Generalisations about beer culture

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.

Generalisations about beer culture


We use the word ‘character’ a lot and, before craft beer, Michael Jackson often wrote about ‘beers of character’. It conveys something but… what?

This Tweet got us thinking because we instinctively read into ‘character’ in this context an implication that the more characterful beer might also have been more challenging, or less universally appealing. That is, probably from the point of view of many people, worse.

We usually use ‘characterful’ to acknowledge that we think a beer is distinctive (that’s another one) but that we don’t necessarily like it, or dare to assume that others will either. (‘It’s certainly different, I’ll give it that.’)

As we talked it over, though, we realised the utter vagueness of the word. We’d always thought it was a more precise and useful word than ‘good’ — that someone could acknowledge a beer they dislike as having character — but now we’re not so sure. Can’t one drinker’s characterful be another’s bland, or another’s gimmicky crap?

Person A and Person B compared: each thinks the others characterful beer is bland or over-the-top respectively.

A beer can be weak and mild but still highly distinctive, e.g. (again) Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, but to people who aren’t tuned into these things, it’ll just taste like Doom Bar. Equally, someone not focused on the wackier end of craft beer might find those beers homogeneous — a general mess of sour, boozy, hazy, oily grapefruit juice. In other words, characterful is mobile:

A quadrant chart: weak/mild vs. strong intense on one axis; simple/complex on the other.

Those two circles mark where our imaginary Person A and Person B might locate ‘characterful’ — they’re quite close to each other really, aren’t they?

We suppose Person A might learn to love characterful bitters if they tried, and Person A could develop a taste for barrel-aged imperial stouts, but neither is going to find character in basic, well-mannered beers where it just doesn’t exist.

So maybe ‘characterful’ does still work, and does describe a quality of the beer regardless of the drinker’s palate?


Blogging and writing

Pondering Beers of the Year

As Golden Pints season draws near, we’ve found ourselves wondering how we go about choosing a ‘beer of the year’.

Should it be the one we’ve just declared the best beer in the world? Surely that must also be the best beer we’ve had this year?

Maybe it ought to be the beer that gave us the most profoundly thrilling single experience — the one that literally made us giggle with excitement and joy — even if subsequent experiences of the same beer were less euphoric?

Or how about our main squeeze — the draught beer of which we’ve drunk (quick calculation) more than 200 pints between us since January? (Flippin’ ‘eck — £700!) We must quite like that.

Then again, perhaps we should compensate for the kinds of biases which skew results on rating websites, to avoid more subtle, unassuming beers being overlooked — ones that are technically proficient, or good for their style, but totally boring in the grand scheme of things.

A lot of beers we’ve enjoyed this year weren’t consumed in anything like ideal conditions for achieving an objective view — should they be out of the running?

There are breweries out there trying really hard with limited funding, facilities and distribution — do we try to take into account ambition and intention? Indie Beer of the Year?

We could narrow the field by choosing a beer that’s new for 2014 (imagine if The Godfather just kept winning the Best Picture Oscar every year!) or perhaps even, given our interest in culture and history, the beer which best sums up 2014.

Mostly, we’re just pleased to have something else to over-think.

Beer history Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Utopians vs. Sentimentalists

In 1925, Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, proposed that the historic centre of Paris be flattened and replaced with a set of identical tower blocks set in a grid.

All those old buildings, narrow winding roads and quaint features were, in his view, ‘rustic bric-a-brac’ and needed to be swept away so that order could be achieved. With order, he argued, would come true human happiness, if only people would look inside themselves and realise that’s what they really wanted. (Which sounds slightly scary to modern ears.)

His extreme philosophy, abstracted from practical concerns, sits on one side of an ideological battle still being played out across all fields of human activity: Logic or sentiment? Machines or men? Straight lines or wonky ones? Industry or craft?

At about the same time as his ideas had filtered through to inform the planning and design of post-war British cities (see Plymouth, for example) another expression of the logic/machines/straight-lines way of thinking was also underway: the Big Six project in British brewing.

Whitbread, Watney’s, et al, became seduced by a Utopian vision of pure efficiency. They rejected the idea of lots of little breweries all over the place in favour of big ones in central locations, connected by motorway.

They decided computer-control was the way forward, reducing the opportunities for human interference to introduce inconsistency into the product.

Tradition was a nuisance — something to be ‘got over’.

It is with tinges of regret that we witness the disappearance of the traditional brewer wandering around the brewery with only his sensitive nose, keen palate and a few basic scientific instruments to guide him… [as] we move to a new generation of white-coated technicians bristling with scientific qualifications, guided in their work by panels of flickering lights…

H.A. Monckton, A History of English Ale & Beer, 1966

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the pub preservation movement, and ‘micro brewing’, all stood, and still stand, on the side of sentimentality and ‘the human touch’. Greenleaf over Ironsides.

And in marketing terms, the sentimentalists have won — we don’t think many breweries these days would invite the press to see their computers, as did Whitbread at Luton in May 1969, or use an image like this one from Boddington’s, c.1978, in promotional materials:

Boddington's computer controlled brewery, c.1978.

But most people don’t feel that strongly either way — they’re turned off by automation, but expect a certain level of consistency; they appreciate the fruits of efficiency, but don’t want to see old pubs or breweries knocked down to achieve it. They are, in short, pragmatic.

But pragmatism, as far as people like Le Corbusier are concerned, is synonymous with compromise — the worst of both worlds.

Excuse us thinking aloud. We’re working on something — a longer article, or maybe a video — about flat-roofed, cube-like post-war ‘modern’ pubs, which is why we happen to be reading outside our usual territory.


Does Beer Need Editing?

Editing beer (illustration).

Who is there to stop a brewer releasing a bad beer? To say, before it reaches the public, that it is simply not good enough?

Depending on your point of view, editors/publishers/record companies/film studios are either parasitic middle men standing between artist and audience, dragging everything towards bland ‘marketability’, and taking ten per cent; or they are heroic gatekeepers protecting the public from a tide of dross and/or pretension.

In larger breweries, there are plenty of mediators — blazer-wearing board members who tut at ‘weird’ beers and marketing people with focus-groups and survey results — and perhaps that is why you rarely see any spectacular misfires from that sector. (Or much that is spectacular at all.)

Perhaps smaller breweries get their ‘editorial’ feedback from third-party middle men such as distributors, bar-owners and retailers: ‘We regret to say that, at this time, your beer is not the kind of product to which we feel we could do justice in a crowded market-place…’ Perhaps the best are capable of being their own toughest critics.

But we suspect vanity usually wins out.

As a consumer, if you want your beer mediated — if you demand that only product polished to a sheen is allowed into pubs and shops — then you might have to accept a compromise to creativity, and to the idea of brewer as ‘auteur’. (‘Great!’ say many.)

If, on the other hand, you want to buy beer direct from a ‘cool’ person whose work is not meddled with by ‘suits’, then, every now and then, you will get something undrinkable.

The occasional Metal Machine Music is the price to pay for the ‘cool’ stuff.

We’re in the process of having our book edited at the moment which is perhaps what brought this to mind.