Friday, 7 December 2012

The Session #70 – Don’t Believe The Hype


Well, I’ll probably get hammered for this, and there is an element of me being contentious for its own sake (because I DO like much of the stuff I taste!), but can I suggest the most over-hyped beery thing is the term ‘craft’ and the stuff that sits around it!

It’s a meaningless term. It is generally defined as something you do with skill and by hand. So, can someone tell me how the ‘craft’ of brewing a pint of Banks’ Mild is less than that of making a beer with ‘bucketloads’ of hops before ageing it in the stomachs of Bactrian Camels? How can a brewery so aggressive in its defence of the term ‘craft’, defined in the US as ‘small, independent and traditional’, pump out around 2.5 million litres of product, ripping up everything we know about ‘style’? (a hateful word, anyway)? It isn’t that, to quote Brewdog, ‘real ale no longer means anything’, it is that the term ‘craft’ has been misrepresented, incorrectly used, and been foisted on drinkers as a marketing ploy, in a cynical attempt by brewers to entice the weak willed into buying their product.

And, as we (and I have been there too, comrades) get drawn into the seedy guerrilla marketing world of ‘craft’, we become involved in the beer-porn universe they want us to inhabit. For the analogy bears some testing. You start off, perhaps dissatisfied with the pint in your local, professing it to be brown and bland. You find, lurking in some recesses of the Beeriverse, an old bottle of some kind of IPA, packed with New World hops. You drink. You savour. No one need know. It’s your little secret; American beer isn’t that bad after all. However, soon, a beer spurting with Amarillo no longer thrills; you need to move on. Before you know it, you are drinking a Saison, flavoured with creosote, brewed on the auspicious day of the Great Farting, filtered through the gusset of a pair of tights worn by Betty Grable, and delivered by water cannon fired by homeless Ugandans. And we can tell our mates about it. And we can metaphorically say ‘Fuck You! I drank a PHENOMENAL beer that was only PHENOMENAL when I drank it…it is now shite, and you can’t have it!’

Why am I so exercised? Jealousy? That I cannot afford the £45 a bottle price tag? Hurt pride? That I can never brew beer like that? Not really. It’s more like the spicy hit of tedium, aged with chippings of concern.

Tedium. Tedium, because all of a sudden beer is starting to gain the caché of wine. Even CAMRA support that kind of thing. However, we now talk about beer pairings, artisan manufacture, and is someone going to say terroir soon? As a geographer, I really want to think about beer as a geographical entity; the hydrogeology of water supply, the transport of ingredients and product, the historical context, the environmental footprint, the way beer permeates parts of our social fabric and how that has changed over time. As a drinker, I just want a good, tasty pint, well kept! When I go to the pub I want to leave the academic stuff behind (that’s my day job!), and sup a beer and think ‘Mmm, I could have another of them….’ Don’t get me wrong, I am happy for people to taste and describe. I belong to the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, and some of their tasting notes make Gilly Goolden blush. But, sometimes, over-analysis tells us nothing. You’ve just got to taste it yourself. And I don’t care what you think.

Concern. Well, because some proponents of the term ‘craft’, seem to have forgotten the roots of the drink they so love. And this has built a sort of ‘beer snob’ culture that I hate. I get accused of being a ‘beer snob’ because I turn my nose up at a pint of Worthy CreamFlow, but by ‘dissing’ lots of small, regional, truly traditional breweries who put out stuff many are now seeing as ‘bland and brown’, means that the real essence of the craft could be lost, at least to the many. Beer IS a simple product; the ingredients are few and common, and the process not that difficult – after all many households made their own in times gone by. But the present shift of the ‘craft’ movement towards chucking everything at it from coffee grinds to printer cartridges (‘ummm…yes…wait…I’m getting hints of the HP Magenta ink circa ‘95…’), means that they are actually making brewing a far more arcane activity, as if these brewers have some divine connection to Ninkasi, and marking the product up accordingly.

Beer, and brewing, is about democracy. Firstly, like any good democracy, you participate; not just in the process of selection but in the creation of product. There are aspects of the ‘craft’ industry where this is just as alien as the so called ‘regionals’ or ‘nationals’. Don’t get me wrong, there are both ‘craft’ and ‘non-craft’ areas that get this right, but neither can claim the moral high ground. Secondly, beer is democratic in that you choose to like it and choose what to like. At GBBF this year, a thoroughly decent ‘regional’ introduced us to a new range of beers laced with New World hops. They were, in my opinion, pretty rank. Or, at least, much worse than either the bitter or dark mild they had brewed for generations. Even they had been seduced by the ‘movement’! Even worse, could there be a time when I can no longer choose their ‘boring, brown and bland bitter’ over these new brews? All of a sudden, this lack of beery competition is sounding like taste autocracy!

I could go on. But you have probably nodded off into your exquisitely fluted glass of fermented yaks horn, barrel aged in the sewers of Paris, and fermented under strict conditions of 24 hour Popul Vuh records being played at barely audible volumes.

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