The Community Is Real, Even if You Don’t Go to the Meetings

Illustration: All Together Now

Martyn Cornell is wrong: there is a craft beer community.

We see evidence all the time of people meeting up in strange parts of the world; swapping bottles, stories and information; crashing in each other’s spare bedrooms; organising events and competitions; collaborating on blogs and podcasts; going to weddings and birthday parties, often at great inconvenience; and supporting each other during difficult times.

There are people whose social lives are defined by it, whose careers have been determined by connections so made, and who met their partners at beer festivals.

That doesn’t mean everybody who is interested in beer is necessarily part of the Community. We’re not, really, through choice. (Sorry, stranger-who-also-likes-beer, but, no, you cannot sleep on our sofa.) But the Community doesn’t cease to be just because standoffish sorts decide not to join in.

Within the community, there are cliques, too — concentrated expressions of community which, by definition, are also exclusive. Oh, yes, the Community can certainly be fractious, petty and mean-spirited. But actually, all that soap opera — all the emotional explosions, break-ups and schisms — seem to us like evidence of the Community’s reality, and its complexity. (See also: the communities that grow up around anything, from churches to football teams.)

The Community has no single point of view, no leader, no chief spokesperson. There is no membership card or secret handshake.

From outside, the Community can sometimes look exploitative, too. How do you tell the difference between (a) businesses whose owners feel a real sense of belonging to, and duty towards, a craft beer community, and (b) cynical pretence? Or, somewhere in between, businesses that start out as the former and drift towards the latter as outside investment approaches.

Martyn is right, though, when he says that businesses don’t owe the Community anything. If a brewery decides to sell, in part or in whole, it is not obliged to consult the Community, or apologise.

But if they expect to benefit from the Community during the startup phase, in terms of PR, labour, and even financial investment, then it only seems fair to allow those who perceive themselves to be part of that Community a moment of dismay when the brewery withdraws from the informal contract. (Dismay not including abuse, of course, especially when directed at staff manning social media.)

Or, to put all that another way, the Community is real, but it isn’t universal, isn’t Utopia, and shouldn’t be a cult. It is certainly more than a single Facebook group.

Tripel Off, Round 1, Game 2 — Straffe Hendrik vs Karmeliet vs Achel

This group in our taste-off of Belgian and Belgian-style tripels represents the stars of the second division — beers lacking the name recognition of Westmalle or Chimay but with similar character and quality.

We had initially intended to include only Straffe Hendrik and Achel but when we asked our Patreon subscribers to review the contenders there was a strong lobby for Karmeliet to be included. Rather than bump anything, though, we decided to try a three-way match.

Thought this is only a bit of fun we did think it was worthwhile doing a bit of unscientific blind-ish tasting: Jess had a vague idea of the longlist of beers but Ray poured and served them so she wouldn’t know which was which.

  • Straffe Hendrik, glass X, £3.10, Beer Merchants online
  • Tripel Karmeliet, glass Y, £3.29, Corks of Cotham, Bristol
  • Achel Blonde, glass Z, £2.60, Beer Merchants online

Three glasses of beer lined up.

They looked remarkably different, ranging from dark orange (SH) to lager pale (TK) to a sort of golden yellow (AB). Karmeliet had a much higher level of carbonation than the others and was hard to pour without it blooming up and spilling.

As before, here’s a read-out of Jess’s raw responses:

Glass X: It’s nice, I like that one a lot. Really bang on spec for the style. A very classically tripel-y tripel.
Glass Y: Oh, I also like this one. Is it a bit… milky, maybe? Very different, lots going on. Plenty of spiciness.
Glass Z: This seems pretty watery. It’s quite grassy. Lacking depth by comparison. My least favourite.

I’d rank them X, Y, Z, just how they came, but I do like them all. They’re all essentially flawless.

Ray, who knew the beers, noted:

X: Great! A bit savoury, though? A slight bum note.
Y: Heavy, heavy body, lots of interesting flavours — layer upon layer. German white wine? Peaches?
Z: Yeah, what Jess said. Seems very thin alongside those other two, and one-dimensional.

Three beer bottles.

We were both surprised to prefer Karmeliet to Achel but concluded that this Karmeliet seemed quite different to the beer we remembered from previous encounters, being less sweet and more subtle. And Achel, billed as Blonde but usually classified as a tripel, really did seem to have more in common with Leffe than Westmalle on this occasion.

Then came the vote.

Ray: Karmeliet. Complex and fascinating, and I love the huge foam.
Jess: Straffe Hendrik. A more balanced beer, rich without being over the top.

So we gave the Patreon crew the deciding vote and the beer they chose, which goes through to the next round, was, by a very narrow margin…

Tripel Karmeliet!

Next time: The New Wave.

Birth of the Beer Can, 1935

In the week that Thornbridge announced it would begin canning beer after years of resistance we happened across an amusing article on the same subject in a 1935 edition of the New Yorker magazine.

It appeared without byline in the ‘Talk of the Town’ section in the issue for 30 November and begins like this:

We resigned from the Foreign Legion last week and joined the war between the beer-bottle people and the beer-can people. It is a lot more fun. We spent the entire week teasing bottle men about cans, and can men about bottles. “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Hopper, of the Continental Can Company, “that glass is a better insulator than tin?” “Is it a fact,” we asked Mr. Norrington, of the Glass Container Association of American, “that beer in Continental Cans is how beer ought to taste?” “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Odquist, of the American Can Company, “that the use of the can is complicated by the uncertain vicissitudes of international trade and amity?” We even called up Ruppert’s and asked them if it was a fact they were still put beer in funny old-fashioned bottles, instead of in “keg-lined cans” that have that “fresh from the brewery” flavor. They got so excited they made us come up to the brewery and take a blindfold test to see if we could tell draught beer from bottled beer. We failed, time and time again, time and time again. Gol darn, we’ve had fun lately!

Continental Can Company ad, c.1935.
SOURCE: Pinterest, unfortunately; probably from a magazine like Colliers which we know ran ads with this copy in 1935.

The article goes on to describe attempts by the various different can manufacturers to talk down each others products as resembling tomato tins or oil canisters respectively.

Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn joined on the side of the can, and presented us with twenty-three reasons it is better than the bottle, including Reason No. 13: “The housewife is used to the can.”

It was during this period of intense competition, the article suggests, that the ‘stubby bottle’ was invented as the glass answer to the can’s compact form, but there were dirty tricks, too:

The can people, hearing that glass men were openly branding a can-opener as a “deadly weapon,” developed the “cap-sealed can,” which opens just like a bottle. The bottle people, a little bit sick of some of the extravagant claims of the tin folk, quietly placed chemists at work, with a view to showing that the can group is a bunch of liars…. It’s hard to know whom to believe. Champions of the can say that light hurts beer. The glass people say that’s nonsense — heat, not light, hurts beer.

An advert for Keglined cans.
1935 advertisement for Keglined cans. SOURCE: Archive.org.

There’s some surprisingly detailed technical talk about lining for cans, too, designed to prevent the beer tasting metallic, with one manufacturer implying that their lining was similar to the resin pitch used in beer kegs, which, as the New Yorker gleefully points out, it really wasn’t.

It’s fascinating to read something from a moment when the can had yet to prove itself:

At present, most canned beer is sold in the South; but Continental now has a contract with Schlitz, and American with Pabst, so Milwaukee is now beginning to can its brew. So far, no New York brewery has gone over. Piel’s and Rubsam & Horrmann are blossoming out with “stubbies,” the new-day bottle. The steel industry is counting on 1,500,000,000 beer cans in 1936.

As we know, the can certainly did take off, and after decades of association with the most commodified of commodity beer, has had a strange resurgence in popularity and credibility in just the past decade. And yet more or less the same criticisms are voiced and the same claims are made — “cools faster” says the 1935 ad above, and that’s still a major selling point today. It’s a sign of the times, though, that disposability, a key benefit in 1935, has been replaced on the checklist with recyclability in 2018.

For more information the development of beer canning in the US check out Keglined, an entire website dedicated to that very subject. Main image adapted from this scan by ‘Billy’ at Flickr.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 July 2018: Marsan, Saison, Vaseline

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from equality initiatives to the specifics of European beer styles.

We’ll start with a flurry of accidentally interconnected items about pubs and how welcoming they might or might not seem to different people and groups.

British political Twitter spent a good chunk of the week talking about pubs after actor Eddie Marsan said that he didn’t like them, associating them, based on his own childhood experiences in the East End of London, with domestic violence and macho posturing.

Meanwhile, two related schemes have launched with the intention of making pubs more inviting to a wider range of people. First, with Melissa Cole at the helm, there’s the Everyone Welcome Initiative:

The aim of this initiative is to provide beer venues and events with a strong statement that everyone who walks through the door is welcome regardless, of their gender, sexual orientation, race, health, religion, age or disability… Whilst these forms of discrimination are covered under the Equality Act 2010, none of us can say that they don’t happen and what this initiative is designed to do is give people the opportunity to nail their colours to the mast about the kind of venue or event they are running – to shout proudly that hate isn’t to be tolerated and ignorance is not an excuse.

The Equality in Pubs accreditation scheme, led by Jessica Mason, launched a few days later:

Publicans who would like to let visitors know that their pub has a zero tolerance policy on abuse in any of its forms can now sign up to TEPA and, from 2019, gain a window sticker and a plot on a map on TEPA website to let people know that their pub doesn’t support homophobia, sexism or racism in any of its guises from neither its staff or it’s drinkers. Joining TEPA means the publican has a civic duty to act should they recognise abuse in their venue.

We’ll finish with a link to something we wrote last year which appeared this week at All About Beer after a long delay, thus seeming accidentally topical:

[If you] find yourself in a pub where you oughtn’t be, it will usually be made clear to you, as long as you are reasonably fluent in the language of passive-aggression. It might, for example, take a long time to get served, if the person behind the bar acknowledges you at all. You might get asked point blank if you are a police officer, which happens to us not infrequently—something about our flat feet, perhaps. Or the regulars might start a loud, pointed conversation about strangers, or foreigners, or people wearing whatever colour hat you happen to be wearing. We once walked into a pub only to be greeted by five men in soccer shirts, one of whom simply pointed and said: “No, no—turn round and walk out. Now.” We did so.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 July 2018: Marsan, Saison, Vaseline”

Session #137: “Banana Beer”

This is our contribution to Session #137 hosted by Roger at Roger’s Beers.

Our introduction to German wheat beer happened long before we were interested in beer and before we’d ever thought of going to Bavaria.

It was at the Fitzroy, a Samuel Smith pub in central London, in about 2001, where the house draught wheat beer was a version of Ayinger brewed under licence in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

We had encountered Hoegaarden by this point — it was ubiquitous in London at around the turn of the century — but hadn’t considered ordering any other wheat beer until a friend urged us to try Ayinger. “I call it banana beer,” they said, “because it tastes like puréed banana.”

At first we didn’t quite get it. To us, it tasted like beer. Weird, soupy, sweet beer. So we had a few until we understood what he meant. And yes, there it was — the stink of blackened bananas left too long in the bowl. “It gives you terrible hangovers, though,” he added, a little too late to save us. We couldn’t think of it for a year or two after that session without feeling a little overripe ourselves.

Pinning down anything relating to the history of Samuel Smith beers is trickier than it ought to be but, in the absence of firm evidence, we reckon it’s a safe guess that they started brewing Weizen in the 1990s, during or after the brief craze for wheat beer among the British beer cognoscenti (Hook, Dorber et al) during 1994-95. (As always, solid intel proving otherwise is very welcome.)

Sam Smith’s take might not have had the cool of a genuine import — the hip kids raved about Schneider — but it had the advantage of being both accessible and accessibly priced, and we can’t help but wonder how many other British beer geeks were first introduced to German wheat beer this way.