Sell out

Crikey – talk about the hissy fit in UK craft beer. Camden Town sell out to ABI, particularly following Meantime falling to SAB and Brewdog, most publically, have a meltdown, kick out Camden products and declare Perpetual Independence.

Let me tell you up front though. I put some money into Camden Town Brewery. This doesn’t make me anti-Brewdog nor pro Camden. In this case, it was an investment, nothing more. I believe now, as I believed when assessing whether to make an investment in them, that they were a sound place to put some hard-earned brass. Here is (was) my rationale:

Firstly, the owners were not the types to be in it for the long term; amongst them Sir John Hegarty. He’s an Advertising Man – he has helped companies build their brands to increase the value of their companies all his working life; he’s also built businesses himself and become a ‘Sir’ as a result. We’re not talking about fighting for a ‘cause’ here like Keith Grossman or Jack McAuliffe or Fritz Maytag were in the 1960s and 1970s USA. Back then, beer was on its knees; behemoth brewers with gargantuan breweries churning out identikit pale ‘lager’. There was something to fight for. London, 2010 – the year Camden Town Brewery was founded? Frankly the craft beer craze was maturing, or accelerating at least. You could well ask 5 years ago, just as much as you could now: do we really need another craft brewery?

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Camden: pops form the bar; instantly recognisable; consistent ‘hellish’ attitude = brand

Well yes, in a way – and here’s my second point. Camden Town was pushing for difference. It built itself around lagered beers, as well as some well brewed specialities – their Wit stands out in particular for me. Most other craft brewers – as much for practical and cost reasons than anything else – stick to ale and top fermentation. So do we really need another craft brewery? No, unless, like Wild Beer Company say, you do something that stands out. You can argue that Camden beers aren’t that different – but in a sea of craft brewed ale, there was little craft brewed lager in 2010; and even accounting for Meantime, still plenty of capacity to push into that space in London alone.

Thirdly, brand. Oh, I know what the purist will argue: the whole point that craft fights against is mass produced brands of non-descript lager: Carlsberg, Carling, Fosters, Stella, Peroni. But that’s an assumption based on a generalisation: that we all want something different. We don’t. Most of us, most of the time, want choices that are reliable and safe. That doesn’t – and I must stress this – doesn’t mean bland, everyday choices – but choices that we feel confident in; that we discovered, found ourselves, trust and that make us feel different. And it doesn’t mean niche. What the team at Camden did brilliantly is screw together an incredible brand: an amazing brand design and identity across the whole range that sings from the bar. A hellishly beautiful tone of voice that unites all their communication. Events, that bring you in to the Camden community and locality, yet which speak to us more widely. These guys didn’t set out to build a brewery, they set out to build a brand and they have done it incredibly.

And whilst I was in it for the long term – looking forward to my ‘Hells Raiser’ annual beer and trips to the AGM – equally, I fully expected Camden to sell; I just wasn’t expecting it to be in the first six months.

Throughout this, Brewdog’s behaviour has been fascinating – and two-faced. Immediately stopping-selling Camden products in their bars, because ‘they don’t sell anything by ABI’ (the small matter that the deal hasn’t gone through yet is a mere trifle) is one thing; but changing their origin story is another. Read their guff; it’s moving; it’s from the heart. But it’s a story. It’s economical with the truth. When Brewdog launched they were quite happy to trade with the mega-breweries they now despise to get their product to market. With Carlsberg. With Molson Coors. With Tesco. With Punch Taverns. I imagine that they still do. They were perfectly happy to buy into the hard work of these companies in building distribution channels and quite happy to grow their brands off the back of them. But that’s been deleted out of their official history now. But the real irony? Brewdog is a lesson in branding. Their beers are fine – nothing more. They’re no better or worse than other craft beers of their styles. The real difference is in the clothes that they wear; their attitude and use of the f-word like a teenager trying to impress his mates. If we truly drunk with our mouths and tastebuds and not our eyes we would all see Brewdog beers for what they are: great brand, average beer.

And there’s an interesting footnote here too: Camden went for about £85m; Meantime about £115m. Molson Coors back in 2010 bought Sharps for £20m… £20m for a larger brewery; in a beautiful location that gives the brand romance, with a leading brand in Doom Bar. Molson Coors must be having a little chortle to themselves now. But it also shows that the money is to be made in great brands – and more interestingly it seems, in lager.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

Lost Blogs #3: Alehouse Rocks

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

Events can sometimes seem like ribbons of consciousness that weave and wend their way through time, like the pennants of rhythmic gymnasts as they lithely dance across a mat. The ribbons tend to diverge, in the quest for new ideas and the latest thing, or less occasionally, converge, and ideas that once were dominant have their time again. So it has been in the Tinted House of late: a number of related themes coming together in a series of fortunate co-incidences.

It started with Pete Brown, unaware though he will be. I first met Pete before he became a writer (or at least, before he published his first book). He was the advertising planner at an agency we had chosen to be in a pitch for a beer launch we were doing. A thoroughly down to earth bloke (Barnsley, like), both he and the whole agency did a great job and only lost the work on the toss to another agency. We next met again over a curry¹ when he was researching for his book ‘Hops & Glory’, as a colleague of mine had responsibility for the White Shield Brewery, along with the acclaimed brewer, Steve Wellington, who were going to be brewing his circumnavigational ale. Anyway, this passage was not supposed to be glorified name-dropping but rather an introduction to the fact that I have just read his latest work, ‘Shakespeare’s Local’. And in it was one of these ribbons of convergence.

Next, introducing James, now an Operations Manager at a large brewing business, who I’ve known for a decade or so. James has a talent that he is loathe to admit – a very curious & observant person… he works in the pub trade, but he doesn’t just go out and ‘do his job’. He questions things; he investigates; he makes links; he asks why. That’ll be the top class training he received from yours truly, then, **cough, cough**. James spotted the rise of Pale Ales and IPAs three, four, maybe five years before they exploded. And this isn’t just as simple as spotting that ‘craft brewers seem to be doing OK’ – it was more specific. This was about Pale Ales. The logic was simple – lagered beer, he reasoned, has been tarred by the same brush; there’s a generational effect of people wanting something different to the previous ‘generation’ (well, from people a few years’ older than them) and the simple fact that functionally, many pale ales offer taste, refreshment and sessionability. To James it was a bit of a ‘no-brainer’ – and he was right.

So when James makes an observation, normally gently put, I listen… “Have you been to The Cock, in Hackney?” was the question. And no, I hadn’t, indeed haven’t, yet. James told me about it: it’s an alehouse. Not an inn; not a gastro pub; not a chain or managed pub; an alehouse – somewhere that primarily concentrates on, and sells, ale (and drink) and isn’t distracted by the haughty charms. Like the Rake in Borough, or The Cooper’s in Burton , or the Yew Tree at Cauldon Low. And here was the point of convergence then: Pete’s book, and the alehouse. The George, that he was writing about, was definitely an Inn. Of course, it sold beer, sack (sherry) and wine…even coffee before Costa Coffee Express franchises were invented, but more than that, it housed lodgings for travellers, hop merchants, assorted hawkers and traders. In Coalition Government parlance, it was its very own Industrial Enterprise Zone. It had respectability; definitely an Inn. Alehouses were something else – retailing intoxication and therefore definitely something that you wouldn’t want to be seen in (hence the ‘Snug’, with its high frosted glass or wood partitions, to shield inquisitive eyes from your supping habits). Funny that, over time, the pressure has been unrelentingly against them – either because of the comparison with ‘gin houses’ or simply because, at different times, different Governments wanted to cut down on excessive drinking. And funny that, only now perhaps, is the trend working its way back towards them.

But to me it makes sense. When British brewers are buying coffee shop estates; when major pub retailers declare themselves, ‘Agnostic to drink because we’re restaurants’, you know that at some point, something has to change. For ‘tis written: ‘For every trend, there’s a counter trend’. For every pub, masquerading as a gastro pub but buying its vacuum sealed food parcels from Brakes’ Brothers, for every lamentable style bar or ill conceived sports bar², showing Sky Sports, there’s a pressure to resist. Sure, our homes today have comforts that our forebears couldn’t have even dreamt of – warmth, water, cold food storage, on tap entertainment (that’s TVs with quadraphonic sound, not kids singing ‘Glee’ songs into fake microphones) – sure. You’ve even got food retailers like M&S doing ‘Gastro Pub’ meals to peel the lids off and stick in the oven at home. But it’s not same.

No, the time of the alehouse is overdue. The informal, friendly bar, where you can enjoy interesting ales; where you can sit in comfort and put the world to rights; where you can hatch plots for global domination or just slag off your boss; where you don’t have to worry about whether you are going to have starters, or worse, whether any part of the wretched place is set aside for people not eating. No, the circle is coming around, and for the enlightened, behind the ‘pub closure’ and ‘Binge Britain’ nonsense headlines, it will be an exciting times for Britain’s pubs and a more exciting time for British drinkers. You heard it here first.

¹The Manzil, Burton on Trent, 01283 _________. Nice new premises, opposite the National Brewery Centre, and unlike the old place, it doesn’t have concrete cancer (or a wrecking ball coming through the wall).

² Why is it that in the US, showing sport is just accepted? It almost doesn’t matter what sort of bar it is, there will be TVs on the back bar, they will be showing ‘Monday Night Football’ and everyone just gets on with it. Here we seem to try so hard and get is so wrong.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lost Blogs #2: Life at the Sharp End

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

1998, and an American road trip to remember. From San Francisco across to Napa; through the winelands to Calistoga; then up and over, via the Petrified Forest Road to Petaluma and down, down by way of Big Sur to SoCal and San Diego. It was like ‘Sideways’ only with more of the bine not the vine, and markedly less shagging of dusky skinned Harley-riding waitresses.  Oh, and all in a Chrysler Neon. It was my first experience of liberal California – and what struck me was the scale, the brown-ness (we Brits forget how lush and green our island is) and how, to me surprisingly, how unselfishly self-centred and self-sufficient it felt – kind of cut-off from the rest of the US, even though this clearly isn’t the case. It was the Californian flag that flew; it was pride in Californian ingredients and products that was displayed foremost. The brewpubs we went to were impressive and inspiring, even back then, but it was the independent shops, from food stores, to bespoke T shirt stands, from boutique coffee to thriving independent book shops – and often these things combined – that really landed what a vibrant, innovative economy California was. Viewing through my beer tinted gaze it was obvious back then that something big and beery was going on. Simple pizza restaurants had brewing out back; San Diego had some amazing breweries, bars and brews; San Fran too, even Napa at the entrance to the winelands.

And strangely, the memories came back to me in ripples of déjà vu during a stay in west Cornwall, of all places, recently. And just as in late ‘90s California, in early 2013, it’s clear that our national craft beer revolution is in full swing down at the sharp end. Perhaps – and I have no numbers to back me up here, just a gut feel – perhaps, more so than anywhere else.

When I lived out west, twenty years ago, the beer wasn’t anything to write home about. The big brewers had a presence, Bass in particular was typically served well, so too Courage Director’s and some regional-ish brews from Gibbs Mew, or Eldridge Pope, with Royal Oak being a particular favourite. The south west’s regionals by comparison didn’t put up a good fight – St Austell beers were flaccid and average… and there wasn’t much else outside of The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres. Yet something was stirring in the world of food and drink – I remember a little cheese shop in Chagford, where I first encountered Cornish Yarg – the same cheese that just 20 years later featured on the national TV break bumpers for Morrisons during Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway! And there were artisan ice cream makers, fruit & cider presses, local bread and crisp makers beginning to crop up all the way down the peninsula.

Within the region, Cornwall always seemed to lag behind – it was almost as is the economy had become so beholden to the tourist Pound that local shopkeepers and producers felt that they should provide the big, well-known brands that the Emmits would recognise and trust. How wrong they were. In fact, the opposite is true – Cornish brands are effecting a reverse brain grab, following the memories of languid Summer days rock pooling, yachting or drinking in a Quayside pub back with them, and building their business success from there. Sharps’ Doom Bar and St Austell’s Tribute being the obvious examples – sprouting up on bars from Tonbridge Wells to Todmorden.   What I hadn’t grasped though was the fecundity of the microbrewers loins in Cornwall – there are breweries popping up all over the Duchy.

I’ve heard Skinners brands described as ‘crass’ – but to a marketeer ‘distinctive’ and ‘consistent’ describe them better and are powerful, desirable epithets. In design terms, Skinners beers do stand out – from Betty Stogs herself, the landlady of the range, to Heligan Honey or the slightly stronger (4.5%) Cornish Knocker. In truth, they do all have a Viz quality about them. Were Skinners to launch a Fat Slags beer, it wouldn’t seem out of character.  But the beers stand muster. Stops is widely available down here and is a good session beer, well balanced with a malt orientation; Heligan Honey is a lovely beer (it’s probably Stogs with some honey added) – too often honey beers are either overly sweet and cloying or underplayed. Here the honey is at the delicate end but noticeable and appealing. Knocker is Stogs on steroids; beefier, maltier, a little more hop aroma too; in the Midlands this would be the session beer and go down well it would too.

In a similar vein, I picked up a bottle of St Ives’ Brewery ‘Boilers’. Again, this is the mainstay in their range at an unsurprising 4%, yet it is a modestly striking beer, almost pulling off a difficult trick – to deliver balance and drinkability but also some character. There’s a rich malty loaf sweetness, a handful of dusty hop biting through and a herbal hoppiness on the nose. I’d push a bit more personally, but its drinkable and beautiful too – a lovely bottle label, inspired by the art scene thereabouts.

And the Pale Ale Counter Reformation continues. Rebel Brewing Company from Penryn do a cracking one – ‘Penryn Pale Ale’, which, despite its modest ABV of 4.3% has a grapefruitiness reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, with a few twangy, tangy citrus notes thrown in – lovely.  ‘Proper Job’ from the St Austell stable is another and consequently widely available in their pubs – which is where I drank one with a platter of fish and chips. I had a bottle as it had sold out on draught: the bottle is stronger (5.5%) and is a cracker: a head, thick with glistening creaminess like a dew covered spiderweb under a microscope; a McVitie’s digestive and elderflower aroma and a vividly golden colour, all bright and backlit. US hops are used – Willamette, Chinook and Cascade – and skilfully so – it’s a delight of a beer. If you want something punchier try ‘Nugget’ from Harbour Brewing, who given close on 300 miles of coastline to choose from, you think would have had the sense to brew by a harbour. But no, they’re in landlocked Bodmin (apparently the owners decided to start their brewery whilst sitting in a harbourside bar). Forgive them this though: Nugget is beautiful presented, with textured matt labels, almost hand-typed in feel demanding molestation. And the beer I drank had a real punch (Refound note: since this blog was written in 2013, Harbour are now more widely available nationally (in Sainsburys for one). They brew a couple of cracking IPAs)

Another landlocked brewery is Wooden Hand, located just off the A30 in Grampound Road an area known for smuggling hideaways. It’s difficult to judge whether Poldark would be happy with their ‘Cornish Gribben’ or not though. On the one hand, both the label and the beer really do sparkle like pirates’ gold; the flavour, all caramel toffee apple notes and a hint of melon, speaks of exotic tastes washed ashore in barrels from distance lands.   But on the other, the Gribben lighthouse featured on the label wards off ships, so no wreckers’ treasure for decorating Demelza’s boudoir this time round and my bottle had a slightly stale aroma.

A postscript: in Falmouth, there’s a run of new shops down near the hugely impressive National Maritime Museum. At the far end there’s a bottle shop that deserves a call out – not just for stocking a beer range as diverse and exciting, as intriguing and as rewarding to browse as a bookshop, but also for having a crack being a specialist licensed retailer when they are distinctly off trend. The guy at The Bottle Bank wrapped the bottles I bought in paper as if they were fine wines of five times the price. But it also brought home the scale of the revolution going on in Cornwall – there were beers from Falmouth on the south coast to Rock on the north; from mine-scarred St Austell to idyllic Scilly, from ghostly Lostwithiel to haunting Lizard. It’s a revolution all the more remarkable given that it’s happening right across food and drink and in chastening economic times. If a roadtrip round the sharp end isn’t enough to keep you away from the Costa Brava this summer, I’m not sure what can.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Beer Guy

Within beer circles there are now public personalities in ways unimaginable a generation ago. Many brewers are celebrities, some like Sam Calagione become media figures. There are revered saviours, like Fritz Maytag or Michael Jackson. Sages too, like Ken Grossman. Or outspoken campaigners, like Roger Protz. Yet, my friend Dan Rosenbluth, who died recently after a short illness, was largely unknown in the broader beer world, despite being universally popular and loved amongst his considerable circle of peers and friends. Dan had an impact as significant as that of these names and many more – but, typical of him, it was perfectly understated. He was, to use his phrase (although he never applied it to himself), a beer guy through and through. More than this, he remained a beer guy in the increasingly un-beery world of multinational, corporate brewers. Some feat.

Dan was born in California, although he was raised in Florida and that’s where his heart was; a man of the South yet, set against the ill-informed stereotype of the ‘Confederate Redneck’, Dan was broad-minded, liberal and outward looking. These values, underpinned by his unblinking fairness and generosity made him a mentor to many and a role model to more.

In the world of multi-national brewers, the competitive focus isn’t just on their peers. It’s on consumer goods businesses: marketing-led companies, FMCG companies. Companies where the consumers is King and bottom line profit is the whispering Councillor behind the throne. The product happens to beer, but the focus, the driver, the end game is money. Just money. Oh, they’ll deny it. But it’s the truth: because the behaviour of these businesses reveals it. The brewer is no longer the hero. The accountant rules the roost. The beer itself may be carefully brewed, but uniform consistency is the only mantra; the reverence has gone. The rules of accounting say high gravity brewing; two day lagering (if any); ‘precision’ brewing, adjunct mashes, pasteurisation. Such tools are the name of the Accountant-brewer’s game, because without them, in such a cut-throat environment they believe, you won’t survive. And the Queen of these companies is the marketeer. I was a Marketing Queen and I’m proud of it. But I’m proud of it because I loved beer and for me, the science of marketing was there to support the art, the passion, the reverence of and for brewing.

Dan was the same, yet more so. He worked at Coors in Golden, Colorado, at a time when Anheuser Busch, still independent, were dictating the agenda of the market. If your beer wasn’t light, it wasn’t right. If your beer didn’t have IBUs below 10, you were doomed. Coors, particularly before the days of the joint venture with SAB (Miller Coors), did have a brewing heart. Pete Coors was a brewing meddler (in a good way) and even had – has still, in fact – a small-scale brewery where he would ‘try things’ (Barman Pilsner probably being the most successful). And much against modern multinational practise, he would also support initiatives from people like Keith Villa to try experiments, to have a go. One such experiment was a beer that ultimately became called Blue Moon.

Dan came into the marketing team at a time when craft was growing but not ripping up trees. Blue Moon had tickled along for a decade, largely going nowhere. He was asked to review its performance with a view to ‘rationalising’ it. The pressure on him was severe because, when he looked at the numbers, he could clearly see why he was being asked. The volumes were small. The beer was complex to brew. The profit delivery was modest. In Coors terms, it got lost in the rounding.

Yet Dan was a beer guy. He could feel the opportunity. He could see it was ahead of its time. He implicitly understood who might drink Blue Moon, why and when. The way he told the story involved some benevolent fudging of numbers and some heartfelt groveling. But he won the day. They tightened what the beer was about (‘artfully crafted’) and stuck with the programme (such as existed): the right serve; the right glass. Simple stuff, executed well. Today, Blue Moon Belgian White is the single largest craft brand in the U.S.

And there’s the rub isn’t it? How can a ‘craft’ brand be from a multinational giant like Molson Coors / Miller Coors? Without getting in to the argument which is a well-trod and frankly rather dull tale now, the point is, Blue Moon is a watershed brand in U.S. brewing. It is the brand that changed the paradigm both of the big brewers – they quickly came to see that flavourful beers could be business drivers for them – and smaller brewers too – because they got the benefit of a major player opening up ‘craft’ with retailers in a way that alone, would be more difficult to do.

The argument around brands like Blue Moon being / not being craft is perfectly legitimate. In due course, when the pain of Dan’s passing has subsided somewhat, I may even join in. But more than anything else, every time I see that distinctive blue label, that luminescent, cream coloured moon, I shall think of my good friend and the role he played in helping to change the attitudes of the big US brewers towards craft beer and ultimately, the benefits that had for all.

In Memoriam. William Daniel Rosenbluth. August 1969 – July 2015. A Beer Guy.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Small beers

There’s a ‘born again’ zeal of enthusiasm about cans amongst the craft beer fraternity; it’s intriguing and amusing. For years, brands of beer that put their product in cans were deemed in some way cheap or sold out. There was a lingering perception of ‘tinniness’ but also associations of ‘13½ Free!’ or ‘500ml extra value’ or even the faintly ridiculous pint cans that you still see in the UK, which seem to be tottering along on super high heels, just waiting to ‘do a Naomi Campbell’.   It’s been a source of frustration for can makers for years and their industry body, which is imaginatively titled the ‘Can Makers’. Because, cutting through any of their potential bias, cans really have been a brilliant beer package for donkey’s years. They are incredibly light to transport (filled and unfilled); rugged, despite the incredible thinness of the can walls; efficient conductors of heat so they chill down quickly. And they are also flavour fast: the cans are lined with a food grade film which prevents any contact with the steel or aluminium walls and of course, no light is going to sneak through, eliminating the threat of light strike.

So it must be down to the craft brewers. They have stepped in and reversed the decline in cans’  perception, because otherwise, nothing is different.

Except, no. There are a few differences this time round. And it’s the craft brewers who have seized them.

Camden Hells: great design, right size. It all feels, well, right.
Camden Hells: great design, right size. It all feels, well…. just right.

The first is size. The craft brewers have embraced small cans – better, for the often more challenging styles of beer they’re brewing, but also, just a more enjoyable portion. 330mls are hand sized and the volume fits in a wider range of glassware; they’re less likely to warm up as you drink too (it’s gone). Truly, it’s always baffled me why UK beer consumers simply wouldn’t accept a can size in beer that is totally acceptable to them in soft drinks and totally accepted when they travel abroad. Different beer in a different pack – that seems to have done it.

The second is finish. The craft brewers are embracing the material and its potential in a way that few of the more established players have done or are attempting now. More often than not, a brand’s design is simply ‘applied’ to the can and disharmony is the result (I know, been responsible for a couple myself). Where the design joins – tricky; the way the logo works with the curved face – a challenge. Brand owners and design agencies have broadly given up, resulting in something…  just not right. But some of the craft brewers have said: how can we use the shape of the can to enhance our brand? To take it on and improve it? Beavertown is the notable example here: their cans are art, quite literally. There are no issues with worrying about facing them forward, as they can be faced anyhow and make a panoramic comic book shot working along the shelf. Magic.

And there’s feel too: varnishes and textured finished have been around for a few years, but it’s taken the craft brewers to use them to their potential. Why? Because they’re not scrimping for savings, worried about the added ‘on cost’. The value built into their inherent proposition allows them to buy slightly more expensive cans and reap the reward. Look out for stippled matt finishes and spot varnish. Little touches yes, but in the hand, they transform how the can feels and even – gasp – make you think about drinking from it.

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Can design mastery from Beavertown. Wonderful stuff.

But one issue is overlooked. Unlike bottling, canning your beer is a more serious financial proposition. Can lines aren’t cheap – and they’re certainly more expensive than bottling lines. They’re also a bugger to run – the tolerances compared with bottling are much tighter – think Formula 1 car vs rally car. Both high performance, but one takes it to another level.

And then there’s the cans. This isn’t like buying a run of labels for bottles: there’s no writing them off by popping the old labels down to the local recycling tip. Buying a run of cans is a major undertaking and if you buy them, by god, you use them.   And finally, there’s a structural question. Whilst bottling lines are – broadly speaking – ten a penny, canning lines are something else. There are fewer of them; they’re largely fully employed and also, and this is a big issue if you brew 10 barrels a week, massive. There are whole canning lines dedicated to Coke. Not Coca-Cola’s range of products, just Coke. 24 hours a day. All year. Picture it: “’Scuse me mate, can we fit in a run of 8 Ball Rye next Tuesday?” “Er…. no”. So what’s happened? Well, the incredible thing is that some of the brewers have taken on the challenge and have bought canning lines. That takes big balls. Big balls of lead. But there’s beautiful commercial creativity too: there are operators now running mobile canning lines. They come to you. Fill. Clean down. Offski. That is brilliant.

And the even better news is that it’s just begun. Tinted was responsible for bringing thermochromic – temperature sensitive – ink onto cans 10 or so years ago. But 5 years from now, that is going to look – aptly you may feel – like very small beer.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Ullage

The back streets of Smethwick are Cash and Carry land. Long horizontals of white mortar shine out from glossy deep red brick terraces, whilst large shop signs of every hue and a hotchpotch of shapes scream out onto the streets. Behind though is the beating heart of Birmingham past and present: small industrial units on streets that hark back to smoky, metal-beating times: Suffrage Street; James Watt Industrial Park, Kelvin Way. Today the heart of another industry beats, that of independent retail, of Asian and African trade and neighbourhoods. True enough, Cash & Carrys’ may not be that inspiring an association with an area, but let’s face it, depending on your interpretation of the reality of those parts, it could be much worse.

In my early years in beer, I worked in the off license sector (or off trade) – the independent retail of alcohol sales. Last week, CGA Strategy, who measure this sort of thing, reported that off trade sales overtook on trade sales for the first time. Still someway off the global norm of 70-80% of the beer market being consumed at home, but getting there slowly. Only twenty years ago though, off trade sales were much smaller, the market immature. The supermarkets sold very little and their range was poor; in fact supply wasn’t brilliant – mostly keg brands canned. It seems incredible today to think that most sales went through the off licenses – either the big ‘specialists’, Thresher, Victoria Wine, Augustus Barnett (all of whom had been the off trade arms of big brewers at some point) – or through independent corner stores. These were supplied by the Cash & Carrys – again, either the big chains like Booker or Nurdin & Peacock, Makro, to independent, more local, operators at the other. The West Midlands had a thriving Cash and Carry trade and the west side of Birmingham: Cape Hill, Winson Green, Smethwick had a profusion of the independents.

They were notorious: scale operators, run like fiefdoms, focused on volume, big deals, trunker* loads of beer coming in and out. And they performed the necessary evil of ‘clearing’ – taking the close to best before stock and shipping it through their network of retailers in double quick time at half the profit.

Given the sheer volume of beery traffic passing in and out of the loading doors, damages were inevitable. Typically, the offending cans or bottles would be removed and the remaining stock repackaged out back to be sold on, sometimes at a discount, often not. Damages – or to give it its butterily correct name – ullage – was a ludicrously lucrative business. The hope was that the brewer would credit them for the whole case, when in reality only one or two cans were damaged; they would then repack and resell the whole lot and effectively, double their money**. Usually, the Cash and Carrys gave the ullage a dedicated area; close to an unused loading bay or tucked out of the way of the key sales area. As you approached, there was the lactic smell of super strength lager turning to vinegar, oil-like spills on the floor, gel like in their viscosity, and beer flies (drosophila melanogaster, or the more common name bugus cerevesiae), who would drift and plummet in acrobatic displays then diving to feast on the sugars which the yeast were planning to consume in turn. It’s the same smell you get in a cellar where less than meticulous handling & cleaning practices are maintained.

Lindemans Framboise
The one that got away.

The back street Cash & Carry images came flashing back to me in an instant the other week, like rapid slide transitions in Powerpoint. We live in an old place, which has a small vault-like brick cellar below the room the dog sleeps in. You may justifiably ask what a bottle of Lindemans Framboise was doing in a fridge at all then, but let’s not get hung up here on the political correctness of beer storage. The point is that, made worse by a cold snap, the fridge temperature dropped and the beer made an escape for freedom. With surreptitious impact: what I found was a bottle essentially in tact: the cork still in; the crown in place, the foil seemingly undisturbed, but a huge plug of ice in the bottle and a spray of pinky-brown aging beery gloop covering the contents and inner sanctum of the fridge.

And my! The smell. Here was a characterful, already complex, heady beer, but given the chance to mature rapidly in contact with a room full of oxygen all for itself and probably some wild cellar yeasts snaffled up for good measure too. Vinegar, champagne, paint thinners or new emulsion perhaps, and fermenting raspberries – lots of fermenting raspberries in an advanced stage, über fruity yet sour and winey too. The memory, in short, of a potential great beer with a dash of Smethwick Cash & Carry.

 

*The term for a full 38 ton lorry of beer

** On one occasion, being full of youthful integrity, I refused to play ball and had to transport 20 cases of damaged Tennent’s Super cans, some of which were still spraying like a territorial cat through pinhead cracks, back to our depot. My Scirocco may have become The Zone Of The Piss Smelling Fly, but the Principle was worth upholding.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Prizes Schmizes

It seems a rare thing nowadays for a beer not to have won a significant award and be shouting it loud and proud. ‘Winner! Taste of Eastmorland 2001’; ‘Winner! Borchestershire County Show, 1998’ or, actually, much more likely to be global in nature. The clues will be there: little golden gongs on the label, with indecipherable text and maybe a touch of spot varnish or embossing as a token of our pride. ‘Winner of the World Beer Cup, 2007’, or some such ceremony in Chicago dating back to, what, 1899? Forgive me if I come over as a touch cynical but these awards have always seemed like a Crufts ‘Best in Show’ award. Oh, I know they take a lot of effort to achieve, much pulling of hair and many a sleepless night; the equivalent of beery detangling and grooming no doubt, but, at the end of the day, they only really matter to other dog breeders. I own a Bitza* and she’s best in show for me, no matter what the bigwigs at The Kennel Club may say.

The truth is, the sparks that trigger a particular brand of beer to success and acclaim are more than the product alone. Not that having a distinctive product doesn’t help. Far from it in fact: many a GBBF winner has encountered production capacity challenges immediately as a result of winning an CAMRA award. But the slew of beer awards to date have only celebrated the beers – the liquids – not the significant other factors in the weave and weft in any brand’s DNA. Until now.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 16.22.05The Beer Marketing Awards, announced at the end of last year, will celebrate the marketing activity that has changed behaviour and attitudes of drinkers. Because even if you have a jaw-droppingly good beer, without others hearing about it, you might as well whistle in the wind. I remember Michael Jackson, dropping his head slightly and peering at me professorially over his glasses, and telling me (as a marketeer myself – and therefore a sub-species) that he didn’t like the idea of ‘brands’. For him, even using the term ceded too much influence to the marketeer over the brewer. Yet, ironically, what was Michael Jackson himself if not a great brand in the beer world: ‘The Beer Hunter’ tells you everything. Brands are critical, vital. In fact, brands are business. And marketing is their voice.

The Beer Marketing Awards are a step to rebalance the world of beer recognition and to celebrate more than the brewer alone in creating success. Have a look at the website of the competition to see the categories (www.beermarketingawards.co.uk): but be assured of this: this is not just a competition for big companies with big budgets. ‘Big budgets do not great marketing make’ as a former boss of mine used to say (a salesman in fact). Yes, the awards will celebrate traditional advertising, but the truth is in a tightening legislative world, it’s getting harder to make an impactful advert nowadays, and expensive too. So the awards also recognise social media, design, public relations, competitions, sponsorship…even a brewery’s merchandise. Every commercial brewer in other words does marketing; and every commercial brewery is eligible for the competition.

So take a look at the website and post your entry (deadline looming so don’t delay). Who knows, you may be able to feature it on your packaging in what…a hundred years from now?

* You know, ‘bitza’ this and ‘bitza’ that.

Disclaimer: David Preston, a.k.a. Beer Tinted Spectacles, is a judge of the 2014 UK Beer Marketing Awards, and this blog does represent his heartfelt views.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015