Wednesday, 30 April 2008

This week I have been mainly drinking...

Sharp's Chalky's, Bite 6.8%, 330ml bottle.

Here's the blurb:

"The idea for Chalky's Bite came about as a challenge from Rick Stein to Sharp's Head Brewer Stuart Howe.
The task was to create a distinctly English beer with the character, individuality and quality to stand alongside the Belgian greats. 
The beer created is exceptional with a delicate flavour balance of three different hop varieties and wild Cornish fennel. With a totally natural process and a maturation period of over three months the beer is allowed ample time to develop a high level of carbonation, its own distinctive flavour and a beautiful light golden colour. 
Chalky's patience whilst attending the many development and sampling sessions at the Brewery is justifiably rewarded in the name."

As is all too common, the blurb tells us very little. What are the three hop varieties? I can't be the only person who would like to know. 

Whatever they are, the results are rather good. I am reminded of two legendary beers that just happen to be big favourites – Orval and Anchor Liberty Ale. Fortunately the fennel flavour isn't too obvious. I like fennel but I feel a beer with a big fennel flavour would be difficult enjoy too often. As it is, I'm picking up a couple of bottles every week from my local Booths supermarket.

I find it encouraging that a British brewer has produced a 6.9% beer in a 330ml bottle. If only there were more. The bulk of Britain's craft beers are 3.5 to 5%, many are great beers but for non-pub consumption I prefer less volume and more strength and hopefully, more flavour. An attractively branded bottle and a suitable glass add to the pleasure. More please.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Arrgghh! Stop, I can't take it any more! I'll give you the top-secret invasion plans! (Or: The Real Ale Name Problem)

We regularly hear the world of real ale claim it desires a) more drinkers who are young, b) more drinkers who are women (indeed, people in both categories, young women, seem the most elusive customer.)

I believe the prevailing fallacy within the world of real ale is "many people don't know real ale exists: if more people knew of its existence, more people would drink it." 

In my experience practically all of the drinking population is aware of real ale but significant numbers find themselves alienated by several characteristics of the genre.

A recurrent theme is the alienation provided by the stupid names. 

To illustrate the problem I have made a list of beer names which jumped out at me from the pages of the CAMRA's 2008 Good Beer Guide.

Prepare to cringe.

[WARNING: clunking wordplays, forced alliteration, bad puns, feeble jokes and swords and sorcery follow]

Ale Mary
Baz's Bonce Blower
Bearly Literate
Bashful Beaver
Bumble Hole Bitter
Codrington Codger
Collie Wobbles
Crafty Shag
Croak & Stagger
Dizzy Dick
Doff Cocker
Dog Daze
Dozey Dawg
Druid's Fluid
Fine Fettle
Flashman's Clout
Friar Duck
Friggin in the Riggin
Frog Bog
Funky Monkey
Gartley Nagger
Guest Fest
Hadda's Headbanger
Hairy Helmet
Haunted Hen
Honey Bunny
Humpty Dumpty's Downfall
Hung Drawn 'n' Portered
Jock's Trap
Keel Over
Keystone Hops
Knocker Up
Kornish Nektar
Kripple Dick
Lancashire & Yorkshire Aleway
Land of Hop and Glory
Leper Squint
Lickerish Stout
Love Muscle
Mad Monk
Milk of Amnesia
Mucky Duck
Mutley's Revenge
Mutts Nuts
Naughty Ferrets
Naughty Nell's
Nessies Monster Mash
Nether Underestimate a Blonde
No-Eye Deer
Norfolk Nog
Nowtsa Matter
Numpty Bitter
Oggy Vog
Old(e) - 81 examples including:
Old Comfort
Old Disreputable
Old Dog
Old Fecker
Old Growler
Old Groyne
Old Jock
Old Knobbley
Old Slapper
Old Slug
Old Speckled Hen
Old Stoatwobbler
Old Stumpy
Old Tosser
Olde Codger
One for the Toad
One-Der-Ful Wheat
Over and Stout
Pail Ail
Pain in the Glass
Palmer's Poison
Parker's Porter
Parson's Pledge
Pawn Star
Penny's Porter
Peploe's Tipple
Pheasant Plucker
Piddle in the Dark/Hole/Snow/Wind
Pinch Noggin'
Piston Bitter / Brew
Plucking Pheasant
Poacher's Dick/Pocket/Pride/Trail
Polly's Folly
Pot Wallop
Pressed Rat and Warthog
Pucks Folly
Pure Ubu
Puritan's Porter
Quacker Jack
Rack and Ruin
Rail Ale
Rambers Ruin
Rampant Gryphon
Rams Revenge
Reel Ale
Ribble Rouser
Ringing Roger
Rite Flanker
Rougham Ready
Rucking Mole
Rusty Bucket
Sauce of the Niall
Sawley Tempted
Sheepshaggers Gold
Side Pocket for a Toad
Silk of Amnesia
Sipping Bull
Slaughter Porter
Sleck Dust
Slippery Jack
Slurping Stoat
Snoozy Suzy
Soar Head
Spike's on t'Way
Summa That
Sunny Daze
Sweaty Clog
Tabatha the Knackered
Tackler's Tipple
Taffy's Tipple
Thistle Tickler
Tits Up
Tittesworth Tipple
Top Totty
Trembling Rabbit
Trotter's Tipple
Trout Tickler
Weiss Buoy
Weiss Squad
What the Duck
Whitley Wobbler
Wigan Bier
Winkle Warmer Porter
Wobbly Bob
Ye Olde Trout

After all that, mine's a pint of the beautifully named Stella Artois.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Has "Real Ale" had its day?

Ok,  now I've got your attention I should clarify – I mean the term "real ale", NOT "real ale" itself.

Real ale rhetoric is commonly along the lines of "we want more people to drink real ale, we think more people should give up mass-produced lager." 

A number of factors influence the decisions of the majority who prefer to stick with safe mass-produced beer. Paramount amongst them is image, and image is made up of associations. My belief is that associations attached to the word "ale" are inhibiting its uptake.

"Ale" is an ancient word, over a thousand years old. That's a lot of history. Indeed, a history to be proud of. Unfortunately, it seems to me, use of the word "ale" forces us to look backwards – and significant numbers of people are really deeply indifferent to, and uncomfortable with, looking backwards. 

Just think of some of the contemporary interests of British people e.g. fashion, technology, their kids, the latest release by a favourite band. All these interests are imbued with a curiosity about what might happen in the future. "Ale", being a historical word doesn't fit in with the forward-looking cultural interests of huge numbers of people.

There is another angle here: younger people seem the most resistant to the allure of depth of history; older people tend to grow to appreciate historical associations. I don't find this surprising. Young people, by virtue of having a lot of life ahead of them are prone to looking forward. The corollary is that older people have more to look back on, and in  so doing may develop increased interest in the built-in historical associations of the word "ale".

The beer market reflects this: real ale, on the whole, appeals to older men (we'll get on to the gender question some other time). 

(OK, at this point some loudmouth will be telling us in exasperated tones about Kevin S0-and-So aged 18 who only drink real ale, as if that trumps my argument. That's an exception isn't it? It's like a smoker defending his habit by saying "my grandad smoked 40 a day until he was 102". It's an exception, not an example of a trend.)

Here's my conclusion: as part of a broader effort to sell more craft beer to more people outside of the long-standing middle-aged bloke demographic it is necessary to ditch the word "ale". And ditching the word "ale" means ditching the the term "real ale", it's had its day. The replacement I favour is "craft beer." What say you?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

What's so "Festive" about an airless dungeon?

In the past couple of years I've been to one or two British beer festivals that I thought were quite good - pleasant environment, a good mix of people and reliably good beer. The 2007 GBBF and Keswick Beer Festival spring to mind. I'm starting to think that beer festivals are improving.

All of a sudden, along comes a BF that shatters my fragile hope – Newcastle Beer Festival.

The location is the basement music venue in the university Students' Union building. The walls are painted matt black and the lighting is harsh chucking-out-time flourescent. The seemingly unventilated room is warm and clammy. An improvised bar dominates the centre of the room; apparently un-cooled casks lurk within.

My brother, two friends and I race in and pick some beers: hmm, so-so. Nothing blatantly "off" but nothing blatantly enjoyable either. All the beer temperatures are above the ideal and all the beers are lacking condition. Flavours are dull and lifeless - "brown". We put it down to luck of the draw. The second round is the same. As is the third. Rob says "sod this" and goes home. Round four provides John with an excellent Timothy Taylor's "Ram Tam". Round five is a write-off.

Dismayed by this dismal hit rate we head upstairs for a cider palate-cleanser, hopefully something gueuze-like. The man who serves us is wearing shabby carpet slippers, and some of the cider tastes something like that. Fortunately Mr Slippers is quite forthcoming with samples and we find some bracingly agreeable dry cider to finish the evening.

Although we didn't specifically see any "showcase for real ale" blurb on  this occasion, this kind of cant is usually attached to beer festivals. Presumably the desire to showcase "real ale" played a part in the motivation behind Newcastle BF like all other similar events. Sadly, it failed dismally in this presumed aim.