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.

Character

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?

 

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.

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.