Sunday 27 December 2009

My Name Is Sid, And I Just Drink Beer...

The Boy Dredge has used his latest HopPress article to announce to his readers that, in 2010, he will 'rate' beer. His blog also has a link and a cover piece. He is asking his HP readers when they stopped being "just beer drinkers" and started rating.

I did it the other way around, as I mention in my review of Phil Parkin's worthy and entertaining Beertickers: Beyond The Ale film, and, to respond to Mark's question, here is my further testimony...

When I first started to frequent real ale festivals in the early 90's, I made half-hearted attempts to keep track of the beers I'd tried, those I'd liked and those I'd prefer not to try again. I didn't have a formal system - just notes in the festival programme. Once I started to broaden my beer perspective and finally got online, I became aware that there were whole cyber-communities based around sharing beer reviews, experiences and news, and I took the plunge and signed up with BeerAdvocate. With a predominantly US-based membership, it seemed a good way to keep up to date with the fast-moving US craft scene, and I made some good friends.

However, after a year or so, I noticed that I was becoming less interested in the experience of beer, than the thrill of trying to track down the latest new release, or high-scoring tradeable bottle. I was emailing friends in NYC and asking them to go out of their way to track down this bottle or that, and I realised that there was an unsavoury, dick-waving aspect to these communities. The awarding of points or karma for the beers you rated, no matter how coherent your review, established ticker hierarchies and distorted perceptions of how knowledgeable a member might be. Worse, the main sites began to pander to the spin-off from this sort of thing, and set up trading forums. Now, beer hoarders and obsessive raters could use the site to facilitate trades. Worse, the new members seemed to be most excited around this aspect of the community. I finally ditched the BA account and now prefer to enjoy my beer without thinking about getting one-up on somebody in Pig's Knuckle, Arkansas.

There will always be tickers, but my view is that there are different types. I have a general fondness for 'our' tickers. However, having worked GBBF and seen at close quarters the locust-like behaviour of the RateBeer crowd, you do have to wonder where the love and/or appreciation of beer comes into the equation as the hive seeks its 1 oz. of ale to rate. They attend every session during the entire week, and I would not be surprised if you told me that they try every beer. You can't fault the dedication, but what's driving them? Love of beer? Or those lovely rating points?

So. Am I "just a beer drinker" because I stopped rating beer? I still sample lots of lovely beer from different parts of the world, and I've spent time and money travelling to some wonderful and often beautiful places (Mark is off to Russian River soon as part of his West Coast travels, and I'm jealous because I know what's in store) to indulge my favourite pastime. But I can't be "just a drinker".

I may not be able to look back and statistically compare my first draught RRBC Consecration to the first time I had Supplication from the bottle. I can tell you that the first time I tried the latter, I was moved to describe it to my beery friends as the best beer I drank during the year of 2005 and that moment remains special to me as the time I discovered one of the finest beers ever brewed, whilst the former was supped with friends and the RRBC proprieters on a sunny Sunday November lunchtime while they entertained old friends from the legendary New Albion Brewing Co. Is that a less reliable way to recall a beer than to reduce it to a series of scores for clarity, mouthfeel and head retention? If there's a diminution, it's surely from being "just a drinker" to a rater, who must learn to reduce his experience to a group of numbers and a dry analysis.

Don't do it, Mark. You'll lose touch with a part of yourself if you stop feeling the beer.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Does A Brewer Need An 'Extreme' Beer To Keep Drinkers Interested?

Over at a very nice piece discusses whether Sierra Nevada has lost its 'cred' amongst craft beer lovers. The writer visits the Monks Kettle in San Francisco to find 'trendy' drinkers scornfully dismissive of SNPA.

Sierra Nevada was at the forefront of the craft beer revolution in the US. They survived the shakeout of the 90's and are now the sixth biggest brewer in the US, and rank second amongst craft brewers with an annual output of almost 700,000 US bbl (just under half a million UK bbl). One of their alumni, Scott Vaccaro, is now out on his own, brewing excellent beers in upstate New York as Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.

For some years now SN beers have been available to the UK, including recently on draught in keg and cask, and the supply chain is efficient enough that we're drinking 2009 Celebration on tap at the same time as our US counterparts.

But, the questions raised by the article seem to boil down to this: when a brewery becomes successful does that mean it has to sacrifice its 'cred' amongst drinkers? Is it right to label a brewery like SN 'mainstream'? And is this a symptom of the shark-like attitude of the ticker community in craft beer, who need to keep moving to the next 'trend', 'extreme' beer or limited edition release, or die?

In the UK, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been on supermarket shelves for many years, and I've had success in tuning UK beer drinkers into the US scene and overcoming perceptions created by the likes of Bud, Miller or Coors, by introducing them to SNPA. Given it can be picked up quite easily, adding a bottle or two to the weekly shop is no problem. So, a perfect crossover beer.

And in a wider sense, it's why brewers like Sierra Nevada are important to the craft scene. They're pathfinders, they make beers which don't strike apprehension or fear into drinkers. They seed the ground for what comes after, for the many drinkers who quickly develop appreciation and a taste for the other great beers the US is sending us. Without SNPA in your local Tesco, I wonder whether there would ever have been the momentum to get much of this other great beer into the market?

The brewery has shaken up its range, adding some new bottled beers to the core offering, and there's collaboration underway with Dogfish Head. But my view is that this wouldn't matter. SNPA is a great beer in its own right, and if the success it has fueled is a bad thing, then craft beer will never break out.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Beer Review Of The Year

I see that much of the blogosphere has moved on from the (somewhat introspective, I felt) analysis of the BGBW Awards and reviewed the year in beer. I'm new to this, but thought I'd do the same, only with a twist. MY review is for 2010!

Yes, I've enlisted the services of Mystic Bog to peer deeply into the mysterious Scrying Pool Of Ale, which some say is a blend of all known vintages of Thomas Hardy Ale, and come up with some prognostications. Read on, be amazed and remember, you read it here first!

A Man of Dean, The Rainbow Man
With Great Belly Empty
And Appetite Ravenous
Will Hunger Sate & Thirst Slake
At The Crowing Hour In London's Rake

Ooh, impenetrable stuff, but we know to watch out for something food-related happening at London's best beer bar, The Rake...

A quick slurp, and Mystic Bog slips into another trance...

Beware! O Brewer
At Bridge Of Earth
For The Chubby Man With White Round Eye
Seekes For Himself 'No-Win, No-Fee'

I researched this one, and I think it means that the boys from Otley Brewing can expect a writ for breach of image rights from zany 'League Of Gentlemen' character Papa Lazarou.

Hmm, I think I can see Bog's point...

That's it for now. We pay a price each time we peer beyond the veil. A filthy hangover, usually...

Monday 14 December 2009

The Lexicon Of Beer 1: Spooge Beer

This is sort of a response to a recent thread on 'extreme' beer offered up by The Boy Dredge. It sort of petered out, but it got me thinking about the lexicon of beer. This was emphasised while watching the 'Beerticker' film made by Phil Parkin, with its talk of 'scooping' and 'cellar runs'.

So: SPOOGE. I offer a definition from the Urban Dictionary which most accurately sums up what I think it means, although this definition is easily interchangeable with the more earthy definition making up the rest of the entry.

1. n. Male ejaculate; [cum]
2. v. To ejaculate; [cum]
3. v. To become intensely excited about something.
Of course, my definition is number 3 on the above list.

So, what is it? Simply, it's rare or otherwise hard-to-find beer, thoughts of procurement of which send the eager drinker into paroxysms of beer rapture. I offer this anecdote as illumination.

A London-based beer enthusiast might have been in New York City this summer, and may have had cause to visit one of the well-beloved beer establishments in Brooklyn. Upon entering this establishment, he will have met your correspondent. Once pleasantries had been exchanged (I recall my words were along the lines of "what the fuck are YOU doing here!?"), the eager tourist might have made enquiries about the availability of a very hard-to-find beer that was produced and bottled for the bar in 2005. Turning up empty-handed, the party may have departed for another fine beer establishment in the neighbourhood.

Move ahead to late Autumn, and your correspondent is to meet friends from the SE United States. They are bringing some spooge beer of their own, and I mean to reciprocate with something nice from my stash. I discuss this with the management of The Rake, since one of the many reasons why I love the place is a willingness to permit bottles to be brought in. A taste of the beer in question is the usual fee.

The assistant manager of the establishment might be a so-called 'Ratebeerian', and in the course of discussing which beers I'd contribute, I impart the information that I might have a bottle of the beer which was the object of the fruitless search in New York, which might go down well. A grown man suddenly takes on the demeanour of a wee boy woken by Santa on Xmas morn. His eyes widen in wonder at the possibility of tasting this rare nectar, and he enthusiastically presses your writer to bring this beer, telling me he means to contact the erstwhile tourist and tell him of his luck. The circle closes. End anecdote.

Spooge beer has become a tiny but disproportionately important niche of the US craft beer market. Some breweries have special launch days, notably Three Floyds, who have an annual 'Dark Lord Day' when the Munster, IN brewery is besieged by a mob resembling the shoppers queueing for the first day of Selfridges' sale. All of these people are craft beer fans determined to buy up some of the breweries' Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, which is sold just on that day. Each vintage is in a crown and corked bottle sealed with wax - a different colour wax for each vintage. Much of this beer will not be drunk by the buyer, but will be traded. It has been common in the past couple of years for beer fans who can't get to the event, to pay for others to act as 'mules' in the same way as innocent tourists sometimes wind up transporting drugs through ports.

Is this good for beer? Should breweries be feeding this hype? Does the beer stand up to the hype? That's another post or two.

So, I give you: SPOOGE.

In case you were wondering about the stars of my anecdote, step forward Duff Wallace as The Tourist, Tom Cadden as The Assistant Manager and bottle no. 139 (out of 168) of Cantillon Spuyten Duyvil, a superb blended lambic with cranberries. If you've ever tried Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic, that's wretched cold fruit tea compared to this sublime beer.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Dark Star Brewery v3.0 Goes Online

Today marks the start of brewing operations at the new Dark Star facility, 10 miles west of the current site in Ansty, W Sussex, at a place called Partridge Green. The new facility will triple capacity to over 20,000 bbl a year.

While not as "sexy" or "controversial" as the likes of BrewDog or Thornbridge, Dark Star never fail to keep things interesting, with their 2009 offerings including interpretations of an oktoberfest and saison-style ale. Their core list of beers is consistent and solid, and getting a wider audience in London. Stockists include Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico, where there's always at least one Dark Star ale on, while at The Harp in Chandos Place, recently converted to a full freehouse, Hophead has become their biggest seller. Other places where you can find it include The Seven Stars in Carey Street and The Rake at Borough Market, all good watering-holes worthy of several visits. I happily admit to being a big fan of their beers.

A little bird tells me that to mark the start of operations at the new brewery, a commemorative triple IPA with 12 malts and 6 hops will be aged in new cedar wood casks and bottled in 750ml cork and cage bottles. Maybe.

Gotcha. The first brew in the copper will be Sunburst, their bottled 4.8% summer ale. Firing up tomorrow, they tell me...

Monday 7 December 2009

BrewDog Tokyo*, pt. 94...

Those naughty BrewDog boys have put the latest batch of controversial 18.2% stout Tokyo* up for sale. See here.

Ho hum...

Friday 4 December 2009

Beerticker: Beyond The Ale - A Film...

Pete Brown previewed this on his blog last weekend, and, intrigued, I purchased the DVD.

I have to admit to a conflict over beer ticking. For a couple of years, I was a member of the US-based website BeerAdvocate, whose most active members, while racking up huge beer review numbers and earning 'beer karma' for their efforts, routinely met up and had social events where they'd share beers and chat. Of course, some of the online chat was unbelievably inane. I lost count of the number of posts asking what was in members' fridges. Some US-based BA members tended to look down on their apparently less socially-adequate fellow beer-lovers over on website RateBeer, a site I never joined but which seemed to be focused heavily on ticking rather than appreciation. However, these places seemed to be the virtual pubs where discourse over the merits of beer might be had, and indeed, today I count many of these fellow-travellers in beer as good friends.

I made a half-hearted attempt to review the new US beers I was eagerly trying on my travels, as well as the UK beers I routinely supped, but after a while I realised that I was developing an unhealthy obsession with chasing beers which had, somehow, become must-have. To me, I was being drawn over to the dark side of my love of beer.

Since those days, I've had some antipathy towards the tickers. I've been known to agree, with malice aforethought, with the opinion that RateBeer really ought to be called HateBeer, since pursuit of rare beer seems to matter more than appreciation, and that rating points are everything. At the same time, I've spent some time with the small posse of London tickers who regularly travel a circuit including the Market Porter and The Rake at Borough Market and The Wenlock Arms. Tony Marten (pictured here on Glyn Roberts' Rabid About Beer blog), TiaMariaJim and Einstein are sociable and engaging drinking companions, if sometimes a little eccentric.

So, I was keen to view Phil Parkin's documentary. He was able to hook up with four of the best-known tickers in Britain and, to give his film a narrative thread, decided that he would take up the hobby and aim to tick 500 different cask ales by the end of the film. His journey steeps him in British beer and pub culture and tradition, and takes him around much of a now-familiar landscape. He brews a modified version of Jaipur at Thornbridge, gets a lesson in brewing history at Burton, investigates whether his hobby is in the sights of the health lobby, and muses over the large number of pub closures, even as sales of traditional cask ales show encouraging signs of growth. He finds himself agonising over the fine line between beer appreciation and simple ticking, he pops up on ale trails and pub crawls, on cellar runs at local festivals and at GBBF, and on his quest to tick those 500 ales, he seems to undergo a Damascene epiphany and find a desire to support British ale and pub traditions. The film closes with him meeting friends at the Steel City Beer Fest, implying an aim to spread the word about good beer.

Conclusions? A must-see for anybody who is interested in British pubs, beer and brewing. The narrative allows the film to inform the viewer on the state of our Beer Nation while affectionately providing an insight into an eccentric pastime. It even made me like Gazza Prescott.

While I still think that some aspects of ticking are bad for beer, I think I'm coming around to the view that these individuals are a barometer, a welcome reminder that the state of craft brewing in the UK is in pretty good shape, and that the scene would be the poorer if, instead of 500-plus brewers producing the new ales they relentlessly pursue, we had a handful of multinationals offering us the same factory-produced beer.

You can get more info, find out about a public screening in Sheffield and buy the DVD in time for Xmas, here...

Thursday 3 December 2009

Portman Rules Against BrewDog Tokyo*

A number of websites, including the Morning Advertiser and BBC, carry the breaking news that The Portman Group has ruled that BrewDog's 18.2% Tokyo* breached the Group's code of practice on responsible marketing. This is in response to complaints from Alcohol Concern Scotland, and, as reported extensively in the blogosphere, BrewDog themselves.

Portman are issuing a Retailer Alert asking that the beer should not be sold until the marketing is compliant with the code of practice. With typical BrewDog punk attitude, the brewer has offered to provide Portman with the names and addresses of the small list of outlets which sells the beer.

All of the coverage mentions the subsequent launch of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, the brewers' 32% "uber-imperial stout", which interestingly, attracted relatively subdued coverage from the press, including a quite good piece in the Guardian online. Interestingly, that article mentions that BrewDog had withdrawn Tokyo* as Portman had "banned" it, which jumped the gun on this ruling by about a week, though proved prescient.

I wonder if this could be the end for Tokyo*, though. At a recent 'Meet the Brewer' event at Melissa Cole's LoveBeer@Borough, James Watt said that they were looking at casking some of the beer and selling it alongside the keg version. Time (and a change in the marketing?) will tell.