Saturday 26 January 2013

What is Beer Innovation?

Further to my previous post about the Beer Innovation Summit, I've been thinking about what beer innovation actually is and how important it might be.

Many breweries like to think they are innovative. We’d like to think we are, to some extent, although to be honest we often feel like we are lagging behind and copying too much. But then, is there really anything new in the beer world?

Obviously there are some new things happening; spirit cask aging, strong beers, crazy freeze distillation, mixed up beer styles and many, many things. But aren’t these just variations on a theme?
The big multinationals come up with new things from time-to-time.  Widgets in beer cans to make the beer seem like draught smooth flow. Perhaps extra cold is an innovation only made practical by improvements in cooling technology efficiency. Perhaps putting the lime into lager, so that its ready to serve on draught, is a fairly clever idea?

As I move my business forward I have to consider what might be innovative enough to maintain interest in my products. Indeed, I’d like to expand my customer base. All of this requires a stimulation in our brand.

What I don’t want to do is just re-invent the wheel and call it innovation. I know we’ve been accused of copying in the past and I’m keen to try and avoid this where I can in the future.

But what does constitute real beer innovation? Perhaps the reader has a view that is different to what the “innovative” brewers believe? Perhaps the reader doesn’t think beer innovation is necessary at all. If so, how do we excite a new and youthful beer drinker? I can tell you one thing for sure, if we don’t innovate, even if the innovation is in the message rather than the product itself, beer will continue to lose appeal in the face of wine, spirits and RTDs.

The picture is of my Great Grandfather with his car. I’m not sure of the date, other than early 20th century, around a 100 years ago. You may wonder what this has to do with beer. The motorcar has changed a lot in 100 years. However, they all generally run on four wheels, have some sort of energy to rotary motion converter and carry people about. The 100 year old car has some appeal to the enthusiast, but most people like the modern version. Indeed, most people who buy cars lust after newer models, even when the changes are slight.

Photography has also changed in this hundred years, silver nitrate is no longer the main compound that enables it to happen.

In a hundred years beer has changed a lot, but it is still a fermented alcoholic beverage made from grain. Most people like up-to-date brands; tradition and stagnant brands tend to fail.

I don’t know if my Great Grandfather drank beer. If he did I doubt the beer he drank would be of interest to most of the population today. However, I would like to own his car.

Monday 21 January 2013

In a League of its Own

I quite like Rugby. At school I somehow got on with it better than the other game the boys liked to play. I think it was something to do with the fact I didn't get stuck in defence when we played Rugby in PE. I could join in a lot better and despite being a small kid, seemed to hold my own. I guess mainly I ducked between legs and then grabbed at ankles of the big boys, who seemed to fall easily.

Despite this, I have never quite got to grips with the difference between League and Union. Both are played around these parts, with determination it would seem. Not only does the risk of physical injury seem to be no deterrent to enthusiasm, it is apparent this is part of the attraction. Well, that and the excuse for a few well earned pints on a Saturday once the match has been played, the mud washed off and various scrapes bandaged up and sprains suitably supported.

There has been a Rugby club in Millom for 140 years. Both the Union and League versions of the game lay claim to being the first club back in that year, 1873.  I refuse to get drawn into the arguments about these facts, other than to say that according to my research neither Union nor League existed back then. It was just the game of Rugby.

Never-the-less, the Millom Rugby League Club, widely acknowledged as the oldest in the world, asked us to make a beer for their 140th year. Of course, why not?

But, what I wanted to do was make a beer that they all loved, or at least all the ones that will have a go at something different. I know our beers are all a bit well hopped and generally are a bit more colour than is the fashion. It's all very well trying to make contemporary craft beer that appeals to a niche and might get above average scores on Ratebeer, but once in a while it's nice to get the local people to understand we can also make stuff they like, should we put our mind to it.

So, we brewed a beer. A blonde beer because we thought that might go down quite well. No dry hops, fairly low bitterness and just a sprinkling of new world hops to give it that certain zing. Last Friday we put a firkin in the club and they served it at The Challenge Cup Draw.

I had two pints. I'd have preferred two pints of Azimuth. Failing that three pints of Continuum. Still, on making my way to the bar for the third, just after eating my pie and peas, at around 7:30pm, one drinker said "Best pint I've tried for a while there Dave, but you needn't bother going for another" I was baffled, did he somehow think I'd had too much? "It's all gone, you should'a brought another firk lad"

Well, it might not win any praise on Ratebeer, but it sure hit the spot with the rugby fans. Good show, beer to specification, job done. The beer had been on the bar for less than 2 hours. It's not a big club.

There are a few more firkins. I'm not sure Millom will get through them all in the next couple of weeks. Anyone know a rugby club that wants to buy some beer?

Monday 14 January 2013

Beer Innovation

What does and doesn't constitute innovation in brewing is a debatable point. Brewing beer as strong as you possibly can, throwing in loads of hops, dry hopping, wood ageing and using crazy microbes are all things that have already been done. Mashing up styles or inventing brand new styles along with ever more funky packaging might all perhaps be innovative. Edgy PR campaigns and upsetting traditional establishments might be other innovative activities. The reader can form their own view as to whether this is innovation or not.

Be it innovation or be it just introducing ever more variety, it doesn't really matter. An increase of variety has occurred in the beer world over the last few years. It's good, I like it. Probably most of the beer enthusiasts I know would generally agree the UK beer scene is quite vibrant, even if some people don't like some of the stuff that goes on.

Personally I'd say it's the new and progressive breweries that are leading the way. For perhaps 10 years or so an explosion of beer producers who are making waves has shaken bigger players. I'd like to think Hardknott are part of this although of course there are many, many other notable breweries doing the same. The big boys are now starting to take real notice.

This is becoming increasingly evident by the effort of bigger, more established breweries. Many family brewers have joined in, perhaps of their own accord, or because they felt a real need to do so. Brewers like Fullers and Adnams have perhaps been ahead of the curve and engaged well with the more diverse market. Many of us would say this is a good thing. A switched on brewery salesman said to me almost 10 years ago that micro-brewing was certainly good for brewing as it keeps "the rest of us on our toes".

And here we see the most important thing about innovation. In reality the diversity is what is working, variety and interest. Our sector of the market is diverse, and I stress, it's a small market. But it is growing and this is why we now have a Beer Innovation Summit. Another clear sign of the big boys running scared.

I looked at going. It sounds like the sort of thing I might be interested in. I note that Pete Brown is speaking. That's good, I like Pete and he knows quite a lot about beer and what might, or might not be true innovation. Although I've heard him speak quite a lot and perhaps I know his thoughts well enough by now.

I thought there might have been a microbrewery making up one of the panels. I think perhaps Thornbridge is mentioned, and perhaps someone is speaking from this undeniable leader of diversity. I am not sure the rest of the speakers fill me with confidence at their huge knowledge of cutting edge beer.

I questioned this. I got this reply.

"The agenda is now set so there won't be any further speakers added. We may look more closely at the micro-brewing sector at next year's event, but for this event wanted to focus on the volume players in the beer category as they brew the products that most people drink."

That is right, they represent the volume players, the people who don't provide that variety, that innovation, if you like. The reply seemed a little arrogant and conceited. I feel there is an underlying tone of trying to avoid micro-brewers showing they are the ones that are indeed leading the way.

I'd like to go and take part in the discussions. I'm reluctant to go as I'd be too scared to speak out, due to feeling somewhat intimidated by these "volume players" Although, more likely, I'd start an argument and make yet another embarrassment of myself. I can assure the reader, I don't need to spend £195+VAT to make a fool of myself.


Friday 11 January 2013

Policing alcohol by the popular vote

It's always a problem we have, that the general public seem to have been successfully convinced that we have a drink problem in the UK. Of course, it does strike me that if we have a general problem with alcohol then the general population is naughty. The reply might come back that it's just a few people, of course, you, me and our best friends aren't the problem, are we?

I wasn't convinced that Police and Crime Commissioners should be elected. My view is that we have various politicians that decide how much, or little, should be spent on the police and make laws that the police should enforce. The best people to decide how to actually enforce laws are the people who have been doing so for many years and know what works, and what doesn't. We have a legal system complete with appeals all the way to the actual law makers themselves that generally act as safeguards. I know it goes wrong, but I am unconvinced that we need more elected nit-wits to mess stuff up.

To my shame I didn't vote at the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections. I have a strong conviction that we all have a duty to vote. I didn't, I'm sorry, I'll try better next time. Perhaps it's because I don't believe the post should be elected, or perhaps I was just too busy. Either-way, there is no satisfactory excuse and I now have a reason to try better next time.

I notice this week that the Cumbrian Police and Crime Commissioner, Richard Rhodes, has decided, for reasons of proving he's fit for the job, has jumped on the popular "let's knock drinking" bandwagon by over-stating that there is an underage drink problem. He goes on to suggest that there should be a 72 hour automatic closure for any premises that is caught serving underage people, even on the first offence.

I don't doubt that he is right that some licensees don't pay enough attention to this isolated problem. I also don't doubt that some bar staff are much less diligent than they should be. I've witnessed it myself. However, suppose you were a licensee who was generally diligent, but one of your staff served an underage friend a drink. The suggestion seems to be that the publican would have an immediate and automatic 72 hour closure.

In this sort of instance the publican would be somewhat bitter towards the police about the matter. As an ex-publican I have always found the police value the relationship with good publicans. Indeed, so much so that my own opinions of police in general has been significantly improved as a result of my time running a pub. I feel that even the threat of such an action would undermine the great relationship that can exist between the police and the people who generally have to deal with the trouble on the ground.

It is telling that Mr Rhodes also states "In a number of areas in Cumbria there is a very close working arrangement between publicans and the Police, and the police feel that if they were required to be more forceful it would threaten that partnership"

Damn right Mr Rhodes.