We have to talk about Craft Beer - Part3: Call that beer good? August 29 2014, 0 Comments

Part 3: Call that beer good?

A few years back, I had a civilised row with a brewer friend who has helped hundreds of small producers around Europe. Drifting into discussion of an obscure beer that sits in the back catalogue of AB InBev he cited this as “probably perfect”, while I preferred “instantly forgettable”. After four hours’ debate we agreed we were both right.

Many if not most industrial beers are technically perfect. The problem is that in the course of making them so little effort is put into giving them memorable character that beyond being an alcohol delivery system they have little purpose.

Blame the drinker

It is not the brewers or accountants who cause industrial beers to be bland; it is opinionated drinkers. If you doubt this, go and read Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew, an excellent account of the rise of US brewers like Miller, Coors, Pabst and Anheuser Busch. In particular read the chapter about market research.

The flaw in asking people what they like is that most can pinpoint what they dislike, based on experience. In contrast, few of us can imagine what we would like but have not experienced. So when US consumers were asked in the 1960s how beer could be improved, they suggested removing stuff. Thus, American lagers went first bland, then ‘Lite’ and eventually ‘Ice’, as brewers smoothed out ruffles and made them ever duller.

However, the popular notion that such beers are “full of chemicals” is largely myth. If chemical additives matter at all, the class most vulnerable to the charge is cask ale, for its auxiliary finings.

Likewise critics including myself who suggest that big brand beers use cut-price ingredients are only partially correct. AB InBev is open about cheapening Stella Artois by putting maize on the grain bill but the rice they use to make Budweiser often costs more per ton than their barley. Carlsberg and Heineken even claim to have moved back to 100% malt.

Hops cost less in industrial brewing but only because so few are used. When it comes to substituting them with oil, jam or extract, better-known smaller brewers are often greater sinners.

Who cares about flavour?

CAMRA publishes relatively little about why beers taste the way they do and much of what appears seems politically filtered. This is not as daft as it may seem. From the consumer perspective the golden rule is that beyond those aspects of production designed to avoid flaws, golden rules are unreliable.

Here are some of the more reliable ones.

Brew with malted barley that is cracked on site and avoid sugar, maize or syrups. Add whole hops or well-prepared pellets and use newer varieties that are more distinctive. Mash, sparge and boil in line with the intended style rather than to keeps costs down. Ferment wort slower, with fresh yeast not dried, and condition it at the brewery for as long as possible. More ingredients add more flavour.

Then recognise that some excellent beers cut every corner on the track and that, as my brewer chum eventually admitted, some perfectly made beers are perfectly dreary.

Making real good

So how do Britain’s cask-conditioned light ales, ‘real ale’ if you prefer, pack so much flavour into such a tiny frame?

Mainly it is by mashing at higher temperatures. This squeezes out grain flavours in a way some European brewers consider crude. Chancier beers may duck fine filtering, leaving flour in the body of the beer to make it taste bigger than it is – grain’s answer to dry hopping, the late addition of fresh hops.

Is conditioning in the cask crucial to flavour development? Well yes and no.

Blind tasting of beers conditioned only by saccharomyces – the fast yeast of fermentation – suggests these add little to taste, except by trading in some sugar for alcohol and gas. This can also be achieved by conditioning at the brewery.

Conditioning for greater character involves the action of slower yeast. Even where these are present, with many pubs using rapid turnaround times for casks, this is unlikely to happen. In truth many cask ale supporters are not drawn to greater flavour but to lower carbonation, which of course requires no conditioning at all.

You cannot be for real ale but against ‘fizz’, as bottle-conditioned beers are the fizziest of all. Is it this the area of confusion that leads CAMRA to duck making policy on tank-, keg- and can-conditioned ales I wonder?

Don’t need taste – got rules

For centuries British brewing ruled the world with beers like porter, stout, India Pale and Burton ales. Were these cask-conditioned? Yes, but not as we know it.

A major aspect of flavour creation that got deleted from beer-making along the way was storage in large oak casks, or tuns. This was the stage when slower-acting yeast in the cask walls evolved complex flavours similar to those found in other drinks that are ‘aged in the wood’.

These older styles, which feature prominently within ‘craft beer’, must be allowed to use these formats, along with flashier hops, more intricate production techniques and smart marketing.

CAMRA’s current take on craft beer is one of confused wariness. From one quarter comes suggestions that the emergence of newer forms of old British ales is no business of a beer consumer group while from another the emergence of tasty new beers that are not saccharomyces-conditioned in the cask is scarilege.

The current stances are as confused as they are absurd and dangerous. New brewing needs informed and sceptical wisdom. In the final piece in this series I will suggest, I hope, a more appropriate and intelligent approach.

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Tim Webb served on CAMRA’s National Executive for seven years, running the Great British Beer Festival for the first two, then heading up publicity and publications.  He has since written numerous best selling beer books, thus far translated into nine languages. In his spare time he runs a small publishing company and booksellers (booksaboutbeer.com).