Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The drift from the Pangaea of craft beer

Tables overturned in a crowded restaurant; temple columns shaken and toppled on a Mediterranean island; lipstick daubed on the Mona Lisa. Then a Wall Street Journal piece covers a Belgian spat between those who sweat and toil and build a brewery and those who come up with an idea and have it brewed elsewhere — the two main protagonists seem to be De La Senne and the Brussels Beer Project; I have interviewed both outfits and love what they do, especially De La Senne.

Then over in the USA, Andy Crouch, a beer writer I really respect and enjoy reading even if I don’t always agree with him, produces an excellent story on what you could say is the drift from the Pangaea of craft beer by one of the founding fathers Jim Koch. It’s the sort of in-depth beer journalism I wish I could read (or find an outlet for) over here. Both stories have stirred up passions, especially Crouch’s.

Others have written much more concisely and adroitly about the controversies here and here, but what I wanted to do was to think aloud about the nature of beer and how it’s always had this obsessive undertow, always had an ability to drag people along in its wake. Certain beers encourage a sense of ownership amongst a segment of drinkers, an obsession even, that brings the beer (and the brewery) in their own psychological Google + circle. It reminds me of the outrage that exists amongst Archers fans whenever a plotline hits the bumpers and Nigel whatshisname falls off the roof to his death on Christmas Day or whenever.

Is it about the breakdown of the boundary between one’s personal life and the imagined? I’m not suggesting that Dark Lord Day fans hear voices telling them to camp out three days before the beer’s release or that London beer drinkers dress up in animal masks and robes for the release of Camden’s IPL (you never know), but I do wonder if what for the lack of a better word we call craft beer is something that fills a gap in the life of the most devoted of followers (the rest of us just like the taste, the branding and the feeling of being part of a club, like teenagers wearing Abercrombie & Fitch) as does cask beer in a different kind of beer drinker’s life (or as Guinness used to do for others).

I’m not suggesting I’m any different. At various times in my life, punk rock, Joy Division, Inspector Morse, beer and football have probably been unhealthy in their presence. I presume it’s the psychological need to be part of a gang, to belong and of course this also expresses itself in the way people dress (along with that all important haircut); again we’ve all done it at one or two (or three) stages in our lives. I would also hazard a guess that beer has always had an element of tribalism in it, perhaps linking back to perceived regional differences; for many drinkers it seems to have engendered a sense of belonging (or disconnection even — my mate used to call anything from a brewery called Wilson’s ‘death brew’, because he thought it so dreadful; growing up I loathed mild and couldn’t understand why anyone under the age of 70 would drink it as it seemed to watery and thin). Maybe the ups and downs in the British brewing industry after the Second World War also sharpened that sense of ownership (while paradoxically loosening it). The beer that your father drank and your grandfather drank was there for you and there didn’t seem to be no reason why it wouldn’t be there for you too when you were their age — unless you were part of the generation that didn’t want to drink what the old feller drank and didn’t want to sit in the snug or stand around the piano singing rubbish songs.

This is all thinking out aloud, writing along a thread of notes that I made, an attempt to clarify what I feel about Yvan de Baets’ objections and Jim Koch’s sense of rejection and some of the reactions on social media (the latter story has provoked the most florid and bizarre reactions — blimey it’s only beer, but then on the other hand I had a conversation with a British brewer yesterday about sour beer, bugs and time which at last brought to life my slumbering post-New Year apathy towards beer). These are issues that are more complex than some of the comments and counter-arguments I have seen online make out, especially on Facebook. But then social media is the modern equivalent of a noisy drunken bar where opinions are enflamed and declaimed and someone somewhere puffs out a bullfrog of a chest and says ‘boo’. On the other hand, I’m glad that people care enough to think and drink and plink the piano keys of their outrage and approval, otherwise what is the point of that beer in the glass?


  1. That Inspector Morse haircut really didn't suit you.

  2. I know, but they were selling Morse plastic wigs in Woolworth’s and I was tempted…