Stella, Doom, Punk

A dog.

We had one of those moments this week that shines a light on the health of a brand: we saw BrewDog on the beer list at a new local cafe and thought, “Oh, it’s not really a beer place, then.”

It’s not as if we think BrewDog’s beer is bad. We spent a hap­py hour at its Bris­tol bar on Sun­day and prob­a­bly have a more pos­i­tive view of Punk IPA than many of our peers. (It ain’t wot it used to be, and so on.)

It’s a sign that Brew­Dog beers have become one of the go-to cash-and-car­ry prod­ucts along with Stel­la Artois and Doom Bar, which changes their sta­tus in the mar­ket­place. (Here’s Pete Brown on Stel­la.) It is no longer a treat, no longer wor­thy of an appre­cia­tive “Ooh!”.

You might say this start­ed years ago when they first turned up in super­mar­kets, or in Greene King and Wether­spoon pubs, and that’s prob­a­bly true.

And we’re not com­plain­ing, real­ly. After all this was the dream a decade ago – a sup­ply of strong, bit­ter, furi­ous­ly hop­py IPA on every street cor­ner.

It’s just inter­est­ing to us that where­as once the pres­ence of Brew­Dog on the menu indi­cat­ed a beer geek work­ing some­where behind the scenes, it now means no such thing.

Crossover Event: Beavertown & Heineken

Heineken sign

Beaver­town has sold a sub­stan­tial stake to Heineken  – they’re not spec­i­fy­ing how much but 49 per cent seems a rea­son­able assump­tion – and our Twit­ter men­tions have gone a bit mad.

That’s because a few weeks ago, you might recall, we wrote a piece reflect­ing on signs one might look out for to indi­cate that a brew­ery is ready­ing itself for sale, point­ing to Beaver­town as an exam­ple of a firm that seemed to be glow­ing hot.

Now, let’s be clear: our post was actu­al­ly pret­ty ten­ta­tive – might this, pos­si­bly that – and, though we named AB-InBev as a pos­si­ble suit­or in the quick Tweet we fired off before the post, we didn’t spec­i­fy any names in the post prop­er because we didn’t have a clue.

Even if we’d guessed Heineken would have been low down the list giv­en its fair­ly recent acqui­si­tion of anoth­er Lon­don brew­ery, Brix­ton.

(Although with­in min­utes of our post­ing mul­ti­ple peo­ple had mes­saged us to say, “It’s Heineken”, and prop­er jour­nal­ists soon fer­ret­ed out the sto­ry.)

So, yes, we’re feel­ing pleased that our log­ic was test­ed and seems to have held up but, no, we don’t feel like sooth­say­ers or a pair of Mys­tic Megs. What we came up with was half edu­cat­ed guess, half luck.

In the PR around today’s news Beaver­town has addressed a few impor­tant points head on, admit­ting to hav­ing swerved telling the truth because (as we acknowl­edged in our post) busi­ness­es don’t gen­er­al­ly talk about deals while they’re being nego­ti­at­ed and, indeed, are usu­al­ly legal­ly pro­hib­it­ed from doing so:

It’s been an uncom­fort­able few weeks as spec­u­la­tive rumours have been fly­ing about.  The real­i­ty is that some­times in busi­ness you can’t share every­thing and I’m a true believ­er in not talk­ing about any­thing unless it is a done deal, and up until this very day there was no deal.

It’s at this point, though, that we’ll refer to an even old­er post of ours, from May last year: brew­eries could avoid a lot of the crit­i­cism and high emo­tion that hits on takeover day, and lingers for months and even years after, if they made a point of say­ing from much ear­li­er on in the cycle some­thing like, “We some­times talk to poten­tial investors and would nev­er rule out sell­ing a stake in the com­pa­ny, just so you know.”

Peo­ple will prob­a­bly under­stand if you have to keep the specifics of par­tic­u­lar deals qui­et, as long as the very idea that you might be talk­ing to whichev­er glob­al giant isn’t a nasty sur­prise.

What­ev­er the logis­tics behind the deci­sion, how­ev­er good the news for the com­pa­ny, regard­less of whether the beer stays the same, there will always be peo­ple who feel stung when a com­pa­ny which was sell­ing a set of val­ues as much as pale ale decides that one of those val­ues doesn’t mat­ter any more.

That’s Not a Drink, This is a Drink

Because Jessica has been on call over the weekend (office job, not a surgeon or anything) she couldn’t drink, so we both decided to do the whole thing dry, which got us thinking about what constitutes a Drink, capital D.

On Fri­day night, need­ing to put a full stop on the work­ing week some­how, we gath­ered the mak­ings of ‘mock­tails’ from the shops and spent a cou­ple of hours exper­i­ment­ing.

Sourc­ing or devis­ing recipes was was absorb­ing; work­ing with ingre­di­ents – zest­ing lemons and limes, pound­ing mint leaves, crush­ing ice, salt­ing the rims of glass­es – was fun; and there was a real plea­sure in behold­ing the pret­ty end prod­ucts, even before we got to taste them.

It was the gin­less ton­ic that real­ly got us think­ing, though. What made it look, feel and taste like a real, com­posed Drink, even though it was most­ly just ton­ic and ice? A big, stemmed glass helped. The twist of lemon peel added some mag­ic, as did the table­spoon of gin­ger beer, tea­spoon of elder­flower cor­dial, and squeeze of lemon juice. But real­ly it was about the fact that we’d tak­en care and a lit­tle time, treat­ing these sim­ple com­po­nents with a lit­tle care, express­ly intend­ing to fool our­selves.

Of course this even­tu­al­ly made us think about beer.

Beer, you might think, is a sim­ple drink. You don’t add ice, and the habit of drop­ping chunks of fruit into wheat beer feels like some rel­ic of the 1990s. But we keep think­ing of a phrase Alas­tair ‘Mean­time’ Hook uses when describ­ing how beer is treat­ed in Ger­many: “uni­ver­sal rev­er­ence”.

You can dump warmish beer into the first scratched, half-clean glass you lay your hands on. That’s cer­tain­ly a beer. Or you can spend a few sec­onds choos­ing just the right ves­sel, clean­ing it until it sings, and fill­ing it to achieve the cor­rect degree of clar­i­ty, with the per­fect head of foam. That is a Beer.

It why sparklers are debat­ed so end­less­ly – their use, or not, is a choice, and an act of rev­er­ence. It’s why, what­ev­er the prac­ti­cal­i­ties, the pint as a mea­sure is so irre­sistible. It’s why even mediocre Bel­gian or Ger­man beers seem to taste that lit­tle bit bet­ter than they might in blind tast­ing – because chal­ices and doilies announce the arrival of some­thing spe­cial. It explains mar­ket­ing-dri­ven pour­ing rit­u­als, too: because they make you wait for it, a pint of Guin­ness retains a cer­tain mys­tique, even when your head tells you it’s a point­less per­for­mance.

A pint of Courage Best served in a pub that has been sell­ing the same beer (or at least the same brand) for 50 years and is proud of it, with spot­less brand­ed glass­ware and tast­ing as good as it ever can, is a Beer, even if the prod­uct and set­ting are hum­ble and it costs less than £3.

Giv­ing beer the VIP treat­ment isn’t free – sexy glass­ware gets stolen, and care­ful staff ought to cost more – but it is, in the grand scheme of things, cheap, being most­ly a state of mind.

* * *

  1. NAIPA – 1 part Brew­Dog Nan­ny State NA beer, 1 part apple juice, one slice very fine­ly pureed banana, squeeze of lime juice, ice.
  2. Spicy Thing – one part gin­ger beer, one part soda water, table­spoon maple syrup, one slice green chilli (crushed), ice.
  3. Gin­less Ton­ic – ton­ic, ice, twist of lemon peel, squeeze of lemon juice, table­spoon gin­ger beer, tea­spoon elder­flower cor­dial, ice.
  4. Fauxji­to – soda water, juice of 1 lime, sug­ar syrup to taste, crushed mint leaves, crushed ice.

Getting in Shape for Takeover

Reading tea leaves in a cup.

Without insider intelligence it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether a brewery is about to be taken over by a larger national or multi-national but we reckon there are a few things to look out for.

First comes a shift from purism to prag­ma­tism. Small­ness, inde­pen­dence and prove­nance, once both sacred val­ues and sell­ing points, get dropped.

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. But what it also hap­pens to do is send a sig­nal like ani­mal hor­mones in mat­ing sea­son: we’ve grown up now; we under­stand how it works in the real world; we’re peo­ple you can do busi­ness with.

The tying off of loose ends is anoth­er thing to watch out for, e.g. the sud­den set­tling of legal dis­putes, which few poten­tial buy­ers will want to acquire as part of any bun­dle. Cam­den set­tled their dis­pute with Red­well over the trade­mark for Hells, for exam­ple, at around the time of its takeover by AB-InBev. (We under­stand that report­ing of this news came much lat­er than the set­tle­ment itself, though it’s pos­si­ble we’ve got the wrong end of the stick.)

Along the same lines, one might read some­thing into the wind­ing up of fun but mar­gin­al parts of the busi­ness.

The emer­gence of a dom­i­nant beer in the port­fo­lio might be the biggest red flag of all. (Or green, depend­ing on your point of view.) Big multi­na­tion­al firms are drawn to lagers, pale ales, wheat beers and increas­ing­ly, we’ve observed, ses­sion IPAs. These are prod­ucts with main­stream appeal, that peo­ple can and will drink for an entire ses­sion or buy by the six-pack, and which fill a gap in their port­fo­lios of Craft Brands. If they’re already in super­mar­kets and chain pubs (see above) all the bet­ter.

All of this is a round­about way of say­ing that, think­ing back on the tra­jec­to­ries of Mean­time, Sharp’s, Cam­den and oth­ers, we’d put mon­ey on Beaver­town being bought up before too long.

Of course Beaver­town says this:

Twitter conversation: a takeover is not going to happen, says Beavertown.

But that doesn’t change our gut instincts. After all, the one indi­ca­tor of an impend­ing takeover you can guar­an­tee you’ll nev­er get is any explic­it announce­ment of intent before a deal has been finalised.

QUICK POST: Same Old Song

"Are All Beers The Same?"

The other day we encountered a hazy pale-n-hoppy beer from a local brewery that was decent in its own right, and certainly well on trend, but something about it bothered us: it simply seemed indistinguishable to quite a lot of other beers from quite a lot of other breweries.

Maybe this has been on our minds because our attempt to pin down the definition(s)  of ‘craft beer’ resur­faced again late­ly. The first def­i­n­i­tion we pro­vide there, with ref­er­ence to Michael Jack­son and Roger Protz, includes the word ‘dis­tinc­tive’ as a key char­ac­ter­is­tic – a sense that an expe­ri­enced palate could not eas­i­ly mis­take that beer for any oth­er.

Now, there aren’t many beers that real­ly fit that cri­te­ri­on, and we’d prob­a­bly strug­gle to tell, say, Bass from St Austell Cor­nish Bit­ter tast­ed blind on most occa­sions, but, still, per­haps it has got hard­er still in recent years. When there were a few hun­dred brew­eries in the UK, each mak­ing a hand­ful of beers, there were plen­ty of unique sell­ing points to go around: this one does lager, that one uses Cas­cade, there’s one down the road mak­ing an impe­r­i­al stout that smells of puke to a sort-of-his­toric recipe, and so on. Now, with going on for a cou­ple of thou­sand, it’s obvi­ous­ly hard­er to come up with any­thing com­plete­ly new that is also like­ly to sell in any vol­ume in pubs, i.e. that is not com­plete­ly bonkers.

Even so, we do won­der if the ten­den­cy to rely on the same hand­ful of com­mer­cial yeast strains, the same broad fam­i­lies of hops, and to look to the same few high­ly-rat­ed beers for inspi­ra­tion, isn’t lead­ing into a cul-de-sac.

What is your thing? What makes your beer dif­fer­ent, and bet­ter, than Bloggs’s? If you can’t answer that then you prob­a­bly won’t con­vince a pub or shop to take your beer over one that’s 85 per cent iden­ti­cal but twopence cheap­er, or with nicer pack­ag­ing. You prob­a­bly won’t con­vince drinkers to devel­op any par­tic­u­lar loy­al­ty to your brand either.

If you’re not dis­tinc­tive, aren’t you… gener­ic?