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 rollercoaster

My first memory is very clear.  I was on holiday in south Devon, Kingsbridge in fact, where there used to be a miniature railway on the quay.  It was a Heath-Robinson affair, probably 8” gauge, with track laid by enthusiastic amateurs so had that pleasing rocking and yawing sensation as you rode on it.  The owner built it all himself and for a period was so successful that he had two trains running. One, the workhorse, he called ‘Heidi’ but there was no alpine, goat-milk drinking charm about her, just a serious, functional, work-all-day temperament. The other was a Gordon the Big Engine affair, 8 wheels, a turbo-Electric in GWR glossy green where driver and passengers could sit atop, and built more for inter-city work (to scale obviously. I mean, Derby to Nottingham would be like the Trans-Siberian here).  Like Gordon, if he could talk, if he could express his emotion (and unlike Heidi, this was definitely a ‘he’) he would be haughty, arrogant, aloof, superior.  He would sniff at his lot and look with disdain on the rails he was forced to run upon. As it turned out, he was crap at his job.  The tight turn as the railway swung around the top of the quay to avoid the landing stage, was for him too tight and the bogies would constantly derail.  Out of this trauma was born my first memory.  Holding my Dad’s hand as I was forced to clamber off the train and watch as the driver and some passengers strained to lever the engine back on to the rails.  Tears featured and a career at Network Fail stymied forever.

But the memory lives deep.  If Kingsbridge is mentioned, the memory comes back, and with it a slew of associations – colours, feelings, temperatures, a clear image of the scene and others that followed.  It’s a neural pathway that is deep set, powerful and emotive.  Yet, it’s not just our first memories that are powerful, in fact, our first experiences of everything that is new, surprising, challenging, frightening, pleasurable leaves us with a network of anchors that are the reference points for the rest of our days.  My first car: a red polo (dodgy driver side windscreen wiper, gearbox like stirring stew, exhaust that broke on the top of Exmoor (best Spitfire I ever flew after that); my first meal I cooked myself: chile con carne (hold the kidneys a touch next time); my first kiss…. you get the drift.

And the first beer I drank the first time I went to the US was Sam Adams Boston Lager.

Sam Adams.  Even drinking it as a Brit felt a little treacherous. At the time, mid 1990s, US beer was still reviled; those who drank it generally bought into the attendant brand values rather than the beer (and pre frogs, and ‘Wassssup?’ Bud had some great, iconic ‘Genuine Article’ advertising).   For the few however, word was out.  Something was going on Stateside, on the West Coast in San Francisco, in the East Coast from Boston to Delaware.  In this case, I drank my beer in Quincy Market, like Covent Garden and Canary Wharf placed adjacently, with a hellishly tasty sub, and where I was asked for proof of age for the first time in my life.  And the beer was great. Not just good, but really great.  One of those occasions where you have to stop yourself, put the glass down and look at it, head slightly askance to make sure you’re not dreaming.  Beautifully structured maltiness, a slight tobacco-stained white head colour and a floral yet spicy hoppiness both in aroma and taste.  Today perhaps, not great shakes, but back then, and particularly given that this was an American lager, it was two hoofing great milkshakes, potentially verging on a Knickerbocker Glory.  So there it was: my future wife, a terrific only-in-America sub, a beer to die for in an entrancing setting.  Quite literally, the stuff memories are made of.

So what do you do then when memories are shattered?  How do you reconcile yourself to the rollercoaster of emotions, the feeling that you have been living a lie, tricked, kidded on?  To this day, in my other passion, cycling, I have to face this with disturbing regularity.  One by one, your heroes are dethroned – Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton… it’s painful and needs a period of adjustment.  And this is where I am today as I write, over such a silly little thing really.  But Sam Adams Boston Lager in the UK is now brewed under license by Shepard Neame.  Previously they were the agents, importing and distributing it.  Now the line has been crossed – the line of irrationality.  Because everyone knows, when they stop and think about it, that shipping large quantities of liquid around the globe makes neither economic nor environmental sense.  Rational minded individuals know that brewers today are so skilled, that within the bounds of what humans can detect, it is possible to ‘match’ beers.  And whether we deny it or not, we accept that it goes on. If you have ever drunk a pint of say what? 7 or 8 pints out of 10 in the UK, then you know that this practise goes on.  And high gravity brewing; and adjuncts, and tricks with bottle size.

But it’s OK.  The rules are in place.  The context is transparent – the big brewers make war on their own terms, and make decisions to keep them competitive and alive. It’s mass-manufacture behaviour.  I understand it commercially and choose to accept it because I can vote with my wallet and drink elsewhere if I have a problem.  But somehow Sam Adams (Boston Beer Co) have crossed that line now. Somehow their principles as a craft brewer have been shown to be suspect and they need to ‘fess up and play by the new rules.   For me, and I suspect for many though, it’s too late – my memory has been sullied and the damage done.

Boston Lager logo

Faversham Lager, brewed near the original site of the Faversham Tea Party. (The new logo shape is the giveaway)

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The thorny issue of ‘craft’

Over a quiet beer or two, I have been wrestling with a dilemma.  Actually, no, that’s not right, as a dilemma is something you can’t satisfactorily resolve.  Rather, a thorny issue:  when is craft craft or not craft?  To stretch it further, are big brewers who sell ‘craft’ beer simply responding well to the drinker trends in the market, or are they being just plain crafty?

The Motley Fool (www.fool.co.uk) – a network of bloggers offering advice and gossip on companies and share performance – recently penned an article on US craft beer sales. It made for interesting reading:  although craft beer is only 6% of the market place, they are growing strongly, up 14% in the last year according the American Brewers’ Association – in an overall market where per capita consumption is declining.  Interestingly, the big brewers’ performance within this was marked. Miller Coors’ Blue Moon brand grew by 50% between 2009 and 2011, and Leinenkugel’s grew by 20%.  Anheuser Busch is also a player. They have bought Goose Island and also launched their own craft brand, Shock Top, the latter growing 70% year to date*. In comparison, more established players – the genuine craft brewers it is argued – are growing much more slowly.

Raspberry WheatWe drank Shock Top Raspberry Wheat in the Salty Dog in Sarasota – with no idea it was an ABI beer. Inspired marketing or a confidence trick?

There are two really interesting dynamics going on here.

First, that there is a debate going on about ‘craft’ at all.  Big companies get big for a whole host of reasons – luck, daring acquisitions, market expansion, exploitation… and brand building skill.  If they spot an opportunity to sell brands to drinkers, they’ll do it, and endeavour to do it with scale.  As far as I’m concerned, if a drinker is happy that a beer is a craft beer, then whether we agree on principle or not becomes purely academic: it is. Get over it, and start competing.

Second is the debate about what constitutes craft?  The answers are invariably couched in a hotchpotch of measures: volume brewed; use of adjuncts purely for taste, independence.     This is missing the point – a point bigger than beer. What manifests itself in beer as ‘craft’, is a slew of market trends impacting right across food and drink products: national, regional, local, provenance, authenticity, passionate producers, natural ingredients, interesting tastes & textures, original recipes – I could go on.  It’s popping up in tea, coffee, wines & spirits, across all foods from fresh meat and veg to ready meals and snack foods.

So what’s the connection?  These trends are tapping into our desire to emotionally connect in some way to our roots – however we define them as individuals.  This could show itself as national pride or local knowledge; it can show itself as truly authentic or re-interpreting the past, but importantly it doesn’t define itself by scale.  Look at Rachel’s Organic or Yeo Valley – organic, touchy-feely, yes. Niche – no. Or Tyrell’s Crisps, Red Sky or Kettle Chips.  Made from potatoes (not substitutes), interesting natural flavours, lovingly fried in kettles, yes. Niche – no. Or Sam Adams, Blue Moon, London Pride, Doom Bar – interesting, unusual, brewed with care? Of course.  Niche – no.

It’s good news all round for brewers, but as it’s about more than just the beer – it’s great news for brewers great and small.

*Clearly, that’s in the year to the date of their earnings release, not the year to date this year.  Mind you, January sales up 70% would be no mean feat.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, February 2013

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Just like the Black Country has pork scratching and Lancashire has Black Pudding some places are defined by certain foods – in a curious circularity, as originally the place had defined the food.  Pasties – Cornwall;  Barm Cakes – Manchester;  Stotties – the great North; Eel Pie – Larndon.  And there was my idle mind granting these British foods a divine uniqueness – quaint old Blighty, only here do we have these regional peculiarities.  Nonsense of course; a point driven home to me when an entrepreneurial ex colleague sent me some beers that his company is bringing in from the U.S…  Wisconsin in fact.

Ah, Wisconsin.  As a beer lover a source of perpetual confusion.  Isn’t it the beer capital of the US (by volume brewed)?  In the great city of Milwaukee?  No, hang on, that’s Minneapolis, and that’s Minnesota.  Nonetheless, Wisconsin is a food state.  In fact, for many US citizens it’s the food state, certainly in terms of capacity produced.   So I engaged in some primary research, and asked my friend Dan now resident back in the US to give me his top of mind associations when I say ‘Wisconsin’.   Of 26 associations he came up with 3 of the first 5 were food related: ‘Curds’, ‘Black and White cows’ and ‘Bratwurst’.  And there, down at number 7 was ‘beer’.  Which about sums it up: the holy trinity of food stuffs; a perfect blend which would sustain you, and entertain you, through a nuclear war, assuming the electricity doesn’t fail and the fridge doesn’t pack in.

It turns out that first and foremost, Wisconsin is a dairy state – so much for the degree in geography.  Milwaukee vs Minneapolis – an easy mistake I reckon.  But beer more than features –and not that long ago it featured big time in the economic make up of this state.  Because for a while, a beer that came out of Wisconsin was one of the US’s biggest beer brands* – Schlitz.  But that’s not what Mark’s importing, oh no.  No, travel north from Milwaukee to Green Bay, and then head due west to the small city of Stevens Point – and there you’ll find the Point Brewery (http://www.pointbeer.co.uk/).    A city, which, if the labels are in any way accurate, is where the Coneheads settled after the fame and success of the 1993 movie (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106598/ …in case you think I’m making this up too).

Mark isn’t doing things by halves.  Why import one beer, when you can import five?  And that was the rather pleasing late Christmas present that arrived on my doorstep just after the New Year.  It’s an interesting range: ‘standards’, if you will – an IPA, a Pale Ale and a Belgian White, and two more unusual ones – an Amber Lager, and a Black Ale.  The quality of the beers is high – of course it is, the quality of US craft beers is so high that the poor performers get rooted out, but some stand out more than others.   Possibly the most disappointing – versus expectation – were the Amber Lager and the Belgian White.  The former because it is the most lacking – pleasant enough, more challenging undoubtedly than the lagers we typically drink here, but just not in the same ball park as the others in the range.  The Belgian White, a good, well balanced white beer, but lacking in uumph – perhaps, too delicate, a little too refined compared with its peers.

The Black Ale though is worth seeking out.  A great structure and a clean, sail-white head.  Whilst you can tell there’s roasted malts in there, the drinkability is retained.  All too often in Black beers of all denominations, just a touch too most roast can tip the balanced into ‘charred’. Not here. All I would want is a more complex, sustained after taste – but I’m being picky.

The IPA, a deep burnished bronze has an alluring, almost Seville Orange haze to it near the edge of the glass, and a clean, strong head. Clearly a relative of the Pale Ale, and to be sure, just like Jamie is eclipsed by Andy Murray, so too here.  This Pale Ale is a cracker. To my eye, the right colour, a back lit copper, like a buffed up penny and a come-hither hop aroma, that calls you as soon as the cap is twisted off and continues through the pour.  You can tell it’s Cascade hops a mile off, but unlike some US Pale Ales, not overplayed here – aroma, structure and a lingering aftertaste which beckons you for a second.  Which, alas, I didn’t have.

Mark and his team at American Craft Beer Co have just started out so the beers are only in limited stockists at the moment.  If you’re in Birmingham, check out the Post Office Vaults, they’re on sale there and will hopefully be more widely available soon – watch this space.

Which of course leads me to the food recommendation – what do I pair that Pale Ale with?  A spicy meal perhaps – a jalfrezi or Thai Green Curry?  Maybe some great English sausages – a richly herbed Cumberland?  Do you know what, I think I’ll just go for some cheese – semi hard, West Country Cheddar.  Not sure why.

IMG_2495

*I sold Schlitz in the UK in the early ‘90s.  I’m sure I recollect part of the selling story was that it was once the largest brewer in the World, but I can’t say for certain.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Staffordshire Mountain Time

Jens and I had just arrived in from a long haul schlep from Heathrow to Denver – seven hours time difference between Greenwich and my favourite time zone of all – ‘Mountain Time’.  Wouldn’t that be great? If all mountains shared the same time zone? From the Himalaya to the Andes, from the Urals to the Lakeland Fells, whenever you climb above 1500m you equalise with Denver, Colorado.  That way, we could drive up to the Lakes or the Highlands and drink beer simultaneously with the Great American Beer Festival, although perhaps in the dark…  On this occasion, sticking with current conventions, we had flown a quarter of the way around the world for this particular bout of jet lag, and we weren’t going to waste it on sleep.  The tactic of course: immediately assimilate yourself by going to a bar.

We headed for Blake Street. Just one block from Coors Field (with the most excellent, but sadly closed, Sandlot Bar / Brewery) we knew there were a couple of excellent bars.  Falling Rock Tap House earned the honours of slaking mutual first pint syndrome – I had a Fat Tire from New Belgium – an oldie but goodie which I perversely enjoy for its barnyard (read: cow muck) aroma, Jens something much darker (What? Than cow muck?) and inevitably featuring ancient grains or triple truck loads of hops, or something. I think Nelson Sauvin featured but my beer notebook wasn’t working at the time.   More beers and a light pre-order of kickers featuring, from memory, a magical set of buffalo wings and enough ‘nar-chos’ to fatten up this week’s Christmas Turkey (Note: not ‘Natch-os’ as I requested, creating much confusion.  Fortunately I didn’t request the ‘Toe-mar-to Solsa’ so we managed to navigate that tricky spot.  And heaven forbid if they are ever served with ‘Tune-a’ in the footure).  Anyhoo, the conversation became more animated and a heated debate opened up regarding the Cascade hop and its train – the other ‘C’ hops).  In the Blue Corner – the hop heads, who appreciated when the hops were treated delicately but generally, were seeking vast quantity. In the Biney Green corner, were the Purists, appreciative of the energy and momentum created by U.S. craft brewers but a little scathing of the indelicacy of hop quantity that many craft beers boasted. ’They all taste the same – it’s just too much hop, hop, hop’ was the refrain.  I was a broadly neutral voice in the debate between brewers, but at the time holding a candle to the Purists’ view.  Too many glasses of beer had been unfinishable; too many face-puckeringly astringent as opposed to lime-suckingly sharp and refreshing.

Yet those who have visited these pages before will know that I appreciate American inventiveness, particularly in the sphere of Pale Ales and IPAs fed to me on the lean diet that we enjoy on these shores. Of Goose Island and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, enough has been said (quite justifiably) so I shall say no more today. But what a find the other day – one of those pleasant, out-of-the-blue surprises, that lifts your heart. And with it a touch of annoyance too – in the form of more beers in Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range. A Pale Ale (imaginatively entitled ‘American Pale Ale’) and also ‘Tap Room Brewing Company IPA’.    It seems from the blogosphere that I was not alone in being surprised by these beers’ appearance and it was only serendipity that allowed me to spot them in store. In the midst of the big Christmas shop, with the trolley losing its agility under the weight of festive groceries, I had carefully slotted some Goose Island and Brooklyn Lager into crafty niches between the bottles of Belvoir Presses (get me!) and the once-a-year parsnips when I decided to pause awhile over the UK range (actually to see if a friend’s beer had been listed yet). My eye was drawn to two slim 330ml bottles amongst the sea of 500ml pseudo-pints.  Naturally, despite the mechanically challenged trolley, I managed to engineer space for two bottles of each – the Pale Ale described as having ‘citrus aromas and malty flavours’ (no shit!) and an ABV of 5.3%; the IPA a more bullish yet still drinkable 6.3% and billed as ‘bold with spicy hop notes’.  Come on down!

IMG_2454 IMG_2455Well, my! What a find.  The Pale Ale in particular is a little haughty starlet.  Enticing you from the moment you lever (TWIST!!) off the crown.  Citrus notes – sure, but also a spiciness, which I assume comes from the hops, and a body, befitting a mid 5s beer that is both delectably drinkable yet supported with chiselled broad-shoulders. The mash contains wheat as well as barley and the roundedness comes through in the mouthfeel.  And my sort of beer – a come-hither-young-man aroma, multi-dimensionsal on the first sip and a lingering after taste that rolls around the taste buds gently tinkling a fading percussive melody on your tonsils with its Xylophone beaters, until the next sip is called for and your hand unfailingly answers.  The IPA in comparison was a bit of a let down – a good beer, but not a great one.  For a bold strength it flattered to deceive a little, drinking under its weight and creating a stewards’ enquiry from Barry McGuigan’s corner.  But not a bad beer, with a bright orange colour and a dense, compact head that laced beautifully. Alas, no timpani on the tonsils this time round.

And it revived memories of the old debate in that Denver bar.  U.S. craft beers – all the same? All hops and no knickers?  Well not on the evidence here – the tantalising tastes enjoyed in Staffordshire of all places have me pining to go back Stateside to update the argument.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, December 2012

The Session #66: One Beer to Rule Them All

the session beer blogging fridayOne Beer to Rule them all.  Of course, for any lover of beer this is an impossible task, yet a beautiful, playful one at that.  So I saw the subject of this month’s Big Session blog and decided, no matter how difficult it proves to answer it.  To find the one beer to rule them all.

But why impossible?  For many drinkers, perhaps it is easy just to pick one beer and say, ‘that’s it, that’s the one. My beer’. Not for me.   It’s the seemingly infinite number of great beers available today, increasing seemingly exponentially that talks about the healthy future for beer.  There’s even new styles emerging, either inspired by the past or just the crazy playthings of brewers willing to mash concoctions into something drinkable.

What should go into consideration – what makes a Beer a pretender to the One Beer Crown?  How about balance?  That subtle interplay, that dance that a great beer has from the initial aroma, the dimensions of its taste, its appearance and its presentation.  I choose beers on each of these alone.   Then there’s moreishness.  I remember a great quote from a beer executive that I used to work for – “The great thing about our beer is, it’s drinkable”. I kid you not.  Actually, I know what he was driving at:  there is something great when you have a beer, and from the first sip it’s enticing you back to a second.  Often because that thing that attracted – the aroma, or the taste say – you want more of, or often because you can’t quite put your finger on what makes it great.  For me, this is a sign of a great beer, and narrows down my list.

And versatility.  I’ve lost count of the number of brewers who bang on about beer and food, and not really know why this is important other than a band seem to be on a wagon.  I like my beers to be versatile – fundamentally they must stand up on their own right. They must be intriguing, moreish, and damnably tasty. But I want it to go with my pizza on a Friday night and be able to stand up to Fajitas too. That’s a lot to ask – so it narrows the list further.

There are other variables. Patriotism is one.  I’m proud of great British beers. I am happy to admit there are beers in my repertoire that aren’t in my Top 10 best ever beers but that I want to drink because I want them to continue brewing what they do.  And memories. Budvar is a beer that I’ve drunk on some happy times in great places. So it’s up there for me….but that alone is not enough.

Ah, the tyranny of choice, and a spectrum of considerations from tangible on the one hand to seemingly irrational on the other. But I will get to it.  I’m not going to list my Top 10. I’m going for the jugular.

My One Beer combines complexity of taste with moreishness; multidimensional taste reward with just the right amount of alcoholic hit;  a bottle shape I love and a label design I wished I had designed myself. Its presentation invariably fires up my pleasure neurons with a thick, tight white head, and copper colour.  The story of the brewery – from start up to boundary pushing present day;  where it’s from and the appeal of the lifestyle.  In short, it’s got everything. It is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

This being the case, it is only fitting to finish in lamentable tribute to the inspiration for this month’s theme…

Three Beers for the Czech-kings under the sky.
Seven for the Belgian-Monks in their Abbeys of stone.
Nine for Bavarian Counts who would their beers lie.
One for Uncle Sam on his Hoppy throne
in the Land of Cali where the craft brewers vie.
One Beer to rule them all.
One Beer to find them,
One Beer to bring them all and in the hoppyness bine them
in the Land of Cali where the craft brewers vie*.

…and, of course, to reserve the right to change my mind next time round.

*JRRT: sorry.

IMG_0554

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

1776 and all that

Very soon, it will be a year since I finished working for a large, multi-national American brewer.  As with any job change, it’s been a year of excitement and nervousness, peaks and troughs, many surprises and most of all of new friendships and old friendships reborn.  Of course,  I still have many friends in the old country  and I meet and talk with them at regular intervals – what’s good, what’s bad, what can be learned.  And the curious thing of course is how re-energised I feel about beer again. It’s my passion once more, not just my job.

The most striking thing I have noticed as a ‘drinker’ is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ world.  At University, I was developing my interest in beer (both consuming it, and being interested in it).  And the focus was ale – critical of what I saw as mundane lager, this was a world of real ale. Of cask beers; of bottled conditioned ales where I could find them; of experimentation.   I was extremely lucky to be living in the West Country which had, and mostly still has, a vibrant and energised population of free trade pubs.  And of course, the off trade was not what it was today – there was still a reasonable range of beers without the stack-it-high mentality (24 pack slabs didn’t exist for example).  These were days spent at The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres; over pints of Directors at The Jolly Porter, or Bass at The Great Western.  The Turf Locks, jutting out into the Exe estuary, was a promised land that, back then, could only be reached on foot or by private boat, yet put on a wonderful selection of local beers (as it does today – if anything, nowadays it’s better).  The Double Locks, higher up the river towards Exeter was and remains a superb cask beer shrine, where tasty pints from an ever changing range are served direct from the cask in an elbows tucked-in-tight bar amongst ruddy-cheeked locals and braying Sloans.

Yet the world I emerge into today is different. Ironically, the world of cask and bottled beer is more vibrant than I can ever recall. The positive unintended consequence of the Beer Orders now sees a cask and micro brewery movement that is building a new beer culture and growing respect for beer again. New breweries, new beers, limited editions are coming to market at a rate where it’s virtually impossible to keep up. Age old ‘problems’, like the young men drinking cask, and women drinking beer (at all) are being slowly eroded by a groundswell of new news that seeps into our consciousness on a weekly basis.  One factor is where I now live.  Despite its Grail-like reputation in the brewing world, Burton and the Midlands don’t have a pub scene like the West Country.  Don’t get me wrong – there are some terrific individual pubs. The Yew Tree at Cauldon Low, The Burton Bridge, The Brunswick in Derby is an insultingly short list to all the great pubs I’ve missed. No, the issue is a structural one.  Whereas in my Exeter days you just didn’t know what choice of beers you would get if you chose a free house, in the Midlands, you have to go looking hard to break free of the yoke of a Marston’s, or a Punch, or an Enterprise.  Great beer is frequently served, but the range means I’m often peering into the fridge to eke out something new.

But actually, despite this, the irony is that the context has changed.  When I was last a free man in beer, I hadn’t seen the world.  Aye lad, I ‘adn’t travelled much beyond me own shores.  Serendipitously, while I have broadened my horizons, so the brewing world has broadened its horizons.   My love affair – for ‘tis that – with craft US beers really picked up Steam in 1998.  My wife (who in a commitment to the cause, I met in a pub whilst drinking, if I recall correctly, a pint of Marston’s Oatmeal Stout) and I travelled to California the year after we were married.  We had picked up the bug a bit for the ‘States with a first trip to New England, and now wanted to see the land of the American dream.  It was a pilgrimage too – I had places I wanted to tick off the list. Anchor was one of course – the mythical place it all began. An inspiring place – one day, I will have an office that overlooks a copper.  Yet it was the vibrancy of the beer scene that struck me all over – and this when it was still juvenile. In San Francisco on our first night, we wandered down to Pier 39. Mostly this is tourist tat shops, but in a great setting overlooking Alcatraz Island and the spectacle of the seals underneath the pier barking like infants with Croup.  We went for a drink in a bar called the Cannery – an oak clad wall with beer taps peeking through confronted us; locals and tourists alike animatedly chatting and discussing hot topics.  I drank an Anchor Porter which was biscuity and baked yet refreshingly moreish too.  Later, we drove to Napa and Sonoma  – beautiful valleys, filled with lime green vines stretching up into the hills, weaving roads enticing the eye up to a distant col. The wineries (we went to Mondavi and Mumm) had fantastically run tours, free samples a go-go and were just great places to kick back enjoying the sun and the scenery.  Yet my fondest memory was a little brewpub in Napa itself.  I can’t remember its name, but I can remember the experience.  The building was an old fire station with tall, arched windows stretching floor to eaves in beautiful Amsterdam-style brick.  We ate straightforward food: wood fired pizza before it was the rage; a rocket salad; home made sausages with garlic mash and gravy.  Pub grub, done well.  And of course a fantastic range of beers – I had a Hefeweizen, a Pale Ale and an IPA, my wife had a citrusy Summer wheat and a glass of Zin.

The drive down the Big Sur coast was as legendary as the reputation would suggest, sweeping through the precipice-hugging bends – dream like open-top cruising in our 1 litre Yugo.  We stopped overnight in Santa Barbara and ate a fantastic meal in The Brewhouse, a recently opened brewpub.  It was my first experience of properly hoppy ales – a taste of things to come if you follow the scene today.  We bypassed LA and headed to San Diego – where the brewing scene was only just kicking off. We drank beers from Stone Brewing and popped into a couple of Brewpubs which sowed the seed of yet another dream back home.  We went to the Zoo and Seaworld, in case you’re asking. Mrs P didn’t suffer too much.

And the love affair spread – Denver, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Tampa, Seattle…great brews are popping up all over.  Yet it was only the other day, when I finally got round to drinking a beer from the Big Apple. For whatever reason, Brooklyn Brewery had passed me by.  The label didn’t catch my eye; the story on their Lager (a Pre Prohibition beer) seemed to be an afterthought.  ‘They don’t care that much’, I thought, ‘I won’t bother’.  So I didn’t.

Until last week. I bought three bottles of Brooklyn Lager in Mr Tesco’s corner shop.  3 for £2, if you’re asking, which I reckoned was a good deal, and good enough to try something new.

Silly, silly, me.  A blast of leafy, green, hop aroma swelled out from the bottle top as soon as I levered off the crown. The colour, a deep copper brown, with red hues just glinting in the corner of your eye. The head, a deep lemon meringue of headiness, topping off a bigger, fatter, mouthful of lager loveliness with a balanced sweet malt, and hop linger. Silly, silly, me.

And so the love affair grows. Pick the stereotype you wish – America: the young upstart. Brash, big American beers.  No class, just in your face. Yep – all of those.  And the dynamism they bring to beer – the respect for the past with the excitement of the legacy being left for the future is palpable.  I love British beers; I’m basking in the warm glow of what some of our brewers are doing at the moment, but love them or hate them, there’s another American Revolution going on at the moment. It’s entirely peaceful and changing the world all over again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012