Tuesday, November 12, 2013

In search of good beer

This morning I was in a twitter discussion where the topic turned to people relocating and their beer tastes.  

Thankfully, this is something I know a lot about.

I'm not your average beer drinker who swills back big name, bland, lagers.  I like some lagers, but I grew up around bitter and ale.  Furthermore, I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town that until I was around 10yrs old had two breweries, until Whitbread relocated, leaving just Shepherd Neame.

As fate would have it, my regular watering hole would end up being the Sun Inn (built in the 1300s, so it's got some character), which being very close to the brewery, meant it was the flagship pub and was run as such.  

So, to paraphrase the situation:
I grew up in an environment where your classroom at aged 7 smelled of wort and at 11am each day, the building would be enveloped in a steam cloud that smelled unmistakably of beer.  I've had more trips through a brewery than most people have had plane flights. I also drank at what is likely the only pub in the county to hardly ever run dry or have pipes that have not been cleaned in several days, because brewing licenses meant that dignitaries from the big name breweries such as Heineken or Kingfisher might turn up in town to see how their beers were and pop to my pub to try it.  As such, it had to be on tip-top condition.

Yes, I have had a privileged upbringing where beer is concerned.

The other side to this is travel:  I've done the one-way flight to leave your family and friends and leap to somewhere new.  Needless to say, I've had a lot of beer since arriving here.  My attitude is if there's a beer available I haven't tried, that's what I'm having next.  I’d never say the beer here was bad, because it’s not.  But most of it is mass-market grade, cheap, gassy, and not particularly memorable.  

The problems start when small brewers (and sometimes the big ones too) try to create a “craft” beer.  For some reason they often think that drowning a beer in hops makes a craft beer.  The other problematic beer is the “too-strong for more than one bottle” beer.  This is the beer that you like, but after three small bottles it’s either too much to stomach, or you’ve a weird pounding head from it.  The final one is the dark, sugary, beer that often has (as my very good friends says) the “bacon aftertaste”.

Most people know I bake bread.  Beer and bread are very similar.  You’ve some ingredients, water, some sugar sometimes, and some yeast.  Then you mix, ferment and end up with a product.  I see the same problem in beer turn up in bread too.  The “artisan” bread movement over here is basically the bread equivalent of the “over-hopped” beer, in that instead of just concentrating on creating a good loaf of bread, they think that better bread has to have a cornucopia of other ingredients in it.  Most people only have access to commercial bread, so haven’t tasted what normal (i.e. it takes 24 hours to get your starter dough going, then another 4 hours of autolyse, rise, fold, shape and bake) bread should taste like.  I’m sure I can make a plain loaf that people would say tastes better than some 3 hour from start to finish effort with a smorgasbord of nuts and olives in it.

But I digress…

I think the Japanese got it right in Sushi.  The average sushi chef spends an inordinate amount of time on learning to do the rice.  It’s the simplest thing on the plate, but if you can’t get the rice right, then it really doesn’t matter about anything else with it.  This needs to be done with many brewers - get the basic “real” ales and beers correct before you experiment too much with other ingredients.

If you remove all the hundred of millions of dollars of advertising, the hoopla and everything else, the reason I don’t drink the mainstream beer is this:  All I look for is a simple, honest pint, done well.