5%) and the Trappist-style St Cuthman's Red Wheelbarrow (10.5%). I'm ashamed to say I've lost my tasting notes, but from what I can remember all were very good indeed. I quite like the branding too - each label is based on a local historical figure or event. There are some cool designs, all quite different save for the common identifier hidden somewhere in the picture - a red and white jester's hat.

And Steyning is a lovely village/town. The local bookshop did the best display of my books I've ever seen:
and we got a great attendance and sold lots of copies at the event in the evening. It was one of the best events I've done.

Adur feels like it's still in a start-up phase with the inevitable growing pains. But what struck me is the friendly spirit around the town and the brewery - it feels like an active part of its community, with people popping in to help or just to say hello.

The list of where the beers are stocked is already pretty impressive after such a short time in business. I'm sure we're going to be seeing a lot more of Andy and Adur in the next year or two.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Losing the plot

So the England Ukraine World Cup qualifier this weekend is only going to be shown over the internet. And if you only decide to watch it on Saturday, it's going to cost you £12.99 for the privilege.

Given that England have already qualified, no broadcaster wanted to pay the asking price for the rights to show it.

This must be one of the most ugly, stupid, venal, blinkered, cruel, callous, cynical, nasty, plain fucking daft decisions ever taken in sports coverage.

Apart from the obvious social exclusion here - if you're not affluent enough to have a decent computer and broadband internet connection, tough shit - this move will cost pubs millions in lost revenue. Not everyone likes watching a big match in the pub, but many of us do. When places are rammed with fans, you get a special atmosphere that simply can't be replicated in the home. You get a sense of community and companionship that's all too rare these days. I'm not sure if pubs would even be permitted to try to show the game through a laptop. But it would probably be pretty rubbish even if they did. Anyone who wants to watch the game will have to do so sitting at their pc.

Given that England have already qualified, can I suggest that every England fan who cares goes to the pub when the match is on anyway, and spend your money on beer instead of with these greedy bastards?

Britain's National Drink - the new Cask Report launches today

Cask beer - or real ale - is outperforming every other beer style. It's returned to volume growth. The number of women drinking it has doubled year on year. It creates a unique 'value chain' that helps pubs become more profitable.

All this and more is featured in the Cask Report, which I'm launching with a press conference at Brew Wharf tonight.

This is the third year I've been invited to write this annual report, backed by micro, family and regional brewers, Cask Marque, CAMRA and SIBA. I got paid for writing it - hell, it takes four months to do - but I strive to remain independent while doing so.

The first cask report (then called The Intelligent Choice) showed that cask ale wasn't doing quite as badly as everyone thought - it was declining by no more than the beer market generally.

Last year we showed it was declining at a much lower rate than other beers.

This year we're revealing what will hopefully become a return to volume growth - cask grew by 1% in the first six months of 2009, and current trends suggest it will show a full year of growth by December. Remarkable given all the shit pubs are currently having to contend with.

This demonstrates that the taste for craft-brewed, flavourful beer is no longer confined to a beardy few. Great beer is going mainstream, and that's a good thing.

The challenge with all this is persuading a few more pubs that there's something in it for them. cask still sells at a lower price than most beers on the bar. Great for those drinkers on a tight budget, not so great for the publican who's struggling to make a living.

The Cask Report reveals that cask ale creates a value chain that brings more affluent drinkers to the pub, more often and in greater numbers, who spend more money on everything - not just cask ale - while they're in there. I'm not arguing that decent cask ale pubs are immune to recession, but they are closing at a much slower rate than pubs generally.

Please read the report, or at least the press release. Tell your friends. Tell your local publican. You rarely hear any good news in the broader beer market these days - and this really is great news.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Tokyo* Supermarket Sweep

I know I know... I should be blogging about Nanny State. But I need to try some first, and I'm a bit busy.

Anyway, I was just very briefly revisiting Tokyo* because I'm giving it a mention in a big piece I'm writing about beer marketing for a Sunday newspaper magazine (yep, you read that right - one of the biggest papers in the UK has actually commissioned an article on beer).

Anyway, for this, I wanted to do an accurate comparison of pence per unit of Tokyo versus other stuff. I've seen Brew Dog and others do comparisons of how much booze you can get for the same £9.99 price tag as a bottle of Tokyo, but I don't think anyone has worked out the precise unit comparison I may be wrong - apologies if you have and I missed it).

Anyway, I found an alcoholic unit calculator, looked at some offers on supermarket websites, and got a bit more absorbed than I needed to for the feature I'm writing. So I know Tokyo* is old news and has been blogged to death, but I thought I'd share it here - if you live in the constituency of one of those Scottish MSPs who signed the motion against it, please feel free to copy this to them:
  • One £330 ml Tokyo* contains 6.1 units - at £9.99, that's 0.61 units of alcohol per £1
  • Blue WKD is in Asda - three four packs for a tenner. Even with the alcohol level having been recently lowered to 4.5%, that's 1.4 units per £1
  • The standard price in Tesco for 24 x 284ml bottles of Stella is £10. At 5%, that works out at 2.39 units per £1
  • Promotional prices on Stella over the last 12 months have reached as low as the equivalent of 67p per pint. That's 4.5 units per £1
  • Tesco Currently has a really nice offer on a lovely-looking Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc - six bottles for £23.52. The wine is 12.5%, so that's 2.84 units per £1.
  • Morrisons is currently flogging Grants Whisky for £12.99 a litre. At 40%, that's 3.07 units per £1
  • Even Carling - hardly a drink that's going to get you smashed in a hurry - gives you more bang for your buck - Sainsburys is flogging 15 x 440ml cans for £10 - at 4.1%, that's 2.7 units per £1.
So let's summarise that, in order of units per £1:
Tokyo* - 0.61
Asda Blue WKD - 1.4
Tesco Stella (normal price) - 2.39
Sainsburys Carling - 2.7
Tesco Kiwi Sauvignon - 2.84
Morrisons Grant's whisky - 3.07
Morrisons/Asda/Sainsburys Stella (promo price) - 4.5

WKD gives you more than double the alcohol for your £1. A fairly common offer on white wine (I checked out several other deals that came in similar) gives you 4.5 times as much alcohol per £1 as you get from Tokyo*. When it's on promotion - which it will be again for Christmas - Stella gives you 7.5 times as much alcohol per £1 as Tokyo does. If you want to get wankered cheaply, Tokyo* is rubbish - it's worse than even Carling.

Of course, it's not all about price. There are issues about it being one serving, and about general perceptions of how strong beer should be, versus wine or spirits, based on how we normally drink them.

But pricing comparison is crucial because the anti-alcohol lobby that is attacking Tokyo is the same anti-alcohol lobby that wants minimum pricing and duty increases on alcohol... because they think higher prices will deter binge drinking.

And with that feat of deduction, it would be nice if the neo-prohibitionists would finally disappear up their own arses.

Or at least admit the total and utter logical incoherence of their argument.