Of course beer wants you to drink it

Phil ‘Beersay’ Hardy has kicked off another of those periodic rounds of fretting among beer British beer geeks: are we, by definition, in an unhealthy relationship with beer? Do we drink too much, too often? Are we dependent on alcohol?

We don’t think it’s silly to ask this question from time to time, or to consider the possible impact of beer on your own health.

There are those who will tell you, however, that even acknowledging a possible problem gives succor to ‘the enemy’, viz. those who would like to see drinking regulated, marginalised or even banned outright. We say, ignore them: the belief that how much you drink is a personal decision has to go both ways, and if you choose to drink less, that’s your shout.

Some people in the industry, however, do drink a lot, every night of the week, apparently, and at breakfast time, if their Twitter feeds are to be believed. That last is a taboo for many, and one of those safety indicators we use to check our consumption: as long as we still feel queasy at the thought of beer before midday, we’ll feel reasonably happy that we’ve not gone over a cliff just yet.

There are also brewers and publicans who will urge you to go to the pub RIGHT NOW, and make it plain you’re letting down ‘the movement’ if you don’t. You need to up your game, they insist, and drink more. If you don’t drink strong beer, you risk losing it to the taxman and the ‘neo-prohibitionists’. We’re not saying they’re being irresponsible, only that, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? You should only drink because you want to and if you feel comfortable doing so, not because someone who gains from your drinking is sending you on a guilt-trip.

Of course, it is possible that some people in the industry have lost perspective themselves, being around free-flowing beer all day every day. We remember talking to a former pub landlord over a few jars: ‘I loved running a pub — loved it. It’s what I was put on Earth to do,’ he said, then sighed. He shook his pint glass from side to side and looked at it sadly. ‘But this stuff was just too handy. I got out just in time.’

If you want to take January or any other month off drinking, do it. You’re not letting anyone down by taking a night off, or drinking water in the pub every now and then. And if you’re worried, turn to your loved ones for help or reassurance, not to your drinking buddies, online or otherwise, and certainly not to a publican or brewer.

Beer with flavours, but not flavoured

La Soccarada beer.

There’s been plenty of thinking recently about whether adding ‘non-beery’ ingredients to beer is a good idea. (Here’s Jeff Alworth on that subject.) Broadly speaking, we tend to agree that throwing in things like cocoa nibs, doughnuts, maple syrup, wasabi and Tunnock’s Teacakes fails more often than it succeeds. This weekend, however, we were reminded that ‘wacky’ ingredients can work, if they’re used well, and we’re willing to broaden our minds a little.

First, on Friday night, we drank a Spanish beer, La Socarrada, imported by a Welsh delicatessen and restaurant chain, Ultracomida. We have pretty low expectations of Spanish ‘artisanal’ beer (based on past experience), and especially when it’s pitched as being ‘for food’ (maximum pretension, minimum flavour). La Soccarada, in a plain bottle with a glossy card tied around its neck, didn’t look promising, and the talk of rosemary and rosemary honey as key ingredients were immediately off-putting.

Things got worse when, on opening, it almost gushed, disturbing the yeast as it surged into the neck, which left us with a glass of cloudy, rather soupy, dark orange liquid. Our first reactions: “Oh, no! Eugh!” But then we thought about that reaction: were we being like those people who rejected Cascade hops for tasting ‘weird’ back in the seventies? We persevered. We find rosemary rather intense and a little nausea-inducing in great amounts; and, of course, we associate it with savouriness, which made it a challenge. (And being ‘challenged’ is overrated.) But we kept sipping, just like we can’t stop eating Twiglets once we start.

By the end, we’d decided that, actually, it was a pretty decent if rather unusual beer. The flavours certainly weren’t ‘dumbed down’ and were actually rather intriguing. In particular, we were interested to note how strongly the honey came through with that throat-catching, medicinal note that sets it apart from simple syrup. They didn’t sit superficially ‘on top’ of the beer, either, at least not any more than a big dry-hop aroma can be said to do so. It might benefit from more obvious hop bitterness, and a spicier yeast, but, in conclusion, we’d be pleased to drink this instead of Estrella Damm in a Spanish restaurant.

On Saturday, hammering the point home, we tasted Harbour Brewing Chocolate & Vanilla Imperial Stout alongside Rebel Brewing Co’s similarly conceived Mexi-Cocoa, and were impressed at the integration of the ‘flavourings’ into the body of both beers. Both were smooth and clean, with those ‘novelty’ ingredients bedded deep down, overlapping seamlessly with the bitterness of dark malts. Harbour’s milkier, sweeter beer was slightly more to our taste, beating Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and probably also Meantime’s take on the same idea.

We didn’t pay for any of these beers: La Soccarada was sent to us by Ultracomida’s PR firm, and Darren ‘Beer Today’ Norbury supplied samples of the stouts at a ‘sample sharing’ session in the back room of a local pub.

Beer geeks and buying local

Beer advert: Magee Marshall & Co, Bolton

The Mass Observation book The Pub and the People continues to offer eye-opening nuggets which suggest that beer and pubs aren’t so different now to how they were nearly eighty years ago.

1. Some landlords prided themselves on buying from small, local producers

The landlord here says he gets his beer from a small brewery in Derby Street. He doesn’t care for large breweries, he says: “It’s all done with chemicals”… beer from big breweries goes off in no time…

And why was this particular landlord so fussy? Because he’d identified a new market.

2. There were a small number of beer geeks

Most pub-goers simply drink the cheapest available beer, while a minority exist for whom quality is most important.

This statement is backed up an account from the same landlord quoted above of  the word-of-mouth buzz which surrounded a particularly well-matured barrel of bitter which sat in his cellar for six months before being tapped when a stranger visited the pub.

The stranger said that it was wonderful — ‘like wine’. This man took to calling in regularly for it, until the barrel was finished. It went soon because he told his friends, and they came in for it too.

Did he use Twitter or the Ratebeer forums? Or maybe he wrote about it on his blog?

Another drinker made this statement to the survey team:

There is, I think, many different brands of beer which so far I have not had the Pleasure of Tasting. Those I have, such as: Magee’s, Walker’s, Hamer’s, Cunningham’s, and one or two others, all have a nice Flavour… The Price question I will not Dispute, because I do not Drink Excessively, so I don’t favour any particular Beer.

Idiosyncratic prose style aside, isn’t that a familiar sounding beer geek statement?