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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, 30 October 2014

Let There Be Beer? Let's start again.

This weekend sees the re-launch of the marketing campaign formerly known as Let There Be Beer. After the disappointment of the last campaign, can it redeem itself?


Disclosure and disclaimer: I have been paid for my time to act as a sounding board for the development of this campaign and to say a few words at the launch event. I have not been paid to endorse it in any way and would not risk my reputation by writing anything about it that I did not believe.

There was never any doubting the intent, or that it was a good idea on paper: a generic campaign that promotes all beer, that seeks to get people who have stopped drinking beer and stopped going to pubs, people who turn their noses up at beer and think that wine - any wine - is intrinsically better than beer - any beer - people who think that beer is just lager and lager is just for football hooligans - to think again about beer, to reappraise it, to question their bias.

It was a great idea in principle. It's just a crying shame that the first attempt at executing such a campaign, funded by a collaboration of the world's biggest brewers, was so disappointing. 


The big-budget launch ad was a let-down, and it just went sharply downhill from there. By the time the ad was banned from TV thanks to a coordinated campaign by neo-prohibitionist twats, it was almost a mercy killing.

Let There Be Beer has been carrying on in the background, and some of the low-level PR stuff has been quietly improving, selling beer on its diversity and getting promoted features in national press pushing beer as an accompaniment to various activities and events. But mostly the campaign was keeping its powder dry, having a rethink, bringing on board new executives and new agencies, chucking the money that couldn't be spent on the old ad into the pot for a new approach that wasn't going to be launched until it was right.

Along with representatives from CAMRA and the big brewers, I was invited in at various stages to see work in progress. Immediately, the difference in approach was obvious. The thinking last time had been that people who were walking away from beer just needed to be reminded how great it was, and if Big Lager was pretty much the only product featured, well, Big Lager was paying the bills.

But consumer research and industry comment both pointed out that people hadn't simply forgotten about beer. How could they when it's still being promoted so hard in the pub, at the supermarket and on the telly? 

Beer had become commoditised, boring, taken for granted. The last thing people needed was to be reminded of what they already thought. They needed their perceptions changed.

So the new campaign set out to get people to think again about beer by focusing on beer's variety, its quality and its versatility as a drink. You could write books on this - and many beer writers have - so it was decided that a simple way to launch this approach was to focus on beer's suitability with food. 

This doesn't tell the whole story because that's an impossible task for one ad campaign. But it's a great place to start - anyone who's taken part in a beer and food matching dinner knows what a powerful way this is of changing opinions. More and more alcohol is drunk with food these days. And it's classic wine territory - even when people start off drinking beer, they switch to wine when the food comes out simply because they think That's What You Do. And when beer has managed to alienate 50% of the population by being boorish and sexist in its advertising for decades, meals are a great way to make it seem more refined and suitable for everyone.

So, once again, the theory is great. How do you make sure the execution works this time? By hiring one of the best film directors in the country, and persuading him to make his first ever ad.

Michael Winterbottom (24-Hour Party People, The Trip) can shoot people brilliantly, food wonderfully, and he loves beer. Here's what he did.


It's real and naturalistic, and avoids all the cliches of the first film. It's warm. And it does that thing that's so hard to do - show modern Britain in all its brilliant diversity without seeming forced or contrived. 

Trainspotters can sit and pick up the different beer styles in each scene. We can go online and discuss a particular scene and whether the Beer For That really is a wheat beer, or maybe it's a pilsner or a pale ale, and I'm sure many of us will. You can argue they should have mentioned more beer styles by name, or should have shown more shots of pubs, or more hipsters, or fewer hipsters.

But you have to look at the broader takeout here. Most people won't take away specific beers from this campaign, whether we're talking Carling Zest or Weihenstephan weissbier. What they will hopefully take away is that beer is part of the cultural fabric of our lives, that's it's versatile and rewarding, that it can be everyday or special, craft or mainstream, ale or lager, big or small, and that however much you think you know about it, it's always got something new to offer.

The target audience for this ad is people like my wife's friends who still think I'm eccentric for being a beer writer, who smile indulgently and ask if I've ever thought of writing a 'proper' book, and who always, always choose wine - because That's What You Do. I can imagine then watching this ad, then asking hesitantly, "So... what beer DO you think I might like with my Chow Mein?"*

And the best thing is, if anyone thinks they have an idea to make it better, the framework is now there for us all to input, for people who know about beer to pool their knowledge so it can be communicated more widely. There's a massive social media element to the campaign that will be launching over the next few weeks, and Tim Lovejoy will be nowhere near it. Instead, beer writers and beer sommeliers will be providing beer match suggestions to hundreds of dishes on Twitter, and hosting live social media 'beer clubs' on classic styles. (I'm doing Belgian beers on 28th November). If you think you can do better than what's out there, the nice thing is that, this time, they'd love to hear from you and for you to get involved.

For me, this campaign puts right pretty much all of what was wrong with the last one. It's what I hoped the last one was going to be. The timing of it is perfect. I believe people are open for this kind of message right now, and think 'There's a Beer for That' will capture, solidify and amplify the current excitement around beer.

You'll always be able to pick faults in a campaign like this, that has to go through careful research validation and approval by committee. But it's a bold and extraordinary move on the part of the big global brewers to celebrate so much of beer, so far beyond the core of mainstream lager. This isn't a campaign to promote craft beer or real ale or mainstream lager; it's a campaign to promote all beer.

I like it. I hope you do too. Whatever your tastes, this is a good thing for beer.

*OK, they don't really eat Chow Mein. We live in Stoke Newington.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Sexy or sexist? This is not just CAMRA-bashing




I wasn't going to comment on this. But I started leaving a comment on someone else's blog and it started getting a bit too long so I thought I should stick it here instead.

In case you haven't heard: CAMRA, quite reasonably, would like to recruit more young people. To help do so, it produced and distributed a leaflet for use by university real ale societies. Some people who saw the leaflet were offended by it, finding it sexist. One even started a petition to have the leaflet withdrawn.

The outcry was a success. CAMRA has withdrawn the leaflet and apologised 'for any offence caused', defending its actions by revealing that sizeable numbers of young men and women were consulted on the design, and liked it. Crucially CAMRA's statement stops short of acknowledging that there was any real justification for people to be offended.

It's a classic beer industry ding-dong. Now the offending leaflet has been withdrawn and CAMRA has admitted that they 'got it wrong', some on either side think it's time to let the matter drop. But with opinions ranging from not seeing what all the fuss is about to wanting to burn CAMRA's offices to the ground, it's not going to go away easily.

It's important then that before we move on, everyone - especially CAMRA - needs to acknowledge what the problem is.

Everyone I've shown the leaflet to - mainly people outside the beer industry and with little interest in either CAMRA or CAMRA-bashing - has been appalled by it.

Whatever your views on sexism (or not) the women are highly sexualised and stylised, whereas the bloke in the top picture is just wearing an ordinary T-shirt. That gives a very clear contextual suggestion that the sexualised women are there for the ordinary ale-drinking bloke's delectation.

The front of the leaflet is sort of better in that both the man and woman are dressed in the same period costume. That would make it forgivable, were it not for the fact that in the pose, the man is physically possessive of the woman. You see, it's not just the clothes: in both sets of images, the women are portrayed as being subservient to the men.

The picture of the woman on her own shows a pose I have never seen a real woman strike when she's drinking a pint. Again, it's highly stylised, highly sexualised, and clearly has its roots in the imagery and shapes of Burlesque dancing.

Burlesque has been championed by some women as empowering, but ridiculed by others as 'middle-class stripping'. If a woman wants to dress like this, stand like that or even take her clothes off in public, she has every right to do so, but the choice is hers.

The problem here is that the women shown are presumably there to demonstrate that women drink real ale too. The reason CAMRA wants to communicate that message is that CAMRA, real ale and beer generally are still seen as being male-dominated. This broader context again reinforces the suggestion that these women are not empowered, but are here as eye candy for the lads.

There is still a great deal of sexism in the drinks industry, and real ale is no exception. I've just been working at drinks trade shows where young women were leered at and openly complemented on the merits of their tits and arses, sometimes by senior figures in the industry. Every female real ale drinker I know has at some point been subject to sexist comments for daring to drink real ale.

If these tasty birds had been in a Foster's or Carling ad, or in a lad's magazine, few would have defended their use as anything other than lairy, laddish titillation. If they'd been in an article about beer in Cosmopolitan magazine, I think they would have caused less offence, but I suspect ale-drinking women would still have seen them as condescending and patronising. Context is all.

And then there's the student context: when the LSE's rugby club has had to be banned for persistent misogyny, and Oxford and Cambridge have had to introduce compulsory sexual consent training, and the National Union of Students has published a report on the increasing prevalence of harassment,
stalking, violence and sexual assault, it's obvious that campus sexism is a real danger to female students and not just harmless 'banter'.

In the recent Cask Report, one of our main and most widely repeated headlines was that real ale drinkers no longer agree with the statement that 'real ale is not a drink for women or young people.' But nearly half of all publicans still DO agree with this statement.

The industry is behind the times when it comes to gender equality and relations with women. Someone in CAMRA - even if they personally felt the leaflet was fine and operated within the style and tone of contemporary studenty imagery - should have realised that it was simply too risky for a supposed consumer champion to use. If I try to tell my female friends that beer has thrown off its sexist image, as we were trying to suggest in the Cask Report, they could simply bring up this leaflet and laugh in my face.

It's good that CAMRA reacted so quickly and withdrew the offending article, but the damage is done. And what still upsets those who complained is that, while the organisation genuinely did not want to cause offence, it doesn't seem to understand why it did.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A cynical attempt to get more readers by writing a blog post tenuously linked to Great British Bake Off

Beer, cider and Mary Berry...

I have a confession to make: I am one of the few people in the United Kingdom who did not watch the final of Great British Bake Off on Wednesday night. In fact I've never watched the programme. It doesn't interest me. The smirky gags about 'soggy bottoms' are tired, and I've started getting a twitch whenever I hear someone say something 'has a good crumb'. There are loads of crumbs. Which one is good? What about the other crumbs all over the table?

It might also have something to do with Mary Berry. I know she is now virtually the Queen, but she and I don't really get on.

I've met Mary Berry twice. The first time was when we were both guests on a daytime cooking programme called Great Food Live. I went on there originally to promote my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, and they kept inviting me back to do beer and cider items. Just when I was getting quite good at doing it, becoming their resident drinks person, the show got cancelled. It was a shame - it was a great show.

At this point Mary was not a household name, but she had been around for ages as a solid, dependable cookbook writer and presenter who could turn her hand to anything. The show was recorded as live, in one take, with minimal editing. As well as doing my drinks round-up I would usually be asked to find something to pair with a dish that one of the chefs was demonstrating. On this occasion someone made a rich treacle tart, and I selected a sweet barley wine to go with it. Four of us stood in a line behind the cooking station, facing the camera, and Mary was standing next to me. Just before I was about to do my bit introducing the beer, she turned to me, gestured vaguely towards the bottle and whispered, "I hope you're not expecting ME to drink THAT."

I was gobsmacked. The whole idea of the show was to try stuff. It was an informal set-up and everyone just dug in, grabbing spoons and talking over each other. In all the TV I ever did, it was the first of only two occasions when someone simply refused to try the drink I'd taken on.* I began to say something like, "Well, I'd expect you to give it a try, given that's the reason you're standing here," but before I could I was up and had to do my bit, which I fluffed slightly having been so flustered.

The next time I met Mary Berry was six months ago, at the presentation of the BBC Food and Farming Awards. Because I was presenting the award for best drinks producer, I was sitting in the front row, two seats down from Jamie Oliver (who was friendly, decent and not at all a knob). Mary Berry arrived and spotted someone she wanted to talk to sitting just behind me, so she came over and leaned heavily on my shoulder as she stretched across to have a conversation. She's only little, but the conversation carried on for several minutes during which she leant her entire weight on me, and I could do nothing but sit there patiently. At no point did she acknowledge me, apologise or make a joke about the situation. Other than the fact that she was using my shoulder like a crutch, it was like I wasn't there. When she had finished her chat, she said nothing to me and walked away.

I hear she's quite direct on the telly. In my limited experience in person, she's the rudest woman I've ever met.

But while she may not like beer, she bloody loves cider. While I was researching World's Best Ciders, I discovered that back in 1977, she even wrote a book about it.


It's full of recipes for all kinds of dishes, organised by season, with a section at the end featuring cups, coolers and cocktails. For Bake Off fans, there's even a 'Crunchy Cider Cake', a stodgy looking thing that calls for '1/4 pint sweet cider such as Woodpecker'. 

Woodpecker?

Why yes. In fact if you look closely at the front cover, that's a two-litre bottle of Woodpecker she's pouring from. That's because the book was published by H P Bulmer & Son. Almost every recipe calls for a sweet cider such as Woodpecker or a dry cider such as Strongbow. Many of the cocktails include that lost classic of the cider world, Pomagne.

I don't have a problem with this - Bulmer's stumped up the cash for the book and actually, doing a cookbook as a way of promoting your brands is a great idea. I would even cook with these ciders today if I had them lying around.

But I wonder if Mary Berry still drinks them?

*The other person who flatly refused to drink the beers I took on a show was Gordon Ramsay's wife Tana, when she was one of the presenter's of Great Food Live's successor, Market Kitchen. After needing five takes to walk towards the camera while saying 'Hello and welcome to Market Kitchen', she simply shook her head when I presented each of several beers to her and co-hosts Matthew Fort and Tom Parker-Bowles.