Tag: Comment

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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.

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Great British Beer Festival – is it getting actually quite good at last?

This week saw the first GBBF at Earl’s Court, rather than Olympia. It was an opportunity to change some aspects of the festival that have been attracting mounting crticism… from, er, me, as well as a growing number of other people.

The thing about CAMRA is they are very touchy about criticism. In Man Walks into a Pub I praised them for their undeniable achievements, then said what many feel about them today: that they are luddite, out-of-touch, reactionary, and are therefore acting as a force against the spread of decent beer rather than for it. People in CAMRA only noticed the last bit, and the reaction was a George Bush-like “You’re either 100% unquestioningly for us, or you must be completely against us.”

Over the last few years I’ve repeated my criticism of the GBBF as a closed shop, elitist event, but always with some positve suggestions for what they could do. CAMRA, usually in the shape of self-aponted attack dog Roger Protz, have again and again responded that there was no validity in any points raised.

But at the same time, I got to know a few of the full-time officers within CAMRA, and of course they turned out to be decent, friendly, articulate, intelligent people who didn’t agree with everything I said, but could see the validity in some of my comments. (I’m not 100% right. No-one ever is.) I’ve not met Mike Benner, the newish CEO, but from conversations I’ve had with people who know him I’m pretty sure he’s an intelligent pragmatist. Under his leadership, CAMRA are showing unmistakable signs that they have discovered not just the twentieth century, but nmaybe even the twenty-first.

The trouble seems to be that these people are at odds, not necessarily with the bulk of CAMRA’s membership, but with the hardcore of activists who seem to wish it was still 1950. CAMRA is an organisation that depends on volunteers, and it seems that many of the people who are the most enthusiastic about volunteering also hold the most extreme views (and the most eccentric dress sense). These are the people who follow the classic English hobbyist stereotype. Beer is not just a drink for them, it is a Hobby. Campaigning is what they do. But in my opinion, at the same time as shouting about what beer should be like, they don’t seem to want masses of people to agree with them. Rather than make real ale a welcoming environment for the novice, they enjoy the cliquey aspect and delight in knowing more than anyone else. If you aren’t as knowledgeable as them, there’s no point talking to you.

Sadly, at GBBF this sect have tended to be the dominant force. It’s their day in the sun, the highlight of their year. They volunteer to man the stalls and do the doors and for five days they have a bit of power. Apart form being frankly freakish to look at in many cases, they are rude, unfriendly, and make absolutely no effort to help you make an interesting beer choice.

So was this year any different?

Well, it’s important to give credit where it’s due, and a sizeable amount is due here. We had third of a pint tasting glasses to try to help move the focus from downing pints to sampling the vast range on offer. We had the introduction of a new visually-based tasting system, similar to what you see on wine bottles, so that people can evaluate different beers and learn what styles they prefer. This system was all around the building and was used liberally throughout the programme by the brewers who have signed up for it. Even where it wasn’t used, the programme tasting notes continue to become clearer, so you can get a sense of the beer even if you have no idea what a fuggle or maris otter is.

And someone seems to have had a word with the volunteers as well. The Warsaw Pact-style officiousness was gone from the main door and the baggage search desk, replaced by a courteousness that actually made you feel special. All these are huge – and important – improvements.

But… (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?)

A few years ago the Whychwood brewery introduced a new ad campaign for Hobgoblin lager which showed a 1970s prog rock album cover-style goblin holding up his pint and saying, “What’s the matter, lagerboy? Afraid you might taste something?” It’s a good ad if it’s aimed at people who already drink real ale because it reinforces the sense that they have made the right choice, that they know something, that they are better than the people who perhaps look down their noses at them when they order something other than a pint of Fosters in the pub. But if you want to recruit new drinkers to the category… oh dear.

Now. Wychwood is under absolutely no obligation to convert lager drinkers if they don’t want to. It’s up to them. But constitutionally, CAMRA does have such an oligation. It spends an awful lot of time and energy trying to recruit new members. So Christ only knows what they were thinking when they decided to allow Whychwood to sponsor the volunteer shirts with the Hobgoblin image and the slogan “Definitely not for lager boys.”

Well done lads, I’m sure there were whoops of delight among the volunteers when you ripped open the boxes and started handing them out. But think about it: if you’re going to get new people interested in real ale, where are they going to come from? They’re lager drinkers who are looking for something more. So they walk in, curious as to what they might find, and the first thing they see is a T-shirt slogan that effectively says, “FUCK OFF! You and your kind are not welcome here.”

It’s the most stupid, ignorant, short-sighted thing I think CAMRA have ever done. As someone who drinks lager, I felt personally insulted. Someone may try to argue that it should be taken as a joke. All I can say is that if I’m a potential new recruit to the cause who is nervous about what to try, I may not get the humour.

To make matters worse, we then had an extraordinary performance from Paula Waters, CAMRA’s chairperson. This was on the trade day, just before the announcement of the champion beers, the point when any press attending the festival were likely to be in earshot. CAMRA should be grateful for the appalling acoustics in the venue.

Waters began, “There have been those in the press who have suggested we make this event more like the American Beer Festival, with smaller glasses for tasting, big brewers involved, and lager as well as beer available.” I nodded – I’m one of the people who suggested all these things in a piece in trade journal the Brewer’s Guardian last November. I was keen to hear what arguments, if any, she would counter these sensible suggestions with – they may not be right for this festival, but to hear why would make for a constructive debate. (And lager IS beer, but let’s not get into that). Waters then gave her response. She grabbed one of the T-shirts, opened it across her chest and yelled, “As long as this festival is run by CAMRA and staffed by volunteers, it IS DEFINITELY NOT FOR LAGERBOYS!”

So there you have it. If you drink lager, like me and ninety five per cent of Britain’s beer drinkers, you can fuck off. If you brew lager, even if it is excellent lager like Cain’s, who had paid CAMRA a big chunk of money to take a prime space at the event, or Budvar, one of the finest pislners in the world, you can fuck off. And most pertinently, if you have any constructive ideas as to how to make this festival even better and more relevant to a greater number of people, you can most assuredly fuck off.

Thanks Paula. Thanks a fucking bundle.