News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 December 2017: Portman, Golden Pints, Pretzel Pieces

Here’s everything that’s grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the last seven days, from Tiny Rebel’s labelling woes to pairing beer with chocolate.

(Note: because we’re on the road we put this together on Thursday so any exciting developments from Friday might be missing, depending on whether we could be bothered to fiddle with editing the post on a phone screen.)

First, undoubtedly the biggest story of the week was the Portman Group’s ruling against Tiny Rebel over the design of the Cwtch can. This has generated commentary to reinforce each and every set of prejudices:

The most essential items of reading, though, are the Portman Group’s own report on the decision, and Tiny Rebel’s response which comes with (perhaps questionable) figures for the final cost of the exercise.


Here’s one we added from a smartphone sitting in a pub on Friday: Emma Inch asks if we might apply a version of the Bechdel test to beer. We don’t do much Women in Beer stuff these days, even though one of us is, of course, a Woman in Beer, so this very much resonates.


Detail from the cover of the menu.

We always enjoy dissections of artefacts from recent beer history which is why this piece  by Josh Noel about an early-to-mid-1990s menu from Goose Island’s original Chicago brewpub caught our eye. He discovered it while researching his upcoming book about Goose Island, an extract from which is quoted in this post, and it tells us a lot about where American beer was at just 25 years ago:

The menu features three core year-round beers: Golden Goose Pilsner, which had been a brewpub mainstay since opening in 1988; Honker’s Ale, the only 1988 original that has endured throughout Goose Island’s 30-year history (though the fading popularity of the easy drinking, malt forward style leaves it at the periphery these days); and Tanzen Gans Kolsch, likely one of the earliest examples of the kolsch style made by an American craft brewer… The Brewmaster’s Specials included another 19 beers that rotated seasonally, including a heretofore rarity in Chicago called IPA (“very strong, very bitter, very pale”).


Katie Wiles and Christine Cryne.

Having corresponded with her on and off for some years we finally met Christine Cryne completely coincidentally in our local pub earlier in the year. Now Katie Wiles gives us a profile of one of the quiet stars of British beer based on a lunchtime chocolate-and-beer pairing session at London’s Wenlock Arms:

I’m eager to see what it’s like to drink beer with a Master Beer Trainer, so we decide to break open the Oddfellow’s Chocolate, a favourite for Christine’s pairings. “It’s best to pair chocolate with a beer that is over 4% ABV,” Christine explains. “You want to make sure that the chocolate either amplifies the flavours or tones them down – you can try the same type of beer with two different chocolates and bring out completely different tastes.”


Illustration: blue Whitbread beer crate.

Concealed within this bit of PR fluff, an oddity: Black Sheep has brewed a Costa coffee infused beer for hospitality company Whitbread. Whitbread. Hospitality company Whitbread. Hospitality. There is something very sad about this story.

(Disclosure, we guess: Whitbread allowed us to use archive images from their collection in 20th Century Pub.)


Illustration: a glowing pint of beer.

The first batch of Golden Pints posts are in. We won’t be sharing every one that pops up but this is by way of a reminder that this is still A Thing, in case you were in two minds about whether to bother. Ours will be up sometime next week, we hope.

  • Tim Sheahan — Northern Monk, Siren, Edge
  • Phil Lowry — Adnams, Fullers, Harvey’s, Tiny Rebel, Cloudwater
  • James Beeson — Cloudwater, Deya, Verdant, Five Points

We’ll finish with this work of art:

Portman Group v. Infantile Can Designs

The label for Cwtch.

News broke this morning that a complaint against the design of the can for Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch has been upheld by the Portman Group.

The Portman Group is the beer industry’s organ for self-regulation, the purpose of which is, broadly speaking, to head off this kind of issue before things get really heavy. The complaint against Cwtch was that “a member of the public, believed that the product wasn’t obviously alcoholic, due to the design, and also had a particular appeal to children”.

We have a few thoughts on this.

First, we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. As we wrote back in March 2016 craft beer cans often feature designs that mean they resemble soft drinks, and the borderline between fun and downright infantile is pretty fine. How do you design something that will appeal to a 19-year-old but not to a 17-year-old? This is an especially important question given that the former has been a large part of the success of the crop of craft breweries that have emerged in the last decade or so.

What perhaps doesn’t help is how often we see people chortling on social media that, tee hee, craft beer cans are great because The Man assumes you’re drinking pop! Heck, we’ve even played this game ourselves. And, vice versa, when people are constantly posting pictures of fizzy pop cans with variations on the joke, “This new IPA looks interesting.”

Then there’s a second point: the nagging suspicion we’ve had that Tiny Rebel have been following the BrewDog playbook (Brew Britannia, chapter 14) and angling for some kind of dispute in which they are the oppressed underdog for PR purposes. We’re sure they must have known that the packaging was provocative — teddy bears! Candy! Cartoon characters! — just as BrewDog knew Speedball was back in 2008. In addition Tiny Rebel seem to have been actively engaged in what we’d call ‘trademark baiting’, referencing characters owned by huge corporations such as Nintendo (Princess Peach), Disney (Darth Vader) and Sony (the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man). So far they’ve got away with it, as have Robinson’s, which we suppose makes it a win-win.

Then again, maybe we’re wrong. After all, the Portman Group’s judgement suggests that Tiny Rebel played ball throughout the process and have agreed to change the packaging.

Anyway, on balance, the judgement seems fair enough to us, and hardly draconian. It would certainly seem less controversial if it as AB-InBev or Carslberg in the firing line, wouldn’t it? This kind of back-and-forth over marginal cases is far better than hard-and-fast rules which tend to push the boundary back well into the safety zone. We would certainly start to worry, though, if these rulings begin to pile up and lead to, say, a de facto ban on the use of bright colours.

We came to this story via Charlie AKA @craftybeeress who blogs at craftybeeress.com — give her a follow!