If you get them to taste it, they will be converted

Henrietta gets turned on by Alastair to the complexities of beer, in this case Hospital Porter

There’s a good video short featuring the Old Brewery at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich just gone up on the Guardian‘s website here which illustrates perfectly the fact that people are best converted to good craft beer by having it shoved in their faces and being ordered: “Drink that!”

When people DO try a craft beer from somewhere outside their zone of experience and, wondrous thing, find it to be good in all manner of ways, and deeply pleasing to the heart and mouth, then do they fall to praising the small brewer, and forswearing crap megafizz for ever. As you will see at about the 6:25 mark in that video, when Alastair Hook, bossman at Meantime, the company behind the Old Brewery, hands Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company a glass of Hospital Porter, a blend of one-year-old and comparatively fresh beers meant to emulate the kind of beer that would have been made at the original brewery on the Royal Naval College site in the 18th century, when it was the Royal Naval Hospital.

As Henrietta tastes the porter, her eyebrows almost rocket into orbit, while a grin wide enough to bridge the Thames splits her face and she declares: “Wow, that’s really good … It’s like nothing I’ve ever had before … it’s really deep, completely multidimensional … I’m amazed at the complexity. There’s no level of complexity missing in this that you would get in a wine. This has been around since 1717 and yet I didn’t even know it existed. To have a fizzy pint of something industrial instead of this – it’s a tragedy.”

It’s certainly a tragedy that Ms Lovell, presumably someone whose taste for the satisfying is away from the common run, since she is known, Google tells us, as the “rare tea lady”, has never previously been exposed to beer of the standard reached by Meantime, and many other artisinal brewers around the world. And yes, it costs £7 a pint, but at eight per cent abv and with that level of complexity, forget your pocket, you’d be doing neither the beer nor yourself any justice by wallying back pints of it. These are beers to be savoured, sipped and appreciated – and Hospital Porter, I suggest, is perhaps a sixth of the cost of an equivalent quantity of fine wine of the same sort of complexity.

So how does the beer world reach out to the likes of Ms Lovell, seekers after excellent taste experieneces but innocently unaware of the miracles that can be found in hops and malt. How can we convert them to the idea that complexity is not to be found only in a wineglass, and beer does not have to be one-dimensional fizz? What sort of evangelical effort should be made to open their mouths, and thus their eyes? Are there enough tastings being organised, enough roadshows, enough side-by-side beer versus wine challenges, enough occasions where food and wine buffs gather and beer, too, is presented as an equal partner at the table? Judging by the time it’s taken for Ms Lovell to realise how good beer can be, no. Is it so, craft beer brewers and craft beer retailers: are you reaching out to the unconverted enough?

22 thoughts on “If you get them to taste it, they will be converted

    1. My feeling is that it’s the economic interests of the brewers and retailers that should be powering this, but if you have any good ideas on how beer drinkers themselves can be more evangelical among those who haven’t yet experienced the taste of great beer, I’d be very keen to hear them.

      1. I think it’s very simple. As Joe mentions below, there are the festivals, but not festivals for geeks, but festivals for drinkers (if you know what I mean). And there’s always the bottles. Invite someone home and offer them some good beer. If you are invited to a dinner party, instead of bringing some so-so wine, bring some very good beer, which will cost you about the same or less (and ditto for presents), people will sure ask you about it. I’ve done those things and it has always worked, in some cases, people stopped buying the stuff they used to and changed to other alternative brands or even started exploring what beer has to offer.

        Needless to say, you’ll always have to be very careful with what you choose, but that’s just about it.

  1. Take your unconverted mates to beer festivals. I don’t think there can be many better ways than that. Everyone emerges witha smile. I took 4 to the Aberdeen Beer festival and everyone got into it. I jumped right in and was doing the whole Jilly Goddson thing with not a hint of embarassment. Next thing everyones in full swing and lots of ‘wow great beer’ and’ how did they get that flavour in there!http://bennachiebrewery.blogspot.com/2010/06/in-beginning.html

    1. I will agree with this technique. I have taken a few mates who used to drink nothing but commercial brews to the odd beer festival here and there. After a few hours wandering around tasting craft beers you can see a positive change.

  2. And yes, it costs £7 a pint, but at eight per cent abv and with that level of complexity, forget your pocket

    Boutique ales for rich wine-drinkers? I guess that’s a viable business strategy, but if that’s your idea of spreading the word about beer you can count me out (I’ll be in Wetherspoon’s).

  3. The price doesn’t sound out of line when you factor the ABV – it’s twice as strong as a regular pint, thus two beers in one, and its price reflects that.

    The key to increased appreciation of good beer is education. The brewers need to think more how to educate the public, whether by meaningful advertising, tastings, festivals, and other fora where beer can be discussed on its own merits.

    Only recently has beer started to achieve serious attention in consumer circles. It began pretty much with CAMRA and Michael Jackson’s work and continues apace, but there is still much more that can be done.


  4. I think I’m kind of with Phil on this one though I agree with Martin’s last few words about reaching out. Ale for the posh at top dollar prices? Yes, a business for some, but a way to generally encourage beer drinking? Shome mishtake shurely!

    Complexity and great beer needn’t come at seven quid a pop. Converting rich Londoners to expensive beer is all well and good, but no wider application in that form at least I’d say.

  5. @ tandleman : That’s a bit f a double-sided argument. Indeed, keeping good beer in an affordable price bracket is necessary. But at the same time, you’ll always come across some non-beer drinkers who will need a serious price tag just to be prepared to give craft beer the respect its deserves (you’ll tell me it’s the kind of populatio that buys a brand or a price tag, not a taste,andI’ll tell you you may indeed be right !).
    That particular argument has been raging for quite a while in Italy, for example. I for one believe there should be a bit of both to cover the market adequately.

    As to the general discussion on spectacular conversions in the face of superior craft beer: having played that kind of sport for quite a while now, I believe there’s more chance to lure durably non-beer drinkers into that territory rather than mass-market beer drinkers, who have deeply-rooted habits such as brand loyalty or strong representations of what beer is supposed to taste like, and may find it hard to shake them off.

    Many male Swiss-german drinkers, for example, will have trouble with anything called beer that is not pale lager… I even heard one master brewer speak of “Körperverletzung” (GBH, that is) when handed a Chouffe Houblon.

    On the other hand, people who only have a superfical perception of beer as equal to mass-market lagers they do not like are a lot easier to convert with a few well-chosen samples, as theri reference frame in the field is rather flimsy.

  6. I think another key link in the chain is properly trained and knowledgeable bar staff. By charging higher prices I presume that craft brewers are giving bars a slightly higher margin than they would be expected to get from the draft lager market, with that in mind it makes sense for bar staff to be knowledgeable enough to promote their craft offerings and thus to make more profit for the business.

  7. Most arguments are two sided at least I suppose Laurent, but on the general point of converting the posh and upscaling good beer to the unaffordable, I’ll stick to my guns.

    As for “non-beer drinkers who will need a serious price tag just to be prepared to give craft beer the respect its deserves” argument – well sod them. Anyone that dumb and shallow doesn’t deserve good beer – or rather doesn’t deserve it over those who haven’t got so much money, but might have more open minds.

    Making money out of the well heeled is fine, but let’s just call it that. We can then revert to the other strand of my argument – it has limited worthwhile application other than to make money. I have never cared for the “let them eat cake” defence.

  8. The Hospital Porter wasn’t the only beer I tried at Meantime. That is an expensive beer to produce and has a matching price tag but they also produce beers for only pennies more than a pint of “megazizz”.
    I’d hate for price to distract from the real issue here which is that so many people out there don’t know how good beer can be. I am ashamed to admit I was one of them. Meantime opened my eyes to look at beer the way I do tea- that skilled craftmanship can produce far better flavour than industrial processing ever will.

    I tried to do my bit to get the word out by pitching and producing this film for the Guardian. I wanted to draw attention to the fantastic history of British beer and the Hospital Porter is a really fine example. In hindsight I see I should have concentrated on a less expensive beer but I really was overwhelmed by how good that porter was and my enthusiasm is genuine. Forgive me if I muddied the waters here.

  9. Someone knowledgeable about wine, tea or coffee, or spirits, often is an apt subject to enjoy good beer simply because they already know a range of flavours and are sensitive to complex tastes. There are only so many aromas and flavours. Those familiar to, say a taster of tea (flowers, earth, tannin, a malty quality, smokiness) will often be evident when tasting good beer. Indeed the old English mild ale was often said to resemble a cup of cold tea… Those who like good coffee will detect similarities with a good porter or stout, for example. And so the specialists in the other beverages have an advantage on the regular population.

    For the regular person, though, he or she is more likely to appreciate fine beer if some of the “coordinates” are explained in advance. Thus, if he knows that, say, an ale should have a balance of cereal (Bovril-like) sweetness and an herbal or mineral-like bitterness, he will better understand what it is that malt beverage tries to attain. “Ah, okay, now you’ve told me why it tastes like that, I get what the brewer is trying to do”. Explanation of historical notes – the legend of India Pale Ale, say – often enhances the stylistic description.

    The beer writers perform an essential role in this task, but brewers and publicans too can help educate people. Doing so will create greater interest in good beer and help preserve it from the depredations of nationally advertised beers of little character and indeed from other beverages. It often saddens me that so much wine of average quality is consumed in Britain when there are so many fantastic examples of indigenous (and traditional) ales and porters, and usually for less money taking all with all.


  10. Let the Beer Reformation begin!

    I couldn’t agree more with Henrietta, as I too think price is not the issue here. Afterall, since there are many good craft beers around, everyone is free to spend according to his taste and pocket..

    Convertion however requires someone to act as the converter, so like Martyn wrote, ”get them to taste it”! It doesn’t matter if it’s a beer festival (although it does offer certain advantages), a good pub or a home gathering; if you are physically there with your friends, presenting the story behind a good beer and identifying its aroma, taste or mouthfeel, they will surely be converted!

    Spread the word 🙂

  11. I’d like to have a go if I may. The article is an interesting and perceptive one. As with many things though, what is old is new again. Ale originally was often made with low-colour malt, as numerous 19th century brewing texts make clear. Indeed this was seen as a mark of quality. Some of these beers survived into the 20th century, e.g., Boddington’s Bitter. I seem to recall that Michael Jackson wrote that Boddie’s became yellow after a period of being amber, but even if that is so, it was a return to tradition.

    In Beers in Britain, an excellent 1970’s pub guide by Warren Knock and Conal Gregory, bitter is described typically as yellowish, with the special bitters being darker. One can quibble as always with classification, but it shows that some light-coloured pale ale was available until the new wave. Moreover, some of it was quite bitter (e.g., Boddie’s, Young’s Ordinary in cask form, and, speaking of Manchester, Holt’s, although I cannot recall at this point the colour of the latter – superb pint though).

    Early American microbrewers knew, many of them, that pale ale could indeed be pale. One of the first such beers, resolutely non-amber, was Boulder Pale Ale, which is still made. Some brewers who had trained under Ringwood in England made yellow pale ales on return to North America, e.g., the excellent Granite India Pale Ale in Toronto, which has been available for some 20 years now.

    True, these beers generally (even Boulder Pale Ale as I recall) did not have a strong West Coast U.S. hop flavour, but as Ron Pattinson has shown on his blog, at times U.K. pale ales have used U.S. hops for part of the hop bill since the 19th century. To be sure, these beers would not have tasted mainly of U.S. hops, but their profile was part of the taste (sometimes).

    And so while not disagreeing with the thesis in the article, I’d say the development is more evolutionary than anything else, with precedents on both sides of the pond.

    Finally, it should be said that some pale ale/IPA always was amber or copper in colour. Even in Michael Combrune’s 1700’s brewing text this becomes apparent: there was a range of coloration for pale malt. The old brownish/coppery bitter has pedigree too, and doubtless once the fashion for golden ales ebbs, we will return to pale ale of a fuller colour.

    I hope the old amber-coloured beers never disappear. For one thing, many of them taste great. Second, as I have tried to emphasize, they are part of tradition too.


  12. A quick follow-up to mention that in the Boulder line-up today, only Mojo Risin’ IPA, a double IPA, uses no colouring malts. Mojo IPA, which has a lower ABV than Mojo Risin’, uses some caramel malt, as does Boulder’s current pale ale, called Pass Time Pale Ale.

    Perhaps my recollection that the first Boulder pale ale was truly pale is not correct at a remove of some 30 years, or of course the beers may have changed over time. Still, my overall point is that truly pale ales have been made in North America since (and indeed before) the onset of the craft beer era in the 1970’s. And this came about I believe because it was known that 1800’s IPAs in England often had a very light colour.

    Anchor’s Liberty Ale, often considered the first commercial APA style and introduced in 1975, is notably pale-coloured (no colouring malts). Liberty Ale has always had a strong American hop taste. I would think the Boulder ales do today as well, judging by information on the website of the company.

    It is no less true though that many pale ales and IPAs in North America have been orange or copper-coloured.


  13. Loving your site more with every post!

    I wish I had come across this post when I wrote one about “Converting Girls to Beer.” On our site. I used “girls,” because it was more fun. Also, conversions are just as welcome on the guy side as well.

    I started amassing a list on Twitter (search for the #convertgirlstobeer hashtag) and got some good responses. Sour ales seem like a great way to go, if chosen well. Cream stouts, lambics, anything to do with chocolate, etc.

    I also love that I have been putting drinks in people’s faces and saying “Drink that!” myself for a long time. Good to know I was doing it right all along. Cheers!

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