Tag: beer evangelism

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Cask ale week – and beer versus wine again

Next week is the second cask ale week. After a cautious, modest success last year, this year’s event should see pubs and brewers promoting cask ale with a little more confidence, and getting great beer a rare outing in mainstream media.

One brewer who already has a radio show lined up has asked me to ask you to help him out. Notwithstanding my poorly written and therefore misunderstood blog about how we shouldn’t be trying to make beer the new wine, the question is this:
What arguments would you use to convince a regular wine drinker that they should be drinking beer instead?
I have my own views on this, but what do you think?
For the record, in my previous blog post I wasn’t suggesting that you shouldn’t attempt to convince wine drinkers to drink beer, just that you shouldn’t do it by trying completely to compete with wine on wine’s terms. Some people seek flavour and they should already be open to try anything flavoursome – beer, wine, whatever – whereas others drink wine not for its flavour but for image reasons, so trying to convince them about beer’s flavour is simply barking up the wrong tree.
But you may disagree.
Either way, if a wine drinker came to you and said, “Why should I drink beer?” What would your reply be?

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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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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.