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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