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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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Sunday, 27 September 2015

A case study of the problem with craft beer bars

I've spent the last few days touring around Seattle and Yakima having one of the best beer experiences of my career. The most hyped bar in the city just spoiled it, and should be avoided. 

The trouble with drinking is that if something goes wrong, you're not in the best position to defend yourself. In relation to the authority figures who are supposedly looking after you, you're somewhat infantilised - there's an assumption that if you're intoxicated, you must be in the wrong. Or at least, there is if you're dealing with arrogant arseholes who have forgotten their position role.

It was such a perfect night. We started by visiting Fremont Brewing. Situated on the northern lake shore of the fractal coastline that makes Seattle so stunning, it was one of those brief moments when you think life simply can't get any better. The beers were stunning, the atmosphere was amazing. It reminded me of the bars on South London's celebrated Bermondsey Mile, but it was more confident, more relaxed, more grown up. We could have stayed there all night.

Instead, we decided to move on to Pine Box, a craft beer bar that had been recommended by everybody to whom I mentioned my impending trip to Seattle.

Before we left Fremont, a few of our party visited the merchandise shop. For as long as I've been writing about beer, I've always thought north American craft brewers have got merch nailed. They make you excited to be around them, and they have a knack of making stuff you'll spend money on. At Fremont, one of out party bought a metal sign to bring home, about two feet tall, embossed, like this:


So then we went to Pine Box. It was OK. It's in a converted space that was once a bank or church or something, and it reminded me strongly of a Wetherspoons, only with better beer. We had a couple of beers, and then called it a night and headed back to our hotel.

Outside Pine Box is a flight of stone steps leading down to the street. We were standing on these steps, waiting for our cab, when a female member of staff came out, snatched the Fremont sign and said, "You are not taking this away, because you stole it from our wall."

Naturally, this provoked a strong reaction from us, and soon a member of security and another male member of bar staff were blocking our way, preventing us from getting my friend's sign back.

The bar staff disappeared back inside, while the security guy prevented us from following them. A minute or so later, the male member of bar staff - tall, with a long, hipster beard and a topknot - came back out and returned the sign, apologising for the confusion. No, of course he didn't, because we're talking about someone who had already accused of stealing without actually checking to see if anything had been stolen. He came back out waving the sharp metal sign, narrowly missing slicing another member of our party across the face with it, and said, "Don't you ever DARE lay a finger on a member of my staff again." He thrust the sign into my friend's hands and disappeared back inside. Needless to say, no one had touched the bartender who stole our sign. We had tried to take it back from her, as you would if someone tried to take something from you that you had just bought. There was no apology. Even with our sign back, the guy had gone out of his way to make us feel like it we who were in the wrong.

The security guy was conciliatory and did what security guys are supposed to do, and often don't - instead of inflaming the situation, he tried to defuse it and calm us down. But from the bar staff, that was it - no apology for ruining our night and accusing us of being thieves, no admission that they had made a mistake.

I can understand why, on a Saturday night, if you see someone walking out of your bar with a big metal sign you might be worried. But if I was in that situation, the first thing I would do is look at the wall where my metal sign was hanging and see it if was fucking missing before accusing a customer of stealing it. (We never spotted a Fremont sign on the wall, but I'm guessing there must have been one. They must have checked this after taking our sign, and that must be why they returned it.) Having realised my mistake once I'd attacked and stolen from a customer, I would then have been profusely apologetic. I certainly wouldn't have swung the sign in a way very likely to cause injury.

This was a serious incident that could have escalated. Making a mistake is one thing, and is understandable to an extent. But having accused a customer of being a thief, upon realising your mistake it's surely imperative to try to resolve the situation and make sure everyone goes way happy. The staff at Pine Box not only failed to do this, they further inflamed the situation by acting extremely aggressively, attacking us rather than apologising for their error. I simply would not feel physically safe drinking in a place run by these people.


***UPDATE***
The owner of Pine Box responded very quickly to this and has issued a full apology to the person who was attacked by his staff. I'm sure our treatment there was very out of the ordinary because so many people recommended the place to me - that's why we went. But I blogged this publicly to make a point about this kind of thing, to see what would happen.

I've changed the title of this blog to be less inflammatory about Pinebox, but it stands as a commentary and a case study on a much wider problem. It's generated some interesting debate. Everyone I know has had surly treatment in craft beer bars. Everyone has been 'served' by people who clearly think they are better than the customers they are supposed to be looking after. But everyone has a voice. Staff really can't afford to treat their customers with contempt.

Next time I'm in Seattle, I'll go back to Pinebox for their phenomenal beer list. I hope we have a completely different experience.

Friday, 25 September 2015

What Are You Drinking? Almost There

I'm currently writing three books. One of them - the one about beer - is being crowdfunded. And it's almost reached its target.


Crowdfunding is a thorny topic in the beer industry just now, so it was a ricky experiment to try crowdfunding a book about beer. But the experiment has paid off - we're almost there.

This is a final push/plea/reminder - there's no time limit in the Unbound model, and I know people who are intending to pledge but haven't got round to it. If you're one of those people, now is the time to make your pledge - we're just over 90% funded and on course to reach the target very soon.

In case you missed it, here's a recap: provisionally titled 'What Are You Drinking?' this is an exploration of the four key ingredients in beer: hops, barley, yeast and water. Books on these exist, but they cater for the professional brewer rather than the general reader. They get discussed in many books on beer, but I want to do an in-depth exploration of them for the first time. I'm looking at their history, how they ended up in beer and what they add. I'm also looking at them holistically - the cultivation and agriculture, the people who grow them, their link with terroir and place. It's a narrative of my journey of exploration - harvesting Maris Otter barley, picking hops in Kent, drinking well water in Burton on Trent... today I'm in Washington's Yakima Valley, rubbing and learning about American hops. (n.b. Your pledge money does not pay for me to go travelling around the world. The funding is specifically tied to the physical editing, production and distribution costs of the book).

You can choose your pledge level - and watch a video and read an extract from the book - here.

If you're undecided, here are a few things to help you:

  • By pledging for the book, you're not investing in the equity or anything like that - you're buying a book, and perhaps a few extra perks, such as invitations to the launch party etc. (Trust me, you wouldn't want a share of the profits. The margins in publishing are slender. There are over 400 subscribers to this book and any profit would be sliced up wafer-thin if it was divided between them.)
  • The book you get as a subscriber is different from the one you'll eventually be able to get in the shops - it will be an exclusive hardback edition. It will also have your name in the list of subscribers at the back.
  • I'm still researching the book at the moment, and will be researching and writing it well into 2016. The lead times on books are long, and this one involves me doing research all around the world and then writing. I think we'll be looking at a publication date in early 2017, so there's a bit of a wait before you get what you've paid for.
  • If you don't like the idea of subscribing, when the book is published it will be available to buy just like any other book. Unbound has a distribution deal with Penguin Transworld, the world's biggest publishing group, so it will be available in bookshops, Amazon etc.
  • If you do decide to subscribe, you'll get your copy of the book several months before it goes in sale publicly, as a thank you for waiting so patiently.
So I'm not begging you to subscribe if you don't like the idea of it - that's absolutely fine. But if you're thinking about it, now's the time to act.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Cask Report 2015: Why Pubs Need Cask Ale Drinkers

I've written the Cask Report for the last nine years. This year was my final one. Here are the headlines, and some thoughts on what's happened to the market over the time I've been doing the report.

I presented the 2015 Cask Report this morning.  Each year we start with a blank page and try to pull out some interesting stories that are going to help publicans make money from cask, and hopefully grab a few headlines. It gets tougher every year to find something new to say, but this year, thanks to some new research, I think we managed to produce some really useful stuff.

Cask ale is thriving

The numbers are modest, to say the least, but they're going in the right direction. Cask ale has now shown consistent volume growth every year for the past three years. In 2014 it grew by 0.2%.  In the first six months of 2015 it grew by a further 0.5%. If that sounds tiny consider that cask ale is only available in pubs, and 29 pubs are closing. Also consider that the total beer market is in volume decline. Cask continue to outperform the market as a whole.

  • The value of cask ale has grown by 29% since 2010
  • Cask ale is now available in 70% of pubs
  • Pubs are selling more if it - the average sales per pub per week of cask have gone up by 8% in volume and 32% in value since 2011
  • Cask is forecast to account for 20% of all on-trade beer sales by 2020

Why should pubs stock cask?

Cask may be doing well, but why should this be of interest to struggling pubs if it sells for less than other drinks on the bar? We did research with 2000 drinkers to show why:

Cask drinkers visit the pub more often

Cask drinkers are more loyal to pubs

Percentage who say they are going to the pub more often now than they did three years ago


Cask drinkers spend more in pubs

By multiplying the average number of visits per year by the average spend per visit, we are able to show that cask ale drinkers spend almost double the amount the average person spend in pubs, and significantly more than any other group of drinkers


Cask drinkers take other drinkers to pubs with them

People drink in mixed groups. It's likely the cask drinker makes the decision about which pub they'll go to.


Cask ale and craft beer

Cask ale and craft beer are not the same - and neither are they totally separate. There's a significant overlap between the two.

Avoiding the torture of trying to DEFINE craft beer, it's possible to look at beers on a beer by beer, style by style basis and say 'that one is definitely craft' and 'that one definitely isn't'. Among everyone obsessed with trying to define craft, it;s hard to imagine anyone arguing that, say, Magic Rock High Wire is not a craft beer, or that John Smith's Smoothflow is craft beer. So by looking at the market one brand at a time, analysts CGA Strategy have compiled (an admittedly subjective) list based on ingredients, beer styles and brewers so that craft can be measured even if it can't be defined. With me? Good. On that basis, we can show that:


  • Craft beer has grown by 533% in five years and now accounts for 8% of total on-trade ale
  • Cask ale is by far the biggest format of craft beer



Sure, keg and can are growing strongly, but in the British on-trade, most craft beer is sold on cask.  If you;re still one of those people who thinks craft beer is defined by packaging format, you need to learn more about beer.


Quality and training

You don't just get a share of the profits by sticking a few handpumps on the bar and waiting for people to flock in. As cask ale grows, training and quality become more important than ever. Basic cellar training increases the yield from an average cask by 7%. You'd have to be stupid to serve cask ale and not train your staff to look after it, appreciate it, and serve it properly.

Reclaiming summer

There's loads more on the full report, which you can download here, if not now then very soon: http://cask-marque.co.uk/cask-matters/

I've been writing the Cask report for nine years. In the first year, our message was that cask ale wasn't doing quite as shit as everyone thought, that it was performing no worse than the rest of the beer market. Back in 1997, I'd never have believed we would ever be saying that cask was in sustained volume growth, or that it was worth more to pubs. It's been an incredible ride.

There's more to be done - particularly around education, trial, staff training, food matching, and the relationship between cask and craft - which I think is crucial to the future prosperity of both in the UK.

But I want by summers back. I'm working on three books and a literary festival and for the first time in a decade I'd like to have some time off next summer. So I won't be doing the Cask Report again. It's been a blast.