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Generalisations about beer culture opinion pubs

You can’t judge a pub on one visit

One of the reasons we are doing #EveryPubInBristol is because we did #EveryPubInPenzance and discovered that we couldn’t always judge a pub from the way it looked.

We like to think we know pubs reasonably well and there were five pubs in Penzance that just never appealed based on the way they presented.

We decided to go to them all before we left and we found that one was much better than we’d expected and was added into our regular route; three were actually fine; and only one was genuinely bad. And because of our general interest in the history and culture of pubs, almost everywhere had something for us to observe or learn from, good or bad.

However, 252 pubs into our Bristol mission, we’ve started to question whether one visit is really enough for some pubs. So much of what makes up an experience in a pub is transitory – the staff who were on, the other punters during your visit – before you even get into what the beer tastes like, changes to the decor, and so on.

When pubs get refurbished and new managers take over, we do try to make an effort to revisit as this kind of thing can drastically change a place. But other changes might be more subtle – perhaps we visited during the day when there’s a calm older crowd and missed the fact it has a DJ and dancing on a Saturday night. Perhaps we visited on a particularly rainy or sunny day when the usual crowd stayed at home or went to the park. Perhaps the bartender who made us feel so welcome left for another job a week later and the place just isn’t as friendly now.

We think this is why it’s easier to judge places that have an identifiable guv’nor or guv’nors – that their personality, for good or worse, sets a fairly consistent tone for the place. And you can tell a lot by the regulars that they gather around them and the behaviours that are and aren’t allowed.

In contrast, the hardest places to form a view on are often managed houses, where staff and management turn over constantly. It’s hard enough to imprint a personality over what the pubco or brewery has decided is the in look this season (usually several years out of date) even when you do have a steady team.

There’s a pub between our house and the centre of town which constantly switches between being a decent pub with acceptable food and drink to a complete kitchen and cellar nightmare. We end up visiting every six months to see what phase it’s in. To be fair, we probably wouldn’t bother at all if it wasn’t on our way home.

This of course is where a good local CAMRA branch comes in useful, particularly if members are attuned to factors beyond beer quality – it’s great to get local intelligence on which pubs have changed hands recently and a hint as two whether the change is for the better, or the worse.

We suppose, in a roundabout way, what we’re saying is that pubs are like living things. That’s great news if you like exploring pubs because over the course of five years, 250 pubs might equate to 1,000 pubs, in terms of the experience of visiting them.

And another thought: perhaps this is why pubs that don’t change – that can resist it for, say, 20 years or more – feel so special.

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Belgium opinion

Why Belgium is the perfect playground for a beginner beer geek

If you’ve decided that you’re going to get into beer, the chances are you will go through a Belgian phase. You may, in fact, never come out of it.

Look at these obsessives, for example, who go to Belgium multiple times every year and find endless fascination in the country’s beer.

We’ve identified five factors that we think make Belgian beers to appealing to ‘beginner’ beer geeks – people at stages three to five – beyond the obvious fact that Belgium is home to many of the world’s greatest beers.

1. Variety

When you first encounter Belgian beer, there’s an impression of boundless choice. Even the most basic bars have lengthy beer lists, usually with enough options to offer something different throughout a weekend city break. The beers on offer range from brain-dissolvingly sour to syrup sweet, and often come with tantalising, almost romantic descriptions.

2. Familiarity

Most Belgian bars will offer a set of reliable classics – the Westmalles, Chimays, Duvel, and so on. So, while there is a lot of choice, it’s not like drinking in a modern UK taproom where the beers change constantly, week by week, like fugitives trying to evade detection. In Belgium, it’s easy to identify favourites and go back to them as often as you like, as you get to understand your own preferences.

3. Consistency

Most Belgian beers are served from the bottle, and most of these breweries have been bottling for a very long time, so when you drink Westmalle Tripel it will taste more or less the same wherever you drink it, unlike with draught beer (and especially cask) where so much depends on the venue. Caveats apply: we have noticed consistency issues with Abt 12, for example, which put us off drinking it for a while.

4. Ritual

On the ground in Belgium, at least, there are the matching glasses, the perfect pours and the general reverence for the product that seems to apply even in non-beer-geek places. Every glass of beer is the most important in the world at the moment it’s served. And if you like reading, there’s plenty to read, from the history of the distinctive yeast to the tales of individual breweries.

5. Quirkiness

Pink elephants! Trolls! Peculiar glassware! It was made for the Instagram age. It’s just fun.

* * *

Are there downsides?

Well, perhaps the generally higher strength of Belgian beer might be offputting to the average British person.

It certainly took us quite a while to adjust to a sensible Belgian drinking pace.

And actually, the alcohol burn can seem overwhelming at first, like the whisky wall we wrote about in last month’s newsletter. We remember considering Chimay White undrinkable the first time we tried it because all we could taste was ethanol. Of course we love it now.

For some, the Belgian scene might also seem a little conservative. There are new breweries and styles emerging – certainly enough to quench our curiosity whenever we visit – but we guess it is difficult for new players to enter the market.

On the whole, though, Belgian beer strikes just the right balance between novelty and solidity. It’s vast but knowable. Often complex but rarely ridiculous. Very weird but absolutely everyday.

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Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Crediting others with sincerity

Why is it so hard for people to believe that other people really enjoy drinking the beers they say they enjoy drinking?

We saw another small outbreak of second-guessing last week when Matt Curtis wrote in glowing terms about Harvey’s Sussex Best – a beer we also happen to love.

To paraphrase, the suggestion we saw float through the timeline was that Matt and others don’t really believe Sussex Best is better than, say, Greene King IPA – it’s just that it’s trendy, or at least on the approved list of Beers You’re Allowed to Like.

The same thinking sometimes seems to be behind the dismissal of ‘craft murk’ – that is, hazy IPAs and the like – and sour beer, lager, or any other style you care to think of.

Here’s what we think the thought process looks like:

  1. I don’t like this beer.
  2. I find it impossible to imagine anyone else liking this beer.
  3. People who say they like this beer must be deluded, or lying.

The assumption that everybody else’s opinions are either (a) part of a herd response to hype or (b) deliberate contrarianism… Well, it gets a bit wearing, to be honest.

After all, taste is a delicate mechanism. Even in this team, Jess is barely sensitive to light-strike or skunking, while Ray is; Ray isn’t especially attuned to diacetyl, but Jess is.

We can’t speak definitively for anyone else, of course, but we know this: when we say we’ve enjoyed drinking something, it’s because we enjoyed drinking it; when we say we don’t, it’s because we don’t.

And we try to assume the same of others.

Of course there are times when you might question the motives of a reviewer – do they have a commercial relationship with the brewery? Are they paid to undertake PR on its behalf? Did it send them a lavish hamper of freebies?

We do also think that some beers are better than others, where ‘better’ means ‘more likely to appeal to people in a given group’, whether that’s beer geeks, mainstream drinkers, traditionalists or whichever.

But we’ve no reason to doubt that Tandleman gained real pleasure for his pints of Morland Original, or that Al found something to appreciate in Tennent’s Lager, or that Brad has never had a beer from The Kernel that was “anything short of outstanding”.

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Generalisations about beer culture opinion

On beer scenes

We’re currently working on a big piece about the Leeds beer scene, hopefully to go live next weekend, which has got us thinking about the very idea of ‘scenes’.

To qualify as somewhere with a ‘beer scene’ there are a few requirements, we reckon:

1. Multiple interesting pubs, bars or beer exhibition venues. One micropub, taproom or bar does not a beer scene make. And they really do need to be within walking distance of each other – the basis of a crawl. There probably has to be at least one legendary, must-visit venue.

2. Punditry. If you’re visiting Boggleton, who do you ask for advice? Who’s written a local guide, whether as a book, website or blog post? Have Matt Curtis, Jonny Garrett or Tony Naylor been in town taking notes?

3. Events. Bottle-shares, meet-the-brewers, tap takeovers and the like. We don’t particularly like events but there’s no denying that they bring scattered beer geeks together, creating and signalling the existence of a community.

4. Festivals, plural. Not just the local CAMRA festival, although those are important, but alternative events organised outside that infrastructure. Especially if they’re focused on particular niches – lager, sour beer, green hops, and so on. (Again, we rarely go ourselves, but…)

5. Faces. The people who make things happen, are at all the events, who drink maybe a bit more than a civilian might and put their money where their mouths are. They’re also the source of low-level soap opera (Thingumabob’s fallen out with Wossname; So-and-so’s left Venue A to work at Venue B). And, of course,  they’re the ones to watch when it comes to the next generation of bars, breweries and beer business.

6. Tourists. If beer geeks build their holidays around your town, city or region, it’s probably got a bona fide beer scene. In general, it needs to be a city or larger town. Falmouth almost pulls it off, as did Newton Abbot for a while, but there almost needs to be a sense that there’s just too much to get into a single long weekend.

What do you reckon? Anything obvious we’ve missed?

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Crowdfunding in beer: danger sign?

“Have almost started to think of crowdfunding as a danger sign. Why won’t a bank just lend them the money?”

We tweeted this in response to @bringonthebeer the other day and it prompted a few challenges, including some that changed our thinking, so we thought we’d unpack it a bit.

It’s just, really, that it feels as if crowdfunding is a common factor is a recent spate of beer industry takeovers and collapses.

Martyn Cornell gave a detailed rundown of some of the problems with crowdfunding in beer a few years ago: it’s not real investment in most cases; and lots of crowdfunded businesses fail, or fail to deliver on promises.

Most recently, there’s been Hop Stuff and Redchurch.

But we’re talking about something ever so slightly different – that the very act of appealing to the public for investment seems increasingly like a red flag for the future of those operations.

With hindsight, in many cases, crowdfunding often looks to us like a cry for help or act of desperation.

Critics of crowdfunding sometimes call it ‘begging’ and it can feel that way.

When in day jobs we’ve been involved in raising funding, it’s been through banks. They’re unpopular, old school, not very ‘craft’, but they are part of our system of checks and balances. If a bank won’t lend a business money, it probably means that business has failed to present a convincing case for its long-term success.

Some of the challenges we got on Twitter did make us pause for thought, though: securing funding via banks usually requires property as collateral, which makes things tough for those who don’t own a house.

Some would no doubt say if you can’t manage to buy a house, you probably shouldn’t be aiming to expand a business to larger or multiple locations but given the bizarre state of the UK housing market, we’re not sure that washes.

Even so, when we see a crowdfunding campaign launch, unless we know the brewery or retailer in question has a cult following and strong marketing game, it increasingly strikes us – rightly or wrongly, on an instinctive level – as a target painted on their flank: they’re weak, ripe for picking off, and this is their last shot.

Of course we understand the appeal to businesses of crowdfunding, and it’s not always bad news. We also know that many investors go into it with eyes open, as a bit of fun.

But the longer term problem is this: if, as we read it, crowdfunding is about the conversion of customer goodwill into hard cash, every failure or perceived betrayal reduces the amount of goodwill in the collective pot, and its value.