The Seven Ages of Beer Geek?

Illustration: SEVEN.

Being into beer — being into anything — takes you through phases, and it’s hard to empathise with people who aren’t where you’re at.

We found ourselves reminiscing the other day about the early days of our time as beer bloggers and the hunger with which we pursued new beers and new breweries.

In 2007, arriving in a strange town, we would want to know where to find beer from all the local breweries even if that meant walking away with bottles to drink at home. Whether the beer was good was almost irrelevant and we probably wouldn’t bother with a pub, however charming or interesting, that didn’t have something new for us to try: we wanted input, experiences, information. It was great fun and there was always some new discovery around the corner.

These days, we’re much less interested in trying new beers for the sake of it and take fewer risks: if a beer sounds terrible, and is from a brewery we don’t trust, we’ll tend not to waste the units. (We get hungover so much more easily now than a decade ago for one thing.) We drank multiple pints of St Austell Proper Job on multiple days every week for six years down in Penzance and really got to know it, which was great. (Our thoughts on that should be in the next edition of Original Gravity, by the way.)

The point is, 2007 Boak & Bailey were having fun; 2017 Boak & Bailey (grey round the edges) are also having fun, just in a different way.

So we wondered if it might be possible to generalise about the path a beer geek takes. The key word being ‘generalise’ — this might not reflect your experience — here’s our effort:

  1. They learn to like beer.
  2. They become Beer Drinkers. It is part of their identity, their default choice in the pub.
  3. Beer becomes one hobby among others. They begin to take an interest in beer beyond social situations and pubs, attending festivals and exploring the bottled range at the supermarket.
  4. They start to think about beer. They start to ask questions, buy books, read articles, and perhaps begin keeping notes.
  5. Beer becomes an obsession, overtaking other interests. Books are acquired and ticking begins. There’s so much to try, so many places to go, so much to learn, that drinking the same beer twice seems like wasted time. Everything is thrilling and exciting. (This, we guess, is when people start blogging if it’s going to happen.)
  6. The wall of ennui. Oh — it turns out there weren’t that many great and exciting beers after all. Everything is a disappointment, over-hyped, and even previously impressive beers seem to have lost their lustre.
  7. Set in their ways. Done with chasing novelty and hype the beer geek forms habits, going to the same bars and drinking the same beers often enough to learn their moods and ways.

When you’re at No. 5, Nos. 6 and 7 seem insufferable — so boring, so miserable, so conservative! And, of course, people who reached No. 7 can’t remember what it was like to be at No. 5: ‘Everything is “awesome” with that lot. What’s wrong with a decent pint of bitter, I ask you?’

Some of the bickering on the ‘scene’ (sorry) comes from this divide, we think, and the idea that everything would be great if all beer/bars/pubs were more/less adventurous/consistent; from a belief that one position is somehow correct and perhaps even morally superior.

Here’s a fun moment captured by Twitter — beer writer Mark Dredge, once the ultimate Five, effectively announcing his transition to Seven:

Which brings us to an article by James Beeson appeared reporting comments from Mark Tranter, formerly of Dark Star, now the brewer behind Burning Sky, in which he bemoaned a market over-saturated with breweries, which state of affairs incentivises dabbling and the pursuit of novelty:

I’ve been brewing for 20 years but the UK beer market has changed beyond all recognition in the past two to five years. People are constantly demanding new products – if you’re a winemaker you get 30 attempts in your career to make wine, but people expect 30 different beers a week. So where does that leave us as brewers that are trying to focus on quality?

We understand what he’s getting at — we heard much the same from the brewers at the Wild Beer Co back in 2013, as reported in Brew Britannia — but think this is, at least in part, a Seven expressing exasperation with Fives.

And we reckon the market needs breweries and bars serving Fives every bit as much as Sevens and (our familiar refrain these days) the tension is healthy and what matters is having a balance. If your brewery is for Fives, have at it, and ignore the moaning of the Sevens. And, of course, vice versa.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 8 July 2017: London Fields, St Ives, Anywhere

Here’s all the beer writing and news from the past seven days that’s grabbed our attention, from brewery takeovers to the (literal) essence of craft beer.

First, a bit of beer blogging admin: the British Guild of Beer Writers has launched its annual awards. If you’re a blogger, as opposed to a professional or semi-pro writer who happens to have a blog on the side, do consider entering in the Citizen Communicator category.

A sign points to London Fields Brewery.
‘Wall’ by Matt Gibson from Flickr under Creative Commons.

The big news of the week was that, having enigmatically trailed such a purchase a few months ago, Carlsberg has just acquired a UK craft brewery: the troubled, morally murky, unloved London Fields. We didn’t have time to produce anything substantial about this (just a Tweet) but if we had, we’d have written something much like this from Richard Taylor at the Beercast:

From their Hackney base… the Danes will have a London-centric brand to push across the country and beyond. And the fact that it has the city name in the brewery title is an added bonus… Looking at some of the tweets from beer industry people – particularly those based in London – was an almighty WTF moment. Of all the brands to acquire, why pick one with so little public recognition and so much industry resentment? The continual attitude and actions of the founders have blackened the name of London Fields within the beer community – but, as we’ve all seen since time began, the big lager boys don’t really care for that anyway. It’s the bottom line that matters, and in their eyes, picking up London Fields for even £4m is peanuts compared with what they would have to fork out for other alternatives.


The bar at Beer & Bird.

Those of you heading down to Cornwall on holiday this summer might find the latest post at Pints and Pubs useful: it’s an extremely comprehensive run down of the pubs of St Ives. It includes news of an interesting development in the form of a bar that has spun off from the town’s impressive specialist off-licence, John’s:

The most recent addition to the beer scene in St Ives, next door to the Castle Inn… It has easily the most extensive bottle and can list of any of the St Ives pubs, but also a decent selection of draught, with three cask and five keg when visited – we had good pints of Firebrand Equinot and Black Flag Simcoe Amarillo Pale.


Sign: "Traditional Real Ales".

Reflecting on the difference between Real Ale and Craft Beer as subcultures Pub Curmudgeon makes an interesting suggestion with reference to a wider division in post-Brexit Britain:

There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about ‘quality beer’, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

Those on the other side of the political and cultural divide from the Curmudgeon probably wouldn’t disagree with the idea but might spin it differently: ‘Real ale is inward and backward looking, while craft beer points forward and outward!’ At any rate, he might be on to something.


A portrait of Bim looking pensive.

Jordan St. John at St John’s Wort, one of the co-authors of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, paints a portrait of Luc ‘Bim’ Lafontaine, a revered Canadian brewer whose new venture is straining under the weight of expectation:

[People] talk about the brewery before the opening in messianic terms; as though Bim walked into town across Lake Ontario. At one end of the spectrum a local wag claims on twitter that the beer is terrible and two of the first three batches should have been drain poured. At the other end is a wine professional who proclaims the English style IPA the best he has ever had. On both ends is the response to the expectation that Godspeed will somehow redeem the Toronto beer scene, as if it needed it… Bim has been trying not to look at the reviews although they filter in. There are some concerns about the pricing. $3.75 a can for 355ml seems high to the public… The other gripe is about the styles of beer being brewed. There are people reviewing it who are willing to dismiss a third of the nascent brewery’s production because there is a Dortmunder Lager involved. I know through the rumour mill that Bim has spent much of the last two years drinking Spaten Munich Helles.


Finally, the Beer Nut highlights the existence of Essence of Craft:

The Craft Beer Life on a Budget

Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?

We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…

…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:

Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)

This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.

Continue reading “The Craft Beer Life on a Budget”

It’s Not Just Beer: the Craftication of Everything

Illustration: perfume.

Not being habitual wearers of perfume we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘niche fragrances’ until last week when we heard a report about them on the radio promoting this exhibition at Somerset House.

Now, bear with us as we stumble clumsily through the history of an unfamiliar world: for a long time, it seems, there were two types of fragrance — established brands, and cheaper substitutes, both equally conservative. Then, in the 1970s, a third way began to emerge:

L’Artisan Parfumeur was the result of a challenge, a plaisanterie. Due to his training as a chemist, a friend asked Jean Laporte if he could create a banana scent to wear with a costume of the same fruit to a gala evening at the Folies Bergères. This was quickly followed by grapefruit and vanilla fragrances… He experimented and created original scents with ‘natural essences’. With the success of his first line of fragrances, Jean Laporte was named L’Artisan Parfumeur – the craftsman of fragrance – by perfume enthusiasts.

It’s our old friend natural vs. chemical! And grapefruit! Accounts of the birth of artisanal perfume often also mention ‘passion’.

In the decades since niche perfume has become a significant segment of the market as summarised by Reuters:

Niche brands differ from their bigger rivals in that they focus more on the originality of the scent than the packaging and the image projected via a celebrity. They also usually use higher concentrations of perfume extracts and more natural ingredients which tend to last longer…

There are now niche perfumes designed to evoke everything from fairground log flume rides to a seduction ritual in Mali. Some are stunts, not really designed to be worn so much as collected and shown off, while others have become bestselling standards in their own right. The only rule seems to be that they shouldn’t smell of, you know… perfume.

You’ll be glad to know that niche in perfume, like craft in beer, ‘is ceasing to become meaningful as a descriptor’ at least in part because bigger producers have jumped on the bandwagon and also bought out smaller houses (Reuters again):

Estee Lauder Companies which owns Jo Malone – which used to be regarded as niche – just bought Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and consolidation is set to continue as big groups hunt for what could be the next big perfume brand

But, anyway, perfume isn’t the point — it’s that this hammered home how easy it is to see everything from within a silo and thus fail to recognise that developments in your field are part of wider changes in society. Craft beer (indie beer, boutique beer, whatever you want to call it) developed at the same time as, and alongside, things like modern sourdough baking, natural wine, niche perfume, upmarket street food, gastropubs, and no doubt a thousand other class-bending trends in fields about which we know nothing.

Niche, the perfume world’s choice of descriptor, is an interesting one because in a sense this is about levering a space between, and maybe a bit to the left of, existing polarised segments.

  • Beer > Craft Beer < Wine
  • Perfume > Niche Perfume < Brand/Designer Perfume
  • Camping > Glamping/Boutique Hotels < The Hilton

Whether you like it or not, this bit in the middle seems to fulfil the needs of a generation whose members perhaps don’t understand class the way their parents and grandparents did, and who are every bit as appalled by tacky gilded visions of LUXURY as they are uninspired by the mainstream bog standard.

Suggestions for other sectors where boutinichecraftification has occurred, as well as for further reading, are very welcome — leave a comment below.

QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.

The Most Important British Craft Beers?

British beer bottle cap.

In response to an article listing ‘The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers’ Michael Lally at Bush Craft Beer has challenged his readers to think about what might be on a Brit-centric version of that list:

I think we can define ‘craft’ relatively loosely and ‘important’ in a similar way to our US colleagues: It’s one that either changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer. There are a few obvious ones: Punk IPA by Brewdog, Jaipur by Thornbridge, ESB by Fullers.

There’s a survey you can respond to including space to make your own suggestions but here’s some food for thought from us.

1. Traquair House Ale (1965)

Arguably the very first ‘microbrewery’ was Traquair House which commenced production in 1965. It demonstrated that it was possible for small breweries to be opened despite prevailing industry trends, and also that small independent breweries could often do more interesting things than their bitter- and lager-focused Big Six peers — this beer was (and is) at a hefty ABV and very rich.

2. Litchborough Bitter (1974)

Another brewery with a strong claim to being the first microbrewery was Bill Urquhart’s Litchborough based in the village of that name near Northampton. The beer itself doesn’t seem to have been especially exciting but the business model, and Mr Urquhart’s mentoring/consultancy, directly inspired the microbrewery boom that followed.

Continue reading “The Most Important British Craft Beers?”

Was Meantime the First UK Craft Brewery?

Alastair Hook's editorial.

In a Tweet Meantime Brewing stated their claim to be (paraphrasing): ‘The only craft brewer in the UK when it was founded in 1999.’

It’s paraphrased because, after prodding from disgruntled beer geeks, the Tweet was removed. The thing is, we don’t think that’s an outrageous claim, even if it is a bit bigheaded, and requires a lot of disclaimers.

But first, the case against: how do you define ‘craft’ in a British context? (Groan.) If it means using aromatic American hops and brewing pale ales and IPAs then Brendan Dobbin (West Coast/Dobbin’s) and Sean Franklin (Franklin’s, Rooster’s) got there first, and that was fairly widespread by the late 1990s.

If it’s about fancy, expensive bottled beer with sexy packaging then look at Newquay Steam. (Thanks for the reminder, Jackie.)

If it means eschewing real ale and real ale culture then Meantime’s Alastair Hook was beaten to that by, er, Alastair Hook, at his own earlier brewing ventures Packhorse (1990), Freedom (1995) and Mash & Air (1997). He was raging against CAMRA and the strictures of cask ale culture, as he saw them, from around the same time.

Freedom Pilsner, a British lager.

If craft in your mind is synonymous with microbrewing then you can look back to the boom of the 1980s, or 1974, or 1972, or 1965.

If it means not being a national or multi-national giant, brewing interesting beer, employing traditional methods, and so on, then take your pick — Young’s, Adnams, almost anyone.

So, yes, we get all that, but it’s a bit like the debate around who invented the hot air balloon, or the radio. Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited with the invention of radio as we know it today but there is a long line of inventors and innovators, all with their champions, who either contributed to the technology or somehow nearly got there much earlier. In fact, Marconi was just the bloke who pulled it all together, perfected the technology and, crucially, managed to make a commercial success of it.

When it comes to craft beer in the UK, then, as per our definition 2 — cultural as much as anything, dismissive of CAMRA, bitter and mild, and looking overseas for inspiration — Alastair Hook is Marconi. He’s the man who made it work.

Meantime was gaining headlines by falling out with CAMRA about access to beer festivals when James Watt of BrewDog was still at school. The range of beers Hook brewed at Meantime at the beginning featured multiple types of lager and wheat beer but not one British-style pale ale or bitter (as far as we’re aware), and it was all brewery-conditioned, served either from bottles or kegs.

And Meantime was a commercial success in a way that Franklin’s, Dobbin’s and Mash & Air weren’t. Where others, however innovative or interesting, remained the preserve of geeks, Meantime went mainstream. It was the brewery that, when we first started paying attention to beer, had its bottles in stylish bars and restaurants, showing that beer could dress up and cut it with the cool kids. Meantime also worked out a way to get people to pay something like £4 a pint when most people were still boggling at half that price.

You might find all of that repellent but, for better or worse, that’s what craft beer means in the UK now, and Hook pulled it all together half a decade before anyone else.

Of course we’re playing devil’s advocate a bit here and, to be honest, we think Thornbridge and BrewDog both have claims that are about as strong. But we really don’t think it’s ridiculous of Meantime’s PR people to make that statement. It is, however, daft of them to think they could get away with it without being challenged.

Needless to say if you want more detail on any of this there are lots of bits and pieces here on the blog and we tried to pull it all together in Brew Britannia, the central argument of which is something like (a) alternative beer culture didn’t begin in 2005 but (b) real ale, world beer and craft beer are distinct waves of the same overarching 50 year event.

Keeping a List, Checking it Twice

Various bits of beer news in the last few months have prompted a fresh round of declarations that the good times are over, the hangover is coming, the ‘shake out’ is due.

It’s certainly true that after a decade when it felt like the news was almost entirely good — new bars, new breweries, more beer styles! — there has been a bit of a dip in levels of excitement.

Our gut feeling is that it’s overly pessimistic to assume everything is about to come crashing down and that the gloominess is to some extent personal: people are exhausted and bored. (See also: the death of beer blogging.)

Having said that, it is also likely that some ventures commenced in the white heat of 2010-11 are reaching their natural end. That is to say, they’ve either succeeded, in which case they’ve ceased to be new and exciting, have settled into a groove, or perhaps even been sold on; or they’ve folded because the people behind them have run out of money and/or steam, or just want to try their hands at something else.

Our contribution to the collective fretting, which we hope will provide a picture of what’s going on and help maintain perspective, is a table of good and bad news which we hereby commit to keeping up to date throughout the next year.

Please do get in touch if there are things you think need to be recorded on either side — specialist bars opening or closing, breweries folding, and so on. We’re especially interested in total brewery numbers for Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester, if anyone has those at hand.

So far, a week into January 2017, it doesn’t look so bad. But let’s see.

Craft: The Lost Word

Graffiti illustration: CRAFT BEER?

There was a little flare up on Twitter yesterday over this post by Richard Coldwell in which he argues that Früh Kölsch is not ‘craft’.

A few years ago, when this debate was at its frankly tedious height, we were pretty happy with the meaning of the phrase as derived from Michael Jackson and other early beer writers: it was a catch-all term referring to any interesting, distinctive beer, as opposed to the uninteresting, homogeneous products of larger (often international) brewers. (Definition 1.) Sure, you could pick holes in it, but it was a broad, inclusive buzz-phrase that had room for cask ale, lager, Belgian beer, and for breweries founded 100 or more years ago.

But people who had the influence to shore up this definition opted out. They didn’t like the term and wanted nothing to do with it, which is fair enough, except rather than making it go away, that left it undefended.

Sometime around 2014-2015 it became obvious that the meaning had changed: to most people in the UK, ‘craft beer’, insofar as it meant anything, meant beer that wasn’t real ale, that wasn’t a pint of bitter, that wasn’t from an old brewery, and that looked something like this:

Samples of craft beer branding.

(That is, definition 2.)

Yes, this situation is messed up, and superficial, and especially baffling to people from outside Europe for whom our old brewing traditions are the epitome of craft. But it’s reality.

We like Richard’s blog — he writes regularly, interestingly, and tells us things we don’t already know, based on his own explorations — and we’re going to stick up for him here. Sure, we might have made the point a little more tentatively than he did but we don’t think, seen in context (he’s a bit disappointed with his craft beer advent calendar) that what he’s saying is especially outrageous, or even incorrect.

The fact is, in 2016, people ordering a mixed mystery box of CRAFT BEER probably don’t expect to find Belgian, British or German standards in the mix — the kind of things that appeared in Michael Jackson’s various beer guides between the 1970s and the 1990s. He certainly considered Früh Kölsch a craft, artisanal, boutique beer (all words he used at one point or another to mean essentially the same thing) but, again, that broad definition has slipped away from us. Someone who got into beer in the last year or two, or who is just learning their way, would probably find it baffling: to them ‘craft’ means, quite specifically, ‘A bit like BrewDog’ (or Stone, or Cloudwater — you get the idea).

The term got released into the wild, it evolved, and now it doesn’t care what you think it means even though you reared it from a cub. Or, to put that another way, you can’t reject and ridicule a term and then expect to police how it is used.

We blew it, chaps. Now we’ve got to live with it.

Sonder, Truro’s Craft Beer Bar

How had we not heard about Sonder, a six-month-old craft beer bar with, 12 keg taps in Cornwall’s county town?

We did know about Newquay’s craft beer venue, No. 5 Brewhouse, but our plan to visit that was foiled by its closure for a private party. Sonder, meanwhile, we merely wandered past on our way to Truro bus station.

It caught our eye because it gives off all the correct signals as prescribed in the Craftonian manifesto: dark paintwork, neon, modern typography and, of course, liberal use of the phrase CRAFT BEER on the frontage. Inside we found more of the same. Edison bulbs? Check. Recycled pallet wood? Everywhere. Staff in black T-shirts? Several. ‘Street food’? A menu full of it.

Pallet wood seating.

Based on stopping for two drinks, one on Friday afternoon, another on Saturday evening, we can’t presume to pronounce judgement, but our first impressions are good. Like a lot of would-be craft beer bars outside big cities (Truro is technically a city but, well…) it has an endearingly un-hip micropub quality, with customers of all ages and types chatting around the bar.

Edison bulbs.

The beer list is unusual with few of the usual suspects, suggesting direct supply rather than middlemen, and is displayed on electronic screens behind the bar. Turnover seems brisk with several beers on the list having changed between our visits. Tasters are positively pushed, too, which makes up for the obscurity of some of the beers on offer. On our first call, Buxton Axe Edge and Chorlton Mulled Lager were classical and fascinating respectively, the former crystalline, the latter hazy. On take two we had Pilsner Urquell served in a cute, chunky branded mug, and an IPA whose name we forgot to write down from a brewery we’d never heard of. (We’ve only been doing this for a decade — cut us some slack.) They were served weirdly without any head but we managed to whip some foam up with a plastic straw once we’d cleared an inch or two.

The bar at Sonder.

We mention that last point partly for the sake of honesty, and partly to underline that this isn’t a super-slick operation — the phrase ‘labour of love’ crops up on the Facebook page, and that’s what comes across. It simply feels like a happy place to be, if not yet quite comfortable in its own clothes. We remember, though, when Cask at Pimlico, the first pub in the Craft Beer Co chain, felt much the same, and look how that turned out.

It’s good, finally, to have an at least tentative answer to a question we get asked fairly frequently — where’s good for craft beer in Truro? — having never been able to back The Hub wholeheartedly. We’ll certainly be adding Sonder to our own regular and slightly eccentric Truro crawl along with The Old Ale House* and The Railway Tavern, a former working men’s club next to the station which we like for reasons other than its beer.

* We popped into The Old Ale House on Saturday but left after one — how is it possible for what is meant to be Skinner’s flagship pub, a venue with lots to commend it otherwise, to be serving beer that tastes so tired? Exasperating.