The Questions We Ask Ourselves

A question mark leads a man by the hand.

Is this beer consistently tasty? Are the brewers good people? Is the project laudable? Is the beer, brewery or style in need of our support?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble to answer yes to one ques­tion but not the oth­ers.

A dread­ful idiot who behaves appalling­ly can brew a great beer, and a won­der­ful local brew­ery owned by the loveli­est peo­ple on earth can pro­duce com­plete rub­bish.

That’s obvi­ous.

For some peo­ple, ethics, local­ness or inde­pen­dence are the only impor­tant fac­tors, and they can prob­a­bly live with a mediocre or even flawed prod­uct on that basis. (Per­haps their brains even trick them into gen­uine­ly enjoy­ing the beer more – a fea­ture, not a bug.)

But oth­ers will say, no, beer qual­i­ty is the only thing that mat­ters. (We try to be objec­tive like this, but we’re only human.)

Still oth­ers might make their deci­sions based on price, out of neces­si­ty, or through a prin­ci­pled belief that the mar­ket is the ulti­mate arbiter.

Where there might be a prob­lem is when peo­ple fail to express the dis­tinc­tion between those dif­fer­ent ideas of “good”, or per­haps even to under­stand it.

Brew­Dog, to quote a notable exam­ple, brews (on the whole) beer we enjoy drink­ing. But believ­ing that and say­ing it doesn’t mean we endorse their val­ues, or uncrit­i­cal­ly sup­port every­thing they do.

On the oth­er hand, we felt a lit­tle churl­ish the oth­er day when we couldn’t give Tynt Mead­ow, the new British Trap­pist beer, a whole­heart­ed rec­om­men­da­tion.

It is inter­est­ing.

We’re glad it exists, and expect it to improve.

If we lived in Leices­ter­shire we might even feel some­what proud of it.

But we’re not going to say it’s GREAT! because we like the con­cept, just as we’re not going to say Punk IPA tastes bad (it doesn’t) to take a cheap pop at Brew­Dog.

Whether local equates to good when it comes to beer has been debat­ed end­less­ly over the years. Increas­ing­ly, we’re com­ing to the view that while it’s nev­er as sim­ple as that, there are cer­tain beers that get as close to good as they ever will when they’re con­sumed near the brew­ery, where peo­ple know how they’re sup­posed to taste, and the quirks of keep­ing them; and where there’s a chance the brew­er might pop in for a pint every now and then.

We cer­tain­ly hope peo­ple can read these codes when we use them:

  • fond of’ or ‘soft spot for’ is per­son­al and emo­tion­al;
  • inter­est­ing’ is about nar­ra­tive, cul­ture and sig­nif­i­cance in the indus­try;
  • a mediocre beer that’s very cheap can be ‘good val­ue’;
  • worth a try’ means we didn’t like it, but can imag­ine oth­ers might;
  • and you might not want more than one glass of a beer that is ‘com­plex’.

In prac­tice, of course, the ques­tion we’re most like­ly to ask is: “Which of this lim­it­ed selec­tion of beers is going to taste the best?” (Or per­haps, depress­ing­ly, “least bad”.)

A New Axis: Classic | Standard | New-Local

A pint of beer.

Where are we in the cycle? At the point where seeing Elland 1872 Porter, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Thornbridge Jaipur, Fyne Ales Jarl, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Bank Top Mild on offer in our local is tremendously exciting – that’s where.

Andy Hamil­ton, who writes about booze and for­ag­ing, and for­ag­ing for booze, is pro­mot­ing a book and con­vinced the Drap­ers Arms to hold a mini fes­ti­val fea­tur­ing some of the beers it men­tions.

The Drap­ers has a pret­ty seri­ous com­mit­ment to local beers, list­ing dis­tance trav­elled for each beer, and aver­age dis­tance for the entire list, on the menu black­board.

In fact, that’s a trend reflect­ed across Bris­tol: it’s not unusu­al to walk into a pub and find the whole beer list made up of beers from with­in the city bound­aries.

The beer list at the Drapers Arms.

That can be great – we’ve dis­cov­ered some impres­sive West Coun­try brew­eries this way, and it’s cer­tain­ly fuelling the Bris­tol brew­ery boom – but is also mild­ly frus­trat­ing.

Let’s con­sid­er Jaipur. It’s a beer that’s well into its sec­ond decade and has gained the sta­tus of a clas­sic. In bot­tles, it’s rea­son­ably easy to find in super­mar­kets. But how often do we get to drink it on cask? Twice, maybe three times a year? And that’s most­ly in Wether­spoon pubs.

Old Peculi­er is anoth­er beer we’ve encoun­tered on cask only a hand­ful of times in more than a decade of beer blog­ging, and which we’re hop­ing will still be on when we pop round to the Drap­ers after post­ing this. We felt a gen­uine thrill when we saw the A-board out­side the pub announc­ing its arrival last night.

All this has made us think that as well as our long­stand­ing wish for more pubs to make a point of hav­ing one of each colour (brown, yel­low, black) per­haps there ought to be anoth­er axis: big clas­sic + stan­dard + local/new.

We can imag­ine going into a pub with that kind of mix and start­ing on the clas­sic, try­ing the new­com­er, and then decid­ing where to stick for a third round depend­ing on how the first two tast­ed.

In the mean­time (this kind of thing is always fun) what’s your sug­ges­tion for a line-up which cov­ers brown/yellow/black and clas­sic/­s­tan­dard­/lo­cal-new?

Old Peculi­er, Lon­don Pride and Bris­tol Beer Fac­to­ry Nova would do us nice­ly, for exam­ple.

Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right

Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?

On Sat­ur­day, for logis­ti­cal rea­sons, we end­ed up in a gin-and-din­ing water­side pub a bit off our usu­al beat where we saw a remark­able queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cut­ting right across the main ser­vice area and towards the front door.

We Tweet­ed about it…

…not mean­ing to con­vey any par­tic­u­lar judge­ment, only that it was unusu­al. As is often the case, that kind of min­i­mal­ist open­ness elicit­ed an inter­est­ing range of respons­es.

It’s a sad reflec­tion of the lack of expe­ri­ence in “real” pubs by mil­len­ni­als. It’s not McDon­alds #FFS

Have peo­ple for­got­ten how bars work?!”

I think any­where with this auto­mat­i­cal­ly los­es their pub sta­tus.”

I ignore it and do what I’ve always done – go to the bar.”

I’m a big fan, saves hav­ing to con­cen­trate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”

Excel­lent British­ness on dis­play. Makes you proud.”

I’d pre­fer queu­ing to hav­ing to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”

If you believe that the point is the most effi­cient and fairest ser­vice of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every oth­er aspect of British life it is con­sid­ered prac­ti­cal­ly sacred.

But the pub… The pub is sup­posed to be a jum­ble. And when we say “sup­posed to be” we mean “is usu­al­ly por­trayed as”. Look at this famous paint­ing, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Hen­ry Hen­shall, from 1882:

A Victorian pub.

These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tra­di­tion of glee­ful dis­or­der.

In response to our Tweet Ter­ry Hay­ward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this sub­ject which con­tains the fol­low­ing stir­ring sto­ry:

I decid­ed to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a com­ment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burg­ers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just want­ed a good pint of fine foam­ing ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen peo­ple queue like this in a pub before. They con­ced­ed it was unusu­al but used the Homer Simp­son defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

Ah”, said I, “but by stand­ing there you’re only mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each oth­er ner­vous­ly, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we start­ed to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being nat­u­ral­ly polite, we made sure we took oth­ers with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that cen­turies of tra­di­tion were not being thrown out of the win­dow.

But, again, check that nos­tal­gic instinct: what if, as one per­son hint­ed on Twit­ter,  queu­ing might make the pub more of a lev­el play­ing field for women? (It’s inter­est­ing that Mr Hayward’s sto­ry uses the phrase “men of the world”.)

Or, indeed, for any­one oth­er than large, con­fi­dent peo­ple with sharp elbows?

It’s per­haps no sur­prise that the cur­rent spate of pub queu­ing seems to have start­ed at branch­es of Wether­spoon which, for all its down-to-earth rep­u­ta­tion, is also often a step ahead when it comes to mak­ing pre­vi­ous­ly exclud­ed groups (and their spend­ing mon­ey) feel more wel­come.

On bal­ance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we vis­it­ed on Sat­ur­day. Places that aren’t in his­toric pub build­ings, with lit­tle his­to­ry about them, and where the num­ber of pun­ters great­ly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adher­ence to an ide­al wage-per­cent­age. In fact, it was pret­ty con­ve­nient, keep­ing things clip­ping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before mov­ing on to a Prop­er (queue­less) Pub.

But some­thing would cer­tain­ly be lost if queues start­ed appear­ing at, say, The Roy­al Oak, London’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvi­ous queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to ser­vice. It’s just invis­i­ble, man­aged by staff and cus­tomers between them, through a sys­tem of eye con­tact, def­er­ence and polite mur­mur­ing.

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.