Price as substitute for quality in unfamiliar territory

In the absence of infor­ma­tion, peo­ple tend to take a price of the unfa­mil­iar prod­uct as a sig­nal of its qual­i­ty, so high prices do not dimin­ish the quan­ti­ty demand­ed very much. When infor­ma­tion is pro­vid­ed, the sig­nalling con­tent of the price dimin­ish­es. As a result, demand becomes more elas­tic. In par­tic­u­lar, informed con­sumers see no rea­son to pay more for the new prod­uct giv­en that it has the same ingre­di­ents as the famil­iar one. The effect of the infor­ma­tion is thus to encour­age more peo­ple to switch from the sub­sti­tute prod­uct to the tar­get one at low prices, and vice ver­sa at high prices.”

That’s an extract from an aca­d­e­m­ic paper (PDF) on the behav­iour of pur­chasers of med­ical prod­ucts in Zam­bia, but you’ll encounter ver­sions of this argu­ment every­where from self-help books on how to sell! sell! sell! to arti­cles in the busi­ness press.

The con­clu­sion often drawn is that, per­haps counter-intu­itive­ly, if you price your prod­uct high­er than the com­pe­ti­tion, many con­sumers will assume yours is bet­ter and worth the extra mon­ey.

Con­verse­ly, if your prod­uct is too cheap, it might seem sus­pi­cious: “Hmm. What’s wrong with it?”

Does all of this also apply to beer?

Twen­ty years ago, we were cer­tain­ly aware of the aura that sur­round­ed Pre­mi­um Lager, and Pete Brown has writ­ten mem­o­rably about the dam­age Stel­la Artois did to its brand by reduc­ing the price.

But drinkers these days have lots more infor­ma­tion to go on, from beer style to ABV, from hop vari­eties to brew­ing loca­tion. All or any of these might over­ride price in the deci­sion mak­ing process.

And, of course the actu­al rela­tion­ship between price and qual­i­ty in beer is com­plex: there are lots of bad expen­sive pints out there, and some real­ly good ones that are rel­a­tive­ly cheap.

Our sus­pi­cion is that price might be a proxy for qual­i­ty in sit­u­a­tions where none of the brands are famil­iar, and the only oth­er infor­ma­tion is price; or (as this paper sug­gests) where the choice is between broad­ly sim­i­lar prod­ucts under the same brand name: Carls­berg, or Carslberg Export?

With all this in mind we find our­selves once again think­ing about the Drap­ers Arms, where not only is brand­ing held at arm’s length but also the price struc­ture is flat. As a result, we’ve prob­a­bly tried a greater vari­ety of beer there than any­where else, even allow­ing for the fact this is where we do most of our drink­ing by default.

Feelings about Fuller’s

On Friday it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing wing of Fuller’s, subject to rubber-stamping, and we felt, frankly, gutted.

Jess, being a Lon­don­er, took it espe­cial­ly hard, though not, per­haps, as hard as the per­son who runs the Lon­don His­to­ri­ans Twit­ter account:

For Fuck's sake Fuller's. What's wrong with you?

With a few days to absorb and reflect we’re still feel­ing dis­ap­point­ed, despite com­men­tary from those who argue that Asahi aren’t the worst, that it’s a vote of con­fi­dence of cask, and so on. It still feels as if some­one you thought was a pal has betrayed you.

We know this is com­plete­ly irra­tional, busi­ness is gonna busi­ness, and so on and so forth, but we kid­ded our­selves (or were seduced into?) think­ing Fuller’s was a bit dif­fer­ent.

Of course the signs were all there (the lack of respect for Chiswick Bit­ter, for exam­ple, in favour of any­thing they could slap SESSION IPA on) but there were pos­i­tive indi­ca­tors too – sure­ly if they were going to sell up they’d have done it in 1963, or 1982, or… And why the inter­est in old recipes, in col­lab­o­ra­tions and so on, if there wasn’t some kind of sen­ti­men­tal attach­ment to the idea of the fam­i­ly busi­ness, her­itage and beer?

Odd­ly, when the news broke, we were eat­ing break­fast in a Fuller’s hotel-pub, and it seemed that the staff were as bewil­dered as us. As cus­tomers asked them for their views, they polite­ly mut­tered, “We don’t know much about it, I’m afraid.” They appeared to be read­ing news web­sites and social media to work out what was going on in the com­pa­ny they work for.

We made a point of going into a cou­ple more Fuller’s pubs over the course of the week­end, like mourn­ers clutch­ing at mem­o­ries of the recent­ly deceased. The beer tast­ed as good as ever – bet­ter, in fact, espe­cial­ly the stuff badged as Dark Star and Gale’s. Again, staff seemed on edge, in one case open­ly snap­ping at a beer bore who insist­ed on lec­tur­ing them about Asahi and how the takeover would ruin the beer.

It’s worth not­ing, by the way, that this was being talked about in sev­er­al pubs we vis­it­ed, includ­ing one non-Fuller’s pub, all of them, we’d have said, ‘out­side the bub­ble’. Peo­ple have heard of Fuller’s and were inter­est­ed in this news, which got cov­ered heav­i­ly in the main­stream press.

From a cou­ple of sources, it became clear the brew­ing staff were in shock, too. Head brew­er Georgina Young:

It was a long and very emotional day.

Here’s what one Fuller’s employ­ee said to us in a pri­vate mes­sage on Sat­ur­day:

I wish I knew more – we all found out yes­ter­day… It’s a ratio­nal busi­ness deci­sion but a dev­as­tat­ing one for beer. If we are not inde­pen­dent, what’s the point? What do we still rep­re­sent? All this stuff about brands and growth is pret­ty mean­ing­less to Fuller’s cus­tomers who will just be pissed off.

Maybe this will not dam­age the beer in the long run, who knows. We’re aware it’s a con­tro­ver­sial view but we’ve been real­ly enjoy­ing Young’s recent­ly, iron­i­cal­ly in lots of Young’s-branded pubs where the aver­age punter prob­a­bly doesn’t realise the brands and the pubs part­ed com­pa­ny years ago. We’d cer­tain­ly be quite hap­py to walk into pubs and find cask ESB along­side Pil­sner Urquell. (And Fron­tier Craft Lager hurled into the skip of his­to­ry.)

What we do wor­ry about is those hid­den gems – the non-flag­ship back­street pubs in West Lon­don where grey paint and fake ghost signs have yet to take hold, and which still feel vague­ly like booz­ers. They’re either going to get trashed, or ditched, aren’t they?

And we wor­ry about whether this means Fuller’s, as a brew­ery, will stag­nate. What will moti­vate dis­en­fran­chised staff to try new things, or throw them­selves into reviv­ing old recipes? It’s been hard to find Lon­don Porter in any for­mat for a cou­ple of years – will this final­ly kill it off for good, along with poor old Chiswick? Look at Mean­time: the qual­i­ty or the core beer may be good, but the breadth of the offer is now dis­tress­ing­ly bland.

All that’s kept us going into Fuller’s flag­ship pla­s­ticky, faux-posh cor­po­rate pubs for the past decade is the beer. We go to the Old Fish Mar­ket in Bris­tol because we crave that dis­tinc­tive yeast char­ac­ter once in a while, not for the brand­ed cof­fee and gin expe­ri­ence in sur­round­ings that resem­ble a hotel lob­by.

We don’t know how this will turn out. We’re not going to boy­cott Fuller’s. We’re not ‘but­thurt’. But some­thing in the rela­tion­ship has changed, and we will prob­a­bly end up drink­ing less Fuller’s beer with­out think­ing much about it.

The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success

This post was made pos­si­ble by the sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like  Nick Moyle and Sue Hart whose encour­age­ment jus­ti­fied us spend­ing sev­er­al days of our free time research­ing and writ­ing. If you like this, and want more, please do con­sid­er sign­ing up, or just buy us a pint.

How did a beer born on an industrial estate in Cornwall in 1995 become a ubiquitous national brand in just 20 years? And what about it inspires such loyalty, and such disdain?

A few inci­dents made us real­ly start think­ing about Sharp’s Doom Bar.

The first was a cou­ple of years ago on a research trip to Man­ches­ter, hav­ing trav­elled all the way from Pen­zance, when we walked into a pub – we can’t recall which one – to find two cask ales on offer: St Austell Trib­ute, and Doom Bar.

The sec­ond was at a pub in New­lyn, just along the coast from Pen­zance, where we met two exhaust­ed cyclists who’d just com­plete the John O’Groats to Land’s End run. They want­ed one last beer before begin­ning the long jour­ney home to the Home Coun­ties. When we got talk­ing to them, one of them even­tu­al­ly said to us: “You’re into your ales, then? I’ll tell you what’s a good one – Doom Bar. Do you know it?”

Peo­ple love this beer. They real­ly, gen­uine­ly, unaf­fect­ed­ly find great plea­sure in drink­ing it.

Sales sta­tis­tics sup­port that: from some­where around 12 mil­lion pints per year in 2009, to 24m in 2010, to 43m by 2016, Doom Bar shifts units.

So what is, or has been, Doom Bar’s secret? And is there some­thing there oth­er brands might imi­tate?

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Suc­cess”

Our Golden Pints for 2018

This is always an interesting exercise for us but all the more so as we’ve got better at keeping records throughout the year.

Those records, in the form of just-about-week­ly Patre­on posts on which beers we’ve enjoyed most each week­end and spread­sheets from #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol, help to avoid the recen­cy effect and push us to be hon­est.

So, after a good bit of back-and-forth over Lem­sips on Wednes­day night, here’s our list of the best beers and pubs of the year.

The best English pub of 2018

It’s been a year of pub lists for us (1 | 2 | 3 | 4) and we’ve vis­it­ed some great places that were new to us, as well as loop­ing back to old favourites.

But let’s be hon­est, there’s only one win­ner: our local, The Drap­ers Arms, on Glouces­ter Road in Bris­tol.

The Drapers Arms -- a collage.
A selec­tion of our ‘Drap­ers‘ pho­tos from Twit­ter.

It’s a microp­ub and has fun­ny hours. It tends to be either a bit qui­et (Mon­day evening, Sat­ur­day after­noon) or crammed (the entire rest of the time). Occa­sion­al­ly, we wish there was a reg­u­lar, reli­able beer on the list.

But the stats speak for them­selves: at the time of writ­ing, we’re just shy of our hun­dredth vis­it since mov­ing to Bris­tol. (Not includ­ing the times one of us has been in with­out the oth­er.)

Now, that’s part­ly down to prox­im­i­ty – it real­ly is the clos­est pub to our house – but we’ve chal­lenged our­selves on this: is our num­ber three pub, the Bar­ley Mow near Tem­ple Meads, bet­ter than the Drap­ers? No, it isn’t.

Best Pub: the Drapers Arms.
Best non-Bristol pub

The Roy­al Oak at Bor­ough, Lon­don, is the best pub in Lon­don, for now, and that’s not opin­ion, it’s sci­en­tif­ic fact. Sus­sex Best! Those salt beef sand­wich­es!

The best Belgian bar

We find our­selves going back to Brasserie De L’Union in Saint-Gilles, Brus­sels, so that’s our win­ner. It’s earthy, a bit grot­ty, utter­ly bewil­der­ing, and there’s usu­al­ly some­one behav­ing down­right weird­ly. The beer is cheap, the ser­vice cheeky, and a diplomat’s girl­friend forced us to accept a gift of exot­ic fruit. And maybe the most impor­tant thing – we found it for our­selves.

The best German beer garden

We had such a nice time pre­tend­ing to be reg­u­lars at the Michaeli­garten in Munich in the autumn and can’t stop dream­ing about going there again.

The best beer of 2018

Cer­tain beers came up repeat­ed­ly in our Beers of the Week­end posts on Patre­on, some of which sur­prised us when we looked back:

  • Young’s Ordi­nary
  • Young’s Dou­ble Choco­late Stout
  • Lost & Ground­ed Keller Pils
  • Five Points Pils
  • Bath Ales Sulis
  • Bris­tol Beer Fac­to­ry Pale Blue Dot
  • Harvey’s Sus­sex Best
  • Dark Star Hop­head
  • Thorn­bridge Jaipur
  • De la Senne Taras Boul­ba
  • Tiny Rebel Stay Puft and Impe­r­i­al Puft
  • Titan­ic Plum Porter
  • Zero Degrees Bohemi­an
  • Zero Degrees Dark Lager

And there were also some one-offs that we remem­bered, and remem­bered fond­ly, even months down the line: Siren Kiset­su, a sai­son with yuzu fruit and tea, for exam­ple, or Elgood’s Cool­ship Man­go Sour.

But there’s one beer that we both agreed has become a favourite – that we find our­selves excit­ed to encounter, and stick­ing on when we find it in a pub – and that’s Ched­dar Ales Bit­ter Bul­ly. It’s clean, con­sis­tent, prop­er­ly bit­ter, and a very digestible 3.8%. It also almost in that north­ern style for which we’ve got such a soft spot.

Best Beer: Bitter Bully.
Best foreign beer

Based on vol­ume con­sumed, and time spent dream­ing about, it’s got to be De la Senne Taras Boul­ba.

Best Tripel

Look, we’ve been over this: it’s West­malle, but, boy, are we lov­ing Karmeli­et right now.

Best blend

Tuch­er Weizen with Oakham Green Dev­il – Hopfen­weisse!

Best blog/writer

With a year’s worth of news, nuggets and lon­greads posts to look over, this is anoth­er we don’t need to leave to guess­work because cer­tain blogs (or writ­ers) got linked to time and again:

But there’s one blog we reck­on stands above the rest for its fre­quen­cy and depth, and for the mea­sured insight it offers into a beer cul­ture not our own, and that’s Jeff Alworth’s Beer­vana.

Best blog: Beervana.Best beer Twitterer

It’s @thebeernut. Again.

Best beer publication

Orig­i­nal Grav­i­ty because it’s dif­fer­ent, both in terms of edi­to­r­i­al approach (cre­ative, impres­sion­is­tic, the­mat­ic) and dis­tri­b­u­tion mod­el (free, in pubs). Good job, ATJ! (Dis­clo­sure: we’ve been paid to write a cou­ple of bits for OG.)

* * *

And that’s us done. We’ll also try to find time for our usu­al Best Read­ing and Best Tweets round-ups in the next week or so.

Citra as Brand, Like Bacon as Brand, Like Chocolate as Brand

Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

Every now and then we’ll reach a point in a conversation where the person opposite wants to know, “What’s a good beer I should be looking out for, then?”

This used to be fair­ly easy to answer, but with more brew­eries, and more beers, and what feels like a ten­den­cy away from the con­cept of the core range or flag­ship beer, it’s become tricky.

There are beers we like but don’t get to drink reg­u­lar­ly enough to say we know, and oth­ers that we love but don’t see from one year to the next.

Last time some­one asked, though, it just so hap­pened that we’d reached a con­clu­sion: “Well, not a spe­cif­ic beer, but you can’t go wrong with any­thing with Cit­ra in the name.”

We were think­ing of Oakham Cit­ra, of course – the beer that effec­tive­ly owns this unique Amer­i­can hop vari­ety in the UK, and has done since 2009.

In his excel­lent book For the Love of Hops Stan Hierony­mus pro­vides a pot­ted his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of Cit­ra:

[Gene] Probas­co made the cross in 1990 that result­ed in the Cit­ra seedling. At the time brew­ers didn’t talk about what would lat­er be called ‘spe­cial’ aro­ma, but “that’s where all the inter­est seems to be these days,” he said. In 1990 he cross-pol­li­nat­ed two plants, a sis­ter and broth­er that result­ed from a 1987 cross between a Haller­tau Mit­tel­früh moth­er and a male from an ear­li­er cross… [In 2001 hop chemist Pat Ting] shipped a two-pound sam­ple to Miller… Troy Rysewyk brewed a batch called Wild Ting IPA, dry hop­ping it with only Cit­ra… “It smelled lke grape­fruit, lychee, man­go,” Ting said. “But fer­ment­ed, it tast­ed like Sauvi­gnon Blanc.”

Cit­ra was very much the hot thing in UK brew­ing about six or sev­en years ago. It was a sort of won­der hop that seemed to com­bine the pow­ers of every C-hop that had come before. It was easy to appre­ci­ate – no hints or notes here, just an almost over-vivid horn blast of flavour –and, in our expe­ri­ence, easy to brew with, too.

We’re bad at brew­ing; Amar­il­lo often defeat­ed us, and Nel­son Sauvin always did; but some­how, even we made decent beers with Cit­ra.

Now, with the trend­set­ters hav­ing moved on, Cit­ra con­tin­ues to be a sort of anchor point for us. If there’s a beer on offer with Cit­ra in the name, even from a brew­ery we’ve nev­er heard of, or even from a brew­ery whose beers we don’t gen­er­al­ly like, we’ll always give it a try.

Hop Back Cit­ra, for exam­ple, is a great beer. It lacks the oomph of Oakham’s flag­ship and bears a dis­tinct fam­i­ly resem­blance to many of the Sal­is­bury brewery’s oth­er beers (“They brew one beer with fif­teen dif­fer­ent names,” a crit­ic said to us in the pub a while ago) but Cit­ra lifts it out of the sepia. It adds a pure, high note; it elec­tri­fies.

Since con­clud­ing that You Can’t Go Wrong With Cit­ra, we’ve been test­ing the the­sis. Of course we’ve had the odd dud – beers that taste like they got the sweep­ings from the Cit­ra fac­to­ry floor, or were wheeled past a sin­gle cone on the way to the ware­house – but gen­er­al­ly, it seems to be a sound rule.

We were recent­ly in the pub with our next door neigh­bour, a keen ale drinker but not a beer geek, and a Cit­ra fan. When Hop Back Cit­ra ran out before he could get anoth­er pint his face fell, until he saw that anoth­er beer with Cit­ra in the name had gone up on the board: “Oh, there you go – as long as it’s a Cit­ra, I don’t mind.”

All con­sumers want is a clue, a short­cut, a bit of help. That’s what they get from IPA, or ‘craft’. And appar­ent­ly also from the name of this one unsub­tle, good-time hop vari­ety.