The Session #81. Women and Beer: Nothing To See Here, Folks.

The Session, a.k.a. ‘Beer Blogging Friday’, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This month’s topic is from Nitch at Tastingnitch who has chose the topic, ‘Women and Beer: Scary Beer Feminists or a Healthy Growing Demographic?’.  Let the battle of the sexes commence. Or not.  Check out Nitch’s blog at http://tastingnitch.com/

Here we go again. If you have been awake during the last ten years of the craft beer revolution then you can’t possibly have missed the growing narrative around women and beer.  Be it the failed launches of beers aimed at women; be it the Second Coming of the Female Brewer (should I say, ‘Brewster’?); be it the hefty punch carried by many female beer bloggers; be it our first female Beer Sommeliers. The Session Image

In truth, I’m tired of it: not as a bloke, but as a lover of beer. It’s a no news story.

Let’s take the first side of the topic:  ‘Scary Beer Feminists…?’   Well I’ve met some Scary Feminists.  And in the world of work, I’ve met as many nasty, bile-filled and spiteful alpha women as I have nasty, bile-filled and spiteful alpha males. That’s life.  But in the world of beer where beer is celebrated, not just a big bucks business: the craft, cask, micro, flavourful, blogging world, all I’ve met are enthusiasts.  Men and women, ardently pushing their case; why their beer is the best beer ever brewed; why their town or region is the hottest of brewing hot spots.  Sometimes this ardentness pushes into the female:male gender debate – for example, why the growth in brewsters is simply a rebalancing; getting back to a pre-industrial time when women did the brewing, and therefore this is a good thing because women are regaining their rightful place at the ‘brewing table’.  Well, it is a good thing, but a good thing because sufficient numbers of women are now interested enough in good beer without all the stereotypical, schmaltzy, nostalgic arguments that run along with them.

To the second side of the topic: ‘…or a Healthy Growing Demographic’.  Women are just over half of the population worldwide. It tends to be slightly more because women live longer than men, so let’s just park that right there.

The ‘issue’ with beer and women isn’t about demographics.  It isn’t about blokey advertising, although I’m sure that hasn’t helped. It isn’t about the ratios of male to female brewers. It most definitely isn’t about the taste of beer; I dare anyone who encounters the salami and smoked roast meat flavours of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier not to find it extremely challenging when they first try it.  I dare anyone not to find an American double IPA a full-on experience when they first try that.  What I do see is many, many women trying beers like these and more besides, just as they would a new spirit, or a wine, or a coffee. Why the hell not?

No, the issue is culture. Take the UK: whether it was agricultural labourers or factory labourers after the Industrial Revolution, what you were selling was hard, physical, graft. No holidays, long hours, miserable conditions.  Women worked in the fields and they worked in the factories: my gran worked in the Cheshire cotton mills all her life, almost lost her sight through a flying shuttle and her fingers cleaning out the looms which they did without switching them off or slowing them down, weaving the cloth at full pelt. But overall, it bred a working population dominated by men, unburdened by the travails of childbirth (if I think my gran had it tough in the Mills, she was one of 14 siblings – spare a thought for her poor mother, two decades in almost continual child birth). It was a society of exploitation: of long hours and pitiful wages; homes were poor, often cold and dirty. The man would come home; eat; then go to the original ‘Third Place’ – a pub or club, to drink. And drink in quantity.

I don’t believe the change with regards to beer and women has much to do with the craft / cask revolution.  I do believe it has a lot to do with our post industrial society and the behaviour that it breeds: approaching equality in many more aspects of our home and work life.  Is it too big a leap to expect beer to follow?  Is it too big a leap to think how creative people don’t see beer as an opportunity and are getting after it, be it as a brewer, a sommelier, a writer or someone who just wants to try new things.

As far as I see, the healthiest thing for beer would be to make this a non-issue and move on. Celebrate it all. Gender. Creed. Beer Apostle or Beer Atheist. Man, Woman or Vogon. That’s what I intend to do.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Session #79: U.S. vs Old World Beer Culture

The Session, a.k.a. ‘Beer Blogging Friday’, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This month’s topic is hosted by Dingsbeerblog (http://www.dingsbeerblog.com)

The Session ImageIn the late 1980’s, three strands interwove at a crucial time for me which triggered my interest and enthusiasm for beer. The first was family – my older brother, in his first radical phase was an unwitting early proponent of slow food, and as he was building his knowledge of food, wine and to a lesser extent beer whilst at University his influence rubbed off on his younger brother when he came home.  The second was friends: Dave Wilkes and his home brew to be exact. I’m not sure where Dave’s passion for home brew emerged, but what I do know is that it was a consistently deep brown, nutty concoction, served straight from the cask (something I hadn’t seen at that point in my hitherto sheltered life) and weighing in at what I’m guessing to be about 15% ABV¹.  The third strand was the emergence in America of a beer tea party: new, interesting brews, attempting to throw overboard the homogeneity of typical US offerings.  To a late teen in provincial UK, this was not learnt first hand.  Rather, the source was Michael Jackson of course, both through a much thumbed copy of ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ and also through the particular episode of ‘The Beer Hunter’² where Michael travels to west coast USA and vividly brings to life this new narrative of US craft beer. As he takes the trip to the tip of northern California to celebrate the barley harvest with all the Anchor Steam workers, my beer idyll is born.

IMG_0444Over 20 years on, as I read Tim Acitelli’s excellent ‘The Audacity of Hops’ – an almost 50 year history of American craft beer, I realise how much each ‘culture’ is indebted to the other.  If you can call it that of course:  I’m not sure anyone in the ‘Old World’ would see much a shared tradition between say English beer culture and Bavarian beer culture – an important point when you see how the different European nations individually influenced the US scene.  The first wave was largely inspired by English pale ale:  could the early craft brewers like Jack McAuliffe create domestically brewed pale ale as flavoursome, as full on those he had drunk on his British travels? The name above the door giving away his influences: New Albion. Could Pete Slosberg devise a recipe as enticing as the brown ales he had drunk on his travels in Europe (I didn’t realise that the resultant, massively successful beer, ‘Pete’s Wicked Ale’ is no longer available)? Then later, wider European influence took hold, kick-started by Jim Koch reliably recreating his grandfather’s recipe for a Bavarian lagered beer in the form of Sam Adams Boston Lager but quickly and rapidly spreading into replicating, and attempting to better, beers from Belgium, Germany, France and beyond.

IMG_0442I’m conscious of my own biases around beer and particularly my orientation toward well brewed and properly lagered Czech and Bavarian lagers and feisty and flavoursome US pale ales and IPAs in particular; but actually portraying a picture of the ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ as a battle: us versus them isn’t overly helpful.  The reality, as is so often the case, is defined more by the similarities than the differences.  Riddled through both cultures are defining traits: a trigger event – a burning platform that great, idiosyncratic, varied beer was close to dying out. In the US’s case, Fritz Maytag heard about the brewery days before it was due to close down. In the UK, the dawning realisation that cask beer (and the infrastructure that supports it) was facing the same fate. Struggle – it’s easy to forget the perseverance, grit, setbacks and failures along the way. Many of the original wave of US craft brewers simply didn’t make it through the first wave of growth, starved of cash, resources, time or capital, they had to either close or stay niche. Most went under. It’s why I fear the same for many of the UK’s current crop of micro brewers. Time – it’s almost 50 years now since Fritz Maytag bought Anchor. It’s over ten years now since Gordon Brown introduced the progressive beer duty, the so called ‘Small Brewers Duty Relief’ and yet, you could argue that for most drinkers here, cask beer still hasn’t entered the mainstream.  But more than anything else, what’s clear is how the Old and New World cultures are self perpetuating, each fuelling the other – the growth of craft brewing in Italy, inspired by the US, being a great example. I saw this for myself on a recent business trip to Milan, managing to fit in a short beer break after work one evening, and finding a craft beer bar that you wouldn’t expect to see this side of the pond – the most ‘mainstream’ beer available was Menabrea which enjoys, what? 2% of the Italian beer market?  Or the spread of US hop varieties to the point where a number of UK beer aficionados are actively complaining about their over-use versus traditional British hop varieties.  And finally, there’s the experimentation. The emerging narrative is that it’s a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, and the European brewers are only experimenting because of the boundary pushing of the US brewers.  True to a degree of course – but not solely so.  There’s been an experimental tradition in surprising and not-so-surprising European countries for many years – Belgium of course, but also in countries like Scotland, where brewing with traditional ingredients, or barrel aging is not a new phenomenon.

No, this is all a case of ‘and’. The real vibrancy between the craft brewers is the mutual support, the ready sharing of ideas and experience, the healthy competition that exists.  It’s a culture that’s worth celebrating and enjoying across the whole world.

 

¹The fashion in beer books is to tell how home brew ‘transformed my expectations of how amazing beer could be’.  With respect to Dave, this wasn’t the case, I think his home brew was a malt extract kit brew and it was pretty hard going. I seem to remember swirling my mouth out with a Heineken.

² Two links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtmxXgKU1o0, the beer idyll is at the start of part 2, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36BUK7lv-iU

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Session #77: IPA: What’s the big deal?

the session beer blogging fridayThe craft beer movement is gaining momentum – in the U.S., U.K, Italy, Scandinavia, Australasia – drinkers in these traditional and mature beer markets are broadening their repertoires, hearing the voice of craft brewers and slowly opening up to a new philosophy – of difference, of experimentation and of expectation of choice.   And India Pale Ale, or IPA, is the poster boy of the movement – in its well structured, challenging yet rewarding, countenance – it stands for everything that large scale manufactured pale beer is not.  Yet it is in those pale, ‘lagery’ seeds of why IPA is a big deal.

According to the latest studies from the Neolithic Cerevisial-Archaeology Unit in Portland, Oregon* beer started as a bready, mushed up foodstuff, mixed with water in ceramic pots and left to stand whilst the Godisgood worked it’s magic and turned it into a hearty, safe, nutritious drug. And although brewed significantly better – beer remained a dark, chewy, opaque food replacement until the nineteenth century. No wonder people enveloped lagered beer so in a revolutionary embrace.  It was easier to drink, eminently refreshing and visually appealing – a beguiling, magical, experience – almost incomprehensible given everything they had drunk up to that point – it would be like having KFC Chicken Nuggets that actually contained chicken.  After two years of pretty much exclusively drinking pale ales and IPAs for the last two years, I lived through something of this experience when I recently cracked open a bottle of four of Pilsner Urquell (see http://www.beertintedspectacles.com/?p=369).

And then, a few days later, I reverentially removed a bottle Sierra Nevada Torpedo from the beer fridge, an ‘Extra IPA’, 7.2%, one of Chico’s finest.  Just levering off the crown led to an attack of citrus fruit aromas, then on pouring, a billowing, off-white head, beautifully constructed and lacing down the glass sides with each sip like tree rings showing their annual growth throughout the heartwood. The maltiness had a walnut bready character, biscuit but with some nuttiness – Hob Nobs maybe?  Yet despite its considerable punch, it was a refreshing, drinkable beer – all the things that I had experienced a couple of weeks prior but with a well brewed lager.

So I think the ‘deal’ is this:  Pale Ale represents two things. Like lager it is a base: a base for challenge, for experimentation, for moving beer on, for saying, ‘Oh, I like this, but I think I can do better’.  Pale Ale becomes IPA, IPA becomes Double IPA, Double becomes Extra, becomes Black, becomes Cascadian, becomes Indies, becomes Pacific.  It’s a becoming sort of beer.  Unlike lager though which over the last 40 years, has got progressively lighter in alcohol, less bitter and paler in colour, IPA turned left at the lights, not right, and we see some of the beers that writers fret, fete and fight over today.

And then there’s adoption.  It’s a simple human trait – we want to prove how we’re different. How we’re our ‘own man’, how we’re independent.  IPA is not my Dad’s beer, blimey, it’s not even my older brother’s beer…it’s mine…. but most of all, IPA isn’t everything else. It isn’t mass brewed, it’s revolted against its Burton on Trent, Imperial roots and become a tattooed punk with multiple piercings through places too tender to speak of;  a banner waving revolutionary demanding the end of the old order.

And we all have a bit of the revolutionary in us, don’t we?

*If only.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 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 Session #72: How we love beer

Not why, what, where or when but how we love beer.

the session beer blogging fridayHow do I love thee*? Let me count the ways
.

I love thy glass through its depth and breadth and height
And gentle beads of condensation when in need of a ‘light’
For the lack of bitterness and its ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet pint o’ Mild, lit by sun or candlelight.
I love thee freely, tho’ a sour lambic may make me ail
I love thee purely, bless the Union and its fine Pale Ale.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In matching with curry, chocolate or cheese.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
When I crossed to the dark side – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my adult life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thy biney hoppiness after death.

*With most profuse apologies to Elisabeth Barrett Browning. She deserved better.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, January 2013