Monday, 9 July 2018

Victorian Protein Shake IPA

Back in March, I wrote about brewing with Moorhouses, and how I'd tasted the wort of our soon-to-be brown ale and called it a "Victorian Protein Shake". It made sense to me - it tasted filling and sweet, and full of old-fashioned nutrition. Like a strongman would down a pint of it every morning with a dozen eggs before heading off to lift anvils over his head. Then, Steve from Beer Nouveau decided that this was actually an excellent name for a beer.

I headed down to Beer Nouveau's Temperance Street brewery in Manchester back in March to bring this idea to life. The brewery's focus on heritage ales and recipes from the past suited the project perfectly, because making a Victorian Protein Shake requires a real Victorian recipe, and all-Victorian ingredients. Both of which were plentiful here. Steve's enthusiasm for ye olde ales(e) meant that for weeks prior to my visit he'd been busy finding recipes to work with.

When I arrived, he poured me a glass of Bygge Bere, a gruit made with six-row bere grain (a heritage grain grown exactly the same way it would have grown 1200 years ago) and meadowsweet to a Viking recipe dug out by Archaeologists on Orkney. It was totally unlike anything I'd ever tasted before and it took a few sips to understand what I was drinking. One I got the hang of it - much easier than you'd expect - it went down easily, hiding its AVB well with a little sweetness. I felt like a historian. It set the tone for the day well.

So, I looked over the notes Steve had made about recipes he'd been researching and we decided on a splicing of two recipes - one for a traditional Victorian IPA, and one for a New England IPA that added wheat and flaked oats to the mash and plenty of American dry hop to finish. Also, because we needed to replicate the hop degradation rate of  authentic Victorian IPAs without casking it for 18 months, we looked at other ways to create this effect - drying it out with brett and amending the recipe to suit a much shorter storage time of a couple of months.

Brewing at Beer Nouveau also means being lucky enough to utilise some of the brewery's specialist Chevallier Nouveau grain - a grain that's actually unique to Beer Nouveau. For any nerds reading this who are interested in this sort of thing, it's a blend of Chevallier malt and a malt that's been kilned at the right 1846 pattern especially for Beer Nouveau. Hence the name "Nouveau".

This splicing would jump from the origins of the style to the modern day in one fell swoop, with no messing about in the middle bits. We were excited about this. It might go horribly wrong.

Grain bill
Chevallier - Nouveau: 16kg
Wheat: 1.30kg
Flaked oats: 1.30kg

Boil Hops
Goldings: 150g
Fuggles: 150g
Cluster: 150g

Hop Stand Hops
Cluster: 200g

Dry Hop Hops
Cluster: 150g

As you can see, this beer was hoppy af. We step mashed it, and then for a rest, tried some of Origami Brewing's Fortune Teller, as Pam who had brewed it popped in. As a cuckoo brewery, Origami sometimes operate from the Beer Nouveau arch (which also explains the hundreds of origami cranes in rainbow colours hanging from the tap room ceiling.) It was a bright, crisp pale, with plenty of hop to kick start my wearing mashing arms again after a quick break.

Unfortunately for me, here's where my involvement ends - I had to dash off across town to catch a rail replacement bus (thanks a lot Northern Rail) and left Steve to finish the job. Sorry Steve.

Over the weeks, exciting developments were Tweeted to me. By all accounts, Victorian Protein Shake was developing well, and gaining some slightly unexpected flavours. After crash cooling a month after we brewed it, Steve kegged it and left it to age for a month, upon which it developed a mad bitterness and wood-age taste "like licking a plank". We decided to keep it ageing until the Manchester Beer Week Temperance Street Party, on the last Saturday of Manchester Beer Week.

As it turned out, this was an excellent idea because England were playing in the quarter finals of the World Cup, everyone was in a great mood, the tap room was packed, the Temperance Street Party was a total blast and I was able to force as many people as possible to drink it.

But what did it taste like?

Let me tell you first that I was extremely impressed with us both. Although all I really did was stir the mash and give some ideas at recipe development stage, I was chuffed to bits with what I was calling "my beer".

It was darker in colour than an IPA (so you could mark it down for that if you wanted) but the taste was really well-rounded and full of grassy, juicy notes. Add to that an underpinning bretty dryness and we basically nailed exactly the type of beer I'm enjoying at the moment. We were both very happy with the result.

We were also very happy with the football result too.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Describing Beer

I want to start off by saying this: I am not interested in starting another "define craft" debate. At all. In fact, I can think of a million other things I'd rather do, and topping that list is being chased down the Amazon by a hungry caiman, or having dinner with a drunk and handsy Nigel Farage.

What I am interested in, however, is what we call our beer. I started this week off with a poll, because nobody likes working on Mondays.

What I tried to find out is whether people in industry use this term regularly, or if it's become shorthand for something else. Those of you who know me will be well aware of my geeky love for words and how, over time, they stretch and adapt to suit different uses, sometimes changing their own definition entirely in common parlance. It turns out that it's a fairly even distribution of people avoiding it but occasionally finding no suitable alternative, and people who use it because that's what the beer they like is called (to them). Interesting.

"Craft beer" has become something of a sticking point for many drinkers. As you'll see from some of the comments, a couple of people took offence to the question. "Beer is beer!" is the bellowing cry from those who'd just like to drink and for everybody to shut up about it. And fair enough. Beer, to the majority of people who drink it, is simply beer. Now go and get us a packet of pork scratchings.

It's a convenient phrase though, especially if you're looking to describe a different type of beer to someone who might not be familiar with it. Saying "it's just beer" is true, and all well and good, but offering a passionfruit gose to a person who understands "beer" to be either Fosters or a pint of bitter will leave them confused, stunned, and no doubt disgusted. It's about context, but it's also about understanding.

I hear this a lot. In the pub, there are customers who see ale, lager and beer as different things. I look at it like the dinner/lunch/tea conundrum. Words that can be synonymous to some have a totally different meaning to others. When you say "buttery" to me, I immediately think of a delicious Aberdeen rowie. Can't help it. It's how I'm made. So, to one person, beer and lager might be identical, but for another, beer is only that frothy stuff from the hand pull. Another person might only call that bitter, no matter what it is. You see how this is difficult to pin down?

Like Mike here, I'm going through the same process. I used to use the term all the time, thinking it was the correct way to describe the beers I was drinking - particularly since they were new and totally different to any other beers available to me in rural Lancashire. Then I got more interested in beer, and more involved with the industry, and realised actually calling craft beers "craft beer" was a bit lame. Like calling punk "punk rock" or wearing all your festival bands until they fall off. I fell out of love with the term, because like a lot of people, it was better to call it "beer". Now that <INSERT DESCRIPTIVE TERM> beer is more popular than ever in the UK, I'm struggling to think of euphemisms for it to distinguish it from the beer we're used to. In the pub I work in, for example, people have a better idea of what "craft beer" is than if I was to say "hazy double dry hopped IPA" (although this is changing slowly.)

Ah yes, "craft ale". The sulphurous spectre that won't leave the room after four exorcisms and an entire sage-burning purge festival. The main reason I try not to use the term "craft beer" is because it in some way links itself to the meaningless non-phrase that is "craft ale" - a term made up by supermarkets and big breweries to shift bottles of Old Crafty Hen to unwitting customers who just want to choose something nice. A hideous, lumbering monster made from odds and ends found in a skip outside the independent brewing scene's HQ, the term "craft ale" is one thing we can all rally against. It means nothing. Real ale means exactly the same thing its trying to convey, and in fact is much more meaningful. Plus - get this - people actually know what it is. "Craft ale" is something said on adverts on the Dave channel and we should ignore it until it goes away and takes its steampunk pocketwatch and jemble vocabulary with it.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the word "craft" became meaningless. In shops, "craft beer" is now used as a synonym for "quality", "handmade" or even "luxury" - the words used in food and drink marketing to bump prices up and "help" customers choose "better" items for themselves. Unfortunately this has started to make instances of hearing people say things like "I don't drink any crap, I drink craft beer" more regular and I hope everyone who made this happen's offices are far to hot this week. Conversely, it's giving the impression that craft beer isn't available to everyone, which is damaging.

So what do we call it then? If "craft beer" is out the window, do we start describing beers as they taste? This article from Cara Tech certainly thinks so, and even maps out a potential system for describing beer styles at the bar. The one hitch is that it would need to be universal, and implementing that would be a logistical nightmare. Just imagining trying to convince some of our customers that what they want is actually a mildly-balanced, straw coloured 3.8 per center is making me break out in a cold sweat. If we could get past that, it's a good first stab at solving the issue of having no fricking idea what to call the drinks we're drinking.

Other than "beer".

If you enjoyed this blog post, please consider supporting me with a tip via Ko-Fi or Paypal. Every tip I receive for my work is put towards beer-related research and training. (I'm currently saving up to begin my Cicerone qualifications.)

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Selling out, and other bad words

Today, there was some news that everybody knew was coming. Despite denials and backlash for around a month, we've all kindof known that B-town were getting into some sort of investment opp with Heineken. I don't even know why I knew that. I guess I'm on Beer Twitter too much.

It's lovely to report that people have generally been pretty supportive of Beavertown and the people who work there - particularly Kamilla who manages their social outreach and can't have had an easy day. Being that I've spent my day writing an extremely boring SEO article I feel like I've been on the front lines of a breaking story, following the tweets as they happened, interested to see what the consensus would be. After all, I know bugger all about business, and I've got precious little to say about corporate buyouts. All I wanted to know was: would people care? And if so, how much?

One of the first visceral negative reactions was by Cloudwater, who, disgusted by what they saw as blatant "selling out", withdrew their attendance from Beavertown Extravaganza 2018.
Then I saw this - which I will admit, made me laugh, if only for what I perceive to be total hypocrisy and opportunism.

I've been attempting to understand this stance and I think what I'm getting from it is - independent breweries should always remain independent. They should gain their investment through non-macro methods, and the ultimate aim should be to grow naturally as the brewery expands, rather than view it as a business to be expanded or an investment opportunity to be exploited.

Okay. But whether breweries like it or not, they are making and selling a product and paying wages, and bending to supply and demand. A non co-op brewery is not at it's heart a revolutionary enterprise. Once it begins to grow, more staff need paying, more equipment needs replacing, more costs are incurred. Growth begins to bring in fewer returns. Soon, you need more investment. Of course, some breweries manage this just fine with crowdfunding, but just how many drinkers are willing to pay their good money to help people they don't know build their dreams? And when will kickstarter fatigue kick in?

"The notion of selling out is such a quaint one, after all. At what point does one actually sell out? ...I wasn't keeping it real declining their offers... I was just too narcissistic and loved myself a little too much to be able to handle waking up in the morning, looking in the bathroom mirror - and seeing the guy from TV. I knew I wasn't saving my cherry for principle. I'd just been waiting to lose it to the right guy." - Anthony Bourdain

I guess I've just never really cared as much as I should about the plight of small brewers versus the vulturous swoopings of Big Beer. I know this is sacrilegious, but I'm being honest; this being an opinion piece after all. Maybe it's because when I began being interested in the industry, everyone was over the tough times. It's been a veritable fiesta of good beer and fruitful collaborations ever since I've known it, with new breweries reaching into the spotlight of a nourishing, welcoming industry environment. People have learned to support their local brewers and champion the little guy. Part of that has been through the banishment of the big guys, yes, but as far as I've seen it from my little Northern part of the world, big and small have begun to co-exist well. The main issue we've had recently is CAMRA's continuing refusal to give keykeg a chance - a throwback to when times really were hard for the little guy, this is now actively excluding some independent brewers from events and the like. Ironic, isn't it?

I suppose, as James Beeson points out in this much more accomplished piece on the subject, it's a question of credibility. Will joining forces with Heineken, even as a minority stakeholder, damage Beavertown's credibility as an independent brewer? I'd like to point out two things from my own personal experience:

1. People at the pub I work at already started telling me they thought Neck Oil's recipe had changed around a month ago, and would not be consoled or appealed to under any circumstances. This is, obviously, total nonsense. I get the feeling some of the nastier know-it-alls had heard half the story we'd all heard and told the well-meaning indie supporters some BS that it was now being made at a Macro Brewery.

2. Beavertown beers have paved the way for most of the other independent breweries being drunk in Clitheroe. If Neck Oil and Gamma Ray did not exist, I sincerely doubt many of our locals would be trying - and enjoying - half of the interesting beers from all over the country we get in now. They are hugely popular here in the Ribble Valley and I'm not sure many drinkers would care about the beers' provenance even if I told them Vladimir Putin made it in his bathtub.

Credibility is a rocky road. On the one hand, building a brand at the end of it leads to total consumer loyalty. On the other, any wavering from the path of righteousness can see customers not only feeling disappointed, but cheated. Worse - they feel that they've been taken for a ride. From my first point, it's clear that some people will never feel right drinking beers brewed in conjunction with one of the Big Boys. Fair enough. For me, I don't feel like Beavertown have ever made me feel like their brand was based on simple, homespun socialism anyway. As long as I've understood that they were different from the rest of the breweries on the market - and they are, in my opinion - they've made great beers, they've concentrated on expanding that side of the business (even closing Duke's Brew and Cue to make beer their number one brand priority) and they've grown consistently. Even knowing their first beer were made on a stovetop, that doesn't make me feel like I want them to return to those roots. They're just a business with a unique, in-demand product coping and benefitting from that demand. Why wouldn't they look for external investment to grow? Reminder - businesses are supposed to make profit. And sorry to break it to you, but breweries are businesses. I'm not saying I agree with the model, I'm just saying that that's how things work here in Capitalism Land.

The amount of small brewers I've spoken to who cite Beavertown's success story as one of their inspirations for getting started is uncountable. Admittedly, I have discalculia. In my extremely humble opinion, we can all stop Holden Caulfielding them. They aren't phony. They're a big reason why the UK's indie beer scene has continued to flourish, and why more people than ever are trying different beers all over the country.

Also, fuck Holden Caulfield. Worst literary character in history.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Slaynt Vie - Drinking at The Isle of Man TT 2018

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin
(Good health, a long life, a wet mouth, and death in Mann)

When I raised my plastic pint glass in celebration outside The Railway Inn in Union Mills, there were plenty of reasons why. For one thing, we'd made it: our four hour early-am ferry ride over the Irish sea was over, our tent was up, we'd napped, showered, eaten bacon and egg butties from a van and walked until we found a pub. For another, a stunt team had arrived out of nowhere on an army of Honda c90s, and proceeded to race up the steps of that same pub, through the bar and into the beer garden out the back. In general though, I felt elated that I was here, on this island, with thousands of other people just as excited to be there as I was.

A man driving into a pub on a Honda c90

The Railway Inn sits on the elbow of Union Mills, the first right-handed bend before a swift S on a busy 30mph road just before the local Methodist church and the old post office. Usually steady with traffic moving to-and-from Peel, today nobody's on it. We're not even allowed to step on the pavement. The sun has strengthened to a midday sizzle in a stonewashed denim sky. Red and white crash barriers, hot to the touch, stand between us, Victorian stone walls and the road. A set of yellow crowd control bars have been shifted to block off a connecting minor junction, to state in full-colour that we are not to leave our temporary island, and that we should stay here, where it's safe, where we can be out of the way, and where we're in close proximity to good beer, clean toilets and burgers with fried onions. We tune in our radios to the local station as heat shimmers over the tarmac and we listen for the first chupa-chupa-chupa of the press helicopter, announcing the advance of today's heroes.

I knew as soon as I arrived at The Railway that it would end up in my heart. What you'd call a "proper" pub, its white walls reminded me of the Lake District, much like the endless country roads across the island lined with rhododendrons blooming in pink and purple, and hornbeams growing across the road in high, green archways. Inside, the stone flagged floor and comfy lounge rooms made me briefly wish for snow, so the fireplaces could be lit. One of the rooms had a TV, reserved for Moto GP and British Superbikes and it was packed with bikers ready to move out of my way at any moment. And the loos - clean, airy, bright and with the day's racing piped through the speakers, they were a chilled haven. Any person visiting the toilets at The Railway will tell you the same. I mention it because it's important. The owners could easily let them fall to ruin and they'd still have thousands of visitors every TT season, but they don't. They care. That's a glaring sign of a good pub.

The beers on offer were all TT-specific and named to suit the island's 40,000 motorbike fanciers who would visit over the main three weeks of practice races and main events. I did my best to try them all for the sake of fair journalism and I can say quite confidently that I didn't have a bad beer on the Isle of Man. This is mostly thanks to two local breweries on the island, The Hooded Ram and Bushy's who between them had an excellent selection of bitters, IPAs, dark ales and even a delicious lager with just enough yeastiness to make me happy by Bushy's called Norseman, which went perfectly with a seaside sit-down on my third worse-for-wear day.

Repping Manx Radio TT and 100 other local businesses with my snazzy Norseman cup

I found out while I was over there that the Isle of Man has its own purity laws brought in by the founder of local brewery Okells, dating back to 1874, allowing only malt, water, sugar, hops and yeast. While they were amended in 1999 to allow local breweries to make wheat and fruit beers, the law is maintained to ban the use of preservatives. Interestingly, this means for the most part, locals drink local ale as a matter of course. Manx people are fiercely patriotic about their beautiful little island. The beers aren't dull, either. My favourite from my entire trip was Conrod by The Hooded Ram, a beautifully hoppy IPA with citrus notes that went perfectly with the freak heatwave. I mentioned in my usual, delicate way that it might actually be even more delicious with a bit of a carbonated kick and they replied:
A bit of an explanation then: a con rod connects the piston to the crank shaft in an engine. This beer was also made by Manx rider Conor Cummins, who races for Padgetts and also gets called Conrod from time to time. See, when they make Liberty East Coast Pale at this time of year, it's a biker pun for the TT Races! And also, I was right, it is nice when it's fizzy.

The beers weren't named after bike parts and racers just for the fun of it - Bushy's and The Hooded Ram take an active interest in the TT Races, sponsoring events on Douglas promenade and helping the local pubs take advantage of the influx of thirsty mainlanders from all over the world. Bushy's beer tent on Douglas prom has been a TT staple as long as anyone can remember, but now they have their own Bushy's Village, with an even bigger beer tent, merch, and a huge stage for bands and food stalls. Bushy's has a big biker following and maintained the feel of a bike rally well, even considering the outdoor Victorian winter gardens location. I felt like I was back at the Bulldog Bash, grinning uncontrollably at men with big bushy beards in leather pants trying to eat a 99 without losing credibility.

Bushy's Beer Tent as it was in 2016 (Photo courtesy of Bushy's history page)

Bushy's Village now - there's a giant stage behind that big beer tent too.

One of the most prominent features of Douglas seafront during my stay was the Hooded Ram festival area, with live music and stunt shows taking over the main road and prom for the whole TT season. As every performer and stunt rider was contractually obliged to state, it was entirely down to The Hooded Ram and its investors that such a large event should be able to happen in Douglas - which for the rest of the year is as much of a semi-deprived seaside town as Blackpool. While the marketing was aggressively overt, there was no denying that this was a local brewery sharing its wealth with the town it came from. Which I liked to see very much.

For me, this trip to the TT meant a lot. I'd not visited since I was six and there was so much I hadn't understood or had forgotten. The atmosphere of togetherness was pretty intoxicating, and very unexpected. But, I guess if you force several thousand people with one common interest into a couple of small towns far out at sea, it's not going to be long before they're all getting drunk together.

And at The Railway, getting drunk with strangers was easy and fun, in the way that you wish every trip to the pub could be when you're in the mood. I was there for the bikes, and the riders, but I didn't expect the pubs to be such a huge part of what made my trip so unforgettable. When I look back, I'll think about meeting Peter Hickman and seeing Dean Harrison win Supersport race 2, but I'll also think about standing out of the front of that pub with a crowd of people, hemmed in by barriers, sun on my face, factor 50 in my eyes, anticipating the next rider, feeling the squeeze of my heart as the radio announces another sector record, pint of Bushy's Shuttleworth Snap tightly clutched. And that's why we've already booked our seats on the ferry next year.

Here's to TT 2019. I can't wait.

If you've reached the end of this blog post and are surprised that you enjoyed reading about motorbikes, why not let me know? I would very much appreciate a financial nod in the form of a Ko-Fi. Everything donated via this method goes towards my endless pursuit of beer knowledge. This time, I'm saving up for my Cicerone course. Thank you very much!

Friday, 27 April 2018

Pub Culture Songs: Same Old Thing

If there's one thing I love, it's music that tells a story. As a kid, I always loved songs that put me in a totally different place and made me think about things - things like lust and nightclubs and fit girls and something hiding in the woodshed - I'd never heard of before.

This love has endured and now I'm in my 31st year of life, I still love a song that takes me somewhere I didn't intend to go. There's something totally transportive in hearing an embellished anecdote disguised by the artist as a tune. It's like peeking round the kitchen door in their house and hearing them chat to their mate about it on the phone. I always feel like I'm there in their imagination with them, seeing what they saw, indulging in the little exaggerations they've added to make it a more interesting tale. All the best storytellers do it. I first noticed it as a 7 year old when I heard Disco 2000 for the first time and assumed it was about people at my school meeting in Lancaster "by the fountain down the roaaaa-hoad." Jarvis Cocker became a beanpole Shakespeare to me, before I understood what Shakespeare really was, telling me about the squirming, bawdy underbelly of life and how it could be revelled in, showing me the human experience before I'd even turned 8.

I had another such revelation when I was 16 and over my metal-only phase and Mike Skinner entered my life. A man intent on telling the stories of his resolutely average life in full, flashing neon, I ate Original Pirate Material like a meal every day for a year. It was so refreshing to me, to hear the everyday in such blunt and brilliant terms, patched right from one brain to mine.

In particular, I loved The Streets' central themes of dossing about in the pub. Every day was the same, but different, and most of them ended draining pints or cans, depending on how skint he was. When I left home at 17, I could suddenly relate hard.

Who's round is it?
Down that beer quick, smash my glass back down
Fall over the table, all rowdy and pissed
Seems the only difference between mid-week shit
And weekend is how loud I speak

When Thursday beers down the pub (it's the quiz!) turn into a cheeky couple on a Tuesday (rude not to, the pool table's only 30p) become your life, it's easy to turn your local's lounge into your own front room, meeting your mates there every day for crisps and shit-talk. You're not necessarily there for the beer, it's just somewhere to be, something to do, but you're appreciative of it all the same. It loosens up the grip of boredom. Makes it feel like you're making sense of the world.

Pick a bottle off the table, peel the label, tell a fable

Time moves differently in your local, a fact Mike Skinner knows too well. The last pint always ends up penultimate. No matter your intentions, no matter how much time you spend in there, you're somehow always there too long, running late for some prior engagement, nefarious or otherwise.

Gotta see a man about a dog, can't be late, I'm always late
Raining cats and fog but nice and dry in the Black Dog
Down it in one, my son
Can't sit here, gotta run, things need done

You hate the boredom of the place, but it's an extension of your home too. A shelter from the shitty, grey world outside, somewhere where there's always somebody to listen to your thoughts, no matter who they are. Leaving's a wrench, especially on a wet Thursday, even when all you have in there is the sound of the fruities and enough change for another two Carlings. Mike's adept at talking about male loneliness and depression and I think although this tune is more a tongue-in-cheek look at wasting your life down the Dog, there are aspects of these themes surfacing. As they do in life. That's why I like him. He's so good at what he does.

Apparently there's a whole world out there somewhere
(It's right there, right there)
I just don't see it, I just don't see it

What I love most about "Same Old Thing" is the monotony dredged right up from his tarry lungs. But even inside that loop of stabby strings (used throughout the album - he loves a bit of classical drama does Mike) there's a glint of comfort. He likes the familiarity of his everyday - moaning about nothing changing in your own shithole town is just a pastime. You might mean it, but you're not changing it anytime soon. You're not trapped, you're just... Anyway, who's getting the next ones?

If you like The Streets, please read this fantastic interview with Rut Blees Luxembourg, the photographer and artist whose work "Towering Inferno" was used as the album art for Original Pirate Material. Her insights are extremely on point.

If you like me and my writing, please consider buying me a pint via my Ko-fi page. It really puts me in a good mood!

Monday, 16 April 2018

Stropping off: Wetherspoon's decision to quit social media

I've decided to call any company's snap decision to quit social media as "stropping off", a term that simultaneously combines the banal act of logging off from social media with being loud about your reasons for doing it in an entirely tiresome way. Wetherspoon's Tim has decided it's their prerogative to be the first in what he sees as a tidal wave of businesses quitting Facebook and Twitter for good; a great example to put my new phrase into context.

He's decided once and for all that his company doesn't need social media to succeed, a decision that no doubt suits since I'd wager it was highly unpopular with him to begin with. Like many large businesses, social media at Wetherspoon's was at best a direct complaints network, used by customers to air grievances about 75p surcharges for poached eggs and to ask where missing items from redesigned menus had disappeared to. Their Twitter account never really became the hub of pro-Wethers activity the company had no doubt hoped it would be, and with managers of each individual pub being given the task of running individual accounts too on top of their regular floor and bar duties, there was no real sense of cohesion. Without proper company-wide training and a level of respect and time given to digital marketing, this was a project doomed to fail.

That's the thing about social media marketing though. If you only use it because everyone else is, you shouldn't be on it. Get far away from it. Go outside. Paint a noticeboard and hand out flyers, they'll proabably be far more useful to you. If you see social media marketing as a hindrance and an exercise in time wasting, as Wetherspoon's Tim has said in a recent statement, you're not doing it right. Get somebody in who understands how to use it effectively and who can give you statistical proof of its effectiveness each month. Train your staff to be able to do this and give them the time to do the job properly, or get rid of your platforms. After years of one star Facebook reviews getting ketchup all over his page, he's chosen the latter.

As a former Wetherspoon's employee and a freelance content marketer, I feel like I can say with some confidence that I know where this went wrong. It was the moment that Tim thought Facebook was a totally free marketing tool where visitors to his pubs could frolic freely amongst themselves, liking photos of Steak Night plates with genuine enthusiasm, sharing anecdotes from their most recent #spoonssesh until they went viral. It could have been glorious. Oh what a cruel mistress the reality of online marketing truly is.

Everything comes at a price. Twitter might be free to use, but the daily cost of seeing highly visible negative #content pile up like dirty all-day breakfast plates is too much for some companies, especially if they're not well versed in social media crisis management. In an age when everyone has a camera and access to the entire world in their pocket, you're going to need to be around to see what they say and to counter any bad feeling with an appropriate response. By getting rid of his accounts, Tim has effectively cancelled Wetherspoons online, and opened up the door to a thousand unfunny hoax accounts, the lowest form of Twitter wit.

It takes time and effort to run a successful business social media account, and rather than being an idle pursuit for the terminally bored and lazy, it's becoming ever more complicated. Customers want to engage, but in very specific ways often known only to them and working it out takes longer than typing out "Happy hump day!" and hitting send. Sadly I presume most of the team leaders tasked with creating online 'Spoons microclimates were given roughly four seconds per shift to do so. In fact, this quote from his official statement says it all:
"We were... concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers" - Tim Martin, from an official statement, 15.04.18
If your boss feels part of your job isn't "real work", of course it's going to take a lower priority than wiping the bar down every 30 seconds. After all, if you're leaning, you should be cleaning; not interacting directly with your customers.

Essentially, I feel like this decision has been made bullishly and with little regard for how much being able to update the work Instagram account made people's jobs a little bit more enjoyable. By claiming Wetherspoon's withdrawal from social media is due to a backlash against the unhealthy nature of social media is quite hilarious. How many people have complained that they wished they could delete their Facebook app but simply couldn't afford to miss the latest news from their favourite chain-owned local? At least we've still got Carpets of Spoons to keep us company.

Quotes pulled from Tim's statement and how I chose to translate them:

"We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business."

"I have been told by a number of paid professionals that digital marketing can be incredibly effective, but quite frankly what with GDPR and other things cropping up that I don't have the time to get to grips with, I don't care. It's all millennial nonsense. Get rid."

"I don't believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever."

"It's laughable that anyone could say that not being part of something sad people do instead of going to the pub could ever affect my business. What's a Twit anyway? Who wants to see what Stormy had for breakfast? Bloody hell, I think I know what's best for my business, not the people I paid to do my market research."

"...This is the overwhelming view of our pub managers"

"We asked our pub managers if they felt that updating their pub's social media accounts and dealing with complaints took up a considerable amount of their time, and they agreed."

"If people limited their social media to half an hour a day, they'd be mentally and physically better off."

"Everyone is on their phones these days instead of talking to each other. Really talking to each other. Really getting to grips with each other's psyches. Reaching into the depths of human existence until it stares back at them, the maw of eternity at their feet, willing them to take one step further into the abyss; endless, endless blackness engulfing them, until they are nothing more than the atoms they were formed from at the dawning of creation. And if they could do that at their local Wetherspoon's over a bottle of Villa Maria and two orders of scampi and chips, so much the better."

"It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion."

"People don't know what's best for them. They are lucky that somebody like me is out there telling them what to do so they can be better citizens."

If you enjoyed reading this bit of pseudo-analysis fun, why not take a quick look at my Ko-Fi page, where you can support me as a writer by giving me a tip? Think of it like busking, only I'm not playing the bagpipes and you've chosen to come here and read my post all the way to the bottom. Thanks!

Thursday, 12 April 2018

What was the first beer you drank?

It's a simple question, unless you're being asked it point blank on live radio. There should be a simple answer - some small glint laying there in the past that points towards the moment you decide, "this is mine."

Well, sometimes you don't want to share that moment. Maybe it's private. But then maybe you feel self-conscious, because it's only beer after all, and the person was only asking to be polite. So you make something up. I do that a lot. Then, the made-up version becomes the truth and I tell it easily. So on the radio, I heard myself tell a story that wasn't true, but I'd said it with such ease that I'd believed myself. And that's why I've decided to take some time to get to the bottom of it. What got me interested in beer? And while we're at it, when did I first drink it?

The funny thing about beer is that, for me at least, it's deeply personal. Beer is a social lubricant and for most people, it comes hand in hand with the most social of our situations - the pub. When I talk about my enjoyment of beer, I'm simultaneously discussing my love of pub culture, which in turn encapsulates a love of people, their stories and their own individual lives. To me, you can't separate the two. That's why it's difficult to unearth the truth about what interested me in it. I'm having to dive deeper than my first pint. It's far more ingrained than that.

And this is where it gets personal. Was my first positive experience of beer in the warmth of a local bar? Or was it with friends at the park? No, I think it was earlier than that. The metallic smell of cheap lager and the sound of cans being drained and crushed is wrapped around some of my earliest memories like fishing line. Those cans, enjoyed in the sun on some camping field at a bike rally - maybe Kent Custom Bike Show, maybe the Bulldog Bash - were a sign of relaxation. Holiday time. I'm trying to think of any moments when the adults in my life drank in front of me other than this, and besides maybe the odd pint in a pub, I'm struggling to recall. I knew they did, when they headed out to Town, or stayed in with the mysterious Jack Daniels that sat on the high countertop, but I didn't see them drink it. I just knew it.

Because of this, I think, beer has never left a shadow hanging over my life, and I feel lucky for that. I've maintained a cheerfully positive view of alcohol throughout my life. Nevertheless, it's always been present, as I'm sure it has for many, and there was never any doubt that I'd be a beer drinker.

I feel like I'm not being totally honest. I can't get nostalgic without talking about something I never talk about, and so far I've been extremely evasive. One of the reasons I hate answering the question "when did you first drink a beer?" is because it's an intimate family portrait of a girl and her father. They're sat at a small, round table in a pub, and she's taken a gulp of his Guinness while he'd turned his head. He's laughing. She's grimacing.

I don't speak to my dad. I know where he lives, I know what he looks like and I know his phone number, but we've been estranged since I was 14 years old. If he saw me in the street, he wouldn't recognise me. I know this because he's walked past me before, without a flicker of recognition. I talk about him in the past-tense, because he's a man I used to know, a long time ago, when cans of Boddingtons in fields of tents with family friends dressed in ripped denim and fringed leather were the exciting normality of my life. He's the man who shaped my taste in music and gave me a short temper, a mean streak and an interest in garages full of motorbike parts. If he ever comes up in conversation, I stick to the safety of my past-tenses and hope this pointed grammatical quirk underlines my desire to never mention him again.

The thing is, he does get mentioned again. In everything I do, there's always a memory of him, or an imagined memory of him, that begins to surface. So now that beer is something I really care about; a topic I enjoy learning; an industry I can see myself trying harder and harder to gain purchase in, naturally his influence, however tenuous, begins to show itself. And for so long I was doing this by myself, totally for myself, and that was fantastically freeing. But now, in my head, he's back.

"When did you first drink a beer?"

I first drank a beer with my dad. I used to steal the foam from the top of his pint with my tiny fingers, hoping that this time it would have developed a delicious, vanilla-cream flavour to match the texture my eyes had already tasted. This is one of the only good memories I have of him, and I'm choosing to share it, because beer is something I love and I'm not letting sad old thoughts attach themselves to it.

The first beer I ever drank was a Guinness, during a stolen moment between a man and his daughter. Over the thousands of times I've recalled that scene, it's been worn to a polish. Now what I have instead of a first drink is a loaded image of a table in a pub. We probably all have one. That's one of the things about beer though, isn't it? That it's so very, very personal.

I was inspired to write this because of Drinks Maven's amazing recent piece for Original Gravity. If you enjoyed reading this piece, please consider buying me a pint over on ko-fi. It really is appreciated!