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.

Drinking, and the Spaces Between

Take a gulp and put the glass down.

Place it on the beer mat, right in the centre, right in the ring of dark ink.

As you talk, as you listen, turn the glass on the mat, twisting it clockwise, then back, as if tuning in the conversation on a shortwave dial.

Take a gulp and put the glass down.

Tilt it so that light plays in the depths of the beer, so the foam clings to the sides and then slides back. Swirl it so the foam grows and flows.

Take a gulp and put the glass down.

Sweep the sides of their condensation with your fingers, tracing the shape, clearing the fog to reveal the gold.

Turn the glass, lights flash, sweep again.

Take a gulp and put the glass down, almost empty, light in the hand, almost dead.

Last gulp, then, “Same again?”

Defer the pleasure. Dip a fingertip in the cream and lick it. Let the beer sit a bit, then sweep, turn, tilt…

Take a gulp.

Ale Like Champagne

Champagne.

Brut IPA is the niche beer style of the moment in the US and has been the focus of several substantial articles with headlines such as:

BRUT IPAS ARE THE BONE-DRY, CHAMPAGNE-LIKE BEER HOPHEADS CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF

Apart from making us thirsty all this got us thinking about the tendency to compare beer to Champagne and how far back it goes.

Without too much digging we found this in an edition of the Dublin Evening Post from 1783:

LEINSTER ALE -- sparkles like champagne.
SOURCE: The British Newspaper Archive.

Bearing in mind that Champagne as we know it was still in the process of being invented in the 18th century, and that its tendency to sparkle was still considered a fault by many, this rates as pretty quick off the marks.

The most famous reference to beer resembling Champagne is one most of us came to via Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson who said that Napoleon’s troops called Berliner Weisse “the Champagne of the North”. As he wasn’t much of a footnoter we haven’t been able to identify his source but this German book from 1822 says (our translation, tidied up from Google’s automatic effort, so approach with caution):

Berlin’s ‘Weissbier’ is a very popular drink in Berlin, which, when it is of good quality, is distinguished by a yellowish color, a wine-like body, a slightly acidic taste, and a strong sparkle, so that the French military gave it a name: Champagne du Nord.

Really, though, it’s just an irresistible comparison, isn’t it?

Often the similarity is merely superficial — most lagers would look like Champagne at first glance if you poured it into flutes — but sometimes there is a real similarity of flavour and mouthfeel. Mostly, though, it’s just irreverent fun to suggest that the Toffs are wasting all that money and effort acquiring Champagne when if only they weren’t such snobs they could have something just as good for a fraction of the price.

Stella, Doom, Punk

A dog.

We had one of those moments this week that shines a light on the health of a brand: we saw BrewDog on the beer list at a new local cafe and thought, “Oh, it’s not really a beer place, then.”

It’s not as if we think BrewDog’s beer is bad. We spent a happy hour at its Bristol bar on Sunday and probably have a more positive view of Punk IPA than many of our peers. (It ain’t wot it used to be, and so on.)

It’s a sign that BrewDog beers have become one of the go-to cash-and-carry products along with Stella Artois and Doom Bar, which changes their status in the marketplace. (Here’s Pete Brown on Stella.) It is no longer a treat, no longer worthy of an appreciative “Ooh!”.

You might say this started years ago when they first turned up in supermarkets, or in Greene King and Wetherspoon pubs, and that’s probably true.

And we’re not complaining, really. After all this was the dream a decade ago — a supply of strong, bitter, furiously hoppy IPA on every street corner.

It’s just interesting to us that whereas once the presence of BrewDog on the menu indicated a beer geek working somewhere behind the scenes, it now means no such thing.

“It’s Been Like That All Day”

Cartoon: a man peers at a beer with a beady eye.

We were recently in a pub serving a range of beers we know well enough to realise that they’re never supposed to be hazy.

But, of course, the beer we ordered was served with a light haze, Moor-style, which we gently questioned.

“Oh, it’s been like that all day. It probably didn’t quite settle out right before we tapped the cask.”

It was said pleasantly enough, but dismissively — a variation on “Nobody else has complained” crossed with a watered down “It’s meant to be like that”.

Because we did know the beer, and wanted something particular from it — crispness, hop perfume — we pushed back: would it be OK, we wondered, to taste the beer, and if it had a noticeably different character than usual, or wasn’t at least as good despite the difference, have it replaced?

The manager was consulted and everyone agreed (after a bit more time and effort than one drink deserved) that this was a good idea.

Sure enough, it tasted fine — not sour or nasty — but noticeably muted, and rather dull, so we rejected it.

We — knowledgeable consumers, relatively speaking, and confident about speaking up — were able to navigate this situation to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but we can imagine others coming away thinking ill of that beer and brewery, and probably unimpressed with the pub.

But why would the manager make the choice to keep serving a beer they know isn’t right? Incompetence? Indifference? Our suspicion is that it was an unintended consequence of the corporate setup within which the pub operates prioritising the need to minimise wastage over quality.

Others, though, might argue that this is further evidence that increased acceptance of haze in certain beers is causing confusion and justifying shoddiness more generally. If that’s the case then complaining when possible (quietly, politely), making it more trouble than it is worth, might be part of the solution.