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 Most of the time, these beers are withdrawn or sent back.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.


  1. Here here! bring back JS magnet in cask!

  2. After my parents visited the Hook Norton Brewery on their honeymoon (as well as about another 10 breweries across England) Old Hooky became my mums favourite beer. (still to date) Maybe that's why I have a bit of an unspoken love of the beer. I love what many would call 'boring brown British beers' I'm a Yorkshire man - I can't help it! Theakston's XB, Black Sheep, Dragon's Golden Pippin and Taylor's Landy, etc... - all the beers that many would see as 'boring' - I couldn't imagine life without! Long live uncompromising British Ales.

  3. With you on this Zak. Sometimes it's the so called "boring brown bitters" that excite me most, you've just got to go try things like Acorn Brewery Bitter, Crown Traditional Bitter and something like Northumberland's Bedlington Terrier. Brew's that good are like the ale equivalent of comfort food, same can be said for alot of Milds, ever tried Nottingham Rock Mild, it's a dream. Give me a bottle of Banks's Bitter even and I'm a happy bunny

  4. Avery, I'm in the boring brown bitter crowd too! Looking forward to drinking Marble's beers when I arrive on the island, which I understand to be completely opposite of old school English beer.

  5. I'm not convinced you need to apoligise.

    I actually take offense at the term 'Boring Brown Bitter'. When brewed well there is nothing boring about traditional English ale styles, in fact the combination of rich English malts, characterful yeast strains and earthy spicy English hop varieties can be increadibly complex and interesting. Just as New World Pale Ales can be utterly boring and unexciting when they are brewed poorly and/or without any thought to ballance or originality as sadly they often are.

  6. @kieran I'm with you, I find the term "boring brown bitter" incredibly offensive and rather than apologise to the so called "crafterati" Zak I think you should be apologising to the brewers you've just insulted by suggesting the beers they brew with care, skill and passion are boring!!

    The biggest challenge we face with non beer drinkers is that they think beer is all the same and therefore boring - lets hope they've not popped along here, had that misguided notion reinforced and opened another bottle of wine!

    Is it wrong to be cheery beery? Absolutely not, if we don't celebrate beers' greatness who will. But be honest if you don't like a beer say so and why, explain how it could be better based on other exceptional beers. But if you think a beer is "indisputably fabulous" don't lump it under a derogatory term!

    English ales are amongst the best in the world - not all of them but just because there are some bad examples doesn't mean you should be apologising for a whole category - especially when there as as many, if not more, unpalatable examples of beer coming out of the fermenters of the crafterati

  7. As I have said repeatedly, the reason why British Brewers produce mostly mainstream beer (aka BBB) is that it is what sells and what the public mostly want to drink. That doesn't mean though they shouldn't experiment a bit with their seasonal or occasional ranges

    I agree entirely with the underlying sentiments that Zak expresses here. He makes important basic points, which all would do well to listen to.

    My aim is a little different in some ways. I want to improve the quality at point of sale, for there the biggest problem usually lies. I'll be putting my mouth where my money is later with copious applications of Lees Bitter, which is most certainly brown, but when on top form, never boring.

  8. Interesting post, I've got nothing against mainstream stuff of the low ABV bitters/pales that are prolific, in fact they are what I drink most of in the pub as not living in or near a big city most my drinking is done either is pubs on the moors or my local for the pub quiz and they aren't the sort of places that you will find anything other than main stream ale.

    I'll tell you now that the last thing I want at the end of a 25mile hike is a 9% hop bomb.

    There has definitely been times where the quality of the pint has been due to the storage and others where its been down to the beer. Only a couple of weeks ago I had the worst pint of one of my favourite beers, Timmy Taylors Landlord, in a pub in Goathland (where they film heartbeat) I was gutted not only was it terrible it cost a small fortune for a pint and a half of it.

    In fact the last couple of weeks worth of warm weather seem to have been producing some rather terrible pints in the pub, especially on old favourites like magnet, landlord and black bull.

    Like Tandleman said Experimentation something needs to be done with the quality at point of sale, get this right then half the battle is won.

    That said I still love to try big beers, beers with different ingredients and beers from around the world, but living where I do this is mainly done from bottle at home.

  9. Nice post, mate. I think we've sort of discussed this before; the point that I'd make would be that no matter what genre of beer, there are 'bad' versions of. What constitutes 'bad' is more subjective; there's plain-not-brewed-very-well beers, and beer that you just don't like, or 'get'. I'm aware that I may be in the little band of 'happy' bloggers, but that's purely because I don't use TGS to highlight 'bad' beers - its not the point of it. I hope people understand that. I wouldn't assume that my taste is the same as my readers, and although I'm more than happy to provide a gentle push toward really good beer (of course, in my opinion), I'd feel a little funny simply highlighting less-enjoyable pints.

  10. Matt, Barl - Acorn Barnsley Bitter is the Magent Ale for the 21st century!

    Ghostie - clearly you were literally born with it in your blood!

    HotAleNights - indeed, and you're in for a treat.

    Kieran - as you point out, they CAN be incredibly complex, it's just that lately a lot of crap has passed across my desk, with a view to me listing the beers as a wholesaler. Just as new world [ale ales can be badly made, so can ordinary brown beer

    Kristy - you're quite right if course - at one point in the post, I stopped using quotes round 'boring brown bitter'. And I was absent-mindedly using it as a synonym for "ordinary brown bitter", which in previous posts I've used to describe that classic ale style. The point I didn't get around to making was that, on the back of "ordinary brown bitter", mine & Denzil's take on it was going to be called Extraordinary Brown Bitter (after rejecting the names "Nouveau Brun" and "Bella Emberg's Tits"). Denzil was insistent that we work a pun into the name, and so Heckstra-Ordinary Best Bitter was born.

    Tandleman - indeed, pace Doom Bar et al - those beers aren't just brewed and poured away, they do actually get drunk. And we certain come at things from different perspectives - all the better, in my book.

  11. Andy - indeed, horses for courses. And Landlord is famously a tricky beer to cellar correctly.

    Leigh - it is "The Good Stuff", after all!

  12. if you look at the Curmudgeon,s blog you will see that its the bbb,s that most think overated.i personally think the bloggers are fudging round the issue of poor beer.we have had plenty of positives about real ale but the negatives should not be ignored. cheers john

  13. I am glad to report Lees Bitter was indeed on gallon form yesterday.

  14. John - define "poor". Are the people drinking those beers all incapable of spotting problems with them, or do they just not know any better?

    Tandleman - glad to see you broken your dry spell.

  15. Zak - That's right. Or, as I'm sure some have levelled, 'Instant Cop-Out' ;)

  16. I suspect that GK IPA and Doom Bar, among others, are brewed to have as near a neutral flavour as possible (in the same way as the much-reviled Budweiser). When we say "boring brown bitters" I think we're referring to *intentionally* boring brown bitters like these. As you say, brown bitter is not necessarily boring, and we've been excited by quite a few, e.g. Banks's.

    I'm not suggesting people don't genuinely enjoy those beers, or that they're wrong to do so (confession: the first ale I could stomach at all was GK IPA) but I guess I think they'd be missing out on a lot if that's as far as they got.

    I'd also be worried if those beers became much more common than they already are. They're crowding out even slightly more interesting beers of the same type.

  17. Is it all Commercial beer samples or some Homebrew too?

  18. Bailey - the hilarious thing is that most people will protest that GK IPA is utter filth, apart from the surprise pint of it they once had that was in really good condition. The first part is always said out loud, the second part whispered as a confidence. I'll warrant that this happens a lot more than people let on. Anyone who thinks that GK IPA and Doom Bar are devoid of flavour needs a palate calibration exercise - I prescribe 10 days in Andalucia drinking Cruzcampo.

    pdtnc - I'm specifically not addressing homebrew in this post, just as I wouldn't judge the food someone cooks me for dinner in their home as a restaurant critic might. Well, I might, but I'd certainly keep it to myself. That's not to say that homebrew can't be as good as, or better than, a lot of commercially produced beer, of course. Hell, even mine is, mostly.

  19. That mash tun does look mighty full... I enjoy a good pint of BBB, but I have to agree with Tandleman about quality being determined at point of sale. A *lot* of decent beer is served up in less than optimal form due to poor cellar/bar skills.

    Unfortunately, they also often stock GK IPA, Doom Bar, etc. which gives those beers a bad name - case in point: it's taken me a fair few years to finally get a good pint of Doom Bar (without exception, every previous one I had was fairly average), but the fair few I had at my old cricket club last month were very good indeed.

    There's preference too though - and there's often other things I'd prefer to drink, but that's a different point.

  20. I had a pint of Tribute the other day. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it - it's a good style and it was well brought off - but I can't tell you how glad I was to switch to Proper Job. There are no boring brown beers, there are only brown beers that we have got bored with. And that's not a reflection on the beer.

  21. Very well put, as were Kieran's comments and the follow-ups. Just as all British-tradition cask isn't boring - au contraire - it is vital to distinguish between great British beer and the run-of-the-mill. Just having a cask designation doesn't ensure quality. Distinguishing though doesn't have to mean shouting from the rooftops.

    As you say, let's celebrate the best amongst all these styles. One brewer can always get a leg up due to innovation, brewing skill, or both. We need (as consumers) to find the best and not allow beers to fall within well-defined categories.

    It's like music, isn't it? 90% of the commercial pop output in any one period - even the 1960's and 70's - was ordinary at best, but 10% represented great work and is remembered today.



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