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”.)

News, Nuggets & Longreads 22 July 2017: Quality, Icebergs, Cheesecloth

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that’s caught our eye in the last week, from beer quality to iceberg water.

A debate about beer quality has flared up in New Zealand prompted by this piece by veteran beer writer Geoff Griggs in which he suggests there is too much faulty self-proclaimed craft beer on the market. It’s an interesting piece in its own right — ‘People aren’t looking for quality beer, as long as it isn’t s…, and you have super sweet packaging and an even better story you will sell heaps.’ — but this response from Jason Gurney at Brewhui is arguably more so. In it, while suggesting that Griggs is wrong to have made such a sweeping statement at this stage, he proposes some concrete, constructive actions for improving beer quality overall, e.g.

We need to facilitate an audit system regarding brewing, packaging and distribution models. If a brewery is having an issue with beer quality, then it’s feasible that this issue is caused by a systematic problem with the way they are brewing, packaging, and/or distributing their beer.  There’s nothing like documenting each step of your process for identifying where things can be done better – and as such, the Brewer’s Guild need to facilitate an audit system that is easy to access and actually valuable from the perspective of the brewery.  I would suggest that international, independent advisors could again be useful here – but it’s also possible that a national peer-review system could be effective too.  It really depends on how much we truly believe in the collegiality of the brewing community.

That’s an interesting idea, as are the others — but which body could administer something like this in the UK? Surely not the currently under fire SIBA.


A London pub glimpsed up an alleyway.

After the slightly controversial inclusion of Marina O’Loughlin’s ‘I don’t like pubs’ piece last week, here’s another, by Jessica Brown for Longreads, which reaches a similar conclusion, but via a more positive, thoughtful, literally meandering route:

I wondered if the Britons’ third place could be pubs… The pub seems to be a perfect fit; at least, it does when you’re looking through the lens of nostalgia, as one can easily do when under the alien skyscrapers and mystical spell of the city… But recently there’s been a decline in the number of pubs, and the ones that remain are struggling to survive. Partly to blame is a shift from the traditional community pub of locals to strangers’ cocktail bars and pop-ups — a new kind of plague on the city.


Josh Noel writes about beer for the Chicago Tribune and is trying out a new format: a simple report of a crawl around a single neighbourhood in one evening. His first ramble was around Pilsen which sounds fascinating:

As recently as nine months ago, Pilsen had no taprooms or brewpubs. In the midst of a food and drink uprising — some call it gentrification — Pilsen, a home to Mexican immigration since the 1950s, suddenly has three.


Quidi Vidi Brewing, Newfoundland.

Rebecca Pate, a Canadian based in the UK, made a visit home recently and reports on a troubled Newfoundland brewery that uses an unusual ingredient in its flagship beer:

The brewery has an iceberg harvester contracted to extract iceberg water, a dangerous process involving cranes and grappling hooks. An unfortunate effect of climate change means that Iceberg Alley, a colloquial term used for the ecozone that stretches from Greenland to Newfoundland, is replete with icebergs traversing the waters. Some have been visible from St John’s harbour, according to the locals.


Beer being poured through a cheesecloth.

Patrick Dawson, who literally wrote the book on ageing beer, recounts his experience of drinking Victorian beers from crusted bottles for Craft Beer & Brewing:

The beer had to be poured through a piece of cheesecloth to strain out crumbled bits of ancient cork. After 15 minutes and four different corkscrews, it became apparent that holding back 10 percent ABV beer for more than 145 years had been too much for the aged stopper. This bottle of the vaunted Ratcliff Ale, a barleywine brewed by Bass in 1869, just four short years after the end of the American Civil War, must have had an Encino Man-moment being poured out into this radically changed world.


And, finally, pub photo of the week must surely be this piece of misty, mournful romanticism from 1960 (via @JamesBSumner):

Beer: piss and chemicals?

'Weekend Drinkers', from the wonderful Bolton Council Mass Observation photo archive. (No, that isn't us in the Dock Inn...)
‘Weekend Drinkers’, from the wonderful Bolton Council Mass Observation photo archive. (Any resemblance to the authors of this blog is purely coincidental.)

Humans, it seems, have a natural tendency to assume that the best of times was just before they arrived on the scene — that things aren’t what they used to be. That’s certainly often true of beer, both specifically (Pilsner Urquell, Hoegaarden, Rooster’s Yankee) and more generally.

We are now wondering how far back the general belief that ‘beer isn’t what is used to be’ can be traced. Here’s the start of the trail:

  • 1978: ‘The tragedy is that a generation of drinkers are being reared on mass-produced fizzy pap… Many have never tasted good, traditional beer…’ Roger Protz in Pulling a Fast One.
  • 1973: ‘It’s all piss and wind, like a barber’s cat.’ Man in a Midlands pub quoted by Christopher Hutt in The Death of the English Pub.
  • 1936: ‘…same wi’t bloody beer, it’s nowt but piss and chemicals…’ Man in a Bolton pub quoted by Mass Observation in The Pub and the People (1943).

Are there earlier examples of this kind of rhetoric? We bet there are. In fact, we reckon that, within about eight weeks of beer being invented, some miserable sod was moaning about how the second batch wasn’t as good as the first.

Another thought, though: apart from those who mourn the near disappearance of mild, and the watering of John Smith’s, are there many around today who think beer quality in Britain is, in general, declining?

Our copy of the Mass Observation pub study arrived yesterday and we’ve already found plenty of food for thought. A full review will follow soon but, in the meantime, here’s what Ron Pattinson had to say about it in several posts; and here’s George Orwell’s contemporary review.