News, Nuggets and Longreads 16 March 2019: Potatoes, Preston, Pubs

Here are all the blog posts and news stories about beer that seized our attention in the past week, from potato beer to ancient Irish pubs.

First, some food for thought: SIBA, the body that represents a significant chunk of the UK’s independent breweries, has published its annual report. (Unfortunately, in flippy-flappy skeuomorphic online booklet form. UPDATE: Neil at SIBA sent us a link to a PDF.) Some of the key messages:

  • The public perceives craft beer to be from small, independent producers, and made using traditional methods.
  • Young people do seem to be pulling away from alcohol, with only 16% of 25-34 year olds drinking beer more regularly than once a week, down from 26% in 2017.
  • The number of breweries producing keg beer has increased, and craft lager especially is on the up.

Preston
SOURCE: Ferment.

Better late than never, having finally got round to reading it in a hard copy of Ferment, the magazine from beer subscription service Beer52, we wanted to flag Katie Taylor’s piece on the beer scene in Preston, Lancashire:

A former Victorian textiles giant left to the fates of so many Northern towns, the city sits patiently on direct rail routes to nearly every UK city you can think of; it’s two hours from London, two hours from Edinburgh. Deprivation has cast its shadow for some time, but after over a decade of diligent local action and positive steps towards self-sufficiency it feels like recently, Preston’s time might finally be arriving… The hipsters of Preston are made of different stuff though. For a start, they’re not interlopers searching for cheap loft spaces – instead they’re local, young and they’ve never left.

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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 21 July 2018: Films, Maps, Infographics

Here’s everything about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from SIBA to Ales by Mail.

First, an interesting nugget of news: a few months ago, SIBA’s members rejected a bid by leadership to make room in the organisation for larger breweries; now, rather on the quiet, the membership has been overruled. One SIBA member contacted us to express disappointment, but also resignation, and relief that at least it didn’t seem to be causing a huge row: “SIBA needs a period of calm and a sense of business as usual.” Steve Dunkley at Beer Nouveau, meanwhile, offers commentary from a small brewer’s perspective:

SIBA is repositioning itself to include, and be funded, by bigger breweries, at the expense of the smaller ones. It’s setting its stall out to campaign for tax breaks for large companies, at the expense of smaller ones.  It claims to be the voice of Independent British Brewing, yet running the very real risk of closing down a lot of its small members, driving away a lot more, and not attracting even more. SIBA has around 830 members, less than half of the almost 2,000 British breweries there were in 2016, yet still claims to be the voice of the industry. It states itself that the majority of its members produce less than 1,000hl, yet its actions don’t represent them.

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Thought for the Day: SIBA & the Family Brewers

St Austell Brewery.

Last week SIBA members voted not to permit larger independent brewers to join as full members, against the urging of SIBA’s leadership. And we reckon, well, fair enough.

Yes, family brewers are an endangered species and worth preserving. Fuller’s and St Austell are fine breweries whose beer we generally love, and a different breed from Greene King and Marston’s. They’re certainly a million miles from AB-InBev and are ‘goodies’ in the grand scheme of things. (Disclosure: we’ve had occasional hospitality from St Austell over the years.)

At the same time, Fuller’s and St Austell already have significant advantages over genuinely small breweries, not least estates of pubs which those small brewers are effectively locked out of. They also have national brands, and apparently substantial marketing budgets.

If we ran a really small brewery and were struggling every day to keep our heads above water, competing for free trade accounts and scrambling for every last sale, we’d be pretty pissed off at the idea of those two breweries muscling in on what little benefit SIBA membership seems to bring.

And much as we admire Fuller’s and St Austell we don’t think either is perfectly cuddly. If they were keen to join SIBA as full members it was probably out of a (entirely reasonable) desire to secure some further commercial advantage. If we’re wrong, if we’re being too cynical and it was simply a matter of longing to belong, then they clearly have more work to do getting that message across.

Helping those small brewers to sell a bit more beer, without strings attached, would probably be the most directly convincing way to go about it.

Further Reading

News, Nuggets & Longreads 17 March 2018: London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week in the world of beer and pubs, from beer festivals to Friday skiving.

From Roger Protz comes a reflection on the London Drinker beer festival which has been organised by north London Campaign for Real Ale activists annually since 1985, but which this year is sadly winding up:

It’s not because the festival lacks success. On the contrary, it’s one of CAMRA’s longest running and most successful events. But the Camden Centre is due to be knocked down and redeveloped and finding – and affording – a replacement venue is difficult if not impossible….

As interesting as the news itself, though, is Roger’s account of pioneering the very concept of tasting notes in the 1980s, and being jeered at for daring to suggest that there might be chocolate notes in a dark beer.


Illustration: fanzine style picture of a pint and a packet of crisps.

Phil at Oh Good Ale seems to have found an interesting voice lately — a sort of stream of consciousness that coalesces into commentary if you let it. This week he wrote with some panache about the passing culture of Friday lunchtime pints:

1983, Chester

I knew we were on when I saw Tom going back for a pudding. Most days, we’d clock out at lunchtime, go to the canteen for something to eat – a hot meal served with plates and cutlery, none of your rubbish – and then it’d be down the Cestrian for a pint or two, or three…. On this particular Friday Tom went back to get some apple crumble and custard, which he ate with great relish and without any appearance of watching the time, heartily recommending it to the rest of us; a couple of people actually followed his lead. Then he looked at his watch with some ostentation and led the way out of the canteen…. It wasn’t a 15-minute weekday session or a standard 45-minute Friday session; that Friday, we were on.

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