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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
My new beer book - Miracle Brew - is out June 1st. Deadline to pledge and be part of it is midnight Match 12th!
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
New about my next books!
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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Tackling the thorny topic of the PubCo tie: it just got personal

Yesterday beer writers en masse were accused of ignoring 'the elephant in the room' - the issue of the PubCo tie.

There are three reasons I haven't really written about this topic very much before now:
  • I've been really, really busy, playing catch-up on my recent books since my laptop was nicked two years ago. 
  • The anti-PubCo campaigners can be a bit spiky. When you've lost your job, your life savings and often your home, in circumstances that you feel are grossly unjust, you have every right to be angry. But it can be a bit like trying to deal with a lion with a wounded paw.
  • It's really bloody complicated. The issues very quickly gets into conversations about legal technicalities and contracts, which makes it hard to understand in the first place, and harder still to then break down into short, focused, interesting articles. 
I've now caught up on my work. The PubCo campaigners and I have reached a point where we can chat amicably over a beer. And they've patiently helped increase my understanding of the technicalities. So I'm now ready to jump in.

The impetus for doing so though, is that the whole issue just got personal. 

Sometimes, businesses fail. Sometimes, publicans aren't cut out for the job. Sometimes, people don't understand what they're getting into. Being a publican is a tough job that requires a very broad set of skills, and I know that I would be a disaster if I ever attempted to run my own pub.

That's why the boss of Enterprise Inns, recently dismissed the campaign against the current PubCo model as the work of "failed or failing publicans looking for someone to blame." 

Taken purely literally, these words are correct. But the clear implication of phrasing it in this way is that publicans should in fact accept the blame themselves. The consistent rhetoric from the PubCos is that most tenants and lessees make a decent living, that they help those who are struggling, and that if these publicans fail? Well, it's not our fault - they knew what they were getting into. 

I'll be examining the ways in which this argument falls down in the face of reality a lot more closely, both here and elsewhere, over the coming weeks. And I will be asking the PubCos for their response to the points I raise. I don't want to rant about this issue - I want to present the truth about it.

But first, I want to focus on one pub close to me whose situation doesn't make any sense at all if Enterprise Inns is speaking the truth.

The Alma on Newington Green, North London, is by any reckoning a popular and successful pub. Well-heeled Islington residents consider it a gastropub - the food is excellent, way beyond typical pub fare, locally sourced and seasonal, the ever-changing menu determined by what's fresh and good. The home made sausage rolls on the bar for those who don't want a full meal are awesome. 

The beer is well-kept, and there's a passion for cider - North London CAMRA recently named the Alma its Cider Pub of the Year, which the pub added to a list of other awards it has won. When I was in there on Tuesday night there was a choice of six draft ciders. The place was busy for a Tuesday night, but then it's always ticking over, and it's difficult to get a seat on the weekend.

The Alma is an old Victorian building, full of nooks and crannies, with everything from big, bright tables by the windows for spreading the papers out during Sunday lunch, to shady sofas for intimate late night chats. The decor is stylishly shabby and doesn't try too hard.

The licensee, Kirsty Valentine, is a force of nature. She's an instinctive publican who realises that a great pub is about creating a great atmosphere. She's become a solid fixture in the community, and a major player in the local business association.

Newington Green is now gentrifying rapidly. This wasn't always the case. The Alma used to be a dive, like most other pubs in the area. When I first arrived in Stoke Newington most people wouldn't dream of drinking there - you'd get the bus down to Islington instead, where the pubs were crap chain concepts, but at least they cleaned their lines more than once a year and you didn't run the risk of getting glassed. When Kirsty arrived, the Alma was the first pub that raised the standard. It helped turn Newington Green into a destination, starting ripples that spread. One by one, the other pubs near the Alma have been done up too. Newington Green is now a great place for a pub crawl, with the Snooty Fox, the Dissenting Academy and the Edinburgh Cellars all offering great beer and great food. This is great news for the drinker, less good for Kirsty, who now faces increased competition. Her response? Last year she organised the Newington Green 'Aleympic' pub crawl, which saw pubs in the area working together to create a fun activity, benefiting all the pubs that took part, making the cake bigger rather than fighting over shares of it. 

What I'm saying is, to any rational observer, the Alma looks about as different from the idea of a 'failed or failing pub' as you can possibly imagine.

So how could it possibly be failing? How could Kirsty be facing losing the pub - and how could there be a possibility that the pub itself might not survive?

I have copies of a pile of correspondence between Kirsty and Enterprise Inns that's about three inches high. She's spent most of her time over the last three or four years fighting her PubCo - which claims it only wants to help - on all fronts. 

The basic problem, as she sees it, is that the PubCo model effectively means paying rent twice - wet rent and dry rent. Dry rent is the straightforward rental she pays to the PubCo. Rents are reviewed regularly. They can go down as well as up, but if the profitability of the pub increases, the PubCo will do all they can to take most of it, essentially disincentivising the publican from improving the business the way Kirsty has. 

On top of this, she pays a 'wet rent' by being compelled to buy all her beer through Enterprise, or face stiff penalties for buying 'out of tie'. This limits the range of beers available to her. But more than that, she's paying up to double the price of a cask or keg compared to if she were able to buy it from the brewer direct. This means she has to charge higher prices for a less interesting range of beers than her competitors.

Basically then, it's much harder for a pub to make a profit under this scheme than one that is free of tie. And if you do manage to make a profit despite this, the PubCo will try to take it from you. 

This is the double bind of the PubCo tie that many licensees are complaining about. Enterprise's defence is twofold: firstly, they will offer help to anyone who is struggling. And second, the publican knew what they were getting into when they signed the deal, and Enterprise can't be held to account if new publicans had unrealistic ideas. I'm sure that in some cases this is true. But the number of cases where 'failed and failing licensees' tell how they have been misled, lied to and ripped off by their PubCos means that if they are not being honest, there are an awful lot of them coming up with remarkably consistent and detailed lies. 

Kirsty's battle with Enterprise is happening on so many fronts, it's impossible to go into detail here and still expect you to read to the end. But in summary, the result of her fight is that Enterprise now want her out of the business she has built up, and will shortly be taking legal action in an attempt to make that happen.

Should Enterprise be victorious, apart from a brilliant publican facing financial ruin and losing her home, there are two possible consequences: one is that Enterprise stick in another tenant. The other is that they close the pub down, and sell it for redevelopment, with a change of use stipulation - a fairly common practice. It takes all of ten minutes to walk to the nearest Sainsburys from Newington Green. I'm sure Sainsburys or Tesco would love to turn this beautiful old boozer into yet another supermarket. 

The next battle Kirsty wants to fight is to ensure that, whatever happens to her personally, the Alma remains a pub - given that it's popular and the local community like it that way. To this end, yesterday she launched the 'Battle for the Alma' campaign. She is applying to Islington Council to have the pub declared an Asset of Community Value (ACV) under the recent Localism Act. This would prevent Enterprise from initiating a change of use from the property being a pub. This was the first step in a campaign that ultimately saved the Ivy House pub in South London from being redeveloped into flats when the local community were perfectly happy with it as a local pub - which is now doing great business.

If you know the Alma, if you have ever been there and enjoyed it and wish to see it saved, visit the Battle for the Alma website and sign the change.org petition, giving Islington Council the stories and reasons why the Alma deserves to be saved (beyond the simple common sense reason that it is a thriving, successful, popular pub that by any sane reckoning should not even be under threat.) It will make a real difference.

I'll be writing about the lies, bullying and neglect Kirsty has suffered in due course - and asking Enterprise to respond. But this first step is important and urgent - we have until next week. If you know and love the place, please give this campaign your support.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Getting paid.

This is off-topic for beer, cider etc but I thought it went here rather than on my seldom used other blog - it really goes out to other bloggers and people who enjoy writing about beer - and people who are interested in doing business with them/us.

Discussions on writers getting paid for their work seem to be coming to a head in the media at the moment. A couple of weeks ago Philip Hensher raised the subject when he was branded 'ungracious' for daring to ask for payment for something he was asked to write. A couple of days later, I was shocked to read about a science writer being called a whore when she politely declined to write a piece for free. (Which raises another subject - I doubt the same language would have been used if she were a man.)

Last night on Twitter, Boak & Bailey and Zak Avery were discussing an email that has done the rounds that essentially asks bloggers to give consultancy services for free for a big beer brand - so we're not even talking the old language of 'exposure' here, they simply want to gather expert opinion without paying for it.

I have an alarm that goes off about this kind of stuff now. It starts clanging when people ask if they can 'pick my brains' about something. If I'm lucky, they offer to buy me a pint in return for information which, if I'm any good, could eventually lead to a major profit opportunity for the company asking.

It's not a cut and dried issue. We live in an age where content is increasingly expected for free, where a generation simply doesn't see why they should pay musicians or filmmakers for their work. Our society increasingly assumes that economic value is the only form of value worth talking about, yet paradoxically, creators of cultural or artistic value are expected to go, "No, you're fine, I do it for the love, I don't care about money, that's for squares, man."

Monday, 28 October 2013

Brewer from Huddersfield brings California to rainy London: Magic Rock at Draft House Sunday Sessions

Back in the olden days, all the way back in 2009, I did a review of the year in which I gave my personal 'Brewer of the Year' award to Fullers' John Keeling, and the runner-up to Stuart Ross, then working in a three-barrel plant in the cellar of Sheffield's Hillsborough Hotel. "Stuart just brews what he feels like brewing, constantly experimenting," I wrote, "I don’t think he knows how good a brewer he is."

I think he does know how good he is now. But he's still brewing the beers he wants to drink.

In 2011, Richard Burhouse, who ran an internet beer mail order company called MyBreweryTap, whisked Stuart away from Hillsborough and enabled him to design and build the brewery his talent deserved. In May of that year, Magic Rock opened for business.

The Magic Rock iconography. Stuart once dressed as the bearded lady on the left. It made me want to put bleach in my eyes.

Both men shared a passion for American West Coast pale ales and IPAs. They branded these beers in cool, quirky, circus-based iconography and gave them names like High Wire and Cannonball. They chimed with the taste of the emerging craft beer scene, and as Stuart points out, benefited hugely from

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My new website: www.petebrown.net

After months of talking about it, I've finally had my blog revamped as more of a full website with more permanent content.

I've always struggled with trying to put stuff on here and not being able to, and setting it up like this means I can take self-promotion stuff out of the main blog feed and put it somewhere else, and make it easier for people to find what they're looking for.

I've also registered the domain petebrown.net, which is easier to remember and redirects to this site.

So there are some new tabs along the top - here's a brief guide to what's behind them.

  • What's new? Keep an eye on the black newsstrip feed, where I'll talk about new blog posts, events, newly posted articles elsewhere etc.
  • Home - the main blog page. Hello.
  • About Pete - a brief bio, longer description and hi-res press shot - I get asked for these a lot! Now they're here.
  • Events - I do loads of readings and corporate events. I'm going to keep an ongoing list of events I've been booked for, complete with details of tickets etc. There is also some information here about the variety of events I do, from straightforward book readings to experimental beer and music evenings to full dinners, and how to book me for an event.
  • Books - a summary page for all the books I've written, in order of publication. Click on each title and you'll go to a page on that specific book, with more blurb and a bit of background, and some reviews with links to any I've managed to find in full online. In time, most of these pages will also have a photo gallery relating to the book.
  • Other writing - the main reason I don't blog as often as I used to is that I have two or three press deadlines a week. I thought it might be nice to collect links to these so that if I haven't posted for a while and you are for some reason desperate to see what I've been thinking about, you can read more of my stuff here. I've only put a fraction of it on here so far but will eventually build it to be comprehensive.
  • Consultancy - very few people can make a living just from writing these days. I do consultancy for drinks manufacturers and their agencies (which I keep entirely separate from my writing) and here's a bit of a sell page on what you can hire me for
  • Links - I've gone for a cleaner design overall. Soon I'll put a blog roll back up here as well as links to other useful resources.
  • Contact - there's a form here that sends messages to my personal email.
Sorry to blog about my own blog, but this helps me get my career on a more professional footing, and hopefully helps you find what you want.

The next step of course, now I'm not working on a book for the first time in three years, is to start posting some more interesting content on the blog itself, now I don't have to clutter it up with posts about events etc. I've got so much to write about - some stories going back over a year - so will try to post more often from now on.

Friday, 18 October 2013

World's Best Cider is out now and all over the place!

My new book, World's Best Cider (co-authored with Bill Bradshaw) is out in the UK this week. The North American edition was published on October 1st).

Ever since I became known as a beer writer, people have asked me about cider. They seem to assume I'll be just as knowledgeable about it as I am about beer. Why? "Well obviously, because you're a beer writer."

My mantra throughout the writing of this book was that cider is 'The world's most misunderstood drink'. This is just one example - people assuming that because you know something about a drink that is made by malting barley, mixing it with hot water, boiling the resulting wort and adding hops and then yeast for a drink that combines bitterness and sweetness, you'll also be perfectly au fait with a drink that is made by the careful selection and blending of different kinds of apples (or pears), mashing up the fruit, squeezing out the juice and allowing a months-long fermentation (usually with either wild yeast or champagne yeast) to create drink characterised by a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin.

Many who don't drink cider believe it offers a simple choice between sweet, fizzy commercial stuff containing as little as 35% apple juice, and hardcore 'scrumpy' that can be awesome but can just as easily be cheesy or vinegary or smell like a farmyard. Cider campaigners tell them that this is 'the good stuff,' and they think 'Really? In that case, I'll pass.'

Go to the US, and most people think that cider is fresh, unpasteurised, non-alcoholic apple juice.

Poverty Lane Orchards, New Hampshire.

Go to Frankfurt and talk to the apfelwein community, and they will refuse to believe you that Britain makes and drinks fifty per cent of the world's total cider volume.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Cider: Always drink responsibly. Unless you're from the 1970s.

It's Cider O' Clock here on Pete Brown's Blog for the next week or so. World's Best Cider is now on sale, and launches officially next week, which is nice, because it's also the week of various Apple Day celebrations.

I'll be writing quite a bit about the book, about the themes within it and some of the fantastic people we met while researching it, over the next week or two. But to kick things off, I wanted to share with you some images of real cider ads that ran in the 1970s and can still be seen in the Bulmer's Museum in Hereford. It's a great place. If you think Bulmer's have only ever done bland, tasteless commercial crap, you need to go and have your perceptions changed. Once, they made the best cider in the world, by any reasonable standards, and the evidence of this is still there.

By the time the images below were being developed, they were making bland, commercial crap. But without this crap, we would never have got these ads. It's a price worth paying. It's ads like these that made Woodpecker such a success for Bulmer's in the 1970s and 1980s, and they remain an inspiration - a lodestone - for alcohol advertisers in the new millennium.

Today, the British advertising Code of Practice states:

“Marketing communications must neither link alcohol with seduction, sexual activity or sexual success nor imply that alcohol can enhance attractiveness… [and] must not imply that drinking alcohol is a key component of the success of a personal relationship or social event."

Happily then, this ad targets bar staff and simply urges them to draw pints of Woodpecker from the font, ready for thirsty customers with nothing but refreshment on their minds.