Monday 28 September 2009

In which the Sex Pistols make me think about the pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution as regards beer

Watching a reunited Sex Pistols concert in a Belgian hotel room (me that is not them), I am reminded about the need for consistency in beer; it’s an appalling concert, polished, cynical, well-played and attempting to be of its time 1977, but really belonging to now. They might as well have been an act on the X Factor. BrewDog say that their beer is for punks, but I wouldn’t have thought that they would want this bunch of pogoing, face-gurning nostalgists (both band and audience) drinking the stuff. Apply this sort of revivalism to beer and you have the mindset that uses visions of a golden age to sell its products — or even more depressing the dreary parocialism of a letter writer in the current What’s Brewing who lambasts CAMRA and Protzy for picking a ‘quite hoppy and bitter’ mild for its champion beer, ‘When I started drinking in England 50 years ago, the mild tasted mild and the bitter tasted bitter. Now we have an award-winning mild that tastes bitter. Can Camra still be taken seriously’. I mean, the words ‘too much time on his hands’ spring to mind.

I say all of this after five months of editing 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die (out next spring, be the first to disagree with the choice!), in whose pages there will be a goodly amount of fantastic IPAs and Porters, beers with a long history that, however, I would rather drink now than 150 years ago. I would far rather a beer where the brewer knew what to do with Brett than some beer in the 19th century when it varied from week to week and this variation wasn’t controlled — but then that is part of a larger conversation about beer, which occurred to me at a cider seminar in Spain in June.

Beer, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, is expected to be the same consistency brew after brew, while wine and cider have seasonal allowances programmed in. Of course, there are beers that follow that seasonal path but all of us expect our ales to taste the same year upon year — are we missing something here? It’s a wild dream to expect beer to go back to some sort of hit and miss character, but it might make things interesting (and the technology and foresight is there to make it all drinkable). I remember one landlord I know telling me that when he took over an Adnams pub in Walberswick that some of the locals (perhaps trying to put him in his place) used to say that they could tell when the Adnams Bitter had the new harvest of hops and barley as opposed to when they were drinking it a few months later. Beer has pretty much flattened out the variations, even though the idea of vintages is pretty hot stuff. But what if your pint of London Pride, Landlord or Tribute had different nuances from season to season? How on earth would it be sold to us beer drinkers who have been bred to expect consistency — consistency is only expected because the alternative is rubbish, but what about a mindset that expected an Adnams Bitter (I’m just choosing it because it’s a favourite) to be different in October and then in January and then in July — would this raise beer to the cachet of wine as much as the whole Vintage bottle thing? Imagine it: Tesco’s bring you BrewDog IPA October 09. I suppose I’m talking anarchy in the UK when it comes to brewing, but the sad fact is that we (including myself) want our pint of cask beer to taste the same every night otherwise we might have nightmares (the stuff of which for me after watching that concert would involve a geriatric John Lydon doing a duet with Mick Jagger).


  1. Actually, I think if you drink the same cask beer regularly in the same pub you will notice small variations between casks - and between the seasons - that go beyond the effect of small changes in cellarmanship.

  2. You most certainly do as 20 years of drinking Lees Biter tells me.

    As an anecdote Dick Vines ex Head Brewer of Holts once said to me. "I don't always brew consistent beer, but I always brew consistently good beer."

  3. Extremely good points. Hops certainly change year on year and it is impossible to store them without some changes in storage. It is relatively easy to compensate for alpha acid variations but much more difficult to adjust for variations in aroma as the measurement of volatile essential oils is much more tricky.

    Variation does not mean bad. In wine and cider, as you say, it's an indication that it is NOT and industrially made product.

  4. Curmudgeon I can quite believe, I veer between Proper Job and Tribute in my local so cannot comment
    Tandleman — I used to loathe Lees years ago in Llandudno (where I grew up), but rather enjoy it now when I see it — I think the point I am trying to make is that I go round breweries in this country and the mantra is consistency, which given the topsy turvey nature of some micros’ beers, is probabyl a good thing, unless they are consistently bad, but when you go to a very successful cask beer producer as I did this year and are told that their most successful brand has to taste the same all year round, if I think deeply enough about it, I get a bit deflated especially if the beer in question is pretty insipid to start with.
    Dave brewers know that, but I wish there was more of a dialogue about these variations, get people to understand it doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

  5. When I notice variation from pint to pint, I suspect it is me more often than not (rather than the brewery). Although the cellar seems to be the biggest variable of all.

  6. I don't expect every pint to taste the same. And with cask beer, it rarely does.

    Brewers (at least up until the recent past) used to hop their beers more heavily in the summer to compensate for the warmer weather.

    What happens in the cellar often is the biggest determining factor. I spent 7 years drinking almost nothing but Tetley's Mild. It some pubs int was consistently better than in others. Drink it outside Leeds and it didn't even taste like Tetley's any more.

  7. Matt — I always blame my palate as I think it can be suspect, especially if I have been going a bit mad on the chillies and garlic.
    Ron — it’s not just cask beer that can have these inconsistencies; bottled beer does it as well. Am currently drinking a very fresh tasting Budvar with plenty of gorgeous spicy yeast notes and Saaz floweriness, but then other times have had it and shoulders have slumped as that straightforward lemony character you get with many pils comes forward and demands to be slapped; I used to think that their strong Bud was just alcoholic soup until I had it over in Czecho, god it was gorgeous. So, as Lenin wrote, what is to be done — maybe a recognition that craft beer has its peaks and troughs, its seasonal variations that will present it in different lights throughout the year, and that this is one of its beer’s great strengths.

  8. It's a combination of consistent (industrial)quality and craftsmanship. It's the same with the best French cheese. The unpasteurized ones are far better, but it's with modern quality systems that they are safe to eat - 150 years ago they would not only be of varying quality - they would possibly be lethal.

  9. Knut exactly my point, we have the craftsmanship and know-how now to live a little dangerously (if safely, if you know what I mean)