UK Style Revolution
October 21, 2010

On Monday I went to the British Guild of Beer Writers seminar on Beer Styles.  Billed as a contentious subject, I was relatively new to the controversy, seeing it as mainly internet furor where a fight can be started about anything, even something as innocuous as beer.  Though the potential arguments were not hashed out until the end of the seminar, I did get a sense of what was at stake.

In order to market beer, style becomes essential not only in informing the consumer but also in allowing certain beers to enter competitions such as the ones run by CAMRA at the GBBF.  However, the certain prescriptive and narrow style guidelines really hem in brewers like the head brewer at Meantime, Steve Schmidt, who are trying to brew according to inspiration and sensory goals.  He explained that for him often a beer will begin with an idea of what it should taste and look like rather than what style it might be.

I will not go into styles at all in this post, and that perhaps gives away where my sympathies lie– with the brewers who are asking for this to open up a bit, and for a certain flexibility for hybridity and invention.  I know just enough about styles as a consumer to know what I like and to guess at what a certain beer might taste like, and as an amateur home brewer I would attempt a certain style rather than the more creative approach of a master brewer.  That is enough for me for now.

Alastair Hook, owner of the Meantime Brewing Company, presented a visionary argument about styles and evolution.  His forward looking approach is clear in his beer and his brand, and I have long been a fan of his vision.  The seminar was held in his brew pub, the Powerpoint presentation cast before the gorgeous copper kettles in the main dining room.  On the site, Henry the VIII was born as well as Elizabeth the I, and the site has held a brewery on and off for 300 years, so when Hook says one can’t fake provenance in brewing identity, we can believe him.  He cited many examples of wine advertising and their success– that your average British consumer can tell you the difference between a chardonnay grape and a merlot is evidence that wine marketing has permeated British food culture.  What can breweries learn from their approach?

Hook has branded his wonderful beers with London in mind, this city that was once the brewing capital of the world, with three styles attributed to this place– the porter, stout and I.P.A.  Meantime brews versions of all of these styles, and they are not museum pieces but re-inventions of these beers.  I would argue that Hook’s notion of provenance is prioritised over tradition in the strict sense, to the brewery’s credit.  The history of the core style may inform the beer but it does not dictate the brewing process. (Much of the beer is served in kegs– why this mode of delivery is controversial is beyond me, though there seems to be some worry that keg delivery will somehow endanger the future of cask ale in the UK.  I don’t think keg beer is a threat here but that is fodder for another post.)

Hook also spoke of a brewing renaissance and revolution which originated in the US in the 80s with its “holistic New World approach to beer design.”  I think the UK could also learn a lot not just from this approach to beer design but also to beer marketing.  Last night I went to a gig at the Lexington and you know what young women and men were drinking there?  Blue Moon, Goose Island and Brooklyn Lager beers.  Ok, so it wasn’t real ale but it was craft beer, and it was “hip” to be holding a bottle of the stuff.  And I think this is key– US microbrews are harnessing their claim to authenticity: they are the underdogs, brewing newness with passion.  In a perhaps subliminal way, younger UK drinkers get this.

Though I admire Alastair’s approach and his beautiful beers, I would break from his argument in just this one regard. Of course breweries should learn lessons from successful wine marketing but beer will never be wine.  I would hope that beer and beer culture would never adopt the middle class trappings of wine in the UK.  Beer is so much cooler than wine because it is authentically British, and even the best beer is accessible to all price-wise.  I’d venture those gig-going Londoners in the Lexington weren’t wine drinkers.   The aspirational hegemony of wine will wane, and craft beer is poised to replace it.

But this is going to happen on the ground, in pubs, by employing and training staff about beers, by hiring staff who not only love beer but love customers.  (Even in customer hating London this can be done– just look at the success of the Jolly Butcher in Stoke Newington).    And pubs should offer flights of beers– small tasters presented on a tray in order of palate receptivity, and there should be halves and even third measure glasses available.  Taster plates of tapas sized snacks paired with beer would be a fantastic way to introduce a range of beers to people in a pub context.

I look forward to the rise of the welcoming brewpub that eschews gastro attitudes for casual generosity.  Ultimately, as craft beer variety increases in the UK, the younger UK drinking public will become more daring, expecting more  than just a 3.5% session bitter, which let’s face it, is currently the only alternative offered to the Stella and Guinness at most locals. Though this may already be happening in the US, breweries there are looking to the UK for roots and inspiration and breweries like Brewdog and Meantime are bringing this collaborative attitude to the UK.  Here the revolution is just taking off, and I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a beer drinker in the UK.

Local Lager, Lager, Lager
August 8, 2010

Bud Girl from 1904

A brief googling of “beer and women” turns up a dark parade of lager and misogyny.  It’s hard to separate the two.  Even with the new shiny-retro Stella ads aimed at women, it’s enough to turn a girl off the style.

I don’t expect much from a good lager and to be honest, they don’t expect much of me, either.  They’re like that friend you have that doesn’t mind a bit of dumb fun while crawling around the mall or dancing to 80s music. But the trick is to find someone who’ll do those things but not annoy you. They’re rare.

Munich is the place to find such companionship in a beer garden, in a brewery canteen. But what if you’re not in Munich?  What if you’re in London?

The Bunker brewpub in Covent Garden used to brew a perfectly fun lager but then they changed the recipe, labeling it as Freedom lager and it just wasn’t that good anymore, and now they are no longer.  Though you can still get Freedom lager around, it’s a bit like seeing that friend that used to be fun but then adopted some seriously green middle class lifestyle and lost their sense of humor in the process.

And then there’s shiny Meantime Helles and Pils– both totally drinkable yet I don’t choose to drink them very often because usually wherever you find these beers there’s a wider selection of something that’s just more enticing.

Brodies, an East London brewery that’s brewing some really compelling beers, does a London Lager but I’ve never had it.  They have a brewery tap, King William the IV in Leyton, which seems worth a field trip!

Last night we met some friends at the Regent in Islington, which has the best pizzas in London but the beer selection is a bit lackluster.  Chalkboards around the shabby-chic interior proclaimed a new Cotswold Lager on tap.  I was a bit wary but by the time I had my second half I was won over completely.  This beer was easy to drink and went down well with the pizzas.  The sweet malt character gave it just enough backbone to not be boring, but it was dry enough not be annoying.

That is, I wasn’t annoyed until I read the Cotswold Brewery website’s description of the beer, a complete throwback cliche describing the beer as if it were a woman being offered up for sexual consumption: “If you think lager doesn’t taste of much then it’s time you pressed your lips up against a pint of Premium. She’s a full flavoured seductress who will soon have you head-over-heals with her crisp, dry taste and flirtatious bitter kick. It’s love at first sip.”

Read on with mild horror the description of their Dark Lager: “This one is a dark little number who can really pack a punch. She’s bursting with flavour and lashings of taste, yet retains a smooth finish that will warm even the most frozen of your cockles. She is normally only available during the winter but has proved to be a popular little number so we have kept her on for the summer.”

The wording of the description is wrong on so many levels I don’t know where to begin.  Their lager really deserves a better public face.  It’s another example of a good British brewery in dire need of a marketing makeover.

Art Stoat Confidential
August 6, 2010

Bergdorf Goodman window display from Crappy Taxidermy dot com.

Stoat and Grey Squirrel, a cartoon coming to a bar near you.  Or not.

I am grateful to BrewDog for always giving me something to write about, even stoats. Stoat is a funny word, especially if you say it a lot.  But there was something about this recent press release from James Watt of BrewDog that felt a bit like a bad dream.  Wait, you’ve made a what?  A 55% nettle and juniper infused blonde Belgian ale packaged in roadkill and selling for 700 pounds?

OK, ok– I’ve been working on the lucid dreaming thing,  and the one I’ll have next will involve a wild yeast visiting Fraserburgh, allowing Brewdog to make a kriek with James’ grandma’s raspberries and the whole thing will be packaged in wildflowers.

Choice of glassware for Brewdog's The End of History, Meret Oppenheim's teacup.

I’m a fan of taxidermy, even crappy taxidermy which is a blog I peruse on a regular basis. I hope that The End of History will be immortalized on that site, preferably with the stoat in the kilt. As a joke, I get the End of History and the brewery’s missives about the beer sure are fun to read, but this beer, it’s no Meret Oppenhiem’s tea cup. It’s not my cup of tea.

The End of History, Brewdog's newest beer.

Right now, most of my friends are looking for work or  are really struggling and the last thing we could do is fork out 700 pounds for a bottle of beer (500 for the bargain stoat) and I can’t help but feel that the brewery has left us in the dust, if just this once.  I find myself resenting those 12 punters who were flush enough to buy it; they probably sold all their BP shares right before the spill.

Maybe that’s the point of The End of History, to make it to the pages of the Metro, and to consign the roadkill to the Samsara of endless Ebay auctions.  But you know what would be really post-modern and punk? (And I say this having gone to graduate school in the same department where Derrida lectured.  I even know someone who stood next to him at the urinals there.)  Give the beer away.  Give it away to people who just signed on for the first time.  People who don’t even like beer.

Sometimes I worry that BrewDog are so caught up in being contrary, in fighting their white whale of the Portman group and neo-prohibitionists that they may end up seeming, especially to those who haven’t tried their stellar beers, as being a bit of a stunt-based brewery.  Rather than competing with German breweries, why not look closer to home for friendly competition, to Thornbridge and even closer to Williams Brothers, both are breweries who are doing exciting things, reinventing the session beer as well as creating alternatives to the mass-market lagers and they do it with packaging and finesse that speaks to a wider audience.

BrewDog are stunningly talented brewers who have given me much joy and have always been generous.  I can understand their mistrust of the market and the press who’ve given them a really unfair time of it, and these strategies are no doubt a reaction to that.  In many ways this has worked in their favor, giving them lots of free press, and they have continued to trust the drinker throughout it all which will be the thing that matters in the long run.  In ten years, I want to see BrewDog beers available everywhere, with a bigger range of even more amazing beers (packaged, preferably with the help of their previous collaborator, Johanna Basford.) In that context, the End of History will be just a weird souvenir, like that shellacked frog mariachi band you bought on a bender in TJ.  It seemed like a good idea at the time but is now just a grotesque gathering dust.

Is Your Lager Phone On?
December 17, 2009

If America is Jackson Pollock then the UK is Rolf Harris.

–Battle of the Craft Brewers: US vs UK

This feature on Dwink argues that the US is currently winning the rounds.  The most compelling aspect of this article is the section on availability of craft beer in the two countries– the UK dismally losing this round. “Penetration within the pub companies, mostly owned by banks not brewers, is constrained by the beer tie while many insist on centralised distribution through one of the big three logistic companies.” This is my frustration– even though the brewer-to-drinker ratio is greater in the UK, the selection of craft beer readily available in the just isn’t as healthy as in the US.  For this to change, we have to get more Brits drinking craft beer.

The other night Mr. Malting was at a metal show and the craft beer on tap was Sierra Nevada.  This is something I’m seeing with more regularity in trendier pubs and venues– American beer is becoming increasingly available. Everyone I talk to in my peer group, and most are almost inconvertable mega-lager drinkers, believe that the image of craft beer in the UK is the one insurmountable obstacle, but I’m sure distribution plays a bigger part.

I realize I long ago turned my lager phone off.  I don’t know how to reach all my lager and wine drinking friends, try as I might suggesting different beers.  The lager drinker who will opt for anything that’s around 4% or the wine drinker who’s not fussed as long as it’s red suddenly become very picky when presented with ale.   I can only conclude the reluctance is not about taste; it’s about image.

It is curious to note that among my friends and peers in the US there is absolutely no stigma to drinking craft beer.  On the contrary, it is cutting edge, hip, authentic.  I wonder if the way forward in converting a younger generation of beer drinkers will be through more American craft beer available here in the UK?

Isn’t that the way lager almost swept out real ale in Britain initially?  The imports were sold to Brits as the shinier, younger option?  In profoundly image-conscious Britain we need to think of a narrative that will resonate with younger Brits the same way the populist, American”Craft Brewer” video spot resonates with Americans’ identity as revolutionaries and independents, Davids to the industry’s Goliath.

To do this we really have to redefine our terms.  “Microbrew” and “real ale” have become problematic and exclusive.  Perhaps a more encompassing approach is to embrace “craft beer”?  We know that cask ale isn’t the only good beer around, despite its vitally defining role in British brewing, but this is a topic for another post.

My friends who went to All Tomorrow’s Parties tell me that Exmoor ales were served at the Butlins venues and the staff were encouraging punters and really offering the beers as locally made and an exciting “new” option.   Perhaps this approach–emphasizing food miles and green thinking, the authenticity of locality and context is the way forward?  I remain skeptical.  Part of me believes that many Brits would opt for a stylish import or a mass brand “no brainer” over something as seemingly unfashionable as real ale.  I would like to be wrong.

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