Saturday, 3 December 2011

What is Good Beer?

I was reading Mark Dredge’s post on using too many hops in beer and the resultant comments and it got me thinking; what is good beer?
The answer to that is simple: Whatever the person drinking the beer is looking for. It’s a bit like a cup of tea. I like a loose leaf lapsang made with soft water whereas most people like PG tips with plenty of milk and maybe one lump or two. Are they all idiots or am I? Don’t answer that!
I must warn you that I am now going to launch into my traditional sermon a lot of which I will have covered before. Sorry but I can’t help it.
You can argue that a beer brewed at high gravity using raw barley, enzymes, maize, hybridised yeast and post fermentation bitterness is a better beer than a reinheitsgebot-brewed, ice cave-aged whole hop pilsner if you are a thirsty drinker looking for cool clean refreshment on a scorching summer’s day. To a hophead who habitually shifts the frame of reference of his palate towards the extreme, a well-balanced, quenching cask ale which tastes of malt, hops and fruit is abjectly inferior to an ultra-pale, 1 Simcoe cone per ml, baseball bat of unrelenting grapefruit pith brewed by a 20 year old with his baseball cap on sideways, in a converted garage.
As a brewer I look for beers which I know are hard to execute, made well. Bunging a load of hops in or putting your brew in a barrel you have bought off a distillery is not difficult and certainly not big and clever. All too often the world of beer writing, blogging and the enthusiast is seemingly equating new and different to good and better. It very seldom is. For some their livelihood relies on uncovering the next big thing. One style of beer or brewery becomes de rigueur before being chip wrapping.  
There are of course some drinkers who dismiss the new and innovative as second best to the old fashioned and traditional. In my opinion they are just as wrong as the fashionistas.

There seem to be a lot of people who profess to be beer lovers and yet seem to want to change beer completely. They can’t think that much of it if they champion the new and innovative to the detriment of the classic. A true beer lover embraces change enthusiastically but shows the necessary understanding and appreciation of our heritage and the passion and expertise of the brewer. I think only when you understand the complexities and elegance of brewing can you appreciate the true art of the brewer and how to judge him. You might not agree and why would you? You probably won’t be a brewer and if you are I bet you don’t sell much.

A great Lambic is not the Lambic which has a lower pH than all the others. It’s the one with highest degree of complexity and balance between the components of that complexity. So a great IPA or double IPA is not the one with the highest concentration of iso alpha acid. Very bitter and very strong beers have their place but to label subtle and well-constructed beers as crap because the analytical numbers don’t add up to 10,000 is ignorant and worthy of a slap. Who wants one? Eh?!
You decide what constitutes a good beer but in my experience the more you understand of what goes into a making a beer and the more widely you educate your palate, the more rewarding the experience of the decision making becomes. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but I think everyone should be able to reasonably justify that opinion when it is challenged.

Fashions change, balance and complexity never go out of style.


12 comments:

Velky Al said...

That hits the nail firmly, and squarely, on the head!

Simon Johnson said...

Superb, Stuart. Just... superb.

BeerReviewsAndy said...

Well said that man!

Tandleman said...

Could not agree more.No slap for me hopefully.

Sid Boggle said...

"Fashions change, balance and complexity never go out of style."

So, in your opinion, does that mean that hop-forward golden beers are a 'fashion'? I generally agree with what you're saying, but maybe the question is what is 'traditional' beer. After all, if beer and science and technology didn't move on, we'd still be drinking porters or gruits. Tastes change, and brewing changes to keep up with those changes. Or maybe sometimes it prompts the change. I would agree that things like barrel-aging are a 'fashion', but perhaps what younger brewers like to brew is a sign of a new shift in tastes.

I'm not sure the debate ought to be framed as good/bad, winner/loser etc. It sort of proposes the existence of a bunch of fault lines across age, taste, and I think that though small, the world of good beer is broad enough to accommodate all tastes.

Neil Spake said...

Excellent summation!

Stuart Howe said...

Thanks gents, much appreciated.

I'm not marking any beers out as fashionable Sid just arguing that how good something tastes shouldn't be judged on the basis of popularity within a society or subsection thereof.

Ben (@CptCheerful) said...

I think a lot of people on both sides of this issue confuse "traditional" styles and beers that are pretty poor on a comparative basis (i.e. they actually lack the complexity or subtlety that you alude to, and are just thin/bland). Certainly there are some great beers that offer a more subtle and complex array of flavours (kolsch being a particular favourite of mine), just as with wines and spirits, but there are also plenty that position themselves within similar categories/definitions which do a huge disservice to those styles of beer. I'd point to many of the commercial/mass-market lagers out there as a good example of this in action. I personally found most of them so unpleasant that for a long time I just didn't drink beer, because I didn't realise there was such a thing as a lager or pilsner that actually tasted of something. I just didn't "get" why people drank beer, and I think that a similar thing is happening at the moment with a lot of people who are new to beer and try a poor example of an English Bitter for example.

Peter Brissenden said...

'As a brewer I look for beers which I know are hard to execute, made well. Bunging a load of hops in or putting your brew in a barrel you have bought off a distillery is not difficult and certainly not big and clever'

Amen to that. We have often said brewing our lager is like brewing naked, there is nothing to hide behind. All too often highly hopped, high alcohol beers mask production faults that in a lower hopped and alcohol beer would ultimately make it unsaleable.

Gazza Prescott said...

Some of us just like lots of hops and don't like toffee-malt and English hops... so are we wrong?

Stuart Howe said...

You are completely right Gazza. Everyone is the judge of what good beer is. If you were to say that you loved beer and all beer which is not pale and hopped with modern hop varieties is crap, you would be wrong. I would implore you to sample widely of beers which are brewed using other malts, hops and techniques because restricting your drinking to one style of beer is depriving yourself of a great deal of pleasure. If you choose not to, please don’t hold a grudge against those who do.

zythophile said...

Why does this debate remind me of the trad jazz/modern jazz arguments of the 1950s? Gazza, I grew up loving Miles Davis/John Coltrane, I even enjoyed Albert Ayler (look him up, he's the jazz equivalent of a triple IPA), then as I aged I grew to properly appreciate what people like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver were doing. Now I think I'm lucky to be able to like almost all forms of jazz, though I certainly don't think I'm superior to the person who thinks that "real" jazz stopped in 1935, or only began in 1950. As Stuart says, keep your tastebuds open, just as I hope you keep your ears open. You may never decide you like the toffee-and-oranges of a Fuller's ESB, and that's fine, but think: if you do, you'll have even more beers to enjoy than you do already.

Martyn Cornell

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