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 su