Archive for October, 2009

Ich gehe nach Berlin
October 30, 2009

Drinking to the fall of the wall, 20 years on.

I'll be drinking to the fall of the wall, 20 years on.

November 9th marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I will be going.  I will be drinking to it and to my own Cold War childhood.  The fall of the Berlin wall had profound meaning to me as a uber-politicized teen who raged through the Reagan years, plagued by nightmares of nuclear winters.

I’m learning German from mp3s– something my teen self would have marveled at; I didn’t even have a computer.  My many visits to Germany have been complex emotionally– as if I’ve arrived there suddenly and not by choice. Like a misguided time traveler, I seem to end up there a lot.  My Grandmother could speak German, but I never asked her why (family stories of a mysterious German man are unconfirmed).  My uncle, a war veteran, only shared with me once his horrific story of survival at sea during WWII.  He could speak German, too, and do a hilarious imitation of Hitler which employed the use of a black comb for a mustache.  I asked him to do that a lot, but I never asked him why he knew German.

The Turkish grocer on the corner near me speaks to me in German and I have to remind him, “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.”  Then he laughs and confesses he misses speaking it. I miss it too, in that lost-time-traveler way, language as a past once removed.  All the people in my family who once spoke German are now dead and I never practiced with them.

I’m trying out key phrases: Ich nehme ein shwartz bier.  Ich mochte ein rauchbeir, bitte. Haben sie ein Berliner Weisse? Have I got it right? Not sure.

Ron, of Shut up about Barclay Perkins, has written fascinatingly about the place on his blog.  He’s given me many tips and I look forward to plotting with his pub guide. I hear the beer isn’t that great, real Berliner Weiss being a thing of the past.  But if anyone’s been and has any suggestions I’m all ears!

As the Wort Tuns…*
October 29, 2009

So, last night Mr. Malting came home with a beer for me, made in honor of “that soap I watch.”  A beer made after Eastenders? My mind raced with perverse variations of the kind of ale that might be served at the Vic. (For those who feign ignorance because this topic is beneath them, it is the pub on the show.) I wondered: had Mr. Malting found some Black Eagle Porter? Maybe some Albion Ale?  Of course all they drink on Eastenders is some thin, brown-to-yellow ersatz, but what if they didn’t?

I started watching EastEnders when I moved to the UK almost five years ago.  Not unlike the mermaid in Splash who watches telly hoping she will learn to speak, I hoped it would be a fast-track aculturation. All it really gave me was a time-suck addiction and dreams of certain characters long after they’d moved off the show to Essex.

But no, this ale is called Coronation Street, after a serial I’ve never watched.  Maybe Mr. Malting doesn’t know me that well after all!  This beer is brewed by JW Lees in Manchester, and the label claims it’s made with “Northern Soul” and is full of “twists and turns” like you find on an episode of the show.  I don’t know if contrived complications are what I want in a beer.  Even so, this beer is pretty darn uncomplicated.  Uneventful, even.  But Coronation street has a lovely theme song, and being kind, I’d say this beer is more like that. Just nice.  It’s a deep amber color with a thin head that laces down the sides of the glass.  Once you get past the soapy confrontation in the nose (maybe that’s where they get the name?) there is caramel upfront, balanced with some mild-mannered Goldings.  Consider the iconic opening credits with the brick rooftops, the sun bathing cat.  Maybe in the cask this beer would be like that– archetypal and comforting.

Now, what if brewers sponsored beer operas?

*Mr. Malting reminds me yet again that my immigrant-mind has damned me.  Brits won’t get the title pun, and Americans won’t really get the telly references.

This Gendered Pleasure
October 28, 2009

In the news yesterday: Ex-Anheuser female executive Francine Katz, the “Queen of the Beer Industry”, sues for gender bias and pay descrepancy, claiming working for the company which oversees brands like Stella and Bud entailed enduring a “frat party atmosphere.”

Katz said that by 2007, her base salary and bonus were only 46 percent of what her predecessor on the committee, John Jacob, had made six years earlier.

It’s no surprise that corporate, big-lager culture would be a hostile place for a woman to work, but I think it puts the arguments of sexism and the beer-o-sphere in perspective.  It goes all the way to the top and trickles all the way down. I would like to think that microbreweries and independent pubs could separate themselves from the Big Boys in many ways.  That would mean not just keeping quality and tradition alive but also involving women respectfully and equally. Is that so hard?  What is it going to cost? Other beer bloggers have argued it’s not up to the small businesses to change things in this way.  But it is precisely on this level where we have seen change in the US and here in the UK as well. (For example the Pink Boots Society was started by craft brewers, not macros.)

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the sexism in the beer world with a friend of mine, also an American immigrant.  Both of us are from the West Coast of the US, where, she argued, we lived in a bubble of progressive thinking.  It’s true that in Portland, Oregon and many other brew-happy cities along the coast women drink beer, brew and serve it expertly, and they do so without being some kind of anomaly. They don’t have to worry too much about what kind of image they are projecting or whether their involvement with beer has made them less attractive to men. (I’m happy to report I’ve lived unburdened by the “I’m drinking from a pint glass– will a man ever want me?!?” dilemma.)

A recent conversation amongst beer bloggers has discussed whether beer-drinking women are sexy.  The Bittersweet Partnership, a branding “feeler” from the Coors corporation, has asked the internets what men think of women who drink beer.  I have written about the Bittersweet Partnership before.  I think it’s missing the point, at least for serious beer drinkers who are more interested in the flavor, history and culture instead of the image it projects to the opposite sex.  Their approach is clumsy and corporate, and doesn’t speak to me as a woman consumer, but with that said there is a part of me that really hopes they eventually hit it.  Especially if that’s what it would take for the “small guys” to listen.

In general men are not expected to subscribe to the same acute self-consciousness as women. Are men worried they will be rejected by women based on what they are drinking?  I wouldn’t waste my time turning the tables–  let’s face it, asking if beer-drinking men are sexy is a pointless and slightly depressing question.  Homer Simpson swilling Duff or worse– Beer, Sex, Chips and Gravy comes to mind. Beer isn’t very sexy, period.  Or is it?

Good beer has an undeniable earthy sensuality, and it makes you feel good. If we are to find the sex appeal in this beer culture of ours, we only have to think back to our last festival or gathering where someone said, “Oh, this is wonderful.  Try it!” That generous spirit is much more appealing than insisting on “no beer guts.”  We need to ask ourselves which is sexier– the image of the drinker in the right clothes, striking the right pose and drinking out of the right glass or the attitude of someone who sees new beers as an adventure– someone who is totally present while they taste things.  To prefer the former is, I’m sure, a failure of imagination.

Hop Tonic
October 23, 2009

Guinness ad from the 1920s

Guinness ad from the 1920s

My best friend in college happened to be Irish and once when I had a cold he offered me his cure-all: a pint of Guinness and a raw onion.  Did it work? Why yes.  My guess is it was the raw onion that really made you want to be better so badly that you decided you were.

But the health properties of Guinness were renowned, if perhaps fabricated. “Guinness is good for you”– so good that it was given to people recovering from surgery, blood donors, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

But new research suggests beer might have some health benefits.  Beer is lower in calories than milk, juice or, contrary to popular belief, wine.  Beer contains a chemical which has recently been found to protect mineral bone density.  Beer can provide you with B vitamins, can lower your risk of hypertension and heart disease.  The hops in beer have sedative, anti-anxiety properties.

But is beer good for you?  This is the question I’ve been mulling over for a few months now.  I have recently finished a course in Holistic Therapy, and my fellow students were a varied bunch, but very few were beer drinkers.  One classmate said to me, on finding out that I wrote a beer blog, “What will your clients think?” I believe she was fairly scandalized. Why would someone in a healing profession publicly confess to drinking beer?

While the benefits of beer can be found in other foods, and no one would propose beer as a health tonic, is it really that bad for you? It kills brain cells; it taxes the liver.  Is it beer that makes the belly or the 6-pint sessions that do it?  Most caloric comparisons of beer and other beverages are not ounce-for-ounce.  Consistently beer calories are measured by pints, while other beverages are listed in smaller measures. What if we rethink the pint?  I’m not asking for stemmed glass.  I’m just wondering when more pubs will start to server more flavorful, compelling beers in smaller measures.  This is how I like to drink beer, and when one considers the way beer is presented in places like Belgium, it’s not so unusual.

I have always balked at subscribing to a lifestyle, which is just another way of signing yourself up to be a marketing demographic. The phrase healthy lifestyle makes me recoil, bringing to mind as it does supermarket shelves full of bland, packaged foods and patronizing advice from experts seeking to capitalize on our mortal fears.

But many who do subscribe to a healthy lifestyle are trying to eat organic and they’re probably even counting their food miles, which means, whether they know it or not, they are warming up to the slow food movement.  And most ale drinkers are–perhaps unwittingly– part of the slow food movement: they know their beer miles because they know the brewery that’s made what they are drinking.  They probably know how it was made, how long it took and the resources that went into making it as well as the history behind it.  Some probably even brew their own.  And, in knowing all this, we ale drinkers savor what we’re drinking and that’s healthy.  But how do we explain this to people who only equate beer with cheap lager, binge drinking and the infamous “gut”?

It would be wonderful to see beer festivals pitched to the slow food movement.  Recently there was a BBC 4 show on a slow-food cheese festival in Italy. Cheese is probably as bad for you as beer, maybe worse! But the cheeses at this festival were being savored in small amounts, which is the same approach many beer drinkers take to tasting at a festival.

The healthy lifestyle industry has at its heart certain puritanical ideas.  In its most cynical aspects, it’s hoping to appeal to the self-hating kill-joy in all of us.  Has the misnamed “Be Good to Yourself” Diet Frozen dinner ever filled anyone with glee?  Has a Lite beer ever really brought joy to anyone?  Guinness used its 1920’s slogan because after drinking the beer, people said they felt better.  Good beer can make us happy.  Happy people live longer.

No Futures
October 22, 2009

The Dead Milkmen might have some marketing tips for punk investors

The Dead Milkmen might have some marketing tips for punk investors

Of course it would take a fab party, thrown by the BrewDog guys, to get me to break my long silence.  Some of the blogoshire has been discussing the Equity for Punks proposal, the most recent business development strategy from my favourite UK brewery.  Basically, you can own a small share of the brewery for a dear price.  You get a say in their plans and a 20%, life-long discount on their beers.

I arrived at the party without knowing what was up, having left early that morning before the informative email had been sent.  For days I kept wondering what the news could be– building it up in my mind as some big, ongoing collaboration between a US brewery like Stone, or some new transatlantic brewery, some London-based brew house,  but I kept wondering– why have it in the City, right in the heart of the very unpunk land of suits? Well, now I know.

Toni and her colleague, the brewery’s PR people, welcomed me to the party and filled me in– how lovely to arrive somewhere and know friendly faces were waiting to have chat and get you a beer.  These guys have PR down, and it’s not just because they are professional about it– there is sincerity in everything they do.

Later in the evening James came by and guessed perfectly the beer in my glass (delicious Bashah, a black double-belgian IPA by Stone and Brewdog– the one-two punch of chocolate malt and a complex hop combination). When James asks you how you like something, he genuinely wants to know.  Drinkers matter to James, as much as the beer. That’s why, if I had the 230 at my disposal right now, I would hand it to him in a heartbeat. After all, this brewery has given me some of my most ecstatic beer moments and continues to capture my imagination.

(Other beers of the evening were old standbys as well as the sardonically named Nanny State, a 1.1% mild, practical joke of a beer which tasted more like unfermented wort and was so hoppy I was still tasting it the next day. )  I saw several beer bloggers who let me know my posts have been missed– it’s nice to know that people still remember this blog.  At one point Jesus John beat me repeatedly at arm wrestling.  And I even managed to make some new friends as well– we shut the place down.

Now the morning-after-the-night-before haze as abated, I have read the Equity for Punks prospectus and have decided that as a traditional investment it makes no sense at all.  But as Pete Brown has pointed out, that’s not really why they are doing this, and if you read the comments to the post, James has articulately responded to some concerns being raised about the numbers on this thing.  The green brewery they have planned is beyond exciting, and if this means the brand will grow, making their beautiful beer more accessible to a wider range of drinkers, how could I be against it?

The ironic “Equity” pun is intentional, I suppose– this isn’t necessarily equitable, especially to any of the punks I know who couldn’t afford the 230 quid price per share.

Equity for Punks promo image

Equity for Punks promo image

But there is another inequality here that surprised me– and that is the new role of women-as-window-dressing.   It is an approach that BrewDog hasn’t had to take to sell their beers, until now.

Unsurprisingly, most of the people at the party were men.  A sea of suits.  Except, milling about were a pair of women sporting a shiny version of Camden punk-goth-emo, looking like two exotic birds misplaced among a murder of crows. At first, naively, I was excited.  Look– other women! I was about to go up an chat to them when the realization chilled me: these were BrewDog’s answer to the Bud Girl.

The promotional image for Equity for Punks features three screeching maenads-for-hire, decked out in the latest Suicide Girl style sexy-punk.  Whose idea was this?  I’d like to think that James and Martin look a bit uncomfortable in the photos, as if the tie-pulling there is more than fabricated flirtation. Did their new partners at Skyy Vodka put them up to this?

My short time wearing a suit and working in the City taught me that it was like going back in time, to gender roles of the 1950s.  Women in the London banking industry survive by somehow embracing their role as sex objects while competing in a man’s world. BrewDog may be ironically donning suits as well as the backwards gender attitudes of the City, but I’m not in on the joke.  I would like to think that James and Martin’s being surrounded by a punk harem is just an abberation in the brand’s marketing.   Though I might be the only person to openly voice this discomfort, I was not the only person that night to comment on this.

BrewDog, please don’t use women in this way in the future– you risk losing potential women drinkers, and alienating the ones you already have. We don’t want to be the flowers in your dustbin.   But do I have to put on my old corporate suit and find 230 pounds before you hear me on this?