Tuesday 8 December 2009

What next?

Of course, over the next week I need to write up my interesting trip to London and all the excitement that this country lad had in the big bad city. First though, I want to consider where this beer writing nonsense is going for me over the next year or so.

I'm the one on the right ->

I could plan to win Beer Writer of the Year in 2012. I could have chosen 2011 but our brilliant Mark Dredge has already thrown down the gauntlet on that one. They say the secret of being successful is knowing which fight to pick and this one I'll concede right now. But I guess that providing I have work good enough to enter I'll still have a go. Despite the award being important, it doesn't pay the bills and for this reason, as well as perhaps some others, my writing needs to concentrate in other areas.

When I first started talking about my entry to the British Guild of Beer Writers annual awards it must have seemed to some that I was being self-indulgent. Perhaps there is a little bit of truth in this. However, I justify my honest excitement and subsequent pride with a more important overview which is of course, a concern for beer and pubs. After all, this is broadly how I make my living. Beer writing is nothing more than an interesting extension bringing little in the way of tangible returns. Indeed, my prize money only just about covered my trip to London, although I would have still gone even if I had no chance of winning, that's not the point.

I always have an eye on the money, although this is in conflict with my principles, which run far too deep. This conflict gets me into trouble with both myself and others close to me far too often. Customers can sometimes get embroiled in that mêlée of opposing desires too. Entering and winning a prize has come at quite a cost, besides the man-hours and distractions to my core business there is the wearing of the patience of my partner and family. I have to find a reason to do this which is more than just winning a prize that doesn't cover the overall costs. I have to spend the next year or two turning this into a paying concern and it would seem that beer writing by itself is not the way to go.

Don't get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the intangible benefits. Not least of which is the increased traffic to my pub's website. Well over 50% of my trade comes via that route and without it my business would not be viable. My blog tells people what we are about, what we do, what we stand for. It helps to prevent people coming to us and being disappointed and it also helps to direct the type of people to us that appreciate what we do. Moreover, I've had many people come to my pub as a direct result of my blog, I've made many good friends and there are less obvious business benefits gained through these friendships for which I'm very grateful.

Despite this I'm not sure the time spent at the keyboard is entirely commensurate with these benefits. I’m interested in knowing how to maximise reward and I suspect I'm not going to do this alone. This is my ulterior motive for talking about the awards, not because I think they are important, although of course they are, but more because I want to make them a little more important to other people. Despite beer being still the most popular drink of the British drinker, beer writers don't get the kudos which I believe we deserve. Wine, for instance, has several notable celebrities who further its quality appeal; Oz Clarke for instance, to name just one. I know Pete Brown and Roger Protz have made T.V. appearances, but we have nobody in the Guild who makes it as a household minor celebrity (OK, unfair to Oz Clarke, who does happen to be a Guild Member).

I want to make the work of the members of the Guild more noticed. Sure, by doing that my own notoriety will be boosted a little, but as a small fish amongst better writers I'm unlikely to reach great heights, but you never know. More important to me is to improve the overall kudos of beer as a quality drink. For far too long beer has been seen as "dirty". The drink of drunken chauvinistic rugby players and yobs that vomit on the street, piss in shop doorways and cause whole town centres to be no-go areas. What we all know is that beer is not the cause of this but the attitude of the drinkers and volume producers. Beer is no more responsible than, say, white rum.

I'd like to see Pete Brown on the T.V. more often. Why can't we have a T.V. show that includes a weekly beer choice? Perhaps Saturday Morning Kitchen could feature a few interesting beers. I want to get involved with the Guild in putting together a stronger pitch at the T.V. companies to get beer into their food and drink programs. I’d like to see this done collectively as a Guild rather than each member pitching their own ideas; the total greater than the sum of the parts and all that.

Returning to the problem of money; there were 150 or so people at the dinner on Thursday evening, many actual beer writers and some people from the beer industry. The prize money and some of the beers were given by breweries by way of thanks to the Guild Members. However, in an industry that is worth many millions of pounds I think the prize money is small thanks. Why is this? Well, for a start most beer writers have little time for the output of the vast majority of the industry. Only a small proportion of the revenue from the industry is the "craft" sector. The rest of the industry couldn't care a great lot about beer writers, who tend to only talk about artisan beers. For this reason we are out on a limb.

I want to look at how we can encourage more of the industry to concentrate on brand enhancement. During my recent visit to Fullers it was clear that this is a big part of how they remain focussed on providing a bridge between what some beer enthusiasts see as mass produced uninteresting beer like London Pride and much more interesting beers like Fullers Vintage and Golden Pride. I will be writing a large post on Fullers, partly because I owe the brewery at least for their hospitality but moreover because there are plenty of good things they do there that are often overlooked by the hardcore beer geeks. Even Coors are maintaining this brand enhancement with the White Shield brewery. These things are more than just nice little gestures; they deserve great recognition irrespective of the size of the organisation behind the brewery.

We have to remember that many of the smaller breweries which we love so much have small marketing budgets. Many beer writers are now writing blogs and in doing so are providing free marketing for these breweries. This is good, but it doesn’t pay for the man hours of time spent writing. Such writers perhaps don’t want anything in return, and the ever growing number of quality bloggers is good for beer in general. For me, I do feel I need to work out how to pay the bills. I do get some discretionary exchanges and I’m very grateful for that when it occurs. It is however insufficient to enable even the beer writers that are better than me to make a living out of the job. Some breweries, I am starting to think, work us beer writers very well indeed and give back almost nothing in return. Perhaps they might think a little bit about that.

Beer writers and the beer industry have to work hand in hand. Beer writers love interesting quality beers. When presented with them we like them and often write about them. Sometimes we might disagree about what is good and what is pushing the boundaries too far, but generally we’ll talk about them. If as writers, we want to get something out of the industry, we have to put something useful in as well. To that end I have some ideas that I want to follow up and so here I present, for want of a better word, my manifesto for the next year.

One thing the artisan beer world in this country has to sort out is consistency of the product in the glass. It really can let the side down. The brewer has to make consistently good beer. This is of course different to a consistent but boring product. We expect some variations in a quality beer. If it is made from malted barley and whole cone hops there is always going to be some seasonal and gyle variations and we forgive that. We do however expect unwanted flavours to be controlled, for instance DMS, dactyl and phenols are very easy to control if brewers understand their causes. Despite having a poor palate for these things I have started to notice these problem flavours more and more. Simple training of brewers at the microbrewery level needs to be considered. As beer writers I believe we can gently encourage newer smaller breweries to improve their products by reinforcing the various avenues available for training and information. There is a great deal of false information in the microbrewery world about how to make good beer, lots of myths that really could do with being tackled.

Of course, the other key to a good glass of beer is how it is looked after in the pub. In this we have the biggest myth of them all. We consider cask beer to be the only quality beer in the UK. Increasingly, I become convinced this is a little bit of a misnomer. Cask beer can indeed be a very high quality product and one that I love when it is done right. It can however be a complete disaster simply because it is not understood by the pub. I want to work to improve methods for serving cask beer reliably in good condition but further I want to make keg beer more respectable amongst beer fans. I don't want to do this to undermine cask but more to explore where there is a missing link in the whole of the industry. I believe that there is a missing market for draft beer; in the restaurant market for instance. This is starting to be filled with craft bottled beers but there is a chance for quality craft keg beer to make in-roads. I want to help explore how this can be nurtured and encouraged by breweries from the smallest to the biggest, it isn't rocket science.

More immediately for me I have one book proposal in early stages of acceptance with a publisher. I have another longer term project which I need to focus on honing some detail on the proposal. I have also been independently invited to contribute to another book. The really nice thing is that all this was before I won my award, so hopefully things are looking up.


Benj said...

Here in the States we have plenty of quality craft keg beer and a dearth of quality cask ale. Your post caused me to wonder what beer brewed in England would be better served in keg form rather than cask. I can only come up with Continental-style lagers. Are there other beers you were thinking of when you wrote this post?

Unknown said...

Benj, sorry I didn't get back to you on that one.

When I was in London I had several beers in the Porterhouse and all were keg. They were served at an apparent low carbonation level. It might be that they were served with nitrogen/co2 mixed gas but either way they were good.

The more I try different beers the more I come to the conclusion that it is not a case for cask being inherently better than keg or vice versa. There is good and crap keg and good and crap cask.

There is no doubt it would be good to see more widespread use of cask in the States.