QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.

Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful

Illustration: "Criticism". (Mouth spouting critical jargon.)

The debate about whether bad reviews help or hinder never goes away.

Broadly speaking there are two points of view:

1. Publicly criticising breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by harming struggling independent breweries in particular. And, anyway, it’s more fun to concentrate on writing about things you like — do these miseries who moan constantly actually even like beer?

2. Only writing positively about breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by depressing expectations of the quality of beer from small, independent breweries in particular. And anyway, cheery-beery Everything is Awesome writing is boring — how can you trust someone who apparently never encounters a bad beer?

We linked to posts broadly aligned to each of those arguments in Saturday’s news round up but there are plenty of others. Here’s Jenn at Under the Influence, for example, arguing in favour of emphasising the positive.

We think that the tension comes from the difference between the general and the specific. Brewer X might agree in the abstract that honesty is the best policy, and that consumers ought to be demanding, perhaps on the assumption (subconscious or otherwise) that such a culture will favour their lovingly-made beer over lesser products. By all means, expose those charlatans!

But when Blogger Y states bluntly that, actually, Brewer X’s beer isn’t much good, it’s hard for Brewer X not to respond by kicking the wastebasket. Don’t they know how hard we work? Don’t they know how tough the market is?

If there’s a downside to negative beer reviews beyond that unpleasant thump to the chest for the brewer it’s that they might contribute to some hive-mindery, leading people to mindlessly dismiss a beer they would otherwise have enjoyed. But we think that influence is actually more likely to go the other way, generating positive responses to beers that aren’t really that amazing.

Meanwhile, at their best, what bad reviews can offer is a kick up the bum. We’re certain that, even if they play it cool, there are some breweries out there whose response to a run of criticism has been to review their approach and up their game.

Bad reviews also increase the value of good reviews: if everything is great, then nothing is great.

On balance, we think people should review beer in whichever way they feel comfortable — there are audiences for both approaches after all. We’re going to keep being as honest as we can, which means being disappointed more often than not, but we won’t judge anyone else for doing otherwise.

What really matters, and what really is good for the industry, is the idea that beer is worth thinking, talking and writing about, whether negatively or positively.

QUICK ONE: In My Day, 2017 Edition

A smartphone against the backdrop of a pub.

‘Whatever happened to having a conversation, instead of tapping away at screens? That’s what I want to know.’

We’ve been on the receiving end of a version of that heckle twice in the past month. What we did to earn it was, of course, being caught in the pub with one or more smartphones out.

There are all sorts of good reasons for looking at your phone in the pub, even in company. In our case, we’re often taking notes for one project or other, tinkering with a photo of the very pub we’re in for social media, or looking up the answer to an important question that’s come up like, what is the etymology of the word ‘poo’? (Only used to refer to faeces in the UK since the 1960s, apparently.)

In other words, it’s part of the way we make conversation, not an obstruction to it.

And, anyway, we’ve been together for very nearly 20 years so if one of us does want the other to put down their phone, we’re pretty comfortable just saying: ‘Oi! Give me some attention! You’re being boring.’

Both times we’ve received this kind of telling off it’s come from older men and hasn’t felt friendly, or as if was intended as a conversation starter — just like a kind of drive by judgement.

Why do people do insert themselves into other people’s business this way? And does it bother you to see people looking at screens in the pub?

Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion

Two cloudy beers in fancy glasses.
Cloudwater NE DIPA (left) and BrewDog Vermont IPA V4.

The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy — it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.

We’ve kept our minds open until now pushing back against the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of principle. We wrote about Moor, the brewery that pioneered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Britannia, highlighting that, whatever you think of the trend, it wasn’t something Justin Hawke embarked on carelessly — it came out of personal preference and experimentation. Then for CAMRA’s quarterly BEER magazine last year we pulled together various bits of evidence underlining that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among connoisseurs and, indeed, has sometimes been seen as a mark of quality.

But at the same time — on the fence as ever — we’ve maintained a certain scepticism about the hazy, hoppy beers we’ve actually encountered in real life. We’ve continued looking for chances to drink IPAs with cloudiness as a flagship feature, especially anything labelled Vermont or NE IPA, trying to understand.

At BrewDog Bristol on Friday we were able to drink two different takes side by side — the first time this opportunity has ever presented itself — and in so doing, something clicked.

BrewDog draught beer menu.

BrewDog Vermont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth experimental iteration and struck us instantly as overwhelmingly sweet — like a cornershop canned mango drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, gritty or musty. It was clean, within its own parameters. Cloudwater NE Double IPA with Mosaic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incredibly similar clearly drawing on the same source of inspiration but better and more complex: pineapple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sickly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoyable with the bitterness dialled right up to compensate for the muffling effect of the yeast haze, and to balance the fruitiness. Or, we suppose, with the haze dialled down to let the bitterness through.

Fortunately, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Vermont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milkiness of the previous two beers. The barman told us it was the first batch of the successor to the numbered V series. There was a snatch of garlicky armpit aroma we could have done without but, overall, it was just the mix of soft tropical lushness and diamond-hard bitterness that we were after. It was very good and proof, perhaps, that systematic batch-by-batch experimentation with customer feedback can pay off.

Back to the New England style, then: is purpose of the suspended yeast stuff (protein more than yeast — thanks, Emma) to soften and dull the bitterness? If so, and assuming that both BrewDog and Cloudwater know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone American originals, we can certainly see the appeal. Bitterness can be challenging, spiky, hard to love; whereas sweetness and fruitiness are accessible, easygoing characteristics. Good fun. Soft sells.

So, we’re now convinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing — a perfectly legitimate, interesting, coherent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than thinking of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re never going to be fans — not with our frazzled middle-aged palates — but, as with some other marginal beer styles, will certainly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of variety.

Side notes

We also got to try Verdant Headband (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at BrewDog and found it much better than the cans, although still rather one-dimensional. Again, more bitterness might have filled a hole here.

And the beer of the session — the only one that really knocked our socks off — was Cloudwater’s Double India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing traditionalists invent when satirising craft beer but, in fact, was an extremely happy marriage of traditions. Depending on your angle of view it is either (a) a characterful bock with a livening twist of citrus or (b) a pleasingly clean, crystalline, well-mannered IPA.

It was, suffice to say, perfectly clear.

What Makes a Beer an [X]-ian Beer?

“If a beer has German malt, US hops and Belgian yeast, can it really be called a Belgian style beer?” That’s a good, if puzzling, question.

Michael Lally from Bushcraft Beer asked it on Twitter while putting together an episode of his podcast and we gave a 140-character answer: yes, because Belgian beer often uses foreign malt and hops, but the yeast is the source of its essential character.

Roman, a Belgian-born Londoner who brews ‘modern beers abstracted from classic Belgian styles’ at Solvay Society seems to broadly agree, as per this blog post:

The fruity and spicy notes that we have come to identify as ‘Belgian’ are the result of by-products generated by yeast during fermentation. Many Belgian beers — such as the tripel, wit and saison — have characteristic clove and white pepper aromas… Fruitiness in beer can be derived from hops, but it is also the result of esters… It’s quite clear therefore that we associate certain flavours and aromas with Belgian beers, many of which have been derived from the choice of yeast and fermentation profile.

But what about this: a Belgian brewer operating in Belgium uses US hops, British malt, and lager yeast shipped from a lab in Germany, to make a 4.5% ABV beer with no spicy or fruity notes; at the same time, a British brewer ships in Belgian malt, Belgian hops and a bucket of Westmalle yeast to make a 9% Trappist-style tripel in Barnsley. Which is more Belgian?

The other week when we considered a similar question — is Belgian a flavour? — someone (we can’t remember who — maybe Roman again?) suggested that Belgianness was as much about approach as ingredients. In other words, a Belgian will somehow make a beer taste Belgian under any circumstances.

This article from Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium, on how Belgian brewers approach the global trend for in-your-face hoppy beer, provides evidence for and against:

[With] a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle… [But at the] Modeste [festival] in Antwerp… [the] winning beer was called Hip-Hop, and it claimed 100-plus IBUs using Columbus, Simcoe and Citra. It tasted more like 50 IBUs, with enough malt to carry it off… Come to think of it, it didn’t taste very Belgian. Maybe we should be afraid after all.

From Specific to General

This isn’t just about Belgian beer — you could ask the same kind of question about American, Czech, English or German beer. Or Yorkshire bitter.

At this point we started to think about a philosophical puzzle we only dimly understand — the Sorites paradox:

1,000,000 grains is a heap. If 1,000,000 grains is a heap then 999,999 grains is a heap. So 999,999 grains is a heap. If 999,999 grains is a heap then 999,998 grains is a heap. So 999,998 grains is a heap. If …… So 1 grain is a heap.

With apologies to any real philosophers who might be reading, we take the point of this thought exercise to be that you either (a) accept 1 grain of sand is a heap or (b) acknowledge that some things in life, like how many individual hairs you can have and still be considered bald, cannot be made precise, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless or non-existent. (See also: ‘craft beer’.)

There are many, many variables that contribute to a beer’s national or regional identity; if you flip each switch, one at a time, at which point does that identity cease to be?

Actually, hmm, this is worryingly close to being more generally, real-world political. That yeast answer we came up with first was much simpler.