Category Archives: Generalisations about beer culture

Native or Local?

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Reading around the blogoshire today, there seems to be a connection to be made between two interesting posts.

First, Matt ‘Total Ales’ Curtis reports on the Hop & Berry, a pub in Islington, North London, which sets out to act a showcase for the booming London brewing scene. (See Beer Guide London for the list we always refer to.) Our first thought was: “Beer geeks visiting London from overseas will find a one-stop-shop very handy.”

But then there’s Joe ‘Thirsty Pilgrim’ Stange writing of a recent trip to London:

As a Traveler with Thirst I don’t really care about British ‘craft beer.’ It’s OK as a curiosity. As a journalist it’s interesting. But these days you can get aromatic, bitter IPA nearly anywhere in the world. Even Costa Rica. Even Germany. Why would I drink that in the UK, which has its own, special, underappreciated thing? Yes, I can see how folks who have drunk brown bitter all their lives might be bored with it. I’m not.

It seems that native style, then, might be a more important idea than local manufacture.

Thought experiment: if you were to visit Berlin, would you feel you’d had a more authentic experience drinking American-brewed Berliner Weisse, or locally made Cascade-hopped IPA?

Illustration: raising a glass to the lips.

100 Words: Hype & Prejudice

I like things. You over-rate things. They are fanboys.

The brewery I like gets well-deserved attention. The brewery you like is all marketing. The brewery they like is all hype.

The beer I like is hoppy. The beer you like is boring. The beer they like is silly, unbalanced hipster nonsense.

I take beer just seriously enough. You take beer too seriously. They are pretentious.

I know a good thing when I see it. You are entitled to your opinions, however absurd. They are fools, admiring the emperor’s new clothes.

Everybody else is wrong.

The Batham’s, at Last

great_western_wolverhampton

On more than one occasion, we’ve been asked, “Have you tried the Batham’s?” On answering “No,” we’ve had the distinct impression that our credibility as commentators on beer has been reduced to zero.*

Of course we wanted to try it anyway, having heard from various sources, on numerous occasions, that the small West Midlands family brewery produces beers which are delicious, with a hard-to-define ‘mojo’. And we’re not immune to the ticking instinct, either.

Having travelled for 6+ hours from Penzance to Birmingham, we weren’t, however, quite in the mood for a further hour of buses and trains to get to the brewery tap at Stourbridge and turned, instead, to someone with local knowledge.

Tania’s suggestion was the Great Western next to Wolverhampton central station — 20 minutes on the train, plus five minutes walking. Perfect!

A cute, flower-covered pub surrounded by railway architecture and industrial wasteland, it was decorated throughout with memorabilia from the GWR, which once passed through the city. (Its western terminus is, as it happens, Penzance.) On a sunny Friday evening, it had a pleasant buzz, and a mixed clientèle perhaps just tending towards late middle age.

And there it was: Batham’s Best Bitter (4.3%). We ordered two pints along with a pork pie (‘real’, not ‘craft’), a hot pork roll and some ‘Bostin’ Cracklin‘’ — if you don’t like pig meat, food options are rather limited in the evening — and set about getting acquainted.

The_bathams_474

There are some mental contortions to go through when tasting a legendary beer for the first time. On the one hand, it’s easy to end up tasting the hype, and praising the Emperor’s new clothes. On the other hand, it can also be easy to end up feeling let down. We tried to forget all of that and just drink it.

It was certainly very pretty, scoring 11 out of 10 for clarity. As for the taste… Well, we were momentarily surprised by a pronounced honey note, but couldn’t help but be impressed. The balancing bitterness developed as it went down, and there was almost a suggestion of nutty grains between the teeth.

Ultimately, though, it had that quality which makes writing about beer difficult at times — something impossible to put into words, but which is perhaps a result of freshness, or a subtle combination of barely-perceptible aromas and flavours. A certain magic.

But…

Much as we enjoyed it, we did find ourselves wondering how much of its reputation was down to the beer’s relative scarcity, and the glamour of time and place. It didn’t strike us, fundamentally, as that much different, or better, than the products of many other family breweries.

For example (and we’ll probably get told off for this) in Manchester, we attempted to approach Robinson’s Unicorn (4.3%, golden) with similar detachment, and actually rather enjoyed it. If Robinson’s restricted its supply, and if it was only served in pubs like the Great Western which kept it in tip-top condition, perhaps it too would have a cult reputation.

We can’t wait for the chance to drink a few more pints of Batham’s just to make sure, though.

Further reading: Barm’s recent post about pub-crawling in Dudley is a cracking read, and this 2012 piece by Pete Brown was probably where we first really registered the existence of Batham’s.

* “What credibility?” &c.

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.

Utopians vs. Sentimentalists

In 1925, Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, proposed that the historic centre of Paris be flattened and replaced with a set of identical tower blocks set in a grid.

All those old buildings, narrow winding roads and quaint features were, in his view, ‘rustic bric-a-brac’ and needed to be swept away so that order could be achieved. With order, he argued, would come true human happiness, if only people would look inside themselves and realise that’s what they really wanted. (Which sounds slightly scary to modern ears.)

His extreme philosophy, abstracted from practical concerns, sits on one side of an ideological battle still being played out across all fields of human activity: Logic or sentiment? Machines or men? Straight lines or wonky ones? Industry or craft?

At about the same time as his ideas had filtered through to inform the planning and design of post-war British cities (see Plymouth, for example) another expression of the logic/machines/straight-lines way of thinking was also underway: the Big Six project in British brewing.

Whitbread, Watney’s, et al, became seduced by a Utopian vision of pure efficiency. They rejected the idea of lots of little breweries all over the place in favour of big ones in central locations, connected by motorway.

They decided computer-control was the way forward, reducing the opportunities for human interference to introduce inconsistency into the product.

Tradition was a nuisance — something to be ‘got over’.

It is with tinges of regret that we witness the disappearance of the traditional brewer wandering around the brewery with only his sensitive nose, keen palate and a few basic scientific instruments to guide him… [as] we move to a new generation of white-coated technicians bristling with scientific qualifications, guided in their work by panels of flickering lights…

H.A. Monckton, A History of English Ale & Beer, 1966

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the pub preservation movement, and ‘micro brewing’, all stood, and still stand, on the side of sentimentality and ‘the human touch’. Greenleaf over Ironsides.

And in marketing terms, the sentimentalists have won — we don’t think many breweries these days would invite the press to see their computers, as did Whitbread at Luton in May 1969, or use an image like this one from Boddington’s, c.1978, in promotional materials:

Boddington's computer controlled brewery, c.1978.

But most people don’t feel that strongly either way — they’re turned off by automation, but expect a certain level of consistency; they appreciate the fruits of efficiency, but don’t want to see old pubs or breweries knocked down to achieve it. They are, in short, pragmatic.

But pragmatism, as far as people like Le Corbusier are concerned, is synonymous with compromise — the worst of both worlds.

Excuse us thinking aloud. We’re working on something — a longer article, or maybe a video — about flat-roofed, cube-like post-war ‘modern’ pubs, which is why we happen to be reading outside our usual territory.