Part of a Balanced Diet

'Vanilla is a Bean' by Christian Newton, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
‘Vanilla is a Bean’ by Christian Newton, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Is modern ‘craft beer’ really a mess of silly, fruit-flavoured, over-hopped, novelty beers bought at inflated prices by mugs?

That (as we read his Tweets) is how venerable beer blogger Alan ‘A Good Beer Blog’ McLeod sees it, and he’s certainly not alone. It’s certainly true that when those outside ‘the bubble’ seek to satirise beer geeks, these are exactly the kinds of beers they pick on:

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:

  1. a broad choice of good quality ‘normal’ beers
  2. some cheap-but-drinkable beers for those on a budget; and
  3. on the fringes, some weird stuff for special occasions and novelty-seekers.

(Which sort of feels like where we’re getting to now, doesn’t it…?)

Those three categories aren’t mutually exclusive, and trying to argue any of them out of existence seems, we think, rather like trying to stop other people enjoying themselves.

45 thoughts on “Part of a Balanced Diet”

  1. In the USA of course, large parts of the ‘craft’ market is still based upon ill-advised, bizarre, attention seeking concoctions that, in some cases, have very little relation to what you and I might call ‘beer’. The abuse of cask ale with infusions here is absolutely heart-breaking, disgusting and tragic, and is misleading a whole generation of drinkers about a genre of beer. Such abuse is abhorrent to me.

  2. IIRC, Badger Golden Glory used to be flavoured with Elderflower, and was a lot subtler than the syrupy peach version we have now. It even used to feature elderflowers on the bottle, IIRC. Either way, you could never accuse Badger of being trendy or “Craft”

    1. I think that was a different beer, launched at about the same time.

      I suppose we picked that example to highlight that old family brewers aren’t *necessarily* guardians of good taste and tradition as they’re sometimes portrayed.

      1. Agreed. A mate of mine used to work in Hall and Woodhouse’s quality control labs. To say he was unimpressed by some of what he saw go on would be an understatement.

        And yes, it was a different beer – Golden Champion – I was thinking of!

  3. I don’t really like fruit flavoured beer, its too sweet for my palate, and seems too far removed from my conception of what beer ought to taste like. Fortunately, its not something you see a lot of in the UK.

  4. a broad choice of good quality ‘normal’ beers
    some cheap-but-drinkable beers for those on a budget; and
    on the fringes, some weird stuff for special occasions and novelty-seekers.

    In other news, we’re getting reports that while this is nice, that‘s quite nice too. It’s also being suggested that niceness might be optimised by the inclusion of both this and that. So, something for us all to think about there…

  5. It’ll be interesting to see whether there’s a ceiling in the craft beer market at which point brewers will be forced to either cease volume growth or brew less interesting beer in order to fuel growth…the ‘small is better’ could well take a battering.

  6. I always find it a bit rum that some people get upset at the way others like to spend their leisure time (although I concede I haven’t always been this relaxed about anything).

      1. Hopefully you don’t hear much of that from us these days — you (and Ron, Max, Al, among others) convinced us it was daft.

        It does occasionally still seem to crop up in conversations in the US-beer-blogoshire, but, even there, it’s often balanced by an equal weight of cynicism.

  7. What a treat to read on my way out the door for a colonoscopy. If I was to summarize my thoughts at the lesser distresser I am experiencing at the mo, it’s not so much the direct equation “this bad, that was better” so much as how God awful so much of “this” is – and no one since Simon died certainly – having the eyes to see it. Not to mention that some of which is or is not awful is so facile – squirt in some cherry sauce to a B grade saison and, whammo, you are an artist.

    More later unless this is all a front for an alien invasion and there is a memory erase that comes after the probe.

    XOXO!

  8. Am I alone in not having a clue what that Alan ‘A Good Beer Blog’ McLeod link was about? And perhaps those who do have clue could tell whether it’s as pretentious as I think it is.

    1. It’s a link to the homepage of his entire blog. Do you mean the sandwich tongs post at the top?

        1. We got it, but then we’ve been following his train of thought. And if a feller can’t be self-indulgent on his own blog….

          1. He can do what he likes on his own blog – even be incomprehensible if he wants – but to me it seems to go against the basic purpose of a blog, which is communication.

    1. Not sad Andy, but concerned that opportunities to spread a genuine, enduring beer culture are being lost in the race to flavour beers with almost everything under the sun. Personally, I think beer is just fine as it has been handed down to us for the great majority of it, i.e., malt, hops, yeast, water, maybe another grain or some sugar if not abused. Coffee never did anything for a porter or stout, IMO, or chocolate: it doesn’t belong there and no such flavoured beer will ever, IMO, become a major star. Ditto for most of the other flavoured thingies out there. Do l like kriek? Of course, there is always an exception and the Belgians have done good work with fruit when used in a traditional way. There is always an exception, but then it proves the rule don’t it?

      Gary

      1. I don’t like Kriek. It tastes nothing like beer. Just because its “traditional” doesn’t make it any better.

      2. I was with you till you dismissed coffee stouts :) but guess that proves the point everyones tastes are different, and coffee stouts are really hard to get right you have to balance the amount of coffee so it doesnt overload the beer taste and just compliments the bitterness.

        and elderflower, whats wrong with elderflower beers !?! look I dont really mind what flavour of sodastream is flava of the month, I do mind people telling me that its automatically superior, going to take over the beery world because its shiny,new and innovative,and just because a standard brown beer doesnt tick those boxes.

        I dont maybe as Py says its because I grew up pre-90s where when you went to the pub, your choice was lager or bitter and I still go in a bar with 45 taps available, and order the nearest thing to bitter.

        1. I agree with you about subtlety, and one of the issues I have with additives is they usually overwhelm the taste. I’ve had elderflower beer where the taste of the flavouring completely dominates. I don’t say the perfect beer of these types is impossible to brew and brewers should keep trying if they wish (plus to satisfy apparent demand for novelty), but my view is they should focus on making great trad styles before venturing into less familiar territory.

          Gary

          1. To be honest, I’m one of these dreadful craftophiles (when I’m not otherwise engaged with a well kept pint of Adnams), and I’m fairly leery of “unusual” added flavourings.

            In general I’ll try it if it’s a well established style (fruit lambics being an obvious one, and arguably coffee porters are getting there) or if I generally trust the brewery, but am unlikely to take a punt on something otherwise. I suspect that the novelty value makes it easier to shift stuff even if it isn’t very good, and hence reduces the need for either brewers or the people stocking bars and off-licenses to apply quality control.

            On the other hand, fruit and other, weirder, flavourings currently doesn’t seem like that big a thing in what I see of the UK craft scene. Maybe in saisons, but those are already a niche within a niche. Sticking the odd bit of chocolate, coffee and vanilla in porters is maybe more common. But I’m not sure I could find an “undrinkable apricot monstrosity” from a UK craft brewer even if I went out looking!

            Endurance hop-fests, on the other hand… but again, those are enough of an established thing these days that stuff is actually having to compete on quality within the style rather than just succeeding on the novelty of the style itself.

      3. This ==> “Not sad Andy, but concerned that opportunities to spread a genuine, enduring beer culture are being lost in the race to flavour beers with almost everything under the sun”

        So many opportunities are being missed in the USA to cultivate a lasting culture, it’s not funny.

  9. I think that where you discuss what constitutes a healthy market you also need to include:

    4. Innovation

    Some of the by products of innovation are things that don’t always work, or appeal only to experimental tastes. And I am talking genuine innovation by experienced brewers who know what they are doing, not mix-it-and-see experimentation.

    Also note the straw man arguments always go for easy targets, like the aforementioned fruit excesses. The Neo-conservative beer drinkers are not having a go at say, Unhuman Cannonball or Kernel Export Stout/India Porter.

    What the beer luddites don’t seem to get is that historically people drank a broad spectrum of beers and at different strengths. From sustenance style table porters, to bretty-aged ales, and sweet/strong desert beers. Thats just the english brews. What about the whole gamut of Belgian/French/German/Czech beers ?

    Getting beer back to standard bitter/lager is pining for simpler times that never existed. Our modern re-recollection is shaped by contemporary experience and global branding.

    As for stopping innovation, just because contemporary options are good enough? There will always be people who think they can make a better product that what is out there.

    Some of them will succeed.

  10. Getting beer back to standard bitter/lager is pining for simpler times that never existed.

    Reluctant as I am to engage with someone who’s liable to call me a luddite (and not in a nice way), this is silly. In the mid-19th century, in Britain you could drink mild ale and old ale. In the 1920s you could drink bitter, mild, porter and old ale. In the 1960s you could drink lager and bitter, and mild if you were lucky. In the last 50 years most British breweries making cask beer have mostly made bitter most of the time.

    You may or may not want to go back there, but any period you care to name up to about 1990 qualifies as “simpler times” than the present in terms of beer choice – and those of us who remember the 1960s and 70s can attest that those were much simpler times.

    1. The Victoria in St Annes (Lancs) in the 1970s was the nearest pub to my parents’ house and I remember that the busiest bar sold only bitter. On Friday night the crowd would be three or four deep and when you got to the front you just told the staff (and there were plenty of them in those days) how much you wanted. There were either six or eight handpumps and every one had Boddington’s Bitter. The pub did have a pump for mild in the public bar, but it had a separate entrance and it was ‘not done’ to buy beer there and smuggle it into the posher parts of the pub (it was 1p cheaper in the public for one thing). The third bar was in the lounge and did have a solitary lager tap, regarded mostly as for pouring halves for the ladies. Boddington’s Bitter from the 70s, pre dumbing down, remains one of my all time favourites and I’d happily drink something like that all night.

      If you wanted choice in bitters you could go to the St Annes Hotel, where Whitbread had Trophy, Tankard and Gauntlet and all on the one bar!

      Ian

  11. Still unpleasantly focused elsewhere nearby. Odd to have been thinking of the Beer Nut mid-procedure. One brief point – remember in NAm there is no protector or provider of the traditional. Stouts are endangered. Everything is IPA. You in the UK have a “conservative” option much of the time.

    And RedNev, send me that cheque you seem to have misplaced for services I owe you.

    1. “there is no protector or provider of the traditional”

      The protector of the traditional in the UK, Germany and Belgium is the consumer. If the more traditional styles are under threat in North America then IMO that’s a problem with What People Want To Drink more than What Brewers Are Turning Out. The issue boils down to other people’s taste not being to yours. Though I still find it difficult to believe that we have a more diverse beer scene over here than you do over there.

      1. It has more to do with history, BN. Remember that EP Taylor was from here and led a movement that largely eradicated traditional beer styles. Heavier and well hopped IPAs were leading beers until the 1950s. Micro hit back from 1985ish to 2005ish with well bodied tasty ales but the particular nature of “craft” in NAm is not just that they have taken on experiment as a prime function but doing so at scale. Big craft is indutrial brewing at the same scale as the remaining regional macro lager brewers. Unlike where you are, there is no consumer organization. As a result, this being a lopsided oligopolistic market, the consumer has a very weak voice. The biggest force in the market in relation to the variety of beers available are small good brewers who are trying to set themselves apart. This directs them and shelf stockers to running after short term manic trends. Fortunately, given I didn’t start this post even though it’s taken from something I might (or might not have) thought, i can assure you that stouts are hard to find, that a major Canadian craft brewer pulled their ESB in favour of a new copycat IPA because that’s the letters of the label people wanted, tha saisons with a squirt of fruit juice or an shake of a spice are “innovation.” We also suffer from that sad thing, the struggling consultant, desperate to make a living by writing exciting columns and standing around as they “collaborate” on new and innovative freak show brews. So, as a marketplace it isn’t a demand driven one. There is a little too much “you poor drinker couldn’t possibly understand the craft brewer’s art”, so we take what we get even if it is sometimes objectively unpleasant or more often over- priced or far too often in a tiny stupid stemmed glass.

        1. I’m really not seeing how a market is not demand-driven when a brewer changes from making ESB to IPA because it’s what people wanted.

          I’m not an objector to squirty saisons or copycat IPAs — they all have a time and a place. But if I’m the weirdo here, and The Plain People of North America really do want a decent pint of stout or bitter instead, surely that would indicate that what’s happening now is just a blip? The tailor will stop sewing magic trousers for the Emperor when enough people point out that they can see His Majesty’s bum.

          But personally I don’t think that’s what’s actually happening. I don’t think the consumers are simply blindly lapping up whatever dreck the brewers are turning out and calling “craft”. I think most of them actually enjoy it. I do, and I’m far from being a tow-haired wide-eyed rarity-chasing fanboy.

          1. Why do you believe that the market is driven by the buying rather than the selling? This is fundamental to how pop culture works. I am unable to ignore, advertising, mass media, PR, faddism, an uneducated consumer segment, manufactured scarcity, a trade that rejects critical consumers. I don’t think you are the whacko but I suspect you live in a better served marketplace.

            I am not going to go much farther with this but suffice it to say there is a long way from Adam Smith for fruit flavoured saison. And as for what the people want, dollars still March directly to Bud despite what the evangelicals and trade association rests releases say.

  12. Lots of sensible comments from people here. For my part I like what Richard says. Do it yourself mixologists not only want to change the world – without even understanding the world they want to change – but they want the world to pay top dollar for their experiments, most of which don’t really work. That’s taking the piss and lots of respected London Brewers do that, which of course leads us on to why people drink and pay for what I, with many years behind me and lots of beer judging too, would call flawed and badly brewed beers.

    Maybe it is that fashion, bandwagon, or hipster thing, as I couldn’t possibly suggest that some drinkers don’t know their arse from their elbow now could I?

    In the end though, though when asked about this sort of thing, I tend to remark along the lines of “if we all liked the same thing there would only be one be beer”. (I may also add the odd pejorative comment of course) . So in that sense, live and let live and there is room for all. You just won’t find me parting with my cash for a lot of it.

    1. Arrgh, would it kill you to name names once in a while?

      If you don’t want to ruffle any feathers then don’t say anything. Alternatively, if you want to say that the guys at the Kernel (for instance) are incompetent brewers and unethical businessmen then say that and then people can leap to their defence if they feel so inclined. All this snide insinuation about “Respected London Brewers” still needles people but, by keeping your actual opinions at arms length and leaving you with plausible deniability, denies them the possibility of actually replying constructively.

      1. “Arrgh, would it kill you to name names once in a while?”

        Blimey — bit aggro, Dave.

        1. Sorry, was aiming for comic mock-frustration rather than actually aggressive…

          But I thought the post I was replying to was a bit (passive) aggro as well? It seems reasonable, in the context of Tandleman’s comments elsewhere about “London murky” and “railway arches” and so on, to interpret “respected London brewers” as meaning the Kernel, Partizan, BBN et al. So since I quite like a lot of stuff from those breweries, Tandleman’s calling me and presumably quite a few of your other readers a bunch of bandwagon-jumping fashion-led hipsters who pays top dollar for bad beer because we don’t know our arses from our elbows.

          I don’t mind someone saying that if it’s what they think, but it’d be more interesting if it was done explicitly so we could actually talk about what we do and do not like about specific beers or breweries rather than just feeling non-specifically needled…

          1. Just to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with challenging, in the spirit of robust debate — we just like to keep things simmering rather than at full boil…

    2. Perhaps we need some kind of accreditation system whereby people are regularly tested and must agree with official CAMRA policy before being allowed to offer opinion on what beers they like?

      We can’t have people that don’t know their arse from the elbow going around saying that actually enjoy what is obvious to any discerning judge to be a flawed and badly brewed beer.

  13. Standard bitter and lager doesn’t seem to be at much risk around England. Apart from tiny handfull of specialist bars id expect well over half the cask beers in any bar to be standard pale ales in the 3.5 to 4.4 abv range. Ok far more golden pales than Brown compared to 20 years ago and some new hop varieties but nothing that strange. Sure the odd raspberry blonde or coffee porter turns up but never more than a single such novelty. The experimental beers are ones you have to search for. that said the 3.7 / 4.4 Yorkshire bitter/ best (tetley brown in colour) does seem to be slowlybeing pushed off the bar in favour of golden ales of the same or slightly lower strength . Now this isn’t standard bitter at risk its a single subset (and it would take couple of decades of continued trend for it to be anywhere close to mild in the 80s) . Trends in online bottle sales will always be highly unrepresentative of wider markets – why would anyone go online for beer almost identical to one they can get locally far cheaper, it will always be a place where novelty / innovation dominates.

  14. Py. You conflate things. I’ll put my case later. Now gotta see a man about an extension. House seemed big enough to me, but apparently I misunderstood that. The wife explained it to me.

    Might be an analogy there.

  15. Dave S. Good that you have confidence in your ability to tell a good beer from bad. And what B&B say has little to do with what I say, except that I broadly agree with them in this case and set out my own thoughts with which some will agree and some won’t. As for dodgy experimental beers being sold? That never happens then? I see.

    You have one good point about me. Why on earth did I say respected London Brewers? I meant to say “lauded”.

    I actually said “some ” don’t know their arse from their elbow. That may not stop their enjoyment though, which is fine by me. I will rarely be buying into that though, in either sense of the phrase.

  16. I’m not sure when people are talking about fruit flavoured, they mean fruity hop flavours, or actual fruit (or fruit flavourings) added to the beer?

    Anyway, like others have said, despite all of the fuss about craft, the far bigger change has been in availability of cask in ale in your typical pub. And by far most of the time this will be a 4% bitter or golden ale.

  17. The thing that annoys me at the moment is the lack of dark beers in the supermarket. In tescos the other day, on a beer aisle with hundreds and hundreds of beers, the choice was guinness, mackesons or wells chocolate stout. No porter, no mild, no dunkel, no dark lager, nothing. I know its summer, but come on.

  18. Have you tried Aldi or Netto for dark beers? They have festivals now and then with them on offer.

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