The perfect amount of foam on a pint of beer

Of course there is no correct amount – it will vary from beer to beer, from region to region and from person to person – but it looks as if a beer we were served on Friday night was pretty close to perfect.

When we Tweeted this with the message ‘One for the Foam Police’ we were being deliberately vague.

What we meant was ‘This looks pretty good’ but wanted to test a theory: we reckon it is possible for a specific individual pint to have both (a) too much head and (b) too little.

When we Tweet pictures of the beers we’re drinking, it’s quite common for people to reply with either something like ‘Stick a Flake in that?’ or ‘That looks in poor condition’.

In this case, though about 90% of poll respondents thought it looked fairly spot on, the remaining votes were split between too much and not enough, with a slight bias towards too much.

It would be interesting to have the ability to drill down into the results a bit more. We suspect those who voted ‘too much’ will be in London and the Home Counties, while those who voted ‘not enough’ will skew younger. But those are just guesses, for now.

Another interesting thing was that some people wanted to know more about the beer before forming a judgement:

Of course there’s a lot of ceremony and debate around lager, especially in the Czech Republic, but we hadn’t considered before that keg beer might be expected to have more head than cask. Now it’s been raised, though, it does feel right.

Altogether, though, what this proves is that it’s a matter of taste, as subjective as anything else.

Is the theatrical cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring too long, too short or about right? Would you like more tracks on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, fewer, or about the same number?

Well, subjective except for in the (sort of) legal sense. There’s a general acceptance, reinforced by messages from industry bodies and Trading Standards, that says a pint should be at least 95% liquid, and no more than 5% foam.

We suspect our ‘about right’ pint on Friday might have failed this test, by a percentage point or two, but in the moment, we really didn’t care.

Start drinking up now, please

For the first time in years, we found ourselves this week being chased out of a pub by staff, urging us to drink up as the lights came on. And we didn’t like it.

Now, we get it:

  • they’re no doubt bound by the terms of their licence
  • it’s in a residential area with no doubt grumpy neighbours
  • the staff want to go home
  • and they’ve become hardened through dealing with resistant customers.

But, still, something about this particular situation left us feeling aggrieved and we’ve been trying to work out exactly why.

We think it’s this: at 10:58, there was no indication in the atmosphere or manner of the staff that the pub was about to enter shutdown mode.

The music was thumping, the lights were low and the crowd seemed to be growing. We assumed it was licensed until at least midnight – it was that kind of mood.

Prior to 2005, when looser licensing laws came into effect, you knew where you were – most pubs called time at 11 pm and expected you out by 11:20 and that was that.

If you ordered a pint at 10:58, that was your problem.

But pubs being open late isn’t unusual these days, especially in cities, so the signals need to be clearer. In this case, if the lights had come up at 10:45 or someone had simply said “We close in 30 minutes” – we wouldn’t have ordered those last beers we had no time to drink.

And the atmosphere for those last 20+ minutes was terrible, too – stressed staff, pissed off customers and little opportunity to chat between gulps of beers.

If the unique selling point of beer in the pub is conversation and atmosphere then what was the point of this final round? We’d have been happier drinking tins in front of the telly.

Then, irritation passing, we started thinking about what shutdown looks like when it’s done right and realised that of course The Drapers Arms does it brilliantly.

At 9:20, last orders is called, loud and clear; at 9:30, the hooter hoots; the crowd begins to clear; the bucket of bleach comes out and the discreet tidy up begins.

Usually, the pub empties fairly naturally, but on the rare occasion we’ve been there until the very close, we’ve been encouraged out of the door with good humour: “Drink up, you buggers! I want to go to the pub myself.”

Crediting others with sincerity

Why is it so hard for people to believe that other people really enjoy drinking the beers they say they enjoy drinking?

We saw another small outbreak of second-guessing last week when Matt Curtis wrote in glowing terms about Harvey’s Sussex Best – a beer we also happen to love.

To paraphrase, the suggestion we saw float through the timeline was that Matt and others don’t really believe Sussex Best is better than, say, Greene King IPA – it’s just that it’s trendy, or at least on the approved list of Beers You’re Allowed to Like.

The same thinking sometimes seems to be behind the dismissal of ‘craft murk’ – that is, hazy IPAs and the like – and sour beer, lager, or any other style you care to think of.

Here’s what we think the thought process looks like:

  1. I don’t like this beer.
  2. I find it impossible to imagine anyone else liking this beer.
  3. People who say they like this beer must be deluded, or lying.

The assumption that everybody else’s opinions are either (a) part of a herd response to hype or (b) deliberate contrarianism… Well, it gets a bit wearing, to be honest.

After all, taste is a delicate mechanism. Even in this team, Jess is barely sensitive to light-strike or skunking, while Ray is; Ray isn’t especially attuned to diacetyl, but Jess is.

We can’t speak definitively for anyone else, of course, but we know this: when we say we’ve enjoyed drinking something, it’s because we enjoyed drinking it; when we say we don’t, it’s because we don’t.

And we try to assume the same of others.

Of course there are times when you might question the motives of a reviewer – do they have a commercial relationship with the brewery? Are they paid to undertake PR on its behalf? Did it send them a lavish hamper of freebies?

We do also think that some beers are better than others, where ‘better’ means ‘more likely to appeal to people in a given group’, whether that’s beer geeks, mainstream drinkers, traditionalists or whichever.

But we’ve no reason to doubt that Tandleman gained real pleasure for his pints of Morland Original, or that Al found something to appreciate in Tennent’s Lager, or that Brad has never had a beer from The Kernel that was “anything short of outstanding”.

On beer scenes

We’re currently working on a big piece about the Leeds beer scene, hopefully to go live next weekend, which has got us thinking about the very idea of ‘scenes’.

To qualify as somewhere with a ‘beer scene’ there are a few requirements, we reckon:

1. Multiple interesting pubs, bars or beer exhibition venues. One micropub, taproom or bar does not a beer scene make. And they really do need to be within walking distance of each other – the basis of a crawl. There probably has to be at least one legendary, must-visit venue.

2. Punditry. If you’re visiting Boggleton, who do you ask for advice? Who’s written a local guide, whether as a book, website or blog post? Have Matt Curtis, Jonny Garrett or Tony Naylor been in town taking notes?

3. Events. Bottle-shares, meet-the-brewers, tap takeovers and the like. We don’t particularly like events but there’s no denying that they bring scattered beer geeks together, creating and signalling the existence of a community.

4. Festivals, plural. Not just the local CAMRA festival, although those are important, but alternative events organised outside that infrastructure. Especially if they’re focused on particular niches – lager, sour beer, green hops, and so on. (Again, we rarely go ourselves, but…)

5. Faces. The people who make things happen, are at all the events, who drink maybe a bit more than a civilian might and put their money where their mouths are. They’re also the source of low-level soap opera (Thingumabob’s fallen out with Wossname; So-and-so’s left Venue A to work at Venue B). And, of course,  they’re the ones to watch when it comes to the next generation of bars, breweries and beer business.

6. Tourists. If beer geeks build their holidays around your town, city or region, it’s probably got a bona fide beer scene. In general, it needs to be a city or larger town. Falmouth almost pulls it off, as did Newton Abbot for a while, but there almost needs to be a sense that there’s just too much to get into a single long weekend.

What do you reckon? Anything obvious we’ve missed?

Crowdfunding in beer: danger sign?

“Have almost started to think of crowdfunding as a danger sign. Why won’t a bank just lend them the money?”

We tweeted this in response to @bringonthebeer the other day and it prompted a few challenges, including some that changed our thinking, so we thought we’d unpack it a bit.

It’s just, really, that it feels as if crowdfunding is a common factor is a recent spate of beer industry takeovers and collapses.

Martyn Cornell gave a detailed rundown of some of the problems with crowdfunding in beer a few years ago: it’s not real investment in most cases; and lots of crowdfunded businesses fail, or fail to deliver on promises.

Most recently, there’s been Hop Stuff and Redchurch.

But we’re talking about something ever so slightly different – that the very act of appealing to the public for investment seems increasingly like a red flag for the future of those operations.

With hindsight, in many cases, crowdfunding often looks to us like a cry for help or act of desperation.

Critics of crowdfunding sometimes call it ‘begging’ and it can feel that way.

When in day jobs we’ve been involved in raising funding, it’s been through banks. They’re unpopular, old school, not very ‘craft’, but they are part of our system of checks and balances. If a bank won’t lend a business money, it probably means that business has failed to present a convincing case for its long-term success.

Some of the challenges we got on Twitter did make us pause for thought, though: securing funding via banks usually requires property as collateral, which makes things tough for those who don’t own a house.

Some would no doubt say if you can’t manage to buy a house, you probably shouldn’t be aiming to expand a business to larger or multiple locations but given the bizarre state of the UK housing market, we’re not sure that washes.

Even so, when we see a crowdfunding campaign launch, unless we know the brewery or retailer in question has a cult following and strong marketing game, it increasingly strikes us – rightly or wrongly, on an instinctive level – as a target painted on their flank: they’re weak, ripe for picking off, and this is their last shot.

Of course we understand the appeal to businesses of crowdfunding, and it’s not always bad news. We also know that many investors go into it with eyes open, as a bit of fun.

But the longer term problem is this: if, as we read it, crowdfunding is about the conversion of customer goodwill into hard cash, every failure or perceived betrayal reduces the amount of goodwill in the collective pot, and its value.