Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 October 2016: Takeovers, Lay-Offs and Argy-Bargy

Here’s everything that’s grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the last week, from seismic industry movements to historic lagers.

For starters, there’s been quite a bit of news from the US.

We got to all of this news via Jason Notte (@Notteham) who also offers commentary on Brooklyn. Whether this is the cataclysmic ‘shake out’ people have been prophesying (hoping for?) remains to be seen but it certainly feels as if some big plates are shifting.

The debate at IndyManBeerCon
SOURCE: Keith Flett (@kmflett) via Twitter.

Closer to home, but not unrelated, accounts of an apparently fractious debate at the Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IndyManBeerCon) have begun to emerge. Soap opera aside there is some interesting content here. Claudia Asch’s summary (she’s one of the organisers) reports that the slick, well-funded Cloudwater is apparently regarded as almost as big a threat as those shoddy undercutting breweries:

Sue [Hayward of Waen Brewery] and Gazza[[Prescott] from Hopcraft had a bit of a go at Cloudwater, for lack of a better word… The gist of Gazza and Sue’s argument seemed to be: we can’t sell our beer because of Cloudwater. Can it be that simple? Maybe, just maybe, Cloudwater are giving the market what it wants? The beers sell easily?

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Magical Mystery Pour #15: Durham Brewery Bombay 106

A 7% traditional English-style IPA designed to evoke the 19th Century? Yes please.

This is the second beer chosen for us by David Bishop (@beerdoodles — website here). He says: ‘Big boned and no nonsense. I think this will be a nice beer for you to share — 250mls each that will leave you checking the bottle for one or two more drops.’

A couple of years ago Durham Brewery was all the rage thanks in part, it seemed to us, to a certain generosity with samples for bloggers, Tweeters and raters. We had a few of their beers here and there and found that they ranged from decent (White Stout) to shoddy. So we were pleased at the opportunity to give them another go although our hopes weren’t high.

We bought our bottle from Beer Ritz at £4.02 for 500ml. It is bottle-conditioned and so, with our last messy Durham experience in mind, we kept it chilled. It actually poured beautifully, the yeast sticking to the bottom of the bottle through multiple dips, depositing a whipped-white head on a body a shade darker than standard lager. The aroma wasn’t huge but there was something fruity — peach-like, perhaps?

Durham Bombay in the glass.

The taste was, frankly, startling. It took us by surprise and left us momentarily disoriented. Then we got it: strawberries. Not mango or passion fruit or grapefruit or any of those other modern IPA navigation landmarks but soft, sweet English garden fruit. People sometimes talk about this as an off-flavour but we’ve always quite enjoyed it in, for example, the stronger BrewDog IPAs.

That was laid over a snappy Great British Bake Off background of biscuit and bread — wholesome stuff, though, with grains to chew on — followed by a solid but not overwhelming bitterness, with a slight seasoning saltiness.

The flavours seemed to unroll distinctly, checking and highlighting each other — it’s too sweet, no it’s not, or is it? Not so much balance as an energising back and forth. Stimulating.

Altogether, we liked it. It tasted absolutely English, old-fashioned without being mummified, and just boozy enough to feel like an adventure. The website tells us it’s all Maris Otter and Goldings so definitely the kind of beer the 1990s IPA revivers had in mind before C-hops took over.

So that’s Durham out of the sin bin and back on the worth-a-try list.

Rating Sites, Hype & the Real Influencers

Good King Henry Special Reserve (bottle).

If you want to get your brand name on the radar don’t send samples to bloggers, send them to RateBeerians.

That’s the conclusion we reached after researching this story on the weird prominence of Good King Henry Special Reserve, the only British beer in the RateBeer top 50, for All About Beer:

The flurry of high rankings that followed that summer gathering—most awarding 18, 19 or 20 out of 20 and accompanied by profuse thanks to ‘Chris_O’—put the beer into the Top 50 chart. That might have been a blip except those events brought it to the attention of Edinburgh beer lover Craig Garvie. He is an enthusiastic character often to be seen at beer festival in a colourful bowler hat, steampunk shades and with his beard dyed one shade or another. A particular fan of strong stouts, he knew he had to get his hands on GKHSR.

We were prompted to research and write that piece because we, despite paying fairly close attention to British beer, had never heard of Old Chimney’s brewery or come across any of their beers on sale anywhere, ever.

On a related note, we were pondering writing something longer in response to this Tweet…

…to which our initial response was, yes, marketing is important, but word-of-mouth about great beer is the best marketing you can get.

But the GKHSR story demonstrates very clearly that you don’t need fancy graphic design, expensive advertising or squads of PR people to make a splash.

BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

When a linguist writes about global food culture it feels like being given a glimpse into the complex machinery of the human race.

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University whose speciality is the application of heavyweight computing power to vast bodies of writing such as restaurant menus or online reviews. In The Language of Food (Norton, 2014, Amazon UK | Amazon US) he explores the etymology of food-related words — ketchup, Turkey, ceviche — and, in so doing, the shared origins of apparently divergent foodstuffs. Ketchup, for example, he traces back to dirt ditches full of fermenting fish in South East Asia, making it a cousin of Chinese soy sauce and Indonesian arrak, which itself begat rum.

The cover of The Language of Food.The book isn’t primarily about beer but there are frequent mentions of it and linguistically related varieties of booze:

[The] Hebrew word sheker had a continued life as the meaning ‘fortified beer’ generalized to refer to any kind of strong drink. Saint Jerome in his fourth-century Latin Bible translation, the Vulgate, borrowed it into Latin as sicera, which he defined as beer, mead, palm wine, or fruit cider. In the early Middle Ages… the word sicera, now pronounced sidre, became the name of the fermented apple juice that became popular in France, especially in Normandy and Brittany. After 1066 the Normans brought the drink and the new English word cider to Britain.

There is also an entire chapter that draws heavily on research by him and his colleagues into reviews on RateBeer and Beer Advocate. It turns out that people have much richer vocabularies when it comes to slagging things off than for being positive about them:

[Reviewers] tended to describe the way they were ‘bad’ by using different negative words for different senses, distinguishing whether the beer smelled or tasted bad (corny, skunky, metallic, stale, chemical), looked bad (piss, yellow, disgusting, colorless, skanky), or felt bad in the mouth (thin, flat, fizzy, overcarbonated). By contrast, when people liked a beer, they used the same few vague positive words we saw at the beginning of the chapter—amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great— regardless of whether they were rating taste, smell, feel, or look.

Which perhaps explains why bad reviews are more fun to read and write than good ones.

That word ‘awesome’ also gets a bit of personal attention: I now know that the process of taking a word originally intended to describe something HUGE and IMPORTANT (the awesome power of the ocean) and applying it to something small and trivial (this lager is awesome!) is called ‘semantic bleaching’. Worth knowing if you want your fings-ain’t-wot-they-used-to-be grumbling to sound more intelligent.

And there are many more passages that, even if they don’t refer to beer, clearly apply to it. When he mentions, in relation to the habit of eating meat with fruit, that seasonal food is often a reminder of what was everyday behaviour hundreds of years ago, old ales and winter warmers come to mind. In a passage on the ‘grammar of food’ he argues that the reason people like putting bacon in ice cream these days is ‘not because this is necessarily the most delicious way to serve bacon but, at least in part, because it breaks the rules, it’s fun, it’s rebellious’ —  does that also apply to the appeal of sour, hazy beer in today’s craft beer culture? (Yes.)

Jurafsky’s concluding arguments certainly apply to beer — think India Pale Ale in its many guises, or Imperial stout, or Gose:

All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbors.

The foods we eat and drinks we drink — our cultures — are the same, only different. That’s a comforting message in 2016, isn’t it?

If all that sounds a bit heavy, the book is also a goldmine of quotable not-so-trivial did-you-know trivia — I was saying, ‘Huh, fancy that!’ every other paragraph, in a way anyone who follows @HaggardHawks or @Susie_Dent on Twitter will recognise. I don’t think it will be for everyone: despite Jurafsky’s best efforts to find an over-arching narrative, and to personalise the text with mentions of his grandmothers and in-laws, it is really an information dump with periodic conclusions. But that very much works for me.