Cheating by Making Tasty Beer

Watney Fined Bitter beer mat.Last week, every­one got in a prop­er tizz over an eccen­tric rant about ‘craft keg’ in the pro­gramme for a local beer fes­ti­val. We thought it an inter­est­ing state­ment of a par­tic­u­lar (extreme) point of view, and were espe­cial­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by this line:

The only thing that has changed 1974 to 2013 is that cyn­i­cal Craft brew­ers, in an attempt to hide the poten­tial­ly bland char­ac­ter­is­tics of their beers, have cho­sen to cham­pi­on the new breed of super hopped US-style IPAs and or sledge­ham­mer Impe­r­i­al Stouts among their beer range.

The sug­ges­tion seems to be that giv­ing these beers intense flavours and aro­mas is a con trick designed to daz­zle the drinker into over­look­ing the essen­tial soul­less­ness of the prod­uct, ‘bland­ness’ being mis­used in this con­text. (The music is real­ly loud to con­ceal its poten­tial quiet­ness?)

It brought to our minds the time in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties when the Big Six began launch­ing or re-launch­ing cask ales, once CAMRA had become a seri­ous nui­sance. They were not main­stream prod­ucts, on the whole – you had to know where to look, and be will­ing to pay through the nose – and only Ind Coope Draught Bur­ton Ale real­ly seems to have excit­ed any­one. Nonethe­less, CAM­RA’s Nation­al Exec­u­tive were oblig­ed to wel­come them. There was some dis­sent – arguably the orig­i­nal ‘craft vs. crafty’ debate – but what else could CAMRA do, hav­ing built the Cam­paign around the sim­ple rule that cask=good and keg=bad?

We can’t help but feel that, in some mys­te­ri­ous way, it was an under­hand tac­tic on the part of the brew­ers. Echo­ing the writer above, weren’t they, in an attempt to hide the poten­tial­ly bland char­ac­ter­is­tics of their beers, and the monop­o­lis­tic ten­den­cies of their huge com­pa­nies, choos­ing to cham­pi­on the then hot trend for ‘real ale’?

Some­times, the rela­tion­ship between com­merce and con­sumer feels less like a bat­tle, with obvi­ous win­ners and losers, and more like Cold War espi­onage, where the moves are sub­tle, and the out­come won’t real­ly be clear for years to come. In a sit­u­a­tion like that, those with rigid rules are eas­i­ly out­ma­noeu­vred.

8 thoughts on “Cheating by Making Tasty Beer”

  1. I’m afraid my mon­ey is with the eccen­tic ranter.
    Over-pow­er­ing use of hops in the ongo­ing dick-wav­ing con­test between craft brew­ers ren­ders much of their out­put undrink­able to even my une­d­u­cat­ed palate which has swilled all sorts of bizarre slops in its time.
    This obses­sion with exces­sive hops is also, I believe, the rea­son why craft brew­ing will remain a niche mar­ket.

  2. U.S. or U.S.-style IPA is not so much super-hopped as hopped (main­ly, or for aro­ma any­way) with New World hop vari­eties that taste very dif­fer­ent to tra­di­tion­al Eng­lish ones and Con­ti­nen­tal ones. It is that taste that many find “hop­py” but again it is the kind of hops used, not real­ly the amount that sets them apart and rais­es (some­times) hack­les. Many Eng­lish beers were, and some still are, just as hop­py i.e. in terms of IBUs and oth­er indi­cia. On this blog recent­ly some recalled some steely bit­ters from 30 years ago such as Young’s Bit­ter, but many exam­ples still exist. I was shocked how bit­ter Holt’s beer was about 10 years ago, I doubt its IBUs was that dif­fer­ent to the aver­age IBU of Amer­i­can pale ale of sim­i­lar grav­i­ty.

    I pre­fer to look at the U.S. pale ale as a new style, one either likes them or does not, but hop­pi­ness as such is not (IMO) the cor­rect charge to lev­el at them.

    As for stuff­ing Impe­r­i­al stouts – and some of those IPAS – with malt, hey that is how Eng­lish beer was brewed over 130 years ago years, it’s not new, just the return of an Eng­lish tra­di­tion. It hard­ly seems apt to rue some­thing dis­tant­ly local albeit appear­ing in for­eign guise. Cer­tain­ly it is fair not to like these beers, but then one should say, I pre­fer the low-hopped and malt-sug­ar grist beers of today rather than the ones our ances­tors made.

    Gary

  3. I did smile when I read that line about brew­ers hid­ing the essen­tial bland­ness of their beers by giv­ing them strong flavours – fiendish! It’s a bit like say­ing that brew­ers are dis­guis­ing the strength of strong beers by cut­ting the alco­hol.

    Still, I think the writer may have had half a point. I’ve just done a run-down on Craft Keg I Have Tried on my blog, and one fea­ture that leaps out is the way that the flavours seem to be dialled down, rel­a­tive to equiv­a­lent or sim­i­lar cask beers. (I likened my first taste of Mag­ic Rock Curi­ous (cask) to being vig­or­ous­ly smacked about the face with hops, like an alco­holic Tan­go advert. Can­non­ball (keg, twice the strength) was… OK. Very drink­able. Quite a nice drop. Bit dif­fer­ent, real­ly.)

    Per­haps the idea is that keg­ging tends to dull the edge of flavours, & brew­ers adjust to this by turn­ing up the hop­ping to 11 – so you may get beers with a big flavour, but you won’t tend to get a very com­plex or inter­est­ing flavour.

    1. Per­haps the idea is that keg­ging tends to dull the edge of flavours, & brew­ers adjust to this by turn­ing up the hop­ping to 11 – so you may get beers with a big flavour, but you won’t tend to get a very com­plex or inter­est­ing flavour.’
      Maybe it’s the dif­fer­ence between wear­ing a con­dom and not dur­ing sex…you still enjoy it but it is very dif­fer­ent…

  4. Just to back up a bit what I said, a 2003 review of a 4% ABV Holt’s bit­ter on beer­ad­vo­cate says it had 39 IBUs. An inter­web source states that Sier­ra Neva­da Pale Ale has 37 IBUs. Sier­ra Neva­da is at least 5% AVB, thus, 20% stronger yet low­er-hopped. One might view the “real” IBU of the Holt’s, i.e. by way of com­par­i­son, as 48. Yet Sier­ra Neva­da, prob­a­bly the gran-dad of all APA and Amer­i­can-style IPA, is viewed as rather hop­py. It is because of the Cas­cade hops used as the aro­ma hop, the bit­ter­ing hops are dif­fer­ent vari­eties, Mag­num and Per­le I think. Thus, to say Sier­ra Neva­da is super-hopped to avoid being sold with a heavy sed­i­ment (well, it has some in the bot­tle but not much, dit­to the can) just isn’t so IMO. It is a dif­fer­ent taste, a dif­fer­ent ani­mal to Eng­lish beer whether tra­di­tion­al in cast as the Holt’s was or the many cur­rent eas­i­er-going types.

    Gary

  5. Fined Bit­ter. When I wrote about the Ten­ter­den a few years ago I could­n’t remem­ber the name. Fined Bit­ter. I was­n’t that keen, so I’d get a half in a pint glass and top it up with a bot­tle of Guin­ness (bot­tle-con­di­tioned and a love­ly drop in those days.) Sort of do-it-your­self Mild.

    Lat­er Tru­man did the cask thing serous­ly and had a love­ly set of beers, includ­ing a Mild.

    1. Sort of do-it-your­self Mild.

      If only you’d thought to tip a bot­tle of Gold Label in as well – you could have re-invent­ed porter. (I don’t need to use smi­leys here, do I?)

  6. I can see the gob­lin t‑shirts now, “what’s the mat­ter, afraid you might not taste some­thing craft­beer­boy?”

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