Moan Label

I can’t make my mind up whether it’s a good thing or not.  Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ range of beers is a sort of surrogate ‘own label’ range of beers – very much a mutant child of proud micro brewer father and pushy retailing mother.

You can’t miss own label in our supermarkets.  In some categories (think aisles – it’s the closest approximation in non business speak) own label rules the roost – it can be up to 50% of sales. Often this is with products that shoppers aren’t that bothered about – loo rolls, washing powder – or where brands can’t really develop like with fresh fruit and veg, meat or fish.  There are surprises too – categories like roast and ground coffee have a high proportion of own label despite some excellent products and pretty good prices from companies like Taylor’s or Douwie Egberts.

Beer has been the exception though – and for the wrong reasons.  You see, own label generally exists, and typically thrives because it keeps the brands honest.  If a brand gets too dominant, its share too high, then the retailer slips in a sharp priced own label offer and before you know it, the supplier is sitting around the table sharpening the proverbial pencil.  Not with beer.

Because unfortunately beer is cheap.  So cheap, there isn’t a meaningful space between the cost a retailer is buying at and the price it’s being sold out at.  You have to bear in mind here that a very high proportion of beer is sold on promotion and British consumers know this.  Wait a few days, or shop somewhere else and invariably you get a better deal.

So own label has withered on the bine.  There’s been a bit of activity: Tesco launched their own label Czech beer – Boheme.  They gave it lots of space and focus and activity. It’s still there, but it’s a runt.  And there are a few lower alcohol versions – drop the ABV, reduce the cost and you create space to play. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, drinkers are not interested in these insipid, tasteless and poorly brewed beers.  (We’ll have to see whether minimum pricing changes this landscape).

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And the last three digits of his security code are 996….

Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range is different.  It’s a clear hybrid.  The neck label, crown and aspects of the label are clearly branded; there’s a ‘structure’ across the range (each carries the brewers’ alleged signature for example*). But it ends there.  As you can see – the Suffolk Blonde is in  a St Peter’s bottle – the rest of the range are in their own.  There’s no attempt to hide the origin – in fact, it’s built around it.  There are beers from Harviestoun, Black Sheep, Meantime and others in the range. Each different in shape & format; each naming the brewery.

Yet I’m troubled.  My background is brand owner – and in a company that refused to do own label. This legacy I bring with me no doubt.  But it’s more than this. Somehow, the values of these small brewers feel just a little tarnished by the hand of the retailer.  Not that I am berating Sainsbury’s here – I like their effort, but it feels an uncomfortable marriage.

And the beers – well, I’m working my way through. Tonight I had the Suffolk Blonde.  Pleasant enough – certainly a bright back-lit gold in the glass, but I didn’t get the notes of banana and clove the label suggests, but rather a slight biscuity malt.  The Hallertau hop aroma was there but not overly pronounced. Good enough for sure; I wouldn’t refuse another – but ‘taste the difference’ – nope, had more different beers that taste better.  Mind you, the bottle – wow! The bottle is a stunner and perhaps not as pretty as their original flagon type, but practical and different too.

It just feels odd with a Sainsbury’s label on it.

*Watch out Mark Slater at St Peter’s. I’m after your credit card. Now I have your signature, it’s going to be a cheap Christmas…

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Micro Roasters

It’s fascinating how trends can manifest themselves in different ways in life.  Take ‘craft’ or ‘micro’ brewing for example – an output from people seeking greater linkage to ingredients, to food production, to provenance and a reaction to mass-production and everything that can attend it (additives, adjuncts, over processing…) – often in the quest for better taste, or more taste, or a more authentic experience.    Well I had missed how this same trend, this same reaction is going on with coffee at the moment.  This was brought into sharp relief through a client I’m working with just now – a client operating near the top of the market in their sector but wanting to understand how they can continue their growth whilst at the same time, growing and protecting the reputation of the category they’re in.  And this got me into investigating coffee and specifically Micro Roasters as a parallel world.

Blimey. This coffee trend had passed me by; or perhaps more accurately, I had passed it by.  Whilst clearly we’ve been witnessing a veritable explosion in coffee shops, at the same time, high street coffee retailers, like Whittards, have been struggling.  So  I had managed to walk past Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street in London countless times, smelling the coffee but not pausing sufficiently long enough to arouse my curiosity and actually cross the threshold.  Even closer to home,  just round the corner from my office is a ‘Kaffeine’ – again a micro roaster, but more focused on the serve experience. Here I’d once purchased a latte on my way to work, swearing never to return after they had assaulted my wallet for a cup half the size of normal.  Mind, they put a lovely fir tree pattern in the froth.  But putting that behind me, once I learnt about this ‘micro roasting revolution’ I thought I’d go and investigate it with my radar turned on.

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Monmouth Coffee, or a Mumford & Sons album cover. You decide.

My brief immersion into this world has revealed lots of parallels of course.  Around the raw ingredients themselves; where and how they are grown, what varieties and how they can influence the end result. You’ve got to push further than the ‘Arabica’ vs ‘Robusta’ debate (who isn’t claiming ‘100% Arabica’ nowadays for Heavens sake?). But the actual species (Bourbon or Caturra anyone?). The roasting too – not just the level of roast, but the way the beans are roasted, how quickly, with how much movement, in which style of roaster.  And the grind – when to do this; how to prevent secondary roasting; how – like beer – to prevent oxidation and stale characters in the coffee particularly at the point of packing.  And how you pack it of course: how to let the beans ‘gas off’ (release CO2); how best to store.  Many parallels – but for me, no revolutionary learnings.  I’m left thinking that brewers could do more about the grain varieties – yes, I know that Maris Otter is a great barley – but there must be more to this.  Where is the best barley grown?  What character can different grain blends bring to the taste and texture of beer, to the head and colour?  But could brewers do a lot more than they currently are:  not much.

No, what has really struck me is about the potential for coffee to grow even more through the rituals: the ritual of selling and presenting coffee and the ritual of serving and enjoying.

This is an area that beer would consider itself strong I imagine, but there’s more we can do.  Just consider the experience in Monmouth or Kaffeine.  There’s the presentation of the beans. In one shop, these were laid out in individual oak tubs, with simple tasting notes, ready to be bagged for your purchase (the bags of course, simple, elegant and colour coded in an understated way to help you best enjoy your purchase). In another, blackboards did the same job, in a witty yet informative way.   And there’s the little touches – no bags of crisps with your pint here, but simple accompaniments designed to complement not fight the flavours of the coffee.

Yet more impactful was putting the serving of the coffee right at the heart of the action; the coffee ‘station’ turned round, facing into the room, sitting in close proximity to the baristas.  Making a display of grinding of tamping and tapping out the spent, washed through grains.  The serve too – water with the coffee of course, to cleanse the palate and let the flavours bite through with each mouthful, but simple touches like just warmed milk on the side.  Although the crèma I suppose is the staff, knowledgeable but not arrogant, imparting just enough information to encourage the mystique whilst holding back enough not to put off or bore their clientele.

I had a decaff single origin (Brazilian) Americano.  Beautifully served in beautiful surroundings by beautiful people.  Shame I didn’t like it….that’s taste for you I suppose.  But the experience left its mark.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 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

Gezelligmütlichness – and a solution for pan European harmony.

We sat at a rough hewn, oak table that runs twenty feet in either direction, topped with light blue and white diamond table cloths. To my left and right, drinking companions who have accompanied me here, to this shrine, in a battered, white Fiesta. Opposite, an elderly gentleman – possibly in his ‘80s but it’s difficult to pinpoint – unremarkable except for his deeply wrinkled face, crinkled embroidered collar on a brilliant white shirt, a velvet green bridle across his chest slightly shrouded below his waistcoat, and on his head a small, mole brown feathered trilby.  His drinking companions are similarly attired.  In moments the new world meets the old – jeans clad English lads in a social stand-off with three gentlemen from an earlier age.

Three huge, monster, glasses – they must be all of two pints¹of beer are placed in front of us, and, as if a switch has been flicked, the elderly gent in the middle fixes me directly with his gaze, stands up, proudly slapping his black lederhosen, raises his similarly mammoth glass of glistening, bronze beer, smiles and duels me with a toast:

“Der Gemütlichkeit!”

Moments later, at the far end of the tent – far enough to appear like footballers viewed from the back of the North Stand – a deep, reverberating string of notes wobbles over to us, ‘Ummm Ummm Um Um Um Paaaah!’  Recently arrived puzzled tourists like me scan around nervously as everyone rises, lifts their glasses and starts to sing: “Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit….”

Spin on a few years. A business trip to the southern Netherlands, near Maastricht, down in the pointy bit on the map. We’re touring a brewery with a view to importing one of their beers. The brewery is almost pastoral – verdant green hills, shapely oaks, ash and poplar trees shape in the  immediate hinterland – the word ‘bucolic’ was made for this. The brewery itself faces directly onto the road, barn like in appearance, with large, triple hinged wooden doors hiding the shining, modern set-up within. At lunch we break to a small bar just round the corner from the brewery and enjoy a bowl of waterzooi – this being with welly-wanging distance of Belgium after all – and a Summer wheat beer.  In this part of Holland, speaking English is less common than further north; nonetheless our brewery guide – a Brewster no less, raises her glass and gently says,

“Ah thies is soo gezellig”

I looked it up. Gezellig?  Gezellig? I hear it a lot but no one can translate it. The Dutch being proud in fact that ‘Gezelligheid’( with the gargling ‘z’) You have no word for it in English’.   I did the same with Gemütlichkeit , although knowing a bit of German I was aware the story was similar.  How come in English – English of all languages – with a vocabulary more extensive (and growing faster) than either German or Dutch – how come we don’t have a translation?   And as they are so central to the beer situation, this only made it worse.  Our beer culture is rich too – surely we can translate these words?  If only to reduce the lexicological one-upmanship

The Wikimeister was the first point of call. Gemütlichkeit being ‘an environment or state of mind that conduces a cheerful mood and peace of mind with connotation of a notion of belonging and social acceptance.  And apparently the Nordic countries, many of the Balkans all have a similar word. In Russia their word, yιom, “carries almost identical connotations”.  As for Gezelligheid ‘depending on context, can be convivial, cosy, fun, quaint but can also connote belonging, time spent with loved ones….or general togetherness”.   I understand these words.  I get them wholly. The emotional connotations make absolute sense to me, yet, yet… we don’t have a word. I struggle to express that familiar sensation in our language. They are either too lacking in nuance (like convivial) or else you need a phrase and that’s cheating.

But I want to be able to express this word.  I reckon that it’s a bit of gezelligmütlichness that we Brits could do with. Because just as we may not be able to translate these words, so our neighbourly continental languages don’t have an expression for our way of drinking and what that means, how that feels for us. And no, I don’t mean getting lashed on a dozen pints, but rather that fuzzy, somewhere in-the-middle drinking that’s two too many to count as a ‘quick pint’ and two too few to constitute a ‘sesh’.  That’s where the spark plugs fire without sparks flying and causing a raging inferno. It’s the sort of occasion, with your friends, that you could easily do a couple of times a week and still function the next day, without feeling piously or piteously out of it.

There’s a more serious need too. Put to one side our current economic difficulties, the perception amongst politicians and legislators of the effects of beer, and alcohol, on how ‘we’ drink is still stuck in a different age.  ‘Minimum Pricing’;’Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy’, talk of advertising bans, sponsorship bans, self regulation vs legislation – these are warning signs that the chasm of understanding between those in power and those who want to enjoy a relaxing couple of three pints exists and is a threat.  And it is a threat – to think, as I read in a quality daily recently for example, that minimum pricing in the off trade will lead to people going back to pubs again is folly.  We need to put gezlligmütlichness at the heart of a positive political agenda for beer – supporting not just good pubs, but encouraging bars and restaurants to serve a decent lower alcohol drinks range (beer) as well as a decent wine list  – and putting a new way of drinking, a little, often and good quality at the heart of licensing, rather than simply demonising supermarkets from stacking it high and selling it cheap.

In an earlier blog you may recall the journey my brother and I made to Czechoslovakia and Franconia just after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  Mere sprats we were, still on a hideously giggly voyage of beer discovery – it could have been one long trip of drunken debauchery and leery British embarrassment on the continent.  Yet one night, we sat in a wood clad bar drinking dark lager and Dunkel, having a conversation with the locals yet utterly unable to converse in their language.  And then, to paraphrase the Good Soldier Svejk, ‘it did happen to us that we drank one beer after another’…modestly so I like to think.  Of course, we’ll never meet those chaps again, but for all talk of ephemeral European Harmony, legislated by endless Treaties, perhaps it would be more constructive to just share a few beers and enjoy some gezelligmütlichness.

¹In fact, it turns out to be a 2 litre glass – or ‘mass’ which in German feels almost onomatopoeic.

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

The Path to Beer

My relationship with beer was fuelled by a man I have never met.
To begin: an admission. I’m not a big drinker. Never have been. Which is not to say I can’t handle my drink, just that we enjoy a different relationship to most. Steve, a friend of mine who writes properly, reminded me of the wonderful journey of drunkenness, from “jocose” and ending with “comatose”.
I like to stop at verbose. I don’t enjoy going further. Beyond verbose, not only do I become incredibly annoying, even to myself, I usually wake up with strange bruises, and far, far worse, a hangover. Man ‘flu’ and hangovers may orbit the same Dark Star, yet for me they are very much worlds apart. Whilst, with Man ‘flu’ I want to be alone, dosed up with some over-the-counter remedy, with hangovers, my body punishes me physically and my guardian angel, whispering sweet nothings by my ear, punishes me emotionally.
“You’re better than this”. 
“Drunkenness is for people with nothing better to do with their lives” 
“Remember Great Uncle Walter. He either drank himself to death, or died falling off a chimney pot whilst attempting a handstand. Either way it was unnecessary and fuelled by the excesses of drink”.

and on, and on.

No, my relationship with drink is definitely to reach the verbose stage and then adopt strategies.
We should also talk about Bass. I have history. I worked for a ‘Big Mulitnational’ for almost twenty years, and will not discredit my time there by pandering to stereotypes bandied around by beer ‘enthusiasts’ who simply want to slag off big brewers; nor will I senselessly defend them. Today Bass is owned by an American company whose sole focus is beer….and that can’t be a bad thing, even if the beer isn’t to your, or my, taste.

And lastly to the man who inspired me. Fritz Maytag. I saw him on the telly. Fritz had inherited wealth, his family founding and building the mighty Maytag household appliance business. Fritz didn’t strike me as a naturally charismatic person when I watched him, but he was the man who ‘saved’ Anchor Steam in San Francisco and injected tremendous momentum into the nascent craft beer movement in the U.S.
These three strands weave together in this blog. Why write about beer? The world of anodyne beer or brewery reviews doesn’t need yet another voice. Why not write about household appliances perhaps? I could push the boat out and write about other alcoholic drinks, and hey, while I’m at it include pop too.

But no, it has to be beer, and it’s beer because of Fritz.
The programme was Michael Jackson’s ‘The Beer Hunter’. The episode was ‘Californian Pilgrimage’. As Michael interviewed Fritz it was clear that here was a man who wore his wealth with humility. This didn’t come across as some rose-tinted liberal minded view. Fritz actually cared. He connected his employees not just with the company, but with the city, the ingredients that went into their beer and their wider responsibilities. He had a higher sense of purpose for Anchor. Most of all, Fritz saw great beer existing with great wine, with great food and great conversation. He didn’t pit big brewer (bully boy) against small brewer (stoic scrapper), or the grape against the grain. In effect he was saying: ‘they all have a place in our lives and let’s celebrate that’.
Yet Fritz also recognised the great strength of beer. That more than any other alcoholic drink, it is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln , ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. Wine is tarnished by the brush of snobbery, yet beer remains honest, convivial and enormously varied.
Simply put, beer is one of the little pleasures of life that we should cherish and celebrate and I shall raise a glass to that.

Reproduced from ‘Everyday Wonders’, David Preston, ©2012