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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 next beer book is fully funded but there's still time to pledge! Click here for details.
My latest blog for My Generation Beer - London is dying
The 2016 Beer Marketing Awards are now open for entries! Find out more by clicking here.
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Monday, 25 January 2016

If you think you're a pub and... (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)


If you think you're a pub and you try to ‘up-sell’ someone by forcing your staff to ask ‘Would you like some crisps or nuts with that?’ every time someone orders a pint,

If you think you are solving the problem of bar staff motivation and retention by ‘empowering’ your zero hours, minimum wage, untrained staff simply by referring to them as ‘colleagues,’

If you advertise free WiFi but ‘free’ turns out to mean ‘free for 20 minutes and then you pay,’

If you pour a pint for a customer that foams over the sides of the glass so vigorously that you have to wash your hands after pouring it, but you expect your customer to pick up the soaking glass from its puddle, knowing their hands will get wet and sticky, but not giving a shit about that,

If you advertise ‘craft beers’ and offer Peroni or Amstel to those who ask for them,

If you refer to yourself as a ‘Beer House’[1], ‘bar and kitchen’, ‘cellar and eatery’, ‘Ale dispensary and hob’ or any other similar term because you think you’re better than a mere pub,

If you charge more than £5 for a pint of beer without being able to tell the customer why it costs that much,

If you think the brand is more important than the guv’nor,

If you have keypads on the doors to the toilets because you’re so paranoid about walk-ins using the loos without buying a drink that you’re prepared to humiliate your customers by making them come to the bar to ask for the code,

And if, the code secured, your customer opens the door to the bogs and reels back physically from the ammonia stench of stale urine burning their nostrils from urinals that haven’t been cleaned for days,

Then you don't have the first clue about what matters to the earth nor anything in it , and - which is more - you ain't no pub, my son!




[1] For example, in a train station such as London Waterloo or Paddington.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The British Beer and Pub Industry in 2016

Just before Christmas, The Publican's Morning Advertiser asked me for my predictions about the events that will shape the UK pub industry in 2016. They said I could be irreverent. This is a bit parochial if you're not close to the UK pub industry, but if you are, just call me Nostradamus...

After a slow start to the year, notable only for a combined team of scientists from CERN, MIT and NASA discovering the true definition of craft beer, things hot up when the AB-Inbev/SABMiller deal finally goes through. The new combined entity decides to cut to the chase and announces its purchase of the entire continent of Europe, with Carlos Brito declaring himself President. All beer apart from Stella Artois and Becks is immediately banned.

In a desperate move, BrewDog launches Equity for Punks X and raises $100 trillion for a hostile takeover. As President Brito is making his President’s Question Time debut in the House of Commons, James Watt and Martin Dickie drive a tank into the chamber and announce that the National Anthem will be replaced by the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. The Daily Mail gets confused as to whether to launch a vicious smear campaign against BrewDog for being disrespectful and challenging authority, or Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to sing the punk anthem, and self-combusts.

Brito doesn’t go down without a fight and launches weapons of mass destruction inside parliament, but because they’ve been made with the cheapest ingredients possible, they don’t work properly. Chemical weapons hit the toilets, and from the green haze emerges the dishevelled figure of Greg Mulholland, wearing his underpants over his suit. Realising the chemical soup has at last given him the superpowers he craves, Mulholland dispatches Brito before laying waste to the nation’s PubCos, reducing them to rubble with his laser eyes and thunderous voice. Anti-PubCo campaigners continue to blame Punch and Enterprise for pub closures anyway.

Against the backdrop of a declining beer market overall, cask ale volume rises by 0.3%.




Friday, 18 December 2015

Beer Marketing Awards return for second year - call for entries



Last year I was part of a team that launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards in the UK. The competition, and the event, was a great success, and the awards are now open for a second year.

There are two main ideas and ambitions behind the awards:
  • Rightly, there are a great many awards for beer quality. That's as it should be. But there's no point making great beer if no one knows about it. With 1700 breweries now in the UK, it's never been more important to make your beer stand out and let people know about it. At a time when some beer promotion is dodgy to say the least, we want to celebrate the best, and hopefully inspire the rest to do better.
  • Marketing is seen by some as the preserve of big brewers, but everyone does it in some way. What you call your beer, what you put in the label or pump clip, how you tell pubs about it, what you say about it on social media, all of it counts. These awards are not just about big budgets: our ambition last year was to have the world's biggest brewers competing with the UK's smallest on a level playing field. In categories such as social media and packaging, they did, and the gongs went to the best ideas rather than the biggest budgets. There's a category that suits any brewer of any size. We want this to be an event that could bring the whole industry together.
We've slightly rejigged and expanded the categories this year. Here's a full list:
  • BEST ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN - PRINT
  • BEST ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN - BROADCAST 
  • BEST ONLINE COMMUNICATIONS
  • BEST PUBLIC RELATIONS CAMPAIGN 
  • BEST BRANDING/DESIGN 
  • BEST USE OF COMPETITIONS 
  • BEST INTEGRATED CAMPAIGN 
  • BEST STUNT/GUERRILLA MARKETING 
  • BEST BUSINESS TO BUSINESS CAMPAIGN 
  • BEST INNOVATION 
  • BEST NEW LAUNCH 
  • BEST USE OF SPONSORSHIP 
  • BEST USE OF MERCHANDISE 
  • BEST EVENT 

And two special awards at the discretion of the judges:
  • OUTSTANDING INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT 
  • OVERALL WINNER: BEER MARKETER OF THE YEAR
You can see a bit more description of the categories here, and download an entry for for any of these categories here. If you'd like to see the spread of winners from last year, who represent all corners of the British brewing industry, check them out, and learn why they won, here.

One criticism we received about the awards last year is that we charge for entry. We appreciate that small brewers don't have much money to spend, but we're a small start-up too with no external financial backing, and we need to make the event cover its costs. We have to charge something, but this year we've introduced a staggered entry costs along the same lines that our friends at Craft Beer Rising use to charge exhibitors:
  • £60 (£50 + £10 VAT) for brewers under 5000 hectolitres
  • £144 (120 + £24 VAT) for brewers between 5000 hectolitres and 60,000 hectolitres
  • £180 (£150 + £30 VAT) for brewers over 60,000 hectolitres
We're delighted to welcome Boutique Beers by Matthew Clark back as our headline sponsor. If you're a brewer, client or supplier to the brewing industry who would be interested in sponsoring a category, drop me a line.

Entries are now open. The deadline for submitting them is 22nd February 2016. The Awards ceremony takes place in Brick Lane on 14th April 2016.

Good luck!

Monday, 14 December 2015

I just realised how the debate about craft beer is changing

Last week, my latest column for the Publican's Morning Advertiser focused on the response to craft beer by the giant, global brewing corporations that dominate the beer market. It was inspired by a new project at Guinness which has produced some beers I consider to be very good indeed. I suggested that maybe we're getting to the end of the usefulness of the term 'craft beer', because it disguises the fact that breweries of any size can and now sometimes do make really good beer. 

The response to the piece was mixed, from sentiments along the lines of 'Damn right, it's all about good beer, whoever brews it,' to 'No! Big brewers are shit by definition and we will always need craft brewers to stand against them.'

The more I thought about these differing views, the more I realised they were arguing about different things. 

The narrative of craft beer is a familiar one: global brewers make boring bland beer because they are trying not to offend anyone, they always want to cut costs, and they sell style over substance. Craft brewers saved us from mediocrity by brewing more interesting, flavourful beers, operating a more nimble business model, driven by passion and flavour rather than shareholders, marketers and accountants. Medium-sized brewers - such as regional and family-owned real ale brewers in the UK, or brewers who were craft but have grown huge, sit somewhere in the middle and generate most of the argument about what is and isn't craft.

It can be expressed as a linear continuum along which you can plot your favourite and least favourite brewers and beers:
I think this is how most of us see the issue. But it's rather too simplistic. If it ever was right, things have moved in beyond it.

We're kidding ourselves if we think every beer created by a craft brewer is good - there are some awful beers out there from passionate beer advocates who simply aren't very good brewers, or who might be walking the craft beer walk but are in reality just as cynical as the big brewers, but operating on a small scale hoping to get rich quick from the latest craze. And on the other hand, there are big brewers who have bought smaller brands and haven't (yet) screwed them up. And there are the occasional beers - such as the best ones I tasted at Guinness, and Carlsberg's Jacobsen range - that are simply very good beers made by brewers employed by a global corporation, that in a blind tasting would be considered good craft beers. 

So it would be more accurate to look at the market on two axes rather than one continuum, like this:




Now, if you were to plot every beer brand in the world on this chart, the vast majority of global brewers' brands would still be in the bottom left quadrant, and the majority of craft beers would probably sit top right. But there would be notable exceptions, so I think the reality of the beer world today probably look like this:




When you look at the market in this way, your emotional response to it will tell you what you really care about in beer, and different people care about different things at different times. That's why we sometimes talk at cross-purposes in debates about craft versus big.

Given a free choice, I'd prefer to drink in the top right quadrant. I prefer to drink good quality beer brewed by a small, passionate company. I'm sure most of you would agree. But if these beers weren't available to you, would you rather have a very good beer brewed by a big, nasty corporation, or an inferior beer brewed by a really great guy under a railway arch just down the street?

If the quality of the beer is the most important thing, you'll happily drink a great beer from Carlsberg or Guinness. But if that thought makes you angry, then you aren't actually thinking about the beer at all. You're thinking about the craft beer movement, and your decision is driven by your beliefs, politics and morality rather than your taste buds.

I'm not knocking either approach. What I am saying is that if we confuse arguments about beer quality and flavour with arguments about an unfair balance of power, the importance of supporting small local businesses and the excitement of feeling like part of a movement, we end up sounding stupid. Anyone who genuinely believes big brewers are incapable of making and releasing good beers simply doesn't know anything about brewing. And anyone who thinks any small-scale craft beer is automatically good because of where it comes from has their head in the sand. 

This made me think about where I stand as someone who makes a living writing about beer. If I discover a great beer made by a big brewer and I refuse to write about it, or I say it's shit when it isn't, I'm not doing my job properly. I can choose what I want to focus on in the most detail, but I do have a duty to report interesting stuff that I find out in the course of doing my job. If I was thinking purely as a fan of beer, I might have a different view. 

The craft debate will rumble on. Beer gets under our skin precisely because it is many things - that's why I started writing about it in the first place. In most cases, it's not just about the quality of the beer - it's about expressing who we are, making choices that say something about us. It is politics and fashion and identity as well as flavour. In reality, it's these aspects that are driving most of the current debates about the future of craft beer.

It's your choice what you drink. If you choose to boycott any beer made by a large corporation, no matter how good it is, I'd have some respect for that point of view. Just don't tell me you're doing it because the beer is shit.

Friday, 4 December 2015

It's not how big it is, it's what you do with it etc...

The first Friday in December is often one of my worst hangovers of the year, because the first Thursday evening in December is the night of the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards.

Last night, I was delighted to pick up gold in the category 'Best Beer Communicator Online' for this blog.

And also genuinely surprised. As you may have noticed, I haven't blogged much at all this year. In fact, I've posted fewer pieces than in any year since I first started blogging properly in 2007. I've written an awful lot this year, but most of it won't see the light of day until late 2016 - it's been a hell of a year for books.

You're allowed to submit up to six entries in each category, and I could only find four this year that I wanted to submit to the competition. In case you missed them, here they are:

http://petebrown.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/how-big-lager-lost-plot-and-developed.html
http://petebrown.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/whats-difference-between-craft-beer.html
http://petebrown.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/why-j-d-wetherspoons-is-fast-becoming.html
http://petebrown.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/extreme-beer-judging.html

This win comes on top of winning Best Online Drinks Writer at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards back in May, so it really does look like the less I write, the more people like my blog. I'll bear than in mind.

I really do want to blog more though, and will do so once I'm over the hump with the three books I'm writing just now. I've finished a book about the British pub, am halfway through writing my book about apples and orchards, and when I submit that in January I'm spending early 2016 writing up my Unbound book, What Are You Drinking. The research for all three of these books has taken up most of the year and left very little time for anything else, but it's thrown up some amazing stories that I'm looking forward to sharing.

The silver award in this category was won by Matt Curtis, whose work rate this year at his blog Total Ales has been astounding, and whose energy and enthusiasm make me feel very old. The overall winner of Beer Writer of the Year was another first time award winner, Breandan Kearney, who smashed it in two categories - Best Young Beer Writer and Best Food and Beer Writing - before taking the overall title. He writes a lot of his stuff in Belgian Beer and Food magazine (which I just did my first piece for.) If you haven't seen it yet, get yourself a copy.

Massive congratulations to Matt, Breandan and all the other winners.

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.