The Session 85: Why do you drink?

the session beer blogging fridayThe 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 of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is by Douglas Smiley at Baltimore Bistros and Beer ( on the topic of how we drink. What compels us to drink? How would life be if beer no longer featured?

I don’t come from a family of big drinkers. My parents enjoy an occasional glass of wine; less occasionally they endure their youngest son wittering on about some beer or other, but you wouldn’t have them down as the drinking kind.  My grandparents neither from what I recall: in fact, my maternal grandmother would make a point of warning me off beer when she saw me glugging back pints of water as a child. “Better that than beer” she would say. And so it follows quite logically that I’m not a big drinker myself. Never have been. I’ve never been one for over-indulging on alcohol, or at least, when I have, I’ve never enjoyed it.

So then, why do I drink?

You know, until now, I’ve never thought about it. Never had to. Never been asked. But it’s a damn fine question and should be honoured with a response.

Not a Champagne Supernova

Beer engages the senses. I love opening a beer.  You know how the ‘steam’ rises out when you remove a crown? Puthers, more like; creeps out of the mouth and flops, hissingly, down the side of the bottle. I like that.  Then there’s the pour.  I like two fingers of head on my beer, and the sweep and swirl as the beer rolls into the glass like a cresting breaker smashing on the shore. I like that too.  The settle entrances me. You don’t need nitrogen-flush canned beer to see the settle and stir of the beer as it calms down. It’s like staring at a supernova through a telescope. That’s magic – and no other drink does it for me in the same way.  Beer is more than taste, it’s multi-dimensional.

Beer has a head.  It staggers me that many people complain about the head on the beer (in the UK for sure) – as if the head is added from somewhere else and isn’t part of the drink itself. Anything more than a whisper is too often treated with derision. My view is the opposite.  Beer isn’t beer without a decent head.  It’s not just part of the beer, it’s the crown.  It’s visual appealing of course, but so much more than that, it’s an uplifting moment of joy as you drink through the wafty, creamy bubbles to the liquid below; breathing in the aroma, wiping the false moustache away.

Beer has hops. Hops have grown on me. I remember in my early drinking days preferring malty, biscuity beers more, shying away from those heavily Kent hopped beers more typical in southern England.  But then I drank Directors; Spitfire; Broadside and my education began. Then I went to America and drank new-fangled craft ales. Then I went to Czechoslovakia and tasted the crisp, flowery bouquet of the Saaz hop or to Bavaria where I experienced Hallertau Mittlefrüh. And just the other week, an English Saison with Nelson Sauvin.  How could I live now without the beguiling complexity of the hop cone?

Beer is fascinating.  How did it come about?  Rather like the chicken or the egg, we ponder, ‘What came first, the beer or the bread?’. And beer isn’t just fermented – it can happen spontaneously in a cobweb encrusted lambic loft space, or in a planned way in a pristine lager brewery. Beer can be aged in a wooden cask and enjoy flavours emparted from bacteria or lactic acids, or appley sourness from malic fermentations.  It can be brewed in a farmhouse, a tower or hibernate in the sleep of cold, down in a lagering cellar. Some modern Belgian beer styles go through remuage and dégorgement, like champagne and enjoy a fine mouse and bead of tiny bubbles just the same.  Beer can be brewed from umpteen types of malt and other cereals too – rye, corn grists, emmer, spelt. Those same malts can be smoked to give a taste of salami.  It’s a gift that never stops giving.

But most of all,

Beer is honest. “I think beer is something for ordinary people…for the common man. It’s something that ordinary people can drink moderately. Talk about politics, work…somehow it goes with democracy. People are often hesitant to talk about wine. They worry they might not pronounce it properly or something. But with beer, you don’t worry about that. Beer belongs to everyone. And I like that”.  Fritz Maytag

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

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 (

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:, the beer idyll is at the start of part 2,

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

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