Sunday 28 September 2008

Key words for positive knee-jerk purchasing decisions for the middle classes

The Sunday Times to day gave a little review to a new beer:

"Stinger Organic Ale. £1.89-£1.99, 500ml. Developed with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and brewed with organic nettles. Fresh, soft, delicious (selected Budgens, Threshers,"

Bloody Nora! Organic nettles! For Christ's sake you dopes, they grow in hedges, they're weeds, they're always going to be organic. And they're free! (OK, I know it should probably be "organic beer with nettles")

A conversation overheard at Borough Market yesterday:

"Ooh, look Cressida, a new stall - 'Lenny's Hand-Caught, Free-To-Roam, Locally-Sourced Rodents'. The new-season Sewer Rats are in stock ... so much more, you know ... ambrosial ... than the river rats we had round at Yolande and Giles's last week. Mmm, and only £267 per kg. They'll be wonderful after the biodynamic Kobe cockroach muse bouches."

"Oh yes Sebastian; and that foraged spatchcock badger she picked up outside the village was rather, erm ... proletarian ... don't you think? Let's not forget the Organic Nettle Beer. One wouldn't want to buy intensively-reared, factory-farmed, battery, chemically-sprayed, air-freighted, genetically-modified nettle beer, would one, even if it is Fair TradeMind you, Giles will never tell the difference."

"Oh, don't be too beastly about Giles, darling, he's having such a demanding time shafting those gauche banks that ordinary people put their piffling money in."

"Mmm, I never really understood why they bother with mortgages; don't they realise it's much cheaper to simply buy a house?"

etc. ad nauseum.

[b.t.w. the final line about mortgages is was genuinely and sincerely uttered by a real person, the rest is made up]

CAMRA's War on ... whatever.

Have a look here at Class War's list of links.

"We do not necessarily endorse all of the content on the sites below, but generally speaking they are all in some way related to our worldview."

Any beery organisation there you recognise?

Friday 26 September 2008

This week I have been mainly drinking...

Eiken Artois.

Well, not exactly "mainly drinking": I picked up a heavily discounted three quarters of a four-pack from paupers' corner in Tesco.

I'm not one of these real ale drinkers (I don't even use the expression "real ale" if I can possibly avoid it) who bangs on about "the war against lager". I love lager!

I should clarify, I can't stand the dismal stuff like Fosters and its mass-market rivals that clog our pubs. I like the fancy proper imported stuff that hides modestly on the lower supermarket shelves. The stuff I get to drink on too-infrequent trips across the channel.

Here's the Eiken Artois blurb – "Named from the Flemish word for Oak, Eiken Artois is a deliciously refreshing yet full flavoured oak aged lager brewed in Belgium to 4.6% ABV. Brewed with carefully selected aroma hops, this unique beer is then oak aged to create a fruity, hoppy lager with subtle floral notes and hints of vanilla."

That sounds quite interesting. It seems InBev wants to capture a bit of the kudos the craft sector gets for flavour enhancing techniques. But hang on, Artois is firmly mass-market, and mass-market means bland. 

The mouthfeel was thin and good-but-remote aroma (like looking the wrong way through binoculars), coupled with the merest hint of oxidisation, my first-impressions weren't good. Not horrible enough to make me put it down though.

Further lingering sips revealed some interesting mid-palate flavours: caramel, vanilla, and the flavour of the inside of Crunchie Bars that I can't remember the name of. These flavours I often find particularly in reputable Czech lagers (Gambrinus springs to mind) so that 's a very good sign.

Unfortunately it suffered badly from the binoculars-backwards effect. I can imagine good brewers thinking "finally, we can do something tasty" but their bosses countering "don't you dare doing something too tasty, we don't want to alienate core brand-loyal customers."

The launch of this Artois sub-brand is a classic example of parent-brand-on-the-decline-syndrome. Stella Artois (the Manchester United of beer) sales are past their peak (good!) and InBev are desperately trying to retain customers, in this instance the ones who may be ditching Stella in favour of tastier craft beers.

So, does Eiken Artois offer anything for the connoisseur? Well, put it this way: if your non-beer-savvy mate gets some in for the footy, don't write it off, it's not unlpeasant.

Thursday 25 September 2008


Sometimes it alarms how something totally unrelated can get my mind drifting back to beer. So it was yesterday when this story was in the news. It was a slow news day so theatrical talking heads were lined up to fill slots on broadcast news across the networks.

What have well-spoken middle-class spongers scrounging money off the government (i.e. the tax payer) got to do with beer?

Use of the language of the evangelist. 

Repeatedly the theatricals droned on about "getting more people interested in theatre". Noticably, none of them ventured to explain what the intrinsic worth of this exercise is. Declaring the truth that "it has the dual benefit of flattering our egos and subsidising our hobbies" would destroy the venture. But I digress.

This "we need to get more people into" rhetoric is what interests me. It's all over the place.

All over the country new students will be assailed by people experiencing this urge. Freshers' Fairs exist only for people to indulge this impulse: not the freshers themselves but society members evangelising for Dungeon&Dragons, Bridge, Cave-Diving, hockey, parachuting, tiddly-winks and so on. Religions, of course, have the evangelising urge explicitly built into their belief systems.

The recent Olympics was a festival of sports talking-heads banging on about "getting more people involved in [insert name of obscure sport]."

CAMRA is a big source of the rhetoric associated with this urge. Think about it – how many times have you heard words about "getting more people interested in real ale"? Often it is manifested as "we've got persuade more people to join CAMRA" (to which the subtext is "CAMRA is an intrinsically good thing")

Here's an example from a CAMRA press release: "CAMRA’s new Cyclops leaflet, and more breweries supporting the scheme, will help to increase the consumer awareness of this initiative and lead to more people understanding and drinking real ale.”

I do it myself. I will bend anyone's ear on the things that  give me pleasure – good beer, Miles Davis's electric period '68-'75, exposing of the vacuity of religion, Brazilian music, proper peanuts in their shells, vinyl records, Macintosh computers ... and many more. In 2000 I put my money where my mouth was (and still is) by opening a specialist beer bar.

This urge to evangelise about what gives us pleasure seems universal. We've all got it. But what could it be? Human behavioural instinct is defined by evolution. This urge to promote what gives us pleasure, I believe, is exactly the same as the urge the caveman has to share the location of the bison herd or the bush bearing berries. The same urge the bee has to get back to the hive and waggle its bum. At its core is the urge to survive – to feed yourself and those who share some of your genes. In a tribal society everyone is likely to share your genes, your chance of survival and the "life" of your genes is enhanced. In our modern society we aren't necessarily genetically related to those around us, and food is no longer a rarity that needs to be grabbed at every opportunity. Our genes don't know that: they're still telling us "shout from the roof-top about what satisfies you, share it with your tribe".

Remember that. You'll be spotting "we've got to get more people involved" rhetoric all over the place from now on. Welcome to my world!

[p.s. Apologies to creationists .... Oh No! what am I saying? What I meant was: Get your hands off our schools and stay out of the White House you bunch of medievalist  nutjobs.]

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Pickled Bloody Partridge

My heart sinks a little further every time a brewer gives a beer a painfully twee and parochial name – especially an alliterative one.

I really don't care if it's "a traditional farmer's wife's recipe for partridge braised in ale".

Thank you, Hall & Woodhouse, you've really made my day with that name. That'll really get the kids talking.

Pickled bloody Partridge ... I ask you.

Sunday 14 September 2008

This week I have mainly been drinking...

... Harviestoun Belgian White at the Black Dog Inn at Dalton-in-Furness, my favourite pub in my South Cumbria homelands.

Belgian white (wheat) beers tend to be flavoured with orange zest and coriander seed. In HBW there was the merest hint of orangeyness, and quite noticeable (to me anyway; those whose ears I bent about it were nonplussed) corianderness hanging on a backbone of wheaty English bitterness.

Genuine Belgies may have not recognised the beer as an attempted recreation of their own style but that would be missing the point. The point is to extend the ambit of typical cask conditioned ale flavours in a very British-pub context. That it achieved with aplomb.

This weekend the pub has had a special fish and seafood menu and I pointed out to boss James that he'd chosen to stock a great beer to go with the special menu. He responded with a baffled "ugh?". The Black Dog does tremendous food and beer but poncey metropolitan notions of sniffing, swirling and matching beer and food are, as yet, alien. Indeed engaging in such endeavours would have much of the clientele questioning one's manliness and qualifications for drinking beer in the first place.

Unfortunately I hadn't booked to dine and had to make do with tantalising sights and smells. Fortunately I had the beer.

(B.t.w. I've invented a name for a shade of paint – "Langoustine Serendipity". Do you think Dulux will buy it off me?)

Thursday 11 September 2008

They've got my blood boiling again!

My brother has just brought my attention to this piece in the Publican - "CAMRA calls for minimum pricing"

OK,  we've established that cheap mass-produced beer in the supermarkets is playing a role in  deterring people from going to the pub. So far, so good.

To get people back in the pubs how about getting the government to create minimum prices for supermarket beer? Hmm.

Isn't that a bit bloody rich coming from a self-proclaimed "consumer organisation" which encourages people to join with rabble-rousing rhetoric like "join us if you're concerned about the ever-rising price of beer"? (I haven't got a specific example to hand a.t.m but we've all seen it).

Now let me think about it for a nano-second ... ah, now I see: CAMRA wants prices increases for the beer it doesn't like (consumed by the majority); It wants lower prices for the beer it likes (a minority interest).

A consumer organisation my arse! A self-interest group looking for special case treatment by pretending to have everyone's best interest at heart. 

Sheer bloody hypocracy. 

Excuse me while I wipe up the beer I've just spluttered on my keyboard.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Supermarket Prices

In a daze, traipsing round Tesco I was thinking about supermarkets' role in Britain's drunken hooliganity. I couldn't crack that problem and my thoughts moved onto the brands "craft" versus "mass" in the supermarkets.

Certainly, it's alarming that price competition has led mass-produced booze to be sold cheaper than water and had the knock-on effect of persuading people to drink anywhere but the controlled environment of the pub, and the pub trade is suffering as a consequence. But there may be another more positive effect.

The beers most affected by this rampant price cutting are the mass-produced ones – the common enemy of craft brewers. Look further in the supermarkets and you find rows of craft beers (remember, I choose not to use the term "real ale"), their prices unaffected by mass-market price competition. Ask around and you hear from SIBA, CAMRA and the brewers themselves that bottle sales are on the up – despite being the expensive option.

Here we have a dichotomy: 

In the off-trade craft beers are priced higher than mass-produced beers.

In the on-trade craft beers are priced lower than mass-produced beers.

It might be a febrile fantasy, but I believe the price-crash of mass produced beers could be a blessing in disguise for craft brewers. "How?" I hear you asking, "isn't it just going to encourage people away from craft beer on to cheap stuff?"

No. As I've already mentioned, bottled craft beers are performing well despite being the pricey beer option.

I believe the phenomenon is this – on the whole, people sensibly understand "poor quality things tend to be cheap – good quality things tend to be expensive". For many years people have taken on face value clever advertising such as "Stella Artois: reassuringly expensive", thinking "it's pricier, obviously it's very good, and I like to consume good things, that's what I'll buy". (I don't mean to single out Stella; I'm just using "Stella" as short-hand for mass-produced-not-very-interesting-beer.)

Now though, things have changed. Everyone uses supermarkets and sees the price of Stella considerably lower than the craft beers. What's the message? – "Stella is inferior to the bottles in the obscure aisle at the back of the supermarket" and a bit of "Stella is the beer favoured by price-conscious al-fresco drinkers".

OK, every single beer drinker isn't going to ditch their fave big brand because it's gone cheap, plenty will clap their hands in glee at the rock-bottom prices. Some won't. Some will be thinking "I like good stuff, and a higher price is a signifier of quality, I'll have to investigate the intruiging bottled stuff I usually ignore while the wife's looking at wine". How many is anyone's guess. I reckon enough people will ditch "mass" and move to "craft" for the sector to experience a good long-term boost. This maybe is what is already happening. This could be a bigger effect than thirty-something years of "campaigning" by you-know-who.

In the pub trade business is very tight with closures rampant. That straightforward message is evident from, for instance, the British Beer and Pub Association, a body which wishes the world to think is the ONLY voice of brewers and pub owners. In fact, if you check its membership list, it largely represents the big players – and in doing so seeks to downplay the efforts of small independents. Travel around the highroads and by-roads of the country and what do you see? - "Pub Lease For Sale" signs. It's the big dull McDonaldsised chains who are in most obvious decline and what do they sell most of? - McDonaldsised mass-produced beer. Freehouses aren't finding current economics such a bed of roses at the moment but they do seem, out of all pubs, the ones most capable of weathering the storm. What do most of them sell most of? - Craft beer.

Innovation at Beer Festival!

Here you see last week's Ulverston Beer Festival with its featured entertainment "Live Spreadsheet Updating".

Yes folks, Microsoft Excel made a guest appearance at a humble Beer Festival!

Beautifully British amateur inventiveness at its best. 

"The venue's got a big screen and a video projector – click! – I know; if I spend the festival sitting upstairs in the techie room away from the action I can plug in my laptop and display a constantly updated list of available beers! And as a bonus people may admire my Excel technique (including formulas)!"

Peculiarly, punters seemed to be ignoring the ever-updating spreadsheet and using the old-fashioned luddite techniques of looking in the programme, and looking and asking at the bar.

B.T.W. Ulverston Brewer's new beer "Flying Elephants", a 3.8% pale hoppy thirst-quencher, was rather good and could well be the beer that puts them on a wider map.