Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look

The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

“The third thing is that younger people coming into the market want something that is a bit tastier than the lager market that they’ve left, but they want it to be pretty easy-drinking, the majority of them. They want something that tastes good, not something that needs chewing. That’s where the role of Greene King IPA comes in. There is a real role for a brand to play in the market, one that represents the safe choice when you enter into a product category that’s new to you, one that won’t let you down, that represents taste that is relatively easy drinking versus some of the 20,000-odd beers that you can have in the UK. With Greene King IPA, our simple strategy is to bring many more young people into our brand and the market, and also to stand for a signpost to quality, trust and assurance for people who might be about to come into the market.

Pint of IPA“When we tested ourselves against those key things that young drinkers want, ‘Does it look and feel right for me, make me want to drink it?’, ‘Is it good quality, not going to let me down?’, and three, ‘Is it easy to drink, and something you’d want to have as your first drink?’, we were really excited by the results. We found the number one reason for people drinking Greene King IPA, time after time, is the fact that it’s easy drinking. I know a few people give it a hard time because it’s easy to drink – that’s its strength, that’s its role in the market. It’s the first drink I would recommend to someone if it’s their first time drinking cask ale, because it won’t let them down and it’s not too challenging. We did a load of blind taste tests and Greene King IPA, when it’s served right, is absolutely up there with the world’s largest cask ale brand* in taste tests, and beat significantly most of the leading brands in the cask ale market. So this product doesn’t need changing, it isn’t going to change and we haven’t changed it. It’s absolutely right.”

There we are, then, haters. Greene King has the figures to show that four out of five cask ale drinkers love the fact that Greene King IPA is an easy-drinking pint – which is, after all, the core definition of a session beer, and session beers are, or should be, the pride and pinnacle of British brewing, the beer that makes going to the pub with your mates worthwhile. If you don’t like it – tough. Go and drink something so hoppy your teeth need re-enamelling afterwards.

IPA handpumpNot that everything in the IPA garden is perfectly lovely. There were two problems, the first relatively easy to try to solve, the second far more crucial, and difficult. On the first, South said: “We recognised, and consumers told us, we did need to move forward with the look and feel of the brand. We looked a little bit corporate, and perhaps a little bit traditional to the younger consumer. So we set off on the journey of bringing ourselves really up to date, a modern, contemporary look and feel that won’t alienate people who already enjoy a pint of Greene King IPA but that will genuinely bring younger people into the category and into the brand. I’m confident that this is going to do the job. It’s not a tweak and it’s not a small pigeon step forward, it’s pretty bold and it’s pretty big as a leap forward in terms of look and feel. Ziggurat Brands, the design agency that did it, have stripped it back to bare basics, taking inspiration from things they found in the brewery, so the copper colour is inspired by the copper kettles in the Greene King brewery, the teal colour because we wanted to evolve the green colour of Greene King IPA to something much more modern and contemporary. This is where we needed to make a big change to bring people in. At the same time it shouts heritage, with the crown and the arrows.” Teal – the hipster’s green. I’m never sure about that crown-and-arrows logo Greene King is adopting, though: it commemorates poor King Edmund of East Anglia killed by Viking archers in 869, after whom, of course, Bury St Edmunds is named.

More importantly, South said, “What we do need to focus on is making sure every pint is served perfectly. We are going to carry on with consumer support, advertising, all of those good things. But we feel it’s really important that we shift a lot of our emphasis, and put more money into the brand, with the trade. We’re going to invest heavily in supporting the trade to get quality right, and quality is the number one thing for us to focus on.” There two big initiatives here, the first a quality accreditation drive, with unannounced pub visits made by either Quality & Dispense Services, a senior Greene King representative or a third party quality agency. A pub will be required to pass ten quality tests, which include the taste, aroma and temperature of their Greene King IPA through to whether it is served in the right glass and the ability of bar staff to talk about the beer and describe it accurately. Pubs that are judged to pour a perfect pint of Greene King IPA will be awarded with a plaque and certificate, and crowners for their IPA pumpclips, “all signposts to the consumer to say, ‘This is going to be a safe bet,'” South said. Pubs that do not pass first time will be educated on the importance and benefits of looking after their cask beer range before another visit is made.

beergeniusgreen copy copyYou cannot improve quality in a vacuum, however: and to that end, Greene King has launched a website giving free training, troubleshooting and best practice videos, available at www.beer-genius.co.uk.. “Beer Genius is Greene King’s open access training portal to the industry,” South said. “We recognise that staff turnover is a problem – it’s different for everyone, but let’s make an assumption, 100% every year. How on earth can licensees be expected to make sure every new bar staff member knows even how to serve a pint, let alone clean down the bar and do all the basics? So what this portal is going to do is teach cellar managers, bar managers, operations directors, BDMs, local area managers, but also bar staff, three things: how to manage a cellar, how to make the most money and yield they can out of cask ale, by getting the quality right and the yield up, and why commercially it makes sense, and third, how to serve the perfect pint.

“Why does it matter? It’s not just about giving the consumer the perfect pint – although that’s absolutely key. The benefit of giving the consumer the perfect pint is that yields in pubs will massively skyrocket, because quality and yields go hand-in-hand. A key part of what we’ve got to do is educate bar staff, as well as bar managers that when you get it right, but that tiny bit of extra effort in, your till will start ringing up more money. The numbers astounded me. About 70% of pubs, we estimate, have a yield of 91% or lower on their cask ales. It should be 97, 98, even 99%. When they close that gap, the benefit to that pub in terms of profit is enormous – it’s up to £5,000 through the till, per annum. That’s their benefit: the benefit to the consumer is no more dodgy pints. And therefore you stay in the pub, you tell your friends about that pub, the net promoter score of that pub improves, people come back. So what could be a huge loss to that pub through a dodgy pint becomes a huge gain. So it’s absolutely key that we help licensees with this.”

There we are: get the quality right, your yields from every cask will be up, and so will be your profits. The licensee is happy, the consumer is happy, the brewer is happy. Mind, I doubt the haters would be happy even if Greene King had the head brewer personally deliver every pint to their table in solid gold goblets with a £50 note for use as a beermat. Personally, I’m delighted if young drinkers find Greene King IPA a good gateway into cask ale: as they grow older, and more experienced, it’s likely that some – though not all – will start to experiment, to explore, and discover the kind of beers the haters enjoy, beers which indeed have a great deal to offer those who are ready for them. The quality initiative is excellent – other brewers, please, please copy. And the Beer Genius website, from what I’ve been able to explore so far, is a terrific resource for everybody – including drinkers, who can find out what has to go on to get them that elusive perfect pint.

Does anyone make IPAs likem this one any more?

Does anyone make IPAs like this one any more?

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

*Meaning DoomBar, presumably

Five facts you may not have known about India Pale Ale for #IPAday

‬IPAday 2013 logoIPA in India in the 19th century was drunk ice-cold

There are several references to “light bitter beer” being drunk “cold as ice could make it, the most refreshing of all drinks in this climate” in the journals and letters of expats in India from the 1820s to the 1850s.

The earliest use of the term India Pale Ale appears to have been in Australia

An advertisement for East India pale ale in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of Saturday, August 29 1829 is, at present, the earliest known sighting of the phrase “India Pale Ale”. Unfortunately the ad didn’t say who the brewer was, buy another advertisement in an Australian newspaper a few months later, the Colonial Times of Hobart in Tasmania on Friday, February 19 1830 lists “Taylor’s Brown Stout, East India Pale Ale (the best summer drink) and XXX Ale for sale”. “Taylor’s” almost certainly refers to Taylor Walker of the Barley Mow brewery, Limehouse, by the Thames in London, which can thus take the laurels as the first named brewer of a beer specifically referred to as IPA.

There are no actual references from the 19th century to the four-month sea-voyage out to India improving the flavour of IPA by the time it arrived in Calcutta or Bombay

This “fact” appears to have started as guesswork by 20th century writers, based at least in part on the fact that Madeira wine DID improve on the journey to India, so it was assumed that beer must do the same. Recent experiments suggest that, indeed, the long, slow heating and cooling that IPA would have undergone as it travelled in the holds of sailing ships from Britain would have altered and mellowed its flavours, but a full-scale trial has yet to be held …

The rise to fame and power of Burton upon Trent’s great brewers, such as Bass and Worthington, as brewers of India Pale Ale was at least in part because of a Russian import ban.

The Burton brewers’ biggest market until the very early 1820s was the Baltic region, and in particular Russia, where they sold a strong, dark, sweet brew called Burton Ale. When the Russians banned imports of ale (but not stout or porter) in 1822, Burton’s brewers were persuaded to replace this lost market with India, and to start brewing a pale, bitter beer for the first time.

Pale ales have been made for millennia

It has always been possible to make pale malt, from which pale ale is made, simply by sun-drying the malt. But that was always a risky affair in a wet climate. The invention of coke-fired maltings around the middle of the 17th century enabled maltsters to have much greater temperature control over the malting process, and from the start of the 18th century mentions of “pale ale” start to become more common.

The Bass red triangle: things AB-InBev won’t tell you

Bass pale ale labelThere are stupid marketeers, and there’s AB-InBev. The Belgo-Brazilians have decided to rename one of the oldest beer brands in Britain, Bass pale ale, a literally iconic IPA, as “Bass Trademark Number One”. It’s a move so clueless, so lacking in understanding of how beer drinkers relate to the beers they drink, I have no doubt it will be held up to MBA students in five years’ time as a classic example of How To Royally Screw Up Your Brand.

The move is predicated upon the red triangle that is found on every bottle of Bass pale ale, and on every pumpclip of the draught version, being the first registered trademark in Britain. The generally accepted story is that after the passing of the Trade Mark Registration Act of 1875, when applications to apply for trademark registration opened on January 1, 1876, a Bass employee was sent to wait overnight outside the registrar’s office the day before in order to be the first in line to file to register a trademark the next morning, and that is why the company has trade mark number one. There is no evidence for this story: but it is certainly true that a label with the triangle on it, and the words “Bass & Co’s Pale Ale” is indeed the UK’s Trade Mark 1, having been the first to be registered on New Year’s Day 1876.

So why now rename a beer that has been around since the 1820s, when Bass first started brewing a bitter pale ale for the Far East market, after an event that happened when that beer was already 50 or more years old? Because AB-InBev is flailing around for a way to rescue the beer, once the most famous in the world, from the miserable position it has been in since, to be honest, long before what was then Interbrew acquired the Bass brands in 2000. Some idiot marketing focus group got together and tried to think of a unique selling point for the beer: and the only one they could come up with was that it bore the UK’s first registered trade mark.

As Pete Brown has already remarked, this is pretty much a result of the AB-InBev mindset, which knows far more about trademarks than it does about beer. Bass pale ale is a beer with a fantastic heritage: it was, for more than a century, a hugely highly regarded brew, globally as well as in the UK (my grandfather told me that before the First World War, he and his pals would scour North London looking for pubs that sold draught Bass), so much so that it suffered more than anyone else from lesser brews being passed off as the red triangle beer. That was one reason why Bass was so keen to register its own trademark as speedily as possible.

Before we continue, here’s a panegyric on Bass from a book published in 1884 called Fortunes Made In Business which will show you how much Bass was an icon:

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India Session Ales – tremendous new trend or oxymoronic category fail?

“All the IBUs, half the ABV” is how the American beer writer Brian Yaeger describes the newest (?) beery trend in the United States: the “India Session Ale”.

10 Barrel ISAAs you’ll have gathered, the ISA is meant to have the flavours of an American-style IPA, but at a more “sessionable” gravity. “Sessionable” is in the eye of the beer holder: I’d curl my lip at any beer over 4.2 per cent describing itself as “sessionable”, but to many Americans the term means anything under 5 per cent. However, what worries me most is the idea that a beer with 50 IBUs, and hopped with at least six different and powerful varieties, including Warrior, Columbus, Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo and Chinook, even if it’s only 3.5 per cent alcohol, like Ballast Point of California’s Even Keel can in any way be regarded as a session beer. Indeed, at least one “India Style Session Ale”, from the 10 Barrel Brewing Co in Oregon, is 5.5 per cent ABV.

As I wrote in this space nearly four years ago, I love session beers, but to me an essential part of what makes a good session beer is its restraint. To quote myself:

A great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention … A good, quaffable session beer should have enough interest for drinkers to want another, but not so much going on that they are distracted from the primary purpose of a session, which is the enjoyment of good company in convivial surroundings.

I’ve not, unfortunately, had the opportunity to try any of the India Session Ales (also known as “American session ales”, “Session IPAs” and “Light IPAs”) Brian Yaeger talks about in his piece, but in April I did get to try something I suspect may be similar, DNA New World IPA, the collaboration beer made by blending concentrated “essence of Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA” shipped over from Delaware with beer brewed at the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford. Continue reading

How long have English brewers been using American hops? Much longer than you think

How long have British brewers been using American hops? Far, far longer than you might have guessed: for around two centuries, in fact.

HopsThe earliest evidence I’ve collected so far of hops from the United States in England is from exactly 196 years ago: May 1817, when the Liverpool Mercury newspaper carried a notice of the arrival in the city of a ship from New York, the Golconda, carrying 417 bales of cotton, 319 barrels of flour, 1,322 barrels of turpentine – and two bags of hops. Rather more came across the Atlantic a few months later, in November, when two ships arrived, the Pacific from New York and the Triton from Boston, with cargos including 49 bales of hops and 30 bags of hops respectively. An even larger consignment, 185 bales (a bale being 200 pounds), arrived the following month, December, from Boston on board the ship Liverpool Packet.

Not coincidentally, these imports of hops from the United States were arriving in Britain right after the famous (to climatologists) Year Without a Summer of 1816, itself the result of the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history (with the possible exception of the putative proto-Krakatoa), when Mount Tambura in Indonesia blew up on April 10 1815 with a roar heard 1,600 miles away, sending 50 to 100 cubic kilometres of rock into the air and dumping tens of millions of tonnes of sulphur and ash into the stratosphere via a column of smoke and fumes 27 miles high, covering the northern hemisphere in a sulphate veil. Temperatures in North America and Europe dropped by as much as 3C for at least two years, rainfall rose by as much as 80 per cent, and agriculture was badly hurt.

The year after the eruption, the hop harvest in Britain, in particular, was hammered. Newspapers from September 1816 onwards engraved a picture of misery. The Hereford Journal reported that locally “the hops have nearly all been destroyed by the inclement season.” At Worcester fair, the Morning Post said, “there was not a pocket of new hops”. At Stourbridge Fair, just outside Cambridge, normally one of the country’s biggest hop marts, “the supply of hops was very small, not more than half a load.” In Farnham, Surrey, the hop cones were “uncommonly small”, and the harvest was set to be no more than a quarter of its usual size. At Weyhill fair in Hampshire in October just over 700 pockets of hops were on sale, down from 3,000 the previous year. Continue reading

The earliest use of the term India pale ale was … in Australia?

The continuing fantastic expansion in the number of old documents scanned, OCR’d and available on the internet is presenting the lucky historical searcher with constant opportunities to push back the boundaries. The latest terrific find is an ante-dating of the first use of the expression “India pale ale” by almost six years, taking it from Liverpool in January 1835 to Sydney, Australia in August 1829.

Advertisement for East India Pale Ale, Sydney Gazette, Saturday August 29 1829

Advertisement for East India Pale Ale, Sydney Gazette, Saturday August 29 1829

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Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

Hong Kong Beer Awards logoSome British beer bloggers get invited to be judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Well, poot to them: I’ve just had a much more exclusive gig. Only 12 people are invited to judge in the Hong Kong International Beer Awards, and this year I was one of them.

If you’re thinking: “Yeah, man, tough job”, I can assure you it was no picnic: not unless your picnics involve sipping and sniffing 145 or so different lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales, and 21 ciders, over two three-hours sessions, with nowt to eat except crackers, there to take away the taste of the more egregiously bad examples of the brewer’s art. After about the 25th almost identical pale and generally undistinguished euro-style lager, some of the judges at the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong where the drinks had been lined up for scrutiny, appeared to be eyeing the exit and wondering if they could sprint fast enough to be out the door before they were tackled to the ground and brought back to the table. By the time the 39th and last entry in the lager section had been dismissed, it was a relief to move on to the ciders, a drink I don’t normally find much kind of relief in at all.

The judging was simple: up to 20 points for appearance, aroma, clarity and colour, up to 80 points for taste, body and mouthfeel. Most of the lagers were getting just 40 to 50 points from me, and the highest I gave was a rare 71. None was as vile as the “flavoured” ciders, mind: cheese on top of strawberry is not what I want in a glass. However, a couple of the ciders were authentically very “English” (tart, plenty of character) and, grateful, I awarded them good marks.

Pale and uninteresting

Spot the interesting lager … no? Me neither.

The “ordinary” (ie non-IPA) pale ales were almost as hard to tell one from the other as the lagers, with only one truly memorable  afterwards, thanks to a strong aroma of cedary pencil shavings (not that pencil shavings earned it more marks, at least from me). I was even more underimpressed with the brown ale category. None of the five was what I would describe as a brown ale (that is to say, dark at the least, and preferably veering towards very dark indeed), and only one had any real roasty flavour, of which I like to see a hint. The hazelnut one was easy to spot, though: it would make a good ice-cream float, but as a beer, I dunno. (Knowing what beers are available in Hong Kong, I’m guessing that was Rogue’s hazlenut brown ale. I like many of Rogue’s beers, but not this time.)

The “Belgian” ales went past in a blur of golden Duvel-alikes and browner nods towards what were presumably meant to be more “abbey” types. The “British-style” ales (my personal favourite category, I own up) contained one of the rare instantly recognisable beers in the judging, from Hong Kong’s own Typhoon brewery, which is “British” in the sense that it’s a proper cask-conditioned ale (and the only one in Asia, I believe) but sits firmly in the American Pale Ale category as far as its hop usage and character are concerned: whatever, it’s an excellent brew.

I’d love to find out the name of the really orangey wheat beer we were given: of the 26, most, again were hard to distinguish, and I was disappointed that there were not more Dunkels among the wheat beers: it’s a style I am growing increasingly fond of. One style I’m not so fond of is fruit beer, and the 16 up for judging at the Globe confirmed my prejudice: mostly unidentifiable fruit, nearly all pretty meh. The 11stouts, too, contained none among them that truly conquered. The 14 organic ales were, inevitably, a mixed bunch in terms of style, and none, I’m afraid, you would want to take home and introduce to mother.  The IPAs, by contrast, had a couple or four stand-out entries: that, I suspect, will be the hardest category to win.

So, then: thus was the Hong Kong International Beer Awards judging 2012. While the bulk of entries were ordinary (a reflection of the mostly unadventurous nature of Hong Kong’s beer importers, although there are now several honourable exceptions to that), there still were, I think, enough fine brews to make a respectable winners’ enclosure, all the same. The top beers will be announced at the 10th Hong Kong Restaurant and Bar Show, from September 11 to 13 in the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Centre and I’ll be listing them here as well.