The Joy of Beer

Illustration: pint emerging from psychedelic clouds.

Beer should bring you joy.

All kinds of beer can do this – bog stan­dard lager, straight­for­ward bit­ter, flow­ery IPAs, impe­r­i­al stout, any­thing.

And all kinds of beer can do just the oppo­site.

It all depends on you, your taste, and the moment.

It’s the dif­fer­ence between a great pint of cask ale and one that, though you’d strug­gle to pin down the dif­fer­ence in con­crete terms, is an utter chore.

A joy­ful beer hits the spot. Either it doesn’t touch the sides, or it makes you linger for an hour, savour­ing every sip. Even if only for half a sec­ond before you get back to the con­ver­sa­tion, it demands your atten­tion.

It ought to be between you and the beer, this moment of joy, but you might say to your drink­ing com­pan­ions that it’s bob on, cock on, bang on, or per­haps if you’re feel­ing espe­cial­ly expres­sive not too bad at all actu­al­ly. Or you might just sigh, “Aah.”

A beer that is a joy will make you want the same again. The prob­lem is, it’s elu­sive, that first-drink-of-the-ses­sion jolt. Returns dimin­ish.

The most reli­able route to joy­ful beer is to stick to beers, brew­eries and pubs you trust. But there’s a joy in explor­ing, too, and the joy you feel on find­ing a good beer after three duds is among the most potent strains.

Joy needn’t mean fire­works. There’s joy in a nice mug of tea or clean bed­sheets and beer ought to be the same kind of every­day, attain­able plea­sure.

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.

Death of the Backstreet Boozer’

The pubs we’ve lost in greatest numbers aren’t the big ones on main roads – they’re the often smaller, more intimate establishments on back streets and estates, where people actually live.

Fur­ther evi­dence to sup­port this view arrived in our Twit­ter time­line ear­li­er this week:

And this sum­ma­ry struck home with par­tic­u­lar impact:

The map ref­er­enced (irri­tat­ing­ly uncred­it­ed at first, though they’ve since apol­o­gised and giv­en him a shout out) is from Ewan’s incred­i­bly com­pre­hen­sive Lon­don pub blog Pub­ol­o­gy. Do go and explore it, and book­mark it, if you haven’t already. There are maps for many oth­er post­codes (e.g.) many of which show a broad­ly sim­i­lar pic­ture – red and yel­low dots in the back­streets, green on the arter­ies.

In the new book we give a bit of thought to how many pubs are clos­ing, and which ones, con­clud­ing that it’s easy for mid­dle class com­men­ta­tors to shrug clo­sures off because it’s not their pubs that are dis­ap­pear­ing. This is anoth­er angle on the same issue.

We know @urbanpastoral is right from our own com­pul­sive wan­der­ing: if you stick to main roads in Lon­don, or any oth­er major city, there are plen­ty of pubs. But cut back a block and the sto­ry can be quite dif­fer­ent. We’ve seen it with our own eyes – walked miles on the sec­ondary route with­out see­ing a sin­gle oper­at­ing pub, even if the build­ings remain, con­vert­ed for res­i­den­tial, retail or some oth­er use.

Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, on the same day, we came across a note of a par­lia­men­tary debate from 1961 in which one MP, William Rees-Davies, saw this com­ing:

I do not think that alco­hol is evil in itself. I find that drink­ing with meals is more ben­e­fi­cial than drink­ing with­out a meal. I do not want ‘pub’ crawl­ing to con­tin­ue. That is why I coined the word—I thought it was quite attrac­tive at the time—the ‘prub’. I believe that we shall see a social change in our time and the ‘pubs’ will become all-pur­pose restau­rants. I believe that we shall see the larg­er ‘pubs’ tak­ing over and the small­er ‘pubs’ grad­u­al­ly turn­ing in their licences.

(He was MP for Thanet, by the way, which just hap­pens to be microp­ub cen­tral.)

It all makes sense in com­mer­cial terms of course and big pubs on main roads have many advan­tages. Back­street pubs don’t get as much pass­ing trade, obvi­ous­ly. They can be a nui­sance for those who live near them, and are hard­er to police. (More on this com­ing up.) And small­er pubs espe­cial­ly, with­out room for kitchens, wait­ers, gar­dens, pushchairs, and so on, are at a par­tic­u­lar dis­ad­van­tage in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Of course there are many, many excep­tions – Bai­ley wrote about one ear­li­er this week; and our old Waltham­stow local The Nags Head is anoth­er. It’s fun­ny, now we think of it, that those lin­ger­ing back­street pubs are often (to indulge in wishy-washy feel­ings for a moment) the nicest, being all the bet­ter for their seclu­sion and semi-secrecy.‘D

As it hap­pens in our new neigh­bour­hood, along with quite a few food-heavy ‘prubs’ on the A road, we’ve got a cou­ple of sur­viv­ing back street pubs. We’ll have to keep an eye on them. And, of course, drink in them as often as we can man­age.

QUICK ONE: (A Comically Small Portion of) Food for Thought

Auguste Escoffier in pop art colours.

In 1973 the food critic Henri Gault published ‘The Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine’, crystallising the new movement then sweeping French gastronomy:

  1. Thou shall not over­cook
  2. Thou shall use fresh, qual­i­ty prod­ucts
  3. Thou shall light­en thy menu
  4. Thou shall not be sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mod­ernistic
  5. Thou shall seek out what the new tech­niques can bring you
  6. Thou shall elim­i­nate brown and white sauces
  7. Thou shall not ignore dietet­ics
  8. Thou shall not cheat on thy pre­sen­ta­tion
  9. Thou shall be inven­tive
  10. Thou shall not be prej­u­diced

(This is the trans­la­tion giv­en by Paul Freed­man in Ten Restau­rants That Changed Amer­i­ca, 2016. There are many sub­tly dif­fer­ent ver­sions around.)

From this side of the 1980s, Nou­velle Cui­sine is a bit of a joke – huge plates, tiny amounts of sil­ly food, very expen­sive. What yup­pies ate. But that list made us think about changes in beer that were tak­ing place in the same peri­od with the rise of micro-brew­ing and ‘alter­no beer’.

Of course some of those com­mand­ment don’t direct­ly map (over­cook­ing, sauces) but how about if we rewrite them a bit?

  1. Thou shall not stew good hops.
  2. Thou shall use fresh, qual­i­ty prod­ucts.
  3. Thou shall light­en thy beer.
  4. Thou shall not be indus­tri­al.
  5. But thou shall seek out what the new tech­niques can bring you.
  6. Thou shall elim­i­nate brown beer (UK) and yel­low beer (US).
  7. Thou shall be trans­par­ent about the strength and ingre­di­ents of your beer.
  8. Thou shall not prize mar­ket­ing over qual­i­ty.
  9. Thou shall be inven­tive.
  10. Thou shall not be prej­u­diced.

Of course there are a mil­lion excep­tions to each of those ‘rules’, as there were in Nou­velle Cui­sine as actu­al­ly prac­tised, but that doesn’t feel to us like a bad sum­ma­ry of where – in the very most gen­er­al sense – people’s heads were between about 1963 and, say, 2015. (We say 2015 because, in very recent years, some­thing seems to be chang­ing. But that’s just a gut feel­ing which we’re still prob­ing.)

This feels like a con­nec­tion Michael Jack­son, Char­lie Papaz­ian, Gar­rett Oliv­er or even Sean Franklin must have made at some point but a quick Google (time is short this morn­ing) doesn’t turn any­thing up. Point­ers wel­come in com­ments below.

To fin­ish, here’s anoth­er quote from Freed­man:

Nou­velle Cui­sine of the 1970s… had two mis­sions that have since gone sep­a­rate ways: to exalt pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ents sim­ply pre­pared, and to advo­cate vari­ety result­ing from break­ing with tra­di­tion – new com­bi­na­tions such as Asian fusion.

That sounds a bit like the break between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’, doesn’t it?

The Young Ones

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.

A dis­cus­sion about this broke out in com­ments a few months ago. Our posi­tion then, as now, is that peo­ple shouldn’t be too pes­simistic: the pub is too ingrained in our cul­ture to be aban­doned overnight, and peo­ple are often drawn to it as they get a lit­tle old­er. But we have been observ­ing with this ques­tion in mind and it’s true: ‘prop­er pubs’ (small­er, char­ac­ter­ful, brown, bor­der­ing on grub­by) do tend to be dom­i­nat­ed by peo­ple in their for­ties or old­er.

(Research for our forth­com­ing book sug­gests that it has always been that way, real­ly, despite repeat­ed efforts by brew­ers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared los­ing to the cin­e­ma, cof­fee bars, burg­er restau­rants, dis­cos…)

The rea­sons for that seem obvi­ous to us. It’s part­ly a mat­ter of atmos­phere but more impor­tant­ly, we’re cer­tain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordi­nary lager or ale cost­ing between £3.50-£5. Peo­ple on min­i­mum wage part-time jobs, liv­ing off stu­dent bud­gets, or even pock­et mon­ey, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mild­ly mer­ry. A few weeks ago a young cou­ple (per­haps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bit­ter each last an hour while they lis­tened to the band, rolled their own cig­a­rettes, and count­ed cop­pers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.

But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clien­tele skew con­sis­tent­ly youth­ful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly match the stereo­type of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are cer­tain­ly plen­ty of old­er peo­ple there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredg­ing our own 20-year-old mem­o­ries, it does make sense.

Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot choco­late, frothy cof­fee or pound­ing cans of ener­gy drink. A typ­i­cal par­ty, sat near us about a fort­night ago, between them had one pint of bit­ter, two of lager, a can of Mon­ster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eat­ing, too, treat­ing it almost like a din­er.

Which is anoth­er point in its favour. The menu is large, var­ied, and makes eat­ing out, at a table with cut­lery, acces­si­ble in towns like Pen­zance where oth­er­wise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s piz­za with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form stu­dents hav­ing their tea togeth­er, per­haps pri­or to the cin­e­ma or some oth­er activ­i­ty.

It has room for the packs in which young peo­ple like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rug­by kit, or gui­tars, or cos­tumes for a par­ty, rarely strug­gle to find three tables to line up in ban­quet­ing for­ma­tion.

And, being huge, it is rel­a­tive­ly anony­mous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and gen­er­al­ly mess about with­out actu­al­ly being the cen­tre of atten­tion, which they cer­tain­ly would be in most oth­er pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Wal­nut Tree in Ley­ton­stone in the mid-1990s this was the main rea­son – because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a cor­ner and not be both­ered.

If you’re a young par­ent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and suf­fi­cient­ly noisy that your kid’s shout­ing and cry­ing bare­ly reg­is­ters, and there’s plen­ty of room for push-chairs, colour­ing books and all the oth­er accou­trements.

The ques­tion is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a big­ger ques­tion about whether Wether­spoon pubs are real­ly pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food out­let. It must be heart­en­ing, sure­ly, that young peo­ple are out at all. If it was pure­ly about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drink­ing super­mar­ket beer which is cheap­er again but, no, there’s an irre­sistible pull towards a shared pub­lic space.