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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?
Inaugural Beer Marketing Awards take place on 14th April! Click here for more info and tickets
Support my new crowdfunded beer book with Unbound! Click here for more details
Read my latest blog for My Generation Beer - about Record Store Day and the world's smallest record shop
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Thursday, 2 April 2015

Beer Marketing Awards pit micros, regional and global brewers against each other

I helped organise the inaugural Beer Marketing Awards. The awards event is on 14th April, and the shortlist tells us a great deal about where the beer industry is today.



When I was approached to be a partner in the first ever Beer Marketing Awards, the thing that sold it to me was that there were categories that appeal to brewers of any size. 

There's a misconception in some quarters of the beer world that marketing is by definition a bad thing, which is a bit like saying breathing is evil because some people say mean things when they do. 

Marketing is essential for any brewery, of any size. And what's exciting just now is that just as beer itself has been revolutionised, so has the way in which it engages people and builds relationships with them. 

Gone are the days when an ad by Heineken or Carling in the middle of Coronation Street would be seen by every drinker who wasn't already in the pub. TV ads aren't as good as they were because regulations have been tightened and marketers are more cautious. Some individuals in the craft beer movement have more followers on Twitter than the world's biggest beer brands. The rules of design have been broken. And while budget will always separate big from small, you can get noticed without spending anything at all if your idea is good enough. But does telly still have a role to play? Can sponsorship be something useful rather than simply being an irritant? Of course. 

Across all marketing disciplines, there' a lot of crap, but the good stuff shines out from it. By celebrating the good, we hopefully encourage more people to do better marketing. So I couldn't wait to see what our shortlist would look like. And here it is:

Best Branding or Design (Sponsored by Co.Bir) 
  • Beavertown 
  • BrewDog 
  • Daniel Thwaites Brewery for Crafty Dan 

Best Use of Competitions (Sponsored by PUB16) 

  • Thornbridge and Waitrose, with BrewUK  - 'Homebrew Challenge’ 

Best Use of Merchandise (Sponsored by Vektor) 

  • Ales by Mail - ‘Beer Advent Calendar’ 
  • Duvel Moortgat, Vedett Extra Blond - ‘Vedett Extra’ 

Best Use of Sponsorship (Sponsored by Dark Star) 
  • Budweiser - 'FA Cup Open Trials' 
  • Carling - ‘World Cup ITV Coverage’ 
  • Estrella Damm - ‘Gastronomy Congress’ 

Best Public Relations Campaign
  • Britain’s Beer Alliance - ‘There’s a Beer For That’ 
  • Greene King Old Speckled Hen - 'Old Speckled Christmas' 
  • Marston’s Pedigree - ‘Making Local PR Count’ 

Best Stunt or Event (Sponsored by Charles Wells) 
  • Greene King - ‘Charity Ball’ 
  • Sol - ‘Sol Street Food’ 
  • Wychwood Hobgoblin - 'Hobgoblin Roadshow' 


Best Business-to-Business Campaign (Sponsored by Ella Communications) 
  • Butcombe Bottle Ales - ‘Premium Bottled Ale Report’ 
  • Carlsberg - ‘Crafted’ 
  • Heineken - 'Our Shout' 

Best use of Social Media (Sponsored by Poppleston Allen) 
  • BeerBods - ‘#BeerBods’ 
  • Brew Dog - '#MashTag' 
  • Estrella - ‘#EstrellaLife’ 
  • Trooper by Robinsons and Maiden Brews - ‘Trooper Tracker’ 

Best Print Advertising Campaign (Sponsored by Britain’s Beer Alliance) 
  • Belhaven Best - ‘To a Pint’ 
  • Fuller's London Pride - 'Made of London' 
  • Old Speckled Hen- ‘Seek Out Something Different’ 

Best Broadcast Advertising Campaign (Sponsored by Craft Beer Co.) 
  • Britain’s Beer Alliance - ‘There’s A Beer For That’ 
  • Old Speckled Hen - ‘Seek Out Something Different’ 
  • Shepherd Neame Spitfire - 'Bottle of Britain' 

Best Integrated Campaign (Sponsored by the BII) 

  • Britain’s Beer Alliance - ‘There’s A Beer For That’ 
  • Marston's Pedigree - ‘Live a Life of Pedigree’ 
  • Purity Brewing - ‘Cycling’

We'll also be giving out an award for 'Outstanding Individual Contribution' (sponsored by Charles Faram) and an overall Grand Prix, chosen from the category winners and sponsored by Boutique Beers by Matthew Clark, our event partner and title sponsor. 

It's probably no surprise that the regional brewers dominate many categories, as they have decent budgets but not enough to just blanket everywhere. We're very happy some global brewers have joined in as in marketing they set the pace, and spend most of the money in the category. We didn't get as many entries from smaller brewers as we'd perhaps hoped - this may have something to do with the entry fee, which we couldn't avoid having in our start-up year but may be up for review in future.

When I look at 'Best Integrated Campaign' and see a pan-industry initiative funded by big global brewers, a campaign from one of Britain's largest cask ale brands and another from a small but rapidly growing craft brewer; or 'Best Social Media' being fought out between a regional, a world beer owned by one of the big global brewers, a campaign by a craft beer brand built through social media and a club set up by a craft beer fan, I know we succeeded in what we set out to achieve in these awards. Any brewer of any size can do good - or bad - marketing.

The awards evening is at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, East London, on Tuesday 14th April. Tickets are available here. We're keeping formalities to a minimum, with not a black tie to be seen, a short awards presentation, a few street food carts, some great beers on tap and a DJ till midnight. Just as the awards seek to celebrate all beer, so the event itself will allow the whole industry to get together to enjoy a drink and a chat.

If you're a journalist who wants to cover the event, please contact me to talk about press tickets. If you're a finalist who hasn't yet booked, you get one place free or a discounted table rate.

It's been a long old awards season this year - which you have to expect if you organise a brand new awards scheme from scratch I suppose. I'm looking forward to this event so much (though I've got an awful lot of work to do writing my awards presentation speech). Afterwards, I'm going to surprise everyone by actually writing about beer, pubs and cider on this blog 

But if this focus on the way beer is sold persuades just one brewer to put as much thought into how their beer is presented as to how it tastes, if it stops one company from doing crude, lazy, sexist or embarrassing marketing and encourages them to do something more thoughtful instead, it will all have been worthwhile.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Why CAMRA's Pub of the Year should be yours too

On Tuesday the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) announced that the winner of its National Pub of the Year competition was the Salutation Inn in Gloucestershire. After visiting last October, I completely concur.



What makes the perfect pub? It's the subject of one of my favourite ever pieces of writing. In fact you could write a very good book about it. (Perhaps even more than one - watch this space).

There are, of course, many potential factors. But usually, at the heart of it, are the people who run it. The best local breweries, most stunning views or finest Victorian architecture count for nothing if the people in charge are just going through the motions.

It's not easy running a pub. You have to be great with people, and you have to be prepared to work long hours. To really shine, you either need the energy of youth, or the budget for a team to supply it. And the part that doesn't get talked about often enough - it's a business. You have to be a really good businessman - an exceptional entrepreneur. You need to always be looking for that new idea that will appeal to people and give them reasons to cross the threshold. Oh yes, and you've got to be really good at keeping beer in perfect condition.

Peter Tiley ticks all these boxes, and one final one - he absolutely loves what he does.

I met him when he invited me down to the Sally as part of the Apple Day celebrations last year. It's the kind of pub you don't want to leave. I wrote about that visit here, in my column for the Publican's Morning Advertiser.

Congratulations Pete and all at the Sally.


Thursday, 12 February 2015

Announcing my next beer book: "What are you drinking?" No really, do you know?

Following my announcement last night about my new crowdfunded beer book project, we go live today - and here's the idea I'm working on.

Beer is many things.

It’s often cold, always wet, usually refreshing. It’s democratic, straightforward and accessible, but can also be complex and challenging. It can be blond, brown, red or black, strong or weak, light and spritzy, creamy and zesty, rich and fruity, chocolatey, coffee-like, spicy, piney, citrusy, caramelised, sour, or even salty.

Beer’s unique balance of exciting diversity and easy-going approachability have made it the most widely drunk alcoholic beverage on the planet. Only water and tea are more popular. In the twenty-first century, the global craft beer revolution is spreading beer’s astonishing palate of flavours and styles to people who previously thought it could only be fizzy and tasteless.

But behind all the excitement around the renaissance of the world’s most popular alcoholic drink lies an extraordinary fact: very few beer drinkers have much of an idea of what their beverage is made of.

Do you?

We all know that wine is made by fermenting pressed juice from grapes, and cider comes from doing something similar to apples. But what creates the flavour and texture of beer? Do you know what makes it that colour, or where the alcohol comes from? What creates that inimitable heady rush on the nose or that crisp, dry finish at the back of the throat?

For all its straightforwardness, beer is a complex drink. The typical drinker might mumble vaguely about hops without having any clear idea of what hops are, or they may even talk about ‘chemicals’.

And that’s a shame, because each of the four main ingredients of beer has an incredible story. 



'What Are You Drinking?'* is a journey into the four main ingredients of beer. The book will tell their stories and uncover the little miracles in malted barley, hops, yeast and water, and how each of these contributes to the massive miracle that is beer. 

Mixing travel writing, nature writing, history and memoir, this book picks up four natural ingredients that are usually only ever discussed in technical brewing manuals and takes them for a spin through time and across continents.
From the lambic breweries of Belgium, where beer is fermented with wild yeasts drawn down from the air around the brewery, to the aquifers below Burton-on-Trent, where the brewing water is rumoured to contain life-giving qualities, this book won’t just describe what each ingredient is; it will tell the full story behind how and why it came to be in beer and why that matters. 

It's a story that's aimed at the general reader and curious drinker, but even brewers and hardcore beer fans will find facts and stories they didn't know, or at least have them presenting in a refreshing new light.

'What Are You Drinking' will explain why hops grown in different parts of the world have such dramatically different flavours; it will give an eye-witness account of how the process of malting changes a humble barley grain into so much more, and will explain as much about the behaviour of yeast as you can handle without a degree in biochemistry.

We'll travel from the surreal madness of drink-sodden hop-blessings in the Czech Republic, to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon, and to the hop harvest in the Yakima Valley in the Pacific North West of the United States. We'll explore the history of our understanding of fermentation, the lost age of hallucinogenic gruit beers, and the evolution of modern hop varieties that now challenge grapes in terms of how they are discussed and revered.

Along the way, we’ll meet and drink with a cast of characters who reveal the magic of beer, and celebrate the joy of drinking it. And, almost without noticing, we’ll learn the naked truth about the world’s greatest beverage.

The 'Brewing Elements' series of books published by the US Brewers' Association does cover these four ingredients, but they are strictly only for brewers and the most hardcore beer enthusiasts. (The one on water even comes with a health warning discouraging you from reading it unless you from reading it unless you are a trained brewer with at least a high school level of education in chemistry.) This will be the first time a whole book has been written about the components of beer in a way that will be interesting, educational and entertaining to the general reader who enjoys drinking beer, but had no idea how special it was - until now.

The book is now open for pledging at Unbound.co.uk. The book has its own page, where there's a video from me talking more about the ideas in the book, and an exclusive excerpt from one of the chapters I've already written, about a visit to the hop farms of Slovenia where I learned about the effects of terroir on hop aroma, and the effects of salami on the human body and soul. There you'll also see a range of different pledging options if you'd like to get involved. There's also a Q&A section where I'll answer any questions you have.

We need around 750 pledges in total. If you like the sound of this book, if you would like your name printed in the back of the book, and if you'd like a special edition of it that is unique to subscribers and will never be available anywhere else, pledge now. The quicker we meet the target, the sooner it will be published!

If you want to find out more about Unbound and how their hybrid model of crowdfunding and mainstream publishing works, see my previous blog post here

This is going to be an exciting adventure. Hope you'll hop onboard!


* The title is a work in progress. It might change if we can think of a better one.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

I'm writing a new beer book - and testing out a new approach to publishing

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, but new models are emerging - one of which allows me to write my first book about beer in six years. And you can get involved.

A great deal has changed since I had my first book published in 2003. The beer scene, obviously, has changed beyond recognition. And so has publishing. When Man Walks into a Pub came out, there were lots of bookshops but no smartphones, no kindles, and most people didn't know what a blog was.

Like everything else, publishing has now fragmented. And like many other careers, being a writer means you have to have several different projects on the go at any one time. The books I have published by mainstream publishers are moving further away from beer - and I hope to have confirmation of a new book in that direction in the next few weeks. But the only problem with this is that I do miss writing books about beer...

Which is why I was delighted just before Christmas when a chap called Jason Cooper, who commissioned and edited my first two beer books at Pan Macmillan, dropped me a line to tell me that he is now working for a new kind of publishing venture.



Unbound is a new concept that combines the best bits of crowdfunding and traditional publishing. It was founded by authors who wanted to establish a different way of creating books. The idea is that the author and publisher work together on every aspect of a book idea. We work out the costs of actually bringing the book to market, and we crowdfund that bit of it. So you can pledge £10 and get an e-book that has your name in the back; twenty quid gets you a unique hardback edition, available only to subscribers, and so on. As the pledge levels go up, you get bigger rewards.

But the really cool bit is that once the money is raised and the book is published, it goes into the market just like a normal book does. It gets distributed by Transworld, part of the biggest publishing group in the world, and appears in bookshops, on Amazon etc just like a book for any other publisher. So if you want to pledge to help make the book happen, at the very least you get a special edition with your name in that's different from the one in the shops. If you find the whole crowdfunding thing is not to your tastes, you can simply wait until the book comes out, and buy the normal edition as you would any other book.

It works best for authors who've already got a bit of a following who want to write something different from what their mainstream publisher is after. Unbound is publishing people like Raymond Briggs, Jonathan Meades and David Quantick, a lot of music, food and drink and business titles, and they've already done one title made it to last year's Booker longlist. You can check out the full range of books thing they do, see which ones have met their target and which are still open, and browse what different pledge levels get you, on the site here.

Beer books are perfect for the model. So tomorrow, my first beer book proposal since Hops & Glory will be going up on the Unbound website with an invitation for you to pledge and be part of it. It's an idea that I'm really excited about, a return to the territory and style of my first three books (although it doesn't involve me going to sea for three months) and has the additional benefit of me having learned a lot more about beer - and writing - in the intervening years.

Depending on how long it takes to make the pledge target, the book should be published some time in 2016 - there's still a bit of travel left for me to do this summer, though I have done a lot of it over the past few years.

I'll be revealing the idea and scope of the book on this blog tomorrow, and linking to the Unbound page where there will be a bit more detail, and a short excerpt from one of the chapters I've already written. I'll also be able to answer any questions you might have.

So see you back here Thursday pm. I hope you're going to like it.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Awards galore! Your chance for glory

Whatever drink you make or market, here's your chance to shine.

I seem to have found myself judging rather more awards schemes at one time than is good for a chap. Each one is fantastic, and the number and scale of them is testament to how healthy and vibrant our drinks scene is. Everything is kicking off right now, so see what takes your fancy below.


Beer Marketing Awards
This is one I helped set up. We launched last November to plug a gap - there are, rightly, many awards celebrating brewing, but none pointing the way in terms of good marketing. There's never been a better time to celebrate what's good, whether that's a big TV ad from a global brewer, brilliant use of social media form a small brewer or a good label design from anyone. Open to any brewer marketing a beer in the UK or any of their agencies, entries close at the end of the month but our special early bird rate of £100 + VAT per entry is on until the end of this week, Friday 16th January. Entry forms are here. Sponsorship opportunities and tickets to the awards dinner on 14th April are also available.

BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards
I'm delighted to be one of the judges in the Best Drinks category for the third year. This cuts across beer, cider, wine, spirits and soft drinks. We want to find British producers who are doing something amazing. Not just producing a wonderful drink - though of course that's essential - but also creating something original, or telling a great story. Last year two of the three finalists were brewers, and the winner was Thornbridge. The year before, cider maker Once Upon a Tree triumphed. Producers can enter themselves into this award, but most entries come from Radio 4 listeners. If you're a drinker and a huge fan of a brewer, distiller, cider maker or whatever, this is your chance to nominate them for greatness. Entry forms are here. Entries close at midnight on 26th January so it's a short window to get your nominations in. I'll be talking more about it on the Shaun Keaveny show on BBC 6 Music on Thursday morning around 9am. (Other awards categories are also available.)

International Cider Challenge
I'm honoured to have been asked to chair this international cider competition. Any cider maker anywhere in the world can enter, and we just tweaked the categories to reflect the huge diversity of cider styles now getting established around the globe. When I've judged this one before, I've been surprised by who hasn't entered. The competition judges ciders blind, side by side, and it's a fascinating opportunity to compare craft and mainstream cider without knowing what you're drinking. Entry forms are here, and entries close on 6th March.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

What's the difference between craft beer snobs and Kopparberg drinkers?

Are we really chasing authenticity, flavour and story? Or just endless novelty?



If you follow North American beer writers on social media (and if not, you should) you might have seen this piece from yesterday, in which formidable beer writer Andy Crouch writes a perfectly balanced profile of Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co, and craft beer's first billionaire.

Jim, it seems, is pissed off. His brewery has become so big, the hip craft beer joints that arguably wouldn't be here without his vision will no longer stock his beers. His brand is no longer new, and the beers themselves, according to detractors, are mediocre and middle of the road. And he doesn't think that's fair.

While the claim that Boston Beer Co 'invented' craft beer can be challenged (the likes of Anchor and Sierra Nevada would have ultimately fathered the current craft beer scene even if Boston hadn't been there) it is undeniable that BBCo has shaped it more than any other. Jim Koch was a graduate of business school and brand consultancy, and he used the big corporate brewers' own tactics against them to create a challenger brand that ultimately took craft beer mainstream.

Amid all this brandspeak, what about the beer? Is it really mediocre? Well, not in the eyes of the judges of every single beer competition I've ever seen it judged in. It's always winning prizes.

BBCo's sin is to brew a wide variety of traditional styles very well, from Bavarian-style lagers to English-style bitters, from wheat beer to Kolsch, from seasonal specialities such as pumpkin ale and Christmas ale to mainstream-style beers that balance flavour and accessibility. Andy's article says that, reluctantly, Jim has now been forced to brew West Coast-style hop bomb IPAs just like every other craft brewer.

And Jim Koch is not alone. Another piece that went online yesterday features the brewers of Widmer and Deschutes - two more American craft beer pioneers - defending themselves from attacks from the craft beer community. Their crime? Being so good at what they do, they've grown substantially to become big businesses.

This all strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic.

Curiosity about flavour is one of the defining characteristics of people who like interesting beer. It's always great to find something new. But with so much new stuff around, we can forget the old.

It happened for me with Belgian beer. Ten years ago Trappist ales were the centre of my world. And then I discovered North American IPAs, and then their British counterparts. When I found a dusty bottle of Chimay Blue in my cellar a few years ago, I realised I hadn't had a Belgian beer in years, and tasting it rekindled an old love affair. Now, Saison Dupont, Westmalle Dubbel, Duvel, Orval, Rochefort and St Bernardus are back at my beery core, despite having no new news, no rock star brewers and little distribution in craft beer bars.

Forgetting old favourites in the rush of the new is one thing. But actively deciding that beers or brewers are boring, bland, middle of the road or sell-outs simply because they have been around for a while, or have grown much bigger than they were, is foolish, snobbish and blinkered.

This is why it pisses me off when craft beer neophytes slag off 'boring brown beer' and include all classic best bitter in that description. Sure, some traditional beers are boring and bland, just as some single hop IPAs are monotone and grating after the first pint. But there are wonderful examples of both.

Sure, some breweries do compromise on quality, ingredients and brewing time when they grow and the accountants take control. Others stick steadfastly to their principles. And as Gary Fish of Deschutes says in the second piece linked to above, commercial success can improve quality. Though it pains me to say it, Goose Island IPA is actually a better quality beer since it has been brewed with cutting-edge A-B Inbev technology than it was on knackered old microbrewery plant that couldn't keep up with volume. Budweiser Budvar remains one of the best quality lagers in the world, thanks in no small part to its 90-day lagering. Timothy Taylor Landlord is one of the finest ales on the planet when kept well. All are dismissed by craft beer purists whose definition of the word 'craft' has more to do with scale and novelty than with any measure of skill or quality.

Which brings me to Rekorderlig.

I'm sure most fans of the latest craft breweries would run a mile from any suggestion of similarity to drinkers of a glorified alcopop constructed from industrial alcohol spirit, sugar and artificial flavourings. But the success of the faux-cider alcopops is based entirely on novelty: it's all about which flavour variant is coming next. As soon as they run out of different combinations of fruit syrups, they'll run out of road.

Let's not allow the current momentum in beer go the same way. Because at the moment, it looks awfully similar. One brewer creates a single hop citra IPA, and everyone else does. Then that gets boring and it's all about 'saisons' brewed with the contents of the brewer's spice cupboard, some of which are about as authentically saison as Rekorderlig is cider. Then it's endless different takes on Berliner-Weisse. And so on. And woe betide anyone who doesn't follow the path, who instead simply carries on making great beer that was fashionable five years ago, and sells it in greater quantities now than they did then.

Last year, I was deeply impressed by relatively new kids on the block such as Wiper & True, Siren, Tiny Rebel and Orbit. I was also pleased to see the likes of Camden, Beavertown and Waen reach new levels of scale and skill. But I also wondered why Otley, Redemption and Windsor & Eton didn't seem to be getting the chatter and buzz they once did.

Thornbridge celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. My adoration for what some argue is the 'original craft brewery' is no secret. But I'm starting to hear rumblings about them that would sound depressingly familiar to Boston Beer Co, Deschutes, Sierra Nevada and others: they're too big. They're blander than they used to be. They're selling out and going mainstream.

Bollocks.

Craft beer, whatever you want to call it, has gone mainstream. Now, it's growing up and maturing, and it already has several generations of brewers. Without the pioneers, the rest wouldn't be here today. And while today's newbies push the envelope ever further - which is what they should be doing - the bigger, older breweries are getting better at what they do, building bigger names, and providing a bridge between the mainstream and the cutting edge.

If you simply reject their achievements and their vital contemporary role in favour of what's new this week, whatever that is, you're not interested in authenticity and story at all. You're just following the latest fad among your peer group. And that makes you no more discerning, no cooler, no edgier, than the guy pouring his strawberry and lime flavoured 'cider' over ice.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Why J D Wetherspoon's is fast becoming my favourite craft beer bar

In eight years of blogging and writing articles and columns about beer, I think everything I've written about JD Wetherspoon splits pretty evenly between "This is amazing" and "This is absolutely appalling."

Wetherspoons is a mixed bag. Remarkably, nothing about it is simply OK - that mixed bag contains both the best and worst of British pubs. But recently, the balance for me is shifting. I'm becoming a 'Spoons denizen.

Now is the time to make your jokes about being pissed by 10am and shouting randomly at strangers. Done that? Good, let's carry on.

It started in the summer, when 'Spoons started selling cans of craft beer imported from the US at the ridiculous price of £1.99 each.


Sixpoint is a good brewery, and Bengali Tiger in particular hit the spot over a long, hot summer. But 'Spoons remained a distress purchase, a bedraggled, sad pub chain without soul that just happened to sell a few good beers.

But the chink in my anti-'Spoons armour had been opened. 'Spoons was now a place I would consider going. And the more I've been, the more I've liked it. 

There was a day back in October when I needed to get out of the house with a manuscript and a red pen to try to sort out a sample chunk of a new book I'm writing. I like doing this kind of work in pubs - it focuses me and, perhaps counter-intuitively, gets rid of distractions. I went to a local craft beer pub - the kind of place I still remain overjoyed about, in theory, counting myself lucky that I live within walking distance of several such places. 

I ordered a pint of cask beer and it wasn't good. I hate these situations. It wasn't that the beer was off; it wasn't displaying any recognisable faults, it just hadn't been kept with love and care and simply wasn't pleasant. So I thought that for my next pint, I'd move on to keg. BrewDog Dead Pony Club - perfect at 3.8%, an increasingly mainstream beer that wasn't strong enough to make me lose focus on my work - £5.20 a pint. They also had Beavertown Gamma Ray IPA, one of my beers of the year, brewed just a couple of miles from where I was standing - £6.50 a pint. And I just thought, that's too much for those beers. I don't like the quality of the cask, and I'm not prepared to pay that for a keg beer, and so I left.

Stuck for where to go next, I ended up in my local Wetherspoon's, the Rochester Castle on Stoke Newington High Street. And there, I found Devil's Backbone - an American IPA from a celebrated brewer - brewed under license in the UK, admittedly - for less than three quid a pint.


And so I asked myself, why should I pay £6.50 a pint for something I can get yards away for less than £3?

The arguments in answer to this came pretty quickly. But I found myself knocking each one of them back.

Yes, but it's a one off, this isn't a 'proper' craft beer bar.
Oh no? I'll admit the range will always consist of what is becoming known as 'mainstream craft', but those are the kinds of beers I prefer to drink anyway. As well as Devil's Backbone, there's a range of bottled craft beers including BrewDog, Goose Island and Lagunitas. They'll keep me happy for a session, at half the price of the nearby craft beer bar.

But Wetherspoons outlets are so soulless. There's no atmosphere there.
Yes, Wetherspoons are often big, echoey hangars, and the lack of music gives the air an odd hue. But most craft beer bars are sparse and spartan and echoey too, and the music they play is often shit, chosen by the staff to show how hip they are rather than to create the appropriate atmosphere for the space. Some of the buildings Wetherspoons have taken over and preserved are beautiful, and there's always a nod to its history in the decorations on the walls.

Wetherspoons aren't 'proper' pubs. They're managed outlets just like a McDonald's.
So are most craft beer pubs I know, whether they're part of a small branded chain or not.

The staff don't know what they're doing. They're disinterested.
I beg to differ. Wetherspoons staff may be trained to be just like their counterparts in chain restaurants, but in the Roch at least, I find the service to be polite and professional, with none of the sneering attitude I sometimes (to be fair, rarely) encounter in hip bars. I'm used to having to argue with the bar staff if I have to take a pint of beer back because it's off. In Spoons, I've had the best service I've ever encountered in this situation.

The quality of the beer is shit/they buy short-dated stock.
Wrong. Most Spoons pubs have Cask Marque. Their cellar standards are excellent. And I have it on very good authority that the short-dated thing is an urban myth.

Fine, but look at the kinds of people you have to drink with. They're awful!
My local Spoons has some dodgy characters, it's true. Especially the guys who sit by the window. They're casualties of life, the people who do turn up and start drinking at breakfast time, the people who have been forced out of the pubs they used to drink in by gentrification and £6.50 a pint. Some of them are shouty. Some of them smell a little ripe. There's no getting away from that. But inside, my local Spoons is a true community pub. It's where all the local posties gather when they've finished their shifts. There are always big tables of council workers and teachers, and a smattering of students. And no hipsters. None. I'm not having a go at hipsters, but I live in a multicultural, multifaceted community, and Spoons is one of the only pubs that reflects that. Some of the negative attitude about 'Spoons drinkers is snobbery, pure and simple.

Add to this the free wifi, cheap meals (with calorific content of each dish clearly displayed - where else does that?) the bi-annual real ale and cider festivals that include unique collaborations with craft brewers from around the world flying to the UK to brew here, and you have a proposition that would be celebrated by every beer writer and craft beer geek in the country if it wasn't 'Spoons doing it.

I'm not going to defend everything about the place, and I'll accept that standards vary across the estate an I just might have a good one on my manor, but increasingly, in many areas, J D Wetherspoon is setting standards for more 'serious' bars to live up to.

I never thought I'd see the day.


*Amended at 10am - I previously said that Devil's Backbone was imported. It isn't, and JDW don't make that clear. Thanks to Boak and Bailey for the clarification. Read their take on the crafting of 'Spoons here.