Lager: Bait and Switch

A can of lager in cunning disguise.

By Bailey (edited by Boak)

How easy is it to tell one standard lager from another? And how much are we influenced by packaging and ‘brand values’?

After a rocky start, we’ve very much embraced St Austell Korev as our go-to lager. It is straightforward but tasty, and very good value in cans, which is why we didn’t hesitate to recommend it in this listicle for the Independent.

But, enjoying a half in a harbour-side pub, where it cost £4.20 a pint, Boak wondered aloud, “If they just gave me Heineken in this nice glass, would I notice the difference?”

Which gave us an idea. We agreed that, from then on, we would find opportunities to test each other by secretly replacing Korev with big-brand lagers.

Then, last week, fresh relevance was provided by a study which suggested most people served blind couldn’t tell one mainstream lager brand from another.

Last night, I finally seized the opportunity, dangling a can of Korev, but actually filling the poshest glass I could find with Carlsberg Export (can, 5%, ‘Produce of the E.U.’) and serving it up with due ceremony.

Cards on the table: she did not immediately notice the difference. The beer was cold and looked fantastic. It was only as it began to warm up that she started to suspect something was up: “Did you say this was Korev? It tastes weird. It’s much more… bland than usual.”

I really wanted Carlsberg Export to pass the test because it’s dead cheap and easy to find, but the fact is, it simply isn’t a satisfying beer. It’s clean, yes, but it’s also sweet to the point of sickliness. With more hops, or even more hop extract, it might do the job, but, like this, it’s barely even thirst-quenching.

So, round one to Boak, and to Korev.

Now, this wasn’t even remotely scientific and I was probably giving off all kinds of cues (though I avoided sniggering mischievously…) not to mention the fact that she knew this was going to happen at some point. But it was enough to convince us.

I wonder when my turn will come?

The World on your Sofa

It can sometimes feel as if drinking anywhere but the pub is a betrayal of ‘proper beer’, but it’s actually played a huge part in developing the culture Britain has today, and has broadened the palates of many.

That thought was prompted by this Tweet from Zak Avery, who runs legendary bottle-shop Beer Ritz:

In conversation recently, we said that we didn’t particularly enjoy beer festivals because they aren’t ‘how we like to drink’, which prompted the question, ‘Well, how do you like to drink?’ The honest answer is either (a) in the pub (once or twice a week) or (b) in the front room (more often).

Unless you live conveniently close to a good multi-pump real ale pub or a craft beer bar, then home is the only place to satisfy a spontaneous craving for a bit of strange. As we’ve said before, we like St Austell Tribute, but we don’t want to drink it every night, which is where a case of oddities from Beer Merchants or Beer Ritz, or even a few things from Tesco, fill the gap.

The majority of our most profound beer experience have, as it happens, occurred in pubs or beer gardens, but, for example, the first really aromatically-hoppy beer that ever made us say ‘Wow!’ we drank at home — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from ASDA, in, we think, around 2005.

Drinking fancy-pants beers at home is a fairly recent phenomenon which arose alongside the Campaign for Real Ale, meeting a demand among newly-assertive consumers for better beer.

Belgian beer didn’t start appearing in Britain in any great variety until the 1980s with ‘bottle shops’, run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. One of the first, and perhaps most famous was the one on Pitfield Street. The founding of Cave Direct (Beer Merchants) is covered briefly in our book. Another such shop we read about but didn’t look into in great detail was Grog Blossom in Notting Hill, which was profiled in the Financial Times in 1989.

As for bottled British beer, here’s how Richard Morrice, a long-time industry PR man, put it when we interviewed him last summer:

You have to remember that, in the seventies, ‘premium bottle beers’ didn’t exist. Bottled beer was Mackeson’s, Bass, Forest Brown, that kind of thing, and usually came in 550ml returnable ‘London pint’ bottles, or in ‘nips’. There was a limited choice of regional brands and that was it.

In the late eighties, Shepherd Neame released a range of 500ml bottled ales, which was a risky enterprise, and there was a limited take-up by supermarkets. These ‘PBAs’ (premium bottled ales) sat in a price gap between the very cheap drink-at-home lager and draught beer in the pub, on a pence-per-litre basis, and the supermarket buyers just weren’t convinced. When Marston’s launched their range of PBAs as late as 1991, there were still no retailers really willing to take them.

[But, fairly] quickly… you started to get things like Marston’s Head Brewer’s Choice series, and seasonals, until there was quite a lot of choice.

If you want to experience the Michael Jackson vision of a world where beer comes in every shade and strength, from the beefy blackness of imperial stout to the barely-intoxicating pallor of Berliner Weisse, your own front room remains the place where you’re most likely to find it.

Klink

Old fellers drinking in a pub, from an illustraton c.1914.

There’s a ghoulish glee in reading about the grotty brewing practices of the past, especially when the product in question has a catchy brand name.

According to a correspondent of the Lancet in 1865, the people of South Staffordshire were particularly prone to getting legless on a by-product of brewing known as ‘klink’:

In the larger breweries there is always a varying amount of… strong ale which has become so tart or acid as to be unfit for ordinary sale. This strong ale is modified in various ways to make it palatable, and is then reissued at a very low price… In the district this liquor, known as “klink,” is sold at the low rate of twopence per quart, and being exceedingly strong, the above quantity is enough to intoxicate most men… It is not, however, the intoxicating power of klink beer which is its only bad property; but, from the development of certain acids, the effect upon the mucous lining of the stomach, upon the liver and kidneys, is most injurious, and those who are in the habit of drinking it are well aware of the effect. Unfortunately, too, this kind of beer has got largely into use as harvest drink… Probably neither brewers nor employers are aware of the amount of injury inflicted by this drink.

Every other mention of klink we’ve been able to find with an admittedly superficial search, including  a piece in the British Medical Journal from 1869, seems to derive from this source.

So, it’s not very reliable. It might also be temperance campaign misinformation, or simply a misunderstanding about some aspect of the brewing process.

But, in the context of 19th century brewing practices, it doesn’t sound at all unlikely to us.

It made us wonder what it might taste like but, mostly, it reminded us how lucky we are that this kind of practice has all but died out…

Hasn’t it?

Blogging About Blogging: Speak Your Brains!

Pipe, hat and pint.

Bad news: this is a blog post about blog posting. There’ll be a post that’s actually about beer later today. If you choose to read on, don’t say we didn’t warn you!

We’ve been reflecting lately on our tendency to self-censor. We used to shelve posts quite frequently, finished and illustrated, because, at the last minute, we found ourselves anticipating a bad-tempered response and couldn’t be bothered to face it.

Click to enter the navel…

An Outpost of CAMRA-land

Trewellard Arms, Cornwall.

CAMRA-land is another country, overlaid upon and occasionally intersecting with the real world.

Like members of most minority nationalities, citizens of CAMRA-land have their cultural centres where they can mingle and speak of the old country in their native language.

These are pubs where games are still given space, open fires are prized, Good Beer Guide stickers cover window panes, and variety trumps ‘localness’ in the choice of beer on offer.

The Trewellard Arms, in the village of the same name beyond Penzance, near Land’s End, belongs to this world, if our fleeting visit on Saturday was anything to go by.

For one thing, the beer wasn’t the Cornish free-house holy trinity of St Austell Tribute/Skinner’s Betty Stogs/Sharp’s Doom Bar. In fact, all three breweries were rather pointedly absent.

Instead, there was Thwaites’ Pure Shores summer ale from Lancashire, alongside another ale particularly beloved of the people of Realalia — Wadworth 6X, from Wiltshire. There was one local ale on offer, but it was Penpont Cornish Arvor, which we’ve only ever seen on sale in Cornwall on a couple of occasions.

Black country pork scratchings, dartboards, CAMRA Kernow award certificates — all the signs were there. There was even a copy of Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s World Guide to Beer peeking out from a windowsill.

A CAMRA member who’d driven for hours to get to a holiday cottage might be dismayed to find a pub that would belong just as well in Sussex or Shropshire

But perhaps that’s not quite fair. Real ale isn’t the be-all-and-end-all — there’s also a long whisky-menu and a serviettes’n’tablecloths dining room — and it’s certainly a Cornish country pub: there are pilot gig racing mementoes on the wall, and so on. Locals come here to sit at the bar and watch the football, while tourists book tables for dinner.

For our part, even though it was in its mid-afternoon, change-over day lull, we loved this pub, and will certainly be back, especially as there’s a bus that runs from right outside more-or-less to our front door.

We’re not citizens of CAMRA-land, as such, but we do feel quite at home there.

Writing about beer and pubs since 2007