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

Watney’s Red on Film, 1971

The above film was made by Watney Mann (Watney’s) to help their staff understand Watney’s Red, which replaced Red Barrel as the firm’s flagship keg bitter in 1971.

It was unearthed by Nick Wheat who collects British documentary and industrial films and writes occasional beer articles for Dronfield CAMRA’s Peel Ale magazine. The copy above was made by projecting the 16mm film onto a wall and pointing his phone at it but it doesn’t look bad for all that.

From an article Nick dug up from Film User for July 1971 we know that it was one of three films produced to help with the roll-out of the new product as part of what Watney’s called ‘Operation Cheka’ in reference to the Bolshevik secret police. The suit of films cost £5,500 pounds to make (about £80k in today’s money) and this one is ‘Cheka 2’ ‘Cheka 3’, highlighted in this infographic from Film User:

Infographic depicting the roll-out of Operation Cheka.

The film itself is an amazing relic. It features various plummy senior executives explaining, rather stiltedly, the thinking behind the change, accompanied by footage of lorries and brewing plants around the country (our emphasis):

You see Red Barrel has been with us now for fifteen years and is still the same. In the meantime other beers have come along in keg with new flavours, and meeting new ideas of taste. Therefore Red Barrel might be said to be old fashioned. So what we did was to study the whole situation in great detail with our colleagues in the group marketing department. We wanted to find out just what it was the customers liked, what their ideals were, what were the faults, perhaps, in earlier beers, and altogether how we could make it right for the seventies.

What we’ve done is to give the beer a new smooth pleasant taste. We’ve also given it a much better head and altogether a more attractive appearance. Gone is any suggestion of bitter after palate; instead, there is a pleasant malty mealiness…. We’ve studied flavour, studied people’s reaction to flavour, and produced experimental beers, testing out all the variations we can think of in such things of sweetness or bitterness.

That confirms what we’d heard from other sources, and what we said in Brew Britannia: that Red Barrel and Red were quite different beers, with the latter an altogether fizzier, sweeter beer. But this would seem to suggest that, unless they’re outright fibbers, that people in the company genuinely believed they were responding to public demand rather than cutting corners for the sake of it.

There’s some solid historical information in all this, too. It tells us, for example, that Red was developed primarily at the Watney’s plant in Northampton, formerly Phipps, and that the beer and point-of-sale material was scheduled to hit pubs in March and April of 1971.

There is also an awkward interview with Mr Horsfall, a publican in… Eldon? Oldham? Answers on a postcard. He had been tasked with selling the new Red on the quiet to gauge customer reactions to the reformulation and, though hardly jumping for joy, seemed to think his customers preferred it, on the whole.

Arguably the most exciting part comes at the end: a reel of original TV ads from the time starring (we think) Michael Coles as a hard-boiled counter-intelligence operative tasked with stopping ‘the Red Revolution’. These ads seem to us to be parodying Callan, a popular TV programme of the day starring Edward Woodward, with the seedy sidekick ‘Friendly’ clearly a reference to Callan’s ‘Lonely’.

Thanks so much for sharing this, Nick! And if anyone else out there has this kind of material, we’d love to see it.

Updated 22/03/2018 after Nick got in touch to say he thinks this is actually Film 3.

Thought for the Day: Win-Win For BrewDog?

Cartoon: waiter, to customer -- "Don't worry, sir, it's an ironic fly."

BrewDog today announced the launch of Pink IPA, a product identical to their standard Punk IPA except for a bright pink label, and the fact that it will be 20 per cent cheaper for women in BrewDog bars, in reference to the gender pay gap.

Satirically dubbed Beer for Girls, Pink IPA is BrewDog’s clarion call to close the gender pay gap in the UK and around the world and to expose sexist marketing to women, particularly within the beer industry. This is our overt parody on the failed, tone-deaf campaigns that some brands have attempted in order to attract women.

The collective reaction to this, it’s probably fair to say, averages out to something like a pained groan.

Criticism ranges from suggestions of rank cynicism — they knew this would annoy people, thus generating coverage — to a sense that BrewDog (to whom the nickname BroDog has occasionally been applied) is the equivalent of “that lad from your A-level politics class who makes ‘get back in the kitchen’ jokes but it’s OK because he’s being ‘ironic’ and is actually a ‘feminist’”. (@alys_key) It’s juvenile, it’s tone deaf, it’s an attempt to co-opt a serious campaign to sell beer. And so on.

Now, from our point of view, the idea itself doesn’t seem so dreadful even if the execution is terribly clumsy. Yes, it might be time for them to admit that a very large, very successful business is not a great vehicle for social commentary or satire — the phrase, we believe, is ‘punching down’ — but we suspect this is intended sincerely, or as sincerely as a marketing stunt can ever be. We believe there are people in management at BrewDog, which remember is very much more than Watt & Dickie these days, who care about these issues and really are trying to find a way to use the company’s clout for good.

But those who are more troubled by this than us (and we don’t question their right to be) find themselves in a quandary. Do they ignore it, thus giving BrewDog a pass? Or do they call it out, thus giving BrewDog publicity?

We’ve long suspected that BrewDog’s marketing strategy is to embed itself into the minds of people outside the beer bubble because that’s the only way to make sense of some its more surprising decisions. We daresay they’d have preferred to go viral today because the reaction to this stunt was positive, but they’ll probably cope with the hurt feelings by reflecting on how they trended on Twitter, got parodied by other monster brands, and were the focus of comment after comment after comment in the global mainstream.

To put that another way, people might be saying, “BrewDog — what a bunch of wankers!”, but at least they’re saying BrewDog, over and over again.

How Come Nobody Criticises That Rosé de Gambrinus Label?

We admit it: the rhetorical “Where’s the outrage?” winds us up.

What it so often means is, because you forgot to mention This, you must now shut up about That, AKA ‘whataboutery’ — a means of shutting down rather than adding to an ongoing discussion.

In relation to beer we’ve seen this argument rolled out a few times lately as part of the renewed discussion around sexist beer labels. Here’s the latest nod in that direction (a very mild one, it must be said, and hardly malicious) which directly prompted us to post today:

At this point, we chipped in: people do talk about this label. We’ve seen them do it. We were involved in a Twitter discussion about it ourselves just before Christmas  prompted, of course, by someone asking “Why is nobody complaining about Cantillon’s classic Rosé de Gambrinus woman getting touched up on a bench?”

It also featured in this widely shared 2015 list of sexist beer labels from Thrillist; was mentioned in passing by Natalya Watson in a well-read blog post in January 2017;  has been picked up by Mike from Chorlton Brewing on a couple of occasions, e.g. here; and it has frequently come up in discussion at Beer Advocate and RateBeer. People have noticed it and aren’t 100 per cent comfortable; it has not sailed beneath the radar.

But, yes, it’s true it isn’t one of the top beers on the hit list, and we can’t find any really impassioned posts by any of our fellow beer bloggers calling for that particular label to change or be removed from shelves.

In fact if you go back far enough you’ll find various people sticking up for it and, indeed, citing criticism of the label as evidence of humourless puritanism. Here’s Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin, for example, writing in 2006 about US censorship of the RDG label: “I cringe every time I think what prudes we are as a nation and how ridiculous we must seem to the rest of the civilized world.” Here’s the one that will probably most surprise people, though: Melissa Cole saying something quite similar a decade ago. It’s so at odds with Melissa’s current stance that we felt compelled to ask her about it via Twitter DM:

I was wrong. I also didn’t realise it was a pattern of wider misogyny in the naming of the beers at Cantillon, I only found out what Fou’ Foune meant relatively recently and given that they are happy to change their mind for commercial reasons in the US, how about they change their minds for the sake of coming into the 21st century too?

I was probably also a bit worried about taking aim at one of the ‘untouchables’ as well. At that time I had taken about six months of quite serious stick and was being denied information and quotes by a cabal of brewers who were closing ranks and trying to keep me quiet by making it very difficult to do my job – fortunately most of them have now retired or folded.

I’ve never claimed to be a perfect person or a perfect feminist (if either of those things actually exist!) and I’m happy to say I got that one wrong and I’ve been quite happy to be vocal that it needs changing recently partly because I don’t worry about being bullied any more and partly because, even if people do come at me, I feel I’ve got a far better way to communicate my points these days – a decade of challenging issues of inequality in the industry, even imperfectly, will do that for you!

The bar has clearly moved and the boundaries are continuing to change. Things that seemed fine a decade ago, or even a couple of years back, have acquired an unpleasant stink. The Rosé de Gambrinus label isn’t violent or sweaty; it’s so soft it seems almost abstract; and the beer doesn’t have a baldly suggestive name to go with the picture. In 2018, though, none of that quite washes, and we suspect there will be more direct criticism of Cantillon in the next year or two. And, yes, we suspect Cantillon probably were given a bit of a pass because they are cool, interesting and mysterious in a way microbreweries in middle England rarely are.

But it does seem to us that we’re reaching a point where there are (per Melissa’s very honest admission) no longer any untouchables, and rightly so, at least in part because of people asking “Where’s the outrage?”

In the meantime remember, if you think this label or that is particularly nasty, there’s nothing stopping you from writing about it. You don’t have to wait for Melissa or Matt Curtis to do it.

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Having said all that, there are plenty of good reasons why British commentators might choose to concentrate on British beers. First, this is our turf and we feel entitled to a say in what goes on here, whereas it feels somehow presumptuous to put pressure on brewers operating in different countries or cultures.

Secondly, as consumers and commentators in this ecosystem, we stand a faint chance of influencing the decisions of brewers and retailers, so it feels worth the bother. Or, to put that another way, the folk at Castle Rock might just care what we and others think, whereas we doubt the aloof enigmas of Cantillon, who can’t brew enough beer to meet global demand, give a flying one. If someone did want to pressure them, how would they do it? When Cloudwater drops a clanger its Twitter feed blows up; Cantillon isn’t on Twitter, and is barely on Facebook.

Finally, there’s the fact that Rosé de Gambrinus might as well not exist in our world. We don’t remember the last time we had it or saw it for sale, and if we did we probably wouldn’t want to pay the asking price. For us, and probably for many other, it simply doesn’t come to mind. Teignworthy Bristol’s Ale or Castle Rock Elsie Mo, on the other hand, are beers we have actually encountered in a pub in the last month.

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There’s also, of course, an argument for not mentioning particular breweries at all. There’s not much here that can’t be discussed in terms of general principles, is there?