As I emerge blinking from another round of the game I like to call "Dishing It Out About Beer" (go and join in the fun at the Fletch-curated Real Ale Reviews), I'm reminded of an event that happened 24 hours ago that throws the all the arguments about "craft beer", keg vs cask, the relevance of CAMRA in the 21st century et al into a cocked hat.
When you look at these beers, there's little to inspire confidence. Sure, they are pre-production samples, but there's nothing about them that makes you think "ooh, helloooo". You might raise one eyebrow at the monastic connections to Ampleforth Abbey, raise the other eybrow at the 7%abv. But then perhaps you'll lower the first eyebrow noting that sugar is listed as an ingredient, and then lower the second raised eyebrow when you note that the beer isn't brewed on site, but is actually contract brewed by Dutchman in exile Wim van der Spek at his Little Valley brewery near Hebden Bridge. All of this eyebrow waggling, resembling windscreen wipers on a rainy drive, might have given you the appearance of Roger Moore doing a mid-period James Bond. If, like me, your experiences with Little Valley beers have been a bit mixed - on cask, delicious and sometimes ethereal, in bottle, mmm, not so much - you might even have lowered an eyebrow by now.
Anyway, that frightfully clever, look-at-me-and-my-fancy-words preamble is a roundabout way of saying that last night I opened these beers, and they completely cut through the craft-cask-keg-CAMRA debate about where we go from here, because these are simply very well-made beers, and great examples of what they should be. Perhaps my expectations were lowered from all the eyebrow waggling, and I have to say that the initial banana and acetone notes that wafted out of the glass were a little unnerving, but given a couple of minutes to breathe, this blossomed spectacularly into a really solid, slightly sweet, slightly boozy Belgian-style double/dubbel.
I know, I know, it's really unlikely, but there you have it. I spoke to the guys at the abbey today and they have a colossal first bottling run booked in. I won't say exactly how much, but my initial "yeah, I could sell a bit of this, but I wonder how much?" finger-in-the-air estimate of how much to buy was about a half of one percent of the total production run. They're clearly slightly mad - the only English abbey beer, brewed under licence by a Dutchman 50 miles away - but like all mad things, there's an element of greatness to it.
More pertinently for me, it underlined that actually the key thing that makes a beer great is, very simply, that it must be well-made. No doubt some smart-arse will pop up and say "but that's the definition of craft". Well, bullshit. There are well-made beers, and then there are the rest. If you can brew a beer and get it into a glass free from any production flaws, and tasting broadly how it should taste (let's not use this as an argument about styles), then you'll have made me, and a legion of drinkers, very happy. It seems like a modest set of desires, doesn't it? Brew a beer free of flaws, ensure it carbonates properly, and tastes (for want of a better word) nice.
Anyway, I drank the first bottle of badly-labelled, contract-brewed Ampleforth Abbey Double, and when I got to the end, I thought "was it really that good?" and drank another one to make sure. And you know what? It really was that good.