Thursday, 15 February 2018

Getting what you pay for

It's good to see some talk about class and price in craft beer coming up again. For all that pricing issues generate endless bickering, it's a subject that shouldn't be ignored. How many people are put off by the cost of craft beer? Is it socially responsible to create a culture that has a financial barrier to entry? Should craft brewers be more concerned with making beer that's more widely affordable - affordable as a regular night-out drink, not just for one reverentially sipped half a month?

The focus in this last suggestion is often on ingredients. Picking and choosing high-grade malt adds to a brewer's costs. So does using large quantities of the currently fashionable hop varieties. So does picking fancy extra flavouring ingredients - single estate coffee or Madagascan vanilla pods. Could a craft brewer use less expensive raw materials, maybe just for one beer, to produce something that's still great, still representative of modern beer, but is affordable to a much wider market?

The problem with this is that ingredient costs aren't the whole story - in fact, they're sometimes a relatively small part of the whole story. Breweries are also spending money on, among other things, rent, wages, capital, utilities and transport costs and small breweries are generally going to be less efficient and less able to save money on those costs than a larger operation, even if they're brewing an identical beer. They won't have spent the effort ruthlessly optimising their process, their equipment and their business to keep overheads as low as possible.

In short, when you pay "craft prices" for a pint in a pub, you could actually be paying for quite a lot of things:

  • You might be paying to support a bar that's designed for comfort rather than capacity.
  • You might be paying to support a pub that doesn't compromise its character by doubling up as a coffee shop or a family restaurant.
  • You might be paying for beer that's been kept in chilled storage and sold fresh rather than being kept at ambient temperature for months on end.
  • You might be paying to support one of a number of a small, independent business rather than a larger and more efficient industrial operation.
  • Or you might be paying for more hops and higher quality malt.

I don't really have a simple pronouncement to make on what's right and wrong here. In practice, I suspect that a lot of different approaches can co-exist, from Punk IPA in Wetherspoons to the priciest teku of nanobrewed barrel-aged stout in a modernist craft-temple. But I do think that when we ask for beer to be cheaper, we need to think about what we'd actually be willing to compromise on to get it there, because just using unfashionable hops won't do it on its own.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Pinnacles and Paternalism

So, the long-awaited report from the CAMRA Revitalisation Project has finally arrived and is already attracting some attention.

From a quick skim through - there's quite a lot in there - a lot of it seems to be sensible, pragmatic stuff. It did make me grind my teeth in places, though.

For instance, the proposals include the following:

  • CAMRA should promote the virtues of well-produced, well-kept, cask conditioned beer as the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft.
It also proposes that CAMRA should:
  • Permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.
Hooray! However, while doing so, they should also:
  • Ensure the layout of festivals and literature associated with them reinforces CAMRA’s belief in the superiority of cask-conditioned ale.
  • Inform and educate members, other consumers and the trade about good beers of all types, while highlighting the comparative excellence of real ale.

This talk of "pinnacles" and "superiority" is, essentially, bollocks, and exemplifies the problem that a lot of people have with CAMRA. An individual drinker might reasonably prefer a perfectly kept pint of Harveys Sussex Best to the freshest American IPA or the richest and most complex Belgian abbey beer, but for an organisation to imply that it's an objective fact that breweries from Cantillon to Augustiner to Hill Farmstead are falling short of "the pinnacle of their craft" because they don't cask condition comes across as fundamentally parochial and bigoted. This essentially tells brewers - who may have taken considerable care to choose the most suitable dispense for a particular beer - that they don't know what they're doing and that CAMRA know better than them.

Real Ale is absolutely worth campaigning for - it's a wonderful, unique, special thing that could easily be wiped out by the economic imperative to simplify and homogenise. I fully support the idea that it should retain a special place at the heart of CAMRA's strategy, and I could probably even accept a proposal that it should remain CAMRA's single central concern. But I'm not going to pretend that it's inherently and objectively better than anything else.

Honestly, I hope that this is a deliberate compromise aimed at sweet-talking the more hardcore dinosaurs into accepting some real progress. I hope that in practice, the sensible concrete step that non-real British beer can be served CAMRA festivals speaks louder than the condescendingly paternalistic way that it's officially talked about. I still see CAMRA as a force for good in general, I'm still a member, and I'll probably vote to support these proposals. But still...

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Predictions: cynical and naive

I guess it's a bit late for a New Year crystal-ball-gazing post, but I've come up with a nice format so I'm going to use it. To whit: two jaded, cynical predictions about how nice things that everyone's looking forward to probably won't happen, and two naively credulous ones about different nice things that I'm hoping will.

Cynicism

Craft lager won't be massive. At least not in the way that some people seem to hope. As much as people like to go on about the wonders of a crisp, balanced Bavarian Helles, for the majority of drinkers, the added value of microbrewed lager over decent-ish import or domestic stuff isn't enough for them to be willing to pay a super-premium craft price on a regular basis. What we might see more of is traditional regional brewers and multinationals knocking out large quantities of poor-to-middling quality pilsners and calling them "craft lagers", because you can write craft on anything these days. The margins here are a lot bigger.

Farmhouse style sours - spontaneously fermented, barrel aged and blended - will be a tough sell, too. It's price, again, and consistency. An aged and blended sour like a gueuze is fundamentally quite expensive to produce. The consequently high prices are pretty offputting to British punters even when the producer has decades of history and makes reliably fantastic beer; for newer brewers who are basically learning on the job and trying to build a rep, it's going to be a very hard sell indeed. I'd expect to see a lot of "farmhouse brewers" leaning heavily on traditional pale ales to cover the rent.

Optimism

On the optimistic side, I think we're going to see more Belgian-influenced session beers - things like Wylam's DH Table Beer, De La Senne's Taras Boulba, Lost and Grounded's Hop Hand Fallacy. We're talking light, fresh, fun beers with a balance of hops, yeast and malt character, and maybe some subtle spicing. This sort of beer is distinctive but drinkable and fun to brew, allowing the brewer to exercise both delicacy and creativity. They're also relatively economical to produce, and interesting enough for the geeks but not too extreme for the wider market, so provided someone can think of a way of labelling them as a variety of IPA, we could really be in business.

Secondly, I'm hoping that freshness will come to be more of a selling point in the land of Serious Craft. We're sort of seeing this already with the cult of just-off-the-canning-line NEIPA, but as the UK craft landscape gets increasingly competitive and everyone and his dog has twenty lines of trendy beers from exciting local craft brewers, would it be too much to hope that those that can will also start to sell on freshness? I don't think we're far from the point where a bar that guarantees that hoppy beers were all kegged in the last two months and have been kept in coldstore throughout distribution and cellaring is more of a draw than the one that has ten extra lines of stuff that might have been sat in a warm warehouse for six months. This would be a rather good thing for those of us that don't want to spend top dollar on a fancy IPA unless we're pretty sure that it'll taste of hops rather than wet grass.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Session #131 - Three Things In 2018

For an emergency session topic, Jay Brooks has asked us three questions for the coming year. Thus:

1) What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

Erm, I can't help much on this one. I'd struggle to think of a single defining characteristic of beer that I'd like to drink beyond the fact that I'd like to drink it, so I'm not sure that there's anything that a word or phrase could helpfully encapsulate. Sorry!

2) What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Underrated is always a tough one - do people have to actively dislike them? Or can they be a solidly respected brewery who just aren't currently at the absolute peak of hype?

In any case, I'm going to stop overthinking it and pick De Ranke and Buxton. Both at the "respected but not currently hyped" end of the spectrum, they're excellent breweries who are too easy to take for granted because "continuing to make great beers" isn't really news.

3) Name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of.

i) Classic US IPA. This seems like an odd one in the Age of IPA, but the real West Coast deal - strong (6% and up), clean, bitter and loaded with pine and citrus hop aroma - is a surprisingly rare beast in our neck of the woods, so more of those, please. Fresh, too, if you don't mind - let's see some kegged-on dates!

ii) Imperial Stout. Proper ones, not cloyingly sweet or barrel aged with a vanilla and cocoa nibs or laden with novelty flavorings, but serious and forbidding, with wave after wave of chocolate, coffee, dried fruits, liquorish and treacle flavors coming in like a Merzbow album for your tastebuds. Like US IPA, this is the kind of thing that I'd like to see become more entrenched in the UK beer scene, not an occasional thing, but a standard offer that you expect to find at least one really solid example of wherever beer geeks gather.

iii) Belgian session beer. Not a style as such, but every now and then I get a beer like Lost and Grounded's Hop Hand Fallacy or De La Senne's Taras Boulba - balanced, refreshing, drinkable beers with a bit of upfront yeast character - and wonder why this isn't more of a thing. Let's make it one!