André Simon Award: ‘Miracle Brew’

In the run up to the André Simon Awards this February, the drinks business will be publishing an extract from each of the shortlisted books in the drinks category. Next up is Pete Brown’s ‘Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer‘ published by Unbound.

A friend of mine works for one of the UK’s biggest brewers. They make some very nice beers, and one or two really special ones, but their main product – the one that pays everyone’s wages and pension contributions – is one of the biggest standard lager brands in the UK. It’s adored by those who drink it, but regarded with disdain both by people who see themselves as knowledgeable and passionate about beer and by those who don’t care for beer at all. It’s the kind of beer that’s often referred to as ‘cooking lager’, synonymous with British lads out on the lash, trading banter with their mates before popping off for a balti or a cheeky Nando’s.

It’s the kind of lager that used to be smart and funny, great ads on the telly that were all about the good times out with your mates, big logos at Premiership footie matches, pictures of bad boy rock stars in the papers with their arms round each other at some festival, peace sign on one hand, tin of lager in the other.

But these days it seems to have lost its golden lustre. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still the perfect pint for when ur smashing it wiv your brev Gaz who is a total ledge and the Archbishop of Banterbury, but for the twenty-first-century lad, who doesn’t really think of himself as a lad any more anyway, come to think of it, it’s not necessarily the drink you want to be brandishing on your first date with Emma from Accounts, or the quiet pint with your boss to discuss your first serious promotion.

So this lager, along with most others like it, has been looking for a change of image. It wants people to see it now as more of a quality, premium product. If it saw itself in the mid-nineties as a Bantersaurus Rex with a Liam Gallagher haircut and simian gait, by the second decade of the twenty-first century it wanted drinkers to see it as some combination of George Clooney and Professor Brian Cox.

Which is why my mate found himself behind the two-way mirror familiar to anyone who has worked in marketing, watching a focus group of young beer drinkers respond to ideas for new ads that were being shown to them by a moderator.

This new campaign was designed to appeal to people who rejected the lager, to persuade them that maybe it was better than they’d always thought. As a precaution, they were also showing the ideas to people who already drank it, just to make sure nothing changed their mind about the beer they loved. So here were the Archbish, the Bantersaurus and their mates being shown posters that focused on the ingredients of the beer in question. The lead poster was very simple: a background of clear blue sky and golden fields shining in the sun, and in the foreground a strong, manly hand gripping a dew-frosted pint, hoisting it from the field into the sky, a gender-reimagined Lady of the Lake brandishing a modern Excalibur, illuminated by a very simple line, no gag, no clever wordplay, just a statement of fact:

MADE WITH 100% BRITISH BARLEY.

‘Ugh,’ said the Archbish, ‘I don’t want plants in my beer. Can’t you go back to making it with chemicals like you always used to?’

 

Chemical Fizz

This story, which is true, illustrates how most of us have looked at beer – whether we drink it or not – over the last forty years or so. Beer is honest, down-to-earth, democratic and approachable, and that’s what makes it so appealing. Sit down over a beer and it removes hierarchies, uncomplicates situations and liberates us from reserve. But that can easily flip over into regarding beer as common and unsophisticated, a simple commodity that’s less important than the great times that happen around the drinking of it. Beer itself is often an afterthought, taken for granted even by the people who love it. The oddest thing about beer – and there’s much that’s odd about beer – is that even some of its most ardent drinkers are not only unaware of what it’s made of, they don’t actually seem to care.

The ‘chemicals’ line is one that’s often thrown at industrial beer as an accusation, but it can also be part of beer’s perceived appeal. In The Football Factory, the frequently misunderstood[1] author John King writes, ‘the lager tastes like heaven. Cold and sharp against the throat. Chemical bubbles brewed quickly for lager louts’, which manages to make it sound appealing – in context, and to my ears at least. That moment King describes is referred to more diplomatically by the beer industry as ‘first-pint refreshment’, and for the lager drinker nothing else quite beats it. The anticipation of that prickly hit, a sensation that comes close to delicious pain if you drink quickly enough, is what keeps you going through a day of hard toil, and beer as reward remains one of the fundamental tropes of lager advertising around the world.[2]

Sometimes you can destroy the magic of a thing by taking it apart to see how it works. Part of the appeal of beer is its straightforward simplicity. Would it spoil that first-pint perfection to be thinking about what’s actually in the glass? Does the simple dismissal of ‘chemicals’ actually help preserve some magic?

Maybe. For some of us, some of the time. But I still think the extent of our collective ignorance about beer is strange. The ‘100% British barley’ campaign ended up running on the sides of bus shelters. The brewer received complaints from loyal fans saying the beer no longer tasted as good now they were brewing it with barley. But it has always been brewed with barley – it’s just that people didn’t know until they saw the posters.

Unless I’m talking to a fellow beer geek, it’s very unusual to find someone who knows the main ingredients of the beer they’re drinking. Pretty much anyone who has been in contact with them knows that bread is made from wheat, wine is made from pressed grapes, cheese is made from milk and cider is made – in theory at least – from crushed apples. But ask someone what beer is made out of – and I’ve done this a lot – and the most popular answer is ‘Um . . . hops?’

OK, but what are hops?

‘I haven’t a clue.’

Anything else?

‘What, you mean as well as hops?’

Yes.

And a much smaller group of people will say, ‘Blimey, er . . . wheat?’

Well, sometimes, but it’s not one of the main ingredients.

Then, with recovering certainty, the third and final guess will invariably be, ‘Chemicals.’

I spend most of my professional life persuading people to drink beer, and to drink better beer. I do this because I’m passionate about beer myself, about its history, its cultural significance, its power to bring people together and make things better, and also about the incredible variety and complexity of flavours and sensations you can get in the glass. Increasingly, I’m not alone. Beer is undergoing a renaissance, and even people who never drank it before are realising that there’s more to beer than John King’s chemical bubbles brewed for lager louts. Beer is capable of outstanding beauty, grace and elegance. There are beers that belong in champagne flutes or brandy balloons rather than pint glasses. The right beer can feel comfortable on the fine dining table as well as in the pub snug. At a time when many people are increasingly concerned or just curious about where their food and drink comes from and what’s in it, the ignorance around beer seemed increasingly odd. And then, a few years ago, I found myself in a hop garden where I realised that my own knowledge was limited, and that this had to change.

 

[1] Misunderstood – usually by people who haven’t read him – as part of the football hooliganism glorification/exploitation scene of the nineties, King’s books are actually powerful studies of working-class male relationships and the disaffected alienation that informs them.

[2] Even now, after years of beer exploration and with a cellar and two beer fridges full of luscious, aromatic IPAs, barrel-aged stouts, Belgian Trappist ales and sharp, sour red ales, and with an informed appreciation of what makes them so special, and in the certain knowledge that drinking straight from the bottle rather than a glass means I lose the aroma and therefore a good deal of the character of a beer, if I’ve been doing physical work, an ice-cold lager downed from the bottle neck is still the only thing that will do.

 

Reprinted with permission from Miracle Brew: Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer by Pete Brown, copyright © 2017. Published by Unbound.

All these books have been shortlisted in the drinks category for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2017 Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein. www.andresimon.co.uk

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