QUICK ONE: Reinheitsgebot as Flashpoint

We expected the 500th anniversary of the German beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, to generate lots of coverage but we hadn’t expected it to be so testy.

It turns out that this has become another flashpoint in the battle between two vague, fuzzy-edged groups within the world of beer.

The Reinheitsgebot stifles innovation!’ say the cavaliers; ‘“Innovation” my arse!’cry the roundheads.

And the Campaign for Real Ale’s Revitalisation project (consultation closes on Saturday, by the way) seems to have caused a flare up in another stretch of the previously fairly calm demilitarised border area.

POSTER: Captain America: Civil War

As we say, the edges are fuzzy, but it seems to be more or less the same groups bickering over clarity vs. haze, cask vs. keg, strong vs. session, boring vs. balanced, weird additives vs. malt, hipsters vs. squares, craft vs. ‘craft’, Simcoe vs. Fuggles, and so on.

The division feels weird to us — on both sides, more about attitudes, feelings, personalities, grudges and prejudices than anything concrete. It’s tribal, even almost religious.

Meanwhile, in the real world (as we Tweeted yesterday) Cascade hops and dark lager are still regarded as exotic, and we couldn’t buy a hazy beer in Penzance if we wanted to.

That Type of Cask Ale…. You Know the One

You know, the type that’s very pale but still has a bit of body… It’s not just about hops… But it’s definitely got hops. Yeah, you could call it balanced, but there’s a problem with that…

On our recent trip up North, without really trying, we stumbled upon a few examples of this which might, we’re beginning to think, be our favourite very specific, hard-to-pin-down type of beer.

Manchester Bitter in a pint glass at the Marble Arch.

Marble’s Manchester Bitter — currently tasting good in both bottle and on cask, by the way — is a pretty good example. It’s not like a bunch of flowers being shoved in your face but nor is it a miserable old bowl of soggy cornflakes. It’s somewhere in between. It tastes zesty, fruity, fresh and very bitter, but it’s not ‘Like drinking bloody grapefruit juice.’ Which leaves space for the actual flavour of malt — the bread-nuts-cracker chewiness that isn’t just a backdrop or a base but a pleasure in its own right.

So, that’s actually balanced, right, in a positive sense? The constituent ingredients are each allowed to express themselves fully, with none overpowering the rest.

We did a bad doodle that might or might not help:

Golden Ales, 1: extravagantly hoppy, 2: boring and flaccid, 3: balanced, shining bright.

Number 1 is your grapefruit beer — a delight in its own way but ultimately one-dimensional. Number 2 is what we think of when we read ‘golden ale’ these days — it might be yellow but only in a sense of the absence of brown; it’s sweet, bland, balanced like an empty see-saw. And number 3 is what we’re into right now — a nice bit of engineering, but nothing flamboyant.

In Liverpool, we had Okell’s IPA (4.5% ABV) which we’d put into this category, though we suspect they think it’s a Number 1 – ‘Said to be hoppier than a hopping mad hopi’. And, in Manchester, at the Piccadilly Tap, Northern Monk Brew Co’s True North (3.7%) struck us as another example, as satisfying as a fresh roll ten minutes out of the oven. Down in Cornwall, Penzance Brewing Co Potion No. 9 fits the bill. (St Austell Proper Job, while hardly over-the-top, is biased towards hops over malt.)

We’re not arguing that this is a distinct style that needs a name or anything but it’s a thing we know when we encounter it.

Any others spring to mind?

Time to Let The Old School Rejoin the Party?

This is an interesting Tweet from Matt Curtis who is currently doing some shifts in a pub:

One of our friends springs to mind: he likes bitter, hates ‘that grapefruit thing’ and struggles to find anything he fancies drinking in places like The Craft Beer Co, despite its vast range. He has lately taken to putting his foot down and insisting on meeting in pubs with at least one old-school, brown, balanced beer.

So, yes, we reckon pubs or bars with a craft identity (def 2.) perhaps ought to take account of this potential market.

Of course many already do, often looking to craft breweries (again, def. 2 — founded since about 2005, graffiti on their pump-clips, etc.) to provide something a bit like bitter but with more pizazz — Amber or Red are the usual codewords.

But maybe that’s misguided.

Maybe instead everyone should just acknowledge that the best old-school bitters are made by old-school breweries who have been doing it for 30, 40, 100 or more years, and embrace them.

Fuller's vinyl-record beer mat, 1956.
Fuller’s jumping on the pop music bandwagon in 1956. Needs to be resurrected!

Five years or so ago the sight of, say, a Black Sheep or Timothy Taylor Landlord pump in a would-be trendy post-gastro, pre-craft pub would have made us groan. Too many times we paid over the odds for something stale, warm and headless served in something like an IKEA tumbler. So pointedly not serving those beers, or London Pride, or Butcombe Bitter, was a good way for Proper Craft places to signal their intent: there’s no Peroni here, only Camden Hells; we don’t have Guinness, try this Thornbridge stout; and we certainly don’t sell any of The Usual Suspect boring brown bitters. Then, that made sense. Then, we welcomed it.

But now, that point doesn’t need hammering home and so perhaps it’s time to let Fuller’s, Taylor’s, Harvey’s, Hook Norton (def. 1) et al back into the party.

We’d be quite happy to see London Pride, Landlord or Sussex Best, in really top condition, as part of the offer at the Craft Beer Company.

Or at a BrewDog bar.

[Exit left, pelted with tomatoes.]

A Brief History of Beer Weeks

It’s Sheffield Beer Week this week (14-22 March) which got us thinking about beer weeks in general — where did they come from, what are they for, and where are they going?

In the UK arguably the original beer week is Norwich City of Ale, which first took place in May 2011. It involves mini-festivals in pubs across the city featuring breweries from the region, and special events designed to create a buzz such as tasters of beer being given out in the street. It was the brain-child of lecturer Dawn Leeder and publican Phil Cutter, AKA ‘Murderers Phil’. As Dawn Leeder recalls there was no particular inspiration except perhaps, obliquely, Munich’s Oktoberfest. Its launch was covered by an enthusiastic Roger Protz in this article for Beer Pages which concludes with a call to action:

It’s an initiative that could and should be taken up other towns and cities in Britain with a good range of pubs, craft breweries and a public transport network. Nottingham and Sheffield, with their tram systems, spring to mind.

Red Routemaster bus with Norwich City of Ale livery.
Norwich City of Ale promotional bus, 2013. SOURCE: Norwich City of Ale website.

Glasgow’s beer week first ran in 2011. It was inspired equally by US beer weeks and by the Glasgow Beer and Pub Project organised by Eric Steen in 2010, a six-week arts and culture event which culminated with a home-brewing event in a pop-up pub. Glasgow Beer Week co-organiser Robbie Pickering recalls some of the difficulties faced by amateur volunteers:

We had our disasters, like the time we managed to schedule a meet-the-brewer in a pub where a live band was playing on the same night. I am very lucky that brewer still speaks to me. I am still proud of some of the events we put on even if hardly anyone came to them. We did the first beer and cheese tasting in Glasgow and the first UK screening of the US Michael Jackson documentary, and got Ron Pattinson over to speak about British lager together with people from the Scottish Brewing Archive Association. And I have a lifetime’s supply of beautiful letterpress beer mats with a spelling error.

It ran for three years the last being in 2013:

I think GBW collapsed in the end because of lack of interest. After the first year most of the other people involved had moved away and I was left running around on my own… I announced the dates for 2014 before deciding not to go ahead with it. Nobody ever asked what had happened to it which kind of suggests it was the right decision.

From our distant vantage point it also seemed to bring to a head tensions in Glasgow’s beer community with expressions of ill-feeling still being expressed via social media three years later.

Robbie Pickering sees some positives in it, however: the kinds of events that the Beer Week was built around now occur organically and frequently in Glasgow negating the need for a special event.

In 2012, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ran a London City of Beer celebration piggybacking on the surge in visitors to the capital during the Olympic Games. But it was two months long, not a week, and didn’t turn into an annual event.

The next British city to get a beer week proper was Bristol. It launched in October 2013 when, having bubbled under as a beer destination for a few years beforehand, the city was just on the cusp of a boom in specialist bars and breweries. The initial idea came from Lee Williams who was born in Bristol but lived in the US for ten years where he ran a blog, Hoptopia, and wrote a guidebook called Beer Lover’s Colorado. When he returned to Bristol to work in the beer industry he brought with him experience of several US beer weeks and suggested the idea of running something similar to a friend and fellow beer blogger, Stephen Powell.

Bristol Beer Week featured more mini-festivals, talks, tastings and special one-off beers brewed in collaboration with beer writers who duly plugged the event.

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Modern Pubmanship 6: Jukeboxes

This is the sixth in an occasional series of guest posts by etiquette expert R.M. Banks.

Not all public houses are enhanced by the addition of a jukebox. Some do quite well with the gentle avant-garde percussion provided by a burning log or two in the grate; others lack the acoustic qualities so that the addition of recorded music brings to mind someone falling downstairs while carrying a tin bath full of squeaky dog toys.

On the whole, though, I am personally all for them. Oh, yes, you can count me as a fee-paying member of the Juke Box Appreciation Society. I am always happy to kick in a quid for the pleasure of hearing five of the gramophone industry’s finest efforts, or two quid the dozen for that matter. A well husbanded juke-box, stuffed to the coin-slots with the right stuff, brings joie de vivre where once glum silence lay heavy as suet pudding; it lifts as it brightens as it shines!

Of course there are pitfalls.

First, there is the matter of good taste. If you were to flip through my record cabinet you would likely scoff, perhaps mock, or even come to look up on the very basis of our friendship with jaundiced eye. And the reverse would likely be true. Consider, then, a public bar containing, let us say, 30 people – what are the chances that all will be equally enthused upon hearing, to pick an example quite at random, the surging of the Hammond organ at the commencement of ‘Stop in the Name of Love’? Up to a point, this cannot be helped: a jukebox containing only songs that no one dislikes would be like a hospital meal of steamed fish and boiled potatoes. The soundest advice is to avoid the deep end of the pool – songs containing full-throated Scandinavian metal screaming, dischord intended to evoke mans inhumanity to man, treated piano, laxative basslines, children’s choirs, and so on. Jukebox songs ought to elicit a tapping of the foot, perhaps a gay whistle, but oughtn’t interfere with the conversation.

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