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.

What is beer innovation?

Tomorrow's World on TV.

Dave ‘Hardknott’ Bailey recently wrote a blog post asking the question ‘What is beer innovation?’ It’s a subject that’s interested us for a while, partly because we find the suggestion that ‘it’s all been done before’ a bit depressing, so we thought we’d indulge in some pondering on the subject.

1. Innovation has to mean more than ‘doing something mad’. As Alan has said before, a beer 23 times more salt than malt would be completely new, but would also (probably) be horrible. Sellotaping a toaster to the bonnet is not innovation in car design. Having said that, in any field, you probably have to produce a lot of stinkers on the road to a modern classic.

2. Innovation doesn’t need to be noisy and obnoxious. Golden ale, which emerged as an identifiable niche in the UK market in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, seems like a no-brainer with hindsight, but, until then, British beers that were anything other than black or brown were rare.

3. Doing something ‘old hat’ in a new time, place or context, can seem innovative. Hoegaarden, first brewed in the sixties, was an attempt to recreate the beer of Pierre Celis’s youth, but, when it hit Britain twenty years later, it blew people’s minds. What’s that phrase you see in secondhand shops? ‘New to you.’ Attempts to recreate Devon White Ale or Grätzer might yield similar results, especially once they’ve been tweaked for a modern palate and production methods.

4. Small mutations make something new. The crime novel has been with us for a long time and yet, somehow, small tweaks to the formula keep it going strong. In beer, a new hop variety or tiny development in technique can create something that’s new enough to keep the drinker (or, at least, the beer geek) interested.

5. True innovation defies categorisation, for a while at least. If you can create a beer which gets itself listed under ‘other’, which breaks the classification system at your local beer retailer, and which is the only one of its type, then you might have done something innovative.

6. Innovation will probably be greeted with anger and/or utter disdain. To some, with a particular idea of classical perfection, what is new will always seem wrong — discordant, ugly or perverse. Or even just silly. But your kids are gonna love it.

7. If we could tell you what the next innovation in brewing would be, we’d be millionaires. Or not, but you take our point.

How far has the idea of craft beer spread?

Beer bottle: Harbour Porter No 6

In this post, we’re using ‘craft beer’ to refer to breweries who define themselves or some of their products using that term.

As people ponder the contrast between beer consumption and brewery numbers, two views are emerging at extremes of the spectrum of opinion:

1. Beer has begun its inevitable and long-awaited ascendancy — soon every pub will stock a vast range of interesting beer, there’s no reason the number of breweries should ever stop rising, and everyone will be drinking it. Just look at London. Soon, everywhere will be London! Endless London! Rejoice!

2. Beer is doomed — craft beer is a pathetic little bubble — an idea with no appeal to anyone but geeks. You can’t judge anything by what’s going on in that London. Look at downward overall beer consumption and pub numbers and repent, crafterati! Repent!

From our vantage point up here on the fence, we’ve seen some evidence that craft beer is an idea that is breaking out, if not, perhaps, ‘sweeping the country’, and has some distance left to run.

Our recent trip to Falmouth left us rather astounded as we realised that, in a town with a population of 20,000, there are at least four pubs/bars selling bottled and kegged craft beer (e.g. Five Degrees West, Beerwolf, The Front, Hand Bar) and apparently doing well at it. Self-consciously ‘craft’ local breweries like Rebel of Penryn and Harbour seem to be gaining a foothold in an increasing number of outlets, and the ‘craftier’ end of Sharp’s output is getting easier to find. There’s even a posh off-licence which stocks Mikkeller — one of the horsemen of the craftpocalypse?

Let’s move the goalposts, though, before someone else does: Falmouth is a university town, and full of middle class yachting types, so it doesn’t paint a true picture. What about the real world, Lord and Lady Fauntleroy?

Dammit. Banged to rights. In ‘working towns’ in Cornwall (definition on demand), we’ve seen less evidence of craft beer in the wild. Oddly, it is Molson-Coors-owned Sharp’s that are perhaps having the most impact: it’s a shock to walk in to a bog standard pub and find beers such as Stuart Howe’s Triple A — a cask ale fermented with Belgian yeast — or Hayle Bay Honey IPA, alongside Doom Bar, the ultimate sweetly bland ‘Cornish ale’. The grizzled fellers propping up the bar might find his experiments a bit ‘weird’, but these beers do seem to sell, perhaps because they’re strong.

Otherwise, though, it’s cafes, restaurants and gourmet burger joints where craft beer pops up most often, but, even then, it’s likely to be alongside bottles of execrable contract brewed but nicely branded ‘gift shop beer’, or skunked Corona-aping ‘Cornish lager’: there’s not much indication that local restaurateurs are really engaged with beer in the same way they are with, say, beef, or bread.

If, in six month’s time, there is a craft beer bar in Truro (not a ‘pop up’), and a pub in Penzance which regularly stocks Harbour or Rebel, then we’ll feel comfortable saying that ‘craft beer’ has gone at least a little bit mainstream. Until then, it remains a noisy niche.