The Pocket Beer Book. Part 2: “4 Star” Beers

“It’s a 4 Star Beer”.  

That was how ingrained Michael Jackson’s categorisation became within the Tinted Circle in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. More than CAMRA’s ‘Good Beer Guide’, we felt Jackson’s Pocket Beer guide was diminutive in size yet soaring in scope.  The world of beer opened up in front of our very eyes: smoked Bavarian beers; wild yeast fermented beers in a seemingly wilder Belgium; steam beers from California and crisp, rounded pilsners from Czechoslovakia. And it was the star rating system that made it.  Jackson getting off the fence, stating his view publicly. It didn’t even feature in the main body of the book. Rather, it was so implicit it was the first words – there, on the frontispiece, above the ISBN number and the dedication to his dad.  Here was the key (see photo); the modest table that fuelled my excitement in beer…

IMG_0972

A fateful few words at the start of a small book started a personal beer hunt

Jackson was too polite to award ‘no stars’; it was implicit where most beer being brewed back then fell in his eyes.  But ‘World Classic’!  They had to be found; discovered.  And it was a passion rekindled with the publishing of the new Pocket Guide by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb.

Thus it was that over Christmas, I spent an idle hour or three reading and re-reading both the new ‘Pocket Beer Guide’ and Jackson’s 1986 original. I was interested to see how the top tier of beer  – as the authors saw it – had changed.  I totted up all the ‘4 star’ beers (★★★★)* and the ‘3 to 4 star beers’ (★★★->★★★★). Not the ‘3.5 star beers’ though – I only wanted beers that had attained the top rank, even if they were a little inconsistent either by batch or over time. This involved reading the books a couple of times over – no hardship, apart for the long suffering Mrs Tinted. For those interested in these things, the table is set out below in the Appendix (get me!).  Of course, you can cut the findings any number of ways, but here are the conclusions I drew:

Time is no respecter of reputation.  
Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell, Hofbräuhaus Märzen, Duvel, Rodenbach, Chimay Blue, Orval, Marston’s Pedigree, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: all top tier beers in 1986; all beers that have influenced a generation of brewers, drinkers and writers. None rated as such today. Justified? Personally, Budweiser Budvar would still make the grade for me as it continues to display the multi-layered flavour, textured body, natural sparkle and richness of a beautifully lagered Bohemian beer; Pilsner Urquell not – still a great beer, but one that has lost some of that same character that Budvar has retained.  Marston’s Pedigree? Would I have ever rated it is as a 4 star beer? Likely not – when I moved to Staffordshire in 1991 it was, like today, too inconsistent. Orval – still does it for me, but I know the tweaks in its brewing process would count it out for many.

Really, it’s churlish to argue though: the tide is rising. Just look at a small selection of the 4 star beers today: Drie Fonteinen Vintage (a lambic blender, not even brewer in 1986); Mikkeler Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, Russian River’s Pliny The Elder, Le Baladin’s Xyauyù… and these are just the ones with the bizarre and unpronounceable names.  Of course you may disagree with the authors’ choice: but you can’t argue that the standard has risen dramatically; the sheer sweep and vista of beer has broadened almost beyond recognition. Challenge your preconceptions; challenge everything: that is the message.

Whither drinkability?
When working in big beer, I would often hear the refrain from brewers that ‘the problem with all these craft beers is that most are undrinkable’; most have so much ‘C’ hop that they ‘all taste the same’.  The converse if you like of what small, artisanal brewers lay at the door of the big brewers: all their beer is meek, tasteless and unbalanced by too little bitterness or too much sweetness in order to appeal to the ‘mass market palate’, if such a thing exists.  Yet, as mentioned in Part 1, one conclusion is ragingly clear: if you want a characterful beer – one to challenge, surprise; shock, or perhaps to lay down and age – a genuine ‘big beer’ if you will – then you need to ‘go small’.  My old company, Molson Coors, has a couple of ‘big beers’ in its portfolio – one, a barley wine called ‘P2’ is lucky if it is occasionally brewed in the Museum Brewery in Burton upon Trent.  I certainly never see it on sale outside a couple of places**. And Molson Coors are better than most (consider Creemore Springs; White Shield; Barmen Pilsner).

 It does beg a question about the impact of beer writers though: there is a tendency to class these ‘big beers’ as ‘better beers’.  And this trend was just as prevalent in Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book as in Beaumont and Webb’s recent Pocket Guide.  In 1986 for example, 15 of the 67 top tier beers were Stouts (generally Imperial Stouts at that) or Barley Wines: that’s 23%.  Rounding up, I reckon that Stout and Barley Wine has about 1% share of the global beer market – a little more in some countries of course. In 2013, only 4 of the 50 top tier beers were Stouts or Barley Wines (8%) but many others were ‘extreme beers’ – Samuel Adams ‘Utopias’ being a case in point.

So whither drinkability?   It’s there of course – but the nature of drinkability is being rediscovered by small brewers and drinkers.  All great beverages have balance:  take roast and ground coffee.  The best examples have a chocolately roast character with a raisiny balancing sweetness.  Or even blended tea: take a well distributed brand like ‘Yorkshire Gold’, which is more slowly fermented and has a bigger cut – the end result, a cleaner green leaf character, a better colour and more tannin balance giving delightful drinkability.  So it is with beer: removing bitterness or negating hop character doesn’t enhance drinkability, it actually makes it worse – the beer becomes cloying and rather than drinking it, you have to ‘chugg’ it, a phrase which always has an unpleasant edge of fight about it.  And in Beaumont and Webb’s Guide, some amazing, drinkably moreish beers are there: many are ‘above average’ and many are ‘worth seeking out’ or better.

A love story
Reading Jackson’s 1986 book again, there’s a different impression than when I read it for the first time (in 1989).  Back then, everything was optimistic: look at this amazing world of beer!  Now, it’s clear that it was a world in danger, something I came to realise after I started working for a brewery which had 13 breweries (in the UK) when I joined it and three by the time I left.  The 1990s was a time of consumption growth and style decline.  Jackson wasn’t just writing about the beer world he loved. He was trying to save it. Perhaps he realised this, perhaps he didn’t: I only met him twice and didn’t have the perspicacity to ask.  Love it he did though; and perhaps this led to some unintentional biases.  Germany and Belgium, with so many unique styles get the most top scoring beers – out of 10 Belgian beers for example, 8 are 4 stars.  The UK and Ireland seem to enjoy a disproportionate number of the top tiers: Mackeson Stout is judged a 4 star beer chiefly because it is a milk stout; Draught Guinness 3 to 4 stars because it is, well Draught Guinness.   In comparison, the more recent edition is a little more balanced; helped in part by having more ‘consultants’ behind the scenes the authors could call on.  There’s great diversity of beer style and greater geographic diversity too. The reality is that today there are not only more breweries brewing different stuff, but more beer writers popularising it too.  There can be no better testament to Jackson’s work.

The second wave.
There are questions of geography.  Critics of Jackson’s work question the seeming bias in approach: starting with Czechoslovakia, soon moving through Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom.  France gets one page. Latin America just over one. Asia just under two. “It’s a First World bias”, they said.  To me he called it as he saw it.  At the time of writing, Czech breweries were effectively frozen in aspic; Germany was still a country of fragmented independents and the U.S. scene was just entering lift off phase.  Yet Beaumont and Webb have been criticised too, starting with Belgium, Germany and the UK. “First World bias”? No. The reality is this: along with the U.S. these four countries, all widely different in market shape, are the craft brewing leaders. Half of the top tier beers are from Belgium, Germany and the UK. Add in the U.S. and it moves up to 70%. It feels right; it feels likes it is reflecting the world of beer as it is today.

And positively, it is a world changing rapidly.  Scandinavia stands out: all the countries there restricted by punitive alcohol laws even today, yet nonetheless there has been a flourishing of breweries, brewing and interest in beer. Likewise the Netherlands, which seems to be picking up on its neighbour’s creative beery fertility. France too, which although it gets no top tier beers is very much on the up. Beyond Europe, the story is just as true: burgeoning interest throughout central and Latin America, parts of Asia, Australasia – to mention a just a few.  Only Africa feels like it is sleeping.

There’s the question of bias in my selection too: it would also be worthwhile to look at 3.5 star beers – all incredible beers – a category that Jackson didn’t use but is used in the new guide. Some countries are overflowing with them: the U.S., Japan, France – many more besides. This perhaps reveals a truer picture of the underlying health of beer. These are the likely second wave of leading beer cultures in the next generation.

All in all: 3000 beers in one small book from who knows how many?  If you want a measure of the growing health of beer around the world today, well, pocket-sized or not, you can draw your own conclusions from that.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* See the effect of showing the stars?  This for me was the power of the system – not only reading about a certain beer but seeing the stars break up the page; extend the length of the beer, that was its power:  for example,
Anchor Brewing Steam Beer (
★★★★) or Worthington White Shield (★★★->★★★★)

** One: the Museum Shop. Two: the Molson Coors Staff Shop (which is open to the public)

Appendix: The ‘Top Table’: 4 star beers, 1986 – 2013
(note the table is giving me some technical trouble – if you can’t see it, drop me a line at david@beertintedspectacles.com and I’ll ping it over to you)

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