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.


  1. Dan.
    You are speaking my mind. There are great beers to be had almost everywhere on this planet. Support your local breweries and they will reward you with even better ones!!

  2. Milos, if I am speaking your mind, then I am sure I must have got something right this time.

    Dean from Lighthouse just brewed the Island's first imperial pilsner — that's what I'm talking about.

  3. 1. Local Hero is one of my all-time favorite movies! great choice for a graphic.

    2. Can a "100-mile Beer diet" be far behind!

  4. Here here!

    "The grass is greener at home. And if it really isn't,then bloody water it." - Best quote I've read in recent memory.

  5. I have been saying this for awhile, but usually get shouted down by the obsessed geeks. Nice to see others getting on board.

  6. I love trading for beers from the US and all over the world. I buy local beer, and trade it for beers I can't get locally. This supports the local brewers and lets me try new beers from far and wide. Why would you bash such a practice? Just because of the shipping? I bet a lot of the things you buy are imported ...maybe even that high-horse you ride upon is arabian??

    It seems like you were getting trading beer confused with buying imported beers at times in this rant of yours. I guess that is pretty irresponsible of you to not support local brewers when you buy imports. Since you obviously own a computer, I doubt your some hippy living on a 100 mile diet in his recycled material home. I bet a lot of things you buy come from China.

    My stuff comes from the US in just over a week. I'm not sure why you think packages would sit for six weeks in customs. Do you really think that that 6 of Red Racer that you buy from the BCLS is going to be fresher than 6 weeks old??? I bet you couldn't even tell the difference between 1 week old Pliny and 6 month old Pliny in a side by side. I'm sure you just read that it has to be drank within 3 days of bottling or it turns from liquid orgasm potion, into cat vomit.

    So ya, of course there's good local beers which are great for most of the time, but man, live a little. It's a big world out there and it's good to experience as much of it as you can in your short time on this planet.

  7. Dear Mr. Anonymous

    You seem not to have read the article too closely, allow me to help you understand it.

    I do not condemn trading per se, only if it comes at the cost of supporting local scenes. I also do not suggest that trading and importing (from any country) is somehow inherently immoral. If you bothered to read other articles in this blog my stance on that would be perfectly clear. No-one's claiming to be a hippy here mate. I think it is quite cute that you advise me to "live a little" knowing very little about how I have spent my time on this planet...

    The target of this article is those for whom breadth of beer sampling is an end in itself, rather than depth. If you feel this applies to you then I am attacking you. If you do not, then your indignation is misplaced.

    The claim about beer sitting in customs for a long time is not one I made up off the cuff, it is one that two independent beer retailers in Victoria have proffered. Each has spent several weeks waiting for shipments to clear customs.

    After clarifying these points I see very little credibility in your rejoinder, but I'd be happy to debate it with you if you felt confident enough to identify yourself...

    And regarding your lazy invective about high horses, the insinuation that I blindly repeat mantras I "read somewhere", and that I am some kind of ecological hypocrite, I'll refer you to the magnificent Christopher Hitchens:

    "I always think it's a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem"

  8. You clearly have a far superior intellect than most, going by your word choices and quote. I'm sure I couldn't possibly win an argument with you. It would be too cute for me to even try!

    Anyways, I will still argue that most beer in the BCLS has been sitting around for long periods of time in undesirable conditions (ie light, temperature) and think your argument that imported beer is in much worse condition is invalid.

    I will also challenge you to take a blind taste test of any fresh ipa, with the same beer stored 2-4 months at room temperature in relative darkness. If you can tell which one is which, then I guess you have an argument about the Pliny being past its prime. I'm thinking it was just a case of not living up to your expectations. I can't tell the difference between any Pliny's up to 6 months old or so and I've drank plenty. How can it be as good as anyone hopes when it's hyped the way it is?? I actually did have a 2 year old one once, and that one did taste different, but still very good.

    I just get tired of uninformed opinions on freshness and age of beer. I should not have been so defensive and I apologise for my tone and hitting a nerve with you ...as you did with me.

  9. No problem Mr. Anonymous. Apologies if the response was frosty, but my heckles get up easily when criticism seems to come out of left-field.

    I am not certain that the Pliny was worse for the travel, the only reason I hypothesized that it might be is because in all honesty it was not supremely good. All accounts from friends I trust suggest that it usually is wonderful, which made me suspect something was up. Or I might just have different tastes in big IPAs, who knows.

    As for the BCLS stuff, I bet you're right. I'm not a freshness fetishist, perhaps I gave that impression. In fact, that the beer is likely to be fresher was just one of the reasons in my stack for preferring local beer — not the be-all-and-end-all. Some beers do not care about time so much, so my argument does not stand up universally. For example, I recently drank a 1997 Fullers' Vintage Ale that was quite lovely and still hoppy. However, as I am sure you know, volatile hop flavours are prone to rapid dissipation if kept in incorrect conditions — I don't think I am deluded on that score.

    Either way, thanks for reading and I hope we can tussle again. It would be even better if you introduced yourself :)