Wednesday, 10 November 2021

A Proper Beer - St Austell Brewery Proper Job

St Austell Brewery Proper Job, what a great name and its also a fantastic beer and winner of many awards. However, Proper Job as a beer had a slow start to life as we'll see.

Proper Job was first conceived in 2004 when Head Brewer Roger Ryman visited the Bridgeport Brewery in Oregon, USA which had produced an award winning IPA. Filled with enthusiasm, Roger returned to St Austell and developed his own version that was to become Proper Job. First brewed in 2005 on cask for the Celtic Beer Festival, it was launched in bottles a year later, although I do recall an unlabelled champagne version in conjunction with the Camel Valley Winery and still have a bottle.

When first launched in bottle Proper Job had a very different quirky cartoon style label, most un-St Austell Brewery and looked more likely to have come from another Cornish brewer in Skinners. The label focused on the story of the name where the phrase Proper Job was first used by Queen Victoria. She awarded the 32nd (Cornwall Regiment) the honour of becoming a Light Infantry Regiment in recognition of a stout defence of their garrison during the Indian Mutiny in 1857-88. The label featured a fun illustration of a soldier, although Roger was once heard to remark it looked more like Officer Crabtree from Allo Allo!

Original label design

Officer Crabtree from Allo Allo

The beer had a cutting edge flavour ahead of its time and was an immediate success. The bottle was 5.5% abv, ideal for a beer to enjoy at home but probably too strong to make commercial appeal on draught. For this reason when Proper Job first featured as a draught beer as part of the St Austell Brewery seasonal beer programme, the abv was reduced to 4.5%. This anomaly between bottle and draught was to remain and often caused some confusion, although it has to be said an abv difference between on and off trade variants is far from unusual.

Proper Job as a seasonal beer was a success so the decision was taken to make the beer a permanent part of the St Austell cask portfolio. Roger was unhappy with the link to the Indian Mutiny story, rightly reasoning that it was not something we should mark, so the pump clip/bottle label changed to its now familiar white and black design - a much better fit for a traditional Regional Brewer.

As a cask beer Proper Job was a slow starter, often filling a pubs rotational guest beer slot, it would come and go. However, in bottles where Rogers decision to make Proper Job a bottle conditioned beer, it was a very different story and soon established its spot on supermarket shelves. St Austell's investment in its own bottling facility bought quality improvements to its entire bottle range and they quickly became masters of bottle conditioned beers. The latter process meant that any excess oxygen in the bottling process was mopped up during the secondary fermentation in the bottle conditioning process, thus ensuring Proper Job's aroma and taste were more consistent, lasting a lot longer without apparent changes.

The one draw back of the bottle conditioning was the sediment issue whereby consumers who were unfamiliar with the process would either lay the bottle down in the fridge, and or pour the entire contents including the sediment into the glass that resulted in cloudy beer. We did experience a regular trickle of customer complaints about this leading Roger to experiment with one brew that was not bottled conditioned. However this did not meet our quality expectations so was quickly dropped. On the positive side the marketing team developed the Proper Pour initiative and this was communicated on the bottle and via social media and led to fewer complaints.

Proper Job in bottles continued to thrive and all of Rogers hard work was being recognised in terms of awards, including CAMRA's much prized Champion Bottled Beer of Britain Gold award in 2011. Furthermore it has finished in the top three in this competition an amazing four times since its launch which says volumes about its consistency. Brand extensions also appeared in Proper Black, a Black IPA and Big Job, a Double IPA. Again, two amazing beers with Big Job itself scooping CAMRA's Gold Award in 2017.

Receiving the Champion Bottled Beer Silver & Bronze awards for Proper Job & Big Job in 2019.

If you look at how most beer brands are built and grow, its normally on-trade (pubs/bars) led, with the off-trade (supermarkets/shops) following. Proper Job was different in that respect, the brand was primarily built in the off-trade. This was partly fuelled by social media and St Austell launched its unique Proper Job Ambassador scheme, whereby members of the public were appointed to become social media champions for the beer and it soon became one of the most talked about beers online.

In pubs the growth was still slow but in 2017/18 a redesign of the bottle label and more importantly pump clip took place. Its rare for a packaging redesign to have a significant affect of sales but in Proper Job's case in pubs it certainly did. St Austell had always put quality first, both in terms of its beer ingredients and marketing/advertising materials. St Austell employed the services of Brighton based marketing agency CookChick to lead the project and the new pump clips they created for both Proper Job and Tribute were superb, great stand out and quality clips. Proper Job with its unique 3d hop design was so different and gave the brand fresh life, reinforcing its premium-ness but also giving it appeal to the younger craft ale consumers.

Showcasing Proper Job and its new pump clip at Swindon Beer Festival

When Roger first conceived this beer it was ahead of its time and that might partly explain its slow start to life on cask. However, today it is a wonderful beer with great branding and in bottle its still one of the best IPA's available. I left St Austell 18 months ago and am pleased to say I still buy and drink the beer. I am very proud to have been part of the Proper Job story and the part I played in contributing to its success.  Proper cheers everyone!

Proper Job Ambassadors at the Great British Beer Festival.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Memories of the Great British Beer Festival.

Proper Job Ambassadors at GBBF 2018 enjoying the day in front of the St Austell bar.

In previous years whilst working for St Austell Brewery at the end of July I'd be busy preparing for the CAMRA run Great British Beer Festival or GBBF as it is known. St Austell always had a large bar at the festival and it was a highlight of the summer for 50,000+ real ale drinkers taking place during the first week of August at Olympia, London. My role was to manage our bar from its design and set up, through to working the event and the final take down at the end of the week. I could not have achieved this without two very able colleagues in Len and Steve who both went above and beyond in ensuring the bar was always the best in show.

Of course COVID has changed all of that. GBBF has not happened for the last two years and I no longer work in marketing for St Austell Brewery. GBBF was hard work and maligned by many (including some St Austell sales staff), but I have very positive memories of the festival and to my surprise, do really miss it.

The St Austell Brewery bar was unique, we would normally showcase eight or nine beers, from our ever popular flagship brands like Tribute and Proper Job, to some of the seasonal and speciality brews such as Liquid Sunshine and Big Job. In the final year CAMRA finally relented and we were able to serve lager in the fabulous Korev and two keg beers, which was a big step forward as at last we had some beers that appealed to younger drinkers. Steve was invaluable in this with his beer dispense skills and I was always confident that St Austell beers would be served in the supreme condition that our Head Brewer Roger Ryman would expect,

However it was not just the beers that made our bar different from the rest as we always had our own resident DJ in Len, who would deliver constant play lists of music ranging from 60's trend setting foot tappers, sing along favourites to heavy rock as the time of the day and mood of the bar demanded, all accompanied by flashing disco lights! Beer and music go together like carrots and peas and I must admit I really did look forward to the great tracks Len would unearth during the long days behind the bar, although there are only so any times you can hear Tom Jones Delilah! We quickly established our bar as the party bar and situated close to the festivals entrance and exits we were always busy.

Our Head Brewer, the late Roger Ryman always loved GBBF. I recall we would get the odd beer short listed each year for Champion Beer and he would make special efforts in choosing the best brew of the selected beer to go up and be judged. I know he would have been thrilled if St Austell could have won the Champion Beer of Britain accolade but sadly that never happened. However we did win the Champion Bottled Beer with Admirals Ale, Proper Job and Big Job over the years, so not a bad effort!

Talking of Big Job, at 7.2% abv this beer was responsible for ruining many a drinkers day at the event. Customers would rush over to our bar on entering the festival and ask for a pint of Big Job. We'd ask, are you sure and politely suggest a half pint might be a better starter, but many would resist and go the full pint. Well good luck with that we'd wish them and an hour later you would see them, worse for wear, like a racehorse that's gone off too quickly in a race, now floundering to stay the course!

At this point I must also mention the role played by the CAMRA organisers, not least because they were all volunteers. Primarily an older generation of people, they were all very passionate about cask beer and although I certainly did not always agree with their rules on how beer should be served, I had the utmost respect for their efforts. GBBF was in the process of changing and they were trying hard to appeal to a younger market and embrace the craft beers, which surely was a must if the festival was to survive. 

CAMRA members in front of our bar in 2019, note the steel barrels which acted as tables and kept people drinking at the bar, superb branding as well.

From a marketing viewpoint at St Austell I always saw the value of working with CAMRA and showcasing our beers at their festivals, they attracted large numbers of people who were interested in beer who were opinion formers in their own right. Building beer brands is not down to one or two actions, it needs a joined up plan that encompasses many things and I always made sure we had a presence at many of these events. In particular the CAMRA festivals allowed brewers to build their own bar and create a brand look. I've found craft beer festivals to be different in this respect in that all brewers attending are expected to fit within a framework and all look the same. Thus you became part of the overall noise of the event and it's often difficult to stand out, making brand building much harder.

St Austell made great efforts for the trade day session, which opened the show on the Tuesday afternoon. They held a pre-event drinks reception at a local pub for licensees and trade customers. This was always excellent and gave a great opportunity for networking and much business was cemented. Some colleagues saw this is as the be all and end all of the event but for me, GBBF was more an opportunity to showcase our brands and touch many of the 50,000 members of the public who came to enjoy the event. During my long career in beer marketing I came to realise that at the end of the day, its the consumer who finally drinks your beer, rather than the licensee who puts in on the bar, that ultimately determines the success or failure of a brand.

So, good luck to GBBF for whatever the future holds, I'd like to think it reappears as a major festival rather than an online or pub event that its limited too in 2021. However for now, I'm happy just to raise a glass and say, thanks for the memories, I had a blast.

St Austell Brewery bar in 2015, left to right, Len, myself (Marc), Phillipa (colleague from marketing) and Steve.


Sunday, 23 May 2021

The beer that saved a brewery - the story of St Austell Brewery Tribute


St Austell Brewery looking splendid in the Cornish sunshine

As I write this blog today Tribute Pale ale is St Austell Brewery's flagship brand and one of the leading cask ale and bottled beers in the UK. However, back in the turn of the millennium it was a very different story.

When I joined St Austell Brewery in early 2002 its beer brands were in decline, unloved by local Cornish customers and its reputation was old fashioned compared to a new wave of brewers that had evolved in the far South West. Both Sharps and Skinners were seen as brewing far more interesting beers and in terms of quality, their beers were annoyingly more consistent. St Austell Brewery struggled to shake off its St Awful nickname and many of the older beers such as Tinners, Duchy and even HSD were tainted by this.

Newly appointed Head Brewer Roger Ryman worked hard with his brewing team to improve the quality of the beers but once you get an unsavoury reputation its hard to overcome. In 1999 Roger first brewed Tribute, it was originally called Daylight Robbery, a seasonal beer to celebrate the eclipse. The new beer proved so popular that licensees clamoured for it to be retained as a permanent beer. The Daylight Robbery name was not suitable for the long term so top London Advertising Agency, Design House were tasked to come up with a name and pump clip design and in 2001 the new Tribute was Born.

Roger Ryman (right) with Roger Protz receiving the Supreme Champion Beer Accolade from Falmouth Beer Fesitival in 2004

When I joined St Austell Brewery the aspiration was to build an ale brand to combat the successful local brewers (Sharps etc) and also to have a brand that would compete on the national stage with the likes of 6X and Old Speckled Hen. The chosen brand to do this was HSD but it soon became apparent that good as this beer was, it sparked little interest on the national stage and was too closely linked with St Austell's poor reputation to achieve great things locally. However, the good news was Tribute was seen as a modern tasting pint and untainted with the poor St Austell reputation so it was Tribute that was eventually backed as the chosen son!

Tribute really is a great beer and Roger had chosen two fantastic hop varieties in Styrian Goldings (one of his favourites) and Willamette (also used in Budweiser) as the main hop ingredients. It is a hugely drinkable golden beer, balanced in terms of bitter/sweetness but packs enough hop flavours to appeal to the emerging younger market. Initially described as a Premium Cornish Ale, Roger as ever was on the ball and realised beer styles were becoming important to drinkers so this was soon changed to Cornish Pale Ale.

Original Tribute pump clip design

There are many great beers that don't ever become great beer brands so its at this point the marketing of Tribute became important. One big advantage we had was that Tribute had no competitor brands within the St Austell portfolio, no Korev or Proper Job. My time at Morland marketing Old Speckled Hen had also taught me that brand focus rather than the brewery focus was one of the key elements of success and as a marketing team virtually all of our efforts and budgets went into the marketing of Tribute rather than St Austell. 

We over invested in quality point of sale for pubs, making sure the Tribute brand name was always visible to drinkers on drip mats, bar runners, ice bucket etc, whilst branded glassware was popular with licensees and drinkers alike. There was even a Tribute mascot - Trevor Tribute as he became known was wheeled out at various events.  We could not afford large scale advertising so adopted a strategy of local sponsorships and there were many over the years, but two important ones that stand out was the close association with rugby and Plymouth Argyle. Tribute sponsored grass roots rugby across the South West as well as the Cornish County rugby team, it became the Official Beer of South West Rugby, a title that gave the brand great credibility and opened doors for the sales team.

Signing the deal to sponsor Cornwall Rugby

The Plymouth Argyle sponsorship was another long running relationship and showcased the brand to the city of Plymouth - the cities population is almost as much as the whole of Cornwall and at one stage we were selling more Tribute in Plymouth and the surrounding area as the whole of Cornwall!

Mascot Trevor Tribute with Plymouth Argyle mascot Pilgrim Pete

St Austell had a very robust Freetrade sales team and could claim to be the South West's leading supplier to licensed trade, but it was an odd relationship as in the early years as they operated more as a wholesaler than a brewery sales team. They sold many brands including Sharps Doombar and loyalties were to the strongest brands and what the customer wanted rather than to St Austell's own beers. Doombar in particular was a problem in that although different in beer style to Tribute, it was by far our biggest competitor and a barrier to success with our sales team. However, one Monday morning the world changed - overnight Sharps withdrew supply of Doombar to St Austell as they wanted to create their own sales team and sell direct. It suited Sharps but it also suited Tribute as any barriers with the sales team disappeared as they sought to replace Doombar with Tribute. At last, our own sales team were as focused as the marketing team in selling our own beers.

Some early years Tribute point of sale

On the national stage Cornish beers, led by Doombar were becoming very fashionable and Tribute rode that particular wave. Our National Sales team had always been totally focussed on Tribute and growing from our South West heartland, Tribute soon became a very strong brand across the whole of the south of England, both in the on and off trade.

Another challenge was creating a brand personality for Tribute. The name Tribute was a great bar call, but added limited personality. The sponsorships helped but in marketing we came to realise how important the colour purple was to the brand. Its not everyone's favourite colour but soon, everything we did for Tribute was associated with purple and this was quickly recognised by customers. Thus, Tribute took ownership of the colour purple!

The colour purple, Tribute deck chairs at Somerset Cricket Club

I recall when I first joined St Austell they were only brewing two or three days a week and the annual barrelage was just 17,000 barrels per annum. In truth, were it not for the passion of the then MD, James Staughton and of course Roger Ryman to build an ale brand and invest in the brewery, St Austell would surely have ceased brewing and become a pub group. Instead, in 2015 St Austell celebrated brewing 100,000 brewers barrels per annum (Tributes contribution circa 60,000 barrels). In 2019, with the purchase of Bath Ales the company barrelage was over 150,000 barrels. Of course other great brands have come along since but without Tribute St Austell would likely have closed its brewery prior to 2010, sold off its freetrade business and focused on its pubs and hotels. Tribute changed all of this and probably did literally save the brewery.

I would finish by mentioning a short story involving Roger and myself. A year after I joined he asked me how many barrels I thought we could grow Tribute too. I pondered for a moment and replied 20,000 barrels, we both laughed as that target seemed unreachable at the time. Of course its all history now as Tribute has far outgrown that figure and established as a fantastic brand, but Roger would often remind me of the story with a knowing smile as the years went by.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

The story of Korev, a very Cornish lager

Originally launched in 500ml bottles in 2010 and then on draught in 2011, Korev lager has been an outstanding success story for St Austell Brewery. It was conceived by St Austell's Head Brewer, the late Roger Ryman as a result of challenge from the companies Board of Directors. They felt that although Tribute had become a tremendous brand in the ale sector, the company needed to look to the future where lager sales were on the increase at the detriment of ale.

To create the new lager Roger worked closely with the St Austell marketing team. One of the first tasks was to come up with a name for the new brand and create its values and imagery. We wanted a brand that was uniquely Cornish but at the same time was a premium lager, capable of taking on the major World lagers such as San Miguel and Heineken. A local advertising agency, Bray Leino who were based in North Devon were instructed to help us achieve this and they came up with the name Korev. 

Korev is the Cornish word for beer so fitted perfectly with our ambitions. The imagery created reflected the Cornish heritage, focusing on the Cornish cross and using the Cornish coastline as a backdrop. However, the name Korev, although brilliant in its Cornishness to those in the far South West, was to prove a double edged trait.  As the brand began to grow from its geographical roots many drinkers wrongly assumed the name was eastern European and that the new lager must come from Poland or similar! 

Roger Ryman pictured at the initial bottling run of Korev

With the marketing of Korev going well, Roger was busy developing the new lager. He used a genuine Bavarian bottom fermenting yeast strain and although Korev was originally brewed in traditional squares, cylindroconical vessels would eventually be installed. The brew time of the new lager was to be two weeks, before transferring to a lager tank at -1degree C holding (lagering) for a further week before packaging.

Korev was initially brewed in bottles, but the challenges really began when it was launched on draught a year later. When Korev was launched Roger likened brewing a lager to running down the beach naked as there was no hiding place - the flavours in lager are delicate and subtle so any imperfections to the taste would be immediately obvious. Roger originally described Korev as being in the Hellas style although overtime he would change this view to being more of a Pilsner style and I'd have to agree with this later description.

It was in the summer of 2011 that the brewing challenges of Korev really began to hit home. St Austell had a very strong sales team and they were champing at the bit to get Korev on draught. By the early summer of 2011 installs were going so well that St Austell had to restrict them, production of the new lager could not keep up with demand. As a result, the lager time in tank began to shrink from the planned one week as sales demanded more - Roger would later reveal that for some brews it had been as little as one day. Regretfully this affected quality and the clean crisp refreshing taste of Korev began to take on other less attractive more sinister flavours - Rogers naked run on the beach analogy was coming true!

There was huge demand from licensees and the sales teams for the new lager but St Austell simply did not have the production capacity to meet this in the first year. Somehow we got through that difficult period and Roger would remark years later that we were a little fortunate that no long term damage was done to the brand with the inconsistency of flavours.  A valuable lesson was learned and further investment in production facilities was soon in place as well as improved awareness of likely demand.

On the marketing front it was important that Korev developed some aspirational brand values. A link to surfing seemed ideal and a contract was negotiated to make Korev the Official Beer of Surfing GB (later to become England). This was a major masterstroke as we were able to place Korev in many high profile coastal bars etc that would become shop windows for the brand. 

Korev sponsored Looe Music Festival

Other sponsorships and appointments of brand ambassadors soon followed including Luke Dillon, Newquay based surfer and the highest ranked British surfer in the World. Sponsorships extended to many outside events/festivals such as Looe Music Festival and North Devon's Oceanfest as a strong link to music was built up giving the brand appeal to a younger market. Evermore engaging and innovative merchandise were developed such as the Korev Ford Ranger which became a familiar sight at events, plus giant deck chairs, steel barrel poser tables, seemingly hundreds of feather flags and there was even sponsorship of a Silent Disco!

The Korev Ford Ranger and a selection of merchandise on show for a sampling at Exeter University

The Korev story was completed in 2017 as a brand update took place tweaking the imagery to make it more contemporary. A new bespoke premium glass was also developed which gave Korev access to an improved head keeper. This latter point was important as Korev could sometimes pour a little flat compared to its peer's and the new glass resolved that issue.

Updated Korev bar font and glassware

As a marketer I was very proud to have worked on the Korev brand and was one of those that put in many hours at festivals etc making sure the Korev branding was always premium and to the forefront. It is a great brand and has led the way for other regional lagers to follow but has always remained true to its Cornish roots with strong premium credentials. I'll end the story here apart from the following, as there can be fewer greater measures of success than these comments from the St Austell sales team.

"Korev is a great door opener for us, licensees want to stock Korev but as they can only buy it from St Austell Brewery they have to trade with us, it has become a must stock brand for many pubs and bars in the far South West".

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Underdog, a tale of Trade Mark concerns

The official press photo of Head Brewer Roger Ryman at the launch of Underdog & Eureka

Working in marketing for St Austell Brewery we had great success with many brands including the likes of Tribute and Korev, but for every winner there are also losers. St Austell were very innovative and had a great Head Brewer in Roger Ryman, who along with his talented brewing team had a reputation for being ahead of the curve in terms of new beers and failures were rare, but one such beer was Underdog.

Underdog was launched on draught keg in early 2017, it was a 3.5% abv session IPA, originally brewed using a new unnamed experimental hop (US 7270), plus Galaxy and Simcoe hops. It was a high flavour, low alcohol beer with pineapple, citrus and lemon notes intending to leave pub goers wanting more. Underdog was also unfiltered and thus became St Austell's first intentionally hazy beer to become a permanent part of the portfolio. This latter feature was a contributing factor for its eventual demise, although not the main reason as we'll see.

With the interest in craft beer becoming ever more popular the brewing team at St Austell began to experiment with new interesting beers, challenging beer styles, ingredients and flavours. One such beer they developed with was a wonderful low abv sessionable IPA called Underdog. The beer was experimental and the use of the Underdog name was fine for this, but there was a problem, the Underdog trade mark was owned elsewhere and if we continued there was a commercial risk. In the marketing team we highlighted this and advised we should not use the name. However, the ball was rolling, Roger and his team were keen to progress and the sales teams were also enthusiastic. It seemed an understandable passion for the new beer might be clouding judgements around our trade mark concerns.

Underdog, along with another new beer Eureka were showcased at our Sales Conference in January 2017 and launched a month later. Investment was made in font lenses and other marketing materials and the sales teams began to get listings. A year later Underdog was launched in cans, which required a significant financial commitment in terms of brew lengths for canning and also purchasing and storing empty cans. Everything was now in place for Underdog to potentially flourish, but that's not what happened.
Underdog cans where the abv was increased to 4.0%

On draught a problem had emerged. The hazing of the beer was not consistent. Beer poured from a full keg would appear as an appetising light hazing, but as the keg was used the beer began to pour more like soup. Customers at some of St Austell's more traditional pubs were not ready for this and the beer began to lose listings. In cans, sadly none of the major supermarkets showed an interest in listing Underdog meaning St Austell had a lot of stock, both filled and empty cans with no big customers. Things were starting to look rocky for Underdog, but the final and sharpest nail in its coffin came from our trade mark solicitors.

I recall we had a review meeting every year with our solicitors. I was the main point of contact for Intellectual Property matters (IP as it was called), although I was far from an expert, hence the reason we employed the services of solicitors who were. I remember at the meeting they left us in no uncertain terms of the financial commercial risks we could  incur by using and investing in a brand name that was owned by someone else. Underdog was actually owned by Brewdog, who our solicitors advised had a reputation for being quite litigious. I've no idea if that was true, but in the case of Underdog they had every right to be so. It was time to take the risk seriously.

Trade mark challenges from other parties are never a pleasant experience. Solicitors letters are strongly worded to the point of being aggressive with implied huge financial implications. They are not the sort of letters one really wants to land on your desk that often! In my time at St Austell IP challenges included from the likes of Paramount Studios for the use of Italian Job and Halo Foods, owners of Sugar Puffs for the use of Honey Monster. As a marketing team we were not keen to add Brewdog to this undesirable roll of honour!

By early 2019  Underdog was quietly withdrawn from sale. Sales had not reached expectations but above all possible financial penalties from the IP risk was too big to ignore. Would it have survived without the trade mark issues? It had certainly begun to get a few fans and the brewing team had overcome the hazy consistency issues. However, it had limited appeal on draught keg in South West pubs where cask beer was still king and there was only minimal interest for the cans from supermarkets. My personal view is that Underdog was a little ahead of its time and were it to have been launched two years later under a new brand name, a different outcome might have been possible. As it was I believe St Austell had no alternative but to withdraw Underdog given the sales performance and more importantly the IP concerns. 

There were lessons to learn in that the name Underdog, although a good name should not have been used for the launch. Ideally the beer should have been renamed as the liquid was good. One of the positives to come out of this is that St Austell began to take IP concerns more seriously and potential names were now always checked for ownership, even if they were only to be used once for a small batch beer. So sad as it was to see Underdog bite the dust, the tale has positive outcomes for future new brands.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Are you ready for a Ruddles?

Are you ready for a Ruddles is a long forgotten advertising slogan for Ruddles beers, their two brands being Best and County. As a young man I recall these were big brands and County in particular had cult status in the cask ale market and also very popular in its unique stumpy bottles with rip cap in the take home market. Sadly, after a succession of takeovers resulted in various new owners these statements are no longer true. So what is the story of Ruddles and how did it fall from its once lofty perch?

Situated within England's smallest county of Rutland, Ruddles was originally founded in 1858 by Henry Parry in Langham (known as the Langham Brewery). On Parrys death in 1909 the brewery and its pubs were sold to George Ruddle, the then Brewery manager.  Success came and by the mid 1970's Ruddles sold off their 38 pubs to Everards to allow more focus on brewing and supplying beer to supermarkets. 

In 1986 Ruddles was acquired by Grand Metropolitan. Their ownership was not to last as in 1991 to circumvent the 1989 Beer Orders, Grand Met entered into a brewery's for pubs deal with Courage who in turn rapidly moved the brewery on again, selling to Dutch brewing giant Grolsch for a reported £30m. Despite a major investment in marketing, the Ruddles brands were losing their shine as new cask ale brands began to prosper, driven by the changes from the Beer Orders. By the time Morland Brewery of Abingdon acquired Ruddles in 1997 for £4.8m, Best and County were in serious decline and the once powerful brewery at Langham was only brewing to a third of its capacity at 100,000 barrels.

I worked for Morland at the time and we knew it made commercial sense to close the brewery at Langham and transfer brewing to Abingdon. As part of the Morland taste panel we worked hard with the brewing team to taste match the Best and County brewed in Oxfordshire to those from Rutland. The senior management at Morland had good intentions for the brands being reluctant to close Langham if there was any doubt the beers did not taste as they should. At one stage this lead to a postponement of the closure for six months to allow for more refinement. However eventually the closure sadly took place with brewing moved to Abingdon.

Morland had big plans for Ruddles and a new Brand Manager was appointed, the pump clips redesigned and a new advertising campaign themed around the countryside was created. However the golden touch that Morland had with Old Speckled Hen did not work with Ruddles and the decline could not be arrested. Shortly Morland befell the same fate to the Langham Brewery as they themselves were taken over by Greene King in 1999 and the Abingdon brewery closed. The brewing of all brands including Ruddles were now transferred to Bury St Edmonds.

Greene King primarily purchased Morland for its premium Thames Valley pub estate and the Old Speckled Hen brand. The Ruddles brands came as part of the package but were never likely to receive much love and attention in GK's mighty war chest of beer brands and this soon proved to be the case. Best was thrown on the bonfire as they say, being offered to JD Wetherspoons as their value brand and County was allowed to wither further on the vine as it took a back seat to the likes of Abbot Ale etc.

Stumpy bottle

Rip Cap

In the take home market the once iconic stumpy bottle was long gone. This had been Ruddles point of difference but as the premium bottled beer sector grew and the 500ml bottle became the dominant force, the stumpy bottle appearing as poor value for money and not nearly as premium, Ruddles was repackaged in the new size format but it became one of many and lost its appeal against other brands. 

So in 2021, not withstanding the current issues with Covid, tracking down a Ruddles to drink is more challenging. However, I recently tried a four-pack of County cans with its 4.3% abv - I remember this originally being 4.9% and then 4.7%. I really wanted to like this beer as it was once a classic beer and equally iconic brand, but disappointingly it was not a beer I particularly enjoyed, although the can design itself is strong and offers good shelf stand out.

As regards the future, hopefully Ruddles will continue as a valuable niche brand for GK and survive the current craft beer onslaught. Who knows, one day it may yet return to favouritism as drinkers seek out brands with heritage and credibility as it certainly has plenty of those to its name.  

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Cornish Bock, a forgotten beer.

Cornish Bock, a forgotten but fabulous small batch bottled beer brewed by St Austell Brewery was a beer that helped inspire me into becoming a  Beer Academy Beer Sommelier. However, it was not so much the beer, but the story behind it that intrigued me most.  Just what was a Bock beer and how did it come by the name, that's what I found just as fascinating as to what it tasted like. 

The story of Cornish Bock goes back to the 2010, it was then that St Austell Head Brewer Roger Ryman first began talking about the relevance of beer styles.  The job of building Tribute into a national beer brand was well established and with the green shoots of the craft beer movement starting to take root in the UK, Roger was keen for beer styles to feature on the beer marketing agenda. For example, a subtle but important change was made to the Tribute pump clip beer descriptor, changing Premium Cornish Ale into Cornish Pale Ale, thus bringing Tributes beer style into play for the first time.

As a marketing team we began to take more interest in beer styles and recall taking a work trip to London where I enjoyed drinking a bottle of German Bock Lager, it was the first time I'd tried a Bock. I spoke to Roger about it and it was then the idea of producing a Bock brewed in Cornwall was conceived. In 2010 St Austell Brewery launched Korev, a fantastic premium lager and with this experience combined with a major investment in brewing equipment, the brewing team mastered the necessary skills required for brewing authentic lagers. Thus, a platform was now in place for brewing a Bock.

Korev Lager (original branding)

By 2012 Korev had become the brand of choice for many premium lager drinkers in Cornwall, the ball was rolling as they say and the Korev lager story was well on its way. So what next in St Austell's portfolio of lagers? The seeds conceived a year or so earlier were starting to germinate and Roger was keen to try brewing a Bock. My input was minimal bar suggesting the name, Cornish Bock, not perhaps the most novel name but it did very much describe what the beer was all about. 

So what exactly is a Bock? Normally a bottom fermented sweet, malt forward lager style beer with low bitterness, rich in colour with an abv of circa 6.3% to 7.2%. Like many good beer stories the origins of the Bock name are somewhat muddied but the one we chose to adopt in St Austell was that linked to the German town of Einbeck, The Bock style was later adopted by Munich brewers where Einbeck was pronounced Ein bock, which means a Billygoat in German and thus many Bock beers began to appear with the goat images on their labels.

Traditionally German Bocks were brewed in the springtime to be drunk throughout the summer, where the higher abv's acted as a natural preservative. However, in the Netherlands the Bock beer style has become very popular and their Bock beer season normally begins in October, where the beer is drunk in the wintertime and throughout the festive season. Finding a Bock in the UK is quite rare, you'll have to visit a specialist beer shop or online store, assuming we don't count the Portuguese imposter Super Bock beer. 

Rather like Cornish Bock, a traditional Bock has become somewhat forgotten and overlooked in the UK. Its not a fashionable taste, full, sweeter, lacking in bitterness with limited hop characters, its not really on the craft beer drinkers radar. However, it really should be be....its a very authentic beer style, tastes fantastic and is more often brewed by quality brewers with a rich history. What's not to like?

St Austell Brewery's Cornish Bock was partly based on the Korev brew but at 6.5% abv, with Perle, Hersbrucker and Saaz hops, it was a rich, deep marmalade colour, sweet with bold toffee caramel flavours topped off with a hint of burntness. I think it was brewed three times although by the third brew it had become overshadowed by other small batch beers that were more flavoursome in terms of hops, hence it never reappeared. It has become somewhat forgotten over time but I shall always have a fondness for it as it sparked my interest in beer styles and was one of the reasons I trained to become a Beer Sommelier, successfully passing my exams in early 2013.