“Coming up midweek, the giants of Ipswich play host to the titans of Charlton, making them both seem normal sized!” – from a sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Look, parodying the dramatic promotional trailers of Sky Sports.
Two of the major sponsors at EBBC14 this year were Guinness and Pilsner Urquell. One obviously had a lot more to do with beer in Ireland than the other, but it occurred to me that they actually have a lot in common.
Here we have two global brands, not just beers, that to many people define their respective style. Each has a dominant presence in their respective home countries (to put it politely), and each is highly accomplished at communicating their history and provenance. Each is owned by a drinks giant (Diageo and SABMiller). There’s a slickness to both, too, that sense of size and power that only comes from beers that old and well-known.
Yet, if you asked a room full of beer geeks which of these brewers is more traditional/skilled/‘craft’ I suspect that the majority, if not all, would choose Pilsner Urquell every time. Why?
Guinness, despite or perhaps because of its history of accomplished advertising is perceived as the silky, suited salesman, more interested in your money than your satisfaction. Pilsner Urquell by comparison may seem just as cool and indifferent as a global brand, but it seems to care more about its beer, which by extension makes us care more about it, too.
On some imaginary sliding scale of corporateness and craftness, with Guinness at the corporate end, and a microbrewery that started yesterday at the craft end, Pilsner perhaps sits closer to, say, Sierra Nevada or Brooklyn Brewery. Like Sierra and Brooklyn, Pilsner has a widely-respected brewmaster who doubles as a global brand ambassador. Václav Berka talks like a man with rehearsed speeches, and rightly so, but also as someone with real pride in his work. He’s a figurehead, but one that people want to actually meet and talk to. Guinness, meanwhile, has a variety of high-ranking brewers, vice presidents, senior executives and so on… but there’s no real sense of a human ‘face’ to it.
On Tuesday night, I attended the judging of the Pilsner Brew Off competition at the White Horse, organised by Urquell, with six competing brews facing off to win the chance of being produced at a commercial scale. The six teams included beer bloggers, writers, bartenders and other people from the trade. The beers they had created (see the Craft Beer Channel’s, Tandleman‘s and Martyn Cornell‘s blog posts for more details of their beers) were as diverse as Bock-sweet stronger lagers, citrusy, New World-hopped modern examples, and more traditional, by-the-numbers pilsners. None were bad, and several were very accomplished.
The most impressive thing to the casual observer and competition entree alike, was how much effort Pilsner Urquell had put into the event. From easel-mounted posters displaying the recipes of each beer with photos and names of the teams, custom-printed ‘ballot papers’ (beer mats) to the specially-commissioned labels for each beer, the whole event had that thoughtful touch to back up the obvious marketing spend that had gone into it.
If that possibility of engagement with the people who make the beer is important us in our appreciation of beer, and I think it’s crucial when deciding whether that brewery is craft/good/whatever, would it change our minds about Guinness if it adopted a similar approach to Pilsner? After all, as giant as Václav Berka may seem, up close, he’s (almost) normal sized.