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.

Craft Lager and Whatever IPA

Whatever IPA.

We’ve been observing the way people, including some of our own friends and colleagues, order their drinks in pubs these days.

Here’s a fair­ly typ­i­cal exchange:

What you hav­ing?”

[Point­ing at the keg taps] “What­ev­er IPA they’ve got.”

Malt­smith’s?”

Yeah, fine.”

Malt­smith’s (Caledonian/Heineken, 4.6%) is the same as Samuel Smith India Ale (5%, cop­pery, Eng­lish hops) is the same as Brew­Dog Punk (5.6%, pale, pun­gent) is the same as Goose Island IPA (AB InBev, 5.9%, amber, piney).

We’ve noticed more or less the same ten­den­cy with ‘craft lager’ – a phrase we geeks could prob­a­bly lose weeks bick­er­ing over but which to most con­sumers has a fair­ly clear mean­ing: some­thing with CRAFT LAGER writ­ten on its label, and a brand invent­ed in the past decade.

Fuller’s Fron­tier, Hop House 13 (Guin­ness), St Austell Korev, Cam­den Hells (AB InBev), Lost & Ground­ed Keller Pils… They’re all seen as avatars of the same thing, despite the vast diver­gence in flavours, and regard­less of own­er­ship, inde­pen­dence, and so on.

It was weird the oth­er night to be in Sea­mus O’Don­nel­l’s, a cen­tral Bris­tol Irish pub, and see on draught not only Guin­ness stout but also a Guin­ness brand­ed gold­en ale, cit­ra IPA, and two craft­ed-up lagers – Hop House 13 and Guin­ness Pil­sner.

This line-up is what peo­ple expect to find in 2018, and brew­eries are oblig­ed to respond if they don’t want to lose space on the bar to com­peti­tors.

The frus­tra­tion for beer geeks is that this feels and looks like what they want­ed, what they clam­oured for, but the beers them­selves are so often dis­ap­point­ing – hops a lit­tle more in evi­dence than the old main­stream, per­haps, but rarely more than that.

And if you’re wed­ded to ideals of inde­pen­dence, qual­i­ty and choice, it’s all a bit wor­ry­ing: most con­sumers are appar­ent­ly easy to befud­dle, or don’t care, which is bad news for those who do.

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.