News, nuggets and longreads 30 January 2021 | Branding, Belgian stout, Bohemian lager

Here’s all the writing on beer and pubs we found especially interesting, illuminating or amusing in the past week, from branding to Belgian stout.

The big story of the week was that pioneering San Francisco craft beer brewery Anchor has rebranded. Now, we’d usually downgrade rebranding stories – they’re not generally that interesting – and certainly didn’t share the general sense of woe that broke out on Twitter. But this is significant, actually, being another indicator of the changing of the guard.

Pete Brown, who has just published a book on the marketing and branding of beer, doesn’t like the new Anchor labels but did get some more background from the brewery on why they felt the change was needed:

Anchor cites the need for greater standout on shelf, claiming even some of its biggest fans struggle to spot the existing design. Also, it needed to sell an expanding range of beers and have greater coherence between them: “Many of Anchor’s fans only know us as “Anchor Steam Beer” and aren’t aware that we brew other styles of beer,” the brewery spokesperson said… Another key aspect from yesterday’s statement acknowledges that “the beer industry has evolved drastically in the last decade with a significant shift toward novelty over heritage,” and that as a result, “we’ve watched many of our friends and colleagues at pioneering breweries close their doors.” Anchor seems to be telling us here that they face a straight choice of looking more like the new kids, or being forgotten. 

Martyn Cornell, meanwhile, doesn’t think it’s such a tragedy. His piece is entitled ‘The Anchor labels were never that great to begin with, and probably should have been changed long ago’:

The faux-antique bottle labels Fritz Maytag introduced as part of his shake-up of the failing business he acquired in the late 1960s certainly made the brand stand out on the shelves compared to the sleek designs of the megabrewers he was competing against. But they were always rather messy, deliberately hand-drawn to emphasise the “craft” nature of the product inside. As Anchor grew and as the craft brewery revolution it helped inspire exploded into thousands of competing beer brands, the bottle “dress” it had adopted began to look increasingly not so much charmingly old-fashioned as drab and out of date.

A mural in south London.

For Deserter, Vincent ‘Dirty South’ Raison has spoken to South London pub landlords about their present plight and their fears for the future. It’s full of specific detail and, though infused with anger, level-headed in its analysis:

Con Riordan, landlord at the esteemed Blythe Hill Tavern, felt that publicans don’t have enough friends in Parliament, as fond as politicians are of being pictured in a pub with a pint. But by disallowing takeaway booze – for who knows how long – the very survival of pubs is threatened, while supermarkets’ market share is increased… It’s clear that the government is constantly reacting rather than taking charge. Countries that have acted quickly and decisively have fared best: closing borders, mandatory mask-wearing, strict lockdowns and comprehensive testing have all helped. The whole country has been subject to revised regulations and baffling exceptions.

The Rutland Arms pub

There’s been much talk of the costs to our collective mental health of preventing gathering in offices, schools and, yes, pubs. For Ferment, the promo magazine for a beer subscription service, Katie Mather looks into the role of pubs as a vital part of the social safety net:

Katie Major | The Crow Inn and The Rutland Arms, Sheffield… “Because The Crow is so close to a popular real ale crawl, we would have customers who would do the same five or six pubs at the same time every week. For example, one regular comes in on a Thursday every week without fail, but I don’t know what he’s doing now, I have no way of contacting him. He’s been doing it for as long as I’ve worked in that area, so over ten years, and while he’s got a wife at home, his only social life is going round the pubs on his own, talking to the staff and the other customers.”

For Good Beer Hunting, Our Man in Prague Evan Rail explains how Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell are regarded in the Czech Republic and reminds us of the folly of projecting UK and US beer politics onto other nations:

[While] Asahi-owned Pilsner Urquell is a corporate juggernaut—technically a group of four separate breweries that together make up around 50% of the Czech market with their various brands—it is still respected, if not beloved, by both brewers and the general public here. When the festival of small breweries takes place each summer at Prague Castle, Pilsner Urquell is not included, because it is not a small brewery. But when Urquell’s brewmaster Václav Berka shows up at the event, he is often surrounded by a gaggle of owners and employees from small breweries who want to take pictures with him. It would be hard to imagine the brewmaster of one of the biggest American powerhouses—Miller or Budweiser, say—walking the floor at GABF and getting nothing but high fives.

Hercule stout

We’d never really thought about it but, yes, Breandán Kearney is right – Belgian stout has become a style in its own right. In this piece for Craft Beer & Brewing he dissects what makes it distinct:

Unlike Belgian IPA, Belgian stout has no BJCP style guidelines. It is never a category in global beer competitions. In his seminal Great Beers of Belgium in 1991, Michael Jackson made almost no reference to stouts in Belgium. Many drinkers in the country – and some brewers – erroneously use the term “stout” to describe any black beer. Other Belgians know it only in the context of the Flemish word stout—it means “naughty.” However, for savvier drinkers in Belgium – and those brewers inclined to look through history books and see beyond their borders – Belgian stout appears to have evolved and acquired its own characteristics. And in North America, breweries from Allagash in Maine to Elysian in Seattle have found success with something called “Belgian-style stout.”

Non alcoholic beer: 0,0

Joe Tindall has a knack for finding a new angle on old topics. This week at The Fatal Glass of Beer he turned his attention to low alcohol beer, a subject we thought we were done reading about. He reflects on how we engage with it and its subcategories:

The ones with adjuncts: One way to paper over the less convincing elements in alcohol-free beer is to add in some additional flavours. This is a delicate balancing act. It’s already not real beer; take the adjuncts too far and you end up with a sort of simulacrum that supposedly simulating beer, whilst predominantly tasting of grapefruit, or coffee, or rhubarb and custard sweets… When done right, though, this is perhaps the most enjoying and deceptively beery category of them all. Non-alcoholic stouts are tough to pull off, and a lot of those I’ve tried just taste like malt extract, if not Marmite.

Fermenting vessel.

A second entry from Ferment, this time by Jo Caird – a writer who’s new to us – on the subject of family breweries. Or, more specifically, on the generational tensions it brings:

“I’ve been a commercial brewer now for 25 years and I’d like to think I know what I’m talking about,” says Ian Bradford of Lymestone Brewery in Staffordshire. “To have someone say, ‘Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ It is rather challenging, especially when you’re trying to show them how to do it properly.”… The “someone” Ian is referring to is his 26-year-old daughter, Sarah, who joined the business in 2015… When Ian’s trainee assistant brewer quit unexpectedly, he offered Sarah the job. They started off “very gently”, he says, focusing on the technical side of brewing, but it wasn’t long before Sarah was joining in with the decision making. “And it became obvious that she wanted to brew her own beers.” 

Finally, from Twitter, there’s this:

For more good reading, check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

One reply on “News, nuggets and longreads 30 January 2021 | Branding, Belgian stout, Bohemian lager”

A particularly interesting set of links this week, thanks. I’ve just recently finished Pete Brown’s branding book, and would recommend it – lots of pretty pictures, and a good overview by stealth of brand marketing theory, with only the very occasional swerve into marketingbollocks. (That sounds like damning it with faint praise, but I genuinely enjoyed it and found it informative as well as entertaining.) I’d missed the Anchor rebrand news; whilst recognising that I’m not the target audience, I agree with Pete rather than Martyn here.

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