Yes, Foster’s has launched an ALE. At least, it claims to be an ale. It has caramel colouring added, and may be a lager in disguise, but the website makes a great deal of how it tastes different from the lager: caramel and fruit aromas versus ‘light malt aroma’, and a ‘smooth caramel finish’ rather than a ‘light hop finish’. More interestingly, the beer aficionados at beeradvocate say on the whole that it tastes pretty decent. I’m sure it will never give the likes of Stone or Dogfish Head sleepless nights, they’ve seemingly launched a perfectly drinkable beer.
The White Horse in Parson’s Green has long been famous as THE Mecca for the luvvies of the beer world, if that’s not too bizarre a concept (the idea of there being luvvies of the beer world, rather than them having a Mecca).
There’s an amusing site that was pointed out to me by people at the ad agency where I’m currently moonlighting.
It’s based on a principle that we all use in adland: you can write a definition of what you would like your brand to stand for, but a brand is an abstract concept, so the only real definition is the one that exists in people’s heads. The site therefore prompts you with a logo and asks you to write the first word or phrase that comes into your head. It then collates these into a word map, a true definition of the brand in question.
It’s largely American, so its use to us Brits is a little limited, but I laughed out loud when I checked out what Budweiser really means to people. Bud Light is even better. Compare this with Sam Adams, and you realise that there’s hope for the mass palate yet. We’re confused about Heineken, which maybe reflects how that brand is perceived differently in different parts of the world, but we absolutely love Guinness.
The country’s biggest tabloid is going into the beer business. Market research organisation Mintel reported last week that the plan is to launch a lager under the page three ‘brand’ -interesting to see what the Portman Group and every other alcohol regulatory body will have to say about that one, given that it is strictly forbidden to link beer and sex these days – and a cask ale under The Sun brand.
On the one hand, I despise Rupert Murdoch and all his works. I never pay any money to anything to do with News International if I can at all help it. On the other, you can’t help but think this will benefit the market as a whole.
Why is The Sun launching a cask ale as well as a lager? It can only be because they think it’s worth their while doing so. It ties in with the fact that premium cask ale is now consistently outperforming the rest of a dire beer market.
And The Sun has phenomenal power to change people’s opinions. At the very least, it puts beer on the media agenda more firmly than it has been for ages. We currently have the worst decline in beer volumes for nearly thirty years. Surely this can only help. It is bound to upset purists who drink ale partly in order to show how different they are from the stereotypical Sun-reading, white van-driving lager lout, but how much of that is really about the age-old pastime of pouring scorn on working class men?
Will it be shit beer because most things The Sun does tend to be lowest common denominator? Or given that what they do, they do well (Sun journalism is actually very skilful), will they produce something that’s accessible, but decent quality?
Good or bad, it’s going to be interesting.
Much as I adore everything about Utobeer at Borough Market, and shop there on a weekly basis whenever I’m home, it’s always nice to have more than one of something, which is why I was very pleased some months ago to receive an e-mail from Chris Gill telling me he’d just opened a speciality beer stall, Quaffs, at Spitalfields Market. Stonch got down there straight away last July and liked what he saw, but what with one thing and another, a three month boat trip here or there, it’s taken me about nine months to find a Sunday when I could get the bus down and have a look.
Chris is a very affable bloke and was doing great business while I was there. Quaffs also do mail order within the M25, can host beer tasting events and cater for private functions.
There’s just one problem. They’ve just been given four weeks’ notice to vacate the site.
There was a huge outcry a few years ago when large sections of Spitalfields, a shabby but hugely popular and utterly unique market, were ripped apart and replaced by glass, concrete and upmarket, aspirational chain brands. I’d much rather eat and drink in a Giraffe or a Leon than in a Pret a Manger or a Pizza Express, but I’d also rather see these brands on the high street where they belong rather than displacing individual traders in what used to be a quintessentially London landmark.
One of the compensations of the market being done up was the opening of the food marke in 2006. It was originally intended that this should consist of butchers and bakers, but instead it’s gone more boutique (hardly surprising in the context of how the rest of the market has been gentrified), with people selling artisanal bread, beer, cured meats and the obligatory three thousand different types of olive, as well as 150 speciality beers. While this luxury market-style set-up is almost becoming a brand in its own right, if you love food and drink you can’t walk around a place like this without a big grin on your face.
Unless, that is, you’re the manager of a chain cafe.
The big boys have protested, and insist the market is damaging their custom. Given that there was a queue of approximately fifty people waiting for a space at Leon when I passed, I can’t really believe this is true. But these big shiny chains pay very high rents for the privilege of being there, and so when they complain, small, artisanal businesses are shown the door.
As things stand, you’ve got four weeks to enjoy the delights of Quaffs. Get down there, buy their beers, and sign the petition that the market stall holders have got up against this latest example of the homogenisation of every corner of our lives.
Wetherspoons fascinates me as a chain. It’s a car crash of the really, really good and the irredeemably shit – there’s nothing just ‘alright’ or ‘not bad’ about it. Someone in the press recently commented that the chain has replaced the working man’s club, which I suppose is true in a functional sense, though it lacks the charm and the sense of belonging and ownership of the old WMCs that were still around when I was growing up. A group of beer aficionados recently told me they didn’t consider Wetherspoons to be pubs, but retail outlets: they don’t have real landlords, there’s no personality behind the bar and no individual character to your local branch. Well, there is – they make a point of making each branch reflect the local area and history – but it’s decoration rather than something in the soul of the pub.
And yet, a higher percentage of Wetherspoons outlets have been accredited with Cask Marque status than any other pub group, there’s always a range of decent real ales and while they may not be kept in as good condition as a top real ale pub, they’re always drinkable.
“International real ale?”
Yup, as well as nearly fifty beers from around the UK, and a selection of international speciality beers, there are cask-conditined beers from countries you wouldn’t expect.
I went to the launch of the festival on Thursday and met Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from Stone, who packed a bag of Centennial and Simcoe hops and came to Kent to brew Stone California Double IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery.
Mitch said it was a privilege to brew at the brewery, and obviously enjoyed matching North American vision and invention with English brewing tradition.
The resulting beer is utterly beguiling: the hoppy punch that you only really taste in North America, countered by the smoothness and depth exclusive to cask-conditioned ale.
It slipped down distressingly easily. After a couple of minutes I noticed I’d sunk half a pint, and casually asked Mitch what strength the beer was. “Well, we had to compromise,” replied the man I suddenly remembered was responsible for beers such as Arrogant Bastard and Ruination, “so it came in just over 7 per cent.”
Not a lunchtime pint then. But this, together with the cask-conditioned Tokyo Black from Japan’s Yo-Ho brewery, brewed a few weeks ago up at Marston’s, makes it worth enduring any number of mad shouting old men to grab a pint.
The festival is on until April 14th – I can’t see the Stone IPA lasting that long.
Working through my backlog of of trade press reading, I came across an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser written by Andrew Jefford a couple of months ago. He talks about the sheer obsession with increasing product quality in the St Emilion wine-growing region, the reverence the producers have for their product, and the excitement that’s generated by a partiularly good vintage.
Then of course he compares this with beer, and discusses how we don’t have great vintages because beer makers focus on consistency of product above all else. He talks about how most people buying beer don’t have a clue what it’s actually made of, and how we lack that reverence. He argues that there’s a category – fine beer -that doesnlt yet exist: superlative beers that people are prepared to pay top dollar for.
I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s an interesting argument and I wondered what beer geeks would think of it.
Of course we can all point to examples of fine beers that do exist – Utopias from Sam Adams, the super-strength speciality beers from Dogfish Head that redefine what beer can be, Deus, a bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale from 1968… but I think Andrew would argue that you have to know an awful lot about beer before you’re even aware of their existence, whereas anyone who has ever been to Oddbins will have at least taken a glance at the fine wine section in there.
Should brewers invest in creating more ultra-special beers? Should we be demanding, say, a greater range of 12 month wood-aged stouts that retail at twenty quid?
I would imagine the beer blogging community would instinctively say yes, because they’re the kind of people who are constantly searching out challenging, full-bodied, interesting beer. And Jefford’s argument that the existence of fine wines has a halo effect on the whole wine market, which could be replicated in beer, is a valid one.
I’ve got just one counter-argument, and I’m wondering how it might divide people.
One of the strengths of beer is its unpretentiousness, its accessibility. I don’t agree that beer can only ever be a ‘working class’ beverage – Burton pale ale was the most fashionhable thing you could drink for twenty years or so in Victorian society – but I do think that beer is different from wine, and I occasionally get frustrated with people who want to turn beer into ‘the new wine’.
We all know beer can be more complex, can go better with food etc, but when people start trying to talk about beer as if it was wine, they have a tendency to make it elitist. And when people want wine to totally replace beer, drawing battle lines between grape and grain, I lose patience. Anybody who appreciates the subtleties of flavour in a great craft beer and says they ‘don’t like’ wine is either delusional or a liar, and just as bad as those ignorant people who say they ‘don’t like beer’ after drinking one warm can of Bud when they were nineteen.
Elitism is part of wine’s character, so it’s going to be much easier to build in snobbery, mystique, and a sense of specialness. The frustrating part of this is that people can order a bottle of cheap, industrially produced pinot grigio, drink it super-chilled, and while they’re drinking the wine equivalent of Carling Extra Cold, believe they’re actally superior to someone drinking, say, cask ale.
Beer would lose a lot of its soul if it simply aped the culture and mystique around wine.
So I’m not sure. I’d love to see ‘fine beers’ more commonly on the shelves, but can we have that and keep beer as the democratic, sociable drink it has been for five thousand years? Can beer successfully challenge wine at the top level – I’m talking about popular perception, not just among aficionados – without becoming arsey and pretentious? I hope so, but I’m not sure…