The first Pint

The week was long, they worked me hard,


Outside, sun beating down in relentless shards,


Teasing me, taunting me, calling my name,
‘

Put down your tools, join in my game…

’
No! Continue to toil I must,


To earn my bread, a sorry crust.


But after the train, and my journey home 
I necked that beer….

…ahhh, first pint syndrome.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

My beer seems to taste of ferret.

It’s difficult to be precise on the facts on this, but according to some research* I read, roughly half of beer drinkers like the taste of sunstrike in beer.  I’m in the other 50%. In fact, famously I was once described by someone as being the most attuned person to the smell of horse blankets, wet dogs, damp cardboard and skunkiness.  I cannot attest to the accuracy of this statement but I chose to take it as a positive affirmation of my razor sharp senses in relation to beer. *cough cough*.

Let’s deal with these two things in order.  First, ‘sunstrike’ or ‘sunstruck’.  It would be easy to get technical, and thereby get it wrong, as I am no expert, but in essence, hops contain compounds, humoloids, humolones….something like that, which react with ultraviolet light.  Beer that is unprotected – which is at least the third of beer in the UK – all that is sold in clear or glass bottles – can succumb to the effect very quickly**.  Put it out on shelf, leave it in the front of a fridge, put it down on the table outside whilst you enjoy your barbecue…. in no time at all, the character of the beer changes. I say the character of the beer – for me, it’s the aroma that hits me between the eyes, but there’s no doubt that it impacts the taste of the beer too***.

So secondly, to those attributes: aroma and taste.  It’s most definitely impacted by UV.  The reason, allegedly, that many drinkers like the taste is because they associate it with beers they have had on holiday…Spanish beer often gets the finger levelled at it here, ‘It’s like that San Miguel we had in Magaluf’. i.e. beer that has been enjoyed in searing temperatures, blinding light in the middle of the day – and probably not out of a can (plus when you are relaxed and on holiday – that’s a totally different subject).  I shot an advert in Barcelona once, and I remember enjoying a beautiful glass of San Miguel in a bar just off La Ramblas…that was fantastic, so personally it doesn’t compute, but I get the logic.  Frankly, as soon as I crank off the crown, if the beer is sunstruck I can tell.

It’s that often quoted aroma – skunk – that is the giveaway.

Yes, skunk.  I recognise it as skunk because we used to keep a domesticated one.  It was ever so handy around the house. With its black and white stripes it was great at bossing the magpies out of the back garden and its hair was so long, fine and luxuriously silky, it made an ideal shoe polishing accessory.  Brought up a lovely sheen it did.  And the kids just adored taking it for long walks across the fields; they were never bothered by dog owners.

Seriously, how can I describe this fetid, accrid pong as ‘skunky’ when it has no meaning for me? It must have for Americans who coined it, but for me, nothing.  I therefore set about the challenge of finding out an equivalent smell; a description that has validity to us, here, in these sceptred Skunkless Isles.

To our friend, the skunk, or polecat then.  I never realised that his spray is released from two glands either side of his anus. Nice.  Or that he is unnervingly accurate at ranges of up to 5 metres. Move over, Phil ‘The Power’, you may hit the double tops, but skunky here has a double bottom. And that they only spray when they feel threatened. No way.  Yet everyone struggles, including Americans it seems, with describing what ‘skunky’ actually is.  Burnt rubber? In small quantities apparently.  Roast garlic?  That sounds ok.  Ammonia like? Suitably nasty, but if that was it, surely you’d describe the smell as ‘ammonia’.  Rotten eggs?  Somehow it doesn’t capture how awful the smell is. By all accounts, skunks are close relations to weasels and ferrets, so perhaps I need to tap up some of my Lancastrian mates to see if they can help. Seek in the trousers of wisdom my friend, and you shalt find.

I have not yet conducted primary research.  The next time I go to Chester Zoo, if you see someone poking around the back end of the animals in the ‘Mephitids’ section, ‘tis I.  If you see someone being carted off to Chester Magistrates Court, ‘t’will be me.  Or scrubbing themselves down with Carbolic Soap for a week. Yup, me too.

Ultimately I suppose, who cares?  Apart from lexicological colonialism by the Americans (get there first and you get to keep the descriptions), it doesn’t really matter.  Except, when I try and tell my wife that her beer is off, and have to use the word ‘skunky’.  She just shoots me that, “Don’t patronise me, you tosser” look and stalks off. No, we need language that we all understand to describe great flavours and off flavours.

“Wet stoat” it is then.

Now, I’m just off to speak to The Beer Academy. They need to reprint their flavour wheels…

Stoaty *Bass Brewers, Project Ra, 2001. I don’t just make this stuff up you know. Well, mainly not.

**As part of the above project, freshly packaged beer in green bottles was left on a window sill for 30 minutes. When it was opened, it was already ‘off’.

***Brewers can do a few things to prevent sunstrike. The most common thing is only sell your beer on draught or cans, or not package beer in anything but dark brown bottles. But you know, this is not that practical and research tells us that consumers prefer green or clear glass.  The other thing you can do is brew with isohumolone free hops – chemically altered hops that have the specific compounds removed – Miller Genuine Draft is a good example, so too Sol.  Clever science, but to my taste, the beers take on a soapy mouthfeel and begin to taste very similar.. I’d rather run the gauntlet myself.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The world of ‘adjacent fruitiness’

There’s a phrase used by marketing types when they are contemplating innovations or new products: ‘adjacencies‘.  The idea is to look to related products or territories first, not just make seemingly irrational leaps into random or mad-cap territories.  It’s not necessarily the best way of thinking about this, but it’s one way, and increasingly it’s used by bigger, typically more risk averse businesses.  Big brewers in particular, and more specifically those in western Europe and North America who are feeling the economic pinch, have started to talk about ‘renovation’ not ‘innovation’. It’s much the same thing: look at what’s close to hand and can be delivered with our existing kit.  Evidence: Foster’s Gold in Foster’s bottles; Carling Chrome in plain bottles; packaging tweaks (speaking as the person who first brought temperature activated inks onto beer cans, I speak with some authority here.  And look, I got excited at the time so leave me alone).  But the point is it can deliver commercially for a business, but it’s all a bit….well….dull. 

Cider is a classic example of an ‘adjacency’.   Picture the scene. It’s 2006. A balmy, almost tropical summer.  I had a job at the time which saw me in central London most days, and often out in the the pubs and clubs of the capital.  The something happens. A new phenomenon no less…… cider! From Ireland. In one pint, brown bottles. And it’s orange.  But by golly, it’s selling like hot cakes.

I don’t think it would have done that well in research. But my hunch is they didn’t research it.  It was ripping up trees in Ireland, why it can’t it do the same over the water?  Which of course, is what Magner’s did.

Magner'sMagner’s. Has got a lot to answer for. Plus, it’s orange.

Reaction 1:  cider maker panic.  The immediate response: Strongbow gets relaunched; Bulmers gets relaunched and all the small, family or artisinal cider makers  get a little business fillip (hurrah for them).

Reaction 2: brewers panic.  Is it affecting our trade?  What should we do?  Why is this thing working? It’s Orange! (Outrage, outrage, chunter, chunter!)  This can’t be right!

Five years on, the affects of that launch are still being felt in beer and in cider. The cider makers are still creaming it in – just look at the amount of space dedicated to bottles in the supermarket, and next time you’re out, just count how many people are drinking bottles of cider, both from the British Isles and beyond.

In beer, the reaction has been to understand ‘adjacencies’.  And what’s the adjacency here?

Fruit.

As simple as that; if we put fruit in our beer then hey, ho away we go. Happy days…     But is it that simple?  I do think there’s some great news.  Many beers do go with fruit, and some fruits incredibly.  As I see it, there’s no reason why fruit can’t either form part of the mash, or be added for taste (or dare I say it, be put in the neck of the bottle – if it builds love for beer then why not?).  Beer buyers (supermarket buyers and pub chain buyers) now have these sorts of products on their radar. That’s a good thing.

And I think it would also be too crass to leap to the assumption that traditional beers brewed with fruit are great and newer ones brewed with essences are bad, particularly if they stem from some faceless, multi-national brewing concern.  That doesn’t wash, but there clearly is an axis.  At one end, there are the older fruit beers – the Belgian ones are the obvious example. At the other, there are the big brand extensions – the Bud Light Limes, Carling Zest’s of this world.  And a vast array between.

Fruit beers are back on the radar, and there are some highlights and lowlights to date.

Highlights?

I was reminded how good the authentic Krieks and Framboise beer of Belgium can be when I managed to get hold of some bottles of Boon Oude Kriek & Boon Framboise.  A few years ago I had these in a great bar in Brussels but I hadn’t seen them since (www.beermerchant.com sell them direct).  These are some of the most traditionally brewed of their types, Frank Boon saving the brewing from extinction at a time when the beers of Lambeek looked like they were going to the wall, and now as part of the Palm Brouwerij family, with a financially stronger parent who cares about the heritage of traditional Belgian beers.  They’re not for the faint hearted; they are based on Boon Geuze so have the characteristic wild yeast ‘farmyard’ flavours and these flavours still tell through even after the addition of the fruit & a secondary fermentation with the macerated whole fruit. But they are refined; the Framboise in particular is devine – it has a punchy fruit flavour yet isn’t cloyingly sweet or overbearing.  In Belgium it’s sold in champagne sized bottles with a cork and wire stopper – just perfect for celebrations of any sort (and indeed, it is served in flutes).  The Kriek, made with cherries is assertive, and has a beautiful dry, earthy cherry stone aroma and a just-so sweet flavour to counteract the beers complexity.

BoonYeah baby.

But of course Boon beers are difficult to get, so I like Liefmans, recently smartened up, and based on an aged brown ale rather than a Lambic.

Lowlights?

I haven’t worked my way through the Floris range yet, but they are quite widely available in city bars and some offies.  The popular ones are the strawberry – clearly having a crack at the Fruli market and also the cherry white.  These, like Fruli, are based on a wit beer based, which I think makes a great carrier for fruit. But I’m not convinced with these beers – the packaging is unattractive which starts you off on the wrong foot and the beers tend to be too ‘spiky’ to enjoy more than a few mouthfuls. The strawberry for example has an almost pear drop sweetness and the cherry has that touch of cherry coke that suggests it has come from a bottle not a piece of fruit.

And Melville’s. From the Innes & Gunn stable, the hand of the marketeer is at play.    Clear flint bottles (uh-oh), see through plastic labels and nice design; they look the part.  But then the nit picking commences: brewed to be an antidote to “sickly continental style fruit beers” and “one dimensional ciders”; or “bursting with delicious flavours of real fruit’ from “cold pressed Scottish fruit”, followed by the coup de grace:  “Finally” they assert, “…a fruit beer for people who like great beer”.  Well chaps, these are bold claims; and you know what, if it hadn’t been for all the abrasive anti-beer language the beer tinted specs of mine might be a little less steamed up, but if you are going to shoot at your competitors Melvilleyou need to damn sure of your position.  These beers don’t have the balance; the punch and the real fruit fruitiness to have a crack at Krieks and Frambozen.  They are, I’m sure, aimed at totally different people on different occasions. But that’s not the point – embrace the world of beers my friends, don’t piss in the same pond.  We can all do without that. And frankly, whilst these are undoubtedly lighter than a ‘continental style fruit beer’ it doesn’t equate to drinkability.

That’s not the note to finish on though. For me, the great thing about the marriage of fruit and grain is that there are so many delicious potential combinations. So not everyone’s getting it right. But these beers are adding a new dimension and appeal to drinkers – and to important people in the world of beer too, the buyers who decide what goes on the shelves. For fruit beers (and ciders too) to be given more space is a great thing and will help support new starters who want to have a crack at beer in the future or new drinkers who want to give beer a go but haven’t so far.

I’ll drink a fruity beer to that and ponder other ‘adjacencies’….

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Me Tarzan, Lord of the Barbecue

The titles rolled across this Summer scene. Friends gathered round as the low late afternoon Summer sun dropped slowly, but the heat still warming. As I watched the events and sipped a beer, a sonorous, resonant voice intoned in my head…

“The patio; here I was born; and here my parents abandoned me for the supermarket when I was but an infant. I would have soon perished, had I not been found by a kindly she-ape named Burga, who adopted me as her own and taught me the ways of the wild. I learned quickly, and grew stronger each day, and now I share the friendship and trust of all kitchen animals. The patio is filled with beauty, and danger; and lost borders filled with good, and evil. This is my domain, and I protect those who come here; for I am Tarzan, Lord of the Barbecue”

Tarzan beat his chest.  Rolling back on his heals he thrust his weight powerfully forward and out, down from the tall branch of the tree, up in the canopy. With an outstretched arm, he reached for a vine and swung away; off and beyond.

With his other hand he turned the sausages and burgers, just preventing one from slipping between the grille to a certain doom below. Cracking off the lid of his Mexican beer, he swigged back deeply and arched his shoulders, blowing out his chest to mark his territory and ward off rival barbecueing males.  For this truly was his domain; and none shall enter without incurring his wrath.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Hail, Hybrid!

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?

IMG_1583

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