It’s difficult to be precise on the facts on this, but according to some research* I read, roughly half of beer drinkers like the taste of sunstrike in beer. I’m in the other 50%. In fact, famously I was once described by someone as being the most attuned person to the smell of horse blankets, wet dogs, damp cardboard and skunkiness. I cannot attest to the accuracy of this statement but I chose to take it as a positive affirmation of my razor sharp senses in relation to beer. *cough cough*.
Let’s deal with these two things in order. First, ‘sunstrike’ or ‘sunstruck’. It would be easy to get technical, and thereby get it wrong, as I am no expert, but in essence, hops contain compounds, humoloids, humolones….something like that, which react with ultraviolet light. Beer that is unprotected – which is at least the third of beer in the UK – all that is sold in clear or glass bottles – can succumb to the effect very quickly**. Put it out on shelf, leave it in the front of a fridge, put it down on the table outside whilst you enjoy your barbecue…. in no time at all, the character of the beer changes. I say the character of the beer – for me, it’s the aroma that hits me between the eyes, but there’s no doubt that it impacts the taste of the beer too***.
So secondly, to those attributes: aroma and taste. It’s most definitely impacted by UV. The reason, allegedly, that many drinkers like the taste is because they associate it with beers they have had on holiday…Spanish beer often gets the finger levelled at it here, ‘It’s like that San Miguel we had in Magaluf’. i.e. beer that has been enjoyed in searing temperatures, blinding light in the middle of the day – and probably not out of a can (plus when you are relaxed and on holiday – that’s a totally different subject). I shot an advert in Barcelona once, and I remember enjoying a beautiful glass of San Miguel in a bar just off La Ramblas…that was fantastic, so personally it doesn’t compute, but I get the logic. Frankly, as soon as I crank off the crown, if the beer is sunstruck I can tell.
It’s that often quoted aroma – skunk – that is the giveaway.
Yes, skunk. I recognise it as skunk because we used to keep a domesticated one. It was ever so handy around the house. With its black and white stripes it was great at bossing the magpies out of the back garden and its hair was so long, fine and luxuriously silky, it made an ideal shoe polishing accessory. Brought up a lovely sheen it did. And the kids just adored taking it for long walks across the fields; they were never bothered by dog owners.
Seriously, how can I describe this fetid, accrid pong as ‘skunky’ when it has no meaning for me? It must have for Americans who coined it, but for me, nothing. I therefore set about the challenge of finding out an equivalent smell; a description that has validity to us, here, in these sceptred Skunkless Isles.
To our friend, the skunk, or polecat then. I never realised that his spray is released from two glands either side of his anus. Nice. Or that he is unnervingly accurate at ranges of up to 5 metres. Move over, Phil ‘The Power’, you may hit the double tops, but skunky here has a double bottom. And that they only spray when they feel threatened. No way. Yet everyone struggles, including Americans it seems, with describing what ‘skunky’ actually is. Burnt rubber? In small quantities apparently. Roastgarlic? That sounds ok. Ammonia like? Suitably nasty, but if that was it, surely you’d describe the smell as ‘ammonia’. Rotten eggs? Somehow it doesn’t capture how awful the smell is. By all accounts, skunks are close relations to weasels and ferrets, so perhaps I need to tap up some of my Lancastrian mates to see if they can help. Seek in the trousers of wisdom my friend, and you shalt find.
I have not yet conducted primary research. The next time I go to Chester Zoo, if you see someone poking around the back end of the animals in the ‘Mephitids’ section, ‘tis I. If you see someone being carted off to Chester Magistrates Court, ‘t’will be me. Or scrubbing themselves down with Carbolic Soap for a week. Yup, me too.
Ultimately I suppose, who cares? Apart from lexicological colonialism by the Americans (get there first and you get to keep the descriptions), it doesn’t really matter. Except, when I try and tell my wife that her beer is off, and have to use the word ‘skunky’. She just shoots me that, “Don’t patronise me, you tosser” look and stalks off. No, we need language that we all understand to describe great flavours and off flavours.
“Wet stoat” it is then.
Now, I’m just off to speak to The Beer Academy. They need to reprint their flavour wheels…
*Bass Brewers, Project Ra, 2001. I don’t just make this stuff up you know. Well, mainly not.
**As part of the above project, freshly packaged beer in green bottles was left on a window sill for 30 minutes. When it was opened, it was already ‘off’.
***Brewers can do a few things to prevent sunstrike. The most common thing is only sell your beer on draught or cans, or not package beer in anything but dark brown bottles. But you know, this is not that practical and research tells us that consumers prefer green or clear glass. The other thing you can do is brew with isohumolone free hops – chemically altered hops that have the specific compounds removed – Miller Genuine Draft is a good example, so too Sol. Clever science, but to my taste, the beers take on a soapy mouthfeel and begin to taste very similar.. I’d rather run the gauntlet myself.
Last night was another Peroni experience. My girls both came home from school with lovely school reports and as I have been working away a lot we decided to hold Friday Night Pizza Night out of home rather than in. So we tootled off to Ask and placed our order.
I haven’t actually checked, but I think there’s an Austin Powers Conspiracy going on in the sphere of Italian restaurants. We use vouchers to save a bit of money, and they all come out with minutes of one another – this is either incredibly effective competitive monitoring, or more likely, they are actually all one commercial concern. This theory is supported in my eyes because the three protagonists are getting more distinct from one another: Pizza Express the mainstream offer, with wide appeal, upmarket enough for a treat but not so pricey you can’t dine there often; Strada, playing on the authenticity card and hence pricier, and then below them Ask, which is outwardly less authentically Italian and more ‘inspired by Italy’. But they’re not different in beer: Nastro Azzuro 330ml, Nastro Azzuro 660ml (for that sneaky upsell) and Peroni Gran Reserva for when you’re feeling flush, or more likely, not driving.
The point of this is not to complain… although I would like to see a wider selection – Menabrea perhaps – or one of the great beers from Le Baladin? No, the point was that sad though I may be, the experience made me reflect on semiotics.
Semiotics is quite a specialist psychological field and is now employed by all sorts of companies, as it can have a real impact on how a brand or an experience is understood by its end user. Essentially semiotics is all about the meaning that derives from non verbal cues and signals. It’s about how a beer presents itself (how it ‘codes’ to use the lingo) and the real experience, not what it says about itself.
Take Ask for example: the experience of ordering, receiving and drinking my bottle of Nastro Azzuro is a good cross section in Semiotics. One of the benefits for stocking such a small range of beers is that you see what’s there as you walk in. A lady opposite me had an ice cold bottle and branded glass sitting in front of her on the table: refreshment is cued up. I order one: the glass has been frosted, and the beer is clearly deeply cold; the condensation sitting on the label.
Ah…the label. Peroni really is a masterpiece in how it presents itself. It adheres to some premium lager expectations and betters others. The design of the label uses many classic references in beer design: hops and barley; bottle embossing; international awards (generally won at the turn of the 20th century for some reason); oval shape and riband devices – all say ‘a well constructed beer’. But Nastro challenges too: it’s predominantly a white design, and white cues ‘value’ or ‘cheap’. But they balance it with a non beer colour (a rich blue) and little touches that are psychologically big touches: just the right amount of gold edging or lettering; mock hand-written script; delicate background detailing. You may think this is accidental – but trust me, it isn’t. Everything on this label, everything, is there for a reason and has been well thought through. It is the consistency with which SAB have executed these little touches, and how carefully they have built the distribution over time that has transformed it into a hot brand.
I’m not in SAB’s pocket so I shall blow no further air up their trumpet, but it is worth reflecting on the power of semiotics. Nastro Azzurro is a perfectly alright, perfectly average beer, but the bigger experience it delivers is a multipier effect (Stella Artois is an even more stark example). No, a basic understanding of semiotics is particularly important in the burgeoning world of craft beer. Start-ups don’t have big (read: any) money for marketing. The assets that they do have that the drinker touches: the bottle, the beer mats, the glass, the font or badge, the website – these take on a disproportionate importance. Making them consistent, not chopping and changing becomes critically important not just because it’s a better use of money but because it makes sense given that a drinker may not experience your product that frequently.
The question is which codes to keep and which to break – and that’s something to think about as you work your way through the many great beers emerging today.
At the Oktoberfest one year, a whiskery old Bavarian chap leaned over to me, winked and said conspiratorially, “You would make a fine member of the Hitler Youth”. I reckon he’ll be there this year too, intimidating the foreigners. The point is that until my early 20’s I was blond. My wife is blond. My daughters are blond. And let’s be honest, blond is where it’s at. At least, it is in food and drink.
I was mulling on this as I drank a pint of Hawkhead’s Windermere Pale, described on its label as a ‘blonde beer’. And it is; it’s a moreishly moreish 3.6% ABV pale ale, as bright and glowing as a sherbet lemon with a beautiful hop note on the nose, which reminds me of Amarillo but I’m sure can’t be. It’s not alone. Most major ale brewers have a blonde in their range now, be it Wychwood or Fullers … and the smaller players are in on the act too – Slater’s of Stafford with their Top Totty Blonde (the one that caused a Parliamentary kerfuffle recently – but not as seismic as Jimmy Carr fortunately) and then of course, is Castle Rock, which with Harvest Pale, ‘The Finest Blonde Beer’, won Champion Beer of Britain in 2010.
Far from being the realm of the Ginge, Scotland seems a hot bed for blondes, so to speak. Innes & Gunn, Oban & Aran all contributing fine examples, spurred on I’m sure by the great success of Deuchars north & south of the border. So many blondes in fact that it’s almost become a beer style in its own right. Given that there don’t seem to be any rules about what makes a beer ‘blonde’, this alone is interesting.
And if that’s happening here, you can imagine what’s going on over the water: a blonde bombshell (*groan*). There are genuine ‘blonde’ beers – blonde wheats, Belgian-style blonde ales, double hopped blonde IPAs, American Blonde Ales; and then of course there are just the gratuitously named blonde beers, like ‘Pure Naked blonde’ or ‘Big Ass Blond’. Right on.
It’s not just beer though. Wherever brand owners are looking for a short cut to a ‘lighter’ product, the word ‘blonde’ is cropping up. Take Starbuck’s, they have just launched a ‘Blonde’ roast in their stores – in fact it’s a range, including ‘Veranda’, ‘Willow’ and ‘Decaf Willow’. Mind you, given that many people call it Charbucks, they probably needed to. Apparently they are ‘subtle’ ‘refreshing’ ‘lighter bodied’ yet ‘full of flavour’. Sound familiar?
And it makes the job of innovating a lot easier. When I’m developing my next new beer, I shall be raiding the shelves of the hair colourant market. My ‘Plum Power’ Pale Ale and ‘Cayenne Red Mahogany Brown’ Ale are just bound to be winners.
There’s a chap in the world of Scottish advertising who is famous. Normally, when you think of ‘famous’ people in advertising your mind goes to the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell, John Hegarty, David Ogilvy or Trevor Beattie. I’m thinking of someone who should be much more exalted though…. Les Watt.
Les is a big man in many, many ways. There’s his size for one, he’s an ex rugby player with calves bigger than most people’s thighs; there’s his reputation; particularly amongst directors and advertising producers. Les learnt his trade (the production and ‘traffic’ side of advertising – actually making the ads if you will) from the bottom up and he didn’t bull shit. He didn’t pretend to know it all. At first those on the opposite side of the table found this charming and disarming. Later though, rather like Annikin Skywalker on his path to the dark side, they soon realised that because of this approach, generally he did know it all – and generally therefore, he knew where the margin was, the workarounds and the tricks of the trade. He earned, in short, respect. So Les brings in high quality advertising at a fraction of the cost of big London agencies, and some great stuff there is too (have a look: www.leith.co.uk – and check out their beer).
But Les is famous for something different in my book, handy though it was to have him on your side. No, for me, Les is famous for his ‘kickers’.
The world of advertising, especially for aspiring marketeers is seen as glamourous; larging it with creative types and getting to chat to the Producer and the ‘DP’; mixing it with known faces from the acting world and often in exotic locations.
In reality though, it’s a grind. Early starts, a lot of sitting around; multiple takes with actors who should know better; a workforce that work to rule, and more typically stroppy directors who give the impression that they’re only filming your advert because Hollywood have put them on hold (again). So it’s a blessing to get to the end of the evening and be able to have a couple of hours to yourself without hearing ‘Cut!’ yet a-bloody-gain.
And typically the evenings involve hunting out a meal, often at unsociable hours, and grabbing a few beers.
Now with Les, even if it is well beyond the bewitching hour, restaurant staff chuntering under their breath with the desire to head home, it is still never to late to take your time over a meal. You go through the menu; order your starter and main; a few beers. And then the inevitable words. “How about a few kickers to get us going?”.
The intonation alone says, “Och no, these are on top of everything else” without it actually being said. And only Les chooses the kickers. With menu laid out in front of him like the first reading of the Magna Carta, he works his way through with an increasingly slack-jawed waiter jotting them down.
And they arrive. Plate after plate of whatever the local vicinity specialise in. My first shoot with Les was in Barcelona, so you can imagine…. tapas galore. There were a dozen of us at the table, and I kid you not, enough kickers for 50. But we cleared them, every last one. And then the starter arrived…..
I tell you this little tale because ‘beer and kickers’ for me are now part of my lexicon. I actively hunt them out. When I’m abroad in particular, it’s a great opportunity to seek out something a little bit special to go with your first beer. Tapenade and slow cooked bread? Sardine and caper on a basil & plum tomato salad? Any form of cheese. Oh yes, Les would be proud (although if he saw the quantity I order, he’d probably be a little mocking too).
But in the UK it’s more troublesome – more troublesome because we have our own rituals. Crisps of course – and frankly there are few poor crisps in the UK. Ready Salted Walkers are never disappointing, and some Pipers, Burts or Kettle Chips are a bonus. Phileas Fogg used to do little bags of their tortillas (in the days before Doritos, these were the genuine article), and we used to get the train to The Bridge in Topsham, rip open the bags in the middle of the table to share them out over pints of Bass or Broadside. Or at The Yew Tree in Cauldon Low, there the whole food offering consisted of (and likely still does) pies. They were kept on the bar under a glass cloche, and when you ordered one you were asked if “You want a bit of muzzy with that?”. Fantastic.
But there’s only one snack that I find invariably lets you down, and it is the epitomy of British Snackology: pork scratchings.
Have you tried any recently? Typically the versions you get nowadays seem to use popcorn technology. They are so light and fluffy and aerated that they have lost the whole point. Where are the layers of skin and fat? Where are the short bristly bits of pig hair that sizzle off in your mouth? Where is the heavy spicing?
I realise now that I was spoiled in the way of the Scratching. A friend of mine from Primary School was the son of a butcher on Stoke market. Their stand is still their today under the Potteries centre, and we used to get discount bags of scratchings which were bigger than your head. We’d then go round to Dave’s house and eat the lot with his infernal home brew. But by heck, they were cracking scratchings. Long, thick, bristling with hair and fat, you had to fight them with your teeth just to make an impression. They were, in short, awesome.
And at last someone is trying to make scratchings of this quality available more widely. You may have heard of the three chaps (including Matthew Fort, ex Guardian restaurant critic and now Great British Menu judge) who organised a whole meal where each course (including pud) featured scratchings. Their creation, Mr Trotters, are jolly good (mrtrotter.com). They’re actually made just up the road from me in Rugeley, and frankly any scratchings that come from the Scratching Belt of Staffordshire to the West Midlands will be good. These are made from all British pork (a rarity if you think about it, most of the bacon and ham we eat has come on a Viking Raid from Denmark), and are ‘slow cooked’. I think this latter claim is is a bit of marketing nonsense, because ultimately the product speaks for itself. They’re grand – keep a look out for them and support them if you see them. (My only gripe is that they have been cut a bit too short and the bags are too small – this has clearly been done to reduce the calorie intake, but let’s be honest, calories are not top of mind to those of us who partake in scratchings). I’m sure range extensions will follow, and they should certainly consider some with even bolder spicing, then we will have a British ‘kicker’ to be truly proud of.
Mr Trotter. You might be looking proud now Sir, but you won’t be after the abattoir.