Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Importance of Crap Beer

There's an nice piece here inspired by people complaining about crap beer at office parties.

Leaving aside the utterly wankerish entitlement of anyone who'd be genuinely put out by the standard of beer that's provided at a wedding reception, one thing that I think is interesting is that the expectation of cheap, lowest-common-denominator beer at work events seems to be almost universal. You could put this down to penny-pinching, or the fact that corporate events firms may not always be particularly down with the kids, but I'm not convinced that's the whole story. I've been to some reasonably lavish work does (though I'm talking "reasonably successful and self-confident tech firms" here, not hedge funds or anything) and the beer still wasn't interesting - just more aspirational brands of basic lager. So maybe there's more to it than price?

I'm reminded a bit of an Andy Warhol quote:

"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking."

Your beer choice is, among many other things, a badge of social identity and hence a line of social division. A work social event, on the other hand, is meant to be all about reinforcing a sense of shared identity and shared direction - "one team one dream" and all that sort of crap. It's not about the hipster web developers drinking Gamma Ray while the middle-aged database administrators chug Black Sheep and the warehouse team neck Carling. Everyone, from the CEO to the Office Junior is on the same team, they'll all eat the same food, they'll all dance to the same old tunes, and they'll all drink the same bottles of Becks.

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Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Festival of Old Favourites

For this month's beer blogging Session, Brian Yaeger has challenged us to describe our fantasy beer festivals.

I guess the straightforward answer for me would be something like "Carnivale Brettanomyces but within walking distance of my house." But if I'm going to suggest something that's fundamentally unrealistic then I might as well go wild, so let's try something more imaginative... what if we gave great established British breweries the "craft festival" treatment? Could we have a festival where London Pride is treated with the sort of fanatical attention that beer geeks usually lavish on barrel-aged sours?

Welcome to FOOF, the Festival of Old Favourites.

The venue is an attractive old building - one of those grand public edifices that the ascendant Victorian middle class built as monuments to their own wealth, taste and civic-spirit. Although FOOF is fairly big, there are plenty of tables and seating - people have plenty of space to settle comfortably and give their beer the attention it deserves. Punters have two choices of festival glassware - straight-sided lined pint glasses for people who like to keep it simple, or stemmed tulip two-third glasses for anyone who prefers to drink with a bit more ceremony.

The beers are, basically, things that you've heard of. There are flagship and core-range beers from respected British family and regional brewers. There are also beers from newer breweries - generally the more successful of the post-CAMRA startups - but they're all familiar names from successful and established breweries - Dark Star's Hophead, for instance, and Crouch Vale's Brewer's Gold - and serious tickers will find slim pickings. Most of the beers are in styles that would sit comfortably on the bar of any real-ale oriented pub - bitters, porters, milds, golden ales - but anyone after something a bit more "out there" can head to the Strong Ales bar, to find a range of oddities and survivors from the dustier corners of the traditional brewers ranges - JW Lees Harvest Ale, Adnam's Tally Ho, Harveys' Prince of Denmark. Some of these have been aged in the cask for a year or two, or are available in aged and unaged versions.

Importantly, beer is all in absolutely immaculate condition. It's becoming a cliche to say that a lot of these beers can be revelatory if they're in perfect nick and uninspiring in anything less, but FOOF serves revelatory pint after revelatory pint. The casks are kept in a temperature controlled store, and the beer served through handpumps, with sparklers being used or not at the brewery's preference. A few beers that you'd expect to be available are actually missing - they just didn't quite hit perfect condition in time. All this attention paid to storage and condition, combined with the expensive and not overcrowded venue mean that FOOF was never going to compete with Wetherspoons prices, but there's nothing outrageous.

With my rational head on, I can see why something like this is never going to happen. But on the other hand, I guess there's a little bit of FOOF going on in pubs all over the country - anywhere that has a perfect pint of Harveys' Sussex Best or draft Bass. And in between supporting "local micros" and "cutting edge craft", some of us could probably do more to appreciate and celebrate that.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Psychogeography of Fenland Mild

Our weekly session at the climbing wall in Cambridge is almost always followed by a visit to the Free Press.

The Free Press is a classic homely backstreet local, a Greene King house that makes you forget that you don't like Greene King. The beer is always well kept, and there's a leisurely rotation of occasionally-interesting guest ales that tend to the pale and moderately hoppy. As the weather gets colder, though, I'm increasingly turning back to one of their regular beers, Greene King's XX Mild, as a standard order.

The strange persistence of mild in the Fens and East Anglia has been commented on before, and although it's a style of beer more commonly associated with the industrial towns of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Black Country, this will make sense to anyone who's spent a few winters in the area. If you've cycled across the Fens on a bright, frost-bitten morning or walked on the beach at Dunwich in a cold Easterly wind, you'll know that this landscape in winter can be bleak or beautiful but without romance or drama. The sky is clear blue from horizontal horizon to horizontal horizon, the rich, black mud sticks to your boots, and the cold gets in your bones and makes your jaw ache. This landscape and this climate demand a beer that's soft, sweet and warming - a spritzy floral pale would feel entirely out of place. Incidentally, Ely was said to have one of the highest rates of laudanum use in Victorian Britain - this seems like a plausible consequence of the same conditions.

Terroir is a recurring hot topic in craft beer circles, and to me, the sort of terroir that's interesting isn't about locally foraged herbs, homegrown hops or wild yeast, it's about this sort of psychogeographical groundedness. My advice to a brewer wanting to make beer with a "sense of place" is that they should stop worrying about where their ingredients come from and look at where their end product goes to. They should sell locally, and drink locally themselves. They should see what people respond to - what makes sense for their local drinkers, in their surroundings, with their climate - and adapt and evolve to the place where they're based.

Wild yeast, foraged herbs and locally grown barley are all interesting things to experiment with in their own right and great beers can be made using them, but fundamentally they only reflect their origins on the level of microbiology and biochemistry. The pint of mild in the Free Press reflects its origins on the level of landscape, climate and culture, and to me, that's really where the interest lies.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Third Wave

Interesting comment here from Martin on his village local replacing Punk IPA with "a weaker Black Sheep craft keg wannabe." I tried a (presumably) similar thing earlier this week from Greene King - their East Coast IPA, a pleasant enough blonde ale with a some lightly fruity hop flavour sat over a clean malty base. I didn't try Long Man Brewery's Crafty Blonde, which we saw on keg in a hotel bar in Eastbourne a few days earlier, but suspect that I can guess what it'd be like. (The best bitter was drinking well, but that's another story...)

But it's interesting, because these beers seem like a good examples of a new new wave of keg beers that are appearing on the bars of vaguely upmarket real ale pubs. Mostly from traditional family and regional brewers, they range from meek golden ales to full-fledged American pales, although they seldom go far past the magic 5% barrier beyond which lies loopy juice, and while they're often accomplished bits of work, there aren't many of them that'd pass for Beavertown or Magic Rock. There are precedents here in Adnams' Spindrift and the like, but it seems to be over the last couple of years that they've really taken off.

This is class of beer that gets very little attention. The traditionalists would rather talk about proper real ale, the modernists would rather talk about proper craft and the postmodernists want everyone to know they'd rather have a pint of Carlsberg than any of that fancy stuff. Not quite craft, not quite trad, this sort of thing is middlebrow, and doesn't get anyone much excited.

So the interesting question here is who, if anyone, is actually drinking them, and what purpose they serve for the pubs that stock them? For craft geeks - a niche market anyway - they're not really more attractive than cask ale or premium lager, and certainly not enough to tempt you into a pub that you might otherwise avoid. On the other hand, they're hardly a great sell for habitual lager drinkers either, at least not when actual lager is easily available.

Maybe the target market is actually regular cask drinkers, then: people who are under no illusions that this is Proper Craft, the gateway to the exciting world of barrel-aged stouts and lumberjack shirts that they've heard so much about, but who have at least been persuaded by the craft movement that keg beer doesn't actually have to be industrial lager or creamflow John Smiths, and who just at the moment, on a summer evening, actually quite fancy something a bit cold and refreshing. Or maybe - whisper it - who've been bitten by one too many pints of substandard warm-weather cask?

So maybe the old fogeys were right all along, and we really are seeing the return of Watneys Red Barrel - a safe, reliable and reasonably drinkable product that knocks cask off the bars, but it's coming from the real ale stalwarts rather than the new-wave iconoclasts. Or maybe the market just isn't there, and this sort of stuff will never get beyond the odd tap in a few bars.

I guess time will tell.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

To Brew List Slight Return

I just noticed that it's about six months since I posted my To Brew list. As much for my own interest as anyone else's, I thought I'd run through what I've done since then, and what the current list of ideas looks like.

Well, since January I've brewed:

  • The American Amber that was in the fermenter last time. It took a while for the flavour of the crystal malt to smooth out, by which point the hops had lost their edge a bit. Fairly respectable, but I probably wouldn't brew it the same way again.
  • A second bash at Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby. Alright but a bit boring - I was hoping for something really rich and fruity, which didn't happen. The search for a really good strong mild recipe continues.
  • A vienna-rye IPA with citra and simcoe. Really good - big fruit from the hops, but with a nice, rich, spicy base. I'm going to re-use the basic idea here, possibly with different hops.
  • A golden ale - basically Extra Pale Maris Otter and lots of Challenger hops. Nice enough, although the plan to get more of an idea of what Challenger really tastes like by going heavy on the late hops didn't really work. Apparently it tastes like beer.
  • A kettle sour that ended up getting drain-poured. Ironically, I think it was using US-05 for the main fermentation during a heatwave that actually killed it.
  • A rye saison with saaz. I've only just bottled this, but the sample tasted good.

Of the plans that haven't happened, the mirto milk stout still seems like a good idea - the spicy blueberry flavour of the myrtle berries should be a good fit for a sweet and roasty beer - but it's not really a priority to get it brewed so it keeps not happening. The idea for the Euro-Hopped blonde sort of evolved into the golden ale, and the red rye IPA into the vienna rye thing. I still like the idea of brewing something historic - more of that later!

So what else is on the list now?

First up, on accounts of not having a brewfridge I'm basically stuck with saisons if the weather's hot. Maybe a version of the rye / saaz thing but with fruity New Zealand hops? Maybe something autumnal with golden naked oats and Bramling Cross? Maybe something nice and simple to bottle with brett?

Next, I'm definitely planning on brewing a Victorian mild recipe - possibly the Lovibond XX from Ron Pattinson's book. The local homebrew club are doing a theme of "mild, porter and stout" in November, so it'd be fun to mess with the brief by bringing something strong and pale.

I'd also like to brew a lightly hopped Belgian pale ale and bottle it with Brett. Bottling with Brett (rather than pitching it into secondary) saves a lot of worries about infecting your regular fermenter, but comes with the risk of exploding bottles if there's too much stuff left in the beer for the brett to eat. The idea here would be to use swingtops, open one every few weeks to check that they aren't going gushy, and vent them if they are. Future iterations of the recipe could tweak the priming sugar and/or the recipe to get the carbonation level right.

Finally, I'd really like to try brewing a really big stout - possibly the 1914 Courage Imperial from Ron P's blog. I'd have to do two mashes and two boils to get a full fermenter of the stuff, but it'd be worth it to have a nice big beer to drink over winter.

I guess I'll check in on how that goes in another six months!

Friday, 7 July 2017

Beyond SMaSH

The topic for this months Session, hosted by Mark Lindner at By The Barrel is SMaSH beers - Single Malt and Single Hop.

The first thing that I'd say here is that as far as I'm concerned, SMaSH is very much a learning tool for brewing rather than a trend that particularly interests me as a drinker - and in fact, while single hopped beers are fairly common, I can't ever remember having seen a commercial beer that made a virtue of its single-maltedness.

As a bit of homebrew pedagogy, thought, it seems to have a lot of traction; searching homebrew forums will turn up dozens of threads on suitable combinations and recipes for SMaSH brews. The reasons for this popularity are fairly clear - it's a simple formula to remember, it has a catchy name, it's got obvious learning value, and it steers the brewer clear of a number of recipe-building pitfalls while encouraging them to focus on the fundamentals of producing a good, clean, balanced beer.

What's interesting, though, is that this is generally the only expressly "educational" style of recipe that people use, and it's obviously limited in its scope. We conduct methodical explorations of Maris Otter and Pilsner malt, or Goldings and Cascade, but when it comes to roast and amber malts, sugars and yeast, we still tend to bash on haphazardly on a basis of "well, I brewed a thing with it once that came out well..."

If I ever published a book on homebrewing - something that might take a while, as it'd require me to become at least vaguely competent first - it'd be a book of recipes. Or rather, a book of families of recipes. Each one would have a basic version, which would be reliable, simple and bordering on bland, but then a series of variations, each of which would put a different ingredient under the spotlight. So a malty bitter might be used to learn about different varieties and grades of amber and crystal malts, a pale Belgian ale could be a good starting point for trying out different brewing sugars, and a clean American IPA grist would provide an obvious base to experiment with New World hops.

It's obviously possible to work towards this sort of approach as a novice homebrewer, but it's slowed down by the fact that even reliable basic recipes take a while to work out at this stage, and picking suitable quantities for your more exotic additions is bit of a shot in the dark.

So if anyone is thinking of writing a homebrew book, this is one that I'd buy! And if anyone isn't thinking of writing a book, but has recipes that they use in this way, then I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses: The Wacky Craft Brewery

You can imagine the similar conversations happening in the board rooms of regional breweries up and down the country.

"We ought to start up a craft brand." says blazered chap number one. "Tap into the youth market."

"I think you might be onto something." says blazered chap number two. "I'll get one of the junior brewers to start cooking up something with blueberries and bacon or what have you - I hear these young crafty types love that sort of thing."

"Good feller. I'll get the marketing lads on to sketching up a few cartoon skulls."

...because if there are two things that even blazered chaps know about British craft breweries, it's that they love their wacky cartoon skulls, and that they can't brew a straightforward stout without barrel aging it on a couple of hundredweight of jammy dodgers or something.

Except, of course, that they don't and they can.

Cartoon skulls are mostly a generalization from Beavertown, I think, although they also feature heavily in Weird Beard's branding. Tiny Rebel have a beaten up cartoon teddy for a mascot, and Magic Rock have their cast of circus characters. Partizan tend to the cartoonish, maybe, although even they feel like a stretch. But try to go further than that and you quickly realize that they're the exception rather than the rule. Look at the Kernel, Brew By Numbers, Fourpure, Marble, Thornbridge, Buxton, Cloudwater, Northern Monk, Lost and Grounded, Siren, Moor, Wild Beer, Five Points, Vocation, Brewdog... they've all got strong graphic identities, but cartoon skulls and other similarly "wacky" imagery is thin on the ground.

It's rather easier to see where the "maple bacon IPA" thing comes from. It's undeniable that new-wave British craft breweries don't trouble themselves too much with prescriptivist ideas about what "doesn't belong" in beer, and it's often the weirder stuff that grabs attention at beer festivals and gets Twitter and Instagram buzzing. But again, once you actually start looking, you find that virtually every British craft brewery builds its range around pale ales, amber ales, stouts, porters and lagers.

Like most myths, then, these two are less about what's actually true and more about giving us a simple, satisfying view of the world. They tell us that craft brewers are the polar opposite of their more traditional cousins; they're wacky and irreverent, they love novelty and experimentation but they perhaps lack a bit of respect for tradition and have a weakness for novelty and brashness over nuance and subtlety. But fortunately - as with most myths - the reality turns out to be a bit more complicated and interesting than that.

(This post builds on an idea from Boak and Bailey. Technically I guess it's a bit of a stretch for the concept - I doubt that anyone really considers cartoon skulls to be a nemesis as such - but it's an interestingly persistent myth nonetheless. Also, this post isn't meant to be a riposte to Barm's ECBF writeup or anything - that link was a serendipitous late addition to something that was basically already finished.)