The Politics of Hops

Buy British Tea poster.

There’s been a flurry of discussion this week around the impact of last year’s EU referendum on British beer, and what might be yet to come, which has given us a new angle on the old schism.

First, there was this piece in the Guardian in which various figures in UK craft brewing expressed concerns about the supply of equipment and material in a post-referendum world:

‘Everybody’s noticed it and it’s to be expected because you’re importing hops from places like the US and Europe,’ said Andrew Paterson, head brewer at Dark Star Brewing in West Sussex. ‘It’s also the case for steel tanks, kegs, yeast manufactured in Holland, anything that’s imported. We’re not going to compromise on quality so it’s an ongoing cost.’

This isn’t the first article along these lines that’s appeared since last June and this response from our neighbourhood Euro-sceptic is a good summary of the reaction from conservatives (small c):

That same argument was made at greater length by veteran beer writer Roger Protz (disclosure: he’s always been very helpful with our research and we owe him many pints) in a letter to the Guardian yesterday:

The notion that British beer drinkers should have to pay higher prices as a result of rising costs of imported grain and hops is easily countered by suggesting brewers buy home-grown ingredients. It’s absurd to import grain when it’s widely acknowledged that maritime barley – as grown in Norfolk and Suffolk – delivers the finest flavour and the best sugars for fermentation… English Fuggles and Goldings [hops] are prized throughout the world for their distinctive aromas and flavours of pepper, spice, pine and orange. Is he unaware of such new English varieties as Endeavour and Jester developed in recent years that offer more of the rich citrus notes demanded by many craft brewers?

Of course he’s right — Britain does have great brewing ingredients and if hop and malt imports ceased outright tomorrow, life would go on. And, in fact, we would also like to see British brewers exploring British ingredients with fresh eyes and a bit of imagination.

But here’s the thing: it should be a choice, not an unintended consequence. Fuggles cannot adequately replace Citra or Simcoe, and using English ingredients purely out of grim necessity would be, as the Beer Nut suggested, a rather depressing compromise. Woolton Pie in beer form.

At the root of the Buy British school of thought it seems to us there are a couple of wrongheaded thoughts. First, we think some people believe the popularity of pale, hoppy American-influenced beers threatens the very existence of traditional English bitter — that they are the thin end of a wedge which will inevitably lead to total domination. It’s true that some brewers are producing proportionally less bitter and more hoppy golden ale than they used to but it feels to us like a balance, not a battle. If trad bitter really starts to look endangered, trust us, we’ll join you on the barricades, but who can seriously say they struggle to get a pint of something brown and old-school in Britain in 2017? Bitter and best bitter still occupy at least eight of the ten pumps at our local Wetherspoon, for example.

Secondly, there’s the idea that people ought to like beers other than the ones they currently profess to enjoy and that, with some pressure and education, they’ll learn to love the hops they’re with rather than yearning be with the hops they love.

There might be some room to bring people round to old-school flavours — to drink Harvey’s Sussex Best is to love it, after all– but we’ve got no doubt that there are plenty of beer drinkers out there who, if the only option was session bitter brewed with Fuggles or Goldings, would just switch to lager, or gin, or, blimey, anything else. They are interested in beer,  they have tried traditional bitter, and they just don’t like it. Seriously. Honestly. It isn’t a pose.

And there are quite a few brewers who probably feel the similar — who would rather give up altogether than brew with only UK hops. Can you imagine a chef specialising in Asian cuisine whose supply of coriander and ginger dried up getting excited at the prospect of going back to making steak and kidney pies?

You might say, ‘Fine, good riddance, I like steak and kidney pie, I’m alright, Jack,’ but we’ll be left with a less diverse, less healthy beer culture. Much as we love to wallow in the 1970s and 1980s in our research, we don’t want to restore that backup and lose 30 years of work, thanks very much.

Of course we don’t know how serious a worry this really is. Perhaps things will settle down and the C-hops will keep coming after all, or perhaps things will go off the rails altogether in which case we’ll have bigger things to worry about. Frankly, it’s hard to get a read at the moment because any discussion about the impact of the referendum, however thoughtful, is taken to be campaign propaganda by one side or the other and drowned out by yelling.

But while we wait for the dust to settle we’re going to drink as much as Oakham Citra as we can get hold of.

Craft: The Lost Word

Graffiti illustration: CRAFT BEER?

There was a little flare up on Twitter yesterday over this post by Richard Coldwell in which he argues that Früh Kölsch is not ‘craft’.

A few years ago, when this debate was at its frankly tedious height, we were pretty happy with the meaning of the phrase as derived from Michael Jackson and other early beer writers: it was a catch-all term referring to any interesting, distinctive beer, as opposed to the uninteresting, homogeneous products of larger (often international) brewers. (Definition 1.) Sure, you could pick holes in it, but it was a broad, inclusive buzz-phrase that had room for cask ale, lager, Belgian beer, and for breweries founded 100 or more years ago.

But people who had the influence to shore up this definition opted out. They didn’t like the term and wanted nothing to do with it, which is fair enough, except rather than making it go away, that left it undefended.

Sometime around 2014-2015 it became obvious that the meaning had changed: to most people in the UK, ‘craft beer’, insofar as it meant anything, meant beer that wasn’t real ale, that wasn’t a pint of bitter, that wasn’t from an old brewery, and that looked something like this:

Samples of craft beer branding.

(That is, definition 2.)

Yes, this situation is messed up, and superficial, and especially baffling to people from outside Europe for whom our old brewing traditions are the epitome of craft. But it’s reality.

We like Richard’s blog — he writes regularly, interestingly, and tells us things we don’t already know, based on his own explorations — and we’re going to stick up for him here. Sure, we might have made the point a little more tentatively than he did but we don’t think, seen in context (he’s a bit disappointed with his craft beer advent calendar) that what he’s saying is especially outrageous, or even incorrect.

The fact is, in 2016, people ordering a mixed mystery box of CRAFT BEER probably don’t expect to find Belgian, British or German standards in the mix — the kind of things that appeared in Michael Jackson’s various beer guides between the 1970s and the 1990s. He certainly considered Früh Kölsch a craft, artisanal, boutique beer (all words he used at one point or another to mean essentially the same thing) but, again, that broad definition has slipped away from us. Someone who got into beer in the last year or two, or who is just learning their way, would probably find it baffling: to them ‘craft’ means, quite specifically, ‘A bit like BrewDog’ (or Stone, or Cloudwater — you get the idea).

The term got released into the wild, it evolved, and now it doesn’t care what you think it means even though you reared it from a cub. Or, to put that another way, you can’t reject and ridicule a term and then expect to police how it is used.

We blew it, chaps. Now we’ve got to live with it.

Where Does the AB-InBev Craft Project End?

It’s been a while since AB took over a craft brewery but today, they struck again, taking over a Texas brewery we’d never heard of but…

Here’s a quickly hacked together map of the US states where AB-InBev has acquired breweries so far:

Map of the US with AB-InBev acquisition states (Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Illinois, Virginia, New York, Arizona, Colorado) marked in yellow.
SOURCE: Adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

(Note: that’s Alaska and Hawaii tucked in underneath for tidiness as is the norm for discrete maps of the US.)

Can you see a strategy emerging? We’re not sure we can, not quite yet, but there might be a vague correlation with states where people have relatively higher incomes. If what’s driving their decisions is that, combined with a reach for geographical coverage — which would make some kind of sense — then we’d be placing bets on the next target being a fast-growing brewery in the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, North Dakota). After that… Maybe they’ll just go all in and aim for a presence in every state?

Continue reading “Where Does the AB-InBev Craft Project End?”

QUICK POST: A Craft Eat Craft World

"Are All Beers The Same?"

It seems to us that we might have entered a new phase in which craft breweries (def. 2) are explicitly in competition with each other, rather than at war with Big Beer.

That thought was prompted by the announcement by London brewery Brew By Numbers (AKA BBNo) that they are going to include bottled-on dates on all their hoppy beers from now on.

We think this is a laudable move — the more information the better — even if we’re not wholly convinced by the fetishisation of beers that have to be consumed within eight minutes of leaving the brewery, at great inconvenience to distributors and outlets.

But why are they doing it? We’d guess it’s because, in a market where lots of breweries — lots of London breweries, even — are making beer similar to and (give or take) as good as Brew By Numbers, they need to do something to stand out. This isn’t about looking better or more interesting than, say, John Smith’s, or Carslberg — that battle is won — but about competing with Beavertown or Five Points.

The same perhaps goes for Manchester’s Cloudwater whose wonderfully transparent recipe development process isn’t a challenge to AB-InBev but to the other cool kids, and especially to those who were cool a decade or more ago.

When BrewDog came along raging at both Big Beer and the CAMRA-affiliated bitter-brewing microbrewery fraternity (you can debate the sincerity of that rage amongst yourselves) they could score points easily: it didn’t take much to seem fresh. But nowadays, it requires a big gesture, like publishing all their recipes in a free e-book, to maintain their dominant position.

All this might be good news for consumers — more transparency, fundamentally better beer quality — but we understand why it might leave some mourning the days when everyone was in it together.

The point is, in 2011, being Well Craft was enough; now, you’ve got to be Crafter then Craft to get noticed. Where will it end?

Accessibility, or Why People Don’t Like Beer

Detail from old beer label: BITTER ALE.

A bit of discussion broke out in the comments on Monday’s post about what is or is not ‘accessible’ beer.

When we were first getting into beer as young twenty-somethings it was via Greene King IPA, Leffe, Erdinger and Hoegaarden, all of which are considered bland by modern standards. For us, they were just stimulating enough without being scary. (We still like Hoegaarden, the others less so.) In our experience, then, there is definitely something in the idea of so-called gateway beers.

But we also know people who didn’t show any interest in beer until they’d tried a really hoppy IPA. In their own way, a different way, they are gateway beers too: as well as being extravagant and flowery, they are often also on the sweet side, whatever the raw IBU data might suggest. Balanced, if you like, only with lots on both sides of the scale. If your palate is used to cocktails, spirits, wine, cider, coffee or other strongly-flavoured drinks, they don’t necessarily seem overly intense or alcoholic, while at the same time challenging ideas of what beer has to be.

(Thinner session-strength beers with lots of hops, on the other hand, can be a challenge, with little body or sweetness to protect the tastebuds from sheer sap-sucking dryness — it took us a while to get used to pale’n’hoppy, which is now pretty much our favourite thing in the world.)

When people tell you they don’t like beer, what reasons do they give? We tend to hear:

  1. It’s too bitter!’ Even of quite sweet beers, so we’re not always sure it’s actually bitterness they mean. ‘Brownness’, maybe? Or perhaps just a general nasty staleness.
  2. ‘It’s too much — I get bloated and sleepy.’ A matter of volume. People still don’t feel comfortable ordering halves and, when they do, they’re often poorly presented. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, people also seem to find fizzier beers less soporific, and more refreshing.
  3. ‘I’m just not a beer person’, or variations thereon. If you’re trying to portray a glamorous riviera lifestyle on Instagram or Facebook, beer doesn’t seem to quite cut it.

So accessible beer, for many people, might be relatively low in (perceived) bitterness, possibly served in smaller measures, and attractively presented (glassware or packaging). And for others who recoil at ‘fanciness’ it might mean a pint of Doom Bar, which we find utterly boring, but which it turns out has a lot of very sincere, even evangelistic fans.

Which explains a lot about supermarkets and multi-nationals are taking these days — not, perhaps, a race to the bottom but a race for the accessible end of the market.