Considering a Good Beer Magazine

Dave Bailey, prompted by something Roger Protz said at the Beer Writers’ Guild meeting in London, Tweeted this:

First, the gender question: there might be something in that, but then there are ultra-specialist magazines which aren’t especially ‘gendered’, and there’s no reason why a beer magazine, if a decent one existed, couldn’t sit with the food mags. We know loads of blokes who buy and read cookery magazines. Everyone eats, after all, and, as it’s not the nineteen-fifties, quite a few blokes know their way around a kitchen these days.

Secondly, though, the content: what the hell do you put in a magazine about beer? Generalist food magazines fill their pages with recipes (‘Fifteen ten minute summer suppers’) and consumer reviews, but that wouldn’t work so well for beer, because it’s a finished product, not an ingredient. ‘One hundred great lagers’ might work, but, really, just reading a list of beers you probably won’t be able to find in your local shop, with some tasting notes, is not likely to be that inspiring or exciting to most people.

Really specialist magazines such as, say, Retro Gamer, do fill their pages every month, and sell well enough to keep going, but they do so by appealing to a minority audience of hardcore geeks, and, frankly, by repeating themselves. We bought it for a couple of years and stopped when we’d read the story of the founding of Atari for the third time. Another example, Computer Music magazine, relies on multipage ‘ultimate’ and ‘beginners’ guides to production techniques and product reviews and, again, repeats itself on a fairly regular cycle. It does not, apparently, have loyal readers.

A quarterly or yearly product might stand more chance of commercial succcess. We’d buy, say, Good Food Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to Beer 2013, in the ‘bookazine’ format, for a long train journey. Alternatively, there is the bleeding-edge-cool, beautifully designed subscription journal model. Gin & It, about booze, is already with us, and Mark from Real Ale Reviews has previously suggested that this football publication might be a good model for beer writing.

Realistically, beer is one facet of ‘drink’, which is one facet of ‘food and drink’, and it is probably too ambitious to expect consumers to support a publication with such a narrow focus. A decent couple of pages on beer in existing food magazines, and good quality regular columns in the lifestyle sections of newspapers and current affairs magazines, would do us.

UPDATE 12:33 12/6/2013

After we posted it came to light through Twitter that there are some plans afoot at Future Publishing.

After Craft Beer, Craft Cider

Coates's Cider mat -- detail.

We’ve often wondered what might replace ‘craft beer’ in the affections of the trend-chasing young folk. and, though there is now ‘craft gin’, and we’ve joked about when we can expect ‘craft mead’, it was always cider which looked most likely to lure their attention. And it looks as if that change is underway.

Let’s look at the omens.

Attempting to trace the progress of this trend it looks very similar to what’s happened in beer, with some slight differences in timing:

  1. 1950: a working person’s day-to-day drink.
  2. 1965: a commercial commodity dominated by national brands.
  3. 1970s: rediscovered by the middle-classes in its ‘real’ form.
  4. 2000s: ‘premiumised’ by big producers. (Magner’s.)

Next? Perhaps ‘craft’ connoisseurism, experimentation and ‘extremifying’; yeast experiments, barrel-aging and new ‘styles’; craft keg’? We certainly look forward to trying a blackened, imperialised scrumpy… (Someone who knows about cider will no doubt tell us all of this is already happening.)

We’ve been saying for ages that certain lambic beers share flavours with the more rough-and-ready ciders — ‘barnyard’, ‘horse blanket’, ‘old wellies’, etc.. — and it won’t be much of a leap from beer to cider for those who’ve trained their tastebuds on hip ‘sours’ from breweries such as Brodie’s.

For now, at least, cider also has another great appeal: it isn’t taxed as heavily as beer and is therefore cheaper.

Don’t worry — this won’t be becoming Boak and Bailey’s Cider Blog, but then we wouldn’t be surprised to see a rash of them soon.

Brewery Numbers Aren’t Everything

godson

It seems that, between 1980 and 1983, around a hundred new breweries opened in Britain — about as many again as there were in total ten years earlier. Last year, as you’ll have heard repeated over and over, for the first time in a century, there were more than a thousand breweries operating across the UK. London alone now has almost fifty.

But how excited should we be about those numbers?

On the one hand, many small breweries, each brewing a range of beers, means lots of choice for consumers. There are multiple examples of the most obscure varieties of beer on the market — yes, but which British-brewed Berliner Weisse would madam like?

But, on the other hand, some of these breweries are so small, and their beer has so few outlets, that we’re not even sure they really exist in any meaningful sense.

Looking in more detail at the early eighties brewing boom, which was greeted with breathless excitement by beer enthusiasts desperate to believe, it’s notable how many breweries were literally just a bloke with a bucket in his kitchen, or off-the-shelf ‘brewpubs’ jumping on the Firkin bandwagon. Even some apparently bigger breweries were actually small ones occupying corners of grand buildings. Easy come, easy go.

Are there figures for the total number of different beers in regular production knocking about somewhere? Or the number of people employed in the brewing industry? One really interesting figure, following on from this discussion, would be how many breweries are making any kind of profit.

An Unworked Stream with Just Enough Gold

Panning for Gold

Believe it or not, we’re not completely stuck in the seventies, Life on Mars style: we’ve also spent a bit of time recently talking to the current generation of British brewers, and have a few more interviews scheduled. In particular, we’ve most recently been considering those parts of the industry which, if it hadn’t become a hated buzzword, we might have called ‘innovative’.

The critics are right, though — innovative isn’t the correct word, because there’s rarely anything new being done, even if it’s being presented differently. Let’s express it another way: we mean brewers who are producing beer for which there is apparently almost no market.

They’re making beer which hardly anyone has asked for; which most people won’t like; which will make some people downright angry; and cause many of their peers to look at them with raised eyebrows.

And yet… these brewers are paying the bills, it seems, and finding money to invest in their businesses too boot. They’re optimistic for the future and worrying less about finding new accounts than fulfilling outstanding orders while they await delivery of shiny new fermenting vessels. There was even tentative talk from one exhausted-looking brewer of taking a holiday abroad this year, for the first time in several years.

Maybe they can be likened to bands with ‘one thousand true fans‘? In his 2008 article of that name, Kevin Kelly suggested that was how many devotees a ‘creator’ needed to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

All breweries making freaky beer need to do is find the handful of freaks who will love it.

Dairylea Wonderloaf Beer

Isinglass Collagen beer treatment advertisement.

Ron Pattinson’s enjoyably snarky post about keg bitter and craft beer used an interesting turn of phrase: ‘Over-priced, trendy, processed beer’.

Arguably, all beer is processed, unless you are drinking the spontaneously fermented liquid which gathers at the bottom of your grain bucket after heavy rain. But people use the phrase ‘processed food’ to mean something quite particular — that which has been treated, often using patented methods, to make it more ‘stable’ and increase its shelf-life. In other words, where the taste of the product is a secondary consideration after efficient production, easy distribution and stability in storage. (Is that what’s being described here?)

Does processing necessarily result in bad-tasting food and drink? Freeze-dried strawberries covered in chocolate are one of the most delicious foodstuffs known to man, and there are certain purposes for which only a fluffy, sweetened, processed bread will serve. On the whole, though, few people would choose a triangle of Dairylea cheese over a nice piece of ripe cheddar.

Is it easy to decide if a beer has been ‘processed’? Bottle-conditioned beer which has been pasteurised and re-seeded with a clean yeast might resemble unprocessed beer, but it’s actually been subjected to additional processing. Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of kegged beers which are barely processed at all, though they might be in sealed containers.

Reading descriptions of the taste of the much-derided Watney’s keg bitters, one of the most offensive aspects seem to be their sweetness. Is arresting fermentation while sugars remain in the beer, or adding sugar after fermentation, processing? As far as we know, they weren’t bunging in saccharine. (Which, by the way, some rustic, ‘real’ farmyard Somerset cider producers do.)

If a beer is inefficiently manufactured, difficult to distribute, with a short shelf-life, will it taste better? Will it burn twice as bright for half as long? And is ‘processed’ actually the antithesis of ‘craft’?

Sorry for the barrage of questions. This is your classic ‘thinking aloud’ blog post. Answers welcome but not expected.