Session #123: The Cyber Is Huge

For this edition of the international beer blogging jamboree Josh Weikert at Beer Simple asks us to consider whether the internet is hurting or helping craft beer.

1990s-style animated gif: man drinking beer.
SOURCE: Dodgy animated GIFS website. This would have been state of the art stuff in 1999.

Beer geeks got online early in the life of the internet: nerds gonna nerd.

We’ve sometimes joked that if you produced a Venn diagram of (a) beer geeks, (b) jazz fans, (c) lower division sports obsessives, (d) Whovians, (e) IT professionals, it would be more or less just a single big circle.

Researching Brew Britannia some of our best sources were early online chat rooms archived comprehensively, if clunkily, by Google. The big one, alt.beer, was founded (as far as we can tell) in July of 1991, long before Amazon, or Google itself, or any of our other sinister tech overlords. In fact, before the first website had ever been created — alt.beer existed as threads of text. Here’s the charter posted around the time of its establishment by one Dan Brown:

Alt.beer was created for the purpose of discussing the various aspects of
that fine malted beverage generally referred to as beer. Welcome here are
discussions of rare and interesting beers, reviews of brewpubs and
breweries, suggestions about where to shop for beer, and tips for making
your own….

Not welcome are the plethora of tales of drunken stupidity that usually
go something like, ‘I guzzeled 5 cases of X beer, drunkenly made a fool
of myself in front of a large number of people, of whom I was desparately
trying to impress a certain one, and then spent the rest of the night
alternately driving a porceline bus, and looking like road kill on the
bathroom floor.’ Almost everyone has heard or experienced this, or
something similar, at one time or another.

(Does anyone know Mr Brown? It would be interesting to, ahem, chat to him.)

The question we’ve got is, how did appreciating beer ever work without the internet? To some extent enjoying beer in the 21st Century is a job of recording, cataloguing and sharing information, and the internet is better at that than floppy discs in the post, or letters, or CB radio.

We’re not quite digital natives — we remember the internet arriving and struggling to work out what to do with it once we’d looked at the handful of websites that existed in the mid-1990s — but by the time we got into beer we were fully immersed in online culture and looked there for advice and guidance. We’ve written before about some early sources of beer information that no longer exist, notably the Oxford Bottled Beer Database (1996-c.2010). These websites — all text, frames, striped backgrounds and under construction GIFs — told us which pubs to visit in strange towns, which beers to buy from the bewildering selection at Utobeer, and (not always accurately) explained why certain beers tasted the way they did.

The fact is, in 2017, online and offline aren’t distinct spaces — the former is integrated into everyday life. When we go to the pub and see a strange beer on offer, we look it up on our smartphones. We might take a picture and share it on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (hint hint) or write it up here. Sometimes, we choose a pub based purely on intel we’ve picked up on the internet — or, rather, that we’ve subconsciously absorbed from the ambient blur of shared information that acts as background noise in our lives. And often, online relationships translate into pints shared in person with people we might otherwise never have known existed.

And, for all the problems with online information — FAKE NEWS! — it’s much harder to be a beer bullshitter now than 40 years ago because if you make a ludicrous claim someone can just look it up.

Has anything been lost? Perhaps insofar as the internet enabled the Global Republic of Craftonia at the expense of the concept of the Local Scene. Martyn Cornell has written about a time in the 1970s when, having tried something like 14 different beers from not only Hertfordshire but also several other counties, he considered himself quite adventurous. Back then, the infrastructure of beer appreciation manifested itself in local festivals, local newsletters, and tips shared in the pub.

But this isn’t just a challenge for the beer world — working out a way to reap the benefits of global connections without the loss of regional cultures is a much bigger human issue.

Session #121: Bock! (Absence Of.)

Illustration adapted from a vintage bock beer poster.

For this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree Jon Abernathy has asked us to think about Bock, which left us in a pickle.

You see, in multiple UK cities over the course of several weeks, we haven’t seen a single Bock for sale. Perhaps surprisingly there was a Cornish Bock from St Austell (very decent, too) but if it still exists, it’s in deep hiding.

So we were going to swerve this Session altogether until, researching an article on Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson last week, we got thinking about Dortmunder.

Dortmunder, like Bock, is one of the 25 or so varieties of beer listed in the style guide in Jackson’s original World Guide to Beer back in 1977, and of which multiple examples were listed in our Bible, his 1998 throwaway, picture-heavy Great Beer Guide. But we can’t remember the last time we encountered anything calling itself a Dortmunder. (Although there are a few Exports around.)

Absent from his 1977 style guide, however, is Gose, examples of which are fairly easy to come by these days. That’s odd, isn’t it? That sour beer with salt and coriander should be more readily available than what you’d think might be a more accessible strong lager.

Well, maybe not. To many drinkers — even those with quaite refained palates — lager is lager is lager, and not terribly interesting. And a strong lager with a narrower focus on unsexy malt over hops is an even harder sell in 2017, especially to British drinkers who really do expect fireworks to justify an ABV of more than 5%.

UPDATE 11:20: Oh, except that we did have a Dortmunder at BrewDog Bristol in February. No Bock, though.

In Which We Fall into a Brown Study

This month’s Session hosted by Joe Tindall at The Fatal Glass of Beer is wonderfully opened ended: write about brown beer.

Some people will tell you brown isn’t a flavour, but it is. It’s why you sear meat, and about 50 per cent of the meaning of toast.  (N.B. black is also a flavour.)

Brown beer isn’t necessarily boring but a hell of a lot of boring beers seem to be brown. Adrian Tierney-Jones has, on more than one occasion, referred to beers as being the same brown as an old sideboard and it’s true: brown is the colour of corduroy trousers, garden fences, Austin Ambassadors, sensible shoes and your grandma’s coffee table. It’s a kind of camouflage.

You know what else is often brown? Pubs. We like brown pubs, too, but in a brown town drinking brown beer in a brown pub with a brown dog on the brown lino, browned off, until you drop down brown bread from a total eclipse of the heart. You can see why some people might be down on brown.

Back in the 1990s Sean Franklin of Rooster’s ditched brown in favour of pale because he wanted a blank canvas on which hops could shine. If pale is blank, is brown noise? Or texture? Texture can be good. Noise too. There’s a reason people put dirty old Polaroid filters on their iPhone photos.

Let’s do some word association. Is there someone else in the room with you right now? Ask them to tell you, without over-thinking, what colour beer is. We knew it — you owe us 50p!

We’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one Session post this time round with the title Fifty Shades of Brown. St Austell HSD is a sort of burnt umber, in the language of Crayola crayons. The same brewery’s Cornish Best is what Crayola would call ‘beaver’. (Stop sniggering.) And their Tribute, which we have heard described as a ‘boring brown bitter’ by people who have clearly been spoiled, is a similar shade of amber to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. And that’s just one brewery. Stare into the brown abyss long enough and you’ll begin to see stars.

Lager used to be brown, and some of it still is. Do you reckon Britain would have gone crazy for it like it has in the last 40 years if it wasn’t sunny, bubbly yellow? Gold is a much easier sell: ‘I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest brown!’

Black + gold = brown. Last week at BrewDog Bristol, where brown is frowned upon, we ended up with a free half of Born to Die (a big IPA) which, on its own, was too harsh and boozy. So, we mixed it, 3 parts to 1, with BrewDog’s Guinness-challenging stout. The end result was like a stronger, shoutier cousin of Fuller’s ESB. You need never be without a brown beer if you’ve got a half of stout at hand. (Sadly for all you brownophobes there is no similar trick for turning ESB into double IPA.)

We probably won’t want to say or type the word brown for a week or two after this. But we don’t half want a pint of bitter.

Discomfort Beer — Saison, Tripel, Brett and Kriek

‘Access01’ by David Bleasdale from Flickr under Creative Commons.

These are our instructions from Alec Latham, the host of this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree:

‘For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.’

The example Alec gives in his own post is Thornbridge Wild Raven, the first black IPA he’d ever tried, and in the broadest terms, there’s the answer: any new style will probably wrong-foot you the first time you come across it. You might even say the same of entire national brewing traditions.

‘Discomfort’ is an interesting word for Alec to choose because the feeling we think he’s describing is as much social anxiety as it is purely about the beer: other people like this, but I don’t — am I being stupid? Am I missing something?

Partizan Lemongrass Saison.

We grappled with saison for years, for example. Michael Jackson wrote about it so eloquently and enthusiastically, as did Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn, and many others, but we didn’t get it. How could we match up those tantalising tasting notes with the fizzy Lucozade beers we kept finding in Belgian bars in London? Maybe the experts were just wrong — a worrying thought. We could have simply given up but we kept trying until something clicked. Now we not only understand saison (with, say, 65 per cent confidence) but also know which particular ones we do and don’t like.

Over the years we’ve been similarly disgusted or nonplussed by Belgian tripels, specifically Chimay White which just tasted to us like pure alcohol back in 2003; and also by Brettanomyces-influenced beers — Harvey’s Imperial, now one of our favourites, appalled us the first few times we tried it, and Orval left us cold until quite recently. (We are now fanpersons.)

In each case, the discomfort was worth it, like practising a musical instrument until your fingers hurt, because it opened up options and left us with a wider field of vision.

The flipside to Alec’s proposition, of course, is that some beers are immediately appealing but perhaps become tarnished with experience. The first time we were ever dragged to an obscure pub by an excited friend it was to drink Timmerman’s fruit beers from Belgium which we now find almost too sweet to bear. Comfort turns to discomfort, delight to queasiness.

The sense of taste is an unstable, agile, mischievous thing that you can never quite tame.

Two Englishmen, an Irishman and a Bavarian Go to a Dinner Party…

Stan Hieronymus is hosting Session #118 this month and he has asked: ‘If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?’

Chatting this one over in The Crown in Penzance last night we decided a few parameters of our own:

  1. They ought to be beer people. Sure, it’d be a laugh to serve beers to Gandhi and Boadicea and all that, but we’d go mad trying to choose just four.
  2. We’d stick to dead because listing people who are alive is a bit weird.
  3. We’d ask the guests to bring a six-pack each of their own beer, or a beer of their choice.
  4. We assume George Orwell is busy at someone else’s dinner party, and we know Sedlmayr and Dreher are round at Ron’s.

The first name we both agreed on, after mere seconds of debate, was Josef Groll (1813-1887). Here’s what we wrote about him in Gambrinus Waltz, slightly edited:

In the 1840s the burghers of the Bohemian city of Pilsen, wanting to produce Bavarian-style beer, brought in a specialist from that very part of the world – one Josef Groll, of Vilshofen, near Passau. Groll was not yet 30 when he arrived in Pilsen. He is portrayed in portraits as double-chinned and thick-featured, with an expression that suggests permanent indigestion. His manners have gone down in history as ‘coarse even by Bavarian standards’, though we have found no original source for this claim. In October 1842, the first batch of pale lager was brewed at the new Pilsen city brewery. Like Anton Dreher’s Vienna beer, it used gently-kilned pale malt after the British fashion, but produced an even paler beer that was probably more-or-less the golden-yellow colour we associate with generic lager today.

Why invite Herr Groll? Mostly because his imprint in history is so vague. Others wrote memoirs or were photographed but not Groll. It wouldn’t take long to work out how coarse he was by watching him at a dinner party — would he wipe his nose on the tablecloth, perhaps, or emit particularly operatic belches? We’d also like to get some technical information about the state of lager brewing in those early days. We hope he’d bring some chunky corked bottles of Pilsner Urquell as it was in 1842 — how pale was it, really, and how clean did it taste compared to modern lagers? (We might also slip him a glass of the modern stuff, though, just to see his reaction.)

Sir Sydney Nevil's autobiography (page spread).

We’d sit him next to British brewing industry titan Sir Sydney Nevile (1873-1969) whose memoir, Seventy Rolling Years, Boak has read back and forth several times in the last year. If Groll was coarse, Nevile was distinctly clubbable — conservative and public school educated but a hands-on brewer early in his career, and later known for his ability to work constructively with all sorts of people as a member of the Central Control Board of the ‘liquor trade’ during World War I. He also liked a good feed:

It has always been my policy… to sweeten negotiations, if possible, over a well-spread table. Many of my ‘affairs of State’ were discussed at dinner — often the dinner was a very late one…

And it’s true — throughout the book when he recounts a struggle the resolution usually comes after he takes his opponent for a meal. Funnily enough, he doesn’t mention beer all that much, so we can’t guess what he’d bring with him. Hopefully something well-aged and rare from a secret stash at Whitbread’s Chiswell Street brewery where he worked for 30-odd years. We’d like to know what he’d think of Whitbread today (Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, no brewing at all) and, as a pioneer of the improved pub movement in the inter-war years, what he’d make of where we’ve ended up. Our suspicion is that, as a pragmatic businessman, he wouldn’t be unduly disturbed by anything that’s happened.

The founder members of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. SOURCE: John Keeble; Mrs Gore.)
The founder members of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. SOURCE: John Keeble; Mrs Gore.)

Next, Arthur Millard, co-founder of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. We know no-one else cares about him, and that the SPBW is a niche interest, but it still drives us mad that we never quite got to the bottom of his story. He was also, we gather, a blunt-talking character, as per Brew Britannia:

In the early years, the Society found brewery visits an effective way of combining social activity with the application of gentle pressure on the industry. Delegations from the SPBW toured several breweries, and Millard had a reputation for ‘sales-manager baiting’. As hapless public relations people attempted to convince the group that the latest keg or top-pressure beer was every bit as good as the traditional ‘draught’ version, Millard would slap them down with a blunt dismissal: ‘Then why does it taste so bloody awful?’

We reckon it’d be great fun to set him and Sir Syd debating the question of big brewery keg bitter, safe in the knowledge that we could always steer the conversation round to cricket or rugby if things got too heated. (Millard worked at the Bank of England and lived in Surrey — he was hardly a revolutionary.) It’d be best not to sit him next to Jo Groll, though — a grumpy German next to a fierce veteran of World War II? That could get nasty. As for beer, it’d be fun to see what he makes of BrewDog Punk IPA. Evidence suggests that, if it was free and got him pissed, he wouldn’t be that fussy.

The fourth guest is tricky. As we’re basically using this dinner to solve mysteries and further our research, it’s tempting to invite Kim Taylor who brewed at the Orange in Pimlico in the 1980s and is probably still alive, but remains elusive. Or what about the head brewer at Ind Coope c.1846? He might be able to tell us, once and for all, what the heck A.K. stands for, if anything. Maybe the last slot could go to Andrew Campbell, author of the 1956 Book of Beer, whose identity is mysterious — we suspect a pseudonym although have recently wondered if he’s the same Andrew Campbell who was involved in London’s theatre scene at the same time.

Maurice Gorham
SOURCE: Adapted from an image at The History of the BBC.

In the end, though, we decided that this ought to be someone fun. With Groll growling, Nevile talking politics, and Millard sliding off his chair flicking Vs, we ought to have someone capable of lightening the mood with some good stories. So, the last seat goes to Maurice Gorham (1902-1975), the Irish-born, English-educated journalist who wrote The Local (1939) and its semi-sequel-cum-rewrite Back to the Local (1949), among the best books about pubs ever written. He also got in early with criticism of hipsters:

The West End is, of course, more apt than some districts to suffer from the incursions of what we used to call the Bright Young People; what I know think of as the Flash Trade. This menace has receded since pre-war days when the smart people were discovering the pubs and the craze for darts even brought them swarming into the Public Bar. It was a terrible thing to see this happening to a pub. If it persisted, the old regulars abandoned the pub, the brewers redecorated it, the staff changed. At this stage the bright young people often deserted it for another, leaving a wreck behind.

We wonder what he’d make of tap takeovers, keg fonts and labels with skulls on?

He, thankfully, expressed firm and detailed opinions on beer, listing his favourites in order as draught Guinness, Younger’s Scotch Ale and Benskin’s Bitter. So, we’d hope he’d bring bottles of Younger’s, picked up in a off-licence in 1949 and somehow brought with him through the dinner party wormhole.

Now we look at our finished line-up we realise we’re in a room dominated by middle-aged, middle-class Establishment men. Perhaps next time this question comes up we’ll be a bit more imaginative — do you reckon Hildegard of Bingen would come?