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……….

Keep on Running, or Continue Running And Feel Thirsty?

20 miler 22nd March

So Saturday was the last big run before the www.VirginMoneyLondonMarathon.co.uk on Sunday 13th April.  My first time, and looking forward to it.  I won’t try and say it has been easy, combining the training required with a Brewers’ lifestyle.  But I think I have made progress, and after a 20 miler on Saturday, as I sit at my desk Monday morning, I am feeling pretty good.  The great thing I have found with running is the feeling of freedom, the fresh air, a chance to unwind, and a chance to think.  Especially since the weather has improved, and I have been able to try some new routes around the lovely North Oxfordshire countryside.  And it has been a good week for thinking, and whatever you may think of the craft beer debate, it continues to fascinate me.  Batemans’ Brewery www.bateman.co.uk have recently undergone a brand makeover, and have really taken on the craft mantle.  I love the way they unashamedly celebrate their history, provenance and family heritage.  No -one could argue with their view on craft.  And they produce excellent, balanced, good quality beers.  Stuart Howe, the head of craft brewing at Molson Coors www.molsoncoors.co.uk, and best known for driving the massive growth of www.sharpsbrewery.co.uk Doombar made some very fair comments recently when interviewed by Adrian Tierney-Jones, @atjbeer, the well known and respected beer writer.  When asked about his thoughts on craft beer, he talked about people who love beer, love making beer, and want the world to love beer.  But he added the caveat that if craft brewing means brewing small batches of inconsistent, oxidised, unbalanced, hazy or over hopped beer, then he is not a craft brewer.  I love the way that people are starting to make salient points; we don’t need a formal definition, indeed the idea that SIBA should draw one up was a motion that was defeated at the recent conference.  But perhaps we need to continue to grow our interpretation?  For me, I like the beer coming out of a tap with a name or brand on it to be that beer; I do like the correct glassware, serving ale in a branded cider glass just doesn’t do it for me.  Like Batemans, we are generations of the same family old, we are tried and trusted, but not afraid to innovate; we have developed the equivalent of a new beer for every year I have worked here.  Being around for a long time doesn’t give us any more right for the future, but similarly, having done the brewing job pretty well for a long time shouldn’t dismiss us either.

I can side with the two Stuarts.  Running an old brewery like Hooky www.hooky.co.uk brings it own challenges, and we always strive to produce beers that are fault free, but most importantly taste good, and continue to do so throughout their shelf life.  Consistency is key, and whilst I hate the brand word, if you want to build a business, then you need brands, and these have to be consistent.  My father always said there is no bad beer, just some is better than others; but he was maybe too kind, or perhaps that was truer in his era?  There were a lot of breweries then, but nowhere near as many as now, many then were regionals with smaller tied estates, so beer was generally brewed and sold without being moved all around the country first.

Balance is key if you want people to drink, enjoy, and more importantly, drink your beer again.  So if you have a sub 4% abv beer in your portfolio, which is flavoursome, consistent and moreish, then maybe, just maybe, you Can Rejoice And Feel Thankful.

Craft Beer Rising Part 1

Craft Beer Rising

It was a few weeks ago now, but Craft Beer Rising was once again held in the former Truman Brewery Cellars, on Brick Lane.  And what a show it was.  I arrived there around lunchtime, and right from the door staff who were very welcoming, it was such a laid back and relaxed affair, really was all about the beer.  Not far through the doorway and I bump into Peter Simpson of Simpsons Malt, and Fergus Fitzgerald of Adnams; a great pair of chaps to have my first beer with.  I wouldn’t know where to start to talk about the beers – I was pleased to see dark beers indexing well, and the mix of cask, keg and bottle – which to me endorses the fact that the brewer’s task is split into two key components these days – the first is to produce decent beers that people want to drink, and are prepared to pay for; this may sound simplistic, but has not always been, and indeed sometimes still isn’t, the case, great to see the brewer’s having responsibility for the character of the beer.  And the second is to make sure having produced these excellent beers, that they reach the consumer in the condition they should do.   So if it is a higher volume selling beer, then that may well be cask.  If it is stronger in flavour, alcohol or both, it may well have a slower rate of sale, so keg may be the answer.  If it is very strong, or intended for those environments where draught would be difficult to serve, and by that I don’t just mean at home, but also in restaurants who may want to offer a range of beers, then bottle or can is the answer.  Talk to more conservative brewers, and cans are history; talk to some of the newer brewers, and they are investing in canning facilities.  But can and keg of the 21st Century are so different to what most people remember from the 1960′s and 1970′s.  This is not crap beer being disguised by chilling and gassing it; this is great beer, being packaged in the most suitable way for the consumer to enjoy.  We all know that cask ale, in good condition, is unrivalled.  But not very nice if not in the right condition, so smaller packs can be the answer for certain occasions.  As long as it is good beer.

Apart from the title of the event, I think I have avoided the C word.  What I will do is use it once more, and say well done to all involved with Craft Beer Rising.

Foiled by a copper

Double Stout [1]DOUBLE STOUT ROUND FINAL AW

Monday saw a journey to Leeds, to visit our label printers.  Double Stout labels to be precise, ready for the next run of this wonderful bottle-conditioned beer, which is now bottled by Marstons.  Of course the beer is still brewed here, to an original recipe.  We stopped brewing this beer in 1917, when the dark malts could not be produced owing to restrictions on fuel usage due to the War, meaning we could not use the extra coke needed to roast these malts.  But we are lucky enough to have a collection of our old brewing ledgers, and so in 1996 we embarked upon a journey to resurrect this wonderful beer.  Dark beers are very special, and with proportions of highly roasted malt, deliver a really intense flavour experience.  So we brewed some for cask, and it received a warm welcome.  It then variously featured as a seasonal beer, and we tried a small bottling run.  As demand grew, we decided it should become a bottle conditioned beer.  The new labels are in the new style, with imagery of the brewery, and a copper foiling effect, to reflect the material used in the original brewery equipment.  So why did I need to go all the way to Leeds to look at some labels? Couldn’t this have been done electronically?  Well as I have to individually sign each bottle, I wanted to be entirely happy with the label before I could consider signing each one.  They look fabulous, and will be in the shop in a few week’s time.

image (1)

Meeting Harriet Baldwin MP

On Friday afternoon, I met Harriet Baldwin MP, at The Queen’s Head in Sedgeberrow. Turns out her agent went to Bloxham School, so we shared some memories, not least of which he remembered running the Junior Common Room, which stocked Hooky beers; he clearly also knew of The Elephant and Castle! It was an opportunity to talk to Harriet about Beer Duty, and the BIS enquiry into PubCos.

A Brewer’s Musings