Mixed messages

I love a debate.

The kind of debate I love the most is one born out of a campaign. Where a movement looks to change the way something is perceived and tries to generate interest through an impassioned stance.

The latest movement to spark my interest (antagonistic nature?) came in the form of a twitter campaign to get the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen programme to showcase more beer matches with their food; rather than relying solely on wine as the “perfect” partner.

The campaign appears to have started with a conversation, produced a complaint to Ofcom, and gathered a pace on twitter with general back slapping and encouragement – before finally taking over a hashtag for people to join in with the movement.

And they did. Beer writers, brewers, general public, watchers of the show; all beer and food lovers alike were quick to tweet their support.

Now it’s (far too) easy to be cynical – especially for me – in such cases. There are clearly going to be other benefits to the supporters of this movement, rather than just a perceived improvement of the show. If the programme does start to match food with beer, then a number of brewers will be hoping that they will get their beers showcased – or at least be able to start linking their beer to food in a positive manner.

The Ofcom complaint* was raised by the brewer, Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery, based in Cumbria. It came with a press release and even got Dave a slot on his local radio to discuss this point. Exposure in the media simply by using a subject close to his heart, that he could then use to challenge the way a broadcaster does, or in this case, doesn’t value his produce. He won’t be the first or last to reap a positive from a perceived negative slant.

Beyond the brewers, the beer writers will also be able to use this to their advantage – giving them further leverage to approach the print media for more valuable column inches, or to create their own blog posts that highlight the infinite possibilities of matching beer with food. There’s even the scope to offer tailored talks and courses on the back of this – everything you would expect them to already be doing, but now with a hook to a national campaign.

Even retail outlets managed to get in on the act by recommending the beers they sold as a match with food, using the hashtag assigned to target the TV programme – nothing wrong whatsoever with this. They are a business. It’s what they should be doing.

Cynicism aside, that is if you believe such a thing is possible with me, I fully endorse the notion behind this campaign. It’s not merely the constant use of wine that irks – as I am more likely to drink wine with food – it is the value of local products, made by local hands; over the preferred approach of constantly promoting imported goods (with the rare exception they may choose English wine). It contradicts with the way they present their local, seasonal food offerings. This ties in strongly with another interest of mine, the Slow Food movement. It is a movement that started off in the North West of Italy and is growing within the UK. Where more value is placed on developing and promoting quality on a local level – which must surely cover beer production as well?

The issue now is trying to work out whether this is still the basis of the argument being put forward by the movement, or whether a series of mixed messages has started to dilute the view – removed the possibility to debate its merits.

I put a question to Dave in the comments of his blog, asking how he would feel if Saturday Kitchen started to match food with beer – but used imported beer as their choice. Dave’s own view was that British light session beer does not sit well as part of a food match; that you need robust flavours in there to compliment the food. If the Masters of Wine used on the show agree with that sentiment, and go with bold Belgian or American beers, it would, in Dave’s own view “undermine(s) many of my arguments” – though he did go on to say that any beer and food matching done well could eventually lead to a greater use of British beer over time.

Undermining the argument is what could happen if mixed messages are put out there. Part of the campaign put an emphasis on beer being Britain’s national drink – but that immediately opens up an argument as to whether this really is the case? If you go on to the CAMRA site the history of beer focuses on Ancient Egypt, China and Babylon – with no reference to Britain at all. Wikipedia (sorry, I know I shouldn’t) suggests that hoppy beers that are at the forefront of popular tastes now, would have been frowned upon in England long after a point where the German, Dutch and Belgian brewers were adding hops to their beers.

If the national drink argument focuses merely on units sold or consumed, how many of those are from British breweries making beer with imported hops, in a foreign style – or worse still – brewed under license in this country, but originating from another? I always thought tea was our national drink – another example of us taking an idea from abroad and stamping our own identity on it. But then maybe that’s what makes it so unequivocally British (read: Chicken Tikka Masala).

So are more members of the movement simply happy just to get any kind of exposure for their beloved beer? This appears to be the case. Less than 24 hours after the Saturday Kitchen assault, a wine column by Olly Smith in the Mail on Sunday** was retweeted by a great number of people actively involved in the beer industry, or who had taken part in the Saturday Kitchen tweet exercise. The column promotes the idea of beer to his wine readers. In it he gives flavour examples within wines, and matches them to hop tastes found within beer. Of the four beers chosen – two are directly imported in to the country (so no different to wine there) and one uses imported hops from America (though this is made by Kernel Brewery which is very much London based).

The final beer, Thornbridge Kipling, is sold as a South Pacific Pale Ale, using hops from New Zealand. Now this last beer is an intriguing one. It is made by a brewery in Derbyshire, yet the key brewers that got the beer to the high quality that you can pick up in the shops today are from New Zealand and Italy – Kelly Ryan and Stefano Cossi (originally brewed before Kelly Ryan joined Thornbridge, but he helped define the current taste). I’m no way looking at this from the prospective of British jobs for British people that the paper used in a positive light might do – but does this fit in with the unequivocal Britishness as discussed earlier, whilst going against the grain (no pub intended) of what Slow Food, local produce is all about?

With all that in mind, it’s hard to see where the debate can exist with a movement that could be pushing in different directions. If it is, as Dave Bailey hoped at the start, an ideal of getting British produce supported on a British TV show – then is there room for supporting British produce that relies on foreign imports/know how/techniques purely to promote beer that doesn’t have the same taste, feel or arguably – quality?

If there is, can we debate the merit that exposure is enough on its own – well, no – as proven with the odd negative comment I’ve read on twitter about the hackneyed rehashing of the increased uptake in real ale within certain sectors of society – or worse still, when people disagree with the quality of the beer chosen in media articles.

Once we know fully what the argument of the movement is, then maybe we can debate it – over a beer or two – and decide whether we fully support the direction it is going in. Until then, unfortunately, the mixed messages appear to leave us with a series of slogans and mantras that leave me unsure exactly what the point of the Saturday Kitchen assault really is about:

“WHAT DO WE WANT? A GREATER ACCESS TO BEER ON TV THROUGH THE USE OF DRINK AND FOOD MATCHING, PREFERBLY USING BRITISH BEER THAT IS MADE WITH BRITISH PRODUCE, UNLESS THERE IS A BETTER FOREIGN CHOICE, THEN WE’LL ACCEPT THAT AS LONG AS IT IS STILL BEER AND EVEN THOUGH IT IS IMPORTED LIKE WINE, WE’LL LOOK PAST THAT IN THE HOPE THAT THEY MAY START TO USE BRITISH BEER IN THE FUTRE.”

“WHEN DO WE WANT IT? FOUR TIMES EVERY SATURDAY MORNING EXCEPT WHEN THE SHOW IS ON A BREAK, THEN WE’LL TAKE ARTICLES IN NEWSPAPERS WE MIGHT NOT NORMALLY READ NOR AGREE WITH, BUT ONLY IF THAT SHOWCASES THE BEER WE LIKE AND THE ARTICLES ARE WRITTEN BY JOURNALISTS WE KNOW WHO REALLY CARE ABOUT OUR BELOVED BEER.”

* there were over 1,500 tweets relating to beer and food matching on Saturday Kitchen, though only 10 complaints were received by Ofcom in relation to the original complaint. 10 is the minimum number required for the complaint to be shown as a public record

** sorry, I just can’t bring myself to link a Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *