The Blind Lead the Blind, Pig: Craft Brewers vs Crafty Brewers

Today, a colleague of mine presented me with a bottle-shaped wrap of newspaper. On inspection, the newsprint looked to be slightly yellowed and aged, and the stories similarly ancient, with headlines about flappers, jazz and the like.

PigWrapped

It looked better when I received it than on arrival home

Within the clandestine-looking wrap (which was rather torn and tatty-looking by the time I’d carted it home in my messenger bag, which was full of CDs and my Asus notebook) was a bottle of cider. He’d received a crate of Blind Pig cider for Christmas from the boyfriend of one of his daughters: he happens to be involved in the brewing industry in some kind of sales capacity. My colleague seemed to think he was in fact employed by Carlsberg or a similar major, but he was intrigued by the cider, which appeared to be an entirely independent venture. He wanted my opinion, knowing me to be something of an enthusiast and not entirely lacking in knowledge or expertise where alcoholic beverages are concerned.

Wrapper

Fake newspaper wrapping, and all that jazz

Indeed, the information on the elegantly-shaped and vintage-looking bottle, with its suitably retro labels gave precious little away, and the same is true of their website. Pretty much all on-line coverage is devoted to rave reviews of its pop-up prohibition-themed launch event. Moreover, inspecting what I had brought home and which now sat on my kitchen table all looked distinctly prohibition-era US: the bottle’s capacity, 16.9 US fl oz, and the alcohol content, 8 per cent proof. there’s no question that they’ve gone all out for cultivating a strong image and a brand that’s all about cult cred.

But here’s where they’ve slipped. Anyone with any real knowledge wouldn’t need to look at the rear label, which confirmed the brew was produced ‘in the EU’ and that its alcohol content was 4% ABV. All these bullshitters who try to look hard and / or cool by referring to drinks – spirits in particular – by their ‘proof’ strength are only airing their ignorance in public. Wow, you’re drinking a whisky or vodka that’s 80% proof? Must be tough… oh, no, wait, it’s only a regular 40% ABV. It won’t turn you blind, sunshine. And the nicely-shaped bottle is of course 500ml in capacity, 68ml short of a proper pint thanks for the metricisation of, well, everything.

Bottle

Nice bottle neck

So, what’s pitched as a ‘premium’ cider for ‘connoisseurs’ and therefore ‘superior’ and ‘edgy’, with its unusual flavour (Blind Pig Cider comes in threw flavours: whiskey, honey and apple; rum and poached pair; bourbon and blueberry, with a bottle of the whiskey, honey and apple perched on my decidedly post-millennium IKEA pine folding table), is starting to look very like another exercise on kitsch marketing of something ultimately mainstream trendy, namely fruit-flavoured ciders.

Label

Neat label

So how is this different from, say, Dark Fruits Strongbow? Well, I’d question just how much it is. It’s light, it’s fizzy and however hard you chill it’s, it’s incredibly sweet. The flavour isn’t unpleasant, and there is a smoky, peaty tang, a hint of charcoal that hints at single malt and bourbon. And yes, bourbon is sweet in comparison to the majority of single malts (the raisin and honey hints of something like Jura excepted) but even accepting that we’re talking about whiskey and not whisky, this isn’t that kind of sweetness. Actually’ let’s unpack that flavour set again: whiskey, honey and apple. The honey speaks for itself, and you’d expect sweetness from it, but again, honey beers like Waggledance aren’t as cloying as this, and as for apple… wait,apple flavoured cider? that’s beyond audacious. What next, grape flavoured wine? Gin flavoured gin? Milk flavoured mikshakes? The point is, unless it’s a ‘flavoured’ cider, it should be apple flavoured, no? Well, actually, no: cider should taste of fermented apples and have a crisp tartness, whereas this has that claggy, artificial apple sweetness. It’s simply not refreshing.

Pint

Sorry, favourite festival glass

While they’ve done a good job of creating a mystique around the product and hiding any major brewery connections, it feels like a huge con, another example of the mainstream hijacking burgeoning trends, specifically the craft brewing fad that’s all the rage right now. A real ‘craft’ cider wouldn’t use spirit flavourings, of that I’m certain: this hasn’t been near a drop of whisky, or an apple as far as I can tell.

Sipping this syrupy fizz, I’m reminded of both Kopparberg and the deceptive marketing of Blue Moon beer, which despite its independent ‘handcrafted’ appearance, is produced and marketed by MillerCoors, and its cloudiness isn’t a natural unfiltered haze but the result of a ‘clouding agent’ being added. In turn, it’s no different from a major record label creating a subsidiary that’s pitched to all intents and purposes as being ‘independent’ as a vehicle for pushing ‘alternative’ band signings that present a sanitised, mass-market version of the underground scene. it’s the way of the world, and the way of capitalist markets: most innovations and revolutions rise from the underground, from the zero-budget, and as soon as there’s a sustained groundswell, the big corporations come sniffing around wanting a piece of the action.

While I expect the origins (and the source of its bankrolling) will be revealed one way or another in due course, the bottom line is that Blind Pig Cider ain’t what it presents itself as being (c’mon, real newsprint would be cooler and more environmentally sound than ersatz repro newspaper wrappings, as real apples would be more appealing than a syrupy synthetic shot of flavour) and nor is it especially good: I have a very real need to cleanse my palette with a can of Scrumpy Jack.

 

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The Changing Face of Consumerism VIII: State of Independence, or, All’s Well at The Inkwell

The seven ‘Changing Face of Consumerism’ articles I ran on MySpace in 2008 and 2008 all shared a common theme, namely lamenting the sad decline of the real – both in media and commodity, with ‘reality’ television being a pisspoor ersatz approximation of any reality I’ve ever known, and ‘real’ shopping experiences being slowly subsumed by the virtual marketplace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for progress, and have long been a big fan of on-line shopping, being one who doesn’t cope well with crowds or endless hours of pavement-pounding in search of goods, but by the same token, I’m a strong advocate of consumer choice. Despite what the global marketplace on-line tells us, we as consumers do not have infinite choice, not least of all because while some niche outlets fare well on-line, many have gone to the wall because the same kind of corporate giants that slowly erased all of the small independent stores from the high streets of each and every town have steamrollered the little on-line traders out.

As city centres everywhere become identikit clones of anywheresville, so our sense of location becomes diminished: the only thing to differentiate, say, Leeds from Lincoln, isn’t the choice of shops, but the size of each branch, and after a mooch round M&S, Boots, Game and HMV, stopping for a uniform coffee in a Starbucks or Costa before going on to… well, it doesn’t matter. I mean it really doesn’t matter where you are, the experience is pretty much the same. Fine, so you know what you’re going to get, but the experience of discovering a little specialist shop tucked away somewhere is radically different and appeals to a whole range of senses. However hard Amazon try to replicate the browsing experience of specialist independent book and record stores with features like ‘look inside’ and the song snippets you can listen to, in addition to the list of recommendations based on what you’re looking at and what other shoppers have also purchased or viewed that functions as a mimesis of the friendly and enthusiastic guy behind the counter who just loves his books or music and knows everything there is to know, like a living, walking encyclopedia, it just isn’t the same. There’s no substitute for browsing.

And so it was that I was practically skipping when The Inkwell opened in York a few weeks ago. A little shop stocking secondhand books, records (with a few selected new titles), CDs and cards, it’s the kind of shop you used to drop into, rummage around and find something wonderful you didn’t even know you wanted. The owner, Paul Lowman, is clearly an unashamed enthusiast first and a businessman second, and while such a venture is the kind that will never make him rich, and would make many lenders and entrepreneurs alike squirm in discomfort, it’s a shopper’s delight. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Inkwell is aimed at a niche market (by which I mean discerning shoppers: Paul’s philosophy is according to the website, “COOL STUFF FOR ALL!” Popular Culture is about democracy – inclusivity, not exclusivity) specialising as it does in books on music, film and pop culture, with sections on the Beat Generation, Art, Philosophy and a noteworthy – not to mention impressive – selection of pulp paperbacks, all in remarkably good condition (yet reasonably priced, with titles marked up at between six and ten quid).

The vinyl, too, is all in great nick, and the range, though limited, is all about quality and catering to a particular kind of discerning alt/hipster customer. There’s no mainstream pap to be found on the racks: instead, there are sections devoted to Garage, Psych, 90s Indie, Spoken Word / Comedy, and even Burlesque. Yes, if you want the kitsch sleaze of yesteryear, then the range of sexploitation titles in both audio and written media is exceptional.

It’s a tiny little place, made all the more cramped by there being a pair of school desks in the middle of the room, upon which a choice of books are casually laid. It’s all about the browsing experience (they serve coffee too), and an eclectic mix of music is spun – at high volume, and all on vinyl, naturally – on the turntable in the corner by the counter. Of course, it’s simply one’s man’s vision, one man’s obsession made manifest… but what’s wrong with that? But equally, why should a shop such as this succeed in a climate where major chains are going to the wall? The answer, I believe, is simple. In attempting to appeal to everyone, the major chains ultimately cater for no-one. In aiming to cover a vast market based on some kind of assumed generic average consumer and broad populism, the chains become Xerox copies of one another: reliable, perhaps, but ultimately forgettable and wholly impersonal. A shop like The Inkwell isn’t about conquering the world or trying to cater to all tastes: it knows its market and knows it well – because by being the shop its owner wants it to be, it’s catering for like-minded individuals (there’s that word again!). It’s unique in every way, and every item in stock is essentially a one-off. It has the personal touch and is memorable. And that’s why it has a better than average chance of success.

So, on the opening day I left with a brand new hardback copy of Brion Gysin: Dream Machine (a bargain at a tenner given that it retails at £25), a read but respectable copy of The Dark Stuff by Nick Kent (£3) and a vinyl LP – a copy of Fade Out by Loop, again in top condition (EX as Record Collector would have it), for a fiver.

I returned this week and was pleased to see some of the stock had gone and new stuff had taken its place, meaning I was able to add a copy of the original 1971 Olympia Press edition of S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas to my library. The tenner asking price was more than fair, especially given the condition.

Does The Inkwell represent the vanguard of the counter-revolution in the world of retail? Perhaps not, but I’d like to think that other independent stores will begin to pop up, not just in York, but in every city, and soon. It’s unlikely that this is how the economic situation will be recovered, but being able to rifle some good books and records in a pleasant environment certainly makes these dark times a lot more bearable.

The Inkwell Online is cool – www.ink-well.co.uk – but not nearly as cool as being there.

 

Inkwell

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk