Category Archives: opinion

The State of Our Taste 2014

Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

This is nothing more significant than an attempt to take stock of our own feelings about beer as of 2014.

We’ve tried to be honest with ourselves — to consider our actions and reactions rather than ‘ideology’: what, when push comes to shove, do we order at the bar, or take from the fridge? What do we actually enjoy drinking?

1. We approach bottled beer from small breweries with low expectations. We assume they’ll be under- or over-carbonated; we expect to pour away more than half of those we try;  and we’re surprised when anything ‘experimental’ actually works. And we get less enjoyment than we used to out of wading through duds to find a gem. Or, to put that another way…

2. We find ourselves drawn to reliable beers and breweries. Punk IPA is unlikely to explode, need pouring down the sink, or make us feel nauseous. At the same time…

3. We can’t be bothered to drink mainstream bottled brown bitter any more. It’s so rarely anywhere near as good as a pint in the pub and (brace yourselves) often simply too fizzy for our tastes. (We don’t mind high carbonation but ‘fizzy’, to us, means specifically bubbles, as in a glass of mineral water, often accompanied by thin body and no head.)

4. The magic has gone out of our relationship with American beer. Is it to do with freshness, competition from UK brewers, or handling by UK bars? Or have we just become jaded? At any rate, after trying a whole range of kegged IPAs (e.g. Lagunitas, Founder’s All Day) on multiple occasions, in the last year, in London, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds, we found ourselves underwhelmed — where’s the ‘zing’? (We find that Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi in cans has zing, as, oddly enough, does Goose Island IPA.)

5. Living outside the urban ‘craft beer’ bubble has its frustrations, and its benefits. We don’t have easy access to bars or pubs with large rotating ranges of beer, and the ubiquity of Doom Bar and Betty Stogs is a trial. On the other hand, we’ve learned that St Austell Proper Job and Orval from bottles, both of which we can find reliably in local pubs, never seem to get boring. On which subject…

6. Belgian beer fascinates us more and more. There’s something dispiriting about the idea of ‘unobtrusive yeast that lets the hops really shine’ — practically a mantra for US-style IPA brewers. The Belgian tradition puts yeast character right up front and gives us another set of flavours to grapple with.

7. We wish we had more of our home brewed lager. We don’t think it’s objectively great, and it wouldn’t score well in competition, but we get a thrill out of drinking it that’s hard for any commercial beer to match.

Part of a Balanced Diet

'Vanilla is a Bean' by Christian Newton, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
‘Vanilla is a Bean’ by Christian Newton, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Is modern ‘craft beer’ really a mess of silly, fruit-flavoured, over-hopped, novelty beers bought at inflated prices by mugs?

That (as we read his Tweets) is how venerable beer blogger Alan ‘A Good Beer Blog’ McLeod sees it, and he’s certainly not alone. It’s certainly true that when those outside ‘the bubble’ seek to satirise beer geeks, these are exactly the kinds of beers they pick on:

Undrinkable Apricot Monstrosity: Gotta love those lazy summer afternoons. Just head out to the porch, kick your feet up, and slog your way through an Undrinkable Apricot Monstrosity, courtesy of Lagunitas Brewing Co.

In what sounds like a plea for classical, conservative ‘good taste’, McLeod and others seem to be suggesting that the best beers are expressions of grain-hops-yeast-water, in balance with each other, with an alcohol content somewhere around the natural settling point of 5% ABV.

Now, we love beers like that (and occasionally get told off for it by extremophiles…) but we don’t believe they’re threatened, or even, for that matter, starved of attention.

In the UK at least, we see a lot of people enjoying bigger, stranger beers, while also raving about straightforward, decent lagers and bitters. On the whole, the same ‘crafterati’ that queues up to buy a limited edition IPA also seems to be quite vocal about enjoying cask ale from Fuller’s, or straightforward Munich-style Helles by Camden, in their local boozer.

Writing a post about why brown bitter and/or standard lagers are actually awesome is practically a beer blogging rite of passage.

Beer with fruit in, or with lots of hops, isn’t inherently ‘silly’ — what matters is how successfully or thoughtfully it is done. Badger’s peach-flavoured Golden Glory might be a bit vulgar; Brew By Numbers cucumber and juniper saison (sorry to go on) isn’t. People are excited by it because it works — not because of hype.

A healthy market, we think, offers:

  1. a broad choice of good quality ‘normal’ beers
  2. some cheap-but-drinkable beers for those on a budget; and
  3. on the fringes, some weird stuff for special occasions and novelty-seekers.

(Which sort of feels like where we’re getting to now, doesn’t it…?)

Those three categories aren’t mutually exclusive, and trying to argue any of them out of existence seems, we think, rather like trying to stop other people enjoying themselves.

Utopians vs. Sentimentalists

In 1925, Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, proposed that the historic centre of Paris be flattened and replaced with a set of identical tower blocks set in a grid.

All those old buildings, narrow winding roads and quaint features were, in his view, ‘rustic bric-a-brac’ and needed to be swept away so that order could be achieved. With order, he argued, would come true human happiness, if only people would look inside themselves and realise that’s what they really wanted. (Which sounds slightly scary to modern ears.)

His extreme philosophy, abstracted from practical concerns, sits on one side of an ideological battle still being played out across all fields of human activity: Logic or sentiment? Machines or men? Straight lines or wonky ones? Industry or craft?

At about the same time as his ideas had filtered through to inform the planning and design of post-war British cities (see Plymouth, for example) another expression of the logic/machines/straight-lines way of thinking was also underway: the Big Six project in British brewing.

Whitbread, Watney’s, et al, became seduced by a Utopian vision of pure efficiency. They rejected the idea of lots of little breweries all over the place in favour of big ones in central locations, connected by motorway.

They decided computer-control was the way forward, reducing the opportunities for human interference to introduce inconsistency into the product.

Tradition was a nuisance — something to be ‘got over’.

It is with tinges of regret that we witness the disappearance of the traditional brewer wandering around the brewery with only his sensitive nose, keen palate and a few basic scientific instruments to guide him… [as] we move to a new generation of white-coated technicians bristling with scientific qualifications, guided in their work by panels of flickering lights…

H.A. Monckton, A History of English Ale & Beer, 1966

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the pub preservation movement, and ‘micro brewing’, all stood, and still stand, on the side of sentimentality and ‘the human touch’. Greenleaf over Ironsides.

And in marketing terms, the sentimentalists have won — we don’t think many breweries these days would invite the press to see their computers, as did Whitbread at Luton in May 1969, or use an image like this one from Boddington’s, c.1978, in promotional materials:

Boddington's computer controlled brewery, c.1978.

But most people don’t feel that strongly either way – they’re turned off by automation, but expect a certain level of consistency; they appreciate the fruits of efficiency, but don’t want to see old pubs or breweries knocked down to achieve it. They are, in short, pragmatic.

But pragmatism, as far as people like Le Corbusier are concerned, is synonymous with compromise — the worst of both worlds.

Excuse us thinking aloud. We’re working on something — a longer article, or maybe a video — about flat-roofed, cube-like post-war ‘modern’ pubs, which is why we happen to be reading outside our usual territory.

For Some, Local is Enough

On our recent travels ‘up country’, we asked a couple of fellow beer geeks in one city to tell us which local breweries were to be avoided, and both independently, without hesitation, named the same one.*

We were taken aback, then, when a friend told us it was his favourite. He is not a beer geek, but nor is he completely disinterested, so we tried the beer on his recommendation. “What do you think?” he asked. “Er…” we replied. What do you say in these situations? “It’s not really our kind of thing.”

In fact, it seemed seriously flawed and possibly infected. Our friend, meanwhile, was knocking the stuff back. “I like being able to drink something brewed just down the road,” he said between gulps. He either couldn’t taste the off-flavours or (more likely) they were overpowered by the satisfaction of having  ‘shopped local’.

Elsewhere in the country, we discovered that another friend had bought an entire case of bottled beer from a local brewery because the owners seemed like nice guys, and they’d enjoyed the samples they were given. “I really like it. What do you think?” Once again, we squirmed.

But does it matter what we think? Whether the beer is well-made and tasty?

If enough people enjoy the warm feeling they get from buying it, and derive genuine pleasure from drinking it, despite our sneering, then maybe ‘local’ is enough to build a brewing business around after all.

* No, we’re not going to name names on the basis of one pint and some second-hand opinion…

Shut Up and Take My Money!

Fry: "Shut up and take my money!"

We’ve got into the habit of asking industry people about money.

One distributor gave this response to our query about why beers from a particular brewery were so expensive (paraphrased):

Everyone, including me, is begging them for a few bottles here, a keg there, so they’ve got absolutely no incentive to offer discounts.

We’ve found that the best way to turn down a job is to quote a ludicrous fee, but sometimes people say ‘Yes!’ anyway.

Your choices as a consumer seem to be (a) drink something less trendy; (b) buy direct; or (c) grit your teeth and pay up.