Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Geek Cred

In my experience it's a myth that all craft beer geeks reflexively dismiss traditional British family and regional breweries as producing "boring brown beer" that's not worth bothering with. What I'm more inclined to believe is that we have a typically geekish tendency to differentiate strongly and occasionally arbitrarily between between the breweries that, in our view, "exemplify a great brewing tradition" and the ones that "peddle mass-produced dishwater designed by accountants to a captive audience of tied houses."

Given this, and based on the fine beer blogging tradition of making general statements largely by extrapolating from your own opinions, I've assembled a non-comprehensive list of British family and regional brewers, ordered by how unsurprised I'd be to hear someone in the Craft Beer Co loudly telling anyone who'll listen that they actually make some really great traditional ales. As I said, this ranking is largely based on my own prejudices, and I'd be genuinely interested to hear any conflicting opinions - I might even try running a poll at some point to produce something a bit more authoritative.

With that out of the way, the rankings are as follows:

  1. Harveys
  2. Adnams
  3. Fullers
  4. Sam Smiths
  5. Timothy Taylor
  6. Theakstons
  7. JW Lees
  8. Hook Norton
  9. Batemans
  10. Brains
  11. Shepherd Neame
  12. Greene King
  13. Robinsons
  14. Thwaites
  15. Marstons
  16. Everards
  17. Mc Mullens
  18. Wells & Young

The "neo-nationals" on the list are assumed to include all of their subsidiaries and real ale sub-brands. Conversely, I've not tried to take account of how interested people might be in "craft" sub-brands - this is about how brewers are seen in their capacity as traditional brewers. St Austell would have ranked highly, but I've disqualified them for producing inadequately brown beer - their core range is practically a craft sub-brand in itself! Greene King are perhaps controversially high - this is based on the assumption that the rarity and interest of XX Mild and 6X outweight the ubiquity of IPA and Old Speckled Hen - whereas Harveys and Adnams seem like no-brainers for the top two - it's rare to hear a bad word spoken about either of them. And it's worth saying that even the lowest ranked of these aren't necessarily bad - I've happily drunk beer from almost all of them - just that I wouldn't expect them to inspire many beer geeks to actively seek out their pubs.

What do we learn from this? Well, I'm not a brand consultant, but if I was in a Hollywood bodyswap comedy where I'd woken up the body of one, and I had to bluff my way through a presentation aimed at reviving the fortunes of an ailing family brewer by helping them to connecting them with the younger, beer-geekier end of the market[1], here's what I'd say:

  • Brew distinctive, characterful beer. Obviously people can make a mint with nondescript but well marketed beer, but having a flagship product whose intrinsic properties make people want to tell their friends about it is a clear bonus.
  • Play to your strengths. Your strengths will probably be your history and regional identity, so see what you can do with those before trying to get all trendy. Be aware that everyone and his dog plays the history card, so you'll have to go the extra mile to be taken seriously on that front - it's not enough just to have old-fashioned pump clips or black-and-white pictures in your adverts, you'll need to have a quirky survivor of a style in your portfolio or start digging in the archive for historic recipes.
  • Be personal. Anyone can pay for advertising copy about how much they care about the quality of their beer, but if you have an opinionated head brewer who posts about it on Twitter then people might start to believe you.
  • A "craft" sub-brand isn't the answer in itself. If people think that your core range is designed by accountants, they'll probably assume that your "craft" range is as well.

[1] rather than following the potentially more lucrative strategy of connecting them with end of the market that isn't that interested in beer but can't be bothered with wine and knows that cider's for teenagers and yokels and lager's for football hooligans...

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Power to the Punters

In this post, Yvan from Jolly Good Beer talks straight about supply chain quality for beer, and the often frustrating lack of shits being given about it. Yvan suggests that a push for better practice should come from brewers, anxious to maintain their reputations by getting their beer into people's glasses in better condition.

As a punter, I see a more obvious source of pressure for better beer at the point of dispense, namely, me. My problem, though, is that if I have some particular beer that's just "okay" rather than "great", I can't always tell whether the beer's not fresh enough, not to my taste, or just not that good. Over time, I might start to associate some pubs with consistently good beer more than others, but it's a slow and uncertain process, and it'll take a long time to turn into any sort of market pressure.

So in an ideal world, if I'm going to pay top dollar for beers at a self-proclaimed craft beer bar, I'd like to be able to look at their website and see a note above their tap list reassuring me that all of these beers are going to be in perfect condition because the keg beer has barely been out of coldstore from the moment it left the fermenter to the moment it comes out of the tap. I'd also see when the hoppy stuff was kegged, too, so I'd know that it wasn't some months old keg they picked up for cheap. I wouldn't expect this from every village pub, but if you're going to charge me six quid a pint then I want to see some justification.

The reason that this doesn't happen is presumably that I'm a relatively unusual punter. I'm aware of this stuff through talking to people like Yvan, and I suspect that a lot of people, like me until quite recently, don't really think about what happens between the brewery and the glass at all. There's also a tendency to assume that keg beer is basically inert and so nothing you can do to it will make much difference to what comes out of the tap.

Which brings me round to this blog post from Matt "Total Ales" Curtis.

In it, he argues (again) that for the good of UK beer culture, we need to come up with a definition of craft beer. In the inevitable Twitter argument that ensued, he made the point that the US is light years ahead of us in terms of standards and professionalism - which is probably true - and that we need to start catching up.

For my money, the way that beer writers can help us to catch up is by educating drinkers about the stuff that we ought to care more about. It's not about telling us stories or spreading "passion", or even about defining "craft beer", fun though those things can be, but about making us aware of the relatively dry technical stuff that makes the difference between great beer and shonky cash-ins. It's about celebrating pubs who'd rather sell the freshest beer than the beer that makes the biggest margin, and the distributors who are proud of their coldstores. It's about questioning the "craft lagers" whose brewers keep suspiciously quiet about lagering times. It's not about the big picture of defining craft, but about the simple, quantifiable, objective stuff that could help punters to spot when they're being taken for a ride. It's about informed drinkers, who are going to challenge the industry to raise its game.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Local History

A comment by Gary Gillman on a recent Boak and Bailey post got me thinking:

"[...] another way to distinguish viz America is use English hops – Fuggle, Golding, Target, Challenger, Northdown, in quantities which are historical and helped to make the fame of English brewing what it was."

(There's a lot more to Gary's comment than this, but this is the bit that set me off on this particular train of thought...)

I've got a massive natural suspiciousness towards contrived bids for local distinctiveness. Historically, really interesting local traditions mostly seem to have evolved by brewers building on local experience to satisfy local tastes while dealing with local constraints, not out of someone sitting down and saying "yeah, but how can we make something that's more distinctive to our area?" Better understanding of brewing science and the easy availability of a range of international ingredients have removed a lot of the constraints - a brewer in Norwich can economically mix Belgian yeast with American hops, German malt and Burton water - but local experience and local tastes are still there. This is why California and Vermont are still places of pilgrimage for fans of US IPA despite the worldwide availability of all the ingredients and why, for my money, the hoppy light ale is a more interestingly British contribution to the world of beer than any amount of faffing around with forced rhubarb or foraged herbs is likely to produce. It's also why I've got no problem with British craft brewers - or anyone else - brewing in the "international style" of IPAs and coffee porters, because it seems almost inevitable that local branches of those family trees will also start to evolve.

However, beers brewed to historic recipes fascinate me. I could be convinced that this is just me being inconsistent. But I think I can come up with something in my defense.

A historic recipe isn't interesting because it's local. To some extent it's interesting because it is, in a very small way, an experience of a previous time - a direct connection with history. But as well as being a liquid museum piece, it's also interesting because the beer is probably actually quite good. London Porter and Burton Pale Ale didn't conquer the world by being "quite interesting". They did it by being, to the tastes of the time, "awesome" - like, world-beating, Ratebeer Best type awesome. And something which is awesome in a way that you haven't really experienced before - a way that you might take a while to get tuned into - is something that's really quite exciting to try.

Which is why, possibly modulo getting a better setup for brewing strong, hoppy beers, it won't be long until I have a bash at a historic IPA recipe.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Untouchables

There's been a bit of chat lately about whether some of the more revered new-wave UK craft breweries are now "beyond criticism" - whether they're so widely respected that no-one's willing to risk saying a bad word about them for fear of being torn apart by the fanboys.

There's a fair objection that this rather depends how deep into the bubble you operate - being rude about the current in-thing is also a quick way to position yourself as a straight-talking speaker-of-truth-to-power. But it does hit a bit of a nerve regarding the craft scene's relationship to criticism - this is also a scene where people seriously argue that you shouldn't tweet your dissatisfaction with a bad pint until you've given the relevant pub or brewery a chance to respond privately. And to me, this doesn't seem like a healthy attitude in the long run.

I think the real issue here is that brewers and drinkers are both very bad at dealing with the fact that taste is subjective - that not everyone likes every beer, and that one person not liking some particular beer doesn't mean that no-one else does or that the brewer is incompetent or dishonest. As a punter, I generally try to avoid contributing to this when I'm talking about small breweries by putting a comment in context if I can - saying that I don't like this beer as much as their others, or as much I used to, or as much as everyone else seems to - or at least by trying to keep the language subjective. On the flip side I'd hope that brewers (and fanboys) can deal with the fact that sometimes someone just won't like one of their beers, and that saying in public that they don't like it doesn't necessarily mean they're being a dick about it. It's important that we can do this because fundamentally, if you've only got nice things to say then you haven't got much to say at all.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Style Council

A comment on this recent post on Tandleman's blog brought up the issue of the BJCP style guidelines - the judging guidelines for the different style categories recognized in American Homebrewers Association competitions.

I've not yet entered a homebrew competition myself, partly because that sort of thing isn't really my bag and partly because, if I'm honest, I suspect that the results would be pretty embarrassing at the moment. However, I do have some idea of how competitions work.

As in the comments on Tandleman's post, the BJCP guidelines often get stick for being a) overly prescriptive and b) wrong. But while there's some truth in this, I think that it misses the point of them a bit. Their goal, as I understand it, is to give some semblance of order to homebrew competitions, and enable them to test how much control the brewer has over the results of their brewing process. If you brew a Märzen for a competition, for instance, then as well as just brewing something that the judges enjoy drinking, you also have to demonstrate that you have the technical chops to make it malty but balanced with a moderately dry finish and a medium body. It's a bit like playing scales and arpeggios in a music exam; they don't represent everything you could ever want to do, but they do let you demonstrate your technical competence in a relatively controlled format.

This is fine, and it seems like a pretty good learning exercise for a homebrewer to go through - a bit of rigor and attention to detail never hurt anyone. The problems come when people lose sight of that, and start treating the BJCP guidelines as a guide to what beer styles actually mean out in the wild, and what they definitively ought to be like. The divisions between different porters and stouts are what the complaint that inspired this post was about, and the complaint is a valid one - for example, the Charlie Papazian has admitted that the division between robust porter and brown porter was basically an artifcial way of splitting an overly broad category, but it's a division that's now reflected in the names of commercial beers as well. There's plenty of other shonky stuff in there as well that I'm sure gets treated as authoritative well outside of its original intended context.

In spite of this, I've been guilty of consulting the BJCP style guide when planning my own decidedly non-competitive brews. And why? Because it's easy. The BJCP document is readable online, and you know that if you keep your recipe somewhere within the its guidelines then you've got a reasonable chance of ending up with something that's drinkable and in roughly the style you'd expect, and from where I'm currently at at least that counts as a result. If you want to know more reliably how style terms are actually used in their proper contexts and how they've evolved over time then you start needing to consult specialist books, or try to pull out the bits that you currently need to know from long and information-dense articles and blog posts, assuming you can find anything authoritative on the subject anyway. And while doing either of those is a fine way to spend a rainy afternoon, there are times when you just want to get on with brewing, and a quick dip into the BJCP document lets you do that.

So what would help?

Well, homebrewers - and professional brewers, and drinkers, come to that - could do their research properly. It'd be great if everyone who tried a bottle of Westmalle Triple and thought "hey, that was nice, I'd quite like to brew something like that" went out and bought a copy of Brew Like A Monk and read it from cover to cover. But realistically that's unlikely to happen.

Another thing that would help is better pre-digested sources of information about beer styles. Something with about the level of detail that the BJCP provide - typical gravities and IBUs, typical ingredients and so on - but properly sourced and with more of a slant towards reflecting how terms are used in the wild and how they've evolved over time rather than towards simply providing a workable format for competitions. I might have a punt at this myself, but given my normal rate of posting, it'll be a while before I get much coverage.

Or is this just something that we're going to live with? Accept that Robust Porter is a new style classification in the late 20th Century just like India Pale Ale was in the 19th, and that every now and then, your meticulously sourced account of the history of Bavarian brewing is going to be met with someone insistently pointing you to Category 8A (Munich Dunkel)?

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Generic Response to a Brewery Selling Out

Okay, so the latest big corporate beer buyout - Beer Hawk - was a distributor rather than a brewery. But it seems unlikely to be the last, and it's a good opportunity to put together an all purpose "here's what I think post" that I can re-use repeatedly in the future.

i) I'm not angry at the owners for "selling out".

It's their business, they've put the hard work into building it up, and if they want to get filthy rich out of it then that's their prerogative and, all else being equal, I'm happy for them.

If they've made a big thing out of their independence-or-death credentials and (particularly) if they've slagged off other people for "selling out" in the past then I might still think they're dicks, though. Sure, this is how marketing works, but I like to think that the people involved in small breweries are more like normal, decent, averagely honest people and less like the marketing departments of large amoral corporations. I still don't think they shouldn't have sold out, but I do think that they shouldn't have made a big thing of convictions and commitment that they didn't have.

ii) I don't think it's a good thing for their beer in the long run, though.

Once you're part of a big multinational, you're part of a money-making machine, and making as much money as possible is your job. Just right now, they can probably make more money out of you in the long run by staying at arm's length and letting you focus on quality and keep on building up your reputation and all that stuff. In the future, that could change, and they might want to start cashing in a bit on your reputation, and people might start turning up to ask whether you really need to use quite so many expensive hops and those long lagering times and whether you couldn't stop brewing all the weird shit that doesn't make any money and focus a bit more on milking your flagship brands. And when that happens, your "we're still in charge" talk won't mean a thing.

iii) I won't stop buying their beer, but I might choose a beer from a still-independent brewery instead if there's a roughly equivalent alternative available.

This isn't an ideological point, it's a pragmatic one. If I give some money to an independent brewery then they'll spend some of it on beard-care products and new tattoos and, in one way or another, invest the rest back into making the brewery bigger and better. Or at least into keeping it in business. If they're a brewery that I like then this is in my interests. If I give some money to the craft wing of a drinks multinational then for all I know the profit will go to fund the marketing campaign for a new alcopop they're launching in South America. This is not in my interests. All else being more-or-less equal, I'd rather support an independent whose other stuff I generally like than a multinational whose other stuff I generally wouldn't touch with a bargepole.

iv) Finally, can we cut out all the "strategic partnership" crap?

If you want me to believe, despite a globe-spanning megacorp giving you shedloads of money in exchange for the ownership of your brewery, that "nothing's changed" and that you're still honest and authentic and all that stuff, then the first thing you could do is actually announce that it's happened in an honest and authentic way rather than using whatever marketing-approved wording your new corporate masters have given you. Since it's clearly not fooling anyone, it does more to undermine your credibility than to defend it. So why do it?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Book Reviews

Being a bit of a geek, I tend to accumulate stacks of books about most subjects that interest me. Here, to inform and entertain, I've reviewed the various books that I've read so far about homebrewing.

Randy Mosher - Mastering Homebrew

Randy Mosher is a well established and well respected homebrew writer, and Mastering Homebrew is his entry into the "comprehensive general tome" market. In keeping with Mosher's creative approach to brewing, it sets out to teach you how to design your own recipes, not just follow existing ones. There's a great section on how to build up a complex grain bill from scratch and the roles different malts can play, as well as extensive catalogues of grains, hops and other ingredients and discussions of when and how to use them. This approach extends even to the introductory extract brew "recipe", which is actually more of a template, instructing you to add different combinations of steeping grains, hops and yeast depending on the effect that you want to achieve.

There's perhaps a bit too much time spent on wacky ingredients for my taste, particularly in the recipes (which there aren't many of to start with...), but most of the other stuff that you want to know is in there as well.

The book is clearly written with beginners in mind and covers pretty much everything you need to know to get started. On the other hand, there's also a lot of depth in there, and I suspect that it's one of those books that I'll keep finding useful little nuggets in for years.

Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer - Brewing Classic Styles

This actually makes a great companion to Mastering Homebrew. The focus here is on brewing "classic" beer styles by-the-book - something that Mosher has limited time for - with a recipe and some general advice being given for each BJCP-recognized style. I haven't tried following any of the recipes precisely, but they make good starting points for tinkering with. The recipes are mostly given for extract brewing with steeped grains, but each one is followed by a full grain bill and mashing instructions for all-grain brewers.

Graham Wheeler - Brew Your Own British Real Ale

A good set of general brewing instructions and a solid stack of recipes for trad British ales. The focus here is on following recipes, not on creating them from scratch, though, and as the title suggests, the book is very much about traditional British ale styles - American hops are more-or-less explicitly dismissed as universally inferior to Fuggles and Goldings. Wheeler seems a bit less fastidious in his approach than a lot of homebrew writers, which makes for an interesting alternative perspective at times.

Phil Markowski - Farmhouse Ales

This is divided into two parts - Biere de Garde and Saison. In each one, it covers loads of historic and cultural context, leading into a description of what the beers are like to drink, followed by a general discussion of how they're brewed and then some specific recipes. Some people might find that there's more information here than they really need, but if you like digging into this sort of stuff then it's fantastic.

Most people are probably going to buy this book for the section on saison, but I'd be surprised if all the talk of "rustic, malty ales" didn't tempt a few of them into trying their hand at the odd biere de garde as well.