Monthly Archives: November 2010

Down with Craft Beer!

Some of what I’ve been reading in the beer blogosphere reminds me of conversations I’ve had with coffee-lovers. I’m thinking in particular of some American coffee enthusiasts who I used to share a mailing list with, one of whom was a good friend of mine; we could talk about most things, but I rapidly learned to leave the topic of coffee well alone. For her there was a definite hierarchy, with those ignorant souls who bought ground coffee at the very bottom (I’m not sure she knew instant coffee existed). Slightly above them were the well-meaning ignoramuses who ground coffee in bladed machines instead of using a specialised burr grinder, and the poor fools who ground batches big enough to keep for a week instead of grinding it fresh every time. Then there was the question of how to brew the coffee: filter machines were right out, since you really had to make espresso if you wanted to taste the coffee at all. Stove-top pots were all right in their place, but really there was no excuse for not investing in a large machine with dials and spigots – at least, not if you were at all serious about coffee. But even then – even if you regularly ground a single cup’s worth of coffee beans and tamped it down in your own personal Gaggia – you’d still be missing out if you’d bought those coffee beans pre-roasted. Really, anyone who took coffee seriously had to roast their own beans; until you tried it you just wouldn’t know what you’d been missing. My friend put all of this over in a teasing, jokey tone, but beneath that she was deadly serious: we even fell out at one point, when she congratulated me on buying a burr grinder and told me the next step was to get a proper machine instead of a “steam toy”. (That would be a Moka Express ‘steam toy’, as used by basically the entire population of Italy.)

One happy day, the conversation on that list turned to tea. At last, I thought – a topic on which I’d have the home advantage. American kitchens can’t even be relied on to contain an electric kettle: what could these people know of dunking pyramidal teabags, buying Sainsbury’s Red Label to take back to your student flat (or Brown Label if money was tight), distinguishing between Earl and the parvenue Lady Grey, the horrors of British Rail tea, the still greater horrors of instant tea, the joy of tea and a Mars bar, lemon tea in the afternoon, the smoky intoxication of Lapsang Souchong at night, or the glorious wakeup call of that lifesaving first cup of the morning? A million memories, a million cups of tea.

What did the coffee people know of all that? Precious little; they hadn’t had tea-drinking lives as I had. But what they did know about – and could talk about at some length, to my dismay – was how to brew first-flush Darjeeling, the difference between green tea and white tea, where to get the best Keemun and Oolong, what the best blend of Keemun and Oolong was, where you could get the best blend of Keemun and Oolong… and so on. The conversation rapidly entered realms of connoisseurism where I couldn’t follow. I was strongly reminded of the Brian Aldiss short story in which visiting aliens ruin English literature by attaching inordinate importance to minor figures like Robert Louis Stevenson and Maria Edgeworth; their attention generates an endless supply of new works, all crying out to be read, catalogued, studied. (I’m not sure of the title of the story, but there’s a Spanish translation here.) Somehow this was not what I had meant: too much attention was being paid, or the wrong kind of attention, or attention was being paid to the wrong thing.

What’s this got to do with beer or beer blogging? I was born in 1960, so I can remember when the beer landscape was dominated by Double Diamond and Worthington E and bleeding Watney’s Red Barrel. Thanks to Richard Boston’s sterling work in the Graun, I was a CAMRA sympathiser before I ever tasted beer. The first time I drank beer it was Fuller’s London Pride, dispensed from a polypin into paper cups. It was laid on for the roadies setting up for an Albion Dance Band gig at my school; my friend was there as a cheap informal gofer for the roadies, and I was there with my friend. I estimated afterwards that I’d got through ten or twelve cups by the time it went sour at the end of the afternoon. (I don’t remember anything at all about the gig itself; apparently I spent most of it sliding on the parquet in my socks. Happy days.) The second time I drank beer, it was keg Watney’s, and it was deeply unsatisfactory – cold and gassy, with a flavour without any depth. The third time it was cask Buckley’s, and I was in beer heaven. My experience of the contrast between beer 2 and beer 3 (reinforced by foggy memories of beer 1) told me that Richard Boston was telling the simple truth: there was real ale and then there was imitation ale. Cask ale was a many-splendoured thing – and mass-market keg was about as good a substitute as cold pricklies are for warm fuzzies.

For me, then, the point of CAMRA – and of caring about real ale more generally – was partly to celebrate some extraordinarily enjoyable stuff, but only partly. It wasn’t an Ale Drinkers’ Guild, it was a campaign – and that word ‘real’ was what put the CAM in CAMRA. Keg Watney’s wasn’t a poor example of beer, it was a poor imitation of the real thing. And this was a recent development. Once – and not that long ago – there had been no keg ale, just as once there had been no processed cheese or Chorleywood bread. Once all ale had been real. The ultimate aim of CAMRA, as I saw it, was very much the same as that of a campaign for real bread or real cheese: to make it real again, for everyone – just as it had been real before, for everyone. In short, to bring about a world where every pub and club serves cask beer to its customers. Whether it would be good cask beer was secondary (admittedly a very strong second). Whether it would be interesting or original or unusual cask beer would come a long way down the list; to the extent I thought about that at all, I thought that regional variation was another thing that should be restored, and that in itself would create near-endless opportunities to taste new and interesting beers.

In short, my ideal world was one with at least as many pubs as we have now, but one where every pub supplies a couple of decent session-strength cask ales, plus the odd speciality, from a local brewery. It still is: as far as CAMRA’s concerned, I think that would be Job Done. (Which makes this a surprising bit of good news, although (a) time will tell on the rent-gouging front and (b) they really ought to put a top coat on that woodwork.) But there are moments when I wonder whether I’m facing the same way as some of my fellow bloggers. When I’m told that this is what a pub should look like – and that caring about how many of those taps are keg is an irrational prejudice; when a beer festival can look like an ale-themed episode of Endurance (Most beers were around 9% and bragged tongue-wrecking IBU levels); when I’m told that these self-important clowns are the stars of independent brewing… something feels wrong. Somehow this is not what I thought I was getting into: it feels as if too much attention is being paid, or the wrong kind of attention, or attention is being paid to the wrong thing.

Nothing sums up the mentality I’m getting at better than the label craft beer. What does it actually mean? I can just about understand how it might at least seem to mean something in the US, where (thanks ultimatelypartly to Prohibition) the large brewers are really large, and there’s a high degree of overlap between “buying from a micro” and “buying something decent”. An American beer drinker who swore off the fine products of Coors and Anheuser-Busch wouldn’t miss much good beer by doing so, and they certainly wouldn’t miss much real ale. But even in the American context it’s a vague and marketing-driven label, combining lack of precision with self-congratulatory smugness: part of the definition of “craft beer” is that it’s something we brew and appreciate, unlike all those other breweries churning out their yellow fizz (let alone all the poor fools who drink it). If you try to apply it more widely and consistently it falls apart: do Yuengling make “craft beer”? If so, why? If not, why not?

In Britain, I honestly don’t know what “craft beer” means, to the extent that it’s supposed actually to mean anything. I know what it connotes – brewers with passion and imagination, interesting and different beers, pushing the envelope and so on and so forth – but I don’t know how you could draw a line that says that Beer A is a “craft beer” and Beer B isn’t. Being a micro doesn’t make you a craft brewer; being a volume producer, or investing in lots of shiny kit, doesn’t stop you being one. And, of course, being in a cask doesn’t make it a craft beer – and being in a keg doesn’t stop it being one (perish the very thought!).

It begins to look as if “craft” as an adjective doesn’t actually mean anything: it’s an arbitrary bit of marketing jargon that a few brewers and their fans like to apply to their beers, for reasons best known to themselves. Alternatively, perhaps the people using the term do have something in mind, and “craft beer” is something you just know when you taste it. The only trouble with that is “craft” is obviously a term of approval, and different people are going to have different takes on which beers deserve that approval. You say Thornbridge and BrewDog are in the vanguard of the keg revolution, and a lot of cask ale is bland and mediocre; I say Timothy Taylor’s Best is the queen of beers and BrewDog are a bunch of overhyped chancers with beers to match. Who gets the “craft beer” label? The only way it’s going to have any consistent meaning is if it’s defined by someone, or a group of someones, who everyone else listens to. All due respect to the stars of the beer blogosphere, but I’d rather be the arbiter of my own tastes.

“Real ale” suggests to me something unadulterated, universally available and frequently quite basic; “craft beer” suggests beer brewed by beer geeks for beer geeks, with recipes as elaborate as you like and prices to match. It’s as if it had become impossible to get a decent cup of tea in a cafe, and our response was to sing the praises of white tea and Keemun/Oolong blends. Millions of people, in this country, used to go to pubs regularly and drink cask beer. That this staple workingman’s drink has been almost entirely pushed aside by inferior substitutes is a tragedy, and one which still deserves to be campaigned against. There could be a Euston Tap in every city in the country, doing a thriving trade selling black IPAs and cherry lambics to the cognoscenti, and CAMRA’s work wouldn’t be done; it would hardly be begun.

With his customary lack of ambiguity, the Curmudgeon recently warned against “a redefinition of ‘real ale’ as stuff produced by obscure small breweries and consumed by pretentious middle-class tossers”. A line about catching more flies with honey springs to mind, but essentially I don’t think I can improve on that, other than by saying that the danger is less that the old term gets redefined than that it gets sidelined in favour of a new and more malleable alternative. Continuing the quote:

Surely two of the great virtues of “real ale” are that it has a crystal clear definition, and that it is something that is available to ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs. The risk from that approach is that you may end up casting aside the brews upon which the real ale revival was founded, such as Wadworth’s 6X, Marston’s Pedigree and Greene King Abbot Ale, and that you also end up casting aside the pub in favour of the specialist urban yuppie craft beer bar.

Amen to that. Long live real ale! Down with craft beer!

Update For the benefit of everyone coming over here from Beer Advocate and Reddit, I’m not saying that everyone using the term “craft beer” in the USA is wrong. I’m not saying that the term “real ale” should be used instead in the USA. I’m aware that things are different in the USA. I haven’t studied the history of Prohibition in detail, I’ve never tasted a double IPA, I don’t have any opinion about Yuengling and no, I don’t work for Coors. I am not writing about beer in the USA. Please amend the title of this post, at least in your mind’s eye, to “Down with Craft Beer In The UK (Reserving Judgment On Whether The Term Is Appropriate Anywhere Else)”. Thankyou.

Time travel in four easy lessons

This is my entry for Zak’s “beer and time” competition.

Lesson 1
We’ll start with the basics. As you probably know, this type of travel relies on “anchor points”: the vivid moments in past experience which call us back through time. Experiments have shown that beer is peculiarly effective in enabling us to access anchor points. As we’ll see later on, anchor points don’t have to be uniquely memorable peak experiences, although these are ones which beginners will generally use.

Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Now, use the beer. Take a generous mouthful, savour the aroma and let the flavour fill your mouth, then swallow and feel the finish. Now do it again, but this time as you swallow think to yourself: the first beer I ever tasted. Ready? Give it a go…

I’m fifteen years old. I’m fifteen, it’s a sunny day, we’re in south Wales and my Dad’s just bought me a half. My Dad’s bought me a sneaky half of Buckley’s and I’ve gone to heaven in a beer-garden. I’m leaning back in my plastic chair blessing him for buying it, blessing the brewery and blissfully anticipating the years when I’ll be able to drink this stuff whenever I like, because this is the best thing I have ever tasted

And rest. Use the beer.

Lesson 2
This isn’t so much a single lesson as a series of practical exercises. Remember the anchor points? Yes, that’s ‘points’, plural!

Use the beer. What is it – a wheat beer, a stout, a Trappist ale? Close your eyes and travel back to the first time – that cafe, that sunny day, the smell of yeast, the sound of foreign voices and the taste of cold beer under an inch of head; that first astonished swallow of Guinness Foreign (what is this stuff…?); that holiday when you worked your way through the Chimays… You’re there. And you’re here, but you’re then.

Use the beer. Relax.

Lesson 3
Now that you’re getting the hang of it, try finding your way back to a wider ange of times. Use the beer. Close your eyes and

bitter, the quiz is going well and I’ve just been bought a pint, no time to drink it though

mild, I’m 22 and there’s a ploughman’s with Stilton in front of me

black-and-tan, it’s nearly midnight but the music’s going strong

And you’re back. Relax. Use the beer.

Lesson 4
Use the beer.

Lesson 4 is for advanced travellers only. You have been warned!

Use the beer.

Don’t rush it; use the beer and relax. You’ll know it when you find it.

Lesson 4 is about the ultimate form of travel: travel within time. At a certain moment – you’ll know it when you reach it – the anchor points stop mattering. All that matters is this moment: this moment that’s perpetually coming into being and perpetually fading into nothing. With enough beer you can surf the wave of the present moment: you can feel the passage of time. All you need to do is relax and let yourself be in that moment.

And use the beer.

Never mind the weather

Name this beer! (No, they haven’t named it already.)

Yes, I’m still here. I’ve been working on one very long post for the last few nights – it’ll be great when it’s finished. I’m also planning to enter Zak’s competition – but you can’t see that one till it’s finished either.

In the mean time, here’s another compy you might want to have a crack at, also closing on Friday. This also marks a personal milestone: after the first beer I’ve been sent to review, here’s my first press release. (On reflection the beer was more fun.) You don’t get any of this stuff out in the general-purpose blogosphere, I tell you.

Butlins is launching a premium real ale as part of its 75th birthday celebrations and is challenging the nation to brew up an appropriate name for the beer.

The birthday beer will be produced by world famous brewery Marston’s in the home of British Brewing, Burton-on-Trent, and will be available in bottles and on draft [sic] at the three Butlins beachside resorts.

Said Butlins MD Richard Bates: “Whoever names our beer will become part of Butlins history, because both their name and the beer’s name will appear on the label together.
And who better to bottle our heritage, than the Great British public!”

The Butlins Beer is a premium English pale ale, described by the brewers as “golden, zesty and hoppy”.

The winner will pull the first pint at a celebratory event at Butlins, be treated to a VIP break on resort – and also enjoy a VIP visit to The Marston’s Brewery, known as ‘the Cathedral of Brewing’, to witness the creation of their new brew.

Visit www. butlins. com/ beer for more information or email your name suggestion to realale @ by 26 November 2010, providing your full name, age, address and telephone number.

So there you go.

I’ve got slightly mixed feelings about this story. On one hand, the association with a company whose image is still stuck in the 1950s – i.e. before the majority of the population was born – surely can’t be much help in pitching real ale to the young, edgy, brand-aware crowd; viewed from the perspective of the average Style supplement, it could almost be calculated to make real ale look like an old man’s drink. On the other hand, an awful lot of people don’t see the world through Style supplements; an awful lot of people don’t drink real ale; and an awful lot of people pass through Butlin’s in Bognor, Minehead and Skegness. Never mind the image, feel the footfall, in other words.

On balance I think this is the main thing. This initiative is going to put what will hopefully be a pretty decent real ale in front of a lot of people who don’t currently drink it, in a setting where they’ll have ample opportunities to acquire the taste. It’s going to be an ale with a very ordinary image – but I think we sometimes forget that an ale with an ordinary image would actually be a very good thing. Good one, Butlin’s (and Marston’s).

The competition closes on Friday, so there’s still plenty of time to get your name in – have at it. (But you can’t have the obvious one, because I’ve just suggested it.)

Kelly, Ryan

So, farewell then
Ryan Kelly.
Lots of people probably get your name
The wrong way round
And confuse you with Kelly Brooks
Or the one out of Misfits.
That must be annoying.

You brewed beer at Thornbridge
Some of which was OK
And some really nice
(I have to say that I personally couldn’t see what was supposed to be so great about White Swan, whereas I really liked Lord Marples, but that also seems to be a minority opinion among beerbloggers and for all I know you didn’t like it much either, in which case forget I spoke).
Now you are going to brew beer in a place with not many people
But lots of sheep
I hope you have thought this one through.

PS I have never met Ryan Kelly
And have not in fact been invited
To say farewell to him
But I like a good meme.

Wikio, O Wikio…

The new Wikio rankings are out, I read here and here and indeed here – nice one, Sid.

Wa-hey! I thought (which isn’t easy), Oh Good Ale’s first month as a Wikio-ranked beer blog! What’ll it be – 203rd? 142nd? possibly even something in two figures? I checked the site immediately, then felt like an idiot for not noticing the date – it was only the 3rd of November; Wikio rankings might have been decided, but they weren’t due to be published until the 5th.

Well, here it is the 5th of November, and 4.20 p.m. as I write. The new Wikio rankings are out. No, they’re not. They really aren’t.

H’mph. I’ve a good mind to demand a refund.

Update 7.55 p.m. and the new rankings have arrived. All things come to those who wait, wait again, get tired of waiting and grumble ineffectually, then go back to waiting.

And this site has been awarded a ranking of no less than
Oh yes. One hundred and nine with a bullet. It’s not the one after 909 and I am not the 801 – in fact I can’t think of any relevant musical references at all – but it’s a solid mid-field position; in fact it’s a higher ranking in real terms than all but 108 of the other Wikio-registered (wine and) beer blogs. Next month I aim for double figures. And after that, the world!

Review – Croglin Vampire, Hardknott Dark Energy

Picture borrowed from Andy at
Free beer! What a beautiful phrase that is.

Like several other beer bloggers, when I heard that Cumberland Legendary Ales were offering review bottles of their ‘doppelbock’ Croglin Vampire I put my name down sharpish. The goods arrived a week or so ago, and after allowing a decent interval for the beer to recover from its journey I, well, drank it.

It was nice. (Will this do?)

OK, a bit more detail. It’s a brown beer; no head to speak of but there was a frosting of bubbles on the inside of the glass. As for the flavour, it’s… a big flavour. I was expecting something rich and malty, and I wasn’t disappointed. I can see why Barm mentioned caramel, but that wasn’t what came to my mind; if anything I was surprised how sweet it wasn’t, if you follow. If some beers are hop-bombs, Croglin Vampire is a malt-bomb: rich and fruity without being sweet, with malty aroma at the front of the mouth, a full malty body and a bitter malty finish. It’s a dense and complex flavour, which plays a lot of different variations on that theme of malt – from dark-chocolate bitterness all the way through to a light, banana-like top-note. Not sweet, though, and not at all cloying. At 8%, it doesn’t really drink its strength, except in a certain heaviness in the mouth; there’s certainly no alcohol flavour, and none of the rather treacly malt-extract quality of some strong dark beers. Despite the heaviness, it leaves your palate clear – given a clear enough diary I could easily imagine drinking two or even three of these.

My second free beer (I could get to like this beer-blogging lark) was one of the bottles of Dark Energy distributed at the Twissup by the estimable Dave Bailey. I’ve read since that DE is classed as a stout, or possibly that it was originally intended as a stout; all I knew about it when I drank it was that it was 4.9% and it was dark (well, black) in colour. I never would have labelled it as a stout: it certainly has an edge of uncompromising burnt-grain bitterness, but to me that wasn’t the core of the flavour. If pushed I’d have called it an old ale or possibly a mild, but with an odd lightness to the flavour – there’s plenty of malt there but no fruitiness, let alone sweetness – and then that big stout finish. It’s an unusual combination, but it works remarkably well. The only thing I can really liken it to is the cask version of BrewDog’s black lager Zeitgeist (the bottled Zeitgeist is thoroughly inferior).

Dark Energy confirmed the impression I’d formed after a half of Infra Red: Hardknott are doing some really interesting things, without much respect for style labels. (Apparently Infra Red is classed as an IPA, but I wouldn’t let that sway you one way or the other – I mean, it’s about as much an IPA as Dark Energy is a stout. They’re both much more distinctive than that.) The two beers don’t taste at all alike, but they both give the impression of someone intent on putting the pedal to the metal – or rather (the metaphor breaks down here) putting two different pedals to the metal and seeing what happens. Why not have a big malty bitter that’s also a big hoppy bitter? Why not have a strong light mild stout?

Very nice beers; I would happily pay money for either of these if I saw it on sale, and would encourage anyone who isn’t an incurable hophead to do likewise.

PS The Croglin Vampire picture was borrowed from Andy at Beer Reviews – many thanks.