Session #117: With a Chance of Meatballs

 Illustration: 'Bloggs Cumulo Nimbus IPA'.For the 117th edition of The Session our host Csaba Babak asks us to ‘capture ONE thing you think we will see MORE of with an explanation of the idea’ — admirably simple and clear!

We couldn’t resist taking this opportunity to revisit our predictions for 2016 from last Christmas:

  1. Another big brewery takeover of a British craft brewery. (Not yet.)
  2. More beers making a feature of malt, herbs and actual fruit. (Kind of.)
  3. Birmingham goes ‘craft’. (Also kind of.)
  4. A mainstream hazy beer. (Not yet.)

We put forward that last one as a ‘flyer’ but it doesn’t feel as ‘out there’ as it did even ten months ago. CAMRA has made (let’s word this carefully) small gestures towards acknowledging unfined beer. Most of the canned IPAs and pale ales we’ve picked up lately have poured hazy and the people we’ve been drinking with — not beer geeks — weren’t appalled, if they even noticed. ‘New England IPA’, of which cloudiness is a key characteristic, has become the sub-style of the day. As we said back in December 2015, cloudiness is great for marketing people because it’s a verifiable and easy-to-spot point of difference which is already being exploited by big cider makers.

So, we’re going to refine our original prediction to sidestep debates about wheat beer: we expect to see the UK launch of at least one mainstream, hazy pale ale or lager from a larger brewery and, in general, more deliberately hazy or cloudy beer on sale outside specialist venues. Bearing in mind it’s taken John Smith’s et al 25 years to get on the golden ale bandwagon it might not be through one of those really big brands but we can definitely imagine seeing something on the ale shelves in a supermarket, perhaps from within the Marston’s empire.

Now, this isn’t something we’re wishing for — it’s just our read of the way the wind is blowing. Whether the clouds it is bringing are fluffy, friendly ones or the dark harbingers of a storm probably depends on your point of view.

Where Does the AB-InBev Craft Project End?

It’s been a while since AB took over a craft brewery but today, they struck again, taking over a Texas brewery we’d never heard of but…

Here’s a quickly hacked together map of the US states where AB-InBev has acquired breweries so far:

Map of the US with AB-InBev acquisition states (Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Illinois, Virginia, New York, Arizona, Colorado) marked in yellow.
SOURCE: Adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

(Note: that’s Alaska and Hawaii tucked in underneath for tidiness as is the norm for discrete maps of the US.)

Can you see a strategy emerging? We’re not sure we can, not quite yet, but there might be a vague correlation with states where people have relatively higher incomes. If what’s driving their decisions is that, combined with a reach for geographical coverage — which would make some kind of sense — then we’d be placing bets on the next target being a fast-growing brewery in the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, North Dakota). After that… Maybe they’ll just go all in and aim for a presence in every state?

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Why Do People Care About the Marston’s Rebrand?

Marston's rebranded beer range.
SOURCE: Marston’s, via the Morning Advertiser. Yes, we’re sick of this image too.

Marston’s announced a major rebrand yesterday and it seems to have made lots of people, on both sides in the culture war we’re apparently having these days, a bit irritated.

Traditionalists like the Pub Curmudgeon are annoyed at the apparent pandering to the youth market — what’s wrong with appealing to middle-aged and older people? Isn’t their money good enough any more?

Others are dismayed by the lack of respect for history and heritage: Pedigree, a brand invented in the 1950s, is a classic in its own way, so why pretend it was conceived in the 21st Century? (Note: they tried the retro look in 2012.) Why give Oyster Stout, one of the Marston’s beers that is better-loved among beer geeks, a would-be trendy name when the old one was quirky and interesting enough? And what’s with calling Pedigree ‘amber ale’ all of a sudden — is ‘bitter’ a dirty word now?

On a somewhat related note, colonial booze historian Dr Sam Goodman quietly rolled his eyes at the laziness of the new design for Old Empire IPA:

For our part, we instinctively felt it a misstep and, after a bit of chat over the porridge, decided that the problem was the potential confusion and disappointment for consumers. Someone who isn’t an expert but is vaguely interested in trying a beer similar to BrewDog’s might casually pick these up at the supermarket only to be let down by the contents. You might trick a consumer into buying once with misleading packaging (what we’ve previously called craftsploitation) but it doesn’t win repeat custom.(Note: we haven’t tried the new pale ale and maybe it really is a super-hoppy and bitter session IPA.) Meanwhile, those who prefer old-school beer are likely to give these a miss, or (see above) feel that their custom is not wanted.

Among those more soundly in the ‘craft’ camp the reaction was sharp. For starters, the design just isn’t as cool as its creators think it is, as Charlie ‘The Crafty Beeress’ Worthington confirmed when she asked a graphic designer pal what they made of the new branding: ‘I think the boat has sailed on all that distressed looking type stuff that BrewDog were doing 7 years ago.’ In desperately seeking relevance they’ve somehow made themselves less relevant.

Others were insulted by the suggestion that people who make a point of buying and drinking craft beer are actually just idiots buying labels who can be duped with a wave of the brand manager’s wand. For what it’s worth, we don’t think they’re actually after craft beer drinkers, though — just people who might be vaguely aware of the idea and don’t like ‘old man’ beers. Which, of course, leads to a sense that this is just a crass attempt at co-opting a thriving culture by an organisation that, as Richard Coldwell observes, is a modern equivalent of Whitbread or Watney’s in their 1970s pomp.

So, that’s everyone annoyed, for different reasons. Probably not the intended result.

The funny thing is, beneath all the hoo-ha about the clumsy re-brand, there is actually something interesting going on: Pedigree is now bottle-conditioned. That’s a material change that might — let’s even say will probably — improve the quality of the product. It’s certainly not something they had to do and, we suspect, is a deep-level gesture to beer geeks, and especially to CAMRA members. We’ll give it a go when we get the chance and report back.

QUICK POST: Bourdain Isn’t a Beer Guy

Anthony Bourdain with Nigella Lawson.
SOURCE: CNN, via Eater.com.

Celebrity chef and food opiner Anthony Bourdain has given an interview to Thrillist in which he has harsh words to say about craft beer and its culture:

I would say that the angriest critiques I get from people about shows are when I’m drinking whatever convenient cold beer is available in a particular place, and not drinking the best beer out there. You know, I haven’t made the effort to walk down the street 10 blocks to the microbrewery where they’re making some fucking Mumford and Sons IPA…

Now, Thrillist is a frightful den of clickbait, and craft beer types are easily baited, but Mr. Bourdain often has interesting thoughts and in this case, he makes some good points. For example, this…

[The] entire place was filled with people sitting there with five small glasses in front of them, filled with different beers, taking notes. This is not a bar. This is fucking Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is wrong. This is not what a bar is about.

…is probably fair comment if you accept that the ideal bar or pub is a lively, even raucous place, which we do, on the whole. He probably wouldn’t like us much — we do enjoy over-thinking beer — but some places are too church-like and sterile even for us.

Continue reading “QUICK POST: Bourdain Isn’t a Beer Guy”

QUICK POST: A Craft Eat Craft World

"Are All Beers The Same?"

It seems to us that we might have entered a new phase in which craft breweries (def. 2) are explicitly in competition with each other, rather than at war with Big Beer.

That thought was prompted by the announcement by London brewery Brew By Numbers (AKA BBNo) that they are going to include bottled-on dates on all their hoppy beers from now on.

We think this is a laudable move — the more information the better — even if we’re not wholly convinced by the fetishisation of beers that have to be consumed within eight minutes of leaving the brewery, at great inconvenience to distributors and outlets.

But why are they doing it? We’d guess it’s because, in a market where lots of breweries — lots of London breweries, even — are making beer similar to and (give or take) as good as Brew By Numbers, they need to do something to stand out. This isn’t about looking better or more interesting than, say, John Smith’s, or Carslberg — that battle is won — but about competing with Beavertown or Five Points.

The same perhaps goes for Manchester’s Cloudwater whose wonderfully transparent recipe development process isn’t a challenge to AB-InBev but to the other cool kids, and especially to those who were cool a decade or more ago.

When BrewDog came along raging at both Big Beer and the CAMRA-affiliated bitter-brewing microbrewery fraternity (you can debate the sincerity of that rage amongst yourselves) they could score points easily: it didn’t take much to seem fresh. But nowadays, it requires a big gesture, like publishing all their recipes in a free e-book, to maintain their dominant position.

All this might be good news for consumers — more transparency, fundamentally better beer quality — but we understand why it might leave some mourning the days when everyone was in it together.

The point is, in 2011, being Well Craft was enough; now, you’ve got to be Crafter then Craft to get noticed. Where will it end?