Tuesday 26 January 2021

Brexit Moan

You will no doubt have read in the press that one of the seemingly unforeseen issues we have after Brexit is the need for a customs declaration when sending parcels to or from the EU.  This seems to be a very complicated matter indeed, as although there is unlikely to be duty paid, the amount of form filling and put frankly - buggering about - is attracting fees in addition to VAT which is payable either by the seller in the EU in the case of EU-GB, or by the recipient.  Ideally this would be paid to HMRC by the European exporter - and many will do that and pass it on in the price- but for others the game is no longer worth the candle, and they will simply cease to trade business to customer with the UK.

 Already I have seen on Twitter and elsewhere that beer is affected by this and for my own part, my occasional cases of mixed beers from Bavaria will cease for the time being. OK it isn't the biggest worry in the world as I can buy substitutes here to a certain extent, or simply buy British beer instead, which I already do.  The pity is that when travel is banned, and we are all in lockdown, a bit of a taste of Germany is a welcome diversion, but I fear that in the future, for many lovers of beer from Bavaria or Belgium, the only way to get those rare beers, will be either to pay top dollar here, if you are lucky enough to find what you want, or do without. It seems we will likely be back to awaiting our foreign trips in many cases. Here's what the German company said.

Momentan ist kein Versand nach England, Wales und Schottland möglich. Wir arbeiten daran. Aber es muss u.a. eine Handelsrechnung erstellt werden.

Danke für Euer Verständnis

 Euer Web-Bier-Team

Basically, for the time being until they work it out, no sales to England and Scotland.

My attitude, while annoyed by this being inflicted upon me and countless others was one of "Well I suppose I can be philosophical about that."  Less so when I discovered that the watch E had bought for me for my birthday in August had ceased to work.  It had been in its box more or less since then as it is a bit "dressy" for day to day use. I'd only taken it out to look at it out of boredom on Saturday, but when I did the bugger had stopped.  Like all of my watches, it is made in Germany and in this case was purchased direct from the manufacturer in Berlin. I ordered it one day and a day and a half later, UPS turned up with it. Easy peasy.

I wrote to the manufacturer complaining about the short battery life, but their response was to send me a prepaid label to send it back for repair or replacement.  Clearly they know something I don't and a mere battery replacement is insufficient. The prepaid label is also a customs declaration. It is a bit complex.  I need to know quite a few things I don't. Here it is - see what you make of it. Click to make it bigger.

Now of course I have asked the seller to tell me the stuff I don't know, but even then and with free postage I am reluctant to send a quite expensive watch back with missing information. I worry that I'll never see it again.

The beer I can sort out - or rather - live with, but my lovely watch, not so sure. Brexit dividend? I rather think not.

Yes - better inside the tent pissing out in this case.  And probably every case. Clearly business to business will sort itself out, albeit expensively, but business to customer and vice versa? I doubt it. 

And of course I didn't vote leave. I'm not that crazy.

Friday 22 January 2021

Where is the THT?


Regular readers of this blog will know that my chosen pseudonym Tandleman is named after my local pub, the JW Lees owned Tandle Hill Tavern, which in turn is named after Tandle Hill, a landscape feature between Middleton - where I live - and Royton - where I don't. The Tandle Hill Tavern is usually abbreviated by me and by locals as the "THT" or, simply "the Tavern."  A further geographical - or is it a political point  - is that the Tavern and Middleton are in Rochdale Borough Council area, while Royton, mentioned above, is in the Borough of Oldham. The boundary between the two is about 200 yards from the THT on the lane which connects the two.

The Tavern is a mile from either the A663 on the Middleton side or the A627 on the Royton end of Thornham Lane. You may have seen me mention the lane in my blog, usually referring to my traipse up there every Sunday from the bus stop, to join my pals for a pint or several. To quote the Good Beer Guide - which maybe I shouldn't - but I wrote it anyway - "It nestles amid a number of farms, reached by  an unmade, non-metalled farm track". Or, writing from memory, words to that effect, as the descriptive words vary from year to year. In other words it isn't that easy to get to. In fact when I speak to locals here in Middleton, it is surprising that many haven't heard of the pub and if they have, have never been there, or the adjacent 110 acre country park.

Now this isn't about to turn into a paeon of praise for my favourite pub, which has been a welcome part of my life for over twenty years, it is simply to let people know where it is and is inspired by the photo which accompanies this piece.  I came across this photo a couple of weeks ago on a local Facebook site. It was taken by a drone two or three weeks ago and illustrates, better than words, where this unique pub is situated. My first thought on looking at the photo, was "Where exactly is the pub?"  My second was to ask the owner, Jon Graham, if I could use it. He kindly gave his permission, for which I am grateful.

So what are we looking at?  This is the open farmland between part of Middleton on the left side and on the right-hand side of the photo, the lane,  continuing into Royton. The right-hand part of the photo, where it ends, is, more or less,  the boundary between the two boroughs mentioned in the first paragraph above.  If you look at the left of the photo, in front of the farm with the wind turbines, you'll see Thornham Lane. Follow this right with your eye to the clump of buildings in the middle and the reddish looking building - it isn't red - with an  apparently white roof - it isn't white  - is the Tandle Hill Tavern.  To save you the counting, there are four farms in the photo, so to say that it "nestles" amongst them, is pretty accurate I think you'll agree.

Going back to the wind turbines, you'll see the lane disappearing left. Obscured in the photo by cloud, is a bridge over the A627M -  itself just visible above the wind turbines - and hence after three quarters of a mile, the A663 and the 17 bus back home. (If we are not diverted to the Ship Inn, also owned by JW Lees,  a couple of hundred yards away that is.)

Of course at the moment neither the Tavern nor the Ship are available for anything other than visual inspection, but one day soon I hope, they'll be open for drinkers once more. Then that trek up the hill will be rewarded not only by pints of Lees Bitter, but importantly,  by the company of my many friends there.

From the War Memorial above the Tavern the views are similar to the drone, but of course more panoramic. It was here that in the period leading up to the Peterloo massacre it was said the area had been used by radicals for practising marching and drilling. 

Views include a clear line of sight across the Cheshire Plain to Jodrell Bank. Its famous dish can clearly be seen as can , across to Merseyside,  Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. North to Lancashire, is the TV transmitter at Winter Hill which provides my TV signals. Its red hazard lights are easily visible when walking back down the lane to the A663.

Once again my thanks to Jon Graham for his permission to use his work in this blogpost.

Saturday 16 January 2021

Book Review. Beer by Design by Pete Brown

There are over 2,500 breweries in the UK and when you add imported beer to domestic output, there are over 10,000 beer different brands on sale in the UK.  This should be seen against a background of falling consumption, so given this plethora of choice, how, in such a crowded marketplace, do you nudge the customer to pick up and look at your product over another, and more importantly, buy it.  In his latest book, Beer by Design, beer writer Pete Brown sets out not only to tell us what processes are involved, but to explain and decode the hidden subtext of beer labelling.

Firstly Pete explains that visual marketing is everywhere and despite our best efforts to deny it, we are all influenced by it to some degree or other.  Beer is no different. What makes you choose? Well in short, in addition to what you already know - your personal preferences, strength and so on make up a part of it - but also, more subtly, it is how the beer is presented to you. 

How it appears, the shape and colour of the packaging and the labelling all give (or don't give) visual appeal on a number of levels. In this, straight up, Pete declares an interest. He has a degree in marketing and worked in that field himself before becoming a writer and trust me, this is a good thing, as when you read the book, the first thing  that strikes you - apart from the lavish illustrations - is that this book is written by someone who knows and understands his subject. Marketing as a discipline is tackled head on with its good and bad points, fairly presented to the reader. While many of us may jump first on its ability to deceive or mislead, the other side of the coin is to present a case to the consumer. As Pete points out, when done honestly, it can be helpful to the purchaser, and false or misleading marketing usually gets caught out.

So where did it all start?  At its most basic, the brand is an identifying mark which denotes ownership.  Commercial branding also prevents the unscrupulous from passing off their product as someone else's. As far back as 1266,  bakers were required to put an identifying mark on their bread, but marks of ownership were around in 2700 BCE - so the idea isn't at all new. Now it is firmly enshrined in law of course. In the case of the UK, the key date is the 1st of January 1876 with the passing into law of The Trade Marks Registration Act. Fittingly, in the context of this book, it was brewer Bass which registered "Trade Mark No1".  A separate page of the book describes this and the continual fight Bass had against counterfeiting of both their brand and product. 

Further chapters tell us of the evolution of branding, from labelling, to bottle shape and more recently, with the advent of craft beer, how cans became somewhat of a blank canvas to offer individuality and to get the product noticed.  Here the book really comes into its own with case studies of various well known and not so well known breweries. Pete explains that BrewDog's early labelling, with its offset lettering and brash colours were a clear nod to its rebellious beginnings and a two fingered salute to big beer, but also as BrewDog became more available in mainstream outlets, the design and attitude moved in two further iterations, from "rebellious" to "maverick", but still, distinctively "BrewDog".

This part of the book is in effect an enjoyable and detailed insight for the reader as to what can influence labelling once the statutory requirements of contents, strength etc are got out of the way. The examples are carefully chosen and Pete's words set the context and decipher and break down each for the reader.  You will find what to the uninformed may be generically be "simply" art work, has to the brewery - and its marketeers - particular purpose and is carefully selected accordingly.  

By the time you have whizzed through the book - and it is a delightful read in Pete's usual warm and easygoing style - you will find yourself going back over it again to look at the individual brewery pages in more depth. I particularly enjoyed the analysis of Cloudwater and Camden Town, where on one hand you have a small brewer with a great reputation, approaching design in one way and the other, now owned by "Big Beer" making changes that position the former craft darling - my words not Pete's - in the mainstream, but branding wise, still cutting edge.  As an aside, you learn too, that minimalism as in the case of Kernel is nowhere near as easy as it looks.

Whether it is art, typography, themes, family similarities, traditional or zany, labelling has a similar purpose, to identify and attract.  Pete poses the question at the beginning of the book "should you judge a book by its cover?"  As he himself says -  and I'm slightly paraphrasing here - Why not? You have to start somewhere." Of course the ultimate decision will be about the quality of the product inside the packaging, but the reasonable hope is that if care is taken in packaging and presentation, then great care is being taken with the beer. 

This book is well  written, interesting and visually very appealing.  It is not remotely dry, but rather an engaging history of a serious subject. You will learn a lot in reading it.  This is not just a book for the beer geek, but has much broader appeal and is unhesitatingly recommended.

Pete Brown is a British author, journalist, broadcaster and consultant specialising in food and drink, especially the fun parts like beer, pubs, cider, bacon rolls and fish and chips.  He was named British Beer Writer of the Year in 2009, 2012 and 2016, has won three Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, and has been shortlisted twice for the Andre Simon Awards. Pete is Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers. He lives in London with his wife Liz, and dog Mildred.

 Beer By Design is available from CAMRA Books

Publisher: CAMRA Books
ISBN: 9781852493684
Number of pages: 224
Dimensions: 250 x 210 mm


Saturday 9 January 2021

Brains on the Brink

 It was inevitable that my first blog post of the new year would have a Covid-19 connection. No it isn't about the Governments somewhat irrational fear of pubs and their other many blind spots, though those in themselves deserve a post or two; it is about the likely demise of Brains Brewery.

For those that know it, particularly if you are Welsh, Brains is not only a small independent brewer, but somewhat of an icon.  A couple of its brands, Brains Dark,  a smooth and luscious Mild and SA -  a well-balanced, drinkable best bitter of a type that used to be common, are very well thought of indeed, though perhaps oddly, its biggest cask seller is the Reverend James, a beer inherited from the takeover of a local rival, Buckley's Brewery of Llanelli. 

I have somewhat of a soft spot for Brains. My work took me to Cardiff frequently, usually staying in Cathedral Road, which then had a Brains pub at each end. Naturally I spent time in both. I also worked for one of two weeks at a time in Gabalfa near the centre and enjoyed nipping over to a nearby Brains pub after work.  I clearly remember too supping in the Brewery Tap when the Old Brewery was still open and have no hesitation in mentioning I'm rather partial to a pint or two of Dark. Their pubs too always seem friendly and welcoming.

SA Brain  - commonly referred to as Brains - was founded by Samuel Arthur Brain in 1882. It brewed firstly and for over 100 years in the centre of Cardiff  and though it built a second brewery just outside, the original outlasted it.  The Old Brewery remained Brains HQ for over 100 years, until the company reluctantly decided it must leave the cramped site, which was by then, bursting at the seams. They bought the closed and larger Hancocks Brewery - a rival owned by ABInBev - near the railway station and Cardiff Arms Park. This move lasted 20 years until a new ultra modern brewery, The Dragon Brewery, was built in 2019 in Cardiff Bay.

The significance of Brains to Welsh Brewing cannot be underestimated. Roger Protz in his recent book on Family Brewers of Britain devoted nine whole pages to it. From humble beginnings, it saw off all its Welsh rivals, to become the sole major survivor today.  I recommend you read what Roger has to say and of course, my review of the book, which is here.

So what has happened? In short, Covid-19 has happened. Wales has been particularly hard hit by restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic causing "significant financial pressure" to Brains. The company had already concentrated business on a core number of  around 160 pubs with the remaining 40 or so being closed or sold off in March 2020.  Clearly this wasn't enough to stave off problems, as this was followed by an announcement before Christmas that rival pub chain Marston's was to take over on 25-year lease, 156 Brains pubs in a bid to save 1,300 jobs.  The deal includes a supply agreement to continue the availability of Brains brands in the pubs, which will be leased to Marston's at an annual rent of £5.5 million. Brain's managed houses will also be run by Marston's.

It is entirely clear from the details of the deal and comments in the financial press that this is the end of Brains as a vertically integrated family brewer. John Rhys, chairman of Brains said the deal with Marston’s “enables Brains to recapitalise its balance sheet and continue its long heritage as an independent entity”. Effectively this  turns Brains into a property management company according to quotes in the financial press. 

Ah, but what of the spanking new brewery in Cardiff Bay I hear you ask?  It seems this is unlikely to open again under Brains ownership. According to Wales Online the future looks bleak. Chief executive of SA Brain, Alistair Darby, said that all options were now being considered for the new modern facility in Cardiff Bay.  He said whatever the outcome, under the supply deal with Marston's, Brains beers would continue to be served when the pubs reopened. He said the consultation about the future of remaining staff was regrettable, but Brains could not afford to have a support centre without its own pubs.

"The brewery is clearly not operating at the moment, and we have to sadly work out whether it makes economic sense for us to continue to run the brewery. "What we cannot do, in any shape or form, is continue running operations that don't a make a positive contribution to the business. I cannot sugar the pill."

So what of the supply agreement? If Brains do not operate the brewery to supply the pubs, they will have to find another brewery to do so. The unthinkable is speculated upon in the Welsh Press. That is that the iconic beer brands will be brewed in England under licence, though there is little doubt that would severely dent the credibility of a name that graced Welsh Rugby shirts for years. Who would do this? Well, Carlsberg Marston's Brewing isn't exactly short of breweries, so seem the most likely candidate if the brewery doesn't stay open.

This is a sad state of affairs for all concerned. The company has effectively lost its pubs, built up throughout the course of its history. Its brewery, a very modern 45,000 barrel facility, looks to have a doubtful future as it appears to be up for sale as well, but with no takers so far. While the company will continue to provide a (very decent) living for the owning family, I have little doubt that these have been the bitterest of pills for them to swallow.

We often read of the parlous state of affairs in the hospitality trade today. It is no doubt dire indeed and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the problems faced by small brewers everywhere. Sadly in social media there has been too little by the way of comment or concern about Brains,  but I'd gently suggest that this is the biggest casualty so far. A company with over 160 houses and a history going back around 140 years has been brought to its knees by this pestilence.

A reminder surely that it isn't just small companies in railway arches and the like that are affected by Covid restrictions. We assume at our peril that bigger companies automatically have the wherewithal to survive. Brains proves this isn't so. Let's hope there aren't any more. We still need a volume independent sector in British brewing.

It may be to some that they as long as Brains beer, wherever it is brewed, is sold in pubs branded as Brains, then all is well. I doubt that. When a brewery owns pubs, its house style and company ethos pervades the estate. How long before that declines? 

 I have no doubt too, that the company acted to ensure that their employees were affected as little as possible. I do hope the brewery stays open to supply the pubs. I wonder too what will happen to the brewing contracts that Brains had? Worthington beers and Mackeson among them.