Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Grayson Perry On Craft Beer

Image for Beating the Bounds
I caught the first of Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures on craft beer this week. They're broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (link), and the first lecture was largely to do with how we actually define craft beer.

Well, I'm twisting his words slightly. He was actually talking about art, but really all the arguments he deploys are equally applicable to craft beer. How do you define it, what it is, what it isn't, and who gets to make those decisions. Who gets to buy and consume it. Really, it's interesting, you should listen to it, just substitute the word "beer" every time you hear the word "art"

That's the good bit of the post over. The rest is about beer/craft beer and quality control.

I still think that craft beer is "a thing", but I'm still not sure that it's anything to do with beer. At IndyManBeerCon last year, I was part of the panel that James also sat on, the panel he mentions in the opening paragraph here. It's my recollection that we did actually talk about what craft beer was. Being the contrarian, I talked about craft beer in terms of what it wasn't (link here), and how the whole movement was about trying to define oneself in opposition to the mainstream. Hey, I'm a failed academic. Maybe it was a bit fine-grained, but James very kindly told us all that we'd missed the point, and showboated about Blue Moon for 10 minutes. Sheesh, if that's not defining yourself as the other, I don't know what is.

IndyMan is the dream of craft beer made flesh. I can't pretend that I get to many beer festivals, or even many beer bars these days, but IndyMan has a special place in my heart. It is everything that is great about Britain rolled into one. Britain has a reputation for being an early adopter, which might explain the endless reinvention and global domination of (for example) fashion and pop music. Couple that with a celebration of history, and a long weekend of craft beer in the crumbling splendour of a Victorian swimming baths couldn't be any more British.

I do wonder, though, if an idea as brilliantly conceived and expertly executed as IndyMan is almost done a disservice by some beer (craft beer, by definition, I guess).

At the Great British Beer Festival this year, I set myself a challenge: no beer that I'd drunk before, and a decent selection of stab-in-the-dark beers that I knew nothing about as a way of trying to gauge a cross-section of the market. It wasn't an entirely enjoyable experience, with dull, poorly conceived and/or badly made (or all three) beers easily found, and mostly from brewers that would, by any definition put forward, be classed as craft brewers.

While I didn't set any such criteria at IndyMan, I was surprised to experience a similar set of disappointments. Phenolic, astringent golden ales. Beer that smelled of freshly mashed grain. Beers that had a peculiar quality that I could only describe as "the opposite of drinkability". This isn't peculiar to IndyMan, or to craft beer, but there are a group of breweries who have quality control nailed, and rarely disappoint. They get my money every time. The others, not so much.

And what of the drinkers? One brewer reported to me having had a conversation with a craft beer enthusiast who was loving the butterscotch edge in their beer. It turned out to be diacetyl, although the drinker had never heard of it, and was adamant that they were enjoying it. Fair enough, for that drinker it was more important to be drinking craft beer than to be understanding it. For me, it's the other way around, but like I said earlier, I'm a failed academic.

Is quality control important? I think it's the one major challenge that faces beer, craft or otherwise. It's the elephant in the room. Having a trade body to "protect" craft beer (whatever that means - I think really it means a brewer-funded body to promote themselves, in the way that the Brewer's Association does in the US) is secondary to some way of ensuring that when people do eventually try beer (craft or not), it's a positive experience.

Put it another way: I'm not interested in your credentials if you've paid for them. Let the beer do the talking for you. It's part of the reason that I've worked in this industry for so long, because I genuinely believe that tasty, well-made beer is a life-enhancing experience, in the same way that good food is.

But that's just me - failed academic, beautiful dreamer.

23 comments:

  1. Caught the Reith lecture too. Nail-on-head, Chris (BBF)

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    1. Thanks Chris. I just joined the dots, really (another form of art)

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  2. It's interesting to see James trying to retrofit the US definition onto British and/or European brewing. I haven't looked at the criteria too closely; I wonder if there's anything there that would disqualify Thwaites', Robinson's, Hall & Woodhouse, etc, etc. (Not size, presumably, and not supermarket distribution or lack of.)

    Whether craft beer is defined as "beer that's marketed as craft beer" or "beer made by a member of the club of craft brewers", there's nothing in there about quality, consistency, diversity, originality - nothing about the beer at all, in fact. I think what BD understood quite early on is that you don't need to sell the beer if you can sell the buzz. I wonder how many other novice crafties are doggedly 'enjoying' off flavours, telling theselves that of course it doesn't taste like ordinary beer...

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  3. As I've been saying in my blog for a long time, Craft Beer is a brand. Like every other brand it has been loaded with a series of more or less arbitrary, sensible, credible attributes to, on the one hand, differentiate and on the other, to make people identify with it.

    There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, brands help to sell products and craft beer is a really nice brand. It's got a nice set of attributes, it's got a loyal consumer base. For a small, start-up brewery from a small, forgotten town is a godsend as it is a lot easier to sell Craft Beer than Sillyname Brewing co. If only the brand didn't speak so much about the company and what the company isn't.

    Anyway, I wonder if, in all these Brewdogish attempts at finding a definite (and shall we say, very convenient) definition for something that has always been a very loose concept, isn't there a bit of a inferiority complex or fear or lack of confidence in their own products. I don't know about you, but I don't buy craft beer, or real ale, or traditional beer, or industrial beer, or Belgian, German, Czech, British beer, I buy good beer. If someone is able to offer me good beer (at good value), I will want to give them my money. All the rest is marketing, bollocks that never go further than the glass.

    PS: Since much of their marketing strategy seems to have a generational note, I wonder how smart that is in the long run, what will happen when this brand stops being trendy.

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  4. will have to listen to it, even if pottery isn’t my thing, but you make a good point about quality — it seems to me that any idiot can grow a beard, wear clothes that seem out of the American Depression and call themselves a craft brewer these days, but there’s also brewing capability. And while we’re at it, I had a bottle of Thwaites Three Cs and Siren’s Broken Dream last night — both were excellent but in this brave new world of classification, one’s craft the other’s not. Madness.

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  5. Where was it decided that diacetyl was always a bad thing, and anyone who enjoys the taste is just deluding themselves? Sounds like a form of snobbery to me.

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    1. Well, I guess I'm basing it on the opinion of a brewer who I trust and respect, plus my experiences of beer drinking over the last two and a half decades. But blogs are just soapboxes, really.

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  6. I thought diacetyl was wanted for certain styles of beer? I remember reading about the double drop method of brewing in Martyn Cornell's book, which stated that the butterscotch flavour was something that defined the beer.

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    1. I think there's a big difference between a dab of diacetyl mid-palate, and a hideous diacetyl bomb. At elevated levels, it's not a pleasant experience. But that's only my opinion, of course.

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  7. I'm not convinced by the diacetyl prescriptivism thing either. Butterscotch is a *nice* flavour, so if you want it in your beer, you can control it, and your customers keep buying it, what's the problem? I suppose whether it works depends on the type of beer, but that's another issue.

    Anyone who has been a judge at a beer festival will agree with Grayson Perry's general point about contemporary art though: a lot of it is rubbish.

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    1. Having tried beers that have revoltingly elevated levels of diacetyl on numerous occasions, I'd say that there is a definite threshold beyond where it becomes unpleasant. But your mileage may vary.

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    2. The problem is that peoples taste threshold for diacetyl varies enormously some peoplc can can pick it up below the 0.1 mg/l whilst other people wont pick it up at 0.5 so to some what might be pleasent to others it stinks. Either way presence of diacetyl means a fermentation problem or even worse infection by pediococcus. I regard it as a brewing error and should not be really detectable.

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  8. It's possible, I guess, that some people might find a crudely hewn wooden spoon preferable to a 'properly made' metal one.

    Personally, I struggle with grainy/soupy/rough tasting beers, but I can understand that others might find them interesting and distinctive.

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    1. Indeed, horses for courses. But if people are grimacing and saying things like "I'm not sure I can finish this", then maybe - just maybe - there's something not quite right.

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  9. I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet but I will. Grayson is a star. And he doesn't do just pottery btw ;-)

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  10. Nice point by ATJ there are some great unfashionable beers out there, I'll always be a fan of a well kept Tim Taylor Landlord and actually perhaps there is another point there too, the amount of turnover needed to keep 20-30 casks tasting at their best is massive unless you get the footfall. Part of the craft needs to be extended to pub landlords too and with cafe/bars taking their place are we also in danger of loosing not just great unfashionable non craft beers but great unfashionable non craft landlords?

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  11. and another thing about diacetyl — did the brewer intend it to taste like a slab of butter, if so then fair enough the market will decide, but if he or she can’t brew for toffee and keep going around saying ‘yes it should be like that you goon’ or whatever then they don’t get my respect (or money). Bit like the licensees who when you complain about a bad pint chirrup ‘but it’s supposed to taste like that’.

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    1. That's a good point, though this video (@ 2:53) suggests that its daft to like sourness when it's deliberate but not when it's accidental -- does intent change the way it tastes?

      (Obviously, yes, unless you're a complete robot who is able to resist the influence of branding and marketing.)

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    2. That seems completely wrong to me. Surely you either like the way a beer tastes or you don't, and you should decide that for yourself, regardless of what anyone else tells you to think, or your preconceptions of the brewery. I always drink a beer first before reading reviews of it online.

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    3. I’m not talking about the poor mug who can’t tell diacetyl from Dettol, but if the brewer gets a rep for his buttery beer that only happens by accident he’s going to have a job keeping consistency but maybe there are drinkers out there who like their regular pint to taste different every time they drink it — I remember breweries like that ten years ago, they’re no longer breweries. re reviews, do people actually read a review before drinking a beer? Enough pubs and festivals do tasters these days.

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  12. Best policy in my humble opinion is "Don't mention the Craft", instead mention the mention the Imagination, the Concept, the ideal, the ingredients, the toil and hard work of cleaning the vessels that the beer is made in.... Just don't mention 'Craft'!

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  13. I'm not convinced by the diacetyl prescriptivism thing either. Butterscotch is a *nice* flavour, so if you want it in your beer, you can control it, and your customers keep buying it, what's the problem? I suppose whether it works depends on the type of beer, but that's another issue.

    Anyone who has been a judge at a beer festival will agree with Grayson Perry's general point about contemporary art though: a lot of it is rubbish.

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Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.