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

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 – give her a fol­low!