Fuller’s was not the only brewer with a viral ad on the stocks for last year’s Rugby world cup: the Wychwood chaps had one lined up for their Hobgoblin beer called How to convert a lagerboy.
The video shows a chavvy lager-drinker wearing a Burberry baseball cap and slumped at a table, Suddenly a goblin runs up and, rather than attempt to convert the lagerboy by force of argument, boots him hard up the aris, making him soar over the bar of some nearby rugby goalposts, in a “conversion” Jonny Wilkinson would be delighted with.
However, Rupert Thompson, Wychwood’s MD, confessed last might that he bottled out of releasing the video on the net, fearing that it might be misinterpreted – and certainly some beer bloggers would not have been impressed.
Thompson was talking at a presentation in the Hobgoblin pub near Marylebone station in London to launch the “new” 4.5 per cent abv cask version of Hobgoblin. This is not to be mistaken for the “old” 4.5 per cent version of Hobgoblin, which was boosted to 5 per cent in 2004. At the same time the bottled version was dropped from 5.5 per cent to 5.2 per cent, and the recipe was tweaked, with some crystal malt joining the chocolate malt to add a little sweetness to the dryness, and Fuggles hops replacing Progress alongside the late-added Styrian Goldings.
The “new” 4.5 per cent version has had another small tweak, Jeremy Moss, Wychwood’s head brewer, said last night, with three “secret” hops being added in small quantities. He refused to reveal what these were, on the grounds that they might well be change in future, but I’d bet at least one is an American variety, giving a hint of citrusness.
The need to earn a living means I’m not normally free for beery events like last night’s, but I was glad to have a rare chance to go out and join fellow beer hacks, since Wychwood was also showcasing two other versions of Hobgoblin, the 3.5 per cent abv version that is the only one legally allowed to be sold in Swedish supermarkets, and the 4.5 per cent American keg version.
Hobgoblin is about taste rather than strength, Thompson said last night, and the Swedes certainly get a beer with plenty of flavour, but it’s inevitably a thinner, less rounded beer. The surprise hit was the keg version, which had a very pleasant smooth rotundity and perfectly acceptable carbonation. Dark beers generally seem to survive kegging better than pale ones, and in my distant youth, if there was nothing in a strange pub that looked acceptable, I’d go for the keg dark mild, since it would almost always be drinkable. (Alas, even keg dark mild is rara cervisia today.)
Wychwood is quite open that it has dropped the strength of cask Hobgoblin back down to 4.5 per cent to sell more beer, even though sales are already up 24 per cent year-on-year at the moment. It surprised itself, I suspect, with the success of its positioning as the “unofficial beer of Hallowe’en”, when it managed to get into some 4,500 accounts at the end of last October, against 600 to 700 normally. If the beer can have that sort of success as a one-off, Thompson and his crew clearly decided, then it should be able to do it all the time.
The aim now, Thompson said last night, is to make Hobgoblin a top 10 cask beer by 2010 at the latest. The drop in gravity is part of the strategy to achieve this, making the beer more “sessionable”, and meaning that drinkers who might have had one at five per cent abv will have two or more at the lower gravity.
Wychwood’s take on the changes that are taking place in pubs since the smoking ban is that older drinkers are coming back and replacing younger smokers: and what the oldies want are beers that deliver flavour, that go with food, but that aren’t too strong. Hobgoblin in its new iteration fills that slot, Thompson feels.
The brewery is also pushing the idea of cool Hobgoblin, with a promotion to win a fridge full of the beer in bottles. It will be continuing with the lagerboy campaign, despite the critics – outside a small though vociferous group, “people love it”, Thompson insists. People who object, he said, are suffering from “a sense of humour failure”, and while some seem to think lager drinkers ought to be offended, no one actually is: the Advertising Standards Authority has received just one complaint about the campaign, from Hampshire, and told the complainant to “get stuffed”.
However, Wychwood is stopping referring to Hobgoblin as “strong” and “dark”, preferring now to call it “ruby” and “legendary” – presumably regarding the new descriptors as less frightening to potential new recruits.
Thompson is confident that at its new strength the beer can attract new drinkers, which is “what every cask ale should be doing”. Wychwood is proud that out of 34 colleges in Oxford, a short distance from its home, Hobgoblin is on the bar of 30, and being “actively drunk” by 19 and 20-year-olds. Applause all round, I think. And thanks for the lagerboy T-shirt …