5 December 2019

The Crossroads

I have always labelled myself a beer shamateur or beer wanker. I don't do this to be glib or self-effacing - I literally am an overly casual infrequent imbiber, forever destined to be stuck on the periphery of both worlds in the great Venn Diagram of Beer Drinkers. I am too curious to be ignorant and too ignorant to be an aficionado. I am too exploratory to be predictable and too predictable to be a connoisseur. I am too enthusiastic to be boring and too boring to be interesting.

I will admit to predictably, regularly and somewhat shamelessly exhibiting many of the behaviours most expected - and reviled - of amateur fickle fairweather beer enthusiasts. I fight FOMO by sampling as much as possible under the sun (within my own narrow tastes). I collect all manner of ephemera and merchandise to desperately show off to the wide world that I like beer. In short, I tend to overcompensate for my deficiencies and do silly things like trying to maintain a beer blog despite having all the writing skill of an arthritic panda, trying to make YouTube videos that wouldn't even get on You've Been Framed, and getting regularly involved in Twitter spats that have absolutely nothing to do with me.

I also try to tell myself that this is all normal, that it's my way of demonstrating an unabashed and unfettered enthusiasm for an activity which brings me pleasure, and in a way it does, and I shouldn't feel any guilt or shame for the way in which I conduct myself. I tell myself there are no hard or fast rules for how I should approach beer, the beer world, the beer sphere or the beer community. Yet in everything I do, I feel like I've brought a plastic spoon to a knife fight. Surrounding, influencing, guiding and inspiring me is a wonderful group of talented, engaging, knowledgeable, confident, friendly and open-minded individuals. I tell myself to not judge my self against people who have years of experience, who have gifts for storytelling way beyond anything I could aspire to, who have tongues and palates able to distinguish and identify the merest hint of an adjunct.

But inadequacy and inferiority are the  loud and convincing devils sitting on my shoulders and, in a hobby where due to its nature, there is a danger that emotions can be heightened, stimulated and driven to extreme by its very pursuit, those feelings can manifest themselves all too readily and frequently.

I have twice come close to closing myself off from the hobby and by shutting down the various outlets and tools I invoke to maintain and drive the hobby. But I could never be just another beer drinker after experiencing the sense of community, welcoming and sharing I have found in the Beer World. I could never not check in, phot, tweet or blog.

But at the same time, sometimes I wonder if it's worth it, especially when I don't fit into a particular category. I am not a pure craft/indy drinker, I am not purely a macro drinker. I don't shun keg and I don't worship cask. I sip out of bottles and decant cans. I collect lids and labels and mats... but it is an uncurated, unremarkable collection.

Tribalism is a disease which has infected our whole society and which is amplified by our internet-driven world. Suddenly it's Team A vs Team B, blue v red, black v white. As someone who very definitely sits in the middle ground in so much in my life, I find this disturbing. I am not a vegan but I like Quorn. I am liberal politically but I favour harsh punishment for crimes. I am a traditionalist who embraces technology. I am a walking talking contradiction. I cannot pigeonhole myself.

I have begun to notice that tribalism is ever more loud and annoying in the Beer World. I touched on this in my article Cask v Craft, Two Sides Of The Same Coin and also Magic Rock Haywire -- in the former I argued that the negative behavioural traits of stereotypical Cask Ale Defenders and Indy Craft Proponents were just as distasteful as each other; in the latter I reflected somewhat bemusedly at the independent beer lovers who were outraged that it was now much more convenient for them to pick up their favourite brews in a big supermarket. I just don't get such blinkered and obstinate behaviour.

I have absolutely no time for either absolutism, prescriptivism, objectivism or unrealistic idealism. I am forever fed up with people inferring what is and what isn't beer, what is or what isn't craft or macro, what is or what isn't big or indy beer, what is or what isn't in vogue. I will never complete my beer journey, I will never rack up a high score on Untappd, I will never take the opinions of beer judges over my own.

So this is it - I am at my crossroads. I am walking away from all of that negativity and conflict. My beer journey has never been about what is right or wrong in beer, it's always been about what's right or wrong *for me*. I will continue to enjoy big beers and not be made to feel ashamed for it. I will continue to drink experimental small here-today-gone-tomorrow beers and not be made to feel pretentious for it. I will continue to tweet and blog and write and discuss and impart opinion, but I don't really care who listens.

I would still like people to read my blog though, and read the articles. The less personally self-indulgent ones that is.

4 December 2019

Winning

The annual British Guild of Beer Writers Awards took place last night (full list of winners here : https://www.beerguild.co.uk/news/best-of-beer-writing-recognised-in-annual-awards-2/)

The big winner of the night was Jonny Garrett of YouTube's Craft Beer Channel who took away four awards included the coveted Beer Writer Of The Year. There were also awards for Katie Maher, Lily Waite, Matthew Curtis, Eoghan Walsh, Will Hawkes, Adrian Tierney-Jones and Clare Bullen - all folks I follow on Twitter and whose writing I read and appreciate greatly.

These fine exponents of the craft can lead one as a humble part-time rambling blogger feeling a little overwhelmed. How is it they seem able to deftly and effortlessly turn out engaging, varied, entertaining and informative content so regularly and consistently?

The truth is that it takes hard graft, continuous refinement of the art, and most of all persistence. It takes years to reach the level that they have, but it is attainable and it is within reach, for even the most ham-fisted of keyboard basher.

If you ever want to stand on that podium one day receiving your own golden tankard, don't give up at the first hurdle. Don't compare your initial stumbling efforts to the beer writing equivalent of Van Gogh's Sunflowers or Beethoven's 9th. Don't think that the skills exhibited by the roll of honour above are unobtainable. But at the same time, don't try to artificially speed up the process.

Turn your envy of their success into energy to drive you to your own.

Turn your admiration of their skills into aspiration to hone yours.

Turn any doubt you have in your abilities into a pig-headed defiance of the negative voices in your head.

Turn your awe of others into your own awesomeness.

13 November 2019

Spring bock

If you haven't read it by now, go read this excellent article by Chris Hall

https://chrishallbeer.com/2019/11/11/young-dumb-and-full-of-trub/

in which he discusses the various crazes for particular styles of beer, their resulting prevalence and the influence that certain quarters have on current trends within the UK craft beer scene.

Coming just a smidge too late for nomination for this year's Beer Writing Awards, it's the kind of article I could only dream of putting together and serves as an excellent if ironic example that while he has fears about the beer scene in general in this country, the UK beer writing scene is better than ever (present author excepted of course).

Whether you agree or not with the conclusions Hall reaches - namely that the UK beer scene shows worrying signs of immaturity, kneejerk reactionism, obsession with trends, tails wagging dogs and brewers desperately fighting to stay relevant in a zeitgeist increasingly and artificially created, nurtured, propagated and inhabited by a generation of Untapprs, Instagrammers and....er...bloggers (nervous wave) - there can be no doubt that diversity in current beer style trends is an issue that needs addressing.

Or does it?

After all, Hall, others like him and even yours truly, are just some of the voices in the vast crowd of beer appreciators fighting to be heard in this modern digital age of instant feedback and live ratings. As I argued in a recent post about Untappd, the validity of individual opinions inamongst the ocean of noise that is Beer Social Media is difficult to quantify objectively. It's a sad state of affairs but it seems to me that the amount of stock attached to an opinion varies based on the needs that opinion serves. Experience, knowledge, history, research... these are all concepts that are easily and readily discarded if the end conclusion is wrong. It's the "we've had enough of experts" argument we see propagated so readily by populists and power drivers in all fields. Of course on the flip side, lack of the aforementioned laudable attributes can be quietly ignored if the end opinion is more conducive to the needs of the recipient.

It's partly why BrewDog have such standing as they do. On one hand they are borderline macro, obsessed with money and status, using bully-boy tactics that fly in the face of what is perceived as the craft ethos. But to others they are craft beer heroes, small guys done good, pushing back the boundaries of big beer and bringing quality and accessibility to the masses.

Both opinions have a degree of validity, but when it comes down to it, the existence of a BD bar in every town and a range of beers in every Tesco leads one to the conclusion that the prevailing, stronger, more pervasive view is the former...er....latter...er....

Yes, we're dealing with tribalism. Welcome to the binary black and white world we live in. Welcome to a community with Team A and Team B. How depressingly predictable. How depressingly foreseeable and preventable.

And how depressingly easy it is to foment it, to provoke it, to nurture it. Take the case in point... you could almost imagine it from a phalanx of bearded bros: Watch out - the boring old bastards are out to take away our fruity hazy wunderbeers! Can't possibly experiment with flavours or styles, no no, we must stay within boundaries! All hail conformity!

Well, maybe. Discussion does have a horrible tendency to give way to open hostility when something as emotive, personal and involved as beer is criticised in even the most remote and benign terms. The human mind has an uncanny knack for second guessing and extrapolating based on a minutiae of evidence. The mere suggestion of opening up the beer market to include styles not currently in vogue or favoured by the masses could immediately and erroneously be seen as a way of imposing restrictions on the current prevailing styles or trends. Ironically, this means accusations of hypocrisy could so easily be made by those who have been responsible for restricting the beer market to its current perceived headlong reductive spiral.

The parallels with wider society are all too noticeable; one that springs to mind for me is the opening up of marriage to members of the LGBTQ+ community and how naysayers thought that this was not only taking the sanctity of heteronormative (straight) marriage away from cishet folk but also starting down a slippery slope that will ultimately allow geese to marry pigs. I will never understand how increasing the levels of accessibility of any concept to a wider constituency necessitates those already enjoying the benefits of said concept losing any value held in it. Perhaps people are naturally enticed by exclusivity and exclusionism.

It is striking that this is how the craft beer movement in the UK exploded in the first place - as a rebellion against the elitism, the closed shop of the macro, bland, white male-dominated pub world. Ironically, the very uniformity we perceive emerging in the current climate was started by folk railing against exclusivity and exclusionism.

But if we take a step back, perhaps this is all hyperbolic hypothetical. I doubt anyone in our community - even those with follower numbers that could fill a stadium - would get so het up about such things. On the surface most inn-fluencers seem to be largely open to a variety of styles, ingredients, techniques, adjuncts and all the rest of it. Cynically one would suggest they almost have to be -- why wouldn't they want to project an image of inclusive sophistication to draw in as big an audience as possible? At the end of the day, you're never going to get people reading your stuff or retweeting your photos if you only focus on a narrow slice of the wonder that is the modern beer spectrum.

Yet that is what is happening. By design or by Darwinism, craft beer in the UK appears to be heading down an alley. Deliberate or not, we are on this road and choices will be made - stay on the charabanc, jump off and risk injury, or take control and drive somewhere else.

And herein lies the thorny issue - if something needs to be done, how do you go about it? How do you get a community/industry as disparate, wide ranging and, let's face it, haphazard as the current UK craft beer scene to act in a co-ordinated way? What would the end result be to such external stimuli? Would we suddenly be inundated with an artificially increased number of token uninspiring brown ales? Would we see a reversion to the mean of meh mid-range mediocrity just to balance the board up a little?

Er, no. Of course not. Remember what we said earlier - this is about expansion in a different direction, not in shutting off the avenue and forcing the charabanc to reverse. We need to build side streets as well as motorways. (How many metaphors is that now by the way, anyone counting?) A good beer must not be sidelined by a bad beer just because it is the "wrong" style. That's discrimination - even if it is positive discrimination. The new beer must earn its place like all the rest.

But - and this is the big but - when a beer board at a tap room is 99% IPA with a single imperial stout or porter, that's tokenism of a different kind. That's like going to a restaurant that only serves one vegetarian option and that's beetroot tart. With pickled cabbage. And coleslaw.

The balance must be struck. Give the unfashionable beers a poke up the arse and lay off sticking another D on the already consonant-heavy DIPA. If you build it, they will come.

There are examples of gentle positive discrimination working well elsewhere in the world. Look at the South African rugby team. A few years ago a decision was made to introduce a racial balance rule so that the Springboks were more representative of the country they represented. There was resistance, there was anger, there was whitesplaining and there was indignation.

And then they went and won the World Cup. In 1995, there was just one black player on the team, the late great Chester Williams. And a few days ago, the captain of the team lifting a cup made of gold and named after a public school boy from England was a black kid from the shanty towns.

Of course, you can only have 15 men in a team, 23 in a matchday squad, 31 can go to a World Cup. In a bar, you are limited by your tap capacity or fridge space. In a shop you are limited by your shelf space.

And in a brewery, you are limited by your bank balance. By your ingredient suppliers. By your skills, knowledge, experience. You need to sell this stuff, and you know what people are buying. There's little room for romance, or risk-taking, or re-balancing perceived wrongs. It's brew & buy or bye-bye. Money matters more.

So it's down to us. We don't need to pressurise already pressured brewers into doing "the right thing". We don't need to pressurise bars and bottle shops to sacrifice their capacity for our lofty goals. That's not where the battle needs to be fought. That's the wrong end of the mobius loop. After all, it's not like these other styles aren't being produced - they are, they're out there - but they're not getting enough exposure, enough promotion, enough love.

We need to raise our voices up above the din and shout loudly for stouts, sours and saisons, brag about bitters and mouth off about milds.

Maybe we can just gently suggest to the driver of the craft beer bus that they would maybe like to turn left at the next junction rather than going straight on. It may be a bit of a bumpier road, but the scenery is a lot more varied.

Lo/NoVember - Rankings

A quick and dirty post to follow up on a few tweets I've been sending out this month vis a vis my current autumn/winter dry month. I do two dry months per year for health, monetary and personal stamina reasons; this year they've been Nay-pril and Lo/November instead of the traditional Dryanuary and Stoptober for mainly rugby and holiday reasons; Six Nations and Rugby World Cup time being two of the heaviest drinking periods of the year. Also I enjoyed not being guilt-tripped in Tryanuary this year so maybe Naypril will become a more regular thing; Stoptober will  return next year because of the Autumn Internationals taking up most of November.

Yes my drinking life revolves a lot around rugby. I'm Welsh, this is how we roll.

It wasn't that long ago that Dryanuary meant a complete moratorium on all forms of beer given that the only non-alc option out there was Becks' Blue or Kopparberg. Now of course that's all changed as a result of societal pressures, changes in the cultural makeup of the consumer and increases in health awareness. Of course non-alc beer is useful for designated drivers, people with medical conditions or religious or other reasons to avoid alcohol, but with an approximation of the taste, appearance and texture of beer. Plus who really wants lime and soda or diet cola all night?

The benefits of non-alcoholic beer have been well thought through and argued by folk much more knowledgeable and well-read than me so please check out Thomas Hallet's excellent website SteadyDrinker.com for a much more rounded and involved precis of the subject. (But please finish reading this first. It won't take long, honest)

As you'll see on that website the range and scope of lo/no has increased dramatically in such a short space of time that now there are entire shelf sections in supermarkets dedicated to the type, as well as entire breweries who specialise in lo/no. I will now attempt, in my usual clumsy and completely irrelevant fashion, to rank all the ones I have tried with all the cockamamie reasoning, justification and bloody mindedness that comes with being a shamateur beer wanker.


1 Spendrups / Brutal Brewing Pistonhead Flat Tire Non Alcoholic Lager - Sweden
Oh what a surprise - the sveaphile has picked the beer from Varby as his number 1. OK yes that did have something to do with it, but this is a cracking lager beer hopped up with Mosaic and Centennial. Comes as a foursome in Tesco in a recyclable cardboard box too, so top marks there.

2 Brooklyn Brewery Special Effects - Falkenberg / New York
Technically another Swedish one as this is brewed for Brooklyn by Carlsberg Sverige at their Falkenberg base (see previous blog entry). Bursting with flavour and character, I've come across nothing else like this in either lo/no or full-fat varieties. It subtlety straddles the border between lager and pale ale being not one nor the other.

3 Big Drop Stout - Ipswich
It takes a lot to create a beer with all the taste and texture of a stout along the lines of Guinness Original but without any alcohol. Yet Big Drop - established with the aim of exclusively producing lo/no beer -  did it and in the process re-set the bar of what was possible for producers and what could be expected by consumers. Side note : their collaboration with Tiny Rebel for the latter's 7th birthday - a 0.5% vanilla mocha imperial stout - was even more of a triumph but being a special limited edition I feel it would be unfair to include it on this list although I am hoping it will be a returnee in future.

4 Adnam's Ghost Ship 0.5 - Suffolk 
Ghost Ship is one of the biggest success stories of the lo/no explosion - a recognisable ale repurposed without being reduced in stature or flavour. Insanely drinkable, sessionable and - most importantly - stocked by high street pubs up and down the land.

5 Guinness Open Gate Pure Brew - Dublin, Ireland
This beer, having such a famous name attached, needed to be good. It is. It redefines what a lo/no lager should be by being crisp, clean and moreish.

6 Erdinger & Fransiskaner - Bavaria, Germany
Not being a fan of weissbiers I approached these with curiosity but caution and found them to be very pleasant and easy to drink. Not ones I'd have more than one of but they are possible gateway beers to the wider weiss world. Interestingly the Erdinger is marketed as an isotonic sports drink. Could certainly make for some interesting gym sessions.

7 Budweiser Prohibition Brew / Heineken 0.0
Ignore the bullshit on the side of the can about the ancient 1920s recipe and Budweiser Prohibition Brew is a half-decent, if slightly malty, lager. Heineken 0.0 on the other hand is fairly indistinguishable from the real thing which, although ostensibly a positive tenet, says more about the actual alcoholic beer than its heavily promoted no-alc cousin. Both are also part of the new wave of cans and bottles edging out Becks Blue in pub fridges.

8 St Peter's Without
A name I'd not come across before picking this up at the supermarket, St Peter's Without is a decent ale and one of the few out there that stands on its own two feet rather than being a poor relative.

9 Infinite Session Pale
Another brewery whose sole purpose is to redefine lo/no, their Pale is very pleasant and shows that the scope for lo/no can only grow. I now need to try the rest of the range.


And now some you should avoid:

Beck's Blue - overpriced (275ml bottles) gnat's piss.

Cobra Zero - tastes like a beer that's not finished.

San Miguel 0.0 - wannabe hard seltzer

Old Speckled Hen Non Alcoholic - why?

Shipyard Low Tide - actual seawater would be preferable



This is the closest I will ever come to a serious beer review, so again if you want some actual considered opinions, head to SteadyDrinker.com where you'll find reviews of all of the aforementioned beers plus a load more which I have yet to find or try. Particularly would like to get my hands on some non-alcoholic Sussex Best or Old Ale. May have to get on Amazon this evening.....

6 November 2019

Fly My Pretty

Preface
Beer lovers of the world; let me ask you a question. And it's a fairly long and involved question so strap in:



Picture a beer: an otherwise ordinary, run of the mill beer. This beer can only be gotten in a specific location in the world. Despite its appearance and lack of international appeal, this beer carries a significance because it has the power to remind you of a particularly enjoyable and special time spent in that singular part of the world.

This of course is not a unique experience for your average beer appreciator. Certain brews have an ability to attach themselves irrevocably to times, places, events, memories, even smells, sounds and sights. Beer appreciation is, after all, a four- and even five- dimensional experience.

If, given the wonderful thing that Internet shopping can be sometimes, you had the opportunity to do so, would you go to the effort of having a sufficiently substantial quantity of said beer delivered to you in your current location for you to enjoy and reminisce with at your leisure? Or would you leave it where it belongs and only consume it as you did the first time you had it, leaving it as the most special of special treats for when you periodically voyage back to the beer’s home country?

Would it lose its aura if it gained accessibility? Would the very personal relationship between drinker and drink be irreparably lessened or infinitely augmented? And furthermore, is any beer of any standing really worth this level of emotional or financial investment?

Especially if it were an everyday macro lager owned by one of the largest conglomerates in the world?


"A Minor Stain"
In the 13th Century, large parts of the area of southeastern Sweden abutting the Öresund Strait were under the control of their near and less than dear neighbours the Danish. A border between the kingdoms lay at the river Ätran, where, as the apocryphal story goes, the Danish built a fort near an area known for falconry. Because of this the settlement soon became known as Falkenberg and, despite being destroyed at least twice by folk who were only a few generations removed from the Vikings, survived until it was eventually ceded to Sweden in the middle of the 17th Century.

Sweden weren’t overly enamoured with their new possession; the opinion of those who visited the town being that it was merely a "minor stain". And to be fair it wasn’t exactly glamorous - Falkenberg’s main industries were fishing and farming throughout this period – but gradually, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, new and more modern professions came to the seaside port along with tourists from all over the world. The railways arrived in 1885 and after heavy investment in improving sea access, steamboats from foreign climes started to arrive.


A Series of Fortunate Events
I didn't arrive in Sweden for the first time on a steamboat or behind a steam engine. I didn’t even arrive as a tourist the first time, at least, not really. I landed at Stockholm Arlanda Airport on May 1st 2017 on a British Airways Airbus A320 after a sleepless night at the Heathrow T5 Travelodge. It had been my first flight; I came from a family of nervous flyers and staycationers. My fears had melted as quickly as the morning dew as I gazed down on a patchwork world I had only previously seen on maps and on screens.


I was there primarily because of a duty I had to perform. That week my brother-in-law was to be married to a Swedish girl whom he had met at university. As convention dictates, the wedding was to take place in the country - and town - of her birth. And, familial necessities and obligations aside, I needed to be there because I was the DJ for the evening gig as well as being a wedding witness.

It’s at moments like this you start looking back through the series of OR gates in your life’s Logical Chart. If he hadn't gone to that university, if he hadn't met and fallen in love with someone on an international student placement, and if I hadn't met and fallen in love with his sister, I wouldn't be staring dumbfounded at the cavernous underground railway station under the airport, squinting at (conveniently) bilingual signage while dragging 23kg worth of luggage.


Upon arrival in Stockholm, the first drink I had was a 69 kronor Guinness at the Stockholm Hard Rock Café. This was following on from the two or three black nerve-settlers I had sunk at the Heathrow Wetherspoons with my full English at 6am that morning. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Guinness had travelled well. It had travelled better than we had, and soon we crashed out at our hotel.



The next day we caught a train to Hallsberg and were met by the happy couple-to-be for a day of mini stag- and hen-do fun. While my other half was whisked off to a spa and swimming pool session, a group of us chaps headed for a clay pigeon shooting session at the family hunting range.

But first, a trip to the Systembolaget. 


An Alcoholic Country
During the town of Falkenberg's formative years, the wider Swedish state had been almost forced to introduce alcohol controls in an attempt to arrest the country's seemingly uncontrollable drinking problem and also to tackle the shortage of raw materials such as potatoes and grain which were being overly diverted from food production towards alcohol production. State-run bars introduced laws - such as minimum age limits and refusal of service to the overly intoxicated - that today seem run-of-the-mill but which during the turn of the century were revolutionary. Temperance societies proposed state-wide prohibition although such a policy was narrowly defeated in a referendum.

During the First World War, alcohol rationing meant that people were allowed only two litres of liquor every three months, and beer above 3.6% ABV was banned. Factors such as employment status and social class dictated if you were even allowed to purchase these paltry amounts. This "motbook" rationing continued in the post-war period until the situation became so unsustainable that even the temperance societies urged a re-think.


Taking Flight
Despite this backdrop of control, regulation and limits, in 1896 a business opened that would change Falkenberg’s fortunes and character forever. Attracted by the purity of the water in the area and the possibility of cheap land and labour, an entrepreneurial 24-year old named John L Skantze opened the gates of Bryggeriaktiebolaget Falken, the Falcon Brewing Company. Skantze’s exacting standards would end up delaying the initial output by at least two years but soon Falken quickly became one of the biggest employers in the town. Falcon Brewery continued to prosper throughout the following decades until in 1937 John Skantze handed the reins over to his son, Erland.


One Stop Shop


A few years after the passing of the Falken baton from one generation to the next, Sweden’s successful state-run bar concept gave birth to its own offspring: a monopoly of state-run off-licences dubbed the Systembolaget, which continues to this day. The Systembolaget is the only place where you can buy alcohol for home consumption above 3,5%. (Lower ABV beers are however readily available in supermarkets.) Beer is offered in single cans or bottles at room temperature. The stores have restrictive opening hours which include complete closure on Sundays. It is only relatively recently that Systembolaget have moved from a counter-and-attendant Argos-style format to an open shop-plan with self-service.

Of course it is not obligatory for Swedes to toe the official line. For those stocking up for Midsommar or family celebrations such as weddings, booze cruises are relatively commonplace. If you live the mere 3 miles across the narrowest part of the Oresund Strait it is but a brief ferry ride to the Danish street vendors of Helsingor and their 24-packs of cheap Carlsberg or Tuborg. And despite the state monopoly, you are allowed to order beer off the internet, including 24-packs of one particular beer first brewed 120 years ago.


Random Chance


Back in Hallsberg, the ladies had long gone off to their spa and us five gents wandered over to the Systembolaget to check out the alcohol offering. My brother in law is primarily a wine and gin drinker so while he perused the reisling and the rose I scanned the tins and bottles of beer. Naiively I thought the big brands I was familiar with in the UK would be readily available but I didn’t see any I knew. Just strange names like Zeunerts and Sofiero.

After consulting with the other three beer drinkers we settled for something relatively mid-range and relatively cheap and we came away with armfuls of 500ml cans of a 5,2% lager at 29 kronor (about £2.50) per can. We thought nothing of it, bundled them into the car and drove through the stunning sunny Swedish countryside to the hunting range for a rendezvous with a shotgun and some unfortunate clay pigeons.

When we arrived at the hunting lodge, we stashed our newly procured supply of Falcon into the waiting fridge.


Falling In Love All Over Again


That afternoon we attempted to shoot clay pigeons and mostly missed. Later the extended Swedish family and the ladies who had left us earlier joined us as we built an open pit fire and cooked elk and pork. The surrounding pine trees whispered and the sun slowly set leaving a balmy twilight. The clean, crisp air was punctuated by the smell of woodsmoke and the contrasting sounds of two languages being excitedly and enthusiastically shared.

And there was drink. Homebrew liquor made from beaver urine. Finnish schnapps. And Falcon.




Clipped Wings
In the 1950s and 1960s Falcon had been one of the breweries to take full advantage of the new Systembolaget setup and launched a bold new colourful identity to make their products stand out on the grey utilitarian shelving. They also took advantage of the 4,5% supermarket lower limit to launch Mellanöl - a medium strength beer. It was all going so well.

However in 1977 Sweden’s alcohol addiction once again threatened to run away with itself and the supermarket limit was lowered to 3,5%. Falcon suffered as a result of their popular Mellanöl being suddenly ripped from the shelves. They were eventually bought out by their bigger and younger neighbours from Gothenburg, Pripps. Worse was yet to come. After surviving nearly 120 years, Falcon - and their new overlords Pripps - were absorbed into the Carlsberg behemoth in 1996.

Denmark had, after all this time, retaken a part of the town of Falkenberg back from the Swedes.

There literally is nothing remarkable about modern day Falcon. Nowadays Falcon is just a brand, just a logo, just a name cladding an inoffensive but indistinguishable macro lager in amongst the dazzling array of light lagers available on the shelving of the Systembolaget or being served off draught at the chain bar O'Learys. From the same stable comes BlaGul, a slightly stronger but blander clone. Pripps Blå is still hanging around, although it is a weak insipid excuse for a beer, brewed using the bare minimum amount of barley permissible by law. You've also got Mariestads, Åbro or Norrlands Guld if you're feeling particularly adventurous.



Legacy


The spirits of John and Erland Stantze live on in more ways than one. At one point in its history Sweden had just three breweries. Now it boasts over 400 with a burgeoning and widespread if under-the-radar craft movement with breweries such as Dugges, Omnipollo, Spike, Beerbliotek and Ocean at the forefront of the scene.

As for the town of Falkenberg, it's where Carlsberg Sverige is still based and where the modern version of Falcon is still produced. The beer’s links with the town are also manifest in the very millennial moniker of Falkenberg’s football stadium: Falcon Alkoholfri Arena. The town is also now home to the pseudo-craft offshoot Backyard Brewing, and due to licensing agreements it's where the European supply of Brooklyn Brewery beer, amongst others, is produced.


But for me, Falcon will be so much more than what it’s had to become. It is the beer that provided an accompaniment to that first evening by the fire; a beautiful, special night where my eyes were opened to the very best of Swedish culture, tradition and to the sheer majesty of the countryside my soon-to-be extended family inhabited.

Falcon was the beer that was on my tastebuds as my tongue spoke its first clumsy Swedish conversational words. It was the beer on my tongue when I first joined in singing the drinking song Helan Går.


It was the beer on my tongue throughout two more days of celebration as the wedding progressed from the final preparations and more familial mixing through to the ceremony itself. It was now linked, forever, as an emotional yet tangible reminder of that time and became inextricably a formative part of what is to this day an ongoing, borderline obsessive, love and admiration for the country and people of Sweden. 



You Can’t Take It With You


I groggily and reluctantly boarded the plane on the following Saturday afternoon. As we climbed away from Swedish soil, I saw that Arlanda airport was surrounded by pine trees not dissimilar to those I had been surrounded by three days previously. It was then I resolved to come back; perhaps one day permanently. After all, that’s the only way I would get to experience Falcon again, isn’t it?



Oh.

What would you do?

30 October 2019

Reflections not reviews

There has been a bit of back and forth on Twitter this week about beer appreciators / nerds / jerks / wankers leaving bad reviews of beer on Untappd and other platforms; and the relative merits, morals and ethics of doing so; specifically the act - deliberate or otherwise - of ensuring the producer is aware of your "thoughts" and your negative reaction to their labours.

I must make it clear I am talking about a horrible small minority of Untappd users here - the vast majority I encounter are reasonable and honest and realise that their words have consequences. As always with the dark underbelly of society it is they who tend to shout loudest, use the worst invective and as such get noticed more. It is they who this post is aimed at.

Firstly, a word about Untappd itself. Despite the temptation to do otherwise, it should not be taken seriously by any party in the producer/retailer/consumer trinamic. (Yes I took dynamic and made it into a three-way thing, I don't care if it's not a word, I like it.) It is not TripAdvisor. A purely objective review of a beer is impossible, even by the most skilful sommeliers, tasters, reviewers and judges. There will always be an emotional reaction, however small or subtle, to something which is designed purely to stimulate different tastebuds and other nerve receptors in different ways.

This is partly why I tend to be wary of pure blind taste testing; after all, despite what everyone says, you taste with your eyes as well as your nose and tongue. Add in adjuncts such as pump clip art or wordplay and suddenly the experience takes on, literally, new dimensions.

Ah but surely over time through the wisdom of crowds a consensus will arise from multiple checkins to reveal a true picture, surely?

Er, no. You see in order for that to be true, the reviewing abilities of each checker-in must be weighted equally, so we are literally equalising and homogenising every Tom, Dick and Melissa who happens to have Untappd installed on their distraction device of choice. Under Untappd, the newbie and the knowledgeable are the same and their rating has equal weighting. The person who is able to check in 50 new beers a month has the same standing as someone who goes out once a year at Christmas.

Idealistically of course this is a wonderful thing and long may valid opinions be formed from all sorts of experiences, but it produces bad data, unquantifiable data, unreliable data. It produces a score which, on the face of it, is little more than a popularity index. And if we were to rate beer purely by popularity, craft beer wouldn't exist and Carling would win every time.

Add to all of this the differences between Untappd and other review platforms which should seem obvious but aren't. TripAdvisor allows right of reply by those who feel unfairly wronged, Untappd doesn't. TripAdvisor has multiple metrics by which a customer can rate an experience at a hotel or restaurant whereas Untappd has a rating system out of 5 and 140 characters of text. TripAdvisor allows multiple photos as corroborating evidence, Untappd allows one, which more often than not is clumsily shot on a camera phone in less than ideal lighting at a non-specific time before, during or after the drink has been consumed.

Moreover, Untappd is moreoften than not, used in the heat of the moment. How many of us have been snapping away all night with the ratings getting steadily more clumsy as our blood alcohol levels rise?

As for myself, well I use Untappd as a diary and, aside from my first few checkins, have never rated beer. I rarely post anything about the beer in the text box and when I do, it's usually whimsy or something about the occasion or reason I am where I am drinking what I am.

If I do post tasting notes, I try to make them as sterile and as bland as possible to just give anyone reading them an idea of my reaction to a beer. I don't know what mouthfeel is or what diacetyl tastes like. Because, as I've often said, no-one should care what I think. Because I am not a beer judge, or beer taster, or beer sommelier. I'm just someone with a catchy Twitter handle and a half-assed blog. It's why I post what I term "reflections", not reviews. It's a bit corny and maybe too subtle for this polarised black and white world, but it's the approach I try to take and have tried to stick to.

That's not to say that I'm completely benign on those platforms. If on the rare occasion I have something to say about a beer - positive or negative - I am not afraid to say it albeit with a shit-ton of codicils. I will try and keep any overt negativity to a minimum. If I don't like it, I might just say "I don't like it" and leave it at that. Just means I won't have it again. I won't take one beer as being representative of a brewery's entire output or as being representative of how a venue cares for its products.

As for tagging a brewery and saying what they're doing in general or as a whole is bad, or making an overt statement that a particular beer is objectively bad, that seems to be a deliberately provocative attention-seeking dick move and should be avoided.

It also betrays a self-aggrandisation that seems to be contagious amongst the modern breed of beer bro with an Untappd profile and a Twitter or Instagram feed. Follower numbers, like Untappd ratings, are indicators of popularity, not quality. It's all too easy to fall into a trap of treating folk who've been around for a long time as sages or experts when their only achievement is being on the internet since age 11.

There is also a deeper, more menacing thing to consider - deliberate, malicious rating of competitors' beers and deliberate, dishonet upvoting of your own. Beer naturally elicits and encourages loyalty to brands, breweries and beer types. There is no hard or firm evidence to accuse any particular brewers of doing either of these things but when you get breweries with particularly rabid hardcore cult followings - like those willing to overlook racist or other immoral behaviour or perhaps those maybe with financial interests - you do wonder how much of the rating is done in an honest, idealistic manner. In an age where Facebook and Twitter can swing elections, it wouldn't take many sockpuppets to artifically emboss a particular set of beers in a given category over another. Share prices could rocket.

In light of all of this, my unsolicited and maybe unwelcome advice to brewers is, while it may be tempting and enticing to get feedback on your beers in real time from what may ostensibly appear to be an army of mostly appreciative, honest, engaged and conscientious consumers, please do not put so much stock in Untappd, or RateBeer. Look at the only things that matter - the fluid ounces consumed and the pounds, euros or dollars flowing in to your bank accounts. Listen to the folk who are willing to talk to you, not at you. Listen to the folk whose feedback is based on real experience. Ignore statement-making drain pourers and those threatening boycotts because you haven't brewed a new milkshake IPA for a week or so.

I've no doubt a lot of you are already doing this, but, as tempting as it can be to fire shots back on Twitter or screenshot a bad review and pin it to your dartboard, you are merely amplifying something that should be ignored and giving the beer douche who posted it expecting that reaction exactly the amount of attention they crave. After all, every Tweet, every social media post, is a marketing opportunity that should help your brand, not hinder it.

26 September 2019

Hi my name is Michael Y.

Hello. My name is Michael, and I am not an alcoholic.

I first noticed I had this issue about nine months ago when I dared to take the self-styled "Chiswick Monitor" and Seb Fuller (the black sheep of the Fullers' family) to task on Twitter after they attacked Melissa Cole, one of the true patron saints of beer journalism, around the time Asahi took over Fuller's Brewery. Fuller and Mr C. Monitor chose to answer myself and others with personal slanderous insults - including most egregiously calling Melissa a "post-op" - before unleashing what they must have thought was the ultimate accusation - that someone who spends a fair amount of their time sampling and appreciating beer must have an unhealthy dependency on the stuff. This was based on, and unfairly illustrated with stills from, a YouTube video where I documented treating myself to a couple of afterwork beers in Cardiff on the first day after StopTober. (If I recall correctly, that day I had two halves, a third and four pints.)
That was easily, if uncomfortably, batted away with a couple of well-placed Blocks.

And it's not just in the rough and tumble world of social media, where unkempt unfettered pathological personalities maniacally manifest themselves without filter or fear. I don't know about you, fellow beer lovers, but have you found that when you even dare to attempt to broach the subject of our hobby/interest in polite everyday conversation, somehow it doesn't take long for the jokes and the ribbing to start?

Suddenly your invitation to others in your work environment for a quick pint on a Friday isn't such an innocent pleasantry. Suddenly your harmless use of a stray beermat as your coffee coaster isn't looked upon without a raised eyebrow. Suddenly your enthusiastic enthusing about that delicious coffee-infused milk stout you sampled the night before isn't treated with the usual polite acknowledgement that goes with the everyday office routine.


And I am sick of it. I really am. Because I know I am not an alcoholic. I can go without beer at the drop of a hat. I have gone for months without beer before now. Hundreds of days at a time. The FOMO can be a killer sure, but not as much of a killer as cirrhosis is. I have two sober months a year, guaranteed. It's easy. In fact, with the rise of great lo/nos, it's never been easier.

Alcoholism is a terrible, terrible disease that for some reason is bandied around in much the same way as OCD is used to describe people who keep their DVDs in alphabetical order. The use of the extreme end of a spectrum to describe and encompass all within that range is the height of ignorance and a horrific example of stereotyping. To put me, and others like me, in the same bracket as wonderfully inspirational and brave folk like Craig Ferguson, is stupefyingly simplistic.



I cannot understand why our hobby, of all hobbies, carries with it such a stigma. Beer consumption is an inherently and unquestionably socially acceptable activity yet when some of us dare take it outside the rigid societal barriers of Friday night or Saturday night at the pub it's unhealthy. When some of us dare to consume more than just macro lager or mainstream brands it's unusual. When some of us are able to get much much more out of beer consumption than the effect of just getting drunk, it's odd.

I admit - there are some hobbies out there I don't understand - like rockclimbing or collecting unusual teapots. But if they bring joy to the person with an interest in them, what harm does it do? Why is individual beer (or wine, or gin, or whisky) appreciation unable to be observed without drawing an unavoidable, ignorant, almost innate prejudicial conclusion that the person in question has an unhealthy reliance on their thirst-quencher of choice?

Beer appreciation is, or should be (on the whole) a wonderfully diverse, open, engaging, growing subculture. It is a group, a community, a movement. We encompass folk who have one beer a week as well as one beer a night. We are not defined by a single member or single voice amongst us. We are not to be pigeonholed. We are not to be summed up. We are not to be boxed in, defined, labelled or conveniently packaged by others who either wilfully or innocently misunderstand us. We must challenge their ignorance and misconceptions. We must let them know it is possible to have an interest/hobby like we do that is just as benign and manageable as rock climbing or teapot collecting. We must let them know that lager louts and supermarket crate gulpers are not our poster boys and girls.

But we must also continue to have the strength, and courage, to be loud and proud about our own relationship with alcohol. We must know what we must do to keep the relationship healthy, and benign, and unambiguous. We must not let the Chiswick Monitors of this world have the last laugh.

I believe in you.

13 September 2019

Original Gravity

DISCLAIMER
This is going to be a different post to normal - a bit more personal and not with much of a conclusion. I just wanted to share my experiences of trying to manage body weight and fitness whilst being a beer nut and what having beer as your hobby does to your health - both physical and mental.


I've mentioned before how my formative drinking years were marked by consuming safe, sweet, mass market drinks from every point on the spectrum. Back when a 330ml bottle set you back barely £2 at the bar, I ran the gauntlet from Bacardi Breezers through VK Vodka Kicks and eventually Budweiser, Fosters, Carlsberg, eventually "graduating" to Strongbow while at uni. It feels an absolute lifetime away. (In fact it literally is because I am currently twice as old now as I was then.)

This all coincided, unsurprisingly, with my first taste of disposable income and freedom to leave the school campus at lunchtimes. It meant visiting the local garage and chip shop at lunchtime most days. It meant picking up a pizza on the way home. 


Suddenly, without being conscious of it, I had a weight problem. I didn't have an eating problem per se, my appetite was healthy and varied enough and student finances meant my budget didn't get stretched unnecessarily far.

It's just that temptation, laziness and living alone during my first two years of university meant those little treats at the Spar round the corner from my digs turned into sustenance and safety nets. What's another bag of chips; it's Friday after all. 

Oh, and I was working in a supermarket bakery at the time. That didn't help.

I didn't really notice it properly until I left uni and began work and had to start wearing shirts one or two sizes up from normal. I bimbled through post-uni life floating around the higher echelons of 15 and 16 stone with a BMI way in excess of 200. But I didn't feel inclined to do anything about it; I wasn't particularly unhappy, I wasn't ill and pizza, bacon and beer tasted too good.


Then it all started to unravel. Quickly.

The initial signs were relatively benign. I realised one day I couldn't fit into size XL clothes. In fact a size XXXL rugby shirt I quite fancied buying in the end of year sales was so tight I struggled to unroll it off me in the fitting room of Rugby World. (Yes I know they're form fitting these days but this was ridiculous.) A beautiful £10 pair of black jeans with yellow stitching - the colours of Cornwall - had to be left behind in M&S Outlet Swindon.

Then suddenly one weekend I ended up in hospital and was forced to take time off work with biliary colic; a short stabbing pain in the abdomen caused by the inital stages of gallstone development. 

Then I was ridiculed by an old acquaintance for the size of my manboobs, even though at the time out of desperation I was attempting to hide them under a form-fitting body shaping t-shirt from JML.

So enough was enough. I swallowed my pride, and my last slice of pizza, and went on a proper, involved, active diet, aided by MyFitnessPal and an exercise bike. I started it the day David Bowie died on January 10th 2016 and ended it 150 days later, having lost 3 stone exactly. For those wondering it wasn't a fad diet or a crash diet, I did it purely by abstaining from unnecessary treats, chocolate, swapping sugar for sweetener, ensuring I ate breakfast, spending time on the exercise bike, walking instead of bussing or taxiing, cutting down on white bread, and the ultimate sacrifice: I went totally sober for the whole shebang.


See, part of the reason for my gluttony was alcohol. Apart from the bloating, sugary effects of beer itself, it also loosened my inhibitions so much that food on the way home from the pub became a regular routine rather than an odd occurrence. All-night petrol stations and corner shops meant I didn't have to leave the pub until stoptap and could still get my unfettered munchies-motivated faceful of sausage rolls, crisps, chocolate and sugary drinks. The kebab shop pizza on a Friday became a tradition not a treat. 

But being sober and focussed meant all of that temptation almost disappeared overnight. It's amazing how a successful period of dieting rewires your brain. Now when I look at a fatty or sugary item, I don't see how nice or tasty it is, I see what I looked like and how I felt like - physically and mentally - when I was bigger.

So how do I maintain it in this exciting modern crafty world of FOMO, lactose, dirty fries, burgers and pizzas? Well,with difficulty. When I set off on a road trip to Sweden in September last year I was 13st5. Exactly one year later for one reason or another I had slipped back to just peeking over the wall of 15st again. I took up walking in April and got back to 13st13lbs briefly but that was temporary. It's taken a good few weeks but as I type this I'm back down at 14st 4lbs. I've lost my Copenhagen Holiday weight from June, now I need to lose my Six Nations weight and my Christmas 2018 weight. 

As always, weight seems to go on in a blink of an eye and comes off blinkin slowly. Despite careful calorie counting and going for double-digit-mile walks, whatever I lose in the working week has a nasty habit of jumping back on as soon as I have a few light ales of a Saturday afternoon. And while the bloat dissipates quickly, the damage remains for longer and suddenly that 13-mile 3 hour walk you polished off with pride the previous Sunday has been wiped out by one too many imperial stouts. It's disheartening, disillusioning and makes you question at what point do you have to choose between your passion and your health?

Well, it can be done. It's trite but moderation is the name of the game. It's about fighting the FOMO and telling yourself that that beer you *really* *desperately* have to try before it disappears from your local brewery tap forever.....will be around again one day. Or something incredibly similar will. It's about realising that you actually are allowed to have the odd weekend at home with a few bottles or cans. It's about realising that you have to pay for everything you put into your mouth, and you can offset that payment by putting some trainers on your feet, some earphones in your ear and seeing how far down the canal you can go before the F1 starts.

Incidentally a typical beer will cost you anything between 200 and 400 calories per pint. You burn 100 calories in a 15-minute mile walk. So it's much easier to do a long walk if you class it not by miles covered, steps stepped or time elapsed. I count it by beers. Makes it so much easier.

Going sober is easy now there's so much non-alcoholic beer around, although I tend to avoid pubs in general on those months because that's always when your favourite beers are on tap. I resolve to have two sober months a year. This year they will have been April and November; usually they are January and October but rugby and holidays dictated the calendar this year. I usually find them useful for my body to regenerate and my bank balance to settle. But it also is prime opportunity for my waistline to stabilise and for the belt to be fastened an extra notch along.

So that's it really. Like I say, no big conclusion. I'm doing my best for my own health for my own sanity and my hobby must fit into that somewhere if I want to be happy in myself. If there's anyone else out there thinking or feeling the same thing, don't be disheartened. You don't need to sacrifice your love of beer or your health - it's not a polar binary choice. You can manage one to help the other. Just realise that there's a million and one beers out there and you can't try them all. You only get one body.

23 August 2019

Honesty, Trust and Beer

Yet again, I'm blogging in response to an external stimuli. I promise I will come up with some original material soon. In this case, it was Boak & Bailey's thought provoking post on how some in the beer universe react with cynicism and distrust when they see others within the same sphere evangelising about a particular beer, style, brewery or venue.

Firstly, let me lay my cards on the table. I am a beer empiricist. I will trust the opinion of others but I will only cement that opinion with my own experience. So if Person A says Beer X is great, I will happily go along with that only to a certain extent until I am able to taste Beer X for myself.

Also Person A must be a person of good standing and excellent credentials within the enthusiast community. And the only judge of Person A's standing is me and me alone, for similar reasons, be they that I judge Person A to be of good standing based on their track record in beer appreciation, reaction and evangelism. That opinion is subjective and it really helps if they follow me on Twitter.

Let's not forget I AM A COMPLETE AMATEUR and borderline hostile ENTRYIST in the beer community. I have little to no real-world appreciation for the brewing process, the business needs or the ebb and flow of trends in the beer world. I am just one consumer, in one little corner of the country, who happens to chat to a few folk on the internet.

But in many ways I am the perfect example of the kind of person who, removed from the vagaries of the industry and the pressures placed upon it by external forces, can have a sort of blessed ignorance which can lend itself to fashioning a more objective form of opinion. I am, in some ways, lucky.

I don't feel lucky, punks.

However, some folk are going a step further, and wandering into some seriously dangerous territory bordering on slanderous. There are some seriously deep assumptions and false insights being created, propagated and reinforced by some in the beer community at large, let alone in our little cliques, which serve no useful or practical purpose except to create and reinforce schism, divide and compartmentalisation which, as far as I can see, is just plain nuts.

Firstly, there is the assumption that beer drinkers fall into neatly pigeonholed categories, which is plainly and demonstrably false despite the desire of certain folk (on both sides of the unnecessary and entirely artificial trad/craft schism) to keep things nice and organised and traditional.

As a result of this divide, secondly there is the horrendous and insulting assumption that modern "crafty" beer types only drink beer for the likes and #NUMBERS, just because some of the most visible and vocal beer "enthusiasts" are cravenly and unashamedly Untapping and Instagramming 7 days a week.

As I said in my reply on the B&B blog post earlier this week, only a tiny minority of the beer community do this hobby purely for self-aggrandisement. They're the ones who think their reviews matter, that they have sophisticated palates because they once went to Belgium, that their refusal to drink anything tainted by big beer is a virtue. Their evangelism and decrying of anything "lesser" is as irritating and as unhelpful as any militant cask ale inquisition footsoldier.

Trust me when I say there are those of us in the wider community are just as p*ssed off with that type of behaviour as are those who, for whatever motivation, seek to apply the stereotype to everyone else. It's no wonder there are adverts for Fosters painting crafty types as unbearable hipstery w*nkers. We're actually normal, believe it or not! The rest of us like what we like because we like it, end of, and to accuse us of any different is to exhibit the kind of aloof snobbery that for some reason is seen as a virtue by certain sections in all persuasions of the community.

Those of us with internet and other presences share our experiences for the community but the better ones never enforce their beliefs on anyone else. Those that do are given short shrift because subjectivity.

As for the argument that blind taste-testing can provide a level of objectivity to the beer tasting and appreciation world, that's only useful for beer award judging which is performed by sommeliers and people who actually do have skills in deducing beer quality, skills which the rest of us, despite our best intentions, do not have.

I am the first to insist that to like a beer you must like its taste, but even I must admit that taste isn't the be-all and end-all of liking a beer. There are so many other things that surround a particular beer which can enhance its standing in your estimation such as locality, branding, brewery ethics, availability and even more intimate things such as nostalgia, familial connections or other personal semiotic triggers.

When Matthew Curtis writes about liking Harvey's Sussex Best, I am inclined to believe that he really likes it. I won't question his motives and the level of detail entered into leads me to believe this isn't a flippant attempt for mouse-clicks, ad revenue or #NUMBERS. It's a genuine insight into a very genuine emotional, non-quantifiable phenomena.

While not in the same league (Matt is Premier League, I am Combined Counties Division Four East), my love letter to Guinness came from the same place, a place of love and appreciation and wanting to share a story. We are not philistines. We are not shysters. We are real, and we write real opinions and real thoughts and real feelings. The minute you try to second-guess OUR motives betray YOUR motives.

What would I like to see happen? Just stop, would you? Stop dividing us, stop second-guessing your fellow beer lover, stop creating unnecessary barriers. Beer appreciation should be a classless, genderless, nationality-neutral ethnicity-neutral, encompassing, open, inclusive and diverse community. It harms NO-ONE if these tenets are included and embraced. It actually helps the survival of both "trad" and "craft" camps if we all embrace (not necessarily physically) each other.

Please, for the love of whichever deity you believe or disbelieve in, let's not let this carry on.

14 August 2019

Good things come to those who....

Like most people on Beer Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, I found myself blown away by the beautifully written and personally illustrated tribute to the legendary beer Harvey's Sussex Best penned by beer writer extraordinaire Matthew Curtis for Pellicle.

And, once the jealous talent envy rages had settled, I began to ponder as I stared out of my office window into the dank greyness of Swindon. What beer could I write about with such fondness? And moreover, which beer could I do justice to within the limited scope and capabilities of this blog?

There are many candidates. Ringwood Fortyniner, my all-time favourite bottled beer which, along with St Austell Tribute and Badger Hopping Hare, have for years formed a tremendous tried and tested triumvirate of good sessiony beers for my personal home consumption.

There's any number of good craft and independent beers I could wax lyrical about but with which I don't have a deep personal relationship like Stay Puft from Tiny Rebel, or Felinfoel Double Dragon. There are the one-offs which I will never see again which made such an impact upon me such as Left Handed Giant's How To Rejoice or Northern Monk's Salted Caramel Star porter.


There's even the less celebrated and less salubrious entry-level beers that started me on this adventure all the way back in my formative years. There's Budweiser which formed a very neutral, very consumable and slightly more socially acceptable drink than Bacardi Breezer with which to bridge my sixth-form and university lives. There's John Smith's, Worthington's and the almost forgotten Caffreys which were a similarly neutral and accessible path into the world of bitters and ales, a path made possible by my other half's late grandfather who insisted on sharing his stash of John Smith's with me whenever we'd visit.

But for me, despite Anheuser Busch's marketing, there is only one true king of beers. One that I will always rank higher than even the finest, bestest, most tastiest beer of the lot. And I am well aware that by revering this drink, I am putting myself at odds with a lot of the values I claim to espouse; yet at the same time placing this drink on a pedestal is entirely in sync with my belief that quality, subjectivity and individuality rules.



I can still remember my first Guinness. Or should I say, Guinnesses, plural, if that is the correct way of pluralising a brand ending in S. It was St Patrick's Day, 2009. I was walking through one of the rougher parts of my fine city on my way home from work when I had a thought. It's St Patrick's Day, I should really have a Guinness to commemorate the occasion. This is how my mind works, and I use the word works quite loosely.

I popped into a nondescript independent corner shop and scanned the shelf. My naiive pre-beer-tragic-wanker brain saw the famous black and white logo stamped on the side of a fourpack of cans. It was a reasonable price, so I paid up and left.

What I didn't realise at that time was that I had picked up Guinness Original, which is the harsher, more acquired taste of Guinness which, let's face it, is already a love-it/hate-it product in a similar way to Marmite (which I also love, btw.) I struggled through the first can, didn't finish the second and I don't quite remember what happened to the third and fourth. We moved out of the flat soon after that so I may have left them behind as a surprise for the next tenants.

Well if that was Guinness I thought, they can keep it. How can people quaff that shit like water and enjoy it? They must have tastebuds of iron. (Well, they would do, drinking Guinness.)

And so I left Guinness behind and blundered on through the world of best bitter and golden ale until we happened to visit Ireland one summer and, being tourists, went to the Guinness Storehouse; obstensibly for the tour and the merch but also because deep down inside me there was this nagging feeling that I should give Guinness one more go; whether as a sap to my sense of male pride or whether some mystical Celtic force was guiding me back onto the right path.

I find myself on the top floor, like we all do, staring in wonder out of the window at the beauty and scale of Dublin. In my hand, procured in exchange for an entry token, a freshly poured immaculate direct-from-the-source pint of Guinness Draught - the creamier, smoother, gentler but still distinct cousin of the tinned torture I had endured a few years earlier.

Nervously I sipped. And it was a revelation. Suddenly it all made sense. Suddenly I knew why people quaffed this stuff like water and enjoyed it. Because suddenly, I was hooked.

Barely 24 hours later we were in Tipperary on our way back from Cork. It was approaching 6pm on Arthur's Day and we were hungry and thirsty. We knew there would be an Emerald Isle- and indeed world-wide toast to Arthur Guinness at 17:59 and wanted to be part of it. We found a pub where there was a huge barrel plonked right in the middle of the room with a tap sticking out of the top of it. We duly ordered a Guinness and a red lemonade, and, after fiddling with our Euros and clarifying we were Welsh and not English, to my surprise the bartender - in every way your stereotypical Irish bartender which only leant wonder and majesty to the occasion - handed me an empty tulip glass.

"If you can pour a perfect pint of Guinness me lad" he chuntered, "ye can have it fer free."

I didn't know if this was an Arthur's Day thing or a regular occurrence, especially Tipperary's touristy tendancies. But I didn't have long to ponder the possibilities because suddenly there was pressure on. The band on stage (of course there was a live band on stage in an Irish pub) had stopped playing, it was 17:55. By my calculations I had the requisite 119.5 seconds and a heap load of change to spare before we all toasted Arthur. My head was also trying desperately to remember the technique, knowledge gathered from a lifetime of watching the "Dancing Man" advert and from watching and listening to the hosts and hostesses at the Guinness Storehouse barely 24 hours previously.


45 degree angle. Check. My palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy as I gripped the font, gently pulling it open and, surprisingly, Guinness did come out. Oh boy. No turning back now. A smattering of locals sat at the bar were watching, grinning gently as they observed what must have been a regular occurrence - the cocksure foreign tourist coming to their fair isle to cack-handedly ravage a culturally significant phenomenon.

Logo. Logo. Logo. That one word kept repeating in my head as I watched the surging liquid rise up the side of the glass. Except I couldn't see it. Where was it? Oh feck (I'd picked up the local lingo you see) it was under my thumb. Could I rotate the glass round at this stage? I gently wiggled my hand and suddenly a harp appeared. And then disappeared. I snapped the font off sharply and placed the glass on the barrel top, breathing heavily.

I daren't look around. The other half found this all very amusing, sipping her red lemonade on the bar. I felt a dozen pairs of Irish eyes smiling but burning into my neck. I glanced down at the glass. It looked very lively. Too lively. A head was forming already but the surge was still going. Oh god, this is going to be a huge head isn't it? Over an inch of foam. Oh god. Good job I still have that €10 note in my back pocket. I might need it shortly.

Then that magical thing that Guinness does happened. The surge just sort of disappeared and the head shrank back while still remaining snow-smooth and silk like. I was too busy worrying to be counting 1-100 2-100 3-100 in my head and didn't have the mental capacity to count up to 119-100. Still, this felt long enough. Truth be told, it felt like two days had passed when in fact it was barely two minutes.

Now - tap in the foam and push *forward*. And don't try to draw a shamrock. That really is wanky.

Finally it was over and the black white border was just straddling the harp logo. I turned around and faced the firing squad.

Eyebrows were raised.

"Not bad son. 8 out of 10. Happy Arthur's Day." And with that he turned around and resumed drying the other glassware.

Relief and pride swept over me instantly. And then suddenly it really was 17:59, the band shouted "TO ARTHUR" and my newly created pint of 80%-quality black gold was thrust into the air.

From then on I was hooked and Guinness has become my number one go-to drink. Yes I know it's macro, yes I know it's prevalent, and yes I know it appeals to fashionistas and merch whores and similar. And truth be told, I fell hook line and sinker into that too. I have about 10 Guinness glasses of various persuasions including the much maligned tall tulip; I have a Guinness bar runner, 5 Guinness t-shirts, a Guinness polo, Guinness socks, Guinness barmats, minature Guinness novelty bottles, a Guinness poster and a Guinness bottle opener.

Oh, and just for extra measure, I acquired a Guinness home surger kit so I could have pub-quality Guinness in my home!




Tragic.

As for Guinness snobbery - i.e. seeking out the perfect pint of the stuff away from Dublin - yes I have fallen victim to that slightly but it's no different from knowing which pubs look after their cask ale. I have found a venue in Cardiff - the Flute & Tankard -  which serves 99% quality Guinness. Also I have found the quality in my local Wetherspoons to be above average.

And becoming a Guinness lover has led me on to many other stouts such as Brains Black, St Austell Mena Dhu and many more which I may not have sampled had I not given Guinness a second chance.

So that's my love letter to Guinness. A constant in my beer life which I hope will never go away, and a drink which I try to have at least once on any given beery day out. Long may it reign as, in my opinion, the one true king of beer.

9 August 2019

More than just beer

The beer world is more than just being about production and consumption of a pleasant, historic drink. It's about community, about personality, about the very tenets of humanity itself. It's about culture and society, about how we present and identify ourselves, whether individually or as groups of people. It's about relationships - be they friendly, intimate or professional. It's about health and wellbeing, both physical and mental - the effects of the latter only having been relatively recently and regrettably belatedly more understood and explored.

Some may claim or pretend otherwise. It's just beer for f*ck's sake. It's just something to get pissed on on a weekend. It's fizzy, tastes good and comes in slabs of 18 for £10 from the supermarket. It's £2 down the local Spoons. It's for making things that should already enjoyable like music, football or meeting your mates somehow more enjoyable.

Such a narrow view is a perfectly valid one to have if that's all you use it for. If beer is merely a sidenote in your life, fine. But for some, it's more than that. Especially when, as a beer lover, beer is used as a weapon - deliberately or unconsciously - against you.

Not a physical weapon. I'm not talking about glassings or drunk driving or physical or emotional violence. Those are all overt, physical, blunt effects of alcohol abuse in general. Measures are in place to prevent these things happening and most humans on this planet would argue and agree that these things are necessary and uncontroversial. The reason being is that these things are not discriminatory - any human can be on the receiving end of these things regardless of colour, creed, sex, gender, sexuality, social class or ability.

Yet somehow, when beer causes pain of other kinds to minorities, disadvantaged, ostracised or disenfranchised groups in other ways, it's overlooked, seen as an irrelevance, ignored or ridiculed. 

Your author is a white middle-aged middle-class male who has faced little to no prejudice in his life for the way he looks or talks. I have faced prejudice in other ways for the way I act (I suffer from mental health difficulties, have been told repeatedly I exhibit symptoms of autism or Asperger's despite never having been tested or diagnosed as such, and I'm a die-hard lily-livered liberal in a very right wing country.) But beer has been a welcoming and wonderful sphere in which to exist, whether online or in the real world. Occasionally I have wobbles. A few weeks ago I stepped into the Pembury Tavern in London and, despite a wonderful welcome and service from the staff, immediately felt like a fish out of water, a Skoda at an F1 race - the imposter syndrome took over big time.

But some reassuring words from my Twitter friends set me straight and I had a wonderful day. Similarly bar staff at Tiny Rebel in Newport, the Old Arcade, City Arms and Head of Steam in Cardiff to name but four locations, treat me with respect, understanding and absorb and reciprocate my unbounded enthusiasm. They are tolerant of me finding wonder in the routine and the benign. They are everything a beer wanker could wish for in bar staff. They make me being me so much easier.

Others aren't so lucky. When a woman walks into a bar and sees a grotesque pump clip with a "comic" depiction of oversized mammary glands staring back at her, it cheapens her soul and existence. It objectifies and exploits something that she has no control over for what should be the simple task of enticing a drinker to consume a beer. Other methods can and have been used for this purpose without resorting to objectifying 50% of the human population. Other methods should and will be used from now on if CAMRA have anything to do with it, because, following on from the Portman Group, they banned any sexist, misogynystic, objectifying imagery or names from their Great British Beer Festival held this week at the Olympia, London.





It's worth considering straight away that CAMRA's hand was forced on this and it is a little overdue. The major thing that changed in the past year was that the industry started listening to more varied and numerous voices, as opposed to just the loudest subset of voices. CAMRA must have finally realised that, "missions" and their Articles of Association aside, they needed to take steps to fill the chasm they were slowly letting emerge between legacy and novel. I'm not exactly CAMRA's biggest fan and I'll probably never re-join but they've learnt a lot of lessons in a very short period of time. They recognise they were in danger of becoming an irrelevance and although their AoA havn't changed, they are taking steps to mitigate that. I'll reserve judgment.







I treat CAMRA (and craftywonks too, there's a similar intransigent streak running through the polar opposite right-on crowd as well) like I treat fellow Welsh Rugby fans. We all like the same thing, I am willing to associate and socialize and interact. But the minute you tell me I'm less of a fan than they are for not being able to go to games, then screw you. Certain CAMRA members seem intent on protecting their image to the point of excluding others who could actually help keep their hobby and their organisation alive. Their "concerns" stem predominantly from combination of change in general which is BAAAAAD (sheep emphasis deliberate) and the fact that "different" folk whose faces, bodies, ideas and perspectives don't mesh entirely with the preexisting predominant heteronormative sociological bubble the complainants exist in. If the reaction on Twitter to this week's news was representative, it appears some don't even like the new breeds of beer drinker doing the same things they do, entering the same spaces, having the same hobbies and interests because, shock horror, they may have to breathe the same air as them.



Those legacy drinkers, members and the "old guard" dictated policy and politics within CAMRA for too long. Their influence has been lessened. Not eliminated, just diluted somewhat, by the more varied and valuable and virile new breed of beer drinker and appreciator brought in by the craft revolution. The 21st Century beer drinker comprises folk from all ethnic and national minorities, from every colour on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, from every ability, political outlook and philosophical perspective. The stereotype of the CAMRA drinker will very soon truly become that - an actual stereotype, and not a truth.

 And the great - and seemingly willingly overlooked - thing is literally noone loses out. Everyone wins. The naysayers, the incels, the fuddy duddies - they all win because they can still drink good beer in good condition, and more of it. Just with less cartoon flesh and less unfunny bodily puns, which were never needed. I am still wary of particular CAMRA members as I am of any single person or persons purporting to fully represent a diverse group. And plenty of these (surprisingly mostly anonymous) warriors have raised their heads above the social media parapet this week in reaction to Guardian and Independent articles, and of course Melissa Cole's wonderful, brave, inspiring appearances on national and local radio and of course that doyen of free speech and diverse opinion, Good Morning Piers.... sorry Britain.

He wasn't there this week. Probably a good thing. Between the sainted Ms Cole and the hijab-wearing Muslim female jockey who appeared earlier this week, he probably would have exploded.

The reaction on Twitter and in other media has been largely predictable : huge amounts of support and similarly huge - and vitriolic - howls of despair from Brexit-enboldened proto-Morganites desperate to exert their waning one-world heteronormative conservative influence over an ever-changing world. Why others who seem comfortable enough in their own blissful guilt-free ignorant lives feel dutybound to dictate what we should be worried about peturbs me. A few years ago those Horaces and Hyacinths were saying the same about recycling and climate change and now look at them, desperately falling over each other to stock up on (branded chic overtly visible colour-coordinated stylish) reusable water bottles, claiming they're saving polar bears. They still whinge and moan online using non-recyclable iPhones and Samsungs they buy every year.

Can't wait to see these dudes' (and, regrettably, dudettes') reactions if a female-led brewery brought out beers called Tiny Penis, Triggered Incel, Short White Syndrome or Boiled Gammon.


As we reach Friday night, the GBBF appears to have been a success. The optics coming out of GBBF this week have thawed my stance on the organisation of CAMRA itself. Front line reports on Twitter and elsewhere are good so far but, while we still have unreal amounts of entitled male muttering, especially from the safe space of Twitter, plus we have the rowdier Saturday to still get through, it is clear that although a battle may have been won, the war is still going on for a little while yet.