At Sam and Benny’s

The Frankie and Benny’s experience was not one to write home about. It was wrong on three subtle, but I feel important points: service, quality and price. Dirty glassware and incorrect brand first off, then the wrong brand for the glass second time around. The meal – well, it was average (I wasn’t expecting much so don’t give me that ‘Well I never‘ look) and in fact at £9.85 was a lump of purest rip off. This for a plate a penne al’ arabiatta which can best be described as ‘part-scratch’ (pasta out of a packet, sauce out of a tub, fresh herbs thrown on top and no hint of the brilliant Eddie Izzard ‘Death Star Canteen’ on YouTube sketch). Served by staff who clearly would rather be sitting in front of the Lottery Results waiting for life to deal them a better hand.

Forget that though. The beer. I ordered a Sam Adams Boston Lager.  Have in mind that this had travelled a couple of thousand miles to my table.  It was enough to almost forgive Frankie and Benny’s for the rest of their culinary sins.

Let’s start with the aroma…noble hops? I know they use Hallertau Mittelfrüh, but is that the only contributor to the magnificence of the aroma – surely not?  This is a restrained hop aroma for many American new wave beers which marks this out as even more special. Judicious is the word – leading to an aroma that is an experience in itself.   Sipping it…mouthfeel. I’m guessing that there must be some weeks of lagering as the beer has a rounded quality in mouthfeel and a delicacy of linger of the aftertaste with again, the herbal and leafy hop throughout.   Colour: coppery bronze like the sun kissed thigh of an olive-skinned beach lovely. But most remarkable to me was the head. I pour a small quantity with two fingers (a legacy of working for Grolsch and experiencing that beer ‘the Dutch way’) and like a thick head*. It’s a good test both of the beer’s inherent structure and clean glassware. Fortunately this time round I had both. And what an experience…a dense just-off-white head, thick but not imperviously compact like a nitrobeer. And northern ale like lacing and rings were left down the glass as I drank, which as a former student of dendrochronology makes me happy inside.

I was particularly pleased about this as I hold a torch for Sam.  Not only were they in the early wave of US craft brewers, not only were they entrepreneurial in brewing a great beer when they didn’t have a brewery, but they are brewers of principle. All malt beers, adjuncts only for flavour, whole hops, many noble varieties but above all a real commitment to taste.  And for Boston Beer there’s a clear link. Take shortcuts with the process, take shortcuts with the ingredients and taste suffers. If taste suffers eventually you can’t charge what you want and the spiral down commences.

I had the privilege of meeting Jim Koch, Boston Beer’s founder in 2006. It was an incredible trip, an in-and-out, but Jim and Martin Roper his English born CEO, gave of their time and of their lunch and we talked beer and business.  They gently chastised my company for the use of adjuncts yet praised it for their support to Boston Beer in tougher times. They showed off Utopias to me and gave me a real hand baggage challenge (the bottle is a mini Copper and not so much lighter than the real thing). Thoroughly nice chaps brewing thoroughly good beer… making good money now, but not being ruled by it. There’s probably a lesson there for us all, and certainly for Frankie and Benny’s.

Boston Lager logo

*That’s on my beer not my head per se.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted in Posterous, April 2012

The Shamen of the Namin’

At different points in my career I have had responsibility for naming new beers.  This is one of the jobs that should be joyous: right brained, creative, all bean bags and Swizzells-Matlow ‘Refreshers’.  Alas, the truth, my truth, is far from this.  In a big business this task, this bitter task, is one of nightmarish proportions.  For the job of naming isn’t a simple blue blob on a Gantt chart; it isn’t just something to do between weeks 27 and 31, oh no.  This one is emotional.  And everyone wants in. Everyone wants to lay claim to delivering the nomenclatorial coup de grace. Because whether the beer turns out to be the Golden Goose or the Turkey of Despair does not matter:  The prize of naming the brand is the medal. It’s the bit that the consumer sees – hang on, scratch that, it’s the bit that your Mum sees. She might not understand the intricacies of your job, but by Jingo, she’ll understand this, and as the coffee morning circuit word of mouth builds, so the chances of your heroic ‘local-boy-made-good’ reputation become increasingly assured.

Beyond the physical sensations of a racing heart beat and stress-induced palpitations though, naming things is big business.  There are Companies dedicated to this one act alone and they have many stripes on their arm, in the alcohol world, the most famous of which is Diageo. The ‘geo’ bit was rationalised as demonstrating the global potential and reach of the business, and the ‘Dia’ is from the Uzbekistani for ‘Nonsense’.  Oh, hang on, that might not be right. Honestly, poor old Arthur Guinness.  Do you think he would have authorised half a mill being spent on that?

It’s no use levelling the cannons at others though. I too have form, albeit fortunately rather tangentially.  Many moons ago I was working on Carling Black Label as a general oik and hod carrier, and Bass (as was) were very keen to ‘stretch the equity of the brand to reach new consumers, on new occasions representing the way we drink today’ – or something like that.  We actually had a cracking new lagered beer, full flavoured but very smooth as we triple filtered it through diatomous filters (essentially ‘diatoms’ are fossilised insect thingies, who, unbeknown to them during their timeon Earth were destined to find a second life as fine particulate industrial drink filters. Thanks chaps. German reader* – this is kieselgur). The project codename:  Rock.  I recollect that the project team, which included me, invested an eye watering three figure sum with a naming agency.  We considered everything. We did research (uh-oooooh).  We did, in short, the works.  We scoured the literary world; we did word association exercises; ancient languages were mined for potential links.  Specialist naming Consultants & Social Anthropologists delved into the black bag of their respective arts.  Mystic Meg even had a hand in it. In the end, our launch name was…….Carling Rock.  Yay.

Anyhoo, this particular topic dawned on me as I have been re-acquainting myself recently with cask beers after a number of years in self-imposed exile (well, not exile exactly, I’ve just been experimenting more with craft beers, some of which are served from (sharp intake of breath)…kegs). On pushing the boundaries to find new beers of any sort in the UK that might light up my taste buds, I was surprised by just how many beers have odd names. My ‘comprehensive’ study notes have determined a number of distinct, distinctive and daft naming categories:

Let’s start with the grandiose… ‘the provenance school’.  This could be creative laziness or perhaps jaw dropping scenery that the brewer wants to celebrate – or more likely, neither, but this category is pretty popular, and one of the first.  Whether it is Burton Bridge Bitter just up the road from me, or London Pride just up the road from everyone, St Austell (who go the whole hog and double up, like in St Austell Dartmoor Ale (and I thought you couldn’t be in two places at once – that’s beer for you), or even outside cask of course, Pilsner Urquell, Dortmunder Actien Brauerei, Boston Lager, Hoegaarden, Quilmes … you get the picture, ad nauseam.  When I make my millions, I shall buy an industrial unit on Anglesey and start the ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Brewery’. Now THAT’S a bar call.  And I’ve got the advertising sorted:  “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch….. ask for it by name’. (Naming brands was my plan to make the millions. On this evidence, I might just have to re-think. And anyway, perhaps it would be better to open a distillery – everyone would order a long short. Geddit?  No? Whatever.)

Then there’s the ‘Stuff where the brewery is from, it’s all about me, Me, ME!’ approach.  A despicable and highly uncreative naming method which is designed to massage the ego of the owner.  Countless examples here, and one or two of my favourites as well, but I refuse to give any of these scallywags publicity when they refuse to advertise on my blog site.  Whilst I’m here though, if you are in the Burton area, look out for ‘Pilsner Prestonski’. It’s a Burton top fermented beer, that’s then lagered for 49 days, maaarvellous¹.

National Institutions, Regional Peculiarities & Local Yarns’ come next.  It’s amazing what people choose to talk about here from the grand and nationally important, to the innocuous.   In the UK we have beers featuring castles (Windsor), landscapes (Exmoor, Dartmoor – it’s a west country thing clearly),  whilst at other end of the spectrum you have one of my personal favourites (and a darn fine beer too), Jenning’s ‘Snecklifter’ referring to the north country name for a thumb latch on an old fashioned door handle.

Finally, there’s the “Sh**ts and Giggles” bucket. A profuse and remarkably (subjectively) amusing category of names, over which I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.  On the one hand, I think “A pint of The Dogs Bollocks” gives our beloved beer an air of self deprecation & wry amusement which signals: “Get us. We’re beer and we’re not up ourselves like wine”. I like that.  On the other, when you pause ever so briefly, and rationalise what you’re actually ordering, it’s a “…pint of sweaty, hairy, dangly, sexual reproductive organs from Man’s Best Friend” please.  I’m not sure about the appetite appeal of that one².

Big brands from multinational brewers deserve a section for themselves.  I’m particularly intrigued by colours. A selection to the witness box if you please:  Beck’s Blue (low / no alcohol); Foster’s Gold; Stella Black; Guinness Red; Bud Silver.  I don’t necessarily dislike these names, hell I know how difficult it is naming brand extensions (you don’t want to fight with the ‘mother brand’ name, but equally you need to be distinctive), but really. Is this the best they can do?  And it goes for mock production processes too. I have already mentioned Carling Rock; but there’s Carlsberg (et al) Ice, Dry beers (Asahi et al – where are they now?), Strong, Dark, Filtered, Fast, Slow.  Funny that the real creative energy lies with smaller guys, the ones for whom risk seems less of an issue – it could lead to fame, it could lead to failure, it may lead to notoriety, or even the vets, but they’re having a go.  Half term report for the big boys: must try harder.

Yet the real common denominator in all of this seems the lack of science. Naming brands is, I feel, where the art comes in; where you have to get off the pot and put your idea front and centre to your customer.  That’s brave and exciting.  But I think I could still make my millions here after all – despite past shames, at least I’m confident that the mystical approach to naming could allow me to be the shamen of the namin’  after all.

*Hopefully this will move into the plural if you would care to pass on the link or retweet me? Danke schőn.

¹Actually this was made up, but you wouldn’t guess would you? Seamless, just seamless.

²For completeness let me share a small selection of other names: Arrogant Bastard, ButtFace, Top Totty, Granny Wouldn’t Like It, Dirty Tackle (it’s a rugby allusion, OK), Village Idiot, Haggis Hunter.  All quite amusing, yet all trumped by a beer for those considering a holiday in the Balkans. Look out for Macedonia’s ‘Vergina’ beer.

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

On the up

Is your beer brand ‘On the up’?

That’s a question marketing types spend much of their working day trying to fathom an answer to. They will forensically rake through daunting data reports, ‘tracking studies’ or research findings (or at least they will pretend to).  Is it a ‘Brand My Friends Rate’ or ‘Drunk in the last 7 days’?  Sales reports may enrich the evolving story, as will findings ‘from the field’ (and by ‘field’ I mean the sort that was concreted over in the 1950s with a bar built on top, not the sort with cows gently masticating their fodder, if you get my drift).  Quantitative Research agencies (companies that deal with banks of ‘hard data’) make their living out of helping marketing managers reach a point of view which they can convince their superiors with.  Some big, household name companies won’t make decisions unless they have a positive read from this sort of analysis.

I was pondering on this, my past life, whilst drinking a bottle of a well known Italian pale-coloured beer at the weekend.  As I don’t work for the BBC, you don’t need to be Steven Hawking to know I am referring to Peroni ‘Nastro Azzuro’.  Clearly, here is brand of beer that is ‘on the way up’.  I quite like Nastro. Not the beer itself necessarily, which, whilst I wouldn’t be disingenuous enough to say I dislike, doesn’t really float my boat.  I can taste a little too much of the corn adjunct and too much of its 5.1% alcohol to an extent where it unbalances the beer.  That’s not the point though is it?  Because, as we all know, ‘We drink with our eyes’*.  And to the eye, Nastro is a damn fine looking lady.  Sultry, dusky, all Dolce Vita-ish, she tips her Prada sunglasses and looks back at you from under her mascara’ed eyelashes as you pour her into an hour-glass. “Drink me”, she whispers, “Let me caress your tastebuds”.  Come on. Tell me I’m wrong.

But there are other brands on the way up.  And they don’t rely on la bella’s allure and come-hither temptations.  Doom Bar for instance.  South of Watford Gap it turns up everywhere. Nice presentation; balanced taste, possibly, a nice glass if the bar is doing its job well.  It’s the ‘Wimbledon-on-sea’ Rock effect I think, all Crew-clothed and clad in Sebago deckshoes.  And ‘Doom Bar’ rhymes with ‘Ra! Ra!’, and “Huzzah!” which is rarely nice for the Chelsea Farmer brigade.

Other brands seem, in ‘health’ terms, to be on a downward track. Stella Artois comes to mind, even though she still gets around a bit.  Others still seemed to have missed their time – to my mind Budweiser Budvar and Cobra could have done with a gentle nudge a few years back. They may have missed the rocket to Rockstar status, although our Indian friend is definitely giving it a go and with India developing as a destination of choice for Brits at the moment, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Yet pulling it all together, simply explaining this nebulous, intangible phenomenon, this magic, with the statement of ‘We drink with our eyes’ just won’t do. There must be more science to it. Hell, there must be more art.  How to understand whether your beer could soar in the Heavens or face a future, naked, emaciated and lugging its bedraggled, hopeless, chinless self along the floor of life, whilst being ritualistically flagellated by the cudgels Mr Tesco – well that must be a worthwhile cause.

I started with the art, I’ll be honest, my favourite bit, and this is nothing to do with me being a beer** artiste. Beers ‘on the way up’ seem to have three moons which orbit and shape them.  Let us call these moons: the Look, the Liquid and the Legend¹.

The look. Oh, here’s the heresy.  It’s the most important one.  Perhaps not as a lover of beer, but as an everyday person who buys things and gets through life as best he can, this is the one.  Let’s face it – this is what Nastro Azzuro does brilliantly.  A story – in fact, not a story because this is true, and I am sure very familiar to you.  Question: where did you first have Nastro Azzuro?  Who were you with? What were you were eating?  What life were you living then?  My answers: Pizza Express, with my (now) wife, eating Pizza, olives, salad of some description, perhaps some dough balls, living la Dolce Vita. In Chester³.  Sound familiar?

What’s changed today? Well the bottle design has evolved slightly (important emphasis that). You can get it on draught now – but note how careful South African Breweries are with where they let it go (in the main).  And the font. Ye Gads, look at it. She’s wearing a catwalk evening dress and making all the other fonts look like the Ant Hill Mob.  Contest over.  But wait. The glass. Be honest. How many have you got in your cupboard?  People drink Nastro for the glass. Men and women; old and young, Wimbledon to Wilmslow to Wishaw.

The liquid. Nastro is OK.  It has an edge (5.1% vs other ‘premium lagers’ at 5%) and it’s most certainly not offensive.  There’s no lingering, bitter astringency so it appeals to most or can be tolerated by the beer snobs like me.  Marketing text books will say you need a rational product difference or a functional reason to believe. Brewed in Italy and imported? So’s Moretti.  Brewed with corn⁴?  So’s Moretti. Uh, oh.  The theory may have a loop hole.

The legend.  Simple consistency & application of a single thought, year in, year out.  Nastro = Italian style. That’s it. Now keep a look out for the adverts.  Take a second look at the packaging, glassware, font.  Italian flag colours? Yup, ever so ever so subtly.  Macho men in the adverts?  Nope, instead, dreamily beautiful, sophisticated, ever-so-ever-so-slightly unapproachable women. Appealing?  Yep – to us all.

Yet, there’s science too. Behavioural science.  This is all quite hip ‘n’ trendy stuff in the world of research at the moment, but the theory is actually almost 100 years old.  Simply put, the behavioural science says this:  whilst we like to think we make rational, logical and structured decisions in our lives, actually the majority (95 – 99%) of decisions we make are seemingly irrational, illogical and to the observer often contradictory vs. what we say we’ll do. The ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefore’s’ aren’t for here and now, so let me simply summarise why this is the case by saying ‘it’s because we have to do loads of stuff everyday’…the brain can’t cope, so it learns all sorts of short cuts. And these shortcuts – our personal lenses on things, biases, opinions – all have implications for beer.

Consider anchoring (alas, not Anchor Steam Beer, that particular delight will have to wait).  Our brains want to make quick decisions so they tend to form early opinions and then stay anchored to them.  Back to Nastro – your first experience. In a poshish Italian restaurant, with your favourite pizza and perhaps an extra topping, good company and a ristretto to finish – why not?  As emotional anchors go, that’s not a bad place to start. Then rewind and repeat for a few years and your brand has a good foundation in people’s brains.

Or framing.  We’re all familiar with the kamikaze (I am allowed to use that in these PC times -apologies in advance if not) pricing in supermarkets over the last few years, and ‘premium lagers’ have not escaped notice.  Reassuringly expensive Stella Artois on ‘Two For £14’ or whatever, frames Nastro as something more special because it hasn’t got involved.  Stick to your principles, keep your look consistent, as Nastro has done, and your competitors just make way for you.

Or the effect of perception.  If you have a good, or bad, opinion of something, then your brain wants to show how bright and clever you are by confirming and reconfirming that decision. So Nastro continues to ‘show up’ nicely in Pizza Express and you just continue to justify why it’s such a great choice you’ve made. Then you see it somewhere else, and you tell your friends… and remember, we’re a herd species so we love to take a recommendation from someone else.  Again, think of Stella Artois – it’s been discounting it’s price hugely for over a decade but it still the beer of choice for lots of people.

There’s more and it’s a fascinating field of investigation.  The revelation for me is that I now realise that is is possible to plan to be lucky if you understand how the brain works, and then, like Nastro have done to their credit, resist the temptation to fiddle.  The trouble for the big beer brand owners is that they need all the data, all those questionnaires, to prove they should keep their job. This new behavioural science at last seems to be supporting common sense – but it’s not for the faint hearted.

Peroni Come Hither

Come hither.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on posterous, April 2012

*Actually, I don’t. If you do and want a free tip for a more effective mode of consumption, try the orifice on the front of your face below your nose. It’s genius.

 

** Some rather unkind acquaintances of mine have used alternative descriptors.

¹ There is a fourth ‘L’ but I can’t remember what the ‘L’ it is²

² I’m here tonight, and twice on Thursdays. I thank you.

³ Actually, it could have been ‘Est! Est! Est!’ In Knutsford. Much the same, especially if you’re Jeremy Clarkson. 

⁴ I can tell you’re tempted.

Lager, Part 3. Lager is as lager does.

If you take any interest in beer literature it won’t take you long to read that today, the majority of the beer drunk in the world is lager, in fact, typically a figure around 85 – 90% is cited as broadly accurate.

This is staggering. In fact, it is revolutionary given that this year, 2012, marks the 170th anniversary of the first clear, golden lagered beer from Plžen in Bohemia. If you consider that beer is known to have been consumed in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago this is equivalent to one of those Geological timelines that shows that if the age of the Earth is equated to just 12 hours, Humans have only existed in the last seconds before midnight.

It is though, wholly erroneous.

In reality, most of the beer consumed in the world today is pale.  Not pale ale, just pale in colour.  To call it lager is stretching it.

This generally assumed and unchallenged orthodoxy arises because two factors intermingle.  Firstly, these modern pale beers are brewed with strains of yeast that ferment at a cooler temperature than yeasts used for other beers (typically between 6˚C and 12˚C compared with ale yeasts at 15˚C and 24˚C). Secondly, these conditions were discovered when winter or spring brewed beer was stored in ice-filled caves to drink during Summer days when temperatures were too high to brew beer that didn’t spoil (due, as we now know, from the presence of wild yeasts in the air which would land on the beer and create spontaneous fermentation).  Given that this took place in Bavaria, these beers became known in the wider world as lager beers as they were ‘stored’ (German = lagern) and here a gentler fermentation continued to take place.

What I find intriguing is the assumption that beers fermented with bottom settling yeast and lager go hand in hand. This is where the error arises.

Actually most pale beer today is brewed with a bottom fermenting yeast strain (and in fact most beers are now brewed with hybrid yeasts that can be trained to fall to the bottom of the fermenter – even ales), but today few beers are lagered in a way, not only that was intended by the original lager beer pioneers, but also that does justice to the flavour potential of beers brewed in this way.

You see, for ale purists or for those who do not challenge the accepted wisdom, lager is ‘bland’. Either bland in absolute terms, or bland compared with the vast array of flavours in top fermenting beers. So it’s easy to level with sweeping strokes, ‘mass produced, tasteless, lager’ and justify the ale vs lager case that so damages the world of beer today.

But lager is bland if it isn’t lagered.  And here is the crux of the problem: lager is as lager does.

Most bottom fermented beer today doesn’t get the benefit of genuine lagering. And what a benefit it is.  It is a complex process where, in essence, flavours that brewers don’t want in beer are absorbed back into the yeast. Then eventually, the yeast flocculates* and settles to the bottom of the fermenting vessel.  I have debated with ‘progressive’ brewers who will claim, and probably back up with sound science, that today’s yeast hybrids and brewery conditions mean that long lagering times aren’t required.  And of course, lagering equals space and time – you need space for the tanks and you need time for the lagering, and that is capital investment needed and revenue lost.  But whatever the science says, the richness is lost – brands like Staropramen or Kozel are sad reflections of this – once great, rich, lagered beers, now brewed with cost in mind.

Of course, it’s not just the lagering. The choice of grist, of mashing regime, the yeast itself all impact flavour.  If you brew with enzymes to break down long chains of carbohydrates, this will impact flavour, as of course will the nature and type of hopping.

Yet, whilst most modern lagers are undoubtedly distant cousins of the first golden pilsner beers, they are merely that. Feral beers brewed more for the benefit of company bottom lines with the best technology at our disposal today.  These are undoubtedly pale beers exceptionelle. But they’re not lagered beers in a way that 19th Century Bavarian or Bohemian brewers would recognise.

Try a lagered beer, and really try it. Don’t just drink it; breathe it in.  Try the obvious ones – Budweiser Budvar is probably one of the few large Bohemian beers still lagering, in this case for a long time – 90 days – for the 5% export beer. Or in the German style, Warsteiner still lager, yet hop with German noble hops too for a clean yet spicy flavour.  But look out for the less well known beers. Windsor & Eton’s (yes, a British lagered beer) recently introduced Republika -they have installed lagering tanks especially for the purpose. Or Meantime’s London Lager (I know– two of them) – again, another beer with an extended maturation. Try Žatec, which is brewed with a double decoction mash and lagered for over 50 days in caves.  Breathe them in.  These beers aren’t in any way bland.  They are rich in texture, complex yet restrained in flavours, flavours which are multi-dimensional. They are refreshing yet rewarding too.  They are generally bitter, but bitter matched with a residual sweetness that leads to moreish drinkability.  They are naturally carbonated so the mouth feel is gentle and rounded.

Let’s hope that enlightened breweries such as these continue to brew genuine lager – one of the world’s more revolutionary niche beers.

* ‘scuse me.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March, 2012

Lager, Part 2. Czeching out the Reinheitsgeboat on the Danube.

The traditional place to start with an understanding of lager is to say the following:

The word ‘Lager’ comes from the German verb, lagern, which means to store.

I however, am going to break with that convention.  The place I started my appreciation of lager, was on the A38, just outside Burton–upon-Trent.  Up to that point, (April 1992 from memory), I had been an ale drinker, an ale proponent, an ale espouser, possible an ale zealot…although, I’m not sure ale was consumed in great quantities in second Century Judea (I could be wrong there, go with me). It is no coincidence that this journey started in Burton -upon –Trent, ‘home of British beer’. After leaving University in Exeter, I applied to a number of brewers for a job through the Milk Round scheme, but my preference was for Bass. There were two reasons. Firstly, my drink of choice of the time was Draught Bass (I shall return to the topic of this beer another day). Secondly,  amongst a room of snappily-suited Personnel and Sales executives from the likes of Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Esso and so on,  Bass sent a couple of distribution managers from Huyton in Liverpool. The spit of Cannon and Ball, they looked utterly fed up.  Me being a student from the North West in a predominantly southern catchment university I engaged them in conversation and we laughed for an hour.  My biased view of the greatness of English ale was strengthened further – if this company can brew such a great beer, and be staffed with such funny, honest and down to earth people, then it’s for me.  The interview process was a test in itself, narrowly less stressful than the return journey from Sunderland to Exeter in my brother’s Polo during, which the windscreen wiper came off the side and almost removed the wing mirror during a monsoon, Yorkshire-style, on the A1.

Forgive me, I digress. The point is, my relatively sheltered life up to this point had been defined by knowingly and playfully holding on to opinions utterly unsupported by fact, reason or logic. Great pub talk and conversation starters. North better than South, ale better than lager – and the Milk Round just cemented these views firmly in place.

My brother and I had a plan. To drive to Prague and experience ‘proper’ lager, given that all the stuff on sale in Britain was clearly the bye-product of a Middlesbrough chemical plant,  and then return via a beer holiday of Bavaria and Franconia where we would hunt out all sorts of weird concoctions that only men who gladly wander around in leather chaps could conceive.  It would be great, made better by the fact that I wasn’t insured, so I would be chief map reader and daytime beer taster.

It was also the first holiday where I was frequently genuinely scared.  We got to Prague uneventfully enough.  It was particularly pleasing to be greeted by the Czech border guards as long lost friends as they waved us past a queue of German cars at the Border which snaked through the forest for over a mile.  ‘See that Fritzy?? That’s what invading your Neighbours does for you!’  we barked as we waved our blue-backed passports in that classically superior British way at the Border Guards and gunned the Bentley through the check point*.

First point of call. Pilsen or Plžen. Here we parked up and queued outside the Pilsner Urquell brewery with bemused locals who were waiting with crockery jugs for their evening’s supply of beer.  No 4-packs of cans here.  It actually took so long, that we never made it to the end of the queue and headed for Prague.  On arrival we realised that we had rented a sub-let flat in a suburb of Prague that was absolutely everything you would expect from a Cold War thriller. Grim concrete brutalist chic buildings, and old Czech ladies peeking out from behind their doors eyeing us as if we had arrived from Pluto. A paternoster lift creaked and cranked throughout the day and night, beating out a rhythm that I fell asleep to on the sofa.  The furniture was all velour fabrics and formica TV sets. On reflection it was magic, but at the time, we genuinely thought we would get done over by a swarthy Slav in a full length leather overcoat.

Yet it was the start of my lager conversion.  I can’t pin the exact time or place down.  There were a range of highlights. U Fleku was one (U = ‘at the sign of’, Fleku = ‘the Flek family).  I have been back to this brewpub since, and noticed that beer writers have started to snobbishly refer to it as a ‘tourist attraction’ determined to tarnish its reputation because it’s successful with non Czech. This is entirely undeserved, and if you go to Prague you must go – and sit with the locals if it makes you feel better.  It will be full of many nationalities besides, and perhaps now, it is a little more expensive than other bars in Prague, but I can reassure you that in the intervening 18 years since I first went and when I returned, it had not changed one bit.  It was a well run business after the fall of the iron curtain and it’s a well run business today appealing to a broad wash of humankind as only great beer can.  But forget that. It was the beer. Dark as a hearse yet with a subtle inner glow enhanced by a cream head so thick you could pass it off as a cappuccino.  Gravity fed from a copper vat above the bar into simple handled glasses and glistening with natural condensation – it was a revelation.  We drank it with the simple food: dumplings, meat stewed on the bone and a thick, oozing gravy that set you up for the day. And this beer, this beer, darker than stout or porter, is a lagered beer.  Lager. No clear, golden hue. No blinding white head; no aggressive carbonation. Dark lager, soft, gently flavoured yet cosseting to the taste buds like the touch of velvet to hand.

And U Zlathého Tygra. The Golden Tiger.  We drank Pilsner Urquell on rough trestle tables from the most ornately decorated beer font I can remember and conversing with the Czechs in signs, grunts, and nodding at the beer with smiles and twinkling eyes. It was all you needed to know.   It was one of the few (two) places we found Pilsner Urquell – today it’s everywhere.  Otherwise we drank a beers that at the time were unheard of in the UK, Staropramen, Gambrinus, Kozel.  We hunted out a Czech dark lager in the back streets of an industrial quarter – alas, I had forgotten what it was but it drank like liquid dream.

We returned through Bavaria and Franconia. Unencumbered by driving as I was, I could enjoy my first beer not long after breakfast whilst my increasingly frustrated brother pushed us on to the next location. At Regensburg – sitting in a beer garden by the Danube, we ate vegetables after a week without, in the Czech Republic and slowly regained our….. composure – and smoked sausages washed down with Thurn und Taxis beers.  Compared with the Czech pilsners we had been drinking, the German lagered beers were straighter, less rounded perhaps, more austere yet equally compelling.  Then Bamberg.  Beautiful Bamberg, with medieval architecture more enchanting than anything Disney could conjure up. We visited the Spezial Brewery where we drank the smoked beers on draught in wood lined rooms with elderly Franconians playing dominoes and card game whilst eating Dampfnudeln. These smoked beers blow your senses, with flavours ranging from spicy salami sausage, caramel and wood smoke yet with a surprising lightness of body and gently malty sweetness that makes them intriguing and moreish.  And in most cases, these are lagered beers – either a dunkel (dark) or Märzen (March) beer (there are also some top fermenting smoked beers).  You couldn’t get much further from the typical perception of lager if you were given free National Express tickets with every glass.  Finally  Würzburg, where we stopped to drink Franconian wine, but found delicious beers from the independent Würzburger Hofbrau Brauerei  – in Bavaria, arguably nothing out of the ordinary, but as  we drank these beers with a meal of smoked eel, onions and potatoes in a rather posh restaurant underneath the Rathaus – I realised that my eyes had been opened, and my opinions altered, forever.

 

*Some facts within this post may have skewed with time.  I think we were on the maroon passports by then.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March 2012

Lager, Part 1: Oh, woe! The “British have fallen out of love with lager.”

“Has Britain fallen out of love with lager?” questions Jon Kelly, writing for the online BBC News Magazine earlier this month. “…for decades” he continues, “lager has rivalled tea as the beverage that best defines modern Britain. And yet the nation’s attachment to the supposedly refreshing qualities of pilsner and export appear to be on the wane…”

The thing is, we’ve never been in love with it.

I don’t want to get all philosophical here, nor too semantic. I don’t want to debate the meaning of ‘love’ and whether it was appropriate to use this word, or rather, ‘like’ or ‘enjoy’. Let’s leave that task to Advertising Agency planning types to intellectually masturbate over.
No, the first issue I have with Jon’s article is how it gives real insight to our (meaning: the British understanding) fundamental (meaning: “Of or relating to the foundation or base; elementary” – thanks Free Dictionary) lack of understanding and appreciation of lagered beer (apologies – that’s the one semantic bit. Beer is lager, ale, bitter, mild, lambic (etc) NOT lager and beer as is so commonly understood on these shores). And now, without the brackets, ‘our fundamental lack of understanding or appreciation of lagered beer’

But let’s deal with the love thang in this piece.

As I see it, there’s an enormous difference between loving something and using something. The British are users of lager. “Getting lagered”, “Wife beater”, “Lager Louts” are not epithets of a nation in love with a drink. “A nice cup of tea”, “An extra shot American with room” stand in stark contrast.
Yet the malaise is deeper than this: ‘89.chestersmate’, responding to Jon’s article, wrote, “A good lager is as nice as a good ale – I love both. Unfortunately most lager available is not in this category. Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic all produce really good lagers – they are not over gassed drinks that need to be ice cold to disguise the taste”. Here’s problem number two. The inconvenient truth of ‘lager’ stereotypes, particularly the stereotypes of ‘real lager from its heartlands’. Most lager in Germany and the Czech Republic is brewed by Brewing concerns (often the much maligned ‘International Brewers’) who are less connected to the brewing process, the mashing, the fermentation, the lagering, that made the drink so popular in the firstplace. The truth is, these countries produce as much “mass produced” (for want of a better expression) lager as Britain does today. Few breweries in the Czech Republic today, for example, lager their beer for 7 weeks – a more reasonable estimate is 2 to 3 weeks, and this will only be for their ‘premium’ brands. Amongst the many crimes perpetrated against Pilsner Urquell – the original clear, golden Pilsner beer (Urquell = ‘original source’), surely the worst has been brewing under license? I don’t know the Czech for ‘Unoriginal Source’ but my guess is that it’s not an ideal brand name.

The sad truth is that for decades now, for the majority of drinkers in Britain, the real benefit of lagered beer has been its ability to get you drunk effectively, without the annoyance of the broader array of flavours that many other beers offer. The colder serve temperature; the relative ease of keeping in a pub merely stoked fuel on the fire. And, as the Brits looked up and out increasingly after the insular and economically challenging 1970s, so continental lagered beers, often in aesthetically appealing packaging, left drinkers with a feeling of something different, of sophistication, of ‘look at me, I’m a citizen of the world!’

 

It’s time to right the wrongs. It’s time to demystify lager and most importantly, add momentum to the efforts of brewers and drinkers who understand and appreciate lagered beer for what it really is – a veritable panoply of different styles, tastes, colours and strengths. It’s time to understand where tradition and progress fit within the world of lager. It’s time in short, to spread the word and on a personal level, share my love for lagered beer.

David Preston, Copyright, 2012. Originally published, March 2012.

The Path to Beer

My relationship with beer was fuelled by a man I have never met.
To begin: an admission. I’m not a big drinker. Never have been. Which is not to say I can’t handle my drink, just that we enjoy a different relationship to most. Steve, a friend of mine who writes properly, reminded me of the wonderful journey of drunkenness, from “jocose” and ending with “comatose”.
I like to stop at verbose. I don’t enjoy going further. Beyond verbose, not only do I become incredibly annoying, even to myself, I usually wake up with strange bruises, and far, far worse, a hangover. Man ‘flu’ and hangovers may orbit the same Dark Star, yet for me they are very much worlds apart. Whilst, with Man ‘flu’ I want to be alone, dosed up with some over-the-counter remedy, with hangovers, my body punishes me physically and my guardian angel, whispering sweet nothings by my ear, punishes me emotionally.
“You’re better than this”. 
“Drunkenness is for people with nothing better to do with their lives” 
“Remember Great Uncle Walter. He either drank himself to death, or died falling off a chimney pot whilst attempting a handstand. Either way it was unnecessary and fuelled by the excesses of drink”.

and on, and on.

No, my relationship with drink is definitely to reach the verbose stage and then adopt strategies.
We should also talk about Bass. I have history. I worked for a ‘Big Mulitnational’ for almost twenty years, and will not discredit my time there by pandering to stereotypes bandied around by beer ‘enthusiasts’ who simply want to slag off big brewers; nor will I senselessly defend them. Today Bass is owned by an American company whose sole focus is beer….and that can’t be a bad thing, even if the beer isn’t to your, or my, taste.

And lastly to the man who inspired me. Fritz Maytag. I saw him on the telly. Fritz had inherited wealth, his family founding and building the mighty Maytag household appliance business. Fritz didn’t strike me as a naturally charismatic person when I watched him, but he was the man who ‘saved’ Anchor Steam in San Francisco and injected tremendous momentum into the nascent craft beer movement in the U.S.
These three strands weave together in this blog. Why write about beer? The world of anodyne beer or brewery reviews doesn’t need yet another voice. Why not write about household appliances perhaps? I could push the boat out and write about other alcoholic drinks, and hey, while I’m at it include pop too.

But no, it has to be beer, and it’s beer because of Fritz.
The programme was Michael Jackson’s ‘The Beer Hunter’. The episode was ‘Californian Pilgrimage’. As Michael interviewed Fritz it was clear that here was a man who wore his wealth with humility. This didn’t come across as some rose-tinted liberal minded view. Fritz actually cared. He connected his employees not just with the company, but with the city, the ingredients that went into their beer and their wider responsibilities. He had a higher sense of purpose for Anchor. Most of all, Fritz saw great beer existing with great wine, with great food and great conversation. He didn’t pit big brewer (bully boy) against small brewer (stoic scrapper), or the grape against the grain. In effect he was saying: ‘they all have a place in our lives and let’s celebrate that’.
Yet Fritz also recognised the great strength of beer. That more than any other alcoholic drink, it is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln , ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. Wine is tarnished by the brush of snobbery, yet beer remains honest, convivial and enormously varied.
Simply put, beer is one of the little pleasures of life that we should cherish and celebrate and I shall raise a glass to that.

Reproduced from ‘Everyday Wonders’, David Preston, ©2012