The Pocket Beer Book. Part 1: Thirty Years in Beer

It is now almost a generation since Michael Jackson published ‘The Pocket Beer Book’ – 1986, in fact.  It was part of a series of Mitchell Beazley ‘Pocket Guides’ – in my experience all crisply written; all concisely helpful; all pithily illuminating.  And I had other beer books: Jackson’s ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ for one – now, rightly, considered a classic and for many the inspiration to brew.   But it was the Pocket Beer Book, hard backed, one hand high and a thumb length across in its succinctness, that lit my interest up.  It was elegant, erudite and more than a spark to my curiosity, more a rocket. And the real bonus: it was pocket sized; slipping neatly into an inside coat pocket and from there, travelling widely.

IMG_0891Why did it work so well? Every beer book starts with an overview to beer; and so did this. Yet it was not florid in phrase: this version got to the point, and in a few short pages helped the reader deconstruct beer styles; suggest how different beers could work with food (Jackson’s passion) or how beer varied by season. And then off at a canter, in fine-point text, through the world of beer as it was at the time. Then there was the pièce de résistance. The 4 star rating system that added the edge. Jackson said that they were merely meant as a guide and to assess beers within countries against one another; nonetheless, here was a proxy, a shorthand that showed what the principle Guru of beer thought of different beers.

What prompted this harmless reminisce was the publication of a new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’.  Different authors; different publishers; different format. But a pocket book all the same; paperback not hardcover, a little shorter but markedly thicker – three times so – which in itself says a lot about a generation of changes. The authors, Steve Beaumont & Tim Webb have made the decision to stick to the four start rating system – so the beauty is we can get a snapshot of how the world of beer has changed in that time. And so, my research began – I started with the new version, which despite the sheer overwhelming number of beers discovered and reviewed, is a real page turner; then back to Jackson’s original, equally so. Presented here, the main findings.

The tide flows in. It’s fascinating seeing the changes. Back in 1986, Sierra Nevada for example, was still effectively a start up, a “classic boutique” in Jackson’s words. He gave its Pale Ale 3 stars (‘worth seeking out’) and Big Foot Barley Wine 3 to 4 stars (4 stars being the coveted ‘World Classic’).  Today, Beaumont & Webb give Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot Barley Wine both a clear 4 stars. More than that, in 1986, only five US beers were judged 3 to 4 or 4 star beers. Today, it has more than doubled to 11 – this may not sound much; but if I had included the number of 3.5 star beers (a classification that Jackson didn’t use), it would be an even clearer illustration of the innovative, inventive and stunningly creative advance of American beer:  the reality is that in the U.S. and elsewhere a measure of the good health in beer is both the quantity and quality.  There are some beer writers who bemoan U.S. beer culture and its quality – claims not without substantiation – but at this level, of beers ‘worth seeking out’ or ‘World Classics’ the rising tide of quality is undeniable*.  It will be difficult for Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam or Lagunitas (say) to hold onto their ratings in thirty years’ time if the level of brewing and beer development proceeds at the pace it is now.

It’s still about the ‘old world’ – old ‘beer’ world that is. What is striking about the new guide, despite the wealth of detail on countries where in the mid ‘80s there was nothing to write about, is that the creative momentum behind beer still resides in the old – largely Germanic and Anglo Saxon world.  And by this, I include North America and most northern European countries. We simply cannot argue, with the U.S. in particular at the forefront of the ‘craft beer’ revolution thirty years ago that it is a new front.  No, the next few decades will surely increasingly be about the now nascent craft beer movements in regions such as Brazil and Argentina, Austria and Eastern Europe, even Australia and New Zealand. And at the forefront of this Italy now maturing as a country brewing sensational beers and Japan – where the authors scored many beers 3.5 stars but which haven’t yet pushed over the boundary to ‘World Classics’. Their time will be soon.

Large turns small.  Consolidation and acquisition sings out from the years between the guides. And with it the decline in quality is equally evident – particularly in Germany and the UK with brands like Spaten, Paulaner, Courage or even Thomas Hardy’s Ale falling away. The contrast between ‘big beer’ brewed for efficiency, scale and profit and ‘small beer’ brewed with pride, principle and integrity has never been clearer.

Small brews large. The question of innovation is fascinating. I’ve worked on both sides of the great divide and can speak with some experience (and at length, alas) on the subject. But the overall conclusion is this: the focus of innovation for big beer is on consistency; brewing speed, cost reduction and accessible flavour (not necessarily natural beer flavours).  Small brewers are the genuine innovators – and their innovation will in the long term have much more benefit on beer’s reputation as well as the brewery doing it.  And if you want envelope-pushing brewing then you have to look small. Take IPA: a beer style virtually dead 20 years ago. Now there is British IPA; American IPA; double IPA; Pacific IPA; New Zealand IPA, Black IPA – IPA is being brewed in lagering nations, like Germany and the Czech Republic. Equally, you’ll have to look hard to find one of the World’s top 20 brewers making a decent barley wine or Imperial Stout; or any that are aging their beer on wood.

Better burn out than fade away? With all the hoo-ha in beer blogdom with new styles created and old styles rejuvenated (Porter, Amber lager), it’s easy to forget that many classic styles have in the last few decades either remained in peril or almost gone. Take Lambic – whilst there are still amazingly exciting spontaneously fermented beers being brewed, I believe they have been weakened by faux-lambics and a raft of overly sweet mimics**. Or Dortmunder and Berliner Weisse which seem to have slipped below the mire –certainly the quality examples. Another – I remember driving out of my way to find the Rauchenfels Steinbier brewery – but alas, it had closed. Maybe in the world of craft these beers are either not distinctive enough or conversely too distinctive – a little too convoluted, complex or challenging to brew and make a commercial return?

Reading both books made me slightly wistful about a time of personal innocence; before I understood the breadth of beer and was walking into that world wide-eyed; before I had worked for a major brewer and learnt how the soul of beer can be crushed and I lost my passion for beer only for it to be reborn – reborn because of the characters working in beer today and the new wave of brews and brewers making change.  That is the hope that lies within the 320 pages of the new Pocket Beer Guide. Let’s pray that it is hopelessly out of date within a year.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* Of course, the scoring in the 4 Star system is bound to be highly subjective.   It’s clear from reading the guide that Jackson had a soft spot for some countries and some breweries for example (see Part 2), but such qualms would mean letting the tail wag the dog and losing sight of the bigger picture he was painting at the time.

** On a related note, I find it hard to rave about the main British beers ‘brewed with fruit’, which to me seem insipid, unbalanced and sickly compared with the elegant finesse of a true Kriek or Framboise, which has the boney, dry structure to handle the intensity of real fruit.

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