Category Archives: opinion

What Meantime Means to Us

As well as its significance in the ‘rebirth of British beer’, Alastair Hook’s Meantime Brewery has been important to us on a personal level.

Meantime taught us that lager wasn’t just lager: tasting the range side by side, we could tell that ‘Cologne-style’ was not the same as Helles, which was definitely different to Golden Beer.  They were subtle, but distinctive.

Meantime put Vienna-style lager and Kölsch in Sainsburys supermarkets where we could buy four bottles for £4 and we turned up at many parties and barbecues with those packs under our arms c.2004.

Having read about porter, we wanted to taste it, but there didn’t seem to be many around a decade ago; Meantime fixed that, too. And their big 7.5% IPA was among the first we tasted that gave us a glimpse of what had people so excited about US takes on the style, and so dismissive of Greene King’s — it was boozy, fruity, juicy and bold.

The Union, Meantime’s brewery tap in Greenwich, was the first British pub where we really noticed beer being treated with respect. Half pints came in stemmed tulip glasses, bottles were served in snifters, and no-one seemed to care how much or how little you drank as long as you enjoyed it. We crossed London to get there, time and time again, and there was always something new to try. It was the world of Michael Jackson’s books brought to life.

In recent years, however, our ardour has faded. The brewery’s focus seems to have moved from obscure sub-styles to London Lager (oh, so lager is just lager after all?), Pale Ale and Yakima Red — beers that want so badly to be accepted everywhere that they blend into the banquettes. Alastair Hook has always been obsessed with consistency and control — he is passionate and eloquent on the subject — but perhaps, in recent years, Meantime has too often crossed the fine line between clean and bland? (We’re not sure, to be honest, that they are an upgrade from the mainstream as Pete Brown argues here, though we know what he means.)

This isn’t about demanding obscurity or ‘extremes': if we want US-style pale ale, we buy Sierra Nevada. Porter? Sam Smith’s or Anchor. Big IPA? BrewDog Punk, or the ubiquitous Goose Island IPA, at £2 a bottle. If we want a British-brewed version of a classic German style, we increasingly find ourselves looking to Thornbridge. (Where the brewing team is led by Rob Lovatt, formerly of… Meantime.)

The acquisition of Meantime by SAB Miller isn’t catastrophic, just another step in the direction they’ve been travelling for some time. We’ll always have a soft spot for Meantime, and will continue to make pilgrimages to Greenwich, where the draught lager can still be transcendent.

Things We Love about CAMRA

Tweet: "@BoakandBailey Twitter doesn't put @camra across in a good light - do they do anything other than make mistakes/argue?"

We are by no means uncritical of CAMRA but our instinctive reaction to the Tweet above was defensive: we’re rather fond of the Campaign, despite its oddities, frustrations and occasional missteps.

That’s why, despite having been tempted a couple of times, we’ve never let our membership lapse. (Or made a big fuss about cutting up or burning our membership cards on social media, as some others have.)

Keen to explore that gut feeling, we had a think about what specifically makes us like CAMRA as it is now, and came up with the following list.

1. Joining is a rite of passage — a way to show you’re on Team Beer. When we were just getting into beer, we wanted something like a fan club to join, and CAMRA was and remains more-or-less the only game in town. We didn’t know the ins-and-outs of dispense method politics — we just wanted a badge and a newsletter and a secrete decoder ring. It still fulfils this function today.

2. It gets beer and pubs into the news. CAMRA’s pub of the year awards gain acres of coverage, especially in local papers. When there is a story about beer, CAMRA is always asked for a comment: without them, business, government and the health lobby would have a monopoly over the conversation. It reminds the real world that people who are a bit more than passingly interested in beer exist, and in great numbers.

3. It makes beer part of the conversation in Westminster. You might not think it joins the right conversations, or takes the right line, but the fact that it is able to influence government policy at all is remarkable. Membership numbers are always entertaining to consider: CAMRA 169,000; Conservative Party 150,000; Labour Party 194,000; Liberal Democrats 44,000. (SOURCE: Wikipedia.)

4. Its history. The modern beer festival, with its tokens and dizzying array of weird beers, evolved from events like the 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition. The Good Beer Guide was the first book to prioritise drinkers and beer rather than breweries and food. CAMRA even helped to pioneer the ‘tasting note’, way back in the 1980s, when most people thought it was silly to talk about beer instead of just necking it. It didn’t single-handedly save British beer from mediocrity but it certainly played a huge part.

5. It offers something to react against. Breweries such as BrewDog and Meantime would not exist as they do today if they had not shaped themselves in opposition to CAMRA’s values and culture, as they saw them.

6. It is democratic. It’s an imperfect democracy — one that feels inaccessible and confusing to us in its current state — but it does give members the power to propose and vote on policy. The much-mocked letters page in What’s Brewing is currently a battleground between those who advocate a thawing of relations with ‘craft beer’, and those who want to send tanks in — but both voices are represented, in equal measure, without (as far as we can tell) any censorship of ideas.

7. It keeps cask-conditioned beer alive and relatively well. Though we’re pro-keg and -bottle, many of our favourite beers are cask-conditioned, and wouldn’t be half as good otherwise. We certainly think it’s a tradition worth preserving, and, without CAMRA’s constant stick-and-carrot pressure on the industry, it would be a lot harder to find outside specialist venues.

8. It takes practical steps to protect pubs of historic interest. We don’t believe that every pub is sacred — that none should ever be demolished or re-purposes — but CAMRA’s efforts in cataloguing and recording the most representative and significant heritage pubs is truly important work.

9. It is a national institution. The eccentricity, rituals, arcane rules and regulations, and the occasional pomposity, when they’re not infuriating, can seem rather charming. Like the College of Arms or Flora Day or cheese rolling, CAMRA is one of those things that makes Britain feel British: are we the only people who would voluntarily set up a huge national bureaucracy to organise debauches and moan about the heads on our pints, with occasional interludes of Morris Dancing?

Last and probably least…

10. It publishes, and pays fairly for, good quality long-form beer writing. (DISCLOSURE: including by us, if we do say so ourselves.) BEER magazine is one of few outlets in the UK for writing about beer and, despite its parentage, allows both criticism of CAMRA in its pages (though we can’t point to a specific example right now) and discussion of beers other than ‘real ale’.

* * *

Of course we could easily argue against ourselves on each of these points. For example, why should CAMRA be the de facto voice of beer drinkers, given that it doesn’t represent all of them? What’s the use of cask ale everywhere if it’s only lip service — dodgy Greene King IPA and Sharp’s Doom Bar? And doesn’t government have more important things to worry about than beer and pubs? But this was about exploring our gut feeling — that CAMRA is a good thing, for all its flaws.

We’ve switched comments off on this post because we can’t quite be bothered to moderate the argument that we suspect might ensue. If you’re desperate to Speak Your Brains, email us at boakandbailey@gmail.com and we’ll perhaps publish some comments in a follow-up.

Gimmick or Twist?

Ahead of our saison tasting spree (first batch tonight) we’ve been thinking about the place of herbs, spices and fruit in beer.

Back in February, Masterchef winner and Japanese food expert Tim Anderson wrote a post suggesting some obscure citrus fruits to use in brewing:

I understand that there’s something irresistible about yuzu, but if everybody uses it then it loses some of its appeal. I fear we may have reached ‘peak yuzu.’

(There’s nothing to make you feel uncool like reading that something you’ve only vaguely heard of is already played out.)

He gives a reason, in passing, for why you might want to use obscure fruits: to make ‘a dish or a beer exotic and intriguing’, which additive-sceptics might read as different for the sake of being different — what’s wrong with beer that tastes like beer?

So, there is a question of motive, which probably, or maybe, coincides with the success of the experiment. A brewer who is trying to meet demand for a ‘new’ beers by chucking cinnamon or maple syrup into base products (a problem in ‘real ale’ before it became a problem in ‘craft beer’) will inevitably turn out a few duds where the Guest Starring additive clashes or overrides.

On the other hand, a beer that is thoughtfully designed and carefully developed, where the left-field flavour is brewed in rather than merely added at the end, may well do a better job of truly integrating it into the finished product. Camden’s Gentleman’s Wit isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the bergamot that is its unique selling point is not clumsily done, and does, indeed, add a twist which makes the beer intriguing, without surrendering its essential beerness.

When Lars Marius Garshol wrote about traditional herbs in Norwegian farmhouse brewing earlier this week, he reminded us that such additives aren’t a trendy new thing. We were particularly taken by his description of Myrica gale:

Home brewer Micro Maid made a Myrica beer for the Norwegian home brewing championship last year that won the prize for Audience Favourite. She used leaves picked in the forest, crushed in a kitchen blender, 23 grams for 26 liters of beer, boiled for 25 minutes. I tried the beer, and it really was excellent, with a lovely fruity flavour, not entirely unlike lime or yuzu.

Maybe the reason this seems, to us, less gimmicky than some such experiments is because it is in some sense historically and regionally authentic?

If all that matters is how the beer tastes, as some insist, then the brewer’s motives, or the authenticity of the additives, is neither here nor there, but we suspect that brewers who consider why they’re using a particular ingredient — who think about what the story is — might just generally be more careful and thoughtful, which tends to lead to better beer.

And if you’re a brewer (pro or at home) and you need more ideas than those provided by Tim and Lars, here’s Stan Hieronymus’s hot tip:

Main image adapted from ‘Fruit’ by Nils Dehl, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Malty

Unlike some (Melissa Cole, p6; Mark Dredge), we don’t object to the use of the terms ‘malty’ and ‘hoppy’ as over-arching descriptors, but one thing does bug us: ‘malty’ shouldn’t just mean ‘not hoppy’.

Malt flavour is a positive addition to the flavour of a beer, giving it another dimension. The best hoppy beers — that is, those with a pronounced flowery hop aroma and/or bitterness — also have malt flavour, usually sneaking up as a bonus in the finish.

These are the kind of things we think of (no doubt via Michael Jackson and others) when we spot that taste:

  • toasted nuts and seeds
  • fresh bread
  • crackers

It’s dry as in crisp, savoury but not salty, and just downright wholesome.

The best of the lagers we mentioned yesterday all have veritable maltiness, as do many of the pale-n-hoppy c.4% cask ales at which North of England breweries seem to excel. Our local equivalent, Potion 9 at the Star Inn, is defined by bright citrusy hops, but it’s that bread-crust and cream cracker snap that ultimately makes it so satisfying — the bun without which a burger wouldn’t be half as enjoyable.

A beer with fairly restrained hop character might allow the malt to take centre stage, and that can be good too.

But some beers aren’t hoppy or malty — they’re just sugary, gritty, vegetal or (worst of all) watery.

Don’t blame malt for that.

A Disruptive Influence?

One of the most critical and questioning voices in the world of British beer is not a writer but a brewer: Jon Kyme of Stringers.

When he blogs, it is usually because someone has provoked him by, for example, making a claim in marketing material that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and he often adopts indirectly the persona of ‘The Professor‘ to deliver lectures laced with economics, science and philosophy.

On Twitter, he often posts acidic sub-Tweets picking up on factual errors, grandiose claims, or even just typos. In comments on various blogs, he is similarly sharp, in both senses of the word.

Continue reading A Disruptive Influence?