Tuesday 15 March 2011

More Sad News

As our Beautiful British Beer Scene reels from the shock news of the closure of Beer Ritz in Leeds (and my best wishes to Zak, Ghostie and the team), even more sad news reaches the Boggle Newsdesk.

Nichols Ltd, manufacturers of Panda Drinks, recently discontinued their Panda Pops fizzy drinks, saying that having a sugary carbonated drink in their portfolio was contaminating the rest of the Panda brand. As the informed reader and recent visitors to Cooking Lager's blog will know, the Panda Pop bottle has been beloved of the Beautiful British Ticker as a means to collect field samples for later testing when located in a source-rich environment.

I assume it will take some time for this to filter through to our Beautiful British Ticking Community, as I believe they carefully clean and re-use bottles (I imagine they also keep the market for Milton baby bottle sterilising fluid quite buoyant). However, before they go on a panic buying spree to scoop up the last remaining stocks of Panda Pops, they don't need to be too alarmed - Nichols still have Panda Still Juice Drink and Panda Still Flavoured Water available. The names don't roll off the tongue as easily though... I salute the demise of an iconic brand.

In other news (not sure if this is sad or not), Delaware USA brewer Dogfish Head have announced they won't be exporting beer to the UK or Canada this year, citing increased demand in home markets. They are also withdrawing from distribution to four US states. The company and head man Sam Calagione have built a reputation for brewing off-the-wall beers, including resurrecting recipes allegedly 3,000 years old. DFH was recently featured on US Discovery show "Brewmasters", which will have increased awareness of the brand amongst non-geeks, and presumably has contributed to their growth.

Friday 11 March 2011

Strange Bedfellows

It's been an interesting week for British Beer. Pete Brown lit the blue touch paper on Monday, painting a big picture of the threats facing our home brewing industry. That's brought others in the blogosphere into the debate here, here and here.

Now, as bloggers, my feeling is that we have a somewhat intense and narrow focus on beer, for different reasons. I'm not in the business, but I like my beer. Pete has fingered some around these parts (I recognise myself) as navel-gazers who aren't seeing that Big Picture. The factionalism, the negativity. Pete wants evangelists to be in the van, proclaiming the Beer Revolution. Sticks in the mud need not apply. As for factions, we're all at it, sticking labels on parts of the beer community - 'spoogebeerians', 'crafterati', 'extremeophiles'... sometimes (certainly, in my case) disdainfully. But I care about beer. I'm enthused by the scene rowing up in London - the excellent quality and range of styles coming out of the brewhouses of forward-thinking brewers. I'm excited by travelling for beer, when the opportunity presents itself (rarely, these days).

The week wasn't just interesting for Pete's piece, though. On the same day, somebody called Scott Wilson, top talking head at MolsonCoors UK, had his address to the SIBA conference reported here. He identified wines and spirits as the enemy, and used "the craft, service and love that goes into coffee" as his benchmark for revitalising cask beer. He also noted a lack of innovation. He said that craft brewers could lead the beer revolution.

Oddly, Scott's example of innovation was the widget, which has no place in craft brewing that I can see, nor in the on-trade. I'd have thought a brewer would see creative use of new hops, bringing new and exciting recipes to market to excite the palate and enthuse the drinker, would be innovative. Or maybe just evolutionary. Whatever. Still, his language was equally stirring. In fact, thematically, not a million miles from what Pete threw open for discussion.

But hist! Just a few days before, somebody called Tony Jennings, CEO of Budweiser Budvar UK, weighed in with this polemic against Big Brewing, labelling the "Dark Lords" as bellowing dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. Their declining markets will make their messages irrelevant. The future belongs to craft. Tony's beer isn't UK-brewed, and you could imagine a brewer like Budvar, pursued all over the world with relentless (or pointless) zeal by A-B (InBev) for decades, to exhibit some schadenfreude over the slow global implosion of markets for Big Brewing. But he has a point about how to sell good beer. He says...
More and more drinkers are realising that this is the only route to getting beers with the quality, variety, provenance and values they crave, and the traditional pub is central to this, making it far more than a great retail experience. Thank goodness society is at last showing signs of valuing the importance of this institution in our world.
I'm not sure about that last sentence, though. Tony, interestingly, heaps scorn on any idea that Starbuckisation is what's needed for pubs. Did he have a sneak preview of Wilson's comments at SIBA?

And then, midweek, the Big Bang, as MP Martin Horwood's 10-Minute Rule bill was adopted by Parliament, meaning it will receive a full reading in the House. This bill threatens to create a statutory instrument compelling pub operators to free the tie by, among other things requiring a guest-beer rule and making rent-reviews open-market. That must alarm Enterprise and Punch Taverns quite a bit. The bill got some passing mention ahead of time, but the tone was that it was unlikely to get a full reading. That didn't stop some in the trade trying to shoot it down, though.

The IFBB (Family Brewers) tried to pre-emptively kill the bill by lobbying every MP with a plea that the tie should be kept as it is for estates under 500 pubs. That didn't move the members, and now we have CAMRA (who had nothing to say on the bill before it passed), the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) and even the Fair Pint Campaign, all backing the bill. Fair Pint's website has lain dormant since last August, but even they've been stirred from their prolonged snooze. BBPA are against it, saying that nothing should be done until they report back on the implementation of self-regulation in June.

But that's just one facet of the range of issues facing British Brewing. On another, on the Early Day Motion (number 1475) petitioning the Treasury and George 'Boy' Osborne to scrap the beer duty escalator and the planned duty increase in this month's Budget, most of these parties are all onside. CAMRA have been trying to turn out the membership to lobby their local MP, and this morning, what is this? but an email from BBPA asking the same thing. I wasn't expecting that, since Diageo have come out in favour of equal duty rates for all alcohol drinks, which would hamstring beer in comparison with much higher-ABV drinks, and they apparently pull quite a few of BBPA's strings.

It's instructive in demonstrating how alliances are formed and abandoned in order to deal with single issues, when what is really needed is a single voice dealing strategically with the relationship between brewing and pubs, industry, legislators and consumers . I suspect if anybody tried to draw a Venn diagram to describe the current relationships between the various trade bodies and umbrella groups, it would resemble a drunks' attempt to draw a perfect circle using their wrong hand.

There's a cacophony of different voices all saying they speak for beer and pubs, but at the pointy end, in the pubs, all it seems to do amongst publicans trying to earn a crust, is provoke scorn, if the comments pages on the Publican website are anything to go by.

All these voices, all these issues and tensions are bound to throw up a load of dirty laundry. The reason why wine (beer's biggest competitor?) can present such a unified front is that most of it isn't made here. Wine drinkers don't see any of the politics, any of the industry tensions or any of the relational dynamics in play within the industries of the producing countries. All the drinker sees is uniform rows of elegantly-labelled bottles on supermarket shelves, or in a pub fridge. Our brewing industry has to play out their agonies in front of its customers, if they care to watch. And I suppose another point is, how many beer drinkers ARE watching? Does a bloke who pops down his local for a couple of pints each evening pick up on this? And does he care? Would he ever change that lager he's been drinking for years for something new and interesting, for that matter?

So, back to our mate Scott from MolsonCoors. He mused on the failure of "campaigns like Beer Naturally, Beautiful Beer and Beer Reverence" to stop the decline in beer sales. What's that now? Never heard of 'em. But what beer were they campaigning for? Who supported the message? And how did they try to get that message out?

We need a single independent voice speaking for British Brewing and British Pubs, not shills for large or vested interests who only want a talking head to spin their message. One body that can credibly send a message to legislators and consumers alike, that we have a thriving and resilient industry that is being attacked by joyless health nazis and neo-prohibitionists, and bled dry by the Treasury. Who'll take the lead? Beats me...

Edit: wouldn't ya know it? Hit 'publish', and then saw this on twitter. Another voice to add to the choir...

Saturday 5 March 2011

Kernel Scoops SIBA National Award

To Bermondsey to buy some bottles of beer, where I learn that London micro and 2010 Boggle Award winner Kernel Brewing has picked up the award for best bottled beer at the 2011 SIBA National Competition.

They won Gold and Bronze back in the summer of 2010 at the regional competition, for Export Stout and Simcoe IPA respectively, and it was the Export Stout which went forward for judging against these...
You'll see former London brewer Pitfield on there, now brewing in East Anglia, and bottled Kipling from Thornbridge.

Brewer Evin O'Rioirdian is delighted, though wasn't able to collect the award in person - he was only told the day before. I haven't seen the rest of the awards, so not sure if there's any more good news for London (Sambrooks were up for an award for Junction). I expect SIBA will update their website at some point.

I'm pleased for Kernel and also for London. CAMRA's champion pub of the year title for The Harp and now a SIBA national crown for one of our brewers. And, though modesty ought to forbid it, I will point out that both of these won Boggle Awards last year. Can I smell a winner, or what? We just want Cask Pub & Kitchen to pick up The Publican Tenanted/Leased Pub Of The Year title now...