Friday, 16 November 2018

The Thorny Question

A few weeks back I went into one of Preston's ever-increasing number of micropubs.  Usually this place stocks the uber-awesome beers from uber-awesome breweries.  But this day, it had Thornbridge Jaipur on the handpumps. I commented to the owner that, well, you rarely see that nowadays and wondered why.  I, of course had a pint.  And then another. You know how it goes, right.

About 5 years ago, I was in a craft bar in a different town.  They put Jaipur on while I was in and I thought "This is gonna be good".  I downloaded a counter app for my phone and kept track of how many pints of it were sold in my presence (I dubbed this the "Jaipurotron").  I was there for 4 hours and it got to about 45.  Granted, I did drink 6 of those myself.

Jaipurotron in action
For such a well-regarded brewery, few people seem to be "talking" about Thornbridge now. Whenever I've had their stuff, it's always been a cut above the standard craft sludge that's often seen infesting the bars of the UK.  But it seems to have been increasingly pushed out by the newer and more obviously fashionable breweries.

We sell Thornbridge at the shop I work at, though here I'm using "sell" in the "on the shelves" sense rather than "a lot of it goes through the tills".  We used to sell a lot of Jaipur, but when they switched from 500ml bottles to 330mls, sales collapsed sharply.  I worked out that the customers were being expected to pay 17% less per unit for 35% less beer, and despite what people will sometimes tell you, they noticed.  One guy even told me he switched to Oakham beers because he thought Thornbridge was a ripoff now.  Hell, I even have to date-check the stuff now.

We've recently seen Thornbridge put Jaipur in cans, despite the head brewer being on record as saying he was unconvinced of the merits of canning craft beer.  Either he recently has become convinced, or they've seen their bottle sales tanking in the off-trade and want to move Jaipur to the place on the shelves where those willing to pay more are likely to see it.

Perhaps Thornbridge Brewery should stick to what they've been doing for the best part of their existence.  The "Craft" boom will not last forever, and indeed there are signs it's starting on its way down.  If you have a good product (and they do), you should stick to doing that.  The market will find its way back to you.

Fashion comes and goes, but quality remains.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Insert "Genus : Castor" Pun Here

Hello?  Has everything calmed down yet?  Craft beer survived despite the torrents of shelf-removed and drainpoured beer? Ok.  So, now we can get some kind of perspective on the whole "Beavertown Sold Out To Heineken" issue.  Right?

Ok then.

To the disappointed ideological Crafties, yeah, it's one less brewery to choose from.  But London alone has over 100 of the things now.  There's a beer for you right down your street at the local bottle shop or craft bar, and it won't be owned by Big Beer.  To the people saying that Beavertown was overpriced, cloudy, vegetal-tasting sludge, well, Wetherspoons awaits you.

The problem is with this kind of issue is that people take it personally.  For some reason, a lot of people have made an emotional investment in Logan Plant and his beer factory.  Despite the history of "edgy", "unique" and "game changing" ethical companies all selling out in the end.  Read the history of Green & Blacks (sold to Cadbury plc. in 2005), Innocent Smoothies (sold to Coca Cola in 2009) and Pukka Tea (sold to Unilever in 2017).  This stuff isn't new.

Had Mr. Plant told the likely story behind his brewery's founding in 2011 (as opposed to the"stories" the Beer Communicators want us to believe), would have gone something like this :

"Well, I heard Craft Beer was going to be big in the next few years.  So I got some seed funding and investors together to form a company which had targeted growth and projected market penetration in the sector, with a view to selling the company to the most suitable bidder once a certain level of turnover had been reached"

This is probably closer to the truth than the usual guff about the "Evils" of "Big Beer" we generally hear from Craft Brewers, but how would it have gone down with his brewery's intended market - young, ethically aware, anti-big capital etc?  Right.  They wouldn't have touched Beavertown beer with a 90-foot mash paddle.  They would've thought "The Led Zep dude's son is trying to rip us off, just like his dad did with Willie Dixon."

Logan Plant is a businessman.  No more, no less.  He will say or do whatever it takes, within reason and legality, at any given time to grow his company and its profits.  The fact that other people think he's betraying some kind of Craft Brotherhood by "selling out" is no fault of his.

Friday, 22 June 2018

News in Brief #61

"I won't need those Edison lightbulbs now!"

Uranium Beer Announced

Despite nobody ever asking for such a thing, New Mexico based craft brewery Gilipolas Barbado has released a beer brewed with depleted Uranium.  "Everything else that's been used in a craft beer has been done," explained brewery owner Jornada del Muerto "so we, like, tried to do something original."

"There's plenty of the stuff around here, so we thought, hey, why not make a beer with it.  After all, there's nothing in the literature I've seen that says uranium is in any way hazardous to health.  Though it is true I only read the beer sites and brewery Twitter feeds."

Bud Gear Hunting USA Editor Bill Kaiser-Batman agreed vociferously "I don't believe all those reports of people drinking this and throwing up and their beards falling out.  I've done a whole six pack today, and if anything it's given me a healthy glow!  Don't people realise that beer is meant to be fun?"

Element 92 DIPA will be coming to a hyped event and bottle share near you soon.

Plastic recycling at its finest

Micropub Entirely Made Of Pumpclips

During their latest ticking spree in Leamington Spa, a group of pub travellers were surprised yesterday to find one of their targets was entirely made of plastic handpump beer displays.  "I'm not exactly sure how happened," explained Tap, Tap & Tap owner Dave Nobreaks "but I'll give you the story."

"When I started up this place, I had four beers on.  Naturally they ran out and had to be replaced, but what to do with the old pumpclip?  After all, it's not like I'd ever have the same beer on more than once or anything. So I stuck it on the wall."

"I kept on doing this with every beer I did, until last November when the wall became completely covered." continued Nobreaks "I had to install a vent outside, so removed some bricks.  To my astonishment, the pumpclips just stayed there!  Eventually, I just took out all the bricks and sold them to a company that fits out craft beer bars.  Kept me going through January."

"I did have to to ban some Pumpclip Parade readers after they tried to remove the Wily Fox and Bank Top clips risking the whole structural integrity of the building, though."

CAMRA would burn it if it wasn't a combustion suppressant

Carbon Dioxide Confused

Colourless covalently-bonded gas Carbon Dioxide yesterday professed its bafflement about the recent furore about its lack of availability to drinks producers.  "I don't get it," moaned CO2  "why are they starting on me now?"

"A few years ago, I was blamed for being excessive and causing global warming through trapping heat in the atmosphere.  But now, apparently, there's not enough of me to go around.  Where have I gone?  Surely not that much of me has dissolved into the oceans?"

"I mean, just wait a bit and there'll be plenty of me around in a week or two, dudes."

Meanwhile, The Campaign For Real Ale has been rejoicing at the news of the CO2 shortage.  "Now that the keg beer will be flat and unable to be pumped out at the bar," proclaimed Branch Treasurer Greg Steakbake  "you'll all have to drink the cask.  There's nothing like lack of competition to prove Real Ale's superiority to other drinks!"

"Because everybody knows naturally produced CO2 is much better for you than the artificial version.  Or something." 

Friday, 25 May 2018

News In Brief #60

Pontifex = Font effects

CAMRA Pope Grants Indulgences

Due to the current sunny weather, beer drinkers have been found drinking icy cold lager in beer gardens around the country.  Not so the unfortunate members of the Campaign For Real Ale, who have been forced to traipse around provincial town centres looking for brown, weak and flavour-shy beer as part of an ill-advised "Mild Month of May".

Thankfully for these poor people, help is at hand from the top of the organisation itself.  "Let's face it," proclaimed CAMRA Pope Nonextraneous XII "nobody actually likes mild.  Why spend an hour grinding through a pint of watery piss when you could be doing the whole Ice Cold In Alex thing with a pilsner?  Though although we cannot approve the consumption of non-real beer, we at the top of the CAMRA hierarchy have arrived on a solution."

"Simply pay the small sum of two pounds to the local branch treasurer, and he will issue you with a permission slip, signed by me, allowing the member to drink one pint of lager.  If you're seen in a pub supping yellow fizz by other members and chastised for it, simply show them this bit of paper saying that your sin has been noted, but indulged."

Continued His Holiness "Due to this enlightened policy of Indulgences, this heatwave has nearly wiped out last year's budget deficit in our accounts.  Long may it continue!"

Knowing the facts so you don't have to

Craft Brewery Starts News Agency

After a fortnight of rumour-based unpleasantness, London-based brewery Random Brick has decided to take control of its news generations.  "After I read all those tweets and blog posts saying we're gearing up to be taken over by ABInBev, I was incensed!" ranted CEO Damien Fixedgear  "How dare these people have opinions contrary to what we think they should have!"

"So, to counteract this ill-informed nonsense, I've decided to set up the Random Brick News Agency, the funding source for which I will reveal soon.  Using this, we as a company will supply all the bloggers and internet commentators with the real story on what we're doing, which they will publish without amendment."

"And if they deviate from this," shouted Fixedgear "I'll send them a 'Cease & Desist' letter saying they're inviting legal action by potentially harming our business.  That'll teach them to just drink our beer and keep quiet."

Alleged Beer News Site editor and promulgator of stories Curt Mattis of Bud Gear Hunting was nonplussed "We'll go along with this.  As our, like, funding comes from similiar sources, we wouldn't want to jeapordise anything, dudes."

"WARNING - Excessive drinking causes high contrast pictures"

Beer Not Linked To Mental Health Problems, Say Drinkers

In the light of criticism from the inside of the Brewing Industy for it's lack of concern about the potential downsides of alcohol use, habitual pissheads have taken to the internet to say that drinking large amounts of beer in no way has any negative effects on mental health

Bowl food eater and Teku glass slurper Luke Lumberjack-Shirt was indignant about such suggestions "It's not true, man.  I do four or five bar openings and tasting events every day and as a result drink about 50 schooners of 7% craft beer a week.  And I'm, like, absolutely fine.  Those late night tweets about me hating myself and hangover induced apathy the following mornings are entirely normal among people in my sector of the industry,"

Meanwhile, rubicund-complexioned near-permanent tavern resident Bob Barfly also cast doubt on these reports "I've been coming to this pub for years for my daily 4 hour session of 6 pints of bitter.  It's part of my class's culture to socialise here.  In no way am I trying to avoid the emptiness of my home life and distance from my family by self-medicating with intoxicants that result in oblivion.  These so-called researchers know nothing, obviously.  Oh god, that's my wife ringing me now."

Campaigner and general drink-apologist Mudgie Mudgington was shown these reports and muttered something about needing more evidence before coming to conclusions before saying "Oh, look! A kitty!" and running off.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

He Who Plays With Fire

Like most adults my age, I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, some with more serious consequences than others.  One mistake I seem to keep making is accidently winding people up on social media.  It could be said that Twitter these days is little but shouting, abuse, trolling and agenda-pushing.  I try and avoid all that, but whereas those things seem to be de rigeur, one thing that seemingly is not allowed is my main mode of operation - irreverence.

Recently, a new beer blogger was asking for advice on how to go about their pastime.  "Beer blogging?" I thought "Do people actually still want to do that these days?  I thought it was all about meeting fellow dudes in awesome places and taking selfies to put on Instagram."  But it appears at least one person still thinks it's a viable thing to do these days.  Of course, I made my usual mistake and gave the facetious advice "Don't do what I did".  You'd think that saying not to piss people off all the time by making fun of them would be sensible advice.  But no.

Well, that was me told.  Maybe it's an autistic thing, but I simply do not get how people read stuff like this into what I say.  Enjoy being what I view as the voice of dissent?  I thought I just wrote what I thought and let people judge me on the basis of that, but the clue here is in the use of word "being".  It implies I'm "acting a role" here, that I've created a persona that allows me to annoy people by being deliberately contrarian.  As anyone who's ever met me will tell you, I express exactly the same opinions in real life as I do online, and in pretty much the same way too.  I don't possess the social wherewithall or energy to pretend to be someone I'm not.

And belittling the careers of her friends?  Well, I'm not exactly sure who said "friends" she refers to are, but I can take a good guess - the Awesome Dude Blog Brigade whom I regularly make fun of.  They're an easy target, admittedly, what with their view that anyone saying something in the beer world is less than rosy is being treasonous by "doing the industry down", and their marked preference for pressing emotional buttons over reporting facts.  But "belittling"?  They seem to be doing quite well to me, and I assume their blogs get far more hits than this farrago of nonsense does.  If the ADBB feel threatened by anything I say here, it says more about them than me.

After all, this isn't really about blogging in the old sense.  Eighteen years ago, when I started, everything in the blogosphere was metaphorically all fields.  People started them because they were interested in stuff and wanted to share their views and connect with other people.  But now, it's all become very careerist - the thing on display isn't the blog's subject or even the views expressed therein.  No, the product is the blogger themselves.  "Look at me! I can both network and compose coherent sentences! Hire me for paid gigs!".

And that's why they don't like irreverence.  People's futures are being "risked" by a subject being seen to be less than serious.  Anyone who doesn't take things seriously must be dismissed out of hand lest they say something other than the accepted truth of the hive mind.  And that's why I end up upsetting people, usually by accident.

I think I may have finally learned the lesson here - Do Not Engage The Awesome.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Gary Come Home

As someone who is well known for working for a supermarket, I'm often called upon (not exactly "called upon", but that never stops me sticking in my oar on these matters) to explain and elucidate decisions made by the industry.  Whether it's the regular lack of 1 pint semi-skimmed at Stockport Morrisons on a Sunday, or the reasons why minimum-wage shop floor staff aren't trained up to be Awesome Beer Sommeliers, I generally can explain why.  It always amuses me how many people have strange ideas about how a supermarket works, or how their knowledge of retail process is stuck in the 20th Century.

Now that craft beer is expanding into domains where it was previously unknown, beer geeks are finding that sometimes, they will get a can or bottle that tastes past its best.  It could have been sent in short dated and not picked up; it could have been poorly stored in the distribution chain; or it could even been a duff batch to begin with.  Either way, the shop takes the blame, and standard practice is to refund and replace.  That usually satisfies the majority of customers.  But now there's Social Media, and every dodgy can or bottle can be indignantly exposed for the attention of the like-minded.

A few days ago, one tweeter decided to take Big Retail to task about why beer should be refrigerated in the distribution cold chain and at point of sale. Somewhat unwisely, a Sainsbury's social media dude replied to them.

Oh dear.  Had Gary known anything about beer fandom on social media, there's no way he'd have said this.  Throughout the day, enraged beer types dogpiled the Sainsbury's Twitter account.  As often observed, one of the less attractive aspects of Craft Beer Types is their tendency to berate and insult people who disagree with them on a point of principle.  I wonder what the discussions were like that day within the Sainsbury's social media team? Poor Gary.

Amidst this unedifying spectacle, it was pointed out by several people (me included), that Gary (if he even exists at all, and isn't a product of personalisation software used by an outsourced PR company) is unlikely to be a beer geek and is probably unaware of the benefits that refrigeration provides for craft beer.  It's behaviour like this that gives fans of all things a bad name.

I'm closer to the shop floor realities of retail than Gary is, and I can explain why supermarkets don't, as a rule, chill their entire beer supply and display chain.  As stated above, this might be a revelation to those who don't work in my industry.

Let's look at the basic requirements, the fridges themselves.  A quick Google will give you some prices.  Here's a basic overview of the category.  If I took the shop I work in, just to buy the display fridges for our craft beer alone would cost in the region of £4000.  We'd also need additional chiller space in the warehouse to store the back stock.  Then we'd have to get them connected up, probably to somewhere where the pipes and wires aren't located (so more money spent there) requiring an overnight team of engineers for several days.  That's the fixed costs done, we'll say £12,000 as a conservative estimate, guv.  More stuff would mean more fees paid to our maintenance contractors.  And that's not even counting the electricity and gas required to keep the fridges running 24-7, 365 days a year.  Multiply that by how ever many stores you think a supermarket chain has and you get the idea of the spend required.

At the logistics level, the 200 lines of craft beer we do would have to be moved to our Fresh Food department, possibly requiring another unit to be built, but certainly more chillers would be needed to keep them cold.  For the deliveries from distributors who sell us both craft and "regular" beer, someone would have to separate them out by category and have the craft transported up the road to Fresh, where it would have be unloaded into its requisite picking slots.  Then the staff would have to be trained on handling beer and its dating idiosyncrasies.  This would likely cost in low six figures to achieve this.

And that would be for a small chain such as mine.  Can you imagine doing it for Sainsbury's with more lines, more stock and multiple distribution centres.  It would cost millions of pounds. And all to keep a few thousand internet beer geeks happy that their DIPA has been kept at 5 celsius from producer to display.   Have you read the headlines about retail performance recently?  Do you honestly think a supermarket chain would pony up that amount of cash to benefit such a small customer segment.  Do you?

In a way, the nerds are right.  Many beers would benefit from cold chain refrigeration.  But don't expect it to happen unless they're willing to pay an extra 50p a unit for their supermarket craft.  Well, they've been saying for years that beer is too cheap, right?

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

That's A Can Do?

As many of you know, when I'm not pissing people off on Twitter or rapidly depleting Preston's supply of beer, I work in a shop.  You may or may not have heard of it, but it's reasonably well known in "beer circles" for its above-average range of beer (though I recall signing a bit of paper a few years back promising I wouldn't reveal online who they are).

Among my many duties, I'm the person responsible for my branch's range compliance, which (if nothing else) means I get to see what the shop will be stocking in the near future before the public does.  Over the last few years, this has consisted to me trying to fit in yet another line of beer that the Buyers have deemed we have to stock and rearranging the shelves as result (brewers - do you have to put your cans in cases of 24?).

Since Christmas it seems to have changed a bit.  Somebody somewhere has decided that 150 lines of craft beer is too many to justify, given the sales of 75% of the range isn't the best.  I already knew this, as I'm in charge of the date checking, and with a lot of them we only managed to sell about half the case before we had to mark them down.  Not helped, of course, by getting stuff with only 6 weeks shelf life on them.  Yes, I'm looking at you Camden and Five Points.  So, over the space of a fortnight, a quarter of the Craft range was discontinued.

Eighteen months ago, "Craft Cans" were a big thing, and any old stuff seemed to sell if it was packaged in aluminium.  But from what I can see, apart from the "usual suspects" (BrewDog, Beavertown, Magic Rock), they don't seem to be doing anywhere near as well as they used to.

Part of this is due to peculiar ranging decisions.  I'm sure the people behind US Breweries such as Crazy Mountain and Two Roads are Awesome Dudes, and Camden's beers are just as "good" as they were before AB-Inbev took them over, but are they really what today's forward-looking and novelty-hungry craft consumer is looking for?

Far too many Craft Breweries seem to do a very similar range of packaged beers.  Our buyer's tactic was to list the IPA, the Pale Ale and the Pilsner from each as we got them.  And, yes, if you tasted them back-to-back, you could probably discern some differences.  But what of the customers who have heard of "craft beer" and merely want to to try it?  What do they think when faced with 10 shelves of seemingly similar products?  Probably something along the lines of  - "Well, at least I've heard of BrewDog.  Punk IPA it is."

What with the well-reported news this week, it's probably dawning on people that are there are too many breweries turning out too much of the same stuff over and over.  What with only being able to tell a lot of them apart by their graphic design choices, it's easy to get get left behind when new stuff comes along, all Beer-Communicated and Social-Media'd.

Me? I've pretty much given up trying to follow it all.  Mine's an Oakham Green Devil, thanks.