The ‘golden ears’ problem

Cables - The Missing Link - Desktop Audio Upgrade Part 2
Phil made a good point in a comment at Zak Avery’s blog: it’s fine to admit that some people know more about some things than some other people. When we need to buy new gadgets or computers, we ring Bailey’s brother; when we want help with our German, we ask Boak’s mum; and, bless them, when our friends want advice about beer, they ask us. In those conversations, no-one is ‘lording it’ over anyone else. (We hope.)

Having said that, we’ve been on the receiving end of advice like this more than once: “If you’re not going to buy a system with separate components, you might as well listen to your music on a transistor radio. And you can’t sit your speakers flat on that shelf — you need spikes. It’s going to cost you several thousand pounds, or it’s not worth bothering at all. I can’t bear to listen to music on your current setup, actually — can’t you hear that digital distortion? Can’t you hear it? There! Listen! Argh!” &c..

Our sincere response? “It sounds fine to us.” We end up with a £120 all-in-one stereo from Curry’s and we’re perfectly happy with it.

Maybe some people simply can’t taste the difference between good and bad beer, however often they try? If that’s the case, it doesn’t make them idiots — it makes them lucky.

Our suspicion? We probably could learn to appreciate high-end audio if we really wanted to, but we don’t: it’s an expensive habit…

Picture by Jordanhill School, from Flickr Creative Commons.

 

A standard upon which to improve

This starts off as a post about books and bread but bear with us, there’s beer at the end.

If you really want to know about snobbery, Jeffrey Steingarten is your man.

Nothing in the food world is chicer than salt, and despite an excess of God-given modesty, I must admit that I got there very, very early… [I] acquired a little walnut box and filled it with fleur de sel. I bring it out only in Europe… My salt sophistication has only soared since then.

Somehow, though, he gets away with it, perhaps because of the self-mocking with which he laces his articles.

In his second collection of articles, It Must’ve Been Something I Ate (2002), Steingarten talks about Parisian baguettes. He observes that, in the past, beautifully made, fine-tasting baguettes were what everybody ate. At some point, a new type of baguette made using strong bread flour — fluffier, whiter, easier to produce in large quantities — came along and took over. In recent years, however, the real thing has started to make a comeback.

Although he then goes on to recommend various small bakeries across Paris, he also says something surprising for a food snob: that the versions of the traditional baguette being made by chains of bakers such as Paul (currently appearing across the UK) are pretty good too and certainly a good thing.

There are French food lovers who fear that… branded baguettes may bring standardization to the world of handmade bread. Having wandered in the baguette wilderness for 20 years, I will feel that I’ve reached the promised land if… [they] set a minimum standard that innovators can strive to exceed.

Is this what beers like Blue Moon are about? Or is this the niche Brewdog are beginning to fill? They are, let’s face it, a pub chain and supermarket supplier these days, but if their Punk IPA is what counts as pile-’em-high Tesco discount fodder, then that’s got to be a sign that things are looking up in terms of the basic standards people expect from their beer.

There have been quality control issues with Punk this year — we had a bad bottle in the summer — but, at its best, it is bursting with flavour and yet also very accessible. Needless to say, it continues to be a shame that they can’t let the beer speak for itself without the tiresome marketing nonsense.

Sucking up a social class

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLoVF7vcBtY]

In his column in the 5 December issue of New Statesman, Will Self, on the subject of wine, quotes his French translator who says “when I have a glass of wine, I’m imbibing the region where it comes from.” Self ponders this and suggests that “when an English person drinks wine, she’s sucking up a social class”.

Is that also what’s going on when people drink craft beer? Is it becoming an accessory for those who aspire to, or wish to emphasise, middle class credentials?

We like to think that beer is in the process of being stripped of any specific class associations — that it’s becoming socially mobile, as comfortable at an Islington dinner party as in a working men’s club. But maybe we’re kidding ourselves.

Either way, there’s plenty of work to be done before beer is quite welcome to a seat at the shabby chic dining table in front of the Aga. The Cheese Shop in Truro — one of the most middle class shops you can imagine — has wine, port, sherry, sparkling cider, soft drinks… but not one drop of beer. Not even a politely packaged Fuller’s Vintage Ale getting dusty in a corner. Shame.

This agonising over snobbery and social class isn’t going to end anytime soon, we’re afraid. It is much on our minds.

Beware snobbery but not afraid of change

There’s a fine line between enthusing about better beer and being a snob.

It’s something that’s been on Tandleman’s mind lately. Pivni Filosof, Velky Al and numerous others over the years have posted variations on the point that, for many of us, beer’s appeal is, in large part, that it’s not pretentious, expensive or exclusive.

Even some posts for Session #58, including our own, reflected the same anxiety.

And it’s certainly something that’s worth being vigilant about. “Am I being a dick about this?” is probably a good question to ask yourself from time to time.

Having said that, we mustn’t let this thoughtfulness lead us to the false conclusion that, to be true to the roots of beer, we need to embrace shite pubs and crappy products. After all, eating greasy, grey meat pies might be ‘traditionally working class’, but they just don’t taste nice, and surely it’s a good thing that lots of ordinary people are now enjoying more interesting, tastier food and that the good stuff isn’t just reserved for the nobs? (In fact, is this the opposite of snobbery…?)

The “craft beer revolution” is real — you only have to look at London to know it — but, even if your town isn’t directly touched by it (Bridgwater is probably never going to have a stripped pine and chrome, forty tap craft beer bar, for example) the very fact that the idea that the idea of good beer is being talked about (in newspapers, on TV) will eventually reach every corner of the market, even if only in a modest way.

Six degrees of beer appreciation

1. Snobbery. Making a big deal about buying beer because it is expensive or exclusive. No friends.

2. Fussy. Offending people and/or causing social awkwardness in the pursuit of good beer.

3. Discerning. Drinking the best beer available for the occasion. (A fine line between this and the above.)

4. Interested. Being aware of the idea that there is good and bad beer and trying to choose the former. Can lead to accidental snobbery.

5. Disinterested Uninterested. Not interested in beer at all. Missing out.

6. Oblivious. What do you mean “good beer”? All beer is good! Wa-hey! Happiness.

7. Inverse snobbery. Drinking bad beer because to do otherwise would be pretentious. Misery.

 

Note: if you’ve posted on this subject — lots of people have — let us know and we’ll add a link.

Zac at Pavement and Beer for Peace

Sean Liquorish wants bland mainstream lagers to be tastier.

Pivni Filosof has touched on this subject here, here and here.

The Pub Curmudgeon reckons the ‘craft beer revolution’ is an exclusive bubble disconnected from most people’s experience of beer.

Session #58: A Christmas Carol

Detail from John Leech's 1843 illustration for a Christmas Carol.
A detail from one of John Leech's 1843 illustrations for a Christmas Carol.

This month’s session is hosted by Phil Hardy of Twitter fame (@Filrd) who blogs at Beersay.

“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size, and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration.”

People often misunderstand these lines from A Christmas Carol, and they’ve been misused a million times to accompany images of plump roasted birds.

In fact, at this point in the book, Cratchit’s impoverished family are sitting down to a miserable Christmas meal, the centrepiece of which is a scrawny goose that they’re making the most of. The point is that Cratchit is a good man who tries to find the best in things, including Ebenezer Scrooge, and so has the true Christmas spirit in his heart, regardless of his poverty.

With that in mind, we were thinking about how important it can be to put beer snobbery to one side at Christmas.

If your eight year-old niece buys you a ‘Beers of the World’ selection pack from BHS, chill down those 330ml bottles of Fosters and San Miguel and bloody enjoy them. It’s a thoughtful gift.

If your Uncle Bert offers you a bottle of Greene King IPA in a clear bottle, take it with gratitude and show how much you appreciate it, because that’s someone reaching out, asking you to share a moment of good cheer, in the bleak midwinter.

If your Dad takes you to a pub for a swift one on Christmas Day and all they have is keg John Smith’s, savour every drop: you’re with your Dad in a pub on Christmas Day, you lucky devil.

Just enjoy the Christmas present and maybe next year you’ll get a bigger goose.