Tag: Why Beer Matters

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Why Beer Matters – the final chapter

I need to address an oversight.
Long term readers may remember that in January, I decided to give away a trip I’d won to the Budvar brewery, because I’ve been several times before.  I invited anyone who had never had their writing published in print media before to write an essay entitled ‘Why Beer Matters’.  Then me, Budvar and the Publican would choose a winner who would get my trip.
I published the first and second runners up back in the spring, but the winner was Mark Dredge. I wanted to wait before publishing his winning entry until it was published in The Publican, and that wasn’t happening till Mark did his trip, so he could write about that too. That happened way back in September, and sadly The Publican didn’t publish Mark’s full piece.
So now, much later than it should have been, here’s Mark’s take on Why Beer Matters.  We thought all the top three entries were evocative, passionate and wonderfully written.  Mark addressed very similar themes to lots of other entries; he just delivered them in the most compelling way.
Our distant ancestors, the cave men and women, had the campfire. They would gather there, they lived around it and socialised around it, they learnt their life skills in its glowing, flickering flame. It was the centre of the community, the source of warmth, the source of heat to cook, the place where stories were told and learning happened. We don’t have campfires, we have the pub.
It’s the early drinking years which are the important ones. They come when we are trying to discover who we are, who we are going to be and they help to shape us into that person. In the pub, at this time, we become more socially aware of ourselves and others and catching the eye of a mate becomes the primary motive for almost every action. Strut to the door at 17, acting grown up, feeling 27, ballsy. They let you in (of course they shouldn’t but everyone knows this pub lets you in). It’s the first step. Inside, the area opens up. It’s a man’s world and you’ve taken your first adult steps. Ordering the first pint is a ritual ceremony and with that beer in your hand you are now a part of the adult world.
Those early years are fraught. There’s ID checks, your mates having too many, the knock-back from the girl, the running out of money when you want another drink, learning about life, talking to people, being a shoulder to cry on or a voice of reason, acting stupid, spilled drinks, loose lips and broken hearts. But there’s more than that. There’s the laughter, the fun, the growing up, the being with friends. I can picture the pub we drank in: dark and dingy, a loud rock club-pub, always smelly, always crowded, always smoky, always hot, always surrounded by friends. It was my campfire.
And in that pub, or in others, or at a friend’s house with some bottles, or in the park with some cans, that’s where I learnt so many things, so many life skills: effective communications (ease the raging drunk; say hi to the girl), societal order (that’s the manager so act sober; they are the cool group), self-control (I shouldn’t have had that last pint), budgeting (I’ve got £5.20 and a burger is £3 so what can I get to drink?), how to attract a mate (play it cool, smile, what’s the worst that can happen?), how to deal with rejection (‘Can I buy you a drink’, I slur, ‘Err… no’, she says), responsibility (looking after the one who had too much). And we learn these things on our own, away from the comfort and security of the parental nest. We are growing up, in the pub, pint glass in our hand: the beacon of beer is always there, a flaming torch to guide us.
And it’s always there. It’s the reason and the excuse to catch up with old friends; it’s the oil of our social life. Let’s go for a beer. Beer is currency: ‘thanks for your help, I’ll buy you a pint’. Beer is the offer of friendship: ‘Pint?’ Beer is business; beer is passion. Beer is food, beer is life. It’s there in the good times and the bad, like a familiar friend to laugh with us or ease our pain with us. It’s in the fridge when we get home from work or it’s at the forefront of our minds as the clock hands ache around the last hour of the last day of the week. As we move along the beer-drinking path it opens up a wider view over the whole, vast plains of possibility. It can be the simplest cold lager on a hot day or it can be the most complex, rich barley wine on a cold night. It can be challenging and thought provoking; enlightening and inspiring; light or dark or a thousand shades in between; smooth or rugged; mild or tongue-twisting. It comes in fat, round glasses or tall thin ones; it’s hand-pulled and frothing into a dimpled mug or carefully poured from a dusty old bottle into a crystal tumbler. And then there’s the nonic pint glass: the stunning vision and lasting beauty of great British design, right royally branded with the crown. Holding it provides the same comfort as your loved one’s hand: it just feels right; the perfect vessel, the perfect size and weight. We get halfway through and already we want it re-filled so that it looks handsome and proud and full of colour and life again. It’s the pint glass, that guiding light, which we’ve known since we were taking our first, uneasy grown-up steps back from the bar after saying for the first time, ‘Can I have a pint please?’
Our pub is the caveman’s campfire. We grow up there, we become ourselves there, we make important decisions there, we go there after a long day, we eat, we share experiences, we relax, we have a beer there. It’s changed from those primitive and fraught pub-going adventures and we’ve learnt the important things about life and love and where we are and where we’re going. Now we can just sit back and enjoy it, say cheers to our drinking partner and take a deep, long pull on that pint in our hand. Beer: it’s more than just a drink and it matters because it’s always been there and it always will be; the guiding torch around our campfire.

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Why Beer Matters – Second place runner up

People seemed to enjoy reading John Bidwell’s piece, (and it’s gratifying to see the competition topic still being discussed on beer blogs) so I now present the entry that narrowly beat him.

Shea Luke is a young woman who really enjoys drinking real ale. That shouldn’t be extraordinary, but some people seem to think it is, and in the piece below Shea tells us how she deals with that.
What the judges liked about this one was its energy and freshness. There are a few women writing about beer, some with a great deal of success, but it would always be helpful to have some more if we want to convince women (and men) that there is no inherent reason why women can’t drink beer too. We liked the attitude here and hope to see more of it!
The most common reactions I get when people find out about my geekily keen beer passion are “How do you stay so slim?” and “What’s it like hanging around with loads of bearded old men?” Granted, it’s unusual to find a 26 year old, female girl about town, who has drunk around 1200, and continually counting, different British beers since records began. These are only my records, of course, in four consecutive Good Beer Guides, but my obsessive carrying around of these near sacred tomes, and the subsequent broken handbag straps and scarred shoulders, will surely convince you of their trustworthiness. By the way, just in case you are a particularly curious type, this number does not include the hundreds of foreign beers I’ve supped; I have to draw the ticking and record keeping line somewhere, people. This achievement, whilst undoubtedly nerdy for such a groovy gal, which I assure you I am in most other aspects of life, is a fact I am always quick to point out to the handful of ‘bearded old men’ who still advise me to stick to something weak or fruity. You see, these 1200 odd brews are not just evidence of a deep love of beer, but an (admittedly thus far relatively short) lifelong quest to sample and delight in our country’s beers. Beers from both ends of the strength spectrum, beers from all corners of the nation, beers that represent a long heritage and history, beers that began as an enthusiast’s home brew, beers that use local produce, beers that help keep vital community pubs alive, beers that bring likeminded people together, beers that push boundaries with unusual and exciting ingredients, beers that simply make your day that bit better, beers that just taste darn good. Let it be known that I am willing to stand my ground to fight for these beers, even if I have to argue with an outdated girlphobe to get my hands on them. Hands which, for your information, are not so small and delicate as to require a special mini, stemmed girly glass, and while we are at it, no I wouldn’t prefer a vodka, yes I do know that there are more stouts than Guinness, and no, it really doesn’t need to be fizzy for me to enjoy it. But, as a fellow curly haired revolutionary said, the times they are a- changing, and it really is just a teeny handful of fuddy-duddies who persist in derogatory ‘you are a girl, you don’t know anything about beer’ comments. I now have a faithful collection of bearded (and clean shaven) pals who are interested in my beer related opinions. Young people who are equally proud of their ale geekdom, people from other beer minority drinking groups (like my pensioner friend form the Caribbean who claims we are two of a kind, fighting the corner of underrepresented ale lovers), and a London based brewer who might be producing a special for my wedding (you don’t get that from Smirnoff). But none of them look as good as me in a Dark Star Brewing Co. T-shirt. Or pint glass shaped earrings. Beer matters. It matters to all those people. It matters to all the pub landlords in the cities and towns around the UK that my Good Beer Guide led holidays take me to. It matters to the microbrewers in manky derelict farm buildings that have left jobs in the city to pursue their passion and to help nourish ours. It matters to the retirees whose social calendar revolves around manning the beer mat flooded tombola. It now matters to the Spanish girls in their twenties that I met at a recent beer festival who asked for something like San Miguel but left drinking porter. I’m not a brewer, I’m not bearded, I’m not retired, and I am absolutely not a bloke, but, do you know what? Beer definitely matters to me.

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Why Beer Matters – Third place runner up

Please say hello to John Bidwell. Hello John!

John lives in Denver, Colorado – good beer country and home to the Great American Beer Festival. In his entry, he displayed the disciplined passion that characterises the North American craft brew scene. I like this entry a lot because it transported me to the places he was discussing – I could almost taste the CoConut porter. happily, I’ll be able to soon, because brewer Garret Marrero – discussed here – has brewed it at Marston’s for the upcoming Wetherspoons Cask Ale festival.
I was introduced to Garret down at the Rake about a week after I read this, and found myself excitedly telling him every detail about the essay. I hadn’t realised until that point how vividly it had lodged in my mind, and that – along with the fact that this reads like it’s written by an experienced professional journalist – is why this piece made it in to the top three.
Why didn’t it come even higher? Stay tuned for the second place runner up, Shea Luke, in a few days!

LIQUID IDENTITIES: COMMUNITY REPRESENTATION THROUGH BEER by John Bidwell First off, let us state the obvious – beer is just a beverage made of barley, hops, yeast and water. To some it’s a thirst quencher; to others it’s a way to unwind after a long day at work. Sure, each of these uses holds a shred of importance to the individual, but why does beer matter? What has made it so ubiquitous worldwide? Why has beer become celebrated in cultures around the world? Perhaps it’s because beer acts as a window into a community. It allows a town, city, or region to tell a story about who they are in liquid form. This isn’t the case with all beers, but the most unique and imaginative beers begin to reveal their heritage after the first sip. By the turn of the 21st century, the craft brewing scene had exploded; long gone were the days of mass commoditization and conglomeration. Craft beer was now commonplace, but in Santa Cruz, California, Alec Stefanski was doing something most uncommon. “It’s a brown ale brewed with pork!” Alec exclaimed emphatically. He is the founder of Uncommon Brewers, a new brewery that prides itself on doing things a little differently, and he had just gotten his first shipment of pork belly to brew his new bacon nut-brown ale. Santa Cruz is a city known for its independent spirit, alternative living, and its reputation as an international nexus of organic farming. Uncommon’s beers reflect Santa Cruz – they are unique, broad-minded beers flavored with an arsenal of bizarre ingredients including kaffir lime, poppies, anise, and candy cap mushrooms. The brewery is run by an offbeat staff that incorporates these ingredients into their 100% organic beers. Like so many other food and drink based businesses in Santa Cruz, Uncommon Brewers is grounded in the principles of the Slow Food movement, sourcing their ingredients from the farms in the surrounding region. To taste Uncommon is to taste the community of Santa Cruz, and if the essence of the city could be captured, it would be in one of Uncommon’s signature tall boy cans. But Santa Cruz is just one of the cities that can tell a story through its beer. Garrett Marrerro was young and powerful; he was a recent college graduate making big money as an investment consultant. Like so many others, it seemed like Garrett was destined to spend his life working 9-5 for his paycheck. Unlike many others, Garrett took a bold step: he quit his job, moved to Maui, and opened a brewery. Many others have dreamed of leaving their unfulfilling jobs and moving to paradise. With sandy beaches, a tropical climate, and palm trees, Maui is, in effect, heaven on earth to the working stiff. It’s a laid back community that doesn’t take anything too seriously, and Maui Brewing Co. embodies that lifestyle and the Aloha spirit. This isn’t your typical Hawaiian beer that you drink at a ‘luau’ in line for the pineapple-glazed ham behind other tourists while a fire dancer bounces around on stage. Instead, Maui Brewing Co. produces truly local Hawaiian beer by sourcing many ingredients from the islands – CoConut Porter, anyone? Also, it is made by Hawaiians – Garrett prefers to train the local workforce as opposed to bringing in experienced mainland employees. Garrett explains: “It keeps more money on the island instead of sending ninety cents of every dollar to the mainland.” This is what Garrett refers to as ‘Brewing with Aloha’ – buying local first and supporting the community. His philosophy has led to Maui Brewing becoming the best selling locally produced beer on the islands. Garrett, like Alec and so many others, has created a product that goes beyond barley, hops, yeast, and water. He has helped mold a community identity, and has once again shown why beer matters. Beer is a reflection of our communities; it has the capacity to convey societal values and ideas in an accessible and unpretentious manner. Think drinking a beer isn’t like tasting a community? Try one of Alec’s brews, and when you taste the organic ingredients of the Santa Cruz Valley, you’ll quickly reconsider. Open a can of Garrett’s CoCoNut Porter and try not to envision relaxing on Wailea Beach. Beer showcases our community bonds; it promotes our societies’ collective creativity and displays our penchant for and acceptance of new ideas. The art that is created at breweries across the world is every bit as important to their communities’ identities as Mozart was to Salzburg’s or Van Gogh to Amsterdam’s. Yet the art of beer is down-to-earth and genial. A simple trip to the pub can take the consumer from the beaches of Maui to the beer halls of Munich and any number of places in between. Beer matters because it acts as a cultural medium between communities, a common language in which to communicate the following: ‘We crafted this beer for your enjoyment, but also to let you know who we are. We crafted this beer, and it reflects the values, beliefs, and attitudes of our community. We crafted this beer from our land’s ingredients and through our people’s labor – both are contained within every bottle. We crafted this beer for you to know us, so drink up and enjoy. Cheers!’

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Why Beer Matters – The Results!

21 people competed for the trip to Budvar I won in December and offered up here in January.

I’m sorry it took so long to pick a winner!
It was interesting to read the variety of entries – a privilege to get an insight into what beer means to different people around the world.
Many entries talked about beer’s role through history in keeping us alive, and almost everyone touched at least in part on beer’s role today as the most sociable of drinks, its uniquely slow, stately progression of inebriation and the way we can bond over it. Many said we could do that bonding anyway, but the beer sure as hell helps. Some tried the angle that the beer itself is not what matters, but the friendships and times it helps catalyse, while others said beer may not matter to you, or to the guy down the street, but it matters to me because I drink it, or I brew it, or make my living out of it, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
So in terms of themes it was all quite familiar stuff – I’ve made all those points in my books and on this blog many times before.
But what made reading these entries special was the way these arguments were illustrated. We might all think similar things about beer, but our own individual stories that back up these beliefs are quite different, and make for a wonderful collection of reading. Your first beer, your coming of age with beer, the moment you decided you wanted to brew, the places you’ve travelled in the name of beer… reading these entries one after the other was to be pulled around the world from one cool bar to another, back and forth across the last three or four decades, fantastic beer at the centre of a kaleidoscope of life experiences.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘sod the platitude and purple prose Pete, who won?’
OK, so we had three entries that really stood out for the pack.
In third place, is John Bidwell from Denver, Colorado, with his essay: ‘Liquid identities: Community Representation through Beer.’ He focuses on how two brewers in two different parts of the world pack their beers with a real sense of place and provenance, and transport you to those places when you drink them.
In second place is Shea Luke, with a spirited romp through her life as a young, female real ale enthusiast and ticker. Shea blogs here and will be on my blogroll from now on. She has a distinctive, fresh voice and a lovely turn of phrase, and I hope we hear a lot more from her in future.
And the winner… let’s hope all these prizes don’t start going to his head, but first place goes to Mark Dredge. He’s so industrious, so omnipresent, that it’s easy to forget that Mark has been writing about beer for less than two years. He’s on a very steep upward trajectory and this entry is proof of that. It traces all the themes outlined above, but frames them in a neat narrative arc and addresses them with passion, energy and clarity. A clear voice and an increasing confidence in his writing mean Mark will be going to Ceske Budejovice and seeing his piece in The Publican very soon.
Thank you so much to everyone who entered. It really was a pleasure to judge – I don’t think there was a single entry that was not enjoyable in some way. I’m hoping to post the top three entries on here over the next week or two, so stay tuned for some fresh takes on the beverage we all feel matters so much.

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Dropped out of circulation for a few weeks there while I was rewriting Man Walks into a Pub. Just got final rewrites off to the editor and am now resuming normal service.

Apologies if you entered the Budvar/Publican Why Beer Matters competition – it’s a month since closing date and it’s very remiss of me not to have done the judging by now. I’ll be resolving that asap.
Lots of great stuff happening over the next few weeks though – I’ll be posting about my recent trip to Denmark, the Welsh beer revolution, lager, and plans for Cask Ale Week over the next week or two.
In the meantime, here’s a column I did for the Publican when I was out after the Liverpool Beer Festival last week.