Monthly Archives: July 2012

The first Pint

The week was long, they worked me hard,


Outside, sun beating down in relentless shards,


Teasing me, taunting me, calling my name,
‘

Put down your tools, join in my game…

’
No! Continue to toil I must,


To earn my bread, a sorry crust.


But after the train, and my journey home 
I necked that beer….

…ahhh, first pint syndrome.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

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My beer seems to taste of ferret.

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.  Roast garlic?  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…

Stoaty *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.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Sign Language

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.

Cumberland

Brew Dog

Stretching codes: a shield, but little else

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© David Preston, Beer TintedSpectacles 2012

Blonde Ambition

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.

cornish-blonde

I chose this image after Googling ‘Big Ass Blonde’ took me to pages the kids shouldn’t see.

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.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

In search of the perfect ‘kicker’

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).

Les Watt

The imperious Les Watt. Enjoying a Scottish pre Kicker Kicker.

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 2

Mr Trotter. You might be looking proud now Sir, but you won’t be after the abattoir.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The world of ‘adjacent fruitiness’

There’s a phrase used by marketing types when they are contemplating innovations or new products: ‘adjacencies‘.  The idea is to look to related products or territories first, not just make seemingly irrational leaps into random or mad-cap territories.  It’s not necessarily the best way of thinking about this, but it’s one way, and increasingly it’s used by bigger, typically more risk averse businesses.  Big brewers in particular, and more specifically those in western Europe and North America who are feeling the economic pinch, have started to talk about ‘renovation’ not ‘innovation’. It’s much the same thing: look at what’s close to hand and can be delivered with our existing kit.  Evidence: Foster’s Gold in Foster’s bottles; Carling Chrome in plain bottles; packaging tweaks (speaking as the person who first brought temperature activated inks onto beer cans, I speak with some authority here.  And look, I got excited at the time so leave me alone).  But the point is it can deliver commercially for a business, but it’s all a bit….well….dull. 

Cider is a classic example of an ‘adjacency’.   Picture the scene. It’s 2006. A balmy, almost tropical summer.  I had a job at the time which saw me in central London most days, and often out in the the pubs and clubs of the capital.  The something happens. A new phenomenon no less…… cider! From Ireland. In one pint, brown bottles. And it’s orange.  But by golly, it’s selling like hot cakes.

I don’t think it would have done that well in research. But my hunch is they didn’t research it.  It was ripping up trees in Ireland, why it can’t it do the same over the water?  Which of course, is what Magner’s did.

Magner'sMagner’s. Has got a lot to answer for. Plus, it’s orange.

Reaction 1:  cider maker panic.  The immediate response: Strongbow gets relaunched; Bulmers gets relaunched and all the small, family or artisinal cider makers  get a little business fillip (hurrah for them).

Reaction 2: brewers panic.  Is it affecting our trade?  What should we do?  Why is this thing working? It’s Orange! (Outrage, outrage, chunter, chunter!)  This can’t be right!

Five years on, the affects of that launch are still being felt in beer and in cider. The cider makers are still creaming it in – just look at the amount of space dedicated to bottles in the supermarket, and next time you’re out, just count how many people are drinking bottles of cider, both from the British Isles and beyond.

In beer, the reaction has been to understand ‘adjacencies’.  And what’s the adjacency here?

Fruit.

As simple as that; if we put fruit in our beer then hey, ho away we go. Happy days…     But is it that simple?  I do think there’s some great news.  Many beers do go with fruit, and some fruits incredibly.  As I see it, there’s no reason why fruit can’t either form part of the mash, or be added for taste (or dare I say it, be put in the neck of the bottle – if it builds love for beer then why not?).  Beer buyers (supermarket buyers and pub chain buyers) now have these sorts of products on their radar. That’s a good thing.

And I think it would also be too crass to leap to the assumption that traditional beers brewed with fruit are great and newer ones brewed with essences are bad, particularly if they stem from some faceless, multi-national brewing concern.  That doesn’t wash, but there clearly is an axis.  At one end, there are the older fruit beers – the Belgian ones are the obvious example. At the other, there are the big brand extensions – the Bud Light Limes, Carling Zest’s of this world.  And a vast array between.

Fruit beers are back on the radar, and there are some highlights and lowlights to date.

Highlights?

I was reminded how good the authentic Krieks and Framboise beer of Belgium can be when I managed to get hold of some bottles of Boon Oude Kriek & Boon Framboise.  A few years ago I had these in a great bar in Brussels but I hadn’t seen them since (www.beermerchant.com sell them direct).  These are some of the most traditionally brewed of their types, Frank Boon saving the brewing from extinction at a time when the beers of Lambeek looked like they were going to the wall, and now as part of the Palm Brouwerij family, with a financially stronger parent who cares about the heritage of traditional Belgian beers.  They’re not for the faint hearted; they are based on Boon Geuze so have the characteristic wild yeast ‘farmyard’ flavours and these flavours still tell through even after the addition of the fruit & a secondary fermentation with the macerated whole fruit. But they are refined; the Framboise in particular is devine – it has a punchy fruit flavour yet isn’t cloyingly sweet or overbearing.  In Belgium it’s sold in champagne sized bottles with a cork and wire stopper – just perfect for celebrations of any sort (and indeed, it is served in flutes).  The Kriek, made with cherries is assertive, and has a beautiful dry, earthy cherry stone aroma and a just-so sweet flavour to counteract the beers complexity.

BoonYeah baby.

But of course Boon beers are difficult to get, so I like Liefmans, recently smartened up, and based on an aged brown ale rather than a Lambic.

Lowlights?

I haven’t worked my way through the Floris range yet, but they are quite widely available in city bars and some offies.  The popular ones are the strawberry – clearly having a crack at the Fruli market and also the cherry white.  These, like Fruli, are based on a wit beer based, which I think makes a great carrier for fruit. But I’m not convinced with these beers – the packaging is unattractive which starts you off on the wrong foot and the beers tend to be too ‘spiky’ to enjoy more than a few mouthfuls. The strawberry for example has an almost pear drop sweetness and the cherry has that touch of cherry coke that suggests it has come from a bottle not a piece of fruit.

And Melville’s. From the Innes & Gunn stable, the hand of the marketeer is at play.    Clear flint bottles (uh-oh), see through plastic labels and nice design; they look the part.  But then the nit picking commences: brewed to be an antidote to “sickly continental style fruit beers” and “one dimensional ciders”; or “bursting with delicious flavours of real fruit’ from “cold pressed Scottish fruit”, followed by the coup de grace:  “Finally” they assert, “…a fruit beer for people who like great beer”.  Well chaps, these are bold claims; and you know what, if it hadn’t been for all the abrasive anti-beer language the beer tinted specs of mine might be a little less steamed up, but if you are going to shoot at your competitors Melvilleyou need to damn sure of your position.  These beers don’t have the balance; the punch and the real fruit fruitiness to have a crack at Krieks and Frambozen.  They are, I’m sure, aimed at totally different people on different occasions. But that’s not the point – embrace the world of beers my friends, don’t piss in the same pond.  We can all do without that. And frankly, whilst these are undoubtedly lighter than a ‘continental style fruit beer’ it doesn’t equate to drinkability.

That’s not the note to finish on though. For me, the great thing about the marriage of fruit and grain is that there are so many delicious potential combinations. So not everyone’s getting it right. But these beers are adding a new dimension and appeal to drinkers – and to important people in the world of beer too, the buyers who decide what goes on the shelves. For fruit beers (and ciders too) to be given more space is a great thing and will help support new starters who want to have a crack at beer in the future or new drinkers who want to give beer a go but haven’t so far.

I’ll drink a fruity beer to that and ponder other ‘adjacencies’….

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Apparently, p*ss is alcofrolic.

Steve the Writer placed a short Facebook comment this week about Carling Zest being discounted in Sainsbury’s:  ‘2 for £6. *sigh*’. His comment, a gentle poke at the inevitability of succumbing to discounting amongst the big brewers, sparked many responses. Some witty; some full of agreement; others pointed, including one which I shall paraphrase as, “It’s below 3%, therefore it’s just lime flavoured piss”.

I found myself surprisingly agitated by this comment.

First off, as far as I am aware, urea is non-alcoholic. 2%, 3%, 9% ABV …it doesn’t matter – none of these will be piss. Sorry fellas, but CGA, the industry market data analysts, classify ‘Piss’ as a NABLAB*.

Second, and the real rub, is the commonly held belief that low alcohol = low taste. Plenty of ale drinkers actively choose lower ABV (3%s) beers because they get lots of taste whilst retaining reasonable control of their faculties.

Third, it goes without saying that people having a pop at brewers for at least trying something new and different should rile anyone who is pro-beer, even if, let’s be honest, this particular innovation from Carling isn’t exactly pushing the envelope of creativity. We shouldn’t be too sniffy about this – beer drinkers, and consumers in general – are normally pretty risk averse, and I understand that Carling Zest is doing alright.

The real question is, can a beer below 3% really taste that good – not because it is low in alcohol (read: ethanol), but rather because it is potentially too low in the other elements that make beer enjoyable? Body; texture; mouthfeel; richness, ability to form foam and so on. Oh, and the psychological side of things too: can we ever believe that it can taste good if it’s below 3%**

It’s going to be something we can soon judge for ourselves in bars and supermarkets up and down the land.  The Government’s move in halving duty on beers of 2.8% ABV and below a short while back is now acting as the pebble that caused the wave of new products. Carling Zest is one of the early entries – using the addition of fruit essences to mask the lack of body in the beer itself, whilst I wouldn’t add it to my beer list of choice, I can appreciate that on certain occasions, for certain moods, it’ll have a place.  There are others, Marston’s have launched ‘Pale Ale’, a beer that is ‘Traditionally Brewed For Flavour & Taste’ (Best served chilled). It’s 2.8%. Adnam’s ‘Sole Star’, a ‘Pale Amber Ale’ is brewed to 2.7%; Hop Back ‘Heracles’, a ‘bold new beer….truly strong in flavour’ is 2.8%; J Willie Lees ‘Golden Lite’ (Lager) is…… 2.8%.

Notwithstanding the fact that this list sounds like the runners and riders at  Kempton Park, all of these beers (and many more I haven’t listed here) have come to market recently.  All, using one form of words or another, make a claim to ‘flavour’. None it seems, compare themselves to ‘piss’, nor list this as an ingredient on the back label. What a ‘relief’.

It’s about time we were more open to the wonderful diversity and lexicon of beer styles and flavours, and disconnect the crass assumptions that more alcohol automatically equals more flavour. In the UK, this category is here to stay. It’s just the job of relearning that’s going to be a big one.

*NABLAB = no alcohol beer / low alcohol beer.

**Not that long ago, I had a meeting with Tim Martin. He had an interesting perspective that there isn’t a real ‘gap’. Drinkers, he reckoned either wanted the full on experience with the alchol hit and were prepared for it (ie walking / getting a bus / lift home) or didn’t want any alcohol at all i.e I won’t trust myself to have 2 pints of a 2.8% beer and still drive.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012