Categories
Generalisations about beer culture

Beer gardens that work

Young’s pubs in the West Country seem to do beer gardens unusually well by British standards – but maybe beer gardens are also getting better across the board.

This thought occurred to us as we sat in the garden at The Chequers at Hanham Mills last weekend, on what felt like the final day of summer.

Back in 2012, we gave the following general description of the British beer garden:

Wasps buzz around the hatchback-sized industrial waste bin, over by the wooden fence with its dropped slats. The concrete paving slabs under foot are littered with cigarette ends, knotted crisp packets and squashed chips. The remains of steak and ale pie sit on the next table over, as they have done for the last two hours. A tattered white Bacardi-branded parasol is threatening to break from its moorings in a gathering gale. The ashtray on your table overflows.

Snarky, perhaps, but we’ve seen plenty of beer gardens since that fit that general pattern.

What The Chequers gets right is, first, that its beer garden is built around nature.

The River Avon (the River River, etymology fans) runs along one side and mature trees stand overhead. It feels shady but not gloomy, fresh but not exposed.

The benches are wooden – worn but clean – with parasols where they are needed.

Our neighbours felt close but not too close, their conversations forming part of a warm collective hum.

It’s not perfect, of course. Between the garden and the green space up the hill there is a large car park, around which people were constantly manoeuvring large vehicles or simply running the engines. (What fuel shortage?)

At times, this did somewhat shatter the illusion.

In Germany, we’ve sat in beer gardens on ring roads that solve this problem with hedges and fences.

With pints of St Austell Proper Job at £4.65 and Young’s Original at £4.30 there’s clearly also a premium to be paid for the maintenance of a destination beer garden – and sufficient staff to adequately cover it. We don’t mind that; some might.

Sitting in the shade, feeling content, we started listing other similarly excellent beer gardens we’d encountered. There’s The Lock Keeper at Keynsham, the next stop along the Avon, for example. And, on the river Exe outside Exeter, two in succession: The Turf Hotel and The Double Locks.

Apart from The Turf, those are all Young’s pubs. Based on a brief dig around, it seems acquiring riverside pubs might be part of the pub company’s long-term strategy. If so, that’s not a bad move – what marketing types call ‘nicheing’ – and one we bet has worked out well for them of late.

If you subscribe to the view that every cloud has a silver lining, you might wonder if being forced to drink outside more often in the past 18 months has made British people take beer gardens more seriously. And improved beer gardens and outdoor service, too.

Now we think of it, this is where apps and table service really work. It seems odd to think that, in the summer of 2019, we’d have had to walk the length of the garden, up a flight of steps, through a busy pub during Sunday lunch service, then back again (after a scrum at the bar), every time we wanted a fresh round.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture marketing

Why people choose to buy beer brands

Consciously or otherwise, people take into account all sorts of factors when choosing which beer brands to buy – and when it comes to indie/local status, there’s plenty of ground between ‘I don’t care’ and ‘I would die before buying from a multinational’.

In the pub on Friday night, we were amused to hear two lads discussing Beavertown at the bar.

“Ah, they’ve got Neck Oil!”

“Tell you what, you see that everywhere these days.”

“They’ve done really well for a small independent brewery, haven’t they?”

A large chunk of Beavertown is, of course, owned by Heineken, which is why it can afford to have ads on the side of every bus in Britain and now turns up in all sorts of unlikely places.

Do we think these lads would have ordered something else if they’d known about Beavertown’s ownership? Probably not.

Do we think they’d have been furious or felt betrayed? Again, probably not. But we bet they’d have looked a bit crestfallen and said, “Oh.”

We say that because we’ve had this conversation with friends and colleagues, with regard to both Beavertown and Camden. These are people who like beer and are conscious of their choices but not, it’s fair to say, obsessed with it.

To generalise about their response, we’d say (a) mildly disappointed and (b) a bit embarrassed not to have known already – a sense of having been tricked by sneaky marketing.

Without conducting a full-on survey (tempting) we can’t say with any certainty how people weight different factors when buying beer. We reckon, though, that for most people, it’s something like this:

1. Want a lager or IPA.
2. Want the best available version.
3. Like the brand.

If you break down ‘liking the brand’ you might find all sorts of other stuff going on, including a preference for independent and/or local.

When you learn that a beer isn’t independent/local, it might stop you buying it – but you’ll probably still want the best IPA or lager on offer in the pub you’re at.

That’s certainly how it goes for us.

But if there’s a choice of another beer that’s also in the right style, and tastes decent, but is also indie/local, you might choose that instead. In fact, you might even be willing to compromise a bit on the quality. It’s a matter of preference.

As we’ve said before, if multinational brewers didn’t think independent/local appealed to consumers, they wouldn’t keep buying independent/local breweries and would proudly declare their ownership on the packaging.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

The UK loves Helles – or Hells, at least

Camden Town Brewery has done something Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson never managed: it has made a specific style of German lager, Helles, ‘a thing’ in British brewing.

Why do we credit Camden in particular? Because every time we order a Helles from any other brewery it’s presented to us by waiters and bar staff as ‘Hells’.

But Hells, minus the extra E, is Camden’s own brand name, and one they’ve invoked lawyers to protect.

It’s also the word that people have been seeing on keg fonts and packaging since 2010 – and even more so since the brewery was taken over by AB-InBev in 2015 and got heavy distribution.

It was a clever move, that slight tweak to the word. It gave them ownership, for one thing; it also removed any ambiguity over pronunciation. How would an English speaker naturally be inclined to pronounce Helles? As hells, of course, about, what, 80% of the time? German speakers and people who Simply Live to Travel will sound that second E – sort of like ‘hell-ezz’.

Helles means ‘light’. Beers badged as such tend to be very pale, light-bodied and with relatively low alcohol content. It’s got broad commercial appeal, as Camden Hells has proved, because that basically describes most mainstream lagers.

Calling your lager a Helles is a great way to have your cake and eat it: it’s simultaneously (a) a normal, non-scary lager that people will actually want to drink and (b) a craft beer with heritage worth an extra pound a pint.

See also: the fetishisation of the Willibecher beer glass.

Our impression is that the term Pilsner performs a similar function in the US market. In the UK, though, that sub-style is already associated with, for example, Tennent’s, Carlsberg and Holsten.

Whatever the reason, there seem to have been quite a few beers around with Helles on the can in the past decade, such as…

  • Hofmeister, 2016 (!)
  • Thornbridge Lukas, 2016 (?)
  • BrewDog Prototype, 2016
  • Purity, 2019
  • Cloudwater, 2019 (?)
  • Brick Brewery, 2020
  • Amity Brew Co Festoon, 2020
  • Lost & Grounded, 2021

You can also possibly, maybe, see the growth of interest in the term in the post-Camden era via Google Trends, based on frequency of searches:

Of course Camden wasn’t the first UK brewery to produce a Helles. Calvor’s first produced theirs in 2009, for example, and Meantime had one in 2004 – and would like everyone to know it.

It’s worth noting, we suppose, that brewer Rob Lovatt went from Meantime to Camden to Thornbridge, leaving Helles beers behind him as he went. Perhaps he deserves the credit, or the blame.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Heavy lifting

Beer is working hard these days.

When every day feels the same, when the only way to tell one week from the next is the curve on a graph, it’s how we mark the coming of evening and discern the ghostly outline of our weekends. Beer as anchor to reality.

The presence of bottles, cans and glasses is how you tell whether the Zoom call you’re in is for work or pleasure. It makes quizzes and frustrating can-you-hear-me, you’re-on-mute, no-you-go-first conversations just about bearable. It enables the seance.

It’s memory. Cask ale from a bag in a box to recall the Drapers Arms; mixed cases of cans as a faint reminder of turning up at a strange bar in a strange town and exploring strange breweries; bottles of Augustiner or Westmalle on the sofa standing in for train journeys, hotels, warm beer garden evenings.

We expect it to distract us, too. To be something we can talk about that doesn’t hurt or scare us. To provide new experiences when those are a rare commodity. Little presents to ourselves that arrive in the post.

And it’s what we’re looking forward to – the end point that will tell us we’ve made it through, the whole family around the pub table, thinking about nothing but the cards in our hands or whatever trivial question we’ve decided to half argue over.

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture

The enigma of variation: how important is consistency in beer?

If you’ve ever spent any time with brewers at larger breweries, or reviewed archives, you’ll know that frequent tasting of the product to ensure quality and consistency is a key feature of the process.

For example, we know from talking to his daughter that a former head brewer at Guinness’s Park Royal brewery in London used to get through a crate of beer a week, not because he enjoyed it – he stopped drinking it when he left the firm – but to check the quality.

Then at the other end of the scale, we had an interesting insight into life at a more experimental, but regionally established craft brewery which we won’t name. We had occasion to hear the marketing manager talk to an audience of non-beer geeks about the challenges of fulfilling a then new supermarket contract:

“We now have to try to be consistent with this beer and hit the same flavour profile each time, whereas we know that when we’re selling to pubs, people just ask for our beers by brewery name – they don’t really care which one it is or how it tastes.”

We’ve been quite sneery about this attitude at times. It seems to confirm our prejudices about newer breweries not having the same technical skill or infrastructure as those which are better established.

But is that entirely fair?

If your market is craft beer bars, where people will tend to be trying lots of new things at once, does it matter if two brews under the same name have discernible differences in flavour over the course of weeks or months?

It gets more complicated again when you consider that even using the same recipe will give you essentially different beers over time.

Hop profiles change with each harvest, for example, even assuming you can get the same varieties of hop from year to year. We often think about Pete Elvin at the Star Inn getting seriously stressed about trying to recreate the hop character of Potion no 9 without access to Amarillo. Brewers have to tinker with their recipes constantly to maintain the sense of consistency –  it isn’t just a question of doing the same thing with the same ingredients each time.

Finally, there is the added dimension that putting a beer in a cask brings. We can all think of examples of beers that taste really different depending on where and how they’re served and, crucially, for how long they’ve been exposed to oxygen.

A key driver towards keg for craft beer pioneers like Alistair Hook was unwillingness to trust their beer to the cellarmanship of others.

For us, a little inconsistency introduced on the front line, in pubs, is part of the way we get to really appreciate a beer we love – not beer being served in poor condition here, just the difference say in drinking ESB that’s been on for one day as opposed to two, three or four.

It feels to us (classic fence sitting position coming up) that there is a happy medium between an industrial product that must always taste the same, and a wildly inconsistent beer. Or perhaps “medium” isn’t helpful here, as we’re much more aligned to the former end of the axis than the latter.

We want things to be consistent enough that we know what we’re going to get if we order the same thing twice, while still having scope to surprise us, just a little, in the subtle details.