04 April 2014

Here isn't the news

"Beer Journalism" is Heather's choice of topic for this 86th round of The Session, asking us to turn a critical eye on how the media cover the beer industry. Madam, that's the only kind of eye I've got.

Y'see, in Ireland we have a fairly obvious problem, and I'm sure it is by no means unique to us, and it's that beer journalism -- and I mean proper writing or broadcasting by paid journalists for reputable outlets -- falls into one of two unsatisfactory categories.

At one end you've got the Bottle of the Week sidebar, as found in the likes of The Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post, where a staff writer has picked something from a more interesting corner of Tesco or O'Brien's and written a hundred words on how malty and hoppy it tastes. It would be very cynical of me to suggest that such pieces are sometimes little more than paraphrasings from the label or brewery website because the writer's critical faculties are not primarily attuned to beer, or they're too busy with their proper journalistic endeavours to spend much time on this, but let's just say that distinctive voices in the Bottle of the Week column are rare. And it's not that such columns are a bad thing: they make it marginally more likely that when Citizen Reader goes into Dunnes or Molloy's he (and let's face it, it's a he) is more likely to pick a bottle from a more interesting corner than the big brand lager he actually went in to buy. Good for awareness, good for diversity, but really the picture of the bottle and the price would be sufficient: the actual journalism tells us little.

At the other extreme you've got The Big Feature. Every paper has been running these for the last four or five years, sometimes with alarming regularity. Three or four pictures of three or four different brewers, holding up a trial jar, stirring a mashtun, standing in front of a shiny stainless FV with arms folded. And the copy... the same copy: "Well, we wanted to increase the choice of beers..." "People kept asking what the local beer was..." "I came back from working abroad and..." "Yes, it's hard graft but when you sit down at the end of the day with your..." It was exciting the first few times, especially when the telly magazine show started doing it too. But now it's so tired. And, like the other extreme, the reader never really finds out anything about beer. Such features are run as human interest stories, or sometimes in the business section, but it's always far more about entrepreneurship than the actual product. Again: a legitimate thing for the media to be covering, but it leaves a gap where the actual beer should be.

To see just how glaring the gap is, you need only turn to the wine page. There it is, in the heart of the Food & Drink section, itself a capstone of the Lifestyle supplement. Sure, there's a bottle (or five) of the week in the sidebar, but what's the headline, the week's theme? There's more to Spain than just Rioja... A plucky foreigner has opened a winery in the heart of Bordeaux country... Chile's Central Valley has a unique climate... There's more to New Zealand than just Sauvignon Blanc... Substance. Broad yet specific facts about wine and viniculture, illustrated with vignettes, observations from the writer's wide-ranging experiences and quotes from knowledgeable insiders who are also personal acquaintances. Like the best journalism in any subject, you get a glance into the topic, and around the topic, from someone who knows the beat and has plenty to teach you, week after week. And that is totally missing from beer journalism in Ireland.

Until quite recently, it was forgiveable. The Irish beer scene was hardly buzzing with potential new stories, and nobody wants to read an abstract piece about unattainable foreign beers. But that has changed. The local scene is thriving, not only in the number of operators, but how regularly they're putting new and seasonal products out and, most interestingly, what they're putting out.

Cask left; keg right
I've two newsworthy examples to back up my observation. The first is Yerba, a collaboration between Metalman and Hardknott (newsworthy enough in itself, as I think it's a first). The beer is a 6.2% ABV dark ale, which Metalman at least are reluctantly calling a porter (there's a whole paragraph right there) and it's brewed with orange mate tea (cue digression on the place of mate in South American culture) sourced from Kingfisher in Enniscorthy. Dispense in the Bull & Castle was offered in both cask and keg formats (save that discussion for a future article?). It tastes powerfully, palate-cloggingly herbal: wintergreen and eucalpytus with loads of orange zest. I racked my brains trying to work out what it reminded me of, eventually settling on Campari: it has the same sort of intense bitter stickyness. I get a little coconut as well which had me wondering if some Sorachi Ace hops had sneaked in somewhere, but no, it's Pacific Jade and Bramling Cross, neither bringing much of their soft fruit credentials to the party. Mere traces of portery treacle cower in the background, behind the orangey herbal onslaught.

So, Yerba didn't really work for me. It's a fun novelty for one pint, and to that end I preferred the cask to the keg as the craziness was more pronounced in the former, but one pint was plenty and I wanted something that tastes more like beer after it. But hey, full marks for bravery.

Mere days after encountering Yerba, Irish brewing landed another oddly-constructed beer on me in the form of Franciscan Well Clementine & Rosemary Ale, on tap at The Beerhouse on Capel Street. This was presented as a lightly hazy gold colour and was a real jolt of summer on a rainy late-March day. A saison yeast did the heavy lifting here but it's not as bone dry as some saisons can be. There's a very weissbierish clove complexity and some mouthwatering orange spritz from the clementines, a world away from the hard orangeyness found in Yerba. The rosemary almost spoils the party: it's not the lightly-seasoned-lamb infusion I was expecting but more the harsh resinousness of chewing raw leaves. Thankfully it doesn't get too much in the way. Overall a superb refresher just perhaps a couple of months premature.

However you slice it, these are two utterly fascinating beers, reflecting a vibrant, diverse and mature brewing (and cider-making) scene. Not that you'd know anything about it from picking up the paper.


  1. All of this rings true for the UK, too, I might add. I'm a journalist myself (albeit far from the weekend/lifestyle supplement side of the profession) and I've never really understood why - say - Observer Food Monthly didn't at least do a regular half page. I find it baffling. Target audience would clearly be interested. There are big name brewers (of the GK/Fuller's/Sheps size) who already advertise in the nationals and who might even sponsor the segment.

    As with TV coverage, I just don't get *why* the beer efforts are always so amateur. Half-baked. Often, as you say, prolly fills lifestyle guff. Why?!

    1. All down to the attitude that beer is a generic mass-produced commodity that exists to quench your thirst and get you pissed, unlike wine which is for savouring, I would say.

  2. <<< that last bit was meant to say pollyfilla but my iPad decided otherwise. Funnily enough, I think you can still see what I was getting at.

  3. Tried the Yerba on keg recently, way too bitter and harsh with nothing to balance it.

    Agree about the beer journalism, I drink wine too and much more interesting to read articles on that subject in the national press.

  4. Anonymous4:29 pm

    Where's your favorite beer story?

    1. Probably buried on this blog somewhere.