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.