One Hell of A Hammer

2012-04-29 15.52.57

Cold. Eyes scrunched into the wind, fists punched into pockets, jaw clenched into face, walking at a forward-slash angle, mouth sneered in defiance. Cold.

There are those that were prepared. Soviet greatcoats, gloves like chinchillas, hats stolen from Buckingham Palace guardsmen, boots like tanks. Then, the Unready: flimsy suit jackets with lapels upturned, scarves wrapped forlornly around heads, trousers flapping around legs like sails.

‘There’s only one thing for it,’ each of these people realise in crystal-like moments of clarity.

Hot. Barely-absorbed suntan lotion running down your face in rivers of sweat. The lenses of your sunglasses hot enough to cook an egg on. Praying in thanks to your ancestors and whoever invented flexi-time. Lighting the signal fires of supermarket briquettes. Pulling out Those Shorts and That Shirt from the wardrobe. Hot.

‘There’s only one thing for it,’ each of these people realise in crystal-like moments of clarity.

Despair. The failed interview, the lost job, the lost friend, the failed relationship. Slaps on the back, squeezes of the shoulder, hugs, encouraging smiles, muttered curses and small words. ‘There’s only one thing for it…’

Elation. Jubilant, exuberant, exalting, life-affirming joy. The nailed interview, the new job, the big win, the big three-oh, the perfect day, The One. Fist pumping, jumping, happy swear words and ear-to-ear grins. ‘There’s only one thing for it…’

Nothing on telly.

That new place.

Heard they have new beers.

Film doesn’t start for an hour.

Long wait before next train.

When all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails, so the old saying goes.

But it’s one hell of a hammer.

Down Escalator

HURRAY!

What was once thought nigh on impossible has finally come true. The beer duty escalator, established by Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling to increase the duty on beer two per cent above inflation every year, will be scrapped. This is largely thanks to tireless campaigning from across the beer industry, from bodies like CAMRA, brewers, MPs and trade bodies like the British Beer and Pub Association. The Government has finally recognised that the escalator was doing more harm than good, and it will shortly be taken out behind the Treasury and shot until it is dead.

Most would agree that a battle has been won, but not the war. Already, the success of the campaign to scrap the escalator has prompted calls for reductions to VAT for pubs, people are starting the see the merit of consumer, trade and political bodies working together to achieve common goals, but before we get ahead of ourselves, can we think of anything negative to say? Anybody? Perhaps each of us could have a little dig at someone before we all get too cheerful? I mean, this is an achievement, don’t get me wrong. After all, not only is the beer duty escalator finished, but there will also be a CUT in duty of 1p per pint. Fantastic.

But… erm… oh come on! We haven’t all come this far just to stop whinging, jabbing and moaning at each other. That craft keg vs cask ale argument has been fun, but we need something NEW to get embarrassingly, self-destructively furious about. Here we go. Here it comes…

WHO DESERVES THE CREDIT FOR SCRAPPING THE BEER DUTY ESCALATOR?

Aah. That’s better. I can feel the whining irritation rising, the impotent, pointless fury building. Look, you see, CAMRA deserve the credit because they got the petition to over the 100,000 signatures necessary to have the issue debated in Parliament.

YOU WHAT? But, but, Hobgoblin (Marston’s) started the petition in the first place, so THEY deserve the credit.

DON’T BE CRAZY! The British Beer and Pub Association have harangued and campaigned and lobbied against this since before the blasted escalator even came into being! THEY deserve all the credit.

ARE YOU OFF YOUR BLOODY NUT!? The Sun newspaper got the issue truly recognised at a national level and got everyone talking, not all these industry types. It woz the Sun wot won it!

Hang on, though. Some might argue that because of the efforts of all of these people it actually became a reality. Some might say that this is a true, solid, perfect example of how consumer organisations like CAMRA can remain relevant; how politicians will listen if you unite, fight together, and fight hard; how getting the media on our side is how to win; how there is hope for this beleaguered industry yet!

Cor blimey, can you imagine? What nearly happened there was – my word, I can barely comprehend it – what we nearly had there, was a variety of people across the industry almost realising that together, when they each do what they do best, they can tackle the Government and make it think differently and act differently.

Wow.

Thank goodness we’re all back to bitching, frothing and bickering like normal, eh?

For a few hours there, it almost felt like change in the air. Thank heavens we all put a stop to that.

Craft By Design

The Beer House in Waterloo station.

A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’. So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’. So he kicks over the garbage can and says ‘That’s Punk?’, and I say ‘No that’s trendy! – Billie Joe Armstrong

A clumsy comparison, you’re already thinking, but bear with me. Whatever ‘craft’ beer is, it is generally agreed that whilst it’s hard to define, you know it when you see it. The same applies to modern ‘craft’ beer bars and pubs. They can be very traditional looking, like the Southampton Arms. They can be bare-brick-and-granite hipster magnets like BrewDog Camden. Whatever the decor or the theme might be, you know it when you see it. Admittedly, this is normally because there are 40 taps crammed onto the bar, but the point stands.

There’s an increasing number high-end beer venues in the UK, especially in London. They stand apart from well-established real ale havens that have ten or more ales on, even though they might share the same patrons. They are identifiably ‘a thing’ as popular vernacular would term it (‘Oh, is this a thing now?’ ‘Yes, definitely a thing’). So we have not only a boom in specialist beer, but also in specialist beer outlets.

As Boak and Bailey recently blogged, there are a number of signs when a boom is about to peak, and ultimately, decline. The most damning and certain sign is when the niche thing in question is adopted whole-heartedly, and replicated perfectly, by larger, wealthier, mainstream competitors. Have we already reached that point with craft beer? Definitely. It’s been happening in the USA for years, as the recent ‘Craft vs Crafty’ debate has proven. Even in the UK, bigger brewers are starting to place value in ale brands that only a few years ago were seen as dead weight. So what about the outlets – the places where we all drink and experience this wonderful beer?

Will mainstream pub companies attempt to replicate the success of BrewDog’s bars?

I recently found myself with half an hour to kill in Waterloo station, and happened across the promising-sounding Beer House, which also has branches in Charing Cross and Paddington. After descending a couple of flights of stairs, I found myself in a well-appointed, pubby sort of bar that was quite large but still definitely part of a train station. The wood panelling, leather-cushioned benches, chalkboard beer menus and random spray of manufactured ‘vintage’ art all said ‘modern pub’. The beer selection was spread across several chilled T-bar fonts and four different handpulls. The chilled fonts had a couple of token mainstream lagers, but most were beers like Erdinger Dunkelweisse, BrewDog 5am Saint, and Flying Dog Doggie Style. The food menu boasted deals on classic Americana; hot dogs, burgers etc. alongside pubbier fare. Prices were Train Station x London + Craft, but this was to be expected.

Given all of that, it still had all the necessary ingredients to make a pub that I would like. So what perturbed me about this place? It was the way they were put together: a case of the Uncanny Valley, where advanced robotics creates something disturbing because it is close-to-but-not-quite human, applied to a pub. Here was a venue owned and operated by SSP, Compass, or one of the other catering companies that run the franchises in train stations, but created to mimic our modern idea of a high-end beer venue. There was a palpable synthetic quality to everything, not helped by the fact it was in a generic, train station unit. The deliberate way in which ‘fun’ was injected into the chalkboard writing, the barmaid’s look of confusion when I asked for one of the heavily-advertised paddles of tasting thirds, the fact that the staff were clearly from one of those Pumpkin Cafes; these all created little glitches in the Matrix until I found myself questioning everything about it. It’s hard to explain myself without sounding like a weird pedant, but that’s what it was like. That sudden certainty that everything has been deliberately chosen to replicate something you like, that if you punch a hole in the wall you might see a lab of men in white coats ticking boxes of clipboards.

Is this the future? Should I have a problem with it? There wasn’t anything in particular about that place that I disliked, but I worry about the long-term consequences. We are used to paying higher prices for beer that costs more to make, by people that have higher overheads and smaller workforces. If more mainstream chains of craft beer bars spring up, will smaller chains of outlets get priced out of the game? Will brewers that cannot provide the quantities (that born-again bigger brewers  of ‘craft beer’ can) face decline and eventual closure? Am I making too much of this? I certainly hope so.

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?