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.