Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Sucking Up A Social Class: Some Further Observations

As Boak and Bailey point out on their blog, there is a lot of debate at present around "craft" beer and snobbery. I was going to post on their blog about why this is, but then realised that it probably warranted a post all of its own.

There are a couple of things going on here. One is the conflation of money and class, a peculiarly American concept. Could it be that the "craft" beer movement, as well as drawing beery inspiration from the USA, has also imported a load of social values along with it? 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. But I can't find anything, anywhere that says anything like that, BrewDog's publicity machine aside, of course.

Ah, the B-word. Has BrewDog stance on "industrial" beer become so well disseminated that now people are conflating their views with that of the "craft" beer movement as a whole? Or are they closer than "craft" beer lovers would like to think? Or is it really simply about money and snobbery?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

WE ARE LEEDS!

This pic was taken in Rome early 2010. It's at the beer dinner hosted jointly by Birra Del Borgo and Dogfish Head, which sort of doubled as the launch for the Italian-only book "Eur-Hop!" - it's a beer-lover's guide to Europe. As well as the brewers Leonardo Di Vincenzo, Teo Musso and Sam Calagione, the chap on the left, holding a copy of said book, is Lorenzo Dabove (aka Kuaska), Italy's most celebrated beer writer.

At the launch, Kuaska talked to me about the "Holy Trinity" of beer cities in the North of England (that's how they are described in the book) - Sheffield, Manchester and Huddersfield. I also note that the author for the portion on northern England is some guy called Dave Szwejkowski, who has apparently "viagiatto attraverso i cinque continente in cerca delle birra perfetto" - which makes Dave Unpronounceable's international scooping exploits sound impossibly glamorous.

I also remember feeling slightly crushed that Leeds wasn't part of that group, but hey, that's life. And what a difference a couple of years makes.

This is a time of year when it's natural to look backwards and assess, but let's be the perverts we want to be and look forward and speculate. I think 2012 is going to be a good year for Leeds. Not only is the European Beer Blogger Conference coming to Leeds in May, but it's also North Bar's 15th anniversary, which must surely be the cue for all sorts of unusually fabulous events. Throw into that mix the rumours fact of the long-awaited opening of a BrewDog bar in Leeds, and it looks as though next year is going to see Leeds adding another point to the that Holy Trinity, making it into, errr, no idea - an Unholy Rhombus?

Included below is a little piece I did this morning on BBC Radio Leeds about the EBBC 2012. The keen observer will note that I'm getting my years confused a bit, but live radio is quite intense. I'm just pleased I got through it without freezing, corpsing or profanity.

It's good to see the mainstream media showing an interest in the event so far ahead - I hope that we can all keep some sort of momentum up, and put Leeds and great beer on the map for May next year.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Golden Pints 2011

Everyone loves a list, don't they? A "Best of..." list is a great way of condensing information, although of of course there is a lot of detail and nuance lost in this approach, and anyone not appearing on it might feel slighted.

Oh well, here's my contribution:

Best UK Draught (Cask or Keg) Beer Magic Rock High Wire
Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer Buxton Brewery Axe Edge
Best Overseas Draught Beer Odell IPA
Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer Anchor Porter - a hugely underrated beer, in my opinion
Best Overall Beer Magic Rock High Wire
Best Pumpclip or Label Magic Rock
Best UK Brewery The Kernel - defining 'craft' without ever thinking too hard about it
Best Overseas Brewery Mikkeller (yes, I know he hasn't got a brewery, but you know what I mean)
Pub/Bar of the Year I don't get out much, but The Euston Tap is a repeated draw when I'm in London
Beer Festival of the Year I've not been to many, but GBBF is an obvious call
Supermarket of the Year Haven't shopped widely enough to have an opinion
Independent Retailer of the Year modesty forbids - has it only been 9 months....?
Online Retailer of the Year modesty forbids
Best Beer Book or Magazine not read enough to choose
Best Beer Blog or Website Adrian Tierney-Jones at Called to the Bar
Best Beer Twitterer Simon H Johnson
Best Online Brewery presence Magic Rock
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year couldn't choose, sorry.
In 2012 I’d Most Like To… get back out to the USA, and judge at the World Beer Cup
Open Category: You Choose Best commodity/craft crossover beer - Worthington White Shield. I can't think of a single other beer that has got such a great lineage, tastes amazing, and yet you can still pick up for a couple of quid in most UK supermarkets. Garrett Oliver's maxim that "you can buy some of the best beers in the world for the price of a double latte at Starbucks" has never been more true.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Hi, My Name's Zak, And I'm A Hypocrite

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been 1,716 weeks since my last confession, and in that time I've been guilty of the sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, acedia, lust, envy, vanity and pride"

"You said lust twice, my child"

"I'm sorry father, I like lust"

I like to think that I'm as even handed with "ordinary" beer as I am "craft" beer. A nervous glance back through my recent posts (did I only post once in October? That's sloth and acedia for you) suggests that although I do post about rare and hard-to-find stuff, I also post about easy-to-find stuff too.

Coupled to that, a recent theme in my posts has been to support independent retailers - no particular reason, other than it's what I do for a living, and I think that independent retailers have a very clearly defined role in the beer market. Having said that, I'd be interested to hear what you think that role is.

However, I have to admit to having strayed from the path recently. I live a 3 minute walk from a Morrisons supermarket, and the other evening, having just driven home from a warehouse with around £100k of great beer in it, I discovered that I didn't have any beer that was appropriate to my mood. I didn't want any homebrew, any Fuller's Gales Prize Old Ale, any Stone Old Guardian, any Birra Del Borgo KeTo Reporter, any Hair Of The Dog Adam, any Hardknott Granite (Batch 1), any Williams Bros Fraoch 20, any Thomas Hardy Ale. What I wanted was a couple of bottles of BrewDog Punk IPA. And Mozzers sells it.

I confess, I went to a supermarket and bought some "craft" beer. I don't know how I feel about this. On one hand, I'm delighted that it's available to me (and other shoppers) so readily. On the other hand, I'm saddened that it's available to me (and other shoppers) so readily.

What do you think? Is the chase part of the fun? How hard should you have to look for "craft" beer? Is it any less "craft" for being in a supermarket?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Economised

It's the annual awards dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers this week, which for me is increasingly becoming an anchor point in the year, perhaps more so in beery terms than Christmas, birthday or New Year. The picture above was taken in the Euston Tap almost a year ago, the day after I won the Molson Coors-sponsored National Journalism category. I was having a beer, staring off into space, and wasn't aware of the photo being taken. That picture has also recently appeared in the online and print editions of The Economist. Leaving aside the tiresome cliché of beer making you fat (the caption to the picture prompted fellow blogger Nick Mitchell to point out that "1.4m influential businessmen, professionals, economists and thought leaders now think you're fat.") and the questionable fact that fancy beer has any snob value at all outside of a very small circle of people, it's a pretty decent summary of the situation.

That things are changing in the beer world isn't in doubt. What is surprising is the potential for growth that the niche end of the market is providing - indeed, it's where ALL the growth is at the moment. In a year that's seen me invest roughly two thirds of the value of my home in a warehouse full of beer, my senses have become acutely tuned to business side of what's happening at the bar (or more commonly, at the off licence), as well as what simply tastes good. I'm happy to report that it's not just a lot of noisome bloggers creating an illusion of a scene, it is actually going on in real life too. Of course, you knew that, because you're part of it, but the view from the other side of the fence, the bit that needs to pay the bills in order to feed the interest, is happy to confirm it: Call it what you want - craft beer, really good beer, beer - it's not just a bubble, or a phenomenon, or the flavour of the month. Sure it's niche, sure it's small, but at a time when the media is focusing on the bad (neatly summed up here), there's a part of the economy that is in growth, and that needs to be celebrated. Perhaps with a beer.

Image from The Euston Tap's website

Friday, 18 November 2011

Guest Blog: My Local

I've done a guest blog for that nice Velky Al chap over at Fuggled. Why not mosey over and have a look at it?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Reject My Hand, And The Damage Is Done*

OK, so the link between the title and the subject is a bit tenuous, but it's one that elicits a real knee-jerk reaction in me every time. It's about the gap between the beer producer and the beer drinker, and specifically who fills that gap. At a point where the volumes consumed in the on-trade and off-trade are roughly equal, with trends suggesting that the off-trade will eclipse the on-trade in the next few years, who is connecting producers and consumers?

You'd be forgiven for believing that the supermarkets are king when it comes to beer. Certainly, nobody tries to compete with them when it comes to commodity beer. They have a stranglehold on that market, although interestingly, very few people talk about the time when Tesco delisted Carling due to a price rise, and then caved in and relisted it after a month of people saying "what do you mean you don't stock Carling?" (see here, for example). Whatever you may think about Molson-Coors, it takes some guts to tell a notoriously tough-dealing supermarket that you're not going to play ball with its pricing policy.

But I digress.

Who is connecting brewers and drinkers these days? The big book of BBPA stats that plopped onto my doormat the other day suggests half of it is the on-trade, and half off-trade (50.9% vs 49.1%, if you want to be picky). Now let's assume that 80% of the beers in the off trade are volume brands, that leaves 20% of the volume that might be said to be premium bottled beer. The more alert amongst you will already have noticed that this is only around 10% of the market, but crucially, this is where the growth and the value is at present.

But aside from that, why would you expect supermarkets to get this sort of thing right anyway? Surely if you're looking at a 10% market share (and if you're talking about 'craft' beer, my hunch is that you're looking at less than a 1% market share), this is the realm of the specialist, and when you talk about bottled beer, you're talking about specialist off licences. So when I see articles like this well-intentioned piece on the Guardian's "Word of Mouth" blog, which in turn references Mark's piece about Tesco's epic beer fail, it makes me want to slam my fingers in a drawer, because at no point does anyone say "of course, you'd be better off seeking out a local independent off-licence, which will have a better range and better-informed, more passionate staff". And while I rarely draw comparisons between beer and wine (which I think is like comparing meat and cheese - THEY ARE DIFFERENT THINGS!), I will say that it's almost taken for granted that you will get more interesting wine at an independent wine merchant than you ever will at a supermarket.

So why is everyone acting so surprised that it's any different for beer? Sure, I have a vested interest. I declare it over there, on the right - a shop, a mail-order service, and a wholesaling business. It's what I do, and I'm currently doing it to the detriment of what I vainly refer to as "my career as a writer", because it's something that I believe passionately in. The simple fact is, there's an amazing network of great beer off-licences in the UK that simply don't get the respect they deserve. From relative newcomers like Eddy at The Beer Boutique in Putney and Anthony at Alexander Wines in Coventry, to stalwarts like Muree at The Offie in Leicester and Krishan at Stirchley Wines in Birmingham, Drink of Fulham, Trafalgar Wines in Brighton - the list could go on (and maybe it should - shall we start a list?). Sure I supply those guys with some of their beer, but that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because unless those businesses get the support they need, they won't be around for ever.

So don't be surprised that the supermarkets don't get it right. By and large, they don't sell the best of anything - that is still the domain of the specialist. The interesting stuff happens in that tiny 1% of the market - that's the bit we're all interested in. Support the specialists. Use them or lose them, folks. To return to the title of the post: "Reach for my hand, and the race is won. Reject my hand, and the damage is done"

*with apologies to Morrissey

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Pissed Up On Booze

I went out last week. That might not sound comment-worthy, but I don't get out nearly as much as you might think. A double-handful of us went to the local Aagrah for curry and birthday celebrations. It was pretty decent, although I'm no expert - for all I know, it may be the Nando's of the Indian subcontinent, although I actually don't mind Nando's either.

The pre-dinner drink was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, not at Aagrah, but across the road at a more hip bar. Did I want a glass? Actually no, I'll skip it - what the hell, I know what it tastes like, and it'll stay colder longer in the bottle. We go to Aagrah, and the person doing the ordering at the bar makes the "sorry, I dont think their beer selection is up to much" face - it's a face I see quite often. I find myself saying "Whatever - Cobra I guess".

The Cobra comes in big bottles, with a pint glass. We sit down, start drinking, chatting and catching up. The beer is totally incidental, but also paradoxically integral to what we're doing. Lager and curry, a cliché, but then we're not trying to prove anything. The table has gravitated to guys at one end, women at the other, but the only real difference is that the women are swearing less, and are drinking Cobra from wine glasses. It's not about the beer.

I end up eating Lahore machli - spiced fried fish - and fashioning myself a kebab for the main course - basically a double portion of seekh kebab, two chappatis and a bowl of special raita. I'm sat in a nice restaurant, with a tablecloth and a cloth napkin, eating kebabs and drinking lager. And it's totally brilliant.

Is it really necessary to live the craft beer cliché every time you fancy a beer? There are some things that I try not to compromise on, like free-range meat, for example, although ironically, I'm sure that the meat I ate that night was as industrially produced as the beer. But then the myth of free-range, organic food for everyone is just that - a myth, a pipedream, an ideal. As we see American breweries pulling out of not just the UK market, but even inter-state distribution deals, you have to ask yourself if the 'craft' beer market, although in rapid expansion at present, is actually going to become harder to access by virtue of its success.

But back to the point. I had a load of ordinary lager, a couple of kebabs, and the company of friends for a few hours, and it was the most fun night out I'd had in ages. Would it have been a better night if we'd had better beer to talk about?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Higher Strength Beer Duty - My View

Here are my thoughts about the introduction of Higher Strength Beer Duty, as published this week in Off Licence News

You can read the rationale behind the tax here

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The strong beer tax seems to have happened without any real reaction from the mainstream media. It's true that it was reported fairly widely at the time it was announced, but only really as a governmental policy rather than as anything that might actually affect the way that beer is perceived. It's seen as tax on binge drinking, which if you stop and analyse it for even a second, is clearly bollocks (excuse my Anglo-Saxon, but there's no other word for it). As someone who has finally learned the error of drinking more than a couple of bottles of Duvel at a sitting, it's quite clear that the stronger the beer, the less able you are to 'binge' on it. Indeed, there is an argument to made that the stronger the beer, the harder it is to drink in quantity, not just because of the higher %abv, but also that it renders you incapable with alarming swiftness. Beers like that are no use at all for a long evening in the pub.

Around 15% of the beers that we sell will be affected by the tax. At the top end (in strength terms), the strongest Belgians have seen an increase of 50p to 75p. That's a pretty drastic rise, and it remains to be seen how sales will suffer. Will people switch to lower strength beers, as is the government's wish, or will they just complain and pay up. I can remember lots of people saying that they would stop smoking when cigarettes reached a fiver a packet. They didn't.

The tax is a fudge, a farce, a fiasco. It's a cowardly, nonsensical tax that sets out to address a problem that barely exists, and will fail to make a difference, other than to those who sell stronger beer for a living. And by stronger beer, I don't specifically mean the sort of higher-strength industrial beer that the tax sets out to address, but imported beers from Europe and North America. Perhaps ironically, the British brewing industry will be largely unaffected, and the sort of beers that people actually do go out and drink all day won't be affected.

You could also make a spirited argument that rather than a blanket tax on all strong beer, the government may have been better off deciding what beers it wants to tax, and figuring out a way to accurately do that. If doesn't require too much imagination to realise that if you want to penalise the producers of strong, industrially produced beer, then what you need to do is pass legislation decreeing that if your output of a certain beer in this strength bracket exceeds X hectolitres, then an additional duty of Y is payable on it. Not hard, is it?

Regardless of all this, I'm not sure that strong beer is necessarily the cheapest way of getting drunk. The late Michael Jackson (no, not that one) famously described beer as an inefficient means of getting drunk, and he's right. It seems odd that beer is in a minority as an alcoholic drink that is taxed per degree of alcohol. Almost everything else has a flat rate, or at best, a dual-rate banding of 'ordinary' and 'stronger' versions. Strong beer is already taxed more purely by virtue of being stronger – taxing it more isn't going to make any difference to how people consume it, and will almost certainly encourage a switch to something a bit more efficient. That's an uneasy truth, and one that is too hard to address, and so we must all pay with a broad-brush solution.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Weekend Beers Round-Up

It seems a tad prosaic after the epic response that the previous post elicited, but I thought I'd quickly round a few of the beers opened this weekend - the majority are samples, and so I guess I should do my duty and at least pass comment.

The Dogfish Head/Birra Del Borgo My Antonia that I'm drinking as I write is still great - not as great as BrewDog Avery Brown Dredge (which seems to have been getting a bit of a mention on Twitter this week), but still a corker.

Last night was a couple of dark beers - Zatec Dark, which is a great black lager, soft, smooth and creamy - and Brain's Original Stout, which is a great mediumweight stout with a lot of lovely leafy hop character in the finish.

Adnam's Ghost Ship and Salopian Oracle are two beer cut from a similar cloth, both having the sort of pungent hop character that first caused me to use the phrase "hop-forward, and in the modern style" - pungently hoppy, zippy, and palate-awakening the both.

Natural Selection Finch is descibed on the label as a "robust red ale". Other people have written kindly about this beer, which makes it all the stranger that I found it to be an undrinkable crystal malt bomb. I like crystal malt, but this was just OTT.

A brief detour into a homebrew, which is going to be my entry for the Nicholson's / Thornbridge homebrew competition, confirmed that I'm going to walk away with the first prize - if you'd like to try it and be in awe, it's the beer that I'll be bringing along to the inaugural Leeds Homebrew meet-up - and then things got serious with a Thornbridge Bracia, a stunning beer, both metaphorically and physically. I needed a long lie down after that one, for sure.

This is the full and frank account of a weekend's drinking, recorded this day, the 25th of September, in the two thousand and eleventh year of our lord. Amen.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?*

Just as we are at a high point for beer in the UK, so are we at a high point for beer appreciation. Like anything that elicits passion and opinion, the beer world is riven with various factions. CAMRA are unquestionably the old guard, and as of today, there are two new kids on the block - Craft Beer UK, and CAMRGB, the Campaign for Really Good Beer.

CAMRGB (website here) were first out of the blocks by my reckoning, and I like their cheery, naive (or is it faux-naive?) approach. It also helps that their logo is reminiscent of the Cuban flag, but that's sort of by-the-by. They clearly state their aims on their homepage, and it's difficult to disagree with any of them. In fact, that's the problem - it's so commendably all-inclusive that it's hard to know who will say "hell yeah, I like beer and fun, this is something that I can really get behind!". Or more pertinently, who could disagree with those sentiments? It's so warm-heartedly bouncy and eager that to dislike it would be to dislike a puppy. "Sodding puppy, with it's floppy ears and big paws, and wide-eyed innocence... aww, go on then, come here and have a cuddle". There's a saying that if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything - I wonder, how does the epithet end if it starts "If you stand for everything...."?

At the other end of the scale, we have Craft Beer UK (website here), who set out their stall very clearly. The c-word is ever-present - not that one, you dirty-minded beast, but the more nebulous term, craft. In their "About" section, Craft Beer UK attempt to set out their stall, arguing that "the term 'craft beer' has been used in the UK to refer to artisanal brewers who focus on quality over quantity and brew good beer", a definition that is somehow simultaneously so broad and so narrow as to be meaningless. Is there an innate nobility in brewing less beer? Are Sierra Nevada somehow less craft for being the world's largest consumer of whole cone hops? You can work out the answer to that, I'm sure. Even more worrying is the fact that Craft Beer UK will admit breweries to their roster on application, but with an element of peer review (see this tweet and their stated membership policy). This slightly undermines their claim that craft beer is something more than "beers that I like" (see Phil's post on craft beer, and my comment of the FUBU brand for more analysis of this).

Just as neither of these organisations needs any endorsement from me, neither should they take my opinions too much to heart. It's great to see people getting behind beer, and unquestionably the drinking public of the UK might benefit from a heightened awareness of their drinking options. But I do worry that neither of these organisations is bringing enough to the table. My experience is that many people still have a bit of trouble with the notion of what exactly constitutes real ale, so trying to bring a nebulous term like "good beer" or "craft beer" into the public arena may ultimately do more harm than good. That's not to say we shouldn't try, but as the title of the post asks: *Who Will Watch the Watchers?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Do You Want To Be Paid To Drink Beer?

A friend of mine is doing some market research in Leeds, West Yorkshire, this week. If you're a bloke, 45 years old or over, and want to be paid £25 to drink 3 pints of bitter on consecutive nights (I'm not making this up, honest!), then why not drop her an email? Her name's Lisa, and you can reach her on lhpringle(at)hotmail.co.uk, or call her on zero seven seven one eight, two five two three nine seven.

Please spread the word to any 45+, Leodesian ale-drinking men you may know.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Now Drinking: Rooster's Baby-Faced Assassin

I'm not really sure that I can add anything to the video through the medium of the written word, to be honest. It's all there for you to watch - a bit of blather, a bit of drinking, the 'Pliny cackle' as I smell it.

I was given this at a party that Rooster's hosted a couple of weeks ago. They invited a load of people along, got some great beers in, and spoiled everyone rotten. The best beer I tried that day was Deschutes' The Dissident, a beer so rare and fabulous that not only did Sean Franklin spend four hours drinking a bottle one evening, but he liked it so much that he insisted on having some air-freighted over for all his guests to enjoy. The Dissident is a beer so complex that it makes Deschutes' The Abyss seem a bit flabby and one-dimensional in comparison. I can say that for sure, because Sean also had some of that flown in for the party. Here's what I said about The Dissident in "500 Beers":

"More of a lambic-brown ale hybrid, this has fruity and sour nose, and a smooth, complex cherry-accented tartness to the palate. I'm not sure there are enough superlatives to describe the complexity of this, so I'll just moan with pleasure. Mmmmm."


You can see why I was Beer Writer of the Year 2008, can't you?



Yes, it says "Baby-Faced Ass" above the video. Hilarious.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dear Diary.... (part 2)

Dear Diary,

My head is really awhirl at the moment - I forgot to mention the very thing that prompted me to open you yesterday!

Tomorrow morning (on Monday), just after 8am, on BBC Radio Leeds, I've been asked to do come in and do an interview about the closure of Leeds' Tetleys brewery, and what that means for the beer scene in the city. I'm very much looking forward to it.

It reminds me that a little while ago, I wrote a piece for Leigh at The Good Stuff. He was doing a guest post for another blog and asked for a quick soundbite about the closure. Me being me, I couldn't stop writing, and unfortunately the soundbite ended up as a short essay. I suppose here is as good a place as any to reproduce it. Until next time, dear diary....

-----------------------------------------------------

There will be an older generation of drinkers who mourn the closure of the Tetley brewery as though it were the death of a close relative. And there will be a younger generation of drinkers who wonder what all the fuss is about.

The older generation are wrong to mourn its closing - it's true that the presence of Tetley's in Leeds is an important cultural artefact, but once Tetley's became Carlsberg-Tetley's, its days were numbered. And the younger generation are wrong to ignore its closure - the maxim that you need to know your past before you can know your future rings true here.

While the mantle of beer production in Leeds now passes to Leeds Brewery, Tetley's the brand still exists. How you feel about the relocation of production isn't about how the beer tastes, or how an international business has treated its assets. It's about a personal story, about how you relate to current affairs and weave them into your personal history.

So my plea is neither to bury Tetley's nor to praise it. The old guard have spent years complaining about how the beer isn't what it was - that's the nature of nostalgia. And the new brooms will most likely have tried it once and dismissed it as old-fashioned - that's the nature of youth. What I urge both parties to do is see the cultural significance of this event, and use it as a spur to their drinking habits - local, global, traditional, innovative, it's about integrity. Drink what you like, and like what you drink, but do it for the right reasons - not solely for the sake of tradition, nor solely for the sake of fashion, but do it because it has a deeper meaning.

Beer is about storytelling, sociability, and an exchange of ideas. It's a centuries old tradition that will endure beyond a particular brand, and it's a story that needs retelling every day to be kept alive. Whether that's over a pint of local ale in a local pub, or at home over a bottle of beer that has a ruinous number of air miles attached to it, I'm not sure it matters. However you perform it, enjoy the ritual and keep the faith.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Dear Diary.....

Dear Diary, what a couple of weeks it's been.

Karen (my business partner) has been away on holiday for the last two weeks, and the experience of piloting the business on my own has been both exhilarating and exhausting in equal measures. Add to this a lot of top-secret behind-the-scenes stuff, some of which will in all probability never be public knowledge, and it's been quite a trip. A lot of the secret stuff has been keeping me awake at night, and has involved a fair amount of tossing and a little turning, but it's all good, believe me.

As if I didn't have enough on my plate, I've also started another blog. Leeds Homebrew is an attempt to get the homebrewers in and around my fair city to share recipes, meet up once a quarter, and give honest and supportive evaluation of each other's efforts. I have to admit to being a little disappointed about the initial take up in contributions or feedback, but I guess we'll set up the first two meets and see what happens.

Looking forward, I can see that I have a busy few weeks ahead of me. It seems that I'm scheduled to hold a tasting event at the music venue The Deaf Institute in Manchester this Tuesday. I think it's a combined public-staff session, but I'm sure if people want more information, they can contact the venue directly.

I also need to find time this week to get my entry together for the annual British Guild of Beer Writers awards dinner. I've had a pretty good year, despite being worked to the bone for the last 6 months, and I do hope I get recognised for both my exceptional talent and understated modesty.

The 15th will see me at North Bar in Leeds, drinking the beer that I brewed with Denzil from Great Heck Brewery, Heckstra-Ordinary Best Bitter. I may even say a few words about it, and about how it's an attempt to make an ordinary brown bitter for the 21st century. I haven't tried it myself, and so I may be setting myself up for a fall, but hey, that's the nature of being a wide-eyed loner at the frontiers of craft beer (whatever that may eventually turn out to mean).

Later in the month, I'm heading to London for a day to judge the Sainsbury's beer competition, and hopefully meet wine bloke Olly Smith. Olly won a competiton a few years ago organised by Hardy's called "Wine Idol". I was going to enter it myself, but sadly never got it together - how different my life may be today if I had! But Olly seems like a good chap, and I look forward to meeting in him in all his bequiffed and ruddy-cheeked glory.

I've also just received a cheeky email from the folk who are doing the PR for SIBA, asking me to plug their Great Northern Beer Festival on my blog. They're clearly a bit new at this, as it's customary to offer something in return for a favour - usually a couple of tickets, or something - but I'm sure that they'll get the idea eventually.

Until next time, dear diary.....

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Homebrewing.

When Pete Brown, Mark Dredge and I went up to BrewDog to brew our eponymous beer, I spent a good chunk of the drive from Aberdeen to Fraserburgh talking to James Watt about how I wanted to start a homebrew school in Leeds. Basically, have a very small plant (say 25 litre) that people who were interested in brewing, but didn't know where to start, could come and brew under supervision, leave the beer to ferment, and then bottle it themselves. I have to admit that my constant blathering was mainly help to keep my mind off how hideously hungover/drunk I felt, but sadly the idea never got off the ground.

I started homebrewing as a way of understanding the process and pitfalls that go to make up the finished product. It was sort of an academic interest, just without any academic rigour - hence me tipping away 35 litres of infected homebrew this evening (note to self: obsess more about sanitation). It also helps that, if everything goes right, you end up with a few cases of beer at the end of the process. By virtue of it being (a) really fresh and (b) the fruit of your own labour, you usually get something pretty enjoyable out of it too.

I've been given quite a bit of homebrew lately, and there are two questions that these precious bottles raise for me. Firstly, should they be judged at all, or just silently drunk (or poured away)? And secondly, if they are to be judged and evaluated, should they be judged against commercial beers, or should we cut some slack?

Going back to a point that I made in my previous post, I'm quite happy to give polite, honest feedback to anybody, as I'm sure plenty of brewers will know by now. So I was wondering if there was any mileage in starting a group blog, based in Leeds, for homebrewers to post recipes on, and then meet quarterly to try the beers that they are brewing?

In fact, to take it a step further, I've created a blog around which to base the idea - Leeds Homebrew (we can change the name later) - and I've posted my first ever homebrew recipe on there. The format of that post is what I hope will be a standard format for recipes posted - if you want to add liquor treatment, or any other details, then please do. But recipe first, comments second.

If you'd like to get involved, and think that you can meet once a quarter, and bring some homebrew along, then why not get involved? The only stipulation is that the beer brought along has to be made at home. Commercial brewers are welcome, but you can't bring beer that you've made on your big shiny kit at work. If you want to contribute, email me and I'll add you as an author on the blog - zak(at)thebeerboy.co.uk.

But to get back to the original point - are these homebrews for drinking or review?

(Bottles pictured (L-R) - @GhostDrinker - "Red Room", Dean @MrFoleys - "Suspicious Minds", @cheeeseboiger - "Construkt", Craig (I thought it was @craighall, but it isn't, sorry - please get in touch!) - "Resonance Cascade", @thebarleyswine (missing in action) - "Saison Brett" & "Transcontinental Shit Mix", @iamlonewolf - "Arctic Stout"

Saturday, 13 August 2011

To The Crafterati: An Apology

There's been a lot of debate lately (notably on Beer Birra Bier and Tandleman's blogs respectively) around how best to go about reporting bad beer experiences. This is a topic close to my heart, as I've been accused on more than one occasion of being one of the 'cheery beery' crowd - reporting how great everything is, and never passing comment on anything bad.

Like many commentators, I think it's a tough call. I prefer to focus on the good experiences, but that's not to say that I never give bad feedback. The majority of my reporting back is direct to the brewers. Plenty of times over the last few years, I've had need to tell people that their work isn't up to snuff, and I'm not talking about taking a pint back - most often, it's been multiple cases, or a whole run of one beer, and once, nearly a full pallet of bottles.

Most of the time, there's no need to 'go public' with these things. Sometimes beer does make it into the supply chain before a fault is spotted, but in relatively small quantities. I've seen beers pass into circulation, and people pass comment on them. Most of the time, these beers are withdrawn or sent back. It's irritating when this happens, but is mostly handled correctly by brewers.

But that's not the main thrust of this post. The main idea here is to pick up on some things I said about The Crafterati a little while ago. I'm happy to hold up my hands and say that I was wrong about a few things in that post, or at least gave the wrong impression about what I thought. And here's why.

When I see people criticising 'boring brown beer', it irritates me. It irritates me because these 'boring brown beers' are part of our brewing heritage, and these are the beers that inspired a generation of American craft brewers. They were inspired by imports to the US in the 80s, or by visiting the UK, and then they brewed beer with local ingredients. And when Ken Grossman chose local Cascade hops with which to make Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, he defined a beer style, and to a lesser degree, the entire American craft brewing movement. And we all know how influential that movement is in the UK today.

I love some boring brown bitters. Hook Norton Old Hooky, Batemans XXXB, Wadworths 6X - classics all. They taste great, and are living icons of a classic ale brewing tradition. I like boring brown bitter so much that when Denzil at Great Heck Brewing invited me for a brew day (that's him mashing in - yes, that's quite a full mash tun), I wanted to do an ordinary brown bitter with knobs on. Sure, it's a single-hop beer, dry-hopped with a shedload of Apollo, but at it's heart, there's crystal and amber malt. Yummy, nutty, and ordinary with knobs on. It's like a great meat and potato pie - done well, it's indisputably fabulous. Denzil and I will be launching it at North Bar in the next couple of weeks - do come along and let us know what you think.

But hold on. Those beers that I love are have been around forever - that's part of their appeal to me. What is inexcusable - and here's where I'm making kissy-kissy to the crafterati - is that there is still a lot of crappy brown beer being made. If you're going to make a beer that takes a classic as its model - say Bateman's XXXB for the sake of argument - you'd better damn well improve on it. Every week, I receive samples of beer that are both dull and badly made. And that isn't good enough. And so this is the bit where I set out my stall and say sorry to The Crafterati - you're right, there's no excuse for that sort of rubbish.

Of course, that knife cuts both ways. To use a recent example, on International IPA Day, at Mr Foleys, I bought a couple of beers that I left after a few sips - there's no excuse for making unbalanced, clumsy hop-and-malt bombs either. So along with a new tranche of traditional brewers making inexcusably boring and faulty beer, we have a new wave of radical brewers occasionally trying too hard.

Change is good, but change for the sake of it - substituting the new crappy for the old crappy - strikes me as a bit pointless.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Magic Rock Brewing: The Bottles

Last night's IPA day event at Mr Foleys in Leeds was a lot of fun. Beer, people, blather, and the chance for a few people to be utterly fabulous in their own way (yes, I was one of the fabulous, just for one night). But of course, it wasn't about the people, even people as fabulous as me. It was about the beer.

There's a bit of a paradox to good beer, in that if it's really good, it doesn't hang around for long. I'm not sure which was the first IPA to sell out - maybe it was the Rooster's Underdog? - but Magic Rock Human Cannonball, their double IPA, sold out early on too. But, as Leigh at The Good Stuff says, more on this later.

Magic Rock Rapture (4.6%abv) is a red ale, which I have a sneaking suspicion is becoming a style that more 'craft' brewers are seeing as a 'must-have' in their range. Rapture has a really nutty aroma, alongside a faintly spicy hop character. On the palate, more nutty malt leads the way - biscuity amber malt seems to be prominent, which is fine by me. Overall, the beer is quite malt driven, which I actually quite liked - a respite from the 'more hops with everything' approach that is so prevalent at the moment. [EDIT - as Neil from eating isn't cheating points out, this beer is hoppier than I make it sound here. A bottle tried today was much hoppier than I remember, so perhaps I had a duff bottle?]

Having said that, High Wire (5.5%abv) is hoptastic, and will be immediately familiar to anyone who has tried any of brewer Stuart Ross's beers before. Pale malt lays a blank canvas against which citrus and hop character is deployed, to dazzling effect. Mango, lime, jasmine, this pushes all my buttons, and at that strength, happily qualifies for my 'ruinously drinkable' tag.

If you were at Foleys on Tuesday, you'll have heard me say a little bit about the cross-pollination of ideas between British and American brewing cultures. Cannonball (7.4%abv - surely not the first beer to be brewed to strength with an eye on the incoming strong beer tax later this year?) straddles those two cultures like a colossus, keeping a weather eye on rumbustious malty English ales, and hop-led American beasts. It's big and chunky, and shows its strength with a little warmth, but I actually quite enjoy that slightly raucous quality.

And that would be the end of the bottle reviews, but for the kindness of the guys at Magic Rock, who hand-bottled me a sample of their IIPA Human Cannonball, pictured left arriving on a pallet of their beers. Hey, you might have to buy a pallet of beers to get it, but that's what being fabulous means. Human Cannonball (9.2%abv) picks up where Cannonball leaves off, more raucous and rumbustious, the sort of beer that kicks open your mouth, bum rushes your palate, and grafittis HAVE IT!! in fluorescent paint on your olfactory bulb. It's not big, it's not clever, and that's the point. There's room for grace and elegance, and there's room for stoopid fun, just as there's room for both Brian Eno and MC Hellshit & DJ Carhouse in my music collection.

And so when people started saying "noooo!" at the bar around 10pm, it was because the biggest, stoopidest beer of the evening had run out before they'd got a chance to try it. I was working up to it myself, and didn't get to try it on the night, stopping at Thornbridge Geminus (8.5%abv), a kick-ass concoction of hops, malt, rye and muscovado sugar. Happily, I'd tried it a few days earlier, and damn, anyone saying "noooo!" doesn't know the half of it.

Magic Rock. Hell yeah.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Is Saison the New Citra?

Lucky bastard Rob from Hopzine.com is in Rome, from where he posts this little video snippet. It's a great little snippet in lots of ways - on one hand, he's largeing it on holiday, and so he's already having a laugh at our expense. It's also great because he's responding with a video to something that he's read a few moments ago on Twitter - this conversation about saisons. We'll gloss over the fact that Baladin Nora isn't actually a saison - it's a spiced ale - the point is that Rob saw an opportunity and grabbed it with two hands, even though one was holding a brimming TeKu glass.

It's cool, it's now, and maybe this is the future of social media - people responding by video to things that they've seen a few moments earlier. This could be the birth of something big - rather than arguing in text, we could now do it with video, saving us the trouble of meeting up and getting drunk together. The misanthrope in me thinks that maybe this is the way forward - I recently had a request from Simon at Real Ale Guide for a 4-way Skype beer review. It didn't happen, but maybe a bit of video panel-drinking might be fun? I must give it a try - maybe it will be like going to the pub, or maybe it will be like sitting at home feeling slightly creeped out - only experience will tell.

Anyway, for me, the interesting question in that Twitter conversation is from Chris (@NorthernWrites on Twitter) - "Is saison the new citra?". It's a good question, coloured by Chris' unabashed dislike of what he sees as bandwagon-straddling me-too citra-infused pale golden ales. The short answer to this is, of course, no. But the long answer provides some insight into where the beer world may be headed in the next few years.

As International IPA Day draws close, what we are going to see is on August 4th is, I believe, a celebration of a style of beer that could do for beer what Australian wine did for wine in the late 80s and early 90s. IPA is a style that is easy to understand, easy to enjoy, and has the potential to draw more drinkers into the category. A citra-heavy IPA may not be the most sophisticated beer in the world, but damn, it's easy to enjoy, and I'm not sure how that can be a bad thing.

Contrast that open, easy-drinking appeal with the tart, tightly-wound, sometimes musty and dusty complexity of a saison, and it's clear that saisons are forever going to be marginalised. Saison is the riesling of the wine world - loved by those in the know and in the trade, but largely ignored by everyone else. Good riesling smells of diesel, wet stones and lime blossom. Good saison smells of hops sacks, old wooden spice racks and cellars.

Saison, like riesling, will always be a minority taste, but the future tastes of citra-laced IPA.

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Friday, 22 July 2011

BEERSWAP! Southern Tier Gemini

Good beer is something that needs to be savoured. There is something about the pace of modern life generally (or maybe it's my life in particular) that is somehow not conducive to really stopping and enjoying a beer. Either there are pressures of life intruding into a special beer moment, or, and perhaps this is a crueller irony, there is so much great beer available that you feel hurried to drink what you have in front of you so you can move on to the next rarity.

And modern life can play cruel tricks in other ways. It's true that technology can bring us closer together, allow us to network more effectively, but equally, when technology Goes Bad (capital G, capital B), it throws everything into total disarray. So it is with this video.

There's nothing wrong with the video, but the thing is, when I shoot one of these, I use the transfer, compression and upload time to write down some thoughts that the beer evokes. But for some reason, this little snippet got stuck on my camera, and wouldn't download from the camera. So rather than note down a few Wilde-esque witticisms about the beer, I spent a couple of hours swearing and fiddling with setting on the camera and the computer.

Consequently, the fine-grained stuff about the beer is all in the video, and these words are mere padding.



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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project

There's a little riff I like to use when I host beer tasting about the relationship between British and American beer: "We have Cameron and Clegg, they have Barack Obama. We have Blackpool, they have Las Vegas. We have centuries of tightly woven and documented cultural history, they have Disneyland"

It's a cheap shot, but it serves to illustrate the point that the American brewing tradition has taken its European origins, run with them, and made a style all of its own. Double IPA, imperial pilsner, session beers at 6%abv - you get the idea. If it sounds as though I'm mocking, I'm not - I love the idea of taking something and tweaking it to turn it into an exaggerated version of itself. As a kid, I used to tweak CB radios to give more gain and power, and motorbikes to produce the same effect. I think that my homebrewing is an extension of this - producing slightly exaggerated versions of beers that I like.

It's always a little perplexing when an American brewery slavishly recreates a European beer style. The recent arrival of The Bruery's beers in the UK demonstrated that homage isn't enough - although Saison de Lente, Mischief et al are tasty beers, they are too close to the originals to justify the long journey from California - we can get that stuff fresher from Belgium. Equally, those brass-rubbed copies lack the brio, the chutzpah, the joie-de-vivre of the classic American pioneering spirit.

Happily, the two Pretty Things beers that we've just imported don't suffer from that lack of imagination. Jack d'Or (a 6.4%abv sweetly hoppy saison) and Field Mouse's Farewell (a 7%abv nutty, spicy biere de garde) are classic Euro beer styles filtered through the American craft brewer's imagination. That's not to say that they are just dry-hopped to hell, but there's just some something silkier, cleaner and more complex about them. That sounds like an oxymoron - cleaner and more complex - but for me, that's what American craft beer is all about - taking something and producing a slightly more beguiling, polished, shinier version of something. Hell, that's what America has done culturally for years - not for nothing has it got the reputation as being a country that went from barbarism to decadence without any intervening civilisation.

Check out Pretty Thing's website.

[DISCLAIMER - having imported them, I obviously have a financial interest in these beers doing well. But I also have a vested interest in retaining a bit of credibility as a writer. I think the two are in harmony here, but but I just thought I'd mention it. Should you wish to decide for yourself, buy the beers here, now, or at Beer-Ritz in Headingley, Leeds, from Thursday]

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My Goodness, My Guinness!

You might be interested to know that as well as having written a piece about Guinness for The Independent last year, I've also just done a guest spot on Diageo's Guinness website. Feel free to compare and contrast them.

What I will say is that while draught Guinness may be the icon that everyone is familiar with, the Foreign Extra Stout is such a kick-ass beer that if you haven't already tried it, you really should.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Beer Is For Everyone, Right?




Some of you may know who Chad is. Whatever you may think of video beer reviewers (and I speak as one who has been both praised and villified for my activities), Chad is perhaps one of the best known. I personally think it's a pretty harmless activity - you drink a beer and say whatever comes into your head. If it's about the beer, bonus. Nobody's trying to be the new Michael Jackson, it's just a bit of fun.

What has really put my nose out of joint lately are the comments left on my Youtube channel here. The commenter seems to imply that Chad isn't a worthy recipient of a bottle of The Kernel Suke Quto Coffee IPA that I sent.

This post isn't really about Chad, it's about the idea that you have to reach a level of 'beerdom' in order to be allowed to drink certain types of beers. Sure, there are some beers that benefit from a little explanation, most sour beers and rauchbiers being the primary examples. But surely beer is a democratic, egalitarian drink that can be shared by everyone? Or do you disagree?

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Monday, 13 June 2011

Cask, Keg and Cross-Training

I've got to be honest with you, this desk job is taking it's toll. Instead of lugging cases of beer up and down stairs endlessly, I'm sat down most of the day, on the phone, buying beer, selling beer, and making beer-related plans. And frankly, I've put on a bit of weight. Not a lot, but enough to make me think 'hmm, if you want those hideous shirts still to fit you at GBBF, then you'd better do something about it, chunky'. While it may be bad PR for beer to say that it makes you fat, it makes you fat. Anything worth consuming will make you fat if you consume enough of it. I'm not going to go on a bloody detox, but I am going to exercise regularly and try to drink a bit less.

Twenty minutes on the cross-trainer at full resistance is enough to make me breathless, sweaty and leave a pleasant blank hole in my mind where all the stresses and strains of the day were just a few minutes ago. But of course, nature abbhors a vacuum, and thoughts tend to float in. This evening's thought was:

"If cask and keg are better suited to different styles of beer, do any brewers vary the recipe of their beer to suit the mode of dispense?"

I'm aware of brewers making their beers stronger for bottle, but what of cask vs keg? Or are cask and keg seen as interchangeable?

Answers in the box below, please and thank you.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

NOW DRINKING: Captain Lawrence Imperial IPA

Me and the Mrs used to be fans of tattoos. We were really close to getting massive, full-sleeve ones done, and then, like a lot of people, we didn't get around to it. It wasn't that we chickened out, we just lost the momentum for getting in it done. In idle moments, I still fantasise about getting a huge tattoo done - a massive hop cone on my back, maybe, or even on my stomach so that it will gradually change shape as I age and succumb to middle-aged spread.

I only mention this because when I looked at the label to this beer - a flaming wooden firkin - my immediate thought was: "Damn, that would make an excellent tattoo". Not that I'll ever get it done, but it was a surprisingly powerful reaction.

Captain Lawrence Imperial IPA is a big beer, but surprisingly restrained. There a good, woody, piney, tropical-fruity hop character to the nose, and a faint hint of something that I struggle to grasp in the video - something pungently spicy, but earthy at the same time. On the palate, the 8%abv is hidden very well - there's a faint warmth on the gums and in the throat, and a telltale alcohol slickness to the swallow - but otherwise, this beer qualifies for the "ruinously drinkable" description. The pale malt on the palate offers a big, chewy sweetness in the mouth that is neatly counterbalanced as the bitterness kicks in after the swallow. It's a class act, and although it doesn't pack the absurd levels of dry-hop character that (for example) the new recipe Punk IPA does, this actually enhances the experience for me, giving it a smooth drinkability rather than a shrill, attention grabbing shriek.



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Thursday, 2 June 2011

BEER SWAP!

This is easily the most beer-geeky thing I've ever done. I'm not sure that I'm totally comfortable with it, and given how bad a beerswap buddy I was, I can't imagine that anyone will be rushing to do it again with me. I took ages to mail my parcel, and longer still to do this unboxing video. But hey, it's done now, and here's the result.

Part of the deal is that I video review these beers. I'm so rusty at talking to camera that I fear I might not do them justice, but that's not going to stop me. What I am sure about is that the reviews are going to be pretty brief, allowing me more time to sit on the leather sofa in the corner of our living room and savour them. Perhaps I'll do before-and-after videos, cutting back to me after having drunk a bomber of really strong beer, a little like those early recordings of Aldous Huxley experimenting with mescaline and LSD:

"It's been 40 minutes now since I finished that bomber of Southern Tier Gemini. I received this beer by chance, and enthusiastically drank it by choice. Those aromas of the hops - what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the smooth malt - how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous. Are there any chicken wings left?"

I don't know what else to say. My name's Zak, and I'm a beer geek. The revolution is dead. Long live the revolution.



Many thanks to Chad of Chad'z Beer Reviews for the beers, and the gentle bullying that finally got this whole thing to happen. If any beer geeks would like to get together in Leeds (or elsewhere) and try them, do let me know.

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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Wikio Rankings Preview - May 2011

I'm delighted to present the Wikio rankings again this month, if only because it means that everyone is guaranteed to pop in here for a sneaky peek. So before I reveal the rankings, let me abuse that position by saying a few words about the peculiar CAMRA-related argument that's been raging on the blogs for the last few days.

I'm amazed at everyone's reactions to that speech by Colin Valentine. I'm amazed in so many ways. Firstly, I'm amazed that Valentine felt moved to not only comment on the blogging scene, but that he felt so hostile about it. The reason I'm surprised is that overall, beer blogging is still a pretty niche activity, as is drinking 'craft' beer, and I'm amazed that he felt threatened enough to comment.

I'm not saying that I don't enjoy the 'craft' beer scene in the UK. Hey, I make my living from it, and believe me, I don't do what I do for the money, I do it because I'm fascinated by the seemingly endless variety of tastes and textures that beer offers. But do I think I'm any more important because of that, or for having written a book, or for having won a few awards? Of course not. I'm immensely proud of them, but I'd like to think that I've always had a slightly inflated of opinion of myself that was merely reinforced by these achievements.

I'm also amazed by so many bloggers' complete misunderstanding of what CAMRA is, and how it works. CAMRA is a consumer organisation, and is composed of members who guide the direction that CAMRA goes in. Even if you ignore the fact that CAMRA is de facto about promoting cask ale, everyone seems to have missed the point that CAMRA isn't a top-down organisation. Colin Valentine isn't some Dr. Evil at the head of an organisation, issuing edicts for his minions to follow, he's a mouthpiece for the organisation.

CAMRA is directed by its members, and the sort of people who turn out and vote for motions at CAMRA meetings are actually people like you and I - people who care passionately about something. Sure, the things we and they care about are worlds apart, but you know what? That's life. Not everyone will agree with everything you say. And saying 'CAMRA needs to change' is to fundamentally miss the point. CAMRA's never going to change unless its members want it to change, and if you want it to change, then join, be active, campaign, educate, but just don't expect to do that only by blogging. While electronic media may be a great force for communicating opinions, removing the publishing machine between the author and the reader, that doesn't mean that blogging is a silver bullet in educating people about beer. Preaching to the converted is easy.

Personally, I thought what Valentine said was pretty mean-spirited, and in an ideal world, he'd be censured by the membership. Curiously, the membership haven't called for him to be removed from office, perhaps because they either (a) agreed with what he said, or (b) weren't really listening that closely and don't really care. I'd warrant that it's mostly (b), with a bit of (a) derived from the way that he framed his comments and equated keg beer with craft beer. He's talking bollocks, of course, and should be taken to task about it. By who, mention no names, but follow my eyes... [*looks at the BSF bar*]

So what do you do? Publicly moan some more about how shit CAMRA are? Great work. You poked the sleeping dog and it bit you. Deal with it, but don't moan about it to me, because I'm not interested. Colin Valentine made some noisome remarks, but CAMRA didn't. If any of the broadsheets were one tenth as receptive to new beer writers as What's Brewing and Beer are, and paid as well or as promptly, I'd be delighted. And if the top 100 beer blogs had one tenth of the audience that What's Brewing and Beer has, I'd be delighted. Funny how nobody ever comments on what a great magazine Beer has has become in the last couple of years. In terms of nurturing new talent, and giving bloggers a 'real world' outlet, it's unparalleled. Which brings us neatly back to beer blogs, which is why you're all here, and how I've tricked you into visiting.

So anyway, here are the Wikio rankings for May. Remember - play nice, love each other, and drink good beer in all its many forms of dispense.

1Pete Brown's Blog
2Pencil & Spoon
3Zythophile
4Beer Reviews
5Master Brewer at Adnams
6Are You Tasting the Pith?
7Tandleman's Beer Blog
8The Good Stuff
9Rabid About Beer
10Ghost Drinker
11Cornet Speculator
12Raising the Bar
13The Pub Curmudgeon
14Real Brewing at the Sharp End
15The Wine Conversation
16Called to the bar
17Drinking Outside The Box
18Bordoverview Blog
19Spittoon
20HopZine.com

Ranking made by Wikio

Saturday, 28 May 2011

NOW DRINKING: Bristol Beer Factory

One of Stan's rules states that you need to try at least two servings of any beer before passing judgement on it. A modification of this rule is that you should try a few of any brewery's beers before you form an opinion about the brewery.

Had I tried only Bristol Beer Factory's No. 7 and Gold, I might have come away thinking that they are a brewery who have got a feel for craft beer, but haven't quite nailed it yet. Both beers are good, solid golden ales, characterised by a big hop bitterness in the finish. Tasty, but not quite hitting the bullseye on my target marked 'hop-forward and in the modern style'. Hey, not everything has to hit that target, but something about their branding and use of 'new media' made me think that they are aiming for the stars.

So thank goodness I didn't disgrace both myself and them by forming an opinion on those two beers alone. Having tried a few other beers in their range, I can now see that Gold and No. 7 are beers that sit deliberately in the 'solid & reliable' area of their output.

The other beers that I've tried from them so far - Milk Stout (deliciously bittersweet), Southville Hop (heady, hoppy, American-accented), Exhibition (big, old-fashioned, nutty) have helped flesh out that impression, and framed an opinion about them, and that opinion is highly favourable. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that one of their beers, their New World Tripel collaboration with Arbor Ales, is one of the most enjoyable British-brewed beers I've had the pleasure of drinking this year. It's a riot of peach and apricot fruitiness, finishing with some cakey spiciness (ginger, mace). Delicious, and ruinously drinkable at 6.8%abv, I'd emailed them to ask if they had any more before I'd finished the first bottle.

I know that's in direct contravention of Stan's third rule, but sometimes you just know when something is right.

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Saturday, 21 May 2011

Now Drinking: Cigar City Jai Alai Humidor Series (Cedar) IPA

I've got an irrational hatred of wood-aged beers. Well, that's not quite true - my dislike is based on having tried dozens of wood-aged beers, and finding the majority of them to be an over-concentrated, spirit-influenced, hot, boozy mess, which I don't enjoy, so it's not entirely irrational. Let's start this post again, shall we?

It's my experience that wood-aged beers are over-influenced by the wood that they've spent time in. I like the soft, silky polish that you find in the Ola Dubh series, and of course Greene King's beers that incorporate their wood-aged Old 5X are usually a symphony of complexity. But what I really dislike is a 9% imperial stout put into a whisky cask and coming out as a 14% mix of beer and whisky. Your mileage may vary, but that's my experience and opinion.

So I'm not really sure what I was thinking when I bought this from the BrewDog shop - it's one of their guest beers, and I thought, well, why not. It has a good reputation, and sometimes you simply have to spend a bit of money and see what all the hype is about. The fact that the Cigar City Brewery's website is a touch hard to operate did nothing to inspire me, but hey, I wanted to try some new beer, and so I took the plunge.

And you know what? I'm glad I did. I can't vouch as to whether this bottle is representative of what it should be, but it's a surprisingly robust, almost English-style IPA (think Meantime IPA) crossed with a typical American IPA, and aged with cedar wood. I'd guess that it's aged over cubes or staves - it's definitely not a barrel-ageing treatment. But regardless of the technique, it's the end result that counts. Alongside the brown-sugar and marmalade aroma, and the sweetish initial attack, the spiciness of the cedar wood swooping in mid-palate adds a dimension that I'm not sure could be achieved any other way. It's a pungent, resinous spiciness that sits between the malt and hops, and adds a new dimension that throws both into relief. Crucially, by doing this, it actually makes you concentrate harder on what's happening on your palate.

A really interesting beer, a really interesting treatment, and a really interesting experience, and crucially, it's one I'd like to repeat. A lesson in abandoning your preconceptions.

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Thursday, 19 May 2011

Brand Building in the 21st Century

Marketing has a long and chequered history. From the 1950s heyday of the Madison Avenue whizzkids (as epitomised by 'Mad Men' - as essential as 'The Wire' in terms of TV crack), where advertising was unsophisticated lying, to the 1980s and sophisticated lying, to the 21st century, where advertising at its best means being sold something without realising you're being sold something. I'm not sure it's a question of style over substance any more, it's more a question of form over function. So powerful is the Kernel brewery's no-design aesthetic that even people who have never heard of them see the bottles, pick them up and say 'ohhh, yessss'. Plain brown paper with a minimalist design aesthetic (form) communicates a legal minimum of information (function) in a way that demonstrates brand values of self-assurance, integrity and modesty - in short, everything you would want from an artisan producer of anything. It helps that the beers are kick-ass too.



BrewDog's latest video, set up to plug the launch of the uncharacteristically dour beerleaks.org website, is another example of marketing trying not to be marketing. Unusually for 21st century media communication, it very explicitly gives a message, rather than simply giving a few carefully researched cues from you draw a conclusion that appears to be your own. Whereas a meta-analysis of the Kernel's branding leads to believe in the brand via it's no-brand identity, BrewDog hit you in the face so hard that it almost backfires. Surely they can't think I need the message spelled out this obviously? While everyone currently puts the a peculiarly British boot into BrewDog for being a success story (sure, it's annoying that they can't make enough beer, but you didn't ever really believe that whole 'Beer For Punks' schtick, did you?), I'm saddened that they feel the need to big themselves up by doing others down. Their beers are great enough to speak for themselves, and to try and further their aims by picking on Fosters, Stella and Carlsberg seems a bit like the school brainiac trying to outwit the rugby team by calculating differential equations out loud. We get it, but it's just a bit annoying.



Which brings us to Wells and Youngs' campaign for Bombardier, which I will never forget hearing pronounced as 'Bombar-dee-yay' by a host at a drinks industry awards ceremony, no doubt to (as then was) Charles Wells' immense annoyance. While this may not be the most sophisticated bit of brand-building (indeed, it's only 21st century by virtue of it having been made in 2011), it pushes all the right buttons. Fading actor - check. Schoolboy innuendo - check. Common catchphrase appropriated for advertising purposes - bang on, err, I mean check. By an incredible coincidence, just as I'm writing this the ad has popped up on TV, and I have to say that it plays a lot better on telly than it does via the web. Sure, the tittersome reference to the 'Bush & Fiddle' is brain-numbingly tedious, evoking a genuine moment of 'no, did they really do that?' (and not in a good way) but the moment where the Bombardier heads the first cannonball is priceless. Sadly, they lose my attention again at the end where the Bombardier whips a bottle out of his trousers. That's (a) unappealing and (b) unlikely to be anything close to an appropriate serving temperature.

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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

NOW DRINKING: Truman's Runner Ale

If you read this blog with anything approaching the sort of fervour that I've long hoped to inspire, it won't come as any surprise to you that I love brown beer. Ordinary brown beer. Full-on, unreconstructed brown beer. The sort of nutty, full-flavoured brown beer that inspired a generation of American brewers into making something other than wet, yellow air. Admittedly, by using the ingredients that were local to them, they failed in creating ordinary brown beer, and instead created a the sort of global lupulin arms race that finds its illogical conclusion in beer like Mikkeller's 1000 IBU - beers that so miss the point of what beer should be that it's hard to even guess where they came from.

Thankfully, Truman's Runner Ale (4%abv) is the sort of ordinary brown beer that knows where it's come from. Runner Ale is a beer that wears its colours firmly on its sleeve, and that colour is brown. But the thing is, it's easy to equate brown with boring, and Runner is anything but. It's the sort of full-bodied, bitter, nutty, dry beer that beer was built on. Not the sort of floppy-haired beer that relies on pilsner malt and precocious, evanescent new world hops with names like Ahtanum and El Dorado. No, good, solid traditional hops - Fuggles, Goldings, Styrian Goldings - and lots of chunky dark malt give Runner the sort of uncompromising taste that made British beer great.

Reading that back, that sounds like it's meant to be a ironic and take the piss out of such an unreconstructed classic style of ale, but it isn't mean to be. It's meant to evoke admiration for the unchanging nature of such a great ale. To deride this would be like deriding a sculptor for working with his hands and being covered in dust at the end of the day - sometimes you need to look beyond the facade and examine the meaning of something, rather than just judge what the appearance implies.

Truman's Runner Ale is a huge, hulking, giant of a beer, not caring for fashion or fripperies, self-assured and swaggering into the room with the sort of cocksure confidence that is born of genuinely not giving a toss about what anybody thinks, and is all the greater for it.

And the eagle on the label would make a great tattoo.

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Sunday, 8 May 2011

Ant Hayes

This is just an echo post for what Martyn Cornell (aka Zythophile) has posted about the death of Ant Hayes. I can't pretend to have known Ant well, but I'd met him a few times, and we'd passed ideas back and forth, as I mention in my response to Martyn's post.

Ant was a lovely guy. I'm saddened by his death, and even more saddened for his family. If you can spare a few quid, please think about donating to his family's nominated charity. You can read more about the charity here. If you can't spare a few quid, go without beer for a couple of days and donate anyway.

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Friday, 6 May 2011

Playing With The Big Boys

I'm not going to pretend that this post will be any good, but it might have some interesting news.

I'm posting at an unusually late hour because I've just got in from a night out with the Dandy BrewPunks of Fraserburgh. It's been a lot of fun, and has encompassed a whole range of beers - Fernandes Barge [Something] - very tasty low abv blonde ale, and then things heated up. A bottle of BrewDog Avery Brown Dredge - very tasty, just what it should be. Flying Dog Wild Dog - complex and drinkable. Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron - complex, but foghorn-like. Great Divide Double IPA - a little tired, although tasty. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA - again, tired but tasty.

But the main purpose of their visit was to look at some locations for the next BrewDog bar. It seems that Leeds is next on their radar, with some very targetted visits from James and Martin, along with bar manager Bruce from BrewDog Aberdeen.

Nothing is signed, the shop window is still strictly for browsing, but it seems likely that BrewDog will open a bar in Leeds at some point this year.

Raise your hand if you think that's good news.

*raises hand*

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Monday, 2 May 2011

Wikio Rankings Preview - April 2011

It's Wikio time again folks, and before you scroll down to see what's happened recently, let me summarise it for you: little change.

Of course, if you've floated up or down a couple of places, it will seem like a big deal, but overall, there's not much to write home about. From a personal perspective, the most worrying development is that Simon Woods is now above me in the rankings, meaning that although I have more hair on my face and head than he does on his entire body, he still gets to outrank me on Wikio. I'm saddened that Wikio's complicated algorithm doesn't seem to include some sort of hirsutism index, but still, I'll take what I can get. And so will baldy Woods, no doubt.

More significantly still, looking at the American Wikio beer blogs index, not only are there no overall meta rankings in this Transatlantic duel, but Stan Hieronymus has slipped from 5th to 6th this month. I have also slipped from 5th to 6th this month, which clearly means that, in the absence of comparative data, I'm as good a blogger as Stan Hieronymus. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I urge you to spread this as gospel truth.

Remember, popularity is no indication of ability or greatness, and vice versa. Keep drinking, keep writing, and most important of all, keep a sense of perspective.

1Pete Brown's Blog
2Pencil & Spoon
3Beer Reviews
4Master Brewer at Adnams
5Drinking Outside The Box
6Are You Tasting the Pith?
7The Good Stuff
8"It's just the beer talking" – Jeff Pickthall's Blog
9Tandleman's Beer Blog
10Bibendum Wine
11The Wine Conversation
12Ghost Drinker
13Called to the bar
14Raising the Bar
15Sour Grapes
16Zythophile
17Spittoon
18HopZine.com
19Thornbridge Brewers' Blog
20The Pub Curmudgeon

Ranking made by Wikio

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Into The Drink

Imagine you're standing on a beach, at the point where the sea meets the sand. Look down at your feet. Can you see the foamy seawater bubbling over your feet, tickly, exuberant and refreshing? Well, imagine that couple of feet of water washing around your toes represents beer today. Now look out to sea, all the way to the misty horizon, and side to side as far as the eye can see. That vast ocean represents the sum total of all human experience of beer. Care to come for a dip?

Let's wade out a little bit, leaving behind the present day expression of the brewers art, all the delicate, pin-bright flavours and aromas of exotic new world hops. Let's wade out knee-deep, where the water is churning up the sand into gritty murk, where things don't look so bright and cheerful. That represents what is perceived by many to have been a low point in beer, the keg revolution of the 1970s. In fact, let's say it's 1971, the year that the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded. This year, their 40th anniversary, sees a general consensus that they have met their aim, and have saved real ale. Real ale is Britain's gastronomic gift to the world. Live beer, with the yeast still gently working, was nearly driven to extinction by the onward march of brewing technology. It's true that beer is more stable if you filter, pasteurise and artificially carbonate it, but it also tastes as though it's had all the life knocked out of it. Which of course, it has.

Come on, let's really swim now. Stride out of the murk, yelp as the cool water reaches your nethers, and plunge in. As you bob back to the surface, gasping, you can feel yourself supported by the ocean, transparent but indisputably there. That sensation of support represents everyone involved in the beer industry – brewers, publicans, retailers and consumers, all coming together and finding themselves bound by a common interest, a drink that sometimes becomes overlooked with the contempt of familiarity, and yet is still the first port of call for a social event.

President Obama has now put beer centre stage twice in his presidency, once exchanging beers with David Cameron, and once at the 'beer summit', where he famously sat down with his Vice President, along with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and Police Sargent James Crowley. There had been a suggestion of racism in the actions that Sargent Crowley had taken against Prof. Gates, and they were talked about and settled over a glass of beer.

It takes something as simultaneously momentous and simple as an American president doing business over a glass of beer to remind us of what we already know. Beer isn't just a beverage, it's a symbol of equality, of companionship. If you want a real flight of fancy, look at the derivation of the word companion. From the Latin companionem, literally meaning someone you break bread with. We all understand the significance of breaking bread with someone, but that meaning seems to have become lost when applied to beer, which is a shame when you consider how many ingredients these two foodstuffs share. But are you here to take flights of fancy, or are you swimming?

The companionship offered by beer doesn't just extend to those who drink it. The brotherhood of brewers is a happy, tight-knit family. There is a maxim among brewers that their job is just to keep yeast happy, and while there is some truth in that, it also plays to the typical modesty of an artisan. The world of beer offers a whole spectrum of colours, tastes and aromas, all born of more or less the same basic process. The problems that face one brewer are faced by them all. Perhaps it's this that makes them such a generous bunch of craftsmen. When there was a disastrous hop shortage a few years ago, many larger brewers took the unusual step of releasing some hops from their reserves to allow smaller brewers to carry on production. In material terms, the value of this didn't amount to much, but symbolically, it spoke gallons about how brewers view their place in the world. They are servants to the yeast, and servants to the public, determined to deliver the daily bread, no matter what.

Strike out. Now you're really swimming, the water deep and dark beneath you, effectively bottomless. This is the heyday of British beer production, the happy period after the industrial revolution, the Victorian era where technology was proper technology, powered by fire and steam, and anything was possible. Swim away from the shore, float out into an ocean of beer. India pale ale, London porter, produced in volumes that only a few decades previously seemed impossible. There must have been a belief among the beer industry that this was their apogee, that they were producing the best beer ever, in the biggest volumes possible. London porter brewers constructed ever-larger vats to age their beer in, not big barrels, but huge, vertical vats made of wood and encircled with iron hoops, as big as a house. If that sounds fanciful, bear in mind that to celebrate the commissioning of a new vat at the Meux (sadly, it rhymes with 'pukes') brewery, the brewers threw a dinner where they seated more than 200 people inside the vat. And if that sounds too good to be true, it turns out it was. The same brewery was responsible for the great porter flood of London in 1814, where the hoops encircling one of the vats broke, sending beer cascading into nearby streets and tenements, and killing 8 people. Some high point in beer that turned out to be.

Sit up. Look around. You're almost out of sight of land. Everywhere is water. This symbolises a time when the production of beer wasn't centralised, but was in the hands of the home-makers, the alewives and brewsters (female brewers). Beer wasn't something that you bought in a pub, because pubs didn't exist. The whole concept of a place where you went to drink beer evolved over time, and as ever, the clue is in the name: public house. Beer was something that was once only made at home, and then some bright spark realised that people would pay to drink beer in their house, and the pub was born.

Lay back. Float. Float back to a time when beer wasn't a carefully crafted product, but a hit-and-miss process of fermenting gruel. The simple calories in grain are better preserved as beer than as a dried cereal that risked spoiling. That the nourishment made you feel good too was a bonus, and all the more reason to build a ritual around it.

That's enough, you've drifted too far. Now there is only a memory of where land was, so strike back for it, hard. Head down and push, leaving behind the murk and slime of primitive, faintly boozy grain porridge, the memories of sweet beers brought to life with a magic, yeast-infested stick, swim back through the steam and smoke of Victorian London, through the war years, through the paradoxically fizzy and lifeless years of keg beer's heyday. Strike back for that tiny strip of white foam, breaking on a beach of golden sand, suggesting a soft, white head atop a shimmering, golden beer. Feel hopefully with your feet, and then stand up and scurry back to a sun-baked towel. Rub down, and feel the healthy glow that exercise and cold water brings to your body.

I don't know about you, but exercise makes me thirsty.

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That was my entry for the recent Wells & Youngs writing competition, as covered by Pete Brown here (and seemingly nowhere else, rather disappointingly). I'm sure lots of other bloggers entered - how about now that I've shown you mine, you show me yours? Links below, please.

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