Being into beer — being into anything — takes you through phases, and it’s hard to empathise with people who aren’t where you’re at.
We found ourselves reminiscing the other day about the early days of our time as beer bloggers and the hunger with which we pursued new beers and new breweries.
In 2007, arriving in a strange town, we would want to know where to find beer from all the local breweries even if that meant walking away with bottles to drink at home. Whether the beer was good was almost irrelevant and we probably wouldn’t bother with a pub, however charming or interesting, that didn’t have something new for us to try: we wanted input, experiences, information. It was great fun and there was always some new discovery around the corner.
These days, we’re much less interested in trying new beers for the sake of it and take fewer risks: if a beer sounds terrible, and is from a brewery we don’t trust, we’ll tend not to waste the units. (We get hungover so much more easily now than a decade ago for one thing.) We drank multiple pints of St Austell Proper Job on multiple days every week for six years down in Penzance and really got to know it, which was great. (Our thoughts on that should be in the next edition of Original Gravity, by the way.)
The point is, 2007 Boak & Bailey were having fun; 2017 Boak & Bailey (grey round the edges) are also having fun, just in a different way.
So we wondered if it might be possible to generalise about the path a beer geek takes. The key word being ‘generalise’ — this might not reflect your experience — here’s our effort:
- They learn to like beer.
- They become Beer Drinkers. It is part of their identity, their default choice in the pub.
- Beer becomes one hobby among others. They begin to take an interest in beer beyond social situations and pubs, attending festivals and exploring the bottled range at the supermarket.
- They start to think about beer. They start to ask questions, buy books, read articles, and perhaps begin keeping notes.
- Beer becomes an obsession, overtaking other interests. Books are acquired and ticking begins. There’s so much to try, so many places to go, so much to learn, that drinking the same beer twice seems like wasted time. Everything is thrilling and exciting. (This, we guess, is when people start blogging if it’s going to happen.)
- The wall of ennui. Oh — it turns out there weren’t that many great and exciting beers after all. Everything is a disappointment, over-hyped, and even previously impressive beers seem to have lost their lustre.
- Set in their ways. Done with chasing novelty and hype the beer geek forms habits, going to the same bars and drinking the same beers often enough to learn their moods and ways.
When you’re at No. 5, Nos. 6 and 7 seem insufferable — so boring, so miserable, so conservative! And, of course, people who reached No. 7 can’t remember what it was like to be at No. 5: ‘Everything is “awesome” with that lot. What’s wrong with a decent pint of bitter, I ask you?’
Some of the bickering on the ‘scene’ (sorry) comes from this divide, we think, and the idea that everything would be great if all beer/bars/pubs were more/less adventurous/consistent; from a belief that one position is somehow correct and perhaps even morally superior.
Here’s a fun moment captured by Twitter — beer writer Mark Dredge, once the ultimate Five, effectively announcing his transition to Seven:
— Sid Boggle (@boggleabout) September 13, 2017
Which brings us to an article by James Beeson appeared reporting comments from Mark Tranter, formerly of Dark Star, now the brewer behind Burning Sky, in which he bemoaned a market over-saturated with breweries, which state of affairs incentivises dabbling and the pursuit of novelty:
I’ve been brewing for 20 years but the UK beer market has changed beyond all recognition in the past two to five years. People are constantly demanding new products – if you’re a winemaker you get 30 attempts in your career to make wine, but people expect 30 different beers a week. So where does that leave us as brewers that are trying to focus on quality?
We understand what he’s getting at — we heard much the same from the brewers at the Wild Beer Co back in 2013, as reported in Brew Britannia — but think this is, at least in part, a Seven expressing exasperation with Fives.
And we reckon the market needs breweries and bars serving Fives every bit as much as Sevens and (our familiar refrain these days) the tension is healthy and what matters is having a balance. If your brewery is for Fives, have at it, and ignore the moaning of the Sevens. And, of course, vice versa.
One night last week, guided by The Buildings of England, we made our way to the Shakespeare in Redland, Bristol, and gazed upon the ghost of its Bottle & Jug.
Bottle & Jug was a phrase we didn’t know six years ago which is why we found this oddly arranged historic sign on the side door of The Crown in Penzance so baffling — ‘Bottle Bar & Jug? Eh?’
We were being dim, of course — it’s Bottle & Jug, and then Bar. Here’s how Francis W.B. Yorke explains it in his manual for pub designers from 1949:
The out-door department, sometimes called ‘off licence’ or ‘off sales’, and formerly known as ‘jug and bottle’ department, is set aside for the sale of intoxicating drinks ‘to be consumed off the premises’, and by law may not be used (as formerly) for the consumption of drink. It may be planned off the general servery, or as a separate unit. It must be in direct communication with the street, quite shut off from drinking areas, and contain no seating. It is the only public room a child under the age of fourteen may enter.
The Shakespeare has a fairly well-preserved Edwardian exterior but much of the interior has been remodelled in 21st century style with every surface either grey paint or bare wood, and partitions removed to make one long bar room.
There are still odd bits to enjoy, though, such as the stained glass signs for LADIES and GENTLEMEN on the toilet doors, for example. Very helpfully for roving pub nerds there are also framed plans of the pub before and after its early 20th century rebuild.
That’s how we spotted another lingering relic of the old layout: a narrow corridor of blue and white tiles running from the front door up to the bar. Assuming they are original (they look it) are all that remains of the old Bottle & Jug. They interrupt the floorboards, insisting upon the distinction between rooms that no longer exist, across the distance of a century.
Back before World War I, take-away customers (often kids sent by their parents — the cause of much worry for social campaigners) would come through what is now the main door and, between panels protecting their privacy, and that of sit-in drinkers, and order beer to go at the long counter which serviced all three parts of the pub.
It would be nice if those partitions were still there but in their absence it’s pleasing that the old layout can at least be discerned with some imagination, like the outlines of an Iron Age settlement visible in the bumps and ditches of an English field system.
Over the last month we’ve been thinking about the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) and why it doesn’t quite seem to click in these days. What, if anything, might be done to give it back its mojo?
(First up, though, a bit of disclosure: we’ve had free trade day entry to GBBF for the last two years, but paid for our own beer, and we write fairly regularly for Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) publications.)
We resisted writing this because, frankly, every year brings a slew of blog posts and articles criticising GBBF, often repeating the same points; and also because few things seems to cause tempers to rise quite like criticism of CAMRA, even if it’s intended to be constructive. This year feels a bit different, though, and a couple of people asked us nicely to express a view, so here goes.
How is this year different? Well, more than one person with connections to CAMRA has whispered to us, off the record, that the Festival is struggling, not bringing in enough money to justify the difficulty of mounting such an event. Sometimes, you take these things with a pinch of salt — GBBF has had its ups and downs in the past but is still running after 40 years, and people are prone to fretting — but it does feel as if there might be something in it this time round what with CAMRA’s open acknowledgement of lower then expected income.
Pete Brown is right, of course, when he argues that, for all the moaning, GBBF retains its status as The Default Event for people within the industry, and (we think) it’s the only one that reliably makes the national news. (Though Beavertown’s bash last week trending on Twitter might be the social media age equivalent.) Ed’s observation is a good one, too: GBBF is the only chance some of the smaller breweries get to appear on the national stage. And plenty of people turn up and have a great time, both volunteers and drinkers, especially (we reckon) non-beer-geeks and tourists. (But even Tandleman, at that last link, acknowledges ‘that it wasn’t quite as busy’.)
Our gut feeling is that GBBF is suffering through competition. In 2007 it was more-or-less the only serious beer-focused festival in the game. Now there are lots of other festivals (and beer weeks, and pub/bar events) serving various niches in various corners of the country. In absolute terms, GBBF has improved in the past decade — the beer seems in better condition than ever and the crowd seems less homogeneous than it used to be, to pick just two ‘key performance indicators’. But the competition has raised the bar in various ways:
- More attractive venues.
- Better food.
- Rarer, sexier, more exciting beer.
- Tighter focus on specific sub-categories (regions, cultures, styles).
- ‘Coolness’ (GBBF somehow contrives to feel both corporate and a bit like a church fete).
For us, the main stumbling block to really enjoying GBBF are two interconnected issues: the venue and the scale. Olympia is not a pub or anything like one. It’s draughty, overwhelming, tiring to schlep around, and dim — a soul-sapping indoor simulation of an overcast February afternoon. We would rather go to a pub, or on a pub crawl, any time — more so these days than even a few years ago when we first made this point.
What, if anything, can be done to give GBBF a shot in the arm? No doubt greater minds than ours, and which understand the logistical and financial issues from within, have already had and dismissed all of these ideas, but for what it’s worth…
1. Scale Back the Ambition
One of GBBF’s problems is surely the need to be Great. CAMRA can sometimes feel arrogant — it’s been winning battles and dominating the discourse for half a century, after all — and that perhaps comes across in GBBF in its current Imperial Star Destroyer mode. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor would be a jumbo fried breakfast bulked out with beans and dodgy sausages when it could be something smaller and more appetising. The sheer scale and spectacle draws people in and wins headlines but, at the same time, drags down the quality of the event. A more intimate venue, or several locations, perhaps even in different parts of the country, might make for a better atmosphere and a less arduous experience. At the same time, or instead, CAMRA might also…
2. Throw Itself Behind Local Festivals
Again, this is about giving up some of that central control. Insofar as we enjoy festivals (which is not much, generally) we’ve had more fun at local and regional events. They might feel scrappier, or less progressive again, but they’re often both more manageable and more lively. This might tie into…
3. The Olympic Model
What if GBBF was every four years so that it felt like a something really special? There’s been a lot of chat about how the best way to appreciate GBBF is to avoid attending every year and we think there’s something in that. This would also leave more oxygen in the room for local festivals (see above) and pubs (see below). The downside? The first year it didn’t happen would prompt Is This the End of CAMRA? thinkpieces and/or crowing from habitual CAMRA haters.
4. The Pub-Based Virtual Festival
One major criticism against festivals is that they take custom away from pubs which are already struggling and which CAMRA is supposed to be supporting. With that in mind, what if GBBF was more like the Wetherspoon’s festival? That is, a fortnight-long PR drive by CAMRA, with special and rare beers dispersed among a network of pubs in the Good Beer Guide or local Pubs of the Year, with organised crawls, maps and tasting notes. It could even be supported through sponsored buses or trains. It might even be an opportunity to encourage pubs that don’t usually engage with cask and CAMRA to give it a go. This would also address the complain that GBBF is a Londoncentric event.
5. Or, Just Some Bureaucratic Tweaks
Even if GBBF continues as it is, in the same venue, it would be good to see something done about the beer that gets selected. As one CAMRA veteran said to us, ‘I get sick of tasting beers at GBBF that have fundamental brewing faults.’ For our part, we focused on beers from Devon, for the sake of our Devon Life column, and while they were all fine they hardly did much to excite us or, if the conversations we had on Twitter are anything to go by, to get anyone else buzzing about Devon’s beer scene.
The current process, evolved over some years, means that only so many beers from each region make it to each bar; the breweries are suggested (not chosen) by local branches; and that each bar is expected to cover a range of style and strengths. We’d say, (a) scrap that latter restriction — if Devon is represented by eight pale ales, so be it, as long as they all taste great — and (b) balance those local recommendations with input from local ‘experts’, along the lines of the new Eurovision scoring system. So, in the case of Devon, listen to the local branch, but then ask, say, Adrian Tierney-Jones to vet the list. Sure, this would piss people off in all sorts of ways, but it would probably mean BETTER BEER ON THE BARS.
A few years ago, we were arguing for CAMRA to loosen up and find a way to accommodate the best of keg beer at GBBF, but that moment has probably passed. Perhaps now the best approach would be to officially partner with an existing keg-friendly festival, inviting them to run a bar or even a whole room at GBBF. This would send a signal while allowing CAMRA to maintain some distance.
* * *
So that’s our two penn’orth, expressed somewhat reluctantly, and with the best of intentions. If you’ve got ideas of your own do comment below.
Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in writing about beer and pubs in the last week, from ladylike behaviour to label design.
First up, something funny, in the form of a post from Kirst Walker who explains the limits within which she, a delicate lady, likes beer:
In all honesty, I have never been tempted to try any beer which strays past the golden and into the brown. I feel that a beer in one of the more masculine shades, for example a coal black stout or a cigarillo coloured bitter, would really be a step too far for a lady. I find that many hostelries now supply a tiny mason jar in front of the pump which displays the colour of the beer, which has been a tremendous help to me. I carry with me in my handbag a Dulux paint chart, which I hold against these tiny jars to make my selection. Once a beer passes Lemon Punch and heads towards Hazelnut Truffle, it’s off the menu!
Your history lesson for today: Lars Marius Garshol has unpicked exactly what Louis Pasteur contributed to brewing which is, actually, not much:
Pasteur’s work was of tremendous theoretical importance, but had limited practical use. It showed the importance of hygiene, of course, but brewers were already aware of that. Using acid to clean the yeast of bacteria was useful, but often when the yeast turned bad the problem was not bacteria, and Pasteur had no solution to this problem… The main thing Pasteur did for breweries was to show them how they could use the tools and methods of microbiologists to get better control over and understanding of their own brewing. In the years after the publication of ‘Studies on beer’ a number of breweries invested in laboratories with microscopes, swan-neck bottles, and all the other equipment Pasteur used.