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.

The Decent Pint

Ansell's Mild beer mat (detail)

These days, it seems, every wedding has to be a fairy tale; every book a best-selling tour de force; and every glass of beer a ten-out-often life-changing experience.

This is another example of the inflation of expectation that has taken place in the last fifty years: what early beer consumer campaigners wanted was a ‘decent pint’, i.e. one that wasn’t ‘lousy’. That’s a pretty modest demand.

You might say it shows a lack of ambition — why aim for merely ‘decent’? What’s the point, when you could reach for the sky, chase your dreams, be all you can be, and so on?

Without highs and lows, on a diet of constant mind-blowing brilliance, it’s easy to lose perspective, and for a beer which is truly excellent by any objective standard to elicit from jaded palates only that monosyllabic response which sums up the age: ‘Meh.’

It’s not always about you

Luckily, I avoided having to drink a Hoopy Mary, improvised by a friend in the absence of tomato juice.
Luckily, I avoided having to drink a Hoopy Mary, improvised by a friend in the absence of tomato juice.

By Bailey

I’ve just come back from a stag weekend. It’s fair to say they’re not my natural environment — I’m too introverted and uptight to really let loose — but this one was fun. At the end, traveling back to Penzance with a disgusting hangover, I realised something: I hadn’t thought about beer all weekend.

Of course, I drank plenty. Heineken from a mini-keg; canned Kronenbourg 1664; even a few very welcome pints of real ale in cosy country pubs. But I wasn’t in charge of the beer or where we drank it, and simply went with the flow.

In fact, refusing to drink what was shoved into my hand, or insisting on one pub over another, would have been a serious social misstep. The point of a weekend like this is for everyone to bond through shared experiences. If any individual should be the centre of attention, it’s the stag or hen, not the prima donna with the sensitive palate demanding special treatment.

Drinking a few dodgy lagers didn’t kill me and, anyway, just as we’ve always found on holiday, they taste better in the right context.

Aside: at one point, I was asked to recommend a hoppy beer in a pub. I didn’t recognise any of them and asked the landlord for advice. He shrugged. “Don’t ask me, mate.” Crap, right?

What is balance in beer?

A man balancing on a bicycle.

‘Balanced’, like ‘clean‘, is one of those words all beer geeks learn from their first primer (usually a book by Michael Jackson, Roger Protz or someone similar) — but what, exactly, does it mean? A bit of argy-bargy on the subject on Twitter got us thinking.

We’ve promised ourselves not to quote every nugget of wisdom from For the Love of Hops because it wouldn’t fair to Stan, but we can’t resist this new addition to the Tao of Keeling:

To have balance in the beer does not mean simply to go to the middle, bland flavours.

So, ‘balanced’ needn’t mean restrained, as long as its unrestrained in every direction at once? The yellow platform shoes will look better if complemented with a feather boa? That kind of thing?

The reason balance has a bad reputation in some quarters is, as Mr Keeling suggests, because some brewers of bland beer use it as a defence mechanism, implying that their critics have no taste.

And, as for the assumption that balance is best… well, yes, usually, it probably is. Most of the time, even if we want to drink an intensely-flavoured beer, we want it to present a Wall of Taste — a cohesive blend. Every now and then, though, a really sweet, bitter, sour, one note beer can be quite fun.

Is balance prized, at least in part, because unbalanced beers are the equivalent of an air horn, while balance requires virtuoso skill? That’s especially true of extreme balancing.