Confession Time — Which Beers Are You Embarrassed to Like?

Text: CRUSH ON YOU.

Why do people feel uncomfortable admitting to liking (or disliking) certain beers? And which beers do you have a secret soft spot for?

We were prompted to ponder this subject by this Tweet from Rhys Daltrey:

Twitter screenshot: "Embarrassing​ revelation: I have a weakness for Tanglefoot. I keep it quiet, so as not to spoil my 'craft' pretensions..."

As it happens, we too have more time for certain Badger beers than you might expect. They were among the earliest ales we really got to know at Hall & Woodhouse outposts in London, as well as during a series of holidays in Dorset and around. We don’t talk about them much these days because the bottles don’t excite us — they seem to taste particularly stewed even by the standards of supermarket ales — and we don’t get much chance to drink the cask incarnations, but we’re certainly not embarrassed to mention them.

Perhaps it’s a result of having blogged about beer for 9.99999 years but we’re not much ashamed to admit to liking, or disliking anything. We’ve paid our dues and if we say we do or don’t like a beer, it’s an honest reaction. (Which is not to say it might not be stupid, misinformed or confused — that’s a whole separate issue.)

Even now, though, we know we’ll draw a bit of fire if we express a liking for, or even tolerance of, certain beers. That’s why we so often resort to the language of extreme subjectivity, such as ‘soft spot’ above — like Rhys, we couch it almost as a failing on our part.

Another approach is to go on the offensive: unlike you sheeple, I controversially like Budweiser/Bass/Special Brew, and if you’ve got a problem with that, you can see me outside in the car park. It’s the same thing though, really — an acknowledgement that The Community won’t approve.

Be Honest, Fess Up

What we’d like to see, more generally, is people stating plainly what they like, and what they don’t. There’s no wrong or right answer, and you don’t need special expertise or training to know whether a beer tastes good to you, right now. (Even if down the line you might be baffled by your own judgement.)

People holding back from expressing an honest view skews the whole conversation to a handful of consensus breweries and beers.

And, of course, for that to happen, others need to respect the preferences of others. (Last year, someone told us they were disappointed in us for naming Duvel as a great Belgian beer. Weird, right?)

With all that in mind, let’s have an amnesty: which beers do you have a secret crush on that you don’t want the kids at school to know about?

And you can also tell us which beers you know you ‘ought’ to like but don’t, although we actually had a pretty good round-out on a related topic a couple of months back.

Here are some beers we feel slightly naughty liking — but nonetheless publicly admitted to liking — in recent months, to get the ball rolling: Guinness (Bailey, every now and then); Hoegaarden (not what it used to be, apparently); Bass (NWIUTB); Marston’s Pedigree (NWIUTB); LIDL’s own-brand Bière de Garde; Ringwood Forty-Niner (cask, at The Farmer’s).

Is ‘Belgian’ a Flavour?

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

We find ourselves using ‘Belgian’ as a shortcut flavour descriptor sometimes and have been thinking about what this means, for various reasons.

First, because we just finished writing an article about Liverpool’s Passageway Brewery. If you’ve read Brew Britannia you’ll have the gist of the story: it emerged in the mid-1990s, run in their spare time by two friends who worked together, and knocked people’s socks off by fermenting British-style cask ales with a then highly exotic Belgian yeast strain.

Secondly, because we’ve also been writing an article about British beer geeks obsessed with Belgian beer, which means we’ve been hanging out with a few of the same. One gently admonished us on this point, suggesting that ‘Belgian’ as used to describe flavour by non-Belgians usually just means ‘spicy yeast’, when of course Belgian beers might be tart, sherry-like, fruity (from actual fruit), literally spicy (as opposed to yeast spicy), hoppy (in various offbeat ways), and so on.

A bicycle outside a bar in Bruges, 2010.

And, finally, there have just been some beers that got us excited — beers that aren’t Belgian, or even fundamentally Belgian in style, but which use Belgian-derived yeast to add a twist. Stone Cali-Belgique, which we found confusing and underwhelming when we paid a fortune for it at The Rake in London years ago, is fast becoming a go-to in its canned Berlin-brewed bargain-price incarnation. Elusive Brewing’s Plan-B — a 3.7% pale ale brewed with UK malt, New World hops and Belgian yeast, was a contender for our Golden Pints bottled beer of 2016. And that Lervig/Magic Rock Farmhouse IPA from a few years back still haunts our palates. In general these days, we’ll pick up any kind of pale ale or IPA made this way — it just floats our boat.

So, yes, when we say something tastes ‘Belgian’, we do mostly mean that it has that faintly funky, abandoned-fruit-bowl, distantly gingery quality. The same character that, in our home-brewing, we’ve managed to get from various supposedly highly divergent Belgian-style yeasts, from dried stuff intended for producing Witbier, to saison and Trappist strains cloned from famous breweries and dispatched in vials.

But maybe sometimes we’re referring to something even broader — a very vague sense of faintly rustic, barely tamed oddness.

If this was flipped and a bunch of Belgian beer geeks were telling us about a beer produced in, say, Ghent that tasted ‘really British’, we think we’d know what they were trying to get across. And noting that a beer tastes ‘quite German’ certainly conveys something, too.

Shortcuts, like ‘proper pub’ or ‘malty’, are fine when used with caution, and don’t always need pinning down at every corner, especially if it stalls the conversation.

Bar Staff on the Fiddle, 1944

The December 1944 edition of Lilliput, a ‘gentleman’s magazine’, includes an article about — or maybe an exposé of — bar staff in London pubs.

It’s credited to ‘Lemuel Gulliver’ and is entitled Gulliver Peeps Behind the Bar implying a connection to the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift; with that in mind, it’s perhaps not the stuff footnotes are made of, unless carefully worded. Which is to say the author might well have just made it all up, or at least used plenty of creative licence in writing up material from various sources, although there is the ring of truth about many of the details. Here’s how it opens:

‘You’ll get thirty-five bob a week,’ said the barmaid ducking through a hatch in the mahogany counter, ‘a bit more if you’re lucky.’ Her peroxide head popped up again in the frame of the ornamental bottles and frosted glass at the back of the bar. ‘You live in,’ she said, ‘and you exist for one half-day out a week, from eleven in the morning til eleven at night.’

She went on to detail the various ways barmaids in London pubs compensate themselves for their miserable lot, namely ‘fiddling’.

‘Go on with you,’ said the barmaid. ‘You know what fiddling is, making a bit on the side.’ She gave a mascara wink.

First, there was the barmaid who took additional compensation in the form of drink, ‘a bottle of gin before breakfast’, the empty being refilled with ‘bulk gin and pale sherry’ to cover her tracks. The customers, starved for booze by wartime rationing, didn’t notice or care.

The cover of Lilliput, December 1944.

Then there was a barman who was in the habit of slipping coins into his waistcoat but was found out because his pocket was wet: ‘Don’t you know that money taken over the bar is always wet with the the spilt beer?’ Because of the prevalence of this kind of thing, according to Gulliver’s informant, most pubs banned bar staff from having any money in their pockets at all.

There were various methods for fiddling the till. First, there’s the simple wheeze of taking orders for multiple rounds but only ringing up the price of one — easy, but risky. Alternatively, they might work with a friend posing as a customer on the other side of the bar: ‘Every time the accomplice buys a drink he gets change for a quid.’ A third more elaborate approach sounds positively ingenious:

Why at one place I was at they bored a hole in the floor of the bar… The people in the bar used to drop the money on the floor, shuffle it down the hole and the cellarman used to catch it in a beer filter.

She explained that such dishonest bar staff worked in gangs, moving around to avoid the police, and alternating so that some worked while others laid low. They found new jobs using forged references, ‘sixpence each’.

The article concludes with details of a clever customer-side con trick that’s new to us:

The most famous trick is called ‘Ringing the Changes’. It’s worked by two men. One comes into the saloon bar, orders a drink and offers a pound note. Immediately after, the accomplice goes into the public bar, orders a drink too, and pays for it out of a ten-bob note. When he gets his change he says that it wasn’t a ten-bob note he had, it was a pound. And, to prove it, he gives the number. When they go to the till, they find the pound note because it’s the one the accomplice had just handed in. Well, when that happens, the landlord has to pay up.

Can anyone who works in a pub or bar tell us whether that still happens today, or have CCTV and the death of the multi-bar layout out done for this (ahem) fine old tradition?

The main illustration above is signed ‘Victoria’ which we think means it’s by Victoria Davidson, 1915-1999.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 March 2017: Bibles, BrewDog, Bulldogs

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related news and reading that’s seized our attention in the last week, from marriage equality in Australia to takeover tremors at BrewDog.

A quick mention, first, for Nathaniel Southwood whose post on why he’s done with beer festivals went mildly viral on Reddit this week, somewhat to his surprise. We’re also festival sceptics and so, it seems, are plenty of other people out there.

Portrait shot of Mike Marcus.

For Brewers’ Journal editor Tim Sheahan has profiled Mike Marcus, the outspoken founder of Manchester’s Chorlton Brewing Co. At times aggressively political on social media, and committed to producing challenging beers, his comments come across as refreshingly unvarnished:

Some people can’t understand why we don’t have a business model to sell to a bigger business. Sure you have some exceptions in the UK with the sales of Meantime and Camden Town but with something like 1,700 breweries, how many are going to exit like that. Ten, maybe. Who knows? I want an investor that backs me and works with me. It’s why we’ve never done crowdfunding, everyone is looking for an exit.


A glass of beer at BrewDog Bristol.

With that segue, let’s turn to BrewDog: in the last couple of weeks the Scottish brewery has written to shareholders (PDF) and posted on the forum for ‘Equity Punks’ (crowd-funding backers) with news of changes which pave the way for an outside investor to acquire a 30 per cent share of the company by, in effect, downgrading the value of shares held by smaller investors. There’s a short summary of the main points by Kadhim Shubber at the Financial Times (registration required) and Glynn Davis at Beer Insider provides helpful commentary:

Crowd-funding is being marketed to very small investors who probably do not have much finance experience. They think they are buying ‘shares’ but if their pre-emption rights are being widely removed as an original condition, then they are not getting what any reasonable person would view as equity… I strongly suspect that the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) will be along shortly to inform BrewDog, CrowdCube et al of this very fact.

Detail aside, this tells us that a move everyone has been waiting for is finally underway. We doubt very much that the particular investor BrewDog is courting is a big multi-national brewery — they’ve just banged on about that so much when they didn’t need to that we can’t see it happening. But who knows.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 March 2017: Bibles, BrewDog, Bulldogs”

Magical Mystery Pour Bonus: Tempest Mexicake

Tempest Mexicake in the glass.

Tempest’s 11% ABV chilli-infused imperial stout, Mexicake, didn’t immediately appeal to me, because it sounds like the kind of beer people invent for their ‘Hur, hur, dumb hipsters’ jokes. But, wow, was it good.

This is a kind of Magical Mystery Pour deleted scene. Dina, you might recall, was our first selector more than a year ago, and very kindly sent us this and another beer as part of a Christmas gift box last December.

There are beers to which you respond intellectually, and those for which you just have a pash. This one made me go wobbly: ‘Blimey!’ was the only note I managed for the first few minutes. When I tried to expand on that, still reeling, I came out with I now know is called a malaphor: ‘That ticks a lot of my buttons.’

Then I said ‘Mmmmmmm’, three times before my brain engaged.

It was black with a dirty brown head, like something that might leak from the engine of one of those spiky cars in a Mad Max film. It felt dense, syrupy and velvety, and tasted like treacle. The chilli was subtle, almost possible to confuse with bitterness in the muddled wiring of the brain, and really worked. As it warmed up I began to think more of chocolate and vanilla but, really, there were lots of different flavours bouncing around. It might be easiest just to say, ‘It tastes of everything.’ (Except oddly, and thankfully, the advertised cinnamon.)

This was proof that big beers can also be perfectly balanced. Delightful. Bring me another!