Tag: Beer appreciation


Beer Cities’ Forum

I’m delighted to be doing one of the keynote speeches at the inaugural Beer Cities’ Forum, as well as chairing a British Guild of Beer Writers session with Roger Protz, Adrian Tierney-Jones, Frances Brace & Susanna Forbes in the afternoon. It’s the first of its kind and a great chance for people to learn about and discuss the very best beer cities and beer weeks in Britain.

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Beer is not as fattening as you think – and that’s official

No, the number of calories in a pint has not somehow miraculously fallen, or found to be overstated.  But new research carried out by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has found that a significant majority of people in Britain believe there are more calories in beer than there really are.

When asked, 60 per cent of men overestimated the calories in a pint, and a whopping 74% of women did the same.

The fact that three out of four women believe beer is more calorific than it really is is surely a significant factor in the very low proportion of women who drink beer, and one that is easily remedied – hey, brewers, you could simply do an information campaign informing people of the truth rather than spending million on a patronising clear ‘beer’ in a bottle with pretty flowers on.

Revealing details of the research, the BBPA included some handy stats which you may want to share with weight-conscious friends down the pub:

  • A half pint (284ml) of 2.8% ABV bitter is 80 calories
  • A half pint (284ml) of 4% ABV lager is 96 calories
  • A 175ml glass of 12.5% red wine is 119 calories
  • A 175ml glass of 12.5% white wine is 131 calories

Yes, a pint is more than a glass of wine.  But at 220 calories for a pint of premium cask ale, that’s really not too many (and the point is, it still remains much lower than most people think).  I once did WeightWatchers, and a pint of ale has the same points value as a naked baked potato with no filling, no butter, nothing.

I’m not sure there are many people who would describe a baked potato as fattening.  So why do people who drink beer get fat (because yes, some of them – me as a case in point – do)? Well, you wouldn’t have a nice dinner and then go out afterwards and eat five or six baked potatoes, would you? 

It’s all about moderation – the beer itself is not fattening, but eat or drink too much of anything and over time it will start to show.

And of course, the industry sanctioned lined – which also happens to be true – is that a bag of crisps almost doubles the calorific value of a round, while a packet of peanuts contains twice as many calories as a pint of beer.

On another note, you might have spotted the comparison above with a 2.8% pint of beer.  That’s because the research (carried out by ComRes with a sample of over 2000 adults nationwide) also asked people if they would consider drinking a 2.8% beer as a refresher on a hot day.  This follows the new tax break that came in last year for beers of 2.8% or below as an effort to get people to moderate their alcohol consumption.   (Something we could all have welcomed if it wasn’t being paid for by a tax hike on beers of over 7%, which hammers the craft beer industry and displays a total lack of understanding of the beer market).

A lot of drinkers – myself included – are sceptical about whether a beer can deliver flavour at 2.8%, and wonder why the limit wasn’t set at 3.4% – not a huge difference in alcohol, but a massive one in terms of what a brewer can do.  (Trinity from Redemption Brewery at 3% ABV is a beer that some people drink because it’s low ABV, but most drink in spite of its ABV – it’s simply a wonderful beer; forget the alcohol.)  But the research shows that about a third of people – more women than men – are happy to give 2.8% a go.

That figure would surely have been higher if the limit had been a little more realistic, but that’s what we’re stuck with and many brewers are now rising to the challenge of making beer at 2.8% that’s still worth drinking.  I’ll be doing a blind tasting of a wide range of low ABV beers very soon, damning the bad and praising any we find that are worth a go.  I know craft beer is playing in high ABVs just now, but when you drink as much beer as I do, it’s very nice indeed to have a low strength alternative.

And if it’s lower in calories too, well, that does us no harm at all.

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Video Blog: The SIBA Conference

SIBA is the Society of Independent Brewers, kind of the equivalent to the Brewers’ Association in the US, and it’s doing a grand job of fuelling the growth of great quality beer from small producers in the UK.  It is a beer trade body, and as such it has its political struggles, battles with other bodies, internal strife and all the rest of the issues that plague every trade body in beer.  But SIBA events are fun.  And the people who organise and run them are decent, talented people who you enjoy having a pint with.  I wrote here about the time I had at the conference last year, so it was a pleasure to go back with the film crew this year.

So what happens in this episode? It’s twelve minutes long, so let me guide you through it.

First, Peter Amor talks to SIBA head Julian Grocock about the society, what its stands for and what it does to help promote beer.  SIBA organises a year-long brewing competition, where beers judged at regional heats go through to a national final, with the winners announced at the conference.  I then sneak into the bar while the conference is going on in the next room, and help myself to a sneak preview and tasting of all the category winners (or rather, all bar one in the final edit – not everyone likes the fact that SIBA judged a national keg beer competition this year).  This gets interspersed with interviews with some of the young, new cask ale brewers who were at the conference this year, where we seek to uncover the motivations behind a new generation entering the brewing industry.  This concludes with an interview with the brewer who created this year’s grand champion.  Which of the beers was it?  Well, if you’re eagle-eyed during the tasting segment, you’ll spot it well before I did…

These video blogs now have their own home on the web too.  Go to http://www.britishbeervideoblog.blogspot.com/ if you want to see them all together, and there’ll also be the odd extra bonus clip knocking around there too.  You can also find the embed code there now that allows you to feature them on your own site of you wish.

Finally, can I ask for some feedback?  This year of video blogs represents a significant financial investment, which aims to help spread beer appreciation beyond the usual community of beer aficionados and hopes to reach a wider audience.  If you’ve been following them for the last six months you’ll see that we’ve tried different formats and ideas, and also that we’re steadily learning our craft as presenters (the filmmakers already knew what they were doing).  We want to make them as good as we can. Any constructive comments would be very gratefully received!

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We’ve got to acc-en-tu-ate the positive

Sorry – really long post – really big topic.
I’ve seen lots of conversations recently that all come together around a central theme that is, to my mind at least, one of the key themes for beer this year.  Namely this: factionalism and blind prejudice – on various sides – is threatening to kill, or at least stall, the beer revolution.
The people’s front of Judea and the popular Judean people’s front.  Or is it the other way round?
It first struck me when Martyn Cornell expressed his dismay that seven of the supposed ten best beers in the world are Imperial Stouts, which began a war of indignation that has currently run to almost 150 comments on his blog.  Then, after my recent posting on a very good-natured and enjoyable beer versus wine matching dinner, Cooking Lager temporarily dropped his comedy mask to make the very good observation that in wine, you never hear people promoting good wine by slagging off cheap wine.  And, last week, I was talking to Zak Avery about my growing concern over negativity in the beer scene, and he said, ‘wait till you see my next column’.  Zak published his thoughts on the subject yesterday, arguing for more inclusivity and tolerance.
As Zak says, the passion that people have for beer can only be a good thing, and I would never want to deter anyone from expressing their passion.  I’d just ask you to think about the way in which you express it (and by the way, I’m not exempting myself here – I’ve been guilty too).
When I first started writing about beer, I was infuriated by CAMRA because it was the only voice in the UK championing good beer, and it did so in a way that I felt was blinkered, bigoted, and downright insulting to beer drinkers who were not already part of the club.  CAMRA-friendly beer writers would not only dismiss mainstream beers as ‘industrial yellow fizz’, but also their drinkers as brainwashed morons.  It was only half a step away from the nasty abuse of ‘chavs’ or ‘pikeys’ under which class prejudice hides today – sometimes not even that far.
CAMRA has since changed and become more open, and has seen its membership double.  I think the two are not unrelated.  (From now on, I’m going to refer to the rump of unreconstructed CAMRA diehards who hate anything new or different as Old CAMRA, to differentiate them from the broader-minded but still real ale-loving mainstream CAMRA).
But CAMRA is no longer the only voice championing good beer.  We now have what Zak refers to as the ‘crafterati’ – beer bloggers and other vocal drinkers who champion great beers from or influenced by the North American brewing scene.  I’d like to believe I was among the first of these in the UK.  But now I look at what Martyn calls ‘the extremophiles’, and I’m seeing a similar unpleasant snobbery to that of CAMRA ten years ago – just coming from a different direction. Where the rump of Old CAMRA members still dismiss even quality Czech and German lagers as ‘yellow fizz’, the extremophiles similarly deride ‘Boring Brown Beer’.  Each dismisses vast swathes of beer, denigrating perfectly good brews simply because they are not of the style they prefer.
Old CAMRA and the extremophiles do at least agree on one thing – that any beer brewed by a big brewery must be shit.  In the US, the definition of Craft Beer hinges on the size of the brewery rather than the ingredients and processes used, or the passion of the brewer.  Over here, Old CAMRA now forgets that it was regional brewers like Young’s and Greene King who kept real ale alive long enough for the micros to arrive, casting them in the role of evil big brewers oppressing the micros, while extremophiles dismiss their beers as hopelessly square and bland.
All of this is childish, and ultimately damaging for beer – all beer.
I just got back from the SIBA conference, where one of the prevailing attitudes was inclusivity about what makes good beer.  During the closing panel session, Roger Protz cut an increasingly isolated figure as he defended CAMRA’s stance on only promoting cask ale.  One minute he said CAMRA could only ever promote real ale because that is what it is for, suggesting that this forty year-old body is simply incapable of changing to reflect changing times. The next minute he boasted that CAMRA had proudly defended Budvar for twenty years.  The brewers of quality British lager – some brewed locally – who were in the room were left scratching their heads as to why CAMRA could promote a foreign quality lager but not a British one.  Roger confessed to enjoying some quality keg products and exhorted fans of them to form a campaign for keg ale.  But in doing so he missed the whole point – it’s not about cask or keg.  It’s now about a broader championing of good beer in an age where method of dispense is no longer the key differentiator of quality.  The audience – comprising mainly of cask ale brewers – was then asked if they thought CAMRA should broaden its remit.  A show of hands revealed roughly 80% believed CAMRA should – and I repeat, these are brewers of cask ale.  Roger said he was ‘horrified’ by this result.
At the other end of the scale, we had a Guild of Beer Writers meeting last week, and after the meeting, we all enjoyed pints of Gales Seafarers, Adnams Bitter and London Pride.  These beers were perfectly kept, wonderfully tasty, but some of us who might be counted as ‘crafterati’ (me included) felt a need to justify or at least comment upon the fact that we could enjoy these ‘boring brown beers’ as much as we did.  I’ve enjoyed great pints of Greene King IPA on occasion – in the right pub at the right time – and I now reject a beer scene where anyone needs to be defensive about that, just as much as I reject a beer scene that says cask ale is the only beer worth drinking.
There was a different aspect of the same thing with some of the criticism of the Proud of Beer video.  Why was Carling in there? Wasn’t this supposed to be a video promoting craft beer?  Well, no.  It was supposed to be a video promoting the British beer industry.  Because if Old CAMRA, the extremophiles, those arguing that SIBA brewers are parasites, those who believe Molson Coors are going to close down Sharps (even though the Cornish brewery has just had some brand new fermenting vessels delivered), those who hate beer tickers, those who say cask is dead, those who say keg is de facto shit, those who think any beer with under 50 IBUs is shit – if you could all just lift your heads out of you navels and look around for a bit, you’d see the real picture. 
There’s a war on drink at the moment, and beer is the scapegoat.  Every article on Britain’s binge drinking epidemic uses the pint as its frame of reference, despite the fact that beer sales overall are nose diving while wine and spirits sales increase.  Tax on beer has gone up by 26% in the last two years, and will go up by another 7% in this month’s budget.  Beer is massively under-represented in popular press coverage, and most people in the general public still perceive it as uninteresting and not for them.  Pubs are closing at the rate of 29 a week.
So if you care about beer enough to write about it, or evangelise it in any other way, it would be really great if you could do so positively.  Anyone who looks in on our industry, our beer scene, from the outside, sees a pack of squabbling kids.  If you’re a curious drinker who might try beer, it puts you off pretty quickly.  If you’re a minister wondering whether the industry deserves a break, you see a fragmented and ineffective lobbying body.  By focusing on internal battles, we’re allowing wine and spirits on one side and teetotallers on the other to reposition beer as something not worth bothering with.  We simply don’t make Planet Beer look like a very attractive place to be.
I’m not saying don’t be passionate about your favourite beer or favourite beer style.  But I would ask you to try one experiment.  If you do write about beer, and you write something about a beer you like, and you use what you regard as a crap beer as a point of comparison, save it and put it to one side.  Then, try to write the same piece without slagging off inferior beers.  Now, find a friend whose opinion you trust, who isn’t as passionate about beer as you, and ask them which they think reads better, which makes them want to try your beer – the one that praises the beer on its own merits, or the one that slags off what it is not?
Also – anticipating the first wave of comments and cries of hypocrisy here – I’m not saying never be critical, and I’m not saying don’t call bullshit when you see (or taste) it.  But do judge something on its own merits.  
Think of, say, a Jay Rayner restaurant review.  He does negative reviews – and how – but he does these on the basis of the restaurants own merits or lack of them, visiting it, and taking it on its own terms.  He doesn’t slag off a kebab shop for not having a Michelin star, or a provincial family-run restaurant for not being in the West End.  
See what I’m saying?  I hope so.  When I slagged off Stella Black, for example, I did so on the basis of tasting it, judging it as the super-premium lager it claimed to be.  It was revealing and sad that Cooking Lager expressed surprise that I had actually tasted it before slagging it off – what does that say about our perceived prejudices? 
What I am saying is two things:
Firstly, let’s not draw these ideological lines in the sand any more.  Let’s try to celebrate beer
Secondly, when we celebrate the beers we love, let’s do that, rather than constantly using what they’re not as a frame of reference.  Because you know what? It’s lazy, and it comes across as really insecure.
I look forward to all your positive, inclusive and constructive comments, people.

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Why it’s fruitless to try to paint beer as the new wine

Last year we were having the kitchen done and the house was a building site. The year before that I’d just got back from Kolkata. The year before that we left it too late, and the year before that our mad neighbours scared off a lot of the people we wanted to talk to. Jesus – thinking about it, we hadn’t had one of our traditional Christmas drinks parties since 2005.

I wanted to make a good impression. On top of that, I had so much beer in the cellar that if I was to try and drink it all before it turned to vinegar I would surely kill myself. So I laid out a beer extravaganza on the table.
I never try to force beer down people’s throats – you never win hearts and minds by doing that. So in the afternoon, we went to Majestic Wine and bought a case of decent, zingy Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a case of light, fruity Italian. Owing to a schoolboy-error oversight in my beer scrounging and having spent far too much of 2009 obsessing over hop bombs and whisky aged tar-flavoured stouts, I also found myself rather embarrassed at having to buy a case of Asahi.
Come party time, the Asahi and the sauvignon were chilling in an ice bucket. On the table stood bottle of the cheeky red, and about fifty assorted beers from the cellar. We had tumblers and wine glasses at the ready, and bottle openers in profusion.
When the guests arrived, I offered them drinks, and talked them through what was on offer. By the end of the evening I’d made a dent in the beer lake, and converted one or two people to beery delights they hadn’t had before.
But there was one conversation I had seven or eight times, and it’s been rolling around my mind for two months now so I wanted to write it down to see if by doing so I can make sense of it in my head. Here goes:
Me: “Hi! Long time no see! So, what can I get you to drink? We’ve got beer and wine and a bit of fizz if you like. There are a lot of beers so let me talk you through them: there’s lager chilling in the bucket, these ones here are blonde and pale ales and are lightly chilled and a bit fruity and zingy, then you’ve got these ones which are a bit darker, more caramelly and may be with flavours of ripe red fruit or toffee or caramel. Then these here are stronger and darker and maybe a bit challenging, but if you like rich red wine you might like them, they have chocolate and coffee and sometimes oaky flavours. And here’s some wheat beers that are light and refreshing, some fruit beers and some other surrealist shit from Belgium*.”
Guest: “Um… I’ll have a wine, thanks.”
Me: “Sure! What kind of wine would you like?”
Guest: “White, thanks.”
Me: “What kind of white?”
Guest: “Eh? I dunno, just white.”
Me: “Any particular flavour? Any particular style?”
Guest: “No, just white.”
To me, this exchange – which, like I said, I had several times without much variation – reveals a major misconception in the way both beer fans and wine lovers think about the relationship between the two drinks.
They argue that beer is crude and unsophisticated. We reply strenuously that beer has just as much flavour and complexity as wine.
But just like the majority of beer drinkers, the majority of wine drinkers don’t actually care that much about complexity and depth of flavour. When someone orders a bottle of Pinot Grigio in All Bar One and has it served in an ice bucket and drinks it at about 2 degrees above freezing, they do so not to appreciate the flavour, but to look and feel good while they’re drinking it, and to manage their arc of inebriation in a way with which they feel comfortable. They’re showing the same level of discernment, and the same physiological and psychological needs, as a Carling or Bud drinker.
If you started to talking to a Carling or Bud drinker about the subtleties of difference between a French and a Californian Chardonnay, they’d run a mile. Similarly, someone who chooses a wine on the basis that it;s not the house wine but one above it, so you don’t look like a cheapskate but you still get good value and gosh doesn’t it slip down quickly, is going to be completely unimpressed by arguments that the malt of a porter or the hop of an IPA can compete with the intensity of a Shiraz or Kiwi Sauvignon.
The vast majority of drinkers simply aren’t that interested in flavour. That’s not a criticism. you can’t make someone start obsessing about taste buds any more than you can inspire in them a sudden interest in fashionable hosiery if it isn’t something they’ve already pondered. The way to get these people into beer is to cast beer as fashionable, something with a favourable image.
I’m, not arguing in favour of total superficiality here – one way of doing that is to get respected people to proselytise about beer. If we really want to evangelise beer, we need to find the people who are interested in flavour, and engage them on their level. In turn, they pass on their enthusiasm to those who don’t care as much.
Yes, it is annoying when the person who says “Just white” walks away with their glass of “just white” actively thinking they have made a more discerning, premium choice than any of the beers you were offering, many of which cost more per millilitre than the wine in their hand. But in the final analysis, that’s their problem, not yours
*This was not to dismiss Belgium, but I didn’t want to go on too long or scare novices away completely.

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Charting new reserves of willpower

Me. Yesterday.
One of the things that angers me most about this month’s fresh assault from the neopros is the timing of it. In January loads of people give up booze for a month, they’re thinking about how much they drink (even Glyn at the Rake is scaring himself silly about this) so let’s hit people while they’re vulnerable and scare them.

What makes me angry about this is that it misses the point – heavy drinkers such as me and The Beer Widow do occasionally like to prove to ourselves that we don’t have a drink problem, and whatever your views on units etc. no one can argue that it does your body good to lay off the sauce for a while. Via the twisted logic of the neopros, the very fact that we feel the need to do this – to plan a month where we don’t drink and prove to ourselves that we can go without – is proof that we do have a problem. You just can’t win with these guys. It’s like saying that if someone goes on a diet and loses weight, this proves they are still fat.
Two weeks in, I’m 9lbs lighter and feeling great (that’s not just off the beer – it’s also a diet consisting mainly of seeds, vegetables, pulses and owl pellets). But for the record, I have had no cravings – either physical or psychological – for alcohol. I haven’t had that naggy, itchy feeling when you think, “Ooh, I could really do with a drink.” Not once. Not even when I’ve been quite stressed – and when I do drink too much, it’s usually stress related. To me, rather than proving I have a drink problem, this proves I don’t have one. I’m sure thousands of other people are feeling the same way right now. And that’s one big reason why I’m so angry about the timing of this neopro assault.
But I am missing beer. I’m missing the taste and smell of it. I’m missing going down to the cellar and looking along the rows of bottles and not letting myself think about it too hard, but just letting my appetite or my subconscious decide what’s going to go best with whatever’s bubbling away on the hob. I’m missing leaning on the bar at the White Hart while my pint of Tribute, three quarters poured, settles a little while the smiling barperson goes off and gets the Beer Widow’s half of Leffe. I’m missing the wet half-moons on the varnished table top. I’m missing going down the the Rake and the slight lift in the stomach and tightening of the throat that betray my excitement the millisecond before I look along the bar and see what’s on draught.
Last night was my biggest test yet. One of the agencies I do some work for (the guys who designed the new M&S range) were having a belated Christmas party. I’m currently helping them out a bit on an exciting project around speciality beer, and they asked me to do a beer tasting session for them before the party proper got under way.
When I agreed to do this, I thought well, I’ll have one night off. That won’t do any harm. And it wouldn’t have. But then as the event drew closer, I thought, I wonder if I could actually do this without drinking? Do I have the willpower? Can I do a good event? Why not?
The audience was mainly beer novices, so I chose the theme “So you think you know beer”. The intention was to challenge the simple ‘cold fizzy lager versus warm, flat ale’ misconception that many people still have about beer. So I lined up, in order, the following:
  • Zatec lager – a lager that tastes like lager, an uncompromised expression of a true pilsner
  • Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted – the same colour as the Zatec, but much more body and aroma despite being 4.2% to Zatec’s 5%, to get them thinking about the difference between ale and lager
  • Worthington White Shield – to talk about bottle conditioning, and because it is one of the five greatest beers in the world
  • Goose Island IPA – to talk about hops, and because it’s also one of the five greatest beers in the world
  • Dogfish Head Midas touch – to talk about the history and evolution of beer, and broaden the parameters of what it might be
  • Brooklyn Dark Chocolate Stout – to talk about malt, and to open up a hint of ‘extreme’ beer (even though it’s not that extreme by most aficionado’s standards, it’s pretty out there for your average drinker)
  • Harviestoun Ola Dubh 40 Year Old – to show the innovation that’s happening and to leave conventional notions of what beer is and tastes like as a dwindling speck in the rear view mirror
  • Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus – to fuck with their heads and make them cry
I adore each and every one of these beers. With each one, I poured it, talked about it, held it to the light, swirled it, sniffed it, talked about the aroma, asked what flavours people were getting, stuck my nose deep into the glass… and then put it down on the table. I didn’t take a single sip.
I proved to myself that I can appreciate beer and be in close contact with it without drinking it.
And given that the audience enjoyed it, I proved I can give an entertaining beer tasting without drinking it.
So why did I feel like such a fucking idiot afterwards? Why did I feel like a bloke who’s found a wallet with £1000 quid in it and handed it in at a police station – knowing you’ve done the right thing, but feeling slightly foolish for having done so?
And then I woke up this morning, feeling fantastic, and discovered I’ve lost 1lb more.
I’m halfway through the detox, and have no intention of repeating last night’s self-denial when I’m back on the sauce. But long term I am going to cut out the three bottles in front of the telly on a rainy Monday night, the three pints in the pub after work just because it’s on the way home, the pint of Kronenbourg in a not very nice pub in the middle of town because I’ve got half an hour to wait before my meeting and I just might as well have one. I’ll do all of these occasionally, but not all the time.
If I do that, I’ll never again have to do something as stupid as pouring away the eight beers listed above, untouched, untasted.

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Just popped into All Bar One in my eternal quest for wifi access as I’m working a lot on the move at the moment.

Saw they stocked Worthington White Shield and asked for one.  The barman looked surprised. “It’s very rare we sell anything like that.  Have you had it before?  You know what it’s like, yeah?”
He was warning me about a beer.  I wondered if he was frightened by its complexity of flavour. But no, it seemed to be the fact that it’s bottle-conditioned that was troubling him.  “It’s got um… in the bottle… there’s…” he was struggling.
“I know – it’s bottle conditioned, which means it’s still fermenting and still has yeast in the bottle, so I should be careful with it.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” he smiled, “I keep forgetting the right term… actually no.  The Duvel is similar but not quite the same.  Duvel is still conditioning in the bottle like White Shield is, but White Shield doesn’t have any yeast in the bottle, it’s just fermenting.”
I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad.  He was trying.  And he did manage to serve me the correct branded glass.  But we still have a long way to go.

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What it’s really all about

I had a moment the other night that made me realise the single thing I love the most about this whole beer lark.

I was out with a journalist from Time Out Mumbai who had written a feature on my IPA voyage, (it’s credited to me, but it was one of those ‘as told to’ jobs) and is now in London for a couple of weeks, and asked me to show him around a few pubs. He knew his beer and his been in London before, as his ability to teach me the rule sof bar billiards (a shameful gap in my knowledge) testified.

We confirmed together that the Dog and Duck in Soho serves the best-kept point of Timothy Taylor Landlord to be found in the south of England. Then we moved on to a Sam Smith’s pub. He deferred to me on the ordering.

“Do you like Guinness?” I asked.

He nodded.

“OK, let’s try a bottle of Oatmeal Stout.”

The look on his face was one I see often in this situation. It’s the look of having nailed it. His eyes bulged, his knees bent slightly, his mouth puckered, then stretched into a massive grin. “My god,” he said, “That is amazing! I’m never going to drink anything else ever again!”

That this was Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout isn’t really the point. It’s a great beer, but I’ve also had this same reaction to Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn Lager, Orkney’s Dark Island Reserve, and Franziskaner Weissbier. Maybe you think none of these are the absolute immortals of the beer world, but they’re all beers that, to someone who doesn’t know craft beer, completely change their very perception of what beer can be. Their palate becomes recalibrated, the doors of perception are opened. And to be the person who gets to facilitate that, who gets to introduce someone to the sheer sensory pleasure of a great beer for the first time, is both a privilege and a great high all of its own.

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The perfect pint – does it exist in an objective reality?

I read two completely different things yesterday that together prompted the above question.

I’ve just started reading Beer and Philosophy, edited by Steven D Hales. It’s a collection of essays, sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek. In one essay, “Good Beer, or How to Preoperly Dispute Taste”, Peter Machamer argues that the notion of ‘ideal beer-tasting conditions’ is nonsense, because beer appreciation is so closely linked to its context. He gives the example (it’s an American book) of Samuel Adams Honey Porter – “lousy when sitting in the hot sun on a summer picnic, but fabulous in front of the fire on a snowy winter’s evening”.

It’s the same thing as the eternal holiday beer conundrum – you fall in love with the local brand, but when you stick a couple of bottles in your case and bring them home, a miraculous transformation to urine occurs inside the bottle.

This all reminded me of a favourite game I play with drinking buddies. Ask someone what their favourite beer is, and they may insist that it changes over time, but they’ll give you the name of a beer, or maybe a list. But ask them what is the best beer they’ve ever had, and they’ll tell you that it was on their honeymoon, at this fabulous hotel, and they’d just had a wonderful day on the beach/on safari/walking in the hills, and the sun was shining and they were sitting by a pool and they were so damn thirsty, and the beer was brought over and condensation was running down the glass, and… you interrupt them and say, “Yes, but what was the beer?” They often reply, “Oh. I can’t remember the actual beer. But it was definitely the best one I’ve had.”

While thinking about this yesterday, I saw a story in the news: researchers at Herriott Watt University have discovered that the type of music listened to by people drinking wine has a significant affect on how the wine tastes.
They used four different styles of music:

  • Carmina Burana by Orff – “powerful and heavy”
  • Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky – “subtle and refined”
  • Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague – “zingy and refreshing”
  • Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook – “mellow and soft”

The white wine was rated 40% more ‘zingy and refreshing’ when that music was played, but only 26% more ‘mellow and soft’ when music in that category was heard.

The red rating changed by 25% with ‘mellow and soft’ music, and a whopping 60% with ‘powerful and heavy’. This is apparently due to something called “cognitive priming theory”. I just googled this term and got scared and ran away, but apparently it’s to do with the music sets up the brain to respond to other stimulus in a certain way. Does all this mean that there is no such thing objectively as a good beer or a bad beer? Is Rate Beer a complete waste of time? Was that last question rhetorical?

It’s unarguable that beer can taste completely different from one occasion to the next due to factors that have nothing to do with temperature, condition, food matching etc. Combine cognitive priming theory with the huge variations in taste buds from person to person, and it’s no wonder that the beer community’s favourite occupation seems to be arguing.