Author Archives: mlambert010

Socks, sandals and searching for bitterness….

My beer journey was on a very steady path. I was a fan of good quality cask. There were, at that time, a growth of new ‘microbreweries’ as we called them back then. I opted to join CAMRA as I was a fan of real ale. By that I mean I wasn’t a fan of lager, I wanted something with more flavour and if I’m honest I found the texture of cask beer far more to my liking.

Then the world turned. There was a point where beer growth gathered real momentum and in particular quality keg beer became more and more prominent. It soon became apparent that people would tend towards one type of dispense over the other. If I’m honest at this point the lure of hops grabbed me and challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone, and you know what, I loved it. I soon became obsessed by hops. The more vociferous the bitterness the better.

This rise in keg beer represented a problem for those loyal to a CAMRA past. Many of the members had spent so long fighting the cause of real ale, being a cask offering, that they weren’t able to give credit to the great many quality keg beers that were now on the scene. Add to that the fact that many of these drinkers weren’t drawn to that extreme bitter assault. So rightly they stood loyal by the cask offerings.

From my perspective, it felt like the new age modern take on beer, ie hop forward keg beers, we’re stepping away from the old fashioned image of the cask beer on offer. Style wise many of the branding at that time reflected that. Cask badges would have a heritage feel, trading off built up reputation and proud history. Keg fonts were far more an expression of modern art, bright colours and fashionable image references.

Objections were raised by those who were stereotyped as CAMRA members. New age drinkers didn’t really understand what their problem was with keg beer and conversely those people didn’t understand why anyone would consider non-cask beer to be better than cask.

In the last 12 months, I’ve become increasingly aware that the beery tectonic plates have shifted again. The style which has driven that is the New England IPA. All of a sudden west coast IPAs have been pushed out of the limelight. Breweries are overlooking them when choosing their line ups for significant beer festivals. Instead they have two or three (or more) of New England style IPAs or derivatives of.

And you know what? I’m left longing for the experience of that bitterness again. I fully appreciate that your palate develops and your tolerance to hop bitterness increases making that experience more and more difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t stop me seeking it.

And that’s another thing, my understanding of New England IPAs is not great. I’ve had many versions but a lot of those are UK breweries having a first stab at a New England style IPA, without sticking rigidly to the core parameters of what the original IPAs from New England were brewed to. So my opinion of the style is clouded by poor representations. But I’m not really in a position to be able to call out poor representations, as I’ve never actually tasted an original NE style IPA hailing from New England. The US breweries who have driven this style are small in size and their beer is highly desired. So they don’t reach these shores in great numbers. I imagine that the examples Cloudwater produce are true to the original style, but that’s as close to a reference point as I have.

And you know what’s worse, I almost feel like the beer scene has moved on from my tastes. I’ve become old fashioned, talking of the good old days when beer was bitter! I’ve become the equivalent of what I saw as blinkered opinions to keg beer way back when.

So what have I learned from that? I open my mind. I explore and embrace the new styles. That doesn’t mean that I’ll love anything which sticks NE style on the label. But I want to truly appreciate what the style is and experience the good examples. Only then will I truly be able to give an opinion as to whether the style suits me or not.

For what it’s worth I can see the NE IPA saturation point approaching. Good examples will last beyond the era of fashionable, and some other style will steal the limelight for a few years.

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Craft Beer Calling: What to expect…

Tomorrow night marks the 2017 launch of the magnificent Craft Beer Calling and I cant wait to get inside.

So what’s so good about it?

IMG_3249Firstly, the setting. Before you even get inside you can’t help but be put at ease by the impressive Palace of Arts sat gently next to the lake with its swans and ducks in residence (Some info on the venue: Wylam Brewery: Palace of Arts). Wander through Exhibition Park, it’s a very relaxed approach which is fully carried through once you’re through the doors. The lay out is well organised, so you’ll have your tickets checked and you’ll receive your commemorative souvenir glass. Then you’re off to buy your tokens. I understand that there are two size of tokens available this year, but I’m sure it’ll all be pretty self-explanatory once you’re in there.

And then you can explore! Sneak peak of plans indicate that once again every corner of the Palace will be utilised to the fullest to house breweries from all corners of the world. There are two permanent bars in the main hall of the building which will be fully stocked, but also breweries themselves will have their own bars scattered around the building including through in the brewery itself. There’s a magical feeling to getting a beer served to you next to the shiny fermentation tank that it was once nurtured in!

imageAnd as for breweries, the mix is a good core of the breweries you’d expect/hope would be there, so think Magic Rock, Beavertown, Wild Beer and the likes, but also some more unusual/not as common breweries too. These are the gems, these are where the excitement comes in for me. My top tip, there will be many a high abv beer about but go and see Track Brewery for some of the best session beer being brewed in the UK right now, Sonoma is an absolute delight! They also have breweries from overseas, including Dry and Bitter from Denmark who are brewers of really high quality.

IMG_3203The biggest change in Craft Beer Calling last year was not only the move of venue, but also that the bars themselves are all staffed by people from the individual breweries. That’s massive for a geek like me, but also far better for the newby. The bar staff have a tie to the beer they’re serving.  If you’re alittle timid and abit confused by the language and terminology of modern beer, the idea of a beer festival could seem really intimidating, but with this approach, firstly there are loads of bars so you can always find one without a queue and also the knowledge of the staff serving is a massive aid to your enjoyment. They can and will take all the time you need with them to find out what you like and don’t like.  Don’t be afraid to ask them!

That’s where a festival works for breweries. Obviously it’s a sales point for them, but it’s also about connecting with the customer base in a more direct way than they normally would. Personally, I’ve always said that I am drawn more to breweries when I know the people behind them and not just the corporate brand. Here you can talk and pick the brains of the characters who help define the brewery and its culture. I have been to many festivals where I’ve not known a brewery beforehand but having met them I’m far more likely to try their beers afterwards. That reputation building and ongoing customer retention, even on a small scale, is very valuable for the breweries.

So get involved, get into conversations with people. The building will be full of people there to enjoy the banter and enjoy the beer. We’re a friendly bunch here on Tyneside and if you are coming from out of town you can expect a warm welcome.

I’ll be floating around too, if you see me, please do come and say hello!

Cheers!!

Just as an interesting contrast, here’s my review of the first ever Craft Beer Calling, whilst so much has changed the core character of the event is very much the same: Craft Beer Calling review

What’s in your can?

Not often I get serious, but this is one subject that’s nagged away at the back of my mind for the last few years….

Craft cans are taking over.  More and more breweries are moving to can some or in many cases, all of their beer. The clamour is set to increase further as more and more breweries make the shift to canning in 2017. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I was to walk into Coppers at some point in the next 12 months to find more cans on the shelves than bottles.

Brief history of craft canning lines in this country, started with Camden’s, followed by Beavertown’s and then the mushroom cloud exploded.  One of the main drivers in the explosion was the numerous mobile canning businesses starting to trade in the UK after successfully ploughing a business niche in the states.

What many of you don’t know is that around the time Beavertown were ordering their canning line, I was investigating a possible mobile canning business of my own.  It was fascinating exploring the science behind the benefits of a can on the beer that we drink at home. Cans are far more resilient both externally and internally. Externally a dropped can may still retain its seal, a dropped bottle will almost certainly see beer and glass splinters all over the floor. Internally, the beer is far better protected from its worst enemy, namely light strike.

Cans have a great many benefits for beer consumers and I strongly believe in them as a dispense method.  There’s nothing more satisfying than carrying a few cans for a train journey where the equivalent bottles would double the weight of your backpack.  I had regular meetings with one of the world’s biggest can manufacturers, regularly visiting their U.K. factory and having a look around at developments etc.

But there was one point that we discussed extensively which to my mind seems to have been very much underplayed in the craft beer can explosion.

Bisphenol A

When I first started talking to those around me about canning beer they were sceptical.  The set in stone image of beer at that time was that cans made beer taste ‘tinny’. The metal imparting some kind of flavour into the beer.  But modern beer cans save that from happening by having a thin plastic lining inside to separate beer from metal.

It’s this thin plastic lining which contains Bisphenol A (BPA).

So what is BPA?

Bisphenol A is a chemical commonly used in the production of a great many plastics and resins including that which lines the cans that hold your favourite hop bomb.

Why is that an issue?

Well here’s where the waters get muddied.  There has been some research which has discovered a trend between BPA and some pretty significant ailments.  Breast Cancer UK are actively campaigning to get the routine exposure to BPA banned in the UK (http://www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/our-campaigns/no-more-bpa/). Their claim is that BPA acts an Endocrine Disrupting Chemical, and has been linked to breast cancer and well as prostate cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Potentially very serious issues.

Now I know this isn’t a beer issue, but it’s an issue that has an impact on this industry but also far beyond the industry. My grievance is the scale. I was first made aware of this 5 years ago. At that stage the manufacturer’s representative was happy to openly discuss BPA in the can and was very aware of the seriousness that this could potentially be taken. This had been a hot topic of debate in the US for some time before my discussions. However, despite assurances at that time that they were working on an alternative lining, still to this day there has been no change. This was given far greater profile in the US back in those days and just stop and imagine how widespread the use of BPA products there are in use globally. The scale of the money involved in this is massive. Now it may be that there is a replacement product in development which is imminently due to hit the market, but I can’t help but be sceptical. If the industry genuinely wanted to put safety first they would have long ago. I wonder if consumer perception of BPA would hasten a replacement being developed. I suspect it might.

That’s not to say that a replacement hasn’t been developed. It has. At the beginning of 2016, Campbells soup and Del Monte both announced that they were moving away from BPA linings in their cans, with a target of being BPA free by the middle of 2017 (https://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/newsroom/press-releases/campbell-to-remove-bpa-from-packaging-by-mid-2017/)  (https://www.delmontefoods.com/brands). Is it too much to expect the entire industry to move away from BPA based products? Perhaps, but when the health of all their customers is at stake, wouldn’t you think businesses would react quicker to it? Should cost and profit be a barrier to doing your utmost to ensure the product your delivering to market is entirely safe?

Infact, lets just stop and consider the fact that there has been no conclusive proof of the dangers, or that it is no danger to us. How much would be invested in proper research if there was confidence in there not being an issue? Which stakeholders have the financial muscle to drive the research? If proof was available to show that there wasn’t an issue I’m sure that would have been widely broadcast by now. The flip side of that coin has me wondering why greater significance isn’t given to the potential danger of this substance. Just to be clear, the official Food Standards Agency guidance (https://www.food.gov.uk/science/bpa) is that the levels used in can linings are so low that they won’t have any effect. The European Food Standards Agency had a similar view (https://www.food.gov.uk/science/bpa/efsa-bpa-consultation#).

But I cant help thinking that if I punch a man, it hurts, doesn’t matter how hard I hit him. If I kill him then that’s a more severe case, but it doesn’t make a less severe punch acceptable. Any exposure to BPA has an impact, it may not be noticeable and it may not ultimately change the course of your life but it does have an effect. We’re at the mercy of current scientific thinking, which as we’ve seen many times before can very quickly change as more information comes to light. Maybe I’m just paranoid about this, but I can’t help feeling that this can’t be simply ignored by simply telling us that there isn’t enough bad stuff to kill you.

And to my mind there is no consideration given in that assessment, for the cumulative effect. Granted each use of BPA products when considered as a stand-alone item may make the potential levels so tiny that there wouldn’t be any significant effects, but when you consider how many products we use in our day to day life which make use of this chemical that actually the overall levels are much much higher. Again, the official guidance is that even at those combined levels it’s lower than what they say is the level at which it is harmful. But again, I’d rather not have a poke in the eye at half the strength needed to blind me… And if we accept the use of this product now, how long will it take for our unwitting exposure to creep up to dangerous levels. That’s why the consumer needs to be aware of this. That’s why the consumer needs to be able to make informed buying decisions.

This is little ol’ me, one small time blogger from a provincial town, on the edge of the craft beer market, which in turn makes up a tiny weeny small proportion of the global BPA-using products market. And yet someone has to talk about it. I was concerned about it enough to go over and over it with the can manufacturers. I fully understand that others will have more or less conviction or concern about it, but I can’t be the only one?

So while I am a huge fan of cans and the benefits that they bring to having super fresh hoppy beer in your own home, I really can’t believe that no better way has been developed to line these cans. The lack of profile given to the potential dangers that BPA can bring, leaves a worrying doubt in my mind.

This is all unsubstantiated however, the medical evidence is that BPA consumption is at ‘safe’ levels, but why would giants like Del Monte and Campbell’s be moving to BPA free cans if it had been conclusively proven to be ‘safe’? What is ‘safe’? Does it have no effect on my health? Or does it simply not have a big effect on my health?

It’s worth pointing out here that this isn’t simply a canned beer issue. BPA is also used in those little plastic seals in crown capped bottles, but obviously gives far smaller contact with the beer itself, and less exposure, less risk. The bigger point to make here is that this isn’t simply a beer issue, BPA is everywhere around us in our modern day lives.

So the equation here is that there is a potential health risk from BPA based products. There is a non-BPA alternative to line food and drink cans. And yet BPA based linings are still being used. That can’t be right. Money talks here and it stinks of profit motive over health risks.

I would love to get an overwhelming response to this post from within the canning industry telling me that the move to non-BPA products is imminent across the board.  If Ive missed the news that this is the case then I would welcome someone to tell me just that.

I imagine that most breweries are completely unaware of this issue, but each of you, ask your can suppliers about this issue. They will have information on it. I think the more you know about this issue the better!

I want to be able to enjoy a delicious canned #trainbeer without worrying about the real journey it’s taking me on!

Collaborations: Why they’re more useful than you think

OK so I don’t think we need to pretend the image of collaborating is in any way negative. However, we as consumers are all too quick to judge a collaboration in the only way we can really, but I’ll get to that.

How do collaborations come about? Usually there’s a link between two breweries, or actually these days its as likely to be a linked collective/business/society as it is a brewery, the boundaries for collaboration have long since been removed. The essence of collaboration is that new ideas are brought to the table and those ideas can come from any quarter.

There’s the logistics to consider. For example if two breweries collaborate on a beer, who owns that beer? Who sells it? Well in many cases we’re talking about one beer having been produced. Produced from one brew day. That means that whilst staff from both breweries were present when that was produced, once brewed the beer ferments in the vessels of whoever’s premises it was brewed on ie one of the collaborators. So that brewery usually takes responsibility for the beer and effectively owns the beer. I’m sure there are a myriad of little trade negotiations within that sphere but generally that’s how it works.

Why do breweries collaborate?

One of the most significant things is that bringing of new ideas. Every brewery has its own identity and its own characters driving it forward. Those personalities put in the mix together will bounce ideas off each other and trade experiences with all aspects of brewing. The aim is to try and gain knowledge from each other and further their own knowledge through speaking and working alongside someone from a different background.

All good so far.

But the one thing consumers expect is an end product. We are all guilty of judging the validity of two breweries collaborating squarely on the quality of the one batch of beer that they produce. Granted we as consumers judge everything about a brewery on the quality of the beer that they produce, but there’s an extra element here which I often feel gets lost with the punters.

It’s that learning element. One brewer may see another brewer doing something slightly different to the way they do it. That could lead to a conversation where knowledge is pooled and which enriches the experiences of both parties. The brewer who learned that something may well take that bit of knowledge and start applying it to future brews. So that collab could actually influence a great many beers beyond the beer that was brewed on the day. And yet we judge it on the one beer that was produced. I’ve heard so many people talking about collaborations being abit underwhelming. And I think quite rightly we judge each beer on its own merits, but I feel that sometimes we project that onto the validity of the collaborative process.

Many times we expect collabs to push boundaries and naturally when boundaries of pushed, some stray over the cliff and don’t ultimately work as well as expected. The consumer deems it a failure and writes the whole thing off, not realising that the next time they have something from either of those breweries, the beer could well be benefitting from the experiences they shared in collaborating.

I guess the most significant thing I can point to in that respect is the reaction to the rainbow project. If you talk to the UK breweries who have been involved in that they’d tell you they learned a hell of a lot from collaborating with the other brewers. And the value of that process is far greater to them in the long run than the public reaction to the one off special beers that they produced. I would say that given the significance of the breweries who have been involved in that project, the whole UK scene has probably had a fair smattering of influence from the experiences gained within that project.

That’s why breweries collaborate. That’s why we should embrace the efforts. Granted we don’t always have to be positive about the immediate results, but don’t be too quick to judge its validity based on just one beer.

Prices, slices and perceptions of greed

A quiet family bank holiday weekend for some, for others an outpouring of objections and outrage after Matt Curtis (@totalcurtis on Twitter) pointed out a Cloudwater 4% Session IPA being sold at circa £13 per pint at Mother Kelly’s in London. The national tabloids loved the opportunity to slaughter the beer industry and lapped it up.

Lets just sit back and reflect on that headline.  £13 a pint.  I think most people would see that as a high price for a beer.  But the pub in question didn’t quote the pint price, the price of the beer was quoted in smaller measures, so that the price didn’t seem as excessive.  Is this just a cunning way to disguise the price?  Or is it a suggested measure for drinking it, with an intrinsic acknowledgement that it’s a high cost beer so you may wish to consider drinking a smaller quantity.  I am in no way able to answer that question, but its easy to see how you can, with a pre-set mind, give something a positive or a negative slant.

What determines price?

Most of the discussion has been around the cost of producing a beer, so let’s start with that.  As ever, Cloudwater themselves gave a very honest account of some standard costings for beers, if you haven’t read Paul’s blog post, read it now before we go on, I’ll wait for you to get back…. (Link: http://cloudwaterbrew.co/blog/on-the-values-of-beer)….

….. read it?  Good, it’s an interesting read and a very open way of guiding us to where prices come from.  Honest as ever and as a brewery they often react to social media issues very quickly to justify what they do.  Obviously in this, the beer in question was a Cloudwater beer so they are protecting their own image by responding to it.  And thats very important for a brewery. They are judged by the customer based on their experience of a particular breweries beer at the end delivery point.  Cloudwater themselves have no control over the price a pub customer pays, and yet are undoubtedly judged by the lay buyer on that end purchase, so by writing this piece they wanted to get their points of view across.

But I cant help feeling that they shouldn’t have to justify these things, but I’ll get to that later.

There are points of movement within a chain which takes a beer from being produced, to being supped by the end user.  The brewery puts time and materials into making a beer and must make a return on those things to stay in business.  Any distributor also invests time and materials into collecting and distributing the beer and again needs a return on those to stay in business.  Finally the outlet, be it pub or shop, invests time and materials into the selling of that beer and needs to make a return to stay in business.  Every step must take a slice to justify their efforts in the overall process.

I suspect that most people will look at a price on a board and if it’s outrageously high, as many felt it was in the example that started the debate, the belief is that someone in the chain is taking too high a slice of the projected profits and ripping the customer off.  Cue outrage.

But does the cost of time and materials determine price?  Most of the comments Ive seen over the weekend base an argument on just that.  But in reality, the cost of product and the price of a product are entirely separate things.  We’re looking at this all wrong.  In a world where we as consumers are better educated about the beer industry than ever before, our knowledge is taking us away from the simple reality of how a market economy works.

Price is determined by the customer.  Simple.  End of.

When you walk into a bar and look at the prices, you weigh up how much you expect to be paying and what sort or experience that spend will give you.  You find the balance of price and enjoyment which best suits a sense of value for your hard earned disposable income.  Yes the cost that the brewer has incurred to produce the beer is an influence on your decision, but you are weighing up how much you think that will add to the perceived value for money.  For example, a barrel aged impy stout, I love em.  So if I see one listed I’m looking at the price and weighing up how much I value what I expect that beer to taste like, against what the price actually is.

And this is where the Twitter reaction works.  Simply put, the volume of the response to this high priced beer was a loud and clear rejection from the larger market of that beer at that price.  It’s the extreme version of me opting for a lower priced beer.  Don’t blame the pub for putting this beer on at that price, Id be surprised if they move it quick enough to warrant a return on their investment of buying the beer and also the staff wages during the long time that it sits there getting ever older and more conspicuous.  Pubs owe it to themselves to turn beer around quick enough to maximise their return and minimise the time value of having that beer on the bar.  It’s a balancing act I guess.  But if each stage of the process is too expensive to be palatable by the end user, the whole chain collapses, the longevity dies and there is no longer viability in anyone’s business.

There is one thing that I can’t quite work out though.  Paul made a good point in his blog about imported beer v locally produced beer.  I may be wrong but the customer perception of price was inflated by the lure of the high cost US imports.  Getting a quality US beer to the UK in the best possible condition costs a lot of money and I think punters have become increasingly happy to pay prices at that level to get that product.  But a similarly high class beer from the UK doesn’t cost anywhere near as much to reach the end user and yet, how would a pub price it at a much lower price?  Let’s go extreme examples, let’s say a can of Cloudwater double IPA alongside a can of Heady Topper.  One has gone on a far longer journey.  The original ingredients may be very similar in costs, but does the different transport cost matter?  As a customer, my experience isnt enhanced by the longer journey.  If they are two similar standards of beer then I’d happily pay the same price for the two wouldn’t I?  What if it was an area which I wasn’t such a geek about?  If we were talking high quality fish fingers, I have no idea how fish grow fingers so no knowledge of how they’re made.  So all that matters to me is how they taste.  I have a perception of how much I’m willing to spend on quality fish fingers, irrespective of their heritage.

Some food for thought there anyway.

But I don’t feel that there’s a problem here.  Trends may swing and vary, but the crux is that we vote with our wallets.  You don’t have to hand over your hard earned.  But also, don’t feel under pressure to.  Don’t be afraid to take a step back and say, no that’s too much to pay.  The whole industry will thank you for that in the long run.  Inflation in a market is great while it lasts, but bites back viciously once it runs out of room to grow.

Ears, Eyes, Nose, Mouth…

How do you review a brew?

As I mentioned on our last podcast (link:NE Sippin Forecast), when I first started exploring the new wave of beers, I felt greatly inferior to the great bloggers and reviewers that were already out there.  I simply didn’t feel that I had anything to add to the reviews that they had already given.  As a result I was always reluctant to actually review beers thoroughly and in the main I spouted opinions rather than fully formed reviews.

It’s interesting now to be doing the podcast and at its core is Rob’s beery education and voyage of discovery.  It’s impossible to go through that process without getting into actually reviewing the beers that we sample.  How do you develop an understanding of what it is that you like or don’t like, without taking note of flavours and descriptions which you enjoy.  Your current experiences will shape your future thinking when deciding what to drink.

So how do you review a beer?

Firstly, think about when you start to judge or evaluate a beer.  It’s actually well before you buy it.  Personally my thoughts on the M&S dine in deals are already positive when I see the advert for the delicious looking chocolate desert.  With beer, we start creating an expectation through many things, social media being a prime driver of that.  The brand, the descriptors, the image that the name conjures up.

So what is my process once I have the beer in my hands?  Well I have a rule of senses.  I think about a beer using, and in this order: ears, eyes, nose then mouth.  It’s a simple guide but using it slows down the process of simply drinking beer and makes you better able to think through each stage.  But what does each stage mean?

Ears:  Let’s face it we start interacting with a beer from the first split second the bottle/can is opened.  Personally one of the first things I look for the level of ‘pffft’.  By that I mean gas released from the bottle/can as you open it.  I like a beer with good carbonation, I’m often underwhelmed by certain style of beers which have little or no carbonation.  But even then, that reaction to the initial noise is driven by my expectations of style.  I like a hoppy IPA to make that satisfying noise, but couldn’t give too hoots if a big Imperial Stout doesn’t.  But you see, I’m already judging.  My beer reviews will usually refer to the level of ‘pffft’, it’s very technically sound and kick starts your whole experience of a beer.

Next up, Eyes:  Now this is the pour stage, which includes the settle.  What are you seeing?  Does the level of audible ‘pffft’ tally with the witnessed carbonation that you can see as you pour?  Is the beer developing a big head?  Is the beer looking like its lacking any sort of head?  What colour is the beer?  What does that colour mean for your tastebuds?  Even subconsciously the colour is moulding your expectations.  Is there any sediment?  Is the beer clear?  Is the appearance matching what you expect from the beer description/style?  Then simply, just how appetising is the beers appearance?  Which elements look appetising? Which elements don’t? Is there anything in the appearance which is significantly drawing you or repelling you?

Next one is Nose:  I say this is the next stage, it’s not really, this very much overlaps/interacts with the eyes.  For many beers the aroma will leap out the bottle/can from the moment you crack it open.  Or during the pour that carbonation is releasing gas from the beer and throwing the aroma of the beer up into the air above it.  So you are experiencing the full effect of the aroma while you pour.  It’s impossible for that aroma not to have an influence on the judgement of the appearance.  Even on a simple positive or negative scale.  If the aroma is enticing, an average looking beer will be judged in a more positive light.  But what of the aroma?  What are you getting?  Is it what you were expecting? What organic elements can you detect in the aroma?  Is it grassy?  Is it fruity?  If so can you pinpoint which fruit?  Is it sharp bitter fruit?  Or sweeter more fleshy fruit?   Is there any alcohol in the aroma?  Is there any link to a different drink you’ve had?  Does it remind you of any occasion you’ve experienced things in the past?  Close your eyes, what image does the beer conjure up?

I’d say that by the time you get to aroma, you’re teetering on the edge of drinking this beer in front of you, but hold off for just a little longer.  A good beer review cant be rushed.  A good beer deserves the right amount of attention.  By this point you have most of your senses painting a picture that your brain is deciphering and is rapidly delivering an exit poll result for you, which will only be proven right or wrong by the count, sorry by taking a sip.  So dive in!

Mouth: A few elements to consider here, what’s the initial mouthfeel like?  What’s the level of carb like?  Does it zing as much as it pffft’d earlier?  How viscous does it feel?  Is there much presence to it?  Does it lace your tongue?  Does it snipe at your tongue with bitterness?  A beer enters at the front of your mouth and exits out the back (unless it’s really bad…).  On that short journey it covers many areas of your tongue and has a varying interaction with each one.  But what flavours are being drawn out?  What’s the immediate reaction when it first enters?  Which are the flavours that lead the charge?  Do those flavours have company?  Are there other flavours which raise their heads only once the leading bold flavour has settled down?  And once it disappears down your throat, what’s left?  What’s the lingering flavour?  Is your mouth left feeling dry?  Are you craving another gulp?

Take it slowly, think through the layers of what you’re tasting.  Cast your mind back to similar food stuff, or similar experiences.  Often a flavour can remind me of an aroma I’ve experienced in my past and its drawing from your memory which is key to identifying flavours.  I know I used to feel like identifying flavours and reviewing beers was a fine art.  But whilst a good beer reviewer is a skilled and rare talent, the act of reviewing is actually quite simple.  All you’re doing is drawing on memories.  It’s about opening your mind to links from your past.  You can’t identify a flavour if you’ve never tasted it before!  Justin Mason (@1970sboy) is a great man to listen to for getting you delving into flavours of beer.  He is an advocate for exploring flavours in all things.  The more broad your range of past flavour experiences, the more nuanced your ability to identify flavours in your present.

The mouth may be the final piece of apparatus in the list, but it’s the most influential and powerful tool you have.  Let’s face it, you are only interested in beer because of your enjoyment of consuming it.  Beer is after all a drink and its main purpose is to interact with your tastebuds.  But don’t discount all the information you’ve received so far.  This is a big moment for a beer.  It’s at this point where all the expectation comes to a head and the final judgement is found.

Each and every beer has to face up to its own expectation.  It’s the single most influential driver on a drinker’s enjoyment.  If all the aspects in the build up to drinking create too high a level of expectation, the resultant beer may be viewed as disappointing if it doesn’t meet the high expectations.  On the flip side, sometimes you get that magical moment where you’re expecting very little from a beer but when you drink it, it well exceeds expectation.  And it’s that swing, for better or worse, which leaves the lasting impression on a drinker.  If a brewer can get that swing to be a positive, the drinker will happily return to buy the beer again, and will have positive things to say about it.

So don’t be intimidated by reviewing beers, anyone can do it.  Just remember the order: Ears, eyes, nose, mouth… and you can’t go too far wrong!

The most delicate silk, and the purest gold thread…. an Anti-Exclusivity rant

There’s a new bar in the trendy end of town. The refurbishment of the glamorous old building has been splashed across the local media for months. Ever since the inception of the idea of opening this bar, the cool kids have been intrigued by it. The reality TV star that is behind the idea is helping its cause. Her onscreen misdemeanours only up the ante and draw in a larger crowd. And what are we to expect? Well naturally the place will be full of the coolest of cats. Expect to be shoulder to shoulder with those who simply ooze style and class. The drippings of visual charisma will be everywhere in this place. Every surface will be awash. All the woodwork has been given a San Tropez covering. The chandeliers will all sparkle in reflection of extra pearly whites located inside. And the parties…… oh the parties….. the tales that will come out of this place will be that of legend. And as they say if you weren’t there, you’ll never truly know how good they were.

As an establishment, the doormen are everything. They marshal the place. Every entrant must conform. Every booth must be occupied by the right empty vessels. There’s a lot to be gained by being on the inside of the glass windows instead of outside looking in. You too could be the envy of the masses, you too could live the glamorous lifestyle of the rich and famous, even if only for the night. You may have to adapt though, you may need to bend your ways and up your game on your appearance, standards are high and you must conform to gain access. I suggest you turn to OK magazine or Hello, use those images as your guide. Create a representation of yourself that’s as close to those images as possible. Be your favourite celebrity image.

As you can imagine the clamour for the glamour is intense. Demand is high to be on the inside. Unfortunately as a result, the prices are quite high. But ONLY to try and stem demand, not to try and profit from the hype…. But it also means you’ll be mixing with a better mix of clientele. This is a bar where everyone must feel comfortable, from the common man in the street (granted he may have to save for a year to get in), right the way up to the premium grade celebrities.

So let the cava flow!

Please help me. I’m surrounded by people who are being sucked in by this sort of ‘exclusive’ venue. There are many facets to life where pictures are painted with words, which don’t give the true picture of the reality. How many young and impressionable people would be drawn to a bar like this? One which portrays attendance as a lifestyle choice, a status symbol of being part of an ‘in crowd’. And how often have you been to places where the reality of being in there feels as false as the bronzing lotion liberally applied before going. The crowd will simply be made up of those hoping to see the stars, and those who desperately want to portray themselves as stars who in reality aren’t.

Craft beer is cool these days, but it hasn’t been cool for long and it won’t stay high up in the cool kid’s minds forever. And yet I see pockets of people seeking to squeeze every penny out the industry through the portrayal of it being an ‘exclusive’ product.

I guess one iteration of this is where the larger brewing companies produce a ‘craft’-ish product from their factories, and in the process adorn it with the term ‘craft’. As we all know, in the UK there is no concise definition of craft in the beer world, sadly this allows the big monoliths to sidle up and try and cadge cash from the punters on the fringe. To exploit those who think they’re exploring craft beer, when in reality they’re not being served up a beer which fits the image of the forefathers who started using the term ‘craft’ intended. It’s been hijacked as a marketing term, to make the beer seem more specialist and therefore of a higher class. It’s not, it’s just slightly less crap than the rest of their range.

Another iteration is the restricting of stock of special beers. Now whether this lies with the breweries intentions or the distributor trying to maintain an exclusiveness, there have been many ‘high demand’ beers, which have initially appeared in short supply, but within a few weeks another, far larger batch appears asif by magic. There are a million different possibilities for that occurring, but the punter doesn’t see them, we just see that we were initially being pushed towards buying a beer before it’s too late, and very quickly it’s not available by the hat full. Do not create false exclusivity!

Exclusivity creates awful human beings. There is nothing I dislike more than the portayl of a social elite. There’s a gravity to it, those who do appear to get hold of beers first every time, start to feel compelled to maintain that image. They start enjoying the limelight the exclusivity gives them. They start to believe themselves that they’re part of an elite. As with my #NoMoFOMO post, I ask, who are they drinking for? Their own enjoyment? Or are they simply keeping up appearances? Maintaining their high society status in the public eye. Public Relations Attention Seekers…. Or P.R.At.S for short….

It’s when these special releases are so limited only the small upper echelons can get hold of them when it really grates. I’m convinced that there have been some ‘hype’ releases, which have been carefully stage managed to make sure the clamour is great and the rate of demand can drive up the price point. Was the UK release of Bourbon County this year anything more than a publicity stunt?  I wrote my ‘hype’ piece in October last year, just 8 months ago and yet it feels like the conversation has moved on so much. We no longer talk about hype, its FOMO now. So what is the difference?

Well in grand scheme of things we’re talking about the same issue however, the difference is subtle. For me, the hype argument laid the blame square on brewery doorsteps, and while I’m sure there were instances of brewery driven hype in the industry, I can’t criticise a business for advertising its products. There was a point at which advertising became spurious, where the claims made were excessive and I think the ‘hype’ criticism was valid, but the anti-hype piece has certainly had a moderating effect on the industry.

Once ‘hype’ was brought into line, we had the natural knock on criticism for FOMO. Now to my mind this was far more about the consumer. Far more about the community fringes where there was a bragging rights culture keen to make a mark. I doubt in many instances if the latest releases were actually enjoyed, but getting that photo to circulate was all important. But I don’t even blame the people who circulated the photo. They may be bragging but we’ve all known brags in real life and personally, they don’t bother me because I see through it. I can take what they say with a pinch of salt and move on. I respect opinions from people I respect, that’s the way life works.

But where FOMO was painful was in the beholder. I was guilty of feeling the need to get my hands on special releases so that I could be part of conversations, I wanted to earn the respect of those around me. I would jump at the chance to grab ‘special’ beers when they were released, so that I could form an opinion and then share that opinion with others. But that was me, driving my own FOMO. I blame no one else. But I bet there are plenty people out there in the same position. That’s why I started #NoMoFOMO, for me. It’s the public display of me constantly reminding myself that the latest ‘special’ beers aren’t worth getting het up about. There is plenty beer out there to enjoy and enjoyment has to be the key. I now drink to enjoy, not to tick boxes. No clearer indication of that than my feelings on New England IPAs. They’re refreshing and juicy, but I find some to have a lot of body and very little lingering flavour and I like lingering bitterness! But that’s not to say that I consider myself above them, I recognise those beers as being delicious high class beers. Just my tastes are subtly different to them.

I could drink loads of them and post on social media how great I think they are and there’d be no comeback to me. It wouldn’t cost me anything and I’ve no doubt I’d gain the respect of some niche area of fellow drinkers. But why would I do that? What would be the point? My problem is that I love to gather information and then formulate an opinion. I don’t always vocalise my opinion, but ask me and I’ll give it. I want social media to be more a discussion forum. To some people beer is binary, in that it’s either amazing of utter tosh. Well I see the grey areas. I see that a range of styles gives a range of experiences. There’s quite abit out there about matching beer with food or music etc, but for me, it’s mainly driven by environment, which encompasses all manner of things. So you are allowed to enjoy a range of styles in a range of environments and not be treated asif foolish.

Now I’m a man proud of my roots. As I’ve spoken about before, I’ve never chased trying to ‘fit in’. I’m know that I’m entirely normal, in that I’m odd. We’re all odd, when I say odd I mean different, we’re all different and instead of trying to fit moulds, we should recognise the value in our differences. Trying to emulate what you think is the life that your heroes have, will ultimately leave you falling short. And in most cases your perception of their perfect life is very different to their reality. I guarantee you each and every member of the Geordie shore cast changed their behaviour and use of language in order to get on that show. And how many of us respect them for that? Not me. In 5 years’ time the hollow folk will have moved on and those of us who are wise enough not to try and ride that wave will be truly able to relax and enjoy whatever beer we genuinely enjoy, not because someone has told you that its mint, not because it’s in the public eye, but because you yourself really enjoy it.

So I’m very anti-exclusivity, I want great beer to be for the many, not the few.