QUICK POST: One Practical Thing

HOW MUCH?

This morning another conversation about the price of craft beer broke out on Twitter, as it does every three months or so.

This time the prompt was an article by Will Hawkes for the Guardian on progressive breweries and inclusiveness:

Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing…. There’s [also] a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”

(Someone did great work on the headline for that story, by the way.)

This prompted food writer Tony Naylor to Tweet the following:

Lots of good initiatives here but if craft beer wants an inclusive working class audience it needs to have a serious conversation about the race to establish the £5 pint as standard. What would you drink if you were skint? Idea: £3 Pint Project. 12 breweries in, say, Greater MCR take turns each month to brew a £3 pint/ get it stocked in loads of good bars/ to see what’s possible stylistically. Now THAT (& even £3 is expensive if you’re skint), would be a positive move.

We think that’s quite an interesting, provocative suggestion and, indeed, made a similar one ourselves in 2012. He’s certainly not saying all beer should be £3 a pint, or that £5 pints should be banned, or are a great evil — just that some deliberate, disruptive gesture on price might shake things up a bit.

But whether it’s a practical suggestion or not it did make us think of something beer enthusiasts and commentators could be doing more often: making the effort to highlight good value beers.

Big, rare, strange craft beers naturally attract a lot of coverage because they’re different and come with some sort of story, but that can add up to a sense that (to borrow CAMRA’s controversial phrase) they are ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ and that if you’re drinking anything else, you’re slumming it. Why bother? Really, you should sell an organ or two, or skip your lunchtime avocado feast to cover the cost of the upgrade. (Remember, nobody has any money these days.)

So, instead of moaning about expensive pints — or at least as well as doing that — make a point of flagging great ones you’ve found at £3 a pint or £2 a can.

It doesn’t have to be an essay — just a Facebook post, Tweet or passing mention in a post on another topic. But essays are good too. Food critic Jay Rayner has just shared a piece defending his writing about expensive restaurants but one of the best things he’s ever written was about a Polish restaurant in Birmingham with main courses at under a tenner.

Of course nobody should pretend to like beers they don’t, or hold back from writing about expensive beers that really get them excited, but if there’s a readily available, affordable beer you really do enjoy, take a moment to tell the world, without apologies or caveats, and without expecting a medal for your bravery.

The Joy of Beer

Illustration: pint emerging from psychedelic clouds.

Beer should bring you joy.

All kinds of beer can do this — bog standard lager, straightforward bitter, flowery IPAs, imperial stout, anything.

And all kinds of beer can do just the opposite.

It all depends on you, your taste, and the moment.

It’s the difference between a great pint of cask ale and one that, though you’d struggle to pin down the difference in concrete terms, is an utter chore.

A joyful beer hits the spot. Either it doesn’t touch the sides, or it makes you linger for an hour, savouring every sip. Even if only for half a second before you get back to the conversation, it demands your attention.

It ought to be between you and the beer, this moment of joy, but you might say to your drinking companions that it’s bob on, cock on, bang on, or perhaps if you’re feeling especially expressive not too bad at all actually. Or you might just sigh, “Aah.”

A beer that is a joy will make you want the same again. The problem is, it’s elusive, that first-drink-of-the-session jolt. Returns diminish.

The most reliable route to joyful beer is to stick to beers, breweries and pubs you trust. But there’s a joy in exploring, too, and the joy you feel on finding a good beer after three duds is among the most potent strains.

Joy needn’t mean fireworks. There’s joy in a nice mug of tea or clean bedsheets and beer ought to be the same kind of everyday, attainable pleasure.

Passing Thoughts on Yorkshire Beer

Collage: Yorkshire Beer.

We spent a few days in Yorkshire last week (Leeds-Harrogate-York) and reached a couple of tentative conclusions.

1. Timothy Taylor Landlord, like Bass, and probably like many other beers, can be so different as to be unrecognisable from one pub to the next. We’re not saying it’s an inconsistent product but that it has a lot of potential for change depending on how it’s handled by pubs. We had pints that were bone dry and stony, and others that were sweet and nectar-like — older and younger respectively we assume. We almost always enjoy it but there seems to be a real sweet spot where it becomes a little less cloying and gains a sort of peach-like flavour without completely drying out. Expert opinion welcome below, of course. In the meantime, we’ll keep testing our findings when we can.

2. We might have finally zeroed in on the essence of Yorkshire bitter. Tetley*, Black Sheep and Taylor’s Boltmaker, as well as looking more alike in the glass than we recall, all had the same challenging, hot, rubber-band tang. We’ve noticed it before in Boltmaker but honestly just thought it was on the turn. But there it was again in multiple pints of Boltmaker, in different pubs, even in different cities, and in multiple pints of the others, too. It’s most pronounced in Boltmaker (Jessica likes it, Ray finds it too much) and gentlest in the current incarnation of Tetley (Ray likes it, Jessica finds it rather bland) but definitely the same thing. This is where our technical tasting skills let us down, unfortunately. Is this maybe what people mean by ‘sulphurous’? Again, expert suggestions welcome.

* No longer brewed in Yorkshire, we know.

3. Northern pale-n-hoppy beer is more to our taste than London or Bristol takes on the same style, on the whole. We knew this already, really, but this trip confirmed it. Without wanting to seem dogmatic about clarity (we’re not) beers from breweries such as Northern Monk, Rooster’s and Ossett were perfectly clear with a lightness and dryness that made them impossible to drink in anything less than great hearty gulps. Even with plenty of flavour and aroma there’s a certain delicacy there — perfect engineering. We did find ourselves wondering if perhaps we’ve grown to prefer sparklers for this style because (per this post for $2+ Patreon subscribers) the notorious widget has a capacity for rounding off hard edges and smoothing out flaws. ‘Don’t @ us’, as the kids say.

Where is Bass From?

Bass Pale Ale

Making a flying visit to our local, The Drapers Arms, on Tuesday night we got drawn into a puzzle: who brews Bass, and where is it from?

This question arose because the pub has a cask of Bass ready to go live in the next day or so, in time for the weekend. Policy at the Drapers is to write the origin of each beer on both the jacket covering the cask and the blackboard in front of the bar. That’s easy when the beer is by Stroud Brewery from Stroud, or Cheddar Ales from Cheddar, but Bass is complicated.

As far as we know, the keg and bottled versions are brewed at Samlesbury in Lancashire, while the cask is brewed by Marston’s in Burton-upon-Trent. (Though there’s sometimes talk of production having moved, or overspilled, to Wolverhampton.) And the brand is owned by AB-InBev whose head office is in Leuven in Belgium.

Our instinct was to make an exception — Bass is Bass is Bass, so just write Bass. But that won’t quite do.

In the end, after wiping the chalk away a couple of times, the last version we saw before leaving was something like:

BASS
William Bass & Co
(Marston’s)
Burton-upon-Trent

The landscape of classic beers (you can read that as sarcastically if need be) has become quite muddled with brands, brand-owners and brewers moving around, being taken over, contracting and licensing all over the place. Where is Pedigree actually brewed these days? What about Young’s Ordinary, or Courage Best? Newcastle Brown is now being produced in the Netherlands, along with HP Sauce.

Of course big brewers like to keep it vague so they can shunt production here, there or anywhere, based on business need, but this shouldn’t be information consumers or retailers have to hunt around for, not least because the vacuum leaves room for conspiracy theories and bar-room gossip.

More generally, though we find a certain romance in this grand industrial jiggery-pokery, isn’t the whole real-ale-craft-beer thing of the past 50 years really about making sure we don’t have to ask this question? About insisting that, good or bad, the beer we drink should clearly, and without footnotes, be from somewhere?

Cask Ale is Too Cheap/Expensive

Illustration: Pound Sign/Pint Glass.

Cask ale is both too cheap and too expensive. Or, rather, both of the following statements are true:

  1. It is a problem for brewers that cask beer – culturally important and relatively more difficult to brew, distribute and serve at its best – is expected to be cheaper than other forms of beer on sale in the UK.
  2. Consumers cannot be expected to pay more for cask beer.

Let’s look at item No. 1 first.

We have testimony from multiple brewers that cask ale not only offers only slim profit margins but also comes with additional challenges not found with keg or small-pack products. Take this from Northern Monk, for example:

[Logistically cask is] a massive headache for us… It makes no sense for us to package in a format that we’re not really set up for, has a lower market value than other packaged formats and our beer isn’t particularly suited to.

Or, if you don’t much value the views of ‘upstarts’, here’s Roger Ryman of St Austell: “Overall profit on cask beer is wafer thin in free trade and national distribution where we compete against the many hundreds of breweries that operate in this market”.

So, competition is an issue but we also find ourselves suspecting that if it weren’t for certain oddities in the market – the gravitational pull of the Campaign for Real Ale, a historical expectation that cask will be cheaper than keg – cask would be a premium product costing more than most keg beers. That is sometimes expressed, for the sake of brevity, especially on Twitter, as “Cask is too cheap”, or “Cask ought to be more expensive”, or “I’d be willing to pay more”.

There’s a cheap rhetorical trick that often gets played at this point: “Oh, so you think £3 a pint is too cheap? Alright for you, moneybags.”; “So what you’re saying is that want to exclude poor people from cask altogether then? You elitist bastard.”; “You want to pay more? Are you quite mad?”

(Also a cheap trick: paraphrasing those rather than quoting specific examples, but we don’t want to get into beef with anyone in particular.)

The problem is, those latter voices also have a point, which brings us to item 2.

Nobody Has Any Money

Journalist Will Hawkes put this well on Twitter last week (and, indeed, prompted this entire post):

"People can't pay more. Wages have been in decline for years and will be for years. Brewers need to accept this."

As a consumer it can get pretty exhausting: support pubs, support small breweries, boycott supermarkets, support record shops, support bookshops, support struggling restaurants, support your local butcher, baker, artisanal candlemaker. Buy local, buy Fair Trade, buy British. Oh, and pay into a pension, and save for a rainy day, and put a roof over your head in a property market gone insane, and also we’d like you to go onto a contract which means we can’t guarantee your income from one month to the next. Oh, and it’s 30p to use the toilet now, by the way, because there’s no magic money tree and so on and so forth.

If somehow the price of cask ale rose by, say, 20p a pint across the board, it wouldn’t unlock some secret pot of money that consumers are sitting on. Indeed, it would probably push a significant number over the edge, reducing the number of trips they make to the pub.

“Well, drink less but better,” people sometimes say, but, honestly, if we drank much less we might as well give up and join the Band of Hope, even though going to the pub is our biggest leisure expenditure each month. (If you haven’t already done so try totting up how much you spend in the pub each month – the numbers are a bit scary.)

To us, and others like us, and especially those worse off than us, it doesn’t feel as if cask ale is cheap. The fact that some really cheap beer is available, at Wetherspoon or Sam Smith pubs, doesn’t ‘devalue cask’ – it’s a lifeline, part of the balancing act that means we can occasionally afford to splash on something special at £5 a pint.

So Mr Hawkes is right: brewers and their boosters need to find better ways to tackle this issue than berating or guilt-tripping. Equally, when a brewery makes a commercial decision to pull out of cask, or refuses to budge on price, consumers (and especially real ale campaigners) shouldn’t be turning the guilt-gun back on them: they’re doing what they feel needs to be done to survive in an ever-more competitive market.