Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pliny Proves a Point

What dreadful timing, and how annoying: a bottle of Pliny the Elder made itself available to me today. This is sincerely not good.

The reason I'm probably the least excited beer drinker ever to anticipate his first taste of what some people consider to be the finest IPA (indeed, beer) currently made, is because of my last blog post. In it, I whined about the lust for exclusive, exotic beers that drives many to ignore the quality and potential of their local breweries.

And here I am, staring at the one beer that might send me weak at the knees and make me look like a proper prick for getting on my high horse about localism: this thing was brewed 1,400km away and took ten weeks to arrive here (brewed 02.24.2011 according to the label). It is among the most coveted of North American beers that are regularly produced (probably losing out to Dark Lord with its freakishly over-attended launch parties). And to rub it in further, this most fetishized of beers arrives as a direct result of the trade made by Dave that inspired me to complain in the first place.

No sense beating myself up about it, let's drink this thing.

All right, I know it would be convenient for my argument to give a less than stellar review, but I have to say this is not as incredible as I hoped it would be. Yes, yes … vindication has touched my lips and its taste truly is sweeter than Russian River's finest. This beer is good, very tasty in fact. As expected there is a strong grapefruit flavour and a stewed pear sweetness, maybe a little coconut — quite my favourite style of IPA. But it is not explosive, not zingy, not particularly sexy.

I sip it slowly as Dave (bless him for sharing this with me) and I hammer some baseboards into the walls and it improves with warmth: a little spiciness from the 8% abv opens the flavour up a bit. I almost get giddy, but it is oddly muted, as though I am drinking it through a muslin gauze.

I have no reason not to believe all the people who rave about this beer, but I think this one has probably deteriorated somewhat. It is likely the storage or transportation — possibly a less-than-perfect batch — because Dave has heard on good authority that the brewer himself prefers this beer after 2 months in the bottle (which this is). There are probably ten IPAs that shook me more forcefully than the beer in my hand, and all but a few of them were from closer to home.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Beer Miles

I was round Dave's house the other day and he handed me a parcel containing several beers he was planning to mail in a trade arranged with a remote beer drinker.

"Do you think this will be OK to send?" he asked.

What Dave meant was "are my bubble-wrapping skills sufficient to prevent the recipient of this parcel from having to mentally reconstruct from the aroma of stale hops and soggy paper what this bottle of Driftwood Singularity might have tasted like whilst plucking shards of shattered bomber glass from his fingers."

"No, you'll probably need to buttress the ends with a wedge of cardboard," I said.

But it occurred to me just then that it might not be OK to send it for another reason...

Permit me to generalize, but beer lovers tend to wear on their sleeves a strong social conscience and eco-friendly credentials. Ask a "crafty" why they eschew macro breweries and they are likely to cite unethical business practices, environmental disregard and crummy working conditions — not just the piss-poor quality of the product.

Here lies a hypocrisy most of us share: we expect to be able to — and frequently do — drink beers from hundreds if not thousands of miles away. One fallout from the so-called "craft beer revolution" (let's not flatter ourselves) is that certain beers, the rarer and more remote the better, have become ludicrously fetishized. Many drinkers feel compelled to try them all, whether for the experience, to boost their BeerAdvocate Beer Karma rating, or to earn a pointless Untappd badge. Should we do it? And is it worth it?

The biggest issue is that the environmental cost of transporting beer — a product with a high weight:value ratio — is significant. I'm fairly green-minded; not because I am particularly morally virtuous, but because any other stance in the face of current evidence seems to be grossly irresponsible. I drink my fair share of imports, but I'm very pleased when local brewers produce previously unavailable styles so that I don't feel the need to. The green beer point has been made on several other websites already.

But there are other reasons to stick to local where possible that have nothing to do with the environment but everything to do with improving the quality of the beer you drink. Here are a few I can think of:

  • The beer is almost certainly going to be fresh. This is critically important for many styles of beer. How on earth can people expect to evaluate and review a cultish double IPA from the US, for example, if it has been sat in a warm warehouse at customs for six weeks before you get anywhere near it?
  • Supporting local producers is not just a kind thing to do, it will also put money in their pockets that they can use to expand their offerings — meaning a local source of quads, sours and imperial pilsners is much more likely to emerge.
  • You will usually get better value.  I recently came across a bottle of Phillips Amnesiac going for $16 in a bar in Ontario where local (and better, in my opinion) equivalents were sold for under a tenner. There are exotic imports selling for a packet in your local beer store that are considered to be very ordinary by those who live near the breweries — bear that in mind.
  • Finally, I don't know about you, but I get a shed-load more pleasure drinking a beer made by a guy who I either know or am likely to bump into in a local pub on any given night.
All I'm saying is don't get too caught up on acquiring the hard to come by at all costs. The grass is greener at home. And if it really isn't, then bloody water it.