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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.
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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Session no.63: May the fourth be with you!

The Session is a monthly event for the beer blogging community which was started by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. On the first Friday of each month, all participating bloggers write about a predetermined topic. Each month a different blog is chosen to host The Session, choose the topic, and post a roundup of all the responses received. For more info on The Session, check out the Brookston Beer Bulletin’s nice archive page.

At long last, I've got round to hosting a session.  It's my turn to come up with a topic that will inspire beer bloggers around the world to write on the same day about the same subject.

But what should that topic be?

There's always a danger with something like this that you become navel gazing or self-congratulatory, that you might sit round in a big mutual circle jerk and say, 'Look at all us beer bloggers.  Aren't we marvellous?  Aren't we important?'

And then there's the danger that you might take something that's of passing interest in beer and magnify it to a far greater degree of importance than it should have.  That we might start to debate the finer points of differences between beer styles or discuss at length the virtues of a particular hop.  When I first encountered the beer world, I found such discussions crashingly dull.  I often have to remind myself that I still do.

Or worse, we might write about beer blogging instead of beer.  I've been guilty of that many times in the past.  Occasionally it has its place.  But every time, I'm brought up short by the real world, and I realise just how few people 'out there' ever read beer blogs, apart from other beer bloggers, I suspect this is why.

My approach to beer writing is by no means the only approach, but I write to try to encourage other people to share the simple joy of beer as much as I do, to switch on people who drink beer but don't particularly care about it that much, to suggest to them that there's so much more they might enjoy.  No one says you have to do it this way, and no one ever made me the spokesperson for beer.  It's just how I decided to write, in the same way others decided to write in an opinionated way about what they love, and what they hate.

So in that spirit, my choice of topic - with 62 topics already covered - is this: simply, the Beer Moment.

What is it?

Well, what is it to you?  What does that phrase evoke for you?

That's the most important thing here.  Switch off and float downstream, what comes to mind?  Don't analyse it - what are the feelings, the emotions?

I've been thinking about this quite a lot recently, because I've been talking about it to various people who are working hard to try to improve the image of beer in the UK.  Because whether we articulate it or not, whether we drink vile, sunstruck Corona or barrel aged imperial stout brewed with weasel shit, it's about the moment far more than the liquid itself.  The only people who disagree with me on this are people I wouldn't want to share a beer with.

The moment - for me - is relaxation, reward, release, relief and refreshment.  It's a moment to savour, a moment of mateship, potential, fulfilment, anticipation, satisfaction, and sheer bliss.

It's different from the moment you drink wine or spirits - it's more egalitarian, more sociable.  It's not just about the flavour, nor the alcohol.  It's about the centuries of tradition and ritual, the counterpoint to an increasingly stressful life, and the commonality, the fact that it means the same thing to so many.

At least - I think it does.  What does it mean to you?

This session takes place on Friday 4th May (giving me the prefect excuse to use the tired but still irresistible headline above.)  You don't have to take part.  But if you want to, have a think, and write on Friday 4th about whatever comes to mind when you see the words 'The Beer Moment'.

If you do it as a blog post, please send me a link, and afterwards I'll do a round-up of who said what.  Or if you prefer, just leave a comment below.


Friday, 13 April 2012

In search of a Black Country Legend

"So you like beer then."


"What's your favourite?"

"I don't really have one."

"Have you tried Bathams?"


"Ah.  Well then."

Some beers go beyond rationale analysis and objective evaluation, and attain mythic status.  The affection people have for them is not based simply on a hoppy aroma and firm malty base; it doesn't have much to do with ingredients or flavour.  It transcends the liquid itself -or perhaps, that liquid becomes something divine and attracts all the clothing of religious devotion.

Westverleteren has it, though it's carefully stage-managed by the Belgian monks who take pains to control its scarcity.  Timothy Taylor Landlord has it - a beer which excites old ale drinkers and new crafty beer drinkers alike, which elicits simple sighs from beer writers who have used up all the words they have in trying to describe its perfection.

These beers are revered.  I knew of them within about five minutes of entering the beer world.

But I happily published two books, made my mark with this blog, and gained at least one column in the pub trade press before I'd ever heard of Bathams.

I was doing some freelance advertising work with a bloke from Birmingham when I first had the conversation above.  I've since the same conversation about six times, each time with a native of Birmingham or the West Midlands.  Each time, my 'no' got a little less "No?" in that tone that goes up at the end as if to say, "Should I have?", and a bit more "Nooooooo..." swooping down like a Messerschmitt in flames, defensive and frustrated and increasingly certain I was missing something special, fearing I was a lesser man, never mind a lesser beer writer, for not only having never drunk this beer, but for not having even seen any evidence of its existence apart from the word of an increasing number of Brummies who didn't know each other, and therefore could not have been winding me up.

But I never see Bathams at festivals.  I never see anyone writing about it.  I don't see it in shops.

Its acolytes try to describe its power to me.  It's a session beer, they say.  But that doesn't do it justice.  It's more than that, it's... oh, you just have to taste it, they say, and then, every time, they say, "Of course, there are only about five pubs in the world that sell it.  And they're all in Birmingham and the West Midlands."

The last person I had this conversation with was Charles Campion, food and drink writing legend and one of the most decent men on the planet.  And because Charles really is one of the most decent men on the planet, he resolved to put me out of my misery.  So a few weeks ago, nursing a brewers' conference sized hangover, I found myself in the back of a car while Charles directed the Beer Widow to the Vine (or, if you're in the know, the Bull and Bladder), the Batham's brewery tap in the West Midlands.

It's a cracking pub, one of those places that has withstood every single trend, technological development and interior design fad of the last thirty years.  It has carpets.  And separate rooms.  Aged banquettes that create a barrier between groups but still allow those groups to eye each other up.  A hierarchy so clear that as you walk in for the first time, you immediately know which rooms are open to you as a stranger, and which are not.  And a random collection of brilliant and nonsensical stuff on the walls that could keep you gawking for hours.

I was quite nervous when I got my first pint of Batham's.  It's made with Fuggles and Goldings hops, and contains invert sugar for a bit of extra sweetness.  It tastes quite sweet. And very nice.

I've noticed in some great session beers that the balance between malt and hops is not just about sensible balance, neither one being too extreme.  It's about the combination, the mix of malt sweetness and hop fruitiness that combine to create a kind of glowing, floral perfume that hovers just above your palate.  This may sound horrible, cloying, sickly and effeminate, but is actually the opposite of all those things.  And Bathams does this very well.

But detailed analysis of the flavour is beside the point - that's not what this beer is about.  It's a beer that can be drunk easily and yet is satisfying, and it's a beer that brings a smile to your face.  It doesn't overwhelm you - you don't have the first sip and go, "My God, that's awesome!"  But the more you like it, the more you drink.  And the more you drink, the more you like it.

It also comes in bottles:

and I got to bring a few home with me.

This is not to be taken for granted.  Because over the weekend that followed this Friday night session, the stories began to come out.

You can't find many places that sell these bottles, they say.  We visited one pub that does, but allegedly you have to take your empties back if you want some more, meaning it's very difficult to get onto the Bathams ladder in the first place.

On cask, demand always outstrips supply, they say.  There are only certain pubs that get it, and these are known to serious drinkers.  Stocking Bathams wins a landlord instant admiration.  Some of these pubs have been known to order an extra cask, and then sell it on at a profit, on the thriving Bathams black market that exists in the West Midlands.

Weeks later, when I opened my final bottle at home, I wrote, 'When you drink Bathams, it just make you feel NICE.'

That might sound like the most facile thing a beer writer has ever written.  But I believe there is truth and beauty in its simplicity.

I'm hanging on to the empties.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Funky Cool Medina

The day I finally finished Shakespeare's Local and pressed 'send' to the publishers, I was combining my final proof read with a  few long overdue brewery visits.

I spent the morning and early afternoon in Ilkley, at the ambitious new brewery that's turning heads after just two and a half years and already straining at the seams of the new brewery site they moved into last year.

They're quite shrewd, brewing a range of beers spanning from the light session beers beloved of the archetypal Yorkshire drinker, through to some pretty kooky experimental beers.

No prizes for guessing what they wanted to brew when they invited both me and Melissa Cole to brew within a few days of each other.

This was a proper 'Collabrew' (that's my new word) in which I got to have real input into what we were brewing.  Ilkley wanted to brew a dark saison.  We both love saison for the hints of spice and farmyard funkiness they offer.  The thought behind this brew was sod hints, let's go for full expression.  So we used a saison yeast, lots of pale malt, a hint of crystal and a bit of torrefied wheat and dehusked carafa malt, aiming for a target strength of 6% ABV.

We then got a bit of the wort and started muddling different varieties of hop in the glass, trying out different combinations. The Ilkley chaps wanted to stick some New World hops in, and I was looking for something with an orangey nose to complement everything else we were about to bung in.  We settled on Saaz hops for bittering, and Amarillo and Summit for aroma.

Finally, near the end of the boil we added 2kg of dried orange peel, 300g of ground coriander, 150g of ground ginger and 60g of grains of paradise - an intense, aromatic peppercorn.

This was going to be a big beer, the kind of beer that would walk up to a bar and get served before you, even though it was your turn.  The kind of beer that, if it was a dog, and you took it for a walk, would pull you along disobediently, hunkering down and dragging you with its muscly forelegs.

When I tasted it after the boil, the spices didn't quite punch me in the face, but they did bunch my collar in their fists and hold me up against the wall.  Taste memories of North Africa flashed through my brain, and I jokingly tweeted that I suspected we had just invented a new beer style - Moroccan Saison.  And so Medina was named - a beer to warm the heart on cold Saharan nights, a beer whose rugged boldness would not suffer fools.

It didn't work out like that - at least, not quite.

No one quite knows what happened in the fermenter.  Wonderful things happen in fermenting vessels all the time, and our understanding of what and why is still hazy at best.

As it matured, our bold, spicy beer became smooth, sophisticated and urbane.  It took a degree, started reading the classics and listening to Mahler.  When it came out the other end, it was still big and powerful - it would still muscle to the bar and get served before you.  But when it did, it would say, "No, I believe this gentleman was here before me."

The finished beer suggests exoticism and travel, but with a refined air.  It's incredibly smooth and silky, more like a chocolate porter than a saison.  That must come from the dehusked carafa - unless someone bunged in a load of chocolate malt when no one was looking.  But it's amazing what a difference it made given that this dark malt made up less than 5% of the total malt bill.

That smoothness opens out into a gentle, subtle but rounded fruitiness in the mouth, with a touch of vanilla.  And then, the spices build in the way they do in a very good curry - gentle at first at the back of the mouth, then slightly more assertive, a dry, peppery spice that gives the palate a definite but quite polite buzz.

Melissa brewed a similarly outlandish 'rhubarb saison' called Siberia, which I got to taste briefly at Craft Beer Co when my beer launched there a couple of weeks ago.  I was a little hazy by that point (Medina is 6% and very drinkable, and I always make the mistake of thinking I'm drinking less of beers like that by drinking halves) but I remember it being deliciously fruity and aromatic.  You can read a little more detail on that at Melissa's blog.

I was very chuffed to hear that Medina had sold out before it had even left the fermenter, and it's been getting great feedback from those people lucky enough to get hold of some - I managed to get another pint down at the new Cask Pub and Kitchen in Brighton at the weekend.

What I liked most about these experimental beers was the sense of fun that went with them.  We had a great time brewing them and I certainly had a lovely time drinking them.  They're not the most 'out there' beers I've had in recent weeks - I'll be talking more about some other ones very soon - but I've been really enjoying pushing the flavour boundaries.

There is a degree of cynicism about beers like this in some quarters, and doubtless there will be a few outraged trainspotters either denying that a Moroccan Saison could ever exist, or struggling to find the right place for it in beer's ever-expanding taxonomy.  Sod them - it was a great beer to brew, a great beer to drink, and it makes people happy, so I'm happy too.

Doubtless there is a little bit of Emperor's New Clothes around some experimental corners of beer production - as Tandleman recently averred.  But I've recently been enjoying both experiments such as this, and the joys of the traditional session pint.  There's so much binary, black-and-white thinking in the beer world (even the sub-editors of the above piece misrepresented it as an attack on experimental beer, when if you read what I wrote, it's patently not).  We all love talking about how beer is such a wonderfully diverse drink.  What on earth is the problem with diversity?  And what's the problem with stretching that diversity further?  If it's a bad beer, it's a bad beer.  Maybe it'll be a good one next time.

Thanks to Ilkley for allowing me to co-create a very nice one indeed - I hope they brew it again soon.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Greene King and Bombardier to go head to head on the telly

Real ale is about to burst onto our screens in a big way.

The week before last, two of the UK's biggest ale brands launched their new advertising campaigns to beer writers and trade journalists.  I was invited to one launch but, for some reason, not the other one the day after - even though seemingly everyone else who was at the first one was.  Please believe me that this in no way colours what I'm about to say about these two campaigns.  I'm bigger than that.  No, really, I am, honest.  But I tell you this so you can filter the following for any perceived prejudice.

Anyway, I used to work in advertising so this, for me, is in part going back to the day job.

The second event - the one I wasn't invited to - was launching the next wave in the new campaign for Well's Bombardier.  Now, I get the feeling that I'm going to come across as disliking this development a lot more than I actually do, so let me say some positive things about it first, and hopefully this will prevent a hit squad being despatched from Bedford - home of William Charles Bedford, 'your dashing hero on the battlefield, with a caddish twinkle in his eye,' according to the press release (I am at least still on their email distribution list - at least until they read this.)

Basically, what they're doing is extending the campaign they launched last year, with Rik Mayall playing the Bombardier, drinking the beer and extolling its virtues with what Well's & Youngs clearly hope will become a pub catchphrase: 'Bang on!'  They're going for a heavyweight promotion on Dave, the channel for blokes who like repeats of the programme Stewart Lee refers to as 'Mock the Weak'.  Ten and fifteen second idents will frame peak time programmes.  I haven't seen the idents because like I said, I wasn't invited to the launch, and didn't get to meet Rik Mayall, but the press release says 'viewers can expect to see the Bombardier's take on the English sense of humour, values, our love of pubs and our social habits.'

They're spending £5m on this, which is great news for Bombardier and great news for ale too.  It's the highest ever spend they've put behind the brand (but not the highest ever spend in the ale category, as the press release falsely claims).  Whatever your views on the beer and the campaign, this is brilliant because it helps propel ale into the mainstream, makes it more visible and more contemporary.  When I do focus groups, many people assume that if a brand is on telly it must be good, must be doing something right, and this leads to greater social currency.  So here Bombardier are helping ale look more modern (with some caveats, below).  It's also a great sign of confidence - they wouldn't spend this money if they didn't think cask ale was in good shape and people were ready to consider it.

Secondly, they've got with the programme and done a Facebook page and taken the Bombardier on to Twitter, extending a true brand property and providing content which people can interact with.  That's a good thing as far as marketing, brand building, and the saliency of real ale is concerned.


For me, this entire campaign feels like it's aping lager ads of the seventies and eighties, and even lagers don't behave like that any more.  Rik Mayall is reprising a character he played in Blackadder thirty years ago, in a slightly less funny way than it was then.  Is this really the way to make ale feel fresh, contemporary and appealing to new generations of drinkers?

To make my own mind up, I followed the link to the youtube channel at the bottom of the press release I was sent.  And I got this:

Woof woof! Bang Off, chaps!

The ads launch 16th April and run from 9pm to midnight weekdays for twelve months.

The other campaign is from Bombardier's rival, Greene King.  Disliked by many readers of this blog and diehard ale drinkers in general, scorned for bland beers and nicknamed 'Greed King' for their sometimes voracious business practices, booed when they were runner-up Champion Beer of Britain a few years ago, they can sometimes come across as difficult to love, and have clearly been doing a bit of soul searching.

I think the results are a pleasant surprise.

Greene King IPA is the UK's biggest cask ale brand.  It still only has a 7% market share - the diversity and fragmentation of the ale market is (most of the time) one of its main strengths. But GK IPA is, for better or worse, still the biggest brand.  I don't tend to drink it myself, but clearly lots of people like it.  And like Magner's does with cider, if it attracts people to real ale for the first time who then start to look around and trade up, that's no bad thing.

In marketing theory, one classic strategy for the brand leader is to do a job that grows the whole market rather than trying to steal share form your competitors.  The theory is that if you're already the biggest, advertising what's good about the whole market means you benefit everyone else, but if the market grows proportionately then you'll gain more in volume terms than everyone else does.  Most new entrants to any market tend to go for the biggest brands, so you'll probably grow disproportionately, benefiting everyone but, most of all, yourself.

This is the strategy GK has chosen, and I think it'll paid off.

They've created an ad that quite simply celebrates the joys of good cask beer in a good pub - not the joys of hops and malt and yeast, but the moment that beer - and only beer - can create.

This has always been what's excited me most as a writer, and it's lovely to see a brand that has wonga to spend and an ad agency with creative skill taking this aspect of beer and celebrating it.  It's an ad for the pub as much as it is an advert for beer or Greene King IPA specifically, and I think it's rather fucking wonderful:

I particularly like the opening, in the cellar - just enough beer craft for the mainstream viewer without getting too technical or boring.  Even if you don't understand what you're seeing, you get the impression of craft and care, the sense that this is something a bit more special than what you can buy in the supermarket.

The ad was shot in the Hornsey Tavern, north London, and the music is by a precocious eighteen year-old called Jake Bugg, who is to my ears like Ed Sheeran, only good.  The gaffer is an actor, but many of the people are real punters, sharing real beer moments.  The finished ad has been culled from about five hours of footage, the film crew just passing through the pub as people relaxed and shared a good time having a beer.  It's the kind of positive image of beer and pubs the whole industry sorely needs more of.

GK is spending £4m behind this, and it's breaking on 14th and 15th April, during the FA Cup semi-finals on ITV and ESPN.  It's also going to be on Sky and Dave.

Coinciding with this, they also launched two new beers under the Greene King IPA brand: IPA Gold, a 4.1% golden ale, and IPA reserve, a 5.6% rich, mellow, fruity ale.  For anyone who drinks or works in a Greene King pub, these beers are welcome additions.  The golden ale is a golden ale, no better or worse than many in the market just now, while the reserve is in Fullers ESB territory, and dangerously drinkable.  They won't set RateBeer alight, but they're not meant to - that's not what they're for.  But they are quite drinkable beers that bring Greene King's portfolio a bit closer to what drinkers want.

My only, obvious, quarrel is that, already under fire for calling a 3.6% session beer IPA, they've now brought out two new beers that are very different from the original, obviously not India Pale Ales in any shape or form, and called them India Pale Ales.  This reveals that as far as Greene King is concerned, IPA is a brand name and not a beer style.  I could just about defend the mainstream GK IPA because while it's not a traditional IPA, IPA is an evolving style and in the mid-twentieth century this is what it was to most brewers and drinkers in the UK.  But by calling these new beers IPA rather than just 'Greene King Blonde' or 'Greene King Reserve', GK have created a needless rod for beer enthusiasts to beat them with - a silly own goal at a time when they're doing some big things right.

GK has also launched an attractive Facebook page to support the campaign.

One tip to both brands: Facebook is an interactive medium.  If people ask you if it's possible to buy Bombardier in North America or who did the music on the IPA ad, it's good manners and good business sense to reply.  Don't fall into the trap of bigger brands who pretend to be there on Facebook but don't actually read or respond to comments, thereby actively alienating some of your biggest fans.  oh hang on - EDIT - GK actually did respond.

I'm anticipating many tiresome comments about how both these beers are shit, boring and bland, made by big corporations, and that it's a bad thing they're on TV.  My answer to that would be that these beers, and these ads, are not aimed at people who write beer blogs and drink in craft beer bars.   We're fine - we don't need to be told that real ale is a decent drink or that pubs are nice places to be.  No one who is already drinking great craft beer is going to suddenly start switching to Bombardier or Greene King IPA as a result of these ads.  The useful job that big brands can do is bring more novices into ale for the first time - and remind people how great pubs are.  With nearly £10m being spent advertising real ale over the next few months, this is fantastic news for beer as a whole - whatever you choose to drink yourself.

Cheers to both of them.  Especially the second one.