Category: Craft Beer

| Beer, Beer tasting, Craft Beer

Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Being faced with a flight of beers I had no desire to drink made me think philosophically for a bit, and wonder if there’s a different narrative to tasting and enjoying beer.

I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It’s one of my favourite competitions, because it’s global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you’re tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and… well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard.

Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you’re going to get. You accept you’re going to get some that you’re not best friends with, but hope that it’ll balance out and that you’ll get some good ones. Sometimes – as I found with the Tripels the year before – getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?

At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.

These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?

There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you’ve ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it’s a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was ‘to style’ or not?

In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s going on in the mouth, and that’s fine – beer is a social lubricant, and while you’re drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven’t taken it in because you’ve been thinking about something else, or there’s music playing and you can’t recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there’s a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it’s in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else.

I’ve seen many craft beer fans necking beers they’ve paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There’s nothing wrong with that – even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you’d look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you.

But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what’s going on with it, and not just when you’re judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here’s my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that’s correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to ‘get’ notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here’s an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:

 

“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”

If you’re into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what’s it doing, really? I honestly can’t tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can’t be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it?

I don’t think so.

Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of “She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes.”

This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details.

But I’m meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole.

Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here’s a strawberry beer. “I’m getting strawberries.” OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?

The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and felt like they belonged together.

By the end of the morning I’d enjoyed several of the beers, and I’d scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I’m in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.

APPEARANCE
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It’s also dependent on the context of the beer you’ve ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?

AROMA
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It’s also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness.

It’s flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from ‘retronasal olfaction,’ meaning you really get it when it’s in your mouth/when you’re swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose.

Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not?

Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma’s promise. But overall, I’m looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn’t doing it, it’s not working.

TASTE
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there’s an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I’m increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip.

Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional?

Here, I then start to think about whether I’m actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What’s it trying to be, and does it succeed?

If it’s trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I’ve nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it’s trying to do.)

If it’s trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea).

FINISH
Aftertaste is a sensory experience – partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you’ve swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing – how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you’ve paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz compel you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?

By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I’d enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them – even the ones I didn’t like – to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it.

What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty.

| Beer, Craft Beer

Stop the presses: the definition of craft beer

Yet again, I’m in the middle of writing a piece that addresses the idea that craft beer is ‘a meaningless term,’ that ‘craft beer’ doesn’t exist because it had no precise, technical definition.

To argue the point I’m making, I hauled out my massive copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to look at the definition of the word ‘craft.’ And lo and behold, just below the three different definitions of ‘craft’, the next entry is ‘craft beer’!

So according to the OED:

‘craft beer (also craft brew) noun (US) a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region.’

I kinda like that. You may not. I think it gets to the point of what it’s all about. You may disagree with it, you may think it’s incomplete, you may think it misses the point. I really don’t care. Because craft beer has a strict tight, pithy definition, created by the people whose job it is to define what words mean. This is the definition of craft beer whether you like it or not. If you disagree, you might as well argue with the definitions of the words ‘cramp,’ ‘cranial,’ ‘crannog’ or ‘crap hat.’

This may not solve many of the issues in craft beer, but it does hopefully mean an end to the fatuous argument that the problem with craft beer is its lack of a strict definition. If you have a problem with craft beer, it’s probably not about the definition of the word, but about what you feeling being done to the concept.

By the way, my personal big-ass copy of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 2003, so (a) apologies to anyone for whom this is old news and (b) that means craft beer has had a definition all this time we’ve been arguing over whether it does to not. Tchoh!

| Beer, Craft Beer

Is anyone still interested in a definition of craft beer?

I wonder…

It’s been a depressing spectacle this last couple of years watching people who share a love of great beer tear each other apart over trying to define what craft beer is.

I’ve been using the term for years in a very loose way to describe most things that are not mainstream commercially produced lager. But in the last three years, as craft has become a defined movement, some people have felt an increased urgency to give it a proper technical definition. Others have asserted that because it doesn’t have one, it does not and cannot exist – an attitude that seems to me to display a curious mix of arrogance and paranoia.

There are various obstacles to coming up with such a definition.

One is competing interests. The nearest thing we have to a definition is that put forward by the American Brewers Association. It talks about size of brewer, ownership and adjuncts. The thing is, this is a trade association’s description designed to benefit members of that trade association. It serves their purposes, not the drinker’s. It changes to suit the evolving needs of its members. Which is fair enough – for them. What’s not fair is when they seek to impose this definition on the whole world of beer. The best beer I’ve had this year is a bourbon aged Imperial stout with cherries from Goose Island. According to the BA, this is not a craft beer because it’s owned by A-B Inbev. Now I hate A-B Inbev as much as anyone, and I’m deeply wary of their intentions to Goose Island. But any universe where the beer I had is not a craft beer is a strange place indeed.

Then at the other end there’s the whole “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…” school of thought, which says you don’t need to be able to define a craft beer to spot one. This has been criticised for reducing things to “I like this beer so it’s a craft beer.” I think that’s a bit disingenuous. Amid all the debates about what is and isn’t craft beer, those arguing could probably agree on nine out of ten beers being craft or not. But many people would rather spend their time arguing about the one out of ten that’s ambiguous.

The definition I have the least time for is the “craft beer is quality beer that is served in keg” school. This is absurd and feeble minded. The kind of people who say this in a positive way do so to distinguish ‘craft’ from what they see as ‘boring brown’ cask ale. It’s nonsense. By taking this stance against the real ale diehards who believe anything in a keg is bad, they’re merely proving themselves to be a mirror image of those diehards, just as ignorant and bigoted. If craft beer is about anything specific, it’s certainly not about the container it’s in – the whole point of it is that it should be all about the beer.

My personal view, as I expressed in response to Mark Dredge’s excellent recent post about craft beer whiners, is that it’s more useful to think of craft as an adjective rather than a noun. Not as a specific style of beer, but as a general description, the same way we’d say ‘dark’ or ‘full bodied’ or whatever – deliberately non-specific, but carrying a degree of commonly understood meaning.

That’s how I’ve always thought about craft beer. But I’m all too aware that many people in the beer world NEED technical definitions – it’s how they navigate the world.

Well if you’re one of those people, how about this?

At a recent conference on innovation in beer, St Austell brewer Roger Ryman gave a presentation about craft beer in which he quoted an article by Dan Shelton, which appeared in the last edition of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium. This guide is currently out of print because a new edition is launching this summer. But editor Tim Webb very kindly sent me a copy so I could read the piece and write about it here.

Dan Shelton clearly has some axes to grind of his own, but I found his multi-part definition of craft beer quite compelling. He identifies five aspects:

  • – Ingredients: does the brewer seek the best possible ingredients or is s/he more concerned about keeping costs down?
  • – Methods and equipment: the brewery’s intent – does the brewery do everything it can to maintain quality or does it let things slip as it grows? Is the brewery making the best beer it can?
  • – The brewer’s spirit: hard to measure, but does the beer reflect the brewer’s personality or is it simply generic and lacking in faults? Are they just following the market, or trying to do something special?
  • – Company structure: who’s calling the shots? It’s not necessarily about company size, but does the brewer decide what beers are brewed or does the marketing department?
  • – Control: is the brewer able to exercise some control over how the beer turns out or is s/he simply throwing in ingredients and hoping for the best?

Everyone who I would call a craft brewer ticks each of these boxes. What I like about this definition is that it’s objective. A global giant could produce a craft beer if they followed these rules, but they don’t. Their structures don’t permit it. But it doesn’t rule them out on size or ownership. It’s about intent.

And this definition does what no other does – it excludes small brewers who aren’t very good. Any idiot can throw an extra bag of citra hops into a copper, it doesn’t make them good brewers or their beer good beer. I’ve tasted bland beers that are not craft created by huge corporations, and I’ve tasted bloody awful beers created by tiny breweries that call themselves craft when they are not, because craft has to be about skill as well as size. I don’t know how you measure some of these criteria, but of it’s a neutral, objective detailed definition of craft you want, I think this does the job.

But like I said, I’m not sure we need it. While I was thinking about this post, I looked up ‘craft’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and it says “An activity involving skill in making things by hand.” Do we really need it to be any more complex than that?