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

The Great Beertish Menu: The End

The winners are in this year’s Great British Menu, and so overcome by excitement was I that I forgot to actually post this and I’m a week late.  View this then as an early ‘repeat’ episode, and for dessert a few, final, beer pairings.

The starter was won by Colin McGurran from the north east, with an arboreal dish entitled ‘Quail In The Woods’.  Unsurprisingly, this featured our old culinary sacrifice coturnix ypsilophora. Dead and in parts scattered over a clearing in an ancient woodland, like an attack by a Michelin Starred Fox, it did look extremely tasty and the addition of some forest mist added to the Olympian drama (although the word ‘Mist’ always me giggle childishly, as in German it means ‘Poo’, or at least something to that effect).  The only problem with the dish as my good lady wife pointed out was, ‘Would you really want to eat your meal off a log’.  To which the answer would be, ‘If I’d had five pints of Pedigree, quite likely, yes’.  In fact I’m going for Asahi Black – the quail was coated in a miso glaze and this beer has enough robustness to it to complement that but smoothness from the bottom fermentation not to beat up the quail, Yakuza style.

The fish was the humble makerel treated with real respect by Phil Howard. His ‘Tasting of Cornish Mackerel’ was a standout dish and rightly won through.  And, slightly lazy though it may seem, my previous recommendation will knock your socks off: Paulaner Dunkel.  Erdinger also do a Dunkel Weisse, which would give a different character to the pairing but would be good all the same.

Daniel Clifford from the Midlands won the prized main with his ‘Slow Poached Chicken’.  I’m not sure if he had poached it, or just bought it like most people, but it certainly looked drop-dead gorgeous.  The formula for success was underlined in this dish, take something slightly old school and give it a contemporary edge and you’re away. I’ll drink to that with a glass of Hawkshead Windermere Pale, a pleasant light ABV to allow you to enjoy your main dish, but enough cut through from the zingy hop (Amarillo?) to put the cluck into the chuck.

And finally, after getting in the top three with every single course, Simon Rogan from Cartmel in Cumbria won the pud with his ‘Poached Pears, Anise Hyssop Snow, Rosehip syrup, Hazlenuts and Sweet Cheese Ice Cream’ pud. Another standout dish which created a genuine ‘wow’ not just through the techniques deployed but also the combination of flavours from the ingredients. And so, a ‘wow’ beer is needed. In the heats it was a glass of Cain’s Dark Mild; this time, rather than a contrast I shall go for a complentary flavour.  Alas, I don’t think it’s currently imported into the UK, but I would recommend a brilliant Belgian style wheat beer here, in fact a Dutch wheat beer. The quirky, rodent friendly Gulpener Korenwolf gets the nod.  Brewed with four grains including spelt and rye, and elderflower petals, a Dutch beer may not be how you expect to end a British Olympic feast, but it shows how far we have come as a society since the last time we held the Games in 1948.

Anise Hyssop meal‘That’ dessert from Simon Rogan.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Me Tarzan, Lord of the Barbecue

The titles rolled across this Summer scene. Friends gathered round as the low late afternoon Summer sun dropped slowly, but the heat still warming. As I watched the events and sipped a beer, a sonorous, resonant voice intoned in my head…

“The patio; here I was born; and here my parents abandoned me for the supermarket when I was but an infant. I would have soon perished, had I not been found by a kindly she-ape named Burga, who adopted me as her own and taught me the ways of the wild. I learned quickly, and grew stronger each day, and now I share the friendship and trust of all kitchen animals. The patio is filled with beauty, and danger; and lost borders filled with good, and evil. This is my domain, and I protect those who come here; for I am Tarzan, Lord of the Barbecue”

Tarzan beat his chest.  Rolling back on his heals he thrust his weight powerfully forward and out, down from the tall branch of the tree, up in the canopy. With an outstretched arm, he reached for a vine and swung away; off and beyond.

With his other hand he turned the sausages and burgers, just preventing one from slipping between the grille to a certain doom below. Cracking off the lid of his Mexican beer, he swigged back deeply and arched his shoulders, blowing out his chest to mark his territory and ward off rival barbecueing males.  For this truly was his domain; and none shall enter without incurring his wrath.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Session #65: You’re never alone with a Strand

the session beer blogging fridayIt’s funny, drinking alone.  For many of my friends it just isn’t done; an admittance perhaps that your socially failing.  Another example of modern day liberal mindedness gone too far though I fear.  My father in law has set off for the pub by himself, every Sunday, most weeks of his adult life, and possibly a few before that.  He doesn’t ring around in advance to ask who will be there; no checking of social media sites or text messages and no sending of pigeons either come to think of it.  He gets up late; has a shower and heads off.  He will sit at the bar and drink a pint of whatever takes his fancy, but is within the bounds of his respectable repetoire.  Bass, yes.  Old Speckled Hen, yes. Landlord, yes. London Pride, no. Bank’s, no. Greene King IPA, nay, nay and thrice nay. Pedigree, pub dependent.

But of course, the beer is of little relevance in this scene. Sure, it’s part of the pub currency… a pub currency that has linked these visits from the time he started. Memories of beers that have come and gone; of public houses now just houses, and Landlords now lording it under the land behind the Church. And sure, despite what he says, the pint itself matters even less when most of the time he sluices a Gold Label into it anyway.

Because in reality, he never does drink alone. John is someone who is an institution in his village in a way I can never been in mine – he has lived there all his life; his business is there; his family are around him. And his extended village family too – people he has known all his life; or their children, new bucks he gently teases about their effiminate ways… even if he wanted to be alone, he couldn’t be.  And while he may complain about this from time to time, he knows as well as everyone else that he wouldn’t have it any other way.  If the pub has no other customers, then he chats to Tom, the Landlord; if he knows no one in the bar, he either introduces himself, or much more likely, is introduced. So, even though he is by himself, he is most definitely not alone.

I’m different. Sometimes I need my space. Once or twice a year, I really do need to be alone and just let the cobwebs that have accreted over the passing months get blown away.  I’ll go to the hills and walk, or set off on my bike.  But this isn’t the everyday me.  I have what I deem to be an curious individual trait, which of course, is common to most:  from time to time, I like to be alone in others’ company. the hustle and bustle around me; the chatter; the greetings; the people-watching.  I observe it directly or in the corner of my eye as if floating like an invisible orb above the scene, but actually being in it is critical.  Because I can choose to participate if I want to.

And beer doesn’t always feature here.  Before I had children, the occasional Sunday newspaper, bag of crisps and a pint was more occasional than not; today, it’s more likely to be a snatched 30 minutes between the parental taxi duties. Not that I’m complaining.  Because the shimmering image of those Sundays, sitting at a big oak table, with a broadsheet spread out in front of me and a pint of …ooh, let’s say, Broadside, my accompaniment, is always there. It may take me until retirement to live that dream frequently again, but I can dine out on the thought of it happily until then.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012