02 April 2010

Why beer doesn't matter

Session logoBeer's ambassador to the world, Mr Pete Brown, staged a competition on his blog a few months back. Entrants were asked to write on a subject dear to Pete's heart: "Why Beer Matters" (the winner, incidentally, was Dredge the Unstoppable Text Machine -- well done Mark, enjoy the trip). "Why Beer Matters?", I thought at the time. Then, "Does Beer Matter?"

The answer, for me, is no: beer doesn't matter. Beer is a luxury commodity, an enjoyable way to dispose of my disposable income. It's fun, it's frivolous, it's entertaining, it's a social nucleation point. But it doesn't matter. If it wasn't beer it'd be something else. Indeed for most people it is something else.

Not that there's anything wrong with other folk regarding beer as important. At least, to a certain extent. This month's Session is hosted by Beer Search Party and the theme is "Cult Beers", prompted by the imminent release of this year's batch of some rare American brews. Events like Dark Lord Day at 3 Floyds in Indiana are major occasions for the US beer scene. Fans have been known to queue for hours to get hold of a single rationed case of the imperial stout. Other breweries have followed suit -- creating big headline releases of one-off vintage beers and attempting to whip up publicity in the small sub-culture that surrounds craft beer. Grand-daddy of them all, perhaps, is Westvleteren in Flanders, where the beer is only sold to you if you've registered in advance and you get no choice in what beer you're given when you show up as arranged.

I hate it. It's bad for drinkers and it's bad for beer. The breweries, I'm sure, love it. Another weapon in the marketing arsenal designed to shift units for the highest margins possible: guaranteed no wastage and a product which, once the event is established, will be promoted entirely by the punters themselves. For free. It's not big and it's not clever.

Meanwhile the paying customer gets to stand in a carpark, in a queue, in the rain, in an effort to give the brewery some money in exchange for some bottles of mostly-water. If they succeed they get a beer which they can drink if they like, but wouldn't that be a waste of all the effort? Why not sell it at an enormous mark-up to other, more desperate, trophy-seekers (even though you promised the monks you wouldn't)? Or why not just bask in it? Leave it alone in the stash; tell your friends that you have it, you got it, it's yours. If you're feeling particularly gloaty, you could invite a select group of them over and portion it out in thimbles. You're the man now: that's 20ml of liquid respect right there.

Then beer itself starts to develop a reputation as something exclusive, expensive, élite. Priced for the discerning connoisseur. Cultish. Not classy -- no, it's still only beer after all -- but with all the worst characteristics that wine, wine snobs and wine bores have accrued over the years. With the breweries already on the make, the middlemen can get in on the action: secure the rare beer cheaply then jack up the price knowing that some collector with more money than sense will pay it. Who loses? People who like to drink beer, that's who.

It's hard to know who to blame most: the breweries who pull the strings, or the marionettes who perpetuate the whole sad spectacle. The bottom line, I think, is that you'd be able to buy these ultra-rare special editions in any corner shop for a reasonable price if punters weren't willing to queue up and sell a kidney for them. Ignore the monster, is my advice, and it'll go away.

Today's rant has been fuelled by a beer that isn't a cult, but does have a bit of a following: HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Wood. Because I knew the name and reputation, I picked up a bottle when I saw one on sale in Bier Koning: that's the sort of cult-beer-seeking I like. Serendipity beats standing in line every damn time.The beer is a lovely shade of rosewood with a nose that's big on mocha: sweet yet dry and roasty. The smoked malt is used to great effect: strong and unambiguous, yet beautifully balanced against the dark chocolate flavours. There's a definite dryness to it, with a touch of brimstone -- Burton snatch meets safety match -- but like the smoke, there's not too much. And if you leave it on the palate for a second or two you get the heady gin vapours from the juniper berries. My only criticism is one I've had with a lot of Norwegian craft beers: over-gassiness. Though I don't know whether this would work as well as a beefier, less fizzy, ale.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Oh: you say you can't get hold of this particular beer? Well don't worry, there'll be something else just as good along in a minute.

40 comments:

  1. Great write! And couldn't agree with you more (that goes for Norwegian Wood, too, a beer I really love).

    I would go all the way to add that a certain proportion of the high marks some of those beers receive are because they are such a hassle to get. There are quite a lot of people who would not acknowledge that something that caused them so much trouble and cost them so much might not have been worth it.

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  2. Excellent post.

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  3. Wow BN. You ought to cut loose a bit more. Good stuff.

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  4. Anonymous10:40 a.m.

    If it wasn't quality people wouldn't chase it!! Stop bitching untill people stop drinking bud, coors and miller... craft beer will be made with expnsive ingredients that cost them more becasue they brew on a small scale. If you don't care and you think beer is beer I suggest you just drink pabst because you obviously can't taste the difference between quality and crap. America was built on supply and demand if there wasn't demand these rare beers would probably be cheeper but if there wasn't demand wouldn't it mean I sucked in the first place

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  5. A supreme post TBN! And I think you just surmised why I find the American craft beer scene difficult to get a handle on, simply put, for many it isn't about the beer, it's about the kudos they garner by being "craft beer drinkers". I am guessing from the spelling mistakes in Anonymous's post there that he attends Tea Party rallies.

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  6. Brilliant post TBN, It gets my vote for blog post of the year. Where do I vote?

    I would never queue for a beer nor drive all the way to Belgium to get Westvleteren. No need when I know I will come across it at some stage. I have an offer to have a Westvleteren night by a fellow ICB member so some time this year I will have the 12.

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  7. Now, just to twist your melon, does blogging about Beer matter ???

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  8. It's a very well written post but I think overall the argument is very flawed, it's essentially equal to saying anyones pasttimes are not important.

    Of course they're important, coffee and wine are massive to some, there are foodies who chase culinary pleasures, watching football is the crux of some peoples week, beer or any other recreational hobbyish endevour is as important as the individual believes it to be.

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  9. BMK: No of course it doesn't.

    Denarse: I think you're misinterpreting me. The importance one assigns to one's pastimes is indeed one's own business. However, when your pastime makes mine more difficult and/or expensive, then I have a problem with what you're doing.

    I guess you could say that the willingness of footie fans to hand wodges of cash over to Mr Murdoch spoils the game for other hobbyists to some extent. That would bug me if I gave a toss about football.

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  10. I don't blog about beer/homebrew/whatever pops into my head, because it "matters" but rather because I enjoy doing it - I am fairly sure that in the grand scheme of things (assuming a scheme actually exists), my beer bloggings are utterly irrelevant witterings - but I enjoy wittering.

    Whilst discussing the, potentially mythical, grand scheme of things, beer is also irrelevant. Yes it is a pleasant refreshment, yes it has played a role in shaping cultures and yes it is enjoyed by people the world over.

    But, it is not some existential experience, it is just a drink. Drinking craft beer doesn't make me love my wife more, doesn't make me a better person, doesn't make me better at my job.

    Learning to accept hobbies for being just that, something to do when you have nothing better or more pressing to do, something to help you pass time, is essential.

    Murdoch has indeed destroyed football, by taking it away from its natural constituency, the working man. Could beer go the same way when brewers start pitching it as a lifestyle accessory, akin to the handbag, the shoes, the toy dog?

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  11. One of the worst aspects of the craft beer boom in the US is the obsession with hunting down rare beers. Often beers which have intentionally been made rare by cynical brewers.

    The vast majority of posts on beer forums are either breathless adoration for these "gems", gloating over having captured them or scheming about how to obtain them.

    Queue up for Dark Lord? Remortgage my house for Darkness? No effing way. It's not as if no-one else brews a strong Stout. The US is awash with the bloody things

    Though I would trek all the way to Poland if Grodziskie reappeared.

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  12. Beernut my bad completely.

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  13. Interesting stuff. I only tried Norwegian Wood in last few months and it fair bloew me away - such depth of flavour with the smoke, like you say. I guess Beer, long with anything else that people can hoppy-ise or rhapsodise about, will pull extremes of emotion out in people. When you choose to write about it too, I guess that's amplified.

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  14. Anonymous3:27 p.m.

    Maybe you need a new pastime!! You can call your blog the wine blog whaaa my beer costs to much!! If you think your craft brewery is extorting you there's plenty of good affordable beers out there! And if there too expensive drink coors or don't drink at all. The finer things in life all cost more good cigars,wine,women, cars and beer!! Either deal with it or get a new hobby or a new blog! Whaaa I don't make enough to drink limited edition beer whaa people with money are buying it and driving the prices up!!! Whaaa whaaa

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  15. oh dear I think you touched a nerve!

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  16. A great Post TBN. Another analogy would be comics. There have been a couple of news stories in the last few months about the fact that Batman #1 went for $1m and then this was topped by a Superman #1 that sold last week for $1.5m. I have to say that i enjoy reading comics, but I read them for the writing and the artwork, I am not interested in collecting them so that in 10 years time I can take out my polybagged DMZ #1 and show it off. If you enjoy something, enjoy it, immerse yourself in it and most importantly consume it.

    You can't really blame the american breweries for doing this, however if you had asked them when they started off homebrewing (like a lot of them did) that this was on their horizon I am sure they would have laughed at you.

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  17. I like this post a lot.

    A certain knitting wool made by a one woman operation in Germany goes on sale on fridays and sells out instantly. It is dyed in small non-repeatable batches in small quantities. A single ball can cost €100 on ebay. It's scarcity only enhances it's desirability. It is a very nice wool to be sure but there are others out there which are just as good and do not cost as much.

    So it goes with all hobbies and collectors it seems...

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  18. God, there are some wankers about without the courage to put their names on their posts, are there not? Well done, BN, for leaving Messers Anonymous up so we can all laugh at them.

    Yes, there really ought to be a law that all bottles of Double Imperial Hardtofind Black IPA Mild and the like should have the words "IT'S ONLY A BEER" printed in big letters on the label, and yes, Norwegian Wood is excellent. And no, BMK, blogging about beer doesn't matter at all. 'Sfun, though.

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  19. I still maybe don't get the point of this fully, every facet of the food and drink has staggered Quality and price points, Michelin Stars on a restaurant will mean your going to pay more than it's worth,
    I can understand that the people who buy a beer just to show off are in need of a swift boot, but to pay over the odds beer for something that might be classed as a bit special is a reasonable persuit.

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  20. I don't think the breweries are necessarily cynical. The majority of the breweries in the US are brewpubs and just don't have capacity to meet vastly increased demand if one of their beers suddenly becomes a "whale" as the beer twats call it. Blame the twats, not the brewers.

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  21. Good points BN - however I think you are being a little hard on the brothers at St Sixtus. As is well known the problems with Westvleteren were forced on them by external events beyond their control.

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  22. Anonymous:
    >If you think your craft brewery is extorting you there's plenty of good affordable beers out there!

    That's exactly what the Beer Nut said.

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  23. John: care to explain that one to me? 'Cos I'm willing to bet that the problems are entirely inside their control.

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  24. John as Trappists one of the laws is that all the brewing must be done on the grounds, there can be physical implications of this on there brewing capacity. Also they use open fermentors that do limit production volume too

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  25. I think the point is that Westvleteren's distribution system was not a problem for anyone until huge numbers of idiots read that it was "the best beer in the world" and started war-dialling the brewery with several phones at once.

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  26. BN - Oblivious and Barm have summed this up. It was Ratebeer, I think, that declared Westvleteren Abt to be the "best beer in the world" and , basically, chaos ensued with the roads to the monastery blocked with traffic. The brothers introduced the present very restrictive system to try and choke off what was an unsustainable demand. Tim Webb covers this in some detail in his Good Beer Guide Belgium - and he suggests there some other options to achieve the same result. In any event, it's all rather different to these US breweries creating the demand themselves rather than having it created by external force, which as I said, are outside their control.

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  27. Yes, a great post.

    Limited Collector's Edition beers which come with certificates and wax seals are a bit pathetic. Like DVD's in 'collectable' boxes, their rarity is contrived.

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  28. Surely all Westvleteren has to do is hand the beer over to an agent to sell through normal channels.

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  29. Mark H.7:01 p.m.

    A very interesting post. I am a lover of craft beers and look for new ones all the time though I'm not anal about it. I understand what you are trying to say, but people read what they want to read. I have a grand collection of beers and wouldn't sell them at all. I usually give them away while enjoying them with friends, but I do not stand in lines to wait for anything! If I get the chance to taste something special, it's a plus. But another point is that some of these breweries would not be in business if it weren't for the "special" beers they can sell at high markups...not saying it's right, but it is a fact of economics. The beer fest scene has gone that route also. When my wife and I first started attending beer fests, you could drive a truck through most of them and not hit anyone, now you can't even walk in them! I have stopped attending 95% of fests as they are populated by young kids there for a cheap drunk. Keep us thinking!

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  30. Al Luccioni8:20 p.m.

    "However, when your pastime makes mine more difficult and/or expensive, then I have a problem with what you're doing" You cannot be serious, this is a joke right?

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  31. Nope. If my beer costs a lot, which it sometimes does, I want that to be because of the work and ingredients that went into it, not simply because someone else was willing to pay a high price.

    It's why, for instance, I don't go to auctions to buy beer, and would hate if auction became a common method of selling beer, as it is with wine, whiskey and coffee.

    A product made almost entirely of water and ready for sale within only a few weeks or months ought to exist in a buyers' market, IMO.

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  32. Al Luccioni1:12 p.m.

    Not trying to be a smart-*ss here or rude, but I find your thoughts about "other people" pushing up the price of "your beer” as very strange. The price people are willing to pay is the "true price” it is not fake or made up. There are producers, there are consumers, and there are some intermediaries. They get together and clear at a given price as any market does. That is the “real price” unless there is some kind of coercive manipulation which I do not think you are claiming. If you think there is some huge speculation affecting the price of beer creating a bubble , don’t worry you or somebody else will short the market causing the market to correct why doesn’t that happen? I dare say your post is bit hypocritical complaining about other people assigning value to a commodity when you, yourself are involved in publishing a blog ( which I enjoy by the way ) that does that very thing, that is, assigns some kind of extra value to a commodity “made almost entirely of water and ready for sale within a few weeks or months”. Why would you have a problem with somebody else doing the exact same thing you are ? Premiumization of consumer products is practice that has gone on for centuries, like or not your blog does exactly that. Again not trying to be a jerk just my two cents.

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  33. That's not at all jerkish, Al. And you can say "ass" if you want. It's already a euphemism, after all.

    Obviously any price is a true price, but prices are elastic: there comes a point where you have to say "this is too expensive for this thing". I'm not at all saying there's huge speculation. I'm saying there's a tiny amount of speculation in an already tiny market. And this is why the market doesn't self-correct: certain beers become fetishistic, even though they're made of the same stuff as the other ones. I, as a drinker, think that's A Bad Thing.

    I strongly hope that my blog does not raise demand or prices for any individual beer. Please read the last two sentences of my post again: they're the post important bit.

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  34. One point you're missing here is that some beers, while possibly made of similar ingredients, may be quite a bit better simply because of the superior skill of the brewer. Don't call breweries "cynical" because they employ (or are owned by) better brewers and have better marketing. They are a business creating a product. If they sucked at it they'd have to get different jobs, ones where you can't drink beer at work.

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  35. I've covered that one Frank, as have others. There are plenty of beers which are just as good as the ones which require queuing up. It's their contrived rarity value that makes them cult beers; not the beer itself.

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  36. Expensive beer is not always good beer. Know that.

    I've drunk absolute shit at £10 a bottle and sublime nectar at 20p a bottle.

    Pity a lot of US beer lovers can't see past this.

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  37. Anonymous10:24 p.m.

    First off, I agree with the general point that a wave of silliness is sweeping the beer scene. As the idea of "premium" beer has caught on, some people have jumped into the hobby for the wrong reasons, i.e. snobbery and brinkmanship. Of course, these people are enabled by breweries that create "gimmick" beers for limited release at high prices.

    That said, I don't think the phenomenon is anything new, or that it's confined to my fellow Americans as some respondents above have suggested. On Beeradvocate.com, there are a great many UK and European beer "geeks" who have gone to great lengths to trade for or otherwise procure US beers (Dark Lord, DFH 120 Minute IPA, Black Ops, etc.). Also, by my count the American beer scene has long produced far more "extreme" brewers than the UK and Europe. Beers like Utopias, Founders Devil Dancer, barrel-aged this and septuple hopped that are going to push the envelope of price as well as taste.

    Also, your use of "Dark Lord Day" as an example is a bit unfair; DL is a low-yield, expensive beer to produce, and takes up a lot of time and space that could easily be devoted to more marketable beers. Plus, Three Floyds makes a concerted effort to make DLD a fun experience; the titular brew itself is only a small part of the festivities. There are serious issues with the festival, but 3F seem to be making a real effort to improve things.

    In my opinion, there are plenty of good beers out there that aren't nearly impossible to obtain or afford. However, there are also some rarities and one-offs that are well worth the price and effort, and sometimes the fishing is as much fun as the catch.

    James V, Kentucky, USA

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  38. Hi James,

    Yes indeed Dark Lord is low-yield, but only because the brewery has decided it shall be so. If they wanted to make more, they could.

    I agree, in general, that fishing for beer is fun, but there's something about deliberate one-offs and rarities that has an artificial fishing lake feel to it: fish that are put there just so you'll try and catch them. What you're catching isn't wild.

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  39. Anonymous5:52 p.m.

    You're right, they could make more, but you have to remember that it takes up valuable space for a long time to make the beer. It sits in the fermenter for many months before being bottled. 3F beers are already hard enough to find in Chicago (where I live) so by putting another batch of Dark Lord into another fermenter they would be squeezing out space on what could be used for Gumbalhead or Alpha King or any of the other year round beers. The only solution would be to add more fermenters, but you'd have to ask the 3F guys how their books are looking. What's also interesting is that Dark Lord isn't even their most expensive beer. Behemoth Barleywine runs at 16 or 17 and you can occasionally find it on the shelves.

    Now I've been to Dard Lord Day the past three years and each year has become more about the environment than about DL itself. I have had a blast meeting people and sharing any and all beers brought from around the world. (Not hard to find beers but beers that are not distributed to my neck of the woods)So the day itself is a good thing. The bad comes into play when the selfish come in and buy up as many bottles as they can only to resell for four times the price. That, in my opinion is where it becomes no longer about the beer.

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