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.

Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing — Cheap, Fast, Fresh

This month’s host is Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter and he has asked us to tackle, in any way we like, the subject of farmhouse brewing.

We’ll begin this bit of pondering with an extract from an article in the Brewing Trade Review for June 1955 reporting on the collection of the Museum of English Rural Life of ‘absolute unit’ social media fame.

In the home brewing section a particularly interesting exhibit is the equipment from a Suffolk farmhouse where this once domestic art was practised as recently as 1934. Included is a mash tub, vat, stillions and a heavy old copper, the removal of which almost necessitated dismantling that part of the building in which it was houses. Other items allied to home brewing include examples of malt scoops from Suffolk and Berkshire, a Suffolk mash stirrer, a Berkshire horn mug and kegs of various size from Somerset, Essex and Worcestershire once used by farm labourers to carry their beer and cider into the fields, particularly at harvest time.

Insofar as we’ve given British farmhouse beer — or let’s say rural beer — a great deal of thought there’s a point hinted at here that rings true for us: we reckon it ought to be quickly, cheaply, easily made, and probably drunk very fresh, if not, indeed, while still fermenting.

That is, like ‘Cornish swanky’ which we wrote about for Beer Advocate a couple of years ago:

One particular set of instructions is repeated in various corners of the internet, usually verbatim, without any original source. The earliest version, posted on RootsWeb by someone called Jan Gluyas in May 1997, calls for boiling four pounds of brown sugar in five gallons of water for 45 minutes with hops, ground ginger, raisins and salt. It is to be fermented for around two days and then bottled with a single raisin in each bottle for priming.

Or, if you prefer pictures to words, along the lines of this ginger beer recipe from a strangely compelling YouTube channel which is part exploration of 18th century American cooking techniques, part advertising for a firm that sells historic kitchen equipment:

The Brewing Trade Review article gives details of the slightly larger scale, more elaborate communal brewing method of one Suffolk village via the testimony of an 81-year-old woman interviewed in 1950. Even that, though, was fermented for a maximum of a week before being drunk, although…

those who liked “young beer”, it seems — or who perhaps found seven days too long a wait to quench their impatient thirsts — often tapped the casks before the lapse of this period.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone making this kind of beer commercially viable in 2018 so these days farmhouse, as a label, must mean something else. Lars Marius Garshol may have it when he suggests that most commercial beers commonly labelled as ‘farmhouse’ are actually “farmhouse ales that have been imported into the world of commercial brewing, undergoing some changes on the way”.

Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy

This post was written for #BeeryLongreads2018 and made possible by the support of our Patreon subscribers. Do consider signing up if you enjoy this blog, or perhaps just buy us a one-off pint.

For the last year or so we’ve been slowly chewing over a single big question: how healthy is British beer culture?

You might remember, if you’re a long-time reader, that we first wrote about the idea of healthy beer culture in 2013, but that was a set of bullet points. This post expands on those ideas with another five years’-worth of evidence, experience and thinking.

We should confess that our starting point is one of mild frustration at the pervasive idea that British beer – and beer culture more generally – is ailing. We see various worries expressed on social media, and in blog posts and articles, each one discrete and personal, but adding up to a mass of anxiety. If you’re in this bubble it can feel like the end times.

To provide fuel for this specific blog post we asked our Twitter followers to tell us what, if anything, made them worried for the future of British beer. Some statements echoed things we’ve seen said many times before, while others flagged issues we had not considered. Quite a few effectively cancelled each other out, highlighting the absurdity of thinking about British beer as a monolith. There is no single idea of what healthy looks like, and no victory that won’t feel like a defeat to somebody else.

In this post we want to focus on some of the most commonly expressed fears, question whether they have a basis in reality, and consider the the likely impact of those that do.

Let’s begin with a staple of beer commentary for the past 25 years or so: the  perils of the pursuit of novelty.

Continue reading “Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy”

That’s Not a Drink, This is a Drink

Because Jessica has been on call over the weekend (office job, not a surgeon or anything) she couldn’t drink, so we both decided to do the whole thing dry, which got us thinking about what constitutes a Drink, capital D.

On Friday night, needing to put a full stop on the working week somehow, we gathered the makings of ‘mocktails’ from the shops and spent a couple of hours experimenting.

Sourcing or devising recipes was was absorbing; working with ingredients — zesting lemons and limes, pounding mint leaves, crushing ice, salting the rims of glasses — was fun; and there was a real pleasure in beholding the pretty end products, even before we got to taste them.

It was the ginless tonic that really got us thinking, though. What made it look, feel and taste like a real, composed Drink, even though it was mostly just tonic and ice? A big, stemmed glass helped. The twist of lemon peel added some magic, as did the tablespoon of ginger beer, teaspoon of elderflower cordial, and squeeze of lemon juice. But really it was about the fact that we’d taken care and a little time, treating these simple components with a little care, expressly intending to fool ourselves.

Of course this eventually made us think about beer.

Beer, you might think, is a simple drink. You don’t add ice, and the habit of dropping chunks of fruit into wheat beer feels like some relic of the 1990s. But we keep thinking of a phrase Alastair ‘Meantime’ Hook uses when describing how beer is treated in Germany: “universal reverence”.

You can dump warmish beer into the first scratched, half-clean glass you lay your hands on. That’s certainly a beer. Or you can spend a few seconds choosing just the right vessel, cleaning it until it sings, and filling it to achieve the correct degree of clarity, with the perfect head of foam. That is a Beer.

It why sparklers are debated so endlessly — their use, or not, is a choice, and an act of reverence. It’s why, whatever the practicalities, the pint as a measure is so irresistible. It’s why even mediocre Belgian or German beers seem to taste that little bit better than they might in blind tasting — because chalices and doilies announce the arrival of something special. It explains marketing-driven pouring rituals, too: because they make you wait for it, a pint of Guinness retains a certain mystique, even when your head tells you it’s a pointless performance.

A pint of Courage Best served in a pub that has been selling the same beer (or at least the same brand) for 50 years and is proud of it, with spotless branded glassware and tasting as good as it ever can, is a Beer, even if the product and setting are humble and it costs less than £3.

Giving beer the VIP treatment isn’t free — sexy glassware gets stolen, and careful staff ought to cost more — but it is, in the grand scheme of things, cheap, being mostly a state of mind.

* * *

  1. NAIPA — 1 part BrewDog Nanny State NA beer, 1 part apple juice, one slice very finely pureed banana, squeeze of lime juice, ice.
  2. Spicy Thing — one part ginger beer, one part soda water, tablespoon maple syrup, one slice green chilli (crushed), ice.
  3. Ginless Tonic — tonic, ice, twist of lemon peel, squeeze of lemon juice, tablespoon ginger beer, teaspoon elderflower cordial, ice.
  4. Fauxjito — soda water, juice of 1 lime, sugar syrup to taste, crushed mint leaves, crushed ice.

100 Words: In Love With Tripel

Illustration: a Belgian tripel in the glass.

We keep thinking about Belgian Tripels.

We’ve said that Westmalle Tripel is, without doubt or debate, so shut up, the best beer in the world.

But maybe Tripel is the best style.

A good Tripel demonstrates how a beer can be balanced without being bland or paltry. Sweetness reined in by bitterness, richness met by high carbonation, with spice and spicy yeast pulling it all together.

Complex without drama. Subtly luxurious. Affordable art.

Yes, very affordable: you can still buy some of the highest-regarded examples for less than three quid a bottle, and a suitable glass for not much more.

Imagined Richness

A half of mild ale.

Why is it that our mouths water at the mention of a XXX mild from 1959 even when it is accompanied by notes underlining its sweet, watery weakness?

What power of nostalgia is it that makes us imagine a beer from 60 years ago will taste more exciting than the same kind of beers today?

We suppose it’s because, being unattainable, it stands in for every pint of mild in history, or rather the ideal pint of mild, in ideal condition, served in the ideal pub, in ideal company.

The imagination tends towards perfection, constructing composites from only happy memories.

In reality, if we had the wherewithal to travel back to Suffolk at the dawn of the 1960s, there’s every chance we’d find ourselves confronted with mediocre pints, or even a nasty ones.

And, underwhelmed, we’d yearn for the good old days.

Pints and Halves: Statements and Pragmatism

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Everything we do sends signals — even something as apparently unimportant as the size of the glass out of which we choose to drink our beer.

I (Jessica) hit my teenage years during the era of the ladette when drinking beer, and especially drinking beer in pints, was a way for women to stake a claim on blokes’ territory. Big boots, no make-up, pints, swearing — don’t tell me what’s ladylike or how to behave! Up yours!

For as long as I’ve been interested in beer one of the annoying minor manifestations of sexism has been the tendency to assume I’ll want a half, or a fruit beer, or whichever of the two drinks we’ve ordered is (as decided by a whole set of complex subconscious calculations) the ‘girly’ one.

I realised a few years ago, though, that most of the time I do want to drink halves. I’m not very big; don’t have a great gut capacity; and even at the peak of my pissed fitness could only handle so much beer by volume before I made myself sick, which only seems to be getting worse as I slide into middle age.

Sometimes, though, I find myself ordering a pint because I can’t face another crappy, scratched tumbler, full to the brim with no head. Sometimes it’s because I’ve had a tough day and I know that I’d only be back at the bar after five minutes otherwise. And sometimes it’s the teenager in DMs rearing her head, making a point.

* * *

I (Ray) used to drink halves more often because there were so many exciting beers to taste and it was the only way to get through them all; and, honestly, because I was being an awkward sod in response to male friends refusing — literally refusing — to buy me halves because they thought it compromised my masculinity and, more importantly to them, theirs.

As I’ve drifted out of five status and into a comfortable seven, I’ve come back to pints. I drink a pint in about the time it takes Jess to drink a half. I like the feel of a pint glass in my hand, and the rhythm it gives to drinking.

My hangover limits are higher, my gut more elastic: my four pints to Jess’s two over the course of a session leaves us in about the same place.

But perhaps I’ve also just reverted to my deep programming: in my family, a bloke ordering a half is sending a signal that he’s not planning to stick about, or isn’t fully committed to the session.

I sometimes order a half just to remind myself I can and I always think, “I should do this more often.”

* * *

Ultimately, what we’d both like is this:

  1. To be able to order whichever beer we fancy in whatever volume we feel like at that particular moment without assumptions or comment, and without having to explain the reasons.
  2. For halves to be treated with as much reverence by pubs and bars as the sacred pint — nice glassware makes such a difference.

We were prompted to think about this by various things but most important the recent report from Dea Latis on women’s attitudes to beer. Do give it a read.