Monthly Archives: December 2011

Mine’s a light and bitter!

Zak writes:

There are a lot of naysayers who object purely on principle to paying £10 for a bottle (or a pint) of beer. I’m not exactly sure why that is – it would be easy to say that it’s jealousy, but I think there’s something more fundamental going on. I think it’s the idea that there is something posh, snobby, pretentious – call it what you want – about spending your money on fancy, rare or expensive beer. Just as I’d defend anyone’s right to spend their money on anything that they want (as long as it isn’t criminal, in the legally defined sense), I’d also defend anyone’s right to express their discomfort about it. But that’s just what I think – I’d love to hear your views on that idea.

Tied into this is the idea that people who buy fancy, rare or expensive beer are doing so because they somehow think they are better than people who don’t. For this to be true, there would have to be a substantial amount of blog content denigrating the sort of beers that “only” cost below £3 a pint.

Elitism is a difficult one. If you like good beer, it’s hard to get away from saying that you prefer better beer, which is only a hop and a skip away from saying that you like the best beer. And if you like the best, and if the best happens to be within your price range, what could be wrong with that? Clearly it would be wrong if you looked down on all the people drinking inferior beer, but (Zak argues) this doesn’t actually happen – not in the British blogosphere, anyway – so what’s the problem?

Something’s got lost in this argument, and – ironically – it’s money. I’ve got no objection to the existence of people who are keen to buy beer priced at twice or three times the level I find affordable, although for obvious reasons I prefer not to socialise with them much. I don’t think they’re bad people, or that they hold offensive attitudes; I don’t really care what attitudes they hold. What I object to is seeing beers priced at twice or three times the level I think of as affordable – and being told that those beers are the latest & greatest, where it’s at, just too, too fab and groovy, etc. (NB check current slang before publishing). Down at the Marble Beerhouse, the new Decadence 750ml has gone on sale at £16 and the new barleywine at (no lie) £19. £16, let alone £19, represents a new high for Marble, and although I generally wish them well I would be delighted if they couldn’t sell them at those prices. I should think they will sell, though, which saddens me. I don’t like being priced out of a market, least of all this one. It makes me feel that I’m losing something I’ve always thought of as mine – and mine to share, potentially, with just about anyone (there aren’t many people who can’t afford a pint in a pub).

There are two parts to this. For myself, firstly, I suppose it’s not quite true to say that I can’t afford those beers. I could find the money if I really wanted to, but – as I said over at B&B – that’s a bit of a red herring: I mean, I could find the money to buy a Rolex if I really wanted to. Beer is something I’m used to buying without worrying about what size hole it’s going to leave in my bank account, and I don’t find that frisson of stress and anxiety adds much to the experience. A bottle of beer at £10 isn’t unaffordable, it just comes in on the wrong side of a sharp intake of breath.

That’s the part about me; the other part of it is about everyone else. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the 70s – when the old hippies were settling down and starting businesses – but I’ve always bracketed real ale with real bread and real cheese. I don’t want to live in a world where most people drink Carlsberg and eat processed cheese squares on white sliced, while the cognoscenti compare notes about their muslin-wrapped Stilton, their wood-oven ciabattas and their, well, you fill in the beer. People who say – to quote a commenter at Zak’s – that “brewers have the right to charge as much as they want for the product of their labour” (to whoever wants to pay that much) don’t often acknowledge the other side of the coin: just as there will always be people willing to pay top whack for ultra-premium specialist goods, there will always be people willing to buy substandard goods if it means paying a bit less. Left unregulated, food producers (and large brewers) are quite happy to fill both of those niches – have a look round the supermarket next time you’re there.

So I’m not offended by people buying bottles of beer priced at the level of a bottle of champagne; what I’m offended by is the pricing of the beer. Beer at those prices is effectively out of my reach, and it’s out of reach of all the people with an income like mine or lower – and there are plenty of them. Every time a blogger raves about one of those bottles, it nudges the image of ‘beer’ a little further towards that end of the scale. My ideal world is one where everyone is eating and drinking good wholesome stuff – where cotton-wool bread, ‘cheese food’ and whatever it is they brew in Moss Side aren’t even available. My big problem with the £10 bottle is that it doesn’t bring that world any nearer; it may even push it further back, by turning campaigners for a good honest drink into connoisseurs of the latest, weirdest, rarest… and most expensive.

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The tint that angers the beast

In my now-defunct bitter tasting notes, I reviewed Highgate’s Red Rogue as follows:

A ‘red’ bitter is one of my favourite styles, and this was a good one. Not much sourness, but a big hit of tannic bitterness in the middle of your mouth, backed by a good wallop of malt. A big flavour all round.

I seem to have known what I meant by ‘red’ – something big and malty, more sweet than sour, with a bit of IPA-ish bitterness for balance.

These days I’m not so sure. I started wondering after trying Hawkshead Red in the course of a ‘Mild Magic’ pub-crawl: as I said at the time, in the absence of milds in one pub “I settled for a half of Hawkshead Red, assuming from the name that it would at least tick the ‘malty’ box. What I got was a hop bomb – a prickly, aniseedy hop bomb, rather reminiscent of Buxton’s current range.” Then there was Dark Star Carafa Jade, similarly badged up as a ‘red’ ale, and just as full-on if not more so: there is malt there, I guess, but it’s subsumed into this odd sort of exploding-liquorice effect at the front of your mouth. Most confusing of all was BrewDog Hops Kill Nazis, a 7.2% keg beer which I ordered on the naive assumption I was going to get something hoppy and pale. What I got was dark – almost black – and thick in texture; the flavour was intensely sour, to the point where I would have taken it back if it had come out of a cask. Hop bitterness took a back seat, and the kind of smoky hop perfume I anticipated wasn’t there in any strength; instead, there was this sourness, qualified by a big alcohol hit and a syrupy aniseed flavour at the front of the mouth. Checking it out afterwards I discovered that this, too, is marketed as a ‘red’ ale.

So is that what ‘red’ means these days – aniseed, liquorice, dark but prickly? Where did it come from – is this the malt revival I used to dream of, only filtered through (as it were) a mouthful of hops? Alternatively, are brewers actually aiming for the style of the old ‘red’ bitters but missing, possibly because they just can’t resist hopping them to the max? What is up with the sourness of that BrewDog thing – are they going for the ‘red’ of Flemish ‘red ales’ (e.g. Rodenbach)? And what on earth is a double imperial red beer? Questions, questions.

Update Just to confuse matters, Lancaster Red turns out to be exactly what I used to think a ‘red’ bitter was like: a big brown malty bitter, with not much going on on the hop aroma front, but with enough character to dispel any suspicion of boringness. The meaning of ‘red’ is becoming still more obscure.

PS XTC, second album, last track on side one. Very under-rated album.

Shifting the gear

(Crossposted from 52 Folk Songs and based on comments posted at fRoots.)

The Indigo album marks the first quarter of the 52fs year: 13 songs down, 39 to go. With that in mind, here’s a quick retrospective post on the project.

Songs posted so far: 34
Traditional songs: 22
Contemporary songs: 12 (authors: Peter Bellamy, Bellamy/Kipling, Peter Blegvad, Noel Coward, Bob Dylan, Green Gartside, Richard Thompson, Lal Waterson, Joss Whedon)
Whistle tunes: 3
Songs with backing: 11 (including all the last eight)
Backing instruments: 4 woodwind, 3 free reed (including a melodica I didn’t own two months ago), drums (not played for 30 years), voices, some programming

I had no idea there was going to be all this playing involved when I started! The next frontier is harmony; the ‘white’ album (over Christmas and New Year) is going to feature a fair amount of singing in parts, something I’ve never done before. It’ll be great, probably.

So, what have I learned so far?

1. My voice sounds very different when recorded. Very very very different. Obviously I knew this already, but spending a lot of time with my recorded voice has really brought it home to me. Lots of takes, lots of close listening, and you start hearing a voice that’s very different from what you thought you were producing…
1a. …and start thinking “maybe I need to work on that”. In my head I’m always giving a peak performance – that hypnotic Musgrave I did that time, that back-wall-nailing Trees They Do Grow High… Listening back, this turns out not to be the case; a lot of the time, particularly on first takes, what I hear is just this bloke singing…
1b. …and sometimes not in a terribly distinctive voice – although sometimes I do listen to a take and think “that’s me – I’ll do more like that”. I’ve been singing all my life, and singing in public on a fairly regular basis since 2004; it seems weird to be thinking about ‘finding a voice’ now, but there it is.

2. Although I’ve always seen myself as an unaccompanied singer, it turns out that accompanied singing is a lot of fun…
2a. …especially drones (which I never thought I’d get into)…
2b. …but also harmonies, rhythm tracks, chords (I love my melodica)…
2c. …although doing them all multi-tracked is an incredible time-sink…
2d. …which imposes definite limits on how close to perfection I can afford to get…
2e. …and layering separate tracks recorded without a click is an absolute no-no, unless you really enjoy wielding the virtual razor-blade in Audacity. There’s timing that sounds absolutely regular, and then there’s timing that is absolutely regular, down to the tenth of a second – and that’s a lot harder.

3. Uploading home recordings to a Web site is not going to enable me to give up the day job. (Fortunately I like the day job.) Obviously I knew this already too, but it’s really been brought home to me…
3a. …that there aren’t millions of people who like listening to this stuff, at least not online, not all the way through (why don’t people just leave the thing playing?) and…
3b. …there definitely aren’t millions of people who like downloading it; and, more generally…
3c. …the Web is no place to build a profile, unless you’re very talented, very photogenic, very lucky or gifted with a herd of football-playing pigs; it’s a great shop-front, but I think you still need to build awareness in the real world. There is just too much music out there for a single project like this to make much of a splash. (Or maybe it’s a slow-burning splash; there have definitely been more plays per day per track of the songs on the Indigo album than the ones on its Violet predecessor. We shall see.)

4. Bandcamp’s statistics distinguish between ‘complete’ (>90%) plays, ‘skips’ (stopped before 10%) and ‘partial’ (>10% but <90%). The number of partials and skips is extraordinary, not to say slightly alarming. (On the other hand, the songs with the most partial plays generally have the most full plays as well, so I suppose it all works out.) Aggregating all three, my top five tracks are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
3 Derwentwater’s farewell
4= Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
4= The unfortunate lass

On full plays alone, the top five (or seven) are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 The unfortunate lass
3 There are bad times just around the corner
4 The cruel mother
5= Derwentwater’s farewell
5= Us poor fellows
5= The death of Bill Brown

Propping up the table (sorted on all plays together) are

28. Hughie the Graeme
29. St Helena lullaby (Rudyard Kipling)
30. Serenity (Joss Whedon)
31. Percy’s song (Bob Dylan)
32. The unborn Byron (Peter Blegvad)

(I’m excluding the album-only House[s] of the Rising Sun from the list; hence the last place is number 32, not 34.)

Things look slightly different if we sort on full plays, as there are six songs for which the ‘complete play’ count is stuck at zero – these songs haven’t been played all the way through at all. What are you like, world? There’s some great stuff here:

The unborn Byron
The death of Nelson
Percy’s song
Boney’s lamentation
Dayspring mishandled (Rudyard Kipling)
Danny Deever (Rudyard Kipling)

Generally the newer stuff seems to have gone down less well than the traditional songs – which are, after all, what 52fs is all about, so I can’t really complain.

5. Even if I were the only audience – which I’m not, although (as we see) for a couple of tracks it’s a close thing – 52fs is proving to be an incredibly enjoyable and absorbing project; I’m learning all the things about music I’ve always vaguely thought I ought to know, as well as some unexpected but useful things about my voice.

Here’s the link to the album again: 52 Folk Songs – Indigo. Roll up! Roll up! And here are links to a couple of personal favourites, plus a couple which may have had less attention than they deserve.