Confession Time — Which Beers Are You Embarrassed to Like?

Text: CRUSH ON YOU.

Why do people feel uncomfortable admitting to liking (or disliking) certain beers? And which beers do you have a secret soft spot for?

We were prompted to ponder this subject by this Tweet from Rhys Daltrey:

Twitter screenshot: "Embarrassing​ revelation: I have a weakness for Tanglefoot. I keep it quiet, so as not to spoil my 'craft' pretensions..."

As it happens, we too have more time for certain Badger beers than you might expect. They were among the earliest ales we really got to know at Hall & Woodhouse outposts in London, as well as during a series of holidays in Dorset and around. We don’t talk about them much these days because the bottles don’t excite us — they seem to taste particularly stewed even by the standards of supermarket ales — and we don’t get much chance to drink the cask incarnations, but we’re certainly not embarrassed to mention them.

Perhaps it’s a result of having blogged about beer for 9.99999 years but we’re not much ashamed to admit to liking, or disliking anything. We’ve paid our dues and if we say we do or don’t like a beer, it’s an honest reaction. (Which is not to say it might not be stupid, misinformed or confused — that’s a whole separate issue.)

Even now, though, we know we’ll draw a bit of fire if we express a liking for, or even tolerance of, certain beers. That’s why we so often resort to the language of extreme subjectivity, such as ‘soft spot’ above — like Rhys, we couch it almost as a failing on our part.

Another approach is to go on the offensive: unlike you sheeple, I controversially like Budweiser/Bass/Special Brew, and if you’ve got a problem with that, you can see me outside in the car park. It’s the same thing though, really — an acknowledgement that The Community won’t approve.

Be Honest, Fess Up

What we’d like to see, more generally, is people stating plainly what they like, and what they don’t. There’s no wrong or right answer, and you don’t need special expertise or training to know whether a beer tastes good to you, right now. (Even if down the line you might be baffled by your own judgement.)

People holding back from expressing an honest view skews the whole conversation to a handful of consensus breweries and beers.

And, of course, for that to happen, others need to respect the preferences of others. (Last year, someone told us they were disappointed in us for naming Duvel as a great Belgian beer. Weird, right?)

With all that in mind, let’s have an amnesty: which beers do you have a secret crush on that you don’t want the kids at school to know about?

And you can also tell us which beers you know you ‘ought’ to like but don’t, although we actually had a pretty good round-out on a related topic a couple of months back.

Here are some beers we feel slightly naughty liking — but nonetheless publicly admitted to liking — in recent months, to get the ball rolling: Guinness (Bailey, every now and then); Hoegaarden (not what it used to be, apparently); Bass (NWIUTB); Marston’s Pedigree (NWIUTB); LIDL’s own-brand Bière de Garde; Ringwood Forty-Niner (cask, at The Farmer’s).

A Contribution: Why We Drink at Home When We Drink at Home

Record spinning: 'Sittin on my Sofa' by the Kinks

We’re always rather pleased when a Topic of the Week arises among the beer chatterers. This time it seems to be drinking at home vs. drinking in the pub.

The subject has inspired at least three Twitter polls (Beer O’Clock Show, Peter McKerry, The Pub Curmudgeon) and so far one substantial blog post with the threat of more to come. We responded to the Beer O’Clock Show poll with a comment on Twitter which we wanted to expand on a bit.

We split our drinking about evenly between the pub and home, we reckon, though of course some weeks, or seasons even, it might wobble one way or the other. But why drink at home at all?

A few years ago when we were trying to learn as much about beer as possible and were a bit snootier (sorry about that) we’d have said that beer choice was the main deciding factor. If we wanted to drink much other than bitter or golden ale near where lived c.2008 home was really the only option. Our local shops and supermarkets had more interesting beer, cheaper, and at home we could use fancy glassware and all that stuff that seemed very important.

Engraved windows, Islington, North London.
Engraved windows, Islington, North London.

But we still went to the pub a lot. If we’d had a tough day at work, if the Tube was broken, if the trains were delayed, if we passed a pub with especially twinkly lights, if we’d heard an interesting beer was on somewhere, if we were sick of the sight of the four front room walls, if we wanted to see our friends, or hang out with colleagues — any excuse, really.

A few things have changed. First, we’re not in our twenties any more and our capacity for booze has diminished. We don’t drink every day and, when we do, we drink less per session.

Secondly, most of our friends are (a) several hundred miles away and/or (b) married with kids and/or (c) working every hour of the waking day. Even when they are at hand, the days of popping to the pub for a casual pint or six on a Tuesday night have passed.

And, finally, we don’t commute these days. In other words, the peripheral parts of our lives are less stressful and chaotic, and we have settled into a small town routine: work, home, tea, then go out, if at all.

And that’s the point at which we sometimes come unstuck. Let’s go to the pub after dinner, we say, excitedly. But then dinner takes a bit longer to prepare than expected; a relative phones, or needs phoning; dinner makes us drowsy, the sofa is comfy, and the thought of putting on boots to go out seems suddenly… unappealing. Especially when there’s a gale shaking the window frames.

After all, particularly in winter, the chances are that even the pubs we like will be uncomfortably quiet, and the already limited beer range will be further diminished. At home, on the other hand, we’ve got a cupboard full of genuinely exciting things to drink and, of course, media to consume, mindless drones that we are.

Beer is important to us but when we’re not indulging that obsession, we also like music and films, and have various creative hobbies that don’t work anywhere but home.

We don’t feel guilty about this. Well, maybe a little. But this is normal. When we do go to the pub, it’s because we really want to, and we invariably have a good time. As we’ve said so many times now, it shouldn’t be a grim duty.

Would we go to the pub more often if it was cheaper? Probably not, though we do wince at the price of a round sometimes. Would we go if there was variety on offer in town? Maybe, a bit, especially if we knew what was on before heading out of the door.

No, on balance, the deciding factor is convenience, which leads us back to a thought we’ve expressed before: pubs need to work on finding new customers rather than on turning the ones they’ve already got into seven-nights-a-week alcoholics.

New Breweries, Classic Styles

Pilsner as an LP

It’s easy to mock self-consciously ‘craft’ (def 2.) breweries — [Chortle] ‘I suppose they make barrel-aged imperial India pilsner with passion fruit and freeze-dried raspberries! Hur Hur!’ — but it seems to us that the same breweries also do more than they are sometimes given credit for to keep classical styles alive.

A few years ago we stuck up for Brodie’s of Leyton, East London, who were accused of brewing ‘silly beers’. They did, and do, brew sour beers with fruit and a whole range of hop-heavy pale ales but they also did something that no-one had done in the London Borough of Waltham Forest for about 40 years by our reckoning: they made a standard cask-conditioned dark mild.

(We don’t know if they still do — their website is pretty useless and the last Untapp’d check-in appears to be from last August.)

Then, last month, we were astonished to see this line-up at BrewDog Bristol:

Beer menu at BrewDog Bristol.

For clarity (bad photo, sorry) that’s a straight-up stout (Jet Black Heart), a Dortmunder, an altbier (Candy Kaiser) and an eighty shilling, all on draught. All of them were respectful, straightforward attempts to brew (for better or worse) as per accepted style guidelines.

Elsewhere we have Buxton which has brewed straight-up and very convincing Belgian-style tripel, dubbel and patersbier; Thornbridge’s takes on helles, Kölsch, doppelbock, and more; and Harbour’s new line-up which also includes helles along with pilsner and even a bitter actually called Cornish Bitter.

There are plenty of other such examples, and likely to be yet more as Craft with a capital C converges with established breweries’ bandwagon-jumping efforts in Wetherspoon pubs, Tesco and other mainstream outlets.

Perhaps if people (hey, including us) stop sneering for a second and encouraged this kind of thing, they’d do more of it. And then maybe Fuller’s could jump on that bandwagon by making their ordinary bitter (Chiswick) and mild (Hock) more readily available all year round.

Are Thornbridge’s 330ml Bottles a Con?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

The recent decision by Thornbridge to move their packaged beers from 500ml to 330ml has rubbed some people up the wrong way — are they pulling a fast one?

A particularly vocal complainant is Mark Dexter who used to blog at The Bottled Beer Year but who is nowadays busy being a successful actor, notably playing Prime Minister David Cameron in Coalition on Channel 4 a couple of years back. Yesterday, he repeated his objection to the switch to 330ml bottles:

For our part, we do find the indiscriminate switch to 330ml across the whole range a bit baffling — some Thornbridge beers at low ABV clearly suit drinking by the (near) pint — but actually rather welcomed it for the stronger stuff. Half a litre of Halcyon imperial IPA at 7.4% ABV? Too much. (Although we do at least have the option of splitting it between us.) The same goes for Jaipur too, probably, although we realise that makes us seem a bit pathetic what with it being a mere 5.9%.

Our gut feeling is that, for a lot of British drinkers, the point at which a pint becomes too much is somewhere around 5%. These days, that probably just translates to choosing a different beer, but we used to have a tradition in the UK of nip bottles (less than half a pint) for stronger, special beers such as Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale. Thornbridge and others who package at 330ml clearly believe, or hope, that drinkers can be convinced to buy stronger or otherwise ‘bigger’ beers if they don’t have to drink quite so much in one sitting.

So, in itself, the packaging change makes some sense.

But here’s the real nub of Mark’s objection: are they using the opaqueness introduced by the switchover to screw over consumers, as retailers were accused of doing back at the time of decimalisation?

First, we wondered whether the price rise people noticed with the switch to 330ml bottles might have happened anyway. This is far from scientific — we just grabbed info from Twitter and newspaper articles — but it does seem that the price-per-litre of Thornbridge Jaipur at Waitrose has been on the climb fairly steadily since 2012, going up by about 6 per cent each time. With the switch to 330ml, though, the increase was sharper at about 15 per cent, even though the absolute price of a bottle dipped back under £2. So, some sort of price rise was probably due, but the numbers certainly do seem fishy.

Then a good follow-up question seemed to be this: What kind of price increase have we seen on beers whose packaging hasn’t changed in the same period? Perhaps Thornbridge/Waitrose are merely following wider trends and the packaging size-change is a red herring.

Well, no. Oakham Citra, BrewDog Punk and St Austell Proper Job — similarly hop-focused beers from independent UK breweries — have all got cheaper at Waitrose since 2012.

So it seems Mark is right: Thornbridge is making a concerted effort to drag itself into the premium bracket and avoid the bulk-discount tendency, and the packaging change was a good opportunity to conceal the gear shift.

Even so, this is all just part of an ever-more crowded, complex UK market neatly segmenting itself. Jaipur is a great beer, sure, but these days it’s far from the only beer like that on the market, and plenty of those IPAs are still in 500ml bottles, for now at least. And we do after all live in an age of incredible transparency where packaging size conceals nothing with price-per-litre displayed right there on the supermarket shelf, and in the online shopping basket:

Waitrose screen display for Meantime IPA.

What could Thornbridge have done differently here? They could have stated outright that the price rise was to pay for investment in the brewery (have they said that somewhere?) and/or introduced the increase at a different time from the packaging change. But, seriously, are there many companies that self-flagellatingly honest?

Meanwhile, Mark and others — check Twitter, there are lots of others! — may stop buying Thornbridge in protest, but we suspect the brewery won’t much care. After all, it doesn’t seem as if they have trouble shifting every drop of what they brew, whatever they charge for it.

The Politics of Hops

Buy British Tea poster.

There’s been a flurry of discussion this week around the impact of last year’s EU referendum on British beer, and what might be yet to come, which has given us a new angle on the old schism.

First, there was this piece in the Guardian in which various figures in UK craft brewing expressed concerns about the supply of equipment and material in a post-referendum world:

‘Everybody’s noticed it and it’s to be expected because you’re importing hops from places like the US and Europe,’ said Andrew Paterson, head brewer at Dark Star Brewing in West Sussex. ‘It’s also the case for steel tanks, kegs, yeast manufactured in Holland, anything that’s imported. We’re not going to compromise on quality so it’s an ongoing cost.’

This isn’t the first article along these lines that’s appeared since last June and this response from our neighbourhood Euro-sceptic is a good summary of the reaction from conservatives (small c):

That same argument was made at greater length by veteran beer writer Roger Protz (disclosure: he’s always been very helpful with our research and we owe him many pints) in a letter to the Guardian yesterday:

The notion that British beer drinkers should have to pay higher prices as a result of rising costs of imported grain and hops is easily countered by suggesting brewers buy home-grown ingredients. It’s absurd to import grain when it’s widely acknowledged that maritime barley – as grown in Norfolk and Suffolk – delivers the finest flavour and the best sugars for fermentation… English Fuggles and Goldings [hops] are prized throughout the world for their distinctive aromas and flavours of pepper, spice, pine and orange. Is he unaware of such new English varieties as Endeavour and Jester developed in recent years that offer more of the rich citrus notes demanded by many craft brewers?

Of course he’s right — Britain does have great brewing ingredients and if hop and malt imports ceased outright tomorrow, life would go on. And, in fact, we would also like to see British brewers exploring British ingredients with fresh eyes and a bit of imagination.

But here’s the thing: it should be a choice, not an unintended consequence. Fuggles cannot adequately replace Citra or Simcoe, and using English ingredients purely out of grim necessity would be, as the Beer Nut suggested, a rather depressing compromise. Woolton Pie in beer form.

At the root of the Buy British school of thought it seems to us there are a couple of wrongheaded thoughts. First, we think some people believe the popularity of pale, hoppy American-influenced beers threatens the very existence of traditional English bitter — that they are the thin end of a wedge which will inevitably lead to total domination. It’s true that some brewers are producing proportionally less bitter and more hoppy golden ale than they used to but it feels to us like a balance, not a battle. If trad bitter really starts to look endangered, trust us, we’ll join you on the barricades, but who can seriously say they struggle to get a pint of something brown and old-school in Britain in 2017? Bitter and best bitter still occupy at least eight of the ten pumps at our local Wetherspoon, for example.

Secondly, there’s the idea that people ought to like beers other than the ones they currently profess to enjoy and that, with some pressure and education, they’ll learn to love the hops they’re with rather than yearning be with the hops they love.

There might be some room to bring people round to old-school flavours — to drink Harvey’s Sussex Best is to love it, after all– but we’ve got no doubt that there are plenty of beer drinkers out there who, if the only option was session bitter brewed with Fuggles or Goldings, would just switch to lager, or gin, or, blimey, anything else. They are interested in beer,  they have tried traditional bitter, and they just don’t like it. Seriously. Honestly. It isn’t a pose.

And there are quite a few brewers who probably feel the similar — who would rather give up altogether than brew with only UK hops. Can you imagine a chef specialising in Asian cuisine whose supply of coriander and ginger dried up getting excited at the prospect of going back to making steak and kidney pies?

You might say, ‘Fine, good riddance, I like steak and kidney pie, I’m alright, Jack,’ but we’ll be left with a less diverse, less healthy beer culture. Much as we love to wallow in the 1970s and 1980s in our research, we don’t want to restore that backup and lose 30 years of work, thanks very much.

Of course we don’t know how serious a worry this really is. Perhaps things will settle down and the C-hops will keep coming after all, or perhaps things will go off the rails altogether in which case we’ll have bigger things to worry about. Frankly, it’s hard to get a read at the moment because any discussion about the impact of the referendum, however thoughtful, is taken to be campaign propaganda by one side or the other and drowned out by yelling.

But while we wait for the dust to settle we’re going to drink as much as Oakham Citra as we can get hold of.