Last week the British Beer and Pub Assocation (BBPA) announced that overall alcohol consumption in 2013 was at its lowest figure in 20 years, falling to 7.7 litres per person, a drop of 18% since 2004 and 2.1% down on the previous years figures.   However as always things are not that simple, and when you dive into the numbers you see how much the alcohol duty rate raises over the last 13 years has increased tax revenue from beer and cider.

In 1999-2000,61 million hectolitres (there are 176 pints to a hectolitre) were cleared through HM Customs and Excise when beer and cider are combined.  In 2012-13, this number has reduced to 50.5 million hectolitres, however the tax taken in 2000 was £6.4 billion, whereas in 2013, they took £10.2 billion.   So that means that for every pint sold, the amount of income took by the government has almost doubled.

What the numbers do show however is that beer as a whole has declined significantly over the 13 tax years to 2013, with a drop from 54 million to 42 million hectolitres registered with the taxman, a drop of 1 in 5.  However cider has seen a rise from 6.2 to 8.7 million, a rise of nearly 30%, showing that the post millennial years have been very good to the cider producers across the country.

In the middle of this period, prior to the recession in 2007, we drank a lot of beer, almost a quarter more than we do now.  Cider struggled along until 2007, moving up and down each year not really going anywhere.  However in 2007 it exploded, growing by double digits most years until 2012.  At its peak in 2009/10, it was selling nearly 10 million hectolitres more, a full 175,000,000 pints above the latest figures.  The start of this rapid growth of cider sadly can be mapped to the mass marketed ciders twins that are Bulmers and Magners,  Magners launched in the mid noughties, but it was when Bulmers joined the competition in 2006 that cider really became a regular drink  for many people.

Cider has had a poor reputation at times over the last 30 years, with products such as Scrumpy Jack and Diamond White and its like giving it a reputation linked with drunk young people with the high strength “turbo” ciders being associated with the local homeless winos.  In my youth, it was a well know method of getting drunk very quickly when you drank a few Stella Artois and Diamond White snakebites.  There was of course a lot of very good ciders out there, but finding it was more difficult outside of the south west of the country.  The best known mainstream ciders during that time were Strongbow and Blackthorn.

Magners and Bulmers with their multi million pound marketing campaigns opened peoples eyes to cider being an acceptable drink to be seen drinking. This has opened the doors for companies like Thatchers, Aspalls, Westons and a number of other Herefordshire / South West producers to get into bars across the country and into the big supermarkets.  It also gave us the bastard children of cider which is Rekorderlig, Kopparberg and most of the Brothers range, as well as the big brand versions like Cidre, Carling Cider and Sommersby.

I’m a massive fan of good cider, not quite as much as beer, but can easily spend a session on a nice cider (and in the case of Old Rosie live to regret in the morning).  The strange thing is that at home when drinking cider, I will normally drink 7 – 8.2% ABV products all night, whereas whilst I enjoy beers at that strength I normally have to do a mix of these stronger beers and their slightly weaker 5% cousins over the course of an evening.  The other thing I like about cider is that you do have the choice of some very good flat and sparkling ciders to suit your taste.  However some of these ciders I drink and are considered very good examples of cider are as strong as some the so called “turbo ciders”, however this could be said of some higher ABV craft beers and strong lager as well, strength is not longer a dividing line is what we can conclude from this.

But going back to the original topic to finish.  Wine and Spirits both show peaks towards the back end of the year, indicating that they are brought by many non regular drinkers just for xmas, whether that be for consumption or as a gift.  Beer stays fairly consistent most of the year, with some smaller peaking around summer and xmas. Cider follows a similar pattern, with a more pronounced summer spike, all of which makes sense from experience.  Tssk to these seasonal wine drinkers, we beer and cider drinkers are loyal all year round!

Alcohol marketing has a strict set of rules as defined by the Portman Group.  This means you cannot use words or imagery which may attract under age drinkers, associate drinking with physical, mental or sexual success, encourage irresponsible or rapid drinking or emphasise the high alcoholic strength of the drink.  Any marketing which encourages anti social behaviour and encourages violence or aggression is also frowned upon.  To avoid marketing appearing to target young people, they recommend that no person who appears under 25 is used is marketing, making theirs a pretty encompassing set of rules.

So when Bartex launched a vodka called Red Army with a glass bottle shaped like a sub machine gun, complete with a set of shot glasses and a grenade shaped bottle for behind the bar, they must have known they had broken a whole raft of rules and would be referred to the complaints panel before they even clicked send on the promotional email.  Of course, the complaint was upheld as the name, packaging and associated marketing all breached the regulations.

If a complaint is upheld like this, then an alert is sent out to retailers asking them not to place any orders for the offending product after a period of up to 90 days decided by the panel.  Other complaints which have been upheld recently include Loko for a using a word meaning madness and therefore encouraging irresponsible drinking, whilst Dr Von Hydes Herbal Liquor was ruled against because fake medical claims and the use of the word Doctor in the name implied medical benefits.

Lets question how effective this whole system is.   The company get some initial publicity from the product launch, then they get even more publicity in the trade press regarding the complaint (and if they are lucky some of the red top tabloids will express moral outrage as well).  Then when the decision goes against them, they get more publicity but still have up to three months to sell the product before retailers may stop buying it.  It is then relaunched towards the end of this period in a normal bottle and you have a rather more successful product launch than “planned”.

The phrase “There is no such thing as bad publicity” is certainly true here.  I had never heard of this Red Army vodka before reading of the ruling, but now I know of the product, who makes it, its packaging and that it is yet another vodka my body would refuse to drink after a bad experience at 17 with too much 140 proof polish vodka brought back from a college trip to Russia.    It is what I call the Daily Mail effect, if you can’t get enough attention, do something to offend the Daily Mail and you’ll have a 2 page spread before you know it.

It is interesting that most complaints (and those which are upheld) are against smaller producers with relatively few concerning the larger operations, the exceptions regarding super strength beers such as Tennants Super and Special Brew.  The Portman Group membership is made up of the major brewers in this country with household names such as ABInBev, Carlsberg, Diageo, Heineken, SAB Miller and Molson Coors listed as members.   Other alcohol producing operations sign up to the code of conduct promising to behave responsibly, of which there are over 140.  However even if you have not signed up to this code of conduct you can be referred to the Portman Group by a complainant and for example Brewdog have been referred a handful of times with a roughly 50-50 success rate in getting the complaint being dismissed.

The same organisation run the drinkaware website which you will see mentioned in most alcohol advertising whether it be in print, on radio or TV.  As expected, this is on the side of health when it comes to alcohol use and can even allow you to track your unit intake over time if you so feel the need to.  It preaches social responsibility, emphasises the negative effects of alcohol and keeping to the recommended weekly limits of 21 units for men and 14 units for women, a figure with no scientific grounds and one which was picked out of the air by the government in 1992.

How many of us have ever visited this site, I only did so in the name of research.  The point is most of us are adults who can take responsible decisions regarding our drinking, sure we all occasionally have too much to drink when we do not intend to, but if life was all pre-planned, it would be boring,  As long as you cause no issues or harm to anybody else and are in pleasant spirits then it does no harm.

 

Having a national chain of 13 pubs with 3 others spread across three continents, launching 2 successful share issues whilst expanding from 2 employees to 224 employees in 7 years is an impressive feat in anyone’s books.  At the same time brewing 9,414,680 pints of beer last year, 50 times the amount brewed in the first year of business, building a state of the art production plant and becoming the most well know brand in your sector.  Not forgetting exporting to Sweden, Japan and America within two years of starting up. That is the story of Brewdog condensed into a paragraph.

Now you can add nearly doubling the number of branded bars in their portfolio in the next 6 months, and it is not just continuing their invasion of British cities and major towns.  New UK openings in Dundee,  Cardiff, Liverpool, Clapham are all planned for summer opening, whilst plans for the beer academy in East London are coming along well.  They also hope to have bars open in Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge and Norwich by the time September hits us.

Looking further afield they already have Japan,  Sweden and Brazil covered.  Add to this a second Swedish bar in Gothenburg joining the existing Stockholm outlet and major expansion into mainland Europe with openings planned in Berlin, Rome and Florence.  With future plans to open in Bologna, Helsinki, Paris, Barcelona and Norway, Brussels and New Delhi,  it is an impressive list of locations for such a young business.  The only surprise is that they haven’t moved into America, especially as they recently filmed a series about craft beer and brewing in that country.

Logic would dictate that you build up your UK presence first and then expand into one or two European markets in a more concentrated way, building up your presence slowly but surely.  But this is a market where you have to strike while the iron is hot and craft beer is very hot right now.  Brewdog is one of the most well known names in the market and the strategic scattergun approach in staking a claim across most of Europe’s key beer markets and other major beer drinking countries elsewhere makes perfect sense.

These international targets are modern cosmopolitan cities which will just lap the premium product that Brewdog offer.  The same approach was taken in the UK market, with Glasgow and Edinburgh coming first after their hometown Aberdeen.  Next came London (with multiple outlets) and the regions followed with Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham. One large centre of population, one pub.

This is the opposite of the regional mainstream brewers who own a larger number of pubs across a tight geographical area, eg : J W Lees, Holts and Robinson in the Manchester / Greater Manchester area, Ossett / Partners to a lesser degree in West Yorkshire.  This guarantees a steady source of beer sales in the region and attempts to breed customer loyalty to the brand as a whole.  I used to be such a drinker, being wedded to Boddingtons for most of the early 2000’s.  The idea is that these brewers via their pubs go to the people in their local area or town centre.  The Brewdog model is that you go to them to try their beer on tap, and the name, unconventional marketing, social media and brewing reputation means that people in droves do just that.

The fact that a bar in China felt there was a market to offer a counterfeit Brewdog outlet, complete with authentic looking exterior shows how far the name has spread.   They are the mainstream within a niche sector now, still able to misbehave, but with responsibilities to more than just their employees, answering to 14,208 shareholders.   Personally I think their are more exciting breweries out there for the beer itself now with the explosion in craft breweries over the last few years, however Brewdog still produce a very good range of craft beer I’d be happy to drink all day long.

Many such smaller craft brewers are located within 30 miles of my door just outside Halifax and wherever you live you’ve a good chance of finding a good small craft brewery in the same area now.  The craft beer scene will eventually be merged into the mainstream when it gets too big to be a niche market any more.  After that who knows what will come next.  Keg has been accepted back into the market after years of being derided, what next?

There’s nothing better than a good session of nice beer or cider with family and friends, whether it is at the pub on a Saturday afternoon or at home entertaining guests over a nice meal.    Alcohol, for all the negatives that are wheeled out by the health concerns in this country, is the social glue much of the population still use.  We entertain our guests at home with a 4 pack or bottle of wine, many of us have a weekly run out to the pub with colleagues to enjoy lunch and a pint.  Many sports clubs finish a training session or celebrate post match at the local pub, whilst the same place is usual location for socialising with groups of friends or acquaintances on many occasions.

A session can be anything from a couple of pints upwards, it doesn’t need to be the best beer out there, although that helps.  It’s the company or even the enjoyment of one’s own company that matters.  It can just be a friendly barman or a couple of the regulars who happen to be in the pub at the time, as long as the conversation flows if that is what you want, that is what matters.  The demands on our time mean that for many, there is not the time to enjoy this simple pleasure as much as we would like to.  Speaking personally, it is those small pauses in life that take the sometimes hard edge off life. just stopping for an hour and letting time pass by while you enjoy a pint or two.  Other people have different methods, but whatever your choice, it’s things like this that help the soul restore balance after a hard week.

This view is not reported in the media often now, who would have us believe that alcohol is the root of all evil, with violence in differing settings being blamed on the substance.  As much as I hate to quote the NRA in a positive aspect I will in this case “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, and in the same context, alcohol does not cause social problems, people cause social problems.  Alcohol only allows the human mind to act as it wants to without the self control aspect which is inbuilt to most people.  If you are a quieter person who becomes the gregarious life of the party after a few pints, it is something which is inside you which is being suppressed.  If you become unpleasant when drinking, it is a flaw in your personality which you can control in day to day life, but once the mind becomes uncensored by alcohol, it comes out.   Alcohol is merely a facilitator.

Of course there are genuinely addicted alcoholics (and the same issues exist with drugs, both licensed and illegal) who require a constant supply of alcohol to cope with day to day life, but alcohol is their tool of choice, the path of their life led to their addiction and in other social circles an addiction to alcohol could just as easily been replaced by a dependency on Class A or Class B narcotics.  Some people of course have addictive personalities and are more prone to addiction than others and exposure to any drug, legal or not is probably not the best idea.

If human beings had not invented alcohol, the our ingenuity would have ensured we grew or manufactured a substance to inebriate ourselves and we would be having the same discussions about that now.  For example if cannabis had took alcohols place in history, we’d be having arguments about the definition of “craft pot”, and how the big companies were copying each other by bringing out “fruit infused” variations which all smoked the same, as well as moaning it was taxed too much.  It is human nature to moan and complain as well, an economically useful trait which provides millions of call centre workers with jobs all over the world.

We all, as a race, need a release from life occasionally else we would all go stir crazy.   Native tribes in the Americas use mescal and other similar plant derived drugs to reach a higher place.  Some people do this without substance, but my guess is that most people reading this will enjoy a glass of wine, a gin and tonic, a pint of beer or straight single malt whiskey at some time during the week.  Lets just enjoy that fact and keep ourselves sane, whilst helping those that need it.  It is all about balance, and if our souls can achieve this then life is better.

The headline figure from the 2014 Budget from a drinkers point of view was that beer duty is being cut by 1p a pint, the fuel duty escalator was being officially scrapped and that cider and whisky duty is being frozen.  But if you delved deeper into the figures, the changes are a bit more nuanced than that.

The change in beer duty is changing according to strength and the lower the alcohol levels in the beer the more the tax is being reduced.  Taking the government figure that normal strength beer is cut by 1p a pint, equating to beer duty being cut by 2%, low strength beer duty (below 2.8%) is being cut by 6% or 3p per pint and high strength beers above 7.5% are being cut by 0.4p (duty cut of 0.75%).

The cider rates are staying the same with a premium in duty being charged for sparkling ciders over 5.5%, with a similar premium level kicking in at 7.5% for still ciders.  The difference between normal and high strength still ciders is not insignificant with you paying 34p a pint in duty vs 22p a pint for the weaker variety.  But with sparkling ciders, the gulf is huge, with premium strength paying £1.47 per average pint, whilst normal strength pays the same 22p per pint as still ciders (http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/rates/alcohol-duty.htm, based on 175 pints to a hectolitre, 2013 rates).

Lets look at the reality of all this in the big picture.   Farmers are having a nightmare this year.  In the south, large areas of land are only just re-appearing from the water and are not likely to be producing the same yields of beer creating crops such as hops and barley as they would after a normal winter weather cycle. Across the country, fields are taking longer to be ready for crop seeding after a winter soaking.  The reality is that many of the flooded fields will not be producing any useful crops at all this year.

This is going to push up prices of the raw materials which makes our beer, especially some of the big brands who use British hops for the majority of production.  For those brewers who source more of their hops from the new world and America, the effect is somewhat mitigated, however barley price increase will affect brewers large and small, craft and mainstream on a more consistent basis.  The effect of this cost price increase when it reaches the customer over the summer will more than balance out the cut of between 3p and 0.5p on a pint of beer. Cider makers will be hit by the effects of flooded orchards and damaged trees from the heavy winds over winter.  especially when you consider that the source of much of our cider apples is in the South and South West.

Several pub companies have already promised to pass on the cuts to their pubs in regard to the cost of beer and cider.  Greene King is one of them.  However what they forgot to mention is that each year they increase the price of beer to the tied pubs they lease out by up to double figures in pence.  For example, after the price of beer was cut by 1p in the 2013 budget, Greene King increased the price of beer by up to 11p just a few weeks afterwards.   Other pub companies were not shy in doing something similar.

The amount of corporate and trade backslapping after yesterdays duty cut is totally out of proportion to what has been achieved.  Mike Benner, Chief Executive of CAMRA said “CAMRA is delighted…not only about keeping the price of a pint affordable in British pubs but helping an industry…on its long road to recovery”.  A cut of 1p does not make a pint any more affordable.  I probably drink 500 pints a year (on and off trade), on this basis,  I will save £5 a year or 1½ pints, not exactly a stimulant for trade recovery.  SIBA seem to treat themselves as a one man campaigning machine stating “This evidence of an industry buoyed by the duty cut, which we presented to Government both centrally and locally, through our members’ lobbying of their MPs, is one reason why we have been given what we asked for” .  James Armitage, head of marketing at Enterprise Inn said “This reduction in duty will be welcomed by all of our Publicans not to mention pub-goers across the country.”, but forgot to mention the effects won’t last for long before a nice jump in prices is introduced across the estate.

Lets put this in perspective.  Most other drinks are going up in price, cost of living is not being matched by wages, life is hard for many people, 1p off beer is nothing compared against this  greater problem.

Pubpaper 750 – Favourite Haunts

Posted: 12th March 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

Birthdays always seem to equate to beer, and a good amount of it when it comes to adult birthdays.  I’m one year away from the third big occasion, my 40th, after the big gap between the first two at 18 and 21.  It was my wifes latest turning of indeterminate age last weekend and over the two days I got to visit a number of my favourite pubs across Calderdale and Huddersfield.  Nothing can quite beat a blowout of great beer and good food and probably too much was partaken of both.

Starting out of town, it’s always a pleasure to get to visit the Huddersfield beer triangle which is the Grove, Hand Drawn Monkey and the Sportsman.  The Grove lived up to all expectations with a first taste of Magic Rock Salty Kiss (5%), a sour but delicious raspberry gose beer.  Gose beers originate in Northern Germany and the Low Countries, belonging to the family of sour wheat beers which were traditionally and still are made to a lesser degree in that area of Europe.  The same beer was sampled again later at Hand Drawn Monkey and was just as good there.

The second beer at the Grove was Toccalmatto Oceania, an Italian Saison beer.  Saison beers originated in southern Belgium during the 19th century. They were typically brewed during winter months and stored until summer months when they were given to farm workers in lieu of water.  The long storage means the flavours have variety as the different strains of yeast develop differently and are typically brewed dry with lots of hops and spices to prevent bacteria infection.  The Oceana was an excellent example of the variety and at 7.7% was not lacking in flavour at all, only the call of the curry house stopping a second being ordered.

As a side note, for those that like their curries I can well recommend the Chilli Lounge in Huddersfield for both portions and quality of food, don’t let the apparent size put you off, it is a tardis of a building once inside.  The following day we returned to collect our car and a pint of Black Jack Brewery “Play your Card Rye’t” (4.9%) at the Sportsman was an excellent way to relax after watching the St Patricks Parade.  Its refreshing citrus taste leaving you wanting more if you didn’t have a car to get home.

Hugh, Ruth, Pie, AwardCloser to home was a visit to the Cross Keys, Siddal on Saturday afternoon to see the presentation of the SPBW Yorkshire Winter Pub of the Year 2014.  The SPBW (Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood) is a real ale organisation which predates CAMRA by nearly 10 years.  The award was accompanied by a 14lb pork pie which lasted barely 30 minutes before disappearing into the assembled drinkers and dogs.  The plaque now takes pride of place next to the bar and is well deserved for a pub which has only been open less than 18 months and has assembled a great team behind the bar, which has seen it become one of the best in Calderdale for the range and quality of its beer. As a note I have to say that the SPBW bring a lot of drinkers with them, all proudly sporting the logo on their chest and ensuring they sampled as many of the beers as possible on offer.

Not strictly a real ale pub although they do stock a couple of Ilkley beers most of the time, but one which gets my business purely down to stocking Mahou, a favourite spanish beer is Jeremy’s in Brighouse and a couple of pints of this beer went down well at Saturday tea time as a warm up for the evening in Huddersfield, although the 2 pints I had at the Cross Keys as well maybe warmed me up a bit too much come the end of the night as we returned there for a jug of sangria before heading home.   Add in a quick Friday visit to the Commercial / Railway in Brighouse to catch up with Jason over a nice pint of ale, another pub I’m visiting more and coming to really like.   Decent range of beers, friendly staff and feeling like you are in the landlords front room makes this one of my preferred haunts in the town now.  After a long hiatus I popped into the Ship Inn a few weeks ago and things are looking better, the beer was good, the staff welcoming and friendly and the banter seems to have returned between customers and staff, something which was missing on my last visit.

For a town of Brighouse’s size to have at least 4 pubs worth visiting (inc Wetherspoons) is important, and adds to the attraction for visitors.  Lets hope its kept up.

Pubpaper 749 – Great Heck Batman

Posted: 7th March 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

I’d already missed the start of the Meet the Brewer event with Great Heck Brewery at The Cross Keys, Siddal when I arrived and thus didn’t have the benefit of the earlier talk and the subsequent Q+A.  The combination of a daughter using her ears rather too little and mouth rather too much at a dance lesson and the battle to cram fractional mathematics into her already congested brain cells meant that the night was in full swing by the time I arrived.

Filled with punters enjoying 5 of the brewery’s beers.  Hugh, the landlord, as on most nights off was behind the bar pulling pints as I entered, whilst Denzil, the self titled brewing overlord of Great Heck Brewery was fielding questions and chatting to groups of inquisitive drinkers.  His appearance bearing no resemblance to the poster promoting the event which shows him sporting a moustache that Howard Marks would be proud to put on a passport photo at the height of his smuggling career, only the Great Heck jacket marks out his position in the event.

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Instead we are presented with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall looking character, but food is definitely off the menu, here we are focused on the drinks, those drinks being very good craft beer.  The brewery is based near Selby and is now in its 6th year of trading, producing a range of 13 cask beers, 5 of which are also bottled.  Having tried 9 of these beers personally, I’ve yet to be disappointed.  Their obsession with collecting the best hops from around the world, including America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand brings a very distinct taste experience with each different brew.

This passion comes across when you talk to Denzil, it is all about the quality of the beer, and the fact that his 3 brew, 45 cask a week brewing operation can barely keep up with demand is testament to this.  With plans to expand into new space to allow 5 brews a week and allow more brews to be in stock at any time, the ambition is not lacking.  His deep interest in beer is obvious when chatting about a cask of beer he has at home, discussing a cask of Yamika which wasn’t quite full, topped up with Citra and sealed after adding a handful of fresh hops, he waxes lyrical about the fact despite you can barely see your hand on the other side of the glass, it tastes fantastic.

As I mentioned last week two of my favourite beers so far this year have come from this brewery, these being Black Jesus and Yamika IPA.  Yamika (7.4%) is 5 hopped classic strong pale ale with a great balance of hop bitterness, fruit flavours from the same ingredient with a rich underlying body.  Black Jesus (6.4%) is a black IPA, made with more hops in one barrel than you’d find in an entire years production of John Smiths Smooth.  German malts provide a rich chocolatey undertone.  As I was driving last night, I took the chance to try a couple of their lower strength beers previously un-tasted.  The Blonde (4.3%) is a classic pale ale, easy on the palate but plenty of taste from the range of hops, and one I could happily sup all session.  Dave is a darker bitter, a style I’m not normally attracted to, which gives a nice depth of flavour with a nice amount bitterness and hop flavours sitting on top for its 3.8%.

P1080656_SMALLHis knowledge and interest in the craft beer scene shows as well, when discussing the higher than average prices that smaller operations such as Magic Rock and Summer Wine Brewery (SWB) ask for their beers, he recognises the demand that outstrips the available supply with these companies and the fact that customers are willing to pay more money at the bar for these beers, myself included, means that the market will support these pricing models.  His philosophy is slightly different and this means that for £2.95 you can get a pint of very good 7.4% IPA at the Cross Keys.  When we moved onto the topic of Brewdog, one of the dominant players in the craft beer scene. there is a mutual appreciation of their success, from marketing which consistently works without massive spend, the quality of their production facilities, the roll out of their well received bar chain across the UK and the world and their success in the retail sector.

Denzil and Great Heck have a definite idea of where they are going, and if the ride stays this good, I’m up for a season ticket.

Most people have a way to telling that the warmer, lighter seasons will soon be upon us, whether it be certain birds coming into song, animals coming out of hibernation or simply the fact they leave for work and return home when it is no longer dark.  Me, I know spring and summer are just around the corner when the big breweries launch their latest alcopops and fake “ciders”.  Let me tell you there are no shortage of them this year.

Carling and Stella have some market leading cider brands in Carling Cider and Cidre whilst Bulmers and Magners still command an equally significant share of the market.  The latter two have launched fruit flavoured variations of their core cider products.  The competition for these “fruit ciders” include Rekorderlig and Kopparberg.  Now Heineken are joining this party and launching Old Mout Cider, a brand which has been successful in New Zealand already.  Out in 3 flavours, but not in traditional perry or apple cider form, there is very little to differentiate it from rest of the market.

There is only so much space in the fridges of our pubs and bars and why would you pick this unknown drink when there are so many recognisable brands which can sate your desire for sweet fruit flavoured alcoholic drinks.   It is only when you read that the product is being listed by Enterprise Inns and Punch Taverns that you realise they will aim to challenge the competition by selling volume at a lower price to the two biggest pub companies in the UK and with half an amazon rain forest cut down to produce Point of Sale promotion to support it they may make a some money after spending £3m to launch the product.

Other companies in the market are also joining the band wagon, Carling is launching a blackcurrant version of its 2.8% lager joining its citrus sister whilst Strongbow Dark Fruit (premixed cider and black) is being rolled out nationally.  The question is why is there a herd mentality when it comes to the big brewers.   But first we need to address “fruit cider”.

Cider is pressed apples, perry is pressed pears, you can change the mix of apple or pear varieties, but for a proper cider or perry, that is all that goes into the drink and from this simple premise many cider producers all over the country make excellent examples of this fantastic drink.  Even the big producers like Westons make a really nice range of ciders which are very different from each other.  If you add anything else to a cider, it is an Alcopop, down there with Hooch and WKD.

Going back to the lack of innovation between these big companies, it is the opposite of what is happening in the craft beer market.  There is experimentation with new styles, different hops, the flavourings of the beer.   These flavoured beers are a different beast to the mass produced examples.  The beer has been designed from the ground up to include these flavours, and the correct stage of adding them is carefully considered as well as the correct hops picked to balance the flavours.  Carling Blackcurrant is simply the Carling Citrus production line with the vessel of flavouring syrup swapped over.

Look over the last few years, one of my favourite styles is the Black IPA, a dark drink resembling a stout with roasted malts, but with the drinking quality of light, hoppy refreshing IPA, a great example being Magic Rock 8 Ball and Thornbridge Raven.  Craft brewers have also not been scared about putting out strong beers at 6%+ up to 11% and believe me these are no barley wines.   Again Magic Rock do an excellent example of higher strength in Cannonball, with local rivals Summer Wine Brewery brewing Diablo and Cohort.  However a special mention should go to Great Heck Brewery who have done a couple of my favourite beers this year, Yamika IPA (7.4%) and Black Jesus (6.4%).

Whereas you would have no difficulty telling these beers apart in a blind test, as well as many of beers from other good small independent brewers in West Yorkshire and across the country, if you lined up Rekorderlig, Kopparberg, Old Mout and flavoured Magners or Bulmers and asked people to tell them apart in the same blind test, most people would struggle to tell one from another.  This “me too” attitude just flood the market with clones until most fail and the ones with the strongest marketing campaign survive, and this because the market they are aiming at, the 18-30 year olds who use these drinks as “social glue” have no reason to be loyal, why should you when you can get your same kicks off 5 other products.

The black and white view of the world which is sent out by market research companies being skewed to present the view that was required by the client is something we are all used to.  This week it was claimed that pubs lose £700m in sales by giving out tap water.  The survey was commissioned by a soft drinks company who makes flavoured water with “depth, intrigue and complexity”.   I’ll pull this up on the most obvious point, water is not inherently interesting to drink, it is necessary for us all to survive past the end of the week, so adding hints of a few “zingy” fruit flavours isn’t much of a bonus.

Throughout time people have found ways of making it more interesting, and of course beer is just one of those ways, although an excellent one at that.   There were times when beer was drank by the whole family (with the children having a low strength “small beer”) instead of water because of diseases carried by the native liquid.  Reports say that manual workers in the 18th century were given up to 10 pints of this “small beer” during an average work day to keep them hydrated.

But lets get back to the cynical marketing from Zeo which apparently comes from “the edge of Russia”.  I’ll quote a line from their website “Russia doesn’t dabble in quaint or half-hearted! This is a vast untamed wilderness where wolves and tigers still prowl free, with a reputation as a hot bed of ingenuity, imagination and revolutionary ideals”.   When I think of orange, lime and lemon flavoured water, tigers and bears really are the first thing to jump into my mind.   The only bit of that I agree with is the first 8 words, especially when it has Vladimir Putins’ signature at the bottom of the document.

But look past just this product and the numbers don’t stack up.  They say that 33% of people who ordered tap water were not offered an alternative and would have upgraded and that 45% of those people would stay longer in the pub if they had a better choice of soft drinks.   Most bars now stock J2O, fruit juices and syrup mixers such as Coke and Lemonade, quite a number offering warm drinks as well.  With this choice, why would a flavoured water make £700m difference, it wouldn’t at all.  The second point is people stay in the pub for a reason, whether it be the beer, the wine, the food or the company they are keeping.  It certainly is not for the soft drinks, and lets be frank the company is king, even if you are not with anyone else and drinking solo, the ambiance from the staff and other customers affects your decision to stay.

What else they are ignoring is that there is a requirement in the Licensing Act 2003 (enacted 2010) that tap water be offered free if alcohol is served.  If people want water, they will ask, they have brains to make decisions.  Nobody is that feebly minded they are only having water because they were not offered an alternative.  Finally If I am going to spend £1.50 to £2 on a soft drink, I’m going to get something with a bit of flavour, not pay for what is effectively a pre-mixed fruit cordial where I could buy a splash for a third of the price.

The company behind Zeo, Freedrinks said “A desire for healthier food and drinks, a fall in alcoholic consumption per capita and evidence that people are disappointed with the current soft-drinks offer”.  Lets get a reality check here, most people go to the pub to drink alcohol, whether be a single pint, go on a session, enjoy a bottle of wine or a couple of G+T’s.  Soft drinks, both hot and cold compliment these core offerings, giving a choice to non drinking members of the party and young family members.  If you didn’t want to drink alcohol you would probably go to a coffee shop and judging by the number on our town centre streets, many people do so often.  Coming back to my point earlier, if you are in a pub drinking soft drinks collectively as a party, then the staff, customers or event are what bringing you there, not the drinks.

Pubs, as they are today, came about as there was such a demand for alcohol that the thousands of front rooms in the 18th century being used to serve home made beer needed to be brought under controlled legislation.   People hunt out pubs for their beer, both range and quality, it has always been this way and always will be.  Amen to that.

Pubpaper 746 – Massed Drunks and an Unnecessary Death

Posted: 12th February 2014 by santobugtio in Pub Paper, Writing

Just under a year ago Lancashire Police put out a consultation document regarding the introduction of an Early Morning Restriction Order (EMRO) in the seaside resort of Blackpool.  This would have allowed the Local Authority to introduce restrictive rules regarding sale of alcohol between 3am and 6am in the morning within certain geographical areas or in all areas under their jurisdiction.  Any premises which were not exempted under the EMRO guidelines who served alcohol during this time would have to pay a late night levy which could be made up of processing, admin and enforcement costs.

According to the police statistics, which have so many assumptions, adjustments and estimates in the model it should be filed under the fiction section at the local library (and this is from someone who used to turn similar models into real software), the costs of managing alcohol was £100m in Blackpool in 2010-11.  That is a staggering £715 per head of population when NHS, Crime, Licensing, Workforce and Social Services costs are totted up.    Whilst I have doubt about the final figures they come up with, there is no doubt that their costs will be a lot higher than most other cities and towns.

Let me state my position on the town before I start, Blackpool would be the 10th level of Dantes Inferno if he had written the book 700 years later.   The place has turned from one of Englands biggest and most popular family holiday resorts in the 1950s and 1960s to Stag and Hen night hell most weekends from the 1990s onwards.   The place has an atmosphere about it, mainly made up of cheap fragrance, the smell of vomit and the sweaty burgers which preceded the act.  If you gave me a nuclear bomb with an area of effect of my choice it would be 4 miles by ¾ mile and be exploded just south of Blackpool Tower.  I refuse to even visit the place for the illuminations with my kids.

Here lies Blackpools Issue.  At night, towns like Halifax and Huddersfield attract a mix of drinkers, from older couples, groups out for a good night and real ale aficionados, to the clubbers who inhabit Liquid (more on that later), to those whose whole mission is to pickle their liver as quickly as possible.  The balance between these groups means that for every 100 drinkers, you might get 2-3 who cause problems each night, a number easily managed and contained by the police.  Blackpool gets the last group en masse, for a whole weekend, all day, from all over the north of England and Scotland.

A lot of the sea front bars are marketed at single sex groups out on the beer, happy hours start from 11am, its much easier to find a £2 a pint of Fosters or 3 shots for a fiver offer than it is find a decent beer along the front.   At night you have numerous pubs turning into pseudo-nightclubs where you can carry on drinking until the sun comes up in the middle of summer.   If you were truly dedicated, you could drink in licensed premises in this town for 20 hours non stop.  The town is predisposed to attract those who just want to drink until they can do it no more.    You feel this in the air late at night, when the atmosphere balances on a knife edge between good natured banter between groups and an all out group fight breaking out.  Add the fact that its two nearest cities, Manchester and Liverpool, have a history of rivalry regarding their football teams and too often it tips the wrong way.

Would 3am – 6am controlled drinking fix this, of course not, those people who are going cause trouble will have done it well before this window kicks in and been dragged home by mates to their hotel, or alternatively be sleeping off the night in the drunk tank.   The Blackpool Local Authorities last week rejected the Lancashire Police EMRO proposal, probably coming to the same conclusion that it would not make any significant difference in their alcohol related costs.  A sensible decision, but one which still leaves them the problem of dealing with a serious drinking problem in the town.

Drink related tragedy can strike anywhere, and the death of Andrew Feather at Liquid last week proves this.  I didn’t know the guy, but knew people who did, but he seems a well balanced, well liked member of the local Rugby Union community who seemed to be enjoying life. On a night out with friends he was attacked by a 25 year old who has now been arrested, reports say he went down out cold from a punch and never recovered.   A sad loss to friends and family which should never have happened.