Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ales and Graces

In my last post I (wrongly) suggested that a fellow blogger thought 750ml beers would have appeal because the wine-style bottle lends an air of class. Where would I get such an idea? It is surely not the case that upstart beer looks to its old money counterparts of wine, scotch and so on, for stylistic guidance as it hammers on the highfalutin door of haute cuisine acceptance. Or is it?

It is a point to ponder as I sip my "Chatoe Rogue Single Malt Ale" and eye the bottle of "Phillips Centennial single hop IPA" on the shelf. It's not that brewers have suddenly started constructing beers around the charms of individual ingredients, but they are certainly much keener on letting you know about it. A good dose of beermakers' innovative energy seems to go into emulating the mores and methods of vintners and distillers.

I have even heard talk of terroir creeping into more interviews with brewers. And what are fresh hop IPAs becoming if not the Beaujolais Nouveau for the taproom terroir-istas?

Beer drinkers and writers are just as keen to associate themselves with the snobbier aspects of wine and spirits. Take the growing interest in cellaring, aging and pairing beer. For centuries the battle was to get ale drunk as quick as possible. Aging was an unfortunate necessity that was offset by the addition of preservative ingredients. And pairing? In my own lifetime, before pubs turned into casino-eateries, the closest you'd get to a pairing option in your everyday beer-drinking life would be a packet of KP roasted nuts or some flayed pig skin. 

Of course, the critical question is this: Is it that an appreciation for the contribution of single ingredients, the one-off styles permitted by seasonal quirks, the varied development of flavour through aging, the culinary counterpoints of grog-meets-grub, and all the other things we associate with wine and scotch culture, are in fact part of the natural enjoyment of any refined sustenance-stuff — beer being long overdue similar status?

Or is beer becoming the nouveau-riche, seeking gentrification through emulation, buying a new BMW instead of waxing the Beetle, slinging Christian Dior handbags round its neck, attempting to disguise its proletarian accent while shielding its bad teeth as it signs up for membership at the golf club?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Size matters: Why 750ml beer bottles don't convince restaurant-goers

I said "order the Yellow Tail," Ulysses. But no, you had to go and show off…
The Beer Nut thinks that the 750ml bottle might be the answer to encourage mainstream restaurant-goers to embrace beer. The 750ml bottle (or "standard" as it's known in wine) is familiar, has an air of class, and lends itself perfectly to sharing with food, argues the 'Nut. Sounds reasonable.

However, I think that the 750ml bottle is both a solution and an obstacle in the quest to increase the status of beer as a "serious" food accompaniment.

Wine works in 750ml bottle for at least two reasons:

1. It is presumed to be a consistent strength (generally 12–14%)
2. It is usually not carbonated

Beer faces problems in the restaurant setting on both these fronts.

1. Beer ranges from 3-14%. It's a whole different undertaking to share 750ml of barley wine as opposed to a bottle of Lindeman's lambik. Restaurant-goers unfamiliar with beer would be doing blood-alcohol maths, wondering if they could finish a whole one, or — worse — ending up drunker than they expected. This all introduces anxiety where a simple bottle of wine would not.

Plus, if you're interested in trying a new wine, most restaurants serve by the glass. Not an option for beer: you can hardly crack a magnum of Karmeliet and expect it to pour ok an hour later.

2. If you've ever worked in a restaurant, you'll know that most customers live in fear of doing the wrong thing or being faced with a culinary challenge they are not up to. You might love crab at home, but you don't want to have to rip one out of its shell with a set of nutcrackers in a room full of strangers. Even the "how do you like your steak" question fills some people with existential angst. 750ml means customers will be pouring each others beers. Many will think there is a "correct" amount of head, not know how much to pour, get nervous about that murky bottom inch of sludge — in short, another level of anxiety.

Bottom line: beer is more complex than wine, it doesn't conform to expectations, it behaves in weird ways. Beer geeks and adventurous patrons might appreciate the larger format, but ordinary restaurant goers are likely to be too intimidated to become accustomed.

The best way to promote beer in restaurants, for me, is to accentuate its variety, suggest pairings on the menu, and serve it in single serving sizes — preferably in specialized glassware. Servers should offer to pour your glass and leave you the empty bottle to examine at your leisure. Removes all anxiety and ensures a better experience all round.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Some Unexpected Beery Gifts

Beer drinkers are by far the easiest people to buy for. As with all hobbyists, the gift-buyer has a helpful theme to guide their purchases. But with crime fiction geeks, stamp collecters, and the like, you're always gripped with the same anxiety "Wonder if he already has this…"

This is not a problem with beer drinkers.

"Happy birthday. The guy at the store said it was a good one. You haven't drank it before, have you?"
"Several times. Got three in the cellar. Split one with Jeff this morning as a matter of fact. Ooh it's cold. It's perfect I LOVE IT!"

Recently two lovely people surprised me with beer gifts of remarkable quality. I want to say thank you.

At a recent kid's party I took my daughter to, I got chatting to the grandmother of the birthday boy — a gifted potter who had made some great clay beer mugs so that the dads could drink beer at a child's party with impunity. I mentioned my own preference for a handled mug like a Stein or a Tankard. Two weeks later a shoebox turns up at my daughter's daycare, addressed to me:

Each mug holds 600ml, was fired to 2200 ºF (making it "mid-range", a very durable pot), and both are coloured with varying combinations of the colours "Brown Sugar" and "Roses are Red" (inspiration came from here). These details will mean more to potters. Most important for me is that, aside from looking quite beautiful, these mugs are great drinkers. The tankard especially has a pleasing plumpness, and I enjoy feeling the fine grain of the clay warming as I slowly swill a mild ale. Thanks so much, Sharon!

Next up is this lovely tray, bought for me by Ian the "beer prick". It features five offerings from the Northern Club's Federation Brewery Ltd (Newcastle on Tyne).

Now, there is a bittersweet end to this tale of generosity. While researching the Federation Brewery in order to write this post, a thought occurred to me: Could this be the same Federation Brewery responsible for Federation Ace Lager? A.K.A 8Ace — also the name of my beloved Viz cartoon character of the same name, who has a truly special fondness for "th' ace"?

It is. This tray was made by the same people who made 8 Ace. A more perfect gift (except 8 cans of Ace) I could not imagine.

Unfortunately, I also learned that the Northern Federation Brewery went out of business this year after 82 years of brewing (most of it superior to Ace, I happily report). But now they have been unceremoniously ousted by owners Heineken UK.



Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: Driftwood Twenty Pounder Double IPA

I had only recently finished typing a comment on someone else's blog about how to deal with bad beer experiences as a beer blogger when I found myself — like a character in a Charlie Kaufman movie — intimately enmeshed in the very world I was describing.

I am drinking Twenty Pounder IPA, which is a much-awaited beer from my absolute favourite local brewery. It was released today. It is one of my favourite styles. And I'm not enjoying it at all really.

The blog post I alluded to earlier was one of a series, really. A few British beer bloggers have been tossing back and forth about how to deal with bad beers. Should you be honest? Should you even review them? Is it fair to say bad things about good people who have crafted a beer that you just happen to hate? That sort of thing.

I have no answers to those fundamental questions. I focused on what I consider to be the blogger's duty to his reader(s?). This is my bit:

One overlooked variable in the quandary of how to approach negative criticism is the nature of your blog itself. No one is a mere "blogger" — our blogs are driven by different aims and angles. A blogger identifying as a straight reviewer or appraiser absolutely has the responsibility to be frank about poor experience, whereas the philosopher or geek of beer minutae can dodge even having to think about how to handle it.

Bloggers who consider themselves more generic or personal in their approach are obliged in other ways. You build up a relationship with your reader who — in turn — trusts you and expects things of you. If you have spoken candidly on poor experiences in the past, or made gestures at cutting through the crap, then you would serve your reader best by spilling the beans. But if your tone is overtly sympathetic and your readers view you as a convivial proponent of the whole good beer scene — then you would not be misleading anyone if you were to damn with feint praise now and then…

SO where does that leave me with the Driftwood beer? Well, I've always screamed at the top of my lungs about how much I love them, and I've always been honest. I feel I have no choice.

The beer pours a mid orange, with a chunky head that leaves some persistent, patchy lacing. It is a crystal clear DIPA, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that Driftwood have begun to filter a little.* The aroma is very reminiscent of the Fat Tug IPA, which isn't my favourite Driftwood beer, nor is it my favourite local IPA, but it is a worthy brew that I often order and enjoy.

The nose is powerful, orangey, thick, tropical, somewhat cloying, but pleasant. Initially it tastes like a barley wine: syrupy and luscious, but with fairly sharp hop notes. The hops never really get going for me; they are excessive in no particular direction, lending to a rather characterless effect. Stewed apricots come through, but that's about it. I think that malt-lovers would be disappointed, hop-heads alienated.

Then the worst bit: a brutally astringent, chemically finish with all the grace and élan of a nail varnish jell-o-shot. Bad enough to be called flawed; so much so that I'd chalk this off as a bad bottle had it not only just come off the line. If this is 20lb-er as intended, it definitely falls somewhere between "not-for-me" and plain old "gross".


*I don't know why I wrote that Driftwood have begun to filter their beer. I think I got my wires crossed somehow based on the fact they have recently introduced an "unfiltered" sticker to some of their beers. Pure confabulation. AFAIK they do not and never have filtered. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Canadian CAMRA Studies #1: Fraser Valley CAMRA

Recent debates about the relevance of CAMRA UK gave me pause to muse on Canada's growing number of CAMRA chapters. On the face of it, the original aims of CAMRA do not seem to apply to Canada where there has never been a tradition of cask beer nor any particular threats to it. If Canadian CAMRAs are just Canadian Beer Appreciation Clubs, why not call them that and be done with it? Musings turn into obsessions pretty quick in chez smallbeer…

This is the first in a series of blogs in which I excavate the murky tar-sands of CanCAMRA and emerge, triumphant, with oily fists full of truth.


The best place to start seems to be with the most recent chapter in Canada: Fraser Valley CAMRA located east of Vancouver in British Columbia. As far as I can tell, the only chapters in Canada are in British Columbia: Ottawa had one that died, rumours of one in Toronto failed the Google test, and apparently someone absconded with Calgary CAMRAs funds, ending that venture.

I spoke with Vice President Jonny Tyson and communications guru Jason (whose position I regretfully failed to confirm) today to find out what their chapter is all about.  I will be publishing information about what seems to be a thriving beer scene in Fraser Valley on our BeerOnTheRock blog. Right now I'm only interested in the "why CAMRA"? question.

Upon calling Jonny I get the sense my question is already answered, as a familiar London accent meets my ear. It turns out that Jonny's love for cask beer and subsequent interest in CAMRA do indeed stem from a youth spent supping bitter in London pubs — an experience whose virtues were only truly appreciated upon Jonny's arrival in Canada.

"That taste and experience of real ale is something most Canadians don't even know exists. I think it's important to keep that going and to introduce it to people," says Jonny.

Fraser Valley's chapter was started by Mike Victory, Jonny, and a handful of other real ale converts whose passion for good beer was strained by the commute to Vancouver CAMRA meetings and the riches of the urban beer scene. They quickly realized that if they pooled their local member base they could stimulate the local scene and avoid the interminable #YVR traffic jams. Fraser Valley CAMRA was born in January 2011 and has grown from a core of 40 members to around 75 — aiming at 100 by Christmas.

Nice, but what have they achieved?

"Fraser Valley now has regular cask events. We've held two at Kingfishers and there will be one at Billy Miner — their first cask event ever. Kingfishers have given us massive support, they're a real hub for us. Our core members are very active and the scene is responding. The Billy Miner pub used to have one craft beer tap, they're installing something like fifteen now. Mission Springs brewery is supplying casks, Central City sponsor us, and local beer stores are filling up with craft beer."

OK so they love cask ale, but surely an organized Fraser Valley beer collective could have put the same pressure on local pubs and stores. Why borrow the CAMRA epithet?

"Cache. Maybe we could have nudged the scene, but the CAMRA name brings weight. It attracts more members. It's recognizable."

In other words it's a "brand" — a word I'm instinctively hostile toward, but I can see that I need to reconsider my prejudices based on the indisputable good the CAMRA name has done for Fraser Valley. Some of the grumpier Canadian drinkers you find moaning on BeerAdvocate forums about their miserable local scenes would do well to take a leaf out of Fraser Valley's book and get organized — it really can make a dramatic difference.

But when all's said and done, CAMRA UK was born out of historically adverse circumstances. They've even made a film out of it (incidentally the trailer of which features my own local, the Malt Shovel Tavern in Northampton). Isn't it sacrilegious to take a name forged in the fires of social conflict and append it to some beer geeks' unwillingness to select a designated driver to take them to a decent Vancouver boozer? What possible problems face the ostensibly thriving craft beer scene in BC???

"It's true, we don't have the same problems here. BC craft beer sales went up by something like 30% last year. But there are problems… Big brewers are looking to buy out craft breweries, not to mention the tied houses regulations in BC might be abolished. That could get nasty"

Jonny is right. Until now BC has enjoyed some sensible regulations that prevent large breweries from essentially bribing outlets to favour or exclusively stock their products. For anyone who has had the "pleasure" of trying to find a beer at a local hockey game only to find a choice of one or two (shit) beers at extortionate prices — this could be the future of BC watering holes if certain interests get their way. In such a scenario, one could imagine a real need for a dedicated consumer rights movement. I can say with confidence that CAMRA chapters such as Fraser Valley's would be ready-made for exactly those purposes.

Jonny and I end our conversation and I find myself reappraising CanCAMRA. What was hitherto for me an object of affection and mild derision has taken on the unexpected aura of a sleeper cell of underground resistance to potentially hostile forces intent on forcing me to drink Keiths pseudo-IPA. As the recent Vancouver riots have proved: we might as yet have absolutely no reason whatsoever to get miffed about anything at all — but British Columbians look to be more than ready for the ruckus should it eventually turn up. And that's at least in part thanks to CAMRA.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

CAMRA Obscura

A Victoria CAMRA Member

CAMRA is a hot topic for bloggers right now. People are debating the absence of brewers and types of beer at the Great British Beer Festival, whether CAMRA is at some sort of existential crossroads, and how best to represent good beer now that the "craft movement" has departed from what have traditionally been considered the best brewing practices.

To my knowledge, only two Canada-based beer writers have waded in with any force on what are chiefly British concerns (my excuse is being British; Alan will gatecrash any party whose guests include beer and passion). It is to their credit that no UK folk have told us to fuck off on the basis that it has little to do with us (perhaps they will now I've admitted I'm an imposter). But I have wondered whether it is my business and, frankly, why I care so much.

My wondering has led me to this answer:

Like many, I look for meaning in beer. I'm a sociologist, but also a hormonal marxist who cannot help but seek solidarity with others in my passions and pursuits. Something about the way the North American "craft beer community" (or worse, "movement") is packaged in various social media outlets feels phony and tacky to me. More power to them and no disrespect to the individuals involved, but gestures like the I Am a Craft Beer Drinker video make me cringe inside. I can't identify with it.

I get great satisfaction through companionship and spanning time with local drinkers, brewers and writers here in Victoria. But I also hunger to connect beyond that, which is why at least half of the beer writing I read regularly is about the complicated world of UK beer. Beer culture in North America – like a Hollywood movie – has a neat and knowable history, clear-cut baddies and goodies, and a current feel-good triumphalism. In many ways thrilling yet unengaging. British beer has an enigmatic history, diverse sagas and side-narratives, and complexly-developed protagonists — of whom CAMRA is certainly one. More Mike Leigh than James Cameron.

CAMRA in particular fascinates me. Alan flippantly observed a parallel with the Tea Party — a comment that I found more insightful than perhaps he intended. Like the original Tea Party, CAMRA shares a common tragedy with all insurgent movements: successful revolutionaries often find themselves in the dubious position of becoming establishment conservatives. CAMRA's original struggle — to save cask ale culture from mass-production (which happened to favour kegging beer) — plays a similar role to the American Constitution for modern Tea-Partiers: it offers a stubborn lens on a political landscape whose struggles have shifted considerably, pitching those with many common interests against one another for the sake of antiquated loyalism.

With this in mind, I sit here with my CAMRA Victoria membership card in my hand and experience a bit of a revelation. What has CAMRA in Canada got to do with UK CAMRA? Besides the love of good beer, I can't work out what the affinity could possibly be. There has never been a cask-ale tradition here let alone a threat to it. CAMRA Victoria started well after the early-1980s good beer trend started.  A few internet searches later and I realize that I cannot find any up-to-date references of any CAMRA chapter outside BC (besides some old mentions of CAMRA Ottawa — which seems to be defunct).

Suddenly feeling a chill, I wonder if CAMRA UK even knows about us. Another internet search reveals no links at all! I recall a recent article about an enterprising businessman in China who set up an exact replica of an Apple Store — down to the shelf-fittings and polo-shirt wearing uber-geeks — and sold Apple merchandise for months before being rumbled. Are we imposters? Am I in a cult? Am I part of an underground splinter group with secretive aims to subvert NA craft beer optimism with archaic, esoteric in-fighting? AM I A REPLICANT?

North American beer culture just got interesting for this CAMRA member…