Tag: Beer

| Uncategorised

Fine Beer?

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…

| Uncategorised

We’re all only here for the beer

I was very pleased that the post about beer snobs provoked such a reaction. It shows how important beer is to people. And it got me to thinking about why.

In September this year it’ll be ten years since I first had the idea to write a book on the social history of beer. I figured I’d write that book, then once I was published I could move on to write about other subjects, maybe even get cracking on my novel.

It would take me almost five years to get the book published, and over that time I became obsessed with beer. I’m now writing my third book on the subject, am marketing editor of a beer trade magazine, talk about beer on radio and TV, and spend every spare minute writing and thinking about beer, and most of my money on travelling the world learning about beer and beer drinkers. It pays me less than I need to live on, and I abandoned a lucrative career in advertising to do it. The novel is a distant memory. It would probably have been shit anyway.

Why does beer exert such a powerful hold?

That’s the key question. I suspect my answer may be a little different than it is for many beer bloggers, but I hope anyone who cares about beer will at least respect it, even if they don’t entirely agree. I’m defensive about it, because it automatically brings up the subject of beer snobbery again.

The people we/I call beer snobs love the amazing variety and intensity of flavour and character they get from lovingly-brewed craft beers. They believe small brewers who are doing what they love make the best of these beers. And they belive that these small brewers, lacking the marketing muscle of the macros, need all the support they can get to make their voices heard. I agree strongly on every point. But for me, the beer world is bigger than this. Beer is more important.

When I started writing about beer I loved cask ale, but not exclusively. I was thirsty to find out more about American micros, but my knowledge of Belgian beer stretched as far as Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, and they were my favourite beers. Don’t get me wrong – I preferred the taste of Pete’s Wicked Ale or Sam Adams Boston Lager when I could get them, but beer for me has always been about more than taste.

What first fascinated me about beer was the way that, in my old marketing days, when we did focus groups beer would engage a marketing-weary audience more than any other product was capable of. Young lads determined to look cool in front of their peers would talk about it with a passion and enthusiasm otherwise reserved exclusively for their football team.

When I decided to find out why, I discovered that beer is the most sociable drink in the world, and always has been. The ancients drank beer from communal pots through long straws not because they were poor, but because it was more sociable that way. When we really admire someone, we say “He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with,” not a cup of tea or glass of wine. The pub remains an environment where you leave the cares of the world at the door and treat each other with respect, as equals, and beer is the soul of the pub. Beer is why pubs are like this and wine bars are not.

The history of beer is the history of ordinary people. Beer brings history alive and makes you realise what it would have been like to be a seventeenth century diarist or thirteenth century pregnant woman, the strong birthing ale on standby for when labour began.

Beer remains the most popular drink in the world. While customs and habits vary, the underlying truth of beer is constant – getting together to relax with friends, in a safe environment, kicking back and being your true self.

If you were reading the fifth paragraph and thought to yourself “Why is he talking about Pete’s Wicked Ale and Boston Lager? There are far more characterful brews out there. Sam Adams is little better than a bland macro”, ask yourself if you’re really getting what beer is all about. One of beer’s strengths versus wine is the fact that it’s not elitist and difficult. Of course there are better beers than Boston Lager. But that doesn’t mean that Boston Lager, or Heineken, or even (God forgive me for saying this) Budweiser are completely without merit. If you cannot agree with that because you only ever see beer in terms of product character, and if you always judge product character in terms of “more is better”, then I’d argue you’re only seeing a small part of the whole picture.

Like most beer fans, given a perfect choice I’d always go for a resiny IPA, spicy Belgian saison or vinous Imperial stout. I’d much rather give my money to a guy running a one barrel plant who’s excited because he’s just got his first bottling line, goes to bed dreaming of new recipes and wakes up itching to brew, than I would to a corporation run by former Coca-Cola marketers who view beer as just another marketable beverage. But that’s me and my drinking, and that’s about as significant as an atom on a football field in the whole world of beer. If promoting the virtues of (please, please have mercy) Bud Light was the only possible way to get someone to even consider allowing beer past their lips, then I’d do it.

Beer’s beauty is its unparalleled scope, its amazing variety, its depth of meaning in the world.

This blog will continue to cover the efforts of the biggest and smallest brewers in the world. It will judge beers and beery initiatives on thier own merits. It will call out rubbish, and celebrate the good stuff. It will be irreverent at times, because beer should never take itself too seriously.

If I write a piece on, say, Heineken and its efforts to introduce a genuine continental serve to the UK, before you post a reply explaining that Heineken are corporate whores and there are far better lagers out there – I KNOW. So does everyone who is likely to read this blog. If someone else comes up with something amazing about the history of Miller in the nineteenth century and you want to tell them that Miller beers are now characterless compared to most micros – guess what? They probably know that too. But there may still be something of value in what they’re writing.

Beer is a broad church, and I’ve realised that’s what I love most about it. I am not saying writers who meticuolously analyse flavour profiles of obscure micros and nothing else should start writing about beer culture or corporate marketing. I’m glad they do what they do and I find it very helpful. I’m simply asking that those guys recognise they’re dealing with just one facet of what makes beer the best drink in the world.

| Uncategorised

Media hubris – holding the tiger by the tail

So The Culture Show dropped the feature on pubs that I spent half a day filming with them, after coming home a day early from holiday to do it. Shit like this happens, and I’m getting used to it – it just makes you feel a bit daft after telling everyone it’s going to be on, having the top bods at the British Beer and Pub Association set their DVDs, and then… nothing.

They could have let me know, that’s all. But then, the people I’d been working with on the piece had spent a week travelling around the country, working until 3am some mornings then getting up and starting again early the next day. Maybe they were too pissed off and personally affronted at the feature being dropped to even think of letting me know.

I’ve got an ego – anyone prepared to see a book through to completion does it because they’re either egotistical, or a genius who will go mad if they don’t get it out of their heads, and I’m pretty certain I’m not in the latter camp. And anyone who stands up in front of people to read their stuff, or go on TV or radio to talk about it, or have a grinning picture taken for a newspaper, genius or not, has to have a pretty strong ego. Guilty as charged, and it hurts the ego when you get dropped from a show because they’ve got a big interview with someone like, say, Lou Reed. I mean, who? What has he contributed to popular culture over the last 40-odd years?

But the desire to see myself on screen is not just an ego thing and something for my mum to talk about, it’s also driven by the desire to see beer and pubs get a better deal in our national media. So while there’s a temptation to throw my toys out of the pram and wail that it’s not fair, you have to take it on the chin and get back in there.

Beer is the UK’s most popular drink – more than soft drinks, more than wine. And yet there is no single UK magazine or newspaper that features regular coverage of beer (they nearly all have weekly wine columns). And even people who don’t like beer would readily admit that the pub is a pretty major part of our cultural DNA. The last TV series about beer was Michael Jackson’s Beer Hunter – which was made in 1991 and hasn’t been repeated since it first aired. There are people now approaching legal drinking age who were not born the last time there was a TV series on air about our national drink.

So what can we do? We keep trying. (And that’s not the royal we – this situation is something many of my fellow beer writers are wearily familiar with). Doors are starting to open, media people are becoming more receptive to the idea of giving beer some airtime, they’re starting to initiate contact with beer people themselves, without us constantly selling the idea to them.

My BBC Radio Wales interview lasted half an hour, and apart from the rather worrying fact that the host felt the need to insert a “now remember, we’re not advocating heavy drinking, there are real dirnking problems and you should always remember to drink responsibly” disclaimer every time I spoke about actually drinking the stuff (I hope this is not the start of yet another paternalistic trend) it went really well, and it was obviously of interest.

And I recorded an episode of UKTV Food’s Market Kitchen this week, and Tana Ramsay, Gordon’s wife, even seemed to quite like a couple of the Golden ales we were tasting. Barring Lou Reed showing up to cook a mean Eggs Benedict (it somehow seems like Lou’s signature dish – I don’t know why) that episode will be airing on June 28th.

If you want to see more stuff about beer on your TV or in your newspaper, write in and tell them. It’s going to happen eventually. But it would be nice if things sped up a bit.