Thursday, 20 September 2018

Restaurants, beer and comfort zones

Matt Curtis has raised the subject of beer in restaurants again. It's always a popular topic; most beer people would love to have a choice of interesting beers to drink before, during or after a meal, but the fancier restaurants get, the more obstinately they seem to stick to extremely un-fancy beer.

One bit of writing where a smart restaurant does sell beer is in Dorothy L Sayers' 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise. A middle-class advertising clerk doing some rather incompetent detective work has clumsily tailed his quarry to Simpson's in the Strand, a restaurant well above his pay-grade. There he sits, tense and irritable, struggling with the business of ordering his lunch and an accompanying drink.

“What will you drink, sir?”
“Lager,” said Willis, at random.
“Pilsener, sir, or Barclay's London Lager?”
“Oh, Pilsener.”
“Light or dark, sir?”
“Light—dark—no, I mean light.”
“Large light Pilsener, sir?”
“Yes, yes.”
“Tankard, sir?”
“Yes, no—damn it! Bring it in anything that's got a hole in the top.” There seemed no end to the questions that could be asked about beer

I think that maybe this hints at one reason - beyond tight margins, beyond lack of knowledge, beyond, in a narrow sense, snobbery - that restaurants might chose not to serve better beer and coffee.

When we go out, we tend to want to go to places where we feel at home, places that give us constant little reassurances that we belong there and should feel at ease. Offering people stuff that they don't understand - even if they don't have to order it, even if your friendly staff are eager to help them to navigate their way through it - undermines that. It says, this is a place for people who understand about this stuff - people who know and care about the difference between wit and weizen, or between a long black and a batch brew. Look at the way that people say "I just want a black coffee" or "I just want a pint of beer" - it isn't just a request for a drink, it's a prickly, defensive statement of identity from someone who feels challenged and excluded by a list of options that they don't understand.

People with the money and inclination to eat in a fancy restaurant are paying, at least in part, to feel like they're epitome of good taste. But in practice, while they can probably be expected to know enough about food to navigate the menu, and at least enough about wine to know that asking the sommelier for a recommendation isn't an admission of defeat, they are currently relatively unlikely to know or care much about craft beer of third-wave coffee. And when a traditional fine-dining restaurant restricts its beer list to a macro lager and a well-known bottled bitter or offers catering-grade dark roast coffee rather than single-estate Arabica, it isn't just cutting costs, it's reassuring the majority of their customers that there's nothing wrong with their lack of interest in either.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Session 136 - Roundup!

For this months instalment of the Session, I asked the world's beer bloggers to think a bit about Farmhouse Beer - what does it mean, and why do people care? Now the time is up, I've got some great responses, and a fascinating range of perspectives.

To Gary Gillman, "farmhouse beer" really just means saison or saison-inflected beers, and it's actually not something he's particularly into.

Other contributions talked about farmhouse breweries in a more literal sense. Al at Fuggled talked about a change in the law that's sparked a new wave of farm-based brewing in Virginia. Stan Hieronymous at Appellation Beer posted an excerpt from his book, Brewing Local - an in depth profile of Piney River brewing in the Ozark mountains of Missouri. Meanwhile Jon Abernathy discussed the historic farmhouse brewing traditions of Oregon, and pondered how a modern homebrewer might draw inspiration from older them.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boak and Bailey considered English farmhouse brewing traditions, and how, if at all, they could relate to modern commercial brewing. Ed Wray snuck in a post that I suspect he was going to write anyway, but it's good stuff so we'll have it. It's a summary of a talk by Lars covering long-established farmhouse brewing traditions in Norway, Latvia and (briefly) Suffolk. Finally, for my own piece I wrote about a much newer brewery from Suffolk, and why a 21st Century style like New England IPA seems to me to be a plausible thing for a "farm brewery" to produce.

So that wraps it up for this session. Thanks to everyone who took part - it's been a pleasure and a privilege to have so many good beer writers acting on my whim. The next few hosting spots still seem to be open, and I'd encourage any blogger who wants to get involved to pick a topic and grab one as soon as possible!

Friday, 1 June 2018

Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing - Not Looking For A New England

Before I opened the can of Green Path, the flagship IPA from Suffolk-based brewery Burnt Mill, I had a good idea of what I was going to get, and I had a good idea of how this post was going to go. It's a New England IPA, of course. Burnt Mill describe themselves as a "farm brewery", and the design of the can - field, windmill and sky, all in impressionistic green and blue watercolour - anchors them solidly in the Suffolk countryside. While the phrase "farmhouse beer" and the associated rural imagery have traditionally conjured up images of saisons, spontaneous fermentation and complex, subtle beers aged in dusty wooden barrels, to me it increasingly feels plausible when applied to soft, hazy, juicy New England IPA, too.

This is, on the face of it, strange. There's no obvious lineage linking Trillium or Cloudwater to historic farmhouse brewing traditions, or even, beyond a shared appeal to beer geeks, to new-wave farmhouse breweries like Jester King. Maybe, then, it's something to do with the the hazy appearance of NEIPA as visible evidence of the presence of oats or wheat in the grist, cereal crops making themselves visible in a class of beers where they've traditionally been kept firmly out of the way of the hops. You can also read the haze as a signifying the work of a simple rustic artisan rather than a scientifically precise industrial technician. The particular importance of freshness to the style maybe suggests a sort of pre-modern utopia, before industrialised distribution, with beer going from field to fermenter to glass. The connection might also be influenced by the association of New England IPA with rural Vermont, and hence Hill Farmstead, even though that brewery isn't actually one of the drivers of the style.

This clearly a loose and rather fanciful association - style defining NEIPAs are currently being brewed with scientific precision and meticulous attention to detail in Boston, Manchester and New York, among other places. But it goes some way toward explaining why I knew without opening the can that this beer was going to be a soft, hazy, juicy IPA.

But it wasn't, of course.

As I'd have known if I'd bothered to read the can rather than just admiring the pastel-shaded artwork, Green Paths is brewed in the classic West Coast style. And it's really quite fantastic. It pours clear-ish, at least by modern standards. Big juicy hop aromas follow through with a prickly citrus-toffee body, creamy mouthfeel and a long bittersweet finish. It's bold but it's balanced. Green Paths tastes like the IPA that first got you into this whole craft thing, updated to make an impression on your DIPA-fatigued 2018 palette.

Subsequent beers I've had from Burnt Mill - their lighter pale ales, Pintle and Steel Cut, and their full-blooded DIPA, Solar Light - have all brought the haze, though. Maybe there is something in all this after all?

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

100 Words: Yeast

The fanfare in craft brewing often seems to be around new hops, exotic malts and experimental adjuncts, but for me yeast is where the real magic lies. Everything else is additive, linear and predictable - add strawberries, get strawberry flavour - but yeast is transformative.

I often joke that you can divide homebrewers into cooks and DIY-enthusiasts, but when it comes to yeast-driven styles, they have to become football managers. You don’t just pick your players, you have to coax and cajole them, controlling their environment, understanding their quirks and knowing exactly how to push them to get the results you want.

(Thanks to Boak and Bailey for suggesting the 100 words format - it was fun to write and other bloggers should try it too!)

(Another thing that other bloggers should try is writing a piece about "farmhouse brewing" for the next issue of The Session, which I'm hosting on June the 1st.)

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Session #136 Announcement: Farmhouse Brewing

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. (You can find more information on The Session on Brookston Beer Bulletin).

Whether it's about the success of modern craft breweries like Jester King and Burning Sky, the worldwide spread of saison or the revival of international interest in Northern European traditions, farmhouse brewing is an recurring theme in the beer world. It's a very resonant idea but also one that invites many perspectives, so it seems like an ideal topic for the collective conversation that is The Session.

I'd invite people to approach the topic however they like - the more creative the better - but here are some ideas to get you started.

You could talk about how the word "farmhouse" is used in modern craft breweries, or about historic brewing traditions. You might want to think about how, if at all, the two are related.

If you think that farmhouse brewing or farmhouse beer refers to something meaningful and relevant in modern beer, you could write something touching on what it means to you. What's its defining element? Is it about style, ingredients, location or something else? Would you call a crisp, clean pilsner or a hoppy IPA a farmhouse beer if it was brewed from local ingredients in a medieval barn? What about a mixed fermentation barrel-aged saison brewed in a light industrial unit in a suburb of Manchester? Why does any of this matter?

If you want to get specific, maybe talk about one or more beers or breweries that you think embody some aspect of the idea of farmhouse brewing. Or if you're a homebrewer, you could talk about ways that your own beer has been influenced by it.

Conversely, if you think that the modern idea of a farmhouse brewery is largely just about marketing and aesthetics then you could have a go at dissecting and deconstructing it. Where did it originate and what are its roots? Who popularized it? How is it constructed and signalled? Most importantly, why are people so keen to buy into it?

The date for this Session is Friday the 1st of June - add a comment to this page on the day (or as soon as possible afterwards) with a link to your contribution. I'll probably write a roundup post over that weekend.


Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Revitalisation Again

There's been a bit more talk recently about the CAMRA Revitalisation Project and the Special Resolutions that have been proposed for this year's AGM off the back of it. Phil at Oh Good Ale gives a really good summary of the changes that the Special Resolutions would make to the Articles of Association, although, as will become apparent, I don't entirely agree with his interpretation of them. Tandleman has also had a crack at the subject, and makes some good points.

For me, the proposed changes reflect two underlying needs.

The first is the need for a call to arms with some sense of urgency. While real ale arguably isn't out of the woods yet, it doesn't feel like it's under immediate threat in the way that it was when CAMRA were founded, and it's that sense of immediate danger that activates volunteers. On the other hand, you don't have to look very far these days to find people - not necessarily stereotypical CAMRA types - protesting against the closure of an apparently cherished local pub, and whatever you think of the merits of these campaigns, they undeniably generate strong feelings. By putting a bit more focus on the general defense of pubs and of drinking, the RP is presumably hoping to rekindle some of the old crusading spirit and get more members active.

The second is the need to remain a respected and authoritative voice in the wider world of beer. This has become an awkward double bind for CAMRA - on the one hand, talking up real ale won't achieve much if drinkers don't respect them as a credible source of information while on the other hand, with more beer drinkers at least dipping their toes into the accessible end of craft keg, talking up cask while ignoring or disparaging all other forms of beer will make them look increasingly blinkered and untrustworthy. Despite my previous rants about wording, the RP proposals seem like a reasonable stab at finding a way out of that, by letting them present real ale as a special and important high point in a broader landscape of Quality Beer.

How well all this will actually work - and whether the proposals will even get past the membership at the AGM - remains to be seen. But I'll be voting for them.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

When Do Breweries Sell Up?

So yeah, the Fullers buyout of Dark Star.

It's hard not to suspect that there will be more of this sort of thing to come, and Boak and Bailey have been pondering what you might want to look out for if you fancy playing "the prediction game." One of their conclusions is that breweries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase — it’s during the come down that they’re vulnerable.

In fact, I'd say that there's something else interesting here from that angle. A couple of years ago, at the height of the US craft acquisition fever, I noticed that a lot of the breweries being bought out were founded at about the same time. And that in fact, that there seemed to be a fairly standard age for selling up - a few years either side of 20 - and that this applied to a lot of British real ale breweries, too: Bath Ales, for instance, and Sharps. Since Dark Star (founded 1994) seem to fit reasonably well into that pattern, I thought I'd actually get some data and see if it stacks up.

Methodology: this is clearly a selective list, but it's selective based on what I can remember / have heard of - I haven't consciously picked and chosen examples to fit my theory. I've stuck to full acquisitions, or at least controlling stakes, rather than including partial things. The only example that I've deliberately excluded as a special case was the Brooklyn / Carlsberg takeover of London Fields. I've also ignored breweries that I wouldn't consider "newish" - Courage, for instance, or Hardy and Hansons, because I don't think it'd add much to the data. I generally haven't been particularly careful about how I define founding dates, having mostly gone with the first thing that I found on the web.

So here are the numbers:

BreweryYears IndependentAge When Sold
Camden 2010 - 2015 5
Wicked Weed 2012 - 2017 5
10 Barrel 2006 - 2014 8
Meantime 2000 - 2015 15
Sharps 1994 - 2011 17
Wychwood 1983 - 2002 19
Ballast Point 1996 - 2015 19
Elysian 1996 - 2015 19
Firestone Walker 1996 - 2015 19
Bath Ales1995 - 2016 21
Lagunitas 1993 - 2015 22
Goose Island 1988 - 2011 23
Dark Star 1994 - 2018 24
Boulevard 1989 - 2013 24
Achouffe 1982 - 2006 24
Ringwood 1978 - 2007 29

Make of that what you will.

Update: okay, here's one interpretation. With a few exceptions, people don't generally open breweries to get rich, they do it because it's fun and interesting. For the ones that are lucky enough to create a large and successful business the fun and interesting element keeps going for a while, but fifteen years down the line it starts to get samey. At this point "would you like to exchange personal control for a large amount of money (and maybe the opportunity to focus more on the parts of the business that you find interesting while we pay for some suits to handle the boring stuff)" seems like a more attractive offer than it did before.