News, nuggets and longreads 10 July 2021: brewers, startups and dives

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that leapt out at us in the past seven days, from baby breweries to Belgian baths.

The big news is that the UK Government has declared its intention to remove remaining coronavirus restrictions in England from 19 July, including requirements to wear face masks while moving around pubs, and the ban on bar service. Some people are delighted. Others are apprehensive, given the direction of travel of the daily statistics. Based on some of the pubs we’ve visited lately, this won’t actually make all that much difference: masks have been slipping, literally, for some time now. One piece of anecdotal evidence: Ray’s parents had been hoping to come to Bristol for a pub trip later this month but are now feeling hesitant, having found the presence of some rules reassuring. It seems to us that it’s more than restrictions keeping people away from pubs.

Roger Protz has been speaking to Ralph Findlay, chief executive of Marston’s, about the future of pubs and of cask ale:

“Cask has taken a terrible hammering,” he says. “The beer market is no longer a cask market. It’s a changing demographic – young people are not drinking cask and brewers are putting their money behind craft beer.” If Hobgoblin and Wainwright’s are now Marston’s top brands, what’s the future for such famous beers as Banks’s Mild and Bitter from Wolverhampton and Marston’s Pedigree from Burton? “Banks’s and Pedigree haven’t performed well,” he says bluntly. “The market is changing and the Banks’s market is disappearing. There are no mild drinkers left – the industry has gone.. We’re working hard to ‘premiumise’ the sector with branding and glasses, which means we will have to charge more. People will pay £7 for a pint if it’s part of a good experience.”

For Pellicle Laura Hadland (author of the recently published official history of CAMRA) profiles Brewster’s Brewery and its founder, Sara Barton, in Grantham, Lincolnshire:

Sara looked to the past for inspiration to create Brewsters’ visual aesthetic. Art Nouveau was characterised by the use of long sinuous lines that ran organically without rules or restriction. Visual representations of women were common, and were adopted by Brewsters to represent female emancipation… A typical figurative Art Nouveau image was used on the packaging; a successful design at first, but as uneasiness about sexism in the industry became a growing topic of discussion it was seen as inappropriate by some. Ironically, the flowing, flimsy garments of the Art Nouveau heroine which attracted negative comment were originally a statement of her independence from the stifling girdles and restrictions of Victorian society… Sara was not deaf to the complaints. The messaging needed to be clearer.

For Ferment, the promo mag for a beer subscription service, Nicci Peet has spoken to the founders of four ‘lockdown babies’ – breweries that started up during the pandemic – including Newtown Park in Bristol:

Starting a brewery in a pandemic might seem like an impossible task, but for Newtown Park it was an advantage. They could design everything around the market at the time; not just how they were going to sell and package their beer, but also staff levels and operations to ensure they weren’t over-committed. A canning line was a must, but not just for survival. “We wanted to build a direct-to-consumer brand, no matter what we did,” says Michael [McKelvaney], so having a canning line was important to them long term. “It was challenging being a brewery in small pack from the start. It’s a very tricky thing to do. Building a market direct-to-consumer is also tricky, so we’ve done it the hard way” he adds. 

We enjoyed this rattle through ‘The 10 Best Dive Bars’ dive bars by Grace Weitz for Hop Culture. The dive bar is a peculiarly American concept and even in listicle form, it’s hard not to get a scent of issues around gentrification and identity:

Delux Cafe has defied all odds in the South End neighborhood of Boston. As chain restaurants and bougie dining groups moved in, driving up rents and the price of eating and drinking, South End’s small businesses started being driven out. But not Delux Cafe. Located at 100 Chandler Street, the dive bar has remained for over five decades as a place to grab a cheap can of ‘Gansett. While the hole-in-the-wall has changed hands and names a few times during its historic run, it’s always been a place for locals to bathe in the glow of Christmas lights, revel at the collection of album covers on the wall, and enjoy a cheap pint or two.

At Brussels Beer City, Eoghan Walsh provides a vignette of the kind of institutional bar where people watch football, play pool and drink cheap lager:

Conversation turns distractedly to football. The barman says Busquets is too old. The lean player rolls around the name of the Czech goalscorer. The stout one in seesawing tones condemns the corrosive decadence hampering Belgium’s performance. The barman rouses himself, crosses the room to the bar. He reaches into a mini fridge, skips past the Orval, Goose IPA, and Karmeliet, and returns to the billiards table with two more dripping bottles of Jupiler… A tangle of bedraggled children run up the stairs, announcing the end of this evening’s swimming class and trailing in their wake the sweet-salty memories of afterschool Monday afternoons, stinging red eyes and shaming side-long looks. The barman gets up to dole out Haribos, paprika chips and Cote D’Or chocolate to children with the means to buy them.

Finally, from Twitter…

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

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.


What needs to change and what can consumers do?

It’s been an interesting, emotionally intense few weeks for the beer industry – first in the US, now in the UK – as stories of sexual harassment and bullying have come flooding out.

These conversations are important, even if nobody much enjoys having them. Much of the behaviour described by whistle-blowers is appalling and, in some cases, clearly criminal.

There’s a certain catharsis in the very act of sharing these experiences, especially for people who have doubted themselves. Comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

It’s also helpful, every now and then, to have a discussion that establishes a collective sense of where the boundaries lie today, right now. It feels as if the days when you could disguise insults and harassment as ‘banter’, or gloss over predation as ‘workplace romance’, might finally be passing.

Sifting the stories

There seem to be a few broad types of personal experience emerging in the Instagram stories and surrounding discussion and it’s perhaps worth shaking those into categories.

First, there are relatively minor irritations – a staple of the conversation around sexism in beer. Like the way when people meet us together, they often address questions to Ray rather than Jess. It’s good to air frustration about this and, again, remind people that it’s fucking annoying, but it doesn’t feel as urgent or serious as…

Category two, where individual employees have clearly behaved atrociously. We’ve all worked with people who were difficult or routinely inappropriate. But when it comes to talking about specific incidents like this, things get tricky. Is there a ‘two sides to every story’ situation in play? Were incidents reported and dealt with as they should have been?

Unfortunately, given that it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual HR cases, a brewery that has dealt with a specific issue will look, to outsiders, much like one that’s covering it up.

It’s category three, with regard to breweries or hospitality businesses with cultures that are fundamentally broken, where there’s most room to make substantial, far-reaching changes. These are organisations where:

  • There is a failure to deal with category two incidents and people like that keep getting hired.
  • Problematic behaviour is modelled by founders and senior managers, bolstered by a cult of personality which means they’re never challenged.
  • Getting things done is prized over doing things properly.
  • HR is not taken seriously and there is apparently limited investment in professional HR support.
  • Staff, perhaps young and in their first management roles, aren’t given the training and support they need to feel confident in tackling inappropriate behaviour.
  • The philosophy that ‘the customer is always right’ leaves staff feeling powerless.

What needs to change?

We hope that UK breweries which have been named in the stories Siobhan has collected take this seriously, even if their gut instinct is to say, “Hey, that’s just not true!” Or, “It’s more complicated than that.”

If you don’t recognise your company culture in the stories you’re hearing, talk to your team, or give them a way to give feedback anonymously.

If, on reflection, you can see where the accusations are coming from, do something about it – and that has to mean more than a mealy-mouthed non-apology on social media.

How are your working practices and policies actually going to change to prevent this happening again? Are there people in management who need to step back or step down? And could your management team benefit from being more diverse? If so, how will you make that happen?

Given that, again, it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual incidents, clear, unambiguous public statements of changes in policy are the best alternative.

What can consumers do?

Or, to put that another way, it’s hard to buy products only from successful businesses which have never hired a dickhead or two; which aren’t run by somewhat self-obsessed bigheads; whose staff don’t resent management and/or dislike their work some or all of the time; and which don’t work staff as hard as possible for the lowest wages the market will permit.

With that in mind, we just don’t think it’s really fair to expect consumers to carefully dissect the HR record and ethics of every brewery or bar they buy from.

If you conclude, from information you gather from trusted sources, that you don’t want to support a particular brewery – that you just can’t enjoy the beer knowing what you know – then that’s consumer power in action.

In a sense, this is a version of a conversation film and music fans have been having for years. Can you enjoy the Beatles if you believe John Lennon was abusive to women as a young man? Does the way Uma Thurman was treated on the set of Kill Bill mean your Tarantino box set needs to go in the bin?

Smart people have reached some interesting conclusions on this:

  1. It’s up to you, as an individual, to decide if knowing how the creator behaves makes it impossible for you to enjoy the work. That’s the only question you need to answer, for yourself.
  1. Like it or not, we do, consciously or subconsciously, make some allowances for the passage of time. If we only read, watched or listened to art created by people who never transgressed against modern standards, we’d have very little left.
  1. Films aren’t the work of a Single Great Man. Ditch Hitchcock (there’s an argument) and you throw out the work of an awful lot of brilliant, blameless people with him, including plenty of women.

It isn’t always possible to separate art from the artist, or beer from the brewer, but what we can all do is get out of the habit of repeating that Great Man narrative.

When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14, we let ourselves get drawn into to an extent as we tried to pin down exactly who was responsible for specific important innovations or decisions. Even then, though, we did try to resist gushing, or suggesting that our subjects were heroes or saints.

Tell stories, sure, and paint portraits of people – the human angle is always interesting – but don’t think you know a person based on two hours of stage-managed PR flesh-pressing.

This conversation is already driving some interesting responses, from conferences to talk of unions to, we think, plenty of meaningful reflection. In the long run, that’s what we need.

marketing opinion

Startups and the runway to buy-out

Some businesses are founded with the intention of being sold for big money in five, six or seven years’ time. How can you spot them?

This isn’t a post about a specific brewery – though clearly Cloudwater has been on our minds this week. Perhaps our observations don’t apply generally. And maybe they don’t apply in brewing at all. But let’s have them out anyway.

We’ve both ended up with day jobs where we’ve been working with or on behalf of a number of startups recently. They’ve been across a range of businesses including food production, professional services and technology.

What we’ve noticed is that, despite the range of sectors and business models, they all have certain characteristics in common.

Six tell-tale signs

First, they tend to have a c.5-year business plan which acknowledges the business may not make a profit for several years, if ever.

Secondly, they have external funding from private sources – either founders and family, or venture capitalists. Funding from the latter is usually raised in multiple stages with late funding being dependent on hitting certain targets relating to sales, number of customers, market share and so on.

When late-stage startups make surprising decisions, this may well be what’s driving it.

Thirdly, they put sales to the fore. While it’s nice for them to be able to show that eventually the business will be profitable, the sales-growth trajectory is more important.

Consequently (item four) marketing will be conspicuously important to the business early on. There will be highly sophisticated marketing collateral from an early point in the business’s life, such as a cutting-edge website, a full suite of professionally-designed brand assets and a strong social media presence. It’s not unusual for these companies to have permanent marketing staff before they have an in-house finance team, or even their own manufacturing capability. 

Underlying all that there will be (five) a remarkably clear brand position and proposition, often focusing on an exaggerated difference between their product and established competitors. This is the essence of ‘disruption’ – at last someone is going to do this properly, cut through the bullshit and show the complacent dinosaurs what’s what!

This isn’t to say the product isn’t important. You certainly have to believe in it and be able to talk about it with convincing passion for several years. So, six, there will probably be a focus on new product development and heavy investment in it, at least in the early years.

What’s the endgame?

The final goal for this type of startup is usually a buyout of some description, in a set period of time – often five years.

Even if the founders want to stay in the business after that, they need to repay capital to early investors, so there’s always a ticking clock built in.

In the final stretch, you’ll often see a flurry of activity as they seek to maximise the value of the brand and of the company, which is what we were getting at when we last tackled this topic back in 2018:

There might be surprising partnerships with ‘evil’ companies; there may be contracts to supply supermarkets; or plans to have beer produced under contract, with more or less transparency… This kind of thing usually comes with a rush of blurb explaining how, actually, this way is even crafter because it widens access to the product, challenges the status quo, and so on, and so forth… The tying off of loose ends is another thing to watch out for, e.g. the sudden settling of legal disputes… The emergence of a dominant beer in the portfolio might be the biggest red flag of all.

The thing is, these companies will rarely, if ever, admit to their customers that the endgame is to sell it. After all, it’s a bit awkward when your marketing messages are all about what makes you distinct, different and superior.

That, we think, is why buyouts always seem to land as a massive surprise to customers and suppliers.

Contrary to what you might hear, people get just as narky about independence in other sectors as they do in beer. For example, we’ve both observed surprise and fury among boutique software users when products they love are bought out by a much bigger competitor. “I chose Quirple specifically because I liked their different approach and didn’t want to work with X-Corp,” they say, “and now I’m an X-Corp customer whether I like it or not? Quentin has betrayed me!”

It’s also worth saying that many businesses of this type never make it past the early stages. There is a high rate of failure with startups and even industry experts may never have heard of the ones that didn’t work out, or will forget them quickly.

What’s the alternative?

What does a growing business look like if it wasn’t built with that planned five-year-on payday in mind? Well, these businesses can still be successful, and still sell for big money, but their growth will tend to be organic, showing…

  • Lumpy sales growth and production – growing in fits and starts instead of on a smooth curve. 
  • A reluctance to invest in slightly intangible things like marketing because it all hits the bottom line.
  • A tendency to be behind the curve with new technology and production methods – they want to see it works before they invest hard-earned cash reserves.

As we said at the start, this isn’t really a post about breweries. We don’t work with breweries and it’s possible that not a single brewery has ever been founded as a startup with the aim of eventually selling to a larger competitor.

Perhaps every single one of those success stories (“Wow, great work guys, and well deserved!”) is a genuine surprise to the founders.

But it seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it?


Craft beer – ‘ripe for parody’?

Every now and then someone decides that “craft beer is ripe for parody” – is it really?

Earlier this week the comedian Alistair Green posted a short video in which he played both the part of Matt, CEO of Punk Squirrel brewery, and Matt, Matt’s business partner and head of marketing.

Mr Green is one of those people who can make merely passable material seem good through the strength of his performance and his commitment to the bit. It’s part Vic & Bob outsider awkwardness, part Victoria Wood observation.

His piece from last year about Adam and Eve discovering the concept of death was particularly brilliant, we thought, somehow conjuring three characters and the Garden of Eden into being with a single talking head and a blank white room.

So when we saw Punk Squirrel pop up on our non-beer Twitter feeds, we watched it, and sure enough, it made us laugh out loud a couple of times. The line “I’m 43!” seemed particularly funny, perhaps because Ray is, indeed, 43 and recognised the look of despair in poor Matt’s eyes.

The punchline also rang true. We know people who weren’t remotely interested in beer until they hit 40, moved to the suburbs and had kids. Now they’re all over Cloudwater and Camden and definitely will order “a two-thirds of that, please” at the local craft beer festival, yeah, yeah, yeah, cool, cool, cool.

We’re also always fascinated to see commentary on beer from outside the ‘beer community’ and the response to this video was interesting, too, with hundreds of people replying with variants on, “Ugh, craft beer wankers… I swear I know these guys.”

So, without overthinking it, we gave it a Retweet from the Boak & Bailey account.

We were then surprised later in the day to find that other people were less amused.

Some were even, it seemed, a bit angry and upset. We won’t embed those Tweets here but they were impassioned: “Fuck that guy” said one.

This made us pause and reflect. For one thing, we think we understand where this pushback is coming from.

We’ve lost count of the number of times some godawful Twitter account called, e.g. ‘The Craft Beer nobhead’ has popped up, managing twelve weak Tweets about checked shirts and IPA before running out of steam.

And Matt Curtis in particular has been the victim of some limp, mean-spirited ‘parody’ over the years for reasons that aren’t exactly clear to us – “He’s just zis guy, you know?”

It also made us think about how this latest two minute swipe fits into a long history of taking the piss.

We could go digging into the far past – Falstaff, Pickwick, all those mid-20th century books which caricature the kinds of people you find in pubs and so on.

But the recent example that’s probably most useful is the ‘Real Ale Twats’ from Viz, whose creator, Davey Jones, told us the full story a few years ago.

What’s interesting there, with The Beer Nut’s comment in mind, is that the RATs debuted in 2001 – about 20 years after the bearded real ale bore stereotype first evolved.

People are often surprised by that, assuming the strip dates from the 1980s, but it does take a while for these things to breach the bubble.

Rewatching Mr Green’s sketch, we find ourselves reaching a few conclusions.

First, this is not an attack on craft beer drinkers or brewers, if you can call it an attack at all. It’s about the privileged founders of a certain type of big money, brand-led operation – specifically Camden, Beavertown and BrewDog. It’s punching up, not punching down.

Secondly, when a professional comedian notices your hobby, it means it has broken into the collective consciousness. That’s potentially pretty exciting.

And, debate aside, it did make us laugh – that’s a fact. Comedy is one of the few areas of creativity whose effectiveness on an individual can be measured with any degree of objectivity. Did they crack a smile? No? Then they probably didn’t find it funny. If they did, however, it worked and was therefore, kind of, in some way, good.

Finally, we don’t, as it happens, think craft beer is particularly “ripe for parody”.

What is there to say about hipsterism that wasn’t covered in Nathan Barley 20 years ago, or more recently by Portlandia?

And most of the people involved in the business of brewing seem to us to be earnest Heriot-Watt types trying to make a living.

Of course if people think there’s an angle, we’ll certainly always be interested to see what they come up with. We just can’t promise to laugh.