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.
“Do you have any information on the history of brewery and distillery branded mirrors? No one I’ve spoken to seems to know exactly why or how they started, or why they dropped off.” — Nathan, via Twitter
It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment a trend began but we do know, first, that the popularity of glass as a building material and for decoration in particular increased after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the centrepiece of which, the Crystal Palace, used glass with great extravagance.
We also know that techniques for cutting designs into large sheets of glass took off at around the same time leading to early examples of brewery-branded glass panels and mirrors, with only relatively simple designs, in the 1850s and 60s. A technique known as ‘back-painting’ became popular in the 1870s and brought colour into play. (All of that according to Inside thePub, McDunnet & Gorham, Architectural Press, 1950.) By the end of the 19th century a look and feel that had been the preserve of private homes and exclusive clubs was the preferred style for grander city pubs. But decorative glass was still relatively expensive, which brings us to the kind of branded mirrors Nathan has in mind.
Bristol is famous for its graffiti and street art with entire blocks and many businesses decorated, more or less elaborately, in the familiar spray-paint style.
We’ve found the way this applies to pubs particularly fascinating since arriving here permanently in the summer. We don’t know yet if we like it, as such but we do like that it seems to be a Bristol ‘thing’ — a real expression of local identity. It also seems to signal a certain laid-back informality that you might call Bohemian if that didn’t sound ludicrously 19th century.
We’re not sure of the etiquette of photographing and sharing other people’s creations but have tried to find credits where we can and link to the artist’s websites. At any rate, consider this an encouragement to go out and look at these pubs yourself, which are far more startling and unusual in the flesh.
In all honesty, I have never been tempted to try any beer which strays past the golden and into the brown. I feel that a beer in one of the more masculine shades, for example a coal black stout or a cigarillo coloured bitter, would really be a step too far for a lady. I find that many hostelries now supply a tiny mason jar in front of the pump which displays the colour of the beer, which has been a tremendous help to me. I carry with me in my handbag a Dulux paint chart, which I hold against these tiny jars to make my selection. Once a beer passes Lemon Punch and heads towards Hazelnut Truffle, it’s off the menu!
Pasteur’s work was of tremendous theoretical importance, but had limited practical use. It showed the importance of hygiene, of course, but brewers were already aware of that. Using acid to clean the yeast of bacteria was useful, but often when the yeast turned bad the problem was not bacteria, and Pasteur had no solution to this problem… The main thing Pasteur did for breweries was to show them how they could use the tools and methods of microbiologists to get better control over and understanding of their own brewing. In the years after the publication of ‘Studies on beer’ a number of breweries invested in laboratories with microscopes, swan-neck bottles, and all the other equipment Pasteur used.
Yesterday news broke of yet another traditional brewery, this time Robinson’s, launching pointedly craft-style beers outside the main range. Like several others that have preceded it, this sub-brand featured perhaps the obvious signifier of 21st Century hipsterness: facial hair.
Our reaction to this was to think it was a bit obvious rather than to be annoyed by it but many others were.
Why? Well, for one thing, there are the general problems that come with established brewery craft sub-brands: the sense of desperation, the cringe-inducing self-consciousness (‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ as the popular meme has it), and also one thing that really does bother us: the fear that this is an attempt to trick people into buying what will turn out to be little more than bog standard bitter. That’s a wheeze that will work once but probably not twice, and can feel like a breach of the contract between brewer and customer.
(But we haven’t tried these beers and who knows, maybe they will live up to the promise of ‘craftness’ that the packaging makes.)
This kind of exercise also suggests to us that someone up on high thinks craft beer is a fundamentally superficial trend — that it is primarily about appearance and image rather than the quality of the product.
We also wonder if this particular approach betrays something more — actual disdain for craft beer drinkers. Not only are they superficial, it seems to say, but they’re vain: if they see a picture of themselves on the label, or perhaps of the person they want to be, they won’t be able to resist it.
Even if none of that bothers you, you might feel that this approach has become a bit hackneyed, like skulls and faux-graffiti. A case might be made for contract-brewers Flat Cap having started this back in 2012 we reckon this spate of hipstersploitation really started with Bath Ales’ craft offshoot Beerd back in 2013, which we don’t recall causing much annoyance — perhaps a bit of eye-rolling?
Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager turned up in 2015 and seemed to rile people more, perhaps because the gulf between the stuffy parent company (Charles Wells) and the aspirations of the sub-brand seemed wider, even though the relationship itself was more transparent. The design, too, is more overt — not just a beard, which could mean anything, but also tattoos. And just call me ‘Charlie’? Sheesh. By all accounts (we haven’t tried it) the beer isn’t great either so that’s a full house of annoyances.
Later in the same year Yorkshire brewery Black Sheep came out with Pathmaker which has several positive things going for it. First, that’s supposed to be a portrait of brewery founder Paul Theakston on the label rather than a lazy caricature of a 21st Century hipster — that’s a first-time-round real ale beard! Secondly, it’s actually a pretty great illustration into which someone has clearly put a bit of thought and effort, unlike the effort above which looks like it was doodled on an iPad.
But, still, that’s probably two beard-based sub-brands too many, and we suspect there are other examples we haven’t noticed or have forgotten about. (Let us know below and we’ll add them.) And that’s before we even get to the bona fide craft breweries with beards on their labels, of which there are many.
Anyway, if we were a bigger and/or established brewery trying to impress younger drinkers, this is not how we’d do it. What we’d do is pay up-and-coming designers to create something genuinely interesting and genuinely original — something which style-conscious drinkers might actually find visually appealing in its own right, even if we didn’t get it ourselves. Labels are only a tiny part of the equation but it is probably best, on balance, if they’re not patronising or insulting.
We couldn’t stop looking at them last night: they’re so vibrant and the colour choices so… Un-pubby. Finally, stealing an idea from @CINEMAPALETTES, we spent a few minutes coming up with these.
1. Classic Pub
2. 1960s Pub
Even allowing for the difference in the style of photo — the former was snapped by one of us on a smartphone in afternoon light; the latter looks stage-lit and Technicolor gaudy — that’s quite a difference.
We might do a few more and add them to this post as we go. It would be interesting to look at a full-on craft beer bar, for example, most of which, we suspect, would be shades of cream and grey. And Samuel Smith pubs would be brown, dark brown, darker brown and black-brown, right?