Margaret, Emily, or a fancy bird?

Earlier this week I called in to visit mother, and an interesting programme was on TV, which I caught part way through.  The subject was coffee, and the meteoric rise of coffee shops.  It was fascinating, and confirmed some of my thoughts.  I have often wondered how people will pay north of £2.00 for a coffee, which can equate to around £3.00 per pint, and of course coffee attracts a considerably lower amount of excise duty than say a pint of beer.  I am prone to sampling an espresso, so probably pay a pro rata price in excess of £10 per pint.  And if I want a longer coffee, why is an Americano now so big?  I just need a regular, and my Italian isn’t great, so Primo and Grande are foreign to me (well, I could probably work out Grande…).   So what has caused this to happen, and what can we as brewers learn?  Well a lot, and a lot.

Margaret Thatcher was the first and only British female Prime Minister.  She certainly left her mark; but why did it take so long from the horse race to Parliament?  Maybe the intervening conflicts; perhaps Emily was ahead of her time?  Whichever way you look at it, Margaret Thatcher would not have achieved what she did when she did if it wasn’t for Emily and her cause.  So that was nearly a century ago when the path was laid.  Margaret Thatcher carved a strong furrow.  She took on the Unions; she took away our children’s daily calcium intake; and she took on the beerage.  Yes, that staunchly conservative and Conservative group, often generations old, successful businesses, employing thousands and paying lots of excise duty.  And I daresay erstwhile contributors to the Party coffers.  But the Monopolies and Mergers Committee decided in their wisdom that the industry and it’s tied pub model needed reform, as the market was foreclosed.  The fact that most of the pubs were owned freehold, the breweries had few borrowings, Sundays consisted of Church, pub and lunch; and most importantly, pubs were run for breweries and beer sales, not banks and interest rates seems to have been completely missed.  So 2,000 pubs was set as the ceiling – and look what happened!  Artificial ceilings never work – Progressive Beer Duty being a good current comparison.

One well known big brewer seemed to get it right.  As pubs were sold off (we bought six from them), Whitbread entered the coffee market.  From a small start, acquisition, effective marketing and some luck, look at Costa today.  This was the early nineties.  At last women were making headway in Boardrooms up and down the country.  Mrs T had shown what can be done by a leader, and whether or not her policies sit well with you, she was undisputedly a leader.  Canary Wharf was on the up; some of the male bastions of banking and insurance were being challenged.  And women wanted something different for their social needs.  The liquid lunch was still in vogue, but pubs and beer came under pressure from coffee.  Sofas appeared in coffee shops; they were light and airy, with picture windows, table service, and trained staff.  And Jennifer played her part.  Jennifer?  Yes,  Aniston.  Friends hit our screens, and the coffee shop was in front of us.  Young friendly staff, who welcomed you, gave good eye contact, and actually looked like they wanted to serve you.  When they did turn their back, there was a positive message on their shirt.  The customer was king.

So back to the TV on Monday evening.  Why is coffee so successful? Retail marketing is totally customer focussed, provenance is important, but adjusted to suit new tastes.  The Italian coffee was very much small volumes of strong bitter coffee, espresso.  By adding hot water, or hot (not boiling) milk, coffees were made that suited the British taste.  Syrups sweetened this further.  Then we saw the iced beverages.  In my teens, a cold cup of tea was not nice; a hazy beer was dismissed as off, or more worryingly “it’s real ale, that’s why it’s cloudy”.  Now we have iced tea being retailed at £3 a time.  We have hoppy beers with a haze most of us spend a large part of our life trying to prevent.  And we have the largest coffee chain telling us their coffees are hand crafted.   To hold a paper coffee cup, disposable but with clear branding, is a fashion statement.  An equestrian ball game? A red tab? More recently, red soles?  No, a £3 hot drink, in a branded paper cup.  Forget the free coffee at work, I want my cup, I want to make a statement, I am cool, this is a desirable brand, look at me.

There were inevitably some also-rans, and some brands who didn’t make it.  Maybe they thought it was easy; perhaps competition was too tough; were some high street rents too high?  Diversification into filling stations and kiosks in rail stations seems to have worked.  Alcohol has been available in filling stations for a while, there was an initial anti-brigade, but that soon subsided.  Wetherspoons open a pub at Beaconsfield services, and there is a bit of a hoo-ha.  I have been trying to think of a pub that isn’t accessible by road, and I can think of only one, which is by a canal.  I don’t see a pub at the services as an issue – there is also a hotel there, not everyone is driving, and pubs sell soft drinks as well; probably cheaper than the average motorway service station offering.

Can we learn anything? As earlier, yes we can, and lots.  The beer market is crowded, there is oversupply, and a natural selection will sort this out.  Coffee at home is so different an experience to the coffee “on trade”.  Like beer.  But we want smiling staff, who know what they are talking about; and not having English as your first language is no excuse.  We want the branded cup, be it paper or china, and we want the right beer glass, properly cleaned, and containing the brand it should.  You just wouldn’t get the wrong cup in a coffee house.  I want staff to know a bit about the product.  And I want what is shown on the price list or menu to be available.  Simple?  Wednesday afternoon, after registering for the marathon, we called into a pub near Tower Bridge for a drink.  Yes, in London, our capital, and in a managed pub that is part of a large chain.  Carbing up of course, I chose a beer, when the barman went to pour, it was not available; I choose another brand, same thing.  In about 15 seconds, I am rapidly getting fed up.  That’s the part of traditional I don’t like.

We have a lot to learn; so Emily, Margaret, and Jennifer, I think we thank you.  And the fancy bird?  Well, the King’s old hunting ground has been developed and named after it.  I will be running around there on Sunday.  When I get back for a beer, I will be looking for a well presented beer, in the right glass, served by a smiling bar person.  Then again, I may be so in need of a beer……….

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