Beer for the super session

Mann's Brown Ale beer bottle.
A lower ABV beer that’s been around for a long time and has its fans.

While our chums across the Atlantic grapple with the idea of tasty beer at less than 5% ABV, British brewers, it seems, are pushing even further downward, seeking to create exciting beers that  nonetheless gesture towards ‘low alcohol’.

There is, it seems, a magic 3% boundary below which it’s hard to make a satisfying pint. We’ve had a couple of crackers, from Brentwood and Harvey’s, but, in bottles at least, c.2.8% beers rarely seem to work. Just above the line, however, we found Brodie’s Citra (3.1%) and Redemption Trinity (3%) to be not only passable but very, very good indeed. We’re also very interested in Simpleton, Magic Rock’s entry into a market they’ve called ‘session IPA’.

It’s a market driven, we think, by consumer demand. For our own part, we like drinking pints, and we like the pub, but we’re terrible lightweights, so beers like this, or 20th century style milds, are perfect. It also makes a lot of sense in a world where ‘craft beer bars’ are banding draught beer prices by ABV: if your beer is the cheapest on offer, while still presenting ‘craft’ credentials, you’ll sell a lot of it.

What’s also interesting to us is that the 3% line was pretty much the line in the sand for the CAMRA campaign in its earliest days: most big brewery bitters were c.3.5% and getting weaker each year, leading to several consumer investigations and outraged newspaper articles. Were Watney et al sweating the details to make sure those weaker beers were satisfying? Probably not. Once again, something that is a problem in a near-monopoly isn’t so much of an issue in a more diverse market.

Maybe it’s time we wrote one of those ‘eight alternativesposts dealing with the word ‘weak’?

The accidental science of beer

Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!
Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!

Our post on Friday prompted some needling from Alan at A Good Beer Blog: brewing great beer isn’t hard — it’s a ‘simple, traditional skill’. Then today, as promised, Ed chipped in with a typically sharp post querying how we ended up in what seems a topsy-turvy world where stainless steel automation is ‘craft’ and beer brewed using traditional methods isn’t. (It is to us, but our attempts to reclaim the word to include cask ale seem to have failed.)

With all that in our minds, it was odd that, from beyond the grave, Michael Jackson should chip in from the pages of an issue of The Times from 1980, reminding us that brewing’s status — art, craft, science, or something else? — has been confused for a long time, and is far from settled:

For all the painstaking research that has been done on the subject, brewing remains less of an exact science that it is an art. “Only recently have we begun to understand what a remarkable art it really is”, Professor Anthony Rose, a microbiologist wrote in the Scientific American some years ago. “The brewmaster, by trial and error, has been manipulating some of the subtlest processes of life.”

(Rose’s article, ‘Beer’, appeared in the June 1959 edition of the magazine, and lives behind a paywall here.)

Do brewers with degrees, labs and reference libraries, who understand why they do what they’re doing, make better beer than those who just knew it worked?

The ideal market for beer

Market stall in Walthamstow, London.

What’s better — cask or keg? ‘Craft’ or industrial beer? National, regional or microbrewery beer? Balanced session beer or strong, hoppy stuff? Beer made by Heriot Watt graduates, or by homebrewers turned pro? Bottled or draught?

Isn’t the ideal to have a bit of everything, in proportion to demand?

As consumers, our most basic requirement is the mass availability of easy-drinking, good quality beer at a fair price — the stuff we consume most days and don’t blog about because, really, who wants to know every time we have a very nice pint of Tribute? (Mass availability = in every town or village within, say, a 20 minute walk, or near the workplace.)

We want a bit more choice as close to home as possible, but certainly within an hour’s train or bus ride. If we feel the urge to drink something a bit different (stout, mild, pale and hoppy) on a Wednesday night in November, we should be able to do so without too much bother.

But we also want the niche products we crave once in a while — Belgian beer, ‘craft keg’, rarities and oddities — to be readily available. (Ready availability = no more than a couple of hours on the train or bus.) We don’t mind if they cost a bit more to reflect the additional cost of production and distribution. This niche has room to grow a bit but will probably remain small, and that’s fine — not every town needs a craft beer bar, just every region.

We want to see new breweries opening, challenging established outfits to up their game. If they brew great beer, then that’s ideal; even if they don’t, and they can’t survive in the long term, they stop the pool from getting stagnant. They keep at bay monopolies where there’s only one beer on offer and it’s as bad and/or expensive as the breweries decide.

Finally, in the ideal marketplace, no-one should be made to feel like an arsehole whichever type of beer they choose to drink.