QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.

QUICK ONE: Hyped/Ignored

Beautiful beer glass.

There have been a few times in the last year or so where we’ve seen a beer referred to as ‘hyped’ when we’ve literally only heard it mentioned once or twice.

Then the other day we saw someone complaining that a beer they liked had been ‘ignored’ and something seemed to click: is this all about a handful of prominent voices on social media?

The person we immediately thought of is Matt Curtis who has his own blog at Total Ales and also writes for Good Beer Hunting among other outlets. He was the first person we noticed mentioning Mills Brewing, for example, and literally within an hour or so of him doing so we saw someone complain that they were being hyped.

Two things bother us about this.

First, what’s Matt meant to do? Taste every beer in the UK and give each brewery equal airtime? He likes some beer more than other beer, some breweries more than others, and ought to be allowed to express a preference.

Then there’s the abdication of responsibility. As we’ve said several times now, don’t moan that no-one is blogging about a brewery you think is interesting — write about it yourself! If you don’t like how prominent a beer or brewery is, don’t contribute to that prominence by going on about it. And if you think a beer is being ignored, let people know about it.

Hype isn’t something you have to endure — it’s something you can create too.

Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful

Illustration: "Criticism". (Mouth spouting critical jargon.)

The debate about whether bad reviews help or hinder never goes away.

Broadly speaking there are two points of view:

1. Publicly criticising breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by harming struggling independent breweries in particular. And, anyway, it’s more fun to concentrate on writing about things you like — do these miseries who moan constantly actually even like beer?

2. Only writing positively about breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by depressing expectations of the quality of beer from small, independent breweries in particular. And anyway, cheery-beery Everything is Awesome writing is boring — how can you trust someone who apparently never encounters a bad beer?

We linked to posts broadly aligned to each of those arguments in Saturday’s news round up but there are plenty of others. Here’s Jenn at Under the Influence, for example, arguing in favour of emphasising the positive.

We think that the tension comes from the difference between the general and the specific. Brewer X might agree in the abstract that honesty is the best policy, and that consumers ought to be demanding, perhaps on the assumption (subconscious or otherwise) that such a culture will favour their lovingly-made beer over lesser products. By all means, expose those charlatans!

But when Blogger Y states bluntly that, actually, Brewer X’s beer isn’t much good, it’s hard for Brewer X not to respond by kicking the wastebasket. Don’t they know how hard we work? Don’t they know how tough the market is?

If there’s a downside to negative beer reviews beyond that unpleasant thump to the chest for the brewer it’s that they might contribute to some hive-mindery, leading people to mindlessly dismiss a beer they would otherwise have enjoyed. But we think that influence is actually more likely to go the other way, generating positive responses to beers that aren’t really that amazing.

Meanwhile, at their best, what bad reviews can offer is a kick up the bum. We’re certain that, even if they play it cool, there are some breweries out there whose response to a run of criticism has been to review their approach and up their game.

Bad reviews also increase the value of good reviews: if everything is great, then nothing is great.

On balance, we think people should review beer in whichever way they feel comfortable — there are audiences for both approaches after all. We’re going to keep being as honest as we can, which means being disappointed more often than not, but we won’t judge anyone else for doing otherwise.

What really matters, and what really is good for the industry, is the idea that beer is worth thinking, talking and writing about, whether negatively or positively.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading we’ve particularly enjoyed in the last week, with a connecting thread about the fate of family brewers.

Commentators have now had time to digest the news of the sales of the Charles Wells brewery to Marston’s. Our pick of the analysis is this piece by Roger Protz in which he argues that we should be worried about this development, and the threat of more to come:

In a fast-changing beer world, family brewers feel crushed between the national brewers and the growing army of craft beer makers… Belinda Sutton, née Elgood, managing director of Elgood’s in Wisbech, told me in an interview that she was under intense pressure from Adnams and Greene King along with a number of new micro-breweries in the Fenland region. Elgood’s qualifies for Progressive Beer Duty: family brewers who don’t benefit from duty relief are really under the cosh.

For balance, though, there’s a similarly authoritative view from Martyn Cornell who argues that there isn’t much to worry about in this particular case:

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve…

Our view, in case you’re interested, is that it’s right to be wary per Mr Protz. Breweries in this category can feel dominant and even come across as bullies at a local level but they’re actually often rather vulnerable to predators. It wouldn’t take much for the last few to topple leaving us with complete polarisation between post-1970s microbreweries and national or multi-national giants. This middle ground  — breweries with chimneys and dray horses — is an important strand of British beer culture and it would be a shame to see it disappear.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 27 May 2017: Breweries, Books and the Bass Stink”

Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion

Two cloudy beers in fancy glasses.
Cloudwater NE DIPA (left) and BrewDog Vermont IPA V4.

The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy — it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.

We’ve kept our minds open until now pushing back against the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of principle. We wrote about Moor, the brewery that pioneered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Britannia, highlighting that, whatever you think of the trend, it wasn’t something Justin Hawke embarked on carelessly — it came out of personal preference and experimentation. Then for CAMRA’s quarterly BEER magazine last year we pulled together various bits of evidence underlining that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among connoisseurs and, indeed, has sometimes been seen as a mark of quality.

But at the same time — on the fence as ever — we’ve maintained a certain scepticism about the hazy, hoppy beers we’ve actually encountered in real life. We’ve continued looking for chances to drink IPAs with cloudiness as a flagship feature, especially anything labelled Vermont or NE IPA, trying to understand.

At BrewDog Bristol on Friday we were able to drink two different takes side by side — the first time this opportunity has ever presented itself — and in so doing, something clicked.

BrewDog draught beer menu.

BrewDog Vermont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth experimental iteration and struck us instantly as overwhelmingly sweet — like a cornershop canned mango drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, gritty or musty. It was clean, within its own parameters. Cloudwater NE Double IPA with Mosaic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incredibly similar clearly drawing on the same source of inspiration but better and more complex: pineapple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sickly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoyable with the bitterness dialled right up to compensate for the muffling effect of the yeast haze, and to balance the fruitiness. Or, we suppose, with the haze dialled down to let the bitterness through.

Fortunately, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Vermont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milkiness of the previous two beers. The barman told us it was the first batch of the successor to the numbered V series. There was a snatch of garlicky armpit aroma we could have done without but, overall, it was just the mix of soft tropical lushness and diamond-hard bitterness that we were after. It was very good and proof, perhaps, that systematic batch-by-batch experimentation with customer feedback can pay off.

Back to the New England style, then: is purpose of the suspended yeast stuff (protein more than yeast — thanks, Emma) to soften and dull the bitterness? If so, and assuming that both BrewDog and Cloudwater know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone American originals, we can certainly see the appeal. Bitterness can be challenging, spiky, hard to love; whereas sweetness and fruitiness are accessible, easygoing characteristics. Good fun. Soft sells.

So, we’re now convinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing — a perfectly legitimate, interesting, coherent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than thinking of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re never going to be fans — not with our frazzled middle-aged palates — but, as with some other marginal beer styles, will certainly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of variety.

Side notes

We also got to try Verdant Headband (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at BrewDog and found it much better than the cans, although still rather one-dimensional. Again, more bitterness might have filled a hole here.

And the beer of the session — the only one that really knocked our socks off — was Cloudwater’s Double India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing traditionalists invent when satirising craft beer but, in fact, was an extremely happy marriage of traditions. Depending on your angle of view it is either (a) a characterful bock with a livening twist of citrus or (b) a pleasingly clean, crystalline, well-mannered IPA.

It was, suffice to say, perfectly clear.