Session 107: Am I Your Friend?

The Session this month is hosted by a brewery, Community Beer Works, on whose behalf Dan asks:

Do you want your feeds clear of businesses, or do you like when a brewery engages with people? Can you think of anyone who does it particularly well, or poorly?

Let’s break that down.

1. Do we want our feeds clear of businesses? No, we do not. Businesses make the beer, and we spend an inordinate amount of time observing businesses, interviewing people from businesses, and wondering what businesses will do next. We opt in to the Tweets and Facebook updates of plenty of breweries — amazing, really, when you think of the lengths we and others go to to avoid advertising in other contexts.

2. Do we like when a brewery engages with people? Yes, to an extent, in a way, within certain parameters. We love it when brewers answer technical questions with (apparent) honesty, or ask questions of the people who drink their beer. It’s great when they reveal a little of what makes them tick, or tell us things we wouldn’t otherwise know — a sense that we’re being rewarded for following with ‘the inside skinny’. As consumers, the more engagement we can get, the better; with our little writers’ hats on, though, a little distance is appropriate: we can’t really be pals.

3. Who’s really good at it? Richard Burhouse at Magic Rock seems to strike the right balance of openness and good taste, never seeming any less than honest. John Keeling at Fuller’s dispenses bite-sized nuggets of wisdom which, one day, will be compiled into a little book for other brewers to keep in their blazer pockets. Fergus Fitzgerald at Adnams gives a real sense of what it is like to be head brewer at an old family brewery: he answers questions freely, and comes across as warm and genuine. And this post sharing every last detail of a highly-regarded recipe from last week, sharing every last detail of a highly-regarded recipe, was great. What they all have in common, we guess, is that there’s no sense of the hard sell about them, and no feeling of being PRd at.

The Lure of Luxury, The Call of Craft?

Why do people buy ‘fancy beer’ — because it tastes better, or because it ‘signals’ status?

Psychologist Paul Bloom’s article ‘The Lure of Luxury‘ mentions beer only in passing — ‘the attractive stranger in a bar is aroused by your choice of beer’ — but anyone who’s been called a snob for drinking a £6 pint, or rolled their eyes at the glitzy packaging of a limited edition IPA, will get the relevance.

Dr Bloom sets out two opposing points of view:

  1. People want luxury goods because they look, feel or taste good — they give pleasure in and of themselves.
  2. Luxury goods are status symbol designed to impress others and signal ‘intelligence, ambition, and power’.

The truth, he argues, lies somewhere in between:

Now, only a philistine would deny Postrel’s point that some consumer preferences are aesthetic, even sensual. And only a rube would doubt that some people buy some luxury items to impress colleagues, competitors, spouses, and lovers. Perhaps we can divvy up the consumer world. An appreciation of beauty explains certain accessible and universal consumer pleasures—Postrel begins her book in Kabul after the Taliban fell, describing how the women there reveled in their freedom to possess burkas of different colors and to paint their nails—while signaling theory applies to the more extravagant purchases. A crimson burka? Aesthetics. A $30,000 watch? Signaling. Aristotle Onassis’s choice to upholster the bar stools in his yacht with whale foreskin? Definitely signaling.

He goes on to consider why an exact replica of an object isn’t as desirable as the real thing; why when people buy a celebrity’s jumper in a charity auction they don’t want it dry-cleaned first; and whether anyone needs six mechanical wrists to automatically wind their collection of Rolex watches.

Let’s attempt to translate those questions: Why do people continue to hunt down and pay through the nose for Westvleteren 12 when none but the most refined palates can tell it from St Bernardus Abt 12? Why is beer brewed under contract less appealing than otherwise? Does anyone need a £168 six-pack of beer?

When you choose a beer is it really ‘about flavour’ — the defensive cry of the craft beer drinker accused of extravagance — or something else? And, of course, something else might be fine, depending on your values, and the pleasure it brings is just as real.

We found Dr Bloom’s article via BoingBoing.com. If you can’t be bothered to read it you can see him speaking on related topics at the TED Talks website.

GALLERY: Guinness Time, 1967-1971

These wonderfully colourful covers for editions of the Guinness London staff magazine remind us of cartoons and children’s books from our childhoods, but could just as easily grace the sleeve of a Kinks LP.

Autumn 1967, front: Adam and Eve with the apple.
Autumn 1967, front.
Autumn 1967, rear: the Edenic serpent wraps itself around a bottle of Guinness.
Autumn 1967, rear.

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Tasting and Market Research, 1966

In July 1966, an anonymous editorial in A Monthly Bulletin explained how breweries of the time carried out market research into beer.

AMB was a Reader’s Digest style magazine focusing on beer and pubs and was published by the Brewers’ Society. About 18 months ago, Martyn Cornell sent us his spare volumes (he retains a full set) and we’ve been going through them with a fine tooth comb lately while researching a Big Project which is how we came across this article:

If you are market-researching in beer, you cannot merely send your team out for the day to knock on every other door in a suburban street. For one thing the men, who are probably your main customers, will be out at work: for another, they will not appreciate your representatives calling while they are out to ply their wives with drink.

The author explains that market research begins with sales statistics and surveys distributed to ‘bartenders’ (those who think that word is a recent Americanism, take note) and customers, before moving on to taste tests:

In the early days of market research in beer, tasting tests were conducted rather tentatively. Perhaps at heart the researchers wondered whether, deprived of the guidance of labels, consumers might not be foxed by any two beers of the same colour. In fact, it has been found that consumers’ discrimination is good provided only that they are kept to the kind of beer — mild, bitter, or whatever — to which they are most accustomed.

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