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Fri 6th Jan 2017 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Cloudwater, quality and CAMRA dinosaurs; Belgo and other brave beer pioneers; and inspirational messages
Authors: Martyn Cornell, Glynn Davis and Ann Elliott

Cloudwater, quality and CAMRA dinosaurs by Martyn Cornell

If you think the major problem facing the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) today is whether or not to embrace “craft keg”, or how to prevent more pub closures, then like the campaign itself you’re failing to acknowledge the elephant not just dominating the room but loudly trumpeting in your ear – the latest trumpeting being the news that Cloudwater, the highly regarded Manchester brewer barely two years old, is to give up making cask beer. That elephant is the one marked in big letters down both flanks “poor beer quality”, and despite CAMRA being founded 46 years ago to fight that exact battle, and – originally – that battle alone, it’s still a war far, far from won.

When Cloudwater started in 2015, the plurality of its output was in cask – 45%, against 25% in keg and the rest in bottle. Last year that was down to 23% in cask, and the rest split almost evenly between bottle and keg. Now, with a new canning line starting up, co-founder Paul Jones says cask production is being halted, and the expected output for 2017 will be 60% keg, 40% bottle and can – with the aim to more than double annual turnover from £1.15m to £2.7m and 13,000HL/8,000 barrels. Paul lists several reasons for dropping cask – the price the market will accept, which is less than the price it will accept for keg beer, despite all the expense of racking, handling and collection casks on insufficient margin; the fact that, to be honest, Cloudwater finds the beers it can sell in keg and bottle more exciting than those it can sell in cask; and finally, and most pertinently to this debate, “another often encountered set of issues”, the quality problem. In his end-of-year blog round-up, Paul complained slightly hazy casks of keg were being “flatly refused” without being tasted, while casks tasting of diacetyl, either through brewing faults or because they were being served too young, are “all too often good to go”.

Cask beer, Paul said, “should take pride of place in every bar and pub”, but it “requires not just the same skill and discipline as keg beer to brew but also requires excellent stewardship to be pulled in to a glass in a way that best represents the establishment, the brewer and the rich and varied heritage of cask beer in the UK”. He doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear – Cloudwater doesn’t believe the “excellent stewardship” is there at the point of sale in enough bars to present any cask beer it produces in the way that would give the best possible result for the customer.

It is not alone. I interviewed a number of leading names in the UK brewing world on the subject of beer quality recently, and they all agreed there is still a huge, huge problem. Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, another of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers.” Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, the most successful new brewery startup in the past 45 years, and now owned by the Japanese brewer Asahi, has consistently refused to involve Meantime in the “cask ale” segment, believing that whatever bonuses cask-conditioned ale might bring in terms of flavour, the downsides of lack of stability and openness to infection inevitable with cask beer mean the customer is much better off with the consistency provided by “craft keg”.

However, he said, and this is a vital point regularly ignored, “all of the afflictions that cask ale suffers from apply to brewery-conditioned beers, and this is where there is a major threat to all beer regardless of type”. He adds: “Poor line cleaning, interchanging beers, many of which are infected because of poor practice at the brewery, warm storage, warm chain distribution, antiquated dispense systems that cannot be cleaned, all paint a worrying picture. The first wave of craft breweries in the US fell foul of quality issues in the 1990s. Hundreds didn’t make the next decade. If brewers in the UK are complacent, the same will happen here. Meantime invests hundreds of thousands of pounds annually to counter this threat. The threat is real – and as we say in industry, you are only as good as your last beer.”

Meanwhile CAMRA’s “revitalisation” project (which everybody knows is solely about deciding whether the campaign is going to recognise keg craft or not, despite all the frankly tedious baggage attached about support for cider, pub closures and so on) trundles slowly forward, with any vote on whatever final proposals come out now postponed to 2018. Only the deeply cynical would suggest the delay is in the hope that a few thousand more CAMRA dinosaurs might have died by then, increasing the chances of getting radical proposals through. Though since CAMRA membership is heavily skewed towards the grey-haired end of society, between the announcement of the revitalisation project consultations in the spring of last year and the final document in the spring of next year, assuming that CAMRA contains at least twice as many over-60s as UK society in general (a reasonable assumption, I suggest, given that apparently 70% of respondents to the most recent part of the revitalisation consultation were over 50) then given the average mortality rate for the over-60s in Britain, the grim reaper will have called time on almost 8,000 CAMRA members in those two years.

I’m not totally convinced CAMRA can be saved in the long term, given the online comments I read from craft beer drinkers who clearly see CAMRA members as dull, boring, elderly people drinking dull, boring, elderly beer. The problems with recruiting young activists to the campaign have been apparent for years – and the really dreadful statistic from the revitalisation project consultation is less than 3% of those responding were under 30. I’m in the “dull, boring and elderly” cohort myself, but I love, eg, Cloudwater DIPA as much as I love Fuller’s Chiswick. However, I fear anyone turning up to a CAMRA branch meeting is more likely to meet someone like Tim Spitzer, former chair of West Norfolk CAMRA branch, than someone like me. I am sure Mr Spitzer has done an enormous amount of good work for the cause of real ale in the Norfolk region and, having been a CAMRA branch chairman myself, I know what hard work the job is. But his rant in the latest edition of Norfolk Nips, the local CAMRA magazine, is certain to guarantee that anyone under 40 who reads it will decide instantly that the campaign holds no welcome for them.

As I read Mr Spitzer’s attack on “craft beer” – “it’s not cask-conditioned real ale and never will be and CAMRA should have nothing to do with it” – I thought: “You really don’t get it, do you, granddad?” (rather ironic, of course, because I’m 64 and Mr Spitzer may actually be younger than me). Like too many CAMRA members, he forgets what CAMRA was actually founded for – to improve beer quality, and nothing else. The concept of “real ale” did not even exist when the original “Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale” began in 1971. Mr Spitzer cries: “Have we all forgotten the fight against Watney’s Red Barrel and the big national brewers?” Mate, Watney’s Red disappeared 38 years ago. You would have to be 56 today to have (legally) drunk a pint of it in a British pub. Today’s young drinkers haven’t “forgotten” Red Barrel, they never knew it in the first place – it’s totally irrelevant to them, and anyone shouting on about it in the context of modern craft beer is inviting justified ridicule. Mr Spitzer finishes his spittle-flecked attack on the 21st century by proclaiming: “If CAMRA accepts craft beer then I for one will no longer be a member.” To which the only correct and proper response is – don’t let the door bang your arse on your way out.
Martyn Cornell is a leading beer writer and his blog can be found at www.zythophile.co.uk

Belgo and other brave beer pioneers by Glynn Davis

When themed restaurant and Belgian beer bar Belgo opened in 1992 it really was an oddity. Not necessarily because the waiters dressed as monks in thick brown habits and served strange mashed spuds called champ and the chips came with mayonnaise but because of the large array of strong Belgian beers that it sold. Back then it operated in a desolate beer landscape in the UK and was, with the benefit of hindsight, way ahead of its time.

Proof of this came with the sad closure of a number of Belgo outlets following its purchase by Luke Johnson in 1998 who had opened some larger format Bierodromes as well as a franchised outlet in Jersey. He sold out in 2005 and its new owners did very little with the brand until March last year when a new branch opened in Nottingham with a menu of 50-plus bottled Belgian beers. 

The rest of the country has undoubtedly finally caught up with Belgo as the British population has discovered a growing thirst for interesting beers. Further evidence of this can be seen in Liverpool where a Belgian beer concept, Biere Cafe, has just opened that serves 70 to 80 bottles and ten keg lines of various Belgian beers.

But it is in Balham, south London, where the new-found thirst for beer is really being tested. With the vast financial resources of parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Goose Island Beer Company has just opened the Vintage Ale House – its first outlet beyond its US heartland. Just like the first Belgo this venture is pretty experimental. It is very much pushing the boundaries of the types of beers we consume and how this is undertaken alongside food. 

At its opening in late-December the Vintage Ale House menu was very stripped down – to only four draught beers (all from Goose Island), eight bottled/canned beers (four from Goose Island), and eight wines (sadly only one from the US). The key alcohol on offer comprised seven 750ml vintage ales (all from Goose Island) – hence the Vintage Ale House name.

The real test in this cutting edge concept is how the public will take to these large 750ml bottles of what is “wild ale” or as other people might call them – sour ales. They are beers that have been fermented with wild yeasts and aged in different types of wooden barrels. This not only gives them very complex taste characteristics but also high ABVs and serious price tags. The range runs from Champagne-like Sofie at 6.5% and a price of £18 to wine barrel-aged Gillian (named after Gillian Anderson who once worked at Goose Island as a barmaid) at 9.5% and £22 a pop.

The idea is that people will share these large format bottles while consuming the bar’s American-influenced food. With only a modest area at the front of the unit, it is likely that the Vintage Ale House will operate largely as a beer-focused restaurant – although the initial no-booking policy might need to be reassessed. The expectations are drink will account for 60% of sales from the venue’s modest 40 covers.

Having tasted all of these beers the general conclusion is they are all top-notch productions that have great complexity and compare extremely favourably with any wines at the equivalent price points. Here is the rub – the Vintage Ale House is absolutely having a stab at replacing wine with beer – but this has not proven to be an open door in the UK by any means when other operators have tried such a bold move. This will be the main challenge with the concept in its initial format. It still remains the case that beer drinkers will frequently switch from ale to wine when they move from bar to dinner table. The fact remains that the bulk of UK consumers are still some way off seamlessly interchanging beer and wine when dining.

Thankfully Goose Island has the financial resources to take large experimental steps that further push quality beers into the eating and drinking environment of the British consumer. Regardless of how many rejigs of the model the company has to go through (and I expect a few) before it achieves some success with the Vintage Ale House its efforts should be applauded. 

It is only from brave moves such as this that we will gradually move towards a situation where beer sits ever more comfortably with the bulk of UK consumers and we can progress a little further along the journey that Belgo began back in the early 1990s.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Inspirational messages by Ann Elliott

There’s just no substitute out there for reading and hearing about the experiences, and lessons, which others have had to inspire you. With this in mind, here’s what’s inspired the Elliotts team lately:

Simon Sinek on millennials
Sinek brilliantly breaks down the “millennial problem” – talking about the challenges they face as they reach adulthood and their core needs and the fact they are “accused of being entitled, self-interested, narcissistic, unfocused and lazy”. Sinek, whose book Start With Why could also easily make this list, breaks down millennials’ problems into four key categories – parenting, technology, impatience and environment. It’s fascinating, funny, challenging and essential viewing, particularly for anybody trying to understand a young, diverse workforce.  

Baked In by Alex Bogusky and John Winsor
One of our directors read this for the second time over Christmas and continues to find it a source of inspiration. Its blurb alone is particularly thought-provoking: “The new rule: create truly innovative products and build the marketing right into them. Today, it’s within the product itself that a brand has the most leverage with consumers. So where should companies start? They must take their brands back to their foundations and realise the message is not the product, but that the product is the message.”

Identifying your long-term goals
This is a great piece on identifying your long-term goals by answering five simple questions – what do I want to do? Who do I want to be? What do I want to see? What do I want to have? Where do I want to go? The author Jim Rohn says: “You’ll probably be surprised at some of the things that turn up. You might have kept a great many desires and aspirations hidden in the back of your mind, but the opportunity to write them down will move them to the forefront of your consciousness.” The article can be found here.

Maltesers’ marketing efforts
Food is a universal language as demonstrated by Maltesers that launched a billboard in London written entirely in Braille to better represent disability in advertising. This follows a television advertising campaign, in particular one advert about a deaf woman whose hearing aid is swallowed by a dog. The ad aired for the first time using British Sign Language and no subtitles. It is here.

Run for your bun
The team liked some great PR ideas from the past few weeks including David Lloyd’s latest initiative, giving its members a chance to earn their food by burning calories. It’s a pop-up cafe concept called Run for your Bun in London, and runs from 11 to 13 January. Other strong PR efforts over Christmas included one from Burger King that allowed customers to exchange unwanted Christmas gifts for a “Whopper” and donated all the gifts handed in to The Salvation Army. Helen Mirren calling drink drivers “pillocks” within the Budweiser Christmas ad was also incredibly memorable: https://youtu.be/HCILH_jajIE

How to Lose Weight Well
Channel 4’s How to Lose Weight Well programme seems to have gone under the radar a bit. For restaurateurs, it’s a handy way to understand the various diets impacting consumer decision-making and choice, particularly pertinent in January. Worth a watch.

Let’s get digital
Our digital team liked the new Rolls Royce website, which takes full advantage of new HTML5 technology to deliver a pretty incredible brand video to explain its brand story perfectly, narrated by Kate Winslet. Could be adopted by our sector.

Blogs
Our PR team were particularly enamoured with blog The Angry Chef. A favourite among the team was its October piece “Clean Eating is Dead”, which covered the clean eating fad in a humorous FAQ-style blog. It’s written by a chef who has made it his mission to expose the “lies, pretentions and ridiculousness in the world of food”. Ego Scriptor is an equally great read, which can be found here. It talks about food in a comical but descriptive manner across its reviews and travel pieces. I personally loved Giles Coren’s tribute piece to AA Gill in The Times. It starts: “With Adrian dead, the point of restaurant reviewing eludes me. It’s like showing up to play at Wimbledon after Federer has retired, or getting in a fast car and driving round in circles the week after the death of Senna – you can show up and go through the motions, but nobody gives a damn because the guy who invented the game wasn’t there. And nor do you, because you didn’t get to play against him.”

Real Junk Food
A Manchester-based crowdfunding effort inspired so many in our team. Its goal is simple, to open Manchester’s first waste food cafe, with the goal of cutting food waste in the city and provide hot nutritious meals for all. Its been hosting pop-up events for two and a half years, and as its Crowdfunder page states: “We source food that would go to waste, cook it up into awesome meals, and serve them to anyone and everyone on a pay-as-you-feel basis. We aim to stamp out food waste, campaign to make our food system fairer and more sustainable, and support some of Manchester’s most vulnerable residents.” It has just reached its fund-raising target.

I’d be really interested to hear what reads have inspired you recently.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading PR and marketing company Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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