Guidance for 2012

It’s 2012 here in Hong Kong, and has been for some hours. My resolution for this year is not to be such a grumpily aggressive bastard online, although I have at least one rant to get out of the way first. However, I have tried to put together a list of precepts to blog by over the coming 12 months, rules I hope we can all agree on. There are, in fact, just three:

1) It’s only beer.

2) It’s all about the taste.

3) You like what you like. I like what I like.

There: who could possibly object to any of that? You agree? Excellent. Now I’m going to test you. Have a brown paper bag handy, and read this, which is a genuine comment grabbed from the web during 2011:

So, under the recommendation of a few people online, I bought myself a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. And I have to say… It’s one of the best beers I’ve ever had. Normally I stuck to more mainstream pale lagers, such as Corona Extra, Budweiser and Peroni, so was a bit cautious about trying this, and as I opened it up, the rich beer smell really hit me, and I was expecting a bitter, overpowering flavour. Nevertheless, I tried a gulp of it… And it went down like water! Yet, the flavour was there, and strong, but not overpowering by any means. It’s fairly refreshing, although I will say you should only drink it when it’s cold, it tastes much better to me.

OK, blow into the brown paper bag and place it over your nose and mouth … breathe in and out slowly … repeat after me: “It’s only beer … It’s all about the taste … You like what you like. I like what I like.” Feeling better now? Good.

Really, if people like things you don’t like, it doesn’t matter. And nor does it matter if they don’t like things that you adore. There are, in fact, amazingly few things a majority of people can agree on, and almost none that everybody votes for: we live in a world of pluralities and minorities. You can live with that, or you can drive up your blood pressure. If you enjoy something that someone else doesn’t, well, just enjoy your enjoyment. And if they enjoy something you can’t see the point of, that’s really not your problem. Have a good year.

Why there’s no such beer as ‘English brown ale’

The man who invented brown ale …

The ability to deny the evidence of your senses is widespread. There’s the dictator insisting to television interviewers that his people love him, while across the country those long-oppressed people are taking up arms and waving the flag of liberation. And on a much less serious plane, there are people who will insist two beers that look totally different, taste totally different and are produced in totally different ways are variations of the same type.

It’s like setting up a category “horse” and insisting the seahorse and the clothes horse are its sub-categories. That’s slightly more ridiculous than insisting that Newcastle Brown Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale are sub-types of something called “English Brown Ale”. But it involves an identical confusion between “name” and “category”.

I don’t actually have any problems with the idea of “beer styles”. Labels can be very useful. But only if they’re meaningful. When I read that someone is going to be brewing “an English Brown Ale”, I have no idea what sort of beer they are intending to produce.

Look, here’s Newcastle Brown Ale, the urtyp “northern brown ale”, so-called. It’s “brown” only in the sense that if I had a pair of shoes that colour I would probably call them “brown”, if I didn’t call them “tan”. The beer is made – or was made, the method has changed, certainly since production was moved from Tyneside to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire – by mixing a low-gravity beer brewed at about 1030 OG (and sold separately for many years as Newcastle Amber Ale) with a matured, darker (from crystal malt and caramel) high-gravity beer to produce a blend with an abv of 4.7 per cent. The high-gravity beer gives fruity notes to the blend, and a final colour that is much the same as or only a little darker than many traditional English bitters, and certainly paler than, for example, Young’s Winter Warmer (which is a Burton Ale). The sweeter, maltier characteristics are more forward than you’d find in a bitter/pale ale, and there’s less of the hop apparent than would be found even in a Burton: bitterness, I believe is 24 IBU.

Then there’s Mann’s Brown Ale, the urtyp so-called “southern brown ale”. Brown? It’s almost black. That colour comes from roasted malt, and as you’d expect this is a beer with distinct chocolatey, roasty flavours (though less than you’d find in a stout or porter). It also has considerable sweetness (another one of the differences between this style of brown ale and stout – and Newcastle Brown Ale) and almost no hop character (brewers would use Mid-Kents and other non-premium hops for brown ales, and old hops as well, where the aromatic qualities had vanished but the preservative ones remained). Apart from the name also containing the words “brown ale”, Mann’s is utterly different from Newcastle Brown Ale. How can anyone with their brain not in “standby” mode think it works at all to ram these two very dissimilar beers under a single category called “English brown ale”?

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