We will never taste what you taste

There are some champions of cask ale (quite a few) who truly seem baffled by how people can be at all impressed by kegged or bottled beer. They are no doubt sincere in finding cask ale a superior tasting product in almost every instance.

To that group of people, hearing us and others say that, occasionally, we prefer the kegged or bottled version of a beer, and that we frequently enjoy kegged beers, must seem irritating in the extreme.

In fact, they must feel pretty much how we do when we hear people say they “just can’t taste skunking“.

There’s a fundamental lack of mutual understanding which, unfortunately, could probably only be solved by a temporary swapping of tastebuds.

Note: there are also a large number of cask ale fanatics who are just awkward sods with a fondness for rigid rules and correcting people. That’s not who we’re talking about.

It's not only beer

In this article, amongst many excellent points, Pete Brown suggests that the fuss over the Oxford Companion to Beer highlights a lack of perspective on the part of some beer geeks, bloggers and writers. He says that, sometimes, people’s attitudes make him want to say: “Guys, get a grip – it’s only beer.”

But is it only beer?

We’ve written on a related subject before, pointing out that, as hobbyists, we know it’s just beer, but that taking it seriously is all part of the fun.

Telling real historians and scholars like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson, however, that it’s only beer is like telling an archaeologist that the subject of his study is ‘just a load of muddy rubble’ and that he should stop being so anal about it. Yes, most specialist scholars have lost perspective, and thank God for that.

It’s through the efforts of people who take apparently insignificant things seriously, and spend time doing the kinds of back-breaking research others can’t be bothered with, that we learn more about our world and our history.

Beer is worthy of serious study and we should applaud those who undertake it, however nuts their obsession might sometimes seem to the rest of us.

P.S. We really don’t like wine very much. No pretending here.

Ten signs of a craft brewery

Stained glass pub window reading "Stout"

We were pondering the hard-to-define, much-loathed term “craft beer” again this morning and decided that, rather than a firm definition, it makes much more sense to think about indicators or signs.

The following list, off the top of our head, is not exhaustive and, clearly, we’re not suggesting that any brewery needs to be able to tick all ten to be considered to be making craft beer. Equally, some of these apply to breweries that, instinctively, we wouldn’t consider craft brewers.

So, this is just more food for thought, really.

1. They use malts like Maris Otter or even Plumage Archer because they want a particular flavour in their beer, rather than higher-yielding, cheaper varieties. This fact is mentioned on the packaging or on the website.

2. They might well produce single-hop beers or beers which prominently feature specific hops. Their choice of hops is driven by something other than the market. It is possible/easy to find out which varieties are used.

3. It is easy to find out where the beer is made — ideally because it is mentioned on the packaging. It does not pretend to be from somewhere else. (I.e. Belgium, Denmark, Newcastle.)

4. The brewers have their names and/or faces on the website or packaging. There are identifiable individuals making the beer. They might even be contactable on Twitter or through their own blogs.

5. They lager or age beer for extended periods even though it’s expensive to do so.

6. Their beers have vintages and change from year to year: they are not entirely focused on consistency.

7. There are signs of innovation led by the brewers rather than marketers or management.

8. The brewers are the management.

9. They make beer that makes you say “wow”, not “meh”. (A beer can be 3.8% abv, brown and hopped with Goldings and still make you go “wow”, by the way.)

10. They make a dark beer: they haven’t ceded this ground to Guinness.

Any others?

Update on the Oxford Companion to Beer

Since we wrote this somewhat positive but reserved review, there’s been plenty going on.

In a stroke of genius, Alan at A Good Beer Blog has set up a wiki so that readers of the Companion can identify and record errors. What’s particularly helpful, we think, is that he’s asked people to focus on just the facts, ma’am, and not to make it personal. This needn’t be narky, sarky nitpicking — it could be something really constructive and useful.

In fact, hippies that we are, we were hoping this whole discussion would turn into a kind of beer commmunity collaborative love-in.

Unfortunately, what he’s read so far has made Martyn Cornell angry (a bit too angry, maybe). Garrett Oliver, who edited the companion, seems to have taken it personally (it wasn’t, but then the book is his baby) and has responded with sarcasm and a point-by-point rebuttal. And Martyn has come back to that in the comments here. Yeesh. This could run and run.

Meanwhile, all this discussion has been met with cries of “pedantry” and “spoil-sports!” on Twitter and forums.

And we continue to find both bloopers and entries which give us hope. Ron Pattinson might not have much time for Horst Dornbusch, but Herr Dornbusch and Mr Oliver’s article on porter in the Companion cites Ron’s mini-book on the subject and (based on a quick read) gets the basics right. Most importantly, it refers to the story of Ralph Harwood inventing porter as a substitute for three threads as a myth, in no uncertain terms.

We still think the book is a good read as long as you read critically and don’t do anything daft like base an academic paper on its contents; and we certainly still think it’s a big step forward in terms of ambition for books about beer.

But our view has hardened a bit: it’s not pedantry, nitpicking or spoil-sport behaviour to expect a book which costs quite a lot of money to get the history right. Yes, maybe some of those pointing out errors could be a bit more gracious and take less obvious glee in finding them but, really, no-one should publish a book with some claim to academic rigour and be surprised when academics and historians challenge it. It’s all in the game.

Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect

Detail of text from the Oxford Companion to Beer

We like The Oxford Companion to Beer (ed. Garrett Oliver) a lot more than we were expecting to and, although far from perfect, it certainly beats any other catch-all on the market.

So, let’s get the big flaws out of the way. First, entries differ wildly in tone of voice and occasionally contradict each other. Wikipedians would describe some as “not encylopedic in tone”. But then, each entry is attributed, and this is pointedly not an encylopedia with a capital E — it’s a ‘Companion’, suggesting something less formal.

Secondly, every tenth entry is written through the weird prism of American home brewing culture, with phrases like “true to style” and “German ale” occuring in pieces which stridently expound very shaky history, citing less than credible sources. But then critical readers (like wot we are) will spot these entries a mile off and take them with a pinch of salt. They don’t ruin the whole book.

Finally, on the subject of sources, there are too few primary sources cited, and many instances where one contributor cites another contributor’s book as the source for an entry. Cliquey-ness? Laziness? Primary sources inspire a great deal of confidence in a reader and any serious attempt at history should use them.

Having said all of that, those flaws and a few others do not mean there isn’t a great deal to enjoy.

The more technical entries covering contemporary brewing practices, hop and barley varieties and chemical processes are fascinating and (to us at least) seem well sourced and credible. Every time we pick it up, we learn something new, and feel inspired to read more elsewhere.

A few years ago, when we wanted to buy a friend a primer on beer, the best we could find was the Eyewitness Guide edited by the late Michael Jackson. Although the Oxford Companion is expensive, it is now the best book to buy anyone wanting to get a good overview — or at least to begin to appreciate the complexity and depth — of the world of beer.

If nothing else, it will hopefully spur others on to produce similar, bigger, better books. With apologies to those who have worked hard writing them, we don’t need any more variations on 750 Beers to Try Before You Need Your Stomach Pumped, where pornographic pictures of beer are accompanied by tasting notes.

Note: we got a free review copy from Oxford University Press.