Books About Beer Blog

We have to talk about Craft Beer - Part 4: Ensuring the future September 14 2014, 0 Comments

Part 4: Ensuring the future

In CAMRA’s early days, enjoying good beer meant knowing a lot about where to find it and a little about what it was. Beer drawn straight from a cask or pulled by hand to the bar was great; while that which came twinkling from a flick-switch fount was rubbish. Electric pumps challenged our certainty, so had to go.

That world disappeared, as all worlds do in time. Nowadays the eight pubs that lie within easy cycling distance of my village home serve more cask ales than could be found in the whole million-strong city of Birmingham in my youth.

Back then, ‘foreign beer’ meant one of a dozen industrial lagers, few of which were imported. Nowadays I can have over 3000 beers from round the world delivered to my door within a couple of days, most brewed to sound artisan principles.

This has been an unimaginably impressive revolution.

A word from our sponsors

So how does Britain’s beer consumer group react to this extraordinary progress?

It deigns to be “not against” it. Support is not forthcoming and it is happy to stand back while older members who should know better make up facts to justify attacking the new and exciting. Meanwhile its annual flagship Good Beer Guide is barred from mentioning many of Britain’s best beers. From a Government-approved ‘superconsumer’ this feels a tad cliquey.

The excuse is that CAMRA’s membership continues to grow – benefits include free entry to beer festivals and 50p off a pint in some pubs. The basic rule of ‘adapt or die’ is deemed irrelevant.

Uniquely among beer consumer groups it fails to promote or campaign for better beer, preferring to favour one tightly defined sub-type. A beer group that promotes a rival and unrelated drink, cider, but cannot extend such favours to other beer styles, has a problem.

Beware of aliens

None of this would matter were CAMRA not in danger of alienating the new generation of beer enthusiasts, who fail to see how Greene King IPA could possibly be considered superior to Punk IPA.

It annoys many older supporters too, who wince at statements on the nature of beer from senior or long-standing members who clearly know little about their subject beyond spouting the dodgy clichés of a bygone time.

This is not entirely their fault. CAMRA nationally has deprioritised beer knowledge and does little to encourage or enable members to discover and explore brewing beyond its narrow focus. The absence of understanding and expertise about beer, even in the organisation’s higher echelons can be staggering.

Adapt or die

The concept of craft beer came in part from the typewriters of St Albans. It changed the nature of commercial brewing globally. The idea that today’s craft beer lovers have interests opposed to those of yesterday’s real ale campaigners is crackpot and needs exposing as such. CAMRA must talk about craft beer.

Whatever ‘good beer’ should mean in 21st century Britain, it is not a debate about cask versus keg. It is about flavour, diversity of styles and independent ownership, just like it has always been.

Because of my generation’s efforts to save beer, today’s beer drinkers inherited a far better world of opportunities. As such, they will form their opinions based on today’s possibilities, not out-dated assumptions. Old CAMRA must understand that or it will become irrelevant to the future of brewing in the UK.

The Campaign must grow with its times and extend its influence beyond the traditional pub sector, which is contracting. The growth area for interesting beer is off sales, new-style cafés, hotels and restaurants – or the places where decision makers encounter beer, if you prefer. To influence here CAMRA must roll back from its cask obsession and renew its vows to make beer better.

Heartfelt opinion must start to be informed by understanding. A basic level CAMRA activist should know how beer comes to taste the way it does and how different types of good beer are best made. And whatever expertise senior activists may have they should know what is happening in the wider world of well-made beer.

Final plea

And please do something about that title!

Books from consumer groups should reflect what they are in their title. CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide Belgium rates every beer and brewery in that country, outlines its national beer styles and lists the beeriest cafés, shops, tourist attractions and events. Its UK equivalent is a collection of Branch members’ favourite pubs, with a beer and brewery section in which 80% of those listed are occasional light ales.

If it were the Guide to Cask Ale Pubs, fair enough but it ain’t. Please liberate its editorial team to make it be what it sounds like it is, before somebody complains.

The bottom line

In the fifteen years since my first efforts to get CAMRA to talk about craft beer, British brewing has fallen far behind its less established rivals. Its export performance is pathetic and is likely to remain so unless it recaptures past greatness, with or without CAMRA support.

Light ales polluted by fruit syrup, poor imitations of better-made foreign styles and old names revived to fig leaf mediocrity simply will not cut it with modern beer lovers. They expect and can get far better.

Artisan brewing in Britain is about to reach a place where it will do just fine without CAMRA. I am not so sure that CAMRA will do well unless it can accept and celebrate the new beer buzz, counselling caution by all means and remaining sceptical of snappily dressed men talking brand, but always ALWAYS on side with better beer and praising every effort to create and promote it.

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Tim Webb served on CAMRA’s National Executive for seven years, running the Great British Beer Festival for the first two, then heading up publicity and publications.  He has since written numerous best selling beer books, thus far translated into nine languages. In his spare time he runs a small publishing company and booksellers (booksaboutbeer.com).

 

 


We have to talk about Craft Beer - Part3: Call that beer good? August 29 2014, 0 Comments

Part 3: Call that beer good?

A few years back, I had a civilised row with a brewer friend who has helped hundreds of small producers around Europe. Drifting into discussion of an obscure beer that sits in the back catalogue of AB InBev he cited this as “probably perfect”, while I preferred “instantly forgettable”. After four hours’ debate we agreed we were both right.

Many if not most industrial beers are technically perfect. The problem is that in the course of making them so little effort is put into giving them memorable character that beyond being an alcohol delivery system they have little purpose.

Blame the drinker

It is not the brewers or accountants who cause industrial beers to be bland; it is opinionated drinkers. If you doubt this, go and read Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew, an excellent account of the rise of US brewers like Miller, Coors, Pabst and Anheuser Busch. In particular read the chapter about market research.

The flaw in asking people what they like is that most can pinpoint what they dislike, based on experience. In contrast, few of us can imagine what we would like but have not experienced. So when US consumers were asked in the 1960s how beer could be improved, they suggested removing stuff. Thus, American lagers went first bland, then ‘Lite’ and eventually ‘Ice’, as brewers smoothed out ruffles and made them ever duller.

However, the popular notion that such beers are “full of chemicals” is largely myth. If chemical additives matter at all, the class most vulnerable to the charge is cask ale, for its auxiliary finings.

Likewise critics including myself who suggest that big brand beers use cut-price ingredients are only partially correct. AB InBev is open about cheapening Stella Artois by putting maize on the grain bill but the rice they use to make Budweiser often costs more per ton than their barley. Carlsberg and Heineken even claim to have moved back to 100% malt.

Hops cost less in industrial brewing but only because so few are used. When it comes to substituting them with oil, jam or extract, better-known smaller brewers are often greater sinners.

Who cares about flavour?

CAMRA publishes relatively little about why beers taste the way they do and much of what appears seems politically filtered. This is not as daft as it may seem. From the consumer perspective the golden rule is that beyond those aspects of production designed to avoid flaws, golden rules are unreliable.

Here are some of the more reliable ones.

Brew with malted barley that is cracked on site and avoid sugar, maize or syrups. Add whole hops or well-prepared pellets and use newer varieties that are more distinctive. Mash, sparge and boil in line with the intended style rather than to keeps costs down. Ferment wort slower, with fresh yeast not dried, and condition it at the brewery for as long as possible. More ingredients add more flavour.

Then recognise that some excellent beers cut every corner on the track and that, as my brewer chum eventually admitted, some perfectly made beers are perfectly dreary.

Making real good

So how do Britain’s cask-conditioned light ales, ‘real ale’ if you prefer, pack so much flavour into such a tiny frame?

Mainly it is by mashing at higher temperatures. This squeezes out grain flavours in a way some European brewers consider crude. Chancier beers may duck fine filtering, leaving flour in the body of the beer to make it taste bigger than it is – grain’s answer to dry hopping, the late addition of fresh hops.

Is conditioning in the cask crucial to flavour development? Well yes and no.

Blind tasting of beers conditioned only by saccharomyces – the fast yeast of fermentation – suggests these add little to taste, except by trading in some sugar for alcohol and gas. This can also be achieved by conditioning at the brewery.

Conditioning for greater character involves the action of slower yeast. Even where these are present, with many pubs using rapid turnaround times for casks, this is unlikely to happen. In truth many cask ale supporters are not drawn to greater flavour but to lower carbonation, which of course requires no conditioning at all.

You cannot be for real ale but against ‘fizz’, as bottle-conditioned beers are the fizziest of all. Is it this the area of confusion that leads CAMRA to duck making policy on tank-, keg- and can-conditioned ales I wonder?

Don’t need taste – got rules

For centuries British brewing ruled the world with beers like porter, stout, India Pale and Burton ales. Were these cask-conditioned? Yes, but not as we know it.

A major aspect of flavour creation that got deleted from beer-making along the way was storage in large oak casks, or tuns. This was the stage when slower-acting yeast in the cask walls evolved complex flavours similar to those found in other drinks that are ‘aged in the wood’.

These older styles, which feature prominently within ‘craft beer’, must be allowed to use these formats, along with flashier hops, more intricate production techniques and smart marketing.

CAMRA’s current take on craft beer is one of confused wariness. From one quarter comes suggestions that the emergence of newer forms of old British ales is no business of a beer consumer group while from another the emergence of tasty new beers that are not saccharomyces-conditioned in the cask is scarilege.

The current stances are as confused as they are absurd and dangerous. New brewing needs informed and sceptical wisdom. In the final piece in this series I will suggest, I hope, a more appropriate and intelligent approach.

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Tim Webb served on CAMRA’s National Executive for seven years, running the Great British Beer Festival for the first two, then heading up publicity and publications.  He has since written numerous best selling beer books, thus far translated into nine languages. In his spare time he runs a small publishing company and booksellers (booksaboutbeer.com).


We have to talk about Craft Beer - Part 2: Perspectives August 27 2014, 0 Comments

Part 2: Altering perspectives

I joined CAMRA in the otherwise ordinary summer of 1974. Finishing my teens, I was badly in need of a cause. All the big ones had gone, so I chose beer.

The Campaign was three years old but had just invented the term ‘real’ ale and with this new brand drew in impressionable young people like me, leading us towards interesting beer in the same way Brewdog has managed to do for our children and grandchildren.

I came to see cask-conditioned beer – a term first coined by the head of soft drinks at Bass Charrington – as the best. I relished discovering each one, as my personal quest to prevent their extinction took me to every county of the UK.

Far more importantly, meeting and sharing my new obsession with people of all ages and backgrounds gave me a start in the world like no other.

The road to Spui

My first doubts about the sanctity of cask ale began in 1976 on a trip to Amsterdam. An afternoon saunter down a road less travelled from Centraal Station to Spui was interrupted by the urge to turn right down a narrow alleyway.

It was divine intervention not signage that led me to the Gollem café, where in four hours I drank my way through seven or eight beers that challenged everything I knew. They were Belgian, bottled and strikingly different not only from any beer I had yet encountered but also from each other. It was love at first flight.

Nowadays I enjoy beers from most heritages and styles, finding in each some that are cleverly made or authentic, while others are dull or plagiarised. I have no truck with people who believe it is impossible to define good beer. It is obvious – the clue is in the taste.

Writing the World Atlas of Beer, I became obsessed by what constitutes traditional beer. I wanted to understand why cask ales had ceased to be made anywhere but in the UK – until I realised they had only ever been British. It had not been that other countries had moved on, it was that they were never there.

Inconvenient truths

Commercial brewers are charged with trying to match two incompatible demands – to make beers that are interesting and appealing at the same time as being cheap and accessible. This ends up meaning that the type of beer a nation prefers is determined not through local tastes as by the things that affect it cost.

In Britain, where labour and land prices are high and the duty on beer is both punishing and gathered within a month or so of its completion, brewers are incentivised to make light beers that race from grain to glass as quickly as possible. Hence modern British beers are relatively low in alcohol and simple in style. Only in the UK is a 3.5% alcohol beer considered ‘normal strength’.

This need for speed is why British lagers are not allowed 8 to12 weeks of essential cold-tank conditioning to strip out their gunkier flavours.

The reason cask-conditioned beers are finished in the pub cellar is not to deliver perfection so much as but rather as a way to save on time and space. It is an excellent example of playing a bad hand the best you can.

DORA and all her children

In Victorian Britain ‘small beer’ was a safer way than the polluted water supply to deliver water to workers in agriculture or heavy industry. Made from the second running off a mash, it fermented to about 3% alcohol, while proper beers in contrast had a declared strength of 5 to 5.5%, likely underestimated. Export and special brews were stronger.

The Liberal Party acquired support from Temperance activists after it lost the barons of brewing to the Tories in the 1870s. In 1914 they found themselves in government at the outbreak of a major war and compelled to introduce special powers for the duration of hostilities. Their Defence of the Realm Act introduced pub closing times and a cap on the strength of beer at 4% alcohol.

After the war, high duty imposed on re-legalised stronger beers helped reflate Britain’s shattered economy and by the time brewing had started to return to normal, Hitler had provoked a re-match. By 1945 British consumer expectations were at a new 20th century low.

In our time

Food rationing continued to 1954, by which time new business methods had persuaded shareholders that efficiency and profitability mattered more than reputation and product in determining success. Thus brewing fell victim to indiscriminately applied new technologies that enabled cost cutting.

This was the world into which my generation of CAMRA members stepped, with our collective misunderstanding of what constituted traditional British beer.

Porters and most serious stouts, pale ales and IPAs, after dilution, were replaced by variations on light ale. The better ones were finished at the pub, while others came pre-packed as ‘keg’, a word made for spitting. Early CAMRA mistook the best available for the best possible. When defining “good beer”, we made the right call for our times, but not one likely to last through better times.

Meanwhile

The radical swerves of the 20th century had left UK brewers with few options to make beers tasty and yet Britain’s brewmasters remain the undisputed world champions at getting an awful lot of flavour out of relatively little.

In the third piece in this mini-series I will try to explain how they achieve this. Sadly, it has relatively little to do with those aspects of beer production that the purists’ credo holds dear.

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Tim Webb served on CAMRA’s National Executive for seven years, running the Great British Beer Festival for the first two, then heading up publicity and publications.  He has since written numerous best selling beer books, thus far translated into nine languages. In his spare time he runs a small publishing company and booksellers (booksaboutbeer.com).


We have to talk about Craft Beer June 18 2014, 0 Comments

This is the first of four articles by prize-winning beer writer Tim Webb, author of The World Atlas of Beer, Pocket Beer Book, Good Beer Guide Belgium, LambicLand and others, in which he traces the progress of beer in the last 40 years; debunks some myths about British brewing; picks out those parts of beer-making that create flavour; and challenges CAMRA to retake its vow to improve beer in Britain.