Since I write and drink a lot anyway (sometimes simultaneously) I’ve always considered beginning a blog about beer but have been made unsure by the number and quality already in existence (and my own dilatory nature.) But recently I’ve had many thoughts and opinions on the goings on in the world of beer that I’ve felt it was time to delineate some of my own personal demons. There is much to concern me at the moment. Call this my mind’s ablution.
There never used to be much to think about. It was always good to seek out good pubs serving good beer, without saying much more about it. I never thought at any point I would see eye to eye with anybody associated with the continuously declining, slightly motor themed television show that is Top Gear, but once upon a time not too long ago James May actually said something that made me inclined to marginally agree with him. It can’t be coincidental that he was actually in my hometown of Stalybridge and stood in our famous buffet bar when he had a great epiphany, and turning to Oz Clarke he slurred these words:
“With so many different beers available I don’t need to start intellectualising it and getting into the habit of drinking beer because it becomes interesting to talk about it.”
The context here was that Oz Clarke was taking James to a few real ale pubs on the same railway line and asking him to really think about the beer for the first time. Regular drinkers of fantastic beer will know the motions to go through; the sight test to explore the colour and haze, the smell test to absorb those hoppy or malty or citrus or whatever-it-may-be aromas, before finally that all important taste test. And this isn’t just rating the beer on the “It’s nice or it’s crap” scale. This is really savouring those different flavours fused together by the loving brewer and sometimes changing with each mouthful as the temperature changes. This is real beer enjoyment.
Or is it? Are we just intellectualising it all a bit too much?
This is the demon I have been fighting with for some time. I’ve always drunk great beer. I’ve never known anything else. When I was 14 and my friends and I had our first alcoholic house parties, there’d always be at least a four pack of Guinness just for me next to the 24 pack of Becks. When we were 16 and in the shops ourselves, I’d be stocking up on the “4 for £5” bottle range whilst my peers deliberated which offer on bottles of Carlsberg was best. I’m not a convert. I’ve not had to be shown the light after years of knowing nothing but cheap, carbonated lager. I’m not part of the revolution.
When I was finally old enough to discover all the pubs I wanted, it was instantly about hunting out the greatest ale. It made it so much more exciting to know you could be surrounded by thirty pubs but only three were going to serve a decent pint. It made those pubs that much more special when you walked through the doors, feeling the 100 year history and finally saw a cask pump of a porter, or a pale ale, or a mild, or a bitter etc… Then you could finally enjoy the pint you’d searched through ten pubs for, enjoying that distinct taste, just to turn to your acquaintances and exclaim – “It’s nice, that.”
If you were really lucky this might lead to a short conversation on the beer where your friend might reply, “Yeah, I had it somewhere else and it was good,” or you might discuss the brewery, “Well their beers are usually good.” Then you were free to go back to discussing the latest football, the Tory government, the latest love in your life or, at best, the pub itself. Because there is a lot of history to discuss, a lot of up and down periods to consolidate and a lot of period features to gaze at or lament. But the beer, as much as you could still gain plenty of pleasure from it, was just beer.
So what happens nowadays? Now the pub is still a pub, but it’s not a pub, in fact it was once a shop, or a bank, converted into a pub, but officially called a bar, and looks more like a café, can we still refer to it as the pub? and where are the random metallic objects adorning the walls? But, Sweet Jesus is the beer good. In fact it IS good, it’s not just nice, there’s lots going on, loads I need to describe and discuss, I’m smelling it, I’m getting the hints of citrus skin, I’m swilling it like a fine wine, I’m on Twitter, I’m REALLY enjoying this beer. But I’m still in somewhere that has all the markings of a coffee shop.
Which one do I prefer? And who is intellectualising all this? Suddenly the beer world is at war. Suddenly the old folk at CAMRA are at odds with the children of the Revolution. Pro-keg. Anti-keg. Craft beer. Traditional ale. Old pubs. New Bars. Whose side am I on?
But I see both sides. When I was first drinking, real ale was for the weird looking, bearded men dressed in fantastical cardigans, who really played that traditional stereotype. Now, many of these keg drinkers are weird looking, bearded men dressed in fantastical cardigans and who seem hell bent on playing the traditional stereotype. When I go to a CAMRA beer festival to be served by those prehistoric volunteers, I’m often met with a rude, disgruntled attitude that suggests to me that they don’t believe I look like I should understand real ale. Yet recently I’ve had my beloved Schlenkerla Rauchbier on keg in both North Bar (Leeds) and Port Street Beer House (Manchester.) On both occasions whilst ordering, the young (bearded, obviously) boy behind the bar stopped me and explained to me about Rauchbier and why I might not want to have it. Obviously their rude, disgruntled attitude suggests to me that they don’t believe I look like I should understand German beer.
Yet, where would I be without the delights of North Bar or Port Street? They are the best places for beers in their respective cities, in my humble opinion. But do I still think it is worth visiting the likes of Whitelocks (Leeds,) The Philharmonic (Liverpool) or Blackfriars (London) just to enjoy such beautifully constructed pubs, even if their ale is often average?
There just seems to be a bit too much cynicism growing between some people in the beer community and it’s why I’m not as heavily involved as I could be. The other night I took part in the Twitter Event for Durham Brewery’s White Stout. It was a really fun way to spend an hour in the evening with so many beer lovers opening their bottles at the same time around the country and tweeting their thoughts on the beer. Some gave detailed tasting notes. Some just enjoyed the experience. It was fun. And beer is supposed to be fun. But then, my Dad’s never going to be involved in a Twitter event even though he’s been drinking Real Ale for 40 years. Does that mean he’s not fun?
I’ve always encouraged my friends and peers to drink great beer at every opportunity and overall my conversion rate is pretty successful. But two stories really stick out for me. One took place in the King’s Head, Huddersfield over several pints of Magic Rock Brewery’s Curious. The other in the Brew Dog Bar, Edinburgh over a variety of their beers. On both occasions I picked the beers for them to try, only to be left with 3 or 4 pints for me to finish off. These are guys in their 20’s who will happily drink Real Ale, but who find these brilliant new wave beers just too much for their tastes. “There’s too much flavour in it,” said one, referring to Curious. But if this is their tastes then I’ve no problem. Sure, they won’t be involved in the next Twitter tasting event, but if they’d choose Bombardier over Carling every time then that’s enough for me.
I’m still a lad. I’m still a young lad at heart, even though those around me are growing up fast. But as a lad, I meet other lads and we have lad’s nights out. And it won’t always be to the best beer joint in town. Because some of the lads are lad’s lads and they want a lad’s pint of urine flavoured detritus and to chat to the ladies. And the majority of single ladies are not drinking the craft beer. They’re in the bar down the road which, at best, might serve something that once represented a Pilsner. So I’m not going to intellectualise this bar’s pilsner. I don’t want to be talking to a lady and say, “Hold that thought whilst I tweet the brewer and let them know how much I’ve enjoyed this beer.” I’ll be a lad’s lad for the evening. Does that make me wrong?
I guess I’m trying to say that beer is for everyone but not every beer is for everyone or for every moment. We need to enjoy it in our way. And that’s the key – enjoyment. Oz Clarke wanted to make detailed tasting notes about every beer. He could tell if it smelt of pear fruit or pear skin. He knew if it had used Simcoe or Sorachi. So do a lot of great beer bloggers out there whose posts I really appreciate. They literate what my taste buds are sensing when I’m drinking. James May just wanted a beer. He was in a nice pub with a good selection on, with his mate and he wanted a beer. He wanted to sup it and he wanted it to taste good. He didn’t want to do much else afterwards. Maybe he’d tweet the brewery in less than 140 characters to say it was nice. Oz Clarke would need 1400 words.
These are my demon’s thoughts. I don’t seem to sit on either side of the fence. I enjoy really great beer. Draught. Cask. Keg. Craft. Whatever. And I often think a lot about it. And I often tweet the breweries to tell them my thoughts too. Like so many. But it doesn’t need to be entirely intellectualised. I still want an enjoyable beer when I’m watching the football, but when we’re 3-0 down at half time and the commentary is drowned out by my casual cursing, the malt caramel scent is often lost on me. And on the occasional Saturday night, when my week has been so poor I just want to drink so much with my friends that the entire month becomes a haze, I’m not buying the £20 bottle that was aged in whiskey casks for 9 months.
James May was still wrong. And I was wrong for believing I agreed with him. There is a huge passion for beer that he hadn’t understood. It’s not about intellectualising anything. It’s about people sharing their interests in whatever way they see fit. I can’t make my friends share my passion for beer, I only achieve in making them groan as I go on about the brilliant flavours I’m experiencing and give them the backstory of the brewery it came from. So I’ll share it on here. For now this blog may seem inchoate but in this way I’ll fight my beer demons. And maybe I’ll restore peace to the beer world at the same time.
Though when I am next in Stalybridge Buffet Bar, I’ll make sure I don’t waffle on too much about my beer, just for James…