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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 28 February 2008

Fine Beer?

Working through my backlog of of trade press reading, I came across an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser written by Andrew Jefford a couple of months ago. He talks about the sheer obsession with increasing product quality in the St Emilion wine-growing region, the reverence the producers have for their product, and the excitement that's generated by a partiularly good vintage.

Then of course he compares this with beer, and discusses how we don't have great vintages because beer makers focus on consistency of product above all else. He talks about how most people buying beer don't have a clue what it's actually made of, and how we lack that reverence. He argues that there's a category - fine beer -that doesnlt yet exist: superlative beers that people are prepared to pay top dollar for.

I don't agree with everything he says, but it's an interesting argument and I wondered what beer geeks would think of it.

Of course we can all point to examples of fine beers that do exist - Utopias from Sam Adams, the super-strength speciality beers from Dogfish Head that redefine what beer can be, Deus, a bottle of Thomas Hardy's Ale from 1968... but I think Andrew would argue that you have to know an awful lot about beer before you're even aware of their existence, whereas anyone who has ever been to Oddbins will have at least taken a glance at the fine wine section in there.

Should brewers invest in creating more ultra-special beers? Should we be demanding, say, a greater range of 12 month wood-aged stouts that retail at twenty quid?

I would imagine the beer blogging community would instinctively say yes, because they're the kind of people who are constantly searching out challenging, full-bodied, interesting beer. And Jefford's argument that the existence of fine wines has a halo effect on the whole wine market, which could be replicated in beer, is a valid one.

I've got just one counter-argument, and I'm wondering how it might divide people.

One of the strengths of beer is its unpretentiousness, its accessibility. I don't agree that beer can only ever be a 'working class' beverage - Burton pale ale was the most fashionhable thing you could drink for twenty years or so in Victorian society - but I do think that beer is different from wine, and I occasionally get frustrated with people who want to turn beer into 'the new wine'.

We all know beer can be more complex, can go better with food etc, but when people start trying to talk about beer as if it was wine, they have a tendency to make it elitist. And when people want wine to totally replace beer, drawing battle lines between grape and grain, I lose patience. Anybody who appreciates the subtleties of flavour in a great craft beer and says they 'don't like' wine is either delusional or a liar, and just as bad as those ignorant people who say they 'don't like beer' after drinking one warm can of Bud when they were nineteen.

Elitism is part of wine's character, so it's going to be much easier to build in snobbery, mystique, and a sense of specialness. The frustrating part of this is that people can order a bottle of cheap, industrially produced pinot grigio, drink it super-chilled, and while they're drinking the wine equivalent of Carling Extra Cold, believe they're actally superior to someone drinking, say, cask ale.

Beer would lose a lot of its soul if it simply aped the culture and mystique around wine.

So I'm not sure. I'd love to see 'fine beers' more commonly on the shelves, but can we have that and keep beer as the democratic, sociable drink it has been for five thousand years? Can beer successfully challenge wine at the top level - I'm talking about popular perception, not just among aficionados - without becoming arsey and pretentious? I hope so, but I'm not sure...

26 comments:

Al said...

I've often wondered the same things, but you've said it much more elegantly than I could.

The elitism of wine drinkers annoys me, and your observation that someone drinking the cheapest wine will look down on anyone drinking any sort of beer is spot-on. I think a lot of what beer geeks go on about is a reaction to that. "See how we're better than them" is, of course, its own form of elitism.

Over here in the States advertising for industrial-brewed light lagers is so pervasive that it's no wonder people think that that's all there is to beer. The most upscale the big three ever got was Michelob. Jim Koch has made some inroads, but most people don't even realize there are different styles of beer. Typical is the waitress, after I asked her which Sam Adams they had, replied "regular".

By the same token, there's almost no television advertising for wine. There was a couple of decades ago, but it was for the wine equivalent of Coors Light.

I don't know. How do you get past that social knowledge that wine is sophisticated and beer is down-to-earth? Even people who don't drink either one find it normal for there to be gourmet publications on wine, but boggle at the idea of such a thing for beer. They figure they must be like Maxim or something.

I don't really like wine. I don't have enough experience with it to really tell the difference between a good wine and one that is so-so or, more importantly, how to find the good ones in the first place. I'll freely admit that. I doubt you'll ever get an oenophile to admit the same about beer.

Alan said...

We already have super premium fine beers - they just don't really cost that much: Fantome saison, Girardin gueuze; oaked beers from Jolly Pumkin, Allagash or Weyerbacher; De Ranke Kriek. All cost no more than or less than an OK Australian better-than-the-next-plonk plonk. It's just that no one is getting hosed for the premium of snobbish exclusivity. Review Andrew Barr's "Wine Snobbery" for how this equation works.

Beer is naturally non exclusive in that it is not tied to a crop but production. You can't get a second grape harvest but you can put on an extra mash a week. Also it is an example of substantive equivalence as one fine beer at ten bucks a 750 ml is replacable by another fine beer at ten bucks a 750 ml. Wine vendors have foisted product as well as price exclusivity upon us. Except maybe sherry and other dessert wines. Sherry sales and prices appear to act more like beer as there is little snobby elitism in a fine oloroso despite how subtantively wonderful it is.

I think beer will avoid the joke of many more Deus-style early pension plan brewers as the next guy can open up his brewery and make fantastic stuff for far less and in a far shorter time span than opening up a first class winery.

Mario (Brewed For Thought) said...

I live in Sonoma County, basically the heart of California wine country. Wine is king here, in terms of tourism, business, and fermented beverage. But we also have an equally impressive brewing community. There's something for every type of beer drinker here and it's catching on. Local pub/breweries like Ale Works are very popular with your casual beer drinkers. For the elitists, there's Moonlight Brewing, for fans of the American styled ales and lagers, and Russian River, well renowned extreme brewery specializing in Belgian styles, barrel aging and potent IPA. For someone falling in the middle Lagunitas and Bear Republic make 2 of the finest American IPA available and their distribution is to the point where they can be found almost nationwide.

Granted, I am a beer blogger, so I do get excited about these things, but finding people to talk to about beer is getting easier every day. At the grocery store you see people grabbing 6 packs of micro brew and it takes up as much space as the Bud, Miller, Coors, etc.

I think as people of my generation get older, become more financially influential, craft brewing is going to really take a step forward. My college experience had it's fair share of keggers, but it also had a lot of time getting to know small breweries 12 ounces at a time. I think it's a more common experience than many had in years past and is setting the table for more sophisticated beer drinkers.

Matt said...

I am lazy by nature. Specialty/complicated beers are too much work.

What works for me when it comes to beer is that is social. Session strength beers do it for me. I like some flavor and maybe some subtley. Even the variation and inconsistency that cask ale provides.

High ABV beer is to much work to drink.

Part of beers popularity is just that - its just beer. Try pontificating to a cooking lager drinker about the wonders of better beer and he will eventually interupt you with a "it's just beer". They are the social drinker to the extreme.

For better or worse I suspect I have a lot more in common with the Carling drinker than the beer advocate nuts.

andy said...

I'd love to be responsible for a 12 month old wood aged stout, but apart from the well founded fear of how we would sell it, there's another problem that faces English brewers (reportedly). HMRC, the customs and revenue people, are apparently hostile to the notion of a wood aged beer where the barrel was previously used to store spirits. I'm told that they are concerned that some spirit may leak back into the beer and the resulting product is really a spirit requiring different licensing.

Oddly enough, the policy is different in Scotland. You can get some Scottish examples down south, Innis and Gunn do an interesting one.

E.S. Delia said...

It's not that I don't like wine, it's just that wine doesn't do enough for my palate. That's entirely subjective, but I just don't see how fermented grapes 'outclass' fermented grain (although Garrett Oliver makes a convincing argument about this elitism in The Brewmaster's Table).

That being said, I think premium beer has already arrived at this plateau of which you speak: a fine balance between affordable and costly, inclusive yet elite. You're right, it's not the new wine, nor should it be treated as such.

Having known some wine aficionados, they're quite amused when people shell out $50 a bottle for something mediocre when they pass up a great $20 bottle that's right in front of them. In many cases, beer doesn't get the respect or distribution it deserves, so it's perhaps more difficult to find higher-end beer than higher-end wine. Learning and seeking it out is half the fun.

But the practice of raising prices for 'image' shouldn't take place in the beer world just to gain respect. That's weak, in my opinion. While it may keep beer out of the High Rollers club, it preserves its integrity and inclusiveness, which is a central element of beer culture that's much more important in my eyes.

ReDave said...

As I see it, it's a continuum.
A range of more simple [if you will] easier drinking beers, milds, pale ales, cheaper to make still honest and great to drink. To the Utopias, which is a bit at the extreme, but that's OK. We all can pick many things in between. And have the choice to move up and down that range.
dave

Boak said...

I occasionally wish beer got more attention (would be nice to see beers reviewed as much as wines in newspapers, for example, or on Market Kitchen...)

But you only have to look at the examples of rare wines selling for thousands of pounds a bottle to be grateful for beer's "common" status. I don't want to have to pay more than the already exorbitant £15 for a bottle of Deus because beer becomes "the new wine" and demand outstrips supply...

On wine snobbery: you say that "elitism is part of wine's character" - I think this is true in the UK, but it's interesting to look at the wine-drinking culture in places where it's actually produced. While there are excellent Spanish wines, spanish wine-drinking generally is not about being exclusive, or snobby; it's about drinking a local product that's decent. More "democratic".

Matt said...

Does drinking local = being democratic? I dont' think so but drinking local is still a good thing.

Boak said...

Matt

Not necessarily - I just meant it's an everyman's drink.

Matt said...

Sorry that misunderstood

Knut Albert said...

I'm a bit puzzled.
You are writing this, and at the same time you are quoted in the Sunday Mirror saying the following about the 2008 kroner Carlsberg beer:

"It is worth every penny in my opinion. I promise you, if you taste this drink it will totally change your perception of beer."

Please explain!

Pete said...

Easy Knut, I was misquoted! I was as surprised as you when I read the piece.

I did say it would change your perceptions of beer, because knowing the readership (and knowing they'd trash it) I wanted to say look, beer is more than you thought it was. But worth every penny? I don't remember that at all...

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

"Anybody who appreciates the subtleties of flavour in a great craft beer and says they 'don't like' wine is either delusional or a liar"

That is a pretty big call Pete. I am a beer judge, award winning homebrewer and Vice President of a beer consumer organisation and I don't like unfortified wine. I have never found a wine which I would want to drink. Believe me I have tried, my days are spent selling cheese and the industry events I attend tend to be wine only affairs, I hit the water.

Port and sherry are another matter ...

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