Category Archives: Number-cruncher

Wakey wakey, rise and shine

Apparently they’re banning booze again in the USA. Well, some booze:

A few weeks ago in New York a group of college students gathered at a vigil. They sang songs, and held candles as they mourned the passing of a friend. The scene can be seen on YouTube. What makes it slightly surreal is that the gathered crowd is lamenting the demise of an alcoholic drink, Four Loko. From Monday, Four Loko will no longer exist in its original incarnation – as a mix of alcohol and caffeine in a can – on the orders of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

(That’s ‘Monday’ as in the 13th of December. Sorry, I’ve been busy.)

Yes, it’s those evil caffeinated alco-pops. Add caffeine to an alcoholic drink and anything could happen:

one 23.5oz (694ml) can contains as much caffeine as a tall Starbucks coffee. It is a combination those who drink it say tastes great and makes you feel good. But others describe it as a “blackout in a can”, and blame it for landing a number of students in hospital.

“Blackout in a can” – whew! But isn’t this just teenage legend? (My son (15) is convinced that vodka and Red Bull will kill you. He didn’t get that from me, but I’m not in a hurry to enlighten him.)

Apparently not: it seems there are genuine health concerns.

Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration called on the top four manufacturers to take them out of circulation by 13 December. Dr Joshua M Sharfstein, the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner, said evidence suggested that the mix of caffeine and alcohol posed a “public health concern”. Four Loko will continue to be on sale, but now without the caffeine.

The FDA’s action came after some highly publicised scandals, in which the drinks were reported to have caused serious illness, including one at Ramapo College in New Jersey. “My friend had [a] little under three cans in one hour,” explains a student at the college, James Kulinski. “He didn’t know what he was doing. He was a mess – he had no motor skills and no ability to communicate.”

That’s strong stuff, that caffeine. I mean, there can’t be that much alcohol

The fruit-flavoured energy drink contains 12% alcohol, making it about three times as strong as a regular beer

well, OK, but there can’t be that much alcohol in one can

one 23.5oz (694ml) can

and it’s not as if a strong malt liquor is going to appeal to younger people

Four Loko is available in eight flavors: Uva Berry (Grape), Fruit Punch, Orange Blend, Watermelon, Blue Raspberry, Lemon Lime, Lemonade, and Cranberry Lemonade.

or inexperienced drinkers…

James has tried Four Loko and Joose and isn’t a huge fan. He says most people who drank it on campus were “inexperienced drinkers” who saw it, at around $1.50, as an inexpensive way to get drunk.

So, to recap, the jokers behind Four Loko were selling a fruit-flavoured drink containing almost as much alcohol in one can as a litre of Special Brew, at $1.50 a throw, in a country where under-21s can’t buy alcohol. What was that, James?

“My friend had [a] little under three cans in one hour … He didn’t know what he was doing. He was a mess – he had no motor skills and no ability to communicate.”

James, your friend drank the equivalent of eight pints of Jaipur (or Dobber) – or nine 330ml cans of Gold Label – in an hour. Damn right he was a mess. (He also effectively washed that lot down with three cups of coffee – and all for a total cost of $4.50. Whatever else you can say about this stuff, it’s really cheap.)

But, as we’ve seen, the FDA has sprung into action, removing Four Loko from sale. And it’s not just the bottle-of-Buckie-inna-can merchants that the FDA have gone after. (Buckfast also contains caffeine, incidentally; presumably they don’t export.) New Century Brewing’s Moonshot ’69 has also got the cease-and-desist treatment. A 5% beer (without any fruit flavourings) brewed by a one-woman company, Moonshot doesn’t share a lot with Four Loko, but what they do have in common is caffeine: the FDA are getting involved because “caffeine was put directly in the [beer] as a food additive and was not naturally occurring, as it would be in a beer brewed with coffee”. Well, you can’t be too careful.

But at least Four Loko is off the shelves. Or rather, it was, for as long as it took them to take out the caffeine – which wasn’t very long. So kids who have reached the age of 21 thinking of alcohol as a forbidden pleasure can once more enjoy the freedom to get wrecked, for a couple of dollars, on a drink that comes in eight refreshing fruit flavours.

What this story says to me is that abstinence and over-indulgence are two sides of the same coin. Each one feeds off the other, and neither of them represents a psychologically healthy attitude to booze. Where alcohol is concerned, “little and often” has to be the best policy – for the mind as well as the body.

Thoughts on the Cask Report, part 2

Quick recap:

  1. Cask ale sales aren’t rising, they’re holding steady.
  2. They’re holding steady at a low level, having dropped by 30% since 1999.
  3. If cask appears to be gaining market share, this is the result of cask sales holding steady while overall beer sales fall.
  4. This fall in overall beer sales is an established trend, but a new and worrying one.
  5. It is not clear whether cask is actually immune to this trend, or if its effects are being cancelled out by a separate rise in cask drinking.

The fact that cask ale drinking rose in the South-East of England in 2009, while falling in the rest of the country, lends some support to the ‘separate rise’ theory.

And here’s a relevant thought from the Curmudgeon:

In the early 1970s, interest in real ale was almost an archaeological exercise. It was a declining product, produced by old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud breweries, sold in grotty backstreet boozers and drunk by middle-aged and elderly working men. … In the early days of CAMRA, many of its supporters felt that they were just marking the passing of an era, in the same way as steam locomotive buffs were. Possibly in the future there might be the occasional brewpub producing real ale on a cottage scale, a bit like a preserved steam railway, but no more than that.

However, it didn’t work out like that. … the nature of the relationship between producer and consumer has fundamentally changed, and is far more interactive. Brewers and pub operators are far more aware of what their customers want, and responsive to their requirements. It is a very big change from basically exploring a static or declining field of interest. It is almost as if the National Trust, aware of a wide and growing interest in stately homes, had suddenly decided to start building new ones.

I think there’s a lot in that, and it chimes with another aspect of the Cask Report which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. A representative quote:

cask ale drinkers tend to agree with statements that are more thoughtful, inquisitive and curious. They are active in their leisure time, interested in what goes on in the world, and like to stay informed about everything from international events to developments in technology. This attitude is also reflected in the fact that they read a lot of newspapers. They’re twice as likely to read quality dailies like the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent, but more likely to read any newspaper overall apart from the Star, Sun and in Scotland the Daily Record.

We are also substantially more likely than average to “go for premium rather than standard goods and services”; keg drinkers are slightly less likely than the average. Plus we like to try new drinks, we like a night at the pub (duh!) but don’t go out just to get drunk, we think it’s worth paying extra for good quality beer (hold that thought) and, by jingo, we’re prepared to pay more for good quality wine. In short:

No doubt this is connected with another finding:

Cask ale drinkers tend to be upmarket (68.5% are social grade ABC1). They are more comfortable about their financial situation, and tend to be at a life stage with fewer financial commitments. They tend to wear cravats and sit at the bar talking in loud braying voices, before driving home in their red MGs which were actually a bloody good investment when you really look at it.

(OK, only two of those sentences appear in the Cask Report. Full disclosure: I used to live in the South-East. Never regretted leaving.)

All this is partly smoke and mirrors: according to the 2001 Census (with some post-processing), 55% of the working-age population falls into either the AB group (professional and managerial) or C1 (supervisory and clerical). There’s a difference between a 55/45 split and 68.5/31.5, but not a huge one (Fisher’s exact test gives a p value of 0.08, stats geeks). All this statistic is really saying is that a random sample of cask ale drinkers is a bit more likely to include white-collar workers than a random sample of the population as a whole.

Nevertheless, the trend of the argument is clear: put on more cask ale and you’ll attract responsible drinkers who like good quality wine and read quality dailies. Nice people, in short – well, middle-class people, anyway. You know that old bloke who used to be in there every time you went in, sat in the corner with a fag on and an everlasting pint of Tetley’s and the Daily Mirror, and on Friday lunch his son would come in and they’d have lunch together? Not people like him.

The future of cask lies with a different type of customer altogether. Quoth the Report, “cask is enjoying a steady trend towards premiumisation, with people opting for slightly stronger, more expensive beers”. And why wouldn’t they, what with liking to try new drinks, being comfortable about their financial situation, being into premium goods and services and being willing to pay extra for good quality beer. Which brings us to page 11 of the Report, which deserves quoting at some length:
One of the absurdities of cask ale is that, as the most crafted, quality drink on the bar, it is often the cheapest. If we compare premium sausages to mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, farmhouse cheese to processed cheese, real coffee to freeze-dried granules, we routinely expect the premium version to cost more. The fact that cask is cheaper is doubly absurd because cask drinkers actually expect and are prepared to pay more for cask beer – especially the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit.

OK, let’s break this down. First point: the statistics don’t say what the Report says they do. They specifically don’t say what drinkers are prepared to pay for cask beer, just what they’d expect to be charged. Moreover, the averaged-out figures for all the over-34 age-groups don’t show much difference from the £2.50 baseline, ranging from £2.62 down to £2.39; the fact that they aren’t any lower probably just reflects a general awareness that £2.50 is pretty cheap for a pint these days. The only striking result is in the under-35 age group – the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit, or in other words people who haven’t got much experience of drinking cask ale.

Second point: there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and it’s historical. When keg bitter was introduced it was new, different and modern; it had an instant superficial appeal (why, every pint tastes the same! and they’re all fizzy!); and it did well. The breweries took the opportunity to jack up the price, even though the beer was actually cheaper to produce and distribute. When the big push on lager came in the 1970s, the same thing happened: your Hofmeister and your Heineken were new and exotic, so naturally they were priced even higher. Same story with nitrokeg Guinness. In short, there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and the reason is that keg drinkers are being ripped off. Since the rip-off has been going on for literally four decades, it’s probably not going to end any time soon – but to see it used as a reason for ripping off cask drinkers as well is a remarkable bit of chutzpah.

Fundamental point: cask beer is not a “premium” product. Ground coffee is not a premium version of instant coffee, it’s the real thing: instant coffee is a cheap substitute for ground coffee. (I drink it all the time, but (with all due respect to Rula Lenska) you would never imagine you were drinking ground coffee.) Sausages made from recognisable cuts of meat aren’t a premium version of mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, they’re the real thing; the nameless-pink-slurry variety are a cheap substitute. What Pete appears to be suggesting here is that lager and keg bitter are cheap, mechanically-produced substitutes for hand-crafted real beer. It’s a point of view that had a lot of currency in CAMRA in the early days, but I understood the debate had moved on a bit.

What’s going on here is, essentially, rhetorical softening-up for introducing the idea of ‘premium’ beer; on the back of bracketing real ale with foods that aren’t cheap and nasty, we’re being asked to bracket it with semi-luxury goods like farmhouse cheese. Like some other bloggers, I like a nice bit of cheese, and I’ll buy the odd bit of Stilton or chèvre without counting the cost too carefully. But when I go to the pub on a Saturday, I do not want to order the beer equivalent of an artisanal Brie. There’s good beer and then there’s New Special Different Original Rare Short-Run Hand-Finished Beer – or novelty beer for short – and never the twain shall meet. I will buy novelty beer from time to time – I’ve got all four of the recent Marble bottlings, each waiting for its own special occasion – but it really isn’t what I want to find on the bar on the average Saturday.

In the previous post I commented on the Report’s use of statistics, as well as the detail of the conclusions it draws from them, and concluded that it’s at least as much a piece of advocacy as an analytical report. I also asked: “if it is trying to influence people, what goal does it have in mind – and is that a goal I share?” My ideal world, as far as beer is concerned, is one in which the decline of cask is reversed: a world where I could go into any pub in town – including the ones where people read the Daily Mirror; including the ones where people drink Vod-Bull, come to that – and find at least one hand-pump on the bar dispensing a beer that’s in good condition, because people have been drinking it. I’m lucky; good, interesting, relatively inexpensive cask beer is part of my everyday life (well, 2-3 times a week rather than everyday as such, but the point stands). My ideal world is one where many, many more people have that experience.

I’m really not sure that that’s the ideal world the Cask Report is envisaging. Rather, I can see a vista of high-priced ‘premium’ and novelty beers opening up, with a new class of beer-drinkers to go with them: ABC1, Guardian and Telegraph-readers, responsible drinkers, comfortable with their financial situation, willing to pay for quality, and so on and so forth. And, perhaps, living mainly in the South-East. The really worrying thought is that the Cask Report may genuinely be reporting the future of cask: perhaps the shift towards “premiumisation”, the prominence of broadsheet readers and the anomalous rise in cask volumes in the South-East are all part of the same trend. Perhaps what’s continuing to decline in most of the country is the world of the pub and club as we’ve known it, and what’s on the rise in the South-East is a new kind of cask drinker: people who are already used to the £3 pint, and can pay more than that without really noticing; people who, as Gazza suggested, come to single-varietal beers knowing all about “the characteristics of individual grapes used in wine production”; people who genuinely see cask beer as a ‘premium’ product, in short, and don’t mind paying a premium for it.

These are not my kind of beer drinker – and I’m not convinced their beer is going to be my kind of beer.

Thoughts on the Cask Report, part 1

I’ve been browsing the Cask Report. It’s well-written and well-presented, and will probably do more to help the spread of real ale than any number of well-meaning but patronising columns aimed at the punters (here’s one I read earlier). So I apologise in advance to Pete if my comments seem unduly negative.

I had two big problems with the Report. Firstly, what is it – is it an analytical report on recent trends in the cask beer market (as the name implies) or is it an elaborate piece of advocacy, a public information message from the Cask Marketing Board? (They’re happy, because they drink cask!) The problem here is that the two types of document would approach the evidence in very different ways: a marketing ‘report’ might skate over results that an analytical report would highlight, while putting a lot of weight on findings that can’t necessarily bear it. And secondly, if it is trying to influence people, what goal does it have in mind – and is that a goal I share?

I’ll deal with the second point in a separate post. The first point can best be illustrated by pulling out a couple of graphs. First, here’s cask volumes vs the overall beer market:

Or rather, here’s the annual rate of change in cask volumes vs the annual rate of change in all beer volumes. If you look at it that way, that upward trend starts to look a bit less hopeful: remember, the 6% decline in 2001 was on top of the 8% decline in 2000, and the great leap forward of 2009 represents a change from a decline of 2% in 2008 – on top of all the previous declines – to an increase of 0%. If you plug in the figures and multiply it out, assuming 1999 as a baseline, you get this:

It’s much clearer from that graph that we’re looking at the back end of a long period of decline. Two periods, to be precise: from 1999 to 2006 overall beer volumes held more or less steady, ranging from 97% of the 1999 volume to 102%. Meanwhile, cask volumes declined steeply and steadily: 92% of the 1999 figure in 2000, 83% in 2002, 73.6% in 2005. (The fact that this downward curve gets shallower as it goes on is what creates that upward line in the published graph.) From 2006 to 2009 the trends were reversed, with overall volumes dropping year by year while cask volumes held more or less steady – but at a level far, far below the level of 1999, which was scarcely the Roaring Twenties in the first place.

How to interpret these trends? The simplest interpretation of the 1999-2006 figures for cask would be that this is the latest stage in the long decline of cask from its historic pre-eminence. I’m doubtful that this long, well-established and profitable trend in the pub industry came to a halt in 2006; I think it’s more likely that it’s continued, but been offset by a separate rising trend in cask ale drinking (on which more later). Rather more striking is the downward trend in overall beer volumes from 2006 on. What’s going on here is unclear, although the fact that the smoking ban in England became law in 2007 can hardly be ruled out as irrelevant. But we should be clear on a few points:

  1. Cask ale sales aren’t rising, they’re holding steady.
  2. They’re holding steady at a low level, having dropped by 30% since 1999.
  3. If cask appears to be gaining market share, this is the result of cask sales holding steady while overall beer sales fall.
  4. This fall in overall beer sales is an established trend, but a new and worrying one.
  5. It is not clear whether cask is actually immune to this trend, or if its effects are being cancelled out by a separate rise in cask drinking.

One clue is provided by this graphic, which I found both informative and infuriating.

What’s infuriating is that massive block on the right – a THIRTY-ONE PERCENT increase OMG!!!1! Except that (as the report acknowledges) all this really means is that Scotland accounted for about 3% of UK cask sales in 2008 and about 4% in 2009; it’s a huge relative increase, but in absolute terms it’s just not that significant. (This kind of thing is a recurring irritation in this report: too often we’re presented not with absolute figures but with proportions, or changes in proportions, or rates of change in proportions, or (as in this instance) proportionate changes in proportions. The numbers are a bit too thoroughly crunched, in other words – it’s hard to verify the claims that are being made, or even to work out precisely which claims are being made.)

The point, anyway, is that the North-East (for example) is a big cask-drinking region while Scotland isn’t, so the 6.6% decline registered in the North-East for 2009 almost exactly cancels out that seemingly huge 31% rise. Which still leaves substantial drops in just about every other part of England and Wales to account for. (We know in this instance that the UK’s total cask ale consumption hasn’t changed, so a fall in one area has to be matched by a rise in another.) The answer lies in the South-East – although oddly enough not in London itself – where a 7.5% year-on-year rise in cask consumption was sufficient to offset declining sales in four other regions. This lends some support to the speculation that downward pressures on beer consumption may be being cancelled out by a separate rising trend – a geographically separate trend, apparently.

I’ll say a bit about what that trend might be in part 2. (Clue: I’m agin it.)