26 January 2021

Dropped anchor

An often asked question in the beer enthusiast community is "what was the beer that started you on this journey?" or "What beer changed your life" or "What was your gateway beer?"

Funnily enough, it was being asked by Andy Parker (@tabamatu on Twitter) on Friday night. All 70-odd replies are worth a browse (once you've finished reading this, obviously!)


And the answer is "well it depends." Because when exactly did the journey start? Do we count the first surreptitious shandy at age 12 in a beer garden with your dad? Or that sneaky can of warm Fosters down the park as a teenager?

Let's take a sample size of one. Male, 37, Welsh, slightly overweight and thinks he's a blogger.

Ahem.

My first forays into the world of social alcohol came with RTD concoctions such as Bacardi Breezers, VK Vodka Kick and the odd Smirnoff Ice before a bad experience with some of my mate's home-made screwdrivers put me off vodka, and indeed most spirits, for life.

I went onto a safer and, in my still naiive eyes, cooler option of Budweiser. Never mind that it cost approximately one-and-a-half times as much per millilitre as draught lager, I would happily sup 330ml bottles all night.

Then at university my taste for gassy beer waned and I became a gassy cider drinker - although the cider in question was Strongbow, which was all the more insane considering I was at university in Cornwall. 

In my early 20s I discovered Magners and thought pouring cheap flat Irish cider over ice cubes was the height of sophistication.

When I met my other half, we used to go and visit her grandfather whose beer of choice was John Smiths. I had never drunk bitter before - my immediate male family members were all fans of lager - and I was as smitten with this new taste as I was with my new partner. This eventually led to Worthington's and Caffreys, but it wasn't until a holiday to Cornwall in 2008 that I would try Tribute for the first time.

Tribute, the late, great, Roger Ryman's tour de force, was the first of my proper "gateway" beers, crossing the threshold from mass market to "small regional brewer" territory. I was intrigued and suddenly those funny shaped hand-pulled pumps with the big badges on them began to grab my attention. Doom Bar was next to follow, and another week away in Dorset led to Fortyniner and the DSB collection of beers.

The haul from Weymouth, 2009

I then went to Ireland and fell under the thrall of the black stuff and from then there was no looking back. I would - sometimes foolhardily - choose whatever was on cask in whatever pub I went into, including one notorious time in a now-closed Wetherspoons where, much to the amusement of my keg-safe work collagues, I found myself on the receiving end of the dregs of something called Bonkers Conkers

I also had misadventures with Badger's Pickled Partridge - to this day one of only two beers I've drain poured - and the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm's Garlic Beer (brewed by Yate's) - to this day one of only two beers I've drain poured

And then something happened when I was least expecting it. In my naivety I thought I was exploring the limits of what beer could offer me by going through supermarket shelves and picking out bottles, or by running the gauntlet of random cask ales.

Until one random sunny May day in 2014, in a small town in Oxfordshire.

My brother and sister in law - whose wedding I attended in Sweden three years later and which provoked another beer story - were living in Faringdon at the time and the whole family had decamped down the M4 from South Wales for a long weekend. My father in law had a new child so on the Sunday we piled into a couple of cars and drove around looking for a quiet suitable pub/restaurant for a bite to eat. 

We stumbled upon the Lord Nelson in Wantage, a Hungry Horse pub. The sun was over the yardarm and there wasn't anything inspiring on the cask, so I scanned a drinks menu handily placed on the bar. I settled on something called "Anchor Steam" for no other reason than it was brewed in San Francisco; a city I have a borderline obsession with being a fan of its music, its movies and, more importantly, its baseball team.


And after a few sips I was hooked. This was different. This wasn't a lager, or a bitter, or an ale. This was different. This was historic and new at the same time. I wanted more. It was a small bottle at a relatively high price. It was like Budweiser all over again, only further west.

This was my gateway beer. This was the reason I turned out to be a beer enthusiast / wanker / nerd.

This was genesis. 2:14pm, Sunday 25th May, 2014.

Anchor Steam was first brewed in 1896 by the Anchor Brewing Company. The "steam" in the name comes from the fact that boiling wort would be pumped to the roof where it would be cooled by the notorious Pacific coastal winds, leaving a cloud of steam around the brewery. 

Of course, being in San Francisco, it would be hard to tell the steam from the fog.

Originally a drink for the working classes, Steam beer would survive the clutches of the continually creeping mass-market corporate beer world of the mid-late 20th Century until it eventually fell into Sapporo's hands in 2017. 


Some Newquay Steam beermats attached to the author's wall


Anchor Steam and its stablemates are now seen as classic, pioneering examples of the craft style and are adored the world over, with the iconic branding and labelling literally being works of art by artist Jim Stitt - the Christmas edition label being a particularly anticipated part of every year's festive tradition.

Anchor Steam on sale in Cardiff in a pub named, appropriately, the Head of Steam.



But alas, at the grand old age of 93, Stitt has retired and has handed over responsibility for the Christmas label to a chap called Nathan Yoder. Huge shoes to fill and a storied legacy to maintain and continue. We all live in hope he respects the tradition wisely and thoughtfully.

As for the rest of the range though...well there's been a much more drastic change.

from Chris Martin's Twitter account

Yikes.

Designed, it seems, primarily around an icon which would make a decent social media avatar, this is an uninspiring, bland, anonymous design unbefitting such a storied beer. 

Other beer brands - including Budweiser - have managed to retain their vintage brands throughout modernisation processes. This "125th anniversary commemoration" stamps upon and buries nearly all of the story that comes before it. 

The plain, inconsistent labelling (Why does the Porter get even a slight semblance of individualism?) resembles a supermarket own-brand and, most disappointingly, merely now seems to fall into the category of just being a sub brand of a big beer conglomerate.

It will blend in with lesser brews, becoming part of the furniture. 

 

Look familiar?

Naturally the news has elicited some emotional responses on social media amongst those who love the beer and the branding. Chris Martin, of Alcohol By Volume, said "Never knew a rebrand could be so unnecessary, so painful and miss the mark by so much. This has zero personality and sucks the soul out of an historic brewery I love so much" while Pete Brown -  who literally wrote the book on beer label art and design - responding with a very reserved "No. No no no no no . Absolutely not. No. I said no."

Others were more defiant.

Niiiiiiiiice.

As rebrands go, it could have been a lot worse however. Kelham Island, in my humble opinion, took a huge step backwards when they ditched their classy, refined logo in favour of something straight off of a 1990s kids Saturday morning TV show

And when BrewDog changed their well-known and recognisable can design to a boring shield, it was met with disbelief and more than a few comparisons to numerous other brewers -  such as Thornbridge - who also utelised a very similar shield motif on their small pack labels.

But of course, if BrewDog haven't done it yet, no-one has. That's the rule, isn't it?

The important thing for Anchor Steam fans is that the beers inside the bottles are the same, brewed in the same city that they have been for over 125 years. And while we may bemoan the gradual and ever-present homogenisation of our world - where focus groups, surveys and marketing graduates rule the roost over romance and nostalgia - we must be grateful for small mercies.

Anchor Steam was my golden gate into the world of craft beer. It will always have a special place in my heart, and the memory of that May day in 2014 is as real to me now as it will ever be, and no crap boring label can change that.


Addenda - 28 January
Anchor have put out a statement in reply to all those who expressed concern, dismay, distaste and disappointment with the new branding:








2 January 2021

Dry January : Thoughts, Tips & Tricks

This year is an ideal time to do Dry January. With little to no pubs open, there is no guilt factor involved in potentially reducing the time and money spent in your local establishment.

Of course, if the landlords deigned to stock a modest range of lo/no/AF options outside of lemonade or squash, perhaps they would find the usual patronage in January is mitigated somewhat, but that's an argument that's already been done to death.

Similarly any breweries who have not at least considered producing a lo/no/AF beer are potentially missing out on a growing, potentially lucrative, generationally-defined sector of the marketplace.

The merits of a dry month are questionable at best. Short-term abstinence does not magically reset or even re-focus your relationship with alcohol if you are, to use horribly basic terms, a "normal" drinker, and even less so if you have a dependency. 

The charities who run the official campaigns promoting Dryanuary and Stoptober are laudable and to be praised for the work they do with problem drinkers, however their razor-sharp focus on targeting those of us lucky enough to apparently not have a problem is misguided at best and does their ethos more harm than good. 

It leads to all-too-easy, lazy accusations from the usual suspects of there being an undercover temperance movement afoot designed to do to alcohol what anti-smoking campaigns have done to tobacco. This stupid equivalence of course ignores the zero risk of my getting lung cancer by sitting next to a drinker in a pub.

Dry January promoters make big of the numbers involved. We've already had the customary press release from the bigwigs, claiming nearly 6.5million people will do Dry January. This figure is nakedly and patently misleading. 6.5million people have said they might do it. Many won't start. Those that do start won't see it through. Many will have "cheat days" rendering the endeavour meaningless. The fact we never get a similarly triumphant press release declaring how many actually made it through to February speaks volumes.

So why bother? Well one of the major proponents of the effort, Hilary Sheinbaum, says: "There are so many benefits to doing a Dry January — or any other dry month — including better sleep, improved digestion, increased energy, clearer skin and an overall sense of accomplishment". This is all true-ish, but these are all very temporary benefits that assume a common baseline amongst the sample.

There are plenty of folk who drink alcohol who already have great digestion, clear skin and get gratification from other forms of accomplishment, if the latter is important. Being an imbiber is not automatically to be unhealthy. In fact, many drinkers mitigate their input by being especially healthy and active at other times, to offset any damage that may be caused by the odd fermented beverage. The amount of runners and joggers on Beer Twitter is testament to that.

However three benefits that I personally have found are as follows:

1) it does relieve pressure on your wallet. The cold fact is that beer is costing more and more, especially good quality, independently produced, craft beer from independent stores. This is not a bad thing per se, but it can be very easy to get carried away on online ordering sites when presented with such a smorgasbord of superlatives, especially during this pandemic when procurement of booze has become as wonderfully easy as ordering a pizza. 

2) You won't get any hangovers or other negative effects that come with a decent session. I had a horrible hangover on Xmas Day this year that nearly ruined my enjoyment of Junior Choice. It was a stark reminder that the pleasure-pain principle is real and that, as I get older, my tolerance levels shrink quicker than my hairline.

3) It genuinely can be an aide to weight loss as you are a) consuming less carbs; b) less likely to order a takeaway while sober, and c) less likely to pop to the shop for a Mars Bar while sober.

I am a veteran of several Dry Januaries and Stoptobers (and the occasional NayPril and Lo/NoVember as well) so I feel well versed in sharing my approach and tactics. Nothing you are about to read is new, or revolutionary, nor do I mean any of this to sound condescending or proselytising, but there may be things in there that you may not have considered or been aware of.

Don't force-suppress your base needs
You can't just turn your animal beer brain off. You will still want something to have in hand for a Saturday afternoon watching the football, or for an evening spinning a record, or for drowning your frustrations after that last minute Zoom meeting with the boss where he changes everything at the last minute. You will need something that relaxes you and sends your endorphins flying. You are denying yourself beer, not pleasure.

You'll get used to it
The first two weeks are the hardest, but the second two weeks will go by in a breeze, so much so that it will seem a shame to have to "stop" when January stops. Of course you don't have to, there's no hard and fast rules here.

Don't give into pressure
Whether it's from mates, pub landlords, the media, your family or anyone else, don't let anyone force you into doing Dry January, or indeed *not* doing Dry January. You are master of your own fate, you are captain of your own soul.

Stay connected and share your experience
If you're a social media user, keep on social media, don't lock yourself away from other folks who are continuing to drink. Let their (relative) pleasure be your motivation. Know that what they are having as a "norm" will take on new meaning for you. Maybe let others know if you feel any benefits, be an evangelist.

Work out what your best replacement beverage is
Avoid additional amounts of caffeine to your normal intake. Avoid carbonated sugary pop. You ideally need something unusual as a temporary substitute that you wouldn't "normally" drink. For me that is a fruit-based sparkling water - there are plenty of options in the supermarket - ideally one with a low sugar content. Choose Appletiser, or Schloer, or any of the own-brand imitations. Another option is ordinary squash plus tonic water which, I find, gives a unique, bitter tangy flavour.

Lo/no options
The arguments over lo/no have been done to death but the one truth is that the range, and quality of that range, is growing. In 2016 all I had was Becks Blue and Kopparberg Non Alcoholic Cider. Now there is an absolute plethora of options and styles from brands such as Hammerton, Brooklyn, Budweiser, Birra Moretti, Peroni, Drop Bear, Pistonhead, Guinness Open Gate, Big Drop, St Peters, Adnams, Sharps, Tiny Rebel, Northern Monk, Br*wD*g.... the list goes on and on. I recommend the excellent Steady Drinker https://steadydrinker.com/articles/best-non-alcoholic-beers/ as a starting point to decide on what suits you. I've listed a few that I tried in November 2019 here : https://bringotbeer.blogspot.com/2019/11/lonovember-rankings.html

Choose a beer for February 1st
Dry January 2021 ends on a Sunday night, so choose yourself a beer for that Monday evening, February 1st, that will be your treat / reward for successfully navigating the month. Choose something special, or an old friend, that you know will give you the most pleasure.

"Wet" Dry January options
If you don't want to abstain from alcohol completely, then maybe choose a different alcoholic beverage to try, perhaps one that is served in smaller quantities or that can be mixed to produce a "long" drink. I didn't have a beer in July 2020 but I did have plenty of whisky-and-diet-lemonades instead. Had the same effect as having 5 beers but quicker, in lower quantities which led to less bloating and discomfort.

It's only temporary
Remember, it's temporary. You haven't changed, you haven't done anything revolutionary, you are still the same wonderful person you were before and will be after. You've just done something different, something unusual, something you may want to do again if you've found it rewarding, or something you never want to do again if you found it difficult. However you won't know unless you try.

Choose another month
January may not be convenient for you. The calendar after all is a Roman invention which means nothing really in the grand scheme of things. You may find it a bad time of year to lose one of your pleasures, one of your coping mechanisms, especially if you suffer from SAD or similar. So maybe wait until April? Or high summer? Who says you have to do it now?


So that's pretty much it. I'll be starting my four weeks off on Monday, as it's unlikely I'll be boozing straight away on Feb 1st so I can make up for the three days I missed out on this weekend. Do what you want to do, what you need to do, in your own way, and good luck.