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

The Shamen of the Namin’

At different points in my career I have had responsibility for naming new beers.  This is one of the jobs that should be joyous: right brained, creative, all bean bags and Swizzells-Matlow ‘Refreshers’.  Alas, the truth, my truth, is far from this.  In a big business this task, this bitter task, is one of nightmarish proportions.  For the job of naming isn’t a simple blue blob on a Gantt chart; it isn’t just something to do between weeks 27 and 31, oh no.  This one is emotional.  And everyone wants in. Everyone wants to lay claim to delivering the nomenclatorial coup de grace. Because whether the beer turns out to be the Golden Goose or the Turkey of Despair does not matter:  The prize of naming the brand is the medal. It’s the bit that the consumer sees – hang on, scratch that, it’s the bit that your Mum sees. She might not understand the intricacies of your job, but by Jingo, she’ll understand this, and as the coffee morning circuit word of mouth builds, so the chances of your heroic ‘local-boy-made-good’ reputation become increasingly assured.

Beyond the physical sensations of a racing heart beat and stress-induced palpitations though, naming things is big business.  There are Companies dedicated to this one act alone and they have many stripes on their arm, in the alcohol world, the most famous of which is Diageo. The ‘geo’ bit was rationalised as demonstrating the global potential and reach of the business, and the ‘Dia’ is from the Uzbekistani for ‘Nonsense’.  Oh, hang on, that might not be right. Honestly, poor old Arthur Guinness.  Do you think he would have authorised half a mill being spent on that?

It’s no use levelling the cannons at others though. I too have form, albeit fortunately rather tangentially.  Many moons ago I was working on Carling Black Label as a general oik and hod carrier, and Bass (as was) were very keen to ‘stretch the equity of the brand to reach new consumers, on new occasions representing the way we drink today’ – or something like that.  We actually had a cracking new lagered beer, full flavoured but very smooth as we triple filtered it through diatomous filters (essentially ‘diatoms’ are fossilised insect thingies, who, unbeknown to them during their timeon Earth were destined to find a second life as fine particulate industrial drink filters. Thanks chaps. German reader* – this is kieselgur). The project codename:  Rock.  I recollect that the project team, which included me, invested an eye watering three figure sum with a naming agency.  We considered everything. We did research (uh-oooooh).  We did, in short, the works.  We scoured the literary world; we did word association exercises; ancient languages were mined for potential links.  Specialist naming Consultants & Social Anthropologists delved into the black bag of their respective arts.  Mystic Meg even had a hand in it. In the end, our launch name was…….Carling Rock.  Yay.

Anyhoo, this particular topic dawned on me as I have been re-acquainting myself recently with cask beers after a number of years in self-imposed exile (well, not exile exactly, I’ve just been experimenting more with craft beers, some of which are served from (sharp intake of breath)…kegs). On pushing the boundaries to find new beers of any sort in the UK that might light up my taste buds, I was surprised by just how many beers have odd names. My ‘comprehensive’ study notes have determined a number of distinct, distinctive and daft naming categories:

Let’s start with the grandiose… ‘the provenance school’.  This could be creative laziness or perhaps jaw dropping scenery that the brewer wants to celebrate – or more likely, neither, but this category is pretty popular, and one of the first.  Whether it is Burton Bridge Bitter just up the road from me, or London Pride just up the road from everyone, St Austell (who go the whole hog and double up, like in St Austell Dartmoor Ale (and I thought you couldn’t be in two places at once – that’s beer for you), or even outside cask of course, Pilsner Urquell, Dortmunder Actien Brauerei, Boston Lager, Hoegaarden, Quilmes … you get the picture, ad nauseam.  When I make my millions, I shall buy an industrial unit on Anglesey and start the ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Brewery’. Now THAT’S a bar call.  And I’ve got the advertising sorted:  “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch….. ask for it by name’. (Naming brands was my plan to make the millions. On this evidence, I might just have to re-think. And anyway, perhaps it would be better to open a distillery – everyone would order a long short. Geddit?  No? Whatever.)

Then there’s the ‘Stuff where the brewery is from, it’s all about me, Me, ME!’ approach.  A despicable and highly uncreative naming method which is designed to massage the ego of the owner.  Countless examples here, and one or two of my favourites as well, but I refuse to give any of these scallywags publicity when they refuse to advertise on my blog site.  Whilst I’m here though, if you are in the Burton area, look out for ‘Pilsner Prestonski’. It’s a Burton top fermented beer, that’s then lagered for 49 days, maaarvellous¹.

National Institutions, Regional Peculiarities & Local Yarns’ come next.  It’s amazing what people choose to talk about here from the grand and nationally important, to the innocuous.   In the UK we have beers featuring castles (Windsor), landscapes (Exmoor, Dartmoor – it’s a west country thing clearly),  whilst at other end of the spectrum you have one of my personal favourites (and a darn fine beer too), Jenning’s ‘Snecklifter’ referring to the north country name for a thumb latch on an old fashioned door handle.

Finally, there’s the “Sh**ts and Giggles” bucket. A profuse and remarkably (subjectively) amusing category of names, over which I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.  On the one hand, I think “A pint of The Dogs Bollocks” gives our beloved beer an air of self deprecation & wry amusement which signals: “Get us. We’re beer and we’re not up ourselves like wine”. I like that.  On the other, when you pause ever so briefly, and rationalise what you’re actually ordering, it’s a “…pint of sweaty, hairy, dangly, sexual reproductive organs from Man’s Best Friend” please.  I’m not sure about the appetite appeal of that one².

Big brands from multinational brewers deserve a section for themselves.  I’m particularly intrigued by colours. A selection to the witness box if you please:  Beck’s Blue (low / no alcohol); Foster’s Gold; Stella Black; Guinness Red; Bud Silver.  I don’t necessarily dislike these names, hell I know how difficult it is naming brand extensions (you don’t want to fight with the ‘mother brand’ name, but equally you need to be distinctive), but really. Is this the best they can do?  And it goes for mock production processes too. I have already mentioned Carling Rock; but there’s Carlsberg (et al) Ice, Dry beers (Asahi et al – where are they now?), Strong, Dark, Filtered, Fast, Slow.  Funny that the real creative energy lies with smaller guys, the ones for whom risk seems less of an issue – it could lead to fame, it could lead to failure, it may lead to notoriety, or even the vets, but they’re having a go.  Half term report for the big boys: must try harder.

Yet the real common denominator in all of this seems the lack of science. Naming brands is, I feel, where the art comes in; where you have to get off the pot and put your idea front and centre to your customer.  That’s brave and exciting.  But I think I could still make my millions here after all – despite past shames, at least I’m confident that the mystical approach to naming could allow me to be the shamen of the namin’  after all.

*Hopefully this will move into the plural if you would care to pass on the link or retweet me? Danke schőn.

¹Actually this was made up, but you wouldn’t guess would you? Seamless, just seamless.

²For completeness let me share a small selection of other names: Arrogant Bastard, ButtFace, Top Totty, Granny Wouldn’t Like It, Dirty Tackle (it’s a rugby allusion, OK), Village Idiot, Haggis Hunter.  All quite amusing, yet all trumped by a beer for those considering a holiday in the Balkans. Look out for Macedonia’s ‘Vergina’ beer.

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

On the up

Is your beer brand ‘On the up’?

That’s a question marketing types spend much of their working day trying to fathom an answer to. They will forensically rake through daunting data reports, ‘tracking studies’ or research findings (or at least they will pretend to).  Is it a ‘Brand My Friends Rate’ or ‘Drunk in the last 7 days’?  Sales reports may enrich the evolving story, as will findings ‘from the field’ (and by ‘field’ I mean the sort that was concreted over in the 1950s with a bar built on top, not the sort with cows gently masticating their fodder, if you get my drift).  Quantitative Research agencies (companies that deal with banks of ‘hard data’) make their living out of helping marketing managers reach a point of view which they can convince their superiors with.  Some big, household name companies won’t make decisions unless they have a positive read from this sort of analysis.

I was pondering on this, my past life, whilst drinking a bottle of a well known Italian pale-coloured beer at the weekend.  As I don’t work for the BBC, you don’t need to be Steven Hawking to know I am referring to Peroni ‘Nastro Azzuro’.  Clearly, here is brand of beer that is ‘on the way up’.  I quite like Nastro. Not the beer itself necessarily, which, whilst I wouldn’t be disingenuous enough to say I dislike, doesn’t really float my boat.  I can taste a little too much of the corn adjunct and too much of its 5.1% alcohol to an extent where it unbalances the beer.  That’s not the point though is it?  Because, as we all know, ‘We drink with our eyes’*.  And to the eye, Nastro is a damn fine looking lady.  Sultry, dusky, all Dolce Vita-ish, she tips her Prada sunglasses and looks back at you from under her mascara’ed eyelashes as you pour her into an hour-glass. “Drink me”, she whispers, “Let me caress your tastebuds”.  Come on. Tell me I’m wrong.

But there are other brands on the way up.  And they don’t rely on la bella’s allure and come-hither temptations.  Doom Bar for instance.  South of Watford Gap it turns up everywhere. Nice presentation; balanced taste, possibly, a nice glass if the bar is doing its job well.  It’s the ‘Wimbledon-on-sea’ Rock effect I think, all Crew-clothed and clad in Sebago deckshoes.  And ‘Doom Bar’ rhymes with ‘Ra! Ra!’, and “Huzzah!” which is rarely nice for the Chelsea Farmer brigade.

Other brands seem, in ‘health’ terms, to be on a downward track. Stella Artois comes to mind, even though she still gets around a bit.  Others still seemed to have missed their time – to my mind Budweiser Budvar and Cobra could have done with a gentle nudge a few years back. They may have missed the rocket to Rockstar status, although our Indian friend is definitely giving it a go and with India developing as a destination of choice for Brits at the moment, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Yet pulling it all together, simply explaining this nebulous, intangible phenomenon, this magic, with the statement of ‘We drink with our eyes’ just won’t do. There must be more science to it. Hell, there must be more art.  How to understand whether your beer could soar in the Heavens or face a future, naked, emaciated and lugging its bedraggled, hopeless, chinless self along the floor of life, whilst being ritualistically flagellated by the cudgels Mr Tesco – well that must be a worthwhile cause.

I started with the art, I’ll be honest, my favourite bit, and this is nothing to do with me being a beer** artiste. Beers ‘on the way up’ seem to have three moons which orbit and shape them.  Let us call these moons: the Look, the Liquid and the Legend¹.

The look. Oh, here’s the heresy.  It’s the most important one.  Perhaps not as a lover of beer, but as an everyday person who buys things and gets through life as best he can, this is the one.  Let’s face it – this is what Nastro Azzuro does brilliantly.  A story – in fact, not a story because this is true, and I am sure very familiar to you.  Question: where did you first have Nastro Azzuro?  Who were you with? What were you were eating?  What life were you living then?  My answers: Pizza Express, with my (now) wife, eating Pizza, olives, salad of some description, perhaps some dough balls, living la Dolce Vita. In Chester³.  Sound familiar?

What’s changed today? Well the bottle design has evolved slightly (important emphasis that). You can get it on draught now – but note how careful South African Breweries are with where they let it go (in the main).  And the font. Ye Gads, look at it. She’s wearing a catwalk evening dress and making all the other fonts look like the Ant Hill Mob.  Contest over.  But wait. The glass. Be honest. How many have you got in your cupboard?  People drink Nastro for the glass. Men and women; old and young, Wimbledon to Wilmslow to Wishaw.

The liquid. Nastro is OK.  It has an edge (5.1% vs other ‘premium lagers’ at 5%) and it’s most certainly not offensive.  There’s no lingering, bitter astringency so it appeals to most or can be tolerated by the beer snobs like me.  Marketing text books will say you need a rational product difference or a functional reason to believe. Brewed in Italy and imported? So’s Moretti.  Brewed with corn⁴?  So’s Moretti. Uh, oh.  The theory may have a loop hole.

The legend.  Simple consistency & application of a single thought, year in, year out.  Nastro = Italian style. That’s it. Now keep a look out for the adverts.  Take a second look at the packaging, glassware, font.  Italian flag colours? Yup, ever so ever so subtly.  Macho men in the adverts?  Nope, instead, dreamily beautiful, sophisticated, ever-so-ever-so-slightly unapproachable women. Appealing?  Yep – to us all.

Yet, there’s science too. Behavioural science.  This is all quite hip ‘n’ trendy stuff in the world of research at the moment, but the theory is actually almost 100 years old.  Simply put, the behavioural science says this:  whilst we like to think we make rational, logical and structured decisions in our lives, actually the majority (95 – 99%) of decisions we make are seemingly irrational, illogical and to the observer often contradictory vs. what we say we’ll do. The ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefore’s’ aren’t for here and now, so let me simply summarise why this is the case by saying ‘it’s because we have to do loads of stuff everyday’…the brain can’t cope, so it learns all sorts of short cuts. And these shortcuts – our personal lenses on things, biases, opinions – all have implications for beer.

Consider anchoring (alas, not Anchor Steam Beer, that particular delight will have to wait).  Our brains want to make quick decisions so they tend to form early opinions and then stay anchored to them.  Back to Nastro – your first experience. In a poshish Italian restaurant, with your favourite pizza and perhaps an extra topping, good company and a ristretto to finish – why not?  As emotional anchors go, that’s not a bad place to start. Then rewind and repeat for a few years and your brand has a good foundation in people’s brains.

Or framing.  We’re all familiar with the kamikaze (I am allowed to use that in these PC times -apologies in advance if not) pricing in supermarkets over the last few years, and ‘premium lagers’ have not escaped notice.  Reassuringly expensive Stella Artois on ‘Two For £14’ or whatever, frames Nastro as something more special because it hasn’t got involved.  Stick to your principles, keep your look consistent, as Nastro has done, and your competitors just make way for you.

Or the effect of perception.  If you have a good, or bad, opinion of something, then your brain wants to show how bright and clever you are by confirming and reconfirming that decision. So Nastro continues to ‘show up’ nicely in Pizza Express and you just continue to justify why it’s such a great choice you’ve made. Then you see it somewhere else, and you tell your friends… and remember, we’re a herd species so we love to take a recommendation from someone else.  Again, think of Stella Artois – it’s been discounting it’s price hugely for over a decade but it still the beer of choice for lots of people.

There’s more and it’s a fascinating field of investigation.  The revelation for me is that I now realise that is is possible to plan to be lucky if you understand how the brain works, and then, like Nastro have done to their credit, resist the temptation to fiddle.  The trouble for the big beer brand owners is that they need all the data, all those questionnaires, to prove they should keep their job. This new behavioural science at last seems to be supporting common sense – but it’s not for the faint hearted.

Peroni Come Hither

Come hither.

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

*Actually, I don’t. If you do and want a free tip for a more effective mode of consumption, try the orifice on the front of your face below your nose. It’s genius.

 

** Some rather unkind acquaintances of mine have used alternative descriptors.

¹ There is a fourth ‘L’ but I can’t remember what the ‘L’ it is²

² I’m here tonight, and twice on Thursdays. I thank you.

³ Actually, it could have been ‘Est! Est! Est!’ In Knutsford. Much the same, especially if you’re Jeremy Clarkson. 

⁴ I can tell you’re tempted.