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.

6 August 2019

The past week's limericks

I like a good limerick, it's true
But they can be quite hard to do
Most of the time
It's a struggle to rhyme
It's hard to be witty - who knew?

So here are some that I wrote this week
Collected so you don't have to seek
They're not organised
By date or by size
So just scroll down and have a peek.


BEER
Some yeast, some hops, some grain
Are three things you need to obtain
To create a potion
That inspires emotion
It's beer : the cure for all pain


SOCCER
The footy is back yet again
Drama queens masquerading as men
Getting paid one squillion pound
To roll round on the ground
But it's good for us with short atten....


SUNDAY
As the weekend begins to wind down
You may just be tempted to frown
But it's not Monday yet
It's not even sunset
So why don't you just stick around?

The pub is the best place to be
To avoid Sunday night misery
Have just one more pint
To sign off the night
But save £5 for a taxi


MONDAY
Monday's work nearly done, thank the lord 

But now I'm incredibly bored 
I thought it would take up more time 
But now I'm here spouting rhyme 
Till my train comes at quarter past four

New Beer : Stay Puft Amplified Imperial Marshmallow Porter

BUY HERE:
TR Online Shop  and at Tiny Rebel's brewery bars in Cardiff, Newport and Rogerstone

#NOTSPON

Despite my repeated assertions on Twitter and elsewhere that I would find the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia this week an uncomfortable and unfulfilling experience, the FOMO (fear of missing out) factor was high this afternoon as I sat at my desk in work staring out the window. It's the weirdest paradox in the world - being annoyed and irritated on missing out on an event which I know would cause me emotional distress. Every logical reasoned fibre of my being is telling me that, were I there, I would not be enjoying myself and/or would feel like the proverbial fish out of water. Yet, seeing the tiny snapshots of festivity and fun flying past on Twitter post after Twitter post meant the devil on the other shoulder was getting louder and louder.

The only way I could remedy it was to have my own little beer festival in the comfort of my own bubble. So I headed to Tiny Rebel Newport for a couple of west Walian treats - tropical pale Son of a Beach from Tenby Brewing, and their collab with Wild Weather, Illemonati - a 3.2% lemon sour Weisse. Not my thing but then I gotta try everything once.

The takeout selection at Tiny Rebel is legendary and, having forgotten to take anything home last time I was there ten days previously, I stocked up my bag with six cans; two of which were their new porter, the latest bastard son of the Stay Puft dynasty, the Amplified 12.8% Imperial Marshmallow Porter.

I then went for a BK Halloumi Burger, which was underwhelming and nowhere near as good as MAX Sweden's Umami Halloumi Burgare.

Once I was safely home and my burger was safely consumed, with trepidation I cracked the can. The last time I had drunk something this strong was when I polished off an old Rioja I had lying around. Before that it was the Tiny Rebel / Fierce Beer collaboration, Bear Essentials, a barleywine I inhaled during Tryanuary.

Upon opening the can there was no strong scent, rather a slight sweet aroma. Decanting it into my Great Welsh Beer & Cider Festival 2013 glass did nothing to trigger my nasal passages either. It was only when it hit my tongue did the fullness of the flavour become apparent. And it surprised me - it was gentle, smooth and insanely tasty. It was very drinkable - and I use this adverb a lot - it was dangerously drinkable. I gulped a couple of mouthfuls very quickly and easily.

Compared and contrasted to the 10% imp stout from another ursine brewery - the Electric Bear's "Ego is a Waste of Brain" - that I nursed down on Friday night last, this was a very different beast. A Paddington not a polar. This wasn't a grandaddy of a beer, this was more of a gentle great uncle. I finished it in half an hour. And as I sit here writing this, my head is clear, my senses are alert and my balance unaffected. I fully expect to be asleep before 11 though.

5 August 2019

Cask vs Craft: Two sides of the same coin


See also TANDLEMAN : Have we reached peak murky?


Last week's tweet by Seth Bradley, embedded above, prompted a blog post by CAMRA branch chairman Tandleman, linked above.

Full disclosure: Myself and Tandleman don't exactly see eye to eye on the merits of cask. While I enjoy the format and most of my choices at pubs and bars are cask, I don't see it as some kind of holy gold standard for beer to be revered and worshipped at the expense of other kinds. I am just as happy, content and comfortable drinking beer from keg, bottle, can or other (hygenic) vessel.

This approach leads me naturally to question the very nature of cask beer and how its need to be handled in just the right way, allied to a short shelf life and the increasing need for convenience and consistency in the pub trade, is more of a hindrance than a strength. I postulated that cask's weaknesses could very soon outweigh its strengths and that artificial attempts to save it, for the benefit of a minority of admittedly passionate beer drinkers, was not sustainable and that cask may end up being killed stone dead in a generation or two. It could soon become the beer equivalent of positive discrimination.

Needless to say this went down well with a few hardened CAMRAwonks.

(On a side note, I do wonder what the overall reaction of hardened CAMRAwonks is going to be to the GBBF KeyKeg options this week...)

CAMRA recently had a vote on whether they should become a campaigning body for *all* beer regardless of serve style / storage medium. They needed (an externally mandated) 75% to change the rules. 72% voted aye. 28% no. So CAMRA is now effectively and continually beholden to less than a third of its membership. A membership that used to include me, I must point out. But back then, craft wasn't a thing, real ale wasn't a thing in Newport outside of Doom Bar, and I didn't even get a badge. The vouchers were nice though.

Ah yes - vouchers. To be spent in Wetherspoons, where they ALWAYS look after their ale, don't they?

Cask, when kept well, when served well, when bought frequently by clientele and when a decent variety is presented by the venue, is an ideal drink in many ways. Trouble is you need all four of those things to align, like a solar eclipse, for the perfect pint. Take away any one of those infinitely variable conditions (pun intended) and suddenly you have an abomination, a barely drinkable mess, something that, in the worst cases, can make you physically ill.

Increasingly nowadays, despite the attentions of Cask Marque and CAMRA, Cask is perceived by pub staff as a luxury and by punters as a treat; though increasingly regular mistreatment of cask has left many seasoned drinkers wary and weary. This week's Hopinions survey results will be interesting.

Defenders of cask ale point out vehemently that all of its failings can be mitigated by well trained staff, a well regulated delivery chain and a well kept cellar, as if all those things are easily and readily achievable in an industry where footfall is dropping; the macro kegmeister overlords are getting meaner and more demanding; ties are increasingly binding restrictive, unimaginative and unchanging; and where staff morale is low and staff turnover is high.

Defenders of cask can sometimes, maybe innocently but sometimes with a blinkered and blissful wilful ignorance, level accusations of laziness and incompetence against the very people they need on their side fighting their corner to keep their minority interest hobby alive.

Defenders of Cask can all too easily become jingoistic and elitist despite presenting themselves as the Guardians of the Eternal Working Man's Drink.

Defenders of Cask will point to KeyKeg's environmental impact, in the week when 8000 plastic cask tuts washed up on a North Cornwall beach.

It all leaves a bad taste in my mouth, as well as my glass. I've little to no time for arbitrary pigeonholing. I've definitely got no time for parochialism or elitism, and even less for organised self-appointed groups of "experts". Remember there is no entry standard to achieve to become a CAMRAwonk; they will quite literally let any bugger in as my time there proves.

Still, they give out awards which are nice trinkets for pubs to hang on their peeling  walls next to the faded photo of Churchill.

And before #notallrealalefans starts trending, I realise I am describing a minority within the minority here. But they who shout loudest are those who are noticed, and a lot of people are noticing.

One thing that has always baffled me about the vocal minority in CAMRA is their reluctance to embrace craft beer, whatever craft beer is being defined as this week. My local craft brewery puts out several of its range on cask as well as keg. Surely they can't have a problem with that?

Unfortunately craft doesn't help itself sometimes. It has fallen prey to similarly blinkered behavioural traits despite presenting itself as bringing whole new audiences to beer and bringing about a resurgence in the beer market and bringing variety and interest to a drink which was until relatively recently plodding along in well established grooves. Craft beer is in danger of falling victim to that most insidious of diseases: beer fatigue.

Craft has generated an explosion in the number of beer wankers strutting around. The increase in venues serving new, interesting, experimental and infinitely varied beers has produced a breed of millennial so obtuse and obscene I almost feel ashamed to belong to the same community. They're the type of person who only drinks a beer solely because it is new, or different, or trendy, or (ye gods) expensive. The *taste* and the *enjoyment* don't seem to enter the equation at all. And what's more, breweries seem to be cottoning on to the fact these arseholes exist. They are producing all manner of concoctions in stupefyingly obscene strengths with stupefyingly obscene flavours, slapping a label on it and selling it for the price of a small 1 bedroom flat in Shoreditch.

I am all for experimentation and innovation. We need the boundaries to be pushed, we need the limits to be explored. Beer cannot rest on its laurels else it will just become wine; a boring drink for boring people. But similarly, it cannot become gin; pretentious bollocks dressed up as variety. And most of all, it needs to be accessible to all, not just to a select few with deep pockets, hollow skulls and dead tastebuds.

Cask's future is dependent on its foibles being managed. It can have a bright future if the industry chooses to keep it going. But it must not ever go on life support. That would be cruel. If it is to die, it must be allowed to die with dignity. I don't believe it will totally leave us, but the amount of effort being put into its survival will eventually become inversely proportional to the levels of consumption and financial effort required to keep it relevant. Similarly craft's future is dependent on it not becoming a similarly niche beer for a similarly small audience. Craft must quickly nip in the bud any descent into madness and be the relevant, widespread, tasty and strong standard-bearer for quality beer going forward. The fact a sizeable chunk of it is served on cask is paramount in this. The two seemingly warring tribes can help each other. Maybe one day, CAMRA's membership will pass another resolution to alter their Articles of Association. Maybe a new campaigning organisation will spring up to replace, or supplant, or complement CAMRA, like SIBA or similar. Who knows.

For the vast majority of us, who don't have hangups about how their beer is served so long as it is drinkable, tasty and enjoyable, these battles will be irrelevant and be fought out of sight out of mind. Until that is, one day, because of one or other party, the other disappears and we're either left with undrinkable hazy chunky muck, or undrinkable, vinegary, warm brown sludge.

It doesn't have to be that way.

4 August 2019

Revisiting my 13 Rules For Successful Beer Appreciation

On Friday night I went out for afterwork. If you're not familiar with that term, it's used in Sweden to describe drinks which occur, naturally, after work. Of course it's a concept well observed all over the world, but to have an actual word/term for it is quite pleasing and neat, so I have taken to using it.

Unusually for a drinking session, it wasn't me that initiated it, it was the other half. She has been going for osteopathic treatment lately to help with a long-standing back issue. (These sessions used to co-incide with dress-down Friday for me, but as of last week, they've been pushed to the alternative weeks which meant that now instead of wearing t-shirt and jeans I was sporting an old smart-ish shirt and five-day-old trousers).

As such every two weeks we've begun to meet up after work and after treatment for a swift half or five. Usually nothing too strenuous, and usually in Tiny Rebel Newport. This week however we opted for Cardiff and it ended up in a bit of a crawl.

Half way through, at Tiny Rebel in Cardiff, after a couple of cola ciders in Head of Steam (yes, that's a thing) and some nondescript run of the mill stuff, I began to tackle a 1/3rd of 10% imperial stout. It was getting busy and we were sat at the corner of the bar, and folk who had never been to TR before were streaming past us marvelling at the sheer range on offer, but also bemused at the complete lack of any familiar mainstream brands. I began hearing out of the corner of my ear phrases such as "they don't sell X" and "what's the closest they've got to Y"... and I could feel my inner beer wanker twitching. And I began to violate my own rules.

My rules? Oh yes, a list I drew up about two years ago when I first converted my casual interest in beer into a serious-ish hobby. I realised that there were things I was encountering in beer venues that I didn't like, and didn't want to repeat them myself, especially as at the same time I began to take this BOTB blog, YT channel and Twitter feed more seriously.

They are as follows:

1 What you like, others may not. Don't influence or criticise others' choices.
Very simple, beer is subjective. Something you find undrinkable beyond belief may tick somebody else's boxes. This one is easily broken inadvertently but, if done without malice and with genuine belief that a person may share your taste, can be harmless enough. However if you turn your nose up at someone's choice (such as if they pick a mass market macro lager) then you really are a judgemental dick, end of.

2 Don't be a dick. No-one cares you run a Twitter feed about beer.
Literally no-one. Even the other folk in the Beer Twitter sphere. It's such a nothing. Transient, uninfluential, and if you have a paltry number of followers, completely irrelevant online, so imagine how it's going to be received in the real world.

3 Try at least one thing you suspect you won't like - you may be surprised.
Don't pigeonhole yourself into one particular style or beer type. If you don't like IPA, don't base that judgment on that one IPA you drank a few years ago. Not only could you be missing out on some really great beer, but you could also be faced with a reduced choice at the bar or in the shop. It's an unnecessary limit to self-impose. I've tried three sours this year despite not being a sour fan. Scores: one like, one dislike and one meh. But at least I tried them....

4 Landlords and bar staff in real ale and craft pubs are just as passionate about beer as you are. Don't be afraid to talk to them.
Bar staff are not just there to pour your beer. They (should) know their product. They're there to recommend and steer you in the right direction. They are there for a reason, they are there because they know their stuff. They want you to be happy and to enjoy your drink. A quick chat will save wasted beer and wasted money. You may find out about new beers coming soon, you may find out if they have a certain range, you may find out your favourite is coming back soon. Beer is meant to be a social activity. Be social. Which leads to....

5 Make friends. Beer drinking is a social activity and should be shared.
I'm not dictating that those who prefer to be alone should suddenly become butterflies, nor am I trying to instigate those horrendous "meetup" sessions for people with slightly similar interests. What I mean is it never hurts to chat to someone in a pub, even if it's for five minutes. You could make their day, they could make yours. You'll never know unless you try. But don't break any other rules in following this rule!

6 Always try something local, especially if you're not a regular visitor to the area
Make of this one what you wish but I don't see the point in traipsing somewhere and then drinking mainstream beer or beer that has traipsed just as far from somewhere else. In London? Drink a London brewed beer. In Sweden? Try Swedish. In Ireland? Try something that isn't Guinness. When in Rome....

7 Remember quality not quantity. No-one likes a drunk beer wanker
It goes without saying you should know when to stop. But it also goes without saying that if you know roughly what your limit is, try and use that defined quantity of beer wisely. If you're on a crawl and you're starting in an "ordinary" pub, don't load up on pints of gassy macro or you won't have room for the good shit later on in the brewery tap. Doesn't hurt to have halves or softies if there's *nothing* on offer you like. Don't settle for the least worst option. Having said that:

8 Mainstream big beer is still beer and not Um Bongo
Beer is beer is beer is beer. Going back to rule 1 - if your favourite tipple is mass-market macro lager, drink mass market macro lager and don't let anyone make you feel guilty or lesser for choosing it.

 9 Premium product carries a premium price. Don't balk at pints costing £4-£8
Regional variations apply of course but if a pub has chosen to charge £4.50 for a pint of locally brewed milk stout, that's the price it needs to charge to give its employees a good wage and turn a profit for the brewery. If you really want to pay £2 for a pint of beer, fuck off to Spoons.

10 Try before you buy and enquire about smaller measures
This ties in with rule 7 - you can get through a lot more beer if you have less of it. Hear me out - a lot of bars now offer 1/3rd pint flights, halves, schooners as well as pints. If there's 100 beers on offer and you want to try as many as possible before falling into your taxi home, then sample. Be sensible and choose wisely. You cannot possibly drink ALL the beer in the world, but you can drink quite a bit of it if you know what you're looking for. And ask for a sample if you're not sure! As I said in Rule 4, a quality venue's staff will always let you try something before you buy it. So long as you don't take the piss they'll indulge your quasi-sommelier antics. They'd rather you enjoy your drink than waste it. Also it can help, especially with cask, to identify badly kept real ale, dirty pipes etc before you are forced to slurp down a warm cloudy mess.

11 Beer mats and glasses are tempting souvenirs but venues need these things to survive
I'll admit to having a beer glass collection approaching triple figures and a beer mat collection well past that. But apart from a few lifted in my younger, sillier student days (I've got a Carling Extra Cold glass FFS) most of my collection was either obtained via eBay or Charity Shops, or came as part of a gift set, or were taken or purchased from venues with the venue's consent. Good quality and attractive glassware is becoming a sought-after souvenir but venues are literally running out of things to put beer in to serve it. When you buy a beer, you buy the beer, not the glass it came in. If you really can't survive without owning yet another decorative dust magnet, offer to pay for it. As for beermats - well same argument but these are usually plentiful and turnover means venues tend to replace them quickly enough anyway. But that doesn't mean you can go round pubs helping yourself to every mat on offer. You're just creating unnecessary work for bar staff that have more important things to do.

12 Can't decide? Start at one end and work your way to the other.
Simplest way to avoid FOMO and takes the pressure off immensely.

13 Membership of CAMRA and possession of a beard is not mandatory.
Stereotypes aside, there is no set look, sex, age, gender, orientation, ethnicity, nationality, ability or level of knowledge that defines a beer appreciator. You could have a casual interest or be really serious about it, but we all belong to one very special family and you shouldn't feel like you don't belong because you don't tick a certain box. You don't have to be a member of a club, you don't have to attach yourself to a regular venue or brewery or even a beer. You don't have to justify your choices, you don't have to justify your hobby or your enthusiasm, and you certainly don't have to justify your appearance, feelings, thoughts or outlook on life. Beer is an inclusive broad church of people who like to have a good time. Everyone should leave their prejudices at the door because have f**k all to do with beer.

So which rules did I violate? Well, mostly 1, 2 and 3. I rudely informed a very polite gentleman what was on the bar despite his ability to read the very clear menu on the big screen above us. I left my "business card" with twitter handle in full view of everyone who stood next to me. And I stuck to my go-tos.

The upshot? I must do better. I can do better. I will do better.