Tag Archives: Bass

Gerrus a parnt

pot banks_fotorThe six towns of the Potteries don’t have a reputation for being the most picturesque place roundabouts. Ask outsiders their opinion and you tend to get the old, “…but they’re such friendly people” response, which, when it’s clear that you’re enquiring about the architectural merits of Blurton or Sneyd Green, is such an obvious distraction answer that it doesn’t wash. Saying that, Potteries’ folk are really friendly in my experience – the friendliness that is borne out of close friends and families working cheek by jowl for generation upon generation; the friendliness borne out of industrial disintegration; the friendliness borne out of, let’s be honest, poverty. Unlike many British towns and cities built round one industry, at least Stoke* has been spared ‘heritage town’ status. You can see more than the marks of its industrial legacy; there remains a major ceramics industry – not perhaps the scale of the past and certainly in a very different form – but there all the same. Most often, today’s potters are in new(er) factories, but not solely. And the old Potteries’ vista is still there too – the eponymous pot banks pushing up like young asparagus shoots, searching for the air above the skyline – a skyline they once filled with smoke. Or the enormous brick factories, as long as a road, or queuing up along the canal sides. Some of these brutally beautiful buildings still have potteries in them (take a trip to Emma Bridgewater just outside Hanley, as one example, to see the potter’s skills being practiced still http://www.emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk). It’s a setting, a culture, a way of life that has understandably defined the people of the area.

And where there was heavy industry, there was beer. It might not be the same open roaring fires of steel mills and hammer shops, but it was tiring, back breaking work all the same. Digging, heaping & milling the clay; lumping the wares; stacking the pot banks; making the saggars (and the saggar bottoms**) and the crucial job of firing the bank and judging its progress. Works up a thirst just recounting it.

I’m from the other side of the regional line, in the north west, with the Potteries being south from me, in the very north of the north midlands. It’s a city I’ve known all my life;   close enough to feel defensive about it when people have a go but distant enough to be distant when needs be; and too distant to support either Port Vale or Stoke City. Yet, when it came to beer, there was always an attraction to the traditional old Potteries pubs when I was growing up. Round my way, the pubs were either large, ‘developed’ town pubs or country pubs of a more idiosyncratic nature. And my locals were normally Robinson’s or Greenall Whitley (‘I wish I was in Greenall Whitley land’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzsL6uE1ypg). But Stoke: well it was the land of the big Midland brewers: Bass Worthington, Ansell’s, Marston’s and ‘Jolly’ pub names: The ‘Jolly Carter’, the ‘Jolly Collier’ and of course, ‘The Jolly Potter’. And many of the pubs were, well, just public…houses. Go in the front door, left for the public bar, right for the lounge; two rooms and two beer choices, maybe three if the lager was on, and perhaps a bottle of Mann’s Brown or Bass No.1 behind the bar. And not much else. My, it was exotic.

It seemed strange to me though that such a big city, such an industrialised city, didn’t have a brewery of it’s own. Perhaps being so well connected by canal to Burton on Trent and Birmingham was the reason, but it’s something that has righted itself today. There are a number of brewers in the Potteries with one in particular beginning to make a wider mark. That brewery is Titanic, named after that ship’s captain who was a Burslem man, and its stories and legends infuse the company’s beers without, it must be said, leaving you with that sinking feeling. Quite the opposite in fact: these are grand beers and in an ironic twist, Stoke’s beers are now regularly available on the shelves and bars of Burton on Trent. For research purposes, I drank three.

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Dunner be fooled: sinkingly drinkable

Not as green as cabbage looking is not the name of the beer, but Stokey dialect for not being easily fooled. And you won’t be with White Star, a deceptively drinkable classic pale ale (4.8%), with a bready-malt aroma, colour as bright as a new pound coin and a distinct hop bite. This is a beautifully structured beer, from a lovely head formation & retention to a well-hewn body. It drinks well with little assertive aftertaste. It’s a midlands-strength session beer – by that, it’s a session beer of full strength (like Pedigree or Bass – that are considered ‘premium’ or strong elsewhere.)

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Captain Smiths strong ale: ‘Gerrus parnt’

Goo dine th’ pub fer us and gerrus parnt; well you probably wouldn’t say that, as off-sales didn’t come until later, but gerrin’ a parnt of Captain Smith’s (5.2%) is well worth the finding. Again, a bold beer; this time with a red-brown colour; the maltiness and alcohol conducive to a lovely head and lacing. To taste, there’s a gentle natural carbonation from secondary conditioning and a mild, chewy toffee flavour with perhaps, a touch of liqourice in the background giving that slightly bitter moreishness. Well rounded, well brewed, fit for a captain.

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Dunner gab on… sup up.

Dunner rattle on duck; well I’ll try not to, but Titanic Stout (4.5%) is a cracking, secondary conditioned classic. You should tack yer tarme over it: enjoy the pitch black body, with a head the colour of chicken liver pate and just as compact and dense (albeit more pleasant in my view). The aroma wafts out: leafy hops first, followed by roastiness – a nice order, a great combination. To taste, this is a hop forward stout, but not assertively so and deceptively light in taste with a medium body: not heavy and cloying, not light and unsatisfying. As stouts go: it has the robust appearance of a proper old school stout with drinkability; flavour interest and no aggressive aftertaste. The best of the bunch I reckon.

The brewery has pubs too; in that curious thumb-nosing to the Beer Orders, more and more craft breweries are coming full circle and seeing that having a small, high quality pub estate is not a nice to have, but essential. Titanic’s pubs are worth seeking out (http://www.titanicbrewery.co.uk/c/our-pubs) and in particular, it’s worth heading to Burslem, where they’re based. Here, you can not only experience that Potteries’ friendliness but also go beyond the stereotypes and see a fine, stately town. Hidden a bit perhaps, but there all the same. And now they have beers of which the locals can be equally proud.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* ‘Stoke’, ‘The Potteries’ and ‘The Six Towns’ are used interchangeably throughout this post. What is meant is that area containing the conurbations of Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem, Tunstall, Hanley, Fenton, Longton and Newcastle under Lyme, although many would argue about the inclusion of the last one. It’s a bit posh after all.

** Considered a less skilled job than the saggarmaker, and hence the genesis of the lovely term: the saggarmaker’s bottom knocker.

 

The Session #87: Local Beer History

the session beer blogging fridayThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is by Reuben Gray at The Tale Of Ale (http://www.taleofale.com) on the topic of Local Brewery History – Reuben wants us to give a history of a local brewery – one that’s more than 20 years old. It may be alive; it may be dead or it may be the living dead…

 “To me, beer is much more a liquid in a glass. It’s about people, places and increasingly, terroir”  Ben Keene, ‘The Great Northeast Brewery Tour’

I am a beer writer who has lived and worked in one of the world’s great brewing capitals for over 20 years. I am also a historian or, as a friend put it, a ‘socio-geographer’ looking for the connections between people and place. To me, just as for Ben Keene who wrote in the preface to his brewery guide to the Northeast of the U.S., beer is much more than a liquid in a glass. It is much more than a way of easy inebriation. It is a connection – particularly, that is, if it is a local beer, brewed with locally sourced ingredients, by people who know people you know. This month’s Session weaves these strands: of place; of people; of time.

This piece is also something of a personal crossing of the rubicon. I will write about a subject I have carefully avoided to date.  I will write about a brewery where I still have connections, having worked there for almost 20 years – and therefore risk upsetting people I know. It is not however a wistful or nostalgic piece about great times gone by (certainly, it is not intended to be) – but it is a tail of a tragedy. A tragedy hardly befitting not just any old brand, but arguably one of the greatest ever brands. Not just beer brands. All brands.

This is the story of Bass.   This is the story of the first and once, most recognisable, trademark in the world. This is the story of its shockingly recent, quick and preventable decline.

The history. Unlike other writers in this month’s session, there’s not a lot I can add to what has been written about the story of Burton and Bass – painstakingly researched and recorded by Roger Protz in his terrific ‘The Story of Brewing in Burton on Trent’ (The History Press, 2011). In a nutshell, the history of Bass is interwoven with the history of British Empire and industrialisation.  William Bass was a local brewer, but successive generations expanded the brewery riding on the coat tails of the rise of the empire in India and coinciding with leaps forward in brewing science and chemical understanding.  Just as the first pale lagers were catalysed by the industrial manufacture of crystal and clear glassware, so Burton ales stole a competitive march on other British brewers through the understanding of malting (new paler & crystals malts that both gave up their fermentable sugars more easily & delivered a paler colour), of new fermentation techniques (in particular, the Burton Union system which allowed for both clarity in presentation and whilst leaving sufficient yeast in cask to allow for secondary fermentation) and embracing steam power which allowed them to brew consistently on a mass scale for the first time and also deliver more quickly to wherever their markets were established.  Go to St Pancras station in London today: as you sip your Cappuccino in Benugos, or buy a Thomas Pink shirt, enjoy the magnificent cellars. They are beer cellars, with columns one Beer-Butt wide. They are in fact, Bass cellars.  And when the Indian trade declined, brewers such as Allsopp and Bass revolutionised domestic beer, using their international brand reputations to effectively exploit the trend for paler, lighter beer styles (pale ale and bitter in particular), coming up with new classics in their own right.

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Bass, of course, was only one of many Burton brewers. At the start of the twentieth century, there were 29 brewers in Burton on Trent. The architectural and logistical legacy still exists today – with some stately architecture and even, roads – Guild Street for example, one of the main routes connecting central Burton to Derby and the north, was built by Bass, and is leased by their successors to the local council today (plus it’s home to The Manzil curry house & The National Brewery Centre – a double whammy).  Elsewhere the former Everards Oast House still looks down goatily on the town, waiting for someone to raise the funds to restore it and appear on Grand Designs.

But Bass survived them all.  Commentators tend to agree that it did so because it diversified into lager earlier; it acquired public houses faster and was incrementally better-run that its competitors.  And it made good decisions along the way.  One in particular was fundamental – history will record Bass as owning the world’s first registered trademark – the red triangle – registered in 1876. Along with Allsopp, Bass moved quickly on the decline of the Baltic trade to establish trade with India and elsewhere in the British empire.  And where the liquid went so went the red triangle – growing the reputation of the company and brand.  The red triangle sold not only within the empire but across continental Europe and across North America. The red triangle got painted by impressionists.

Recent times. The troubles for Bass as a British brewers began with The Beer Orders.  The Orders demonstrated that the British Government was more than rationally interested in the structure of the British brewing and pub retailing industry – it believed that the price of a pint was a vote winner / loser and was desperate to retain a high level of competition in the UK.  Every brewery merger would be investigated – for Bass, when the first major attempt failed (a UK joint venture with Allied – now Carlsberg), the writing was on the wall.  Why would the Bass plc management stay in what they perceived as a low growth, low margin business with active government interest, when they could invest in higher growth, higher value businesses, like hotels?  History was cast aside. The brewing business was put up for sale and ultimately sold unconditionally to Interbrew of Belgium. Many executives ordered a new Aston Martin that day (I met one of the merchant bankers representing Bass plc and they could not believe that they received an unconditional offer). Yet, the government intervened again and ordered the new business to be split – in the end between Interbrew and Coors of the U.S.

And here were the seeds of demise of Bass, the brand.  Interbrew kept the name & red triangle trademark; but the breweries and brewing assets in Burton went to Coors. With Interbrew breweries throughout the UK and in Europe it was inevitable that Bass would have to cut ties with its home.  Perhaps a deal could have been struck between Coors and Interbrew to prevent this: but why would Coors help Interbrew protect one of the inherent strengths of a now-competitor brand? And why would Interbrew pay a premium to do so?

Bass & me. It was hard as someone who cares about these things to witness the company and the brand unfold as it did. From being someone who had worked on and sold the Bass brand to see it go was tough.  But my history stems from before I joined Bass. Indeed, I fought hard to join Bass Brewers because of draught Bass.  Me and my University mate Duncan, enjoyed a pint or three in ‘Ye Olde Shippe’ just off Exeter’s Cathedral Close, or in the Great Western near the station or best of all, at The Bridge in Topsham. Oh, there were good beers available from smaller brewers, but draught Bass was the daddy. Story goes that Bass was strong near the railway stations – being on a direct line from Burton the beer was always as fresh as it could be even with the distance covered.  It was a lovely quaffable ABV, 4.4%, with a bit of everything: a snappy, struck match, sulphurey aroma, an off-white creamy head and that lovely nutty flavour from the two strain Bass yeast. My brother always summarised it well: whereas Pedigree and Bass were both great beers, Pedigree is that bit agricultural – a bit farmyardy. Bass though, whilst also enjoying the Burton character, had better balance, a touch of sophistication.  If a beer could be this good, it must be a good company, I thought.

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**Fiddling: One bottle, three triangles.  Today, Bass can’t seem to make its mind up on even how to represent the red triangle – or indeed Bass’ signature – on its bottle.

Long term, there have been two big losers. The first were the people of Burton who had to endure seeing the Bass name, of which so many were proud, disappear (topping off a list of all the other great Burton beers – in particular, Draught Burton Ale (Pedigree is the exception, thankfully)).  Down came the red triangle. Off the brewery. Off the maltings. Off the trucks. Off the sheds. Even off the (Bass) Museum (it’s like Prince: ‘The Museum formally known as Bass’). Even off the wretched little brown signs that point to Burton’s brewing heritage*.  Second and tragically was the beer. Draught Bass and Bass Pale Ale have, to mis-coin a wartime expression, ‘Gone for a Burton’.  Sure, draught Bass is still brewed (ironically, by its long time competitor, Marstons). And cans and bottles are brewed by ABInbev up in Salmesbury. Bass Pale Ale for the U.S. is now brewed overseas (Belgium I believe, so it can still claim ‘imported’). But, unlike other Burton breweries – Thomas Salt, James Eadie, Allsopps, the list is long – which are properly dead, Bass has to endure a living dead status. Shorn of its home ties, brewed where convenient, unloved by its new parents (it has apparently been up for sale by ABInbev since 2010) it now stumbles along, all the while withering on the vine.  Commercially I understand that ABI has to prioritise, yet in the U.S., not so long ago Bass was the largest imported ale (800k U.S barrels a year); today it is less than a quarter of that – and on their watch. From being the U.K’s largest cask ale at the turn of this century (180k UK barrels) today, it gets lost in the rounding, with a parent who makes some noise about the brand but isn’t really doing anything other than fiddling** (Molson Coors, ironically, have now acquired Cornwall’s Doom Bar which is the UK’s largest cask brand – done, it must be said, for balance, on their watch).  Today seeing draught Bass in Burton is a rare sighting indeed – in fact, not so long ago, the new owners insulted Burton drinkers by insisting it came out of many pubs to be replaced with a keg version. Piss on my chips why don’t you?

Yet, it’s not nostalgia or wistfulness that makes me angry. What hacks me off is that today, premium UK brands are so exportable. Look at our car industry – a laughing stock 10 years ago, today Land Rover can’t keep up with demand – Jaguars, seemingly, are becoming as common as BMW 3 series. Or clothes brands – not just luxury brands, but ‘British look’ brands like FatFace or Boden are successfully building their businesses abroad. And over the last twenty years, ale’s time has not only come again at home, but in so many markets worldwide too.  This should be a new frontier for Bass. Indeed the beer is still great – a tad sweeter in the palate perhaps, but still the delightful aroma; still the restraint, the balance. But no new frontier. Rather, it languishes in a long tail; slighted and suffering due to the greed of Executives and the bodged intervention of government Civil Servants.

The tradition and memory of Burton, Pale Ale drinkers, brewing history and Bass deserves better.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

*One still persists, A38 northbound, just south of Branston.

Branded Glasswhere

There’s a quiet revolution going on with beer glassware. I remember when I was at University down in Exeter it was a real struggle to get your pint served in the correctly branded glass. In fact, it was rare to even see a branded glass. Guinness was the exception, so much so that it was quite typical to get a pint of Director’s or Bass served in one, often leading to me asking for it in a plain glass instead (I have nothing against Guinness but somehow any old pint in a Guinness glass spoils the experience both of the beer you are drinking and your future pints of the black stuff too).  Packaged beer was even worse. Frankly, if I asked for a glass with my bottle of swanky lager I was given a thoroughly gone-out look. ‘Look at that wazzock, wanting a glass with his beer instead of necking it from the bottle like the rest of us. Knob.’  Today you may get a glass designed specifically for the bottle.  But back then it wasn’t a case of brand glassware but rather branded glass where?

What really brought the change home was a conversation with an ex wine marketeer,  a friend of mine who has put me right on a lot of commercial issues facing the wine boys which I as a beer boy had been quite ignorant of, if not thoroughly mistaken over.  One of these issues was glassware.  Wouldn’t it be great to have an industry standard set of beer glasses to ensure that each type of beer was served in the right way? This would keep it easy for publicans….not swamping them under a sea of different shapes of beer glasses, or having them confronted by oafs sending their beer back if it’s served in a Guinness glass.  The wine boys: they have it sorted: elegant glasses, consistent across pubs to bars to upmarket clubs. I even attended a beer dinner at The White Horse in Parson’s Green where this was raised.  But funnily enough, I as with many others, was mistaken.

The first issue is how the wine makers see their challenges.  One big issue for them (perhaps not for drinkers but leave that to one side for the moment) is a lack of wine brands. Coupled with over supply this is leading to many wine markets suffering extreme price deflation and discounting, and a huge differential between the pricing drinkers experience in the on trade vs supermarkets. Whereas in beer the difference is double (using the UK example but increasingly this seems the rough rule of thumb in many markets) in wine this can be anywhere up to fourfold. And wine ‘all looks the same’ to drinkers…a glass of rose may vary slightly between labels but there’s little else to distinguish them, including no branded glasses.  The plan: introduce branded glasses. Ah.  Which just goes to show that not only is the grass not always greener on t’other side but in fact, it could be pink with yellow spots.

The second problem has been listening too closely to the licensees. Publicans have it tough, that’s for sure, not only have they got the issues with escalating duty, supermarket cut-throat deals and changing leisure patterns impacting on their business, they also have to run a complicated little business with long hours, the vagaries of staffing and recruitment, coping with weird laws and bylaws, offering food and getting their drink range and quality right. But this doesn’t always mean they appreciate the best way to run their businesses. And beer glassware is one example. If you took operational considerations to the nth degree then you would have standard height, stackable, toughened (shatter not shard to prevent glass injuries), non branded (doesn’t wash off in the dish washer) in two sizes, pint and half, capable of being used for beer, spirit long drinks and soft drink too. Oh, hang on, this is often standard fare in pubs in the UK. So, they’ve got it right, yes?

Nope. Think of your own experiences.  Here are some of mine in the last few weeks. In the Lakes, I had a pint of Black Sheep in The Bridge in Buttermere. Right glass, right setting and definitely the cause for a second.  A bottle of Erdinger nearer to home, in its preposterously curvaceous tulip glass; on holiday in Lanzarote a glass of Estrella Galicia in a handled, frosted glass; numerous bottles of Nastro Azzuro and not just in Pizza Express; in Prague a fantastic cellar-aged Žatec in a simple pilsner glass. I could go on. The point is that the glass is the fireworks over the Disney castle. The theme park is good, but those extra details make it memorable, lift it, make you want to go back.  So it’s a fine thing to see Fosters promoting their new glass; to see Stella Artois continuing to push for sales in its ‘chalice’, for Carlsberg introducing the wonderfully angular San Miguel glass, or abroad for brewers like Boston Beer investing research and development money in the right glass shape for Sam Adams Boston Lager. And sure. They get stolen, but if ever you wanted advertising in the home and prompt to buy the right beer for the right glass then surely this is a investment worth making (or sell them to bars for the price of a non branded glass – bars need to buy glasses anyway and this reduces the hit).

But why is this? What is behind the transformational effect that something as simple as a branded glass has in the purchase of a glass of beer?  Interestingly, the psychology of buying sheds some light on this. Basically when we buy, in fact when we plan to buy, there’s an emotional upside that impacts our physical state: endorphins raising our anticipation to a peak, the apex being when you actually hand over the money and buy. Thereafter the downside kicks in, big for a TV set or clothes and so on, but for a beer is pretty small (one reason beer has traditionally been described as ‘recession proof’). And the branded glass? It simply accentuates the positive …. it’s a triple win, it shows the brewer cares, the pub cares and you can show off your distinctive choice overtly.

Now ok, clearly you can only have so many branded glasses in a bar. But here is another reason for bars to sell a smaller range, with higher throughput and therefore fewer problems with glass storage and serve (as well as all the upsides of beer quality).

Back to that beer dinner I mentioned earlier. As the debate rolled about different issues, out came pudding. And with the pudding came some Trappist and Abbey beers. Westmalle was one, served of course in its Communion style stemmed glass, deep-walled and thick painted. It’s no exaggeration to say that celestial quiet filled the room for the brief moment it took to pour. There, I thought to myself, is the last word on the subject. Whisper it quietly, but ‘Vive La Revolution’.

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

The Session #65: You’re never alone with a Strand

the session beer blogging fridayIt’s funny, drinking alone.  For many of my friends it just isn’t done; an admittance perhaps that your socially failing.  Another example of modern day liberal mindedness gone too far though I fear.  My father in law has set off for the pub by himself, every Sunday, most weeks of his adult life, and possibly a few before that.  He doesn’t ring around in advance to ask who will be there; no checking of social media sites or text messages and no sending of pigeons either come to think of it.  He gets up late; has a shower and heads off.  He will sit at the bar and drink a pint of whatever takes his fancy, but is within the bounds of his respectable repetoire.  Bass, yes.  Old Speckled Hen, yes. Landlord, yes. London Pride, no. Bank’s, no. Greene King IPA, nay, nay and thrice nay. Pedigree, pub dependent.

But of course, the beer is of little relevance in this scene. Sure, it’s part of the pub currency… a pub currency that has linked these visits from the time he started. Memories of beers that have come and gone; of public houses now just houses, and Landlords now lording it under the land behind the Church. And sure, despite what he says, the pint itself matters even less when most of the time he sluices a Gold Label into it anyway.

Because in reality, he never does drink alone. John is someone who is an institution in his village in a way I can never been in mine – he has lived there all his life; his business is there; his family are around him. And his extended village family too – people he has known all his life; or their children, new bucks he gently teases about their effiminate ways… even if he wanted to be alone, he couldn’t be.  And while he may complain about this from time to time, he knows as well as everyone else that he wouldn’t have it any other way.  If the pub has no other customers, then he chats to Tom, the Landlord; if he knows no one in the bar, he either introduces himself, or much more likely, is introduced. So, even though he is by himself, he is most definitely not alone.

I’m different. Sometimes I need my space. Once or twice a year, I really do need to be alone and just let the cobwebs that have accreted over the passing months get blown away.  I’ll go to the hills and walk, or set off on my bike.  But this isn’t the everyday me.  I have what I deem to be an curious individual trait, which of course, is common to most:  from time to time, I like to be alone in others’ company. the hustle and bustle around me; the chatter; the greetings; the people-watching.  I observe it directly or in the corner of my eye as if floating like an invisible orb above the scene, but actually being in it is critical.  Because I can choose to participate if I want to.

And beer doesn’t always feature here.  Before I had children, the occasional Sunday newspaper, bag of crisps and a pint was more occasional than not; today, it’s more likely to be a snatched 30 minutes between the parental taxi duties. Not that I’m complaining.  Because the shimmering image of those Sundays, sitting at a big oak table, with a broadsheet spread out in front of me and a pint of …ooh, let’s say, Broadside, my accompaniment, is always there. It may take me until retirement to live that dream frequently again, but I can dine out on the thought of it happily until then.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Heads it is.

The Greyhound in Colton is a quite typical British pub – not stereotyped, just typical.  It’s set in a pretty, wooded village in Staffordshire where Cannock Chase begins to lip down into the vale of the Trent. The buildings are a crumbly redbrick and often stone edged; there’s a village school next to the Church which together, seem to be the focal point for the community. It’s even got a ford which must predate the little hump-backed bridge adjacent to it, where you enter the village from the west. Just like Emmerdale only with fewer flatcaps and boinging sheep.

It wasn’t a pub I went to that often; at the time, I lived a couple of villages away and driving was the only way to get there – at least, it was the only way to get back before 4am. But in the Summer it was always worth making the effort as the beer garden actually was a garden – it was out of the front of the pub, with flower beds in abundance, and the building itself was an end terrace.  Leaning over the fence and chatting to the neighbours was probably what attracted the regulars.

This was the scene where I witnessed my first episode of ‘Head Rage’.  The landlord had had the temerity to serve a customer a pint of Bonks’ with a head.  It was possibly as deep as a whole centimetre.

Ranting. A tirade. Spitting feathers. Incandescent with rage. None of these phrases conjure up the ire that this particular gentleman was lobbing at the publican.  ‘Short changing me’. ‘Robbing me of my beer’.

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Calm down Dear. It’s only a 5mm head.

Robbing me of my beer.

You see, I am of the other persuasion. Where Bristolians zig, with their headless pints of ‘flat’ cask ale, I zag.  I like a good head on my beer.  More than this, I’m a double zagger, because I like more than normal head, but that’s because my head isn’t normal.  The head is part of the beer.  It wouldn’t be there without the rest.

I’m anchored to memories of awesome beers with towering stacks of cloud-like foam: in the Augustiner Hof in Munich at 11am eating weiss wurst and wiping the foam from a weissbier from my nose. Or pints of Boddington’s in the Lower Chequer where you wanted a spoon to finish off the last precious drops in the bottom of the glass.  And the lacing, furled and curled down the sides of the glass, like Gandalf’s smoke rings puthering out into the air.  I often ask for more head on my beer not less, in fact in a Vintage Inn the other week, this request so befuddled the waitress she seemed to turn into Marvin the Paranoid Android featuring a look of “Does. Not. Compute.” across her face the whole time we were there.

But you know, I’d never shout at anyone for not serving enough head on a beer, especially where it’s local tradition.  I referenced Bristol earlier as a while back, I had a cracking pint of Bass there. If it had been served during ‘The Terrors’ of Paris during the French Revolution it would have had more head. I’m pretty sure that in Bristol, publicans have been strung up from the Clifton Suspension Bridge for even hinting at the use of a sparkler, but as with any place, find a good bar, you’ll get a good pint. In Devon, you get what I call a natural head.  Just that thin layer that seems to suggest that the pint would be out of breath if it had to produce any more with the CO2 available. And Burton beer used to be like that too, but the sparkler has made inroads here in the last 10 years.

But this chap was bright red. He was jabbing at the sign that provocatively proclaimed that the head must be less than 5% of the total with a staccato insistency. And he was shouting. Sweating. Swearing. He was on the edge of losing control.

Good for beer I suppose, that it creates that level of passion, but for me, heads it is.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 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