Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Commitment To Beer: An afternoon with Marks & Spencer

A Commitment To Beer
An afternoon with Marks & Spencer

It's a quarter to one and I'm sitting in the Mad Bishop and Bear pub in Paddington station killing time. I've been here for the past twenty minutes nursing a pint of frankly average Ruck & Roll from St. Austell Brewery, observing the South African rugby supporters at the bar and occasionally checking and re-checking the route to Marks and Spencer's Head Office in North Wharf Road just around the corner. I down what's left of my beer, pull on my coat and head out into subdued hustle and bustle of a mainline railway station on a damp Wednesday afternoon.

Ten minutes later I'm heading up the steps into the nerve centre of one of the UK's most recognisable and respected brands. Founded in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, its name is a byword for quality and service, and although it has had a hard time in recent years it seems to have ridden the storm well, restructuring the business and concentrating on what it does well. Being quick to spot an opportunity, over the last few years Marks and Spencer have considerably expanded the range of beer that they offer. They have responded to the growing craft beer market by re-inventing and re-invigorating their own range to an impressive degree, so much so that they have earned two successive 'Retailer Of The Year' awards (2014 and 2015) at the International Beer Awards.

Today is Marks and Spencer's Autumn Beer Tasting 2015.

In order to showcase their range of fifty-three different beers including their most recent seasonal releases, they have invited a select group of beer writers along to sample the whole lot, the first time that they have done so. This strikes me as quite a brave thing to do, and displays an assured confidence in their selection that they are willing to open themselves to potential criticism in their own front (tasting) room from such as Melissa Cole, Jane Peyton and Christine Cryne, whose pedigree is renowned and opinions are highly respected. There is an obvious publicity benefit to be gained from a positive reception however, and this is why we have been invited to enter the inner sanctum.

I'm met in reception by Natasha Redcliffe from Westbury Communications Ltd, an independent food and drink PR agency, who have organised this event, given my visitors badge and taken up one floor to meet the team from M&S responsible for putting this range together.

Entering a rather sterile room I am confronted by a long line of bottles stretching nearly its whole length, and most of its width as well. Although I am the first to arrive I notice that all of the bottles have already been opened, and there appears to be some furious quality testing going on with some slurping and spittoon spitting being undertaken by the three people moving down the line from various points. I haven't been to a wine tasting for more than ten years, and I suddenly find the alien absurdity of this happening at a beer tasting both confusing and amusing in equal measure. Perhaps its snobbery, but one of the great pleasures of beer is that it tastes all the way down, with some flavours revealing themselves after the swallow, and to see it treated in this way makes me feel a little uneasy.

I put my feelings aside as they put their glasses down and introduce themselves as; Jenny Rea: Product Developer - juice, soft drinks, beer, cider, spirits and alcoholic drinks, Richard Applegate; Technologist - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice, and Joe Homeyard; Buyer - beers, ciders, spirits and chilled juice.

These are clearly people that know their business and know their market, and after I introduce myself I waste no time to start asking them about the range itself.

Richard takes me over to the assembled bottles, and explains the way they have been grouped for us today and displayed in their stores in order to appeal to different buyers.

"The brown labelled bottles" he says indicating the first twelve, "are our craft beer range. Designed to appeal to those who want something more from their beer, they have more unusual flavours and concentrate on quality ingredients. They are something special, something different. Next we have the eight single hopped beers also with their own distinctive labelling, followed by the British Regional range, some traditional styles with some newer beers, and finally our Belgian beers."

It's an impressive selection, and it is at this point that I'm handed a glass and told to help myself, but the Essex boy in me comes to the fore and I ask why they no longer feature Brewers Gold, brewed by Essex brewery Crouch Vale, in the their single hopped range.

"We took the decision to take that out as it simply wasn't selling as well as the others", Richard replies, which immediately leads me to my next question.

"So what does sell well?" I enquire

"Interestingly," he responds "the beers that we find sell the best are those that feature lighthouses on the labels. So we have the Cornish IPA (brewed by St Austell, whose rugby themed beer I had earlier but this is much better) and those Adnams beers in the Southwold range that also feature one."

He is at a loss as to explain why this is so, and when I express my admiration for the label artwork he points out something to me that I hadn't previously noticed.

"If you look closely at the artwork on our label art you may spot some unifying themes. For example," he say picking up the 9 Hop Kent Pale Ale bottle, "you'll notice that there are bottles hidden within the label artwork on the bottles themselves, and similarly hop cones feature on many too. You can also find beer glasses of all shapes hidden there. Our design team had a lot of discussion about this, and we believe it adds something a little extra to the buying and drinking experience, something that you might not have immediately expected."

Another thing you might spot on the label is the 'Made With British Hops' badge.

"It's something we are particularly proud of," Joe says, entering into the conversation at this point, "and we have redesigned the label to emphasise this more. We have particularly requested that British hops are used with some beers, and we're keen on supporting British hop producers."

"We also have beer and food pairings on each bottle," says Rob, picking up the nearest bottle and pointing to the 'A perfect match for ...' section on the back, "it's something we're keen on developing."

I'm interested as to whether there are any plans to group beers with foods in any stores or train staff in suggesting beer and food matches.

"Not at this stage, all though we have considered it. Obviously it is important for us to train and up-skill our staff where we can but we've no plans to introduce this in-store at present. We have heard that some stores have organised trips to their local breweries, but only get to hear of these later on. This is something we encourage, and our only misgiving is that we don't get invited along."

"What about growler fills in branches?" I ask.

"No." comes the firm reply.

One thing that I have wondered about, particularly with regard to beers like the Citra single hop beer brewed by Oakham, is whether they are just the breweries usual beers re-badged and bottle for M&S. I had read only that week on some social media circles speculation about whether the new black IPA 'Black' was the same beer as Purity's own 'Saddle Black'. I want to know whether this is the case.

"We do use those beers as a guide, but the beers produced for us are variations on the breweries own beers. It could be that we've asked them to bring out a certain character to emphasise a certain aspect of the beer, or for the abv to be reduced, but mainly we just ask for something just a little different. Our Warwickshire Amber Ale for example, is based on Purity's UBU. It's a beer we really liked and asked if they would do a beer like it for us and they were more than happy to oblige."

The bottling, I discover, is all done by three specific companies trusted by Marks and Spencer's for all of their drinks, not just for beer. The breweries have their specially commissioned brews collected and taken away to be bottled and labelled separately so that they can maintain quality and consistency.

I'm keen to find out about the beer that they carry from breweries such as Siren, Buxton and Fourpure and where they fit in to the range, and whether they plan to carry more from them. Are they actively seeking out new breweries and beers to put on their shelves?

"That isn't the case at all." Rob says. "The beers fit gaps in our existing range. They attract customers into our stores as they are from breweries they recognise, have read about and are keen to try, or simply look distinctly different from our in-house range."

"Should we expect to see sour beers on the shelves soon?" I enquire.

"It's something we've looked at" Rob confesses,"in fact we have discussed it this week, but we feel that we're not ready to put sour beers on the shelves just yet. We do constantly review our range, however, and take note of new styles and breweries that are doing something different, so maybe at some time in the future, who knows?"

Other beer writers have started to arrive and I realise that I have taken up plenty of our host's time, and there's plenty of beer to be drunk here, some of which I haven't had before, and so it's those I head to first.

I pour myself a glass of the new Salted Caramel Porter. Rob had mentioned that this was a beer that they had particularly asked Meantime to develop for them and that they were rather pleased with it, and whilst I find it drinkable, it's a bit thin and sweet for me however and I don't really get any salted caramel flavours from it. Much more to my taste is the the Smoked Ruby Ale brewed by Adnams. Based on the brewery's own 1659 Smoked Ruby Beer, made with cherry-wood smoked malt, it goes particularly well with duck or game, and I remember enjoying its original incarnation with an excellent venison pate one evening.

The Warwickshire Amber Ale that Rob mentioned earlier also impresses me, as does the Sovereign single hop offering.

Finding much less favour with all of us is the Welsh Golden Ale brewed by Brains. It is the only beer that comes in a clear glass bottle, and despite having been kept out of the light prior to today's tasting, just by sniffing the bottle that nasty slightly musty off-flavour associated with a light-struck beer is very apparent. Tasting confirms this to be the case, and we all leave it well alone.

It is at this point that I have a notion that I will possibly never have the opportunity to taste the whole of Marks and Spencer's in-house beer range in one place again, so I set myself the challenge of achieving this before I leave. Thankfully a block of M&S's superb three-year old matured cheddar, Cornish Cruncher has appeared and this is hastily devoured by all present, the fat helping to ward off some of the effects of the alcohol.

I eventually manage it about a quarter to five. Drinking thirds, probably a little less, of mostly tasty relatively low alcohol beer over nearly four hours is, as you might expect, not really a chore. With plenty of good conversation, Martyn Cornell, Bryan Betts (the beer viking), Glynn Davis and two guys from Brewdog who didn't have the letter 'y' in their first names as far as I recall, had joined us, but it was time for me to go.

I pulled on my coat and grabbed my bag, said my goodbyes and thanked them before making my way down in the lift with and walking to the station for company.

Sitting on the train I reflected on an afternoon of good beer, and not only that good beer that can be found in Marks and Spencer's stores up and down the country. Not every branch can carry the full range of course, shelf space prevents that unfortunately I was told, but the range and choice of styles is really quite mind-boggling compared to what you would have found on those same shelves three or so years ago. Times really have changed.

We had of course been invited to help promote the range, with the hope that we would write about it and talk about it to a wider audience, in fact it actually surprises me how few beer drinkers and brewers I speak to realise what can be found there. More importantly, to me at any rate, it shows the commitment that M&S have made to beer. Long may it continue.

NB: I have put pictures of Marks & Spencer's bottle labels old and current throughout this post. Have fun, as I did, spotting those bottles, hops and glasses.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like! A Brush With My Local Branch

We're SWEssex CAMRA And We Do What We Like!
A Brush With My Local Branch

I am not by nature a person who is prone to rant, in fact if you read my posts on a regular basis then you'll know that I try to find the positive in everything I do. I have on occasion been critical of certain beers that breweries have produced, particularly in my own county of Essex, but I have always tried to offer a balanced argument with words of encouragement and praise where I think it is due.

I am passionate about the beer scene in Essex. For too long I feel we have been introspective, trying not to offend anyone, churning out the same formulaic brown beers and golden ales, all the while keeping those abvs. down. The local drinkers that embraced CAMRA in the late seventies and early eighties when it was a genuine force for change still see themselves as the core of the organisation. Cask beer was, and still is, their fight, and they fought hard to keep it. Admittedly there were many brewery casualties along the way; Gray and Sons ceased brewing in Chelmsford in 1974, Ind Coope became the Romford Brewing Company in 1980 and switched to keg-only production before being closed completely in 1992, and of the Ridleys Brewery in Hartford End was sold to Greene King and closed in 2005, but we now boast thirty-one active breweries, with the majority of these less than ten years old.

You could argue that there has never been a better time to drink beer in Essex. Some brewers have decided to be adventurous and brew beers that embrace the new traditions and the growth in the craft beer market across the world, but it has on the whole been a tentative 'toe-in-the-water' experimentation rather than a total immersion and seeing where the current takes them. All of the larger Essex breweries without exception have a brown bitter, a golden ale and an India Pale Ale in the English style as part of their core range. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this but I think I have found a fundamental problem, a cause and effect that has meant that we haven't developed in quite the same way as breweries in other counties.

In the early days of CAMRA when campaigning was at its most furious the lack of good beer available to the drinker in the county was shockingly poor. In the late nineteen-eighties, when I first discovered what a fantastic drink cask ale was, Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, Courage Best Bitter, Courage Directors, and Ruddles County, were beers that were revered. You just have to look through local beer guides at the time to realise that this was mostly all there was. I used to travel miles to drink beers from Suffolk's Maldon brewery, and a visit to London meant delights from Young's or Fullers.

By this time, of course, CAMRA as an organisation was in its late teens, and for many of the original local branch members this was all that they could find to drink, their palates were used to it, it was what they truly loved. They still, and they still have that passion, but time has moved on. CAMRA is now over forty years old, it's middle aged, and many of those original campaigners have retired, or are very close to doing so. With retirement brings more free time, more time to socialise and drink the beer that they love. They've earned it after all. They know each other well, they are comrades in arms, a social club of drinking companions. They know their stuff. They support local breweries, well they say they do at any rate. Always happy to offer an opinion. They are the drinkers. "Please us" they say, "and we'll publish a favourable review in our local magazine. CAMRA is a national concern, the biggest consumer organisation in Europe, it'll be good publicity for you." In short, we know best.

My own experience with my local CAMRA branch, South West Essex, has been limited to say the least. Despite being a CAMRA member in the region for a quarter of a century I've never been invited to attend a meeting or a social event, in fact all I've ever received through the post from them has been an invitation to help staff the 'Grays Beer Festival' although I haven't even had one of those for the last five years or so. Maybe they got the hint.

I'd heard stories about this particular group, and have on occasion viewed them from afar at local beer festivals. One pub, which for obvious reasons I won't be naming, supposedly lost its Good Beer Guide listing after refusing them a room to have a meeting on a particularly busy Saturday evening. It's now back in the guide, and I am told that they actively courted the branch to this end, although on a recent visit I found the beer quality to be the poorest I have known it to be in more than ten years.

Recently however, I have thought that I really should get to know them, to really find out what makes them tick. My reasoning being that to truly understand beer in Essex I should really speak to and drink with the people who have seen it evolve over the longest time. So, when I discovered that they would be meeting at the Spread Eagle in Brentwood last night, a pub not far from me, and that Trevor Jeffrey, the brewer at Billericay Brewing and a good friend of mine would be in attendance, then I decided that if I was going to meet some of then then I wouldn't get a better opportunity to do so.

The Spread Eagle in Brentwood, my destination, has undergone something of a transformation in recent months. Owned by Punch Taverns, it was once well known in the area for drug dealing and under-age drinking. This summer however it has had a change of tenancy, and Jack, the new landlord has brought good beer and most importantly a good old-fashioned home-from-home pub feeling back to the place. It's quickly become my local. I both live and work nearby,and it just so happens to be directly on my route home. I'll be posting a proper review of the The Spread Eagle in due course, suffice to say that it has become my port in a storm or a place where I feel I can unwind amongst friends.

Trevor had told me he had arranged to meet them there just after eight o'clock, the plan being that they'd stay for about an hour before moving on to the local Wetherspoon's in the High Street. I can time the walk from my house almost down to the second, I do it every day, so I walked through the door right on cue at five past the hour.

Normally I can walk straight in and be served, but I was forced to stop in the narrow doorway and plan my route with care. Arrayed in from of me, two deep and taking up the full length of the bar were the local CAMRA branch. As I paused for a second, I was bundled in the back and almost knocked sideways by a large gentleman who was greeted by those closest and asked what he would like to drink. Thankfully there were plenty of staff on, they were expected after all, and I took my pint of Rooster's Yankee to a suitable viewing area, content to observe and wait for Trevor, who had yet to arrive.

One of the things that I particularly like about The Spread Eagle, something that sets it apart from the rest of the pubs in Brentwood, is that Jack prefers the dimpled pint mug, and serves his beer in them by choice. The CAMRA crew had clearly just been served, and these mugs were being passed out amongst the fifteen or so members, when to my surprise they started to be passed back across the bar to a chorus of grumbling voices. Curious as to what had occurred I took an interest in why this was the case. I hoped it wasn't the beer quality, and it wasn't, it was purely the glass that was at fault. To a person, both men and women were among their number, they had all required that their pints were poured into straight and Nonic glasses. This was something that I've never seen before and I couldn't really understand why. Two of the men who were closest to me, one of which suffered from terrible halitosis on receiving their drinks exclaimed "That's more like it, a traditional glass, it makes the beer taste so much better." Now, I'm currently reading Martyn Cornell's latest book, Strange Tales Of Ale, and I had just finished the chapter that shows that the dimpled mug was introduced by Ravenhead in 1934, a full ten years before the introduction of the Nonic glass. Be that as it may, it strikes me as a very odd thing to do.

Several members were moaning loudly about the lack of tables, and how they really wanted to sit down. This was a little strange as there were several free tables, but they were not near the bar and a couple of them were in different parts of the pub meaning they couldn't stay together as a group. I suspect that it was because of this a couple who had been enjoying a drink before they were surrounded, got up to leave, whereby the chairs were almost dragged from under them before they had barely gathered up their things.

I looked across as they departed and saw that Trevor had made his way in. Now, considering that he is a local brewer and he was wearing a brewery sweatshirt, and these aren't available to buy, not a single one of their number acknowledged his arrival or uttered one word to him as he made his way through them to talk to me. Of all the events of the evening this was the one that I found most surprising. In fact all the time I was there did one of them approach him. On one occasion he pointed out to me some of them that he knew by name, and though they undoubtedly heard him at least one of then consciously turned their back to him as their name was mentioned.

Before he had arrived I had, with no shame, let my British Guild Of Beer Writers membership card be very obvious in my wallet when I had paid for my beer. I noticed that the two men next to me had seen it, they nudged each other and nodded towards it, but I was still met with a shield-wall of broad South West Essex backs.

I had only allowed myself an hour to meet them, I wanted to get home before my children went to bed, but I came to realise that Iwasn't going to get the opportunity to introduce myself on this occasion either than to wade in and do so. I paused for a moment before considering not to do so. Did I really want to be associated with such a group behaving in such a boorish and ill-considered arrogant manner?

The high point of the night came just before I left when Trevor presented both myself and Jack with a bottle of his latest beer, Clever Trevor, for us to try at a later date, and I put on my coat and worked my way through the crowd and went outside.

As I walked away clutching my beery prize, a had a pang of regret that I'd left Trevor to the mercy of those people for the rest of the evening. I don't know if they ever spoke to him, I don't know if he even stayed, but I did feel that I had had a lucky escape.

Before I get a string of comments stating that not all CAMRA branches are like this, that you do things differently where you are, and that this is surely an isolated incident, I fully appreciate that this may be the case. However what I would say to you is that should not happen at all. There wasn't a single person in the pub who didn't know that this was a CAMRA group, and I don't think that it could be said that any of them enjoyed their presence. How is it that you can promote a drink by de-camping and making a general nuisance and obstruction of yourselves wherever you see fit?

Maybe I'm missing a point somewhere down the line, but if I am then will someone please tell me what it is?

If this rot has set in, and I can't believe that South West Essex is the only branch in the country that are guilty of this type of behaviour then CAMRA is surely doomed. Excluding people at a grass-roots level, creating an elite clique and having your own in-jokes and foibles will hasten your demise not expand your active membership in the long term.

I really hope that isn't the case. Recent motions at the AGM prove that there is flesh blood coming through and opinions are beginning to change. As I arrived home and put my beer in the fridge I wondered if it might be too little too late.