The Premium Sausage Problem

At some point in the last twenty years, the concept of the ‘premium sausage’ emerged: a banger with fewer additives, better quality meat and stronger flavours.

The problem with premium sausages? They’re sometimes too meaty — they lack a cohesive texture — and just don’t taste like sausages.

Yes, some really cheap sausages are downright nasty, made entirely of salty breadcrumbs dyed pink, but, really, the point of sausages is to make good use of offal and fat. They’re supposed to be full of crappy but delicious meat, fat, flavourings and, yes, breadcrumbs.

How does this relate to beer? After much experimenting, we have to conclude that we can’t taste the difference between whole leaf hops, pellets, extracts and oils, at least not in normal pub-going conditions; refusing to use sugar in beer on purity grounds seems to be missing a trick; and one of our favourite bottled lagers, Svyturys Ekstra Draft, uses rice in its grist, and we’re sure there are others.

Maybe more beers made lovingly but with cheaper ingredients would help to bring the price down? As long as brewers were transparent about it, we wouldn’t mind at all.

Five suggestions for Greene King

Greene King, by all accounts, are puzzled and hurt by the disdain in which they (and especially their IPA) are held by beer geeks.

As usual, we (as Tandleman would say) sit on the fence a bit when it comes to Greene King: we recognise they make some good beers, but worry that their IPA is a Trojan horse — a beer so bland it has more in common with John Smith’s Extra Smooth than any other ‘real ale’.

However, inspired by this post at the Campaign for Really Good Beer, we thought we’d be constructive and suggest five things they can do to improve their image.

1. Instead of inviting critics and commentators one at a time to come and stand on your lovely roof and meet you charming head brewer, why not make a lot more information about how your beer is made available online? At the moment (unless we’re missing something) the website is all about branding and packaging.

2. Get out and try GK IPA as it is drunk in pubs all around the country: however subtle, balanced and well-made it might be at source, by the time it reaches, say, Exeter, it is usually, in our experience, warm, vinegary and flat. Has it got more market share than your quality control mechanisms can cope with?

3. As CAMRGB suggested, stop pretending that your pubs serve beers from a range of breweries and, in particular, nix the disingenuous London Glory. This is just cheeky and takes your customers for mugs.

4. With that huge London estate, surely there’s room somewhere for a pub which serves your full range of beers, from the rarely seen but apparently excellent mild, via Suffolk Strong, all the way up to the currently brewery-exclusive 5X? A flagship pub where you could send cynics to taste your best products as you intend them to be tasted?

5. On the subject of mild, given that anyone drinking GK IPA has already foregone any pretensions of youthfulness or trendiness, probably attracted by the low ABV as much as anything else, maybe there’s a market you’re failing to tap? We groan when we see your IPA on sale in a pub in Cornwall, but we’d be delighted to see your mild.

Some of this would also apply to St Austell and some other big regional brewers. If any of the above are already happening and we’ve missed them, let us know.

Words as blunt tools

Last night, another conversation about the language we use to discuss beer kicked off when Lovibonds brewer Jeff Rosenmeier said this on Twitter:

Tweet: I don't like the term 'craft keg'. It's craft beer. Am I alone on this one?

Our two penn’orth was in the form of a quick diagram (above, top) which shows how we think it works in the UK, i.e. with ‘craft beer’ as a super-category which includes most real ale, some kegged beer and (not included in the pic) some bottled beer.

The fact is, though, that none of the terms we use are perfect; they’re just blunt tools to enable conversation.

We’re both reminded of meetings we used to endure in previous jobs. Typically, six hours would be set aside to solve a problem, of which five would be spent going round the table arguing about the language: “What exactly does ‘world class’ mean? I don’t like it.”

The last hour would be spent discussing how there was no longer enough time to solve the problem and agreeing dates for another six hour meeting.


The balance of power

An only semi-relevant picture of some delicious, delicious Kölsch.

It’s not necessarily the case that people hate big, successful breweries; just that they cut new, small breweries a lot of slack.

It’s hard not to get excited when new breweries open, reading  breathless tweets announcing the arrival of kettles and fermenters, or the success of test batches. We’re illogical, emotional creatures and can’t help feeling a sentimental warmth towards the underdogs.

Sometimes, though, things are bit rocky to start with. As craft beer consumers, do we have a ‘duty’ to turn a blind eye to exploding bottles and off-flavours? No, but we don’t mind doing so for a  while because, in most cases, we understand how hard it is. We want them to succeed and enjoy being along for the ride.

When a brewery gets established, achieving regional, national or even international distribution, we start to feel less sentimental. They’re big boys now and ought to be able to take a bit of constructive public criticism. It’s probably at this point, too, that we stop repeatedly trying their beers hoping to find a good one. Frankly, there are too many good beers out there for us to waste our hard-earned cash on those that have already burned us, and drinking every beer twice is hard work when there are more than 4000** of them in the UK. We’ve done our bit, now we want them to do theirs. (As Pivni Filosof put it rather bluntly, “get your shit together or close down“.)

When a brewery gets really big — i.e. monolothic and powerful — the gloves are off. It’s not personal, it’s just that they’re no longer juveniles, and are subject to the law of the land like any other grown-up. We, the consumers, become the underdogs, the little guys in this relationship, and can surely no longer be expected to make any allowances for bad recipes or quality control problems.

Coincidentally, Alan at A Good Beer Blog has just posted on a related subject. Great minds, &c..

** Estimated figure based on 900+ breweries in the UK each brewing 3-5 beers.

Something in the air

CAMRA have finally done something we’ve wanted to see for a while: begun to consider how the biggest beer campaigning group in Britain should react to so-called craft beer and, in particular, ‘craft keg’.

Members can read more about the new working group on the CAMRA website (we wish CAMRA wouldn’t lock all its content away, but hey ho) and we can all read about it direct from one of the group’s members on Tandleman’s blog.

If you’re a CAMRA member, a lapsed member, or someone who thinks about joining but holds back for whatever reason, you can feed in to this conversation by commenting at Tandleman’s blog. (But he will be overwhelmed with people wanting their say, so make your comments are constructive and to the point, if you want them to be heard.)

It would be naieve for anyone to expect CAMRA to change policy drastically overnight, not to mention potentially disastrous for the Campaign — there are, after all, many members, whether we agree with them or not, who believe kegged beer is something to be opposed, and who would cancel their memberships if there is too much change, too quickly. And, assuming the working group does propose changes, those would then have to be approved by members at the annual meeting. (Although wouldn’t an online poll for members be a great and inclusive alternative?)

Nonetheless it would be great if, through this discussion, CAMRA can find some way to reconcile the organisation’s aims — supporting cask ale — with some kind of support, however restrained, for some of the very good non-cask beer being made in the UK today.