Category Archives: opinion

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.

Blogging About Blogging: Speak Your Brains!

Pipe, hat and pint.

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.

Click to enter the navel…

Failure to be Outraged

timothy_taylor_474

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.

But, like it or not, bitter is part of the landscape of British beer — should it be banned from the competition because its character derives from something other than prominent aroma hopping?

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.