Dog Eat Dog World

Copyright Ralph Steadman

Collaborations in the brewing world, especially between microbreweries, have become part of the loving, warm-hearted soul of this industry. It’s a curious thing really, for businesses in the food and beverage industry to collaborate in this way. We might expect it of celebrity chefs, or niche, independent delis and producers, but it hardly occurs elsewhere in food and drink.

In the arts, you can’t move for collaborations between musicians, artists and authors. Sometimes, beer and art cross over. Rapper Professor Green launched his own beer (brewed by Titanic) called Professor Green’s Remedy, and Beck’s have been using artfully-inspired labels created by artists and bands for a few years now. Even Elbow have released a ‘build a rocket boys!’ beer with the helps of Robinsons.

It’s a question that is barely worth asking, really. Why beer? Beer promotes collaboration because it’s one of the great social levellers, the great equaliser between ages, cultures and ideologies that promotes understanding and friendship (although, past a certain point, some people become progressively less understandable and friendly).

Sharing, caring and so on are all very well and good, but how about a little competition to spice things up?

Copyright Johanna Basford

On Monday, I attended the climactic final part of the recent International Arms Race between BrewDog and Flying Dog to create a winning Zero IBU IPA using no hops. It was a fascinating concept, and one that was wisely chosen. After all, instructing two hop-loving breweries to create a superior IPA would simply result in each producing a nuclear-hopped, scorched-earth-bitterness monster, which either could easily do any day of the week. Specifying that no hops could be used levelled the playing field and instead encouraged innovation. After agreeing on a set list of ingredients used to create spicy bitterness instead of hops (including bay leaves, ginger, rosemary and all sorts of herbs and spices), each brewer went off to create very different beers.

I will review each of them properly in a future issue of Rum and Reviews Magazine (once I have received some bottled versions), but the beers couldn’t have been more different, and the event held at BrewDog Camden was a great evening of beery nerdiness. It may have been a ‘Combative Collaboration’ and a competitive one, but both brewers gained from it, and had a lot of fun doing it. The competitive element intrigued me, because we are so used to the likes of Mikkeller simply co-authoring something with every brewery under the sun. Bloggers, writers, anyone can get involved, and that’s great. However, I think the competitive element adds something exciting. It encourages creativity and pushing boundaries, and I think a lot could be done in this regard with food.

Imagine, instead of trying to make the best Beer X, why not try to make the best beer to go with Food X?

The ultimate steak, BBQ or burger beer. The ultimate curry beer. The ultimate dessert beer. A famous chef could define and create the exact dish that the beer must match to, and then brewers could be invited to compete for the accolade of having the best beer to go with it. It’s something that drinkers and bloggers give their opinion on all the time (“for me, if I’m having a curry, I absolutely must have a … to go with it,”) and it would force brewers to put their pride on the line, instead of just idly suggesting an easy food match on the back of the bottle.

What do you think? Are collaborations a Good Thing? Would you like to see more competitions? I’d like to know your thoughts.

"It’s all just a bit of harmless fun."

Melissa Cole wrote a great blog (an open letter, really) a week ago about the use of this sort of thing:
(Images courtesy of the excellent watchdog for dodgy beer marketing Pumpclip Parade)

As this is a real pet hate of mine, I have to add my own feelings on this matter, not a ‘male perspective’ exactly, but hopefully one that is shared by other men.

When I see a one of these beers on the bar, I get angry and embarrassed in equal amounts. I get angry because this is exactly why some people think cask beer is for sad old men. I get embarrassed because, even if I order a completely different ale from the bar, people will think ‘Ah, this chap obviously shares the same sense of humour as the sad, dirty old man that designed the label for that other beer. That’s what cask ale drinkers are like.’
However, when people use the phrase “it’s all just a bit harmless fun”, I don’t get embarrassed. I just get angry. For the sake of argument (and my spleen), let’s put that sentence under the microscope, shall we?
“It’s all just a bit of harmless fun.”
First, it isn’t all just a bit of harmless fun, because not all breweries see fit to market their beer in this way. And amongst those that do, not all of them use the kind of bawdy, seaside-postcard-from-a-time-land-forgot type of humour that we are apparently supposed to celebrate and cherish as part of our innate, cultural backwardness. Some of them, see above, are terrifying glimpses into the psyches of deranged and possibly quite dangerous individuals. The man who drew that Randy Otter one should be sectioned.
Secondly, it isn’t all just a bit of harmless fun, because it extends beyond the pump clips to the grubby, pathetic, middle-aged-boys that think this is ‘funny’, or worse still, sexually arousing. It simply exacerbates a tired old stereotype of a man going to the pub to ‘get away’ from his wife, drink beer, and stare at crudely-drawn pictures of women, otters, figures from folklore, whatever floats their boat.
Thirdly, it is not harmless, because it harms my eyes, my intelligence, and the idea of being ‘a good lad’ or ‘nice bloke’ or ‘gentleman’ that is instilled in most men by their fathers from a young age. If people want to look at pornographic images, that is absolutely fine. If people want to make silly names for things, be my guest. If people want to degrade themselves, the pub, and the beer they are drinking by needing to buy an ale called ‘Top Totty’ and leering at a child’s drawing of a woman in her underwear, they can FFFFUUU-ind themselves somewhere else to do so.
Finally, it is not fun, or at least any kind of measure of fun that I am aware of. This boils down to – and I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but it really does seem to be the core issue here – people enjoying looking at crappy, cartoon images of ‘rude things’. If pubs aren’t permitted to sell alcohol to those under the age of 18, they may wish to consider extending this to those whose mental age is below 18 as well.
Let’s all just move on, and embrace the British beer renaissance. Every day people are trying out cask ale and craft beer, and the last thing we want is for someone to think that the guy who designed ‘Rodger the Goblin’ represents the bulk of people who enjoy good beer. 
What really gets to me is how stupid it is, and how it must drive away so many people from trying what may possibly be a good beer. Cynical as I am, I simply assume they are trying to sell off a bad batch of bitter by putting ‘a bit of blue’ on the pump clip. However, I’ve heard that some of these beers are all right. This is even more depressing, because it means they have been effectively reserved for those with the sense of humour of some kind of fist-testicle hybrid.
I am not saying BAN THIS FILTH because, frankly, we shouldn’t need to ban it, should we? We should simply be capable of rising above it. We’re British for heaven’s sake. We should be capable of a bit of class.

Yes We Can


It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks for me, and I imagine, for many of you too. The Olympics of course, plus some outrageously hot weather, the Great British Beer Festival, and all sorts of warm-weather based shenanigans to empty your wallet for. My GBBF coverage will find its way to Rum and Reviews Magazine shortly, but I thought I would share another recent and significant beer experience.
Having finally joined the British Guild of Beer Writers(mainly to further my own ambitions, but also because I have always wanted to be part of a Guild), I was invited to a pre-GBBF event at the marvellous Porterhouse in Covent Garden (reviewed by The Gentleman Drinker here) to try out a wide selection of American craft beer in *DUN DUN DUNNNN* cans. The beer was excellent, and it got me thinking about beer’s relationship with aluminium, and what the future could hold.
The humble can of beer has served us all tirelessly without complaint for decades, and yet, it has a serious image problem. We don’t see the can for what it is, we see it for what it isn’t.
“I said where’s the BEER aisle not the insipid, corporate, industrial…” James Watt  hated going to Tesco.
The 440ml or 500ml can is the default beer SKU in the ever-growing off-trade, and pallets of them dominate aisles of supermarkets across the land. However, despite its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, people don’t see cans of beer as quality items. There is always a perceived cheapness to them. The industry has come a long way from having tinny-tasting tinnies, but the association somehow lingers on. Bottled beer has perceived class, quality and tradition. Then of course there is bottle-conditioned beer, one of beer’s most important expressions. Secondary fermentation creates fuller flavours, natural carbonation and opens up the wonderful world of aged beer. Even CAMRA will occasionally reach down from Olympus and deign to label bottle-conditioned ale with their logo, designating ‘properness’.
How are cans going to compete with that? In the UK’s current beer renaissance, how can the humble can share space with Kernel, BrewDog and Mikkeller in the hearts of beer geeks? Well, BrewDog have already bought into canning their beer, not in a big way, but both Punk IPA and 77 Lager are available. Surely, I hear you cry, that was just BrewDog doing one of their ‘clever ideas’ wasn’t it? Were we supposed to take them seriously?
Not a joke.
Well, BrewDog were simply emulating the American craft beer scene that they so desperately want to recreate here in the UK. American microbreweries (or rather, what they would call microbreweries) have been pioneering the idea of quality beer in cans for years, and I think it could be the way forward in the UK too.
Why? Well, for one thing there’s the benefits to the brewer. Cans are cheaper, easier to produce, and easier to store and deliver. That could theoretically mean that smaller brewers find it easier to get their beer to more pubs and shops.  
There is also the fact that consumers would enjoy a lower price for their beer, and that it’s easier for them to carry home too. More importantly, they could carry home more of it. As we all know, beer in cans gets colder quicker than beer in glass bottles, and there is absolutely no risk of UV light damage or ‘skunking’. Aluminium cans are arguably easier to recycle, and they are generally more practical and functional than glass bottles. As an example, recall how many times you have had to have sadface-inducing mainstream keg lager in a plastic cup at gigs and festivals because they can’t sell decent bottles of beer? Now imagine being at a gig or festival, strolling up to the bar and seeing some of these beauties:
 As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to sample a selection of canned American craft beer recently, and on the basis of what I tasted, an aluminium-coated future does not frighten me in the least.
I got to taste everything from the big-hitting mainstays like Sierra Nevada to smaller, kookier outfits such as 21stAmendment, Maui Brewing and Caldera. Of course, in American there’s no such thing as small, but these producers give us an idea of how smaller brewers have bought into the idea of canned craft beer, and they’re doing it well.
Something slightly random but important that stuck with me afterwards is that cans have the better ‘opening noise’ than bottles. That sharp percussive crack and hiss flicks a switch in your brain that gets your mouth watering. What’s that about? 
As you can see above, with a change in packaging comes a change in labelling. With cans, the label ismost of the packaging, and most canned US craft beers have really eye-catching labels. There’s garish, gaudy colour schemes that remind you of vintage 60’s music festival posters, star-spangled red-white-and-blue palettes, or stark contrasting colour schemes with stencilled lettering and surreal art. They’re striking, they capture the eccentricity of the beer and its brewers, and most of all, they look good.
  
Sometimes they look a little too good. A few, including Caldera IPA (above) resemble some kind of tropical fruit drink more than a strong beer.
It all comes back to quality. If the quality of the beer can be assured, then eventually beer connoisseurs will be won over. It doesn’t mean an end to bottles by any means. Rather, bottled beer, and bottle-conditioned beer in particular, will become even more special, even more rare and even more desirable. Cans will become the ‘norm’; beer of good quality to be enjoyed without fuss. Bottles will become valued possessions, encouraging more people to age their beer, and encouraging brewers to create beers that are designed to be aged.
Imagine a world where this could be even more amazing than it already is.
Ultimately, true beer nerds connoisseurs will pour the beer into a glass before drinking it, whatever the original vessel. The quality is not an issue – the beer tastes really, really good. The packaging is sharp and exciting, and I think it moves beer away from hefty, masculine pints and big bottles. I think cans make unusual beer like Coconut Porter, Black IPA and the like more accessible and less exclusive.
What do you think? Can you see yourself drinking beers like those above? Is this inevitable, and what place will cask ale and bottle-conditioned beer have in such a future? I’d like to know your thoughts.

Promotion Sickness 2012

Every now and then, I suffer from an immensely irritating condition called promotion sickness. It interferes with my daily life, interrupting an otherwise standard journey from one place to another with intense feelings of nausea, confusion and despair. It is usually caused by seeing an advertisement which has crossed the line which divides promoting a product, to creating a situation that doesn’t exist, and that product being the ideal choice for someone in that non-existent situation. This cracks my perception of reality (but… why WOULD a man be naked, smiling, wearing expensive designer glasses? Specialist nudist eye test? Superglue accident that he sees the funny side of?) and I feel violent convulsions.

Much has been written already about the mind-numbing corporate domination of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and even today Dave Bailey of Hardknott has written about how small business have been affected. I’m going to hone in on a specific example, in fact, a particular advertisement. In London Liverpool Street rail station, there’s a large video screen of rolling adverts, news and so on, which periodically displays information about events taking place that day, sponsored by Heineken. As we all know, Heineken is the official alcohol provider for an international festival where people, who as part of their training are forced to avoid drinking alcohol, perform physical feats for the entertainment of people who do drink alcohol. It instructs viewers to… oh no here it comes… to go and watch the coverage… oh this is going be a bad one… to watch the coverage in… mmhbbbhmmm…. ‘Your Local Heineken Pub’.
Not the first time Heineken has made me sick.
Sorry, I think that’s most of it gone now. The advert (I couldn’t take picture of it – promotion sickness ruins my hand-eye co-ordination and gets vomit on my phone) is sponsored by Heineken in the same way that the sky is sponsored by the colour blue. I mean, it couldn’t be more green, or have more red stars on it, or more uses of the word ‘Heineken’. Clearly all efforts have already been made to make sure that we associate ‘watching the Olympic Games’ and ‘having a beer’ with Heineken. Mission accomplished.
First, I would like to congratulate Heineken on behalf of every person who has ever used the phrase ‘local pub’. We’ve just been milling around, using the phrase for years, without ever once thinking that it could be improved just by subtly crowbarring the word Heineken into it. Well, thanks guys, we are sure to use the new and improved version immediately, and we certainly don’t feel offended by a corporation trying to change an existing phrase for their own ends for a few weeks. It isn’t weird or sickening at all. I was just vomiting about how amazing it is. 
Anyway, this advert raises a few questions, mainly: what was wrong with just saying ‘your local pub’, given that the advert is basically a collage of Heineken logos with tiny glimpses of athletes, grass, sky and things that aren’t Heineken? What is a local… H-word pub? What have you done with the others?
Well, as I am sure any Heineken marketeer would tell you, any pub in London that doesn’t sell Heineken during the Games obviously doesn’t have a very big interest in sports coverage. I mean, these supposed intelligent human beings, have got themselves into a situation where they own or pay rent on a large building that regularly has lots of people it, they have an extortionately expensive Sky Sports package because they are a pub, expensive televisions to show it, and a whole range of drinks to meet the expectations of their customer base, and THEY DON’T HAVE HEINEKEN. Pity should be reserved for those who deserve it, not these knuckle-dragging, slow-witted sub-humans, who probably struggle to use rudimentary tools.
Sports bar owner Dean Smith, whose locals allegedly ‘prefer Staropramen’, if such a thing can be believed.
These people CERTAINLY won’t have received the full corporate pub-vajazzaling (you can correct me on the spelling but I understand it means something to do with interior decoration) from the Heineken salesforce, who have basically rebranded 150 London pubs earlier this month. Perhaps this is what a Local H******** Pub is. Perhaps we are all supposed to flock to these places, and quaff Heineken by the keg-load as physically superior people jump and run and so on in the way that they do.
*opens his cynicism valve*
Aaaaaaah….
Look, I understand why they chose Heineken. From a completely practical point of view, to be the omni-brewer for an event like the Olympics, you need to have enormous brewing capacity and a solid, reliable supply chain to ensure that loads and loads of beer can be in all kinds of places at any moment. You need a competent sales force and account team who know the stadia market inside out, and can accommodate their requirements. You also need to be provide a beer that is acceptable, NOT special or remarkable, but just about acceptable to most people. These are the established rules.
But you know what, it would have been really, really amazing if LOCOG had thought to do things a little bit differently. Here we have a city with not just brewing tradition or history, but a city that actually defined beer styles that travelled the world and influenced brewers everywhere, and were high valued commodities that defined what beer actually is. Here we have a city that is undergoing a beer renaissance, with dozens of microbreweries starting up on a monthly basis. Here we have a city that is producing some of the best beer in the world, and the best cuisine, and maybe, just maybe there was something that could have been done to truly elevate beer’s standing.
Beer could have been parachuted in, or a brewery in the Industrial revolution section…
Wait, what the hell has beer got to do with the Olympics anyway Chris, didn’t you already have a pop at the connection in your second paragraph? Well spotted, and I stand by the point that beer has absolutely nothing to do with participating in sport (after participating is another matter entirely). However, sport is one of everybody’s ‘beer moments’, and this is a cultural Olympiad as well as a sporting one. Perhaps if LOCOG had approached, I don’t know, the London Brewers Alliance, and maybe they could have contacted the Society of Independent Brewers, and brewers based near where other events are taking place in the UK, and discussed and planned out a way of supplying dozens of different beers, from conventional to exceptional, for an event that is intended to highlight the very best of the country it takes place in. I seem to recall Great Britain being rather better at beer that it is at a lot of other things. Well, except rowing and sailing, but then how else would we have got IPA?
Ah well, at least we have a reassuringly passionless, common-denominator corporate brand to enjoy. Isn’t that what the Olympics is all about?

Carlsberg and the C Word

Kraft!

Carlsberg Sweden have announced they will be launching a, and I quote, ‘craft-style’ lager this year. It’s hard not to be cynical when a large company enters a player into a growing trend somewhat late in the game (see Stella and cider). After all, there’s nothing connoisseurs like more than when a large mainstream company launch something that shamefully imitates or seeks to imitate a niche product, right? Right?

‘Lawn Mower’ will be a 4.8% lager developed by Carlsberg in the backyard (ooh, so rustic) of its Falcon Brewery in Falkenberg. The ‘Backyard Brewery’ is the latest in long line of craft brewery pilot plants opened by larger brewers in the last few years. In the UK, Molson Coors have had a pilot plant (based out of the old White Shield Brewery) for a few years, and regional ale producers Brains and Thwaites have both built a ‘craft brewery’ recently. The aim for any brewer who does this is the same: to produce and test out small batches of left-of-field beers, to build long-term brands out of successful brews, and to improve their reputation among beer geeks.

This is all well and good. Big brewers want to have a slice of the growing ‘craft beer’ trend, and win over people that think they’re only interested in making common denominator beers. Fine. And Sweden’s craft beer scene is ripe for the picking. In fact, most of Scandinavia is undergoing a beer renaissance. BrewDog sales figures indicate that most of their exported beer goes to Sweden, and brewers like Mikkeller and Nøgne ø are darlings of the UK and US craft beer scenes.

So with that in mind, why in the name of all that’s holy and good have they described it as:

“dry hopped with Amarillo and Cascade to give it a grassy aroma.”

Bad news for beer-loving hayfever sufferers

I mean, I get it: ‘grassy’, ‘lawn mower’, but there’s several things wrong with that sentence. First, what is a grassy aroma, why is it appealing, and why would you build an entirely new brand around it? I understood a grassy aroma to typically come from lightly hopped lagers and ales, and an actual ‘fresh-cut grass’ aroma is relatively rare, usually buried or distorted by stronger, sweeter scents from the malt. If that’s what you’re going for, fine, but it’s not an aroma that speaks to experimental palates used to hop bombs and barley wines.

It’s also worth clarifying, in case you didn’t already know, that Amarillo and Cascade hops are the kind of big, brash, tropical fruit-scented behemoths that are found in so many American IPAs. They don’t have a grassy aroma. They’re bursting with orange and grapefruit, and taste like it too.

Not grass.

So in conclusion, they are either a) making the beer completely wrong, b) describing it completely wrong, or c) both.

It would seem that Carlsberg have hired one of those beer marketing people that say really weird, nonsensical things. You know, like ‘Brewed traditionally for flavour and taste’ or ‘the beer’s carbonation gives it great, refreshing aftertaste’ or they think Maris Otter is a kind of hops. These people should have been hounded out of beer marketing about seven years ago and forced to write reclining chair ads in the Daily Express.

When I saw ‘Carlsberg to make craft-style lager’ and ‘amarillo and cascade’ I simply assumed they were going for some kind of a Brooklyn Lager rip-off. It’s a safe bet that people will like it and it wouldn’t be too hard to achieve. To be honest, I still suspect this to be the case, and they’ve simply got some utter berk to explain the beer to the media. The same spokesman, clearly some kind of android, goes on to say:


“When we tried some of those high quality brews, we saw an opportunity to bring the concept to market,”

and:

“It (the Backyard Brewery) is not a new brewery, it’s a virtual concept where we leverage our newly-renovated development brewery to make room for creativity and passion.”

We are to assume there was previously no room for passion or creativity at Falkenberg Brewery, and that new ideas were hunted down and shot like the dogs they are. The evidence is in Carlsberg’s “varied portfolio” today. Impressive stuff. Three, count ’em, THREE lagers.

If Carlsberg really want to impress craft beer lovers, they need look no further than the beers they were making a few decades ago. The likes of Carlsberg 47 (Vienna lager), Carlsberg Gamle (Munich lager) and Gammel Porter, among others, were still being made in the brewer’s main headquarters in Denmark as recently as the 1990’s, and a large brewer resurrecting old brands (like Molson Coors did with Worthington White Shield) is generally more impressive than turning out a cynical knock-off.

They could maybe leave the old trademark off though…

I can see why they are desperate to diversify but they should look a little closer to home if they want to gain any credibility, which appears to be another C word they have no concept of the meaning of.

Do these kind of moves by large brewers rub you the wrong way? Does anybody know if those old Carlsberg brews are still available? What’s the story with swastika trademark? Do you like the smell of cut grass? Leave a comment.

Division of Labours

*Blows away cobwebs*

Sorry for failing to post rants on this, that and the other for the past few months.

I once thought it would be easy to divide my beer-writing between what I do here and what I do for Rum & Reviews Magazine (I once thought that old photos were in black and white because everything in the past was black and white). The truth is that since the Magazine has taken off and expanded, the time that I can dedicate to non-review-based beer writing has diminished proportionately.

However, this is not a farewell blog post. Oh no.

I intend to use this blog differently from now on. Instead of labouring on topics, I will use this blog for shorter, hopefully sharper observations which belong, fittingly, on a blog. Watch this space.

In the meantime, if you’re curious as to what exactly I have been doing for R&R, you could do worse than click on this handy link to most of the things I have written for the magazine.

Onwards and upwards.