The flatness of beer part 2: the opinions of others

Has the excitement gone out of the beer scene, and if so, why?

Those are the questions we asked in our most recent newsletter last week.

They prompted some interesting responses across all channels.

Overall, we’d say those who had an opinion shared our sense that things feel depressed.

Lack of variety might be the problem

The excitement has gone out of beer, says David, “and that’s (in part) because there are too many people producing products that are too similar with no defining characteristics.”

He also shared a photo of a beer menu at a bar in London populated almost entirely by pale, hoppy beers:

“There are some genuinely good beers here, of course… But look at the spread of styles and ABVs on that board… And yes, it’s a warm Monday in July in London. But if that’s your selection, where’s the joy? That board could be a quarter as long and lose absolutely nothing.”

His email concluded with this interesting analogy:

“It’s like street circuits in Formula 1. We all looked at Monaco and thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there were more street circuits?’ So then they had loads more and they’re entirely uniform and dull, and even Monaco isn’t much of a watch now. Sometimes scarcity really is part of the appeal.”

Oliver Holtaway emailed us with this personal observation:

“Yes, beer feels far less interesting than it did 10 years ago, and while it’s a boring answer I’m part of the camp that mostly blames so many beers tasting of fruit (and this trend seemingly persisting forever). I clearly remember this shift happening around 2017-2018 when I used to drink in Hunter & Sons in Bath (now closed). They always had 6 taps on, some of it pretty far-flung and £££, and I’d settle in and drink a third or a half of each. When I first started going in 2015, those six beers would usually be very different from each other, so a session had that sense of adventure. Right before it closed in early 2018, they were still high-quality beers, but all a bit samey and fruity, and I felt less inclined to stick around.”

He also added that the shift towards sessionable craft beers – which many of us lobbied for – has taken the fun out of things:

“I’ve gone back recently and drunk 7-8% DIPAs or 9% imperial stouts from a tap and it sort of persuaded me that that taste is what craft beer is for… it’s hard for me to escape the idea that the “real stuff” only starts at 6% and above.”

The new nature of the omnicrisis

“I wouldn’t underestimate the way that pressure on peoples’ expendable income is knocking the joy out of life in general,” says Christopher Gooch, also via Substack. “The venues where we enjoy beer communally may still be busy on a good day, but some of our companions can’t join us as often as we would like. Good quality beer that fits within my taste parameters is all I ask for – so often I have picked up a rarity or hot topic beer to realise that I could have bought something equally satisfying, or better, for less money.”

Others mentioned the general sense of contraction in the UK and US economies and the changing nature of consumption in the wake of the pandemic.

And this unrelated post from Kat Sewell seemed accidentally relevant:

What? There’s plenty of excitement left!

In a post at Beervana Jeff Alworth respectfully disagreed with our conclusion:

“Yet week after week, month after month, year after year, interesting stuff kept cropping up. If I stop to think about something I don’t know, I can go down a rabbit hole that will lead me to learn something new about the seemingly infinite fascinating details beer contains. If I scan the news, I’ll usually find something at least blog-worthy happening in the world of beer… And, if I’m having trouble coming up with an idea, I dig a little deeper, focusing my attention on the various vast domains within beer…”

He also asks a smart follow up question, though: why does it feel as if beer might be ‘dead’?

“I think what’s happening now is what Buddhists call ‘the suffering of change.’ For a good decade, beer was incredibly exciting. Breweries opened like crazy, new styles were reshaping the landscape, and everyone was getting into good beer. For a decade, craft beer was the fun party and everyone wanted to be there. For those of us who got used to that mode of being—or who didn’t know anything else—2023 has the feel of the hangover after the party. We have vague regrets and our moods are dark.”

Stan Hieronymus also disagreed but outsourced the commentary to commenters on Facebook who said things like this:

“Since I started home brewing 47 years ago, the US has gone from less than 100 breweries in the US to over 10,000 today. You can get fresh beer on tap at a brewery in nearly any mid-sized town in the US and in a myriad of styles! The revolution is complete.”

Via Mastodon Chris Begley says:

“I think it is less exciting only because we take it for granted…. I can go to virtually any bar now and expect 2-3 good lagers, 2-3 good IPAs, and a variety of others, like a saison or a sour. This was not the case 20 or 30 years ago.”

Does beer need to be exciting?

Steve Hannigan put forward a point of view we expected to hear from a few people:

“Beer doesn’t have to be exciting,” says Tom Hennessy at Substack, echoing Steve. “It just has to be good and worth the price. What matters more to me is the setting where you are drinking the beer. It has to be fun, comfortable and the medium for sharing that beer with good friends.”

And Christopher Gooch, again, says:

“I don’t come across as very passionate about beer, but I am very easily satisfied. Good beer, sometimes exceptional, a comfortable venue with an atmosphere when I want it, or chilled out when I need it, and a welcome. Familiar or novel, the tingle when you push open the door can be crushed too easily by surly, dour or cookie cutter vibes.”

In a comment on Substack Nick wrote:

“I think we make a potential mistake in always trying to find the Next Big Thing. Not that I’m against change and progress of course. Example 1: I’ve recently started to commute into London one day a week after 3 years of near 100% working from home. I used to commute 4 or 5 times a week. Having this one day, in the middle of the week, has sort of become my Big Day Out in London and, because it’s just one day per week, I don’t have to rush home as soon as I clock off. This has enabled me to start revisiting some of the old haunts and simply enjoy the simplicity of a well-kept pint, new or old. I also can get off the train halfway home to explore some of the outlying, suburban gems such as one in the Wood, Petts Wood. It’s made me realise that focusing on high quality beer (from whichever container), and making the effort to find it, is simply enough…”

“I still get a thrill out of travelling to drink beers that have a sense of place,” says Andy Holmes in a comment on Substack. “Whether that be Rauchbier in Franconia or mild in the Black Country. Planning itineraries and visiting destination pubs, also excitingI Walking into a pub and seeing a list of 12 similar tasting IPAs is much less exciting.”

In his own post inspired by ours Mikey Seay writes:

“We got to the top of the mountain and now we’re all, ‘Are there, like, any other mountains or what?’… I think we just need to be happy. Contentment is a good thing… Beer has peaked and we just enjoy it while we still do what we can to keep the party quietly continuing.”

Or, as Paul put it in an email:

“I guess the thrill has gone for me. But I’ll still drink on.”

France pubs

It is possible to have fun drinking beer in Paris

In the past, we’ve struggled to enjoy drinking beer in Paris, but this time it’s worked out well, and we found some great places.

There’s some disconnect between British and French manners that can make hospitality experiences challenging.

That’s one reason we haven’t been there for a while. Not avoiding it, exactly, but not prioritising a return visit either.

And, look, Brussels is just over there!

This time, though, on our way back from Italy, we scheduled a few nights there and tried again, applying things we’ve learned over the past couple of decades.

The industrial interior of Fauve Paris with concrete bar, metal fixtures and a small brewery in the background.

Say hello when you enter a bar or cafe

This sometimes happens in the UK but mostly in smaller establishments.

You wouldn’t cut towards the bar to greet the staff in a branch of Wetherspoon, though, before finding a table.

In France, we’ve found, people will do exactly that, effectively announcing their arrival, and getting (quiet, possibly unspoken) permission to take a seat.

This is true (we think) even in craft beer bars where service may be at the bar, and there’s loads of English being spoken and on signs. It might not feel like it but you are still in France.

Beer styles

On pastry beers and pastry sours in particular

Opinion: if it’s got ‘pastry’ in the description, it’d better taste like something you might have found on sale at Percy Ingle.

Most weeks, we write a note for Patreon about the most interesting beers we’ve tasted over the course of the weekend. This has had the positive effect of making us buy more unusual beers, just so we’re not always saying “Pilsner Urquell is good.”

We’re fortunate to live fairly near Pat’s News and Booze, a corner shop off-licence with a remarkable range of craft beer in cans.

That’s where we came across Yonder Brewing’s various pastry sours which we’ve been working our way through for a few months. There are lots for us to try yet but based on six or seven so far, opinions about so-called ‘pastry’ beers have begun to form.

As we say above, in our view, it has to taste like a sweet dessert – one with flour, butter, probably vanilla, maybe some spice. It can’t just be a very fruity, super sour or sickly sweet beer.

Obviously this subset of beer is not for everyone. Frankly, it’s not for us most of the time. But every now and then we like something a little silly to get us thinking about how far beer can be pushed – to define the outer limits.

Overall, we’ve probably had more misses than hits and our Patreon round-ups often include phrases such as “alarming” and “hair-raising”.

A few have stood out as particularly successful, though.

Yonder’s Cherry Pie Pastry Sour, for example, absolutely hit the mark. You can taste the pie case – melt-in-the mouth spicy crumby crumbliness – as much as the filling. Being pretty pink probably helps the illusion along.

Weirdly, though, the same brewery’s Blueberry Pie doesn’t repeat the magic. It was just muddy. Perhaps because blueberries don’t really taste of much in their own right.

Weirder again was the truly excellent Pie Saison by Little Earth Project which we drank a couple of years ago. It looked flat and smelt like vinegar from the pickled onion jar, but then, wow, how the flavour developed. Apple, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, buttery biscuit base – real Willy Wonka stuff. How did they do it? It could just be the power of suggestion, we suppose, but are we really so susceptible to Jedi mind tricks?

Proving that you can go beyond the pie was New Bristol Brewery Lemon Drizzle Donut Sour (5.5%) which we had at a mini-beer festival at the Llandoger Trow earlier this summer. Jess tested it blind on Ray, who hadn’t read the title or description, and he said: “It tastes like a Mr Kipling fondant fancy.” It was definitely cake-like with a powerful vanilla character at first, before a citric lemonade fizz kicked in – specifically, the sensation of sucking on an R. White’s ice lolly. Just delightful.

Which other examples strike you as particularly successful? By which we mean, both delicious and convincingly pudding-like.


Are cult beers a thing?

I’ve been reading Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, published in 1981 when the idea of a cult film was quite new and, inevitably, it’s started me thinking about what might qualify as a ‘cult beer’.

Here’s how Mr Peary defines a cult movie in the introduction to the book:

Of the tens of thousands of movies that have been made, only an extremely small number have elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases… Cultists don’t merely enjoy their favorite films; they worship them, seek them out wherever they are playing, catch them in theaters even when they have just played on television, see them repeatedly, and are intent on persuading anyone who will listen that they should be appreciated regardless of what the newspaper or television reviewers thought. Strike up a conversation about movies anywhere in the country and the titles found in this book soon will be flying back and forth in frenetic debate. And as likely as not you’ll end up forcing someone to watch The Late Late Show to see a special favorite of yours or find yourself being dragged to some repertory theater to see a picture your well-meaning abductor has viewed ten, twenty, or a hundred times.

I certainly recognise something of the attitude of the beer geek in that description: “We just need to get a train and a bus, then it’s a short walk through an industrial estate, but trust me, it’ll be worth it…”

There’s also something appealing about the idea of a descriptor that sidesteps all those conversations about ‘craft’.

It’s not about whether a film is well made, says Mr Peary – “often the contrary” – or which studio made it (though many cult films are independent productions). What matters is that it has dedicated, even obsessive fans.

And perhaps also that it’s not readily available everywhere, all the time. You need to put in a little effort to enjoy it, especially if you want to see it on a big screen.

That’s why in Peary’s world, Citizen Kane can sit on the same list as Emanuelle alongside The Warriors a few pages on from Bedtime for Bonzo.

If cult beers exist, if that’s ‘a thing’, we might end up with similarly unlikely bedfellows.

Bass is probably a cult beer – a big name in its day but hard to find in its natural habitat, the pub.

Orval is, surely? Especially with all those instructions about storage and service. In fact, doesn’t Belgium rather specialise in cult beers all round?

Batham’s, too – the way people go on about it!

Schlenkerla Rauchbier, which people either love or hate, feels like a contender.

It would be easy for this to turn into a list of canonical beers, though. What’s not on the list? Anything you can easily find in a pub or bar in most towns, I suppose, which puts Guinness out of contention, even if it has T-shirt wearing fans.

What do you reckon might count as a cult beer? Something you’ve queued for, hunted down or gone well out of your way to drink.

bristol pubs

Your friendly neighbourhood craft beer bar

Somewhat against the odds, a new bar opened on Gloucester Road over the summer.

Sidney and Eden is the latest development from the team behind Bottles & Books, which had previously evolved from a comic book and bottle shop into a teeny-tiny tap room.

Technically S&E isn’t an additional bar on the scene as it takes the place of something vaguely bar-like that existed in those premises before. But this is very much a New Venture, with a clear idea of what it wants to be – a neighbourhood craft beer bar that can compete with city centre destinations.

It has 20+ taps and, from our observations, makes a point of covering a range of styles within that. It’s weighted towards the IPAs and exotic stouts but there’s also room for local standards such as Lost and Grounded Kellerpils and Belgian classics such as Saison Dupont.

Prior to Lockdown 2 it seemed consistently busy, at least by the standards of interregnum levels of activity. We saw a number of people we know from the Drapers in there, suggesting that, like Bottles & Books before it, it provides a complementary offer.

Pastry stout.

We managed a couple of sessions there before lockdown, under the awning in our woollens, including a truly delightful evening trying a succession of silly pastry stouts and enjoying them immensely.

We hadn’t really thought about the neighbourhood craft beer bar as a concept before. Our assumption has been that this sort of specialist tasting venue is still sufficiently niche that it only really makes sense as a city centre destination.

Sidney and Eden is a good 40 minutes walk from the centre, or 15 minutes on the bus. It’s well connected on public transport if you’re coming from the centre or from Filton but not if you’re in any other part of the city. With that in mind, it really has to appeal to sufficient numbers of local people to be a success.

But if you’re going to do it in any neighbourhood, this one is a really good choice.

It’s directly on Gloucester Road and thus benefits from (a) the presence of other good pubs nearby and (b) the general independent spirit and commitment to shopping local.

We suspect there was plenty of pent up demand in the nearby residential streets. If house prices are a measure of wealth then it’s a pretty prosperous area (we rent and, in fact, are having to move away from the area to somewhere cheaper) and yet, despite the large numbers of drinking establishments nearby, none had a serious craft offer (definition 2) until now.

Sidney and Eden certainly improved the quality of our lives in the couple of months it was open, and we really hope it survives the winter and thrives beyond. It’s currently open for pre-ordered takeaway beer.