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Monday, 7 January 2008

For Christ's sake, cheer up!

I googled 'Calcutta IPA' the other day to see if anyone else had written about the beer that was brewed for my trip to India, and it led me to a forum at where the White Shield Brewery was being discussed.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that one of the world's biggest corporate multinational brewers is a curious fit with the tiny brewery sitting in the middle of one of its yards, but some of the ignorant, ill-informed vitriol aimed at the site in Burton made me laugh, then made me angry, then very sad.

I'm going to sound like an apologist for Coors simply because they made my trip to India possible (though just to make it clear, they brewed the beer - they in no way sponsored the trip, and they certainly don't need my help). Anyway, it's not just this one issue - this is merely an example of an attitude that sometimes makes me think of jacking in beer writing. I just don't want anyone normal to think that I'm in any any like these sad, fanatical conspiracy theorists.

The subtext of the whingers is that because White Shield is now owned by Coors, it is therefore shit. Hmm. That'll be why it won Champion Bottled Beer at GBBF in 2006, why sales are up by over 50% year on year, and why brewer Steve Wellington was named Brewer of the Year by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group last year is it? Or are these just more examples of corporate cronyism?

There are some astonishing claims made on the forum: most astonishing of all is that White Shield is a 'mediocre' beer. But it's also asserted that White Shield is not really brewed here at all, that it is made in a factory, that it has no individual character, and that what was formerly known as the Museum Brewery no longer brews small batches of individual and eclectic one-off beers.

As someone who brewed such just such a small batch beer there last year, I beg to differ. You don't even have to go that far - just walk into the brewery tap and you've a choice of several beers not available anywhere else. If the people writing this garbage had visited the brewery or taken the trouble to find any out any facts about White Shield by any means whatsoever, they would have quickly realised what drivel they were talking.

The White Shield Brewery is owned by Coors but is given near-total autonomy. It still creates boutique beers for individual landlords, and White Shield is still an astonishing beer, all of which is brewed on the premises. Steve Wellington is a universally respected brewer of enormous integrity.

Rant over.

The point is, there's an attitude in beer appreciation that's the same as the one I used to have when I was a teenage indie kid: back then, we thought anything on a major label was shit, anyone who actually got into the charts had sold out. It seems lots of beer fans enjoy being just as miserable as I was then. Big brewers churning out bland lager are easy hate targets, but when they start to show some interest in characterful beers, the vitriol only increases. Why?

It was the same when Inbev launched Artois Bock. The beer hasn't fared brilliantly, it could have been marketed better, but here was the world's biggest brewer creating a characterful Belgian ale and getting a shitstorm from many sides of the beer community for its efforts. Inbev do some really, really scummy things and often operate against the interests of beer drinkers, but this was not one of those times. It's basic psychology that if you want to change someone's behaviour you praise the the good at the same time as you condemn the bad. Otherwise, how can you blame them if they just carry on as they were?

This attitude doesn't exist in, say, the whisk(e)y world. Michael Jackson used to judge single malts owned by Diageo on their merits alongside those from tiny distilleries. It's a blight on beer that we can't do the same, and it should come as no surprise when people dismiss the entire beer community as whining Luddites.

I believe we should be trying to persuade Inbev, SABMiller and Coors to turn their huge drinker bases on to more characterful beers, to use their huge marketing muscle to help develop a more eclectic drinking scene.

But am I wrong?

Is there a case for saying that craft beer should be the exclusive preserve of small craft brewers, that it's healthier and more attractive overall if great beer was kept entirely separate from huge corporations driven by shareholder value who may somehow taint it?


Keith Brainard said...

I think that people get scared when they see big brewers famed for making bland piss-water getting involved with higher quality beer. It could be perceived as the first step on a slippery slope towards degradation of the qualities that make the original small brewer's beer the great beer that it is.

This is, I think, the dilemma of the "beer geek". We are comfortable as outsiders, sneering up at the big guys with their glossy marketing campaigns. Yet, at the same time, we want everyone to believe in the virtues of the beer we love. However, as soon as Anheuser-Busch makes an effort to get a slice of the "craft beer" pie, everyone turns on the hate rays.

It's a push and pull that won't soon fade away. Some brewers might dumb down their products to gain a more broad appeal once they get to a certain size. But on the other hand, some may use size as an opportunity to take even crazier detours along the way. The market will determine who is successful and who is not.

In the end, even if something like Blue Moon or even Sam Adams Boston Lager are fairly tame on the craft beer spectrum, wouldn't we all rather see our father or college buddy drinking one of these rather than a can of Natural Light?

BLTP said...

fight, fight, fight, fight, fight,fight, fight, fight, fight, fight,fight, fight, fight, fight, fight

sorry I'll stop soon I promise, it's the new year and that.
Can I just say I like white shield (i'm a recent convert) and although I can understand that certain flavours only come about from cask or bottle conditoning I am more interested in what stuff tastes like and not who and how it was made. Having said that I prefer my beer local.
Partisanship is fun you can't be a Durannie and love the spandaus as well, or indeed like Bury and Barnsley black pudding (Barnsley clearly better)but a lot of this sniping is just self defeating. where was I, oh yes.
fight, fight, fight, fight, fight,fight, fight, fight, fight, fight,fight, fight, fight, fight, fight

Rick Sellers said...

Referred here by Stan - glad he showed the way, as this is a great summation of today's beer enthusiasts, generally of course. It doesn't just land on large brewers though, this is same community that assumes more alcohol = better beer. I would suggest that this isn't confined to the beer industry. I've been chided for asking for mild salsa when those in a restaurant all believe it's best to feel your food more than taste it - you see it in coffee crowds and even organic foods made by large companies.

Anonymous said...

Actually this blog makes me sad. It's all very well calling people you don't agree with ignorant but if you had even attempted to point out what was incorrect then this might make a little more sense. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and unless something is very wrong then Artois Bock is no Belgian Ale. Bocks are of course lagers, and Artois Bock tastes just like a canned super strength lager. Personally I would prefer a can of Tennents Super.

Pete said...

Keith, thanks for the very eloquent comments outlining the beer geek's dilemma. I do have a lot of sympathy with the suspicion of big brewers' motives - I guess the problem is that many beer geeks don't wait for the evidence, and simply decide that their motives are malign and their beers watered down before actually waiting for the facts, or sometimes even tasting the beer.

Anon, if you're wondering what was incorrect I recommend you read my post again, particularly para 5, which lists the things that were incorrect, and para 6 and 7, which explains why they are incorrect. You are of course right about Artois Bock - being a lager that is. I know a lot of beer fans who don;t think it is a great beer, but by saying Tennent's Super is better you've demonstrated the attitude I was complaining about better than I ever could.

BLTP said...

Actually Bock isn't a "Lager" it's a lager beer. A lager is somewhere to keep tanks. Anyone seen my tankard.

Ron Pattinson said...

I have three words to say to anyone who thinks big breweries can't brew great beer: Courage Russian Stout.

While large concerns do, over time, tend to mess up the beers in their care, it's not necessarily the case. My example here would be Tetley's Mild - a beer unchanged for decades and eminently drinkable. I was shocked when (on one forum or another) people seemed quite pleased that the Leeds brewery might close, because the assumption weas that a berwery that large must just brew crap.

BLTP said...

One problem with Beer forums is that they make you thristy, I now want a pint of tetley mild and I'm approximately 210 miles from a decent glass of the stuff and it's only 11.30 am!! :)

Anonymous said...

Pete, I think you are wrong when you say that there is an immediate dislike of anything brewed by the big breweries. Artois Bock I am afraid is NOT a good beer, but I am certain we will not come to agreement on this. There are, however, several respectable Interbrew beers that rate highly on that particular website. Look up Leffe Radieuse, Hoegaarden Forbidden Fruit and standard Hoegaarden. These three beers are all by Interbrew and all rated in the top 20% of beers.

Some other big brews also score highly.
Courage Russian Imperial is 98%
Bass Number 1 is 99%
Bass P2 is 94%
Fuller’s London Porter is 99% (ok so not a multinational but it is an example of a beer of moderate alcohol content from a large regional scoring highly)

Deege said...

Actually I'm a big fan of Blue Moon. It is also a great beer to get the uninitiated to try. I usually introduce the BMC crowd to that beer, and then tell them about Belgian Wits, Hefeweisens, and such. That helps to wean them away and gets them to try new beers!

Sid Boggle said...

Hmmm. Interesting, and lots of food for thought here...
Ron, is Courage still brewing their Imp Stout? Last time I saw it was in 2003 at Olympia - a farewell effort? Sure, a fantastic beer, but who brews Courage beer now? Not ScotCo or however they were calling themselves once they de-merged brewing from pubco...
Pete, paint a pig as a cow, but it's still a pig. While I don't jerk my knee in indie fashion at all global brewer activity around the 'craft beer' sector, they see beer as brands produced in units to be shifted using market forces they influence with marketing and promotion. Occasionally, they do it by removing competition. Where's the love? I can live and let live to some extent, but I remain suspicious of global brewing and it's motives, which are counter-intuitive to the interests of beer tradition, in my view.
Then we come to the beer ticker communities. A lot of misinformed, narrow-minded geeks who share a hive mind which hovers around the single-digits in shared intelligence. There's room for 'em, but if we ignore 'em they might go away. I write this having been on BA for a long time (but never... Ratebeer [shudder!]) and realising that for every one insightful, knowledgeable beer 'enthusiast', there are 50 sad point or 'karma' obsessed tickers who take their puritan zealotry to absurd lengths. I've seen 'em on both sides of the Atlantic, and try to steer clear at all costs. Give me CAMRA any day...

Sid Boggle said...

There’s something, something I should also say….
As bad as any of these people are there’s nothing, just nothing worse than the self appointed rulers of all thing beer…
The beer bloggers.
What is it about writing a couple of paragraphs of nothing on Blogspot that gives people the impression that they know anything? Truly give me that silent ticker in the corner any day..

Ron Pattinson said...

sid boggle, they haven't brewed Courage Russian Stout since 1993 (bastards).

My point was that it was always a big brewery beer. In the early 1800's Barclay Perkins was the largest brewery in London, so the largest brewery in the world. And they brewed the original Russian Stout.

To be honest, after the Free Mash Tun Act of 1880, Barclay Perkins beers look a bit dodgy, laden with sugar and maize. Except for the Russian Stout, that is. They never skimped on the ingredients for that. Though, of course, they brewed bugger all of it. Mostly not more than a couple of brews a year.

I never drank a Russian Stout from the Barclay Perkins brewery. But the versions I had - Horsleydown and Tadcaster - remain the best beers I've ever tasted.

One of the world's greatest beers was brewed in breweries whose other beers were mostly mediocre at best.

On your other point, yeah, bloggers what do they have to contribute? Egomaniac wankers, the lot of them.

Pete said...

Thanks to everyone for writing (so far), even those who think I'm the one talking crap.

It's a tough issue. I don't want to defend big corporations. I do talk to them from time to time via the marketing consultancy I do and often my main message to them is "don't lose the romance - you can't market beer the same way you can soap powder." Unfortunately many of the guys I say this to have just moved over from marketing soap powder so they tend to disagree, and I don't get as much work form them as I'd hoped.

All I ask is that we don't judge pre-emptively, and don't judge everyone the same. I was moved to write this by comments about White Shield that were simply factually inaccurate.

Condemn the bad, praise the good.

Alan said...

I only care about what is in the glass. Unless a big corporation is squeezing the boiled fat of baby whales into it, it's beer - bad or good based on its own characteristics.

I think, Pete, your observations are really about snobs of any kind. Why anyone would take the time to hate White Shield, tickers, RateBeer or beer bloggers is beyond me. It is just f'ing beer even when it is wonderful stuff.

Keith Brainard said...

OK, I just have to ask, what is a "ticker"?

Google searches wouldn't help me (although, they're more than happy to tell me that the stock ticker symbol for Boston Beer Co is SAM), so I just have context to judge. It is frequently used with derision, but as far as I can tell, it just means "expert". Perhaps it is more like a person that portrays themself as an expert but really knows nothing.

Help me out here.

Stonch said...

Broadly speaking I agree with you on this (see my contributions to the Ratebeer thread you referred to).

Alan said...

Keith: Take trainspotting, remove the train and add single portions of beer. Some people take a particular interest in the number of separate beers they have had over time, each one filling an equal space on a form with a check mark (or tick) in the box.

Sid Boggle said...

The second sid boggle isn't me - I dunno who you are, poster from 21:50 last night, but kindly change your nickname.

chris_o said...

I was one of the contibutors to the discussion at Ratebeer. The discussion started because Coors had made questionable claims that the White Shield brewery is the oldest in the country.

Nobody said that White Shield is shit because it is brewed by Coors. One person said it is mediocre. Each to his own. I happen to quite like White Shield although I have to say it didn't fare too well in a blind tasting of British IPAs I did a years or so back.

Since Coors took over they have given a big push to White Shield and increased the output. That has restricted the amount of small batch brewing. P2 and No1 Barley Wine are harder to find. Steve Wellington has less leeway to brew experimental beers and historical recreations (perhaps Coors don't own the rights to the old recipes anyway). Those are facts. And they are facts that I personally lament.

And yes I have taken the trouble to visit the brewery. Even poked around inside it. And spoken to Steve Wellington.

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like a few people arnt as hot fans for white shield as yourself and you've taken a hissy fit over it. Perhaps you need cheering up, no?

Mario (Brewed For Thought) said...

You inspired another blogger, who inspired me to write my own take on the topic.