Sunday, 28 November 2010

The grass is always greener, or why we see enthusiastic reviews of crappy beers

I noticed a German blog with a gushing post about Newcastle Brown Ale. See the picture on the right for a rough translation.

I suppose that wherever you live, the foreign stuff is always slightly more exotic and interesting. I've certainly spent enough time and money myself in the past, trying every variety of mediocre beer from all over the world the shops had to offer.

I just find it amusing because within a few days I also saw its opposite number, an equally embarrassing UK post about a German beer —Roger praising Veltins Pilsener to the skies. (Roger, Tim and Ben apparently all got the same press release).

I wouldn't cross the street for either of these beers, but then I'm picky.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Faithful Eckart’s infinite jugs

There's a very old story; the oldest known written version dates from 1663, the Grimm brothers tell it, it appears in von Falckenstein's Thüringische Chronik (1737), and Goethe also retells the tale. It tells how the Wild Hunt passes by a village in Thuringia, called Schwarza.

Christmas throughout Christendom - The Faithful EckhartTwo boys carrying jugs of beer home escape with their lives, but have their beer supped by the horde. Faithful Eckart (a much older figure in German mythology) tells the boys to go home and not worry about the beer, but on no account to tell anyone what they have seen. When they arrive back, the jugs have miraculously become full of wonderful beer, and they remain full for three days no matter how much people drink from them. Good old Faithful Eckart!

Until the boys foolishly break their silence, and the beer dries up. The eejits.

This story's survived essentially unchanged since the 17th century and is typical of the guff you accidentally find while trying to learn about beer on Google Books. Nowadays it's somehow supposed to be wrong to send small children through the woods on foot to the next town to fetch your beer. It's political correctness gone mad.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

De gustibus non est disputandum

Even though we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about good beer, it’s impossible to define it. 

People have tried — the best known rules for making beer are the Bavarian Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot; and on the other hand, CAMRA’s definition of real ale. And both have the same Achilles heel.

The Reinheitsgebot tells you what you can put in your beer; CAMRA tell you how you can condition and serve it. Neither attempts to determine whether or not the beer tastes any good.

Producers of beer complain that these are inadequate as guarantors of good beer, and of course they are correct. You only have to drink a glass of Beck’s to recognise that you can make crappy beer within the Reinheitsgebot.

But it’s no accident that these ostensible measures of quality are so defined. They’re objective and measurable. Do you put sugar or potatoes in your beer? will get a yes or no answer. As will Is this beer served with extraneous CO2? On the other hand, Does this beer taste nice? depends on the drinker and his or her preferences.

Until this dilemma is solved, which it won’t be, there’s no point adopting new terms that have exactly the same weaknesses as the old ones. Beer is good or not good. That’s it. It’s not objective. Life is hard.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Meanwhile what about cask ale?

Just for a bit of fun, I took an extract from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and used search and replace to substitute "CAMRA member" for "Socialist" and "cask ale" for "Socialism". The most amusing bits are posted below.

I could have edited it a bit more to make a laboured, tedious satire, but I like the surreality of some of the results. Every empty belly is an argument for cask ale, indeed.

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 11

Meanwhile what about cask ale?

It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest-witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it. We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive.

And all the while everyone who uses his brain knows that cask ale, as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure our getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, cask ale is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already.

Yet the fact that we have got to face is that cask ale is not establishing itself. Instead of going forward, the cause of cask ale is visibly going back. At this moment CAMRA members almost everywhere are in retreat before the onslaught of Fascism, and events are moving at terrible speed. As I write this the Spanish Fascist forces are bombarding Madrid, and it is quite likely that before the book is printed we shall have another Fascist country to add to the list, not to mention a Fascist control of the Mediterranean which may have the effect of delivering British foreign policy into the hands of Mussolini. I do not, however, want here to discuss the wider political issues. What I am concerned with is the fact that cask ale is losing ground exactly where it ought to be gaining it. With so much in its favour--for every empty belly is an argument for cask ale--the idea of cask ale is less widely accepted than it was ten years ago. The average thinking person nowadays is not merely not a CAMRA member, he is actively hostile to cask ale. This must be due chiefly to mistaken methods of propaganda. It means that cask ale, in the form of which it is now presented to us, has about it something inherently distasteful--something that drives away the very people who ought to be flocking to its support.

At a moment like this it is desperately necessary to discover just why cask ale has failed in its appeal. And it is no use writing off the current distaste for cask ale as the product of stupidity or corrupt motives. If you want to remove that distaste you have got to understand it, which means getting inside the mind of the ordinary objector to cask ale, or at least regarding his viewpoint sympathetically. No case is really answered until it has had a fair hearing. Therefore, rather paradoxically, in order to defend cask ale it is necessary to start by attacking it.

Anything is relevant which helps to make clear why cask ale is not accepted. And please notice that I am arguing for cask ale, not against it. But for the moment I am advocatus diaboli. I am making out a case for the sort of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental aims of cask ale, who has the brains to see that cask ale would 'work', but who in practice always takes to flight when cask ale is mentioned.

Question a person of this type, and you will often get the semi- frivolous answer: 'I don't object to cask ale, but I do object to CAMRA members.' Logically it is a poor argument, but it carries weight with many people. As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for cask ale is its adherents.

The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that cask ale, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical CAMRA member is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years' time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white- collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in CAMRA member parties of every shade; it has perhaps been taken over en bloc from. the old Liberal Party. In addition to this there is the horrible--the really disquieting--prevalence of cranks wherever CAMRA members are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'cask ale' and 'CAMRA' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured 'CAMRA members', as who should say, 'Red Indians'. He was probably right--the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a CAMRA member and a CAMRA member meant a crank. Any CAMRA member, he probably felt, could be counted on to have something eccentric about him. And some such notion seems to exist even among CAMRA members themselves. For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say 'whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian'. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity.

To this you have got to add the ugly fact that most middle-class CAMRA members, while theoretically pining for a class-less society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige. I remember my sensations of horror on first attending an I.L.P. branch meeting in London. (It might have been rather different in the North, where the bourgeoisie are less thickly scattered.) Are these mingy little beasts, I thought, the champions of the working class? For every person there, male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry, and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses. You can see the same tendency in CAMRA member literature, which, even when it is not openly written de haut en bos, is always completely removed from the working class in idiom and manner of thought. The Coles, Webbs, Stracheys, etc., are not exactly proletarian writers. It is doubtful whether anything describable as proletarian literature now exists--even the Daily Worker is written in standard South English--but a good music-hall comedian comes nearer to producing it than any CAMRA member writer I can think of. As for the technical jargon of the CAMRA members, it is as far removed from the common speech as the language of a mathematical textbook. I remember hearing a professional CAMRA member speaker address a working-class audience. His speech was the usual bookish stuff, full of long sentences and parentheses and 'Notwithstanding' and 'Be that as it may', besides the usual jargon of 'ideology' and 'class-consciousness' and 'proletarian solidarity' and all the rest of it. After him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There was not much doubt which of the two was nearer to his audience, but I do not suppose for a moment that the Lancashire working man was an orthodox CAMRA member.

For it must be remembered that a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a CAMRA member in the complete, logically consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour, or even CAMRA if he gets the chance, but his conception of real ale is quite different from that of the, book-trained CAMRA member higher up. To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, cask ale does not mean much more than better wages and shorter' hours and nobody bossing you about. To the more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence. But, so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of cask ale. Often, in my opinion, he is a truer CAMRA member than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that cask ale means justice and common decency. But what he does not grasp is that cask ale cannot be narrowed down to mere economic justice' and that a reform of that magnitude is bound to work immense changes in our civilization and his own way of life. His vision of the CAMRA member future is a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest centring round the same things as at present-- family life, the pub, football, and local politics. As for the philosophic side of Marxism, the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I have never met a working man who had the faintest interest in it. It is of course true that plenty of people of working-class origin are CAMRA members of the theoretical bookish type. But they are never people who have remained working men; they don't work with their hands, that is. They belong either to the type I mentioned in the last chapter, the type who squirms into the middle class via the literary intelligentsia, or the type who becomes a Labour M.P. or a high-up trade union official. This last type is one of the most desolating spectacles the world contains. He has been picked out to fight for his mates, and all it means to him is a soft job and the chance of 'bettering' himself. Not merely while but by fighting the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois himself. And meanwhile it is quite possible that he has remained an orthodox Marxist. But I have yet to meet a working miner, steel-worker, cotton-weaver, docker, navvy, or whatnot who was 'ideologically' sound.

It may be said, however, that even if the theoretical book-trained CAMRA member is not a working man himself, at least he is actuated by a love of the working class. He is endeavouring to shed his bourgeois status and fight on the side of the proletariat--that, obviously, must be his motive.

But is it? Sometimes I look at a CAMRA member--the intellectual, tract- writing type of CAMRA member, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation--and wonder what the devil his motive really is.

The fact is that cask ale, in the form in which it is now presented, appeals chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types. On the one hand you have the warm-hearted un-thinking CAMRA member, the typical working-class CAMRA member, who only wants to abolish poverty and does not always grasp what this implies. On the other hand, you have the intellectual, book-trained CAMRA member, who understands that it is necessary to throw our present civilization down the sink and is quite willing to do so. And this type is drawn, to begin with, entirely from the middle class, and from a rootless town-bred section of the middle class at that. Still more unfortunately, it includes--so much so that to an outsider it even appears to be composed of--the kind of people I have been discussing; the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-iri-your-beer reformers of whom Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are CAMRA members now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all that dreary tribe of high-minded' women and sandal- wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come nocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat. The ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of cask ale, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any CAMRA member party that means business. Worse, he is driven to the cynical conclusion that cask ale is a kind of doom which is probably coming but must be staved off as long as possible. Of course, as I have suggested already, it is not strictly fair to judge a movement by its adherents; but the point is that people invariably do so, and that the popular conception of cask ale is coloured by the conception of a CAMRA member as a dull or disagreeable person. 'cask ale' is pictured as a state of affairs in which our more vocal CAMRA members would feel thoroughly at home. This does great harm to the cause.

If one faces facts one must admit that nearly everything describable as CAMRA member literature is dull, tasteless, and bad. Consider the situation in England at the present moment. A whole generation has grown up more or less in familiarity with the idea of cask ale; and yet the higher-water mark, so to speak, of CAMRA member literature is W. H. Auden, a sort of gutless Kipling,[Orwell somewhat retracted this remark later. See 'Inside the Whale', England Your England, p. 120 (Seeker & Warburg Collected Edition).] and the even feebler poets who are associated with him. Every writer of consequence and every book worth reading is on the other side. I am willing to believe that it is otherwise in Russia-- about which I know nothing, however--for presumably in post-revolutionary Russia the mere violence of events would tend to throw up a vigorous literature of sorts. But it is certain that in Western Europe cask ale has produced no literature worth having. A little while ago, when the issues were less clear, there were writers of some vitality who called themselves CAMRA members, but they were using the word as a vague label. Thus, if Ibsen and Zola described themselves as CAMRA members, it did not mean much more than that they were 'progressives', while in the case of Anatole France it meant merely that he was an anticlerical. The real CAMRA member writers, the propagandist writers, have always been dull, empty windbags--Shaw, Barbusse, Upton Sinclair, William Morris, Waldo Frank, etc., etc. I am not, of course, suggesting that cask ale is to be condemned because literary gents don't like it; I am not even suggesting that it ought necessarily to produce literature on its own account, though I do think it a bad sign that it has produced no songs worth singing. I am. merely pointing to the fact that writers of genuine talent are usually indifferent to cask ale, and sometimes actively and mischievously hostile. And this is a disaster, not only for the writers themselves, but for the cause of cask ale, which has great need of them.

This, then, is the superficial aspect of the ordinary man's recoil from cask ale. I know the whole dreary argument very thoroughly, because I know it from both sides. Every-thing that I say here I have both said to ardent CAMRA members who were trying to convert me, and had said to me by bored non-CAMRA members whom I was trying to convert. The whole thing amounts to a kind of malaise produced by dislike of individual CAMRA members, especially of the cocksure Marx-quoting type. Is it childish to be influenced by that kind of thing? Is it silly? Is it even contemptible? It is all that, but the point is that it happens, and therefore it is important to keep it in mind.

Thursday, 11 November 2010


Like any manufacturing process, making beer involves compromises. You want to make the best product you can, but also make it for a price that your customers will pay, and it also needs a reasonable shelf life and a minimal amount of waste.

The price for drinking fresh, unprocessed beer is a compromise, in a way: you have a perishable product which will go flat and sour if you're not careful, and if that happens the beer quality is compromised much more than by any processing.

Good beer
You can pasteurise beer to give it stability. Many people think it doesn't taste as good, but on the other hand it's a lot nicer than an unpasteurised beer that's gone off.

You can filter beer, again to give it stability and to make it nice and clear. But you filter out flavour.

You can use extraneous CO2 to protect beer from the atmosphere. Overdo it and you wreck the beer, making it fizzy and acid, but that's just incompetence.

Bean-counters will tell you none of these damage the beer, or that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Well, maybe. Really flavourful beer can withstand several such compromises and still be good. Some beers don't survive much compromise. Some beers only really work direct from the cask because they're so subtle.

This brings us to the current debate about cask-conditioned beer versus keg.

"Keg" has been a dirty word among British beer drinkers for the last forty years because the accepted definition of it — by drinkers and brewers alike — has been pasteurised, filtered beer, force carbonated and served by CO2 pressure. Much of it wasn't that good to begin with and the number of flavour-compromising processes it goes through doesn't make it any better.

If you now start telling people that keg is the future, don't be surprised if their first reaction is "Ewww."

It's more confusing since the word keg is being used interchangeably even by new-wave brewers for two quite different containers: the keg proper in which CO2 pressure is used; and the KeyKeg in which the beer is contained in a plastic bag and never comes in contact with the gas, rather like a small-scale edition of a Czech tankové beer.

The proponents of "craft keg", if they had any sense, would point out that the stuff is not filtered or pasteurised and is actually a lot closer to real ale than it is to the keg muck that CAMRA was formed to fight against. It's arguably more real than the cynical FastCask nonsense devised by Marston's to comply with the letter of the definition of cask-conditioned beer, while in reality their EPA is crap beer to begin with, and heavily processed – filtered and reseeded with yeast beads.

Good beer
There's nothing theoretically wrong with a bit of extraneous CO2 to protect a slow moving beer or to propel it to the bar. None of it's necessary though. Drink beer while it's fresh and still has condition; that's common sense, like eating your cheese before it goes mouldy (of course there are exceptions, both in the world of beer and the world of cheese). Serving artificially preserved beer is like a restaurant reheating yesterday's soup. You can do it, and it might still be very nice, but the first-rate establishments don't do it.

The less you do to beer the better it is. Brew it, ferment it, rack it, drink it. I love that simplicity. So I drink real ale.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Meet The Brewer

J D Wetherspoon’s The Counting House in Glasgow is hosting a ‘Meet The Brewer’ event this Wednesday from 17.30 to 20.30. The brewery is Houston from just outside Glasgow. Their beer is pretty good but I don't tend to buy it because they choose to send it out into the free trade with names and artwork like these:

Looks like a good opportunity to let them know what you think of their tacky and sexist marketing.

Goodbye, goodbye, he's leaving us, goodbye

I was as surprised as anyone when Kelly Ryan announced that he was leaving Thornbridge and returning to his native New Zealand.

It's traditional to relate amusing and/or embarrassing anecdotes in posts such as these, but I only met Kelly for the first time in Manchester a couple of weeks ago so I sadly don’t have any amusing anecdotes to tell about him, nor have I drunk as much of his beer as many of the bloggers down south. What I can recognise even here is the disproportionate impact he has made in his few years in the UK.

From Fyne Ales where he got his first brewing job in this country, to Thornbridge where he made his name, and tangentially BrewDog who, rumour has it, tried to poach him to work for them, he's been central in the UK's new wave of brewing for the last few years. His passion for good beer has arguably been one of the fundamental elements in Thornbridge's success.

He has the remarkable gift of conveying infectious enthusiasm even through the mundane medium of blog comments, and was even polite beyond the call of duty about my plans to put mint in homebrew.

Stuart Howe from Sharp's put it better than I can. He claimed that Kelly was "being deported for being far too attractive and good at brewing." That about sums it up. New Zealand’s brewing scene is about to be enlivened a bit more.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The legend of kettle caramelisation in Scottish beer

Recently I was listening to Fergus Clark from Inveralmond Brewery at a conference telling the audience about his new-build brewery. One of the advantages over the old plant, he explained proudly, was that they got less caramelisation of the wort during the boil.

I had to grin on hearing this, because, of course, there is a widespread belief that kettle caramelisation is a typical component of Scottish beer — yet here was Fergus saying that he wanted as little of it as possible!

I am pretty sure I know the origin of this tale. Michael Jackson often praised the beers of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh. As the last remaining Victorian brewery in Scotland, it still has direct-fired coppers. Russell Sharp, then boss of the Caley, argued that the kettle caramelisation — “We are boiling, not stewing. This creates flavours you cannot achieve with steam heat” — was an advantage and part of the unique character of Caledonian’s ales.

After Michael Jackson repeated this story, thousands of American homebrewers started boiling down their first runnings to create a caramelised malt syrup, and adding it back to their “Scottish Ale”. The ironic thing about this is that if you are boiling wort in a converted keg or turkey fryer over a propane flame like these guys, you have already recreated a direct-fired copper on a small scale.

Like Michael Jackson, I took the Caledonian story at face value for years. But now I wonder if it was an early example of Russell Sharp’s gift for marketing, later to become evident in the spectacular success of Innis & Gunn? In reality, was he making a virtue out of necessity?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Two British Doppelbock beers

Since when do the British brew Doppelbock? That was my reaction a few months back when I was offered a bottle of Croglin Vampire, the Doppelbock from Cumbrian Legendary Ales, as championed previously in the blogosphere by Woolly Dave and Jeff Pickthall. Jeff gave me one at GBBF [rephrase this later] and it sat in my beer cupboard until my memory was jogged by the unexpected arrival of a second bottle in the post last week.

In the other corner is the bottle of Dopplebock (sic) from Edinburgh’s Stewart Brewing, which the brewery were nice enough to hand out in goody bags at their launch party for the beer in July. So I took the chance to sample both side by side.

I thought Hallowe’en was an appropriate time to open the Vampire and was looking forward to a beer I could really get my teeth into. It doesn’t really form a head at all in the glass. The deep amber colour is beautiful. The overwhelming aroma is caramel malt and the taste is syrupy, grainy sweetness. I don’t know about you but caramel isn’t the same as malty in my book. In the mouth there’s creamy cereal and butter. It’s really very sweet indeed.

It’s years since I drank a real Bavarian Doppelbock, so I wouldn’t like to stick my neck out by saying Croglin Vampire isn’t much like one, but I can’t help feeling Cumbrian Legendary Ales have bitten off more than they can chew. Mind, everyone else seems to like it and it’s just won an award as best vampire-themed barley wine in the land (or something like that) so I guess they won’t mind too much me saying it’s a horror.

More enjoyable was the Dopplebock from Stewart Brewing. On the down side, it’s not nearly as eerily handsome as the Vampire, pouring an unattractive muddy brown, but at least it forms some sort of head, though this soon collapses. The taste is much more balanced. It’s full and malty but the sweetness is subtly balanced by herbal hops. Very slightly smoky. Not quite as chewy as I was expecting. I don’t find Stewart’s everyday beers to my taste very often, with the exception of the superb Edinburgh No. 3, but their speciality beers are pretty interesting.