Net Zero?

There’s a Facebook group I’m a member of that’s dedicated to Czech beer and as always with these things, it seems, there are interesting debates, informative sharing of unfamiliar beers and a bunch of irrational bugbears that become on-going motifs of the digital conversation.

One particularly beef is Staropramen; a beer that, since being sold to Bass Brewers after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the mid ’90s has had a more hand-offs than a game of rugby: sold to Interbrew as was, then into venture capital ownership as table stakes to make another big ABI deal happen and then back like a nomadic cat to Bass’ successor in kind, Molson Coors. Throughout this time, the beer has, as is the wont of multinational brewers, been hardly cherished – and through expert ‘flavour matching’ been brewed in the outer Prague suburbs, including Preston and Burton-upon-Trent, the latter where UK and much export Staro is brewed today.

For many of the Czechs on the Facebook Group, Staropramen is ditch water wherever it’s brewed, but there’s barely a dissenting voice that the UK brewed version is worse even than that. Few challenge this perception (maybe they don’t dare). And maybe it’s true. But it could also be utter tripe. Think what you like about Big Beer, but their brewers are always superbly well trained, with on-going continuous professional development and frankly, are sought after by small brewers the world over. They know how to flavour match. And the chances are that their flavour match is much more accurate than a hazy, half-cut customer memory of what Staropramen once tasted like in some Prague bar in 2013 where, you know, it was ‘authentic’.

It underlines what we already know but often don’t want to admit to. We drink with our eyes and our memories as much as with our taste buds and sense of smell. We’re happy to drink from belief not fact. And if you don’t believe me, some of the same people who are happy to slag off Staropramen, compare it with the terrific taste of Velkopopovický Kozel, a beer brewed under license in many markets and which is a weak shadow of its former self (just take the significant reduction in ABV over time as one dimension of this).

I choose to drink authentic beers, brewed in their homes. I believe that small breweries, sourcing from their local area, supporting their local economy and community is better. I am not arguing that we should all just accept brewing under license and get on with it, because that would be hypocritical. But caving into irrationality around how something tastes based on where the brewery is? I don’t buy it. This isn’t wine. This isn’t terroir.

Take Peroni. I like the fact it’s brewed in Rome or Bari and even though I prefer the taste of Moretti, I don’t like that it’s brewed in Edinburgh or Tadcaster. McMoretti, by gum. But, this is just my subjective preference – in fact, only recently did Heineken stop importing 6 pack small cans of Moretti from Rome, switching to UK brewed… and I only realised the difference afterwards because the outer wrap had changed from plastic to card, so I read the blurb. It tasted the same. My head realises this, even though my heart hates it. I don’t drink Staropramen any more. But the fact that somehow it’s fundamentally different to that brewed in Prague…. come on.

And then there’s the necessity for us all to move to low carbon lifestyles. It’s going to require sacrifices. And we all know that shipping containers of mildly inebriating, coloured fizzy water around the planet in diesel powered mega-ships when it could be made up the road is bonkers. It just doesn’t make sense on any level. For a UK drinker, this might not be an issue for a beer brewed in Leuven, Poznan or Umbria. But California? China? New Zealand? Surely that can’t be right.

And in the scale of sacrifices to come, Burton brewed Staropramen – Staffopramen perhaps – might just turn out to be loose change.

Refresh and reinforce

Occasionally, professional and personal lives overlap – and this was the case when Simon at Budweiser Budvar sent me a little box containing some Budweiser Budvar goodies. He wasn’t doing this out of the kindness of his heart, although knowing Simon as a kind-hearted sort of guy this was possible, but no, Budvar have redesigned and launched their UK web shop to boot and he’s trying to drum up support, understandably.

Simon doesn’t need me to write nice things about Budvar. He’s got plenty of beer writers who are much better known waxing lyrical about the company, for good reason. Despite some pretty shaky times in Czech brewing since the late 90s, when free-market capitalism renewed its roots in the country and Czech brewers of all sizes were being gobbled up by larger brewing concerns, this state-owned brewery has remained true and consistent to brandishing the torch for the traditions of Czech lager brewing. Simple things like sticking to regional ingredients (Moravian malt, Žatec hops, local aquifer water you know versus, Thames or Severn Trent), using double decoction mashing regimes, avoiding high gravity brewing and heaven forbid, actually lagering their beer for the weeks it takes to create those subtle layers of flavour stratified with gentle, natural carbonation.

So, when a brand such as this is redesigning, my instinct is to hold my breathe and hope. The paying side of what I do is helping companies create and strengthen their brands. Oh, sure, many brewers hate the thought of brands, many beer writers too, the late Michael Jackson included. It’s not about brands, they say, brands are impersonal. It’s about the beer. It’s not consumers, it’s drinkers. Brands are what Big Beer do…sniff, sniff, snivel, snivel etc.

Which is all very well, except they’re wrong. Because brands aren’t simply a marketing ploy, they’re a shortcut that the human brain uses to make decisions easier. ‘Reducing cognitive load’ is the behavioural science name for it. And the annoying thing for the likes of our nay-saying brewers and beer writers is that (when done right) it’s proven to work.

Arguments to one side, what everyone can agree on is that how a brand shows up – it’s name, the beer itself, the design, the points of interaction – like website, draught font, glassware, bar gear and so on – are critically important to how a brand is understood, remembered and bought.

And Budvar made a bit of a mis-step last time. “B-Original” they declared in a fit of  trying-to-be-clever. “B-Free” announced their non-alcoholic variant (errr – you’re a beer, not Braveheart). Strangely, “B-Dark” trumpeted their, you guessed it, dark lager and not switching off the lights or internet. It was always wrong. It looked wrong. It sounded wrong. It felt wrong. It was a classic brand trying too hard. Like someone desperately trying to be something they’re not. The label of the bottle sported a jaunty ‘swoosh’ in gold. ‘We can be like Nike’ it said, fundamentally misunderstanding the brand and its context.

With some trepidation then, I opened this little box from the Budvar web shop and silently whooped with joy. If, on the last design, some wag had told the Board that Budvar needs to appeal to Millennials by being (sorry, B-ing) fresh, young and contemporary, now Budvar is doing exactly that by reframing the task, staying true to itself and just being timeless for everyone.

Look at the design: there’s no missing the name (task 1 achieved). There’s no missing the simple descriptor (task 2 achieved). There’s no missing the premium values of this brand because they ooze off the package (tick, tick, tick): the crest of České Budejovice; the matte ink, the textured feel; the gold can top with brand-red tab. And a composition that can breathe because it isn’t cluttered and rammed-full with “benefits”.  Without saying anything, everything about it says, “This is the great Budweiser Budvar…. come to me”.

Bloody hell. You may ask, ‘Who is this bloke banging on about a design and why does it matter?’

Oh, it matters. Brands are built when two things fuse together as one. The message and the memory structures – the name; the colours; the symbols that allow the brain to register and recognise it. All too often, brands throw around “re-design” like its a sign of excitement and success. No, it’s a sign of failure. I’m not saying that Budvar failed previously – that would be going too far – but if your customers struggle to recognise your package and when they do, not like it, well that’s a big problem.

And this is the beauty of the Budweiser Budvar redesign. They have taken the wonderful, memorable assets that they already own (in people’s minds) and simply refreshed them -thereby reinforcing what their brand is about. The packaging; the glassware; the web shop and the merch all unequivocally screams the brand. And if you think having a distinctive brand isn’t important in this game, good luck to you.

Dark Lager and Hedgehogs

A wheelbarrow full of hedgehogs.

A lad from Primary school, who I haven’t seen since, pushing a wheelbarrow full of hedgehogs (who seemed quite happy – maybe thankful for the lift) down our old road. A road on which a friend now lives, but in a house with windows a disconcerting shade of Manchester City blue – something that frankly, would not be tolerated by him much beyond getting the key on moving-in day.

But the dreams during Lockdown have been getting weirder. In one, mimicking reality, I ordered a copy of the classic advertising text, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This online, only to have Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree delivered as a ‘suitable replacement’ (even more bizarrely, a few days later Girl Unknown* by Karen Perry* was delivered mistakenly in its place – any one want it?).

But in the most vivid, I was trudging up a cobbled hill – setts, really, as they were laid with continental precision. Up a hill that led away from a bridge over a river. A medieval magpie-style building was built out into the river with an annexe, presumably once a mill – but there was no wheel present, no rotation and the river wound its course unnoticed. Nor was it a Cheshire-style magpie building -black wood, white wattle and daub, nestling into rolling hills – but German style; taller, narrower, ornate ironwork, a steep-pitched, tiled roof, handsome gables. In the roof, triangular dormer windows, angling down rather than out.

And a golden pretzel, hanging over the window of the shop as the street wound up and round. Nope, this wasn’t Nantwich. Or Bunbury. And the Pretzel certainly wasn’t hanging outside Chatwins.

It was the dream-real smell of wood smoke that gave it away. Neat awnings, drawn out from the building fronts; bench tables; baskets of bread and glasses of dark beer. Cold, dark beer, with a caramel-white head, an inch deep, thick and tinged with wisps of smokey brown, like veins of chocolate shards running through stracciatella. Griddle pans, like square paella dishes, sizzling hot with thin sausages, onions, skinnily-sliced, tangled and interwoven like sauerkraut, caramel brown and honeyed, and the sweet-sharp smell of tangy, mild mustard, peppered with mustard seeds and caraway.

Bamberg, maybe, but a Lego-village version of it, built from half-formed highlights of days past, imagined futures and twisted memories. Groups of laughing people sitting shudderingly close to one another; the melodic runs of chords and finger-clacks of an accordion, played by a Moor wearing a hat full of pheasant feathers.

And always the beer. The dark, lagered-beer, brown like a chestnut, shiny and deep, but not opaque, rather, a refracted ruby lens-light, a malt-hopped prism, separating the components before melding them together in that delicious, longed-for, first sip.

 

*No, me neither.

Lockdown Lukas

Crises drive innovation. Crises drive quick decisions. 

Brewers are having to manage tragedy and opportunity as equal bedfellows.  Brewers, shorn of their sales to the on trade, are having to step rapidly into the opportunity presented not just by off sales, but specifically by selling their beer and brands direct to the door of their customer…. particularly as we hear of more stories of the big supermarkets using the opportunity to negotiate hard (well, who would’ve thought it?) and squeeze those who cannot afford the squeak. Perhaps the ‘direct to customer’ model is a taste of the future. Perhaps this pandemic will be the tipping point.

Localish to me is Thornbridge – well, not quite local. There are tiny micros on my doorstep selling in poly pins and ugly flagons, but they were slow to react. Right at the start of the lockdown, I was fishing around for a brewer to support nearby and the e mail arrived from Thornbridge as I was doing it. I had the task. I needed a brand to hire. The marriage was made.

Of course they’ve been on my radar, Thornbridge. Of course I’ve had Jaipur and one or two others. Of course I rated their beers’ quality. But they remained a brewery in my soft focus. In the periphery of my mental vision, not dead centre. The lockdown, the e mail, the desire to go local, shifted them into my cross-hairs.

A mixed case chock-a-block with their core range and seasonals arrived soon after. Four of Jaipur. Four of the eminently sinkable Green Mountain, a new go-to beer. Four of their seasonal Jamestown, with ‘Hamilton‘ ringing in my ears and a suspicion it was a close relative of Jaipur (on another continent). Tall cans of the ripe grapefruit-bomb, a fruit-laden smack in the face, Halycon – too strong for supping, just right for sipping. Four of Florida Weisse which I’m still trying to work out whether it is a raspberry sour as described, or a funky twist on a Berliner Weisse.

And then Lukas. A pale, Helles-style lager beer. The most straight. Frankly, of the lot, the most… boring.

I know I’m off beam in the beer writing world in my love of lager. Yes I get excited about new ale and sour releases. God, how I enjoy a pint of a well-kept cask. Yes, I can cock-an-eyebrow at milkshake sours served with coffee ice-cream. And yes, who can’t enjoy the sheer boldness of the wavy-Hazy generation, or quintuple IPAs from Cloudwater and their progeny. But there comes a point – perhaps 3pm on Friday (or Thursday); or just after some exercise, when the only beer that will do is a lager.

A proper lager. Not this waspishly light, rice-and-enzyme brewed nonsense, where all you taste is a tingle. No, proper lager. Malty and rich; layered with subtle, perceptibly-imperceptible complexity. Lukas is one such beer. It’s worryingly light in its colour, but any Fosters-Alarm-Bell-Sounding-Here stop right there. It pours with a billowing, effusive head which needs careful control. It sports a sensible, ‘Oh, just another one‘ level of alcohol (4.2%). It leads on its grain bill, but the hops are there, providing the gilded cage within which the malts (and touch of wheat) can roam free. It laces down a clean glass in gulp-measures; it’s gone in seconds.

There’s all sorts of nonsense claims about how everything will be different post Lockdown – the non-sensical queues for McDonald’s or Ikea prove those lies, sadly. But one change we should all make permanent is to buy independent; buy direct and buy beer done properly.

Lukas

The future’s bright…

For every trend, there’s a counter trend. For every artisan baker firing the ovens at 3am to conjure up beautiful rough cobbles of sourdough, there’s a new ‘Chorleywood’ enzyme innovation; textureless white sponge with seeds, or bits of fibre you can’t see, or just a new whiter-than white White. For every back street coffee bean roaster, filling the air with their smokey perfume, there’s a new micro-grind instant from some multinational hiding their true colours.

And so it is in beer. At one end, the focus is on old styles dusted down, or new styles drawing inspirations from as far back as Mesopotamia; from fermentation with wild yeast, or bacteria grown on mouldy fruit, or kettle souring or barrel-ageing. Of Quintuple IPAs or session beers hopped to the Copper top to make up for lack of alcoholic body: and this is good; no, this is awesome – it’s the producer-powered, purpose-fuelled revolution against the brewing as Economics not as Art. It’s the rivulet of reactionaries that’s become a flood – a flood that even the Big Brewers can’t resist; entering through mimicry, partnering or acquisition. Yet, oddly, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong place.  Perhaps, in the quest for solving the problem of the decline in mainstream, mass-produced lager they’re looking to  craft, and artisan, and hand-produced and small-scale and then looking to scale these up. And undoubtedly, much of this will be successful, despite the claims that a backlash will defeat it.

IMG_0457But there’s something going on in their core.  Drinkers are turning back to lagered beer.  And yes, they’re undoubtedly turning to the real deals: like Budvar, brewed with Moravian Malt and Saaz hops and matured for 102 days; or like Brooklyn Lager, brewed to a recipe from before Prohibition, with it’s deep conker-red colour, and off-white head and thick, coating body or they’re discovering little gems like Windsor & Eton’s Republika, which may not be true to a particular style, but is as damn fine a lager beer as you’ll find.

It’s more though. It’s drinkers not rejecting the likes of Camden Hells or Meantime’s London Lager, just because they’ve been acquired by someone bigger – but continuing to be pulled towards them. And it’s also the rise of a new wave of Big Beer brands: Nastro Azzurro, Estrella Damm, Amstel. Sniff all you like, but these brands are growing – maybe not drunk by you, or me, but growing… because people want to drink them.

We’ve got to look beyond the sensibilities of ownership, the emotions of scale, to see what’s going on. There’s a return to lager amongst drinkers, and it’s accelerating.  It’s a return that will soon spur the current losers in this battle – the likes of Carling, Carlsberg and Foster’s to react in the only way they can, by properly listening to what drinkers want and innovating.  This is a good thing too. It’s signalling a return to a beer style that stands the test of time. The span of flavour profiles within lager may not be as broad as top-fermenting or wild-fermented beers (well, certainly if you exclude smoked lagers anyway), but it’s robust. There’s something for everyone: tastier beers like Pilsner Urquell at one end, to simply sessional everyday quaffers at the other. There are lagered specialities like dunkel beers in the mix, as well as *faints* light beers. This is a beer style that didn’t conquer the world through force of arms, but through drinker preference. In the UK it may have started as a beer for women but it didn’t take longer to become the beer for louts. That’s some shift. And it’s a shift that’s behind us now: lager is legitimised; lager’s time is coming again.