Guidelines are only guidelines

Portman Group logo.

The Portman Group’s long-awaited revised guidelines for the naming, promotion and packaging of drinks landed yesterday, and there’s a view that they got it wrong.

First, though, there’s a bit that’s been wel­comed by peo­ple like Melis­sa Cole and Jae­ga Wise, and the line every­one was wait­ing for:

A drink’s name, its pack­ag­ing and any pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al or activ­i­ty should not cause seri­ous or wide­spread offence.

That’s backed up by a sep­a­rate and more detailed guid­ance note which adds this spe­cif­ic detail…

Par­tic­u­lar care must be tak­en to avoid caus­ing seri­ous offence on the grounds of race, reli­gion, gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, dis­abil­i­ty or age.

… while oth­er­wise leav­ing things suit­ably vague, ready to be test­ed in prac­tice if and when com­plaints start to come in:

The Code rules are writ­ten as broad prin­ci­ples. This means that the rules are not over­ly pre­scrip­tive and allow the Pan­el to inter­pret and apply them on a  case by case basis, tak­ing mul­ti­ple fac­tors into account (over­all impres­sion con­veyed, pro­duc­er response, rel­e­vant research etc). This ensures that the Code, and its rules, are flex­i­ble to dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios, fit for pur­pose and respon­sive to inno­va­tion in the mar­ket…

We reck­on all this leaves brew­ers with a fair amount of room for manoeu­vre, while also pro­vid­ing a mech­a­nism for chal­leng­ing them. Of course the first time it’s test­ed will either upset free speech types (if the com­plaint is upheld) or the com­plain­ing class­es if it isn’t, but at least the  first draft of a sys­tem is there.

Four units

Now for the bit lots of peo­ple think they got wrong: in the eter­nal bat­tle against strong lagers and ciders, they’ve come up with advice on pack­ag­ing that would seem to catch IPA, Bel­gian-style beer and oth­er high-end prod­ucts in the cross­fire. Here’s the top line:

The Advi­so­ry Ser­vice rec­om­mends that con­tain­ers which are typ­i­cal­ly sin­gle-serve, and whose con­tents are typ­i­cal­ly con­sumed by one per­son in one sit­ting, should not con­tain more than four units.

Again, though, these are guide­lines, not rules, and this sec­tion would seem to get as close to say­ing ‘PS. Does not apply to craft beer’ as could rea­son­ably be expect­ed:

Hav­ing more than four-units in a sin­gle-serve con­tain­er will not auto­mat­i­cal­ly result in a prod­uct being found in breach of the Code; it is the view of the Advi­so­ry Ser­vice that the Pan­el is like­ly to take oth­er fac­tors into account when deter­min­ing whether a prod­uct encour­ages immod­er­ate con­sump­tion. It is not pos­si­ble to pro­duce an exhaus­tive list of mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors but the Pan­el may con­sid­er: whether the con­tain­er con­tained a ‘share’ mes­sage or a ‘per serve’ rec­om­men­da­tion, how eas­i­ly the con­tain­er could be resealed, whether the pro­duc­er was able to demon­strate that the con­tents were shared (by decant­i­ng) or typ­i­cal­ly con­sumed over more than one sit­ting, the pre­mi­um status/quality of the prod­uct and its posi­tion­ing in the mar­ket includ­ing the price at which it is gen­er­al­ly sold, alco­hol type (does the prod­uct degrade quick­ly once opened) and the over­all impres­sion con­veyed by the prod­uct pack­ag­ing (such as ter­mi­nol­o­gy used in the name and prod­uct descrip­tion). The mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors should be com­men­su­rate with the num­ber of units (above 4 units) in the sin­gle-serve con­tain­er. The Pan­el is also like­ly to take into con­sid­er­a­tion whether the pack­ag­ing con­tains respon­si­bil­i­ty mes­sag­ing, for exam­ple, the num­ber of units in the con­tain­er and a ref­er­ence to the Drinkaware web­site.

And, one final bit of extreme devil’s advo­ca­cy: we’ve fair­ly fre­quent­ly seen street drinkers – peo­ple obvi­ous­ly strug­gling with addic­tion to alco­hol– with cans of Brew­Dog Elvis Juice at break­fast time in cen­tral Bris­tol. At 6.5%, and with four cans for £6 in Tesco con­ve­nience stores, it’s actu­al­ly a rea­son­ably eco­nom­i­cal and palat­able way to get pissed.

So maybe the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is the idea that there’s good booze and bad booze, when actu­al­ly it’s about sta­ble and unsta­ble lives.

Fur­ther read­ing

That Little Bit of Magic

Cask ale collage.Drink­ing extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good Bass at the Angel at Long Ash­ton on Sat­ur­day we found our­selves reflect­ing, once again, on the fine dif­fer­ence between a great pint and a dis­ap­point­ment.

A few years ago, when we were try­ing hard to make the Farmer’s Arms in Pen­zance our local, we had a ses­sion on Ring­wood Forty-Nin­er that made us think it might actu­al­ly be a great beer.

But every pint we’ve had since, there or any­where else, has been pret­ty dread­ful.

What gave it the edge that first time? And what was miss­ing there­after? Extra high fre­quen­cies, or an addi­tion­al dimen­sion, some­how.

This elu­sive qual­i­ty is what we tast­ed in eight pints of Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord out of ten at the Nags Head in Waltham­stow for sev­er­al years in a run, and what is so often not there when we encounter it as a guest ale any­where else.

It’s what makes rec­om­mend­ing or endors­ing cask ales in par­tic­u­lar a mug’s game: “Is it only me that’s nev­er got the fuss about Lon­don Pride?” some­one will say on Twit­ter. No, it’s not, and we don’t doubt that you’ve nev­er had a good pint, because it can taste like dust and sweet­corn, and does maybe more than half the time we encounter it. But when it’s good, oh! is it good.

Bass isn’t a great beer in absolute terms, but it can be, hon­est.

Harvey’s Sus­sex Best can be a wretched, mis­er­able thing – all stress and stal­e­ness – and might well have been every time you’ve ever encoun­tered it. But the next pint you have might be a rev­e­la­tion.

Are the lows worth endur­ing for the highs? Yes, and it might even be that they make the highs high­er.

(We’ve prob­a­bly made this point before but after near­ly 3,000 posts, who can remem­ber…)

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”