Reasons to be Cheerful

We don’t generally cast ourselves as cheerleaders but today, with the sun shining, we wanted to take a minute to ac-cen-tu-ate the positives.

1. There are loads of great pubs and bars still to discover. We’re 143 pubs into our #EveryPubInBristol mission and still finding gems like The Beaufort

2. And new ones are opening or re-opening all the time in unexpected places, such as The Pursuit of Hoppiness in Exeter, or the Barrel at Bude.

3. Even with our Every Pub mission, and having been in various small towns, suburbs and villages, we haven’t had a really rank pint in months. We can’t recall the last time we felt the need to complain and ask for a replacement.

4. There’s more choice of beer and beer styles than most of us have the time to do anything about, even outside the hippest centres of craft beer culture. For example, Marks & Spencer announced a new beer range this week which includes a Saison from St Austell, and our local CO-OP has a choice of canned session IPAs, all perfectly decent. The average small-town Wetherspoon can usually do you a double IPA, a choice of standard IPAs, a choice of wheat beers, one or two Trappist beers, and that’s without even looking at the taps.

The beer garden at The Pirate.

5. It’s nearly beer garden season! The evenings are drawing out, the grass is growing over the muddy patches, and the picnic tables are being sanded down. If we don’t get to sit in the sun drinking pints of lager in the next fortnight, something will have gone dreadfully wrong.

6. There are people out there just discovering how interesting and exciting beer can be, drifting towards the thrill-ride of becoming a Five. Someone out there will drink their first Westmalle Tripel today! (Further reading: ‘Dare I Say Wine for Wives?’)

7. Adnams, Fuller’s, Harvey’s, St Austell, Timothy Taylor and a ton of other respected family breweries are not only still going strong but (a) continuing to brew classics such as ESB and Landlord and (b) brewing genuinely interesting side project beers, including a flood of porters.

8. There is beer on TV. It seemed impossible a few years ago but now there’s beer most weekends on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, brewer Jaega Wise has joined the crew on ITV’s The Wine Show, and ‘Jolly’ Olly Smith is currently working on series 3 of Ale Trails for the Travel Channel.

9. Every weekend for the past few years we’ve managed to find enough interesting writing about beer and pubs to populate a blog post with links. There’s more good stuff in 2018 than there was in 2014, covering a wider range of topics from different perspectives. Recently, for the first time, there was so much going on we had to resort to bullet points to get it all in.

10. Beer in general continues to be really tasty, and getting tipsy with friends and family is still great fun.

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QUICK POST: Same Old Song

"Are All Beers The Same?"

The other day we encountered a hazy pale-n-hoppy beer from a local brewery that was decent in its own right, and certainly well on trend, but something about it bothered us: it simply seemed indistinguishable to quite a lot of other beers from quite a lot of other breweries.

Maybe this has been on our minds because our attempt to pin down the definition(s)  of ‘craft beer’ resurfaced again lately. The first definition we provide there, with reference to Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, includes the word ‘distinctive’ as a key characteristic — a sense that an experienced palate could not easily mistake that beer for any other.

Now, there aren’t many beers that really fit that criterion, and we’d probably struggle to tell, say, Bass from St Austell Cornish Bitter tasted blind on most occasions, but, still, perhaps it has got harder still in recent years. When there were a few hundred breweries in the UK, each making a handful of beers, there were plenty of unique selling points to go around: this one does lager, that one uses Cascade, there’s one down the road making an imperial stout that smells of puke to a sort-of-historic recipe, and so on. Now, with going on for a couple of thousand, it’s obviously harder to come up with anything completely new that is also likely to sell in any volume in pubs, i.e. that is not completely bonkers.

Even so, we do wonder if the tendency to rely on the same handful of commercial yeast strains, the same broad families of hops, and to look to the same few highly-rated beers for inspiration, isn’t leading into a cul-de-sac.

What is your thing? What makes your beer different, and better, than Bloggs’s? If you can’t answer that then you probably won’t convince a pub or shop to take your beer over one that’s 85 per cent identical but twopence cheaper, or with nicer packaging. You probably won’t convince drinkers to develop any particular loyalty to your brand either.

If you’re not distinctive, aren’t you… generic?

QUICK POST: One Practical Thing

HOW MUCH?

This morning another conversation about the price of craft beer broke out on Twitter, as it does every three months or so.

This time the prompt was an article by Will Hawkes for the Guardian on progressive breweries and inclusiveness:

Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing…. There’s [also] a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”

(Someone did great work on the headline for that story, by the way.)

This prompted food writer Tony Naylor to Tweet the following:

Lots of good initiatives here but if craft beer wants an inclusive working class audience it needs to have a serious conversation about the race to establish the £5 pint as standard. What would you drink if you were skint? Idea: £3 Pint Project. 12 breweries in, say, Greater MCR take turns each month to brew a £3 pint/ get it stocked in loads of good bars/ to see what’s possible stylistically. Now THAT (& even £3 is expensive if you’re skint), would be a positive move.

We think that’s quite an interesting, provocative suggestion and, indeed, made a similar one ourselves in 2012. He’s certainly not saying all beer should be £3 a pint, or that £5 pints should be banned, or are a great evil — just that some deliberate, disruptive gesture on price might shake things up a bit.

But whether it’s a practical suggestion or not it did make us think of something beer enthusiasts and commentators could be doing more often: making the effort to highlight good value beers.

Big, rare, strange craft beers naturally attract a lot of coverage because they’re different and come with some sort of story, but that can add up to a sense that (to borrow CAMRA’s controversial phrase) they are ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ and that if you’re drinking anything else, you’re slumming it. Why bother? Really, you should sell an organ or two, or skip your lunchtime avocado feast to cover the cost of the upgrade. (Remember, nobody has any money these days.)

So, instead of moaning about expensive pints — or at least as well as doing that — make a point of flagging great ones you’ve found at £3 a pint or £2 a can.

It doesn’t have to be an essay — just a Facebook post, Tweet or passing mention in a post on another topic. But essays are good too. Food critic Jay Rayner has just shared a piece defending his writing about expensive restaurants but one of the best things he’s ever written was about a Polish restaurant in Birmingham with main courses at under a tenner.

Of course nobody should pretend to like beers they don’t, or hold back from writing about expensive beers that really get them excited, but if there’s a readily available, affordable beer you really do enjoy, take a moment to tell the world, without apologies or caveats, and without expecting a medal for your bravery.

The Joy of Beer

Illustration: pint emerging from psychedelic clouds.

Beer should bring you joy.

All kinds of beer can do this — bog standard lager, straightforward bitter, flowery IPAs, imperial stout, anything.

And all kinds of beer can do just the opposite.

It all depends on you, your taste, and the moment.

It’s the difference between a great pint of cask ale and one that, though you’d struggle to pin down the difference in concrete terms, is an utter chore.

A joyful beer hits the spot. Either it doesn’t touch the sides, or it makes you linger for an hour, savouring every sip. Even if only for half a second before you get back to the conversation, it demands your attention.

It ought to be between you and the beer, this moment of joy, but you might say to your drinking companions that it’s bob on, cock on, bang on, or perhaps if you’re feeling especially expressive not too bad at all actually. Or you might just sigh, “Aah.”

A beer that is a joy will make you want the same again. The problem is, it’s elusive, that first-drink-of-the-session jolt. Returns diminish.

The most reliable route to joyful beer is to stick to beers, breweries and pubs you trust. But there’s a joy in exploring, too, and the joy you feel on finding a good beer after three duds is among the most potent strains.

Joy needn’t mean fireworks. There’s joy in a nice mug of tea or clean bedsheets and beer ought to be the same kind of everyday, attainable pleasure.

Passing Thoughts on Yorkshire Beer

Collage: Yorkshire Beer.

We spent a few days in Yorkshire last week (Leeds-Harrogate-York) and reached a couple of tentative conclusions.

1. Timothy Taylor Landlord, like Bass, and probably like many other beers, can be so different as to be unrecognisable from one pub to the next. We’re not saying it’s an inconsistent product but that it has a lot of potential for change depending on how it’s handled by pubs. We had pints that were bone dry and stony, and others that were sweet and nectar-like — older and younger respectively we assume. We almost always enjoy it but there seems to be a real sweet spot where it becomes a little less cloying and gains a sort of peach-like flavour without completely drying out. Expert opinion welcome below, of course. In the meantime, we’ll keep testing our findings when we can.

2. We might have finally zeroed in on the essence of Yorkshire bitter. Tetley*, Black Sheep and Taylor’s Boltmaker, as well as looking more alike in the glass than we recall, all had the same challenging, hot, rubber-band tang. We’ve noticed it before in Boltmaker but honestly just thought it was on the turn. But there it was again in multiple pints of Boltmaker, in different pubs, even in different cities, and in multiple pints of the others, too. It’s most pronounced in Boltmaker (Jessica likes it, Ray finds it too much) and gentlest in the current incarnation of Tetley (Ray likes it, Jessica finds it rather bland) but definitely the same thing. This is where our technical tasting skills let us down, unfortunately. Is this maybe what people mean by ‘sulphurous’? Again, expert suggestions welcome.

* No longer brewed in Yorkshire, we know.

3. Northern pale-n-hoppy beer is more to our taste than London or Bristol takes on the same style, on the whole. We knew this already, really, but this trip confirmed it. Without wanting to seem dogmatic about clarity (we’re not) beers from breweries such as Northern Monk, Rooster’s and Ossett were perfectly clear with a lightness and dryness that made them impossible to drink in anything less than great hearty gulps. Even with plenty of flavour and aroma there’s a certain delicacy there — perfect engineering. We did find ourselves wondering if perhaps we’ve grown to prefer sparklers for this style because (per this post for $2+ Patreon subscribers) the notorious widget has a capacity for rounding off hard edges and smoothing out flaws. ‘Don’t @ us’, as the kids say.