Smoke Signals: We’re Not Stuck in the Mud, Honest!

Moor brewery wall sign: 'No fish guts.'

In recent weeks the Campaign for Real Ale has been sending coded signals: it isn’t hidebound or dogmatic, it can change, it is hip to where it’s at, Daddy-O.

First there was this press release referencing an article in the latest edition of the Good Beer Guide:

A growing number of brewers are looking at alternatives to isinglass as a clearing or ‘fining’ agent in their beers, the 2017 Good Beer Guide (GBG), published by the Campaign for Real Ale, CAMRA, reports. Isinglass is made from the swim bladders of fish – and as more and more drinkers today are vegetarians and vegans, brewers are looking at alternative ways to serve crystal clear pints.

The press release, and the article to which it refers, aren’t calling for more unfined beer (though the former does quote Roger Protz seeming to do so) but that’s certainly how the BBC and other outlets reported it. (Later corrected.) The reason, we suspect, that CAMRA’s communications staff got so especially annoyed at this misrepresentation is because they laboured hard behind the scenes to get a message that all the key players were happy with. This is the kind of thing politicians deal with all the time: ‘I think it’s time to consider whether oranges might not deserve a place in the fruit bowl alongside apples, in certain circumstances,’ says the Minister; MINISTER SLAMS OUR GREAT BRITISH APPLE reads the headline. Because carefully composed, nuanced messages are rarely news.

The real point was intended to be, we think, that (a) CAMRA knows about this stuff on the outer fringes of ‘craft beer’; (b) it acknowledges that good beer can be made this made way; and (c) it is watching with keen interest and an open attitude.

On a similar note was last week’s announcement that, for the first time, a canned beer has been certified as ‘real ale’ by the Campaign’s technical committee. At the most basic level this is a statement of fact — the TC counted yeast cells in the packaged product and gave it the thumbs up — but of course it’s much more than that. In 2016, cans are a ‘craft’ thing, and certainly seem to dominate the crafty end of our Twitter feed, and this is about CAMRA finding a way to connect with that constituency. We don’t think it’s too much to describe it as a gesture of friendship. (But craft cynics might see it as co-opting or Dad dancing, while real ale hard-liners will see pandering.)

Here’s something we said in our big Brew Britannia follow-up blog post in 2015, in relation to the decision that beer in key-keg could be considered real ale under certain circumstances:

[That’s] how we expect CAMRA to play this in the years to come – slow change without big announcements – merely the occasional sounding of a dog whistle through selected channels. That way, they will hope to avoid scaring away conservative members many of whom (not all) also happen to be older and therefore, for various reasons, make up the bulk of the active membership.

That still holds true but perhaps the whistles are getting more frequent and more audible?

Infantile?

Label for Partizan X ale w. crossed dinosaurs.
Art by Alec Doherty. SOURCE: Partizan Brewing Archive.

We’re working on an article about mild in the 21st century, research for which prompted this statement in an email from Andy Smith at Partizan:

The beer was originally simply called mild… We then decided to rebrand as X… This worked OK but not as well as we’d hoped. It was at this stage we put dinosaurs on the label and sales rocketed! I kid you not. It sells as well if not better now as our other dark beers. Dinosaurs! Now we spend our weekends hearing how cute the dinosaurs are (recently changed) and  answering the question what is X?

That’s funny, of course, but also made us think, ‘Huh. So craft beer drinkers are like children?’

We’ve observed before, as has almost everyone else who’s written a tedious think-piece on the subject, that craft beer in cans has been successful partly because they are tactile and colourful, bright and toy-like. Beavertown Brewery’s cartoon-laden designs in particular suggest material for an (admittedly slightly weird) animated series and also make them look like a bit like soft drinks. (Gamma Ray more so than this example we have at hand.)

Beavertown Smog Rocket design.
Art by Nick Dwyer. Source: Beavertown Brewery.

And sometimes, with fruit and residual sweetness and novelty flavourings and higher carbonation, the hippest beers can taste a bit like soft drinks too.

Of course we checked ourselves fairly promptly: one person’s infantile is, of course, another person’s fun, and we understand that you humans enjoy this emotion fun is good.

And even if it is infantile, is that a bad thing? One key reason people drink is to reduce the pressures of adult life and the pub is where grown-ups go to play.

This is a question we’re going to have in mind from now on, though, especially when we find ourselves considering the generation gap between real ale culture and craft beer. (Def 2.)

One Year On, One Month on

There have been a few developments on ‘the scene’ since we wrote our long post updating on Brew Britannia at the start of July.

The Kernel Brewery tap room, which gave birth to the ‘Bermondsey Beer Mile’, will no longer be opening on Saturdays from 5 September. Meanwhile, Manchester has gained its own weekend crawl — ‘The Piccadilly Beer Mile‘.

→ Matthew Curtis has managed to wheedle a little more information about the United Craft Brewers from its founders.

→ Management at Bateman’s of Lincolnshire have gone beyond complaining about Progressive Beer Duty: they’re planning (or at least threatening) to downsize to get under the threshold, as Roger Protz reported.

Harbour Brewing of Cornwall have their canning line up and running; Dark Star launched canned beers at the beginning of July; and Magic Rock have their canning line almost ready to go. Meanwhile, John Keeling of Fuller’s had this to say:

→ And, finally, anxiety over consolidation and predation was kept bubbling by Duvel Moortgat’s merger with (or take over of, or synergising with, or something) US brewery Firestone Walker.

* * *

Tempting as it is to follow this in seven days’ time with ‘One Year On, One Month On, One Week On’, we’ll resist the urge…

The John Smith’s Experiment: Part 2

Here are our notes from the first of our 18 cans of John Smith’s Extra Smooth:

Surprisingly powerful aroma rising out of the glass. Not of hops but actually quite Guinness-like if we close our eyes – the black malt they use for colour? Very light body (watery) perhaps emphasises by the very thick head. Actually a decent amount of bitterness, but accompanied by something acrid – bile? (Eew.) Definitely more acid burn than we remember. A little hint of grassiness floating over the surface. Much nicer as the weird foamy head disappears.

Verdict: if we weren’t doing this experiment, we would pour this away. Not pleasant.

That first can was fridge cold (as per the serving instructions). Next we tried it at room temperature (better, less acrid); and, over the next few days, from a variety of different glasses, both cold and at room temperature.

It looked amazing served cold in a large brandy glass — like some gleaming amber pale ale ‘van ‘t vat’ in a Belgian bar. The attractive appearance didn’t fool our tastebuds, though, and, if anything, the shape of the glass emphasised that peculiar, burning, stomach-acid sensation.

Did we start to like it more? The honest answer is, no, we really didn’t: we found it less palatable with every can we consumed. Shame — if we had, it could save us a lot of time and money.

The thing that really puzzled us, though: who says this is easy-drinking, bland beer? It isn’t — it is a downright bizarre, odd-tasting product. It could probably be improved by replacing the dark malts used for colour with more-or-less flavourless, frowned-upon caramel for starters. (See the canned bitter Cain’s brew for Co-Op — not especially characterful, but not weird.)

We did not finish the slab.

There’s one more post on this subject to go, in which we discuss widgets, Extra Smoothness, and what we did with the leftover cans. (Though maybe we should have just done one really long epic to confound everyone who has heard rumours we write concisely…?)