Monthly Archives: February 2011

I want to hear somebody bark

Barm hit the keg a few weeks ago:

I know the beer in question very well in its cask-conditioned form. It’s very good. The keg version was dire.

To cut a long story short, the taste and aroma of an excellent beer was completely destroyed, it made me burp a lot and it was much more expensive than the real version.

…followed, more recently, by Tandleman:

After a pint of (well kept but indifferent) cask I thought I’d try Brew Dog 5 am Saint. Here’s what I tweeted “5 am Saint freezing cold and hugely gassy but the hops are there under a massive carbonic bite”. My previous experience of Kipling in the Euston Tap was similar. People argue that CAMRA should move on, but you know, the same old problems exist in a new format. Too cold and too gassy.

…and me. I had a half of kegged 5 a.m. Saint the other day and, frankly, wasn’t all that impressed – despite thinking the cask version was a gift of the gods. This made me think. On the subject of cask vs keg, I think we all ultimately agree with Reluctant Simon: if the beer tastes good, what does it matter? But are there particular types of beer that are likely to taste better on keg than they do on cask? Pete thinks so, and puts forward an interesting line of argument. Comparing cask and keg versions of a strong American IPA, Pete noted:

The hop aroma was much more prevalent in the keg – not surprising as carbonation helps release such aromas from beer. I was straining to get much from the cask. And then in the mouth, the keg version felt lighter. Obviously more refreshing, but also cleaner and more delicate. By comparison, the cask version felt thick, oily, almost greasy. The flavours were more complex and intense, but muddy somehow, bordering on unpleasant.

This is a beer style that was invented (or rather, adapted in its modern guise) for keg, and it did not suit cask at all. It’s an American beer style. It was never meant for English-style cask.

And that made me realise, conversely, why cask ale is so special. It suits traditional British ale which, for the last hundred years or so, has mainly been at very low ABV, and very balanced. What I’d experienced with a double IPA was a concentration of hop flavour and an intensity of character that had become unpleasantly cloying. Take a 3.8% session ale that’s relatively low in intensity, and filtration and carbonation would make it very bland indeed. But that same concentration of flavour that cask bestows gives it a surprisingly interesting depth and layers of flavour, subtlety and character.

Cask: a blending of flavours giving depth, complexity, subtlety. Keg: clean, separate flavours each coming through separately.

I wonder.

That keg Saint was the eighth BrewDog brew I’ve tried. Here are my thoughts on the lot of them, mostly written at the time; see if you can spot a pattern developing.

5 A.M. Saint (cask)
This is a fantastic beer. Brown and malty, but with hops on either side: the hop aroma is both strong and delicate and the finish is big and dry. No sweetness, but doesn’t tip into sourness either. Sometimes – not very often – I catch myself just looking at a beer in between swallows, as if to say, How do you do that? This was one of those beers.

5 A.M. Saint (keg)
A kind of cold-tea hoppiness at the very front of the mouth, then into a big American IPA malt/marmalade/hop aroma package, ending with an uncompromisingly bitter finish. There’s a lot going on, or rather there are lots of different things going on – it’s a bit like a lower-strength version of Paradox. Interesting rather than really impressive, and let down further by being far too cold and intrusively carbonated (when you can taste the CO2 something’s not right).

How to disappear completely (cask)
Tawny, slightly malty, but very bitter – really very, very bitter. A kind of clove-oil bitterness that hits in the front of your mouth as well as a hoppy finish. Interesting more than enjoyable.

Paradox (bottle)
See previous post. Summary: lots of different extreme flavours jumping out at you, followed by a big hit of alcohol. Almost – but not quite – entirely unlike beer.

Punk IPA (bottle)
Extreme enough to be mildly unpleasant on the first couple of mouthfuls, but ultimately rather unremarkable.

Trashy blonde (cask)
A very good example of its type, where the said type is “pale yellow and very, very hoppy”. The flavours are strong enough for this to be unmistakably a bitter rather than a lager, but they’re almost all hop flavours. A smoky hop aroma, a body that’s fruity without being either sour or sweet, and a big bitter finish. Very nice.

Zeitgeist (cask)
A “black lager”, apparently. I like a nice Dunkel, and this was a very nice beer. Not like anything I’ve ever had out of a cask – somewhere in the region of a rich, sweet old ale crossed with a dark porter. One hell of a region.

Zeitgeist (bottle)
Dark-ish, sweetish, malty…ish, but thin. Forgettable.

The beers seem to fall into three main categories. Three of the cask ales were superb: long, complex, well-balanced flavours, with different and potentially conflicting elements blending in a kind of harmony. The Paradox and the keg Saint were flavour firework displays, with different effects going off one after the other and nothing really binding them together. And the other two bottles were just a bit ordinary – flavour fireworks, but dialled right down. The only one I’ve left out is the oddball How To Disappear Completely, a cask beer which I now think might actually work better on keg; certainly my tasting notes suggest something not a million miles away from Pete’s “intense but muddy”. In a cask ale, turning several different bitterness dials up to eleven just leaves you with a glass of clove soup; on keg, all those different bitter flavours might have had a chance to show off separately.

The really interesting comparison for me is between the keg Saint (which was a flavour firework, had a definite American IPA character, and was perfectly drinkable) and the cask version (which wasn’t, didn’t, and was magnificent). This suggests to me that the ‘clean and multi-faceted’ vs ‘subtle but muddy’ distinction may not be absolute: perhaps some beers work well on keg and work even better, in a slightly different form, as cask ales. (On second thoughts, there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it: 5 a.m. Saint is that beer.) This also suggests to me that, even if it were only a tactical (or mercenary) decision, prioritising keg over cask would be a serious mistake for BrewDog. Pushing keg over cask as a matter of principle seems crazy.

Cream tangerine

Best comment:

Someone send this guy a double IPA…just for shits and giggles.

Really I should have given them my address, to see if anybody would. As it was, I had to buy one myself.

What follows is a bit of an oddity, as it’s a review of a beer I didn’t actually like. But it was distinctive and memorable, and after the initial shock it was quite fun to drink in a slightly masochistic way. I’ll leave it unnamed, because of the whole ‘not actually liking it’ thing (and also because those guys get quite enough publicity already… damn, I’ve given it away now).

Brewing instructions

  1. Brew an IPA. Stronger than that. No, get on with you, stronger than that. Boil it down or something. Freeze it, whatever, I don’t know. Use your initiative.
  2. Get a whisky barrel. Still some whisky in it? Great. Not a problem.
  3. Get some marmalade. Scratch that, get lots of marmalade. You want that whisky barrel totally full of marmalade, OK?
  4. Bonfire. Big bonfire. Build us a bloody great big enormous bonfire. Just do it, OK? Whisky barrel goes in there. Right in the middle. No, no, right at the bottom in the middle. Well, I thought it was obvious. Build it back up. Yeah, and then light the bonfire – I mean, obviously…
  5. Go back and check on that IPA. Put in some dry hops or whatever. Yeah, bit more. OK, OK, not that much… never mind, it’ll be fine.
  6. How’s the fire doing? All burned down? Great. Check on the barrel. Nicely charred? Great, bring it out. Well, I thought you’d wear gloves for that part. Come on, I can’t think of everything.
  7. OK, so off comes the top of the charred smoke-blackened caramelised-marmalade-stuffed whisky barrel, and in goes the IPA. Funnel. Use a funnel. Well, put it down and go and get one, then.
  8. Then we carefully position a bottle underneath, like so… and we wait.

Basically I thought this went way, way over the top, in several different directions at once. Dialled down several notches it might have been quite pleasant; if they’d got those flavours working together instead of exploding separately it could have been really good. As it was, I found it physically hard to drink. A very interesting beer, though, I’ll give them that.

Boring brown beer

Smack my thigh and call me Kevin, but I’m going to praise boring brown beer. At least, I’m going to suggest that BBB is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Consider: a Spar in a university area. It’s not a rough or down-at-heel area, granted, but it’s not exactly crawling with ageing prog rockers, either. In the fridge you can find London Pride, and Bombardier, and Pedigree, and Old Speckled Hen, and Abbot Ale, and Hobgoblin. There’s a local(-ish) contingent, too: Black Sheep bitter and Golden Sheep; Lancaster Bomber, Wainwrights and Double Century; Jennings Cumberland and Sneck Lifter; Holts 1849, Pendle Witch’s Brew. I haven’t actually checked this, but I don’t think Spar is a subsidiary of CAMRA; I’ve got to assume that people are drinking this stuff, and reasonably ordinary people at that. None of these are bottle-conditioned, and none of them are going to win any Most Startling Flavour awards; if you’ve been drinking bitter for any length of time, you wouldn’t be surprised by any of them. On the other hand, they’re all produced by real ale brewers, and as beer goes they’re all reasonably good – a couple of them are very good indeed. As I said in comments, I simply don’t recognise Zak’s (and others‘) panorama of bland or poorly-made cask beers in the UK, which is supposedly on a par with what CAMRA saw in the 1970s. If you could go into one high-street pub after another and find no real ales except Pedigree in one pub and nothing but London Pride in the next, then I might be tempted to agree. But in my experience this restriction of the choice to a couple of rather dull bankers isn’t the reality in pubs, any more than it was in this Spar; I’ve seen plenty of pubs with no real ales at all, but very few with one. And, as I say, these (including Pedigree) aren’t bad beers. Good beer is out there, and it’s reaching people. What Zak seems to be complaining about is that brilliant beer isn’t getting through to large numbers of people, but that’s surely a less serious problem.

And, speaking of what CAMRA saw in the 1970s, consider this as well. Boring beer: traditional recipe, traditional ingredients. Craft beer: new recipe, unlikely ingredients. Boring beer: brewed locally. Craft beer: distributed from the north of Scotland or imported from America. Boring beer: handpump. Craft beer: keg. Er… which side were we supposed to be on again?

Lastly, consider what happened to brewing in the US in the last century. It wasn’t pretty: first there was consolidation, then there was Prohibition, and after that there was a lot more consolidation. We thought we had it bad with Whitbread and Watney Mann, but by comparison with the States we came into the 1980s with a veritable forest of regional and family breweries still surviving. So buzzwords like “small” and “independent” really mean something in American brewing culture, because the alternative is, by and large, pretty grim.

Now, consider (enough with the considering already – Ed.) the implications of what I’ve just said. Brewing in Britain hasn’t been under the scythe of megacorp consolidation to the same extent (let alone the heavy roller of Prohibition). The US ‘craft beer’ fetish of brewery size and independence is a result of the weakness of American brewing, not its strength. Kegging is what you do to beer when you haven’t got the people or the expertise to tap a cask properly, or you haven’t got the drinkers to drain it before it goes off. It may have had serendipitous benefits, but US craft brewers’ adoption of the keg surely* wouldn’t have happened in the first place if the drinkers and the cellars for cask had been available: again, this is the result of a weakness rather than a strength. Even the current, much-discussed, dominance of intense and extreme flavours among US tickers can be seen as a characteristic of a relatively small community of beer-drinkers.

When family breweries survive; when people carry on drinking decent beer (or return to it after giving Worthington E a try), and pubs carry on cellaring it; when good beer carries on being drunk by large numbers of ordinary people; in short, when the brewing scene is strong and healthy: what do you get? You get family brewers selling in supermarkets and corporates keeping a presence in real ale; you get cask surviving repeated attempts to kill it, because it has its own benefits (as Pete also acknowledged) and those who do like it, like it a lot; and you get high visibility for some relatively low-strength, relatively moderately-flavoured beers, for the simple reason that a lot of people are drinking them in large quantities – and this is not a bad thing! A strong and healthy beer scene means London Pride in the supermarket and Old Speckled Hen sponsoring Dave; it means that while there’s weird and different stuff for those who are motivated to seek it out, there’s lots and lots of boring brown beer, for everyone who wants it.

The beers marketed as ‘craft beer’ aren’t an answer to our problems; they’re the answer to problems that we haven’t got.

*By ‘surely’ I mean ‘this makes sense to me, but I don’t know if it’s actually true’. Correction welcome if necessary.

(Updated 16/2/11 for clarity and accuracy and duplication and redundancy and duplication.)

Doubledoublegood! Doubledoublegood!

Q: What’s a craft beer?
A: Nobody really knows. However, there is a standard definition of a craft brewer, which goes something like this:

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

So a craft brewer is a brewer that’s smallish, independent and doesn’t use loads of maize and rice and evil stuff like that. Since the point of calling a brewer a ‘craft brewer’ is to give them a seal of approval, we can add a fourth quality: a craft brewer is one of the brewers that produce the good stuff.

Of course, this doesn’t get you very far with identifying whether the beer on the bar in front of you is a Craft Beer or not. But there’s a bigger problem, which is that – as Barm points out – this definition derives directly from the history of brewing in the USA, which is very different from the history of brewing in Britain. To put it another way, rolling size, independence, tradition and quality into one concept works pretty well in the US context, where – for historical reasons – high-quality and traditional beers do tend to come from small and independent brewers. It’s a very poor fit to Britain, where high-quality brewing, traditional brewing, independent brewing and small-scale brewing are four separate things. If you can get all four at once, so much the better, but mass-produced corporate high-quality traditional brews have their place – and for most of us it’s a place some way ahead of low-volume independent horrors.

Further down the same page, the plot thickens.

* The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.

What’s interesting about this is that there’s no obvious reason for it to be there: there’s no logical connection between independence/tradition/quality/size and feeling the need to dick about adding unique twists to perfectly good styles[1]. If the main definition reflects US beer history, this point reflects US beer culture, and in particular the dominance of extremophilia. (As I wrote a while back, the phrase ‘craft beer’ is “strongly associated with a focus on extremes: strong is good, hoppy is good, weird is good, but stronger, hoppier and weirder are better”.) For whatever reason, this stress on ‘innovation’ (and general dicking-about) is definitely part of the informal meaning of ‘craft beer’; indeed, this is probably the most important part of the definition for the most infuriating brewers in the world[2], among others. People talk a lot about boring bland brown real ales – even to the extent of suggesting that real ale needs as big a kick as CAMRA gave keg beer in the 70s – but the stuff people regard as ‘craft beer’ is never described as boring or bland (and very rarely as brown).

So what have we got? A mess, is what we’ve got. “Craft beer is beer brewed by small independent breweries” – bad luck, Stuart. “Craft beer is beer made using traditional methods” – that’s just about every non-corporate brewery in Britain covered. “Craft beers are beers made with passion, with heart, with commitment” – what does this actually mean, and what does it have to do with whether the beer’s any good? (Can’t a production line operation produce good beer? Can’t a passionate, committed real ale enthusiast produce utter dreck?) Ironically, just about the only part of the definition that does work in the UK is the part about innovation: craft brewers are the brewers who interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent. So that’s, er, BrewDog, and about three other breweries. (A shout out here for Dave, who for my money is doing precisely this and making it work rather better than those pretentious Scots – and with a lot less fanfare.) But even that is problematic, because of the implication that ‘craft beer’ means quality – and anyone who’s not producing ‘craft beer’ (which, on this definition, is about 95% of British breweries) is a lower form of life. It’s as if we were to say that Robinson’s were a boring old family concern churning out the same old real ale, until they started producing Chocolate Tom – and as that put a unique twist on the historic style, they were immediately elevated to the ranks of craft brewers. Clearly, this wouldn’t make much sense.

Two final points, picking up on comments on Mark’s post. One commenter writes: “The problem is that times have changed, and real ale isn’t the only decent beer readily available in the UK anymore.” But it never was! There are – and always have been – a number of non-conditioned bottled beers which any ‘real ale’ fan would be happy to drink; there has had to be. (When I first got into real ale there was only one bottle-conditioned beer on the market – Worthington White Shield – and that was almost impossible to find.) Nobody’s ever felt the need to refer to bottled Old Tom as ‘craft beer’; nobody but a few conditioning bigots has ever thought that it was diminished by not being real ale. Good beer is good beer, and not all of it is real ale; real ale is real ale, and (alas) not all of it is good beer. This is a non-problem.

Relatedly, Barm asks the pertinent question

What is wrong with “good”? It seems a much more useful category to me, in that it actually tells me whether the beer is likely to taste nice.

to which Mark replies: “And who decides to label it good or bad? Can one person speak on behalf of everyone? It’s similar with craft beer as a term but at least that has an overarching meaning, not just a consideration of deliciousness.” To which I can only say, no it doesn’t. It hasn’t got a meaning, it’s got a bundle of connotations – quality of beer, size and independence of brewery, ‘commitment’ from the brewer, use of weird and different recipes – and they aren’t even connotations that fit together well.

In practice the term “craft beer”, in the UK, hardly ever means anything more than “beer I like, made by brewers I like”; on the rare occasions it does mean something more, it seems to mean “beer which is particularly good because it’s ridiculously strong/undrinkably bitter/macerated with raspberries/all of the above”. At best it’s a marketing label which imparts a vague warm glow to the subject of beer; at worst it’s misleading and divisive. I say we drop it. Here’s to good beer, even if it’s made by apathetic brewers working for mega-corporations! Here’s to good beer[1], even if it’s a malty 3.8% bitter made the same way it always has been! Here’s to good beer, even if it’s in a can on a supermarket shelf[3]!

[1] A CAMRA member writes: Make me a good dark mild, O breweries of Britain. Never mind the coffee and the chocolate and the winter spices and the summer fruits and the honey and the ginger and the rosemary and thyme. Just make me a good dark mild, a good 4% bitter, a good pale ale, a good stout and if you’re feeling ambitious a good porter. And in winter, a good old ale. I ask for nothing more – except, of course, the chance to try more than one good 4% bitter, etc, etc; I can arrange this myself, by sampling the products of more than one brewery. PS Don’t forget the dark mild – I haven’t had a good one in ages.
[2] I’d much rather just ignore them, but they make such bloody good beer. (On cask, at least.)
[3] Shurely shome mishtake? – Ed.

Update The Curmudgeon has, I think, nailed the working definition of ‘craft beer’ in comments over at Ed’s:

craft beer is beer brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to “beer enthusiasts”. What counts is not the size of the brewery, or whether the beer is any good, but the intention of the brewer.

In reply, Ed commented that “craft” means more than those few breweries that “brew with the beer nerd in mind”, which is a fair point. But I think part of what gets people excited about the likes of Marble, Thornbridge, Dark Star and Kernel is the impression (in some cases the certain knowledge) that the brewers are beer nerds: they like the kind of thing beer nerds like, and they brew the kind of thing they like. And, while beer nerds like lots of different beers, craft beer stands for the type[s] and style[s] of beer that nerds are particularly likely to like (in some cases because the rest of the world is conspicuous by its absence).

What’s interesting about this is that, while it fits in well with criticisms of the cliquishness and in-groupery of the ‘craft beer’ scene, it’s also not a million miles away from at least one of the definitions Mark sketched out in his more positive post on the concept:

Craft beer means beer made for a more discerning audience than the mass-market beers that ubiquitously line bars around the world.

Craft beer is beer made for people who like craft beer. That’s not a tautology, it’s a feedback loop: (via): the more tickers rave about a certain approach to beer, the more they’ll get it, and the more they get it, the more they’ll rave about the latest and best examples. And so it will roll on, becoming steadily more distant from the world of real ale, let alone the larger world of beer-drinkers. Me, I’ll be happy with a nice pint.

Less is more

This post is a kind of footnote to this one of Martyn’s. The other night, courtesy of the local JDW’s, I tried five different beers from the Congleton Beartown Brewery: Ginger Bear and Honey Bear (which speak for themselves), Polar Eclipse (a sweet stout), Bear Ass (brown bitter) and Bruin’s Ruin (strong bitter). They were all perfectly nice, although I’m not sure any of them would win awards. (In particular, they could all benefit from a touch less sweetness, in case anyone from the brewery sees this – until I looked it up I was convinced the Eclipse was an unusually-flavoured dark mild.) This evening, on the other hand, I had Dark Star’s American Pale Ale and Bollington’s Night Porter. Dark Star’s APA is a terrific beer: a classic of the type, where the type is essentially “pale beer that tastes of marmalade”. Night Porter is a spiced porter, with a rich malty flavour and a definite aftertaste of… what? Cloves? Nutmeg? Allspice? That area, anyway. A memorable combination & well brought off.

Obviously there’s room in the market for all kinds of diversity and any amount of experimentation. There’s no real danger that any style will crowd out others – and even if there were I’m not sure what a blogger could do about it. So I’m just expressing my own opinion, for the hell of it, when I say that I think those two evenings represent two different approaches to beer, and that I think the world of beer could do with a lot more of one of them and a bit less of the other.

The one I’d like to see more of is, of course, the Beartown. Honey Bear, Bruin’s Ruin and Bear Ass are all brown bitters (Ginger Bear is paler), and their flavours aren’t that far apart: they’ve all got far more in common with one another than with the Dark Star APA (or any American-style pale ale). But it’s in the subtle differences that the joy of this kind of beer resides. Anyone can brew for in-your-face hoppiness or extreme alcohol; anyone, with a bit of ingenuity, can put together flavours that have never been put together before. (Not everyone can do it as well as Dark Star or Bollington, admittedly.) Making a brown bitter that’s drinkable by the pint and low enough in alcohol to stay on all evening, but that’s still distinctive – that to me is a real art. The ironic thing is that it’s an art that doesn’t lend itself to smash hits and showstoppers – after all, who wants to drink four pints of a showstopper?

The conclusions I’m coming to are that

Good beats Brilliant: at least, a good session beer beats a brilliant beer that can only reasonably be drunk by the nip (although some of the latter are very good and I wouldn’t be without them). A brilliant session beer (Hornbeam Bitter, 5 a.m. Saint, Lord Marples) beats the lot, but that’s a very difficult target to hit.

and, perhaps even more counter-intuitively,

Narrow beats Broad: bringing out a range of subtly-different bitters is harder to do, and more rewarding to do well, than ringing every flavour bell going with a double IPA and a witbier and a gose and a black IPA and, and… I’d also suggest that appreciating a range of subtly-different bitters is harder to do (as well as being less exciting) than going Wow over the extremes.

So, ‘craft beer’, then. (To be continued!)

Update (nearly two years later) I’ve been studiously avoiding Beartown ever since and necking Dark Star at every opportunity. The theory advanced in this post may need to be revised.