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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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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Why it's fruitless to try to paint beer as the new wine

Last year we were having the kitchen done and the house was a building site. The year before that I'd just got back from Kolkata. The year before that we left it too late, and the year before that our mad neighbours scared off a lot of the people we wanted to talk to. Jesus - thinking about it, we hadn't had one of our traditional Christmas drinks parties since 2005.

I wanted to make a good impression. On top of that, I had so much beer in the cellar that if I was to try and drink it all before it turned to vinegar I would surely kill myself. So I laid out a beer extravaganza on the table.

I never try to force beer down people's throats - you never win hearts and minds by doing that. So in the afternoon, we went to Majestic Wine and bought a case of decent, zingy Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a case of light, fruity Italian. Owing to a schoolboy-error oversight in my beer scrounging and having spent far too much of 2009 obsessing over hop bombs and whisky aged tar-flavoured stouts, I also found myself rather embarrassed at having to buy a case of Asahi.

Come party time, the Asahi and the sauvignon were chilling in an ice bucket. On the table stood bottle of the cheeky red, and about fifty assorted beers from the cellar. We had tumblers and wine glasses at the ready, and bottle openers in profusion.

When the guests arrived, I offered them drinks, and talked them through what was on offer. By the end of the evening I'd made a dent in the beer lake, and converted one or two people to beery delights they hadn't had before.

But there was one conversation I had seven or eight times, and it's been rolling around my mind for two months now so I wanted to write it down to see if by doing so I can make sense of it in my head. Here goes:

Me: "Hi! Long time no see! So, what can I get you to drink? We've got beer and wine and a bit of fizz if you like. There are a lot of beers so let me talk you through them: there's lager chilling in the bucket, these ones here are blonde and pale ales and are lightly chilled and a bit fruity and zingy, then you've got these ones which are a bit darker, more caramelly and may be with flavours of ripe red fruit or toffee or caramel. Then these here are stronger and darker and maybe a bit challenging, but if you like rich red wine you might like them, they have chocolate and coffee and sometimes oaky flavours. And here's some wheat beers that are light and refreshing, some fruit beers and some other surrealist shit from Belgium*."

Guest: "Um... I'll have a wine, thanks."

Me: "Sure! What kind of wine would you like?"

Guest: "White, thanks."

Me: "What kind of white?"

Guest: "Eh? I dunno, just white."

Me: "Any particular flavour? Any particular style?"

Guest: "No, just white."

To me, this exchange - which, like I said, I had several times without much variation - reveals a major misconception in the way both beer fans and wine lovers think about the relationship between the two drinks.

They argue that beer is crude and unsophisticated. We reply strenuously that beer has just as much flavour and complexity as wine.

But just like the majority of beer drinkers, the majority of wine drinkers don't actually care that much about complexity and depth of flavour. When someone orders a bottle of Pinot Grigio in All Bar One and has it served in an ice bucket and drinks it at about 2 degrees above freezing, they do so not to appreciate the flavour, but to look and feel good while they're drinking it, and to manage their arc of inebriation in a way with which they feel comfortable. They're showing the same level of discernment, and the same physiological and psychological needs, as a Carling or Bud drinker.

If you started to talking to a Carling or Bud drinker about the subtleties of difference between a French and a Californian Chardonnay, they'd run a mile. Similarly, someone who chooses a wine on the basis that it;s not the house wine but one above it, so you don't look like a cheapskate but you still get good value and gosh doesn't it slip down quickly, is going to be completely unimpressed by arguments that the malt of a porter or the hop of an IPA can compete with the intensity of a Shiraz or Kiwi Sauvignon.

The vast majority of drinkers simply aren't that interested in flavour. That's not a criticism. you can't make someone start obsessing about taste buds any more than you can inspire in them a sudden interest in fashionable hosiery if it isn't something they've already pondered. The way to get these people into beer is to cast beer as fashionable, something with a favourable image.

I'm, not arguing in favour of total superficiality here - one way of doing that is to get respected people to proselytise about beer. If we really want to evangelise beer, we need to find the people who are interested in flavour, and engage them on their level. In turn, they pass on their enthusiasm to those who don't care as much.

Yes, it is annoying when the person who says "Just white" walks away with their glass of "just white" actively thinking they have made a more discerning, premium choice than any of the beers you were offering, many of which cost more per millilitre than the wine in their hand. But in the final analysis, that's their problem, not yours

*This was not to dismiss Belgium, but I didn't want to go on too long or scare novices away completely.

33 comments:

Barm said...

There are two factors at play here. One is shame at being overwhelmed by the enormous choice and going for the safe option rather than admit to ignorance. The other is the snobbery that tells people that if they want to be seen as sophisticated and classy, they must drink wine.

David Strange said...

As a rabid lover of fine wine I used to find hosting the 'Just white'-type guests to be woefully depressing. I felt a need to open their eyes, explain all the wonderful facets of wine and the myriad different forms it takes. But, as you rightly say, they just don't care.

These days I take a more relaxed attitude to the impoverished of aesthetic experiences. I'm not base enough to have bottles of filth to pour for such guests, they also get the good stuff. If I am drinking well all my guests should be too. I have just come to terms with the fact that, even if people say they like my 'ooooh fancy!' bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy, their appreciation of it will be frighteningly shallow.

Sometimes the no-hopers might make a stab at describing the wine in an attempt to demonstrate they are not total philistines. At this point it is usually best to be distracted by something in a different room so you don't have to hear them saying they found your bottle of Meursault from Roulot to be 'quite sweet'. It frays the nerve-endings.

Wow, that was a rather misanthropic rant. Really I do understand that we don't all share the same passions (it would be boring if we did) and that the ultimate measure of a person is not how well they can blind taste.

Cheers,
David.

Curmudgeon said...

I think it's not so much that people aren't interested in flavour, but that they're not interested in experimenting with the unfamiliar and are happy to stick within their comfort zone.

Dave said...

I remember being at the GBBF in 2003 and overhearing someone desperately trying to make the 'beer is as good as wine' schtick and thinking this was the argument in various wings of academe about the relative merits of Shakespeare vs Coronation St.

For year, the purist (read wine snobs) had it that Shakespeare was the acme of human artistic expression, and that anything pretty much felt short, and certainly something as vulgar.

One school of thought responded by pointing out the complexity of the plots, character, the human dilemmas and tragedies etc. The others pointed out that once upon a time, Shakespeare was a jobbing hack producing potboilers to turn a dime, and only later generations reified him into a literary genius, which they did for a whole host of reason, few of which were to do with the critical appreciation of otherwise, but had a lot to do with class, national identity, snobbery etc. And furthermore, the key issue was whether you liked it - was it fun? Was it enjoyable?

I've always viewed this debate in the same way. The response isn't to say beer is as noble, or complex, or varied as wine; it's to point out that wine snobbery is just that - snobbery. Wine bores are as bad as beer bores in that respect. To wish beer would take on the mantle of the aesthete's drink of choice, or the means by which a certain type of bourgeois bugger tries to be a cut above and know it all in one fell, is not an ambition for any serious lover of beer.

I just want more people to drink it and enjoy it, because by doing so, it allows me (a bourgeois bugger) more choice and freedom to pursue my enjoyment. If you want to know more about the processes by which beer's made, then great. Ditto the history, the culture, the chemistry.

But that's totally and utterly optional. Just give someone a beer and ask did they like it. That's all you need to ask, and all you need to feel in response to a beer.

mentaldental said...

Invite me next time. I'll drink your beer, even the surrealist Belgian shit. You can keep your just white, ta. Mind you if you had a nice chablis I might be tempted.... No, no it's the beery delights for me.

It can get frustating sometimes, can't it? Food and drink seems to be mainly selected by image/brand or appearance. What it actually tastes like is unimportant. Doh!

And trying to get people to try something new! Bloody hell that can be an uphill struggle.

Eddie said...

Yeh, but...a majority of us have pondered hosiery a fair bit....haven't we?

Martyn Cornell said...

"The vast majority of drinkers simply aren't that interested in flavour."

As you say, Pete, why should we expect them to be, or insist that they should be? It's elitist and snobbish to demand that everybody should enjoy what we enjoy. Rephrase your words as: "The vast majority aren't interesting in anything too hard", and I'd say that was true of every human activity, from food to music to literature to art to holidays to cinema to … well, everything. Which is their right, and our right too.

I like beer and music enormously, I'm comfortable about literature and poetry, food and wine, the visual arts are further down my list of likes, but cinema barely interests me at all, and I'd be very upset if someone insisted I had to like Bunuel and Truffaut instead of going with my daughter to the multiplex to see Avatar. I'm sure to a film buff that's as crass as choosing Stella, or a generic New World white.

Rob said...

Good post Pete, I have found similar attitudes many times. many peaople drink for the image or price tag. Getting craft beer more recognised these days (as media attention is limited) seems more liking to guerrilla warfare, we have to educate those interested one consumer at a time. Events like Beers of the World Live will always help.

Zak said...

Hooray! I'm hosting a beer dinner next week for my 40th, and have made it quite clear that I'd rather people didn't drink wine. There will be a beer paired with each dish, or a safe option available to drink throughout.

As a snobbish elitist bastard, I'm looking forward to seeing what they make of the bizarre world in which I live. And I'm hoping that as friends who are close enough to me to be invited to my 40th, they'll give me the benefit of their honest opinons.

Woolpack Dave said...

You are perfectly right of course. If somebody is not interested then they can't be converted and indeed being a bore about it might turn them off.

But, the headline is a bit negative and over-simplistic is it not? I truly believe that beer is gaining a stature, slowly, that is akin to fine wine appreciation. Be it beer, wine, film, literature or art (and indeed perhaps these are all art) a passing curiosity could be dashed by over enthusiasm.

"we have to educate those interested one consumer at a time" as Rob said, but only if they are interested.

But you'll have to do better than that Pete, if you want to convince me that beer isn't the new wine, or indeed that we can't convince the right audience that it is.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Couple of points Pete
Is a house party the best example on which to base a thesis, don’t most people just go to them to have a few drinks of whatever? Besides, knowing your expertise, might they be a bit intimidated and go for an easy option that might not occur to them in a more calmer situation, like say a dinner party.
Secondly, I must admit I recoil at the phrase beer evangelism, it reeks of beer-drenched Sally Army bonnets, righteousness and gleaming eyes, surely there is something a bit less off-putting to express the beer passion (whatever the style) all of us want to holler from the rooftops about?

Sid Boggle said...

I dunno. Are beer lovers really generally such over-achievers?

I like to talk beer and to proselytize, but there's a time and a place, and there's also the awareness that it makes me look more geeky than probably I feel about myself.

I think probably beer lovers ARE trying too hard. Part of the problem is the language we use - do you take wine on, on its own terms, or find a language or shorthand to emphasise the difference without scaring the newbies away. And how do you surmount the barriers constructed by advertising - that wine is aspirational and beer isn't? Those messages have become fairly ingrained, seems to me.

Interesting, and I think the revelation is a nail squarely hit on the head.

Pete Brown said...

Interesting!

Without wanting to be a solipsistic bore about this, I wrote this post in a hurry and decided not to edit or craft it - I didn't even read it through before posting. I'm going stir-crazy finishing off the revisions for Man Walks into a Pub at the moment and just wanted to write something spontaneous, which is what blogging is all about - it's out there, you've said it, move on.

What I'm saying is, it's a point of view and it could have been thought through and expressed much better - I'm not sure I totally agree with myself, and I should probably have finished with something like 'beer can stand on its own terms rather than comparing itself to wine'.

But all that aside, what a brilliant set of comments - a fantastic range of really well-expressed, thoughful views. Thank you.

To those who think the party is the wrong environment to do this - I totally agree, and I have much better success when I offer people beer over dinner than I did at the party. Zak, I'm sure your 40th will be a triumph and that people will pay you a bit of basic courtesy by at least trying your matches. Some of them will hate it and grumble but you'll forget those when the converts start raving and thanking you and kissing your feet. My frustration was that I'd hoped people would do me the same courtesy of at least trying the hospitality I was offering over a few drinks. But among my London media friends, there are some who I think would honestly hold their noses and pour down a glass of Blue Nun rather than try a single drop of any of the world's finest craft beers.

And I'm certainly not giving up on converting people to great beer. Like I've always said, when they really enjoy it and find it a revelation, I feel privileged to be the person who gets to witness it.

I guess the main point, which I stand by, is that most people who choose wine over beer do not do so on the grounds that they want to savour the complexity of flavour of wine and they don't reject beer because they perceive it as being simpler, cruder and less flavoursome than wine. They do so - as many of you say - out of a curious combination of received wisdom snobbery and a desire to remain in their comfort zone.

Leigh said...

Cna't beer just be beer - its in educating people about the world of beer and flavours available where the hard work lies, not comparing it to wine. (not having a go, pete, just my thoughts!!)

DJ said...

I have converted some lager-piss drinkers recently so these people aren't all beyond help. I have taken lager drinking friends to beer festivals on the premise that it's a great oppurtunity for a piss up. When in said festival and entrance fee paid and festival glass bought there is the realisation that there is only beer on offer but there is no turning back. I direct them towards pale ales and make sure they are not presented with anything too challenging to their palette and this has been quite successful. Some people are ready to be converted but just need a helping hand.

Cooking Lager said...

I like your blog Pete but think your wrong. Cask beer is too variable to be mass market, Keg lagers and ales occupy the top 20 beer brands because they are uniform consistent products. A drinker knows how much Carling or Stella they can take and know it tastes the same everywhere. Pongy ale drinkers like the variation in flavour and strength. If you look at the cask ales that are reasonably consistent national brands they are also the one considered either bland or same old same old by the beer geeks. The mass market is what it is and by and large full of quality products drank by discerning people, whatever beardies think. The niche will remain the niche whatever your attempt to make it fashionable. That’s not to say there isn’t scope for an increase or decline in either mainstream or niche, but all the stats about decline and growth are drops in the ocean in terms of market volume.

As for beer and wine, really don’t get me started on the loons that drink beer out of wine glasses and try to match it with food to try and appeal to middle class Merlot drinkers.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I'm sort of betwixt and between.
Sometimes I likes to get hammered on beer and sometimes I likes to get trolleyed on wine.
It all depends on what mood I'm in.
The fly in the ointment for beer snobs is that so much speciality beer is pure shite whereas even the worst plonk is just about drinkable.
Fortunately, and I thank the good Lord for this, Mrs Professor Pie-Tin is perfectly happy with a three quid bottle of Oz industrial chardonnay.

Séan Billings said...

I don't see wine as the enemy and I most certainly wouldn't expect a drinker of industrial white wine to be interested in craft beer. What happened to you there Pete, was like having an industrial lager drinker presented with a huge range of high quality wines, which he knows nothing about. To make matters worse, the bloke offering him the wine is some kind of professional wine critic. Thank Christ there's some Carling on ice. Lucky escape.

Some people like bold flavours, some do not. Most people will never get into quality beer or quality wine and I don't see why enthusiasts for one niche product should feel the need to bash another niche product.

I actually think that people who drink quality wine would enjoy quality beer if they would only try it. Give a Merlot drinker something like Goose Island IPA, or a Gueuze and they will be astounded.

What wine snobs tend to forget is that, like beer, most wine consumed is industrial, mass produced piss. They like to compare good quality wine, with industrial lager and declare victory. I say let's compare like with like.

When they make bold statements about wine's superiority to beer, I ask them if they consider Piat d'Or Merlot to be superior to Guinness. When they cry foul at my choice of a mass market wine I point out that, not only am I comparing it to a mass market beer, but both products are made by Diageo. If they want to compare their favourite Chateau Snootypants with something it should be a suitably complex beer, of which they will doubtless be ignorant. That's when the tasting glasses come out and the education begins. If they have some nice wine with them, maybe they can teach me a thing or two too. I see no reason why we can't enjoy both.

greg said...

Carling is the new wine!

Daniel Bradford said...

I tried to read all the comments, but ran out of time. Nice discussion about something interesting for the beer lovers of the world. I've taken to hosting several shindigs a year at my house which includes two to four tubs of beer, plus a cask on hand-pump. I also toss in some bottles of red, white and soda. Over the past several years the amount of beer drunk has increased and that of wine declined. Actually, during the Superbowl gala this Sunday (split equally by gender incidentally), I ended up with more unopened wine because of gifts (silly people). The pin of IPA was seriously dented as was the selection of bottled goodies. Like I said, the audience of about 30 were split equally by gender. I just think my guests have come to expect more fun on the beer side at my house than on the wine side. Choices are interesting, safe, fun and expected for that crowd.
Thanks, Pete.

Bionic Laura said...

A really great post. I think it really gets at the point that most people just don't care so much what they're drinking whether it's beer or wine.

ZakAvery said...

Cookie, you're right about speciality beers being niche, but you've overlooked the fact that niche is the only area of growth.

The consistent brands that you talk about are actually in relative decline. They're still selling a gazillion barrels a year, but in percentage terms, pongy ale is growing faster than anything else.

Ten years ago, Stella was beating the world (as well as the wife). Five years ago, sales plateau-ed, and variants were introduced - Artois Bock (remember that?), Peeterman (weak Stella with coriander) - in an attempt to cash in on the niche markets. Unsurprisingly, no-one bought into it, and these products have been withdrawn. InBev (as they were then) would not have done this without knowing that niche was the only way of growing both volume and value. There's a limit to the amount of fizzy yellow beer you can sell in a year.

impymalting said...

Well, I thought the beer was incredibly memorable at that party!

Sometimes the "just any white" wine drinkers seem frightened of beer, as if they have had a beer in the past that has traumatized them.

I also think this is a particularly British phenomenon, especially when it comes to women drinkers. There's a preoccupation with class and the assumption that drinking wine makes one posh & worldly (while getting you toasted rather quickly, let's not forget!)

I'm not saying that the US is any less image conscious-- it's just that in general Americans will go out of their way to look down-to-earth, etc. Also, American microbrews have done a hell of a job making beer look cool.

Cooking Lager said...

@Zak, the percentage growth of pong in volume terms is a drop in the ocean. Growing from a small base will give you high and low percentages. It's like movements in penny shares. Beer is in decline and growth in pong represents no significant movement from fizz to pong.

Laurent Mousson said...

Well, Pete, your little rap may already be too complicated for most people not versed in beer-lore. In such situations, I tend to go for a two-pronged approach:

- have a few specialties, nothing too extreme or too strong, but also a healthy supply of something reassuringly unchallenging, but tastier than your average mass-market lager, be it with more body or a nice flowery hop edge. The idea being to bend their tastebuds up the scale without them noticing... until they go back to the mass-market lager, which will taste watery.
Down here it's easy to get canned Budvar cheap from supermarkets, for example. I also can turn to a few tasty pale lagers from local family brewers readily available, as people tend to react positively to the idea of local produce.

- then there's the little rap for specialty beers... I tend to go for sth on the lines "what kind of beers do you like ? pale, dark, darker ? sweet, dry, fruity, rich, rounded, bitter ?" i.e. make it clear they're choosing, and express the options in simple terms - even "hoppy" is not understood by most people.
Then comes another twist : most people will underestimate their ability to weather bitterness. Basically, when "not bitter !" comes, you're usually perfectly safe with a well-balanced pale ale, especialy one with citrusy american hop varieties... Anchor Liberty Ale is an example of a beer that'll bring "nice, it's not so bitter" reactions from all quarters whereas its bittereness, on paper, is at least twice what you get in mass-market lager.

At the end of the day, indeed beer is not the new wine, and keeping it in simple terms, a few pointers, does work better than over-explaining.
But mentioning matter-of-factly that there are a few "other" beers available is something one must do, as it may incite some people to go for one of them later on...

Face it, one person at at time, one has to be slightly devious, letting them choose, but bending their choice slightly to push the boundaries.

Boak said...

Very interesting stuff. I've no desire for "beer to be the new wine" if it means snobbery and exclusivity. However, it dies consistently get my goat that in most restaurants you at least get half an attempt at a wine list whereas somewhere that really prides itself on a wine list will still only bung you a bottle of Stella or guinness as the beer option.

Eddie86 said...

I think it's mainly down to how people feel about leaving their comfort zone. Did you have a small stash of Pedigree, for example, for those that might be tempted by having a 'brand' that they've heard of?

Events like National Cask Ale Week can make enough interest for people to try it to see what all the fuss is about.

Certainly a though-inspiring blog though.

Semi Dweller said...

I suspect you might be falling victim to wider societal pressures being at play.

If you're at someone's house there's a background perception that you're doing something 'grown up' and as such you should behave as such. Wine is perceived as a more grown up choice, so people gravitate towards it.

It's all a little bit like the magnificent barbecue scene in Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies", when the niece's boyfriend appears with a four pack of Fosters. Nobody wants to be that person, and the quickest way of avoiding it is to stick to wine.

Based on thoroughly unscientific empiricism, when I've hosted a decent sized group of people over with free choice red and white wine, and generally some interesting beer (last instance, a choice between Maredsous Blonde and Goose Island IPA) the wine gets pretty heavy traffic and I can guarantee my beer cellar will be well stocked for the next while.

Thus - for most, it's beer when you feel more deliberately casual - in the pub, with mates you can relax with, but when at something which might involve being a bit more formal then wine will end up being the easy choice, reinforced by the fact that everyone else will be holding a wine glass.

Brett said...

hi pete. have you seen Charles Bamforth's Grape Vs. Grain. It is along this topic and if any one wanted to delve deeper I am sure it is a highly approachable read. There is also a one hour "AtGoogleTalks" on Youtube of Charles talking about the book. It is work checking out.
pete, thanks for bloging.
b

David said...

I don't think I agree we just need to find people interested in flavour, although that is a good place to start. Some people have to be encouraged to acquire the taste of beer, even if they haven't thought about flavour before. It is an education process. I wasn't interested in flavour when I started drinking, but people who were pushed me into it. [Shameless plug for my article: http://www.brewsnews.com.au/2010/02/beer-a-taste-worth-acquiring/]

Woolpack Dave said...

Cookie, you should stop worrying about Zak enjoying his beers like a snob. There is something pleasantly decadent about enjoying beers out of oversized wine glasses and pondering their joy with flavours matched to a meal. There is also something thoroughly social about enjoying a pint down the pub where the exact brand of beer then becomes much less important. And then again, after a hard day at work there is a place for having a drink to unwind with in front of the TV. Most people choose that drink based on price, and that is their choice.

Surely you understand there is a place for all?

David said...

I posted on this one before but either got lost or didn't get through the moderation........ Anyway, I don't agree you need to target people who like flavour. It sounds trite doesn't it, like flavour, but most people, born into normal English or English derived (eg Australian) families are just not that sophisticated when it comes to food when we start out (many remain this way). But I think we are open minded, and once given a chance, really given a chance, to educate our minds then we will pick a beer we like. To put it another way, good beer is an acquired taste (just like bad beer). I didn't like good (or bad) beer when I was younger. I acquired a taste for bad beer first, but it was only because of certain mates and brewers who pushed me to try and interesting stuff that I fell in love with it.

I've written an article about beer being an acquired taste on a mate's site. Not sure I can post links (Pete?) but if you google for Downie, beer, acquired taste and olives you may find it.......

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.