Collaborations: Why they’re more useful than you think

OK so I don’t think we need to pretend the image of collaborating is in any way negative. However, we as consumers are all too quick to judge a collaboration in the only way we can really, but I’ll get to that.

How do collaborations come about? Usually there’s a link between two breweries, or actually these days its as likely to be a linked collective/business/society as it is a brewery, the boundaries for collaboration have long since been removed. The essence of collaboration is that new ideas are brought to the table and those ideas can come from any quarter.

There’s the logistics to consider. For example if two breweries collaborate on a beer, who owns that beer? Who sells it? Well in many cases we’re talking about one beer having been produced. Produced from one brew day. That means that whilst staff from both breweries were present when that was produced, once brewed the beer ferments in the vessels of whoever’s premises it was brewed on ie one of the collaborators. So that brewery usually takes responsibility for the beer and effectively owns the beer. I’m sure there are a myriad of little trade negotiations within that sphere but generally that’s how it works.

Why do breweries collaborate?

One of the most significant things is that bringing of new ideas. Every brewery has its own identity and its own characters driving it forward. Those personalities put in the mix together will bounce ideas off each other and trade experiences with all aspects of brewing. The aim is to try and gain knowledge from each other and further their own knowledge through speaking and working alongside someone from a different background.

All good so far.

But the one thing consumers expect is an end product. We are all guilty of judging the validity of two breweries collaborating squarely on the quality of the one batch of beer that they produce. Granted we as consumers judge everything about a brewery on the quality of the beer that they produce, but there’s an extra element here which I often feel gets lost with the punters.

It’s that learning element. One brewer may see another brewer doing something slightly different to the way they do it. That could lead to a conversation where knowledge is pooled and which enriches the experiences of both parties. The brewer who learned that something may well take that bit of knowledge and start applying it to future brews. So that collab could actually influence a great many beers beyond the beer that was brewed on the day. And yet we judge it on the one beer that was produced. I’ve heard so many people talking about collaborations being abit underwhelming. And I think quite rightly we judge each beer on its own merits, but I feel that sometimes we project that onto the validity of the collaborative process.

Many times we expect collabs to push boundaries and naturally when boundaries of pushed, some stray over the cliff and don’t ultimately work as well as expected. The consumer deems it a failure and writes the whole thing off, not realising that the next time they have something from either of those breweries, the beer could well be benefitting from the experiences they shared in collaborating.

I guess the most significant thing I can point to in that respect is the reaction to the rainbow project. If you talk to the UK breweries who have been involved in that they’d tell you they learned a hell of a lot from collaborating with the other brewers. And the value of that process is far greater to them in the long run than the public reaction to the one off special beers that they produced. I would say that given the significance of the breweries who have been involved in that project, the whole UK scene has probably had a fair smattering of influence from the experiences gained within that project.

That’s why breweries collaborate. That’s why we should embrace the efforts. Granted we don’t always have to be positive about the immediate results, but don’t be too quick to judge its validity based on just one beer.

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Prices, slices and perceptions of greed

A quiet family bank holiday weekend for some, for others an outpouring of objections and outrage after Matt Curtis (@totalcurtis on Twitter) pointed out a Cloudwater 4% Session IPA being sold at circa £13 per pint at Mother Kelly’s in London. The national tabloids loved the opportunity to slaughter the beer industry and lapped it up.

Lets just sit back and reflect on that headline.  £13 a pint.  I think most people would see that as a high price for a beer.  But the pub in question didn’t quote the pint price, the price of the beer was quoted in smaller measures, so that the price didn’t seem as excessive.  Is this just a cunning way to disguise the price?  Or is it a suggested measure for drinking it, with an intrinsic acknowledgement that it’s a high cost beer so you may wish to consider drinking a smaller quantity.  I am in no way able to answer that question, but its easy to see how you can, with a pre-set mind, give something a positive or a negative slant.

What determines price?

Most of the discussion has been around the cost of producing a beer, so let’s start with that.  As ever, Cloudwater themselves gave a very honest account of some standard costings for beers, if you haven’t read Paul’s blog post, read it now before we go on, I’ll wait for you to get back…. (Link: http://cloudwaterbrew.co/blog/on-the-values-of-beer)….

….. read it?  Good, it’s an interesting read and a very open way of guiding us to where prices come from.  Honest as ever and as a brewery they often react to social media issues very quickly to justify what they do.  Obviously in this, the beer in question was a Cloudwater beer so they are protecting their own image by responding to it.  And thats very important for a brewery. They are judged by the customer based on their experience of a particular breweries beer at the end delivery point.  Cloudwater themselves have no control over the price a pub customer pays, and yet are undoubtedly judged by the lay buyer on that end purchase, so by writing this piece they wanted to get their points of view across.

But I cant help feeling that they shouldn’t have to justify these things, but I’ll get to that later.

There are points of movement within a chain which takes a beer from being produced, to being supped by the end user.  The brewery puts time and materials into making a beer and must make a return on those things to stay in business.  Any distributor also invests time and materials into collecting and distributing the beer and again needs a return on those to stay in business.  Finally the outlet, be it pub or shop, invests time and materials into the selling of that beer and needs to make a return to stay in business.  Every step must take a slice to justify their efforts in the overall process.

I suspect that most people will look at a price on a board and if it’s outrageously high, as many felt it was in the example that started the debate, the belief is that someone in the chain is taking too high a slice of the projected profits and ripping the customer off.  Cue outrage.

But does the cost of time and materials determine price?  Most of the comments Ive seen over the weekend base an argument on just that.  But in reality, the cost of product and the price of a product are entirely separate things.  We’re looking at this all wrong.  In a world where we as consumers are better educated about the beer industry than ever before, our knowledge is taking us away from the simple reality of how a market economy works.

Price is determined by the customer.  Simple.  End of.

When you walk into a bar and look at the prices, you weigh up how much you expect to be paying and what sort or experience that spend will give you.  You find the balance of price and enjoyment which best suits a sense of value for your hard earned disposable income.  Yes the cost that the brewer has incurred to produce the beer is an influence on your decision, but you are weighing up how much you think that will add to the perceived value for money.  For example, a barrel aged impy stout, I love em.  So if I see one listed I’m looking at the price and weighing up how much I value what I expect that beer to taste like, against what the price actually is.

And this is where the Twitter reaction works.  Simply put, the volume of the response to this high priced beer was a loud and clear rejection from the larger market of that beer at that price.  It’s the extreme version of me opting for a lower priced beer.  Don’t blame the pub for putting this beer on at that price, Id be surprised if they move it quick enough to warrant a return on their investment of buying the beer and also the staff wages during the long time that it sits there getting ever older and more conspicuous.  Pubs owe it to themselves to turn beer around quick enough to maximise their return and minimise the time value of having that beer on the bar.  It’s a balancing act I guess.  But if each stage of the process is too expensive to be palatable by the end user, the whole chain collapses, the longevity dies and there is no longer viability in anyone’s business.

There is one thing that I can’t quite work out though.  Paul made a good point in his blog about imported beer v locally produced beer.  I may be wrong but the customer perception of price was inflated by the lure of the high cost US imports.  Getting a quality US beer to the UK in the best possible condition costs a lot of money and I think punters have become increasingly happy to pay prices at that level to get that product.  But a similarly high class beer from the UK doesn’t cost anywhere near as much to reach the end user and yet, how would a pub price it at a much lower price?  Let’s go extreme examples, let’s say a can of Cloudwater double IPA alongside a can of Heady Topper.  One has gone on a far longer journey.  The original ingredients may be very similar in costs, but does the different transport cost matter?  As a customer, my experience isnt enhanced by the longer journey.  If they are two similar standards of beer then I’d happily pay the same price for the two wouldn’t I?  What if it was an area which I wasn’t such a geek about?  If we were talking high quality fish fingers, I have no idea how fish grow fingers so no knowledge of how they’re made.  So all that matters to me is how they taste.  I have a perception of how much I’m willing to spend on quality fish fingers, irrespective of their heritage.

Some food for thought there anyway.

But I don’t feel that there’s a problem here.  Trends may swing and vary, but the crux is that we vote with our wallets.  You don’t have to hand over your hard earned.  But also, don’t feel under pressure to.  Don’t be afraid to take a step back and say, no that’s too much to pay.  The whole industry will thank you for that in the long run.  Inflation in a market is great while it lasts, but bites back viciously once it runs out of room to grow.

Ears, Eyes, Nose, Mouth…

How do you review a brew?

As I mentioned on our last podcast (link:NE Sippin Forecast), when I first started exploring the new wave of beers, I felt greatly inferior to the great bloggers and reviewers that were already out there.  I simply didn’t feel that I had anything to add to the reviews that they had already given.  As a result I was always reluctant to actually review beers thoroughly and in the main I spouted opinions rather than fully formed reviews.

It’s interesting now to be doing the podcast and at its core is Rob’s beery education and voyage of discovery.  It’s impossible to go through that process without getting into actually reviewing the beers that we sample.  How do you develop an understanding of what it is that you like or don’t like, without taking note of flavours and descriptions which you enjoy.  Your current experiences will shape your future thinking when deciding what to drink.

So how do you review a beer?

Firstly, think about when you start to judge or evaluate a beer.  It’s actually well before you buy it.  Personally my thoughts on the M&S dine in deals are already positive when I see the advert for the delicious looking chocolate desert.  With beer, we start creating an expectation through many things, social media being a prime driver of that.  The brand, the descriptors, the image that the name conjures up.

So what is my process once I have the beer in my hands?  Well I have a rule of senses.  I think about a beer using, and in this order: ears, eyes, nose then mouth.  It’s a simple guide but using it slows down the process of simply drinking beer and makes you better able to think through each stage.  But what does each stage mean?

Ears:  Let’s face it we start interacting with a beer from the first split second the bottle/can is opened.  Personally one of the first things I look for the level of ‘pffft’.  By that I mean gas released from the bottle/can as you open it.  I like a beer with good carbonation, I’m often underwhelmed by certain style of beers which have little or no carbonation.  But even then, that reaction to the initial noise is driven by my expectations of style.  I like a hoppy IPA to make that satisfying noise, but couldn’t give too hoots if a big Imperial Stout doesn’t.  But you see, I’m already judging.  My beer reviews will usually refer to the level of ‘pffft’, it’s very technically sound and kick starts your whole experience of a beer.

Next up, Eyes:  Now this is the pour stage, which includes the settle.  What are you seeing?  Does the level of audible ‘pffft’ tally with the witnessed carbonation that you can see as you pour?  Is the beer developing a big head?  Is the beer looking like its lacking any sort of head?  What colour is the beer?  What does that colour mean for your tastebuds?  Even subconsciously the colour is moulding your expectations.  Is there any sediment?  Is the beer clear?  Is the appearance matching what you expect from the beer description/style?  Then simply, just how appetising is the beers appearance?  Which elements look appetising? Which elements don’t? Is there anything in the appearance which is significantly drawing you or repelling you?

Next one is Nose:  I say this is the next stage, it’s not really, this very much overlaps/interacts with the eyes.  For many beers the aroma will leap out the bottle/can from the moment you crack it open.  Or during the pour that carbonation is releasing gas from the beer and throwing the aroma of the beer up into the air above it.  So you are experiencing the full effect of the aroma while you pour.  It’s impossible for that aroma not to have an influence on the judgement of the appearance.  Even on a simple positive or negative scale.  If the aroma is enticing, an average looking beer will be judged in a more positive light.  But what of the aroma?  What are you getting?  Is it what you were expecting? What organic elements can you detect in the aroma?  Is it grassy?  Is it fruity?  If so can you pinpoint which fruit?  Is it sharp bitter fruit?  Or sweeter more fleshy fruit?   Is there any alcohol in the aroma?  Is there any link to a different drink you’ve had?  Does it remind you of any occasion you’ve experienced things in the past?  Close your eyes, what image does the beer conjure up?

I’d say that by the time you get to aroma, you’re teetering on the edge of drinking this beer in front of you, but hold off for just a little longer.  A good beer review cant be rushed.  A good beer deserves the right amount of attention.  By this point you have most of your senses painting a picture that your brain is deciphering and is rapidly delivering an exit poll result for you, which will only be proven right or wrong by the count, sorry by taking a sip.  So dive in!

Mouth: A few elements to consider here, what’s the initial mouthfeel like?  What’s the level of carb like?  Does it zing as much as it pffft’d earlier?  How viscous does it feel?  Is there much presence to it?  Does it lace your tongue?  Does it snipe at your tongue with bitterness?  A beer enters at the front of your mouth and exits out the back (unless it’s really bad…).  On that short journey it covers many areas of your tongue and has a varying interaction with each one.  But what flavours are being drawn out?  What’s the immediate reaction when it first enters?  Which are the flavours that lead the charge?  Do those flavours have company?  Are there other flavours which raise their heads only once the leading bold flavour has settled down?  And once it disappears down your throat, what’s left?  What’s the lingering flavour?  Is your mouth left feeling dry?  Are you craving another gulp?

Take it slowly, think through the layers of what you’re tasting.  Cast your mind back to similar food stuff, or similar experiences.  Often a flavour can remind me of an aroma I’ve experienced in my past and its drawing from your memory which is key to identifying flavours.  I know I used to feel like identifying flavours and reviewing beers was a fine art.  But whilst a good beer reviewer is a skilled and rare talent, the act of reviewing is actually quite simple.  All you’re doing is drawing on memories.  It’s about opening your mind to links from your past.  You can’t identify a flavour if you’ve never tasted it before!  Justin Mason (@1970sboy) is a great man to listen to for getting you delving into flavours of beer.  He is an advocate for exploring flavours in all things.  The more broad your range of past flavour experiences, the more nuanced your ability to identify flavours in your present.

The mouth may be the final piece of apparatus in the list, but it’s the most influential and powerful tool you have.  Let’s face it, you are only interested in beer because of your enjoyment of consuming it.  Beer is after all a drink and its main purpose is to interact with your tastebuds.  But don’t discount all the information you’ve received so far.  This is a big moment for a beer.  It’s at this point where all the expectation comes to a head and the final judgement is found.

Each and every beer has to face up to its own expectation.  It’s the single most influential driver on a drinker’s enjoyment.  If all the aspects in the build up to drinking create too high a level of expectation, the resultant beer may be viewed as disappointing if it doesn’t meet the high expectations.  On the flip side, sometimes you get that magical moment where you’re expecting very little from a beer but when you drink it, it well exceeds expectation.  And it’s that swing, for better or worse, which leaves the lasting impression on a drinker.  If a brewer can get that swing to be a positive, the drinker will happily return to buy the beer again, and will have positive things to say about it.

So don’t be intimidated by reviewing beers, anyone can do it.  Just remember the order: Ears, eyes, nose, mouth… and you can’t go too far wrong!

The most delicate silk, and the purest gold thread…. an Anti-Exclusivity rant

There’s a new bar in the trendy end of town. The refurbishment of the glamorous old building has been splashed across the local media for months. Ever since the inception of the idea of opening this bar, the cool kids have been intrigued by it. The reality TV star that is behind the idea is helping its cause. Her onscreen misdemeanours only up the ante and draw in a larger crowd. And what are we to expect? Well naturally the place will be full of the coolest of cats. Expect to be shoulder to shoulder with those who simply ooze style and class. The drippings of visual charisma will be everywhere in this place. Every surface will be awash. All the woodwork has been given a San Tropez covering. The chandeliers will all sparkle in reflection of extra pearly whites located inside. And the parties…… oh the parties….. the tales that will come out of this place will be that of legend. And as they say if you weren’t there, you’ll never truly know how good they were.

As an establishment, the doormen are everything. They marshal the place. Every entrant must conform. Every booth must be occupied by the right empty vessels. There’s a lot to be gained by being on the inside of the glass windows instead of outside looking in. You too could be the envy of the masses, you too could live the glamorous lifestyle of the rich and famous, even if only for the night. You may have to adapt though, you may need to bend your ways and up your game on your appearance, standards are high and you must conform to gain access. I suggest you turn to OK magazine or Hello, use those images as your guide. Create a representation of yourself that’s as close to those images as possible. Be your favourite celebrity image.

As you can imagine the clamour for the glamour is intense. Demand is high to be on the inside. Unfortunately as a result, the prices are quite high. But ONLY to try and stem demand, not to try and profit from the hype…. But it also means you’ll be mixing with a better mix of clientele. This is a bar where everyone must feel comfortable, from the common man in the street (granted he may have to save for a year to get in), right the way up to the premium grade celebrities.

So let the cava flow!

Please help me. I’m surrounded by people who are being sucked in by this sort of ‘exclusive’ venue. There are many facets to life where pictures are painted with words, which don’t give the true picture of the reality. How many young and impressionable people would be drawn to a bar like this? One which portrays attendance as a lifestyle choice, a status symbol of being part of an ‘in crowd’. And how often have you been to places where the reality of being in there feels as false as the bronzing lotion liberally applied before going. The crowd will simply be made up of those hoping to see the stars, and those who desperately want to portray themselves as stars who in reality aren’t.

Craft beer is cool these days, but it hasn’t been cool for long and it won’t stay high up in the cool kid’s minds forever. And yet I see pockets of people seeking to squeeze every penny out the industry through the portrayal of it being an ‘exclusive’ product.

I guess one iteration of this is where the larger brewing companies produce a ‘craft’-ish product from their factories, and in the process adorn it with the term ‘craft’. As we all know, in the UK there is no concise definition of craft in the beer world, sadly this allows the big monoliths to sidle up and try and cadge cash from the punters on the fringe. To exploit those who think they’re exploring craft beer, when in reality they’re not being served up a beer which fits the image of the forefathers who started using the term ‘craft’ intended. It’s been hijacked as a marketing term, to make the beer seem more specialist and therefore of a higher class. It’s not, it’s just slightly less crap than the rest of their range.

Another iteration is the restricting of stock of special beers. Now whether this lies with the breweries intentions or the distributor trying to maintain an exclusiveness, there have been many ‘high demand’ beers, which have initially appeared in short supply, but within a few weeks another, far larger batch appears asif by magic. There are a million different possibilities for that occurring, but the punter doesn’t see them, we just see that we were initially being pushed towards buying a beer before it’s too late, and very quickly it’s not available by the hat full. Do not create false exclusivity!

Exclusivity creates awful human beings. There is nothing I dislike more than the portayl of a social elite. There’s a gravity to it, those who do appear to get hold of beers first every time, start to feel compelled to maintain that image. They start enjoying the limelight the exclusivity gives them. They start to believe themselves that they’re part of an elite. As with my #NoMoFOMO post, I ask, who are they drinking for? Their own enjoyment? Or are they simply keeping up appearances? Maintaining their high society status in the public eye. Public Relations Attention Seekers…. Or P.R.At.S for short….

It’s when these special releases are so limited only the small upper echelons can get hold of them when it really grates. I’m convinced that there have been some ‘hype’ releases, which have been carefully stage managed to make sure the clamour is great and the rate of demand can drive up the price point. Was the UK release of Bourbon County this year anything more than a publicity stunt?  I wrote my ‘hype’ piece in October last year, just 8 months ago and yet it feels like the conversation has moved on so much. We no longer talk about hype, its FOMO now. So what is the difference?

Well in grand scheme of things we’re talking about the same issue however, the difference is subtle. For me, the hype argument laid the blame square on brewery doorsteps, and while I’m sure there were instances of brewery driven hype in the industry, I can’t criticise a business for advertising its products. There was a point at which advertising became spurious, where the claims made were excessive and I think the ‘hype’ criticism was valid, but the anti-hype piece has certainly had a moderating effect on the industry.

Once ‘hype’ was brought into line, we had the natural knock on criticism for FOMO. Now to my mind this was far more about the consumer. Far more about the community fringes where there was a bragging rights culture keen to make a mark. I doubt in many instances if the latest releases were actually enjoyed, but getting that photo to circulate was all important. But I don’t even blame the people who circulated the photo. They may be bragging but we’ve all known brags in real life and personally, they don’t bother me because I see through it. I can take what they say with a pinch of salt and move on. I respect opinions from people I respect, that’s the way life works.

But where FOMO was painful was in the beholder. I was guilty of feeling the need to get my hands on special releases so that I could be part of conversations, I wanted to earn the respect of those around me. I would jump at the chance to grab ‘special’ beers when they were released, so that I could form an opinion and then share that opinion with others. But that was me, driving my own FOMO. I blame no one else. But I bet there are plenty people out there in the same position. That’s why I started #NoMoFOMO, for me. It’s the public display of me constantly reminding myself that the latest ‘special’ beers aren’t worth getting het up about. There is plenty beer out there to enjoy and enjoyment has to be the key. I now drink to enjoy, not to tick boxes. No clearer indication of that than my feelings on New England IPAs. They’re refreshing and juicy, but I find some to have a lot of body and very little lingering flavour and I like lingering bitterness! But that’s not to say that I consider myself above them, I recognise those beers as being delicious high class beers. Just my tastes are subtly different to them.

I could drink loads of them and post on social media how great I think they are and there’d be no comeback to me. It wouldn’t cost me anything and I’ve no doubt I’d gain the respect of some niche area of fellow drinkers. But why would I do that? What would be the point? My problem is that I love to gather information and then formulate an opinion. I don’t always vocalise my opinion, but ask me and I’ll give it. I want social media to be more a discussion forum. To some people beer is binary, in that it’s either amazing of utter tosh. Well I see the grey areas. I see that a range of styles gives a range of experiences. There’s quite abit out there about matching beer with food or music etc, but for me, it’s mainly driven by environment, which encompasses all manner of things. So you are allowed to enjoy a range of styles in a range of environments and not be treated asif foolish.

Now I’m a man proud of my roots. As I’ve spoken about before, I’ve never chased trying to ‘fit in’. I’m know that I’m entirely normal, in that I’m odd. We’re all odd, when I say odd I mean different, we’re all different and instead of trying to fit moulds, we should recognise the value in our differences. Trying to emulate what you think is the life that your heroes have, will ultimately leave you falling short. And in most cases your perception of their perfect life is very different to their reality. I guarantee you each and every member of the Geordie shore cast changed their behaviour and use of language in order to get on that show. And how many of us respect them for that? Not me. In 5 years’ time the hollow folk will have moved on and those of us who are wise enough not to try and ride that wave will be truly able to relax and enjoy whatever beer we genuinely enjoy, not because someone has told you that its mint, not because it’s in the public eye, but because you yourself really enjoy it.

So I’m very anti-exclusivity, I want great beer to be for the many, not the few.

#NoMoFOMO – an update

And so the planet turns and the seasons change……

Funny how things evolve isn’t it.  I kinda wanted to address #NoMoFOMO.  It’s been a big thing for me.  It has drastically changed my outlook on what I spend my money on.  But perhaps there’s a few areas that I need to make clear.

When I wrote the original post (link), it was abit of a rant and I did raise issues that I have since discovered that a great many other folks were feeling at the time too.  But I have also had conversations where the main crux of my post was missed.

Lets take Unhuman Cannonball as a yardstick.  In my original post I highlighted this spectacular beer as being the first annual release that drew me in.  But it drew me in because of its brilliance.  At that time it was special not only because it was an annual release, but because in comparison to the beers that were on the market and available at that time, it was massive.  The hops were far in excess of any other beer that I had at that time.  As an experience it blew me away.  The nearest comparisons were miles off it.  For me, that was special. It was well worthy of its place as a special release. 

I’ve had many people pointing out Unhuman Cannonball as a key #NoMoFOMO beer.  But in many respects it’s the beer which best demonstrates the industries reaction to FOMO.  The beer itself is still brilliant, but that gap between it and the rest of the market has been filled tenfold.  But that doesn’t make it any less of a beer.  It’s still very much a market leader.

So what of the FOMO?  Here’s where the magic happened.  Break it down, the Fear Of Missing Out.  It’s an anti-exclusivity message that I’m looking to promote.  Magic Rock have more Unhuman cannonball available than ever before.  That’s not driving FOMO, that’s trying to stem FOMO.  Magic Rock want this beer to be available to as many people as possible.  Granted, given its level of hops you can only produce so much of these sorts of beers, so there is always going to be a cap on its availability, but you will now find it in most reputable beer shops up and down the country.  There is no Fear Of Missing Out, because there is no reason to miss out!  Seek and ye shall find!

To be fair Rich Burhouse has said for many years that he wants to make more available.  He has never been driving this as an exclusive product.

But the most important thing to clarify is the crux of who is to blame for FOMO.  I know a lot of people have asked me about breweries to which FOMO relates, but in all honesty my feeling is that FOMO isn’t the fault of any particular brewery.  It’s my fault.  My FOMO was about me becoming obsessed.  It was my burning desire to try these things.  It was my fascination with the subject of beer that made me interested in every facet.  That and the ease with which I was able to buy beers online gave me scope to get carried away. 

But I’ve stepped back from the need.  I no longer join scrums to get my hands on beers.  I can usually get hold of pretty much every beer that I’m interested to try, but mostly I let them pass me by.  And you know what, I am all the more fascinated by beer.  I’m all the more passionate about the beer industry.  We have never in our lifetimes had as many breweries with beers on the market as we have today.  Which means we have never had so many characters and variations.  That’s an amazing thing.

There’s an overlap, if you were to draw up a timeline you’d start with Hype, move into FOMO and, I’m now predicting the future, for me I see the challenge now being anti-exclusivity…..  And you can expect a rant on that subject from me shortly!

 

The Town Mouse, Newcastle’s latest micropub

I was lucky enough to be invited along to the pre-opening night in The Town Mouse, Newcastles latest micropub. Here’s what I discovered.

As soon as I walked through the door there was a general warm buzz to the place. A small basement bar, tucked away on St Mary’s place. But I instantly felt at home. Give me a line up of good quality local beers and a warm welcoming host and you’re on to a winner.

Four cask lines, four keg lines, fridge full for the overflow (ie those unable to find something in draught). Prices in keeping with a local pub, not a city centre bar. I could get used to this.

No pretentiousness, no hint of trying to coin the market, just straight up honest appreciation of pub and pub goers. I highly recommend this place.

The core of the pub is John, the owner and chief barman. John brings a fresh face and happy smile to an end of Newcastle which has been abit of a desert for good beer. He’s tucked away in a basement right next door to the massive weatherspoons which I for one have never had a decent pint in. Johns beers don’t stick around long enough for that to be a concern.  Far more interesting choices to be had here.

On my visit the range included diverse beer such as Marble’s Into the Void and Newcastle University Stu Brew’s Red Brick. Now that’s the kind of range and scope that will keep people coming back. There’s a strong determination to make best use of the great local breweries we have on our doorstep, but a few quality beers from outside the region will help spice things up abit! And that’s the thing now. I see that in Newcastle we have a tightly packed market, with a lot of small local breweries jostling for bar presence with the local big boys. So for a pub to go out and order a beer from outside this region, it needs to be pretty darn good. And it’s that which drives standards up.

I’ve often though Newcastle can be quite an insular market. There are certainly plenty punters who are more than satisfied with beers that are locally produced. As I’ve spoken about before, where there’s a familiarity with a local term, any punter who is unsure will more than likely feel comfortable to try it. I suspect that’s why many breweries up and down the country will include reference to their locale in their names. It gives an immediate sense of identity and gives a strong line for punters to relate to. You already know something about a brewery if it’s name includes its place of origin.

See what happened there? I started in the chilled out, friendly environment of the Town Mouse and my mind wandered. It’s that sort of place. You can chill out here, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Northumberland Street round the corner and enjoy some proper Geordie hospitality.

A very welcome addition to the city!

I will be back!

Hi, my names Myles and I’m (potentially) an alcoholic.

Every time I read that title it fills me with fear. The fear is of being in a position where I am attending an alcohol anonymous session to try to cope with a problem. Attending the session isn’t the thing which I fear most, it’s the stigma of weakness and failure that’s attached to it that I fear the most.

Imagine what impact that would have had on my family leading up to that meeting. Imagine how unfair it would be to add burden to those around me.

But let’s go back a few steps in this scenario.

This blog was inspired by this post by Mark Johnson: (link) It’s a brilliantly passionate and evocative piece about a very personal experience of living with an alcoholic. As ever, that piece got me thinking.

What struck me was the way that at points through the piece, I found myself being able to relate to stages in Mark’s dad’s journey into alcoholism. There are so many things in the background which I feel like I can relate to.

The starting point is a sense of fallibility. I am not untouchable. At my core I’m quite a nervous person. My instinct has always been that while I know I’m a very capable individual, I don’t think others ever really see that. I find social situations uncomfortable. I’ve often had to grit my teeth and push myself into situations rather than being a bold self-promoter. Alongside that I can think of a great many situations where beer has served as a social lubricant and made interactions that bit easier. And perhaps that is the first point where on some level I have been even a little bit, reliant on beer to help me get through the uncomfortable situation.

The other thing I think about is that sense of yearning on a Friday afternoon. There are many times when I have simply yearned for a face full of hops for refreshment after a stressful week. Similarly, when I buy a load of exciting beers and they’re sat in the fridge I do yearn to get stuck into them. Now I fully appreciate that the yearning for the enjoyment of the flavours of the beer is in marked contrast to the yearning that an alcoholic has, but to my mind it has to be one step closer than not yearning for a beer at all.

And therein lies my key point. I’ve grown up surrounded by talk about alcoholics which usually has a tone of blame and a thick slice of criticism for the alcoholic involved. And because of that, most people would bristle at the mention of them potentially being an alcoholic. I often think most people would hold the blinkered view that it couldn’t happen to them. Even alcoholics once believed that it couldn’t happen to them, until it happened to them.

There are stages to it that need to be considered too. You don’t go from living a normal life to being an alcoholic overnight. I imagine it creeps up gradually, like that child at your friend’s school who slowly becomes more and more prominent in your child’s life and slowly leads them astray. You don’t know they’re leading them astray until something significant enough to make you notice happens, and the thing is your child doesn’t see it as them being led astray, they just see it as the thing they want to do at that moment in time, often blissfully unaware of the consequences of the steps they’re taking.

I imagine the route to alcoholism is the same. It’s a steady transition from leading an unaffected life to being dependant on the effects of alcohol to get through life. I say get through life, not many of us would consider that as getting through life. It’s actually the opposite of getting through life, its living in the most poisonous way possible. The physical impacts are considerable, the mental impacts are unseen until too late, and the impacts on those around you is where the pain of the problem is felt most acutely.

How many of us can sincerely say that we won’t ever be alcoholics with 100% certainty?

Just to make this clear, alcoholism is an entirely different thing to having a passion for beer. Once in the throes of alcoholism, an alcoholic won’t see beer as the drink of choice. It’s simply not powerful enough to have the effect that they want. And that’s the thing, they are drawn to the drinks they consume by the effect it has on them.

Now ask yourself, have you ever felt the need for a drink? Ever craved the way any alcoholic drink makes you feel? I know I have. I know there have been times in my life where I’ve yearned for a big blow out and a good sup to relieve stress. I fully understand that the severity isn’t anywhere near the same ball park as the way alcoholics think, but on some level there are similar traits.

Would any of you think that I had a potential problem if you saw me posting beers on Twitter on a daily basis? Or would you simply see me as a passionate beer fan enjoying his hobby? At what point would it leap out to you as being a problem?

What are the early stages of the road to alcoholism? Mark refers to his dad going to the pub with increasing regularity, but with it being a social scene that he became a part of. That being part of a group of regulars in a pub isn’t alcoholism. There’s a key step I suspect, which makes it a problem. It’s that dependency word. That social lubricant in awkward social situations could easily become an everyday crutch if you were unlucky enough to go through a traumatic life event. That’s my fear. That’s the circumstances which I think I’m most susceptible to. If I suffered a big loss in my personal life and the fabric of my life was ripped up, I can see at that stage that I’d look for something steady to try to ground me. It’s a ship trying to drop anchor and secure its position when the seas are choppy. What would you have to fall back on?

I count myself incredibly fortunate to have a strong extended family around me, and I know that I can take strength from that. That doesn’t mean that I blindly get myself into trouble and rely on them to pull me out. That’s the impact of alcoholism which Mark refers to. His dad was constantly reliant on his family to fix the messes that he created. I know for a fact that my family would do anything for me, but perhaps the constant testing of the limits of that is grossly unfair on any family. No I take that strength in my decision-making, I feel more confident in the decisions I make because I believe that my family will support me. It’s the positive edge to the sword, the other side being me not wanting to let my family down. It’s the same thing, just with a positive slant. When I find things tough, I think about my family and what they would want me to do. It gives me focus to push on past obstacles, but what if that wasn’t there?

I know alcoholism isn’t about the alcohol, it’s driven by factors which go on in people’s lives which in turn sees them turning to alcohol as a support mechanism. My point is that I’m not sure that there aren’t a set of circumstances out there which could see me turning to alcohol as a release. Granted those circumstances would be very extreme and would only be were my life to be turned upside down, but it’s still possible.

I think I have some initial empathy with how alcoholics get to where they are, however the fear of that gives me resolve to do everything I can to prevent that from becoming my reality, no matter what happens in life.

They say the first step is to admit you have a problem. I don’t have a problem, but I hope that if ever I feel like I may have a problem, I am able to raise it with someone early, so that it doesn’t spiral out of control. I suspect in many circumstances, pride married with the fact that it’s socially unacceptable to be an alcoholic, may actually prevent someone who suspects they may have a problem, from seeking help. I think as a society who is passionate about the beer culture here in the UK, we probably should be more supportive of people in the early stages. If this saves one person from going down the road any further, then it’d be well worth it. Save them from the pain of going through it, save those around them from the impact on their lives and also save the impact on our health services. Drink responsibly, as a society, together.

There is far more educated information to be had at the following link: (Alcoholics anonymous)

PS. This is a post I’ve had nagging at my mind for some time. I don’t want to offend anyone who has been affected by alcoholism in any way. I don’t for a second believe that I am in any way expert on the subject, or that I understand alcoholism. This is merely my un-informed thoughts on the subject.  But perhaps by talking more about it, we would all learn more and we’d see more of those at risk, helped to avoid a decent into alcoholism.