Monthly Archives: April 2013

Double Helix

the session beer blogging fridayFew topics are as divisive amongst brewers as that of balance – something I find quite ironic. Oddly, balance is something conceptually simple – I mean, if I said to you, “tell me what balance is” you’d probably look at me gone out – yet is in reality the opposite – hellishly complex.

Balance implies a pivot point… something on one side countering something on the other to create a sense of equalising forces. But in my experience in foods and drinks it’s more like neutrality – too often, in the pursuit of balance, something is lost not gained. Perhaps neutered is better than neutralised.

And it’s worse in beer. Worse because balance is one of the subjects brewers of mass beer can use to level at craft beer.  A drinkable, everyday pale beer vs a deeply bitter IPA , loaded to the gunwales with whole cone C Hops.  No contest on then as, sure, it may have ‘character’ but it isn’t balanced, it’s not moreish.  Well, whichever way you see the world it’s all erroneous.  Balance just isn’t a two dimensional creature. And there are more than two variables at play, which doesn’t help understanding nor appreciation of beer.

The bitterness scale of International Bitterness Units (IBUs) is the normal ‘measure of beer’.  It’s become a limiting shorthand, aided and abetted by the Nuclear Hop Race and IBU proliferation. Brewers across many continents pushing the boundaries – introducing multiple stages of hopping in the boil, as well, of course as post-fermentation hopping, chiefly through dry hops.  More prosaically,  on my days running Grolsch, those who didn’t agree with the strategy would throw in the cheap shot of bitterness: Grolsch is just too distinctive, too bitter to be an ‘everyday brand’.  But no one mentioned the residual sweetness in the beer that in fact meant it was both a characterful and well balanced lager.   In fact, I hadn’t realised until recently that there is a measure of this particular balance – BU:GU or bitterness units to gravity units; nor had I realised the relatively common old British practise of measuring ‘Pounds of hops per quarter malt’.  A contender for a better shorthand descriptor than just IBUs? Maybe.

Were the world so simple. Bitterness and sweetness are not the only facets that make up beer.  There is saltiness and sourness of course.  If you think beer cannot be salty then try and get hold of some Burtonised brewing liquor and taste that – positively coats the mouth it does. And next time you have a pint of Pedigree just see if you can’t detect it, especially now it’s been pointed out.  Sourness is huge in food at the moment – particularly confectionery, where brands like Haribo Tangfastics, Wham Sourz and the most worryingly pleasingly named, Toxic Waste, represent the growth categories in the UK market.  And in beers it’s not just lambics that offer sourness, some of the new wave brewers are aging on wood and in some case even exposing the beer to controlled oxidisation to give these tastes.  So why not a sour: sweet axis for beer?

Then there’s umami – the mystical 5th taste which is behind many of the most astonishing beer and food pairings, like cheese, oysters, meat pies and the Pint’s Best Friend, scratchings.  Yep, even umami is present in beer – chiefly as a result of the fermentation process.

So if balance is not two dimensional, it’s three, right?  Well, not even that, because then there’s the alchemical effect of visual appearance and cognitive perception.  Visually: the head, the colour, the condensation, the presentation; cognitively – the reputation, the word of mouth.  How many unarguably average beers have a reputation way beyond the sum of their parts due to these?

No, the conclusion I draw is that balance is a red herring.  You may want a balanced beer on occasion; heaven knows a pint of Landlord scores bullseye for me on this measure, yet more often I don’t. As I write this I am positively craving a hoppy IPA. I don’t want balance, I want a full on, in-your-face malty, floral extravaganza.  In the Summer, around the barbecue, I can predict that I’ll be drinking something so cold it will numb the taste buds.  No, balance is like the mystical double helix of DNA. I get it in principle but I’ll be damned if I can make head nor tail of it in everyday life.  Balance is a cul-de-sac I won’t be walking down.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The rollercoaster

My first memory is very clear.  I was on holiday in south Devon, Kingsbridge in fact, where there used to be a miniature railway on the quay.  It was a Heath-Robinson affair, probably 8” gauge, with track laid by enthusiastic amateurs so had that pleasing rocking and yawing sensation as you rode on it.  The owner built it all himself and for a period was so successful that he had two trains running. One, the workhorse, he called ‘Heidi’ but there was no alpine, goat-milk drinking charm about her, just a serious, functional, work-all-day temperament. The other was a Gordon the Big Engine affair, 8 wheels, a turbo-Electric in GWR glossy green where driver and passengers could sit atop, and built more for inter-city work (to scale obviously. I mean, Derby to Nottingham would be like the Trans-Siberian here).  Like Gordon, if he could talk, if he could express his emotion (and unlike Heidi, this was definitely a ‘he’) he would be haughty, arrogant, aloof, superior.  He would sniff at his lot and look with disdain on the rails he was forced to run upon. As it turned out, he was crap at his job.  The tight turn as the railway swung around the top of the quay to avoid the landing stage, was for him too tight and the bogies would constantly derail.  Out of this trauma was born my first memory.  Holding my Dad’s hand as I was forced to clamber off the train and watch as the driver and some passengers strained to lever the engine back on to the rails.  Tears featured and a career at Network Fail stymied forever.

But the memory lives deep.  If Kingsbridge is mentioned, the memory comes back, and with it a slew of associations – colours, feelings, temperatures, a clear image of the scene and others that followed.  It’s a neural pathway that is deep set, powerful and emotive.  Yet, it’s not just our first memories that are powerful, in fact, our first experiences of everything that is new, surprising, challenging, frightening, pleasurable leaves us with a network of anchors that are the reference points for the rest of our days.  My first car: a red polo (dodgy driver side windscreen wiper, gearbox like stirring stew, exhaust that broke on the top of Exmoor (best Spitfire I ever flew after that); my first meal I cooked myself: chile con carne (hold the kidneys a touch next time); my first kiss…. you get the drift.

And the first beer I drank the first time I went to the US was Sam Adams Boston Lager.

Sam Adams.  Even drinking it as a Brit felt a little treacherous. At the time, mid 1990s, US beer was still reviled; those who drank it generally bought into the attendant brand values rather than the beer (and pre frogs, and ‘Wassssup?’ Bud had some great, iconic ‘Genuine Article’ advertising).   For the few however, word was out.  Something was going on Stateside, on the West Coast in San Francisco, in the East Coast from Boston to Delaware.  In this case, I drank my beer in Quincy Market, like Covent Garden and Canary Wharf placed adjacently, with a hellishly tasty sub, and where I was asked for proof of age for the first time in my life.  And the beer was great. Not just good, but really great.  One of those occasions where you have to stop yourself, put the glass down and look at it, head slightly askance to make sure you’re not dreaming.  Beautifully structured maltiness, a slight tobacco-stained white head colour and a floral yet spicy hoppiness both in aroma and taste.  Today perhaps, not great shakes, but back then, and particularly given that this was an American lager, it was two hoofing great milkshakes, potentially verging on a Knickerbocker Glory.  So there it was: my future wife, a terrific only-in-America sub, a beer to die for in an entrancing setting.  Quite literally, the stuff memories are made of.

So what do you do then when memories are shattered?  How do you reconcile yourself to the rollercoaster of emotions, the feeling that you have been living a lie, tricked, kidded on?  To this day, in my other passion, cycling, I have to face this with disturbing regularity.  One by one, your heroes are dethroned – Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton… it’s painful and needs a period of adjustment.  And this is where I am today as I write, over such a silly little thing really.  But Sam Adams Boston Lager in the UK is now brewed under license by Shepard Neame.  Previously they were the agents, importing and distributing it.  Now the line has been crossed – the line of irrationality.  Because everyone knows, when they stop and think about it, that shipping large quantities of liquid around the globe makes neither economic nor environmental sense.  Rational minded individuals know that brewers today are so skilled, that within the bounds of what humans can detect, it is possible to ‘match’ beers.  And whether we deny it or not, we accept that it goes on. If you have ever drunk a pint of say what? 7 or 8 pints out of 10 in the UK, then you know that this practise goes on.  And high gravity brewing; and adjuncts, and tricks with bottle size.

But it’s OK.  The rules are in place.  The context is transparent – the big brewers make war on their own terms, and make decisions to keep them competitive and alive. It’s mass-manufacture behaviour.  I understand it commercially and choose to accept it because I can vote with my wallet and drink elsewhere if I have a problem.  But somehow Sam Adams (Boston Beer Co) have crossed that line now. Somehow their principles as a craft brewer have been shown to be suspect and they need to ‘fess up and play by the new rules.   For me, and I suspect for many though, it’s too late – my memory has been sullied and the damage done.

Boston Lager logo

Faversham Lager, brewed near the original site of the Faversham Tea Party. (The new logo shape is the giveaway)

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013