Sunday, 18 April 2021

Pies, Pints and Capitalist Realism

I assume by this point that most people subscribe to Vittles? But for those who don't, this week's article was a rumination by Jonathan Nunn on his (and his cockney dad's) complex relationship with traditional Pie and Mash shops.

A central point of the piece is that a key problem for modern pie and mash shops is that the food is, fundamentally, just not that nice. Or at least, not that well adjusted to modern tastes, which expect mashed potato to be pepped up with butter and seasoning, and which sometimes enjoy sauces that aren't green and gelatinous. But it's the refusal to move with the times, the strict adherence to a formula that evolved for a very different era, that also makes the pie and mash shops so important to the people who love them.

There's an obvious parallel to pubs here. The basic British boozer - dingy, tatty, wet-led, mostly uninterested in drinks that aren't beer, almost completely uninterested in in drinks that aren't alcoholic - seems like more of the same thing: a business from the mid twentieth century soldiering on in the twenty first, simultaneously treasured and threatened because of its refusal to evolve. While I wouldn't describe them as "not that nice", I can't help suspecting that a lot of my favourite pubs would actually do better, financially, if someone spruced them up a bit and tilted the offer more towards family meals instead of sessions on pints.

I think this points to something more complicated in our affection for these places than the simple nostalgia that the Vittles piece talks about. It goes hand in hand with the lionising of the sort of dictatorial landlord who bars punters for looking at a chair the wrong way and of a general "like it or lump it" attitude to giving the customer what they want: "please do not ask for draught lager as a punch in the gob often offends". I think that part of what appeals to us about these places is the refusal bow to the customer-is-always-right adapt-or-die logic of modern capitalism. They seem to contradict the Capitalist Realist assertion that every business must necessarily be on the lookout for ways to adapt to maximise revenue, and demonstrate an escape from an all-pervading competitive ethos that even the biggest proponents of free-market economics must occasionally get tired of. In this sense, you could see a traditional boozer or a pie and mash shop as a sort of Temporary Autonomous Zone for middle-aged white men.

The question, though, will always be whether the logic of modern capitalism can still be kept at bay when the rent comes due or the bills need paying?

Friday, 1 January 2021

2020 - The Good Bits

Right, 2020.

It goes without saying that a lot of fairly terrible stuff has happened this year. I'm not going to dwell on that more than is necessary. Weirdly, from a personal point of view we've had one of the best things that ever happened to us too, with the birth of our tiny baby Robbie at the beginning of October. COVID turned our lives upside down, and then the new arrival turned it - more upside down?

Anyway, I've never been the biggest fan of the strictly categorized Golden Pints format, so I'm just going to run through the best beer stuff that I can think of from the year, and then the best other stuff.

Probably my top brewery of the year was Duration, whose stuff we've been getting via their webshop and from Thirsty. They're basically just very good at brewing, with excellent takes on both the obligatory hoppy pales and a good range of more diverse styles - Belgian Wit, American Stout, Pilsner and so on. We're really hoping that once everything's a bit more sensible we'll be able to get up to their brewery in North Norfolk, which sounds like it's going to be an amazing destination.

My favourite new discoveries were Three Hills and Pastore. The beers that I've had from Three Hills have mostly been big, juicy NEIPAs, a style that I'm not always blown away by, but Three Hills seem to absolutely nail it, combining the massive fruity hop thing with a drinkability that a lot of other examples seem to miss. I also had a fantastic barrel aged Imperial Stout from them as my big silly drink to see in the New Year. Waterbeach-based Pastore, on the other hand, are mixed fermentation and sour specialists, something that I was always going to go for. Their Wild Saison was particularly enjoyable.

For obvious reasons, it's been harder than ever to talk about "pubs of the year". We have had a load of great stuff in deliveries from Thirsty in Cambridge. When it's felt safe enough, we've been for outdoor food and drinks at the Castle, the Maypole and the Blue Moon, although our trips out have been fairly limited - we've applying some extra level of paranoia on accounts of the whole pregnancy / baby thing.

In terms of beer writing - or at least, writing by people who write about beer - a couple of things have really stuck in the memory: Lily Waite on going for a nice walk and a pint, and Katie Mather on the Proustian associations of burger vans.

My homebrew theme of the year has been rebrews and tweaks of recipes that I've brewed before. I'm not sure whether it's a function of lockdown (the lack of homebrew club meetings or the increased tendency to just be around the house and fancy a pint of something drinkable) or whether I've just hit the point in my brewing progress where I've got a slightly shorter list of crazy new ideas to try out and a longer list of past brews to mine. I've also been brewing a lot of session-strength beers - this is probably also related to the parenthood thing? Hop of the year has been HBC-472. It's kind-of Sabro-esque in a pale, but it really shines in a dark beer, bringing a sort of coconut-and-bourbon flavour that's strangely reminiscent of barrel-aged character. I'd be surprised not to see a lot more of this over the next few years.

Other new stuff that's kept me going this year:

Friday, 25 September 2020

Subcultural Capitalists

I'm kind of assuming that everyone's already read Lily Waite's thing for Good Beer Hunting about the postmodernist reading of craft beer and NEIPA as a simulacrum by now. If you haven't then stop what you're doing and go and do it now.

I'm not going to say anything specific about that bit except that it's really good, but if it's Critical Beer Theory week now then I might as well get around to writing something about another bit of theory that I've read that I keep coming back to when I'm thinking about beer.

Club Cultures is a 1995 book by Sarah Thornton that picks apart the inner workings of dance music subcultures. It was original in the sociology of the time for studying night clubs and dance music culture neither as simply a mechanism of pacification by the capitalist entertainment industry, nor as a form of collective resistance to a dominant culture, but just as the location of a microsociety of their own, with their own systems of status and distinction and mythology to be studied. As a book, it's a fascinating read for a non-specialist like me - I came to it as someone who was into dance music rather than someone who was into sociology. Thornton develops interesting theoretical constructs to describe what she sees, while grounding them in enough of concrete examples of the sort of behaviour that she's talking about that make the book approachable.

One of the key ideas that the book deploys is subcultural capital. This is inspired by the idea of cultural capital, which the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced in the 70s to describe the accumulation of knowledge, cultural artifacts, behaviour and social contacts that can help "the right sort of chaps" to smooth their way through life, particularly in the public and professional spheres, even without needing to be particularly rich in cash. Thornton's subcultural relocation of the idea refers to tangible and intangible stuff that makes a clubber "hip" - the clothes, the dance moves, the hairstyle, the collection of white-label vinyl, and the stock of stories about legendary clubs and raves they've been to and scene insiders that they've hung out with. Unlike Bordieu's original idea of cultural capital, your subcultural capital is unlikely to be something you can build a career on - although for DJs, designers, promoters and journalists it's stock in trade - but it is what gets you past exclusive door policies, sees you invited to the best afterparties and even if you don't think about concrete advantages, it's what gives you a sense of worth in the value system of the scene.

A feature of subcultural capital is something that as carefully as you accumulate it, it can appreciate or depreciate just like regular capital - your collection of vintage soul records won't get you as much cred if your mates have all suddenly got into acid house, but you might hit the jackpot if the great little night you've been going to turns out to be the epicentre of the new scene that everyone's talking about.

We can sort of see where this is going, right? Because club scenes aren't the only subcultures that this stuff applies to.

Beer culture, in its full breadth, would be hard to describe as a youth culture. It maybe doesn't have the same intensity as dance music culture, either - it's hard to compare a Meet the Brewer night or a CAMRA branch meeting with an all-night rave, and even people who are "into beer" generally find it less of an all-consuming lifestyle than a really dedicated live-for-the-weekend clubber. But it does also fit the basic template of what Thornton calls a "taste culture", and it's hard not to see the logic of subcultural capital playing out.

"It's great that they've managed to get Batham's Bitter for this year's festival!" "Oh, the bitter's good but the mild is really where it's at..."

"We were really lucky - Armand himself was around when we were visiting and he gave us a quick tour of the barrel store..."

"Well, I was in Boston for work, so obviously I had to get out to Trillium..."

Obviously it'd be daft to claim that all of this stuff is just status games - I mean, sought-after beers and legendary pubs are often worth seeking out regardless of any bragging rights - but what I do end up wondering about is how we guard the capital that we've already accumulated.

A standard beery moan on social media is that not only do I not like this beer, not only is this beer bad, but that those people who like this bad beer are wrong to be enjoying it, and their enjoyment of it demonstrates their lack of moral fibre, and shouldn't they be drinking proper beers like the ones that I like? And this sense that not only do we not like certain beers but we feel actively upset by their popularity starts to feel a lot less like honest personal enjoyment and a lot more like wrangling over subcultural capital - who's going to care about my encyclopedic knowledge of British family brewers if all the young people are drinking kegged American IPAs? Who's going to be interested in my trip to the West Coast to drink Pliny at source if they're all chasing the latest hopgravy? Is anyone going to care that I've brought Westvleteren to the bottle share if they're all more interested in whatever dessert-flavoured lactose nonsense Omnipollo have cooked up now? We don't just not enjoy this stuff - we're actively threatened by it.

Is this the whole story? I'm not sure. But you don't have to spend long watching beer culture to realise that there's maybe a bit more going on than just how much people enjoy pouring different liquids down their throats...

Friday, 1 May 2020

The Session, Quarantine Edition: Where Are You At

Whelp, The Session is running again, and Al at Fuggled has asked a simple question that's perhaps more meaningful now than it would be at a lot of other times - where are we all at right now?

Well, we're broadly fine. To steal a line from Brian Aldiss (throwing some very British shade at the works of John Wyndham), we're having a very cosy catastrophe - working from home in a comfortable house, pottering in the garden, getting food orders in from local farm shops and delis, and largely insulated from the direct effects of the pandemic.

Beer-wise, I'm still drinking nice stuff. I've bought cases in from Duration and Burning Sky and I'm eyeing up Partizan's online shop. I've also had nice things delivered from Thirsty, our local bar and bottle shop, and I've done a couple of batches of homebrew. We've also got a nice stash of assorted lambics and other odds and ends to raid.

But there's a slight regret even associated with having nice beer to drink, and that's the awareness that - particularly with Alison being temporarily off the sauce for (otherwise harmless) medical reasons - there's no-one else drinking it with me.

This isn't just about the social aspect of beer culture, although we are missing the pub and we are missing seeing friends. It's about the realization that even the pleasure of good beer itself is partly in sharing it with other people. It's missing getting a round of pints in and all stopping a second to mutually appreciate the beer before the conversation kicks up again. It's missing somebody trying your homebrew at a barbecue and saying "wait, you brewed this yourself?" It's missing the moment when someone coming back from the bar at a beer festival saying "you lot have got to try this - no, just smell it, even!" It's about rummaging in the cupboard to find just that special bottle to share with someone.

So yeah, I'm fine, things are as comfortable as they could be under the circumstances, but I'm still looking forward to being out and have friends to share beers with again.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Value Theory

So it looks like the "expensive beer" discourse is back.

First, a declaration of interest. I quite like fancy, expensive beers, and I know that many of the things that I like in fancy beers - mixed fermentation, barrel aging, high gravity, expensive hops - add to the cost of the beer. A lot of these sorts of beers are also fairly niche, meaning that the brewers have limited opportunities to save money through economies of scale. Good supply chain - keeping beer in coldstores rather than warm warehouses - isn't cheap either. Once we've gone through all this, and added the percentag emarkups that different links in the supply chain need to add to stay in business, some things that I like can end up fairly pricey. And I'm okay with that - only being able to buy them when I'm feeling flush seems better than not being able to buy them at all.

Second, another declaration of interest. I also like cheap, good beer. I like the fact that beer is an everyday drink, something that large swathes of the population can share and bond over as a routine matter. I like the fact that there are breweries and pubs out there who are still delivering a high quality product but keeping a firm eye on the price point, so I can go out with a mixed group of friends or family and drink some truly fantastic beers in a nice pub without anyone having to sell any organs to afford it.

A lot of the current discussion is about choosing one of these to the exclusion of the other, but like a lot of people, I don't see any reason that we can't have both. People often point at wine as an example where this already happens - I'm not a wine buff, but as far as I can tell, sought-after vintages that are accessible only to oligarchs seem to co-exist fairly happily with well respected, well made wines with more everyday price tags. Food is another example - the fact that there may be really good high-end restaurants in a given town doesn't challenge the existence of great cheap eats, and rather than existing in separate bubbles, these places are often points on a continuum that's of interest to a lot of the same people.

But the flip side to this is that the whole discourse around food and around wine is full of attention to value for money. It's not that people won't countenance expensive food or wine, but they're also willing to talk about a fantastic red for a tenner that they've discovered, or to how to get the most for your money when you do decide to splash out on a special bottle. Two staples of the food columns are tributes to great little places that do amazing food for next to no money and vicious hatchet jobs on top-end places that don't live up to their top-end prices.

So maybe this is what beer really needs in its conversation, if we're going to do both things. Sure, we'll often be happy to justify the high price of a mixed ferm saison or a barrel aged stout, or to explain why a beer costs more in a bar in Central London than it does from the brewery door in rural Flanders. But we should also be willing to call out, albeit maybe a bit more diplomatically than Jay Rayner's example, when the quality of the product doesn't seem to be worth the price we're being asked to pay - when the expensively hand-fettled ingredients aren't really reflected in a better beer, or when the hazy pale imported at great cost from Copenhagen is really no better than the one brewed down the road that we could have at half the price. And if we're going to laud the skill and attention to detail that gives rise to a barrel aged mixed-fermentation saison that deserves the same respect as a fine wine, we should also talk about the skill and attention to detail that another brewer uses to streamline costs without sacrificing quality and produce a world class pale ale at a far more accessible price.

In short, if we aren't going to draw battle lines over price, we really need to be willing to talk critically about value.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Mild for the Modern Homebrewer

While it's no secret that mild as a mass-market beer is in a bad way, one place where it actually seems to be doing alright is our local homebrew club. At a group that meets in the back room of a craft beer bar, and where the styles presented range from Brut IPA to Hefeweisen, from experimental sours to Imperial Stouts, Dark Milds still crop up surprisingly regularly.

To me, though, the idea of Dark Mild as a "brewer's beer" makes a lot of sense. Well-made mild is nice to drink, of course - rich and satisfying without being too heavy or too strong - but they're also interesting to brew. The current range of fashionable beer styles offers relatively few opportunities to explore characterful sugars and crystal malts, but Dark Mild puts them front and centre, and invites you to explore and combine them to your heart's content.

But what exactly are we talking about? With that in mind, I'd like to present the following - a Modern Mild Manifesto.

Modern Mild is first and foremost about dark sugar and caramel flavours. Characterful base malt and British yeast probably feature, too. A chocolate note from roast malt is also common in contemporary milds, and while purists will argue that it's not traditional, to me it seems like a worthy development. However, roasty flavours should stay in a supporting role, and on no accounts should a mild be turned into a baby stout - in fact, a session Dubbel might be a better way to think about it.

Modern Mild is easy to drink both in terms of strength and character. Ideally, it should be interesting but unobtrusive, characterful but restrained - the sort of beer that doesn't demand your attention but does reward it. (Ambient beer, perhaps?) Modern homebrewers might push the strength a shade higher than most late 20th Century commercial examples, but it should still feel very sessionable.

Modern Mild isn't restricted to historic ingredients. Yes, mild is traditionally brewed with British malts, adjuncts, caramel and invert sugar, but alongside that, the modern homebrewer has a free rein to experiment with continental malts and a whole world of culinary and brewing sugars. Historic Mild, brewed with strictly traditional ingredients to strictly traditional recipes is also a Good Thing, but it's a different thing.

That said, Modern Mild is basically about malt, hops, sugar, yeast and water. If you want to build a mild recipe around fruit, spices, sweets or breakfast cereal then I'm not going to stop you or even discourage you (much), but you should be aware that by doing this you're turning the style into something else rather than enriching what it is.

Maybe this is the start of a dynamic new movement of Modern Milds? I doubt that we're going to sweep hazy IPA off the taps of the nation's craft beer bars, but we could at least bring a bit of extra interest to its homebrew clubs.

For the record, the recipe for the mild that I'm currently drinking is roughly as follows:

65% Golden Promise, 18% soft dark brown sugar, 11% Medium Crystal, 5% dark chocolate to 1.042 OG. Mashed at about 67 degrees, with the sugar added in the boil, First Gold hops to 18.3 IBU at the start of the boil and no late hops, fermented with Windsor yeast. 4.3% ABV.

This came out stronger than I intended (bafflingly so, actually - my software predicted 1.036) and is probably at the upper end of what's acceptable for dark malt character but it's a very drinkable beer and a good start. For the next iteration I'll probably roll off the chocolate malt a bit and bring in some more interesting crystal malt - maybe Special B, maybe Crystal Rye.

Hopefully this post will inspire a few homebrewers - I'd love to hear from anyone who tries brewing my recipe, something like it, or who's come up with their own take on the style.

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.