Portman Group v. Infantile Can Designs

The label for Cwtch.

News broke this morning that a complaint against the design of the can for Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch has been upheld by the Portman Group.

The Portman Group is the beer industry’s organ for self-regulation, the purpose of which is, broadly speaking, to head off this kind of issue before things get really heavy. The complaint against Cwtch was that “a member of the public, believed that the product wasn’t obviously alcoholic, due to the design, and also had a particular appeal to children”.

We have a few thoughts on this.

First, we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. As we wrote back in March 2016 craft beer cans often feature designs that mean they resemble soft drinks, and the borderline between fun and downright infantile is pretty fine. How do you design something that will appeal to a 19-year-old but not to a 17-year-old? This is an especially important question given that the former has been a large part of the success of the crop of craft breweries that have emerged in the last decade or so.

What perhaps doesn’t help is how often we see people chortling on social media that, tee hee, craft beer cans are great because The Man assumes you’re drinking pop! Heck, we’ve even played this game ourselves. And, vice versa, when people are constantly posting pictures of fizzy pop cans with variations on the joke, “This new IPA looks interesting.”

Then there’s a second point: the nagging suspicion we’ve had that Tiny Rebel have been following the BrewDog playbook (Brew Britannia, chapter 14) and angling for some kind of dispute in which they are the oppressed underdog for PR purposes. We’re sure they must have known that the packaging was provocative — teddy bears! Candy! Cartoon characters! — just as BrewDog knew Speedball was back in 2008. In addition Tiny Rebel seem to have been actively engaged in what we’d call ‘trademark baiting’, referencing characters owned by huge corporations such as Nintendo (Princess Peach), Disney (Darth Vader) and Sony (the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man). So far they’ve got away with it, as have Robinson’s, which we suppose makes it a win-win.

Then again, maybe we’re wrong. After all, the Portman Group’s judgement suggests that Tiny Rebel played ball throughout the process and have agreed to change the packaging.

Anyway, on balance, the judgement seems fair enough to us, and hardly draconian. It would certainly seem less controversial if it as AB-InBev or Carslberg in the firing line, wouldn’t it? This kind of back-and-forth over marginal cases is far better than hard-and-fast rules which tend to push the boundary back well into the safety zone. We would certainly start to worry, though, if these rulings begin to pile up and lead to, say, a de facto ban on the use of bright colours.

We came to this story via Charlie AKA @craftybeeress who blogs at craftybeeress.com — give her a follow!

Cask Ale is Too Cheap/Expensive

Illustration: Pound Sign/Pint Glass.

Cask ale is both too cheap and too expensive. Or, rather, both of the following statements are true:

  1. It is a problem for brewers that cask beer – culturally important and relatively more difficult to brew, distribute and serve at its best – is expected to be cheaper than other forms of beer on sale in the UK.
  2. Consumers cannot be expected to pay more for cask beer.

Let’s look at item No. 1 first.

We have testimony from multiple brewers that cask ale not only offers only slim profit margins but also comes with additional challenges not found with keg or small-pack products. Take this from Northern Monk, for example:

[Logistically cask is] a massive headache for us… It makes no sense for us to package in a format that we’re not really set up for, has a lower market value than other packaged formats and our beer isn’t particularly suited to.

Or, if you don’t much value the views of ‘upstarts’, here’s Roger Ryman of St Austell: “Overall profit on cask beer is wafer thin in free trade and national distribution where we compete against the many hundreds of breweries that operate in this market”.

So, competition is an issue but we also find ourselves suspecting that if it weren’t for certain oddities in the market – the gravitational pull of the Campaign for Real Ale, a historical expectation that cask will be cheaper than keg – cask would be a premium product costing more than most keg beers. That is sometimes expressed, for the sake of brevity, especially on Twitter, as “Cask is too cheap”, or “Cask ought to be more expensive”, or “I’d be willing to pay more”.

There’s a cheap rhetorical trick that often gets played at this point: “Oh, so you think £3 a pint is too cheap? Alright for you, moneybags.”; “So what you’re saying is that want to exclude poor people from cask altogether then? You elitist bastard.”; “You want to pay more? Are you quite mad?”

(Also a cheap trick: paraphrasing those rather than quoting specific examples, but we don’t want to get into beef with anyone in particular.)

The problem is, those latter voices also have a point, which brings us to item 2.

Nobody Has Any Money

Journalist Will Hawkes put this well on Twitter last week (and, indeed, prompted this entire post):

"People can't pay more. Wages have been in decline for years and will be for years. Brewers need to accept this."

As a consumer it can get pretty exhausting: support pubs, support small breweries, boycott supermarkets, support record shops, support bookshops, support struggling restaurants, support your local butcher, baker, artisanal candlemaker. Buy local, buy Fair Trade, buy British. Oh, and pay into a pension, and save for a rainy day, and put a roof over your head in a property market gone insane, and also we’d like you to go onto a contract which means we can’t guarantee your income from one month to the next. Oh, and it’s 30p to use the toilet now, by the way, because there’s no magic money tree and so on and so forth.

If somehow the price of cask ale rose by, say, 20p a pint across the board, it wouldn’t unlock some secret pot of money that consumers are sitting on. Indeed, it would probably push a significant number over the edge, reducing the number of trips they make to the pub.

“Well, drink less but better,” people sometimes say, but, honestly, if we drank much less we might as well give up and join the Band of Hope, even though going to the pub is our biggest leisure expenditure each month. (If you haven’t already done so try totting up how much you spend in the pub each month – the numbers are a bit scary.)

To us, and others like us, and especially those worse off than us, it doesn’t feel as if cask ale is cheap. The fact that some really cheap beer is available, at Wetherspoon or Sam Smith pubs, doesn’t ‘devalue cask’ – it’s a lifeline, part of the balancing act that means we can occasionally afford to splash on something special at £5 a pint.

So Mr Hawkes is right: brewers and their boosters need to find better ways to tackle this issue than berating or guilt-tripping. Equally, when a brewery makes a commercial decision to pull out of cask, or refuses to budge on price, consumers (and especially real ale campaigners) shouldn’t be turning the guilt-gun back on them: they’re doing what they feel needs to be done to survive in an ever-more competitive market.

Minimum Unit Pricing: Let’s See How it Goes

BrewDog Beers on a shelf.

This week, after much deliberation, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government can set a 50p minimum price-per-unit for alcohol.

This is a discussion of which we’ve tended to steer clear because following the arguments is a full time job and other people are more invested in it; and because it tends to get a bit frothy as libertarians with complicated connections to think tanks and the booze industry yell at researchers and policy-makers with complicated connections to the historic temperance movement and government, and vice versa.

With that in mind, we can’t say with any confidence whether MUP is a good policy or not, and we’ve heard convincing arguments for and against from both sides.

For example, we do worry that it will make it harder for ‘responsible drinkers’ on low incomes to get tiddly while middle- and upper-class drinkers can continue to get as wasted as they like on whatever they like. (A few years ago we wondered about setting up a Christmas Booze Bank dishing out bottles of whisky or slabs of beer to people who might otherwise have to choose between having fun or having the heating on.) It seems clear that MUP is intended to target very strong white ciders and super-strength lagers — the kinds of thing few people actually choose to drink if they can afford otherwise — but will catch lots of other types of less sinister booze in its net.

Equally, it seems daft to ignore the reality of the problems alcohol causes for some of the most vulnerable in society, especially when it’s wilful ignorance in support of absolutist anti-regulation dogma. Some people drink too much — we’ve all seen the evidence of this, or known family members who demonstrates it — but their lives, and those of their loved ones, might be prolonged and made happier in the long run if they drank at least a little bit less. This is reality, people’s actual lives, not a philosophical parlour game.

We certainly don’t think all alcohol policy campaigners and researchers are cynics and killjoys attempting to introduce prohibition via the thin ends of various wedges. (Even if some of their fellow travellers might be that way inclined.) In general, the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument winds us up — we’d never do anything if point B inevitably leads to point Z. No, we tend to think they are motivated by genuine concern for their brother man, even if that sometimes reads as condescension or meddling; and, in the case of researchers, we’ve no reason to doubt that they are striving for scientific objectivity.

(If you believe otherwise we’d be genuinely interested to know what you reckon motivates them – surely not religion, in 2017? Chronic dourness? Insanity?)

Politicians, government PR people and newspapers on the other hand… Well, they’re prone to over-simplifying, over-dramatising, grand gestures. If there’s a problem, it might be there.

So, again, we don’t know if MUP is a good idea. What we do know is that Scotland won’t be taking this step without due process having been followed. Much research has been undertaken; hours have been spent labouring over every detail and footnote; the final judgement from the Supreme Court seems balanced and cautious (PDF); and there’s going to be a substantial evaluation project to judge its impact.

Good policy or not, this is how it ought to work – small steps, cautiously implemented, challenged in court where appropriate, followed by a serious assessment of whether it has achieved what was intended, and whether they have been any undesirable side-effects.

There is, after all, no way to really test policy without trying it in the real world, and there’s never been any policy, however well-intentioned, that didn’t wing a few bystanders along the way.

Ultimately we have to accept that pubs and the alcohol industry aren’t the only things that matter, even if they’re very important to us, and if the collective judgement is that they have to take a hit for the greater good then, well, that’s part of the give and take of living in a democracy.

Further Reading

Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?

“[Modern] beer is little more than a symbol. What would a pint of ‘mild’ taste like except dishwater if it were poured down the rural and metropolitan throats anywhere but in a public house?”

‘Y.Y. ’, New Statesman, 13 March 1943

Y.Y. was the pen name of Belfast-born writer Robert Lynd (1879-1949) and coincidentally it was a conversation with a barman from Northern Ireland the other night that got us thinking about the effects of magic upon the perceived quality of beer.

The barman we spoke to rolled his eyes at the suggestion (not from us) that Guinness is somehow better in Dublin: ‘It’s just because they pull through so much. And because, you know, you’re in Dublin, on holiday.’

It’s often been observed that particular beers that taste bland or even bad at home gain a certain glamour in a bar in Barcelona. Here’s Zak Avery on that subject from back in 2010:

In my memory, Cruzcampo was my holiday beer par excellence – cold, snappy, crisp, and perfect to wash down plates of jamon or gambas. In actuality, Cruzcampo is an ordinary mass-produced lager, tasting slightly oxidised and having a faintly sweet yellow apple note, neither of which are appealing or refreshing.

So, if Spanish sun makes bad lager taste good, and being in sight of St James’s Gate makes Guinness taste better, could it be, as Y.Y. suggests, that the pub itself — that romantic, almost sacred institution — is at least part of what gives cask ale its appeal?¹

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

Let’s put that another way: we’ve asked several people over the years exactly why we might prefer cask ale to keg² and the answers we’ve received have tended to point to gentler carbonation, lack of filtration and/or pasteurisation, and slightly warmer serving temperatures. And perhaps those are the tangible reasons, but isn’t it also to do with the paraphernalia?The brass and porcelain hand-pump, for example, could just as easily be (has been) an electric push-button if everyone was being coldly logical about all this. But those pumps add something.

We have a theory that a mediocre pint of, say, Timothy Taylor Landlord in a Victorian pub full of cut glass and dark wood, or a country pub with a crackling log fire, would register as tasting better than a technically perfect one in a laboratory. Or, indeed, that a pint of keg bitter would taste better in that ideal pub than a mediocre cask ale in the lab.

There are limits, of course: at a certain threshold, the spell is broken, and a bad beer will taste bad whatever the occasion or setting.

The point is, it’s complicated, and most of us aren’t coldly logical, and that’s fine: if you’re susceptible to being bedazzled, as we are, then let it happen.


  1. Not to everyone — we know.
  2. We do, on the whole, but of course that’s not the same as saying cask is better. Subjective, innit?

What is a ‘Local’?

Eavesdropping on Twitter again we spotted the above question which got us thinking. Here’s what we came up with.

1. It is, er, local. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the very closest to your house but it should certainly be in the same parish, and frequented by your neighbours.

2. It might not be the best pub on paper, or have the best beer, but it will be decent. You might not recommend it to other beer geeks, at least not without lots of footnotes, but you are fond of it. Getting to that stage might even have taken a bit of effort on your part, as it did for us with the Farmer’s Arms in Penzance.

3. It is convenient. If you can suggest to your co-habitee(s) ‘Quick one at the Queen’s?’ and they reply ‘Yeah, why not’, then it’s a local. No pre-planning required, no calendar checking, and you can probably leave the shepherd’s pie going in the oven while you nip round before dinner. (Oh, there you go — it has ‘nippability’.)

You might live somewhere and never identify a local. If all the pubs in the area are truly rotten, or you’re very fussy, and however hard you try you never develop a soft spot, then that’s unfortunate but probably not unusual. You’ll no doubt find a pub you like somewhere else in town but it won’t be your local even if you become a regular (those two words seem paired somehow). But what you should call it, we can’t say.