Monthly Archives: December 2015

Drown the bureaucrats in beer

I’m a firm believer that we all have our own peculiar ticks, our own OCD tendencies over one thing or another. Mine? Well, I have a few; some perhaps, are just rituals. I start the day with a cafetière of coffee. Instant coffee is like Watney’s Red Barrel, firmly, if you will excuse the word-play, beyond the pale. Tea? Milk in first, no question. Cream tea: jam on first, clotted cream after, no question. More strangely, I find myself particularly irked by the 1974 Local Government Act. Essentially, for bureaucratic neatness, the English Shires, or Counties were reorganized. Some counties, in effect, disappeared: Rutland, Westmorland, Cumberland, Middlesex. ‘City-states’ were created: Tyne and Wear; Greater Manchester, West Midlands. New administrative areas were cooked up too: Humberside, Merseyside, Avon, Cumbria. But the Government of the time, in their own version of administrative OCD had a revulsion against ‘exclaves’. Parts of counties that weren’t attached to the ‘main body’. Dudley, in the Black Country (actually in Worcestershire), was totally surrounded by the Staffordshire Black Country ‘proper’. The Furness peninsulas in Lancashire, were separated from the rest of the county by Morecambe Bay. Parts of Flintshire in North Wales. To the modernising eye of 1972 (when the Act was designed and the Bill passed through Parliament), the New World Order was manifested by sharply tailored bell bottoms; neatly brushed moustaches and floridly smart Prince of Wales Check suit lapels. Exclaves were distinctly untidy and, more to the point, were a real hassle for the bin lorry drivers who might have to stray across the ‘border’ to empty the rubbish. So my home county, Cheshire, had its arms removed. The left arm, the Wirral went to Merseyside, and the right arm, the spur of Longdendale and the Woodhead valley ‘given’ to Derbyshire simply because had they not done so, it would have become an ‘exclave’ due to the new mass of Greater Manchester being created and annexing the towns of Stockport, Staybridge, Mottram and Sale. And remember, exclaves are bad.

In some places there was uproar: Rutland has been restored after a long campaign; Humberside has ceased to exist. Elsewhere, quiet protest continues. The Westmorland Gazette is still published in the old county town of Kendal. In Delph and Diggle, on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, the county street signs still get vandalized and white rose flags are occasionally hoisted up the flag poles rather than red.   Frustratingly, in other areas the changes seem of little consequence to the residents, Cheshire for one. Maybe I feel it more as I’ve lived away for so long now.

Moor beerBut brewers are tuning in. Robinsons in Stockport now describe themselves as ‘Cheshire Brewers’ even though they’ve been in Greater Manchester for 41 years. And Moor beers are ‘Brewed and bottled in Somerset’ even though, strictly speaking I guess, they’re in one of four new ‘Unitary Authorities’ in that part of the world. What a load of tosh. I know, let’s play cricket for ‘The Unitary Authority of Bath and North Somerset’.  No thanks. The craft brewers, yet again, see sense and speak it.   And that’s certainly the case with Moor. Here are simple beers in concept, carefully brewed and elegantly delivered. I bought a couple of cans of So’hop and Nor’hop when I was down at Darts Farm in (the ancient county of) Devon. Not only do they look lovely and feel great in the hand (due to textured ink) but they’re terrific beers the pair. Nor’hop is a pale ale (described as a ‘golden ale’ if that helps you – not me) brewed with a generous slug of northern hemisphere hop varieties, it has an unsurprising but in this case superbly balanced floral character – a hint of elderflower as well as the more dominant citrusy notes. So’hop, on the other hand, has that distinctive Australasian character; still a well balanced and sessionable 4.1% yet so much hop aroma, character and body jam-packed in. There was a distinct tinned pineapple note – and that’s meant in a good way – as well as a sweet honey character, not overpowering, and psychosomatically it would be easy to believe there is a little drop of Manuka in there – there isn’t as far as I’m aware, but that’s perception for you.

IMG_5491What can we conclude from all of this? Politicians are happy to throw away a thousand years of our connection to the land, to our regions and counties and think we won’t care or notice. But brewers are at the vanguard of the rebellion: because nothing connects someone to their sense of place than their local ale; and the brewers at least can see sense.

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Decisions, decisions

There’s a lot going on in beer at the moment: there’s a daily news narrative on craft beers; stories about old names being revived; people setting up breweries in shipping containers. Proportionately, there’s less about the corporate side: the 90% if you will. But it deserves some attention, particularly at this time. Particularly with the biggest deal in brewing ever being slated. Particularly with one of the biggest corporate deals ever, in fact.

That craft beer narrative is immensely strong. It is more than a story though; it is creating reverberations not just within beer, but across alcoholic drinks, across non-alcoholic drinks and beyond. The craft beer ‘revolution’ is the poster boy of reactionary consumerism; the proof that you can change the food industry not just from within but from the outside too. It is the manifestation of a growing consumer desire for authenticity, transparency, of personal stories over fabricated myths, or small over large – right across the food and drink industry.   There’s a clear argument to be made that ABI buying SAB is a consequence of the rise of craft beer. Certainly if you look at their outputs it is supported: over the last few years ABI have bought ‘breakthrough’ craft breweries: Widmer, Kona, Goose Island amongst others; elsewhere they’ve been copying the rules of craft with brands like ‘Shock Top’. SAB have been concentrating more on strengthening their own brands and now have an incredible portfolio, with brands like Pilsner Urquell, Peroni and Grolsch. They too have bought into craft with the acquisition of London’s Meantime Brewery.

Let’s push beyond the “eazey-news” headlines though. What’s really going on here is polarisation. Yes, craft is growing but it’s growing disproportionately quickly in mature beer markets. Large scale, low growth markets; markets where consumers have had mass marketing rammed down their gullets for decades. But ABI and SAB have their focus elsewhere: to the places and the brands that they can drive long-term shareholder value growth. They’re focus is on central and southern America, India, Asia and Africa. ABI are clear that they want to be the first ‘global brewer’ and this deal gives them an incredible beachhead to push for conquest. As a deal, it will make South America a fortress; it will revolutionise their position in Africa; it will strengthen their footprint in Asia, in particular China, where they will acquire the World’s biggest beer brand, Snow.

Watching this form the side lines, what’s impressive about ABI is their utter commitment to the goal. The newswires yesterday were humming with the revelation that they would be prepared to sell off SAB’s prime assets, notably Peroni and it’s Nastro Azzurro brand. Grolsch too, was mooted as a candidate for sale. They have form here: when InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch they sold off Tsingtao in China – one of the few successful Sino-Anglo Saxon partnerships and a real crown jewel. This tells us a number of things about ABI.  It tells us that they have a clear focus for growth outside North America and Europe where Peroni is notably strong – Peroni is a great brand but in the short term the only thing it is likely to do is give them issues with regulators (plus, the US rights stay with MillerCoors should the deal go ahead).  It tells us that they have a purpose that is unifying and guiding their decisions. It tells us that they are willing to make not just choices but sacrifices – big sacrifices – in order to achieve their vision.  And it tells us too that they believe in their brands – brands that craft beer lovers are generally scathing of (Bud Light, Budweiser, Stella Artois as well as an army of local brands – and they will back them to the hilt in markets outside our (European / North American) frame of daily reference.    Whether you’re comfortable about the size of this deal and the global market share it will leave ABI with, it will be churlish – no, foolish – to ignore the business and brand building lessons that they teach us, again and again.