Category Archives: opinion

Cruzcampo beer mascot, Toledo, Spain.

Breaking the Cycle of Recommendation

In the comments on this post last week, a side debate broke out about whether people ought to research a town’s beer scene before visiting, rather than hoping to stumble upon a good pub or bar.

A similar conversation, with a more hysterical tone, followed Pete Brown’s post about Chesterfield earlier in the year.

It’s obviously a bit rich to dismiss a town or city as having nowhere good to drink if you haven’t done any research (although that certainly wasn’t Mr Brown’s point) but playing it by ear from time to time can be both fun and illuminating.

The risk to relying on the guidance of others is that the loop can end up closing: everyone goes to the same handful of famous places, drinks the same few ‘must try’ beers, ends up writing more-or-less the same articles and blog posts, and then makes the same recommendations when they’re asked. The same places end up appearing in listicles and guide books, often for years after they’ve lost their lustre.

By all means carry out research before your trip, but do also leave a little time to explore, and to follow your instincts — you might find a new place struggling for custom but destined to be the next big thing; or stumble upon a great pub that no-one recommends because the beer is terrible; or just get really under the skin of the town you’re visiting.

You might even strike-out completely and end up back in the hotel bar, but that’s fine, too: if every single drinking session is ‘world class’, none of them are.

Sinclair C5.

100 WORDS: Yes, That Must Be It

We drank it on the wrong day, in the wrong way, in the wrong place.

We drank it too cool, too warm, too soon, too late. We got a bad bottle, from a bad batch, from a bad source. Our glasses were dirty, our palates fatigued. The moon was full, an east wind was blowing, and there was an R in the month.

We’re prejudiced, stupid, closed-minded, and probably liars, too.

Taste is subjective, anyway, and wouldn’t it be boring if we all liked the same things?

Yes, that must be it — that must be why we didn’t like your beer.

Beer on a pedestal.

Pretentious and Complicated

“I like to reward myself by trying different, flavourful beers, but I’m intimidated by most craft beers because they’re too pretentious and complicated.”

Those are the words ascribed to an imaginary beer consumer by those responsible for marketing AB-InBev’s Shock Top in Canada, as revealed in a leaked document shared by Ben T. Johnson yesterday.

Johnson is outraged that the marketing strategy apparently relies on fooling ill-informed, well-intentioned consumers into buying what they think is the product of a small independent brewery. Broadly speaking, we agree, at least on the issue of transparency: of course there’s nothing wrong with big breweries attempting to ‘do’ craft, but misleading consumers by failing to clearly declare ownership of the brand is rotten behaviour.

What really interested us, however, is the idea that there’s an unexploited middle-ground between so-called ‘macro gak’ and full-on, high-falutin Craft Beer, capital C, capital B.

There’s long been a balancing act in beer — or, if you like, a tension. On the one hand, some in the industry, along with serious enthusiasts, feel aggrieved that beer is treated as second class, simplistic and unworthy. They believe that it deserves the same kind of infrastructure of connoisseurship as wine — books, magazine columns, arcane lore, celebrities, vintages, sommeliers, a place at the dinner table, specialist tasting glasses and rituals, and so on.

But elevate it too far and, suddenly, it’s inaccessible and over-complicated: “If you’re not going to take this seriously, please don’t bother!” (Perhaps this is what we were getting at with yesterday’s post.)

The AB-InBev/Labatt document describes Shock Top as a ‘fun, flavourful craft brand’, and perhaps that’s a bandwagon Craft Beer should jump on: fun doesn’t need to mean dumb; and respecting beer doesn’t have to mean putting it on a pedestal.

Sort of Not Our Problem

Thermometers and temperature illustration.

How important is it to store and serve beer at the exact temperature prescribed by the brewer?

That’s the question that we were left asking ourselves after discussion around last Friday’s porter tasting post.

The fact is, we don’t have an elaborately constructed ‘cellar’, and we don’t have thermometers on hand for every stage of the process.

What we do have is a kitchen with a shady corner the temperature of which barely changes; and a fridge. We don’t let beer get hot or freeze, and we protect it from light.

In practice, we give those that we think need chilling an hour or two in the fridge; otherwise, we serve straight from the shelf. If a beer we’ve chilled tastes bland, we let it warm up in case that might reveal hidden depths.

And that’s about it.

Serving temperature should not make or break a beer. Some beers might taste better served within a particular range, but they shouldn’t taste disgusting, gush everywhere, or have no condition whatsoever if served otherwise, surely?

Clean glasses on the other hand…

The phrase ‘beer clean’ has a smugness about it that makes our toes curl, but there is something in it: serving a beer from a glass that’s anything less than gleaming can instantly kill it, or at least cause it to pour fizzy and headless.

We always clean our glasses just before serving, giving them a good dose of washing up liquid, a scrub with a clean sponge, a thorough rinse with piping hot water, before a final rinse with cold water.

If a beer has no head after that, it’s not our fault.

BrewDog are the Big Dog

Vintage-style lightbulb pictured in BrewDog, Sheffield.

Some people might not like to hear it, but the fact is, BrewDog are interesting and important.

That is the main reason why people (including us) just cannot help talking about them.

Of course it also helps that they have the will and the means to court beer writers and bloggers, and a well-drilled army of staff on social media, but even those who are scornful of the ‘pooches’ apparently feel compelled to pick at the scab.

If we had to pick one brewery to symbolise everything that’s happened in British beer in the last decade, it would probably be BrewDog. When established breweries decide to ‘do craft’, it is more often that not the boys from Fraserburgh they have in mind:

In an interview with James Hurley in The Times this week (thanks for the heads up, John West), BrewDog founder James Watt set out plans to become even bigger:

“We love the chaos of fast growth,” Mr Watt says. “If we don’t have that, we’re not pushing hard enough… You’ll laugh at me, but we want to list for £1 billion in five years’ time… We’ve got the road map with annual targets. We think it’s an achievable objective.”

As part of the plan, Watt says, the company is maturing, and toning down the combative rhetoric. That’s a relief for boring bastards like us, but we wonder what those who enjoy combative rhetoric will make of it? And where does this fit in?

At any rate, BrewDog is well on its way to becoming a household name, if something we overheard in a pub the other day is anything to go by:

I’ll just have a lager. Carlsberg, or that Korev. Oh, wait, no — have they got my favourite lager? That Punk IPA?

UPDATE 04/09/2014: how close BrewDog are to being a household name is hard to measure but this Google Trends graph gives a clue: it compares the volume of searches from the UK for Marston’s, Greene King, Stella Artois, Magic Rock and Walker’s crisps. BrewDog, who have never run a national TV ad campaign, are up there with the big brands.