Top three reasons for taking a pint back, circa 1994 (or any time between the mid-70s and the late 00s):
1. “Sorry, mate, but this one’s sour.”
2. “Sorry, mate, but can you have a look at this? It’s really cloudy.”
3. “Sorry, mate, but I’m not even sure this is beer – it tastes more like somebody’s put a rye loaf in a bucket of water and let it ferment… Not being funny, but… Pint of Landlord, that’d be great.”
Top three hip ‘n’ happening trends at the craft beer cutting edge, 2014:
1. Sour beer.
2. Cloudy beer.
I’m starting to suspect that the similarity between the two lists isn’t entirely a coincidence (or a cheap gag). Look at it this way: if you’re brewing within a known flavour profile, using established methods, everyone up and down the line is going to know roughly what the beer is supposed to look like and taste like – or rather (more to the point) they’ll know what it’s not supposed to look and taste like. As soon as you open the door to ‘the right kind’ of sourness – or ‘the right kind’ of haze – you make quality control much, much more difficult. Ten years ago, when the friendly and helpful barman told you that your sour and murky pint was meant to look and taste like that, you could laugh at him; these days it is actually possible that he’s right. It’s also possible that it was meant to look and taste like a pint of beer, and it’s off in one way or another; more importantly, it’s also possible that it was meant to be sour-ish and/or murky-ish, but that this particular pint/barrel is in fact off. Throw in the wild card of different and challenging flavour profiles – and who isn’t brewing to different and challenging flavour profiles these days? – and it’s anybody’s guess what you were supposed to have in front of you or what condition it was supposed to be in. Next time you take a sour pint back, the f. and h. b. may not stop at telling you it’s fine – you may get the full hipster sneer (Bit sour for you, was it?).
All this was inspired by a pint of Moor Raw at Chorlton Font, which was frankly pretty foul. I started tasting the yeast about halfway down the glass; it arm-wrestled the malt for the rest of the pint, and by the end of the glass it had come out on top. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to taste like that – and, frankly, if it was meant to taste like that it shouldn’t be (there is no style definition of ‘best bitter’ which includes ‘a mouthful of yeast’). Moor beers are unfined, of course, and they’re often very good – I’ve had pale ales of theirs which were spectacularly fresh and zingy. But once you’ve told the world your beers are cloudy, you’ve made it next to impossible to catch the wrong kind of cloudiness. And if you also tell the world that your beer tastes ‘different’, it’s pretty hard to catch off flavours – more importantly, it’s pretty hard for customers to have any confidence that they can recognise off flavours.
I am really rather bored with craft beer (at least, there’s something I think of as ‘craft beer’, with which I’m rather bored) – and when craft beer enthusiasms and blind-spots get in the way of a decent pint of a Saturday night, I stop being bored and get cross. It seems to me that the tendency for brewers to go all out for new and different flavours, coupled with some quite deliberate boundary-pushing in the areas of cloudy and sour beer, have created a situation where lots of people are at risk of being served beer that’s off, and feeling discouraged from complaining about it. It seems to me that this is a really bad situation, and I say enough of it. Enough weird made-up beers – and especially enough sour and cloudy beers (not every boundary is worth pushing). If you’re not fining your beer, frankly you should start; it’s an ancient and perfectly natural technique (and if you’re worried about the fish bladders, have a word with the guys at Marble). If your beer’s sour, then – if you’re not making a Flemish Red or a gueuze – it’s come out wrong. (And if you are making a Flemish Red or a gueuze, can I suggest you stop fannying about and make a decent bitter?)
So that’s my wish list for 2014. No more Borefts-fodder beers-for-art’s sake – beers that you have to ‘get’. And no more sour beer, or cloudy beer. Let’s stop messing about. You’re the drinker – if it looks wrong or it tastes wrong, send it back.