Some Thoughts About Beer

I’ve been thinking about a couple of beer related issues lately.

The first came up over a pint with Ben Viveur, who had been thinking along similar lines. We both agreed that most of the beers we like are either less than 4% ABV or over 5%. Those in the 4-5% range (and that’s probably a significant majority of British ales) we tend to find a bit lacklustre.

It’s no surprise when beers in the upper range are enjoyable. Greater strength generally goes with more body and more pronounced flavours. And they cover a variety of styles – IPAs, stouts and porters, old ales, barley wines – and that’s before we include Belgian dubbels and trippels, lambics, imperial stouts, Baltic porters and suchlike.

But I also enjoy some comparatively weak beers: milds, like Moorhouse’s Black Cat, and light hoppy ales like Dark Star Hophead or Oakham Citra.

What then is the problem with those in the middle? I admit it may be partly a question of taste (as in the preferences of one’s palate). My tastes have changed since I began drinking beer over 50 years ago and many of those beers are the type of traditional “bitter” that I cut my teeth on but now find overly sweet or bland. But I don’t think that’s entirely the answer. I’m inclined to believe that a lot of beers in that 4-5% range actually are rather poor quality. Though I now tend to eschew the traditional amber bitter, I don’t mind drinking a good example of the genre (e.g. West Berkshire Good Old Boy) occasionally, but most of them do very little for me.

And don’t get me started on those dreadful 4.5% Christmas specials with gimmicky names – as beer sommelier Sophie Atherton memorably put it a few years ago “with few exceptions they’re all turkeys”.

The other issue is related in a way. It seems to me that, while small “craft” brewers are producing all kinds of exciting new beers (and a few which stretch the definition of beer a little too far in my opinion), most of the long-established breweries are remarkably conservative in their offerings. When they do produce a new beer, it’s usually little more than a half-hearted attempt to embrace a new style.

Take for example Palmer’s Dorset Gold. Now, I have to say that I have a lot of time for Palmers of Bridport. I admire the way they’ve maintained their estate in west Dorset all these years without being taken over or getting too big for their boots. And I’m very partial to their strong dark ale Tally Ho!, which fortunately my local manages to stock on a fairly regular basis. With Dorset Gold, a newish addition to the portfolio, they had an opportunity to create a modern golden hoppy ale, but what they actually came up with (and I had a pint of it only yesterday) seems to me just a paler version of Palmer’s IPA*. And yes, it is 4.5%.

So why are established breweries reluctant to step out of their comfort zone? I appreciate that in many ways it’s easier for a small outfit to diversify and experiment. But most large breweries these days have a one or two barrel pilot plant where they can try out new ideas before putting the successful ones into mainstream production.

And another thing: when the big boys do come up with something a bit different, why is it so often only released in keg form? I’m looking at Fullers here – I’d love to see Black Cab and Wild River in cask again. It’s not only youngsters prepared to part with the best part of a tenner for a pint who enjoy drinking interesting beers.

* Which is of course nothing of the sort. The name, like Greene King IPA, is a hangover from last century when it was fashionable to call your best bitter “IPA”, even though it bore little resemblance to the original concept of “India Pale Ale” – a strong, hoppy beer designed to withstand the sea voyage to the subcontinent – or indeed the “real” IPAs being made today.

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