Sunday 13 February 2011

What is craft beer?

I don't know. I know even less now I've read some of the posts surrounding this issue. I think it is very difficult to define what it is exactly.

A week gone Friday there was The Session hosted by Reluctant Scooper which asks about the various methods of beer dispense. I'm sorry that I've not had time to even read most of what has been written on the subject, let alone write something about it.

There has been further critiques of CAMRA recently. SWBrewery published a letter that stirred the blogosphere a little. Pete Brown also pointed out that one of the founder members of CAMRA regrets recruiting certain people to the organisation. Nicely balanced by Cooking Lager who points out in the comments that CAMRA are entitled to campaign for whatever they like1.

I am very happy to put a little bit of money into an organisation that champions cask beer. What I am not happy to do is carry on thinking that cask beer is simply the best way to serve every beer in every situation. It may well be the best for many beers. It may well be best for many pubs. It is certainly the case that there are a significant minority of the population who drink it routinely. I'm very happy for CAMRA to continue to defend this. Although we should remember that it is a form of snobbery all of its own.

I'm getting somewhat frustrated by the conviction that beer cannot and should not be snobby or elitist. That very facet of the beer world is starting to make me feel that there really is a political agenda still simmering away under the surface.

Being snobby and elitist does not mean you wish to eradicate what you feel is beneath you. Indeed, in my case I'd argue it simply means I appreciate a broad spectrum of many good things. I'm snobby about food for instance. I have enjoyed, as special treats, many good restaurant meals. I have also plumped on occasions for the consistency, convenience and all-round calorific good value of McDonalds4.

Why is there a fear of a beer world which is striving for something more exciting than the array of indistinguishable session ales that now adorn many pub bars? Many of them which might as well, if we were honest, have been brewed on some big industrial plant anyway.

I like many types of beer. I like cask beer a lot. I drink and brew a lot of cask beer. The remainder of the beer I brew, for the time being, gets bottle conditioned. I have only ever had a small amount of my beer chill filtered and re-carbonated. I'm not convinced the results were as good as my own bottle conditioned beer. But watch this space, "never say never" is what I'd say, chill filtering can be done right.

I do drink a little bit of beer that is not "CAMRA calls this beer Real Ale". Because I try to choose wisely I enjoy pretty much all of it. I've even tried cask up against keg and for some beers there is no doubt that keg beats cask. The other day, when the local pub had been let down by their normal supplier2 of cask beer I was forced to drink Guinness and enjoyed it quite a lot.

We all know cask beer. We understand it can be great. We also understand that it needs care and attention and not all circumstances are best for it. We also know that there are some pretty dull cask beers out there. Some are so dull that to be honest I'd rather have a Guinness, or perhaps a Carling.

So, this thing about Craft Beer? Well, whatever you want to say, there is a void, a vacuum, an esoteria that is trying to find some substance. To me it is irrelevant if it is burgeoning or not. This proudly snobbish, geeky and elitist void is currently fighting to form solid mass. This visionary cloud exists both here in the virtual world and in an increasing number of beer bars and progressive breweries.

Is Craft Beer the right term to help us fill the void? I think it could be. Although there are some very, very good arguments why we should approach the concept with some trepidation. Specifically, it would seem that in USA, craft beer is defined as made in a brewery that produces less than 6 million barrels of beer a year. Very few UK breweries produce more than this I'd hazard. Molson Coors? AB-InBev? Diagio? anymore? Besides, for what it's worth, I believe Molson Coors do brew some craft beer in the shape of White Shield and P2 as well as others.

I could go on and disassemble concepts such as "Traditional methods"3 "adjuncts to add rather than detract from flavour"5 etc.

The point is that there is an increasing cry for something, especially as we've just had the first SIBA Craft Keg festival. This cry sometimes blames CAMRA for standing in the way. I think there is some validity to that as I hear all to often that keg can't be as good or that we're being too elitist. So, let CAMRA get on with its good work at defending cask, why not? It's a good cause. Perhaps, in return, CAMRA activists could stop criticising, people using American hops or elitism that is trying to bring a refreshing new look to the beer world or even people asking a price that might make their brewery or pub a sustainable venture.

For me there has probably never been a better time to be involved in the British beer scene. We have a great array of fantastic beers out there. Some micro-brewed cask, some imported bottles, some craft keg, even stuff in cans that to be honest I'm dubious about, but we'll wait and see. Then there is the macro-brewed keg. We have to realise that this is what keeps many pubs trading. Yes, we'd all like every pub to have cask beer on the bar, that in itself is an elitist utopia. But it's not going to happen anymore than craft keg will usurp cask anytime soon.

Diversity is good and I'm happy to try and embrace it all.

Here in Cumbria a few merry folk are banding together to try and help fill the void in our part of the world. We've got no specialist beer bars in Cumbria you see. Craft Beer may not mean much to some folk, but to others it is a void that simply has to be filled.

Watch this space, there is more to come one this.


1"we" I should say. I'm a CAMRA member. Contrary to rumours, I have absolutely no intention of giving up my membership either.

2Their normal supplier is, of course, us. They can only take pins at the moment and we'd run out. Besides, they have a good flow of Guinness, best pint of the stuff I'd had for sometime as it happens.

3Where does a mash tun become a mash filter? Is it still craft if hop pellets are used? How far is it acceptable to process the hops?

4Yes, it's true. I've even been known to put ketchup on the chips although I'm more likely to if forced to the even lower depravity of Burger King, whose food is truly dreadful.

5I know of one very small microbrewery that uses sugar to increase fermentables. The only good reason I can see is that it is cheaper than malt. I'd probably be tempted to include them in the Craft Beer subset, although their beer isn't brilliant.

Saturday 5 February 2011

The Art of Last Orders

It's 2am. I have to be up at 6:30 so that I can be awake enough by 7:30, and have the grill, hot cupboard and oven hot enough to cook breakfast for these bastards. They drove up from London, got stuck in awful traffic on the M6, have had a busy week at their desk jobs and want to unwind. They did phone ahead to warn us they would be late and to ensure they could get a few drinks in; it's a stag weekend after all and many beers is one of the things they want to do.

The crack is good. These guys are respectable beer appreciators and are even drinking the 5%+ beers that our local reserved clientèle steer clear of; they have time to make up. I'm enjoying it too and ignore the voice that declares that I will regret this in the morning and will be far too grumpy with my kitchen staff for anyone's good. "Any chance of another?" they are residents and I could serve them all night, quite legally, although I could rightly refuse too. What harm would it do? We're all having fun, I can sleep in on Monday when they have all gone home.

I now no longer have the responsibility for closing a bar. As an ex-licensee I often feel guilty about any criticism levelled at a bar or pub when it decides to stop serving. It can be frustrating for punters when they fancy a drink to be refused service even when it is known what time the bar closes.

The other evening I was in a bar, a bar I am very fond of, drinking some very nice beer. It was getting late and I knew this. My assembled friends pointed out that if I didn't hurry up the bar would shut. It was about 5 minutes to eleven, my glass was empty and I did fancy just one more before I left. The bar staff had been cleaning and intermittently serving for around the last half an hour. I stood patiently at the bar hoping the bar staff would notice me.

Information, I am told, is what helps difficult situations. I was told this by a counsellor who happened to be staying at our pub on one occasion. He was a sort of headologist listening type person, rather than an ineffectual local politician type person. I had been talking to said psychologist practitioner about the stress of delivering hospitality and in particular the utter dread I had started to feel before service when we expected a busy night. Everyone wants food quickly and they always all turn up at once. An hour waiting for food becomes unacceptable in these days of fast food. "Explain up front that it's busy and most people will be happy to wait"

I'm not sure we ever got our food service the way I thought it should be, and on the evening I had been given the gem of advice to chill out and just tell people they might have to wait I had been happily chatting with my customer come shrink. I suddenly realised it was close to service time and must have visibly panicked.

Dealing with last orders when the bar needs to shut can be equally as traumatic. It's not a skill that comes easily, especially to one who likes to drink a few and also dislikes being told to stop. Often I'd casually mention that I'd like to go to bed and the current purchase would be the last. A common trick by my locals turned friends was for one to point out that the speed so-and-so was drinking he would easily finish a half. "while your at it, might as well make it a pint" and so it would go on.

You have to be brutal if you want to go to bed before you have to get up. When it's the last one it has to be the last one. It is important to make sure they know, before the bar closes, that it is now time to put in the last order. Everyone in the bar has to know this. They really, really do have to know this. Upset drunks is the alternative. Drunk people tend not to be reasonable. Not even a little bit.

So, the other night, when the staff seemed unable to make eye contact with my patient puppy dog look I finally, after several minutes, asked "have you stopped serving?", "Sorry, yes" came the reply. It was a reasonably polite and firm reply. My ex-licensee voice told me that it was OK and I shouldn't get upset. It didn't work. I hadn't been told that I needed to buy my last drink. No bell, no "Last orders at the bar please", not even a quiet word to the few people left. I have to admit to being quite annoyed. I was annoyed because I wasn't warned that the bar would close.

The good news is that the next day, when talked to the manager, he confirmed that a quiet word should have been said to each table before the bar closed. I'd have been happy with that, even if closing before advertised time; providing I managed to make my last purchase, no problem. I am assured that it will not happen again. All's well that ends well.

I'm told that in beer specialist beer bars there does tend to be an expectation that the punters will know what time the bar closes. I think this is a poor show.

People need information, we all do, let us not unlearn how to deal with last orders.