Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star

Fuller's pumpclips.

News broke this morning that Fuller’s has taken over Dark Star, one of the pioneering UK craft breweries. (Definition 2.)

Those who have studied their British beer history, or happen to have lived through it, will perhaps wonder if this is Fuller’s moving into Whitbread territory. Back in the post-war period Whitbread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of smaller breweries until they had become a national operation — the precursor to the rather faceless international brewing firms we know today.

The difference, it seems to us, is that back then (to generalise very broadly) Whitbread were after pubs, not brands. They wanted outlets for their own products — a hundred pubs here, a hundred pubs there — but did away with local brands and closed down local breweries, which maximised the impact of national advertising campaigns and kept things simple, if bland.

Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pressure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, owning a portfolio of smaller breweries or at least brewery names is a great way of doing so while controlling margins and simplifying supply chains. Some people call this ‘the illusion of choice’ which is accurate if you define choice as the ability to decide where your money ends up. But often it really is choice, at least in terms of styles and profiles, to a degree. Better than nothing, at any rate.

Fuller’s has tried selling its own craft brands, with some success, but Dark Star really is something different. Fuller’s has golden ales and summer ales but no Hophead of its own and we imagine that’s the specific beer this deal has been done to secure. (Perhaps based on sales figures from The Harp, a central London freehouse acquired by Fuller’s long-regarded as an unofficial town tap for the Sussex brewery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are neither here nor there — probably more trouble than they’re worth — and Fuller’s is not Whitbread circa 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to general outrage, and we’d be very surprised if production of Dark Star beers moves to west London anytime in the next decade, given increased interest in provenance and transparency among consumers.

QUICK POST: One Practical Thing

HOW MUCH?

This morning another conversation about the price of craft beer broke out on Twitter, as it does every three months or so.

This time the prompt was an article by Will Hawkes for the Guardian on progressive breweries and inclusiveness:

Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing…. There’s [also] a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”

(Someone did great work on the headline for that story, by the way.)

This prompted food writer Tony Naylor to Tweet the following:

Lots of good initiatives here but if craft beer wants an inclusive working class audience it needs to have a serious conversation about the race to establish the £5 pint as standard. What would you drink if you were skint? Idea: £3 Pint Project. 12 breweries in, say, Greater MCR take turns each month to brew a £3 pint/ get it stocked in loads of good bars/ to see what’s possible stylistically. Now THAT (& even £3 is expensive if you’re skint), would be a positive move.

We think that’s quite an interesting, provocative suggestion and, indeed, made a similar one ourselves in 2012. He’s certainly not saying all beer should be £3 a pint, or that £5 pints should be banned, or are a great evil — just that some deliberate, disruptive gesture on price might shake things up a bit.

But whether it’s a practical suggestion or not it did make us think of something beer enthusiasts and commentators could be doing more often: making the effort to highlight good value beers.

Big, rare, strange craft beers naturally attract a lot of coverage because they’re different and come with some sort of story, but that can add up to a sense that (to borrow CAMRA’s controversial phrase) they are ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ and that if you’re drinking anything else, you’re slumming it. Why bother? Really, you should sell an organ or two, or skip your lunchtime avocado feast to cover the cost of the upgrade. (Remember, nobody has any money these days.)

So, instead of moaning about expensive pints — or at least as well as doing that — make a point of flagging great ones you’ve found at £3 a pint or £2 a can.

It doesn’t have to be an essay — just a Facebook post, Tweet or passing mention in a post on another topic. But essays are good too. Food critic Jay Rayner has just shared a piece defending his writing about expensive restaurants but one of the best things he’s ever written was about a Polish restaurant in Birmingham with main courses at under a tenner.

Of course nobody should pretend to like beers they don’t, or hold back from writing about expensive beers that really get them excited, but if there’s a readily available, affordable beer you really do enjoy, take a moment to tell the world, without apologies or caveats, and without expecting a medal for your bravery.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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?

Revitalisation: Compromise, Politics & Progress

Illustration: "FORWARD!"

Even though everyone is thoroughly weary of the topic there is a lot being written about CAMRA’s Revitalisation project so we’re going to highlight some of it here, and throw in some passing thoughts of our own.

The main event in the last week has been the publication of a manifesto by Bradley Cummings of Tiny Rebel brewery who is running for the CAMRA National Executive. Out gut feeling is that this feels like a PR move more than anything and we’re not sure brewers should be on the NE, though of course there are lots of historic examples of people moving back and forth from the industry to CAMRA. (Martin Sykes of the Selby Brewery was an early NE member; Christopher Hutt became a pub entrepreneur; Michael Hardman worked for Young & Co after leaving the NE; Chris Holmes founded Castle Rock, and so on.)

Here’s Mr Cumming’s manifesto (PDF at Google Drive):

Let’s face it: CAMRA isn’t very cool. How many of its nearly 200,000 members would end a sentence that starts “I’m a CAMRA member” with “for my sins”?

A new generation of beer fans is incredibly passionate, knowledgeable and energetic, but CAMRA has alienated them instead of seeing their efforts as consistent with CAMRA’s aims.

Let’s not forget – CAMRA was established to give consumers a CHOICE. But CAMRA has lost that forward thinking, progressive outlook and instead adopted a position of preference.

I do not believe for a second that the new generation of drinkers wish to remove real ale from the British beer landscape. On the contrary, I believe they want to get back to the roots of CAMRA and promote informed choice, and protect cask ale as an exciting and important part of our beer scene. I should know – I’m one of them.

Here’s a passionate, pointed rebuttal by Kirst Walker, our 2017 Golden Pints blogger of the year:

I’m dismayed at how little scrutiny has been given to some of the ideas beyond the banner headline of ‘don’t judge beers by method of dispense’. Yes, there are some wide ranging ideas, not particularly radical, which we can all get on board with. But there are also some chilling statements around the treatment of pubs and publicans which seem to have gone under the radar, and some bombastic messages which have gone unchallenged, such as ‘Brewers know beer best. That is undeniable.’…. Is it? I don’t think so.

And here’s a cautious almost endorsement from Tandleman:

You can pick and choose the elements you like and dislike and while there isn’t an awful lot that is entirely new, except perhaps that one of the brightest stars of brewing, in one of the most enterprising companies, actually wants to get involved with CAMRA and sees CAMRA still has potential. He wants to motivate members and get them directly involved in CAMRA’s democracy and is willing to stand for election to rummle things up a bit, which many (including me) will see as a positive…. On the other hand, personally, I am very wary and can’t reallyconcur with (possibly inadvertently) repositioning  CAMRA as a kind of offshoot of industry, though some closer involvement would be sensible.

In general, we’re inclined to agree with the general thrust of that argument. The Revitalisation proposals are by necessity a compromise between many subtly different positions, most of which shake out into two major camps: conservative and progressive. You might object to specific elements of language or like some parts while hating others but when push comes to shove, as in real world politics, you can only vote for the candidates on the ballot paper on the day and hope to nudge things roughly in your preferred direction.

For our part we’ll be voting in favour of the Revitalisation proposals or, rather, “to change the Articles of Association to allow the Campaign to enact the recommendations made by the National Executive”.

Whether we vote for Mr Cummings for the National Executive will depend on what the other manifestos look like; suffice to say, we’ll be choosing candidates who are broadly progressive, even if (as is almost certain) we don’t agree with their stance on every single issue.

There’s bound to be some muddle, argy-bargy and further disgruntlement, but Heading That-A-Way! and working out the problems when they arise seems to us better than doing nothing until CAMRA simply ossifies.

The Reality of the Village Inn

Two old men in a village pub.

English village pubs are mythologised, romanticised and eulogised, but what are they actually like in the 21st century?

We’ve been tinkering with a version of this post for months but were prompted to finish and post it by this Tweet from an academic conference on drink and drinking:

The talk (as far as we can glean from Tweets) went on to mention the decreased centrality of the inn in village life even as its absolute centrality to the idea of the perfect village persists in popular culture. Hopefully we’ll get to read the finished study at some point but, for now, we thought we’d share a few observations of our own.

Continue reading “The Reality of the Village Inn”