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.

Cash or Cashless, the Problem is ‘Only’

Both cash-only and cashless-only are barriers, and both tend to be driven by the needs of the business rather than what works for customers.

We got talking about this in the pub last night because of a poll from the Beer O’Clock Show:

The arguments against card-only have been piling up for some time:

  • it excludes the poorest in society
  • it discriminates against older consumers
  • it plays into the machinations of global tech giants
  • it contributes to the tracking and influencing of our behaviour.

But on the ground, in daily life, we very much understand the appeal of paying by card in pubs, bars and bottle-shops.

It saves us having to wander round suburbs or industrial estates looking for cash machines, and makes it easier for us to manage our various bank accounts and budgets, with every transaction recorded and reported.

And not taking cards can be excluding in its own way. One publican in a cash-only business recently told us they’d been thinking about getting a card machine purely because they were aware of constantly turning away young people who expected to be able to use cards. About half of them were willing to find a cash machine and come back, but the rest just moved on down the road.

A lot is made of the cost of processing card payments but depending on the size of the business, cash can be just as expensive to handle, and certainly less convenient.  It can require extra staff-hours for counting and banking, and needs transporting, either at considerable cost (secure pickup) or risk, with a member of staff walking to the bank with a sack of readies. (I’ve managed cash-heavy concerns and write from experience. – Jess.)

The presence of cash can also make premises more vulnerable to crime or, rather, advertising total cashlessness can be a good way to deter it.

And some of the objections cash-only businesses have to cards seem to use to be a hangover from a decade ago when banks charged a lot more for the service, and when people who paid by card in the pub were amateurs and freaks.

It used to mean five minutes of faffing around with signatures and pin numbers, holding up the line. Sometimes, there’d also be another minute or two of trying to get up to the limit for paying by card without an additional charge – “What are your most expensive crisps?” Nowadays, it’s a quick one-handed tap and done, and its people fiddling with coins and waiting for change who seem to cause a delay.

Fundamentally, though, we bridle at the idea of businesses doing only one, or only the other, because it’s convenient for them, rather than offering both with the convenience of their customers in mind.

Craft Lager and Whatever IPA

Whatever IPA.

We’ve been observing the way people, including some of our own friends and colleagues, order their drinks in pubs these days.

Here’s a fairly typical exchange:

“What you having?”

[Pointing at the keg taps] “Whatever IPA they’ve got.”

“Maltsmith’s?”

“Yeah, fine.”

Maltsmith’s (Caledonian/Heineken, 4.6%) is the same as Samuel Smith India Ale (5%, coppery, English hops) is the same as BrewDog Punk (5.6%, pale, pungent) is the same as Goose Island IPA (AB InBev, 5.9%, amber, piney).

We’ve noticed more or less the same tendency with ‘craft lager’ – a phrase we geeks could probably lose weeks bickering over but which to most consumers has a fairly clear meaning: something with CRAFT LAGER written on its label, and a brand invented in the past decade.

Fuller’s Frontier, Hop House 13 (Guinness), St Austell Korev, Camden Hells (AB InBev), Lost & Grounded Keller Pils… They’re all seen as avatars of the same thing, despite the vast divergence in flavours, and regardless of ownership, independence, and so on.

It was weird the other night to be in Seamus O’Donnell’s, a central Bristol Irish pub, and see on draught not only Guinness stout but also a Guinness branded golden ale, citra IPA, and two crafted-up lagers – Hop House 13 and Guinness Pilsner.

This line-up is what people expect to find in 2018, and breweries are obliged to respond if they don’t want to lose space on the bar to competitors.

The frustration for beer geeks is that this feels and looks like what they wanted, what they clamoured for, but the beers themselves are so often disappointing – hops a little more in evidence than the old mainstream, perhaps, but rarely more than that.

And if you’re wedded to ideals of independence, quality and choice, it’s all a bit worrying: most consumers are apparently easy to befuddle, or don’t care, which is bad news for those who do.

The Questions We Ask Ourselves

A question mark leads a man by the hand.

Is this beer consistently tasty? Are the brewers good people? Is the project laudable? Is the beer, brewery or style in need of our support?

It’s entirely possible to answer yes to one question but not the others.

A dreadful idiot who behaves appallingly can brew a great beer, and a wonderful local brewery owned by the loveliest people on earth can produce complete rubbish.

That’s obvious.

For some people, ethics, localness or independence are the only important factors, and they can probably live with a mediocre or even flawed product on that basis. (Perhaps their brains even trick them into genuinely enjoying the beer more – a feature, not a bug.)

But others will say, no, beer quality is the only thing that matters. (We try to be objective like this, but we’re only human.)

Still others might make their decisions based on price, out of necessity, or through a principled belief that the market is the ultimate arbiter.

Where there might be a problem is when people fail to express the distinction between those different ideas of “good”, or perhaps even to understand it.

BrewDog, to quote a notable example, brews (on the whole) beer we enjoy drinking. But believing that and saying it doesn’t mean we endorse their values, or uncritically support everything they do.

On the other hand, we felt a little churlish the other day when we couldn’t give Tynt Meadow, the new British Trappist beer, a wholehearted recommendation.

It is interesting.

We’re glad it exists, and expect it to improve.

If we lived in Leicestershire we might even feel somewhat proud of it.

But we’re not going to say it’s GREAT! because we like the concept, just as we’re not going to say Punk IPA tastes bad (it doesn’t) to take a cheap pop at BrewDog.

Whether local equates to good when it comes to beer has been debated endlessly over the years. Increasingly, we’re coming to the view that while it’s never as simple as that, there are certain beers that get as close to good as they ever will when they’re consumed near the brewery, where people know how they’re supposed to taste, and the quirks of keeping them; and where there’s a chance the brewer might pop in for a pint every now and then.

We certainly hope people can read these codes when we use them:

  • ‘fond of’ or ‘soft spot for’ is personal and emotional;
  • ‘interesting’ is about narrative, culture and significance in the industry;
  • a mediocre beer that’s very cheap can be ‘good value’;
  • ‘worth a try’ means we didn’t like it, but can imagine others might;
  • and you might not want more than one glass of a beer that is ‘complex’.

In practice, of course, the question we’re most likely to ask is: “Which of this limited selection of beers is going to taste the best?” (Or perhaps, depressingly, “least bad”.)

These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs

Over a few beers the other week we found ourselves making a list of pubs we love and find ourselves longing to be in.

It’s not The Best Pubs, it’s not a Top Ten, it’s just some pubs we like enough to feel wistful for. We’ve been tinkering with it since and decided to share it.

Brains bitter at the City Arms, Cardiff.
The City Arms, Cardiff

10-12 Quay St, CF10 1EA
This is, in fact, the pub where we had the conversation. It was our first visit but love at first pint. The perfect mix of old school, new school, cask and keg, it just felt completely right to us. Worn in and unpretentious, but not curmudgeonly, and serving a revelatory point of Brains Bitter. (Not SA.) Is it an institution? We assume it’s an institution.

The Brunswick, Derby.
The Brunswick Inn, Derby

1 Railway Terrace, DE1 2RU
We loved this first time, and it’s still great. Flagstones, pale cask ale, cradling corners, a view over the railway, and the murmur of lovely local accents. Worth breaking a train journey for.

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