Moan Label

I can’t make my mind up whether it’s a good thing or not.  Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ range of beers is a sort of surrogate ‘own label’ range of beers – very much a mutant child of proud micro brewer father and pushy retailing mother.

You can’t miss own label in our supermarkets.  In some categories (think aisles – it’s the closest approximation in non business speak) own label rules the roost – it can be up to 50% of sales. Often this is with products that shoppers aren’t that bothered about – loo rolls, washing powder – or where brands can’t really develop like with fresh fruit and veg, meat or fish.  There are surprises too – categories like roast and ground coffee have a high proportion of own label despite some excellent products and pretty good prices from companies like Taylor’s or Douwie Egberts.

Beer has been the exception though – and for the wrong reasons.  You see, own label generally exists, and typically thrives because it keeps the brands honest.  If a brand gets too dominant, its share too high, then the retailer slips in a sharp priced own label offer and before you know it, the supplier is sitting around the table sharpening the proverbial pencil.  Not with beer.

Because unfortunately beer is cheap.  So cheap, there isn’t a meaningful space between the cost a retailer is buying at and the price it’s being sold out at.  You have to bear in mind here that a very high proportion of beer is sold on promotion and British consumers know this.  Wait a few days, or shop somewhere else and invariably you get a better deal.

So own label has withered on the bine.  There’s been a bit of activity: Tesco launched their own label Czech beer – Boheme.  They gave it lots of space and focus and activity. It’s still there, but it’s a runt.  And there are a few lower alcohol versions – drop the ABV, reduce the cost and you create space to play. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, drinkers are not interested in these insipid, tasteless and poorly brewed beers.  (We’ll have to see whether minimum pricing changes this landscape).

And the last three digits of his security code are 996….

Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range is different.  It’s a clear hybrid.  The neck label, crown and aspects of the label are clearly branded; there’s a ‘structure’ across the range (each carries the brewers’ alleged signature for example*). But it ends there.  As you can see – the Suffolk Blonde is in  a St Peter’s bottle – the rest of the range are in their own.  There’s no attempt to hide the origin – in fact, it’s built around it.  There are beers from Harviestoun, Black Sheep, Meantime and others in the range. Each different in shape & format; each naming the brewery.

Yet I’m troubled.  My background is brand owner – and in a company that refused to do own label. This legacy I bring with me no doubt.  But it’s more than this. Somehow, the values of these small brewers feel just a little tarnished by the hand of the retailer.  Not that I am berating Sainsbury’s here – I like their effort, but it feels an uncomfortable marriage.

And the beers – well, I’m working my way through. Tonight I had the Suffolk Blonde.  Pleasant enough – certainly a bright back-lit gold in the glass, but I didn’t get the notes of banana and clove the label suggests, but rather a slight biscuity malt.  The Hallertau hop aroma was there but not overly pronounced. Good enough for sure; I wouldn’t refuse another – but ‘taste the difference’ – nope, had more different beers that taste better.  Mind you, the bottle – wow! The bottle is a stunner and perhaps not as pretty as their original flagon type, but practical and different too.

It just feels odd with a Sainsbury’s label on it.

*Watch out Mark Slater at St Peter’s. I’m after your credit card. Now I have your signature, it’s going to be a cheap Christmas…

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Great Beertish Menu

Look. I admit it.  I really enjoy TV cooking programmes.  I’m sure that in my dotage I shall spend more time perfecting acts of culinary wizardry than I can afford today.  I’m not a cooking programme whore though; I do have a Premier League:  The Hairy Bikers (I know, I know); Masterchef; Rick Stein (you know, the poetry one) are 3 of my top 4.  But for me, the Champion of Champions – the Campionissimo if you will, is The Great British Menu.

I know I shouldn’t.  If I engage my rationale mind, I can see through it. The total fabrication of an excuse for a national banquet (“Let’s celebrate the work of the Great British Seaweed Farmer”).  The promotion of chefs to celebrity status even when many of them clearly either haven’t got the charisma, or in the case of the glorious Mark Hix, the desire. It was great – seemingly, he just couldn’t be bothered. Whilst his competitors slaved over their stoves, deconstructing sea bass into sea and bass, he cobbled together a pie, or jelly and blancmange and sat back, reading the paper, having a fag. (Even better that he got not one but two dishes through to that year’s grand finale.  Mind you his Stargazey Pie was inspired, and I’ve had a few good ‘uns in my time).

This time round, the feast is oddly, Olympics themed.  To compensate for all the Fast Food from America that is going to be consumed during the event, the BBC have struck out early, encouraging us to celebrate our Olympians with a gargantuan British feast in their honour.   I actually only tuned in last week (Northern Ireland), and this week it was my home region, the North West.  And it’s been sensational viewing – have you seen it?

Marcus Wareing, the celebrated 2 Star Michelin chef took apart a Preston chef, Johnnie Mountain. Johnnie’s track record on the fish course has been poor.  In two attempts, the best he has done is 4 out of 10.  This time, he pushed the boat out, submerging himself (oops, that must be ‘pushed his submarine out’ then) in the world of molecular gastronomy.  He visited the Fat Duck to get top tips, and there he is with his baths of liquid nitrogen, ice cream wafers and smoking devices making a beach…and sea.  No chunk of fish in there, but anchovies and clams and various other fruits of the ocean.  And it looked pretty. But we can only glean that it tasted pretty bad.

And Marcus was not a fan. In a 30 second, calmly delivered diatribe, he took poor Johnnie apart and gave him a 2, accusing him of ‘playing with toys’.

Johnnie, unsurprisingly, was a little peeved and stormed out, clanking pots, pans and assorted sous chefs behind him.  Cracking viewing, and all the better as it supported my hypothesis that Marcus Wareing is a plastic northerner and an all round tit, even if he can bake a good tart.  But any way, that’s not the point.

The point is this: I am looking for your help.

I’m an advocate of beer and food – cooking with beer, pairing food with different beers – you know what I mean. I haven’t quite got to BBQ’ing a chicken with a can of beer up it’s bottom, but it’s on the list of things to do this summer.   But industry efforts are all very self-serving and ponderous.

So, here’s the plan:  when the winning course is announced on a Friday, I shall post a short blog with my recommended beer accompaniment and a short rationale for said choice.

I’d love your comments, but better, try and top my recommendation (this won’t be hard, trust me).  We shall then, with the wonder of modern science and the use of a public voting system (which shall be independent, and by the time it comes round, properly thought out) sally forth with our recommendations.  A column in the Guardian will quickly follow I’m sure, and by next year, yours truly will be on The Great British Menu recommending great beers to go with the great food*

Up for it?

*Sneak preview from the BBC.  Next year there will be a Feast Celebrating Great British Muck Spreading. Sounds like sh

Johnnie Mountain

Johnnie Mountain: I’d eat in your restaurant mate. Give me Wareing’s table.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, June 2012

Hail, Hybrid!

My friend Paul drives a Toyota Prius, or ‘Pious’ as he calls it with a self-mocking glint in his eye. Mind you he does keep bees, so perhaps his car choice is consistent with his lifestyle.  I find the thing quite unnerving though. The other day, he gave me a lift to the station, and we had driven 50 yards before any sound kicked in…very surreal and even more unnerving. It was the same sensation as you get on a plane just before it touches down, when the pilot feathers back the engines in order to ‘plop’ the plane down rather than nailing it into the runway. 

Then, to prove that he is a real man, Paul flicked a switch and hammered the accelerator to demonstrate to me that (a) there is an internal combustion engine under the bonnet and (b) it was capable of warning others that it was there.  Now, the Pious is of course a ‘hybrid’ vehicle as they have come to be known.  This is different from other cars with ‘intelligent technology’ that switch off the engine when you are at the lights, or flip over into a low fuel use mode when the cruise-control is engaged for example.  ‘Hybrid’ is different – it’s bringing together two fundamentally different approaches to motive power. One, the suck-squeeze-bang-fart petrol engine, the other, using rechargeable batteries like a Duracell bunny that keeps on drumming, if you will.  This in itself was pretty radical when they first came out; more radical is the idea of combining the two, or better put, designing the two so that they can transition fluidly and effortlessly between each other.

Hence the term ‘hybrid’: as a noun, ‘something that combines two different elements: a mixture’; as an adjective: ‘of mixed character, or composed of mixed parts’.   We have all lived with the Toyota Pious and their like for a few years now, so we have, to quote a Canadian I know, “acculturated” the word – we get it, and it makes sense, much more than the word ‘acculturated’ in fact.

But the ‘H’ word is popping up more widely now.  I was walking to work this week, and I saw a poster advertising a new ‘Hybrid Library’, which I gather is one which has both printed and electronic materials (we had a microfiche reader at my University Library – I knew we were ahead of our times!).  I also own a ‘hybrid bike’ – I was sold on the ruggedness & practicality of a mountain bike with the aerodynamic features & acceleration of a road bike.  And it looks great – it’s a Specialized with a deep, metallic blue frame, 27 gears, and a suspension seat post for purtly-plush bottom comfort. However, it fails on two counts:  it cannot handle any form of rugged terrain, like my mountain bike, and compared with a road bike, it is slow and cumbersome. A compromise then, not an ingenious invention for an unmet need in our lives.

In fact, this phenomenon crops up surprisingly often in the world of brands and marketing.  In beer, for many years the gap between 4% beers and 5% beers was an intellectual opportunity but a practical graveyard – especially for lagers.  Many beers launched into the space, but because Stella cornered the ‘strong lager’ market and Carling and their like, had the ‘4% session’ lagers covered, drinkers didn’t want the confusion of beers in between.  It was a case of ‘I know I can have 4 pints of Carling and still function, but 4 pints of Stella and I’m finished.  I can’t risk Miller Genuine Draft at 4.7%…”

But these walls seem to have crashing down now particularly with ciders and some of the bottled lagers pushing into this ‘space’. And brewers are pushing in too – with careless abandon.  And I use the word ‘careless’ specifically in this context because my hunch tells me that describing a beer as a “Lager / IPA Hybrid” is a space that a Marketing person would identify, but not a brewer or a beer drinker.  But that’s what we have in the market now:  Williams Bros Brewery of Alloa have launched ‘Caesar Augustus’ which is described in said fashion, as well as ‘Microbrewed for maximum flavour’*.  Where to start?


Hail Caesar Hybridus!

Look, I’m all for pushing out the boundaries in beer.  And the notion of brewing a beer, lagering it well and then giving it a generous kiss of hops sounds appetising.  But I have an issue with describing a beer as a ‘hybrid’.  This beer is a lager; it is generously hopped, but that doesn’t make it an IPA.  That in itself shouldn’t be a problem (I refer you to the ‘Black IPA’ debate for more reading on this subject), but in reality it’s confusing.    It’s confusing for this beer, and it’s confusing for lagers and more particularly IPAs. Because there isn’t a nod to IPAdom here at all. There’s no secondary fermentation, no bitterness for mellowing, just aggressive hopping.  And putting the word ‘hybrid’ front and centre on your label….come on. Beer should be appetising – that’s one of its main joys. ‘Hybrid’ isn’t – it reads icky; it sounds icky and it’s technically icky.  Go the whole hog and call it a ‘Juxtaposition Beer’.  We might as well get the wanky words all out and done with.

But so what?  Surely it’s about the taste?  And this beer is fine.  It has an appealing golden colour; a sturdy enough head to make for a smooth drinking experience and a snappy hoppiness that delivers a pleasant bite.  But it’s not in any way extraordinary: it has a pale colour; it has an ale bitterness…and that’s it.  And I’ve drunk plenty of lagers that have the same qualities but don’t feel the need to describe themselves as ‘hybrids’.

Well, “Ut Severis Segis” as Caesar Augustus might have said. “What the sower sows, so may he reap”. My fear for William Bros is that they sow the seeds of confusion and will only reap the rewards of that.

*What is this all about?  Why does ‘micro-brewing’ constitute ‘maximum flavour’?  I do wish brewers, be they large or small would get the bigger picture here….all beer should be embraced and celebrated, even if it some of their attempts end up being confusing.

I bought my bottle of Caesar Augustus from Sainsbury’s in Derventio.  You can’t miss it, take Icknield Street from Letocetum, if you get to Deva Minoris you’ve gone too far.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Micro Roasters

It’s fascinating how trends can manifest themselves in different ways in life.  Take ‘craft’ or ‘micro’ brewing for example – an output from people seeking greater linkage to ingredients, to food production, to provenance and a reaction to mass-production and everything that can attend it (additives, adjuncts, over processing…) – often in the quest for better taste, or more taste, or a more authentic experience.    Well I had missed how this same trend, this same reaction is going on with coffee at the moment.  This was brought into sharp relief through a client I’m working with just now – a client operating near the top of the market in their sector but wanting to understand how they can continue their growth whilst at the same time, growing and protecting the reputation of the category they’re in.  And this got me into investigating coffee and specifically Micro Roasters as a parallel world.

Blimey. This coffee trend had passed me by; or perhaps more accurately, I had passed it by.  Whilst clearly we’ve been witnessing a veritable explosion in coffee shops, at the same time, high street coffee retailers, like Whittards, have been struggling.  So  I had managed to walk past Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street in London countless times, smelling the coffee but not pausing sufficiently long enough to arouse my curiosity and actually cross the threshold.  Even closer to home,  just round the corner from my office is a ‘Kaffeine’ – again a micro roaster, but more focused on the serve experience. Here I’d once purchased a latte on my way to work, swearing never to return after they had assaulted my wallet for a cup half the size of normal.  Mind, they put a lovely fir tree pattern in the froth.  But putting that behind me, once I learnt about this ‘micro roasting revolution’ I thought I’d go and investigate it with my radar turned on.


Monmouth Coffee, or a Mumford & Sons album cover. You decide.

My brief immersion into this world has revealed lots of parallels of course.  Around the raw ingredients themselves; where and how they are grown, what varieties and how they can influence the end result. You’ve got to push further than the ‘Arabica’ vs ‘Robusta’ debate (who isn’t claiming ‘100% Arabica’ nowadays for Heavens sake?). But the actual species (Bourbon or Caturra anyone?). The roasting too – not just the level of roast, but the way the beans are roasted, how quickly, with how much movement, in which style of roaster.  And the grind – when to do this; how to prevent secondary roasting; how – like beer – to prevent oxidation and stale characters in the coffee particularly at the point of packing.  And how you pack it of course: how to let the beans ‘gas off’ (release CO2); how best to store.  Many parallels – but for me, no revolutionary learnings.  I’m left thinking that brewers could do more about the grain varieties – yes, I know that Maris Otter is a great barley – but there must be more to this.  Where is the best barley grown?  What character can different grain blends bring to the taste and texture of beer, to the head and colour?  But could brewers do a lot more than they currently are:  not much.

No, what has really struck me is about the potential for coffee to grow even more through the rituals: the ritual of selling and presenting coffee and the ritual of serving and enjoying.

This is an area that beer would consider itself strong I imagine, but there’s more we can do.  Just consider the experience in Monmouth or Kaffeine.  There’s the presentation of the beans. In one shop, these were laid out in individual oak tubs, with simple tasting notes, ready to be bagged for your purchase (the bags of course, simple, elegant and colour coded in an understated way to help you best enjoy your purchase). In another, blackboards did the same job, in a witty yet informative way.   And there’s the little touches – no bags of crisps with your pint here, but simple accompaniments designed to complement not fight the flavours of the coffee.

Yet more impactful was putting the serving of the coffee right at the heart of the action; the coffee ‘station’ turned round, facing into the room, sitting in close proximity to the baristas.  Making a display of grinding of tamping and tapping out the spent, washed through grains.  The serve too – water with the coffee of course, to cleanse the palate and let the flavours bite through with each mouthful, but simple touches like just warmed milk on the side.  Although the crèma I suppose is the staff, knowledgeable but not arrogant, imparting just enough information to encourage the mystique whilst holding back enough not to put off or bore their clientele.

I had a decaff single origin (Brazilian) Americano.  Beautifully served in beautiful surroundings by beautiful people.  Shame I didn’t like it….that’s taste for you I suppose.  But the experience left its mark.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Session #64: The Pale Ale Counter-Reformation

the session beer blogging friday

In many respects, CAMRA came into existence to save pale ale. Yes, I know it should be a broad church the Campaign For Real Ale, but the reality it was pale ale that was being decimated by the rockets of kegged beer with all the day to day, ‘operational’ benefits they offered. Worthington ‘E’, Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread’s Tankard, Ind Coope’s Double Diamond were most definitely not ‘head and body above the rest’ (to paraphrase). Rather, for drinkers who loved and appreciated the subtle nuances of cask beer, these insulted through their artificial, aggressive fizziness and tasteless or unbalanced flavours.  In a way, they did damage on two fronts: they hurt cask, and they hurt the reputation of great beers that happen to be sold in ‘kegs’ for future generations.   My first surreptitious underage swig of beer was from a party 7 of Worthington’s at a party my Mum and Dad were having. I should have been in my room, but I cagily snuck downstairs for an illicit snifter of some sort. The beer was close to hand and I tapped some into a plastic camping cup.

Oh my dear God. It was the most unpalatably rank, wretched, drain-stinkingly awful experience. It didn’t help that I hadn’t yet been on a rite of passage with beer at that point in my life, but goodness me. This stuff had an acrid stink like beer changing from just about drinkable to off, and a taste that was aggressively sharp with carbonation and mildly painful.

There were two upsides though. Firstly it was bad enough to put me off tobacco and other illicit substances.  Secondly, it was so truly awful that I knew that there must be better stuff out there. Saying that, I left it a fair few years to find out more, and I have never trusted my Dad’s taste in alcohol since.    But no wonder CAMRA had a powerful cause. Here was our beer, a style of beer that had dominated our landscape for almost 300 years being right-royally buggered by the same people charged with doing the right thing for it…to tend it, nurture it, pass it on in better shape to their successors. Some hope.

So the movement grew. Not just the CAMRA movement, although undoubtedly that catalysed the change. Time became a powerful ally too. For with time, so the wash of characterless premium lagers revealed the hidden skeleton in the cupboard. Through the ‘80s and especially into the late ‘90s, drinkers began to see that ‘international lagers’ – at first so sexy and alluring – were in truth separated only by their clothes. An interesting label. An unusual font. A pertly shaped glass.

But where, oh where was the flavour?   And why, oh why, must I consume a 5% + ABV lager to get a mere skittering of taste?

And so the Pale Ale Counter Reformation began. And it began on many fronts.  Drinkers in the UK standing on the burning platform, with CAMRA helping them see what we were losing.  With the home brewers-cum-craft brewers in the U.S. challenging their beer norms and looking for interesting styles – sending ripples across the world.  This coincidental wave of drinkers unaccustomed, perhaps unaware, of this family of beers concentrated the flowing tide as it entered the mouth of the bay. To today, where it feels like Pale Ale is truly fighting back; is challenging the hegemony of international ‘lager’.

What a family of beers it is! From the unusual or less common Bière de Gardes, Blondes or Strong Ales, to the widespread, more accessible Bitters, American Pales or Burton Pale Ales.  Many of the bottles in the ale section of UK supermarkets today are pale ales; in the US no self-respecting bar would do without at least one great, often local (ish) Pale Ale on draft.  And pales are springing up all over now and gaining momentum.  In a bar the other night, I drank a Cooper’s (from Adelaide); a Sierra Nevada (from Chico, California), followed by a bottle of Llangollen Bitter (from North Wales) later that evening.

But let’s start with Burton Pale Ale. Not the first, but at their best, the style-definers.  Yes, you may beg to differ; and of course, the beauty of taste is how idiosyncratic and individual it is, but sorry, over this there can be no doubt. Burton didn’t earn its fame through fluke. It earned its fame because at their best, these Pale Ales were world class. At their best, they were beguiling, moreish, complex, rewarding, shocking and supremely drinkable. A combination that was….is…..awesome.

But there’s the rub. Where today are the pale ales that made Burton famous? In Pedigree, perhaps… but for me, still too unreliable when kept in the wrong hands and all too often these are the hands of Marstons publicans. And I do agree with my brother, who thinks it’s a bit ‘barnyardy’, a bit rustic, compared in his mind with the Daddy. With Bass.

But alas, alas. This, of all Pale Ales, a signature beer of its style, a world class beer, superbly balanced, flavoursome and nuanced, has been mugged by the shadowy yakusa of international brewer consolidation and left, breathing, but barely audibly, in a brewing back alley.  Once, not that many years ago, UK brewing’s biggest export, now a shadow of that, forced to become Disneyesque in Anheuser Busch InBev’s ridiculous attraction to serving it as part of a black and tan.  Damn you for wrecking this beer and damn you more for treating it with disdain.

Thank the Lord for Burton Bridge then. Their eponymous Bridge Bitter keeps Burton’s flag flying.  This is a beer with structure, with a delicate floral character but a spine to stand up for itself.  There’s just that drying, vaguely burnt, bitter linger that means your hand is lifting the glass for the next sip not long after the last one has been swallowed.  For like very few beers, great Burton Pale Ales have that quality that is so difficult to define:  tasty yes, but moreishly drinkable too.

Whilst Pale Ale found fame with the spread of the style from Burton, of course this is just a fraction of the story.  One of the interesting chapters is in Belgium; known of course for so many interesting, challenging, defining styles of beer, but a haven for Pale Ale too.  I travelled to Belgium a few years ago and met the chaps at Palm in Steenhuffel.  Palm Breweries is one of the larger national companies in Belgium today, but recent years have been tough.  Despite its reputation as a great beer nation, the reality is that the market is over 70% international lager and it’s as cut-throat as elsewhere in northern Europe.  So in the last decade Palm have redefined their business; adding true speciality brands like Rodenbach and Boon lambics.  And refocusing on Palm Speciale.

For many years, Palm Speciale seemed to play second fiddle to its Antwerp rival, de Koninck. A fine beer, no doubt, served in its bolleke (little ball or bollock). Palm seemed more grounded, less aspirational – it’s symbol of a Brabant Shire Horse the perfect manifestation.  Doughty and workmanlike.  Yet Palm is a terrific pale ale that shouldn’t be over-shadowed, and a great example of how the Belgians can appropriate and re-interpret different beer styles.  The base of Palm is undoubtedly a pale ale. A rich amber colour, a fruit-sugary crispness that you only expect from a warm fermented beer, but matched by a malt-led roundness. Cave Direct sell it in the UK ( – look out for it, and look out for it’s cognac like bol glass, which doesn’t just add to the enjoyment but concentrates and directs the aromas in a way that enhances Palm’s drinkability. Only without the bolleks.

There are now so many pale ales in fact, with so much terrific variation that the style risks fragmentation. This may be no bad thing, especially when you consider how far the it has come in the last generation…from a time when it was on its knees, to today….a Pale Ale Counter Reformation, when for some, I drop to my knees and offer reverential praise.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012