The Seven Ages of Beer Geek?

Illustration: SEVEN.

Being into beer — being into anything — takes you through phases, and it’s hard to empathise with people who aren’t where you’re at.

We found ourselves reminiscing the other day about the early days of our time as beer bloggers and the hunger with which we pursued new beers and new breweries.

In 2007, arriving in a strange town, we would want to know where to find beer from all the local breweries even if that meant walking away with bottles to drink at home. Whether the beer was good was almost irrelevant and we probably wouldn’t bother with a pub, however charming or interesting, that didn’t have something new for us to try: we wanted input, experiences, information. It was great fun and there was always some new discovery around the corner.

These days, we’re much less interested in trying new beers for the sake of it and take fewer risks: if a beer sounds terrible, and is from a brewery we don’t trust, we’ll tend not to waste the units. (We get hungover so much more easily now than a decade ago for one thing.) We drank multiple pints of St Austell Proper Job on multiple days every week for six years down in Penzance and really got to know it, which was great. (Our thoughts on that should be in the next edition of Original Gravity, by the way.)

The point is, 2007 Boak & Bailey were having fun; 2017 Boak & Bailey (grey round the edges) are also having fun, just in a different way.

So we wondered if it might be possible to generalise about the path a beer geek takes. The key word being ‘generalise’ — this might not reflect your experience — here’s our effort:

  1. They learn to like beer.
  2. They become Beer Drinkers. It is part of their identity, their default choice in the pub.
  3. Beer becomes one hobby among others. They begin to take an interest in beer beyond social situations and pubs, attending festivals and exploring the bottled range at the supermarket.
  4. They start to think about beer. They start to ask questions, buy books, read articles, and perhaps begin keeping notes.
  5. Beer becomes an obsession, overtaking other interests. Books are acquired and ticking begins. There’s so much to try, so many places to go, so much to learn, that drinking the same beer twice seems like wasted time. Everything is thrilling and exciting. (This, we guess, is when people start blogging if it’s going to happen.)
  6. The wall of ennui. Oh — it turns out there weren’t that many great and exciting beers after all. Everything is a disappointment, over-hyped, and even previously impressive beers seem to have lost their lustre.
  7. Set in their ways. Done with chasing novelty and hype the beer geek forms habits, going to the same bars and drinking the same beers often enough to learn their moods and ways.

When you’re at No. 5, Nos. 6 and 7 seem insufferable — so boring, so miserable, so conservative! And, of course, people who reached No. 7 can’t remember what it was like to be at No. 5: ‘Everything is “awesome” with that lot. What’s wrong with a decent pint of bitter, I ask you?’

Some of the bickering on the ‘scene’ (sorry) comes from this divide, we think, and the idea that everything would be great if all beer/bars/pubs were more/less adventurous/consistent; from a belief that one position is somehow correct and perhaps even morally superior.

Here’s a fun moment captured by Twitter — beer writer Mark Dredge, once the ultimate Five, effectively announcing his transition to Seven:

Which brings us to an article by James Beeson appeared reporting comments from Mark Tranter, formerly of Dark Star, now the brewer behind Burning Sky, in which he bemoaned a market over-saturated with breweries, which state of affairs incentivises dabbling and the pursuit of novelty:

I’ve been brewing for 20 years but the UK beer market has changed beyond all recognition in the past two to five years. People are constantly demanding new products – if you’re a winemaker you get 30 attempts in your career to make wine, but people expect 30 different beers a week. So where does that leave us as brewers that are trying to focus on quality?

We understand what he’s getting at — we heard much the same from the brewers at the Wild Beer Co back in 2013, as reported in Brew Britannia — but think this is, at least in part, a Seven expressing exasperation with Fives.

And we reckon the market needs breweries and bars serving Fives every bit as much as Sevens and (our familiar refrain these days) the tension is healthy and what matters is having a balance. If your brewery is for Fives, have at it, and ignore the moaning of the Sevens. And, of course, vice versa.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 26 August 2017: Seaweed, Scofflaws, Soupy IPA

There was a lot of good reading this week so it’s a bit of a bumper fun summer special today, covering everything from consistency to country pubs.

First up, for Draft magazine Zach Fowle explores the growing popularity of seaweed beer. Our first instinct was to bracket this with, say, moon-dust beer, as silly and gimmicky, but there seems to be more thought behind this particular trend:

David Carlson, owner of Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast, Maine… says Sea Belt has become one of his most popular beers; he brewed it five times last year and is trying to build up to making it once a month. What’s behind the sudden desire for—or, at least, acceptance of—seaweed in our beer? Hard to say, but it may be tied to the rise in the popularity of gose, the saline German ale that helped the American palate become accustomed to saltiness in beer.

(Via Kate Bernot @kbernot.)


Mild taste-off: multiple milds in plastic beakers.

From Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey comes a reminder that we are all alone in the universe, experiencing the world in our own way, able to relate to each other only through a collective lie. That is to say, she has realised after years of confusion that she tastes diacetyl as vanilla:

While I’m getting my head round the idea that my vanilla = everyone else’s butter a couple of previous episodes of ‘funny tasting beer’ come drifting back, where pale ales and IPAs tasted of vanilla to me but not to anyone else. I even know someone who won a medal for a homebrewed saison that tasted like cream soda to me. I knew it didn’t taste right at the time but I couldn’t have said what the specific fault was then (other than saisons shouldn’t taste of cream soda, obviously). But I could now… At this point I should mention that before I switched to a career in biomedicine I used to work in a QC/chemical analysis lab at Yoplait Dairy Crest where I was known as a bit of a vanilla super taster – I am very sensitive to low levels of vanilla…

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 26 August 2017: Seaweed, Scofflaws, Soupy IPA”

Q&A: How Do You Drop Knowledge Nicely?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“What’s the etiquette when you know more about beer than bar staff? They’re probably passionate about beer, about craft. Maybe they’re younger and hipper than you. Sometimes they think that because they behind a bar they’re experts on beer, but drop clangers like telling you that Ekuanot is a brand new experimental hop rather than a rename of Equinox. What do you do? How do you communicate that they’re wrong about something without being boorish?”

Brendan, Leeds

This is an interesting question, although more about etiquette and human interaction than something to which we can give a definitive answer. But we’ll try.

Short version: let it go.

On a couple of occasions we’ve found ourselves in pubs with a veteran beer writer and watched them come up against the kind of bar person who not only doesn’t know much about beer, but exhibits their ignorance with enormous arrogance.

How does the guru handle it? They say, ‘Oh, interesting — thanks’; they smile kindly; and they walk away.

Unless it will result in you losing out somehow (e.g. being overcharged, or ending up with a beer you won’t enjoy) what’s the point in starting this kind of argument? It can only be ego, surely.

Take the high road.

Let it go.

* * *

OK, short version over — now let’s dig into this a bit more.

The flipside of the situation Brendan describes is the difficulty for bar staff of dealing with experts, or at least people who think they’re experts. We asked on Twitter what people who’ve worked behind bars think of ‘know-all customers’ (leading language, but there you go) and here’s a selection of the comments we received:

“Personally I love when I get a customer that knows more than me. It rarely happens though, not to brag.”

“There is a contingent of generally male cask ale drinkers age 50+ who simply cannot accept that someone in their twenties can know more about beer than them. Despite the fact they know very little.”

“Spent years being ‘told’ how to pour Guinness. These days if they keep annoying me I may casually mention my [beer writing work]… They are there to have fun. It’s my job to help. If they are showing off and it’s jovial I’ll tease them about anything they get wrong.”

“Geeks who are just sharing their excitement – go for it, I like talking to guests like that. Know-it-all asses? Not so much.”

“All power to em, if it’s the one bright spot their otherwise moribund existence then let em have it. Hardly worth the grief getting wound up.”

“I liked people to tell me how they wanted things served, rather than those who expected me to know and complained after.”

“Obviously, I also have the disadvantage of being female, and below the age of 30, so I think I may have had a more concentrated experience…”

“I’ve experienced two kinds of ‘know-all’ customers. Some love beer and just want to talk about it and they’re obviously pleased when they find knowledgeable staff. They’re the awesome customers that you can wax lyrical about hops with and share favourite beer facts. But then there’s the ones that want to lecture you. Normally middle aged men who like proving they know everything about beer to anyone in ear shot.”

“I’ve been that person myself; desperate to get the approval of the bartender. As long as nobody is rude, no harm done.”

One of those comments came from Suzy (@lincolnpubgeek) and we asked her to elaborate — how should a customer in Brendan’s situation handle it?

When I was a fledgling beer nerd [working behind a bar] this happened every now and then and I’d just refer to what I did know or ask a manager… But then that was in a bar without a beer focus so it wasn’t a common issue.

If that’s happening somewhere that does have a focus on beer then that’s simply bad management. In my old job some of the staff weren’t as knowledgeable and they’d often refer to me or a manager which can works too so long as they at least know the basics.

There was a bar in Lincoln where some of the staff had zero training and didn’t even drink beer. It made ordering a very slow kerfuffle but they were apologetic and polite about it, it was definitely a management and training issue.

Staff need to know what’s going on in the cellar and need basic tasting notes for all the products as a bare minimum. Customers need to make it known that beer knowledge is a big plus, with their wallets when it’s not there, and their voices when it is.

We asked the same question to Susannah Mansfield who runs the Station House micropub in Durham:

Usually the people who genuinely know more are people who are happy with how we do things because they know why we do it, and it’s conversational, or suggestions to improve that I either may not have thought of, or have good reasons for not doing, or old tricks of cellaring that are less well known…

I’ve never pretended to know everything, but equally, I know a hell of a lot more than the average punter, and I tend to find that those that have that greater knowledge themselves are far less proud of themselves about it.

What comes out of all of this, is a fairly clear, quite obvious set of rules that really boil down to basic social skills. If you absolutely must have it out…

  1. Don’t be blunt, loud or aggressive. Getting something wrong is embarrassing and being corrected can be humiliating, so gently (and quietly) does it. It’s not a point-scoring exercise…. is it?
  2. Consider that you might be wrong. Of course you think you’re right — you’re sure you’re right — but if you think back a few years you can probably bring to mind ‘facts’ you clung to and parroted because you’d read them in one book you now know is rubbish. (We certainly can.)
  3. If the bar staff haven’t been trained well, it’s not their fault. If they start floundering and looking uncomfortable or unhappy, change the subject, and resist the urge to CRUSH THEM WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.
  4. Don’t go on, and don’t lecture. Make your point but if you’ve been talking for more than, say, 30 seconds, wrap it up.
  5. Ask yourself: am I assuming I know more because I’m older than them? (And/or a bloke.)
  6. Don’t, for goodness sake, trot out your credentials. There is no way to do this that doesn’t make you sound like a buffoon: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ If it gets to this stage, we refer you to our initial advice: let it go.

Thinking about it, some of those rules probably work the other way across the bar too.

Breaking out of the Rut

Illustration: moody London pub.

It’s easy to end up drinking the same beers, and going to the same pubs and bars, and feel miserable about it. But there are ways to break free.

1. Walk down a new street or visit a new town and go into the first pub you walk past after a certain hour. (Don’t cheat.)

2. Or go to every single pub in a neighbourhood, town or village, however weird or unpromising.

3. Buy an old guide book and visit the pubs it recommends, or take on a famous historic crawl.

4. Drink your way through a list of beers from a book or listicle.

5. Get someone else to choose beers for you.

6. Drink every beer you can find in a particular style, from a particular region, or that meet some other criteria – ABV, colour, Christmas themed…

7. Critically revisit beers you know you don’t like but haven’t tried in years. After all, they change, and you change too.

8. Spend a month drinking things other than beer, but with beer in mind.

There are lots of other ways to go about this kind of thing. The point is, like writing poetry using restrictive rules, or cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats, it should be sort of pointless… But not really.

You might hate all the new pubs you go in and beers you taste, or you might find new favourites you kick yourself for having missed out on for so long. Even the duds will teach you something.

QUICK ONE: (A Comically Small Portion of) Food for Thought

Auguste Escoffier in pop art colours.

In 1973 the food critic Henri Gault published ‘The Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine’, crystallising the new movement then sweeping French gastronomy:

  1. Thou shall not overcook
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products
  3. Thou shall lighten thy menu
  4. Thou shall not be systematically modernistic
  5. Thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown and white sauces
  7. Thou shall not ignore dietetics
  8. Thou shall not cheat on thy presentation
  9. Thou shall be inventive
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced

(This is the translation given by Paul Freedman in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, 2016. There are many subtly different versions around.)

From this side of the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine is a bit of a joke — huge plates, tiny amounts of silly food, very expensive. What yuppies ate. But that list made us think about changes in beer that were taking place in the same period with the rise of micro-brewing and ‘alterno beer’.

Of course some of those commandment don’t directly map (overcooking, sauces) but how about if we rewrite them a bit?

  1. Thou shall not stew good hops.
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products.
  3. Thou shall lighten thy beer.
  4. Thou shall not be industrial.
  5. But thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you.
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown beer (UK) and yellow beer (US).
  7. Thou shall be transparent about the strength and ingredients of your beer.
  8. Thou shall not prize marketing over quality.
  9. Thou shall be inventive.
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced.

Of course there are a million exceptions to each of those ‘rules’, as there were in Nouvelle Cuisine as actually practised, but that doesn’t feel to us like a bad summary of where — in the very most general sense — people’s heads were between about 1963 and, say, 2015. (We say 2015 because, in very recent years, something seems to be changing. But that’s just a gut feeling which we’re still probing.)

This feels like a connection Michael Jackson, Charlie Papazian, Garrett Oliver or even Sean Franklin must have made at some point but a quick Google (time is short this morning) doesn’t turn anything up. Pointers welcome in comments below.

To finish, here’s another quote from Freedman:

Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1970s… had two missions that have since gone separate ways: to exalt primary ingredients simply prepared, and to advocate variety resulting from breaking with tradition — new combinations such as Asian fusion.

That sounds a bit like the break between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’, doesn’t it?