The State of Our Taste 2014

Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

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.

26 thoughts on “The State of Our Taste 2014”

  1. Extremely interesting post, because over the last year or so I’ve had a very similar experience. I still do enjoy craft beer, but very very rarely do I find something that blows me away. At tastings with friends where they bring the hippest and hypest I find myself enjoying the talk and the cheese more than the beer.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the experiments. When a craft brewery tries something new it might work, but odds are it won’t.
    My cure to this malaise has been farmhouse ale, where the experimentation was done over centuries, for the most part leaving only those innovations that really do work.

    Lots more thoughts on this, but it will have to wait for future blog posts.

  2. Point 4: Absolutely on the money. I find myself drawn to the UK beers rather than the American beers when I go to Cotteridge Wines these days. Maybe it’s the freshness. Maybe it’s the price tag. But where there was once a gap that only an American IPA could fill, there’s now a huge range of choice from our own brewers. We’ve caught up. And overtaken, I think.

    Point 5: I love Cornwall. I love the fresh food, the beaches and the little towns. I’m not a great fan of the the pubs though. I like Tribute, but I like other beers too and would like to see some choice on the bar. When I stayed in Fowey recently I couldn’t find Harbour beers anywhere, despite being only a few miles from the brewery. I like Proper Job (in bottles) but the cask version is completely different and lacks punch. I tried Big Job recently and it was fantastic. Why can’t I find it in its county of origin? I also tried Korev and thought it was a great lager, so why it is so hard to find on tap a few mere miles from the brewery? And don’t get me started on the abomination that is ‘Cornish Rattler’…! I suppose the Cornish Yoof need some kind of alcopop they can call their own.

  3. While it’s far from universal, I quite see what you mean about many mainstream PBAs having an over-fizzy body and poor head retention and ending up being very underwhelming.

    I wonder if there’s a distinction between retaining some of the original CO2 arising from fermentation against being entirely dependent on external “fizzy pop” carbonation.

  4. can’t agree with you more on all points, especially #4. I don’t want to pay over the odds for a non-fresh IPA when I can get plenty of decent stuff from the UK (and latterly Ireland) now. I’d still love to go and drink it at source but don’t see that happening any time soon.

  5. Do you want to elaborate a bit on what you mean by “small” and “reliable” in #1 and #2?

    I mean, no need to name names for the unreliable side of things, but a “small brewery” could cover a lot of things, from many of the established crafty types[1] to a local garden shed real ale operation to ex-homebrewer-with-big-ideas new craft breweries or whatever. I tend to have a fairly good hit-rate with small crafty types, although that’s probably partly because our local bottle shop seem fairly serious about quality control with respect to what they stock – maybe another advantage to being slightly out of the craft loop is that stuff has to hit a certain baseline of quality for someone to bother shifting it this far from Bermondsey!

    [1] yer Partizan, Bristol Beer Factory, Redwillow, Buxton, Weird Beard, whatever…

    1. Dave — ‘reliable’, in this context, refers to our personal experience. There are a handful of breweries whose beers we almost always enjoy. We’d be surprised to have a Magic Rock beer we didn’t like, or a Thornbridge one that wasn’t at least decent.

      There are some breweries that produce one or two beers we love, while the rest of what they do leaves us cold. For example, we’ve now had a whole bunch of beers from Brew By Numbers; the cucumber and juniper saison is a contender for beer of the year; one or two of the others were OK; and a couple more we didn’t really enjoy at all because they were too rough.

      The reason we’ve left ‘small’ vague is because we’re thinking of everything from ‘craft’-branded railway arch operations to regional real-ale-in-a-bottle operations. We’re not saying they’re always bad just that we find ourselves assuming they’re going to be, based on experience. (‘Bad’ being subjective, of course.)

      1. Cheers, that makes sense.

        It’s quite interesting that in the early days of UK craft beer being a thing, as I recall it, if you wanted any of these exciting new beer styles then you pretty much had to accept that you’d be paying a bit of a premium and trying new, experimental, and potentially slightly shonky beers every week. Whereas now the two seem to be decoupling a bit, and some breweries (Buxton and Thornbridge spring to mind) seem to be moving more towards quality over quantity (of different beers), to serve people who like Imperial Porters and US-style hop bombs and so on but don’t mind having the same beer twice every now and then.

        To some extent, this is presumably a function of supply catching up with demand over the last few years, and the market that bleeding-edge “the new Kernel” type breweries are competing in getting increasingly tight…

        1. Unless, of course, I’m just imagining this or extrapolating it from myself as another person who’s decreasingly bothered about trying to keep up with this week’s latest and greatest…

  6. Well, given that most English bottled beers with any distribution are likely pasteurized and filtered, and the hop levels currently used, I can see that they might pall. The bottle-conditioned or unpasteurized ones from craft-tradition breweries, where available, should be excellent.

    I think the U.S. kegged exports are probably losing some aromatic qualities on the way over. They are best very fresh because the hops are often used for aroma not bittering. To appreciate these tastes at the best, it is best to drink the many U.K. beers which emulate that style to a t, and you mentioned Punk IPA which is a perfect example.

    Quality lager, domestic made, is really the great future of craft brewing in the U.K., IMO. The brewers will have to work at it, quality lager is difficult to make well.

    Gary

    1. “The bottle-conditioned or unpasteurized ones from craft-tradition breweries, where available, should be excellent.”

      There are BCd strong ales and IPAs from regional brewers, but hardly any standard bitters that spring to mind.

      1. Well, White Shield at least I’d think. This is part of the problem actually, more English-style bottle-conditioned beers are needed.

        Gray

  7. There is also Blue Bird Bitter. I wouldn’t call White Shield IPA really as it doesn’t have the American taste or a strong hop quality, but it is a bit high (ABV) perhaps for a bitter as currently understood.

  8. Maybe its my proximity to a couple of major importers but I’m generally getting US beers fresher than most UK ones! Far as bottles for home go, I’d agree a micro brewed 4% brown ale is likely to be at best dull, punk as a go to? Nah I can get sierra Nevada pale 20p cheaper, with us ipas there is a bench mark drawn by say torpedo, modus hoperandi, stone ipa (within 2 weeks of brewing its mindblowingly good) which leaves many US imports looking poor. And fair few im thinking of better UK beers for less dosh. Though I’m spoilt with my local ish brewers including ilkley, kirkstall, magic rock and mallinsons. My actual purchases favour the new and different but with a lot of breweries on my ‘probably won’t bother’ list.

  9. If white shield isn’t an ipa then ipa has changed its meaning. It’s not a US influenced ipa I’ll give u that

  10. I largely agree and the post some up the way I feel. I’m largely trying to avoid buying bottles of beer from micro brewers now due to the hit and miss quality and instead opt for Thornbridge or brewdog as these are always good and cheaper .

    Its actually very annoying that some small craft brewers are charging top prices for their products that in my experience out of the bottle are often under carbonated/totally flat. Mostly sold at the same price you would expect to pay for a top end pint of cask in a craft pub.

  11. Steve, I meant it mostly for the lack of American hop taste, since IPA in England often connotes the Stone IPA type of taste, i.e., big citric/piney hit.

  12. Given the pro thornbridge posts can I say ive found their cask recently hit and miss and keg while consistently good, consisteltly overpriced

  13. You can, but we can only really make judgements based on our own experience, and we’ve never had to pour any Thornbridge down the drain, or abandon a pint of their beer unfinished.

  14. I bought six bottles from a small brewer near us recently (no names, no pack drill). #1 was great; #2 and #3 were very lively and tasted more sour than they should have been, based on comparison with the cask versions of the same beers (which were superb when I had them); #5 was very lively and undrinkably sour, and went down the sink; and #6 is still waiting its turn, although without very high expectations. As for #4, the bottle broke – quite quietly and inconspicuously (until I noticed the puddle) – while it was standing under the stairs; I imagine internal gas pressure was involved. The brewery very kindly offered to replace it with a couple of bottles, although right now I’m not in a tearing hurry to take them up on the offer. I’m guessing the sour/gusher combo is what happens when too much yeast gets at too much sugar.

  15. I have found thornbridge beer can be hit and miss . Obviously Jaipur is top notch but I have had wild swan bottles which taste sulphurous . Could this beer the long neck bottles , usually sitting on the top shelf in waitrose getting light struck and not getting snapped up as quick as 3 for a fiver fullers

  16. I drink what I’d consider to be a little too much beer (Untappd reckons 500+ since November), and I’ve only had to pour away 1 or 2 bottles in that time. Maybe I am just not that discerning ;-) Had a few poor pints in though recently, with a few places serving flat keg beer (and I don’t even like beer to be highly carbonated). Frustrating!

    1. Andy — ‘fussy’ is probably the word you’re after, and we wish we weren’t.

  17. IPAs travel badly. American brewing has really swung in the direction of late hopping, where all the aroma and flavor is composed of incredibly delicate and evanescent compounds. They don’t travel even well across state lines (a month is enough to really dull the zing), what to speak of an ocean.

    This is one reason Belgians are such great imports. They’re brewed to survive, particularly because of that month in the warm room during bottle conditioning.

  18. Love this post. Coincidentally, we’re taking all of our managers to Belgium next month in part to re-engage with Belgian beers, which is where it all started for us many moons ago…

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