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.


  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.

  2. Excellent post.

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

  4. Anonymous10:40 am

    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

  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.

  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.

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

  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.

  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.

  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?

  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.

  12. Beernut my bad completely.

  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.

  14. Anonymous3:27 pm

    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

  15. oh dear I think you touched a nerve!

  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.

  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...

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  22. Anonymous1:28 am

    >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.

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

  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