Friday 17 April 2009

Does beer need a better champion?

Currently in the mass media we are constantly bombarded with bad news about how alcohol is causing much social grief. Binge drinking, alcohol related crime and town centre no go areas where disorder is rife at night. We are also heavily censored by the Portman Group over drinks advertising to the extent that even progressive brewers like BrewDog have come under attack.

Now I'm not going to try and tell the reader that we should not worry about such things. Indeed as a licensee I sometimes think the powers we, the good old fashioned landlord used to enjoy, have been diminished by the "customer is always right" attitude of today. But the neo-prohibitionist is certainly undermining the beer market as a revered beverage. It has to be the case that we have already, as a nation, curtailed the worst of the problems and the drinks industry needs to regain acceptance.

Many bloggers have commented on advertising censorship. Recently Pete Brown has posted about the imagery in the media that shows beer as a demon drink. It certainly seems to be the case that mass media exposure for beer is largely either crass advertising by the big brewers or news items showing unsavoury behaviour.

The Oz and James drink to Britain was fun and informative without going too far into a geeky perspective. It featured some interesting brewers and beers and might just have helped to strengthen feelings amongst those consumers who respect beer as well as opening up ideas for beer drinkers who might otherwise have not been so adventurous. My worry is that it's slightly loutish behaviour by overgrown men would probably not help a more sophisticated approach to the beer market.

Oz and James also focused closely on British beer, which of course was the remit of the program. Their eagerness to belittle the position of British lager was criticised by beer writers that appreciate properly made lager, but perhaps not inappropriate seeing as mass produced British lager deserves no reverence whatsoever.

For all the good work that CAMRA does to promote beer it seems to have failed in one area that I'd like it to succeed in; the wholesale promotion of beer as a great and quality product. There is the very valid argument that this is not the purpose of CAMRA. If that is the case who else is going to do it?

There is of course the Guild, of which I am a member. The majority of the guild members are trying to eek a living out of writing about beer. I'm just playing at it for the time being. I'd like to think that one day I'll transfer into being paid, but there is inevitably a catch to that. I would have to start thinking about my audience. Beer writers who get paid presumably have to produce material that publishing companies, papers, radio or T.V. want to pay for. This does not necessarily match what the writers want to write about.

There are some good books that explore the beer world in a more global manner. Pete Browns book Three Sheets to the Wind was loaned to me recently. When somebody loans their signed copy you know they want you to read it. I'm half way through and currently the story is leading me to Portland in Oregon. It is indeed an excellent book and if you have not read it then do so, soon. What we need though is for the information contained in such books to become more digestible to the lazy masses. Some distillation into newspapers, magazines, radio and T.V. is required.

In essence then I feel there is a gap in the beer communications arena. A gap between the mass media, of which the professional beer writers are inevitably tied and that of the one beer consumer group in the country. The blogosphere does in some way fill that gap, but it's not anywhere near mass media, at least not yet. Additionally, blogging can get a little messy and personal as occasionally there are fall outs when disagreements go too far.

I am keen to explore what can be done, but currently have a pub to run. We're into what I hope is a busy season, the sun is shining and so I have to go and make bread. While I knead the dough I will think some more about how we can better capture the positive attention of the mass media.


Curmudgeon said...

I often feel there is a need for a general campaigning group to stand up for the rights of adults to enjoy alcohol responsibly.

CAMRA claims to champion this, but in reality it is (maybe not unreasonably) so committed to its specific campaigns that it can't do so effectively. It won't lift a finger to defend at-home whisky drinkers, for example.

However, the limited success of the Association of British Drivers, despite the huge raft of anti-motorist measures perpetrated during the past twelve years, is perhaps a pointer to the likely prospects of such a group. It seems the British prefer to whinge rather than campaign.

Paul Garrard said...

I would argue that CAMRA does promote real ale as a quality product, and through the locAle initiative it is promoting ale with provenance.

Yes beer does need champions. In my opinion they need to be of the ilk of James and Oz; celebrity media types that can enthuse about the amber nectar and make it sound sexy to the middle-classes. There I go again! It's pr and marketing that's required, in great big dollops.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

In this book you're reading, do they head down towards Oakridge after going to Portland?

Andy said...

Beer needs a good spin doctor. Perhaps we should get Damian McBride on board - he could smear wine, spirits, alcopops and mass market lager and seek retribution on those that brief against beer....

Unknown said...


No, Oakridge is not visited. When the book was written there was in fact no Real Ale in Oakridge.

What it really needs is a new guide book written about Oregon, one that details the expansion of British Real Ale over there. Perhaps I'll have to do some more research.

They do visit places like the Horse Brass and Bridgeport. Ah, memories.


PR in great big dollops would be good, but that costs money.

Curmudgeon, again, I can add little more...

Andy, I like that idea, might be worth a go.

Seriously, why does wine get air time on prime time T.V. through foody programs? Beer does not. A point Boak and Bailey made some time ago.

Berkshire Bloke said...

Hi Dave

On the subject of guide-books, CAMRA has fairly recently published a guide to west coast brewers /brew pubs etc that covers Oregon, California and Washington.

Also on the subject of the craft beer movement in America, Stephen fry's blog pointed me to this film that's just been released in the US:

Not sure I can see a British documentary about beer opening in cinemas....

ZakAvery said...

This is all very well articulated, but there are a few points that need to be raised.

Beer doesn't need a better champion - it just needs less oafs attached to it. It's interesting that you see the Oz & James series as being about beer - it was partly about beer, but also about a lot of other drinks. Because we are interested in beer, we see only the beer that is shown on TV - we missed the wine, gin, cider etc.

Beer writers should concentrate on writing interesting articles around beer. And that doesn't mean writing about beer - it means writing around beer. Pete Brown's books are good because they take beer as an anchor point, and look at what else is attached to the anchor.

There shouldn't be any compromise to the mainstream, and certainly not to writing with an eye on what might get published. This would be like trying to get on TV just for the sake of it - it shouldn't be viewed as an end in itself, but rather an inevitable by-product of writing something that is interesting enough to be publishd, whether its about beer, or cars, or running a pub. The mass media won't come looking for beer - they'll come looking for an interesting person who coincidentally has a lot of interesting things to say about beer.

Unknown said...

Thanks Zak,

I wasn't deliberately ignoring the other drinks mentioned, but this is a beer blog, so as you say, I focus on beer. As a licensee I'm interested in a wide range of drinks. I was especially interested in the whiskey and gin articles. The point is the program is the best I've seen that does talk about beer, if not exclusively.

Hopefully I do write around beer. I've got ideas for a book that describes what it really is like to run a pub. I've also got ideas about what sort of information might go into a television program, but I haven't the first clue where to start to get those ideas into practice.

Perhaps a fly on the wall documentary about how some crazy guy thinks he can make a remote country pub work.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for the (two!) plugs.

Your points about a gap in media coverage of beer, and the trials facing 'paid' beer writers, uncover a whole supermarket full of cans of worms. I'm on the committee of the Guild and we make a big point about championing all beer, not just real ale, much to the disgust of some of the older guard members.

I'd say there are only about ten people in the country who are seriously trying to make a living from writing about beer (not counting the staff journos on the trade mags who touch on beer while covering pub news). And we ll want TV, magazines and newspapers, and we all want to write about what we're passionate about rather than what's in a big brewery press release. But the media owners don't wanna know. On average, I get a call from a TV production company about once every four months wanting to use one of my books as the basis for a series about beer and pubs. This has been happening for about five years. I don't have a series, nor any slight hint of one. Ideas are turned down as being "too niche" or nerdy. Even when we have celebrities attached, they don't get anywhere.

And despite the fact that I've presented statistical evidence of how interested broadsheet readers are in beer, broadsheet feature commissioners drink wine. The Guardian has repeatedly told be they "don't do" beer. Most papers "don't have room" for it, even though they have room for some columnist to witter week after the week about the contents of their sock drawer or the funny thing their darling three year old said.

Yes, there's a gap in the market - but not for want of writers trying to fill it.

I think beer blogging has done great things to fill the gap - but it does need to broaden its base beyond self-confessed beer geeks.