‘Craft beer’ cheerleaders are whooping; cynics are… well, cynical.
Instinctively, it does seem arrogant (though ‘on brand’) to attempt to evangelise about beer in Germany, of all places.
But we can’t help thinking of the mid-19th century when Germans* were taking their newly-perfected and fashionable ‘lager beer’ around the world, investing in breweries everywhere from Budapest to Boston.
Stone aren’t doing anything Anton Dreher wouldn’t, are they?
* German was then a ‘concept’ rather than a nationality, and included Austria.
This is nothing more significant than an attempt to take stock of our own feelings about beer as of 2014.
We’ve tried to be honest with ourselves — to consider our actions and reactions rather than ‘ideology’: what, when push comes to shove, do we order at the bar, or take from the fridge? What do we actually enjoy drinking?
1. We approach bottled beer from small breweries with low expectations. We assume they’ll be under- or over-carbonated; we expect to pour away more than half of those we try; and we’re surprised when anything ‘experimental’ actually works. And we get less enjoyment than we used to out of wading through duds to find a gem. Or, to put that another way…
2. We find ourselves drawn to reliable beers and breweries. Punk IPA is unlikely to explode, need pouring down the sink, or make us feel nauseous. At the same time…
3. We can’t be bothered to drink mainstream bottled brown bitter any more. It’s so rarely anywhere near as good as a pint in the pub and (brace yourselves) often simply too fizzy for our tastes. (We don’t mind high carbonation but ‘fizzy’, to us, means specifically bubbles, as in a glass of mineral water, often accompanied by thin body and no head.)
4. The magic has gone out of our relationship with American beer. Is it to do with freshness, competition from UK brewers, or handling by UK bars? Or have we just become jaded? At any rate, after trying a whole range of kegged IPAs (e.g. Lagunitas, Founder’s All Day) on multiple occasions, in the last year, in London, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds, we found ourselves underwhelmed — where’s the ‘zing’? (We find that Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi in cans has zing, as, oddly enough, does Goose Island IPA.)
5. Living outside the urban ‘craft beer’ bubble has its frustrations, and its benefits. We don’t have easy access to bars or pubs with large rotating ranges of beer, and the ubiquity of Doom Bar and Betty Stogs is a trial. On the other hand, we’ve learned that St Austell Proper Job and Orval from bottles, both of which we can find reliably in local pubs, never seem to get boring. On which subject…
6. Belgian beer fascinates us more and more. There’s something dispiriting about the idea of ‘unobtrusive yeast that lets the hops really shine’ — practically a mantra for US-style IPA brewers. The Belgian tradition puts yeast character right up front and gives us another set of flavours to grapple with.
7. We wish we had more of our home brewed lager. We don’t think it’s objectively great, and it wouldn’t score well in competition, but we get a thrill out of drinking it that’s hard for any commercial beer to match.
It seems to us that it was not so much a ‘style’ as the product of a single brewery — Dreher, of Klein-Schwechat, Vienna — with a few imitators trying to muscle in on the market it had created.
It appealed to Piccadilly Johnny — the hipster of his day –because:
It was served cold.
It had higher levels of carbonation.
It was paler than Munich Dunkel. (Though not as pale as Pilsner.)
He believed it wasn’t ‘intoxicating’. (We think this was psychological.)
‘German’ stuff was fashionable, while English stuff was considered inherently naff.
Now, almost 150 years later, though there aren’t many descendants of Dreher’s Vienna beer, they are at least relatively easy to find, and not just in the West End of London.
Even near us, in deepest Cornwall, there are several pubs selling kegged Brooklyn Lager (5.2%), while bottles can be found in your local Wetherspoon, and most supermarkets. It’s one of the first self-declared ‘craft beers’ many people drink — it certainly was for us. Is it a convincing Vienna beer? Without going back to 1870, we can’t be sure, but we can’t believe its flowery hop aroma is remotely authentic. It is Dreher’s beer, via the 19th century New York beer hall, via the ‘real ale revolution’, via US ‘craft beer’.
Another widely available example is Negra Modelo (5.4%) from Mexico. In production since the 1920s, it is a lingering reminder of the country’s historic connections with Austria. It’s been a while since we drank one but our recollection is of a lager already lacking bitterness into which someone had then stirred a teaspoon of refined brown sugar. The brewery themselves sometimes call it a ‘Munich Dunkel’ — it is certainly darker than amber.
Finally, there’s Thornbridge’s Kill Your Darlings (5%), a case of which we have been working on for a couple of months. Smooth and clean almost to the point of blandness, it certainly tastes authentically Continental, and makes a change from pale lager while offering a similar kind of straightforward refreshment. It, too, is perhaps rather too Munich-dark to be quite authentic. Still, we’d like to drink a pint or two of this at the Craft Beer Co in Covent Garden, which isn’t far from the Strand – epicentre of the original Vienna beer craze.
On balance, the least authentic of the three, Brooklyn Lager, with its distinctly English dry-hopping regime, is probably the tastiest.
One of the projects we’re working on now is about lager in London in the 19th century — probably for a short e-book. In the meantime, we wholeheartedly recommend Ron Pattinson’s book Lager.
Undrinkable Apricot Monstrosity: Gotta love those lazy summer afternoons. Just head out to the porch, kick your feet up, and slog your way through an Undrinkable Apricot Monstrosity, courtesy of Lagunitas Brewing Co.
In what sounds like a plea for classical, conservative ‘good taste’, McLeod and others seem to be suggesting that the best beers are expressions of grain-hops-yeast-water, in balance with each other, with an alcohol content somewhere around the natural settling point of 5% ABV.
Now, we love beers like that (and occasionally get told off for it by extremophiles…) but we don’t believe they’re threatened, or even, for that matter, starved of attention.
In the UK at least, we see a lot of people enjoying bigger, stranger beers, while also raving about straightforward, decent lagers and bitters. On the whole, the same ‘crafterati’ that queues up to buy a limited edition IPA also seems to be quite vocal about enjoying cask ale from Fuller’s, or straightforward Munich-style Helles by Camden, in their local boozer.
Writing a post about why brown bitter and/or standard lagers are actually awesome is practically a beer blogging rite of passage.
Beer with fruit in, or with lots of hops, isn’t inherently ‘silly’ — what matters is how successfully or thoughtfully it is done. Badger’s peach-flavoured Golden Glory might be a bit vulgar; Brew By Numbers cucumber and juniper saison (sorry to go on) isn’t. People are excited by it because it works — not because of hype.
A healthy market, we think, offers:
a broad choice of good quality ‘normal’ beers
some cheap-but-drinkable beers for those on a budget; and