Tuesday, 12 November 2019

In Defence of the New

The craft beer scene's thirst for novelty can be one of its more ridiculous aspects. I sometimes wonder whether anyone would actually notice if there were only really a couple of dozen different New England DIPAs, being repeatedly repackaged with different combinations of collaborating breweries listed on different snazzy cans with different cryptic names. But this sort of endless variation seems to be what sells, at least at the more rarefied end of the market. The beer list at a premier league craft beer bar - or somewhere with aspirations to be one - is typically packed with one-offs, special editions, new breweries and collaborations, with maybe just a tap or two at the start reserved for established local favourites.

This neophile tendency is obvious in the craft beer scene, but it has its counterpart in the world of more traditional British beers, too. Real ale enthusiasts still often seek out the "beer range varies" freehouse with its endlessly rotating lineup of real ales, inevitably from "local microbreweries". A local pub to us, the Cambridge Blue, keeps tally of its "beers so far", presumably in the decade or so since the current landlord took over. Despite the fact that this is currently into the tens of thousands, for my money the best beer there is often Dark Star's Hophead, one of the few regular fixtures.

This sort of thing is easy to take the piss out of - I mean hell, I just did, twice. It's also commonly pointed at as a microcosm of what's wrong with the world - the anally-retentive list-ticking impulse, the image-obsessed millenial's need to be seen drinking the latest sought-after beer to get "numbers" on "the gram", or the power of marketing or a good hype machine to make quality irrelevant. But I think this is missing the point.

The fact is that if we're interested enough in beer to talk about it, to write about it and to seek out the best places to drink it then we've been through at least one phase in our drinking when we've seriously expanded our horizons. For myself, I know that at some point I went from drinking whatever alcopop, macro lager or spirit-and-mixer was current with my mates to realising that I actually quite liked the pongy stuff on the handpumps. And from drinking anything from a handpump to knowing that there was a whole world of real ales out there and that I definitely liked some more than others. I've got into Belgian beer and modern craft from a position of no knowledge, and had some amazing beers along the way, and to be honest I'm still quite excited by how many great German and Czech beers, even styles, I've still got to taste for the first time.

The desire to always be trying new beers is rooted, on some level, in the belief that we might still be in one of those phases, or at least in a lingering habit that we picked up while we were. It's about a belief that there are great new beers out there, from great new breweries, in great new styles, and that they could be better than anything we've tried - so much so that it's worth taking a chance on a new beer even over a beer that we know we like. And at some point this has genuinely been true for almost all of us, so while we might not all share that belief right now, at least not enough to tempt us away from Sussex Best, Orval or Kernel Pale, it seems rather mean-spirited to be so quick to just laugh at it or dismiss it as just hype-chasing.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

The Citra Sketch

Scene: A craft beer bar. One table is occupied by a group of hipsters with flat peak caps on. A man and his wife enter.

Man: You sit here, dear.

Wife: All right.

Man (to Waitress): Evening!

Waitress: Evening!

Man: Well, what've you got?

Waitress: Well, there's IPA with mosaic and simcoe; IPA with mosaic and centennial; IPA with mosaic and citra; IPA with mosaic, simcoe and citra; IPA with mosaic, simcoe, centennial and citra; IPA with citra, simcoe, centennial and citra; IPA with citra, mosaic, citra, citra, simcoe and citra, IPA with citra, vic secret, citra, citra, mosaic, citra, centennial and citra;

Hipsters (starting to chant): Citra citra citra citra...

Waitress: ...citra, citra, citra, mosaic, and citra; IPA with citra, citra, citra, citra, citra, mosaic, citra, citra, citra...

Hipsters (singing): Citra! Lovely citra! Lovely citra!

Waitress: ...or American farmhouse ale with spelt and rye malt, aged for 18 months in red wine barrels, refermented with brett on heirloom varietal apricots and dry hopped with mosaic and citra.

Wife: Have you got anything without citra?

Waitress: Well, there's IPA with citra, mosaic, simcoe and citra, that's not got much citra in it.

Wife: I don't want ANY citra!

Man: Why can't she have IPA with mosica, simcoe, citra and vic secret?

Wife: THAT'S got citra in it!

Man: Hasn't got as much citra in it as IPA with citra, mosaic, simcoe and citra, has it?

With apologies to Monty Python.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Position Statement - CAMRA, Cask and Keg

News here that CAMRA are to have an official Keykeg bar at the Great British Beer Festival. It's worth pointing out that several of their regional festivals have been doing this for a couple of years now, but I guess that this is news in that the GBBF is symbolically the Last Great Citadel of Cask.

Anyway, on a basic level this is a sensible step in the right direction. Embracing a wider range of good beer at their flagship festival makes the organisation seem more pragmatic and modern, while they can still keep cask ale at the front and centre of the event.

It does have a weird catch though: keykeg beer is only to be served if it's keykeg conditioned and not force carbonated. This distinction of real vs not-real keg is something that most normal drinkers don't seem to give two hoots about - people who want a pint of cask bitter won't suddenly tolerate something cold and fizzy because the carbonation is natural, while people who want a keg DIPA or a sour are unlikely to care where the fizz in it came from. But according to CAMRA's definitions, being conditioned in the keykeg makes it Real Ale not Evil Keg, and this is what makes it acceptable for them to serve. To me this means that the news seems... less good than it could be.

With that in mind, and since nobody asked, here's the official Brewing In A Bedsitter position statement on Where I Think CAMRA Should Be At In Relation To Real Ale And Dispense.

  • CAMRA should have a specific objective to protect and promote cask conditioned ale. It's a weird, unique and distinctive tradition that will always be at risk in a world that prefers to simplify and streamline things, and it should always be part of CAMRA's business to look out for it.
  • CAMRA should stop worrying about the realness or otherwise of beers coming from other forms of dispense (keykeg, RIAB etc) - in most cases where their realness or otherwise is worth caring about they aren't particularly under threat.
  • CAMRA should be happy to celebrate and promote beers that aren't cask ale, regardless of whether they consider them to Real Ale or not; this will make them more effective at defending cask ale, because this makes them look like open-minded beer enthusiasts whose opinions on cask ale are worth taking seriously.
  • CAMRA should stop asserting as a matter of fact that Real Ale (or cask ale) is Objectively Better rather than just being Important and Good, because this makes them look like a bunch of religious fanatics whose opinions on cask ale can be safely ignored. It's fine if individual members have an overall preference for cask ale, but belief in (and assertion of) its absolute superiority shouldn't be a matter of policy.

In all honesty, I don't do that much for CAMRA beyond the odd bit of beer festival volunteering, so I don't expect them to pay that much attention to my opinions about what they should do. But for the record, there they are.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Local Craft Beer at Eat Cambridge

If there's one thing that Cambridge food-scene boosters are really good at, it's getting breathlessly excited about a Hot New Thing happening here, even though in a national context it's so old hat that your granny is kind of over it. Hence I rolled my eyes a bit when, a full decade after Punk IPA started appearing in supermarkets, the publicity for the Eat Cambridge food festival announced a panel discussion on "the hot trend of 2019": craft beer.

I swallowed my cynicism and went along, though, because the people talking seemed likely to have some interesting stuff to say. This turned out to be a good decision.

On the panel, we had a representative from Brewboard, who took over Black Bar's kit and premises in Harston in 2017, and rapidly brought out a solid range of well-executed US-style craft standards - the sort of stuff that might get lost in the noise in a town like Manchester or Leeds, but which Cambridge had been missing for a while.

We also had Tom and Sam, founders of Calverleys, who have been operating around Cambridge since 2014, brewing an eclectic range of stuff. I used to find their beers a bit hit and miss, but the last few that I've tried have impressed me a lot more - maybe they're tightening things up a bit, or maybe it's just me.

Milton Brewery, the veterans of the Cambridge scene, were represented by their founder Richard Naisby. He's also involved with SIBA and is a fairly canny industry-watcher. If you don't already know Milton, they're probably best described as being part of the proto-craft / Weird Real Ale generation; founded in 1999, fitting comfortably within real ale culture in many ways, but pushing the style envelope rather more than most of their traditionalist predecessors.

Wylde Sky were the newest brewery featured, and the beers I've had from them so far have mostly been very good. Their brewer, Paulo, was representing them. He's half Scottish, half Brazillian, and previously worked in a brewery in Brazil. He didn't mention which one - this seemed almost pointed, and I wondered whether it was secretly some InBev thing, but a bit of internet research suggests that it was probably just too obscure to be worth naming. There's an echo of a well known Sussex craft brewery in the name, and it's maybe there in the beer too - one of their launch beers was an extremely well done clean saison.

The whole thing was kept moving by food journalist Andrew Webb. I wasn't taking notes or anything, but there were a few things from the conversation that stuck in memory.

The host apologized for the lack of diversity on the panel (six blokes, including the himself). It's a bit of shame that the organisers didn't spot this and actually do something about it, to be honest.

The session tried to include more-or-less every topic relating to craft beer in an hour, from the rise of canning to beer and food. This was presumably to cover the bases for people who don't know much about beer or what's been going on in the last decade, but having a more focused topic might have made for more interesting chat. Particularly with five people on the panel, it felt like a lot of topics were skipped over very quickly.

One recurring theme was the importance of tap rooms. Three of the four brewers represented have tap rooms at their breweries and those three all saw them as being core to their operation. As well as being a revenue stream, it's an opportunity to see the response to a new beer immediately and set up a very tight feedback loop from punters to the brewer. It wasn't discussed at the time, but this idea resonates with a sense of localism that I find more natural than the current efforts to artificially force "terroir" on beer. It seems far more interesting to me that beer should be tightly coupled to the brewery's local drinking culture rather than it's local ingredients.

All the brewers agreed that the next big growth areas for beer were likely likely to be low-alcohol, vegan and gluten-free. I got the impression that this annoyed the host a bit, who'd asked the question hoping for the inside gen on the latest wild and wacky IPA substyle or something.

I can't remember how the topic came up, but Richard had an interesting story about working in steelworks in South Yorkshire in the nineties, where the workers used to finish the day by drinking massive volumes of weak, salted beer, provided on the foundry floor by their employers as a way to replace the water and salts that they sweat out doing hard physical work in a hot environment.

During the questions at the end, I asked (as non passive-aggressively as I could) how the assembled brewers thought Cambridge compared with other UK cities in beer terms. The host tried to turn this into an Oxford vs Cambridge thing, but fortunately the panel were having none of it. Paulo said we were making progress but we've got a long way to go, which I'd say is fair. Sam was optimistic based on the response that he sees in the taproom every weekend.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Underneath the Arches

One of the staples of online beer forums is international visitors asking for local recommendations, and I normally try to help where I can. Something that always seems jarring to me, though, is the question a lot of American beer geeks ask: "which breweries should I visit"?

As a British punter, it's never really occurred to me that on visiting a new town in the UK or on the continent, my first goal should be to go and visit some breweries. Maybe if there's somewhere famous with an interesting tour then it might be worth it? Maybe if there's a tap room that's got a reputation in itself? But as a default first port of call for a regular punter, I'd assume that I'd be spending most of my drinking time in regular pubs and bars. That's where I can get a cross-section of the local craft scene under one roof, it's where I can find the local trad breweries' stuff sold in the best possible condition, it's generally where I'll find local life and local culture. Fermenting vessels look the same almost everywhere - pubs don't.

So I don't know. Is this an American thing? Or a general beer geek thing that I'm missing out on? And why? Does it work out for them? Do they find what they're looking for? Are they greeted by chatty brewers, eager to crack out a bottle from their personal stash and shoot the breeze for an hour with a bunch of bros in a Three Floyds caps? Or do they find themselves parked on a bench in a cold railway arch being served flights of thirds by disinterested hipsters, wondering what the hell's going on with the beer culture in this crazy country?

Friday, 7 December 2018

One Last Beer

So, The Session is coming to an end, and for the final installment, we've been asked to think about "a beer for the end of a life, an end of a meal, an end of a day, an end of a relationship."

Now, there are some obvious truisms about the last beer of the night. It's got to be big. It's probably dark. It's likely to be expensive, too. However much we like to praise beers for their subtlety, elegance and drinkability, the last beer is the time to reach for imperial stouts and barleywines.

This makes sense purely in terms of tasting, of course: it's relatively unappealing to go from a very big beer to a lighter and subtler one. The temptation is always to make each beer one-louder than the last, so naturally you're going to want the biggest, baddest beer available to be the one you finish with. But there's also a another component to it. Time stands still while you're drinking a big, rich beer. Last orders has come and gone, you know that the time is coming where you're going to be turfed out into the dark and the rain, but until then you're living every moment in a boozy kaleidescope of rich flavours and high spirits.

What goes for the last drink of the night goes a thousandfold for your last drink on the planet. You've heard the bell, and you know that you haven't got much longer in this bright, cheery place, but you've got one more glassful to get what joy you can. But for this most final of final beers, there's another element in play, too. It feels somehow wrong to ask for your last beer to be something rare, exotic, seldom tasted - to me it feels like it should be something comfortingly familiar, a connection back to many happy nights before.

Big and rich, yet comfortingly familiar? For me, the beer that covers that, with a slight hint of something beyond the temporal is St Bernardus 12. See you on the other side!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Within You Without You

The small but intense world of traditional lambic is often good for microdrama, and the latest storm in a tasting glass is the news that Drie Fonteinen and Girardin are leaving HORAL, the association of traditional lambic producers. There's no official statement from either brewery that I'm aware of, but it's tempting to speculate that their reasons might be similar to the reason that Cantillon never joined in the first place - the belief that HORAL's position as the protectors of traditional lambic is undermined by its inclusion of breweries like Belle Vue and De Troch the bulk of whose output is exactly the sort of sweetened industrial lambic that many people would argue the traditional drink needs saving from.

Meanwhile in the UK, SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, has had some back and forth over the last few years over its membership criteria. A motion to apply a stricter upper limit on capacity was nearly passed last year, while this year a motion in the opposite direction to significantly increase the upper limit was rejected after vigorous campaigning from smaller breweries. There are some reasonable arguments on both sides - on the one hand, more involvement of larger independent brewers would have added clout to some of SIBA's operations, on the other hand, larger brewers with sizable estates of tied houses are very different businesses from the small breweries who make up most of SIBA's membership, and have interests that would often be at odds with them.

In the US, the Brewers Association has long been the butt of jokes for its habit of increasing the upper capacity limit for what it considers to be a craft brewery to match the capacity of Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer Company. This year, it's further proposing to remove one of the three basic components of its definition of a craft brewery - essentially, that the majority of a craft brewery's output must actually be beer - in a move which it admits is prompted by, if not solely for the benefit of, Boston Beer Company, which is getting an increasing amount of its income from sales of non-beer products.

At its AGM this April, CAMRA members voted to change their articles of association. While still keeping the promotion of real ale as an objective, they added an updated one, "to play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type." A motion to also including acting "as the voice [...] of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers" to also campaign on behalf of all drinkers of "quality beer" achieved a clear majority, but failed to reach the 75% majority necessary for a constitutional change.

It feels like there's a common thread to all of these stories. As long as no two people or businesses are the same, any mutual interest group is going to involve a union of disparate elements. And the question of where you draw the line - how broad a base is too broad, and when do you decide that it's actually better to have at least some people outside the tent pissing in - is almost always vexed. There's seldom an easy answer to this and I doubt that people, either within or without the strange little world of beer, are going to stop arguing over it any time soon.