The thrill of the new

For ages, we’ve thought the trick to showing Ray’s parents a good time was taking them to proper pubs. It turns out we should have been going to craft beer bars.

Now, we’ve had some bloody good fun with them in places like the Mer­chan­t’s Arms and the Annexe, play­ing euchre and shar­ing bags of pork scratch­ings over pints of But­combe or Lon­don Pride.

The oth­er week­end, though, as we crawled around cen­tral Bris­tol with them, we were inspired to take them to Small Bar.

The spe­cif­ic trig­ger was a round of awful, but­tery Sam Smith’s Old Brew­ery Bit­ter at the William IV – a pub which rarely has any atmos­phere at all but does at least usu­al­ly have cheap, decent beer.

We left feel­ing down in the dumps, the ses­sion in jeop­ardy, and Small Bar, Bris­tol’s craft beer cen­tral, seemed as if it might be the anti­dote – a short, sharp shock to jolt us all back to life.

You might not like it,” we got in, pre­emp­tive­ly.

Ray tried to iden­ti­fy some­thing vague­ly like Dad’s usu­al bit­ter and the staff react­ed rather weari­ly, as if they get asked this all the time. In the end, it was two-thirds of Lost & Ground­ed Keller­pils that did the job. Ray’s Mum, who drinks lager when she’s not on whisky, got a murky pale ale – the kind of thing we don’t real­ly enjoy, as a rule. And do you know what? She loved it.

In fact, they both thought Small Bar was great. It had a vibe, a bit of a crowd, and despite being the old­est peo­ple there by some stretch, they did­n’t get looked at twice.

After that we thought we’d try them on Brew­Dog, which they also liked a lot: Punk IPA, it turns out, is a decent sub­sti­tute for But­combe. (Not sure Brew­Dog will be pleased to hear this, mind.)

They’re now plan­ning to bring a cou­ple of friends up for a craft beer crawl lat­er in the sum­mer.

For our part, we’ve learned a les­son: don’t make assump­tions about what peo­ple will enjoy based on what they’ve enjoyed in the past, or based on their age.

Next time, we might take them on a tap­room crawl – they’re prob­a­bly cool enough to enjoy it, unlike us.

Sparklers, in summary

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

So, to sum­marise:

  • Sparklers work best with well-con­di­tioned beer, bring­ing some of c02 out of sus­pen­sion to form a denser head, but leav­ing plen­ty in the body of the pint.
  • But if a beer is low on con­di­tion, a sparkler might well rob it of what lit­tle CO2 it has, leav­ing it with a head, but even flat­ter beneath.
  • There­fore, sparklers might equal­ly be used to make beer in poor con­di­tion look bet­ter than it is, or to give a beer in good con­di­tion a par­tic­u­lar pre­sen­ta­tion.
  • But there’s no way for a drinker to know until they taste it.
  • Sparklers may also mute or oth­er­wise affect per­cep­tion of cer­tain flavours and aro­mas. Some beers are brewed with this in mind.
  • Oth­er­wise, it’s a mat­ter of per­son­al pref­er­ence.
  • So sparklers are nei­ther pure­ly good, not pure­ly evil.

Is that about it?

Hazy Beer Due Diligence

A pint of hazy beer.

When you’re order­ing a beer, what more can you ask for than this?

Now, before I pull a full pint, I’m going to put a bit in a glass so you can see how it looks. It’s just gone on, and it’s hazier than we were expect­ing. But we got some pho­tos up from the brew­ery’s tap­room, and this is how it looks there. It tastes great to me, but do you want to try it before you com­mit?”

As we did­n’t know the beer (North­ern Monk Eter­nal) and are used to being served pints of hazy pale ale these days, we would­n’t have bat­ted an eye­lid. But it was nice to have a dia­logue.

It’s a weird facet of beer cul­ture in 2019 that this new bit of eti­quette is nec­es­sary, but here we are.

At any rate, we did­n’t both­er try­ing the beer, we just went for it, and it did taste great.

That Little Bit of Magic

Cask ale collage.Drink­ing extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good Bass at the Angel at Long Ash­ton on Sat­ur­day we found our­selves reflect­ing, once again, on the fine dif­fer­ence between a great pint and a dis­ap­point­ment.

A few years ago, when we were try­ing hard to make the Farmer’s Arms in Pen­zance our local, we had a ses­sion on Ring­wood Forty-Nin­er that made us think it might actu­al­ly be a great beer.

But every pint we’ve had since, there or any­where else, has been pret­ty dread­ful.

What gave it the edge that first time? And what was miss­ing there­after? Extra high fre­quen­cies, or an addi­tion­al dimen­sion, some­how.

This elu­sive qual­i­ty is what we tast­ed in eight pints of Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord out of ten at the Nags Head in Waltham­stow for sev­er­al years in a run, and what is so often not there when we encounter it as a guest ale any­where else.

It’s what makes rec­om­mend­ing or endors­ing cask ales in par­tic­u­lar a mug’s game: “Is it only me that’s nev­er got the fuss about Lon­don Pride?” some­one will say on Twit­ter. No, it’s not, and we don’t doubt that you’ve nev­er had a good pint, because it can taste like dust and sweet­corn, and does maybe more than half the time we encounter it. But when it’s good, oh! is it good.

Bass isn’t a great beer in absolute terms, but it can be, hon­est.

Har­vey’s Sus­sex Best can be a wretched, mis­er­able thing – all stress and stal­e­ness – and might well have been every time you’ve ever encoun­tered it. But the next pint you have might be a rev­e­la­tion.

Are the lows worth endur­ing for the highs? Yes, and it might even be that they make the highs high­er.

(We’ve prob­a­bly made this point before but after near­ly 3,000 posts, who can remem­ber…)

Price as substitute for quality in unfamiliar territory

In the absence of infor­ma­tion, peo­ple tend to take a price of the unfa­mil­iar prod­uct as a sig­nal of its qual­i­ty, so high prices do not dimin­ish the quan­ti­ty demand­ed very much. When infor­ma­tion is pro­vid­ed, the sig­nalling con­tent of the price dimin­ish­es. As a result, demand becomes more elas­tic. In par­tic­u­lar, informed con­sumers see no rea­son to pay more for the new prod­uct giv­en that it has the same ingre­di­ents as the famil­iar one. The effect of the infor­ma­tion is thus to encour­age more peo­ple to switch from the sub­sti­tute prod­uct to the tar­get one at low prices, and vice ver­sa at high prices.”

That’s an extract from an aca­d­e­m­ic paper (PDF) on the behav­iour of pur­chasers of med­ical prod­ucts in Zam­bia, but you’ll encounter ver­sions of this argu­ment every­where from self-help books on how to sell! sell! sell! to arti­cles in the busi­ness press.

The con­clu­sion often drawn is that, per­haps counter-intu­itive­ly, if you price your prod­uct high­er than the com­pe­ti­tion, many con­sumers will assume yours is bet­ter and worth the extra mon­ey.

Con­verse­ly, if your prod­uct is too cheap, it might seem sus­pi­cious: “Hmm. What’s wrong with it?”

Does all of this also apply to beer?

Twen­ty years ago, we were cer­tain­ly aware of the aura that sur­round­ed Pre­mi­um Lager, and Pete Brown has writ­ten mem­o­rably about the dam­age Stel­la Artois did to its brand by reduc­ing the price.

But drinkers these days have lots more infor­ma­tion to go on, from beer style to ABV, from hop vari­eties to brew­ing loca­tion. All or any of these might over­ride price in the deci­sion mak­ing process.

And, of course the actu­al rela­tion­ship between price and qual­i­ty in beer is com­plex: there are lots of bad expen­sive pints out there, and some real­ly good ones that are rel­a­tive­ly cheap.

Our sus­pi­cion is that price might be a proxy for qual­i­ty in sit­u­a­tions where none of the brands are famil­iar, and the only oth­er infor­ma­tion is price; or (as this paper sug­gests) where the choice is between broad­ly sim­i­lar prod­ucts under the same brand name: Carls­berg, or Carslberg Export?

With all this in mind we find our­selves once again think­ing about the Drap­ers Arms, where not only is brand­ing held at arm’s length but also the price struc­ture is flat. As a result, we’ve prob­a­bly tried a greater vari­ety of beer there than any­where else, even allow­ing for the fact this is where we do most of our drink­ing by default.