Comment - Beer - R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find Out What it Means to Me
Pete Brown has had one too many sloppy pints. He wants bartenders, restaurants and the world in general to take beer more seriously. Not too seriously, though, because drinking it is supposed to be enjoyable.
People are not taking the hint. Yesterday, I ordered a pint of beer. The barman poured it. It was frothy and feisty, and he continued to pour until beer was running over his hands, running down the side of the glass. He placed the glass on the bar, rinsed his hands and dried them on a towel. But he left my pint, wet and sticky, in a growing pool on the bar top.
I asked for a cloth. He seemed surprised, but handed me a couple of paper napkins. As he watched, I carefully wiped down my pint glass, lifted it and cleaned off the bottom, until I could pick it up without getting my hands wet and sticky, and take it to my table without it creating a mess on the table top. I then left the soaked paper napkins in a pile on the bar. To make a point.
At no point did the barman intervene. He didn’t seem to think it was a problem that he’d handed me a glass that had almost as much beer on the outside as it did inside, a glass so wet he’d had to wash his hands after giving it to me, but which was, clearly, considered a perfectly acceptable glass for me to pick up.
I’ve started doing the napkin thing every time someone serves me in such a substandard way. As I say, they never get the hint. It seems to be generally accepted that it’s okay to serve beer in this soggy, messy way.
It’s definitely not just me. Several years ago, English newspaper The Guardian’s weekend magazine featured a drinks special – consecutive double page spreads on wine, tea, coffee and beer. Each spread had a shot from above looking down on a variety of examples of the drink in question: wine in all its shades, teacups with drawstrings and labels laid elegantly on saucers, coffee in all shapes and sizes… and beer, with spills on the table cloth and wet brown rings everywhere. Remember, this was a staged photo shoot: some art director had decided that it would be good to make the other drinks look as attractive as possible (there were no spilt coffee grounds, stray wine corks or soggy teabags on display) but that beer should look messy. After all, it’s ‘just beer’.
Obviously, this angers me. I’m not one of those extremist beer nerds who claim to dislike wine, or one of those writers constantly looking for opportunities to declare that ‘beer is the new wine’. I drink wine too. A lot of it. But I’d just like beer to be treated with the same respect that other drinks are. Why is it singled out for rough treatment? Why is it so easily dismissed? Why do Michelin-starred restaurants take such great care over every single aspect of their service, offer you a choice of eight breads, three butters and five different types of salt, and think it’s perfectly OK to offer Stella, Becks and Bud as their ‘choice’ of beers? Why do many restaurants and cafés not even list their beer range on their drinks menus?
I do retain a rational perspective on this (thanks mainly to the anchoring influence of my long-suffering wife) but if you didn’t know better, you’d almost believe there was a global conspiracy to snub beer and exclude it from polite society. If that sounds far-fetched, go to any country – even one where beer massively outsells wine – and try to find regular beer coverage in any national newspaper or consumer magazine.
The whole issue of beer’s credibility has made it onto a broader agenda over the last month, thanks to the launch of the Oxford Companion to Beer. Let’s gloss over the fact that the Oxford Companions to Wine and Food have been around for years and beer is only now receiving its turn. Because the book is amazing. The sheer heft of the volume, with 165 writers contributing 1100 entries over 965 pages, declares emphatically that here is as much seriousness about beer as anyone should need. It’s not just for brewers (although they will find it essential) and it’s not just about craft/niche/speciality beer. I contributed about 20 of those 1100 entries, and the range I was asked to cover gives a pretty good indication of the scope of the book overall: I wrote about Fosters, Kronenbourg, Prohibition, quarter (an obsolete measure of malt), oast houses, a small real ale brewery in Sussex, and the entire history of brewing in Great Britain. If you’re reading this column with any measure of interest, this is a book you need to own.
The reaction to the book so far has been almost universally positive – almost. Because out there in the beer blogosphere, there are people who take beer very, very seriously indeed, and a book of this stature means there must be many opportunities to grind axes. One blogger expressed outraged disbelief that such a book omitted an entry on Leipziger Gose bier. Another questioned the credentials of Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn brewery, author of the classic Brewmaster’s Table and probably the best orator on beer we have, as the book’s editor. And one blogger who cheerfully admitted he hadn’t yet even seen a copy of the book declared it a ‘disaster’ on the basis of excerpts he’d been able to find on the internet. One of the many ‘errors’ he discovered was the claim (in – er – the entry on Great Britain) that Britain was invaded by the Angles and Saxons in the fourth century AD. He has it on good authority that this invasion happened in the fifth century, and that the activity in the fourth only counted as ‘major incursions’.
I think this proves that you can perhaps take beer too seriously. Yes, there are times when I want to scream with rage at the way beer is disrespected, commoditised, trivialised and patronized. But I’ll admit there are also times when I want to say, ‘Guys, get a grip – it’s only beer.’
At the top of my beer blog I have the strapline, ‘Treating beer with the respect and irreverence it deserves since 2003’. I believe both are equally important. I’m not asking for what marketers horribly call ‘product reverence’. I’m just asking that beer is treated with at least the same respect and courtesy as a bottle of cheap Australian plonk. If it were, I think more people would recognise that beer’s main strength is that usually, when it’s around, fun things happen.
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