QUICK POST: One Practical Thing


This morning another conversation about the price of craft beer broke out on Twitter, as it does every three months or so.

This time the prompt was an article by Will Hawkes for the Guardian on progressive breweries and inclusiveness:

Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing…. There’s [also] a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”

(Someone did great work on the headline for that story, by the way.)

This prompted food writer Tony Naylor to Tweet the following:

Lots of good initiatives here but if craft beer wants an inclusive working class audience it needs to have a serious conversation about the race to establish the £5 pint as standard. What would you drink if you were skint? Idea: £3 Pint Project. 12 breweries in, say, Greater MCR take turns each month to brew a £3 pint/ get it stocked in loads of good bars/ to see what’s possible stylistically. Now THAT (& even £3 is expensive if you’re skint), would be a positive move.

We think that’s quite an interesting, provocative suggestion and, indeed, made a similar one ourselves in 2012. He’s certainly not saying all beer should be £3 a pint, or that £5 pints should be banned, or are a great evil — just that some deliberate, disruptive gesture on price might shake things up a bit.

But whether it’s a practical suggestion or not it did make us think of something beer enthusiasts and commentators could be doing more often: making the effort to highlight good value beers.

Big, rare, strange craft beers naturally attract a lot of coverage because they’re different and come with some sort of story, but that can add up to a sense that (to borrow CAMRA’s controversial phrase) they are ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ and that if you’re drinking anything else, you’re slumming it. Why bother? Really, you should sell an organ or two, or skip your lunchtime avocado feast to cover the cost of the upgrade. (Remember, nobody has any money these days.)

So, instead of moaning about expensive pints — or at least as well as doing that — make a point of flagging great ones you’ve found at £3 a pint or £2 a can.

It doesn’t have to be an essay — just a Facebook post, Tweet or passing mention in a post on another topic. But essays are good too. Food critic Jay Rayner has just shared a piece defending his writing about expensive restaurants but one of the best things he’s ever written was about a Polish restaurant in Birmingham with main courses at under a tenner.

Of course nobody should pretend to like beers they don’t, or hold back from writing about expensive beers that really get them excited, but if there’s a readily available, affordable beer you really do enjoy, take a moment to tell the world, without apologies or caveats, and without expecting a medal for your bravery.

Session #131: Three Questions About Beer

Illustration: 2018 BEER, constructivist style.

For this 131st Session of the ever-fragile Session (a monthly event which sees beer bloggers round the world post on the same topic) co-founder Jay Brooks has stepped in as emergency host and poses three questions.

  1. What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

What Jay wants to know here, we gather, is which phrase we might prefer to ‘craft beer’, given the general derision that term elicits from beer geeks in 2018.

But here’s the thing: we don’t use the term craft beer all that often, but when we do want a shorthand phrase for These Beers which are different to Those Beers, with flexible criteria and vague category boundaries, craft beer still seems as good as any.

We don’t really care — boutique beer (pretentious), designer beer (sounds as if it wears a shiny grey suit with the sleeves rolled up), indie beer (a little more specific), or even Category X94, would all work just as well — but as craft beer does mean something (even if nobody agrees exactly what) and is in everyday use on the street, why bother fighting it?

‘Craft beer’ is fine, and we will continue to use it occasionally, if it’s all the same to you.

2. What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Jay set the bar high on this one: “everything they brew should be spot on”. We can’t think of a single brewery that meets that standard and most of those that come near aren’t underrated. But…

Maybe our brewery of the year for 2017, Bristol Beer Factory, gets a bit less attention than it deserves. It is a touch conservative by the standards of 2018; it lacks novelty value being more than a decade old; and it can seem somewhat faceless. Those beers, though. Oh, those beers.

And we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by some of the small West Country breweries on rotation at our new local, The Draper’s Arms, many of which we’d never heard of and/or never tried. There are a few that might end up filling this slot, when we’ve really got to to know them. Kettlesmith, for example, or Stroud, or Cheddar Ales, all of which have now moved from Risky to Solid in our mental list of trusted breweries, with potential to progress further.

3. Which three kinds of beer would you like to see more of in 2018?

Mild. Dark, ideally, but with flavours defined by sugars rather than out-of-place roastiness. (Mild does not just mean baby porter.)

Pale-n-hoppy. It’s not there aren’t lots of them, just that we don’t come across them quite as often as we’d like. Ideally, every pub would have at least one on offer, just like they’d have one mild/porter/stout, but that’s not our experience so far in Bristol pubs.

Imperial stout. Although people complain ‘that’s all you get these days’, we still hardly ever encounter them in pubs. Bottles would be fine — this is one style that can sit in the fridge for months just getting more interesting. The funkier and scarier the better, but ideally fruit/chocolate/coffee free.

The Seven Ages of Beer Geek?

Illustration: SEVEN.

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:

  1. They learn to like beer.
  2. They become Beer Drinkers. It is part of their identity, their default choice in the pub.
  3. 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.
  4. They start to think about beer. They start to ask questions, buy books, read articles, and perhaps begin keeping notes.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 8 July 2017: London Fields, St Ives, Anywhere

Here’s all the beer writing and news from the past seven days that’s grabbed our attention, from brewery takeovers to the (literal) essence of craft beer.

First, a bit of beer blogging admin: the British Guild of Beer Writers has launched its annual awards. If you’re a blogger, as opposed to a professional or semi-pro writer who happens to have a blog on the side, do consider entering in the Citizen Communicator category.

A sign points to London Fields Brewery.
‘Wall’ by Matt Gibson from Flickr under Creative Commons.

The big news of the week was that, having enigmatically trailed such a purchase a few months ago, Carlsberg has just acquired a UK craft brewery: the troubled, morally murky, unloved London Fields. We didn’t have time to produce anything substantial about this (just a Tweet) but if we had, we’d have written something much like this from Richard Taylor at the Beercast:

From their Hackney base… the Danes will have a London-centric brand to push across the country and beyond. And the fact that it has the city name in the brewery title is an added bonus… Looking at some of the tweets from beer industry people – particularly those based in London – was an almighty WTF moment. Of all the brands to acquire, why pick one with so little public recognition and so much industry resentment? The continual attitude and actions of the founders have blackened the name of London Fields within the beer community – but, as we’ve all seen since time began, the big lager boys don’t really care for that anyway. It’s the bottom line that matters, and in their eyes, picking up London Fields for even £4m is peanuts compared with what they would have to fork out for other alternatives.

The bar at Beer & Bird.

Those of you heading down to Cornwall on holiday this summer might find the latest post at Pints and Pubs useful: it’s an extremely comprehensive run down of the pubs of St Ives. It includes news of an interesting development in the form of a bar that has spun off from the town’s impressive specialist off-licence, John’s:

The most recent addition to the beer scene in St Ives, next door to the Castle Inn… It has easily the most extensive bottle and can list of any of the St Ives pubs, but also a decent selection of draught, with three cask and five keg when visited – we had good pints of Firebrand Equinot and Black Flag Simcoe Amarillo Pale.

Sign: "Traditional Real Ales".

Reflecting on the difference between Real Ale and Craft Beer as subcultures Pub Curmudgeon makes an interesting suggestion with reference to a wider division in post-Brexit Britain:

There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about ‘quality beer’, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

Those on the other side of the political and cultural divide from the Curmudgeon probably wouldn’t disagree with the idea but might spin it differently: ‘Real ale is inward and backward looking, while craft beer points forward and outward!’ At any rate, he might be on to something.

A portrait of Bim looking pensive.

Jordan St. John at St John’s Wort, one of the co-authors of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, paints a portrait of Luc ‘Bim’ Lafontaine, a revered Canadian brewer whose new venture is straining under the weight of expectation:

[People] talk about the brewery before the opening in messianic terms; as though Bim walked into town across Lake Ontario. At one end of the spectrum a local wag claims on twitter that the beer is terrible and two of the first three batches should have been drain poured. At the other end is a wine professional who proclaims the English style IPA the best he has ever had. On both ends is the response to the expectation that Godspeed will somehow redeem the Toronto beer scene, as if it needed it… Bim has been trying not to look at the reviews although they filter in. There are some concerns about the pricing. $3.75 a can for 355ml seems high to the public… The other gripe is about the styles of beer being brewed. There are people reviewing it who are willing to dismiss a third of the nascent brewery’s production because there is a Dortmunder Lager involved. I know through the rumour mill that Bim has spent much of the last two years drinking Spaten Munich Helles.

Finally, the Beer Nut highlights the existence of Essence of Craft:

The Craft Beer Life on a Budget

Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?

We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…

…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:

Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)

This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.

Continue reading “The Craft Beer Life on a Budget”