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.

Signs and Hints and Signals: No Bloody Swearing!

Publicans find lots of ways to signal who they want to drink in their establishments and, of course, who they don’t.

We’ve been pondering this post on and off for months — maybe even years — but the news today that Samuel Smith of Tadcaster has banned swearing across its entire pub estate brought it into sharp focus. This is surely an attempt to nudge the estate in the direction of upmarket, isn’t it? An indirect way of saying ‘no riff raff’.

These kinds of signs and signals are one of the most powerful tools a publican has when it comes to shaping their clientele. For example, we’ve been collecting these lately:

A set of written rules is in itself a signal: this is a pub run by human beings; it has quirks and character; and bad behaviour, however it is defined, will not be tolerated. But in their detail the rules are a kind of manifesto for each pub — a challenge: ‘This is who we are. If you don’t like it, please go somewhere else.’

About a decade ago, before London had a ton of overt craft beer bars, there were a handful of (literal) signs that publicans used to attract the attention of desirable (that is, relatively wealthy) customers: Illy Coffee Served Here, free Wi-Fi, This is a No Smoking Pub, Board Games Available. There’s nothing there that’s necessarily tied to any particular social class but still it made a statement about the atmosphere you could expect to find inside.

On the flipside, we sometimes interpret a prominently displayed DRUGS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED ON THESE PREMISES poster as a form of advertising: ‘Gotcha. Say no more.’ [wink] More benignly, some aspects of decor that might be off-putting to the snooty — a bucket of sand full of fag ends, SKY SPORTS SHOWN HERE — may well read as reassuringly down-to-earth to others.

The Salutation, Mangotsfield, Bristol.

Then there’s the extravagant display of national symbols. This is a complicated issue which people have no doubt written entire theses and books about. Frankly, we’re nervous even mentioning it but, in brief, displaying any flag is always a choice — what is it intended to say, and to whom? And, more to the point, what do people think it is saying?

Sometimes, even if the message being sent isn’t one that makes you feel welcome, it can still be honest, and oddly helpful. After all, no-one wants to crash a party where they’re not welcome.

It Conceals Its Lardiness Well

Illustration: a packet of lard.

What do we mean when we say we want a boozy beer to really taste boozy?

In yesterday’s review of a Colchester Brewery porter we mentioned our delight at discovering it had only 4.6% alcohol which was perhaps the immediate prompt for this from The Beer Nut:

We reckon we’re in the clear here — we rejected the first of those two options a few years ago, although Duvel (which we worship and adore) might be an exception.

Trying to think of an analogy, the best we could come up with was this: when you eat a 2,000 calorie pizza, you want to taste those calories. So, when people say ‘It was 9% but had the body and flavour of something half the strength — so drinkable!’ it sounds like ‘…but the cheese was so well concealed I was able to eat an extra six slices.’ Which might make sense if you’re bulking up for a marathon, or have a lot of cheese to dispose of for some reason (hey, that’s none of our business) but otherwise, just seems barmy.

An amazing, rich-tasting dessert that turns out to have barely any fat? Great news! Something that seems virtuous but turns out to have a load of hidden filth? Gutted. (The 1993 Seinfeld episode ‘The Non Fat Yogurt’ plays on this very premise.)

Alcohol isn’t good for us. It can, and often does, make us feel like death the day after. We’re willing to accept those downsides for a sufficiently thrilling, deep, mind-blowing beer. Otherwise, we’ll just drink a lighter, simpler, less intense, and probably cheaper beer and swerve the hangover.

But maybe what people really mean, as per Twitter discussion yesterday, is that they want the good things booze brings to beer — body, richness, headiness — without the burn. In which case the fat analogy works: a hugely calorific meal should taste luxurious, silky, unctuous, and all those other words we use to put a positive spin on fat. It shouldn’t taste greasy or oily, like hour-old battered cod from a chippy that doesn’t manage the temperature of its fryers properly.

Things cooked in lard taste great but no-one wants to eat it with a fork.

Yer Actual Racism

Speech bubble in the pub.

What do you when you hear full-on, unapologetic racism being shouted across the public bar?

That’s not a rhetorical question — seriously, what do you do?

Because this has happened a few times over the years, but more to the point a couple of times lately, and we really don’t know how to react.

Just so you can gauge whether you think this is us being excessively politically correct or prissy, here’s a sample dialogue, as close to verbatim as we can manage given that we didn’t have tape recorders out:

CUSTOMER #1
Speaking of terrorists, I’ve had a couple move in next door to me.

CUSTOMER #2
What, terrorists!?

CUSTOMER #1
Well, the wrong colour anyway.

[LAUGHTER]

Bad, right, by any reasonable standard? And, just to be clear, this wasn’t us eavesdropping on a muttered discussion — this was the King of the Bar and one of his courtiers essentially putting on a performance for the other seven or eight — showing off. This came a few minutes later:

CUSTOMER #1
We call him Osama because he looks like a Muslim with that f_____ beard.

CUSTOMER #2
I’m not a Muslim!

PUBLICAN/BARMAN
No, but you could be a f_____ Jew with that nose!

That’s not well-meaning clumsiness in an attempt to have a free and frank discussion about the issues of the day — it’s like something from the 1950s.

Racists exist, and they have to drink somewhere, we suppose, but can they not find something else to talk about for an hour when they’re out? It might also be good to hear someone behind the bar say, as a bare minimum, ‘Alright, change the subject.’ Rather, that is, than joining in, as in this case.

Given that we were strangers in this particular pub, and the approving audience of big blokes, we did nothing but squirm. We suppose we could have stood up and said, with quavering voices, ‘Hey, come on now, that’s not on!’ but, in that moment, it didn’t feel like a good idea. (See Mark and Hali on the difficult reality of ‘calling people out’.)

As it is, slightly stunned and anxious, we just drank up, left, and can’t imagine feeling comfortable going back.

Before anyone suggests it, having failed to register a complaint at the time, we’re not inclined to ‘name and shame’ — it just doesn’t quite feel right, at the moment. But maybe our instincts are wrong.

Seriously, we are asking for advice here: what should we do next time? And what, if anything, have you done in similar situations?

Confession Time — Which Beers Are You Embarrassed to Like?

Text: CRUSH ON YOU.

Why do people feel uncomfortable admitting to liking (or disliking) certain beers? And which beers do you have a secret soft spot for?

We were prompted to ponder this subject by this Tweet from Rhys Daltrey:

Twitter screenshot: "Embarrassing​ revelation: I have a weakness for Tanglefoot. I keep it quiet, so as not to spoil my 'craft' pretensions..."

As it happens, we too have more time for certain Badger beers than you might expect. They were among the earliest ales we really got to know at Hall & Woodhouse outposts in London, as well as during a series of holidays in Dorset and around. We don’t talk about them much these days because the bottles don’t excite us — they seem to taste particularly stewed even by the standards of supermarket ales — and we don’t get much chance to drink the cask incarnations, but we’re certainly not embarrassed to mention them.

Perhaps it’s a result of having blogged about beer for 9.99999 years but we’re not much ashamed to admit to liking, or disliking anything. We’ve paid our dues and if we say we do or don’t like a beer, it’s an honest reaction. (Which is not to say it might not be stupid, misinformed or confused — that’s a whole separate issue.)

Even now, though, we know we’ll draw a bit of fire if we express a liking for, or even tolerance of, certain beers. That’s why we so often resort to the language of extreme subjectivity, such as ‘soft spot’ above — like Rhys, we couch it almost as a failing on our part.

Another approach is to go on the offensive: unlike you sheeple, I controversially like Budweiser/Bass/Special Brew, and if you’ve got a problem with that, you can see me outside in the car park. It’s the same thing though, really — an acknowledgement that The Community won’t approve.

Be Honest, Fess Up

What we’d like to see, more generally, is people stating plainly what they like, and what they don’t. There’s no wrong or right answer, and you don’t need special expertise or training to know whether a beer tastes good to you, right now. (Even if down the line you might be baffled by your own judgement.)

People holding back from expressing an honest view skews the whole conversation to a handful of consensus breweries and beers.

And, of course, for that to happen, others need to respect the preferences of others. (Last year, someone told us they were disappointed in us for naming Duvel as a great Belgian beer. Weird, right?)

With all that in mind, let’s have an amnesty: which beers do you have a secret crush on that you don’t want the kids at school to know about?

And you can also tell us which beers you know you ‘ought’ to like but don’t, although we actually had a pretty good round-out on a related topic a couple of months back.

Here are some beers we feel slightly naughty liking — but nonetheless publicly admitted to liking — in recent months, to get the ball rolling: Guinness (Bailey, every now and then); Hoegaarden (not what it used to be, apparently); Bass (NWIUTB); Marston’s Pedigree (NWIUTB); LIDL’s own-brand Bière de Garde; Ringwood Forty-Niner (cask, at The Farmer’s).