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?