News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 June 2018: Football, Motorbikes, Public Toilets

Here’s everything about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from Russia to New York City.

This is a local story for us: for Bristol Cable Maff Tucker writes about The Banjo, as the council estate at Cadbury Heath in east Bristol is affectionately known, and the pub around which life there is centred:

There’s a wall of pictures in the Lamb that remembers the regulars that have passed away. Les points at a framed bikers jacket: “Jamie England, he was abandoned when he was a kid, his nan took him in and brought him up, along with me and my brothers and sisters because our dad worked days and our mum worked nights.”


Plastic footballs.

At Lady Sinks the Booze Kirst Walker offers advice for discerning beer drinkers on how to go about watching the World Cup, which is now underway:

30 minutes before kick-off – get two drinks

At 38 minutes, get two drinks (studies** have shown that most people will attempt to avoid the half time rush at 40 minutes, by which time you’re already at the bar like a genius).

If you need a further drink before 90 minutes, or if there may be significant extra time because Gary Cahill has straight up murdered someone, the time to go is on 67 minutes when statistically a goal is unlikely to be scored.

Related: this seems like a good time to remind everyone of the existence of the craft beer and football map at Beer Frontiers which lists pubs with interesting beer that also have TVs. It’s also worth noting that some chains (BrewDog, Craft Beer Co) that don’t normally show football are making an exception for the World Cup.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 June 2018: Football, Motorbikes, Public Toilets”

The Ethereal Form of the Spirit of a Place

Where exactly is the Staropramen we get in 330ml bottles in UK supermarkets brewed? Probably not Prague, but good luck pinning it down any more precisely than that from the packaging.

We don’t dislike Staropramen (or haven’t disliked it, of which more in a moment) and have drunk a fair few pints and bottles of it over the years, despite knowing that it’s not generally highly regarded by experts in Czech beer. If we want a lager to drink at a barbecue or to swig from the bottle at a party — come on, this is one of life’s great pleasures! — we’ll sometimes pick up a four-quid four-pack at the supermarket. That’s how we ended up holding bottles in our hands on Sunday and, for the first time in ages, really looking at the packaging.

Staropramen.

Established in Prague. Proudly brewed since 1849. #1 Prague beer in the world. The spirit of Prague. Then, in tiny print, “Brewed and bottled in the EU for Molson Coors Brewing Company (UK) Ltd.”

That all reads to us like the most weaselly possible way of saying NOT ACTUALLY BREWED IN PRAGUE.

So, where is it brewed if not there?

Molson Coors has brewing plants elsewhere in the Czech Republic, and all over the EU, from Bulgaria to Burton-upon-Trent. But we have a suspicion if this version of the beer was brewed in the UK they would be less shy about it, on the basis that they’re reasonably open about the fact that Pravha, the 4% draught variant, is brewed here.

Our guess as to what’s going on, at least in part, is that there is no single point of origin, and that they’re keeping their options open with regard to logistics. Perhaps some of the Staropramen we get in the UK is sometimes brewed in Prague, or at least elsewhere in the Czech Republic, but there might be occasional periods when additional demand is fulfilled by plants in, say, Croatia. Being more specific on the labels would make this kind of flexibility difficult.

So, who can say for sure? We’ve emailed to ask this specific question and will let you know if we hear back.

As to the quality of the beer… Well, we’ve stuck up for it longer than some but it really did taste a bit rough to us this time; harsh and nasty, with the same odd hot, plasticky tang we also pick up in Stella Artois and San Miguel in particular. Perhaps that’s the result of the brewing taking place away from home; or because the beer now only uses “ingredients including Czech hops” (our emphasis); or because the lagering time is a mere “couple of weeks”. Most likely, it’s a combination of these and a lot of other smaller corner cutting exercises, themselves the symptom of a lack of respect for the beer, even if the brand continues to be worth milking.

And why is the brand valuable? Because people think they’re buying something from Prague — a genuine import, a reminder of adventures past, something for which it is worth paying a (small) premium — just like we did on Sunday afternoon.

Where a beer is from, or appears to be from, does matter, at least to the marketing people whose job it is to persuade consumers to buy it.

No Logo

The blackboard at the Drapers.

One of the many interesting things about our local, The Drapers Arms micropub in Bristol, is the lack of branding for beers at the point of sale.

Instead of the customary row of hand-pumps with decorative pump-clips (which have grown bigger and fancier over the course of the past few decades) the Drapers has a rack of casks with beer names chalked on their black jackets, and a blackboard declaring the name, brewery, origin, style and ABV of each beer.

The pump-clips are there, actually, tacked on the wall behind the bar, along with those for beers coming soon, but a determined squint and spectacle push is required to discern any details. Most people, we suspect, think they’re just part of the decor.

The blackboard approach encourages certain unusual, quite pleasing behaviour. For one thing, people often ask each other for advice: “Excuse me — what’s that you’re on? It looks bloody good.” And we’ve never known a pub where tasters are so freely offered and  as gladly taken, and where such generous time is given to conversations about taste and preference.

Which brings us to our main point: the lack of obvious branding seems to push people — and certainly forces us — to focus on the beer.

We’ve always been quite open about the fact that, being human beings with a full suite of emotions, nurtured in late 20th century capitalist society, we are easily swayed by packaging and marketing. Of course we challenge ourselves and attempt to overcome this instinct to superficiality but if we’d seen this pump-clip, for example, we might have let our gaze pass over it in favour of something else:

Ramsbury Belapur pump-clip
SOURCE: Ramsbury Website.

It’s not bad but it doesn’t suggest that this beer is anything special. It’s a bit cheap and a bit staid. But at The Drapers, a level playing field for the graphically challenged brewery, we went for it, and were really glad we did. It’s a thoroughly decent beer we’ve had several times since, and Ramsbury have been added to our mental list of breweries always worth a go.

On the flipside, there are beers that, divorced from very smart graphic design and winning blurb, are easier to assess objectively. In plain brown wrappers it’s easier to discern that a slightly bland pale ale from a hip brewery taste much like a slightly bland pale ale from a micro-brewery founded in 1983.

We generally argue for more information rather than less (see tomorrow’s blog post) but somehow the omission of this particular type of information — the visual — really works for us.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 31 March 2018: Moorhouse’s, Memel, Mellowness

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from ongoing developments in the discussion around sexist beer branding to the ever-expanding BrewDog empire.

Katie Taylor has an interesting run-down on Moorhouse’s rebranding exercise. Packaging re-designs are usually among the world’s most boring topics but this case sees a longstanding problem solved as poorly rendered ‘sexy’ witches in flimsy frocks are out, replaced by more abstract, modern designs that come with an unambiguous statement of intent:

“When I joined, Moorhouse’s was a strong brand, tied into the provenance of the local area,” said Lee [Miller] when I met with him a couple of weeks ago. “But we are guilty as charged. Our branding was indefensible and really could have happened sooner. What I wanted to make sure of was that when we did this, we did it right. I wanted Moorhouse’s to set out its stall, to bring in a new brand ready for the future. We hold our hands up.”

But the stuff about the temperance influence on their new range of beers is almost as interesting.


Illustration: lambic blending.

Returning to his favourite topic Roel Mulder gives us‘Eight Myths About Lambic Debunked’, with plenty of reassuring references.

Quite a lot is made of the fact that lambic is made out of wheat, today usually 30% to 40%. In the 19th century, that was even more: a 1829 recipe specifies no less than 58% raw wheat.[15]However, at that time all-barley beers were only just starting to gain popularity in Belgium. In fact, at the start lambic was quite modern for not having any oats, spelt or buckwheat in it…. only in the 20th century did it become special for not being an all-barley beer.

A reminder, this, that snappy stories and simple explanations in beer history are usually the work of storytellers and marketing people; the truth is almost always more complicated and, frankly, less fun.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 31 March 2018: Moorhouse’s, Memel, Mellowness”

The First Cause Beer?

These days it’s not unusual for breweries to release beers intended to support a particular cause, but we reckon we might have pinpointed the first: ‘No Cruise Mild’, from 1983-84.

It was produced by Pitfield Brewery on a tiny kit in the basement of a specialist beer shop near Old Street in London and sold through one of David Bruce’s Firkin brewpubs, The Pheasant & Firkin in Islington. The name refers to US Cruise missiles, the installation of which was protested by women’s groups at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire during December 1983.

While the name of the beer certainly showed support for the Greenham Common protesters the short article in What’s Brewing for March 1984, which is the only reference we’ve been able to dig up, doesn’t make clear whether any of the profits from its sale also went their way. It does, however, reproduce Ken Pyne’s cartoon for Marketing Week which we hope he won’t mind us sharing here:

A group of women camps outside a pub offering No Cruise Mild.

Of course there were lots of beers before this that you can argue were political in one way or another — all those commemorative beers for the 1981 royal wedding and the Queen’s coronation, for example, are political in their own way — but we reckon this might be the earliest example of a beer whose branding was explicitly tied to a progressive cause.

If you reckon we’re wrong, or have more information on this particular beer, let us know in the comments below.

Further Reading