Friday, May 17, 2019

Real Cræft Beer?

Education, so they say, is wasted on the young. As a kid growing up in the Outer Hebrides one of my favourite subjects at school was history. I loved, and still do, reading and learning about the Russian Revolution, World War 1, the Tudors and Stuarts, and British imperial history. One of the themes that I was not enamored with at the time though was Scottish Farming from 1540-1750, admittedly those dates may not be accurate but I seem to recall it being from just before the Union of Crowns through to just after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. There are bits I remember, the use of runrig systems of land use, the Clearances, the Improvers, that kind of stuff. These days I find agricultural history absolutely fascinating, probably inspired by TV shows like Tales from the Green Valley, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Wartime Farm.

It was largely as a result of my love of those shows that a couple of weeks back I got a copy of Alexander Langlands' book "Cræft", which is an examination of the history and meaning of traditional crafts such as basketry, weaving, and even haymaking. Due to the woodcut style drawings on the front cover, I was hoping that there would be a chapter on beer and ale in an agricultural setting, but sadly not. Despite this minor gripe, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who is tired of our post Industrial Revolution petrochemical driven age and interested in seeing the old ways make a come back. I can't remember the last time I read a book so quickly.

Although there was no chapter on traditional beer and ale making in an agricultural setting, many of the themes of the book prompted me to think more closely about the nature and character of the early 21st century "craft" beer boom. In particular I wondered about whether "craft" beer as practiced is in fact a "craft" at all?

Langlands deliberately harkens back to Old English in his use of the word "Cræft" to describe the pre-Industrial Revolution activities he delves into. For Langlands there are important factors in what makes something a "Cræft" as opposed to a craft hobby. At it's core, Langlands argues that "Cræft" takes that which is local and available to make something useful, for example the different styles of pottery that arose from the various types of clay in given areas of England. Such an idea really challenges the very concept of a "craft" beer business that buys in its malts, hops, and yeast from around the world, or strips its local water of everything that makes it local so that they can approximate the water of Burton, Dublin, or Plzeň. How then is the beer they produce a "craft"? It is not a product of place either, so in that sense it is not local. Businesses like Starr Hill, Three Notch'd, and Port City are thus not Virginian breweries, but breweries in Virginia.

Perhaps the closest we get to a "Cræft" brewery these days is the ever growing number of farm breweries that seem to be popping up, especially in this part of central Virginia. Places like Lickinghole Creek Brewing grow a large proportion of the ingredients they use in their products, including barley and wheat, though I don't know if they are self sufficient in malt. Such an enterprise though does perhaps point backwards to a time when beer was more about sustaining the working population than it was about hanging out with friends and getting rat-arsed, something we Brits are apparently better than most at doing.

Viewed through this lens, modern "craft" beer is distinctly un-"cræfty", and so perhaps it is an acknowledgement of this fact that the Brewers Association definition of "craft" no longer makes any mention of the ingredients or processes involved in making the product. Just make less than 6 million barrels of beer, and don't be more than 25% owned by a non-craft brewery or beverage maker.

This is not to criticise the beer and its makers, but to own the fact that what we call "craft" beer is not in any meaningful sense a "craft", it is just small scale industrial production, with all the petrochemical reliant inputs, pumps, plant, and petrochemical distribution that entails. Farm breweries growing their own ingredients are probably the purest "craft" breweries out there, but even in that world there is a reliance on industrial methods of production.

Once you own that what we call "craft" is in reality just small scale industrial production of beer the focus shifts away from the company making the beer and on to the beer itself. Stripped of its moral certainty of superiority, the liquid in the glass becomes the primary guide, as in reality it always was, to what is good beer. "Am I enjoying this beer?" is probably the only question actually worth asking, followed by "Do I want another one?".

Friday, May 10, 2019

Come Helles or High Water

One of my favourite places to grab lunch and a bevvy on a Friday has for a good few years now been South Street Brewery. When I worked in Charlottesville itself the place was just across the street from my office, these days I tend to go in and meet folks for lunch and do some work parked at the bar. So much of a regular am I at South Street that several of the bar staff no longer bother to ask me what I want to drink, they know I want a glass of My Personal Helles straight off the bat. If there is something new, and potentially worthy of further inspection, they'll give me a sample, just in case I wish to veer from the path of helles righteousness.


As there was no-one else at the bar I got talking with the barman about the brewery's bottled offerings, and wondered out loud more than anything else whether My Personal Helles would ever be part of that range? Thinking about it a bit more, I came to the conclusion that it would actually not benefit the beer itself to be available in bottles, especially given the abuses that appear to be the norm in the distribution and retail channels.

The barman, who to my shame I had been calling Drew forever until my mate told me it was Adrian (ugh....parent brain is a think for men too I am sure) asked why I thought that helles as a style was not really suited to the bottled format, especially given the prevalence of helles (heli?) in bottles as the style has gained traction with American drinkers. In reality it came down to one simple thing, I believe there are some styles that are simply best drunk in a pub, beer hall, or beer garden. Random memory from my early years in Prague, there was a beer hall in the heart of Staré Město called Radegast that was basically the perfect beer hall, sadly it is gone now, sacrificed to the "improving" Noughties that stripped the centre of the city of so many characterful boozers and drinking dens.

Beer styles, for want of a better word, are the product of the beer culture from which they arise, and there is something delightful about drinking German style lagers in Germanic style surroundings, hence beer hall or garden is perfect. Sure the beer tastes broadly similar sat on my deck, and I even have plenty of trees to look at, but the purest element of a beer culture is missing. People, lots of them, enjoying beer in a convivial environment.

Perhaps they are sitting alone at a table reading the newspaper, or with their minds buried somewhere in a book. Perhaps they are a family enjoying the garden, kids free to wander around a bit while their parents keep an eye on them and feel relatively normal for a little while (this particular street is a two way one, family friendly boozer, boozer friendly families). Perhaps they are a works outing for a Friday liquid lunch before calling it a day a few hours early. For whatever reason people are in a drinking establishment they are creating a culture, of which the beer itself is just a single part, and in the case of helles, and arguably the standard beers of beer cultures around the world, it is the supporting act, not the star.

It's entirely possibly that I am a contrarian, but I have never really been much of a trend follower. I have an inbuilt aversion to people of an evangelical persuasion, whether their evangelion be religion, craft beer, politics, the list could go on for pages, though I am sure my aversion is in reaction to my years as an evangelical Christian, even though Brit evangelicals are nowhere near as bad as many a 'Murican Evangelical.

I can't imagine a helles ever really being the main act. Even at South Street My Personal Helles isn't part of the core range, but it has a dedicated following among regulars. Perhaps that is why it is better as a draught only beer, you actually have to deliberately go there for a pint rather than having it commoditised into cans or bottles, thus participating in the beer culture, and the culture is the important thing.

Munich - Flying Visit

When I flew to central Europe back in October, I landed firstly in Frankfurt before heading on to Prague. For my flight back I had a choice,...