Category Archives: Research

The Pocket Beer Book. Part 2: “4 Star” Beers

“It’s a 4 Star Beer”.  

That was how ingrained Michael Jackson’s categorisation became within the Tinted Circle in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. More than CAMRA’s ‘Good Beer Guide’, we felt Jackson’s Pocket Beer guide was diminutive in size yet soaring in scope.  The world of beer opened up in front of our very eyes: smoked Bavarian beers; wild yeast fermented beers in a seemingly wilder Belgium; steam beers from California and crisp, rounded pilsners from Czechoslovakia. And it was the star rating system that made it.  Jackson getting off the fence, stating his view publicly. It didn’t even feature in the main body of the book. Rather, it was so implicit it was the first words – there, on the frontispiece, above the ISBN number and the dedication to his dad.  Here was the key (see photo); the modest table that fuelled my excitement in beer…

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A fateful few words at the start of a small book started a personal beer hunt

Jackson was too polite to award ‘no stars’; it was implicit where most beer being brewed back then fell in his eyes.  But ‘World Classic’!  They had to be found; discovered.  And it was a passion rekindled with the publishing of the new Pocket Guide by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb.

Thus it was that over Christmas, I spent an idle hour or three reading and re-reading both the new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’ and Jackson’s 1986 original. I was interested to see how the top tier of beer  – as the authors saw it – had changed.  I totted up all the ‘4 star’ beers (★★★★)* and the ‘3 to 4 star beers’ (★★★->★★★★). Not the ‘3.5 star beers’ though – I only wanted beers that had attained the top rank, even if they were a little inconsistent either by batch or over time. This involved reading the books a couple of times over – no hardship, apart for the long suffering Mrs Tinted. For those interested in these things, the table is set out below in the Appendix (get me!).  Of course, you can cut the findings any number of ways, but here are the conclusions I drew:

Time is no respecter of reputation.  
Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell, Hofbräuhaus Märzen, Duvel, Rodenbach, Chimay Blue, Orval, Marston’s Pedigree, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: all top tier beers in 1986; all beers that have influenced a generation of brewers, drinkers and writers. None rated as such today. Justified? Personally, Budweiser Budvar would still make the grade for me as it continues to display the multi-layered flavour, textured body, natural sparkle and richness of a beautifully lagered Bohemian beer; Pilsner Urquell not – still a great beer, but one that has lost some of that same character that Budvar has retained.  Marston’s Pedigree? Would I have ever rated it is as a 4 star beer? Likely not – when I moved to Staffordshire in 1991 it was, like today, too inconsistent. Orval – still does it for me, but I know the tweaks in its brewing process would count it out for many.

Really, it’s churlish to argue though: the tide is rising. Just look at a small selection of the 4 star beers today: Drie Fonteinen Vintage (a lambic blender, not even brewer in 1986); Mikkeler Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, Russian River’s Pliny The Elder, Le Baladin’s Xyauyù… and these are just the ones with the bizarre and unpronounceable names.  Of course you may disagree with the authors’ choice: but you can’t argue that the standard has risen dramatically; the sheer sweep and vista of beer has broadened almost beyond recognition. Challenge your preconceptions; challenge everything: that is the message.

Whither drinkability?
When working in big beer, I would often hear the refrain from brewers that ‘the problem with all these craft beers is that most are undrinkable’; most have so much ‘C’ hop that they ‘all taste the same’.  The converse if you like of what small, artisanal brewers lay at the door of the big brewers: all their beer is meek, tasteless and unbalanced by too little bitterness or too much sweetness in order to appeal to the ‘mass market palate’, if such a thing exists.  Yet, as mentioned in Part 1, one conclusion is ragingly clear: if you want a characterful beer – one to challenge, surprise; shock, or perhaps to lay down and age – a genuine ‘big beer’ if you will – then you need to ‘go small’.  My old company, Molson Coors, has a couple of ‘big beers’ in its portfolio – one, a barley wine called ‘P2’ is lucky if it is occasionally brewed in the Museum Brewery in Burton upon Trent.  I certainly never see it on sale outside a couple of places**. And Molson Coors are better than most (consider Creemore Springs; White Shield; Barmen Pilsner).

 It does beg a question about the impact of beer writers though: there is a tendency to class these ‘big beers’ as ‘better beers’.  And this trend was just as prevalent in Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book as in Beaumont and Webb’s recent Pocket Guide.  In 1986 for example, 15 of the 67 top tier beers were Stouts (generally Imperial Stouts at that) or Barley Wines: that’s 23%.  Rounding up, I reckon that Stout and Barley Wine has about 1% share of the global beer market – a little more in some countries of course. In 2013, only 4 of the 50 top tier beers were Stouts or Barley Wines (8%) but many others were ‘extreme beers’ – Samuel Adams ‘Utopias’ being a case in point.

So whither drinkability?   It’s there of course – but the nature of drinkability is being rediscovered by small brewers and drinkers.  All great beverages have balance:  take roast and ground coffee.  The best examples have a chocolately roast character with a raisiny balancing sweetness.  Or even blended tea: take a well distributed brand like ‘Yorkshire Gold’, which is more slowly fermented and has a bigger cut – the end result, a cleaner green leaf character, a better colour and more tannin balance giving delightful drinkability.  So it is with beer: removing bitterness or negating hop character doesn’t enhance drinkability, it actually makes it worse – the beer becomes cloying and rather than drinking it, you have to ‘chugg’ it, a phrase which always has an unpleasant edge of fight about it.  And in Beaumont and Webb’s Guide, some amazing, drinkably moreish beers are there: many are ‘above average’ and many are ‘worth seeking out’ or better.

A love story
Reading Jackson’s 1986 book again, there’s a different impression than when I read it for the first time (in 1989).  Back then, everything was optimistic: look at this amazing world of beer!  Now, it’s clear that it was a world in danger, something I came to realise after I started working for a brewery which had 13 breweries (in the UK) when I joined it and three by the time I left.  The 1990s was a time of consumption growth and style decline.  Jackson wasn’t just writing about the beer world he loved. He was trying to save it. Perhaps he realised this, perhaps he didn’t: I only met him twice and didn’t have the perspicacity to ask.  Love it he did though; and perhaps this led to some unintentional biases.  Germany and Belgium, with so many unique styles get the most top scoring beers – out of 10 Belgian beers for example, 8 are 4 stars.  The UK and Ireland seem to enjoy a disproportionate number of the top tiers: Mackeson Stout is judged a 4 star beer chiefly because it is a milk stout; Draught Guinness 3 to 4 stars because it is, well Draught Guinness.   In comparison, the more recent edition is a little more balanced; helped in part by having more ‘consultants’ behind the scenes the authors could call on.  There’s great diversity of beer style and greater geographic diversity too. The reality is that today there are not only more breweries brewing different stuff, but more beer writers popularising it too.  There can be no better testament to Jackson’s work.

The second wave.
There are questions of geography.  Critics of Jackson’s work question the seeming bias in approach: starting with Czechoslovakia, soon moving through Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom.  France gets one page. Latin America just over one. Asia just under two. “It’s a First World bias”, they said.  To me he called it as he saw it.  At the time of writing, Czech breweries were effectively frozen in aspic; Germany was still a country of fragmented independents and the U.S. scene was just entering lift off phase.  Yet Beaumont and Webb have been criticised too, starting with Belgium, Germany and the UK. “First World bias”? No. The reality is this: along with the U.S. these four countries, all widely different in market shape, are the craft brewing leaders. Half of the top tier beers are from Belgium, Germany and the UK. Add in the U.S. and it moves up to 70%. It feels right; it feels likes it is reflecting the world of beer as it is today.

And positively, it is a world changing rapidly.  Scandinavia stands out: all the countries there restricted by punitive alcohol laws even today, yet nonetheless there has been a flourishing of breweries, brewing and interest in beer. Likewise the Netherlands, which seems to be picking up on its neighbour’s creative beery fertility. France too, which although it gets no top tier beers is very much on the up. Beyond Europe, the story is just as true: burgeoning interest throughout central and Latin America, parts of Asia, Australasia – to mention a just a few.  Only Africa feels like it is sleeping.

There’s the question of bias in my selection too: it would also be worthwhile to look at 3.5 star beers – all incredible beers – a category that Jackson didn’t use but is used in the new guide. Some countries are overflowing with them: the U.S., Japan, France – many more besides. This perhaps reveals a truer picture of the underlying health of beer. These are the likely second wave of leading beer cultures in the next generation.

All in all: 3000 beers in one small book from who knows how many?  If you want a measure of the growing health of beer around the world today, well, pocket-sized or not, you can draw your own conclusions from that.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* See the effect of showing the stars?  This for me was the power of the system – not only reading about a certain beer but seeing the stars break up the page; extend the length of the beer, that was its power:  for example,
Anchor Brewing Steam Beer (
★★★★) or Worthington White Shield (★★★->★★★★)

** One: the Museum Shop. Two: the Molson Coors Staff Shop (which is open to the public)

Appendix: The ‘Top Table’: 4 star beers, 1986 – 2013
(note the table is giving me some technical trouble – if you can’t see it, drop me a line at david@beertintedspectacles.com and I’ll ping it over to you)

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The Pocket Beer Book. Part 1: Thirty Years in Beer

It is now almost a generation since Michael Jackson published ‘The Pocket Beer Book’ – 1986, in fact.  It was part of a series of Mitchell Beazley ‘Pocket Guides’ – in my experience all crisply written; all concisely helpful; all pithily illuminating.  And I had other beer books: Jackson’s ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ for one – now, rightly, considered a classic and for many the inspiration to brew.   But it was the Pocket Beer Book, hard backed, one hand high and a thumb length across in its succinctness, that lit my interest up.  It was elegant, erudite and more than a spark to my curiosity, more a rocket. And the real bonus: it was pocket sized; slipping neatly into an inside coat pocket and from there, travelling widely.

IMG_0891Why did it work so well? Every beer book starts with an overview to beer; and so did this. Yet it was not florid in phrase: this version got to the point, and in a few short pages helped the reader deconstruct beer styles; suggest how different beers could work with food (Jackson’s passion) or how beer varied by season. And then off at a canter, in fine-point text, through the world of beer as it was at the time. Then there was the pièce de résistance. The 4 star rating system that added the edge. Jackson said that they were merely meant as a guide and to assess beers within countries against one another; nonetheless, here was a proxy, a shorthand that showed what the principle Guru of beer thought of different beers.

What prompted this harmless reminisce was the publication of a new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’.  Different authors; different publishers; different format. But a pocket book all the same; paperback not hardcover, a little shorter but markedly thicker – three times so – which in itself says a lot about a generation of changes. The authors, Steve Beaumont & Tim Webb have made the decision to stick to the four start rating system – so the beauty is we can get a snapshot of how the world of beer has changed in that time. And so, my research began – I started with the new version, which despite the sheer overwhelming number of beers discovered and reviewed, is a real page turner; then back to Jackson’s original, equally so. Presented here, the main findings.

The tide flows in. It’s fascinating seeing the changes. Back in 1986, Sierra Nevada for example, was still effectively a start up, a “classic boutique” in Jackson’s words. He gave its Pale Ale 3 stars (‘worth seeking out’) and Big Foot Barley Wine 3 to 4 stars (4 stars being the coveted ‘World Classic’).  Today, Beaumont & Webb give Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot Barley Wine both a clear 4 stars. More than that, in 1986, only five US beers were judged 3 to 4 or 4 star beers. Today, it has more than doubled to 11 – this may not sound much; but if I had included the number of 3.5 star beers (a classification that Jackson didn’t use), it would be an even clearer illustration of the innovative, inventive and stunningly creative advance of American beer:  the reality is that in the U.S. and elsewhere a measure of the good health in beer is both the quantity and quality.  There are some beer writers who bemoan U.S. beer culture and its quality – claims not without substantiation – but at this level, of beers ‘worth seeking out’ or ‘World Classics’ the rising tide of quality is undeniable*.  It will be difficult for Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam or Lagunitas (say) to hold onto their ratings in thirty years’ time if the level of brewing and beer development proceeds at the pace it is now.

It’s still about the ‘old world’ – old ‘beer’ world that is. What is striking about the new guide, despite the wealth of detail on countries where in the mid ‘80s there was nothing to write about, is that the creative momentum behind beer still resides in the old – largely Germanic and Anglo Saxon world.  And by this, I include North America and most northern European countries. We simply cannot argue, with the U.S. in particular at the forefront of the ‘craft beer’ revolution thirty years ago that it is a new front.  No, the next few decades will surely increasingly be about the now nascent craft beer movements in regions such as Brazil and Argentina, Austria and Eastern Europe, even Australia and New Zealand. And at the forefront of this Italy now maturing as a country brewing sensational beers and Japan – where the authors scored many beers 3.5 stars but which haven’t yet pushed over the boundary to ‘World Classics’. Their time will be soon.

Large turns small.  Consolidation and acquisition sings out from the years between the guides. And with it the decline in quality is equally evident – particularly in Germany and the UK with brands like Spaten, Paulaner, Courage or even Thomas Hardy’s Ale falling away. The contrast between ‘big beer’ brewed for efficiency, scale and profit and ‘small beer’ brewed with pride, principle and integrity has never been clearer.

Small brews large. The question of innovation is fascinating. I’ve worked on both sides of the great divide and can speak with some experience (and at length, alas) on the subject. But the overall conclusion is this: the focus of innovation for big beer is on consistency; brewing speed, cost reduction and accessible flavour (not necessarily natural beer flavours).  Small brewers are the genuine innovators – and their innovation will in the long term have much more benefit on beer’s reputation as well as the brewery doing it.  And if you want envelope-pushing brewing then you have to look small. Take IPA: a beer style virtually dead 20 years ago. Now there is British IPA; American IPA; double IPA; Pacific IPA; New Zealand IPA, Black IPA – IPA is being brewed in lagering nations, like Germany and the Czech Republic. Equally, you’ll have to look hard to find one of the World’s top 20 brewers making a decent barley wine or Imperial Stout; or any that are aging their beer on wood.

Better burn out than fade away? With all the hoo-ha in beer blogdom with new styles created and old styles rejuvenated (Porter, Amber lager), it’s easy to forget that many classic styles have in the last few decades either remained in peril or almost gone. Take Lambic – whilst there are still amazingly exciting spontaneously fermented beers being brewed, I believe they have been weakened by faux-lambics and a raft of overly sweet mimics**. Or Dortmunder and Berliner Weisse which seem to have slipped below the mire –certainly the quality examples. Another – I remember driving out of my way to find the Rauchenfels Steinbier brewery – but alas, it had closed. Maybe in the world of craft these beers are either not distinctive enough or conversely too distinctive – a little too convoluted, complex or challenging to brew and make a commercial return?

Reading both books made me slightly wistful about a time of personal innocence; before I understood the breadth of beer and was walking into that world wide-eyed; before I had worked for a major brewer and learnt how the soul of beer can be crushed and I lost my passion for beer only for it to be reborn – reborn because of the characters working in beer today and the new wave of brews and brewers making change.  That is the hope that lies within the 320 pages of the new Pocket Beer Guide. Let’s pray that it is hopelessly out of date within a year.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* Of course, the scoring in the 4 Star system is bound to be highly subjective.   It’s clear from reading the guide that Jackson had a soft spot for some countries and some breweries for example (see Part 2), but such qualms would mean letting the tail wag the dog and losing sight of the bigger picture he was painting at the time.

** On a related note, I find it hard to rave about the main British beers ‘brewed with fruit’, which to me seem insipid, unbalanced and sickly compared with the elegant finesse of a true Kriek or Framboise, which has the boney, dry structure to handle the intensity of real fruit.

Little Touches

The little touches around beer brands aren’t the first thing you notice. They come to bear over time. Too often, what gets talked about is just the dimensions of the beer itself – the aroma, the taste, the mouthfeel – or the brewing process; the brewer, the kit, the setup.  But I like the details.

IMG_0546Bottle embossing: more cost; more delight. Here the lovely twist of the River Thames around the base of a London Pride bottleMy past was a world of Big Beer. It’s a world of ‘cost optimisation’.  It’s a world where, for the most part, the joy of beer is slowly being sucked away. The details which make a difference over time cannot be justified against ‘return on investment’ criteria, nor often can you do the maths anyway. In the war of attrition the details get eaten away. In time, even the people employed to steward the brands over the long term have to give way to the arguements of cost in the here and now.  Have you noticed for example how lager bottles are getting lighter? Bud bottles used to be a deep brown. Hold an empty bottle now it’s no darker than a Ray Ban lens. The rationale: resource protection (Save the planet!). The real benefit: lower cost.  How bottle neck foil has disappeared over time? Not scratched off by the thumbnail of the drinker (who always prefer it) but scratched from the product cost by the accountant’s relentless push for cost reduction? And have you noticed how beer labels are thinner and smaller?  Or how cans, once you pour them crinkle like tin foil?

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Old Peculier: a design agency didn’t do this…

 

Other changes are less visible but more pernicious – like taking the ‘oxygen scavengers’ out of bottle crowns that protect the beer freshness but cost half a penny more; or making the card of your multipack thinner so it’s cheaper but as a shopper less stable to carry and more dangerous when taking it down off the shelf.

Thing is, there comes a point where the drinkers notice. Take Stella Artois: it is now available in a 284ml bottle – to allow them to hit attractive price points I assume.  But whoever heard of a Belgian lager in a British Imperial bottle size? And who cares that it’s 284ml – why not make it 275ml like the others and damn the torpedoes? All I care about is that it’s not 330ml like it used to be and poor value as a result.   Drinkers do notice beautiful labels like Sierra Nevada or Kernel. Drinkers do notice beautiful, embossed bottles like London Pride. Drinkers do notice quality materials like the labels and foils on the Thornbridge range.

IMG_0554The Sierra Nevada label – like a map you can read it differently every time, seeing some new detail.We should celebrate the details. We should cherish the beers from the brewers who recognise that drinking beer is more than just drinking beer, but an experience that pleases all the senses and recognise that sometimes, despite what our financial advisers might suggest, you can’t put a price on it.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Groupdrink

Doom Bar.  Where did it come from all of a sudden?  Sharp’s Brewery isn’t 20 years old yet their flagship brand, named after a sandy marine ramp, that squelches around the low tide mark and is generally frequented by sea molluscs, crustaceans, kelp and assorted ships’ keels, is one of the UK’s fastest growing cask ales.  Fascinating.  And what makes it fascinating is that this is a genuine brand – it hasn’t earned its success as a function of a strong tied estate which gives a beer a springboard forward, gets it noticed; and it isn’t over-marketed. I mean, take the badge on the beer engine. It’s not exactly a design classic is it?    Simple, punchy, sure…but superlative design, no.  Then there’s the beer – purist or not, put a cask ale in a clear bottle and whether you like it or not, you’re supping on stoat¹ before you know it. And frankly, it isn’t a bad beer; equally it isn’t great, it does what it was designed to do: sit in the middle of the market and appeal to most.

doombarSo all this got me pondering on how brands get created.  Because despite CAMRA’s claims to the contrary, it isn’t marketing money. Oh sure, it helps, don’t get me wrong, and certainly, you would be utterly slack jawed if you knew how much money breweries (and not just the ‘big’ ones – let’s not fall into that trap) throw at winning and keeping distribution² (ie the stuff that we, as drinkers, don’t see).  And yes, it buys a nice font, and a few glasses for us to purloin, but there’s obviously much more to it than that.  Think of the brands that are spending big today: not that many. And think of the brands who have spent big until recently but just can’t stem the decline: Tetley’s, Boddington’s for example.  Broadly speaking, it seems that advertising money keeps you there, but it doesn’t get you there. More often than not in fact, it seems to be that the main audience is the Tesco or Morrisons Beer Buyer: ‘Look!’, the advertising says, ‘my owner is serious about me. List me, please!’

None of this explains Doom Bar that’s for sure.  Their approach has been to PR the hell out of their brewer, Stuart Howe, allowing him free rein, and slowly build from their heartland, out. And my, they’ve done this relentlessly and ‘executed’, as the Americans would say, superbly. Good for them.  But arguably, what they have done is no different to a vast array of other great brands, that have much more varied degrees of success. Take one example: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord – it’s been kicking around for yonks compared with Doom Bar, but it sells nowhere the near hundreds of thousands of barrels Doom Bar sells a year…and is, if you’ll forgive my personal taste, a vastly superior beer.

It’s tempting to deconstruct the inputs of the brand. The stuff it’s doing and gets to market. It’s glassware. It’s assorted ephemera – drip mats and all that.  Even the pubs it’s sold in. The myths and legends that emanate from its PR team. But I don’t think it’s that. My theory is this: it’s groupthink, or clearly in this case, groupdrink.

Go with me on this. I run lots of research with consumers across all sorts of different types of products – dairy, coffee, tea, soft drinks, banking, snacks – you name it.  And one of the biggest issues I contend with is groupthink. The tendency for humans, when they get together or socialise to adopt collective behaviour, views, opinions and attitudes. It’s remarkable because it takes no time at all – literally minutes.  It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics in a group: here are total strangers – never met before, unlikely to ever meet again. Yet within minutes they are watching how their peers in the situation are reacting; what they are saying and how they are saying it. It’s an innate human trait – more than that, a desire to fit in.  All sorts of tricks are attempted to avoid it- typically, asking for individual, written responses, done in silence before the group start discussing.  Of course, there’s a huge amount of difference in opinion when you do this, but again, within minutes, the lifelines are being thrown out: ‘Well, when I first saw it (lets say it’s an idea for a new beer) I liked it, it sounded really appetising. But now I’ve heard what this lady has said, I’ve changed my mind’.  There’s lots of scientific study in this area and it confirms what you don’t want to hear: I’m afraid, just like in The Life of Brian, you’re not an individual.  Human tendency is actually to conform. And ultimately, be conservative.

So the question is: how do you get your brand to the trigger point? To that point of reputation where a few people, just a few, are actively drinking and recommending your brand.  And in a situation where the context is positive.  This for me, is the happy serendipity that faced Sharps. Wittingly or unwittingly I’m unsure, but they chose to build their brand out of Cornwall, and specifically that part that has a lower concentration of Cornish, and a higher (albeit seasonal) concentration of tourists.  Tourists with a predeliction to come back year in year out; to bring their children and pass on that gene. To pop down for long weekends whenever they can, and if fortunate enough, buy a second home down there.  To sail in the Camel Estuary and pop over to one of Rick Stein’s bistros for a spot of supper. This is the emotional context that comes washing ashore with Doom Bar. And before you know, you unknowingly want to fit in, so you order a pint…

It can be replicated too. Sure, not exactly (albeit  Adnams has the wind in its sails for a similar reason), but building positive context and association around your brand is doable. Take Brew Dog; unless you live in Pitlochry, it’s not exactly on your door step, but their positive context is the challenger, maverick attitude.  ‘If you think this, come to me’ it says. And Black Sheep – the name says so much; the Yorkshire values; the visual portrayal:  a small Stone cottage just in view between the wooded interlocking ridges of the Dales.  It’s this mental image, this mindset that we really buy into. And that’s what Doom Bar have got so right. And why we all want to drink what he’s drinking.

¹See http://beertintedspectacles.posterous.com/my-beer-seems-to-taste-of-ferret

²Put it this way, UK Volleyball wouldn’t be experiencing any funding problems through to, oooh, let’s say the 2092 Olympic Games. They’re in Ulaanbataar by the way, order your Mosquito Spray today.

© 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

Skinny decaff vanilla lager, to go.

There was a change involved in my normal routine this morning – always a bit destabilising after a long weekend.  I arrived into Euston as normal but then needed to head up the Northern Line to Brent Cross, not to shop thank goodness, rather to meet a client.  I had an hour to prepare so worked at the station before tubing out to the ‘burbs.

A much-needed coffee and spot of breakfast was on the cards at Caffè Nero after an early start and whilst this particular eatery would not be on my normal list of caffeine pushers (it’s a tad pricey), needs must.

Being something of a passive-aggressive eaves-dropper, I half actively, half absent-mindedly tuned in to the World around me whilst tapping away on the laptop.

“Decaff soya latte please, regular”

“Regular skinny latte to go, please”

“Can I get a small soy latte to take away please”

“Ristretto, please”

“A large cappuccino please”

“Hi, can I have a double Machiatto to drink in?”

“A white Americano please”

“A grande cappuccino to take away please”

“Skinny vanilla latte, please”.

“A large Mocha to take away, please”

So little time; so many coffee choices – and this a distilled list of the ‘traffic’ this morning.  It got me wondering about the vocabulary around beer. In particular the ire that seems to be caused amongst brewers and beer writers if a drinker, foolishly, mistakenly, ill-informedly, orders a “beer” or a “lager” at a bar.

Typically in the UK, this would lead to the default barstaff setting: pourers.  If someone orders a ‘lager’ then they get a Carlsberg or a Stella; if someone orders a bitter, they get a John Smiths.  Perhaps this is a little harsh – more typical today perhaps is to be offered a choice: “Is that Carling or Fosters, sir?”  Or you could suffer the ‘up-sell’, “We have Tetley’s sir, but perhaps you would like to try Greene King IPA instead”.

Yet compare this with that small sample of orders taken in a coffee shop on Euston Station concourse on a Tuesday morning. And note, no one had to be helped or prompted. No one had to ask the difference between a ristretto and a machiatto. And no one came in and ordered “A coffee please”.  Yet, I remember when I was younger, you could do that. Now, I grant you, I didn’t spend my formative years in a cosmopolitan metropolis.  Wilmslow was only an occasional visit.  No, Tiko on Alsager high street was as luxe as it got (Sandbach – get this – didn’t have a cafe – imagine that today where after tourism it is the second biggest employer in the service sector*).  I’d wait for my Mum to have her normal shampoo and set in Salon Esther next door whilst reading the Beano.  The choice was simple, if you wanted a coffee, it came from a pot on top of a filter.  Bear in mind, I was a nipper observing this. My order of choice was a fluorescent yellow banana milkshake and a Cadbury’s Rumba.  But I was old enough to remember the next big coffee innovation: Rombouts mini filters – you know, the ones that you sat on top of the cup and then you poured the water through. i.e. a filter on your cup, not on the machine. It was like magic.

But what’s really changed? The coffee hasn’t – a tad more fair-trade and organic perhaps; a few more brands on the supermarket shelves that’s for sure; but not a fundamental change in the product.  No I think two things have changed: two things which perhaps should now be on beer’s agenda:  Education & awareness of choice.

Education is a funny one. I don’t perceive that coffee roasters or merchants have made a specific effort to teach potential coffee drinkers about coffee. I think it’s more a process of temporal percolation, if you will. Over time we have been drip, drip, drip fed snippets – and basic ones at that. The difference between Robusta and Arabica; a little more awareness of provenance; a little more awareness of the trials and tribulations of coffee planters and their lot.  The foundations are there though; now rather like wine, there is a bit of one-upmanship in knowing your ristrettos from your machiattos; from asking for a glass of water with your Espresso; from dissing Tassimo and Nespresso for having the touch of mass manufacture and convenience.

And choice: I’m not actually one for gimmicks. I’m not offering up a manifesto to strain beer through filters into your glass.  But I do think that bars could offer greater choice; and in that choice drip, drip, drip a little knowledge about the beers.  Why does any bar need 6 lagers?  Why does any bar need six cask beers for that matter (by this I mean where the sales can’t justify it).

The answer for me is twofold: we need to push a manifesto to get customers to stock more beer styles and push an agenda for bars to pull out the differences between their beers too.  It might be slight, and you may be sniffy about this, but there is a difference between Carling and Carlsberg, between Kronenbourg and Grolsch.  It may be relatively slight, but it’s not so unnoticeable that only the trained palate can spot it.  And of course, there is enormous difference between our cask beers, but that difference is only any good if the beer is in fine nick.

Unlike coffee and coffee shops, beer doesn’t need fancy serves to stand out; but just like coffee, drinkers will only stay interested if we keep the offer new and fresh – and surely beer has enough raw ingredients to do that?

 * NB, a complete fabrication, in case you hadn’t spotted.

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

Small can versus environmental determinism

How to connect a simple holiday observation to some grand theory? (“Why more like?” I hear you ask. Sorry. No answer to that one.)

Well try this – and please do comment as I’m genuinely intrigued by this – but I think the grand old Victorian theory of Environmental Determinism is well and truly at large again in the world of beer.

Why at home are we (and I’m thinking men here) only happy to drink pints, or buy large cans? I’ve seen it for years now, in research groups, or just chatting to drinkers in offies and supermarkets : offer anything other than pints or 440ml / 500ml cans and the response is a flat “no”. “Too small”, “For girls”, “There’s only two sips in there”. Halves are bad enough, but 330ml cans have been tried and never worked (except it seems for Gold Label and perhaps Heineken’s little ‘mini barrel’). They’re just not manly enough.

Go to the continent on holiday though, sit yourself down with friends on the veranda and share a BBQ and everyone’s tucking in. “Good these, aren’t they?” “Just the right size, always cold?” “I like them too, not over-facing“, your long suffering partner interjects, “…why can’t we get these at home.”

All real quotes these, no actors involved.

So, what’s going on? Is it simply the presence of some Sun (assuming you’re not on a two week break in Murmansk)? Is it ‘when in Rome’ syndrome? Could it be that because it’s not one of our familiar brands, we behave differently? In short: environmental determinism – we meld ourselves, copy, the situation we are faced with. Or,  are we actually responding truthfully and our home lives are just a panoply of half-truths and filters of what we think we should say?

We shall see. Foster’s has just launched a tidy little 6 by 330ml can pack. It looks well and they’ve called them ‘stubbies’ which may confuse those familiar with the dumpy French bottles.  Unlike tall cans, they look in proportion (What is it with pint cans? They look like they’ll tumble off the shelf any moment or worse, collapse under their own weight) and seem less likely to pop out of the plastic hi cone.

It’s a curious little observation, but for some one interested in beer and drinker behaviour, potentially quite profound.

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