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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?
New events added including Stoke Newington Literary Festival
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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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

July Video Blog: Scotland!

I bloody love Scotland, me.  I lived there for five years while at university, getting a degree and booking bands in the students' union in St Andrews, going to buy records and get drunk in Edinburgh, going to chill out in the stunning beauty of the Trossachs.

This month I got to reminisce about all this as we attempted to cover the brewing scene of an entire country in about twenty minutes.

Why?

Because this particular series of video blogs is all about cask ale, and from an admittedly low base, cask ale is growing in Scotland at about 30% year on year.  When I was at uni there were three types of beer, all from Tennent's, all a bit tasteless and horrible, apart from the ones that tasted of burnt sugar and were horrible.  So bad was Scottish beer I switched from being a cask ale drinker to a standard lager drinker.  It took me ten years to recover.

It is very, very different now.  Brew Dog, who we don't visit here (their Edinburgh bar is all keg, and the man who pays the vlog bills wants to focus on cask) is merely the most visible of Scottish brewers who are currently displaying extraordinary levels of invention and enthusiasm.

In the Guildford Arms in the centre of Edinburgh I find one of my old favourites.  Then we go to Caledonian, where Peter looks round one of the most stunning traditional breweries you will ever see.  Many in Scotland are unhappy about the takeover of Caledonian by Scottish & Newcastle, and more recently Heineken. Not without justification, there was a feeling that things would be bastardised and cheapened.  But I visited before Heineken took over, and now going back again, the unique coppers, the hop room full of whole leaf hops, the open fermenters, the range of beers, are all unchanged.  The only real difference is a massive commitment to health and safety, a more corporate head office presence through boards displaying targets for reducing accidents and so on.  The brewing process and the resulting beers are unchanged.

I have a chat with Steve Crawley, MD of Heineken, in which we discuss whether the brewery's flagship, Deuchar's IPA, really is 'not as good as it used to be'.

And then we're off to Bridge of Allan, just outside Stirling, where Peter gets a bit tipsy talking to a round table of four brilliant Scottish brewers about the state of brewing in the country: Fergus from Inveralmond, Douglas from Traditional Scottish Ales, Amy from Harviestoun, and Tuggy from Fyne Ales (who I'm currently trying to persuade to adopt me).  I review a Scottish Wit Bier, try to sum up the style of stout in under a minute, and by the end we're struggling to do a decent outro.  It's hardly surprising.


Next month - next week in fact - we are filming our final video blog of this series at GBBF.  If you're there on trade day, come and say hello.  If there's anyone you think we should be going to talk to, please shout!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Do women need their own beer?

Alongside beer styles, craft beer, cask versus keg and other such burning issues, the notion of 'beer for women' reared its head again this week with Molson Coors' launch of Animee, a new attempt to persuade the 79% of British women who don't currently drink beer to start doing so.  I was at the launch on Monday night. So was Melissa Cole, who is true to form in her outspoken views on the subject here.  Sophie Atherton also weighed in on the Guardian blog here.

I agree with the gist of what both are saying, but not on every single point.  I also get a sort of itching in my brain when commenters who have not seen, smelled or tasted these products dismiss them as 'piss'.  How do you know?  Even when I slag off something like Stella Black, I taste the damn stuff first.

I believe the launch of Animee is misguided and flawed, but there are some good points in there if you look hard enough.  I'll sum this up in a list of positives and negatives, to make it easy.



Negative:
The whole idea of a beer for women in the first place. It's never worked, because it's not what's needed.  I'm not surprised Melissa feels patronised - I'd feel the same if someone tried to flog me a 'wine for men'. As Melissa points out, women don't want a product that segregates them - they just want a product that doesn't actively alienate them.  Wine, cocktails, cider and premium spirits are neither masculine nor feminine, and they all seem to be doing just fine.  The only reason beer is overtly masculine is the long heritage of macho advertising in the UK - beer is far more unisex in other countries.  In Spain, 40% of total beer volume is drunk by women, and it's mainstream lager, same as here.  (Nice mainstream lager though, it has to be said.)



Positive:
The fact that Molson Coors are trying.  This was presented on Monday as part of a broader programme of ideas and initiatives to really promote beer across the board.  Molson Coors are a big multinational brewer who talk about beer in marketing speak (the subject of another piece). But I get the impression they do actually care about beer.  They show signs of understanding it, and respecting it.  Growing Sharps and Worthington are as much part of their plan as boosting Carling - which, by the way, also got a shout on Monday night.  A new 4.8% 'premium' version, Carling Chrome, is bland, pretty tasteless, but not watery and without the nasty aftertaste some of these beers have.  On the beer for women thing, they've spoken to tens of thousands of women and really got to the heart of what's keeping them from beer.



Negative:
Given all that research, I just don't understand Animee as a response to it.  The main barriers are all about image - not the product.  So why launch a different product?  I find the beers that convert women who 'don't like' beer tend to be very strongly flavoured - American IPAs or Imperial porters and stouts - because these women are currently drinking wine that has comparable characteristics.  I don't see the need to launch a product that doesn't actually look or taste like beer at all, and don't understand how a product that doesn't look or taste like beer, that has different language around it from beer ('clear filtered', 'lemon' and 'rose' anyone?) is going to attract women to drinking beer more generally.  It's actually only beer because Molson Coors say it is - it's not going to change anyone's attitude to what 'beer' is or can be.  Any women who drink this will do so despite it being called beer.



Positive:
It might not be beer, but actually I thought the product wasn't bad.  It wasn't remotely like beer, but I did enjoy it, especially the clear filtered one.  Light and refreshing, it would be a pleasant summer drink, an alternative to mainstream cider.  I also think the packaging, if you look at it for what it is, manages to be unisex and quite stylish, a few beers cues here and there, not too girly.  I know, I know, it's in clear glass.  That is a marketing decision because - and I say this as someone who has done countless focus groups over the last 15 years - every single drinker who is not knowledgable enough about beer to know about light strike says they overwhelmingly prefer clear glass.  It just looks better, and for many drinkers, beer is about style over substance.  Of course I don't agree with that or like it, but it's true.


So overall, I suspect Animee will go the same way as all other attempts to market a beer specifically for women.  But I hope Molson Coors don't give up.  I hope they will try some different strategies.  And I hope other big brewers will follow their example.  I also hope they will read the comments from the many women responding to Melissa's and Sophie's pieces saying there are beers for women, in the shape of cask ale.  And I also hope they will look very closely at this:


Project Venus is a collaboration between female brewers. On 28th July, Kathy Britton, of Oldershaw Brewery, Sara Barton of Brewster's, Michelle Kelsall from Offbeat Brewery, Sophie de Ronde from Brentwood Brewing Company and Sue Hayward from The Waen Brewery will gather at Oldershaw's to brew their second cask ale. The whole thing will be filmed by Marverine Cole, AKA Beer Beauty.

Of course Project Venus is tiny compared to Animee.  But I'd be fascinated to see a side-by-side tasting of the two, and see which women prefer.

Monday, 11 July 2011

China, crap ads, good pubs and Depeche Mode - my recent trade press rants

I'm very chuffed to have secured two regular trade press columns this year: a fortnightly one in the newly merged Publican's Morning Advertiser, now the only magazine for the UK pub trade, and a monthly one for www.Just-Drinks.com , the website for the global drinks industry.

Both these columns appear online and each time they do, I put a link to them on Twitter.  But not everyone reads Twitter, so here's a brief summary of what I've been writing about recently, which you can read if you like.  They're quite industry focused, but then, you might be too.  You don't have to read them if you're not.  You don't have to read them at all.

[Update: It seems Just Drinks might require a subscription to read.  PMA definitely doesn't].

I kicked off in Just Drinks by talking about what's gone wrong with beer advertising, and why brewers want to make bogus claims for their products.

Next month, I wrote about the beer scene in China, and how Western brewers need to be careful setting up shop there.

After that, prompted by a Carlsberg relaunch, I wrote about why beer is different from other products if you're trying to build global brands.

And last month, I railed against the dodgy practice by some brewers (well, one in particular) whereby if you're an employee of the company, drinking someone else's beer - even if you're off the clock and on your own time - can be "a career-ending move".

My latest rant - familiar to any long-term readers of this blog - will be about the factual fallacies of the neo-prohibitionists, and how the drinks industry is failing to combat them.  It should be up any day now.

Over at the PMA, concerns are a bit more UK-focused, and there's room to occasionally be a touch more irreverent.  Not all my columns are available online but they've started putting them up over the last couple of months.  In the first one that's up there, written just before the first UK beer bloggers conference, I tried to explain to the British pub industry why they need social media.

Following that, I wrote about the basic quality of pubs, and what hardcore beer drinkers really mean when they describe a pub as 'the kind of place you could bring the wife'.

Next, I had a go at PubCo M&B for their ludicrous decision to boot out the tenants of the wildly successful Engineer in Primrose Hill, and also used it to say something about the way many of us approach issues in beer and pubs.

And then, I wrote a piece I really hope no one takes seriously - you never know - about the glory that is Tallinn's Depeche Mode bar.

Finally, the PMA also asked me to compile my 50 favourite UK beers - that was the brief, so I was unable to include foreign beers.  I attempted to go as wide as possible, and include selections that would upset - sorry, delight - as many people as possible.

Hope there's something you enjoy. If there's anything, global or local, you think I should be covering in these columns, please drop me a line.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Craft Beer and US-Russian Relations

I went drinking strong beer with Russians last night.

Don't do this.  It's not a good idea if you fancy living. They look at high ABVs and laugh contemptuously, necking them almost scornfully.

I was meeting Eugene Tolstov, Moscow's number one home brewer, and Russian beer blogger.  Eugene looked after me in St Petersburg, and is in the UK three of four times a year with his day job, so I was happy to return the favour.  Eugene was happy to demolish beers the rest of us might be a little bit scared of.

We were in the newly opened Craft Beer Co in Leather Lane, Clerkenwell, London, EC1.  It's a truly great place, and many other bloggers were there for the opening night last week - I know Young Mark has already covered it.  I counted 42 taps on the bar, about half of these being cask ale (which, as we all know, is a form of craft beer, so let's not get started).  The cask ales are a reasonable (for London) £3.40ish, while the taps carry beers rarely, if ever seen in the UK on draught, so they're a bit more expensive.

"Excuse me, have you got any beer?"
"Yes sir, this is a craft beer pub, not a Monty Python sketch"
What I liked about it though is that it still feels like a pub, a proper London boozer.  The glass ceiling is stunning, the roman numerals remembering the gaff's previous spit-and-sawdusty days as The Clockhouse.

I was with one old Clockhouse regular who was complaining about the high price of beers such as Struise Old Albert (13%ABV), or Mikkeller's nonsensically named but wonderful 1000IBU, being sold at four or five quid a half, until I pointed out this would be quite reasonable if you were looking at wine - and rare wine at that.

The Russians were gamely attempting to chug their way through the entire range when in walked a legend, an immortal, a god in little bald beardy man-shaped form.  Ladies and gentlemen, White House communications chief Mr Toby Ziegler! In a pub! In London!  OK, not the real White House Comms chief, the one in West Wing, which is even better than the real thing in all respects.  And not him of course, because he doesn't really exist, but the actor who plays him, Mr Richard Schiff.  But Still.  Toby Ziegler!

I need to say now that, depending on your point of view, I was either too chicken or too sane to rush up to him and take a photo, or have my photo taken with him.  I wish I had been more courageous/sad.  In the end, I only got this photo of him when he was leaving.  But I promise you that is the back of his greying bald head:
"Yes, Mr President"
You can tell by the confident, authoritative way he looks up manfully at the brooding sky.

And here is from the front, in The West Wing, in one of the rare scenes that doesn't have people walking up and down corridors talking extremely quickly:


See? You can tell.

Before he left, he spent a long time tasting samples of various different craft beers before ordering pints of a blonde one, a brown one and a dark one for himself and his posse.  I wasn't close enough to him to ascertain whether or not he ordered by starting a sentence very-quietly-and-quickly-and-suddenly-gathered-pace-before-finishing with an OUTBURST OF MORALLY OUTRAGED SHOUTING!

But the best was yet to come.  As he got his beers, he glanced across the bar at me - or rather in front of me - and saw that I was eating one of the Craft Beer Co's bloody excellent pork pies.  I saw him mouth the words, "Hey what's that? I'll have one of those too."  TOBY ZIEGLER SAW ME EATING A PORK PIE AND THEN HE ORDERED ONE AS WELL!

Apart from now having the best lame claim to fame I've ever had, some gnawing self-doubt at the fact that a better (or worse) man than I would be sitting here today posting a photo of himself with his arm around Richard Schiff, raising our beer glasses to the camera, I'm just happy that one of the coolest guys in one of the coolest TV series ever is a craft beer (and pork pie) fan.  And if Craft Beer Co wasn't cool enough for you before, it is now.

I tried explaining how cool all this was to the Russians.  You'll be amazed to hear they don't really get the West Wing.

But here we were: the former mortal enemies of the Cold War, brought together by craft beer. It was a beautiful moment.  Even if the Russians had no idea what was going on, and Richard Schiff remains forever ignorant of the meeting that never quite took place.