That’s Not A Story Pt 2: Doom vs. Triumph

Stories about beer, especially in the mainstream press, often seem to follow one of two templates: collapse and defeat, or resurgence and triumph. But the truth is often somewhere in between.

We were going to say ‘Boringly, the truth is often somewhere in between’ but then we thought, hold on — it’s not as boring as the default positions of Oh Woe! or Yay, Awesome! trotted out time after time, seemingly on auto-pilot.

In the article we’ve just written about mild for All About Beer we touch upon this tendency because mild has been the subject of many overly-optimistic MILD IS BACK! articles over the years. They’re expressions of wishful thinking, or propaganda, or a bit of both. Our argument is essentially that mild is in the process of becoming, like Gose or Berliner Weisse, a local curiosity — not extinct, just rare, a base for experimentation, and of more interest to we nerds than to drinkers in the real world.

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Session #111: A Beer Mid-Life Crisis?

Does our relationship with beer, and obsessing over beer, and writing about beer, go through ups and downs? Oh yes. Is it different now to in 2005? Definitely.

This month Session host Oliver Gray asks:

Do you find it hard to muster the same zeal for beer as you did a few years ago? Are you suffering through a beer-life crisis like I am? If so, how do you deal with it?

When we first started to take an interest in beer, we were like those wide-eyed kids walking through the doors into Willie Wonka’s factory for the first time: ‘Come with me/ And you’ll see/ A world of pure imagination…’

That Michael Jackson coffee table book that was our guide told us about beers, breweries, entire types of beer, that we’d never heard of and that needed hunting down. If we wanted to taste, say, a particular American IPA, we needed intel, a full day off, and probably at least two forms of public transport. Every weekend brought us a new experience, and every holiday abroad was an opportunity to learn something new.

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The Lure of Luxury, The Call of Craft?

Why do people buy ‘fancy beer’ — because it tastes better, or because it ‘signals’ status?

Psychologist Paul Bloom’s article ‘The Lure of Luxury‘ mentions beer only in passing — ‘the attractive stranger in a bar is aroused by your choice of beer’ — but anyone who’s been called a snob for drinking a £6 pint, or rolled their eyes at the glitzy packaging of a limited edition IPA, will get the relevance.

Dr Bloom sets out two opposing points of view:

  1. People want luxury goods because they look, feel or taste good — they give pleasure in and of themselves.
  2. Luxury goods are status symbol designed to impress others and signal ‘intelligence, ambition, and power’.

The truth, he argues, lies somewhere in between:

Now, only a philistine would deny Postrel’s point that some consumer preferences are aesthetic, even sensual. And only a rube would doubt that some people buy some luxury items to impress colleagues, competitors, spouses, and lovers. Perhaps we can divvy up the consumer world. An appreciation of beauty explains certain accessible and universal consumer pleasures—Postrel begins her book in Kabul after the Taliban fell, describing how the women there reveled in their freedom to possess burkas of different colors and to paint their nails—while signaling theory applies to the more extravagant purchases. A crimson burka? Aesthetics. A $30,000 watch? Signaling. Aristotle Onassis’s choice to upholster the bar stools in his yacht with whale foreskin? Definitely signaling.

He goes on to consider why an exact replica of an object isn’t as desirable as the real thing; why when people buy a celebrity’s jumper in a charity auction they don’t want it dry-cleaned first; and whether anyone needs six mechanical wrists to automatically wind their collection of Rolex watches.

Let’s attempt to translate those questions: Why do people continue to hunt down and pay through the nose for Westvleteren 12 when none but the most refined palates can tell it from St Bernardus Abt 12? Why is beer brewed under contract less appealing than otherwise? Does anyone need a £168 six-pack of beer?

When you choose a beer is it really ‘about flavour’ — the defensive cry of the craft beer drinker accused of extravagance — or something else? And, of course, something else might be fine, depending on your values, and the pleasure it brings is just as real.

We found Dr Bloom’s article via BoingBoing.com. If you can’t be bothered to read it you can see him speaking on related topics at the TED Talks website.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 03/10/2015

Here’s our pick of the most interesting beer- and pub-related writing of the last week, with a sneaky contribution to Session 104 hidden at the end.

→ For All About Beer, Jeff Alworth asks ‘How Wild is Your Beer?‘:

Is there a difference between inoculated-wild ales and truly wild ales? There is. A Brett-aged beer will develop a lot of complexity as the wild yeast slowly creates different flavor and aroma compounds. Some breweries even add a cocktail of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus, which creates even more complexity. But truly wild ales have something more… [You’re] getting the taste of place.

→ Connor Murphy at the Beer Battered blog has been spurred into a blogging frenzy by the imminence of the Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IndyManBeerCon). The first post in a series profiling local brewers looks at Mark Welsby at Runaway:

I knew I wasn’t motivated by money because, in my previous role, the more successful I got, the more miserable I got. Brewing gave us the chance to leave everything we hated about our previous jobs, so we came upon the name Runaway because we were both escaping our past lives.

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The State of Our Taste 2014

Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

This is nothing more significant than an attempt to take stock of our own feelings about beer as of 2014.

We’ve tried to be honest with ourselves — to consider our actions and reactions rather than ‘ideology’: what, when push comes to shove, do we order at the bar, or take from the fridge? What do we actually enjoy drinking?

1. We approach bottled beer from small breweries with low expectations. We assume they’ll be under- or over-carbonated; we expect to pour away more than half of those we try;  and we’re surprised when anything ‘experimental’ actually works. And we get less enjoyment than we used to out of wading through duds to find a gem. Or, to put that another way…

2. We find ourselves drawn to reliable beers and breweries. Punk IPA is unlikely to explode, need pouring down the sink, or make us feel nauseous. At the same time…

3. We can’t be bothered to drink mainstream bottled brown bitter any more. It’s so rarely anywhere near as good as a pint in the pub and (brace yourselves) often simply too fizzy for our tastes. (We don’t mind high carbonation but ‘fizzy’, to us, means specifically bubbles, as in a glass of mineral water, often accompanied by thin body and no head.)

4. The magic has gone out of our relationship with American beer. Is it to do with freshness, competition from UK brewers, or handling by UK bars? Or have we just become jaded? At any rate, after trying a whole range of kegged IPAs (e.g. Lagunitas, Founder’s All Day) on multiple occasions, in the last year, in London, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds, we found ourselves underwhelmed — where’s the ‘zing’? (We find that Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi in cans has zing, as, oddly enough, does Goose Island IPA.)

5. Living outside the urban ‘craft beer’ bubble has its frustrations, and its benefits. We don’t have easy access to bars or pubs with large rotating ranges of beer, and the ubiquity of Doom Bar and Betty Stogs is a trial. On the other hand, we’ve learned that St Austell Proper Job and Orval from bottles, both of which we can find reliably in local pubs, never seem to get boring. On which subject…

6. Belgian beer fascinates us more and more. There’s something dispiriting about the idea of ‘unobtrusive yeast that lets the hops really shine’ — practically a mantra for US-style IPA brewers. The Belgian tradition puts yeast character right up front and gives us another set of flavours to grapple with.

7. We wish we had more of our home brewed lager. We don’t think it’s objectively great, and it wouldn’t score well in competition, but we get a thrill out of drinking it that’s hard for any commercial beer to match.

Into the Navel of a Can of Worms

For the 86th beer blogging session Heather Vandenengel asks:

What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What’s your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

For a long time, ‘alternative beer’ (or whatever you want to call it) was a delicate thing: a handful of breweries and outlets, ready to be snuffed out of existence by changes in fashion, taxation or the global economy.

Vintage Pabst Blue Ribbon poster featuring a typewriter.

In that context, it seemed churlish and counter-productive for beer writers to subject brewers to the kind of scrutiny we expect from restaurant reviewers or film critics. So (to quote ourselves):

A compromise was eventually reached: people like Roger Protz and Michael Jackson would acknowledge that not all small brewers made good beer, but would rarely, if ever, name names. Jackson: ‘If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do… If I despise a beer, why find room for it?’

Though times have changed — we’re not going back to the Big Six any time soon — that remains the easy route. When we started blogging, it was what we felt comfortable with, too — after all, what did we know about anything? Not to mention that writing negative comments about someone’s hard work (their ‘passion’) will, in most cases, piss them off, and it is nice to get on with people you might bump into at beer festivals or in the pub.

For those who are making a living at beer writing, however, it can be more than a matter of social awkwardness: access to breweries and brewers, invites to launches, and corporate consultancy or copywriting gigs might depend on it.

As readers, however, we have to say that someone raving about a beer brewed by a friend and/or client is rarely interesting.

In the same vein, junkets make for bad writing. There are few people who can squeeze worthwhile copy out of being herded round a brewery and plied with food and drink by PR people along with a number of their peers. What results is usually a sudden flood of identikit ‘what we did on our holidays’ articles, often with an eerily-brainwashed Stepford Wives tone.

So what do we want?

As readers, we’d like there to be more writers who ask unwelcome questions on behalf of readers. For example, if they hear a rumour, we want them to stick their noses in, find out what’s going on, and break the news whether or not that fits the timings in the PR strategy devised by the brewery or pub company.

We want reviewers to be as honest as possible in expressing their opinions. (And, increasingly, we do think that withholding an opinion is a form of dishonesty.) We don’t enjoy read link-baiting, mean-spirited take-downs any more than we like puff pieces, but when someone who is unimpressed by 80 per cent of the beer they taste says something is good, we listen.

We want historians to tell us something we didn’t already know, perhaps based on previously unused sources of information, or at least old sources of information used in interesting ways.

And we crave long, thoughtful articles that would be good without the beer, and in which people and places are evoked through careful observation, portrayed as the writer really sees them rather than as they might wish to be seen themselves.

We don’t think there is a huge amount of dirt to be dished — there might be some dubious business practices here and there, but nobody is getting bumped off.

At the same time, not every brewer can be a saint, surely? And, anyway, saints are boring.

When Brew Britannia comes out, you’ll have the chance to let us know if you think we’ve written what we say we want to read. In the meantime, we’d be especially interested in reading comments below from people who don’t write about beer.

Session #85: Why Do We Drink?

This month’s beer blogging session is hosted by Baltimore Bistros and Beer, who wants us to explain why we drink:

I know the default answer a lot of us fall back on is “it’s nice to sit back with a good beer after a stressful day of work”, and while that’s true, I’m looking for answers that aren’t so obvious to people who aren’t fans of our hobby. Beer is bigger than a liquid “chill pill” or we wouldn’t have gone about setting up a blog and dedicating so much of our time discussing it. So, what is it that compels you to drink and what would your life be missing if beer was no longer an option for you?

Taking this at face value, the answer is simple: we drink beer because almost everyone else does. It’s part of our culture, innit?

Living in Britain, you don’t have to drink to bond with friends and family, but it’s harder if you don’t. And what you drink doesn’t have to be beer, but that is the default: the question ‘Fancy a pint?‘ is loaded with meaning.

Getting tipsy with other people (sharing a moment of vulnerability) is a highly effective way of building camaraderie. It loosens the lock on the barrier between the emotions and the tongue and makes it easier to connect with other people.

But, looking again, the question is really, ‘Why do we drink the way we do, and then go and write about it?’

If we could no longer drink beer, even if we could still get tiddly on wine or spirits, we’d be absolutely distraught.

In general, we get greater sensual thrill from beer than any other type of drink. A decent pint or interesting bottled beer, quite apart from their intoxicating effect, seem to tickle the pleasure centre of our brains.

Why do people eat anything other than vitamin pills and bran? Why do they look at paintings, read books, listen to records, or watch TV? Same thing.

As for thinking and writing about beer… well, that might just be a problem with our personalities, taking a cat apart to see how it works, to paraphrase Douglas Adams.

Principles for Reviewing Beer and Bars

Japanese notebook by Lenore Edman (Flickr Creative Commons)
Japanese notebook by Lenore Edman (Flickr Creative Commons)

We thought we’d covered all the bases when we wrote this piece about how we haven’t taken to Arbor Ales.

We’ve been reading various critics on their approaches to reviewing restaurants and extracted what we think are some principles of ‘good practice’ for writing about beer and pubs:

  1. Visit more than once at different times of the year and week. While we agree with the thrust of Max’s argument here, it’s as easy to have a one-off great experience as it is a one-off bad ‘un.
  2. Remain as anonymous as possible to avoid preferential treatment. (Not that we’d expect red carpets…)
  3. Pay our own way in pubs and bars; disclose relationships and freebies which might be seen to influence our thinking.
  4. Convey the specific details of each experience — ‘show our working’.

Rule 4 seems to have done its job, however, and we have had some feedback suggesting a fifth rule is required:

  • If a beer is bad in a pub orbar, even if it’s not ‘off’, take it back to the bar and give the staff chance to explain why.

We can’t see that doing so would have made much difference in the case of our piece on Arbor — we really don’t think the beer was off, or at the end of barrels, or has any such other excuse, and it tasted consistent with our various experience of their beer in the preceding 13 months — but our failing to do so provides a convenient get-out clause.

So, from now on, we will always steel ourselves and take not very pleasant pints back to the bar for appraisal. (Even though most ‘normal’ consumers wouldn’t bother doing so.)

Thesis: in nine out of ten cases, we’ll get told to piss off, and that the beer tastes fine (assuming rule 2 above has been applied), but we’ll keep a tally and report back with some figures in a few months.

Do beer blogs matter at all?

Insofar as blogs are at all important, it is for the following reasons:

  • They have a disproportionate effect on ‘the buzz’. Someone who’s just heard of Thornbridge Brewery might Google “Thornbridge beer” term and, in so doing, would find several blogs in the first two pages of results. Not only that but, if they’re anything like us, those results will leap out at them over the boring local newspaper stories and directory listings. Blogs, because they are full of ‘subject relevant content‘ and organic links to one another, storm the Google rankings.
  • Bloggers aren’t freaks — they’re just people whose interest in beer overlaps with an interest in writing (or being the centre of attention, or web design, or whatever else motivates them). What the small number of bloggers say can give an insight into what a slightly larger group of drinkers are thinking but not expressing. There are blogs to represent all types of drinkers, too — not just the cork-and-cage brigade and CAMRA man.
  • They give consumers a voice: where, once, only professional journalists could cause trouble for businesses, now anyone with a Blogger or WordPress account has the potential to do the same thing. That can be a nuisance for businesses but, from our perspective, helps to redress the balance of power.
  • At their best, they (a) act as a proving ground for the next generation of beer writers and (b) motivate professional beer writers to up their game. If bog-standard beer writing can be got for free, the stuff you want us to pony up for had better be good.
  • A handful of blogs aren’t just blogs — they’re epic works of scholarship or insight evolving over time.

We don’t really think any single blog is that important or well read (we’ve seen our stats…) but, as a body, they have a certain gravitational pull. In the UK, it’s probably fair to say that they have more influence with pubgoers and beer geeks than any specialist print publication, except perhaps CAMRA’s.

On the other hand, very few people who regularly drink beer ever read anything about it, just as millions of people enjoy music or films without paying the slightest attention to what critics, amateur or professional, have to say.

Part-time drinkers

Bailey's grandparents having a drink in around 1980.

Here’s a confession: we don’t actually drink all that much. Sorry, brewers, landlords and British drinking culture in general, but we are letting you down.

We don’t go to the pub every night and, when we do, we rarely get beyond tipsy. At home, it’s unusual for us to drink more than a couple of bottles of beer in a session.

Why? Well, partly because we are the kind of uptight oddballs who don’t much like losing control. Mostly because we hate hangovers. And maybe, just maybe, because we are a little concerned for our long term health.

Contrast that with the stories older relatives tell about drinking ten or twenty pints in a weekend session, having worked up to it with five or six on each preceding night; or the world evoked in this post at Pubs of Manchester; and in this extract kindly sent to us by the Pub Curmudgeon:

It was here that I first became aware of the South Welshman’s peculiar dedication to beer, as a pastime. Three male customers ordered three consecutive rounds of pints. When the first man ordered his second (the fourth) round I realised that these three were stuck for rest of the evening…. It is not so much that the South Welsh drink to excess – rather it is a humorously sly but wholehearted approach to the enjoyment of drinking that endears them to me.

Ben Davis, The Traditional English Pub, 1981

All of these describe a relationship with beer (or booze more generally, or perhaps pubs) which is very different to ours. Is it better? It is probably, to steal a word from Davis, more wholehearted, more passionate and, in some ways, more fun. It might also be a bit more dangerous — something of a dance with the devil.

Is this is why we can’t work up a rage over the price of beer? Because we’re part-timers, amateurs, lightweights? Beer would have to get very expensive indeed before we couldn’t afford a couple of pints or bottles — even of quite strong, high-falutin’ craft beer — if we really wanted them.

The picture above is not us! It’s Bailey’s grandparents in the club, mid-session, c.1980.