Accessibility, or Why People Don’t Like Beer

Detail from old beer label: BITTER ALE.

A bit of discussion broke out in the comments on Monday’s post about what is or is not ‘accessible’ beer.

When we were first getting into beer as young twenty-somethings it was via Greene King IPA, Leffe, Erdinger and Hoegaarden, all of which are considered bland by modern standards. For us, they were just stimulating enough without being scary. (We still like Hoegaarden, the others less so.) In our experience, then, there is definitely something in the idea of so-called gateway beers.

But we also know people who didn’t show any interest in beer until they’d tried a really hoppy IPA. In their own way, a different way, they are gateway beers too: as well as being extravagant and flowery, they are often also on the sweet side, whatever the raw IBU data might suggest. Balanced, if you like, only with lots on both sides of the scale. If your palate is used to cocktails, spirits, wine, cider, coffee or other strongly-flavoured drinks, they don’t necessarily seem overly intense or alcoholic, while at the same time challenging ideas of what beer has to be.

(Thinner session-strength beers with lots of hops, on the other hand, can be a challenge, with little body or sweetness to protect the tastebuds from sheer sap-sucking dryness — it took us a while to get used to pale’n’hoppy, which is now pretty much our favourite thing in the world.)

When people tell you they don’t like beer, what reasons do they give? We tend to hear:

  1. It’s too bitter!’ Even of quite sweet beers, so we’re not always sure it’s actually bitterness they mean. ‘Brownness’, maybe? Or perhaps just a general nasty staleness.
  2. ‘It’s too much — I get bloated and sleepy.’ A matter of volume. People still don’t feel comfortable ordering halves and, when they do, they’re often poorly presented. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, people also seem to find fizzier beers less soporific, and more refreshing.
  3. ‘I’m just not a beer person’, or variations thereon. If you’re trying to portray a glamorous riviera lifestyle on Instagram or Facebook, beer doesn’t seem to quite cut it.

So accessible beer, for many people, might be relatively low in (perceived) bitterness, possibly served in smaller measures, and attractively presented (glassware or packaging). And for others who recoil at ‘fanciness’ it might mean a pint of Doom Bar, which we find utterly boring, but which it turns out has a lot of very sincere, even evangelistic fans.

Which explains a lot about supermarkets and multi-nationals are taking these days — not, perhaps, a race to the bottom but a race for the accessible end of the market.

Session #116: Slightly Wrong Gose is Better Than No Gose

Gose, an obscure German beer style, has become a (small scale, low-key) battleground, and we’re not sure why.

Derrick Peterman is hosting the 116th edition of The Session where beer bloggers around the world post on one topic. This month, Derrick says:

Want to talk about the history of the Gose?  How about how American breweries are taking this style and running wild with it with different spice and fruit additions?  How else has the Gose manifested itself outside its German homeland?  Is the Gose here to stay or will it go the way of the Black IPA, once the hot style but slowly becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity?

We first encountered Gose in The Bible, AKA The Great Beer Guide by Michael Jackson. Back in 2008, when this blog was a year and half old, we travelled across Germany to the Czech Republic, stopping off in snowy Goslar and Leipzig on the way. So, before we’d ever tasted a fancified craft beer take on Gose, we had a good go on as near as there is to the real thing, at source.

We liked it, though some takes were better than others. It reminded us of a quirky cousin of Belgian wheat beer, and we like Wit, even, or maybe especially, Hoegaarden. (We realise this gets us thrown out of both The World Kraft Klub and the Ain’t Wot It Used to Be Society of Great Britain but we cannot lie.) Ritterguts had a bit more to it being a bit more tart. But, in general, what German Gose isn’t in the 21st Century is a deeply profound, complex, challenging beer: it’s a fun refresher, no more tangy than a can of Fanta, no saltier than a Jacob’s cream cracker, and with coriander present but hardly obtrusive.

For a long time Gose’s big champion was Ron Pattinson who called for the salvation of this endangered style while providing history lessons and setting some standards along the way. But the exuberant UK craft movement, focused primarily on IPAs and other hop-led styles, took a while to respond.

A breakthrough moment was the arrival of Magic Rock Salty Kiss in February 2013, brewed by Giada Maria Simioni (who has since left Magic Rock) in collaboration with Anders Kissmeyer. We don’t know that it’s the first example of a UK-brewed Gose — almost certainly not — but it was the one that made a splash. Magic Rock were, and still are, one of the buzziest breweries around and gave Gose a contemporary twist with the addition of sea buckthorn, rosehips and English gooseberries.

A can of Salty Kiss, close up.

We first tasted Salty Kiss in Sheffield in the summer of 2013 and, from the off, loved it. We’ve liked every variation we’ve tried — they’ve messed around with different fruits from time to time and tinkered with the recipe — and it’s become one of those beers we like to keep in the fridge at all times, if possible. If you’ve never had it you might imagine from the gloriously garish graphic design and the description that it is bright pink and tastes like fruit juice. It isn’t, and doesn’t: those additives are seasonings, not flavourings, and it really doesn’t seem hugely different to the beers we drank in eastern Germany eight years ago.

We tested that judgement recently when we got hold of some bottles of Bayerischer Bahnhof Gose from Beers of Europe. It was great, in that bright uncomplicated way — the kind of thing it would be a pleasure to drink from the bottle with a barbecue on a hot day. Salty Kiss is in the same territory but dialled up just a notch or two, arguably better, certainly no worse. It tastes how Gose tastes, it isn’t some sick mutation.

So when we read that Ron regrets wishing for more Goses (because everyone is getting it wrong, as we read it), or Ed being disgusted by Salty Kiss, or Alan describing most modern Gose as ‘Gatorade alcopop’, we feel a bit downhearted. Is their distaste about beer, or beer culture? We agree that a few more straight Goses without fruit and other sprinkles would be nice but, still, this feels like at least the beginning of a success story — a beer style so neglected it nearly disappeared altogether is now nearing ubiquity! As with IPA, getting people excited and engaged about the idea — letting them have fun — is step one. Getting the history right, at least at the sharp-end, in the brewhouse, can come later.

Smoke Signals: We’re Not Stuck in the Mud, Honest!

Moor brewery wall sign: 'No fish guts.'

In recent weeks the Campaign for Real Ale has been sending coded signals: it isn’t hidebound or dogmatic, it can change, it is hip to where it’s at, Daddy-O.

First there was this press release referencing an article in the latest edition of the Good Beer Guide:

A growing number of brewers are looking at alternatives to isinglass as a clearing or ‘fining’ agent in their beers, the 2017 Good Beer Guide (GBG), published by the Campaign for Real Ale, CAMRA, reports. Isinglass is made from the swim bladders of fish – and as more and more drinkers today are vegetarians and vegans, brewers are looking at alternative ways to serve crystal clear pints.

The press release, and the article to which it refers, aren’t calling for more unfined beer (though the former does quote Roger Protz seeming to do so) but that’s certainly how the BBC and other outlets reported it. (Later corrected.) The reason, we suspect, that CAMRA’s communications staff got so especially annoyed at this misrepresentation is because they laboured hard behind the scenes to get a message that all the key players were happy with. This is the kind of thing politicians deal with all the time: ‘I think it’s time to consider whether oranges might not deserve a place in the fruit bowl alongside apples, in certain circumstances,’ says the Minister; MINISTER SLAMS OUR GREAT BRITISH APPLE reads the headline. Because carefully composed, nuanced messages are rarely news.

The real point was intended to be, we think, that (a) CAMRA knows about this stuff on the outer fringes of ‘craft beer’; (b) it acknowledges that good beer can be made this made way; and (c) it is watching with keen interest and an open attitude.

On a similar note was last week’s announcement that, for the first time, a canned beer has been certified as ‘real ale’ by the Campaign’s technical committee. At the most basic level this is a statement of fact — the TC counted yeast cells in the packaged product and gave it the thumbs up — but of course it’s much more than that. In 2016, cans are a ‘craft’ thing, and certainly seem to dominate the crafty end of our Twitter feed, and this is about CAMRA finding a way to connect with that constituency. We don’t think it’s too much to describe it as a gesture of friendship. (But craft cynics might see it as co-opting or Dad dancing, while real ale hard-liners will see pandering.)

Here’s something we said in our big Brew Britannia follow-up blog post in 2015, in relation to the decision that beer in key-keg could be considered real ale under certain circumstances:

[That’s] how we expect CAMRA to play this in the years to come – slow change without big announcements – merely the occasional sounding of a dog whistle through selected channels. That way, they will hope to avoid scaring away conservative members many of whom (not all) also happen to be older and therefore, for various reasons, make up the bulk of the active membership.

That still holds true but perhaps the whistles are getting more frequent and more audible?

Who is Selling Beer ‘Too Cheap’?

Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

Some breweries sell beer so cheap that it’s impossible for decent outfits to compete.

That’s an argument we’ve heard multiple times in the last couple of years, usually without naming names, because, as one brewer put it, ‘lawyers are expensive’.

At the more innocent end, it’s breweries making the cheapest beer possible, without particular regard for quality, hoping to scrape a profit by selling a lot of beer on narrow margins. We think that’s primarily what the then MD of Moorhouse’s was getting at here:

The ever increasing number of new brewers entering the growing cask-ale market, he says, has led to some ‘micros’ using Progressive Beer Duty (PBD) tax relief to sell beer at rock bottom price – rather than invest for the future. PBD, a sliding scale of duty, was introduced in 2002 to help small brewers compete.

Spend any amount of time in one area of the country or another and you’ll learn to spot the local bargain brewery: they’re the ones that always crop up in the pubs with FOR SALE signs outside, where the publican is on the phone having a pleading conversation with a creditor, with vultures circling. They’re fodder for Real Ale Pubs that can’t really afford to offer a choice of cask but also can’t afford not to, and that’s can’t get away with charging (ballpark) more than £3 a pint.

In our experience, though, this bargain beer might well taste fine, especially if it’s been looked after well and you’re prepared to accept straightforward over stunning. From the research we’ve been doing in the last year or two we’ve learned that the market has always demanded a range of price points, even at the price of quality: in Liverpool in the early 20th Century, for example, Bent’s was the bargain brewery whose beer was as rough as its pubs, and that served a need. And if cheap breweries disappeared overnight these pubs and their customers wouldn’t suddenly have lots of extra money to spend on painstakingly perfect ales full of Citra or Sorachi Ace — they’d just give up on ale altogether.

We don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, other than that, if you’re the kind of person that worries about The Industry or the health of cask ale culture, it doesn’t do much to win over those who find real ale bland and/or mildly unsavoury.

But then there are the suggestions of outright dodginess: selling beer off the books; offering two casks for the price of one; selling outdated beer, and so on. Dave Bailey of Hardknott expressed his frustration about that kind of thing here:

[Reduced scrutiny by government] is a clear signal to go ahead and pretend that beer is being destroyed, when in fact it is being sold ‘without paperwork’ for cash, no questions asked. Beer duty and VAT no doubt being evaded. I know quite a few business friends that think this is not only OK, but the only thing that can keep a business alive in a tough competitive time. After all, it’d be doing the beer drinker a service by getting the cost of their pint down.

Yvan Seth, who works as a beer distributor, commented on last week’s placeholding post with more of the same:

There are some out there who will offer you an extra cask, off the paperwork, as an incentive to put in an order. This is so clearly dodgy that the general suspicion is that these casks are off the books everywhere – no duty, no VAT, etc. And you probably have to be a bit dodgy yourself to even be offered this.

That really does sound bad, and clearly offers an unfair advantage, but if people in the industry know and seem to know who the culprits are (we don’t just mean Dave and Yvan — there’s lots of gossip on social media) we have to ask… Why is it still happening?

Session #115: The Role of Beer Books

For the 115th Session Joan Villar-i-Martí at Birraire has asked us to consider the role of beer books.

Breaking News: you can drink and enjoy beer without ever reading a word about it, except perhaps what’s written on the label.

For us, books are hugely important, because somehow we’ve ended up as (small h, kind-of, amateur) historians. We had no idea five or six years ago how many books about beer and pubs had been written, and how obscure the specific subjects they cover. Without books, we wouldn’t know what mild tasted like before World War I, how many spittoons there were in a typical Bolton pub in 1937, or was head brewer at Usher’s of Trowbridge in 1966. (G.H. Leek.)

Brewery Manual, 1966.But that’s us and our needs, let’s face it, are slightly different to most beer drinkers, even the very keen ones, many of whom would (and did) agree with this most recent expression of a common sentiment:

As we’ve written one and are working on another, we’d love beer books to be essential and important to the business of drinking beer, but the fact is, they’re not.

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