Bad news: this is a blog post about blog posting. There’ll be a post that’s actually about beer later today. If you choose to read on, don’t say we didn’t warn you!
We’ve been reflecting lately on our tendency to self-censor. We used to shelve posts quite frequently, finished and illustrated, because, at the last minute, we found ourselves anticipating a bad-tempered response and couldn’t be bothered to face it.
Once again, we find ourselves struggling to summon what is apparently the appropriate level of outrage as the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) award is announced by the Campaign for Real Ale.
It’s an important competition which can tip a brewery over into the big time, sure, but it’s not the Word of God.
If you accept that, of the thousands in production, it’s legitimate to name a single beer The Best, then there’s no reason we can see to be angry that the award has gone to Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker, aka Best Bitter.
Now, we get as bored as anyone of entering pubs and finding three ubiquitous and underwhelming bitters on offer, and we have to admit that we did hope something a bit sexier might win for once — the pale’n’hoppy Oakham Citra, universally loved in the Blogoshire, which came in second place, for example.
We’ve not had Boltmaker, as far as we can recall, but we suspect we’d probably enjoy it. Two of our most fondly-remembered pub sessions have been on Timothy Taylor beer — one in Haworth, and another at the Bricklayer’s Arms in Putney — and it can be transcendently wonderful, in that subtle, indescribable way that regional brewers sometimes achieve. (See also: the Batham’s.)
Perhaps that’s how Boltmaker tasted today? Enthusiasm on the part of the judges certainly seems a more likely than a sinister conspiracy aimed at the suppression of ‘craft’.
(Having said that, we’ll certainly be filing today’s result in the memory banks for next time someone claims traditional bitters are some kind of endangered species that don’t get enough attention…)
The Great British Beer Festival runs until Saturday 16 August.
I think there are a couple of important points you haven’t discussed in it, as, not surprisingly you haven’t really looked at it through the brewer(s)y eyes.
Firstly, there is unbelievable demands from bars/pubs/restaurants/festivals for brewery appearances at anything and everything. We say no to way more than 50 per cent and yet do an event or two pretty much every week. You get quite practised at public appearances, and therefore most people get pretty good at doing them. Often the shy guy ends up doing it when no one else can!
Secondly, most of the small breweries you talk about struggle to get by (paying themselves below average salaries) and use these sorts of events as their main marketing tool. It’s a way to connect with the public and compete against the big boys with the only tool that they have at their disposal — themselves and their story. With social media helping to carry that message.
I personally don’t think people get in to brewing to get ‘famous’ even in a weird beery way, but if you happen to be good at standing up in front of people, you will be asked to do it again and again.
Some food for thought.
We should clarify that we don’t fundamentally have a problem with ‘meet the brewer’ events, as long as the ability to brew great beer remains more important than star quality.
We live in strange times when brewers have their own television shows, sign autographs and form super-groups.
For most of the last few hundred years, insofar as anyone cared who was brewing their beer, they probably assumed it was the bloke whose name was on the bottles — Mr Whitbread, or Mr Boddington.
Then, in the 1970s, along came microbreweries. What made them news was often the stories of the people involved. A great part of the appeal of the Litchborough Brewery, launched in 1974, was the tale of an individual, Bill Urquhart, pushing back against the monolithic, literally ‘faceless’ might of the Big Six. Working at Watney’s, he had been part of the machine behind the red façade, but when newspapers wrote about Litchborough it was Bill they were interested in.
At a time when there was an active struggle between consumers (enthusiasts) and big brewing concerns, it was also another way to needle the secretive big-wigs of the Brewers’ Society. As far as they were concerned, the names of their brewers, like the alcoholic strength and ingredients, were not really any of the public’s business. Microbreweries were more transparent.
Alongside that came the rise of beer writing as we know it, through the pages of the Campaign for Real Ale’s What’s Brewing magazine, and the work of Richard Boston and Michael Jackson. This new art form (chortle) needed people and personalities if it was to be anything other than dry.
So far so good: consumer power, sticking it to the man, and something to read on the bog.
Where it might have gone wrong
At some point, personality-led marketing became ‘a thing’ and almost every product on the supermarket shelf now has to bear a signed personal message from the company’s CEO explaining how passionately they believe in sliced white bread or curry sauce. Investors want to know what the story is, and who will be the face of a ‘brand’, before they open their wallets.
Beer is no exception.
As a result, the bar has been raised for serious geeks. Where they might once have been happy name-dropping, they now expect to be able to hang out with and interrogate those who make their favourite beers.
This is a culture which disadvantages those who aren’t natural performers, even if they’re demons in the brewhouse. On our recent book tour, we heard more than one story of awkward meet-the-brewer events — “He’s obviously cripplingly shy and there were lots of long awkward pauses. He didn’t want to be there.” But (massive generalisation) aren’t those are just the kind of people who are really good at focusing their attention, managing processes and achieving consistency?
Meanwhile, a handful of photogenic show-offs get more attention than perhaps they deserve, turning out beers which are too often advertisements in liquid form, conceived primarily with column-inches in mind. Advertisements that, apparently, people pay for.
The cult of personality doesn’t work for us — it emphasises presentation over product, and contributes to a culture where it can feel as if you’re not really into beer if you haven’t hung out with Greg Koch at a BrewDog shareholder meeting.
But a return to faceless monolith-ery isn’t what we want, either.
As a consumer, it can be helpful to know a bit about the brewers for various reasons. If you’ve got a name, then you can be reasonably sure it’s not being made in the Ukraine, shipped by tanker and re-badged. If Stuart ‘Magic Rock’ Ross took a job as head brewer at Greene King, for example, we’d be interested in the results. When a beloved brewery’s beer dips in quality, staff changes are often the reason. (Maybe the brewer-as-chef analogy makes sense after all.)
And, please, let’s not ruin beer writing for the sake of denying the oxygen of publicity to blowhards. We like reading articles about people, whatever their profession, so why wouldn’t we also enjoy such stories which have the bonus of added beer?
Without mincing his words, he set out his irritation at finding a beer from an American brewer he admires in his local Spoons, where the punters are more interested, as he sees it, in value than quality:
Hop perverts in the UK would more than likely happily part with £10 for a can of [Heady Topper]… So with this in mind why has [John] Kimmich come to the UK and brewed a beer with Adnams to an almost minimal fuss?
His comments have raised hackles, and prompted accusations of snobbery, as daring to criticise Spoons tends to do, though a couple of lines did make us wince, especially “I imagine 99.9% of Wetherspoons customers have never heard the name John Kimmich before”. (We’ve never heard of him either.)
But the more interesting question is about how cult US brewers go about cracking the UK market.
In his responses to sometimes bad-tempered comments, Matt has elaborated on what makes him feel uneasy, and it seems to boil down to an idea imported from the world of music: that the most devoted fans ought to get first dibs on tickets, exclusive material, and their idols’ attention. (With apologies to Matt if we’ve read that incorrectly.)
We wonder if Kimmich even knows he has fans in the UK who were desperate to be serviced? Next time he’s in the UK, perhaps he’ll find time for them as well as for Spoons.
Or perhaps he thought brewing a beer especially for the UK market, to be made available on every high street at less than £3 a pint, would be enough? American beer geeks are probably green with envy.
And everyone hates DNA
On a related note, we’ve been observing the ongoing car-crash that is Dogfish Head’s ‘collaboration’ with Charles Wells. Though it’s been around for a while, its distribution seems to have expanded in the last month or so (has it appeared in Tesco?) leading to lots of this:
Matters of taste aside (it sounds dreadful but we haven’t tried it) why have Dogfish Head, who have a certain amount of ‘craft credibility’, chosen to pair up with a UK brewery more-or-less reviled by UK beer geeks, to produce something that’s more about logistics than flavour?(IPA concentrate shipped to the UK and watered down in Bedfordshire.)
The problem isn’t mass distribution and affordability — it’s when compromises made to achieve those aims lumber consumers with sub-standard products, and possibly do long-term damage to breweries’ brands.