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.