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.

Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful

Illustration: "Criticism". (Mouth spouting critical jargon.)

The debate about whether bad reviews help or hinder never goes away.

Broad­ly speak­ing there are two points of view:

1. Pub­licly crit­i­cis­ing brew­eries is unhelp­ful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by harm­ing strug­gling inde­pen­dent brew­eries in par­tic­u­lar. And, any­way, it’s more fun to con­cen­trate on writ­ing about things you like – do these mis­eries who moan con­stant­ly actu­al­ly even like beer?

2. Only writ­ing pos­i­tive­ly about brew­eries is unhelp­ful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by depress­ing expec­ta­tions of the qual­i­ty of beer from small, inde­pen­dent brew­eries in par­tic­u­lar. And any­way, cheery-beery Every­thing is Awe­some writ­ing is bor­ing – how can you trust some­one who appar­ent­ly nev­er encoun­ters a bad beer?

We linked to posts broad­ly aligned to each of those argu­ments in Saturday’s news round up but there are plen­ty of oth­ers. Here’s Jenn at Under the Influ­ence, for exam­ple, argu­ing in favour of empha­sis­ing the pos­i­tive.

We think that the ten­sion comes from the dif­fer­ence between the gen­er­al and the spe­cif­ic. Brew­er X might agree in the abstract that hon­esty is the best pol­i­cy, and that con­sumers ought to be demand­ing, per­haps on the assump­tion (sub­con­scious or oth­er­wise) that such a cul­ture will favour their lov­ing­ly-made beer over less­er prod­ucts. By all means, expose those char­la­tans!

But when Blog­ger Y states blunt­ly that, actu­al­ly, Brew­er X’s beer isn’t much good, it’s hard for Brew­er X not to respond by kick­ing the waste­bas­ket. Don’t they know how hard we work? Don’t they know how tough the mar­ket is?

If there’s a down­side to neg­a­tive beer reviews beyond that unpleas­ant thump to the chest for the brew­er it’s that they might con­tribute to some hive-min­dery, lead­ing peo­ple to mind­less­ly dis­miss a beer they would oth­er­wise have enjoyed. But we think that influ­ence is actu­al­ly more like­ly to go the oth­er way, gen­er­at­ing pos­i­tive respons­es to beers that aren’t real­ly that amaz­ing.

Mean­while, at their best, what bad reviews can offer is a kick up the bum. We’re cer­tain that, even if they play it cool, there are some brew­eries out there whose response to a run of crit­i­cism has been to review their approach and up their game.

Bad reviews also increase the val­ue of good reviews: if every­thing is great, then noth­ing is great.

On bal­ance, we think peo­ple should review beer in whichev­er way they feel com­fort­able – there are audi­ences for both approach­es after all. We’re going to keep being as hon­est as we can, which means being dis­ap­point­ed more often than not, but we won’t judge any­one else for doing oth­er­wise.

What real­ly mat­ters, and what real­ly is good for the indus­try, is the idea that beer is worth think­ing, talk­ing and writ­ing about, whether neg­a­tive­ly or pos­i­tive­ly.

QUICK ONE: In My Day, 2017 Edition

A smartphone against the backdrop of a pub.

Whatever happened to having a conversation, instead of tapping away at screens? That’s what I want to know.’

We’ve been on the receiv­ing end of a ver­sion of that heck­le twice in the past month. What we did to earn it was, of course, being caught in the pub with one or more smart­phones out.

There are all sorts of good rea­sons for look­ing at your phone in the pub, even in com­pa­ny. In our case, we’re often tak­ing notes for one project or oth­er, tin­ker­ing with a pho­to of the very pub we’re in for social media, or look­ing up the answer to an impor­tant ques­tion that’s come up like, what is the ety­mol­o­gy of the word ‘poo’? (Only used to refer to fae­ces in the UK since the 1960s, appar­ent­ly.)

In oth­er words, it’s part of the way we make con­ver­sa­tion, not an obstruc­tion to it.

And, any­way, we’ve been togeth­er for very near­ly 20 years so if one of us does want the oth­er to put down their phone, we’re pret­ty com­fort­able just say­ing: ‘Oi! Give me some atten­tion! You’re being bor­ing.’

Both times we’ve received this kind of telling off it’s come from old­er men and hasn’t felt friend­ly, or as if was intend­ed as a con­ver­sa­tion starter – just like a kind of dri­ve by judge­ment.

Why do peo­ple do insert them­selves into oth­er people’s busi­ness this way? And does it both­er you to see peo­ple look­ing at screens in the pub?

Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion

Two cloudy beers in fancy glasses.
Cloud­wa­ter NE DIPA (left) and Brew­Dog Ver­mont IPA V4.

The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy – it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.

We’ve kept our minds open until now push­ing back against the kind of knee-jerk con­ser­vatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of prin­ci­ple. We wrote about Moor, the brew­ery that pio­neered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Bri­tan­nia, high­light­ing that, what­ev­er you think of the trend, it wasn’t some­thing Justin Hawke embarked on care­less­ly – it came out of per­son­al pref­er­ence and exper­i­men­ta­tion. Then for CAMRA’s quar­ter­ly BEER mag­a­zine last year we pulled togeth­er var­i­ous bits of evi­dence under­lin­ing that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among con­nois­seurs and, indeed, has some­times been seen as a mark of qual­i­ty.

But at the same time – on the fence as ever – we’ve main­tained a cer­tain scep­ti­cism about the hazy, hop­py beers we’ve actu­al­ly encoun­tered in real life. We’ve con­tin­ued look­ing for chances to drink IPAs with cloudi­ness as a flag­ship fea­ture, espe­cial­ly any­thing labelled Ver­mont or NE IPA, try­ing to under­stand.

At Brew­Dog Bris­tol on Fri­day we were able to drink two dif­fer­ent takes side by side – the first time this oppor­tu­ni­ty has ever pre­sent­ed itself – and in so doing, some­thing clicked.

BrewDog draught beer menu.

Brew­Dog Ver­mont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth exper­i­men­tal iter­a­tion and struck us instant­ly as over­whelm­ing­ly sweet – like a cor­ner­shop canned man­go drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, grit­ty or musty. It was clean, with­in its own para­me­ters. Cloud­wa­ter NE Dou­ble IPA with Mosa­ic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incred­i­bly sim­i­lar clear­ly draw­ing on the same source of inspi­ra­tion but bet­ter and more com­plex: pineap­ple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sick­ly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoy­able with the bit­ter­ness dialled right up to com­pen­sate for the muf­fling effect of the yeast haze, and to bal­ance the fruiti­ness. Or, we sup­pose, with the haze dialled down to let the bit­ter­ness through.

For­tu­nate­ly, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Ver­mont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milk­i­ness of the pre­vi­ous two beers. The bar­man told us it was the first batch of the suc­ces­sor to the num­bered V series. There was a snatch of gar­licky armpit aro­ma we could have done with­out but, over­all, it was just the mix of soft trop­i­cal lush­ness and dia­mond-hard bit­ter­ness that we were after. It was very good and proof, per­haps, that sys­tem­at­ic batch-by-batch exper­i­men­ta­tion with cus­tomer feed­back can pay off.

Back to the New Eng­land style, then: is pur­pose of the sus­pend­ed yeast stuff (pro­tein more than yeast – thanks, Emma) to soft­en and dull the bit­ter­ness? If so, and assum­ing that both Brew­Dog and Cloud­wa­ter know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone Amer­i­can orig­i­nals, we can cer­tain­ly see the appeal. Bit­ter­ness can be chal­leng­ing, spiky, hard to love; where­as sweet­ness and fruiti­ness are acces­si­ble, easy­go­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics. Good fun. Soft sells.

So, we’re now con­vinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing – a per­fect­ly legit­i­mate, inter­est­ing, coher­ent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than think­ing of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re nev­er going to be fans – not with our fraz­zled mid­dle-aged palates – but, as with some oth­er mar­gin­al beer styles, will cer­tain­ly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of vari­ety.

Side notes

We also got to try Ver­dant Head­band (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at Brew­Dog and found it much bet­ter than the cans, although still rather one-dimen­sion­al. Again, more bit­ter­ness might have filled a hole here.

And the beer of the ses­sion – the only one that real­ly knocked our socks off – was Cloudwater’s Dou­ble India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing tra­di­tion­al­ists invent when satiris­ing craft beer but, in fact, was an extreme­ly hap­py mar­riage of tra­di­tions. Depend­ing on your angle of view it is either (a) a char­ac­ter­ful bock with a liven­ing twist of cit­rus or (b) a pleas­ing­ly clean, crys­talline, well-man­nered IPA.

It was, suf­fice to say, per­fect­ly clear.