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.
The 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.
That was how ingrained Michael Jackson’s categorisation became within the Tinted Circle in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. More than CAMRA’s ‘Good Beer Guide’, we felt Jackson’s Pocket Beer guide was diminutive in size yet soaring in scope. The world of beer opened up in front of our very eyes: smoked Bavarian beers; wild yeast fermented beers in a seemingly wilder Belgium; steam beers from California and crisp, rounded pilsners from Czechoslovakia. And it was the star rating system that made it. Jackson getting off the fence, stating his view publicly. It didn’t even feature in the main body of the book. Rather, it was so implicit it was the first words – there, on the frontispiece, above the ISBN number and the dedication to his dad. Here was the key (see photo); the modest table that fuelled my excitement in beer…
Jackson was too polite to award ‘no stars’; it was implicit where most beer being brewed back then fell in his eyes. But ‘World Classic’! They had to be found; discovered. And it was a passion rekindled with the publishing of the new Pocket Guide by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb.
Thus it was that over Christmas, I spent an idle hour or three reading and re-reading both the new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’ and Jackson’s 1986 original. I was interested to see how the top tier of beer – as the authors saw it – had changed. I totted up all the ‘4 star’ beers (★★★★)* and the ‘3 to 4 star beers’ (★★★->★★★★). Not the ‘3.5 star beers’ though – I only wanted beers that had attained the top rank, even if they were a little inconsistent either by batch or over time. This involved reading the books a couple of times over – no hardship, apart for the long suffering Mrs Tinted. For those interested in these things, the table is set out below in the Appendix (get me!). Of course, you can cut the findings any number of ways, but here are the conclusions I drew:
Time is no respecter of reputation. Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell, Hofbräuhaus Märzen, Duvel, Rodenbach, Chimay Blue, Orval, Marston’s Pedigree, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: all top tier beers in 1986; all beers that have influenced a generation of brewers, drinkers and writers. None rated as such today. Justified? Personally, Budweiser Budvar would still make the grade for me as it continues to display the multi-layered flavour, textured body, natural sparkle and richness of a beautifully lagered Bohemian beer; Pilsner Urquell not – still a great beer, but one that has lost some of that same character that Budvar has retained. Marston’s Pedigree? Would I have ever rated it is as a 4 star beer? Likely not – when I moved to Staffordshire in 1991 it was, like today, too inconsistent. Orval – still does it for me, but I know the tweaks in its brewing process would count it out for many.
Really, it’s churlish to argue though: the tide is rising. Just look at a small selection of the 4 star beers today: Drie Fonteinen Vintage (a lambic blender, not even brewer in 1986); Mikkeler Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, Russian River’s Pliny The Elder, Le Baladin’s Xyauyù… and these are just the ones with the bizarre and unpronounceable names. Of course you may disagree with the authors’ choice: but you can’t argue that the standard has risen dramatically; the sheer sweep and vista of beer has broadened almost beyond recognition. Challenge your preconceptions; challenge everything: that is the message.
Whither drinkability? When working in big beer, I would often hear the refrain from brewers that ‘the problem with all these craft beers is that most are undrinkable’; most have so much ‘C’ hop that they ‘all taste the same’. The converse if you like of what small, artisanal brewers lay at the door of the big brewers: all their beer is meek, tasteless and unbalanced by too little bitterness or too much sweetness in order to appeal to the ‘mass market palate’, if such a thing exists. Yet, as mentioned in Part 1, one conclusion is ragingly clear: if you want a characterful beer – one to challenge, surprise; shock, or perhaps to lay down and age – a genuine ‘big beer’ if you will – then you need to ‘go small’. My old company, Molson Coors, has a couple of ‘big beers’ in its portfolio – one, a barley wine called ‘P2’ is lucky if it is occasionally brewed in the Museum Brewery in Burton upon Trent. I certainly never see it on sale outside a couple of places**. And Molson Coors are better than most (consider Creemore Springs; White Shield; Barmen Pilsner).
It does beg a question about the impact of beer writers though: there is a tendency to class these ‘big beers’ as ‘better beers’. And this trend was just as prevalent in Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book as in Beaumont and Webb’s recent Pocket Guide. In 1986 for example, 15 of the 67 top tier beers were Stouts (generally Imperial Stouts at that) or Barley Wines: that’s 23%. Rounding up, I reckon that Stout and Barley Wine has about 1% share of the global beer market – a little more in some countries of course. In 2013, only 4 of the 50 top tier beers were Stouts or Barley Wines (8%) but many others were ‘extreme beers’ – Samuel Adams ‘Utopias’ being a case in point.
So whither drinkability? It’s there of course – but the nature of drinkability is being rediscovered by small brewers and drinkers. All great beverages have balance: take roast and ground coffee. The best examples have a chocolately roast character with a raisiny balancing sweetness. Or even blended tea: take a well distributed brand like ‘Yorkshire Gold’, which is more slowly fermented and has a bigger cut – the end result, a cleaner green leaf character, a better colour and more tannin balance giving delightful drinkability. So it is with beer: removing bitterness or negating hop character doesn’t enhance drinkability, it actually makes it worse – the beer becomes cloying and rather than drinking it, you have to ‘chugg’ it, a phrase which always has an unpleasant edge of fight about it. And in Beaumont and Webb’s Guide, some amazing, drinkably moreish beers are there: many are ‘above average’ and many are ‘worth seeking out’ or better.
A love story Reading Jackson’s 1986 book again, there’s a different impression than when I read it for the first time (in 1989). Back then, everything was optimistic: look at this amazing world of beer! Now, it’s clear that it was a world in danger, something I came to realise after I started working for a brewery which had 13 breweries (in the UK) when I joined it and three by the time I left. The 1990s was a time of consumption growth and style decline. Jackson wasn’t just writing about the beer world he loved. He was trying to save it. Perhaps he realised this, perhaps he didn’t: I only met him twice and didn’t have the perspicacity to ask. Love it he did though; and perhaps this led to some unintentional biases. Germany and Belgium, with so many unique styles get the most top scoring beers – out of 10 Belgian beers for example, 8 are 4 stars. The UK and Ireland seem to enjoy a disproportionate number of the top tiers: Mackeson Stout is judged a 4 star beer chiefly because it is a milk stout; Draught Guinness 3 to 4 stars because it is, well Draught Guinness. In comparison, the more recent edition is a little more balanced; helped in part by having more ‘consultants’ behind the scenes the authors could call on. There’s great diversity of beer style and greater geographic diversity too. The reality is that today there are not only more breweries brewing different stuff, but more beer writers popularising it too. There can be no better testament to Jackson’s work.
The second wave. There are questions of geography. Critics of Jackson’s work question the seeming bias in approach: starting with Czechoslovakia, soon moving through Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. France gets one page. Latin America just over one. Asia just under two. “It’s a First World bias”, they said. To me he called it as he saw it. At the time of writing, Czech breweries were effectively frozen in aspic; Germany was still a country of fragmented independents and the U.S. scene was just entering lift off phase. Yet Beaumont and Webb have been criticised too, starting with Belgium, Germany and the UK. “First World bias”? No. The reality is this: along with the U.S. these four countries, all widely different in market shape, are the craft brewing leaders. Half of the top tier beers are from Belgium, Germany and the UK. Add in the U.S. and it moves up to 70%. It feels right; it feels likes it is reflecting the world of beer as it is today.
And positively, it is a world changing rapidly. Scandinavia stands out: all the countries there restricted by punitive alcohol laws even today, yet nonetheless there has been a flourishing of breweries, brewing and interest in beer. Likewise the Netherlands, which seems to be picking up on its neighbour’s creative beery fertility. France too, which although it gets no top tier beers is very much on the up. Beyond Europe, the story is just as true: burgeoning interest throughout central and Latin America, parts of Asia, Australasia – to mention a just a few. Only Africa feels like it is sleeping.
There’s the question of bias in my selection too: it would also be worthwhile to look at 3.5 star beers – all incredible beers – a category that Jackson didn’t use but is used in the new guide. Some countries are overflowing with them: the U.S., Japan, France – many more besides. This perhaps reveals a truer picture of the underlying health of beer. These are the likely second wave of leading beer cultures in the next generation.
All in all: 3000 beers in one small book from who knows how many? If you want a measure of the growing health of beer around the world today, well, pocket-sized or not, you can draw your own conclusions from that.
* See the effect of showing the stars? This for me was the power of the system – not only reading about a certain beer but seeing the stars break up the page; extend the length of the beer, that was its power: for example,
Anchor Brewing Steam Beer (★★★★) or Worthington White Shield (★★★->★★★★)
** One: the Museum Shop. Two: the Molson Coors Staff Shop (which is open to the public)
Appendix: The ‘Top Table’: 4 star beers, 1986 – 2013 (note the table is giving me some technical trouble – if you can’t see it, drop me a line at email@example.com and I’ll ping it over to you)
It is now almost a generation since Michael Jackson published ‘The Pocket Beer Book’ – 1986, in fact. It was part of a series of Mitchell Beazley ‘Pocket Guides’ – in my experience all crisply written; all concisely helpful; all pithily illuminating. And I had other beer books: Jackson’s ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ for one – now, rightly, considered a classic and for many the inspiration to brew. But it was the Pocket Beer Book, hard backed, one hand high and a thumb length across in its succinctness, that lit my interest up. It was elegant, erudite and more than a spark to my curiosity, more a rocket. And the real bonus: it was pocket sized; slipping neatly into an inside coat pocket and from there, travelling widely.
Why did it work so well? Every beer book starts with an overview to beer; and so did this. Yet it was not florid in phrase: this version got to the point, and in a few short pages helped the reader deconstruct beer styles; suggest how different beers could work with food (Jackson’s passion) or how beer varied by season. And then off at a canter, in fine-point text, through the world of beer as it was at the time. Then there was the pièce de résistance. The 4 star rating system that added the edge. Jackson said that they were merely meant as a guide and to assess beers within countries against one another; nonetheless, here was a proxy, a shorthand that showed what the principle Guru of beer thought of different beers.
What prompted this harmless reminisce was the publication of a new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’. Different authors; different publishers; different format. But a pocket book all the same; paperback not hardcover, a little shorter but markedly thicker – three times so – which in itself says a lot about a generation of changes. The authors, Steve Beaumont & Tim Webb have made the decision to stick to the four start rating system – so the beauty is we can get a snapshot of how the world of beer has changed in that time. And so, my research began – I started with the new version, which despite the sheer overwhelming number of beers discovered and reviewed, is a real page turner; then back to Jackson’s original, equally so. Presented here, the main findings.
The tide flows in. It’s fascinating seeing the changes. Back in 1986, Sierra Nevada for example, was still effectively a start up, a “classic boutique” in Jackson’s words. He gave its Pale Ale 3 stars (‘worth seeking out’) and Big Foot Barley Wine 3 to 4 stars (4 stars being the coveted ‘World Classic’). Today, Beaumont & Webb give Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot Barley Wine both a clear 4 stars. More than that, in 1986, only five US beers were judged 3 to 4 or 4 star beers. Today, it has more than doubled to 11 – this may not sound much; but if I had included the number of 3.5 star beers (a classification that Jackson didn’t use), it would be an even clearer illustration of the innovative, inventive and stunningly creative advance of American beer: the reality is that in the U.S. and elsewhere a measure of the good health in beer is both the quantity and quality. There are some beer writers who bemoan U.S. beer culture and its quality – claims not without substantiation – but at this level, of beers ‘worth seeking out’ or ‘World Classics’ the rising tide of quality is undeniable*. It will be difficult for Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam or Lagunitas (say) to hold onto their ratings in thirty years’ time if the level of brewing and beer development proceeds at the pace it is now.
It’s still about the ‘old world’ – old ‘beer’ world that is. What is striking about the new guide, despite the wealth of detail on countries where in the mid ‘80s there was nothing to write about, is that the creative momentum behind beer still resides in the old – largely Germanic and Anglo Saxon world. And by this, I include North America and most northern European countries. We simply cannot argue, with the U.S. in particular at the forefront of the ‘craft beer’ revolution thirty years ago that it is a new front. No, the next few decades will surely increasingly be about the now nascent craft beer movements in regions such as Brazil and Argentina, Austria and Eastern Europe, even Australia and New Zealand. And at the forefront of this Italy now maturing as a country brewing sensational beers and Japan – where the authors scored many beers 3.5 stars but which haven’t yet pushed over the boundary to ‘World Classics’. Their time will be soon.
Large turns small. Consolidation and acquisition sings out from the years between the guides. And with it the decline in quality is equally evident – particularly in Germany and the UK with brands like Spaten, Paulaner, Courage or even Thomas Hardy’s Ale falling away. The contrast between ‘big beer’ brewed for efficiency, scale and profit and ‘small beer’ brewed with pride, principle and integrity has never been clearer.
Small brews large. The question of innovation is fascinating. I’ve worked on both sides of the great divide and can speak with some experience (and at length, alas) on the subject. But the overall conclusion is this: the focus of innovation for big beer is on consistency; brewing speed, cost reduction and accessible flavour (not necessarily natural beer flavours). Small brewers are the genuine innovators – and their innovation will in the long term have much more benefit on beer’s reputation as well as the brewery doing it. And if you want envelope-pushing brewing then you have to look small. Take IPA: a beer style virtually dead 20 years ago. Now there is British IPA; American IPA; double IPA; Pacific IPA; New Zealand IPA, Black IPA – IPA is being brewed in lagering nations, like Germany and the Czech Republic. Equally, you’ll have to look hard to find one of the World’s top 20 brewers making a decent barley wine or Imperial Stout; or any that are aging their beer on wood.
Better burn out than fade away? With all the hoo-ha in beer blogdom with new styles created and old styles rejuvenated (Porter, Amber lager), it’s easy to forget that many classic styles have in the last few decades either remained in peril or almost gone. Take Lambic – whilst there are still amazingly exciting spontaneously fermented beers being brewed, I believe they have been weakened by faux-lambics and a raft of overly sweet mimics**. Or Dortmunder and Berliner Weisse which seem to have slipped below the mire –certainly the quality examples. Another – I remember driving out of my way to find the Rauchenfels Steinbier brewery – but alas, it had closed. Maybe in the world of craft these beers are either not distinctive enough or conversely too distinctive – a little too convoluted, complex or challenging to brew and make a commercial return?
Reading both books made me slightly wistful about a time of personal innocence; before I understood the breadth of beer and was walking into that world wide-eyed; before I had worked for a major brewer and learnt how the soul of beer can be crushed and I lost my passion for beer only for it to be reborn – reborn because of the characters working in beer today and the new wave of brews and brewers making change. That is the hope that lies within the 320 pages of the new Pocket Beer Guide. Let’s pray that it is hopelessly out of date within a year.
* Of course, the scoring in the 4 Star system is bound to be highly subjective. It’s clear from reading the guide that Jackson had a soft spot for some countries and some breweries for example (see Part 2), but such qualms would mean letting the tail wag the dog and losing sight of the bigger picture he was painting at the time.
** On a related note, I find it hard to rave about the main British beers ‘brewed with fruit’, which to me seem insipid, unbalanced and sickly compared with the elegant finesse of a true Kriek or Framboise, which has the boney, dry structure to handle the intensity of real fruit.
It seems to be an Immutable Law that beer has an inferiority complex about its relationship with food. Inferior, of course, to wine.
In the late ‘80s, Michael Jackson used wine as a comparator to help people understand the breadth of beer styles around the world – a clever trick as comparison and copying is how we make sense of the world right from our formative years. So it was remarkably successful but with unintended consequences. The main one is that the same comparison – a comparison with wine – is a tough one. Wine & food has decades of normalisation, decades of unchallenged drinker acceptance, and decades of reinforcement by media, restaurateurs and word of mouth.
I protest too much. Beer need not worry: the breadth of beer styles, the flavour variations that come from the grist, the hops, the fermentation, maturation, the carbonation, and the interplay between these, mean beer should be confident. There are as many breathtaking food partnerships for it as for wine. Let’s rejoice and move on.
Breathtaking partnerships brings me back to the subject of ‘kickers’¹. The magic in a chat over a pint arises from that combination of slowly-slowly inebriation (that only a high volume, low alcohol product can deliver); the beer itself: its tastiness, its presentation; and the kickers – the chaperones of the beer experience. We have a couple of great pubs near me; one is a local CAMRA award winner, but another does amazing kickers – in fact, in our socially responsible times, they don’t run a ‘Happy Hour’ with discounted booze but offer free kickers instead, a nice range, nicely presented, simply put out on the bar. Hands down winner.
To my mind, if the kickers are great there’s no need for a meal. I’m going to eat them anyway, and if they’re good quality, why hold back? So recently I’ve been pushing the boundaries to discover new combinations. And pickles are the latest discovery: pickles as in chutney, and pickles as in whole pickled veggies as an American might say. Not just pickled veg neither – pickled fruit too; even a – whisper it – pickled egg perhaps? (There’s a kicker in need of a rebrand if ever I saw one). Look out for them, pickles are the accompaniment of choice in food telly land at the moment, so presumably in the real world too. Barnsley Chop with Pea Mash and Pickled Beats. Pork Belly with Pickled Baby Veg and Crushed Jersey Royals.
But pickles deserve to be more than mere accompaniments and with beer they make surprisingly great kickers. In our Summer Retreat in Mallorca, the Tinted Family enjoyed a glass or three of pale beer that were served with gherkins (Cornichons? What’s the difference?) and pickled roasted tomatoes. The latter were a jaw dropping combination: tomatoes, despite their ubiquity can be tricky buggers to pair with, but this was a riveting success, with smokiness, tartness and sweetness rolled into one. It was an ironic shame that the beer was quaffable but bland.
It has sparked pickling madness: Kilner Jars are being acquired on ebay. Unusual ingredients are being snuck into the shopping basket. Questions are being asked about why we need industrial quantities of white wine vinegar. But the real revelation is that you can pickle with beer (forgive me if I am slow to the party!). I have some refrigerator pickles maturing now that feature a malty glug of aged White Shield. And this weekend saw a chutney being concocted featuring another White Shield Brewing Company beer – ‘E’. Fresh from the pot, it was spicy and sharp but with a rich, chestnutty smoothness that comes from the beer, whilst the spices still ring through. The rest is now sitting in the cellar, maturing nicely with any luck. Next weekend features refrigerator pickles, ideal to be eaten straight with a glass of pale ale, or porter perhaps. If I sound surprised by all this, I suppose I shouldn’t; surely it’s natural that a fermented product should sit well with another?
So when you have a small dish of smoked pickles to accompany your pint next time, remember. You heard it here first.
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.