Blogging and writing Generalisations about beer culture opinion

The value of silly beer

Willy Wonka who, sadly, never made beer.
Who’s for Everlasting Beer?

There are some who argue that high-concept beers are, at best, pointless and, at worst, damaging to The Culture of Beer. For our part, though we rarely drink them and certainly don’t make much of an effort to seek them out, we sometimes find the ideas behind them funny, and feel, ultimately, that they have their place.

Within a given brewery’s range, silly beers can play the same role as the concept car, or those catwalk clothes that prompt people to say: “You’d never actually wear it out in a million years, would you?” They make a statement about values; they speak to the skill and imagination of the brewer; and they create buzz. Often, they’re impossible to find in the real world and prohibitively expensive when they do turn up, but that doesn’t really matter — it’s all about the halo effect. “I heard something about this brewery! Their head brewer is a genius!” says the consumer, and then chooses that brand of perfectly nice bitter or lager over another.

For drinkers, the benefit of such beers is negligible, though perhaps ingredients or techniques from the CRAZY!!! beer might help the brewer level up, and thus influence for the better something more mainstream they brew down the line. If you’re the kind of drinker afflicted with the need to ponder your pint, however, then WACKY!!! beers provide much needed input: the opportunity to be outraged; to question what beer is; and to articulate what exactly it is you do want.

Is thinking and talking about beer a good thing? If it helps to prevent a slow sleepwalk into monopoly and across-the-board blandness, then the answer is probably yes.

We were prompted to think about this by Elizabeth David who, in her book Italian Food, mentions the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti and his proto-Heston Blumenthal ‘futurist food’ manifesto.

Generalisations about beer culture

The accidental science of beer

Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!
Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!

Our post on Friday prompted some needling from Alan at A Good Beer Blog: brewing great beer isn’t hard — it’s a ‘simple, traditional skill’. Then today, as promised, Ed chipped in with a typically sharp post querying how we ended up in what seems a topsy-turvy world where stainless steel automation is ‘craft’ and beer brewed using traditional methods isn’t. (It is to us, but our attempts to reclaim the word to include cask ale seem to have failed.)

With all that in our minds, it was odd that, from beyond the grave, Michael Jackson should chip in from the pages of an issue of The Times from 1980, reminding us that brewing’s status — art, craft, science, or something else? — has been confused for a long time, and is far from settled:

For all the painstaking research that has been done on the subject, brewing remains less of an exact science that it is an art. “Only recently have we begun to understand what a remarkable art it really is”, Professor Anthony Rose, a microbiologist wrote in the Scientific American some years ago. “The brewmaster, by trial and error, has been manipulating some of the subtlest processes of life.”

(Rose’s article, ‘Beer’, appeared in the June 1959 edition of the magazine, and lives behind a paywall here.)

Do brewers with degrees, labs and reference libraries, who understand why they do what they’re doing, make better beer than those who just knew it worked?


Try Jumping on This Bandwagon

As bigger British brewers move menacingly into ‘craft beer’ territory with pilot plants and US-inspired IPAs, is the increasing interest by smaller brewers in arcane and time-consuming brewing methods from Belgium and elsewhere an attempt to shore up the defences?

We know that some smaller brewers perceive what the bigger boys are doing as an attempt to ‘crush the rebellion’, scoffing at the idea that they’re being supportive or ‘joining in the fun’.

What the big boys aren’t yet equipped or prepared to do, it seems to us, is use many multiple yeast strains in the same brewery; mess around with wild yeast; indulge in complex Belgian-style brewing processes; or brew niche styles like saison with any serious intent.

That’s where craft brewers, branding and ‘values’ aside, can still make their mark. It’s also an opportunity to steal a slice of the speciality import market by offering an appealingly local alternative.

The risks? That the beer geeks don’t come with. Those Belgian beers are hard to match, let alone beat, and they’re still bizarrely cheap. Orval, admired as it is, is not universally enjoyed (we don’t really get it). Styles like lambic, a long-term investment and difficult to get right, are also a chin-stroking, thought-provoking hard sell, even to those inclined to take an interest.

This is the same process through which professional writers, if they want to keep earning at it, need to push themselves into territory where we amateurs aren’t ready or able to follow.

Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Cloudy beer, flat beer

The head on a particularly lively Belgian beer.


We continue to watch with interest, if not burning enthusiasm, the emergence of unfined beer in the UK, accompanied by a discussion about British drinkers’ willingness to accept haziness.

We were reminded by a distinctly soupy pint of St Austell Tribute in a pub the other day that there is a distinction between ‘wholesome’ haze intended by the brewer and the kind of cloudiness, presented without apology, that ought to ring alarm bells — a sure sign of a careless publican.

People might come to accept hazy beer but how can they tell good haze from bad cloudiness? That’s a whole other level of consumer education.


At a pub beer festival recently we were served a pint that, by the time we’d sat down, was completely flat. We drank it anyway and, you know what? It tasted fine. We’re big fans of a head on our beer but this did set us wondering: why?

We don’t expect a head on other beverages like wine or scrumpy cider, and a mirror-like surface is almost a mark of quality in a well-aged barley wine or Belgian lambic beer.

After the recent mania for unfined beer, how long before someone markets a deliberately flat one? The accidentally flat beer we drank tasted sweeter and more cloying than it would have done with some condition but that’s nothing for which a brewer couldn’t compensate in formulating the recipe.


Stimulus from the World of Wine

Close up of The Thinker

We recently asked people to recommend books which weren’t about beer but which could help us better understand beer, prompted by reminders from Knut and Alan that books on other topics do actually exist and can be all the more illuminating for their distance from The Obsession.

Gareth, who writes the Beer Advice blog, and has a background in wine retailing, suggested Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine (Ed. Barry C. Smith, 2007), a collection of essays exploring what it really means to ‘taste’ wine. Is it possible to taste objectively? Which qualities are an essential part of the wine and which are projected by the taster? Are some wines really better than others in an objective sense? And so on.

If you’re allergic to the merest whiff of pretension, you won’t enjoy it, but, so far, like Johnny Five in search of input, we’re finding it very thought-provoking, and are already itching to write posts based on ideas therein.

Here’s one example from the essay ‘The Power of Tastes: Reconciling Science and Subjectivity’ by Ophelia Deroy:

Am I objective when I say that this wine tastes like ripe pineapple, or do I just indulge in association of memories, condemned to remain purely personal? Do I try to find rare tastes or fine adjectives to conform to a social ritual, in an arbitrary and perhaps pretentious way? But, even if socially codified, do these practices and ways of talking about wine transform the experience we have of it?

This set of all kinds of fireworks in our brains. We’ve certainly found ourselves thinking: “We can’t just call this beer hoppy — people won’t approve,” and so sipped, sniffed, struggled, trying to unlock a particular elusive aroma or flavour; and we recently saw a novice beer reviewer (one with a provocative sense of hubris) shot down for the lack of finesse in his tasting notes — for not going deep enough.

What if those elusive flavours just aren’t there? Or the label we’re putting on them only makes sense to us because we’re recalling a particular mango, of a particular variety, at a specific point of ripeness, that we ate at a particular time in a particular place?

Other recommendations — the further removed from beer the better — very welcome! Picture from Flickr Creative Commons.