“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous there should be no more cakes and ale?” (Twelfth Night)
Epiphany seems a good a day as any to write about beer. It should be a national holiday for a start. I mean, it’s the twelfth day of Christmas – we’ve had mince pies, crackers and trifle as well as twelve drummers drumming in the Tinted house; that is of course before we dashed round in a wobbly, inebriated state to take down all the deco’s. There was/is a Cheshire tradition* that some of the old folk were still sticking to when I was growing up about the festive period really beginning on All Hallow’s Eve (31st October) and concluding on Epiphany – it feels more like a pagan celebration to me and given that this correlates pretty much exactly to when retailers start going crazy with their Christmas adverts and Christmas displays, that’s probably bob on. It certainly doesn’t feel particularly Christian all this over the top consumerism. Yet, there is something bewitching, magical and at times, even ever-so-slightly eldritch about the pre Christmas period – and that it should finish on Boxing Day (or New Year’s Day at a stretch) is more like a whimper than a bang. No, Twelfth Night – or more strictly speaking Twelfth Day – is when Christmas properly closes and the New Year opens up ahead. Twelfth Night was traditionally one of the wassail days when the fields were blessed in the hope of a good harvest to come. Twelfth Night has the sense of being preternatural; mystical, final… as if one door is closing and another opening up. So it feels right and proper to reflect on the year gone by and consider the year ahead.
Anyway, over the Christmas break I jotted down some reflections on beer and Christmas, prompted in part by Pete Brown’s commenting about wine still getting all the column inches in the papers despite the fact that there’s very little new news in wine**. In no particular order:
Own label: the rule in beer was always that there was no place for a supermarket’s own label beer brand. No place emotionally because the quality would be poor / perceived to be poor. No place commercially because why have own label when the Big Brewers are offering their brands at three 24 packs for a tenner? And oh, and no place socially because we all drink in the pub at Christmas anyway. But this Christmas was the first time I really noticed a change: ironically via wine. If you want any signal that there’s a paradigm change in supermarkets going on right now witness Tinted family events on Boxing Day, when my father proudly regales us with his story of how Aldi Prosecco is better than other supermarkets and considerably cheaper (it was actually a Cremant de Jura, to my palate better than Prosecco, being drier, but still considerably cheaper). And if you haven’t drunk Sainsbury’s own label US craft ales (see http://www.beertintedspectacles.com/?p=206) ‘American Pale Ale’ and ‘Tap Room IPA’ then silly thee, is all I’ll say. Particularly because….
The interesting things are NOT on display: blimey, the retailers are clever. Free Clubcard points for buying two of this; multibuy discounts for buying three of that… Yet for me, it’s the power of display that is just staggering. Retailers don’t give names to certain areas for store for no reason: the ‘Power Aisle’, the ‘Goal Posts’ – they’re key to winning the retail war. The way the supermarkets both bludgeon you with promotions and gently nudge you too into altering what you buy is just fascinating. But what struck me this year is that the really interesting stuff isn’t on the big displays – the ‘gondola ends’ and the pallet displays by the entrance – but on the shelf. And it doesn’t mean you won’t get a good deal. If you did shop in Sainsbury’s this year, you might have seen the big push on craft beer: 3 bottles for £5 across brands such as Tap Room IPA, Goose Island IPA, Blue Moon, Brooklyn Lager: amazing beers; not on display.
Natural hunting ground: why, other than a simple beery bias, does it make sense for beer to enjoy more press coverage, especially at Christmas? Of course craft beer is on the up but there’s more to it than that. Forget the bah-humbuggishness of the commercialisation of Christmas; forget the endless celebrity chef programmes on how to cook the perfect roast potatoes; drilling through all of that what is more than skin deep is the continuing need for human togetherness which few other celebrations – or institutions – provide these days. And beer is the natural partner: inebriating but not too much so; interesting, versatile, not too closely associated with a particular mood or particular occasion…
No champion: …which is an issue too. There isn’t any consistent beer coverage in print, celluloid or digital. There is so little retailer inspiration: I mean, how much Carlsberg or Stella is it possible to buy? And when will they clear those Christmas packs of Budweiser? Easter? St Swithin’s Day? No, everyone seems to bang on about matching beer with food, but actually beer needs more than a creeping barrage: it now needs someone to actively champion it in the national media. We need more than Jamie dishing up bottles of Asahi Super Dry when he makes a lemon posset. And we need more than recommendations that this year’s Champagne is Prosecco. No hang on, that was last year. This year it’s Saumur. Bloody hell, all beer is sparkling: we have to get a look in.
No food porn: and on a related theme, food has become porn hasn’t it? Or at least, it’s like those Victorian peepshow boxes. In the run up to Christmas there were about a dozen Jamie programmes (“lush”); Nigella, River Cottage, Delia, Hairy Trikers, Big Tom Kerridge (“proper lush”), Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Scullery, you name it. But you know what? I watched a load of them, all to get inspiration on how to spice up my Sprouts or titivate my turkey. And where was beer in all of this? See above.
A quiet, proper food and drink revolution continues was more noticeable than ever this year – there was just more interesting stuff, and not all in gourmet ranges at gourmet prices. My nearest Tesco Extra has 6 ‘modules’ (a unit of shelving approximately 5 shelves high and 1.5m wide) of space dedicated to craft beer and world beer; a further three to cider (far too many actually but beggars can’t be choosers); there’s interest and inspiration all around.
No reason to believe then that 2014 won’t be an even more exciting beer year than 2013; no reason to think that the job of revolutionising beer isn’t as big as ever. And certainly no excuse not to eat more cakes and drink more ale. Happy 2014 everyone.
* and forgive me, you can guarantee that this isn’t a Cheshire tradition but one that was celebrated much more roundly. But that’s where I’m from and that’s where I witnessed it. So there.
** sorry, can’t find the link. Must do better.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014