My friend Paul drives a Toyota Prius, or ‘Pious’ as he calls it with a self-mocking glint in his eye. Mind you he does keep bees, so perhaps his car choice is consistent with his lifestyle. I find the thing quite unnerving though. The other day, he gave me a lift to the station, and we had driven 50 yards before any sound kicked in…very surreal and even more unnerving. It was the same sensation as you get on a plane just before it touches down, when the pilot feathers back the engines in order to ‘plop’ the plane down rather than nailing it into the runway.
Then, to prove that he is a real man, Paul flicked a switch and hammered the accelerator to demonstrate to me that (a) there is an internal combustion engine under the bonnet and (b) it was capable of warning others that it was there. Now, the Pious is of course a ‘hybrid’ vehicle as they have come to be known. This is different from other cars with ‘intelligent technology’ that switch off the engine when you are at the lights, or flip over into a low fuel use mode when the cruise-control is engaged for example. ‘Hybrid’ is different – it’s bringing together two fundamentally different approaches to motive power. One, the suck-squeeze-bang-fart petrol engine, the other, using rechargeable batteries like a Duracell bunny that keeps on drumming, if you will. This in itself was pretty radical when they first came out; more radical is the idea of combining the two, or better put, designing the two so that they can transition fluidly and effortlessly between each other.
Hence the term ‘hybrid’: as a noun, ‘something that combines two different elements: a mixture’; as an adjective: ‘of mixed character, or composed of mixed parts’. We have all lived with the Toyota Pious and their like for a few years now, so we have, to quote a Canadian I know, “acculturated” the word – we get it, and it makes sense, much more than the word ‘acculturated’ in fact.
But the ‘H’ word is popping up more widely now. I was walking to work this week, and I saw a poster advertising a new ‘Hybrid Library’, which I gather is one which has both printed and electronic materials (we had a microfiche reader at my University Library – I knew we were ahead of our times!). I also own a ‘hybrid bike’ – I was sold on the ruggedness & practicality of a mountain bike with the aerodynamic features & acceleration of a road bike. And it looks great – it’s a Specialized with a deep, metallic blue frame, 27 gears, and a suspension seat post for purtly-plush bottom comfort. However, it fails on two counts: it cannot handle any form of rugged terrain, like my mountain bike, and compared with a road bike, it is slow and cumbersome. A compromise then, not an ingenious invention for an unmet need in our lives.
In fact, this phenomenon crops up surprisingly often in the world of brands and marketing. In beer, for many years the gap between 4% beers and 5% beers was an intellectual opportunity but a practical graveyard – especially for lagers. Many beers launched into the space, but because Stella cornered the ‘strong lager’ market and Carling and their like, had the ‘4% session’ lagers covered, drinkers didn’t want the confusion of beers in between. It was a case of ‘I know I can have 4 pints of Carling and still function, but 4 pints of Stella and I’m finished. I can’t risk Miller Genuine Draft at 4.7%…”
But these walls seem to have crashing down now particularly with ciders and some of the bottled lagers pushing into this ‘space’. And brewers are pushing in too – with careless abandon. And I use the word ‘careless’ specifically in this context because my hunch tells me that describing a beer as a “Lager / IPA Hybrid” is a space that a Marketing person would identify, but not a brewer or a beer drinker. But that’s what we have in the market now: Williams Bros Brewery of Alloa have launched ‘Caesar Augustus’ which is described in said fashion, as well as ‘Microbrewed for maximum flavour’*. Where to start?
Hail Caesar Hybridus!
Look, I’m all for pushing out the boundaries in beer. And the notion of brewing a beer, lagering it well and then giving it a generous kiss of hops sounds appetising. But I have an issue with describing a beer as a ‘hybrid’. This beer is a lager; it is generously hopped, but that doesn’t make it an IPA. That in itself shouldn’t be a problem (I refer you to the ‘Black IPA’ debate for more reading on this subject), but in reality it’s confusing. It’s confusing for this beer, and it’s confusing for lagers and more particularly IPAs. Because there isn’t a nod to IPAdom here at all. There’s no secondary fermentation, no bitterness for mellowing, just aggressive hopping. And putting the word ‘hybrid’ front and centre on your label….come on. Beer should be appetising – that’s one of its main joys. ‘Hybrid’ isn’t – it reads icky; it sounds icky and it’s technically icky. Go the whole hog and call it a ‘Juxtaposition Beer’. We might as well get the wanky words all out and done with.
But so what? Surely it’s about the taste? And this beer is fine. It has an appealing golden colour; a sturdy enough head to make for a smooth drinking experience and a snappy hoppiness that delivers a pleasant bite. But it’s not in any way extraordinary: it has a pale colour; it has an ale bitterness…and that’s it. And I’ve drunk plenty of lagers that have the same qualities but don’t feel the need to describe themselves as ‘hybrids’.
Well, “Ut Severis Segis” as Caesar Augustus might have said. “What the sower sows, so may he reap”. My fear for William Bros is that they sow the seeds of confusion and will only reap the rewards of that.
*What is this all about? Why does ‘micro-brewing’ constitute ‘maximum flavour’? I do wish brewers, be they large or small would get the bigger picture here….all beer should be embraced and celebrated, even if it some of their attempts end up being confusing.
I bought my bottle of Caesar Augustus from Sainsbury’s in Derventio. You can’t miss it, take Icknield Street from Letocetum, if you get to Deva Minoris you’ve gone too far.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012