Refresh and reinforce

Occasionally, professional and personal lives overlap – and this was the case when Simon at Budweiser Budvar sent me a little box containing some Budweiser Budvar goodies. He wasn’t doing this out of the kindness of his heart, although knowing Simon as a kind-hearted sort of guy this was possible, but no, Budvar have redesigned and launched their UK web shop to boot and he’s trying to drum up support, understandably.

Simon doesn’t need me to write nice things about Budvar. He’s got plenty of beer writers who are much better known waxing lyrical about the company, for good reason. Despite some pretty shaky times in Czech brewing since the late 90s, when free-market capitalism renewed its roots in the country and Czech brewers of all sizes were being gobbled up by larger brewing concerns, this state-owned brewery has remained true and consistent to brandishing the torch for the traditions of Czech lager brewing. Simple things like sticking to regional ingredients (Moravian malt, Žatec hops, local aquifer water you know versus, Thames or Severn Trent), using double decoction mashing regimes, avoiding high gravity brewing and heaven forbid, actually lagering their beer for the weeks it takes to create those subtle layers of flavour stratified with gentle, natural carbonation.

So, when a brand such as this is redesigning, my instinct is to hold my breathe and hope. The paying side of what I do is helping companies create and strengthen their brands. Oh, sure, many brewers hate the thought of brands, many beer writers too, the late Michael Jackson included. It’s not about brands, they say, brands are impersonal. It’s about the beer. It’s not consumers, it’s drinkers. Brands are what Big Beer do…sniff, sniff, snivel, snivel etc.

Which is all very well, except they’re wrong. Because brands aren’t simply a marketing ploy, they’re a shortcut that the human brain uses to make decisions easier. ‘Reducing cognitive load’ is the behavioural science name for it. And the annoying thing for the likes of our nay-saying brewers and beer writers is that (when done right) it’s proven to work.

Arguments to one side, what everyone can agree on is that how a brand shows up – it’s name, the beer itself, the design, the points of interaction – like website, draught font, glassware, bar gear and so on – are critically important to how a brand is understood, remembered and bought.

And Budvar made a bit of a mis-step last time. “B-Original” they declared in a fit of  trying-to-be-clever. “B-Free” announced their non-alcoholic variant (errr – you’re a beer, not Braveheart). Strangely, “B-Dark” trumpeted their, you guessed it, dark lager and not switching off the lights or internet. It was always wrong. It looked wrong. It sounded wrong. It felt wrong. It was a classic brand trying too hard. Like someone desperately trying to be something they’re not. The label of the bottle sported a jaunty ‘swoosh’ in gold. ‘We can be like Nike’ it said, fundamentally misunderstanding the brand and its context.

With some trepidation then, I opened this little box from the Budvar web shop and silently whooped with joy. If, on the last design, some wag had told the Board that Budvar needs to appeal to Millennials by being (sorry, B-ing) fresh, young and contemporary, now Budvar is doing exactly that by reframing the task, staying true to itself and just being timeless for everyone.

Look at the design: there’s no missing the name (task 1 achieved). There’s no missing the simple descriptor (task 2 achieved). There’s no missing the premium values of this brand because they ooze off the package (tick, tick, tick): the crest of České Budejovice; the matte ink, the textured feel; the gold can top with brand-red tab. And a composition that can breathe because it isn’t cluttered and rammed-full with “benefits”.  Without saying anything, everything about it says, “This is the great Budweiser Budvar…. come to me”.

Bloody hell. You may ask, ‘Who is this bloke banging on about a design and why does it matter?’

Oh, it matters. Brands are built when two things fuse together as one. The message and the memory structures – the name; the colours; the symbols that allow the brain to register and recognise it. All too often, brands throw around “re-design” like its a sign of excitement and success. No, it’s a sign of failure. I’m not saying that Budvar failed previously – that would be going too far – but if your customers struggle to recognise your package and when they do, not like it, well that’s a big problem.

And this is the beauty of the Budweiser Budvar redesign. They have taken the wonderful, memorable assets that they already own (in people’s minds) and simply refreshed them -thereby reinforcing what their brand is about. The packaging; the glassware; the web shop and the merch all unequivocally screams the brand. And if you think having a distinctive brand isn’t important in this game, good luck to you.

Dark Lager and Hedgehogs

A wheelbarrow full of hedgehogs.

A lad from Primary school, who I haven’t seen since, pushing a wheelbarrow full of hedgehogs (who seemed quite happy – maybe thankful for the lift) down our old road. A road on which a friend now lives, but in a house with windows a disconcerting shade of Manchester City blue – something that frankly, would not be tolerated by him much beyond getting the key on moving-in day.

But the dreams during Lockdown have been getting weirder. In one, mimicking reality, I ordered a copy of the classic advertising text, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This online, only to have Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree delivered as a ‘suitable replacement’ (even more bizarrely, a few days later Girl Unknown* by Karen Perry* was delivered mistakenly in its place – any one want it?).

But in the most vivid, I was trudging up a cobbled hill – setts, really, as they were laid with continental precision. Up a hill that led away from a bridge over a river. A medieval magpie-style building was built out into the river with an annexe, presumably once a mill – but there was no wheel present, no rotation and the river wound its course unnoticed. Nor was it a Cheshire-style magpie building -black wood, white wattle and daub, nestling into rolling hills – but German style; taller, narrower, ornate ironwork, a steep-pitched, tiled roof, handsome gables. In the roof, triangular dormer windows, angling down rather than out.

And a golden pretzel, hanging over the window of the shop as the street wound up and round. Nope, this wasn’t Nantwich. Or Bunbury. And the Pretzel certainly wasn’t hanging outside Chatwins.

It was the dream-real smell of wood smoke that gave it away. Neat awnings, drawn out from the building fronts; bench tables; baskets of bread and glasses of dark beer. Cold, dark beer, with a caramel-white head, an inch deep, thick and tinged with wisps of smokey brown, like veins of chocolate shards running through stracciatella. Griddle pans, like square paella dishes, sizzling hot with thin sausages, onions, skinnily-sliced, tangled and interwoven like sauerkraut, caramel brown and honeyed, and the sweet-sharp smell of tangy, mild mustard, peppered with mustard seeds and caraway.

Bamberg, maybe, but a Lego-village version of it, built from half-formed highlights of days past, imagined futures and twisted memories. Groups of laughing people sitting shudderingly close to one another; the melodic runs of chords and finger-clacks of an accordion, played by a Moor wearing a hat full of pheasant feathers.

And always the beer. The dark, lagered-beer, brown like a chestnut, shiny and deep, but not opaque, rather, a refracted ruby lens-light, a malt-hopped prism, separating the components before melding them together in that delicious, longed-for, first sip.


*No, me neither.

Lockdown Lukas

Crises drive innovation. Crises drive quick decisions. 

Brewers are having to manage tragedy and opportunity as equal bedfellows.  Brewers, shorn of their sales to the on trade, are having to step rapidly into the opportunity presented not just by off sales, but specifically by selling their beer and brands direct to the door of their customer…. particularly as we hear of more stories of the big supermarkets using the opportunity to negotiate hard (well, who would’ve thought it?) and squeeze those who cannot afford the squeak. Perhaps the ‘direct to customer’ model is a taste of the future. Perhaps this pandemic will be the tipping point.

Localish to me is Thornbridge – well, not quite local. There are tiny micros on my doorstep selling in poly pins and ugly flagons, but they were slow to react. Right at the start of the lockdown, I was fishing around for a brewer to support nearby and the e mail arrived from Thornbridge as I was doing it. I had the task. I needed a brand to hire. The marriage was made.

Of course they’ve been on my radar, Thornbridge. Of course I’ve had Jaipur and one or two others. Of course I rated their beers’ quality. But they remained a brewery in my soft focus. In the periphery of my mental vision, not dead centre. The lockdown, the e mail, the desire to go local, shifted them into my cross-hairs.

A mixed case chock-a-block with their core range and seasonals arrived soon after. Four of Jaipur. Four of the eminently sinkable Green Mountain, a new go-to beer. Four of their seasonal Jamestown, with ‘Hamilton‘ ringing in my ears and a suspicion it was a close relative of Jaipur (on another continent). Tall cans of the ripe grapefruit-bomb, a fruit-laden smack in the face, Halycon – too strong for supping, just right for sipping. Four of Florida Weisse which I’m still trying to work out whether it is a raspberry sour as described, or a funky twist on a Berliner Weisse.

And then Lukas. A pale, Helles-style lager beer. The most straight. Frankly, of the lot, the most… boring.

I know I’m off beam in the beer writing world in my love of lager. Yes I get excited about new ale and sour releases. God, how I enjoy a pint of a well-kept cask. Yes, I can cock-an-eyebrow at milkshake sours served with coffee ice-cream. And yes, who can’t enjoy the sheer boldness of the wavy-Hazy generation, or quintuple IPAs from Cloudwater and their progeny. But there comes a point – perhaps 3pm on Friday (or Thursday); or just after some exercise, when the only beer that will do is a lager.

A proper lager. Not this waspishly light, rice-and-enzyme brewed nonsense, where all you taste is a tingle. No, proper lager. Malty and rich; layered with subtle, perceptibly-imperceptible complexity. Lukas is one such beer. It’s worryingly light in its colour, but any Fosters-Alarm-Bell-Sounding-Here stop right there. It pours with a billowing, effusive head which needs careful control. It sports a sensible, ‘Oh, just another one‘ level of alcohol (4.2%). It leads on its grain bill, but the hops are there, providing the gilded cage within which the malts (and touch of wheat) can roam free. It laces down a clean glass in gulp-measures; it’s gone in seconds.

There’s all sorts of nonsense claims about how everything will be different post Lockdown – the non-sensical queues for McDonald’s or Ikea prove those lies, sadly. But one change we should all make permanent is to buy independent; buy direct and buy beer done properly.


No and low alcohol beer? Really?

There’s an elephant in the room in alcohol right now. Everyone seemingly is jumping on the no and low alcohol bandwagon. As well as new beers, BrewDog have launched an AlcoholFree only pub. Alcohol Free only breweries have opened. Craft breweries have launched multiple low and no alcohol beers in multiple styles: lagers, pale ales, hazy pale ales, sours. And commentators are fanning the fire too – ‘Top 10’ or ‘Top 20’ articles in the mainstream press; beer writers such as Pete Brown posting on his social feed on the topic.

But a few things bother me, and here’s why I remain unconvinced by the whole category.

  1. It’s been tried before. I know. I know. Long in the tooth. “We’ve tried it before” being the killer of new ideas and all that. Sure. But it has been tried before and frankly, with much greater scale than today (if less breadth). 30 years ago, in the days of the ‘Big 6’ vertically integrated nationals, no and low alcohol beer was the big thing. Not just in the UK, but abroad too. Back then, the predictions showed that by today alcoholic beer would effectively be a niche beverage for frankly, people with problems. Time and money was invested on creating brands; big brands that were were well distributed – bottles, cans, and draught – and were supported by huge advertising and marketing campaigns. Not a few social posts, but big, scale TV ads. Here’s one for Barbican (Bass). But there was Bass L.A. and Tennent’s L.A (also Bass, clearly). And Swan Light (Allied Breweries). And Kaliber (Guinness). And undoubtedly others. There were low alcohol wine brands too – Eisberg, anyone? Yep, this is when that delight dates from too.What’s different this time? Well, there are certainly more breweries giving it a go and there are certainly more beer styles being attempted. Oh, and of course, we’re all so much healthier and mindful of what we’re consuming today…. aren’t we?  Obesity crisis? Type 2 Diabetes rates anyone?
  2. There’s a difference between a trend and normal behaviour.  Here’s a stat for you to consider, what with all the coverage around plant-based eating, vegetarianism and specifically, veganism. The Vegan Society report that in 2019, there are 600,000 vegans in the UK (quadrupled since 2014 according to their statistics). That’s 1.16% of the UK population (this is presumably the whole population including non-decision makers such as children, but nevertheless). Yet, according to Mintel, 23% of food launches in 2019 were labelled as vegan. So it’s not vegans driving the growth, it’s those people who are choosing to cut down their meat consumption, but not cut it out – the so-called ‘flexitarians’ – people who are still consuming meat, fish, dairy as part of their everyday lives. And if that’s the case, why bother going to all the trouble of considerably more complex processes, complex sourcing and increased costs to make it vegan?Is this the future for no and low alcohol products? Part of the ‘smart’ repertoire for those moments when we either can’t drink alcohol, or want to cut down? Life hacks? Perhaps. But this was pretty much the same rationale 30 years ago too: drink drive laws were tightening. Fewer people drinking in regular ‘sessions’. Fewer ‘men only’ and more mixed gender social occasions with the bars and clubs that catered for them. And we were making healthier choices as our tastes expanded. What’s different? Really?
  3. Companies have to show willing. Brewers and alcoholic drink manufacturers are under more pressure today. There are voluntary codes. There are mandatory rules and regulations too, designed to prevent alcohol misuse and encourage moderation. There’s ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. There are frankly, good reasons to be doing this both for company purpose and good reasons to be doing it for the responsibility to wider society. But that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a genuine, long-lasting commercial opportunity. One that’s rooted in real insight about how we run our lives.
  4. What is the insight here? People choose to drink alcohol for a whole range of reasons. Because they’re partying and want to let go a bit, or because they’re unwinding and want to either re-energise or de-energise. They may want to mark a moment, either a celebration or just celebrating getting to Wednesday. They may want to connect, to bond. Or even to show off. But what’s at the heart is the effect of alcohol. There’s no point denying it or pretending that everything would be the same if it weren’t there. And let’s be clear too, humans want ‘drugs’. I mean, wouldn’t it be ironic if just as we get rid of the alcohol we started ramming everything full of CBD?
  5. A matter of taste. I’m cutting down on meat, for all sorts of reasons and  the one thing I’m not missing is the taste of meat. Why would I? Food is all about taste, and the days of healthy foods being a compromise are over. Look at the lunch time meal deal aisles today. It’s not just triangles of brown with a coloured centre any more, there’s bread alternatives that are purple and green; there are salad pots that are as vivid as a double rainbow, vegan and vegetarian products – whether they feature meat substitutes or not  -now inspire not depress.But the low and no alcohol products I’ve tasted still taste like compromises. And I’m not prepared to compromise with beer, because life is too short for bad beer, and if I’m driving and not drinking, frankly I’ll have something that is, at least, itself, not a pale imitation of something else.

    And so begins a little quest to find a low or no alcohol beer that really tastes like a beer. No compromises. No tricks or hood-winks. Any recommendations are welcome. Reviews will be short and to the point. Whilst I hope I find this holy grail, my reservations still persist. And even if I do: is there ever a beer occasion where I don’t want the very thing that defines ‘beer’ over water, coffee, juice or a soft drink? Let’s see.

Ice to the Inuit

I had looked forward to trying one of this brewer’s beers – Little Creatures – for a long time; but frankly, hadn’t tried that hard to hunt one down, and none of those wretched PR companies who seem to fling out samples to all and sundry were flinging any out to me. So anyhoo, I find myself in a gastro pub – a contemporary free house if you will –  eating a wood fired pizza with a side-order of clichés and some stereotypes on a stick, drinking a Little Creatures Pale Ale.  It was very nice. ‘Earthy’ would be the word I’d use. Not vibrant with hoppy overload, but muted, balanced, the malt part of the choir, not just the hops – more in the Pommy style, dare I say it. More Burton than Portland. Drinkable and even exciting for not being a herbal, spicy assault on your bitterness receptors.

But there was also the slightly sour taste of guilt – not towards the beer, or indeed this brewery – and not, I am assured from the Antipasti Skewer Board – rather from the power of free trade and a society that has normalised shipping modified water around the globe for our pleasure. Am I being a spoil sport? Yes? But should it matter? Yes, too.